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Finding virtue
Patrick Guntensperger 

Living in Canada again after having lived in various countries around the world, most recently for nearly a decade in Southeast Asia, specifically in Indonesia, has caused me to consider those virtues that different cultures find admirable or worthy of respect. Wherever you go in the world, you’re likely to be struck by the difference in qualities that others envy, attempt to develop, pretend to have, or work on attaining.
Of course, some are relatively universal; the world over, people admire, respect, and are drawn to the qualities of beauty, intelligence, talent, physical strength and dexterity. We will return to those more universal qualities later. For now it’s enough to point out that it’s not the similarities that are immediately fascinating; it’s the differences among traits considered admirable by different cultures.
Apart from the universally accepted qualities, the culturally-specific traits are not static either; they tend to evolve. In my lifetime, to point to a small example, good penmanship was something students were encouraged to strive for; we were brought up to understand that one’s handwriting reflected our basic character and education, even our status in society. Today, perhaps because of our admiration for doctors, elegant penmanship is often looked upon with suspicion, as though one has put far too much practice into acquiring an obsolete affectation.

It’s easy to understand why in the medieval and Renaissance periods, right up until the 19th Century, a man’s swordsmanship was a skill to be admired; today, a facility with a foil, epee, or sabre would be considered an oddity outside of the world of competitive fencing. Horsemanship as well has undergone an evolution; where one’s status as gentry was once emphasised by one’s equestrian skills, outside of British Royalty and the polo set, real horsemanship is pretty much restricted to sport riders and ranch hands.

There is any number of esoteric skills that cause people to sit up and take notice of their practitioners. From figure skating to doing lariat tricks or yodeling, we seem to find others having achieved excellence at a selection from a virtually endless list of all but useless activities is worthy of our respect and admiration. And perhaps it is.

While there is some aesthetic pleasure to be derived from watching or listening to others demonstrating their mastery of their activity, our admiration is not really, or rather, not only of the performance, but rather of the talent and perseverance that produced that level of skill. When we watch competitive weightlifting, for example, there is little for us to admire aesthetically; what we admire is the years of practice and effort that the weightlifter put into the activity to bring him to that level.
So concerned are we with recognition of the diligence of our athletes that the bestowing or withholding of public approbation or scorn is entirely out of proportion to the differences among the performances scrutinised. In the Olympics, for example, a gold medalist in, say, speed skating, may have outskated an opponent who doesn’t even get a Bronze in time that can be counted in hundredths of a second. The skater who doesn’t climb the podium is forever seen as a failure despite the years of training, the level of technical skill, and the devotion that brought him, quite literally within a blink of an eye of a skater who will be a national hero, adulated by all, and will probably earn millions in endorsement fees.
Nowhere is this distorted view more clearly demonstrated than at the Olympics. In the 2010 women’s hockey, for example the two best teams in the world faced off for the Gold medal. One team had to win; the other got silver. As it happened, the Canadian women prevailed and The United States women won the silver. As the medals were being handed out, there was a palpable sense of sourness, looks of bitter failure were etched onto the faces of the US athletes; it was clear that they didn’t feel that they had won a silver medal for their country – they had lost.
In the most general sense, it seems to be accomplishment itself that we value. The differences among cultural respect are fundamentally differences in what we choose to take seriously as accomplishment. While the Guinness Book of World Records lists accomplishments that truly vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, very few of us – whatever culture we come from – will have a great deal of respect or admiration for the individual who has created the world’s largest rubber ball entirely from scavenged rubber bands and our unbounded adulation is probably not reserved for the gentleman who can claim the most luxuriant hair sprouting from inside his ears, no matter how attractively coiffed.
One of the most universally admired accomplishments is the acquisition of wealth. Virtually everywhere in the world, one who has amassed a great deal of wealth is accorded great respect. And yet it’s not the simple lucre that garners admiration. In Britain, for example, recently acquired wealth was looked upon suspiciously as “new money”; only inherited wealth was truly worthy of respect. That tradition, or inclination, was carried on in the United States during the period that vast fortunes were being amassed by the great “robber barons”. Their ruthless practices in running railways, newspapers, steel mills, and real-estate empires, caused the Hearsts, Vanderbilts, Astors, and Rockefellers to become synonymous with unimaginable wealth, and yet it took generations before history whitewashed the business practices they employed to create the fortunes. Philanthropic efforts and foundations, combined with the passage of time, conspired to launder the wealth.
In Indonesia, on the other hand, wealth is admired for its own sake, but one can’t even say that the provenance of the wealth is insignificant. There is a distinct sense that the more dishonestly wealth is acquired, the more esteem is bequeathed upon the wealthy. That is to say, the sleazier a tycoon, the more he’s respected. Nobody admires “old money” in Indonesia. A vast store of ill-gotten gains, on the other hand, seems to capture everyone’s respect. In Indonesia, wealthy business people are not esteemed for having worked hard and provided a service or product that meets a demand. The problem with that description of a successful business person is the first part: the part about working hard. In Indonesia, hard work is equated with stupidity.
Wealth and the person holding it are admired if little, or preferably, no work was done. The highest regard is reserved for those who stole or embezzled their way to enormous wealth. No other country in the world would seriously suggest that the country’s former dictator, a man known to have stolen more from his own people than any other man in modern history, be formalised as a national hero.
So what is there left to admire or respect in human beings? Traditionally, although we respect beauty and brains, there is something innate that tells us that to admire someone for their looks is shallow or trivial. Performers from Jessica Simpson, insisting that she be taken seriously as an actress, to Mark Wahlberg, who refused to go shirtless in Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes lest he be seen as mere beefcake, reinforce the view that to admire someone for their appearance is somehow suspect. Women will sit in front of their Cosmopolitans, in their spike heels, adjusting their makeup, and bemoaning to their friends that “once, just once, I’d like to meet a man who’s more interested in my brains than my boobs!”
And yet there is nothing more intrinsically more admirable in having a great brain than a great ass. Either attribute is an accident of birth. In fact, if it’s a matter of having earned admiration, having a great ass probably takes more effort and self discipline than being smart.
Ditto for talent. How much are we supposed to admire a truly great talent like Mozart, when he was a child prodigy who effortlessly learned to read and write music with a facility far beyond his years? Would it not make more sense to hold more respect for the journeyman musician who works tirelessly at his craft than someone who could whip out an opera while half-pissed and barely paying attention?
We are all born with certain talents, certain intelligence, and a particular look. It seems fatuous to expect admiration for something that is, after all, an accident of birth. It seems even sillier to waste our esteem and admiration on someone else’s fortunate genetics. No, the only thing truly deserving of our esteem and admiration is simple human decency.
A person who works hard simply for the sake of expending effort is not to be admired. A genius or a beauty may be enviable but to respect them for those traits makes no sense. Certainly it makes some sort of aesthetic sense to enjoy beauty or intelligence or talent for its own sake; but to ascribe virtue or moral value to its possessor is to misunderstand concepts like virtue.
The only characteristic that we have genuine justification to admire or to which we can reasonably ascribe virtue is human decency. Talent, beauty, intelligence; all these are accidents of birth; there is little to admire in one who is a hard worker simply for the sake of working hard. What is truly admirable is a human being who is kind to others, who is honest in his dealings, one who treats others (as Kant would say) as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. A person who is neither bright nor beautiful nor accomplished at any art or skill, but nevertheless treats others with kindness and dignity is far more to admired, has a far greater quotient of virtue than one who is intelligent, accomplished, and attractive but indifferent to others.
Albert Schweitzer
By this analysis, striving to be a good person is what we should expend our energy on, even more than being well educated or beautiful or skilled at an art or sport. And yet there isn’t even a class to sign up for.


