Expatriate observations of Jakarta before HPs, fancy boutiques and economic growth

Tim Scott, a Western Australian-born geologist, former diplomat, writer and raconteur, is a long-time resident of Indonesia. In the following extract from his recent Tempo essay, he provides fascinating anecdotes of his early experiences in Jakarta and rural Indonesia.

His first sojourn in the country was from 1963 until 1966, including the ‘year of living dangerously.’ He returned intermittently on mining business until he joined the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs in 1971. After holding diplomatic positions in London and Kuala Lumpur, he was appointed a First Secretary to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta from 1976 to 1979, critical years in the Australia-Indonesia relationship following Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

Tim Scott in Australia's Great Sandy Desert 1962: No trees, no shrubs, no water, lots of flies and dust.  "So Indonesia why not?”
He returned to the private sector in 1981, first as Indonesian country manager of Canadian oil explorer Husky Oil, and then for Australian ‘mini-conglomerate’, Parry Corporation. He established his own consulting firm, PT Dharma Raksa, in 1988 and remains its CEO.  He worked for PT Barrick Gold Corporation Indonesia during 1992-1999, including as its President Director, and also for Canadian explorer Kalimantan Gold Corporation (1999-2003).

Fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, he is a regular contributor to Indonesian and foreign publications and has translated numerous books.

50 Years a Bulé

On 26 February 1963 I landed at Kemayoran International Airport in Jakarta as a young surveyor on the way to the oil fields of Central Sumatera.  I jumped into a clapped out Ford Customline and headed for the Hotel Indonesia (HI), just finished in 1962 for the Asian Games. Booking in I was shocked by the tariff of US$22 ++ for I was used to Australian Outback pubs at £1/7/6  - a bit over US$3 a night including dinner, bed and breakfast.  In the Outback a  beer was under three shillings (US$0.10), however at the HI, using the official exchange rate of Rp 45 to the USD,  a beer was more like US$5.00.

Hotel Indonesia, Jakarta
Now 50 years later I look back at the enormous positive changes in Indonesia over those years – half a century! Incredible changes but some shortcomings regrettably.

I spent three years here then including witnessing the 1965 coup from a safe distance in the middle of the Sumatran jungle in the headwaters of the Rokan River building a road and drilling camp. I returned in 1969 again for several months and, from 1976 until today, I have been here non-stop working all over Indonesia from Banda Aceh to Merauke; not Sabang yet but sighted from the mainland.

My title invites me to comment first on language usage.  For example the word bulé – albino –  in the early sixties was a derogatory word for a European and was seldom used.  Orang asing – a foreigner –  was the accepted polite usage. Today bulé is commonly used seemingly without any implied insult.

The same goes for cewek – a girl.  It was unacceptable in the early sixties to use cewek in mixed company.  Today you see the word on city billboards.

Another is preman. Then it meant retired civil servant; literally a free man. Today, ironically, it means gangster!

In the last twenty years there has been a considerable invasion of Javanese into the language. More recently in Jakarta there has been the adoption of Betawi; look at some of the billboards around town in the past six months.  My first Indonesian dictionary was slim.  Today I have a couple including a Betawi one.

The most significant change for me is the overall standard of living in Indonesia and the exponential growth of a middle class which is almost double the population of Australia.

This presents itself in a number of ways:

The first most obvious one are Indonesians are generally 10 centimetres taller than 50 years ago.  This is due to higher incomes, which leads to better nutrition, better health.  Life expectancy has soared from 47 years to 67 years

Secondly, is the standard of living. A crude indicator is the number of cars and motorbikes on the road today - witness the traffic jams in mid-January 2013 here in Jakarta, the fancy boutiques in Kemang and the range of great places to eat:  You name the cuisine, it is here in Jakarta.

Half a century ago there was only the Skyline night club on the top floor of the HI, the coffee shop there on the ground floor and the Cahaya Kota in Menteng for a good Chinese meal – fuyung hai with tinned peas, cap cai with tinned mushrooms and accompanied  with  a  Bintang on the rocks – the accepted way to serve as there were few refrigerators.  It is still there today with a strong feeling of the olden days – tempo doeloe.

Today in Jakarta most restaurants serve many kinds of international cuisine, well chilled beers and  a great range of wines and spirits like at one central five star hotel where there was recently on offer French wine at Rp30 million a bottle!

In the early sixties the only watering hole was the Ramayana Bar at HI where all and sundry gathered to trade the gossip of the gutter and the gang.  About nine in the evening, to add a little jollity, customers would lurch out to the HI roundabout and hire a betja, with the driver becoming the passenger and the bulé the driver, for chaotic races around the fountain.  Try that today.  Later some would drift off to Louis’s Place down in Tanah Abang, a barbed-wire bear pit with a dirt floor which served beer and 'broads'.

Today shopping in Jakarta is a bliss compared with those days.  Now there is wide range of international-standard supermarkets and round-the-corner mini-markets. But the old muddy wet-markets are still here.  In the 60s you were victualled out of these wet-markets on a daily basis and lived off local produce.  In the 70s there were a few supermarkets but supplies were invariably limited.

Thirdly, public utilities today are astounding compared with the mid-sixties.  Often if you even had a phone it did not work and it was impossible to make an international call from your home or office.  To do this you had to queue at the Cikini telephone exchange for hours.  In those times some reckoned it was quicker to catch a plane to Singapore than queue standing in the heat at Cikini.

Today you can dial ISD anywhere in the world even from your hand phone (HP). Everyone has a HP today.  Even my servants’ kids have their HPs!  And what is remarkable too is that the service is invariable pretty good.

Indonesians love to gossip and the HP is the ultimate instrument of gossip. Therein lies a caution:  Jakarta is the largest small town in the world if you did not know already!

Electricity supply is today is reasonable.  Five decades ago most expatriate homes had a generator as almost without fail at 6.00 in the afternoon when peak electricity demand struck; out went the power just as your spouse was trying to apply make-up before going out.   Promptly, your watchman started up your clunker generator and then the bedroom air conditioner delivered cooling respite.

Fourthly, economic growth has been incredible.

In 1963 the tallest building in town was HI.  In the 1970s  it was Wisma Nusantara, funded by Japanese war reparations, on the HI roundabout and from then on afterwards Jakarta’s office building took off spreading further south towards Blok M – deepest dark South Jakarta – which was considered to be the limits of human habitation; beyond that it was rumoured there were tigers and elephants.  Jalan Fatmawati was then a graveled pot-holed road and Pondok Indah had not been discovered.

Pancoran, Jakarta, in the 1960s
The black market was rampant when I arrived in early 1963. The official rate was Rp 45 to US$1.00 while the black was over Rp 1,000 to US$1.00, and through the following two and a half years it crept up to well over Rp180,000 to US$1.00 – while the official rate was raised to Rp 425 – until after the September 1965 coup when three zeros were chopped off the currency.

On a Sunday, buying everyone at the HI swimming pool a drink of their own choice,  some 80 drinks,  cost less than US$5.00 at the black market rate.  Coke was more expensive than a quart bottle of Bintang beer. Apart from the burst-out of the Rupiah in 1978 and 1997,  today’s currency is very stable. Possession of foreign currency in the early sixties was a criminal offence!

In the sixties, the Beatles were banned.  They, in Sukarno’s mind, represented the corrupt and evil decadence of the west.  The best gift you could give an Indonesian friend was a Beatles LP – if you remember what that was – a long playing record at 33 RPM.  It is pretty tame stuff by today’s popular music standards.  In the 70s a Playboy magazine was a well-received treat for men.  With the internet everything is now available here in Indonesia.  Also, listening to the BBC was a criminal offense, especially during Konfrontasi. 

In their speeches today’s politicians and leaders sound like accountants reading out, line by line, a company’s financial statements.  Compare that with President Sukarno whose speeches would run for two hours plus; making quotes in foreign languages or inserting a vulgar Javanese phrase here and there.  Can you imagine any of the last five presidents saying something vulgar, except possibly Gus Dur who had a wacky sense of humour?

Today there is far greater press freedom than under Presidents Sukarno and Suharto.  Under those presidencies journalists were regularly threatened or gaoled and papers closed down.

Four things that perturb me looking back over fifty years:  They are moral values, increasing inter-ethnic violence, corruption, health and education. Somehow they are all interlinked and overlap ...

First published by Tempo magazine, March 26, 2013. Reprinted with permission. To read Tim Scott’s full article, continue at http://magz.tempo.co/konten/2013/03/26/IDF/26350/Fifty-Years-A-Bul/31/13