Young Indonesians work towards political change

Marcella Chandra Wijayanti
Image caption Ms Marcella spent a year in rural Indonesia, teaching underprivileged children

Ask Pingkan Irwin what she will be doing on any given Saturday night and her answer is likely to surprise you.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, the 28-year-old is not heading out for a night on the town.

Instead, this digital marketing strategist is most likely to be found representing the democracy advocacy group she helped to set up, Ayo Vote!, at a trendy Jakarta venue.

Ms Pingkan and another friend set up Ayo Vote! - which is Indonesian for "Let's Vote" - in 2010.

They felt that young Indonesians seemed politically apathetic, but believed that this stemmed in a large part from ignorance.

Comfortable lives

"Indonesia's younger generation, of which I'm a part, is pretty complacent because in the cities at least, our lives are pretty comfortable right now," she said.

"A lot of the time my friends tell me that it doesn't matter whether I vote or not, politicians are all corrupt anyway."

Ms Pingkan felt one of the main reasons why young Indonesians weren't getting involved in politics was because they didn't really know what their rights were or what a functional democracy actually looked like, despite the country's relatively recent transition to democracy.

"We are basically offering a course in Politics 101 to young voters," she said. "That's why we've set up our website and kicked off this campaign."

In Asia, Indonesia stands out as one of the youngest and newest democracies. Fifteen years ago, it was young Indonesians who led the revolution that transformed the country from a dictatorship into the bustling democracy it is now.

Indonesia is a remarkably young society, with some estimates saying as much as two-thirds of the population is under 30. That's a significant proportion of the electorate - and political parties are keen to harness their voting power.

But many young Indonesians say they are increasingly jaded. They complain that they are fed up with politics and despair of what appear to be rising levels of corruption at every tier of government.

Ms Pingkan, however, is not the only one trying to make a difference.

'Exciting things'

Image caption Muhammad Iman works for an organisation that seeks to empower women

Muhammad Iman Usman is also currently working for YCAB - a non-profit group which promotes economic empowerment for women in Indonesia and beyond. He's responsible for raising funds in the US for the organisation.

"There are a lot of young people who are doing a lot of exciting things in Indonesia these days to help our community - we just need to create spaces for them to get involved," Mr Muhammad said.

"We can't afford to do nothing. The reality is that many politicians in Indonesia are corrupt, but we can't neglect the fact that politics is also an important element in how we live. So we need to get involved and prepare the younger generation for when we are in charge."

Marcella Chandra Wijayanti is another person trying to get involved. Eschewing the comforts of corporate life, she spent a year in rural Indonesia, teaching underprivileged children in a programme run by the Teach Indonesia movement, Gerakan Indonesia Mengajar.

"When I told my parents and friends that I was going to Rote Ndao in East Nusa Tenggara, they were shocked. Some had never heard of the place before. It's a tiny island, and I'm a city girl!" the 25-year-old laughed.

"I graduated as an economics student - I should have been a banker or in finance. But I saw this as a way to pay back to my nation. I was lucky to have a good education, but there are hundreds of thousands of Indonesian children who don't have these opportunities simply because of where they are born."

Ms Marcella spent a year in the tiny island community of Rote Ndao, teaching fifth graders and their teachers how to implement the national curriculum properly.

"Only 2% of the teachers on the island where I was teaching had graduated from university. That means the majority of teachers were all high school leavers!" she said, still incredulous two years on.

Dirty politics?

Image caption Yoga Dirga Cahya gave up a cushy job to stand in next year's elections

The experience profoundly changed Ms Marcella view of her future career path.

"I always thought I'd end up in the corporate world. After I finished my stint there though, I joined the Education and Culture Ministry, and my plan is to get a masters in public policy next year. If we youngsters don't help our own country, who will?"

That's the same motivation that led Yoga Dirga Cahya to give up a cushy job in Singapore's National Environment Agency and enter politics to try and win a seat in next year's parliamentary elections.

The 26-year-old is running for a seat that covers central and south Jakarta, and overseas voters.

"I don't believe politics is dirty," he said via telephone from Hong Kong, where he is spreading his message to migrant Indonesian workers. "It's only dirty because the people inside are dirty. If you really want to make a change, then you have to do it from the inside."

Having lived in Singapore for nine years, Mr Yoga said he saw the plight of Indonesian migrant workers - in particular maids - first-hand.

"I remember telling my local parliamentarians in Jakarta about their misfortunes, but it fell on deaf ears", he said.

"So I decided to get involved. Some people may think being young or not politically connected is disadvantageous, but it means I'm free from the past and money politics. It means I can start from a clean slate."

But given the fact that the Indonesian parliament has such a bad reputation, is he worried his foray into this field could taint his values?

"Sure I worry about that, but we as young people can't stay away from the political world," he said. "Then only bad politicians will join the system."

"We need young Indonesians to engage and run the show so that it won't just be the old faces that keep being the only options for us to choose from."