It was 1981. Upon arriving in Jakarta for the first time nearly twenty-eight years ago I hurriedly checked into one of the city’s most luxurious hotels and headed straight to the concierge to inquire where I could see a live performance of Gamelan (gahm-eh-lon).
A puzzled attendant looked at me for a moment to ensure he heard correctly, then lit up with a contagious smile. He took out a Bahasa-Indonesia language newspaper and approvingly informed me that there was a performance that evening not far away. He warned me it was in a part of town not frequented by foreigners. His voice modulated to seriousness when he strongly suggested I take a hotel car and have the driver wait for me until the performance ended. This was not somewhere I should be strolling around alone.
Gamelan is an Indonesian music tradition dating back to the 12 th century. It is performed by an ensemble kneeling on stage wearing colorful batiks and typically featuring a variety of instruments such as xylophones, drums and gongs. The driving rhythms and intense clashing sounds are punctuated by long climaxing crescendos. Their instruments are tuned to unique scales making their melodies unpredictable and strangely pleasing.
Gamelan is often performed together with the Indonesian puppet theater art form known as “Wayang”. The Gamelan ensemble performs as the puppet masters and their carved, colorfully painted puppets act out Hindu-Buddhist stories about nobility, complete with princesses in distress and their royal saviors. Wayang originates from a period centuries before Islam reached Southeast Asia.
When I walked into the decaying theater I was taken aback by its bare décor and simple surroundings. Small folding chairs were jammed together in neat rows. The only relief to the stifling heat and humidity were large rickety ceiling fans that churned above. The pungent smell of burning Kretek cigarettes made from clove leaves thickened the air.
I was watching everyone watch me as I located my seat. I quickly realized I was the only Caucasian in the theater. If only for a brief moment Gamelan is a rare opportunity for Indonesia’s pitiless poor to escape their gripping poverty. As the performers took the stage I could see in the eyes of those in the audience a blank look of submission to their impoverished fate. It left a permanent mark on my conscience.
The following morning while standing on the balcony of my 17th floor room my mind was wildly overwhelmed by the images from the night before. I was fixated on a sea of orange clay roofs stretching several blocks.
These roofs covered shacks with dirt floors and no running water.
A putrid brown river swerved through the kampong (shanty-town). I could see bubbles frothing on the
surface as the garbage below decayed. Skimpily dressed children waded in and splashed each other. At times they would fall and disappear underneath the brown murkiness then quickly reappear laughing
Mothers crouching over tin basins washed clothes while others built small fires from dried wood to cook their evening meals in stock pots filled with water from the river. This open cesspool was both life and death. Watching this was too much to bear. I wanted to run down to the river’s edge and shake those mothers until they realized the poison they were ingesting into their children by swimming, washing and cooking in the diseased water was killing them. I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs for them to stop everything they were doing. Surely they must know the high infant mortality and other sicknesses that relentlessly plagued their families were directly related to their daily routines.
As I drove around the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan I was stunned by the vastness of poverty. It was everywhere. Scenes at the diseased river were repeated over and over and over again. But it was not just in Indonesia that I confronted this; but the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Africa and Latin America. Everywhere I traveled I was haunted by grinding, halting, hideous poverty.
A few years later I moved into a highly secure compound in Manila. A number of prominent Philippine political figures including President Estrada were my neighbors. Our “village” was surrounded by high concrete block walls with charred glass cemented into the top. Should any poor fool try to make it over they would slash themselves and perhaps bleed to death.
If somehow they managed to get to the other side they would have to contend with our guards carrying Uzi machine guns and 12 gauge double barrel sawed off shotguns. This was a crazy time of almost daily
kidnappings and “sparrow units” sent by the Communist New People’s Army to assassinate Americans. Our
guards were to shoot first and ask questions later.
A large shanty-town sprang up just outside our walls that was home to countless nameless, faceless people. Anything and everything imaginable was used to construct their shacks including cardboard, shipping crates and rusted out galvanized sheets. We lived less than a hundred feet away but I never knew their names or even recognized their faces.
