Saturday, January 31, 2009

Blue Monday

Well, this working week came up thankfully on the short side because of Monday's Chinese New Year’s holiday. I suppose I could, at this point, discourse deeply on the sociopolitical status of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese Diaspora but I can't really be stuffed with all that to be frank.

I can recall first becoming aware of the ethnic Chinese issue though when I first arrived in Indonesia, more years ago now than I care to remember. I had just graduated from the politically correct hothouse of a UK university and was shocked to find brute, ugly racism emanating from one of the normally so friendly and polite Indonesians that I was now proud to call my friends.

"I hate the Chinese!" He hissed.
"Eh? Whassat?!" I replied
“Yes, I hate these people in my country!"
"Erm... I don’t think that it’s really on to say things like that these days old chap. And anyway, they were born here; it's their country too, surely?"

My sense of discomfort at experiencing the atavistic unreason of Javanese hegemony for the first time was a bit of a rude awakening for me. Antidiscrimination laws and Barongsai dances are slowly chipping away at this monolithic bigotry but there's still a way to go here I guess. On the plus side though, I've noticed that a few of this year’s election candidates, currently beaming down benignly from every available wall and lamppost in town, are ethnic Chinese and this seems like a very encouraging sign.

Last Monday, above all else however, was a national holiday, a 'Tanggal merah' (red date on the calendar) and it afforded us a glorious long weekend of fun and frolics. Indonesia’s oft downtrodden workforce treasure such days and look on them as a fine opportunity to head out to sites of interest armed with mountains of snacks and hand phone cameras.

Last Monday's holiday instilled in me a deep sense of nostalgia for the great British Bank Holiday Mondays of my youth; traditionally times when families drive out to horrendous zoos or overcrowded sites of historical interest. After an afternoon of wandering around with Grandma and the whining kids, these day tripping nuclear families then join huge motorway tailbacks and head home whilst the little ones lean out of the car window and throw up their ice creams or demand to go and relieve themselves in a layby. Ah, memories.
My Jakarta Bank Holiday pretty much followed the UK model, but minus the bodily fluids thank the Lord. After watching a Chinese Barongsai dragon dance up in Kota I headed on to the famous Taman Fatahillah Square and sure enough, found that it was packed with day trippers checking out Jakarta's colonial heritage and generally making a mess of the place.

In the centre of the square, a crowd was gathered around a performing family who were out to make a few Rupiah off the holidaying hordes. This ragtag group of Javanese gypsies were similar to the ones I've seen back in Britain in fact although perhaps less likely to dump a burnt mattress in your back garden (careful Simon, these are traveling Romany folk with a fine tradition behind them, let’s not go down the race route).

After a few minutes of fire eating and blowing facilitated, rather off-puttingly, by mouthfuls of kerosene, the father of the family pulled out a rope and a sack and proceeded to truss up his six-year-old daughter like an air mail parcel. The Junior Houdini then performed an amazing feat of escapology before her brother took centre stage. This young chap managed to squeeze himself through a tiny barrel whilst the percussion accompaniment spiraled up to a fever pitch. I made a donation of Rp.10,000 and headed off through town fearing that a sawing the mother in half trick would be the next item on the bill.

The normally rammed Mangga Dua was like a Chinese ghost town as I shot past. Presently I rocked up at Ancol, Jakarta's premier vomit and urine soaked Bank Holiday destination of choice. Families were camped all along the seashore, enjoying noodle filled picnics and paddling in the radioactive waters. Of course they were cherishing one of their few days off in the year before returning shoulders to the grindstone and once more toiling to bring home the bacon (actually, what do Muslims bring home?)

I count 18 red days on this year's calendar, well, on the one stuck up in my office anyway and God knows we’re going to need each and every one of them. Waking up like clockwork at 7 a.m. every morning and suffering the same routine every day until we die, is not what our cousins, the noble beasts in the jungles and fields would ever be caught doing.

