Monday, March 10, 2014

What a Tangled Web We Weave

Indonesia's Internet is increasingly becoming a free-speech battleground 

Issues surrounding that old chestnut, freedom of speech, have started to make waves across the globe over the last few years. The reason that this time-honoured benchmark of democratic freedom is once again becoming a front-line political battleground is the all-conquering reach of the Internet and our new social media.

In recent years, autocratic Arab governments have been toppled and rioters have taken to the streets to terrorise England and in both cases, Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger had major roles to play. So when exactly does Internet use become a public menace? What can be considered defamatory and libellous in our wired world? Is it government's role to be putting checks and balances on the new connectivity? Are politicians simply superannuated, nation-state dinosaurs running scared of the new light-speed social currents that zap like digital pinballs around nodes of common interest? Are we headed for Julian Assange's nightmarish vision of an Orwellian future?


Indonesia has had its own dilemmas to grapple with vis-à-vis the new social media paradigm of course. On the one hand, Indonesians are possessed of a natural sociability that has seen them take to these technologies like ducks to water. Indonesia has 43.1 million Facebook users (making it the world's third-largest population of Mark Zuckerberg disciples) and BlackBerry Messenger reigns supreme here, despite these devices currently facing collapsing sales around the rest of the world.

On the other hand though, Indonesia’s still relatively autocratic, paternalistic and, above all, corrupt political and judicial systems have been left floundering by the new so-called "hacktivism" and there have been plenty of techno flashpoints of late that have made those in power seem rather lugubrious and heavy-handed.

Virtual alarm bells first started ringing a few years back when Indonesian mother-of-three, Prita Mulyasari, was handed down a suspended jail sentence for libelling Tangerang's Omni Hospital in an e-mail that she sent to a group of her friends expressing her dissatisfaction with the hospital's service. Everyone from freedom-loving Facebook fans to highflying lawyers sprang to Prita's defence, arguing that criticism of public or private services most certainly doesn’t constitute liable.


The country's draconian ITE (Electronic Transactions Law) would suggest otherwise however. Controversial Communication and Information Technology Minister, Tifatul Sembiring, has stated that there are five boundaries in the cyber world that the ITE outlines should not be crossed, and these pertain to issues of pornography, gambling, threats, fraud and blasphemy. However these five deadly virtual sins also include information and posts that may, "disturb the public," or which, "attack or offend public figures."

Mr. Sembiring, a member of the Islamic-leaning Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has proved a polarising figure during his time looking after the country's information superhighway and has often been ridiculed for his censorious approach to the newly connected Archipelago. After a failed and ultimately rather futile attempt to keep Internet pornography from polluting Indonesian waters, Mr. Sembiring has more recently, and rather ominously, turned his attention to the country's avid Tweeters.

After learning that Twitter is filled with anonymous accounts that are often used to insult and attack other users, Sembiring stated that such rogue Tweeters could find their accounts being shut down and has even threatened that they could also have their devices and positions traced with a view to prosecuting them. Mr. Sembiring has also been pressuring RIM, makers of the ubiquitous BlackBerry, to set up servers in Indonesia, as those millions and millions of BlackBerry messages currently travel to their recipients via RIM's Canadian servers, well beyond the grasp of elite Indonesian political control, scrutiny and censorship.

This latter initiative is perhaps revealing of the fear that really underlies Indonesia's still pretty autocratic political elite’s stated concerns about libellous posts that, "disturb the public." The Arab Spring has seen the rise of so-called "citizen journalism" and mobile-phone cameras are now regularly used to document abuses of power. The use of social media to organise popular dissent through channels that completely circumvent traditional government information filters and controls has also proved crucial.


The Arab Spring has undoubtedly been spectacular, however there are also dangers involved in the greater free speech and popular organisation that the web promises. Alas, our new networked, free-thinking paradigm has the potential to crash into the immovable object of Indonesia’s traditional, long-held beliefs with a loud clatter. The recent case of Alexander Aan is a case in point. Mr. Aan posted the phrase, "God does not exist" up on his Facebook wall and subsequently survived a mob attack before being taken into custody by the West Sumatra police and charged with blasphemy.

