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.