Monday, June 29, 2009

Legal Roulette in Surabaya

Posted by John
First impressions count for so much when you travel. In Indonesia, our most dramatic introduction occurred in Surabaya on May 10.

As we pulled into our hotel near Surabaya’s Kali River, we were stunned by what looked like the immediate aftermath of a hurricane or flood. Block after block, houses were reduced to rubble, destroyed down to their foundations. Men, women and children were still piecing through the wreckage, salvaging toys, photographs and other mementos.

After the initial shock of the first few blocks, however, we realized that the damage had all occurred on one side of the street — the side closest to the river. Houses on the other side appeared unaffected. Small shops had their doors open for business and people milled around as dusk approached. Yet how could one side of a street be completely destroyed, apparently by a violent act of nature, and the other remain virtually untouched?

The next morning, Danielle’s Indonesian research associate dispelled the mystery of this street with a split personality. The destruction was no act of nature, it was the act of a man — the mayor of Surabaya, who five days earlier had ordered the destruction of 385 houses on a 500-meter stretch along the river. The city displaced more than 1,000 people — all lost their homes and many lost jobs or small businesses in the process.

Details about this event slowly emerged in our conversations with Surabayans during our five weeks in the city. It turns out that Indonesian law stipulates that buildings need to be a certain number of meters away from the river for reasons of flood control. Still, Indonesian authorities have a history of applying laws selectively, and the middle of an election year seemed like an inopportune moment to forcibly remove people from their homes.

We received some answers when we spoke with individuals from the Wonocolo neighborhood directly affected by the Surabaya government’s forced relocation plan. Through Danielle’s contacts, we arranged a meeting with members of the Stren Kali association from the neighborhood on June 9. None of the people we met lost their houses in the May evictions, but their neighbors were forced out. Their own homes on adjacent streets remain at risk. When they walked us through what happened, the tale that emerged was one of individuals with little money or influence caught between overlapping layers of bureaucracy.

The Surabaya government had uprooted river communities before, forcing residents from 250 houses near the river in east Surabaya to move in 2002. The Stren Kali group knew their Wonocolo neighborhood was at risk and told us about repeated efforts they made during the last seven years to come to a negotiated settlement with the government. They enlisted the help of experts, including an architecture professor from Indonesia’s leading university. He testified to the Surabaya regional government that this group should not have to move since they were composting and engaging in sustainable sanitation practices. Several neighborhood residents paid to have their houses moved three to five meters back from the river in order to comply with Indonesian law. Others were raising money to do the same.

The Stren Kali group appeared to be making some headway, finding a sympathetic audience when they testified at the regional legislature in 2007. Regional legislators signed an agreement giving residents of the Wonocolo neighborhood five years to complete renovations designed to allow them to stay in their houses. Yet 2007 was also around the time the national government passed regional autonomy reforms handing more responsibilities to city governments. The Stren Kali group was caught in administrative limbo — they had an agreement with the regional government, but the city government could choose to assert its authority at any time.

The city began to do precisely that on April 23 of this year, when residents of the Woncolo neighborhood received letters from the mayor’s office saying that they would be evicted on May 5. The Stren Kali group sprung into action, contacting the regional legislature to inform them of this development. Regional legislators, mindful of the agreement they had made allowing for renovations, signed an order on April 29 overturning the mayor’s eviction plan.

The mayor’s office moved forward anyway, sending thousands of police officers to the river at 3 a.m. on May 4, telling residents to gather their belongings. Members of the regional legislature also arrived at the scene, calling for a halt to the eviction. By May 5, however, the evictions began as advertised. Ten to 15 police officers went to each house to remove residents.

We arrived on the scene in Surabaya five days later. By then, hundreds of the dislocated citizens were living in city apartments with no electricity or water. Others were staying in tents or in churches. Lawsuits on their behalf are moving forward, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs may also take up the issue.

Some critics have pointed out that river residents had no legal right to the land where they had set up their houses. Perhaps, but that doesn’t justify the heavy-handed way the city handled the situation before all questions of jurisdiction were resolved. Many of the river residents are economically marginalized people from ethnic minority groups who don’t have a lot of sympathy from the wider population.