The still-pretty-inchoate Internet so often acts as a mass vanity-induction device, a huge ego-feeding mechanism that encourages self-congratulatory, mutual backslapping between those who share opinions and tastes. The inverse is also true, and the net is also filled with abrasive but equally self-congratulatory broadsides and abuse that are directed against those that would dissent from one's cherished pearls of wisdom. This is the downside of the Internet. However it is becoming increasingly clear that the web can also be a space for public exchange, free debate, expression, organisation, enquiry and activism, a space that still evades society’s normal systems of information control.

All opinions find a voice on the Internet, which perhaps ill suits traditional notions of Indonesian hegemony, harmony and consensual decision-making. As the web continues to spread its tentacles throughout the country though, Indonesians are getting to hear voices and opinions that they've never previously been exposed to before. Give a man a mask and he'll tell you what he really thinks, or so the old saying goes. Give him an anonymous and untraceable computer terminal though and you won't be able to shut the fellow up.


The new digital debating club challenges imposed wisdom and the specious harmony that masks a sea of social ills, and the Indonesian boat is currently being rocked by these new technological currents. It could get rough out there but nothing less than a transformation of Indonesia's collective consciousness is up for grabs as we steer towards oceans new.

Public Image Limited

The capital has a woeful amount of public space to offer its citizens, who are instead usually to be found taking sanctuary down in its shopping


Let's not mince words here, Jakarta is in dire need of public space and parks for its citizens to unwind in. Now admittedly a certain amount of progress on this issue has been made over the last few years and parks such as Taman Tebet, Taman Menteng and Taman Aydoya, for example, have been spruced up in an attempt to offer the city's residents some non-retail-based respite. However these parks are but a drop in the ocean given the city's eight-digit population and given a 2007 spatial-planning law which states that Jakarta should dedicate at least 30 per cent of its total area to green space.

 This ambitious target is seemingly impossible to achieve without the demolition of a huge number of the shops, plazas, offices and private residences that cram this densely packed rabbit warren of a city, and so increasingly, the only option available is for people to traipse around privately owned shopping plazas and gawp at the goods on offer, while developing their own pathological addictions to conspicuous consumption.



A prime example of this phenomenon came last month when an enormous crush of people pushed, jostled, gnashed teeth, wailed and fainted outside the Pacific Place shopping mall in a bid to get their hands on the latest model of BlackBerry smartphone, which was being offered at half price. The expressions on these people’s faces as they shoved and shouted were no different from those worn by emaciated refugees as they fight over food aid. There are always new needs that need to be sated, and identity is now more defined by what you own than it is by what you are, think or do.

A moratorium on the issuing of permits for the construction of shopping plazas is now in effect. The city is already hyper-saturated with retail palaces though, many of which have been constructed to the detriment of public parks and spaces. As well as offering fresh air to the lungs, parks also have an important cultural role to play in offering a public sphere in which people can mingle and socialize, external to the hyperactive demands of consumer commerce.

It's a tough ask though. If 30 per cent of the city's total area was turned into parks and public spaces, the results would clock in at around 650 square kilometres. Compare that with the park that surrounds Jakarta's National Monument (Monas), which covers a mere 0.8 square kilometres. Hmmm.


As well as parks, pedestrian space is also an important element of any modern metropolis’s public sphere. Alas however, most of the city's pavements are filled with parked cars and food stalls, and pedestrians and their green use of bioorganic leg power are all too sadly stacked at the bottom of the pile in this heaving city.

Citizens of other cities around the world though think nothing of a 20-minute stroll down to the shops or to their local subway station. This is largely due to the fact that it's possible to complete such journeys without tripping over, falling down a manhole, being forced into the road to play chicken with endless motorcycles or otherwise being asphyxiated, shouted at, tapped up by primary-school beggars or scalded by flying fried rice. Recent attempts to clear the sidewalks of such obstructions have been, to say the least, rather halfhearted, and so the inveterate walker faces an uncertain future.

