Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lord of the Thighs

The pornography law has passed onto the statute books and we now live in a country in which extremely vague and conservative conceptions of public indecency are permitted to be enforced by extra judicial vigilante groups. Time will tell whether Indonesia will come to resemble the oppressive society across the water in Malaysia (which this week banned Muslims from the infidel practice of Yoga). Perhaps this new law though, like so many others here, will remain largely un-enforced. Given the binary encrypted Tsunamis of filth that spill out over the internet, the porn law can be seen as a rearguard action in an ultimately losing battle.

On the other hand, a more fundamentalist, firebrand version of Islam seems to be in the ascendancy here and fundamentalist religion, as we all know, is primarily about sex. Whether it’s clerics shouting over grating mosque Tannoy systems or shiny faced American evangelists, sex always looms large over proceedings like some diabolical, bikini clad Satan. War, famine, genocide, grinding poverty and environmental collapse, in contrast, barely seem to get a look in.

Sexual guilt and repression are great engines of religion of course and have helped to energize it ever since men and women first learnt to walk upright and found that their hands now fell to a natural resting position next to their genitals. Guilt and repression do not inspire humankind’s better nature though; just think of all those young men with AK-47s in one hand and a copy of the Koran in the other, sublimating their sexual tensions through militarism. Think also of the various sexual scandals involving catholic priests sexually abusing young boys in their charge as a consequence of their enforced celibacy.

Has Indonesia’s new pornography and indecency law actually changed anything out there on the streets though? I thought I’d venture forth and insert a probing thermometer between the city’s rosy cheeks in order to take its post porn law temperature.

The city’s school girls were out in force as I headed off to Hero. For a number of years now they’ve been required to wear ankle length skirts that trail rather impractically in the mud. The previous knee length numbers are now but a distant memory. Hopefully though when these brave young citizens become student activists they will lead a bikini clad, anti porn law protest down to the Hotel Indonesia roundabout.

Later on that day I decided to check out the city’s nightlife scene to see if any new sense of morality was prevailing on the dance floors of Batavia. Halfway to Loewy’s, currently the most uber-trendy joint in town, my taxi driver got out and relieved himself in a nearby ditch. Presumably under the new law he could have been arrested for exposing his family jewels in a public place. Thankfully though our refreshed driver returned to the driving seat unmolested and we continued on our way. Score one for freedom.

When I finally arrived at the achingly hip Loewy’s, the elite movers and shakers were out in force, schmoozing the night away over vats of Martini. Patrons didn’t really seem to be tending towards the conservative in their choices of clothing. A prosecutable display of bare midriffs, wobbling thighs and clinging frocks seemed to be the order of the evening among the assembled hipsters (and that was just the guys).
Indecent? Seen through the rigid lens of the new law then perhaps yes. Personally I’d be more inclined to find the ostentatious display of conspicuous wealth and elite schadenfreude rather indecent but that’s another issue. Clothing wise, there seemed to be little sense of a new, upper class piety or sobriety on display. I guess that it’s middle class moral indignation that more usually strives to uphold public virtue as opposed to the two more decadent and colourful classes that abut it on either side.

The next day, I headed down to a cheap, low class mall to see if the city’s plebian hordes had done anything to reign in their sexiness in light of the new legislation. Melawai Plaza in the Blok M area is full of budget ladies’ apparel shops and my research provided me with the perfect opportunity to pop along there and loiter around a few bra counters.

Both the clothing on sale and the young ladies browsing it seemed as coyly flirtatious as ever. I asked one of the shop girls if there’d been a decline in sales of backless tops, sequined two inch long skirts and dental floss like G strings in recent weeks but she replied in the negative. She enthused that, “Jakarta girls like to dress up if they go to a bar or disco.” Or even the supermarket it often seems to me.

