Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Absolute Zeroes

The Indonesian currency is about to go on a crash diet

 If you live in Indonesia, then I'm sure you've had the following experience. You delve confidently into your wallet, snap out a nice, crisp note, and for a split second you're not sure whether you're clutching Rp. 10,000 or Rp. 100,000 in your perspiring mitt. Part of the reason for your discombobulation derives from the fact that Bank Indonesia, in its infinite wisdom, elected to print both notes in a similar shade of red ink. The colour issue is undoubtedly compounded though by the number of zeroes that one has to get into the old optical crosshairs when dealing with Indonesian currency.

Well, annoyances such as this could soon become a thing of the past, as plans for a rupiah redenomination are slowly gathering momentum in the country's corridors of power. Redenomination (and, crucially, not revaluation) of a currency involves changing the numbers printed on notes and coins, but not their value, in order to simplify things. In terms of the Indonesian rupiah, such a process would naturally involve the lopping off of a few zeroes. Now admittedly this raises the danger that in the country’s kampungs and boondocks, a potentially explosive perception may emerge that by substituting a Rp. 10,000 note for a Rp. 10 note, one has lost Rp. 990. This is apparently why the planned redenomination changeover will take a full six years to “socialise” and implement. In comparison, it took Europe's economies under a year to ditch their local currencies in favour of the then-proud euro. As ever though, the pace of change in the good old Republic of I remains glacial. Seeing as the redenomination of the rupiah will affect legal contracts between banks, their clients and overseas institutions though, with all of the accompanying IT headaches that go along with this process, maybe it’s as well to take things slowly.

The tentative plan is to multiply the nominal value of the rupiah by a factor of 1000, thereby dropping three zeroes from those bothersome bills. In South-East Asia, only the Vietnamese dong currently has a higher dollar exchange rate than the Indonesian rupiah does, and it is hoped that the move to redenominate the national currency will give the rupiah a bit of an image boost in the eyes of a world that looks somewhat suspiciously on currencies that sport so many digits. Endless zeroes tend to evoke images of hyperinflation and people pushing bundles of notes around in trolleys in Weimar Germany during the 1920s. More recently, in Robert Mugabe's economically imploding Zimbabwe, the monthly inflation rate reached an eye-watering 6.5 sextillion percent at one point. Obviously Indonesia isn't going through such a meltdown, however many of the fiscal inflows into the country through capital markets are so often short term only, as there is a perception that the rupiah is "cheap".

Indonesia is currently basking in the warmth of economic good times though (well, some of its citizens are) and inflation is well under control, which should help the process to run smoothly, ensuring that the redenomination failures of countries such as Russia and Brazil, whose economies were in pretty parlous conditions when they attempted to renumber their currencies, are avoided. A strong legal framework will be necessary though and the Indonesian Parliament, a body not particularly celebrated for its speedy deliberations of bills of national importance, will hopefully get around to the great redenomination debate this year.

We are all instant millionaires in this country of course and this status could be about to be confined to the dustbin of history, however there will be positives to enjoy in the redenomination of that old rascal the rupiah. Salaries are paid in millions here and government budgets clock in at millions and even trillions of rupiah. Lopping a few zeroes off the currency will ease accountancy headaches and, as an added bonus, the public should be able to gain a better mental picture of how much cash various politicians and regional leaders are pilfering from public coffers, as the endless parade of corruption cases continues its sorry march through the nation's courts.

Hopefully, the redenomination of the rupiah won't lead to any major riots and the plan is to implement a transition period which will see both old and new denominations in circulation simultaneously, although presumably this could lead to some short-term confusion. Maybe in the longer term though, a new era in economic and political reform will be ushered in by this measure. At the very least, redenomination should improve the currency’s purchasing power in world markets and strengthen the rupiah in the foreign-exchange market.

Numbers rule our lives though, and there are no bigger integers that we have to deal with than those pertaining to large amounts of money. Indonesia scores particularly highly here and, alas, humans are psychologically ill-equipped to deal with large numbers, or so the scientists and psychologists tell us.

People can rationalise numbers such as three or 50 through the use of visual mental models. We've all seen three glasses of beer side by side, or 50 peanuts in a bowl, for example. When we get into the thousands, millions and billions however, we flounder, and the higher we count, the harder it becomes to conceptualise numbers.

