Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Damp Spirits

Praise the Lord, for the rains have finally arrived.

And so we find ourselves moving and gathering momentum towards the festive period. Indeed, no less an authority than the Pope himself has just chimed in on the subject of this year’s yuletide, the official papal verdict being that it’s going to be a, “charade,” given recent world events. Certainly sounds like a few Christmases I’ve spent before. Well thanks for that, Francis my old mate. Why don’t you just stick to your job, eh? Just wish everybody a Happy Christmas, instead of bequeathing us an atmosphere as noxious as that left by a fat uncle who has polished off too many Brussels sprouts at Christmas lunch.

Thankfully though, here in Indonesia things are looking up somewhat as the daily likelihood of precipitation is finally above diddly-squat. Yes, the rains have arrived, and not a moment too soon, as the El Niño effect, coupled with unbridled avarice and stupidity, have conspired to ensure that a cloud of choking smoke the size of the former Soviet Union has been released over Southeast Asia.

Apparently however, according to the current (and alas also a previous) vice president, only half the country being on fire doesn’t actually constitute a national disaster. The half that was on fire not being the half that he lives in may also have been a factor here. Although you would be a fool and a communist to point out that if imperial Java had been blanketed in smoke, then we may have seen rather less foot dragging on the issue.

Thankfully, the apocalyptic flames are now finally being quenched and the country can reflect on a truly appalling year, even by its own dismally low standards. Indeed, Indonesia’s fires have pushed atmospheric carbon to levels not seen on this planet for over 2 million years (400 ppm to be precise) and ended up releasing some 1 billion tonnes of the stuff over poor old Borneo and Sumatra. Some even claim that this may have actually pushed the entire planet over a runaway global-warming tipping point. In this context, I’m not sure that even January’s inevitable torrents will be able to wash away a sin so apocalyptically awful.

And so Indonesia’s farmers try to pick up the pieces and tend to their cracked, blistered plots as the rain ramps up through the gears and the drought subsides. Here in the terminal urban terminus of the Indonesian capital, it’s been a bit of a novelty to use one’s umbrella again after nine long, hot months.

City dwellers generally have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with rain, and I’m sure that by the middle of January, the deluges will really start to grate once more. We’ll soon be arriving at work looking like drowned baboons, while the country’s notoriously porous ceilings spring leaks and turn to sodden cardboard, and clothes start smelling like an ojekdriver’s socks because it’s taken three days for them to dry.

And that’s without mentioning far more serious issues such as landslides and biblical flooding. God knows how the city’s putative, currently-under-construction subway stations will cope with all of this. It’ll be like SeaWorld down there.

One image from a previous year’s flooding is forever seared into my brain and involved the rather ludicrous tableau of a housemate and myself in our underpants at 3am frantically bailing rainwater out of our living room with empty Pizza Hut spaghetti trays. Indeed, previous wet seasons have seen my landlubber shipmates and our dodgy leaking ceilings recreating those scenes from World War II movies in which the German U-boat dives too deeply in order to escape the Allied depth charges and the rivets start popping out followed by jets of seawater and general Nazi sturm und drang.

In Jakarta, the rains can turn houses into sewage processing plants, half-hour journeys into Homerian odysseys and trips to the local market into mud-spattered trench warfare. Seasonal affective disorder may well be upon us folks, and that’s sad.

Hopefully though, having just gone through an El Niño/man-made environmental catastrophe, Indonesia will be spared serious flooding this year. Jakarta’s preparedness for such an eventuality, while still sketchy, has hopefully been booted a few rungs up the mission-critical ladder from previous efforts. A few years back, I recall the city administration proudly boasting of having purchased a whopping 10 rubber dinghies.

Thankfully, 26,000 infiltration wells are currently being dug across the capital for run-off water to drain into. Indeed it’s a false economy not to invest in these kinds of measures, as during the previous rainy season, Rp.3 trillion in losses were inflicted in a single week in Jakarta. Such losses, however, be they the result of forest fires or flooding, are to be born by the public, while investment designed to mitigate such disasters would have to come out of government budgets earmarked for palm grease and pied-à-terres.

