Monday, August 27, 2007

Red, White and Feeling Blue

Another year, another Independence Day in the People's Republic of Indonesia. We are now up to 62 and counting. I suppose you would be expecting me, on past form and least, to be launching a massive broadside assault on the achievements of post-World War II Indonesia up until the present day. Well, we'll see, I'm not sure I've got the stamina for doing another hatchet job on Indonesian politics this week.

People have asked me at various times over the couple of years that I've been writing this occasionally quite cantankerous and no doubt libelous column, if I have ever had any negative feedback or trouble with any authority figure over my Alzheimer fuelled ramblings. I have always replied in the negative and pointed out that I'm not really saying anything that can't be read in Jakarta Post editorials every day (which are, incidentally, written by Indonesian journalists). I may possibly employ a touch more sarcasm than is strictly necessary but I would have to be going it some to top the Post's Independence Day editorial of a couple of years back which was headlined 60 Wasted Years.

Anyway, I decided to give freedom day a fair go and headed up to the National Monument, Monas, to see what festivities were going down. Unfortunately, I never seem to be able to get up early enough in the morning to enjoy the various races and pole climbing competitions that are the Independence Day staple. If there were pole dancing competitions then maybe I'd make the effort.

The Monument's park was packed when I arrived though. Family groups were everywhere, strolling around the recently rejuvenated gardens or camped out on the grass flying kites that frequently came close to garroting me as I wandered past. It was as idyllic a scene as you’re ever likely to see in this concrete, urban Hades and I wondered why the National Monument’s grounds aren't this crowded every weekend.

Parents really should make more of an effort to shoehorn their offspring away from their Playstations and take them somewhere for a runaround. I mean, in classes that I teach I've noticed that the number of kids who look as if they've been inflated with an air hose has been skyrocketing in recent years. They really should be out on their bikes, burning off those chicken drumsticks, getting run over by articulated lorries and being taken to see nonexistent puppies by complete strangers.

The huge number of national holiday families relaxing at Monas generally seemed to be as happy as Larry though, I must say. The culture here is very communal and few things make your average Indonesian happier than chilling out in the company of a million other Indonesians.

I slowly waded through the reclining families up towards the northern perimeter of the Monument Park where the presidential palace lies. SBY's VIP Independence Day bash appeared to be in full pomp and circumstance flow as I neared the top end of the park. I noticed an awful lot of military personnel camped out, securing proceedings. There were also more Indonesian policeman than I've ever seen gathered together in one place before. Aside from the massed security forces, I spied a TV reporter, wearing a traditional Indonesian three-piece Armani business suit, being filmed on a raised platform .

Over the road up the Palace, the brass bands were playing, the rank-and-file soldiery were marching and people were waiting expectantly for the President's Independence Day address. I had seen enough by this point though and hotfooted it down the road to Jl. Jaksa for a (not so) cool Bintang before the amplified platitudes could start.

Nationalism ay? It's a curious beast. Personally I have no time whatsoever for nationalist ideology or patriotism. To me they are just two of the levers that those in power manipulate to control populations and prevent them from seeing the truth of their lives clearly. It was a round world the last time I checked.

The, "My country right or wrong," mentality seems a little strange in light of the fact that one has no choice whatsoever into which country one is ultimately born. What does being English or American or Indonesian ultimately boil down to? It means your parents had sex there. Great. A favorite comedian of mine once mused that instead of putting colored stripes and stars and moons on our flags, we should paste up pictures of our parents making love. Let's see what boot rally mentality can circle around that unpleasant little image. "Is that your mum up there on that flag?"..." Hey, shut up!"

Oscar Wilde once said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and this aphorism could certainly be said to ring true in this country. Corrupters and human rights violators here so often seem to start waving the old red and white as a diversionary tactic when their backs are against the wall.

Perhaps though, a fractious country such as this needs the glue of nationalist sentiment to stick it together. India, for example, was a very fractious country and Gandhi scored a lot of success in uniting it under a banner of peaceful secular nationalism. This country's brand of nationalism however, is still depressingly militaristic. The monolithic (and still pretty unaccountable) Armed Forces loom over everything with their military and business muscle and divide and conquer tactics. Not very Gandhi-esque at all in fact.

