Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Farewell, Indonesia

After four fascinating months in Indonesia, we returned to the United States on August 15. For the moment, we're still overcoming jet lag from the 22-hour flight and preparing for busy weeks ahead at the Journalism School and Political Science Department in Berkeley.

In the meantime, we wanted to wish Indonesia a belated happy birthday. The country celebrated its 64th anniversary of its independence on August 17. All of Jakarta was decked out in the national colors for the big occasion (above). We also found an honor guard at our hotel room the night before our departure (below).


Thanks to everyone who wrote to us during our four months in Indonesia -- your messages helped us through the difficult times. It was a remarkable experience and we'll post some pictures in the next week or two.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Celebrating in Indonesia’s Great Outdoors

Posted by John
Ten days before our departure from Indonesia, Danielle’s field research drew to a close. During the past year and a half, she’s endured sizzling Sumatran summers and frigid Siberian winters and interviewed close to two hundred people from all walks of life in both Russia and Indonesia. These two societies are divided by a host of cultural and socioeconomic factors, but do share the common experience of recent democratization. After witnessing two presidential elections, a number of protests and political forums in large international cities and small villages, the time has come for Danielle to start searching for meaning in the data.

You’ll learn more when “Democratizing Citizens: Political Transition in Russia and Indonesia” hits the dissertation shelves in two years. But first, we’re celebrating the completion of field work by enjoying some of Indonesia’s world-famous natural beauty. After spending most of our time in smog- and soot-filled cities, the countryside has provided a breath of fresh air.

Our first stop was Bukit Lawang Nature Preserve in North Sumatra, home to orangutans and other primates. Our six-hour hike brought us deep beneath the jungle canopy (left, click on the photo for a larger image). Since the period of Dutch colonization, palm oil, rubber and other plantations have infringed upon Indonesia’s rain forest. The government has committed to preserving remaining habitats, and Bukit Lawang is one of the few places left in the world where you can see orangutan in their natural environment.

Virtually anything can grow in Sumatra’s equatorial heat and humidity—cacao, cloves, resin and rattan were just some of the crops we saw during our hike. What is more, the region’s natural bounty means creatures often become fruitful and multiply, growing to surprising physical proportions. Armies of varsity-sized termites crawled over felled trees, looking as though they could carry off a Buick when they pooled their efforts.

The unquestioned kings of the forest, however, were the furry orange orangutans we saw swinging through the trees above us (right). Within our first hour of walking, we came upon a mother and child some twenty feet above the path. A large group of European tourists rushed in to take photos and video, and these primates sought privacy rather than the spotlight. The Sumatran orangutan mostly stays in trees anyway, content to eat fruit and bugs and rarely coming down to the ground. The long-tailed macaques (left), smaller relatives from the primate family, proved far more sociable.

Humans and orangutan share 96 percent of their genetic material, and “orangutan” is Indonesian for “man of the forest.” You could see some of the simian resemblance when we used our free arms to grasp at tree branches as our hike reached particularly steep and slippery stretches. Some of the hiking proved downright treacherous, and we weren’t coming across any signs of orangutan after our brief initial glimpses. But just when we had almost given up hope that we’d have a chance to spend any quality time with our distant primate cousins, our guide stumbled across a female orangutan napping in a low-hanging tree. For more than 15 minutes, we had a chance to see the creature up close and snap a few photos, including this one of her hand reaching out as her nap ended (below right).

During our last week in Indonesia, we finally made it to Bali, often the only section of the country people outside Indonesia know anything about. With its traditional dance and music, Hindu temples and gorgeous beaches, this island of 3.5 million teems with tourists and occupies a prominent place in the foreign understanding of Indonesia.

Not that understanding appears to be the primary goal for the majority of tourists in Bali. Most come from Europe in search of sun and surf, and alcoholic beverages and topless sunbathers are far, far more common here than in any other part of this Muslim-majority country. We’ve enjoyed our two days in Bali’s warm and calm ocean waters, but hearing German and French conversations at a poolside bars make it easy for us to lose sight of the fact that we are in Indonesia. I almost did a double-take when I saw presidential campaign bumper stickers along the beach yesterday. Indonesian politicians’ discussion of poverty alleviation, the role of Islam in public life, and ethnic separatism all seem a world away from Bali’s beach volleyball courts. Yet spending time among well-heeled, white tourists has probably served as something of a halfway house to the reverse acculturation process that will happen when we return to the United States.

The beach has provided welcome rest and recreation, but we gained a fuller sense of Bali when we stayed for a few days in a Hindu village outside the town of Ubud. More than 90 percent of the island’s residents are Hindu, as Bali was the refuge for the Majapahit kingdom that fled Java during the ascendancy of Islamic kingdoms in the 14th and 15th century. Unlike in Java, Hindu temples here are not historical showpieces—they are still in active use. On the evening of our arrival, women carried offerings of fruit on their heads and various avatar statues outside temples were outfitted with black-and-white checkered sarongs. Life in this Hindu enclave proves a far cry from the other parts of Indonesia where we’ve spent time. We were almost surprised to hear very faint strains of a Muslim call to prayer outside Ubud one evening. After it had become such a regular part of our lives for three months, it now seemed almost out of place.

Away from the tourist strip along the beaches, most of the Balinese landscape consists of verdant rice patties that stretch out for miles (left). On one of our days near Ubud, we had a chance for an up-close view by walking in and around rice fields one morning. Danielle ended up with a bit of a closer view than she wanted when she fell from one of the narrow paths into the muddy rice field below, taking our guide down with her. Fortunately, everyone made it out without a scratch, but our guide managed to lose his shoes somewhere in the quagmire. “All part of the trekking,” he assured us, and led us another mile or so in his bare feet.

Our trip to Bali also coincided with Indonesia’s highest profile antiterrorism operation in years, the August 7 shootout with Noordin Top’s Jemaat Islamiyah cell in central Java. This group coordinated last month’s attacks on luxury hotels in Jakarta, and their campaign of terror began here in Bali seven years ago with a bombing that killed more than 200 people. Rumors circulated that Top was killed in this police raid, but police announced today that he was still at large. Everyone in Indonesia has followed the story, but perhaps nowhere as closely as in Bali, where the economy depends on convincing foreigners that the island’s beaches are safe for sunbathing. A high-profile counterterrorist coup could help restore Indonesian political stability and bring more visitors back to Bali’s shores.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cycling through the Heart of Batak Country

As racing fans around the world turned their attention to the Tour de France finish line at the Champs Élysées last weekend, Danielle and I completed our own Tour de Sumatra on the coast of Lake Toba. It was a far less rigorous course, but the scenery (above) rivaled anything the French Alps has to offer. And since the stakes were much lower, Danielle and I never developed an archrivalry à la Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador.

Time on the lake provided a welcome respite from Indonesia’s overcrowded cities. We’ve spent the bulk of our last three months among the 14 million Indonesians who live in Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan, so our Indonesia has been filthier, smoggier and more congested than the country as a whole. The pace of life in villages on Lake Toba’s Samosir Island proved much calmer, and the crystal blue lake surrounded by flaxen hills looked, to homesick eyes at least, a lot like the Golden Gate.

