Monday, September 05, 2011

Not dead, just resting

Apologies. It has now been more than two months since I wrote a fresh blog post. It was not my intention to leave things so long, but my copy editing work at the Jakarta Globe has been keeping me rather occupied lately. It's not that I haven't had ideas for things to blog about, just that the notion of spending a sustained period on the computer in my leisure time after doing a long stint in the office is too much to bear.

Not sure when normal transmission will resume, but it will happen at some point. I hope.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Australia Network, from one who sees it

With news the tender for the Australia Network has been delayed (and a further report that the ABC was on the verge of loosing the contract to Sky News), I figure now is a good time to offer my musings on the AusNetwork as someone who gets to see vastly more of it than those in Australia do.

Despite its somewhat grandiose claims to promoting Australia's national interest abroad, there's long been speculation that the primary purpose of the AusNetwork is, in fact, to give expatriate Australians (or parliamentarians on 'fact-finding missions') a slice of life back home.

And having spent Saturday night at a Jakarta barbecue at which a delayed telecast of the Sydney vs Adelaide AFL game was on the widescreen, I think there's some truth to the speculation.

For many expats, the AusNetwork is pretty much the AFL network. Check out the schedule here, and you'll see the network routinely broadcasts six AFL games (a few of them live) each weekend. It's more football than you'd get to watch on TV in some Australian cities.

But football aside, the Australia Network contains a few nuggets of good programs amid plenty of dross and filler.

The highlight is the couple of hours of news, made up of the news breakfast program and half-hour bulletins spread through the day. The bulletins tend to have a strong Australian focus (rather than being genuine world news bulletins) but are slick, well produced, and interesting. There is the occasional technical gremlin - much as there is with the rest of the ABC's output, it seems - but it does a decent job of filling viewers in on what is worth knowing.

There is the occasional moment that would no doubt perplex a curious foreigner keen to learn more about Australia. The coverage a fortnight ago of the anniversary of Kevin Rudd's downfall referred to the 'coup' Australia had experienced last year. While Australian understand the tongue-in-cheek way in which the term is used, it is less certain that people who have experienced genuine coups get the distinction.

It's pleasing to see that despite the theoretical restraint the network's role as a tool of Australian diplomacy places on its role as a credible and fearless reporter of news, there are no outward signs that it holds back. Seeing contemptuous reports on the gutter brawls that constitute a large part of Australian political debate is oddly uplifting.

To its credit, the AusNetwork does have some of its own correspondents scattered through Asia. In Jakarta, Helen Brown does a fine job of covering Indonesia, and there are other reports that have an undeniably global flavour to world events, rather than a parochial "what it means for Australia" attitude. All strength to its arm.

Once you move beyond football and news and current affairs, the AusNetwork can be rather dire. High rotation repeats of Australian drama (Packed to the Rafters, Tangle) get an airing, as do documentaries, many in the worthy-but-boring category. It's hard to get too excited about it, and given the interesting stuff aired in Australia, perplexing how it makes it to the front of the queue.

Beyond that, there's an eclectic mix of arts programs (a 1985 Midnight Oil concert to mark the 10th anniversary of Triple J was a Sunday night special a few weeks back) and educational content (a recent English-teaching program demonstrated the concept 'anti-' by pointing out Fred Nile is 'anti-homosexual') to round out the schedule. Nothing especially compelling, but probably worthwhile nonetheless.

It's worth noting that the AusNetwork seems to have few commercial advertisers. There are three of four advertisements on extremely high rotation, with the rest of the breaks between programs filled with ad nauseum promotions for upcoming fare. Watch too large a stretch and it will drive you crazy.

All up, it's not a bad service, but it's also not a great one either. Expats seeking to ward off homesickness would find it worthwhile, and curious foreigners would be left with a marginally better perception of Australia. But watching a few of the other equivalent networks (the French, Spaniards, Italians, Chinese and Japanese all offer something similar) you get the sense the Australian version is rather stodgy and restrained, struggling to reflect the country's dynamism.

A rethink in what it offers, regardless of who gains the contract, would probably be worthwhile.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Impact of Saudi-Indo tensions on Australia

My debut contribution to the Lowy Institute's Interpreter blog has gone live:

On 18 June, Indonesian maid Ruyati binti Sapubi was executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia after she was convicted of murdering her employer who, according to Ruyati, had kept her in the country against her will. The action sparked an immediate and sharp wave of public sympathy in Indonesia. Within days, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced a moratorium on Indonesian citizens heading to the Gulf kingdom for work, starting on 1 August.

While the issue has profound implications for the relationship between those two countries, it also has an indirect impact on Australia-Indonesia relations.

Here's why.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Badminton's fun. Who knew?

In the part of the world where I'm from, badminton is more likely the answer to a trivia question than a sport people would play or watch. To many Australians, there's something just a bit twee and silly about the sport, especially when compared to the fast pace of tennis. But there are some parts of the world where badminton is all the rage: Denmark, Taiwan, and, yes, Indonesia.

This week is the Indonesia Open, one of the five premier events on the global badminton circuit. And so I ventured to the Istora indoor sports venue, which sits in the shadows of the Gelora Bung Karno stadium that was the site of my Persija Jakarta experience last Sunday.

I went along on Wednesday, the opening day of the main competition - and really enjoyed it.

The element I had previously dismissed as a weakness of the sport - the unusual movement of the shuttlecock through the air - is in fact its great strength. You see, no matter how hard you strike a shuttlecock, and it has apparently been clocked at 320 km/h, by the time it reaches your opponent's side of the net it has slowed dramatically due to the drag of the feathers on the shuttle. So speed and strength alone win you very few badminton points.

Instead, you need to get creative, moving your opponent around the court, pushing them to one side then the other, into the net and to the baseline. Points are miniature psychological battles rather than competitions of brute force.

The unusual aerodynamics of the shuttlecock also mean that even when one player appears dominant during the progress of a point, there's always an opportunity for their opponent to fight back. Where a smash would usually be the end of the matter in a tennis point, the same is not the case in badminton.

Throw in the excitement of a rather adolescent Indonesian crowd cheering on their compatriots and the carnival atmosphere that surrounds any big international sporting event, and it's hard not to have a fun day out. With the tournament running until Sunday, I might just make a return visit.

Sporting dreams can come true.

Luckily, the shuttlecock never travels too far.

In-do-ne-sia Ba-bam-ba-bam-bam

Tobacco maker Djarum doing all it can to get 'em while they're young.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Football fanaticism, Jakarta style

There are few things that give you a flavour of a city more than thronging with fans at a sporting event.

And having spent an afternoon shouting myself hoarse with the Jakmania fanatics that drape themselves in orange in support of Persija Jakarta, I can confirm that the Indonesian capital is no exception.

