dionysiandiasporaBy: Robby Tulus


It is discernible that a life story written by one’s very own runs the risk of being overly subjective and may not reflect fully the attributes of a successful story. As Winston Churchill used to say: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”.  I consider the meaning of success to be quite relative, so the extent to which life is actually successful has to be left to the reader’s own perception and judgment. In writing this life story, I zeroed in more on my formative years in 1960-1980 during which period I was a student and a rural community development activist in Indonesia. It is irrefutable that experiences during those formative years were key determinants that led to the progression of my co-operative career in the Asia Pacific, North America, and Europe. As the title of my article shows, I keep my firm belief that the foundation of an effective and successful community development program – including Co-operatives – are namely Education, Self-help, Innovation and Self-Reliance. I work on the premise that self-help and self-reliant communities are favorably disposed to becoming sustainable communities.

A Grassroots View of The USA

Before I visited the USA for the first time, conventional wisdom taught me that I would be witnessing a land of opportunity filled with freedom, equality and democracy that is a far cry from where I came from. Such libertarian ethos motivated me to witness the reality of life in the USA.

Apart from a brief stopover in Honolulu in 1976 on my way to Canada, my first ‘real’ visit to the US took place only in 1979. The World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) based in Madison, Wisconsin invited me to speak at the Annual General Assembly of the International Association of Managing Directors (IAMD) of Credit Unions in San Diego, California. I was Managing Director of the Credit Union Counseling Office (CUCO) of Indonesia back then. WOCCU told me that it was the first and only time a speaker from a developing nation was actually invited to speak at this distinguished Assembly. I was naturally humbled and awed. After all, IAMD members were composed primarily of credit union Managing Directors in the US and in Canada.

What struck me was the fact that sessions at the Assembly were held only in morning hours. I was carefully briefed that my speech on the first will start at 11:00 am and was not to exceed 12:00 noon sharp. It was because lunch break had to be prompt, inasmuch as participants (‘managing directors’) and their spouses were given free time every single afternoon throughout the conference/assembly. They then played golf, tennis or do some yachting in beautiful San Diego every afternoon. Not to mention the sumptuous dinners which followed after that. The Assembly was held at the Hilton Hotel, on the sands of Mission Bay’s legendary resort in San Diego. What a demonstrable opulence.

And so there I was, a credit union zealot from Indonesia who was used to seeing rubber time and who spent no less than 10 hours of work a day promoting and developing credit unions in rural villages all over the country among the poor and underprivileged. This stark contrast was a sure eye opener for me, and on impulse I wrote an essay entitled “Credit Unions in North America: on the eve of social collapse?” It was an honest reflection about the cultural juxtaposition, and the Asian Confederation of Credit Unions subsequently published my paper in 1980. In hindsight, however, my impulse proved to be quite misplaced and incorrect.

The fact of the matter is that Credit Unions in the US and Canada are based on virtually the same principles as in any developing country, with the aim to develop the socio-economic wellbeing of communities. They are self-sufficient organizations, operates under a social justice mandate, and are member-driven and community-based institutions. Hence I haste to admit that my flabbergasted view of the IAMD event in San Diego was utterly misguided. I could now appreciate the fact that such extravagance was not at all a daily scene. Managing directors also need a good break from time to time after the long hours of work they put into their credit union responsibilities in order to ensure members and their communities are well served. Images and impressions are different from realities, and that’s how I misperceived life in the US from simply a quick and rapid visit.

Nonetheless, it was still mesmerizing to witness the great progress made, and intensity of consumerism in the US at that time. My onward trip from San Diego to Los Angeles, Madison, Chicago and Oakbrook (Illinois) convinced me that the USA was indeed a path-breaking country that spewed out so many innovative trades and vocations such as the entertainment ingenuity called Disneyland, the Scientific brilliance called NASA, the celebrity culture called Hollywood, and, not surprisingly, the ubiquitous Macdonald Burgers – the big “M”! When in Oakbrook I passed the headquarters of Macdonald’s and saw their huge billboard asserting their extraordinary achievement: “One million burgers sold!” Wow.  We did not have Macdonald’s in Indonesia back then, and even ‘Big Mac’ might not have been invented. It is hard to believe that this day and age they are selling an average of 52 Million burgers a day in 118 countries! Yes, the ingenuity of Uncle Sam. Thus USA was undeniably exceptional, with massive industries and material comforts not easily seen in many developing (or “Third World”) countries way back in the 1970s ……

However, whether deliberate or not, similar progress and consumerist culture in emerging economies, including Indonesia, seem to have mirrored the ones in the USA nowadays. We can see ultra modern shopping malls, luxury cars, and affluent neighborhoods surfacing all around the big cities. I suppose tangible as well as intangible factors must have made innovation not just an American exception of late. Emerging markets in Asia have likewise developed homegrown innovations as well. What is true and constant from my subjective view is that CREDIT UNIONS in the USA managed to weather very well the many financial crises since the Great Depression – including the recent one in 2008.

