Monday, August 11, 2014

A close look at US soft power in Indonesia

One of my highlights during the study program was a trip to what is quite possibly the US' largest effort in public diplomacy in the region.

@america is located in one of the glitziest shopping malls at the heart of downtown Jakarta. The facade was as American as one would expect, complete with large monitors, glossy & modern displays, and a red, white, and blue color scheme. It was first launched in 2010 in an effort to engage with the youths living in the largest Muslim population of the world.

One of the many concerts taking place @america

The name "@america" invokes one of the US' major assets that the State Department highlights to make its hard sell--technology. Visitors who enter the facility are able play with such American-engineered technologies such as Microsoft's Xbox console and Google Earth. The small facility also hosts free events such as concerts by local and foreign bands and movie screenings, some of which can garner as many as 200 attendees.

Aside from the gadgets, @america offers free academic counseling and a study corner (complete with SAT/ACT and GRE prep books) for students who are interested in continuing their education in the US.And this, ultimately, is one of the US' big PD goals--to foster a longterm relationship with Indonesia through building a strong connection with its future generation of leaders.

A mural by @america's study corner highlighting campus life

As an international communication student, I've read and researched much about soft power and diplomacy as way to improve relations (and, let us not forget, to pursue state interests). So it was pretty cool to see US' public diplomacy in action and to meet the products of such efforts--the students who have studied in the US and now work at the center. After days of meeting with political leaders, it was refreshing to chat with our young tour guides, both of whom have studied in the US. Our conversation ranged from their experiences in the States to romantic relationships, popular Indonesian dramas/movies to cool indie bands. It was from them that I learned about the jazzy trio, Maliq & D'Essentials:

It's these type of people-to-people connections that I value whenever I travel, and are what ultimately frame my persepctives of the country. It definitely made it easier for me to see young Indonesians for what they really are--ordinary people with similar passions and goals for life and the future. @america may be a small space filled with images of typical American stereotypes (football, anyone?), but inside can be found big dreams and a budding relationship.

Ruth and I with the young @america employees

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Southeast Asia Buzz

I arrived back in D.C. a few weeks ago and immediately jumped back into my life. I have a wedding to plan, I had to move into my new apartment, and I also had to transition back to my internship at the Southeast Asia program at CSIS.

Coming back to the office after spending over a month in the region had an interesting effect on my work. I was full of energy, I was inspired to publish more articles, and I had a much better understanding of Malaysia and Indonesia - two countries I had only a passing understanding of before my trip. At work I follow the news coming out of the Philippines and Thailand, and with a newfound appreciation of two more ASEAN countries (as well as a cultural appreciation of Cambodia after a 4-day trip), I felt like I was well on my way to becoming someone who could comfortable talk about all 10 ASEAN countries without sounding like an idiot.

My enthusiasm did not go unnoticed. When I described how I felt to my boss, she smiled and told me it was called the "Southeast Asia Buzz." When other people at work travel to the region, they tend to come back with their batteries charged and their brains firing on all pistons. It's a cycle that analysts have to go through. Sitting in an office, reading white papers and news stories and meeting with people who have been to the region is helpful, and it can even be enough to gain a pretty good understanding of what is happening on the ground -but there really is no substitute for being there.

Having now made my first trip to Southeast Asia, I feel much more confident when I speak and write about the region critically. In relative terms, it was a brief trip, but it will forever add weight to the work I do from now on. It also resigns me to a hard, but worthwhile cycle. I need to travel back to the region again and again to maintain this appreciation and keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening. This time, I saw over 200 million people vote in one of the largest young democracies in the world. Who knows what I'll see next time!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Malaysia and my transportation woes

Malaysia was my home for a good portion of my 3 months in the region, and even though I barely returned to the States, I miss it greatly.

The sight of the man riding his bicycle full of snacks every morning, the wonderful smell of fried pan mee, the laughter of the elderly people who gather in my neighborhood park... They are all still vivid images in my mind.

A reason to walk through the park early in the morning: mass tai chi

Despite all the things that I miss about Malaysia, there is one thing thing that still frustrates me even thinking about it now: TRANSPORTATION. Everyone in this program knows very well how much I despise the Malaysian transportation system. I could rant about the often rude and incompetent taxi cab drivers, the inefficient infrastructure (always under "construction"), and the overcrowded & slow Monorail line all day. It doesn't help that KL is as big of a sprawl as my hometown Los Angeles--people need a car to get around. But I don't drive when I'm abroad, and I definitely did not feel confident enough to do so in KL. So I'm left with little choice but to take all forms of public transportation daily.

