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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Stuck Inside of Java with the Bekasi Blues Again

Jakarta"s International airport

Soekarno-Hatta, Jakarta’s International Airport

Indonesia: The Nightmare Continues
Patrick Guntensperger

JAKARTA, INDONESIA – I’m sitting in the airport transit hotel drinking an overpriced Bintang and listening to JJ as he watches cartoons in the bedroom of the only room they had left when I checked us all in…an overpriced suite with a view of the glidepaths of the “international” airport’s runways. JJ loves watching the planes as they depart, waving and saying, “bye, bye!” as the jets climb away, close enough that through the aircraft’s tiny windows you can almost see the flight attendants showing everyone how to inflate their life-vests in the unlikely event of an oxymoronic water landing.

We almost made it. Yolanda, JJ, and her father were already in the departure lounge and all I had to do was clear passport control, then we would have been out of this wretched hell-hole. I had checked with the immigration department and they told me that my exit visa (which had expired as the result of my having had to wait for all the Indonesian civil servants’ broken promises and false assurances to be fulfilled) could be extended simply upon request and production of certain documents at any immigration office. I had asked the supervisor at the main Jakarta office and he told me that the immigration office at passport control at the airport would be the quickest and easiest forum for such a simple matter.

My turn at the counter; I explained my needs and with no formalities I found myself in custody at the airport for trying to leave the country without proper documentation. Cathay Pacific agents helpfully had our luggage pulled from the cargo bay of our getaway vehicle and had it returned to the terminal. My wife, my hyperactive 3 year old son, and my father-in-law were escorted from the departure lounge and our plane left without us. They were permitted to leave Indonesia, but opted to stay if I couldn’t join them. It seems that what I had been told was, to put it clearly, utter bullshit.

The truth was that only the Manado office (2,500 miles away on the island of North Sulawesi) could issue me an extension or new exit visa as that had been where the first one was obtained, and that even attempting to obtain one elsewhere was an offence. Why this should be the case, why every civil servant I spoke to told me differently, why I was finding this out under these circumstances was never explained. Just big smiles and admonishments that this was Indonesia and I had to respect her laws. When I realised that these sadistic pricks were having too much fun fucking my life up even to take a bribe to do what could be done in any civilised country – let a person who had done nothing whatever wrong simply leave with his family – I pointed out that they could expect me to obey Indonesia’s laws, but asking me to respect them was an idiotic request.

Further, it only took a couple of phone calls to determine that the only penalty for attempting to leave without an exit visa was the requirement that one be obtained; being held in custody was nothing more than a scam to elicit a bribe. I let the scumbag airport security know that I was leaving their custody and they’d have to shoot me if they wanted me to stay. So I left. They were chagrined to see that day’s coercion income walking out the door, but it was a game of chicken…I kept going; they shrugged and went back to their perches and waited for the next likely looking victim.

So, after having spent the last 12 hours cancelling and rescheduling flights, (Jakarta-Hong Kong, Hong Kong-Vancouver, Vancouver-Qualicum) absorbing the thousands of dollars in cancellation fees and increased fare prices, having Yolanda’s sister Fali fly to Manado with bribe money and my documentation, settling into an overpriced transit hotel with more luggage than Marco Polo took when he travelled to China, and eating Xanax like M&Ms, things have settled down a bit. Now I’m ready to do what one does best in this piece of shit excuse for a country…wait for people to fulfill their lying promises and live up to their bullshit utterly empty assurances.

So here we are. Tomorrow we move to Bekasi (a suburb of Jakarta, where Yolanda’s father has a house) with all of JJ’s toys and books, all of Yolanda’s excess baggage, the one carry-on out of which I have been living for the last three months, and all of the parting gifts we were given when we left Indonesia for good, or thought we did. There we will wait to see if the “promised” documentation is completed, all the boxes ticked, and the civil servants responsible for doing so properly bribed. Then we will try again. All we want to do is leave this wretched shithole never to return; it’s still an open question as to whether that will be permitted by a culture that thrives on lies, theft, corruption, and the suffering of others.

…enditem…

Is Indonesia waking up?

Doing a guest spot

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta Indonesia

 We have now applied for a visa for JJ to go to Canada where we intend to have his certificate of Canadian citizenship issued. To do so requires getting him a tourist visa to enter Canada as he can’t get a Canadian passport until he has that certificate; that entailed spending hours at a visa application centre, outsourced to a local entrepreneur, answering pointless questions. Without exaggeration, what follows is some verbatim conversation I had with a visa application officer:

Q: “What is your three-year-old’s current occupation?”

A: “Child.”

Q: “Previous occupation?”

A: “Foetus.”

Q: “Why is there no letter of permission from the child’s birth parents?”

A: “Because they’re dead. That’s why you have their death certificates and a Court Order of Adoption in your hand. WE are his parents.”

Q: “I still need their written and notarised permission.”

A: “Please let me speak to someone with an IQ.”

Ah well. Some things never change.

Or maybe they do.

 A good friend asked me if I’d fill in for him at Bina Nusantara University for an afternoon, and, being bored senseless, I was happy to do it. It was a four hour class of Academic English, a course and school with which I am very familiar; preparation was minimal, and my friend Charles is very good, so I knew it would be a piece of cake. I put on my professorial face and attitude, showed up early, sober, and unhungover. Now here’s the weird part: I was awestruck at the general improvement in the quality of the students at an Indonesian university.

 I shit you not. It was a relatively small class, but they were almost all there – not just on time, but early. The one missing girl showed up about a minute late, apologised profusely, took a seat and was ready to learn. The class went well; we all had a lot of fun, the kids followed my reasoning during some of the more abstruse sections on informal logic and its application to essay writing, had no apparent problems taking notes and asking reasonable questions, and with one minor exception, abstaining from laptop, tablet, and cellphone use during the lecture part of the class.

