I’m nearing the end of the first (nine-month long) leg of my Indonesian Odyssey and I don’t feel much closer to understanding the heart of this torturously complicated but endlessly fascinating nation. I’ve done my best to try and sum up some of my thoughts in the June issue of Prospect, one of UK’s more intelligent monthly magazines.
In theory, every child in Indonesia gets at least three years of English teaching in primary school, and several years more in middle and secondary school. So it’s initially surprising that the majority of Indonesian kids can manage nothing more than “Hello Mister!”, and the occasional “wossyonem?” Perhaps more surprising still that so many seem to aspire to English language graffiti.
Last week, I had an insight into why they don’t absorb more English. I was having breakfast with a primary school teacher in the Banggai islands in central Sulawesi. What time does school start? I asked. “Seven”. It was ten past. I raised an eyebrow. “It’s OK, I’ve told the school head I’ve got a guest”.
This did not seem OK to me, so I volunteered to come along to school and help with the English class. We got to school at 7.30; the grounds were awash with kids in their tidy uniforms, running around screaming as primary school kids are wont to do. Not one of the other eight teachers had shown up. My friend took her class (year one). I took years 4 and 6, since they were scheduled for English that day. Classes 2, 3 and 5 were told to go and sit quietly and study by themselves. After a couple of hours, the head teacher showed up. “I’m not supposed to teach, but sometimes I have to fill in,” she grumbled. No sign of any other teachers.
With teachers playing hookey like this, is it any wonder that even Indonesia’s vandalism is illiterate?
P.S. On the subject of Punk Rut, I was interested in this headline from the Jakarta Globe:
I suspect these punks of lacking conviction…
As part of the Makassar Writers’ Festival, I’ve been asked to give a talk about HIV in Indonesia at the faculty of public health at Hasanuddin University. I’m reluctant. I’ve been wandering Indonesia without any thought of focusing on HIV for over eight months now. In that time I’ve met a surprising number of widows, orphans and middle-aged couples who have lost a child. Only one of those deaths has been HIV related. The rest are all in traffic accidents, mostly involving motorbikes.
That’s not entirely surprising. Bike ownership in Indonesia is booming, with 8.1 million new motorcycles crowding on to the country’s shockingly bad (and already crowded) roads last year. It’s perfectly common to see primary school kids driving motorbikes; it’s very rare to see a primary school kid in a helmet. And the industry is not exactly doing a lot to promote norms of safe driving. Here’s how Suzuki was pimping its new (quite girly, automatic transmission) model in Bau Bau, Southeast Sulawesi, last weekend.
Reporting of road accident related deaths is even worse than reporting of AIDS deaths in Indonesia. But working on best estimates, death contracted on the roads far outstrips death contracted in bed or while shooting up. Some 32,000 people died because of road accidents in Indonesia last year alone, a quarter of them teen-aged boys, and 60% of them on motorbikes. Ten times as many were injured badly enough to alter their daily lives. That compares with just over 5,000 Indonesians reported as having died of AIDS, ever. Let me repeat that. Over 30,000 road deaths a year, versus 5,000 or so AIDS deaths over the last 25 years. And yet Indonesia spent US$ 69.2 million preventing HIV infections and AIDS deaths last year, 60% of it taken out of the wallets of taxpayers in other countries, much of it spent very badly indeed. Indonesia does have a national road safety action plan, but, according to the Director of Road Safety in the Ministry of Transport, it has no dedicated budget to cut death on the roads. If I didn’t know better, I might console myself that HIV is not much of a problem in Indonesia precisely because of the prevention spending. Sadly, that’s not true. I also recognise, of course, that death tolls are not the only basis on which to make public health decisions. But it doesn’t take a very sophisticated observer to see that HIV programmes in Indonesia are grossly over-financed relative to other important killers and maimers, notably road death. (Then there’s smoking, but that’s a whole nother post…)
It doesn’t seem like this problem is likely to evaporate. Though the motorbike industry is wringing its hands over the effect that a perfectly sensible new restriction on credit will have, I’m not seeing it in the field. The Suzuki mob were offering new bikes for a downpayment of just 350,000 rupiah (about US$ 38.00). If that meets the 25% deposit requirement of the regulations, which came into effect this month, then it is a VERY good value bike, despite being girly. Even by the most pessimistic estimates, there will probably be another 6.5 million bikes and over 800,000 more cars on the roads by the end of this year compared with the start. Remove the several thousand that will be reduce to scrap by crashes, and its still a huge net addition.
