Friday, February 07, 2014

Hit & Miss

The Miss World circus came to Bali recently to a predictable storm of controversy

Last September 28, 137 comely young ladies flew over to Bali in order to participate in the legendary Miss World beauty pageant. While on the Island of the Gods, these fine bodies of women paraded around, showed off their dazzling pearly whites and expressed their hopes for either world peace or whirled peas. Alas (or thankfully, depending on your attitude to these things) these glamorously gregarious princesses didn't get to don any bikini-esque swimwear this year, due to a predictably splenetic outcry from the country's hardest of hardcore Muhammadans, and instead dressed in slightly more conservative sarongs.

Indeed, the most recent Miss World competition was originally supposed to have been held at the Sentul International Convention Center, which is located just outside of the city of Bogor in West Java. Bogor has proved to be a veritable hive of fundamentalist activity in recent years though (with the accent being placed firmly on the mentalist) and Christians and other Muslim sects have borne the brunt of the radicals' wrath, occasionally at the cost of their very lives.

And so, following threats and various furious proclamations from such organisations as Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia and the perhaps-not-particularly-well-named Islam Reformist Movement, as well as our old friends the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the competition was eventually moved over to the predominantly Hindu island of Bali. The bikini ban remained however.

This is perhaps indicative of the power that these organisations now wield over public life here, as what could be more normal than wearing a bikini in Bali? Well, going totally topless perhaps, as used to be the cultural norm among Balinese women before Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, issued a decree forcing them to cover up their assets in the 1950s, thereby bringing to an end a 1000 year tradition and initiating a whole new one, namely shame at their own voluptuous nakedness.

This isn't the first time that sexual prudery has nipped a mass-entertainment event in the bud in Indonesia in recent years though. Scantily clad pop superstar Lady Gaga, for example, was forced to cancel a Jakarta concert when Muslim hardliners threatened to torch the venue. Again though, as with Bali's breasts, it should be pointed out that placing the blame on Western moral degeneracy is to ignore Indonesia's own sensual traditions, such as the cleavage revealing kebaya that Javanese women have traditionally worn. Conversely, the increasing numbers of local ladies choosing (?) to wear the Islamic hijab, jilbab or even full burkas are submitting to an imperative that is as much cultural import as Gaga herself is.

Perhaps though it would prove instructive to take a brief look at the Miss World website at this point. Apparently, the competition has been going since 1951. The site also reveals that, "In 1980, the major changes in the Miss World judging process were implemented. For the first time, personality and intelligence came into the evaluation and, of equal importance was that vital statistics were no longer deemed vital."

Well, I think that I would be viewing this claim somewhat sceptically if I were you, taking the lack of 200lb Ph.Ds. in the contest as prima facie evidence. The official Miss World website also tells us that the competition has mainly been organised by the late Eric Morley's Mecca Leisure Group (sometimes life seems to throw up ironies so delicious that there simply has to be a God).

Times change though. Gender politics civilise societies and the upshot has been the feminists who started taking a swipe at Miss World in the early ’70s. Here's a quick challenge for you, dear readers. There follows two quotes on the subject of Miss World. Your task is to decide which one was uttered by a feminist and which by an Islamic preacher.

Number one: "Beauty pageants’ process of judging women by their physical attributes is deeply offensive and damaging to women's dignity."

Number two: "Raise your voice against this appalling offence against women. Beauty pageants treat women as if they were objects that can be compared and judged."

Taken your best shot? Good. Well I can reveal that the first quotation comes from a spokesman for the MUI (Indonesian Council of Ulema), while the second featured in a statement made by the feminist group, Object. How did you get on?

Superficial similarities between these two pronouncements aside though, I think it's fair to say that the claims made by fundamentalist Islamic males that they are looking after women's best interests have to be viewed in the context of honour killings, full body-and-face coverings, educational disenfranchisement, genital mutilation, polygamy and poor old Malala Yousafzai and Aesha Mohammadzai (Google those names if you are unsure).

Fundamentalist religion of this Saudi/Afghan flavour seems to be on the rise in Indonesia and poses a real challenge for the government here (which is, to say the least, not rising to meet that challenge or even enforcing the law properly). Indonesia also passed a pornography law a few years back which sets the public-indecency bar very low indeed. Although, given the tsunamis of filth that spill forth from the Internet these days, perhaps such a law is a rearguard action in an ultimately losing battle (and let's be clear here that Jakartans at least are vociferous consumers of web and DVD naughtiness).

Fundamentalist religion does seem to lavish an inordinate amount of attention on issues of sexuality, given the wars, famines, poverty, disease and potential environmental collapse that currently stalk the globe. Whether it's purple-faced Islamic preachers or fire-and-brimstone American Baptists (all men of course), sexual guilt and repression have galvanised the most faithful of the faithful and supplied monotheism is with its neurotic energy ever since men and women first learned to walk upright and found that their hands fell to a natural resting position next to their genitals.

