America is not a “banana republic”: A response to

Jakarta slums against a back drop of high rise apartments

Jakarta slums against a back drop of high rise apartments.

In a recent article, “Look at the stats: America resembles a poor country,” writer CJ Werlemen likens America to a Third World nation. Having spent the last three-plus years in developing countries, I feel this deserves comment. I don’t want to undermine the author’s points on America’s many problems, and Werlemen’s recommendations are well-considered. But the writer may not realize what he is saying when he suggests that the U.S. “looks like a broken banana republic.”

The term “banana republic” is often used to describe countries that export primary goods, e.g. bananas, and the name implies that another country has intervened sufficiently in the “republic’s” governance to control those primary resources, keeping costs low, usually by installing an accommodating dictator. This did in fact happen in Indonesia, which for decades had a dictator supported by Western governments. Suharto not only robbed the nation blind — outright stealing an estimated $15 billion to $35 billion — he left a lasting culture of fear and silence that restrained the country’s cultural development. Today, Indonesia’s economy remains overly dependent on primary-resource extraction of petroleum, timber and palm oil. Such an economy inhibits social mobility while a few at the top get rich. It also threatens to leave a barren landscape in place of the world’s third-largest area of existing rainforest with little human development to show for it. Simply because the U.S. is now home to one IKEA factory and various car plants, it is far from a banana republic, as Werlemen argues. To make such a suggestion undermines both the United States’ successes and the struggle that people of developing nations engage in to improve their own governments.

Werlemen claims that America’s level of food insecurity is on par with developing countries “like Indonesia.” That is simply not true. Werlemen is right to note that the U.S. food system is broken: With poor controls on animal farming, excessive subsidies, and limited access to nutritious foods in poor neighborhoods, it is below par for developed countries. I agree that better social services and a curb on the influence of major farm and food corporations should be implemented, and improving employment rates and increasing wages towards those of Northern Europe, as the author suggests, are also necessary goals. To compare those problems to those of Indonesia, however, hyperbolically exaggerates the scope of the problems.

Malnutrition is one of them. While the US struggles with obesity, Indonesia faces a surprisingly high rates of stunting.  When children are stunted — that is, when they are below an accepted height for their age due to undernourishment, a symptom of food insecurity — they are disadvantaged from the start, as their immune systems, organs and cognitive functions fail to develop properly. In Indonesia, 39 percent of all children under the age of 5 are stunted. In the United States, the percentage is so small (less than 2 percent) that it is no longer even considered an existent problem.

The real cause of stunting is poverty and lack of access to nutritious foods. When I say poverty, I am referring to living on less than $2 a day (purchasing power parity) as more than 107 million Indonesians do. In addition to all the risk factors facing Indonesians in terms of food security, the food supply is highly vulnerable to climate-change effects such as floods, droughts, and landslides, as are many truly developing nations.

Werleman argues that America’s infrastructure is crumbling, and undoubtedly it should be improved and rebuilt. Still, the quality of those roads and bridges, train lines and sewer systems generally far exceed those in truly poor nations. In Indonesia, when it rains a lot — as it does every year — Jakarta floods, regularly displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. The situation could be ameliorated by something resembling an adequate drainage system, such as that which most Americans enjoy.

Beyond physical infrastructure, the strength of American institutions is worth mentioning. The justice system in America may not be perfect, but overall it provides fair trials based on the “innocent until proven guilty” principle. Indonesia, on the other hand, struggles to meet basic standards of justice, as Amnesty International highlights. Here, known human-rights abusers (read: systematic murderers) walk free, while potentially innocent people are tortured and die in police custody before trial.

I am not suggesting that we hold the United States to a lower standard than our peer nations. (In a New York Times blog on inequality for example, authors like Joseph Stiglitz and Arindrajit Dube offer useful ideas for improving US policy). Rather, it is important to recognize the conditions under which people of truly developing nations live, and not undermine their struggles. Hyperbole can be damaging.