One doesn't have to leave the country to find more positive pedestrian scenes however. In Java's lush countryside, school kids think nothing of cycling or walking for kilometres through verdant palm trees and paddy fields to get to their schools. In Jakarta's urban jungle however, trying to negotiate oneself through the city's chaotic Brownian motion on foot is perhaps not unlike walking along the pavements of a more-organised metropolitan environment having drunk five bottles of Bintang.

All of these problems, the commercialisation of public space, the difficulty of pedestrian travel and the lack of green areas, all serve to alienate and isolate the city’s comparatively well off, with their cars and credit cards, from the city's bustling but impoverished street life and thus the deep wound of Jakarta’s yawning income chasm is never challenged by the soothing balm of trans-class interaction and pollination.

Yes, Jakartans love their shopping malls but they represent something of a consumerist, self-fulfilling prophecy. If people have nowhere else to go in their leisure time other than such places, then where are they going to end up? If someone had the vision and bravery to build a sports centre, a theatre, an art-house cinema, or even a park, basically anything one step removed from the need to turn an instant return on one's investment, are we to believe that no one would go to them? Perhaps, a thousand years hence, cyborg archaeologists and anthropologists will unearth the remains of Jakarta's great plazas, along with petrified Starbucks beakers and fossilised mobile phone casings and pontificate on what strange religion their ancestors practised in these places. I have seen the future, and it is latte coloured. January sales anyone?


Friday, February 07, 2014

Hit & Miss

The Miss World circus came to Bali recently to a predictable storm of controversy

Last September 28, 137 comely young ladies flew over to Bali in order to participate in the legendary Miss World beauty pageant. While on the Island of the Gods, these fine bodies of women paraded around, showed off their dazzling pearly whites and expressed their hopes for either world peace or whirled peas. Alas (or thankfully, depending on your attitude to these things) these glamorously gregarious princesses didn't get to don any bikini-esque swimwear this year, due to a predictably splenetic outcry from the country's hardest of hardcore Muhammadans, and instead dressed in slightly more conservative sarongs.


Indeed, the most recent Miss World competition was originally supposed to have been held at the Sentul International Convention Center, which is located just outside of the city of Bogor in West Java. Bogor has proved to be a veritable hive of fundamentalist activity in recent years though (with the accent being placed firmly on the mentalist) and Christians and other Muslim sects have borne the brunt of the radicals' wrath, occasionally at the cost of their very lives.

And so, following threats and various furious proclamations from such organisations as Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia and the perhaps-not-particularly-well-named Islam Reformist Movement, as well as our old friends the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the competition was eventually moved over to the predominantly Hindu island of Bali. The bikini ban remained however.


This is perhaps indicative of the power that these organisations now wield over public life here, as what could be more normal than wearing a bikini in Bali? Well, going totally topless perhaps, as used to be the cultural norm among Balinese women before Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, issued a decree forcing them to cover up their assets in the 1950s, thereby bringing to an end a 1000 year tradition and initiating a whole new one, namely shame at their own voluptuous nakedness.

This isn't the first time that sexual prudery has nipped a mass-entertainment event in the bud in Indonesia in recent years though. Scantily clad pop superstar Lady Gaga, for example, was forced to cancel a Jakarta concert when Muslim hardliners threatened to torch the venue. Again though, as with Bali's breasts, it should be pointed out that placing the blame on Western moral degeneracy is to ignore Indonesia's own sensual traditions, such as the cleavage revealing kebaya that Javanese women have traditionally worn. Conversely, the increasing numbers of local ladies choosing (?) to wear the Islamic hijab, jilbab or even full burkas are submitting to an imperative that is as much cultural import as Gaga herself is.


Perhaps though it would prove instructive to take a brief look at the Miss World website at this point. Apparently, the competition has been going since 1951. The site also reveals that, "In 1980, the major changes in the Miss World judging process were implemented. For the first time, personality and intelligence came into the evaluation and, of equal importance was that vital statistics were no longer deemed vital."

