Sunday, March 01, 2009

Business


It was a wonderfully warm Sunday and I was seated with Anne, and her husband Bob, in their garden in Menteng. I was introduced to a new snack.
"You see the purple lance-shaped thing hanging down?" said Anne.
"The what?" I asked.
"At the end of the bunch of bananas," she explained.
"Ah yes."
"OK," continued Anne. "You take the bud. You pull off the outer sheathes, until you can see the pinkish white bit inside."
"Yup."
"Pull the hard stamen."
"The what?"
"The stamen. Pull it from the centre. Then you eat the bud with coconut milk."
"Sounds easy."
"Here’s some I made earlier," said Anne.
We glugged down luscious Bordeaux dessert wine, ate the buds, and listened to Agnus Dei, on a cassette player.
"It’s been a hard week," said Bob when the music tape ended. He had slight bags under his eyes and looked a touch grey.
"Problems?" I asked.
"It can sometimes be very odd doing business in this country," said Bob.
"How’s that?"
"The army," explained Bob. "Last week I visited a factory in Jemba. Both my taxi from the airport and my hotel were army-owned. The factory boss is a retired colonel. The local governor is a former general. The regent and sub district chief are former soldiers. Retired officers tend to end up as government ministers, bank directors, civil service bosses, regents or chiefs of cooperatives. If you are in business you can’t avoid dealing with the army."
"The army’s not too short of money?"
"Probably three quarters of their money comes from the businesses they run, and only a quarter from the government. Generals and colonels live in big houses and run big cars, although I suppose that would also be true in Britain. Depends on the size of the house."
"And they’ve got muscle?"
"Well, any army has. If the workers here go on strike, the army would not find it too difficult to sort it out."
"What about the lower ranks?"
"Bad elements are rumoured to get extra money, shall we say, from illegal levies."
"The soldiers don’t get paid much."
"To be fair," said Bob, "the army simply doesn’t get enough money from the government. In a sense they’re forced to go into business. Some of them are actually useful people. There’s a retired officer I work with quite a lot. Very devoted Moslem. He tells me the country needs the army to hold it together."
"The news magazines say the economy’s been doing well," I said.
"Kent," said Bob, putting down his glass, "you take a Chinese Indonesian businessman. He gets a big loan from the bank, with the help of his political contacts. He builds his factory, and maybe buys a big mansion and a Mercedes or two. He has to pay a lot of people. His profits disappear. He has to go back to the bank. That’s no problem, because he’s got contacts. But is the bank ever going to get its money back?"
"One report said that thirty percent of the government’s budget disappears corruptly," I commented.
"Yes," said Bob, "but what about the vast sums of non budgeted funds that are stolen? Think of all the bribes and gifts that can never be traced."
"Would you invest in the stock market here?" I asked.
"Not for many years to come," said Bob, shaking his head. "If the international media found out everything that’s going on there could be trouble."
"This country should be rich," I stated. "Unlike Singapore it’s got oil, timber, minerals, oil palms, rubber, thousands of islands with great tourist potential."
"It’s rich in its people and its village life," said Anne.
"But, can you trust the banks?" said Bob
~~

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