June-July 1996

Tim Richardson

My room lights don’t work. A road crew of hotel staff is trying to fix the situation, one person lighting the way with candles, and the others looking on. Not a flashlight among them. I almost offered my Maglight, but in the end I thought they all looked happy in the flickering gloom, and left them to it. My first stop was the bar, where I heard yet another awful cover of "I did it my way" by yet another awful Filipino troupe of electronic minstrels. They are the blight of South East Asian hotel lobbies, where entertainment requirements are classic pop, English vocals, and short skirts. This is to appeal to the average member of the audience, who tends to be fat, forty and male. More likely to be Dutch or German than anglophone, but the band must approximate English, here the lingua franca of throwaway music and commercial sex.

Jakarta. My first impressions were muted by a late-night, fatigued arrival. I landed at the Soeharto-Hatta airport; it looked ok, registering at about Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith on the dagginess level. It has to be said that I was unimpressed with paying a bribe to get past Indonesian immigration, but that’s life here. Funny how nervous I was, fumbling on the floor, surely failing to look inconspicuous as I stuffed a couple of $10 notes from Australia and Singapore into my airline ticket. On the other hand, I was happy to see a Cirrus ATM at the airport, and Philips had arranged a driver for me, so that looked after money and transport.

It’s a travel cliché that every city has its own aroma, but previously I had identified a taxonomy of only two smells: the city with a sealed sewerage system, and the city without one. Jakarta does not have a sealed sewerage system, so factor that in, a stale and sometimes overpowering odour. But here the air also smells strongly of bitter wood smoke. This city has a Pollution Problem. If it makes sense to hold a world conference for the environment in Brazil, and an international seminar on economic development in Egypt, Jakarta is a great location for the next global warming meeting. Buildings only a kilometre away blur into a blue haze. Ten kilometres is Jakartan for "edge of the visible world". I’ve heard there are mountains not far from Jakarta, but I wouldn’t know. There could be anything out there. The air burns eyes. The newspapers loyally print official arguments against unleaded fuel, on the grounds that catalytic converters are too expensive for a poor third world country (yeah, and it’s all the poor people driving the cars). This is the same government that encourages cigarette consumption because it is an easy source of revenue. I suppose when everyone is going to die of lung cancer, the long term effects of lead poisoning, benzene exposure and some of the worst air quality on earth seem to fade from view, like the CBD skyscrapers from my office window. Maybe they haven’t disappeared, maybe they’ve dissolved.

Sometimes, Asia seems like an industrial revolution theme park – what took the West decades to build or to destroy rushes by in an afternoon, illuminated with exhausted sunlight struggling to the surface after being mugged by a blanket of grey dust and dirty air; all unnoticed by the inhabitants, too busy dodging potholes and bigger vehicles on their two hour, 20 km commute home.

On first impressions, I had to agree with everyone who said that Jakarta is a dump. It’s not cheap. It’s polluted as I had never believed possible. It is badly governed and corrupt. But it is the capital of the world’s fourth most populated nation, so the politics should be interesting. Yes.

Indonesia has a House of Representatives, of 500 seats. It used to be that 400 were selected after a regulated process that does involve people casting a vote for a list of candidates (an election, if you like), and 100 were reserved for ABRI, the armed forces (a political institution ever since they "saved" the country from the increasingly eccentric Sukarno). As of the upcoming "elections", ABRI gets only 75 seats, the voters 425. This move is part of a haphazard "democratisation" process, but I expect nothing terribly meaningful will happen this side of the end of Soeharto’s reign. The main role of the Representatives is apparently to elect the President, and for this vote there are 1000 electors. Where the other 500 come from, I’m not sure, but a voice inside my head is shouting "ABRI".

For the 425 seats, three parties are allowed to nominate candidates (all subject to official approval). Competing are Golkar, the President’s party, which is genuinely popular, but not to the official extent; PPP, a Muslim party ; and what was the weakest party, a group of centrist and Christian types, PDI. The candidates nominated by each of the parties have to be approved by the government. And the funniest part is that it all hardly matters, because there has only ever been one candidate for President, and the possibility that someone else was thinking of dooming themselves to embarrassing failure by running in opposition is what has set Golkar/ABRI into paroxysms of fear.

Each party has an official color; Golkar is yellow. PDI is red. The irony of the red party haunting Soeharto in his twilight years won’t be lost on those who know a little recent history of Indonesia. The irony is lost on the President.

The recently deposed leader of the PDI was Megawati, a daughter of Sukarno. She is very popular; PDI won votes from Golkar and PPP at the last elections, and there were indications that Megawati may have run in the presidential election (she was entitled to, as a party leader). Many ASEAN countries have a myth of consensus. Their leaders are so proud of it. Consensus is better than the West’s notion of democracy, because there are no losers. What, sounds a little far fetched? Oh all right, but it doesn’t matter because if you listen to Asian leaders, in Asia individual rights have never been culturally valued, unlike the poor old West, where people are born with defective genes. Here, what’s good for one is good for all. And which small group of people are the loudest proclaimers of these marvellous Asian values? Consensus is a great thing when you get to decide what everyone is going to agree on. I once read politics described as "settling difference without violence". So the approach here is to deny difference. The Indonesian Government, let along Singapore's, is quite sure difference isn’t good for people. The other ASEAN nations look at the poor old Philippines as paying the price of democracy. They’ve conveniently forgotten that only a few years ago the Philippines had a leader who supplied a very high level of consensus to his country.