Well, I think that I would be viewing this claim somewhat sceptically if I were you, taking the lack of 200lb Ph.Ds. in the contest as prima facie evidence. The official Miss World website also tells us that the competition has mainly been organised by the late Eric Morley's Mecca Leisure Group (sometimes life seems to throw up ironies so delicious that there simply has to be a God).

Times change though. Gender politics civilise societies and the upshot has been the feminists who started taking a swipe at Miss World in the early ’70s. Here's a quick challenge for you, dear readers. There follows two quotes on the subject of Miss World. Your task is to decide which one was uttered by a feminist and which by an Islamic preacher.

Number one: "Beauty pageants’ process of judging women by their physical attributes is deeply offensive and damaging to women's dignity."

Number two: "Raise your voice against this appalling offence against women. Beauty pageants treat women as if they were objects that can be compared and judged."

Taken your best shot? Good. Well I can reveal that the first quotation comes from a spokesman for the MUI (Indonesian Council of Ulema), while the second featured in a statement made by the feminist group, Object. How did you get on?


Superficial similarities between these two pronouncements aside though, I think it's fair to say that the claims made by fundamentalist Islamic males that they are looking after women's best interests have to be viewed in the context of honour killings, full body-and-face coverings, educational disenfranchisement, genital mutilation, polygamy and poor old Malala Yousafzai and Aesha Mohammadzai (Google those names if you are unsure).

Fundamentalist religion of this Saudi/Afghan flavour seems to be on the rise in Indonesia and poses a real challenge for the government here (which is, to say the least, not rising to meet that challenge or even enforcing the law properly). Indonesia also passed a pornography law a few years back which sets the public-indecency bar very low indeed. Although, given the tsunamis of filth that spill forth from the Internet these days, perhaps such a law is a rearguard action in an ultimately losing battle (and let's be clear here that Jakartans at least are vociferous consumers of web and DVD naughtiness).

Fundamentalist religion does seem to lavish an inordinate amount of attention on issues of sexuality, given the wars, famines, poverty, disease and potential environmental collapse that currently stalk the globe. Whether it's purple-faced Islamic preachers or fire-and-brimstone American Baptists (all men of course), sexual guilt and repression have galvanised the most faithful of the faithful and supplied monotheism is with its neurotic energy ever since men and women first learned to walk upright and found that their hands fell to a natural resting position next to their genitals.

All of those bearded young men clutching rifles in one hand and copies of the holy book in the other, sublimating their sexual tensions through militaristic fervour, all of those "celibate" priests touching up little boys, are surely in the grip of some kind of dark energy that doesn't inspire humankind's better nature. And so, whither Miss World in this demonic cesspool of human sexuality? Well, for me, in 2013, it all seems somewhat quaint and amusingly old-fashioned, but my heathen arse is surely going to hell in any case.


Free


Indonesia is 68 years young

Indonesia is into its silver-haired years and celebrated its sixty-eighth Independence Day last August 17. The last few Independence Day celebrations have fallen during the fasting month of Ramadan and have thus been somewhat muted affairs as a consequence. Hari Merdeka (Freedom Day) emerges out the other side of the religious tunnel in all of its glory this year however and promises to be the riot of colour, noise, fun and games that Indonesians know and enjoy so much.

Indonesian independence was officially proclaimed at 10am on Friday, August 17, 1945. The 1945 Proclamation of Independence (Proklamasi Kemerdekaan) was signed by Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, who were appointed President and Vice-president the following day. This declaration was only the start though, the beginning of a long campaign of diplomacy and armed resistance that finally culminated in the country's colonial masters, the Dutch, officially acknowledging Indonesia's independence in 1949.


The Proclamation of Independence had been carefully prepared and planned a few months earlier, however the whole thing was hastily brought forward to August 17 as a consequence of Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies following the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. If you're interested in this history, then head down to the Museum of the Declaration of Independence, which you will find on Jl. Imam Bonjol 1 in Jakarta, housed in the very building in which the declaration was actually signed.

