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Indonesian Journal: The Control State

My police registration card arrived in the mail today. It's signed by the Inspector General of the National Police in Jakarta and attests to the fact that I've been sufficiently vetted by the proper authorities and adjudged sound enough of mind and circumstance to warrant the card. Which is nice.

I'm not exactly sure why I have the card or what it took to get one but the folks running the Fulbright program here in Indonesia told us that a police registration card is difficult to come by. In a country still very much defined by those who have access or an inkling of access to power and those who most definitely do not, possessing a difficult thing suggests a little social or political heft. It's exclusive, or exclusive-ish, and maybe the cops don't give you the hassle you might otherwise get as a foreigner working in a country where the official unemployment rate - about 8 percent - is a patently ginned-up fiction. Maybe you get to go without greasing anyone's palm, or maybe the asking price is a tad more cut-rate.

The police registration card marks the near-completion of a bureaucratic steeplechase that began two months ago in Chicago when I applied for a work visa that required many checked boxes, a couple handwritten applications, copies of my resume and grad school diploma, and one notarized criminal background check from the Illinois State Police. Visa in hand, I hopped a plane to Jakarta and spent five days in the capital city making myself available for visits to the local immigration and police offices. At one such office, I was fingerprinted and photographed and made to sign my name on some official-looking and smartly embossed documents. Later, this office issued a temporary work permit that I'm supposed to keep with me and my passport at all times. Fulbright staffers brokered all these meetings and were there to translate and to smile demurely on our behalf as uniformed civil servants grunted and pointed for us to make a mark here . . . and here.

There is no way I could have managed this rigmarole without the help of my fixers, and this, I'm guessing, is exactly the point. There is no way anyone can navigate this process without assistance, and there's no way to fully plumb which office or official does exactly what for whom. It's impossibly, unknowably opaque.

This means there's plenty of room for fudging at all levels of the bureaucracy, and there's almost unlimited deniability. Nobody is exactly in charge but everyone in epaulets or khaki or olive drab or wearing a name tag has a finger in the pie and must be addressed in turn. One day they're roses, the next not so much. Public politesse is not just good manners here; it's a functional necessity in a control state. You just can't afford to have the wrong kind of enemies, you know?

You also can't live here as a foreigner without registering with the local police. For me, this meant trips last week to meet with the chief of the local police department - who wore a baggy maroon suit and no badge - and afterward a separate meeting with the head of intelligence for what's basically the regional headquarters of the state police.

This guy, pretty young and casually official-looking, smoked throughout our hour-plus audience with him, asking questions to my school supervisors and occasionally looking at me with bemusement.

Do you speak Javanese? he asked in Javanese, knowing the answer. I looked at him blankly. My counterpart teacher later told me the police intelligence guy said I was free to travel but only if my counterpart went with me. I don't think that's necessary, my counterpart whispered.

Still, foreigners are supposed to notify local police departments of our presence in any city we visit overnight. I honestly have no idea how this system of movement-by-movement notification would work or whether people really do this but the rules are on the books and I'm guessing they're just waiting to be enforced if and when the opportunity presents itself. That's when I whip out the police registration card and take my chances.

But first, before I can even think about flouting the travel notification rules, I've still got to register with one more office here in little Magelang, Central Java. In addition to checking in at the two police stations - 45 hands shook, umpteen smiles and nods offered - and one department of education office, I am required to appear with a sponsor before the headman of my local neighborhood, or kampung, and make myself known. This quasi-official person serves as a point-man for local issues - he's a kind of mini-alderman - and he also feeds information and gossip to the police.

He's a good guy to know and a better guy to keep in mind when moving around town as one of maybe a handful of resident non-Indonesians. We went looking for him the other day but were told he wasn't around. My counterpart was concerned. We need to see him soon. I guess before he sees us first.


Brett McNeil is a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Chicago Journal editor, and Fulbright English teacher living in Indonesia. He blogs at The Year of Living Volcanically and is also the Beachwood's new Southeast Asia correspondent.


* Indonesian Journal: Buying Flowers, Burning the Koran


Comments welcome.


Posted on September 28, 2010

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BOOKS - All About Poop.


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