The public exposure of the fraud committed by the husband and wife owners of First Travel, Andika Surachman and Aniessa Hasibuan, caused quite a national stir. The media, both conventional and social, could not get enough of the scandal, with revelations of the lavish jet-setting lifestyle the couple led or the opulent home they held court, all supposedly from the money they had cheated from at least 35,000 umrah pilgrims.
Starting its umrah services in 2011, the company is alleged to have garnered pilgrim funds from 72,000 individuals, which translates to roughly 1 trillion rupiah ($80 million). Known for offering umrah packages at knock-down prices — some 30 percent cheaper than the normal rates — it became a prime choice for many would-be-pilgrims. While 14,000 pilgrims duly went to Mecca, the rest languished in uncertainty until the matter was brought to the attention of the Ministry of Religious Affairs earlier this year. Following an investigation, the company had its license revoked and was reported to the police.
Public condemnation of the couple is understandable. Nevertheless, in many ways their story and the public reactions following the exposure of their fraud offer us glimpses into our society’s concepts of success and the way we view poverty.
News reports on the Andika-Aniessa fraud allude to the highly publicized umrah sponsorships of Indonesian entertainment celebrities by the company as a clever marketing ploy. The sponsored pilgrimages certainly added luster to the company’s image but it is important to recognize that the lavish lifestyle of its bosses — now universally denounced after the couple’s fall from grace — was the ultimate ticket to their bona fide status.
In retrospect, it is easy to dismiss their extravagant habits; round-the-clock bodyguard service, haute couture clothes, premium holidays and palatial residences, as follies of the nouveaux riches. However, the projected image of the superlatively successful business couple was no doubt a great success. The couple’s humble beginnings and early struggles in the business world also garnished the rags-to-riches romance that proved to be equally beguiling.
The final polish was undoubtedly the visible piety of both husband and wife, the latter in particular. It was an advantageous coincidence that they ran an umrah agency. Making affordable pilgrimages available to the faithful, was, to many, further proof of their piety. Aniessa doubly clinched her reputation for pious living last year when she became the first fashion designer to showcase an all hijab collection at New York Fashion Week. The event was widely covered in the Indonesian press and no doubt helped her make it to the Forbes Indonesia’s 2017 List of Inspiring Women, which is now rescinded in the aftermath of the scandal.
Back in 2016, some level-headed Indonesians, such as fellow fashion designer Marsha Siagian, were more cautious when commenting on Aniessa’s participation in NYFW. While not ruling out that Aniessa may have been invited by the organizer, Siagian pointed out Aniessa could also have paid to be allowed a show. Unfortunately, voices like hers were overwhelmed by the pride many people chose to take in what seemed like a well-deserved triumph for a pious and successful businesswoman.
Many bought into the fairytale success story of the couple because they represented the dream most middle class Indonesians have of the future. Theirs was the Indonesian dream made real: a struggling couple who eventually made it to the top of their game: rich and glamorous and above all respectably pious. The image the couple had cultivated generated trust from clients, real business and admiration. It is the secret to their success in concealing their fraudulence for so many years.
The irony is that the couple’s trappings of wealth, ostentatiously flaunted, mimicked the typical lifestyle of the rich portrayed in Indonesian soap opera, the sinetron. The main difference seemed to be that the pious and wealthy couple in the end effected a plot twist by becoming villains.
The success of the couple’s front in fooling so many people suggests that the Indonesian dream is, contrary to the prevalent notion in most Western nations today, not an idealism purely built on meritocracy but also on religiosity. The concept is perhaps a reflection of the national cliché of obtaining success both “on earth and in the afterlife,” an idea which was once popular in medieval Europe.
In the saga, the couple became the antithesis of poverty. This is important since we by large as a nation suffer from the fear of poverty. The over-the-top habits of the couple, such as Andika’s insistence on arriving at the mosque in a chauffeur-driven Hummer even when it was a five-minute walk from his office, were rooted in this phenomenon.
A recent study also found Indonesians to be the least-inclined pedestrians in the world. While walking around a big city like Jakarta may pose security risks, many in the Indonesian middle classes equate walking — and indeed doing menial work of any kind — with being poor. Walking has become the activity of the poor — because they have no means of buying a vehicle — or the eccentric.
Perhaps we can take comfort in the research carried out by the author of “The Shame of Poverty,” by Oxford professor Robert Walker, who contended that the phenomenon is worldwide. A Pakistani child told an interviewer, “I don’t tell my friends my mother works as a maid” since menial workers are seen as poor.
Still the Indonesian fear of being seen as poor is, alas, perverse. Our government is famous for placing bulk orders for luxurious cars for international summits held in the country, as if their presence would dispel the idea that we are a nation where the majority are poor. Both Andika and Aniessa may have felt they had to do everything in style because they did not want to be reminded of the time they were poor, or heaven forbid, that they still look and behave like the poor.
So when we condemn the fraudulent couple, it is difficult to say which we hate most; that they broke trust of the many or that they dashed our dream in which fantastic rise in status and wealth is always attainable through work and piety. They may now be the most hated couple in the — and they deserve to be — but in introspection we should also see them as the tragicomedic monsters birthed by a society largely obsessed with superficial material and social progress; at the expense of learning, culture and decency.