Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Taking an early morning walk along an earthen footpath, five minutes from my house, I was aware of how so much of Jakarta was still made up of little villages, woodland, fruit trees, vegetable patches, fish ponds, and yards full of chickens and goats and the occasional abandoned car.
A pretty girl, in Islamic headscarf and short skirt, was seated on a wall, next to a cluster of simple houses with brown tiled roofs. On the opposite side of the path stood a bare-chested lad holding a baby. Next him sat a tired looking teenage boy wearing a black peci cap. A well fed man in a turban walked past, on his way to the mosque.
"Are you well?" I asked the boy with the cap.
"I’m well," he said. He was remarkably skinny and pale, possibly aged around thirteen, and quite tall.
"What’s your name?"
"Fajar," he said, looking down at the ground, in a bashful manner.
"Have you got a cough?"
"No, mister," said Fajar, sounding exhausted.
"Do you eat plenty?"
Fajar explained that his father, a tailor by profession, was unemployed and unwell. His father had had to sell his sewing machine in order to pay for medicines.
"Sometimes my father gets very tired," said Fajar.
"Has he been for an x-ray?"
"No. He’s been to the clinic. He gets vitamin tablets."
"Can I speak to him?"
"He’s visiting my sick brother in Sumatra."
"Maybe you’ve all got TB," I said. "You should get an x-ray."
Fajar shook his head.
I was aware that I had no money on me, and decided to walk on. A well-groomed little lady in a cheap but smart suit was coming in my direction and she stopped to talk.
"I’m a Christian," she said, smiling proudly. Presumably she saw me as an ally in a country that was mainly Moslem.
"Do you live near here?" I asked. I didn’t want to get dragged into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ conversation.
"Near the main road. Just over there." She pointed in the direction of some relatively modest little houses with gardens.
"What do you do for a living?" She looked like a woman on her way to work.
"I’m an administrator."
"I’ve just been talking to Fajar back there. His family is very poor. Maybe you can help."
"I don’t know Fajar."
"He lives near you. His father’s sick."
"I’m helping my church."
"Do you want to help Fajar?"
"We’re building a beautiful church. Bigger than the mosque. You should come and see it."
"Do you want to meet Fajar?" I looked at the woman’s hurt looking face and it occurred to me too late that I could be accused of being the rich expat bullying the poor native.
"I’ve got to be going," she said, looking at her watch and hurrying off.
A few hundred yards further on my ears were gently bashed by the sound of heavy metal music coming from massive speakers, set up in a small field. Five young men wearing offensive T-shirts, jeans with holes, chains and safety pins, were dancing around like drunken punks. There were only meters away from a small mosque.
"Hello mister," one of the punks shouted. "English music. Come and join us."
I smiled at them, turned, and swiftly headed back towards Fajar. What was wrong with me? I had failed to help Fajar, and I had rejected the friendly gestures of the Christian lady and the pro-English punks.
"If you want an x-ray," I said to Fajar, "come to my house for the money." I gave him my address and began to feel a bit less grumpy. "I’ll be expecting you within the next few days," I said.
The Merdeka Ward of the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor lies in one corner of extensive grounds. When I reached the ward I could not find Firdaus. He was not in the sunny central courtyard, nor in the unlocked room on one side of the courtyard, nor in any of the cage-like cells on the opposite side of the courtyard. There seemed to be about half a dozen patients, and most of them were wandering around enjoying the morning air.
"Where’s Firdaus?" I asked the under-sized male nurse who was standing in the middle of the open courtyard. "The little boy with the scars on his chest and the bumps on his head." I was ready to punch someone’s face or rearrange someone’s limbs.
"He’s been moved to the children’s ward," said the nurse, much to the benefit of my blood pressure. "He’s no longer sick."
I glanced around the courtyard and spotted a figure in one of the cells fronted with bars. "Who’s the pretty young lady in the cage?" I asked.
"She’s got TB. Don’t go too close."
"Is she getting medicine?"
I had my doubts about the hospital providing the expensive cocktail of drugs usually necessary for a cure. "Are you sure?"
I set off through the gardens, following the directions given to me by the nurse. The children’s ward, now housed in a different building from the one I had visited in the past, was a low rise affair with clean white walls, a relatively new red roof and its own enclosed garden. I entered the office and spoke to the middle-aged lady on duty. She wore a Moslem headscarf and she had a kindly expression.
"Firdaus is watching TV," she said smiling.
As I entered the lounge area, Firdaus leapt to his feet and rushed over to me to take my hand. I felt wanted and appreciated. This was a good little kid.
"Things have improved," I said to the nurse. "No one tied up."
She explained that her Christian colleague had departed permanently to another part of the hospital.
Firdaus and I went for a pleasant walk in the hospital grounds and I bought snacks for Firdaus and the nurse.
Skinny, gangling Fajar, accompanied by two young friends called Ali and Dikin, arrived at my house late one afternoon. Ali had a thin ten-year-old body, a pleasant happy cartoon-character face and a banjo. Dikin looked like a ten year-old from a Lassie film, and he was carrying a drum.
The two musicians sat on the living room floor. Fajar slumped in an armchair.
I suspected that all three children were several years older than they looked and I decided to ask them their ages. Ali and Dikin were thirteen. Fajar was sixteen.
"You’ve decided to get an X-ray?" I asked Fajar.
Fajar nodded and I handed over the money.
"Your friends are musicians?" I asked.
"Ali and Dikin are street musicians," said Fajar.
"Are we going to have some music?"
The two musicians beamed, picked up their instruments and began to sing a typical Jakartan street song: ‘My bonnee lees over the ocean, my bonnee lees over the sea...’ It was sung with hundred per cent gusto, and a lump came to my throat.
The maid brought in some biscuits and glasses of water for the three hungry children.
"When you wash the glasses, wash them thoroughly," I said to Ami. I noticed that Ali had a cough.
As the trio departed from the house one of my neighbours was at her gate, looking vaguely puzzled. I said to myself that one of the joys of living abroad is that you don’t have to be too conventional.
Min, his family and I took a trip to Jakarta’s giant Taman Mini recreation park and took out small boats on the lake. The boats, shaped like swans, were intended to be operated by the application of one’s feet to revolving paddles. I had a boat to myself and found the paddles relatively easy to use. Min, occupying a boat with his big brother, decided it was too difficult to use his feet. He knelt down and used his hands to move the paddles. This worked, and it gave him enormous pleasure.
I wondered about Min’s brain. He had the speech of a child aged one or two, yet he was capable of the actions of a much older person. At an earlier time, he had been able to survive alone in the city; he had deep feelings, if his eyes and facial expressions were to be believed; he had a sense of humour and a mind of his own; he was capable of showing great affection to his siblings. It was as if the computer operator, consciousness, was normal, but the computer, the brain, was damaged.
Min was now almost the tallest in his family and thankfully his behaviour had calmed down. He no longer gave people friendly punches when he was feeling playful. He behaved like an adult.
Fergus and I were having afternoon tea among the potted palms at the Borobudur Hotel. The chamber music and the elegant clientele put me in mind of Florian or Quadri in Venice’s Piazza San Marco.
"How are you?" I asked Fergus.
"Masuk Angin," he said. "It’s the computer in the office and the air-conditioner in the car that cause it. Pain in the neck and shoulder and sore sinuses. Maybe I should move the computer mouse to the left hand side."
"Have you tried rubbing on menthol cream?"
"Frequently," said Fergus. "Reflexology too. I think anger comes into it. Stress."
"Due to the traffic?"
"And nasty students. Anger makes me a pain in the neck." Fergus gave a half-smile.
"They say shoulder pains are caused by a lack of flexibility, stomach pains are caused by fear and lower back pain by being fed-up."
"You been talking to a dukun?"
"No," said Fergus, as he helped himself to another dainty sandwich, "but I’ve been talking to some of our Indonesian staff. They’re depressed by what’s been happening with the PDI."
"This meeting of Megawati’s party in Medan?"
"The story is that Suharto, or maybe one of his ministers, arranged for Mega to be deposed. Officially she’s no longer party leader. This bloke called Soerjadi has taken over."
"But Mega still claims to be boss and her faction is holding on to the party HQ in Jakarta."
Carmen and I were enjoying a bottled tea in a cafe overlooking the sunny market place next to Bogor’s railway station, a little, white, nineteenth century building.
There were no donkeys but I was reminded of Marrakech’s Place Jemaa El Fna; there was was a man in a white robe examining round red fezzes and prayer mats on a wooden stall; a pack of frisky schoolboys were admiring wriggly little snakes; to the throb of drums a monkey was being jerked about on a string; the sound of sensuous Arab songs issued from a battered cassette player.
"One of the girls in the office saw something interesting," said Carmen, "not far from Jakarta’s Monas. Some kind of riot."
"When was this?"
"Last Thursday. About five thousand of Megawati’s PDI party had been demonstrating. Stones got thrown. Police and soldiers charged."
"Did the girl in the office see all this?"
"The aftermath," said Carmen, sounding unusually serious. "People running. Banners saying: ‘Megawati for President.’"
"The Telegraph had something about it."
"There’s a rumour two people were run down by army vehicles and killed," said Carmen quietly.
"Mega's not giving up," I commented. "Her people still hold onto the party HQ on Jalan Diponegoro, East of the British Embassy."
"One party. Two leaders," said Carmen, giggling. "Soerjadi supposedly approved of by Suharto and Mega supported by most of the PDI."
"So the PDI is made up of factions, just like the army?" I asked.
"There’s a moderate Moslem faction that wants Moslems to play a bigger part in Indonesian life. There’s a Christian faction but it’s relatively small. There’s a faction that wants to keep in with the powers-that-be. Lots of factions, but Mega is respected by most of them because she’s the daughter of the first president. How’s the tea Kent?"