After they had been told to go ahead and use their laptops

A new generation solving real problems

I took proposals for the topics of their next assignment, which was to be an essay which describes a problem, offers a solution, anticipates objections, addresses the objections, and concludes by advocating the proposed solution. That’s an assignment that is deployed in that elementary academic writing for first year students every semester, and I’ve gone through the drill more times than I care to remember.

My past experience in that same school with students of similar ages, backgrounds, and levels of intelligence had routinely included young women proposing to address such issues as dry skin or hair that was too curly, being the subject of malicious gossip, or parents who were reluctant to spring for their own car and driver. Meanwhile the young men traditionally offered to address problems including parents who were reluctant to spring for their own car and driver, the poor performance of one or another soccer football team, or the size of the portions served in the university’s cafeteria.

 I was gobsmacked when the small groups they were working within came up with the problems they wished to address. They included the deforestation of Papua, the endemic poverty in Jakarta, the routine mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers, and the human rights abuses against local populations practiced by the Indonesian military when deployed as mercenary security forces for US mining companies. We spent the rest of the four-hour class engaged in lively discussions of these problems, brainstorming solutions, anticipating objections; when the somewhat gruelling day was over, some even lingered to continue the discussions or to ask genuine questions – not one of which was whether it would be okay to hand something in late because they had a wedding to attend.

 I’m not sure whether this admittedly anecdotal experience represents anything larger; I couldn’t say whether the apparent sea change in the maturity of a small group of young Indonesians is even significant. But it is sure as hell refreshing.

I attribute a great deal of this encouraging development of social consciousness, and general social maturity to their regular teacher, Charles Schuster, for whom I was substituting. Charlie is a good friend and drinking buddy; he is a long-time US expat and Indonesian resident and he is first and foremost an artist of considerable, perhaps great talent; certainly he has a very solid reputation. But like most artists, he actually has to work to support his art. Indonesia can be thankful that his chosen employment is that of university lecturer.

 Deep in my heart, I am sincerely optimistic that I may have seen the beginnings of the sea-change that will move Indonesia into the ranks of civilised countries; maybe it won’t be such a no-brainer for my son to choose whether to maintain his Canadian or his Indonesian citizenship when he reaches the age of eighteen. Or better yet, maybe by then Indonesia will have developed sufficient self-respect and self-confidence that she will recognise dual citizenships like the rest of the civilised world and not force her own people to cut themselves off from their homeland in their quest for a better – or different – standard of living.

But one way or another, here I sit at 6.30 am in a 24 hour cafe, drinking warm beer and eating Dim Sum for breakfast, trying to work before the morning heat becomes intolerable, with more hope for this country than I have had for years.

 

…enditem…

 

 

One more turn of the screw

Slowly, I turned; and step by step…

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia

 

One of my favourite  people and Jakarta dwelling expats commented on my Facebook status that I ought to find a fat lady and make her sing. He was, of course, referring to a status announcement I had posted that brought my friends and followers up to date on my quest to extricate my son from this Southeast Asian black hole. I suppose that hearing me whine for the last three years about the process has even affected the patience of those who casually read my bitching and are astonished at the bureaucratic impediments that the fertile imagination of mendacious civil servants are able to erect in order to require bribes to remove.

 The fat lady ain’t sung yet, but I believe I see her in the wings preparing for her entrance.

 

One major step

JJ’s order of adoption is now official! 3 years and counting….

 

 As I write this, my long-suffering Yolanda is in South Jakarta sitting in the sweltering open-air waiting area of an RW (or maybe RT…there are two levels and I have no idea which is which), nearly the lowest ranked civil servant in the country. It is now 7.10pm and she has been waiting since 6.30am, the time of her appointment. She is waiting to pay him and then thank him for accepting the bribe that was negotiated over the phone yesterday, when he finally feels that his importance has been sufficiently established.

These parasites are what are known as “neighbourhood chiefs” and do absolutely fuck all except for apply their rubber stamp to any document you present them along with a bribe. They are elected by the neighbourhood in a biannual popularity contest and they invariably complete their tenure as relatively wealthy men. Their imprimatur is required on certain documents; documents that assure higher authorities that you live in the neighbourhood, that you are not a problem in the neighbourhood, and that you are known in the neighbourhood and to the “chief” personally. Long-stay permits require this, police permits, press passes, pretty much everything requires a stamped document from one of these worthless pricks. They do nothing without a bribe.

 I have dozens of these documents stamped by dozens of these tumorous pustules – for press passes and all kinds of other documents. On each is the personal seal and  sworn statement of a person I met only once….to pay a bribe…that he knows me personally (bullshit) and that I live in his jurisdiction (also bullshit, of course) and that I have never been a problem (true as far as it goes).

Yolanda is going through this charade because we need a court date and we’ve been informed by the clerk of the court in the jurisdiction where we actually live that there are no available dates in the foreseeable future. We need this court date because the last judge we spoke to decided that a separate hearing was required to approve the change of my son’s name to his new family’s name (mine and Yolanda’s) despite his having taken the bribe to hear the motion to adopt and then granting that motion. The supplementary name change motion hadn’t been paid for, so it wasn’t granted along with the adoption as is the usual procedure.

 The statement that there are no court dates available is, of course, a lie… an initial bargaining position for the negotiations over the required “administration fee” to set a date to hear the motion to change JJ’s name (from the Indonesian equivalent of John Doe) to ours. But since the initial position started at “no dates available”, long, painful experience tells us that the required bribe will be astronomical.

 

Take a goddam nap!!

