Digital This, Auto That… Reality What?

(ring) H… hello?

Is this dotstoredotcom?


I wanted to buy bandannas on your website but the system kept failing.

Whatsapp message me, then. I’ll get back to you tonight.

Tonight? You’re available now.

(tentatively) Actually, umm… I’m working. In an office.

But this cellphone number is listed on your website as Customer Helpline.

(whispering now) Y-… yes. Just message me your order. Promise I’ll respond tonight.

That was a conversation I had with a decent-sized online shop recently. To be fair, I did get a reply that night and, after transferring money to the personal bank account of the guy I spoke to, the bandannas arrived in the mail. When I regaled the tale to friends who’ve done much online shopping in Indonesia, most said that’s quite the reality—despite the fancy website or social media presence, many online shops here are one-(wo)man-shows with the owner clocking time as someone’s employee somewhere else.

Major points for entrepreneurial spirit aside, it got me thinking, with all the high talk about digital economy around, is the real face of Indonesia’s e-commerce rudimentary at best?

As far back as 1999 I was already a loyal online customer of Amazon, Victoria’s Secret and Nordstorm. Barely catching sleep as a graduate student in the US then, online shops became handy. My initial worry about using credit cards online was soon dissipated after witnessing the stores’ professionalism in processing orders, tracking deliveries, and handling complaints. After started working I even ventured out to buy vintage fashion items online. Minimum fuss, maximum result.

Fast forward 17 years, I don’t feel secure about any online transaction in Indonesia, including via credit cards. Plus, just too many hassles– the need to transfer to personal bank accounts, sellers not holding responsibility for order arrivals, domestic courier services rarely having online tracking system. Lack of infrastructures, mediocre services. Result? Low trust.

It’s worse that it feels pointless to hope our dear Government will soon provide the private sector with adequate technology infrastructures and policies to ensure securities, without curtailing businesses, since the Government itself seems unprepared in setting and maintaining their own technology-based public services.

Take the Immigration Office’s auto-gates unveiled at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in the last year of Yudhoyono’s presidency. That much-lauded initiative was swiftly embraced by many frequent travelers, including yours truly. Yet in recent months the auto-gates were often not working in full, or at all, as I experienced last week. Just because we changed Minister and President, does that mean progress would be pushed back because it wasn’t this administration’s “baby”? How partisan. Taxpayers are entitled to continuous availability and advancement of public services, regardless of who’s in charge.

Speaking about tax, let’s look at this administration’s own baby, the e-filing. While it undoubtedly will reduce snaking lines at Tax Office’s branches nationwide in March, the system cannot cater to people like me whose small income trickles in from many sources of different types– consulting office, media, SME venture—just to name a few. My tax reports typically have over 20 attachments, which the e-filing system can’t seem to handle.

So I still went one morning to my assigned Tax Office to file hardcopies. As I was waiting for my queue number 400+, the queue app Antrila was brought to my attention. Rejoice however was short-lived as the app was only available in Android. What Indonesia Tax Office has against us iOS users, I have no idea.

Guess who finally came to my rescue? The private sector. In the form of virtual assistant service YessBossNow. As if understanding that reliable Internet connection isn’t given, the service works on the low-tech format SMS (short message service) that many urbanites have deserted for Net-based chat apps. Yes, I had to pay for the SMS to instruct my virtual assistant Clara to download the app and get a new queue number—but it was worth it, as in 10 minutes flat she managed to retrieve queue number 14 for a special desk and text it to me.

A very smart man who had served in our Cabinet, during which I worked for him, once said to his deputies that “The Government can hardly keep up with tech innovations, so we shouldn’t worsen it by issuing policies that discourage them.” That’s humbleness and the very heart of reform, don’t you think? And if you recall the 2014 campaign trail, weren’t reforms the forefront promise? Yet 18 months on, I’m only seeing one disconnect and discontinue after another on our Government side, one too many for private sector to hope any. And don’t get me started on the Government’s bewilderment in dealing with app-based sharing economy like Uber or its obtuse decisions to block Tumblr and keep unblocking Vimeo, used by many creative heads to promote their works, while Mr President went touting digital economy plans at Silicon Valley.

Dear digital-based private sector and customers-taxpayers, the help is far from coming. Depressing, as starting this month common Singaporeans can simply relay from cellphones to pay for mass transportation fares. Think I should text Clara to get me the sugary banana syrup from Gowa. Somehow I have more faith in her procuring that obscure mood-buster than, say, us getting nationwide 4G by 2019.

I gotta lie down, peeps.

As published:

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