All of those bearded young men clutching rifles in one hand and copies of the holy book in the other, sublimating their sexual tensions through militaristic fervour, all of those "celibate" priests touching up little boys, are surely in the grip of some kind of dark energy that doesn't inspire humankind's better nature. And so, whither Miss World in this demonic cesspool of human sexuality? Well, for me, in 2013, it all seems somewhat quaint and amusingly old-fashioned, but my heathen arse is surely going to hell in any case.


Indonesia is 68 years young

Indonesia is into its silver-haired years and celebrated its sixty-eighth Independence Day last August 17. The last few Independence Day celebrations have fallen during the fasting month of Ramadan and have thus been somewhat muted affairs as a consequence. Hari Merdeka (Freedom Day) emerges out the other side of the religious tunnel in all of its glory this year however and promises to be the riot of colour, noise, fun and games that Indonesians know and enjoy so much.

Indonesian independence was officially proclaimed at 10am on Friday, August 17, 1945. The 1945 Proclamation of Independence (Proklamasi Kemerdekaan) was signed by Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, who were appointed President and Vice-president the following day. This declaration was only the start though, the beginning of a long campaign of diplomacy and armed resistance that finally culminated in the country's colonial masters, the Dutch, officially acknowledging Indonesia's independence in 1949.

The Proclamation of Independence had been carefully prepared and planned a few months earlier, however the whole thing was hastily brought forward to August 17 as a consequence of Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies following the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. If you're interested in this history, then head down to the Museum of the Declaration of Independence, which you will find on Jl. Imam Bonjol 1 in Jakarta, housed in the very building in which the declaration was actually signed.

These days, the country's Independence Day is still celebrated with great enthusiasm all across the Archipelago. Red and white flags are sold weeks in advance, decorations are put up at private offices and government buildings, political journalists churn out op-eds about the country's progress over the decades and the challenges that lie ahead in the future, neighbourhood associations and organisations plan special events and parties, TV shows get all historical and school kids have a general whale of a time.

Games are enjoyed at street parties across the country too and include krupuk (cracker) eating contests, three-legged races, tasty snacks, decorated floats and plenty of general tomfoolery. The best-known Independence Day game though is called panjat pinang and involves competitors attempting to scale slippery, specially greased poles and palm trees in order to reach prizes which hang suspended from their tops.

Meanwhile, up at the Presidential Palace, the big man himself delivers a State of the Nation address and is present at a solemn flag-raising ceremony attended by the military, all of whom have polished their shoes and buttons to an extra dazzling patriotic shine for the occasion. If you are really looking to experience Independence Day in full swing, then head up to the National Monument (Monas) and the adjacent palace and witness August 17 in its full pomp and circumstance.

If you're not too keen on dragging yourself all the way up there, then just take a stroll around your local neighbourhood and soak in the fun sights, sounds and indeed tastes of Freedom Day. One important piece of advice though, don't leave it too late. One of the things perhaps most worthy of admiration about this country is the ability of its citizens to get up at the crack of dawn or even earlier and the August 17 fun tends to be over by lunchtime.

So, tempting as it may be to enjoy a lie in on this national holiday (especially this year, as Independence Day falls on a Saturday morning after a potentially heavy Friday night), we would encourage you to set your alarms and join in the fun. You won't regret it.

Just what does August 17 mean to Indonesians these days though? Well, I thought that it would prove instructive to head out onto the streets with my trusty dictaphone and ask a few people for their views.

Starting at the higher end of the social spectrum, one young professional told me, "I'm not sure if Independence Day has the same significance that it once did for people. I think that Indonesians are more uncertain about the country now and about the different forces that are competing as we head into the future. Also, people have a greater access to information now in this digital age and this also is eroding people's perhaps rather one-dimensional, simplistic sense of nationalism."

Highfalutin stuff for sure. Another of my interlocutors, a Miss Weni, told me that, "Of course Independence Day is important but in 68 years, Indonesia has not really been able to develop itself to the level that it could reach as a nation, largely due to misuses of power I believe."

Later that day, my motorcycle taxi driver told me that, "The kids still love the games and it's good fun to have a national day but I think that people are more suspicious of their government these days."

And the ambivalence continued as I headed into my local minimart for some liquid refreshment, where a customer that I quizzed about Indonesian independence informed me that, "We should remember our struggles for freedom, as there are those in the country today who are sowing the seeds of conflict, division and religious intolerance."

So there we have it. A small cross-section admittedly but clearly feelings of nationalism seem somewhat tinged by nervousness and uncertainty here in 2013, 68 years into the great Republic of Indonesia project. This is probably a reflection of an economic boom that is still masks weak and corrupt political institutions, underdeveloped human resources and infrastructure, persistent poverty and a poor education system. Whether the country will improve after next year's presidential election will depend on who is elected. Fingers crossed for 2014 folks.

A Quarter of a Million Flowers Bloom

I've been given the onerous task of composing this month's Afterthought and of offering up a Westerner's "perspective" on the state of the country as Independence Day rolls around for the sixty-eighth time. Why onerous? Because, like all attempts to pigeonhole people by their skin colour or geographical origin, I find the very concept to be flawed. I am a Westerner, granted, and have lived in this country for some years now, however my perceptions and conclusions have often differed from those espoused by other "bules" that I have met on my travels, and thus any concept of a Western perspective should be taken with a pinch of salt.