3 year-olds are the leading causes of headaches in this family. Y & JJ take a break from the pool

So we found a South Jakarta jurisdiction that will hear the motion in our lifetimes; all we need is a dozen documents, one of which requires the stamp and signature of a South Jakarta neighbourhood chief.

 

All this is being done so we can present the Canadian government (or is it “The Harper Government?) with proof of JJ’s right to citizenship as the legal child of a Canadian citizen. They will then look at the documentation after we have had it written up by the court then translated by a sworn translator, notarised and sent along with a half dozen other forms to someplace in Nova Scotia. Within weeks, I am assured, Part 1 will be completed and the file sent to Singapore. Then the Canadian Embassy in Singapore will require an interview, so either I, Yolanda, JJ, or all, or two of us will fly to Singapore, do our best to persuade some hostile local hire that JJ isn’t a terrorist and that we have genuine plans to keep our son. If he is convinced that these last three years haven’t been an elaborate con, we go back to Jakarta and he will forward the necessary document to our Indonesian consul. Then, with citizenship papers in hand, we apply at the Canadian Embassy for a passport for JJ. That will take a few weeks to process in Ottawa, but eventually he should get one.

 

Hey Andy...bourbon and coke!

Pool service at the apartment

If everything goes well…the bribes, the translations, the name change, Part1 of the citizenship application, Part 2 of the citizenship application, the passport application and all the unforeseen, we will fly back to Canada so my now 3 and ½ year old son can start his life. Best case scenario…2 months. Worst case scenario… indefinite waiting and expenses. And there is no way everything will go smoothly. There is a fan; there is shit. Without question, the two shall have a close encounter before this is all over. We shall see.

JJ and PAGUN at the apartment swimming pool

 

Meanwhile we wait. And wait. Of course there are worse places to wait. Not much, but worse.

 

…enditem..

Mohammed: get the picture? or “Show me the Prophet!”

A picture is worth…

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia

 

Islam is a religion of peace; the sword is for circumcisions only

Although the world is chock full of news of genuine significance, the front pages of Jakarta newspapers are preoccupied with a real crisis. It seems that an elementary school in Solo, Central Java has a book in its library called “Interesting Stories of the Prophet’s Childhood”. That’s not the crisis; the crisis is that if you look very hard you could find an illustration that is intended to depict Muhammed’s mother holding the Prophet as a baby. The crude drawing has the baby deliberately blurred and it is impossible to make out anything other than the rather poorly drawn general outline of a swaddled newborn in the arms of a woman who is dressed much like the Virgin Mary is usually depicted, except that her veil is brown rather than the traditional blue.

 The horror, the horror! Islamic fundamentalists are up in arms over this blasphemy and bloodshed is demanded by the truly devout. This, after all, constitutes a depiction of the Prophet, something prohibited under Islamic tradition. Heads will surely roll. Department of education functionaries, the school principal, librarian, and everyone else remotely connected to this obscenity is running for cover, passing the buck, shifting the blame, and otherwise behaving as though something is seriously wrong. Let us not forget that this is a country in which elementary schools’ entire budgets have been embezzled, resulting in roof collapses which killed dozens of students, and those responsible were merely censured. They were not even required to return the money they stole, and even kept their positions.

 A little history is perhaps in order here. The reason that depictions of the Prophet are haram in most traditions comes from the Christian schism known as iconoclasm. During the days of the Byzantine Empire, the Christian church nearly tore itself apart as one segment felt that the veneration of icons was a contravention of the 3rd Commandment delivered by Moses, the injunction to have no graven images or likenesses, while the other segment worshipped relics (bones of saints, pieces of the cross, scraps of fabric alleged to have been touched by Jesus, etc.) and icons. Icons took many forms, but whether they were paintings, sculptures, mosaics, bass reliefs, or hammered metal, the iconoclasts (lit. “image breakers”) did their level best to destroy them. The power and authority of the iconoclasts versus the image worshippers swung back and forth for centuries with the pendulum finally favouring the worshippers of graven images (fortunately, or much of our Renaissance artwork wouldn’t exist).

 While this internecine battle raged, a new warrior religion (contrary, I’m sorry to say, to the claims that Islam is a religion of peace) was growing at an astonishing pace and conquering much of the Middle East; the leaders wanted to preclude this kind of doctrinal debate and determined that, in an effort to prevent the deification of Mohammed as the result of people creating and worshipping his image, they would prohibit the depiction of the Prophet. The idea was to avoid venerating him as anything greater than the last prophet before the arrival of the Messiah. Above all, Mohammed was not to be worshipped; hence the prohibition.

 Islam today has turned this on its head. They have made a god of Mohammed; a god of such sanctity that people are killed for drawing his likeness, much in the same way that the ancient Hebrews saw it as sacrilegious to speak the name of their god. This is the exact reversal of the reason for the original prohibition. Those who are offended by the likeness in the schoolbook are, according to true Islamic doctrine, far guiltier than those whom they accuse of creating graven images. They have contravened the 2nd of Moses’ commandments. They have placed a god before the Mosaic god. But they have gone further; they are guilty of creating a god. Only a god, which Mohammed most definitely was not, need be revered to the point of such a furor over his depiction in a schoolbook. Only a god is so utterly apart from and above humanity that his image is unfit for human eyes. If Mohammed was anything, he was human.

 It is becoming apparent that the Islamic fundamentalists here in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Islamic world have become outrage junkies. It is time to add common sense, moderation, and tolerance to the anger that characterises the hard-liners’ worldview…Mohammed, the man, would approve.

…enditem…

 

Thanks for the Memories

Back in the saddle again

Pagun

JAKARTA, INDONESIA – It’s Monday in Jakarta and I’ve just started to get down to the business for which I came back to the Far East. I’ve made the necessary appointments, placed the needed phone calls and have started what I hope is the final stage in the process that started over three years ago when we adopted my little boy, JJ.

