Reflection: Ahok’s loss is not a defeat for Indonesia’s democracy

Although I am not from Jakarta, I was personally disappointed – but not too surprised – at the outcome of the second-round gubernatorial election in the capital of Indonesia, which was held this Wednesday, on April 19.

For a backgrounder, let me explain briefly about the electoral race.

On one side, there is the incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the city’s first ethnic Chinese – and second Christian – leader. Known by his Chinese nickname “Ahok” (as it is Hakka pronunciation for the last character of his Chinese name, 锺万学), he has taken over the position as the governor of this city of 10 million since November 2014 after his predecessor, Joko Widodo, also known as his political ally, undertook the position as the 7th President of Indonesia. On the other hand, there is his rival, Anies Baswedan, a Yemeni-descended US-educated technocrat and former Minister of Education who has been – very recently – pandering to the more hard-line Muslim organizations, all under full support by opposition parties led by the former 2014 presidential candidate, retired general Prabowo Subianto, who was also Widodo’s rival. Pairing with Baswedan is Sandiaga Uno, a US-educated businessman and billionaire investor, who has gained notoriety after his name was included in Panama Paper leaks. Pairing with Ahok, meanwhile, is Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the current deputy governor.

What made the 2017 gubernatorial election so unusual compared to other local elections in Indonesia was the massive scope – and also considerable controversy and polarization – related to the two candidates. The hype started in the aftermath of Ahok’s alleged blasphemy against Islam in June 2016, when he encouraged people of Jakarta not to be easily deceived by certain political forces using Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran (known as Surat Al-Maidah) to block him, the content by which contains restriction for Muslims to vote for non-Muslim leaders in Muslim countries. Somebody in YouTube intentionally revised his speech, subsequently editing it into “encouraging people not to be easily deceived by Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran”. Although the editor had been arrested himself and Ahok had repeatedly clarified his statement – and even issued multiple apologies, the snowball was just becoming too big to handle. It culminated in mass protests in November and December 2016 – many of which were led and supported by hard-line Muslim organizations, demanding Ahok’s dismissal as governor, his imprisonment, or even openly calling out to “kill Chinese”, referring to his ethnic Chinese origin. Simultaneously, he was immediately named a blasphemy suspect, and has since been attending weekly trials in one of Jakarta’s district courts. All this was happening at the same time he was running for gubernatorial race.

The controversy further took place when Baswedan – long known as a moderate-leaning Muslim, and even nominated by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals back in 2008 – met several times with the same hard-line Muslim leaders who had been leading mass protests against Ahok, oftentimes even showing open support for their action. He was subsequently supported by a coalition of parties led by Prabowo Subianto – a former general and presidential candidate in 2014 also associated with his own controversies, allegedly human rights abuses in the Suharto era. In the second round of the election, Baswedan – whose only governmental experience was being Minister of Education under Widodo administration – won decisively against Ahok; based on the ongoing tallies by the election commission, 57% of eligible votes went to Baswedan – as opposed to 43% to Ahok.

And all this was happening when Ahok’s approval rating as the governor was over 68%. That means although some people openly approved of Ahok’s achievements throughout his tenure, a considerable percentage of them actually decided – ironically – to vote him out of office.

Briefly speaking, his achievements – first as deputy governor (2012-2014) and later as governor (from 2014 onward) – had been his efforts at budget reforms (computerizing the budgeting system under joint supervision with Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency), infrastructure construction, bureaucracy reforms, public housing for the low-income and poor, public transportation, flood-control measures (due to Jakarta’s recurrent flood seasons), as well as social welfare, particularly in education and healthcare. What was significant, in particular, was his flood-control measures, which involved cleaning up rivers, and most controversially, evicting a large number of riverside communities to pave way for canal normalization, the alternative by which was their relocation to government-built apartments. This, actually, became a source of consternation and alienation for some of the affected people, many of whom had previously shown support for both Widodo and Ahok in the preceding 2012 gubernatorial election.

Despite his achievements, he had been barely short of controversies – even before the alleged blasphemy. He was known for his “Sumatran” talking style (a stereotypical way to describe outspoken, loud-talking, and perceivedly-rude people, but I’m from Sumatra too), and not infrequently his past statements had offended a significant number of individuals – mostly politicians and bureaucrats whom he accused of “manipulating taxpayers’ money”.  His shortcoming, in this regard, was his ill-temper. His controversies notwithstanding, he has remained largely popular among a substantial percentage of people in the city, given his informal and direct way of communication. He has several hotline numbers so that people can directly report to him for problems within the city, and has even personally attended wedding events of ordinary Jakarta people – as long as they extended invitation to the governor.

It is inevitable that the blasphemy charges against Ahok had cost him a considerable amount of political support. Indeed, the gubernatorial election has been extensively covered in international media, most of which has the theme of “an ethnic Chinese Christian governor pitted against an ethnic Arab Muslim candidate supported by hard-liners”. The New York Times called it “a referendum on pluralism versus Islamism”. Some observers even considered Anies’ electoral victory as “an omen to Indonesian democracy and respect for diversity”. And personally speaking, I was disappointed. But there are way more complicating explanations behind his victory. For some perspectives, I would rather use a half-glass-full than half-glass-empty approach.

