Sustainability in Indonesia – it’s Development Stupid!

“It’s the economy, stupid!” was a phrase coined by James Carville in 1992, a strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign. While considering various strategies to unseat the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, the US economy at the time was struggling, and it was just so obvious that this is what mattered most to the electorate.

When politicians try to understand what is important to the people, they often make the mistake of believing that is the same as their own concerns or outlook. Lack of proper electoral research can result in listening to your own echo chamber, but narcissism can also be a factor.

There is a view that attitudes towards the environment in developed countries match attitudes in developing countries – this is far from the case.

Earlier this year, BVA BDRC was asked to assess what ‘sustainability’ means to consumers in Indonesia and what causes were important to them. In the West, ‘sustainability’ is often framed by net zero-emission targets, taking away people’s cars and flights, and even deindustrialisation. When we surveyed 1,000+ consumers across Indonesia, we found that the interpretations of ‘sustainability’ were very different, with most framing this around education, the economy, and infrastructure.


Indonesia is the 15th largest economy in the world and the largest in SE Asia. While its growing economy brings millions of people out of poverty each year, income per capita is still very low at just US$ 3,900 (2020), compared to US$ 7,800 in Thailand, US$ 10,400 in Malaysia, and a whopping US$ 65,200 in Singapore.

Indonesia has a young population, and by 2030 about 70% will be working-age adults, a circumstance that will supply the nation with a beneficial demographic structure for wealth generation. While much has been done to improve state education in Indonesia, the country still has lower literacy levels and fewer graduates compared to other SE Asian nations.

Hence, many Indonesians see improving education as the means for a more sustainable future – 78% wanted more support for education programs, and 58% to address ‘economic sustainability’ that included supporting business and entrepreneurship and reducing social and economic inequality. Inequality is very high in Indonesia, but the research showed that relieving poverty, facilitated by better education and a thriving economy is part of the solution.

While 41% of Indonesians have concerns about the environment, most of these relate to natural disaster relief – much of Indonesia straddles a tectonic plate boundary, meaning it is occasionally impacted by earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, none of which are attributable to some of the mainstream issues around the environment, such as global warming. In fact, within the BDRC survey, only 19% of Indonesians are specifically concerned about climate change and air pollution.

Indonesia’s more frequent environmental impact is from flooding, particularly within Jakarta – a low-lying city at a tropical latitude. But many look to their much wealthier neighbour Singapore for solutions to this problem.

Singapore is at a similar latitude to Jakarta, also a low- lying city, and is affected by monsoons in the same way as Jakarta, that many experts say will become more frequent due to global warming. But Singapore was impacted by flooding far more in the 1960s and 1970s when it had yet to invest in the infrastructure to deal with it. Singapore´s economy boomed, and this provided the means to invest in infrastructure. In the late 80s and early 90s, it implemented a range of flood control measures, including the construction of diversion canals in flood-prone areas and increasing drainage in new housing estates. Thereafter, flooding and the resultant loss of life and property has decreased significantly. Having lived in Singapore for over 20 years, I can only recall one occasion when I could not leave my home due to flooding.

Hence, infrastructure development can be seen as a better solution to climate change than measures proposed by those in more developed countries. Organisations like Extinction Rebellion have their origins in developed countries. Those most impacted by climate change are instead within developing countries, and their interpretation of ‘sustainability’ can be very different to those in the West who think that deindustrialisation is the answer to these challenges – in case you didn’t know, “It’s development, stupid!”

By: Piers Lee LinkedIn, Managing Director of BVA BDRC Asia