Chapter 9: Indonesia

We arrive in Jakarta in January 97, with Charlotte, barely two years old and a baby.

Didier jumped when I told him about David’s offer to transfer to Indonesia. We opened a representative office there three years ago. The person in charge returned to France a year earlier and only makes short trips to Asia now to pay the bills at the end of each month.

Not only am I going to a country where we are already present, I am also arriving in an existing structure with an office, an assistant and a client file that is a bit obsolete, but enough to start with. I face a new challenge: to promote my company in a country where I know neither the rules, nor the tradition, nor the way of thinking, and which does not have the reputation of being particularly open. For a woman of action like me, learning to control my words to attract future clients should be an interesting experience.

The first month, I don’t work. I use up my last days of paid leave to try to settle down. We thought we would find a house very quickly, but had to face a real obstacle course. We stay in a hotel and have the easy task of dealing with two small children, the bottles in the bathroom and the baby bed stuck between the window and the bed. While David gets up at the crack of dawn to face the traffic on his way to the office, I spend my days visiting houses. I usually leave Charlotte at the hotel and take the baby under my arm. I see all sorts of things. The houses are large compared to our French standards, with a small garden and a swimming pool. The agents don’t seem to care much about showing me houses that match my criteria. I waste a lot of time visiting houses that are too far from the school, too far from the office, in too bad a condition, too poorly made, too dark… I almost end up feeling guilty and think I’m being too difficult. After a week and about twenty houses, I finally discover a house that has everything to please. We immediately go to get David and return to visit it in the afternoon. Jackpot! We found it. We give the green light and go back to the hotel. Only a few more days to go, and gone will be the hotel and the restaurant at every meal.

However, the agency calls me the next day to tell me that the house is already taken. I hit the road again. Here we go again: different agents, not this house, not that one, too big, too small, too nothing, not enough everything and then the gem… which is taken, we learn the news the next day. Two and a half months and a hundred houses later, after having chosen five houses already taken every time, we finally find a house. It is not the house of our dreams, but it is close to the school and the office, it is of suitable size and price.

In addition to the assistant Suraya and his address book, my predecessor left me a driver, Jayadi. He is a gem, who does not hesitate to look after the baby when I am on an errand. .

A month later, I am finally settled. We received our stuff from France, moved into our house, employed staff to look after the children, do the housework, cooking, gardening and cleaning the pool. I thought I was living the high life in Nigeria, but now I am the head of an army of five people whose only responsibility is to take care of our comfort. I can go about my business.

My predecessor comes back and organizes a farewell cocktail party for himself, and a welcome one for me, with his main contacts. He takes the opportunity to invite a few partners to lunch and leaves me, armed with these contacts to begin with. I have a hard time adapting to this job where I have to get in touch with future clients to present my company. It is very different from the contacts in the field where we would share a common technical subject. I go fishing for information, multiplying contacts. A plethora of unsuccessful meetings later, we potentially get our hands on a piece of information, the value of which remains to be seen. I have to spend a lot of time for minimal results while showing a lot of patience and diplomacy, areas in which I famously do not excel. I attend cocktail parties where most of the attendees are old enough to be my father and where I am, of course, the only woman. When I ask David to accompany me to a club event, it’s not about sewing or reading, but about pipelines.

I get a whole bunch of freeloaders. They are often expatriates who have come on a mission, only to fall in love with Asia as a whole or with one of its representatives in particular. Once their contract is over, they stay and try to survive by doing odd jobs. They have targeted my office, assuring me that they have very high-level contacts that would allow them to land all the projects that interest me. In any case, they are getting a meal out of it. Although I am aware of all the services I am depriving myself of, my first mission is to tell them very quickly that our collaboration is over.

My professional life is punctuated by visits to the economic post, potential clients, partners and formal cocktail parties. However, despite a trip to Singapore to study a project with the refinery, I still do not feel comfortable in this position which lacks concreteness. I like customer relations, but when it is centered around a project and not to prepare a future with uncertain potential.

