The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Damsels of democracy seduce your vote Duncan Graham

Returning after a few months abroad certainly sharpens appreciation of the community-order shifts underway in modern Indonesia.

They’re minor and marginal, tremors rather than shakes, just quivers on the societal seismograph. No tsunami will follow but it seems the tide is surely, slowly and imperceptibly rising, unnoticed by stay put locals.

The first indicator was a giant poster at the end of our block promoting a hopeful for the upcoming election. So what? The streets have become tunnels flanked, topped and tailed by billowing silk-screened cotton advertising scores of candidates on the principle that quantity beats quality.

At previous elections the protocols were clear; candidates had to be male, ageing, plump and wear a peci, the Javanese rimless black cap. A black moustache was also de rigueur, indicating masculine vigor plus a finger thrust skyward, a la the Republic’s first president.

All academic qualifications, whether bought, borrowed or MM (Mickey Mouse) had to be listed, while the title Haji, indicating a visit to Mecca, was another important vote-catcher.

The few women who dared put their names forward as supporting acts were grizzled grannies cocooned like Egyptian mummies in mourning black or virgin white.

Slightly out of focus, and hovering like Banquo’s ghost over the candidate’s shoulder, must be a more recognisable face, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or a previous holder of the nation’s top job, like Gus Dur or Megawati Soekarnoputri – though never Habibie.

During her time as the most powerful woman leader in the world I watched her age under the burdens of office. Then she was dethroned and vanished for the next half decade.

Now she’s back and .. what a miracle! The former First Lady is younger, slimmer and more graceful, at least on the posters. If this is what five years in political limbo can do to a woman, then forget Omega 3 – just keep out of the public eye.

But there’s no phantom endorsing the candidature of Nanik, the lady whose portrait graces our suburb gateway for she’s a real stand-alone, a flawless knock-em-down beauty who should be pushing perfume, not politics.

She probably spent a week in a cream-bath before the photo was taken and another week getting each eyelash to turn heavenwards. She’s a Christian – surprising because followers of the Nazarene in this area are rare as honest cops.

For every surreptitious prayer meeting above a motorcycle workshop there are 20 magnificent Saudi-funded mosques, so the result will probably be No, No, Nanik.

It would be impolite and sexist to comment on this candidate’s other robust attributes. Enough to note that her jewel-encrusted crucifix doesn’t dangle vertically but nestles horizontally.

Not 200 metres further on Nanik is seriously challenged by auburn-tinted Siti whose chandelier earrings sparkle through tumbling locks. Siti dares show her glistening teeth. One is clearly a fang – so she’ll do well in politics.

Across the road is Golkar’s favorite, Endang who has apparently been to Mecca where she must have mislaid her headscarf. She seems a thoroughly modern matron, even backing the local football team, though unlike Nanik and Sita she keeps her blouse well buttoned.

Nearby is Tineka who forgot to visit a salon before the photo shoot so has had to rely on Photoshop. She has so few face lines her nose has almost vanished; the effect is like Sailor Moon having a bad-hair day. This must be for the teenage vote.

Only hot Farida thought a headscarf necessary to advertise her piety as a substitute for policy. She chose flame red and matched it with her lipstick, a far more volatile effect than some of her rivals.

In the long-standing and allegedly mature liberal Western democracy where I retreat from Java’s smog and noise, defacing, chain-sawing and even burning the posters of rival political parties is a pastime for inarticulate youth who think the ballot a bore.

Here in Indonesia, where hard-won democracy is still fumbling her way towards the light, the billboards remain intact.

Though only Neanderthals would vandalise pioneering Nanik and her courageous pioneering sisters, selflessly offering their splendid talents to the electorate. If they don’t get into parliament at least they’ll be able to sell skin-whiteners and wrinkle-removers.

Good luck to them all. I just wish I could vote.

(First published in The Sunday Post 22 February 09)



Monday, February 02, 2009


Back to basics and responding eggsistentially © 2009 Duncan Graham

Just across the road from the Surabaya headquarters of the mighty Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama is a branch of Pizza Hut.

Along with KFC and McDonalds this fast-food outlet represents another insidious plot cooked up by the Great Satan to destroy Asian cuisine. That’s my view, and it’s probably shared by fundamentalists like the Majelis Mujahiddin and the Laskar Mujahiddin.

Though not apparently by the green-clad NU workers who queue for their double cheese Hawaiian crusty pizzas, tugging wispy beards and glaring ferociously at the Chinese teens, free of headscarves and inhibitions, who reckon Pizza Hut is the place to be seen.

But I don’t want to be seen. I loathe fast food and the one-taste-fits-all imperialist marketing. I’m here only because my favorite warung (roadside diner) has introduced salmonella into its otherwise delicious martabak.

These are the pancakes that contain a few dozen eggs and several cans of sweetened condensed milk plus a secret blend of herbs and spices. This dish is to cholesterol what petrol is to fire extinguishing. My martabak are fried inside a crepe mixture beaten tissue-thin by a nimble-fingered octogenarian who washes his hands in an open drain fed by nearby toilets.

The pizzas are overpriced and the taste indistinguishable from their cardboard boxes, but the food and surroundings are spotless, even if the ambience is easy-wipe walls and the furniture as plastic as the staff smiles.

Maybe the anger-enhanced NU lads staggering back to their recitations with stacks of takeaways also get sick eating roadside food and want to keep their stomachs in a state of grace. As my mother used to say, ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness.’

So I reckon the Mujahiddin mobs who threw rotten eggs at a fast food outlet in Mataram and demanded the restaurant replace Western fare with Indonesian food had the right idea. Note that they didn’t want the standards of hygiene changed.

If I’d been in the Lombok city I might have even egged them on with a few Allah Akbars (God is Great) of my own. That would have shaken their black and white view of the world and might have encouraged some East-West dialogue like this:

“Hey guys, why not go the whole hog… woops, er.. way, and throw out everything Western. Indonesia is just fine as it is. I love your country and its traditional simplicity – who needs capitalist materialism?

“Are those Nokia hand-phones you’re forever thumbing? Crush them underfoot, and let not their dust settle on your sandals.

“Are those Kijangs you’re driving? Tip them in the river, and may a mighty flood of waters cover these fossil-fuel guzzlers forever.

“Planning to fly to Mecca for the Hadj? Don’t do it brother, the airlines all use Boeings.

“Say, if you’ve got any rotten eggs left let’s hoof it down to the Garuda office and give them a serve. Demand they use Indonesian planes built with local resources, like bamboo.

“What, you’d rather go by ship? I don’t think Pelni takes its ferries that far but they’d give it a go with the right threats – sorry, encouragement. Not keen? Oh, I’ve got it. Most of the ships have been made in Europe

“You’re right, better to walk. After all the Walisongo nine who brought Islam to Java didn’t scoot around on Suzukis. But keep off the highways; remember they were built by the repressive Dutch. Stick to the paddies and we’ll get the feel of good Indonesian dirt between our toes. Forget tetanus shots – faith will get you through.

“Yes, I’ll join you, at least to Jakarta. Let’s hit the road and get into the dialectic together probing principles, prejudices and warped logic, seek a bit of common ground. We’ll swap yarns and create an archipelago version of the Canterbury Tales.

“A world without handphones, hamburgers and Hondas sounds just right to me, but butt out the butts. That’s another Western habit we can all do without.

“OK, one concession. No Marlboros. Just kretek hand rolled by virgins. So rip off those I-pods, discard those jeans. If it’s back to basics then I’m your man. But no martabak, thanks - unless they’re made by Pizza Hut.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 1 February 2009)