Tue, 06 Mar 2007
From: The Jakarta Post
By Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Accidents happen. Sure. But the spate of recent disasters in Indonesia's transportation industry can no longer be counted as accidents. The frequency with which they are happening suggests a much deeper problem in the way we run our public transportation.

The term "accident" suggests randomness, something that is unexpected. There is almost nothing random about these recent disasters. They are happening all the time, in an almost consistent manner. We can't know the "what" and "where" for the next disaster, but we do know that it will happen again soon. So, the element of unexpectedness that makes them random events is also almost gone.

If this series of unfortunate disasters going back to the new year -- one plane going missing and another crash-landing, two ships sinking around the same time and one catching fire and then sinking -- are not accidents, then what are they?

By definition, then they must have happened by some design.

Some people in their search for answers attribute this to the Supreme Being. God is angry with Indonesia and has thus cursed us with endless calamities-- natural disasters, man-made disasters, including those in the transportation industry, and outbreaks of disease. But doing so would only relieve people of their responsibilities, as we are shifting the blame on to natural phenomena and eventually on to God.

The disasters in the transportation industry happened almost by design. They reflect the failings in the way the country runs its transportation industry.

Here, the blame must lie squarely on the government's door step. It's the job of the government, in this case the Transportation Ministry, and nobody else, to ensure that operators (of planes, ships, trains, buses and so on) comply with some standards of public safety.

The operators have an obligation to meet these standards, and in this era of stiff competition and slim margins they are bound to try to cut costs here and there as far as they can to maximize their profits, probably to the point of compromising public safety aspects.

It is thus left to the government to make sure that these operators comply by instilling mechanisms such as regular airworthiness (or sea or road) inspections and checking the credibility and reliability of the maintenance. Their first concern should be the safety of the public.

In the case of the recent disasters, the only logical explanation is that the operators may have failed to comply with the standard safety measures, but it is the government's fault for failing to ensure full compliance with safety rules and regulations.

And, just as predicted, rather than taking responsibility for its failures, the government resorted to scapegoating after each and every disaster. In the case of the airline industry, last week the government announced that from now on, airlines can only buy or lease plane not older than 10 years at the time of registration with the government.

Whatever this new ruling means -- the industry itself is confused -- the message from the Transportation Ministry is that the series mishaps were caused by the ages of the planes, thus relieving the ministry of responsibility for the failure of its inspection mechanism.

Transportation Minister Hatta Radjasa also announced last week the replacement of two senior bureaucrats in his ministry in the wake of the sea and air disasters, and then added: "I would step down if the President instructed me to."

Accountability, meaning taking full responsibility for one's failures, seems like an alien concept to our government.

In Japan, tradition dictates that a minister tenders his resignation without waiting to be told to by the prime minister in the wake of any big disaster or scandal in his jurisdiction. The minister is not only taking responsibility for the failure of his ministry, but he is also telling the public that politically, the buck stops with him.

He is thus shielding the honor of the prime minister. And the prime minister will go on to appoint a new minister more capable of dealing with the problem, and he or she in turn will make sure that no disasters happen on his or her watch.

In Indonesia, how many times have we heard failing ministers say that he or she would only resign if asked to by the president. Doing so in public, that minister is essentially saying two things at the same time: to the public he is saying that it's really "the President's fault and not mine" that these disasters happened; to the President, he is really saying "fire me if you dare."

So now it's really down to the President.



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