Jakarta 2 August/September 96 

I'm flying back into Jakarta, into the "worst riots" in 20 years. I found out about this just before I left. It’s a good thing for Philips I’m not the Australian cricket team, or I’d be forfeiting (historical note: Cricket World Cup, Sri Lanka, when Australia forfeited matches in Colombo due to mild possibility of terrorist activity).


The long drive from Jakarta's airport is on a new freeway of such amazingly ugliness that Prince Charles would be in seizure, which might make many English architects happy. As riot scout Tim, I was looking for burnt buildings, plumes of smoke, torched buses, smashed police shields, trashed APCs and little piles of discarded Kodak film canisters left by trigger happy photographers. But no. The riots here were about as big as the average English soccer riot, but in England they don’t have as many bored CNN crews still grumpy they missed the Wall coming down. South Korea is still unchallenged as Asia’s riot centre-of-excellence.

Disparity of wealth is now the official explanation for the unrest, which is one possible reason for the Government resurrecting the communist bogey in their desperate attempt to blame somebody plausible enough and powerless enough to be the sacrificial goat. Many people were thinking that a desire for more democracy was the real factor, so is is interesting that the Government didn't pursue Megawati further. Maybe they have some fear of her power base, but it’s bad news for the 27 year old student leader the Government now blames for everything. He is in jail. Somewhere. The "Megawati is stirring the middle classes" theory has dropped away. It’s a bit harder to arrest the middle-classes, and they are not likely to be convincing communists. By the way, what the New Order and friends did in here in the 1960s to people accused of being communists makes Menzies and McCarthey look like liberals. And the same people still run this place, so the 27 year old is in big trouble.

Speaking of wealth disparities, let's check out the expats. I haven’t been to South Africa but I wonder at the similarities between Jakarta and Johannesburg,. Here, an expatriate typically lives in a very large house, with a gardener, a maid or three, a car with a driver and a guard at the gate. The house is in a compound, with gates and security guards, like the sinister vision of suburbia that we hear predicted for the US. The expats cluster in South Jakarta. They abandoned their earlier areas 150 years ago, after the canals the Dutch dug to remind them of home filled with stagnant water, mosquitoes and disease, killing as many as 25% of the Europeans in the city. I assume this was not an accurate clone of Amsterdam, just a tragic and stupid error. However, the Dutch approach to town planning caught on, and now many areas of Jakarta boast stagnant ditches of mosquito-laden water. It’s called the sewerage system.

Kemang boasts an almost astounding range of restaurants, shining drive-through McDonalds (what with the traffic, picking up a Big Mac in the drive-through is a short cut), CD shops, cafes and boutique supermarkets, where a 1KG tub of Australian yoghurt goes for about $9. The map of the Australian empire can boast another nation colored in a patch of smeared black yeast extract, as Vegemite occupies quite a bit of premium shelf space.

Many of the cafes are good, some are excellent. The coffee here is damn fine, and hot too. Unfortunately, at work, one endures the beverage equivalent of Filipino three-piece bands recently graduated from their week-long karaoke boot camp: "dairy" whitener. This disgusting powder, found from Seoul to Jakarta, is white, like milk. Carob is a rich brown, like chocolate, and as someone once said, the same is true of dirt.

The whitener, which renders the awful Blend 43 liquid a kind of ditch-water brown, is made from palm oil. The Indonesian who is my source of information on this topic tells me this is not good for you. Advice: if an Indonesian tells you something is not good for you, listen. People living here have tolerances of an unsound environment that are off the scale. Even the most mundane activity, breathing, is not demonstrably better for your health than abstaining from it. I’ve tried both approaches, and I end up feeling about the same. So if the white powder worries the locals, I’m giving it the flick. They don’t drink the tap water, or even use it for ice, by the way.

