Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Load of Barclays

On a global level, it's all about banking just at the moment. Obama looks set to pump the better part of $1 trillion into the gaping black hole that is the USA's imploding finances. Just thinking about a sum of money this large makes the eyes water and yet even this huge wedge may not yield much in the way of results when all is said and done. And so the moribund world economy trudges morosely onwards through the doldrums of 2009. None of this is Mr O's fault of course, bless his little, "Yes we can" monogrammed socks. The current boom/bust cycle goes all the way back to the Thatcher and Reagan era and their deregulation of the banking sector. The 80s were a decade of deeply radical politics and it was a radicalization of the right wing, rather than the left, as had been the case two decades earlier.

And so we are left with a truly evil system of privatized profit and publicized debt. $1 trillion would feed, clothe and educate the whole of the impoverished world with change to spare but... well that's enough of that for one week; I've probably been reading too much Chomsky recently.

Indonesia, of course, had its great banking crisis a decade ago, fashionably making it a whole 10 years ahead of the times rather than the usual 10 years behind them. During that crisis, the country was robbed blind by a few plutocrats and, as is happening in the West now, a whole country of 200 plus million had to pay for the venality of around 50 fat cats.

At a personal level though, using an Indonesian bank can be a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating experience, just as it can anywhere in the world. If you're looking for personal service and the illusion at least that someone cares about your account, I'd recommend joining one of the country's smaller banks (although what with the crisis, I would check that your choice of financial institution isn't about to go belly up).

At a smaller bank, everything is all smiles, the staff there may even remember your name when you walk in. "Need to make a transfer Mr. Simon?" (That Christian name thing always sweetens any pill here) "Step this way, Sir."

I also, however, have an account of the country's second-largest bank which shall remain nameless... until the next sentence. It's BCA actually. As 95% of my bank dealings are executed via a bleeping ATM machine, I find it handy to hold an account at the bank that has the largest network of said machines. You can perform any transaction you like at a good old Indonesian ‘hole-in-the-wall’ these days: pay phone, electricity, credit card and cable TV bills, make transfers, refill your mobile phone, the list goes on.

This can be a disadvantage too however. Many is the time in Jakarta that I've almost gnawed my own arm off in frustration after being in an ATM queue stood behind four or five people all wanting to do all of the above things simultaneously, the utter swine. ATM etiquette dictates that this is bad form as far as I'm concerned.

That's peanuts though compared with joining the queue inside the bank during any given lunchtime. British comedian Alexei Sayle once performed a sketch which sums up the whole Indonesian bank experience for me. Dressed in period costume as Jules Verne's fictional hero Phileas Fogg, he travels around the world in 80 days before returning to London. He then announces that he is embarking on a new mission: to the front of the bank queue in 80 days. We see him, still in 19th-century dress, sitting despondently on the carpet of his high street bank writing a letter home, "Beginning to lose hope. Maybe in another 10 days we will have passed the next little chromium pillar."

Mind you, even when you do reach the front of the queue, getting something done, without forms signed in triplicate and a list of all your primary school teachers’ maiden names, can be an arduous task.

Banking in the UK has also rubbed me up the wrong way too before I should stress. I remember once, soon after graduating, I was fined £100 for exceeding my overdraft limit for a mere four days after a check had failed to clear. Amazingly enough, after writing the manager a letter so stiff it could have been etched on a slab of concrete with a stonemason's chisel, he relented, and the fine was cancelled. Miracles really can happen you see.

I'm not sure that the same recourse would necessarily yield results here though, as being brusque, terse and otherwise chippy isn't really the Indonesian way of doing things. Mind you, this is all irrelevant anyway as the prospect of being able to overdraw a common or garden savings account at an Indonesian bank is about as likely as a state visit to the country by Benjamin Netanyahu.

And so the crisis continues apace and there’s not much comfort to be taken in the fact that we’re all millionaires in this country. See you next week and Shalom.