Visualising the planet's seven billion humans, or, more pertinently to this feature, the US national debt of USD 16 trillion stacked up in USD 100 bills, is simply not doable by the human mind, which perhaps helps you if you're trying to rip off the public budget by billions of rupiah. The brain crashes like a creaking operating system when one tries to get one's head around the large figures on the front pages of the papers, and the reader thus ends up turning to the sports section for a little light relief.

More positively though, an appreciation of the vertiginous heights of numerical value may instill just a little humility in humankind and its self-important concerns. There are around 400 billion stars in our galaxy and around 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. Rather puts my broken toilet in perspective.

Consider this though. We have come up with names for some stupendously large numbers. A googol is one such inconceivably huge quantity, and is defined as ten to the power of 100, i.e. a one with 100 zeroes after it. And if you think that that's a lot of glasses of beer to get through, then consider a googolplex. A googolplex is ten to the power of a googol, i.e., a one followed by 10 to the power of 100 zeroes. In fact, you'd need to get your hands on a piece of paper larger than the entire universe just to write out this colossal number in full. Food for thought the next time you find yourself pulling your hair out in front of an ATM screen. Just as an aside, Larry Page and Sergey Brin named their famous search engine after these lofty numbers, and indeed the company's headquarters is affectionately known as the Google Plex.

The Booze Headlines

Indonesia has an increasingly ambivalent relationship with the demon drink

Alcoholic beverages have been a part of human culture for an awfully long time, and its even now been shown that natural selection has actually equipped most humans with an alcohol processing gene during the very recent evolution of our species. A thought-provoking discovery for sure and I certainly hope that one too many gin and tonics won’t see me picking up a posthumous Darwin Award. Scourge of society or valuable social lubricant, Indonesia, as a nominally Islamic and yet ostensibly pluralistic and secular nation, has a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the consumption of alcohol.

Most recently, the New Order-era, Islamic-leaning United Development Party (PPP) proposed a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol, which would effectively turn the country into a Saudi-esque dry zone and no doubt see Bintang and Anker turning to isotonic drinks in order to survive. Booze in Indonesia is already heavily regulated and taxed in fact, the result being that this time-honoured social lubricant is considerably more expensive here than it is in neighbouring countries. A total ban would be something else altogether though and prison sentences of ten years have been proposed for diehard splash heads who manage to brew up an illegal still of optic-nerve tingling moonshine in their bak mandi.

Clearly religious compulsion is the fundamental motive behind the PPP bill, although Arwani Thomafi, the PPP secretary down at the House of Representatives, has also claimed that the consumption of alcohol offered no significant contribution to the state budget. Anyone who’s staggered their way along Jl. Kemang Raya on a Friday night or Bali’s Jl. Legian on pretty much any night of the week may wish to take issue with this rather credulity stretching claim. And indeed the government’s steep-to-perpendicular 150 per cent excise tax on imported booze has this year managed to generate around Rp. 1.5 trillion in import duties from the port of Tanjung Priok alone. In any event, the fact that a much-loved activity doesn’t generate much profit for the government is a rather draconian argument for depriving people of said pastime. I mean, premarital sex between consenting adults also adds little to state coffers and nobody’s proposing…erm…no scratch that actually.

Let’s be realistic here though. This bill hasn’t got a highball’s chance in hell of being passed, even if bibulous bule tourists were to be exempt from such anti-vino legislation. Indeed, over the past few years, a real drinking culture has developed in Jakarta as the economy has boomed and a whole new generation of post-New Order kids are assimilated into an ever more globalised culture of aspirational hedonism saturated in Tweets, techno and Tia Maria. From high-end wine bars, to cheap boozers flogging lethal cocktails that are seemingly two parts Red Bull to one part low-grade hooch with a splash of Pertamax Plus thrown in for good measure, to 24-hour minimarts filled with fridges of beer and sporting their own alfresco seating areas, the capital has gone Friday-night, binge-drinking crazy. Evenings of acoustic guitar sing-alongs and a few refreshing Teh Botols now seem to be from a more innocent age as Batavia’s boulevards become increasingly sophisticated.

