Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Politics of Dancing

This week, the inevitable anti-climax arrived like a condom full of ice cubes. After last week's media circus Smackdown at Pertamina Hospital, ex-president Suharto is recovering in leaps and bounds and will no doubt soon be skateboarding back to Jl. Cendana to start training for this summer's Olympics. We'll try again in another few months ay?

However, one cheering piece of news in this week's paper suggested that Mr S's children, never particularly held in great affection by your average Indonesian, could be liable for any monies to be paid in damages to the state, even if the old man buys the farm before any trial. I'll believe it when I see it though.

This week, I would like to move on to the country's present president. I was ambling catatonically around a shopping Plaza last week, like a Stepford wife after a heavy Bintang session, when something caught the corner of my eye in the music shop I was passing. Good Lord! It was a poster advertising SBY's album Rinduku Padamu (My Longing for You). Now admittedly this story is about six months old but I thought it might be quite fun, in a masochistic kind of a way, to buy Mr. Yudhoyono's disk and give it a spin for Metro Mad.

Normally, I'm a big fan of downloading the latest sounds from peer-to-peer file sharing sites such as Soulseek. However, I thought that just this once I would assuage my guilt over my copyright crimes and make a purchase. Mr. Yudhoyono's clearly a struggling artist trying to make ends meet by means of his musical talent and far be it from me to deny him the fruits of his aesthetic labors.

Alas, the attendant in the shop informed me that CD copies of Rinduku Padamu had all sold out. Clearly there is a musical renaissance under way around town. I managed a purchase a good old-fashioned cassette copy though and headed home, the better for to hear Mr President's honeyed harmonies. However, I soon realized that SBY, whilst having written all of the songs on the album, doesn't actually croon them himself. Various Indonesian singing stars have instead been drafted in to bring the President's compositions to life.

Strange as it may seem for a president or politician to be pursuing a parallel career in music, this is not a story without precedent. Only recently, rabble rousing Venezuelan populist Hugo Chávez released an album of traditional songs. And of course, rock fans the world over await with eager anticipation the release of UK premiere Gordon Brown's album of Alice Cooper covers (Shurely shome mishtake?)

In Indonesia itself, hardline general and East Timor independence whipping boy Wiranto also released an album a few years back. Presumably, this was to show a softer side of himself to counter the image of burning, looting, destruction and murder that colors many people's perceptions of him. As such there were no Death Metal anthems extolling the virtues of pagan ritual and carnage on his disk, only the usual treaty ballads so beloved in this country.

Which brings us neatly onto SBY's magnum opus. Our man stares moodily into the middle distance on the album cover, sensitively strumming at an acoustic guitar. Far from being some etiolated, whey faced, stick thin singer-songwriter though, SBY's essential heft puts one more in mind of that corpulent love walrus Barry White.

This is where all resemblances to any black musicians ends however. Just to digress for a second here, I've always found it slightly depressing that so much Western influenced Indonesian popular music seems to eschew the primal influences of black popular culture and the loci of rhythmic and sexual danger that surrounds it. Instead we get the limpest, soppiest ballads for the girls and the whitest, most constipated and pedestrian forms of ‘alternative’ rock for the boys. For those of a supposedly more sophisticated bent, the cheesiest, most mindlessly supermarket-esque forms of jazz on the planet seem to predominate. Perhaps this country’s Western influenced popular music should try and draw more on the fantastic indigenous, traditional musics of Indonesia and indeed there is better stuff out there that does do this.

SBY's album though certainly suffers from soporific ballad syndrome (musically analogous to irritable bowel syndrome). After about 2.5 seconds of the title track, I knew that I was in for an LP every bit as mediocre as the man's presidency. "La la la, plonk plonk plonk, bit of a twang, yeah yeah yeah."

Apparently SBY has gone on record as saying that it takes him between one and two and a half hours to write a song and that he once composed a track on a long haul flight after leaving an economics forum in Sydney. Phew! Rock 'n' roll! You know you're on the edge, you know you're partying with SBY at the controls. Whatever next? Dick Cheney sings Britney Spears at the Republican convention? Actually that's not such an unlikely scenario; I'd better keep quiet lest some GOP strategist sees this. I mean we’ve already had eight years of Bill “Sax Appeal” Clinton and his professed love for the music of Kenny bloody G.

