Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Service with a Smile

Most people's dealings with public authority here usually occur when policeman stop them on the road in their perpetual search for cigarette money and for members of that heinous criminal underclass who have forgotten to bring any ID with them. This seems to happen less often to me now than it did a few years ago, thankfully. Perhaps internal police reform has reduced this annoying scam somewhat. As a person who enjoys a night out though, I do still occasionally get stopped in the wee small hours, a time when those brave boys in blue (actually brown and beige) come out to play. It happened again last Sunday. My Bluebird was pulled over and some nice policeman, seemingly about 16 years old, stuck his head through the rear window of the taxi.
"You're out late Sir?"
"Yes, well, if it's any of your business, I enjoy going out at night, a time when I can meet my friends and travel freely about town by taxi without needing a shave halfway through the journey."
Actually I didn't say that. It's always frustratingly after the fact that I think of these withering retorts.
"Passport Mr," he intoned authoritatively. I gave him my police card which expatriates have been issued with for the last few years and which are for showing to police in precisely such situations as these.
“But you need a passport, where is your passport?"
"No I don't need it, that's for immigration, this card is for you to look at, a police card, you are a policeman."
After the usual five minutes of forehead wrinkling expressions and of looking at my card as if it had fallen to Earth from a neighboring galaxy, I was off again. But not before the young cop had called over his boss, who looked down his nose at me like a camel observing a blow fly on its rump,.

Fair enough. No money had changed hands. Confusing exchanges like the one above, however, are commonplace when dealing with government employees here, thanks to the perpetual exploitative mismatch between rules, regulations and reality. After this experience I felt inspired to pay a visit to that great house of learning, the Indonesian immigration office, of which there is one near my house in Mampang. Dealings with immigration, alongside encounters with the police, more often than not represent a nebulous zone of confusion which can cause mental distress to both locals and foreigners alike. Immigration is a place where rules and regulations have traditionally been as clear as mud and where time becomes an illusion.

A new law has just been passed in the country which allows children of mixed marriages to retain dual citizenship and live under an Indonesian ID card until the age of 18, at which time they can choose either nationality as their permanent one. Previously, such families have had to squander much time and money on obtaining legal residency for their kids and shuttling backwards and forwards to Singapore. So credit where credit's due to the Indonesian Parliament, the new law seems both fair and reasonable and is all the more impressive when you consider that, according to many reports over the years, the Parliament only manages to pass about 10% of the bills presented to it in any given session.

This new law was supposed to come into effect on November the first and as I know families with children eager to take advantage of the new legislation, I thought that I would toddle down to immigration to check out the reality of the situation at ground zero. I wasn't overly optimistic as I walked through the gates. Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority, for example, are still chasing down discriminatory citizenship certificates, even though the things were abolished about three years ago when Megawati was at the helm. Also, expatriates trying to process their own work visas here often employ the services of agents in order to avoid the complete mental collapse that can accompany trying to negotiate Immigration’s maze of paper and intransigence themselves.

To step into an Indonesian immigration office or police station is like stepping back in time. Whereas most Jakartans are very technology savvy these days and private offices around town are usually packed with the latest computers and high-tech gizmos, to cross the threshold into the world of Indonesia's lumbering, dinosaur like civil service is to enter a primitive twilight zone. Peeling paint, ceiling fans stirring the soupy air and files stored in rusty filing cabinets as opposed to on hard drives are the order of the day. However, on this visit I did actually observe a couple of computers, so well done there. The reason for this time warp factor is probably that all the cash collected by immigration officials/ policemen in the form of obscure levies is leached straight out of the back door and into their bank accounts. Just call it the prune juice effect. There is not even enough left over for a few AC units or some soap in the rest room to use after the fingers, thumbs and palms of both hands have been printed (perhaps we should be thankful we don't also have to drop our trousers and provide a photocopy of our buttocks too).

Anyway, I managed to attract someone's attention and asked him about the new law. The immigration officer I met was friendly enough and told me that, despite the November the first implementation date having already passed, his office weren't ready yet. He did assure me though, that they would begin processing applications before the end of the year, which sounded very speedy and efficient. Mind you, he could have just been saying that. I suppose I'll have to follow up on the story next month and head back to immigration. Something to look forward to, huh? Well that just about wraps up another miserable column from me I'm afraid, your favorite negative Nellie. I am just referring to government services here though; as I said, the contrast with the high-tech and creative private sector couldn't be more marked. Here's hoping the next time I return to the office they'll be able to give me a leaflet or something about the new law, printed in both English and Indonesian. One can but dream.

Simon Pitchforth