The reality, here and elsewhere in the non-democratic ASEAN countries, is a dominant leader and an influential elite who do more-or-less what dominant leaders and influential elites do everywhere. The magic "Asian" value of consensus is achieved by removing opportunities for dissent. Megawati was becoming too popular. How would it look if PDI continued to win seats from the party of the President and his men, let alone if someone challenged him in the Presidential election? Not good for "consensus", and a little threatening to some of the benefits that accrue to its manufacturers. So what the Government did was pick a few people from a number of regional PDI branches who were loyal to the former PDI leader, put them up on a luxury island resort a long way from Jakarta, and got them to vote for the ex-leader. It’s so incredibly cynical and blatant, it must take some people back to the preselection battle in the federal seat of Bankstown all those years ago.

Unfortunately for the Government, this little scheme did not meet with universal approval from the adoring and consensus loving masses. You’ve seen the demonstrations. According to the Jakarta Post, in what must be fairly audacious reporting, many of the demonstrators are not PDI members, just people who think what’s going on is a bit contrary to this democracy thing they’ve seen on CNN and MTV (not to mention the Constitution of Indonesia). Her supporters are still blockaded inside the party headquarters, with stockpiled rice and Cory Aquino videos. PDI is a farrago of Christian and centrist parties that the Government didn’t know what do with when it came up with the three party system, so it is supposed to have poor cohesion and no base of passion. What it does have, increasingly, is the emerging middle class, those who have earned their wealth through education and work in the private sector, away from the nepotism of the ABRI/civil service circle, and it’s also a voice for those missing out on the economic boom.

It would be interesting to see what may happen if a prominent Muslim leader gets behind Megawati. Until then, I think the Government will end up having its way. This time. There is too much respect for Soeharto among the people with the guns. Most of this respect is also vested interest.

So what is it like being in the world’s largest Muslim country? Well, very relaxed. The Government is secular; other religions are significant minorities. The Chinese are wealthy, the Javanese Christians too probably, and entire provinces are not Muslim, like Bali, East Timor and Irian Jaya.

Java is very definitely Muslim. At dusk the calls to prayer drift across the city from all sides. There are so many mosques it is hard to believe, and someone had the bright idea of selling public address equipment to them, so the prayer calls are amplified. It's a bit like giving machine guns to Genghis Khan. Fridays at about noon many people leave the office for a couple of hours of prayers. However, the stereotypical associations with Islam are missing. Women in the Philips office wear a similar dress code to women in Australian offices. There are quite a few skirts and dresses above the knees. Women often drive, and most work after marriage. There are a handful of women in middle management at Philips.. There are none in senior management.

Alcohol is plentiful and widely enjoyed, although pork is not eaten by Muslims. Dogs are not traditionally popular with Muslim Indonesians, although the urban middle-class don;t seem to care too much. Money is a wonderful thing; it makes people mellow. Dogs are popular with the expats though; goes with the "home on the ranch" lifestyle. The maids do the dog walking. Censorship of films is not too bad; it’s better than what an international airline does

I really can’t tell who is Muslim and who is Catholic in the Philips office (except on Friday afternoons). Everyone follows some kind of religion; the society is secular, but you are supposed to believe in something supernatural. I think atheist means communist, which could explain the weird looks I keep getting.

The entertainment scene is wild enough for me. The Ecstasy scare stories are in full swing in the media: one of the best is this:

Police warn of AIDS-related crime

Jakarta, Jakarta Post: …

"The people bringing syringes with HIV virus on them usually target those who are "tripping" after taking Ecstasy pills in discotheques," National Police Spokesman Brig. Gen. Nurfaizi [the police force is part of ABRI] said. "The culprits then leave notes saying ‘Thank you for being infected with AIDS.’"

… Without revealing whether the police had arrested those committing such a crime, [oh surprise] Nurfaizi said disco owners needed to more selective of their visitors.

Attacks on disco patrons are usually committed after midnight, when most of them are losing consciousness after taking certain drugs or Ecstasy.


Modern day vampires, blood sucking horrors striking after midnight. And of course, depraved drug users love paying good money for Ecstasy, primarily for its well known effect of robbing the user of consciousness. This effect, as we all know, is an important contributor to the enjoyment of contemporary dance music. You can see it now: The techno pumps, and the dance floor is covered with prostrate, comatose E-users collapsed on the floor, eyes glazed, easy target to those armed with syringes of dripping, deadly blood, laughing wickedly as they jab left and right, leaping from body to body. In the background I see mist and ancient headstones, and this scene must be shot in black and white, full moon peeking though a sinister cloud cover. I don’t know how anyone involved with these stories can keep a straight face. I can’t get too patronising, since we had them in Australia a few years ago. Maybe this rubbish is our cultural payback for all those Asian flu epidemics we get.

A recent controversy was Soeharto’s banning of Indonesian entries in Miss World contests, after a Indonesian woman was a finalist a few months ago. These competitions are now officially considered to be demeaning to women, and not acceptable to the Indonesian people. Everyone agrees, of course. Many people on the street see this as ridiculous, young people in particular. They wonder perhaps if Soeharto watches TV or knows what people wear when they go to the "discotheques", as they call the dance venues. I am not so sure if a wily and experienced leader such as Soeharto has become fuddy-duddy in his old age, or if he is worried by the pace of change and the opening it gives those who thrive on exploiting people’s fears and jealousies in the name of anti-Westernism. Malaysia seems to be having a 'situation' with rising Islam, yet it’s more developed than Indonesia. Of course, Malaysia doesn’t have Bali. Which makes me curious about Malaysia. I would have thought that rising incomes should weaken traditional religion, but maybe rising disparity in wealth is a stronger force.

… to be continued…