"Interesting. I’m looking forward to some strong British tea during my August holiday."
"You planning to stay in Indonesia a few more years?"
"Yep," I said, "I want to see Min settled down, somewhere nice in the countryside; a quiet country village; a decent house; a plot of rice. How about you Carmen? Planning to stay?"
"Until I retire. There’s nowhere else with such sweet people. Such a fun way of life. Look at those kids beside that stall, dancing to the music, wiggling their hips. Got enough material for your book?"
"1990 to 1996. Yes. Then on to part two."
"How have your seven years been? Good?"
"I was fed-up just before I left London," I explained. "I was bored and neurotic. Indonesia’s almost paradise. The only bad thing is the people who get sick. Budi, Aldi, Agosto, Oya and so on."
"It happens," said Carmen, looking down at the table.
"Why do certain people get sick? Why them? Agosto got sick again and again."
"Typhoid is poor hygiene," said Carmen. "But, physical illness may be tied in with spiritual illness. Emotional illness."
"That’s what the dukuns say. Give me an example."
"When I left Africa I wasn’t feeling totally well," said Carmen, with a giggle. "I was feeling just a little unloved, broken hearted, angry. No particular reason. It’s just what happens when you leave a place."
"Not really," said Carmen. "I loved Africa but the physical appeal wore off after about three years. I became negative about the place. I needed to either change within myself, and try to love Africa warts and all, or move on. It’s important that our minds don’t get too rigid."
"You didn’t change within yourself?"
"I would have needed help for that."
"So the dukun may be needed to cure our minds," I said. "Cast out the negative spirit from the patient or those around him."
"Yes. It doesn’t always work though, as we know. I doubt the dukun could have done much for your Aldi once he had his tetanus or Oya had her water on the brain. These were hospital cases."
"I wonder if it was more than physical illness," I said. "I mean, did someone hate Aldi or his family? Aldi felt persecuted by the neighbourhood kids. Was Oya a nuisance to her mother and the new boyfriend? Was it just bad luck?"
"My drink’s finished." Carmen wiped her mouth with a tissue.
"OK. I’m taking you to visit Firdaus at the mental hospital," I said.
It was bumper to bumper blue and green minibuses as we drove by degrees along Muslihat, past Ramayana and then past the prison.
"She looks as if she’s escaped from the hospital," said Carmen pointing to a thin, ragged, barefoot woman walking slowly along the pavement past giant piles of rotting garbage. "Her hair’s absolutely filthy."
"They have an open-door policy for some of the patients," I commented.
We reached the hospital car park and began walking through the gardens.
"It’s not as bad as I thought it would be," said Carmen. "It’s like the Botanic Gardens: red frangipani, pink hibiscus, crimson rangoon creeper."
There were childish shouts of "Mister Kent! Mister Kent!" And assorted happy shrieking sounds. As we entered the children’s compound Firdaus and his mate rushed up to grab my hands. I felt appreciated.
"The one on the left is Firdaus," I said. "Look at the strange bulges on his forehead. Tumours? Wounds?" I unbuttoned Firdaus’s shirt. "Look at the scars on his chest. They think he may have fallen off the roof of a train. And the kid on the left is going blind. He’s got a funny little face, hasn’t he? One eye seems to be in the wrong place."
"Should they get treatment from a private hospital?"
"The doctors here won’t agree to that. If I take them out, they become my children. I don’t think that can be done legally."
"Don’t look now," said Carmen, "but there’s a lad over by the swing who’s just unzipped his shorts and he’s having a pee."
"Let’s take a walk to the little shop and buy some snacks. Then we’d better give our hands a thorough wash."
After our mental hospital visit, we took the back road home from Bogor, the road that twists and turns and bumps you along, making it almost impossible to read The Jakarta Post or the FT.
"There’s a story here about President Suharto going to Germany," said Carmen, "for a health checkup. He may have a heart condition or something. If he goes, permanently, things could get rough."
"You think there’s a need for a strong leader?"
"What they need is someone like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Someone tough enough to prevent factional fighting. Someone clean."
It was late afternoon and my door bell was ringing.
Thin, gangling Fajar had arrived with the two little street musicians Ali and Dikin.
As they sat themselves down on the tiled floor of my spacious lounge, the door bell rang again. The maid announced the arrival of an old man, an itinerant musician with a harp-like instrument. Seeing that the old man had the appearance of a happy little elf, I welcomed him in.
Another ring of the bell and this time it was young friends of Fajar. There was permanently smiling twelve-year-old Andri, who was curious to see the inside of my house, handsome eleven-year-old Hermanto, who sometimes accompanied Ali and Dikin on the banjo, and Hermanto’s comely teenage neighbours Sinta and Farah, who claimed to be learning English at school but who couldn’t say more than ‘Hello’. Acting as chaperones were my maid and her husband.
"Fajar," I said, "how long have you been taking the TB medicine?"
"Four weeks." He still looked tired.
"So, you’re not going to infect anyone," I said. "Is your father now taking his TB medicine?"
"Yes," said Fajar quietly.
"How’s your brother in Sumatra?"
"He was vomiting blood. He’s gone to hospital."
"Maybe he should come to a hospital in Jakarta."
"He’s got lots of relations in Sumatra."
"Your family is from Sumatra?"
"Yes, from Lampung."
I turned to smiling Andri. "Where are you from Andri?"
"Jakarta," said Andri. "I’m a local, a Betawi." I noticed his threadbare clothes.
"Andri’s Chinese," said Hermanto, smirking.
"Half," said Andri, blushing. "My mum’s not Chinese."
"Are you Moslem?" I asked Andri.
"Yes," said Andri, looking pleased.
The maid brought in plates of rice and vegetables every morsel of which was pressed into hungry mouths. The music began with a high wailing song from the old man. This was followed by street songs, from Ali and Dikin, which everyone joined in. Next came dangdut music, prompting Andri and Hermanto to get up and dance. You can never be lonely in Java.
It was a Saturday morning.
My vehicle inched its way into the little market town of Parung, which is on the back road to Bogor, and which is the meeting place of two narrow and particularly busy roads.
The traffic stopped and became completely jammed.
A very fat little policeman and a skeletally thin policeman looked as if they had given up trying to get the traffic moving and were resignedly breathing in the thick brown fumes of buses and lorries.
After a wait of ten minutes, my stomach began to tense up.
I ordered Mo to park at the side of the road, jumped out of my vehicle and set off on a walk.
I left the long dusty street of concrete, garage-like shops and crossed an area of weed-covered parkland where small barefoot boys were playing football under a deep blue sky.
At the edge of the parkland stood a home-made wooden shack, outside which sat a barefoot old crone, possibly in her late forties.
Beside her sat her depressed-looking little son, aged about four.
I felt instantly sorry for the four-year-old as he and his mother conjured up images of Victorian poverty and distressed characters in Grimms’ fairy stories.
The woman told me that she was unwell and pulled down part of her grey blouse to reveal a large dark misshapen growth on one of her meagre breasts. She told me her name was Nurul and that her husband lived in Jakarta.
Nurul seemed resigned to her condition, but was eventually persuaded to come with me to the nearest doctor’s clinic. We set off on foot.
A serious-looking woman doctor examined Nurul, diagnosed breast cancer, and explained that surgery at a hospital was almost certainly required.
Nurul was adamant that she was not going to a hospital and was certainly not going to let anyone get at her with a knife.
The doctor failed to change Nurul’s mind and so dispensed some rather expensive pills. I assumed the doctor knew what she was doing.
Having said goodbye to Nurul, and having promised to return within a few weeks to get her more pills, I returned to my vehicle and found that the traffic had eased and that my journey could continue.
Somewhere between Parung and Bogor I asked the driver to stop. I needed some exercise and it is always exciting getting out in the middle of nowhere. I set off down an unknown track.
There was a steep descent, through some trees and an impoverished hamlet, down to some fish ponds.
And at the water's edge there was a wonderful surprise: a house-sized statue of a fat grinning dwarf-creature sat above a stupa.
Some giggly young girls and boys had followed me and they were now disporting themselves around the base of the monument.
From the trees came a very old man of diminutive stature. He had the same roundish body and the same friendly smile as the statue.
"President Suharto comes here at particular dates," said the man.
"Suharto?" It was difficult to imagine the elderly president walking down the rough path past the falling down shacks of the hamlet.
"Yes, the President. This structure is linked to others in different parts of Java."
"What’s the link?" I asked.
"It’s to do with energy flow," said the man. "Energy flows along lines between holy sites."
"Ley lines?" I asked, but the man had not heard that term before.
"The energy can help you to understand things better, can help you to be in harmony with God."
"We need all things to be in harmony to avoid disease and disaster."
"How does the energy work?"
"Every object contains energy or power. The trees and mountains and animals. It is important to have things in balance."
"So, is this place here very special? Is it a special place in the universe?"
"Everywhere is special. The universe is in every person and in every place." The man smiled his gnome-like laughing smile.
The funny thing was that I sort-of believed him.
Thanks to Samsu, I had read about physicist David Bohm’s belief that all the information about the entire universe is contained within each of its many parts. It’s like a hologram. The whole is in every part. The world is an indivisible whole. There is only one of us.
I had read about physicist Alain Aspect's discovery that small particles, many miles apart, could appear to communicate with each other, as if they were part of the same whole. Well, these physicists do do strange things.
"The universe is in everything?" I said. "Have you heard of quantum physics?"
The man gave me a blank stare. "I don’t know about that," he said.
"Is this statue Islamic?" I was remembering that Indonesia has more Moslems than the entire Arab world and that Islam in Indonesia has a strong spiritual side.
"No," said the man, shaking his head.
"So the statue is animist? Or it’s linked to Hinduism?"
