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The Perfect Fascist City

Take a Train in Jakarta

by ANDRE VLTCHEK

If you take a train in Jakarta, be warned: the images that would unwind behind your windows could be too disturbing to bear for someone who is not a war correspondent or a medical doctor. It would often feel as if hundreds of thousands of the wretched of the earth decided to camp along the tracks, as if the garbage from the entire East Asia had been dumped along the rails, as if the hell really materialized here on earth, instead of threatening us from some imaginary religious realm.

From the unwashed windows of the train you would see people suffering from all imaginable diseases. You would probably spot exposed wounds, faces burned by fires, terrible hernias, untreated tumors and omnipresent swollen bellies of children suffering from malnutrition. And there would also be some ailments and deformities that are simply too terrible to describe or to photograph.

Jakarta, the capital city of the country hailed by the Western mainstream media as ‘democratic’, ‘tolerant’ and ‘the largest economy in Southeast Asia’ is actually a place where majority of the population has absolutely no control over its future. At closer look it becomes evident that the city is stuck with the social indicators that are more common in the Sub-Saharan Africa than in East Asia. And the place is increasingly violent and intolerant towards religious and national minorities as well as those who are demanding social justice. It takes great discipline not to notice.

Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher, once wrote in his book The Violence:

“Here we encounter the Lacanian difference between reality and the Real: ‘reality’ is the social reality of the actual people involved in interaction and in the productive processes, while the Real is the inexorable ‘abstract’, spectral logic of capital that determines what goes on in social reality. One can experience this gap in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist’s report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country’s economic situation is ‘financially sound’ – reality doesn’t matter, what matters is the situation of capital…”

Indonesian capital and its elites are doing well, although exactly at the price of the country being in shambles. But let’s go back to the trains.

I decided to take commuter rail, from Manggarai Station to the suburban city of Tangerang (the same place which, just a few years ago, unconstitutionally but with absolute impunity imposed sharia law on its population), for one simple reason: to see whether there was any real progress in ‘fighting’ against what many describe as the imminent collapse of Jakarta’s infrastructure, alas final gridlock.

The gridlock, like everything in Indonesia, has its colorful history:

Since 1965 (the year of brutal US-backed military coup which brought general Suharto to power and took between 800.000 and 3 million lives. Murdered were the leftists, intellectuals, people of Chinese minority, unionists and atheists were or simply those who had more beautiful wife, better plot of land or fatter cow) the government worked hard to make sure that Indonesian cities would have no public transportation, no sizeable parks and no sidewalks. Public places in general were considered very dangerous, as that is where the people used to gather discussing ‘subversive’ issues like their plans for the country.

Public parks were taken away from the people by ‘developers’ whom built their private golf courses for the elites. Sidewalks had to go, too, as they were not profitable and ‘too social’. And the public transportation became private and eventually got reduced to polluting minivans and appalling second hand Indian Bajaj rickshaws that don’t run for decades even in India.

And that was in Jakarta. Other cities with 1 to 2 million inhabitants like Palembang, Surabaya, Medan and Bandung have had no public transportation whatsoever, apart from dirty and tiny minivans and dozens of dilapidated, rusty and smelly buses.

That was of course the plan: car manufacturers were regurgitating old Japanese car models selling them at inflated prices (cars in Indonesia sell for 50 to 120 percent higher prices than in the United States), forcing the people of Indonesia – some of the poorest in East Asia – to buy their own private vehicles. Cars were the first to be injected, followed by dangerous, environmentally fatal and inefficient scooters that are actually banned in all major Chinese cities and in many other Asian ones.

Government officials and People’s Representatives (DPR) have been having their palms greased by the car industry, quietly but consistently. Car lobby became extremely powerful, blocking all attempts to improve the rail and maritime travel between various ports in Java, the most overpopulated major island in the world.

On 14 August 2011, Jakarta Post reported:

Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle member Nusyirwan Soedjono, a deputy chairman of House of Representatives’ Commission V overseeing transportation affairs, has long questioned the government’s reluctance to allocate more state funding for the improvement of the country’s railway network, blaming its submission to “high-level” political lobbying arranged by the automotive industry, which has received direct advantages from the rapid development of the country’s road infrastructure.