It is fundamentally due to their social cohesion, healthy reserves, and conservative approach to lending. It is my hope and vision that credit unions in Indonesia will also become strong pillars of the financial industry in the country in the years to come.

The important lesson learned from my first visit to the USA is that credit unions represent a “Business with a Heart”, in the midst of such a capitalistic society, which confirms my belief that sustainable credit union development must be based on education, self-help, innovation and self-reliance.

Grassroots Activism as Formative Years

My friends in Indonesia considered me a lunatic for choosing a credit union career inasmuch as many of them have gone up the ranks to become rich business people and some becoming parliamentarians and politicians. I, on the other hand, happily chose to spend time in rural areas educating people in communities to become self-reliant. I did so by developing the habit of thrift among the less fortunate and educate them to organize their own “village bank’ on a self-help basis. I was genuinely provoked after witnessing the unscrupulous practices of moneylenders or loan sharks who charged sky-high interest rates on loans to poor villagers who cannot afford to pay their basic needs. The call for justice touched my conscience since it was real and overwhelming. On top of that, villagers were drawn into playing what they called “Judi Buntut” at that time, which is an illegal form of gambling organized by trader bosses to further manipulate the poor. This call for justice truly inspired me in 1970 to organize credit unions to safeguard villagers in several communities in Indonesia from being exploited by these greedy culprits. I wrote many articles on this subject in Harian Kompas and Harian Indonesia Raya at that time.

That was also a period when the government of the “Orde Baru” era earnestly promoted KUDs (Koperasi Unit Desa) as multi-purpose co-operatives. In eyes of the government credit unions at that time were seen as small savings and loan co-operatives and considered insignificant due to their slow and evolutionary growth processes. Legal recognition was also slow in coming. Indeed, results were not immediately apparent as it took time to change people’s mindset to believe in their own strength and to work together with fellow communities to sustain their local livelihoods. It only became apparent 40 years later, i.e. in 2010, when the credit union movement in Indonesia had reached close to 2 million members with assets of over US $ 1.5 Billion, all based on self-help and self-reliance among the poor and economically weak. Nowadays credit unions in Indonesia are still growing fast, with networks built locally as well as internationally. Many KUDs, on the other hand, failed to proliferate as quickly as do credit unions, and a great number even collapsed upon cessation of government subsidies. My own belief is that persistent government subsidies to co-operatives in Indonesia, while well intentioned, has caused dependency on government funding and undermine the spirit of self-help and self-reliance. It also obstructs the path towards innovation. It is my view that the government should focus more on good regulations and policies, and provide matching funds for education – not for increasing capital – so as to create a more self-reliant and sustainable co-operative movement.

It was unthinkable that grassroots engagements since my university days, followed by the incipient credit union development work in both rural and urban areas were actually my formative years, which led to my subsequent careers overseas and ultimately to become a member of the Indonesian Diaspora in North America today.

Grassroots-Based Education

I am a graduate from the University of Padjadjaran (UNPAD) in 1969. When I started my studies at UNPAD in 1962, I was searching for a renewed vision in life, a career that would contribute to communities in a pluralistic country that is Indonesia, especially among the poor and disadvantaged. Such community-oriented vision evolved over the years throughout my  term at the Mass Communications Faculty (Fakultas Publisistik) at UNPAD.  Apart from being active as Secretary of the Students’ Senate, I also did a lot of civic mission work and undertook field research assignments to write my script for the bachelor’s degree, and likewise for my masters’ thesis. I did so by  initiating and experimenting an empirical project – with the full participation of the community of Manggahang Village in South Bandung.

My first ever community work was the setting up a frog raising project in 1964. With a small sponsorship from Australia of $ 108/- I  was ambitious enough to obtain healthy mother frogs in Indramayu and to convert one small plot of rice field into an open/natural pond. Frogspawns – thousands of frog eggs consisting of tiny black tadpole embryos surrounded in a jelly – could then float and subsist in the pond and then turned into baby frogs. The idea was to sell adult red frogs’ skin to factories as raw material for making laboratory gloves. In addition, oil extracted from these red frogs were also known to contain excellent properties for making perfume.

