Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Aspiring to become a civil servant

Published: Apr 07, 2015

 Wenty Marina Minza

In many provincial towns in Indonesia with relatively low industry and a high reliance on the state in providing job opportunities, educated young people often dream of becoming a civil servant. This applies especially to young people with tertiary education, as positions in the civil service often require an undergraduate diploma. The aspiration to join the civil service is especially strong among those from lower middle class backgrounds, as it is assumed to enable them to maintain or consolidate their middle class position. 

Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, is no exception. Pontianak is home to an ethnically diverse population of Dayak, Madurese and an equally balanced majority of Chinese and Malay inhabitants. While the Chinese population dominates business and trade, including restaurants and hotels, stores and shops and entertainment facilities, many non-Chinese youth aspire to enter the civil service, which has long been the work domain of the Malay.  As in many provinces in Indonesia, decentralisation has changed the ethnic constellation of the region. The Malay are losing their historical stronghold over the civil service apparatus in Pontianak, as people of various ethnic background are now gaining more access to the bureaucracy, which has brought new hopes of solid employment for young people of other ethnic groups. 

Civil service jobs as middle class success

The significance of civil service employment for educated youth lies in its promise of providing a stable monthly income, the opportunity to obtain additional income – for example, by accelerating administrative procedures for promotion or offering services to win project tenders – and the rise in social status. Thus, parental pressure to enter the civil service is quite high. Yet, the number of positions available in the bureaucracy is much lower than that of young people applying for the position. This allows the employer, the local government, to set high entry standards. Since 2008, the local government of Pontianak only accepts applicants who have a completed four-year university degree. This makes university education even more valuable for young people and their families. It also increases the frustration for university-educated youth who fail to obtain the desired job in the bureaucracy. As Umar, 22, an educated young man, states: ‘I am a university graduate, but failed several times to enter the civil service. Now I help a friend print stickers, name cards.’  

The story of Maryam, 26, illustrates how young people are rethinking the meaning of work and middle class success amidst the scarcity of civil service jobs. An educated young woman trying to find stable work through multiple irregular jobs, and finally settling into the irregular jobs she has access to,  Maryam is a Malay young woman who dropped out of the Faculty of Economics at a reputable university in Pontianak a couple of years ago. Her mother, expecting Maryam’s undergraduate degree to facilitate her daughter’s entry into the local bureaucracy, was greatly disappointed that her daughter did not complete her education. Maryam’s father, a secondary school graduate who worked as a low-rank civil servant, passed away when Maryam was young.  Maryam’s mother had high hopes that Maryam would follow her father’s footsteps in the civil service. 

Maryam’s mother is a primary school graduate selling clothes door to door. Being a small-scale trader, it was difficult for her to pay for Maryam’s education. A civil servant job would thus guarantee the livelihood of the family. Moreover, the economic stability that comes with a civil service job would also make it easier for her mother to give permission for her daughter to marry. Believing that a woman should not rely solely on a husband’s income, Maryam’s mother strongly encourages her daughter to become economically stable before getting married.  

Unlike youth from privileged backgrounds, combining school and work is a common necessity for Maryam and other young people from modest lower middle class backgrounds. For them, participation in the economy starts earlier than for their counterparts from well-to-do families.  At university Maryam actively participated in various campus organisations, such as the student body and hiking club. To support her education Maryam worked while studying, renting out fitness equipment door to door, though her income was still too small to cover the tuition fees. ‘What made my study a mess was not only the financial constraint’, she says, ‘but because I couldn’t manage between work, study and student organisations. I often skipped classes, got behind in my studies, and my grades fell. I then quit because with my grades I could not catch up before the seven-year deadline applied to undergraduates. I have regrets, but I have to be realistic.’ 

Maryam’s experiences show that young people often get stuck between two realities. On the one hand, they face considerable parental pressure to obtain a university diploma and enter the civil service. On the other hand, they have to deal with labour market realities where a university diploma does not guarantee securing such a job. Thus, they have to navigate between various kinds of irregular work that often do not correspond to their educational background and parental expectations of meaningful work.

