Saturday, April 25, 2009

We Were Somewhere Around Barstow.....

Let us give thanks that the elections are over, for another couple of months at least. The Indonesian public has stuck to its half of the democratic bargain admirably by refraining from setting fire to each other's motorcycles and instead turning the elections into a celebration of community spirit. Now it's up to the politicians to live up to their half of the deal when the new parliament convenes after the presidential elections. Just turning up at all would be a good start given the traditional levels of absenteeism in the two houses.

After all of this democratic fervor however, I felt I needed a little break from Jakarta's pell-mell chaos and decided to negotiate the potholes out of town. I should stress though that I hold no truck with a recent survey that asserts that Jakarta is the second worst city in the entire world for expatriates to live in. The report cites the general pollution and disorder, which I can't really take issue with, but also safety and security factors, which I find a trifle harsh. I'd much rather be sitting in a warung at midnight than mixing it up with the North Londoners of my home as I try and get my hands on a take away kebab after the pubs close. We may not have a very good football team in England but we have first class hooligans to take pride in.

In fact it was affairs of the heart, rather than a fear of being mugged, that was the main catalyst for me hitting the road and heading down to the beach for a couple of days with the chaps during the long weekend. A poem I discovered recently by the current enfant terrible of the UK art scene, Banksy, seemed to sum my situation up aptly:

Beyond watching eyes with sweet and tender kisses,
Our souls reached out to each other in breathless wonder.
And when I awoke from a vast and smiling peace,
I found you bathed in the morning light, quietly studying,
All the messages on my phone.

So, a trip to Pelabuhan Ratu, the jewel of southwest Java it was. A chance to put amorous stress on the back burner for a couple of days whilst turning a vibrant hue of lobster pink. Steaming down the toll road towards Bogor is always a pleasure. Not only are you released from Jakarta's sump like ambience but you can also entertain the fantasy that you're in a clean and efficient country as you drive at speed without the risk of knocking a family of five off their scooter or rounding a corner and tooling into a fried rice cart at 60mph.

Even the service stations seem quite modern these days. In the West, drivers like to stop at such places for a round of ludicrously overpriced sandwiches and to take a rest from driving by playing driving video games. Asian toll road stations, by contrast, are supposed to be seedy hotbeds of horny truckers and prostitution. alas though, I found little to get the pulse racing as I steamed onwards towards Bogor.

At the end of the toll, things slow down considerably of course, although the road is currently in a better condition than it is in most places in Jakarta. The final 40km stretch through the mountains to the coast is a switchback ride of hairpin bends and breathtaking scenery. Admiring the view whilst on the road though could see you careering off the asphalt and down a hillside in a heartbeat, scattering chickens and batik clad grandmothers in your wake. As it was, I swerved to avoid a pothole in true Starsky and Hutch style and almost took out a scooter.

Down at the beach though, all my cares melted away in a haze of Bintang, sand, sun and grilled fish. The only potential fly in the ointment is the sea itself, the stalking ground of Nyai Loro Kidul, the (hopefully) mythical Queen of the South Seas who’s dragged many an unsuspecting swimmer to a watery grave. There's a permanent room kept aside for the goddess at the huge Samudra Beach Hotel, originally built by President Sukarno, who was a big Pelabuhan Ratu fan.

Apparently Ms. Kidul is fond of the colour green and so I gleefully charged into the sea, feeling safe in my shocking pink trunks. The sand eventually dropped away beneath my feet and I was out of my depth though. No problem I thought. Five minutes later I was breathlessly swimming against the riptide, trying to claw my way back to the shore. You've got to watch that Indian Ocean I'm telling you. I'm clearly not cut out to mix it up with the five-year-old Sundanese kids who skimmed past my ears on their boards.

Back on dry land, I decided to do a bit of sunbathing instead. Many Indonesians had also made it down to the coast during the long weekend. Despite the kilometers of beautiful beach however, they had all inevitably crowded onto a 100 meter long strip. This left the rest free for my companions, myself and a few mud caked bison. Paradise. Drop us a line if you fancy a lift down next time, we'll split the petrol.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The World’s 2nd-Oldest Profession

Like many of you also did I'm sure, I went and had a good nose about my local polling station on Election Day. All the characters from my local neighborhood were out in force to wrestle with huge voting papers like campers erecting tents. There was my local fruit seller with the goiter on his neck, the cackling Ibu-ibu, the B-list soap star from the posh house around the corner and the Laurel and Hardy-esque satpams.

All were clowning around merrily and celebrating the fact that Indonesia has now held three pretty fair and free elections with barely a whisper of rape and pillage to spoil things. My local couple of Keystone Cops had five polling stations to monitor, although there was little to bother them, save for a slight bit of shoving between PD and PKS supporters at one point. My maid told me that she had cast her vote for the PKS. She hadn't previously struck me as someone who would plump for the five times daily brigade but maybe my own reprehensible behavior around the house has driven her into the arms of religious politics.