So has nothing really changed? Is the new law a lame duck? Its always been a mystery to me why politicians here thought that they could make traction with this bill ahead of next year’s election. Despite what Indonesia’s electorate may profess in public, the country’s post New Order elections have shown that in the privacy of the polling booth, they have little appetite for the Islamic parties. Let’s just hope that those vigilante groups don’t materialize.

The real sex crimes in this country involve the virtual kidnapping, trafficking and enforced sexual slavery of women, allegedly with tacit support from rogue elements in the police and military. There’s also the cleric in East Java who’s just married a 12 year old girl. Let’s try and keep our eyes on the ball shall we?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Empire of Mud

As the economy plummets, Aburizal Bakrie, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, Indonesia's richest man (well he was before all this started) and East Java mud disaster facilitator, finds himself increasingly on the ropes. After seeking, and ultimately failing, to gain preferential treatment on Jakarta's stock markets, our man has seen the value of shares in his companies plummet. Now looking increasingly punch-drunk and liable to lash out indiscriminately, Mr Bakrie's latest ruse is to bypass the country's press law and sue Tempo magazine for defamation.

With this rather spicy tale currently dominating headlines in the capital, it was with some interest that I hobbled along to the groundbreaking ceremony at the new Bakrie funded luxury apartment complex currently taking shape on Jl. Rasuna Said. The rather portentously named Rasuna Epicentrum was hosting a little ground floor reception accompanied by the music of famous local jazzer and Glenn 'Deadly' Fredly.

I sat down and was presented with an information pack by a PR girl who then proceeded to launch into an uninterrupted 15 minute jaw about the project whilst my eyes glazed over. It seems that the ultimate academic prize in Jakarta these days is to gain a specious qualification in public relations before searching for gainful employment that allows one to lie for a living.

Anyway, my enquiries as to how the project would be completed, given the aforementioned parlous state of the Bakrie Group's finances, were gently rebuffed by our inveterate PR girl. According to her, the project has Arab guarantors which effectively clears the whole question of funding up. In fact, I've read that the Arab countries, perpetually flush with petrochemical largesse, should be snapping up financial fire sale assets the world over about now.

After the spiel I was taken upstairs into some mock up apartments. Unfortunately, half an hour of hot passion didn't ensue and I was instead treated to more eye glazing PR doublespeak by our persistent corporate shill.

Apparently the apartments have been designed around a green living concept under the nausea inducing and no doubt trademarked brand name 'Greeneration'. Energy efficient buildings are indeed going to be an important part of climate change mitigation in the future though and so any genuine efforts in this direction are to be applauded.

Apartment prices range from around US$150,000 to over $300,000, which is quite a wedge of cash when you consider the average house price here. On the other hand, you would be living right in the centre of town, an important consideration given the city's super and lovely traffic conditions. Also, I guess if you're living up on eighth floor you are less likely to have your property swamped by a rising tide of mud when Mr B's driller killers start boring holes in the car park below.

As we looked through one of the dummy apartment’s windows towards the site of one of the future Bakrie towers, I noticed that the ubiquitous Jakartan shantytown was still occupying the area. "Actually, they can't live there," my guide intoned dismissively. Well, quite clearly they can live there because quite clearly they do live there. The question is what happens when the bulldozers want to move in? Going on previous form I presume that they'll splinter the urban Kampung to matchwood, scattering grandmothers and cooking utensils everywhere before getting stuck into the foundation digging.

I was then taken to see a plastic model of how the whole complex would look after completion. Rather optimistically, it included a working monorail running down Rasuna Said next to the putative towers. Still, a bit of optimism never hurt anyone ay?

I then moved on to the freebies and exchanged my little info pack token for a plastic glass of something called Bubble Tea which looked about as flat and unhealthy as the bubble economy that has just burst. After that I headed over the road to Pasar Festival Plaza which coincidentally enough houses the Bakrie School of Management. How students can walk through the doors without giving in to the urge to spray paint the prefix "Mis-" before the final word above the door, or at least let out a little snort of derision every time they go in, I don't know.