For an idea of how far Indonesia has to go in making its roads safe, check out this presentation by Eric Howard. There’s lots he doesn’t mention — the political incentives to finance the building of sub-standard roads, the fact that Indonesians think road safety campaigns are just another way for policemen to extract bribes — but there are some priceless photos that show just why for most Indonesians, it’s probably far more dangerous to make your way to work or to school than it is to have sex.
Asphalt. It’s not something I’ve ever given much thought to, except to wish there were more of it under the wheels of my car (Kenya) or motorbike (Indonesia). But now I’m in Buton, the island in Southeast Sulawesi which is one of the world’s largest suppliers of the stuff of which dream highways are made, so I thought I’d go and see an asphalt mine.
I say “mine”, but in eastern Buton you can walk across the slightly bouncy ground, bend down and pick up chunks of pure asphalt with your bare hands. It requires virtually no processing: scrunch it up a bit, roll it out and you’ve got a nice new road. The Buton Asphalt Indonesia company’s website proudly showcases the billard-table smooth roads that China builds with asphalt from Buton. And certainly China’s hungry for tar. A mainland Chinese company has piled up 50,000 tonnes of the stuff on the wharf I visit; the asphalt mountain stretches off into the distance, for all the world like an old-fashioned Welsh slag heap. It is scheduled to be dispatched to China that very night (five weeks after Indonesia’s ban on the export of raw minerals came suddenly into effect, but that’s another story…).
The local government does nicely out of this business. Each existing mine needs at least four different types of licence (environmental, business, mining, “exploitation”), none of which is free. There are taxes and royalties. And some of the mines are owned by local politicians. The potential for future earnings is huge: it’s estimated that there are reserves of about 3.6 billion tonnes of natural asphalt in Buton; at current prices that’s a “street value” of US$360 billion. So answer me this: why did it take me over three hours to drive the 78 kilometres from the main city of Bau Bau to the asphalt mining area? Why does the local government not spend just a little bit of that revenue buying some of the asphalt hacked out of the ground in its very own district, and laying it down on the road pictured at the top of this post, the main thoroughfare leading to Asphalt Central?
Many of you will be familiar with Indonesia’s approach to timekeeping, affectionately known as “rubber time”. Like rubber (and the patience of many Indonesians), it can be stretched almost infinitely. Unlike rubber, it tends only to stretch in one direction. Buses start filling up on a notional schedule but don’t leave until they are full; ferries board passengers from a given time, but probably won’t ship out until the tide is right. Meetings are set for time x, and start at time x plus however long it takes the most important person to arrive.
I’ve had the pleasure of waiting 18 hours for a Pelni passenger ferry (and Pelni is historically probably Indonesia’s most reliable transport company). So I wasn’t surprised last week when I arrived at the port at Belitung, in Western Indonesia, to see no boat. I scanned the horizon; it wasn’t even in view, which means it will be another three hours at least. I was a little more surprised not to see any other passengers, but then my Pelni experience had all been on the other side of the vast gulf that divides neglected Eastern Indonesia from the sophisticated West. There are four direct flights a day from Belitung to Jakarta — not an option in most of Eastern Indonesia. They are cheap, take only an hour, and some of them even leave on time. With that on offer, why would anyone choose to spend 12 hours rolling about on a boat, and untold hours waiting for it?
