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Showing posts from 2011

Not dead, just resting

Apologies. It has now been more than two months since I wrote a fresh blog post. It was not my intention to leave things so long, but my copy editing work at the Jakarta Globe has been keeping me rather occupied lately. It's not that I haven't had ideas for things to blog about, just that the notion of spending a sustained period on the computer in my leisure time after doing a long stint in the office is too much to bear.

Not sure when normal transmission will resume, but it will happen at some point. I hope.

The Australia Network, from one who sees it

With news the tender for the Australia Network has been delayed (and a further report that the ABC was on the verge of loosing the contract to Sky News), I figure now is a good time to offer my musings on the AusNetwork as someone who gets to see vastly more of it than those in Australia do.

Despite its somewhat grandiose claims to promoting Australia's national interest abroad, there's long been speculation that the primary purpose of the AusNetwork is, in fact, to give expatriate Australians (or parliamentarians on 'fact-finding missions') a slice of life back home.

And having spent Saturday night at a Jakarta barbecue at which a delayed telecast of the Sydney vs Adelaide AFL game was on the widescreen, I think there's some truth to the speculation.

For many expats, the AusNetwork is pretty much the AFL network. Check out the schedule here, and you'll see the network routinely broadcasts six AFL games (a few of them live) each weekend. It's more football tha…

Impact of Saudi-Indo tensions on Australia

My debut contribution to the Lowy Institute's Interpreter blog has gone live:

On 18 June, Indonesian maid Ruyati binti Sapubi was executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia after she was convicted of murdering her employer who, according to Ruyati, had kept her in the country against her will. The action sparked an immediate and sharp wave of public sympathy in Indonesia. Within days, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced a moratorium on Indonesian citizens heading to the Gulf kingdom for work, starting on 1 August.

While the issue has profound implications for the relationship between those two countries, it also has an indirect impact on Australia-Indonesia relations.

Here's why.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Badminton's fun. Who knew?

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In the part of the world where I'm from, badminton is more likely the answer to a trivia question than a sport people would play or watch. To many Australians, there's something just a bit twee and silly about the sport, especially when compared to the fast pace of tennis. But there are some parts of the world where badminton is all the rage: Denmark, Taiwan, and, yes, Indonesia.

This week is the Indonesia Open, one of the five premier events on the global badminton circuit. And so I ventured to the Istora indoor sports venue, which sits in the shadows of the Gelora Bung Karno stadium that was the site of my Persija Jakarta experience last Sunday.

I went along on Wednesday, the opening day of the main competition - and really enjoyed it.

The element I had previously dismissed as a weakness of the sport - the unusual movement of the shuttlecock through the air - is in fact its great strength. You see, no matter how hard you strike a shuttlecock, and it has apparently been clocked …

Football fanaticism, Jakarta style

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There are few things that give you a flavour of a city more than thronging with fans at a sporting event.

And having spent an afternoon shouting myself hoarse with the Jakmania fanatics that drape themselves in orange in support of Persija Jakarta, I can confirm that the Indonesian capital is no exception.

Yesterday was their final game for the season in the Indonesia Super League of soccer (or football, to the purists), played in the imposing concrete cauldron that is Gelora Bung Karno in Senayan. The home side was taking on PSPS Pekanbaru, hailing from an utterly unremarkable city on Sumatra.

I went to the game with a small dose of trepidation given it was the side's first home fixture after a several-week ban imposed by police following a small riot outside a game in early April.

Still, emboldened by curiosity, I followed the crowd of enthusiastic young supporters who had gathered on the curb not far from my home, waiting for a bus. After wading through the inevitable macet (traffi…

Bashir verdict

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So Abu Bakar Bashir will serve 15 years for terror - if the verdict can survive the appeals process, which has not been the case following past convictions.

I suspect the verdict will bring some relief to victims of terror attacks that Bashir has previously been associated with,including the carnage of Bali in 2002, even if that connection may not have been provable nor criminal under the laws in place at the time.

It will also send a wave of relief through the Indonesian government, for whom the inability to obtain a terror conviction against Bashir was a source of embarrassment, given his notoriety.