On the other side of the planet

Changes in latitudes

Patrick Guntensperger
British Columbia Canada

For a number of reasons, I find myself back in Canada. This is being written from a small town called Parksville; it’s located on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, just off the West Coast of British Columbia and north of the somewhat larger town of Nanaimo. From Parksville north along the coastal highway there is a series of resort towns, Qualicum Beach, Courtney, Comox, and a whole selection of little villages with native names, fabulous salmon fishing, incredible natural surroundings and staggering scenic views. From where I’m sitting, I can see, across the Georgia Strait, a number of snow-capped peaks, one of which I am reliably assured is Whistler, where the Winter Olympics are just days away from starting.

Down here by the oceanside, the weather is far from the crisp, clear, snowy conditions one tends to associate with the Winter Olympics. Rather, it is cold, drizzly, and bereft of snow; more like the kind of weather one would associate with a trudge across the Scottish moors in late winter. Nevertheless it is bittersweet being back where I spent so much time so long ago.

The bitter part of the equation has to do with a number of things. In the first place, I am here without my wife or my newly adopted son. That’s due to the impossibility of dealing honestly and straightforwardly with Indonesian bureaucracy; I have had to leave my little family in Southeast Asia to try to sort out some relatively straightforward paperwork that after seven months of daily effort and the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars, mostly in bribes, has not yet been completed.

I had to leave them behind because I have a compression of the nerves running through my cervical vertebrae that requires neurosurgery to repair. The truth of the matter is that I have little, if any, confidence in the skills of the surgeons available in Jakarta, and with this kind of surgery, a minor slip-up could leave me a paraplegic. There is also, of course, the cost of such delicate and specialised medical treatment; after the bribes I have had to pay civil servants for services my wife and I were entitled to during the course of the adoption of JJ, I simply am unable to pay for neurosurgery.

I therefore had to return to my native country, establish residence, and pay my taxes for two months before I am eligible for the national health care.

Upon arriving, I was very disheartened to realise that, despite my aging parents’ continual assurances that they were fine and healthy, in fact my father has Alzheimer’s and mother is nearly an invalid. We have therefore bought a fairly large house here on beautiful coastal Vancouver Island and customised it for assisted living. I take care of my parents as well as try to earn a living by re-establishing relationships with clients and publications I have had virtually no contact with in nearly a decade.

All that having been said, there is still little question that in some respects repatriation has been an uplifting experience. I’m now living where the police actually serve and protect, where the civil service workers are actually civil and do their jobs, and would have you arrested if you tried to bribe them. The air is breathable, the traffic unnoticeable, and tap water better than Aqua.

Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll soon have something to criticise here and that will certainly be posted. At the same time the magical Interweb will permit me to follow the news in Indonesia (which I genuinely miss, incidentally) and continue to analyse and provide commentary. I think I’ll write more Through a lens darkly pieces as well, since I’ve received a good deal of positive feedback about the couple I’ve posted recently.

I’ll also from time to time be posting additions to my writing on the subject of morality, ethics, religion, and how they are related. Or more precisely, trying to construct an argument that justifies the existence of morality in the absence of any god, and moving from there to suggest that religion, in fact, is the greatest impediment to genuine morality in the world today.

I do that largely because it seems to generate the most hate mail, and I do love to read those moronic rants. I promise to start posting the truly entertaining ones. Of course, anybody who does want to rant at me for my atheistic perspective (or anything else, for that matter) could do the reasonable thing and post it in the comment section provided. It just saves me the trouble of cutting and pasting it into this blog.

To my followers in Indonesia and Australia, I envy you the weather, and hope that all my followers, wherever you are, you’re all well.

More soon.


Political optimism

I’m still in the midst of changing attitudes and latitudes, so I’m continuing to dig through my back files for pieces that I think are suitable for this blog. I ran across this one which was another sample for Jakarta Java Kini magazine and was written over a year ago, shortly after the last US presidential election. I think it’s still relevant and, for me, anyway, is a bit of a time capsule of optimism.

Was that election really that recent?

Through a lens darkly:

An idiosyncratic perspective on politics, society, and popular culture.

Special to Jakarta Kini

Patrick Guntensperger

In 1973, a film about a young, liberal, charismatic politician running for the United States senate took both the Academy Award and the Writer’s Guild award for the best original screenplay of 1972.

In 2008, a young, liberal, charismatic politician was elected President of the United States of America.

That latter fact made me think about The Candidate, starring Robert Redford, and what parallels that movie might have to the current US political scene. It came as a bit of a surprise, but I realised that, in a lot of ways, we seem to be living in a less cynical, more optimistic time than we were 35 years ago.

