Wednesday, October 08, 2014

In Crikey: Jokowi hailed a beacon of hope, but could be a shrinking violet

An opinion piece of mine has appeared in Crikey today.

Subscribers can read it here, and freeloaders can read it here:

When world leaders gather in Jakarta later this month for the inauguration of a new president, hopes will be high that the new occupant of Istana Merdeka will bring great changes to Indonesia and its underperforming US$870 billion economy.
With a background as a furniture seller from Central Java, president-elect Joko Widodo lacks the aristocratic heritage of the the six people who have held the office of president since Indonesia’s independence in 1945. Jokowi, as the incoming president is popularly known, is the first president to come to prominence in public life since the fall of Suharto in 1998.
To ordinary Indonesians, Jokowi represents a beacon of hope who can deliver the basic health, education and welfare services people crave from their government.
To entrepreneurs, Jokowi also represents the possibility of change — they hope he can cut through the corruption, red tape, mismanagement and poor infrastructure that is shackling the economy. Foreign investors, who have in recent years grown frustrated at the chaos of doing business in Indonesia, are particularly keen to see improvements.
There is plenty of evidence that Jokowi will find it tough to implement the reforms he is seeking. A dozen or so Indonesian business families, who each have a wide span of interconnected interests, typically across energy, natural resources, banking and real estate, hold a massive share of the Indonesian economy and are reluctant to cede any of it to new starters or outsiders. For most of these entrepreneurs, the confusion and uncertainty brought about by legal and bureaucratic dysfunction is a form of protectionism, creating a formidable barrier to entry.
Jokowi is also up against a hostile and fragmented House of Representatives (DPR), many of whose members resent his cleanskin persona. His party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), will hold less than 20% of seats, while the coalition of parties that backed him in the July election will hold just 37%. It is doubtful that the governing coalition will stay strong, and already Jokowi has had to compromise on his pledge to put talent above political affiliation in appointing his ministers. If legislators seek to assert themselves, enacting difficult reforms and budgetary changes will be extremely difficult.
One area for ripe for change is allowing the private sector, domestic and foreign, to compete on equal terms with state-controlled companies. In recent years plans for private participation in the Jakarta port expansion contract were scuttled in favour of the state-owned Indonesia Port Corporation. The contract for the massive Mahakam oil and gas project off Kalimantan similarly looks likely to go to state-owned Pertamina, much to the chagrin of existing operators Total E&P Indonesie of France, and Inpex of Japan. The shift towards state control brings with it likely inefficiencies and increases the risk that the government fails to maximise value for money.
Any attempt by Jokowi to increase transparency in issuing lucrative government contracts will face resistance from powerful state companies. And even if any legislative change does materialise, these state-backed companies are adept at skirting the rules to protect their interests.
Another of Jokowi’s challenges will be the legal system, where the chances of getting a fair ruling in cases pitting a foreign company against a local one are slim. Judges appointed for their political rather than legal credentials, and who are paid slim salaries, are vulnerable — one of the most senior judges in the land, former Constitutional Court chief justice Akil Mochtar, was last year arrested after being accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes relating to an electoral dispute.
Some business figures take full advantage of the corruptibility of judges, but most have little appetite for the practice. Efforts by Jokowi to clean up the judiciary, through the enforcement of merit-based appointments and enhanced powers for the Judicial Commission integrity body, will be met with stiff resistance from certain business and legal quarters. The unfortunate reality for Jokowi is that the pool of legal talent ready to ascend to the bench, particularly at the pay on offer, is shallow.
Then there’s the reality of Indonesia’s decentralisation. During the early post-Suharto years of Reformasi, much of the power that had been concentrated in the national government was dispersed across province-level and village-level governments. In principle, shifting the decisions closer to the place where the impact was felt would reduce the chances of people’s rights being trampled upon. It also had the effect of decentralising the spoils of corruption.
Some provincial and village administrations have embraced the opportunity to welcome investors and create economic opportunities for their people, but others, particularly in resource-rich areas, have used it to squeeze investors for all they can. The outcome is situations like that confronting ExxonMobil, whose Cepu oil and gas field was delayed by years due in part to opportunistic local governments in Central and East Java.
Jokowi will have little authority to bring lower level governments into line, either legally or politically. Indeed, as a former mayor of Solo and the outgoing governor of the capital, he has some sympathy for his local counterparts. The best of intentions from Jakarta can do little to combat the intransigence and bribe-seeking that have become a way of life for many officials making the most of their petty fiefdom.
During the election campaign Jokowi, on several occasions, revealed himself as a man not comfortable in a fight. In his presidential debates against Prabowo Subianto, he threw few punches against his opponent and struggled to defend himself when under attack. Given the fights that loom if he is to implement substantive change, Jokowi’s reluctance to assert himself is concerning. When confronting a stubborn legislature, moneyed corporate interests and state companies with a deep sense of entitlement, Jokowi will need to be bold. The early signs are that he will be reluctant to do so.
*Ari Sharp is a journalist based in Indonesia from 2011 to 2014. His book, Risky Business: How Indonesia’s economic nationalism is hurting foreign investment — and local people (Connor Court Publishing) is out this month.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

"Risky Business" out this month

I'm proud to announce that my debut book, "Risky Business: How Indonesia’s economic nationalism is hurting foreign investment – and local people", is out this month.

From the back cover:
As a young democracy with an emerging middle class and an abundance of natural resources, Indonesia is attracting plenty of interest from foreign investors. While the potential benefits of doing business in the developing Asian economy are obvious, the risks can be tougher to spot. But journalist Ari Sharp has found there are plenty of things that can go wrong, and often do. With widespread corruption, a crooked legal system and dysfunctional infrastructure, Indonesia can be a high-risk destination for outsiders keen to invest. Looking back over the past five years, Risky Business investigates real-life investment nightmares and discovers that plenty more pain might await others who venture to Indonesia unprepared.