I try to imagine an equivalent situation in the United States, where the mayor of San Francisco would evict more than a thousand residents who were in negotiations with the California Senate that would allow them to stay put. If nothing else, it seems like a legal appeals process would be allowed to move forward before evictions took place. Yet residents of Indonesia seem to have few enumerated rights and little recourse when they believe their rights have been infringed. Members of the Stren Kali group we met remain concerned with the fate of their displaced neighbors, and worry it’s a fate they could share unless the city government changes its policies.

Yesterday, our arrival in the North Sumatran capital of Medan turned out a much tamer affair than our first day in Surabaya back in May. Medan feels much cooler and calmer than the hurly-burly of Surabaya’s motorcycle-strewn streets. And unlike Surabaya, we didn’t encounter any destroyed city blocks. Yet Medan has a river of its own, with some residents living near the water. They’ll be watching the situation in Surabaya closely.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Our Jakarta Anniversary with Michael Jackson and Obama

Posted by Danielle

June 25, 2009 will be remembered the world over as the day that Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, passed away. We learned about Jackson’s death on Friday morning Jakarta time, when we tuned into BBC headline news while eating our breakfast. It was the only story that the BBC covered for over two hours.

Given the 14-hour time difference between California and Jakarta, the June 25 that we experienced actually preceded the sad news about Michael Jackson. Rather, we spent the day marking our fourth wedding anniversary. This week also happens to be the 482nd anniversary of Jakarta’s founding, so the city itself is in a celebratory mood. I managed to finish my research in the 95-degree archives on Wednesday, so I took the day off work so that we could spend some time exploring Jakarta.

Not that we had a particularly long list of places we wanted to see. In contrast to most world capitals, Jakarta does not have much to attract tourists other than its vast shopping malls. We had already managed to take in most of the prominent historical sites when we visited the city in April, and the heat, pollution, and lack of pedestrian-friendly sidewalks does not make Jakarta a particularly pleasant place for strolling.

So we went on a mission searching for a site associated with one of Jakarta’s most famous residents…Barack Obama’s elementary school. I’d learned from a friend that the school had actually posted a plaque on its front gate. We spent some time searching for an address, and we found it (see photo to the right). Most schools are on their two-week summer vacation before starting the next school year in July (Indonesian children go to school six days a week year round with vacations each season), so there was not much activity at the school. (It certainly was not the “madrassa” that people spoke about during the presidential campaign.) One teacher walking in asked us (in English) what are names were and where we were from. When we answered that we were from the United States, she smiled and said, “Just like Barry,” pointing to the Obama plaque. My friend Herlily—who had told me about the plaque—joked that Indonesians like to take credit for Obama’s victory—that something about his four years in Jakarta as a child gave him that extra edge to become the US president.

After photographing the school, we continued our walk through the neighborhood and found that we were in a rather different Jakarta—lush green trees offered shade and fresher air than we’ve found elsewhere in the city. The sidewalks were clear of vendors and motorcycles. We were in the diplomatic district, passing embassies left and right. Clearly this is the best place to take a walk in the Indonesian capital. John described it as the “Georgetown of Jakarta.”

We ultimately made our way to an impressive monument on Proclamation Street that marks the spot where Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared Indonesian independence on August 17, 1945. The monument (see photo) is in a quiet shaded park on territory that had once been Sukarno’s home. After such a pleasant walk to a nice, quiet spot, we might have forgotten we were in Jakarta if it weren’t for the man urinating on a tree next to the monument.

In a last attempt at escapism, in the evening we headed to an upscale restaurant specializing in traditional Javanese cuisine where we gorged ourselves on tempeh sate, tofu stuffed with bean sprouts and mushrooms, coconut rice, and numerous other vegetarian delights that have eluded me on our trips to Indonesian-fast food outlets. We could not get over the irony that the two glasses of wine we ordered—at $9 a glass—covered half the cost of our bill. Although the excellent food was very affordable, the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu was $50. The California Mondavi wine we buy in our Berkeley grocery store for about $12 a bottle was priced at over $60. Clearly this is an economy-of-scale issue in a Muslim-majority country where alcohol consumption is avoided by about 90 percent of the population.

While the ambience of the restaurant was delightful, our own mood was lowered by the presence of a rat that scurried across our field of vision at least four times over the course of the meal, including one close call behind my chair. No matter how hard we may try to escape the less pleasant aspects of Indonesian city life, they seem to find us.