If you're still not with me on my anti-Protestant work ethic mission this week then you may wish to consider reading renowned biologist Robert Sapolsky's excellent book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers which really puts the robotic stresses of the human condition in a tense and hectic city such as Jakarta into perspective. Forget Obama's new climate of hard graft and austerity. Ask not what you can do for your country but when you can have a holiday. I’ll see you all up at Ancol next weekend.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ox Rox

The 26th of January will herald Chinese New Year's celebrations across the country. This year's beast of providence comes in the form of the ox. People born in ox designated years are supposedly, if you believe in this kind of thing, reliable, logical and honest, although with tendencies towards stubbornness.

Personally I believe all forms of horoscopy and astrology to be a load of tummy rubbish and so when people ask me my zodiac sign I tell them that I'm a cross between a Leo and a Capricorn, which makes me a leprechaun. Chinese New Year is about so much more than dubious beliefs in anthropomorphized animal characteristics however. The celebrations herald the arrival of spring, important in a highly agricultural country like China, and are accompanied by a riot of colour, noise, movements and some damn fine food.

There are fireworks, of course, as well as lanterns, Barongsai dances, plenty of feasting and stylish Cheongsam for the ladies. In effect, Chinese New Year resembles nothing so much as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one.

In Indonesia, Chinese New Year is known locally as Imlek and is currently enjoying a revival after a pretty rough few decades for the Chinese Diaspora here. In 2001, the then President, Gus Dur, always the inspiring pluralist, made the highly symbolic decision to allow Chinese New Year celebrations in Indonesia. After old Gus was hounded from office his immediate successor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, went a step further and declared Chinese New Year a national holiday. Last year, President S. Bambang Y. was even seen attending Imlek celebrations himself.

The position of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, currently estimated to comprise between one and two percent of the population, remains the subject of much controversy. During Suharto's New Order regime, itself launched on the back of a huge anticommunist and anti-Chinese massacre, Indonesia's Chinese population suffered great discrimination. They were politically disenfranchised and found their culture, their language and even their very names subject to tremendous repression. President Suharto deprived the Chinese of their civic rights in return for business breaks for a lucky few who subsequently became some of Asia's wealthiest men.

This system, basically a rather shabby protection racket, broke down catastrophically in 1998 when Suharto was toppled and an incandescent wave of anti-Chinese rage and racism boiled over into all manner of atrocities. The perceived wealth and arrogance of the ethnic Chinese here was the catalyst. Indonesian Chinese author, Richard Oh, remembers this time well and recalls that, "In May 1998 I looked around and thought that maybe I don't belong."

During the last decade it's been a slow slog for Indonesia's Chinese population as they struggle for their rights and pit themselves against the implacable force of Javanese hegemony. Despite new antidiscrimination laws, ethnic Chinese still faced the deep rooted Pribumi suspicions of indigenous Indonesians. As such it can still often be hard to acquire passports and permits or to enroll in state universities or the civil service. In addition, Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese have still not, for whatever reasons, established their own political party.

Celebrating Chinese New Year with wild abandon should be encouraged then. Let's banish the forces of darkness with a firework display that will illuminate the very heavens above. Head up to Kota (if it’s not flooded) or the park around the national monument Monas and experience the whole spectacle for yourself. Gong Xi Fa Chai dear readers.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Suicide Squad...Attack!!

The Arab world is back in the headlines at the moment (when is it ever out of them?!) as the Palestinians in Gaza square up to the high tech weaponry and helicopter gunships of the Israelis with their peashooters. Indonesian radical groups now intend to bolster the rather pathetic forces of Hamas by sending a crack commando jihad squad over to the occupied territories to join in the fish in a barrel martyr shoot.

Let's try and parse the perennially emotive issue of Jihad a little bit before we get carried away. A few Indonesian Muslims did indeed fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 80s. Javanese Jihadis were also rather depressingly dispatched to Ambon in order to fight against their own Christian countrymen during the internecine conflict of the late 90s.