These days, the country's Independence Day is still celebrated with great enthusiasm all across the Archipelago. Red and white flags are sold weeks in advance, decorations are put up at private offices and government buildings, political journalists churn out op-eds about the country's progress over the decades and the challenges that lie ahead in the future, neighbourhood associations and organisations plan special events and parties, TV shows get all historical and school kids have a general whale of a time.

Games are enjoyed at street parties across the country too and include krupuk (cracker) eating contests, three-legged races, tasty snacks, decorated floats and plenty of general tomfoolery. The best-known Independence Day game though is called panjat pinang and involves competitors attempting to scale slippery, specially greased poles and palm trees in order to reach prizes which hang suspended from their tops.


Meanwhile, up at the Presidential Palace, the big man himself delivers a State of the Nation address and is present at a solemn flag-raising ceremony attended by the military, all of whom have polished their shoes and buttons to an extra dazzling patriotic shine for the occasion. If you are really looking to experience Independence Day in full swing, then head up to the National Monument (Monas) and the adjacent palace and witness August 17 in its full pomp and circumstance.

If you're not too keen on dragging yourself all the way up there, then just take a stroll around your local neighbourhood and soak in the fun sights, sounds and indeed tastes of Freedom Day. One important piece of advice though, don't leave it too late. One of the things perhaps most worthy of admiration about this country is the ability of its citizens to get up at the crack of dawn or even earlier and the August 17 fun tends to be over by lunchtime.

So, tempting as it may be to enjoy a lie in on this national holiday (especially this year, as Independence Day falls on a Saturday morning after a potentially heavy Friday night), we would encourage you to set your alarms and join in the fun. You won't regret it.

Just what does August 17 mean to Indonesians these days though? Well, I thought that it would prove instructive to head out onto the streets with my trusty dictaphone and ask a few people for their views.

Starting at the higher end of the social spectrum, one young professional told me, "I'm not sure if Independence Day has the same significance that it once did for people. I think that Indonesians are more uncertain about the country now and about the different forces that are competing as we head into the future. Also, people have a greater access to information now in this digital age and this also is eroding people's perhaps rather one-dimensional, simplistic sense of nationalism."


Highfalutin stuff for sure. Another of my interlocutors, a Miss Weni, told me that, "Of course Independence Day is important but in 68 years, Indonesia has not really been able to develop itself to the level that it could reach as a nation, largely due to misuses of power I believe."

Later that day, my motorcycle taxi driver told me that, "The kids still love the games and it's good fun to have a national day but I think that people are more suspicious of their government these days."

And the ambivalence continued as I headed into my local minimart for some liquid refreshment, where a customer that I quizzed about Indonesian independence informed me that, "We should remember our struggles for freedom, as there are those in the country today who are sowing the seeds of conflict, division and religious intolerance."


So there we have it. A small cross-section admittedly but clearly feelings of nationalism seem somewhat tinged by nervousness and uncertainty here in 2013, 68 years into the great Republic of Indonesia project. This is probably a reflection of an economic boom that is still masks weak and corrupt political institutions, underdeveloped human resources and infrastructure, persistent poverty and a poor education system. Whether the country will improve after next year's presidential election will depend on who is elected. Fingers crossed for 2014 folks.

A Quarter of a Million Flowers Bloom

I've been given the onerous task of composing this month's Afterthought and of offering up a Westerner's "perspective" on the state of the country as Independence Day rolls around for the sixty-eighth time. Why onerous? Because, like all attempts to pigeonhole people by their skin colour or geographical origin, I find the very concept to be flawed. I am a Westerner, granted, and have lived in this country for some years now, however my perceptions and conclusions have often differed from those espoused by other "bules" that I have met on my travels, and thus any concept of a Western perspective should be taken with a pinch of salt.


And surely the same thing applies to the notion of a unifying Indonesian perspective, as flags ascend poles and lip service is paid to freedom across the archipelago this month. Patriotism can be seen in this context as a flag being drawn over the real issues that matter to people here: inequality, social justice, women's rights, poverty, sectarian turmoil and a kleptocratic political elite who promulgate an agenda of so-called transnational “globalisation”, which essentially amounts to the world's powerful governments pushing trade deals and other accords down the throats of the people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the globe without having obligations to the people of those nations. Far easier to salute the flag than to address that little lot.

