Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sampai jumpa, Indonesia

After three years and a lot of fried tofu, I am this weekend leaving Jakarta to return to Australia. It's been a fantastic time here, full of new friends and new experiences. But the time is right to pulang kampung for a new challenge.

Before I head down the tollroad to Soekarno-Hatta one last time, I offer up a collection of observations about Indonesia - where it is, and where it's going.

- The facade of democracy is in place, but it still lacks form. At first glance, Indonesia has all the institutions of democracy - a phalanx of political parties, regular free elections, a free press and an active civil society. Most importantly, just about everyone recognises that it's the only game in town when it comes to accessing political power. But on closer inspection it becomes evident that these institutions sometimes fail in practice to fulfill their purpose - political parties are personality-driven rather than policy-driven, bribes are used to woo voters, major media outlets are owned by key political figures and the availability of protesters-for-hire devalues public shows of discontent. Consolidating democracy in Indonesia involves giving substance to the signifiers.

 - Cultural battle lines are being drawn. With a large number of people having reached adulthood during the Reformasi period that began with the downfall of Suharto in 1998, there is a critical mass of people keen on values of cosmopolitanism - democracy, religious tolerance, cultural creativity and right rather than might determining which ideas prevail. But advocates of those values are facing a struggle against conservatives keen to return to some of the institutions of Suharto's New Order, such as a strong military and nationalist cultural agenda, while also seeking to promote Islamist ideas. This tension can be seen in issues like the Jakarta concert planned by Lady Gaga in 2012, when a hard-line Muslim group sought to assert its authority over younger, more permissive youth in determining whether the event could go ahead, and found willing supporters among the police and some political elite. The broader battle is for the heart and soul of the nation, and neither side is likely to yield easily.

- Demographics are a great opportunity, but also a great threat. Indonesia has a high and growing share of its population of working age, giving it great potential to establish itself as the powerhouse economy of Southeast Asia with booming manufacturing and resources industries. Handled well, this will fuel the growth in the middle-class, which is already sizable. But if it fails to generate enough job opportunities for the half the population now aged under 29, Indonesia risks having this youthful population turn angry and vent its fury on the state. The large number of young, idle men that were a decisive factor in the emergence of the Arab Spring could yet cause similar issues in Indonesia. The country would be wise to unleash the creative potential of its people.

- Economic prospects are bright, but beware of complacency. There's no mistaking the potential for Indonesia's economy, where favourable demographics, abundance of natural resources and closeness to the major consumer markets of Asia leave local and foreign investors alike giddy with excitement. But if the country's policy-makers assume that rapid growth is its assured destiny, they could be in for a shock. The country needs to put in place the right policy settings to grow the economy and encourage investment, both from home and abroad. It needs to balance the national budget with hard-but-necessary actions like cutting fuel subsidies, turn the bold plans for improved infrastructure into reality and improve the quality of education so that graduates are creative and analytical thinkers rather than rote learners. Without that, Indonesia will lose out to its more-nimble neighbours.

- Greater Jakarta is packing too many people into too small a space. Depending on where you place the boundary, Jakarta is home to between 8 million and 20 million people, and the number grows steadily each year. Few countries in the world have such a high concentration of economic, political and cultural activity in a single city. The infrastructure and job opportunities, however, have failed to keep pace. This has left the capital as a tough urban jungle, with notorious traffic jams, poverty and crime that make it tough to lead a good life. The solution often touted is to improve the supply of infrastructure, through projects like an urban train network, floodwater canals and high-rise public housing. But the problem is already too entrenched for those things to make much difference. Instead, a demand-side approach is needed - cut the number of people living in the capital. Partly this can be achieved by boosting job opportunities in other cities and villages so that ambitious young people don't feel that they have to move to Jakarta. It might also involve the previously touted relocation of the capital to somewhere outside Java, so that the share of the population whose work involves the national government move with it.

