Life is now one long downhill ride

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS & THE ASIAN HEARTLAND : INDONESIA

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.

LOOKS can deceive.

Enter the dilapidated atap house of unemployed labourer, Sharmin Adim in the slum heartland and one finds a 16-inch Panasonic television set and a Sony cassette recorder.

The 35-year-old was defensive when asked how he had obtained these things. “I did not take them,” he said. “My rich Singapore boss gave them to me when I was working in Batam a few years ago.”

Five years ago he could make as much as 100,000 rupiah (S$19) a month. Now, on a good day, he earns 5,000 rupiah as a masseur and an odd-job worker.

Mr Sharmin was laid off together with more than 100 other construction workers three months ago after their employer’s company folded up because of the economic crisis.

“This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” said the 35-year-old who hails from West Java.

“I am the man of the house but now I can’t even feed myself or my family.”

Mr Sharmin looked healthy in a tee-shirt that hugged a lean muscular 1.75 m frame. He thought otherwise.

He said he had “lost a few kilos” in the last three months living on one meal of rice and salted fish daily. His wife, two daughters and a son have been on the same diet since he lost his job.

Over the last 15 days, he has been eating coconuts daily because his savings had been used to pay the monthly house rent of 60,000 rupiah.

“You know, life is so hard now,” he said, holding on tightly to his eight-year-old daughter Hayati.

“Everything is so expensive. Last time for 10,000 rupiah, I could buy rice, sugar, vegetables and fruits. Now I can only buy at most, two items.”

He said that he missed smoking his favourite brand of kretek “Gudang Garam” and has now been forced to smoke the cheaper “Kansas” brand once a week.

His daughter dropped out of school last year because he could not afford her school fees.

For Mr Sharmin and his friends in the area, Islam is a source of salvation in these troubled times.

He said: “When we don’t have anything to do, we just pray and sleep to forget our hunger and our problems.”

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