The seedy backpacker Mecca of Jakarta

So I’m sitting in a well-remembered café on Jalan Jaksa in central Jakarta having a pre-lunch Bintang in my customary seat. It’s open to the street and the stifling city air is only disturbed by the slowly rotating overhead fans; although the street has changed…many of the old backpacker haunts and whorehouses have been torn down and gentrification is the order of the day…some things remain the same. The owner of the all-too-appropriately named Memories Café greeted me as though she’d seen me yesterday, although it’s been years since I’ve dropped in here, and the news guy dropped off copies of the Post and the Globe as he always did when I hung out here routinely and wrote for those papers. The same whores, a little longer in the tooth, but still their friendly selves, along with a new crop of young ones, stroll by or perch on the stools at the sidewalk bar, desultorily plying their trade and gossiping.

Groups of genetically identical backpackers, mostly from Holland or Australia, still in their

In front of Memorie's sidewalk bar

Working Jalan Jaksa denizen at Memories

teens and self-satisfied in their shared but grotesquely erroneous conviction that they are deeply appreciated visitors, hang out for hours ordering nothing but bottled water. Each generation is blissfully convinced that the $20 per day that they spend in this impoverished but money obsessed country is like manna from heaven to the local population and remains oblivious to the fact that they are despised for their cheapness and that the smiles they encounter are not smiles of gratitude for their non-existent largesse, but rather culturally dictated expressions employed to disguise their real feelings about strangers. That hasn’t changed.

I turn to the newspapers and am hardly surprised to see that the news, except for minor details, could have been pulled from a Jakarta daily at pretty much any time in the last decade. One of ex-dictator Soeharto’s grandchildren (it used to be that piece of shit’s children…now it’s their piece of shit children) is being investigated for having embezzled billions of dollars from their beloved country. He’s of course ignored a summons to appear before the investigatory board as he’s currently in Singapore, and everyone knows that nothing whatever will come of the show investigation. Remember, Soeharto is the man that historians have described as the most corrupt head of state in the history of the world, and he lived his life in happiness, respect, and prosperity, even after he was ousted; the current president kissed his ring on his deathbed and led the country in a day of mourning for one of history’s arguably most brutal and certainly most avaricious dictators. Let’s also remember that his favourite son, affectionately called Tommy, paid for the assassination of the Supreme Court judge who had found him guilty of embezzlement. Tommy Soeharto was sentenced to spend 15 years in prison for the contract murder but had his sentence reduced five times by the current president (who was one of Soeharto’s protégés) and spent a total of about four years – literally –  in a country club. While he was paying his debt to society for premeditated contract murder, I personally saw him and his entourage of porno models and body guards as they occupied a Jakarta golf course in a moveable party, complete with champagne, cocaine, and golf carts equipped with music systems and very attractive whores.

Meanwhile, both English language dailies report that at least two Islamic fundamentalist groups have promised to disrupt if they can’t eliminate a scheduled Lady Gaga performance here in Jakarta. Swearing that they will die to prevent her from spreading her “satanic message” to good Muslims (like Tommy Soeharto, presumably) they vow to greet her violently in the tens of thousands at the airport and forcibly prevent her from disembarking on their land. The national police who are responsible for granting performance permits have yet to do so; they are, as usual, torn between the enormous bribes the concert promoters will have had to pay and the threats emanating from the peace-loving Islamic forces of good. And as usual, the police have decided to postpone any final decision on the matter…the controversy after all puts them in an ideal bargaining position to push the bribe demands to stratospheric levels.

I sit here in this humid pleasantly seedy bar, soaking up the atmosphere and quarts of beer, sweating like a hungover teacher on parents’ day, and wait for a return call from any one of the half-dozen or so Indonesian civil servants with whose secretaries I have left messages. It’s a pantomime, really, because years of experience tells me I can wait until universal peace has been achieved and world hunger conquered before any Indonesian government officer will actually return a phone call to someone who doesn’t outrank him. The dance will involve me repeating this series of pointless actions for the rest of the week, and then finally show up at his office where I will sit on a hard-backed chair in the heat and humidity outside his air-conditioned office for the whole day, while he entertains friends, has his lunch sent in, takes a few tea breaks, watches the ubiquitous television no civil servant can live without, and then takes a well-deserved nap at his desk. After a day or two of this, and having established his importance and superior status, he will deign to give me a moment, if only to tell me I’ve either done it all wrong or that it’s not his department. He’ll then offer to help me out “as a friend”; I’ll reciprocate the offer; we’ll arrive at a price; I’ll pay the bribe; he might or might not stamp whatever document needs his department’s stamp, and I’ll be on my way to the next civil servant for a repeat performance of the corruption two-step. In the past, I’ve simply had a stamp made with the appropriate departmental logo and applied it to follow-up documents, but that option isn’t available until I’ve seen at least one original. Benzodiazepines were invented for a reason.

As I was writing that last sentence an old hunched-over man, pushing a wheelbarrow containing an equally old woman, timidly opened the bat-wing saloon doors that form the entrance to this café. The woman was missing a few digits on her left hand and had very little of her right hand or lower right leg; the open sores of leprosy were on grotesque display. The old man stood there pathetically making eating gestures with his hands, but not crossing the threshold. I gave the old man about a hundred thousand Rupiah and with downcast eyes and calling me “Tuan” (Lord), he trundled his doomed (although perfectly treatable) wife down the road to whatever fate awaits those about whom nobody gives a shit.

Indonesia, my heart continues to bleed for you.