Yesterday was their final game for the season in the Indonesia Super League of soccer (or football, to the purists), played in the imposing concrete cauldron that is Gelora Bung Karno in Senayan. The home side was taking on PSPS Pekanbaru, hailing from an utterly unremarkable city on Sumatra.

I went to the game with a small dose of trepidation given it was the side's first home fixture after a several-week ban imposed by police following a small riot outside a game in early April.

Still, emboldened by curiosity, I followed the crowd of enthusiastic young supporters who had gathered on the curb not far from my home, waiting for a bus. After wading through the inevitable macet (traffic) that fills the streets, even on a Sunday afternoon, I made it to the stadium that hosts political rallies when it's not hosting sporting contests.

This description, published a few weeks back, is rather apt:

The Bung Karno Stadium, right in the middle of the city, holds 88,000 people and is just about everything you would expect of a soulless stadium rented out for religious meets, political rallies and civil service entrance exams, built with Soviet help in the early 1960s.

So having paid my Rp 30,000 ($US3.50) to a scalper - I could find no legitimate ticket-seller from which to make a purchase - I headed into the stadium. Cautious about my own safety and not wanting to dilute the atmosphere, I headed a few bays away from the hardcore Persija fans, who are part of a slightly obsessive club that calls itself Jakmania.

Jakmania takes the tradition of choreographed singing, chanting and dancing that characterises enthusiastic soccer crowds the world over, and adds a massive gulp of red cordial. Every fan - with the exception of the handful of curious foreigners - goes along with the actions dictated by the cheerleading fan co-ordinators, who stand on a scaffold at the front of the crowd.

As with many things in Jakarta, there is a rather unrestrained quality to Persija supporters, where many of the social and legal constraints that have been imposed for decades in other parts of the world are ignored.

Supporters will unashamedly unleash the full power of an aerosol-can hooter in the ear of a fellow fan. The waft of cigarette smoke (unremarkable given Djarum are a major sponsor) is sensed near-constantly. Flares will be let off on a regular basis to celebrate a goal, a win, and even a view that an opposition player ought be given a red card. And despite a wire fence and imposing moat of several metres' width between supporters and the arena, fans will try to rush the field.

Exhausting, sure - but also a heck of a lot of fun. In the end, Persija won 3-0 to pick up third spot. I reckon they can step up a level next season. I'm certainly keen to go along to find out.

Might leave my hooter at home, though.

Fans waiting for a bus an hour before the game.

These supporters were armed with instruments, and prepared to use them.

There was a vein of patriotism running through the vocal support, as the Indonesian flag attests.

The field itself was lush and green, and the standard of soccer pretty solid.


"You put your right hand in..."

As in the 1970s, flares are all the rage.

Sadly, Collingwood supporters were a little thin on the ground.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bashir verdict

So Abu Bakar Bashir will serve 15 years for terror - if the verdict can survive the appeals process, which has not been the case following past convictions.

I suspect the verdict will bring some relief to victims of terror attacks that Bashir has previously been associated with,including the carnage of Bali in 2002, even if that connection may not have been provable nor criminal under the laws in place at the time.

It will also send a wave of relief through the Indonesian government, for whom the inability to obtain a terror conviction against Bashir was a source of embarrassment, given his notoriety.

Keen to see things first-hand, I headed down to the South Jakarta District Court complex yesterday to watch the verdict unfold. There was no shortage of company, with about 1000 Bashir supporters from Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid watched over by several hundred members of the Jakarta police and a strong contingent of journalists.

The Bashir supporters were certainly vocal, but at no time did it look like tempers would boil over. The police, however, were prepared in case they did - the firearms, riot shields and tank were hard to miss.

As is traditional with Indonesian trials, coming to the verdict itself was a painfully slow affair. Despite the determination already having been made, the judges read aloud a meticulous account of the evidence against Bashir before announcing the verdict, uniting all those outside in a strong view that whatever the decision, the judges should just get on with it.

There is plenty being written today about the implications of the verdict, and at this stage I have little to add. But I thought it was worthwhile to publish some of the photos I took yesterday in an event that amounted to a strange carnival of justice.

Police were strict in checking trucks and buses heading towards the courthouse. Even though it was more than 10 kilometres away, all the commuters on this Kopaja were forced by police to step off and be checked for weapons.

At the courthouse, members of JAT were thronged alongside heavily armed police.

Bashir is considered by many as Indonesia's bin Laden.

The heat during the day sapped the energy of many who had gathered.

In court, Bashir sat in front of the judges, with several dozen supporters crammed in behind him.

This tank did not need to be used - its mere presence was a strong enough signal to Bashir's supporters.

After the verdict, many of Bashir's supporters jogged in circles around the courtyard in a mock training drill, in an apparent nod to the paramilitary training camp Bashir was accused of funding in Aceh.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Five ideas to tackle Jakarta's traffic congestion

It's a cliché for expats in Jakarta to complain about the 'macet', the traffic that clogs many roads much of the time and makes trips through the city ordeals of epic proportions. It's also a cliché for new arrivals to to offer a magic bullet solution, usually prefaced by the phrase "If only they'd...".

But I'm different. I don't offer one silver bullet solution. That would be folly. Instead I offer five ideas that each would make things a little bit easier, and if combined would have a significant impact on the congestion of the city's roads. It would be naive to expect they could leave the cities roads unclogged - this is a place of 9.6 million people according to the official count - but they would leave them flowing a lot better than they do at the moment.

Indonesians recognise things have got to change. A recent study from the Jakarta Transportation Agency put the cost of congestion at 46 trillion rupiah ($US5.4 billion). And late last month President Yodhoyono ordered the governor of Jakarta, and five other regions, to fix their traffic problems.

So the will is there; it's now a question of finding the right solutions. Here are my ideas.

1. Get the trains working
Surprisingly for a city of a love-affair for all things petrol-fuelled, Jakarta has quite an expansive train network. The goal of using trains to shuttle people in and out of neighbouring cities has crated a network of inner-city stations that have the potential to be thriving transport hubs.

But the service is woeful. Services don't seem to run to a timetable and often leave passengers waiting half an hour for a service. The rolling stock is packed to the gills, leaving many gasping for air and others surfing on top. And the trip is physically and mentally draining, with trains a haven for pickpockets, beggars, buskers and sellers of trinkets.

So do something about it. Jakarta would do well to invest in new rolling stock to boost the frequency of services. All those commuters who have been scared off trains by the prospect of long waits and a packed carriage would give the service another look, and a significant number will be tempted from their car or ojek. Once the trains are moving, they get to destinations far quicker than any vehicle battling traffic.

