Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Euan Mie

Indonesia has once again had its integrity outrageously questioned as the harsh, unforgiving spotlight of international standards and regulatory systems is mercilessly shone upon this great nation. This time around, one of the country's most nutritious staple foods, namely instant noodles, has been viciously slandered by the Taiwanese authorities, who have banned the product on the grounds that it contains excessive amounts of the preservative, benzoic acid.

I've long suspected that the plastic wrapper that the classic slab of Indomie comes packaged in contains more nutrients than the noodles themselves do, although I don't have the scientific data in front of me to back that claim up. This latest health scare comes on the back and various other horrors, including Indonesian market traders who douse their fish with formaldehyde in order to keep it looking fresh and free from flies. Personally, I'm not convinced that embalming one's customers is going to bring you a lot of repeat business although perhaps these traders also offer a sideline taxidermy services.

Indomie is an iconic, almost fetishized food here of course, and I have long despaired of ever understanding why it is that some of the country's worst foods, namely instant noodles and the grey balls of inorganic compounds and petrochemical pipeline tailings known as 'bakso' have the public hooked like junkies, when this is surely a land of fresh fruit, vegetables and general nutritional bounty.

Moreover, whenever there's a charity drive here, the food that almost invariably seems to get donated to the poor unfortunates in huge amounts is our old friend, the instant noodle, usually in enormous boxes filled with hundreds of packets. Just lost your house in an earthquake? Then add rickets to your woes by feeding your family on Indomie for a month.

I find it particularly ironic that Taiwan has rejected that toothsome Indomie blend of industrial solvents and unpronounceable chemicals spelt with lots of exes and zeds though, seeing as they invented the bloody stuff in the first place, but you've got to have standards I suppose. Apparently, consuming benzoic acid in large quantities can result in nausea, deterioration in kidney function and possibly metabolic acidosis, a potentially fatal condition.

The Indonesian BPOM (Food and Drug Monitoring Agency) has now declared that Indomie contains safe levels of both benzoic acid and a chemical called p-hydroxybenzoate (which sounds like something that you'd find in superglue). So that's okay then. Well I don't know about the BPOM, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they had a rather cozy relationship with the noodle industry.

As a parallel, America's FDA (Food and Drug Administration) are not necessarily a body that I'd entrust my body to. Well under the thumb of its corporate masters, the FDA recently declared walnuts to be drugs and Doritos to be, "Heart healthy." Food and Drug Administration you see. Pig out on McDonalds for 20 years and then get yourself on some pills to try and mitigate the consequences. Double sale! But I digress.

Returning to those errant noodles, let's have a run through some of the ingredients to be found in a typical packet that I bought at a branch of Circle K this week. I stared intently at the shelves on my visit perusing the various varieties on offer: Rubber and Sand flavor, Pencil Shavings and Axle Grease flavor, Nothing flavor. Eventually however, I plumped for a yellow packet of Kari Ayam flavor. So how did the ingredients break down?

Tartrazine: this yellow food dye has been linked with hyperactive disorders in children and has now been phased out in a number of European Union countries. In the 1990s, a myth began circulating that excessive tartrazine consumption could affect male potency and penis size, however there are no documented cases confirming this hysterical rumor. In fact, on the contrary, I'd say that East Asian gentlemen are positively hard for tartrazine laced noodles.


TBHQ: this is a preservative used for unsaturated vegetable oils and is also found in varnishes, lacquers and resins (whoa!). Some studies have suggested that the substance might be mildly carcinogenic, but who cares when your insides look as shiny as a freshly polished Chesterfield. 


MSG: everyone knows this one of course. This nuclear powered flavor enhancer (something like sodium chloride mixed with uranium) is an East Asian staple. MSG is seen as the bogeyman of instant cuisine and modern dietary habits, although strict double-blind medical trials have yet to show conclusively that the stuff can cause obesity or worsen symptoms of asthma, and MSG has now been pretty much declared medically safe. Also of course, without a healthy whack of MSG, Indomie would taste like, well, nothing at all I guess.


Benzoic Acid: this stuff actually occurs naturally in cranberries and bilberries, however too much of it is bad for the liver and kidneys.