As for Mr. Bakrie himself, time will tell if he is able to ride out the current financial and political storm raging around him or whether, as seems increasingly likely, his name is mud.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

King of the Swingers

Early last Monday I was riding my bicycle down our street on my way to work when I chanced upon a rather interesting spectacle. A local man was holding a leash in his hand, at the other end of which was a monkey dressed in a rather natty little uniform. The primate was dancing agitatedly to the distorted rhythms of his master’s cheap karaoke sound system, to the delight of the assembled local kids.

I thought for one horrible moment that I was having some kind of detox hallucination brought on by the current city wide alcohol crisis which in turn has been caused by a recent customs clampdown. Recently I’ve been having visions of myself turning into Richard E Grant’s dipsomaniacal tour de force Withnail from the movie Withnail and I. i.e. either drinking furniture polish in desperation or hammering on the doors of Kemang’s perpetually closed duty free shops with my fists bawling, “I demand to have some booze,” in an upper class English accent.

The simian sideshow was real though and I realized that I had unwittingly stumbled into what are locally known as Topeng Monyet. Basically Primates are kidnapped from their natural habitats in the forests and jungles of Indonesia, forced into anthropomorphizing little trousers and jackets and taken around the streets by vagabonds who make them perform circus tricks for money. It’s a practice that’s as loved by locals as it is loathed by expatriates who perceive the whole undertaking to be rather cruel and heartless.

Standing watching the somewhat sorry display before me I was put in mind of a rather sad and squalid Victorian freak show, so human did our little furry friend seem. The show was however marginally more entertaining than that other great Indonesian street theatre, namely the hairy, dress wearing brutes with pancaked makeup, tambourines and dead giveaway Adam’s apples that trawl through the traffic giving everyone the willies (actually, perhaps I should rephrase that).

After a few minutes of dancing punctuated by vicious yanks on the leash, a mini bicycle was produced for our urbanized tree swinger to use. The little chap proceeded to zoom back and forth on his steed before eventually simulating a crash and playing dead for a few seconds. This rather apposite Jakarta tableau gave me a few moments pause for thought and I shuddered as I recalled my own bone crunching bike accident of a couple of years back.

As our furry banana enthusiast lay prone on the asphalt like a dead Ojeg driver it dawned on me that the whole Topeng Monyet circus could possibly fulfil some valuable educational function after all. Maybe our betailed friend was sowing the seeds of evolutionary consciousness in the minds of the clapping children. Perhaps what Darwin described as our, “Arboreal past,” and a sense of our species’ position at the top of the primate pile were gaining a tentative conceptual foothold in these impressionable young brains as they watched our not so distant cousin dancing in his tiny clothes.

This is no doubt wishful thinking on my part and a pretty unlikely outcome in modern Indonesia, especially in these trying times of religious retrenchment. As I stood watching Mr. Monyet doing his best homo sapiens impression though, I could at least comfort myself with the veracity of evolutionary theory. Thankfully there is no hell for bikini clad violators of Indonesia’s new porn law to sunbathe in. Conversely, let us be comforted by the fact that there is no heaven of 72 virgins for the recently executed Bali bombers to slake their twisted lusts on. Only sweet oblivion awaits us all. Indeed, the whole 72 virgins thing is alleged to be a bit of a mistranslation in any case. According to some scholars, the real translation is 72 bunches of grapes. Not nearly as much fun although I guess Amrozi and co could trample them down and have a good old booze up….Oh dear, guess what I’m thinking about now.

A solution does seem to be marching with ill advised confidence towards my Eureka valve though. In order to able to stump up for the 400 percent price rise on a bottle of vodka I suppose I could follow the Topeng Monyet model and drag some poor creature around the streets with me on a piece of string and try raise some funds that way. Actually, given the attention and general mesmerized stares that simply being a whitey on the streets of Jakarta can elicit maybe I should just cut out the piece of string altogether, put on a little sailor suit and do a one man dance routine. That voddy’s as good as mine.