Expanding the network is desirable, but a trickier prospect. As mentioned, the existing lines are primarily designed to service Jakarta's satellite cities. Building new lines to look service to suburban areas alone is likely to cost plenty, and prompt plenty of land acquisitions that would cause no shortage of angst. In short, it ain't gonna happen and probably shouldn't.

Quality train services are nothing new to Java. The long-haul intercity services - such as the one from Jakarta to Yogyakarta - are smooth, comfortable and reliable. There's no reason why this similar approach couldn't be taken to shorter services.

2. Expand the bus network
The TransJakarta bus service in Jakarta is more like a light rail service in other parts of the world. It operates on main roads, vehicles travel along dedicated bus lanes, and the stops every half-kilometre or so are elaborate bits of infrastructure cleverly positioned in the middle of the road, accessed by pedestrian overpasses.

The network, which now has 10 corridors criss-crossing the city, is a relatively recent addition to Jakarta's transport, but is its best functioning element. There are few experiences that give you more hope that the chaos can be overcome than sitting on a bus as it zooms past gridlocked traffic.

Which is why the network needs to build upon its success. More corridors servicing more neighbourhoods. There are still plenty of major roads with considerable space to facilitate a bus lane, either through appropriating an existing traffic lane or through claiming some of the land that sits in the middle of thoroughfares.

There is no reason why the density of routes can't be increased so that people can be taken closer to their destination. There's also no reason why the breadth of the network can't be expanded to take in the fringes of the city.

When you're on a good thing, stick to it.

3. Scrap the petrol subsidy
Many countries tax petrol, both for environmental reasons and to boost government coffers. Indonesia does the opposite, offering a generous subsidy for petrol consumers through the state-owned Pertamina.

The policy has disastrous consequences. Rising world oil prices coupled with fixed prices at the pump is squeezing state finances as the subsidy rises to meet the gap. It's likely that other government programs will be suspended to accommodate the petrol payoffs, or alternatively the country will deepen its reliance on foreign aid. According to this report, in the first four months of the year, the state paid 29.2 trillion rupiah ($US3.4 billion) in petrol subsidies.

Cheap petrol means drivers have little incentive to get out of their cars or off their ojeks. And in the long run, vehicles powered by alternative fuels such as biofuels and hydrogen have little chance of entering the market.

The state budget does allow the government to increase the price at the petrol pump, pushing some of the cost of a scarce resource onto consumers. Such a move would be politically unpopular, but is necessary to protect the budget and unclog the roads. The social unrest of scrapping the subsidy entirely would be great, but were the move to take place in smaller increments and the reasoning properly explained to the public, it would be palatable.

4. Allow easier U-turns
In an effort to unclog the roads, Jakarta has taken the admirable step of separating traffic heading in one direction from traffic heading in another. So if you happen to approach a road from one direction and need to head the other, you need to push forward until there's an opening in the road the enables you to carry out a U-turn. Often the next opportunity to do so will be a kilometre or two up the road, which is not an unreasonable distance to travel away from your destination if the traffic is moving smoothly, but is an epic distance when stuck in a vehicular quagmire.

The upshot is that a whole lot more vehicles spend a whole lot more time on the road than they would otherwise.

So relax the turning rules, let people go the direction they want to go, and reduce the length of time vehicles are on the road. While the change would risk creating a new point of chaos, as vehicles more frequently seek to enter or exit their lane, the reality is the slowness of the traffic would provide ample opportunities to do so painlessly.

5. Clear the footpaths for easier pedestrian movement
Many would sooner travel by pogo-stick along a Cambodian minefield than would jauntily wander down the footpath of a Jakartan street. Most footpaths are filled with hazards that disrupt your journey - broken pavement, parked ojeks, flower pots, resting police officers and kaki lima food vendors among them. Add to that the noise, pollution and danger caused by the cars nearby, and you're left with a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

So, what to do about it? Move commercial activity off the pavement, and onto the many side streets and lane ways that come off the main roads. Move the ojek parking bays there, and set up zones for the kaki limas. Remove the advertising hoardings, pot plants and other impediments that might look nice to some but inconvenience many. Stop motorcyclists from using the footpath as an extra traffic lane when the roads are clogged. And redirect some of the funds currently pouring into road projects into improving the state of the footpaths.

As with any change like this, enforcement needs to start soft and get hard. Alternative places need to be established, and people need to be nudged into using them. And if the nudges don't work, then you get a little more forceful. But it needs to happen.

Travelling by Shank's pony is never going to be a substitute for many trips taken by car or ojek. But it will be for some. Shorter trips within the one neighbourhood and trips from home or workplace to the nearest train or bus station would be done on foot by many people - if the conditions are pleasant enough.

So there you have it - five ideas to get the city moving. None of them easy. But none of them too hard. And the rewards at the end are worth it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Animals and Indonesia

Four Corners last night aired a disturbing story about the appalling conditions in some Indonesian abattoirs involved in slaughtering cattle exported live from Australia. The painful, drawn-out killing of the cattle was the stuff of nightmares, and reflects badly both on the Indonesian abattoirs and their staff, as well as the Australian meat industry figures who knew there were problems but allowed it to continue.

It has been interesting to observe the way animals are treated in Indonesia. Not well, in many cases. Monkeys are dressed in silly outfits and forced to perform stunts on the side of the road. Live chickens are strung up by their feet, tightly clustered in batches as they are transported to the market. Scrawny cats are kicked and teased by children as they scrounge for scraps of food in piles of rubbish.

In a way, these things are not surprising. This is a poor country in which many people are struggling to make ends meet. Animals are considered almost exclusively for the benefits they can bring their human owner - be it as food, a source of entertainment or a means of obtaining a modest income. Any entitlements they might have as living creatures is ignored.

Beyond that, Indonesia is also a country with a history of violence, in which people have been arbitrarily subjected to pain, suffering and incarceration. That this might breed a rugged approach to the treatment of animals is sad but expected.

Not that these things are excuses for mistreatment - but they do serve as a useful explanation.

A few weeks back I visited one of the streets of Jakarta in which pet sellers ply their trade. While the photos are not nearly as distressing as the abattoir footage, it does give some insight into the treatment of animals here.

Not much fun being an animal in this part of the world.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Suction cups, ear candling and other bunkum

I'm a sceptic. And proud. I mean 'sceptic' in the real sense, not the way it has been used as a euphemism in the climate change debate for a head-in-the-sand denialist. (As it happens, I suspect a real sceptic would rationally assess the evidence and conclude there is reason to take action to reduce carbon emissions, if only as a precaution against calamity.)

My scepticism is all about seeking out evidence to assess a given proposition, and stripping out emotion and subjectivity in working out what is genuine, and what is merely wishful thinking.

For that reason, I'm doubtful about the merits of medical treatment outside the mainstream. My reasoning is best encapsulated by the quite brilliant Tim Minchin and his beat poem, Storm:

“By definition”, I begin
“Alternative Medicine”, I continue
“Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call “alternative medicine”
That’s been proved to work?

