Thursday, September 21, 2006

The real state of the nation is 40 million jobless!

The Jakarta Post

Opinion and Editorial - August 18, 2006

Endy M. Bayuni, Jakarta

The real state of the nation, supposedly the content of Tuesday's speech by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, could have been summarized in just 10 words: Over 40 million people in Indonesia are out of work.

In his two-hour speech before the House of Representatives, which was broadcast live nationally, the President gave us a rundown of the challenges facing the country, and how he and his government intends to overcome them.

Delivered on the eve of Indonesia's 61st Independence Day, the speech was nothing more than a list of things to do. It lacked focus on the biggest problem of all, and thereby vision and direction about where this nation is heading.

No. It's not terrorism or even natural disasters and their handling that should consume our attention the most. It's not the threat to our nation's pluralism, either, although this could easily come a distant second.

When all things are considered, unemployment must count as the biggest and foremost problem that this nation, with government leadership, needs to tackle seriously in the coming years.

The President in his speech put the jobless rate at 10.4 percent, down from 11.2 percent a year ago. But he was referring to what officials conveniently define as "open unemployment": People of working age who are actively seeking work.

The use of this definition, a practice dating back to the Soeharto years, is clearly designed to mislead the public and thus spare the government from having to address the issue completely.

The penchant for using percentages rather than absolute numbers is also designed to make Indonesia's unemployment record look decent as it puts us on par with many developing and developed countries. But let's not forget that even 10.4 percent of the workforce in Indonesia amounts to a staggering figure of more than 10 million people.

Rubbing salt into the wound, the government statisticians who compile the unemployment figures define a person as having a gainful employment if he or she works for more than two hours a week.

Indonesia's unemployment figure is certainly far higher than the government would have us believe. One figure that has been suggested as representing the true level of unemployment (including underemployment) in Indonesia is 40 million. This is the figure that many government agencies and international organizations refer to.

Even then, we are still probably understating the problem.

One only needs to look around. Unless you are a close or distant relative of the Soeharto clan, you will likely have a brother or sister, a nephew or niece, or someone close who is unemployed. And most likely, they have been without work for some time with little prospect of finding a job anytime soon.

But one should not dwell too much on numbers and definitions. Suffice to say that there are a hell of a lot of people without jobs, enough to put the problem at the top of the list in any speech addressing the state of the nation for years to come.

Most of the other problems Indonesia faces can be traced to unemployment: mass poverty, lack of access to healthcare and education, soaring crime rates, and even some incidences of communal unrest. Some of these problems would be significantly alleviated or even disappear if we could create more jobs, put money in people's pockets and restore their dignity.

Because of our failure to tackle the roots of the problem, the government ends up paying huge subsidies on healthcare, schooling, rice rations, fuel and other basic needs.

More and more, we seem to be giving people the fish rather than the fishing rod.

Just think of the contribution to the economy (or as economists say, to our gross domestic product) if all of these 40 million people were gainfully employed. Instead, these jobless men and women have become a taxing burden on the working population.

This was only President Yudhoyono's second state-of-the-nation address since taking the helm in 2004. Once again, he failed to capitalize on the high level of goodwill and patriotic sentiment prevailing among people celebrating Independence Day this week.

He could have learned from many great orators of the past, including our own Sukarno, on how to use such grand occasions as an Independence Day to inspire and mobilize people to rally behind them and their visions, and to support their policies.

The problem of unemployment is for the nation together to tackle. It is not the responsibility of the government alone, but the President is expected to provide the necessary leadership and direction.

This he did not do this week, in spite of the opportunity presented.

The writer is chief editor of The Jakarta Post.

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