Friday, October 13, 2006

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday night! Malam Minggu! What does one do with oneself in this fair city when the night of the week to cut loose arrives? How do the city's vibrant youngsters let their hair down and enjoy a few hours respite from the daily grind? Well, I think that would all depend on their financial situations.

If you are one of the great, unwashed masses then your options may be limited by cash flow constraints. Such constraints will probably render you unable to afford a night out at one of the city's hot nightspots (and at Rp 140,000 for two tiny drinks at Dragonfly recently, I don't think I can afford it either, quite frankly). So what should you do for your kicks then? Well, many of the chaps around my area seem to favor suicidal, 140 decibel/kilometer per hour motorcycle road races lasting into the wee small hours as their preferred method of Saturday night excitement and perhaps also as a way to forget the daily troubles and frustrations of this cruel, cruel city.

Yes, they scorch up and down the road with their nuts on fire, these young warriors, protected from fatal head injuries by their trusty baseball hats and fueled by a high octane mix of Beer Bintang, that alcoholic Cap Anggur grape stuff and no doubt a dash of Pertamax Plus that a local Warung owner furtively mixes together in plastic bags for their delectation. Dangerous, yes, foolhardy, perhaps, but youngsters need their thrills and sometimes I guess a few frames of billiards in a musty, peeling billiard hall or a martial arts B-movie in a rickety cinemaquite cut it.

Then, as a bonus bit of excitement on Sunday morning, the Saturday night knights with their chromium chargers can always go and noise up some local Christians and force them to shut up shop by threatening violence. What's that all about then? Is it just a misguided stab at religious piety? Or are the increasing numbers of youngsters organizing into medieval mobs really sublimating their frustrations at a society that has forgotten them? Do these disenfranchised youngsters need their own shaky sense of self-worth and power reinforced by the black-and-white moral reductionism of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and similar groups? Alas this seems, to me at least, all too likely. If these guys all had steady jobs and a bit of cash in their back pockets come Saturday night, then maybe they wouldn't feel the need to make such poorly judged attempts to get closer to Godbe it by crashing into a Satay seller at 120 km/h in a twisted mass of metal or by smiting his enemies as they sit around a coffee table in Bekasi saying a few prayers and eating biscuits.

So what of the other end of the economic spectrum? Well, if it's Saturday night andloaded, Jakarta is your oyster. You can step from your extravagantly furnished, expensive, air-conditioned house into your expensive, air-conditioned car and drive to an expensive, air-conditioned club for some expensive, air-conditioned drinks (well something is making them half evaporate between ordering the damn things and the glass touching the lips! They're getting away with half measures,telling you!)

It's true that once you get used to your air-conditioned life, it can get a bit hot at street level but still, the upper-class elites and those that run things in this country really like to seal themselves off from the huddled masses and therein lies the problem. This sense of social alienation between our poor, motorbike warrior and our rich clubber is exacerbated by the lack of public spaces in Jakarta. Public spaces and parks are not only of a physical and environmental benefit but also help in the socialization of society. Here, and increasingly in gated communities in the West, the rich shut themselves away in private cul-de-sacs, behind barriers guarded by uniformed men. This privatization of street life is a depressing modern phenomenon and entrenches social divisions.

Across the road from our house, for example, are some very posh residences indeed. However, I can't recall ever seeing the owners of these places. Only the staff ever emerge to connect the houses to the outside world and to each other and only maids and security guards are ever to be seen on the street. All that can be glimpsed of the owners are cars coming and going. They don't even open the gate themselves when they come home. A few toots on the horn will bring the Sat Pam (security guard) running in his crisp white uniform. I half expect these people to emerge from their vehicles in NASA space suits, so unsuited to Earth's atmosphere do they seem.

I guess when you have a huge underclass to utilize and employ cheaply, as there is here, then you don't have to engage with the mundane realities of everyday life as much as the poor guys on the street do. Need a packet of cigarettes or the phone bill paid? Send the maid out. Street in a state of disrepair, city a mess on the outside, thousands of unemployed youths milling about? Why should you care? In this context, President SBY's recent stint as an Ojek (motorcycle taxi) passenger in order to get to his destination on time probably, symbolically, meant more to your average Indonesian than a hundred speeches about the economy.

So what's the answer to such social alienation then? Personally I would like to see a National Union of Pembantus (maids) set up and a one-week strike convened. Then we would see some changes in social policy,sure.

-- Simon Pichforth