Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Indonesia 101: lesson 1

Ok, look… I’m sorry. You may have learnt Indonesian in high school, maybe even in university, maybe even had an immersion course in Jogja. Heck, maybe you’ve had all three. The fact remains, chances are there is little to no correlation between what they teach you, and what people speak day to day. Fortunately, many locals are very willing to sit and chat at a warung and are unlikely to be terribly offended if you use the wrong word, but it’s still nice to try to avoid potential social faux-pas.

One of the more common mistakes people make, that makes people uncomfortable is incorrect usage of personal pronouns. No one is going to bite your head off, but referring to a taxi driver as kamu just isn’t cool. So to assist my loyal readers in their daily travels throughout the archipelago, I present the following as a practical guide for pronoun usage in contemporary Indonesia.

Please note: All of these, if they err at all, err on the side of politeness. So once you get a feel for them strike out on your own and forget about these rules; but until then, try and stick with these.

Rule 1: First Person Pronouns

Just use Saya… Simple as that. The only time that’s even slightly inappropriate is if you are talking to close friends, in which case they’ll tell you when it’s appropriate to switch to Aku or Gue.

Rule 2: Second Person Pronouns

Never use Anda. No one uses it except for in bad sinetrons, in formal speeches, or in advertising. Back in the days of the VOC, they decided not to teach the colonials Dutch, for fear that they might start reading about human rights and such pesky botherations, so instead figured they’d pick a random local language and impose that on this random assortment of islands they had conquered. They settled on Malay, which was a sort of lingua franca, spoken by a large percentage of people anyway. Problem was, as the version that people spoke was a trading language, it wasn’t really developed enough for legal documents, newspapers, literature, and so on. They appointed a couple of Dutch linguists with overseeing the development of the language from the lingua franca it was, into the fully functioning modern language it is today. They imported a whole bunch of loan-words from Dutch, and invented a whole bunch of abstract nouns, adjectives, and whatnot, among which, if I’m not mistaken (and I very well could be) was Anda.

Originally envisioned as a status-neutral second person pronoun (rather like You in English), the Indonesians (as they were yet to be called) couldn’t quite get their minds around this and instead the word has now become the most formal second person pronoun.

Um, yeah… So… Don’t use it, it sounds weird. Use the below:

Case 1: In professional situations

This could be anyone from a taxi driver, to a bank teller or a President Director of a large company. With anyone over the age of 20 or so, stick with Bapak/Ibu for the second person pronoun. e.g. Bapak sudah berapa lama kerja disini? - How long have you (Mr) worked here?, Ini pena Ibu Yati - This is your (Mrs. Yati’s) pen.

If the person is under the age of 20, you should be fine using the person’s name. e.g. Seperti Ika katakan tadi - Like you (Ika) said, Hadi mau minum apa? - What would you (Hadi) like to drink?

Case 2: In social situations

In social situations, people tend to be a lot more relaxed, and so unless the person is on the order of 5 or so years older than you, you can stick with the person’s given name. If not, go back to Bapak/Ibu. Once you get more confident you can throw in a couple of Mas/Mbak to shake things up if the person is around your age or younger, but keep it simple for the time being.

When to ignore this advice

When a person corrects you and suggests you use something else, then do it. When enough people have corrected you, and you’ve kept your ears open enough to hear the way Indonesians use terms of address, then go for it baby.

For more information on Indonesian pronouns, check out this lesson in the Indonesian Wikibook that some thoughtful soul has put together.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Arseholes and Hippies

Do relief based NGOs profit from people’s misery?

In a word: yes.

When I arrived in Indonesia after finishing my Bachelor of Computer Science and Diploma of Modern Languages in Indonesian the NGO thing was actually what I thought I wanted to do, by some twist of fate (read: nepotism) I ended up working as a financial analyst in a local investment bank. So, the other weekend I thought I’d do my part for the recent earthquake victims and head over to Yogya to help out the relief effort and check out what I was missing along the way.

I read a book recently called Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It was pretty average in a lot of ways, although it was interesting in its portrayal of relief workers and the general NGO industry. The workers themselves are variously described as self-serving, incompetent, and reliant on “hunger porn” to prove their self-worth to the rest of the world.

