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

Monday, October 19, 2009


First impressions count most Duncan Graham

The reflections of foreigners arriving in Indonesia are now part of the nation’s stock of timeworn clich├ęs.

Being mugged by humidity as you exit the plane, asphyxiated by the spice of burning cloves, stung by the acrid tang of hot oil from roadside fry-ups, choked by the endless fug of exhaust fumes.

It was like that in the old days before aerobridges, indoor smoking bans and air-conditioned taxis with tinted windows. You either loved it and stayed - or threw up and never returned. Now the first impressions are no longer olfactory – they’re visual.

It’s a toss up between the airport crowds and the abundance of cigarette adverts as to which dominates. Both make Indonesia a distinctive destination quite unlike any other.

Unless a victorious sporting team has arrived from conquests overseas, security guards at Western airport arrival gates outnumber greeters. Just the odd spouse (and some even ones too), a business partner or company car driver and that’s the welcome party.

Not so in Indonesia. Elsewhere flying is as ho-hum as catching a bus, but here it’s still a major event. So the extended family, friends, kampong – sometimes the whole village - have to be there to celebrate the return of the rover.

The crowds come even when the traveller has only been next door to Malaysia for a short stint of babysitting or construction work.

(It would be churlish to suggest they’re all there to claim a share of the souvenirs that Indonesians returning from abroad must carry.)

With such enormous receptions who wouldn’t feel wanted? Forget the temperature of the weather – this is real human warmth. No one turns on such shows for expat individualists; we just dart out alone to the cab rank, head down, trying not to show our envy.

So far, so good. When Mohammed Nuh, the acting Culture and Tourism Minister was giving out a top toilet award to Surabaya’s new – though already overcrowded - Juanda airport terminal, he reportedly commented that loved lavatories ‘enhance the image of national culture.’

While it might be better to judge Indonesian culture on more esoteric levels, a clean cubicle does help give a good impression on entering a country. If issues at the bottom end of society are treated seriously, then the top end must be splendid.

If only. Such expectations are rapidly flushed away as you hit the highway and a screaming streetscape of advertising for just one product.

Hollywood toga movies featuring classical Rome always include a long shot of a banner-bedecked avenue, an essential triumphal entrance for the victor.

In modern Indonesia the flags and posters flanking Juanda’s roads are for the losers. They look bright. The captions are smart and sometimes funny. But the reality is funereal.

Not mild.

These adverts suggest a healthy country life but lure millions into addictions and disease. This includes the estimated 500,000 Indonesians who will suffer ghastly deaths from cancers of the lung and other vulnerable organs this year, but who are unreliably informed that using the weed will ensure a jolly life, making them slim, sophisticated and popular.

It’s not just Australia and European Union nations that have long-banned tobacco advertising; so has Singapore, Malaysia and almost 170 other countries. Which makes Indonesia a standout exception, and an airport entrance celebrating nicotine a rare international experience.

Is this the ‘national culture’ Minister Nuh wants to promote? This magic and mysterious country has so many world-class products, like batik, original artwork, imaginative handicrafts and fine furniture made from sustainable materials that could be advertised with pride at the international gateways.

And not just goods. There are many awesome attractions in Java, an island so rich in accessible history that other nations salivate with jealousy. How about higher education? Rough in the past but getting better now, with the smarter universities upgrading staff, curricula and facilities and bidding for overseas students.

So what message is the government allowing the tobacco companies to give visitors? There’s only one conclusion: This is an administration that cares for airport hygiene but not for its people’s health.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 October 09)


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