Keen to see things first-hand, I headed down to the South Jakarta District Court complex yesterday to watch the verdict unfold. There was no shortage of company, with about 1000 Bashir supporters from Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid watched over by several hundred members of the Jakarta police and a strong contingent of journalists.

The Bashir supporters were certainly vocal, but at no time did it lo…

Five ideas to tackle Jakarta's traffic congestion

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It's a cliché for expats in Jakarta to complain about the 'macet', the traffic that clogs many roads much of the time and makes trips through the city ordeals of epic proportions. It's also a cliché for new arrivals to to offer a magic bullet solution, usually prefaced by the phrase "If only they'd...".

But I'm different. I don't offer one silver bullet solution. That would be folly. Instead I offer five ideas that each would make things a little bit easier, and if combined would have a significant impact on the congestion of the city's roads. It would be naive to expect they could leave the cities roads unclogged - this is a place of 9.6 million people according to the official count - but they would leave them flowing a lot better than they do at the moment.

Indonesians recognise things have got to change. A recent study from the Jakarta Transportation Agency put the cost of congestion at 46 trillion rupiah ($US5.4 billion). And late last mont…

Animals and Indonesia

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Four Corners last night aired a disturbing story about the appalling conditions in some Indonesian abattoirs involved in slaughtering cattle exported live from Australia. The painful, drawn-out killing of the cattle was the stuff of nightmares, and reflects badly both on the Indonesian abattoirs and their staff, as well as the Australian meat industry figures who knew there were problems but allowed it to continue.

It has been interesting to observe the way animals are treated in Indonesia. Not well, in many cases. Monkeys are dressed in silly outfits and forced to perform stunts on the side of the road. Live chickens are strung up by their feet, tightly clustered in batches as they are transported to the market. Scrawny cats are kicked and teased by children as they scrounge for scraps of food in piles of rubbish.

In a way, these things are not surprising. This is a poor country in which many people are struggling to make ends meet. Animals are considered almost exclusively for the ben…

Suction cups, ear candling and other bunkum

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I'm a sceptic. And proud. I mean 'sceptic' in the real sense, not the way it has been used as a euphemism in the climate change debate for a head-in-the-sand denialist. (As it happens, I suspect a real sceptic would rationally assess the evidence and conclude there is reason to take action to reduce carbon emissions, if only as a precaution against calamity.)

My scepticism is all about seeking out evidence to assess a given proposition, and stripping out emotion and subjectivity in working out what is genuine, and what is merely wishful thinking.

For that reason, I'm doubtful about the merits of medical treatment outside the mainstream. My reasoning is best encapsulated by the quite brilliant Tim Minchin and his beat poem, Storm:

“By definition”, I begin
“Alternative Medicine”, I continue
“Has either not been proved to work,
Or been proved not to work.
You know what they call “alternative medicine”
That’s been proved to work?
Medicine.”

For me that knocks out homeopathy, pranic…

Prison no impediment for terrorists

New research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute suggests Indonesia's prisons, far from setting terrorist inmates on the straight-and-narrow, are giving them space to organise themselves and plan new attacks.

The full report is available here, but Greg Sheridan has two interesting pieces on the study in The Australian today.

In his news piece, he summarises the research thus:

TERRORISTS have set up shadow governments in Indonesian prisons, recruiting members, sending money from jail to jail and, at least once, co-ordinating an attack outside.

They run businesses, use mobile phones to preach sermons to followers outside and dominate prison mosques, says a report released last night by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
And in his analysis piece, he explains the significance of the research:

It is worth noting that this kind of fresh, empirical evidence is as precious as gold in the war on terror. Instead of attributing motives and causes and syndromes to the terrorists…

Corruption forum

I went along to an interesting panel discussion on corruption in Indonesia, hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (of which, I'm happy to say, I'm now a member).

Despite only two of the four advertised guests attending - Donal Fariz from Indonesia Corruption Watch and Amien Sunaryadi from the World Bank - it was useful to get some understanding of the challenges faced in combatting corruption in one of the world's most corrupt large countries.

