Could two men, no matter how dedicated and outspoken they are, save the city of 12 million that has for years looked and smelt like a decomposing carcass? Could they reform the savage capitalist system that cannibalized this entire urban area and the rest of the country for decades; could they reprimand all the actors who have not been playing by rules? Could they all of a sudden implement some sort of “capitalism with a human face”?
At this point, many citizens of Jakarta are, it appears, ready to believe in just any flowery fairytale; their city is already in such a dreadful condition that the situation could get hardly any worse.
The pollution, garbage, incessant ugliness and contaminated water, as well as the daily commutes of several hours – all this is evidently having an effect on people’s ability to think clearly.
And so they recently voted in and elevated to the top office of the capital city, their new ‘magnificent couple’– two dudes that came, really, from who knows where.
Now let me introduce both of them – those two ‘heroes’ who are expected by the desperate masses to stop the decay, and initiate the epic fight for survival and the eventual glory of Jakarta.
The new Governor of Jakarta is actually not a city planner or an architect: he is originally a property and furniture businessman. Later, he served as a mayor of the mid-sized Central Javanese city of Solo (Surakarta). His name is Joko Widodo (nickname: Jokowi). In this latest Indonesian fairytale, he is the main cowboy, or an honorable wandering samurai, or a liberator, or whatever…
His deputy, known for his loud outbursts and shocking statements, is a former People’s Representative. His name is Basuki Cahaya Purnama.
The only credentials for governing one of the largest cities on earth Jokowi has, are his business trips to Europe, where he ‘really admired their cities’, and wanted to transplant their concept to the Indonesian urban sprawls. He also, by strictly Indonesian standards, managed to clean several main streets of Solo, whilst being in charge of its governance.
There are other achievements, his supporters will protest: in Solo he at least built one decent sidewalk in the center of town. Don’t laugh: it is actually a really grand thing to do here, as we are in a country where decent sidewalks are strictly forbidden by the powerful, one could even say ‘fatal’ car lobby (except in places where they don’t lead anywhere or connect to anything).
He also made operational a tourist tram that occasionally runs in Solo on old rails laid in the Dutch colonial era: it is his toy and his fulfillment of a wet dream about public transportation.
‘Not enough’, he would be told in India, hardly a social role model itself, but a country where even cities like Chennai and Kolkata, not to speak of New Delhi, are building or have finished building, their modern mass transport system. ‘Definitely not enough’, the Chinese people would say, as in their country at least few dozen urban areas are counting on ecological, cheap, extensive and comfortable subway systems, wide sidewalks, garbage recycling plants, clean water supplies, cultural institutions of all sorts, as well as enormous public parks and spaces.
But in Indonesia, as the saying goes, even a one-eyed man is king. And hope dies last. And so it goes…
A few months ago, in another article, I suggested: “Leave all your hopes behind when entering Jakarta.” I forgot to add: “And also bring some combat gas mask, if you can get your hands on one, in your carry-on and easy to open bag!”
Total gridlock, that frightening monster which has been spreading its rigid tentacles all over that broken, depressing and insufficient grid of Jakarta’s driveways for decades, is finally choking the city. People are late for meetings, they die on the way to hospitals, and social life collapses, as nobody is ready to sit for 2 hours each way in a traffic jam, just to have a cup of coffee.
But what one experiences now, is still only a mild preview of horror that is to come soon. After all, the traffic still somehow crawls, unless it rains, unless it’s the morning, afternoon, evening, working day, or a holiday.
I was just told by Mr. Rachmad Mekaniawan, a civil engineer:
“The other day, I flew from Balikpapan to the capital. The flight itself took only 1h45m. I arrived at Jakarta Airport at 5:45pm. I decided to take a bus to Blok M. The bus was full; I expected that. What I didn’t expect, was that the usual 30 minutes drive would take 5 hours on that day!”
A couple of years ago, JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) produced a study and warned that the city would be paralyzed by total gridlock by 2014.