"It’s something traditional," said the old man, who didn’t seem to understand the words ‘animist’ or ‘Hinduism’.
There was a call from somewhere up near the hamlet and the old man shook my hand and wandered off into the trees.
I decided to continue my walk and followed a path alongside a narrow river sided by rice fields and the occasional banana tree. Some of the children decided to follow me through this sunny world of magical colours.
It was near the end of July 1996 and, while I was in my bedroom doing my packing for my holiday trip to Britain, I was listening to the world service of the BBC.
To my alarm, the news was about rioting in Jakarta.
It seems that, early in the morning, the party headquarters of Megawati had been attacked by men claiming to be supporters of her rival Soerjadi. After a two hour clash, the police had moved in and Megawati’s people had been ejected.
Scores of people had been taken to hospital with serious wounds and scores of Megawati’s supporters had been arrested.
During the afternoon stones had been thrown at the military and rioting had taken place in more than one part of central Jakarta. I switched on the television to watch the evening news and saw scenes of smoke rising from burning vehicles and buildings.
Then the phone rang. It was Fergus wondering if I had seen the TV news.
"Nothing to worry about," said Fergus, in his usual calm voice. "The authorities seem to have got things under control."
"Is it going to be safe if I go into town tomorrow?" I tried not to make my voice go too high.
"This trouble is only in one very small part of Jakarta," said Fergus. "There have been troubles before. Suharto will stamp on it hard. I’ve been out to the shops and it’s all perfectly calm. And now I’m off to play squash."
The day before my holiday trip to Britain I met Carmen for a coffee at cafe in Kemang in South Jakarta. It was one of those American franchises with bright coloured plastic tables and uncomfortable seats.
"What’s in your Telegraph?" asked Carmen.
"It’s an old Telegraph. There’s a story about some women in Britain raiding an airfield where Hawk fighters were based. It seems the Hawk is used in East Timor. The rumour is that the Indonesians often get aid on condition they buy British-made water cannons or jets."
"I remember a Labour government in 1969 selling weapons to Nigeria," said Carmen with her habitual chuckle, "and not seeming to worry too much about the Biafrans."
"There’s not been much in the British papers about the take over of Megawati’s HQ," I commented. "Fergus seems to think the recent riots are nothing to worry about."
"I’m not so sure," said Carmen. "My driver said that thousands of people poured out of the slums and that a number of people were killed. Worst riots since 1974."
"What happened in 1974?"
"Ah," said Carmen, almost convulsed with excitement, "the ’74 riots were started by undercover intelligence agents."
"You’re a conspiracy theorist?"
"The Guy Fawkes plot," said Carmen, "was probably the work of King James’s spy master. He set up the plot so he could clamp down on Catholics and increase his own power."
"So, in 1974, was it President Suharto who was behind the riots?"
"Not necessarily," said Carmen. "King James didn’t know what his spy master was up to. Now, in 1974, one of the chiefs of one of the spy agencies may have been looking for an excuse to clamp down on student dissidents, and may have been looking for a way to increase his own power."
"You’re suggesting that Suharto may not always be in control of his own spy agencies."
"Exactly," said Carmen with a giggle. "President Kennedy obviously didn’t foresee that part of his intelligence apparatus was plotting against him."
"So, these recent riots, are the work of some hidden force?"
"Suharto benefits from the removal of Megawati, because Megawati is very popular. But the riots don’t help Suharto."
"Don’t the riots allow the government to clamp down on students and people like the Democratic People’s Party?"
"Yes," said Carmen, "but the riots make Suharto look weak. They may be part of a long-term plan to topple the president."
"Any other scandal, rumour and gossip to cheer me up?"
"Yes," said Carmen. "My driver said he had heard a rumour that Suharto’s wife did not die from natural causes. She was allegedly accidentally shot during an argument between her sons Tommy and Bambang."
"Any details? Any proof?"
"None. But listen to this. You’ve heard of Eddy Tansil?"
"Eddy Tansil," I said. "Chinese-Indonesian businessman, given a twenty year jail sentence about two years ago. He was said to have bribed people at one of the state banks. The bank gave him a loan to build a factory. The money was misspent. He supposedly stole about five hundred million US dollars."
"And, as you know," said Carmen, "he escaped from Cipinang jail a few months ago. Well, the rumour is that, to pay for his escape, he bribed the late president’s wife and bribed Liem Sioe Liong, also known as Salim. You know Salim?"
"Salim is the rich Chinese business partner of Suharto. He’s into everything from noodles and cement to textiles and electronics."
"Right. One of the six richest people in the world."
"So, does Salim own Indonesia?"
"No," said Carmen, as she finished her coffee. "It’s not just Salim. There are the other ultra-rich Chinese-Indonesians, such as Prajogo, Pangestu and Widjaja."
"You’re forgetting certain non-Chinese Indonesians, certain pribumi."
"I’d forgotten," said Carmen with her usual laugh. "The President’s family. And his friends like Habibie."
"And you’re forgetting the Americans. Freeport and all those other American companies."
"Yes," said Carmen, "but the point is that certain people in the army are not too happy about the wealth of certain Chinese and certain members of the Suharto clan."
Before heading for the airport and my brief holiday in England, I made sure that I called in on Min. Was it going to be safe to drive deep into the city? The streets seemed quieter than usual; but there were no signs of the military or of damaged property.
Min’s kampung appeared no different from usual; goats wandered peacefully, schoolchildren smiled happily and workmen hammered away as usual at bits of car and bike in little repair shops. Min was looking well and his mum seemed unconcerned by the political situation.
"We don’t have time to worry about these things," she said. "We just get on with our work."
As I left for the airport I was thinking about physicist Alain Aspect’s discovery that particles, thousands of miles apart, could apparently communicate with each other. Would I be able to communicate telepathically with Min while I was in England? I would never know. Min’s vocabulary was so limited that he would not be able to tell me what had gone through his mind while I was away.
I was back in Indonesia, having endured the usual sixteen hour flight from London. I walked smartly through the glass-walled halls of Soekarno-Hatta Airport and hurried out into the warm balmy air to be met by my faithful driver.
We travelled along the toll expressway towards Jakarta, city of over fourteen million souls. In spite of the recent riots, Jakarta looked no different from usual.
I was looking forward to more explorations and adventures in the countryside around the city. But first I was desperate to see Min.
As I drove up to Min’s house, I could see that Min was standing at his front door staring out onto the street. Did he know I was going to arrive at that particular moment, or was it just coincidence? Did he normally stand there much of the day? He gave me a nervous, tight-faced smile as I patted him on the arm. His mum assured me that Min was in good health. For at least a year I had been making my meetings with Min less and less frequent, so as to condition him for the day when I would eventually have to leave Indonesia. I hoped the conditioning was working.
Min, his mum and I took a walk to the home of the little tubercular twins Sani and Indra. The twins had grown taller, but no fatter. We met little Saib, the boy who had had a stone removed from his bladder. Saib gave us a shy smile and assured us he was still attending school.
On my second evening back in Jakarta, tubercular Fajar and the little musicians, Ali and Dikin, arrived at my house. Fajar looked a little brighter in his eyes, but Ali was complaining of a headache and weariness. We took Ali to the hospital and it turned out that he was yet another victim of TB. He started to take his cocktail of medicines.
On a morning journey to Bogor I stopped off in Parung to see Nurul, the woman with lumps on her breasts. She was sitting on a mat at the front door of her wooden shack, her big-eyed little son at her side. I asked her if she had changed her mind about going to the hospital. She was still determined not to go. I asked her how much of the medicine she had left. She said that she had stopped taking the medicine as it made her feel sick. After failing to persuade her to change her mind about medical treatment, I left her some money, and motored on to Bogor to visit the family of Asep.
In Bogor Baru I walked through the fields of rice and tapioca until I came to the dark, damp hollow under the trees and the damp, earth-floor house where Asep had once lived, before dying of TB. Standing outside the house were Asep’s son, grinning and looking taller and less malnourished, and Asep’s daughter, still innocent and sweet in appearance. My driver had been coming to Asep’s house once a month to deliver a little money for the family. I confirmed with Asep’s smiling wife that she had been receiving the money and apparently making good use of it.
Near Asep’s house I spotted little Andi. He too was taller, but his swollen tummy suggested he still had worms.
At the mental hospital I was met with shrieks of joy by both Firdaus, the boy with the scars and lumps, and by the boy with the strange eyes. The female nurse who was in charge suggested we take the two children for a short run in my van, and stop off at a shop. We drove past the golf course, stopped at a little store, bought packets of noodles, tinned milk and biscuits and then returned to the hospital.
Near Bogor’s Jalan Pledeng, I called in at the simple red-roofed home of elfin schoolboy Dede, brother of gypsy-faced Rama.
"How are you and how is your sister?" I asked Dede who was sprawled out on the settee. I noted that his hair had grown long and that he was wearing dark glasses, an earring, a heavy-metal T-shirt, and ripped jeans. There was no sign of Rama or granny.
"Fine, mister," said Dede. "But I’ve had dysentery."
Now, what did I know about dysentery? There is bacillary dysentery caused by bacteria. There is amoebic dysentery caused by a tiny amoeba. And sometimes dysentery can be caused by parasitic worms. One study done on a sample of several hundred apparently healthy Indonesian schoolchildren showed that over 70% of them had some type of parasitic infection.
In some areas, 80% of Indonesians have had bacillary dysentery by the time they’re aged five. With bacillary dysentery, the disease strikes suddenly. At its worst there is abdominal pain, stools may become watery, there may be fever, nausea and vomiting, and there may be muscular pains, chills, backache and headache. After one or two days there can be pain in the rectum and lower abdomen and frequent small stools which may or may not contain mucus and blood. In severe cases there may be rapid weight loss and dehydration; the bug invades the lining of the large bowel and multiplies there, killing cells. Occasionally the bug invades the bowel beyond the surface lining. One form of bacillary dysentery produces a toxin, which causes additional tissue damage, and may lead to kidney failure. A doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Some strains of the bug are becoming resistant.