Typical Monorail line experience--good luck getting through this

My biggest beef is with the taxi drivers. It all started with my first taxi ride from the airport to my Malaysia residence--what could've been an easy 40 minute trip (as I later learned) ended up being an hour +. I was one of the few who lived outside the city, in a lovely and quiet suburban neighborhood of Petaling Jaya. But because it's a suburb, most taxi drivers do not know how to get there. Oftentimes, they flat out refuse to get me home. I've even had few instances when the drivers would try to swindle me for even more money than what the meter shows.

Luckily, my studio was not too far of a walk from my internship (about 1mi) or the nearest train station, which can get me to town fairly easily. However, when it gets dark, my options were limited to taxis (note: never walk home in the dark, alone). I learned about the MyTeksi app from some coworkers, but since they use actual taxi cab drivers they were still not reliable (they've also outright refused to pick me up because of where I lived).

The Solution? Uber, my dear friends.

Occasionally I cheat--instead of walking to work I take an Uber cab for less than $1USD

Yes, Uber is such a godsend. I don't remember how I discovered that the ride share app works in KL, but I think I just opened it one day out of curiosity and found that I could actually use it. And I cannot be more thankful that I could. I've only used Uber once in DC, but in KL, it was my exclusive go-to whenever I need a ride to/from home. I found KL's Uber drivers to be not only reliable but super personable. My favorite is an elderly fellow, named Patrick (or Uncle Uber). He has a van that can seat 8 people quite comfortably. Despite his strict policy of no more than 4 people in his vehicle, he made the exception for me and my classmates--super useful when we were trying to get to the US Embassy's Independence Day Celebration or to BurgerLab for one of their amazing burgers (sooooo worth it, btw)!

If you ever find yourself in KL and need a reliable driver, I recommend contacting Uncle Uber via his phone number (+011 33 (0) 48987) and open up your Uber app. You can thank me later.

Monday, July 21, 2014

I came to Indonesia not knowing much more than the basics - it’s has the world’s 4th largest population, is an archipelago comprising thousands of Islands, and is home to a majority Muslim populace. I’d also picked up a bit watching silat martial arts films starring Iko Uwais.

Having spent three weeks prior studying and working in Malaysia, I imagined that my experiences would be similar given the two nations shared geography, language and food. Once I got to understand Indonesia on a deeper level, I started to notice what differing historical legacies and paths of political development post-independence had created.

Last week was a semi-pivotal moment in Indonesia. The contest between “Jokowi” Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto was the closest election since Indonesia started choosing its president by direct election in 2004. In the two previous elections Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won with a commanding 60% of the vote. This election’s result went from assured victory for Jokowi to a bitter struggle to the finish. His polling lead shrank from 27% to 7.4% between March and June. 
Us at a Jakarta polling station
The candidates represented themselves as night and day archetypes. Jokowi as the grass roots organising, progressive, moderate, pragmatist, while Prabowo campaigned under the image of iron fist rule that could bring stability back the country. Faced with these potential presidencies, Indonesians could choose the uncertain path forward, or a retreat back into the comforting, albeit restrictive, embrace of Soeharto style authoritarianism.
A Jokowi supporter in discussion some elderly gentlemen.
In the lead up to the election, no one knew exactly what a neck-and-neck election would look like. There were serious concerns that tensions could turn violent, leading risk management consultants iJet to send out a warning that “officials fear that the threat of violent clashes is growing, especially if one of the candidates contests the election results” (helpfully forwarded to us by Jeannie Khouri)Our group was warned by American expatriates to avoid going out on the evening of Election Day in case the vote was close. They feared that the (relatively) new democracy of Indonesia would collapse under the strain of contentious politics.

It’s no wonder that experts were using words like “precipice” and phrases like “danger zone” and “knife-edge” to describe Indonesia’s political situation. In the wake of Thailand’s military coup, democracy in Southeast Asia appeared more fragile than anyone would have expected a mere six months ago.

Despite the fear of partisan conflict, the atmosphere at the polling place we visited was positively festive. Voting took place in a park in Central Jakarta. Next to the voting booths a gospel choir from Papua sang while voters old and young queued up to cast their votes. Voters openly displayed their personal allegiances by flashing one or two raised fingers (one for Prabowo, two for Jokowi).

Following the closure of the polls, a new controversy emerged as different quick counts indicated that each candidate had a slight lead – both declared themselves the winner. The majority of polling agencies, including the less partisan ones, showed Jokowi ahead. However, this did not stop the television stations, many owned by patrons linked to Prabowo, from running reports of his victory. These pre-emptive declarations did come at a cost though. Subsequently, two survey institutions that reported a Prabowo victory were booted from the country’s polling association. 