Eight months later, when Didier tells me that he won’t be able to keep the office going for another year, I still don’t have any tangible results to present to him, which is perhaps normal, but very frustrating. The Asian crisis is starting, nobody knows if the big projects will be maintained. This is combined with a difficult year for the head office. What is the weight of a vague representative office stuck in a crisis on the other side of the world?

I am a little relieved to be able to put this disappointing experience behind me. It is the first time I’ve ever felt inadequate for a job, and I am glad I was forced to stop before I had to forfeit. The feeling is quite unpleasant. Let’s be positive, at least I know now that I’m not cut out for this job, failures are as important as successes to progress.

I am given the choice between going back to Nigeria or returning to France. Of course, with David staying in Indonesia, I choose the third solution: I prepare my CV. Here I am looking for a job again, at a time when companies are fleeing the country. I get vague promises of job opportunities, but nothing serious until a position as branch manager of a sister company becomes available. The manager, shaken after not having been able to see his father who had died suddenly in France, abruptly decided to stop his expatriate life and resigned without notice. The position is available immediately. It is a profile that fits me, a job that promises to be exciting, back in action, at last!

The work is as good as I expected, and even better. My predecessor was not a fan of organization and everything has to be arranged. When I enter my new workplace, I find piles of documents of all kinds littering the office, the furniture and any other available space. In the same pile, I find an old newspaper, an original contract, a used envelope or a piece of junk mail, and sometimes even an envelope with money. The first chore is to put everything away. The added value to this forced filing is that I get to know the different projects of the company, having had no instructional handover.

I spend the first week putting the papers away and the next three months restructuring the company. I start with rewriting the statutes. As it was set up, the company could not have an expatriate director. My predecessor had had problems with this and had ended up developing a certain paranoia, which led him to organize a mess to cover his tracks, instead of tackling the root of the problem. So my first mission is to find an Indonesian partner who will help us develop the business with his local contacts. I then move on to the accounts. The accountant was fired six months ago and since then, nothing! The accounts are in a mess, the payments have not been made for several months, the invoices are late and the official annual results are to be submitted at the end of the next month. Not to mention the need to rewrite, to negotiate or to renew existing customer contracts, most of which are outdated, to update employee contracts, to purchase computers, to train the assistant in filing… etc. I work days, nights and weekends to get the agency back on its feet, while managing eighty people.

Although exhausted, I am happy. I am finally taking over operational responsibilities with all the hassles and unforeseen events that punctuate the life of company managers. I do not regret at all the golden retirement I just left. After three months at this grueling pace, my boss invites me to Singapore to, apparently, talk numbers. He asks me not to say anything to the Indonesian manager.

I get there with all the files, only to be told after a few minutes that they intend to close the agency, which has recently been losing money, and which has little prospect of development in the current crisis. They give me three months to work out all the details, which incidentally include putting eighty people out on the street!

They then invite me to eat at the restaurant of the Raffles, the mythical hotel of Singapore. Is it to avoid my having a crying fit in public that they take me to the poshest place in town? It is true that the range of a woman’s reactions to bad news can be very varied, as everyone knows.

I return to Jakarta very disillusioned, but ready to fight. This is not the time to feel sorry for myself, it is the time to find solutions!

The rupiah has been devalued four to five times in three months. With our income in local currency, my salary in dollars put the company on the red by itself. Additionally, the marketing duty I have to find contracts for the parent company is not relevant anymore in a country that has delayed or canceled most of its major projects. All that is left to do is to eliminate my position for the company to become profitable again.

Closing down would be very expensive, with severance payments far exceeding the company’s assets, which are limited to a few computers and other toolboxes. Moreover, Indonesia will not easily forgive those who have abandoned it and this will damage the parent company’s reputation. So I contact them to show them that selling or even giving the company to our partner is the best solution, which will cost much less while saving the jobs. They seem to be interested in the idea, and will think about it.

