Letter From Jakarta

DRIVERS in Jakarta have plenty of time on their hands. In between spells behind the wheels, there is interminable waiting. It is a good time to chat with friends about burning issues of life and politics.

Down in the stuffy basement of the 20-storey Wisma Antara building, which houses several foreign correspondents in Jakarta, there is the Drivers Corner.

Tucked between grimy walls, this informal gathering place for off-duty chauffeurs operates like a mill of rumours, the supply of which is replenished constantly as its members chat over a game of cards or share a meal of cold rice with curry and keropok.

News and gossip are food for the brain and the lifeblood of an otherwise boring existence as a driver. Of course, with general election around the corner, the mill is turning even faster.

Every move by the political elite is dissected and analysed as the drivers, morning to night, peer deep into the political crystal ball for answers.

The amateur soothsayers predict gloom. Their future looks bleak.

Ambon is burning, people are chopping off other people’s arms, legs, ears and heads in West Kalimantan, and horror of horrors, a bomb exploded two weeks ago in the sacrosanct Mesjid Istiqlal, the country’s largest mosque.

On a more personal note, many complain about unpaid debts, feeding families as food prices skyrocket, and just surviving in a country afflicted by its worst economic and political crisis in 30 years.

Will their misery ever end? No, they say. But there is hope. There is the election that can change everything for “orang kecil” or small people like them.

Pak Sutaryono has been a driver for the last decade. He is a quiet individual, a pale 39-year-old Javanese ever ready to do the bidding of his “asing” or foreign boss.

Two things, however, ruffle his quiet world: A nagging pregnant wife and a nagging feeling that life will not be so peaceful in the coming months.

“Can you blame me,” he asks. “We ‘orang kecil’ always suffer the most in good and bad times.”Pak Sutaryono tells a sad story of “orang kecil” life.

He works a seven-day week for a workaholic boss who gives him 700,000 rupiah (S$133) monthly. All of this is spent on his wife Dewi and four children who life in a slum in East Jakarta. His wife is expecting again. Child number five will be out in November.

He made a mistake, he confesses. He did not use a condom. It is too expensive to think of Sutra or Durex contraceptives in these hard times. A pack costs about 10,000 rupiah. That is two full meals a day for him.

“My wife says I should work more and bring in more money so that we can give the children a better life,” he says in his thin quavering voice. “I get a headache when she scolds me for not doing enough.”

He blames all his woes on the government. Have the people who replaced Mr Suharto in May last year brought about any changes? No, he says. The rich are still rich and the poor even poorer.

Like many traditional Javanese, Pak Sutaryono believes in spirits. He keeps an altar at home. It looks like a big toadstool – the top, made up of a round tray of woven split bamboo, is supported on a short bamboo stem.

On this altar, tiny cakes, sweetmeats and handfuls of rice are arranged on banana leaf, and adorned with a flower or two. It is protection for the family against lurking dangers and a source of hope for a better life. But the spirits do not seem to be helping him despite the offerings. Life is still hard.

Pak Sutaryono, like some of his friends from the Drivers Corner, is considering man-made solutions; specifically, the ballot box.

To the drivers, the election is an antidote to end all those years of misery, first under the Suharto regime, and now New Order Part II under Dr B. J. Habibie. It is the key to the change they hunger for.

The Drivers Corner has turned into a betting corner these days. Every one wants to give his two cents’ worth on who will win Indonesia’s first multiparty election in 50 years.

They are willing to stake that 5,000 rupiah for a bigger prize a month from now. Will it be Partai Demokrat Indonesia – Perjuangan? Will it be Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa? Will it be Partai Amanat Nasional? Or will it be the ruling Golkar party once again?

The drivers, like many of the sizeable lower classes in several major Indonesian cities, seem to have had enough of Golkar. For them, it symbolises all the sins of the past and portends problems for the future.

Pak Sutaryono says that if Golkar wins and leads a coalition government, there will be a “perang” or war.

“Hope for a better future can turn into madness if we don’t get what we want,” he says. “We don’t want any violence. We are sick of it. But we have to fight for what we believe in. That is what reformasi is all about.”

Life has always been hard for the poor in Indonesia. They will, on occasion, rail against the powerful for their hardships but are generally accepting of their lot in life. This will probably always be the case.

But for the next few weeks at least, people like Pak Sutaryono can dream about changing their future by casting a vote for one of the 48 parties they think can lead Indonesia out of its current mess.

This innate hope in the political process shows that cynicism is still under control. A result outside the expectations of amateur forecasters like our drivers might, however, put an end to this.

Worse still, if their hopes are dashed by widespread election fraud.

Pak Sutaryono and others in the Drivers Corner could find themselves, almost against their will, joining the crowds in a violent venting of anger and blood-letting.

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