Thursday, December 19, 2002



On a dark and steamy Jakarta street, not far from the Presidential Palace, I dined out one evening with Bob and Anne. We ate at a warung, a food stall, one of the sort set up in the evenings on city pavements. This warung was a sort of rectangular open tent containing wooden benches and seats; light was provided by kerosene lanterns; plates were washed in a plastic bucket containing thick grey water; food was cooked on blue kerosene stoves; and there was an aroma of tropical spices mingled with just a hint of fumes from buses and gutters. The view from our table was of passing cars, pedestrians and a moonlit sky.

"Is it safe here?" I asked, while glancing at the menu.

"Don’t worry," said Anne. "Budi, who does the cooking, makes sure the food is well cooked. But avoid the salads."

"We’ve brought our own dishes," said Bob, as he extracted cutlery and paper plates from a plastic bag.

"I’m having the chicken, which is cooked with coriander, turmeric and coconut milk," said Anne.

"And the Nasi Uduk which is rice steamed with pandanus leaves."

"And beers," said Bob.

We all chose the same chicken dishes, which arrived steaming hot. The pieces of meat were from small thin kampung birds, but there was a good strong gamy taste.

"When you asked if it was safe here," said Anne, wiping away a mosquito, "were you thinking of the food or of the various riots in Indonesia?"

"I was thinking of that one bucket where all the dishes get washed," I said. I have a great fear of bugs and germs.

"But the riots are puzzling," said Anne. "There seems to be a pattern. First Situbondo in East Java, back in October last year; then Tasikmalaya in West Java, in December last year; then Dengklok near to Jakarta, at the beginning of this year."

"How bad was Situbondo?" I asked.

"Over twenty churches wrecked," said Bob.

"It may have been a spontaneous riot," I said. "The newspapers said that Moslems were upset by an allegedly lenient sentence in a blasphemy case."

"There are rumours that a certain group deliberately stirred things up," said Bob, "and that the police and army made little effort to stop the rioting."

"Tasikmalaya was bad," said Anne. "At least four people died. The mob was attacking Chinese properties and churches."

"That started with a protest against the police," I said. "The police were accused of torturing a Moslem teacher. Then, for some reason, the mob attacked the Chinese."

"Look at the opposition to Suharto in the coming May elections," said Bob. "Megawati’s PDI Party are out of the picture. The only opposition comes from the Moslem PPP Party."

"How does that tie in with the riots?" asked Anne.

"Either the riots are spontaneous," said Bob, "or some section of the army is trying to paint the Moslems as extremists; the army may be trying to suggest that strong military rule is required. Get people scared and then people will support rule by the generals."

"Maybe the powers-that-be are trying to distract people’s attention," said Anne. "Make the Chinese-Indonesians the scapegoats for the economic problems. Get Moslems to direct their anger against the Chinese rather than the government."

"The Chinese-Indonesians are an easy target," said Bob. "They’re seen as being a bit foreign and a bit greedy. It’s like the Jews in Europe in the 1930s."

"Only a handful of the Chinese-Indonesians are billionaires," said Anne, "but when you look around the shopping malls it’s nearly all Chinese that you see owning the shops and doing the shopping. People suspect the Chinese are part of some conspiracy."

A youth selling watches from a tray appeared at our table. They were followed by a couple of shoeshine boys and two skinny urchins with banjos. Anne bought a watch for a few rupiahs while Bob and I removed our shoes to have them shined. The musicians began to sing: "My bonnee lees over the oh-shun. My bonnee lees over the sea." The political discussion came to an end.

I called in at Jakarta’s Christian-run Teluk Gong Hospital to see Jasmin, the woman I had found on the rubbish tip, and who was suffering from TB. She had been in hospital for some weeks but had not put on any weight. Her bones still stuck out, as they would on an African child near death from starvation. Her eyes looked slightly glazed and she did not respond to my questions. The hospital ward was far superior to what I would have found in most government hospitals. The floors and walls seemed generally bright and shiny clean and there was a cheerfulness about the nurses.

An attractive and self-assured young female doctor called me over to the nurses’ desk at one end of the ward.

"Jasmin has had TB for a very long time and there are complications," said the doctor, smiling broadly. "She cannot control her bowels and she makes a wailing sound which disturbs the other patients. We are going to have to ask you to take Jasmin to a mental hospital."

I pointed out the inadequacies of mental hospitals but the doctor maintained her self-confident grin as she told me that the hospital had made its decision. It was their policy not to take mental patients.

