Is It The Blues I’m Singing?

So that was Indonesia.

I wasn’t going to write anything on my leaving for fear that I might offend or come across as the perennial grumpy ex-Indo expat (and the usual response to such is for others to say, vacuously, ‘if you don’t like it..leave’ – I have) but this piece (which has disappeared on the original site as its domain seems to have expired, but is at this link and caused quite a noise in Indonesian online circles), on the imploding, but potentially very mighty, city of Jakarta changed my mind. It pushed open the doors a little, thus, giving me some courage to vent.

I actually rather like Jakarta, have enjoyed it greatly at times and looked forward to my many trips into, what may best be described as a Satanic Urban Swamp (caps intentional). I’m very aware though that’s because of the level I enter it, the level I enjoy it at, and because I have a ticket out. So yes, there is much of truth in that overview. It is a bulging, collapsing sprawl that suffers greatly from unchecked greed, shitty governance, collapsing, almost non-existent infrastructure, and the almost complete absence of the rule of law as understood across most of the world, East & West (Indonesians love saying “You can’t expect it to be like it is in the west here”, but the truth is it’s not like it is in Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore either). And these this truths can, more or less, be transposed onto the nation as a whole.

I lived in Indonesia for close to five years, and found myself mentally immersed (as much as an observer can be immersed) and fascinated by the political life of the nation, and its struggle to pull itself out of the gaping black-hole that centuries of Dutch misrule, followed by, arguably, much worse, pillaging and misrule by Indonesian leaders who took financial and human rights abuses and crimes against the people of Indonesia to a level that the Dutch colonialists could only but dream of. And in the process created a self-serving and self-perpetuating, incredibly arrogant, elite that both controls the body politick and economy, and ruthlessly defends itself regardless of the harm it may do to the overwhelming bulk of Indonesia’s population, against any threat to its wellbeing, wealth and absolute control.

That elite controls (and includes the senior ranks of) the military, the police and the judiciary, and coldly, absolutely, and unashamedly wields those weapons to bring down any who may threaten it. As I type these institutions are battling to nobble the, too aggressive for their own good, anti-korupsi body, the KPK, seemingly with the connivance of the President, a former general, who, like Bali’s governor, a former police chief, as everyone knows but few dare say, could not conceivably have found himself where he is now without substantially paying the piper and having some history, however well hidden and ignored.

This truly is a very odd country and depressingly dysfunctional in so many ways. It has great natural beauty unlike any I’ve seen anywhere, it has massive resources, both natural and human, and sits across the most important stretch of water on the planet. It’s history, complex culture, arts and writings are formidable and

Its history, complex culture, arts and writings are formidable and awe-inspiring. And yet its population, by any reasonable measure (far beyond the arbitrary line drawn by Jakarta) is overwhelmingly poverty stricken. Many of those who allegedly are living above the poverty line, live lives far below what would be termed abject poverty in neighbouring nations like Thailand or Malaysia. It’s education spend is beyond abysmal and even when taught, what is taught does little to help most young Indonesians develop thinking, questioning minds, and teaches a version of history that is at odds with reality. Indonesia claims a literacy rate in the 90%s but for many, perhaps the majority, such literacy is merely token with reading and writing levels rarely existing beyond the cursory (JKT’s library system has less than 10,000 books, in a city of some ten million – most people simply do not and can not read and it’s rare to find an Indonesian who can read a map for example). Mathematical literacy is little better, with shop staff often needing a calculator to subtract five from ten. You have insane imams barking out barbaric rulings on morality whilst turning a blind eye to one of their own marrying (and having sex with) a

Mathematical literacy is little better, with shop staff often needing a calculator to subtract five from ten. You have insane imams barking out barbaric rulings on morality whilst turning a blind eye to one of their own marrying (and having sex with) a 12-year-old girl (and eyeing up her 9-year-old sister). These same people blame the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their own flock on the failure of the morality of those who perished, as a punishment from their twisted god, and such opinions, rather than sitting in the wacko periphery as they do elsewhere, sit uncomfortably close to mainstream thinking. And that, being Islam, is a massive reason why Indonesia remains forever on the edge of being a failed state. The

