Monday, December 25, 2006

Deep and Crisp and Even

The snow and ice and warm woolen scarves of another Indonesian Christmas are upon us once more. Admittedly, seasonal cheer may perhaps be a bit thin on the ground in a Muslim country and this is only to be expected of course. The plastic trees and spray on snow on display in the capital's shopping malls are the only real reminder of the winter festival and are of course indicative of the true meaning of Christmas, namely consumption. And while we're on the subject of consumption, I certainly know a few expatriates who will be using the holiday season to consume their own weight in Bintang Christmas cheer (the ones that live in Jakarta anyway, those in the supposedly now dry Tanggerang might have a few more problems tracking down Santa's magic sauce).

in any case, let us hope that the spirit of peace and goodwill to all men (and women) will not be sullied by any bombing shenanigans this year. Apparently police have found evidence of such dastardly intentions in Mr.Azahari's terrorist hideout and are warning everyone to remain vigilant. Ho hum, Tis the season to be merry and all that.

Looking back over the last 12 months, it's been another fascinating year in the grand old R of I of course and plenty of weird and wonky news stories have kept us on our toes. Natural disasters still stalk the nation like two big stalky things of course. The Aceh tsunami disaster was revisited in Pangandaran on the south coast of Java this year and billions of gallons of sea water were ignominiously dumped on the poor local populace. Bird flu has also continued to hover ominously around the front pages and will probably make a resurgence now that the rainy season has arrived. Disaster of the year award though, would have to go to the mud geysers that continue to coat an ever increasing area of East Java in sludge. The whole debacle was totally manmade too, very impressive. On Mother nature's more positive side though, a whole treasure trove of new species have been discovered by naturalists exploring in West Papua and I myself have managed to discover a similar amount of new species down in the Blok M area.

On the social stage, debates, conflict and much soul-searching have arisen between the Playboy bunny at one extreme and the Shiaria-ists at the other. Indonesia's own version of Playboy is frankly so tame by Western standards that it may as well feature a Jilbabbed (veiled) playmate of the month in every issue. The Draconian Porno-Aksi bill continues to be debated by the politicians and threatens to take the country one step closer to Islamic republicanism although there seems to be a growing backlash to the legislation.

On the political stage, the SBY honeymoon is most definitely over and people are once again becoming frustrated, as they were under Megawati, at the slow pace of reform. Meanwhile, Vice President Kalla continues to display a George Bush like talent for the eminently quotable howler. The two I remember most are his recommendation that West Javanese widows be pimped out to Arab tourists and, most recently, his advice to the population to lead healthier lives and thus improve their genes.

While we’re on the subject of Mr. Dubya, George Junior himself flew over for a presidential summit this year and drew the ire of many Muslim protesters. In one voodoo ritual, a goat's throat was slit, a snake and a black crow were stabbed and all of the blood produced was stirred together with spices and broccoli and eaten by some black magic weirdo or other. Yum Yum. Very tasty no doubt but it's perhaps slightly ironic to employ a non Islamic voodoo ritual as part of a Muslim protest against Mr Bush. Mr Bush didn't drop dead on the spot in Bogor or become possessed by demons, although I guess that if news of this rite had actually reached him it may have put him off his lunch. Meanwhile, up in Aceh, the population has made its feelings known by electing ex-GAM (Free Aceh Movement) candidates to the local legislature and thereby giving Javanese rule the finger.

Back in our beautiful city of Jakarta, Governor Sutiyoso (sooty ozone?) has been presented with an Asian clean air reward for his busway brainwave. The Governor will be history next year as his second five-year term in office expires, although the busways will be a fitting legacy for him….and you can take that appraisal anyway you want.

So 2007 now beckons with open arms. No doubt it will start raining like an absolute bitch in January and the flood season will start in earnest. Me? I'll be waiting for the mother of all floods; the huge biblical deluge that will clean the streets of this city once and for all. I'm going to build an Ark out of old Bajaj parts and set sail for the sunset with one woman from every Indonesian province on board. Together, we will we repopulate the Archipelago and sing Dangdut songs all day. AA Gym eat your heart out.