However, recent conflagrations in Lebanon and Palestine, as well as the US led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan have seen irate Indonesian Jihadis unable to send a single person to these conflict zones.

Currently, 863 local Indonesian tough guys have signed up for a Gaza Jihad but as yet none have been dispatched. This is probably for the best as the only training these chaps have received seems to be a mix of Boy Scout self-reliance and Tai Chi style aerobics.

In fact, one can imagine these guys becoming a bit of a liability as they stand amid the smoking ruins of Gaza complaining, "It's cold! I can’t speak the language!" etc. etc. Mercifully, according to local travel agents last week, precisely zero flights have been booked to the nearest points of entry in Cairo, Amman or Beirut and at $1000 a ticket that can come as no surprise. Thankfully the Indonesian government has, rather more constructively, sent some doctors out to the conflict zone instead.

It's easy to mock these chaps of course but my distaste for these boys cuts to the heart of my objections to the exclusivity and tribalism of monotheistic religions. It's always about solidarity with, “Our Muslim brothers." Non-Muslims are inevitably off the love list.

With respect to Gaza, standing up for the underdog may be fair enough however ultimately we are all brothers and Being more punk than hippy though, the endless shenanigans in the Middle East tend to bring out the misanthrope in me. Watching Gaza every bloody evening on the news rather puts me in a similar mood to the late, great comedian Bill Hicks when he concluded one of his epic, stand up rants with the following, "Adolf Hitler had the right idea, he was just an underachiever, kill them all Adolf, all of them! Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, white, black, Asian... the experiment has failed! Put the human race out of its misery once and for all!"

Jihad wise, it's ironic that, whilst Javanese warriors may hanker after getting their heads blown off in Gaza, plenty of Arab gentlemen make the return journey. Flocking, as they do, by the planeload from their homelands to Jakarta, Arabs are coming here in increasing numbers in order to show solidarity with their Muslim brothers in Indonesia (erm…and also sisters...ahem). Good luck to them too I say. If I had to spend 11 months a year living under Sharia law in Saudi Arabia I reckon I'd fancy a trip to Jakarta too. Last Saturday I popped along to a central Jakarta night spot where these usually very friendly chaps like to hang out for a spot of R and R.

There they were, dancing the night away with the local talent and downing glasses of Jack Daniels whilst Arabic disco music percolated through the club. I got chatting to some of these princes among men (probably quite literally in this case) and their happiness was palpable. Hopefully after April's election these fine chaps will continue to be able to enjoy themselves in this country.

I'm sure that they will as, to be frank, Indonesia's strict, Sharia based political parties and their ilk are micturating into the wind if recent elections are anything to go by. Parties with an overt religious agenda seem unable to get above about 5% of the vote here. Admittedly though there are still those, such as the Justice Party, who believe that a strict religious ideology will cure Indonesia of its corruption and inequalities.

In fact, if one looks at the countries in the world that apply Sharia laws you will notice that they are all very corrupt. The reasons behind this would seem to be pretty clear. Namely, if you’re too busy worrying about whether somebody can see a lock of your exposed hair or if you’re going to get busted for having a stroll in the park with your girl/boyfriend then you’ve little energy and bravery left for wondering about where the money for education’s gone or why public services are so terrible. Religious law is totalitarianism in action in this sense and only serves to negate democracy. A climate of fear does not inspire a model society. Here's to a God free election then. Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Spot the Loony

As one can hardly have failed to notice, Indonesia will be holding another jolly national election on April 9th. If old SBY isn't a shoe in for reelection I'll eat my Peci but time will tell. On the positive side, no longer will parties be able to install whichever bumptious, moustachioed carpetbaggers they want to into parliament as politicians will now be elected directly for the first time.

On the minus side, only winning candidates from parties receiving over 2.5% of the national vote will be allowed to take their seats. This means that independent candidates are not going to get a look in, even if they win in their constituency.

