Monday, September 10, 2007

Fuel for the Fire

Firstly this week, may I extend my humble apologies to anyone who may have trotted along to the Jl. Jaksa Festival last Sunday after my recommendation in last week's column. The festival it was in full swing on Saturday with live music, riotous revelry aplenty and even an appearance by Mr Moustache himself, Governor elect Fauzi Bowo. When I turned up on Sunday, however, the whole thing had almost shut down completely. There were only a couple of stalls open to detract from the usual Jaksa groundswell of white skinned lushes and African soccer fans. Apologies to anyone who may have ventured down although I'm sure most of you are much too classy to be hanging around Jl. Jaksa on a Sunday afternoon.

On with the show then. Two stories have caught my eye recently and perhaps offer interesting parallels and contrasts with each other. The first concerns the ongoing kerosene war in town. The government is just about to remove subsidies on the Indonesian underclass's fuel of choice. This has caused panic buying, hoarding and five hour waits for people and their huge plastic flagons at kerosene depots all over town. The plan is to force people to convert to LPG (gas) which is, surprise surprise, more expensive, at Rp. 4250 per liter than the subsidized kerosene rate of Rp.2000 per liter. This would no doubt explain the queues. People seem reluctant to convert to gas and the government have, according to one report, only achieved between five and ten percent of their target so far.

I invariably find local stories such as this depressing. How difficult must it be for literally millions of people to make ends meet in breadline Batavia. Every Rupiah has to be squeezed dry of its potential worth just to enable one to keep one’s head above water and if that means queuing for five hours to save a few thousand then so be it. 1 kg of natural gas is supposed to have the energy content of 3 liters of kerosene but if you can't afford it, you can't afford it.

How lucky the rest of us have it in comparison and I'm certainly not very far up the greasy pole that leads to huge disposable incomes, BMWs and bourgeois respectability. My only kerosene worry last weekend, for example, involved trying to figure out how to light a barbecue using the stuff without taking my eyebrows off. It's not as easy as you might think although we eventually managed to get the charcoal glowing and cooked some horrendously charred sausages and burgers.

Never mind the kerosene though; another fluid shortage was playing on my decadent Western mind last weekend. Specifically I'm referring to the mysterious disappearance of wines and spirits from the shelves of duty-free stores and supermarkets in Jakarta and Bali. Disaster! Kerosene stoves? Forget it, where's the booze gone? I'm a white skinned imperialist and I demand a stiff drink with my barbecued burger.

The vanishing refreshments are seemingly nothing to do with religious edicts or the Sharia lobby however. Neighbouring Tanggerang may have run dry with piety but Jakarta still consumes its own weight in liquor every year (my statistics). Indonesians like to joke that they can drink beer because it's only 5% alcohol and the country is only 95% Muslim. This is an interestingly mathematical approach to problems of religious doctrine I think. Maybe this is why Muslims are allowed to have four wives; because they can only see 25% of each one through their veils.

Back to the matter in hand though. Apparently the alcohol crisis in town and on the Island of the Gods is due to the, "Collapse of a complicated quota system that controls alcohol imports following a shakeup of the Finance Ministry's customs and excise agency earlier this year." Hmmm, yes. This no doubt means that large amounts of money haven't been flowing as freely as certain bureaucrats would like.

On further reflection though, maybe a few weeks off the sauce will do us all some good. We will have some breathing space to reflect on how the invidious spread of the global liquor industry is turning us all into alcoholics. All the same, I could use a drink.

I hope you don't imagine that I'm trying to equate my booze quandaries with the problems of having no cooking fuel. I'm merely trying to exemplify the huge social gulfs that exist here. I would never, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, declare, "There's no kerosene? Well let them cook with Smirnoff."

In any case, to assert a social stratification based on a ruling vodka class and a submissive kerosene class would be fallacious; the reason being that kerosene queuers enjoy the occasional tipple themselves. Indeed, Indonesian supermarkets are full of cheap, local brands of spirits such as Mansion House. Products such as these seemingly have a chemical composition exactly midway between the two types of liquid under discussion in today's column. Jakartans from all levels of society will take a drink and if all alcohol was banned here, then maybe recent events in Papua would be repeated in the capital. Specifically, people would be dropping like flies from moonshine poisoning and the pernicious effects of beverages containing 75% alcohol (ouch!)

If I had to queue for five hours for 4 litres of kerosene I might even contemplate drinking a few shots of it on the way home to dampen the pain of my urban underclass existence. Jakarta, to me at least, often seems to exemplify the worst aspects of 21st century capitalism. The masses are kept in poverty: scared, demoralized and uneducated and it seems to be getting worse. There is indeed a class war being fought, not only here but all around the world, however only one side seems to be fighting. Anyway let's raise a glass and pray for full shelves again soon. Cheers.

Stop Press

Typical, you write a column and it is out of date before it’s even printed. A visit to Kemang Duty-Free this week revealed that shelves have been nicely restocked with falling down water of every type and strength. The prices have gone up though, rather confirming my suspicions about bureaucratic payoffs. Go and stock up before Ramadan starts but don't forget the Panadols too.