We loaded Jasmin into the back of my van and set off for Bogor. I was angry with myself for having failed to achieve success with Jasmin; I was angry with the Teluk Gong hospital for its apparent lack of charity; and now I was angry with Jasmin for the continual loud wailing sounds she was making. I turned round in my seat and poked her in the arm, to try to get her to keep quiet. But on and on she wailed. I poked her harder. And then it occurred to me that Jasmin still looked like a victim of a concentration camp and that I was behaving like a Nazi guard.

The mental hospital, in Bogor’s Babakan district, admitted Jasmin as a patient. She was laid on a bare brown mattress in the nearly empty ward. I bought her some milk and biscuits.

Having left Jasmin, I scuttled over to the children’s ward to see Firdaus, the young boy with the bumps on his forehead and the enormous scars on his chest. Firdaus, and his friend with the strange eyes, squealed with delight. They grabbed my hands and I took them for a walk in the hospital grounds.

Intent on finding fun and relaxation, I instructed my driver to take the road that rises from Bogor to the nearby town of Ciawi. The area is heavily urbanised and has a few small factories. Wealthy Indonesians use this crowded route to reach their villas up in the highland area of tea estates known as the Puncak. As we headed uphill I thought of the Dutch who had built the first modern roads on this island; the first major road from the west coast of Java to its east coast was only completed at the beginning of the 19th Century. That work involved forced labour and the deaths of an estimated 30,000 Javanese.

From Ciawi, a traffic-filled route-centre with a big modern mosque and numerous grubby kampungs, we took the relatively quiet road south towards the sleepy little towns of Cigombong and Cicurug.

We were in a gap in Java’s long and mighty mountain spine. Sleeping volcanoes lay on either side: Mount Salak to the right and Mount Gede to the left; next to Gede was its twin summit of Pangrano just over three thousand metres high, and now an extinct volcano. These mystical mountains, with their misty rain forests and dreamy sub-alpine meadows, are home to quinine, coffee and great big forest cats including panthers. We were roughly on the same latitude as the Amazon and the Congo.

Wealthy Dutch planters once ran huge plantations in this Garden of Eden, plantations that were seen either as ‘enlightened’ or as mere ‘labour camps’. Alfred Russel Wallace, in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, considered that the Javanese must have prospered under the Dutch as their population rose from around 3 million in 1800 to around 14 million in 1865. Wallace explained that the Dutch used the Javanese princes and the village chiefs to help them rule their colony. He admitted that just occasionally these princes and chiefs may have behaved badly. In 1860, Eduard Douwes Dekker, who had been a civil servant in Lebak in West Java, wrote the autobiographical Max Havelaar. This novel described a cruel and corrupt government which sometimes treated the Indonesians like slaves and which sometimes failed to cope with terrible famines. Critics disagree about the accuracy of Dekker’s work. But what we do know is that by the end of the 19th century Java was the world’s largest supplier of coffee.

Somewhere on the road to Cicurug I stopped the Mitsubishi and set off on a walk along a narrow country track which rose gently through terraced rice fields and patches of forest. I imagined I was Alfred Russel Wallace on the lookout for black and crimson orioles, minivet flycatchers and large and brilliantly coloured butterflies. In fact I saw no birds or insects of particular interest but I did encounter lots of wonderful tree ferns and massive leaves of every shape and texture.

I reached a small hamlet, the first house in which was a surprisingly modern bungalow with clean white walls. The bungalow had a well-tended garden full of orchids and there was a large Japanese station-wagon parked in the drive; a young boy in designer jeans was playing with a healthy-looking dog. I reckoned that this house might be the weekend retreat of some wealthy civil servant

A few steps further along the track were the usual kampung houses with their mildewed roofs, rotting timbers, and muddy courtyards. Outside one medium-sized house stood a thin woman with a pale tubercular face and rather disdainful eyes. Her name, she told me, was Umi, and her husband worked in Bogor.

"Sakit?" I asked her.

"Yes," said Umi, in Indonesian. She made no attempt to smile.

"Sakit TB?" I asked.


"Are you getting TB medicine?"


"Do you need any help paying for it?"

"No." Umi’s look suggested suspicion and hostility.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes." She turned and went inside her dark and gloomy house.

I thought of my failure to provide effective help for Jasmin. Maybe I should be less interfering. Perhaps it was part of my karma, and part of Umi’s karma, that the two of us should meet and that she would not want any help.

I continued my walk but the sky was darkening. I reached a graveyard surrounded by a low falling-down wall on which was seated a group of ragged boys. The grave stones were smothered in moss and lichens; the boys bare legs bore evidence of former sores and lesions; the trees were overwhelmed by parasitic vines. The rains were coming and I decided it was time to return to Bogor.

