Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Load of Barclays

On a global level, it's all about banking just at the moment. Obama looks set to pump the better part of $1 trillion into the gaping black hole that is the USA's imploding finances. Just thinking about a sum of money this large makes the eyes water and yet even this huge wedge may not yield much in the way of results when all is said and done. And so the moribund world economy trudges morosely onwards through the doldrums of 2009. None of this is Mr O's fault of course, bless his little, "Yes we can" monogrammed socks. The current boom/bust cycle goes all the way back to the Thatcher and Reagan era and their deregulation of the banking sector. The 80s were a decade of deeply radical politics and it was a radicalization of the right wing, rather than the left, as had been the case two decades earlier.

And so we are left with a truly evil system of privatized profit and publicized debt. $1 trillion would feed, clothe and educate the whole of the impoverished world with change to spare but... well that's enough of that for one week; I've probably been reading too much Chomsky recently.

Indonesia, of course, had its great banking crisis a decade ago, fashionably making it a whole 10 years ahead of the times rather than the usual 10 years behind them. During that crisis, the country was robbed blind by a few plutocrats and, as is happening in the West now, a whole country of 200 plus million had to pay for the venality of around 50 fat cats.

At a personal level though, using an Indonesian bank can be a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating experience, just as it can anywhere in the world. If you're looking for personal service and the illusion at least that someone cares about your account, I'd recommend joining one of the country's smaller banks (although what with the crisis, I would check that your choice of financial institution isn't about to go belly up).

At a smaller bank, everything is all smiles, the staff there may even remember your name when you walk in. "Need to make a transfer Mr. Simon?" (That Christian name thing always sweetens any pill here) "Step this way, Sir."

I also, however, have an account of the country's second-largest bank which shall remain nameless... until the next sentence. It's BCA actually. As 95% of my bank dealings are executed via a bleeping ATM machine, I find it handy to hold an account at the bank that has the largest network of said machines. You can perform any transaction you like at a good old Indonesian ‘hole-in-the-wall’ these days: pay phone, electricity, credit card and cable TV bills, make transfers, refill your mobile phone, the list goes on.

This can be a disadvantage too however. Many is the time in Jakarta that I've almost gnawed my own arm off in frustration after being in an ATM queue stood behind four or five people all wanting to do all of the above things simultaneously, the utter swine. ATM etiquette dictates that this is bad form as far as I'm concerned.

That's peanuts though compared with joining the queue inside the bank during any given lunchtime. British comedian Alexei Sayle once performed a sketch which sums up the whole Indonesian bank experience for me. Dressed in period costume as Jules Verne's fictional hero Phileas Fogg, he travels around the world in 80 days before returning to London. He then announces that he is embarking on a new mission: to the front of the bank queue in 80 days. We see him, still in 19th-century dress, sitting despondently on the carpet of his high street bank writing a letter home, "Beginning to lose hope. Maybe in another 10 days we will have passed the next little chromium pillar."

Mind you, even when you do reach the front of the queue, getting something done, without forms signed in triplicate and a list of all your primary school teachers’ maiden names, can be an arduous task.

Banking in the UK has also rubbed me up the wrong way too before I should stress. I remember once, soon after graduating, I was fined £100 for exceeding my overdraft limit for a mere four days after a check had failed to clear. Amazingly enough, after writing the manager a letter so stiff it could have been etched on a slab of concrete with a stonemason's chisel, he relented, and the fine was cancelled. Miracles really can happen you see.

I'm not sure that the same recourse would necessarily yield results here though, as being brusque, terse and otherwise chippy isn't really the Indonesian way of doing things. Mind you, this is all irrelevant anyway as the prospect of being able to overdraw a common or garden savings account at an Indonesian bank is about as likely as a state visit to the country by Benjamin Netanyahu.

