Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Religion/ Capitalism

Well, Ramadan is nearly over (or actually over, depending on when this column gets to ruin another Sunday’s fun). The fasting month is a time for introspection, meditation and spiritual contemplation. However, there were precious little of these qualities in evidence down the shops last weekend. It was so crowded that I started to feel slightly claustrophobic and when it came time to break the fast the rice was flying around the food court like I don't know what.

Of course, everyone was preparing for the holiday by shopping, shopping and shopping some more. According to a story in last week's paper, crime has also been on the rise in this third week of Ramadan as people struggle to scrape enough cash together for a decent celebration. This is the other side of the holy month. An orgy of capitalist consumption only matched by Christmas in the developed West; a holiday during which we celebrate the birth of Christ, who died for our sins, by buying expensive video game consoles for the kids and eating colon stretching amounts of rich food.

There is nothing new in all of this though. Religion and money have always been bedfellows ever since medieval monks in Europe started selling absolution and bogus holy relics to kings and the rich and powerful at knockdown prices or since Islam was first spread across Asia by hard bargaining merchants. Nevertheless, Religion and capitalism are, at heart, two fundamentally opposed beasts.

Ethically, religion holds to altruism and self-sacrifice. Religious texts promote sacrifice for the public good and collectivism. The Bible and the Koran both stress the immoralities involved in the pursuit of profit margins. Ironically, in this ethical respect, religions mirror the views of Marxist atheists who also believe in social conscience, collectivist action and anti-capitalist politics. In the world of capitalism, however, the individual and his or her liberty and pursuit of happiness reigns supreme and religion is neither supported or opposed so long as its practice does not violate the civil rights of others.

America, the supreme example of a capitalist society, was not, as the George Bushes and Fox Newses of this world would have us believe, founded on the Christian faith. Its constitution is quite clearly secular and its founders were well aware of the dangers of religious dogma and of the need to protect the individual’s rights. Thomas Jefferson said of religion that, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods, or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." He also declared that America was to, "Keep within the mantle of its protection the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and the infidel of every denomination."

When the dominant religion makes inroads into capitalist, secular politics though, it manifests itself in greater government control of society. Examples of this are the Patriot Act and various other Big Brother imperatives currently being pushed by Bush and his disciples. In Indonesia, individual liberty is also under attack from religion’s push into politics. Those who would turn the country into one in which there are strong limits on personal freedoms, such as Saudi Arabia, are in the ascendancy.

Religion and capitalism are incompatible, both in theory and practice. On the plus side, religion strives for social equality and for a social conscience but is, by definition, socially authoritarian and repressive. Capitalism on the other hand is the complete opposite. The individual is socially free to pursue his own dreams and wealth but the system makes little provision for those who fall through the cracks in society's pavement as they struggle to make ends meet. When Religion and capitalism collide in the political realm, they only serve to pervert each other and the masses get to live in the worst of both possible worlds, i.e. no money and no social freedom.

If politicians here were really people of faith, they would be addressing the fact that, according to a recent Economist report, 18 percent and rising of Indonesia's population live in total poverty. In fact, the real figure is probably a lot more than this because, instead of trying to genuinely attack the huge wealth gap in this country's society, the politicians have instead massaged the figures and have moved the poverty definition goalposts to a mere Rp.152,874 a month. This is well below the widely used global benchmark of a dollar a day. In fact, it's estimated that 80 million Indonesians live in abject poverty, a figure more astonishing than if either George Bush or Yusaf Kalla were to pass through the eye of a needle.

Simon Pitchforth

Ding Dong the Bells Are Going to Chime

I had the opportunity to attend an Indonesian wedding last weekend, something that I haven't done in quite a while. An ex colleague of mine was getting hitched and she had had the presence of mind to actually remember old Mr. Metro and fire off an invite (via sms).

On the big day I couldn't find my one solitary Batik shirt, which I keep exclusively for weddings. It must have had it away with the laundry fairies at some point. In any case, I dressed as formerly as I could and then headed off for the free feed.....er... I mean to toast the couple at the start of their lifetime’s journey together.

Now your Indonesian wedding differs from your Western one in many ways. Most pertinently, there is usually no booze or dancing. This in turn means no inebriated best man trying to flick peanuts down the bridesmaids’ dresses, no embarrassingly revelatory drunken speeches and no grandma shuffling around the floor to an Elvis Presley number. So perhaps an improvement then.

I found BMWs jamming the road solid when I arrived in my tarif lama Korporasi taxi, resplendent in its handsome green and orange livery. One should always arrive in style. It's usually best to turn up at an Indonesian wedding reception about 30 minutes to an hour late in order to avoid the long-winded speeches. When you arrive you'll be asked to sign the marriage book and then be given a little memento of the event such as a key ring or a fan with the bride and groom's name printed on it. At this wedding though, the names of the happy couple were emblazoned on a shot glass which I was duly presented with by the charming young usherette. Times change huh? Alas, as expected, I found nothing to fill it with when I went inside. I deposited my traditional envelope of money, about enough for a couple of packets of Sampoerna cigarettes, and entered the reception hall.

First things first, at an Indonesian wedding one should, upon arrival, mount the stage and shake hands with the bride and groom and both sets of parents. Usually something along the lines of, "Er.. Hello….You don't know me but good on you," four or five times with a brief interlude in the middle to share a quick word with the person you actually know. The happy couple at my reception both looked fine in their traditional Javanese costumes.

Actually, I have to confess to finding Indonesia's normally very lovely women at their least attractive on their wedding days. The whole bridal look is stylized in the extreme and the white make up is caked on until the young lady's face resembles that of a department-store perfume counter girl or a British Airways stewardess. For a more Asian comparison, I guess there's something quite Japanese about the whole look; like a Geisha or one of those traditional masked dramas. The Javanese groom's appearance is also very stylized and actually quite androgynous. He'll often even be wearing a subtle smear of lipstick to accentuate his face. And don't even get me started on the hairstyles; out of this world.

After my formal greeting it was exit stage left to join the buffet queue. I selected carefully and didn't choose the steak or anything that needed cutting as I could see that there were about ten times as many guests as there were chairs, another common Indo. wedding motif. I served myself, picked up a glass of flat Cola and tried to juggle my meal in the corner of the hall. Still, at least I wasn't the one up on stage getting married. Indonesian couples seemingly have to stand up for hours on end on their wedding day, greeting people and smiling like champions. It's a wonder they have any energy left for...er... cooking.

I finished the really rather good food and hung about for a bit watching the photographers in action. There was no beer as I've said but that isn't necessarily always the case at these weddings. If a Western guy marries an Indonesian lady, he'll usually manage to have some stashed away somewhere for his mates. At least this was the plan when my friend Dave married his lady friend Yeni a few years back. Unfortunately, after the speeches, we headed to the back of the hall for our rendezvous with Mr. Bintang only to find that the assembled drivers had got there first. Yes, the Bapaks had quaffed the bloody lot. Whatever happened to the sanctity of marriage?

Simon Pitchforth

Friday, October 13, 2006

Island In the Stream

Singapore has been in the news this week, what with its recent general election, and so I thought that a bit of a piece on Indonesia's oft-visited near neighbour might be in order.

The island calls itself the Republic of Singapore although, in comparison with its expansive neighbor Indonesia, it's really little more than a sandbar.

Despite its diminutive size though, Jakartans and Indonesians are constantly (if they've got any money to speak of) hopping back and forth to the island-state in order to shop, visit world-class hospitals and clinics and generally to enjoy a bit of first world standard infrastructure and law and order before heading back to the chaos of this fair city.

After a stint in Jakarta, Singapore can indeed be appealing, for a few days at least, and people fly there in droves from Jakarta to worship at the altar of Southeast Asia's economic miracle.

As an expatriate in Indonesia, my experiences in the city-state come when I have to renew my work visa at the Indonesian Embassy there.

The usual saga involves disembarking at Singapore's monumentally huge and high-tech Changi airport and taking a ride into the city on a local bus. After about an hour, I am thoroughly seduced by the clockwork order, efficiency and cleanliness of the place.

Traffic runs fluently, pavements are smooth and level, litter is unheard of and the whole city actually seems to have been laid out according to some kind of logical plan.

Then I arrive at the Indonesian Embassy and am immediately plunged back into the pell-mell chaos of the motherland as I try to fill out a visa application in the cramped building and then join the free-for-all queues in order to pay the embassy staff the requisite "extra" money needed to facilitate a speedy processing of my papers.

After all that's over, there's a chance to bowl up and down Orchard Road, shopping and eating some great food.

Yes, Singapore certainly has been a huge economic success over the past 50 years or so, and partly for reasons that this country could do well to emulate.

It opened up free trade zones and allowed foreign companies to set up shop completely tax-free. The strategy worked and contrasts strongly with the tortuous minefields of bureaucracy, bribery and sleaze that foreign investors usually encounter over here.

However, Singapore is also a place I don't think that I could ever live in for any period of time and this is for a number of reasons.

On my first visit there, I was casually extinguishing a cigarette on the pavement when I was accosted by a policewoman with such fervor that I could have been molesting a child.

"You don't do this in Singapore!" she screamed with a nationalistic vehemence that put me at a loss for words.

This is the other side of Singapore, the Big Brother breathing down its citizens' necks, the autocratic nanny state that inflicts corporal punishment (caning) and imposes lists of rules and regulations in their thousands.

It's this regimented social hegemony and mind-set that disturbs Westerners and Indonesians alike.

'False democracy'

The various Mr. Lees that have run the country through the People's Action Party (PAP) have turned Singapore into a democracy as false as Indonesia's was under Soeharto.

Take the recent election for example. The PAP won 82 out of 84 seats, 37 of which were uncontested by any opposition at all.

The reason for this is that opposition politicians are perpetually hounded, victimised and sued into poverty for supposed defamation by the bellicose politicians who run things.

Orwellian thought control is pervasive and Internet bloggers have become the latest victim of Southeast Asia's Big Brother.

