Monday, September 18, 2006

What Can We learn From India

Forwarded by Hermawan Susanto <hermawans@...> Date: Sep 18, 2005 7:39 AM

Does the name Lakhsmi Mittal ring a bell? Well, maybe not (and never mind if it doesn't). First it is a he, not a she. Second, he is not a Bollywood movie star, though he is certainly a kind of star in his own league.

Forbes magazine has just crowned him as one of the richest persons in the world with an estimated wealth of US$25 billion, trailing behind the other two more familiar and already famous names, Warren Buffet in second place and Bill Gates in first. Mittal's story (he is the owner of the largest steel firm on the planet) marks one of the milestones of the rise of Indian entrepreneurs following the success of many Indian professionals in business around the world.
Consider Ajay Banja. He started his career in Nestle in India, where one of his jobs was getting up at 4 a.m. to collect milk from nearby dairy farms. Then he moved to PepsiCo's restaurant group and later on joined Citigroup in 1996. He was transferred to the United States in 2000 and became president of North America retail banking two years afterwards. Just recently, he was appointed as a co-director of the global retail banking group, together with Steven Freiberg; a position second only to the number one in Citigroup.
We have become used to seeing Indian faces occupying top jobs abroad. The sub-continent's executives, bankers, scientists, writers, journalists, thinkers, venture capitalists and even movie stars and cinematographers have been steadily gaining recognition around the world. Not to mention the massive numbers working in the Indian IT industry, which has become something of a trademark of the new India. The graduates of Indian institutes of technology (IIT) and their counterparts in the management field (IIM) never have to worry about getting jobs, but rather are more preoccupied with deciding on which job they will pick after they leave school.
The list of successes goes on, but what we need to immediately ask ourselves is what factors have made them successful and why Indonesia cannot do the same thing. Why? Are Indonesians not smart enough?
A tempting question, indeed. But unfortunately, it is at best irrelevant and at worst misleading. The main reason behind the success of Indian professionals and entrepreneurs is that they are more assertive, or talkative, than most other Asians.
This might be attributed to the language they speak (English), which leads, directly or indirectly, to greater self-confidence. People can easily ignore the importance of self-confidence and assertiveness, but these traits play significant roles outside of Indonesia.
Just like many Javanese still call every white foreigner a Londo (literally, a Dutchman), ignoring the fact that he may not even know where Holland is, it is also difficult for people from outside East Asia to tell the difference between, for instance, a Japanese and a Chinese. And being unassertive doesn't help. "Low profile, low profit, high profile, high profit"; that seems to be the rule in international competition. There is a fine line between keeping a low profile and humility, and failure to make a distinction between the two only leads to greater failure.
Thus, English language capabilities is certainly an important contributing factor. In retrospect, the economic and political development of some former British colonies has been dramatic, and they have managed to take their places among the middle- and upper-income bracket nations, like Singapore and Malaysia. Other former colonies and English-speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand and Ireland (the latter has consistently recorded the fastest growth in the European Union for almost the last two decades), have also performed very well.
The domination of English as the international language, thanks to the former British empire and current U.S. "empire", in the education, political, economic and cultural fields, has given an advantage to the workforces of these countries. Indonesia, which hastily and imprudently scrapped the Dutch language right after independence, and failed to replace it with English or even Arabic, has had to pay a hefty price. Being bilingual or multilingual has become a basic necessity if one wants to compete and there is no way around this.
Building image is the next big thing. When the top three images of Indonesia among people abroad are the tsunami, terrorism and corruption, it takes twice as much work to overhaul these impressions. Another example, Indonesia was in 4th place in terms of Erasmus Mundus scholarship recipients (nine scholars) in 2004, with India coming 6th (five scholars). While the number of recipients from Indonesia this year increased to 14 scholars, India jumped to the top of the table with 137 scholars, leaving Indonesia well behind in 14th place.
But one might ask how India can produce the third richest man on the planet while hundreds of millions out of its population of one billion still live in poverty? Or how in Bangalore, the center of the IT industry, poor parents have to bribe health workers with between $7 and $12 (equivalent to average weekly pay) before health workers will let them see their newborn children? How can these glaring contrasts be reconciled?
Well, first things first. We have millions of poor people ourselves, and, besides, they are working to solve the problem. Second, would it be better: a) to have millions of poor people and not have world class executives and entrepreneurs or b) to have millions of poor people but also have world class executives and entrepreneurs?
How long will we continue to allow the world to laugh at us, the fourth most populous country in the world? How come that when the world talks about "the new superpowers" from Asia, it always refers to China and India, the first and second most populous countries in the world, but never mentions Indonesia, the world's third most populous nation? It would appear that our two hundred and twenty million people are nothing more than empty numbers and statistics.
China , India and Indonesia all have the advantage of young populations. Japan and South Korea can now sniff trouble in the air as their populations age and are beginning to ask whether the next generation will be able to support the elderly when that time comes.
While aging populations are a big problem in developed countries, what is likely to happen in Indonesia? If the present younger generation is not equipped to get the economy moving, the future will be bleak: There will be simply no resources to sustain our current standard of living (which is already low) and to repay our debts. In short, we are talking about a failed nation.
We can avoid this tragedy by starting to learn from others. We often hear people saying we cannot learn from Singapore because it is just a small country. Others say we cannot learn from China or India because they are too big. Or that America is way too advanced to be copied. Hundreds of excuses can be made to allow us to put off learning from others, but what's the point? Criticising others does not make us a better nation. Unless we work as hard as they do, we will end up on the road to nowhere.
With regard to bilingual education in Indonesia, some experts have been debating the initiatives taken by some schools, or lack thereof, as summarised by Pieter Van Der Vienhart (The myth of national plus schools in RI, The Jakarta Post, Sept. 3, 2005). To which we might want to recall the old adage, "If you wait for everything to be perfect, you will never get anything done."
The writer is a postgraduate student in sustainable resource management, Technical University of Munich. He can be reached at

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