…enditem…

Why we will leave Indonesia…

The Road Home
Patrick Guntensperger
MANADO, NORTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA – For a variety of reasons I’m getting ready to go back to Canada. Once again I’ll be leaving my wife and son behind on what will be the other side of the world, and once again I won’t know when I’ll see them again.
I’ll be going to Vancouver Island again where I’ll have a lot of detail to deal with; I have to sell the house that I bought for my parents and in which they died, and I have to buy another one for me, Yolanda,and JJ. Then I have to sort out all of the furniture and possessions in the old house and pack and prepare to move to whatever house I buy. I’ll need to get a new car; with a three year-old, my Smart Car, Mighty Mouse, won’t do. I have legal things to deal with and I have to get to work on acquiring JJ’s Canadian citizenship in anticipation of being finally granted the Indonesian court order that will confirm him as my legal son.
Amid all this, I have a book to write.
That I will miss my wife and little boy goes without saying; I will be utterly bereft without them and will undoubtedly spend half my time on Skype with them. But will I miss Indonesia? Tough question.
Clearly I have a great attachment to this country; off and on over the years I have spent a decade living and travelling throughout this archipelago. Although at different times I have made my home in Mexico,Venezuela, France, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, I’ve spent more time in Indonesia than any other country in the world outside of Canada. I have a family, into which I have married and whom I love very much that lives here; and I have a lot of very special friends here. I’ve had a lot of fun here and I’ve done a lot of interesting things. I met and married Yolanda here. I’ve met the country’s president and shared meals with cabinet ministers and cultural icons, I’ve publicly feuded with a television newsreader and been the mentor to a movie star, I have partnered with one of the country’s elder statesmen on humanitarian initiatives, I’ve been a consultant to some of the country’s largest transnational corporations and I’ve worked with dedicated environmentalists on exciting and innovative projects. I’ve taught with some of the brightest and most talented people I’ve ever met and I’ve dealt with the most venal and corrupt scum I’ve ever run across.
Indonesia has some of the intrinsically most beautiful places on the planet and yet most are spoiled by the garbage that the people of this country just leave everywhere. Picturesque villages situated on gorgeous winding tropical rivers that snake through the paddy fields are, when you get up close, pestilential rat-infested little slums situated on what are little more than open sewers. Corruption – corporate, government, and freelance – is a daily fact of life, and the cities are crumbling, filthy, deathtraps.
Beautiful, picturesque Indonesia

 

Those, though, are problems that many countries – poor and rich – have faced, and which others will some day have to address. They can be dealt with. But what makes me absolutely certain that I have to get my little boy out of Indonesia and keep him out until he is much older is a problem with a human face. The problem that I am becoming convinced will never be solved inIndonesia is the cultural disposition to be utterly disdainful of others. This is manifested most clearly in the corruption against which I have railed in print and on television since I first started living here, and it is at the bottom even of the endemic accumulation of filth and pollution which is destroying what could have been a paradise on earth.
I contrast this with the society in which I intend to raise  JJ, and I’m reluctantly persuaded that there is really no comparison. While the outward manifestations of the indifference to which I refer might seem at first minor, even trivial, I am now convinced that they represent something deeper.Simple little annoyances are only the visible symptoms of a more profound problem. The savage scrum – albeit camouflaged by superficial social rictus-like grins – that occurs when people try to elbow their way out of a crowded elevator, the risibly hopeless traffic jams, the interminable speeches given by any halfwit who can gain temporary possession of a microphone, the casual disregard for any rule, regulation, or law that is even slightly inconvenient, the endemic refusal to arrive on time for appointments, the insultingly poor customer service; all these are indications of an underlying indifference, perhaps even active hostility, to others outside of one’s immediate circle.
I contrast that with the society in which I intend to raise my son. Canadians are made fun of because they have been known to thank ATMs. Traffic is rarely a problem, even in the bigger cities, because people acknowledge the rules, and they are more likely than not to wave another motorist ahead of them. People generally arrive on time or a little early for appointments because it would be against their nature to inconvenience others by making them wait. Customer service even – or especially – in government offices is friendly, helpful, efficient, and cheerful.
In the country I want to raise JJ, as opposed to here inIndonesia where I am regularly followed by children yelling and laughing, “Bule! Bule! Bule!” as I walk down streets, it would be unthinkable to deride other human beings because of their race or ethnicity. In Canada, the only time Yolanda was made conscious of any difference between her and others was when an aesthetician in a gym/spa said to her, “God, I wish I had your skin!” as she applied moisturizer. This astonished Yolanda, who, for her entire life, has been led to believe that she is (as she puts it) an ugly duckling because she has dark skin. In the entire time she has spent in Canada, Yolanda has not once experienced racism or discrimination of any kind; it is a daily occurrence in Indonesia for anyone with darker skin. Itis a sad and terrible commentary that my wife feels far more comfortable in her own skin, surrounded by white people in a foreign country than she does in her native land.
I want to ensure that the feelings and convenience of others should always be a consideration, and I want that consideration to be second nature thinking for JJ. It doesn’t even occur to most people most of the time in the country of his birth. Let me offer the following example:
Once in Jakarta and twice on the toll highway, I was behind a family SUV when a back window rolled down and out flew a disposable diaper,complete with its contents. On none of those occasions was my driver or anyone else in the car the least bit taken aback. I take the disposing of one’s shit by flinging it in the face of others to be a perfect metaphor for that which I have grown to find intolerable in this country.
So, as soon as I’ve finished paying off every greedy scumbag civil servant who sees an opportunity for graft in my battle to get papers for my son, I’ll be bringing him to Canada. He will go to a public school where the principal will not have embezzled the school budget, where the teachers are qualified and paid reasonably, and where he’ll get one of the best educations in the world. He’ll be covered by British Columbia’s health plan, under which he’ll have access to the very best medical treatments, equipment, and services in the world, and will be treated by doctors who didn’t bribe their way into medical school and actually passed their exams honestly. He’ll be backed up for his entire life by a compassionate society that has created a set of government services that will ensure his well-being regardless of his circumstances and which are administered by civil servants who, by and large, serve civilly. And he’ll be surrounded by people who will accept him for himself, whatever differences he may have and who will not judge him to be weird or unacceptable because his skin colour is not identical to theirs.
Beautiful, picturesque Vancouver Island
To be sure, Canada is far from perfect and both JJ andYolanda (and I too, for that matter) will face difficulties. There will betimes when people piss us off, when we curse the government, when we are treated with indifference or rudeness, when we are appalled at bad behavior, selfishness, indifference to others. Unlike here, however, those occasions are exceptions and not the rule. And that is enough to make us decide to move to the other side of the world.
When he is older and less impressionable, he will come back for visits, and when he is older still, he can decide whether he wants to keep his Canadian or his Indonesian citizenship.
In the meantime, I will miss him and Yolanda until they can come and join me; with any luck in a couple of months…perhaps in time for the summer. And I will even miss Indonesia. Despite my criticism and my view that this is an unhealthy country in every sense, there are still some things I love about my second home.
And when I get over my latest bout of food poisoning, I’ll remember what they are.
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Corruption:The beast within

