Monday, March 12, 2007

Bandung or Bust

Last weekend, I opted to break out of town and head to Bandung for a major eating and drinking session. A number of years ago I used to live in what has been known as the Paris of Java but hadn't returned for simply ages, so when an Indonesian friend invited me to accompany him and his family in their Mobil Rakyat (Car of the masses), I jumped at the chance.

The new toll road makes it possible to steam across to Bandung in a mere two hours these days and at weekends the city is jammed with cars sporting Jakarta license plates as families from the capital enjoy the countryside, eat fine food and buy garish T-shirts from the many factory outlets that dot the city. In fact, so popular is the Bandung toll road that train tickets to the city have recently been discounted in an effort to win back passengers.

And so one sunny Jakarta morning we burned out of the Big Durian with rocking sounds on the stereo and my friend’s four-year-old son bouncing around the rear of the Toyota like some ruddy cheeked, porcine kangaroo. The tollway was certainly a breeze. There are brand-new, Western-style service stations at the side of the highway at regular intervals boasting the gleaming chromium of new Starbuckses and KFCs. Hell, even Pertamina have finally got their act together and spruced up their gas stations. The toll, like the railway, cuts through some superbly green and rugged West Java countryside and there are panoramic vistas of the distant mountains to enjoy along the whole route.

I was dreading arriving in Bandung's traffic however. It's all very well being able to drive down a toll road and arrive at the city limits after a mere two hours but what use is it if you're subsequently stuck in a 17 hour tailback on Jalan Pasteur as you try to reach the centre of town and your blood pressure goes through the roof? My outdated Bandung preconceptions were soon blown out of the water though. A huge Jakarta style flyover has been constructed which stretches right into the heart of the city and which will deposit the recreational driver wherever she wants to go with a minimum of swearing.

Bandung has developed rapidly over the last few years or so and at certain points around the flyover, the urban topography has altered so much that I no longer recognized where I was. Every building had quite literally changed. It's a slightly eerie feeling to be older than the surrounding landscape but that's the price of success I guess.

Various voices have been raised recently in the wake of the great floods suggesting, half jokingly perhaps, that the capital should be relocated to somewhere more environmentally amenable. Visit Bandung and it seems that this process has already started. The business boom here, reinforced by the new toll, serves to remind us that Indonesia is actually quite economically flush at the moment.

Despite its myriad of problems, the country has finally extracted itself from the mire of the 1998 economic crisis during the last year or so. The buffoonery of many politicians aside, economic tsars from Kwik Kian Gie to the SBY era have stuck to a path of reform and have straightened out a lot of the country's finances whilst paying off the huge foreign debt. The massive reduction in fuel subsidies has also swelled the government's coffers.

The country now stands at a crossroads. Will it invest the new cash in infrastructure worthy of all the gleaming new shopping plazas, hotels and restaurants that I goggled at in Bandung, or will the old feudal, corrupt mores persist? Regional autonomy has undoubtedly engendered a more equitable distribution of cash to the regions but will the money trickle down any further, especially when entire local councils are under investigation en masse for pocketing large portions of their local budgets?

So we're at the crossroads now more than ever: modernization or stagnation. In a strange way the war on corruption was perhaps less important when the country was bankrupt. Now, when there's so much more cash sloshing through Indonesia, it is vital to get some results and put a few people in the slammer so that it can be channeled properly into nation building. Old attitudes die hard though and the opportunity to sit in a branch of Starbucks sipping a latte is not in itself going to effect a transformation of consciousness in the population. Nice flyover though.

Simon Pitchforth