I pottered off for a spot of lunch around midday and tried to engage the proprietor of my local Padang eatery in some political discourse when she came to clear my plates away.
"Finish mister?"
"No I'm Swedish actually. So then, which party did you vote for dear?"
"Wow! General Wiranto ay? You like a strong-armed leader do you?"
"Strong, yes Mr."

Wiranto's Hanura Party and Prabowo Subianto's Gerindra seem to have accumulated about 5% of the collective vote each. Not spectacular tallies certainly but perhaps not too bad considering the dreadful human rights abuses that both of these ex-generals stand accused of perpetrating during old man Suharto's regime. In fact, both Wiranto and Prabowo were seen palling up to each other this week, all smiles and backslapping as they attacked SBY's "Political oligarchy". Pots? Kettles? In fact, Prabowo's Gerindra campaign ads seemed to verge on disseminating a quasi-socialist platform; quite bizarre considering the man's past but there you go.

At least someone was smiling apart from the president himself though. Other candidates haven’t been able to take defeat on the chin quite so easily. Doctors have warned in recent months that failed election candidates could face mental breakdowns as they gaze into the gaping jaws of political oblivion, depleted of both cash and face. Perhaps a range of straitjackets in the various party colors await at secure facilities around the country.

One story of post-electoral angst particularly tickled me this week. Over in Sulawesi, a candidate for the Democracy Upholders Party (who?) was disappointed when local residents of Biloro village didn't vote for him. He then decided to blockade a busy road much used by said villagers, claiming that the road ran through his grandfather's land and that he would scrape off the asphalt and turn it back into paddy fields. Rarely have post-election grapes been sourer. Democracy Upholders Party? Physician heal thyself... and step into this padded cell whilst you’re at it.

Back at my local election station, the counting began in earnest. Voters were this year required to tick their ballot papers (contreng) rather than the more traditional hole punching (coblos) of yore, thus obviating any hanging or pregnant chads scenario a la Florida 2000. The huge size of the ballot papers meant that things were taking quite a while however and my local election officials at times looked as if they were trying to construct some kind of origami dinosaur as they removed the papers from the shiny metal KPU boxes before unfolding and scrutinizing them.

The KPU themselves have been under fire in recent days for the many logistical problems that were encountered on voting day. Mind you, with over a million candidates spread over Indonesia's 6000 inhabited islands, the whole election must have been horrendous to organize.

I drove past my local polling station once again when I came back from the pub at midnight and the poor blighters were still wrestling with the voluminous papers by floodlight. They told me that they had nearly finished. I continued home to a fitful sleep and nightmares of myself being pursued across a marshy battlefield by a gun toting General Wiranto wearing nothing but a pair of Hanura Y-fronts and shouting, " Simon, come back, you haven't voted yet!"

And so the election is finally over and we can all take a breather. Alas, the whole shebang is set to be repeated in July when the presidential runoff occurs. In the meantime, we’ll have to endure politicians of every stripe attempting to form viable coalitions by making unctuous overtures to rivals that they would normally be reluctant to pee on if they were on fire. Oh joy of joys.

Politics, don’t you just love it? If politics is the second oldest profession in the world then it bears a more than passing resemblance to the first. As the great H.L.Mencken once said, “Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Load of Bull

As you read this, the country’s national elections have already taken place in earnest. Writing this on the Monday before the vote however, I’m assuming that the incumbent president’s Democratic Party gave both PDI-P (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) and Golkar a sound trouncing in the polls, but I’ll have to wait and see.

During last weekend’s final days of campaigning, I rather masochistically elected to attend a PDI-P campaign rally at the 100,000 capacity Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Senayan. However, this first entailed negotiating concentric circles of gridlocked PDI-P supporters choking Senayan’s thoroughfares like a giant red tourniquet. Hundreds of buses full of flag-waving Megawati supporters were making a hell of a racket via microphones, electric guitars, megaphones, amplified Yamaha keyboards on the back of flatbed vans — you name it. Clearly noise abatement (or litter reduction for that matter) is not one of PDI-P’s policy priorities.

Inside, the stadium was redder than a Liverpool versus Manchester United match and the assembled throng cheered and waved flags while rabble-rousing speeches boomed around the terraces. The event resembled nothing so much as a tropical Nuremberg rally. Surely such events are a bit anachronistic in these days of Obama’s Internet campaigning and our dull, free-market technocracy?