38 parties are perhaps plenty to be going on with though and looking down the list now I can see a veritable Scrabble board of acronyms and portmanteau words. PAN, PKB, PDI-P as well as unfamiliar names such as Partai Pelopor (The Vanguard Party), PPR-Partai Peduli Rakyat (National People’s Concern Party) and even PNR-Partai Nurani Rakyat (People’s Conscience Party). It's enough to make me want to set up my own party called WTF, I haven't quite worked out what the initials mean in Indonesian but I'm working on it.

A lot of other parties didn't make the cut and Indonesia is now unlikely to establish that noble democratic tradition (one present in my British home anyway) of the silly party. The most famous mentally challenged UK party has traditionally been the Monster Raving Loony Party, run by a man called Screaming Lord Sutch. I also remember a party called the Rainbow Alliance whose best policy idea, in my opinion, was a plan to turn the English city of Birmingham into an intergalactic space port. These nutters paid their deposit and they stood for office, that's democracy.

Perhaps even having a few loons around serves to put the entire electoral process into perspective. If we take Shakespeare as a guide, the lunatics and madmen who enter stage left in his plays are often the source of profound wisdom and truth. Who are the real mad men? Could they be the politicians who hide their power mad, kleptomaniacal tendencies behind the sober facade of the dull technocrat in the anonymous black official car and the western suit?

What I really wanted to check out this week though were the candidates’ techno credentials. Mr. Obama has just been elected on the back of a groundbreaking Internet campaign that saw the President-elect whip up votes and funds via his Facebook, My Space and Twitter accounts. Just how many of Indonesia's electoral candidates are as techno-savvy as Mr. O? Are we witnessing the birth of a new generation of politicians here or is this year's campaign still stuck at the level of slapdash posters and stickers haphazardly plastered onto every available square inch of lamppost?

I made a note of some of my local candidates from said posters and then headed home for a good browse. The first name that I punched in was that of Abdul Muttalib, my local PAN party candidate who looks every bit the robotic social democrat in his campaign poster; something like the illegitimate offspring of Amien Rais and Angela Merkel (try not to think about it). 10 minutes of heavy Google action turned up nothing save for an article on page 33 of the Batam Pos newspaper. I'm sure this is a fine publication but I felt slightly let down.

Other local candidate searches proved fruitless and so I decided it was time to move up the political ladder to see if the party organ grinders themselves were capable of uploading a JPEG or two. I tried the iconic name of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri and quickly located her Facebook profile which turned out to have a not exactly Obama-esque 213 members. The uploaded photos of her presidential days were good fun though. In most of them she looks about as regal as the woman down at my local Warung, and all the better for it.

As for the incumbent himself, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has a not unimpressive 16,537 supporters on his Facebook page. Our man doesn't seem to have updated his profile of late however, so alas there was no, "SBY is... writing some more schmaltzy ballads on his acoustic guitar" written in his status bar. There is plenty of information on the Indonesian President to be had though, including a professed love of music and volleyball. There are messages of support, mostly from school kids, and someone's even posted a motivational poem on his page whose words are every bit as greetings-card-banal as the prez’s own song lyrics.

As for the Vice President, I initially stumbled upon a list of Kalla related blogs on WordPress, however upon closer inspection, most of these didn't seem to cast the Golkar party supremo in a very favorable light.

These days it's hard to do anything without someone taking a photo of you and tagging it on Facebook. Hopefully this will soon apply to Indonesia’s entire brown envelope exchanging parliament too. That would really give the Anti Corruption Commission something to chew on.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Talking Rubbish

Looking back this week through the nearly 200 odd columns of stultifyingly ill informed drivel that I’ve churned out over the past few millennia, I suddenly noticed one glaring omission regarding the subjects that I've held forth on, namely that of litter.

