A natural disaster has CERTAINLY struck-down Sulawesi – BUT the Indonesian government have a case to answer?

You will have seen over the past few days the newspapers’ advertisements by the likes of ‘Save the Children’, Oxfam, Red Cross and others, highlighting last Friday’s devastating Sulawesi Tsunami, with their heart rendering pleas for public donations to help the enormous number of victims. As normally happens we can indeed expect the British people to generously dig deep into their pockets to help foreign people in need and fund international humanitarian relief operations on this Indonesian island.

That massive incoming aid will though simply been seen cynically by many in the Indonesian elite as a god-sent opportunity to feather their nests, so just how much of that much needed relief will be creamed-off by the corrupt is anybody’s guess.

The utter devastation we have seen on our TV screens resulted from a massive earthquake under the north of the island that also triggered the 250mph apocalyptic tsunami in the narrow deep Palu bay which has levelled Donggala and Palu city as well as many other places – the resulting death toll is rising rapidly and is certainly going to be in the thousands while most infrastructure is simply wiped-out across a wide area.

From the outside, this tragedy looked to have been an ‘unavoidable’ calamity where the malign forces of nature had conspired to enact unimaginable death and destruction on a vulnerable population. But take a look below the surface and that simplistic explanation may prove inadequate, perhaps?

First, it is important to recall that Indonesia is one of world’s most earthquake and tsunami-prone countries, and that they can even provoke the volcanoes that dominate the local geography into erupting [Sinabung dormant since the 1600s erupting in 2010 is a possible example] – a combination that massively increases risk to life and limb

[Volcanoes in Indonesia are part of the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ and the country itself has 127 active volcanoes with about 5 million people living within their danger zones – notable eruptions: Tambora 1815 (the most violent eruption in recorded history), Krakatoa 1883 (so violent it had global effects); within Java island Merapi (last eruption 5 months ago – the most active), Semeru (last eruption 3 years ago – been in almost continuous eruption since since 1967) and Kelud (last eruption 4 years ago – more than 30 eruptions in a thousand years),]

After a 2004 tsunami killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries, more than half of them in the Indonesian province of Aceh, a concerted international effort was launched to improve tsunami warning capabilities, particularly in the Indian Ocean and for Indonesia.

There’s a large and well-documented ‘fault system’ that’s been very rapidly slipping for years that runs through Palu, which is very straight and very long [about 200km]. There were events there in the early 1900s and an event like this in 1937. Moreover, in 2013 it was identified that the Palu fault, specifically had the potential for causing a ‘very destructive’ earthquake and tsunami. The current occurrence in exactly that circumstance cannot have been entirely unexpected then, surely?

A sizeable earthquake off Sumatra island just two years ago causing panic in the coastal city capital of Padang revealed that the tsunami early warning system involving sea buoys costing hundreds of thousands of dollars hadn’t even been serviced for six years, so NOT ONE of them were actually working.

Everyone knows that because of Indonesia’s location, that tsunamis will come again and again, and that they will come in other cities around its many coasts. That is compounded by the absolutely shoddy failure of the Indonesian authorities to require buildings to be built to withstand even minor earthquakes or moreover enforce use of even proper strength concrete in construction or have proper structures for accommodation and business – that is why we see pictures of EVERYTHING FLATTENED in Palu, isn’t it

All that being so then, all of us would assume Indonesia to be indeed a country where the population would know all about the impending risks that they lived under, and would have been adequately informed in how best to save themselves when the danger emerged, wouldn’t you? Moreover, one would be shocked if the Jakarta government hadn’t fully assessed those major risks and taken all possible necessary actions to protect their distant widespread communities from them, wouldn’t you?

However, when this tsunami hit Palu without warning last week, there were some there who instead of running for the hills, watched it or filmed it, or even lost their lives trying to save prized possessions instead – does that sound like them being properly informed of the risks, eh?

The big question being asked now, is did the Indonesian authorities learn anything at all from all those past incidents and warnings? Well, it certainly appears that the answer is NO, doesn’t it?

That is why it comes as a dreadful insight for us outsiders to find that the two basic requirements of the Indonesian government were failed miserably with such dreadful consequences as has resulted in such a catastrophe which is down to neglect of a disgustingly negligent, if not criminal, extent?

A well-designed cutting-edge tsunami sensor network for Indonesia that should provide critical information and an early warning system has been stalled in the testing phase for years due to local disputes, wrangling and delays in getting just £55,000 to complete the project – meaning that the system hasn’t moved beyond a prototype developed with aid funding from Germany (£47M), U.S. (£2.5M) and Malaysia.