The Minotaur
PatrickGuntensperger
Manado, NorthSulawesi, Indonesia
Two front page stories in the leading Jakarta Englishlanguage daily (The Jakarta Globe) onceagain make it clear that the pervasive culture of corruption is Indonesia’s most profound problem. It is the most profound because it is the underlying cause of virtually every tribulation with which Indonesia is beset.
Every country has its difficulties; Europe is in crisis, the US is fraying at the edges and crumbling in its core…Indonesia is far from unique in facing challenges.
The European Union is near the breaking point because a marvelous notion for unity was implemented in a way that demands homogeneity ina sublimely diverse region. Europe’s underlying problem can be described as cultural dissonance. The manner in which the E.U. was designed fails to take into account the profound cultural differences among its component nations; their common currency makes it necessary for fiscally responsible countries like Germany to bail out more profligate ones like Greece. This inevitablyleads to friction and, at the moment, looks like it may precipitate the dissolution of the union.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the underlying cause of the current crisis in the economy and political scene in the United States can be identified as unbridled greed. The US has long revered its own self-identifying myth – the myth of the rugged individualist hacking an existence out of the wilderness and prevailing against all challengers by dint of a superior moral character. In support of this narrative is the belief that by sheer pragmatism and a take-no-prisoners business model, every backwoods kid can grow up to be a billionaire. That fundamentally erroneous and deeply flawed mythology has led to the current malaise in the economic sphere and the dysfunctionality of their system of government.
But here in Indonesia, where there are more problems thancould be enumerated in any conceivable list, there is a different fundamental cause. At the base of virtually every soluble problem Indonesia faces is quite simply corruption, and its enabler, the toleration of corruption. At the centre of the maze is the Minotaur.
Eating all that is good in Indonesia
The first story concerns an investigation into the collapseof a bridge in East Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) that left, at last count, four dead and 30 injured. When the story first broke a few days ago, my instinctive reaction (and probably anyone who knows Indonesia fairly well) was to wonder how much money changed hands in the construction contract and who got rich supplying and buying sub-standard materials and work. Sure enough, that’s where the investigation is leading. Now the instinctive reaction is to wonder how much it will cost and who will get rich when the investigation gets derailed, buried, or simply dies of attrition with nobody found culpable.
The second story on the front page concerns a controversial 4 billion Rupiah project to supply Indonesia’s parliament with fingerprint readers. In the latest development, it has been discovered that a company owned by a close friend of House Speaker Marzuki Alie was given a special dispensation to bid on the contract. One can only sigh and turn the page; there is little point in reading on. Business as usual in Indonesian politics.
One could pick any day of any year and any front page to find similar stories. For all of the hot air and empty rhetoric being blown around the archipelago, the culture of corruption in Indonesia persists and is utterly endemic. No World Bank or IMF fact-finding tour of corporate headquarters, embassies, and 5 star hotels in Jakarta would make that as manifestly clear as a simple visit to any civil service office in the country.
Yolanda pays one of my bribes;
I can’t keep the required smile on my face
As a tiny example and only for the sake of anecdotal evidence, let me offer the following: I have been acquiring the documentation I need to reside here in Indonesia for a year while we complete the adoption of my son. To get my KITAS (a supplementary document to a residency visa, which I already had), I was required to pay a bribe of exactly ten times the legal fee for the document, as well as the fee itself. Nothing hidden about it, just a flat out demand for a bribe. Refusal to pay would simply result in a refusal to issue the document.
This bribe was for having my fingerprints taken.
He was too busy counting the money
to see the one finger I was holding up for  inspection.
Next stop: police headquarters. I needed a “police certificate”…simply a document stating that I had had no problems with thepolice in the past. The only requirements for that are the provision offingerprints (which are checked against nothing whatsoever) and the further provision of a bribe, this time amounting to 15 times the published fee for the documents. This of course is not to mention the bribe paid to the clerk to take the fingerprints in the first place. Once again, no attempts to hide or disguise the corruption; the graft was simply demanded at each step of the process and was so open and commonplace that the people accepting the bribes didn’t even voice any objection to my photographing them as the deals were sealed.
Even among the most honest people in the country, there is no question that the social consensus is that it is far more offensive to object to this systemic abuse of power than the abuse of power itself is. One is considered inexcusably bad mannered if one even fails to smile broadly and thank effusively the corrupt officials who routinely fleece the people they are are supposed to serve.
Pick your problem in Indonesia. Pollution and environmental degradation? Corruption. Pass all the laws controlling emissions that you want, and whatever enforcement agency is set up will simply become a receptacle for corporate bribes to look the other way. Deforestation?  It’s common knowledge that forestry companies pay off politicians to avoid prosecution for failing to meet reforestation requirements and that pirate loggers work hand in hand with environmental enforcement officers.
Poverty? Even the country’s graft-busting president, who disclosed personal wealth of less than 1 million dollars (US) when he was a candidate, was able to spend over 4 million dollars on his son’s wedding last week. SBY must be a wizard at saving; presumably he uses coupons, shops the specials, and invests his approximately $75,000 annual pay wisely.
Yolanda has a university educated uncle who has worked as a manager at the same food distributor for ten years. He has never received a raise on his salary and allowances that give him an income of about $150.00 (CDN) per month. In fact, when his boss found out that he had saved enough for a downpayment on a motorbike to get to work, he cut off his travel allowance. This of course, is all in absolutely contemptuous contravention of minimum wage legislation; no matter, the enforcement officers in the department of labour had been pieced off. Problem here? Corruption.
(Just for the record, I intervened and persuaded his boss, a wealthy investor, that my uncle needed the allowance to make payments on the bike. He relented and behind his back I paid the outstanding balance as a birthday gift.)
One can’t help but speculate on what an earthly paradise this most fortunately situated country could be if somebody, preferablyeverybody, were to follow the thread of problems to the centre of the labyrinth and slay once and for all the beast that dwells there. The beast eats the best and brightest of this country and destroys its potential, perpetuallyrelegating Indonesia to the ranks of the 3rd World. It doesn’t haveto be there if the beast of corruption were confronted.
It is long since timethat the people of Indonesia evolved a collective spine and stood up for themselves. The government won’t do it; its members are far too preoccupied with ensuring that their snouts are too deeply buried in the public trough to see beyond the gold encrusted rim.
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Indonesia’s human rights in the 21st century « Center for Minority, Gender and Human Rights