Government approved pop music, it's an idea that sets the pulse racing isn't it? The Sun Is Shining, The Power of God, A Song under the Moonlight: all these great titles can be yours if you purchase a copy of SBY's breakout debut album. Rinduku Padamu is the sound of interest rates dropping half a percentage point. Rock on. Don't give up the day job Mr President....er... actually, on second thoughts.....

Sunday, January 20, 2008

End of the Line

As I write this on Monday, ex-president Suharto is in intensive care and has been given a 50-50 chance of survival. What does that mean when you are in your late 80s? Surely everyone's chances of survival are ultimately zero? The old boy's had a good innings though for sure. Certainly he made it to a riper old age than the million plus whose journeys ended in the orgy of violence of 1966, the catalyst that saw Mr S. rise to power in the first place.

Trying to gauge public opinion last week on everyone's favorite English language personal abuse forum, Jak Chat, I found mixed sentiments in evidence. There were those trying to cast the man's achievements as, "The father of development," in a favorable light to someone else's prediction that, "If you gave this man an enema you could bury him in a matchbox," (actually that one was mine but keep it under your hat). Some wit had posted up a little vignette involving SBY visiting the old boy in hospital and the ex-president wheezing like Darth Vader through his ventilator, "SBY... I am your father." Very witty Oscar, although possibly there is a serious point here behind the jape, namely Susilo BY's rather risible and offensive suggestion that the whole nation pray for Suharto. Not national awakening but a national wake.

In fact Mr. S has himself been thinking along spiritual lines and is reported to have had his bed turned in the direction of Mecca. In my secular humanist opinion though, his best bet would be to hope that the great bearded one in the sky doesn't exist and come join us lovable atheists down the pub. If not I reckon that it could be a trip down to the cellar for our man.

As for the father of development argument though, let's take a closer look at the evidence. During the 31 years that Mr S. was in power, the whole of the developing world, including this region, was also expanding at a fast clip. Many of those countries could be said to have made a better job of the whole deal than this one. The bloodshed and Indonesia's 1998 financial plummet are not great marks on the old man's celestial report card. The whole of the rich world was rushing to invest in Southeast Asia throughout the 70s and 80s and so did he have to do much more than stick up a sign at Sukarno-Hatta saying, "Indonesia now open for business, no more Konfrontasi or pinko shenanigans guaranteed folks."

Also, bearing in mind that about half of this country live below the UN mandated poverty line, you have to ask the question, "Development by who for who?" The almost nihilistic plundering of resources via the weapons of unfettered capitalism did indeed develop this nation. Only one resource was perhaps neglected - the human one. Perhaps though, the still lingering Suharto legacy of anti-intellectualism was a necessary precondition for facilitating the embezzlement of more money than any other leader in world history. Sounds logical to me.

However, I seem to be getting carried away with myself. What I really wanted to report was that last Monday I popped into Rumah Sakit Pertamina, handily near my office, to check out what was going on. Now, Pertamina Hospital is somewhere that I have myself spent time, although with slightly less media attention and, I would assert, considerably more repellent food at my disposal than the great helmsman. It was a slightly creepy nostalgia trip for me then.

When I arrived, the cameras, reporters and policemen were crowding the entrance and generally inconveniencing outpatients trying to get in for their checkups. I waited around for a bit to see what would happen and sure enough, after about 20 minutes, a fancy car pulled up and out stepped former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad. It was once said of the heavily eye lidded author Salman Rushdie that he resembles a hawk looking through a set of Venetian blinds. Mahatir, with his rather inscrutable, sour faced expression is seemingly cut from the same cloth in this respect.

Anyway, the old man shuffled in amid a mêlée of blazing flashbulbs and was gone. I decided to call it quits and headed back to the office for a bracing can of Pocari Sweat and a plate of rice (the champagne is still on ice you understand). It's strange though that this Indonesian media fascination with Mr S's inner workings, haemoglobin counts, colon condition and blood in faeces etc has been dragging on now for about five years. Why this obsession with the old man's guts? I reckon that at some unconscious level a lot of the Indonesian public dream of seeing this man eviscerated and feasted on by vultures.