Amoebic Dysentery is common in Indonesia. In some regions over half the population are carriers of amoebic cysts. This is partly because human excrement is used as fertiliser. The cyst is the inactive stage. When cysts enter the body with contaminated food or water they are changed inside the intestine into active amoebas and may cause dysentery. The symptoms usually begin gradually. Some people who have the amoeba show no symptoms. But if the amoeba gets through the intestinal wall, ulceration takes place and there is diarrhoea which may be mild or which may involve high fever and frequent watery stools with blood and mucus.
With chronic amoebic dysentery, the patient gets diarrhoea, lasting for 1 to 2 weeks, several times a year. This can be dangerous if the amoebae spread to the liver or brain, and form abscesses there. Destruction of liver tissue is the most frequent complication of amoebic dysentery. Infection by amoebas, whether of the intestine alone or of other parts of the body, is called amebiasis. To diagnose dysentery a hospital should take several fresh stool samples over a number of days. This is because some of the stool samples of infected people will show no signs of amoeba. The disease may be treated with a ten day course of a drug like metronidazole to remove the amoeba from the intestines, with a drug such as iodoquinol to make sure the bug is completely killed off, with an antibiotic to deal with any bacterial infection, and finally with a drug to deal with any infection of the liver.
"What kind of dysentery have you had?" I asked Dede.
"Don’t know," said Dede.
"Did the doctor do any tests? Did he take a sample of any diarrhoea?"
"No," said Dede, with an amused look on his face.
"What medicine did he give you?"
Dede showed me a small cheap plastic envelope which failed to list the name of the medicine it had once contained.
"The doctor told me to keep my finger nails clean," said Dede, holding up nails that looked cleaner than those of your average Indonesian.
"Are you better now?" I asked. I had noted that Dede showed no obvious signs of weight loss.
"I’m better now," said Dede.
I politely declined the offer of tea and cakes.
After lunch of cola and biscuits at the Internusa shopping centre, I went for a stroll. Outside a brightly painted Moslem school, a brick structure that appeared to consist of perhaps only one or two classrooms, a skinny young boy with skinny bare legs was selling cakes from a tray. Around the boy, tropical sunlight created Matisse-like blocks of brilliant colour: the blue of the school door, the green of the wall, the pink of the boy’s shirt. The boy’s eyes sparkled with joy and his smile was wide and almost saucy. I took a photo and gave the child a few coins. He told me his name was Chandra.
I continued my walk, ascending steep stone paths and following winding lanes. It was Bogor at its best: a jumble of house walls and flowering shrubs with different shapes and textures and smells, a host of happy children, and the sort of air of gaiety you might expect on a sunny day on Italy’s Amalfi coast.
After half an hour I found myself back near the Moslem school and sighted Chandra with a group of small friends.
"Give me some money," said Chandra, holding out his hand and not smiling.
"I’ve already given you some," I explained.
"I need money," said Chandra, scowling.
"I’m not giving you any more."
Chandra’s eyes looked moist. He turned his back on me and stomped off.
The following weekend, back once more in Bogor, I walked along the sun-dappled banks of the River Cisadane to the home of Melati, Dian, Tikus and the fruit bat.
I was invited to have a seat in the front room. Only Dian and Tikus were at home. Dian gave me a strained smile and assured me that she was well. Tikus, sprawled on the settee, and didn’t bother to contain his yawns. I struggled to make conversation. I swiftly got the message that they were not in the mood for entertaining me, so made my excuses and went for a solitary walk.
After lunch near the Internusa Shopping Centre, I took a stroll through the nearby kampungs. Having passed a bungalow-sized mosque and a number of simple houses with gloomy interiors, I descended a steep lane and reached a dank, sunless quarter next the small and murky river Ciparigi. It was how the slummier parts of Venice might have been in a previous century. There was a smell of dampness, dead vegetation and waters polluted by human waste.
Outside a basic brick and concrete house, occupying a sloping site, stood a big-boned woman, a small girl, and Chandra, the boy with the skinny legs and pink shirt, the boy who had claimed he needed money. When he saw me coming, Chandra climbed the steps of his house and disappeared inside.
"Chandra lives here?" I asked the woman.
"Yes. His mother has just died."
"Died?" I felt an element of shock in my chest.
"She had TB."
Now I knew why Chandra had wanted money.
I left the scene but returned one week later to persuade the boy’s emaciated-looking father that he and his children should have a hospital check-up. It transpired that one daughter, a girl in her late teens who looked quite plump and healthy, had TB in the form of a lump on the top of her shoulder. This was non-pulmonary TB, evidently quite common in parts of Asia. Some patients with tubercular lumps can appear otherwise healthy, with no weight loss and no cough. She began receiving medicine and had recovered within a year.
Chandra always kept his distance on the rare occasions I visited the daughter to check that she was taking her pills.
Out for some Sunday morning exercise, in an area only five minutes from my local supermarket, I walked through sun-drenched meadows with happily grazing goats, kampungs with red-and-green-roofed houses, fields of tapioca, and patches of tall fruit trees.
Beside a small stream stood a group of boys, one of whom, aged about thirteen, had a cheeky grin on his rather plain face and a nasty abscess on his bare leg. This boy told me that his name was Novi, and he had not had any medical treatment for his wound. I gave him some money to pay for a visit to the doctor and he promised to provide me with a receipt, should I bump into him again.
Next afternoon, Novi arrived at my front door, with a doctor’s receipt.
"How did you find my house?" I asked.
"My father is a neighbourhood chief," said Novi, "and he asked the other local neighbourhood chiefs, the other RT’s, if they knew of a white man living nearby, someone who likes wandering through kampungs. Your own neighbourhood chief, your own RT, lives in the very small house at the end of your road and he’s seen you going for walks."
"I’m amazed," I said. I had never met my neighbourhood chief and it had not really occurred to me that, as one of the tiny handful of expats in the area, I must stand out like a sore thumb.
"My father hopes you’ll come and visit him," said Novi.
I loved visiting Indonesians’ houses and let Novi take me straight away to visit his family.
The home of Pak RT, or Mr RT, stood on the edge of a hamlet and was larger than average, big enough to house an extended family. It had that home-made, slightly dishevelled look of kampung houses. Some of the musty green-brown roof tiles looked loose; water was provided by a well; chickens ran about in front of the open front door.
The cavernous living room, into which I was invited, had a bare concrete floor, well-worn furniture, but a larger than normal TV. Pak RT came forward to shake my hand. He looked as if he was in his late fifties; he was tall and his hands were big and muscular; his manner seemed placid and amiable, like that of a simple farm worker.
"I am a retired soldier," he said, as he sat back in his chair.
"And you are the elected neighbourhood chief," I said. "I want to learn all about that."
He proceeded to tell me that he was elected by the thirty households in his area. Elections were held every three years. He helped his neighbours with government form filling; he organised kerja bakti, voluntary work, such as ditch clearing or celebrations of Independence Day; he settled neighbourhood disputes; he had helped to raise money for the building of a musholla, a small mosque.
"Are you a rich man?" I asked.
Pak RT’s wife, who had been hovering in the background, gave out a laugh.
"We are poor," she said.
Pak RT’s wife was much younger than her husband; she wore a well-cut trouser suit and a gold watch; she looked sharp, self-confident and alert. She would not have looked out of place in a smart shopping mall.
"Does Pak RT get paid for his work," I asked.
"It’s not like being a civil servant," she said. "No big cars. All we get is a small monthly contribution from the local people. This is a poor neighbourhood."
"Do soldiers get well paid?" I asked.
"No," said Pak RT, unsmiling. "I wasn’t an officer. I couldn’t become an officer because I didn’t have the money."
"You have to pay to become an officer?" I asked.
Pak RT shrugged his shoulders; he seemed to have decided to keep quiet on the subject.
"My husband had to have two jobs," said Pak RT’s wife, breaking the silence. "While he was a soldier, he also had to do private work as a guard."
There were two teenage girls standing shyly at the far end of the room; and there were four young boys, perhaps cousins or friends, who had joined Novi and who were now standing beside Pak RT. The boys were not shy. One boy, with a cheeky-monkey face, held up three fingers, then one finger, and whispered some rude words in English while staring in my direction. Pak RT ignored this.
The following afternoon, Novi arrived at my front gate with a letter from his mother. It was a request for a sum of money to help pay for Novi’s schooling. I explained to Novi that I only helped very poor people and he was not one of the very poor. I politely got rid of Novi and put the letter in the bin.
Another letter arrived the following day and I wrote a courteous reply, repeating what I had already said to Novi.
Next came a series of telephone calls from Novi, begging for money.
Eventually he gave up.
Near Bogor’s Empang Market, I came upon a shopping street that looked as if it had not altered much in appearance since the time of Dutch colonial rule; the buildings were relatively small and seemed to be a mixture of neo-classical Dutch, with squat shapes and cheap Doric columns, and Art-Deco, with cool classy rectangles and curves; the paintwork on most of the buildings looked tired and grey with dust. As I meandered along this street I spotted a fragile old woman sitting on the pavement. She had a fist-sized lump on her neck and yet she managed to give me a sweet smile.
We made conversation. She said she had difficulty talking, eating and breathing. She had no family and lived on the street. My invitation to take her to the nearby Labar Hospital was accepted. A young doctor agreed to admit her as a patient, in spite of the fact that she was a street-person and had no family to guard over her in hospital.
