Fifteen years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the scene I witnessed last weekend in Solo. Back then — on 14 and 15 May, 1998 — Solo was engulfed in flames, as was Jakarta.
But last weekend the placid Central Java city showed it had been transformed. Instead of charred buildings (most of which were ethnic Chinese-owned), the city is now crammed with shoppers and tourists drawn to its historical sites, batik ateliers and distinctive food, seemingly oblivious to its history. Solo has become a quintessential part of the Indonesian turn-around story.
I was standing just off the main Jalan Slamet Riyadi thoroughfare at the main entrance to the Solo Paragon, one of the city’s largest and newest shopping malls. The crowds were streaming in.
With a large, two-story Carrefour hypermarket and a Centro department store, there were lots of things for everyone to do and the various chain restaurants and cafes were crammed with patrons.
Outside and just beyond the entrance, there’s was a noisy promotion for Bimoli cooking oil, replete with singers and a band. I could not see the compere but judging from her over-amplified voice, she was certainly energetic, perhaps even screechy.
I wandered around the mall. Most of the shops are familiar: Giordano, Polo Ralph Lauren, Charles & Keith, symbols of Indonesia’s growing prosperity.
As a book-lover, I looked for a Gramedia but there wasn’t one and I headed off to find the Black Canyon Cafe where I was supposed to meet an old friend and interview subject, the ebullient ethnic Chinese businessman and social activist Sumartono Hadinoto.
I have met with Pak Sumartono regularly since I first interviewed him in 2009. Now in his late fifties, Sumartono is a natural optimist — open-hearted and enthusiastic. He believes in giving back to society.
As I’ve written before in this column, Sumartono was one of the victims of those May 1998 riots: indeed, his mid-sized aluminium business was looted and burnt down. He escaped by crawling through a hole in the wall of his establishment — a hole he has preserved to remind him both of his good fortune and also the importance of addressing the glaring iniquities of the society he lives in.
In fact, you could say that Pak Sumartono has been “paying back” for what happened to him for much of the past 15 years. I came to chat with him because I wanted to get a sense of how he saw the 2014 elections: Will the transition lead to a period of instability? Could Solo be a flash point once again? Does it retain its reputation as a potential trouble spot?
But first he updated me on his various charities and community associations. He has been particularly focused on building up the Red Cross and stated that its Solo branch did not require any government funding. “Here in Solo we’ve raised the money all ourselves,” he told me proudly.
His exuberance was infectious. When he said “Happiness isn’t about money,” I nodded admiringly. This is a man who appears to have found the elusive balance between the demands of family and business, and his own personal obsessions. The more I listen to him, the more I feel envious of his inner calm and satisfaction.
As I pressed him about the possibility of violence recurring, Sumartono paused before replying: “Times have changed but there are still traces of the trauma. However, most people are just apathetic. They don’t care about politics. People are more satisfied and less unhappy.”
Fifteen years on, could it be that Solo — once the Republic’s barometer of social change and stability — has indeed settled down? As consumerism has taken root, maybe the willingness to hit the streets has dissipated? Let’s hope so and that more people like Sumartono will come along to keep society on an even keel.