Political discourse is discouraged and when the republic decided to set up a Speaker's Corner in one of its parks (inspired by the one in London's Hyde Park, in which people stand and speak whatever is on their minds), they decided to build it next to a police station.

Indonesia now seems like a democratic utopia in comparison (albeit one that barely seems to function).

This Big Brother/thought crime mind-set that exists in Singapore produces not only the lovely policewoman who pulled me up short, but also a lack of great thinkers or artists.

Certainly none are springing to mind as I write this and I guess that there is little room for artists to manoeuver in the strict political and social hygiene of Singapore.

Singapore also, despite the huge economic wealth generated there, has no welfare system to help out its poorest citizens.

No economy exists in isolation, especially these days, and perhaps Singapore's wealth is partly propped up, if not on the poverty of its own citizens, then on the poverty of surrounding countries such as Indonesia.

One example of this are the many Indonesians involved in corruption who have fled to the island because it won't extradite Indonesian criminals back home.

So I'm afraid it's Jakarta for me every time in all its dirty, stinking, rioting, impoverished, chaotic, grid locked, overcrowded glory. Viva le Republic.

Back to Bali: Bombs, cocktails and surfers

BALI, 04 December 2005 - I managed to hop over to Bali for a few days last week in order to both soothe my metro madness and also to see how the old island was faring after the recent bombings. Lion Air did the honors for about Rp 900,000 return, which is pretty good value, I guess, although anyone hovering around the six-foot-tall mark will have a few comfort issues to deal with when trying to squeeze into their cattle-class seats. After 90 minutes with my knees around my chin we touched down at Ngurah Rai airport in the rain and a taxi whisked me down to Legian.

Tourist numbers are perhaps down, although there seemed to be a healthy amount of people on the beach: tanning, surfing, flirting and rubbing sunscreen into their firm, pert, young ... erm ...right. Anyway, a quick evening burn down to the main Kuta strip accompanied by my trusty South African housemate and valet proved interesting. I've always marveled at the sheer density of tourist-related businesses in Bali, around the Kuta area in particular. There are simply millions of them. It would take several years to have a meal and a drink in every bar or restaurant. I've never been able to work out how all of these places manage to survive at the best of times, let alone in a post-terror slump.

However, far from being run-down, Bali's restaurants and bars are increasingly more stylish and chic. Most of them have been here for years but a gradual process of renovation and improvement is transforming them from spit and sawdust backpacker boozers into nouveau yuppie fashion fests.

Down at Kuta ground zero there is still a huge space where the Sari Club stood and opposite that there is a monument to the bomb victims. Apart from that though, it's business as usual. Slump or no slump, there'll always be enough tourists to fill out the bars in the densely packed, central area around the ex-Sari. The aging Bounty Club is still doing a roaring trade plying highly inflammable, local Mansion House cocktails to tanned and tipsy Australians. If there was ever a bomb outside the Bounty, the volume of Mansion House in the place would probably cause it to go sky high.

Anyway, pressing on with our travelogue, my Springbok colleague and I settled down at the bar and plumped for the least disagreeable drink on offer: Mansion House vodka mixed with Hero-brand pineapple and coconut syrup and a dash of napalm, all served in a huge goldfish bowl. We scanned the bar. Yes, it's still packed in downtown Kuta after dark. There can't be many places in the world where you can find yourself standing at a urinal next to a man in flip-flops, a sarong, some kind of skydiving crash helmet and an "Osama Don't Surf" T-shirt. I zipped up and headed back to the bar. Everyone was trashed. Young bules on holiday are a fearsome prospect; there must be more booze consumed on this 100-meter strip of street in Kuta every evening than there is in the whole of the rest of Indonesia combined.

Several MH cocktails later we staggered into Kuta's current busiest club, which is situated right next door to the Bounty, again just next to ground zero. I could hardly see the bugger as the Mansion House was beginning to affect my optic nerves, but my comrade told me the place was called, "M Bar Go" (I bet they gave themselves a pat on the back after coming up with that name). We partied until dawn with a packed club full of Australian surfers, Japanese hipsters, rich Jakartan flipsters and some really quite jaded looking local ladies of the night.

The next day we headed down to Jimbaran, a pleasant beach just south of the airport. I was sad when I heard that Jimbaran had been bombed as it's a chilled out and friendly little place: a beach containing a promenade of seafood restaurants with tables and chairs in the sand and a nice calm, surfless strip of sea to swim in. It's a great place to go if you're after an easy to reach break from the hurly-burly of Kuta.

A waiter that we met there had just got out of the hospital after the blast, which had apparently embedded a load of ball bearings in the poor guy. It wasn't as big a blast as the first Bali bombing, but 11 corpses lying on the beach sure ain't good for business. And what has happened to Bali's business since the second bombings? Well, as if in answer to Mr. Noordin Top and his proto-Hamas gang of jihaders, Air Paradise, Bali's low-cost air link to Australia, recently announced that it was ceasing operations, which will surely be a substantial blow to tourism on the island. Any more bomb attacks would, in my estimate, presage a permanent downsizing of Bali's tourist industry.

Are more bombs likely though? Unfortunately, what with Indonesian fundamentalists making Palestinian-style guns-and-balaclava suicide videos and terrorist websites instructing locals how to be bule snipers and take out westerners as they cross pedestrian bridges on Jl. Sudirman, I wouldn't bet against it. Tourism in Bali probably also hasn't been helped by the central government's short-sighted scrapping of the free visa on arrival policy in favor of a reduced period visa that has to be paid for.

At the end of the day though, the Balinese probably have it better than Indonesians who live on the breadline in Lampung or East Java, for example. At least you've got a chance with tourism. There are problems, sure, but tourism is a pretty egalitarian industry in comparison with the other forces of global capitalism that buffet the poor of this country. Tourism provides a true trickle-down economy in which the money goes straight from the tourists to the locals without being sidetracked by corrupt officials. Here's hoping the Island of the Gods manages to weather the storm and continues to induce life-threatening hangovers in tourists for many years to come.

Simon Pitchforth

Saturday Night Fever

Saturday night! Malam Minggu! What does one do with oneself in this fair city when the night of the week to cut loose arrives? How do the city's vibrant youngsters let their hair down and enjoy a few hours respite from the daily grind? Well, I think that would all depend on their financial situations.

If you are one of the great, unwashed masses then your options may be limited by cash flow constraints. Such constraints will probably render you unable to afford a night out at one of the city's hot nightspots (and at Rp 140,000 for two tiny drinks at Dragonfly recently, I don't think I can afford it either, quite frankly). So what should you do for your kicks then? Well, many of the chaps around my area seem to favor suicidal, 140 decibel/kilometer per hour motorcycle road races lasting into the wee small hours as their preferred method of Saturday night excitement and perhaps also as a way to forget the daily troubles and frustrations of this cruel, cruel city.

Yes, they scorch up and down the road with their nuts on fire, these young warriors, protected from fatal head injuries by their trusty baseball hats and fueled by a high octane mix of Beer Bintang, that alcoholic Cap Anggur grape stuff and no doubt a dash of Pertamax Plus that a local Warung owner furtively mixes together in plastic bags for their delectation. Dangerous, yes, foolhardy, perhaps, but youngsters need their thrills and sometimes I guess a few frames of billiards in a musty, peeling billiard hall or a martial arts B-movie in a rickety cinemaquite cut it.

Then, as a bonus bit of excitement on Sunday morning, the Saturday night knights with their chromium chargers can always go and noise up some local Christians and force them to shut up shop by threatening violence. What's that all about then? Is it just a misguided stab at religious piety? Or are the increasing numbers of youngsters organizing into medieval mobs really sublimating their frustrations at a society that has forgotten them? Do these disenfranchised youngsters need their own shaky sense of self-worth and power reinforced by the black-and-white moral reductionism of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and similar groups? Alas this seems, to me at least, all too likely. If these guys all had steady jobs and a bit of cash in their back pockets come Saturday night, then maybe they wouldn't feel the need to make such poorly judged attempts to get closer to Godbe it by crashing into a Satay seller at 120 km/h in a twisted mass of metal or by smiting his enemies as they sit around a coffee table in Bekasi saying a few prayers and eating biscuits.

So what of the other end of the economic spectrum? Well, if it's Saturday night andloaded, Jakarta is your oyster. You can step from your extravagantly furnished, expensive, air-conditioned house into your expensive, air-conditioned car and drive to an expensive, air-conditioned club for some expensive, air-conditioned drinks (well something is making them half evaporate between ordering the damn things and the glass touching the lips! They're getting away with half measures,telling you!)

It's true that once you get used to your air-conditioned life, it can get a bit hot at street level but still, the upper-class elites and those that run things in this country really like to seal themselves off from the huddled masses and therein lies the problem. This sense of social alienation between our poor, motorbike warrior and our rich clubber is exacerbated by the lack of public spaces in Jakarta. Public spaces and parks are not only of a physical and environmental benefit but also help in the socialization of society. Here, and increasingly in gated communities in the West, the rich shut themselves away in private cul-de-sacs, behind barriers guarded by uniformed men. This privatization of street life is a depressing modern phenomenon and entrenches social divisions.

Across the road from our house, for example, are some very posh residences indeed. However, I can't recall ever seeing the owners of these places. Only the staff ever emerge to connect the houses to the outside world and to each other and only maids and security guards are ever to be seen on the street. All that can be glimpsed of the owners are cars coming and going. They don't even open the gate themselves when they come home. A few toots on the horn will bring the Sat Pam (security guard) running in his crisp white uniform. I half expect these people to emerge from their vehicles in NASA space suits, so unsuited to Earth's atmosphere do they seem.

I guess when you have a huge underclass to utilize and employ cheaply, as there is here, then you don't have to engage with the mundane realities of everyday life as much as the poor guys on the street do. Need a packet of cigarettes or the phone bill paid? Send the maid out. Street in a state of disrepair, city a mess on the outside, thousands of unemployed youths milling about? Why should you care? In this context, President SBY's recent stint as an Ojek (motorcycle taxi) passenger in order to get to his destination on time probably, symbolically, meant more to your average Indonesian than a hundred speeches about the economy.