Proud to be Indonesian or American or Chinese on a priori grounds? Well being born in a certain country isn't a skill, it's a genetic accident. As the legendary George Carlin explains, "You wouldn't be proud of having a predisposition for colon cancer." Far better that people take pride in things that they've actually done and of how they comport themselves in a moral way.


Such knee-jerk nationalism is propagated all over the world though. Even in America, for example, the so-called “Land of the Free”, the term anti-American is often bandied about willy-nilly. This is a very odd category indeed to be pressing into service in a supposedly democratic country which embraces the concept of free speech, and is basically a phrase that is totalitarian in nature. I mean, the Soviet Union had a concept of anti-Sovietism, while the fascist Brazilian generals in the 1970s had a notion of anti-Brazilianism, through which they terrorised the population into marching in lockstep. But try going to Sweden and talking of anti-Swedenism. People will laugh at you.


The primary goal of such my-country-right-or-wrong rhetoric is to divert people away from pressing their demands in the political arena and from gaining a deeper understanding of how political power can change and how it affects their lives. And indeed it does change. Indonesia's first president, Soekarno, alongside colleagues such as Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, were the men primarily responsible for declaring Indonesia’s independence in the first place, and they offered a political blend of Islamic-tinged socialism that differs wildly from the Indonesia of today.



Espouse the ideas of these founding fathers at any point since the CIA-backed rise to power of Suharto through to the present though and you're more likely to feel the jackboots of the organisations examined in Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-tipped "The Act of Killing" on your throat. So what does it then mean to be a patriotic Indonesian? Social justice? Democracy? These values are indeed enshrined in the country's "five moral principles" of Pancasila, principles that people still learn by rote in the country’s schools to this day. Simply waving flags once a year will not help to strengthen values such as these though, values which are, in fact, truly universal.

Balls

No fewer than three English Premier League clubs came to town as part of their pre-season warm ups last year

"He's football crazy, he's football mad, football has gone and robbed him of the sense he ever had." So run the lyrics of a popular British song from the 1960s, which is perhaps an appropriate summation of a phenomenon that has now gone global and extended its muddy tentacles all the way over to Indonesia. Perhaps this sporting hypothesis accounts for the hundreds of rowdy local Arsenal and Manchester United fans that I encountered watching all of the big-screen action down at Kemang's new Lippo mall recently.


Indeed, so authentic was the Premier League, big-screen, nonton-bareng (watch-together) atmosphere, that my companion and I even feared a spot of British hooligan fisticuffs from the bunch of local Man. U. fans filled with lager-fuelled bonhomie who spilled out onto the street post game. The EPL has well and truly arrived in a city that lies a full 12,000km from England’s grey and unpleasant land, which is some serious air miles to be putting in if you’re attending home games. That’s 19 home games per season multiplied by 12,000km each way, which is 465,000km. Greater than the distance to the moon in fact.

Well these chaps could save their bonus air miles this month, as three of the most famous football clubs in the world, namely Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, pitched up in Jakarta to play a series of pre-season friendlies last July and to no doubt also shot a flurry of spray-on deodorant commercials while they they were in town, a full four years after Manchester United cancelled their Jakarta trip due to the (second) Marriott hotel bombing.  

Arsenal arrived first, on July 14, followed by Liverpool on July 20 and finally Chelsea on July 25. These legendary EPL clubs played against (and obviously thrashed the pants off, despite the games amounting to a gentle warm up for the three sides in question) an Indonesian 11 down at Bung Karno Stadium in Senayan and were afforded the opportunity to generate a little revenue whilst also enjoying some PR spin and pleasing local fans who usually only ever see their heroes on television.


Indonesia itself has aspirations to host the World Cup at some point and 2022 has been mooted, although maybe 2822 would be a more realistic date to aim for. FIFA, the sport's governing body, has long been mired in allegations of financial impropriety and when combined with Indonesia's own brand of seemingly boundless endemic corruption (which has most recently revolved around the construction of a sports stadium, funnily enough) it perhaps doesn't bode well for the Indonesian people themselves actually gaining much from such a tournament.