So there I was, working with rural communities to make an ambitious project function properly based on a pragmatic and honest rationale. But alas, sawah snakes inundated our pond and swallowed most of the infant frogs at an early stage. We then placed thorny ropes all around the pond to prevent the snakes from entering the habitat. We succeeded to do so, but disaster struck not long after that. Our local project supervisor in Manggahang came knocking on my door one morning and told me that our pond was completely flooded due to heavy rains and we basically lost all our frogs. It was a painful experience, and a bitter lesson learned. Our frog raising project came to an abrupt end…

The experiment in Manggahang led me to comprehend the importance of risk capital which communities must have in their possession to face uncertainties, especially during the onslaught of natural disasters. Having gained preliminary knowledge about credit unions from a SELA (Socio-Economic Life in Asia) report in 1964, I experimented for the first time the formation of a simple savings and loan co-operative in Manggahang based on the Raiffeisen model. The script for my bachelor’s degree was entitled “ The role of Opinion Leaders in Community development”, elaborating and emphasizing the role of traditional and local leadership in stimulating community self-help for growth and development.

Being active at the Secretariat of MPRS from 1963-1967 (see further description below) and KAMI (Kesatuan Aksi Mahasiswa Indonesia) during the turbulent period in 1966, I found myself documenting various events and subsequently organized a special exhibition of KAMI activities in Bandung in 1967. This contributed meaningfully to the write up of my Master’s Thesis entitled” The Importance of Documentation in Communication”.  I regard the high quality academic studies at Fakultas Publisistik UNPAD and my empirical grassroots work in communities to be a very potent combination, which eventually shaped my credit union and co-operative career.

Before being enrolled in the Mass Communications Faculty of UNPAD in 1962 I was actually an undergraduate at the Economic Faculty of Parahyangan University in Bandung since 1959. Just as I was about to pursue my bachelor’s degree in Economics in 1962, a strong encouragement came from (the late) Major General R. Roesli, then Chief of the Military Police of Indonesia and whom I considered my own foster father and at the same time my avid tennis mentor, to join the Mass Communications Faculty of UNPAD. It so happened that the Dean and founder of this new Faculty was (the late) Prof Dr. Moestopo (Beragama), a very close friend of General Roesli. Prof. Dr. Moestopo – a dentis by profession who became a passionate and flamboyant  academician as well as military general -  was actively seeking new students who were willing to become early ‘pioneers’ of this new Faculty. My pioneering instincts led me to grab this opportunity, with the full support and encouragement from my parents who also reinforced my independent choice.

To support my tuition fees, I took an offer from the secretariat of the Interim Peoples’ Assembly (MPRS) located in Bandung at that time, to work in their Protocol Department. Both Soegeng Sarjadi who was Chair of the Students’ Senate at that time (currently Chair of the Soegeng Sarjadi Syndicate) and myself as Secretary, actively worked at the MPRS, mostly during their General Assemblies between 1963-1967, as well as during the First Afro-Asian Islamic Conference (KIAA) at that time. It was undeniably a good practice for majoring my Public Relations subject at the Faculty combined with my civic mission activities at the grassroots. It was a most prominent and romantic period for me as well, inasmuch as I met with my beloved wife in 1964 and continued my courtship until we tied the knots in September 1969.

Grassroots-Based Career

Upon graduation from the Mass Communications Faculty of UNPAD in April 1969, I accepted an offer from the Institute of Social Research and Development (Lembaga Penelitian dan Pembangunan Sosial – LPPS) in Jakarta, and started work as of July 1969 as Deputy Director of the Institute. LPPS was a clearing house for human development projects funded by various sponsoring agencies such as MISEREOR in Germany, Catholic Relief Services of the USA, CEBEMO in Holland, and many more, with the mandate to set research-based criteria for grassroots and non-denominational projects all over the country. While it offered satisfaction in terms of being able to fund diverse projects in the socio-economic sphere, I missed doing field work which had been my passion all long throughout my student years.

Fortunately, I was able to participate in a National Socio-Economic Development Seminar in Sukabumi in late1969 where the subject of credit unions was raised. The focused group I was in concluded that it was a good time to promote credit unions in Indonesia, especially with the economy slowly stabilizing and the Co-operative Law (UU 12/1967) just recently promulgated. Under the direction of a Jesuit Priest, (the late) Father Karl Albrecht, I was empowered to start planning for the development of credit unions in Indonesia. I volunteered every single workday from 6 to 9 pm to do the planning, and to conduct study circles, on credit unions[1].