“Risky Business is a frank, fair-minded, lively and very readable account of the perils of doing business in Indonesia. Its well-researched and deftly-drawn case studies are not just cautionary tales for would-be investors, but also fascinating snapshots of Indonesia as it struggles to realise its immense potential.”
– Professor Hugh White

“Ari Sharp has produced a learned and important assessment of Indonesia to this date. It is a dramatically changing Indonesia that we are now dealing with.”
– Harold Mitchell AC

For more information and to place an order, visit the website of Connor Court Publishing.

For regular update on all things related to the book, sign up to the Facebook page.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Over and out (for now)

I've now been back in Australia for three weeks and am enjoying the manicured streets, thriving cafes and biting cold that I'd missed while I was away. It was a fun three years in Jakarta, but Canberra's now where I hang my hat.

I've taken up work on an exciting project with the Australian Government. Just like the last time I was working full-time in Australia, I'll be putting the blog on a hiatus. All the archives will stay online, but there'll (probably) be no new content coming your way.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to read my posts. It was great to have you along for the ride.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sampai jumpa, Indonesia

After three years and a lot of fried tofu, I am this weekend leaving Jakarta to return to Australia. It's been a fantastic time here, full of new friends and new experiences. But the time is right to pulang kampung for a new challenge.

Before I head down the tollroad to Soekarno-Hatta one last time, I offer up a collection of observations about Indonesia - where it is, and where it's going.

- The facade of democracy is in place, but it still lacks form. At first glance, Indonesia has all the institutions of democracy - a phalanx of political parties, regular free elections, a free press and an active civil society. Most importantly, just about everyone recognises that it's the only game in town when it comes to accessing political power. But on closer inspection it becomes evident that these institutions sometimes fail in practice to fulfill their purpose - political parties are personality-driven rather than policy-driven, bribes are used to woo voters, major media outlets are owned by key political figures and the availability of protesters-for-hire devalues public shows of discontent. Consolidating democracy in Indonesia involves giving substance to the signifiers.

 - Cultural battle lines are being drawn. With a large number of people having reached adulthood during the Reformasi period that began with the downfall of Suharto in 1998, there is a critical mass of people keen on values of cosmopolitanism - democracy, religious tolerance, cultural creativity and right rather than might determining which ideas prevail. But advocates of those values are facing a struggle against conservatives keen to return to some of the institutions of Suharto's New Order, such as a strong military and nationalist cultural agenda, while also seeking to promote Islamist ideas. This tension can be seen in issues like the Jakarta concert planned by Lady Gaga in 2012, when a hard-line Muslim group sought to assert its authority over younger, more permissive youth in determining whether the event could go ahead, and found willing supporters among the police and some political elite. The broader battle is for the heart and soul of the nation, and neither side is likely to yield easily.

- Demographics are a great opportunity, but also a great threat. Indonesia has a high and growing share of its population of working age, giving it great potential to establish itself as the powerhouse economy of Southeast Asia with booming manufacturing and resources industries. Handled well, this will fuel the growth in the middle-class, which is already sizable. But if it fails to generate enough job opportunities for the half the population now aged under 29, Indonesia risks having this youthful population turn angry and vent its fury on the state. The large number of young, idle men that were a decisive factor in the emergence of the Arab Spring could yet cause similar issues in Indonesia. The country would be wise to unleash the creative potential of its people.

- Economic prospects are bright, but beware of complacency. There's no mistaking the potential for Indonesia's economy, where favourable demographics, abundance of natural resources and closeness to the major consumer markets of Asia leave local and foreign investors alike giddy with excitement. But if the country's policy-makers assume that rapid growth is its assured destiny, they could be in for a shock. The country needs to put in place the right policy settings to grow the economy and encourage investment, both from home and abroad. It needs to balance the national budget with hard-but-necessary actions like cutting fuel subsidies, turn the bold plans for improved infrastructure into reality and improve the quality of education so that graduates are creative and analytical thinkers rather than rote learners. Without that, Indonesia will lose out to its more-nimble neighbours.

- Greater Jakarta is packing too many people into too small a space. Depending on where you place the boundary, Jakarta is home to between 8 million and 20 million people, and the number grows steadily each year. Few countries in the world have such a high concentration of economic, political and cultural activity in a single city. The infrastructure and job opportunities, however, have failed to keep pace. This has left the capital as a tough urban jungle, with notorious traffic jams, poverty and crime that make it tough to lead a good life. The solution often touted is to improve the supply of infrastructure, through projects like an urban train network, floodwater canals and high-rise public housing. But the problem is already too entrenched for those things to make much difference. Instead, a demand-side approach is needed - cut the number of people living in the capital. Partly this can be achieved by boosting job opportunities in other cities and villages so that ambitious young people don't feel that they have to move to Jakarta. It might also involve the previously touted relocation of the capital to somewhere outside Java, so that the share of the population whose work involves the national government move with it.

- Religious pluralism remains perilous. President Yudhoyono may have last year received an international award for his efforts to promote religious tolerance in the country, but the reality is that the country is occasionally hostile to some faiths. While there are six religions formally recognised in Indonesia, nearly 90 percent of the population are Muslim and a significant minority within that group adopts a fairly doctrinaire approach to their faith that sits uncomfortably in a multi-religious environment. Many cases are emerging in which religious minorities are targeted by hardline Islamic forces - look at the blockading of the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor and the arrest of an atheist in Sumatra. But many conflicts are between different strands of Islamic thought - like the brutal thuggery against the Ahmadiyah in West Java and the anti-Shiite tensions that led to dozens fleeing Madura island. Some enlightened Islamic leaders are preaching tolerance, but there are still others who have dreams of a Shariah state.