The general theme of The Candidate is one of cynicism with respect to politics. The movie suggests that in a democracy, one has to sacrifice, or at least radically dilute, passion, integrity, and ideals if one is to be given a mandate to lead.

The movie gives us Robert Redford as Bill McKay, a liberal lawyer with virtually no political experience, drafted by the Democrats to run for a vacant senate seat. He’s drafted because he’s way cute, he’s an outspoken liberal, and his father was once the governor. And mostly because he can’t possibly win. In fact his handlers guarantee his defeat; this, they explain, will be an exercise in fielding a candidate and expressing strong liberal values without having to compromise, because winning isn’t an option.

The film follows McKay’s campaign and his growing desire to win the race. It charts the shift from idealism to realism and leaves us with the question of whether integrity and idealism are even possible in a system that excludes the truly honest and the deeply idealistic from the centers of power. (And it is incidentally a perfect illustration of The Second Patrick Principle: “A cynic is just what an idealist calls a realist”). Whew! Although it sounds bleak and heavy in its pessimism, The Candidate is not a comedy as such, but it is a film with a lot of humour.

And the reason, I suspect, that these themes could be treated with light humour was that what the movie was saying was so deeply embedded as truisms that its central theme was beyond dispute.

In 1972, it was considered quixotic for a young, liberal, charismatic, white guy to take a run at the senate. It would have been virtually impossible even to imagine a young, liberal, charismatic, and black politician having a chance at a senate seat, let alone actually win the presidency. Everybody knew that the government was inherently conservative, even reactionary. Everybody knew that politics was a cynically corrupt and hypocritical exercise in lying to the people for the clear purpose of gaining and wielding power. As Leonard Cohen has since sung, in sentiments that grew out of that time:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

It was a time of malaise and mistrust in politics and politicians. Nixon was, after all, the occupant of the White House.

In 1974, Nixon, in a strategic move to avoid inevitable impeachment, resigned the presidency in disgrace. Despite his pathetically self-serving whingeing to the contrary, the president was a crook. He had been exposed as a scheming, lying, paranoid, viciously vindictive slimebag, largely thanks to the efforts of journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Bob Woodward, of course, was played by Bob Redford in the movie about those events, All the President’s Men, which Redford also produced.

Then we come to the 21st Century. For virtually every minute of that century until the election of Obama, the most powerful person on the planet has been an astonishingly ignorant, semi-retarded buffoon. Nevertheless, from one point of view, George W. Bush has done one truly great thing for the United States of America and, by extension, the world. Through a bizarre combination of arrogant ignorance, sheer blind ineptness, complacency, personal stupidity, fervent belief in fantasy, indifference to the people he swore to serve, and abhorrence of anything resembling thought or effort, Dubya became so roundly despised by his fellow Americans that they were roused from their malaise and voted for Barack Hussein Obama.

At this writing, who knows whether former Jakartan Barry can pull it off? Who knows whether he will become as cynical and watered down in his politics as Bill McKay? Time will tell. But he has one truly wonderful thing going for him beyond his relative youth, his progressive views, and his charisma: he has Dubya. The bar right now is so low, that in the words of proto-hippie novelist Richard Farina: we’ve “been down so long, it looks like up to me”.


The cornerstone of true democracy

A few years ago I was asked by a human rights group to write a column for their now defunct newsletter. The following was the first of those columns. It was written and published shortly before the most recent national elections and serves as a snapshot of the time; better still it is a bit of a time capsule. It is interesting to see which hopes were dashed, which worries were fulfilled, and which concerns became more or less acute in the intervening years.

As usual, the visuals were not published with the original piece, but added for my own amusement on this rainy day in Manado.

Human Rights in Indonesia
Patrick Guntensperger
Jakarta, June 10, 2009
General Soeharto with a rather sheepish Mountie

Gus Dur taking
one of his trademark naps

There have been four Indonesian heads of state since Soeharto’s 30 year dictatorship ended when he was forced to step down during the Asian economic crisis in 1998.

Dull technocrat

 He was succeeded by his vice-president, Habibie, who stepped up and lasted less than two years until he was deposed by Abdurrahman (Gus Dur) Wahid. Gus Dur ran things until Indonesia’s founding dictator Soekarno’s daughter, Megawati Soekarnoputri was appointed president by her party (PDI-P) in 2001.

In the country’s first direct election, she was soundly trounced by one of her former cabinet ministers, another retired general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He assumed the presidency and, at this writing seems poised to win a second mandate at the polls when, at the beginning of July this year, the people once again cast their votes for both the head of state and the country’s vice-president. It is unlikely that a run-off election will be necessary, as SBY, as he is fondly known, is likely to win a clear majority, but if he doesn’t, he will almost certainly be installed as president for five more years after a runoff election later this year.

From virtually any standpoint, Indonesia is becoming more democratic every day; some might even say that human rights are assuming a higher priority in this most anxious to develop of developing nations. Nevertheless, Indonesia has a very long way to go.
Megawati victorious:
Won by appointment

As a country that was run as a military dictatorship for over three decades after Soeharto and his western handlers had manufactured a “coup” for Soeharto to put down violently, there is no strong tradition of civil rights in this country. Soeharto and his generals paved the way to his unquestioned control over the vast archipelagic nation by the mass murder of anywhere between 500 thousand and a million Indonesians, using spurious accusations of communistic leanings on their part as a justification. No one has ever been brought to justice for this mass slaughter, and the generals who orchestrated it are treated in Indonesian history books as heroes of the nation.

Human rights abuses were relatively commonplace under Soeharto. During the insurgency that led to the secession of what is now the independent nation of East Timor, the TNI, Indonesia’s military, has been accused of systematic abuses of human rights. Among the people accused of specific mass murders and other abuses of human rights are a one-time head of Soeharto’s TNI, a general called Wiranto who happens to be running as Jusuf (the incumbent vice-president and current presidential candidate) Kalla’s running mate. His adjutant at the time and another military commander who avoided the taint of human rights violation was the now incumbent and soon to be new president of Indonesia, SBY.
The Megawati/Prabowo ticket:
Dictator’s daughter and professional torturer

The then head of Kopassus (Indonesia’s feared Special Forces) in Timor, Prabowo Subianto is also accused of serious human rights violations, including running “terror squads” that allegedly targeted, kidnapped and tortured to death East Timorese pro-independence activists. Ex-general Prabowo is the vice-presidential candidate to Megawati’s run to retake the presidency.