This poor capital of a turbo-capitalist nation, is ravaged by extreme greed and corruption (‘Greed is good’; as we were told in the West, remember? We managed to force this idea down the throats of Indonesian elites in 1965; not that it took too much forcing). All that is not profitable is discarded. That includes rubbish recycling, pollution control, art centers, and public transportation; even the trees.
The Indonesian car lobby, its members all diligent students of modern US history, is perfecting what the Big Three did to LA and other cities, in the early days of the automotive coup d'état, almost one hundred years ago. Here, every attempt to build a comprehensive public transportation network is blocked with determination and force. What was constructed in the past is deteriorating, including the once efficient Dutch-designed railway system.
The end of corruption, transparency, and clean government! These are some of the main battle cries of Jokowi and his deputy. They are also promising some sort of integrated public transportation system, complete with trams, monorail, and MRT.
That entire package consists of slogans, but very little substance: it is part of the typically Indonesian make-believe world; it looks kind of pinkish and unreal, like the local television programs or a Disney cartoon.
Two days ago, I was invited to dine with a successful Indonesian businessman who is currently living abroad. He is close to, or one could say part of, both the political and business elites in this country, while somehow managing to retain his critical outlook on his country. An avid reader of my work on Indonesia, he managed to find out that I was in town, and suggested a wonderful but very quiet Chinese seafood restaurant for our encounter.
Very soon it became clear that he was intending to ‘feed me’ with inside information, and not just shrimps and scallops. He shared his frustration with me; he gave me some valuable ‘hints and data’. But the price of knowing was steep: I had to promise that I wouldn’t name names of the people and companies he was referring to.
That is what he said, in a summary:
“An industry insider from one of the big car companies in Indonesia, recently told me, that, their head is paying several millions of dollars in annual fees, which could be called retainer fees, to prevent or at least to delay indefinitely, all major public transportation projects in this city. Even as far back as 1992, the payments to the Governor alone amounted to US$10 million.”
And he continued: “The owner of one of the biggest car companies told me: ‘There will be no MRT in Jakarta, ever… until there is total gridlock’. Blocked also are the construction of sidewalks, and everything that competes with cars. The goal is to flood the country with millions of new cars and motorbikes, to make the nation fully dependent on private transportation. ‘One large foreign car company’ that operates in Indonesia is deeply implicated in massive corruption, while the other car companies are involved to a smaller extent.”
As we were parting, he said, sadly: “Many people can’t live in this city, anymore. You know, I think that the situation is so bad that even if a team of absolutely clean politicians and business people would take over Indonesia tomorrow, it would take some 3 generations to change things here…”
Almost all the members of the Indonesian elites do not live here anymore. They either run their operations from abroad, or at least they ‘commute’.
One does not have to analyze those complex corruption schemes related to petrol subsidies, or to the car lobbies. Corruption is everywhere, it is endemic and it paralyzes the entire city. Personal interests are always ahead and above those of the public. While 1 percent is living their high life, spending freely millions it continuously steals from the nation, well over 90% of Indonesians are in deep shit.
Last month, at Istanbul airport, I met a woman – one of those Indonesian super-rich wives – who was complaining bitterly, that there are no decent marinas in Indonesia. Well tanned, she said she was sailing for 2 months all over Mediterranean Sea. When I tried to explain to her about the books I am writing related to her country, and what films I am making, she simply could not comprehend. Foreigners were supposed to talk about Indonesian girls, resorts in Bali and wild private parties, not this Bolshevik crap!
But let’s go back to corruption.
Nothing moves here, anymore. You can’t get rid of those horrible 2-stroke-engine Indian (Bajaj) motor-rickshaws; models so old, that one hasn’t even seen them for decades on Indian streets. Certain military, the police or other ‘interests’ are always behind their operation. The same is true about the dreadful, filthy and polluting minibuses. All governors make wobbly attempts to get that stuff off the road, then they get their hands slapped, and they shut up: a well-choreographed script.
