Changing fortunes


Riau province, which straddles Sumatra and the Indonesian islands south of Singapore, is rich. Endowed with oil and other natural resources, its economy has suffered less than Java. Palm-oil farmers and others earning export income are enjoying a windfall from the rupiah’s collapse. Their gains have trickled down to the small traders who dominate the economy. But high prices and uneven income distribution still make life difficult for many.

DERWIN PEREIRA, who reports from Indonesia, visited the province and looked at how fortunes have changed for three residents.

Madam Betty Suhaimi has been poor all her life but sees a ray of hope in these hard times.

The 36-year-old migrant from West Sumatra, who owns a grocery stall, is one of many thousand small traders in the Riau mainland who is enjoying unexpected benefits from Indonesia’s economic troubles, in particular the collapse.

In classic trickle-down fashion, the surge in export income that is fattening the wallets of palm-oil farmers, rubber-plantation owners and workers in the petroleum industry is also benefiting the small traders.

Madam Suhaimi’s 2 m by 3 m stall is in the city centre. It is stocked with almost everything – Coca Cola, Guinness Stout, Nissin wafers, peanuts. Even Panadol.

“Business is always good. People have plenty of money these days,” she said. “They always buy things from my stall and I never have to worry about sales. I just have to worry about replacing the stocks.”

She makes 350,000 rupiah (S$68) a month, enough to give her five daughters and two sons three meals a day.

She said: “Last year, they could eat only once a day, sometimes just water and tapioca. They are lucky, much luckier than I was.”

She was orphaned at seven. The eldest in a family of five, she sold cakes and biscuits on the streets to support her siblings.

At 14 she was married and continued to toil for the next 20 years as she, her unemployed husband and children moved from place to place to earn a living. “I have been through more difficult times … ,” she said. “My skin is so thick now I can face anything.”

Previously, she sold her groceries on a pushcart. But business had been so good of late, that she made enough money to apply for a fixed space along the Jalan Nangka stretch that is occupied by many other small traders.

Her overnight success has made her popular in her West Sumatran hometown of Padang where many are struggling in this crisis and have asked her for help. “When I was poorer, people did not want to be close to me,” she said. “Now, … I have more money and more friends.”

Posted in Indonesia