Let's finish positively though. I'll admit that nationalism does have a place in sport, because in sport, who wins or loses is of no consequence whatsoever. So let us be true red-and-white patriots then and congratulate the Indonesian shuttlers at the Badminton World Championships who have just won gold medals in the men's doubles and mixed doubles events. Let us also congratulate local boxing hero Chris John for successfully defending his world featherweight title in Japan this week. May they return to cheering tickertape parades, universal acclaim and lucrative Extra Joss endorsement contracts. Hip, hip, hooray.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Votes, Boats and TV Woes

Hello again sports fans. It's been a busy week in Jakarta, what with Mr. Bowo snatching election victory by a moustache’s width at the finishing line. Indonesia's only satirical TV show, Drunken Republic, depicted Mr. Bowo sporting a huge plaster on his upper lip after the Governor elect had urged voters to pierce his moustache on their ballot papers. Well done indeed and long may the show continue to puncture the proud and pompous leaders of this land.

Actually, a colleague of mine told me that his Indonesian wife had taken their young son into the polling booth and simply asked him which candidate she should choose. "The lovely moustache mummy, like on TV," he replied, pointing at the ballot paper. Now six-year-olds don't actually have the vote in Indonesia, which does beg the question why Mr. Bowo seemed to pitch his election advertisements to exactly that age group.

So then, another five years of the backroom boys for the capital. Personally, life in Fauzi's Jakarta has already turned sour from me with the removal of English Premier League football from our screens. PT. Direct Vision Astro, a company I would bet few people here had ever heard of before last week, have outbid Kabelvision, Indovision and the free local terrestrial channels for the rights to show English soccer.

Whether this hugely annoying occurrence will provoke a stampede for Astro connections remains to be seen. However, when we tried to phone Astro from my office last week all we could get was an answer phone message, so I guess that answers my question. I wish we had all been told a little sooner about this epochal change; as it stands it's probably going to take weeks to straighten this mess out.

Your average Indonesian chap, of course, is quite partial to watching the EPL of a Saturday evening on the local channel TV7. In the wake of its absence, your workaday, down at heel Jakartan gentleman will have to seek out some other low-cost entertainment to indulge in after dark on Saturday. Perhaps there will be a mini baby boom nine months hence as a result. What use is my Kabelvision connection now though? Am I going to have to watch the insufferable Oprah Winfrey smugly backslapping celebrities and ex rehab patients from now on? It doesn't bear thinking about.

In an attempt to prove that there must be more to life than soccer and shopping plazas, I thought I'd head up to one of the few places in town that I haven't yet denigrated in the Sunday Post, namely Sunda Kelapa, the old colonial and still active port at the top end of Kota. After getting a taxi to Jakarta's northernmost border from the end of the busway and accidentally giving the driver Rp.100,000 instead of Rp.10,000 (curse these new notes) I found myself breathing in clean(ish) sea air.

The docks themselves are wonderfully old and dilapidated and you can spend a very enjoyable afternoon wandering around, letting the ghosts of the colonial past wash over you. There are plenty of colorful and weather-beaten ships to take pictures of. Most of them are crewed by even more colorful and weather-beaten old coves. I took a few snaps and after a while, I sat down and had a rest from the walking and the endless cries of, "Yo ho ho, hello mister" that were being launched in my direction.

Then, over the battered warehouses and loading cranes, I spied something. I stood up and saw a brand, spanking new building called the Marina Batavia sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the decrepit functionalism of Sunda Kelapa. I walked around to the entrance to investigate.

A security guard was a nice chap and told me that Marina Batavia, Mr. Sutiyoso's final great project, was just nearing completion and should be opening very soon. Ah!! Even up here I couldn't get away from the city administration and their pet projects. Mr. Security took me on a ride around the complex on his scooter and told me what was going on. Apparently, the new marina is set to rival the one at Ancol just a little bit further east along the coast. It will soon be running trips and tours to the Thousand Islands chain (Pulau Seribu) whilst the huge marina building itself will house restaurants, billiard halls and even karaoke lounges.

I made a mental note to return when the place opens and headed back to the civilising calm of (ex?) Governor Sutiyoso's dubious legacy project, the busway (alas, there's no karaoke at the bus stops yet). I've written about the Thousand Islands before in this column but would again urge people to have a few days holiday there, either via Ancol or the new, sexy Marina Batavia when it opens. Too few people seem to know how close they are to paradise. It's simply a question of navigating a path through the 15 km wide band of effluent and industrial pollution that engulfs the capital's coastline before alighting on the clean tropical atolls at the far end of the Thousand Island chain.