While I was in the accident and emergency ward, a dark and gloomy place, I listened to the hysterical wails of the mother of a girl aged about four. The girl had what looked like a hole in her torso, just below her stomach. When I asked what the problem was, the young doctor explained that the child had been born without an anus; she had to use a tube attached to a bag; the family were desperate for a permanent solution to the girl’s problems; the Labar hospital was too small to provide the sort of operation required by the girl. The mother was plainly dressed and obviously not rich. I offered to take the mother and daughter to a hospital in Jakarta. The mother consulted her husband who had been waiting in a corridor and my offer was greeted with enthusiasm.
Jakarta’s Kota Hospital, which had been recommended by the Bogor doctor, is a big sky-scraping concrete shoe-box, like a giant council block in Sheffield. We were introduced to a surgeon, a big man in his fifties, who seemed to have more of the appearance of a plumber than a doctor. The surgeon agreed to have the child admitted to the hospital. I agreed to return the following evening with some money.
"You don’t have to pay," said the surgeon.
"I thought everyone had to pay for treatment," I said.
"Not everyone has to pay," said the surgeon. "Poor people don’t have to pay. And some people who work for the government have insurance."
"But I’ve never before come across a hospital where payment is not required."
"I assure you, there is nothing to pay."
After school next day, I hurried to the Kota Hospital and found the surgeon in a corridor.
"Your friends have gone," he said.
"Without an operation?" I said.
"Without an operation. They decided to return to their home."
I wanted to find out more, but the surgeon shook my hand, praised me for my kindness, and hurried off.
So, what was I to make of it? Had the parents changed their minds? Had the hospital decided it did not have the money or the expertise for the operation? And if the girl had stayed longer, and had had the operation, would it have been a success? I will never know. I never saw the family again.
At the weekend I motored to Bogor and called in at the ward of the Labar Hospital where the old lady with lump on her neck was staying. She was nowhere to be seen. A nurse claimed not to know of the lady with the neck lump. I left the ward and wandered along a corridor. There was a door on my left. I opened it and entered a small room with one bed. On the bed was my patient, eyes closed and looking grey. I touched her arm. It was cold and hard. The lady was dead.
At the reception desk I insisted that I must see the director of the hospital.
"The director is not here," said the receptionist, looking slightly shaken by my obvious anger. "But I’ll make an appointment for you to see him tomorrow."
Next evening I met the director, a small, grey haired, former army doctor, who had a reassuringly worried manner.
"We are sorry about what has happened," said the director. "The old lady had cancer. It had affected her ability to breathe."
From the director there appeared to be none of the arrogance or deceit that one sometimes encounters among members of the elite. I felt disarmed. I shook the man’s hand and left.
Would the lady have lived longer if she had remained sleeping on the street? There was no way of answering that question. What I did know was that both the Labar Hospital and the Kota Hospital were run by the government. Government hospitals were cheap but, according to my driver, they were best avoided.
I needed some fresh air and cheering up.
When Saturday came, I agreed to the request by Min’s family to take them to visit their relatives in the market town of Dengklok, a journey of forty miles.
The toll road took us eastwards from Jakarta through flat and unremarkable countryside. This could have been Western European, except that, alongside the occasional industrial estate, I could see the sort of impoverished hamlet you might find in parts of Eastern Europe.
Near the town of Karawang, we turned north, taking a series of minor roads into an older world of spacious rice fields. There were long straight villages heavily shaded by massive trees and prettified by hibiscus and bougainvillea.
Dengklok itself was a sprawling settlement on a wide flat plain that stretched away to the horizon. The town had probably not changed that much in the previous hundred years.
The tropical sun shone down on our air-conditioned vehicle as we drove through town. Hordes of happy and rumbustious schoolchildren, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, were heading home from morning school; goats grazed on patches of rough grassland; elderly residents sat outside dog-eared bungalows which were in need of some repair; women were washing clothes beside a wide brown river; shoppers in the market place seemed neither affluent nor in a hurry; I spotted a Buddhist temple, a number of small mosques, a rather large church and the usual army barracks.
Min’s uncle and aunt lived on the edge of town, in a homespun house, sheltering under palm trees, and with a view of rice fields stretching to a far distant area of woodland. Uncle and aunt had warm smiles, thin bodies and the sort of hands and muscles I associated with people who did farm work; aunt’s dress was simple and well worn, in contrast with the magnificent green blouse and long brown Javanese skirt worn by Min’s mum. The greetings were formal, involving kissing of hands; the language spoken was Sundanese, not a word of which I could understand.
The inside of the house seemed to be one large, sunless room divided up by interwoven split bamboo partitions. At the front was the living room and at the back were three small sleeping areas, very dark due to the absence of window light. The kitchen was in a kind of outhouse at the back. The floor was spotlessly clean, but there were cobwebs in the high roof, and the stained walls both internal and external could have done with a coat of paint.
I felt it was best to let Min’s family have their get-together in private, and so took a walk with a chirpy Min and with Gani, Min’s impassive-faced brother-in-law from Jakarta. We followed a path sided by coconut palms and fruit trees, and passed a variety of types of habitation.
"Why do people live under the trees?" I asked Gani.
"The sun and the heavy rain," he said. "The trees give protection. The trees also give firewood."
"And is the wood from the trees used to make the houses?"
"The coconut wood makes the frame of the house. But bamboo is used for some walls."
I could see that the poorer houses had walls entirely of bamboo, while the slightly wealthier houses used brick or a combination of brick and bamboo.
"What are the houses built on?"
"Sometimes concrete. Sometimes the floors are just earth. It’s not like in some other parts of Indonesia where the houses are on stilts."
We came to a weather-beaten bamboo house and I imagined it was of the same design that had been used back in the Middle Ages, when Java was Hindu-Buddhist. At the back of the house was a bamboo structure housing goats and another one full of chickens. There was a definite farm smell in the air.
"Do these people build their own houses?" I asked.
"They get help. All the local men will help."
We came to a group of tired-looking bungalows which were typical of certain lower-middle-income sections of Javanese towns. These homes appeared to be held up by pillars of concrete rather than wood. And they had the usual mass-produced and slightly tacky neo-classical pillars and the usual mildewed ceramic roof-tiles.
On our return to Min’s uncle’s house I sat outside on a wooden bench, alongside Gani, Min and a couple of teenage boys, and watched the world go by. In the distance a man on a bicycle was transporting great bundles of what looked like animal-fodder. Closer to hand, a youth was high up in a coconut palm, hacking away with a machete. The small children who came to stare at us looked slightly ragged, but they had gorgeous sparkling eyes, wide mischievous grins and sensuous curving noses and lips.
This seemed like the sort of place where I might be happy to live. The sky was a dense and warming blue; ruffling the palm fronds was a gentle breeze; and the air was sweetly scented by pink hibiscus and solandra of a yellow hue. And yet, we were many miles from a modern supermarket or a modern hospital. And there was the problem of overpopulation.
On my next visit to Parung, I found that the lady with the breast cancer had wasted away almost to a skeleton. She still refused to go to hospital, but she was happy to take some money.
"Money, money," she said, with a dark grin. "I love money."
The lady’s husband had made an appearance. He was surprisingly young, reasonably good-looking, perhaps in his early thirties; he worked at some kind of market stall in Jakarta. The small son’s eyes seemed to have got bigger and more worried-looking.
A few weeks later, the Parung lady was dead.
One of the woman’s neighbours told me that the little boy and his older brothers had gone to live with a grandmother.
Out to explore one of Bogor’s hilly kampungs one Saturday morning, I walked past the Labar Hospital and came to a rubbish tip, a sizeable pile of discarded waste right next to the pavement. Lying on top of this rubbish tip was a young woman who looked like a victim of a concentration camp. I stopped a passer-by, a stylishly dressed lady in her thirties, and asked her if she thought the malnourished woman should be taken to the Labar Hospital.
"It’s too late for that," said the lady, who seemed keen to get away from me as swiftly as possible. "She’s already been in hospital."
I tried addressing the anorexic woman, but all I got was a sickly whine. I called on Mo, my driver, and together we managed to get the poor woman to Bogor’s privately run Menteng Hospital.
"The woman is mentally backward and has no family," said the tall doctor on duty in the emergency ward. "We can’t take her."
I wondered about trying the mental hospital. Then I remembered the disappearance of Chong and the sickness of John. Mo and I drove our patient to the Christian-run Teluk Gong Hospital in Jakarta.
On arrival, I explained as little as I could about the patient. I did not want the hospital to know that she was mentally backward. I simply said that the poor girl on the stretcher was an acquaintance from Bogor, that she had become ill and that I was hoping she would be admitted for tests.
"What’s her name?" asked the little bald-headed Chinese doctor.
I had to think quickly. "Jasmin," I said, hoping that that was an Indonesian name.
"I think Jasmin has TB," said the doctor with a sympathetic smile.
Jasmin was admitted to a third class ward.
It was Ramadan once more, the end of January 1997, and the newspapers were full of news from Dengklok, which I had so recently visited with Min’s family. There had been a riot in that peaceful little town of 200,000 people. Mobs had attacked churches, a Chinese temple, two houses and scores of businesses.
As the days went by the story slowly emerged: very early on the 30th January, some youths, possibly of school age, were having their breakfast before starting the day’s fasting; the youths started banging the big drums at the mosque; a Chinese-Indonesian woman shouted rudely at the youths, telling them to make less noise; apparently in retaliation a mob attacked the home of the Chinese-Indonesian woman.
At the market, around six in the morning, the mob ransacked a shop owned by the Chinese-Indonesian woman’s family; next to be attacked were houses and shops on Berdikari Street; on Proklamasi Street there was an assault on the Indonesian Christian Church; stones were thrown at the police who escorted the family of the Chinese-Indonesian woman to the safety of Karawang.
