Monday, April 23, 2007

Kings for a Day

A couple of years ago, the war on corruption became a tangible reality for me and a two of my friends as opposed to just being a snappy soundbite emanating from the mustachioed lips of unctuous politicians.

At the time I was in need of new digs quickly and was desperate for somewhere to rest my weary bones of an evening. Then, in the nick of time, a close friend of mine invited me to stay in a huge mansion he had just moved into in an exclusive rich man's housing complex just off Jalan Rasuna Said. I went and had a look around the place. To say it was palatial is something of an understatement. You could have gone hang gliding off the chandeliers in this drum and then swam a few laps of the bath tub. "You can stay here for free," he told me. "What the hell is going on?" was my bemused reply.

The story went as follows. One evening a couple of weeks previously, my chum and a follically challenged German friend of ours had been enjoying a drink on Jakarta's backpacker street of broken dreams, Jl. Jaksa. There they had made the acquaintance of a young British banker of dubious professional standing and moral scruples. He told them that he was currently looking after the finances of (read: laundering the ill gotten gains of) a rich Indonesian family who had fled to Singapore to escape corruption charges arrayed against them. He was also responsible for looking after their abandoned mansion and making sure that no harm befell it. He subsequently invited my two friends to move in rent-free. All they would be liable for would be the monthly bills and the upkeep of the place.

Well, my friends leapt at the chance and pretty soon all three of us were firmly ensconced in the Chateau, peeling each other grapes and entertaining lordly fantasies of throwing a Great Gatsby style party on the mezzanine. I think I even started using the word lavatory instead of toilet.

So, who did the house really belong to? Who exactly were these bourgeois fugitives from justice? Well, a little Internet research told us that we had hit the big-time. In fact, the owners of our palace were on the top 10 most wanted list of Indonesian swindlers. The family had owned a chain of duck farms around Java and invited local farmers to invest in the project under a cooperative umbrella. Everything had been going swimmingly and Mr. Duck (Donald?) had been gaining plaudits and kudos as a man of the people and supporter of local agro-business. Then bird flu hit the headlines and the operation started to go belly up, quite literally I presume. You can probably guess the rest. When the going gets dodgy the dodgy get going. Donald (not his real name) and family fled to Singapore with millions and millions of US dollars worth of the poor investors’ money. Now Singapore, as I'm sure you're aware, is reluctant to sign an extradition treaty with this country due to the colossal amounts of cash that Indonesian corruptors who have fled there inject into the local economy. Thus Donald Trump-Duck (trumped up?) and family reside on the island state to this present day, sitting pretty on their duck laid nest egg.

Back at the ranch though, we were enjoying the palatial life to the max, although admittedly I had to walk quite far out of the posh complex in order to find a decent, cheap fried rice. Actually, now I come to think of it, the Sat Pam (security guard) and the maid's family were also at each other's throats now that the Great webbed footed patriarch had flown the nest. These were minor drawbacks, however, compared with the pleasure of seeing our itinerant friends' jaws drop when we invited them over for a beer.

Nagging doubts remained however. Were we morally complicit in this guy's crimes by looking after his house for him? Were we bad people for doing this, even though we were doing it for ourselves (rent-free remember)? Should we serve sparkling wine at the party and pretend that it's champagne?

In the end, the matter was taken out of our hands. One morning, a lawyer for the poor, ripped off farmers turned up at the house of informed us that in a week's time, these sorry sons of the soil would be holding a large demonstration outside the house and that us pale faces may wish to consider moving out. Then, a couple of days later, Mrs. Duck turned up and informed us that the house had been sold, their furniture and belongings would be packed up and sent to Singapore the following day and that we should move out by the weekend.

And so all of our bourgeois fantasies came crashing down to earth after a mere six weeks of the high life. We never did get to hold a party or even find out what happened at the farmers' demo. Hopefully they torched the house but my gut feeling of Javanese deference (some would say subservience) tells me that it was a polite affair. In any other country there would have been bricks flying through the windows.

However, at least we managed to assuage our feelings of guilt and complicity in the whole sorry corrupt saga by pilfering a few items from the house before we left. Robin Hood lives! Yes, they take from the rich and give to... themselves. As I type this, a couple of hand-painted wooden ducks are staring down inscrutably at me from my computer desk.

Simon Pitchforth