Anyway, rest assured I'll be back soon to check out the Marina when it opens. I'm sure it will all be very decadent, the next best thing to Mr Sutiyoso's original idea of establishing a casino/gambling zone in the Thousand Islands themselves. It's a pity that one didn't come off (I believe the Sharia law brigade poured cold water on the idea). Floating croupiers, bow ties, Martinis, palm fringed glamour. One can but dream. Oh well, back to reality I suppose. I'm off to phone Astro's answering machine again.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Choice 2007

Well, it's Wednesday and as I write this I've been given the day off work due to the Jakarta governor's election, so at least some good has come out of the whole process. Main contenders Fauzi Bowo and Adang Daradjatun have been locked in a titanic struggle of ludicrous sloganeering, a citywide campaign of poster and sticker vandalism, in order to secure a winning proportion of the approximately 5 .7 million votes on offer. Why anyone would trust either of these guys to run anything more important than their own baths is quite beyond me but at least, for the first time, the city's residents have their own democratic say over who will continue to run the capital into the ground for the next few years.

As with the country's general elections, the campaigns haven't really been fought on any actual issues or dissemination of policies beyond the laughably hubristic slogans pasted up around town promising the earth and more. Mr Bowo's television commercials dispensed with any mention of either education, housing, transportation or environmental problems in favor of encouraging people to punch the ballot paper through his moustache (to the tune of the Indonesian version of Happy Birthday). In a recent televised debate between the two candidates, Mr Daradjatun, upon being presented with the opportunity to ask his rival a question, inquired about... yes, you've guessed it... his moustache. Personally, if I had the opportunity to vote today I be sorely tempted to take the ballot paper home and use the thing as a dartboard instead of merely punching a hole through the luxuriant foliage of Mr Bowo's upper lip at the polling station.

Democratic process should be about questioning politicians hard about their beliefs and plans so that one can make a meaningful choice about where to cast one's vote. Indonesians, since the fall of Soeharto, have enjoyed a free and fair choice in national and local elections but one that, as yet, hasn't been all that meaningful. Politicians and party leaders have sat in their ivory towers whilst their supporters have danced around the streets waving gaily colored banners like so many football supporters." Support my team!" they scream," No! Support my team!" But why? What do you stand for? About the only issue that has emerged to differentiate the parties from each other is that of secularity versus religion (for religion read Islam) and to me that is quite depressing.

I've often thought though, that democracy conflicts with Indonesian culture at some deeper level. Democracy is largely predicated upon politicians calling each other liars and fighting tooth and claw for every vote. It's about our leaders ripping into each other and insisting that their rivals' figures just don't add up. This is how policies and issues become clear to the voting public. However, this country's polite, genuflecting, consensual culture is perhaps in fundamental conflict with the wars of words required of a healthy democracy. Certainly I find it hard to imagine Indonesia producing anything like the jeering, sarcastic rabble that you see in the British Parliament. Better a jeering, sarcastic rabble though than backroom deals and unctuous, inscrutable smiles. Maybe things are, very slowly, changing here, but it's a difficult transition.

To be fair though, the hollow sloganeering of politicians is a problem for democracies the world over in our media soundbite age. Promises to create full employment, end all traffic jams or provide free health care and schooling (as Mr Daradjatun has done) are by no means unique to Indonesia. Politicians have to be seen to be of firm backbone and show strength. They have to answer the questions put to them on their campaigns with unwavering certainty. But to be so certain ignores the crucial value of doubt. Doubt can be a positive thing; it can reveal openness to possibility which in turn can lead to opportunity.

Instead of any rational doubt though, voters the world over are instead bombarded with hollow rhetoric and promises that cannot possibly be kept. The result of this is that nobody believes in campaign promises and the result of this is a general disparaging of politics in the population. This means voter apathy and the vast ocean of indifference that we've seen in the current Jakarta campaign or in the USA where voter turnout has often struggled around the 50% mark.

How refreshing it would be to have heard one of the Jakarta candidates holding forth thus in the last few weeks:

-Well, clearly our city is a big, complex mess and there's no point in promising to fix in five years what will probably take 50 years and a lot more money than I have at my disposal to put right. However, with this in mind, I promise to study how our budget can be used most efficiently and for maximum impact and will form a team to take a coolheaded, objective and above all, open look at the important issues. In addition, my facial hair will at no point be allowed to detract from the seriousness of this contest and to this end I have decided to have my mustache ritually shaved, burnt and the ashes scattered from the boatway into the Ciliwung River to the accompaniment of Happy Birthday.

