Monday, March 31, 2008

Rumble in Senayan

Last week, a friend invited me to attend a charity boxing evening at the Istora Arena in Senayan. Now Indonesian boxing, like Indonesian airlines, currently has a rather poor reputation amongst the international community at large and for broadly similar reasons.

Over the years a total of 19 local boxers have died as a direct result of their bouts and various World Boxing Council bans have been imposed upon Indonesia. As with the continuing Indonesian airlines saga (which are currently banned from European airspace) poor safety procedures and professional negligence have been cited as the main reasons for the ban.

And so to celebrate the demise of Adam Air and also due to the fact that I've never actually seen anyone die at a charity event before, I decided to trot along to Senayan to cheer on several bouts of face punching, brain hemorrhaging fun.

I managed to shamble through the wrong entrance however and found myself in an upstairs area of the crowd, firmly ensconced in a group of itinerant Extra Joss salesmen (the night's sponsors) who, resplendent in their bright yellow T-shirts, were cheering and braying the opening fight with gusto.There*s nothing like a good boxing match to fire up that male bloodlust and testosterone.

After 15 minutes or so I decided to head down to the ringside section for a glass of ale and a schmooze with the assembled members of the bourgeoisie. I spied a few familiar faces including Hawaiian hunk and newsreader extraordinaire, Dalton Tanaka. I also ran into an old friend of mine from my days at Djakarta* Magazine (ah, memories) who informed me that he is now working at ME Magazine (which apparently stands for Male Emporium, let's hope that ME sufferers don't get the wrong end of the stick). He also told me that his publication had supplied the very comely young ladies who were strutting around the ring holding aloft the forthcoming round numbers to gratuitous cheers and wolf whistles from the Extra Joss boys.

I took a seat and immediately wondered why ringside is considered the place to be at boxing matches. The view of the action is severely compromised by the ropes. I briefly considered returning to the superior view afforded in the Extra Joss section before realizing that beer was being served down at VIP ringside ground zero. Not so hasty Simon.

So, onto the boxing. I feel it only fitting though that we turn to the legendary Muhammed Ali for a few words of inspiration first. The great man was once heard to say of his sport, "It*s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up". Ali also once said that, "My toughest fight was with my first wife". Sentiments I'm sure that we can all get behind. As the beers slipped down I felt myself being drawn into the fight spectacle.

The second bout of the evening was a very closely fought battle between local boy Aswin Cabuy and Sam Colomban from Cameroon. It was a keenly contested fight that went the full distance and which was further enlivened by the ME girls getting their cards mixed up enabling round 4 to happen before round 3.

In the end there was a split decision in favor of the local lad. The African boy seemed to think he'd been robbed and frankly so did I. I guess though that a notoriously corrupt sport being held in a notoriously corrupt country didn't really bode well for an impartial decision from the judges. A few Extra Joss Rupiah in plain, brown envelopes may possibly have been passed around before the evening got underway.

There then followed a break from the boxing. We were treated to an exhibition bout of Cacoy Doce Pares. This is a sport every bit as ludicrous as its name suggests. Grown men don Darth Vader type helmets and whack each other frenziedly with thin strips of wood. It was quite the most ridiculous thing that I*ve ever witnessed under the name of sport. After 10 minutes the fight was halted and one of the combatants was declared the winner, for reasons that remain unclear to me. Perhaps his Lord Vader impression had been the more convincing.

After our galactic empire interlude it was time for more boxing. In our top of the bill fight, local bruiser Bambang Rusiadi made mincemeat of Thai challenger Dechapon Suwannalert. There was no need to consult the judges on this one as the plucky Thai terrier hit the canvas. Another victory for Indonesia. Merdeka la**

Monday, March 24, 2008

Let us pray again!

n last week's MM I visited the Jakarta Cathedral, admired the neo-Gothic serenity of the place and generally expounded my atheistic worldview in no uncertain terms. This week it's the turn of the house of worship located just around the corner from the cathedral to receive a full MM broadside. I refer, of course, to the Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia's largest.

If I can get to an Indonesian synagogue in time for the next column then I'll have done all of the world's Abrahamic monotheisms within the space of a month. Don't hold your breath on that one although there is, apparently, a synagogue in Surabaya that serves the small population of the Hasidic Jews who live there (now there's a story*)

Let's get back to Istiqlal though. The mosque is located just north of the National Monument (Monas) and features an impressively huge dome and towering minaret. The mosque was completed in 1975 and can apparently hold 120,000 worshipers when it's full, which is certainly plenty to be going on with.

