Making the Possible Impossible

Any foreigner who has dealt with a government department in Indonesia—whose offices maintained a 1960s atmosphere of clattering typewriters and twirling ceiling fans well into the twenty-first century—knows how frustrating the red tape can be.

Extending a tourist visa-on-arrival, for example, can take three consecutive daily trudges to the Immigration office nearest to your hotel (often miles away) – first to submit your passport and forms, then to pay the fee, and finally to collect the passport. Your excursion to Krakatau will just have to wait. And this additional month is only available if you can rustle up an Indonesian citizen to sponsor you and countersign the application form.

Some years ago, my Australian friend Matthew, a long-time expatriate married to an Indonesian, had cause to reflect on the baffling workings of the Immigration Department while locked up in a cell in East Java.

His troubles had begun when he went to an Immigration office to collect his young daughter’s first Indonesian passport. Upon being handed the document, Matthew fortunately—or perhaps not considering the outcome—gave the details a thorough going-over to ensure they were correct. Now, Matthew has a posh double-barrelled surname. We’ll call him Matthew Willis-Constantine.

He spotted a mistake immediately. And it wasn’t a minor one. Because certain Indonesians, especially the Bataks of North Sumatra, have enormously long names that some Westerners find as tough to copy out as the names of chemical compounds, it might be assumed that the passport issuers could have managed to print ‘Willis-Constantine’ correctly. But the hyphen had thrown them. On the data page of his daughter’s passport was printed the chopped-and-changed ‘MIDDLE NAME: Willis, SURNAME: Constantine’.

Disbelieving, Matthew pointed the error out to the clerk, who painstakingly read out the name. The man considered the implications and declared the mix-up to be inconsequential and the passport still valid.

Matthew pleaded with other officials in the room to do something about the mistake, even offering to pay to have the passport re-issued correctly. But the officials remained uninterested in having the hyphen reinstated.

“We can change the spelling when passport expires in five years,” declared one of them. Matthew envisaged a future where his daughter would be doomed to forever tick the ‘Yes’ box for the question on Passenger Arrival Cards asking ‘Have you ever used a passport under a different name to enter Singapore?’ He explained this concern to the officials. They tried to usher him out the door. He persisted in asking for a new passport.

The wall of intractable bureaucracy that Matthew was beating his head against eventually proved too much.

He raised the passport high above his head for all in the office to see and began ripping it to pieces.

What happened next was like a scene in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, where a mob of police officers pounces on a victim and surrounds him, guns pointing downward at arm’s-length at the now-prone figure. Judging by the way that every able-bodied official in the room had in a flash abandoned whatever they were doing and, in some cases leaping across desks, sped across the floor to apprehend Matthew, you’d have thought that he’d produced a bomb from his bag. Figuratively he had.

I once saw an upset foreigner being roughed up by a furious crowd outside a Jakarta money changer. He had torn up an Indonesian banknote, an action seen as a colossal act of disrespect for the national symbols depicted on it.

But what Matthew had done was much, much worse. Right there, in the inner sanctum of Indonesian Immigration, in a room anointed by the presence of gilt-framed presidential and vice-presidential portraits, in a country where national pride is a sensitive issue – he had as good as set light to the nation’s flag and trampled on it.

An Indonesian prison is a claustrophobic microcosm of all the worst in society and the establishment, and it begins at the gate. Prior to entering the building, visitors must sign a document that states in vivid red lettering (as you stand beneath large anti-corruption posters hung on the wall): THERE ARE NO FEES TO BE PAID FOR THIS VISIT.

In reality, the fees start as soon as you cross the threshold. You must pay the lackey—a privileged inmate who performs the guards’ jobs—to fetch the prisoner from his cell. You must also pay for each 15 minutes of visiting time in a crowded hall. An extra fee will get you a private room, maybe even the governor’s office.

As for the prisoners themselves, those who don’t have a financial lifeline to the outside, are forced to live on what would barely keep a dog from showing its ribcage. Need to visit a hospital? You’ll have to foot the bill for your transportation, and the armed escort.

Matthew was lucky. He was placed not in a regular prison but in an Immigration detention centre, where he was to spend nine days. Here the regime was less harsh and the cells less austere. He had a bed. A window. A curtain. The chicken bones for lunch had meat on them. In fact, Matthew claimed the place was more comfortable than his usual lodgings in an alleyway off Jalan Jaksa.

Eventually, he was taken before a senior Immigration officer, who invited him to be seated opposite his desk. With this meeting having the feel of a parole hearing, Matthew laid it on thick, contritely explaining that family names in the West—especially those that boasted hyphens—were sacred matters of honour that kings and queens over the centuries had fought battles over. To break apart such a hyphenated name, as the passport had done, was tantamount to snapping in half the family’s ancient ceremonial lancet. And so on.

The officer nodded sympathetically throughout, despite the badge on his chest bearing the uncomplicated name ‘Budi’. But when at the end of the speech he shrugged, Matthew assumed that he was taking the error as lightly as his subordinates had. However, the officer informed him that correcting the name on his daughter’s passport would, unquestionably, have been a simple matter. So why the big tantrum?

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Daniel Pope is a part-time hedonist, residing mostly in Jakarta, where he still finds everything a bit of a rum do.