Tomorrow we leave Java for Sumatra, Indonesia’s second-largest island. We will be in Medan, capital of North Sumatra and Indonesia’s third-largest city, for the next five weeks. The region has a reputation for being more rough-and-tumble than Java, so maybe the visit from a little furry friend during our anniversary dinner was just a warning of more to come.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Singapore: The Land Trade Made

Posted by John
Singapore’s subway puts the proverbially punctual trains in Mussolini’s Italy to shame. And it’s not just trains that conform to expectations in the Southeast Asian city-state — scrupulous attention to detail characterizes every aspect of Singaporean life. With the city’s perfectly apportioned buildings, pristine streets and frequently posted regulations, you have to strain to find anything that’s out of place.

After a while, the whole country begins to feel carefully stage-managed, a sort of nation that’s actually a theme park. And if a sense of artificiality often pervades the atmosphere, there are some consolations. Theme parks are, after all, places where lines form calmly and trash gets picked up—all which can feel welcome after some of the comparative chaos of Indonesia.

Singapore’s character emerges from the city’s thoroughgoing commitment to commerce, which dates back to the city’s foundational myth. Exhibits at Singapore’s National Museum practically canonize Sir Thomas Raffles, the British administrator who saw the sleepy Malay fishing village of Singapore as a diamond in the Southeast Asian rough. As a port, Singapore was perfectly situated between British interests in China and India and could serve as an island of free trade in the Dutch-controlled Straits of Malacca. Singapore quickly became the leading trade post between Hong Kong and Bombay, a position it never relinquished. Today, it’s the world’s biggest port in terms of shipping tonnage, handling much of the Middle East’s oil that is exported to Asia.

My own trip to the Port of Singapore revealed more of the country’s theme park–nature, quite literally in this case. I boarded the overhead carriages at the end of the subway route on the southern end of the city, eager to get a bird’s eye–view of the tanker traffic. I got my view alright, but also inadvertently ended up in Sentosa, the amusement park Singapore has built next to the port. Even the potentially untidy aspects of maritime trade in the world’s biggest port are dressed up with faux beaches (including sand imported from Indonesia’s Riau islands), butterfly parks and the oddly compelling 37-meter Merlion statue (see photo below). The merlion, half-fish, half-lion, was once the official mascot of Singapore (“The Lion Port City”).

Starting in the early 19th century, British imperial rulers encouraged Chinese merchants to make Singapore their home, and the result is that 75 percent of the citizens of this once-Malay village are Chinese. Indians also came to Singapore in large numbers and form 8 percent of the city’s population today. Malays, the majority in the early 19th century, are now less than 15 percent of the city’s population. Some signs are still posted in Malay, but English and Mandarin predominate.

After its independence from Britain in 1963, Singapore continued to cultivate its image as the place in Southeast Asia where the world comes to do business. Companies love the sense of predictability that Singaporean authorities have created through laws and regulations. Goods and services flow smoothly through the port, and international companies have a presence in the city to monitor the commercial comings and goings. The mores of capitalism govern the rest of Singapore, too, with well-stocked shopping malls at seemingly every subway stop. If you know what you’re looking for, you can probably find it in Singapore.

The country’s attempts to foster clear expectations can reach a point of absurdity, however. Doorways in several locations are labeled as “breeching inlets.” Partitions in the subway stations have signs indicating that they are merely “temporary hoarding” and that passersby should not lean on them. Compare this to Indonesia, where huge chasms in the road persist for weeks without any sort of warning. When I passed a government building in Singapore that labeled its “concealed exit,” the limits of literal-mindedness became annoyingly apparent.

Still, I’d like to import some of Singapore’s stricter regulations to Indonesia. Indonesian sidewalks, for instance, are full of vendors, which means pedestrians often have to walk in the road. Meanwhile, motorcycles frustrated with traffic jams decide to move from the street up onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians in the street, motorcycles on the sidewalk—both solutions work at cross purposes and upset the natural order.

And yet there’s an intimacy to most Indonesian neighborhoods, or kampung, that you won’t find in Singapore’s high-rise, high-end apartment buildings. Even in a big city like Jakarta, neighbors know each other and offer smiles and greetings to anyone passing through. People gather at the warung (corner stalls) for lunch and dinner and huddle around small roadside TVs for World Cup soccer or badminton championships (the sport where Indonesians have the most international success).

Is there a way to combine Singapore’s on-time trains with Jakarta’s close-knit neighborhoods? Sounds like Disney’s Tomorrowland. Perhaps that’s the Holy Grail for 21st-century urban planners.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Swine Scare

Posted by John

My first foray to the Asian mainland looked like it would end in the emergency room.