The comparison also undermines the United States’ most admirable feature: a culture of competence and drive resulting from the freedoms Americans enjoy, and a history of building those freedoms collectively. After years abroad, I am struck by that attitude and culture every time I visit home. Decades of political turmoil, brutal dictatorships, poor education, and poverty have left many developing nations in want of such a culture. In Indonesia, that weakness is pervasive: Many visitors and educated Indonesians themselves comment on a lack of ingenuity in this culture. It is important to recognize the value of the American ideals and culture, and encourage Americans to live up to them, rather than employing the shock value of an inappropriate comparison.

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Jakartans jockey carpool laws

On a Jakarta roadside, Jockyes try to flag a ride.

On a Jakarta roadside, Jockyes try to flag a ride.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve read all about the trials of Jakarta traffic, but there are a few fascinating tidbits left to learn. The city has in fact made an attempt at limiting traffic on the most major central throughway (Jalan Sudirman). In 1994, like many cities, Jakarta instituted a carpool law called “3 in 1.” During peak hours (7-10am and 4:30-7pm) only cars carrying at least three passengers are permitted on the road. (The minimum is three, because most Jakartans who can afford a car can also afford a driver). Jakartans are, however, too resourceful to be bothered with restrictions on their private car travel. Instead, a system of paid passengers (called jockeys) has emerged.

Approaching Sudirman on a weekday morning you may note a slew of pedestrians who appear to be waiting for a ride. They are waiting to be picked up and earn about US$1.80 to help a private car fill the 3-in-1 requirement. I don’t know whether the term “jockey” refers to riding shotgun, or jockeying the system. Passengers with a small child are the most valuable because they permit the driver to head to another location after leaving the passenger at his or her office.

The job is not without hazards. Some jockeys have reported sexual abuse; others are picked up by the police; although riding as a jockey itself is not illegal, policy manage to cite other reasons. However, jockeys I have met seem to think the job is decent for the pay, the work is relatively easy and the ride is often pleasant and air-conditioned. In other words, it’s better than panhandling. With the country’s dramatic levels of poverty and underemployment, the system may actually help to distribute wealth.

The government has repeatedly threatened to end the 3-in-1 zones, instituting tolls instead to funnel the funds paid by the wealthy for exclusive travel more directly to a government institution. These threats have mostly rung hollow, and according to the Jakarta Post, “the plan is stuck in bureaucratic deadlock with no end in sight.”

Some days I ride to my downtown office in our car, and when I do, I have to join the millions of Jakartans who pick up jockeys. I have mixed feelings about it. Am I glad to provide a small income to a mother, or ashamed to participate in Jakarta’s horrid traffic? A bit of both. In any case, like most of our neighbors, to live and work in this city, I have no choice.

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Jakarta takes first steps for sidewalks

Yesterday the Jakarta Globe (one of two major English-language newspapers here) published an optimistic cover piece about a movement to improve Jakarta’s sidewalks.

As I’ve said in previous posts, transport in this city is a problem almost beyond description, as is the lack of spaces to walk. So I am encouraged by any effort to improve the transit situation, and by any public recognition of how it affects city life. Still, efforts often fail to recognize the broader problems that create the jams and make walking difficult, forcing many Jakartans to spend 2-3 hours commuting to work.

Motorcyclists encroach on the limited walking space on a South Jakarta roadside (photo:

Motorcyclists encroach on the limited walking space on a South Jakarta roadside (photo:

According to the Jakarta Globe “of the 7,000 kilometers of main roads in the capital, only 20 percent were equipped with anything resembling footpaths.” Often what resembles a footpath is actually a series of cement blocks covering the sewer. When a block is missing, pedestrians risk a surprise slip into a murky mess. (In fact the Public Works Agency reports only 12 percent of roads have an actual sidewalk.) But all roadsides — with or without sidewalks — face other problems. Roadside food stalls force pedestrians to detour into traffic; motorcyclists looking to evade traffic commonly drive on sidewalks. According to the Jakarta Post, traffic police recorded 778 pedestrian deaths in accidents caused by reckless motorists and motorcyclists in the first eight months of 2013; the number of those merely injured in such encounters is surely higher.

Year after year, the city promises to improve the city for pedestrians, with little actual progress. Perhaps the underlying problems are being ignored.