For me that knocks out homeopathy, pranic healing and a variety of other treatments so kooky and devoid of evidence they seem only useful as an announcement to the world of the person's gullibility.

But my scepticism of alternative medicine does come with a small caveat. I'm willing to try almost anything, in order to test it for myself and personally acquaint myself with its proponents' bunkum. So long as the risk of harm is minimal, the cost reasonable, and the risk of humiliation no greater than I might experience on a Japanese game show.

My theory on these things is that there's often a significant placebo effect at work. If your ailment is minor and you're willing to suspend disbelief, some of the fringe treatments can actually have a positive effect. Not because the treatment itself has any desirable physical properties, but because the sensation of being pampered, cared for and briefly removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life can have a therapeutic benefit.

The zen music, burnt incense and darkened rooms that seem to accompany many alternative therapies are the true source of the feeling of wellness that often goes with treatment. The benefit is incidental to the alternative therapy rather than a direct result of it, but it is there all the same.

All of which explains why few weeks back I found myself, while on a trip to Kuala Lumpur, signing up for a double hit of a Chinese cup massage and an ear candling. Not together, mind you - best to focus on one at a time. In the interests of medical science, you see.

I had my doubts about the effectiveness of either of them, but with little downside I was willing to give it a go. (The perception of 'little downside' is actually off the mark. I hadn't researched the treatments much beforehand, but there is some evidence that both carry risks - of burns in the case of the cupping and perforated eardrum in the case of the candling.)

So just what are the supposed benefits of the cup massage. As the American Cancer Society explains:

Cupping is a practice of Chinese medicine recommended mainly for treating bronchial congestion, arthritis, and pain. It is also promoted to ease depression and reduce swelling.

Cupping is supposed to realign and balance the flow of one's vital energy or life force called qi or ch'i, pronounced "kee" or "chee." In the presence of illness or injury, proponents say, the qi is disturbed and there may be too much or too little at certain points in the body. The practitioner diagnoses any imbalances in the qi and attempts to restore them. Although not widely used as an alternative method of treatment for cancer, some practitioners may use it to rebalance energy in the body that has been blocked by tumors.

Righteo. Can't say I'm afflicted with any of the ailments identified for treatment, but restoring imbalances in energy distribution must surely have some positive effects.

I entered the massage room and soon I am lying face down on a bench behind curtains, feeling mellow and at peace with myself and the world. That continued right up to the point when the first cup was applied, the suction pump set to work, and the flesh of my shoulder involuntarily pulled some distance from my skeleton. Then the second cup was applied, again tugging at my back against its will, and the process continued until a dozen or so cups were in place.

What I hadn't realised before starting was just how much flesh is pulled into the cup. I imagined the cups to be applied with the sort of strength you can experience when you place a cup at your mouth, sucking in some of the air to hold it in place. There's some suction, but not the sort that causes any great pain to your mouth. The quantity of suction during the massage is several multiples of that.

So once the cups were in place, they stayed there while the masseuse left me to lie still, stare at the ground, and ponder what the hell was happening to my back. While the sensation was only mildly painful, it was certainly not pleasant, and most definitely not the sort of thing likely to prompt relaxation, no matter how much incense and Enya is in the vicinity.

Eventually the masseuse returned, ready to relieve me of the cups. Off they came, one by one, each time a part of my back silently cursing me for subjecting them to such cruel and unusual punishment. After they were all removed, my back felt oddly tender, slightly itchy and with considerable stretches of raised flesh chaffing against my shirt. This was not pleasant during the deed, and certainly not present afterwards.

That night, I returned to my hotel room in mild discomfort. Taking my shirt off and examining myself in the mirror revealed why.

Ugly, red, raised welts stared back at me, atop many of them small bubbles of fluid that I associated with severe sunburn, suggesting some burning had occurred. These welts and bruises took more than a week to subside, through there does not appear to be any long-term damage.

It is difficult to know just how the sensation of redistributed energy ought to feel, given I'm not a believer in the concept in the first place. So I can't say for certain that the massage has failed to meet that goal. But I can say with certainty is that it has brought me little pleasure or relaxations, either amid the massage or after it.

With the bruises on my back still lingering, two days later I tried out ear candling, a therapy that was of particular interest to me because of frequent build up of wax inside my ear canal. Could this be my cure, I wondered, given nothing else seemed to fix the problem?

According to WebMD, this could be the therapy for me:
Ear candling is an ancient practice that supposedly removes wax from the ears, thereby improving physical and spiritual well-being.

I entered the massage room, lying down on my back and with my head tilted to the side. The masseuse took out the candle and rested the bottom of the candle on top of my ear. After wrapping a small cloth around the lower part of the candle, she lit the top. Just what happened from here is a little hard to tell - as the recipient of the ear candling, it's difficult to observe what is going on.

In my candled ear, I heard a soft burning sound - the sound you hear when listening to a matchstick burning. The sound would gradually become louder as the candle burned closer and closer to my ear, but at no point made me feel like I was in danger.

After a quarter hour or so, amid a flourish of her wrist, the masseuse theatrically blew out of the candle. She then unravelled the lower part of the candle and revealed a small pile of powder. The wax from my ears, the masseuse triumphantly said. I was in no position to argue, although previous tests have shown that the powder displayed after ear candling is nothing more than the wax and soot from the candle itself.

I flipped my head to the other side and my other ear was candled, another pile of powder purposefully presented as evidence of my poor aural hygiene.

Sad to say, in the hours that followed my ears felt much as they had before, with a gently annoying waxiness that I have become used to. The candling brought little pleasure as it was taking place, although I do admit the head massage that I received at the same time was rather nice. Perhaps I should stick to that next time.

After all that, my back was sporting bruises and my ears may have had more wax than they did before and I more stressed than I did beforehand. But I was wiser for the encounter - I can now state with the confidence that comes from personal experience that suction cups and ear candling are nothing more than lures for the gullible.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Prison no impediment for terrorists

New research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggests Indonesia's prisons, far from setting terrorist inmates on the straight-and-narrow, are giving them space to organise themselves and plan new attacks.

The full report is available here, but Greg Sheridan has two interesting pieces on the study in The Australian today.

In his news piece, he summarises the research thus:

TERRORISTS have set up shadow governments in Indonesian prisons, recruiting members, sending money from jail to jail and, at least once, co-ordinating an attack outside.

They run businesses, use mobile phones to preach sermons to followers outside and dominate prison mosques, says a report released last night by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

And in his analysis piece, he explains the significance of the research:

It is worth noting that this kind of fresh, empirical evidence is as precious as gold in the war on terror. Instead of attributing motives and causes and syndromes to the terrorists, often enough projecting our own fantasies on to them, let's actually ask them why they did what they did, look at their life experiences, what they plan for the future, and see what we can learn.

