Thursday, January 21, 2010

Participatory politics thriving in Indonesia

In Indonesia, as elsewhere, politicians are often accused of failing to listen to the people. That is not a charge that can be leveled against Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, Indonesia's recently-appointed Health Minister.

While audience participation is normally reserved for pantomimes or bad comedy acts, Endang managed to successfully integrate it into a press conference last week.

Addressing Jakarta's cohort of foreign correspondents and assorted hangers-on on Friday, Endang began by outlining her five key priorities for her department in the year ahead:

She had no trouble recalling the first four - responsive, inclusive, effective and clean - but was completely stumped when it came the all-important final priority.

Turning to her gaggle of advisers, she asked them in Indonesian if they knew. But her hapless bag-carriers were equally clueless.

As the pause in proceedings mutated into a slightly uncomfortable silence, Endang tried to salvage the situation with a smooth one-liner.

"How could I forget?," she said in English as she looked at her assistants. "You cannot forget because you are my staff."

Thankfully, a member of Jakarta's diplomatic community who was obviously better briefed than the Health Minister finally stepped in to save the day. "The last priority is pro-poor," she said, to mirth all round.

It's not like an Indonesian politician to forget the poor, of course.

In fairness to the minister, her distinct lack of fluency appeared to be more related to English language difficulties rather than anything else.

Toward the end of her hour-long Q&A session, which had, of course, started an hour late, Endang made one particularly incisive point about the challenge of providing even the most minimal level of healthcare for a population of 240 million spread over 6,000 inhabited islands.

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. But, in Indonesia, politics is more usually the art of the impossible.

"Everything is very bad in Indonesia," Endang said, when asked how feasible her healthcare goals were. "If you think how realistic something is, nothing will be done."

P.S. If you want a more serious take on what Endang had to say, check out my news story in the British Medical Journal.


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