These same people blame the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their own flock on the failure of the morality of those who perished, as a punishment from their twisted god, and such opinions, rather than sitting in the wacko periphery as they do elsewhere, sit uncomfortably close to mainstream thinking. And that, being Islam, is a massive reason why Indonesia remains forever on the edge of being a failed state. The religion – or narrow, self-righteous in its ignorance, largely humourless, dogma, as may be more accurate (as it is with much religion) – stymies much progressive thought and spends much of its time trying to flatten the soul of the nation. It remains the primary reason why the nation remains an intellectual desert – it never fails to astound me how few printed pages the only real broadsheet newspaper, Kompas, has each day. Indeed (and I’m hoping that lost in translation accounts for much of this) there is rarely a morning when one opens a national (English language) newspaper not to see either

Indeed (and I’m hoping that lost in translation accounts for much of this) there is rarely a morning when one opens a national (English language) newspaper not to see either SBY or one of his odd Cabinet Ministers make some statement which, if not simply inane, borders on the moronic. SBY, in his 2009 post-election victory speech, offered a list of desired achievements this term which would make a Miss World contestant stammer with its inane banality – and ended with his prediction that Indonesia would be one of the world’s most advanced nations by 2025. Nobody blinked at the absurdity of this. This in a nation where almost everything you can think of is, to put it in it’s most base terms, is irredeemably broken. I defy someone to tell me some part of Indonesian life that isn’t broken, from the transport system, health system, manufacturing industries, government at any level, the military, the environment and on and on. And for that matter, something that is less broken after 5 years of SBY than before. Which is the real point; after years of supposed investment and economic stability and growth, little, for most Indonesians, has changed at all.

It’s extraordinarily sad.

Unless of course, one is a member of the 1 or 2 percent who own and control Indonesia and all its wealth. They are doing quite well and their wealth grows and grows with little trickle down beyond the mega malls and Swiss finishing schools. For the rest, Indonesia’s success story remains but a mirage, in the electricity-less expanses of Kalimantan or Sulawesi, or the poverty-stricken ghettos of Jakarta or Surabaya with no running water, despite what’s printed on the pages of The Wall Street Journal or The Financial Times, in which fleeting reporters hail Indonesia’s financial miracle. It’s as much a mirage as Reagan’s trickle down economics were to the inner cities of Detroit in the late 1980s.

And then we have the endemic corruption and theft. Until you’ve actually lived in the midst of it, it’s so hard to really get a handle on how all-encompassing utterly putrid the corruption is in Indonesia. I’ve tried to explain it to folks outside the country, even to those in the other SEA nations, but it’s virtually impossible to understand the pervasiveness of it unless one is there. Yes there is corruption in Thailand, yes there is corruption in the USA, but the massive point of difference is that in just about every other nation I can think of, such is regarded as wrong. In Indonesia, graft and dishonesty are the social norm and, mostly, treated as such by whatever justice system the nation has, with the odd token high-level arrest to satisfy the NGOs. This year an organised ring of immigration officials at Bali’s airport were discovered to have stolen US$300,000 from visa fees. They were allowed to keep their jobs and lost a year’s promotion. Nobody asked where the money was. That spoke ugly volumes.