Major world sporting events have now become highly corporatised affairs. FIFA basked in USD 631 million in profits after the last World Cup in South Africa and it's not difficult to understand why. The organisation first gets the host nation to stump up for new stadiums and infrastructure before moving in for the tournament proper and setting up a corporate state-within-a-state, in which only official partner products are allowed to be sold. This is presumably why I was left supping on dishwater-bland US Budweiser whilst watching matches in Cape Town during the last World Cup finals, whilst everyone else in the city not at the games could enjoy the far tastier local suds. More recently, in Brazil, hosts of next year's World Cup as well as the next Olympics, national-football-legend-turned-politician Romario has broken ranks in order to question the whole corporate ethos of the modern sporting spectacle.

Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool played against a national 11 last year and it’s fair to say that the Indonesian national team are no Brazil. Indeed, the local game is in a real mess at the moment, despite the tremendous enthusiasm that exists for football in this country. A romantic view of poverty and football is often trotted out with regard to Brazil, namely the notion that starting off in some favela shantytown kicking a tin can around the streets imbues one with some kind of Nietzschian footballing will to power and puts soccer steel in the soul. Well, if that were all it took, then Indonesia would be multiple world champions by now, instead of being routinely thrashed six-nil by miniscule Middle Eastern oil protectorates.


At the other end of the economic spectrum, the English Premier League has gone into global overdrive over the past decade, with the money side of the game spiralling to absolutely absurd levels. Players salaries have inflated massively and the clubs that have to pay them thus suffer from a kind of prune-juice effect, as revenues generated immediately slide out the back door and into centre forwards' bank accounts.

In order to bankroll all of this largesse, oligarchs and mega-rich consortiums have moved in, the kind of people who will presumably be first against the wall when the Occupy movement storms the ramparts in its silly "V for Vendetta" masks. Chelsea, for example, are bankrolled by one Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who rose to riches on the pinstriped-gangster wave of the post-Soviet 1990s. Meanwhile, newly minted Manchester City is funded by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour, who apparently sits on a family fortune of USD 1 trillion.

More deeply though, does vegging out on a sofa watching people kicking a ball around, an event of absolutely zero importance with regard to the political realities of people's day-to-day lives, actually have any value? Perhaps, as has been suggested, spectator sport is a crucial part of our social-indoctrination systems. It gets people paying attention to something of no importance whatsoever and also builds up feelings of irrational jingoism and group cohesion behind leadership elements.



“Bah humbug!” I hear you cry. Well, I have to confess that I was cheering and blowing my South African vuvuzela into the earholes of local Arsenal fans last July 14. The Indonesian national side may not be packing many budding Lionel Messis, however the atmosphere down at Gelora Bung Karno can be quite electric on match day. Shouting, chanting, lighting illegal flares, enjoying Mexican waves and a little light pick-pocketing can all be yours. Admittedly, these three games were held in the middle of the fasting month but this didn't seem to put a damper on the atmosphere too much. 

Yes We Can?

Time for a quick progress report on Jakarta’s new governor

Jakarta's very own caped crusaders, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and his trusty sidekick Basuki "Ahok" Purnama Tjahaya, scorched into town aboard their governor’s Batmobile on the back of a historic election victory in 2012 and there were high hopes that our new Governator would draw the line under the corruption, indolence and Machiavellian rent seeking of previous administrations. There is simply no time to lose though, as the capital's infrastructure can be described as moribund at best, and at worst about half a century behind where it should be.

Inaugurated last October to much fanfare, the former Mayor of Solo set reformist pulses a fluttering from the get go by busying himself with the Indonesian capital's multidimensional problems, breathing a breath of fresh air into the stale Bajaj fug of City Hall in the process.