The situation unfolded last week when I traveled to Singapore, the trade-oriented city-state on the Malaysian peninsula with a reputation for orderly queues and immaculate sidewalks. I needed to go there for a new travel visa, which would allow me to join Danielle on the Indonesian island of Sumatra for two months. She stayed behind in Java, leaving me alone to explore the streets of Singapore, a multiethnic metropolis of 4.8 million that has drawn immigrants from China, India and Malaysia for more than a century. The plan had me in Singapore for a week, but an unwelcome turn of events had me worried the stay might be extended involuntarily.

When I arrived on Friday evening, I went for a stroll along the riverfront, snapping photos of the neoclassical buildings dating to the British colonial era (1819¬-1960). After dinner at a Japanese restaurant, I headed back to my hotel. I was planning to wake up early the next morning and visit the city’s Chinese and Indian neighborhoods.

I didn’t make it through the night, however. I’d been fighting a cold during my last days in Indonesia, but everything took a turn for the worse around 3 a.m. Mushrooms in the Japanese meal must be the culprit, I assumed, as they didn’t make it through the night, either. Probably food poisoning, I said to myself.

By 7 a.m., however, the fever, chills and aches arrived, and I began suspecting something far more sinister. Stuck in Singapore alone in an 8-by-10 hotel room, my thoughts quickly progressed to the worse-case scenario. It didn’t take long for them to arrive at the swine flu, which began stalking international travelers not long after our departure from San Francisco in mid-April.

Fevered hallucinations were transforming my visions of a quick visa renewal into a quarantine quagmire. Would the Singapore Public Health Department keep me under watch for weeks? Months? It’s a country known for dotting i’s and crossing t’s, and I couldn’t imagine I’d be released any time soon if they found anything remotely suspicious. Would I have to return immediately to the United States? Would I ever be allowed to return to the United States? Would I be sent off to live with the lepers of Molokai?

It didn’t help matters that neither Danielle nor I were having any luck with our calling cards. She was flying from Surabaya to Jakarta, where we were to meet up in a week. After managing to patch through a very expensive cell phone call, I feebly informed her of my health situation. Fearing she would jeopardize her own research visa with an unauthorized trip to Singapore to tend to me, I promised her I’d check myself into one of Singapore’s world-class hospitals if my situation didn’t improve.

The incapacitation reached a point where I couldn’t even drag myself down to the 7-11 across the street for ginger ale or chicken soup. Desperate, I had room service bring me up a few cans of Sprite. Danielle made a series of progressively frantic phone calls, and I couldn’t report any progress.

We contemplated calling the U.S. Embassy, but were still leery of bringing too much unwelcome attention to my medical situation. The Singapore Airport was plastered with preventive messages about the flu, and medical personnel were on hand to deal with any passengers presenting problematic symptoms. I didn’t want a false positive to set off any alarms. My plans were to return to Indonesia with Danielle, and, as the swelling in my head began to subside, more rational thoughts returned. Asia has witnessed only a handful of cases of swine flu--far fewer than the United States--and even an armchair epidemiologist could tell me there was a better than even chance I had a more garden-variety ailment that rest would cure.

For the second night in a row, I woke up at 3 a.m., though this time I was remarkably pain-free. Sunday morning arrived, and the 24-hour swine scare, mercifully, passed without incident.

Monday, June 15, 2009

So Long, Surabaya

Posted by Danielle

For weeks now I have been planning my “Top 10 Things I Won’t Miss About Surabaya” blog, trying to evaluate and rank the less pleasant aspects of East Java’s capital, but John would have nothing of this. Not that he has developed a soft spot for water pipes that smell like sulfur, large rats, or the absence of useable sidewalks. Rather, he thought it better to draw attention what makes Surabaya the dynamic and teeming second-largest city of Indonesia.

I have to admit, though, that it is hard for me hide my general dislike of the place. Truth be told, the admiration and affection that we have developed for Indonesia has resulted largely in spite of the five weeks we spent in Surabaya, not because of it. Of all the places I’ve lived while attempting to conduct research, I’ve enjoyed Surabaya the least. When locals would ask me what I thought of their city, I had to be honest—it was too hot, too big, and too hard to navigate. But, I always would add, I liked the people of Surabaya, and they truly are the city’s main attraction.

