Monday, March 26, 2007

The Virtual Republic

If you're after a family day out that doesn't involve the sterile confines of a shopping plaza, then the two main options are probably Ancol and Taman Mini. I've delved into the murky waters and relative merits of Ancol in previous Metro Mads, so I thought that I would revisit Taman Mini - the Indonesia in miniature park - for the first time since I fled to these shores a number of years ago.

Taman Mini was first set up at the behest of Ibu Tien Soeharto in the 1970s. Ibu Tien (sometimes referred to as Ibu Tien Percent for various pecuniary reasons) was the nation's matriarch and the actual mother of such fine, upstanding citizens as young Tommy. Inevitably she thought that such a park would somehow help to unite the nation and no doubt make her a few shekels into the bargain.

Taman Mini is located way out in East Jakarta but is situated right next to the toll road for relatively easy access. Leave the toll then head past the inevitable Tamini shopping mall and the huge Masjid Agung Mosque (another of the Ibu's pet projects) until you roll up at the Taman Mini entrance. A day ticket only costs Rp.10,000. I guess that if this was really an Indonesia in miniature experience, then the guy at the ticket office would charge me an extra Rp.10,000, "Administration fee", to get in. Thankfully however the park's authenticity doesn’t stretch this far.

If you have wheels, you can drive around the park but if not you can utilize the elevated train and cable car in order to visit the various parts of the sprawling mini republic. However, these, and the various other attractions in the park, cost a few thousand extra Rupiah each time you use them. Taman Mini itself isn't in too bad a shape considering that the Soeharto era came crashing ignominiously to the ground nearly a decade ago. I was expecting a malodorous wasteland but the old place is still worth a visit.

I thumbed a ride over the park in the cable car first. The centerpiece of Taman Mini is a model Indonesian Archipelago several hundred meters long. All of the country's islands have been faithfully, and quite impressively, recreated in a large lake and from the cable car, the familiar map of the country becomes clear for all to see. For added authenticity, perhaps the parks management should consider buying smoke machines and having a constant haze blowing over the model islands. Local features could also be added such as a hosepipe spouting mud over the eastern section of the mini Java or a large digital readout on the mockup Borneo counting down the number of hectares of remaining rainforest. Go with the times I say.

After disembarking, a stroll around the various mockup houses from each of Indonesia's provinces proved to be the most genuinely interesting part of Taman Mini. They really do live in some huge wooden feats of engineering and carpentry in the country's far-flung regions. Fantastic stuff. This is a real taste of Asia and I'd take these palaces over the chance to live in a filing cabinet in Japan any day.

Other attractions worth a look are the huge aviary (just watch out for those white stains on the clothes) and PLN World (yes really). In PLN World I learned exactly how electricity is generated in the country although there seemed to be nothing on either the forthcoming nuclear power plant or on how PLN manages to miraculously run at a loss despite being a state-run monopoly. Still, at least it was something genuinely educational for the pixel-eyed PlayStation generation to check out when they come here on school trips.

After this didactic diversion I took the skytrain/monorail back to the front of the park. Actually, the Taman Mini skytrain is quite a good approximation of what it's going to feel like bowling down Jl. Rasuna Said on the Jakarta Monorail if it ever gets finished (don't hold your breath). The view was great but the carriages were a bit dog-eared. At the front of the park you'll find the Keong Mas (Golden Snail) theatre which shows those disorienting but impressively panoramic IMAX movies. Definitely worth a look.

So what does Taman Mini say about the fractious reality of Indonesia? The recently deceased, poncey French sociologist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard once summed up that other great theme park, Disneyland, thusly:
The Disney enterprise goes beyond the imaginary. Disney, the precursor, the grand initiator of the imaginary as virtual reality, is now in the process of capturing all the real world to integrate it into its synthetic universe, in the form of a vast, "reality show," where reality itself becomes a spectacle, where the real becomes a theme park.

Perhaps the deodorized, micro-Archipelago of Taman Mini, along with the endless Sinetron fantasies peddled by Indonesian TV stations also reflect Baudrillard's ideas of how our modern, technology driven fantasy world has become a simulation of itself. In this sense, Soeharto’s Taman Mini doesn't reflect reality but constructs it for its visitors who may come away with an unconsciously reinforced view of their country as all seamless surface and no depth; a land of shiny California Fried Chickens, smiling ethnic diversity and colorful costumes.