First, to have secured over 43% of voters’ support despite the ongoing blasphemy trials has itself been a progress for Ahok. I admit that ethnic, racial, and religious overtones among supporters of both candidates had been particularly heated – and even at times nasty – especially when you look at social media posts (should you understand Indonesian), but we need to look at a bigger picture here: over 85% out of 10 million people living in Jakarta are Muslims. In this regard, over 1.5 million people in Jakarta are non-Muslims. As there are more than 7 million eligible voters in the city, if we referred to the 77% voter turnout in the first round of the election (close to 5.4 million people who went out and voted) – and if this turnout was sustained in the second round – that meant more than 2.3 million people actually voted for Ahok, a figure close to 2.36 million who voted for him in the first round. Obviously, a large proportion of his supporters are Muslims themselves, and not all non-Muslims necessarily showed their support to the incumbent. Therefore, this argument should defeat the overwhelming theme among international news stories as already mentioned in the prior paragraph. Also, many among Anies-Sandi supporters are non-Muslims, particularly ethnic Chinese local business elites who would opt for “business climate stability”. One of the pair’s most ardent supporters is Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnic Chinese tycoon who controls 4 out of 10 national TV stations, and oftentimes described as “Donald Trump of Indonesia” (because his most influential idol is Trump, and his presidential aspiration himself).

Second, to have an ethnic Chinese governor running Indonesia’s capital and most populous city less than two decades after deadly anti-Chinese riots is also another breakthrough. During the May 1998 riots that led to the ouster of Suharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime, most of the victims were middle- and lower-income ethnic Chinese whose shops and houses had been looted and burned, or who were themselves killed and brutally tortured. By November 2014, upon Widodo’s inauguration as President, Ahok – then his deputy – succeeded him. His appointment had been greeted by protests among hard-line organizations, but with his approval rating (by the end of 2016) remaining at 68% and with his governorship fairly smooth and stable (despite blasphemy charges), this has been itself a major achievement. All this happened within less than two decades, and to have this attained with minimum hurdles has never been an easy task.

Third, democracy in Indonesia is just barely as perfect as democracy in other countries. Sometimes, democracy is about choosing “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing”, with us oftentimes behaving ignorantly on who the heck that sheep is. And we have seen some of the worst examples of it: slightly above 50% of British voters opted for Brexit (only to search in Google on what on earth European Union is), many American voters went for Donald Trump despite having a relatively high (56%) approval rating of President Barack Obama (although Hillary Clinton secured nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but thanks to electoral college). With the presidential election taking place in France as of the day I am writing this post, I would be very curious to see whether the far-right Le Pen, inexperienced-but-last-hope Macron, no-job-but-highly-paid Republican Fillon, or the communist, hologram-loving Melenchon would advance to the second round. Democracy, dangerously, can become a tool to elect somebody who may opt to end democracy once and for all. This is the age of political bubble and extreme polarization that we will continue to live in for the remainder of this century, as economic inequality, social media, and technological disruption continue to reshape our lives and how we view and manifest the world in ourselves.

Fourth, ethnic, racial, and religious sentiment is hardly new for this country. Democracy is only less than 20 years old in Indonesia, and like a typical teenager, it is not yet close to mature and emotionally volatile. Candidates in local elections have often touted their religious credentials – or proudly espoused their ethnic identities – as their “major recipe” to get elected to public offices, and not infrequently, this has been used as a tool to weaponize their rivals. People don’t get to change their mindset in a short term; depending on a country’s level of development, the change may either happen, or things will stay flat. This nation still has a long road to go to learn from its past mistakes.

Fifth, and lastly, Ahok still has the remaining 6 months as the governor, before his tenure is over on October this year. I am confident he is able to make achievements within this time period. For any successor – Baswedan notwithstanding – to dismantle his legacies will not be as easy as flipping over a paper.

These are the reasons why I refuse to believe that Ahok’s loss is a defeat for Indonesian democracy. Ironically, it is a dynamic principle of democracy itself: either you gain confidence among voters and they will vote for you, or that you do something wrong and they will vote you out. The irony is that frequent leadership turnovers hardly sustains long-term policy-making, but for better or worse, we are now living in an age of popular vote. Look at elsewhere across the world, and the distress is also there: many people are becoming disillusioned with democracy, political establishment, and all this stuff. Life, after all, has to go on. Moreover, most leaders – in the end – will no longer talk and act like they were as candidates; they would – adhering to the “median-voter theorem” – be hard-pressed to end up in the “center”. They would be pressed to accommodate the interests of all people, even the interests of constituents who had sided with their electoral rivals. The question is whether Anies and Sandi would be able to accommodate the interests of all people in the capital city.