So what's the answer to such social alienation then? Personally I would like to see a National Union of Pembantus (maids) set up and a one-week strike convened. Then we would see some changes in social policy,sure.

-- Simon Pichforth

On the couch

Psychoanalysis is the school of psychology which was founded by famed Viennese quack Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, and which has been refined by various other intellectuals since then. I thought, this week, that it might be a fun exercise to put Indonesia on the couch, so to speak, to see if there are any potential areas of conflict in its collective psyche that may prevent it from functioning properly, just as there may be in any individual person undertaking analysis.

Even though there are differences between group psychology and the psychology of the individual, there are enough similarities for us to be justified in drawing certain parallels.

Central to psychoanalysis is the concept of the unconscious, an area of the mind in which resides drives, desires, fantasies, attitudes and motivations about which we know nothing. At the opposite end of the mental spectrum from the unconscious (or collective unconscious in this case) is the superego, or conscience, which incorporates the morality and the ideals of the culture of which it is a part and which includes feelings of guilt.

So let's get down to psychoanalytic cases. In the West, alcohol is a chemical that interferes with the normal functioning of the superego. We could say that the conscience is soluble in alcohol. Alcohol is a social ritual in Western countries and has a relaxing effect on the strong or forbidding conscience. This lessening of tension can sometimes be a good thing but excessive drinking can make the normally mild and gentle become violent and antisocial.

In Indonesia, there are many strong prohibitions which inhabit the population's superego and inhibit unconscious drives. Increasing prohibitions on sexual behavior and the sublimating force of artistic expression (i.e. the impending puritanical antiporn legislation) are becoming reality here. Also, strict social stratifications at the heart of the culture that demand excessive politeness and obsequiousness to one's social superiors exist here too, and can serve to build up tension like a pressure cooker under the country's collective superego.

Indonesians though are very often denied, for better or worse, the release of alcohol. Instead, they indulge in that other activity that the good Dr. Freud insists can also negate the superego or conscience, namely gang formation. Gangs of youngsters or adults can commit acts together, such as mobbing to death petty criminals, burning down churches or harassing minorities, that none of them could commit individually. Afterward they cannot understand how they came to participate in anything so violent and destructive without any feelings of guilt, and perhaps even with pleasure.

An almost kleptomaniacal level of corruption is also something that prevents Indonesia's body politic and collective psyche from functioning smoothly. Psychoanalysts talk of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. A child functions exclusively under the pleasure principle; he knows only what he wants (pleasure and not pain) and cannot recognize reality.

Adults cannot live by this principle because society does not permit it. It is the function of the ego (the conscious mind) to transform the pleasure principle of childhood into the reality principle of adult life, and thus to take into account societies restrictions and prohibitions as the subject seeks to find satisfactory solutions for his life. Those involved in corruption here seem to be arrested at the pleasure principle stage of development, i.e. they quite simply can't not steal the money that is in front of them, despite the potential consequences and thus, to avoid painful emotions such as severe anxiety, guilt and shame, they have to mount ego defenses.

Ego defenses are a normal psychological device but their pathological manifestation, as we sometimes see in this country, inhibits normal functioning. Denial and projection are, according to Freud, very primitive ego defenses because they originate in early childhood. They are, however, defenses that we see being used time and time again when we read Indonesian newspapers. When in denial, a child (or person involved in corruption) is reprimanded for something he has done. For fear he will be punished, he insists that he didn't do it, even though he knows perfectly well he did. The next step is automatic; he insists his brother (or colleagues) did it.

In the ego defense of projection, a person's feelings of guilt or shame are assuaged by projecting their own faults onto others. It's like seeing yourself in a mirror and believing that the image is actually somebody else. In Indonesia, social taboos and transgressive behavior such as premarital sex or political manifestations such as aggressive, neo-imperialistic policies are usually projected onto the West and thus the country avoids having to confront its own inadequacies.

Female sexuality and masculine bias are also central tenets of psychoanalysis. Freud talked of penis envy in the female unconscious, but more recent psychoanalytic theory postulates that the reverse is also true, namely that men envy women for their greater sexual capacity and for their ability to create life. Man cannot create life but can only destroy it and this envy lies behind male subjugation of women, something hitting the headlines here with the introduction of the very vague and repressive concept of pornographic actions, namely a prohibition against any celebration or display of female sexuality (i.e. no thighs, please).

So, the prognosis for our couch-bound archipelago? It's hard to say but a few more years in analysis should help. This shouldn't be construed as an insult though. There's really no stigma attached to undergoing analysis these days. A few couches in and around the corridors of power would be a good start.

-- Simon Pitchforth

Ding Dong the Bells Are Going to Chime

I had the opportunity to attend an Indonesian wedding last weekend, something that I haven't done in quite a while. An ex colleague of mine was getting hitched and she had had the presence of mind to actually remember old Mr. Metro and fire off an invite (via sms).

On the big day I couldn't find my one solitary Batik shirt, which I keep exclusively for weddings. It must have had it away with the laundry fairies at some point. In any case, I dressed as formerly as I could and then headed off for the free feed.....er... I mean to toast the couple at the start of their lifetime’s journey together.

Now your Indonesian wedding differs from your Western one in many ways. Most pertinently, there is usually no booze or dancing. This in turn means no inebriated best man trying to flick peanuts down the bridesmaids’ dresses, no embarrassingly revelatory drunken speeches and no grandma shuffling around the floor to an Elvis Presley number. So perhaps an improvement then.

I found BMWs jamming the road solid when I arrived in my tarif lama Korporasi taxi, resplendent in its handsome green and orange livery. One should always arrive in style. It's usually best to turn up at an Indonesian wedding reception about 30 minutes to an hour late in order to avoid the long-winded speeches. When you arrive you'll be asked to sign the marriage book and then be given a little memento of the event such as a key ring or a fan with the bride and groom's name printed on it. At this wedding though, the names of the happy couple were emblazoned on a shot glass which I was duly presented with by the charming young usherette. Times change huh? Alas, as expected, I found nothing to fill it with when I went inside. I deposited my traditional envelope of money, about enough for a couple of packets of Sampoerna cigarettes, and entered the reception hall.

First things first, at an Indonesian wedding one should, upon arrival, mount the stage and shake hands with the bride and groom and both sets of parents. Usually something along the lines of, "Er.. Hello….You don't know me but good on you," four or five times with a brief interlude in the middle to share a quick word with the person you actually know. The happy couple at my reception both looked fine in their traditional Javanese costumes.

Actually, I have to confess to finding Indonesia's normally very lovely women at their least attractive on their wedding days. The whole bridal look is stylized in the extreme and the white make up is caked on until the young lady's face resembles that of a department-store perfume counter girl or a British Airways stewardess. For a more Asian comparison, I guess there's something quite Japanese about the whole look; like a Geisha or one of those traditional masked dramas. The Javanese groom's appearance is also very stylized and actually quite androgynous. He'll often even be wearing a subtle smear of lipstick to accentuate his face. And don't even get me started on the hairstyles; out of this world.

After my formal greeting it was exit stage left to join the buffet queue. I selected carefully and didn't choose the steak or anything that needed cutting as I could see that there were about ten times as many guests as there were chairs, another common Indo. wedding motif. I served myself, picked up a glass of flat Cola and tried to juggle my meal in the corner of the hall. Still, at least I wasn't the one up on stage getting married. Indonesian couples seemingly have to stand up for hours on end on their wedding day, greeting people and smiling like champions. It's a wonder they have any energy left for...er... cooking.

I finished the really rather good food and hung about for a bit watching the photographers in action. There was no beer as I've said but that isn't necessarily always the case at these weddings. If a Western guy marries an Indonesian lady, he'll usually manage to have some stashed away somewhere for his mates. At least this was the plan when my friend Dave married his lady friend Yeni a few years back. Unfortunately, after the speeches, we headed to the back of the hall for our rendezvous with Mr. Bintang only to find that the assembled drivers had got there first. Yes, the Bapaks had quaffed the bloody lot. Whatever happened to the sanctity of marriage?

Simon Pitchforth

Summer Break (Part 2)