Indonesia and Asia in general are going through a major crisis. For some time, the number of beggars at the crossroads has increased tenfold. Wages have not increased due to the devaluation of the rupiah, while everyday prices have followed the dollar. With uncompensated unemployment, the same salary must now feed three times as many mouths as before with the cost of basic necessities substantially higher. The situation is explosive. We are trying to help as much as we can with what seems to be a very small amount of money. It is not the few bags of rice that we distribute to charitable organizations that will change the situation. This only serves as a way to ease our consciences. At least I can fight to save my employees, who have no chance to find a job in the current situation.

When my boss comes to visit us to give us his decision, my letter of resignation is ready and sitting on the desk. I will hand it to him if he maintains his decision to close the agency. In this volatile country, it is out of the question that I become accountable for the loss of work of eighty Indonesians and two expatriates for a company for which I worked for only three months. My decision is as much to avoid being the target of a horde of employees as to preserve what remains of my conscience by not endorsing a decision I disapprove of. Finally, the verdict is in: they have decided to hand over the company to our partner and offer me a three-month bonus for my help.

I am about to go hunting for jobs again. At least my resume is quickly updated this time.

A few days later, David meets with his personnel manager who, having met me in Nigeria, asked him about me. David informs him of my situation. It was a Friday. On Monday, I have an interview in their offices.

They offer me a consulting contract.

COMPANY…. Here I am!

But I’m not done with my previous job yet. I spend the next two weeks finalizing my biggest ongoing projects in progress to get files in order for the partner. I turn down his offer to work part-time for half the salary (a rather innovative concept in the role of branch manager). I secure the future of my expatriates and give myself a weekend off before returning to my new job.

They have just undergone a huge reorganization and I was recruited to help with the transition. I am in charge of various topics, mainly related to purchasing. This means federating all the contracts under a single entity and taking advantage of this to renegotiate the prices. Among other things, I am in charge of the management of the expatriates’ houses (about a hundred), the renegotiation of office contracts and their redesign to adapt to the new organization. I am very happy to be back in this exciting job.

But the situation in the country is deteriorating rapidly. The population can no longer bear to suffer more each day and to see that their leaders, first and foremost the family of the dictator Suharto, continue to live on an indecent amount of wealth.

On a morning like any other, we are asked to evacuate the offices immediately. The riots of May 98 have just started. Fortunately, Jayadi is still working for me. We go directly to the school to get the girls. The roads are crowded. Not really knowing what is going on, everyone has only one idea in mind: to get their children and go back to the shelter of their house.

Jayadi stops five hundred meters from the school, everything is blocked, we can’t go any further. I get out and finish the trip in a sprint. Apart from the traffic, everything seems calm, at least in this district, but anguish twists my stomach. Finally, I get to the doors of the school. Many people are blocking the entrance and I do my best not to become hysterical. I never lost my temper in the worst Nigerian situations, but I can lose all composure when it comes to my children. I manage to get the attention of the teachers who take my girls out. We run back to the car which has hardly moved and we can finally turn around to go home.

Finally, we arrive at the house, David is already back. It may sound ridiculous, but I feel safe here.

We are watching the situation unfolding on TV. Things look really serious and for the first time in my life, I am scared.

It is out of the question to venture outside, we do not know what the world looks like beyond the garden gate. Fortunately, we have large stocks of food and water that we have been saving up since the beginning of the tensions.

We are in permanent contact with the French Embassy and our company. The general order is to evacuate. The operational staff must stay, but this time, I am happy to leave, I do not want to expose my daughters unnecessarily.

The riots started on Thursday at noon. On Friday evening, our company had chartered a plane to evacuate four hundred people to Singapore. We were not part of these four hundred. We were unable to recover my passport, which was lost in the hands of the agent in charge of renewing the visa. The organizers sympathize, but they cannot afford to take care of my particular case and we have to manage on our own.

