Indonesia Is (Not) a Tempe Nation
Indonesian founding president Sukarno, in his fiery speech in 1963, said, “We reach the sky, control the land and seas. We are a hard-working nation, not a ‘tempe’ nation, nor a nation of coolies. We fight at any cost and willing to suffer to achieve our nation’s goals.”
The president was not referring tempe as an inferior food product, but in the course of Indonesia’s history, tempe has often been associated with weakness, sufferings and oppression.
Dutch Governor General van den Bosch ordered forced labor in 1830 and all Indonesians who worked for plantations had to consume mandatory cheap food derived from cassava and soybeans, of which tempe is made. Tempe was founded during those years.
At a time when the Dutch colonial rulers feast on fried chicken, stewed meat and gurame fish, inlanders or locals, had only tempe, tahu (tofu) and kerupuk (crackers) to eat with steamed rice, according to one account of history.
For ages, tempe has became a popular for its rich nutritions. Until today, no household is without tempe. Sukarno, Suharto, Gus Dur, Megawati and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and the majority of people alike always craved for tempe at all times.
Tempe is always good whether its plain-fried, sambal tempe, tempe bacem, or tempe cracker which is exceptionally good with an ice-cold Heineken. And the best quality tempe comes from the area of Wonogiri which borders Central and East Java, where home-grown soybean is of the best quality.
But alas, tempe is no longer abundant or affordable. 80 percent of the soybeans had to be imported. Price of a kilogram of soybeans is now twice as high. In some places, they are no longer available. Tempe has become a rare luxury. The common Indonesians are now without tempe — their only alternative source of protein to more expensive chicken or beef.
Tempe makers have refused to make tempe due to unaffordable prices. Meanwhile soybean farmers resent high prices of imports. They can no longer earn a living cultivating soybeans. Protests and clashes were seen in several traditional markets in Jakarta and other major cities across the country.
The tempe crisis is a reflection of failure on the part of the current administration to protect the farmers and the nation’s need for food security. Carried away and buoyed by the comfort of easy free-market and import policies, the government is now trapped for being too dependent on other countries which are now experiencing slowdown in farming due to drought. It is now at a worrying stage.
Agriculture Minister Suswono doesn’t have a way out but he has to be responsible. He has failed.
Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Rajasa can’t do anything either, or even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The most they can do is to free import duties to lower prices. That won’t solve the problem. The only way out is to protect our own agriculture sector and food industry.
After more than 60 years of independence, and recalling Sukarno’s wish that Indonesia should not be a tempe nation, it’s an irony now that even becoming a tempe nation has been proved to be very difficult.
Yanto Soegiarto is the managing editor of Globe Asia, a sister publication of the Jakarta Globe.