Tsunamis, landslides, fires, haze, droughts, floods: has mother nature, so generous in blessing this country with so much bountiful fertility, now turned her back on her Indonesian progeny as a punishment for its rapaciously corrupt excesses and poor stewardship of its Edenic inheritance? Will we be able to pull together as a species and tackle these issues head-on? Or will the new Star Wars flick win out in the ongoing battle for hearts and minds?

As the writer Chris Isherwood once said, the rich world has “retired to live inside [its] own advertisements. Like hermits going into caves to contemplate.” And there’s a sense in which environmental concerns are now the preserve of Facebook feeds that we lap up before signing an online petition with brows suitably furrowed and chowing down on another bowl of palm oil-laced noodles. Clicktavism they call it.

So, will we be able to save Jakarta from being regularly waterboarded by the Almighty? Storming the ramparts of parliament in KPK-logoed combat fatigues and kicking the whole rotten bunch out on their exquisitely tailored arses would be a good start perhaps.

Maybe the future will look something like the one predicted by the late, legendary Kurt Vonnegut in the pages of his Darwinian prophecy of a novel Galapagos. In the book, the process of evolution by natural selection rounds decisively upon our capacious human brains. Brains which have brought so much suffering and environmental calamity to the world are depicted as having little intrinsic survival value, and are thus portrayed as an evolutionary dead-end in the book. In Vonnegut’s vision, homo-sapien grey matter thus starts to shrink and bodies begin to grow seal-like flippers as we return to the blissful ignorance of life’s oceanic cradle.

A little far-fetched? Perhaps, although just maybe the seemingly diminishing cerebral capacities of many power wielders are an early embodiment of the truth of Vonnegut’s thesis. Maybe their descendants will already be equipped with flippers during the Jakarta floods of the future. And there we were thinking that regional devolution referred to politics. Now pass me a bucket of fish please.

What's Up, Doc?

Bapaks in white coats continue to put the fear of God up Indonesia’s expats.

“Doctor, Doctor, I’m at death’s door!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll pull you through.”

This is not an exchange that I overheard in a Jakarta waiting-room, although Indonesia’s doctors, fine specimen of men and women that they most assuredly are, certainly come in for a fair amount of flak from the expatriate community. The general perception of the country’s professional bone-sawers held by those who hail from wealthier nations seems to bounce like a heart-rate monitor readout between patronizing ridicule and sheer terror at the prospect of ever falling into their clutches.

If they ply their trade at a more down-market hospital or medical centre, then local doctors are usually viewed as buffoons who offer diagnoses along the lines of “doctor, doctor” joke punchlines before pumping you full of the wrong drugs and amputating the wrong leg for good measure. However, if they work at a more salubrious house of medicine, then they will obviously try and hook you up to as many expensive machines that go ‘ping’ as possible, as the dollar signs revolve in their eyes like one-armed bandits (although American expatriates may be used to this kind of treatment as a result of their noble nation’s general disdain for socialized medicine).

One can head to the official statistics in search of a more sober analysis of the country’s medical system, however this may not help to dispel the negative aura that hangs over Indonesian hospitals like the smell of a full specimen jar.

Of Indonesia’s 1,800 hospitals, apparently only five are internationally accredited, and all of these are privately owned, although supposedly the health ministry is currently preparing another seven state-owned hospitals to qualify for international accreditation.

Ultimately, this may not make much of a dent, however, in the 100,000 or so locals who head abroad every year (mainly to Singapore, Malaysia and China) in search of decent medical treatment. And they are the lucky ones, of course. The vast majority of Indonesians, not in possession of a great deal more, asset-wise, than a bedpan, can either incur crippling debts when they require medical attention or instead opt for a judicious application of Tiger Balm whilst offering a few prayers to Him upstairs.

There have, however, been more recent signs of change. Both President Jokowi and his comrade-in-arms, Jakarta Governor Ahok, in a break with five decades of elite politics, actually seem to acknowledge that not all Indonesians drive BMWs and have pushed through medical insurance schemes, amidst much huffing and puffing from the trustees of the nation’s better-equipped hospitals.

Clearly though, this may well be like trying to fix a fractured skull with a Handiplast. Doctors here often work in a number of hospitals or health centres, and even hospitals that occupy fancy high-rise buildings may not be able to provide adequate or sufficiently professional consultation, as their doctors work long into the night with large numbers of patients. It seems that often here, high-end technology is not complemented by a similarly high-end level of professionalism among the nation’s 50,000 doctors and 2.5 million nurses.

