Going off the straight and narrow can be costly in Jakarta, as Daniel Pope recounts.
The last time I was in a police station in Central Jakarta, in around 2010, a boy was being forced by a group of amused officers to stand on a desk and impersonate the chicken that he had been arrested for stealing. I guessed that if a few minutes of squawking and flapping his elbows for the entertainment of some bored public servants was the extent of his punishment, he had got off lightly.
I had come to the station because my friend was in trouble, and he had asked me to provide moral support, as well as to help as his interpreter.
The dissolute nature of his problem was indicated by the young male prostitute and two tattooed hoodlums squeezed together with him on a bench. Let’s call him Gregory, a thirty-year-old gay Australian who had been working in Indonesia as an accountancy consultant for eight months.
In his pursuit of intimate encounters with other men, Gregory had lately sunk from scouring Jakarta’s mainstream gay haunts to crawling its curbs. Tonight, at a notorious street square in Central Jakarta loomed over by the city’s largest mosque and its neo-gothic cathedral, he had arranged to pick up a seasoned sidewalk loiterer that he had been with before. This rent boy seemed trustworthy enough, even though during their last meeting he had asked Gregory to buy him a Playstation games console, a gift request that had seemed odd and suspicious in some way he couldn’t fathom. Gregory had simply said no and forgotten about it.
This time, he and the boy were followed home by a pair of burly hoodlums, who by the way they hung back seemed to have already been given directions to his house. After bashing on the front door, the hoodlums introduced themselves as the boy’s outraged cousins. To make their point, one of them slapped the boy across the face. It wasn’t a hard slap. More of a pat. Gregory got the impression that this scene was scripted, and that he was the victim of a set-up.
The sensible response would have been to just slip the hoodlums some money – extortion was clearly the motive here – and take it as a lesson learned. But Gregory was at the best of times stubborn. To the surprise of the hoodlums, who had expected a timid and quick surrender from this lone foreigner, he chose to seek some local help.
The Indonesian word for a street gangster is “preman“, and Gregory’s neighbourhood had its own gang of them. It wasn’t untypical in this respect. Organised criminals were tolerated and even welcomed by many in the community, and they operated in every part of Jakarta, running rackets and controlling informal businesses, such as security, protection, parking, and drugs. Having met the leader of the local outfit a few times in passing, Gregory reckoned he qualified for some of this protection for himself.
He found the head preman, whose name was Bingo, in the VIP booth of a local bar with a group of henchmen and hangers-on. Invited to sit down like a pauper seeking an audience with a prince, Gregory asked for Bingo’s help. He wasn’t terribly sure what sort of help to expect, or even what he had hoped to achieve by coming here – perhaps simply to make it appear to the phoney cousins that he had powerful friends and shouldn’t be messed with.
But Gregory’s antagonists – Bingo’s fellow hoodlums after all – were not impressed. They confidently gave their side of the story, explaining that on Gregory’s last encounter with the boy, he had promised to buy him a Playstation, but had since shown no intention of doing so. They added that the cash to buy one at their leisure would be an acceptable alternative.
So this at least explained the boy’s request for the games console during their last meeting. He guessed that the hoodlums had put the boy up to it. Furthermore, nobody was interested in Gregory’s protest that he hadn’t made any kind of promise.
Bingo explained that he was unable to get involved in the dispute, and was vague about his reasons. Promises, he said, weren’t his area of expertise, and he advised Gregory to go to the police station if he still felt aggrieved. “In fact, he’ll escort you there,” he said, indicating the most villainous and sinister-looking character in the group. “He’s a police officer.”
Gregory was getting worried. If he’d given the consequences any thought at all when the hoodlums had burst into his house with their demands, he had expected a smoother solution than this. Acting so rashly on a conviction that he was in the right had been a mistake.
The detective who attended to them at the station was an avuncular sort, shaking Gregory’s hand heartily. After an initial assessment, which included questioning the hoodlums about their tattoos – in Indonesia long regarded as a mark of criminality – he asked pragmatically what the problem was if all Gregory had done was give the consenting boy money in exchange for sexual acts.
Although relieved that the detective wasn’t proposing an investigation, Gregory had had enough and was trying to ignore everyone about him, refusing even to look them in the eye. But his treacherous pick-up beside him on the bench – this Tadzio turned Artful Dodger – gave him a gentle kick and asked, “Kenapa kamu sombong?” This translated to something like “Why are you rudely ignoring me?”
Before Gregory could reply, the hoodlums engaged the boy in a huddled conversation, then simply repeated to the detective that Gregory had promised to buy him a Playstation. The detective asked Gregory if it were true that he had promised to give the boy such a gift.
This was when I stepped in, feeling that things had gone on long enough. I took one of the hoodlums aside, spoke briefly to him, then to Gregory, and reported to the detective that all parties had agreed that a handover of Rp1 million would be a satisfactory settlement. This was quickly arranged by way of official letters and signatures, and all that remained was for the detective to give Gregory an earnest lecture.
“In Indonesia, we have many beautiful ladies,” he began, indicating that I should translate if Gregory failed to understand him. “They make wonderful girlfriends and faithful wives. You don’t have to look hard to find them. They are hospitable and generous. And so many of them would love to get to know a foreigner like yourself. Or, if it’s just sex you want, well, that tendency is catered for as well. Although as a police officer I can’t condone it, you understand.
“But if you really must seek sexual favours with those of your own sex, don’t go with a boy like him…” He indicated Gregory’s male prostitute – cherubic, slim, coy, smiling. “His type should be avoided. It will only get you into trouble. No, go with a boy like him instead…” He indicated the biggest of the hoodlums – muscular, smirking, menacing, triumphant. “Yes, he’s much better. It will be much safer. Take my word for it.”