Lined with small shops and restaurants, away from busy down town, Kemang Raya could be a nice street for strolling, but with limited sidewalks and encroaching street vendors most visitors stay in their cars.

Lined with small shops and restaurants, away from busy down town, Kemang Raya could be a nice street for strolling, but with limited sidewalks and encroaching street vendors most visitors stay in their cars.

Food stalls are a crucial part of Jakarta’s informal economy, providing jobs and inexpensive meals. Those meals are essential for a population that works hours away from home. With street food in high demand, a micro-enterprise like a small meatball cart may keep its owner above the poverty line. As a result, tens of thousands of them cram Jakarta’s roadsides. The city has not had success in regulating them.

Motorcyclists often take to the sidewalks because there is a high value to beating the traffic. Passengers of ojeks (motorcycle taxis) will pay more than the price of a car taxi to arrive at their destination quickly. The underlying problem is the traffic that creates a higher premium for speed.

The city does have some good plans: Last month Jakarta’s mayor, Joko Widodo, led a groundbreaking ceremony for a monorail. Though it is late in coming (planned to open in 2016, well after total gridlock on the city is predicted), it is hoped to  dramatically decrease car traffic; the current city commissioner expects it to carry 300,000 passengers per day in 2016. In addition, the plan to expand footpaths suggested includes space for shops on eight-meter-wide elevated sidewalks. If properly designed, this could open walking space for pedestrians, thus improving access to available public transit. Finally, Widodo has proposed pedestrian underpasses, instead of the, sometimes, rickety overpasses that make crossing major roads a challenge.

Sadly, after years of unfulfilled promises and delays, Jakartans are wary that the grand plans will be completed as hoped. I understand their skepticism, because for now Jakartans have to accept the reality and brave long daily commutes. But I’ll keep my hopes high that transit in this city will look very different in three years.

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Bangkok can provide lessons for Jakarta

Buddhas line the walls of Wat Pho in Bangkok

Buddha statues line the walls of Wat Pho in Bangkok.

When describing Indonesia, people often refer to its nearest neighbors as points of comparison. These include Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. Its two fellow middle-income countries, the Philippines and Thailand, make useful points of comparison because their respective capitals, Manila and Bangkok, are considered “mega-cities” like Jakarta.

Because I had to spend the past two week in Thailand for work and visa purposes, I’ve been drawing a lot of comparisons between Bangkok and Jakarta. I had barely stepped out of the airport when I declared that I would rather live in Bangkok than Jakarta. In less than a day, though I didn’t have any data to prove it, I felt that this city had a higher quality of life. My early observations were that Bangkok had better public transit; more and better sidewalks; less traffic; lower levels of pollution; more parks; better-preserved cultural history; and a higher tolerance for difference (i.e. homosexuality, ways of dressing in public, etc.). Some of these things are clearly visible, like the Sky Train. Others I just sensed in the air, for example an acceptance of diversity, which is palpable though not easily measured. But was I just thinking the grass was greener in Bangkok?

Bangkok's elevated rapid transit (aka sky train) covers over 55km of the city and links to a separate airport rail line.

Bangkok’s elevated rapid transit (aka Sky Train) covers more than 55 km of the city, and links to a separate airport rail line.

It turns out the hard data support my early observations. In Numbeo’s quality of life index, Bangkok scored 52.6 and Jakarta minus13. The index compiles data on pollution, safety, transport/traffic, health care, and costs of living. Bangkok beat Jakarta on all these measures. In fact, of 100 cities ranked worldwide, Jakarta is 4th to last on the list, ahead of only Caracas, Tehran and Manila. In other words, Bangkok has left its two fellow Southeast Asian megacities in the dust (it’s also ahead of Rome, and just behind Buenos Aires). How did it do that? All three of these Asian countries are recent converts to democracy, and all of them suffered through an economic crash in 1997. So what did Bangkok do right?

