#Asia OTR: Eavesdropping amidst the haze


Once the haze clears, hopefully so will our perspective


OTR ‘Off The Record’ is a new content form that we’re trying out where a member of the e27 team spouts off about any given topic relevant to the tech world without judgement.

Rumours about Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to Silicon Valley – with several local startups tagging along – had been circulating for a while in the Indonesian startup community.

The mood was particularly positive, especially after one startup founder accidentally leaked the detail in a room full of tech journalists. Oops.

“This is the moment for Indonesian startups to shine,” one entrepreneur said.

“This time we are no more the market, we come to Silicon Valley to pitch something. We are finally the producer,” another entrepreneur said.

“I wish I can be part of this trip,” said another aspiring entrepreneur.

Which is why, as I wrote an update reporting the President’s cancellation of his participation in the visit, my heart sank a bit. Pardon the Star Wars reference but this was not the update I had been looking for.

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Hell, the visit will happen anyway, even without the man leading it. There is still Rudiantara, Minister of Communications and Informatics, leading the charge. The startups will continue to pitch. Everything is on track. No?

“But it does not feel right without him in it,” said one geek, who happened to share a desk with me in a co-working space in Jakarta.

“Having him leading the visit … That gives a message that the country is taking the digital industry seriously. That we are finally a priority, not just something to be handled by the IT minister,” she added.

I tried to keep a straight face while continuing to eavesdrop on the conversation.

“Yes, but will you be able to do business if you can’t even breathe? This haze thing is also serious, man. People are dying. We are losing face in front of Singapore and Malaysia and God knows what other countries,” her friend replied.

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“If he doesn’t return, people will think he doesn’t take this issue seriously,” added the geek with a winning smile.

“But if he comes home, it means he’s bowing down to opposition pressure! He’s the President, he doesn’t need to be everywhere! Was he there when I broke up with my boyfriend?” the friend argued.

It was getting a bit harder to keep a straight face after that, but I think I got her point. Do what you feel is best.

Two days after this conversation, the good news is starting to spread out. Google’s Project Loon is finally confirmed, with Qraved’s US$8 million Series B announced during the visit.

We hope for more good news for the startups, since Traveloka has presented in front of potential investors, and there is also a rumour about Go-Jek sealing the acquisition of an India-based tech company during the visit. Who knows.

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The two clashing ideas about whether the President really needs to be leading the visit came back to my mind, but this time I was certain.

I have nothing against good PR. I think the first geek was right; while it often seems frivolous, publicity matters.

We are not even talking about the President’s reputation here. Let us use another Star Wars reference to make it easier to describe the national mood at the moment. You see, when Indonesians voted for a former furniture-business owner to become President, they thought they found Luke Skywalker. But the man’s poor performance in the economic and human rights sector has them worried if they have wrongly voted for Darth Vader instead.

The publicity will greatly benefits startups instead. Yes, the partnership and funding happened even without the President on board.

But remember that for the first time ever, the Indonesian government actually put innovation and technology at the forefront of the country’s economy.

Ever since Indonesia gained its independence, we have long believed that our rich natural resources will serve us for as long as we want them to. We often forget that natural resources have limits; meanwhile, innovation born out of creativity will take us further in life.

And these startups –together with its successors – will be seen as a symbol of innovation. They will be seen as the future of Indonesia’s economy. It is a great publicity for startups to be in the same rarefied air as the President.

But all this can only be theirs if the timing is right.

Last week was definitely not a good time.

If the President insists on going, then instead of being seen as a hero, startups will be seen as the enemy instead. The nation is facing an emergency and yet these businessmen – and our President – only care about investment and partnership. Innovation might be given a bad name.

In a country that has long believed that a Messianic figure will one day come to save the people, innovation just cannot afford a bad name.

Because Luke Skywalker is rumoured to be the Dark Lord in the new Star Wars movie, let us encourage people to begin believing in innovation and imagination and turn Vader back into Anakin.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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