- Remarkable sense of unity across the country. Indonesia is far from a natural political grouping, with a wide diversity of cultures spread across 17,000 islands, and it was only during the Dutch colonial period that it came to be recognised as a single political entity. Many people feared when Suharto fell and East Timor broke away that the country would Balkanise, with forces seeking independence in Papua, Aceh and other places asserting their claim. But most of that restiveness has settled, and few see a better future for themselves outside Indonesia than within it. Despite the cultural and geographic differences between many parts of the country, cities and villages are actually incredibly similar. Pick any town in Indonesia and you're sure to find an alun-alun (central square) at the heart of it, warungs (street stalls) and kaki limas (wandering vendors) selling bakso (meatball soup) and gorengan (fried things) and teens in black jackets offering lifts on a motorcycle. Even the streets that radiate from the centre will carry the same names, honouring heroes like Diponegoro, Yani and Sudirman. Such similarities suggest that Jakarta has been very effective in instilling a sense of nationhood that transcends regional identity.

I've been very fortunate to watch Indonesia up close over the past three years, moving through periods of despair about some of its intractable problems to admiration for the thriving democracy and economy that has emerged. At the end of the New Order period 16 years ago this future was far from assured, but the hard work of its people has left it largely peaceful and unified. There's even data to suggest that it's the happiest place in the world.

Indonesia's a fascinating place to watch, and the rest of the world would be wise to keep a close eye on it. I look forward to seeing what the years ahead hold. Over and out.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

10 Jakarta hotspots that shine a light on the independence era

Jakarta has plenty to offer history buffs. For people keen to understand what the city was like from its founding in 1527 until the Dutch finally gave up their claim in 1949, there is an impressive array of sites that convey the colonial grandeur. Visitors can check out the cargo ships docked in Sunda Kelapa harbour, or the old immigration office that's now the luxurious Kunstkring Paleis restaurant and gallery in Cikini, or the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta concert hall in Pasar Baru. While many of the colonial buildings are crumbling, others have been lovingly maintained.

But the city also has a rich legacy from its more recent past. Indonesia has a fascinating history from the time of the rebellion against colonial masters through the socialist Guided Democracy of Sukarno, the authoritarian New Order of Suharto and the chaotic creativity of Reformasi. Each of these eras has left a mark on the city, both in the way they have shaped the thinking of its citizens, and in the statues, grave sites and museums that remain.

They say that history is written by the winners, and this is particularly apt in Indonesia's case. Successive presidents have sought to put their own slant on the events of the nation's history, emphasising some elements and downplaying others in a calculated way to help further a more contemporary agenda. The authority to write the text, build the dioramas and create the mood at a given site gives tremendous power to whoever is telling the story. This power has been skillfully exploited by presidents and those seeking to craft the narrative on their behalf.

In this sense, a visit to a historical site is illuminating twice over - it reveals the story of the initial event that first established a site as a historical place, and then reveals the prejudices of the authority figures telling the story. You can see this in action in the way that sites opened under Sukarno places a special emphasis on ending the colonial era and establishing independence, which those from Suharto's time draw attention to military power and the menace posed by communism. As for those sites opened in the Reformasi era, a focus on the unity of the nation through troubled times is emerging.

And so, in no particular order, here are some Jakarta spots that shine a light on independence-era history.

1. Museum Perumusan Naskah Proklamasi (Proclamation Manuscript Museum). This is where it all began, late one August night in 1945, when Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta and some supporters chose to use Japan's loss of World War II to assert Indonesia's claim to independence. The proclamation itself was rather understated, but its symbolic significance was profound. These days the Menteng house where the document was drafted and signed, at Jalan Iman Bonjol No. 1, is preserved much as it was that night, with mannequins used to depict the key participants. The impressive photographic collection on the walls shows the vibrant enthusiasm of the leaders of the nation and the struggle they maintained against Dutch colonials not yet convinced that Indonesia should be free of its yoke.

2. Taman Makam Pahlawan (Heroes Cemetery). Desperate to build a sense of history and pride in the young nation, Sukarno in the 1950s established the Indonesian Heroes Cemetery in Kalibata, South Jakarta, to honour the military figures who had given their lives to the country and later civilian leaders who had dedicated themselves to the nationalist cause. Now the immaculately maintained cemetery on Jalan Pahlawan Kalibata has sections devoted to each of the recognised religions and is the resting place of many noteworthy figures, among them the victims of the aborted coup in 1965 and government minister across the ages. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier matches the reverence of its counterparts around the world.

3. Museum Satria Mandala (Armed Forces Museum). Once the struggle against colonialism was won, the nation's attention shifted to defending what had been liberated from forces both internal and external. For decades the ABRI had the dual functions of ensuring security against foreign invaders and also, often with a brutal streak, against threats from within. Achieving these twin objectives required military hardware, and lots of it, some made locally but much imported from Cold War powers keen to bring Indonesia to their side. After they were retired, many of these items of military equipment were put on display at this museum on Jalan Gatot Subroto in Semanggi. Now kids can climb all over the helicopters, rockets and warships while slightly uneasy adults take photos.

4. Lubang Buaya and the Monumen Pancasila Sakti (Crocodile Hole and Pancasila Sakti Monument). In the early hours of October 1, 1965, the bodies of seven military men were dumped in this well in Pondok Gede, South Jakarta, by forces keen to avert a military coup against the socialist president Sukarno. The plot ended up emboldening rivals to Sukarno, including Suharto, who undertook a nationwide rampage over several years against anyone suspected of leftist sympathies. Now the hole itself is on display, with an ominous red light shining up from deep inside the shaft, and a nationalist statue celebrates the heroism of the slain soldiers in brutalist propagandist style. The gory details of September 30 and the morning that followed are presented in unflinching dioramas, and a mannequins are used to depict the torturous barbarism that was supposedly inflicted on some of the generals before their death.

5. Museum Pengkhianatan PKI (Indonesian Communist Party Betrayal Museum). Anti-communist museum propaganda doesn't come much finer than this effort from Suharto in the early 1990s. The Lubang Buaya museum next door was opened more than a decade earlier, but was presumably not doing a good enough job in demonising leftists and thereby providing a moral justification for Suharto's slayings of the 1960s. So up popped this Pondok Gede museum, which uses lurid dioramas to show dozens of incidents of supposed communist disloyalty to the Indonesian state across the country. Every caption rams home the message that the threat of communism is real, and it is hard not to imagine generations of school children who passed through its corridors not having their world view shaped by it.