A response to the post “Indonesia and the passion for virginity”

morality is not judged by a body

 

A blogger named Amaryllis Puspabening has recently published her op-ed titled “Indonesia And The Passion of Virginity” in The Huffington Post. She voiced her discontent at the current state of how women, in general, are treated in Indonesia, such as taboos about sex discussion, virginity test as a measure of morality, and how women are oftentimes forced to ‘sterilize’ themselves to be considered ‘pure’ in the society. To make matters worse, in certain parts of the country, some government officials are proposing to conduct virginity tests as either ‘entry’ requirements into high schools or for school graduation. Responding to her post, I would say I largely approve of what she has said, although there may be certain issues that I think we also need to raise in this discussion.

I share the same degree of frustration with her regarding the question of ‘virginity test’. Measuring someone’s degree of morality is not by looking at one person’s bodily conditions, particularly something that should only be of private nature to the woman. The same can be said for people with tattoos, or have other forms of body modification: are they all always perceived as ‘bad people’? Some may be, but this still does not justify the generalization used to equate all of them as belonging to the same category. I can hardly ascertain the logic of where ‘virginity test’ can immediately make somebody pass a morality test: yes, she does not have premarital sex, but does that become a well-defined thread that will make her look moral, even if, say, she will commit other forms of wrongdoing in the future? What if she commits corruption, which is one of other great sins? Or, say, what if she carries a premeditated murder? What is then the precise moral boundaries?

It is also an irrefutable fact that sex education in Indonesia still has a very long way to go for quality improvement, as well as our mindsets. With regard to the former, there are insufficient attempts to truly educate people about the risks of teenage pregnancy, dangers of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or facts relating to reproductive health and hygiene. It becomes as though talking about vaginas (yes, I won’t censor this word) or penises (yes, no censorship for this one as well) would be equated with talking about pornography. That is a hardly rational explanation. So doctors are required to censor their words when explaining about reproductive health? What would we learn? Simply reaching out to the young generation and telling us ‘don’t have sex before the marriage’ will only make people even more curious on why they can’t have sex before the marriage. And you know what I mean when I say ‘even more curious’.

Regarding the latter, I refer to ‘us’, rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’. I refer to ‘us’, because if we have to be honest with us as a nation, we also still have a very long way to go to achieve progress. Many among us are still within the huge taboos to talk about sex, especially between parents and the children. Resorting to the ‘S-word’ can turn a conversation into a sword; we would sometimes be accused of ‘encouraging people to have sex’, when the fact is that we want to talk about sex education and make people understand the right notion of defining sex. As parents are reluctant to teach the kids, what would be the alternative? Many of them will satisfy their curiosity by watching porn sites. It’s undeniable. It happens not only isolated to some other places, but also in a nationwide basis. We also heavily stigmatize people conducting premarital sex, delivering a death verdict that they will carry out in their lifetime. As a consequence, what will happen? While I avoid being an academic in this blog, my postulation is that once people are labelled with negative perceptions in their heads, it is very likely they will continue doing the similar vice, or descending into even worse forms of misdeeds, or facing a prospect of no bright future for the rest of their lives. We become a society that does not forgive, nor grant them a second chance to rehabilitate their lives. To make matters worse, we sometimes gossip about certain people doing such things. Again, I emphasize the word ‘we’ because I want to avoid being didactic; indeed, we all play a direct and/or indirect part in perpetuating such mindsets.

As much as I agree with the content of the post, however, I also need to caution some points. And I do not expect the author, Ms. Amaryllis, nor the readers here to agree with my arguments. I still believe the idea of sex as a sacrosanct notion, rather than one to be used for hedonistic purposes. When a person is in a romantic relationship with somebody else, god forbid, nobody knows whether that relationship will last for eternity. What if the couple has had sex before they actually know each other’s personality and characteristics in full details? Although such issue should only be of totally private nature between the couple, how would either the man or the woman be prepared to address their future counterparts should they end the relationship? As a person leaning to the center, I do still believe that sex should only be made possible once a couple has stated their full commitment to a relationship, say, through a marriage. The key, here, is for the public to understand the concept of responsible sex. Once again, I do not expect everyone on board to agree with me, as even I personally would still prefer to maintain a certain degree of conventional values that majority of Indonesians still adhere to.

I also believe in the concept of gender equality, given the systemic discrimination that women have endured for too long (and most of human history), but I also disagree with the notion of ‘complete liberation’ of either men or women, especially when it comes to defining sex. I am still alien to the concept of defining sex as an art, or as a form of entertainment, that either men or women could simply change partners, and have sex with different partners. I am in no authority to ban them from doing so (as this is their personal choice and decision), but such notion remains totally beyond my personal toleration, and I believe that there remains a need for a ‘boundary’. This is a point of departure regarding my opinions about the post.