All of this hardcore drinking has alas had some sadly all-too-predictable consequences. To take but a handful of recent examples, teenage model Olivia Dewi recently died after a drunken car crash, 17-year-old Raafi Aga Winasya Benjamin was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl while partying and, most notoriously of all, Afriani Susanti was sentenced to 15 years behind bars after mowing down nine pedestrians with her car, the result of a night of hard partying. Clearly road safety needs to be looked at in a country unused to such a high degree of Dionysian dipsomania, and as Sigmund Freud noted vis-à-viz violence, the conscience is soluble in alcohol.

Most of these Jakarta booze hounds are no doubt having the times of their lives, although those life-threatening, Saturday-morning hangovers are possibly providing a whole new world of Panadol- and vomit-punctuated adventure that may be giving many new drinkers pause for thought. Short of deliberately imposing a Draconian total booze ban though and opting out of the trappings of boom-time economic good times that Indonesia alone in the world seems to be enjoying at the moment, it’s hard to know what despairing parents (who themselves can probably be found down at the city’s chic wine bars) can do. Autre temps autre moeurs.

In stark contrast to Jakarta’s hedonistic, pilsner-fuelled zeitgeist however, a more ascetic climate of abstinence has descended upon other parts of the Indonesian Archipelago. An alcohol ban is most definitely not on the cards if imposed by central government, however Sharia-law-type rules and regulations seem to be entering people’s lives via the back door in this era of regional autonomy, even in Jakarta’s surrounding neighbour of West Java.

Local bylaws in places such as Tangerang, Indramayu and Tasikmalaya have seen shelves cleared of falling-down water in recent years, drawing criticism from some quarters that such regulations are both unconstitutional and violate regional-autonomy laws. An amazing 9000 new regional bylaws were issued across Indonesia between 2000 and 2011, many relating to alcohol, however opportunistic ministers seem unwilling to revoke any of them. So while Jakarta is becoming increasingly one eyed, large swathes of the rest of the country are now unable to blow the froth off a few foaming glasses of Bintang. It’s beginning to look like there’s one law for the rich elite in Jakarta and another for kampungan-poor provincial types. What a surprise to find that it should ultimately boil down to this.

So what are we to make of all this? Well people need to unwind for sure, but as our ritual of social integration of choice, putting one’s forebrain to sleep with ethyl-alcohol while sitting in a dull, smoky pub perhaps isn’t that impressive when compared with the extravagant exploits of human societies throughout history. Moreover, when the great Prophet (peace be upon him) decreed that drinking was to be off limits, it was a decision originally made, like so much inherited and inflexible religious morality, with regard to quite utilitarian concerns and an appraisal of the negative effects of alcohol upon society as a whole.

And the positives? Well one of the great things about the inhabitants of this country is that they really don’t seem to need fermented grain in order to lower social barriers, crack the shells of formality and have a good time in the company of complete strangers. However, should someone require a little libation in order to liberate their stiff-arsed egos from the stultifying shackles of everyday inhibition, then surely adults can make such decisions for themselves?

Top of the Pops

First there was J-pop, then came K-pop, and now I-pop stands poised to win over the world's teenyboppers. The attention of the whole world has been focused on Asian pop music of late in the wake of the "Gangnam Style" ear worm, a Korean pop-cultural phenomenon that has conquered the entire planet, notching up a record 861 million YouTube hits in the process. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has described the unprecedented global smash as a, "force for world peace,” which I think might be gilding the lily just slightly.

PSY's Solar System conquering hit, which parodies the lavish lifestyles of Seoul's Gangnam district, will probably prove to be a one-hit wonder, however Asian pop music itself has a long and illustrious past behind it, and now I-pop (Indonesian pop) is bidding to join J-pop (Japanese pop) and K-pop (Korean pop) on heavy radio rotation around the world.

Now, it should be stressed at the outset that if you're not a teenage female of the species then you may well rather, like myself, prefer to saw your own legs off with the sharp edge of a copy of Gadis magazine to actually listening to most of this stuff, however there is no doubt that the star of Asian pop is rising at the moment and that the music represents a social phenomenon most definitely worth remarking on.

