Johannes Nugroho: Stormy With a Chance of Ahok

Jakarta under Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, is undergoing major physical and bureaucratic transformations never seen since the days of Governor Ali Sadikin in the 1970s. (Antara Photo/Regina Safri)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 1:59 PM June 08, 2016
Category : Opinion, Columns, Featured

Jakarta under Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, is currently going through major physical and bureaucratic transformations never seen since the days of Governor Ali Sadikin in the 1970s. Ahok has publicly vowed to turn the nation’s capital into an orderly city rivaling Singapore. Yet he has also been criticized for his harsh and inhumane policies, especially when it comes to leveling the city's slums and relocating their residents.

The Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) cited earlier this year that in 2015 there were 113 cases of forced relocations, with 8,315 families and 600 small enterprises being displaced. Ahok’s methods seem efficient—a rare commodity in Indonesia—but it also feels very impersonal.

As is the case with all pioneers throughout history, only time will tell if Ahok is a hero or a villain. As things stand today, it is too early to say whether Ahok has done Jakarta a good turn—we still need more proof of that. However, it is also plain that chiseling Jakarta into a shipshape operation will take more than just steely measures by a determined governor.

Ahok may do well to read a new book by Pat Walsh, "Stormy With A Chance of Fried Rice." The book essentially chronicles the author’s 12-month on and off stay in Jakarta between 2013 and 2015. A pleasingly readable book on Indonesia and Jakarta, it may also, I believe, offer new insights into the many problems that Jakarta and its citizens face everyday.

The book is a compendium of thoughtful vignettes on everyday life in the capital: keen observations thrown in along with, surprisingly, some poetry from Walsh, who was in Jakarta to copyedit Chega!, a voluminous report by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) on human rights violations in Timor Leste during the Indonesian occupation.

Walsh exposes facets of life in Jakarta as seen from the periscope of an engaged outsider. If he criticizes, it’s always done with a liberal dose of dry humor and sense of irony, which makes his points more palatable—though not necessarily palpable—to most Indonesians. We will need to step back some distance to better appreciate his vistas.

During an encounter with a cassava chips seller on a pedestrian walkway in South Jakarta, Walsh asked, “Why are you selling snacks?” to which the woman, Nur, replied, “For mudik [the annual exodus of Muslims from big cities to their home villages at the end of the fasting month—ed.], so I can go home to Central Java for Idul Fitri.”

Nur’s answer may seem normal to most Indonesians, so commonplace that we perhaps fail to notice its significance. Walsh, on the other hand, writes, “Like the many who migrate home annually, dressed to impress and loaded with presents, Nur has the homing instinct imprinted in her DNA like a pigeon [...] Nur, like millions of others, owes no deep allegiance to Jakarta. She remains a villager, her identity and loyalties defined by her family, ethnicity, birth place and religion.”

I can’t help but feel that the sentence, while still imparting dignity to Nur, captures the essence of the Indonesian dilemma caused by industrialization and urbanization. The “nation-building” undertaken by the republic since its independence becomes obsolete when millions of Indonesians remain steadfast in their most primordial loyalties.

Awash with provincial migrants like Nur with no inherent loyalty to the megalopolis, Jakarta stands alone in fending off forces of disorder. The "we don't really belong here" mentality may explain the incurable littering and irresponsible road habits that characterize Jakarta.

After all, why worry about what your neighborhood looks like if you don’t think of it as your home? It’s also probably the reason why many Indonesian migrant workers prefer to build homes back in their villages when they can easily afford one in the city.

On a more abstract level, this may also explain why corruption is still rampant in Indonesia, even when almost every citizen knows it’s wrong. We might ask, what would Nur do if she suddenly found her station elevated, if, say, she got a surprise appointment as a high-ranking public servant? Would she, whose first loyalty is probably to her own family members, refrain from those three scourges of modern life—corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN)—if giving in to them meant her family would always have enough to eat and her children could attend good schools?

Nur’s predicament reminds me of the popular saying, “You can take the girl out of the village, but you can’t take the village out of the girl.” It also suggests to me that the central government would do well to devolve responsibility to its local counterparts, so those who want to stay in the kampung can develop it and don’t have to go to the cities to earn a living (where they can never feel they belong).

The idea isn’t new. I already heard about the dire consequences of urbanization in my childhood years. It’s just that there hasn’t been enough will by the government to go the other way: it would mean dispersing the great concentrations of wealth from the urban centers to the hinterland. If that happens, many of our bureaucrats may end up with fewer opportunities to supplement their income through KKN. After all, their loyalty is also to their family first and foremost.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at johannes@nonacris.com and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos

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