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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The FPI is (half) right: they must be more responsible thugs

fpi_polisi

With a first draft of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation now sitting on my editor’s desk, I finally have time to get back to musing on this blog about Indonesia’s delights and contradictions.

In writing the book, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the way language and culture mirror one another. And I’ve also found myself inadvertently agreeing with the leadership of the ever-more-thuggish Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), though not in a good way.

Back in July, when the Islamic warriors were defending the morality of the people of Kendal by trying to smash up those bars that hadn’t paid enough protection money, the good people of Kendal fought back. Dashing to get away, the FPI ran over and killed a member of the very public whose soul they had hoped to protect through their violence.

FPI leaders have spouted a great deal of nonsense since then. But as FPI Chairman Munarman sought to blame everyone but the organisation he heads for the senseless violence and death that his follower caused, he said something that struck a chord with me. How come when a member of the FPI does something bad the whole organisation gets blamed, he asked, while in any other institution in Indonesia, that person is immediately labelled an “oknum”?

He’s got a point.

The dictionary will tell you that “oknum” means “individual”. Let’s plug that in to some newspaper headlines:

[Minister] Dahlan explains how parliamentary individuals squeeze state companies (Dahlan ungkap cara oknum DPR peras BUMN, Antara 31/10/13)

Three Police Individuals Suspected of Protecting Illegal Mining
(Tiga Oknum Polisi di Duga Beking Tambang Liar, (Sinar Harapan, 13/10/2012))

Army Individual Beats Up Journalist in Ambon
(Oknum TNI Aniaya Jurnalis di Ambon, Suara Merdeka, 01/01/2013)

Oknum does not just mean individual, it means “person in an official position who is doing something naughty”. It is most often used of policemen and soldiers but also of MPs, judges and government officials who have been caught with their hand in the till or on some starlet’s bum. The implication, of course, is that if you are a servant of the state and have been caught doing something you shouldn’t do, you are no longer a member of the armed forces, or the judiciary, or the government; you are disowned.

In other words, the organs of state accept no responsibility for the conduct of their staff; in Indonesia, the State can do no wrong. No-one ever seems to question this side-stepping of responsibility. With the government setting endless examples of bad behaviour by “oknum”, which almost never have repercussions for the institutions to which they belong, it is hardly surprising that bully-boys who like to put on white dresses and orchestrate mass violence are reluctant to stand up and take the heat for the actions of the rabbles that they have roused.

Better politics in the only medicine for Indonesia's health system

puskesmas

The picture above was taken in Lombok, in what I thought was an abandoned health centre. There was a little lab, a couple of consulting rooms, a dispensary, all mouldering with neglect. But on a door to a room in the back yard I saw a sign “The midwife is IN”. I knocked on the door, and to my amazement there she was. Could this derelict place be a living Puskesmas, a village health centre? I asked where the rest of the staff were. “Oh they’ve built a new puskesmas down the road, so it’s just me here now,” came the reply.

It’s no bad thing that people get upgraded health facilities. But just down the road? When there are so many remote areas with no facilities at all? This wreck of a building illustrates the distorted incentives in Indonesia’s health sector. It’s more profitable, both politically and financially, to build new stuff in already well-served areas than it is either to maintain existing facilities or to expand to places that qualified staff don’t want to stay in. In this piece in the new edition of Inside Indonesia, I conclude that only healthier politics can cure Indonesia’s sick health system. The whole issue is dedicated to the politics of health: there are pieces on the tobacco lobby, the neglect of mental health, abortion and much else. Check it out.

Indonesia's iron-fisted seducer takes in the Rothschilds

An ambulace advertising Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto

The US elections, taking place as I write, have not been much on the radar screens in the parts of Indonesia I’ve been in lately. Unlike the Indonesian elections, which are not due until 2014. Dashing out in front of the pack is Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto clone who is not, actually, a presidential candidate yet, according to his office.