Fascinating. And disturbing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Corruption forum

I went along to an interesting panel discussion on corruption in Indonesia, hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (of which, I'm happy to say, I'm now a member).

Despite only two of the four advertised guests attending - Donal Fariz from Indonesia Corruption Watch and Amien Sunaryadi from the World Bank - it was useful to get some understanding of the challenges faced in combatting corruption in one of the world's most corrupt large countries.

The panellists were confident that the right systems had been put in place to tackle corruption, but the challenge was for them to be properly implemented. The panellists talked of powers that have been granted to corruption-busting bodies, primarily the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, that hadn't been utilised.

In some cases, instances of corruption were being dealt with by offenders merely having to repay their illgotten gains - hardly a penalty likely to discourage people from trying their luck.

I asked the panellists whether part of the problem was that corruption was so endemic in Indonesian society that there was no longer public outrage at examples of corruption. They seemed to agree with the sentiment, and suggested that public enthusiasm for honest governance was an important part of eradicating corruption. As to how to achieve that, ideas were scant.

Afterwards, I spoke to a researcher who had been coming to Indonesia for 15 years. He said he remembered coming to similar forums in the late 1990s, where experts would piously talk about the need to thwart corruption, but there was little result.

Hopefully we won't be having the same discussion in 15 years time.

UPDATE 19/5 - This post prompted me to think back to a really clever proposal for combatting corruption I read a little while ago.

From Cafe Salemba:

I think it is good to have competition amongst anti-corruption squads or law enforcers. Think this way: a corruptor can bribe the police, but, in competition, the general attorney office or KPK will still be more than willing to arrest him/her - and vice versa.

Now you may want to say: what if the corruptor bribe them all? It's possible, but at least it is now more expensive to do so than with single anti-corruption office. The competition raises the corruptor's cost of wrongdoing and make anti-corruption more efficient.

And some follow-up discussion at The Chronicles of a Capitalist Lawyer and back at Cafe Salemba.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Inside a tragedy

The Jakarta Globe yesterday published a very fine account of the horrible racial pogrom in February in which three members of the Ahmadiyah sect were killed while police watched on.

Ahmad Masihuddin, Irwan and Bebi are the lucky ones.

Ahmad recalls the moment when a man attempted to mutilate his genitals, while Irwan has developed an intense fear of water. Bebi cannot speak, due to a dislocated jaw, and must eat through a straw.

Read the rest here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Malaysia's awkward mulitculturalism

Last week I spent a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur, taking in the fantastic sites and smells of a city that's small enough to function smoothly and large enough to keep a curious tourist amused, for a few days at least.

But one thing you can't help but notice when you arrive is the creepy 1Malaysia campaign, the touchy-feely multicultural propaganda effort that appears based on the notion that if you hit people hard enough with a message they'll meekly acquiesce.

Peering down at you from billboards, dominating bus stops and even blaring through your car radio are state-sponsored messages of happy diversity, emphasising how harmonious the relationship is between Malaysia's three main ethnic groups - Malays, Indians and Chinese.

Not content with plying people with images of multicultural children smiling as if they miss out on dinner if they don't, the campaign uses the distant stare of Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, to ram home both its message and his election prospects.

What makes this particular propaganda effort so cloying is the vast chasm between it and reality. Malaysia is a country built upon racial division, divvying up entitlements based on race. In an supposed effort to help them overcome previous disadvantage, Malays are given access to opportunities denied their Chinese and Indian countryfolk.

In Kuala Lumpur, at least, the three groups seem to live very separate lives, residing in their own neighbourhoods and socialising among their own. Not surprising, perhaps, but what is disturbing is the extent to which these divisions are fostered by the state.

It has a long histry. The driving force in Malaysian politics since before the country's independence in 1957 is UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, and it remains dominant today.

While notionally the ruling party is Barisan Nasional, comprised of a variety of political organisations (including those representing Chinese and Indian interests), it is UMNO that dominates its operations, holding a monopoly on its leadership.

So in this context, it is hard to take a campaign promoting the benefits of racial harmony seriously. Fine sentiments, certainly, but they fly in the face of reality and, frankly, insult the intelligence of anyone who is exposed to it.

In the words of Shakespeare's Queen in Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Sadly, even fine things such as the crystal fountain outside The Pavilion shopping centre not exempt.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Trying accused terrorists

News that prosecutors have decided against seeking the strongest possible penalty for Abu Bakar Bashir is a disappointment to those of us that want to see the legal system are the primary forum for seeking justice against terrorists.

The prosecutors' decision emerged in a Jakarta court hearing today into terror offences. The prosecutors have dropped some charges and are now seeking life in prison rather than the death penalty.

According to Agence France-Presse:

Prosecutors at his trial in Jakarta said the charge of providing firearms and explosives for terrorist acts, for which the 72-year-old preacher could have faced the death penalty, "could not be proven convincingly".

The charge of inciting acts of terrorism was also dropped, leaving only the accusation of providing funding to a terrorist group, for which the prosecutors sought a maximum life sentence.

Bashir's fellow travellers in Indonesia may complain at the severity of the sentence sought (as they did at the court hearing today) but the reality is that a severe penalty needs to be in play given the gravity of the offences.

Though the Jemaah Islamiyah figurehead escaped penalty for the group's involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings, the Indonesian justice system proved itself capable of handling terror cases with the successful prosecution of several others with a more direct role in the mass slaughter.

Without prejudging Bashir's guilt, if prosecutors are unable to mount a case that would lead to the most severe penalty for someone of Bashir's seniority, it makes it harder for the rest of us to have faith in the court system as a means of justice in terror trials.

(This should not be confused with the broader debate over the merits of the death penalty. The decision not to seek it was not due to the ethical argument against it. So long as it remains the harshest penalty on offer in a judicial system, it ought be used for the harshest of offences.)

The issue is thrown into particularly stark relief by last week's treatment of Osama bin Laden. While his death is no shame, the fact he was sent off to his disturbed notion of heaven through the bullet of a SEAL's gun rather than following a judicial process is a disappointment.

Next time militaries around the world close in on high profile targets, the contrasting fates of Bin Laden and Bashir will make the easy kill all the more tempting.

And we will be collectively poorer for that fact.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Starry, starry night

There are few things sadder in the world than children who grow up not seeing the stars at night. Staring up at the skies in wonderment is a universal experience across time and place, but there are some who get the opportunitiy only rarely.

Jakartans are in that category. The abundance of light and pollution generated by the city makes it impossible to see anything in the sky at night beyond a haze and the occasional glimpse of moon.