In fact a mosque full of 120,000 would be equivalent to the combined support at two large English premiership football games, albeit with less swearing and fewer plastic beakers full of urine presumably.

When the Istiqlal Mosque was completed it was criticized by some Indonesians for being too Arabic in design and not in keeping with the local Javanese-style, triple-roof type of mosque. Islam is a pretty Arab-centric religion, however, as can be seen in the fact that it's adherents prostrate themselves toward Saudi Arabia five times a day and also in that, regarding this country at least, it remains illegal to translate and preach the Koran in Indonesian (a preacher in East Java tried this last year and now languishes in jail).

Surely one language or area of the planet being privileged as holier than others rather negates religious claims to universality? But perhaps I'd better stop there and move on.

I strolled into the grounds, past the huge fountain that sits in front of the mosque and headed inside. Upon divesting myself of my shoes and socks I wandered through the basement area to the stairs on the far side. This basement area, with its pipes and ventilation ducts, resembled a far more mundane, functional building such as a hospital or something. God's boiler room, perhaps, or some kind of post-industrial purgatory.

Things were much statelier when I headed upstairs however. I ambled into the huge courtyard area in order to admire the view. The square was flanked by three towering icons: the mosque's own sky-scraping minaret, the National Monument and the Pertamina building across the road. It was quite a symbolic tableau: God, country and capital all looming over me like an unholy trinity of power and injustice. The courtyard itself was all but deserted though save for a couple of gents sitting down reading their newspapers.

Moving into the main prayer hall I sat down on the huge red carpet and took in the enormity of the Istiqlal. The huge dome in the ceiling is similar in scale to the one in St Paul's Cathedral in London and was quite awesome to behold. Next to the hall's huge pillars, there were Korans available for borrowing by worshipers. The one concession to modernity in the mosque is a huge digital clock at the Mecca end. Islam is all about getting one's timings right and prayer times are continually shifting with the wax and wane of the moon.

The mosque was pretty empty when I visited, a few people were praying, one small group were having a prayer meeting with their Korans, some children were playing marbles on the carpet and a couple of gents were sleeping, sprawled facedown on the floor (it never ceases to amaze me how they manage to do that). The hall was serene and peaceful although you could occasionally hear the trains thundering past outside.

I tarried a while before heading back down to the ground floor to collect my shoes and socks. On the way out I picked up a piece of printed paper called "Buletin Al-Aqsha", which informed me that "Jalur Gaza Mengangis" (The Gaza Strip is crying). The various calls to Jihad expounded under this headline will no doubt ensure that it will continue to cry for some time yet, although I think that all three major religions are equally culpable for the whole mess over in the "holy" land.

But keep faith with me dear reader, I promise I'll return with something light-hearted next week, provided of course that I don't stumble across any synagogues in Jakarta. Time to bring in the clowns.

Monday, March 17, 2008

My latest effort to try and locate Indonesia within the current Atheist/Enlightenment zeitgeist (see 'Let Us Pray' below) has received a couple of comments:

Hi Simon,

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your column in the Jakarta Post, especially your ongoing assault on religious foolishness. Never considered myself an atheist until I moved to Jakarta and wasn't able to order a beer during Ramadan which really pissed me off. The concept of a non existent God giving a damn whether I'd drink a beer, my diet or sexual preferences is absolutely absurd on all levels. What also pisses me off is this childish demand for respect for something which any sane rational thinking person must reject on moral grounds. Well I could go on and on, on this subject, you have probably already read the excellent works of Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins and Sam Harris, please keep up your efforts against organized madness and superstition.



Thank you Sir, I certainly have read those authors as well as Dan Dennett. You can find all four debating each other on You Tube as The Four Horsemen (ho ho). I reckon their are plenty of faith doubters in this country but obviously coming out of the closet to the general approbation of their family and communities is not a viable option for them.

I also received this:

Hello there Simon. Do they have a bravery medal here in Indonesia? If so I will recommend you…coming right out and saying that you are an Atheist. I’m surprised that the Jakarta Post building is still standing. I personally am now 73 and have been an Atheist for as long as I can remember. Actually I am now a Muslim (in theory) as I had to convert to marry my 24 year old Indonesian wife. When I met her, she was not much of a believer, unlike her family and now thinks that the whole religious scene is a load of cobblers.
I notice that in your article you use the word bugger. That to me appears to be a British term. Are you in fact originally from the UK like I am?
What I find truly amazing is that here in Indonesia, one of the most religious countries in the world, there are so many daily disasters. To any thinking person it would be obvious that praying at the mosque five times a day does not achieve much of a result but, as you say, religious followers are not thinking people.
You also point out how religion is inculcated into young children. This was a point raised by the book and film “The root of all evil.” Who was it who rightly said “Give me a child for the first five years of his life and I’ll give you a servant of God forever?”
I have been contemplating writing an anti-religious book entitled “The Lord is thy shepherd…and thou art sheep.”
It was a pleasure reading what you had to say and I look forward to hearing more from you.