While there was certainly the fiasco of failed tsunami warning technology, the real failure was one of education and ignorance, as this was a localised tsunami resulting from an earthquake close to the coast. The tsunami waves will have hit Palu only 30 minutes after the quake so the people on the beach and in the city should have had and heeded the early warning of the earthquake to move instantly to seek high ground immediately – clearly, they didn’t, so not knowing what to do is in reality what killed so many people, isn’t it?

To understand properly just how the hell this situation can have come about, you need to know that the fundamental problem with Indonesia is that corruption is so endemic that like a virulent cancer, it skews and destroys its whole economy.

Indonesia is most unlike its neighbour Singapore (an ex-British colony, but now extremely independent) which acted without compromise to defeat and eradicate similar corruption, hence turned a poor state with no natural resources into one of leading economies in the world in less than 40 years under its long-serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

[In the 1950s in Singapore Lee Kuan Yew’s party ‘People’s Action’ won power in an election, and became the symbol of the fight against corruption, with the slogan “You want to fight corruption? Then, be ready to send to jail your friends and relatives”].

Indonesia after three decades of totalitarianism, is now well established as a democratic republic, whereby the elected President is both head of state and head of a government that exercises executive power.

However, it is a poverty-stricken country blighted with excessive bureaucracy and re-tape, which coupled with low wages and high unemployment, has simply leached previous solely centralized corruption downstream to the lowest elements, and it is openly tolerated so there is nothing that enforces any concept of business code of ethics. Very low salaries of the government bureaucrats, means that they invariably demand bribes from any company that needs government approvals for any purpose

Those amongst us who have had experience of wider Indonesia and Sulawesi itself [not just Bali) together with its wonderful ordinary people, have seen at first hand the poverty living cheek-by-jowl with affluence. The evidence of low-level corruption faces you when you even have your passport checked on entry and are invited to give the official 10 dollars, or when bringing-in goods that are duty free $100 bribe to avoid being them being held in customs for weeks before release.

In any business transaction a bribe has to be paid by somebody to somebody, either to an official or intermediary, while all government department supervised local work, including aid-funded work, is pre-allocated to a specific company who must be invited to provide the bid price as the department senior official is receiving a substantial fee from them

Is it any wonder then that in an environment where foreign firms regularly suffer prolonged wait times, and have to pay bribes, that the international efforts to activate a fully working tsunami warning system floundered, was overspent and hit the buffers of bureaucracy and budget shortfall, do you think?


[Nothing is going to get any better in Indonesia unless corruption is fully eradicated and it seems highly unlikely that its leaders have any commitment to such a course of action as that would destabilise the system by which they themselves gained their immense riches are power, wouldn’t it?]

Will any Indonesia saviour step-up to the pate to replicate what Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore?

  • establishment of a strong independent service for the fight against corruption backed by harsh laws, denying major bribe-taking officials’ in the higher echelons of power and their families’ immunity, rights to check bank accounts, property, belonging to officials, their children, wives, relatives and friends, including checks on them living beyond their means, the abolition of permits and licensing in less important areas of public life, the court given the right to confiscate automatically any income derived from corrupt actions
  • presumption of guilt against any government agent not living within their means or having under their disposal property which they could not have acquired on their income, as an evidence for a bribe – shifting the burden of proving one’s innocence to the governmental official who has to convince the court that a fee (bribe) has not been received.
  • increase the salaries of civil servants as they should be paid the highest wages because they deserve it, representing a decent and honest government. High salary attracts the best and acts as a guarantee of integrity when the low pay and short skills of underpaid officials is the foundation of corruption. Salaries of ministers, judges and senior civil servants automatically tied to the amount of income taxes paid by the private sector
  • the formation of an independent, objective media, covering all found cases of corruption to shame those caught-out in excessive costs & bribes, whence the authorities exposing them immediately becomes the “hero” of the front page

Here is one of the examples Singapore authorities urged justice on its high-ranking officials. Wee Toon Boon was the Minister of the of Environment in 1975, when he made a trip to Indonesia with his family. The trip was paid by the contractor who was building houses and whose interests he represented to public servants. He also received a house worth 500 thousand Singapore dollars, and two loans in the name of his father, totalling 300,000 Singapore dollars which were issued under the guarantee of this exact contractor. Given this all, Wee Toon was charged, convicted and sentenced to four years and six months in prison.

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