Indonesian minister causes uproar for suggesting the rich marry the poor to cut poverty

JAKARTA – A senior Indonesian minister has caused an uproar for saying that the country’s rich must marry the poor to help reduce poverty.

Coordinating Human Development and Culture Minister Muhadjir Effendy said Islamic teachings urging Muslims to select spouses who are well-matched had often been misinterpreted to mean matched in terms of equal economic standing.

“If a groom of a poor family marries a bride of another poor family, we would create a new poor family,” he said.

He regretted the fact that, in Indonesia, parents would be embarrassed if their child were to marry a person from a poor family. “This mindset must change. They should instead be proud because it is noble as it eradicates poverty.”

Indonesia’s poverty rate stands at 9.4 per cent of the total 57,116,000 households, or around five million households, Mr Muhadjir said, citing government data as of September 2019. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, with 260 million people.

Three out of 10 Indonesian women today deliver babies who will be stunted and less likely to achieve their full physical height and cognitive potential when they are adults. Many of those suffering from stunting come from poor Indonesian families, according to Mr Muhadjir.

The minister on Thursday (Feb 20) clarified that his statement on the cross-economic-class marriage was meant to be a suggestion, and not mandatory.

At a conference a day before, Mr Muhadjir was quoted as suggesting that his colleague, Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi, issue an edict saying that “the poor are required to find the rich to marry with and the rich should find the poor”.

Mr Muhadjir told reporters on Thursday that the government would offer a premarital programme to help couples who are not economically ready. He cited official statistics showing that Indonesia typically has 2.5 million marriages a year, and 10 per cent of them would potentially become poor families.

“If the couples do not have any job, we would give them training. If they are into business, we would provide a small loan. If they have skills, they need to be given opportunity,” Mr Muhadjir said.

Mr Muhadjir, 63, holds a bachelor’s degree in teaching, a master’s degree in public policy and a PhD in social studies. He was education minister between 2016 and 2019.

He has previously made other controversial remarks such as telling teachers in Indonesia who feel they earn little to not worry as they would go to heaven.

He was praised for his bold decision to change the public school enrolment system to a zoning system, requiring students to enrol in public schools nearest to where they live.

Previously, most popular public schools tended to pick only high-performing students, creating different classes of public schools, where certain schools had more under-performers.

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