On the job in Jakarta

JakartaTime is elastic and your perceptions of it evolve over time. Looking back I remember working for just two years in Indonesia and that’s not many in a working life that’s extended over five decades. But at the time it didn’t seem so short. Not because it bored me but because it was so rich in experience, in what was new and in the opportunities which it presented.

I was working for Mobil Oil at the time and I arrived in Jakarta in August of 1974. I was in my mid twenties and the fact that I hadn’t a clue how life would turn out didn’t seem to phase me. From working and living in London, albeit with a brief interlude in New York, where I had a pattern of life based on British culture and surrounded by the same I found myself in an expat bubble in a foreign land surrounded by people speaking a foreign language. And even in the bubble it was different; it was international. Although there were many Brits there were also lots of people from France, Germany, Denmark and Japan and of course the USA who dominated the oil industry within which I worked.

Mobil’s office was in the Oil Centre Building in Jalan Thamrin. It was not as grand as the name implies, just a modest 5 stories, and it was becoming dwarfed by the higher buildings then springing up around it. That might have made it less prestigious of course but it was appreciated in the frequent power cuts when you didn’t have the lifts to take you up to the higher floors. The Pertamina data centre across the road also had to factor in the need to power the computers as well. For them with back-up generators it was a matter of pick one or two from three: computers, air conditioning or lifts.

Traffic in Jakarta was a nightmare exacerbated by the extensive network of one way streets which meant that whenever you set out for a meeting you could be sure that at some time you’d be driving away from your destination. Often you’d drive past it but on the wrong side of the road necessitating another lengthy detour. And when it rained it got worse because the city had grown rapidly with little serious planning of infrastructure or regard to the need to manage the volume of water you get with tropical rain.

There was a further factor identified by Swedish consultants who’d been brought in to sort out Jakarta’s traffic. They found that some ridiculous number of cars at any time were simply carrying messages because the phone system was so poor. So their solution to congestion in the city was pretty simple: just improve the telephone system.

The Mobil office was small and I was the most junior ex-pat. The others were four Americans:

  • Dorrington (Dory) Little was the President-Director, a title much used in Indonesia. He had offices in Medan (North Sumatra) and Singapore as well so he wasn’t present very often. He was an Anglophile and we shared copies of Punch;
  • Harold Inman was the man in charge of Mobil’s LNG project and the guy who’d employed me. Harold was a Texan, ex-navy, and to some extent a stereotype oil engineer. Straight forward, honest, single-minded and focussed;
  • John Barber was the ‘legal counsel’ and had the manner of a small city lawyer. His first wife had died of cancer and he was then married to her sister Ellie. I knew John and Ellie well and we frequently had lunch together. Sadly Ellie also went down with cancer and died later; and
  • Phil Irwin was my boss and another big oil industry man. He’d travelled around Mobil’s international operations and his wife furnished their home accordingly. Phil later turned up in the UK running a part of Mobil’s North Sea operations.

There were also two senior Indonesians. Mr Sjarifudin was our Indonesian lawyer and took care of all of our local legal challenges. The other was Mr Bachmid. He was maybe not the most important person in the office but he was the most useful. He was the fixer who sorted out all of our personal relationships with the authorities: work permits, imports of personal effects, traffic fines etcetera.

And me. I was often the only ex-pat in the office and I had managed to secure a nice office next to the reception which meant that I was often the person who got to talk to the frequent cold-calling visitors. I remember meeting a guy looking for work for a fully equipped off-shore drilling platform, having lunch with a couple of Aussies selling prefabricated buildings, screening potential employees who presented impressive CVs and stonewalling reporters looking for stories within the oil patch.

Because my office was next to the reception I got to listen in on one end of the phone conversations which the receptionist had with 3rd parties. I noted then how unsuited Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language, is for short, precise conversations. It’s characterised by the preponderance of ‘nanti, berankali, besok’ and it’s said that there’s a rough equivalence with the Spanish ‘manyana’ but without the urgency.

This is compounded by the cultural norm in many parts of Asia which is to lead into any conversation with a prelude of two way ‘how are you, how’s your family, what news do you have for me etc’. In English we make do with ‘how are you?’ which we generally don’t answer before we get on with the subject which has necessitated the meeting or telephone call.

My main points of contact outside the company were at Pertamina, the state oil company. The company employed some well educated and very smart people but it had also grown into a bloated bureaucracy which was not immune to corruption. The saying went ‘the salaries are low but the incomes are high’. It got into such a state when I was there that they needed to get outside accountants in to work out what was going on. Sadly it found an administration in which accountants didn’t seem to understand the rudiments of double entry book keeping.

My moments of glory however happened when I was the company rep at the monthly ‘scout check’ where the companies engaged in exploration and production in Indonesia met to report their activities. The chair of the meeting changed every six months and as fate would have it Mobil’s turn came round when I was the rep. Sadly there was no dramatic news to report during my time.

But I wasn’t always in Jakarta. Mobil’s operations were based in Medan so I was frequently taking early morning flights on Garuda from Kemayoran Airport. That was good preparation for Ryanair out of Stansted. I’d arrange my Medan trips for Thursday/Friday so that I could come back having spent Saturday in Singapore. In those days we’d send a driver to check-in for us and only turn up when our plane had arrived. And if we knew we’d still have some time to kill we’d ring the bar in the departure lounge and ensure that they had some beer in the refrigerator.

I don’t know why but it never seemed like a point in my career. Although Mobil seemed to think otherwise and had me down for a management development course in Australia I got tempted by a job offer in Hong Kong and, despite Mobil offering me an opportunity to move to the US, I had the momentum and took it.

Selamat tinggal Jakarta!

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