January 20, 1998 in Nation/World

Austerity, For Some In The Corrupt Indonesian Economy, It’s Clearly A Case Of Us Vs. ‘Them’

Uli Schmetzer Chicago Tribune
 
Tags:feature

Mazud is a portly little man with a wart on his left cheek, two shirts to his name, a hovel he rents in the slum town of Sundklapa and a wife and three children he might not be able to feed much longer if prices keep going up.

He works seven days a week driving an old cab he rents for $7.20 a day from a friend and struggles to make ends meet in a recession that has halved the $900 average annual income of workers. When Muzad talks about the wealth gap between Indonesia’s 15 million haves and the 185 million have-nots, he spits out the window of his cab every time he mentions “them.”

A trip with Mazud is a journey into the mind of disaffected Indonesians, some of whom are becoming increasingly embittered at the difference between their own circumstances and that of the ruling Suharto family.

As this country undergoes an austerity program to qualify for assistance from the International Monetary Fund, that gap seems unlikely to narrow.

“You change money?” he asked in his broken English. “Bank belong them.”

He was referring to the branch of the prestigious Bank Central Asia at the airport. The Bank is partly owned by President Suharto’s eldest daughter and son. Its airport teller offered a ridiculous 4,000 rupiahs to the dollar when the real market exchange rate was well over 8,000.

“Them” said Mazud, pointing to the three Airbuses of Sempati Airlines sitting on the tarmac. The airline is owned by Hutomo, the youngest son of the president’s six children.

Mazud’s cab stopped at the access gate of the airport expressway, and he paid the toll. “Them,” he said spitting out the window.

The smooth six-lane expressway from the airport is owned by Citra Marga, the holding company of Sukarno’s daughter Rukmana, who is popularly known as Tutut and has political ambitions. Her company runs every toll road in and out of Jakarta.

Mazud said he didn’t know much about the fabulous wealth of the Suharto clan until the economy turned sour last year and people began to talk about the wealth gap. When the currency and the stock market declined day by day and banks and companies became insolvent, when the cash flow dried up, workers were laid off and the prices of basic commodities doubled, people began to ask questions and newspapers began to publish some of the facts.

Any passenger who disembarks at Jakarta’s Sukarno-Hatta airport, one of the few installations still named after the founding father of Indonesia, steps into a world that is run and largely owned by the Suharto family, its friends and its partners.

For 32 years, Suharto, a former general born into a poor Javanese village, has ruled this island archipelago like a private kingdom with the help of the armed forces. He has doled out monopolies, granted concessions, tax exemptions and state subsidies. His friends and generals became rich; his children became billionaires.

A shrewd, tough man who knew how to exploit the business acumen of his ethnic Chinese partners to enrich his family, Suharto ruled unchallenged while the country’s economy blossomed. The boom was fed by eager foreign investors who saw in the mineral- and oil-rich multi-ethnic Muslim nation a productive use for their funds and a profitable market for their products. Even more attractive, Indonesia enjoyed iron-fisted stability.

Everyone turned a blind eye while the good times lasted.

“Because Suharto ruled Indonesia almost unchallenged for more than three decades, U.S. policy has been on autopilot: Simply support him no matter what he does, from overseeing a massacre of more than 500,000 people in the mid-1960s to launching a brutal invasion and occupation of East Timor in the mid-1970s …” said Jeffrey A. Winters, a former U.S. Agency for International Development employee in Indonesia and now an associate professor of political economy at Northwestern University.

The expressway swings past Pluit, the new luxury residential suburb of the rich ethnic Chinese, many of them in partnership with members of the Suharto family. A swamp separates the villas from Sundklapa, a fish market and a shanty town of thousands of filthy hovels and dirt lanes.

“My house,” said Mazud, pointing toward the undulating ocean of corrugated iron roofs.

Shopkeepers, most of them ethnic Chinese, have tripled the price of rice illegally. Cooking oil has doubled, so has fish and vegetables. Rioters protesting food price increases torched Chinese shops in three towns in eastern Java this week.

At a market near Glodok, the old Chinatown, Mazud said he had to see his friend Muhamad. People crowded around stalls to buy sacks of rice. They were wheeling away the sacks in wooden carts and the cheap motorized tricycles that look like dog carts and are the poor man’s chief transport. One donkey carried four sacks.

Gleaming luxury cars, tooting imperiously, plowed their way through the throng.

Muhamad was an old man with two front teeth. His trousers were held up by a string. He was barefoot. He looked at the small, green vase Muzad had handed over and nodded.

“Must sell. Must eat,” Muzad explained.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email