And surely the same thing applies to the notion of a unifying Indonesian perspective, as flags ascend poles and lip service is paid to freedom across the archipelago this month. Patriotism can be seen in this context as a flag being drawn over the real issues that matter to people here: inequality, social justice, women's rights, poverty, sectarian turmoil and a kleptocratic political elite who promulgate an agenda of so-called transnational “globalisation”, which essentially amounts to the world's powerful governments pushing trade deals and other accords down the throats of the people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the globe without having obligations to the people of those nations. Far easier to salute the flag than to address that little lot.

Proud to be Indonesian or American or Chinese on a priori grounds? Well being born in a certain country isn't a skill, it's a genetic accident. As the legendary George Carlin explains, "You wouldn't be proud of having a predisposition for colon cancer." Far better that people take pride in things that they've actually done and of how they comport themselves in a moral way.

Such knee-jerk nationalism is propagated all over the world though. Even in America, for example, the so-called “Land of the Free”, the term anti-American is often bandied about willy-nilly. This is a very odd category indeed to be pressing into service in a supposedly democratic country which embraces the concept of free speech, and is basically a phrase that is totalitarian in nature. I mean, the Soviet Union had a concept of anti-Sovietism, while the fascist Brazilian generals in the 1970s had a notion of anti-Brazilianism, through which they terrorised the population into marching in lockstep. But try going to Sweden and talking of anti-Swedenism. People will laugh at you.

The primary goal of such my-country-right-or-wrong rhetoric is to divert people away from pressing their demands in the political arena and from gaining a deeper understanding of how political power can change and how it affects their lives. And indeed it does change. Indonesia's first president, Soekarno, alongside colleagues such as Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, were the men primarily responsible for declaring Indonesia’s independence in the first place, and they offered a political blend of Islamic-tinged socialism that differs wildly from the Indonesia of today.

Espouse the ideas of these founding fathers at any point since the CIA-backed rise to power of Suharto through to the present though and you're more likely to feel the jackboots of the organisations examined in Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-tipped "The Act of Killing" on your throat. So what does it then mean to be a patriotic Indonesian? Social justice? Democracy? These values are indeed enshrined in the country's "five moral principles" of Pancasila, principles that people still learn by rote in the country’s schools to this day. Simply waving flags once a year will not help to strengthen values such as these though, values which are, in fact, truly universal.


No fewer than three English Premier League clubs came to town as part of their pre-season warm ups last year

"He's football crazy, he's football mad, football has gone and robbed him of the sense he ever had." So run the lyrics of a popular British song from the 1960s, which is perhaps an appropriate summation of a phenomenon that has now gone global and extended its muddy tentacles all the way over to Indonesia. Perhaps this sporting hypothesis accounts for the hundreds of rowdy local Arsenal and Manchester United fans that I encountered watching all of the big-screen action down at Kemang's new Lippo mall recently.

Indeed, so authentic was the Premier League, big-screen, nonton-bareng (watch-together) atmosphere, that my companion and I even feared a spot of British hooligan fisticuffs from the bunch of local Man. U. fans filled with lager-fuelled bonhomie who spilled out onto the street post game. The EPL has well and truly arrived in a city that lies a full 12,000km from England’s grey and unpleasant land, which is some serious air miles to be putting in if you’re attending home games. That’s 19 home games per season multiplied by 12,000km each way, which is 465,000km. Greater than the distance to the moon in fact.

Well these chaps could save their bonus air miles this month, as three of the most famous football clubs in the world, namely Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, pitched up in Jakarta to play a series of pre-season friendlies last July and to no doubt also shot a flurry of spray-on deodorant commercials while they they were in town, a full four years after Manchester United cancelled their Jakarta trip due to the (second) Marriott hotel bombing.  

Arsenal arrived first, on July 14, followed by Liverpool on July 20 and finally Chelsea on July 25. These legendary EPL clubs played against (and obviously thrashed the pants off, despite the games amounting to a gentle warm up for the three sides in question) an Indonesian 11 down at Bung Karno Stadium in Senayan and were afforded the opportunity to generate a little revenue whilst also enjoying some PR spin and pleasing local fans who usually only ever see their heroes on television.

Indonesia itself has aspirations to host the World Cup at some point and 2022 has been mooted, although maybe 2822 would be a more realistic date to aim for. FIFA, the sport's governing body, has long been mired in allegations of financial impropriety and when combined with Indonesia's own brand of seemingly boundless endemic corruption (which has most recently revolved around the construction of a sports stadium, funnily enough) it perhaps doesn't bode well for the Indonesian people themselves actually gaining much from such a tournament.

Major world sporting events have now become highly corporatised affairs. FIFA basked in USD 631 million in profits after the last World Cup in South Africa and it's not difficult to understand why. The organisation first gets the host nation to stump up for new stadiums and infrastructure before moving in for the tournament proper and setting up a corporate state-within-a-state, in which only official partner products are allowed to be sold. This is presumably why I was left supping on dishwater-bland US Budweiser whilst watching matches in Cape Town during the last World Cup finals, whilst everyone else in the city not at the games could enjoy the far tastier local suds. More recently, in Brazil, hosts of next year's World Cup as well as the next Olympics, national-football-legend-turned-politician Romario has broken ranks in order to question the whole corporate ethos of the modern sporting spectacle.

Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool played against a national 11 last year and it’s fair to say that the Indonesian national team are no Brazil. Indeed, the local game is in a real mess at the moment, despite the tremendous enthusiasm that exists for football in this country. A romantic view of poverty and football is often trotted out with regard to Brazil, namely the notion that starting off in some favela shantytown kicking a tin can around the streets imbues one with some kind of Nietzschian footballing will to power and puts soccer steel in the soul. Well, if that were all it took, then Indonesia would be multiple world champions by now, instead of being routinely thrashed six-nil by miniscule Middle Eastern oil protectorates.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the English Premier League has gone into global overdrive over the past decade, with the money side of the game spiralling to absolutely absurd levels. Players salaries have inflated massively and the clubs that have to pay them thus suffer from a kind of prune-juice effect, as revenues generated immediately slide out the back door and into centre forwards' bank accounts.

In order to bankroll all of this largesse, oligarchs and mega-rich consortiums have moved in, the kind of people who will presumably be first against the wall when the Occupy movement storms the ramparts in its silly "V for Vendetta" masks. Chelsea, for example, are bankrolled by one Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who rose to riches on the pinstriped-gangster wave of the post-Soviet 1990s. Meanwhile, newly minted Manchester City is funded by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour, who apparently sits on a family fortune of USD 1 trillion.

More deeply though, does vegging out on a sofa watching people kicking a ball around, an event of absolutely zero importance with regard to the political realities of people's day-to-day lives, actually have any value? Perhaps, as has been suggested, spectator sport is a crucial part of our social-indoctrination systems. It gets people paying attention to something of no importance whatsoever and also builds up feelings of irrational jingoism and group cohesion behind leadership elements.

“Bah humbug!” I hear you cry. Well, I have to confess that I was cheering and blowing my South African vuvuzela into the earholes of local Arsenal fans last July 14. The Indonesian national side may not be packing many budding Lionel Messis, however the atmosphere down at Gelora Bung Karno can be quite electric on match day. Shouting, chanting, lighting illegal flares, enjoying Mexican waves and a little light pick-pocketing can all be yours. Admittedly, these three games were held in the middle of the fasting month but this didn't seem to put a damper on the atmosphere too much. 

Yes We Can?

Time for a quick progress report on Jakarta’s new governor

Jakarta's very own caped crusaders, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and his trusty sidekick Basuki "Ahok" Purnama Tjahaya, scorched into town aboard their governor’s Batmobile on the back of a historic election victory in 2012 and there were high hopes that our new Governator would draw the line under the corruption, indolence and Machiavellian rent seeking of previous administrations. There is simply no time to lose though, as the capital's infrastructure can be described as moribund at best, and at worst about half a century behind where it should be.

Inaugurated last October to much fanfare, the former Mayor of Solo set reformist pulses a fluttering from the get go by busying himself with the Indonesian capital's multidimensional problems, breathing a breath of fresh air into the stale Bajaj fug of City Hall in the process.

But just how has Jakarta's very own Obama fared over the last year plus? Has he brought rebirth and renewal to the nation's capital or has he proved to be as disappointingly conservative and beholden to entrenched interests as that still-quacking lame duck, the former Barry Soetoro? Let's take a closer look…


Our man has busied himself visiting local markets in order to check on the prices of staple goods. Jokowi is also liaising closely with Jakarta's Co-Operative, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Trade Agency and is listening to vendors’ concerns. By his own admission though, controlling prices will be a tough nut to crack. Plans to renovate and modernise the city's wet markets are all well and good, however recent price spikes and a forthcoming reduction in fuel subsidies and its accompanying inflation will mean more pain for the poor.


Three more busway corridors are planned for the city and these ones will be elevated in an attempt to alleviate congestion (as opposed to actually exacerbating congestion as the current busway lanes arguably do). One hundred and two badly needed new busway buses were also recently christened.

The real question though is when the capital's MRT project will finally steam out of platform one. Jokowi has very wisely put the whole scheme under the fiscal microscope, as the potential for graft and corruption on mega infrastructure such as this is colossal. Indeed, the steepness of the proposed Rp. 110 trillion price tag that comes with this project borders on the perpendicular.

Ultimately, this MRT scheme is going to need some heavy backing from central government. The city budget is hoping to provide around 60 per cent of the funding needed for the project with the government providing the rest of the money in order to repay a loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Jakarta remains the largest city in the world not to have its own MRT system and journeys by car across the capital can now be measured in geological time. Fingers crossed folks!


Jokowi set up the Jakarta health-card programme upon taking office and this aims to offer free healthcare to the poor. To date though, only a few thousand of a possible 4.7 million eligible Jakarta residents have received healthcare cards. Not only is the city administration short on funds for the printing of these cards but there are also obstacles to implementing the programme at the 17 hospitals and 200 designated community health centres across the capital. The administration has allocated Rp. 1 trillion for healthcare over the next year, however the new governor has come under fire from those who claim that his programmes are poorly planned and underfunded.