The most wonderful thing about game theory is its mathematical simplicity. Well, that, and the fact that it provides a basis for the analysis of pretty much every organism based interaction in the universe.

The first ever version of game theory applied (whether the organisms knew it or not) and the most instinctive version, is what is commonly referred to as evolutionary theory. It relies on one axiom: each organism must do what it can to succeed. An organism itself doesn’t necessarily know what it needs to do to succeed, and may choose any number of strategies in reaching its goal. Some of those strategies are good – eating and otherwise obtaining good nutrients – and some are bad – being eaten (unless you're a salmonella bacterium, or a fruit with very hardy seeds, or something like that). There are infinite shades of grey in inter- and intra-special conflict, but I will dub the two extremes Arseholes and Hippies. A Hippie will gather his food and eat it, if it meets another Hippie they will have themselves a little party and share their food. An Arsehole gathers no food, if it meets a hippie it will beat it up and steal its food. If an Arsehole meets an Arsehole they will beat each other up, run the risk of an injury and get no food.

While there are so many strategies and so many local environmental dynamics that there is never one optimal solution to the problem, two things are clear… In a world of Hippies, the Arsehole is King. And, in a world of Arseholes, everyone suffers, but the Hippie suffers the most*.

Politicians may go into their job thinking they will stand up for what they believe in, but they quickly find themselves championing populist policies without which they will fade into obscurity. Australian companies could pay higher wages or give longer breaks, but their Chinese counterparts aren’t imposing such “unnecessary constraints” on their quest to succeed so why would the Aussies? A political party in a newly democratised nation that chooses not to buy votes may suffer a loss on polling day to another that does. Sure, it’s mean, but sometimes it pays to be an Arsehole.

An NGO survives by getting donations from various sources, spending an amount on administration (usually between 5-15%) and using the rest to fund their various projects around the world. To succeed they need to find the worst suffering (or at least the suffering that looks the worst) and get the most money from you. For example, evolutionarily speaking, it is in their interest to give poor farmers hybrid seeds that don’t reproduce, find pockets of unaddressed suffering in disasters and not tell any other organisation about it, and so on. Fortunately, in this most Hippie-fied (although mainly on the individual level, not necessarily the organismation level) of industries, I would like to believe that no NGO genuinely seeks to prolong the suffering for their own ends, although the minor sins of sexing up photos and sensationalism are rife.

So, we’ve established that NGOs are Arseholes (at least in a limited way), so who are the Hippies being taken advantage of in this situation? Us; the donors.

Thinking about it though, you know, I’m glad it is this way. We rich country nationals should be taken advantage of a little bit, don’t do nearly enough to really combat poverty (in our own countries or abroad**). Making us the Arseholes, and the poor the Hippies (if you consider not giving them money to be equivalent to beating them up). And sure, they make a profit. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be around very long. As long as they are open with their financials and all donors are aware of how their money is being spent, then of course they should!

Like banks, which take idle capital and make it available for use by entrepreneurs, NGOs play a useful role in the global economy: they take excess capital and redistribute it to those most in need, hopefully, in the most effective way. In the emergency phase of relief, that involves handouts, in the reconstruction phase, that involves reconstruction and livelihood building.

Having recently been a normal, healthy, lefty university student, I have found myself somewhat disturbed by slightly right leaning economic theories I have found myself espousing after only 2 years in the Real World (more on that later), but I’m happy that apparently my support for the UN and pinko-do-gooder projects in the developing world is intact. I did see some frustrating bureaucracy and jaded relief workers, but I’m trying, I’m trying real hard to be the Hippie; and I think they are too.

*Depending on how you formulate the game… It should also be noted though, that everyone in a world of Hippies is better off than everyone in a world of Arseholes. This is also a simplification where Arseholes contribute nothing to the system. For a much better and wonderfully written explanation of the complexities of game theory (although written in a wonderfully uncomplex way) read the last few chapters of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.
**The linked article is seriously awesome and everyone should read it.