Benzoic Acid

So there we have it folks, a few health issues to a mull over, although perhaps the time-honoured tradition of breaking an egg into the noodles and tipping half a bottle of chilli sauce into the mix serves to neutralize these latent dangers. In any case, I'm starting to feel peckish...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thieves Like Us

Passing through my friendly neighbourhood shopping mall on my way to buy a few kilos of tempeh and some party hats from the cavernous hypermarket in the basement last week, I chanced upon a rather unusual stand. In amongst the rather twee tables full of ethnic requisites and aromatherapy burners, I came across a girl standing behind a small counter that had a banner over it saying ICW.

ICW stands for Indonesian Corruption Watch, an organisation that aims to publicise the dastardly sleaze and kleptomaniacal cant that goes on in this great nation. Upon enquiring, I was shown a brochure and given some car stickers. ICW were soliciting donations of course and I gave the young lady my e-mail address so that I could be sent whatever information or donation forms that she had (although as I write this, I’ve still received diddly squat).

Hopefully of course, the ICW don't rip their donations off, that would really take the biscuit. Nothing, however, would surprise me about this country any more. This is the kind of place in which you need an Indonesian Corruption Watch Watch to keep an eye on the ICW. And then of course you'd need an Indonesian Corruption Watch Watch Watch to watch them and so on and so on ad absurdum, until you reach the final link in the chain, the jailed editor of Playboy Indonesia, sitting behind a computer spreadsheet program.

ICW however, as their name suggests, can merely watch as the country gets robbed blind and defendants are given lenient sentences for being, "Polite and helpful," in court. However keeping these issues in the media is vital work in our information driven age.

The Indonesian economy is apparently booming but socially and politically, the skies are as full of clouds as black as those that scudded over Jakarta in recent weeks. This week, we learned that a bill was passed in the house allowing police to use live ammunition on the streets. As someone who was here during the Trisakti shootings and riots over a decade ago, this sent a chill down my spine. And wouldn't you know it, the current candidate for police chief, Comr. Gen. Timur Pradopo, has been intimately linked with these very shootings.

The new armed police law reminds me of a previous glorious leader from my own country, Margaret "Milk Snatcher" Thatcher who, before embarking on a programme of union smashing an unfettered laissez-faire capitalism, first made sure to increase police salaries and invest in new skull cracking equipment. She knew exactly what was coming of course, and perhaps there are now similar portents here. Will the violence currently simmering under the surface here boil over in the future?

This is still a pretty authoritarian society. Nothing changed hugely when Suharto pushed off. Gus Dur was a danger and was thus dispensed with quite quickly (and of course, it's okay to crown him a national hero now that he's dead and can't cause any more bother for those in the gravy). Then, after a moderately courageous start, SBY devolved into an invertebrate. So here we are, guns on the streets facing down protests. James Madison, one of the framers of the American Constitution, described modern democracy as a system that, "Protects the minority of the opulent from the majority," and this is perhaps truer of Indonesia than it is of many countries in the world.

Indonesia is still largely ruled by the Javanese of course, and the Javanese mindset and culture, with its class deference and politeness is perhaps not conducive to popular struggles that challenge the legitimacy of power. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's greatest ever author, talked of, "Javanism," which he perceived as a kind of, "Javanese fascism," that , "keeps the country enslaved." For Pram, Indonesia was just a pseudonym for, "Java Bangsa," (Javanese Nation); a place without, "Rule of law, justice or truth."

It's fascism with a smiling face of course, which only makes it even more insidiously chilling. Java Bangsa? Well, we have regional autonomy now, and the new regional Suhartos have learned well from their Javanese masters perhaps. As for the little people though, the only thing that really unites this country is its language.

A bit serious this week! Dear dear dear. I really need to get out of town. Oh well, at least those miners managed to get out alive. Although I was hoping that the media at the top would dress up like Planet of the Apes when they came out. That would have been a great prank.