J-pop was the first Asian popular music to be truly in and of itself, and entered the musical mainstream during the 1990s, although its history dates back to the 1970s and Japanese synth-pop bands such as Yellow Magic Orchestra and Southern All Stars. Currently, one of the biggest (in every sense of the word) J-pop groups is AKB 48, who are one of the highest earning musical acts in the world with record sales in 2011 reaching a whopping US$200 million in Japan alone (although the group’s share of this had to be split among its Guinness World Record-breaking 91 members!).

The huge group is divided into three subgroups, Team A, Team K and Team B and also includes a number of aspiring members known as kenkyusei (trainees). It's perhaps not coincidental that this hit-making behemoth of a group appears to structure itself like some bobby-socks wearing multinational corporation, and as the band's profits reach for the stratosphere, no doubt the accountants are rubbing their hands together gleefully.

And so over to I-pop, Indonesia's answer to the super-slick, Samsung and Sony powered smashes of the Far East. I-pop's profile is also on the rise at the moment and even Indonesia's Tourism Minister, Mari Elka Pangestu, is currently urging the country's pop musicians to try and emulate the success of their Japanese and Korean brethren. Indeed, Indonesia's Tourism Ministry recently sent a party of pop musicians over to South Korea to study the K-pop phenomenon.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps, however it has to be said that Indonesia's music industry now dominates its own domestic market at least, despite being blighted by copyright piracy, and in 2010, Indonesia's creative economy contributed some Rp. 468 trillion (US$ 48.6 billion) to the economy, growing by 6 per cent in the process and absorbing some 7.9 per cent of the country's workforce.

I-pop (or Indo pop) acts range from long-time stalwarts such as Peterpan (now Noah), Sheila on 7 and d'Masiv, to new teeny-bop sensations such as Cherry Belle and Princess (both girl bands) and ZooM and HITZ (boy bands, if you can tell the difference). And, naturally, social media such as Facebook feature plenty of I-pop (as well as anti-I-pop!) groups.

J-pop and K-pop influences abound in the protean world of I-pop, it has to be said. Local bands such as J Rocks, Geisha, and Daisha, as their names suggest, remain in a thrall to their more illustrious, hair-gel abusing peers across the oceans of the Orient, and Indonesia even has its own answer to AKB 48: JKT 48.

This sister group was formed just over a year ago and, according to producer Yasushi Akimoto, can become, "A bridge between Indonesia and Japan." Dewy-eyed, feel-good, Oprah-esque platitudes aside though, a primary motivation behind many of these new Indonesian pop stars is surely the economic exploitation of teenagers for fun and profit. JKT 48, for example, have already notched up advertisements for Pocari Sweat, Sharp, Rakuten, Laurier, Yamaha, Biore and Pocky, as both the group's star and stock rise simultaneously.

I-pop is not completely derivative of its more established Japanese and Korean cousins however, and local flavours, sentiments and styles are increasingly featuring in the music as it develops its own national identity. I-pop is also extending its reach beyond Indonesia's borders to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, primarily due to common elements of language and culture of course, however they really seem to love the stuff over there. Indeed, Indonesian pop music has made such a splash over in Malaysia that back in 2008, the Malaysian music industry demanded restrictions on Indonesian pop songs broadcast by Malaysian radio stations.

As in demand as I-pop has become in Malaysia however, there is as yet little sign of the obsessive, compulsive behaviour of a certain section of K-pop fans being replicated over here. Specifically we’re here talking about fans who engage in stalking and invasions of artists’ privacy, and indeed there are even taxi services in Korea that cater specifically to fans looking to follow their idols around town. Obsessive K-pop fans have also actually been known to install GPS trackers under their heroes' cars in rather ingeniously James Bond-style acts of obsessive hero worship. Speaking personally though, I'd perhaps be more inclined to engage in anti-fan forms of stalking, such as that perpetrated by the strange woman who gave Yunho, a member of K-pop band TVXQ, a drink laced with superglue before turning herself in to the police.

So is I-pop poised to pounce and conquer Asia, and indeed the world beyond? Well, so long as the hair gel keeps oozing and the money keeps flowing, then I’ve every confidence in the genre storming the post-modern ramparts of cultural banality before next Christmas. Stay sexy pop pickers.