The Javanese—Indonesia’s largest ethnic group, constituting 42% of the overall population and the majority of residents of the island of Java—can be divided into two sub-ethnic groups, the Mataraman and the Arek. The Mataraman are settled closer to Central Java and have a reputation of being softer and more refined, while the Arek are native to East Java and are known for being more direct and coarse. Frankly, my own integration into Javanese society is so limited that I never really could discern this difference in my own interactions. The sociologist who I worked with in Surabaya took great efforts to ensure that I had both Mataramans and Areks among my interview respondents, but I could never tell them apart and this sub-ethnicity did not seem to play any role in how they talked about politics or interacted with me.

In fact, if I were to take my and John’s own experiences in interacting with Javanese in Central and East Java as a guide for categorizing which group is aggressive and which is refined, I think we would reach the opposite conclusion. Due to Yogyakarta’s place as one of Indonesia’s prime tourist destinations, our images of the Javanese of Central Java are full of aggressive pedicab drivers, batik merchants, and souvenir vendors seeking out to prey relentlessly on any visible foreigner. Since Surabaya is hardly on anyone’s tour list, we found ourselves the objects of unwanted vendor attention much less frequently here.

Yet, if you spend any time in the City of Heroes (as Surabaya is known across Indonesia) the qualities of Arek roughness become apparent. Surabaya’s residents have a unique and powerful history of distinction, and the “Arek-Arek Suroboyo” proved their mettle by weathering the heaviest battle in Indonesia’s National Revolution in November 1945. Refusing to turn their weapons over to British troops who had sought to recapture Indonesia for the Dutch after Japan’s defeat in World War II, local Surabayans endured an 18-day battle in which many fought to the end using only bamboo spears. Thousands died. Though Indonesia still had to endure four more years of struggle before the Dutch finally gave up attempts at re-colonization, the Battle of Surabaya galvanized support for independence across Indonesia and also taught the British that it might want to consider taking a neutral role on this conflict.

Monuments to the revolution’s heroes are all over the city. The greatest concentration, however, is on a special square of land just south of where the first armed encounter took place. The park houses an interesting museum of the revolution, and is fronted by giant statues of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, and vice-president Mohammad Hatta (see picture to the right),

who came to dedicate the memorial on November 10, 1962. Next to the statues are pillars in which revolutionary slogans are painted, including “Independence or Death” (Merdeka ataoe mati—see picture below).

When I was in Indonesia for Independence Day (August 17) in 2007, I remember being deeply impressed by the scale of celebration. Sixty-four years constitute a rather young age for an independent state, and most Indonesians have parents or grandparents who remember the revolution. This sense of enormous pride and jubilation at earning independence is heightened in Surabaya, where the residents’ parents and grandparents can give firsthand testimony of the cost they bore.

For me, one of the more challenging aspects of my time in Surabaya was witnessing how much the current residents of the city still must bear. Many of the individuals I interviewed lived in circumstances I would describe as dire and lacking of opportunity. Yet, they patiently took the time out of their busy lives to tell me their stories and bear my endless questioning about political leaders and elections in language that was, I am sure, far from clear. They welcomed me into their modest homes, sharing their food, drink, and opinions. While I am certainly happy that the Arek of Surabaya are now living in an independent Indonesia with a democratic government, after spending about 70 hours interviewing them, I cannot help but think that they deserve more accountable leaders and better public goods.

But, the people of Surabaya are not ones to complain. Rather, they take action. I found examples of this all over the place, from the volunteer after-school program run in the upstairs room of one unemployed woman’s house, to the neighborhood group that organized its own volunteer garbage collection brigade, to the even more extensive organization of residents living on the banks of the river, who have started a composting and recycling program to try and build a green and sustainable community among the marginalized river squatters. The rest of the world could learn a lot about civic responsibility from Surabaya’s contemporary heroes.

In the meantime, though, we have moved on to our next set of adventures. I am back in Jakarta scanning library documents and John is currently in Singapore recovering from the flu and getting a new Indonesian visa. Stay tuned for his adventures.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Possibly the World's Most Uplifting Political Ad

Posted by John
Every election cycle, American campaign commercials unleash their insinuations, faulty syllogisms and cleverly disguised half-truths on the voting public. These staples of the Fall television lineup rarely stray from the standard script, where a menacing-sounding narrator inveighs against the evils of the candidate’s opponent. Grainy photographs appear briefly on the screen, carrying with them suggestions of something sinister. And the whole 30-second production is scored to a soundtrack that belongs in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller rather than a careful explication of the political process.