So let's look on the bright side, Christmas will soon be here and Santa will be merrily shoehorning his corpulent frame through our air conditioning vent to the accompaniment of the early morning call to prayer. Hopefully he’ll be bearing a sack full of Tera Patrick DVDs and a few bottles of duty-free booze. And then next year, God will rain down gifts of subway systems, flood alleviation, poverty relief and inter-sectarian harmony upon us and steer us away from the socio-cultural landfill site that we are all heading towards with gathering speed. The future is ours!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tainted Love

IIt's been a queer couple of weeks one way and another. It was all too depressingly predictable that the next target for jackbooted monotheistic types, after minority faiths, women and liberals, would be homosexuals. Our old chum, Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring (which is an anagram of 'A Blistering Mufti' by the way) was once again in the vanguard with some highly enlightened Tweets about sin, gays and AIDS.

This tired old American born-again, AIDS-as-God's-curse idea doesn't even work at the basic level of logic, owing to the fact that the rates of AIDS amongst female gays is virtually zero, much less than it is among heterosexuals in fact, owing to the nature of that particular beast with two backs. But since when have the world's religious dogmatists ever been troubled by the bothersome need to be logically coherent?

Then of course, the 2010 Q Film Festival was picketed by FPI types who are perhaps just a little bit too suspiciously enraged in their firebrand fervour. One suspects, in Freudian terms, unconscious motivations. Here’s an analogy for you. The medical researcher slicing up animals and the antivivisectionist picketing outside his clinic stand, at the level of conscious ideology, in opposing camps. At an unconscious level however, both may be fascinated by the same acts. I leave you to draw the parallels dear reader.

In fact, I was invited to the closing of this year's Q Film Festival down at Fx Plaza last weekend. Alas though, possessing, as I do, a clockwork mouse instead of a brain, I turned up at Ex Plaza by mistake. Determined to thoroughly queer myself up though, I went one better by getting an alternatively inclined friend of mine to drag me along to a local gay bar for the evening.

And so, last Saturday night, I donned my best leather chaps and found myself stepping across the threshold and into the stygian darkness of Kota's most notorious gay club. I immediately headed for the safety of the bar and, as I ordered up a manly bottle of Bintang, my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I surveyed all before me.

The club was not, in essence, any different from any other nightclub that plies its trade around that neck of the woods. The same teenybopper-on-speed 190 beats per minute Dangdut-techno fusion sounds were shredding the PA system and the dance floor was packed with sweaty young blades all smoking like the Marlboro man in front of a firing squad. Elsewhere, the AC systems dripped water on my nose and barely dented the suffocating humidity, whilst swinging a cat (or even a saucy Richard Gere gerbil) would have presented a major challenge.

It was hardly an outrageous tableau of bacchanalian decadence and debauchery though. In fact, it all seemed to me to be considerably less racy than many of Kota's straight discos, as there were no private karaoke rooms available on site for people to get up to any clandestine mischief making or construction of human ‘daisy chains’.

Two stereotypes of the gay man persist in society. The first is the blouse wearing, Cher listening, limp wristed but essentially harmless caricature, checking surfaces for dust with his index finger. One dimensional for sure but not as bad as the second, more ideologically and religiously driven stereotype, namely the louche, depraved pervert who preys on the young and corrupts the innocent. In this conception, homosexuality is a disease to be cured or eradicated. Well, if being gay was a disease, then I for one would be using it as an excuse to get some sick days off work. “Are you coming in today Simon?” “No, sorry, I’m still feeling queer.”

Could an increasingly religious mindset tip Indonesia into this second stereotype? I'd hate such a future to befall the guy that my friend and I chatted to last Saturday at the club. This polite young chap confessed that despite being gay, he hoped to get married and have children one day. Clearly guys such as this are as much a product of Indonesian society as they are gay culture.

My Western chum was slightly incensed however. "Even the gays here want to have ten kids! My God, isn't Java over populated enough without gays chipping in as well!" Fair point I thought and I'm also not sure that attempts by homosexuals to live the heterosexual nuclear family dream often pan out that well. 

I finished my beer and sloped off to the rest room to drain my spuds. I have to admit to feeling a slight sense of trepidation at this point and I stared rigidly at my mobile phone, pretending to be deeply absorbed in a text message as nature took its course.