Cycling through the pastoral landscape certainly proved more pleasant than my attempts to ride in the city. At Lake Toba, our main concern involved dodging yaks and chickens that occasionally strayed onto the two-lane road. We saw monkeys too, but they tended to stay away. In Medan, by comparison, a car actually rolled over my right foot yesterday during a traffic jam. While I don’t recommend having a car run over any part of your body, my mishap was probably no worse than an NFL lineman stepping on your toes. My pant leg ended up with a streak of vulcanized rubber across it, but my metatarsals remained intact. Lance Armstrong has endured a lot, but I don’t think he faces these kinds of indignities when he rides.

Lake Toba forms the heartland of the Batak, the native people of North Sumatra who make up the largest plurality among the province’s diverse population. The most notable aspect of Batak life is that Christians outnumber Muslims, with images of Jesus and crucifixes feature prominently in many of the lake’s homes, hotels and restaurants.

Amid all this iconography, Danielle dubbed Lake Toba the “Indonesian New England” — with churches every 100 feet and a different congregation on every corner. The Batak have a plethora of Protestant denominations servicing a Christian population of 4 million. In our own rides around Samosir, we saw parishes for the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP), the Christian Protestant Church in Indonesia (GKPI), the Karo Batak Protestant Church (GBKP), the Simalungun Protestant Christian Church (GKPS), the Bethel Church of Indonesia (GBI), and a Batak Pentecostal Church. We also saw Catholic churches, as Catholicism is the main religion of the Karo (a Batak subgroup). Batak from several different Christian faiths mark their graves with large crosses and elaborate shrines (see below for an example), combining elements of Batak Christianity with elements of earlier animist traditions.

So here in a small corner of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, there are more Christian denominations anywhere this side of Germany during the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps that’s because German missionaries came to Sumatra in large numbers during the late 19th century. Germans are still among the region’s main visitors. We welcomed this development since it meant restaurants catering to German clientele offered fresh bread — not a typical Indonesian delicacy, but one we’ve missed in this rice-rich, wheat-poor nation.

Bataks’ love of music underpins all the group’s various Christian faiths. We heard hymns emanating from churches across Samosir Island on Sunday morning, including what sounded like religious singing on the lake at daybreak. Psalms at dawn were a departure in a country where the beginning of the day usually begins with the Muslim call to prayer.

Sunday’s music at dawn came after we’d lost some sleep the night before due to Batak revelers in the bar adjacent to our room. (As Muslims are sparse in this part of Indonesia, bars are not.) These modern-day minstrels strummed on acoustic guitars and belted out pop favorites for tourists, though favorites that are a bit dated at this point, including “Lady in Red” and selections from Four Non-Blondes. It’s nice to see the music from junior high and high school years lives on somewhere in the world. More in keeping with traditional Batak culture, we were treated to a folk music concert earlier in the evening. The ensemble of wooden instruments included a recorder with a bagpipe sound, a flute, a two-stringed mandolin, a xylophone and cylindrical drums.

In our modest attempt to acquaint ourselves further with Batak culture, we also spent he weekend in a hotel built out of traditional Batak houses (right). These houses are placed on stilts, which allow families to raise chickens and other animals underneath their living space. The area beneath the stilts on our house, however, had been filled in to allow for the accommodation of tourists rather than goats.

The houses also feature steep-pitched roofs, increasing space at the top and allowing families to live in a more stacked, vertically oriented space. These houses are built more to Batak scale, however, which means inhabitants are expected to be about 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds. Those of us towering giants standing at 5-foot-10 (or even 5-foot-4 in Danielle’s case) ended up with bumps and bruises from entering and exiting the low-clearance front door.

Our drive back to Medan passed through Berastagi, home of some of Sumatra’s most commanding volcanoes (left). Danielle told me that Lake Toba was formed in a volcanic explosion about 75,000 years ago. Later we learned it was probably the world’s largest volcanic eruption during the last 25 million years, emitting 2,000 times more ash than the 1980 Mount Saint Helen’s blast and destroying almost all human life on Earth at the time, according to anthropologists.

So there I was, a former history major, oblivious to the fact that we were standing on the spot of one of the world’s most epoch-defining events. Perhaps it’s time to expand my horizons beyond the last 200 years and dig into the Pleistocene Era. Those Jared Diamond ecohistory books keep gathering dust on my shelves, mocking me with their sober, long-term view. They probably say something about Lake Toba’s volcanic ash and the near extinction of the human race. At the very least, such apocalyptic moments in history make my crushed foot seem pretty minor in comparison.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Another Day in the Sumatra Bureau

Posted by John

Since Americans are as rare as unicorns here in North Sumatra, Danielle and I have often found ourselves becoming informal U.S. ambassadors to this part of Indonesia. (Sumatra has some of the world’s richest ecosystems, with orangutans, tigers and helmeted hornbills, but no unicorns, as far as anyone knows, so I think this metaphor works.) Almost all of our exchanges with people wanting to learn about our country have proven pleasant, but this U.S.-Indonesian comity suffered a setback last week when the discussion turned to the Middle East.

Most of these discussions about the United States have taken place at the Indonesian-American Friendship Association in Medan (known by its Indonesian initials, PPIA). Every day during the week, I spend an hour and a half talking about the United States to high-school students in PPIA’s English-language courses.

Some of the students speak an impressive amount of English, but since others struggle with it, I restrict my remarks to the basics. We talk about teenagers’ daily lives in the United States, and the Indonesian students are shocked to learn that their American contemporaries don’t start the day with a big bowl of fried rice at 5:30 in the morning. If we have time, the class places New York and Los Angeles on a map, does a quick gloss on U.S. history from George Washington to Barack Obama, and spends a moment mourning the passing of Michael Jackson

The stakes for the Grennan-Lussier U.S. Sumatra Bureau increased dramatically, however, when some of Danielle’s college-aged research assistants asked her to present a lecture in Indonesian on “Barack Obama as U.S. President” at the University of North Sumatra’s Sociology Students Association. After explaining to the students that she doesn’t specialize in U.S. politics, Danielle agreed to make a short presentation and enlisted my help. The day before the event, she learned that this informal student seminar had metastasized into an open lecture requiring a PowerPoint presentation.

That last task fell to the Research Department at the Grennan-Lussier Sumatra Bureau. Since Danielle’s days are full of interviews with Indonesian voters, a short-staffed Research Department of one (yours truly) cranked out a PowerPoint that highlighted differences between Democrats and Republicans, provided a précis of the 2008 presidential election and outlined the Obama Administration’s priorities on the economy and health care. It fell to Danielle to translate into Indonesian nuances of a health care system and tax code that make little sense in English.

Posters for the lecture advertised a 9 a.m. start time, but “9” translates into Indonesian as “9:15...maybe 9:25...okay, 9:30 at the latest.” So from 9 to 9:30, Danielle and I were left alone to soak in the grandeur of the venue, with its formal portraits of university officials, scarlet curtains and ergonomic executive chairs encased in some sort of shrink wrap. Danielle’s research assistants all donned smart blazers with the Sociology Student Association’s crest and rushed around setting up chairs and a sound system. We were seated at the front: Danielle at the microphone, me at the computer ready to switch PowerPoint slides and perhaps offer the services of the vast Grennan-Lussier Research Department if a particularly difficult question emerged.