Now that would be someone worth voting for.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Eyes Have It

Well I’m still in the UK for another few days, basking in the balmy force eight gales, floods and shiver inducing weather of a classic English summer before returning to Jakarta’s humid rice belch.

Feeling a bit out of touch with Indonesian events my ears pricked up when I turned on the BBC radio news last Monday. Apparently, The Iraqi soccer squad have, quite astonishingly, won the Asian Cup tournament in Jakarta. The Iraqis beat the Indonesian team’s nemesis, Saudi Arabia, in a tense final. I’m sure that this is a popular victory around the world and let’s hope that the team’s success provides a bit of light relief from the general misery and sectarian turmoil of the post Shock and Awe Iraq.

According to BBC Radio 4, however, there was so much celebratory shooting into the air after the match (in Baghdad, not Jakarta presumably) that a couple of people were actually killed by bullets as they fell back down to Earth. Personally I prefer to spend post footy match celebrations with a bottle of Bintang and ESPN Sports desk, but each to his own I suppose. Still, perhaps in the afterlife, Saddam is looking down on events (or more probably up) and smiling that moustachioed, reptilian rictus that we all miss.

Moving right along, instead of boring you with more pedestrian tales from the UK I thought that this week I’d relate a story from Jakarta that happened to me about a month ago. Over the last few years, various friends of mine have been extolling the benefits of laser eye surgery to me – a relatively new procedure known commonly by the acronym LASIK. I thought that I’d finally put my money where my eyes are and have a go myself.

Basically, four eyed freaks such as yours truly are now able to have laser beams fired across their eyeballs, reshaping the front of their corneas and obviating the need to fiddle about with glasses and/or contact lenses any more. Having worn glasses and lenses since the age of seven, the opportunity to do away with both at a stroke seemed almost miraculous.

On the other hand, the thought of having laser beams fired into your eyes is a disconcerting one and for me, rather conjured up images of Sean Connery as James Bond in that movie where he ends up strapped down to a table as a laser beam gets closer and closer to his…ahem…family jewels shall we say.

LASIK surgery is now on offer and being heavily promoted at a few places around Jakarta. I located a clinic in my local area on Jl. Tendean, that performs the procedure for Rp.15,000,000. This is a fair amount of cash admittedly but perhaps not so much to pay for essentially what amounts to having a new pair of eyes.

I was quite nervous before the operation however. Not only was I going to have laser beams scorching my eyeballs, but there would also be an Indonesian chap on the other end of the machine. Now I’m all for resisting the obvious Indonesian stereotypes that are generally propagated but the very future of my eyes was at stake here. It proved hard to stop my brain from conjuring nightmarish scenarios that would every now and then poke above the meniscus of my unconscious mind.

I imagined the laser machine seizing up halfway through the operation. I then foresaw the optician’s profuse apologies – “Sorry Mr, machine broken, we will send your eyes to our other branch in North Jakarta.” He would then scoop out my eyes with a teaspoon, pack them in ice and send them by motorcycle Ojeg across town to be lasered with myself in absentia.

Three hours later, the trusty Ojeg driver would return only to trip over whilst walking back into the surgery. My eyes would fly across the reception area and fall down a lift shaft where they would be found by the janitor another two hours later, covered in fluff and oil from elevator’s lifting cable. After a brief rinse in the Mandi my vital organs would be returned to my face (in the wrong sockets) and I’d be awarded a 50% discount by the clinic to offset the costs of a white stick and a few Braille lessons.

In the event, though, my worst fears proved unfounded. The whole procedure was performed very professionally using hi-tech, state of the art, computer controlled machines and only took about ten minutes. Most importantly, it didn’t hurt. I was sent home with a huge pair of dark glasses and some special eyedrops and was told not to open my eyes for about six hours.

When I awoke later the results were pretty impressive. I had about 95% perfect vision (the other 5% took another couple of weeks to achieve as my eyes healed from the operation). I now have 20/20 vision and am able to enjoy the stunning vistas and beautiful slagheaps of downtown Jakarta with crystal clarity.

I celebrated my success by enacting a ritual destruction of my now redundant spectacles involving household tools and riding over the poor things with my bicycle. The best money I’ve ever spent I reckon. So it’s clear vision for me from now on; well, at least until my rampant self abuse catches up with me and the lights finally go dark in about 6 months time.