6. Balibo Five gravesite. After the Portuguese colonials pulled out of East Timor in the mid-1970s, it didn't take Indonesia long to lay claim on the briefly independent state using a heavy military force. There to capture the action were a group of journalists from Australia and a colleague from New Zealand. On October 16, 1975, in the town of Balibo, the five were slain in mysterious circumstances despite identifying themselves as foreigners who posed no threat. The truth behind their deaths has long been the subject of conjecture. Their bodies now lie in a single, modest gave in the Christian section of the Tanah Kusir cemetery in South Jakarta, a spot that has occasionally received visitors from their home countries as well as others who saw their deaths as a blow to press freedom. Finding the grave can be tricky - it's not far from the adorned burial site of founding vice president Mohammad Hatta, but it's probably easiest to ask the freelance labourers who keep the graves in good condition.

7. Suharto's home. When he was forced from office in 1998, Suharto and his family had accumulated riches amounting to anywhere between US$15 billion and US$35 billion. But during his presidency and beyond, the kleptomaniac-in-chief lived in a modest Menteng home at Jalan Cendana No. 8, where he would receive visitors and plot ways to preserve his power. The single story house is now empty, but a security patrol keeps watch on things and visitors occasionally come and go. The low-slung green roof and expansive garden make it seem a rather pleasant place, and set it aside from the more extravagant homes that line this street and others nearby in upmarket Menteng.

8. Museum Purna Bhakti Pertiwi. The entire Taman Mini Indonesia Indah theme park is a garish tribute to Suharto's vision of Indonesia, with museums celebrating the country's achievements in culture, technology and sport surrounding a lake depicting the archipelago in miniature. On the fringes of Taman Mini, in East Jakarta, lies a grand shrine to the strongman leader, colloquially known as the Suharto Museum. At the entrance, tens of metres of sculpted wooden panels tell the life story of Suharto with great affection, while inside hectares of space over several floors are devoted to the thousands of gifts he and his wife, Ibu Tien, received. Gifts from foreign leaders, provincial governors and company executives all vie for space in the vast glass cabinets that were intended as a sign of the president's magnanimity but instead illustrate his rapaciousness. Admiring visitors can check out the many military honour bestowed on Pak Harto, or have themselves photographed sitting opposite the man at a mock-up of his desk. Opened in the mid-1990s, the museum now sends a very different message to the one its founder intended.

9. Gedung Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (House of Representatives Building) and Semanggi cloverleaf. After decades of seemingly unrivaled control on the state, Suharto's grip on power was loosened by the tumultuous events of the Asian Financial Crisis, which exposed in stark terms the corruption that was endemic in the country's banking system. Amid the public disquiet over rising prices and a plummeting rupiah in May 1998, it was brave students who led the push for Suharto to leave office, calls that were often met with brutal repression from the military and police. The opposition to Suharto prompted many protesters to mass at the House of Representatives Building in Senayan, where they occupied the chamber and demanded a government that respected public aspirations. Later in the year, more than a dozen protesters were shot and killed from the elevated portion of the Semanggi cloverleaf, the elaborate intersection of main streets Jalan Gatot Subroto and Jalan Sudirman. While no physical monuments are on display, wandering around the area can give a sense of the bravery it took to stare down the only national leader most protesters had ever known.

10. Bank Indonesia Museum. You can learn much about a country's history through its financial system, all the more so in an archipelagic nation that owes much of its development to its openness to trade. That's the logic behind the ambitious Bank Indonesia Museum on Fatahillah Square, the centrepiece to the historic Kota Tua district of North Jakarta. While the immaculately maintained building is itself a great example of colonial-era architecture, it is the display itself that sets the attraction apart. Using vivid scenes, thoughtful archival samples and accessible bilingual text, the museum takes visitors through hundreds of years of the country's banking and financial system. The tensions between competing colonial forces, as well as between colonialists and natives, are brought to life, as are the shifts in the nation's economy. The jaw-dropping climax tells the story of the Asian Financial Crisis using haunting music, hell-red mood lighting and panels of angst-filled videos to capture the mood of that troubled time in history such that it feels more like a war than a banking problem. But that's the idea, given the museum is a Reformasi-era product of Bank Indonesia in its efforts to foster a responsible attitude towards money among ordinary people.

No doubt there are plenty more sites rich in history in Jakarta, but these are the ones that caught my eye in my three years living here. Selamat jalan!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Notes on a Java jaunt

Stepping off the ferry at Banyuwangi, I was relieved to be free of the cloying melodies of the dangdut karaoke and sickly sweetness of the kretek smoke that battled for control of the upper deck. My company for the trip was made up mostly of migrant workers in weathered shirts heading home to villages in Java, and the occasional wealthy family reluctant to leave Bali after a few days of decadence. In the trip of less than an hour between the two islands, we had moved from the laid-back Island of the Gods to the bustling home to 140 million people. Lying ahead of me was the island where the country's power, money and mythologies reside.

On the boat from Gilimanuk in Bali to Banyuwangi in Java.

For nearly three years I'd lived in Indonesia, but my trips in Java had barely extended beyond the mountains to the south of Jakarta, the ragged beach resorts on the west coast and the big cities whose nearby temples and natural wonders make them worth visiting. Through the trip I hoped to better understand the cities and villages, farms and factories, mountains and shorelines that constitute the beating heart of Indonesia. I'd set aside a little over two weeks to zig-zag across the island, starting at the eastern tip and working my way towards the west, ending in Jakarta given I'd already seen most of the interesting things that lie beyond the capital.

Travelling in buses ranging from rustic to swank and on trains that offer an air of refinement, I moved between cities (Surabaya, Solo, Semarang, Cirebon, Bandung, Bogor), towns (Banyuwangi, Bondowoso, Blitar, Salatiga, Jepara) and natural sites (Baluran National Park, Mount Bromo), seeing plenty of things nearby along the way.