After a quorum assembled around 9:30, Danielle received a series of introductions from her students. She then flawlessly delivered the 20-minute presentation she’d rehearsed the evening before, confidently wielding Indonesian to rattle off statistics about the U.S. unemployment rate and the percent of the country’s economy devoted to health care. It was a brilliant set piece, designed to provide an introductory overview of the U.S. political system to a foreign audience.

But then the set piece ended and events returned to real time, as members of the audience peppered the important American scholar from Berkeley with questions on whatever topics struck their fancy. Even though she’d been asked to present on Obama and domestic U.S. politics, the questions quickly took on the feel of a final oral exam in U.S. foreign policy, with the added challenge of trying to converse in Indonesian.

One student who asked about U.S. objections to Iran’s nuclear program received a two-minute, Indonesian-language distillation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, based on bits and pieces Danielle picked up in her work at the Kennedy School. Someone else asked about the impact the U.S. financial crisis would have on the Indonesian economy. When Danielle received a tough two-part question on U.S.-China relations, she started answering the first part and scribbled a note to me: “What do you know about China’s role in the U.S. economy?”

Panicked, I started paraphrasing what I’ve read in Niall Ferguson and Paul Krugman. I trudged up everything I could remember about Beijing’s fixed currency, U.S. trade deficits, and China’s involvement in the U.S. Treasury bond market. Some of the gobbledygook I summoned might have had the added advantage of being true. I don’t think my answer would have passed muster at the Council of Economic Advisors, but Danielle probably cleaned it up a bit in the Indonesian translation. Not that I would know, of course.

So this is how you end up talking in Indonesian about China’s central bank and its attempts to control inflation, wondering where things went wrong in your life. We were definitely out of our depth at that moment, but this sort of thing happens when enthusiastic students place a microphone in front of you and ask you to talk about America. You mean you want to know whether Iran’s theocratic ideology presents a unique challenge for a U.S. diplomatic approach based on common interests? Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk about baseball and Michael Jackson?

But any anxiety regarding our dubious explanations of China’s currency policy quickly evaporated when Danielle ended up on the receiving end of one student’s harangue about Iraq and Palestine. I suppose I ended up on the receiving end of it as well, but my limited Indonesian only allowed me to discern the occasional English cognates like “jihadis.” One other student in the back clapped, but it was a pretty feeble reaction. Some people in the front row rolled their eyes in disgust. It proved an unfortunate moment—not so much for the content of the criticism, but for the blistering tone all out of proportion to everything that came before.

It’s fine to criticize U.S. policy in the Middle East, of course, but it seems like a bit of overkill to crank up your volume and rhetoric to the top register before you’ve even given someone else a chance to listen. What’s more, the questioner had only wandered in after the presentation ended. He wasn’t remotely interested in anything we had to say, and consequently, he missed the presentation’s two-minute discussion of problems with U.S. policy in Iraq and how they had affected the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. He only wanted to register his political complaints at a high decibel level. This questioner also seemed to lack any appreciation that someone had taken the time to learn his language and was trying to present in it.

Danielle handled this moment gracefully, if forcefully. She pointed out that we were not representatives of the U.S. government and had been invited to discuss the U.S. election and domestic politics. This is an academic seminar, not a political meeting, she reminded him. That said, she said she would try to answer his question and went on to talk about U.S. concerns regarding human rights violations in the 2008 war in Gaza and U.S. promises to withdraw from Iraq in 2010. (Danielle had scribbled something on a notepad asking the date for the withdrawal—in the heat of moment, I said “2011?”—I was pleased to find out later I had passed that pop quiz.) Danielle also politely explained that she was not an expert on Middle East policy, she was someone who studied Indonesia.

Not content to leave it at that, the belligerent questioner seized the microphone back from one of the student moderators. His irate behavior was particularly strange, since most Indonesians fall over themselves to be polite to us. He continued screaming, somehow finding an even louder volume. He was not satisfied that Danielle declaimed any special knowledge of the Middle East. The microphone squeaked as if under the weight of all the vitriol. “But I ask you for your opinion as a DOCTOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE....”

Even if Danielle were already a doctor of political science, this intrepid questioner should learn that doctors of political science mostly pore through data quietly and offer tentative conclusions restricted to their area of expertise. Instead, he appeared to think he was hammering Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz on cross-examination before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He didn’t seem to realize he was talking to someone studying the impact of political socialization in new democracies, not someone who was about to order up the bombing of Baghdad at the conclusion of the seminar.

The event continued for another few minutes, but the exchange about the Middle East sucked their air out of the room. A few other students had wanted to ask questions, but never had a chance. During our own post-Seminar debrief, Danielle and I both focused on how unpleasant the one questioner intent on turning the discussion to the Middle East had made the event. Even in her frustration, however, Danielle pointed to the fact that it was college students like this one who had stood up to Indonesia’s authoritarian government in the late 1990s and toppled Suharto’s dictatorship. Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding a way to channel this energy to the right target, she said. Perhaps. I admired Danielle’s generous interpretation and wished I could be as charitable.

If nothing else, last week’s seminar here in Medan made me pray for George Mitchell, the chief U.S. negotiator in the Middle East. He’s currently in Syria and Israel trying to bring Israelis, Syrians and Palestinians to the negotiating table. If Middle East issues can cause this kind of ruckus all the way in Indonesia, Lord knows what sort of mischief they create in Baghdad and Jerusalem.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fighting for Space

An afternoon walk on Jalan Setia Budi, the main street in our Medan neighborhood, can turn into a struggle for survival.

Many offices close around 3 p.m. in Indonesia, which means rush hour starts on the early side. At 3:30 today, columns of cars idled in the heat as drivers leaned on their horns. Motorcycles darted like dragonflies around the automobiles, squeezing along the shoulder and occasionally climbing up on the sidewalk to create their own express lane.

Of course, two-wheeled transportation on a sidewalk requires a contiguous stretch of uninterrupted concrete, which does not always exist in Indonesian cities. Fruit sellers set up their stands wherever they see fit, converting sidewalks into obstacle courses. And today, half the concrete squares on large stretches of sidewalk were pried open and removed, exposing fetid sewage canals below. Moments like these demonstrate why typhoid and Hepatitis A vaccines are mandatory for travel in Indonesia.

When they were accessible, sidewalks proved a tempting transportation option today since the curbside shoulders motorcycles usually favor along Jalan Setia Budi were strewn with mountains of trash. It had all the appearances of a garbage pick-up day, but these piles have lain dormant (or perhaps even grown) during the last 36 hours. With a mayor and vice-mayor thrown in prison for corruption earlier this year, and an interim mayor only designated recently after months of leaderless city government, Medan’s public services have seen better days. Some of Danielle’s interview respondents have reported not having trash picked up in their neighborhoods since last August.