The problem, as with so many things, lies with education, which in this country is about as bad as it gets. This is not a knowledge-based culture; it is a highly corrupt, consumption-based culture. Intellectually speaking, a complete disaster then includes the sale of places in med school (the lower your grades, the more you have to pay to get in; up to hundreds of millions of rupiah). Plus, of course, more payments will ensure that even the most chuckle-headed of potential quacks are able to pass their regular exams, whilst connections and the old-boy network also help, which is why medical care can seem so ‘dynastic’ here.

And all of this comes on top of Indonesia’s politically-motivated system of educational indoctrination, which is based around rote learning, and which seems to actively discourage the kind of critical thinking that is so valuable for the decent practice of medicine. Apparently, even nurses and midwives often have to buy their way into jobs. This can be as much as US$5,000 for a job that pays about US$300 per month. No wonder the nurses and doctors work for the government in the mornings and engage in private practice in the late afternoons and evenings.

Having said all this, my own experiences in Indonesian hospitals haven’t been too bad. Most seriously, I once rode my motorcycle into a bajaj that was seemingly being driven by some prototype Google software at the time. In any case, after being tossed in the air like a rag doll and landing in a big bone heap on the ground, I found myself being transported to Pertamina Hospital in South Jakarta having sustained several fractures.

After having various titanium plates and screws inserted into me, I was packed off home to recuperate and was also regularly visited by a nurse (alas, a male one) for the following two weeks. Both my inpatient and outpatient care were pretty decent, although all of this came at a price that was thankfully covered by my health insurance policy. Coincidentally, ex-President Suharto entered the very same hospital about a year later and, unlike myself, did not emerge alive. Perhaps the former strong man had been neglecting his health insurance payments (although I was always under the impression that the inscrutable old fascist was a collector, as opposed to a payer of premiums).

There was, alas, one dark cloud which cast a shadow over my otherwise delightful weeklong stay in hospital, and this was the nurses – angels of mercy that they were – who insisted upon waking me up at the very Indonesian hour of 5am every morning to administer nothing more than a vitamin pill and the most appalling breakfasts that I’d had since that time I went camping. After four days of this, I have to confess that I did offload some technical medical jargon in their direction.

“But we only trying to help you, Mr!”

“Aha, that’s very good, now here’s what I want you not to do…”

The great Benjamin Franklin supposedly claimed that “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Well, he’d clearly never sailed around the Dutch East Indies, in my view.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s poor may now be crowding hospital receptions the length and breadth of the nation clutching Jokowi Smart Cards, however many will still be unable to afford the fancy prescriptions dished out by doctors with a tendency towards polypharmacy (i.e. prescribing five or more drugs, many of which are non-essential but expensive if you’re on two dollars a day).

The quick fix offered by traditional jamu and over-the-counter energy pills and drinks is thus likely to remain a medical staple for the republic’s proletariat, who suffer the consequences of the fine line between commercial exploitation and medical science being gleefully trampled over. A quick fix of caffeine, taurine, sugar and paracetamol it is then, which should temporarily mask the negative effects of poverty, poor diet, lack of sleep, pollution, disease and parasites. Soviet Russia, now there was an efficient health system. As soon as you were ill, they’d kill you. No messing about with cures there…

Monday, March 10, 2014

What a Tangled Web We Weave

Indonesia's Internet is increasingly becoming a free-speech battleground 

Issues surrounding that old chestnut, freedom of speech, have started to make waves across the globe over the last few years. The reason that this time-honoured benchmark of democratic freedom is once again becoming a front-line political battleground is the all-conquering reach of the Internet and our new social media.

In recent years, autocratic Arab governments have been toppled and rioters have taken to the streets to terrorise England and in both cases, Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger had major roles to play. So when exactly does Internet use become a public menace? What can be considered defamatory and libellous in our wired world? Is it government's role to be putting checks and balances on the new connectivity? Are politicians simply superannuated, nation-state dinosaurs running scared of the new light-speed social currents that zap like digital pinballs around nodes of common interest? Are we headed for Julian Assange's nightmarish vision of an Orwellian future?