There has been no story of us [the Commission V] rejecting the government’s budget proposal for developing railway infrastructure,” Nusyirwan told The Jakarta Post. “But it seems like there have been certain ‘powerful groups’ which always oppose every attempt to advance the services of our mass transportation, especially trains.

As they would in any extreme fascist or feudal society, ‘elites’ have been enjoying their chauffeured limousines, while the poor have been breaking their legs when falling to the open sewers, getting raped and air-poisoned in private, dreadful and unregulated minivans or risking to have their brains spilled on uneven pavement after frustrating maneuvers on their scooters between aggressively-driven cars and trucks.

With impunity and impressive consistency, Jakarta has been stripped of almost all public spaces, while it became clear that the government was becoming increasingly unmotivated, incompetent, overfed and lazy, determined to block all long-term solutions.

Length of the rail tracks actually shrank since the Dutch colonial power; Jakarta became the only city of its size (over 10 million inhabitants, more during the weekdays) in the world without any type of mass rapid system.

Few years ago there was some feeble attempt to build two lines of urban monorail, not the most efficient mass public system to begin with. Streets were blocked, dust and dirt everywhere, citizens were asked to be patient as this was ‘being built for them,’ although not really, as this was going to be pro-profit transportation system.

The project was given to private consortium and then, predictably, the public money had been embezzled. Construction stopped without any warning, leaving ugly concrete piles sticking in the middle of the avenues. No heads were seen rolling as a result of that scandalous fraud and the press remained predictably disciplined, reporting only what was officially declared, which is always the case when too much money gets robbed by those who are ‘too important to be disturbed’ by investigation.

To be fair, there were other attempts to safe Jakarta: for instance the introduction of so-called water taxis to hopelessly polluted canals. But floating objects easily broke the engines of these primitive and unattractive open dinghies plus the stench from the surface of the canals that are permanently covered by thick and consistent layer of garbage and toxic substances was so repulsive that the ‘project’ was scrambled after only several weeks.

East Flood Canal was supposed to change everything, to revolutionize entire approach to public works and to bring development of the city to at least some basic Asian standards of the 21st century. For decades, Jakarta has been suffering from epic floods; sometimes two thirds of the city would find itself under the water, result of clogged canals, annihilated green areas and unbridled over-development. Decision was finally made to acquire the land and to dig the canal that could bring excessive water to the sea. It was promised that there would be public parks or at least some pathways along the shores. Romantics even dreamed about the bicycle lanes and promenades, and there were calls for water transport and, how daring (!) the tramlines.

Those who were still harboring some hopes for Jakarta had experienced extremely hard landing. In 2010 and 2011, as the work on canal was still far from completion, the reality began to surface.

Construction quality was truly appalling and even before the work was near finishing stage the garbage was already covering entire length of the project. And then came the shock: government had obviously no plan to place any public transportation on the banks of the canal. In fact it made sure (as always) to stir away from building any evil public areas. Stripes of land were recently (beginning of 2012) converted to yet another set of roads that were immediately reclaimed by polluting and noisy scooters. Not yet finished (although officially it is already operational), the entire canal looks as just too familiar hybrid of spontaneously created garbage dump and the wet dream of the scooter/car lobby.

Along all those wasted square kilometers of urban space (although officially the administration calls is a true success) there is not even a tiny path for people to walk on, not one single playground for children.

How do the officials manage to survive after such evident fiascos and after betraying and robbing their own people? After all, what the city administration allows happening, in what it is involved, would be considered ’treason’ in several other countries in Asia.

The answer is: in ‘democratic Indonesia’ there is no accountability. There is none; zero, zip! Corruption is endemic and the citizens have no mechanism to organize protest (obsession with the social networks like Facebook is mainly for status reasons only, as well as for empty chat: even the murder of people of different believes by hard-line religious cadres does not bring ‘educated and middle class’ people to the streets).

It feels that the entire nation, including its capital, gave up long time ago. People are living their lives in this monstrous megacity, not even bothering to demand, to protest or to complain.