I want to take the boat precisely because I want to compare the Pelni experience in Eastern and Western Indonesia. The port staff are there; one is asleep, the other fanning himself with a newspaper. Oh dear, I might be here a while. And the dock is 30 kilometres from town, so I can’t even sit gossiping while I wait with the owner of my favourite Belitung coffee shop, who happens to moonlight as a parliamentarian. “So when might it grace us with its presence?” I ask the news fanner. “What, the boat to Jakarta? Aduh! It’s already left, bu!” And then, reassuringly: “But don’t worry, there’s another boat next week.” I can’t believe my ears. I’m sure they couldn’t believe theirs, either, when they heard my colourful response. The ferry left four and a half hours before the scheduled time published on the internet that morning, and three and a half hours before the time printed in the newspaper the day before. Twenty four years into my co-dependent relationship with Indonesia, I have learned that rubber time can indeed stretch in both directions.
I don’t like going to the dentist; I’m capable of inventing all sorts of the-dog-ate-my-homework excuses for my inevitable last-minute foot-dragging. But as is so often the case, Indonesia’s reality outstrips my imagination. As I rocked up late for my regular check-up yesterday, I was able to lay the blame at the Satanically clad feet of Lady Gaga. My path to dental hygiene was blocked by Islamic groups trying to keep her out of the homeland. They included this group of young women, dressed in fashions imported wholesale from Saudi Arabia, waving posters saying: “Reject Cultural Invasion!”. No comment.
The Gaga Saga has been running for a while. Essentially, a minority of noisy radicals in Jakarta’s largely Moslem population think that Lady Gaga is the Devil. She promotes homosexuality and general licenciousness, apparently, and as for her backing dancers, well… Student groups, the good gentlemen of the FPI (the Islamic Defenders’ Front) and even some conservative Christians have been demonstrating against the concert, planned for June 6th. The police, widely accused for years now of fainting whenever the FPI sneezes, has shilly-shallied about whether to issue a permit for the concert. They’ve said they will if the Minstry of Religious Affairs and the Indonesian Council of Ulemas issue permits first. As if Lady Gaga were a bag of chips that needed to be certified as Halal.
Lots of people would like to big this up as another indication that Radical Islam is tightening its grip on Indonesia. I rather think it indicates exactly the reverse. Moderate Muslim groups as well as Gaga fans have added to Jakarta’s traffic jams with their own protests, underlining the importance of religious freedom in Indonesia. Bali has offered to host the concert. And the generally sensible Minstry of Tourism and Creative Industries has said the concert should go ahead.
Yes, militant Moslems shout disproportionately loudly in the public sphere in Indonesia. They probably get their way disproportionately frequently in consequence. But how does that differ from the disproportionate influence of militant Christians in the United States? Terrorising providers of reproductive health services in Tennessee is to my mind rather more damaging than terrorising providers of sexually inclusive pop lyrics in Jakarta. Indeed the Defenders of Gaga in Indonesia have been more vocal than the defenders of a woman’s right to reproductive self-determination in many parts of the States.
To my mind, Saga Gaga is a mark of how remarkably robust Indonesia’s democracy is [or maybe it isn’t: see UPDATE, below]. It is a reminder, also, of how very obtuse people can be when they prioritise the letter of the religious law over the principles that guide the faith. Without wishing to overstate her cultural importance, I think it is fair to say that Lady Gaga is a powerful advocate for inclusiveness. That seems to me entirely consistent with the core principles of most major religions, which acknowledge human frailty and try to address it with compassion. The thugs who would oppose Lady Gaga in the name of religion undermine that core. According to the Jakarta Globe, the FPI was handing out leaflets saying “Let’s crush liberals! Let’s fight gays and lesbians!”. Inclusiveness is not in their vocabulary. As for compassion…
The thugs are stupid at a more basic level, too; no promoter could hope to scrape up the publicity that they are providing for free. Indeed they’ve gone even further; they are underwriting her tour. FPI leaders proudly report that they have bought over a hundred tickets to see the show, should it go ahead. Not, you understand, because they are interested in seeing the Diva strut her stuff, but so that they can protect other concert goers from the damage that watching her might do. As I write, the fate of the concert is undecided. but I hope it goes ahead. I’m trying to imagine what someone as creative as Gaga could do with a set of stage costumes based on the burka.
On 27th of May, Gaga’s management said they would cancel the concert, because they didn’t want any harm to come to The Lady or her fans. I would not have predicted this; it makes me sick to my stomach for all the obvious reasons.