Visiting Indonesia – Larry and Judy’s Story.

Submitted by mumunmumun on 22 May 2015   •  Uncategorized

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During Vira’s trip around Greece, she happen to bump in to a nice couple that was intrigued by one of our old tshirt that said ‘I survived Indonesia’. A conversation happened ending to this story of visiting Indonesia. Larry Rosenberg recently retired as a senior research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health. He worked there since 2001 and at other parts of Harvard University before that. His interests include international development, energy and the environment, advocacy of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, climate change activism, and travel to developing countries. Here’s his story.


Judy and I just spent nearly three weeks traveling around Indonesia. With 250 million people, it’s the fourth largest country in the world, and it’s the largest that is majority Muslim. We were definitely there too short a time to say much about this huge and very diverse country, but I’ll try anyway. The bottom line: Indonesia is often cited as yet another rising Asian success story, but it doesn’t really look that way.

To say that Jakarta, the capital, is not exactly charming would be an extreme understatement. A super-trafficky, intense metropolis with rather minimal public transportation and green space, it’s a hard place to stick around. The highlight of being there was our going on “Jakarta Hidden Tours”, where tour leader Ronny took us and a few others to areas of Jakarta by the waterways and the railroad tracks.

Indonesian railroad tracks

These places, of which I think there are many, are filled with extremely poor people — who, amazingly, were very friendly to us. Many make their “living” by recycling plastic bottles. Yes, for sure, they were friendly partly because we were on this particular tour with their friend Ronny, but their welcoming smiles were a hint of what was to come: nearly everyone we interacted with was very outgoing and friendly to us. Many people wanted their picture taken with us, and when they found out that we were from “America”, they would often say, “Obama, Obama”, smiling. Students interviewed us, as part of their school assignments.

meeting the locals

Jakarta has lots of tall buildings emblazoned with major corporate names. This is a reflection of what many people are talking about when they portray Indonesia as a rising economic power. And it’s true that per capita income — averaged over the whole population — has been increasingly pretty rapidly. But when we looked around — in Jakarta, Surabaya (the second largest city — gritty like Jakarta, but a bit easier to take), and Yogyakarta (a big cultural center) — as well as in a mountain village near a volcano we climbed and in the many rural areas we saw from the train and along the highways — things appeared to be pretty undeveloped. It’s hard to see evidence that economic growth has translated into decent lives for people. Housing looks fragile in most places. The roads are lined with small shops that, for the most part, don’t look very busy. Lots of people are hanging around. There are few sidewalks and very few parks. Education is widely said to be very poor. And Jakarta has another major problem: it is very low-lying, so much of it may succumb to sea level rise in the next few decades. In the meantime, nearly 90% of the electricity is generated from fossil fuels in this volcano-filled country, and deforestation continues at a rapid pace.

Average incomes may be rising, but I think that, as in so many other countries, a relatively narrow sliver of the population has reaped most of the benefits of economic growth. There are fancy malls and some nice places for people to live — and a crush of cars for the well-off and ubiquitous motorbikes for tens of millions of others. People we talked to — there are a surprising number of English speakers — spoke of widespread corruption, referring to local and national politicians on the take. This is likely a huge factor in the continuing poverty of so many Indonesians. But I think corruption operates on a more significant level: groups that control the country’s bountiful natural resources make sure they maintain control of the development of those resources and take most of the related profits. Total economic output can be booming while few ordinary Indonesians actually benefit. Overall, I don’t have the things-are-hopping-and-improving feeling about Indonesia that I got when we were in Vietnam 10 years ago – or for that matter in Turkey one year ago.

We asked about how much people earn. The answers suggest that ordinary workers and farmers should not be able to make ends meet. We saw multi-generational families living together, sharing wages and childcare, which helps. But the moderately low prices people pay for food in the market don’t come close to compensating for people’s low incomes. We did, however, see that rents are generally cheap. And, as a cautionary note about our ability to quickly grasp realities there, we learned that one shockingly low answer about wages was probably wildly inaccurate.