Kalla(L) and Wiranto(R):
The flaky veep and an indicted war criminal

Whatever the truth behind the allegations of human rights violations levelled at the TNI and the ex-New Order generals themselves, one thing is certain. If you’re going to vote in Indonesia this year, you’re going to vote for one of them. As Henry Ford is credited with having said, “People can have a Model T in any color – as long as it’s black.” Despite more than a decade of democracy, Indonesia is still run by what amounts to a political cartel made up of the main players and greatest beneficiaries of Soeharto’s brutal military dictatorship.

What about the issues of civil rights within a democracy? There too, Indonesia needs a great deal of work. Apart from a cultural tradition to which democracy is an entirely alien concept, the single biggest impediment to real reform in Indonesia is the cultural predisposition to take the view that holding someone accountable for an action is a far more serious breach of conduct than the action could possibly have been.
That observation is perhaps borne out by the highest profile civil rights case in the local media at the moment. A young mother was incarcerated and is on trial, facing up to six years imprisonment; her crime? She complained via text message of the treatment she received at a hospital. For the record, that was Omni International Hospital in Tangerang. Indonesia has many laws curtailing freedom of expression, even criminalising normal speech. This one was the Electronic Information and Transfer Law which makes it a criminal act to transfer or be in possession of electronic information that could be considered defamatory. Since I’m submitting this copy via email, I’m technically in breach of the same law.

SBY: The hesitant president.
The jury’s still out on his presidential human rights record

Another area in which human rights are likely to become a higher profile issue is the continued call by some factions for imposition of Sharia law in some regions. Since the decentralization that began with the fall of Soeharto, the regions have been gaining much greater autonomy, leading some areas with a dense population of fundamentalist Muslims to move toward Sharia inspired law. Since the financial crisis has been blamed on a Western-style banking system, Sharia banking is being held by some as clearly superior, lending some rather tenuous but nevertheless frequently expressed support to the broader, more general application of Sharia.
The selective imposition of these laws in some areas, Aceh in particular, but elsewhere as well, has led to rights violations. This has occurred to women particularly but also generally, as in instances of punishment by public flogging of those transgressing purely religious rules.
Islamicist political parties made a poor showing in the May national legislative elections, but this doesn’t mean that the hardliners are being generally rejected politically. For one thing, in the post-election coalition building, the dominant Democrats, the party of the incumbent SBY and likely winner of the July presidential elections, allied themselves almost exclusively with a motley collection of smaller religious-focused parties. The likelihood of stealthy, incremental imposition of laws or policies that threaten human rights of non-Muslims, and women is a distinct possibility that bears monitoring.
While Indonesia at the moment far from the worst offender as far as human rights are concerned, the potential for widespread rights violations is there. The elections will tell us something, but more than anything, constant scrutiny and exposure of violations as they occur is what is needed. This column will attempt to do that in forthcoming issues.
Patrick Guntensperger is a Jakarta-based, Canadian expatriate writer, social/political analyst, and university lecturer. His blog can be found at

Happy New Year!

Patrick Guntensperger

Personally, I’m tired of reading all the year-end analyses and summaries of the news over the last twelve months. As much a holiday tradition as getting drunk and embarrassing yourself at the company Christmas party, year-end wrap ups of the news are also a tedious duty that one assumes when writing about current events. So I intend to break with tradition and make this an entirely personal look at the last year.

2009 started out inauspiciously for me. I had spent the last weeks of December in a hospital in Manado where I had been admitted with a galloping case of full-blown typhoid fever, contracted as a result of the disgustingly unhygienic conditions in which this country’s national passenger ferry service maintains its ships. On New Year’s Eve, it was discovered that I had, while in hospital, also contracted dengue fever. It took months before I was fully recovered from my Christmas/New Year’s holiday. My health continued to hit speed bumps with a series of recurrences of malaria, and then a neurologist telling me that my brief career in movie stuntwork during my misspent youth has left me with compressed nerves in my cervical vertebrae causing chronic pain and numbness in my arms and hands.

For a social and political commentator, the first half of 2010 was an interesting and exciting time, with Indonesia gearing up for the second direct election of a head of state and the national legislative elections a few months before that. For me personally, it was even more exceptional. During this time, my wife’s grandmother was on her deathbed and requested that Yolanda and I go to Ambon to see her. As a result of that farewell visit, we experienced some of the most profound changes in our relatively stable lives.

In Ambon we were introduced to a young fellow (just a few months old) who was without parents and whom his village was unable to care for. It was the dying request of Nenek, and the wish of the village chief, and all the villagers of the town in which he was born, that we adopt the baby so he could have a better life. The baby was beautiful; happy, smiling, and clearly developing a cheerful and outgoing personality before he was four months old. He was also healthy and, although a little undernourished, even a bit big for his age. Yolanda and I fell in love with him instantly.

And thus began our journey into the Indonesian bureaucracy’s heart of darkness; a journey that has finally yielded results after more than half a year of daily frustration and struggle – and monetary outlays to support corruption which have come close to impoverishing us.

We have beautiful son. Little Jacob Simon Yulian (or Julian, depending which document you look at) Alex Guntensperger – or JJ, for obvious reasons – has made it all worthwhile. He has changed our lives and, I think, made me a better person. Yolanda and I love him with a ferocious loyalty that all the bureaucratic hurdles and roadblocks, erected for the sole purpose of soliciting bribes, have only served to deepen.

The battle with bureaucracy has opened my eyes. While it is no secret that the Indonesian civil service is riddled with corruption, I always thought that the individuals within the public service who demand bribes just to do their jobs were in the minority.

I was wrong. Every single department, office, and individual I have encountered in this nightmare of absurdity is incompetent, inefficient, indifferent to the people it is intended to serve, and utterly corrupt. From the receptionist at a state hospital to a District Court judge, apparently none can do their jobs; certainly they aren’t interested in trying. But each one of them demanded a bribe with the smug superiority of one who knows you have no choice. There are literally hundreds of bureaucrats who did nothing to earn it, but now have the money I earned through my own actual effort and work.