Not long before I left, I read Jonathan Swift's classic satire Gulliver's Travels, and had ringing in my ears a line that follows a particularly description-heavy passage on the narrator's voyage to Brobdingnag (not in Java). "The whole scene of this voyage made so strong an impression on my mind, and is so deeply fixed in my memory, that, in committing it to paper, I did not omit one material circumstance: however, upon a strict review, I blotted out several passages of less moment which were in my first copy, for fear of being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof travellers are often, perhaps not without justice, accused."

So in the spirit of avoiding tedium and triflingity, I'll be selective in the quirks and tidbits I offer:

- There's a palpable energy about Javanese people, particularly youngsters, that's beguiling. Buses are crammed with young people moving between cities in search of work or adventure, and streets and markets are thick with movement. The heat and regular downpours do little to hamper activity, even if many people have little protection from the elements. Having said that, poverty is pervasive, particularly in larger cities, with clusters of itinerant becak (pedicab) drivers aggressively touting for business and many homeless people, often with apparent disease and disability, begging for alms. For many the comforts of the middle class are a mere fantasy.

- The volatile geology of the island has produced some astonishing natural wonders that are popular among Indonesian travellers but still seem rarely visited by foreign visitors. Two in East Java - Mount Bromo and the Ijen Plateau - are particularly impressive. Both offer dramatic landscapes that showcase the plumes of sulfur common around volcanoes to vivid effect, and give visitors a sense of walking among the clouds. There's a bit of physical effort involved in getting to each of them, but the payoff makes it well worth it.

Around Mount Bromo in East Java.

- Cities have taken widely divergent approaches to preserving their colonial architecture. When the Dutch left Indonesia in the 1940s, among their physical legacies were the grand office and residential compounds that used to house government institutions, private businesses and European elite. These days, many of the colonial buildings in Semarang and Surabaya, significant cities in the colonial period, are decaying with neglect. Walls are crumbling, exteriors are becoming caked in pollution and vandalism is damaging what's left. In Solo and Blitar, however, buildings are kept clean, safe and functional. Clearly governments are reluctant to spend money on preserving the legacy of a former master, but what seems to work is having those buildings still functional and in private hands, where entrepreneurs can use the heritage as a selling point. It's noteworthy that the main colonial-era railway stations are in excellent condition and still busy, thanks to the fine efforts of Kereta Api Indonesia.

A colonial-era home in Solo now managed by the military.

- As well as preserving colonial-era architecture, Solo does a great job of keeping alive its own cultural traditions and those of the rest of Java. The two keraton palaces (the product of a split generations ago) are welcoming and accessible, while nightly shows at the Sriwedari Theatre ambitiously meld gamelan music with traditional dance, costume and Javanese theatre in a way that attracts large local crowds and bewilders foreigners. The House of Danar Hadi is probably the best and most diverse batik museum in Indonesia, while little touches like local buildings (including a McDonald's outlet) incorporating batik motifs enhance the vibe.

A batik artist at the House of Danar Hadi in Solo.

- Visits to the tombs of founding president Sukarno and his successor Suharto give a great insight into recent Indonesian history and the way Indonesians today perceive their rule of those autocrats. Sukarno, buried in a very accessible site near his childhood hometown of Blitar and accompanied by a museum that celebrates his legacy, is remembered as a man of the people. The day I was there, thousands of people came to offer prayers and thanks, many becoming quite emotional as they reached his elegantly presented tombstone. Outside, a gaudy commercial fiesta offered all manner of kitschness. Over at Suharto's tomb, located in Astana Giribangun alongside his wife, a minor Solonese royal, and her family, things are far more circumspect. Getting to the tomb itself requires passing through several layers of increasingly solemnity, and the smaller number of visitors who make it there seem do so out of historical curiosity rather than commitment to Suharto's legacy. Suharto nostalgia may be on the rise in Indonesia, but there's little evidence of it at his tombstone. As a 1967 biography of the newly installed president I found noted, "Djenderal Soeharto ... tidak suka omong kosong" (General Suharto doesn't like nonsense). 

President Sukarno's tomb near Blitar.

President Suharto's tomb in Astana Giribangun.

- Hands down the best museum I visited on the trip (and, frankly, in my time in Indonesia) was the superb House of Sampoerna in Surabaya. Part vanity tribute to the founding father of the cigarette brand and part illuminating insight into to process of producing the famed product, the HoS engages every sense (if you include the funky cafe attached) in a vivid and memorable way. As a non-smoker, I learned plenty by picking up cloves from different parts of Indonesia and crumbling them to let out the rich aroma. And it was captivating to watch the thousand or so workers at the plant roll, cut and box the products with a speed and accuracy that I didn't think human beings outside of a North Korean stadium show were capable of. It's a bit of a shame the rest of Surabaya is so dire for tourists.

Kretek cigarette producers at work at the House of Sampoerna in Surabaya.

- To an outsider, few signs remain in daily life of the supposed mysticism for which Javanese culture is famed. Beyond a handful of fortune-tellers plying their wares outside the keraton in Cirebon and a few worshipers venturing toward Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic temples, the island seemed thoroughly modern in its outlook. It's much harder to tell what goes on behind closed doors and in the close-knit villages that pock mark the island; it may be there that traditional values infuse people's lifestyles.

- The family planning message is prolific but fighting a tough battle given the sentiment captured in the popular saying "Banyak anak, banyak rejeki" ("Abundance of children, abundance of luck"). In Indonesia, many couples formally sign up to family planning (keluarga berencana), which involves the man undergoing a vasectomy after having two children, or earlier if he chooses. In Java it is common to see the roofs of houses daubed with the message "KB: 2 anak cukup" (Family planning: 2 children are enough), as a signal to the neighbours that the occupants are doing the socially responsible thing... and maybe you should too. Big families are still common, but as infant mortality falls, women's education rises and urbanisation grows more prevalent, things are slowly changing. 

"Abundance of children, abundance of problems," reads the modified slogan.