Indonesia has had its own dilemmas to grapple with vis-à-vis the new social media paradigm of course. On the one hand, Indonesians are possessed of a natural sociability that has seen them take to these technologies like ducks to water. Indonesia has 43.1 million Facebook users (making it the world's third-largest population of Mark Zuckerberg disciples) and BlackBerry Messenger reigns supreme here, despite these devices currently facing collapsing sales around the rest of the world.

On the other hand though, Indonesia’s still relatively autocratic, paternalistic and, above all, corrupt political and judicial systems have been left floundering by the new so-called "hacktivism" and there have been plenty of techno flashpoints of late that have made those in power seem rather lugubrious and heavy-handed.

Virtual alarm bells first started ringing a few years back when Indonesian mother-of-three, Prita Mulyasari, was handed down a suspended jail sentence for libelling Tangerang's Omni Hospital in an e-mail that she sent to a group of her friends expressing her dissatisfaction with the hospital's service. Everyone from freedom-loving Facebook fans to highflying lawyers sprang to Prita's defence, arguing that criticism of public or private services most certainly doesn’t constitute liable.

The country's draconian ITE (Electronic Transactions Law) would suggest otherwise however. Controversial Communication and Information Technology Minister, Tifatul Sembiring, has stated that there are five boundaries in the cyber world that the ITE outlines should not be crossed, and these pertain to issues of pornography, gambling, threats, fraud and blasphemy. However these five deadly virtual sins also include information and posts that may, "disturb the public," or which, "attack or offend public figures."

Mr. Sembiring, a member of the Islamic-leaning Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has proved a polarising figure during his time looking after the country's information superhighway and has often been ridiculed for his censorious approach to the newly connected Archipelago. After a failed and ultimately rather futile attempt to keep Internet pornography from polluting Indonesian waters, Mr. Sembiring has more recently, and rather ominously, turned his attention to the country's avid Tweeters.

After learning that Twitter is filled with anonymous accounts that are often used to insult and attack other users, Sembiring stated that such rogue Tweeters could find their accounts being shut down and has even threatened that they could also have their devices and positions traced with a view to prosecuting them. Mr. Sembiring has also been pressuring RIM, makers of the ubiquitous BlackBerry, to set up servers in Indonesia, as those millions and millions of BlackBerry messages currently travel to their recipients via RIM's Canadian servers, well beyond the grasp of elite Indonesian political control, scrutiny and censorship.

This latter initiative is perhaps revealing of the fear that really underlies Indonesia's still pretty autocratic political elite’s stated concerns about libellous posts that, "disturb the public." The Arab Spring has seen the rise of so-called "citizen journalism" and mobile-phone cameras are now regularly used to document abuses of power. The use of social media to organise popular dissent through channels that completely circumvent traditional government information filters and controls has also proved crucial.

The Arab Spring has undoubtedly been spectacular, however there are also dangers involved in the greater free speech and popular organisation that the web promises. Alas, our new networked, free-thinking paradigm has the potential to crash into the immovable object of Indonesia’s traditional, long-held beliefs with a loud clatter. The recent case of Alexander Aan is a case in point. Mr. Aan posted the phrase, "God does not exist" up on his Facebook wall and subsequently survived a mob attack before being taken into custody by the West Sumatra police and charged with blasphemy.

The still-pretty-inchoate Internet so often acts as a mass vanity-induction device, a huge ego-feeding mechanism that encourages self-congratulatory, mutual backslapping between those who share opinions and tastes. The inverse is also true, and the net is also filled with abrasive but equally self-congratulatory broadsides and abuse that are directed against those that would dissent from one's cherished pearls of wisdom. This is the downside of the Internet. However it is becoming increasingly clear that the web can also be a space for public exchange, free debate, expression, organisation, enquiry and activism, a space that still evades society’s normal systems of information control.

All opinions find a voice on the Internet, which perhaps ill suits traditional notions of Indonesian hegemony, harmony and consensual decision-making. As the web continues to spread its tentacles throughout the country though, Indonesians are getting to hear voices and opinions that they've never previously been exposed to before. Give a man a mask and he'll tell you what he really thinks, or so the old saying goes. Give him an anonymous and untraceable computer terminal though and you won't be able to shut the fellow up.

The new digital debating club challenges imposed wisdom and the specious harmony that masks a sea of social ills, and the Indonesian boat is currently being rocked by these new technological currents. It could get rough out there but nothing less than a transformation of Indonesia's collective consciousness is up for grabs as we steer towards oceans new.

