Does Tempe have politics

[This edited version is published by the Jakarta Post on February 2nd, 2008)

What is this thing called tempe? / This tasty thing called tempe…/ Just who can solve its mystery?/ Why should it make a fool of me?

I saw you there one wonderful day/ You made me drool but now you’re gone/ That’s why I ask you guys in Jakarta’s throne../ Why take this thing from me….

– adapted from “What is this thing called love” by Cole Porter, 1930


That ‘thing’ is called tempe. No, it’s not the big Tempe in Arizona where I live. It is something that is so dearly familiar to almost each and every Indonesian.

For me tempe also has a very sentimental meaning. My childhood and teenager years  in Dayeuhkolot Bandung were filled with tempe and tahu (tofu). My parents were too poor to have meat everyday but my mom wanted her children to get enough protein so she put tempe and tahu on our table every day. Yes, every day. Never not. She would bought 10 pieces of tahu and once piece of tempe divided into 10. Each of us would get one piece of each, and dad would get two of each! Apparently mom believed that protein was highly important to boost the intelligence of her children. Regardless its truth, even until today, when asked what’s the secret behind her (supposedly) smart children, she would say “tempe and tahu” !

Indeed, tempe for my family back then and for many low-income families in Indonesia holds a very important role. It’s not only tasty food that has become a very part of daily menu, it’s also part of their surviving strategy. Undoubtedly, protein is important for growth and development during childhood, and for many poor families in Indonesia tahu and tempe are the most recognizable and most affordable sources of protein.

Recent phenomenon in Indonesia, the hike of tempe price leading to the disappearance of tempe, thus is being seen as one of some important chains leading to the declining of quality of life of the poor (besides, Indonesians have already fallen in love with tempe for decades!). No wonder, protests and complaints are everywhere. Many people are questioning why such thing could happen? Why such thing suddenly happened after 62 years of independence? Who is to blame?

The rising of tempe price is of course not separated from other things. It is linked to the disappearance of locally produced soybeans (which increases the price of soybeans in general) thus the tempe makers have to use the more expensive American soybeans whose price was increased rapidly. Apparently, Indonesia still imports nearly 70 percent of its soybean demand, where 90% of imported soybeans is originated from the United States. This phenomenon triggers various discussions in cyberspace. One of the most unthinkable ones is the one that links this phenomenon with the conspiracy of American empire — and Jews! Fortunately not many Indonesians believe in such story. Most point out their fingers on the government. Is Indonesian government the one to be blamed?

Obviously, we cannot separate the soybean market from the mechanism of global market with its free trade and global financial capitalism ideologies. We cannot avoid the hike of soybean price as it’s happening globally which very much linked to at least three major events: (1) the drought in US and Brazil, (2) increase of demand of soybean and corn in growing developing countries such as China, and (3) the increase popularity/demand of ethanol which led to the scarcity of soybean farmers as many of them switched to corn business.

After about 3,000 tempe-tahu producers went on strike for three days and held a rally in front of the presidential palace, the government reacted to this phenomenon by changing the policy. It is reported that following the soybean price increase from US$300 to US$600 per ton, the government was planning to scrap the duty on soybean imports. The regulation providing for the import duty exemption had been signed on January 21, 2008.

That is one good short-term policy intervention. But is it good in the long run?

Just like the way Indonesian government reacts to various problems, the government’s measure to lower soybean import duty to zero percent from the present 10 percent is a very pragmatic policy. Just like any other type of ‘short-cut’ policies, it does not hold any promise that we won’t have any tempe crisis in the future.

It is true that importing goods is not always more expensive. Sometimes it is cheaper than produce it yourself. However, creating too much dependency to global market is never a good solution. By doing so, we have given up too much authority to the global actors to stir the economic situation within the country.

Despite the connection to global market, the skyrocketing of tempe price still reflect an inability of the government to protect the weakest part of society. Honestly, I am perplexed that Indonesia with its vast land territory fails to meet its need for soybean and thus has to import the commodity. Why the government does not encourage farmers to grow soybean on wider plots of land? The soybean crisis definitely shows the government is not committed to strengthening the country’s food resilience based on local potentials — not on imports. And why did the government not know that such crisis would happen? Shouldn’t government be able to predict and anticipate the hike in the soybean price through efforts to increase soybean production in the country?

The tempe crisis obviously refers to government’s failure in developing agricultural business and in protecting its local actors. It also signifies the Indonesian government’s failure in producing and/or implementing public policies that benefits the poor. Not until we have policies that have moral intention to protect the poor — soybean farmers, tempe makers, and related small-scale industries — tempe might be disappeared from our table once again.

When tempe becomes inaccessible to low income people, when tempe takes away power from farmers, small-scale tempe making industries, yes tempe becomes a political artifact.

Does tempe have politics? Yes, indeed, apparently it has.

* The author is an Indonesian professor working at Arizona State University in Tempe, United States.

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