Many people have talked about Indonesia’s rising middle class, which some mockingly called the consumer class, and about the bustling businesses coming from its strengthened purchasing power. Illustrations have invariably included lifestyle choices like mode of transportation, handheld devices, personal care and entertainment. The glorified mall rats.
That the layer of middle class referenced there were mostly the upper crust, few have cared to underline. As the World Bank is still defining middle class on USD 2-20 daily expenses, what about the other layer, the lower middle class?
Back again at the mall, they would be the shop assistants, security guards, dining staffs, janitors, receptionists—pretty much everyone else beyond the consumptive mall rats. As most don’t originally hail from neighborhoods near the glam downtown malls they work in, their choices are left between commuting on Jakarta’s infamously inconvenient public transportation, finding a cheap lodging nearby, and saving up for a motorbike. Each of these options has led to bustling businesses on their own merit, right behind the pretty walls of the malls.
If you head to Senayan City through Simprug area you’ll pass a slum-looking alley, a narrow patch sandwiched between fancy residential complexes for over two decades but never got around to be bought up even after the ring road and swanky mall were built halfway through the period. When the mall had just opened the most prominent property on that patch, a 2-storey semi-permanent shack, was peddling ugly frames and even uglier landscape paintings downstairs, yet over time it has gradually turned into a motorbikes parking spot for mall staffs and lesser-endowed visitors. At any given time its ground floor could fit in 40-45 motorbikes that would pay about IDR 3,000-5,000 for a few hours or IDR 10,000 for a daylong parking, a total steal compared to the mall’s official IDR 5,000 per hour rate. That’s revenue up to IDR 500,000 daily, while if rented out the property might not fetch more than IDR 4 million monthly. After paying utilities and a couple of men running it I figured the owner might still make about IDR 10 million monthly. Beats selling ugly paintings any day and twice on Sundays, quite literally.
Across the intersection there’s another parking stretched entirely out on the muddy sidewalk of a mansion currently in major renovation. Again, at any given time the spot could fit about 30 motorbikes, though due to its outdoor location, at the mercy of weather, I learned that they’d charge a bit less. Neighborhood teens manning the spot and revenue would go to communal petty cash.
The rest of the neighborhood has also been getting the windfall, I further discovered. Mall staffs who are yet to afford a motorbike can find simple boarding among the rickety shacks, often sharing a small room with others, for no more than IDR 500,000 monthly. Commuters may use ojek (motorbike ride sharing service) to the nearest train station or bus stops offered by the neighborhood’s young men who’d come by the mall’s side entrance on closing time.
Food? Plenty. Suddenly the neighborhood ladies found that they had a knack of whipping up standard meals on the ground floor of their modest residence, which are always inundated not just by mall staffs but also drivers waiting on their employers roaming the mall. Roadside stalls are also a fixture that so far no Foke, Jokowi or Ahok as Governor could permanently clean up.
All of these aren’t unique to Senayan City by any means. Lurk behind and around any upscale Jakarta mall, even the suburbia like Puri Indah in West Jakarta or Pondok Indah on South Jakarta, and you’re bound to find a bustling downscale business made out of possibly half of the human resource force that gets a mall running yet can’t afford the amenities provided inside. You may now roar at this grave injustice and demand the mall’s food court and parking slicing off their prices, or you can marvel at how it instead creates opportunities just a stone’s throw off the mall’s tall walls. On the fringes they may be, creating traffic jam and trash they tend to be, yet they’re genuine businesses. Genuinely profitable, organically comes from demand crossing supply, conveniently serving its target market, ultimately making all stakeholders happy except the tax office they typically allude—all the makings of informal economy in plain sight, which you may just miss if you blink while passing it inside your air-conditioned ride.
Life always finds a way; the famous quote on Jurassic Park movies goes. I believe that, just as believe that a commerce is organic (what, you forgot cavemen already bartered off bearskins and grains millenniums ago?). You can always try to regulate and tax it, but you can’t effectively kill it off as long as a demand is being met. Business will find a way.
Which means, if you reread the controversial plan of Jakarta’s recently sworn in Governor to ban motorbikes along main thoroughfares in exchange for free buses, you may now imagine that the points dotting the barriers will quickly turn into makeshift parking and whatnots. Ban them off a patch, bundle them on surrounding patches.
While we let the Governor rethinking his plan, let’s scour the areas for cheap spots to turn into future fringe businesses before the residents discover their entrepreneurial bone. Wear your flip-flops, darlings, it may get muddy.