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.