Jakarta's 47th Most Popular Blogger in Record Transfer Deal

Well for those four of you who follow this blog in its print form, I've taken the earth shattering decision of moving the column across from The JP to the new Jakarta Globe. It'll be appearing every Saturday as there's no Sunday Globe. I'm not trying to bite the hand that feeds and all respect to the JP. I just thought I'd give this new, sexy young paper a try in order to help them out :) Can I just stress that this has nothing at all to do with the increased writers fee that they've promised me. So...Saturdays from now on...

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Say It Loud....

It's been a historic week for racial politics and make no mistake. Obama's election trouncing of John McCain was of course preceded by the flying Hertfordshire hero, Lewis Hamilton, becoming Formula One's youngest and blackest champion last Sunday.

I think we had better stick with US politics though. The whole Obama shebang really did feel like one of those epochal, where-were-you when-it-happened moments of history.

Where was I? At work actually following the whole thing on the Internet. At 10 a.m., after barely an hour in the office, it was all over bar the shouting. At 12, I found a TV set and managed to catch Mr O’s victory speech. I'm sure most of you saw it yourselves. It contained the smattering of platitudes and generalizations that all speeches contain but even a hardened political cynic like me felt curiously moved. Either that or the previous night's Padang takeout was repeating on me.

A little modesty, humility and intelligence goes a long way after the monstrous arrogance and bitter disappointments of the last eight years. He even seemed to actually believe his message of reconciliation. Amazing. The speech was sober though, befitting a president elect whose national economy has just gone down the toilet.

For me though, the most enduring image came when the camera found the face of Jesse Jackson in the crowd. A few months ago, in a not totally atypical Jackson outburst, he was accidentally caught on an open microphone saying that he would like to, "Cut Obama's nuts off". There he was though, tears streaming down his face as he listened, caught up in this historic culmination of a struggle that he and Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and so many others have given so much to. Oprah cried too apparently but nuts to her. I'm sure that Mr.Barrack can raise her tax (race attacks?) a touch perhaps. Mind you Lewis Hamilton is not short of a few quid either these days….sorry, I’ll stop mentioning Mr.H.

Later on that evening I headed down to the Bellagio mall in Mega Kuningan where Democrats Abroad had put on a huge victory party. As I entered, the victory speech was replaying on the huge screen that they had hung up in the lobby. Everyone was giving it with the "Yes we can"s. And then a shower of red, white and blue balloons descended from the ceiling like they do at those stage-managed party conventions and rallies. As I was lamenting the lack of any black balloons, a local Indonesian MC took to the stage in front of the screen and told us that Obama was a true son of both Indonesia and America. Then, tongue planted firmly in his cheek he announced that, "Now we know for sure that America will not invade Indonesia." Well let's certainly hope not anyway.

A friend of mine joked that Obama, in keeping with the traditional fate of African-Americans, has been given one of the worst jobs in the world cleaning up this whole mess. You can't really envy the man can you?
The Bellagio rocked hard all night and the next morning the sun rose on a new dawn and a massive hang over for me (they had been mixing tequila with beer down there at Amigos, presumably there are laws against endangering public health so recklessly).

Next year will see Indonesia also choosing a president. Alas secular, clean and progressive candidates that have the inspiring Obama factor seemed to be thin on the ground. Probably they'll stick with what they've got at the moment, which isn't tremendously exciting really but... you know... hey Ho.

An African American though. What would be the equivalent here? A Papuan becoming Indonesian president. I can't see it really. After running against an Indonesian war hero. That could be a tall order too.

The world does seem to be stuck right down in the U bend just at the moment though and you can't load all of your hopes onto the shoulders of one man of course. If Mr.O knows anything though, it’s that in order to have democracy, real democracy, everyone has to struggle. And it is a battle that never ends. The future is still unwritten though my McCain-verbal-tic friends. It's still open. Not for me though, my taxi’s just arrived and I am going down the pub.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Electric Boogaloo Pt.2

Well another painful financial week has limped to a close and the world is looking forward to a Christmas of austerity and humbug. Nintendos may be out of reach for many this Yuletide and once again kids may have to make do with an orange and a spinning top.