Tobacco industry advertisements are screaming from elevated roads, and almost every city corner. Every man and boy, it appears, is smoking, in this already dirty and polluted city: on the street, in dilapidated buses, even inside the malls. Regulations are issued but ignored. The tobacco lobby in Indonesia is powerful and unrelenting; grotesquely it even owns those few tiny green areas left in the capital. It also owns a great number of MPs, the so called People’s Representatives.
The second month into Jokowi’s administration, huge panels advertising cigarettes are still decorating the city. And they will surely be there when he leaves. Even in the Plaza Indonesia, one of the ritzy malls of the city, thick smoke levitates above almost all cafes. This is unthinkable in any other Southeast Asian city, from the rich Singapore to poor Manila. But in Jakarta it’s biasa, meaning ‘normal’.
Little wonder that even foreigners living here, voted Jakarta as the most unlivable city in Asia Pacific.
The new Governor has been promising a higher minimum wage. That he had delivered, recently hiking it to US$230 a month. Now they are higher than those in the Ukraine and even Bulgaria (US$156 a month), a country that is a member of the European Union.
On November 20, 2012, Jakarta Globe reported:
Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo approved a proposed 44 percent minimum wage hike on Tuesday in what is widely seen as a populist move amid heavy lobbying from Indonesian businesses. ??“It has been signed, the amount is Rp 2.2 million,” Joko was quoted saying by Detik.com. “I have hammered the gavel.”
But how many people could hope to get the minimum wage? A great majority of Indonesians work in the informal sector, where the wages can be as low as US$30 or US$40 a month; tens of millions ‘don’t exist’. As a leading Canadian statistician explained to me, while the government census stubbornly places the number of Indonesians at between 237 and 250 million, the real number is around 300 million or higher. Those who are unaccounted for are the poorest ones. Those people are often making no wages at all, working and subsisting in the harshest pre-industrial feudal-like conditions.
Right after the wage hike was approved; I hit the streets of Jakarta, asking the same question: do workers get their minimum wage? Do they really?
They do: those who work for the chain restaurants, workers in big private companies as well as government employees. But that could be much less than a quarter of the workforce of the capital city.
“Minimum wage?” wondered a worker at a furniture workshop in the Klender neighborhood, East Jakarta. “They pay me by the number of delivered pieces. If I kill myself, once in a while I can take home US$200 a month, but on a normal month it doesn’t come anywhere close to that.
Ms. Siti who works in a Korean owned garment factory explained: “Many workers in and around Jakarta are making about 2.500Rp (26 cents) an hour. If we work ten hours a day, we get paid US$2.60. That amounts to some US$60 a month, or less. When the inspectors come, all the workers are usually locked in a dark room, so none of us can talk to them. Once, my friend and I were using the washroom when the inspectors came. They found us and asked about our wages. We intuitively lied, pretending that we were paid much more than we were in reality. We knew we would be fired if we had told the truth.”
Forget the official statistics, which tell you that half of the city has already entered that glorious middle class status (here the official entry point to middle class is US$2 a day) and trust your own eyes: the misery you see everywhere, un-recycled garbage, clogged canals, the acute lack of public spaces and sidewalks, Ferraris and Porches negotiating notorious potholes, countless shopping malls offering standardized fare right next to the miserable and unsanitary kampungs, villages whose inhabitants are barely surviving, in the middle of the city.
And when it seemed that there is no hope, just deep darkness and permanent gloom, suddenly there is light! Two men, the new governor and his deputy, are entering the city on their horses, guns hanging damn low, and like in some old Western their eyes are shining with zeal and dignity.
Or are they really?
The servile press wants people to believe that those two were selected and elected despite the interests of the elites. That is, of course, unthinkable. In Indonesia everything is subservient to the business-military-business clique. How could people be fooled like this? Is it because since 1965 they were discouraged from analyzing, from thinking independently?
And what really is the performance of the couple, ever since they took over the governance?
