Category Archives: Jakarta

Street-kids, poverty, pollution … Jakarta after the 1997 financial crisis


Jakarta is one of the world’s most heavily populated cities, its kampongs swelled by migrants from the overcrowded Javanese countryside and from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. The city took a hit in 1997 and its people had to find ways to survive … not all of them pleasant or, for that matter, legal. I wrote this when I visited in 1999.

Jakarta, not in 1990. Public domain

A lot of Jakarta’s buildings are having a bad hair day. Their sexy steel-and-glass bodies soar up to a mess of girders and concrete pillars. Others haven’t even got the glass and cladding. As in the rest of south-east Asia, building stopped when the crisis hit.

Jakarta is hot and humid. Millions of lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks fart into the atmosphere  and what doesn’t go straight into your lungs rises to hang in a greyish pall above the city,  for consumption at a later date.

For all the business boulevards, Jakarta’s people ensure that it remains an Asian city at street level: street-stalls crowd virtually all available pavement space, selling  fried rice, boiled rice, fried noodles, boiled noodles, fried chicken, chicken soup,  meatball soup,  fried catfish, fried tofu, smoked tofu, fried bananas, fried tapioca, sate, tripes in sauce, cow’s stomach in sauce, cow’s skin, won ton,  durian,  papaya, pineapple, coca-cola, tea, coffee, fanta, a strange luminous green liquid served with another brown liquid and white noodles that look like worms… and more, if you dare to try.

The crisis means an increase in the number of beggars and street-hawkers. Some literally grovel in the gutter as traffic rushes past them; being as wretched as possible is their professional qualification. Boys play guitars at the crossroads. Others appoint themselves unoffical traffic-police at the many points where motorists make U-turns, occasionally picking up a tip for their pains. A sign that they are aware of the years that they’re knocking off their lives is the fact that some wear bandanas across their mouths in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the fumes from a thousand exhausts.

A city official says that the number of street-children has swollen from 12,636 in August 1998 to 68,688 in June 1999. Parents who’ve been laid off from building sites and factories apparently send their children out on the streeets to beg.

Meanwhile, we foreigners lock the taxi doors and tell each other the story of the woman who was stabbed in the leg by a man who jumped in her cab demanding money.

Some people find Jakarta peaceful at night. I find it sinister. Perhaps it’s just the bad street-lighting and the looming trees. Drive around town after dark and you whisk by the skeleton of unbuilt or burnt buildings,  a crossroads peopled by about a hundred hookers,  turned to caricature by make-up and headlights, gangs of men or boys loitering, people who sleep under overhead roads and railways, and the flames of the last of the street-vendors frying the last of the street-food.


A feeling of liberty – Jakarta votes after Suharto’s fall

Jakarta Photo: Open access/Ume momo

In 1999 I watched Indonesians in Jakarta’s red-light districts, Chinatown and other areas cast their ballot in a mood of elation – for many, at least – after the fall of Suharto, the corrupt repressive president who had staged an anti-communist coup in 1965. Here’s what I wrote at the time.

It’s 8.20 am on Monday 7 June 1999 and the first voter in Prawabungga steps forward.

Watched by a hundred or so other residents of this Jakarta shanty-town, he picks up ballot-papers with the names and symbols of 48 parties on them, goes into the booth to make his mark, comes out, holds the papers above his head with a flourish and places them in the urns.

Then, with a shaking hand  … thanks to the unaccustomed public attention, or is it just the close contact with officialdom? … he dips his finger into a bowl of ink, so that he is marked as having voted and can’t go round for a second shot.

For the next couple of weeks, about 100 million Indonesians will walk around with that brown-black stain on one of their fingers, a sign that they participated in the historic first election since the fall of President Suharto.

The elaborate voting procedure involves queueing until your name is called out and tackling ballot-papers as big as maps for parliamentary, provincial and district elections. It’s taking place at 320,000 polling stations throughout the vast archipelago of Indonesia, which has more than 7,000 inhabited islands and over 112 million registered voters. It’s difficult not to get carried away when quoting figures about Indonesia. They’re usually large: number of languages spoken (over 300), total population (about 203 million),  amount of money salted away by the former president’s family (US$ 73 billion, according to Time magazine).

Prawabungga’s residents probably don’t have much in the way of savings. They are street-stall-holders, pedicab-drivers or just plain unemployed.

Many of them are sex workers, and there’s evidence of the district’s raunchy night-life in the lurid film-posters that hang just above the polling-station, which appears to be in front of the local cinema.

Our party of three foreign journalists is guided by Indonesian journalists  Rin and Has. As we leave the area, I ask Rin if the prostitutes’ clients are Indonesians or tourists.

“They’re mostly lower class Indonesians,’’ she says, “lorry-drivers and the like.’’

We cross the main road and walk along the side of  a scrubby piece of waste-land in a fork in the roads. ‘That’s where they go to play,’’ she says, indicating inverted commas around ‘play’ with her fingers, Hillary-Clinton-style.

Next stop is another red-light district, although this one obviously aims for wealthier customers. Kramat Tunggak’s bars (Marco Polo, Valentinos, Adam Ayem) are closed. A few girls loiter with the cats behind the iron-work, which is painted lime-green, mauve and other catchy colours. Over 100 are dutifully queueing to vote. Others have got to the head of the queue and have the privelege of sitting under the canvas roof of the polling station, along with official observers and local dignitaries. The local dignitary in charge of the urns, decked out in flashy shirt, chunky ring, baggy trousers and pointed shoes, looks suspiciously like a pimp.