Of course in Indonesia complaining leads nowhere, letters addressed to DPR go unanswered, even unopened, while letters to the press get published only if they stay in undefined but intuitively understood limits. ‘Projects’ are not open for debate (too much money is often involved and the government and private companies divide the loot among themselves in accordance with the well established rules and formulas) and would never risk allowing the system to be endangered by interference of the citizens): the people are simply informed (once in a while) about what is going to be build; when and where. If money disappears, as it does with predictable consistency, there are no repercussions. If plans ‘change’ or if schedules are not kept, nobody is held responsible.

Indonesia is perfect dictatorship with periodically held elections (electorate could freely choose between one corrupt candidates with business interests and another corrupt candidates with business interests): a leader in the new breed of countries controlled and sponsored by Western interests with absolutely no power given to the people.

Passengers who would fall through the rusty floors of trains to their dead or those who fall through unmarked holes that could be found all over the city get no apology, let alone compensation.

Asked to compare Indonesia and China, professor Dadang M. Maksoem, a former lecturer at UPM (University Putra Malaysia), who now works for the government of West Java, gets furious: “Very simple: they [the Chinese] are committed to do their best for their nation. There is no dedication like that here. How come, in this part of the world, governments can’t even provide decent public transportation? People are forced to buy their own motorcycles to transport themselves – forced to risk their lives, having terrible accidents. Now there are traffic gridlocks everywhere. You can say that our system is stupid, idiotic, brain-dead, or greedy. Just go on and fill the gap!”

But that’s not what one could read in the Western mainstream media. Officially the West admires Indonesia. How could it not: Indonesian rulers and its servile elites sacrificed their own people, their own islands, even their own capital city for the good and profits of Western multi-national companies and imperial geopolitical interests. Which foreign corporation or government would not appreciate such a generosity?

But once again, back to the public transportation.

Around the time when the administration and private sector were flirting with the construction of monorail (or at least they told the people that they were), the city began to build so called ‘busways’; projects based on absolutely misunderstood concept of public transportation project of the city of Bogota in far away South American Columbia.

Instead of building heavy-duty train system, Jakarta slashed off two lanes from some major thoroughfares and supplied locally and very badly made narrow busses where passengers sit along the walls facing each other. Each bus had only one door. Monstrous stations were made of metal sheets that were rusting and full of holes. Most of the automatic platform doors have broken down and many people ended up being pushed to the road and to death and serious injuries.

As with anything else in Jakarta, the system is not design to improve the life of the ordinary citizens; in this case to ease traffic congestion and to move millions of people in safety and comfort. It is designed as a ‘project’ designed to enriching private companies that share their profits with corrupt officials.

The busway system is inefficient, esthetically inacceptable and it is actually not helping to connect the city – it is fragmenting it further. There are hardly any sidewalks adjacent to the stations.  People arriving at the stop have to risk their lives reaching their homes walking through the streets congested with traffic, or by other means of transportation.

Even if the busway stops are near the train stations, planners make sure that there could be no direct connectivity. For decades, Jakarta’s rulers made sure to disconnect all transportation structures, including Dutch-era train stations from the rest of the city. The city has almost no sidewalks, almost no underpasses (there is just one in the whole city, near ‘Kota’, that took several years to build and which already began resembling a hellhole long before the completion) linking the stations to the avenues. Not that Jakarta actually has many avenues – most of them were converted to terrible poor replicas of Houstonian suburban throughways: with elevated and surface highways, almost no walkways and services fenced and separated from one another.

The stupidity of the city planning can be only matched by the idiocy of the development of the country as a whole – Jakarta is a microcosm. To make a U-turn, one has to often drive for one kilometer or more, adding to traffic jams, fuel consumption and pollution. But the city is designed the way that one has to often drive even in order to cross the street, as there are hardly any passable sidewalks or street crossings. Nothing is connected here and no matter what, one has to use a car or increasingly ‘popular’ cheap polluting scooter (locals call them wishfully ‘motorbikes’) and then rot in macet – the legendary traffic jam – as the car lobby managed to buy and corrupt several layers of the government, as a result forming resistance to construction of any efficient public transportation network.

There are clearly many financial interests involved. To analyze Indonesia, it is necessary to remember that ‘normal’ considerations and moral principles disappeared from the lexicon of the rulers.