- Spending many hours staring out the window of buses and trains reminded me of just how agricultural is Java and its economy. Vast tracts of crops of rice, tobacco, sugar cane, cassava and myriad other things sustain the villages and cities, often harvested by peasant farmers using simple tools in startlingly inefficient ways. Subtle changes in climate and landscape have led to different areas specialising in different crops, and from that local favourite foodstuffs have emerged in different cities (Bondowoso seems particularly keen on its cassava-based tape, for example). It's easy to see how attached people have become to their agrarian lifestyle, and why change so often meets resistance.

Mountainside farmland in East Java.

- The battle ahead of April's national legislative election is on in earnest. Just about every accessible public space - from trees and power poles to the sides of buildings - is plastered with a poster for a local candidate. Aburizal Bakrie's Golkar Party, Prabowo Subianto's Gerindra and Megawati Soekarnoputri's PDI-P seem to be most prolific, but all major parties have decent representation. Rather dispiriting, however, is that none of the posters feature any semblance of a policy pledge or seek to open discussion on issues. Instead, they feature a smiling portrait of the candidate, and perhaps a slogan so generic as to be meaningless.

So after 16 days on the road I returned to Jakarta, spending more than three hours on a bus to travel the 60 kilometres or so from Bogor to the southern suburbs of the capital. It was, perhaps, a fitting reminder that for all the charm of the small villages, farms and national parks that represent Java's traditional roots, people are voting with their feet for the wealth, jobs and excitement of the capital. Which is rather a shame - there's a lot of great stuff on this little island.

More photos from the trip are available here, complete with smartarsery in the captions.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Lessons of history

As Joshua Oppenheimer's brilliant "The Act of Killing" has made its way around the world the past year or so, it has drawn to public attention the gruesomeness of the massacres of mid-1960s Indonesia. The depictions of the horrific ways in which street gangs were able to to lynch those suspected of leftist political leanings, those of Chinese heritage and anyone else with whom the thugs wished to settle scores presented in unflinching terms the terror of the early days of Suharto's New Order era.

Clearly the film is a damning indictment of that dark chapter in Indonesian history, in which a million or more people were killed. But it also serves as a savage condemnation of contemporary Indonesia and the warped values that have become entrenched in the popular consciousness.

Consider the fact that the perpetrators of the crimes in Oppenheimer's film can hold their heads high and be feted on TV talk shows as they recount their past actions, while the victims (and their families) speak only in hushed tones and in fear for their safety. The perpetrators are given political legitimacy, able to move in elite social circles, while the victims are rendered invisible. The dark shame that ought be felt by perpetrators of savagery has been transposed onto their victims.

How did it come to be? It part it shows the remarkable success of President Suharto's efforts to institutionalise his "victor's version" of Indonesian history. The henchmen who carried out Suharto's dirty work were welcomed into the political mainstream and presented as role models. And for decades generations of Indonesian school children each year were subjected to a graphically violent portrayal of the supposed crimes of Indonesian communists, a depiction that left the inescapable conclusion that those forces who opposed the communists ought be treated as heroes. Such an onslaught of propaganda left little room for empathy for the victims of violence.

Last month University of Hawaii political scientist Ehito Kimura was in Jakarta and delivered a fascinating presentation on the history of government apologies around the world for past misdeeds (think the 1988 American apology to people of Japanese heritage for internment during World War II, or Australia's 2008 apology to indigenous children removed from their parents). Kimura made the case that apologies have gathered momentum since the end of the Cold War, with the relaxing of political absolutes during that conflict allowing societies greater scope for introspection and reflection on their own history.

An apology carries considerable symbolic heft, giving victims the comfort of having their pain validated and helping them heal the psychological scars. But it also has practical impact, creating grounds for bringing the perpetrators of violence to justice through criminal proceedings.

Kimura's take on the Indonesian experience was rather dispiriting. Essentially, he showed how the shadow of Suharto loomed large over the legacy of his successors. Most presidents of the Reform Era have done little more than nod to the sins of the past and offered weasel words of consolation, while usually in the same breath talking up the threat posed by victims of the savagery. So successful has been the disparagement of left-leaning victims of violence that modern-day leaders are forced to imply some sort of moral equivalence between the perpetrators of violence and their victims.

Which leads to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has shown little inclination to offer an apology to the victims of the 1965 violence and their families. Even further from materialising is any effort to bring to the court system the perpetrators of the 1965 violence, most of them now elderly but free. The president has been presented with a hefty report by the National Commission on Human Rights on the case against military perpetrators that urges prosecution, but has dithered rather than acted.

When frustrations at Suharto and his cronies reached boiling point in 1998, it again exhibited itself in bloodthirsty violence, again against Indonesia's ethnic Chinese population. Time and time again in the 15 years since, minority groups have been the victims of thuggish brutality as gangs of young men have felt free to wield violent power over those they oppose. Witness the violence against Christians in Ambon in the early 2000s, the assaults on the Ahmadiyah minority in Cikeusik in 2011, the attacks on the Shia minority in Madura last year and the ongoing campaign against people with liberal values by the Islamic Defenders Front. All carried out with brazen impunity.

Such brutality is not an aberration. Instead, it is a sign of the internalisation of the lessons of Indonesia's history. The events of the past 50 years have shown that brute force is an effective tool for silencing your opponent, and that your chances of getting away with it are high. Just as the gangsters were able to act with impunity in 1965 and emerge as heroes, modern day gangsters are willing to spill blood to terrorise others.

So while the battle against modern-day communal violence focuses on things like improved policing and fostering better intercultural relations, it should also look at the treatment of those involved in the 1965 brutality. An official apology, and efforts to try in court those perpetrators of violence still alive, would go a long way toward giving brutality the stigma it ought to carry. Only by bringing to justice the killers of decades ago will their modern counterparts realise that they will ultimately pay a price for their actions. While those thugs of history skylark in the streets of Medan like they do in "The Act of Killing", thugs of today will continue their campaign of terror.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The quandary of animal sacrifice

On Tuesday I went for a wander through the knot of small streets behind my apartment complex in inner Jakarta. In a laneway typically occupied by bakso sellers and old people smoking kretek there was an enthusiastic crowd of men in blood-splattered T-shirts methodically carving up the carcass of a bull they'd recently slaughtered. A crowd of kids were gathered around, boys with crew cuts and girls in fine dresses, staring at the men as they got to work.

