Environmental pioneer, youth anti-drugs campaigner, conduit of technology to Indonesia, and family man, is there anything lecturer Firdaus Ali can’t do? He pulls out his mobile phone and points to a photograph of the rear of a red car on a busy highway.
“So I was driving along,” he says.
“And suddenly I see a water bottle and some rambutan skins flying out of the window of this car. I follow it, trying to make the driver pull over, to tell him off and let him know he should be careful with his rubbish. He shouldn’t just throw it out like that.”
So what did the driver say?
“He got very angry with me, I think. He told me to mind my own business. But I told him that when his rubbish litters our streets and our waterways, it is my business.”
And for Ali, it really is his business. Lecturer in environmental engineering at the University of Indonesia, Ali has dedicated his life to teaching Indonesia’s youth about preserving Indonesia’s precious environment.
“I tell my students this same story, and I tell them that whenever they want to throw their rubbish on the ground, they should think about me, and think again.”
Is ambushing littering drivers something Ali does often?
“Yeah, probably about once a week,” he says.
He has taught environmental, civil and electrical engineering at a tertiary level for 21 years. He obtained his masters and PhD in the US, and says he learnt a lot about the environment there.
“It makes you realize that God gave us an opportunity to live peacefully, to co-exist with our environment, people [in the US] don’t throw their rubbish on the ground or in the rivers. The water and air is not polluted like here.”
He adds that if anything, Indonesians should be respectful of the environment because Indonesia is one of the richest sources of rainforests and natural beauty in the world.
It is very important that we instill in the youth of Indonesia a respect for nature and knowledge of how to treat the environment, he says, so as to repair the damage that past generations have done to their habitat.
Teaching is his true passion, as he hopes he — and others like him —can communicate this message to the youth to bring about a significant behavioral change in Indonesia.
“People tell me it cannot be done. People say it is too late, they cannot change. But I say; ‘better late than never’, and I truly believe we can change, and we will change. It might take a while, but it will definitely happen.”
Indonesians have to learn from natural disasters caused by environmental problems, Ali goes on.
Problems that include air and water pollution, as well as the rapid destruction of rainforests.
“The environment will not support this behavior for much longer.”
Since growing up in Sumatra in the 60s, Ali has had a close connection to nature.
He recalls spending many days in the forests there, and in his parent’s rice paddies.
“Since my childhood, I’ve wanted to protect the environment, preserve the water and keep everything green.”
His childhood passion turned into a more practical, scientific passion when he decided to study environmental engineering at university in Bandung.
“My parents always expected me to get a tertiary education, and I expect that of my children also.
Without an education, you really have no opportunity in life, it’s very important.”
Perhaps it was this ideology that prompted Ali’s relationship with Microsoft. He set up a proposal whereby old, still functioning, computers in the US would be sent to Indonesia so Indonesian students could use them.
He formed an alliance with Microsoft to install software on the computers, to bring technology, and the world, to the fingertips of young Indonesians.
Because Ali believes technology is very important for the development of young students, he focuses on teaching his students multimedia skills.
“I have made my course completely multimedia, which is good for the student’s technology skills, but we also don’t use any paper, except for exams.
“When I first tried to implement all soft-copy materials, it was so difficult. Other teachers would ask ‘What are you doing? Are you trying to create something funky?’, but it works very well, and teaches the students a good lesson.”
Another issue close to Ali’s heart is the important issue of youth and drugs. He installed all multimedia systems with anti-drug messages, so children studying information technology also learned a valuable life lesson.
“The most frequent age group involved with drugs is aged eight to 35. If we spread the message early, they will hopefully be deterred from ruining their lives with drugs.”
He also works for the Jakarta Water Supply Regulatory Body, which aims to supervise water corporations and strives to maintain a balance between good service and affordable water prices.
As part of this position, he has initiated plans for a new water treatment plant to improve water quality in Jakarta and service more people with clean water.
Between his two jobs, and many passions, Ali says the weekends are all about family. He and his wife and children regularly frequent bookshops or libraries and enjoy eating out at restaurants.
“Since living in the US, my daughter has developed a love for Western food,” he says.
Ali hopes his children, along with his students, and the youth of Indonesia will continue to foster his love for the environment and bring about a behavioral change to save the planet.(Alexandra Hansen)