Wednesday, November 14, 2012

S&M haircut

Every six weeks or so, I treat myself to a haircut. Not the ordinary shopping mall barbershop kind, but an authentic Indonesian military-style cut, deep in the bowels of Pasar Cikini, the ramshackle market that's home to a hundred surprises just a short stroll from my front door.

It's not the haircut itself that I look forward to - although the buzz cut is a decent one - but the head and shoulder massage that comes with it. It's tough and rough and can leave a few marks, but it's also a fantastic form of stress relief.

Many foreigners and well-to-do Indonesians here like to indulge in a "cream bath", where for an hour or two they can be gently pampered, scrubbed and massaged, all while reading out-of-date women's magazines. My massage is not like that - it's like venturing into an S&M dungeon, being roughed around a bit, smiling and asking for more.

Lucky for me, this morning was haircut time. So down to the market I wandered, through the middle-aged ladies tending their fruit and vegetable stalls, past the carefully denuded coconuts, the raw animal parts hanging on hooks and the fresh fish display peppered with flies.

I reached my hairdresser, a small room off the main laneway, about the size of an en suite bathroom. The place is run by a couple of easy-going men in their 20s, brothers or cousins I think, who live with their family in the home directly above the ground-level shop. The two guys are lean and fit, with the ragged T-shirts and spiky haircuts that are in fashion among young Jakartan men who feel they've got something to prove.

There are a four plastic green chairs lined up by the door, and they're often occupied, but rarely by customers. This barber shop is a place for men, young and old, to hang out, spread gossip, read the Topskor sports newspaper and snooze. A haircut is one of many reasons a person might venture through the door.

But that's what I was there for. So I stuck my head in the door, and was quickly ushered into one of the two salon chairs, my protestation that the people in the green seats should be served before me met with a gesture that made clear I wasn't taking anyone's spot.

"Nomor Tiga" I said, pointing at my hair and waving three fingers in the air to indicate the blade I wanted on the shaver. "Dan juga massage," I said, getting a nod of acknowledgement. So fairly swiftly he set to work, methodically cutting away the dark locks that had been irritating me for the previous few weeks, flicking them nonchalantly to the floor.

The TV in the corner hissed away, broadcasting an inane sinetron soap opera with lots of lingering shots of heavily permed actresses looking emotionally distraught, interspersed with advertisements for dishwashing liquid and instant noodles and energy drinks, touted by fun, uncomplicated 20-somethings reciting cheesy catchphrases.

The top of my head taken care of, my barber grabbed a single shaving blade and set to work on the back of my neck. Indonesians grow very little facial hair, and so their efforts to wield the blade usually don't involve shaving cream. After all, if your aim is to target individual hairs, it's easier if you can see them. So in smoothing the back of my neck, the barber opted for a dry shave, scraping the blade on my weathered skin, enough to catch the hairs but thankfully leaving the skin behind.

The haircut done, he lifted the smock theatrically, and shock its contents on the ground, folded it and put it aside. Then he doused his hands with a mix of oil and aftershave, and planted his hands on my short-haired scalp, as I sat with eager anticipation. He paused for a moment, the liquid gently dribbling down causing a slight burning sensation, then squeezed his fingers slightly to indicate the massage was to begin.

Soon he was kneading the flesh on my scalp mercilessly, pinching then releasing mounds of skin and lightly separating them from my skull. The fingers worked their way around my scalp, moving toward my face and yanking my forehead, lifting my eyebrows and leaving my eyelids little choice but to follow. My temples were forced together and released, the crown of my head pulled towards both ears at once. He lifted my head as much as my neck would allow, twisting it to both sides.

Then my pianist ventured for some lower notes, undoing the top two buttons of my shirt and working his way down my spine as a sat, transfixed.  He pulled and poked at my shoulders, and ventured to just above where my clavicle gets close to the surface of the skin. He moved his hands in small concentric circles, zeroing in on a spot that was a mass of tightened tendons and muscle, the physical manifestation of the stress I had been feeling. Once he'd found the spot, he went hard, squeezing and releasing, pounding away with considerable force.

The impact prompted me to hunch forward slightly, too proud to admit to the barber that he was using too much force and should ease up a little. After a while he relented, and set to work on my arms, right first, then left. He pulled each arm sideways from my body, as far as they could comfortably go - then yanked a little more. Satisfied the arm was fully extended, he set to work on each finger, rotating it a few times before giving it a short, sharp tug. The cracking sound with each knuckle gave us both a jolt of satisfaction. Then he'd dig his fingers into my palm as if with enough effort he might make it out the other side, and continued the approach as he ventured up the arm toward the shoulder.

Then finally he worked his cruel magic on the back of my neck, his thumb and forefinger pinching a hunk of flesh until it hurt, then releasing. He worked his way either side of the spinal column, persisting through my occasional flinches as he made contact with the spots best known to people undertaking pressure-point training.

"Sudah," he said, making eye contact with me via the mirror as he gave me a firm pat on the head to tell me both our work was done. I took a few deep breaths and conducted a quick mental check of my body, noting where the stress had been relieved, and new aches and pains had potentially been created.

I handed my man 40,000 rupiah - about $4 - and headed back out to the main alley of the market, feeling more alive than I had in a while. Now that's a haircut.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A hike to the peak of Mount Salak

At home and abroad, I lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle, often balking at the chance to do really strenuous things. So when I do put myself to the test, the aches and pains linger long afterward. So it is that three days after undertaking perhaps the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, I'm still moving like an old man shuffling toward a bus. Here's how it happened.

Java Lava's a group of adventurous mountain and volcano climbers, mostly expats, that arranges hikes in different parts of Indonesia.

A few weeks back it started promoting a day hike up Mt Salak, about two hours out of Jakarta, near Bogor. The circular told us it was five hours up and three hours down, 1,400 metres vertical - from the 800m start to the 2,200m peak - and a price was provided for children. But it did warn "some parts are steep" and "if you don't know what climbing 1,400m means, perhaps this hike isn't for you". In retrospect, I should have heeded the warning.

Mt Salak has long been of interest to hikers, but hit the headlines a few months back as the site where a Russian Sukhoi plane crashed in May this year while on a demonstration flight for potential Indonesian buyers. At the time, it took a day or two for rescuers to get to the site, given its remoteness.

Anyhow, I flicked the information on the hike to people around the office, and attracted four others - three Americans and an Australian - to join me. We were five of about 35 people who were on the list of participants.

So we headed off from Jakarta at about 4:30am on Saturday, on the toll road for about an hour then navigating dilapidated streets between villages. It was becoming clear that we'd miss the 6am designated start time, so I had SMS contact with the organizer, who said they'd wait a little while for us. In the end, we got there at about 6:30am, and saw a few cars and drivers, who indicated that the hikers had already left.

