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A death in the family

Webdiarist Melody Kemp gives us here impressions of changes in Indonesia since her last visit there a year ago.

A Death in the Family

As we descended into Jakarta we were enclosed in the toxic murk that settles over that city like the rain cloud of bad luck over Jonah. It has always been there. Every time I returned to Jakarta from field work as far back at 1990 it was like plunging into raw asbestos. For some it had the same effect. Annually hundreds of Jakartans die from the particulates and nitrous oxide filled air.

It had been over a year since we had been there. But I had lived in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia for some 11 years.

Australians have a fear of Indonesia that is only equalled by Indonesian’s fear about Australia. The major difference is that Indonesians know far more about Australian politics than Australians know about Indonesia.

I have yet to meet someone in Australia who is not an Indonesia scholar, who can name the president of Indonesia, while the average Indonesian cab driver could slang off about the racist policies of Howard, Downer’s neo colonial attitude now thankfully gone.

As Indonesians await the news of Soeharto’s death - some eagerly, most with a shrug of disconnection, others with trepidation at the crony karma, and a few with nostalgic sadness - it was interesting for me to see what and where Indonesia is now. This is the very personal version.

Dwi fungsi, the deal that saw the Indonesian military involved in socio-political affairs and the inspiration behind Burma’s hated junta’s mode of government, had gone, but the murk was omnipresent.

Mid way through 2007 I attended a labour convention in Hong Kong where the Indonesian participants called for the nationalization of large foreign owned industry including mining. They focused their attention on the massive and corrupt Freeport McMorran mine in West Papua, known to give regular tributes to Soeharto. There was some synergy there. Both Soeharto and Freeport were in the extraction business. Soeharto’s was more nationally systematic.

Outrage was not fashionable in Soeharto’s time. Unlike the Australian Wheat Board case in Iraq, Australian business and governments continued to court Indonesia, knowing that the Family’s rent seeking was part of the price one paid, from the moment you entered the Family taxi at the Family airport and travelled the Family toll roads to the Family hotel.

The largely Muslim labour activists protested the exploitation of globalization which allows western consumers to profit from cheap Indonesian labour and showed photographs of foreign owned factories where asbestos hung on the air and the faces of the workers like Santa Snow.

The same anger that fuels the type of Islamic rallies seen on Australian TV was this time shot at capitalism and its progeny, the internationalization of production. Theirs were sophisticated arguments based on political economy and the additional burden placed on the global environment by transporting goods across the world to be assembled by powerless hirelings. While they were Muslims and all offered A’salam Aliekum (‘may peace be upon you’... the eponymous Muslim greeting), theirs was the language of class struggle and the international production underclass, not that of jihad and bombs.

Theirs were faces and arguments that the media ignores.

I asked them if things had changed in the 6 years since I had lived in Jakarta. They said they had, and I was keen to see for myself. The good, the bad, and the hopeful.

And changed they had. First the bad. The old town known as Kota - Kota, with its factory outlets, bars, gambling dens and strip joints, is now a no-go area where violence and drug-taking have escalated. Once a shopping Mecca for filled with classic Batavian architecture, and trendy restaurants favoured by the OKB (orang kaya baru, new rich), and software seeking technocrats and equally hated by the US trade Ambassador Mickey Kantor, as an international center for software piracy, it pulsated with 24 hour energy. Kantor once appeared on CNN holding aloft a pirate disc, filled as he claimed with USD20,000 worth of American software. He had bought this for USD50 - we all nodded and agreed he had been ripped off.

The Jakarta traffic is even worse and made so by unbelievably silly transport policies that favour cars, ill designed bus lanes and non separation of slow vehicles and motor bikes.

Toll roads, I gather returned to the Family after a period of meant to impress the angry justice seeking public, are groaning with cars. It took us almost 2 hours from the airport into town. In that time we had lots of time to look at the proliferation of development on and filling of the wetlands that have protected sea level Jakarta from storm surges. While still in Indonesia a poor neighbourhood was flooded presaging worse to come.

The once voluble taxi drivers are now silent and sullen. People look more stressed than before. As cost of living hikes leave more poor behind, crime and meaningless jobs multiply. Some boys direct traffic, waving and whistling, creating gridlocks so that drivers can pay about 10 cents to be directed out of them. Having a whistle is plastic power in a country of millions of powerless

I was relieved to see that jokis are still crowding the streets selling their bodies for the half an hour transit on the cities major throughways requiring 3 passengers at peak hours. They are easy to spot standing on the side of the road with one finger held out in a gesture of ‘one more’. Seven year old kids, mothers with babies in batik slings, jilbabbed and bejeaned teenagers sell themselves for a mere 5000 rupiah (50cents) which includes the bus fare back to their original location.

The police turn a blind eye to this as they have for the past ten years since the policy came in ... just like they avoid seeing corruption in their own ranks and amongst the rich.