And where are the pedestrians in this labyrinth? Most Indonesians don’t walk very far under these conditions. Between the constant obstructions and the blistering heat, people either avoid afternoon trips or hire a motorcycle cab, further congesting narrow roadway arteries. Those of us brave or foolish enough to attempt a quarter-mile journey on foot end up gingerly navigating our way through occasional seams between vendors’ pushcarts and parked motorcycles. (Even when they’ve stopped moving, the motorcycles can be a nuisance.) It’s also important to steer clear of the cats, chickens or occasional goats that cross your path.

With Indonesia’s 322 people per square mile (to say nothing of its chickens and goats), you often feel like your cheek is brushing up against someone else’s jowl. The country is not as densely populated as Vietnam or Bangladesh, but it’s three times more crowded than the United States on average. What’s worse, poor infrastructure and lack of urban planning exacerbates overcrowding problems considerably. Streets feel twice as crowded when motorcycles are on sidewalks and pedestrians are out in the road.

Sometimes, the space crunch has auditory in addition to physical implications. We enjoy peace and quiet in our more expensive home stay, but in most parts of town motorcycle drivers rev engines just meters away from people’s windows. Those windows don’t have glass, either, so any separation from the street proves impossible.

Attempts to find quiet retreats face interruptions from unexpected sources. In search of such a respite from noise pollution, Danielle and I succumbed to the temptation of an upscale Western-style coffee place today. The drinks are three times more expensive than in the curbside cafes, but the air-conditioning makes the price seem like a bargain when you never have to fight flies or ants for a seat.

But just as we were settling in for two hours of quiet contemplation, a loud buzzing noise like a welding torch emanated from the back of the store where a few staff members were gathered. We assumed someone was making repairs, but it seemed odd they would set a silversmith loose in the cafe. When the buzzing persisted for about an hour, we decided our search for silence had failed. On the way out, we learned that they hadn’t set up a foundry after all; the place had become an impromptu tattoo parlor for the day. In a country where no one seems to have enough room, spaces sometimes have to serve dual purposes.

With these kinds of close quarters, Indonesians don’t seem to expect much privacy. One sign of this blurring of public and private is that small talk touches on what we consider personal topics very quickly. For instance, most people ask Danielle within five minutes of meeting her whether she’s married and has any children. When she answers yes and no, respectively, the following question is always how long she’s been married. For an Indonesian, a marriage of four years that has yielded no offspring inevitably evokes concern about fertility. They don’t seem to fathom the idea that a couple might be waiting for the right time to start a family.

One Chinese woman with her own traditional medicine practice expressed concerns about Danielle’s childlessness and insisted on examining Danielle’s pulse to discern the source of her infertility. This woman’s first diagnosis was that Danielle’s husband might not be fat enough for conception. When Danielle assured this woman that I was taller and heavier than most Indonesian men, the woman replied, “You’re just too tired. You’re working too hard.” There might be something to that last point.

***

Four days after the Jakarta hotel bombings, the country remains on edge. Security has tightened around our neighborhood, and TV news programs have shown creepy footage of a suspected Jemaah Islamiyah bomber entering the Marriott Hotel two days before the attack. Several Jakarta hotels and offices have faced bomb threats over the last few days, and the Jakarta Post reported today that hotels here in Medan have also received threats.

Even so, day-to-day life still feels more or less safe. One unsettling exception came when someone shouted English-language obscenities at Danielle and me from an automobile window earlier today. After three months of Indonesians greeting us with “Hello, Mister,” the two-word salutation we received today was far less welcome. In all likelihood, the outburst probably came from an Indonesian teenager who has watched too many American movies and doesn’t understand what vulgar English words really mean.

The episode surely doesn’t reflect most Indonesians’ attitudes toward foreigners, and our mood improved considerably ten minutes later when members of a boys’ soccer team called us over to talk to them. Several were wearing jerseys from Manchester United, the English premier league team that cancelled its exhibition match in Jakarta against Indonesian all-stars after Friday’s bombings. One of the boys even playfully recited the Indonesian language taglines he’d seen MU players like Wayne Rooney saying in the soccer commercial that has been running on Indonesian TV during the last few weeks.

It was sad to be face-to-face with Indonesians who would have loved to watch their favorite international soccer team play against their nation’s best players. A Manchester United visit would have meant so much to these kids, but for the time being, terrorism has derailed cultural diplomacy and soft power.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Day After


Posted by John
Yesterday’s bombings at Jakarta’s JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels killed at least eight people and injured more than 50. During the last 24 hours, the world has recoiled from the same haunting images that have dominated the news here: police patrolling amid shredded metal and shattered glass, plumes of smoke shrouding streets, and paramedics carrying blood-strewn corpses out of the rubble.

For Indonesians, the scene had a disturbing feeling of familiarity. The country endured four major terrorist bombings from 2002 to 2005, when the fundamentalist Jemaah Islamiyah organization killed more than 200 people in strikes against Western targets in Jakarta and Bali.

After four years of calm, Indonesians entertained hope that the nightmare of terrorism had ended. Instead, they woke up yesterday to news that bombs once again rocked Jakarta. Once again, foreign visitors were among the victims. Attackers even returned to the same Marriott where a car bomb killed 12 people six years ago.

The Ritz-Carlton and Marriott, regular gathering places for foreign businessmen and diplomats in the upscale Kuningan district, proved particularly inviting targets. Forces critical of Indonesia’s acceptance of international influences see them as symbols of Western encroachment. At least four of the people killed in the bombing were foreigners, including a New Zealand businessman who headed Indonesia’s largest cement company and an Australian mining executive.

During our three weeks in Jakarta earlier this summer, the city was taking security matters very seriously. Guards inspected the trunks and undercarriages of cars entering parking lots for shopping malls, hotels or government buildings. Concrete barriers shielded buildings from possible car bombs. And customers walked through metal detectors before entering Western-owned restaurants like McDonald’s.

With these stricter measures in place, people looking to strike targets in Jakarta would need to alter their strategy. Early reports indicate the suspected bombers did precisely that—instead of relying on a car bomb, the perpetrators checked into the Marriott as guests and assembled their bomb within the hotel.

These initial reports also suggest the bombers belong to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terrorist group that conducted attacks in Indonesia earlier this decade and has coordinated efforts with Al Qaeda. Several JI members have been arrested and executed in recent years, but the group retains the ability to strike targets throughout Southeast Asia.

The timing of the attacks seems precisely calculated to disrupt political life in Indonesia. Last week Indonesians turned out to re-elect President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) with 60 percent of the vote. SBY’s first term witnessed economic growth, a sustained anticorruption campaign and the absence of terrorist violence. Now SBY’s domestic reforms will take a backseat as the focus turns exclusively to the government’s response to the bombing and its efforts to capture leading members of Jemaah Islamiyah. To the consternation of many in Indonesia, Noordin Mohammad Top, the Malaysian JI leader who masterminded the 2003 bombing of the Marriott, remains at large.