We headed up the main path, and saw the scattered paper that Java Lava uses to mark its trail, so we knew we were heading the right way. The hike starts on a fairly shallow slope, although the path is little more than a thin trail, with lots of foliage either side and the occasional loose bit of earth. After half an hour or so we caught the next-last group of Java Lava hikers - three teachers from Britain working at the British International School and a German banker friend - who seemed of a similar fitness and attitude to us, so stuck with them for a while. We also happened to bump into a pair of well-equipped German couple in their 50s, who despite trekking poles and boots, were moving at a snail's pace.

After about two hours we passed a slightly ambiguous intersection, and opted to go down what looked to be the wider and more-established of the paths. That trail, though, became increasingly thinner and difficult to walk. Along the path we met two fit Australian hikers coming back the other way, and they explained that this was in fact the side path to a waterfall, and it we wanted the path to continue up the mountain, we needed to return to the intersection and head the other way. Given it was still early in the day, we decided to push on a bit further to try to get to the waterfall - which ultimately we couldn't because the path became too damp - and then returned to the main trail.

With plenty of sweat and mud on us, we continued heading up the mountain. The path become progressively steeper and within an hour or so seemed to slope at 20-30 degrees, with plenty of stones and trees. Essentially it meant that each step was a fair bit higher than the one that proceeded it, with little straight flat-ground walking. Our group was flagging a bit, and I was really struggling to keep pace. I'd only catch them when they periodically stopped for a rest. Then after we headed off again, I quickly fell behind. The walk was so strenuous that I had to stop to take big gasps of breath after each decent-size upward step - given how many their were, that made for slow climbing.

So up we went like this for several hours. By about 11:30am, we passed the first of the Java Lava hikers in the group heading down the mountain. One mentioned that they'd got word - via mobile phone, presumably, which worked intermittently on the mountain - that police were waiting at the start/end point of the climb, and were upset because the group didn't have the necessary permit the climb. Right.

We slowly pushed on, and met a couple of extremely fit Europeans with sophisticated trekking poles who were bounding down the mountain. They estimated that we were about 40 minutes from the top, which was reassuring. Then 20 minutes later we passed another Australian hiker, who estimated that we were - wait for it - about 40 minutes from the top.

We groaned in disbelief, but continued upward, slightly buoyed by the reassurance that the view at the top was impressive. We plodded on, a few steps forward, a large step up, and stopping to catch breath. At this point, my drinking water was going fast. I'd packed a 2 litre bottle for the trek up, and a 1 litre bottle for the return journey; I was close to finishing the first one but was reluctant to start on the second one so early. So I decided to just stay parched for a while.

As we plodded on, the path disappeared to almost nothing, forcing us to push aside branches and clamber up rocks. Then finally the dappled sunlight of the lower reaches turned into a hotter and more consistent shine as the trees become fewer and thinner. With great relief, we made it to the top, at about 1pm.

I was so drained of energy that I immediately slumped prone in the dirt and didn't move for about 20 minutes. Then when I did move, it was only to take some gulps from my second bottle of water and force myself to eat some of the fruit I'd packed. Despite not having eaten all day, I had no appetite - my major physiological focus was getting the air and breaks I needed.

So we took photos and wandered around the peak. Sadly, the haze had set in, so the view wasn't great. We could see the peak of one of the nearby mountains, and vague outlines of unclear things in other directions, but we were too late for the good stuff. At this stage the four-person British-German group were the only others there - the all-the-gear-no-idea German couple from earlier had clearly given up, and all the others had hit the top and turned back.

By about 1:50pm, we decided it was time to head down. Going downhill is not quite a tough as going uphill, but it's still pretty challenging when it's steep. For each step you need to think about whether the ground is firm enough to hold you, what you can hold onto the side, where you'll put your other foot if you feel unstable... it's mentally as well as physically draining. It didn't help that I was hiking without a stick or high-ankled boots, which meant that I was feeling the vibrating impact of each step ripple right through my body.

We stopped every 15 minutes of so for a brief rest, and then pushed on. It was arduous and repetitive, and completely exhausting. By mid-afternoon, we thought we had things under control, and started working out how we'd deal with the police waiting at the entrance, whose existence we had now been told about by a few hikers along the way. As foreigners, none of us particularly wanted to deal with Indonesian police at great length.

On the way down we did a fair bit of slipping and sliding, accumulating a large number of scratches, bruises and minor humiliations, but enjoyed the reassurance of thinking we were in the home stretch.

By about 5pm, the sun was sitting low in the sky and we were all tired and close to the end of our water supplies. We tried to quicken the pace slightly to get out before dark - none of us had torches (we didn't think we'd need them) and had only mobile phones as a source of light once the sun set. We also opted to forgo our quarter-hourly breaks.

But by about 6pm, it was dark and I was exhausted. We came together as a group, and decided we couldn't take it any more. So we slumped by the side of the path, and called for help. I called Yudi, our group's driver, and told him that we needed help - we were about a half-hour from the end and needed torches and cold drinks. I also spoke to one of the Java Lava organisers who had left the site, and he promised to relay the message to their person who was still at the base camp. So there we waited, the five in our group soon joined by the four in the British-German group. Three of the nine decided they would persevere to the end despite the darkness, using the light of their phones to guide the way, and then help with getting the rest of us out once they were in the clear.

So six of us waited on the side of the path as the temperature rapidly cooled. We shared whatever water we had left, and tried to keep morale up - talking about how things could have been worse, what we'd do once we were finally out of there - but we were sufficiently tired that rest seemed like a wise option. One of the Brits had brought a whistle with her, which she blew periodically to let the "rescuers" know where we were.

After about an hour, they arrived. David, a no-nonsense Australian from Java Lava ("Ari, you'll need to get off your arse...") and Yudi, our erstwhile driver who had jumped into action to come to save us. Drinks and torches were also in abundance. After gently chiding us for not bringing enough of either of those two clearly-precious commodities, David led the way along the path out of the mountain. The hour rest, and the reassurance that we were in the home stretch, made the final part of the walk easier than that that had come before it, even though we were doing it by torchlight, with a bit of help from the near-full moon.

David explained that the number of police had dwindled - they'd got sick of waiting for us - but there was still one officer there. It turns out that the mountain is supposed to be off-limits to climbers at the moment because parts of the crashed Sukhoi plane are still on the mountain, and the safety investigation is ongoing. I suspect the police are particularly worried about the Russians - or people acting on their behalf - trying to remove evidence, because the stakes are pretty high in the air safety investigation: if the plane is found to be at fault, it will be a major blow for the country's aircraft manufacturing.

So the police were right to be concerned, but absurdly the entrance we had used to the mountain, an established starting point for climbers, had no signage at all indicating to us that the site was off limits or that a permit was required. Not sure how we were supposed to know there was an issue.