Finding irregular work

As a university drop-out, Maryam is well aware of her slim chances to enter formal work. After leaving her job at the rental service, she worked at a logging factory with the help of her brother who was employed there. She only stayed for one week, because of the physical work involved. ‘I thought I only had to carry a half to one metre pieces of wood. It turns out I had to carry four metres of wood. Even with the help of another worker, I couldn’t manage!’ She was then hired as a temporary teacher at a private junior secondary school. Because her one-year contract was not extended, she went on looking for another job. She became a private tutor for children in primary and junior secondary school. When a friend started a Community Learning Centre in the village, she became one of the tutors, receiving Rp.250,000 (about A$24) per month.  

Recently, politics has provided Maryam with an alternative source of income. When local elections started in a neighbouring district, a friend offered her a position as a member of the team for one of the parties, PDIP. Since Maryam happened to be the head of neighbourhood (a semi-formal, in her case unpaid position), her position was considered quite influential in obtaining votes. She accepted the offer, on the condition that she would still be able to participate in the Community Learning Centre. Although she cannot rely on the income she receives there, she still wants to keep her job as a community tutor.

Most of her work as a member of the election team involved approaching women organisations in the community to promote the PDIP candidate. This includes running a women’s credit association, with financial support from the party. On several occasions, Maryam was responsible for arranging mass female campaigns. She would distribute money to the women, explaining that the money is for transportation costs. Sometimes, she would also be asked to search for attractive young women, who could encourage men to attend these campaigns. 

The campaign job does not offer a definite income, but Maryam receives a minimum income of Rp.300,000 (A$30) per month. A much better wage than she ever received from previous jobs, this was a significant amount of income for her. Besides providing money, the job was also satisfying to her because she was able to contribute to society through political activities.

Rethinking the meaning of work

Reflecting on her family’s aspiration for her to become part of the civil service, Maryam states that becoming a civil servant is no longer important for her: ‘It is an aspiration of the past’. Like many other families, earning social recognition through civil service employment is the only way her family understands the meaning of success. But Maryam has a different opinion. ‘Societal recognition does not always come from obtaining a decent job. If we have a diversity of jobs we can still do something for society. We don’t have to be a civil servant to do that.’ Maryam’s aspiration has changed along with the reality she faces. Without a university degree she is no longer able to apply for a civil service job. But her diverse work experiences have also changed her thinking about work and middle class success. 

Looking back on her recent experience with irregular work, Maryam mentions the significance of freedom, modernity and play that she associates with meaningful work. She describes her role in the election team as a form of freedom, which she believes she could never obtain by working in the civil service. She stresses the importance of being her own boss, which she finds liberating since young women are often taught to be compliant and permissive. The monotony of work and the pressure of obeying one’s superior in the civil service are among the reasons she now uses to explain her current disinterest in applying for a position in the bureaucracy.

Maryam feels that being able to create a diversity of livelihood paths is a characteristic of being a modern young person when dealing with the uncertainty of accessing stable jobs. She thinks that all of her jobs have an aspect of ‘fun’. Her campaign work has given her a chance to relate with the older women, which makes her feel accepted in the adult community. At the same time, her jobs at the community centre and in the election team enable her to take part in the youth culture of hanging out until late at night, which is often unacceptable for young women. 

Maryam’s experiences show that educated Malay youth in Pontianak often have to find a way to navigate between parental expectations of educational attainment and meaningful work on the one hand, and the scarcity of the civil service dream job on the other. Many parents place high value on university diplomas and subscribe to the dominant idea that a stable civil servant job marks middle class respectability. Amidst the scarcity of civil service jobs and the changing political environment in Pontianak, young people like Maryam find it increasingly difficult to fulfil these expectations. 

Yet, this does not mean that young people like Maryam necessarily end up disillusioned or frustrated. Showing resilience in facing possibly stressful, insecure futures, Maryam and others draw from various work experiences to adapt themselves to the economic and political realities around them. Usually, young people tend to resort to individualistic modes of coping rather than collective action when they formulate alternative work aspirations. They rely on social networks to look for work, even when the work is not what they aspire to. While adjusting to the kinds of work they have access to, young people like Maryam emphasise the value of family, friends and fun. Becoming agents in directing their own lives, they rework parental expectations and rethink the value of work and middle class success. 

Wenty Marina Minza (wminza@ugm.ac.id) is a lecturer at the Faculty of Psychology and researcher at the Centre for Population and Policy Studies at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.


Inside Indonesia 120: Apr-Jun 2015

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