In the televised world created by political consultants, a vote for Michael Dukakis invites rape and pillage throughout the land. Barry Goldwater has his itchy finger on the nuclear trigger, Max Cleland lacks patriotism despite losing three limbs on a Vietnam battlefield, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein are essentially the same person. “Saturday Night Live” satirized the absurdity of these types of ads to memorable effect last year, when one skit showed a McCain campaign team putting together a commercial that asserted: “Barack Obama plays basketball. Charles Barkley plays basketball. Is Charles Barkley qualified to lead our economy? He gambled millions away in Las Vegas. Don’t let Barack Obama gamble with our economy.”

With these sorts of disingenuous arguments and dirty tricks serving as my template for political ads, my first Indonesian campaign commercial last week came as quite a shock. Incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known here by his hipper “SBY” nickname, has a commercial that serves as a 60-second love letter to the Indonesian people. Within an hour of tuning into Indonesian TV channels most evenings, viewers are treated to this relentlessly upbeat message of joy and jubilation, conveyed through song, dance and smiles. Not even Ronald Reagan’s rhapsodic “It’s Morning Again in America” offered as unapologetic a celebration of national pride and pageantry.

This SBY spot certainly puts Indonesians’ most scenic and musical foot forward. Drums herald the coming of something portentous. A singer perched on a cliff beckons his countrymen with an outstretched hand and a warm, personable tone. Children jaunt through a verdant valley, carrying red and white banners that merge into the Indonesian national flag. Men on horseback gallop through waves crashing on a beach. Traditional Balinese dancers perform their exquisitely tailored choreography to the clinking tones of gamelan music. A quick cut shows the Batak, North Sumatra’s venerated ethnic group, raising their hands in another traditional dance.

Through it all, the refrain that resonates in the higher notes of the falsetto register is “SBY, SBY: Presiden ku (“SBY, SBY: My president.”) It’s an irresistibly catchy tune, though Danielle has begun resisting my endless rehearsing of the ads’ more catchy harmonic hooks. As advertising, however, the commercial takes more from the pages of Rogers and Hammerstein or an Indonesian tourism brochure than from political spinmeisters like Dick Morris or Lee Atwater. It reminds me of the “I’d like to give the world a Coke” Super Bowl advertisements. I can’t see this SBY commercial making it in the rough-and-tumble world of televised American politics—it would be laughed off the air.

Perhaps that’s not an entirely inappropriate response, either. While the SBY ad is refreshingly free of the vitriol that characterizes American political ads, it’s also troublingly free of political content. Indonesia’s beaches look inviting, but the ad says nothing about taxes or health care. SBY’s commercials shouldn’t necessarily have to be earnest truth-in-advertising exercises with pictures of Jakarta traffic jams or the Surabaya sewer system. But he could speak more to the poverty that plagues the country. After repeated viewings of the song-and-dance SBY commercial, it was a relief a few days ago to see a second SBY commercial in the candidate biography format, listing a litany of accomplishments.

The SBY “Presiden Ku” ad reflects two aspects of the current Indonesian political situation. First, SBY’s re-election has become a foregone conclusion. As the architect of a meaningful anti-corruption campaign and a steady leader after the 2004 tsunami disaster, SBY holds a 30-point lead over his closest rival in a three-way presidential campaign. With these sorts of numbers, SBY’s political team can probably afford to pave the way to his coronation with this Broadway musical approach to advertising.

Second, Indonesian candidates seem reluctant to attack their opponents. Danielle and I have watched two or three campaign specials—including from the vice-president who was kicked off SBY’s ticket and now runs on his own—and none of the candidates offer criticism of their opponents’ policies. It’s possible that the candidates are keeping their powder dry for the last few stages of the campaign, but Election Day is a month away and no candidate has sought to draw direct contrasts with his or her rivals.

These niceties have me wanting to get a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince into the hands of SBY’s opponents. Not that I want them to win, necessarily, but it seems like it would make it more of a contest. Then again, with my poorly tuned understanding of Indonesian voters, there’s no telling how many ways such a take-no-prisoners approach to politics would backfire.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Brand on the Run

Posted by John

California is not known for its fried chicken. The world has heard of Napa Valley wine and Orange County citrus, but the Golden State's poultry has a decidedly lower international profile. My family has lived in Sacramento for more than 25 years, but it wasn’t until I traveled to Indonesia that I encountered the “California Fried Chicken” franchise.