Odd, then, that I stumbled on to two shiny new ambulances parked incongruously outside a Moslem saint’s grave in Lombok last week. Emblazoned on the side, next to a giant portrait of the non-candidate:

“GERINDRA WINS, PRABOWO [IS] PRESIDENT”

On the back, logos of his Gerindra political party, pictures of the local party bosses, and: “FREE”. The ambulances are strategically places in front of the tomb on the one day a year when thousands of pilgrims, mostly farmers, troop around tombs of the nine saints buried around Lombok. I ask one woman why she thinks the ambulances are there. “Prabowo wants to keep us safe,” she says.

No doubt. He has recently topped a national poll as the most popular (non) candidate. His party, Gerindra, is without doubt the best disciplined of Indonesia’s pack of over a dozen. And he is especially popular with people who grow misty-eyed at the mention of Suharto, Prabowo’s former father-in-law. The English cliche used to describe the man who ruled Indonesia from 1965 to 1999 is “strongman” but misty-eyed Indonesians follow the name of Prabowo with “Tangan Besi” “Iron Fist”, then a series of approving nods.

Prabowo’s particular genius is for leaping into bed with his enemies. In 1996, he trained the thugs that tried to oust Megawati Sukarnoputri from the leadership of the PDI party. In 2004, he ran as Megawati’s Vice Presidential candidate. As a Kopassus commander, Prabowo was a key figure in the battle to suppress what was then called the “Security Disturbing Movement” in Aceh, and is accused of human rights abuses there and in East Timor. Earlier this year, he became one of the former Disturbers’ greatest political supporters, stumping up 50 billion rupiah for the Partai Aceh campaign, according to political rivals. That’s five million dollars; the sum may just be pre-election bad-mouthing, but it is beyond doubt that Prabowo was welcomed as a guest of honour at the inauguration of his former battlefield adversaries. And that he has a special interest in the support of Partai Aceh, which, as a local party with a formidable grass-roots machine, has no candidate of its own to back in 2014.

Prabowo did well, too, to throw his weight (somewhat belatedly) behind Joko Widodo (Jokowi), the media darling who recently became mayor of Jakarta. Having an ally in control of the capital during an election year is no small thing. Oh, and some of the activists he once kidnapped now work for him. He’s a charming man, I remember from days long ago when I shared the odd beer with him. But there’s also something about this conjunction that made me whip my camera out the other day…

Prabowo has the distinction of having been denied a visa by the US, under the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Torture. But he doesn’t often make it into the UK papers. An exception, yesterday, was the report in the venerable Financial Times that Nat Rotshchild is cozying up to the Iron Fist. The story of Bumi plc is too torturous to relate, but Nat’s principle seems to be that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. He wants to buy the Bakrie family out of the floundering coal buisiness, and Aburizal Bakrie is a rival (non) candidate for president. But Nat should be warned: if a coalition including Prabowo does get hold of Bumi, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the King of Cooption try to bring his political rival back in to management.

A tale of two stereotypes: Chinese Indonesians at work

I arrived back in Indonesia just in time to see Jakarta vote for its Governor. It’s not a small job, wrestling some sanity into a city that crushes nine million official souls into its alleys, backstreets and blossoming apartment complexes, swelling to nearly 18 million on work days. The election was hotly contested. I witnessed the voting first outside the official Governor’s residence, in rich and (relatively) leafy Menteng. Well-coiffed women in their high day and holiday batik knocked back free bottled water and fruit as they waited to vote in a polling station bedecked with top-lit satin. Then I went 15 minutes down the road to the tenements of Tanah Tinggi. There, plastic tarps kept the sun off the ballot boxes, and people slopped around in T-shirts and sandals, waiting to hear their city’s fate.