In a country that relies heavily on international investment and tourism, terrorism has deterred foreign companies from expanding business operations and dissuaded vacationers from taking trips to Bali’s beaches. The Australian government has already issued a new Indonesian travel warning its citizens, who were prominent among the casualties in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.

Yesterday’s attack has already caused at least one prominent cancellation—the English soccer team Manchester United called off Monday’s game in Jakarta against Indonesian soccer all-stars. The match may be rescheduled in neighboring Malaysia, but Indonesians will be deprived of the chance to see their county’s best players square off against international soccer stars like Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen in Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. The cancellation will have an economic impact as well, with hotel rooms remaining vacant and food and souvenir vendors losing customers.

The Manchester United visit had been heavily promoted throughout soccer-crazy Indonesia, with humorous TV advertisements (below) and red-and-yellow United billboards throughout Indonesian cities. Several media outlets reported that some Manchester United team members planned to stay at the Ritz-Carlton that was bombed. Their cancellation is clearly not the most tragic part of the Jakarta attacks, but serves as an example that elements of Indonesia’s quest for a quiet, normal national life remain unfulfilled.


For all the horror that yesterday’s bombings caused, they must be placed in the context of the vast and diverse country where they occurred. Since Jakarta occupies the center of the Indonesian political, business and cultural universe, the shockwaves of the attacks were felt through the archipelago. The national government will certainly have to focus its resources on antiterrorism, possibly at the expense of worthy antipoverty and anticorruption programs that could have a beneficial impact throughout the islands.

Yet here in Medan, more than 800 miles away from Jakarta, life continues as usual for most individuals. People organize their lives around their local neighborhoods—buying and selling food at the local market, drinking iced tea with friends in the corner cafe, and playing badminton. None of these activities are likely to attract the attention of terrorists. That’s true even in a major regional capital like Medan with more than 2 million people—residents have ties to Jakarta, but life remains mostly self-contained. Detachment from Jakarta is even more prominent in smaller villages throughout Indonesia that have fewer than a hundred residents, most of whom will never travel to the capital city.

While Indonesians have died in this and other recent terrorist attacks, the bombings of luxury hotels, embassies and tourist nightclubs are aimed more at foreigners visiting Indonesia rather than Indonesians themselves. It’s a pernicious strategy that has the potential to isolate people eager to welcome new visitors and learn more about the world.

In spite of terrorist attacks, anti-Western sentiments have little currency among Indonesians, and everyone we’ve met has asked us about our country and our visit. Perfect strangers have welcomed Danielle into their homes to talk about their lives, their problems and their political opinions and expect nothing in return. This hospitality won’t grab headlines, but it’s a side of Indonesia that deserves at least as much attention as yesterday’s tragedy.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Safe in Medan

Several press agencies are reporting two bombings at the Ritz-Carlton and Marriot hotels in Jakarta this morning. We're safe in Medan, many miles away.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Haggled and Bedraggled with Motorcycle Cartels


Posted by John
Mornings in Medan often begin with a motorcycle taxi ride. But the trip doesn’t start without a little haggling, a ritual with maneuvers that rival Japanese kabuki for intricacy and inscrutability. Bargaining pervades Indonesian culture, whether you’re buying mangoes at the traditional fruit market or boarding the carriage attached to a motorcycle taxi.

Whenever feasible, Danielle and I avoid situations where haggling plays a major role. Parties on both sides of the transaction often make unflattering snap judgments about each other. Language and cultural differences create confusion, and the tone can descend into hectoring. The whole exchange takes on the feeling of combat, where the stakes become less about fair prices and more about conquest for either a smug merchant or a self-satisfied customer. It’s even worse when both parties seem to be airing grievances across socioeconomic and historic lines, and a basic need like traveling across town becomes a commentary on neocolonialism. Opting out of the bargaining process by shopping at more expensive stores comes at a premium, but piece of mind is often worth what turns out to be equivalent of a few extra few cents.

Cross-town transportation in Medan, however, is not a market with many options. Without easy access to public transportation or a car of our own, we are at the mercy of the becak (motorcyle taxi drivers) that convey people across town. When we were staying in Surabaya and Yogyakarta, we primarily took non-motorized bicycle becak between well-traveled destinations near the center of town. When we didn’t like the price, we could almost always walk away and find another driver. Now that we’re living on the outskirts of Medan, however, there are far fewer drivers, the distances are greater, and the drivers who are in our neighborhood seem to be in cahoots. Any attempt to walk away to find a better deal will turn into a fool’s errand, a fool’s errand on uneven sidewalks and in 95-degree heat.

When we want a ride to the college where Danielle meets her research team, we approach the gaggle of drivers gathered at the end of our street. These three or four drivers are independent operators, but lately they’ve been demonstrating the iron discipline of a cartel. After cornering the market in one of the nicer neighborhoods in Medan, they zealously protect their turf. One becak driver that brought me back to the neighborhood tried to pick up another passenger, only to be shouted down by the assembled members of the neighborhood racket.

The haggling begins when a passenger explains the route and makes an offer. For Danielle and me, this offer comes after a bit of well-intentioned market research. We want the driver to be well-compensated, but not to make out like a bandit. We’ll be facing these drivers every day for the next few weeks, so it’s in our interest to avoid the reputation as the foolish foreigners who don’t know the value of the rupiah.

Our neighborhood research informs us the going rate for the 2.5 mile-ride to campus is 12,000 rupiah ($1.20). That doesn’t sound like much, but government subsidies bring the cost of gas down to $0.90 per gallon. A motorcycle gets more than 40 miles per gallon, so drivers taking us are easily covering the cost of a nickel worth of gas. Under these conditions, becak make a decent profit for ten minutes of work in a country where most people subside on less than $2 a day.

When Danielle presents an initial offer for 12,000 rupiah, the becak often recoils as though presented with spoiled fruit. He can’t possibly drive all the way to that part of campus for less than 20,000 rupiah (about $2).

Danielle’s face registers shock and horror in return. She retorts, “That’s way too expensive. The normal price is 12,000. How about 15,000?”

The becak engaged in negotiations will often turn to his comrades in search of affirmation. In that moment, the cartel does play a certain enforcement role. Overly ambitious demands from an individual driver are nixed.

“20,000? No, 15,000 rupiah is the right price,” the crowd will affirm.

At the same time, the curbside cabal also establishes certain baselines that no amount of customer bargaining, however well-reasoned, will budge.

“15,000? But I can travel twice as far for 20,000 rupiah when I’m coming from the other direction.”

“No, 15,000 rupiah is the right price.”

One solution would be to pay the premium willingly, acknowledging a sort of transportation noblesse oblige. But if two or three dollars extra in daily transportation sounds trifling, it adds up over the balance of a few weeks. Plus it’s not clear that agreeing to a higher rate ensures an end to the haggling. The sliding scale may just keep sliding. A few days ago when Danielle immediately volunteered the higher 15,000 rupiah price for her standard commute, the driver mischievously suggested, “Unless you want to pay more...”

