In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project
“Use good and correct Indonesian” urges this placard. Though perhaps not overseas.
In the windswept west of Ireland, I’m struggling with notebooks written in “Bahasa Gado Gado” — a mixture of English and Indonesian which at times catches me by surprise. This bit, for example: “Local rich people count their capital in hewan, dan dengan ratusan ekor pun tidak bisa beli semen”. Which translates as: “Local rich people count their capital in cattle, and even with hundreds of cattle you can’t buy semen.” Oh wait, no, you can’t buy cement.
The moment of confusion when reading my own notes explains why Semen Gresik, a large Indonesian cement producer that wants to buff up its image internationally, is planning to change its name. That shows that the country is beginning to think more about its place on the world stage, beginning to consider how outsiders perceive it. This is so important that even Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has signed off on the new name, according to the Jakarta Globe.
And what’s the new name? Drumroll, please: Semen Indonesia. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
I am pleased to note that this gem is deemed worthy of Unspun’s coveted Shit-for-Brains award. A gold medal to the marketing team, please.
This Reuters photo (oddly branded by Merdeka) shows what Indonesian athletes wear under their sarongs
The day before the Olympics began, I ate at a warung nasi Padang hidden at the end of a grubby corridor on the upper floor of a central London shopping mall. Opposite us, a canny Chinese stall-holder had stocked up on flags that visitors could buy to wave around in enthusiastic support of their athletes. Ethiopia, the US, Italy, Cameroon: they were all there. But no Indonesia. Sold out, perhaps? No, said Firdaus who runs the warung; they never had any Indonesian flags. We resolved the situation by buying a Dutch flag and cutting off the blue stripe at the top, but it wasn’t really the same.
Then I went to watch the opening ceremony at Victoria Park, in East London. There were several thousand people there, determined to stay through the Parade of Nations for the treat of the fireworks, which we’d be able to see bursting up from the stadium just a mile or so away. East London is one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world, and as each nation was announced, a clutch of people would jump up from the crowd, dance up and down, wave their flags. Comoros: yaaaaaaay! Fiji: “woooohooooooo!” Indonesia: only me, feeling a bit of a fraud. I didn’t have to cheer for long. With just 22 athletes, not even one per province, the Indonesian team was gone in the blink of an eye.
And as for the games themselves… We’ll pass over the B word, and just note that as of today, August 4th, Indonesia ranks 4th in population in the world but 50th in Olympic medals, with just one silver and one bronze under its belt. Is it any consolation that it puts Indonesia just one bronze behind India, the country that ranks number 2 in population and that is also pants at sports? China and the US are 1/2 and 3/1 in population/medals respectively. There are of course lots of efforts to look at the data other ways: adjusting for population size, number of athletes in London, GDP etc. The Financial Times has very nerdily adjusted for all these factors at once, and concluded that Indonesia is only doing half as well as it should be. Which is perhaps fair enough, since we’re only waving two thirds of a [Dutch] flag in encouragement.
I often wonder why gloriously rich, diverse, self-confident Indonesia punches so far below its potential weight on the world stage. Why weren’t Indonesian flags on sale? Why weren’t there more Indonesians mucking in with the rest of East London to watch the opening ceremony? I feel the answer has something to do with self-sufficiency, a sense that the country has nothing to prove to the outside world, that it’s content with its own little warung of possibilities. But I’d like to know what real Indonesians think.
Last month, at the Makassar Writers’ Festival, I had the great privilege of meeting one of the giants of modern Indonesian literature, Ahmad Tohari. His triolgy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, was for years censored by its Indonesian publishers Gramedia: they removed a large chunk of writing about the killings of suspected Communist sympathisers by government troups in the mid-1960s. It was only after the book was translated in full as The Dancer by the fabulous Lontar Foundation that Gramedia dared to restore the gory details of the original. Tohari said he was especially pleased that a film based on the book, Sang Penari, included scenes of the killings. But such films are few and far between.