Metro Mad all got a bit too personal last Sunday. When I left off last week I was just about to have my broken leg bolted back together with titanium screws in the operating theatre of Pertamina Hospital after pranging my motorcycle quite heavily against a wayward Bajaj. This week I thought I’d continue the whole sorry saga of my Jakarta hospital experience and generally prolong the downer I’ve inflicted on the usual Sunday Post fare of luxury watches and desert island paradise holidays.
The last thing I remember in the operating theatre before the anesthetic switched out the lights was the doctor saying, “Time to pray to your God.” I fired off a quick prayer to Thierry Henry and slipped into the blackness.
When I awoke I was fully bandaged up and lying in the hospital room that would be my home for the next week. One tube fed into my wrist while another fed out of my…er…third leg. I had been turned into a mere conduit; a section of human piping in the hospital’s complex sub-systems. I have to admit that having never been hospitalized before, I was slightly freaked out by the whole experience. I was determined, however, to put on a stoical face when the visitors started to arrive and the fruit started to accumulate into a huge mountain in the corner of the room.
All of my chums were around to visit and inspect my tubing within the first couple of days. It was all very cheering. After a couple of days though I was texting them with increasing frequency and imploring them to bring food in for me. The hospital food was nothing special and, frankly, was getting me down. I presume though, that this criticism could probably leveled at most of the hospitals on the planet. Initially I was brought baked potatoes, instead of rice, as my side dish, a nice Bule sensitive touch. I soon set the catering staff straight however and managed to get myself put back onto rice rations after a couple of days. Thankfully friends helped me out with my nutrition regime. On one memorable evening I was brought a take away Indian curry and a couple of cans of beer, stinking out not just the room but the entire floor of the hospital.
I was, in fact, staying in a double room although I wasn’t actually sharing with Indonesia’s ex-president. The nearest I got to a Soeharto was watching young Titiek on TV as she tried to dampen everyone’s World Cup enthusiasm with her potato like charisma. Yes, at least the football was on to cheer me up a little and my mind was soon taken off my spavined leg by Christano Ronaldo and his frankly rather homoerotic Extra Joss advertisement. He may have , “Never felt so energetic like this before,” but my team, England, clearly hadn’t been sipping enough of the old Joss before their games and their torpid performances catapulted me back into depression. I could have done better myself hopping around the pitch on my crutches. The Bapak in the bed next to me agreed and instead threw his weight behind the Dutch team.
The nurses taking care of me were efficient little angels although they studiously ignored my overly optimistic demands for some morphine. If I have one slight criticism, it’s that they did insist on upon waking me up at 5a.m. every morning with a chirpy, ”Sudah siang, Mr.” (It’s already afternoon). Obviously they didn’t want me to miss a single, edifying second of my lovely stay in hospital. There’s one fundamental thing that separates Westerners from Indonesians and it isn’t religion or politics or anything like that. No, it’s what time we get up in the morning. For a pale face like myself, 4 or 5 a.m. is no time to be leaping out of bed and springing into action; even less so if you replace the word leaping with hobbling.
After a week I was packed off home with a bag of pills for a dull summer of convalescence and Stephen Hawking style fun. Ah well, at least I’m able to sleep in now. Nevertheless, I’m pretty immobile at the moment and starting to wonder how I can keep Metro Mad running over the next few weeks. Expect columns about the interior of my fridge and the delights of Kabelvision to be coming your way in July.
Drive safely everyone.

Simon Pitchforth

Back on the Blok

In the spirit of regional autonomy and the recent local elections, I’d like to nominate Blok M as a candidate for adding to Indonesia’s ever growing list of provinces. I've always maintained that the ever popular ‘M’ is a self-contained, one-stop zone in which I could live out the rest of my days quite happily. I'd lurch from plaza to restaurant to cinema to bar to hotel without ever leaving the area. Blok M's Regent could set up his office on Jl. Melawai and everything would be fine.

However, one potential fly in the ointment in this twisted little fantasy is the bar filled road of Jl. Felatehan, just behind the bus station. In our imaginary new province scenario, Felatehan regulars wouldn't be happy with mere regional autonomy and would push for a plebiscite and full independence. The street’s voracious micro economy, driven as it is by beer swilling, male, western expats and Baso chomping, local disco butterflies could even spawn some kind of deranged independence, guerilla movement. Molotov cocktails manufactured from old Anker bottles refilled with cheap perfume would rain down on riot police from behind a burning barricade of overturned Bluebird taxis as Felatehan's night-time boys and girls resist the Imperial Indonesian forces and their demands for early Ramadan closing hours.

This is all a rather unlikely state of affairs, granted, although Jl. Felatehan certainly looks the part of a violence racked province, resembling as it does, Beirut circa 1982. However, let's return to reality for a moment and take a look at what lies behind the piles of rubble and the scarred and crumbling buildings of Jl. Felatehan. The road is certainly as popular as it’s ever been and there are still plenty of bibulous Bules and beskirted broads to be seen during the hours of darkness, weaving drunkenly between D's Place, Sportsman's, Oscar's, My Bar, Everest and Top Gun. In fact, despite looking like a Tsunami has just hit it when viewed from street level, business is pretty good on Blok M's famous road of revelry, so much so that the aforementioned six bars have all recently joined forces to create FAB - the Felatehan Association of Businesses (no sniggering at the back please). FAB aims to bring a bit of solidarity and central planning to Felatehan and so far the businesses involved have managed to set up an inter-bar pool league and have also clubbed together for some security men under a mini marquee who look under your car with one of those mirror thingies on wheels.

Yes, despite the infidel security issue, the street's bars have been looking quite lively of late. Starting at the far end, D's Place is always full of friendly faces playing Find-the-Joker, competing in the Monday night music quiz or the dance competitions or getting up to God knows what in the VIP members’ room (I’m not allowed in myself). Next along, Sportsman's still offers the western sports bar experience complete with live broadcasts of all the top events. Next to that, Everest, a newer addition to the street, features live music and a vertiginous, drive-in movie sized screen that takes up the whole rear wall of the club for watching the sport on. Moving right along, My Bar has become the literal and spiritual centre of the Jl. Felatehan of 2005. It’s pretty much full every evening with the moistened T-shirt and whisky cola brigade and is open until 5 AM. In addition, My Bar's two new tasteful floors (live music lounge and billiard hall) and slightly less tasteful line in merchandise (baseball hats and g-strings) have helped to cement its reputation. Opposite My Bar, Top Gun is getting a bit long in the tooth these days -its name alone should tell you that – but it can still pull them in in the early evenings. Finally, Oscar's, at the bus terminal end of the street, is currently in the process of reviving itself with a brand-new gourmet menu, talk of a members' club called Bisu and lingerie theme nights.

So in this crazy city, Jl. Felatehan has managed to weather the storms of financial crisis and terrorist bombings and has come out the other side with its core clientele intact. Clearly, many of Jakarta's impish expats have a deep-seated need for this street and the bonhomie and "companionship" (ahem) that it offers. FAB as the new GAM though? Vive la Revolution!

Simon Pitchforth

Xmas Cheer

So here we are. Christmas is upon us and the last Metro Mad before the holiday is now inflicted upon you. Christmas ay? Christmas time, mistletoe and wine (available from duty-free shops only), with logs on the fire (turn the AC down for that authentic winter glow). Yes, no matter how long you've lived in Indonesia and how at home you are here, it always feels little strange, as a Westerner, to wake up on Christmas morning (or afternoon depending on how the Christmas Eve shenanigans progressed) to the prospect of a Nasi Goreng and a sweaty run down to the Warung for some Krating Daengs and a packet of Gudang Garam.

The best policy for most festive expatriates is to huddle together like Lapland penguins at someone's pied-a-terre and drink themselves into a traditional Yuletide stupor whilst munching on stringy turkey, listening to an MP3 compilation of Christmas hits and trying to avoid contracting dengue fever. Alternatively, one can head out of town, which can make for a pleasant Christmas break, despite the fact that the experience will be considerably less festive than the previous option. Hardcore Santa groupies may opt to head to a five star hotel and pay through the nose for an impersonal Christmas lunch with all the trimmings whilst some unctuous jazz pianist bashes out White Christmas in the corner. Bali can be a genuinely decent option for an enjoyably festive and fun Christmas and New Year’s break and usually there's a real party atmosphere in the air. Between Schapelle Corby and Jemah Islamiah though it could be a bit quiet there this year. I had better think of a plan quickly I guess unless I want to be crying into my fried rice whilst watching Bule Gila reruns come the 25th.

Then, of course, it's the New Year's Eve frenzy a few days later. Your chance to blow a cardboard trumpet into someone's ear until they snap and insert it into you sideways. Your chance to reflect upon another exciting year in the good old R of I. And yes, what a year it's been in Indonesia. Not all good, it has to be said, but never a dull moment I trust you will agree. 2005 started, of course, with thousands of poor Indonesians picking up the pieces of their lives after a colossal wall of water ripped into them on December 26th. It wasn't the happiest of conclusions to 2004 and was interpreted by certain fundamentalists as being God's punishment on Indonesia for letting ladies wear bikinis in Bali. Let's hope though, that a post-war, post tsunami Aceh doesn't inflict too much Sharia style misery on its citizens in the form of public canings for courting couples and Ojeg drivers caught playing dominoes for a few hundred rupiah. Give these people a break, I say.

So what else has been grabbing the headlines this year? Well SBY showed that he had the balls to scrap the country's fuel subsidies and, politically at least, the gamble seemed to pay off as people didn't run amok burning down shopping plazas as they did when Soeharto tried the same trick seven years previously. The jury's still out on whether Mr, Susilo is actually a decent President though. We'll talk again next year, provided of course that my orange juice isn't spiked with arsenic on my next flight back to the UK. Yes, there was the Munir story too of course. The human rights activist who had his seat upgraded to Garuda's new hemlock class. The verdict upon the alleged pilot poisoner, Mr. Polycarpus,
is due next week but who was pulling the strings? The whole episode shows that New Order era forces of darkness still stalk the land with impunity.

What else happened? There were more bombs, naturally. Sidney Jones earned herself some handy frequent flier miles and the opportunity to buy a lot of duty free Scotch. Indonesian athletes didn’t do themselves particularly proud at the recent SEA Games. Inul Daratista’s 15 seconds of hip gyrating fame expired. More bloody shopping plazas opened. The city became even more gridlocked, despite the fuel hikes and, to cap it all, Indonesian’s in far flung provinces have just started to drop dead of starvation this festive season.

All doom and gloom then? Perhaps, but that’s just the nature of newspapers and TV news I’m afraid. The more life affirming stories never make the headlines in this rough and tumble world. If you’re lucky, you may get a segment about Ollie the skateboarding duck or something at the end of a half hour news cast filled with AIDS, terrorism, war and global warming but generally it’s unremitting negativity. However, there’s still a whole lot of beauty, love and fun out there ready to be experienced in this weird and wonderful country for anyone who’s willing to put on a clean pair of underpants, fill their pockets with small change and march out bravely into the flow. Happy Yom Kippur everyone.

Simon Pitchforth

Warias of the Wasteland

Whilst returning home one evening last week after blowing the froth off a few ales on Jakarta's street of backpackers and broken dreams (Jl. Jaksa), my Bluebird hansom cab passed over the river/canal flyover that connects Menteng with the skyscrapers of Jl. Rasuna Said. On the flyover I saw several tradesmen plying their wares on another grueling nightshift. Those of you who have seen these fellows before whilst driving south of an evening will no doubt be emitting a familiar chuckle. For those not in the know however, allow me to elucidate more clearly and reveal that these gentlemen are what are generally known as lady-boys... transvestites if you will... looks like a lady... in fact it's a chap.

