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.