This perennial global, but especially Indonesian, problem was brought home to me recently during my Christmas holiday in Lombok. After a stormy night on the idyllic island of Gili Trawangan, I went for a dip in the usually pristine waters and suddenly realized with horror that I was surrounded by discarded plastic packaging. Presumably the previous evening's wind and rain had washed the detritus ashore. I leapt from the sea as if the victim of a combined hammerhead shark and jellyfish attack, my holistic, new age, island fantasy rudely shattered by the tsunami of trash.
In a recent study I read on another of my favorite destinations, Pulau Seribu (The Thousand Islands) that lie off Jakarta Bay, I learned that on 23 of the islands, 34,000 pieces of litter in 11 categories were found, the most common items being polystyrene blocks, plastic bags and discarded footwear. Quite why shoes and flip-flops score so highly is beyond me as few Jakartans can really afford the Imelda Marcos life. Plastic bags are a perpetual menace of course and are presumed to carpet the bottom of inshore Jakarta Bay.
The amount of litter that lies all over the Indonesian Archipelago is one of the most dispiriting things that I've encountered in my years here. Much as I dislike to stereotype and tar an entire culture with the same brush, Indonesians in general have a disappointingly more laissez-faire attitude to the problem than perhaps the majority of other countries in the world.

Aqua bottles are nonchalantly lobbed out of bus windows as if this were just the way of things whilst Jakarta’s floods are hugely exacerbated by the sedimentary layers of noodle and detergent packets that accumulate on the bottom of the rivers here. A friend of mine popped down to one of the fun and frolicsome anti-Israel demonstrations that ran last week and reported that a terminal moraine of polystyrene meal containers carpeted the area when the whole thing had finished.

The problem can't simply be put down to poverty as other poor countries don't have a litter problem nearly as bad as the one here. People here are scrupulous about keeping themselves and their houses clean but all concern about the general state of the environment seems to stop at their front gates. Simply toss your rubbish out the car window onto the street and it’s, “No longer my problem". This seems like a sad metaphor for the wider antisocial evils of corruption and general lack of civic pride in Indonesia. There is also the public health issue of litter which leads to rats and insect populations ballooning in urban areas. In the 14th century, organic litter contributed greatly to the bubonic plague epidemic that raged through Europe.

Admittedly though, there aren't a whole lot of rubbish bins around. As I recall, a few years ago one of the city's endless list of heroic under funded failures was to install receptacles around town that were handily split into bins for organic and inorganic waste. As I seem to remember though, the scheme was scrapped after many of the bins were stolen. People also like to burn their rubbish here too of course but if anything the choking, acrid, carcinogenic smoke that is produced seems even worse than the litter problem itself to those whose lungs are unaccustomed to smoking two packets of ultra-high tar Kretek cigarettes per day.

My few attempts to educate people hear about litter (well, confront them with their inconsiderate behavior in fact) have not been a great success to be frank. A couple of years back I tried returning an Aqua bottle to a motorist who had just thrown it from his Honda. He graciously took it on board, drove off... and then tossed it out the window again another 200 yards down the road. 5% success there I would estimate.

This is not particularly commendable, to be sure, but it’s rather better than I fared this week when I attempted the same act of public admonishment whilst 'researching' this column. I won't go into the details but suffice to say that I nearly got my head kicked in. It would have been no less than I deserved, for neglecting to pick on a litter bug smaller and more defenseless than myself.

In fact, according to research conducted by the author Frances McAndrews in the book Environmental Psychology, women, young people, rural dwellers and people who live alone litter more than men, older people, urban dwellers and multi person households. Next time I'll take the books advice and choose a nice young single country girl to lecture. Suits me just fine.
PS Funnily enough, just after tossing this week's MM off I found this in the Jakarta Post. The penny drops for one Indonesian at least.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Fungal Frolics

Spurning Jakarta’s cardboard buglers and Dionysian-vodka-and-Red Bull-fueled New Year’s Eve parties, I ventured forth to Lombok’s Gili islands over the holidays, determined to see out 2008 set adrift from the capital’s urban war zone.