A mob of around two hundred people, described as being mostly primary and secondary school children, proceeded to the Bethel Tabernakel Church, where they were faced by a force of about twenty soldiers and police; the children and youths had no difficulty in entering the church, picking up chairs and throwing them into the street; Buddhist temples were attacked; near a Chinese owned bank four cars were set on fire; Moslems spray-painted the word ‘Moslem’ on their properties to avoid them being attacked; some Moslems painted the word ‘Moslem’ on the homes of their Christian neighbours so as to protect them also.
Around 11.30 in the morning the windows of a Christian school were smashed; the army and police, including three military trucks, encouraged the mob to move on; troops and riot police set up road blocks and began patrolling the streets; within a few days, the market was back to its normal busy self.
Several days after the Dengklok riots I was in my local supermarket when I bumped into Mary, the mother of one of my most polite, cheerful and conscientious students. Mary was a gentle woman, expensively but soberly dressed, Chinese-Singaporean and staunchly Christian.
"What caused the Dengklok riots?" I asked her, after we had exchanged pleasantries about the weather and the poor quality of the supermarket chicken.
"These people are very poor," she said, quietly. "They resent the Chinese. They think the Chinese-Indonesians are corrupt and disloyal to Indonesia. They see them as the Jews of Asia."
"So it was an attack on the Chinese rather than an attack on Christians?"
"It was a lot of things," said Mary, looking me straight in the eye. "The Moslems see the Chinese-Indonesians drive up to a big expensive church building in their luxury cars. Or they see them going to a wealthy Buddhist temple. The Chinese probably own most of the shops and bigger businesses in Dengklok. The Chinese are only about three percent of the population but they seem to have a lot of the money. They seem to pull all the strings."
"But why are we suddenly getting these anti-Chinese riots? There was a riot in October in Situbondo in East Java. Then one in December in Tasikmalaya.in West Java."
"It’s always the same before elections. We’ve elections coming up in May."
"You mean the riots are planned?"
"They could be spontaneous. They could be planned. One theory is that the people in power use the Chinese as scapegoats. A riot lets off steam. Another theory is that the opposition groups use the riots to undermine the people in power."
"How would the people in power be able to cause a riot?"
"It could be done by extremist Moslem groups secretly run by some faction of the military. They could spread rumours. They could organise a mob."
"Is there any proof?"
"None at all."
Warung in Johor by +kay
On a dark and steamy Jakarta street, not far from the Presidential Palace, I dined out one evening with Bob and Anne.
We ate at a warung, a food stall, one of the sort set up in the evenings on city pavements.
This warung was a sort of rectangular open tent containing wooden benches and seats; light was provided by kerosene lanterns; plates were washed in a plastic bucket containing thick grey water; food was cooked on blue kerosene stoves; and there was an aroma of tropical spices mingled with just a hint of fumes from buses and gutters.
The view from our table was of passing cars, pedestrians and a moonlit sky.
"Is it safe here?" I asked, while glancing at the menu.
"Don’t worry," said Anne. "Budi, who does the cooking, makes sure the food is well cooked. But avoid the salads."
"We’ve brought our own dishes," said Bob, as he extracted cutlery and paper plates from a plastic bag.
"I’m having the chicken, which is cooked with coriander, turmeric and coconut milk," said Anne.
"And the Nasi Uduk which is rice steamed with pandanus leaves."
"And beers," said Bob.
We all chose the same chicken dishes, which arrived steaming hot. The pieces of meat were from small thin kampung birds, but there was a good strong gamy taste.
"When you asked if it was safe here," said Anne, wiping away a mosquito, "were you thinking of the food or of the various riots in Indonesia?"
"I was thinking of that one bucket where all the dishes get washed," I said. I have a great fear of bugs and germs.
"But the riots are puzzling," said Anne. "There seems to be a pattern. First Situbondo in East Java, back in October last year; then Tasikmalaya in West Java, in December last year; then Dengklok near to Jakarta, at the beginning of this year."
"How bad was Situbondo?" I asked.
"Over twenty churches wrecked," said Bob.
"It may have been a spontaneous riot," I said. "The newspapers said that Moslems were upset by an allegedly lenient sentence in a blasphemy case."
"There are rumours that a certain group deliberately stirred things up," said Bob, "and that the police and army made little effort to stop the rioting."
"Tasikmalaya was bad," said Anne. "At least four people died. The mob was attacking Chinese properties and churches."
"That started with a protest against the police," I said. "The police were accused of torturing a Moslem teacher. Then, for some reason, the mob attacked the Chinese."
"Look at the opposition to Suharto in the coming May elections," said Bob. "Megawati’s PDI Party are out of the picture. The only opposition comes from the Moslem PPP Party."
"How does that tie in with the riots?" asked Anne.
"Either the riots are spontaneous," said Bob, "or some section of the army is trying to paint the Moslems as extremists; the army may be trying to suggest that strong military rule is required. Get people scared and then people will support rule by the generals."
"Maybe the powers-that-be are trying to distract people’s attention," said Anne. "Make the Chinese-Indonesians the scapegoats for the economic problems. Get Moslems to direct their anger against the Chinese rather than the government."
"The Chinese-Indonesians are an easy target," said Bob. "They’re seen as being a bit foreign and a bit greedy. It’s like the Jews in Europe in the 1930s."
"Only a handful of the Chinese-Indonesians are billionaires," said Anne, "but when you look around the shopping malls it’s nearly all Chinese that you see owning the shops and doing the shopping. People suspect the Chinese are part of some conspiracy."
A youth selling watches from a tray appeared at our table. They were followed by a couple of shoeshine boys and two skinny urchins with banjos. Anne bought a watch for a few rupiahs while Bob and I removed our shoes to have them shined.
The musicians began to sing: "My bonnee lees over the oh-shun. My bonnee lees over the sea." The political discussion came to an end.
I called in at Jakarta’s Christian-run Teluk Gong Hospital to see Jasmin, the woman I had found on the rubbish tip, and who was suffering from TB.
She had been in hospital for some weeks but had not put on any weight. Her bones still stuck out, as they would on an African child near death from starvation. Her eyes looked slightly glazed and she did not respond to my questions.
The hospital ward was far superior to what I would have found in most government hospitals. The floors and walls seemed generally bright and shiny clean and there was a cheerfulness about the nurses.
An attractive and self-assured young female doctor called me over to the nurses’ desk at one end of the ward.
"Jasmin has had TB for a very long time and there are complications," said the doctor, smiling broadly. "She cannot control her bowels and she makes a wailing sound which disturbs the other patients. We are going to have to ask you to take Jasmin to a mental hospital."
I pointed out the inadequacies of mental hospitals but the doctor maintained her self-confident grin as she told me that the hospital had made its decision. It was their policy not to take mental patients.
We loaded Jasmin into the back of my van and set off for Bogor. I was angry with myself for having failed to achieve success with Jasmin; I was angry with the Teluk Gong hospital for its apparent lack of charity; and now I was angry with Jasmin for the continual loud wailing sounds she was making.
I turned round in my seat and poked her in the arm, to try to get her to keep quiet. But on and on she wailed. I poked her harder. And then it occurred to me that Jasmin still looked like a victim of a concentration camp and that I was behaving like a Nazi guard.
The mental hospital, in Bogor’s Babakan district, admitted Jasmin as a patient. She was laid on a bare brown mattress in the nearly empty ward. I bought her some milk and biscuits.
Having left Jasmin, I scuttled over to the children’s ward to see Firdaus, the young boy with the bumps on his forehead and the enormous scars on his chest. Firdaus, and his friend with the strange eyes, squealed with delight. They grabbed my hands and I took them for a walk in the hospital grounds.
From Ciawi, a traffic-filled route-centre with a big modern mosque and numerous grubby kampungs, we took the relatively quiet road south towards the sleepy little towns of Cigombong and Cicurug.
We were in a gap in Java’s long and mighty mountain spine. Sleeping volcanoes lay on either side: Mount Salak to the right and Mount Gede to the left; next to Gede was its twin summit of Pangrano just over three thousand metres high, and now an extinct volcano. These mystical mountains, with their misty rain forests and dreamy sub-alpine meadows, are home to quinine, coffee and great big forest cats including panthers. We were roughly on the same latitude as the Amazon and the Congo.
Wealthy Dutch planters once ran huge plantations in this Garden of Eden, plantations that were seen either as ‘enlightened’ or as mere ‘labour camps’.
Somewhere on the road to Cicurug I stopped the Mitsubishi and set off on a walk along a narrow country track which rose gently through terraced rice fields and patches of forest. I imagined I was Alfred Russel Wallace on the lookout for black and crimson orioles, minivet flycatchers and large and brilliantly coloured butterflies. In fact I saw no birds or insects of particular interest but I did encounter lots of wonderful tree ferns and massive leaves of every shape and texture.
I reached a small hamlet, the first house in which was a surprisingly modern bungalow with clean white walls. The bungalow had a well-tended garden full of orchids and there was a large Japanese station-wagon parked in the drive; a young boy in designer jeans was playing with a healthy-looking dog. I reckoned that this house might be the weekend retreat of some wealthy civil servant
A few steps further along the track were the usual kampung houses with their mildewed roofs, rotting timbers, and muddy courtyards. Outside one medium-sized house stood a thin woman with a pale tubercular face and rather disdainful eyes. Her name, she told me, was Umi, and her husband worked in Bogor.
"Sakit?" I asked her.
"Yes," said Umi, in Indonesian. She made no attempt to smile.
"Sakit TB?" I asked.
"Are you getting TB medicine?"
"Do you need any help paying for it?"
"No." Umi’s look suggested suspicion and hostility.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." She turned and went inside her dark and gloomy house.
I thought of my failure to provide effective help for Jasmin. Maybe I should be less interfering. Perhaps it was part of my karma, and part of Umi’s karma, that the two of us should meet and that she would not want any help.
