Many say prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. But I sometimes wondered half-seriously, and this shows just how much free time I’ve got in my hands at times, that the world’s oldest profession couldn’t have been in services, but must’ve been in goods. Commerce was born when modern humans started to barter around their crops or catches, after which I bet the need for a middleman must’ve soon emerged to balance the growing permutations of barter in the marketplace. May very well be before anyone felt the need for a service from street walkers.
As millennia have come and gone, marketplace and middlemen have evolved along. In recent years the marketplace has moved to the virtual realm of e-commerce, where physical interaction between buyers and sellers, or merchandises for the matter, no longer matter. Payments can be made electronically in different currencies, and the merchandises delivered to places far beyond the border of seller’s postal code. The bulk of global e-commerce comes from the giants like e-Bay, Amazon and Alibaba that pool various sellers onto a single platform. Much more than just making connections, these companies are enabling the technology to conduct the new way of commerce. Middleman 2.0. is no longer trading company, they’re technology company.
Gotta love technology, eh? The democratization of options for customers, the opening of fresh market channels for producers. And as Indonesia’s current demography are built on rising middle class and population under the age of thirty, e-commerce is suddenly the darling du jour. At least that’s the general sentiments from a 2-day seminar organized by think tank CSIS and Indonesia’s Foreign Services earlier this week. Citing different sources the panelists presented various numbers of current market and potentials, and William Tanuwidjaya of Tokopedia.com was probably most correct when he said nobody knows the actual correct numbers, but everyone seemed to agree that this is where the commerce world was heading. The only question remains is whether you, I, and the rest of Indonesia will get on board with the leap-frogging momentum.
And this is where my heart sank a little. To grow healthily an industry needs its building blocks of, among others, infrastructures and growth-friendly policies. And to create infrastructures or write growth-friendly policies for technology-based industry in particular, you need to deign to step out of your comfort zone including overcoming fears of unfamiliar things—something I’m almost not seeing from the executive and legislative powers that be.
I tend to agree much with Dr Raoul Oberman from Endeavor, that there was a lot of fear in the air. This administration has always been proclaiming openness for investments and innovations, but beyond the ceremonial welcome mat there were a lot of protectionist policies and minimum supports. Instead of wasting time getting terrified that fast internet will corrupt the moral of young people or make the country vulnerable to neo-imperialistic foreign companies, Indonesia government should spend much more time that internet is available to improve the livelihood of every citizenincluding the ones living in far-flung corners of this world’s largest archipelago.
The citizens won’t know how to compete with the rest of the world if they’re not even enabled, or allowed, to interact with the rest of the world. How they’re going to learn developing survival skills, let alone superior skills, when they’re mollycoddled 24/7 by the government under the populistic jargon of nationalism? How are the youth going to learn to match or beat foreigners for world-level jobs, to campaign for Indonesia’s vast interests on global stage, when they’re trained to see foreigners as possible thieves instead of potential partners and markets?
Internet can introduce pornography? True, but it also works for e-learning in remote islands of Indonesia—much faster and updated than encyclopedia books being snail mailed as my friends and I are organizing now for Maratua (E. Kalimantan) and Lembata (E. Nusa Tenggara) islands.
E-commerce is rampant with fraud and prone to tax evasion? Sure, but it also provides platforms for our SMEs to export their products and services far beyond our borders. East Nusa Tenggara women hand-weave some of the most gorgeous textiles Indonesia has seen, on par with what you find in Oaxaca, but how will the world discover them if beyond province capital Kupang nobody gets 3G?
Make it easy for digital-based businesses to start, write policies to ensure fair competition then fairly tax the business once the multiplier comes to effect. That’s what the Indonesian government first needs to do, before moving forward to revolutionize our financial markets to lure in investment for this sector.
I realize I must’ve sounded like a broken record, using my column again to bemoan the humiliating state of infrastructure of this world’s largest archipelago. But I genuinely fear that if we keep lag behind on digital-based realm, we’ll truly being left behind for a generation or two that can’t be easily fixed even if eventually all the roads are built, bridges raised, hospitals equipped and children schooled.
So, Indonesia government, when will you finally be ready to shake off your fears? To fearlessly fly into the virtual world with the rest of the world, your citizens anxiously await.