Oh well, back to Ancol next time I suppose.

Simon Pitchforth

Monday, March 19, 2007

Fishnets and Chips

I teleported down to the Jakarta Convention Centre again last weekend for the Computer Mega Bazaar exhibition. Geek orgies such as these often serve to intensify the vertiginous feeling many of us have whilst we watch technology accelerate into the future at breakneck speed. Techno fear aside though, there were plenty of shiny plastic and metal objects of lust on show for the computer savvy Jakartan to feast on, and the public were out at the JCC in their droves.

Computer wise, prices are still being whittled away by the increasing cheapness of microprocessors. A locally assembled desktop computer can be had for as little as Rp 2.7 million whilst laptop prices have plummeted as low as Rp.5 million. It's not quite the Bill Gates millennium vision of the $100 computer for the developing world but it's not far off. I can remember when laptops used to cost a small fortune in the city's electronics stores. I resisted the endless upgrade path this time though and decided to stick with my more modest desktop machine. Presumably this means that when Rp.20,000 copies of Windows Vista finally start showing up in the city's dodgy software shops, my old crate won't be able to handle its new, high-tech 3-D graphic interface.

Never mind, at least I could seek solace in the sexy dance show at the LG stand. They were wearing fishnet body stockings by the way. I'm not sure how this fits in with the overall LG techno marketing strategy but it certainly got me to stop long enough for the stand's staff to thrust several deciduous forests worth of glossy product brochures into my hands. Sex still sells, even in the deodorized, uber-geek, motherboard fetishising world of the computer show.

After the dancers, I trundled slowly through the thronging masses to see what other semi-conducting objects of desire could be had. There were MP3 players the size of postage stamps that can hold about 20 albums worth of songs going for a mere Rp.250,000. There were huge flat screen computer monitors. There were projectors which, starting at about Rp.7 million, are a cheaper alternative to those expensive widescreen plasma TVs currently in vogue. I also saw the latest graphics cards producing quite amazing, almost photographic quality visuals. I even managed to scoff at some ludicrously overpriced laptop backpacks which looked no different from any backpack that you would find down the markets of Blok M for Rp.50,000 on a Saturday afternoon.

It was an interesting exhibition though and thoroughly demonstrated how computers have permeated every facet of the modern, urbane sophisticate's life. From laptops to notebooks to music players, cameras and a million and one plug in USB gizmos, your middle-class Jakartan is as wired as anyone on the planet.

It seems that we increasingly rely on computers to mediate every aspect of our existence. If every computer in the world in 1960 had suddenly stopped functioning, few people would have noticed. Perhaps a few scientists would have had a problem with their punch card printouts. Circa 2007, the same event would be a different matter entirely. All electrical power distribution would grind to a halt for a start. Anything with embedded microprocessors would also go dead: telephones, radios, televisions, walkmans, e-mail, the Web, the lot. You wouldn't be able to get your money out of your bank. Business and government would operate at only the most primitive level. And if all the data in all the computers vanished as well, then we would really be in trouble.

This seems to be just as valid a hypothesis in Indonesia as in any other country. Computers rule here too, from the girl in my local warung who seems to be unable, to my endless exasperation, to add up Rp.12,000 and Rp.7000 without her trusty calculator, to the corrupt elites seeking to hide their ill gotten gains through endless, dodgy computerized bank transactions; although admittedly that tactic didn't seem to work so well last week when we all found out that the government have been kindly laundering jailbird murderer Tommy Soeharto's money for him – talk about the war on corruption taking a ceasefire!

Futurists such as Marvin Minsky or Ray Kurzweil in his books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity assert that we are only at the start of a future far more mind blowing that any Star Wars style sci-fi flick. They state that technology amounts to no less than evolution of our species by other means. Leading on from this proposition they assert that the inexorable and exponential increases in computational power will eventually give us sentient machines (within the next 20 to 30 years).