But just how has Jakarta's very own Obama fared over the last year plus? Has he brought rebirth and renewal to the nation's capital or has he proved to be as disappointingly conservative and beholden to entrenched interests as that still-quacking lame duck, the former Barry Soetoro? Let's take a closer look…


Prices

Our man has busied himself visiting local markets in order to check on the prices of staple goods. Jokowi is also liaising closely with Jakarta's Co-Operative, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Trade Agency and is listening to vendors’ concerns. By his own admission though, controlling prices will be a tough nut to crack. Plans to renovate and modernise the city's wet markets are all well and good, however recent price spikes and a forthcoming reduction in fuel subsidies and its accompanying inflation will mean more pain for the poor.

Transportation

Three more busway corridors are planned for the city and these ones will be elevated in an attempt to alleviate congestion (as opposed to actually exacerbating congestion as the current busway lanes arguably do). One hundred and two badly needed new busway buses were also recently christened.

The real question though is when the capital's MRT project will finally steam out of platform one. Jokowi has very wisely put the whole scheme under the fiscal microscope, as the potential for graft and corruption on mega infrastructure such as this is colossal. Indeed, the steepness of the proposed Rp. 110 trillion price tag that comes with this project borders on the perpendicular.

Ultimately, this MRT scheme is going to need some heavy backing from central government. The city budget is hoping to provide around 60 per cent of the funding needed for the project with the government providing the rest of the money in order to repay a loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Jakarta remains the largest city in the world not to have its own MRT system and journeys by car across the capital can now be measured in geological time. Fingers crossed folks!


Healthcare

Jokowi set up the Jakarta health-card programme upon taking office and this aims to offer free healthcare to the poor. To date though, only a few thousand of a possible 4.7 million eligible Jakarta residents have received healthcare cards. Not only is the city administration short on funds for the printing of these cards but there are also obstacles to implementing the programme at the 17 hospitals and 200 designated community health centres across the capital. The administration has allocated Rp. 1 trillion for healthcare over the next year, however the new governor has come under fire from those who claim that his programmes are poorly planned and underfunded.

Flooding

Jakarta has once again turned into Atlantis this current wet season and climate change, combined with a literally sinking city, doesn't bode well for a dry future for the capital. President SBY has approved Jokowi's flood-prevention programmes, which include the relocation of riverbank squatters, the widening of rivers to increase the flow of water, construction of upstream reservoirs, a pump system in North Jakarta, a special "spillway" for the East Jakarta Flood canal and a system of 10,000 wells to absorb run-off water. In total, Rp. 250 billion has been allocated for flood prevention initiatives. Sounds good but these are long-term programmes and don't necessarily guarantee victory against that ubiquitous H2O. 2002, 2007, 2013? 2014? Brace yourself for next year once again folks.

Poverty

Jokowi has described social disparity as his biggest worry and one could drive a busway fleet side-by-side through the ever-widening gap that persists between Jakarta's haves and have-nots. Such a gap has its dangers, and the city's hyper-dense social pressure cooker risks blowing its top as it did back in 1998. Jokowi's healthcare and education programmes have been given top priority by the new governor, who shows a concern for poverty unmatched by both his predecessors and by the national government.

Social-welfare policies are an ideological hornet’s nest the world over, however there can be no question that Jakarta and its 360 slum areas have been severely neglected. Inaction on this issue is surely morally inadmissible and Jokowi represents a break with the past in a country that has largely ignored its poorest citizens since the days of the New Order regime.


Green Areas

Jokowi plans to double the city’s presently woeful lack of green space. Twenty per cent of Jakarta’s total area is the governor's ambitious first-term target and several projects are planned. It remains to be seen how he'll get on though as the economy booms and new malls and apartments spring up across town while land prices skyrocket and the pursuit of profit continues to trump all considerations of liveability.

Verdict


Governor Jokowi swept to power bearing the hopes of millions on his shoulders. His, "Yes we can," determination offered the city its best hope for the future since former-governor Ali Sadikin attempted to modernise the Indonesian capital in the '60s and '70s. How our man will fare as he locks antlers with the country’s nest-feathering political machine is still an open question but if the capital can't improve its infrastructure now, when the economy is booming, then when exactly can it? Onwards and upwards please.