You've got to keep smiling though and a few financial crisis jokes may just cheer us up briefly before Metro Mad once again gets down to the business of pulling the rug out from under the happy dancing feet of your weekend. What's the difference between an investment banker and a pigeon? A pigeon is still capable of leaving a deposit on a Ferrari. Cue sound of tumbleweeds blowing down the street. Not tickled? How about this one. What's the capital of Iceland? About $10. Cue sound of an owl hooting in a copse. Oh well I tried.

The recession is on its way I guess and perhaps nothing will cheer us up. Jakarta is certain to feel its effects too but at least there is no mortgage crisis here. Some of the prefabricated housing that I’ve seen in those new complexes on the outskirts of town looks as if it would crumble to dust long before any mortgage was paid off anyway. Average Indonesians are more likely to have their hire purchase motor scooters repossessed than their houses. Also, those living under bridges and along riverbanks in the city are more likely to have their cardboard box style houses smashed up by public order officials; certainly I don’t think anyone would be particularly interested in repossessing them.

It's worth remembering how this whole sorry state of affairs started in the first place though, namely multitudes of people defaulting on their mortgages in America. Basically this means that your average working man is simply unable to afford to buy somewhere to live any more. When this comes to pass I think you have to ask yourself some serious questions about what has happened to society over the last 20 years. Life can be tough in the West too despite the paved with gold image that many in Asia have of the Occident.

Changing the subject to only marginally less depressing matters, some of you may recall last week's column in which I related the sad saga of most of our household appliances being fried in a PLN Power surge. This unfortunate incident has solicited a few e-mails in my inbox this week.

A Mr. RT (married to Mrs. RW perhaps) wrote to me to say, "Down here in lightning alley (Cinere) I've already lost multiple electronic gadgets power supplies plus a cable modem and a router." My commiserations Sir. Mr. RT also goes on to ask me what we have subsequently had installed in our house to prevent a recurrence of our PLN lightning strike. Well Mr. RT, something has certainly been installed, a kind of cut-out switch/fuse if I understand correctly although the exact details are a bit too much for the machinations of my Pentium II brain to handle.

Mr. RT seems to live in one of those areas of town in which the voltages are particularly erratic and I'm sure that many of you will be familiar with mini electric shocks from metal surfaces of unearthed appliances. Some of you may secretly quite enjoy them.

I also received a slightly more heartening e-mail from Mr. Daniel Smets who told me that after a power surge in his area he, "Had damage of about Rp.40 million". Mr Smets then went on to send PLN complaints consisting of, "Many, many e-mails and 1000 telephone calls without reaction. Finally I sent a faxed letter with the final words 'Okay, I will put this story in the Jakarta Post.' A few hours later we had a meeting in my office and finally, after one week, PLN paid all back."

Apparently miracles really can happen and it's all thanks to the good old JP. It seems perhaps strange that PLN, holding as they do a monopoly on power generation in this country, would care. I suppose in our publicity and public relations industry polluted third millennial psyches it's the only threat that seems to count for anything in this world. “Bad publicity! Oh no! We'd better pay him back!” I’d like to point to Mr. Smets though that sending me that e mail was perhaps not such a great idea. His story has now finally been published in the JP you see and PLN are perhaps going to want their money back. If they don’t get it I guess they may maliciously zap Mr.S’s place with some more volts.

Actually, now that I come to think about it, maybe I could leverage my column to issue a few threats of my own. Something along the lines of, "Dear Izzi Pizza, my Marinara was woefully low on mushrooms last week, I’d like free Lasagne Bolognese and a bottle of Aussie red wine for a period of one year or else I will print all in the Jakarta Post.” Right, time to fire up my hotmail….