An hour or so after we were met by the rescuers, we finally made it back to the base - it was now about 8pm - to be met by a couple of drivers, a member of the British group who'd dropped out hours earlier, a few Java Lava people, and a local police officer. The officer declared that he needed to take a group photo of us, and that we would need to provide identification so that photos could be taken of them. It's still not clear what's being done with that information, but I'm confident there won't be any further problems.

So we said our farewells, jumped in the car, and headed along the rickety road to the toll road headed to Jakarta. We stopped at a little stall on the side of the street for cold drinks and beer, drunk those and fell asleep.

Not sure that mountain climbing is really for me. But as the Japanese say of Mt Fuji, that anybody would be a fool not to climb it once, but a fool to do so twice, the Indonesians could well say of Mt Salak.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Jakarta Globe is seeking fellows

The Jakarta Globe is on the hunt for early-career journalists and journalism students to take up a year-long fellowship, starting later this year. I've been at the paper for a year and had a great time, and I can highly recommend it to anyone else keen to get some professional experience in the industry and watch Indonesia up close.

I'm happy to answer questions in comments or via email.

Here's the notification. Applications close in a week.

Be a Jakarta Globe Fellow!

Getting a foothold in the media has never been more challenging for young journalists. Here is an opportunity to work for a year in an exciting emerging market on a multi-award winning daily newspaper and Web site with professional editors.

The Jakarta Globe, an English daily in a multicultural environment, is looking for the best young talent it can find. Can you copy edit in flawless English, write and think creatively? Are you curious about the world and ready to work hard? We will help you learn and grow.

The Jakarta Globe, which launched in November 2008, has already won numerous local and international awards for our dynamic news coverage. We are recruiting young journalists to copy edit, write and learn the news business from the ground up in Indonesia.

Make your mark in the world’s most dynamic region in one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. We need people ready to start in August 2012. Candidates will be selected on the basis of a competitive editing examination and an essay. A stipend and housing will be provided. We are seeking a one-year commitment. Details on remuneration and job descriptions will be sent to interested and qualified candidates. Recent graduates are encouraged to apply.

Deadline for applications - June 1, 2012

Send your resume to: Recruitment[at]

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jakartans’ business savvy shines through amid the gridlock

It's a rite-of-passage for foreign writers based in Jakarta to pen a piece on the horrid state of the traffic. My attempt, in which I merge it with a discussion on the entrepreneurial spirit of Indonesians, has appeared in The Weekend Australian this weekend and is available here.

Space crimped the effort a little, so I've decided to publish the full piece here:

Soon after you arrive at Jakarta’s international airport and head downtown, you become familiar with two of the city’s defining qualities: the entrepreneurship of its people, and the density of its traffic. With little new public transport infrastructure, the quantity of roads almost static and the number of vehicles steadily rising in line with a growing population and emerging affluence, experts say the Indonesian capital will reach a state of perpetual gridlock within a few years.

But these hours and hours that many commuters spend on the road each day have given rise to niche business opportunities that Jakartans have embraced with gusto.
During peak periods, some of the main streets are reserved for motorcycles as well as vehicles with three or more occupants. This has created a small army of “jockeys”, who linger on the side of streets near the entry points to the main road, their thumb sticking out like a hitchhiker, offering to help motorists reach the golden three. Mother-and-baby pairs are particularly highly sought by solo drivers.

Stories abound among the city’s drivers about the quick fingers that many jockeys possess, with anything loose inside the vehicle at risk of mysteriously disappearing. But given the paucity of alternative ways to get home, many drivers still take the risk.

Along the gridlocked streets are an army of mobile food cart operators known as kaki lima (literally, five legs – three for the cart, two for the proprietor) offering all manner of tasty local delights. Kaki lima push their carts along the footpath or a raised embankment between lanes, and drivers seeking to satisfy their cravings wind down their windows and place an order. So fixed is the traffic that there’s plenty of time for the operator to whip up some food – nasi goreng (fried rice) and steamed buns are the most popular options – before the traffic moves far.
Part of the reason for the congestion is the lack of quality public transport. The recent introduction of the TransJakarta bus service, with a modern fleet and dedicated lanes, has been a watershed, but its network is limited.

This leaves many people aboard the network of 20-seater minibuses offered by the Kopaja and Metromini companies. These rickety old things have been on the roads for decades, have their doors permanently open (locals call it “natural air-conditioning”), have a driver with a cigarette wedged between his lips and a conductor who spends his time hanging out the door or shuffling up and down the aisle collecting 2,000 rupiah (25 cent) fares off each passenger. One of the party tricks of conductors is, while the bus is moving, to ease himself onto the road out the front door and re-enter via the back door in a single, fluid movement. Impressive to watch.

There are plenty of buskers who ply their wares on board, often in rather tricky conditions. On a recent trip, a 20-something man with a guitar jumped on partly filled Kopaja and started strumming and singing an up-beat Indonesian folk song. Progressively the bus took on more and more passengers, cramming into every nook and cranny. Throughout, the busker continued without missing a note, contorting the neck of the guitar to all manner of awkward angles to accommodate passengers and using his legs to cope with the minimal suspension that become apparent as the vehicle lumbered across Jakarta’s potholed roads. The tips he received were particularly generous, and only some of it was for his music.
For sure, much of the creative opportunism on display is a product of grinding poverty and the lack of a welfare system, but it also shows an admirable determination to make the most of whatever one’s circumstances happen to be. It certainly makes the city are more interesting place.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Farewell, Femi

It's been a little over a day since the Sukhoi Superjet-100 went missing over the skies of Bogor, and the news since then has been nothing but gloom. About 50 were on board, and it appears none survived as the Russian-made plane hit the side of Mount Salak.

Each of those lives taken was a life taken too soon. Good times never had. Old age never reached. Proper goodbyes never said.

There was one name on the list of passengers that was familiar to me. Femi Adi from Bloomberg News (listed as Femi, but it has been confirmed that it is her) was a young journalist I met last May while observing a prayer rally organised in Jakarta by the Islamic Defenders Front to mourn the death of Osama bin Laden.

It was a fairly tense affair, with nearly a thousand slightly-riled, white-robed men crammed into a mosque to listen to speakers stoking their anger over the death of bin Laden. Clustered outside the back of the hall were me and more than a dozen journalists, mostly Indonesians with a handful from overseas.

I must have appeared a little bewildered by what I saw, because Femi approached me and said hello. She asked me where I was from and what I was doing there, and I answered and asked her the same. She then offered to translate some of the firebrand speeches for me, helping me to make sense of what was going on.

After a brief lull in proceedings, there was an announcement. She tugged at my shirt and said, "Come on, they're going to hold a press conference." The idea of extremists holding a press conference seemed strange to me, but emboldened by her confidence I wandered forward with the other journalists.

A microphone was offered to the journalists, and most of us were reluctant to speak up. But not Femi. She happily grabbed it, introduced herself by name and by organisation (there would be few more identifiably American news brands than Bloomberg, so it was an especially bold move) and proceeded to ask a question. I'm not sure what she asked, but she was impressive in her bravado.