The Vice Governor of Jakarta, Basuki T. Purnama (nicknamed Ahok), met public works officials on 8 November 2012. He did some loud screaming, and insulted everyone in the room:
“Before we begin, can this entire budget be cut by 25%? The unit price that you have here is too high… There are only two ways to resolve this: 1) you cut 25% of this budget without arguing. Or 2) I will delete this project from your portfolio. I will use my own operational funds… Then I’ll check past projects; I will open that ‘old skin disease’; I will ask the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to help. I will approach the DA, too. Let’s launch the ‘New Jakarta’.”
What language… And you all know that saying about the dog that barks… If you really wanted to change things in your city and to investigate cases of severe corruption, would you really yell in the faces of those you suspect of stealing, or would you try and catch them red-handed?
But Ahok went even further, and made it all look like a true cowboy movie:
“If there are people who want to kill me, it would be very easy… I don’t know who will try… I have many enemies… if somebody tried to shoot me point blank, I would not blink.”
One immediately felt like giving him big hug and saying: “Ahok, really, nobody is going to shoot you… You know… You would never be here… ‘They’, the real rulers of this country, would never allow you to be elected if you and your boss were not vetted, re-vetted and declared ‘safe’ for the regime. Or do you really want us to believe that candidates appear on their own, independently, and then people just go out and vote for them? Really? In Venezuela, sure… But in Indonesia, dear Ahok…? Really?”
As if to confirm my doubts, few weeks after taking power, Jokowi suddenly began acting as a really trustworthy apparatchik of the Indonesian regime. What I was told in depth at the Chinese restaurant was proving to be correct, not that I ever doubted it.
He announced that he is postponing the construction of the MRT. He ‘put the project under scrutiny’, and it became clear that for quite some time Jakarta will continue to be the only city of its size in the world, without a metro. One of the reasons given by the Governor, who claims he is working on behalf of the people, was that he is not sure how long it would take for the project to pay for itself!
Angki Hermawan, and engineer and a graduate of the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), who lives in both Jakarta and Calgary, Canada, commented for this report:
“In my opinion, Jokowi is really strange! He said that whether the MRT project will be carried on or not depends on ROI (return on investment); if not the Jakarta administration would go bankrupt. This statement is bizarre because everywhere in the world, MRT is the backbone of public transportation, unless the city has less than 1 million inhabitants. The MRT in Jakarta is a must! And what is he saying? That ROI for MRT has to be good? How come Jokowi suddenly acts like some small-minded businessman? ROI for projects that will benefit the people cannot be calculated as some ROI for purely business purposes. Its return has to be calculated with non-monetary, social benefits.”
But even if strictly economic value applies, Jakarta needs an immediate overhaul of its transportation system, as it is losing around 3 billion dollars a year due to the delays caused by traffic jams.
So it is back to square one: no rationality, just some secretive and non-transparent considerations.
And so the MRT is delayed again. And those pathetic concrete pillars and metal bars that were supposed to support the monorail – the project that was corrupted and killed few years ago, while enormous funds were embezzled, the city landscape further scarred, and nobody went to jail – are still there, sticking up like multiple ‘English salutes’ of the local elites to the citizens of Jakarta, towards the grey sky.
And what about Ahok’s plans to revitalize the absolutely destroyed historic city?
“If we want it to be an advanced neighborhood, it should be made more upscale,” Ahok said. “…Kota Tua should be expensive so it can advance.” Jakarta Globe reported that.
It is clear they will not ask UNESCO for help, as did, Hanoi, for instance. They will probably ask Gucci, LV or Lamborghini.
I already saw several ‘attempts’ to save Indonesian cities. Most of them were so pathetic that they could be compared to some attempts of a 5 years old child who tells his parents: “I will now make an airplane that will fly. Here are two sticks of wood – the wings. And this piece of plastic will be the main body of the airplane…”
All the Indonesian cities are ruined. Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Medan, Palembang, Semarang, even Yogyakarta. It would take decades and determined effort to bring them to some standards of Asia Pacific.
Two years ago I met the mayor of Surabaya, Ms Tri Rismaharini. She was still very popular then; there were great hopes. She was promising clean government and dramatic changes in infrastructure.