That's how Idul Adha 1434 was marked by the congregants at the Jami' Al-Ikhlas mosque in Setiabudi, and it pretty much reflects what happens in thousands of mosques across Indonesia and much of the Muslim world. Idul Adha is the festival of the sacrifice, honouring the story of prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) offering to kill his son Ismail (Ishmael) as a sign of his submission to God's command, before God offered Abraham a lamb to sacrifice instead. In many developed countries the slaughtering of an animal (usually a lamb, sheep or bull) on site at a mosque is not permitted, but it's a practice that is flourishing in many poorer places, where dozens of creatures are sacrificed and the meat distributed to poor people.

The amateur anthropologist in me trumped the squeamish vegetarian, and I went to watch the slaughtering up close at Jami' Al-Ikhlas. I took plenty of photos and uploaded a series onto Facebook (you can see the shots here - pretty gruesome). I received several responses. Many people were disgusted by the bloodiness of the scene and the pained death throes of the animal as it struggled to fight the inevitable, and I suspect a few were put off their dinner.

The process of slaughtering an animal involves progressively stripping it of its dignity. A creature bred to be killed will most likely have an unnatural upbringing, unable to bond properly with its parents. Then it will be denied any agency over its actions, forced to eat what it is provided when it is provided and mate with whom it is instructed. Then it will be physically constrained as it is taken to the place where it will die. Then it will lose control of its bowel as fear strikes. Then it will be forced to the ground by having its legs pushed from under it. Then it will spurt its blood after a blade is run across its jugular. Then it will be stripped of its limbs. Then its skin. Then its internal organs. And finally it will be cut into pieces, stripping it of its corporeal essence. It will, in the process, have moved from a bull to beef.

And as a vegetarian for more than half my life, I felt like I should be disgusted at the Idul Adha ritual. A desire to avoid the unnecessary suffering of creatures is a significant motivation for my vegetarianism, and here I was, seeing the panic of an innocent creature as it stared bleakly at its tormentors.

But instead of disgust, a felt a sense of reference at the tradition, in particular its ability to bring together who might otherwise remain separate, and its role in forcing people to confront some uncomfortable truths.

The celebration fosters a stronger sense of community. At Masjid Jami' Al-Ikhlas on Tuesday, dozens of men came together to be a part of the tradition, each playing a part in the long chain of labours involved in turning a bull into beef. These were rich men and poor men, old men and young men, office workers and street sweepers, Betawi and Batak, all involved in a common enterprise. Younger children would watch with horrified excitement, and those in their teens would be given tasks, often by their fathers, to help them learn the skills and continue the tradition. The process served as a form of charity, with wealthy locals donating money toward the purchase of cattle, and the meat being shared among hungry old people and families with skinny children. The bond between everyone involved finished the day stronger. Few events have such power.

By taking the slaughtering of an animal out of the sterile surrounds of an abattoir and putting it in people's neighbourhood makes them more aware of their place in the food chain. Many people, particularly those like me who grew up and live in cities, are allowed to remain aloof about the origins of the food they eat, deliberately keeping themselves ignorant because deep down they know the truth that their food choices necessitate the suffering of other creatures. In distancing ourselves from the slaughtering process, the suffering is no less, just our awareness of it. Bringing the slaughtering closer to home forces people to confront the reality of their own choices. Most will continue to make those same choices, but will do so in fuller knowledge of the consequences. Others might change their mind.

I read with interest that Eddie Perfect, the great Australian singer and showman, has turned his hand to writing a script for a stage-play, "The Beast". The play, according to an excellent profile in The Monthly, is about three middle-class tree-change couples who arrange for a calf to be ethically butchered for a dinner party but end up faced with the grim task of killing the creature themselves. In a way the characters in "The Beast" are taking on the same challenge as Muslims do at Idul Adha - to watch the process of suffering that leads to their dinner without flinching.

(There is a potential downside to masses of people having regular exposure to the killing of creatures: the risk of desensitisation. It is easier for ordinary people to be pushed by dark forces to become bloodthirsty killers, as happens with startling frequency in cases of community violence in Indonesia, if they are no longer squeamish about putting a blade to the throat of a creature and watching it struggle to hold onto life. It is also harder for people to maintain their sense of outrage at bloodshed if they see it so often.)

Watching Idul Adha in full swing, I'm more confident than ever that I made the right ethical decision in turning vegetarian. But I also feel no desire to criticise those who do take part in the event. Perhaps questions should instead be asked of people who are willing to enjoy the spoils of slaughter but aren't willing to participate in, or even witness, it themselves.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Q! Film Fest, fighting forces of darkness since 2002

For the past two weeks I've had the joy of seeing about a dozen films, feature length and short, at Jakarta's Q! Film Festival. So frequent was my presence at screenings around town that I think I may have earned the label "The Festival Bule" among some of the other regulars. No, I'm not gay nor in any of the other categories that the Q! festival focuses on (lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex), but I have long recognised that some of the best creative works come from people who are. It's also a worthwhile psychological experience to be around people looking at me and wondering quietly to themselves, "Do you think he's gay?"

Q! Film Festival flies the flag for creative and cosmopolitan Indonesia. It hasn't always been easy. A few years ago, the event, which is now in its 12th year, was hit by protests from some dark forces cloaking themselves in religion in their attempts to shut it down. Fears of violence and intimidation have forced the organisers to take security measures to protect screenings - the schedule is not openly publicised but requires acceptance to an e-mail list or password-controlled website, attendees at screenings must first become "members" of the festival and less public venues are used for events.

