“Ahok has nothing to do with us Medan Chinese. Our city has always been safe and harmonious. Even in 1998, yes, we had some incidents, but nothing like Jakarta. We all live peacefully here.”
Pak Darwin, a Chinese Indonesian, is a 48-year-old rice miller in Sunggal, a suburb of the North Sumatran capital. Speaking in Bahasa Indonesia with a spattering of Hokkien, the Teochew businessman is unsentimental when referring to the controversial, jailed former Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaha Purnama (“Ahok”).
I point out the incredible progress made in cities like Jakarta under Ahok and Surabaya in East Java under its dynamic mayor Tri Rismaharini but Pak Darwin responds blandly:
“The Javanese are easier to manage. Here in Medan, you have Bataks, Melayus, Javanese, Chinese, Indians. How are you supposed to handle them all?”
With more than 2 million residents, Medan is Indonesia’s fourth-largest city and the most populous outside Java. It is also one of the most diverse places in the Republic, with a 34 per cent Batak (most of them Christian), 33 per cent Javanese, 10.65 per cent Chinese, 8.6 per cent Minangkabau, and 6.59 per cent Malay ethnic breakdown.
This diversity has meant that uniting Medan’s different communities can be a daunting task.
Indeed, despite its substantial population, North Sumatra lacks the political weight of similarly-sized Javanese provinces (Banteng and Jakarta). With its fractured populace, the region’s leaders have often found it difficult to lobby for development funds.
These challenges are glaringly evident in the city’s terrible roads and infrastructure issues.
Pak Darwin’s family has been milling rice in Medan for three generations. Their operation may not last for a fourth.
“My grandfather came from China and bought this land for a rice mill. My father continued the business and then passed to me. This land is my family’s heritage.”
Pak Darwin is a man of few words. With his signature lime-green hat and towel around his neck, Pak Darwin (or “Ah Kheng” as he is called by his friends) walks me through the rice production process.
“You start by buying paddy from the tengkulak [agent], who collects it from farmers all over. We buy it at 4,200 rupiah (HK$2.5) a kilo.”
“Then you dry the rice in this machine for 10 hours. If the dryer is full, we leave the paddy out in the sun to dry”, he explains, gesturing towards a hulking machine two storeys tall.
“The dried paddy is then sent to another machine, which removes the husks. Then, a sifter separates the rice and husks into different containers. We keep the husks to give to farmers as fertiliser.”
“Finally, we take the rice and package it into sacks of 5,10,15, or 30kg each, then sell it to distributors at 9,000 rupiah a kilo. Vendors sell it at the market at 9,500 rupiah a kilo.”
Walking around the factory, I am struck by the cacophony of sounds. There is the constant hum of whirring machinery, bags of rice slamming against the hard floor, shuffling as the rice gets sifted, and Pak Darwin’s occasional shouts to his 15 workers. It’s a bustling place and more than once I had to swerve to avoid a rushing worker pushing a wheelbarrow of rice.
Producing 30 tons of rice a day, working from 8am to 5pm, the end product is delivered to markets all around Medan and within a 150km radius of the city.
It all seems very impressive, but Pak Darwin still feels increasingly left behind.
“I can’t compete with the big players. They have so much capital and they can hold huge stocks of rice and wait out the market. People are also buying a lot more imported rice from Thailand and Vietnam nowadays. Their rice tastes better and is cheaper,” he says matter-of-factly.
A father of two daughters, Pak Darwin has begun to think about the future.
He has four sisters and a 30-year-old younger brother who helps him with the business. I ask him what hopes he has for his children.
“It’s up to them. But not this. There is so much ash and dust in the factory. It’s hot, stuffy, and hard labour.”
“It’s important for me to give them education. I send my two daughters to private school so they can learn English and Mandarin every day. These two languages are equally important, so they can have a future outside this mill.”
What happens then to the mill, to their family heritage?
“I would rather give my daughters money than pass them the business. Let them do what they want, not work in a mill. It’s been in my family three generations now, but…”
His words trail off and he doesn’t finish his sentence.
I get a sense however, that if he could, Pak Darwin would stay with the familiar.
Pak Darwin doesn’t dream of travelling to far-off lands or escaping the factory life. He tells me that he’s happy here, like his father and grandfather before him. But the world around him is changing rapidly.
His sanguine outlook is perhaps reflected in North Sumatra’s relatively slow progress over the years.
Travelling to the rice mill in Sunggal from my hotel, I was struck by the city’s backwardness. While Medan has a toll road from the main Kualanamu airport all the way to Tebingtinggi, it’s easy to forget all that as I navigate the bumpy congested roads.
As multimillion dollar projects like renovations to the Medan port and a refurbished airport in nearby Silangit dominate the news, it’s important to remember people like Pak Darwin in Sunggal, who still struggle with basic infrastructure woes.
A local journalist explains: “There is a serious lack of public transport. If the situation continues, in 10 years Medan will have worse traffic than Jakarta. The capital’s transport system is improving every day with many new projects, while in Medan, the government hasn’t paid much attention to basic infrastructure and facilities.”
With gubernatorial elections looming next year, can Medan and by extension North Sumatra shake off its political funk? As the infrastructure improves significantly in Java, this once-thriving corner of the Republic could fall behind forever unless things change.