I made a Saturday morning trip to the mental hospital to visit Jasmin. She was lying on a mattress in a corner of the big sunny courtyard of the ward for the physically sick. Providing her with company was one of the middle-aged patients, a slightly mentally-backward man with the gentle manner and beatific smile of a wise old angel. I tried feeding some milk to Jasmin but she closed her mouth and, with her thin bony arm, tried to push my hand away.

Having failed to make progress with Jasmin, I wandered into a room off the courtyard and found a solitary patient, a withered young man with sensitive eyes. He was sitting up in bed looking like a child whose parents had long deserted him.

His name, I discovered later from a nurse, was Bayou. I tried speaking to Bayou, but he seemed too shy or depressed to do anything other than nod or shake his head. A nurse in the office told me that Bayou was slightly mentally backward; and he did have a family.

A few days later I received a phone call from the Bogor mental hospital.. I was informed that Jasmin had died. Her body had apparently been so severely wrecked by TB that her death was inevitable and a release from suffering.

I was having a coffee in the school staffroom during a free period. The only other person present was Alan, a bachelor who mixed with the locals, who loved Indonesian culture, and who was easy to get on with. He was onto his third clove cigarette and his face looked pasty and lined.

"You’ve got a yellow coffee cup, Alan." I said, "Does that make you a supporter of Suharto’s GOLKAR party?"

"I should have got a red mug," said Alan, frowning. "Have you noticed the yellow bus stops, yellow trees, yellow walls?"

"I’ve seen a few. GOLKAR seems to be spending a lot of money."

"On paint."

"What do you think of the coming elections, Alan?" I asked.

"It’s all fixed," he said, looking rather sad. "GOLKAR will win. There’ll be no proper monitoring of polling booths. Not that it matters. There’s no real opposition."

"Because Magawati’s party is not allowed to take part," I said.

"It’s not just that. Megawati never sounded like much of a radical. She seems to feel she has no choice but to ally with certain generals."

"Wahid, the moderate Moslem leader, seems to feel he has to back GOLKAR." I was trying to impress Alan, who was generally thought of as being the member of staff most knowledgeable about Indonesia.

"That leaves the PPP party as the only so-called opposition," said Alan. "The PPP chairman, Matareum, got his job only because he had the approval of Suharto. And after the last election, which party was the first to nominate Suharto for the presidency? It was the PPP."

"This time it may be different," I suggested. "The PPP has been attacking corruption and nepotism."

"Agreed," said Alan. "But I wish the PPP would be brave enough to name names."

"The PPP has to be careful. Look what happened to that politician, Budiman Sudjatmiko. Thirteen years in prison for speaking out."

"Budiman’s PRD party is banned," added Alan.

"The government is worried about this election," I said. "They know people will turn out for the PPP as a form of protest."

"They are worried," said Alan, lighting another clove cigarette. "Back in February the army was parading their British Scorpion tanks, and thousands of troops, here in Jakarta. You’ll have seen the TV news pictures of the black-clad Ninjas, the special forces, dropping from helicopters."

"They were sending a message."

"GOLKAR are predicting they’ll get 70.2 per cent of the vote," said Alan, forcing a smile, "which is not surprising as they are the government and the army. Six million people work for the government and they are arm-twisted into voting for GOLKAR and into fighting for Golkar."

"I’m told that in the villages it’s only GOLKAR that’s allowed to operate."

"If a village doesn’t vote GOLKAR they may end up getting no government money," said Alan.

"Have you noticed that GOLKAR dominates the TV news?" I said. "The PPP gets a few seconds. When they show GOLKAR, they show a big crowd of happy people. When they show the PPP, it’s a few weird looking people."

"I get bad vibes about Indonesia," said Alan.


"I think we’re heading towards some sort of major conflict or cataclysm."

"You don’t think that we’ll all muddle through?"

"Suharto is getting old. Various generals are getting restless. The economy is built on corruption. The mass of the people are getting poorer, and they have no stake in the system. There’s an explosion coming. Which is why I am thinking of getting out."

"Going where?"

"I might try Singapore."

"Aren’t elections fixed in Singapore?"

"Elections are fixed in America," said Alan, with a hint of a chuckle. "But in America they don’t have tanks in the streets. Not yet."

"You’d miss Indonesia, if you left." I knew that Alan had a number of young Indonesian friends.

"There’s nowhere like Indonesia," said Alan, "but my vibes are telling me it may be time to make a move. Also, my timetable has changed. This is one of my few free periods."

He lit another cigarette.

On Jalan Veteran, not so far from my house, there was a motorcade by GOLKAR. It seemed poorly supported and lacking in enthusiasm; there were the usual station wagons occupied by overweight fat cats and the usual trucks carrying bored-looking civil servants kitted out in GOLKAR’s yellow colours.



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