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The good, the bad and the hopeful - reflecting on Indonesia

By Melody Kemp - posted Thursday, 10 January 2008

As we descended into Jakarta we were enclosed in the toxic murk that settles over the city like the rain cloud of bad luck over Jonah.

It had been over a year since I had been there, but I had lived in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia for some 11 years. During that time I have been fortunate enough to gather a Muslim foster son who is now married with a child of his own. I am the happy foster granny to a precocious four-year-old. She will run the country one day.

Australians have a fear of Indonesia that is only equaled by Indonesian’s fear about Australia. The major difference is that Indonesians know far more about Australian politics than Australians know about Indonesia.


I have yet to meet someone in Australia, who is not an Indonesia scholar, who can name the president of Indonesia: while the average Indonesian cab driver could slang off about the racist policies of Howard, Downer’s neo colonial attitude now thankfully gone.

Mid way through 2007 I attended a labour convention in Hong Kong where the Indonesians participating called for nationalisation of mining enterprises, focusing their attention on the massive and corrupt Freeport McMorran mine in West Papua that was known to pay regular tributes to Soeharto.

The largely Muslim participants protested the exploitation of globalisation which allows western consumers to profit from cheap Indonesian labour and showed photographs of foreign-owned factories where asbestos hung in the air and on the faces of the workers like Santa Snow.

The same anger that fuels the type of Islamic rallies seen on Australian TV was this time shot at capitalism and its progeny, the internationalisation of production. Theirs were sophisticated arguments based on political economy and the additional burden placed on the global environment. While they were Muslims and all offered A’salam Aliekum (“may peace be upon you” - the eponymous Muslim greeting), theirs was the language of class struggle, not that of jihad and bombs.

I asked them if things had changed in the six years since I had lived in Jakarta. They said they had, and I was keen to see for myself. The good, the bad, and the hopeful.

And changed they had.


First, the bad

The old town known as Kota, is now a place not to be seen. Once it was a shopping Mecca with classic Batavian architecture, trendy restaurants favoured by the OKB (orang kaya baru, new rich), and software-seeking technocrats; equally hated by the US trade Ambassador Mickey Kantor.

Kota with its factory outlets, bars, gambling dens and strip joints is now a no-go area where violence and drug taking have escalated.

The Jakarta traffic is even worse and made so by unbelievably silly transport policies that favour cars, ill designed bus lanes and non separation of slow vehicles and motor bikes.

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About the Author

Melody Kemp is a freelance writer in Asia who worked in labour and development for many years and is a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in South-East Asia. You can contact Melody by email at

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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