Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Change Begins at Home

As part of my Indonesian civil servant recruitment (CPNS), I had to do a complete health check at a local State Hospital. I was ready to go through an inefficient, bureaucratic experience of a day (which was the reason why I had procrastinated for a year before actually doing it). To keep my sanity, I told myself to approach it as ethnographic research :p.

After being pointed to several mistaken desks, a hospital administrator directed me to the health check unit that takes care of CPNS like me. The lady in charge of the unit ticked some boxes after asking what ministry I was from. Then she put me in one group with several others who were also recruits like me.

We were lining up to get our blood drawn, and the lady put one folder on top of all our folders. "Yang ini diduluin ya, anaknya Pak Tono," she said, asking the laboratory officer to let the woman who came after all of us cut the line. The laboratory guy nodded.

I looked around for responses. Nothing. The five people before me did not feel that that was wrong.

I asked the whole room, including the woman whose back was to me, if that was alright. They were silent. "Jadi ngga apa ya, antrian kita diselak? Bapak, sistemnya gimana, ya?" I asked the guy what hell of a system he has. He took a deep breath, then asked me if one person cutting in would be okay. I asked back to the whole room. They said yes.

So apparently we have all agreed to let this happen.

As my order in the line came up, I hoped silently that they guy would not stab me with the needle repetitively (he didn't). Instead, he said softly to me that like me, he thinks it's unfair. "Siapa sih yang mau ya, Mba, membiarkan yang kaya begini. Tadi itu kerabat Direktur sini," revealing that the woman before was a relative of the unit's Director. I shared to him, as he was drawing my blood, that I was from UI. That like many bureaucracies, I have also experienced injustice, whether it directly or indirectly. "Tapi kan ngga bisa diam, Pak," I said. I asked what his name was, and saw his body tense up as he answered. I realised that he was afraid I would report him, when I had only meant to get to know a person, and let him know me as a person. The person he unwittingly wronged because he opted to avoid conflict.

I am not very sure how to process what had happened, aside from acknowledging the fact that power abuse is also permitted by us workers. That if we refused to be treated that way, it would not have happened. That being afraid we would get into trouble is not a reason to deprive others of what is rightfully theirs. We become just as responsible.

I also appeal to bureaucrats, despite handling 1,001 trinkets and facing frustratingly idiotic rules on a daily basis, to once in a while not delegate administrative tasks to our staff. By doing these things by ourselves, we are reminded of how we ourselves can inadvertantly participate in sustaining an inefficient system that could enable power abuse.

And, to me, it begins with little things. In our every day lives. Constantly, consistently, with practice.

If you're thinking of why we should do this, we are poorly paid and appreciated as it is. I'd like to share the opening of a book I was reading for a class (Mike Wayne [2003]):

For my son Jacob, because change begins at home.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Let the Bubble Burst

"Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”

Robert A. Heinlein

I first read that quote, or precisely retweeted it, from a dear friend of mine, Endah Triastuti (@dektitut). I began reading about the person saying it, Heinlein, a science fiction writer. The themes he raised in his work have been greatly about non-conformity, liberty, and self-reliance.

I write this post as a parent, as much as I am a child. And I will begin with how I see Jakarta’s upwardly mobile middle class society today, of which I am a part.

Let’s begin with where we live. We live in housing compounds, protected by 24-hour guards. We build fences around our homes, and have torrents to filter our water.

We take bank loans to buy private vehicles, because public transportation is so unreliable.

We are the world’s fourth largest communication technology user. We use it to maintain contact with people close to us rather than getting to know interesting strangers.

We use them to take pictures of ourselves, our children, what we eat. We share them with people who, in our minds, are closest to us.

We have irrational medicine use. At the first sign of flu, we take three types of medicine. We ask our doctors to give us antibiotics before giving time for our bodies to fight the viruses.

All of these are symptoms. That our environment has become so unsafe, we create a protective bubble around us.  

Now let us reflect on our children, and more abstract notions.

We vaccinate our children, in the largest sense of the word. We put them in schools that keep them away from harm. We hope that one day, if they know all the important things, these memories can be used as tools to fight off social illnesses.

In our consciousness, we see the world as a dirty, filthy place. And we try to keep our children clean.

How has that been working so far?

I see adults who never really mature. We were so afraid of infecting our children with diseases that they never really developed immunity. As adults, most don’t know exactly how to rely on themselves, and not objects around them, to mentally process life’s complexities.

And that’s why we have become such a consumerist society. Why malls are everywhere. We buy things; accumulate objects to keep our world safe and comfortable. From binging on food, collecting handbags and shoes, buying the newest gadgets without really using it to make our lives more efficient.

And how do we interact in non-consumerist spaces? Outside of malls. How do we interact online? We do it as consumers.

We collect likes from friends each time we upload a photo or a status. We collect friends. We group with those likeminded with us, and ‘other’ people who are too different from us. When the space has become too dirty, we move on to the next space. From Friendster (infected with alays), to Facebook (infected with distant relatives), to Twitter (infected with public personalities), to Path.

And at this point, we adults are in fact children who never really grew up. We are the ones ‘handicapped’, because we have had ourselves kept safe, we continue to keep our children’s world safe, and we come full circle to Heinlein’s quote.

This has been how we’ve been building our society for the past decades. A huge, safe bubble that is supported by objects to give a sense of comfort from an insecure, unreliable world. We have utterly weakened ourselves, and our children, in the process. How do we raise children to rely on themselves, if we ourselves have not?

I would rather not live in a bubble, than live with fear, thinking of how it might burst one day.

And perhaps, let it pop while it’s small.