It defines every facet of everyday life and adds billions of dollars to the cost of the economy every year. It’s not just about giving a cop a few rupiah on the side of the road (although they have a quota to collect for their bosses and upwards). It’s about state school children not getting a seat at a local school unless they pay the seat and desk ‘fee’ to the teacher (who passes a cut upstream to the headmaster), or not giving a child their exam results unless they pay a bribe; or tertiary institutes selling professional degrees including medical and engineering; or port and customs officials demanding a cut of any incoming containers and leveraging extra ‘special fees” on outgoing freight; or the military and police demanding protection money from industry, shops & business; or female drug dealers being kept in stations for days and repeatedly raped by cops, who are immune; or the sale of visas by immigration; or millions of dollars of poverty support monies being stolen by regional governors; or monies pilfered by the nation’s diplomats; or millions of dollars in Haj savings being stolen by the Minister for Religious Affairs.

Indeed it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there seems to be some sort of equation between the most devout in one of the most devout nations in the world and the extreme dishonesty in what is likely the nation with the most institutionally entrenched dishonesty at every level. Bali takes it further, with shortchanging and routine overcharging of tourists and foreigners being not only the daily norm but accepted policy in some retail chains. Taxis rig their meters, petrol stations have their pumps set to add Rp50,000 to the cost (with the pump preset to begin at that figure), the petrol bought at roadside shops is watered down with anything that won’t show, pirate DVD shops remove DVDs after you have paid for them and on and on …

The government, that of SBY, is strangely unwilling to tackle any of this beyond the most superficial level. No-one asks how senior policemen can live in mansions, drive multiple imported luxury vehicles and send their families abroad on salaries of $1000 a month, or how the current Bali governor managed to find assets of half a million US$ to declare in the recent election, on his salary. And all of this, too, is mostly untaxed as virtually no-one in the nation has a (compulsory) tax number, with only ten of the 500+ members of the new legislature having such.

There is so much more. At just about every level Indonesia, even in third world terms, is largely broken and you simply scratch your head at the magnitude of the problem and whether anyone, after six decades of rather broken independence, will ever be able to put the pieces back together again. Certainly not the current incumbent power structure, which is too far entrenched and derived from the very ugly status quo, and who really don’t see that much wrong with maintaining things as they are, and largely are doing so. The issue at hand is largely that the government structure in Indonesia, from the village level upwards, still hasn’t worked out that democracy is a government of the people, for the benefit of the people, not a government of the people to benefit an elite.

You can only hope that somewhere on the far horizon one of the small but growing numbers of educated and extremely aware urban intelligentsia, who very much understand the problems, has the drive and political nouse to battle his or her way through the massive obstacles faced by anyone who wants to change the system. Or that given enough people making a noise, essentially once again in the big urban centres, some sort of true reformasi happens to pick up where the largely stalled and disappointing 1998 revolution pointed.

Which brings me to the most astounding part of where we are at as I type. The KPK scandal I linked to above seems to have roused the nation. And not just the middle class or the educated elite, but rather, the masses, the millions, in their kampongs and in the streets and smaller towns across, at least Java and Bali in a rather encouraging way. Despite shitty internet being the norm, Indonesia, at least in the major urban centres, and with the under

Despite shitty internet being the norm, Indonesia, at least in the major urban centres, and with the under 30s, is an increasingly wired nation. It’s one of the fastest growing Twitter nations on the planet, and cheap nationwide 3G networks have empowered and given a voice to so many that simply would never have been heard in years gone by, or, if they raised a voice, would be ignored. The first rumblings were heard earlier this year when a woman in the outskirts of Jakarta

The first rumblings were heard earlier this year when a woman in the outskirts of Jakarta criticised her local hospital by email and was sued by the company for defamation. In days gone by they would have simply sledgehammered her without a murmur. After all, it was the national hero, Sukarno, who said Indonesia was a coolie nation, and needed to lift itself out of that mentality. Sadly Indonesian leaders thereafter have treated the nation exactly that way, and SBY’s power base, at least until this last election, was centred around those who saw it in their interest to maintain that twisted status quo, with Suharto turning nation extortion (and murder of his people) into an art-form.

