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Mad in Pursuit: Indonesia Bright & Dark

1::Flight to Jakarta

A thousand years ago I found myself on a plane to Indonesia.

It was January and the apex of Pax Economica. Free Trade and the Sloane Business School would save the world. Indonesia was prospering under the firm dictatorial hand of Suharto, who had overthrown that wretched Communist Sukarno in 1965 and made Indonesia a global player.

But what did I know?

I had watched "The Year of Living Dangerously" and I'd gone to a Met exhibit on Buddhist sculpture from Indonesia. Somewhere I'd picked up some interesting green glass beads from there. And, oh yes, in our art collection we had a mysterious wooden sculpture from the island of Sulawesi. It was only on the plane that I started reading the guidebook. Two weeks before the only plan in place were two frequent-flyer tickets to Singapore. Then someone told me we would be traveling during Ramadan in this Islamic nation and I panicked. I had been figuring we'd just drift along like had on trips before, but Jim had told me stories about being stuck in Sudan during Ramadan, when people spit on the ground rather than swallow their saliva and foreigners were unwelcome. I wanted to think that Indonesia was more secular than Sudan -- Islam lite -- but realized I knew nothing.

Stamped on the back of an unread brochure, I'd found the name of a West Coast travel agency specializing in Indonesia -- Sito's.* A kind woman named Bunnie helped me set up the  skeleton of our trip: a flight to Jakarta, a hotel in Jakarta, a driver across Java to Bali, a flight from Bali to Sulawesi, a flight from Sulawesi back to Singapore.

In those days, I thought of myself as a corporate revolutionary. I was responsible for a major reorganization in the not-for-profit agency where I worked. We took the lead from the enlightened business world. We were relying on staff to work in self-managed teams and to take a lot of responsibility into their hands, without screwing their clients or the agency. We were trying to become a "learning community" and had swallowed Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline hook, line, and sinker.* My fellow radicals and I were ready to throw out the clockwork hierarchy in favor of the emergent forms suggested by Margaret Wheatley and the "new sciences." But when I left for Indonesia, it had been a year since we began and I was worried that something was terribly wrong. 

On the plane, I read the international edition of Time magazine. A terrible story: Nepalese families sell their daughters into prostitution, then refuse to take them back when they get AIDS. How can this be? If parents intrinsically love their children, how can they sell their daughters to become "Bombay girls" and refuse to take them home when they get sick? The question was struck: are people basically good or basically bad? My whole professional life -- institutional benevolence, self-management, teamwork, shared visions -- depends on basic goodness. 

My head still swimming with work anxieties, I turned from news to the unopened guidebook.  

This sounded good: Pancasila* -- the official 5 principles on which modern Indonesian society was based. The Shared Vision.

Gotong royong enables the country to "run itself"; village headman carries out government policies along with "village socialism"; rule by relationship and consensus-building discussions. How beautiful. Vision, dialogue, self-managed teams. But... it all appears to be subverted by centralized bureaucracies and rule of military; the book says there are few civil liberties. Why the disconnect between village life and national government? I need to remember that Indonesia is a "nation" made up of 17,000 islands and nearly as many ethnic groups and languages. 

But how do I reconcile it all? Nice words. A successful economy. But the little I knew about Suharto was that he was a bad guy who'd ruled for 30 years. Good? Evil? What would Indonesia teach me? [to be continued...]

Posted 10.27.02

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Sito's Tours and Travel: After all these years, still in the business & now on the web.
Peter Senge: This is a good summary of all the ideas I so fervently wanted to believe in those days.
Pancasila: a bit more for those interested. These principles were articulated by Sukarno in 1945.