The result of intensive planning and experiential study circles was the establishment of a Credit Union Counselling Office (CUCO) in January 1970 with initial funding of $ 6000/- from the World Council of Credit Unions. I quit the LPPS in June 1970 to work fulltime as managing director of CUCO.

With no time wasted we then started to introduce the credit union concept to various communities in rural areas, and with the advantage of my initial experience working with villagers in Manggahang during my student years I designed training courses that was experiential, participatory and practical together with Father Albrecht, after which a Five Year Strategic Plan was developed. CUCO then formed its Board of Trustees in September 1970 chaired by Mr. Ibnoe Soedjono (then Director General of Co-operatives), with members composed of Messrs. Margono Djojohadikusumo, Mochtar Lubis, Prof. Fuad Hassan, Rev. Karl Albrecht SJ, Dr, Kadarman, and Rev. J. Dijkstra SJ.

To intensify my knowledge about Credit Unions, I was awarded a 6-month study program at the Institute of Social Order (ISO) in Manila, an affiliate of the Ateneo College, where socio-economic analysis and field training on community development were imparted and conducted. Subsequent to the training in Manila from January to June of 1971, I continued further studies in Hong Kong on the Credit Union Law, and then in Korea to attend the inception of the Asian Confederation of Credit Unions (ACCU). I represented CUCO at the Inception and was then a signatory as Charter Member of ACCU.

To cut a long story short, my activities since joining CUCO had been to conduct training programs to educate community-based common bonds, and subsequently to form self-help and self-reliant credit unions all over Indonesia by way of home-grown innovation. The master plan was to slowly and carefully democratize the credit union movement once more than 35 credit unions were established, and that the Credit Union Counselling Office and its Board of Trustees will be gradually and officially dissolved, to be replaced by a democratically elected Board from among the Credit Union leaders themselves. In the midst of my grassroots career, circa 1976, two Professors from Konstanz University in West Germany offered me a sponsorship to take up a post-graduate study for a PhD degree. However, being so passionate in organizing credit unions coupled with my youthful ambition to create a viable movement, I turned down this fine opportunity. Foolishness? Perhaps. But I certainly have had no regrets. All in all, there were close to 1,100 credit unions organized within the decade from 1970 to 1980.

I left CUCO in early 1981 to give way to a new General Manager, and CUCO as a Counselling Office was then converted into Credit Union Coordinating Organization. Still abbreviated CUCO-Indonesia, it became a precursor of the Credit Union Central of Indonesia, and I was elected Board President at its very first Annual General Assembly in 1981. Since as President I have to work voluntarily without no pay, the Asian Confederation of Credit Unions based in Seoul, Korea, hired me as its Training Specialist. I was then responsible for promoting and organizing credit unions in South Asia, primarily Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and operated from my base in both Jakarta and Seoul in a flexible fashion.

Overseas-Based Career

Opportunities such as the event in San Diego in 1979, and several other related events in other parts of the world, were indeed value additions to my grassroots career in Indonesia. Unlike some of my co-operative colleagues, I regard overseas conferences and comparative studies as avenues of lifelong learning. I consider it important to understand the culture and work ethos of the corresponding society; hence I tried as much to avoid shopping or seek entertainment facilities unless these are institutionally organized. I often lacked sleep as discussions on societal issues with host organizers and leaders continued until late at night. When going to conferences, many of my colleagues from Indonesia – more often than not – took time to shop and allowed leisure time to entertain themselves without sufficient heed to deliberating and documenting important lessons learned that could be emulated back home in Indonesia.

Two years work at ACCU in Korea also furnished me with rich experiences and knowledge about the nuts and bolts of co-operative development in Asia. When in 1983 I was offered several positions by various agencies to promote co-operatives in the Asia region, I chose an offer made by the Co-operative Union of Canada. I considered co-operatives in Canada to be exceptionally vibrant after having met Dr. Alex Laidlaw in 1978, an internationally renowned co-operative leader from Canada who was a member of Royal Commission to study co-operatives in India and Sri Lanka under the Colombo Plan. I also admire Alphonse Desjardins, the founder of Caisse Populaires who planted the roots for what is now the Movement Desjardins in Quebec. Mr.Bruce Thordarson, then Executive Director of the Co-operative Union of Canada (who was one of the successors of Dr. Alex Laidlaw at CUC), hired me in 1983 under a two-year sponsorship of CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) to identify and promote co-operative programs in the Asia region. The Co-operative Union of Canada (CUC) then merged with the Co-operative College of Canada to become the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) in 1987.