Afterwards we swapped contact details and exchanged a few emails, including one in which I asked if she knew of any job opportunities.

There was nothing especially poetic in what either of us wrote via email, but just rereading her words today it struck me that they capture some of the joie de vivre she demonstrated in person:

Hi Ari

---Your name looks so-Indonesian. :) ---

Its nice to meet you too in the FPI event, Ari. I quit shortly after things done. :)

I have read your blog. Its a nice blog with informal writings wrapping the great content. I like it. :) I also have a blog,, but it is not as good as your blog. It's just a daily-life-stories about corkscrew, travels, friendship, etc.

So, you leave ossie to stay with your partner and work in Indonesia? That's amazing! I will let you know if any media needs a journalist. I have been working in Jakarta since 2003 for Kontan newspaper. My hometown is in Yogyakarta. I moved to Bloomberg since last year.

Let me know if you have some time for having coffee or beer. I have to go out to the south jakarta court for abu bakar bashir trial.

femi adi

Sadly I never did take up the offer of a coffee or beer, and now it seems the chance has gone forever.

Bodies are still being pulled from the rubble, and so far no individuals have been confirmed as among the dead. So there's always a chance of a miracle.

I didn't know Femi well, but in this brief tribute online at Republika, she is described as gentle, kind and friendly. Sounds just like the person I'd met.

She was also very lively online, operating a blog at and being active on a swag of social media sites.

Farewell, Femi. The world's a poorer place without you.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

My '90 percent theory' tries to explain why perfection is elusive

I've always been fairly messy in managing my personal space at home. I'm happy to let all sorts of trivial items - bank statements, magazines, pill packets, slightly soiled tissues - accumulate on my bedside table before feeling a need to clean them. And when I do finally clean it, I sort through most of it and leave it in a much neater state. Not spotless, but vastly improved.

My partner Melanie is different. She's fastidious in her neatness, letting only a handful of items accumulate before feeling the need to sort through them and clear up the space. Once she's cleaned up her bedside table, it sits in a very high state of tidiness, substantially cleaner than my side even immediately after I've completed my "cleaning". It is not unknown for her to assess my side after I'd clean it, and make some smart suggestions ways to deal with the handful of items I've left sitting there.

What intrigued me was not so much the difference in the states of mess to which we would allow our respective sides to reach, but the fact that both of us would consider that we'd achieved "cleanliness" at very different points.

It lead be to a theory I'll call my "90 percent theory" in the absence of a better name: basically, in any given task in which people seek to improve something, they will be able to improve it 90 percent of the way between how they found it and perfection.

So, applying it to my and my partner's bedside tables, from the point at which each of us decide to clean our sides, we will improve it 90 percent compared to how it was. Because I start at a more advanced state of messiness, 90 percent improvement will not make it as neat as my partner's side.

Furthermore, when she approaches my tidy-but-not-perfect bedside table after I've cleaned it, she will be able to improve it a further 90 percent on how she's found it, bringing it to 99 percent cleanliness compared to its initial state. Theoretically, were a third person to come along and seek to clean it again from the state that my partner had left it in, they would be able to improve 90 percent of what they see, bringing it up to 99.9 percent. But given the difference between 99 percent and 99.9 percent is so minimal when the entirety of the task is cleaning my bedside table, there is probably too little to notice.

It's worth noting, however, that by this rule perfection is impossible. Improvement is, in a mathematical sense, asymptotic. Each attempt gets us ever closer, but we can never reach it.

Human psychology is the main factor behind the theory. When we approach a given task, we generally assess the quality of the outcome relative to the quality of the starting point. It keeps us sane by preventing us from obsessing over every minor imperfection, but does also make us occasionally complacent and willing to forgo the pursuit of excellence.

I've noticed this theory playing out in another context, in my work as a copy editor at a newspaper. In the role, we take the stories filed by reporters and have responsibility for checking facts and spelling where possible, ensuring the expression is smooth and professional and making sure that the story is neat and logical. The task has an extra degree of difficulty because most of the reporters do not have English as their first language, and so the quality of the written expression is quite varied.

On the copy desk, the first person, usually but not always someone with less experience, will perform a copy edit; then they will pass it through to a check editor, who will give it further scrutiny; then finally a page editor will look at the page as a whole, keeping an eye out for anything that has been missed.

I've performed all three roles at one time or another, and can see that the quality of one's output is in part a product of the quality of one's input. So a copy editor dealing with a particularly poorly written story will work hard to improve expression, spelling, etc, but is likely to unconsciously let through some less-than-ideal parts because their focus is diverted to the more blatant imperfections. That same copy editor, however, working with "clean" copy in the first place, will notice and hopefully rectify much more minor issues that become more apparent because of the quality of the work around those issues.

Though I have the experience to work as a check editor, when in the role of copy editor I find myself overlooking errors that I know I should have picked up and suspect I would have were I to be a fresh pair of eyes reading it as a check editor. Improving beyond the 90 percent is remarkably difficult to achieve. (This also demonstrates my asymptote theory - despite three pairs of eyes picking up theoretically 99.9 percent of errors compared to the original story submitted by a reporter, errors still make it into print.)

You can even see the theory in action in a political context. Take traffic, or smog, or corruption, three issues that afflict Jakarta particularly badly. A government that commits to rectifying these ills will generally seek to rectify them by a proportion of the initial problem rather than to reach an absolute number. (Of course, few governments would be so bold as to seek to reduce any of these measures by 90 percent; instead they are seeking to reduce the discretionary component that may be responsive to change by 90 percent. An unchangeable hard-core will remain, and they are generally not the focus of public-policy efforts.) A government campaign to rectify any of these issues, if successful, might be able to alter 90 percent of the discretionary causes of the problem. But then it hits a wall, struggling to take it any further. Then only a new idea, often generated by a new cohort of politicians, can improve performance further.

So what does all this mean? I think it's significant for a few reasons. It means that the less severe a problem is when we first encounter it, the closer to perfection we can expect the end result to be. It means that we should judge our performance against the extent of the initial problem rather than some absolute measure. It means that one actor is not able to achieve the best result on their own, and is better working in coordination with others with the aim of improving upon each other's improvements. And it means that we should accept that perfection is impossible and we shouldn't be too hard on those who fail to achieve it.

This theory is borne exclusively from my own observations. It's possible there are some exceptional circumstances or people that confound it, but they would be few. It's also possible that the 90 percent figure is off the mark. I think of it as an average among people; some will be higher, others lower. It is also influenced by circumstances; time pressure or psychological pressure are likely to lower the figure. But for the most part, I think it explains plenty about why things are as they are.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Why I'm ditching mindjunk and reading classics

Back in my days as a journalist at a daily broadsheet in Australia, each day I'd head into the office and be confronted with half a dozen newspapers whose content I needed to be on top of. I'd log onto Twitter and scroll through the pithy contributions of the wise, the egocentric and the influential. I'd scan government reports, corporate propaganda and activist press releases. I'd come home and flick through magazines and hunt down quirky stuff on the internet. I might make some progress on a book on contemporary politics, business or culture before bed. And then I'd get up and do the same thing the next day.

