Apr 16, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Struggling to be young

Struggling to be young

Brotherhood among the poor urban youth of Jakarta

Grace Leksana

   They are not all so young!
   Ian Wilson

It was three o’clock in the afternoon when I started chatting with Dede and Yono, two young men who live in Kampung Lio, in eastern Jakarta. It was a weekday and they had lots of time to share their life stories with me. ‘We can hang around as long as you want. We don’t have anything to do anyway’, Yono told me.

What brought me to speak to these young men was the fact that they are members of the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR), currently one of the most controversial organisations in Jakarta. Claiming to operate on the bases of ethnicity and Islamic values, FBR argues that the Betawi, the indigenous people of Jakarta, have been marginalised in their own city. Whatever its true intent, however, FBR’s coercive and violent acts, and their relationship with Jakarta’s political leaders and businessmen, have attracted the scrutiny of the media and academics. To many, FBR’s violent characteristics imply that the organisation is essentially a group of thugs, political gangsters or even ethno-religious fundamentalists.

Recently FBR claimed to have 1.2 million members in Jakarta, mostly young males in their 20s and 30s, although more conservative estimates think this figure is somewhat smaller. What is it about FBR that attracts so many members to its ranks?

In all that has been written about FBR, little has looked at the organisation’s membership from the perspective of the members themselves. Yet as I discovered, the young men who join FBR are not really thugs, criminals, or ethnic or religious fundamentalists. Rather, they see FBR as a means of survival in an often cruel modern urban environment.

Jakarta’s youth

Indonesian State Policy Guidelines define ‘youth’ as those between the ages of 15 and 29, and some estimates suggest there are as many as 3 million ‘youth’ in Jakarta – 30 per cent of a 10 million population. Significantly, the Ministry of Youth and Sport reported in 2008 that the unemployment rate for these young people was around 19.5 per cent, between two and three times the rate for the community as a whole. What this means is that young people bear a disproportionate unemployment burden – making up well over half of the total number of unemployed and under-employed in Jakarta. The young members of FBR that I met were some of these.

…the vicious cycle of poor education and inadequate employment opportunities marginalises young people, leaving them in ‘no man’s land’ - not young, but not able to be fully ‘adult’ either

Twenty-two year old Yono has been living in Kampung Lio since he was born. He finished his primary school education in 1998, but while he went on to junior high school, he was unable to finish. His parents could not afford school fees for him, his older brother and his younger sister. He has looked for a permanent job ever since, but so far has been unsuccessful. The only period of continuous work he has had was in a furniture factory, but after six months the factory closed following the death of its owner, and Yono was out of a job.

For Yono, it is difficult to find a stable job. As he told me, ‘It’s hard for me to work with only a certificate from primary school. Others have higher education qualifications or networks in factories.’ Since the factory job, Yono has been doing all kinds of work in the informal sector – selling newspapers, collecting garbage or washing motorcycles.

Yono’s situation is similar to that of many young urban Indonesians. Dede, Yono’s best friend, is a 19 year old who lives with his father, step-mother and two younger brothers. The poor financial circumstances of his family forced Dede to leave school soon after he finished junior high school. Finding employment has also been difficult for Dede.

Important as money to live on is for young men like Yono and Dede, finding work is significant not only for the income it provides. With employment also comes social status and identity - recognition of being young, and being male. And not being employed brings social exclusion. For example, Dede’s friends stopped hanging around with him as soon as they were employed. ‘Why should we spend our time with the unemployed?’ Dede quoted one of them as saying. Moreover, being unemployed also affects romantic relationships. Dede’s last relationship was a total disaster because the girl’s father did not want an ‘unemployed’ man in the family.

… work is not only significant for the income it provides. With employment also comes social status and identity – recognition of being young and being male

Yono and Dede’s stories, and those of many others like them, tell us that the meaning of being young goes beyond just ‘age’. Rather, it is constructed by experiences in education and employment. Young people are commonly perceived to be either in school or at work. However, the structural conditions of urban poverty and inadequate public services that have forced many young people out of school, also leave them unable to find employment. The cases of Yono and Dede demonstrate how the vicious cycle of poor education and inadequate employment opportunities marginalises young people, leaving them virtually in ‘no man’s land’ - not young, but not able to be fully ‘adult’ either. They seem out of place within the common construction of young people as either students or workers.

