I looked through my aeroplane window, saw the grey mist below and knew I would soon be home.
If you were to ask an Indonesian child what the colour of the sky was, they would say ‘blue’. That is what they are taught is the correct answer and the authority of parent or teacher must always trump actual observation. It does not matter that blue skies are a rarity.
We use, ‘once in a blue moon’ to mean ‘hardly ever’. I have seen red moons, during lunar eclipses, but I have never seen blue ones. I think metaphors should have something to do with real experience. Rarities which are sometimes actually experienced by most people would be more meaningful. Perhaps in Indonesia, when we want to refer to something rare and delightful, it would be better to say ‘once in a blue sky’ or ‘once in a starlit night’.
The genesis of the country’s grey blanket is well known: fires and vehicle emissions.
The visible smog is not the only cloud that is choking us. The more insidious and dangerous smog is the intellectual one. Our obscured and befuddled thought is responsible for the lawlessness, greed, stupidity and laziness which is the ultimate fuel of the Indonesian smog and much else besides. We may burn the forest timber and peat and our urban rubbish; we may belch unburned diesel and oil from our trucks, buses, motorbikes and bajajs, but without the fog that envelopes our brains the disastrous smoke would not be there.
How dare I call Indonesian thought befuddled? How can I make such a generalisation?
First, I am not saying that Indonesians are incapable of coherent thought. That is patently not true and would be absurd and racist. Indonesians have exactly the same mental equipment as everyone else. What I am saying is that there are extraordinary hurdles to overcome in Indonesian society. Neither am I generalising. There are indeed notable people who have managed to overcome those extraordinary obstacles. I am criticising the fog, not the people who are the victims of the fog.
It is also true that I am limited in the evidence I can use – severely limited. Although this is my only home, to my shame I have as yet made little progress in learning the Indonesian language. My work involves the English language and that is the only language I am fluent and confident in. The corpus of Indonesian writing is not directly available to me and, insofar as writing and speaking in Indonesian reflects the thought of the people it is outside my scope. And, of course, Bahasa Indonesia is only one of the many languages used in this Archipelago. Nevertheless there is ample evidence that is available to me; the evidence of observation, experience and discussion. English is used, and the way it is used has helped to shape my views.
I do not believe that thought is impossible without language. Thought is the precursor and language is the means by which ideas can be communicated to others. We communicate so often that the process of translating our thoughts into language has become so automatic that we glibly speak of thinking ‘in’ a particular language. If thought is a natural function of our physiology, the way we think should not be fundamentally different from one individual of our species to another. Since, in my view, language comes after thought, the language we use should not affect what we think. However it is not as simple as that.
During my recent trip someone ran a fully laden luggage trolley into the back of my legs. It didn’t take much effort to translate my feelings of pain and annoyance into words: ‘Ouch! That hurt! Why don’t you look where you are going?’
As I am sitting at this keyboard the effort to convey my meaning to you is considerably greater and taking much longer than that riposte to my fellow passenger. The reason is that the process of translating thought into language itself involves thought. If the process of translation involves more than just drawing upon our personal lexicon and applying familiar rules of structure and syntax but also involves translating from one language into another and applying different and less familiar rules of structure and syntax then it is easy to see how the original thought can become lost and muddled.
Once, doctors learnt Latin. The reason was not only so they could read textbooks written in that language but so that they could speak to each other and not be understood by their patients who might be frightened by what they had to say. It also added to the air of mystery and authority which would be reassuring and help create a psychological environment conducive to healing. The placebo effect was very important in the time before antibiotics, anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery when there were few effective treatments short of rapid amputation.
Lawyers also had to learn Latin and learn to be a class apart from ordinary people with their wigs and gowns. This was necessary to terrify witnesses and prisoners and uphold the authority of the court system.
Now few people use Latin. Instead of the language of the Roman Empire we use the language of the Anglophone bankers as our lingua franca of ideas. English has the same function that Latin once had – enabling discourse between those who know the language and at the same time having an elite language to keep people who do not know it in the dark and enhance the seeming scholarship and status of those who do. The difficulty, as with all colonial languages where it is desirable that the subject people are able to understand instructions from their masters, is that knowledge, at least conversational knowledge, of English is spreading. So it was necessary to devise a new language, having the same syntax and structure as English but using various devices to obscure meaning. Those devices include the use of acronyms, new and bizarre derivatives of Latinate words and complex sentence structure.