Later, on Wikipedia, I learnt that during his early life, Mr S., "Is believed to have had little interest in anti-colonialism or political concerns beyond his immediate surroundings." This certainly makes sense if you believe that a lack of ideological underpinnings to a man's character can allow his corrupt side to run rampant. Wikipedia also informs inquisitive web surfers that, "Like many Javanese, Suharto has only one name." Well so do God, Sting, Satan and Cher; I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Ultimately, he was a wily man for sure and for three decades his method of co-opting a few of his more powerful opponents while criminalizing the rest proved a winning formula and one whose legacy is still with us. Keep praying everyone. See you next time.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Here Comes the Sun

I hope you all had an enlightening Christmas break and are invigorated and refreshed to face the challenges of another year as opposed to trudging around the office like a brokenhearted zombie, as I am. I did have an enjoyable holiday however. Java and Bali were under a constant deluge over the festive season which evidently seemed to culminate in all the usual death, destruction and landslides. Bali holiday makers had a slightly damp time of things and a friend of mine in Kuta texted me to inform me that the beach was temporarily closed and that he actually saw a dead pig washed up on the sands. A message from Allah, no doubt, inveighing against the evils of the two-piece bathing suit.

I opted for Lombok however, which turned out to have been a lucky choice as things were rather sunnier over there. It didn't start out so well though. I landed at Mataram in the middle of a huge downpour and, despite being provided with a handsome Lion Air umbrella, got soaked on way from the plane into the terminal building.

Christmas Day also proved to be pretty dire as the rain kept coming down. I hadn't yet hooked up with my friends and, the icing on the cake; I had to negotiate the rude and aggressive hustlers at Bangsal port as I attempted to catch a public boat to Gili Trawangan. "Ha ha Mr, may be no more public boat today, you can sleep in the street here until tomorrow, ha ha." Charming fellows indeed.

Things picked up in the Gilis though. The three tiny islands off Lombok's north-west coast are a popular drawl for tourists with their desert island beaches, coral reef diving, evening parties and lack of motor vehicles.

On the main island of Trawangan, horses and carts trot gently along the main strip of restaurants, bars and hotels next to the stunning views of Gunung Rinjani on the mainland which are afforded from Trawangan's beaches. My chums and I managed to spend five dreamy days, snorkelling, eating, walking, watching the Christmas football fixtures and indulging in oneiric mushroom trips. Paradise. It's like a mini Bali without the Ozzie Surfers assaulting one senses. I'll certainly be back again in the future.

After the Gilis, we headed back to the mainland, scored some funds from the ATMs of Mataram and headed into the south of Lombok, the territory of the indigenous Sasak people. After rocking up at Kuta Beach, I was immediately struck by the contrast with its more illustrious namesake across the water in Bali. Whereas Kuta-Bali is densely jammed with humanity and as overdeveloped as Jakarta, Kuta-Lombok is a meditative paradise of spectacular scenery, deserted white sandy beaches and..... well, that's about it, what more do you want for pity's sake? Boorish happy hours? Ludicrously expensive surf clothing outlets? A Circle K every 10 yards?

Lombok's south coast is blissfully free of all this extraneous flotsam and is the real natural paradise that the slightly tarnished island across the water claims to be. The only potential spoiler is the possibility of having your stuff pinched from the beach whilst you go for a paddle, which has apparently proved problematic here in the past. I guess that's the price you pay for the relatively small amount of tourist development in Lombok, so keep an eye on that backpack.

Once again though, Kuta-Lombok threw my nagging feeling of ambivalence towards tourist development into sharp relief. Tourism is a fantastic potential source of revenue for a relatively impoverished local economy such as the one in South Lombok. On the other hand, sitting watching a spectacular sunset in an equally spectacular bay in the Kuta area, I couldn't help wishing that the inevitable tide of noisy beachside cafes and the accompanying hordes of goodtime tourists could somehow be held back from spoiling the idyll I was enjoying. A completely untenable, hypocritical position may be. I mean what was I if not a good time tourist?

On the other hand though, Western tourists perhaps expect too much these days. Who needs every resort to be an identikit mishmash of neon lit bars and satellite TV availability? Whatever happened to the thrill of being a dog-eared traveler washing up somewhere seldom frequented by Uncle Whitey? Alas, that On the Road/Dharma Bums Jack Kerouac quest for a natural Nirvana seems to be dying and backpacks are being swapped for suitcases by the current younger generation of lifestyle choice package tourists. Will the great spirit of adventure recover from this onslaught of indiscriminate, media fuelled hedonism? Or are those days, inevitably, over forever?