At moments like these, I try to dismiss haggling for taxis as a trivial nuisance, maybe even embrace it as a modestly entertaining form of sport. Yet years of reading The Economist have instilled in me the unfortunate instinct of trying to understand the pricing mechanism involved, and that’s when the strange calculus of determining taxi rates confounds me. An outbound trip to one destination costs 12,000, but then the return trip costs 15,000. Today’s trip, easily twice as long as yesterday’s trip, ends up costing the exact same amount.

We’re getting better at discerning the subtle market mechanisms that cause rates to fluctuate. Trips to and from tonier parts of town cost more than equivalent trips in other parts of the city. Also, since Danielle is going to and from a university, there seems to be an assumption that she’s a professor who can afford higher prices. Fares are easier to pick up in some parts of town, so when you go to those busier destinations you seem to get a discount. Regardless, no matter how much better I am at deciphering the logic involved, I remain mystified. The Indonesian becak awaits the economic game theorist that can crack his code.

Since Danielle’s research involves immersion into Indonesian society, she wants to develop a fluency in the language of haggling. When she fails to avoid what she calls the “bule markup”—the extra premium attached to the price for white foreigners—she feels relegated to the periphery of Indonesian society. After fielding a particularly unfair offer the other day, she broke into her best Indonesian and said, “I may be a white foreigner, but I’m not stupid.”

It sounds wittier and less offensive in the original Indonesian, as the howls of laughter from the crowd of other becak drivers will attest.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sumatran Awakenings


This Friday, members of a wedding party moved into our small guesthouse in Medan. When we heard voices across the hall at 4:30 the next morning, both Danielle and I gravitated to the standard explanation of prenuptial cacophony: a tipsy groom staggering in after a last late night on the town, calming nerves with a bit of liquid courage.

That was before we shook off the early morning cobwebs and realized we were still in teetotaling Indonesia. The vast majority of people here don’t drink, even for a bachelor party. The early morning disruption turned out to be servants telling each other loud jokes as they prepared a fried-food feast just inches behind our window.

It was at that ungodly hour that I pondered the question of when it is that Indonesians actually sleep.

The equatorial climate and mosques’ amplified dawn call to prayer mean Indonesians tend to start their days on the early side. (It wasn’t a huge surprise to hear people at 4:30 a.m. on the wedding day, but the volume created an unwelcome intrusion.) Yet it’s not as though Indonesians follow the early to bed, early to rise proverb. People may not be drinking, but there’s quite a bit of activity in neighborhood cafes well past 10 p.m. And neighborhoods where houses sit on top of each other mean that chatting pedicab drivers or pushcart vendors have a greater chance of disrupting your slumber. Indonesians can seem like a nation of insomniacs.

It’s no wonder coffee plays such a central role in life here in the land of Java. And with more than three-fifths of Indonesia’s population, Java dominates much of the nation’s politics and culture. All of Indonesia’s presidents have been Javanese except one—B.J. Habibe, who briefly held the job when Suharto was ousted from power. Ancient court traditions from Javanese cities like Solo and Yogyakarta—gamelan music, wayang puppets (above), and a Hindu-influenced form of Islam—are among Indonesia’s most recognizable cultural features. After our two and a half months in Java, it was beginning to feel like Indonesia and Java were synonymous.

Our last two weeks in Medan on the island of Sumatra have helped correct that impression. In this province, the Javanese are just one of many ethnic groups, comprising about a third of the population of 12 million. Most Javanese in Sumatra came to the island to work on coffee and tobacco plantations, and many remain in lower-wage sectors of the economy.

The Batak are the province’s largest ethnic group, forming about 40 percent of the population. A warrior spirit is part of the national identity, and Sumatra was one of the last Indonesian islands to come under Dutch colonial rule. Batak are closely related to the Malay, and North Sumatra is closer to Kuala Lumpur than Jakarta.

In contrast to the Javanese, most of whom are Muslim, the overwhelming majority of Batak are Christians. The Batak’s own Lutheran-oriented Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church claims more than 3 million members, but Dutch and German missionaries from a variety of sects won converts here in the 19th and 20th centuries. And the Catholic Church where we attended Mass this morning featured pews full of parishioners offering full-throated renditions of hymns.

Muslims are still the largest religious group in North Sumatra, but the province is characterized by much more religious pluralism than Java. Muslims and Christians Danielle has interviewed for her research have mostly testified to positive relations between religious groups here, but tensions crop up from time to time. One source of friction comes from the government’s increasing involvement in decisions regarding how and when religious groups can build new places of worship. Several Christians have told Danielle and me that they believe it’s harder to gain approval for a new church than a new mosque.

Muslims and Christians in Indonesia respect each other’s beliefs, but view proselytization as a threat. One survey from the Indonesian research institute LP3ES shows Muslims and Christians express acceptance of conversion, but are less keen when it involves a member of their own family.

I’m fine with Muslims marrying Christians, Muslims marrying Muslims, or Christians marrying Christians. My one request is that they wait until after 4:30 a.m. before making a lot of noise about it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Democracy in Action


Posted by John
Iranian clerics horrified the world last month by stealing a presidential election through back-room maneuvers and state-sponsored violence in the streets. Today, Indonesian presidential election officials were in the streets of our neighborhood, but for a completely different reason. They were counting votes right in front of us.

Indonesia and Iran, two Muslim-majority countries on opposite sides of Asia, have had remarkably different experiences with democracy over the last decade. Iran’s theocratic regime disqualifies reform candidates from running before elections even start, while Indonesians voted for more than 40 parties during the legislative election last April. Iran’s rulers shut down reformist newspapers by the dozen, yet Indonesia’s press is free to investigate and criticize the government. And while Iranian officials implausibly awarded an election for an unpopular president a few hours after it ended, Indonesian officials remain circumspect about declaring the wildly popular incumbent a winner until all the votes are counted.

Watching that count begin at outdoor polling stations in our neighborhood this afternoon had a reassuring civic effect. Half an hour after the polls closed in our Setiabudi neighborhood of Medan, four election officials were sifting through ballots in plain view (see above). One worker opened them and searched for the tell-tale checkmark before announcing “satu,” “dua,” or “tiga”—numbers corresponding to the three presidential candidates. Another sorted the counted ballots into piles—with incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s stack quickly towering over piles for the other two candidates. A third worker marked the vote tally on a posterboard, with Yudhoyono’s tick marks wrapping into a second row while his rivals managed a few lonely scratches. A fourth kept track of the total number of ballots to ensure everything added up properly. Neighborhood residents, pinkies inked purple after voting earlier in the day, gathered around the table to watch the count unfold.

At first, Danielle and I kept our distance. We were curious about the vote count, but did not want to disrupt the process. Before long, some of the polling station volunteers invited us over, pointing to open chairs and offering us glasses of water. One official paused briefly from his count to smile playfully into the camera as Danielle prepared to take a photo. Compare this to Iran, were foreign journalists were beaten, deported and accused of inciting rebellion. Here in Indonesia, two uninvited election tourists were welcomed with open arms.

By the end of the hour, the count showed 206 votes for Yudhoyono, 51 for Jusuf Kalla and 25 for Megawati Sukarnoputri. At least in our well-to-do neighborhood, a natural Yudhoyono stronghold, it was a runaway win for the incumbent. More importantly, representatives from the three candidates’ parties had watched poll workers conduct the count in real time. For an emerging democracy, this kind of transparency can build meaningful trust in the electoral process.