Sheldon Archer

Thankyou Sir, The Jakarta Post building is indeed still standing. This could be due to me having a readership of about 7 (6 of whom are sympathetic Westerners). I am indeed from the UK, hence the use of the word 'Bugger' here, which was not intended as a comment on Catholic child abuse cases (although thinking about it now it works both ways doesn't it?)

As for “The Lord is thy shepherd…and thou art sheep” well this indeed feeds into many of feelings about Christianity. Sheep are docile, pack animals that blindly follow each other. And why do shepherds look after sheep?? Not because they like them (although some shepherds perhaps like their sheep a little too much) but so that they can eventually kill them and live off them.

See all seven of you next week.

Let Us Pray

This week I thought that I’d check out the hip and groovy religious scene and so I put some sunglasses on and sauntered meekly and mildly along to see two of the city's greatest religious buildings. The Istiqlal mosque and Jakarta's Roman Catholic cathedral are both located within a stone's throw of each other (and let's hope that those stones remain un-thrown) just to the north of the National monument.

Alas, when I arrived at the Istiqlal mosque at around half past four on a Saturday afternoon I found that the entrance was closed and locked. I was genuinely surprised by this as I thought that any house of the holy worth its salt would have been open all the time. I'm sure that the Istiqlal is a bugger to clean however and perhaps someone was flicking a Hoover around the place. A list of opening hours was pinned to the wall next to the entrance and I resolved to return another time for Metro Morgue.

That just left me with Jakarta Cathedral to check out. Well then, if the Muslims didn't want my custom then it would have to be an afternoon of Catholic love. I adjusted my boxers in anticipation and strolled the 200 yards round the corner to the cathedral, which is formally known as the Gereja Perawan Maria Diangkat Ke Surga Paroki Cathedral (The Church of the Virgin Mary of Assumption... or something along those lines). The skeletal twin spires and retro Gothic architecture of the cathedral are tremendously moody and the place was completed and consecrated in 1901.

Inside, the cathedral is as hushed and cavernous as any great house of God. Despite being baptized an atheist and being a possible convert to anti-theism, I find churches to be very serene and meditative. A lack of belief in a supreme deity doesn't, of course, preclude one from exploring and enjoying the spiritual, numinous side of existence (the arts and the natural world can carry one on equally deep journeys into spirituality and feelings of awe). Churches are great though and I only wish that there were more places about the city in which one could sit in peace away from the modern cathedrals of capital that continually chime with the deafening sound of cash registers.

Unfortunately, Indonesia's oft persecuted Christians sometimes have to put up with such sounds of commerce during their church services which probably doesn't help them much with their spiritual growth. Churches are notoriously difficult to build here, due to a prevailing Islamic bias, and thus services have to be held in far less salubrious places such as shopping centers. I even saw a prayer meeting in a branch of KFC once.

But even praying in the Church of Colonel Sanders, or even in the privacy of your own home, doesn't necessarily guarantee freedom of religious assembly. Only last week, a group calling themselves the Cooperating Bureau of Mosques and Prayer Rooms (who?) burst into a housing estate in Bekasi in order to persecute Christians who were engaged in a prayer meeting on private property. Doesn't sound very cooperative to me.

As I sat calmly in the cathedral, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a few members of the CBMPR angrily storming down the aisle and demanding to see the cathedral's permits and licenses. It certainly must be hard sometimes, being a member of a minority religion in this country. Does anything really ever inure you to violence and prejudice? Maybe such tribal bigotry and solipsism are ineradicable from our monotheistic religions. Perhaps they reside deep within their very natures.

I wandered outside and found a lovely open-air altar round the back of the cathedral. I sat there for a while. The altar was bedecked with hundreds of flowers, which are always nice to see in our urban jungle. There was also a Christian bookshop selling works ranging from serious tomes to the usual paperbacks of mawkish maxims that seem to resemble 100 greetings cards bound together.

One title did catch my attention though. It was called Pendidikan Iman Anak dalam Keluarga Kawin Campur Beda Agama (which I believe roughly translates as: Educating the Kids within a Mixed Religious Marriage). I'm not sure on the book's stance on this controversial issue but any advice would no doubt be helpful. I wonder how much heartache has been caused and how many families have been torn apart in this country over such differing supernatural beliefs. What a tragic waste of human happiness and love.