Now, I may be opening up a whole can of worms here and perhaps this subject is not entirely fitting for a Sunday. However, these fine bodies of men are almost certainly one of the city's minor tourist attractions. The first time I saw these charming creatures I was new in town and wet behind the ears. A friend took me for a spin around the area in a taxi and I was a little shocked. We then headed on to a club I might add, no money changed hands, I'd like to make that quite clear and our taxi doors were not breached in anyway.

The area in question is known as Taman Lawang and extends from the aforementioned flyover into the pleasant, leafy environs of Menteng. I have always considered this to be a slightly weird arrangement. Other cities and countries make sure that street walking, especially that of the gender bending variety, is confined to the cheesy side of town. Menteng though is one of the poshest, most gentrified and expensive districts in the city. Ex-president Soeharto is the area's most famous resident but no doubt other powerful politicians, businessmen and generals are also domiciled there. I can't begin to imagine how they feel when they leave their mansions of an evening to be confronted by semi-nude transsexual prostitutes being solicited by Kijang drivers.

Homosexuality is frowned on by Indonesia’s nominally Islamic population. Nevertheless, lady-boys, commonly known as Bencong, Banci or Waria, seem generally to be treated as figures of fun. They are seen as clown like individuals for people to point and laugh at rather than beat up or harass. In fact, this socially marginalized but ultimately accepted she-male pantomime goes way back into the roots of Indonesian history, to the beginning of oral (careful Simon) and written records. For example, among the Bugis ethnic group of Sulawesi there exist cross-dressing palace guards known as Bissu who predate the arrival of Christianity or Islam to Indonesian shores.

Your modern Indonesian transvestite however is not treated as an equal member of society. She will often suffer discrimination from both family and neighbors and the obligation to engage in a heterosexual marriage is strong here. She is also limited in the work available to her. Many Waria can be found working in hair salons or, of course, walking the streets of Menteng at night. Also though, she-males are often seen on television in Indonesia. At the moment, Waria are under increasing persecution from the ascendant Sharia law lobby. The 2005 Miss Waria pageant, for example, was (literally) broken up by FPI (Islamic Defenders’ Front) goons. It would seem that Indonesia's gender and sexual minorities are facing an uncertain future.

In a recent movie that I saw, two characters, in a classic display of male homophobic bonhomie, are explaining how each knows that the other is gay. Their conversation went like this:
-You know how I know you're gay? You saw the movie Maid in Manhattan.
-Really? Well, you know how I know you're gay? I saw you making a spinach dip once.
-Is that so? Well, you know how I know you're gay? You like Coldplay.
Etc etc.

Similar thoughts sometimes cross my mind about the Indonesian gay community. Something like:
-You know how I know you're gay? Because your Indonesian and gay.
I reckon that the effeminate transvestite tradition here makes your average gay man stand out more from the less camp masses when compared with his equivalent in the West who has gained more social acceptance. However, I could be wrong on this one as I don't possess the so-called Gay-dar sensing powers that homosexuals claim enable them to spot other gay men at fifty paces.

Well, I think that we've just about wrapped this subject up. All letters of complaint should be addressed to the Jakarta Post. You know how I know you're gay? You read Metro Mad.

Simon Pitchforth

We’re Going to the Zoo, You Can Come Too….

Zoos are perhaps a slightly anachronistic concept these days. Most people prefer to see their animals strolling unconfined around a spacious safari park than looking despondently through the bars of small cages like some Victorian freak show. A decent safari park (Taman Safari) can be found out past Bogor on the road to Puncak. The city zoo, however, is much nearer. Follow Jl. Mampang Prapatan south until you reach the southern part of the ring road. Then, instead of turning right to the chimps’ tea party that is Cilandak Town Square in full swing. Continue south for another kilometer or so until you hit Ragunan Zoo.

The zoo costs a mere Rp.3000 to enter (Rp.2000 for children) which includes a Rp.300 insurance premium. Should your head be ripped off by a huge mountain gorilla or you have the Nasi squeezed out of you by a boa constrictor, you stand to collect a massive Rp.7,500,000 payout. Very reassuring. Stroll through the zoo's main entrance and you will find yourself in a huge park. My memories of zoos are closely intertwined with that of childhood: school trips to London Zoo, being sick on the coach trip there, losing my packed lunch, teachers losing their sanity, flipping off the monkeys, laughing at the Makaks (Oo! Ma kaks!), etc etc. The Jakarta zoo obviously fulfils the same educative function as zoos do elsewhere. Visit on a public holiday and you'll be overwhelmed by millions of family and school outings. Kids (and adults) will be ignoring all the signs and feeding buns, peanuts and bananas to listless, manically depressed animals suffering from middle-aged fur loss. It's generally a total hullabaloo and if you include the, "Hello Mr." factor, if you're a western visitor, you can be, at times, actually unsure as to which side of the cages' bars you are on. Should you wish to join this pell-mell bedlam on a public holiday then you'll find all the usual zoo motifs to be present and correct: elephants (looking a bit emaciated some of these), tigers, giraffes, zebras, a huge gorilla enclosure, Komodo dragons and ritual humiliation of the animals shows (snake dancers, elephant rides, etc etc).

For me though, I find that a visit to the zoo on a common or garden weekday to be most fortifying. Ragunan becomes a peaceful place as there are very few visitors and many of the special enclosures are closed. However, forget about the animals for a moment and consider the fact that Jakarta’s zoo is pretty much the only real park in town. By real park I mean that you can truly get away from the stresses of city life, as opposed to the area around Monas or that place in Menteng, which are little more than glorified traffic islands. Sad as it is, between Ancol in the north and Ragunan Zoo in the south, the city is woefully deficient in its green areas and this is a problem that is only getting worse with all the ceaseless development. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some developer has his beady little avaricious eye on the zoo too and plans to turn it into a zoo-mall complete with robo-animatronic lions and tigers for the kids and a branch of Starbucks.

As it stands though, for Rp.3000 you can have a midweek stroll around beautifully peaceful gardens and grass areas and meditate away your nervous metropolitan tensions. There's even a sizeable lake which can be enjoyable to sit next to with a can of Bin(a)tang purchased from one of the zoo's many Warungs. The lake certainly differs from Jakarta's other waterways in that it's not full of human excrement, discarded Aqua bottles and dead rats and you can take in a view of the park’s tree filled vistas without singeing your nostrils. Yes, midweek is the best time to visit and, in fact, you may find that visitors are even thinner on the ground these days due to a recent bird flu scare that closed the Ragunan for a couple of weeks.

Victorian throwbacks zoos may be but I'll support Jakarta's quaintly old fashioned zoological gardens to the bitter end against the ever-increasing tide of fast food restaurants, 24-hour Internet access, multi-storey car parks and polyphonic ring tones. Just watch out for that H5N1.

Simon Pitchforth

Do The Cop Shop Bop

Indonesian policemen, noble upholders of the law, with their voluminous peaked caps and their epaulettes the size of telephone directories. Love them or loathe them, you are bound to run into the medium-length arm of Indonesian law enforcement sooner or later.

By far the most common encounters between the hapless bule and the Indo cop occur on the bustling public highways of Jakarta. The boys in blue (brown actually) can often be found, of an evening, trying to supplement their meager incomes by stopping cars, taxis and bikes and the asking for ID. If you don't have any on you (and contrary to what they may tell you, a photocopy is sufficient) 50,000 rupiahs worth of palm grease should see you safely on your way again. Its highway robbery, basically, although I guess you’re less likely to be knifed in the kidneys than you are during a real hold-up. Should you be on a motorbike, you might be tempted to try and burn past the officer who is attempting to pull you over. However, there will undoubtedly be another cop stationed 50 yards down the road and you will really be in trouble when he finally gets hold of you.

Strangely, for the Western motorist, these highway (patrol) men are usually utterly indifferent to how much you have had to drink. You won't have to blow into any bags, you won't have to slur incoherently "But I haven't had a c**t all night drinkstable!!" They will only want to see your documents. You could be swigging a bottle of Scotch and projectile vomiting onto the dashboard for all they care. An Australian friend of mine was once pulled over while drunk as lord behind the wheel of his Kijang. He didn't have any ID on him or any cash whatsoever after a night on the booze. His Polri cop nemesis simply refused to believe that he didn't have any bribe money on him, however, and after about half an hour of being pestered for a “present” my colleague disembarked from his car in an alcoholic rage and proceeded to strip off all his clothes in the street in order to prove the lack of funds about his person. His inebriated state was never an issue though, and he was eventually allowed to continue driving home.

Should you have the misfortune to be taken into police custody in Indonesia, you might find yourself incarcerated in somewhat less than Alcatraz-like conditions. On the two occasions that I've been hauled into the Cop shop, I was allowed to amble freely around the station doing exactly as I pleased. One time, some friends and I were driven to a police station near the port of Merak after being stopped at a police roadblock (well, we won't open that can of worms now). We slept the night on the office floor after an interrogation which involved us being made to play guitars, answer questions about our love lives and have matey photos taken with the on duty officers. The next day, our spirits flagging, the nice chaps down at the station even let a couple of us out to go out to McDonald's and buy some burgers for the other two in our group. Now that's what I call policing.

I guess an incident such as this highlights the other side of the police force here. Indonesians are generally a friendly lot and if the police are not just looking at you, at any given moment, as a walking ATM machine, then they can be some of the most acquiescent cops on the planet and will try to genuinely help you if they can. We all saw the TV pictures of Bali bomber Amrozi laughing and joking with the officers who were interrogating him. This footage caused great offence to watching Australians. Westerners, I guess, are used to their policemen putting a certain amount of moral distance between themselves and the suspects in their charge. This doesn't seem to happen in Indonesia, however. The cops here will laugh and joke with the crooks they haul in. They will also beat the living crap out of them as well, of course. Other countries like to sweep incidents of police brutality under the carpet whereas here they are broadcast on TV every morning on reality Crimewatch shows.

