Bittersweet Life In Jakarta

This article was published in The Jakarta Post, November 5, 2016


In the early morning of 16 September, 2016 I was heading to Terminal 3 at
Soekarno Hatta airport in Tangerang: I was “going back to the village” after 25
years in Jakarta. I had spent short periods in Sydney and Melbourne as well
as in our neighbour, Singapore, but Jakarta had been my base. My mind
drifted back to earlier times as I started the journey to the village of Ngepas,
Sleman, 15 kilometres north of the centre of Yogya. I had arrived in Jakarta
from my home near Purwokerto in August, 1990 and this morning a mix of
thoughts filled my mind.

The political temperature in Jakarta is high at the moment. The campaign
around the election of the Governor has started and there are already
demonstrations planned against at least one candidate. Who knows what will
come next?

Jakarta has often been at the centre of political action. I still remember the
1990s when Jakarta saw the greatest political turmoil. The reformasi
movement, led by students, the common people and women came down onto
the streets to push the dictator out. Students were shot, abducted and
disappeared. Indonesian Chinese women were raped as a terror tactic.
Demonstrations were dispersed with bullets and tear gas and cane sticks. The
arrogant violence only spurred on the movement until Soeharto was forced to
resign. I observed all that as a participant, as part of the women’s movement
demanding democratic freedom and equality.

There has been a great expansion in freedom of expression in Jakarta since
then. This is especially for those with access to social media – although there
have been cases of harassment of dissenting voices through the courts.
Every kind of viewpoint, polite and vulgar, supporting one or other elite
politician, circulates. It is not so much an exhibition of ideological differences
but rather of stylistic preferences. In this millennial era, on the social media,
everybody is seen as either ‘lovers or haters’.

Although it is true the mass of people with little access to money for tickets
and transport are still more or less confined to watching sinetron on TV, for
the middle class and above, there has also been an expansion in the lifestyles
and artistic entertainments available. There are now regular international
literary, jazz, dance, theatre and film festivals, including an alternative scene,
many provided by international cultural centres. This has helped provide me,
as a theatre producer and director, the opportunities to present my works on

Jakarta’s main stages. While the audience is mainly white-collar workers and
students, it has still been possible to reach out to some workers and others.
It would appear too that there is more networking in the political and socio-
cultural arenas as café culture has mushroomed since 1998.
But wait a minute. There is more to Jakarta than its middle class café life.

Jakarta is the home and place of work of millions of people and where a big
proportion of the nation’s wealth is located and circulates. The hubbub grows
incessantly. More people, more vehicles and all kinds of building: malls and
luxury apartments, and gleaming office buildings, surrounded by more and
more densely packed slums. Tension is always in the air and we are
challenged to reflect and analyze its causes and find ways to respond. Jakarta
is now infamous for its regular brutal evictions of the poor from their homes
with all the consequent hostilities between state and people. From governor to
governor, Jakarta has still been unable to deliver justice to its poor when they
suffer destruction of their homes.

I inhabit that social layer whose income is between 4 and 40 million rupiah per
month. Everybody yearns for a decent place to live: with windows that open to
the sky and space. A simple desire. But mostly impossible. An affordable
house in a non-luxury housing development usually means windows that open
directly onto the neighbor’s wall or with views of a hanging mess of every kind
of electrical and communication cables crisscrossing the narrow spaces
between rooves. And even when there is some visible sky, it is a dirty grey
from pollution. And for those who want to be close to their workplace and
avoid hours on the road, they have no choice but to rent a tiny, claustrophobic
“studio” for between 4 and 7 million rupiah a month. Or they pay 2 or 3 million
for an even smaller “kost” room with a noisy aircon to stop them dying of heat
dehydration. Many end up spending their minimal disposable income in the
cafes, which charge international prices for a machine coffee, because they
can’t face spending the evening in their tiny closet.