Simon Pitchforth

Monday, December 18, 2006

Til Deaths Us Do Part

Two stories have surfaced recently which expose the dark underside of marriage. I refer of course to the saucy Golkar legislator's cell phone blue movie and to chilled out TV preacher AA Gym and his foray into polygamy. These two scandals seem to position local ladies between a rock and a hard place (no double entendre intended) however, we seem to be getting ahead of ourselves as usual.

Let's start at the beginning and review what has been happening over at the Golkar party first. When the story of Yahya Zaini's hotel room tryst with a Dangdut singer being recorded on a mobile phone and disseminated through the Internet first emerged, the papers initially referred to our hapless anti-hero by his initials YZ. Perhaps this is understandable if the publications in question were afraid of having their windows put in by Golkar heavies. It did cause me to speculate though that conceivably the guy's name was Young Zorro; with a rapier like flash of his cutlass those Dangdut singers are putty in his hands.

As further details, including names, emerged from the story, Young Zorro's position became increasingly untenable and he eventually fell on his cutlass and resigned. The dark irony of Golkar's spiritual affairs spokesman, someone who is no doubt involved in the debating of the Draconian Porno-Aksi bill, himself making a porno film, was too much to bear. Indeed, after a scandal such as this it would be impossible for a politician in any country to emerge unscathed. Back in my semi-beloved Britain, political sex scandals have become commonplace. From the Profumo affair in the 60s through to the recent misdemeanors of Tony Blair's henchmen (Robin Cook, David Blunkett and John Prescott all unable to keep their snakes caged) the sex scandal has become a permanent feature of the political landscape. Only vicarage family man Blair himself had remained aloof from the sleaze.

Male marital infidelity is hardly something new. At least though, when a man's illicit, extramarital affair is exposed, his wife can choose to either forgive or divorce her philandering spouse and the husband is shamed. Polygamy, on the other hand, presents us with a rather different conundrum. In a polygamous marriage, the man's caprices and dalliances are made respectable. If I was Young Zorro's wife, possibly I would prefer hubby to take a secret lover than a second wife. At least it wouldn't be in my face every day, he would be wasting less money and his hurtful actions wouldn't be legitimized through religion.

It was suggested by a columnist on the front page of this paper last Sunday that AA Gym's two wives possess, by being lawfully married to the same man, more dignity than Hillary Clinton did when her husband was caught in his shameful act of cigar rolling with Ms Lewinsky. Nonsense I say. Hilary emerges with an infinitely greater amount of dignity than either of AA Gym's wives (or Bill himself of course). She is not an unequal partner in her marriage and could have chosen to divorce the hapless president in a heartbeat. Instead she chose forgiveness. She has not capitulated to a religious patriarchy which treats women as second-class citizens; mere chattels who are only half as important as men and who thus only have access to half of their man's affections and time. Polygamy is a one-way street under current interpretations of Islam of course. Its inverse, polyandry, namely a woman with more than one husband, couldn't possibly be considered.

Encouragingly though, AA Gym's mostly female fans are up in arms over the whole saga and the be-turbaned guru may have badly misjudged his followers attitudes. Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia. I don't profess to be able to speak for Indonesian sisterhood but if there's one thing your average lady hates here it's polygamy. The green eyed monster is perhaps the deadly sin that the Indonesian female is most familiar with and a rival for her man's affections is a nonsense that simply will not be tolerated.

Personally, I haven't the slightest idea why a man would want to have two, three or even four wives. The mental and physical energy required would be way beyond my humble capacities. Less flippantly though, to have more than one wife renders the whole act of marriage virtually meaningless for me. Surely the whole idea of marriage is to strive for that sacred, one-on-one relationship that trumps all others and to find your soul mate (cue violins). If this is the goal of marriage then three is most definitely a crowd. On a more practical note, if all of Indonesia's male politicians had four wives each, the war on corruption would surely take an even bigger nosedive than it has done already. They would quite simply have to rob the state blind just to keep up.