I continued my walk but the sky was darkening. I reached a graveyard surrounded by a low falling-down wall on which was seated a group of ragged boys. The grave stones were smothered in moss and lichens; the boys bare legs bore evidence of former sores and lesions; the trees were overwhelmed by parasitic vines. The rains were coming and I decided it was time to return to Bogor.
I made a Saturday morning trip to the mental hospital to visit Jasmin. She was lying on a mattress in a corner of the big sunny courtyard of the ward for the physically sick. Providing her with company was one of the middle-aged patients, a slightly mentally-backward man with the gentle manner and beatific smile of a wise old angel. I tried feeding some milk to Jasmin but she closed her mouth and, with her thin bony arm, tried to push my hand away.
Having failed to make progress with Jasmin, I wandered into a room off the courtyard and found a solitary patient, a withered young man with sensitive eyes. He was sitting up in bed looking like a child whose parents had long deserted him.
His name, I discovered later from a nurse, was Bayou. I tried speaking to Bayou, but he seemed too shy or depressed to do anything other than nod or shake his head. A nurse in the office told me that Bayou was slightly mentally backward; and he did have a family.
A few days later I received a phone call from the Bogor mental hospital.. I was informed that Jasmin had died. Her body had apparently been so severely wrecked by TB that her death was inevitable and a release from suffering.
I was having a coffee in the school staffroom during a free period. The only other person present was Alan, a bachelor who mixed with the locals, who loved Indonesian culture, and who was easy to get on with.
He was onto his third clove cigarette and his face looked pasty and lined.
"You’ve got a yellow coffee cup, Alan." I said, "Does that make you a supporter of Suharto’s GOLKAR party?"
"I should have got a red mug," said Alan, frowning. "Have you noticed the yellow bus stops, yellow trees, yellow walls?"
"I’ve seen a few. GOLKAR seems to be spending a lot of money."
"What do you think of the coming elections, Alan?" I asked.
"It’s all fixed," he said, looking rather sad. "GOLKAR will win. There’ll be no proper monitoring of polling booths. Not that it matters. There’s no real opposition."
"Because Magawati’s party is not allowed to take part," I said.
"It’s not just that. Megawati never sounded like much of a radical. She seems to feel she has no choice but to ally with certain generals."
"Wahid, the moderate Moslem leader, seems to feel he has to back GOLKAR." I was trying to impress Alan, who was generally thought of as being the member of staff most knowledgeable about Indonesia.
"That leaves the PPP party as the only so-called opposition," said Alan. "The PPP chairman, Matareum, got his job only because he had the approval of Suharto. And after the last election, which party was the first to nominate Suharto for the presidency? It was the PPP."
"This time it may be different," I suggested. "The PPP has been attacking corruption and nepotism."
"Agreed," said Alan. "But I wish the PPP would be brave enough to name names."
"The PPP has to be careful. Look what happened to that politician, Budiman Sudjatmiko. Thirteen years in prison for speaking out."
"Budiman’s PRD party is banned," added Alan.
"The government is worried about this election," I said. "They know people will turn out for the PPP as a form of protest."
"They are worried," said Alan, lighting another clove cigarette. "Back in February the army was parading their British Scorpion tanks, and thousands of troops, here in Jakarta. You’ll have seen the TV news pictures of the black-clad Ninjas, the special forces, dropping from helicopters."
"They were sending a message."
"GOLKAR are predicting they’ll get 70.2 per cent of the vote," said Alan, forcing a smile, "which is not surprising as they are the government and the army. Six million people work for the government and they are arm-twisted into voting for GOLKAR and into fighting for Golkar."
"I’m told that in the villages it’s only GOLKAR that’s allowed to operate."
"If a village doesn’t vote GOLKAR they may end up getting no government money," said Alan.
"Have you noticed that GOLKAR dominates the TV news?" I said. "The PPP gets a few seconds. When they show GOLKAR, they show a big crowd of happy people. When they show the PPP, it’s a few weird looking people."
"I get bad vibes about Indonesia," said Alan.
"I think we’re heading towards some sort of major conflict or cataclysm."
"You don’t think that we’ll all muddle through?"
"Suharto is getting old. Various generals are getting restless. The economy is built on corruption. The mass of the people are getting poorer, and they have no stake in the system. There’s an explosion coming. Which is why I am thinking of getting out."
"I might try Singapore."
"Aren’t elections fixed in Singapore?"
"Elections are fixed in America," said Alan, with a hint of a chuckle. "But in America they don’t have tanks in the streets. Not yet."
"You’d miss Indonesia, if you left." I knew that Alan had a number of young Indonesian friends.
"There’s nowhere like Indonesia," said Alan, "but my vibes are telling me it may be time to make a move. Also, my timetable has changed. This is one of my few free periods."
He lit another cigarette.
On Jalan Veteran, not so far from my house, there was a motorcade by GOLKAR. It seemed poorly supported and lacking in enthusiasm; there were the usual station wagons occupied by overweight fat cats and the usual trucks carrying bored-looking civil servants kitted out in GOLKAR’s yellow colours.
I was standing near the centre of a smallish patch of tree-shaded rough grassland, adjacent to a busy road, and only few hundred metres distant from my house.
Sitting on the ground, on one edge of this patch of grassland, there was a heavy-jawed soldier.
His eyes looked hard but not gloating; veniality seemed mixed with embarrassment.
No doubt he was there to keep an eye on the day’s event: an officially sanctioned street parade.
The soldier was armed. He had a very hefty-looking machine gun positioned at his feet.
A few metres in front of me stood a group of excited children, some of whom were having their cute young faces painted red and green; one half of the face red and one half green. Drums were beating and some of the boys were gyrating their hips wildly to the rhythm.
It was the turn of the opposition to President Suharto to take to the streets.
Jalan Veteran, the highway so very near to my house, had been taken over completely by thousands of happy flag-waving supporters of what was called ‘Mega-Star’. The supporters of Megawati’s outlawed party and the supporters of the Moslem PPP party had joined forces; they were wearing the red colours of Megawati and the green colours, and star symbol, of the PPP.
It seemed that the majority of the kampung inhabitants, whether ‘Christian’ or ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Moslem’, had turned out to show their opposition to Suharto and his GOLKAR party.
A convoy of cars, trucks and buses progressed very slowly down the street in the direction of the city centre. The atmosphere was a mixture of jolly Rio carnival and defiant political protest.
Mammoth green flags waved to and fro; a tall young man dressed only in sandals and a flimsy grass skirt was dancing mincingly in the middle of the street; hanging on to the side of an overcrowded lorry a group of young teenage boys were wiggling their bottoms in tune to the music blaring from a loudspeaker; pretty girls in tight trousers and tighter blouses waved their arms in the air as if in ecstasy at a rock concert. This was officially the day of the PPP, the Moslem party, in the biggest Moslem country in the world.
I wondered if the soldier with the machine gun was going to have a quiet day. As I wandered along the street, taking photographs, I felt reassured by the presence of so many women and small children. Surely there could be no violence when parents had brought out their toddlers to wave colourful flags and watch the parade.
I had at the back of my mind a peaceful protest about ‘Democracy’ on St Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, on the 16th of August 1819; the Manchester crowd was well-behaved and included women and children enjoying picnic lunches; soldiers wielding sabres attacked the gathering; nine men and two women were killed; six hundred were injured. On the 4th of May 1970, an unarmed group of students were holding an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, USA. National Guard soldiers decided to open fire on the protesters. Four students, two of them girls, were killed.
On Jalan Veteran, the day passed off peacefully; but, elsewhere, the election campaign became more violent. Over three hundred people died; some simply fell off overcrowded vehicles during motorcades; in a place called Banjarmasin, in Kalimantan, GOLKAR security guards tried to force their motorbikes through crowds attending Friday prayers and this led to over a hundred deaths when a riot was followed by a deadly fire at a shopping centre; in several of the poorer kampungs in Jakarta there was feuding between soldiers and youths, leading to at least one youthful PPP supporter being shot dead.
Who won the election? Suharto’s GOLKAR won, with over 70 per cent of the vote.
At the mental hospital in Bogor I was greeted warmly by my two little orphan friends, Firdaus, the boy with the bumps and the scars, and Isaiah, who had one eye slightly higher than the other.
After having taken the children for a walk in the hospital grounds, I called in on Bayou, the depressed and withered young man who looked like an abandoned child. Bayou managed a slight smile of recognition.
The nurse on duty was happy to let me have Bayou’s home address, a location somewhere between Bogor and Jakarta, so that I could visit the parents and perhaps persuade them to take Bayou home.
My driver and I set off on the rather bleak and semi-industrial road to Depok. We found the house, a small bungalow of homemade appearance, located almost directly under an enormous electricity pylon.
Bayou’s parents looked thin and weary, but they gave me a sympathetic welcome. They explained that their house was rather crowded, as they had a number of grown-up children living at home, and they had found it convenient to place Bayou in the hospital.
I gave an account of conditions at the hospital as I had experienced them.
To my delight, it was agreed that my driver would arrange for Bayou to return to his family the following day.
Accompanied by Min and his big brother Wardi, I walked beside one of Jakarta’s many wide drainage canals.
We were about half a mile south of Min’s home. The houses here were made from wood, mainly scraps of plywood, and were three stories high. Malnourished children were bathing in the black and oily canal.
"The water is dirty," I shouted to the children. "It’s not safe."
The youngsters grinned.
"They have nowhere else to bathe," said Wardi, quietly.
"I hope Min keeps away from the water," I said.
"Mr Kent," said Wardi, "we have been thinking that, when you eventually go back to England, we will move back to the countryside. It’s cleaner and safer there."