This has served two purposes. On the one hand, it has deepened my fierce and unconditional love for my son, and, on the other, has confirmed and strengthened my resolution to ensure that JJ is not raised in this ethically toxic environment. There is no possible way to insulate a child from the systemic dishonesty that permeates society here; we have therefore resolved to take JJ to a place where lying, cheating, and stealing, is not the standard way but the rare exception.

I have come to the conclusion that there is no hope of avoiding the corruption that defines life in Indonesia, and no way of living in the country without participating in it. Despite my optimistic hopes that things would improve with the advent of democratic governance in Indonesia, it is clear that graft, corruption, and abuse of power are too deeply entrenched and there is no political will or genuine societal inclination to change things. Those with power and money actually like the way things are, and those without are content with the status quo.

Time to go.

2010 therefore will be the year that I wrap things up here; when I have met my commitments and honoured my obligations in Indonesia, my little family and I will leave this country in the hopes of resettling in a place with a cleaner atmosphere in both the literal and figurative senses.

I will always have deep ties to this country. I have lived here longer than I have lived in any other single place in my life and I have met and become friends with some of the most profoundly wonderful people I’ve ever encountered. My wife has a large extended family to whom I am strongly attached and about whom I care a great deal. This will always be the country of my son’s birth and it will always hold fond memories for me. I simply believe (not unlike most Indonesians with the capability of exercising choice in the matter) that this country is not a good place to raise and educate someone I love, and I therefore choose to do what’s best for him.

It is a sad commentary on one of the potentially most desirable places to live and to visit that its uncountable blessings have been squandered to the extent that it is avoided by foreigners, and its own people flee if they have the resources to do so. Indonesia could be the greatest country on earth; unfortunately, human actions and uncontrolled greed has turned it into what it is, and there is little hope that things will change in the lifetime of my son.

What a tragedy.


Indecisive or culpable?

SBY’s position regarding the KPK-Police-AGO debacle is not only unclear, but profoundly damaging to Indonesia. His indeciseveness, if we are to give him the benefit of the doubt, demonstrates a near criminal lack of leadership. Seen in a less charitiable light it could suggest outright participation in a criminal act.

I wrote and Asia Times (Online) ran a different and somewhat more moderate version of this analysis.

On the fence: SBY assumes the position
Patrick Guntensperger

Beleaguered Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono delivered his eagerly awaited announcement regarding the scandal involving the country’s Attorney General’s Office, the police, and the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) on Monday and, as expected, his trademark attempt to appease everyone satisfied no one.

Elected in July with an overwhelming mandate, SBY, as he is commonly known, has seen his political fortunes, his reputation, and his popularity tumble in the last few months. Embroiled in an ugly scandal surrounding his decision, based on his much-vaunted economics team’s advice, to bail out Century, a mid-sized bank, with government handouts, his most pressing problem recently has been the sordid conspiracy that is coming to light within the country’s highest levels of the judicial and law-enforcement systems.

The case first started to unravel with the arrest of Antasari, then the acting chair of the KPK, for his alleged contract murder of a businessman over a love triangle that included a young female golf caddy. While in custody, Antasari made and then withdrew allegations of bribery, influence peddling, and extortion within the KPK, an institution with a hitherto pristine reputation. Two deputy chairmen, Bibit Samad Rianto and Chandra M. Hamzah, were then found to be under investigation by the police who were collaborating with the AGO in putting together a case against the pair for having allegedly extorted protection money from Anggodo, brother of fugitive embezzler Anggoro, who is at large and openly living in Singapore.

Charges were laid and the two were detained. Bibit and Chandra, for their part, denied the allegations and claimed that Angodo had tried to bribe them through a middleman to drop the charges against his brother. In the midst of this “he said – she said” dispute, KPK tapes of conversations between Anggodo and a number of pubic officials within the police and AGO emerged and were leaked to the press.

The tapes were later played in court and contain clear evidence of a conspiracy to frame the two and, much to the president’s embarrassment, include references to him, suggesting that he was fully behind the frame-up.

Jakarta was once again paralyzed as students took to the streets demanding the release of Bibit and Chandra, or the president to resign, vowing that blood would be shed if their demands were not met.

SBY formed “The Team of 8”, an ad hoc fact-finding team comprised of lawyers and high profile anti-corruption advocates, to look into the scandal that was becoming more squalid every day. The team rapidly produced their report and recommendations. Among their findings were that there was no case against the KPK deputies Bibit and Chandra, and their recommendations included that the investigations and case building against the two deputies be halted at once, and that both the AGO and the police undergo immediate restructuring. True to form, SBY took this all under consideration and assured the country that he would announce his decision on next steps in about two weeks on Monday, November 24th.

Also true to form, the announcement, when finally made, disappointed anyone who was expecting decisiveness from SBY, and baffled many observers as to its intent. His ruling on the matter was that the case against Bibit and Chandra should not be taken to court. He was however unclear as to whether the case ought to be dropped, the investigations halted, or what exactly everyone should do.

“In the first place, I believe that the court is the right forum to determine whether or not Chandra M. Hamzah and Bibit Samad Rianto are guilty, on condition that the investigation and prosecution processes are fair and objective, with strong evidence and strong public trust”, SBY said in his 8 pm announcement. He went on to say, “However, as in (the case’s) development there is a growing public distrust of the police and the AGO…the better solution and option…is that the AGO do not bring the case to court.” Chandra and Bibit have all along indicated that they wish to have the matter brought to trial so that they could be vindicated of charges that include abuse of power, bribery, and extortion.

And then, going beyond the Team of 8’s recommendations regarding the AGO and the police, he added, “Immediate efforts to correct and improve the three institutions are necessary,” suggesting that similar fault could be found in the KPK.

Even the defendants Bibit and Chandra’s lawyers were not clear as to the presidential intentions. Chandra expressed their confusion to the press, “What does he mean? Maybe we should wait two or three days to see the clearer picture.”

SBY`s attempts at appeasement and his palpable desire for calm are characteristic of his presidential style. He is quoted as saying that he “did not want disharmony between the KPK, the police and the AGO to be permanent.” Nevertheless such “disharmony” is likely to persist as the parties are natural enemies, with the KPK tasked with rooting out corruption, and the AGO and the police rated as among the most corrupt institutions in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Most observers see no possibility of détente among the warring factions as long as the KPK exists and the current staffs of the law enforcement and judicial branches of the Indonesian government remain in office.