And the rich are richer. In Bogor, home of the Non Aligned Movement we stayed at the very popular Novotel where well heeled families from Jakarta come to enjoy the cooler and marginally cleaner air. Women completely dressed in long tunic, veil and pants swim in the lap pool. The hotel is now surrounded by multimillion dollar homes. Huge mansions bristling with stainless steel three storey high windows and doubtlessly, an alarming numbers of bathrooms. I wondered hopefully if the owners paid taxes.

For the first time an Abdul Rizal Bakrie, the Minister for Social Welfare, made the list of Forbes 100 richest men. He is at the center of the case of the ongoing destructive mud eruptions in East Java that have made life a misery for many Indonesians, and for which the good Minister for Social Welfare refuses to take any responsibility.

Indonesia’s problem is not poverty but distribution. And the powers that be continue to refuse to acknowledge that, as do the donors, including Australia. Policies that favour the rich such as education fees are still promulgated by the World Bank, eager it seems to live up to its reputation as an instrument of blind capitalism.

The posh suburb of Kebayoran is now dotted with already expensive houses being turned to rubble, so that even more expensive houses with multiple garages can be built on the site.

Despite this frenzy of consumption and construction, the World Bank, we were told by one of their consultants, has earmarked a no-strings-attached, no-reform-required, USD 800 million loan, ready to go for early December 2007.

Apparently no planning guidelines, or projects had been identified. Nor guidelines for disbursal, for monitoring or evaluation. It was simply a give ‘em the loan and saddle ‘em with debt strategy by some empire building Banksters, turning the already suspect Wolfowitz and Wolfensohn accountability and anti-corruption mantras into so much greenhouse gas. The consultant was concerned that the World Bank actions would actively undermine the Indonesian Finance Minister’s very real goals of reducing the rampant corruption and cronyism that has plagued Indonesia since 1965.

A lawyer Miguel Fredes, in a fit of one would suppose was desperation, went public in January to denounce everyday rip-offs typified by his email servers piddling corruption. An unnecessary $5 charge for a battery led him to convulse with outrage that bules (foreigners) are being bled dry by thousands of small acts of dishonesty. That he paid so much for a battery shows his credulousness but it’s a sad fact that since Soeharto (maybe even before Soeharto) Indonesians prey on each other as well. It’s exhausting following the RSL’s credo of being ever vigilant and he apparently cracked under the strain..

The good. The art and literature scene is flowering. Photography and magazine culture is part of youth culture as are plays and radical music. The press is free, but intimidation of journalists who publish uncomfortable truths about the back room cronies is still commonplace. Year ago we sheltered Indonesian journalists who wrote in underground press or for foreign wire services, and were part of the then illegal trade union. Now magazines and newspapers, some of dubious quality, litter the news stands. Indonesian authors and poets hold their own at the Ubud Writers festival.

While Australians would like to characterise Muslims as down on women, Indonesia had many more women in high places than Australia. “They're called the three divas but the three most powerful women in Indonesia are anything but prima donnas”. Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Trade Minister Mari Pangestu and the central bank's Senior Deputy Governor Miranda Goeltom, form the guiding light that is gradually pulling Indonesia out of the quagmire of back door deals and family franchises.

At the risk of being repetitive, Soeharto in effect turned Indonesia into one huge franchising operation from which he and his family and cronies profited; and continue to do so. The recent Bali Climate Carnival was held in Soeharto owned hotels. The Diva’s new brand of femo-reform is what has made the possibility of recovering the lost stolen millions.

I was asked to lead a session on occupational health and safety for women trade unionists in Bogor. A veiled engineer in charge of a major power plant in Java asked me about noise and EMG. An equally veiled air traffic controller asked me about excessive aircraft noise in the tower. Only one participant represented garment workers. Feisty professionally and technically trained women defying the Western stereotypes of submissive Muslim women.

The most public of Australian concerns focuses on Islamic influences in Indonesia. There are many estimates about the number of Muslims in Indonesia. The government would like to insist it is over 80%, but that includes what are known as’ KTP Muslims’ – literally ID Card Muslims – and many who convert for marriage or for social convenience.

The hopeful. The ABC Asian news services recently trumpeted that Jema’ah Islamiya had a membership of 9000. No doubt promoting shocked outrage in Australian suburban lounge-rooms. What they failed to add was that in a population of 260 million, 9,000 does not represent recruitment success. Repeatedly, Islamic parties fare poorly in the elections. Radical Islam is much less popular than Family First.

But that could change. Officials in the Ministry of Religion are beginning to acknowledge that Indonesia could soon be an Islamic state, given current Western inspired wars, impoverishment of Muslim communities, ongoing judicial corruption and mismanagement of community conflicts and misdirected aid.

What is of great concern is the amount of money in the form of Zakat (alms) and Wakaf (wills and legacies) coming into Indonesia every day on the ever increasing number of flights from other Islamic nations. It is no surprise that when one Googles these terms, most citations are in Bahasa Indonesia.