In short, my literary diet was a poor one, filled with constant snacking on food of only moderate nutritional value. Largely out of a sense of "missing out" on something pertinent to my job, I was filling my stomach with things that seemed tasty at the time, but were unlikely to be remembered years, weeks, days or sometimes even minutes after they were consumed.

True, things could have been worse: I could have been among those who are constantly craving a literary sugar high, and satisfy their craving with swift and lurid morsels from the internet. Constantly raiding the snack machine for digital Kit Kats and Burger Rings, as it were.

But even if I'd dodged that fate, I sensed I was lacking literary carbohydrates and the occasional fine meal.

(Here endeth the metaphor.)

My own definition of a cultured, intelligent person is one who has a broad knowledge not just of his or her own time and place, but of others. Inherent in that is a familiarity with the major cultural objects of those times and places, which in many cases are the works of literature that helped to define them.

A familiarity with "the classics" was something I respected and admired. A person who could quote from Chaucer, Eyre or Rand with authority and conviction didn't just carry a veneer of intellect, but usually the wisdom and insight that comes with such knowledge.

I, however, was falling well short of my own definition. I'd read a handful of classics at school, and in a reflection of both myself and a modern university education, had no exposure to them during my time as an undergraduate arts and commerce student. Then as a working journalist I felt I didn't have the time or energy to spend on something without a clear, speedy benefit.

Moving to Indonesia and taking on a new job with a newspaper in Jakarta was the perfect opportunity for me to do something about it. True, I'd still have a daily paper or two to get my head around, and face the constant lure of interesting things from home and abroad online, but I felt content to remain out of the loop on the happenings I previously felt obliged to be intimately familiar with.

This was my chance to move closer to my idealised well-read person: Homo culturae, if you'll excuse my pseudo-Latin. I made it my mission to read the works of literature that have stood the test of time and helped shape the world. A daunting prospect, I know, but a richly rewarding one, as well.

I knew that in my lifetime, let alone just my few years planned here, I would barely scratch the surface in reading great things. My choices of books would be a little odd at times, driven by a desire to mix up the heavy with the light and the mainstream with the obscure. It would also be driven by the more pragmatic issue of what I happened to stumble across in Jakarta's eclectic sources of English-language literature.

First up was Heart of Darkness, the 1903 novella by Joseph Conrad that captures the folly of King Leopold II of Belgium's colonial efforts in the Congo and is perhaps most famous as an inspiration for Apocalypse Now. There's something about Heart of Darkness that resonates as a westerner living in a developing country, effectively the situation that Conrad's protagonists finds themselves in. One can only hope they avoid the madness and amorality that awaits Kurtz. This one I picked up at Drive Books, Not Cars, a fantastic second-hand book fundraiser.

Next up was Ayn Rand's 1957 tome Atlas Shrugged, an 1100-page epic considered a sacred text by libertarians and capitalists but derided by many others. I expected a treatise on economics and political freedom, and that I got. But what I didn't expect was the rollicking story filled with captivating characters and tremendous drama. It's a breathtaking piece of storytelling, ambitious in its scope but hugely satisfying in its execution. Rand's also remarkably persuasive in advocating her Objectivist philosophy not only in the political realm, but in the personal, demonstrating the need for a rational approach to sex as well as business. This one I picked up from Borders in Singapore.

Then it was to the Freedom Library in Menteng, where I found a copy of Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, a gripping and self-assured book all the more remarkable for the fact its author was just 21 when she wrote it in 1918. Then I picked up A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf's witty and caustic 1929 extended essay on the question of whether a sister of Shakespeare who possessed the Bard's innate talents would have had a chance to succeed.

Right now I'm wrestling with Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1866 book. This Russian one's tough to like, filled with characters that are tough to distinguish, a plot that seems to move nowhere fast, and prose so thick with fog that it's difficult to know what you're looking at. I'm half way through, so perhaps the payoff is still to come.

Trudging through Crime and Punishment does bring into sharp relief one down side of my personal endeavour: reading this stuff is not always fun. If I were reading strictly for enjoyment, I would have dismissed this one many chapters earlier. But I'm keen to understand the world view of the author and the time and place in which the work is set. And perhaps most of all, why this work has been revered for more than a century. It's possible that its place in the cultural canon is the product of high-minded literary masochism by generations of scholars, but more likely there's something at the heart of it that makes it worth celebrating. The challenge of the reader is to find that something.

Waiting ahead for me on the bookshelf is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, an American classic that doesn't seem to resonate as much in the rest of the world, and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work almost eclipsed by the film based on it. And then there's the content of the Freedom Library, whose shelves are heaving with tempting morsels.

Reading long and challenging books has become a lot tougher in the era of ubiquitous internet. Social media creates the opportunity for continuous social contact, meaning that when users log off there is a frequent, gnawing fear that they're missing out on something. And the nature of the writing on the internet has shortened attention spans, harming people's ability to stay focused on a task that lacks swift gratification.

But the rewards of reading classic works are great. There's something satisfying in knowing that the book you're reading has had its quality recognised across time and culture, and that the subjects at its heart are universal such that a reader living in a vastly different world to the writer can identify with the experience. It's awe-inspiring to know that the work you're reading has changed people's view of the world, perhaps even shaped history, and may yet shape the future. And when done well, it's a heck of a lot of fun to be guided by an author around a world that exists only in their mind - and soon yours.

Long after the newspaper article, vain autobiography or indulgent blog post has disappeared from memory, a great work of literature will stay in the reader's mind and shape their character. That alone makes the endeavour of reading from the canon a worthwhile one.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Interesting things happen when cars disappear

Every second Sunday morning, the fume-spewing metallic gridlock that permanently occupies Central Jakarta’s Jalan Thamrin and Jalan Sudirman disappears to make way for bikes, pedestrians, joggers, street performers and the occasional bookstore.

Car-free day has in recent years become an institution in the Indonesian capital, and in a city starved of open space, clear paths and fresh air, it’s little wonder that people have embraced the oasis of peace.

Jakarta is, in many ways, the Los Angeles of Southeast Asia. It’s a city built around cars, with those using other modes of transport a mere afterthought. The major thoroughfares accommodate several lanes of vehicle traffic, but are hostile to bicycles and in many instances offer not an inch of footpath for perambulators.

Cars are the physical embodiment of the city’s anti-social aggression; their presence, with their noise and pollution and hint of danger has a chilling effect on people who traverse the city on foot. Trying walking shoulder to shoulder with a chain of Avanzas and Xenias and Kijangs to understand why.