Freedom is the issue here of course. The freedom of assembly, of speech and of inquiry. There seems to be an anti Enlightenment offensive being waged by many of the world's religious at the moment. Many of faith insist that their late Bronze Age superstitions and belief systems be privileged beyond the realms of all debate. Even in the West, our free-speech secularism so often seems to be asserted in half apologetic, mumbling tones these days.

Free speech though, far from being a product of immoral Western decadence, is one of the paramount achievements of human civilization. Free speech is a step towards true enlightenment.

Religion conditions the mind away from such enlightenment. Unquestioning obedience is inculcated into the minds of the young, opening them up to a whole raft of second order, illogical and self-destructive premises such as nationalism, consumerism and racism. On the other hand, words and language and free inquiry serve to civilize the fists and are at the origin of the evolution of our morality. The less free speech there is, the more violence perhaps.

I've learnt the hard way that sticks and stones (and motorcycles in my case, and possibly busway buses if you fall off the divider bit it in the middle when you're crossing the road) may break my bones. We have another option though.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Neither Washington nor Menteng

Just to roam beyond Indonesia's borders for once, it seems that the cult of Mr Obama is gathering pace over in the good old US of Stateside. However the real reason that I can shoehorn the upcoming American elections into this week's MM with impunity is that Mr Obama was once a curly haired young resident of Menteng in Central Jakarta and known to all and sundry simply as Barry.

Weird as it is to imagine a kid who once played around the city’s back alleys turning into the world's most powerful man, there are others in the US who wish to use Mr Obama's past to push a more sinister agenda in an attempt to arrest his seemingly irresistible momentum. Here's one such Fox News type, liberal baiting quote:
"Obama was enrolled in a Wahabi school in Jakarta. Wahabism is the radical teaching that is followed by the Muslim terrorists who are now waging Jihad against the Western world."

As we now know though, during his stay here between 1967 and 1971, Obama attended a run-of-the-mill Indonesian state school that had no problem with either the celebrating of Christmas or the wearing of miniskirts. In addition, his African-Muslim father was not very religious at all and his Indonesian stepfather was also a typically moderate local Muslim who apparently enjoyed the odd bottle of Bintang. Okay, I'm glad we cleared all that up.

It's probably not wise to draw any definitive conclusions about Mr Obama based upon his time running around the streets of Menteng in short trousers. One anecdote does tickle me though. Apparently Mr Obama used to stand up for fairness and honesty during games of marbles with his chums on Jakarta's streets and apparently often used to say, " Kamu curang, kamu curang" (your cheating, you're cheating). Shades of Junior George Washington not being able to tell a lie over chopping down his old man's cherry tree perhaps?

Mrs. Clinton has tried to ridicule Mr Obama in her increasingly desperate attempts to secure her party's nomination and has said that, "Being a 10-year-old in Indonesia isn't foreign policy experience." Fair enough I suppose although I'm not sure Hillary's had much direct foreign policy experience either outside of receiving bouquets of flowers after descending the steps of Air Force One.

Mr Obama did at least major in International Relations at university. George Bush of course, everyone's favorite incompetent incumbent, is famously far less well traveled than his recent predecessors, preferring instead to barbecue hogs on his ranch in Texas. Nevertheless he has still managed to declare war on two foreign countries during his eight years in office. Who was it who once said that war was God's way of teaching Republicans geography?

So then, its Indonesian Barry versus Auntie Hillary. To digress for a moment, I'm not without sympathy for Mrs. Clinton. Being a woman standing for presidential office is every bit as important as being an African-American tilting for the top job. When someone heckled Mrs. Clinton recently at a campaign rally with the rather cheap line, “Iron my shirts," laughter was heard to percolate through the room. Now if someone had come out with, "Shine my shoes," at one of Mr Obama's rallies then we would never have heard the end of it. It seems that sexism and chauvinism still have their place in our political discourse whereas racism doesn't. Perhaps it's this double standard that has led white American male voters to prefer Mr Obama to Mrs Clinton.

Returning to our hero Barry though, let us suspend reality for a moment and imagine what it would be like if an Obama presidency actually did model itself on the Indonesian political zeitgeist. The political elites of this country and the US both seem to inhabit ivory towers to the point where I feel that both groups need to be grabbed by the lugholes and frog marched down to street level like naughty Menteng schoolboys in order to see what's really going on. Aside from this though, there are certainly differences that might prove hard for the US electorate to swallow.