Democratic transition has always been a process fraught with complication and backsliding, yet Indonesia is showing that it can move forward towards a liberal democracy. The tentative selection of Jokowi, a former furniture salesman, indicates that Indonesian society is ready for leadership from sources outside the entrenched elites. Its civil society is strong enough to recognize and correct attempts to manipulate the voting process - like what many have accused the Prabowo camp of trying to do.

Tuesday's announcement of the final election results will hopefully decide things once and for all. It will set a precedent of transparent elections whose outcomes are respected by all parties, even the losing camp. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Malaysia and Indonesia in retro perspective: Part I

Lots of many speakers (22), great exchanges (uncountable), increasingly less energetic introductions (roughly 30) and more or less successful imitations (thank you Dylan!).

After being back from Southeast Asia, life has drastically slowed down. The sun is out there and can be enjoyed – while searching for the group and not finding them in the noisy back.
No more vans picking you up for another exciting visit in some important office in the vibrant capitals of Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. No more malls (thank god) to be visited. But more importantly: no more culinary excitement to the extent to which we enjoyed a variety of cuisines.
There are many things to be missed after having spent such a great time overseas with people who you didn’t know before. Here is an excerpt of three lively weeks in our otherwise less lively lives: 
 Welcome at the...
University of Achievers: HELP!

Cosy class(room).
Weekend activities (Sunday, June 29th, 2014)

A day of serious party talks: (Tuesday, July 1, 2014):

Briefing with the People's Justice Party and Nurul Izzah Anwar

 The ride in between: (all in the best of moods)

 Briefing by the Democratic Action Party (DAP)
around Theresa Kok

Briefing by United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and
Tan Sri Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad

"Buka Puasa!": Ramadan in Southeast Asia

As a young Muslim in the United States, the fasting month of Ramadan was always somewhat of an understated affair for me. The experience itself was just as challenging and rewarding as it would have been anywhere, of course, but the anticipation and excitement I felt for the month ahead was something I could only find reciprocated within the walls of my own home or the local masjid.

Growing up, I'd jealously listen to my parents' Ramadan stories from Bangladesh: of the many delicious foods for sale at the bazaars that would open at sunset in time for iftaar, hearing the muezzin call worshippers to the special Ramadan taraweeh prayers, the wide array of fashionable clothes that young women would hurry out to buy before Ramadan ended on Eid al-Fitr, and the wonderful, glorious tradition of salaami—not the cured meat, but the copious pocket money children receive from their elders for wishing them salaam ("peace be upon you") on Eid.

As I bitterly calculated how much salaami I had missed out on by spending 18 years away from my relatives, I wished dearly that I could spend just one Ramadan in my life in a Muslim-majority country.

As it turned out, I didn't get to spend Ramadan in just one Muslim country, but two. And by no means was I alone in the experience.

On the first day of Ramadan, the class was due to take a whirlwind tour of Kuala Lumpur's most enchanting sights, from Putrajaya and the Royal Selangor factory to Thean Hou and Batu Caves. Despite the demanding schedule, the three Muslims on our program were joined by three other students who wanted to try fasting with us as well.

Not surprisingly, when it was time to break our fast in a fantastic Chinese restaurant on Jalan Alor, there were six very hungry people who practically assaulted the plates of food on the table in front of them.

As Ramadan continued concurrently with our class, I had the privilege of enjoying all of the quirky and wonderful traditions that come with Ramadan in Malaysia. Big-name franchises were quick to advertise Ramadan specials, like Pizza Hut's tandoori chicken pizza (which was delicious!). Bangsar Village, a mall close to HELP Residensi, hosted an expansive Ramadan street bazaar chock-full of vendors selling everything from brightly colored fruit juices to char kuey teow and nasi goreng to hungry fasters. Islamic art-themed banners and posters hung from shop windows, with "Salaam Aidilfitri!" and "Salaam Hari Raya!" written alongside freshly applied discounts. In restaurants, waiters who noticed you hadn't yet touched your food discreetly dropped a plate of dates on the table as they went past.

The fun did not stop once the class moved to Jakarta, either. With a larger majority of Muslims compared to Malaysia, Ramadan in Indonesia felt as though it were a much more integral part of the country's cultural fabric. On our first night there, when we left the hotel to have dinner at a nasi goreng kambing (goat fried rice!) stall, we sat at a bench with Indonesian Muslims whose heads were bowed... until they heard the call to prayer from the masjid next door and the hurried "azan!" from the staff, who wanted us to begin eating.