 It happened though folks, it happened. In one frozen moment a rogue paw had reached around and had given my family jewels a friendly squeeze. I looked around and thankfully our over familiar bon viveur had already vanished. No name, no phone number and only a rather unusual introductory handshake to remember him by. I'm telling you folks, romance is most definitely dead.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Here in My Car

Last weekend, I managed to hop over the pond and take in the rather spectacular Singapore Grand Prix. As well as leaving my eardrums as perforated as a postage stamp, the sojourn also afforded me the opportunity to put Singapore and Jakarta head-to-head in a little compare and contrast contest. Not a fair match perhaps, but since when was fairness ever an integral element of life in the Big Durian?

Arriving in the interstellar space station of Changi Airport is certainly a good place to start, seeing as the hub is regarded by many as the best airport in the whole world. All of Singapore's ruthless efficiency and technocratic conformity comes together at Changi and one feels as if one has been let loose inside the sterile sci-fi world of George Lucas’s seminal THX1138. Soekarno-Hatta, by contrast, is alas more Bronze Age than space age.

I proceeded to take the subway into the city centre, which is obviously not an option in good old Batavia. In fact, I learnt this week that Jakarta is the largest city in the world to be deprived of a metro system. Metro madness indeed. Emerging on Orchard Road, underwear clamminess soon became an issue and I think it's fair to say that Singapore is even more humid than the Indonesian capital.

Despite the soaring temperatures though, everything runs like clockwork in Singapore and the dropping of a single cigarette butt on the street results in an alarm going off down at the nearest police precinct and sees the offending miscreant hauled off for a heavy session of electric shock therapy until the requisite balance of narcotized late capitalist docility and conformity has been re-instilled in the subject.

As you may have guessed, I'm not totally sold on the whole island state weltanschauung and rather feel that they've gone a tad far in their technologically mediated mind control. In fact, I tend to see the place as something of a canary in a coal mine for the increasingly regimented, CCTV regulated 'last man' joylessness of my own homeland.

Still, not being confronted with luckless, dollar-a-day, hand-to-mouth, head lice infested plebeians on every street corner could be considered a plus point in Singapore's favour. In any case, I soon headed down to the Grand Prix qualifying session and found a space trackside in the Marina Bay area.

As the sun set, a truly breathtaking night vista took shape. The towering skyscrapers, the sprawling Esplanade art complex, the waterfront bars and restaurants stretching all the way up to Clarke Quay, the huge Singapore Flyer viewing wheel, the towering new Marina Bay Sands complex just across the water with its three huge towers and enormous surfboard style deck stretching across the top of all three shooting laser beam arcs across the heavens, the famous Merlion fountain. It was a vision of urban utopia second to none, and I almost wet my pants with excitement, which would have no doubt netted me a $1000 fine from one of the Southeast Asian stormtroopers on duty.

Anyway, I inserted my Formula One earplugs and the cars were soon on track hitting 200 plus mph and generally giving me a cricked neck as I tried to swivel my head fast enough to see them go by. There are a few other street circuits on the Formula One calendar, including the legendary Monaco Grand Prix of course, and they are all a tremendous advertisement for the various cities that host them. Alas, the race itself the following evening saw my boy Hamilton crashing out after being shunted up the butt to by an Australian (not a fate I’d wish on anybody). This has probably ended his chances of taking this year's title, but such is sport.

It was a truly enjoyable evening of speed though, which was helped along enormously by the couple of tins of 7-Eleven Amsterdam Maximator super-strength lager that I had smuggled into Track Zone Four (perhaps Jakarta's new 7-Elevens should start stocking this 11.4% strength mind wiper, although I should stress that it’s not the most palatable beverage out there).

Could Jakarta ever host an F1 street race though I wonder? It'd certainly put the Indonesian capital on the map. A couple of years back, an A1 race was scheduled to be held on the streets of Lippo Karawaci, but was alas cancelled at the last minute after concerns over track safety were raised. What another truly surprising Indonesian anti-climax.

Lippo Karawaci's no good however, you've got to have the cars steaming down Jl. Sudirman at full pelt whilst banging over potholes that cause them to flip over spectacularly. Navigating this city's cratered roads would undoubtedly be a technical challenge for the competitors akin to making them all get stuck into the winner's champagne before, instead of after, the race. The inevitable deaths of several hundred spectators would surely be a small price to pay though for a bit of national pride, and the busway provides a ready-made pit lane of course. There's Indonesia's bid for the FIFA World Cup to get out of the way first however. One ludicrously unrealistic fantasy at a time please.