The play-hard architecture can’t disguise a pervading stink that rises from open sewers full of a thick black liquid which run alongside the dirt streets. The girls queue dutifully, most of them in tight jeans and colourful tops. There’s a scattering of older women and men. A name is called and an old woman in a shabby dress starts to shuffle across the floor, more or less in the direction of the polling booth. Her eyes are milky with cataracts. One of the observers helps her. An old man, with another of those chunky rings on his finger, waits for her outside the ropes that mark out the polling station. They shuffle off together down a grey lane.

A girl who has just voted tells us this is “Mega” territory and that during the campaign the whole area was covered in red, the colour of  the Democratic Party of Struggle, PDIP. Mega is PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founder and first president Sukarno, who has become an idol for millions, especially the urban poor.

Just as I’m beginning to fear that our guides suffer from brothel-fixation, an impression which is backed up by Has’s dubious jokes about coming back when the voting’s over, we’re off to another district. This one’s a strongly Muslim area, not far from Tanjung Priok where soldiers shot up to 200 people during a riot in 1984, turning it into a stronghold of the United Development Party, the PPP, which was the officially-created Muslim opposition party under Suharto. But now, a young observer tells us, this area too is Megawati territory.

And in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, where voters wait in order in a well-swept schoolyard with a cock crowing somewhere nearby,  businessman Jun Han switches from bahasa Indonesia to English to tell us that the vote is free and then back to say that he has voted PDIP.

A mob destroys ethnic-Chinese property in Jakarta in 1998 Photo: Public domain/Arsonal

The Chinese have special reasons for voting for a party that is seen as secular and nationalist. Along the main road scores of buildings still have all their windows smashed, like empty eye-sockets which allow a view in on scrubby boards or  smoke-blackened walls. And one large space is almost flat, apart from the broke skeleton of a concrete structure. It’s the site of a commercial centre which has been razed to the ground.

Other shops nearby are untouched. Anxious owners have often painted ‘Muslim’ and ‘pribumi’ (literally son of the soil – a “native” Indonesian) on their shutters.

Glodok was the scene of anti-Chinese riots, shortly before Suharto fell. Riots that may not have been as spontaneous as they at first seemed. Suharto’s son-in-law. Prabowo Subianto, is widely believed to have sent members of his Kostrad units to guide the outraged pribumi citizens in their destruction. Prabowo has fled this and other controversies concerning him,  reportedly to represent his brother-in-law’s firm in the Middle East. He is based in Amman, where he can always pop in to visit his personal friend, King Abdallah of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

That’s just part of the Suharto legacy. A legacy that means that Golkar, the party that the former president founded after the army seized power in 1965, is despised in Jakarta and the big cities of Java. A legacy which is sweeping Megawati into the lead, mainly because she was one of the old régime’s best-known enemies.

I arrived in Jakarta on the Thursday before polling-day. It was a day of action in support of the PDIP, so it was a bad choice from a transport point of view. But a good one for atmosphere.

I knew something was up when I met that old reporter’s standby, the taxi-driver who drove me from the airport. This one wasn’t the garrulous know-all of caricature, perhaps that was just because his English wasn’t up to communicating with me.

But his vehicle was pretty communicative. A red pennant fluttered from the aerial. A red flag with buffalo was draped on the back. And during the journey the driver took a PDIP T-shirt and fixed it the window beside him.

As we entered Jakarta, I realised that our vehicle was not the only one that was flying the flag.

Thousands of other cars, pedicabs, vans and lorries sported the party’s colours. Convoys carrying shouting and singing youths clogged up the city’s streets. Mopeds sped by in a blur of red. As on the two previous days of action, the city’s traffic moved a crawl all day. Young party supporters took over traffic duty, as the police looked on.

At one point we  trailed a lorry bearing a huge model of a buffalo,  as hundreds of people chanted the name of their heroine … “Megawati, Megawati!”

There were perhaps a million people on the streets of Jakarta,  feeling that for the first for decades someone thought they mattered. There was passion; there was sincerity; and even if there were also illusions, it was still refreshing after the stage-managed blandness and generalised cynicism of a rich-world election campaign.

There was passion again when Golkar’s cavalcades hit the streets the following day. It shared its day of action with two other parties but their combined efforts came nowhere near the PDIP on the traffic-disruptionometer.

To add to the humiliation, residents of one poor area pelted a cavalcade with stones, attacked Golkar supporters, tore their banners from them and burnt them. Previous incidents of this kind had already made party leaders loath to appear on the city’s streets.

The woman they want to be president comes from a very different background to that of most of her supporters. She is the wealthy heir to the Sukarno dynasty, who has the charisma to reduce a crowd of thousands to silence … but is reported to be haughty with her collaborators. Megawati’s party is way out in front so far. But it will have to form a coalition, probably with two reform-minded Islam-based parties.

Indonesia’s people have reawakened to politics. The residents of Prawabunga feel that at last they have a chance to make their voice heard. But how will they vent their disappointment, if Megawati lets them down?

Maybe the official election commission is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a poll which must collect in results from sprawling cities, jungle villages and far-flung islands . Maybe it’s the unaccustomed outbreak of democracy which is proving too much. Under Suharto there were only three legal parties and one of them was wrecked by a government-engineered split, because Megawati became its leader.

But many Indonesians fear that the Golkar party, through which Suharto ruled for 32 repressive years, is up to its old tricks, bullying and bribing voters to back its ticket and stuffing or losing ballot-boxes where that doesn’t work.

Most foreign observers say that the election has been relatively free and fair, although there has been a successful boycott in Aceh, orth Sumatra, where there are calls for a referendum on independence.