Which is perhaps why it was so thrilling to go to Jakarta's planetarium yesterday. Seated on the fringes of several schoolgroups, I found it heartwarming to hear their shrieky excitement as the room went black and the 'sky' was filled with twinkling stars.

A great way to spend an hour in Jakarta. A bit of a shame it's harder to experience the real thing.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Ossie, Ossie, Ossie?

Burdened by an insatiable curiousity and too much time on my hands, last night I ventured to witness the rally held in honour of Osama bin Laden at the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI - Front Pembela Islam) facility.

The FPI have a reputation for hardline religious values on a swathe of moral and social issues (see the Wikipedia listing for the history), so it's little surprise they would leap on the bin Laden death as a cause célèbre.

At the rally, my lack of Bahasa Indonesia language skills only put me at a marginal disadvantage - much of the evening was spent shouting condemnation of Barack Obama, the United States, Israel, and even on one occasion, Australia. Meanwhile any mention of bin Laden was met with rousing cheers. And all was followed by folksongs, though thankfully we were spared Kumbaya

It was the usual rah-rah ranting and raving to the true believers, who in this case numbered about a thousand and were overwhelmingly male.

I went along because I was curious to see just how vehement and widespread ran the sympathy for religious fundamentalism in Indonesia. The reality is that in this little pocket, the anger runs deep - but there is no reason to think that it is reflective of the wider population.

For the most part, Indonesians are the victims of terror rather than the perpetrators. Though many might share a religion in common with bin laden, they see him and his band of merry terrorists as impediments to achieving a decent life rather than a help.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

So Singapore

My partner and I last night jumped online to buy tickets for the World Netball Championship 2011 happening in Singapore in July.

The experience of buying the tickets, through the ticketing agency SISTIC, was a great reflection of the often Orwellian Singapore mindset.

Soon after you start the purchasing process, a message in red tells you that your IP address is being monitored. Sure, many websites might record your IP address, but few would have the gumption to tell you: "Your IP address XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX is being recorded for your security." (emphasis added)

Then when you get to the point of choosing your seating category, the drop down menu invites you to choose your price. On the list lies just a single item - "Standard Price".

And finally when buyers are attempting to select seats, the drop down menu carries a bewilderingly large array of options, leaving by far and away the most tempting option being the one at the top - "Let the system assign the best seats".

So welcome to Singapore, where you're being spied upon and told it's for your own good, where choice is often an illusion, and where the system is omnipotent.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Osama's death raises Indonesia terror risk?

Tom Allard writes in the Fairfax papers on Tuesday that Indonesia is preparing for a post-Osama attack on Western interests:

INDONESIA is bracing for retaliatory terrorist acts targeting Westerners as it emerged that the country's most wanted militant, Umar Patek, was arrested earlier this year in the same Pakistani town where Osama bin Laden met his end.

The country's anti-terrorism chief told The Age that he "definitely" expects an attack.

"Every terror action [from the perspective of violent Islamists] will be replied by another attack," said Ansyaad Mbai, the head of Indonesia's National Anti-Terrorism Agency.

It's a sensible analysis, trading on the notion that bin Laden was of significant symbolic rather than practical value to the jihadist cause, a view I suspect is close to the mark. The abundance of willing foot soldiers in Indonesia and a renewed sense of injustice is the right formula for further violence.

It's pleasing that Osama is no longer a threat - although frankly, a court hearing and a life behind bars is preferable to what occurred - but we need to be realistic about what might follow.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

My durian debut

I've only been in this fine city a few weeks, but I already have a contender for my favourite little afternoon tea spot: The White Box, in Menteng.

The place exudes funk, with a white theme throughout the cafe only interrupted by the occasional bit of faux-graffiti wall art. The staff are nonchalant but get the job done, while the menu has enough quirky and unusual items that the sheer length of it (a common feature of Indonesian menus) is not as off putting as it as at other places.

Even though I was there on a quiet weekday afternoon, there was some live acoustic music happening out the back, with the resident strummer making fine use of his six-stringer. Come back during a busier time, and I suspect the place would be a hive of activity.

It was here that I popped my cherry - to use a culinary metaphor - for a distinctive Indonesian fruit: durian. Okay, so it was in the form of a durian mousse cake. But with the warnings attached to the fresh durian, a food that has been known to make grown men quiver and reduce seen-it-all old ladies to tears, I thought is safest to start with something softer.

The durian is a complex fruit, it's smell so overwhelming that it is banned from a multitude of places, including the kitchen at our accommodation. From all reports it's pungent and tenacious, but generally lacking the pleasant flavour to make those characteristics tolerable.

Dilute it in a creamy mousse, however, and it's a different story. When given a generous helping of sugar, the flavour become rather pleasant and the subtler parts that I suspect are normally overwhelmed when the fruit is eaten on its own come through. The mousse cake at White Box was a fine demonstration.

I'm sure there are many excellent places in Jakarta I'm yet to discover - if many can match the overall awesomeness of White Box, I'll be impressed.

As for durians, having sampled the mousse cake, maybe I'm ready for something more potent.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Going, going, gone...

A quick rant before returning to more important matters...

When I let this blog rest idle in 2007, I thought hard about whether to remove the content or let it remain online. In the end, as I explained in my final post, I didn't think it was fair to try to remove from easy public access things that had once been in the public domain.

Clearly, there are many who take a different approach.

As part of reviving this blog, I have been checking the links that run on the right hand side in what I called my 'ego file' - writing of mine that had been published elsewhere. Sadly (for me rather than anyone else) almost all the links are now broken, the operators of the relevant websites evidently choosing to ditch the old content as they moved onto new publishing systems.

Which is a great shame, when you think of how much other material online is disappearing, most of it of far greater interest and historic value than my scribblings. It's particularly galling given the argument of constrained space applied to previous generations of media is redundant online.

That content is a significant part of history - think of how fundamental the online world is to understanding any contemporary political or social development. Making that material difficult or impossible to access damages our ability to understand the past.

True, there are worthwhile attempts at archiving material (such as the National Library of Australia's Pandora Archive and Internet Archive's Wayback Machine), but they are only ever going to scratch the surface of the content on the internet worth preserving.