- Religious pluralism remains perilous. President Yudhoyono may have last year received an international award for his efforts to promote religious tolerance in the country, but the reality is that the country is occasionally hostile to some faiths. While there are six religions formally recognised in Indonesia, nearly 90 percent of the population are Muslim and a significant minority within that group adopts a fairly doctrinaire approach to their faith that sits uncomfortably in a multi-religious environment. Many cases are emerging in which religious minorities are targeted by hardline Islamic forces - look at the blockading of the GKI Yasmin church in Bogor and the arrest of an atheist in Sumatra. But many conflicts are between different strands of Islamic thought - like the brutal thuggery against the Ahmadiyah in West Java and the anti-Shiite tensions that led to dozens fleeing Madura island. Some enlightened Islamic leaders are preaching tolerance, but there are still others who have dreams of a Shariah state.

- Remarkable sense of unity across the country. Indonesia is far from a natural political grouping, with a wide diversity of cultures spread across 17,000 islands, and it was only during the Dutch colonial period that it came to be recognised as a single political entity. Many people feared when Suharto fell and East Timor broke away that the country would Balkanise, with forces seeking independence in Papua, Aceh and other places asserting their claim. But most of that restiveness has settled, and few see a better future for themselves outside Indonesia than within it. Despite the cultural and geographic differences between many parts of the country, cities and villages are actually incredibly similar. Pick any town in Indonesia and you're sure to find an alun-alun (central square) at the heart of it, warungs (street stalls) and kaki limas (wandering vendors) selling bakso (meatball soup) and gorengan (fried things) and teens in black jackets offering lifts on a motorcycle. Even the streets that radiate from the centre will carry the same names, honouring heroes like Diponegoro, Yani and Sudirman. Such similarities suggest that Jakarta has been very effective in instilling a sense of nationhood that transcends regional identity.

I've been very fortunate to watch Indonesia up close over the past three years, moving through periods of despair about some of its intractable problems to admiration for the thriving democracy and economy that has emerged. At the end of the New Order period 16 years ago this future was far from assured, but the hard work of its people has left it largely peaceful and unified. There's even data to suggest that it's the happiest place in the world.

Indonesia's a fascinating place to watch, and the rest of the world would be wise to keep a close eye on it. I look forward to seeing what the years ahead hold. Over and out.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

10 Jakarta hotspots that shine a light on the independence era

Jakarta has plenty to offer history buffs. For people keen to understand what the city was like from its founding in 1527 until the Dutch finally gave up their claim in 1949, there is an impressive array of sites that convey the colonial grandeur. Visitors can check out the cargo ships docked in Sunda Kelapa harbour, or the old immigration office that's now the luxurious Kunstkring Paleis restaurant and gallery in Cikini, or the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta concert hall in Pasar Baru. While many of the colonial buildings are crumbling, others have been lovingly maintained.

But the city also has a rich legacy from its more recent past. Indonesia has a fascinating history from the time of the rebellion against colonial masters through the socialist Guided Democracy of Sukarno, the authoritarian New Order of Suharto and the chaotic creativity of Reformasi. Each of these eras has left a mark on the city, both in the way they have shaped the thinking of its citizens, and in the statues, grave sites and museums that remain.

They say that history is written by the winners, and this is particularly apt in Indonesia's case. Successive presidents have sought to put their own slant on the events of the nation's history, emphasising some elements and downplaying others in a calculated way to help further a more contemporary agenda. The authority to write the text, build the dioramas and create the mood at a given site gives tremendous power to whoever is telling the story. This power has been skillfully exploited by presidents and those seeking to craft the narrative on their behalf.

In this sense, a visit to a historical site is illuminating twice over - it reveals the story of the initial event that first established a site as a historical place, and then reveals the prejudices of the authority figures telling the story. You can see this in action in the way that sites opened under Sukarno places a special emphasis on ending the colonial era and establishing independence, which those from Suharto's time draw attention to military power and the menace posed by communism. As for those sites opened in the Reformasi era, a focus on the unity of the nation through troubled times is emerging.