Despite some of my minor disagreements with the author, I still appreciate and laud her for her willingness to break the walls in our minds when talking about sex. My disagreements occur largely because not all Indonesian values are totally negative; there are certain values that are positive that we, as a society, still need to maintain, such as the belief of sex as a sacred notion. Nonetheless, even people’s mindsets change. We (and I) used to be ‘terrified’ of the ideas of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer), but as time goes by, and despite ongoing denunciations by a huge portion of our population, we gradually start to accept them as a part of our society. I do not expect to change my mindset for a certain period of time, but this does not indicate I am totally closed to such topics people may call it ‘taboo’. If we are willing to shake our long-held beliefs, and start to open our minds a little bit further, perhaps we can actually discover the roots of the existing problems, and figure the solutions out.

 

You can access the original article by clicking through this link.

Un-distorting history: watching ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’

the look of silence

 

Looking through the history of mankind, one of the most significant feats in humanity’s constant social engineering process is the constantly reshaping ‘nation-building’ project. In a path towards building a single identity (beginning from ‘the social contract’ introduced by Thomas Hobbes), the Leviathan – in this case, rulers or leaders of a political entity – ‘enforced’ its legitimacy to the masses regarding the importance of adhering to certain ideals, values, and/or propositions that are suitable with the existing collective consciousness. Thus we saw, especially after the Peace of Westphalia Treaty, the emergence of sovereign states, all the while with people of multifaceted cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Two centuries later, in the mid-19th century, we saw the emergence of ‘nation-state’ concept, embodied so strongly from originally the core territories (Europe), which would then spread into the rest of the world through colonialism or its indirect forces, shaping the international order (and all the ‘artificial’ borders crafted across countries) that we now see on our maps at this moment. Afterwards, there came the Cold War, where the new competing powers (United States and its Western bloc, vis-a-vis Soviet Union and its Communist allies), in the aftermath of two devastating wars that ended colonialism, sought to fill in the ‘global leadership vacuum’ left behind by the severely-diminished colonial forces. All over, the ‘nation-building’ projects were once again reconfigured throughout hundreds of newly-independent countries, with the single aim of projecting the major power’s influence and finesse in these areas.

While the nation-building in the past has resulted in the existing global order (and global equilibrium) we live in today, it has – throughout different parts of the world – also resulted in disproportionately huge numbers of lives, money, and legitimacy lost in the process. Some people perish en masse, oftentimes with numbers reaching millions, to pave way for the current system to operate. The truth is cruel, but all the more so with this world; history, as I would agree has been ‘prostituted by the state’, serves to ‘decorate’ the bloody aspect of the nation-building into the one we are living through every single day. At one point, we can hardly imagine what alternate reality we would be living in in the absence of the existing systems; on the other hand, specters of the past are demanding the answer of how we should not forget their own reality. Therefore, I could say that all, if not almost all, nations remain haunted by the tumultuous histories of the past.

Inevitably speaking, this includes Indonesia. It was a huge shock to me when I watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film ‘The Act of Killing’ (which was actually set in my hometown, Medan) back in November 2013; all the while I have never (and I guess 260 million others) truly learned about the ’empty years’ in 1965 and 1966. What I only knew was that 7 army generals were murdered by Communist collaborators on September 30, 1965, and afterwards there was a ‘national movement’ to ‘expel’ the forces, led by Gen. Suharto, who would become the country’s second president (from 1966 up to 1998). The real truth was way more starkly brutal and even ‘gore’; a massacre, dubbed ‘anti-Communist’, saw between 500,000 and 3,000,000 people killed, and other millions tortured, imprisoned, and expelled overseas. The killers are still alive, and they are, as much as I am awed, part of our society; history was ‘directed’ to the entire nation that these ‘killings’ were a nation-salvaging mission, and the killers were celebrated as ‘heroes’. Thus was the inconvenient truth we have to live in, up to now.

And there came the sequel, ‘The Look of Silence’, in 2014, this time set in Java island. With the duration slightly above half of the former, this documentary provides an intense face-to-face conversation between the victim’s family and the so-called ‘heroes’ (or you can call the killers); not unlike the previous film, this movie has had the effect of polarizing the views of various people in the country. Political parties, religious organizations, and even factions within the military strongly condemn the movies as ‘contorting’ the history that they endorse; some people, however, begin to speak up openly. The two movies are screened in various universities and schools nationwide, in spite of occasional acts of violence by several organization members. While the polarization continues, as uneasy as it is, it begins to crack open the asymmetries that underlie the past towards us. Indeed, if I would be frank, Indonesia is not alone when it comes to having a national tragedy as a scar resulting from the nation-building projects; the whole world has the same ‘skeletons in the closet’, slowly by which, the truth will be cracked open.

It is of my apology that the two movies below, while using Bahasa Indonesia, will have no English subtitles. At least I hope the explanation in this post will help. If you understand the language, you can watch the movies below, which, credits to Joshua, are now available for free in Youtube.

