Bound to Wander

from TIME magazine … August 21, 2000
by Anthony Spaeth

In Indonesia’s second city, the itinerant Madurese have found a place they can call home


If you stand at the harbor of Surabaya, Indonesia’s famed port and second-largest city, you can see the island of Madura only 4 km across the water. For a decade, there was a plan to connect the city and the island with a bridge, but financing never came through and the only progress was a few premature concrete pillars that now stand forlornly in the sea. A bridge would certainly be useful: every day, thousands of people from Madura cross by ferry to Surabaya, jammed in with livestock, cargo, cars and buses. The ferries run 24 hours a day. “I’ve been making this trip every day for 13 years,” says Hasmat Nabiri, 64, a Madurese day-laborer. The reason for the exodus is simple. “We come to work,” says Nabiri.

Madura is home to a unique language and culture that sets its natives apart from the people of Indonesia’s other islands. And yet it is barely home to its own people. Of an estimated 10 million Madurese, 6 million have relocated permanently to places that offer more work. Others, like Nabiri, spend a good part of their lives on ferries back and forth to Surabaya. This makes the Madurese the most itinerant of all Indonesian ethnicities, a people banished from their home by economic circumstance.

To a lesser extent, and for varying reasons, other Indonesian groups share that destiny. For decades, the central government in Jakarta has promoted large-scale “transmigration” to alleviate overcrowding. Java is the country’s most densely populated island, so its people have been officially moved across the map: to Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya. There were social engineering ambitions within the plan. Javanese culture was expected to take over, especially in troublesome spots like East Timor. In its defense, the concept could also have forged a common identity among Indonesia’s varied peoples.

It hasn’t worked that way. In West Kalimantan, brutal warfare between the local Dayaks and immigrant Madurese has flared intermittently for the past three years, claiming thousands of lives. East Timor has left the Indonesian fold entirely. The biggest challenge facing Indonesia is to quell various ethnic conflicts and hold together as a nation.

Surabaya contains the mix of people one would expect in a bustling port town: Javanese bureaucrats, Chinese traders, even a small Arab community descended from seafaring merchants. When the eye adjusts, one notices the Madurese and their place on the lowest rung of Surabaya’s employment ladder. They number about 800,000—a fourth of the city’s population. They peddle cigarettes, pimp for brothels, collect scrap metal and, with their fearsome celurits—a kind of machete—help the city’s underworld run smoothly. “Madurese work the jobs the Javanese don’t want,” says Hamad Mataji, one of the most prosperous figures in the Madurese community.

Mataji arrived here penniless 25 years ago. He dug trenches, pulled a pedicab and retreaded tires to make money. When he had enough, he bought a 3,000 sq m lot that has become the city’s central exchange for scrap metal. Now 50, Mataji carries a mobile phone, and his smile reveals a mouthful of teeth made from white gold. But he still works the yard every day, signing receipts from scrap-hauling scavengers—a great many of them fellow Madurese—and getting a different kind of visit from local politicians and cops. “Everyone these days is asking for a loan,” he laughs.

Many things have changed in 25 years, Mataji says. The Madurese have been driven out of the local gambling and prostitution businesses. (Those trades are now backed by Chinese-Indonesians and the Indonesian military and police.) But their reputation as proud and rough characters hasn’t diminished. “The Madurese would rather steal than beg,” says Mataji. Sapan, 42, used to run with a Madurese gang in the Surabaya underworld until the early ’80s, when thousands of suspected criminals were mysteriously murdered. Sapan says he has killed 20 men, mostly in disputes over women. “We are fearless,” he says. “We die when we are meant to die.” Sapan found religion after too many years in jail, he says, and has returned home to Madura to work as a farmer. But his story fits the Madurese stereotype: a people brave and clannish, with their own code of honor (known as carok)—and a propensity for violence. “Treat them well and they’ll be even nicer,” says Fachrul Rozi, a Madurese doctor. “But if you’re mean to them, they’ll be even meaner.” Dede Oetomo, an anthropologist at Surabaya’s Airlangga University, observes, “With the Madurese, it is a very thin line between gangsterism and normality.” That’s not all bad. Most of the city’s security guards are Madurese, and they’re known for protecting premises with fierce loyalty. Says Nazirman, who has Madurese guards at his office supply store, “What they bring is their courage and a will to work.”

In the center of the city is Surabaya’s largest red-light district, Dolly, named after a pioneering madam from the 1960s. Ronny, a native Madurese, has worked for the Wisma Jaya Indah brothel for 25 years. It’s the only job he has ever had. Ronny used to go to the countryside on recruiting missions for the brothel, but these days he spends his days on the pavement outside. “I mainly do security and try to bring guys in.” The night is slow, and a group of visiting Koreans are reluctant. “Only 50,000 rupiah [$6] an hour,” Ronny promises them. One of the Koreans takes the bait, the others move on.

In the industrial port of Gresik on the outskirts of Surabaya, Madurese work together to get by. The remains of a decommissioned Indonesian warship are sunk in shallow, oily waters close to the shore. For six months, a group of 20 Madurese have been carving it up for scrap. Covered in oil and up to their waists in sludge, the men use propane torches and heavy saws to disembowel the vessel. “There won’t be anything left of this ship when we’re done with it,” foreman Syaiful Bakri says proudly. The pieces will then find their way around the country, thanks to the extensive network of Madurese traders. That’s good for the scavengers: the process cuts out the middlemen who usually skim off so much profit in the Indonesian economy.

The Madurese network helps newcomers find jobs in Surabaya, too, whether it’s selling fruit or cigarettes on the street or collecting discarded plastic bottles and bald tires. The community is centered in the northern part of the city, where Madurese live together in tiny, makeshift houses. “They believe in coexistence, not assimilation,” says Daniel Sparingga, a sociologist at Airlangga University. Such aloofness can cause problems: in tough economic times such as these, Madurese are often blamed for increasing car thefts, pickpocketing and other petty crimes. That leads some to predict real friction if the economy continues to stagnate, not a happy thought considering the Madurese and their fearsome celurits. “We’re not afraid to use them if we have to,” says Sapan, the former convict. So far, though, the mix has worked. However humble, the Madurese have their place in Surabaya, where the ethnic balance remains far healthier than in many other troubled Indonesian cities—a land of millions of people living far from their homes.

Reported by Jason Tedjasukmana/Surabaya

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