If you should meet a policeman on your travels through the archipelago just remember the golden rule: keep smiling, difficult as this may be sometimes.

Simon Pitchforth

Going Google Eyed

Well, the World Cup wraps up tonight and we can all get some sleep at long last. My personal player of the tournament would have to be Germany's Torsten Frings, if only for his very wonderful name which sounds more like something that Lance Armstrong would use in the Tour de France - "Yes my new high-tech bike has got an ultra lightweight carbon-fiber frame... and torsten frings." It was also a pleasure to watch Captain Extra Joss getting his comeuppance in last Wednesday's semifinal. Now though, I suppose that we're all going to have to find something else to amuse ourselves with for the next four years. For those of you planning to forsake your televisions and return to the virtual, online pleasures of the Internet, I thought I'd conduct a brief survey of how Indonesia performs on the information super cul-de-sac.

Indonesia's traditional print media encompass (for English speakers) your very own Jakarta Post and, for slightly more in-depth coverage, the English-language edition of Tempo magazine, both of which generally do a good job of disseminating the crazy things that go on in this great country. Online, The Jakarta Post's web site contains comprehensive archives, but can be a little tricky to navigate.

Print media in Indonesia however, constantly walk a tightrope between journalistic integrity and a fear of incurring the wrath and vengeance of the feudal powers that be. Things have opened up somewhat since the toppling of Soeharto but nevertheless, journalistic freedom has often found itself under attack here. Every week, Tempo magazine prints letters from the lawyers of apoplectic politicians and generals which threaten legal action. Both Tempo and the Jakarta Post have received various sinister visits to their offices over the years and have been on the receiving end of threats and/or a good smashing up. Journalists for regional Indonesian language papers continue to be beaten up, kidnapped and even murdered for daring to live up to the investigative probity required of their profession.

Online though, writers tend to be a lot braver. The anonymity of the Internet enables hacks and wannabe hacks to neatly sidestep the face punching, office trashing consequences of their investigations. A good example of this is the Paras web site which often features news stories that the papers would perhaps find too hot to handle and is well worth bookmarking on your browser.

Blogs (online diaries) are the latest global Internet trend and people in Indonesia are also joining in the fun. There are some great English-language blogs written here by authors who vent their spleen in no uncertain terms about life in Indonesia and its politics. Many of them resemble this column on steroids. Local blogs worth checking out include, Jakarta Eye, Jakartass, Indcoup, Java Jive and the new Jak Chat forum.

I decided though to head for the global search engine Google in order to conduct a little experiment and see how topical issues in Indonesia are shaping up on the Internet. I first pumped the words, "Indonesia" and "Sharia" in for a search and was rewarded with a colossal 497,000 results including Jihad.watch.org which contains some quite extreme anti Muslim rants. I then tried, "Indonesia" and "Pluralism" which scored me an even bigger 647,000 results. Clearly this country's current culture war is being reflected online in no uncertain terms.

Next, I thought I'd try a current news story. I performed a search on the words, "Bakrie" and "Mud" but only got a disappointing 553 results. "Soeharto" and "Bastard" netted me a slightly bigger 816 matches.

Always keen to find out how I fit personally into the broader scheme of things, "Bule" and "Scum" led me to the web site WorldIQ.com which contains a fascinating list of ethnic slurs from around the world. Here the word, "Bule" is defined as, "A white person; literally means albino." Hmmm. Well I certainly can get a bit pink eyed after a few Bintangs. In this derogatory dictionary, the word, "Bule" is sandwiched between the American colloquialisms, "Bhurka Bitch" (Muslim woman) and "Buddhahead" (Asian person). It's nice to see racial tolerance spreading around the world via the Internet like this.

Finally, I decided to search,"Jakarta" and "Traffic accidents" - a subject close to my heart as I'm sure you’ll understand if you've been reading Metro Mad over the last fortnight. My morbid search led me straight to the US Embassy’s official web site where I learned that in the first half of the year 2000, 5996 traffic accidents resulted in 4563 deaths and 3330 serious injuries. Ulp! I guess I'm lucky to be alive. Now where’s my Extra Joss?

Simon Pitchforth

Better Dead than Red

When I was a child, my first experience with the law occurred when I was riding my bicycle home one evening. It was already dark and I had no lights on my bike. A policeman stopped me, told me I was breaking the law and endangering people and ordered me to dismount and push it home. Fast-forward 20 years and I'm sitting on my Honda at a red light in Jakarta, near my office, watching rider after rider steam past me, straight over the crossroads paying no heed whatsoever to the traffic lights in front of them.

So what links these two stories together, aside from a predilection for two-wheeled thrills? Well, it's revealing of cultural attitudes to the law. In our first bicycle light related encounter with the law, a common rite of passage in one's dealing with the police in the West, our hero's (me in short trousers) respect for rules and laws is reinforced and he learns that a sanction will be imposed if they are broken. It would have been inconceivable for me to try and give the officer who stopped me 50p from my pocket money in order to let me continue my ride home. You just don't do that. A policeman enforces the law.

Our second example, however, shows just how futile local attempts to crackdown on corrupt judges and politicians and to get high-profile tax dodgers to cough up, are. If you can't even get people to stop at a red traffic light, then what's the point? You'll never eradicate corruption from the top-down if such disrespect for even the most basic of laws is buried deep within the Indonesian psyche. Respect for the law and rules are inculcated in a person's character when they are a child. When you leave school at 16, 17 or 18, your body has stopped growing but also your brain is pretty much hardwired also. That sponge-like capacity for learning that you having your formative years diminishes, the neural pathways in the brain solidify and the underlying prejudices, assumptions and attitudes to one carries for a lifetime are set in place.

So what assumptions have many people here picked up in their childhood and adolescence? Basically, they have learned to try it on from an early age. They have learned that justice can be bought and that the processes of law are corrupt from the bottom all the way to the top. Their utter contempt for the police partly mutates into an unconscious contempt for the law itself. Of course kids here are told to be good and to follow the rules but it's often just empty admonishment of the,"Do as I say not as I do" variety.

When they finally get around the holding the policeman's ball here it should be an awesome event, what with the amount of tickets that get bought for it every day by itinerant motorists. But of course, weak and selective law-enforcement runs all the way to the top of the police and judiciary. As we have seen once again this week, when an act of corruption is actually made public, it's the briber who suffers; the bribee, to wit the judge or senior policeman who demanded and then accepted the bribe, remains curiously free from censure. Such selective readings of the law are often reinforced by selective interpretations of Islam which conveniently play up to the fatalistic, "God willing" side of the religion at the expense of religious entreaties to a person's sense of social responsibility. It was God's will that a person was given power and ultimately it's God will that a person is corrupt.

But in a sense it is not the corruptors’ faults, they were brought up to inherit the same dishonest dogmas and attitudes as the previous generation. No policeman ever told them to get off their bike and push it home. I sometimes think that those countries, such as Indonesia, that lie at the bottom of the corruption index table have reached a certain level of culturally ingrained sleaze from which there is no return. The usual proposed solution to endemic corruption here is to create more laws, however this totally and deliberately misses the point. Indonesia has as many laws as any other country; the point is they are only selectively enforced.

I've been reading The Jakarta Post for years now but in a sense, you can glean everything you need to know about Indonesia's dark side from reading about one month's worth of newspapers. The same old stories just keep revolving around like a broken record. Only the names change. Let's take a cursory look at today's Post (Wednesday, Nov. 9). In the investigation into the shocking beheading of three schoolgirls in Poso, one of the suspects turns out to be a former officer in the military police. Hmm... outrageous, yes, surprising, no. What else can we find? Ah yes, there are apparently no funds available with which to fight a possible bird flew pandemic in the country. Well I never. Ah, here's a good one, Pertamina officials have been accused of mixing aircraft fuel with water in a scenario that could have ended in terrible tragedy. Round and round we go. I also learned from today's Post that Indonesians enjoy sex a lowly 77 times per year compared with randy Greece's 138 romps per annum, however, perhaps this isn't strictly relevant to the central thesis of this week's Metro Mad.

But to conclude, what chance is there of a fix here, short of Indonesia outsourcing all of its judicial and law-enforcement processes, to, say, Japan for a period of not less than 30 years? It's been nearly seven years since Soeharto was booted out and the laws here seem more meaningless than ever. There are many bright young things in Indonesia now working to change these inherited attitudes but they must feel like they are beating their heads against a brick wall of cultural intransigence. Until people rise up and demand their human rights en masse then the feudal system of palm grease and patronage will never be broken. Unfortunately, it's hard to break the chains of one's upbringing and conditioning though. If you can't even stop at a bloody red light, then what hope is there?

Simon Pitchforth

Beach Therapy: Reaching Jakarta Escape Velocity

Metro mad. Hey, what a wacky name. If anything though, it's an understatement. In Jakarta, just the journey down to the supermarket to purchase a shopping trolley full of instant noodles and prophylactics can be enough to turn one into a gibbering, batshit, loonball. It's a jungle of money grubbing, urban paranoia out there. A grey, Post nuclear winter harvest of baso balls, perspiring cab drivers, irritatingly chirpy credit card promotions girls and ATM queues. This city can sometimes feel like a wire stretched across the hemispheres of your brain as taut as it will go before its snaps like some malevolent hypnotist's fingers, awakening the dreamer into a vision of hell.

It can sometimes take an effort of will to break the cycle of urban self abuse and drag one's sorry behind out-of-town. However, the effort is invariably rewarded with the supine sense of well-being that comes from communing with the glories of nature... except for the mosquitoes of course, they can get stuffed.

It can be easy to be down about this country when choking on the dusty, rectilinear, concrete hyper reality of Jakarta while simultaneously reading news stories about all the dreadful things that go on here. Outside the metropolitan area though, West Java can be one incredibly beautiful place. Volcanic highlands, deserted beaches, hot springs, forests and mountain peaks: all these can be yours and as a bonus, Indonesians living outside of Jakarta also seem to be generally more relaxed and amenable than their urban counterparts.