And so the crisis continues apace and there’s not much comfort to be taken in the fact that we’re all millionaires in this country. See you next week and Shalom.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Ringing in the Ears

Every now and then, I like to put myself through the pain and discomfort of watching prime-time Indonesian television for reasons that remain obscure to me. In the last couple of years my original pet love to hate, namely the epileptic camera work and endless hospitalizations of the Sinetron soap opera, has been overtaken by a new televisual bĂȘte noire. These are the endless advertisements of the genus Ketik-Reg-Spasi.

Basically, these insidious ads are aimed at people who happen to possess mobile phones, which I'm led to believe are all the rage these days. I suspect that even the half naked homeless man who paces the streets near my office with a half eaten bag of peanuts saying, "I’ve got the dolphins on my side," and picking fights with himself has a mobile phone which he uses to call Saturn on.

Anyway, such adverts basically offer ring tones, wallpaper, celebrity gossip and horoscopes to mobile users. After you've entered your Ketik-Reg-Spasi information and received your annoying jingle or picture of Justin Timberlake, a couple of thousand Rupiah gets chipped off your phone network credits (or 'pulsa' as I believe they are known in the vernacular).

Basically, such flyweight nonsense is of little interest to adults (I'm talking mental age here of course). This being the case, the main users of such services appear to be the country's teeny bopping ABG (or Anak Baru Gede, local slang for teenager). According to a recent report in the newspaper Kompas, one teenager managed to get through a staggering Rp.750,000 worth of this guff in a single month. The fact that there is money to be made in teenage dross is nothing new of course, remember The Osmonds?

Perhaps the fact that one doesn't have to open one's wallets and pay for each download creates a false sense of security in users, I don't know. All I know is that the Ketik-Reg-Spasi companies have moved in and cleaned up big time, not just here but in many other countries too.

In fact, a French friend of mine, who has been living in Jakarta for a number of years scraping by, has finally put his computer knowledge to work and has also muscled in on the teenage downloaders market. How is he doing? Well he's just moved into a pretty impressive pied a terre in Kemang. Those Rp.2000 hits really add up I guess. Good luck to him I say, let the spotty, Nokia brained twerps blow their cash on this kind of thing, it's probably less harmful than their pocket money being frittered away on Marlboro Lights and air pistols.

I'm less keen on the endless TV adverts though and the fact that when I phone people, I'm often cut off after a couple of minutes, no doubt due to my network being overloaded by frantic downloading. There is clearly no way back though; hardware, software and the wetware of our brains are being meshed ever tighter into our hyper connected, brave new goldfish bowl of a world. I don't even seem to be able to go to the bathroom for a pee these days without someone taking a picture of the act and posting it up on Facebook.

Kids and their phones ay? They should all be down the park on their bikes really shouldn't they? Oh yes, there aren't any in Jakarta, of course. Well, if you can't beat them you may as well join them. What should I try downloading today do you think?

Ring Tones. If you blow Rp.10,000 on these per month that adds up to Rp.120,000 per year. You could buy a whole CD for that and what's more not have to call yourself from your house's landline in order to listen to it. Ring tones are a particular bugbear of mine; their insidious chirpiness really sticks in my craw. An office colleague of mine had a Beyonce track on his Blackberry for a whole month recently and was receiving calls every 15 minutes. Luckily, the windows in my office don't open.

Games and Wallpaper. That'll be more 'pulsa' down the toilet then. A two inch by two inch screen hardly offers a mind-blowing gaming experience. As for wallpaper, most phones have cameras on them these days; why not take a snap of a cup of weak, milky tea. Voila, Justin Timberlake.

Celebrity News. Surely there's enough of this stuff clogging up the TV channels without one needing to download it as well. That dreaded portmanteau word,'Infotainment', as I've said before, is a bit of a misnomer as the stuff is neither informative nor entertaining. "Julia Peres has just cut her toenails." Yes. Super.