 

The Act of Killing – titled ‘Jagal’ in Bahasa:

 

The Look of Silence – titled ‘Senyap’ in Bahasa:

Why Indonesia is still not a middle-class society (yet)

inequality picture

 

Investment banks, credit rating firms, and a lot other international financial institutions do seemingly have a penchant to studying about Indonesia’s economic outlook. On a positive note, it is remarkable that this country has recovered after being debt-ridden in the 1997/1998 Asian financial crisis, by which Indonesia was the hardest-hit one. The government successfully pushed down debt-to-GDP ratio from an all-time-high of 140% in 1997, all the way down to a little above 27% as of 2015. While I have to caution that this is based from government’s data (which may need further research and analysis), what makes Indonesia able to rebound after the crisis (and also survive the 2008 global recession and 2015 global currency meltdown) is the ability of the central bank to monitor and control capital mobility, in and out of country, relatively free of political interference. Economic growth, while unsatisfactory, still recorded annual rates of a little above 5% in 2014, and slightly 4.7% in 2015.

Nevertheless, if you refer to World Bank income-based classification of countries, Indonesia is still positioned as a ‘lower-middle-income’ country (which has a threshold between US$ 1,045 and US$ 4,125, as of July 2015 updates), at a level of approximately 3,600 US$, and is projected to have a GDP volume of approximately 940 billion US$ this year. Middle-class population, furthermore, while rapidly growing, is still significantly small, even if one compares with neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand.

Even to define who is eligible to be in ‘middle-class’ will undertake serious debates. Various institutions have their own ways in classifying who are in this social stratum, and who are barely. World Bank utilizes two thresholds to differentiate ‘extremely poor’ and ‘poor’ or ‘lower income’: if one either earns below 1.90 US$ (to be considered extremely poor) or below 3.10 US$ (as either poor or low-income). But what about people who earn precisely at these income levels? Or changes in size of currency conversion per unit? Welcome to the grey territory. On the other hand, Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) sets ‘middle-class threshold’ at precisely 4 US$ / day, considering that those earning somewhere near that figure are classified as ‘lower-middle-class’. Pew Research Center takes an even more crude and arbitrary measure than the two institutions above by averaging the entire world’s middle-class income (literally), generating an approximated figure of 10.01 US$ per day. For those earning between 2.01 and 10 US$, they are crudely defined as ‘lower-income’.

Yet, as a reminder, I caution not to simply take the entire datasets as they are. For World Bank, the size itself is an estimate, based largely on random-sampling methods on various households across one respective country; some people may not report their actual incomes, either that they are overblown or most likely underestimated. Nonetheless, in spite of existing biases and inaccuracies, they are still pretty useful as a ‘reference work’ (which means such calculation can hardly be fully definitive). Furthermore, I won’t give a detailed explanation about why Indonesia’s middle-class population remains comparatively small, as the information below speaks ‘a bit’ volumes about the social context relating to the country, specifically income and wealth inequalities. I would rather, in this regard, encourage readers to share some thoughts and information based on the presented data below, which I already print-screened here.

The data below are enabled by PovcalNet, a widget tool built by World Bank by which everyone can ‘set their own poverty threshold’ and analyze extent of poverty on a country-by-country basis. The latest available data regarding Indonesia was from the year 2010; it is to be reminded that percentages have shifted, but to which extent they move remains unknown.

income threshold 1

income threshold 2

income threshold 3

income threshold 4

Try this interactive:

pew global middle class survey

A series of unfortunate events (and a ‘happy’ ending)

burning televisions

 

For non-Indonesians, I understand if you haven’t heard about this news story. For fellow Indonesians, I hope our attention is not solely preoccupied with the aftermath of recent bombs and gunfire in Jakarta last Thursday (and that hashtag which instantly turns into a rap song), or splits within some of the country’s major political parties.

If you notice some conversations in the social media, or even to a limited extent on Indonesian news channels, I bet you must have heard the case of Mr. Muhammad Kusrin. Or no? Perhaps because other bigger issues are dominating major news taglines?

If you don’t, that’s okay. Based on the information I compiled from several news articles (my apologies all of them are only available in Indonesian language), Mr. Kusrin was a self-taught entrepreneur who assembled parts from unused PC monitors, and converted them into TV screens. He didn’t get himself an engineering degree in order to obtain such knowledge; indeed, this man only managed to finish his primary-level education, and most of the skills he possessed in reproducing those devices originated from decades of repairing electronic products. From Karanganyar, a mid-sized town in Central Java Province, which is also his hometown, Mr. Kusrin managed to open up a small assembly center that recycled those PC monitors into television screens, employing over 35 persons, with daily revenues up to 75 million rupiah (or equivalent to 5,500 US$). Every TV screen was sold with prices ranging from 500,000 rupiah (~ 36 US$) up to 800,000 rupiah (~ 58 US$).