My preferred haunt is Pelabuhan Ratu which can be reached by traveling directly south from the capital until one hits the coast about 150 km or three to four hours drive away. I usually find that it's around Bogor that the sphincter muscles begin to relax and the air starts to freshen. After that, the final 40 km to the beach (don't miss the turning just before Sukabumi) are quite breathtaking. This road to the coast is in very good condition but is virtually deserted as trucks and buses dare not take it as they risk certain doom on the hairpins. The road winds through an amazingly lush and panoramic mountain pass before crossing a raging river and plunging down to the coast.

When you reach Pelabuhan itself, pick up a fish from the fish market ready to be cooked later in a beach hut Warung, all sizes are available, from little tiddlers to what appear to be basking sharks. Heading along the coast from town you'll find yourself on a gorgeous, 20 odd km beachside run from Pelabuhan itself to the town of Cisolok. The road takes in long deserted beaches, paddy fields, avenues of trees and various cheap(ish) hotels and restaurants. Along the way you’ll pass the huge Samudra Beach Hotel. Originally a haunt of first President Sukarno, a big Pelabuhan fan, but now simply haunted, the hotel is in a pretty sorry state of disrepair, if the truth be told. About 10 km along the road from town you'll pass a place called Pondok Kencana on your right. This is a spacious complex of very comfortable chalets run by Australian expatriate Mr. Leo. Opposite Pondok Kencana you'll find Ombak Tujuh, a hotel/restaurant/bar which features live music and is the nearest you'll get to nightlife on this peaceful stretch of coast.

A few hundred meters down the road is a small village called Cimaja. This is where the surfers hang out as the good breaks can be found here. Budding surfers should drag themselves down to Daun Daun, a cheap surfers hotel and also the Green Room, a surfers bar and hang out opposite. A friend of mine likes to joke that these surfing expats don't actually surf but instead carry their boards down the path to the beach to some secret bar every morning, only to return at sunset with a set of fabricated surfing anecdotes.

A couple of km further down the coast is a placid strip of sand known as Sunset Beach which is a good option for the non surfers. Here one can stay at Wisma Tenang, a cheap hotel that opens out onto the beach run by Dutch expat Mr. Charles. Opposite Wisma Tenang, Annie's Tavern, run by long time German expat Mr. Dieter, will provide you with hearty food, drinks and bonhomie. Another much loved place to stay is the Ocean Queen resort which can be found a further 5 km or so on from Sunset Beach, past the village of Cisolok. Moreover, a km or so inland from Cisolok there are some hot springs which are great fun to visit although it is seemingly not humanly possible to enter the hottest of the pools without boiling oneself alive in 20 seconds.

Pelabuhan Ratu is an excellent place to surf, re-harmonize your chakras or drink duty free vodka on the beach under the shade of a tree whilst some local Ibu massages your cares away. Unfortunately, business is not so good for the locals down here at the moment. The 1998 financial crisis did some of the damage to the tourist scene here however; last December's tsunami has also deterred many Indonesians from venturing within 10 km of the sea. The Indian Ocean is unquestionably dangerous and people drown all the time on Java's south coast; victims of the vicious undertow or the goddess who lives in the water, according to local legend. The waves can be tremendously enjoyable though, and you should be fine if you don't venture out of your depth.

The fact remains though, that while Jakarta teems with 11 million people 150 clicks up the road, on most weekends, Pelabuhan is a quiet place. There should surely be thousands here every Sunday but your average Jakartan seems to prefer to take his wheels inland to the heights of Puncak and Bandung. If you need to retreat from the psychic distress of overcrowding and get in touch with your inner, hippy self however, burn down to PR for a weekend of nature...man.

Simon Pitchforth

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Technology, Telephones and the Two Mangoes

This week, in the kinky booted tradition of Star Trek's Captain Kirk, I decided to boldly venture forth into the future and checkout what cool, high-tech items are available in Jakarta's increasingly techno savvy marketplace. The first stop was West Jakarta's Roxy Mas Plaza which contains about eight floors dedicated entirely to mobile phones. I guess to some of you that might conjure up hellish images of hundreds of thousands of massed ring tones simultaneously chirping away but it's a pleasant enough Plaza although it is slightly strange that every shop is identical. My quest for a new battery and headphone thingy for my Motorola was thankfully successful and my mobile phone/camera/MP3 player was back in action. These phones are getting increasingly sophisticated of course and apparently Sony Ericsson are just about to release the first phone to bear the Walkman logo on it. In the future they say your mobile phone will function as a phone, camera and Walkman as well as your house keys, car keys, global positioning system, ATM card, biometric sensor and plenty more besides I shouldn't wonder. Your life will quite literally be in your hand. Then of course you really will be buggered when you leave the thing in the back of a taxi.

Speaking of taxis I proceeded to leave Roxy's handphone heaven, jumped a Bluebird and headed for Jakarta's number one techno Mecca, namely Mangga Dua Plaza in Kota. However, trapped in Mangga Dua's interminable gridlock in a seemingly vain attempt to reach the Plaza itself I couldn't help but reflect on the downside of human progress and technology and how advances meant to free humanity end up emasculating us. 20th-century thinkers from Marx to Sartre have ruminated upon how we end up alienated and stifled by progress. The Jakartan motorist, for example, is caught in a series of escalating jams created by the increasing availability of cars whose original intention was to enable people to move more freely. Are human beings increasingly, and with apparent inevitability, held prisoner by our own creations? Perhaps the mobile phones at Roxy Mas and the computer hardware available at Mangga Dua can be viewed in the same way. The handphone is certainly a double-edged sword in my view. Sure, it is an essential convenience these days but you try ignoring a call from someone close to you and then having to explain where you were what you were doing during every second of the day, or coping with your SMS induced tendonitis. Likewise, the Internet, the instrument of global communication, paradoxically isolates people behind their monitors and engenders a state of zombified inertia which is broken only by the mouse clicking of the right-hand. Perhaps though, Indonesians, intensely social creatures that they are, feel this sense of alienation less acutely than my petit bourgeois western self.

My mood brightened when I finally got inside the Plaza. Mangga Dua does have the most excellent selection of pirated DVDs and software available in town. Quite obscure stuff as well, all from about Rp.10,000 per disc. Various police clampdowns have thankfully done little to diminish the trade and entrench the dubious morality of "Intellectual Property Rights" in Indonesia. The figures that we read in the papers of millions of lost dollars by the film industry in Asia through piracy assume that those who by 10 pirated DVDs from somewhere like Mangga Dua would buy an equal number of discs at full price if the pirates were not available. This is absolute garbage of course. As for Bill Gates, well the fact that he is the richest man in the history of the world rather disqualifies him from whingeing too much about lost revenue if you ask me. Indonesia, of course, has more pressing issues to deal with than DVD piracy. Malnutrition, poverty, AIDS and impending environmental doom are perhaps more significant problems. Keep buying them cheap discs I say. Why begrudge Jakarta's poor about the only entertainment that they can afford (aside from jumping each other’s bones of course).

Mangga Dua Plaza and other local malls such as Ratu Plaza at the bottom end of Jl. Sudirman are also great places to pick up pirated software. You may think that you’re saving money on pirated DVDs but that’s peanuts compared to buying a US$500 program for Rp.20,000. One locally developed piece of software that I managed to fish out costs a rather more expensive Rp.500,000. It's called Transtool and amazingly it translates English text into Indonesian and vice versa at supposedly a 97 percent accuracy rate. Us English teachers had perhaps better start looking for other jobs. MP3 players are also doing a roaring trade in Indonesia at the moment and the Apple shop in Ratu Plaza has hardly any Mac computers in it at all with the bulk of the display counters being taken up by trendy i-Pods and their various accessories. A basic MP3 Walkman can now be got for under Rp.500,000. So it's full steam ahead into the future. Now all we need is for hover boots to be invented and Jakarta's traffic woes will be erased at a stroke.

Simon Pitchforth

New Plaza

The great Jakarta makeover continues apace. A new busway has been built near my domicile in Mampang which I will no doubt be able to use soon. As of now though, it remains just a smooth, raised concrete lane alongside the rest of the road with the odd Jakartan walking or cycling down it happily, amazed at the only real sidewalk in town. Maybe they should forget about the buses and just keep it as a cycle lane forever.

Also, new shopping plazas keep springing up at the rate of about one per month. My own plaza strolling time has tailed off enormously in recent years as I'm of the opinion that, in the words of the old joke, once you've seen one shopping plaza, you've seen a mall. However, Jakarta's valiant citizens, if a recent article in the good old Jakarta Post is to be believed, can't get enough of the places and claim that hanging out in plazas is their favorite activity. This seems like somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. If there's nothing but malls in the city then, unsurprisingly, people will go to malls. In this respect Indonesia once again exemplifies all the worst elements of late capitalism: Its capital city being woefully bereft of parks, libraries, theatres or public sports facilities and instead being crammed with temples of vapid materialism. Plazas spewing forth expensive consumer durables and dodgy food court rice; circuses and bread for the modern generation; the new church (mosque?) of the emerging middle classes.

This week though, I trundled my plaza prejudices along to the brand-new Senayan City. Malls seem to be getting bigger and bigger and Senayan City makes old Plaza Senayan just across the way look like little more than a glorified gazebo in comparison. It's absolutely enormous, more like an international airport than a shopping mall. I was greeted by branches of Top Man/Top Shop and Debenhams and although I was slightly unsettled by seeing these rather proletarian UK shops being scrubbed up and repackaged for the Indonesian petty bourgeoisie, I headed through the Star Trek sliding doors into the mall's cavernous interior.