Maybe the failings of Young Zorro, AA and males in general are best summed up by an old joke. God creates man and says to him, "Well, I've got two pieces of good news and one piece of bad news for you." Man says, "Let's have the good news first then." God says, “Okay, well I've given you a complex and powerful brain which you can use to build cities and computers, create art and culture, enjoy Barry Manilow albums and so forth. " "Great," says man, "And the other good news?" God replies, "Well, I've given you a penis which you can use to procreate the species, perpetuate life and thus live on through your children." "Nice one," says man, "So what's the bad news?" God looks pensive and says, "I'm afraid you won't be able to use both of them at the same time."

Simon Pitchforth

Friday, December 08, 2006

Welcome to Cancer Country

Lung rockets, snouts, coffin nails, fags, tabs, butts, cancer sticks, tubes of joy, whatever you call them, have been back on the Indonesian news treadmill of late. The government is planning to ban cigarette advertising and raise the tax on smoking. This follows hot on the heels of Jakarta's largely ignored ban on smoking in public places; passive smoking being a danger to Jakarta's pristine air quality you understand. It would probably be far better to make catalytic converters on cars compulsory, but the passive smoking lobby will have their way. I have often wished that passive drinking were possible and that I could walk into a bar and get tipsy without spending a penny.... or spending a penny.

But back to smoking. Unlike the smoking in public places ban, raising tax and banning advertising is legislation that would actually stick, its success not being concomitant on either public goodwill or police enforcement, and thus could actually be effective. In this country there has been a 900% explosion in youth smoking in recent years and we all know that some local guys, not content with merely smoking two packs a day, seem to go through about two lighters a day.

Local cigarette companies are inevitably not happy about the proposed new laws. Anything that would jeopardize their gargantuan profits is a danger, and gargantuan they are indeed. According to a recent Tempo magazine survey of Indonesia's richest people, local cigarette moguls seem to be sitting pretty. At number two we find Mr Sampoerna, at number four is Mr Gudang Garam and at number five sits Mr. Djarum. Such wealth contrasts sharply with the women who still hand roll the cigarettes with their poor atrophied, calloused hands and earn about 50 Rupiah a year. With a big a tobacco market comes big profits. Western cigarette companies know this too and have been aggressively marketing in Asia and China since their home countries have clamped down on smoking and cigarette advertising and the percentage of the population is sparking up has decreased.

It should be, in theory at least, simple enough to ban cigarette advertising here. Other countries have managed it without too much trouble and many tobacco adverts in this country are absolutely ludicrous. Most of them like to insinuate a strong relationship between puffing away like a locomotive and sporting prowess. Mind you, the rugged Marlboro Man action hero riding his horse through the prairies isn't much better. The story of the original Marlboro Man dying of lung cancer is probably an urban myth but if he did indeed have the big C then no doubt he would have opted to have both lungs removed. "Take 'em both," he would have said, "I don't need 'em, I'm so rugged I'll grow gills and breathe like a fish."

I myself was actually in a cigarette ad once. Djarum had assembled a group of reprobate expats who all needed the money and got them to dress up in various national football team colors. The photos were used to promote the last European Championships on special packets and billboards. Thierry Henry? David Beckham? Both twenty a day men don't ya know. Banning all this nonsense is perhaps long overdue here. Personally I would like to see all adverts banned, not just cigarette adverts. The semiotic pollution and cultural debasement of our world is a serious issue and bow-tied advertising copywriters are surely the spawn of Satan.

Returning to cigarettes though, a proposal to up the anti on warning labels on packets of smokes has also been floated. Cigarette packets in Singapore now feature, as well as written warnings, actual pictures of brain haemorrhages and tar caked lungs which is a touch macabre perhaps. At the moment, Indonesian cigarette packets like to warn of impending impotence for smokers here. This is a claim which seems to ring a bit hollow in an over populated country of 250 million people. Perhaps your average Indonesian gentleman is drinking plenty of Extra Joss to counteract the anti potency effects of his Gudang Garams.

Ultimately though, in a free society, there is only so far that you can take anti-smoking legislation. Libertarians say that smokers smoke at their own risk and if someone wishes to open a bar and allow people to smoke in it, no one is forcing people to go there. Can there really still be people who don't know that smoking is bad for them and who believe that sparking up a Djarum will help them to win a 200 m sprint?