So with that frustration, I'm yanking down the links to some of my previous work on the right margin. Not that it's much good to anyone, but for posterity's sake, I present links to stuff that was once online and in most cases now isn't:

AJN - Hephzibah
AJN - Alec Sharp Obituary
AJN - La Maison de Nina
Aust.Pol - 2001 Election
Aust.Pol - 2002 Election
Aust.Pol - Letters from Israel
Beat - Headlock
Beat - Melbourne Art Fair 2006
Beat - Stephen K Amos
Beat - Who Killed The Electric Car?
Crikey - Debate with Hillary
Crikey - North Korea Travellogue
Election Tracker - Senate
Election Tracker - Republic
Election Tracker - First Timers
Election Tracker - Election Night
IPA Review - Kim and Capitalism
NZ Comedy Festival - Connell and Wiggins
Online Opinion - Labor's Woes
Tasmanian Times - Senate Voting
The Program - Take Me Out
The Program - Irshad Manji
The Program - Scorched Happiness
The Program - The Corporation
The Program - 400 Columns
The Program - Spatial Theory
The Program - 12 Angry Men
The Program - 2005 MICF - 1
The Program - 2005 MICF - 2
The Program - 2005 MICF - 3
The Program - 2005 MICF - 4
The Program - 2005 MICF - 5
The Program - Phobia
The Program - Second Helping
The Program - A Devil Inside
The Program - Cho Revolution
The Program - Measure For Measure
The Program - Telegraph Hill
The Program - Lano and Woodley
The Program - Shrimp
The Program - Tim Minchin
The Program - The Wrong Night
The Program - Sam Simmons
The Program - Michael Chamberlin
The Program - Mark Watson
The Program - Mannix
The Program - Hijacking Catastrophe
The Program - Hephzibah
The Program - The Key
Travel Rag - Morocco
Travel Rag - North Korea
Travel Rag - Bangkwang Prison
Vibewire - Australia, China, US
Vibewire - Life on the inside
Vibewire - North Korea
Vibewire - Africa - Aid or Trade?
Vibewire - Cross Media Ownership
Vibewire - Clyde Prestowitz
Vibewire - Scott Ritter
Vibewire - Zaki Chehab
Vibewire - Labor's Woes

Monumentally tasty

Gotta love a country that can take the mickey out of its own national monuments.

Above, Jakarta's Monas. Below, the soft serve icecream of the same name.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Always something for sale

Drive along the roads leading up to the highways and thoroughfares of Jakarta, and you'll see plenty of people sticking their thumbs out. They're bumming a ride. Well, sorta.

In fact, they're offering themselves as 'jockeys' to cars who want to take advantage of the express lane on roads reserved for cars with three or more occupants. Paying for an extra rider (or two, in the case of a mother-and-child combo) might cost a bit, but it will get you out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic that fills the main roads during peak hour.

The extra-passenger jockeys are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the fact that people in Jakarta are entrepreneurial, forever seeking out opportunities to make a few thousand rupiah.

In large part the entrepreneurial spirit is driven out of necessity - there's no decent welfare system in Indonesia, so those who can't fend for themselves or fall back on family will soon find themselves destitute. The threat of going hungry at night does tend to make entrepreneurs out of most people.

But Indonesians - well, Jakartans at least - are rather canny at finding business opportunities. You see it when travelling on the bustling trains, where every conceivable product is presented for sale by merchants that wander up and down the aisle. A cold drink? Cigarette lighter? Children's picture book? They've got it.

Such trinkets are available for sale from wandering sellers up and down every major street. With prices of just a few thousand rupiah for most items and a decent meal costing several multiples of that, it's tough to see how the sellers earn enough to survive. Some probably don't.

It makes you wander just how much more rapidly Indonesia might develop if these enterprising minds and extra pairs of hands were put to more productive use. There are no shortage of major infrastructure projects that would lift the quality of live in Indonesia; there is an abundance of natural resources that could be harnessed (exploited?); and there is cheap enough labour costs for Indonesia to be a major manufacturing base.

Surely these plus-one jockeys and trinket sellers would be ready and willing to take a decently paid job in one of those more productive areas if one was available to them?

Before long they would be better off, and so would the country.

Even if it would leave motorists stuck in traffic and train travellers' thirst unquenched for a little while.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hung out to dry?

Does the Russian embassy in Jakarta have a Hills Hoist on its roof?

A nod to the Australian embassy, perhaps, which sits on the other side of Jalan Rasuna Said.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The noise annoys

Pssst. Happy International Noise Awareness Day.

Nope, I didn't realise it existed either, but apparently today is the 16th time it has been held.

I found out about the day thanks to a wonderful group of activists I met this afternoon gathered at Bundaran HI, Jakarta's largest roundabout.

If any city needed to think about the noise at which it functioned, it would be Jakarta. Day and night, the city is filled with people, animals and machines generating a cacophony of sounds that make it hard to hear even the most blatant of personal bodily eruptions.

Take our place. Even indoors, and some distance from the street, we hear the imam from the local mosque preaching to the heathens through a megaphone; we hear the announcer at the train station booming at commuters with incomprehensible messages; and we hear the constant growl of cars, bikes and buses, many of which seem to have been built during a strike by the muffler-makers union.

Go a little closer to the street and you can add the sales pitch of the warung and kaki lima food stalls, the music pumped out at the larger shops, the animals at the market, the equipment on construction sites and all manner of other sounds.

Some of the noise is unavoidable, but there is plenty that could be controlled - if the will was there. Drivers beep their horns far more frequently than is necessary, often just as a look-at-me statement to no-one in particular. Many shops draw attention to themselves by pumping out music at a volume that strains the speakers. And train stations (there's one near us, making me acutely aware of it) broadcast their indecipherable message at a thunderous volume.

It's as if there's "sound inflation" at work, where each raises their volume to be heard over the other. Go soft, and you won't be heard.

Enough! So say Masyarakat Bebas-bising (Noise-free Community), the small but determined group behind the Jakarta gathering.

They are running a campaign calling for the city to have two hours a day at volumes of less than 90 decibels, and seven hours a day of no more than 70 decibels.

While I have no tool for measuring volume here, by this chart I would be surprised if the main streets of Jakarta had sustained periods below 95 decibels during daylight hours.

The campaign, carrying the slogan "sayangi telingamu... sayangi masa depanmu" ("love your ears... care about your future"), points to the many sources of excessive noise: traffic, music, heavy industry and terror attacks. Can't argue with that.

Good luck to them in their campaign, but I don't like their chances. Noisiness seems to be ingrained in the psyche of Jakartans, perceived as a natural way of functioning. Unlike in other cities, there's no shame attached to being a generator of loud noise, or any sense that your noise might be causing inconvenience for others. To change the noise levels, you need to change the mindset of the noise makers.

A tough task, but a noble one. Jakarta would be a finer place if it was a little quieter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sure beats window shopping

Indonesia does have a reputation for an authoritarianism, which makes it all the more refreshing to see the challenging series of sculptures that are scattered around Grand Indonesia, (probably) Jakarta's most glamerous shopping mall.

Confronting statements on life, love and labour are on display, and most veer far from the agitprop pseudo-art that acts as a substititue for creative expression in many parts of the world.

The art at Grand Indonesia is is art that forces people to confront the status quo and think for themselves, a provacative concept itself in a country that attaches such a high value to groupthink.