Lion Air eventually managed to slingshot me over Java and Bali after a two hour delay, although I’ll probably get sued by the airline for such slander. Lion Air flights are no longer “delayed” you see, but “retimed.” There’s little that one can do to counter such forces of Orwellian corporate speak, although I did consider standing on my seat, urinating into one of the overhead storage bins and announcing to the stewardess that my visit to the toilet had been “relocated due to adverse tissue conditions.”

After a 90-minute boat journey I found myself on Gili Trawangan, the largest of the Gili islands, mixing with a cosmopolitan selection of fastidious divers, rotund tourists and bronzed local Bob Marley enthusiasts intent on selling magic mushrooms to passersby.

I entered a bamboo bar, ordered up a local gut-rot cocktail and reflected a little on 2008 and on the collapsed finances and deflated economic hubris that promise to make 2009 so much fun.
What’s it all about, huh? We’ve built our muscular system of greed and consumption and paved our road to success with heads, but are we any happier for it?

Do we believe that we’ve discovered a more authentic human experience in all of this, toasting our material wealth whilst gulping down antidepressants by the truckload? Has the notion of a life lived for its aesthetic and intellectual riches been buried under late capital’s avalanche?

When I get in these fin de siecle moods (invariably on New Year’s Eve and despite the fact that it’s already eight years into the new century) I like nothing better than to tuck into a glass of Psilocybin Al Fungi and set sail into the sunset.

The ancient wisdom of the Gaian biosphere was blended up with some pineapple juice for me by a long-haired, tattooed Sasak gentleman who was clearly hoping that I’d become too smashed to remember how many beers I’d drunk.

After a while the massive Mount Rinjani darkened as the sun plummeted below the horizon in a mist of pink. I briefly became convinced that I could see the late Ibu Tien Suharto playing Frisbee with an ocelot on the beach and knew that the ride had begun. I felt like I’d sipped nectar from the cocktail glass of the Gods. Forget imported booze, I say. Keep those containers impounded at Tanjung Priok Port.

Who needs the numbing alcoholic throb of social conviviality when you can be whisked around the galaxy by hyper dimensional beings from the planet Arturus before being safely plopped back down on a bar stool hours later.

After traversing light years of interstellar space the problems of the world’s largest archipelago didn’t seem so intractable after all. There’s nothing like a good few hours musing on the fact that we’re all one giant consciousness experiencing itself subjectively to put domestic issues in perspective.

Admittedly, it hasn’t been much of a “we are all brothers and sisters” year over here. Gus Dur, that most Buddhist of Muslims, noted as much when he said recently, “I hope that next year our politicians pay more attention to issues that threaten our heritage of pluralism.” The new antipornography law and severe restrictions placed on the Ahmadiyah sect have definitely put tolerance and human rights on the back foot here. It’s all rather a shame really as I’ll now have to put my plans to establish a breast worshiping cult in the jungles of Borneo on indefinite hold.

Still, on the positive side, at least top corruptors are starting to get banged up in jail. Also, democracy has been consolidated here through the abolition of the priority list of candidates set by political parties. The number of votes cast is now, as it should be, the only criteria involved in securing a parliamentary seat. That bodes well for this year’s election, provided of course that it’s actually fought on substantive issues this time.

And so the financial black hole of 2009 has landed on our doormat like an account overdrawn letter from a particularly nasty bank manager. We’re all just going to have to tighten our belts, batten down the hatches and eat Indomie three times a day from now on. Also, if you’re a maid or a bajaj driver you should consider diversifying your investments so that you have a mix of stocks, bonds and cash and don’t look for big returns during the slump. Good luck with riding out 2009 dear readers and if all else fails, simply burying your head in the sand and pretending that the recession isn’t happening should help a lot. Happy New Year.