On Being 30

I just turned 30. No party was held. I did not feel like celebrating. Let me tell you why.

I was born three decades ago in times when exploitation of natural resources reached its peak -- oil is gold, gas considered as diamonds, coal treated like pearls, forests became a pile of greenbacks.

I was a part of the “oil boom” generation, the generation that saw skyrocketing economic growth.

My father probably enjoyed all the luxury and joy of living in the early days of New Order regime. He certainly enjoyed the glorious days of working for the government tax office. That is until all hell broke loose on him when he decided to come clean, quitting his role in the “endless evil circle” of tax frauds and evasions, which was masterminded by almost of his co-workers.

In return, he had to experience the bitter days of being isolated by his office mates until he got transferred.

He was then transferred from the “wet and fertile” tax office of Tanjung Priok Port to the small and remote tax office in the hilly Kuningan District, West Java.
Back then, corruption was so rampant that people could actually eat, sleep, shop even build mosques and went to hajj with illicitly-gained money and make enemies to those who against such practices.

Today, after three generations passed? Graft is still nothing to be ashamed of and clean guys should be excluded or fired. What a tragedy.

My mother decided to survive on her own feet. She decided not to remarry. A true women emancipation believer, I guess. However, life was not easy for single mom back then. In the 1980s, a widow with three children would not exactly get you to the social elites’ clubs. Rumors were exchanged between neighbors. No matter how devoted she was to her religion; people would still assume she was either a lesbian or a mistress.

Well, let the dogs bark, the travelers move on, a proverb said.

She made it. Despite millions of bad mouths and endless discriminations against her, she managed to get all three of her children graduated from universities and get them to stand in their own feet. Now, these children are treating her the ideal retirement days she, and many other mums, had been dreaming of.

Narrow minded, discriminative society was dominant back then. Nowadays, widows are no longer bear the status of pariah, but people with different believes than those of the majority, different style of exercising are still stigmatized and become victims of discrimination. They are facing the same situation as my mom in decades ago. Sad but true.

Hopefully, three decades from now, their story ends as happy as my mum’s.
When I enrolled to a private school—because back then state elementary and quality of teachers working there were highly questionable—, mom had to work days and nights to meet the endless extra fees, donations, trips, or whatever expenses they called it, outside the already expensive monthly tuition fee.

One of my colleagues, who happened to be one of the writers in The Jakarta Post, sends her daughter to the very same elementary school where I studied. Recently, she told me the same tale. Deja Vu?

I was born in the very center of Jakarta—Senen, Central Jakarta. I remembered back then when Senen were considered the” Bronx of Jakarta”, where gangsters and drug dealers reside. Back then, poverty and crimes were ordinary everyday sights. The area was seen as slums—densely populated, lack of sanitation, no public sphere and haven for any type of infectious diseases you can think of. I guess that is why police never bother to clean the area out of thugs.

Gang fights and violence became daily scene. My mom had to move us to the then quiet and shady Depok municipality to avoid the negative impacts the neighborhood might affect me and my brothers.

Today, a 10-minute walk around Senen areas would take you to… the very same day when I lived there. Nothing is change, in fact it gets worse. The river turned to huge garbage bins, decorated with few makeshift toilets. Piles of trash were stack in almost every corner of the alleys in Senen. The then one-storey shabby makeshift huts, homes to illegal migrants that were erected all over Senen, now grew into three-storey…but still shabby huts. I have little doubt that thugs are not around there anymore.

President Suharto vowed that economic bubble combined with security stability would eliminate poverty and crimes. He promised to bring all Indonesians into a prosperous and harmonious life, exactly as he described in details in his Magna Opus: the 45 points of the Pancasila Five Principles (45 butir-butir Pancasila).
Well, most people would not remember the 45 points, but one thing for sure, the Suharto’s promise as well as Habibie’s, Gus Dur’s, Megawati’s and SBY’s never realized. Yes, these RI 1s had done their utmost, had bend over backward to improve the lives of the Indonesian people. But, today’s Senen scene is the solid fact that only few numbers of people can enjoy the delicious cake of development, while others remain numb of what development even mean.

Being a historian, I have to face the chances of reading something that I can relate to the present situation. One of the literatures on The Netherland Indie administration told me that during Volksraad (legislative council set up by the Colonial administration in 1918) meetings, some of Indonesian leaders filed official complains to the Colonial government saying that the latter’s Health Service had failed to solve health problems, such as malaria outbreaks, infant mortalities and bad sanitation. One of them said in 1927, that the report on childbirth conditions “makes you shudder with horror”.

Why do I have the feeling that I am not going to be surprised when somebody would use the exact same phrases these days? Thousands of babies and new mothers died every year, not only because not enough skilled health workers to attend every deliveries, but because those mothers live in remote and isolated areas with no health care facilities and no sit in doctor or midwives.

Working for one of the United Nations bodies, I had initially thought I could save the world. I thought I would give my 24/7 to make things better. Well, reality bites. The organization that I work for already operated here more than 60 years ago. That’s double my lifetime.

Its first humanitarian work was to save the children of Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara from malnutrition. And guess what? Go look out for your old Jakarta Post editions, you’ll find a headline mentioning children dying of malnutrition in the exact same province last year.

So I do have to ask: what the f*** were the country going in the last three decades? Nowhere? Standing still? For three generations, development gets me nowhere near the dreamland. Of course there are those skyscrapers, and the mega malls, the shiny Toyota Alphards, Ferraris and Bentleys running around the Jakarta street, but why is Senen now is the same as Senen when I was born? Are the people there as well as those in poor and remote areas across the archipelago expandable? Why could not I see totally different pictures, better scenes? Where did we go wrong?

I do not believe money is the problem. I bet you, if we all could accumulate all the state budgets and foreign aids the country spent and received, it could actually combat corruption, educate people to be more open minded, clean up Senen and other slum areas across the country, clean the rivers, provide proper toilets, sanitation, cut infant deaths, eradicate malnutrition, open affordable and quality schools.

Since the question remains unanswered, I have decided to start thinking about how to contribute in changing this bleak picture of my country. The least I can do is given up birthday parties