But on car-free day, those vehicles are pushed aside. What emerges is impressive.

Wandering the street on car-free day in late January, there were a steady stream of families strolling down the six-lane expanse, well-dressed parents de-stressing from their office drudgery while young children darted about unpredictably. Alongside them were hipsters who had embraced the retro appeal of “fixie” fixed-gear bicycles, simple and elegant machines that do away with every non-essential part of a bike, brakes included.

A group of cyclists with a keen interest in historic old bikes gathered in matching T-shirts to chat, ride, and admire each other’s facial hair. A group of Star Wars enthusiasts donned home-made costumes of their favourite characters, wielding light sabres in playful jousts.

A little further up the road was the “Drive Books, Not Cars” fair. The community fundraiser spends weeks gathering second-hard books, both in English and Bahasa Indonesia, and then sells them on picnic rugs and trestle tables just off the street. In the midst of a classic phase, I picked up a copy of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and a well-thumbed copy of Melville’s “Moby-Dick”.

A group of hippies claimed a stretch of open space to conduct demonstrate their fire eating, their meal punctuated with some playful slapstick in the proud tradition of street theatre. Middle-class families look on appreciatively, and the hat being passed around swiftly filled with 2,000 and 5,000 rupiah notes.

To understand the significance of such subversive activity, you need to appreciate the power that the street holds in the functioning of the city. Jalan Thamrin, as it is known in its northern stretch, and Jalan Sudirman, as it becomes further south, is a main artery of the thriving metropolis. Its four lanes of traffic in either direction are bumper-to-bumper at most hours of the day, and only a recently-established exclusive bus lane hosts vehicles that move through smoothly.

It acts as a microcosm for the city’s class divisions: its wealthy elite ride in cars (almost always as passengers rather than drivers), the middle-class weave in and out of the cars on ojek motorcycles, while the poor are on foot on the sidelines, begging, busking or vending whatever they can find.

The boulevard passes through the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, an enormous water fountain next to the city’s first international hotel that has become a gathering point for youth whiling away the hours. In the middle of the pond stands the socialist-realist Welcome Statue, a young boy and girl (known to some as Hansel and Gretel) striving forward with unseemly vigour and enthusiasm.

A little further south stands the dignified statue of General Sudirman, the Indonesian military hero who commanded forces against the Dutch colonials during the battle for independence in the 1940s. The figure of the fighter, who died aged just 34, stares down, appearing to be in awe of the bustling parade before him. Continue to the southern end of the street and you reach another statue, officially the Youth Monument Statue but better known as Flaming Pizza Man because of its pose, which completely lacks Sudirman’s dignity.

The street has also borne witness to some of the city’s dark chapters. In the heady days of 1998, military snipers positioned themselves on building around the Semanggi cloverleaf, created by the elaborate intersection with Jalan Gatot Subroto. As student protests grew restive, police and soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a dozen people and staining the street with blood.

Come Sundays, through, the signs of state power are far more benign. Members of the city’s Inline Skate Police squad roll through the streets on their sleek footwear, looking about as threatening as a miniature schnauzer.

Officers in training even use the car-free space as an opportunity to practice their marching, with units trundling down the street in near-perfect formation to the chant of “kiri… kiri… kiri, kanan, kiri…”. Young’uns race up to march beside them for a stretch, while people flock to take photos of the scene.

Cars act as a metaphor for the city as a whole. In many ways the city is an aggressive one, with corruption, incompetence and crassness matching the mood of its streets. So dominant in that mind-set that it is difficult for anyone to cope without yielding to it, no matter how honest or compassionate they might be.

For a morning a fortnight, we can take the cars off the streets and see community and creativity and healthy vitality arise. It’s hard not to wonder whether the same values might thrive if only we could do the same thing to the city as a whole – an arsehole-free day, perhaps – and see what emerges.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Life's tough for Indonesia's atheists

The plight of atheists in Indonesia has been attracting a bit of attention lately, with the sad case of the man facing five years in prison for doubting the existence of god in a Facebook post coming on the heels of this interesting profile on an atheist activist in the Jakarta Globe.

While Indonesia often prides itself on its religious tolerance, that tolerance is not readily extended to adherents of faiths or non-faiths beyond the six religions recognised in the Constitution (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism). And frankly, often adherents of those six have their rights violated, such as in the case of the East Java Shiites or the GKI Yasmin church congregation in Bogor.

Early on in my time in Indonesia, it was explained to me that Indonesians have a rather distrusting attitude to atheism. Many associate it with communism, which was demonised by Suharto after he ousted leftist Sukarno in 1965.

That may be part of it, but I think the explanation is a bit broader than that. Indonesians are a very spiritual people, be it in adhering to an established religion, the animist tradition or local folklore. To them, a person's religion is an inherent part of their character and identity, and so to deny your belief in a religion is to give the impression that you have all the facets necessary to be a fully formed person.

The commitment to rationalism the underlies most atheists' thinking is not well received in Indonesia. Here, people take their cues from leaders, from history and from superstition, and use that as the guide for acceptable behaviour. The idea that someone can assess the evidence before them and reach their own conclusion about the right course of action is unfamiliar, and perhaps even arrogant. Far safer, goes the thinking, to trust the judgement of others than to trust your own judgement.

Whatever the reason, there are very few people who publicly promote their atheism in this country.

Most foreigners who are atheists or believers of faiths beyond the six often decide that the safest option when asked about their religion in to nonchalantly declare themselves Protestants and let the matter rest. Engaging in a discussion on the topic can turn ugly quickly.

This can occasionally backfire for someone like me, who is atheist on matters spiritual. Last year, I was at a train station in Jakarta when an Indonesian man came up for a chat, and after the usual questions on where I was from, whether I was married and whether I had children, he asked my religion.

"Christian," I replied.
"Me?," he said, "I'm an atheist. So tell me, why are you a Christian? Why do you believe in god?"

Very good question. Served me right for not being more honest on these things.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jeremy and Adelle, the singing diplomats

A story of mine on Jeremy Stringer and Adelle Neary, the Australian diplomats making a name for themselves in Indonesia on TV talent show Asing Star, is in The Age today, and is available online here.

For those interested, here's the full version of the story I wrote, and a picture and a couple of video clips to go with it.

By Ari Sharp

When Adelle Neary and Jeremy Stringer came to Jakarta to represent the Australian government, they were both keen to strengthen the ties between Indonesia and its southern neighbour.

What they didn’t expect was to become celebrities in the process.

Neary, a 29-year-old from Adelaide, and Stringer, a 41-year-old from Fremantle, are the singing diplomats who have taken center stage in the television program Asing Star, and Australian Idol-type show that invites foreigners to sing Indonesian songs.

“What’s great about Indonesia is that they just like to see people up there having a go,” Stringer said in an interview at an upscale restaurant near the Australian embassy.

