Thursday, January 02, 2003



In his comfortable private room in the Teluk Gong hospital, little Didi was sitting up in bed watching TV and finishing off an apple. Both he and his mum were smiling contentedly.

"He can go home today," said a trim little nurse who had followed me into the room .

"Tetanus gone? Pneumonia gone?" I asked.

"Yes," said the nurse. "He’s still got the TB so he’ll need to come back regularly to the clinic for treatment."

"He got rid of the tetanus without too much difficulty?"

"We caught it early," said the nurse. "The mother did the right thing."

I felt good inside.

During the first week of January 1995 I was occupying the ‘VIP room’ of a small Arab-owned hotel in the centre of Bogor. Water leaked through the bathroom ceiling and the first electric socket I tried to use broke into several pieces. However, my spacious room had air conditioning and I was enjoying my winter break.

The heavy rains had come at last which meant that, at certain times in the afternoon, it was wise to take shelter in Bogor’s shops and markets. While standing under the canopy of a food stall, protecting myself from a deluge, I took photos of two happy little boys doing an impromptu dance with each other in the middle of the flooded street. Moving from shop to shop in the rain was not a problem as barefoot boys with umbrellas were, as usual, escorting the rich from one shop to the next. Each young boy carries only one umbrella, so the wealthy shoppers stay dry while the umbrella boys, in their thin, dripping wet shirts and shorts, can get shiveringly cold. The umbrella boys are paid a few pennies for their services.

During my morning walks I could see one of the results of the rains: more soil, and more houses, were slipping towards the muddy brown rivers.

On one of my strolls through a poor kampung in the middle of Bogor I got chatting to a group of plump giggling mothers. One of them told me about a little girl called Yanni who was very sick. My driver took Yanni, a sweet little ten year-old, to the nearby Menteng Hospital.

Half way through my stay, I visited Yanni at the hospital and found she was successfully recovering from typhoid. In the next bed to Yanni lay a six year old boy whose name I discovered was Mukmin. He looked like he had a sick headache and there was something about him of the shrivelled yellow durian.

"What’s wrong with the child?" I asked the boy’s hollow-cheeked dad, who was packing some ragged clothing into an old plastic bag.

"He’s had a fever and stomach ache." The dad’s voice and body language seemed gentle and polite.

"Are you taking him home today?"


"How far away do you live?"

"It’s five hours by bus."

"Is he better? He looks ill."

"The hospital wants its bill paid today. We’ve had to borrow a lot of money. We can’t borrow any more."

"I don’t think Mukmin’s ready to go home."

"My wife’s been staying here in hospital with Mukmin. She needs to get back to the other children. She’s not been to work for some days."

I spoke to a comfortably-built nurse drinking tea in her office. "What’s wrong with Mukmin?"

"Fever," she said, looking up from her brochure which advertised a new housing estate and golf course.

"What kind of fever?"

"Like flu."

"Is he better?"

"The father’s taking him home today." She smiled reassuringly.

A slightly overweight doctor came in and sat down at a desk covered in files. "What’s wrong with Mukmin?" I asked him.

"Typhoid and TB," he said, while sorting his files.

"Is he ready to go home?"

"No. He needs at least another week in hospital," said the frowning doctor, looking up briefly. "But the family insists on taking him home."

I went back to the ward and spoke to Mukmin’s dad who was adjusting the strap on his son’s plastic sandals.

"If I pay for all of Mukmin’s treatment, will you let him stay another week in hospital?" I asked.

"My wife needs to get back to work," he said.

"Do you want me to pay?"

"Yes." He grinned sheepishly.

"And you’ll let him stay another week?"

"Mukmin wants to go home."

"I won’t pay unless you let Mukmin stay another week. And then he’ll need to come back to the hospital once a month for TB medicine. I can pay for that."

"My wife wants to get home."

The argument progressed for about fifteen minutes until it eventually sank into the man’s head that, if the lad stayed a little longer in hospital, then this mad foreigner would give them the money they needed to pay back their debts. When he saw me take bundles of notes from my money belt, something clicked. Mukmin got back into bed. The dad then went off to find his wife who had evidently been buying some food at a stall on the street outside the hospital.

At the beginning of February, I had my annual chat about Islam and politics with my former-neighbour Mr Samsu, the retired university teacher who reminded me of a friendly little polar bear. We sat on comfortable chairs in the shaded back garden of his bungalow. No drinks were on offer.

"Ramadan again," I said. "The mosques seem absolutely packed."

"As you know," said Samsu, "Ramadan teaches us what it’s like to be poor and hungry. However, you’ll have noticed it has an unfortunate effect on services by the Post Office and hospitals. It’s not a good idea to get sick during Idul Fitri."

"You mean the good doctors are all away on holiday?"

"That’s it."

"Do you think Islam is growing in influence?" I asked.

"What do you think?"

"I seem to see a few more women in the countryside who’re wearing Islamic clothing. I also hear complaints that the president has too many Christians in his cabinet."

"There are various forces at work," said Samsu. "The president is worried about the loyalty of some sections of the army. Some in the army criticise the President’s children and his rich Chinese business partners. So the president may be becoming more friendly with certain orthodox Moslem groups. He may be thinking of putting more Moslems in his cabinet."

