Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Night Club

One November evening, I was invited by a teaching colleague called Ian to a night club in East Jakarta. Ian's thinning hair, pale face and tired-looking eyes suggested that either he was very conscientious about lesson preparation or that he spent many hours chatting to people in all-night bars. Or possibly both. Ian and I were accompanied by Ian's silver-haired, straight backed friend called Richard. The latter, who had a touch of Bogart about him, was a former North-of-England police officer who was helping to train Jakarta's police. I wondered if it was possible that he was working for the British secret service. Ian was single; Richard was married.

The night club was a long dark room with a small wooden stage at one end. On this stage, six shapely girls in skimpy black skirts and tight white T-shirts were dancing to Sundanese music. Brown was the colour of the walls, the soft furnishings and the paintwork around the neon-lit bar. The main clientele at that hour of the evening seemed to be small, middle-aged, male Indonesians, with enough money to buy decent shoes and suits. These gentlemen might well have been civil servants. The air carried an aroma of clove cigarette smoke and damp cellars.

"How did you find this place, Richard?" Ian asked, after we had found a table and ordered big wet Bintang beers. Ian's lack of a smile suggested that he might have been happier in a more elegant bar at a four star hotel.

"An Indonesian police officer brought me here," said Richard. His twinkling eyes gave me the impression that he rather liked this den.

"Must be safe then," I commented. I usually enjoyed new places like this, at least for the first half hour.

"Let's say," said Richard, "that certain army and police officers protect these clubs, for a fee. The only fighting is when different regiments fall out over territory. There was a fight around here a few months ago."

"I heard the protection doesn't always work," said Ian, stifling a yawn.

"True," said Richard. "Last year police raided a gambling place down the road. Upstairs from the snooker. They arrested a civilian and a soldier. They found some shabu-shabu and some heroin."

"Shabu-shabu?" I asked.

"Crystal methamphetamine. A drug."

"What happened?" I said.

"The civilian got what I'd call a short sentence," explained Richard, "In court the police only produced a small part of the shabu-shabu. They said the original weighing of the drug had been inaccurate, due to faulty equipment. The soldiers were handed over to the military police but have never been prosecuted, as far as I know."

"Are you helping to improve the police?" I asked Richard.

"The traffic police are becoming more professional all the time," he said, while looking in the direction of the stage.

"I was stopped by a traffic cop last week," said Ian, in a tired voice. "I had to hand over thirty thousand rupiahs. The cop said I hadn't seen this traffic sign, but nobody could have seen it. The money went straight into his pocket."

"That policeman probably gets paid not much more than five dollars a week," said Richard. "He can't survive on that. His family would starve without the payoffs."

"One of our neighbours had his house burgled," said Ian. "It turned out that it was soldiers who did the robbery. They caught them but I don't think they were punished."

"Detectives can make quite a bit of money," explained Richard. "When an arrested criminal is allowed to escape, he pays quite a lot to the detective."

"What I don't like," said Ian, "is when soldiers are used to turf poor people off their land. Some big guy wants to build luxury houses, so he employs soldiers to demolish shacks and evict the occupants. Some poor family that's worked hard to send its children to school loses its home."

"It's rumoured that about half the crime in Jakarta is committed by the armed forces," said Richard, looking very slightly amused.

"Are the Americans still training Indonesian officers?" I asked.

"That stopped, didn't it, after the massacre in East Timor, 1991?" said Ian.

"Most of the top generals and about half the other officers are American-trained," said Richard.

"But the American Congress banned funds for further training?" said Ian.

"The Pentagon has found ways to get round that," said Richard.

"Is the training improving the army?" I asked, naively.

"Who teaches torture, kidnapping and other dirty tricks to armies all around the world?" said Ian.

"The Yanks," said Richard.

"Not the Americans as such," said Ian, looking deadly serious, "but the fascist element within the Pentagon and CIA. These are the people who trained the Shah of Iran's secret police and the people who think nothing of killing children and then putting the blame on some group of left-wingers or Moslems."

"It's called demonisation," said Richard, "Blame everything on the Americans."

"Who should get the blame?" asked Ian. "Don't the Americans cause most of the problems of the world?"

"There's a bit of Henry Kissinger in all of us," said Richard. "And I think Mau was responsible for more deaths than most people."

A slim little girl, with a sweet but serious face, suddenly sat herself down at our table.

"Like to dance?" she said to Richard. Was he chosen because of his expensive suit?

"I'm married," said Richard, blushing happily, "but I need some exercise."

He got up, led the girl to a distant corner of the room, and began to dance. His body looked clumsy and convulsive. By comparison, the movements of the girl's wrists, ankles and neck were refined, delicate and fluid.

"How are things at school?" I asked Ian, who did not seem to want to turn round to look at the dancers.

"Most of the students are wonderful, especially the Asians," said Ian. "But I had two little problems this term. A French student called Michel was behaving less than perfectly. He's very cute-looking and thinks he can away with anything. I had a word with his mother. It seems that Michel's dad has got himself an Indonesian girlfriend and he's been parading her all around town. This may account for Michel's attention seeking behaviour. The latest development is that Michel has been in hospital in Singapore recovering from meningitis. His mother says he's better now and he promises to behave. Then there's Nan and Maryati. They allegedly had a fight in a corridor. I phoned up Maryati's mother and she explained that both girls are under stress. Nan's parents, who're Belgian, are getting divorced. Maryati's father, who's Dutch, has got himself an Indonesian boyfriend."

"It sounds like Britain," I commented. "Except that it's worse in Britain.I got a letter from an old friend who's a teacher back in England. He writes about how the majority of the children have been through divorce. His school seems to be full of disruptive schoolboys and pregnant schoolgirls."

When Richard returned from the dance floor, the girl joined us briefly at our table.

"This is Melati," said Richard. "Great dancer."

Ian surreptitiously took a card from his pocket and passed it to the girl.