Ramadan can mean many different things to different Muslims. To me, growing up as I did in a cookie-cutter suburban New England town with only a handful of other Muslims around, the month came to symbolize self-discipline and the individual strengthening of faith through adversity.

This time, however, my Ramadan in Malaysia and Indonesia was all about generosity. From the intellectual discussions that accompanied our 3 AM meals and the gluttonous debauchery of our 7 PM iftaars, to the quiet "how are you doing?" my classmates would murmur to each other throughout the day, Ramadan was made so much more meaningful by the wonderful American students, Malaysians, and Indonesians I was privileged to share the experience with this year.

Oddly enough, I was only struck by this thought on one of our last nights in Jakarta, when three of us were engaged in perhaps the most Jakarta-y of pastimes: stuck in deadlocked traffic.

As the clock slowly ticked up toward the sunset time of 5:55 PM and the light filtering into the taxi through the haze began to dim, Omar handed me an orange he had in his bag ("which might have already gone bad, honestly, sorry") to eat. The taxi driver had turned the radio on a few minutes earlier, so we waited in silence, the car at a standstill, for the call to prayer to be broadcast.

Allaa-a-h-u-akbar, Allah - hu - akbar!

Glancing behind to see my progress, Omar laughed at my woeful peeling job and handed me his peeled orange.

Allaa-a-hu-akbar, Allah - hu - akbar!

"Maas?" Omar asked, offering half of the orange he had to the taxi driver. Misunderstanding at first, the taxi driver shook his head, but Omar smiled and held the orange out again. Then, smiling himself, the driver took a small portion.

"Ruth?" I turned to my left.

"No, no, no, no, no-- you guys are the ones fasting!"

"Nope, it doesn't work like that. Ramadan is about sharing."

"Yeah, Ruth," Omar chimed in from the front, "you always break fast together."

As the four of us bit into our slightly dry, possibly-gone-bad oranges, I couldn't help but think that it was this—the simple act of breaking bread with others, of sharing the little that one has, and of fostering greater understanding through mutual kindness—that encapsulated what Ramadan truly is.

And for that, I'd be willing to forego all the salaami and fancy clothes in the world.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Election Day!

With the population virtually split between the two presidential candidates, Joko Widodo ("Jokowi") and Prabowo, there was a certain level of excitement and anticipation in the air on election day.  It was fitting then that the group made its way to Suropati Park to observe the Indonesian electoral process first hand.
 Reporting Indonesians casting their votes

Polling station

Ballot casting

 Gotta tilt the box so that everyone can cast their vote!

Christian choir group from Papua


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Malling in Jakarta

View from the Grand Indonesia Mall in Jakarta

In the urban hubs of Southeast Asia, malls are central foci; convenient eateries, stores and play areas for all ages.  With a rapidly growing middle class and young population (nearly 60% of Indonesia’s population is under the age of 40), malls encapsulate Indonesia’s growth.

 Bright lights sparkle all day for rain or shine

World within a world, where your dinner could be served on a boat, not quite by the sea

A few floors away, one could stroll along European style courtyards at their leisure

Aside from the variety of foreign and domestic brands and stores that populate multiple levels, malls have also shown great design diversity.  In the air conditioned bubble, the variety of seasonal storefronts and mall designs is sure to astound the casual shopper and continue to amaze its patrons.  Just a tour or several tours of the malls in Jakarta, one would quickly pick up on the new pulse of Indonesian society as it continues to move forward.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Never Go to the IMF"

In a typical college course, you skim some articles and have a 10 minute lecture regarding the IMF’s role during the Asian Financial Crisis. It is a run-of-the-mill topic. You probably jot down a note or two about how the IMF’s demands on Asian nations still remain sensitive issues in the region… And then you move on with life, and daydream about which latte you are going to buy from the Dav lounge. That factoid is logged away somewhere you can access it later.

Now imagine sitting across a boardroom table in the Indonesian Foreign Ministry Department with a senior official responsible for Indonesia’s relationship with the United States. Consider that he looks you in the eyes and says, “The lesson we learned from the Asian Financial Crisis was never go to the IMF again.”

No amount of academic study can replace the impact of hearing those words direct from the source. Trust me. I have lived both realities!

When I asked the Director of North and Central American Affairs at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry what the most critical lessons learned from the reforms following the Asian Financial Crisis were in his opinion, I had not anticipated the fervor in which he would condemn the IMF. In my studies I had absolutely encountered second-hand reports of such feelings, but readings just don’t compare to sitting four seats away hearing the perceptions straight from the source.