And so, in no particular order, here are some Jakarta spots that shine a light on independence-era history.

1. Museum Perumusan Naskah Proklamasi (Proclamation Manuscript Museum). This is where it all began, late one August night in 1945, when Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta and some supporters chose to use Japan's loss of World War II to assert Indonesia's claim to independence. The proclamation itself was rather understated, but its symbolic significance was profound. These days the Menteng house where the document was drafted and signed, at Jalan Iman Bonjol No. 1, is preserved much as it was that night, with mannequins used to depict the key participants. The impressive photographic collection on the walls shows the vibrant enthusiasm of the leaders of the nation and the struggle they maintained against Dutch colonials not yet convinced that Indonesia should be free of its yoke.

2. Taman Makam Pahlawan (Heroes Cemetery). Desperate to build a sense of history and pride in the young nation, Sukarno in the 1950s established the Indonesian Heroes Cemetery in Kalibata, South Jakarta, to honour the military figures who had given their lives to the country and later civilian leaders who had dedicated themselves to the nationalist cause. Now the immaculately maintained cemetery on Jalan Pahlawan Kalibata has sections devoted to each of the recognised religions and is the resting place of many noteworthy figures, among them the victims of the aborted coup in 1965 and government minister across the ages. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier matches the reverence of its counterparts around the world.

3. Museum Satria Mandala (Armed Forces Museum). Once the struggle against colonialism was won, the nation's attention shifted to defending what had been liberated from forces both internal and external. For decades the ABRI had the dual functions of ensuring security against foreign invaders and also, often with a brutal streak, against threats from within. Achieving these twin objectives required military hardware, and lots of it, some made locally but much imported from Cold War powers keen to bring Indonesia to their side. After they were retired, many of these items of military equipment were put on display at this museum on Jalan Gatot Subroto in Semanggi. Now kids can climb all over the helicopters, rockets and warships while slightly uneasy adults take photos.

4. Lubang Buaya and the Monumen Pancasila Sakti (Crocodile Hole and Pancasila Sakti Monument). In the early hours of October 1, 1965, the bodies of seven military men were dumped in this well in Pondok Gede, South Jakarta, by forces keen to avert a military coup against the socialist president Sukarno. The plot ended up emboldening rivals to Sukarno, including Suharto, who undertook a nationwide rampage over several years against anyone suspected of leftist sympathies. Now the hole itself is on display, with an ominous red light shining up from deep inside the shaft, and a nationalist statue celebrates the heroism of the slain soldiers in brutalist propagandist style. The gory details of September 30 and the morning that followed are presented in unflinching dioramas, and a mannequins are used to depict the torturous barbarism that was supposedly inflicted on some of the generals before their death.

5. Museum Pengkhianatan PKI (Indonesian Communist Party Betrayal Museum). Anti-communist museum propaganda doesn't come much finer than this effort from Suharto in the early 1990s. The Lubang Buaya museum next door was opened more than a decade earlier, but was presumably not doing a good enough job in demonising leftists and thereby providing a moral justification for Suharto's slayings of the 1960s. So up popped this Pondok Gede museum, which uses lurid dioramas to show dozens of incidents of supposed communist disloyalty to the Indonesian state across the country. Every caption rams home the message that the threat of communism is real, and it is hard not to imagine generations of school children who passed through its corridors not having their world view shaped by it.

6. Balibo Five gravesite. After the Portuguese colonials pulled out of East Timor in the mid-1970s, it didn't take Indonesia long to lay claim on the briefly independent state using a heavy military force. There to capture the action were a group of journalists from Australia and a colleague from New Zealand. On October 16, 1975, in the town of Balibo, the five were slain in mysterious circumstances despite identifying themselves as foreigners who posed no threat. The truth behind their deaths has long been the subject of conjecture. Their bodies now lie in a single, modest gave in the Christian section of the Tanah Kusir cemetery in South Jakarta, a spot that has occasionally received visitors from their home countries as well as others who saw their deaths as a blow to press freedom. Finding the grave can be tricky - it's not far from the adorned burial site of founding vice president Mohammad Hatta, but it's probably easiest to ask the freelance labourers who keep the graves in good condition.