 This is a piece that someone brought to my attention recently. I had forgotten I’d written it for a think tank. Not much has changed except for the progress being made on the adoption that is referred to toward the end of the article. I’ve added the photos just to put faces to the names cited in the piece for those unfamiliar with the political history of Indonesia.


Click on the title above if the piece is of any interest to you, it’s a link to the think tank’s website


SBY: Indonesia’s hesitant president
Megawati victorious: Won by appointment
Habibie: Dull, uncharismatic; a technocrat
The ever-likeable Gus Dur
taking one of his trademark naps
The Kalla/Wiranto ticket:
A flaky veep and an indicted war criminal
The Megawati/Prabowo ticket:
Dictator’s daughter and professional torturer
SBY: Waiting for history’s
verdict on his presidency
Soeharto; considered to be the most corrupt head of state in history.
(The Mountie is glad to be out of focus)

Soekarno: the man who started it all

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Corruption: the Undead

I ran across this piece that I wrote a while back when it was commissioned for a US University’s international politics newsletter. They never paid me for it, although they printed it, so copyright has reverted to me. I think it’s relevant.






Driving aStake Through the Heart of Corruption
Patrick Guntensperger
Parksville, British Columbia, Canada


To those of uswho have lived in Indonesia for long periods of time, there is nothing surprising in the assertion that corruption is Indonesia’s biggest challenge. That SBY acknowledged that on CNN recently is only slightly less surprising. The war on corruption was a significant plank in his platform when he ran the first time and the only genuinely substantive one in his second successful presidential campaign.
Watching Indonesia’s president acknowledge the problem and voice the usual platitudes about the successes notched in the anti-graft attempts that have been a part of the public dialogue since the fall of Soeharto from the other side of the world elicits a sense of déjà vu. Susilo is clear that what is needed is more convictions and imprisonment of high level corrupt officials. Anticorruption crusader and lawyer Todung Mulia Lubis echoes and emphasises that view by pointing out that, while things are moving in the right direction, the efforts are far from sufficient. He even points out that new prisons would have to be constructed to accommodate the guilty, should a significant percentage of the corrupt actually be tried and sentenced.
That observation however underscores the real problem and maybe, just maybe, points us in the right direction for actually solving the problem that is at the root of virtually every other problem in Indonesia, from poverty to pollution. It has the status of a truism, even a cliché, to point out that virtually any interaction between a member of the public and a government official will entail a gratuity exchanging hands. The endemic nature of graft in Indonesian officialdom and business is self-evident.
The endemic nature of corruption suggests that informal gestures of appreciation – a genuinely charming piece of Indonesian culture – has become perverted into asense of entitlement on the part of anyone who does anything for anyone else…even if that is the very nature of the job. Civil servants have come to expect a “gesture of appreciation” for actually doing what they are paid to do. Indonesians, who are courteously accustomed to showing respect and gratitude for a kindness extended to them are not hard-wired to be offended when those gestures are expected, even demanded by those who work for them – their government employees.

The upshot of this is that what started as a culture of courteous and polite acknowledgement of favours done has become twisted into a culture of corruption, and a sense of entitlement now inhabits the body politic. This is noted with dismay by foreign visitors who find that they have apparently behaved reprehensibly when theybridle at paying a bribe to a customs agent or a police officer.
Most westerners are baffled when they note that people are respected for their wealth even though it is a matter of common knowledge that the wealth was acquired through graft. That is a failure to understand the antecedents of graft.
Historically, wealthy people had often acquired their wealth by extending kindnesses to others and having received thanks from those who appreciated their benefactors. This informal quid pro quo was a simple and lovely aspect of the culture; it encouraged the assumption that wealth came from human decency and its appreciation. That however is no longer the reality that exists inIndonesia. Civil servants, politicians, those in authority are entitled to their salaries and bonuses. Period. Their entitlement ends there.
Part of a proposed new
civil service uniform

This is what any war on corruption must address.