"You don’t have to wait for me to go back to England," I said. "You’re free to make a move anytime you like." I supposed that Min’s family were postponing a move so that they could continue to get my financial help. Perhaps they did not want to upset me by taking Min to a place that would be more difficult for me to visit. Perhaps they were looking forward to the day when they would no longer have constant visits from an interfering foreigner.
"We were thinking of going to a small town where we have relatives."
"How far away?"
"About three hours by bus."
"You could open a bank account there, and I could continue to send a little money each month."
"Sometime soon we’ll start looking for a house."
My feelings were disturbed. It would be good for Min to be away from the unhealthy slums of North Jakarta. But how would I cope without my regular visits to Min?
There was a phone call from leper Iwan whom I had not visited for many months. Iwan said he was not well and needed money to see a doctor.
I motored over to his house, which was the one in South Jakarta formerly lived in by Min.
Iwan was limping as usual, seemed a bit depressed but otherwise looked in fair condition. I suspected that he had phoned me because he felt neglected and because his relatives were short of money. I had previously arranged for my driver to bring Iwan a little money each month for food and clothing.
I now decided to supplement this with a fairly generous lump sum which Iwan was to deposit in the bank and use only when he got ill and needed to see a doctor.
Under an August sky of Elysian blue I wandered through a section of countryside just south of Jakarta. Butterflies fluttered over little gardens of lettuce and various herbs and spices; plump fish swam in murky ponds; a few sheep and goats chewed weedy grass; an old lady with a funny hat was tending trees bearing big yellowish mangoes, round shaped guavas and star-shaped star apples.
On a wall outside a white painted kampung house sat two pretty girls wearing flamenco-style frilly, tiered dresses. I took out my camera and the girls smiled saucily, adjusted their legs, and fluttered their eyelids.
I moved on and came to a large wooden sign advertising a new ‘housing estate and golf course’. I had noted that an increasing number of orchards and rice fields around Jakarta had been turned into property developments for the elite.
Two winsome schoolboys in white shirts and red shorts approached and engaged me in conversation. Panca, the older boy, explained that he and his brother always walked through the new housing estate on their way home from school.
"The houses are only half built," I observed. "Nobody seems to live here."
"They stopped working on the houses many months ago," said Panca.
The houses were sizable affairs with large fancy pillars, but some had no roofs and all had become overgrown with weeds.
Panca pointed to small figures on the upper floor of a half-built concrete building. Three schoolboys were using the house as an adventure playground.
"Who owns this land?" I asked Panca.
"Chinese-Indonesians," he said, showing no emotion.
When we reached the edge of the estate, Panca and his brother led me down through some trees to his kampung village, a collection of humble, homemade houses with mildewed roofs. Outside Panca’s house stood a woman wearing a fawn-coloured uniform, and clutching some tattered books.
"My mother," said Panca, introducing me to this handsome woman. "She’s a teacher."
After some idle chat with the lady about the low pay of teachers, I raised the question of the abandoned housing estate.
"It’s the money crisis," said Panca’s mum. "There are lots and lots of abandoned housing estates around here."
We were well into a new school term and I needed a Saturday excursion to take my mind off paperwork and meetings. I turned off Jakarta’s airport toll road and drove down a series of minor roads towards an area called Dadap on the edge of the Java sea. The flat landscape was bright with sun. Fields of rice and vegetables gave way to rough grasslands, wild flowers and patches of mangrove. Motorised canoe-shaped fishing boats were sailing down a wide rust-coloured river towards the muddy sea. There was a lot of solid Van-Gogh colour: the bright blues and reds of the fishing boats, and, in the fields, the bright yellows of little fluttering flags used to scare away birds.
I tramped along the shore but was not enamoured by the filthiness of the water. It was grey with Jakarta’s waste. The smell was not one of salty sea air but of rotting matter.
I headed inland and began looking at the cultivated land, fish ponds and small hamlets. I passed three schoolgirls and wished them good morning. They giggled shyly but did not reply. Up a tree were two grinning boys with a kite. The taller boy had remarkably skinny limbs but otherwise seemed healthy. The slightly smaller boy had the puckish appearance of a happy little Romany. When they saw me, the boys jumped down from their perch and started up a conversation.
Where was I from? Where was I going? Could they come with me? We agreed they would show me their hamlet. The taller boy was called Aslori and the ‘little Romany’ was called Rozi. They hopped and skipped and danced along the narrow paths between the rice fields.
The houses in their little settlement could be described as wooden hovels. Outside one hut sat a rather ragged woman holding a woebegone baby, and a plump woman holding a smiling boy aged about four.
"Is the baby well?" I asked my guides.
"The baby is well," said Aslori.
"The little boy is sick," said Rozi, pointing to the four-year-old. "His name is Dis."
The mother of Dis pointed to her son’s crotch. "He needs to see a doctor," she said.
It turned out that close to the nearby main road there was a Chinese-Indonesian doctor’s surgery, in the middle of a new housing development. We set off to see the doctor.
While Dis and his mother consulted the doctor, Aslori and Rozi showed me round the new lower-middle-class housing estate. Most of the houses were empty and some were only half built. The only houses that had been occupied seemed to be owned by Chinese-Indonesians with small cars and large dogs. For my two guides I bought Walls ice creams, manufactured by Unilever at Cikarang industrial estate just outside Jakarta.
Back at the little surgery, the soberly-dressed young female doctor showed me what the problem was. Four-year-old Dis had his trousers down and he was still grinning. He had testicles the size of medium-large potatoes.
"It is parasitic worms," said the doctor solemnly. "Mosquitoes put the worms into the blood and then the testicles or lymph nodes swell up."
"What’s the disease called?" I asked.
"Lymphatic Filariasis or Elephantiasis."
I suddenly remembered Daus, the boy who’d had the operation on his swollen face. He had had Elephantiasis. "Is it rare?"
"Quite common. Many millions of people get it in tropical countries. There are drugs to kill the parasite but it’s best to take these before the scrotum swells up like this. This child will have to go to the hospital in Jakarta. A little surgical repair is needed."
The mother was only too happy to agree that my driver would take her and Dis to the hospital on the following Monday. My driver later reported back that the treatment on Dis had gone well.
Bob and Anne invited me to dinner at the Wimbledon Grill at the Mercantile Athletic Club. This spacious restaurant, on the Penthouse Floor of Jakarta’s World Trade Centre, has the sort of standard ‘executive’ decor of characterless carpeting, wooden wall paneling and bland white plaster ceiling. The food was French. The conversation was mainly about the economic crisis.
As we enjoyed superbly grilled fish and imported steak, I told my hosts about the acres and acres of half built housing estates I had come across.
"The property bubble has burst," said Anne.
"As you know, it began in Thailand two years ago," said Bob. "Spread to the Thai stock market. Then Thai banks. Now it’s here."
"I thought Indonesia was supposed to be a successful Asian dragon," I said. "Indonesia was supposed to have become a middle income country. An annual growth rate of almost seven per cent. Sound fundamentals. High savings. Lots of exports."
"That’s all true," said Bob. "The fundamentals are fairly sound."
"Are you sure," said Anne. "I can think of a number of problems. Not enough kids getting a good education, most of the wealth going to the President and his cronies, and most of the new industries here being Japanese or Korean."
"That’s no different from Britain," said Bob, with a slight smile. "But what we have in Asia is panic. The Asian economies were urged by the West to liberalise and deregulate markets and allow in lots of European and Japanese money. Huge sums of money did flow in. Then someone shouted ‘fire’. And the money flowed out."
"Why the panic?" I asked. "Why the sudden withdrawals of cash?"
"The money that came in," explained Bob, "was short-term loans by investors looking for a quick and high rate of return. The money went into things like car making and textiles. When there was a slow down in exports, due to temporary problems like exchange rates and gluts in the market, investors switched money into property. Too many buildings were built. The bubble burst in Thailand. The Thai currency began to sink. The Japanese banks, who have lots of problems of their own, began to move money out of Thailand. The Indonesians let their currency float and it began to sink. Money began to leave the Asian dragons. Even the Chinese-Indonesians were taking their money out "
"All round panic," I said.
"What about conspiracy theories?" asked Anne. "Are their crooked financiers and horrid hedge funds behind all this?"
"George Soros caused the pound to fall," I commented.
"I’m sure the money-men in New York and London are taking advantage of events," said Bob, "but you can’t blame them for all the local mismanagement and corruption."
"I suspect that a lot of banks and businesses in this region could end up in American and British hands," said Anne.
"They talk about ‘fire-sale’ prices," said Bob. "I suspect though that the Indonesians will resist selling to foreigners."
"You mean the Chinese-Indonesians will resist," said Anne.
"Yes," said Bob, "don’t underestimate the Chinese-Indonesians."
"If the IMF has anything to do with it," said Anne, "then the Americans will buy up Asia."
"It happened in South America and Mexico," I said. "The USA moved in to buy things up after the IMF insisted on financial liberalization."
"It’s the ordinary Indonesians who’ll suffer," said Anne. "Malnutrition’s going to increase."
"What about the Indonesian elite?" I asked. "Won’t the generals and Chinese businessmen have lost a lot of money in the crisis?"
"Agreed," said Bob, "but remember that a lot of them will be moving their money into Swiss and Austrian bank accounts."
"Or they’ll have their money here in dollars," said Anne.
"The elite will suffer political consequences," I said. "Suharto will become less popular."
"The government can always blame the Chinese-Indonesians," said Bob. "Make them scapegoats."
"Or blame Jewish financiers," said Anne.
"Will the Asian dragons recover?" I asked. "I’m thinking of my Asian unit trust."
"In the long term," said Bob, "countries like China and South Korea should do well. They can manufacture things better and more cheaply than the Americans."
"I find Korean and Chinese students far ahead of British and American ones in almost everything," I said.