Small group of business people and politicians here had already plundered most of the country’s natural resources; they destroyed rainforests and turned this vast archipelago into the environmental disaster. Majority of Indonesians never came close to sharing profits from destruction of their country.

Jakartans are no exception. The city is being developed ‘against its people’, as was noted by significant Australian artist George Burchett who had visited more than two years ago.

The population is uninformed and phlegmatic after decades of pro-business brainwashing campaign and after the destruction of inquisitive thought in this city that at this point has no art cinemas, permanents theatres, socially oriented press or art galleries specializing in unveiling Indonesian tragedy through art. Instead, billions of bits of social rubbish are flying from one Blackberry to another: elites are chatting and listening to outdated pop music, stuffing themselves on Western and Japanese junk food. There is not much else to do. In the meantime, the city is collapsing, covered in poisonous fumes, with enormous slums filling the space between giant but repetitive malls and office buildings. There is no water in its once glorious canals – just toxics.

The most horrifying is that there seems to be no space for people. People became irrelevant. Even children: no playgrounds, no parks. Even poor Port Moresby, the capital of PNG does incomparably more for its citizens.

“To hell with your aid!” shouted President Sukarno publicly at the US ambassador, more than half a century ago. Terrible vendetta came promptly. After the US-sponsored coup and fascist regime holding the reigns of power until this very day, Jakarta was changed to “To hell with the people!” kind of place.

“When I come to Jakarta, I don’t want to leave the house”, explains Nabila Wibowo, daughter of Indonesian diplomat. She decided to stay in Portugal after her mother’s post ended. “There is no culture here, no concerts, no good music.  And I can’t even walk or move around the city. There are no sidewalks. I just stay for some time, locked in my room, and read my books”.

Now the city is ‘threatening’ to build MRT, a subways system that is expected to have two lines upon completion. The project had been postponed for decades, but if it would finally go ahead, many analysts including some ITB (Bandung Institute of Technology) professors are terrified to even imagine what the results could be, considering the track record of the city authorities and the quality of other transportation projects all over the country.

It is most likely that the money would be allocated and then embezzled again. In Indonesia there is absolutely no mechanism to guarantee transparency and impartial supervision. That’s in a striking contrast to other complex countries like India where the New Delhi subways system was actually built on time and below original estimated cost.

It appears that embezzlement of public funds is the profession staffed by the most talents people of Indonesia. This is where the city and the country hold the world prime.

There is no serious pressure from the public to stop this madness.  By now the public is used to chocking, dying prematurely from pollution, living in slums without clean water and basic sanitation, and sitting in endless traffic jams. Majority of the people of Jakarta never left the country and therefore do not know that the ‘different world is possible’, that there are actually cities build for the people, not against them. Elites that travel know reality very well, but would not tell.

The vicious cycle is omnipresent: new projects are announced, then launched, and finally scrambled after enough pockets get filled. People are left with nothing and don’t even demand anything. It had been like that, to a greater or lesser extend, during the feudal days and during the Dutch colonial administration. Although before passing away, the greatest Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer told me “the situation was never as bad as now.”

Those who know or should know what is behind the scenes are either complicit or simply refuse to face the reality.

In February 2012 I asked Ms Ririn Soedarsono, professor at prestigious ITB, whether the MRT project has any chance to be completed.

“We will start building MRT this year”, she replied. “By the end of 2013 the first phase would be completed. Technically there should be no problem. But I don’t know what would be the political climate…”

2013? Even in technologically developed countries like Japan, China or Chile, one subway line could easily take between 4 and 10 years to construct, depending on the terrain. But maybe I misunderstood the ‘first phase’ definition.

Trains are still better in Jakarta than in Nairobi, some are even air-conditioned, as they come imported used from Japan, but they tend to deteriorate rapidly due to lack of the maintenance: one year in Jakarta and 30 years old Japanese train that has arrived in perfect condition would end up having its doors broken, sets slashed and air-conditioning system clogged with dirt.

“We go by train twice a week”, explain Ms Enny and Ms Susie from Bogor. “It’s unbearable during the weekdays, especially peak hours. It is almost impossible to find a space to stand. It is quite scary and traumatic especially for us, women, especially when passenger run in hordes, fighting to enter the car.”

