Indonesian voters still dream of social mobility

Indonesian voters still dream of social mobility
Yudi and his fellow rickshaw drivers remain immobile - they have not progressed socio-economically in any meaningful way.

Indonesia is going places, and millions of Indonesians are desirous of upward social mobility as well. As the country heads towards its elections this year - which may well be a decisive turning point in Indonesia's history - the question of social mobility will be on the minds of many voters too.

The question is: With Indonesia's reputation being talked up in the global media as a favoured destination for foreign capital, will this translate into better living conditions for more than 240 million Indonesians?

I write as a scholar who has been studying Indonesia since 1998 and as someone who happens to love that country and its people. Over the years, I have had the privilege of making friends with many of those I have met on my travels across Indonesia.

One of them is Yudi, the becak (rickshaw) driver who takes me around the city of Yogyakarta every time I am there to deliver a lecture or do research. I have known Yudi for more than a decade now, and our lives have grown intertwined in so many ways. I visited his home in Bantul after it was flattened by the massive earthquake that levelled much of Yogya. I was there to witness his daughter's wedding, and we have practically become relatives by now.

But since we first met in 2001, Yudi's life has hardly changed in any meaningful way. During the previous election campaigns in Indonesia, Yudi and I would attend the political rallies of all the contending parties in that great, youthful city. Election season is a boon for Yudi and many poor rickshaw drivers in Yogya.

That is when they - the poor, ordinary voters - would be courted by the political parties and showered with gifts. Yudi and his fellow becak drivers would be gifted T-shirts aplenty, rice, sugar, cooking oil, kerosene and cash donations by all the would-be politicians who come their way.

During the last election campaign, Yudi received more than 10 different T-shirts from 10 different parties, and gleefully noted that he would not have to buy any more clothes till the next election!

Yet Yudi, like his fellow becak drivers, remains immobile - despite the fact that his work takes him up and down the roads and alleys of Yogya every single day. In terms of his socio-economic positioning in society, Yudi has hardly progressed in life in any meaningful way. As he once said to me: "Putar-putar, gak kemana juga." (I go round and round, but I'm going nowhere.)

Yudi's work cycle is dependent upon external variables such as the arrival of tourists during the peak tourist season. He needs to save his meagre earnings to prepare for the lean months when tourists are virtually absent. And should there be any scares or travel warnings related to Indonesia (as was the case after the Bali bombings) then poor Yudi in Jogja would suffer too.

Anecdotal though it may be, Yudi's story is similar to the stories told to me by his fellow drivers all the time, and their condition has hardly changed for the better.

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