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


Contact




The Great Divide: inequity on Indonesia's highways

The Kalimantan busThe Java bus

After many months on the high seas and highways of Indonesia I’ve finally made it into the Javanese heartland, and I’m in shock. The cause of my shock is, principally, shock absorbers: those things that I had assumed had been rattled out of every bus in the archipelago. The bus on the left is one I took earlier this month between Simitau and Putussibau through uninterrupted hours of oil palm in West Kalimantan. But it could have been virtually any bus I have taken over the last year. (The driver, squatting under his rust-bucket for unscheduled maintenance, is fitting a cleaner oil filter with the help of a screw driver and a flattened out Red Bull tin. Which allowed me to go and do some maintenance behind a bush.) The bus on the right is one I took last week, along Java’s southern highway. Not only does it have shock absorbers, it has free juice and buns, air conditioning and flat screen movies. It stops in special rest stations with rows and rows of sparklingly clean loos.

I could (and will) write at some length about the disparities between Java and the rest of Indonesia. But for now I think the stats are enough:

Kalimantan BusJava bus
Distance travelled110 kms105 kms
Time taken10 hours3.75 hours
Cost100,000 rupiah40,000 rupiah
Bruise factorOuch! Very ouch.Bruise? What's a bruise?

On the other hand, the flat screen TVs on the Java bus play those really annoying “innocent people being surprised by stupid gags” videos, on a loop. Where as in Kalimantan, I got to spend my 10 hours contemplating the special positioning of the windscreen sticker montage. The implication, obviously, is that the Father of the Nation had public health on the brain…

Winshield wonders

What's the score with Indonesian education?

An advertisment for Manchester United branded debit cards, for True Fans in Indonesia

True Fans in Indonesia flash Manchester United credit cards

The first thing any Indonesian asks a stray foreigner, before they even get to age, marital status or the product of one’s ovaries, is: “Dari mana?” Where are you from? And the first thing they say when I say “England” is: “Wah! Manchester United!” (Occasional variant: “Wah! David Beckham!”) The second thing they will say is: “I wish we’d been colonized by the Brits, not the Dutch.” This is especially true in areas which border Malaysia, such as West Kalimantan where I’ve spent the last couple of weeks. Malaysia is the go-to example for the assertion that former British colonies are more “maju”, more developed, than those colonised by the Dutch. Certainly it’s a major source of employment for poorer Indonesians from all over the archipelago.

When I ask what the difference was between the two colonial powers, I almost always get the same answer: the Brits educated the ‘natives’ in their colonies, whereas “the Dutch just wanted to keep us all stupid”. Obviously, this is a vast and complex topic with many truths, half truths and rewritings of truths alongside some blatant errors of fact. But it certainly seems that Malaysia had a stronger educational infrastructure at independence than Indonesia did, and the gap has widened radically since. So I was quite surprised to read in the Jakarta Globe that an Indonesian parliamentarian is calling for a return to the Dutch colonial educational system. When they got around to providing any education at all, the Dutch circumscribed knowledge quite tightly. Essentially, they taught just enough to turn ‘educated’ Indonesians into clerks and (very) minor civil servants. But former comedian Dedi Gumelar approves of this; he particularly endorses a proposal by the Ministry of Education to drop the teaching of science and social science at the primary level, the age at which children’s curiousity and excitement about the world around them is most pronounced, the age upon which the foundations of future learning are built.

“Let our education produce a civilized society, not just physicists and mathematical geniuses,” he said. “Let’s understand the values of humanity. That is the core of education.”

Dedi said Indonesia should go back to the education system adopted during Dutch colonial rule and shortly after independence, when elementary school students were only taught basic education. “… The ministry said that the new curriculum would emphasize basic mathematics, the Indonesian language, religious studies and patriotism.

In my (prosaic, English) mind, religion and the values of humanity are things you learn at home. Maths, science, geography, history are things you learn at school. Though as I’ve said before it’s pretty questionable how much Indonesian kids outside the larger towns ever learn at school. I have to wonder about the Ministry of Education’s assertion that kids should have less schooling. In theory, primary school kids are in the classroom from seven in the morning until noon. But when I went to help out for a day in a school up a tributary of the Kapuas Hulu river in the forests-cum-rubber-plantations of Indonesian Borneo last week, the teacher who had the key to the office didn’t show up until 7.30 (and teaching can’t start until the principal’s office in unlocked because…. well, Because). Two of the other three teachers who were between them responsible for six grades of primary school and two of secondary school drifted in somewhere closer to 9.00. Then all four teachers set the children tasks and retired to smoke and drink toxic orange drinks in the staff room. Dispiritingly, the kids were sometimes asked to copy out multiple choice questions, including all the wrong answers, from their text books into their note books. By 11.30, exhausted by what passes for teaching in rural Indonesia, the educators told most of the classes that they could go home.