Superiority of Jakarta’s trains over those in Nairobi, the capital of one of the poorest nations on earth and another ‘capitalist and democratic miracle’ may not last for long. By the beginning of 2013 Nairobi is poised to finish renovating its rail tracks and to put in service the first modern line, followed by the second one in 2014. The stations will come with parking lots; shops and modern facilities, connecting neighborhoods inhabited by the middle class and the poor.

Chinese construction firms that are involved in building highways, overpasses and other infrastructural projects in East Africa are also constructing sidewalks, rail tracks and within two years are planning to connect Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with Nairobi rail network. Collapsing Sukarno Hatta Airport at the outskirts of Jakarta had been waiting for rapid rail service for decades but so far only got extra lanes of highway.

One question that comes logically to one’s mind is: could Indonesia be so far behind the places like Cairo, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Lagos or is something else going on? Could it be possible that the Indonesian elites are actually sacrificing tens of millions of people for their own profits? They did it before: could they be doing it again?

Along the tracks, half naked dirty children and infants play in garbage and open sewers. Rubbish is burned here in open, as Jakarta doesn’t have comprehensive rubbish management system. Garbage collection and management is by definition a public service, therefore nothing that would make profits and excite the officials. Only fraction of Jakarta resident’s has access to truly clean water, only 30 percent to basic sanitation.

It is living hell all around the train cars that are slowly making their way from one monstrous station to another.

Read Indonesian press perfecting its art of deceive and you would think that there is at least some basic rail system already in place, in need of serious improvement but in place nevertheless. You could even find some maps of the ‘system’ on Internet. But try to reach the station, try to use the network, and you would be forced to have many second thoughts about its existence as a dignified transportation option.

There are no schedules and no information. Unreceptive, slow and inefficient employees sell tickets manually. To get to the platform is dangerous. But despite everything, it is mainly the Indonesian middle class that rides the trains.

However, it is the middle class locally defined, using brackets of the World Bank and Indonesian government: according to them, the members of the middle class here are those who live on more than US$2.00 a day. And that applies even to the city, which is by many standards one of the most expensive in East Asia.

According to that calculus, the ‘middle class’ forms the majority of the city in Jakarta. Great part of it lives in what would be considered elsewhere as ‘slums’. Some of its members don’t have access to clean water; most of them live in inacceptable hygienic conditions.

Some members of Jakarta’s ‘middle class’ ride on the roofs of the trains because they can’t afford the train fare; several people get electrocuted each year, others fall to their death. To keep them off the roofs, compassionate government began hanging concrete balls above the tracks to break their skulls, as well as spraying them with colors, even with excrements. Several stations including Manggarai, attached razor wires to the roofs of the platform, so the people who would try to jump from the roof would get shredded.

Herry Suheri – a cigarette seller at Manggarai Station does not think people will be deterred by all those drastic measures: “There are still people riding on the roofs of economy trains, especially during the peak hours. And it is not only about the free ride. There are simply not enough trains to accommodate people who have to get home or to work.”

The train system, the ‘green areas’, the ‘plan to improve the city’ – everything is fake, an imaginary world of deceptions. The reality is brutal but clear: Jakarta does not fall under any definition of the city. It is a laboratory, an experiment of market fundamentalism. Guinea pigs are people. They are being studied: how much discomfort could they take, how much unhealthy environment, and what doses of depressing vistas would make them finally run away?

For now, all hopes for Jakarta should be abandoned. ‘The most unlivable major city in Asia-Pacific’ will not improve, not anytime soon, not in the foreseeable future, not under this administration and this regime.

In South America the right-wingers used to shout: “Jakarta is Coming!” to frighten left-wing governments in Chile and elsewhere in the world. Jakarta is now here, in its full glory; a monument to unbridled capitalism; the monster, the warning, and the case study for those who want to understand how low the elites could sink in their overwhelming greed and selfishness.

All photos by Andre Vltchek.

Andre Vltchek  is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He lives and works in East Asia and Africa. His latest non-fiction book  “Oceania” exposes Western neo-colonialism in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Pluto in UK will publish his critical book on Indonesia – (Archipelago of Fear) – in August 2012. He can be reached through his website.