Jakarta attacks: Stoic street vendors a symbol of defiance
THE five hours of terror in Jakarta on Thursday saw the police force rising to the occasion with gun-toting heroism, a swift response and reliable measures that quickly restored the public's sense of security.
Shortly after the terror, netizens shared various hashtags and memes, sending the message to the world that "we are not afraid, we stand strong and we are brave".
Among the most popular memes, even more popular than the one of the "handsome cop", are ones featuring Mr Jamal the satay vendor. His fame rose after a netizen shared a picture of him fanning satay on his cart, stationed only "100m away" from the bombing scene where police officers had engaged in a prolonged shoot-out with the terrorists.
The netizen said the satay vendor kept grilling while customers kept coming. His picture has been reposted with comments like: "Keep Calm and Bakar Sate" (Keep Calm and Grill Satay) plus the hashtag #KamiTidakTakut (#WeAreNotAfraid).
Later, kompas.com interviewed Mr Jamal and his wife, Heni, who said that they were actually afraid when they saw people running in panic. "But then we remembered our satay cart and all the unsold satay, so we thought we'd better stay put," she said.
Another popular picture is of a fruit hawker, on foot, selling cut mangoes to military officers in the back of a formidable-looking armoured car maintaining guard at the bombing scene in Central Jakarta.
This and pictures of stoical cycling coffee vendors (affectionately known as "StarBike" in reference to the famous Starbucks coffee brand) doing business with police officers and bystanders at the scene have been made into memes with the same message: Look at these street vendors, we are not afraid, your terror failed.
Middle-aged Indonesians with good memories will recall that this is not the first time that street vendors - frequently evicted, marginalised and criminalised - have been lavished with affection by better-off citizens. Years after the Asian financial crisis in 1997, economists, laypeople and the government would laud the resilience of Indonesia's informal sector, which includes street vendors.
Their resilience, they said, helped buoy Indonesia's economy and pave the way for the economic rebound.
It seems the middle classes and policymakers think fondly of street vendors in times of crisis, including the everyday crisis of severe traffic jams, when many commuters appease their hunger by buying fried tofu or Chinese buns from such vendors.
But in times of peace, the informal sector becomes again the great unwashed, the unruly, the illegal, obstacles to Jakartans' dreams of transforming chaotic Jakarta into orderly Singapore.
Many citizens' complaints lodged in the crowdsourcing app Qlue are about vendors occupying street space (but oddly few about businesses in Kemang occupying designated residential areas).
Should Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama give the order, the very same military and police officers, who are actually regular customers of street vendors, would take their batons out and smash their carts if necessary.
On Thursday, hoax messages about explosions in Palmerah, Central Jakarta, circulated. A colleague who later passed Palmerah Market saw that the sidewalks, usually crowded with vendors, were empty.
She thought it was because of the bombing rumours but it was actually because of the presence of the officers of the Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) clearing the pedestrian facilities a few metres from the market.
The sharp rise in affection for street vendors so soon after the terror and their subsequent Internet popularity should remind Jakartans and policymakers that street vendors are an inseparable part of Jakarta life.
Don't marginalise them, but include them in the task of improving Jakarta. Don't evict them but manage and invest in them. Don't criminalise them but make them a partner in making Jakarta better for all, not only for the middle classes dreaming of Singapore.
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK