Sat, 16 Sep 2000

The rich only see the poor when they start to riot

The recent automotive fair here was a success if only judging from the outpouring of visitors. Sociologist Ariel Heryanto of the Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages and Societies, under the University of Melbourne, shares his views. Excerpts:

Question: Some presume real entrepreneurs are, in general, the frequent buyers of luxury cars. Does Indonesia have real entrepreneurs? So far we have only seen "crony capitalism."

Answer: What do "real entrepreneurs" mean? Do they exist? I am not suggesting that crony capitalists are identical to real entrepreneurs. But I do have problems with so many ethnocentric analysts of Indonesia or other non-European countries, who talk about ersatz capitalism in Asia, or Indonesian middle classes as not being genuine and so on, as if the European or American counterparts are any more real, genuine, authentic or holier ...

You may say Indonesian capitalism is really bad. But what is good capitalism? European capitalism in the past delivered so many good things to so many people around the world, but not without the violence and exploitation of colonialism of an immense scale.

What about today's American or Japanese capitalism? Are they that different? Of course so-called globalization has complicated matters, making it difficult or perhaps impossible to talk about commodities, production or profit with reference to national labeling. This is probably the most significant difference between past and present colonialism.

Do you really think people would spend so much money for luxury cars?

Well, The Jakarta Post reported that hundreds of people did just that ... But it is unclear how many of the buyers were Indonesians or expatriates ... Neither is it clear from the report whether these people purchased the cars for private use, office use or for commercial purposes.

Would you say people lack sensitivity to others who don't even own any vehicle?

Most of us fail or prefer not to see evils for convenience. The world is never just. And those who enjoy the benefits of the world's injustice, often do not see it, can't see it or prefer not to see it.

Managers and employers who ruthlessly exploit workers on a daily basis for years may do so without realizing it, thanks to the effective system of management or the market.

They go home to their families after working hours and become gentle loving parents or spouses. Regularly they worship God and speak of the importance of religion, ethics and sensitivity.

It is the responsibility of many, including journalists, to help us become more sensitive to things we would otherwise ignore or overlook.

What about empathy to those who are forced to use the poorly managed public transportation system?

They may not see those disadvantaged people. They may not see those crowded buses. It would be easier for those in the buses to see the expensive cars. The rich are trained not to see the poor, until stability breaks down. Then they call the poor "rioters" or "looters."

Do you think the people who buy luxury cars really need them as a means of transportation or are they only for prestige or status?

They may have many possible reasons, or none ... I assume they must have the need, which can be reasonable or unreasonable. Such needs can be different things, including the need to be seen with awe and admiration by others.

Whether or not having those cars give them the expected awe or admiration of others is something else.

Prestige and status are also needs, don't you think? Of course some of us are so obsessed with such things as prestige and status, to the point of being abnormal in the eyes of others.

You don't envy such exhibitionists, do you? Do they make you angry? Such people should make us feel that we are more healthy and normal.

You seem to reject the possibility that some Indonesians are very, very rich. So rich, that buying the most expensive cars on this planet for them would be comparable to getting a new pair of shoes for people like you and me.

Some of the poorest Asians and some of the richest Asians on this planet are Indonesians living in Indonesia today. When the government was economically at its lowest point with debts, many of the top government officials who ran the country were wealthier, and perhaps still are, than members of parliaments in countries that extended loans to Indonesia.

So why should the success of the recent Gaikindo Auto Expo 2000 surprise you?

Common people have more respect for those who drive luxury cars. Parking attendants for instance, seem more likely to serve luxury cars first. Does this represent feudalism?

Not necessarily. The poor and dominated often admire and hate the rich and dominating, simultaneously. You can find this in all societies.

Some say that Indonesians believe in "appearance" more than "substance". What do you think?

This is not uniquely Indonesian. Why do you think Indonesians love Hollywood movies or Latin American telenovelas?

If I may make a crude speculation, I assume the love for appearance rather than substance is usually stronger among the very poor and the very rich for different reasons. The middle classes tend to be conservative, plain and boring.

Some people feel inferior to others who are richer. It seems wrong being poor and the rich always deserve respect. Your comments?

In the days of kings and princes, descent was almost everything. It was unfortunate to be the children of ordinary families, no matter how rich you were. Revolutionaries tore that world apart but some of the old legacies continue. Capitalism now tells us that its money and property ownership that determines your worth, not your ancestry.

Indonesia has been undergoing the long and painful process of transition, from one system where aristocrats ruled, to another where the rich rules.

In Indonesia you have the confusion of two conflicting systems at work. This is best illustrated by the prevalent ambivalence toward the ethnic Chinese.

Do you think luxury cars can widen the social economic gap and exacerbate "social envy"?

I am sorry, but I don't like that often used term kecemburuan sosial. It's so ideologically biased. This is an expression of the rich and frightened to discredit the resentment of the poor and disadvantaged.

I think social gaps and conflicts are inevitable because they are inherent in the way things go in our social orders. With or without luxury cars, the same social gap and conflict will develop. If you ban luxury cars, there will be luxury horses, or houses, or clothes, or offices, or parties and so on.

As long as there are the extremely rich, there will be excessively luxurious lifestyles and consumption ...

Is there anything the government should do?

Forget about the government for the moment. Let's stop asking what it should do. The question is what we, the non-government people and institutions should do ... I sense many Indonesians have been grappling with this important question. It's time you turned the microphone to them. (I. Christianto)