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.