I asked her whether she really had the stomach to confront corruption, the car lobby and the other pathologies in the second largest Indonesian city of 3 million. An honest woman, a Muslim with her head covered, she obviously did not want to lie to me. She simply avoided the question.
Instead she told me about her love for flowers and plants. She showed me photos and explained that she had been going around her city, planting trees, converting unused spaces into parks. She often did it with her own hands.
She was very kind, I remember. I liked her: I liked Ibu Rismaharini very much. I would like to be her neighbor. But her city has been bleeding, with no transportation except those stinky and privately owned ankots (minivans), with almost no cultural and intellectual expressions, no city planning and again – with no hope.
When we were parting, she invited me to come and see her again, whenever I will be back in her city.
I returned this September and honestly, I saw no substantial change. The city was somehow cleaner, there was that one proverbial big and decent sidewalk on both sides of the main street, and there were a few small gardens. Nothing else. Surabaya was still choking on traffic jams; there was nowhere to go in the evening, except for a few malls.
I decided not to visit Ibu Rismaharini. What would I tell her; what would I ask? For the both of us, the encounter would be very embarrassing!
On November 20, 2012, I showed my Dadaab documentary film (“One Flew Over Dadaab”) at the University of Indonesia, and then spoke on the collapse of the country. One student asked me: “What can be done? How could Indonesia be saved?”
I replied that it is not up to me to decide; it is not my – it is his country. I don’t cure, I only diagnose.
But that afternoon I told them, both students and professors, a lot about the collaboration of their elites and military with the US and Europe. I told them how much Indonesia is loved in the West, by the Western economic elites and the political regimes in both US and Europe. “Indonesian people are starving, they have lost everything, but they are still generously feeding the West. They sacrificed everything for the wellbeing and the welfare states of the EU, as well as for the multi-national companies”, I summarized.
I also explained to them that as long as it is destroying its forests, mining out all that it has left under the surface of the earth, consuming foreign products and doing absolutely nothing for the welfare of its own people, Indonesia would continue to be called ‘democratic’, ‘tolerant’, and even ‘successful’.
“Your country had been colonized and ravaged by the Europeans; it had been destroyed by the US-sponsored coup of 1965 and by the savage capitalist system. Jihadi cadres that were both killing in 1965 and fought on behalf of the West in Afghanistan are now destroying what is left of the secular fabric of the Sukarno era.”
“And then your ‘opposition’, your ‘civil society: where do they go for help? We all know it: they go back to the West! They commute between Jakarta and Amsterdam, between Jakarta and Berlin, London, New York! They get almost all their funding there. Do you really, honestly think that the West is going to sponsor true opposition to its economic and geo-political interests? Please get real!”
I was speaking on the premises of the University that was guilty of putting the most monstrous capitalist system in place, right after 1965; the University that fully collaborated with Von Hayek and Friedman’s economic concepts of unchecked and unrestricted capitalism. The University that was basically bought by the West, in order to implement what Naomi Klein calls the “Shock Doctrine”, to experiment on living human beings.
They let me speak. I realized that nobody there really cared too much; nobody was scared by what I was saying. What I declared, was going to stay behind the university walls. My appearance was a “Invite the clowns” sort of show.
Somebody asked again about ‘how to change things?’ All great men that I have worked with, from Eduardo Galeano to Pramoedya Ananta Toer were allergic to such questions, and so was I, lately.
I reminded them of some of the last words of Mr. Ananta Toer, the greatest Southeast Asian novelist, that were spoken to me. He was a prisoner of conscience in Suharto’s concentration camps, a man whose books were burned and who was sidelined and endlessly embittered at the end of his life:
“Bukan reformasi – revolusi!” He proclaimed defiantly to the lens of my film camera. “Indonesia will never change through the reforms, only through revolution!”
Riding his wooden horse, Jokowi and his deputy are not carrying any revolutionary banners. Look closer at their plastic, mass-produced guns; listen to their words.
Jokowi is no Indonesian Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Lula, or Ho Chi Minh.
I actually have no idea who he is. I only know what he is not.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.