Having spent altogether 10 years with CUC/CCA as its Asia Region Director based in Ottawa, I moved on to become Senior Policy Advisor of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) based in New Delhi, and then Regional Director of Asia Pacific for the ICA, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with its Asia Pacific Regional Offices based in New Delhi and Singapore. My role and responsibilities throughout my tenure at CUC/CCA included managing large bilateral programs and small block-fund projects associated with co-operatives in the Asia region, and as policy advisor at ICA I was given the responsibility to organize and conduct Co-operative Ministerial Conferences in Asia and the Pacific. As Regional Director I was duty-bound to promote and coordinate co-operative development activities among ICA members in the Asia Pacific region, composed of 63 national co-operative federations spanning from the Middle East, East Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific, representing individual membership of around 450 million people in total.

Ottawa continues to become my home base. The idea of moving to Canada 1n 1983 was filled with trepidation as my family feared the onslaught of cold weather in this well-known Arctic part of the world. Surprisingly, during the two years we lived in Ottawa people embraced us with warm-heartedness and affection.  Such hospitality was not shown just by friends from the co-operative sector in Canada, but also by old friends from CIDA whom I know and worked in Indonesia before, as well as by the Indonesian community in Ottawa.

I remember vividly the ample social and cultural activities organized by the Indonesian Embassy during our first two years under the stewardship of Ambassador Dr. Hasyim Djalal, which activities never failed to involve the Indonesian community as a whole. That was the time I also became a good friend of Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, still a student at Carleton University at that time, and we even became tennis partners who won the finals at the Inter-Embassy tennis championships. More so than just having fun, however, these activities added so much value to my cross cultural and co-operative experiences throughout my formative years. Indeed, there is so much to be gained from Indonesia-Canada relationships.

My wife and children enjoyed life in Canada ever since, and we continued to mold our life by adopting the positive chracteristics of Canada and North America such as democracy, accountability, transparency, while never forgetting the positive features and values of family cohesion, togetherness (gotong royong), and community spirit which shaped our early life in Indonesia.

Retired But Not Tired!

After retiring from the ICA as its Regional Director for Asia Pacific in 2002, I continued my active involvement in co-operatives and micro-finance development work. In early 2005, right after the Tsunami raged in Aceh and Sri Lanka, I was named Special Envoy of ICA for its Co-operative Post-Tsunami Reconstruction programs in Asia. From July 2006 to April 2009 I worked primarily in Aceh for the Asian Development Bank’s Livelihood and Micro Finance Support Program in association with the BRR (Agency for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh and Nias). I was also instrumental in the establishment of the Aceh International School of Microfinance (AISMIF), which operated under the auspices of the University of Syiah Kuala, Aceh (Indonesia).

Of late I am involved as a voluntary Advisor to the Karl Albrecht Foundation (YAKA) in Jakarta to educate and train young co-operative leaders/cadres. The expectation is for these young leaders to actively promote and establish community-based consumer marts, based on co-operative principles. Consumer marts are basically self-help stores that will enhance and embrace local production of the farm communities in collaboration with (shrinking) traditional markets. Based on the success of credit unions, YAKA is hopeful that local communities will thrive on account of their self-help ethos, and innovate new ways of helping local communities to become self-reliant. While credit unions are primarily involved in the financial sector, consumer marts will hopefully work with the real sector to help producers and consumers build sustainable local livelihoods.   I spend an average of 3 to 4 months in Indonesia to volunteer and help this ‘new generation’ co-operative sector flourish for the benefit of local communities. I will continue to consult with central as well as local Governments involved in co-operative development to gain their support for co-operative development from the ground up.

It feels good being retired but not tired, especially if you are trusted by those in need to help their plight in an honest, accountable, and responsible manner. Learning and innovating new approaches in a changing world is a lifelong educational experience, and for someone my age it feels like “reTYREing and old automobile to climb up a steep and winding hill”. Yes, the courage to continue is what actually count. []

 Ottawa, January 2013.

[1] A credit union is a member-owned financial cooperative, democratically controlled by its members, and operated for the purpose of promoting thrift, providing credit at competitive rates, and providing other financial services to its members, with concern for the welfare of members and its community.