Jakarta has once again turned into Atlantis this current wet season and climate change, combined with a literally sinking city, doesn't bode well for a dry future for the capital. President SBY has approved Jokowi's flood-prevention programmes, which include the relocation of riverbank squatters, the widening of rivers to increase the flow of water, construction of upstream reservoirs, a pump system in North Jakarta, a special "spillway" for the East Jakarta Flood canal and a system of 10,000 wells to absorb run-off water. In total, Rp. 250 billion has been allocated for flood prevention initiatives. Sounds good but these are long-term programmes and don't necessarily guarantee victory against that ubiquitous H2O. 2002, 2007, 2013? 2014? Brace yourself for next year once again folks.


Jokowi has described social disparity as his biggest worry and one could drive a busway fleet side-by-side through the ever-widening gap that persists between Jakarta's haves and have-nots. Such a gap has its dangers, and the city's hyper-dense social pressure cooker risks blowing its top as it did back in 1998. Jokowi's healthcare and education programmes have been given top priority by the new governor, who shows a concern for poverty unmatched by both his predecessors and by the national government.

Social-welfare policies are an ideological hornet’s nest the world over, however there can be no question that Jakarta and its 360 slum areas have been severely neglected. Inaction on this issue is surely morally inadmissible and Jokowi represents a break with the past in a country that has largely ignored its poorest citizens since the days of the New Order regime.

Green Areas

Jokowi plans to double the city’s presently woeful lack of green space. Twenty per cent of Jakarta’s total area is the governor's ambitious first-term target and several projects are planned. It remains to be seen how he'll get on though as the economy booms and new malls and apartments spring up across town while land prices skyrocket and the pursuit of profit continues to trump all considerations of liveability.


Governor Jokowi swept to power bearing the hopes of millions on his shoulders. His, "Yes we can," determination offered the city its best hope for the future since former-governor Ali Sadikin attempted to modernise the Indonesian capital in the '60s and '70s. How our man will fare as he locks antlers with the country’s nest-feathering political machine is still an open question but if the capital can't improve its infrastructure now, when the economy is booming, then when exactly can it? Onwards and upwards please.

No Sex Please, We’re Skittish

A proposed new law threatens to put a stop to unmarried hanky panky

Liberty lovers here in Indonesia once again find themselves under attack from the Machiavellian machinations and pompous paternalism of the political machine. Only a couple of months after I reflected upon a new proposal to outlaw alcohol completely in the country, a proposed KUHP (criminal code) revision is seeking to outlaw unmarried and premarital sex, on pains of a five-year stint in jail. Wahiduddin Adams, director-general for legislation at the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, is perhaps not getting into the true spirit of his ministry’s name when he states that a prohibition on the making of the beast with two backs outside the institution of holy wedlock merely reflects the prevailing norms in Indonesian society.

As if in an attempt to sweeten a somewhat bitter pill, it has been claimed that such a law would not be used to put together an anti-shagging riot squad who would roam the country kicking in doors in an attempt to surprise furtive lovers in flagrante before cuffing them and escorting them down to the station for extensive forensic tests on their nether regions. No, apparently this draconian new legislation could only be applied if a report against an individual was filed by others who deem that they have been put at a disadvantage because of the action.

This is a disconcertingly vague stipulation though and one that sounds open to abuse by everyone from jealous rivals to overprotective parents. Whatever could, "disadvantage" mean in this context, outside of being kept awake by the moans and groans emanating from the upstairs flat, surely a minor inconvenience for which a five-year jail term would seem somewhat severe?

Future laws banning alcohol, as well as extramarital and premarital sex, clearly seem to be symptomatic of a society intent on rolling back secular, liberal freedoms. Such "sharia-ization" has previously arrived via the back door of regional autonomy, as hardly anyone here votes for overtly religious parties in national elections. Now though it’s come a knocking on the front door. It should be noted however that all religions have historically had their more puritanical sides to deal with. As that irascible American legend Gore Vidal once suggested, the Christian Puritans didn't just leave Europe for the New World in order to be free from persecution, they went there to be free to persecute, which indeed they did, with great vehemence and with appalling consequences for those on the receiving end.

Fast forward to Indonesia 2013 and persecution of minorities and those who don't adhere to perceived norms of piety (which at any rate mask a multitude of corrupt hypocrisies) is on the rise. For example, more than 430 churches have been attacked, closed or burned down here since 2004. In this context, Indonesia's amazing economic growth masks a social trajectory that appears to be heading backwards rather than forwards. It’s an impulse perhaps best categorised by that other old irascible American man of letters, HL Mencken, who once claimed that Puritanism is the, “haunting feeling that somewhere, someone may be happy." Gay marriage in Indonesia? Far easier to imagine fleets of hover bajajs or snow falling on Senayan.

But just why exactly do religion and prohibitions on sexual behaviour so often go hand-in-hand across different faiths? Well, there are a number of possible reasons and it would perhaps be illuminating to unravel a few of these during what remains of this month's Big J.