Now Latin did not need this obscurity of structure and lexicon. It was a fairly straightforward process to translate Latin into the vernacular. If you attempt, God help you, to translate obscure English into any other language it will be equally obscure – probably more so because it is not easy to translate something you don’t understand and you are more likely to make mistakes. First you need to translate the obscure English into vernacular English.
This is the aetiology of the thought obfuscation that is infecting the world. Indonesia has been struck down with a particularly virulent form of the disease.
The Indonesian language is one which ideally suited to its original role as a trading lingua franca in South East Asia. It is not, I understand, particularly difficult to acquire and has the advantage of not being burdened with many of the complexities of tense, number and gender that other languages have; neither is it overly burdened with different registers, such as a Javanese speaker has to cope with in addressing people of different social class. It was recognised by the leaders of the movement towards self-determination that it had the potential to be both a medium for uniting the disparate people of the archipelago into a political union and at the same time a medium for scientific and administrative intercourse.
Now, of course, all that has gone by the wayside. English has replaced Dutch as the language to learn if you want to get on in life. One colonial language has been replaced by another. Instead of Dutch universities, go to an Anglophone university if you want a good job.
It is not that Indonesians lack the capacity for original thought. That is far from the case. It is that the perception that you both have to read and understand difficult texts in English and attempt to write in difficult English that absorbs so much of the thought process that the original ideas are lost in a welter of confusion. The data on which those original thoughts are based is also confused by the need for this translation process and is often downright wrong. Those countries which were originally British or United States’ colonies can cope slightly better, but they too are overwhelmed by academic obscurity. There is a pandemic of obscurity. The blame for it lies in no small part with European and United States led international organisations and academic institutions.
But that is not the only cause of the fog over Indonesian minds. This is a difficult nettle to grasp and a dangerous one, but one which must be grasped nevertheless. And that is the nettle of religion, specifically Islam.
But before I do grasp that nettle and before you cry, ‘Typical arrogant bule![1] If you don’t like the way we do things here, why did you come?’ allow me to say a few words about myself.
I am an exile from the heartless, mindless computer controlled mega-corporations which subjugate and bleed the citizens of the West. I am deeply disturbed about what is happening everywhere in education. But I cling to hope. Indonesia is a young country and I hope that Indonesia will not make the same mistakes that the West has done. There are huge dangers and huge problems already facing her. But we can blow away the fog. We can stand on our feet; we only need to believe in ourselves. In the West there is a feeling of helplessness, of loss of an individual and effective voice. There we may be free to say whatever we want, but no one will listen. Computers and corporations are deaf and have no consciences. They are programmed for profit. Here there are people and people still matter and have control, even though the globalisation project tries to take it away from them. That is why I am talking about the fog in these islands. I am not talking out of pride and self-importance. I am talking out of hope and love. I am happy here because I can deal with people rather than machines and call-centres in India. It is because I love my Indonesian home that I would devote whatever is left of my life to defending her against stupidity and helping to bring about that Merdeka which has been celebrated for sixty-three years but which has yet to be realised.
Now the evidence of stupidity of following sheepishly what others do is all around. However that is the common lot of humanity. It has nothing to do with thought. It doesn’t reach the level of thought. It is, in fact, thoughtlessness. There is little difference between the Indonesian family of five, including suckling babe in arms, riding pillion on a motorbike with only the valued breadwinner wearing a helmet; the maid throwing all the household rubbish in the river and the British youth drinking huge quantities of alcohol on a Saturday night, jigging about in an underground cavern with strobe lights and brain crushing noise then vomiting on the streets afterwards before spreading sexually transmitted diseases with people they have just met. Both scenarios are dangerous, thoughtless and careless of others and unbelievably stupid. But they are what everybody does and not to follow is not to belong.
Yet it is not the stupidity of the masses, desperately tragic though that is, but the incompetent thought of those who are supposed to think that I am talking about.
Now there are, to me, some self-evident truths which I often mistakenly believe are assumptions shared by everyone of intelligence until I realise that it took time for me to come to a realisation of them myself.
The most obvious is that democracy is a sham. ‘The People’ do not rule themselves and their ‘representatives’ do not represent them. There is no difference between the supposed three party ‘democracy’ of the brutal kleptocrat who sat in the presidential palace for over three decades and the multi-coloured goodness-knows-how-many party democracy of now.