The second-round fight was between the incumbent governor Fauzi Bowo (Foke to his friends) and the mayor of the central Java town of Solo Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi). The latter was paired with Ahok, an ethnic Chinese politician from the Western Indonesian island of Belitung. Both of the challengers are known for their pro-poor policies. Yet as I wandered the grubby, syringe-strewn alleys of Tanah Tinggi, I found hostility for the new-comers, support for the incumbent. What has Foke (a senior official in the Jakarta administration for nearly two decades and mayor for the last five years) done for you? I ask a woman who is bathing her child in the central gutter between two overcrowded tenements. “Ya, OK, not much. But we can’t let the Chinese take over our city”. In the nail-biting vote count I witnessed in Polling Station 12, Tanah Tinggi, Jokowi won by just 3 votes, 98 to 95; elsewhere in Tanah Tinggi Foke won handily. In TPS 24 in Menteng, outside Foke’s house, Jokowi crushed the incumbent by 226 votes to 59. The rich, who don’t need more than they have, vote for change. The city’s poorest have low expectations; it now seems they’d rather stay poor than take a punt on someone who will team up with the “Chinese”. It’s a mark of the maturity of Jakarta’s electorate that so few of its members were swayed by the nakedly Xenophobic campaigning of the Foke team.

I had cause to think of this again the other day as I wandered around Singkawang, a Chinese-majority city (maybe Indonesia’s ONLY Chinese-majority city) in West Kalimantan that happened to have elections on the same day. There, squabbling candidates managed to split the Chinese vote three ways, leaving the single indigenous Malay candidate, a Moslem, with the mayor’s post. Racial solidarity doesn’t go all that far, it seems. But nor do racial stereotypes. The assumption in much of Indonesia is that all ethnic Chinese Indonesians are business people who float near the top of any given town’s financial strata. In Singkawang, I floated in to a brick factory where men and women were stamping out clay bricks using simple wooden moulds. How much did they earn? Sixty rupiah per brick. And how many bricks could they make in a day? Oh, 300, said one woman proudly. Another woman shook her hair in disgust. “Me, I can make 400”. That puts these brick workers on something around two dollars a day, the same as the lepers of South Sulawesi earn, even though the bricks here are better quality and sell for 50% more. Every single one of the workers in the factory was ethnic Chinese.

A Chinese-Indonesian worker in a brick factory in Kalimantan

Beyond Brics: A Chinese Indonesian labourer in a brick factory in Kalimantan (Photo: Melanie Wood)

Indonesia: a miracle despite itself

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.

For what they are worth, you can now read my reflections on culture, corruption and corpses on Prospect online. And no, Oliver, I don’t think it is at a crossroads…

Indonesia's gone Gaga: Lessons in democracy

Moslem students rail against Lady Gaga's Indonesian visit

Indonesians ail against Lady Gaga's planned concert. Photo by Muhamad Solihin

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.

***UPDATE***
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.

In praise of Endang: A gem among Indonesian doctors

© Kompas/HANDINING

Wednesday was a sad day for Indonesia. and for me. It marked the death of Endang Sedyaningsih, who encompassed what is best in the women in this great country: courage, determination, integrity, compassion and humility. It is a rare combination at the best of times; in the Indonesian cabinet, where Endang held the position of Minister of Health, these qualities are nothing short of exceptional.

In my last post, I was pretty rude about Indonesian doctors. Endang counts among the “several smart friends who were once great doctors”. Unlike many ministers in Indonesia, she knew her territory inside out. For three years, she worked as head of a rural health centre in Nusa Tengarra Timur, the poorest province in Indonesia. She gave up doctoring in favour of public health and research, a choice that I predictably enough applaud, not least because a lot of her research was among sex workers and other marginalised groups. Indeed her thesis at Harvard centred on the lives of the women who sold sex in Kramat Tunggak, Jakarta’s largest red light district. She argued for improving health services for the women that worked there. Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso, seeking to burnish his credentials with Moslem voters, responded by bulldozing the area and building a gopping mosque and Islamic centre in its place. When Kramat Tunggat was closed in 1999, HIV prevalence among brothel and street-based sex workers in north Jakarta was 0.4 percent. Since the rise of the mosque and the dispersion of the sex trade, it has risen to 10.5 percent.