Firstly, most monotheistic religions originally flourished among the poor and dispossessed, who sought reward for their misery in the next world. They would see their rich masters and slave drivers engaging in hedonistic behaviour such as gluttony and sexual promiscuity, activities not available to them. And so thus, making a virtue out of a necessity, fasting and sexual abstinence became seen as positive expressions of faith and were codified in their religions. These tenets have remained even as religion has been co-opted by the masters and the prevailing social power structures.

That's one explanation. Moving along to our second line of analysis, we enter the murky world of Freudian psychoanalysis, which perhaps offers a narrative account of human behaviour more compelling than most religions do. One of the central pillars of psychoanalysis is the concept of ego defence, which originates in early childhood and which inhibits normal, healthy functioning.

Projection is one such ego defence in which a person’s feelings of guilt and shame are projected onto others. It's like looking at yourself in the mirror and believing the image to be someone else. In Indonesia, social and religious taboos such as premarital sex are projected onto the West and the image in the mirror becomes that of the white man. The notion of Western liberal values however, is crudely reductive in any case, as democracy originated in Greece before reaching the West via the Islamic world, who guarded the flame of the whole Platonic cannon during the European Dark Ages. Projecting onto the West in this manner however serves the pathological function of preventing people from confronting their own failings and inadequacies, as measured against the edifice of their faith.

Another reason for sexual repression, especially of women (and if we're honest here, the ladies have traditionally had things a lot harder than men in this regard) was forwarded by Karl Marx's good buddy Engels. He noted that in economic terms, men like to leave their wealth to their sons, and if they do that, then they need to know who their sons actually are, which requires monogamy and strict prohibitions on female sexuality.

This also has the secondary effect of creating a climate of fear that makes people afraid to challenge society’s prevailing power structures. Religion has largely moved from being the domain of the dispossessed to being a bulwark for the establishment status quo, and is thus a useful tool of control for society’s elites, whose own personal adherence to religious rules hasn't historically, to say the least, been that good. If you're a woman in Aceh, for example, and are busy worrying about the religious police's interest in your tight jeans and veil, you may have little fight left in you to demonstrate against rampant corruption.

All fascinating stuff I trust you'll agree, although I should stress at this point that I'm a virgin and have an official certificate to prove it.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Bali by Bike

"Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race," declared literary time traveller HG Wells. Nothing as grandiose as the salvation of mankind was on my mind when I packed up my two-wheeled beast of burden and flew over to Bali for a few days of sun, sea, sweat and saddle sores recently, however Indonesia does offer cyclists an embarrassment of riches: open ocean roads, fertile jungle rides, picturesque villages and, of course, vertiginous hills. There are always hills if you're a bicyclist, there’s no getting around that.

Day One - Legian- Seminyak - Kuta - 0-10km

Okay okay, this was admittedly no Lance Armstrong feat of endurance cycling, but I thought that it would be best to ease into the tour with a spot of R and R, and pedal power proved to be an entirely illuminating way of navigating the shop-and-restaurant-filled micro gangs of Bali Ground Zero. It seems de rigueur these days to frown upon the crass commercialism and lowbrow vibes of the Kuta area, however a single day spent here is not without its enjoyment and charms.

Day Two - Legian - Sanur - Candidasa - 60km

Sixty clicks in a single day are about my bicycling limit, as I'm not looking to break any ironman endurance records when I head out on tour. This day's ride was flat and not too strenuous. There was  a fair amount of traffic that I had to share the road with on the first 12km stretch down to Sanur, however upon arrival I could enjoy Sanur's famous bicycle-and-pedestrian-only, 4km-long beachfront walk, which passes in front of a cornucopia of bars, hotels and restaurants and which offers superb views over the ocean all the way to Gunung Agung in the distance.

After a beachside lunch and a quick spin along the promenade, it was time to head up to Candidasa. The road hugged the coast like a blanket, offering some great views, and thankfully the traffic tapered out to a trickle after 10km or so. Side roads led down to the beach all the way along the route and I managed to check out a couple of deserted sandy stretches. Further down the road, the Bali Safari & Marine Park ( offered a nice break. Featuring 60 rare species the park made for a superb stopover.

Continuing on to Candidasa, a brief stop in the still charming backpacker zone of neighbouring Padangbai was in order. As well as boats across the strait to Lombok, Padangbai boasts a sleepy pace of life and a beautiful little curve of beach. The final run into Candidasa was a slight test of my mettle, as the road ascends for a few kilometres. It's a thigh-singeing sting in the tail for sure, but after a beer on the seafront, all was well with the world.

Day Three - Candidasa - Tirtagangga - Selat - 40km

The third day of my Tour de East Bali started with a ride along the scenic Candidasa coastline for a few kilometres to one of the island’s best-kept sandy secrets. In fact, it isn't actually so much of a secret any more, but perhaps this is for the best, as this means that there are sunbeds, beach umbrellas and warungs selling grilled fish and Bintang. The turning down to Pasir Putih (White Beach), as it's known, can be found about 5km east of Candidasa, near the village of Perasi. The turning is signposted but can be quite hard to spot, which is where travelling by bicycle comes in handy. A 1.5km-long track took me down to a delightful crescent of white sand backed by coconut trees, with a shady cliff at one end and some very mellow surf to enjoy. In fact, this little strip of sand is much like a mini Jimbaran.