Unlike the outright fraud and intimidation in Iran, the main concern about Indonesia’s elections involved bringing some semblance of order to a potentially chaotic process. Today, Indonesia’s 175 million eligible voters had all of six hours, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., to mark their preference for president at hundreds of thousands of polling stations on thousands of islands. As many as a quarter of these voters were disenfranchised amid procedural confusions during a national legislative election three months ago. These hardly sound like conditions to inspire confidence.

Yet voting appeared to proceed smoothly today in Medan. Indonesia declares Election Day a national holiday, meaning the streets were actually quieter than usual. Each polling station serves fewer than 600 voters, cutting down on potential wait times. These booths were well-staffed, with four to five election officials and a local police officer at each. So rather than seeing long lines in the world’s third-largest democracy, only a handful of people were voting in the ten or so stations we visited. In addition, voting took a few seconds since the ballot only contained the vote for president. The Indonesian government certainly set up adequate election supply to meet voter demand.

Problems with voting lists, which may have kept as many as 48 million Indonesians from voting in the April legislative election, almost threatened the presidential vote as well. Voting lists that are supposed to contain all eligible voters were not updated, leaving off names of people who had moved or married. Fortunately, all three presidential candidates agreed yesterday to a Constitutional Court ruling that allowed Indonesians to cast a provisional ballot as long as they show their national ID card. It’s far from a perfect solution, but it promises a far more inclusive election.

Of course, the candidates’ agreement about the voter list issue hasn’t stopped some of them from complaining. Megawati’s enigmatic running mate, former general Prabowo Subianto, made a statement this evening criticizing the voter list compromise and the media’s early vote counts showing Yudhoyono in the lead. He made the statement in English, presumably for the benefit of the international media that he hopes to set on edge. Prabowo also claims he and Mega are in the lead, even though most exit polls show them at less than 30 percent. No one shows signs of taking him seriously.

The Election Commission promises to certify the results by July 25, but we should know the final outcome much sooner. President Yudhoyono has close to 60 percent of the vote in initial national returns—less than the 73 percent he won in our neighborhood, but still enough to avoid a September runoff if it holds through the night. If they have to recount 175 million ballots, Jakarta’s central square would the perfect spot. We’ll be there with our cameras.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

48 Hours before the Vote

Posted by John
As Americans celebrated independence on Saturday, Indonesians were treated to another familiar civic ritual — the barrage of last-minute election advertisements. Streets were plastered with signs and flags proclaiming the virtues of the three candidates: incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY); vice president Jusuf Kalla, running against his boss; and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who wants her old job back.

During the Saturday evening news broadcast, more than 80 percent of the ads were campaign commercials. By now, Danielle sings along with refrains she knows by heart, and Indonesians who’ve been subjected to a month of campaign mottos can probably tell you in their sleep that Kalla stands for “better and faster” government, Megawati is “for the people,” and SBY intends to lead the people “Forward!”

The most frequently aired advertisement features hundreds of SBY supporters in color-coordinated outfits carrying similarly color-coordinated flags to the top of a verdant mountain where a huge red-and-white Indonesian flag sways majestically in the wind. There’s nothing about SBY’s agenda, just a dose of stirring nationalism, impressive choreography and reminder that SBY is number two on the ballot. You can probably afford this kind of celebratory strategy when you have a 40-point lead in the polls. (I’ve searched for this and other ads on YouTube, but no luck so far.)

Meanwhile, in a country where close to 90 percent of the voters are Muslims, the Kalla campaign has sought to capitalize on the fact that neither SBY’s wife nor the wife of his running-mate wear jilbabs (head scarves). Both Kalla’s wife and his running mate’s wife wear them. Kalla draws attention to this bit of symbolic politics because the major Islamic parties are supporting SBY’s coalition, and this jilbab issue might lure some voters away from the president.

Kalla billboard ads regarding headscarves (see sample above, from the New York Times) are the first ads I’ve seen where candidates’ wives are featured more prominently than the candidates themselves. We saw one ad bearing the words “Insya Allah” (Allah willing) above the wives’ heads, further driving home the point. Another Kalla ad stresses his outsider status—from Sulawesi, he would be the first non-Javanese Indonesian elected to the presidency. None of these ads appear to be gaining traction, as Kalla is mired in third place in most polls.

Megawati seems the most willing to engage in critical campaigning. In a more combative style most Americans would recognize, her ads outline promises that SBY made but did not fulfill during his five-year term. One ad features some wretchedly melodramatic acting, where a boy celebrates after hearing a radio broadcast promising free elementary school education. His parents embrace him and regretfully inform him he can’t believe everything politicians say. It turns out they won’t be able to send him to school because they would still have to pay hidden school fees. Of course, voters’ disappointment with Megawati’s own inability to deliver on her promises as president from 2001 to 2004 hurts her credibility on this front.

The preponderance of political ads in the streets and on the airwaves reached a saturation point all last week. Come Sunday morning, however, all the flags and signs came down. TV broadcasts returned to normal, punctuated by commercials for coffee and cell phones rather than 60-second candidate biographies. In turns out that Indonesia has campaign rules that strictly prohibit political messages in the final three days before the polls open. Accustomed to American campaigns where supporters wave signs on street corners until the polls close on Election Night, it will be strange to travel down the home stretch in relative silence.

It’s not clear these ads were having an impact, anyway. SBY, the wildly popular incumbent, has consistently polled well above 50 percent, in some cases as high as 70 percent. There remains a slim chance that Kalla and Megawati will earn enough votes to force SBY below the 50 percent mark and into a September runoff. But all signs point to SBY winning in a landslide, as his re-election campaign takes on more of the feel of a coronation.

Even though the election will not be competitive, Indonesians will vote at a very high rate. The turnout in three national elections from 1999 to 2004 was over 75 percent of eligible voters in each instance, including 93 percent in the first post-Suharto election of 1999. Compare that to the United States, where about 60 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in last year’s closely contested presidential election. Social pressures to vote were very strong in Indonesia during the authoritarian Suharto era, even though election results were essentially meaningless since Suharto controlled who could run. Still, Indonesians developed the voting habit, and will go to the polls in droves on Wednesday.

Yet Indonesian voters’ motivations can prove elusive. More than a third of Danielle’s interview subjects said they did not know what “democracy” meant, only knowing it as a word in the name of SBY’s political party (“Partai Demokrat”). Voters identify much more closely with political personalities than parties, and parties do little to distinguish themselves ideologically through platforms or policies. In addition, the presence of patronage and “money politics” persists, factoring in voters’ decisions to an unverifiable extent. Everyone acknowledges that parties still buy votes with food and gifts in the post-Suharto era, but of course no one owns up to doing it themselves.