The Lemony Snicket-esque irony began, nonetheless, when he tried to apply for national product standardization, or in Indonesian known as SNI (Sertifikat Nasional Indonesia). Never mind with the fees charged (it costs 35 million rupiah, or approximately 2,590 US$, to get one), albeit it’s costly. But the application process, on average, requires almost half a year for an inventor in order to get this standardization for his or her product. Within this timeline, one has to go to the national accreditation body to begin the application process, and demonstration of competence has to be conducted. Even that process doesn’t simply end here. In the following procedure, three stages of processes are applied here, mainly product-testing by a designated state lab, followed by standard inspection by a special appointed body, and certification of product parts by another appointed body, all affiliated with the standardization process. The last process includes ‘demonstration-of-conformity’ test, so as to adjust these products with consumers’ needs, before a fixed standardization is issued. And lastly, within this period, one is not allowed to produce and/or sell their products to the public. In the eyes of Max Weber (father of bureaucracy), it is turning into a golden cage for the universe.

And it was bureaucracy itself that became the biggest problem for Mr. Kusrin’s business: he, and just like most other small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), had no slightest idea about the idea of ‘product standardization’ required by the government. Having both business and trade licences, both of which had also required light years in process (sorry for hyperbole), were not sufficient to safeguard his business assets; police, assisted by local prosecutor’s office, raided his company, confiscated almost all his assets, and put him into prison, back in March 2015, as his company continued selling the assembled product in the absence of SNI. To exacerbate the matter (or cause you some conflagration), both police and prosecutors openly smashed and set his business’ TV screens, unused PC monitors, and carton-made packages on fire, very proudly captured in front of reporters and journalists, just a few days ago. As Mr. Kusrin was in prison, the business couldn’t operate, and all his 35 employees immediately lost their jobs.

 

idiot1

idiot2

Pictures: retards (above), another retard (below)

 

This is my afterthought: what the heck are these prosecutors doing? First, if you burn a TV, regardless of its status as cathode-ray or LED or whatever, from a very close distance, your chances of inhaling cancerous chemicals into your lungs increases dramatically (without me having to be a forecaster, unless you people are already chain-smokers). Second, this country, of which I have to share with those buffoons, is still struggling to shelve its ‘punish-only-ordinary-people’ mentality; it’s true hundreds and hundreds of politicians, mayors, regents, governors, and even ministers have been put into prison on charges relating to corruption and other forms of power abuse, but out there, there are still countless other people sitting on top of the elites who, having committed numerous mistakes that cost Indonesia huge amounts of money, remain safe and untouched by the existing laws. Third, you proudly burn someone’s creation in front of cameras! What makes you different from thugs, after all?

Again, this was another reason why I really adore the way social media works. Soon after this incident, people on Facebook, Twitter, and various petition websites began posting for demands to release Mr. Kusrin out of prison, and at the same time, these prosecutors (and some police involved) underwent their mob-trial by the media. This news soon reached out to the central government in Jakarta, with the immediate response by Ministry of Industry to directly reward him the standardization, thus enabling him to breathe the air of freedom. Yes, he just got the certificate a few hours ago, all the way directly bypassing the months-old procedures.

 

172743_kusrin3

“My name is Kusrin, and I am not a copyright-pirate.”

 

I don’t know if getting the standardization will become an eventually happy ending for his business (as well as his family and the workers) as there are still obstacles Mr.Kusrin has to face, given that he has lost most of the capital he needs to resume the operation, all engulfed on that big fire. For now, from my standpoint as a rational optimist, this is a ‘happy ending’ that he deserves for years of hard work and expertise he has accumulated.

Let me say something: this is another harsh lesson, one after another, that the government hasn’t succeeded to learn. I must be both proud and outraged to say that Indonesia has so many geniuses that the existing system, engendered after decades and decades, fails to cultivate. Education system remains rigidly on one-direction approach (students are discouraged to critically evaluate their teachers’ explanations), while a lot of government regulations, rather than stimulate the growth in creativity and innovation, end up choking new ideas to death. It is not just one Kusrin I’m referring to, but also the entrepreneurial culture in Indonesia. Most media remains conditioned to only focus talking about politicians and stuff happening on their parties, while little attention is paid on how people like Mr. Kusrin are transforming their communities with their creative works and/or other inventions.

Which brings me to one question: how’s President Joko Widodo’s ‘mental-revolution’ plan? This becomes interesting.

 

(please give me feedback if you get to find any fallacies)

Being a tourist in one’s own hometown

hometown

 

A few minutes before the plane landed in Kuala Namu International Airport, Medan, I saw from the window myself dim, low-wattage light dotting blocks of streets, with cars and motorcycles – seen from the sky as tiny as moving ants – rushing in and out of those streets.

“Gee”, I whispered to a friend sitting beside me, “is this place having power ration again?”

“Hasn’t our hometown stayed almost the same since we last left?”

Having studied in Hong Kong for a year (literally without any summer breaks or holidays), this counter-culture-shock was already the first thing I experienced – all the while even before I touched off the ground, of the place I was born and raised for over 18 years, this city – goddamn Medan – that I have called it home since the beginning.

