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