It was in Bogor that I spotted a sign showing a chuck wagon driving across the California plain (the San Joaquin Valley?). I saw it again in Jakarta—the red “CFC” logo above the wagon bearing an eerie resemblance to California Fried Chicken’s better-known Kentucky cousin, KFC.

Colonel Sanders still reigns supreme among fast-food customers here in chicken-loving Indonesia, but CFC purveyors count on most Indonesians not knowing the difference between Lexington and Los Angeles. Apparently, the KFC multinational conglomerate does well enough here that it can look benignly on its lesser-known (and more geographically dubious) “American” rival. Or maybe litigation is still pending.

Indonesian copyright law seems premised on the notion that everything, including brands from major international companies, is in the public domain. Frito Lay must cringe when it sees Happytos, an obvious attempt to trade on the success of the Doritos brand—right down to the orange-and-yellow accent colors on the label (see left). My Web searches have failed to turn up any relationship between Happytos and Frito Lay, so perhaps Happytos makers will continue marketing their product to Dortitos-deprived Indonesians until they’re hauled before the World Trade Organization.

Kentucky Fried Chicken and Frito Lay are not the only companies subject to this sincerest form of flattery. The in-house counsel at Starbucks would frown on the many unauthorized freelance versions of the company’s green, white and black logo that appear on t-shirts in the country’s markets. I imagined it would be difficult to draw the distinctive-looking, flowing-haired girl in the Starbucks sign. But judging by the various knock-off forms of merchandise available for a song in the city of Yogyakarta, such mimicry is not that complicated.

On the other side of the commercial spectrum from imitated international brands like KFC and Starbucks, forgotten products from Darwinistic struggles for American market share have found a second life here in Indonesia. Many Americans stopped brushing their teeth with Pepsodent (above) when Crest and Colgate first started offering fluoride in the 1950s, but you’ll find Pepsodent on the shelves of every Indonesian Circle K. Yes, that Circle K, the West Coast second-fiddle to 7-Eleven in the United States, which also seems to have had a renaissance in Indonesia. Pepsodent has since jumped on the fluoridation bandwagon, which is probably for the best since Indonesians can still indulge their sweet tooth with a swig of Fanta or A&W, elixirs from an earlier American era.

Americans discarded their Lifebuoy Soap in favor of Dial and Dove many decades ago. In fact, I would never have heard of Lifebuoy without a baseball history book that referenced the Baker Bowl, home to many dreadful Philadelphia Phillies teams in the 1920s and 30s. “The Phillies use Lifebuoy,” a Baker Bowl outfield advertisement proudly read. A long-suffering Philadelphia fan couldn’t resist adding a graffiti tagline, “...But they still stink.” If Lifebuoy’s inability to remove the stink from Philadelphia’s home team doomed the soap forever in the City of Brotherly Love, Surabayans don’t have the same negative associations.

With so many brands resurrecting themselves in Indonesia, maybe there’s hope for General Motors after all. There’s no domestic automobile manufacturer in Indonesia, as most people can only afford motorcycles when they can afford anything at all. There’s a few modest, Korean-made Diahatsu sedans puttering around the streets in Surabaya, so there’s a pretty low bar for entering the market. Tim Geithner, if you’re reading this, I can get you President Yudhoyono’s number.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Indonesian Art of Living Dangerously

Posted by John

Mothers and lawyers in the United States both constantly fret that something awful is about to happen. The mothers buy sturdier bicycle helmets, the lawyers insert more provisos into the contract—all to prevent the unforeseen from becoming the unthinkable. Living in the risk-averse climate that our mothers and attorneys have made, Americans tread gingerly and refer to the actuarial tables in our heads.

Indonesians, meanwhile, operate according to a more carefree calculus. They do not cower from the worst-case scenarios that preoccupy our thoughts. Roads burst at the seams with aspiring Evil Knevils, motorcyclists as young as 10 who maneuver their machines through surging streams of traffic. The lack of a helmet does not deter their daredevilry. Often, families of four pile onto a single motorcycle, children wedged between mothers and fathers.

