JAKARTA, 3 March 1998 -- Journalists are not immune from the crisis which is now hitting Indonesia. On a recent Sunday, my wife and I went to a big wholesaler looking for Enfapro baby milk powder for our one-year old son Norman.
Enfapro is a brand name milk produced by PT Sugizindo here under a licensing agreement with the U.S.-based Mead Johnson corporation. But we couldn't find any.
The huge Macro wholesaler, a subsidiary of the Dutch firm Macro which operates warehouse-like supermarkets in Indonesia, also displayed empty shelves. Not only baby milk, but also other items such as cooking oil, sugar, fruit juices and other brands of baby milk were nowhere to be found.
Other shoppers brought large carriages and carried off whatever was left in the store. We didn't, deciding instead to look for the milk at a nearby Hero supermarket. It is a smaller, middle-to-upper class chain supermarket located close to our house. But once again no Enfapro. Hero had more empty shelves.
We went to the WalMart on Tuesday, a huge supermarket operated by American managers, as well as the Mega M department store. But again we could not find Enfapro in either supermarket, both of which are controlled by tycoon James Riady the scion of the Lippo business group.
A manager at one of the supermarkets told us that not only Mead Johnson but also Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, three multinational corporations producing canned foods, shampoo and soaps, had already stopped supplying his store. "They cannot keep operating, as some of their materials are imported, such as the foil on the can," he said, adding that the expatriate supervisors and consultants, also paid in U.S. dollars, have already been sent home.
Mine is not the only family frightened by the sudden shortage of staple items in Indonesia. The Asian economic crisis has reduced the value of the rupiah by 300 percent against the American dollar since July, and many corporations have halted production.
Mass dismissals meant that more than 10 million workers have lost their jobs -- about five percent of the total population.
Dramatic scenes of people searching for staple foods and products are seen everywhere. Panicked housewives are spotted in supermarkets and traditional markets. Men drive across the vast metropolitan area just to help their wives to get the most-needed stocks.
One senior editor has even ordered his servants to plant cassava, a popular vegetable, in his garden. "It's like the Japanese occupation period," he smiled.
Rumors are circulating that the anti-Chinese sentiment is being deliberately fanned to divert public anger away from President Suharto.
Worse than that, in more than two dozen small towns across Indonesia, villagers protested against and attacked Chinese-owned shops because of price hikes. I went to Pasuruan, a small town about 500 kilometers east of Jakarta, for three days and interviewed dozens of villagers after one attack.
The straightforward villagers simply said that they could not afford the price hikes and blamed the Chinese traders.
"We watched television and the government said the prices are fixed and the stocks are enough. But why have these Chinese shop owners increased the prices?" said Muhammad Jamil, a 37-year-old farmer.
"Our income stays the same, but prices keep going up. If the prices come down, the problems will be solved. That's the solution. Just bring down the prices."
But bringing down the prices is not an easy solution. It is an extremely complicated matter. Unpaid foreign loans, rising exchange rates, less confidence toward the government, rivalry among government officials, and an aging president without an apparent heir are only a few of the complexities.
A merchant selling imported goods, for instance, who paid the U.S. equivalent of $1 for a product last June, today has to pay $3 or more for the same goods, if he can get them (some distributors will not accept any amount of rupiah for products because of the great uncertainty about its value).
If he sells what stocks he has at the June prices, he will not earn enough to replace them and will probably go bankrupt.
Rumors are also circulating that the anti-Chinese sentiment is being deliberately fanned by the military to divert public anger away from President Suharto and his family. It is widely known that the Suhartos have used their power to accumulate vast wealth reliably estimated at $16 billion.
But in a crisis like today's, even President Suharto, who has been in power since 1965 and is considered the most powerful man in Indonesia, doesn't have a solution. He has tried many different tactics to deal with the crisis and the market has always responded negatively.
Critics of the government say Suharto is part of the problem instead of the solution. One prominent exile even says that Suharto is the most corrupt head of state in the world.
But compared with those villagers, my small family should be considered fortunate. We still have some money. I can still write and sometimes some foreign news organizations ask me to write and pay me in foreign currencies.
But Muhammad Jamil, the farmer in Pasuruan, can only get 2,500 rupiah -- about $0.35 cents -- for a day's work in the fields under the scorching sun.
My wife also bought a two-month stock of Enfapro in December when its price increased from 12,000 rupiah per can to between 17,000 and 18,000.
Our son Norman usually consumes two 400-gram cans of Enfapro every week. And we still have eight more cans at home. Perhaps, after Norman finishes the eight cans, we should change his milk.
Now, like other Indonesians, we are just trying to ensure our own survival. My wife has decided to use less cooking oil. We mostly boil our food. We also dimmed the light in some of our rooms.
I have already asked our service station to give my car a tune-up to save gasoline. For a while there'll be no more shopping at the glittering Lippo mall, where Wal Mart and Mega M are located, no more sipping a superb Chinese tea in a corner of the shopping mall. Nobody knows what will happen in Indonesia. It is again the year of living dangerously.