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Adam Smith in the traditional market

Deconstructing the Indonesian pasar

The dawn just barely cracks and a whirlwind of people have streamed in and out of the narrow alleys of an Indonesian traditional market, or pasar, as we call it here.
Wildly chattering chickens stuffed in rattan-made cages, stacked up high, are ready to be slaughtered, plucked, and sold on the spot. Today the chicken seller doesn’t budge: 27,000 rupiah (roughly $3) each. He won’t even shave a thousand rupiah for a seasoned bargainer. Demand is high on the eve of the Chinese New Year. Recognizing that he has the upper hand, the chicken seller is winning this centuries-old competition between buyers and sellers. Adam Smith’s “invisible” hand penetrates deep even in this medieval market. Nothing escapes the clutch of the law of supply and demand.
One will be hard pressed to find a list of prices in the pasar – There is no Twitter, no Facebook, – yet everyone seems to know how much this or that costs. News of today’s prices flow seamlessly through an elusive network of information spread by word of mouth.
For Indonesians, life revolves around the pasar. The daily trip to the market is a time-honoured ritual for Indonesian housewives, known for their tenacity in bargaining for good deals since they have to feed their families with what little budget they have. In the pasar the servility of Indonesian housewives is reversed. They become assertive, demanding, and often belligerent. After all, wasn’t it the women who opened the floodgates to the Russian Revolution, demanding bread for their families because they’d had enough of lining up obediently, only to find empty bakeries?
If you ever visit an Indonesian traditional market, you might find it to be a bewildering, disorganized mess. There is hardly any regulation, but things somehow work over there. You scratch your head, and so do people in the pasar. You ask them how things work here, they shrug their shoulders. It is the economic necessity that forces this chaos to function, albeit with creaks and screeches. At the end of the day, foods make their way from the humble counters of the sellers to the smoky kitchens of the homemakers.
In the past ten years, many mini- and mega-marts have been opened, yet the pasar remains a beehive of activity in Indonesia. Tradition still has a strong hold over people’s daily economic life, but just like any tradition, it is losing its grip in the face of fluorescent-lit and air-conditioned big-box stores. But the pasar is here to stay, if not because of tradition, then because of economic necessity. There is just a price level that the big-box stores dare not venture to match.
However, let’s not glorify pasar. Foreigners might think them to be “native,” “traditional,” a way of life to be preserved, but if you ask everyone there, they would want things to be improved. A rat-infested pasar is not something to be proud of. Adam Smith’s “invisible” hand cannot possibly untangle this mess. A firm, directed hand, and one which is visible to the people, is needed, and it should be the hands of those petty traders and housewives – rough, scaly, dark, from years of peddling, hawking, and handling food.

Ted Sprague is currently in Southeast Asia. You can follow his adventure through this column or his blog