We visited one factory, where 2,100 women (and only women) work, their fingers flying five and a half days a week, hand-rolling cigarettes. They are paid a minimum of $50/week, but can earn more if they go beyond their quota, which I think most of them do. This was at a very successful, formerly Indonesian company that was sold to Philip Morris. As always, it’s too hard to figure out how people make ends meet when we’re just dropping in as curious tourists. We do know that lots of people scrounge around, with some success, in some type of side business. Among other times, we saw this when we had dinner at the home-based restaurant of a housekeeper from one of our hotels. (He had told me, “I’m not suggesting you come”, but that is actually exactly what he was urging us to do.)

Most adults and children, as much as you can tell from a quick glance, appear to be healthy, although of course a quick glance may not mean much. But data on life expectancy at birth, a good overall measure of population health, suggest that the Indonesian population as a whole is not very healthy. Life expectancy stands at 71 in Indonesia. Although this is well above India (66), it is below Thailand (74), Malaysia (75), China (75), Vietnam (76), the United States (79), and Singapore (82). Similarly, Indonesia’s infant mortality rate (26 per 1,000 live births) is well above that of all these countries except India.

These observations are based to a significant extent on what we saw during 10 days in Java, the island where nearly 60% of Indonesians live and one of the most densely populated areas of the world — along with years of seeing similar patterns in so many other countries. They’re also based on some online data, the more positive expectations of a long-time expatriate who lives in Indonesia, and the very pessimistic take of Indonesia: Archipelago of Fear, by Andre Vltchek, with a foreword by Noam Chomsky.

We also spent over a week on the lush, much calmer island of Bali, traveling around tourist areas as well as very rural areas.

rice paddies during sunset

Culturally, Bali, with a predominantly Hindu population (complete with castes), feels quite different from Java, which is mostly Muslim. Part of the difference stems from religion, and part from Bali having much more forest cover. In addition, Bali’s economy has benefited greatly from its being a prime tourist destination. We had a driver for two days, Nyoman, who is a Hindu priest, and we spent some time in his small, pretty poor village in the interior of the island. He told us about a community banking/lending system used there. He also took us to an (illegal) cockfight, where large numbers of seemingly pretty poor men nonchalantly and repeatedly made $5 and $10 bets and then rooted until the grisly end.

There’s a ferry, but no bridge, connecting Java and Bali. The distance is short, and the government had plans to build a bridge, which seems logical and useful. But two people we talked to in Bali said they oppose such a bridge, because they don’t want the Muslims from Java to all the more easily come, take their jobs, and cause trouble. The renowned paradise of Bali (with laid back people, great beaches, and stunning rice-field terraces) has an easily uncovered underside. We were told the bridge project isn’t happening.

Next month Indonesians will elect a new president. As background: the current one, who has been in office for 10 years, was a battalion commander in the 1980s during the genocide against the people of East Timor (when that country was fighting for its independence from Indonesia).

One of the two candidates in the upcoming election is the ex-son-in-law of former president Suharto, who instigated and carried out the massacre of 500 thousand to 3 million “communists” in 1965-66, with US support. I put “communists” in quotes because the word was applied to a wide range of people, including union members, anyone who spoke against Suharto, and all sorts of minority populations, very much including ethnic Chinese. Indonesian Communist Party members were also all, or nearly all, killed. Before then, the Party had been legal and prominent and was the largest communist party in the world outside of the Soviet Union and China. For a chilling recounting of those events, I suggest watching the movie, The Act of Killing (a 2013 Oscar nominee), in which some of the perpetrators of those crimes, who are still at liberty and widely respected, reenact what they did.

The other candidate, known as “Jokowi”, has shown himself to be a vigorous supporter of the middle class and the poor, and nearly everyone we talked to hopes he’ll win and thinks he will. But the alignment of the political parties, and the support of many of them for the bad guy, makes the result uncertain.

Our trip was both fun (talking to people – including my and a friend’s long-ago colleagues, seeing some breathtaking temples and beaches, climbing a volcano, going to dance performances and hearing gamelan music, checking out Indonesian foods) and interesting.

gamelan playing

It included an incredibly relaxing stay at a reasonably priced (for foreigners) resort on the north coast of Bali, far from the tourist-dominated south. Our last couple of days were in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. We were there way too short a time to say much more than “wow” — it’s a bustling, appealing, cosmopolitan city that is a total contrast to Jakarta.



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5 years ago

Very well written Mumun. Indonesia has opened my eyes also. I had so many misconceptions about the country.
And I haven’t seen much of it. Next time when I come there, I’d request you to take me around. 🙂