Party leader Megawati was eventually wheeled out, and clearly still attempting to bathe in the reflected glow of her old man’s iconic status. In fact, the PDI-P rally was probably not so different from Sukarno’s populist stadium speeches of half a century ago. Alas, however, Megawati is no chip off the old block, oratorically at least. Instead, she chose to sing a song entitled, “Tidak Ingin Sendiri” (I Don’t Want to Be Alone). One is never alone in Indonesia, surely she must know that. There are 250 million of us out there, don’t you know Mrs. M.? The number willing to tick the PDI-P box on the voluminous voting paper on April 9th may have decreased from the heady days of 1998’s optimism however.

Ah yes, 1998. I remember well the excitement and anticipation generated by the country’s first free election in a generation. I remember the campaign rallies that joyously zigzagged around the city streets. I also recall the satisfaction I felt after flipping the bird to a truckload of Golkar supporters. Thankfully they didn’t all jump down and kick my head in. I may not have the right to vote here but a middle digit held proudly aloft is my kind of universal suffrage.

Back in present-day Senayan, a papier-mache bull (the party symbol) was borne through the crowd like a votive offering. I thought for a horrible moment the assembled party cadres were going to get Mega to enact some kind of ritual sacrifice but luckily Indonesia’s great matriarch refrained from frenziedly attacking the ersatz beast with an antique Javanese kris.

I turned to an enthusiastic fan beside me.

“You like this party?” I enquired.

“Yes, Mr.”

“Why is that then?” I continued.

“I believe that Mega can help our people.”

“Well, I didn’t see her doing a great deal of that when she was president between 2000 and 2004,” I countered.

“Erm … oh ya.”

That’s what I like to see, someone who’s done their homework.

Mega was indeed crowned president after the country’s pugilistic legislature petulantly kicked out Gus Dur, a man who had previously referred to them, rather aptly I thought, as a kindergarten. After the novelty of having a female president wore off, Indonesia’s great reform era betrayal became apparent. PDI-P, the country’s hope for a brighter future, had become as sleazy as their New Order Golkar predecessors.

In fact, the real rot set in soon after Indonesia’s first democratic election in 1999. The war on corruption seemed to take an almost immediate cease-fire soon after PDI-P entered the House as the largest party. The Megawati crew quickly underwent the same kind of transformation as the pigs did after taking charge in George Orwell’s masterfully allegorical “Animal Farm.”

And so the years rolled by until an anticorruption initiative finally stumbled sleepily into life under the stewardship of a wishy-washy ex-New Order general with a penchant for writing schmaltzy ballads. For shame PDI-P, for shame.

Eventually I left Bung Karno Stadium, past the party’s menacing paramilitary style security goons in their red combat fatigues.

Outside the stadium’s perimeter, I spied a red Toyota Kijang with a large model bull’s head stuck on its front hood. The vehicle had clearly broken down however and its owner had lifted the hood and was tinkering with the engine.

A fitting symbol for the PDI-P bandwagon, wouldn’t you say?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Diplomatic Dipsomania

Well, it would seem that there are just a few days left to go before this whole election circus comes to an end. The Indonesian electorate will soon be sallying forth to their neighborhood polling stations and placing ticks on ballot papers so large you could go camping under them. We'll then be able to resume our lives unburdened by campaign rally induced traffic jams and the looming faces of human rights violators and war criminals beaming down at us from 10 foot high billboards.

The newly elected politicians will then enter Parliament, sign the attendance register for the first (and last) time and make a sharp beeline for the exit before debates begin in order to get on with the serious business of fleecing the country. It's nice to see a healthy thriving democracy. "Get back in the knife drawer you're too sharp to live," I hear you complain although I think I should stress that I don't currently consider most Western democracies to be much of an improvement.

Perhaps things will get better for the country's great unwashed after the election, but what with the world facing its first ever decline in global output since World War II, I wouldn't put any money on it (or in the bank either, stuff it under the mattress is my advice). President SBY’s Democratic Party look set for an enjoyable week ahead though and I must say that I’m immensely looking forward to seeing both Yusaf Kalla and Megawati scowling into the cameras come April 10th.

However, let's leave the oppressed proletariat for a moment comrades. Allow me to instead elucidate on my first ever diplomatic function, an event that I was lucky enough to attend last Monday. The fiancée of a workmate of mine is in the gainful employ of the US embassy here in Jakarta and it was with some trepidation that I thus found myself accompanying the both of them to an informal dinner being held in honor of the new US press attaché.

After donning my crispest slacks and cleanest and most starched Sponge Bob Y fronts, my companions and I gaily sashayed up to the luxury Menteng apartment complex that was hosting the function. "This is it," I thought, "I've finally arrived at the top table!" My big chance to schmooze in rarefied diplomatic circles had come at last. The event proved to be a delightfully informal affair and I didn't spy any menacing American security muscle sporting black suits, buzz cuts and Aviator shades. The American Embassy bigwigs were even wearing batik shirts and the relaxed ambience generally seemed to reflect the post-Bush/hail Obama detente that has materialized after years of tension between the US pretty much the rest of the world to be honest.