7. Suharto's home. When he was forced from office in 1998, Suharto and his family had accumulated riches amounting to anywhere between US$15 billion and US$35 billion. But during his presidency and beyond, the kleptomaniac-in-chief lived in a modest Menteng home at Jalan Cendana No. 8, where he would receive visitors and plot ways to preserve his power. The single story house is now empty, but a security patrol keeps watch on things and visitors occasionally come and go. The low-slung green roof and expansive garden make it seem a rather pleasant place, and set it aside from the more extravagant homes that line this street and others nearby in upmarket Menteng.

8. Museum Purna Bhakti Pertiwi. The entire Taman Mini Indonesia Indah theme park is a garish tribute to Suharto's vision of Indonesia, with museums celebrating the country's achievements in culture, technology and sport surrounding a lake depicting the archipelago in miniature. On the fringes of Taman Mini, in East Jakarta, lies a grand shrine to the strongman leader, colloquially known as the Suharto Museum. At the entrance, tens of metres of sculpted wooden panels tell the life story of Suharto with great affection, while inside hectares of space over several floors are devoted to the thousands of gifts he and his wife, Ibu Tien, received. Gifts from foreign leaders, provincial governors and company executives all vie for space in the vast glass cabinets that were intended as a sign of the president's magnanimity but instead illustrate his rapaciousness. Admiring visitors can check out the many military honour bestowed on Pak Harto, or have themselves photographed sitting opposite the man at a mock-up of his desk. Opened in the mid-1990s, the museum now sends a very different message to the one its founder intended.

9. Gedung Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (House of Representatives Building) and Semanggi cloverleaf. After decades of seemingly unrivaled control on the state, Suharto's grip on power was loosened by the tumultuous events of the Asian Financial Crisis, which exposed in stark terms the corruption that was endemic in the country's banking system. Amid the public disquiet over rising prices and a plummeting rupiah in May 1998, it was brave students who led the push for Suharto to leave office, calls that were often met with brutal repression from the military and police. The opposition to Suharto prompted many protesters to mass at the House of Representatives Building in Senayan, where they occupied the chamber and demanded a government that respected public aspirations. Later in the year, more than a dozen protesters were shot and killed from the elevated portion of the Semanggi cloverleaf, the elaborate intersection of main streets Jalan Gatot Subroto and Jalan Sudirman. While no physical monuments are on display, wandering around the area can give a sense of the bravery it took to stare down the only national leader most protesters had ever known.

10. Bank Indonesia Museum. You can learn much about a country's history through its financial system, all the more so in an archipelagic nation that owes much of its development to its openness to trade. That's the logic behind the ambitious Bank Indonesia Museum on Fatahillah Square, the centrepiece to the historic Kota Tua district of North Jakarta. While the immaculately maintained building is itself a great example of colonial-era architecture, it is the display itself that sets the attraction apart. Using vivid scenes, thoughtful archival samples and accessible bilingual text, the museum takes visitors through hundreds of years of the country's banking and financial system. The tensions between competing colonial forces, as well as between colonialists and natives, are brought to life, as are the shifts in the nation's economy. The jaw-dropping climax tells the story of the Asian Financial Crisis using haunting music, hell-red mood lighting and panels of angst-filled videos to capture the mood of that troubled time in history such that it feels more like a war than a banking problem. But that's the idea, given the museum is a Reformasi-era product of Bank Indonesia in its efforts to foster a responsible attitude towards money among ordinary people.

No doubt there are plenty more sites rich in history in Jakarta, but these are the ones that caught my eye in my three years living here. Selamat jalan!