If Brave Barry were to follow SBY's example and even suggest that the American motorists use gasoline quota smartcards at the pumps, then the gas guzzling US electorate would no doubt revolt before the week was out. On a more positive note though, if Barry were to release an album, as SBY has done, then I would fully expect it to pack more musical oompf and sas than Mr. Susilo's collection of stillborn ballads.

More generally, it's a pity that no candidate looks likely to emerge during Indonesia's next presidential campaign that can rouse and galvanize the jaded electorate in the same way that Barry has done in the US. Perhaps there's an Indonesian politician who spent his schoolboy years in Oklahoma who should throw his hat into the ring.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Weapons of the Weak

Back again with more potentially libelous and illegal musings on the state of the country. I say this because the freedom of the press is once again under attack in Indonesia. In an interesting piece in last week's paper by the Jakarta Post editor, Endy M. Bayuni (fawn, grovel, ingratiate, give us a pay rise Mr B.) I learned that in Depok it is now illegal to insult a government official. A journalist there is facing up to 18 months in jail for getting stuck into some local elite types. This is serious stuff indeed and a blatant attack on democratic principles.

Let's hope this doesn't set a precedent as I could be in for the high jump myself. In fact, after some of the things I've written I'm perhaps more likely to get the Munir treatment and I've woken up in a cold sweat before after some nightmare or other involving myself being done in with a poisoned tipped umbrella in a Hero car park or some such Cold War type spy scenario. Mind you, perhaps all is vanity. I mean having, as I do, about 7 1/2 regular readers I may be overreacting a little.

The whole issue of press censorship though does open out into the broader issue of the ideological war waged by elites everywhere to control the collective minds of the general public.

Anthropologists and political scientists often invoke the concept of hegemony in their discussions of societies. Hegemony refers to a group or society in which the masses give their spontaneous consent to the direction they are pushed in by the dominant, elite class. This elite class can leverage their privileged access to mass media and public education in order to naturalize their self-interested ideologies so that they are accepted and unquestioned by the great unwashed. Thus the public can be duped into acting against their own interests. The jingoism and nationalism whipped up by the corrupt and militaristic New Order and post New Order governments here would be a great example of such false consciousness.

Factors other than national politics, such as religion, also feed hegemonic systems though. For example, the religious ritual of female circumcision demonstrates how hegemony co-opts opposition. Female circumcision is supported by many women themselves who have bought into a patriarchal system that exploits their own bodies.

So the idea of hegemony and revealing how we are all manipulated by ideologies can be a liberating one. Anthropologists do have to be careful, however, not to be too ethnocentric and end up saying, "We know best, you lot are just blinded by ideology and we can take your blinkers off." Indeed, every society contains within it a resistance to hegemony. In oppressive societies though, such resistance has to take on subtle and covert forms.

Political scientist James Scott wrote a book in 1987 entitled Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Scott based the book on his experiences in rural Malaysia. The area in question was at the time undergoing a process of mechanization of its rice agriculture and previously independent farmers had sold their land to those rich enough to buy the new machines and seeds. A tension was thus created between the new agricultural capitalists and the farmers who were now at their mercy.

Malaysia, however, has a history of severe state repression and thus the farmers could not rebel directly for fear of being imprisoned or even tortured. The farmers thus developed what Scott dubbed, "Weapons of the weak". These could include such things as foot dragging (working very slowly), feigned ignorance, false compliance (i.e. not following through and doing what you've said you are going to do), gossip, pilfering and petty acts of sabotage.

Now does this sound familiar to you at all? Are any alarm bells starting to go off? Have you ever experienced this kind of thing in Jakarta?

Many of you surely have and these weapons of the weak are indeed employed today in commercial and industrial settings as a way of getting back at a system that pays people an extremely minimum wage and which doesn't appreciate their efforts in their jobs. This idea of resisting without seeming to resist puts a rather different complexion on the unpleasant stereotype of poor Indonesians as being stupid and lazy. At the very least, it may calm you down slightly the next time you burn your car through a nail trap and coast to a halt conveniently outside a garage or entertain murderous thoughts towards a waiter.

We live in a pretty Kafka-esque world of huge institutions. The global free market is full of banking systems, political and advertising conglomerates and entertainment empires that we can't penetrate and are increasingly at the mercy of. Perhaps these subtle but sinister tyrannies can only be resisted through such tiny acts of rebellion.

But that's enough revolutionary banter for one week. Enjoy your Sunday and remember to tune in for a more light-hearted Metro Mad gaiety next week folks.