But the coffee situation has improved. I’ve found out that the Blend 43 is for expats. The locals drink "Kopi tubruk" which is hot water poured on ground coffee. It’s like percolated coffee, and with the coffee too. It tastes like real coffee, which is the main thing. One doesn’t drink the last centimetre, although whether the sludge comes from the coffee or the water is debatable. And I have it black, like the locals, but without sugar, most unlike the locals. Don’t makes your own coffee here. Phone for it, or catch the attention of the army of "office-boys". If I’m having a meeting with someone, they ask first what I’d like to drink. It is the office-café lifestyle, and it’s always someone else’s shout. I should try for a beer one day. There is one guy (always male) on each floor who wears a all-white uniform and makes most of the coffee/tea, delivering it to you. There are also about five youngsters of both genders who wear blue t-shirt type uniforms. They sit in the non-airconditioned stairwell at the end of each floor. I’m not sure what they are paid to do, but mainly they seem to do crossword puzzles. Maybe it's a literacy program. Sometimes they make you coffee too. You can also request toasted sandwiches: cheese or corned beef. These, you pay for it (but don't pay now, they bill you). Everyone’s an entrepreneur here, so I’m not sure where the profit goes. The President-Director (what a great title) has let it be known that the staff are not to eat these at the desks, for cleanliness reasons. Meanwhile, the non-smoking signs are blatantly ignored. The excuse is that no-one knows who put them up, so they don’t have any authority. And the managers are among the worst offenders. These are the same Dutch managers who complain that written procedure is never followed. Oh, if you get sick of the corned beef, I just learnt you can get someone to fetch food from nearby eateries. When I found this out I was even more confused over why it is taking three weeks to get a computer upgraded to 16MB.


I have a theory. The amount of free will people wish to exercise in their lives is pretty much the same everywhere, once there is enough food and shelter. Here, and elsewhere in Asia, political systems and social norms have not kept pace with rising material affluence. It’s a distortion of a natural law. It’s like plugging a dripping tap with a cork (this is not a metaphor for futility. This is empirically futile; I tried it once.). If you suppress the exercise of free will in one facet of people’s lives, it will resurface with increased vigour somewhere else. In this strictly governed country, people are not so free to read or write what they want, watch what they want or vote for who they want, and so on. The theory predicts that somewhere, a massive exercise in free choice is taking place. Now, so far I could be talking about Singapore. There, free choice surfaces in the shopping malls. Singaporeans are the most shopping-fixated, label-loving people I’ve ever seen, although I haven’t been to Beverly Hills. Here, and in China, the missing freewill appears on the road, where anything goes, within rules. Well, within a rule. The rule is momentum. Possession of it is nine tenths of the law. So get very scared if it’s big and fast. Same in China, where I thought driving may have a been a national experiment to investigate alternative forms of government, like anarchy. Or perhaps population control.

I told my theory to a Dutch guy who has been here for a while. He has a similar theory about the driving, except everywhere I say "freewill" he says "aggression". Go back and read the paragraph again, with that change. Although it is not real aggression on the roads. It’s a game; everyone is trying to see what they can get away with. If you lose to someone you were competing against for half a lane, (the other half belongs to someone else’s Kijang already, plus a few motorbikes) no one snaps, shouts or even toots. In fact, they don’t toot much at all. They flash headlights. That’s nice. Ineffective, but nice.

On the road is a perfect way to see market forces at work. People need to get around, but cars are still very expensive for many people, in fact totally out of reach for millions.

So you can’t afford a car? There are really cheap buses, and also bajai, funny little things that have your neighbour’s old 2-stroke lawnmower engine underneath, and a little passenger compartment seating the driver and two adults. It is three-wheeled. They are all the same build, like a tightly controlled motor racing formula. They are nearly always orange, and are noisy, slow, smelly and lots of fun. The price must be negotiated before you get in, but it’s cheap. Bajai are the mosquitoes of the road; they buzz, they move towards a goal slowly and randomly, and they get out of they way just before you hit them.

Also popular are motorbike taxis, the "ojek". Since there seemed no obvious way to know who is a motorbike taxi and who is an ordinary motorcyclist, I asked how I could tell. Drivers of the motorbike taxis wear helmets. This is reassuring, until you realise that the helmets are worn because their owners drive so much faster than non-helmeted riders. The extra safety is more than consumed by the extra risk. Also amazing: their female passengers, who seem to make up about 70% of the passengers, usually sit side-saddle. This is quite a balancing feat on a small two-wheeled vehicle weaving in and out of traffic, frequently including oncoming cars and buses which fear commitment when it comes to choosing one side of the road over the other.

Jakarta, a trendy member of the global community, has transit lanes. You must have three in the car. Problem? No worries, just pick up one of the boys waiting by the side of the road, make your quota and take the trip in the faster lane. It’s a bit like an ALP branch meeting around preselection time: a stack. I guess it costs less than a dollar for the extra passenger. I don’t know how the kids get back, since I assume the transit lane operates in only one direction. Transit lanes are a nice idea though. Probably recommended by a Western consultant who completely failed to anticipate such a market response.


If you know someone who wants to do business here, tell them about the "national car project". What the government says: Indonesia wants to build a strong car industry. The multinationals operating here are not using enough local components, those foreign scum-bags, so we’ll set up a company to do it properly.