“In other singing contests, people actually want to become famous as a singer, whereas on this one the novelty is that you’re a foreigner who can sing in Indonesian,” Neary added.

Both have won two episodes of the Asing Star (“asing” means “foreign” in Bahasa Indonesia) and are in the running for a possible final planned by private broadcaster Trans 7 in the next month.

When the program launched last year, producers put appeals for contests out to major expatriate employers, including embassies.

Neary, who is in her first year of a three-year posting with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was a little reluctant at first to put herself forward because of a lack of performing experience. She’d had no formal voice training, and hadn’t sung publicly since her days in a school choir.

“I did what I now realise was an audition at their studio whereby they asked me some questions, took my clothes sizes, took a photo of me and then made me sing into a BlackBerry camera,” she said. “Then I found myself standing on the stage in the studio for a run through, and I realised it was really happening.”

Stringer, nearing the end of a four-year stint with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), was a little more enthusiastic because of his years of singing in choirs at home in Western Australia, including one that had sung Indonesian songs.

“I turned a corner and boom, it was the whole deal,” he said of his first day recording. “A singer and dancers on stage, house band playing, celebrity judges sitting out front, the audience dancing, TV cameras and cables and technicians everywhere. My stomach dropped and I just thought, ‘I am supposed to get up there and sing in front of all of this?’ But despite the terror, I did, and it was fun.”

Each episode of the program features five foreigners singing a song each, with a panel of three judges – a sinetron soap opera star, a rock musician and a comedian – casting votes. The winner, or in some cases joint winners, go through to the next week. Each is able to win up to two episodes, making it through to a possible final if they do. Competitors come from all over the world – Brazil, India, Russia and the Ukraine have all had representatives on the show - and many are in Jakarta on short-term modelling contracts.

The show taps into the Indonesian curiosity about Westerners, particularly those who have taken the time and effort to learn the language and culture of the country. The tone of it is relentlessly positive, with contestants lauded for their willingness to have a go, even if they don’t always hit the right note, or choose the right word in a post-song interview.

The contestants each get to choose which songs they would like to sing.
For his first song, Stringer chose Bento, a song by rock icon Iwan Fals that stuck with him from his time in Indonesian in the mid-1990s and sent out a subtle but firm message of protest and social rebellion at a time during the Suharto regime when such things were frowned upon.

His second song was Alusi Ahu, in the traditional Batak language of North Sumatra. “One of the judges on an episode that I won said he was really proud that I could sing one of their national songs,” he said.

Neary’s first song Selimut Hati, was chosen with little thought because of time pressures, but it’s her second song that has really connected with audiences. Bengawan Solo is a popular song about the Solo River from generations ago and is seen by contemporary Indonesians as passe. Neary’s willingness to embrace its dagginess, and breathe new life into it, complete with retro dance moves during the bridge, endeared her to judges and fans.

Stringer and Neary are both realistic about the diplomatic potential of their involvement in the program, although their meeting with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd early this week on his visit to Jakarta and a subsequent video of their brief chat did elevate its significance somewhat.

“It’s a bit of a getting-to-know-you exercise,” Neary said of the show. “It’s like the case in real life. The more you get to know somebody, the harder it is to impose a stereotype. So perhaps in that way, seeing a couple of everyday Australians up on the stage, singing in Bahasa and communicating in Bahasa in a pretty light-hearted and relaxed way, is an unexpected way to portray Australians.”

Stringer agreed, but saw some benefits flowing the other way. “I think Indonesia can seem quite inaccessible to Australians and I think that this experience might show Australians that [Indonesia’s] just like this, with normal everyday pop culture that is entirely accessible, that is entirely user-friendly,” he said.

As for the future, both say this is unlikely to prompt them to leave the diplomatic corp in pursuit of a singing career any time soon.

“Probably Australia’s interests are better served if I stick to my day job,” Neary said with a laugh. For now, though, she’s rifling through her extensive Indonesian music collection for a track to sing on the show’s Valentine’s Day episode.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The perils of being overly adaptive

Following on from my post last week about prolonged sensory overload being the explanation for many of the behaviors you see in Jakarta, I read an interesting piece in the Jakarta Globe (my employer) by Farid Harianto providing a similar explanation, although in slightly different terms:

Carol Graham of the Brookings Institute makes a powerful argument that a human’s ability to adapt to inhospitable conditions is a good thing for his or her psychological perspective but at the same time facilitates collective tolerance that leads to bad equilibrium. Humans can adapt to almost anything from poverty, unemployment, bad health, and high levels of crime and corruption. Adaptation is a very good thing, a human defense mechanism under unfavorable conditions.

The danger arises when this adaptability leads to surrender. Rather than attempting to change an all but intolerable condition, people collectively assume, and expect, that such a condition is merely a constraint that they have to live with.

Tolerance, such as is evident in the way our citizens approach the dreadful daily traffic of Jakarta, has led us to a bad equilibrium. While individually one can develop a human defense mechanism to cope with traffic jams (installing good audio systems in their cars, carrying the most current mobile gadgets or changing hours of work), the social costs of traffic jams are enormous. Every year in Jakarta billions of dollars are wasted on fuel and lost working time due to traffic, not to mention the costs associated with the increased stress of urban life.

The key to harnessing the power of human adaptability is to invoke strong disincentives and to create a collective expectation regarding what are good and bad behaviors. In particular, socially bad behaviors should be codified and harsh punishment consistently applied to offenders. The essence of such a state is that the rule of law is strongly observed and enforced.

He makes a fine point. I wasn't familiar with Carol Graham, but I am interested to learn more. This paper looks like a good place to start.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Invest in Indonesia: Rudd

Yesterday, I was among a group of Australian journalists participating in a briefing with visiting Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd on his visit to Jakarta.

I had a piece published in the Australian Financial Review on the discussion (page eight today, behind a pay wall online), but due to space limitations, there was no room for some of the content.

Here's the full version I wrote.

By Ari Sharp

The Australian corporate sector risks missing out opportunities in Indonesia as it moves toward its long-term place among one of the 10 largest economies in the world, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said on a visit to Jakarta.

Mr Rudd, speaking after meeting with the country’s new trade minister, Gita Wirjawan, urged large Australian companies to conduct one board meeting a year in Indonesia so that members could witness the growth in the world’s fourth most populous nation.

The Australian minister praised a trio of significant economic reforms that he said was part of “Indonesia 2.0” and made the country a more attractive destination to foreign investors.

The “landmark” reforms he identified were the introduction of 10-year tax holidays for many foreign investors, the passage by the parliament last month of a land acquisition bill that is expected to speed up the development of infrastructure, and the liberalisation of workplace laws that reduce barriers to the hiring and firing of staff.

The new trade minister, Mr Rudd noted, was a “dynamic figure” who would continue the “radical transformation of the Indonesian economy” instigated by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“The winds of change are definitely blowing when it comes to the liberalisation of this economy,” he said.