Of course there are differences that do not boil down to city policy. For example, nationwide, Thailand’s economy has recovered better than others after the Asian financial crisis, with a GDP per capita that is now higher than Indonesia and the Philippines. Bangkok also has fewer people, with a population density about one-third that of Jakarta. offers some other interesting insights: Bangkok has more Facebook users than either Manila or Jakarta, an indicator of a better knowledge of the Internet and thus education and global connectivity. They also point out that Bangkok has a higher tolerance of drinking in public. Perhaps both of these increase tolerance for diversity.

Thailand is a monarchy, and is overwhelmingly Buddhist (religion is also strongly linked to the king). Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim; the Philippines is mostly Christian. Religion is easily visible in these capital cities. In Jakarta, the Islamic call to prayer rings out through the city five times a day; Bangkok has temples or shrines on virtually every street corner.

Another interesting vote for Bangkok is its winning of the Travel and Leisure “Best City” award, four years in a row. In one sense, such an award can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: More visitors means more cultural diversity, and a better tourist infrastructure, which makes a city better to visit all around. Still, I think the award hints at one underlying reason for Bangkok’s success. The country has a rich and beautiful culture. Buddhism runs deep in daily life, and it’s linked to worship of the king: Thai people do not pass by even a small shrine on the street without pausing to bow. Perhaps tourism has helped recognize the value of that cultural history, and preserve it.

 A man pays homage to God and King by laying pieces of gold leaf on this statue of Buddha.

A man pays homage to god and king by affixing pieces of gold leaf on this statue of Buddha.

Having a king might also help Bangkok. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy (like the UK). In 1932, Thais demanded a constitution, and since then, the king has been a figurehead. Political rule has been plagued by coups and conflict, but its monarchy has never been overthrown: The current king has reigned through 17 military coups, creating a stable, benevolent leadership as the country figures out democracy. Thai law states that the king cannot be violated (e.g. criticized, defamed, etc.); he is considered divine. So this strange legal set-up ensures a sort of protection or preservation of national culture and religion. The king also sets a precedent for benevolent leadership: For example, kings have been investing in public medical care in Thailand for centuries. The role of the king in creating public goods translates into public space, like sidewalks.

The Thai view differs dramatically from Indonesian leadership. The dictators of Indonesia had two reasons for disregarding public goods — political and financial. A lack of public spaces helped prevent the public from assembling in opposition. Also, empty (public) space could be developed into a high-rise, a mall, or another road to fill with cars, for profit. Financial interests of politicians and corporations have snagged Jakarta’s plans for a canal and public transit for years.

It’s impossible to point to any one reason for a city’s success. For all their similarities, Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta exist in very different contexts. But it’s clear to me that Jakarta has a few lessons to learn from its mega-neighbor to the north. Public transit and public spaces, such as sidewalks and parks, create a truly valuable difference. Jakarta’s mass transit system — groundbreaking for which started two weeks ago — can’t come soon enough.

Ally-ways like this lead to river taxi terminals along Bangkok's Chao Phraya.

Alleyways like this lead to river taxi terminals along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.

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Jakarta’s festive, grisly holiday

On Tuesday, Indonesian Muslims sacrificed animals to please Allah. In doing so they remembered the story of Abraham from the Quran, who was willing to sacrifice his own son for God, and they remembered God’s kindness for providing a sheep instead.

Men slaughter a cow on a busy street in south Jakarta

Men slaughter a cow on a busy street in south Jakarta

After the animals — goats, sheep and cattle — were slaughtered, most of the meat was distributed to the poor. The national Istiqlal Mosque, in Jakarta, distributed 6,000 one-kilo rations of meat to people in need. This was the holiday Eid ul Adha, which I have explained in previous posts.

Across Jakarta, animals were slaughtered in mosques, on roadsides, and in parking lots. We saw one group of men slaughter a cow in the parking lot of a nearby post office, then roll its carcass onto a tarp and carry it through the post office, to a back patio, to be butchered. Another family lay a slaughtered goat by the roadside presumably so that the blood would drain into the sewer. The animals were slaughtered in accordance with Islamic halal rules, though many were killed by amateurs with crude tools. Kind or cruel, the killings were public, held proudly in the open for all to see.

