The Heart of the Matter in Jakarta

The Heart of the Matter in Jakarta
Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像

What you need to know

The silver lining from Wednesday’s results is that Ahok, an ethnic Chinese, was on the ballot at all, writes Jeffrey Hutton in Jakarta.

My dad was on the phone from Florida this week talking about his recent heart issues. At 3 a.m. one morning, his heart was at full gallop.

“They got me on blood thinners and a beta blocker for something or other. The pills are doing the job,” my dad said of the treatment for what was diagnosed as auricular fibrillation. To stress that he wasn’t stressed he reached for an Austen Powers reference: “Seriously, it’s not an issue any more. I’m jiggy with my AFib.”

Throughout most of the rich world (and some of the not-so-rich world) it is possible to be light hearted about one’s heart. Not so in Indonesia.

On the same day, I was playing 20 questions with my communication averse dad (turns out the heart episode was back in August) my boyfriend was fielding immediate concerns from his father in Medan. He had occasional pain down his left arm. At stake for my dad, a retired air force colonel, was his annual winter migration south from Ontario. My boyfriend’s dad, won’t know anything concrete until he gets to a reputable doctor. The family feels the closest one is in Penang, Malaysia – about a 45-minute flight away.

That Indonesia is a wasteland of poor medical services and quackery is not new. The average Malaysian can expect to live nearly five years longer than the average Indonesian. But change has been at hand. Reformers are at the helm in Jakarta’s City Hall and the presidential palace. The country’s biggest governments are spending services and infrastructure.

This may be coming to an end. This week, the residents of Jakarta hamstrung the re-election hopes of their reformist governor, Basuki Purnama. Purnama, better known as Ahok, is Christian. He’s up on blasphemy charges because of a light hearted comment of his own, about the Quran. This triggered the biggest protests the country had ever seen. Ahok likely won 43% of the vote in the first round on Wednesday. His two opponents campaigned as the “anti-Ahok” candidates stressing their Islamic credentials. Anies Baswedan, a former education minister, likely came a close second after he aligned himself with Islamic hardliners.

That was the campaign’s central issue: religion. Not that the city is sinking about 25cm a year or the city’s income inequality or its horrendous gridlock or even its stingy allocation of greenspace. These are all matters that the incumbent has been tackling after decades of neglect. Still, religion – not getting one’s dad to a doctor – mobilized 200,000 or more onto the street last year.

The silver lining from Wednesday’s results is that Ahok, an ethnic Chinese, was on the ballot at all. For more than three decades, under Suharto, the community was under assault starting with the communist purges that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives – many of them ethnic Chinese.

But on Wednesday Indonesians of Chinese ancestry cast their vote freely. One of them was 86-year-old Ibu Cendana. Cendana, who like many here uses only one name, wouldn’t tell me whom she voted for. “You can guess, I think,” she laughed.

I asked her if she was worried that Ahok’s blasphemy trial means politics was getting dirty. She looked away and then shook her head. “Compared to before? No. I’m still an optimist.”

As I write this blurb an SMS from the boyfriend arrived. He had struck out for Medan early this morning. His father is too weak to fly to Malaysia, he says, and the trip is postponed until Monday.

Here’s hoping.

Editor: Edward White