As things stand, SBY has neither calmed the situation nor even addressed the critical issues. By suggesting that this is a family squabble that can be sorted out if everyone just shakes hands and talks things over politely, he has demonstrated a remarkable sense of denial and has exacerbated the situation.

None of the parties is satisfied with his response and each feels betrayed by his including them in his broad statement that all three institutions need reform. Moreover, his ambiguity as to what is supposed to be done has left everybody scratching their heads and wondering what comes next. There exists the likelihood that this will undermine SBY’s credibility as the nation’s leader, demonstrating, as it does, a distinct lack of leadership.

Most observers and editorialists take the view that SBY has squandered a golden opportunity to strike deep into the heart of the endemic corruption in Indonesia. The prevailing sentiment is that he should have taken radical steps to clean house within the police and the AGO while he had demonstrable public sympathy for taking drastic action. Trying to instigate a group hug among people willing to extort, frame, and possibly even kill one another seems to all too many Indonesians to be a sign of a weak and ineffectual president.

To Stand on Guard

As Indonesia grows into her recently acquired liberty, it’s critical that we who live here and care about the progress we’ve made toward genuine freedom remain aware that there are powerful forces that would prefer to curtail that freedom. Guarding against sliding backwards into totalitarianism is something every citizen and resident has to take upon him or herself.

I wrote this essay to make that point.

The price of freedom
Patrick Guntensperger

Old habits die hard, it seems. In Indonesia, the habit of officialdom to avoid scrutiny and stifle opposition has come into play once again.

While all the facts are not yet known, the police in Sumatra recently arrested, detained, interrogated, and ultimately deported two foreign journalists who had been reporting on Greenpeace anti-deforestation actions. It isn’t exactly a secret that the military and the police benefit financially from illegal logging and forest conversion throughout the archipelago, and that those institutions would prefer to avoid public scrutiny of their activities. Nevertheless the police cited vague “illegal activities” on the part of the Indian and Italian reporters whom they threw out of the country for doing their jobs.

The impunity with which press freedom – and therefore the public’s right to know – is disregarded is worrisome. The habits developed during the rule of former dictator Soeharto still exist within many branches of this government; the sentiment seems to be that the people are there for the benefit of the government’s forces rather than the reverse. If the public wishes to know what their public servants are up to, those public servants still seem to feel that it is an intrusion that they can simply quash by force.

Meanwhile, in Jakarta in a completely unrelated story, that same sentiment is being demonstrated.

The country is reeling from the daily revelations of malfeasance at the very highest levels of the Indonesian law enforcement and judicial systems. Police apparently frame rival authorities, bribery and abuse of power is routine, and even murder seems to be sanctioned within the country’s power structure. Wiretapped evidence seems to indicate that key members of the KPK were set up by the police, that there was a conspiracy to jail the corruption-busters on false charges.

So where are the police directing their efforts? They have summoned reporters and editors from Indonesian newspapers who reported on the wiretap evidence. They want to know how they became aware of the tapes before they were played and transcribed for the court. The law enforcement officials are apparently more concerned with the scrutiny of the conspiracy than with the primary fact of the conspiracy itself.

For the police to summon reporters and editors for interrogation, presumably to identify their sources, is a fundamental intrusion into one of the fundamental freedoms that democracy offers. If a country is to have genuine freedom and if its government is to have any credibility, a free press is non-negotiable. And critical to press freedom is the right of journalists to protect their sources.

People must feel confident that if they provide a member of the press with information, their identity will be secure and they will be safe from retribution by those upon whom the press is reporting. If the story being reported is about criminal activity by the police themselves, protection of a source’s identity is even more crucial.

For those of us in the business of communicating facts and opinions to the public, the degree of legal restriction on freedom of expression is deeply troubling. At the moment, there are thirty seven individual provisions within the Criminal Code for legal sanctions against various forms of expression. These range, as we have recently seen, from possible jail terms for describing via SMS shoddy treatment at a hospital, to incarceration for defacing a likeness of the country’s president.

While no freedom can be absolute – it is illegal in the most liberty-obsessed societies to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre for example – the degree to which freedom of expression is restricted here in Indonesia is a matter for some concern. Thomas Jefferson put it best when he said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Indonesia has become a free country in the last dozen years, but we must never take that freedom for granted. We must watch carefully and we must object when we see our freedoms being unreasonably curtailed.

When reporters are deported for reporting, we must ask why; we must demand to know exactly what “illegal activities” they are accused of and under what statutes they are being prevented from doing their work. When the police interrogate journalists to find out who leaked information about illegal police activities we must demand transparency in the proceedings, and the reporters must be allowed to refuse to identify their sources.

Freedom was a long time coming to Indonesia; now that we have attained a high degree of liberty, our antennae must be constantly on the alert for backsliding. There are always those who will seek to restrict our liberties for their personal benefit. Freedom is too precious a commodity to let ambitious or greedy people run roughshod over it. We must be eternally vigilant.


Bureaucratic waltzes

I wrote this initially for a magazine in Singapore, then decided to spike it because I didn’t think it was right to use a Singapore outlet for that kind of criticism. It holds true and, given what I’m currently going through, it’s a very mild commentary.

The taffy wall
Patrick Guntensperger

Indonesia is hard to get used to. For a Westerner, some Indonesian traits are positively baffling, requiring a complete overhaul of a lifetime’s behaviour patterns to accommodate. And yet it’s vitally important that something as simple as one culture’s way of saying “no” be understood. As a social and political commentator and a teacher, it’s perhaps even more critical for me to get the idea than it is for most.

As part of an academic exercise, some of my students recently were assigned the task of asking Indonesian business leaders what laws they would like to see enacted in Indonesia. Predictably, the responses included new tax laws, new labour laws, and new tariffs on their competitors’ products. The one that I found most intriguing though, was the suggestion that a law be passed requiring people to obey existing laws.