I hesitated to post photos of Eid-ul-Adha events on this blog. Many of the scenes I captured seemed inappropriate in some way — even for the Internet. On the other hand, passersby on Jakarta streets could not miss these scenes; children of all ages ogled at the bloody sacrifice of animals. Men and boys were clearly proud to participate in the slaughter. So why did photos seem inappropriate?

In the West, we might see pictures of meat hanging in a refrigerated meat locker on the evening news, or perhaps cows in a stockyard in the newspaper.  But the in-between, transition phase, when death is confronted and the animal is initialy dismembered, is considered vulgar. I was surprised to find how dramatically Indonesian culture differs from that perspective.

The following is a candid account of my Eid-ul-Adha, in particular of that phase so often omitted from American media.

A small crowd was gathering as I parked in front of the post office. As we approached, I watched a man pull a golok (traditional knife) across a cow’s throat. At least four other men were holding the cow with all their might by the legs and tail as it began to convulse. Its eyes darted in terror. Its spinal cord was still intact, though its windpipe had been severed, and so the cow gasped for air through the round hole in its open neck. A moment later its eyes turned glassy. This was the transition from life to death and the beginning of a shift from animal to meat, cow to beef — a moment rarely witnessed by Westerners.

Then the men read a prayer before slaughtering a goat, which bayed desperately as though the cow’s fate had been an omen to it. The goat’s throat is smaller and less difficult to cut; it died quickly. As a group of men rolled the cow’s lifeless body onto a blue tarp, one man held up the goat’s head like a messy trophy.

At a mosque down the road, the atmosphere was more festive. A man distributed slices of watermelon to children and other onlookers. With 28 dead animals in the parking lot, the men here needed a quick division of labor. Some emptied the entrails into the sewer in the corner. With their heads now removed, the two cows had lost the aura of animals. A small boy sat on one headless carcass, resting in the Jakarta sun. The other carcass was being dissected. Men wandered around with blood from their fingernails to their elbows, sharpening knives on square blocks. Some listened in as the lead butcher gave further instructions. Four men struggled to carry the intestines across the parking lot, trying not to let them drag on the ground. With the organs removed, as the men peeled back its hide, the carcass transformed into a side of beef. The children seemed excited about which pieces they would take home to eat. The most experienced butcher turned around with the cow’s penis in his hands to give a quick anatomy lesson for the giggling boys and girls. The atmosphere was that of macabre Fourth of July Picnic. The Imam (church leader) looked pleased, watching quietly from near the mosque door.

Throughout the day I saw people walking along the streets with newspaper-wrapped packages, or plastic grocery bags, bloody with their ration of meat.

The slaughter and distribution of meat will continue for the rest of the week. Some of those who receive free rations will sell them for a few dollars, choosing vegetarianism out of necessity.

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Streetside livestock bring redemption and risk

This trader hopes to sell 60 animals this year from his sidewalk paddock.

This trader hopes to sell 60 animals this year from his sidewalk paddock.

Once a year New York City sidewalks fill up with pine trees for sale. Once a year Jakarta sidewalks fill up with livestock for sale. As Muslims plan to sacrifice them in Allah’s name – as I wrote in our previous post.

Buying a goat for Eid-ul-Adha in Jakarta is as common as buying a Christmas tree in Manhatten — so ubiquitous that it merits little mention in local media.

Just a few days befor Eid-ul-Adha, this man was asking for over $400 for this one goat.

Just a few days befor Eid-ul-Adha, this man was asking for over $400 for this one goat.

But in Indonesia, the tradition comes with risks. Jakarta is congested, hot and lacking in regulations; add an untold number of livestock packed into small streetside pens and it’s a recipe for disease.

The city’s Public Order Agency has allowed sellers to violate local law by occupying public spaces, setting up makeshift stockyards on sidewalks and along roadsides around Jakarta. But beginning next year, traders will be prohibited from using sidewalks in central Jakarta, thanks to an agreement signed by the mayor and the sellers’ representative. Next year will mark the first time that such a restriction will be implemented.