It is a mantra that change has to come from the top down. In this instance, that notion needs to be rethought. A culture of corruption is not going to change, no matter how many officials are tossed into jail for embezzling, as long as there isn’t a sense that expecting, demanding, and receiving gratuities for doing or not doing one’s job is wrong. This is an instance where the change needs to come from the bottom up.
Imagine how long corruption would exist as a fact of daily life in Indonesia if, every time a bribe was solicited or suggested, the common person would shout with outrage and expose the corrupt official to the light of public scrutiny. When people recognize that they are entitled to honest and courteous government services, and that anything less is a form of corruption, we will start to see the culture of graft shrivel in the sunlight.
All of this isnot to suggest that the war on corruption should be relaxed or even redirected; on the contrary, if anything it should be stepped up. But for maximum effect, a relatively inexpensive (and rapidly self financing) public awareness campaign would make an enormous difference. The public needs to grasp at a gut level just what Indonesians are entitled to expect from their public servants, and just what  is wrong with the culture of corruption.
Such a campaign would have an impact at the grassroots level. And it is at the grassroots level that the challenge to which SBY has been referring for a decade needs to be engaged.
Corruption in Indonesia
Patrick Guntensperger is a political analyst and writer. He divides his time between Indonesia and Canada’s west coast.

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The naked city has 495,682 stories. Approximately.

Weird scenes not far from the goldmine
Patrick Guntensperger
Manado, NorthSulawesi, Indonesia
Manado is the provincial capital of North Sulawesi, part of the island chain formerly known as the Celebes. The city of Manado has a population of around half a million people, the majorityof whom are Christian with a Muslim minority, making this town a bit of an anomaly here in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Although everyone here must identify himself or herself as being an adherent to one of the six (Islam, Protestant, Catholic,Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian) religions recognised in the constitution, these formal religions are a more or less thin overlay of conformity on top of ancient traditions of animism and pantheistic worship. Nevertheless, this partof Indonesia has long been relatively free of outright sectarian violence. The area continues to be populated by people of Minihasan descent.
Beautiful Buyat Bay on North Sulawesi
If Minihasa sounds familiar, it may be because eighty miles south of here is Minihasa Raya, the enormous open-pit  gold mine run by the Denver Colorado based giant resource extractor, Newmont.In 2004, Newmont was accused of polluting the spectacularly beautiful surrounding waters of Buyat Bay and, after a long-running trial for some 133 million dollars in damages sought by the Indonesian government and the people of the area,  a 30 some odd million dollar settlement was reached. There is little realistic question that this entailed a multimillion dollar under-the-table payment to the officials who negotiated the deal on behalf of Indonesia. Billionaire financierand then-chief economics minister Aburizal Bakrie led the Indonesian negotiators.
Aburizal  Bakrie, ‘Ical’ to his friends;
‘Jaws’ to the rest of us
Rick Ness, Newmont’s
man on the firing line
I knew Rick Ness, the presidentof Newmont Indonesia at the time, and I could see how strong the Indonesian positionwas. Forget whether there was genuine ecological damage done; Rick maintains it was all bullshit. Disregard the conflicting environmental assessments done by various scientific research teams representing and funded by differentinterests. Indonesia held a good hand. They had placed Rick under city arrest and he was to be tried in one of Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt courts and face a twenty-plus year jail sentence if some agreement wasn’t reached. Now that’s a negotiating posture.
***
When I first moved here for the year or so I expect to be in Indonesia, I thought that this small, provincial citywould be dull and lacking in any interest after the climate, food, and thediving had been covered; as a journalist, I should have known better.
http://www.youtube.com/get_player
Please forgive this video…I accidentally hit the record button
 on my camera while I was lining up the shot below.
I’ll leave it here just for the hell of it, but I’ll do better in the future.
Just yesterday as I was negotiating the price of a new laptop at a computer show, I noticed groups of teenage girls walking around the mall and the streets dressed in white wedding dresses.In groups of three, four, ten or more, they were everywhere. I finally got the answer. According to a security guard at one of the many waterfront malls, there was going to be a mass wedding ceremony later that day at the provincial museum; there were over two thousand couples registered and they were going for a Guinness world record. Apparently Guinness is pronounced “gwy’nis” in Indonesia.
Their special day 
***

Even more intriguingly, later that same day, I ran across a story out of Manado that resonated because of myexperience having taught journalism.

This dog-owner lost face
because of his cruelty to animals
It is, or used to be, an axiom among reporters that “dog bites man” is not newsworthy whereas “man bites dog” on the other hand might have some publication potential. Not here in the    Sulawesis. Here the story was definitely a “dog bites man” story. It seems thata Manado man went away for two weeks, leaving his collection of dogs without food or water. When he returned, he was apparently devoured by the famished animals. They had paid particular attention to his head, it is reported; theskull was found in a different room from the remainder of his body, stripped of   flesh.
The leftovers
In a town where the people  routinely eat dogs, and where they can be bought either dressed and butchered,or alive in most markets, there seems to be something faintly equitable about this story, as well as proving the exception to the journalistic rule. The dogs after all were almost certainly being kept for food; it’s a virtual certainty that they weren’t pets.
***
The naked city has half a million stories and these have just been a few of them; it leads me to suspect that there will always be something of interest here. So the time I spend between travelling on assignments and my personal business in Jakarta might not be as stultifying aspreviously feared; I’ll keep my ear to the ground.
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