Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 13:27 UK

Falling down Indonesia's social ladder

Former BBC Indonesia correspondent Claire Bolderson ponders Jakarta's wealth gap, encapsulated in the fate of her one-time domestic help, Ani.

Despite working hard, Ani's financial future remains uncertain

I was already worried about Ani long before her taxi pulled up outside my hotel in Jakarta.

Her regular letters and phone calls had dwindled to an annual Christmas card and though I had struggled with the Indonesian in the brief messages she had written, I had understood enough to know that she was not doing well.

Now here she was, emerging into the bustle of central Jakarta - 58, her face much more lined than I had expected and walking with a pronounced limp.

With her was her husband Kado, who seemed incredibly frail.

The only one in the family still full of beans was their son Yahya who was a small child when I first knew them nearly 20 years ago.

Happier times

Ani was my pembantu, or domestic help.

A map of Indonesia showing Java and Jakarta

I had "inherited" her from my predecessor who explained that in the chaos of Jakarta where you queue for hours to collect your phone, water and electricity bills, then queue again to pay them, and where a journey to the shops can turn into a morning sitting in standstill traffic, I would find her assistance invaluable.

Her husband would act as security guard - another Jakarta necessity apparently - and the family would live in two rooms at the back of my small house.

They were a cheerful and welcome addition to a life where everything was new, strange and complicated.

Ani, who spoke fragmented English, announced early on that while I was in Indonesia, she would act as my mother.

So she would ask about my friends regularly, enjoying bits of gossip immensely, or she would appear at the door of my little office with a bowl of freshly fried emping, the bitter little crisps made from melinjo nuts as a mid-morning snack.

She would even rush outside to shush the neighbours when I was filing a despatch.

Now it all came back to me as an older, much slower and less vivacious Ani clasped my hand and we made our way to a cafe in the shopping mall next to the hotel.

She had come all the way from her village, a day's bus journey away, to see me and suddenly the story she had hinted at in her occasional cards came flooding out.


Ani and Kado had been part of Indonesia's aspiring middle class when I first knew them.

With no property, her savings gone, unable to work in a country with no social safety net or state-provided health care, Ani is back where she started

They worked hard and saved carefully. They were proud of the bank account they had for that purpose and were building a house of their own in South Jakarta.

I went there once. It was an impressive construction with spacious rooms and proper indoor plumbing, quite unlike the small village homes they had grown up in, back in West Java.

But four years ago, Ani told me, she had developed rheumatism in her left knee and it got so painful she just could not work any more.

Then her elderly mother was taken ill, Ani had to return to the village to look after her and when the mother had to go to hospital for over a month, Ani had to find the money to pay.

Then Kado had a stroke which meant yet more medical bills. The house in Jakarta, the symbol of all she had achieved, had to be sold.

So now, with no property, her savings gone, unable to work and with no state-provided safety net to fall back on, Ani is back where she started.

And this in a place that despite serious setbacks after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and despite today's global slowdown, appears on the surface to be doing remarkably well.

On the margins

At least that is how it looks in Jakarta, a city I barely recognise anymore.

Skyscrapers in Jakarta
The economic divide between Indonesia's rich and poor is growing

Massive glass skyscrapers extend well out to the suburbs where I remember ramshackle alleys with wooden houses clinging to the sides of filthy canals.

You still get glimpses of those communities, but only occasionally, tucked in between the high-rises and the endless new shopping malls.

None of this means anything to Ani. There is a very wealthy class here and it is growing, but so is the gap between rich and poor.

While the top 2% are swanning around the brand name stores, more than half the country's workforce earn hardly enough to feed themselves.

And even for those like Ani and her husband who start to make it up the economic ladder, it is a precarious climb. The slightest set-back and you can fall a very long way.

What about the fact that the years of dictatorship here are long gone? What about last month's elections?

Ani looked at me as if I were mad when I mentioned the new democracy.

"Indonesia's no good anymore," she said emphatically.

Not perhaps for people like Ani, whose dreams of a comfortable retirement in a home she had built for her family have vanished for good.

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