Meanwhile for the millions who make up the majority, earning the minimum
wage of 3,5 million rupiah per month, or even less more often, they have no
choice but to spend 500,000 rupiah on almost slum housing, crowded, in
environments hard to keep clean, and rarely with air-conditioning. Many
families will try to buy on credit little houses in Cibubur, Depok, Citayam or
Tangerang, spending 4 or 5 hours every day commuting.
So who is it living in the apartments above the malls or in Pondoik Indah?
Those with incomes of way over 50 million rupiah a month or expats on dollar
incomes.

Meanwhile as the residential and working population keeps increasing, getting
to and from home and wok is now a disaster. The traffic jams can be so acute,
you can even be stuck for three hours with no movement. Literally millions of
motorbikes and cars jam the roads. Everybody knows this is because there is
no proper public transport system and people are forced to find their own
individual solutions to the problem of getting where they have to go with some ease and comfort.

Ordinary people, workers and many in the middle class
also, have to rely on the motorbike as their only means of transport. They sit
for hours, breathing every kind of vehicular fume, surviving the dangers of
accident and falling asleep, their backs aching, to reach their destination,
arriving exhausted. Those with more disposable incomes buy a car or rely on
taxis. And the wealthy bring their luxury vehicles to the most sparkling malls,
like Grand Indonesia, Senayan City, Gandaria, and others.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, the population of Jakarta in 1990 when I
arrived was 8,259,266. The number of people busy in the Jakarta area is,
however, much more than that as people living around Jakarta in Bogor,
Bekasi and Tangerang come in to work or do business. Perhaps the number
of people in Jakarta at any one time can be as high as 21 million.
Most Jakartans are like me, migrants from the country’s small towns and
villages. Some come to Jakarta for schooling, others seeking work. There is
not enough work in the small towns and villages for the growing population,
expected to be 450 million by 2050. Many women end up working overseas
as maids, so called ‘TKI/TKW’. The maids at least know a little about what
their work and conditions will be, although they are often cheated. Those
flooding into Jakarta are entering truly unknown territory when it comes to
their future. They are there to “struggle for their fate”, many dreaming that
they will be able to send money back to the village, showing that they have
been successful.

It is a shallow “success” bought at the cost of claustrophobia, exhaustion and
sometimes hours on the road going nowhere. While money is so concentrated
in the capital, it means so too are work opportunities. Many people have no
choice but to come to Jakarta.

But now I am leaving and my new home will be in a rural village environment,
though only 20 minutes by car from Jogjakarta’s own hubbub. The
unaffordability of housing, of infrastructure connected to theatre work and of
daily life in general, especially if you seek fresh air and space, is just beyond
us now in Jakarta. And the time and energy spent getting from one place to
another has become too exhausting.

But the new abode will bring with it new challenges. We will have to find a
new rhythm to our productive work. Jakarta with all its hubbub and tensions
and energy and its stories does provide a momentum pushing us to create.
Jakarta can be like a country unto itself with its own cultural dynamic and
energies. But still, even so it is only a country of 21 million: there are another
230 million living in another reality. Living in Jakarta, we can sometimes think
that Jakarta is Indonesia. When we travel outside Jakarta, and experience
that other Indonesia – the Indonesia of the majority – we can see how huge
the gap is between the two “countries”.

No longer a Jakarta resident but rather a resident of Sleman, as my ID card
now states, I leave behind in Jakarta young nieces and nephews that will
grow up in that city. What will be their fate as they reach adulthood? What will

Jakarta become? Will the traffic totally jam up? Will they spend a big part of
their waking life on the back of a motor bike being purchased on time
payment? Will they still have to live in tiny boxes? Will there actually be work
for them? And will people still go to Jakarta from the towns and villages
dreaming of success?
In Ngepas Village, with access to the open air and blue sky and green
surrounds, the challenge is to stay a part of this messy, often dark, reality and
a make a contribution to changing it for the better.

Faiza Mardzoeki is a Playwright, theatre producer and director
Now live in Ngepas Village, Sleman, North Yogyakarta.