After a 90-minute lounge, it was time for the uphill push away from the coast through the town of Amlapura, up to the Tirta Gangga (Water of the Ganges) water temple. The road ascends the whole way, although the incline is not too steep, and so I managed to find a slow, low-gear rhythm and pedalled the whole route without dismounting once, a source of some pride. I should confess here though that I stopped halfway up for a warung lunch of pork, pork and more pork, Balinese style.

Tirta Gangga itself is an endlessly photogenic place, and after reeling off megabytes of snaps, I took a cooling dip in one of the ancient pools before heading off again through beautiful terraced paddies. I cycled west along a stunning central Balinese road that skirted the bottom of the towering Gunung Agung. The road offered some breathtaking views but also ascended and ascended, seemingly forever. I got off and pushed up the ascent for an hour or so here, however this gave my backside a rest, so it wasn’t so bad. Moreover, my trusty aluminium steed carried the weight of my gear, in contrast to the spine-compressing backpacks of the hiker. After a while though, I began to feel like a latterday Sisyphus, endlessly rolling a 21-speed mountain bike uphill instead of a boulder.

I passed through the sweet villages of Bebanden, Sibetan and Duda before reaching Selat, which lies near the starting point for an assault on the mighty Agung. I thought I'd give mountaineering a miss though and instead checked into an amazing little hotel called Great Mountain Views ( Not the most imaginative or poetic of names perhaps but thankfully it does what it says on the tin. Sipping beer in the lee of Mount Agung and gazing out over rice paddies, I rested and drank in the beating heart of Bali. I had come a long way, both literally and metaphorically, from the chaos of Kuta, and it felt as if I had travelled in time as well as space.

Day Four - Selat - Ubud - 40km

After a breakfast eaten in my hotel's paddy-field dining area, I hit the road once more. The morning's ride was downhill all the way along the quiet Sidemen road that rolls through some spectacular scenery. All of those Balinese clichés about verdant rice terraces, plunging mountains and the omnipresent slopes of Agung in the distance are really re-energised when you are on a bicycle, freewheeling merrily downhill through the middle of all this sumptuous gorgeousness, with only the occasional car or motorcycle to disturb the pellucid peace.

I passed through the lush paddy terraces of Sidemen, an artistic and cultural centre which is particularly well known for its woven ikat (cloth). The area was also home to renowned German artist Walter Spies, who lived here in the 1930s and who had a profound influence on Balinese art.

I continued my freewheeling down the beautiful River Unda valley and eventually rolled into the bustling but rather sweet little town of Semarapura, which is also commonly known as Klungkung. Klungkung was once the centre of the island's most important kingdom and was an artistic and cultural capital. On April 28, 1908 though, a terrible battle raged here when the Balinese, armed only with traditional knives, were mown down by Dutch guns.

I visited the Kertha Gosa, an ancient hall of justice and a quite superb example of Klungkung architecture. I also strolled through the attached Museum Semarajaya before heading just across the road to the Monumen Puputan Klungkung, a rather phallic looking erection whose interior is filled with dioramas depicting Balinese history.

I then pressed on through the strong sun up towards the ever popular Ubud, passing some Japanese caves and the colourful studio of eccentric artist Sukanta Wahyu along the way. As I neared Ubud, the traffic increased noticeably, as this famous little spot is more of a draw these days than it has ever been. This is where the wonders of GPS and Google Maps really come into their own however. Simply keep your smartphone handy and plunge off the main road for some satellite-guided navigation through some of the area’s gorgeous rice fields.

Day Five - Ubud - Kuta - 40km

As the crow flies, this final leg was only around 30km in length, but as the crow flies is so not the way to do this one. In fact, I fired up Google Maps once more and spent the entire morning pottering around the endless carpet of green that is the Ubud sawah (rice paddies). The centre of Ubud may these days rather depressingly resemble a Kuta beach for yoga aficionados and people writing their first novels, however relief from all the hustle and bustle was just a few turns of the pedals away.

I eventually headed south towards Denpasar. Using the mighty Google once again I managed to skirt around the edge of Bali's choking capital via some surprisingly mellow and enjoyable side roads. I gradually weaved my way southwest before eventually linking up with the main Seminyak strip in time for an afternoon refresher and a look through the photos of my tour.

Do not be afraid of a few days in the saddle folks. In the right hands it can be a very wonderful thing.

Shop Till You Drop

Consumerism continues to annex modern life

The amount of time that I find myself spending in the city’s retail palaces has tailed off enormously in recent years, as I'm of the opinion that, in the words of the old joke, once you've seen one shopping plaza, you've seen a mall. New shopping plazas continue to mushroom all over Jakarta however and most recently I was passing the enormous new Kota Kasablanka mall and popped in, lured by the promise of a branch of Ace Hardware. Yet another mall to burn time in. The interior was absolutely huge, more like an air terminal than a shopping mall. Most unsettlingly though, I stumbled across a branch of Top Man/Top Shop, and as a Brit I find it slightly disconcerting to see shops such as these and Debenhams, rather proletarian UK stores to be frank, being scrubbed up and repackaged for the Indonesian petty bourgeoisie.