"It’s a question of alliances."

"Yes. And maybe the intelligence services have warned the president of the dangers of not keeping in with Islamic groups that are becoming more important. Look at how Moslem protesters forced the government to abandon the idea of a national lottery."

"Why is there more Islamic militancy?"

"Remember that the majority of Moslems here are moderate, and their Islam contains a touch of mysticism and a sprinkling of Hinduism and Buddhism. However, there is a minority of Moslems who have been influenced by conservative ideas from the Middle East; that means Saudi Arabia, which is allied to America. The Saudis, and the Pentagon, prefer governments that are fundamentalist and easy to control."

"Religious rather than secular."

"That’s right. But then some people in India want a completely Hindu state and some Israelis want a state run by orthodox Jews."

"What would happen here if they had free elections?"

"The secularists and moderate Moslems would win," said Samsu, sounding confident of his words. "The president, and his American backers, don’t want those two groups allying against the government."

"But Islam is becoming a bigger force in society?"

"Yes. Partly due to ideas from the Middle East and partly due to politics. Then there’s another factor. There’s the economic situation. This country has growing debts, too much red tape and too much corruption. You can’t trust the police or the courts. Some people turn to Islam as an escape from the uncertainty. Then there are some Indonesians who simply don’t want a world of computers and high-rise flats. They don’t want to work in an office or factory all day like the Singaporeans. They would prefer a simple Moslem culture which is rural in character."

"Some of the protests in this country seem to be very well organised," I said. I had been reading my Jakarta Post.

"It’s rumoured that certain Moslem sects are set up, financed and controlled by rich and powerful individuals."

"Is there a lot of that sort of thing?"

"It’s possible that rich businessmen, even Chinese-Indonesian ones, could buy a militia, even soldiers. When soldiers dress up as civilian protesters, who knows who they’re working for. Who owns the different units of the special forces, the strategic reserve command or the intelligence services?"

"The government and the people?"

"Not necessarily. This is in some ways a feudal society where the loyalty of barons is often in doubt."

In the Piste Top nightclub, with its mirrors and expensive black furnishings, Carmen and I were sipping Benedictines and waiting for the glamorous young Filipino band.

"What do you think of Rosa, the lead singer?" asked Carmen.

"She’s got a nice pantat," I commented.

Seconds later I became aware of a figure behind me.

"Ah, Rosa, how are you tonight?" asked Carmen.

"About to go on stage," said Rosa, "and I’m sakit perut. Diarrhoea."

"Want something for it?" asked Carmen.

"I’ll be OK. I’ve taken a tablet." So saying, she exited stage left.

"I’m not so sure about her pantat," I said.

"We should try to see absolute beauty, divine beauty," said Carmen, straight faced. "That is beauty not corrupted by human flesh. Beauty that’s not a pile of perishable rubbish. Think of an angel that never needs to go to the loo."


"That’s from Plato. The Symposium. Not the bit about the angel, but the rest of it."


"This Greek bloke," said Carmen, giggling loudly. "About three hundred years before Christ. He wrote things."

"What did he say about Filipino singers?"

"In The Symposium it says we fall in love with one particular person. Like I fell in love with my doe-faced friend, at university, and then I realised it wasn’t just my friend I fancied. There were lots of good looking people. And anyway, my friend had some disgusting habits and was no angel."


"Right. Plato and Socrates. Eventually we learn to love all physical beauty, not just one particular person."

"Is that good or bad?."

"Good if it means we’re not a slave to one individual’s cuteness."


"Yeah. The next stage is when we realise that the beauty of the soul is more important that the beauty of the body. Think of Min. Think of a handicapped child."

"Min. Yes. I like the little soul, but not his body. Min may sometimes seem a little odd but he’s got a sweet nature."

"My university friend was not always sweet-natured. And isn’t it strange how quickly someone changes from looking like a doe to looking like a hippo."

"So what else does Plato say?"

"We’re looking for the kind of beauty that’s eternal. Absolute beauty. Not beauty that only lasts a few years. Eternal beauty’s more valuable than gold or heroin. When we see divine beauty we’ll do good things. We’ll act morally. We’ll be loved by God and become immortal."

"Sounds sort of Greek?"

"It ties in with some Christianity and Buddhism."

The band started singing something about "Money, money, money..."

"They should be playing Mahler," said Carmen.

At the interval I had a question for Carmen. "Plato believed that if we have a knowledge of divine beauty we will do the right thing. Plato might say that if Hitler had had more knowledge, he wouldn’t have been so evil? But don’t some people freely choose to do what they know is wrong? And aren’t mentally backward people often more kind and decent than highly educated people?"

"Morality isn’t just a matter of knowledge," said Carmen. "Effort comes in somewhere. And suffering and self sacrifice. And learning from one’s mistakes. And love and goodness. Lots of things."

"Life is a puzzle."

"Have you read Kierkegaard?" asked Carmen. "Good bloke Kierkegaard."

"What did he say?"

"He said, ‘I believe that which is absurd.’"

"Sounds sensible to me. Very sensible."



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