Sun, 07 Mar 1999

Sizing up value of expert advice

You see them on TV, you read their columns and interviews, you attend their lectures and seminars, but at some point you feel enough is enough. Call them experts, pundits, analysts, observers -- their opinions can be invaluable, but they may come with a price tag. The Jakarta Post team Ahmad Junaidi, Budiman Moerdijat, Devi M. Asmarani, Kosasih Deradjat, Stevie Emilia and photographer Arief Suhardiman tries to answer some of the questions on those with the answers.

JAKARTA (JP): Turmoil and newfound freedom have brought a new era of "punditry" to the country as people from all walks of life are braver about speaking their mind.

The experts go a step further by putting in print or speaking in public forums on their solutions for what ails Indonesia.

With recent simmering political tension, however, many are wondering whether they offer solutions or merely aggravate the situation.

Ask that to noted talk-show host and public affairs commentator Wimar Witoelar, and he will readily defend his peers.

"The very people who say that punditry brings more confusion rather than solutions are probably those who contribute to the confusion."

He blamed the authorities -- the government and the Armed Forces -- for exacerbating confusion in the country, with the experts on hand to try to put things right.

Senior social and political observer Mochtar Buchori drew a distinction between "pseudo pundits" and their "genuine" colleagues.

Distinguishing between them lies in their analysis.

"I think if we are not careful, we will all hold the opinion of pseudo pundits, not the real pundit," Mochtar said.

"If you can give an analysis regarding the present situation and later your analysis is validated by a development in the future... then you are a real pundit."

Those worthy of being called experts are few, he added.

It is particularly true in politics, a field lacking any scientific criteria to gauge the value of an opinion.

Some lay the blame on the media for thrusting self-styled experts into the spotlight, and then distorting their opinions by "misquoting".

A senior political observer who insisted on anonymity argued the media contributed the most to both clarity and confusion in the country.

"The media is responsible for selecting somebody representative enough to be called an expert or a pundit."

The media's tendency to use only selected snippets of interviews with experts also leads to miscommunication, he said.

"If you print partial interviews then you are also responsible in creating the confusion, and if you do not pursue your question exhaustively then it is also your fault."


There is also the question of credibility.

Some experts freely comment on everything, even on issues outside their authority.

After Soeharto stepped down in May at the height of the reform wave, many economists preferred commenting on politics to the economy.

But there is always the big turnoff of conflict of interest which, unfortunately, casts a question mark on the objectivity of many.

Market analyst Theo Toemeon is one of the most sought-after experts in the country. Yet one could have good reason to suspect him of vested interests because he has accumulated wealth from being active in the money market.

Other economists own and run their own consulting firms, and their commentary on particular cases could be called into question.

Some pundits prefer politics to making money.

Economists Faisal Basri and Kwik Kwian Gie and Mochtar Buchori are among those who have recently emerged as political figures, but whose voice of authority in their fields of expertise remains somewhat credible.

Faisal is the secretary-general of the National Mandate Party (PAN), while Kwik and Mochtar are active in the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan).

They may be tracking the same career path of their senior counterparts, such as the leader of Nadhlatul Ulama Muslim organization, Abdurrahman Wahid, and PAN's chairman Amien Rais. Both have been nominated for the presidency by their parties.

The two important opposition leaders ascended to their lofty positions after debuts as political observers.

Wimar believes it is always necessary to have impartial observers or pundits.

"Observers should not be embroiled in day-to-day political event," he warns.

Inevitably, objectivity takes a backseat when experts join the ranks of the bureaucracy.

Prominent political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar may be counted among them after she was tipped by President B.J. Habibie to become his spokeswoman.

Personal thrills

Despite the war of opinions between experts, noted political columnist Soedjati Djiwandono expressed delight that newfound freedom could nurture the nation's passion to express itself.

"Democracy is a learning process, even on how to use freedom. How to respect the kind of freedom that is also enjoyed by everybody else is also a learning process."

What makes people want to put their reputations on the line by declaring themselves experts?

Soedjati cited the ability to disseminate his ideas through columns in publications and speaking engagements at public forums.

"When I do speak on politics or when I write... I do it out of my conviction... so the more people who subscribe to my views, the happier I am."

Wimar said he wanted to do his part to contribute to the country's dynamic changes.

"At a certain point, you don't have much choice. If you're in the middle of a very fluid changing situation, you feel that people expect something of you and that if you resist then you're not contributing even a small part to changes in our society."

However, his fee for sharing his wisdom at speaking engagements and TV appearance ranges "from nothing to Rp 12 million (US$1,300)." (team)