The sweet smell of the Kretek clove cigarette is a part of local culture and one of life's few pleasures for Indonesia's impoverished masses. This is increasingly the case as personal liberties are eroded elsewhere by the Sharia lobby. Can't gamble, drink, fornicate or even venture outside the house after 10 p.m. if you're female? Well, at least you can light one up and enjoy five minutes of carcinogenic pleasure (or 45 minutes if it's a Dji Sam Soe). Now where's my cough mixture?

Simon Pitchforth

Friday, December 01, 2006

Biker Heaven

Last weekend, I toddled off to the Jakarta Convention Centre for another one of their lovely motor shows. This one mainly featured motorcycles although there were also a few luxury cars on display for petrol heads to salivate over. An import tax of 100% doesn't seem to deter Jakarta's superrich from their long-term love affair with the supreme German efficiency of the BMW and the Mercedes Benz. In this country, as in any other, such cars are all about ostentation and showing off as much as anything else. As a status symbol they rank several levels above having a maid from central Java put on a little white, starched nurse’s uniform and run around the shopping mall food court trying to administer a fix of ice cream to your kids.

I actually saw someone driving a Ferrari down in Kemang last week. To own such a vehicle in this country is not a very practical idea though. For starters, your left leg will soon go numb as you continually pump the clutch of it’s high performance engine between first and second gear in the city's gridlock. Not only that, as soon as you get off the main road, there's going to be a whole lot of scraping going on as you negotiate the sports car's low-slung body over countless sleeping policeman. No, to own such a car is all about status, testosterone and boy racer √©lan. It's a Tommy Suharto/James Bond fantasy that symbolizes what you're packing in your trousers. Personally though, I like to reverse the process: basically I use my penis as a car substitute.

I digress, but this is the underlying vibe at motor shows. On the one hand there are the vehicles you may actually have enough money to buy and which are practical. On the other hand there are the male fantasy rides to drool over. Last week's motor show, although mainly featuring bikes and not cars, followed this formula to a tee.

On the practical side, all of the familiar Yamahas, Hondas and Suzukis that plough the city's streets like kamikaze hellcats were present and correct. I admit that I felt a slight sense of unease as I remembered my apocalyptic motorbike crash of a few months ago but this was soon dispelled as I wandered around the convention centre. The beautiful girls on the display stands certainly helped in this respect. Sexist? Perhaps. Sexy? Certainly. You will hear no complaints from me, although maybe to balance things out they should have strapping, macho men at the Ideal Home Exhibition, demonstrating food processors or something. I’ll stick with the motor shows though.

Bike-wise, there was a very handsome, high-tech and reasonably priced Bajaj motorcycle on prominent display. It was slightly more advanced than the Bajajs we know and love and definitely not available in orange. Non-bikers may be interested in the new Yamaha RX King. The King has long been one of the most popular bikes here but as it's an old-fashioned, two-stroke machine, the pollution and noise are appalling. When local lads customize them and race them down the road, thick plumes of white smoke belch out of the back and they sound like a swarm of mosquitoes the size of 747s. Not just the loudest bike in Indonesia but the loudest sound of any kind whatsoever. The new version is supposedly cleaner and quieter, something which all of Jakarta’s citizens may wish to say a silent prayer of thanks for.

On the luxury side of things, there were also plenty of massively overpowered fantasy/suicide machines on display. However, like our old friend the Ferrari, it's just not very practical to go tooling around Jakarta on a 1000cc Suzuki race bike, not if you want to live to see your grandchildren’s faces at any rate. You never know who will be wheeling his Baso trolley across the road as you round the corner at 150 clicks per hour.

Mind you, on the safety side of things, there was a computerized motorcycle safety simulator in action that people were queuing up to have a go on. I also spotted a jacket on sale with electric fans built in to keep you cool in the hot sun. Just the ticket until it rains and the whole ludicrous contraption packs up. There were also plenty of kiddy motorbikes available for rich parents to buy. Get them used to hospital food at a young age ay, that’ll toughen ‘em up. “Our little Bambang is only 10 but he's already broken both legs and fractured his wrist. We're so proud."

Madness. They should ban all bikes. Roller skates for all I say.

Simon Pitchforth