About
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


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Vocab lessons for expat lawyers in Indonesia

Anti-corruption poster in Indonesia

So Indonesia is going to require expatriate lawyers to take an ethics test, in Indonesian. I think this is a splendid idea; though they are not actually allowed to practice law in Indonesia, foreigners certainly have a lot to learn from Indonesian lawyers when it comes to ethics. Here’s some essential vocab to get them started:

Suap
“Salary supplementation”. It literally means “to spoonfeed” and some cynics translate it as “bribe”, but they haven’t studied legal ethics in Indonesia.

Cuci uang
To “wash money”. Indonesians are very concerned with personal hygiene. Many Indonesian lawyers feel they have an ethical obligation to ensure that money stays clean.

Itu biasa
“Tax compliance” This is best understood through a recent quote from a lawyer explaining why the head of the Constitutional Court registered his Mercedes in the name of his driver. “Itu biasa, dalam satu orang namanya ada pajak progresif, dia coba untuk pakai nama orang lain. Ya itu kan biasa, Indonesia itu kan semua ini begitu kan.” A literal translation for people not familiar with Indonesian legal ethics would be: “That’s normal, if a person is subject to progressive taxes, it’s normal that they would try and use someone else’s name. In Indonesia, it’s all like that, right?”

Koper
“Bank account”. Derived from the word for “suitcase”, this word describes the mechanism through which most Indonesian lawyers get paid.

Asing
In common usage, this means foreign. To the Indonesian legal establishment, however, it means “Guilty”

KKN
A contraction for Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme, this translates as “Business as Usual”

In the interests of enriching the ethical understanding of foreign lawyers in Indonesia, I offer the Golden Loophole Award for the best additions to this list.

Indonesian President signs off on semen

Placard urging Indonesians to use the national language

“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.

Rubber time: new departures for an old concept

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.

Bouncing back

Having been very rude about the Indonesian educational system in an earlier post, I offer up this example of genius from a junior high school teacher in the small town of Singkil, in Aceh province. It was his labour-saving solution to the fact that his baby cried unless it was being rocked constantly.

I might note that this scene was filmed on a school day. The genius teacher was watching TV at home. “It’s raining,” he explained. “And anyway, they’ve given me a class with only 15 kids in it.”

A comfortable T-shirt culture

If I had the courage to stick my camera into people’s chests, I’d by now have a vast repertoire of photos of absurd and inappropriate T-shirts. Pretty young school-girls sporting obscenities that would make a punk blush. Elderly crones decked in gyrating boy-band idols. Moslem clerics declaring their love for Jesus. And plenty of slogans that just make no sense at all. Most Indonesians love to pose for pictures; it’s me that’s uncomfortable snapping things that will make people look silly. So I have to settle for what I can capture from behind.

Hiking skirts, not prices: diversion for Indonesian politicians

Indonesian ministers pose with mini-skirted golf caddies

Who should we arrest? Indonesian ministers pose with golf caddies in soon-to-be-illegal mini-skirts (Photo: Rakya Merdeka)

Indonesians think about sex, or at least search for it on the internet, more than most: Indonesian was the number one language for Google searches on sex last year, and the country ranked 6th overall in sex searches (the good fellow Moslems of Pakistan led the pack for the umpteenth year; indeed seven out of the top 10 sex-searchers are Moslem-majority nations). If the legislator caught with a long-lens camera watching porn in Indonesia’s national parliament is in any way representative, politicians are not immune from this obsession.

Indonesia’s government has reacted to the uncomfortable clash between its prudish self-image and its lascivious reality in the way that it deals with most of this culturally scattered nation’s manifold contradictions: legislate, then fail to enforce. The controversial anti-pornography bill was first passed in 2008. Many people, especially women who could be prosecuted under the law for exposing undefined body parts, were furious. The law was put on hold while civil rights groups argued in the country’s highest court that it was unconstitutional, in part because pornography was not clearly defined. Would the temple carvings of central Java and Bali have to be dismantled because they qualify as “erotic art works”, prohibited by the law for example? The constitutional court in 2010 ruled that the definition of pornography in the bill was just fine, and that the law should be enacted.