Disease from the hewan qurban — literally, “sacrifice animals” — is a risk. Though Islam dictates strict standards for the health of animals before they are slaughtered and eaten, many animals around Indonesia carry diseases that are difficult to detect.  The South Jakarta Husbandry and Fishery Sub-Department has already inspected more than 22,000 animals for anthrax, which can be passed to humans through contact with infected animals or feces. As I have discovered on Jakarta streets, contact with animals — or their feces — is very difficult to avoid.

Volunteer veterinary students and professors will inspect animals for disease around Java. In some cases last year, volunteers identified parasitic worms and stopped the infected meat from being distributed to the poor. These inspections will reach only a fraction of those animals to be sacrificed on Tuesday. With the religious pressure to participate in the ritual, Jakartans choose animals off street corners, often with no veterinary advice; mosques distribute meat from sacrificed animals to the poor. Outbreaks of foodborne illness can be dangerous for a population that already has limited access to health care.

I will continue to update the blog this week as we watch Eid-ul-Adha’s impact on Jakarta.

Signs like this one advertized "sacrifice animals for sale" around Jakarta.

Signs like this one advertized “sacrifice animals for sale” around Jakarta.


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In Jakarta, surge in urban husbandry precedes day of sacrifice

As animals flood the cities' empty lots they draw many on-lookers.

As animals flood the city’s empty lots they draw many on-lookers

As I’ve mentioned, Jakarta is a city of strange juxtapositions. Our lovely housing complex is surrounded by a wall; on the other side, just behind our house and slightly uphill, is a quarter-acre lot that until last week was vacant, save for some banana trees, a shack and piles of trash. A week ago, we noticed some crude bamboo structures being erected in the lot. Then, about two dozen cattle appeared. A handful of sheep and a dozen goats have since joined them. We began to worry if we were going to have a small farm just uphill from our home.

Is Jakarta taking urban agriculture to its extreme? No. this is all preparation for the Muslim holy day of sacrifice beginning on Eid ul-Adha, next Tuesday. Temporary pens have appeared all around the city, tucked between skyscrapers and malls, filled with animals from central Java.

On the day of sacrifice, Muslims are obliged to slaughter an animal in honor of Allah. The meat is usually divided in thirds for the family, their friends or neighbors, and the poor. Only children, the poor, and people on long journeys are exempt from the mandate to slaughter an animal on this day. For non-Muslims, this point is interesting: The sacrifice is not just a tradition, but a religious obligation.

The ritual can create a heavy burden for those who live on the edge of poverty. Islam is very specific about acceptable animals: A goat or sheep qualifies as one sacrifice (no chickens or ducks); up to seven people can share a cow or camel. In Jakarta, those who can afford it buy whole cows themselves, at prices of more than USD 1,500 per cow (we have not yet seen any camels in town). Mosques take up collections to buy additional animals for the poor.

For many Indonesians, though, buying their own sacrifice is a matter of pride and piety. As my driver explained, “It is OK if you cannot slaughter, but if you can, you will be happy in heaven.” So they will scrimp and save all year to be able to buy one animal, or part of one.

Not far up the road from the makeshift stockyard that abuts our home, I noticed a scrawny black goat baying for food as he rummaged through trash by a small shack.  Several families will most likely share that goat on October 15 in an attempt to gain the reward of the sacrifice. The reward of course is two-fold: pleasing Allah, and meat for supper, a rare treat for many poor Indonesians.

Some 28 million people live in the Jakarta metro area, and the majority (around 87%) of them are Muslim. Though I have not found any estimate for Jakarta, about 100 million animals are sacrificed for Eid ul-Adha worldwide. We can guess that a few million of those are in Jakarta alone. This poses a problem: Where are millions of animals to be slaughtered in a major metropolis? The answer: outside of mosques, at homes, in yards and in driveways.

I will be sure to post accounts of preparations and the actual holiday over the coming week. Until then: Have you ever been part of the Eid-ul-Adha celebration? What was your experience?