Hanging out at shopping malls is a favourite activity in Jakarta, although this seems like something of a self-fulfilling prophecy to me. If there's nothing but malls in the city then, unsurprisingly, people will go to malls. In this respect, Indonesia once again exemplifies all of the worst elements of late capitalism, its capital city being woefully bereft of parks, libraries, theatres or public sports facilities and instead being crammed with temples of vapid materialism, circuses and bread for the iPhone generation that denote something of a land-use imbalance in town. Bright, shining sterile fantasy worlds unencumbered by the diesel fumes, guys with guitars, potholes and dried-on-chilli-sauce stains that prevail outside. An odourless nirvana of boutiques, food courts, computer motherboards and security guards in ill-fitting uniforms ready to pounce if they see a single bead of perspiration breaking out on your forehead.

Yes, Jakartans love their shopping malls and those escalators and food courts have seemingly won the battle for the twenty-first century Indonesian soul. Behind all of the Grand Guignol, 120dB fun fashion shows in the plaza lobbies though, the city’s malls are clearly papering over the cracks of a serious infrastructure deficit.

A thousand years hence perhaps, future archaeologist and anthropologists will unearth Jakarta's great plazas along with petrified Starbucks beakers and mobile-phone casings and pontificate on what strange religion their ancestors practised in these places. And indeed, more than just temples of consumption, malls such as Cilandak Town Square promote a new kind of lifestyle hedonism completely divorced from the utilitarian weekly supermarket shop. Just hanging out in these places is where it’s at.

The result of this new plaza-centric social paradigm also seems to be affecting the general population’s holiday time. Modern life negatively impacting people's explorations of the countryside around them can be seen in a number of developed countries as well. This is particularly distressing, given that the potentially species threatening problems that humanity faces over the next half century or so are rooted primarily in the natural systems that support us. Any increasing alienation from these systems, specifically people spending their existences trudging around shopping plazas or sitting isolated in their bedrooms behind computer terminals, is not really going to catalyse any quest for solutions.

In this context, plaza life seems to impact Jakartans awareness of the beautiful West Java countryside that lies outside their stinking city, and it achieves this in two main ways. Firstly, the number of people heading out of town to relatively local beaches such as Carita and Pelabuhan Ratu is pretty small these days. Now admittedly the road to Pelabuhan Ratu can get a little jammed, however Carita is relatively straightforward to reach, with a good two thirds of the journey lying along a speedy toll road. During a recent trip to Carita I came across a number of pretty rundown hotels, including one fantastic abandoned effort which was presumably quite extravagant in its day.

It seems that the number of Jakartans heading out of town in order to explore their local landscapes has tailed off over the last decade, as people spend an increasing amount of time in those retail pleasure palaces, tapping away on their laptops. Admittedly, the advent of cheap flights to Bali is also no doubt playing a part in this phenomenon; however the average Bali holiday increasingly seems to feature plenty of, yes you guessed it, shopping, in familiar urbanised environments recreated in a non-urban setting.

And this brings us on to the second phenomenon impacting local city slickers’ awareness of the countryside, namely resorts and hotels increasingly resembling the classic plaza environment. I recently had the pleasure of staying in one of the huge holiday-villa complexes up in Puncak. It was called Kota Bunga (Flower City) and upon arriving I took a stroll in order to familiarise myself with the Flower City experience first hand, in all of its prefabricated, garish hideousness.

The complex covered a huge area and was arranged into neat suburban cul-de-sacs that seemingly contained the exact replicas of the Jakarta pied-à-terres lived in by the families who come to stay here. The main difference were the vibrant hues of the houses' exteriors and the postmodern mishmash of cutesy architectural designs that proliferated like a Walt Disney acid trip. The families themselves seemed to contain two Nintendo-brained children cramming ice cream and noodles into their wide-bore gullets, and all were born by the regulation people carrier, or perhaps a big Mercedes for the richer clans.

Insulting stereotypes aside however, it was clear that any local expression of West Javanese culture had been tastefully airbrushed out of this theme park in search of the theme. Admittedly there was an area in the complex called Kampung Budaya (Cultural Village), although its cultural reach didn't seem to extend beyond an overpriced branch of KFC and a swimming pool full urinating kids. There was also a postmodern apocalypse of ersatz Greek friezes, old English lamp standards and mock European architecture, all clashing in the same tasteless hyperreal style of your local shopping mall, all elements stripped of their original meanings and transplanted into the toy-town fantasy. Pride of place went to a scale mockup of Mount Rushmore that loomed perplexingly 30m high over the complex lake. The chiselled faces of the four US presidents surveyed the scene before them sternly as if about to pass judgement.

Well, not my scene really, and those Jakarta malls should be housing way more hiking-boot shops in my opinion. I need a holiday.