It’s lucky that village kids in Indonesia are obsessed with football rather than cricket. Their maths is just about up to keeping score in single figures, but I sometimes wonder if they’d be able to go much further. As for understanding how a top sportsman’s body functions, well, who would be interested in that when they could be learning patriotism?

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)

Headhunters stand up against religious thuggery

A new mosque being built in the centre of Ambon, a Christian-majority city that often sees outbreaks of religious violence

A new mosque being built in the centre of Ambon, a Christian-majority city that often sees outbreaks of religious violence

One of the mysteries of life in Indonesia is how the government and the security forces allow absolute chaos, sometimes even mass murder, to develop in totally predictable ways. As groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI in Indonesian) move around the country beating up hookers and inciting violence against non-Moslems, the President and his ministers play Three Monkeys — see no evil, hear no evil, and therefore never have to speak about any evil. Their dereliction of duty is such that the Dayak tribe in Kalimantan has finally taken matters into its own hands, taking over the airport’s runway to prevent FPI leaders getting off a plane to sow their poison. (As an aside, the manager of a large nightclub in north Jakarta told me a while ago that she pays the FPI substantial “protection” money.They’ve exchanged their leather jackets for white robes, she said, but it’s the same old thugs.)

Lest we forget: way back in 1999, thousands of frenzied young men from the overcrowded Islamic heartland of East Java shipped out to predominantly Christian Ambon to support their brothers in a largely trumped-up fight about supposed religious insults. This group, known as Laskar Jihad, something of a sister organisation to FPI, did not hide their intentions and they apparently didn’t need to; some of the boatloads of rabid jihadis were waved off by government ministers keen to boost their ratings with Moslem voters. The result was a three year pogrom which spread across the eastern province of Maluku, in which 9,000 people are thought to have died. Communities were torn apart, previously mixed areas were taken over by a single religious group, and the was a spate of symbolic dick-wagging, expressed mostly through religious architecture, that persists to this day. The photo above is of a gargantuan mosque being built in the very heart of formerly Christian Ambon; huge churches are springing too, though only in subsections of the city where Christians have kept their strongholds.

The conflict in Maluku was shut down after 9/11, as international tolerance for religious (and particularly Islamic) extremism fell well below zero. This rather suggests that if the security forces did want to prevent these conflicts, which tend to be massively lucrative for the police and the army, they could. And indeed there’s some evidence that their swift action when I was in the region in November/December pre-empted a potentially bloody Christmas. But the scars of the conflict in Maluku are still deeply felt. Kalimantan, too, has its scars; at about the time Laskar Jihad was wreaking havoc in Maluku, the Dyaks, a tribe known in part for their propensity to cut the heads off their enemies, were in bloody battle with settlers from Madura. Their refusal to host the bigwigs of FPI suggests they’d like to pre-empt more unnecessary conflict. FPI is not Laskar Jihad — the latter supposedly disbanded after the Bali bombings in 2002. But its leaders were inciting FPI members to violent action in Maluku as recently as last September. “We’ve issued an edict to all FPI members throughout the nation to get ready to leave for Ambon to defend Moslems” the FPI’s Secretary General Muhammad Shabri Lubishe told the Voice of al-Islam website. (The story rated 236 Facebook “Likes”.)

Some commentators see the Dayak’s action as a turning point in Indonesia’s tolerance for groups that provoke violence. I’m not so sure. When the middle class intellectuals of Jakarta drew strength from the Dayaks and staged a protest against FPI in central Jakarta, the police turned pussy. They asked protesters to disband because they had reports that FPI were on the way and they couldn’t guarantee the safety of protesters. The response of Indonesia’s spineless president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is even less encouraging. “Why should others be allowed to carry out their activities while our brothers in the FPI are forbidden?,” he asked journalists at a press conference. Because it’s a thuggish organisation which burns down buildings and injures and kills individuals to stop them doing completely legal things such as selling alcohol and running nightclubs, perhaps?


View Larger Map