This is not a poor country, or a ‘developing’ country or a ‘non-industrialised’ country. It is a slave country; kept in chains by the debt the ‘Father of Development’ incurred by buying all his guns, aeroplanes and family businesses in return for receiving pawn tickets for all the present and future resources of this country and the labour of her people.
Slaves who know they are slaves yearn to be free. It is better that they do not know they are slaves and are reminded of their sham freedom as often as possible and their chains made comfortable.
Dictators ruling slave countries were, of course, no more than managers doing their masters’ bidding until they were too old and greedy and the slaves began to pull against their chains. The dictator is then told to step down and is sometimes given a pension and a state funeral when it comes to it. The people are told that it is true that you weren’t free then but you are free now.
It is important that slaves do not live too long. While they have dependent children they will work hard, so the more children they have the better. When they get old and have less worries they have time to think and remember. That must not happen because then their enslavement will dawn on them. The doctrine of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) applies. Don’t actually kill people, just make it less likely they will survive. Choke them with fog; keep their blood pressure high with noise; let them die on motorbikes; breed rats and mosquitoes in rubbish heaps and stagnant water ditches outside everyone’s houses; encourage addiction to tobacco; keep them awake at night with drums, loudspeakers and fireworks; keep their pulses racing with screaming television soaps and action movies; make them fight each other with religious ferment; keep their pay low so they will work harder and longer.
It is important that slaves should understand the language of their masters: Enough to understand and obey instruction; enough to worship at their feet. Not enough, though, to read and understand their philosophy or thought. That would give them powerful knowledge, dangerous knowledge. Conversation is fine; real literacy, no. And the language of Wall Street and the City of London; the language of the offshoots of Standard Oil, of Shell and BP; the language of the makers and merchants of guns and cigarettes; the language of the bankers and pawnbrokers of the world’s resources; the language of the merchants of death and the hijackers of the sources of energy is English.
All this is, or should be, self-evident. It is also self-evident that this state of affairs is wrong. Overt slavery and colonialism – the subjugation of one human being by another – was evil and it could not be sustained. People who knew they were subjugated longed for freedom. People of influence and conscience eventually demanded their brothers and sisters be set free as the wickedness and injustice became evident.
Although I do not accept the illusions of pseudo-democracy and globalisation does not make me a complete cynic. I believe that people are basically good and care about each other; it is just that they are easily led by the greedy few. The weakness of the plutocracy is that they think that everyone thinks like they do; that everyone is motivated by greed. Overt slavery and colonialism was, though it lasted a long time and still persists in places, was ultimately unsustainable because good people were appalled by it and fought against it.
However overt imperialism and direct subjugation was replaced by covert imperialism and indirect subjugation. Colonialism was replaced by client dictatorships with crocodile tears and arms contracts from the former colonisers. Retired colonial administrators would mutter over their glasses of port or brandy, ‘See, we told you they would never be able to govern themselves.’
In turn, when the old dictators had outlived their usefulness they were replaced and the old crocodiles would cry again and call for democracy and human rights. In Indonesia Madeleine Albright told the smiling old thief, ‘It’s time to go,’ and a brave new Reformasi era was born with enormous and colourful ballot papers. But a general is still managing Indonesia’s resources on behalf of Washington and London.
There is a new form of domestic slavery in Europe, Britain, the United States and the Middle East. It is rather a clever form of slavery because the slaves themselves spend huge fortunes to traffickers – or incur huge debts – in order to buy their servitude. They are the ‘economic migrants’; the illegal or semi-legal workers living in appalling conditions and doing dirty and dangerous work – including sexual slavery – for a few euros or dollars. They are bound by fear of discovery by the authorities and indebtedness to their traffickers; sans passport; sans status; sans protection; sans everything. Not a few of these self-bought slaves are Indonesian.
The fog cannot last forever. Either it will disperse because there are no forests and no oil left to burn or because there is a change in the way we do things. One day the madness of consumerism and desire will be recognised for what it is. Lies have a finite shelf life even though they can be kept fresh for a long time by religion and commerce. Both generate the cryogenic gases of hope and fear to keep the mind numb and passive.
Although we will wake up eventually there is little point in doing so at the point of death. We need the wind of anger to blow away the fog before it is too late. Indonesia  is one of the lungs of the world. The physical and mental fog is not just choking these islands. It is choking the world.