Governing via text messages


This first appeared in The Jakarta Post but was picked up by The Star on 3 July 2005

JAKARTA: We in Indonesia are so fortunate to have a President who embraces technology. After giving out his cell phone number and setting up an “SMS-line” for public complaints, the tech-savvy President has now taken a bold next step: sending SMS to all and sundry to “stop drug abuse and drug-related crimes right now”.

Done as part of a ceremony to commemorate the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on Tuesday, this message was sent to millions of Indonesians fortunate enough to have a cell phone and, therefore, a message from the President himself.

The odd cynic or two, as usual, will criticise the Indonesian President for being ill-advised by spin doctors to once again engage in a love affair with the SMS.

No doubt they will be proven wrong months from now when a survey, probably sponsored by telecommunications operators, shows a dramatic drop in the number of drug addicts across the nation.

The cynics also miss the point: We here in Indonesia have a President on the cutting edge of a new form of government that even George Bush, president of the world’s most technologically-advanced country, has yet to cotton on to: Governing via SMS.

This form of communication is efficient, it is intimate (all of us are now SMS buddies with SBY), and it is direct. What more does one need to bring about positive change in society?

In the spirit of encouraging this daring, innovative breakthrough in governing the masses, here’s a list of major ills and the kinds of messages that the President could SMS in response to them, taking into account modern data mining technology that can identify specific groups of people.

Civil Servants: STOP MEETING. Stop lengthy and pointless meetings now. Let us have an efficient public service that actually serves the public.

Illegal DVD vendors at Ratu Plaza: STOP PIRACY. Stop selling pirated DVDs. Let us have a nation where the expatriates do not know where to buy illegal DVDs.

Public transportation drivers: STOP STOPPING. Just stop stopping in the middle of the road. Let us have a nation where public transportation vehicles actually stop where they are supposed to – by the side of the road.

Tax Department: STOP SHAKING DOWN TAXPAYERS. Stop finding grey areas of the law with which to extort honest taxpayers. Let us collect some tax from the tax avoiders instead.

Customs and other law-enforcement agencies: STOP TAKING BRIBES. Stop taking bribes this very minute. Let us, for a change, be protected by you guys rather than be a victim of your rapacity.

Traffic police: STOP STOPPING. Stop stopping cars for minor infringements so you can ask for bribes. Let us have instead a nation of smooth traffic because of the strict enforcement of road laws.

Politicians: STOP NATO. Stop preening and grandstanding now. Let us have a House where its members represent the interests of the electorate rather than their egos and wallets.

Non-governmental organisations: STOP THE NEGATIVITY. Stop finding fault with the government all the time. Let us instead be fair, something that you all preach.

By sending specific messages to these groups – hopefully repeatedly so that the message gets reinforced – we should be able to see positive changes in society.

But now that the government has set off on the technology road, why stop there. How about a presidential blog? Or if that’s not hip enough, the nerds are talking about podcasts as the next big thing in cutting edge communications.

Technology, however, can be tricky. As the President ventures forth with such bold initiatives, he may need to target another group with a specific message:

Cell phone users: STOP CALLING ME. Stop calling my cell phone or SMS-ing me. Use my other phone number instead. I have a country to run.

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