Horoscopes. Example download:"Kamu tidak cocok kerja di air, kamu cocok jadi pedagang." Translation: "You are not suited to working in water, you are suited to being a salesman." I'm feeling enlightened. “You will need to buy lots of 'pulsa' this month." Perhaps closer to the mark. Any superstitious saddo repeatedly using these standard reply astrology services deserves to not only lose a few thousand Rupiah, but also to have their head inserted into a waste disposal unit. On this matter the Islamic fundamentalists and I are as one. Who would have thought it?

There’ll be more hi-tech fun next week.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saint Valentine Vanquished

"At the touch of love, everybody becomes a poet”, so said old man Plato way back at Western philosophy ground zero. Such expressions of amorous joy have been regrettably under attack of late though. Indonesia sure ain't Plato's Republic just at the moment. This year's Valentine's Day comes hot on the heels of the controversial new pornography law being passed by parliament. The law has again raised fears of Islamic Sharia style morality encroaching on public life.

Last year's Valentine's Day took a severe clerical mauling across the Archipelago. Ma'ruf Amien, chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) warned that celebrating the day was 'Haram' i.e. prohibited by Islam and insisted that the romantic holiday encouraged drunkenness and other such Western immorality. It was a case of the old Pengaulan Bebas Barat (liberal Western social norms) broken record being played again. Us Westerners invented sex of course.

Meanwhile in the Sumatran city of Bukittinggi, Deputy Mayor Ismet Amzis banned Valentine's Day in his town saying, "Young couples tend to hug and even kiss each other. This is an immoral act right?" Well, I don't think I would concur with that view Mr Amzis although you're by no means the first person to suggest that such is the case.

Sexual repression has a long and sad history and is surely one of the great driving forces of religion. Such unnatural repression causes the stifled energies of the seething id to be directed instead towards a vigorous and pious defence of chastity. Mind you, with Indonesia’s population pushing 250 million plus people, clearly an awful lot of making of the beast with two backs happens here in spite of the increasingly dogmatic religious edicts.

This business of romantic love is a curious one though. Why do we as humans frequent strip clubs or have affairs and yet make a big show of the monogamous pair bonding of marriage? Is love just an illusion, a mental phantasm that has evolved to facilitate the procreation of the species?

Darwinian evolution does in fact offer many interesting insights into human love and sexual relations and the animal kingdom offers up some interesting cases. In nature there are so called tournament species such as peacocks or seals. These species feature high levels of male aggression and males fight each other for dominance of the females (95% of the offspring are fathered by just 5% of the males). By contrast, pair bonded species, such as many kinds of birds or marmoset monkeys, mate for life and exhibit very low levels of male aggression. Interestingly, human beings possess types of genes found in both tournament and pair bonded species. Not quite monogamous and not quite polygamous we are, in scientific jargon, a tragically confused species.

Undoubtedly this confusion is behind so much of our great art, music and literature. But pulling human desire apart in purely biological terms tells us nothing about the emotional content of a full to overflowing heart. One can pull a radio apart and examine the individual components, however, if you really want to know what a radio does you turn it on of course and listen to the heavenly music being beamed magically through the ether.

Here's hoping that our inspiring artistic and social traditions of romantic love manage to transcend the rather stingy edicts of the Bukittinggi Administration. I’ll take my leave for this month with a stirring romantic quote from French aviator and author Antoine de Saint Exupery who once said that, "Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.” It gets me just there I’m telling you.

PS This year's reaction to Valentine's Day (according to an article in The Globe) by the Ulema seems to be that it's haram because it's of Jewish origin. Hmmm. St. Valentine the Jew ay?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

"A Whole Street's Belief, In Sunday's Roast Beef, Gets Dashed Against the Co-op"

I happen to live a couple of hundred yards from one of the city's many bustling and fragrant traditional markets. About 18 months ago, the entire open-air bazaar was temporarily cleared out of the way and then re-housed on the same site. The market's new home resembles one of those grey, concrete, burnt out shells that they let the fire brigades practice on in other countries. The essentially cheerful aura of the market has remained intact however, despite the interior of the new building resembling the World War II, Japanese ammunition bunkers that I visited in Bukittinggi last year.