Despite the presence of many gay people in the entertainment industry, Indonesia has shown itself to be remarkably intolerant of diverse sexualities. Earlier this year, the “Global Divide on Homosexuality” study by the Pew Research Center found Indonesians were overwhelming opposed to homosexuality, with 93 percent saying that gay people should not be accepted. Such attitudes make events like the Q! Film Festival all the more vital.

The face of the festival is changing. Outside one screening, festival co-director Meninaputri Wismurti explained to me that organisers were shifting away from heavy use of foreign embassies as sponsors because they created the misleading impression that there was something "foreign" about the festival, the people involved and the cause they champion. Instead, organisers were seeking to attract local partners to support it, in an effort to make clear this was an Indonesian event and that there is no inconsistency between gay and Indonesian identities.

For the dark forces, the fact that the event has been pushed from open public view is a victory in itself. But even with this victory, they're still not happy. During this year's festival a threatening phone call was received by one of the sponsors, putting organisers on a heightened alert for trouble. But they bravely pushed ahead, and the festival ended without incident.

The extra security precautions do seem to be keeping numbers down. At many of the screenings I went to, fewer than a dozen people were in attendance, and there seemed to be limited buzz about the event around town. And, as the introduction to the official program notes, this year's event runs for about half the length of last year's and there are many names that appear in multiple roles among the credits for volunteers. Still, those that were involved - as viewers or as organisers - seemed to be having a great time.

Like the people in attendance, not all the films were "gay", but all had something worthwhile to say. The highlight of the festival was the Teddy Soeriatmadja-directed Indonesian film "Something in the Way" at a fundraising screening last weekend (sadly, I couldn't make it to). Its controversial subject matter means the film is unlikely to be screened many times in its home country, though it has a chance of success abroad. Whether it's any good, I don't know. From the trailer and the synopsis, it sure looks interesting:

Ahmad is a taxi driver in Jakarta. He is addicted to the sex on offer in magazines and videos, the sex he would buy if he could afford it, but which he can only experience alone in front of his television or when secretly masturbating in his taxi. His lonely nights are punctuated by the conversations he overhears between other taxi drivers in which they make snide remarks about prostitutes and talk disparagingly about their wives. Contrasting with his nocturnal solitude are his daily visits to the mosque, where he learns about the importance of purity, morals and the Koran. A flicker of hope appears in Ahmad’s life when he falls in love with his neighbour, a prostitute named Kinar, and begins to act as her driver. But her pimp blocks their relationship. The clash in modern Jakarta between sex as a product and the moral pressures exerted by his religion only confuse Ahmad who wants nothing more than to save Kinar and himself from this sinful life. Shots of the city by night, gloomy interiors awash with red and green, diffuse streetlights and fragments of faces caught in the taxi’s rear-view mirror attend him on his increasingly disturbed sorties across the city.

A couple of other Indonesian films at Q! Film Festival did capture by attention. "Di Balik Frekuensi" ("Behind the Frequency", trailer available here) is a fantastic documentary by Ucu Agustin about the extent to which power in the Indonesian media is concentrated in the hands of a small number of politically-connected people. While Indonesia's media is largely free from interference from the state, it does suffer from interference from many heavy-handed proprietors keen to use their outlets to advance their political and commercial interests. The film makes its point by focusing on two stories. One is the story of a man representing Sidoarjo mudflow victims who marched to Jakarta to demand compensation, only to mysteriously end up apologising on the Bakrie-owned TVOne for offence caused to the Bakrie family, whose company was suspected to be responsible for the mudflow. The other story is of a journalist at the Surya Paloh-controlled MetroTV who stands up for high-quality impartial journalism only to be ostracised by her employer. The outcomes of both are rather depressing.

Another local film that caught by eye was Tino Saroengallo's "Setelah 15 Tahun" ("After 15 Years", trailer available here), a searing indictment of the stalling of Indonesia's reformasi political project since the downfall of strongman Suharto. After some great archival footage of the blood on the streets in the final days of the Suharto regime in 1998 and the spasms of anger than followed for months afterward, the film settles into a nice rhythm demonstrating the gulf between the early hopes of the student protesters and the country's current array of problems (corruption, religious tension, poverty). The film reinforces a idea circulating among Indonesia-watchers that the downfall of Suharto marked the toppling of a man, but not the system he led. The forces of violence and privilege that were part of the New Order are very much alive in the Reform Era.

Among the shorts, BW Purba Negara's "Bermulai Dari A" ("Starting From A") was a gem. A blind girl and a speech-impaired boy befriend each other, she teaching him to speak to help him master the Koran, and he offering her companionship to guide her through the darkness. The story is simply and elegantly told, with little language but many gestures and tactile contact between the pair facilitating their communications. The ending - spoiler alert - in which the boy's gutteral utterances sound distinctly orgasmic only to be revealed as Koranically-inspired was brilliant and brave. With religion and disability at its heart, the film was funny and profoundly moving. All in 15 minutes!

There were plenty of foreign films to keep cosmopolitan cinema buffs happy, but for a festival like this one, it's the local stuff that makes it worthwhile. This time around Q! Film Festival has well and truly delivered - long may it continue to do so.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Future plans

After more than two fantastic years at the Jakarta Globe, I'm moving on to other things. It was a great privilege to work with such an exciting group of journalists from around the world in the newsroom - we had a great core of talented and enthusiastic reporters, editors, designers and photographers from Indonesia, complemented by some ambitious young foreign staff.

Like in any job there were some frustrations along the way, and yes, some of those contributed to me choosing to leave. But I leave the place with many fond memories and hope that it can once again offer authoritative and incisive coverage of a country that many English-speakers are rightly keen to understand.

Newsrooms are workplaces like no other. There's a contagious energy pulsating through the place, especially when a big story is breaking. Deadlines are constant, and few tasks can be pushed back from one day to the next, so stress remains high and desks remain messy. That's what I love, and what I'll miss.

For now, I'll be staying in Jakarta doing some writing and reading and travelling and thinking for a few months longer (indulgent, I know). I hope to become more regular in updating the blog and in taking in the sights and sounds of the city.