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I’m Dreaming of the Good Old Days

I sighed deeply, daydreaming about the good old days. Do not be mistaken, I was not exactly dreaming of Tutut’s innocent expression while she was yelling her ‘Return of the Good Old Days’ slogan to the masses who are starving for a daily bowl of rice on the table. My brain was actually full of black and white silhouettes derived from the 1950s scenes in Indonesia. Though some people could only afford to wear rough flour sacks as their everyday clothing and eat salted rice for their main meals; those days were also ripe with fairer opportunities.

Back to my daydream … that morning, a gentleman dressed in a pair of khaki shorts and worn out T-shirt sat opposite me. His voice illustrated the scene beautifully. He recited: “The day I came to Jakarta I had no money in my pocket. My car was the only treasure I had. In the late 60s I drove around Kemang, the area was still a jungle, inhabited only by native Batavians. I swapped my car for a piece of land near a river. I needed to build a house on that land, so I had to find a job. There I was, working as an illegal taxi driver for a while, then as a construction worker for a year. I put my wages towards the construction of my house. Bit by bit the 50 square meter house was taking shape; it took me almost three years to complete.

It was funny – first we erected the walls, the doors came later, then the doors were installed but we couldn’t afford the locks, the floor was prepared but we had no tiles. I had to increase my earnings so I started looking for a business opportunity. I wrote to a friend of mine in the Netherlands and asked him to send me a couple of laying battery hens. I raised the hens at my house and sold the eggs to people in my neighbourhood, going from door to door.

Our Indonesian neighbours didn’t want the eggs; they were used to the eggs of the local free-range chickens, known as the ‘ayam kampung’ - not the oversized eggs I sold. But one or two expatriate residents in Kemang were very enthusiastic, recognising the similarities of my eggs with those of their own countries. Then my Dutch friends sent me a couple of broiler chickens. I raised and bred the chickens and started to sell chicken meat as well. I opened a little shop in my house selling chicken meat and eggs. The shop grew and developed to become the well-known expatriate oriented supermarket you see today.”

The story ended. The gentleman, now a successful businessman residing in Jakarta, left his plumb settee and asked me to follow him toward the back veranda of his garden house. My eyes drifted to his horse stable engulfed in the lush green backdrop, but my mind was elsewhere. I love hearing people’s success stories, especially when they started out with almost nothing but their brain and a strong will to move forward.

Another impressive story I have always treasured is about my ex boss, one of Indonesia’s timber tycoons. Working as his PR assistant, I studied his background and the history of how he reaped his success. I learnt that he worked relentlessly when he was a teenager; including at various manual labour jobs. He spent his unpretentious childhood in a simple traditional village in Kalimantan. Now, the humble entrepreneur, with his well-known Buddha smile, owns various businesses from plywood to pulp factories while preserving the nation’s green treasures and paying close attention to the welfare of the native villagers whom live around the forests he manages.

Not unlike the Cinderella stories, both these gentlemen were not born into a privileged life. They were just common people, who saw an opportunity, grabbed it, worked hard and succeeded after a certain period, avoiding greedy hands along the way. Nowadays, to do the same, it’s almost impossible without serious backup to feed the greedy hands that give promises to clear the way. Over the years, our society has created a labyrinth to make opportunities less fair and unhealthy.

One problem that currently exists is the lack of copyrights. A good example is Kemang Timur with its creative topless guys who love to cover themselves in sawdust. If one furniture shop makes a particular style of furniture (the design likely copied from a European magazine), proven successful, within a few days every shop will produce an exact replica.

The second problem is the bureaucracy and tax issues. Currently, though it’s slowly changing, before you can produce anything legally, the paperwork, energy and money involved in processing licenses and permits eats away at the initial capital. It seems that this country revolves around bureaucracy while only limited business opportunities are left untouched. Lastly, the problem is a bit passe: as always, you have to know ‘the right people’ to be successful in any business.

I have witnessed many occasions where the liquid businessmen recognized the success of a certain small business. The big and powerful didn’t think twice about blatantly copying their idea, making a similar business, but stronger and larger, therefore crushing the small business in no time. Where is the protection for the small and powerless? Do we live in a jungle or in a civilized metropolitan city? Someone please enlighten me.

I partly agree with Tutut’s idea, I want the really good old days to come back. I am dying to taste and witness the bittersweet success that hard work yields, the work ethic that the people of this country are capable of. The success they can gain, once they are given a fair opportunity. Not just watching the usual rich yuppies that boast their hand-me-downs from their daddies.

First published in the Jakarta Post