I recently was part of a panel discussion that included environmental activist, economist, and former Environment Minister, Professor Emil Salim. During the discussion he pointed out that he was very proud of Indonesian environmental legislation and that environmentalists from other countries were envious of the progressive legislation Indonesia was able to boast of. He went on to say however, that as soon as the matter of compliance came up, he looked for the nearest exit.

Household garbage and street litter so thoroughly choke the rivers and canals that run through the city of Jakarta that a very promising plan to use them as transportation options looks doomed. And yet, despite there being a ream of laws regarding disposal of waste in those very waterways, there has never in the history of Jakarta been a charge, arrest, or prosecution for their violation.

A pattern is beginning to emerge.

All Indonesian cabinet ministers are required by law to disclose their wealth before, during, and after their tenure. There are deadlines set for those disclosures. That date has recently come and gone and, at this writing, only one or two ministers have actually complied with that legal obligation. Let’s not even go into the fact that the ministers who actually complied with Indonesian law had, without exception, significantly increased their wealth during their time they held their portfolios. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and anyway, it isn’t relevant to this discussion. The salient point is the general reaction to that simple refusal by the country’s leaders to comply with the country’s laws.

There are one or two muted suggestions that the recalcitrant ministers ought to be reprimanded for their refusal to obey the law, but there is no realistic likelihood that there will be much follow-up… that’s simply not the way things are done here.

That’s the taffy wall that so many people, unfamiliar with the Indonesian way of doing things, have encountered. The taffy wall is a sweet, initially pleasant, gently resilient, but ultimately impenetrable barrier that is erected by those who simply will not change their ways. It is the manner in which flat refusal is implemented without the word “no” ever being uttered or the smile ever leaving the face.

It would be far worse manners to hold someone accountable for their neglect, than the neglect was in the first place. It is more important that life continue placidly and with serenity than that any feelings are hurt by someone being held accountable.

It is the taffy wall that assures us that compliance with law is strictly up to the whim of the individual. It is the taffy wall that prevents us from changing anything from habits to corrupt government officials. It is the taffy wall that renders all the laws the legislators will ever pass in Indonesia utterly meaningless.

But in Jakarta at least you will always be greeted with a smile as you walk through the decaying city, past the polluted canals, and hope you’re not killed by a motorcycle going the wrong way down a one way street past a smiling police officer.

– enditem –

Noise addiction

Since things have been getting a little heavy both in the news and in my life, I thought it would make a for a minor break to run something that I wrote in a lighter vein a while ago. This was first written for The Peak Magazine.

The sounds of silence

Patrick Guntensperger

The Peak

A few months ago, I flew to Ambon on some family business. Despite the nature of the business – visiting an aging relative who was in the hospital – I was looking forward to getting out of Jakarta for a few days to relax and see a part of the archipelago that I had not had an opportunity to get to know.

I knew that Ambon was the capital of Maluku Province; that it was located in what was reputed to be one of the most beautiful parts of the country and therefore, Indonesia being what she is, the world. Even before the plane touched down, I was enchanted.

From a few thousand feet, as we made our approach in the direction of the sunrise, I watched a squadron of dolphins herding shoals of fish toward a bay, occasionally leaping exuberantly from the crystal blue water. Golden beaches, tropical postcard palm trees, miles of emerald and jade forests extending inland. Even the airport was a pleasant surprise. Modern, efficient, equipment intact and working, not crowded, and – I swear to God – clean.

My first impression was borne out as I got out of the airport. The road around the bay that one takes from the airport to Ambon is lovely; pothole-free surface, staggeringly picturesque with the sapphire water of the bay on the right, quaint villages and jungle to the left, villagers washing clothes and laying them out to dry on the rocks of the pristine estuaries we crossed by way of intact and unbroken bridges. To add to the serenity and beauty of the scene was the fact that tons of cloves were drying on rattan mats, steeping the air with their scent until the whole region reminded me of Grandma’s kitchen on Christmas.

The fly in this sensual ointment was that – until I arrived, anyway – I wasn’t deaf. To this day, I swear my ears are still ringing. For some reason, the city and environs of Ambon is the loudest place on earth. One expects an airport to be noisy, so the aural overload didn’t become apparent until we got into the car that was waiting for us. After greeting us at the top of his lungs and with traditional Indonesian warmth, the driver put the bags in the back, got in, turned the car’s extremely efficient sound system to 12 (one level higher than Spinal Tap’s), and then turned and shrieked something over his shoulder at me. I bellowed back that if he would turn the dangdut down a smidge, I might be able to understand. Howling with laughter he continued to shout something I couldn’t hear; possibly because he was now driving with his left elbow firmly planted on the centre of the steering wheel, activating the customised horn, which sounded like a cross between a ship’s fire siren and the Millennium Falcon making the jump to light speed (our approximate velocity).

We stopped at a roadside restaurant, where I thought I might get a chance to staunch the blood that must be pouring from my ears, but such was not to be. Inside the open-air seating area overlooking the spectacular beach, there was a television, volume cranked, showing some badly dubbed, Chinese chop-socky film, punctuating our dining experience with screams of pain and the sounds of fists crushing vertebrae. Fortunately this was somewhat disguised by more dangdut blaring from a speaker system that, to judge from its vintage as well as capacity for decibel delivery, had once been used on one of The Who’s last five farewell tours.

How the inability to hear led me to find out only much later that the meal I consumed consisted of radioactively spicy dog meat, I will leave for the time being.

I couldn’t help but contrast that experience with the sinister silence one occasionally encounters when engaging a taxi in Jakarta.

Anyone who has spent enough time in the nation’s capital to have experienced the variety of driver/taxi types is familiar with the silent one. That’s the guy to whom you say “good morning” and then give your intended destination and hear nothing but silence in return. You repeat the destination. Silence.

You ask if he is familiar with it. Silence.

You ask again. He repeats the destination.

This conversational two-step is social code for “I haven’t the faintest notion or idea of where that is, but there’s no way I’ll actually admit it.” It’s at this point that you have to step up and let the driver know that you don’t either, and were hoping he knew the city better than you do, or, that it’s no problem because you know exactly where it is and you’ll direct him. If you fail to do so, the next step of the silent driver waltz will kick in.