Now some more information. The President’s youngest son wanted his own huge conglomerate to run, just like his siblings. So he came up with a "National car" project. Next, since he has no clue how to make cars, find a major world car-maker who isn’t here yet. Kia, from Sth Korea, will do nicely. It has to make lots of money to keep the young man happy, so give this venture really special tax treatment, like exemptions the high import taxes that everyone else must pay were they to import cars from another country and sell them here. This is just as well, since the "national" car is made in Korea, with 90% Korean-sourced components. The car-makers here, like Toyata and GM, are not very impressed by this. In fact, I should think they are really pissed off. The import taxes that everyone else has to pay are designed to force foreign companies to manufacture here. The "national car" project is counterproductive to existing Government polices, has got some of the largest foreign investors here very offside and is an exercise of such blatant nepotism that my head spins. Of course, there are some objections being taken seriously. The president’s oldest son is involved in one of the other car making ventures, and he is said to be very unimpressed. It is no wonder that people here are getting a bit sick of this. The likely successor to Soeharto, Habibie (not a family member, but a friend of the president since he was 13) has his own model-train set-up. He is sponsoring an effort to build a large jet passenger aircraft. Government employees are expected to buy shares in this firm. The president of this venture? His son. Thank goodness making light-bulbs is unglamorous. Meanwhile the Thais cut protection to their car industry a few years ago and are exporting now.

However, I should be fair to the Government and its policies. Thirty years ago, Indonesia had about the same GDP per head as India. One generation later, GDP per head is triple that of India. Now, rapid growth is not uncommon in SE Asia, but many of the Tigers are small. Indonesia is big, spread over many islands and didn’t have a common language. The quality of institutions left behind by the Dutch does not compare to those left behind by the British in most of their colonies. Nonetheless, Indonesia has dramatically outperformed the other two Asian giants (over the last 30 years, I mean). And the exciting thing about Indonesia is that is can so easily go so much further. Actually, I’d rather live here than Singapore. This place is pretty relaxed. They don’t seem to censor films much, I saw Birdcage uncut, (with gay scenes and four letter words untouched); Ecstasy, alcohol and late-night venues are everywhere; they don’t care what satellite TV you get (can’t even own the dishes in Malaysia) and the small number of people who aren’t Muslim are taken as an excuse for strongly secular government policies. Many Muslims are so much more cool than certain Christians in American and Australia with their self-righteous attacks on individual freedoms. However, I’m sure if I go on to a campus here I’ll find insecure, adolescent twits with no friends, who preach a version of Islam similar to the Maranatha rubbish I dodged whenever I sat down alone on a bench at Melbourne Uni. There are some admirable Muslim leaders quoted regularly in the press, including one man known as Gus Dur who sounds very interesting. He is liberal, intellectual, and the poor fellow is about to be questioned over the riots, which is obviously a badge of honour for him, but a big move by the army. His organisation (diocese is perhaps the best translation) has 30 million members. Many of them are rural Muslims from more conservative East Java, so it is fortunate indeed that their leader is Gus Dur. His demise would be a tragedy for Indonesia.

Shopping Centres

There are stickers on the escalators of a nearby shopping centre. I didn’t look at them for a while, assuming they were a warning against young children riding alone. Actually, they tell people not to sit on the steps.

The shopping centres here can be quite flash. They are full of European brand-names. Pricey. And absolutely packed with people. Of course, shopping malls look much the same the world over. One of them, Plaza Senayan, is praised because it looks like it could be in suburban Sydney. There is a big Japanese clock with very gimmicky effects on the hour. Doubtless, precisely on the hour. Dances by brass plated Disney princesses and jolly minstrel things that are ludicrously mis-coordinated to the insipid little Japanese tunes played by hidden speakers. It is the musical equivalent of those Japanese lunch-boxes with the semi-English such as "Friends good time". Japanese lunch-box is the world’s only version of English that would be parsed by Microsoft Word’s grammar checker.

See you soon

I am just about to move into a large house. With a maid, a large garden and a gardener. In Kemang. Oh my god, I'm becoming an ex-pat. My contract has been extended.

Like other Jakarta houses I’ve been in, the flooring everywhere is white tiles, like a vast shower recess. I suppose climatically, carpets aren’t required, but I wonder what happened to polished wood. It is the largest house I’ve lived in for ten years. At least it’s an excuse for a housewarming, another one! It is the 16th place I've lived in, I think.

Only three months to go. Didn’t I say that before I left, three months ago? Stay tuned.