It is quite telling that it is not a gallery that provides a home to these sculptures, but a shopping mall.

In the West, shopping malls seem to be havens for bland inoffensiveness in which people can mentally switch off as they administer a hefty dose of retail therapy.

Most likely, the confronting art on display at Grand Indonesia would never appear in a mall in many other nations. The fear of offending someone - on the grounds of religion, wealth or merely good taste - would be too great.

Thankfully, the folks behind Grand Indonesia are a more open minded. All power to them.

Here's a sample.

I might add some more over the next few months.

Monday, April 25, 2011

ANZAC dawn

I've just returned from the ANZAC Day dawn service in the inner city Jakarta suburb of Menteng Pulo. The venue was the Jakarta War Cemetry, a little oasis of quiet amid towering residential blocks and the sights and smells of kampung life.

While Australians and New Zealanders represented the bulk of the several hundred people in attendance, there was also a generous contingent of Indonesian veterans and soldiers, diplomats and civilians from several other nations.

Like most ANZAC Day service, it was a simple affair that prompted those in attendence to think about themselves and their circumstances. Its power derives from its quiet understatement.

The cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers is a remarkable place, with nearly a thousand soldiers buried in minimally marked graves amid immaculately maintained lawns. Among those whose final resting place is here are 96 Australians.

Just why so many Commonwealth soldiers met their maker here, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website explains:

Jakarta War Cemetery therefore contains the graves of many who died in defence of Java and Sumatra during the swift Japanese advance in 1942 and many others who perished afterwards as prisoners of war.

The humidity of Jakarta, even before the break of dawn, meant that the service was a far warmer experience than is ever likely in Australia. And where Australians at home tend to dress to keep warm - those not in uniform, that is - the Jakarta ceremony was one that called for a degree of formality.

It was humidity - yep, let's blame that - that prompted many to seek an amber ale, which they were doing in great number at the official gunfire breakfast at one of the city's swank residential apartments.

An ANZAC Day to remember.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

First impressions last

You learn a lot about Indonesia in the first few minutes after landing at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport. Those hanging out for the petty bureaucracy, small scale corruption and smog-filled traffic jams that makes Jakarta the city it is need not wait long.

Soon after landing late last Thursday afternoon (on a day that started before dawn in Sydney), I joined with many of the 150 others who had just disembarked on a flight from Singapore in the queue for those who bought a visa on arrival. Buying the $US25 visa off the friendly teller was no trouble - it was the queue to get it processed that inspired frustration.

Fanning ourselves with passports, airline tickets or well-thumbed copies of The Economist, we sweltered for more than an hour as we awaited service. In front of us, just two of the eight booths established to process visas were open, and attending those two were a pair of bored looking Indonesian officials who had probably encountered their fair share of aggrevated foreigners.

With agonising slowness, the duo processed the paperwork of the tourists, lonely hearts and (no doubt) drug runners who occupied the queue. Once each person reached the front, they were given the once-over by the officials keen to protect their patch of turf - why are you here? how long are you staying for? do you have a ticket to depart?

Just when we thought the queue could move no slower, the two officials found themselves dealing with a particularly tricky group of arrivals. Perhaps they'd been too honest with their answers. Perhaps they had no onward ticket. Or perhaps the official was fearful that the queue was moving too fast and needed to be arbitrarily halted.

With the two officials occupied, the line moved not an inch in ten minutes. The heat and stress put tempers among new arrivals on a low boil, but with us eagerly awaiting permission to enter, righteous anger was unlikely to help the cause.

Every so often, new arrivals would move swiftly past the back of the counter. A curious site, I later discovered that such express treatment was attainable for some uang rokok ("smoking money"), apparently Rp 50,000 (about $US5.80).

More than an hour after joining the queue, my paperwork was processed and I was through to the next stage. The customs check was mercifully swift, although it was hard not to notice the half dozen bored customs officials who without too much effort could have been assigned to the visa on arrival queue.

But such is the way in Indonesia (and in many other parts of the world) - the bureaucracy is designed to benefit the bureaucrats, with service a secondary concern.

Leaving the confines the airport, the forecourt was awash with taxi touts eager to please. "Where you going, mister?" they shouted with wearied voices. "Singapore," I replied more wearily, inspiring flummoxed "crazy bule" looks from the drivers.

Eventually we found our driver and hit the road.

The highway into downtown presents an impressive sight. Staring across the city you see a phalanx of tall structures - some completed, some in progress, and some abandoned - interspersed with kampung housing and stretches of green space.

The city appears to be largely unplanned, with housing, offices and factories all located close to one another, sometimes unnervingly so.

Once beyond the highway, we reached the suburban streets of south Jakarta, and with it the traffic for which the city is legend. Five lanes, all heading in the same direction and all at a standstill. Taxis, buses, ojek (motorcycles) and bajaj (goggomobiles) all belching plumes of smokes out of their exhaust, giving the streets a smoggy haze.

As a new arrival, every intersection and every traffic jam brought with it something new to capture the imagination, so it was not so bad to be crawling at the pace of a particularly lethargic snail. A few more weeks in the city, though, and taking the traffic with good humour might be a tad trickier.

Eventually we made it to our accommodation, tired and a little stressed, but glad to finally be here.

Jakarta has a lot of fine features, that in the week since arriving I'm slowly discovering. But sadly that fineness is well hidden to new arrivals, who are far sooner encountering the aggrevations of the city. Still, what a city it is!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Selamat datang and all that

Now, where was I?

A little over four years ago I let my blog lie dormant because I had taken a new position at The Age. I had a fantastic time there, was given some great opportunities and met some incredible people (being a business reporter amid the global financial crisis and a politics reporter during the downfall of a Prime Minister is hard to beat). But my wanderlust was getting the better of me and last year I left the paper to seek other opportunities.

Now, I'm less than a week into my time in Jakarta, a heaving mound of humanity that serves as the capital of Indonesia. My plan is to settle down, get to know what makes this place tick, and potentially pick up some work along the way writing, editing or teaching.

Throughout, I'll be sharing it with you on my blog. I'll be writing about Indonesia, its people, its politics, its culture, its economy, its place in the world, and its food. Ah, the food. Who knew so many things would taste so good when deep fried?

Indonesia's a place with a palpable sense of excitement. Now more than a decade on from the stiff autocracy of President Suharto, the place is home to a lively free press, an active civil society, a steadily growing economy and a growing assertiveness abroad. There is a sense that this is a place on the make, one that is capable of great things if the power of its 240 million people can be unleased.

But its one bugbear is corruption, which infects almost every encounter with authority. There are no shortage of fine words being uttered on the need to combat it, but so far it appears to be too great a beast to tackle.

So keep an eye on the blog as I do my best to bring you the most of the humidity, the energy and the chaos of this sprawling metropolis.