You (not having understood the social code) sit in the back and read a newspaper. The car stops, you look up and your silent driver has stopped at a warung where he is engaged in conversation with nine or ten ojek drivers, clearly asking for directions. He comes back, you ask him if he now knows where to go he says, “Tahu!” and you set off again, back the way you came. Your reading is interrupted again as he stops at another warung for more guidance from yet another group, all of whom seem to be pointing in various directions. He gets back in the car and says nothing as you set off again in an entirely new direction.

The day has just started.

The Ambon experience and the Jakartan silent treatment. Indonesia is indeed a land of contrasts.

– enditem –

When corruption isn’t a harmless little pastime

The more we uncover about the tawdry and shameless highly placed officials who use graft, extortion and murder to preserve Indonesia’s culture of corruption the more they make one think of Chicago in 1920s.
Bureacrats planning (plotting) strategy (conspiracy)

SBY’s mandate wobbles
Patrick Guntensperger

Only a few short months since Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was re-elected with an overwhelming mandate on an anti-corruption platform, and within days of the announcement of his new cabinet, protest marches and chants calling for revolution were once again heard on the streets of Jakarta. “Revolution, revolution, revolution to the death!” a chant not heard since just before the fall of Soeharto just over a decade ago was sounded as ant-corruption activists and other protestors decried SBY’s alleged involvement in a complex plot to frame two deputy chairmen of the country’s graftbusting Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

The largely autonomous KPK has, virtually since its establishment, been at odds with the entrenched forces within the Indonesian government and bureaucracy. Members of the police, the Attorney General’s Office, and the DPR have been frequent targets of investigations and prosecutions by the KPK, who boast a 100% conviction rate on those cases they have brought before the Corruption Court. As a result, the KPK has come under overt as well as covert fire from groups and individuals who have vested interests in seeing the KPK emasculated, or better still, shut down entirely.

Among the overt attempts to geld the KPK was the transparent foot-dragging over debating the Corruption Court bill employed by the DPR as a method of letting the Court’s legal mandate expire. The DPR also put great effort into redefining the composition of the Corruption Court insisting that the Court be comprised of a majority of career judges rather than a majority of ad hoc judges; the career judiciary being widely recognised as among the most corrupt institutions in the country, while the ad hoc judges, coming from outside the established order, are seen to be relatively free of influence.

Nevertheless, it has been the covert attempts to undermine the wildly successful KPK that have caused the furor.

The widely reported Antasari affair was only the beginning of a labyrinthine and sordid game of plot and counterplot with the destruction or discrediting of the KPK as the prize. Antasari was the chairman of the KPK who found himself accused of contracting killers to murder a businessman who also formed the third corner of a love triangle with a female golf caddy. While Antasari was imprisoned and awaiting trial, he implicated and then withdrew accusations against other members of the Commission of abuse of power and influence peddling, sparking the KPK’s traditional enemies, the police and the AGO to launch investigations into the activities of some of the commission’s senior members.

As a result of the investigation, KPK deputies Chandra M. Hamzah and Bibit Samad Rianto were suspended; on October 28 they were detained. There was an immediate public suspicion that the two commissioners were being framed and rumours began circulating about an intricate conspiracy to provide false testimony to convict them, and the existence of wiretapped evidence to prove the existence of the conspiracy. The rumours included suggestions that SBY himself was named by the conspirators as being in support of the plot.

Meanwhile SBY has been inundated with a barrage of demands that he become involved in the defence of the KPK which, although an independent body, is directly responsible only to the president. The president, however, in a display of his characteristic reticence, retreated to a defence of merely following the law and allowing the court case to run its course, an approach eerily reminiscent of Soeharto’s manner of allowing the courts to do his bidding.

The protestors took to the streets demanding action from the president, who was, until recently, seen as a champion of the anti-corruption movement, and was re-elected largely on that reputation. The growing number of vocal protestors was clearly no longer willing to accept SBY’s trademark approach of taking a great deal of time before taking any decisive action.

On Monday, the tapes were played in court. To nobody’s great surprise, given that transcripts had earlier been leaked to the press, the plot, by businessman Anggodo Widjodo, to solicit false testimony was now on the record. SBY was indeed mentioned in the conversations as supporting the conspiracy.

Anggodo allegedly contacted AGO and police officials to convince them of his allegations against the commissioners. Anggodo Widjojo is the brother of fugitive Anggoro Widjojo who is wanted for fraud and embezzlement and known to be at large in Singapore. Anggodo is heard on the tape to be soliciting “help” from Ketut Sudiharsa, deputy head of the witness protection agency, the LPSK, to protect his brother. He acknowledges distributing money to KPK officials to ensure special treatment for Anggoro, but when suggestions of bribery were made, was quoted as shouting, “I don’t understand the law! Who said it’s bribery? I just distributed Anggoro’s money.”

He had also accused the KPK of having extorted the bribes from him. “About the extortion, just ask Ary (Ary Muladi, the alleged middle man in the transaction), but if the money had not been given, my brother would live in fear.”

The police were forced to release Chandra and Bibit, the two KPK commissioners whose release had been demanded by the protestors, although they deny that they have bowed to public pressure and saying that the detention was merely suspended “for other reasons” and that they weren’t yet out of the woods. National Police spokesman, Inspector General Nanan Sukarna told a press conference Tuesday night that “They are not free yet, pending a verdict from the court.”

The police then detained Anggodo who had just appeared on a television show where he had made an angry speech defending his actions and denying any accountability. Later, at police headquarters, in another interview, a somewhat chastened Anggodo apologised to everyone he had harmed by the words captured on tape. He apologised for having implicated SBY, he apologised to Deputy Attorney General Abdul Hakim Ritonga, and he even apologised to his wife for the contents of the wiretapped conversation he had with convicted drug trafficker, Yuliana Gunawan, whose involvement in the matter is not yet clear.

SBY, for his part, immediately launched an investigation of the conversations in attempt to clear his name as a participant or even of tacit complicity in the increasingly sordid and convoluted plot. While much remains murky and details concerning the plot and the various players will continue to be revealed, one thing is certain; SBY’s nearly pristine image and reputation for housecleaning in the notoriously corrupt world of Indonesian politics and business has been tarnished, if not destroyed. It remains to be seen whether further revelations will continue to erode his credentials or whether it is possible to recover from the allegations swirling around the very core of the Indonesian reform movement.