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Reckless bus drivers make headlines

Many of the city's public transport drivers are minors. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

Jakarta buses can be a risky mode of transport (photo: Jakarta Globe)

As a follow-up to my previous post about transportation: Jakarta bus drivers made headlines this week. The Jakarta Globe reported that “almost half of Jakarta’s 28,000 public transport drivers are either not in possession of a motor vehicle license or are too young to be behind the wheel.” Because public transport licenses are given to the vehicle owners, who then hire drivers, the city must “raid” vehicles to identify unlicensed or underage drivers.

According to the Globe, Jakarta Transportation Agency head Udar Pristono said that conducting raids would not be effective and that the only way to stop the problem is for bus and angkot (minibus) owners to cooperate and only hire qualified drivers. The agency, he continued, cannot monitor all modes of public transportation.

Read the full story here.

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In the absence of public works, Jakartans cope with a daily slog

Traffic is the unifying element in Jakarta life; it’s effect on the lives of all Jakartans cannot be overstated.

Unless you have been in it, Jakarta traffic is difficult to understand. Each day, 28 million people go to work and to school across this dense, poorly laid out metro area. What public transit system exists is woefully inadequate. Many spend four hours a day or more traveling to and from work.

Other vehicles rarely respect designated bus lanes on a main thoroughfare

Other vehicles rarely respect designated bus lanes on a main Jakarta thoroughfare

How bad is it? One shoddy train runs between Jakarta and the surrounding metropolitan area, on a inconvenient route, packed with people and pickpockets. A few public buses run along a major Jakarta thoroughfare in a dedicated bus lane, which is frequently violated by private cars. All the other “public buses” — called metro-minis — are better described as private minibuses. Usually overcrowded, often billowing black smoke, they pick up passengers at will anywhere along their routes. They are barely regulated beyond having an assigned route, and their drivers are notoriously reckless. Taking the bus might be safer than walking, though. With almost no sidewalks in Jakarta, opting to walk means braving black exhaust fumes and sticky heat while dodging traffic on the trash-filled roadside. Sadly, almost half of greater Jakarta’s population, who live on less than three dollars a day, is tied to these three transit options.

Jakarta is also home to Indonesia’s richest people, who can afford to commute in comfort. A private car or taxi is the most popular choice, traveling with air conditioning in a comfortable seat. But the roads here are not well maintained, managed, or designed. Streets are narrow; highways are few. The lack of city planning has led to a system of U-turns that cause gridlock. In addition, as the wealthy population has grown, so has the number of vehicles. Two years ago experts estimated more than 13 million vehicles clogged Jakarta’s streets. With that many vehicles causing traffic jams, average speeds slowed to between 15 and 20 km per hour (9-12 miles per hour). The problem has only increased since and police predict complete gridlock by 2014.

You can hitch a ride any where you see an "ojek" sign

You can hitch a ride on two wheels any where you see an “ojeg” sign

For middle-class Jakartans, cars are unaffordable, and so is waiting in traffic. So they ride motorcycles, either their own or as passengers on popular motorcycle taxis called Ojeks (also spelled Ojeg or Ojex). Jakarta has almost four times more motorcycles than cars. For the rider, a motorcycle will get you to your destination much faster than a car. But many car drivers will tell you that the constant weaving in and out of motorcycles is a major cause for the slow traffic. Still, many a wealthy Jakartan can be seen on an ojek when they are pressed for time. Motorcycles also reduce travel by flooding the city with low-cost deliverymen who carry everything from Burger King to fine dining to documents. I once had a small package of Dutch cookies delivered to our door so that I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery to pick them up. The extra charge for home delivery by motorcycle: about 45 cents. You might think motorcycles are only efficient for one or two people with no baggage, but you don’t know Jakartans. During the Muslim holiday week, many Jakartans hit the highways for vacation on their motorcycles. I watched a couple strap two suitcases onto the back of their motorcycle and head off together. It’s not uncommon to see a family of four on one motorcycle. Last week an air conditioner repairman arrived at our house with boxes of tools and a tank of Freon gas on his motorcycle.

These bajais wait outside a south Jakarta repair shop that has helped keep them on the road for over 30 years.

These bajais wait outside a south Jakarta repair shop that has helped keep them on the road for over 30 years.