Truth be told, I only have my holidays once a year – and as though a ritual, I have been back home once a year, for approximately one month. My first time, it was December 2013 – it lasted 37 days. Fast forward to December 2014 (all the way from Chinese New Year), it lasted 40 days. And there came another 10.5 months of time-space, filled with the same pattern of courses, research projects, killer exams, and other school activities, and there it is, December 2015. This time, I will be home for over 42 days – almost one and a half month. Assume that there are not many changes next year, my next holiday in Medan will be in December 2016 (and also definitely the last time I can afford such a superbly long break).

Every December I sojourn back home, I have to be very admittedly honest that I have this repetitive cycle of ‘culture shocks’. Old wisdom (I don’t know which grannies say that) explains that one’s personality totally changes after exploring a brand-new place, and adapting to these unexpected circumstances out there. Well, my life story ain’t that fascinating like what Frodo (and his friend I crushed my brain to remember the name, not Gollum) faced in The Lord of The Rings, but the reality is that this problem becomes apparent once I arrive in the city I have called it ‘home’ since 1995.

First thing first, there are all these dim-lighted streets over the city.

I have been to Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Denpasar (it’s the capital of Bali), and I could tell you that the streets are so glitzy and brightly lit, especially if one lives in the capital. Medan, being Indonesia’s fourth largest city after the first three cities I described above, with population almost approaching 1% of Indonesia’s total (if you don’t know the answer: it’s one-quarter billion people), is still grappling with electrification. Blackouts are still regularly scheduled in some districts, and street light is mostly dim. That was the same thing I have observed, over and over, since the first time I revisited in 2013. If you take airport express right to the city center, which takes approximately 30-35 minutes, I bet you the first 25-30 minutes you will see almost nothing (as though one were traveling inside a black hole). There are wooden houses and huts beside railway tracks, but there’s no electricity. Even when one sees light (and it’s approaching city center), it’s still very dim, unless one is only a few hundred meters away from the train station. Anyway, I took the airport express back in 2014, and it was really convenient, all the while worth an almost 8 US$-equivalent single-journey ticket.

Another unique thing, meanwhile, is the fact that the airport is completed first before the connecting highways are constructed. As I reached Medan only by last Sunday, there has been substantial progress with the highway construction. Still, going out of the airport area, one can imagine massive traffic jam, and further out, dim street lighting again. Your cars are even brighter than traffic lights, I bet.

Closer into the city center, there are signs of ‘repair projects’. Indeed, all the way back to my childhood, these ‘repair projects’ have always been existent, while at the same time the road quality, I assume, seems worsening. Everywhere we go, there are all these cute little ponds scattered across the streets – years-old potholes that are yet to be fixed. Why the heck don’t these projects manage to fix these little ponds? Because these projects are mostly random patchwork, and some people have rumors that these year-end projects are simply to use up the remaining annual budgets already provided to the city government. Just cover the holes with cement and some sand, and you get the impression that these roads are smooth. The analogy would be you put a very thick makeup to cover your pimples.

We have not only little ponds, but also eternal pipe-implanting projects. A lot of people have experienced this: for some periods of time, drainage in front of houses will be scraped, leaving piles of sand, mud, and other ‘stuff’ scattered across those streets. The problem with these projects, however, is nobody has a goddamn idea when they are going to be accomplished. Sometimes pipes sit idle on street corners, waiting for someone to implant them underground. Wait, you have to consider these piles as well! When raining season comes, and nobody comes to fix them, these piles will flow across the rainwater, causing flood, diminishing the quality of existing roads and streets, and voila!, there emerge all these cute little ponds. The only exception is that you don’t see waddling ducks (though some people plant rice paddies as acts of protest).

See, even I already sound like a ranting First World traveler? Apologies for stereotyping.

Some things are changing, too, especially in the circumstances surrounding my home. One example is mushrooming number of tower cranes. Apartments and shopping malls are being built on my hometown like a boom; in my vicinity alone, I count at least 10 tower cranes (simply because I live in the city center). I haven’t conducted any mini-research, but all I only hope is that the increase in use of tower cranes does not correspond with the parallel increase in the number of potholes or number of four-wheeled vehicles hit by motorcycles, which oftentimes becomes a classic taboo.

Hmm, guess like the only thing is changing is that there are more tower cranes? Probably so. I haven’t been back in my hometown for almost a year, so it’s inevitable I lost count with most things happening not only in Medan, but also in Indonesia. See: in 2013 I still ‘cared’ a lot about news from this country, by 2014 I still did so, but by 2015 my attention has been significantly diminishing. You get this feeling when you talk the same thing to your friends or other acquaintances, over and over. Corruption, crime, pollution (and then this haze that awards Indonesia as the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter), infrastructure problems, illicit drug trade, etc. I feel like a 50-year-old heavy-smoking guy whenever I talk about it (and I used to talk about it), so I simply suppress my interest in discussing these matters.

