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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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'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.