After this, brain scanning techniques (already in their infancy today) will enable humans to upload their consciousnesses into computer hardware and thus we will merge with our own technology into a super brain singularity. Makes Bluetooth look like peanuts, doesn’t it? Nanotechnology also holds the promise of the creation of a real virtual reality. Walls and houses constantly morphing and changing; computer/human consciousnesses able to actualize themselves as real, physical nano-robot-swarm humans within seconds. High fallutin' stuff to be sure and it certainly beats the cod religious symbolism and half arsed cops-and-robbers-in-space narrative of Star Wars if you ask me. Mind you, if the various members of SBY’s cabinet were to upload their minds into a conscious computer singularity, there probably wouldn't be enough combined megahertz to run a game of Tetris.

Simon Pitchforth

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bandung or Bust

Last weekend, I opted to break out of town and head to Bandung for a major eating and drinking session. A number of years ago I used to live in what has been known as the Paris of Java but hadn't returned for simply ages, so when an Indonesian friend invited me to accompany him and his family in their Mobil Rakyat (Car of the masses), I jumped at the chance.

The new toll road makes it possible to steam across to Bandung in a mere two hours these days and at weekends the city is jammed with cars sporting Jakarta license plates as families from the capital enjoy the countryside, eat fine food and buy garish T-shirts from the many factory outlets that dot the city. In fact, so popular is the Bandung toll road that train tickets to the city have recently been discounted in an effort to win back passengers.

And so one sunny Jakarta morning we burned out of the Big Durian with rocking sounds on the stereo and my friend’s four-year-old son bouncing around the rear of the Toyota like some ruddy cheeked, porcine kangaroo. The tollway was certainly a breeze. There are brand-new, Western-style service stations at the side of the highway at regular intervals boasting the gleaming chromium of new Starbuckses and KFCs. Hell, even Pertamina have finally got their act together and spruced up their gas stations. The toll, like the railway, cuts through some superbly green and rugged West Java countryside and there are panoramic vistas of the distant mountains to enjoy along the whole route.

I was dreading arriving in Bandung's traffic however. It's all very well being able to drive down a toll road and arrive at the city limits after a mere two hours but what use is it if you're subsequently stuck in a 17 hour tailback on Jalan Pasteur as you try to reach the centre of town and your blood pressure goes through the roof? My outdated Bandung preconceptions were soon blown out of the water though. A huge Jakarta style flyover has been constructed which stretches right into the heart of the city and which will deposit the recreational driver wherever she wants to go with a minimum of swearing.

Bandung has developed rapidly over the last few years or so and at certain points around the flyover, the urban topography has altered so much that I no longer recognized where I was. Every building had quite literally changed. It's a slightly eerie feeling to be older than the surrounding landscape but that's the price of success I guess.

Various voices have been raised recently in the wake of the great floods suggesting, half jokingly perhaps, that the capital should be relocated to somewhere more environmentally amenable. Visit Bandung and it seems that this process has already started. The business boom here, reinforced by the new toll, serves to remind us that Indonesia is actually quite economically flush at the moment.

Despite its myriad of problems, the country has finally extracted itself from the mire of the 1998 economic crisis during the last year or so. The buffoonery of many politicians aside, economic tsars from Kwik Kian Gie to the SBY era have stuck to a path of reform and have straightened out a lot of the country's finances whilst paying off the huge foreign debt. The massive reduction in fuel subsidies has also swelled the government's coffers.

The country now stands at a crossroads. Will it invest the new cash in infrastructure worthy of all the gleaming new shopping plazas, hotels and restaurants that I goggled at in Bandung, or will the old feudal, corrupt mores persist? Regional autonomy has undoubtedly engendered a more equitable distribution of cash to the regions but will the money trickle down any further, especially when entire local councils are under investigation en masse for pocketing large portions of their local budgets?

So we're at the crossroads now more than ever: modernization or stagnation. In a strange way the war on corruption was perhaps less important when the country was bankrupt. Now, when there's so much more cash sloshing through Indonesia, it is vital to get some results and put a few people in the slammer so that it can be channeled properly into nation building. Old attitudes die hard though and the opportunity to sit in a branch of Starbucks sipping a latte is not in itself going to effect a transformation of consciousness in the population. Nice flyover though.

Simon Pitchforth

Monday, March 05, 2007

Mic, Bikini, Action!!