I first arrived in Southeast Asia as a young American entrepreneur full of big ideas to save the world. I often thought it was my life’s mission to save the poor; one-by-one if I had to. It took a while for the enormity of the situation to finally sink in. After living with and seeing it everyday callousness develops, making you sufficiently numb. Instead of caring you gaze over their heads and avoid them. This process makes us all less human.
It soon becomes clear that all men are not created equal. More than 2.7 billion of the world’s current inhabitants or nearly sixty percent will die in complete misery having never had a chance for any other existence.
Poverty is much worse than having no food or medicine or clean water. It goes well beyond having no
shelter, education or access to healthcare. Poverty is living in a continuous state-of-abuse from the time you are born to the time that you die.
If these poor children are not killed by the diseased waters they play in and drink, they often fall victim to child abuse both physical and sexual that is passed on from one generation to another. Maybe due to their demented state-of-mind brought on by their hopelessness and despair, parents take out their anger on those most unable to defend themselves.
Daughters at young ages become the family breadwinners. Having an attractive daughter is a blessing as they can be sent to work in night clubs, hostess bars and massage parlors, selling themselves so their families can eat and their male siblings go to school. Their innocence and childhood is ravished and robbed by those who were supposed to protect them. You can’t help but be stunned by the number of parents that prostitute their young children for a few dollars to the European, Japanese, and Chinese pedophiles that frequent Manila and Jakarta.
Sons, if they are lucky, are sent away to the Arabian Peninsula to become “contract workers” where they are treated like slave labor. There is no way out.
Over time I came to understand the hopeless plight of those trapped in poverty. The more successful I
became as an American exporter, the more I had to deal with corruption. Just as poverty is omnipresent, dark, deceitful corruption is lurking around every corner. To repeatedly stare corruption in the eye will change you forever.
The countless millions of mothers I have seen on river edges have no chance for a better life. The resources needed to provide clean water, sewerage, healthcare, education and nutrition are being sucked out of the economy through the enormous cost of corruption.
Poverty and corruption are one in the same. It is hard to comprehend the extent to which poverty is so devastating to the human condition and spirit unless you have lived with it. The World Bank believes corruption costs the global economy over $1 trillion per year. Imagine what that would do to alleviate poverty?
Sadly, the wails of mothers who have lost their infant children to disease because they lack the most basic services do not reach the ears of those in Merdeka Palace in Jakarta or Malacanang Palace in Manila; or all the other presidential palaces in poverty stricken nations.
I have met many government and military leaders of developing nations who give lip service to poverty
alleviation but adamantly embrace its root cause: corruption. The culture of corruption runs deep. It isexpected by family, friends and colleagues when attaining a position of authority that you maximize the financial gain it brings.
This brings me to the reason I dedicate my time to write about trade. As a young American idealist I could do nothing to improve the situation of those who need our help most. I could only observe and participate in the system that perpetuates the status-quo.
The only way that we as Americans can help bring about meaningful poverty alleviation is through the
enactment of Free Trade Agreements that have at their core enforceable measures that deal head-on with corruption. Our trade agreements already have clauses dealing with legal issues such as due process, environmental protections and labor rights.
It is only logical we go one step further and make corruption eradication integral to our trade agreements. Foreign government, military and business leaders will not do it by themselves. They are numb to poverty just like I became. They have huge financial interests to keep things just as they are.
However, there are still many good-intentioned civil servants who would mandate real change if their trade relations with the United States were at risk. It would take a bold action by the United States to alleviate the situation, creating a boon to all good people everywhere.
This means we must vigorously pursue more Free Trade Agreements, especially with countries that have high poverty rates. Remember, the United States has already essentially given duty-free access to our market as our average tariff is less than three percent. This is peanuts to pay to participate in the world’s most prosperous market. We give away nothing and gain something of immeasurable worth: meaningful poverty alleviation. We hear all sorts of poverty alleviation rhetoric accompanied by no realistic plan. Well here it is, staring us right in the face. And the good the thing is, it costs us nothing but our desire to stand-up for the mothers and children on the river’s edge.
Neal Asbury is president of Greenfield World Trade, exporting American -made products to 137 countries worldwide.