Muslims have religio-financial obligations to give alms to others and where possible to bequeath land and money for the promotion of and tributes to Islam. In this way, huge amounts enter Indonesia from Saudi, Malaysia, Egypt, Libya, Sudan (yes), Morocco, Bangladesh (yes) and the Philippines. That the latter two, plus Sudan, are themselves poor and themselves targets of development assistance should not go unnoticed, nor should the political and ideological affiliations of each contributor. Saudi in particular promulgates the particularly puritan form of Islam known as Wahabiism. Increasingly, nations such as Egypt are proponents of Ibn Qtub, the deceased anarcho Islamicist, whose spitfire word inspire the murderous Algerian groups.

Most of this money does not go though formal banking or government channels and is thus not visible in the system on national accounts. It also goes to the poorer villages that have fallen through the filtration system infected by systemic corruption and ineptitude of the development agencies such as the World and Asian Development Banks and major bilateral agencies. Amrozi came from such a village. His mother a widowed peanut farmer, his house dirt floored and with no reticulated water. Wahabiism finds fertile soil in the powerless, oppressed and bottom-dwelling poor.

Australia’s front line defence has been a blindingly successful long term aid project that seeks to improve teaching and learning in Islamic schools. At this point I have to declare interest and say that in 2004 I was part of the evaluation team which found that virtually all the project components were incredibly successful. Students opened and managed libraries where none existed before, parents were involved in fund raising for schools, and students were getting scholarships. The secrets for success were that few Aussies were involved, the project being largely managed and run by Muslim Indonesians.

However the Bali and Embassy bombings hardened Australian hearts and honed to a vicious point negative official reaction to aid for any ‘Islamic’ aid programs. It felt and feels like collective punishment. The studiedly ignorant media fed anti-Islamic feeling by calling Amrozi the Smiling Assassin, ignorant of the cultural norm that makes Indonesians respond to anxiety, death, injury, shame and guilt by smiling.

Australian SWAT-like auditors found a Muslim consultant had been improperly using his computer. Despite inflicting a gross loss of face they turned into a swarm of paternalistic Grundys, slapping restrictions on computers, installing nanny programs and sacking him. Fundamentalism indeed.

Talking with my friends still in the team, they listlessly complained that the program had lost its spark after a stern ‘Aidocrat’ was put in charge. “Before, it was exciting; we all shared a commitment to getting the pesantrens working well. We had hope and enthusiasm. We were treated like adults. Now the manager‘s nice, but like a robot. She could be managing a water supply project in Africa. We are all bored and we have lost enthusiasm.”

This is dangerous for Australia.

Islamic schools are free and thus used increasingly by the poor in the wake of cost rises for state school education. My granddaughter’s kindergarten costs USD 400 per term, in a country where the minimum wage brings in less than USD 1,000 per year.

Indonesians reiterated that the user pays education excludes the poor who can then only send their kids to village pesantren (Islamic boarding school) where academic standards are low and curricula restricted. Teachers are often poorly trained and resourced. Into this come the Muslim carpetbaggers from Malaysia and Saudi, using Syhari’a principles in order to influence Indonesian kids to take up the puritan form of Islam that they espouse.

I noticed the greater number of swathed heads, long gowns and a few in full face covering, as well as an increasing in the number of tragic threadbare beards. Ziuddin Sardar is fond of reminding fanatical Muslims that the prophet wore a beard as the Gillette had yet to be invented.

But the message is the Saudi influence is already biting. The way to combat radical Islam is not by weapons, spies and training police, but by supporting the majority of moderate Muslims who want good education for their children, so as to open the doors of opportunity for which they don’t have the key. The new Rudd led government has many policy seismographs to check before it twiddles with the knobs of international assistance, and right now and correctly, climate change has center stage. But waiting in the wings for significant bit parts are the millions of extras who have been disenfranchised and whose lives have been made worse by development assistance to date.

Nehru once said that Indonesia was a nation of beggars. That is still true, but aid patronage does not help it move out of this mire. Puritan Islam’s biggest enemy is education, enlightenment, social and financial equity, not arrest or detention. We fail intellectually and strategically as a nation if we refuse to see this.

Howard’s worst legacies, and the ones hardest to combat, are careless arrogance, infectious ignorance, and the alarming and generalized parochialism he promoted. That the west including Australia continued to support Soeharto through the worst years or disappearances, torture and detention is a matter of shame. We supported the bed upon which the seeds of radical Islam were sewn. Engaging our largest neighbour with new and curious eyes will be a challenge.

Addendum: while writing this I received notification that Soeharto had died. Good riddance was my first thought. As the ABC reporters muttered weasel word in which ‘alleged’ predominated, I lived some of that time. I hope that the wheel of karma runs him over.

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