Endang was fearless both physically (not many of my colleagues were prepared, as she was, to brave the Jakarta traffic on the back of my motorbike…) and politically. During the reign of her controversial predecessor, Siti Fadilah Supari, Endang had to put up with a lot of flack because the national health research institute she headed cooperated closely with foreign researchers in trying to develop vaccines against bird flu, which has a higher case fatality rate in Indonesia than in any other country. For Siti, this cooperation amounted to collaboration with the enemy. Her book “It’s Time for the World to Change! God’s Hand Behind the Bird Flu Virus” is actually more about the hand of the CIA behind the virus – a mish-mash of conspiracy theories which were such an embarrassment to the Indonesian government that the book was eventually pulled from bookshops.

Leading the research programme for the Ministry of Health, Endang kept her head down and got on with her work. In her eyes, finding a vaccine that could protect millions of her fellow countrymen from a strain of flu that killed eight out of 10 of those infected was more important than whipping up populist anti-Americanism to score cheap political wins. When she was appointed health minister in Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yuduhyono’s second cabinet, the press showered her with nonsense about being a CIA plant. Again, she kept her head down and got on with her work, trying especially to improve services in the far-flung corners of the nation so often overlooked by those trapped in the political spider’s web of Jakarta.

Endang was an Indonesian nationalist in the truest sense of the word: not a knee-jerk Xenophobe, but someone who consolidated learning, skills and relationships acquired around the world and used them in the service of the men, women and transgenders of the Indonesia she loved so much. I am angry that she was taken from us by lung cancer at the age of only 57, but am proud to have called her a friend.

Aceh's new leaders: Militantly religious?

A proto-military jeep in front of a mosque at a Partai Aceh rally in Aceh, Indonesia

Partai Aceh: religiously combative

Well it’s official. The Partai Aceh candidates for Governor and Vice Governor will rule Indonesia’s most fractious province for the next five years. Their election campaign was a strange mix of proto-militarism and religious fervour. At every rally, hundreds of the young men who are the party’s most fanatical supporters stood in serried ranks in red, black and white “camouflage” uniforms, saluting the candidates, one of whom is a rather homey doctor who has spent most of his adult life in Sweden. They (and I) listened also to sermons about how Partai Aceh would keep the province free of “kaffir” religions — anything that is not Islam, effectively. There were strange digressions about protecting the territory from the Jews, although to my knowledge the Jewish community is, uuuum, somewhat under-represented in Indonesia as a whole, let alone in Aceh.

As he formally acknowledged his election, the doctor from Sweden, Zaini Abdullah, said he would seek to implement a “purer” form of Islamic Sharia law. His bitter rival in this election, former governor Irwandi, is seen by some to have sold out because he refused to sign a bill implementing Sharia law, finding some if its provisions too harsh. Stoning adulterers to death, for example. I’ll be interested to see how Zaini Abdullah negotiates this one. His running mate, the former guerilla commander Muzakir Manaf (who looks like he’s been sent over to Party headquarters by Central Casting), is widely known to have at least five wives. That’s one more than is allowed by Sharia law (which, says Zaini, “is about how to educate our youths about what is right and wrong”). Technically, then, the Vice Governor is an adulterer. Will Partai Aceh’s dedication to purity put it’s own number two at risk of death? Watch this space.

The drill in Aceh

I happen to be in Aceh for the local elections. These are interesting times, with rivalries between former comrades in the para-political movement formerly known as GAM hotting up. It’s a sensitive topic in a still-fragile part of this increasingly centrifugal nation; I’d say a lot more, but I have promised the Indonesian intelligence services that I won’t report on the ins and outs of local politics.

Indonesian Intel checks me out at a campaign rally in Aceh

Heri, an Intel agent in north Aceh, takes my photo on his iPad while his boss checks my papers.

True to my word, I’m going to write instead about Aceh’s creativity with power tools. A regular household drill can be used to make one of the province’s breakfast specialities — whipped raw egg with coffee, as well as to whip up support at campaign rallies.

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.