The panellists were confident that the right systems had been put in place to tackle corruption, but the challenge was for them to be properly implemented. The panellists talked of powers that have been granted to corruption-busting bodies, primarily the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, that hadn't been utilised.

In some cases, instances of corruption were being dealt with by offenders merely having to repay their illgotten gains - hardly a penalty likely to discourage people from trying their luck.

I asked the panellists w…

Inside a tragedy

The Jakarta Globe yesterday published a very fine account of the horrible racial pogrom in February in which three members of the Ahmadiyah sect were killed while police watched on.

Ahmad Masihuddin, Irwan and Bebi are the lucky ones.

Ahmad recalls the moment when a man attempted to mutilate his genitals, while Irwan has developed an intense fear of water. Bebi cannot speak, due to a dislocated jaw, and must eat through a straw.

Read the rest here.

Malaysia's awkward mulitculturalism

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Last week I spent a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur, taking in the fantastic sites and smells of a city that's small enough to function smoothly and large enough to keep a curious tourist amused, for a few days at least.

But one thing you can't help but notice when you arrive is the creepy 1Malaysia campaign, the touchy-feely multicultural propaganda effort that appears based on the notion that if you hit people hard enough with a message they'll meekly acquiesce.

Peering down at you from billboards, dominating bus stops and even blaring through your car radio are state-sponsored messages of happy diversity, emphasising how harmonious the relationship is between Malaysia's three main ethnic groups - Malays, Indians and Chinese.



Not content with plying people with images of multicultural children smiling as if they miss out on dinner if they don't, the campaign uses the distant stare of Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, to ram home both its message and his ele…

Trying accused terrorists

News that prosecutors have decided against seeking the strongest possible penalty for Abu Bakar Bashir is a disappointment to those of us that want to see the legal system are the primary forum for seeking justice against terrorists.

The prosecutors' decision emerged in a Jakarta court hearing today into terror offences. The prosecutors have dropped some charges and are now seeking life in prison rather than the death penalty.

According to Agence France-Presse:

Prosecutors at his trial in Jakarta said the charge of providing firearms and explosives for terrorist acts, for which the 72-year-old preacher could have faced the death penalty, "could not be proven convincingly".

The charge of inciting acts of terrorism was also dropped, leaving only the accusation of providing funding to a terrorist group, for which the prosecutors sought a maximum life sentence.

Bashir's fellow travellers in Indonesia may complain at the severity of the sentence sought (as they did at the cour…

Starry, starry night

There are few things sadder in the world than children who grow up not seeing the stars at night. Staring up at the skies in wonderment is a universal experience across time and place, but there are some who get the opportunitiy only rarely.

Jakartans are in that category. The abundance of light and pollution generated by the city makes it impossible to see anything in the sky at night beyond a haze and the occasional glimpse of moon.

Which is perhaps why it was so thrilling to go to Jakarta's planetarium yesterday. Seated on the fringes of several schoolgroups, I found it heartwarming to hear their shrieky excitement as the room went black and the 'sky' was filled with twinkling stars.

A great way to spend an hour in Jakarta. A bit of a shame it's harder to experience the real thing.

Ossie, Ossie, Ossie?

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Burdened by an insatiable curiousity and too much time on my hands, last night I ventured to witness the rally held in honour of Osama bin Laden at the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI - Front Pembela Islam) facility.

The FPI have a reputation for hardline religious values on a swathe of moral and social issues (see the Wikipedia listing for the history), so it's little surprise they would leap on the bin Laden death as a cause célèbre.

At the rally, my lack of Bahasa Indonesia language skills only put me at a marginal disadvantage - much of the evening was spent shouting condemnation of Barack Obama, the United States, Israel, and even on one occasion, Australia. Meanwhile any mention of bin Laden was met with rousing cheers. And all was followed by folksongs, though thankfully we were spared Kumbaya



It was the usual rah-rah ranting and raving to the true believers, who in this case numbered about a thousand and were overwhelmingly male.

I went along because I was curious to see jus…

So Singapore

My partner and I last night jumped online to buy tickets for the World Netball Championship 2011 happening in Singapore in July.

The experience of buying the tickets, through the ticketing agency SISTIC, was a great reflection of the often Orwellian Singapore mindset.

