Why rice self-sufficiency has such a grip on the Indonesian public imagination

Despite being economically damaging and nearly impossible to achieve, politicians continue to cling to a policy of rice self-sufficiency. Mazur Travel/www.shutterstock.com

Being known by the Indonesian public to support importing rice over self-sufficiency can jeopardise a politician’s place in Indonesian politics. Recently, supporters of Prabowo Subianto, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s opponent in the country’s upcoming election, tried to attack the incumbent using this issue.

An economist in Prabowo’s camp, Dradjad Wibowo, criticised Jokowi for having a “hobby of importing rice”. Dradjad claimed that Jokowi has imported the largest amount of rice since the New Order regime. The agriculture minister has refuted this.

Interestingly, no officials in Jokowi’s administration has appeared to refute an allegation Prabowo made during the televised presidential debate of January 2019 that elements within Jokowi’s government were benefiting financially (that is, illegally) from rice imports.

That political insiders have taken advantage of state-controlled rice imports in Indonesia has long been an open secret. So what may have transpired under Jokowi was nothing new.

That both presidential candidates have pledged to achieve self-sufficiency in rice, just as they did during the 2014 election campaign, is also to be expected.

Self-sufficiency: a difficult promise to keep

It is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint why today’s politicians in Indonesia cling to a policy of self-sufficiency in the country’s primary staple food when the country has so rarely achieved this feat on an annual basis.

The simple answer is because the policy seems to be popular. But why? Why is the idea of reaching rice self-sufficiency so popular among the public? Why is it political suicide for a national politician to support a policy that aims to increase the annual supply of foreign rice?

After all, according to many mainstream (admittedly mostly foreign) economists, doing so would bring many benefits. Since foreign rice, mostly sourced from Vietnam and Thailand, is more cheaply produced, lower rice prices in Indonesia would amount to less household spending on this staple food among the poor.

In turn, the poor could spend more on food with higher nutritional content than white rice, on health care and on their children’s education. This does not only apply to the urban poor. Because many rural poor, even small-scale rice farmers, remain net consumers of rice, cheaper foreign rice would reduce rural poverty as well.

Lastly, by suspending expensive rice self-sufficiency efforts – Jokowi oversaw significant state spending to build a few dozen reservoirs to increase rice production – the government would be able to spend public money elsewhere.

For example, the government could use the money to help marginal farmers who might be forced to sell their crop at lower prices. Public funding could be used for income support or for extension services to help growers shift to crops of higher value than rice. Both possibilities, it seems, would make inroads into rural poverty.

The populism of rice self-sufficiency

Several reasons have been proposed for why self-sufficiency in rice remains so popular.

Some suggest the public just does not realise that higher rice prices actually hurt the rural poor since they believe what the government tells them — that higher domestic prices mean the farmer will receive more money for his crop. This might be true for the large-scale farmers, but they are small in number.

Others insist that the rice milling lobby is behind self-sufficiency. Higher domestic production means more milling and therefore more profits.

Officials from the National Food Security Council that I interviewed highlighted the simmering nostalgia for the glory days of the New Order, especially when under Soeharto in the mid-1980s Indonesia last achieved rice self-sufficiency, albeit briefly.

The populism generated by Indonesia’s competitive elections may also play a role here.

Yet these factors are also found in regional neighbours that share similarities with Indonesia. Malaysia and the Philippines, for example, also grow rice in abundance yet rely on imports to fulfil national requirements. There, high domestic rice prices hurt the poor as well.

These two countries rely on state agencies to import rice, which leads to considerable rent-seeking. Milling lobbies are robust in the Philippines and Malaysia as well. These two countries also experienced impressive production spurts during the Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, and each has competitive electoral regimes that have spurred populist sentiments.

But, significantly, new governments in Malaysia and the Philippines have taken concrete steps toward liberalising their rice trade policies. This means extinguishing dreams of achieving rice self-sufficiency. In short, they have begun serious discussions to revoke the monopoly import licences of their rice parastatals in order to involve more private traders in the buying and selling of imported rice.

While it is uncertain precisely what will come of these policy changes, one thing is sure — neither Jokowi nor Prabowo between now and the April election will make pledges like this. In Indonesia, the rice self-sufficiency dream remains alive.

A legacy of nationalism

Indonesia’s current distinctiveness might lie with the legacy of the country’s nationalist, anti-colonial movement, and specifically the central role the rice peasant holds as a stirring symbol of independence.

Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president, famously espoused an ideology of Marhaenism, where the average, poor Indonesian (read Javanese) peasant embodied the ideals of self-sufficiency and perseverance in the face of aggressive, foreign intrusion.

This belief, ironically carried forth by Soeharto who liked to portray himself as the patron of the Indonesian peasant, continues to resonate powerfully in Indonesia. Idolisation of the rice peasant was absent or less prominent in the ethnically fractured nationalist movement of Malaya/Malaysia, and in the oligarchic, top-down, elite-controlled movement in the Philippines.

In short, it falls on us to consider how specific histories and ideologies continue to shape critical public policies in Indonesia and elsewhere. Liberalisation can be achieved easily with the stroke of a pen. Altering creeds rooted in one’s nationalist past cannot be as easily undone.