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.

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