Soon after you start the purchasing process, a message in red tells you that your IP address is being monitored. Sure, many websites might record your IP address, but few would have the gumption to tell you: "Your IP address XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX is being recorded for your security." (emphasis added)

Then when you get to the point of choosing your seating category, the drop down menu invites you to choose your price. On the list lies just a single item - "Standard Price".

And finally when buyers are attempting to select seats, the drop down menu carries a bewilderingly large array of options, leaving by far and away the most tempting option being the one at the top - "Let the system assign the best seats&q…

Osama's death raises Indonesia terror risk?

Tom Allard writes in the Fairfax papers on Tuesday that Indonesia is preparing for a post-Osama attack on Western interests:

INDONESIA is bracing for retaliatory terrorist acts targeting Westerners as it emerged that the country's most wanted militant, Umar Patek, was arrested earlier this year in the same Pakistani town where Osama bin Laden met his end.

The country's anti-terrorism chief told The Age that he "definitely" expects an attack.

"Every terror action [from the perspective of violent Islamists] will be replied by another attack," said Ansyaad Mbai, the head of Indonesia's National Anti-Terrorism Agency.

It's a sensible analysis, trading on the notion that bin Laden was of significant symbolic rather than practical value to the jihadist cause, a view I suspect is close to the mark. The abundance of willing foot soldiers in Indonesia and a renewed sense of injustice is the right formula for further violence.

It's pleasing that Osama is no lo…

My durian debut

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I've only been in this fine city a few weeks, but I already have a contender for my favourite little afternoon tea spot: The White Box, in Menteng.

The place exudes funk, with a white theme throughout the cafe only interrupted by the occasional bit of faux-graffiti wall art. The staff are nonchalant but get the job done, while the menu has enough quirky and unusual items that the sheer length of it (a common feature of Indonesian menus) is not as off putting as it as at other places.

Even though I was there on a quiet weekday afternoon, there was some live acoustic music happening out the back, with the resident strummer making fine use of his six-stringer. Come back during a busier time, and I suspect the place would be a hive of activity.



It was here that I popped my cherry - to use a culinary metaphor - for a distinctive Indonesian fruit: durian. Okay, so it was in the form of a durian mousse cake. But with the warnings attached to the fresh durian, a food that has been known to m…

Going, going, gone...

A quick rant before returning to more important matters...

When I let this blog rest idle in 2007, I thought hard about whether to remove the content or let it remain online. In the end, as I explained in my final post, I didn't think it was fair to try to remove from easy public access things that had once been in the public domain.

Clearly, there are many who take a different approach.

As part of reviving this blog, I have been checking the links that run on the right hand side in what I called my 'ego file' - writing of mine that had been published elsewhere. Sadly (for me rather than anyone else) almost all the links are now broken, the operators of the relevant websites evidently choosing to ditch the old content as they moved onto new publishing systems.

Which is a great shame, when you think of how much other material online is disappearing, most of it of far greater interest and historic value than my scribblings. It's particularly galling given the argument of con…

Monumentally tasty

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Gotta love a country that can take the mickey out of its own national monuments.

Above, Jakarta's Monas. Below, the soft serve icecream of the same name.


Always something for sale

Drive along the roads leading up to the highways and thoroughfares of Jakarta, and you'll see plenty of people sticking their thumbs out. They're bumming a ride. Well, sorta.

In fact, they're offering themselves as 'jockeys' to cars who want to take advantage of the express lane on roads reserved for cars with three or more occupants. Paying for an extra rider (or two, in the case of a mother-and-child combo) might cost a bit, but it will get you out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic that fills the main roads during peak hour.

The extra-passenger jockeys are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the fact that people in Jakarta are entrepreneurial, forever seeking out opportunities to make a few thousand rupiah.

In large part the entrepreneurial spirit is driven out of necessity - there's no decent welfare system in Indonesia, so those who can't fend for themselves or fall back on family will soon find themselves destitute. The threat of going hungry at night…

Hung out to dry?

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Does the Russian embassy in Jakarta have a Hills Hoist on its roof?




A nod to the Australian embassy, perhaps, which sits on the other side of Jalan Rasuna Said.

