Wednesday, September 21, 2005

64. KUALA LUMPUR


It was time to leave Jakarta.

Over breakfast, on the morning of Saturday 16th May, I was thinking about Min. It could be some time before I saw him again. What if Indonesia descended into a long period of civil strife? What if it proved impossible for my school to reopen? What if I could not return?

I studied the Jakarta Post: hundreds of bodies had been found in the debris of burnt out buildings; there were front page pictures of armoured cars patrolling in front of the Grand Hyatt hotel and of President Suharto discussing the crisis with officials such as Feisal Tanjung, Co-ordinating Minister of Political and Security Affairs.

I packed my photos, my birth certificate and other such documents, my toothbrush and a change of clothing. I paid the maid, driver and gardener their wages for the month and explained that I was leaving in their hands an envelope filled with sufficient money to cover Mo’s usual visits to various poor people in kampungs and children attending hospitals. Mo insisted that the maid should guard this money and so the envelope was put in a rusty biscuit tin in a drawer in the little room occupied by the maid. I suggested that Mo should only make his journeys when it was safe to do so.

Those of us on the teaching staff who had opted to leave for Malaysia gathered at a place called Country Woods Estate. This housing complex, fifteen minutes drive from my home, has swimming pools, tennis courts, and a vast playing field for cricket and soccer. Our assembly point was just outside the club house.

"Nice to see the armoured car at the entrance to the estate," I said to Carmen, after locating her seated on a small brown suitcase next to her Toyota Kijang.

"That’s because lots of Americans and at least one senior policeman stay here," said Carmen.

"I came via the back roads," I said. "Everything looked normal."

"Not where I live," said Carmen, giggling. "They’d burnt a car showroom and several shops behind our complex. People said hoodlums had been bussed in. Gangsters from other parts of Indonesia."

"The looting had nothing to do with your kampung neighbours?"

Carmen chuckled embarrassingly loudly. "I suspect one or two teenagers joined in. Did a bit of shopping. I heard from Diah, the maid, that a local kid had been forced by his parents and neighbours to hand over a TV to the police."

"Looks like we’ve got at least half the staff here," I said.

"Not everyone’s going," said Carmen, gesturing in the direction of residents of the estate enjoying their Saturday morning recreation. Fair-haired children in bright T-shirts and shorts were kicking a football; ladies with tanned backs and legs were heading for the squash courts; two fat men were out for a cycle ride.

The journey to the airport was in convoy, mainly on deserted toll roads. I saw no smoke, no crowds and only a handful of buildings which appeared damaged.

The international terminal at Soekarno-Hatta was much more crowded than usual but there were no obvious signs of crisis, apart from the large quantities of luggage accompanying some American and Chinese-Indonesian travellers.

Downtown, Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur - ragingwire

I had breakfast in bed on the morning of Sunday, the 17th of May. From my bedroom in Kuala Lumpur’s five-star Renaissance Hotel I looked directly onto the world’s tallest building, the Petronas Twin Towers. The towers looked neither Malaysian nor beautiful. In fact they looked like fat earthworms. Perhaps they were a symbol of one of the things that had gone wrong in this part of the world: too much money had gone into building tower blocks.

I switched on the TV and watched Maria Ressa, CNN’s Jakarta bureau chief, tell the world about the rioting and looting of the previous days. She announced that Suharto had promised to make changes in his cabinet. There was no mention of the American-trained Kopassus special forces. CNN made it sound as if the riots had been spontaneous. Why did Maria Ressa not criticise the Pentagon-trained generals?

Leaving the hushed air-conditioned hotel I stepped out onto streets of cheerful tropical sunshine and noisy dusty traffic. By way of boisterous vegetable markets, decaying art-deco villas, grimy shophouses, and modern banks and offices, I reached the sizeable area of green in Merdeka Square, known as Padang. A gentle game of cricket was in progress in front of the Tudor-style Selangor Club. I looked around at the variety of architecture: cupolas, minarets, Victorian towers and an abundance of ugly concrete-box skyscrapers.

A clean, efficient light-railway, taking me to the suburbs, gave me an above-ground view of the city. KL was much smaller than Jakarta and lacked the latter’s red roofed kampungs surrounded by vegetable patches and fruit trees. KL had large blocks of government ‘low cost’ housing. I saw none of the military barracks that dot Jakarta.

I stopped at a station on the edge of the city, walked through a pleasant leafy estate of medium cost bungalows and reached an old-fashioned and impoverished kampung half hidden among banana trees. What struck me immediately about this kampung was that the inhabitants were all of Indian origin. The houses were built of timber and raised on stilts. The pathways were unpaved and litter strewn. I took some photos of happy looking girls but received some unfriendly stares from tough looking men with tattoos.

I returned to the main road and reached an area of parkland where some boys were playing football. I bought some cola at a stall on the edge of the park and tried to make conversation with the thin, silvery haired, stall owner.

"The Chinese are having problems in Jakarta," I said in Indonesian, which is similar to the Malaysian language. "They say the army’s involved."

The man, a Malay, gave me a sour look and said nothing. Perhaps he had no sympathy for the Chinese, perhaps the mention of race was taboo, or possibly he did not like talking to certain Westerners. He was old enough to remember that in Malaya, the British had fought the Malayan communists with a degree of brutality; there had been collective punishments of villagers, bombardments from the air and the cutting off of the heads of rebels.

Back on the light railway, heading back to the centre, I found myself sitting next to a small elderly Chinese-Malaysian man with alert eyes and blotchy skin.

"You are on vacation?" asked the man in English, while giving me a shy smile.

I nodded and then told him about my brief visit to the Indian kampung. "Is it safe to wander around KL?" I asked.

"There’s very little crime," he replied, "but like in all cities there are gangs."

"What sort?"

"Drugs. Extortion." His face was impassive.

"Who commits the crimes? Chinese? Malays? Indians?"

"The police say most of those arrested are Indians."

"Why Indians?"

"They are marginalised. The rich are the Chinese businessmen and well-connected Malays. The poor are ordinary Malays and Indians in the slums and squatter settlements. The Indians are the most poor. Their Tamil schools are not good and some of the Indian children don’t go to school. They get the worst jobs."

"I’ve seen a lot of the low-cost public housing. It all looks better than in Indonesia."

"But you know the low-cost houses are too expensive for many Malays and Indians."

"There’s been property speculation here, like in Thailand and Indonesia?"

"Too much of the land is controlled by speculators."

"But Malaysia isn’t in the same deep trouble as Indonesia?"

"Dr. Mahathir is clever. He’s stopping the money from flowing out of Malaysia."

"You like your prime minister?"

"Mahathir has made Malaysia more prosperous. He can see there’s an American conspiracy to keep countries like Malaysia weak."

We pulled into a station near the centre of KL. The little Chinese man stood up, gave a little bow and made his exit.

~~

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