“I barely recognise it. The landscape has changed completely,” said Barack Obama of the transformation that had taken place in Jakarta since 1971, when he left as a 10-year-old after four years in the city.
The US president wasn’t the only foreigner to return to Indonesia last year after a long absence – my own somewhat lower-profile visit to Manado, capital of North Sulawesi province after an interval of 16 years also provided an opportunity to see what changes had taken place there.
I taught English at a small private college in Manado in 1994 during a year off before university. I found myself in a baking hot city sloping down from the hilly interior towards a gentle west-facing bay. In the evening, the Manadanese would sit on the sea wall on Boulevard – a Manadanese version of Havana’s Malecon – to play guitar, drink and eat nuts as the setting sun crossed the horizon, a picture-book volcanic island to one side.
Since that time, Indonesia has shrugged off the Suharto dictatorship, embraced democracy and is now the biggest economy in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Manado itself is booming as the country’s per-capita gross domestic product increases. Dutch colonists built a fort there in the 17th Century and missionaries spread Christianity in the area, which, alongside parts of Java and Medan in Sumatra, is one of the country’s biggest Christian centers although the city itself has a sizable Muslim minority. At Easter, the different neighborhoods compete to see which can put up the gaudiest decorations and scores of huge electrically-lit crosses stud the cityscape at night.
I flew in from Bali, where the locals have for decades existed alongside foreign tourists without giving up their timeless traditional lifestyle. By contrast, the Manadanese were hungrier for modernity, more eager for the material trappings of a western-style middle-class existence. Such attitudes were evident back in 1994, when some of the students had a hip hop band; now they are expressed through a local obsession with the Facebook social networking website. Overall, Indonesia now boasts the second-largest number of Facebook users in the world after the USA, having nearly tripled its number of users in 2010.
I was picked up by Fung, a Christian of Chinese ancestry whose already excellent English has been improved further by her marriage to a Canadian dive enthusiast. We drove into Manado and stopped by a bank. Out came Fatimah. Back in 1994 her long hair would swing around as she laughed. Now she wears a snug blue hijab, has married a musician and also has a son. We picked up Diana from another bank and Maria from a hotel and had a seafood lunch.
It was immediately obvious that these people were doing well in life, partly because – as they themselves observed – some of them were looking extremely well-fed. As students, the out-of-towners slept on mats in small shared boarding house rooms – now some of them have big houses and domestic staff. Manado has wealth from agriculture, fishery and gold and the spectacular coral reefs nearby attract growing numbers of divers from all over the world so the English language skills they gained at the Sekolah Tinggi Bahasa Asing (STIBA) have mostly led to jobs in banking or tourism.
And those with cash also have more ways to spend it. The biggest physical changes to the city could be seen on Boulevard, where the old sea wall has mostly given way to big new shopping malls with names such as Mega Mall or Manado Town Square. With limited space to expand, the local government has simply reclaimed big chunks of land from the sea.
The malls, full of department stores, cinemas and restaurants – including the obligatory KFCs and Pizza Huts – are hugely popular as a hangout for young Manadanese. But while Boulevard’s evening community has largely gone, locals can still enjoy a peaceful seaside evening in the small cafes that have emerged on as yet unused reclaimed land.
“Manado people have always been very modern in their minds,” said Richard, one of my former students who now runs a travel agency, as he drove his Toyota Landcruiser past the malls.
The new malls have shifted Manado’s centre of gravity away from Jumbo, formerly the biggest store in town. Most of the ubiquitous blue “mikrolet” public transport minibuses used to terminate in a growling, polluted mess outside Jumbo; things have since been reorganised for the better. The streets carry more vehicles these days, but the city isn’t blighted by traffic in anything like the same way as Jakarta.
I was put up in Jalan Flamboyan, the same neighbourhood I lived in in 1994. Like many others, the house I stayed in before now had an extra floor added to it. This time I stayed in a huge new mansion constructed on a corner, built after a marriage between a prosperous Muslim family and a member of the Christian family that founded the language college I taught at.
Another improvement: fewer youths yelled “Hey Bule!” at me. Bule means albino in Indonesian and this greeting basically translates as “Hey white foreigner!” and is meant in a friendly way. Perhaps the greater number of foreigners in town – I was basically the only one in 1994 – has made the locals more blase about it all, I don’t know, but I felt as though I attracted less attention and those that did offer a spontaneous greeting went for the politer “Hey Mister!” instead.