Ok, so now we’ve got the law, we can get on and ignore it. But earlier this month President Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono (SBY) put the controversy firmly back on the agenda, establishing an anti-porn task force to clarify the definition of porn (yes, the same definition ruled clear enough by the constitutional court) and implement the law. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali has jumped in to the fray, saying that the task force will tell women how to dress, probably prohibiting them from wearing skirts above the knee. It is hard not to agree with House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Pramono Anung, who protested at a ban on mini skirts: “What we need to take care of are mini-brains and mini-morals,” he said. It’s worth noting that the legislator caught watching porn was from the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which was one of the motors behind the drafting of the anti-pornography bill and which wastes no opportunity to preach to the nation about the importance of morality.

It seems more than likely that SBY resurrected this issue now because he is trying to distract attention from a (quite sensible but wildly unpopular) move to cut subsidies on fuel, as well as an ongoing corruption soap opera involving his own party.

Motorised transportation...

…takes a front seat in some of Indonesia’s smaller islands.

Johnson in a becak

HIV prevention, Indonesian style: stay away from blondes

AIDS prevention poster in Southeastern Maluku, 2011

AIDS prevention poster in Southeastern Maluku, 2011

I have a collection of daft AIDS posters going back years, but I’m glad to say they are getting harder to find. This one, in Saumlaki, the main town in the remote Tanimbar islands, was thus a great find. The headline reads: AIDS: there’s not yet any cure! On the right is this helpful information:

AIDS!!!
You can’t avoid it by:

  • Choosing your sex partners on the basis of their appearance
  • Drinking/injecting antibiotics, alcohol, or herbal medicine before and after having sex
  • Washing your sex organs after having sex

Some, including the South African president Thabo Mbeki Jacob Zuma* and uber-philanthropist Bill Gates would take issue with the last point. I, of course, would take partial issue with the second — you can avoid AIDS by taking medicine, you just can’t avoid HIV that way. But the most egregious part of this ad is the illustration.The population of Tanimbar is largely Melanesian. Overwhelmingly the highest HIV risk for them is the sex they might have on their frequent money-spinning travels to neighbouring Papua. Indonesian Papau, rich in minerals, forests and much else, is swimming in cash. It is also swimming in HIV; it’s epidemic looks more like East Africa 15 years ago than it does like any other part of Indonesia today. And it is populated not by pointy-nosed tourists with straight blonde hair but with flat-nosed Papuans with crinkly black hair.

Most AIDS posters are pretty useless, in my opinion. But this poster associates HIV with Western tourists slow-dancing under the palm trees — an “other” that most people here will never come across, while saying nothing about commercial sex in high risk areas (Papua, but also with the local transgender (or waria) population). Those are very real risks that many certainly do face, at least if Astuti, one of the latter, is to be believed. She excused herself early from a grilled fish dinner because her phone rang. Not her Blackberry, that’s for friends and family, but her “HP selinkungan” (cheating phone). In Tanimbar from neighbouring Kei for around a year, she hasn’t had a day without clients. And though she has helped distribute condoms and promote testing in other cities around Indonesia (in some of which one transgender sex worker in three is infected with HIV), she’s seen no sign of an HIV prevention programme in Tanimbar. By maintaining the fiction that something is being done about HIV prevention in Tanimbar, this poster is a lot worse than useless. It is actively dangerous.

*(Thanks to Thakhani for correcting my presidential confusion.)


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Repel hazardous trespasser!

Repel Hazardous Trespassers

You can see the hazardous trespasser reflected in the glass. For what it’s worth, a more correct translation would read:

For our mutual well-being, please wear your ID card.

Perhaps they are worried about all the dodgy visitors going cap in hand to the top floor of the building, home of the Ford Foundation, which funds all sorts of hazardous enterprises, including programmes that aim to increase accountability in government.