For a traveler with too many people or goods to strap on to a motorcycle, who wants to avoid getting rained on, or who just has a sense of nostalgia, there is one other option. It’s called a Bajai (after the man who first produced them in India, Jamnalal Bajaj). You may have seen these if you’ve visited India or seen similar models around Asia or Africa. Originally imported from India in 1975 as an upgrade from Indonesia’s once-ubiquitous bicycle rickshaws, Bajais are motor-tricycles with a roof, sometimes called auto-rickshaws. Ostensibly the passenger is better protected from the rain, though you may get a good soaking through the open sides.  After the government stopped issuing permits in 1990, Bajais declined in popularity as ojeks flourished. Those that remain are often older with loud two-stroke engines. Somehow in this city of gridlock, bajais have remained an icon, most likely for their visual esthetic, though motorcycles are a more accurate city emblem.

The final word on traffic from anyone who lives in Jakarta is: learn to live with it.  You can’t change it, and if the government’s plans for rapid transit ever materialize; you may not be around to see it – now that 24 years have been spent on planning alone. For those with an office job, being in a car enables you to work while you commute (most professionals earn enough to have a car and driver).

To put it in perspective, last week I traveled by car to a meeting in central Jakarta about 6 miles from my house, I left home at 7:00 a.m. and arrived right at 8:00 a.m., averaging 10 minutes per mile, about as fast as I jog on a treadmill. This is Jakarta.

With a motorcycle, parking at Jakarta's crowded malls is a little more efficient.

With a motorcycle, parking at Jakarta’s crowded malls is a little more efficient.

Posted in Culture, Indonesia, Our Daily Life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Extremists’ moral muscle forces detour for female stars

Miss World protest in Jakarta (photo: Reuters)

Miss World protest in Jakarta (photo: Reuters)

Jakarta is no stranger to major international events and concerts, such as a recent Metallica concert and the Mixed Martial Arts (cage fighting) world championship. But many events planned for Jakarta are canceled on short notice for vague reasons; some recent victims have been Lady Gaga, Kesha, and now, the Miss World pageant.

Both Lady Gaga and the Miss World Pageant drew large crowds of protesters to Jakarta’s streets. According to the BBC, police in Indonesia had refused to issue a permit for Lady Gaga last year after Islamic groups objected to her show, claiming it was too vulgar. Her management decided to eliminate the Jakarta stop from her tour. The Miss World Pageant events in Jakarta were canceled by the Vice President of Indonesia himself, in response to protests from radical extremists, according to The New York Times. Critics worry that the pageant is “yet another example of authorities bowing to religious extremists.” (The pageant was relocated to the island of Bali, a popular tourist destination just east of Java that is home to a Hindu majority and is more accustomed to scantily clad foreigners.)

On one hand, it is refreshing to see Indonesians protesting the government, which so often ignores their best interest. But I agree with Bloomberg columnist William Pesek when he calls this public anger misplaced. Why not protest the cities’ lack of public services and infrastructure instead?

Beauty pageants and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” tour send very different messages. One suggests that women are primarily valued for their appearance. The other outwardly supports the rights of gay, lesbians and bisexuals. What these events have in common are scantily clad women, setting off alarm bells for conservative Muslim organizations. In contrast, an event featuring nearly naked men savagely beating each other in a cage drew no such protests.

A variety of Islamic fundamentalist groups organize these protests. Some are dangerous and violent, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (which I wrote about in July), a group that operates more like thugs than moral idealists, motivating with fear and greed instead of painstakingly building a movement.

Others are non-violent Muslims such as the national counsel of clerics, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international organization that seeks a global unified Islamic state. Though the majority of Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims are moderate, these groups are potential leaders for grass-roots social activism. In the U.S., leaders like Martin Luther King and Saul Alinsky led social activism for positive political change out of churches, because those were the centers of civil society. In Indonesia, mosques serve that role and are proving their ability to build social movements. It is sad that that power is directed only at the occasional target of moral offense, rather than at the broader social and political ills of this country.

Instead, Indonesia continues to attract international attention for canceling events because the government caves to religious extremists. This only perpetuates a Western fear of Islam.

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