So Manado looks and sounds better than ever before, yet its boom has taken place amid rampant bribery and corruption, according to an academic study I chanced upon by accident while Googling Manado. Researchers from the UK’s Institute of Development Studies (IDS) cited a lack of planning, poor policy in addition to widespread corruption. They said Manado’s growth has mainly been based on close personal relationships between local leaders and big retail, hotel and property investors.
Despite this, Manado has outperformed other similarly-sized Indonesian cities with better regulatory environments, the researchers found in their 2009 study, “A Tale of Two Cities: The Political Economy of Local Investment Climate in Solo and Manado”. But they question whether such growth is sustainable in the long run. Both the former mayor of Manado and his deputy were investigated for corrupt dealings in 2009.
The alleged prevalence of graft in Manado hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for the democratic process there (indeed, the IDS researchers suggested the need for political campaign funds might even increase rent-seeking). When I visited, the streets were festooned with posters for an unfeasible number of local election candidates from a huge variety of backgrounds, including one candidate whose slogan was “Go Jacko!” During the Suharto era, a photo of the dictator hung in every office, and my college’s late founder Mrs Moningkey was nervous about discussing politics openly. She and her friends remembered government warplanes bombing Manado in 1958, when the city served as a base for rebel group.
Alongside the desire for modernity there is growing religiosity. Manadanese Christians can’t understand the decline in churchgoing in western countries, while – in common with a trend seen all over the world – more young Muslim women in Manado are wearing the hijab, or Islamic headscarf. At the same time, their outfits are much more chic and flattering, while many of the Christian girls are wearing fashionable clothing that wouldn’t appear out of place in Singapore, Beijing or Bangkok.
Religion is a big part of Manadanese residents’ identity. Christians there make sharp distinctions between Protestants and Catholics, distinctions that are less important in the capital Jakarta, where they are among a Muslim majority. A few people swap one religion for the other – one of my former students gave a very personal account of his own conversion from Islam to Christianity, catalysed when his Christian mother and Muslim father divorced. During my visit I heard a couple of Christians grumble about Muslims once or twice, yet, overall, religious difference appears not to explode into open strife there as has been the case in other parts of Indonesia, including central Sulawesi.
One of my former students, whose Christian family was forced to flee the central Sulawesi city of Poso during violence there, said places with roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Christians are more prone to flare-ups than those in which one group forms the majority. I was also intrigued to see stickers depicting the Israeli flag on a few cars in Manado, which is home to a synagogue.
The rush for modernity has also seen Manado’s nightlife options expand dramatically. The city boasts a karaoke joint run by the famous dangdut (an Indonesian pop music style) diva Inul Daratista, dubbed Ngebor or “the driller” for her raunchy dancing, and new nightclubs (no flip flops allowed). We went to one club on a Tarzan-themed night. The Indonesian passion for live music was evident in the live band’s blistering performance: less familiar were the hosts and hostesses dressed in leopardskin loincloths cavorting with the mostly male clientele. Nightclubbing is something guys do with other guys while their wives and girlfriends stay at home, my friends told me.
Some elements of society remain unchanged, however. Around the corner from where I was staying, the Ambonese family still live in their bungalow with a corrugated iron roof, one son still regularly drinking the local cap tikus (“rat brand”) moonshine, another still singing in church choirs and doing odd jobs and the daughter now a single mother working in KFC.
And while the physical trappings of modernity are everywhere in evidence, many traditional small-town attitudes persist. People feel they can’t talk openly about some of the personal challenges they face, such as marital problems, sexual confusion or depression, for fear of people gossiping behind their backs. Professional counseling or advisory services aren’t yet widely available.
I spent one afternoon wandering the malls with a bisexual friend who as a young man had received money from a rich businessman in return for his company. Now that he’s older, such arrangements are hard to find, but he amuses himself with a wide cross-section of the town’s young men, such as the clean-cut Muslim youth on the front desk of one of the malls. Ironically enough, he’s able to bring men back to his house to stay overnight because male friends sharing a room is not unusual. But conservative attitudes mean that if he wants to spend the night with a woman he needs a hotel room.
After a week in Manado, I flew out on one of the new private airlines proliferating in the country, the kind of company that offers job opportunities to STIBA grads. I was excited to be swapping the small town crucible of Manado for Jakarta, one of Asia’s megacities and full of everything that entails – incredible wealth, ostentation and debauchery, terrible poverty, extremes of human behaviour, amazing stories of endeavour, success and survival.
But these are exciting times too in Manado. Its hilly neighbourhoods are as attractive as ever, while the big construction projects in the centre speak of a vibrant economy and a modern material life. Meanwhile, religiosity and some conservative values seem as deeply rooted as ever. It will be fascinating to see which of these twin forces does more to shape the city in the years to come.
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