The noise annoys

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Pssst. Happy International Noise Awareness Day.

Nope, I didn't realise it existed either, but apparently today is the 16th time it has been held.

I found out about the day thanks to a wonderful group of activists I met this afternoon gathered at Bundaran HI, Jakarta's largest roundabout.




If any city needed to think about the noise at which it functioned, it would be Jakarta. Day and night, the city is filled with people, animals and machines generating a cacophony of sounds that make it hard to hear even the most blatant of personal bodily eruptions.

Take our place. Even indoors, and some distance from the street, we hear the imam from the local mosque preaching to the heathens through a megaphone; we hear the announcer at the train station booming at commuters with incomprehensible messages; and we hear the constant growl of cars, bikes and buses, many of which seem to have been built during a strike by the muffler-makers union.

Go a little closer to the street and you can add the…

Sure beats window shopping

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Indonesia does have a reputation for an authoritarianism, which makes it all the more refreshing to see the challenging series of sculptures that are scattered around Grand Indonesia, (probably) Jakarta's most glamerous shopping mall.

Confronting statements on life, love and labour are on display, and most veer far from the agitprop pseudo-art that acts as a substititue for creative expression in many parts of the world.

The art at Grand Indonesia is is art that forces people to confront the status quo and think for themselves, a provacative concept itself in a country that attaches such a high value to groupthink.

It is quite telling that it is not a gallery that provides a home to these sculptures, but a shopping mall.

In the West, shopping malls seem to be havens for bland inoffensiveness in which people can mentally switch off as they administer a hefty dose of retail therapy.

Most likely, the confronting art on display at Grand Indonesia would never appear in a mall in many other…

ANZAC dawn

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I've just returned from the ANZAC Day dawn service in the inner city Jakarta suburb of Menteng Pulo. The venue was the Jakarta War Cemetry, a little oasis of quiet amid towering residential blocks and the sights and smells of kampung life.

While Australians and New Zealanders represented the bulk of the several hundred people in attendance, there was also a generous contingent of Indonesian veterans and soldiers, diplomats and civilians from several other nations.

Like most ANZAC Day service, it was a simple affair that prompted those in attendence to think about themselves and their circumstances. Its power derives from its quiet understatement.

The cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers is a remarkable place, with nearly a thousand soldiers buried in minimally marked graves amid immaculately maintained lawns. Among those whose final resting place is here are 96 Australians.

Just why so many Commonwealth soldiers met their maker here, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website explai…

First impressions last

You learn a lot about Indonesia in the first few minutes after landing at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport. Those hanging out for the petty bureaucracy, small scale corruption and smog-filled traffic jams that makes Jakarta the city it is need not wait long.

Soon after landing late last Thursday afternoon (on a day that started before dawn in Sydney), I joined with many of the 150 others who had just disembarked on a flight from Singapore in the queue for those who bought a visa on arrival. Buying the $US25 visa off the friendly teller was no trouble - it was the queue to get it processed that inspired frustration.

Fanning ourselves with passports, airline tickets or well-thumbed copies of The Economist, we sweltered for more than an hour as we awaited service. In front of us, just two of the eight booths established to process visas were open, and attending those two were a pair of bored looking Indonesian officials who had probably encountered their fair share of aggrevated foreig…

Selamat datang and all that

Now, where was I?

A little over four years ago I let my blog lie dormant because I had taken a new position at The Age. I had a fantastic time there, was given some great opportunities and met some incredible people (being a business reporter amid the global financial crisis and a politics reporter during the downfall of a Prime Minister is hard to beat). But my wanderlust was getting the better of me and last year I left the paper to seek other opportunities.

Now, I'm less than a week into my time in Jakarta, a heaving mound of humanity that serves as the capital of Indonesia. My plan is to settle down, get to know what makes this place tick, and potentially pick up some work along the way writing, editing or teaching.

Throughout, I'll be sharing it with you on my blog. I'll be writing about Indonesia, its people, its politics, its culture, its economy, its place in the world, and its food. Ah, the food. Who knew so many things would taste so good when deep fried?

Indonesia&#…