As I headed towards the main concourse, I felt the wave of agoraphobia sweep over me. You could go hang gliding in here. In keeping with high-end malls full of expensive shops, Senayan City is also dazzlingly white. This clinical sterility is perhaps appropriate because when I enter a place like this I feel like I’m being dissected and examined by 1000 hidden security cameras in an effort to ascertain my purchasing power. The Plaza paranoia was taking hold in earnest but I pressed on and headed up a huge high heeled shoe like escalator which transported me up a whole two floors, deep into the belly of the beast. Senayan City, a bright shining world unencumbered by the guys with guitars, potholes, diesel fumes and dried on Sambal stains that prevail outside. An odourless nirvana of boutiques and juice bars, computer motherboards and security guards in ill fitting uniforms, ready to pounce if they see a single bead of perspiration break out on your forehead.

In fact, as I walked around on my bad Plaza acid trip I saw that much of the retail space hasn't actually been occupied yet. Is Senayan City a mall too far? There has to be a limit to this ever expanding retail infrastructure. There are only so many Prada purses that the city can collectively purchase, surely?

Then I saw it. The shop that summed it all up. The clincher that presages doom for Jakarta and the whole world and codifies the impending extinction of the human race itself. It was called Kiddy Cuts. Evidently a clip around the ear and a chastisement along the lines of, "Keep bloody still when you're at the barbers," will simply not suffice these days. Instead, the offspring of the wealthy, the nation's future leaders no less, need to be pampered with little cars in which to sit and individual video screens showing cartoons whilst their little Lord Fauntleroy locks are sheared and maids in nurses' uniforms spoon-feed ice cream into their ever ravenous gobs.

I had to leave. I'll give you a full report on my vasectomy next week.

Simon Pitchforth

Let’s all Make Moonshine

Back from Bali again into the sweating maw of Jakarta. Time to relax on the sofa, I thought. Hunker down with a bottle of hooch and a few DVDs. One quick trip to Hero later and...no hooch! Yes, Jakarta's supermarket shelves have been cleared of all spirits and hard liquors, although the beer remains, which will be of some comfort to the city's old soaks. What's it all about? Perhaps some Machiavellian clash of business interests? Alternatively, it could be a religious thing. I remember reading in the paper a couple of weeks ago about an alcohol ban in Tanggerang that was introduced by the governor there in a plea for religious morality.

Now, I've got no problem with Mansion House and other local spirits being banned on the grounds of public health (see last week's column about my near death experience with the M. H.) but when all alcoholic drinks are banned for doctrinal reasons, then I start to get the shakes. Islamic law has been roundly rejected by the majority of the Indonesian electorate, however, since regional autonomy devolved power to the country's various provinces, some local regions have created their own strict laws which at times seem to amount to a kind of backdoor Sharia. Examples of this include the aforementioned outlawing of booze, compulsory headscarves for female local government employees and night-time curfews for women venturing out alone. Such tensions between regional and national government have been largely overshadowed by the many corruption cases that have surfaced since the regions started controlling their own budgets, but they point to wider issues about the country.

Recently, some friends and I were having spirited discussions about Indonesia's claims to being a secular nation, i.e. one in which church (or mosque) and state are separate. On the one hand, this country has legal, educational and governmental systems that are ostensibly secular in nature and which are part of its European colonial inheritance. On the other hand though, Indonesian secularism, perhaps uniquely, is compromised in a number of ways. For a start, religious freedom is not total; you have five to choose from. Other religions, or people of no religion, such as my devoutly atheistic self, are not recognized by the state. In addition, inter-religious marriages and religious proselytizing are not permitted. So in fact, church/mosque/whatever and state are not wholly separate; they overlap in some pretty important areas. A person's choices of religion and marriage partner are, after all, central elements of their life.

True secular society is about freedom, it's a safeguard against persecution of minorities and it treats all faiths equally under the law, something that is definitely needed in a diverse and fractious country such as this. However, some people here are deeply suspicious of secularism, perhaps wrongly conflating the concept with all the anti-Communist/Socialist propaganda that they have been fed over the years. They see secularism has an anti-religious system, as opposed to something that guarantees freedom of, as well as freedom from, religion.

Laws aside, a secular society's success or lack thereof also lies in the application of its laws and in this respect too, this country could be doing more to safeguard its minorities’ civil rights. When Christians are reduced the holding their services in the streets surrounded by taunting Muslims because their churches have been closed by mobs and while the police do nothing, then clearly things aren't right. When mild-mannered Sunday school teachers are sent to jail for three years for inviting a couple of Muslim kids to a party then you have to question the country's claims to secularity. Hundreds of churches have been torched in this country over the last 30 or 40 years, making a mockery of Indonesia's "Unity in Diversity" national motto.

Alas, attacks on evenhanded secular government are also becoming worryingly more common in the West, where Christianity, despite its 600 year odd head start on Islam, still wrestles with narrow and oppressive interpretations of the Bible and with its own lust for social power. In the US, George Bush holds prayer meetings in the White House and suckles at the teat of the quite loony religious right. Elsewhere in America, firebrand Christians are attempting to negate the overwhelming evidence in support of Darwinian evolution by bringing creationism into the science classroom under its new name of, “Intelligent Design". Meanwhile, in the UK, man of faith Tony Blair has allowed the Church of England to take over more and more nonreligious state schools. These new elitist church schools select their pupils carefully from a wide area and have both good exam results and parents queuing down the street, whereas those that genuinely fulfill their Christian mission by recruiting from the bottom of the social pile, do not. Also in the UK, attempts to curb free speech through the introduction of new religious defamation laws are thankfully being vigorously opposed. After all, heresy and blasphemy are important traditions in the West.

Behind all these religious power struggles lies fear I guess. Fear of one's religion being eroded, fear of divine judgment and punishment and fear of an all-powerful god. Thus, very often, those of faith seek to instill the same fear in others, usually to the detriment of more moderate religious voices unwilling to use violence; just witness the recent confrontations between fundamentalist and liberal Muslims in Jakarta. However, fear is not an emotion that springs from man’s better instincts and is unlikely to bring about the utopia of peace, love and Joss sticks that we all crave.

Well I'm glad I've got that off my chest. Serious stuff this week but that's what the prospect of no booze will do to a man. However, let's lighten up for a moment. Can I take this opportunity to wish everyone a nice, politically correct, winterval solstice holiday season.

Simon Pitchforth

Fasting Vs.Clubbing: The Struggle Continues

The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starts on October 4th this year. Food, drink and the making of beasts with two backs are all strictly forbidden during the hours of daylight. Ramadan is historically a time of peaceful contemplation and spiritual communion and Indonesia's teeming; migraine inducing capital could certainly do with a healthy dose of both of these I'm sure you'd agree. Muslims should also refrain from becoming angry during the period and perhaps SBY's imminent Ramadan fuel price hike can be seen in this context as either deviously Machiavellian or politically shrewd, depending on your point of view. The realities of Ramadan don't always live up to the peaceful, theological idealism of the holy month however.

For a start, despite Ramadan being primarily manifested through the act of fasting, more food is consumed during the month, pound for pound, than at any other time of year. When Indonesians break that fast between 6 and 7 PM, they really enjoy a good blowout, and why not. Also, the shops during a Ramadan weekend can be absolute murder as huge crowds of shoppers splash out on fancy clothes, goods and food in preparation for the Idul Fitri holiday. It's a consumer phenomenon not dissimilar to the run-up to Christmas in the West. In recent years however, one unpleasant Ramadan leitmotif has at least been nipped in the bud. This is namely the hordes of unemployed young guys who don't have to work in the morning and so can sleep through the fasting hours all day and let off veritable ammunition dumps of fireworks all-night, thus keeping everyone awake. Thank God that's over.

The most serious threat to the peace of Jakarta's Ramadan in recent years, however, has been the war waged over the city's nightlife. The city council's decrees regarding Ramadan opening hours have been hazy, ambiguous and contradictory and the enforcement of them by the police very sporadic; perhaps in an attempt to leave enough maneuvering room to please everyone. All this has led to, though, are fundamentalist groups steaming around town, vigilante style, smashing up bars that dare to open. On the first day of Ramadan last year, a day on which everything has to close, some friends and I found ourselves in the only bar brave enough to open on the city's backpacker strip, Jl. Jaksa. We were toasting our good fortune at having avoided the closures when who should burst in? No, not a bunch of FPI goons, but a television camera crew, checking to see which mischievous places were evading the law. I guess I'd rather be filmed than beaten up, however, when they demanded to know why we were illegally drinking in a bar on the first day of Ramadan, we had to tell them that the bar had been open and so we had come in, and also kindly suggested that they take the matter up with either the bar's owner or the police.

After the first day of Ramadan, bars and clubs are usually allowed to open at 7or 8 PM, an hour or so after evening prayers, and must also close earlier than usual. Bars that also serve food can continue to trade under their restaurant licenses, sometimes with the added proviso that they don't serve alcohol. In previous years, this has led to hilarious, American Prohibition type scenes of barflies sitting at dining tables drinking suspiciously beer colored coffee from cups and saucers. All that was missing was a honky-tonk pianist in the corner.

This year, Jakarta's police chief has decreed that all bars, discos, saunas, massage parlors and amusement centers must close completely for the month, but that discos located in star rated hotels are allowed to function normally, a decision that seems to defy all logic until one realizes that some very powerful businessmen own a large number of these hotel discos. In recent years, the two discos in the huge Hotel Borobudur, just east of Monas, have cleaned up by packing in revelers unable to gain access to their usual haunts. Non-hotel bars may open sporadically this month but will be risking the wrath of both the police and the fundamentalists, who have been particularly active recently persecuting West Java's Christian population. Nevertheless it is apparently a fact that some 50,000 employees of the city’s nightlife industry struggle to make ends meet during the month of Ramadan, a month in which workers in other professions are getting double salaries.

Perhaps though, we non-Muslims should just go with the flow during Ramadan and stay at home relaxing and recharging the batteries. After all, we are afforded a pretty unrestricted ride through the city's crazy nightlife during the other 11 months of the year. Everybody needs a break sometimes.

Simon Pitchforth