Though the theme of the writers’ festival was “Visiting the Memories”, it is remarkable how few Indonesian writers, film-makers, artists have dedicated themselves to trying to excavate, explore or explain the cataclysm of violence that exploded across Sumatra, Java and Bali (and spattered other islands, too) in the mid-1960s. Half a million mothers and sons, fathers, schoolteachers, best friends, lovers slaughtered in just a few months, and all in my own lifetime. Yet no-one in Indonesia talks about it, and most people outside Indonesia don’t even know about it.
I had cause to think about this again yesterday, as I watch the mesmerising film “Nostalgia for the Light”, by Chilean director Patricio Guzman. The philosophical-poem-in-a-film is a meditation on that country’s own amnesia about the even more recent killings of the Pinochet era. In the vast, empty Atacama desert, however, there are still women scratching around for the remains of people they loved and lost to the political madness. And people like Guzman still question the forgetting. I don’t see that quest in Indonesia. Is it because pragmatic Indonesians feel there is no quarter in scratching at old wounds until they seep and get infected? Is it because Indonesia’s impossible fecundity covers over remains and memories so quickly, recycling them into the growth of a new society in a way that Chile’s barren dryness doesn’t? Or is it because more ordinary Indonesians were involved in the slaughter, which is said often to have boiled down to a settling of scores between stroppy neighbours or jealous lovers? We’ll never know, but I’m surprised that more people aren’t asking the question.
It’s a pleasure to meet people who are happy with their work. I met one such on Sunday. “Praise God, I can’t complain. I’ve been in this business for 47 years, and it’s allowed me to put four children through college.” So said the gentlemen in the photo; his business is selling tobacco in the markets of South Sulawesi. He offers me a great slice of rolled tobacco “enough for a week” for 8,500 rupiah, just less than a dollar. I make a crack about my body being under enough strain without the help of tobacco. He smiles and waves a hand. “Luckily, nobody here believes that stuff about tobacco being bad for you.” The buyer, who chose a lower-grade slice that cost him just 3,500 rupiah, was indignant. “On the contrary. Smoking is what keeps me strong”.
You can dismiss this as the talk of country folk (we were in the vegetable growing hill town of Malino). But in distant Jakarta, the government appears to be chickening out yet again from imposing long-promised smoking reduction measures. Around two thirds of Indonesian men over 15 smoke, according to WHO estimates for 2008 (pdf), compared with just over a quarter in Australia and a third in the UK. Indonesia has the distinction of being the only country in Asia not to have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. It’s impossible not to see this as the result of effective lobbying on the part of Indonesia’s huge tobacco industry. Tobacco brought in more than eight percent of all tax revenue in 2011, over six billion dollars. Although anti tobacco lobbyists pump out numbers that suggest that cutting smoking would increase health, productivity and income in the long run, the promise of savings in a decade can’t really compete with the heft of six billion dollars in the exchequer when elections are looming.
So plans to put graphic warnings about the consequences of smoking on cigarette packs, to provide smoke-free workplaces, to restrict cigarette advertising in the media are very likely to go on the back burner yet again. Demonstrations by tobacco farmers and cigarette rollers (yes, a diminishing but still significant proportion of Indonesia’s clove cigarettes are still rolled by hand) will turn down the heat on even the smallest burner. But Big Tobacco is not taking it easy. Philip Morris-owned Sampoerna leads the field in sponsoring an Indonesian arts and music scene that would otherwise be almost totally neglected. It’s almost enough to make one smoke. And in Eastern Indonesia’s biggest city of Makassar, just down the hill from Malino, cigarette firms have sponsored two vast digital screens that bridge the main road along the waterfront and run cigarette ads on a continuous, driver-distracting loop.
The tobacco companies are smart to cover their bases, but they probably don’t need to worry too much. Politicians need them. Over 70 political parties are registered with the ministry of justice; many are already fretting about how to fund their campaigns for the 2014 presidential election. And the cigarette companies are usually happy to oblige. There’s a lovely circularity to their generosity. Much of the cash that they slop in to campaigns will trickle into the hands of the poorer voters. And what do poorer voters do with unexpected disposable income? Buy cigarettes.
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:
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.
The road to one of the world's biggest asphalt mining areas
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…).
Buton Asphalt International's website boasts of smooth roads in China
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.