Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blame it on the rain-doctor?

In Indonesia, rain-doctors have managed to stand the test of time--partly due to a serious mispricing in their pay-system.

Recently an important and expensive outdoor event I attended was ruined by the rain. The band, food and drinks already paid for, all went to waste as water poured down relentlessly.

It was clearly the organizer's fault. After all, rain had come down every afternoon in the three days prior to the event. And weather forecasts on the internet clearly said it was going to rain that day. But the show went on anyway without adequate precautions, and a lot of money went down the drain.

What surprised me was that most of the people I spoke to were very permissive of the screw-up. One of my friends didn't blame the organizer, but pointed the finger at the pawang-hujan/dukun or rain-doctor. She said the doctor wasn’t powerful enough.

At first I thought she was joking, thus I asked her if she really thought rain-doctors are still relevant in this 21st century. Surprisingly she defended the myth with vigor, as if defending a religion.

Okay, of course people are free to choose whatever they do or do not believe. And I respect that. But personally, I think that as modern day individuals, we should never believe in something without at least questioning it and trying to explain it with simple logic.

So I put on a provocative status update on facebook, and gathered dozens of responses from my friends about this rain doctor myth. Unsurprisingly, many were from die-hard believers.

My question was simple: If rain-doctors really exist, how come Indonesia still has droughts in poor harvests many regions? Why has the government been wasting money building irrigation systems knowing it could simply hire rain-doctors to do the job?

One friend of mine answered that there's a limitation to how far rain-doctors can make the clouds travel.

But that didn't make sense to me. Rain-doctors supposedly have powers to command ghosts/spirits that aren't constrained by the laws of nature. Here one believes in rain-doctors, yet say that the ghosts can get tired from walking too much just like us humans? Frankly, to me that just doesn't add up.

Another friend of mine told me about a 3-hour rule: rain-doctors are only able to delay the rain for 3-hours. So ghosts not only have distance constraints, but also working-hour constraints. Maybe ghosts don't like to work overtime... which also doesn't make sense.

I said in my opinion, the only reason there’s a 3-hour rule is probably because most outdoor events last 2-3 hours. If the dukuns had set a 24-hour rule, the probability of rain occurring within such a longer time frame is substantially higher. They would hence risk their reputation and people may stop believing in the myth if too many failures occur.

Meanwhile if they had set a half-hour rule, event organizers would see little use in hiring rain-doctors given that most events last 2 - 3 hours. The pawangs would then be out of the job, and the myth would disappear.

Another friend said: If rain-doctors were a hoax, how come they’ve managed to remain part of our culture for hundreds of years?

Well in my opinion this is due to at least two reasons. Firstly, hiring dukuns have become a tradition and this strengthens the demand side for rain-doctors. Secondly, there isn't a proper reward-punishment scheme for rain-doctors and this strengthens the supply side.

Indonesian culture is full of mysticism (just turn on the TV and you'll see). In case an event is messed up by rain, society blames the event organizer (EO) for not hiring a rain-doctor, not for failing to google the weather forecast and take necessary precautions.

Like the EO whose gig got ruined by the rain, his friends and employer would have directly blamed him had he not hired a dukun. So for an EO it's always nice to have a rain-doctor by his side, to make as a scapegoat in case it rains.

Meanwhile on the supply side, there will always be plenty of rain-doctors for hire. Anyone can be a rain-doctor as long as he can convince enough people that he possesses heavenly powers.

Why’s that? Because the remuneration system for rain-doctors is faulty. If it doesn’t rain, the rain-doctor gets paid in full; and if it does rain the rain-doctor gets paid little. So like a coin toss: heads I win, tails you lose! Who wouldn’t want a pay-scheme like that?

In my opinion, a rain-doctor’s pay scheme should be like a futures contract. If it doesn’t rain the doctor gets Rp2 million, but if it does rain he has to pay an equivocal penalty.

Better yet, it should be like purchasing an insurance or CDS contract. The EO pays the doctor Rp2 million, but if it rains the doctor pays a Rp100 million penalty to compensate damages! More likely than not, if such proper pay-schemes applied, the number of people who dare to take up the doctor's job would diminish fast, and the myth would be history in less than a month.

Again, people are free to choose what to and what not to believe. I’m not asking anyone to change their beliefs. Maybe someone out there has clever counter-arguments to all the points I’ve raised here... and that’s fine. May aim in writing this article is to make sure that if we do believe, we have a strong reason to do so.

Disclaimer: The views and writings posted in this site is provided as general information only and should not be taken as investment advice. They are solely the opinions of the author and do not represent the opinions of firms affiliated with the author.