The situation becomes critical. The mornings are calm, however the demonstrations resume every afternoon and continue a good part of the night. The Chinese are the prey of popular vindictiveness. They are mainly blamed for having succeeded with their hard work where few Indonesians have tried. And for one very rich Chinese out of reach, they ransack dozens of small grocery stores and force hundreds of Chinese to give up a lifetime of work and leave empty-handed. Most pack only a few things into a suitcase and sell their cars at the airport for a pittance. For the moment, the rioters are not attacking other nationalities, but no one can predict how the situation will evolve and we must absolutely succeed in leaving.

On Saturday morning, we try to leave. The roads are completely empty. We have the impression of driving in a ghost town, with a few burned buildings and from time to time, at the corner of a crossroads, a tank. The atmosphere is heavy when we finally arrive at the embassy. All the staff are at their posts. What a relief! They understand the situation very quickly and provide me with a new passport in less than half an hour. They also promise to contact Air France and to organize our evacuation as soon as possible. Finally, there will be a representative of the embassy at the airport who will help me to go through immigration controls. It is true that presenting a blank passport as a French citizen can be a bit complicated.

We return feeling more serene and take the opportunity to observe the surroundings. The streets are still deserted. When we see a burned bank a few hundred meters from our home, we realize how close the riots have come to us. At home, we kill time as best we can, between watching CNN on a loop and having cocktails by the pool. We try to keep our spirits up so we don’t worry the kids. They aren’t aware of anything and are quite happy not to go to school and stay with their parents at home.

On Sunday, the Air France representative contacts us as agreed. He is astonished that a family with small children is still here and promises that the next plane will not leave without us. They divert a commercial plane from Kuala Lumpur to pick up the last of the nationals on Monday evening. It has been four days of waiting in this permanent stress. We leave the house early in the morning when the city is still quiet. David accompanies us to the airport. There is a crowd, there are still many people to evacuate. Everyone has made the same assumption and left home early to wait at the airport until the evening flight. We settle in as comfortably as possible to spend the day, the hardest part obviously being to keep the girls busy. When we finally board the plane, it has been fifteen hours since we left home.

When we arrive in France, journalists are at the airport. Exactly what I needed. It has been over thirty hours since we left and I have spent a good part of that time taking care of my daughters, not to mention the stress and lack of sleep of the last few days. I left my husband and all of our belongings behind. Although I was told that my husband’s safety was assured and that he would be evacuated if the situation got worse, I already regret leaving. When a journalist hides behind his microphone and sticks a camera in my face and asks me why I left Jakarta, I hesitate between contempt, anger or irony. I choose the latter and tell him I came back for the sales. A few silly questions followed by equally silly answers later, he abandons me to pounce on his next prey, who might be more cooperative. Another journalist is waiting for me, this time from the radio, who asks me more intelligent questions about Indonesian politics. I stay a few more minutes before I manage to slip away. I am exhausted, I just want to go home, or at least to any temporary shelter I can find.

The news is positive. Suharto, the Indonesian dictator, has resigned under pressure from the people on the street and the situation seems to be gradually returning to normal.

We move in with my father and his new partner. The house is small, the atmosphere electric and I just want to go back to Jakarta to join David. I pester my boss to allow us back. Most of the families have taken the opportunity to stay on vacation, now that school is out for the summer, but I want to go back. I am not at home in France, my home is where my husband, my children and my house are.

After two weeks, we finally get the green light. My projects were needing attention and my boss had no choice but to make an exception and allow me to return with the children. When I return, life has resumed and the situation seems almost normal. Between the companies that went bankrupt with the crisis, the development programs that were abandoned and the companies that threw in the towel following the last riots, the number of expatriates has been divided by five in a few months. The economic situation is very different, which puts the companies that stayed in a strong position and makes my job as a buyer very different and exciting.

A few months later, my boss changes and I don’t get along well with the new person. So, when David is transferred to Algeria on a rotating position, we think it might be time to relocate our home to France.

And here we are, back to square one.

July 1999

Conclusions, reflections