Even with Indonesians’ high rates of political participation, new forms of disenfranchisement have crept into the political process this year. Shockingly, an estimated 40 million voters were unable to vote April’s parliamentary election, mostly because the Central Election Commission (KPU) had not properly updated its electoral rolls. Indonesians don’t have to register, but the KPU was more lax about updating its lists this year than in previous elections. The commission has since run numerous advertisements exhorting Indonesians to check with local KPU offices to ensure that they haven’t been left off the list. It’s unlikely, however, that the voting rolls will be completely fixed before this week’s presidential vote.

In addition, the KPU has introduced some confusing procedural changes in 2009. For the first time in more than 50 years, Indonesians are supposed to mark their intent to vote by putting a check next to their candidate of choice rather than using a punch card ballot. Much confusion ensued in the April parliamentary election, with the KPU invalidating 14 percent of votes because of improper marks or other irregularities. (The average ballot invalidation rate in most elections is about 3 percent internationally.) With more than 1 in 10 voters disqualified on these kinds of technicalities, Florida’s butterfly ballot seems like the model of rectitude in comparison.

International election organizations like IFES have worked with the Indonesian officials to address this issue, encouraging the KPU to take a broader approach in honoring voters’ intent. They’ve gotten the KPU to accept X marks as well as the officially preferred check marks, for instance, but there’s still some disagreement about what counts as a vote. There are no signs that these invalidations have benefited one party or candidate, but they don’t inspire trust among Indonesians learning to live in a 10-year old democracy.

Still, Indonesia will have a proud moment on the international stage on Thursday morning, as wire services run stories confirming SBY’s victory in “Indonesia, a democracy with 240 million people and the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.” Then the world will mostly go on forgetting about Indonesia until something drastic happens.

With his broad mandate, SBY may be able to continue his progress toward making free public education available to all students, combating corruption at the heart of Indonesian politics and business, and spreading the benefits of economic growth to the broader Indonesian population. That is, of course, he stays true to his campaign motto of “Forward!”

Friday, July 3, 2009

Disrupting Corruption

Posted by John
North Sumatra’s Medan Airport provides the perfect view of the consequences of corruption among Indonesia’s political elite. Jockeying for position among hundreds of passengers around two antiquated baggage claim carousels, you’re left with the impression that Indonesia’s third-largest city of 2 million people deserves better.

For the past 10 years, North Sumatran political leaders have promised better. Money is budgeted for a new airport, but construction has stalled. Each year, local politicians dip into the funds in order to cover other costs, such as financing their own increasingly expensive campaigns. Meanwhile, over at the airport, cranes idle and planes squeeze into crowded terminals.

The story of Medan’s airport — false starts, good intentions and incomplete implementation — is repeated in other public works projects across the country. Part of the explanation lies in Indonesia’s public finances. Almost all Indonesians work in the informal economy and make very little money, which means they don’t pay taxes. Not paying taxes may sound appealing to Americans who grumble about the IRS each year as April 15 approaches, but it also severs citizens from their government.

With little understanding or stake in how the government funds its programs, most Indonesians have low expectations for what their government should provide. The government manages to meet those low expectations, especially since there is genuine ambiguity about who is responsible for basic services — schools, roads and trash pick-up — that Americans take for granted.

Meanwhile, businesses and wealthier citizens tapped to fund the Indonesian government’s coffers move their money offshore whenever they can. It’s often a matter of finding the right government official and meeting his price. Corruption has been a consistent feature of Indonesian politics in the country’s 64-year postcolonial history. Transparency International, an agency that tracks political corruption, placed Indonesia 126th in its 2008 Corruption Perception Index of 180 countries. That’s slightly behind Honduras and just ahead of Libya.

Two new features of Indonesian politics promise meaningful change, however. First, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (“SBY”) has had a far less accommodating attitude toward political corruption during his five years in office. The government’s anticorruption commission even prosecuted a member of SBY’s extended family accused of wrongdoing. Here in Medan, both the mayor and vice-mayor recently landed in jail for embezzlement.

SBY’s anticorruption consistently comes up in Danielle’s interviews with Indonesians and accounts for much of the president’s popularity. If he wins next week’s presidential election by as large a margin as projected, his meaningful accomplishments in anticorruption will be a major reason why. For some sense of the change that has occurred in the SBY era, Transparency International’s Corruption Index as recently as 2001 placed Indonesia ahead only of Nigeria, Uganda and Bangladesh.

The second change on corruption comes from the Islamic-inspired Justice and Welfare Party (PKS), which has served as a gadfly on this issue during the last decade. While I bemoaned the political confusion that has emerged with the proliferation of political parties in Indonesia, one real advantage has been that success by new parties like PKS shows that people are willing to listen to parties that take corruption seriously.

PKS has garnered Western press attention because of its links to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its professed intention to implement sharia (Islamic law) in Indonesia. Less noticed, however, has been PKS’ fight against corruption, which accounts for much of its popularity. The party has become so successful at making corruption its signature issue that one sex worker Danielle interviewed as part of her research said she would vote for PKS — even though the party’s insistence on sharia means it would hardly look kindly on this woman’s profession.

In most Indonesian towns and villages, political parties still offer money, rice or other goods on the eve of an election in exchange for votes. Rather than receiving sustained public services from the government over time, this one-time bribe from political parties is often the extent of constituents’ interaction with the political system.

PKS’ influence is challenging this arrangement, however. During the April parliamentary election in Medan, several mosques gathered up religious clothes and prayer rugs that political parties had donated. They told parties to come retrieve these items — no one would be allowed to bribe their way into office using the mosques. Partly because of the attention PKS has brought to corruption, religious figures are unwilling to passively accept it.

PKS earned 7 percent of the vote in Indonesia’s parliamentary elections in April — not enough to allow them to run a presidential candidate, but enough to make them a potential kingmaker in Indonesia’s coalition politics. For this election, they’ve cast their lot with SBY’s Democratic Party. While the parties disagree about social issues and the role of Islam in Indonesian politics, they can find common ground on anti-corruption initiatives. SBY will probably have to find important places for PKS leaders in a second-term presidential cabinet.

It remains to be seen whether SBY’s Democratic Party and PKS — both relatively new creations — will have staying power in the Indonesian political landscape. PKS’ successes in fighting corruption mean they will remain relevant, if not a major party. And if the president’s party consolidates its legacy of anti-corruption, it will go a long way in helping it establish institutional permanence after SBY.

For all these successes in challenging the culture of corruption in Indonesia, however, nostalgia persists for Suharto, the president who set up one of the world’s most corrupt governments during his 33 years of rule. Suharto’s crony kingdom began to unravel when disgust with members of Suharto’s family and inner circle lining their pockets reached a breaking point during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998.

Still, historical memory has been kind to Suharto. The poorest Indonesians have not all seen consistent gains during the SBY era. Several SBY supporters told Danielle in interviews that while they are happy with the current president, particularly his anti-corruption efforts, they would definitely vote for Suharto if the former president were on the ballot.

“Suharto may have been corrupt, but he left something for the rakyat kecil (little people),” one said.

Those “little people” still vote in large numbers in Indonesia. Absent meaningful changes in Indonesians’ economic circumstances, a populist who can convincingly pose as the people’s champion — regardless of his or her political platform — may galvanize a new political movement in the post-SBY era.