I look back on my year in Yogyakarta and conclude that when visiting an Indonesian police station always bring the kids. If you don’t have any — borrow some for an hour or two.
‘I have no idea how my children lost the airline tickets’, I informed the clerk at the Garuda office. He said he couldn’t help me. I had to speak to ‘the supervisor’ and I had to provide proof of purchase. That was easy enough. My wife just had to fax me a Visa card statement. It was the next request that made my stomach want to part company with my small intestine. I had to get a police report. I had to visit the police station. In short, I had to subject myself to the mercy of the Indonesian bureaucracy.
Before living in Yogyakarta I had visited an Indonesian police station on three occasions. Each time I was travelling alone. The first was in the 1980s when I was on holiday in the highlands of Central Java. Shortly after I arrived I was approached by a sergeant who took me into a back room and explained that I had to pay him, personally, the ‘tourist tax’ of 10,000 rupiah, at that time an amount equivalent to his weekly salary.
The next two occasions were in Bali. The first was when I had to report the theft of my camera. I was again taken to the small back room, but this time it was a corporal, and this time it was 20,000 rupiah — for ‘administrasi’, payable directly to the corporal, of course. The third time was when I was pulled over by the traffic police. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Apparently it was a routine licence check. The policeman jumped right out in front of the car. (Normally I just look the other way and pretend I don’t know what’s going on.) The officer, who was wearing excessively tight trousers, said I would have to accompany him to police headquarters in Denpasar. This would have taken hours; clearly this wasn’t his intention.
He drew me aside and advised that I could pay the processing fee on the spot and that he would verify my license himself. This time the fee was 50,000 rupiah. We settled on 10,000 rupiah, a leather key ring with a picture of a kangaroo on it, a can of Coke, and the carton of cigarettes that I was carrying as a present. My concerns at having to enter an Indonesian police station for a fourth time were well founded. I charged my wallet in anticipation.
My kampung neighbour suggested that it might be a good idea if I brought my children. She was right. My experience at other government offices in Indonesia had been that even bureaucrats have children and the presence of a child somehow made me more human, and less foreign — it presented the possibility that I might share something in common with the very powerful person behind the desk. In any case, Indonesians love children. I gathered up every imaginable document relating to my visit and presented myself to the main desk.
It was pure coincidence that my then nine year old son, Budiman (Simon) chose that exact moment to succumb to homesickness. Hot tears streamed down his sunburnt cheeks. Before I had time to explain, the sergeant cut in and stated what must have seemed obvious, at least to him — that my son was frightened. I nodded my head solemnly in a way that could mean yes or no, or yes no. The sergeant patted my son on the back in a fatherly manner and assured both of us that he was in safe hands. At this point everything was looking good.
The report was almost typed out when my then seven year old daughter Marhaeni (Kate) who, as I explained to the police, is ‘half-human, half-tiger’ ripped a packet of cigarettes from the top pocket of the corporal and threw it over a wall into a rice field.
I froze, my heart pounding, sweat instantly beading on my brow. Little Marhaeni then defiantly declared that she was ‘anti-tobacco’. (A tough gig in a country where 90 per cent of all adult males are smokers.) I was up for at least 100,000 rupiah!
However, much to my amazement, the policemen all laughed. They declared that I should ‘let Marhaeni be’, and that it was good to see a child that was bebas – or ‘free’ This would have been fine except it only served to encourage Marhaeni. She snatched a box of matches and ran off in the direction of the cells. Who can imagine what the inmates thought of this brown-haired, fair-skinned Australian child mysteriously appearing – and then disappearing without explanation? I tried to catch her eye and communicate the urgent message that this was neither the time nor place to be bebas. I failed.
The report was complete. I was asked to sign. I now expected the inevitable. Instead to my surprise, the sergeant said that he was delighted to help and wished me good luck at the airline office. He gave both children a genuinely warm half pat, half hug on the shoulders. He must have been a father too. With this he bid me farewell. All the police at this Yogyakarta station were a model of courtesy, professionalism and efficiency. And like most Indonesians they clearly had a soft spot for children. Despite the endemic corruption that plagues Indonesia, not all police are corrupt. Indonesia is indeed full of surprises.Rob Goodfellow (email@example.com) is a postdoctoral fellow at CAPSTRANS – The University of Wollongong Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (www.capstrans.edu.au) examining risk factors in the Australia–Indonesia relationship. Rob teaches cross-cultural risk management at Mt Eliza/The Melbourne Business School.