Four-wheel vehicles come with their own dangers. Seatbelts are a rare species, glimpsed occasionally in taxis. During my many knuckle-whitening hours on buses that dart around packs of motorcycles, my mind races to those occasional U.S. news stories about buses falling off some improbably steep ravine. Senior citizens careen off a cliff on their way back from the casinos; a bus carrying a Scranton Little League baseball team wanders over the median and into oncoming traffic. These types of transportation pitfalls seem imminently plausible at several points along the course of an average Indonesian road trip. Ralph Nader, Indonesia is calling you. To my eyes, it’s unsafe at any speed.

You won’t necessarily avoid danger by staying off the road, either. The sidewalk, when you can find one, isn’t much better. Chasms yawn across concrete or brick paths on almost every block (see above for an example near our guesthouse) and manhole covers remain perpetually doffed without warning signs or protective barriers. As lax as some U.S. municipalities can be, I can’t see any of them accepting the perilous status quo that prevails in Surabaya.

Even on sidewalks, the natural ambulatory environment in the United States, the pedestrian’s right of way remains a foreign concept. At any moment, you might be bowled over by a motorcycle whose driver has decided to take to the sidewalk after wearing of the wait to make a turn. Vendors also appear to have priority over pedestrians—many set up shop over the full span of the sidewalk. People seem to accept that anyone who actually wants to use the sidewalk for walking will have to wade out into traffic instead. In addition, repair shops set up their operations right along the roadside, blowtorches sparking not far from your footsteps as someone welds a rearview mirror to a motorcycle (clipped, no doubt, in one of the many close calls that occur when Indonesian drivers allow such little margin for error).

When you do find a stretch of sidewalk that appears to offer safe passage, this concrete oasis can vanish as quickly as it appeared. When one sidewalk evaporated halfway across a bridge, I had to scamper across five lanes of traffic just to make it to my destination. Like George Costanza in “Seinfeld,” Danielle likens it to a real-life version of the Frogger video game.

Striking a blow for pedestrians’ rights, Indonesians have developed a custom where a person extends his arm out from his waist to signal that he’s going to cross even when there’s no crosswalk and traffic is moving at a steady clip. It strikes me as a regally imperious gesture, but curiously drivers here accept it with equanimity.

Once you get past the roads and into buildings, you notice that cities either pass very lax zoning codes or do very little to enforce them. Shacks abound, and many are not linked up to the city’s sewage systems, with rivers serving as a source for water and repository for trash. On major streets, decaying buildings are left to crumble rather than face the wrecking ball. This aspect of public safety—leaving concrete houses of cards standing—confounds me in a country where earthquakes are a regular occurrence.

Then there’s the urban wildlife. Inadequate sewer systems serve as mosquito breeding grounds, and several of these little disease vectors set up camp each night in our otherwise clean room. Dinners at one of our favorite outdoor cafes are interrupted when rats scurry under the nearby propane tank. And numerous chickens have taken up residence in the city, including the one that pecked at Danielle’s feet during her interview this morning in someone’s living room.

The longer you stay in Indonesia, however, the more you accept risks that you’d never contemplate taking in the United States. For instance, I’ve become more adept at that little flick of the wrist pedestrians use to stop oncoming traffic. Back in Berkeley, I’d scoff at the notion of riding without a seatbelt to the corner grocery store. But here I travel across hundreds of miles of Java with only the protection Providence provides. And my own mother won’t be pleased to read this, but I took my first motorcycle rides last weekend during our visit to the Majapahit temples at Trowulan. If we wanted to see these artifacts from Indonesian history, there was simply no other choice. And, as most risk-accepting Indonesians would have expected, I survived without a scratch. Still, I’m hoping not to make it a habit.

Nothing better illustrates Indonesians’ more cavalier approach to cheating death than their passion for cigarettes. Society frowns on alcohol here, so nicotine fills the void as the socially sanctioned drug. While 40 years of Surgeon Generals’ warnings have made public smoking anathema in the United States, entering into a restaurant in Indonesia takes on the feel of walking into a Dashiell Hammett detective story. Smoke envelops every table, and after an hour my lungs cry out for a reprieve. Some time in one of Al Capone’s speakeasies would feel like a breath of fresh air after a few minutes in an Indonesian cafe.

Danielle has often said my decision to come to Indonesia has meant that we could spend four more months together than we otherwise could. Of course, the tons of second-hand smoke we’re inhaling are bound to subtract at least six to 12 months from our time together when it’s all said and done. But live for today, as Indonesians would say.