On a couple of recent taxi journeys past both Plaza Semanggi and Pasar Festival on Jl. Rasuna Said, I noticed huge illuminated signs outside proclaiming these malls the home of Vizta Inul: Karaoke Keluarga (family karaoke).

Now young Inul was once just a dime a dozen singer of Dangdut, the Bollywood inflected pop music so beloved of Indonesians the Archipelago over. She had all the requisite attributes of a Dangdut singer: a soaring voice, an ample d├ęcolletage and a 48 hours non-stop in the salon hair style. What set Inul above the herd and catapulted her to nationwide fame though was her suggestive hip thrusting dance, known as the drill. She would writhe around on stage as if her posterior had been wired up by PLN, making Elvis the pelvis look like an Anglican bishop in the process.

Muslim clerics were suitably unimpressed and promptly declared her act forbidden. On top of that, self-proclaimed King of Dangdut music, Rhoma Irama, in a sudden attack of religious conservatism, also declared her a pernicious influence on the nation's morals, although many Indonesians sensed more than a touch of professional jealousy in his protestations. Around this time, the Draconian Porno-Aksi bill started hitting the headlines and our heroine suddenly found herself transformed into a poster child for free-speech libertarianism. Inul (real name Ainul Rokminah) was recast as Indonesia's Larry Flynt, the publisher of the famous US "Jazz" magazine Hustler who was politicized into becoming a free-speech campaigner and who railed against both the censorious voices of conservatism arrayed against him and the country’s hypocritical politicians.

Our heroine seems to have dropped out of the headlines in the last year or so, but it seems that her notoriety lives on through her chain of seven karaoke lounges and indeed it's nice to see her trying to create something more permanent out of her allotted 15 minutes of fame. Her advice to young Indonesian women? " Be Independent. Be yourself. Get a good education. I wanted to be a doctor but had to leave school after junior high because there wasn't enough money. Sadly women are not respected by Indonesian men,” she told The Post’s Duncan Graham last year. Wise words indeed and in order to lend our support to such noble aspirations, several friends and I put on our best stretch Lycra trousers and headed to the Inul Vizta Karaoke lounge in Pasar Festival for a good old singsong.

After booking a room (Rp.80,000 per hour) we filed down a corridor, past a huge picture of Ms. Rokminah herself and a board proclaiming messages of support such as, "Inul yes, Rhoma no," in felt tipped pen. We piled into a lounge and arranged ourselves on the couches, ready for some hot Karaoke action. Cheesy multicolored disco lights were spinning agitatedly on the ceiling and Inul's sylph like form beamed out at us from a TV screen. We pressed a few buttons..... nothing. We buzzed for help and instead of women in bikinis being sent in to distract us from the technical faults in true Indonesian Karaoke style, we instead played host to a swarthy young chap in a Honda bomber jacket who attempted to jumpstart our karaoke machine. "It's broken Mister,” he declared five minutes later.

No matter, we relocated to a fully functioning suite, ordered the obligatory pitcher of beer and began singing in earnest. We managed to find plenty of tunes in the huge 25,000 plus song library to keep us occupied and attacked the two radio mics and battery-powered tambourine (don't ask) for all they were worth (probably not much). A couple of hours are usually enough for a good Karaoke session. If you start to flag towards the end you can always find new inspiration by trying to sing the Sex Pistols Anarchy in the UK in an Indian accent or dancing on the table. Vizta was quite enjoyably high-tech too, what with its wireless keyboards, automatic video shooting and room to room chatting facilities.

Vizta genuinely lives up to its claim to be a family Karaoke lounge. Karaoke is a Japanese creation and in Japan, it’s for everyone. In Tokyo, Karaoke is indisputably about singing as opposed to the sleaze and sex that have been overlaid onto the craze in Indonesia. In this respect, Inul should be championed instead of vilified by the anti-porn Muslim conservative movement for her sterling work in returning Karaoke to its respectable, non-erotic roots. She’s a true Indonesian Idol as far as I’m concerned. The only sexual references that you will find in a Vizta lounge are on its cocktail menu. Yes, Sex on the Beach, a Screaming Orgasm or the wonderfully misspelled Flamming Bikini can be yours to sup on while you sing for a mere Rp.50,000 a pop. Well, there's only so far you can take respectability I suppose; I mean who would want to drink a Flaming Jilbab?

Simon Pitchforth