But this woman somehow rallied the nation behind her, using the internet, and, especially Facebook, where she had a million supporters overnight. It forced the hospital to back down. The case is still going through the courts, who seem unable to work out that the world that allowed them to twist and pollute and act viciously for the benefit of the biggest checkbook (or, rather, bag of Rp100,000 notes – our lawyer told us stories of judges’ clerks daily sitting outside courts openly negotiating the fee for verdicts) has gone, or may be on its way out.

And so to the current case, where the police, popularly regarded as the most dishonest body in this most corrupt of nations, thought they were simply able to lie, make things up, threaten a few people to make false statements, and so on, to bring down the anti-corruption body that, simply put, was getting too big for their boots and beginning to do their job rather too well. It’s a long convoluted story but they, apparently with little good reason, arrested the two senior deputies in the KPK for corrupt practices. The public uproar was immediate. SBY, who is still a product of, and, for all the rather naive international praise, still a part of the bad old days, initially

The public uproar was immediate. SBY, who is still a product of, and, for all the rather naive international praise, still a part of the bad old days, initially did little but was badly buffeted by the storm, which has done massive damage to his personal reputation as a man of the people. A Facebook page has, after just a few days, well over a million names attached to it, and the nation has, trading from phone to phone via Bluetooth, an almost universal new ringtone, which is widely regarded as a nationwide protest ring. The deputies are out of jail and SBY threw together a few hurriedly gathered experts to work this all out. They seem as confused by the furore, and the potential fallout, as the self-obsessed of the elite establishment are. After all, this is their country – not the people who cast votes or work in the factories, offices and fields.

You could easily argue that Indonesia is a hopeless case. On the current evidence, I’d think perhaps not yet….

5 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

joe w
November 10, 2009 at 08:11 PM

Superb post, thank you very much. I couldn't help but be struck by how, after your five years, your tone is remarkably like that of Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Simon
November 11, 2009 at 01:11 AM

Thanks Joe. I read his Buru Quartet last year after being lent it by a Balinese friend who said I would need it to understand. Indeed.

johnorford
November 16, 2009 at 12:11 AM

good post, things /are/ improving in indonesia i am certain of that.

oigal
November 17, 2009 at 06:11 AM

Nice one…although would disagree with Johno..things are not improving..its a failed state..just not declared yet

Simon
December 11, 2009 at 12:12 AM

Wayan / Bambang / Quixo / TNI or whoever you feel the need to hide behind, I've deleted both your semi-literate abusive rants, and most of my angry response, which was beneath me. If you wsh to argue any of the points I made in an adult manner, feel free to openly put you name to it and I'll be happy to respond. If not, we'll assume that, since my thoughts are much echoed in the Indonesian media, then there is some substance in my post.

Indonesia may or may not want me but it most certainly doesn't need your sort. It deserves better than the sort you represent, so much part of the nation's problem.

Then I'm not the one hiding behind a series of gutless pseudonyms, afraid to stand behind my opinions.

Funnily enough I had a swag of positive emails and comments from this post, many from Indonesians saying they supported me, but you, an extraordinarily sad, quite insane, ageing wannabe refugee are the only negative. I guess it was too close to home for you.

The bizarre thing Wayan or whoever you hide behind this week, is that the post was largely a positive if you'd been smart enough to read through it. It was about hope, which so many people need, moving away from the endless despair. Indonesia has a strong chance of righting itself, mostly from the the belief and strength of the very people you are parasitically bleeding off. These people know the issues and understand as well that people like you are like festering hives on the underside of the nation.

The issues raised in that post are repeatedly raised by thinking Indonesians everwhere, in media, blogs and elsewhere, and they know. Sadly your existence in the nation really relies upon the very bad old days carrying on as was.

If you can find somewhere to go, it's time to move on, as any new Indonesia, as created by those with a vision, simply doesn't have room for ugly people like you. It really doesn't.

And, yes, my wife knows exactly where and what I went to from Sanur..don't toss your shabby values on to me or assume they apply to others.

As you like to say: cheers.

Leave a reply