He noted that companies from several Asian countries, including South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, had established a firm foothold in Indonesia, but Australian companies had so far failed to take full advantage of its close proximity.

“There is a grave danger that this one passes us by,” Mr Rudd said. “It’s important now for corporate Australia to step up to the plate.”

While Australian companies have long had a presence in the nation’s resources sector, Mr Rudd said Indonesia was becoming an appealing site for investors in the finance and services sectors. Australian banks ANZ and Commonwealth have both established a significant presence in Indonesia, while Rio Tinto has a significant stake in a Papua copper and gold mine.

Indonesia’s economy grew an estimated 6.5 percent last year, and the country’s central bank has forecast growth of 6.3 percent in 2012. While the targets dwarf growth expectations in the West, they are lower than that anticipated by many other countries at a similar point in their development. These figures also represent a reduction from the seven-plus percent growth experienced during the latter period of the Suharto administration.

“This is not a small economy anymore,” he said, noting that Indonesia’s current gross domestic product of $900 billion could surpass that of Australia, which currently stands at about $1.4 trillion, by the end of the decade. He predicted Indonesia would be one of the globe’s 10 largest economies by 2050; the International Monetary Fund currently ranks Indonesia in 17th place globally.

Mr Rudd acknowledged that Australian companies doing business in Indonesia faced some risks, but that those were far outweighed by the potential benefits.
“Life’s an imperfect beast,” he said. “If we wait for nirvana to be produced… then we’ll miss the boat.”

His comments came less than a month after several protesters were killed at the port servicing a mining site in West Nusa Tenggara province operated by Australian gold miner Arc Exploration.

On his two-day visit to Indonesia, Mr Rudd met with ministers for foreign affairs, trade and agriculture.

Mr Rudd and Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa on Monday announced they had made progress on cooperative efforts to thwart people-smugglers, many of whom use Indonesia as a transit country before heading to Australia. The two said they would share information on the flow of asylum seekers, and that Australia would offer its expertise on detecting and preventing document fraud.

Mr Rudd said he was keen for Wirjawan and the Indonesian Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Rajasa to visit Australia soon to showcase the Indonesian economy to potential Australian investors.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Jakarta's sensory overload

You don’t need to be in Jakarta for long to experience sensory overload.

Take the near-deafening noise that acts as the soundtrack to the city. Wander through the streets of Jakarta, and it’s not uncommon to hear people shouting in conversation despite being within a metre or two of one another. Many older vehicles have long discarded their mufflers, and trundle along the street inducing headaches in anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. Head to a cinema, and the soundtrack is pumped out at a significantly louder volume than theatres in other parts of the world.

Or consider the street food that constitutes the diet of many Indonesians. A popular snack stand is simply labelled gorengan, which translates as fried. On offer are half-a-dozen different things – tofu, tempeh, banana, cassava and more – battered and deep-fried in cheap oil to the point where the ingredient at the core of the greasy delight is sometimes hard to locate. An essential condiment to gorengan is whole green chillies, which are liberally added. Salt, chilli and oil are the mainstays of Indonesian popular cuisine, and people embrace it.

Or look at the forms of entertainment that keep people enraptured. The Indonesian film industry exists largely of horror films. Most are needlessly and gorily bloody, with extended scenes of torture a common feature. Where horror films elsewhere rely on developing characters in whom the audience invest their sympathies and use the power of inferred terror to reach the dark side of viewers, such techniques are eschewed by Indonesian film makers. Instead, the characters are thinly drawn and the violence is bloody, graphic, and always front and centre.

On one level, you can treat these things as discrete, separate idiosyncrasies. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

On a social and cultural level, the Indonesia of today is not too different to the Indonesia of recent decades, the very place and time when today’s Indonesians were growing up. So people here grew up with thumping noise, palate-burning cuisine and graphic violence, and have over time developed a resistance to it. Adding to the phenomena is the frequent thuggery of Indonesia’s not-so-distant past. The norm for most people, therefore, is a high level of sensory input, so that on a sociological and even physical level, they become unfazed by it. This, for many people, is life as it always has been.

For any new sensation to make an impact, therefore, it must reach a level of intensity greater than that with which people are already familiar. Or looked at another way, people become far more tolerant of unpleasant environmental factors, so that the urge to object (say, to quagmire traffic jams that steal hours of your time each day) is less.

When I ride the Kopaja minibus, one thing often surprises me. The standard process for paying your Rp 2,000 fare is to wait for the bus jockey to wander up the aisle, his (and occasionally her) presence heralded by him shaking a handful of coins to create a tell-tale tinkle. It’s a distinctive sound, though a relatively soft one, and I always hear them coming behind me. But I’ve noticed that many Indonesian passengers seem oblivious to it, even as the sound is being made right behind them, and rely on being physically tapped on the shoulder before apparently noticing the presence of the jockey.

The prospect that the passenger is deliberately playing dumb (or in this case, deaf) to avoid paying their fare appears unlikely: everyone pretty swiftly is asked to pay up, and fare-evasion is virtually zero. More likely is that people have weaker hearing, either in a physical sense or in the social sense, that they are less attentive to the sounds around them and so block them out. Both are possible, and reflect the consequence of growing up in a noisy environment – it dulls your hearing.

Replicate that across all five senses, and you can appreciate that Jakarta can have a remarkable effect on those who grow up in it.

But I suspect the phenomenon reaches the sensory organs, and also affects people’s psyche.

Scandal after scandal has rocked the Indonesian political establishment, with each allegation of corruption and impropriety more tawdry than the one that came before it: lawmakers failing to attend sessions of parliament, bureaucrats signing off on resources contracts that undervalue national assets by billions of dollars, legislators brazenly accepting kickbacks to support the funding of certain projects at the expense of others, dozens dying as a bridge collapses after inferior materials were likely used in its construction.

The sense of outrage, however, is muted. Little of this is new, and decades of disappointment have meant that the standards the public expects their leaders to uphold are so low as to be negligible. Only the very rare scandal that can cut through the public’s collective thick hide – like the Muhammad Nazaruddin saga, in which a government legislator allegedly sought kickbacks for a construction project before running off to Colombia when he was found out – manages the inspire genuine anger.

Of course, there is an upside to this sensory and psychic overload for people who have grown up among it. It breeds a hardy resilience, meaning that no matter how long the odds of success might be, people persist and persist, and upon each setback, dust themselves off and try again. People are also forced to be more creative and entrepreneurial, finding something new and inventive to rise above the ordinary – thankfully, not everyone simply becomes louder, spicier or more visceral.

People are ultimately a product of their environment, and that has never been more evident than in the bustling metropolis of Jakarta. My entire thesis, I admit, is based on anecdotal evidence, but the unrelenting sights, sounds and smells of the city – let alone those things than affect the mind as well as the sense organs – surely have some underlying explanation. From my vantage point, this is it.