And for Yono and Dede, this situation lies at the heart of their membership of FBR.

FBR: a good solution?

Like Yono and Dede, Rudy is also a member of FBR. A little older at 32, Rudy has for the last three years been working as a security guard in one of the factories near Kampung Lio. After he graduated from high school in 1995, Rudy worked in the informal sector, doing almost anything that could earn him some money, such as scouring and cementing for a local tradesman. However, new hope for getting formal employment arose when Gardu 127, a local branch of FBR, was established in Kampung Lio. Rudy immediately joined the organisation, hoping to get a job through it. Before long networking and negotiations between FBR and the factory management succeeded, and Rudy was recruited as a factory security guard.

   Waiting for action. But are they independent?
   Ian Wilson

Rudy appreciates the independence and identity that comes with permanent employment. Even for Dede, although he is not yet employed, the small income he gets through FBR gives him a sense of independence. ‘Before, I would always eat at home. But since I joined FBR, I always eat out. Now I’m more independent, at least for my own meals. Sometimes, I just need to tell the Gardu’s chairman that I need food, and then he gives me some food’, said Dede.

…contrary to its stated mission to promote Betawi revival and rights, FBR seems not to be exclusively for the Betawi people of Jakarta.’

As I looked through the organisational documents of FBR, and read the stories of its members, I discovered some unexpected facts about the organisation. To begin with, and contrary to its stated mission to promote Betawi revival and rights, FBR seems not to be exclusively for the Betawi people of Jakarta. I came across members from other ethnic groups, including Madurese, who are commonly considered to be FBR’s main ‘enemy’.

Secondly, FBR states that it is a mass organisation that uses Islamic principles as its values. Yet by most measures, FBR’s actions in the field do not seem to reflect this. Over recent years the media has recorded numerous illicit acts of FBR: from coercive taxation, violent demonstrations, and involvement in ‘money politics’ at election time.

However, in many ways it is these contradictions that allow the youth of Jakarta to find solutions to some of their needs. In Rudy’s case FBR has ‘negotiated’ with the nearby factory to provide jobs for FBR members in return for security around the factory. This relationship between the factory and FBR has also resulted in several other similar arrangements. For example, Yono and Dede were once employed to cut down trees surrounding the factory. They were paid Rp.100.000 (A$13) for each tree. Yono thought it was a really good deal.

For Yono, Dede and Rudy, as with many others, joining FBR has opened up opportunities to generate income, through both formal and informal work. Their main motive for joining FBR was to find work, and to get the independence and identity that employment brings, rather than being about Islamic values or Betawi struggles. As Rudy told me, ‘I’m not a fanatic of FBR. I just want to get a job.’ For middle and lower class urban youth who have been forced out of school and plunged into the uncertain world of work, FBR’s position and access can be very useful. To a degree then, FBR helps these young men fulfill society’s construction of the transition from childhood to adulthood. In doing so it gives them a sense of independence and honour, assisting them to ‘own’ their own income.

… joining FBR has opened up opportunities to generate income, through both formal and informal work …and to get the independence and identity that employment brings…

But this independence and honour, and assistance to find work and income, comes at a price. To get the benefits, it is expected that FBR members will ‘participate’ in FBR activities – even when they may be uncomfortable about doing so. This was not a topic that the young men I interviewed were easily drawn on. But what was clear was that in FBR these young men did not ‘call the shots’, and so in many ways, they were trading one form of ‘independence’ for another form of subservience.

Understanding the urban young

If we are to understand urban phenomenon such as the rise of groups like FBR, we need to understand the young people who join them as independent actors, with their own needs and desires. For poorly-educated young urban Indonesians who are not able to access secure employment, the ethnic based organisations like FBR that have emerged in the post New Order era provide new opportunities. And regardless of FBR’s stated aims, or however much the media portray it as an ethnic and religious fundamentalist organisation, for many young people, purely pragmatic reasons of employment, identity and survival are behind their membership.     ii

Grace Leksana (grace_leksana@yahoo.com) is a member of the Indonesian Institute of Social History.

Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009

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