In order to celebrate this new spirit of pan global cooperation, I immediately dove into a large gin and tonic and a huge plate of Thai food. After several more G and Ts it was time to ask our American diplomat hosts the big question, namely, "When the hell is Obama coming to town?" alas, no definite answer was proffered but I have high hopes that Mr. O will soon return to his old stomping ground of Menteng and deliver his JFK, "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a sausage) address to the Indonesian public. What would the Indonesian equivalent be I wonder? Aku setusuk sate? I would just love to see our man cracking a few bottles of Bintang and enjoying a some dangdut numbers but perhaps such behavior doesn't befit the dignity of America's head of state.

After more gin and tonics (alas, I drink to forget, Indonesians on the other hand generally forget to drink, which is probably a more healthy approach to life) I tried my hand at a bit of socializing. I met the lady who had put Hillary Clinton on an Indonesian chat show during her visit. I also met a local veiled embassy employee who revealed her great love of Formula One and Arsenal football club to me. Clearly this was a woman after my own heart although I'm not sure how this love of such anti-American sports goes down with her employers.

I was also introduced to a highflying young diplomat and Oxford graduate (just like old Slick Willie Clinton himself) who could talk the skin off a rice pudding. The presidency beckons for this young blade without a doubt. Finally, I was introduced to an Indonesian journalist who stroked his chin and said “Ahhh, you’re that horrible chap who writes that Metro Madness stuff”. “You’re obviously confusing me with me idiot brother Simon,” I explained, shaking his hand vigorously, “Wilberforce Pitchforth’s the name…”

It was clearly time to make tracks. The gin and tonics were beginning to take their toll and, not having attended finishing school in the Sorbonne, I decided to leave lest I cause some ghastly diplomatic incident involving a half bottle of Bacardi and a box of matches. I doubt very much that I'll be able to climb so high up the greasy social poll of movers and shakers this coming week however I promise that I shall return next weekend... provided that the CIA don't get to me first.

Friday, April 03, 2009

If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Make It Illegal

Well folks, President Obama may have beaten an unlikely path to the White House but that’s not the end of election fever by any means. Indonesia will be holding its own national elections on April 9th and, as you can hardly have failed to notice if you're a Jakarta resident, campaigning is now underway in earnest.

My own admittedly not very sharply honed political instincts tell me that incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a shoe in for reelection. In the decade since the fall of Suharto's New Order regime, Indonesia has changed leaders perhaps more times than is strictly necessary. Gathering economic storm clouds and a distinct lack of any credible Obama-esque candidate shouting, "Ya! Kita Bisa!" (Yes, we can!) are also playing into SBY's hands. The President's Democratic Party is rising in the polls as a result and a desire for stability will probably win the day.

This year's election promises to be more democratic than either of Indonesia's two previous post-Suharto elections as for the first time, people will be voting for local constituency candidates as opposed to just a party. No longer will party leaders be able to install whichever unctious political hacks that they feel like in parliament. This is an advance for sure.

You've probably seen campaign stickers and poster plastered all over town, generally making a mess of the city's already less than pristine streets and residential areas. This time around though, there are none of the carnivalesque parades of trucks crammed with party supporters waving banners and flags that there were in 1999. This is in large part due to the disappointment felt by the electorate with the glacially slow pace of change during the reform era. Anticorruption initiatives have finally been able to gain a bit of traction under SBY, however the sense of apathy and torpor felt by the electorate just at the moment is palpable.

So, for the first time since helmsman Suharto was at the reigns, Indonesia looks set to re-elect an incumbent president; for the first time ever in fact as the Suharto elections can hardly be said to count! This time around, there are a dizzying 34 contesting parties. Clearly many of these parties (The Vanguard Party anyone?) are going to emerge hugely disappointed on April 10th but that's politics for you.

As some bright spark once remarked, "Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason." I’d have to concur with this assessment, especially if taken as a judgement on the carpet-bagging, nest-feathering rabble currently sitting in the MPR and DPR (or, more often, not sitting there at all as many of them don't even bother to turn up to debates and votes).

In fact, even pre-election opinion polls are not to be trusted. Apparently some parties have been creating doctored polls projecting results that they want to see in order to convince undecided voters that they are in fact popular and worth a vote. Bah humbug. This hardly bodes well for clean governance now does it?

By the way, anyone interested in the current political bun fight may wish to point their browser at This fascinating English-language blog contains the latest lowdown on the countdown to April 9th.

We’ll leave the last word this month to grizzled US journalist Charles Krauthammer, who once said that, “Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country - and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians.” Are there parallels to be drawn here with Indonesia’s current mud slinging campaign perhaps?