Just the opportunity to be briefed by this official was remarkable, let alone being allowed to have open dialogue and question him on any topic. And this official is only one in a host of countless others that we have met on the study abroad (16 in Malaysia and 10 in Indonesia). Take a glance at this laundry list: A senior TPP negotiator, the Ambassador for Indonesian-ASEAN relations, 4 MPs from ruling and opposition political parties, top think tank scholars, former military officials, trade directors, human rights leaders, U.S. embassy staff, business advocates…the list goes on of the speakers who took time to brief and be questioned by our small group of graduate students.

The Malaysia-Indonesia study abroad program gets you out of your scholarly articles and into the real world of foreign affairs. You can read a million articles on the negative perception of the IMF during the Asian Financial Crisis, but it will never mean as much as hearing a policy maker denounce the practices to your face. The academic topics you have been stuck studying behind a desk in the Bender Library become real-life, in the flesh, encounters with decision makers, government opposition parties, political elites, and proactive academic leaders.

This study abroad is a once in a lifetime experience to shake hands and swap business cards with people who are literally guiding foreign affairs and shaping global politics.

*Photo courtesy of Reuters

Thursday, July 3, 2014

King of Fruits, Sultan of Stench

Celebration of Durian

Know as the King of Fruits, durian is a divisive fruit.  Its fans adore it while others pinch their noses in disgust to its pungent smell.  With its spiky shell, durian looks more like a prehistoric weapon but once hacked open, the fruit yields sweet creamy pods unlike any other fruit.  In fact its notorious smell has lead to durian bans in public places such as hotels and public buses (out of courtesy for lesser fans of durian).

Such durian prohibitions would fool the unsuspecting into believing that durian is unwelcomed and unappreciated, but on the contrary, durian is often referred to as the unofficial national fruit of Malaysia.   In June when durian season is in full swing, fruit trucks full of durian set up pop-up shops by sidewalks, proudly welcoming folks to stop by and enjoy a fresh durian with friends or strangers. 

 Mid-day snack at the fruit truck

 Pick a sweet one!

 Fresh and sweet to share

Not unlike durian, Malaysian society could be classified and divided into many categories based on racial, ethnic, religious, high or low skilled, socio-economic conditions, among other categories.  Yet, despite these tensions, there is an unwavering faith in the state and its people.  The Malaysian people willing accept the state of the nation and strive to live and work within the status quo to better their country and embrace the plurality and diversity that defines Malaysia.  Just as durian fans and anti-fans may not agree on durian, both sides can appreciate and respect their differences, contributing to the food diversity that is Malaysia.

Durian infused sweets diversified into chocolate and dragon beard candy

Monday, June 30, 2014

5 Pillars. 9 Dragons. 272 Steps. "1Malaysia."

One part chocolate, one part strawberry, and one part vanilla, Neapolitan ice cream provides a world of consumption options for the dessert-lover. You can take a sniggle of each flavor separately, snag a dollop of two flavors, or take a cross-sectional scoop collecting a bit of the pink, white, and brown for one fusion of flavor.

If Malaysia were an ice cream, it would be a lopsided version of Neapolitan, with a slightly larger proportion of ethnic Malays, a sizeable chunk of Chinese and a spattering of Indians. For the most part, the three ethnicities coexist in relative harmony despite their desires to maintain their separate identities. Each group has unique foods, styles of dress, educations systems, benefits from the government (or lack thereof), languages, traditions, and religions, of which they are proud. From this cacophony of varied ethnic traditions and perspectives comes the diverse Malaysian society.

The first Sunday of our study abroad, we packed into a van and got to “taste” a little of each of these ethnicities by visiting three religious worship areas: a Muslim Mosque, a Buddhist Temple, and a Hindu Shrine. Check it out:

5 Pillars of Islam (Putrajaya Mosque - Ladies, time to cover up!)

9 Dragons (On the Buddhist Temple... not the brides maids!) 

272 Steps to the Batu Caves (Hindu Shrine)

Time for some cultural math... 5 pillars + 9 dragons + 272 steps = “1Malaysia”

Here is a shout out to PM Najib for helping me figure out this equation of Malaysian society! (The government launched a campaign in 2010 called 1Malaysia to promote ethnic tolerance and national unity. But seeing as Najib’s ruling party is largely responsible for sustaining the political structure that racially divides Malaysia, this “unifying” campaign is arguably farce. He gets kudos for trying though.)

Jokes and propaganda aside, the trip to these three centers of worship was memorable, particularly as the excursion coincided with the first day of Ramadan and several members of the group were fasting. It is to be celebrated that despite the racial difficulties that exist in Malaysia, different ethnicities are allowed to practice their religious beliefs and celebrate their heritage through faith. The rituals may be different, but the purity of heart is the same.