That’s where I switch to gossiping. Regardless of its fact that it is a major sin in virtually any religion (I’m not sure with Spaghetti Monster), gossiping with old friends you haven’t met for more than 2.5 years is a ‘blessing’ for me. Some have gone on to study in top-notch universities in Singapore, Australia, US or those in Jakarta and Bandung, while the rest stay faithful to the same hometown. Mindsets may have changed, but our gossiping habit puts them aside. Some friends’ friends have switched either boyfriends or girlfriends, while one has gotten married (and she’s just 20, for the sake of mom’s spaghetti!). And, well, some have also become mothers (same age), one of whom got MBA (married-by-accident), a code-word for one doing premarital sex. I won’t touch in details about it.

Still, the gap in mindsets by itself can explain that prevailing counter culture-shock.

“People’s mindset here is so simple: you finish high school by age 18, go to a local college for 3-4 years, and after graduation, either your parents give you some money to set up a business or you work for a few years, then you get married, buy a house, have some kids, and get them to the school you were in before. Your life is so stable, but at the same time it’s flat.” That’s what my parents say. Indeed, that is precisely because of what they (and most of my close friends’ parents) had experienced in this life cycle.

“That’s why, after consulting in a local temple, your ultimate fate is to go outside to succeed.”

Hmm, this begins to sound like an adventure movie plot again (apologies for stereotyping), but indeed, what my mom and dad said were really accurate. Go outside, explore the whole world, and return home as an entirely different person. Physically, I’m still short, a bit bellied-up (though I already do some workout), but in regard to my mindset, it’s been completely dissimilar. My Indonesian accent has changed a lot (becoming almost Jakarta-like), and it sounds awkward when I converse to some people here in Bahasa. My mindset differs a lot from my own parents, and to be honest, it’s quite a process to bridge our differences. Still, as uneasy as it is, Medan remains my own hometown. 18 years living here before I embarked on university education, my identity as someone from this place remains irreplaceable. It’s just that the ways of thinking have shifted. My worldview expanded from what was only my hometown, into the whole world. Befriending people from different parts of the world has debunked some prevailing prejudices in my mindset.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if I become a tourist in my own hometown. Well, my holiday becomes more enjoyable at least (with spicy food accompanying my meals almost everyday).

Reality check: capital punishment

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There has been so much hype in mass media with the impending execution of two of Bali Nine drug syndicate members, and both countries, Australia and Indonesia, have seemingly played chicken in an intense nationalistic manner about ‘which one is the most righteous’. Some Australians pioneered ‘Mercy’ campaign, and Indonesian media counter-attacked it with surveys showing majority of Australians actually support death sentence for these drug convicts. President Joko Widodo has restated his intention not to give clemency to their repeated pleas, and PM Tony Abbott has accused the former of being ruthless. And he mentioned the huge amounts of Australian aid towards 2004 Aceh tsunami victims, and another huge, nation-bewildering campaign known as ‘Coin for Australia’ was initiated by several Indonesians to return the humanitarian aids already distributed by the government. To and fro, back and forth, everyone is trying to show who is the real savior.

I am here not in position to support or to oppose capital punishment. Taking it at a utilitarian perspective – I’m sorry if it sounds inhumane, capital punishment, as much as there is little scientific evidence that shows its effectiveness in reducing crime rates, is all but an inherent part of a country, or a region’s, basic constitution, and sovereign states basically have authorities to exercise that power, no matter how the other side of the world may deride it. As capital punishment is stipulated in Indonesia’s basic constitution, suffice it to say, there is no doubt that other countries are obliged to respect whatever the decisions being handed on by local courts for any violations of rules. So much as Australians despise Indonesians’ overwhelming support for death sentence, it would be worthwhile to look at other nearby countries like Malaysia and Singapore, both of which were former fellow British colonies. And more people had actually been executed in both countries for drug offences compared to the number of those back in Indonesia.

But, from my own perspective, I see ironies. 11 people, 8 charged with drug offences, and 3 others for premeditated, first-degree murders, will soon face firing squads as early as this March, after previously 6 people faced firing squads in early January. Is capital punishment a powerful deterrent? Can these persons afford the chances of rehabilitation? Have they fully repented and successfully contributed back to society? Are they psychopaths? These are the questions that always linger on when it comes to thinking about the fates of these would-be executed.

We can pride ourselves in killing a small few number of people for committing big mistakes, but we must not forget the even more grave mistakes ever committed by others, say, massive human rights abuses. Have we afforded the similar courage to do the same thing towards a military commander who orders forced disappearances of activists? Have we afforded the same courage to execute a former monarch who led a devastating war and killed millions of people in the process? Do we have the courage to put on trial high-level officials, who, hiding their malign faces with make-believe attitude, are actually siphoning off taxpayers’ money? Are we daring enough to admit that our prior generation had once participated in mass violence? Have we successfully captured corrupt corporate leaders who took away, unfairly, bailout money? Why do we show our pride killing this unlucky dozen when we have not even gathered our own courage to go deep down beyond the tips of these huge icebergs?

Leaving this essay unanswered (I can’t afford to answer it as I believe there will never be definitive answers), let me conclude it in this way. Once justice is compromised, capital punishment is no different from killing mice and cockroaches in the houses of unseen robbers, while the robbers are doing their job.