The peace and tranquillity of Lombok afforded me a genuine chance to unwind and de-stress myself. Two weeks in Kuta, Bali and I'd need another holiday just to get over my holiday.

After my inner chakras had been re-harmonised, returning to Jakarta came as a somewhat rude awakening and, on top of that, the roads have been pockmarked with lunar craters by the recent heavy rains. I'll be back to my old self with more neurotic tales from Pertamina-ville next week folks. Stay dry everyone.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

May Old Acquaintance Be Forgot.

It seems that New Year's Eve will be shambling along tomorrow night in a fug of alcoholic kisses and hearty slaps on the back accompanied, of course, by a cardboard voluntary of horns. So it looks like I do actually have time to squeeze in another column before 2008 hoves into view like a rusty old clipper full of yesterday's tea.

I guess I've might have peaked too soon (story of my life) by looking back over 2007 in last week's column. Maybe, however, I can offer a few more brief words of kindly encouragement as many of you look forward to drinking your own wait in Vodka Martinis tomorrow evening and then resolve to give up booze the following day. Apparently the Babylonian New Year celebrations used to last for 11 days although I don't think I've got the time or stamina for such revelry.

Instead, I will no doubt be enjoying New Year's Day with a few Panadols and a monosyllabic grunt at the first, "Hello Mr," of 2008 to be gratuitously lobbed in my direction like a misfiring December the 31st firecracker.

Januaries, in general, were depressing affairs in my youth. The fun holidays were over and there was only the freezing weather to look forward to until spring poked his head through the clouds. At least it's warm in Indonesia the year-round although come February I may be having to head off to work in a rubber dinghy as I did in 2007.

I think though, that I should throw my weight behind the country’s 2008 visit Indonesia year and it's grammatically contentious slogan, "Celebrating 100 Years of Nation's Awakening," which is currently being corrected at the cost of many thousands of dollars... ho-hum.

Our beloved red-and-white republic can certainly improve on the 5 million odd visitors who made it here last year. And let's face it, tourism is a far more egalitarian method of distributing money throughout a country such as this than other forms of investment. At least those tourist dollars go straight to the lowest echelons of the citizenry as opposed to being creamed off by central government and local bureaucrats as is the case with oil or mining for example.

The tourist infrastructure outside Bali really isn't that great however and certainly won't be improving massively in the one-day left before the 100 Yearses of Nations Awakenings Celebrationings begin in earnest. With this in mind, maybe the tourist board should try making a virtue out of a vice. The poor facilities of the country's far-flung tourist pleasure spots could be marketed as a challenge for the new generation of Amazing Race watching, skydiving, extreme sporting psychos currently running around the planet with their all-weather iPods.

One can imagine the tourist campaign:
-Been rafting over the Niagara Falls? Scaled Everest? Been sand yachting in Oman? Well come to Indonesia and experience the challenge of a lifetime trying to down a plate of spaghetti Bolognese that resembles rubber bands in cat sick as the sun set spectacularly over the faecal sump of the toilet block. Spend a few hours relaxing in a damp room full of cockroaches and mosquitoes before embarking on a torchlit night Safari into the ecological wonderland of your attached Mandi . Yes come to the Republic of Indonesia, a real challenge for real travelers (service charge not included).

But I'm being facetious here though (surprise surprise). In fact, I rather like the rural charms of outback Indonesia and would hate it if idylls such as Bunaken or Lake Toba became as overdeveloped as Legian is. Going loco is all part of the experience and it just wouldn't be the same if these places were dotted with Circle K's. The locals would probably disagree with me here though as increased tourist development and revenues are their potential ticket out of a life of grinding poverty.

There must be a middle ground though. Sustainable tourism and all that? Alas sustainability is not a word that (yet) has much currency in this country but we can all live in hope; it’s New Year after all.

Enjoy your celebrations then one and all, wherever you may be. Above all take heart if you're holidaying somewhere out in the wilds of this great country. There will always be a gritty coffee and banana pancake in the morning to ease that hangover on January the first.