More recently however, a mini market has opened not 50 yards up the road, its hygienic strip lighting and brightly togged out staff a direct challenge to the concrete catacombs next door. In recent years, many small market traders have complained about the rise of these mini market empires. Any idiot with about US$10,000 to spare can open one of these mini supermarket franchises and, as a consequence, the things seem to be spreading their corporate tentacles throughout the land quicker than a bird flu epidemic.

You have to feel a bit sorry for the small traders who are being left out in the cold by the wipe clean surfaces and hyper efficient supply lines of these new empires of shopping convenience. There's more to this issue than just the disempowerment of the small trader by franchise capital though. The mini market changes the whole psycho-social outlook of the community at some unconscious level.

As the bland homogenization of the global marketplace standardizes our desires and aspirations, we increasingly like to shuffle around impersonal, highly predictable environments (see Jakarta's love affair with the shopping mall). The franchization of the world has also deterritorialized it. Walking around the bright interior of my local mini mart, I could be anywhere on the planet. Shops like this are coming to dominate every street in every city in every country in the world, giving lie to the myth that free market capitalism engenders competition and diversity. Still, at least my local mini mart isn’t hawking an aspirational, upwardly mobile agenda like the now ubiquitous Starbucks and its overpriced lattes and cappuccinos. It’s the new fast food: slow things right down and get them to stay all day going square eyed over their laptops.

But enough of the cod sociology; how do the traditional market and the mini market stack up on more mundane factors? :

1. Beer Temperature. I've got to hand it to the mini market on this one, you can't beat a bit of refrigeration. Plus the Circle Ks are online 24 hours a day. The Warung outside the market, with its familiar battered plastic box full of ice, is a very hit and miss affair. Especially as the Pocari Sweats usually seem to take priority over the Bintangs when a decision is made on what gets to sit on top of the iceberg.

2. Attentiveness of Staff. The smiling, jovial, wisecracking market traders definitely come out on top here. The trainee school leavers down at my mini mart seem to be suffering from a fairly common condition that I’ve named Indonesian-Y-chromosome-service-industry-syndrome. Basically these chaps are about as gormless as it is humanly possible to get without actually being plugged into a life support machine.

3. Ambience. We've already discussed this in some detail but, masochist that I am, I don't think you can beat a good nostril singeing trip around the huge hollowed out breeze block of the market. The hyper white mini mart with its endless promotions and competitions that offer to replace your prefrontal lobes with a USB Flash disk gives me the willies. Must... resist... psychic defences……consume…

4. Prices. At least these are fixed down at the mini market although I'm not generally taken for a sucker by the market traders; not once I've given their formaldehyde soaked chickens the once over and their juicy ripe mangoes a damned good fondling at any rate.

5. Possibility of Having One's Pocket Picked. This is perhaps more likely to happen down at the traditional market. Blok M's rabbit warren of stalls is particularly dodgy in this respect. Remember to tuck those Rp.50,000 bills snugly into your gusset for maximum protection. I have, in fact, caught some rather inept pickpockets fumbling around my backpack a couple of times before and on both occasions spent a second or two in furious internal debate over whether to punch the offender squarely on the hooter or just walk away.

Eventually I compromised by shoving the light fingered Larrys aggressively in the chest and letting fly with a few choice Anglo Saxon expletives. These fellows may count themselves lucky that they didn’t receive the commonly meted out local punishment for such transgressions, namely being beaten and kicked into a coma by a crowd of irate passersby. I’m not sure I’d have the strength for that to be honest.

Back to the matter in hand though, a winner for our shopping square off challenge? I’ll let you lot decide as I’m sure many of you have, in your time, both raided the Alfa Mart fridge for few bottles of ale and bought a lovely bunch of coconuts down the market. All votes should be posted up on this blog’s increasingly fractious comments page. (And anyone who can tell me where today's title comes from will win a crisp tenner).