New Internationalist

In pursuit of the Good Life

Issue 093

Seven million people crowd into Jakata, the Indonesian capital. But, says Susan Abeyasekere, as far as the planners are concerned, they might as well not be there.

Photo: Susan Abeyasekere
Scavengers can make good pickings among the rubbish of Jakarta's elite. Photo: Susan Abeyasekere

During Indonesia’s ‘Revolution of National Independence’ from 1945 to 1949, and for sometime afterward, Indonesians fondly called their leaders bung or brothers. President Sukarno was popularly known as Bung Karno. It is a sign of the times that Indonesia’s leaders are now respectfully referred to as pak or father: the nation’s elite have drifted away from the people,whom they prefer to maintain in a condition referred to as’the floating mass’, an ignorant majority detached from politics.

Mochtar Lubis, Indonesia’s best-known journalist, observes acidly that Indonesia’s upper crust have learned to wear clothes by Parisian tailors and shoes from Rome, take vacations in Nice, Mexico and Switzerland, drive Mercedes or Cadillacs, and play golf. And inevitably they live in Jakarta, the capital which embodies their dream for Indonesia’s future.

Jakarta presents a fine front to the world. Thanks to extensive construction over the past 10 years, the city’s privileged can now drive with self-satisfied pride along modern highways complete with neat median strips past serried ranks of multi-storey hotels, banks and office blocks to golf links and amusement parks. Or they can indulge in the latest craze of disco dancing for a mere $25 entrance fee. That this is peanuts for some is indicated by the recent disclosure that the right-hand man of the former head of the state oil corporation when he died, left $25 million in just one of his overseas bank accounts.

But the facade is wafer thin. Even the prestige road of the city, Jalan Thamrin, has some embarrassing gaps between the multi­storey buildings where fences barely conceal huddles of tightly packed squatter shanties.

Jakarta has been swamped by immigrants. From a pre-war population of about half-a­million, it now has more than seven million. The city simply cannot cope with its people. If the city’s cream is defined as the eight per cent of households earning more than $160 a month, then they live in a different world from the 50 per cent of households which earn less than $50 a month.

Facts like these expose the inappropriate­ness of the Jakarta leadership’s economic policy for Indonesia as a whole. If that policy of development through foreign investment is to succeed anywhere it should be in Jakarta.

When Jakarta’s New Order government came to power in 1966, it proceeded to channel almost a third of the nation’s domestic invest­ment into the capital.

Neglect of the countryside in favour of foreign investment in extractive industries and Jakarta-based manufacturing and construction has proved disastrous on the island of Java with its rural-based population of 90 million. Since there is not enough land to support them, millions of poor, unskilled people have flooded into the big cities.

Yet Jakarta’s affluent persist in believing that the capital is their city, to be developed in ways which will serve only their needs. This is justified on the grounds that the poor cannot afford to pay for facilities, even basic ones like pure drinking water. Less than 15 per cent of the city’s houses have mains water, and people in those houses pay several times less than those who buy it from street-sellers (necessary in many areas where well water is polluted).

Forty per cent of the city’s daily rubbish is not collected for disposal. There is no sewage system. Only 20 per cent of the city’s budget is spent to improve the areas where 60 per cent of the population is living. Thewealthy have monopolised the scarce supplies of water, electricity (available to only 21 per cent of the city’s houses), medical care, education and well-drained land. There is regular flooding of areas occupied by the poor. While the swelling population suffers from escalating land costs, speculators benefit from absurdly low rates of municipal property taxation.

Not content with the vastly unequal distribution of resources in Jakarta, municipal policies are pursued which make life harder for the city’s poor. They suffer not just neglect, but positive harassment. Having spent millions on upgrading the roads to accommodate their increasing number of cars, the influential are now irritated because ‘primitive’ forms of transport obstruct their movement and detract from the city’s ‘modern’ image.

So the municipal government has taken measures to progressively abolish pedicabsfrom Jakarta’s streets even though they provide work for tens of thousands, especially unskilled new arrivals. Itinerant food vendors have been banned from major thoroughfares, making it harder for them to find customers and vice versa.

Still the privileged cling to their belief that the Western development mode will benefit Jakarta. Mochtar Lubis speaks scathingly of the way Indonesia’s economists mouth foreign terms like technology, modernisation, planning and industrialisation as though they were magic. They argue that if a city like Jakarta can reproduce the outward signs of modern Western cities then the good life will surely follow for everyone.

In his satire The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, controversial Indonesian poet and playwright W.S. Rendra suggests this conversation between the ‘Queen of Astinapuram’ (a caricature of Madame Suharto, the president’s wife) and her prime minister, both of whom are suffering from ‘diseases of affluence’ - high blood pressure and piles:

Queen: Our nation must not be leftbehind in developing modern medical science.

Prime Minister: No need to worry, Your Majesty. Happily there are many foreign companies who want to invest here and build pharmaceutical factories.

Queen: Their requests must be given prior­ity - providing, ofcourse, they show sufficient understanding

Prime Minister: Their ‘understanding’ is quite large. They are going to keep aside 10 per cent of the capital forunforeseen matters, the use of which will be entirely up to Your Majesty, and will be directly deposited in Your Majesty’s bank account in Hong Kong.

Queen: Excellent!

Prime Minister: Moreover, the Wijaya Kusuma Hospital Project is ready to begin. Queen: Have my latest suggestions been implemented yet?

Prime Minister: Yes, Your Majesty. Every cell and room will be air-conditioned and all the toilets will be of porcelain, and every patient, in line with advanced societies, will be taught to use toilet paper. In every room there will be a telephone.

Queen: Are the laboratories good?

Prime Minister: Excellent! Don’t worry, it will be the most modern hospital in all South­east Asia. It will be able to cater for plastic surgery, will have enough heart pump machines, lots of medicines, the largest blood storage facilities, and also artificial lung machines … Everything as it should be!"

The conversation conveys much about the. current elite in Jakarta: its dependence on outside investment, its corruption and its one­eyed worship of Western consumerism in a society lacking the basic necessities for the mass of its people.

Susan Abeyasekere, lecturer in Southeast Asian History and Politics at Footscray Institute of Technology, Melbourne, is writing a history of Jakarta.

*W. S. Rendra, The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, translated by Max Lane, University of Queensland Press, 1979.

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