Sun, 26 Jan 2003

City traffic light a symbol of all that ails RI

There is a traffic light that has been bothering me. Yet I can't avoid it. It is so close to my house that, even if I were to alter my usual routes (as advised by my embassy), I would still have to pass it.

The traffic light is not broken, although I am sure that one day it will be. It does not take as long as other lights to change. It does not sit obscured behind other signs or trees. It does, however, signal the future, and that, maybe, is why it bothers me.

This light, which guards a real pedestrian crossing (surprise!) to the major mosque in our neighborhood -- seems to change from red to green to red without a regular pattern. It seems to have its own quirky logic, its own thinking, about its purpose and how to make itself useful.

It seems almost as if the traffic police forgot to program the light to respond to the ebb and flow of the traffic and instead left it in some default mode that has slowly allowed the light to develop its own program, to develop its own intelligence the way that its blinking cousin, HAL, did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When I am behind the wheel (which I actually enjoy when it is not macet), it often taunts me by turning red as I approach. You are supposed to stop, but what is the purpose of stopping, especially when no one is crossing and everyone else has already started honking? Should I stay, or should I go?

The way each of us answers this question actually reveals to us something much more profound than the state of Jakarta's traffic.

Bus drivers, perched up there like gladiators on groaning chariots, charge right through the light without hesitation or fear. Motorcycle police don't hesitate either, but they are not as brazen about driving through as the bus drivers. Taxi drivers generally ignore the light completely.

Some passenger car drivers do slow down but, on recognizing the situation, quickly speed up. I guess they are not from the neighborhood, because those from the area already know that there is usually no reason to stop. The delivery motorcyclists zoom right through. Even the bajaj and cyclists mosey on through with nary a glance at the light.

The decisions made by each of the road users are to me a real indicator of the nature of Indonesians' ethos during these ambiguous, uncertain times. The willingness of the drivers to take matters into their own hands and to drive through that red light is a triumph of the individual over the community. Of pragmatism over principles. Of anarchy over democracy.

To me, that traffic light represents the best of Indonesia's own special state of chaotic breakdown of the rules of society, law and courtesy -- the triumph of the most brazen -- with a passing nod to the needs of a good and gentle people.

In this topsy-turvy world, who can blame drivers when the very purpose of the light is already questionable, let alone the haphazard manner in which it performs its role? In such instances, individuals should triumph over the state. At least they know when is the right time to follow the rules and when to break them.

With the nation in such a lousy state, maybe the idea of the American and Japanese ambassadors dancing to dangdut, or a becak (pedicab) driver as governor of Jakarta, or a workable busway are not so crazy. And maybe this kind of upside-down thinking is exactly what is needed because unexpected, upside-down results seem to be what we always get.

Look at the refurbishment of the Selamat Datang monument (Welcome Jakarta Fountain) at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle (or, perhaps more fittingly, circus). Its undeclared intention was to discourage demonstrators, but the fountain's new beauty (and cooling mist) attracts as many demonstrators as before!

Let's see what happens with the fence around Monas, which is supposed to keep the animals in and the vendors out. We will probably end up with deer over at the Istana, goats on the Governor's lawn (since goats are hardier than deer and able to eat more garbage), and vendors everywhere, as everything is for sale around Merdeka Square.

What about the too-numerous-to-mention, head-scratching decisions from the Supreme Court and the rest of the judicial system? Or members of the House of Representatives, claiming to represent the people, who can approve a budget calling for price hikes and then only months later call for the hikes to be canceled!

In many other democracies, such lamentable "service to the people" would result in impeachment and dishonor.

Of course, these types of failure are blamed on the few oknum, the few "bad apples" who don't do the right thing. But who really are the bad apples, the ones abiding by the rules or those flouting them?

As for me, I'll just keep on driving through, knowing -- thanks to a troublesome traffic light -- that anarchy is just a few intersections away. However, lest I feel bad about flouting the rules, maybe I'll just find someone to break the light for me...

-- Mark Winkel