Public Image Limited

The capital has a woeful amount of public space to offer its citizens, who are instead usually to be found taking sanctuary down in its shopping

Let's not mince words here, Jakarta is in dire need of public space and parks for its citizens to unwind in. Now admittedly a certain amount of progress on this issue has been made over the last few years and parks such as Taman Tebet, Taman Menteng and Taman Aydoya, for example, have been spruced up in an attempt to offer the city's residents some non-retail-based respite. However these parks are but a drop in the ocean given the city's eight-digit population and given a 2007 spatial-planning law which states that Jakarta should dedicate at least 30 per cent of its total area to green space.

 This ambitious target is seemingly impossible to achieve without the demolition of a huge number of the shops, plazas, offices and private residences that cram this densely packed rabbit warren of a city, and so increasingly, the only option available is for people to traipse around privately owned shopping plazas and gawp at the goods on offer, while developing their own pathological addictions to conspicuous consumption.

A prime example of this phenomenon came last month when an enormous crush of people pushed, jostled, gnashed teeth, wailed and fainted outside the Pacific Place shopping mall in a bid to get their hands on the latest model of BlackBerry smartphone, which was being offered at half price. The expressions on these people’s faces as they shoved and shouted were no different from those worn by emaciated refugees as they fight over food aid. There are always new needs that need to be sated, and identity is now more defined by what you own than it is by what you are, think or do.

A moratorium on the issuing of permits for the construction of shopping plazas is now in effect. The city is already hyper-saturated with retail palaces though, many of which have been constructed to the detriment of public parks and spaces. As well as offering fresh air to the lungs, parks also have an important cultural role to play in offering a public sphere in which people can mingle and socialize, external to the hyperactive demands of consumer commerce.

It's a tough ask though. If 30 per cent of the city's total area was turned into parks and public spaces, the results would clock in at around 650 square kilometres. Compare that with the park that surrounds Jakarta's National Monument (Monas), which covers a mere 0.8 square kilometres. Hmmm.

As well as parks, pedestrian space is also an important element of any modern metropolis’s public sphere. Alas however, most of the city's pavements are filled with parked cars and food stalls, and pedestrians and their green use of bioorganic leg power are all too sadly stacked at the bottom of the pile in this heaving city.

Citizens of other cities around the world though think nothing of a 20-minute stroll down to the shops or to their local subway station. This is largely due to the fact that it's possible to complete such journeys without tripping over, falling down a manhole, being forced into the road to play chicken with endless motorcycles or otherwise being asphyxiated, shouted at, tapped up by primary-school beggars or scalded by flying fried rice. Recent attempts to clear the sidewalks of such obstructions have been, to say the least, rather halfhearted, and so the inveterate walker faces an uncertain future.

One doesn't have to leave the country to find more positive pedestrian scenes however. In Java's lush countryside, school kids think nothing of cycling or walking for kilometres through verdant palm trees and paddy fields to get to their schools. In Jakarta's urban jungle however, trying to negotiate oneself through the city's chaotic Brownian motion on foot is perhaps not unlike walking along the pavements of a more-organised metropolitan environment having drunk five bottles of Bintang.

All of these problems, the commercialisation of public space, the difficulty of pedestrian travel and the lack of green areas, all serve to alienate and isolate the city’s comparatively well off, with their cars and credit cards, from the city's bustling but impoverished street life and thus the deep wound of Jakarta’s yawning income chasm is never challenged by the soothing balm of trans-class interaction and pollination.

Yes, Jakartans love their shopping malls but they represent something of a consumerist, self-fulfilling prophecy. If people have nowhere else to go in their leisure time other than such places, then where are they going to end up? If someone had the vision and bravery to build a sports centre, a theatre, an art-house cinema, or even a park, basically anything one step removed from the need to turn an instant return on one's investment, are we to believe that no one would go to them? Perhaps, a thousand years hence, cyborg archaeologists and anthropologists will unearth the remains of Jakarta's great plazas, along with petrified Starbucks beakers and fossilised mobile phone casings and pontificate on what strange religion their ancestors practised in these places. I have seen the future, and it is latte coloured. January sales anyone?

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.