Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Selamat Tahun Baru!

All together now, to 2008: Good riddance.

Since we're all now overanxious, overmedicated, and broke, may history treat this past year like a junior tranche of subprime-mortgage-backed collateralized debt obligations. (Tee hee, a little finance humor.)

Hopefully 2009 will bring better things for all. And if not ... you can always wash the bad news away with a really good Pinot Noir.

Selamat Tahun Baru!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mideast mess, spilling elsewhere

What the world needs now is ... not the unholy mess coming out the Mideast. Yet again.

Hard to know what to say, that hasn't already been said. It's the usual cycle of violence that serves no one. Hamas was not in the right to be rocketing Israel, and Israel isn't in the right with its shock-and-awe campaign against the Islamic paramilitary group. If these were children, we'd sit them all down in the corner and take away their marbles. Unfortunately these children all have high-tech weaponry, and millenia of religious grudges to work out.

Now Indonesian militant groups are said to be recruiting fighters to send to Gaza, the government is calling on the UN to decry the Israeli attacks, and Indonesian medical teams are on the way to help out. The vast membership of the Muhammadiyah group is actively lobbying for sanctions to help end the bombings.

In other words, this is spilling beyond local borders, poisoning religious and cultural relations far beyond the limits of Gaza. For what it's worth: Stop.

Today's Top Stories

Jakarta's history gets its due
Heritage sites largely untapped

Gus Dur speaks up
Former president condemns Gaza attacks

China VP on way home
Li Keqiang visited Indonesia, Egypt, Kuwait

Rupiah stable - for now
More currency trouble could be on way in 2009

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gamelan for misanthropes

Love the distinct and haunting sounds of gamelan music, but don't have a massive orchestra of Javanese or Balinese musicians handy?

Then Soniccouture has just the product for you. It's a 24-GB library of 25 gamelan instruments, with 4,000 samples to draw from. For those unfamiliar, gamelan is an ensemble of bronze percussion instruments like gongs, chimes and xylophones. Said to be around since 800 AD or so, it's one of Indonesia's most unique cultural exports, and is promoted in the US by the American Gamelan Institute.

It runs around $380 for the whole package. Basically, in your slippers and from your own basement, you can arrange and conduct an entire gamelan orchestra. How cool is that?

Today's Top Stories

One of world's largest gold mines?
Tycoon Yusuf Merekh zeroes in on Lembata, island off Flores

Jusuf Kalla starts listening tour in East Indonesia
VP busy shilling for Golkar

Airport exit tax ramped up
Typical government cash grab

Indonesia gets the blues
Gugun and the Bluesbug band catching fire

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Megawati as shopoholic?

Is it just me, or do most articles about Megawati Sukarnoputri contain the subtext that she's - as the saying goes - not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree?

I have no personal knowledge of her, or axe to grind. But it seems that many journalists dance diplomatically around the idea that she's not that swift, or that she's more consumed with subjects like gardening and shopping than les affaires d'etat.

Now a new book more or less says it overtly. Dari Sukarno Sampai SBY doles out juicy anecdotes about Indonesian heads of state. Megawati, for her part, is said to "lose concentration" when it comes to geopolitics instead of cooking.

Could be a sexist take on a female leader, I suppose. But historically speaking, it wouldn't be at all surprising if the latest in a dynastic political line is not exactly (to use another expression) the sharpest knife in the drawer. George W. Bush, anyone?

Today's Top Stories

New York Times goes to Java
Big feature on Borobudur and environs

Aceh reefs on the mend
Tsunami devastation receding earlier than thought

Visit Indonesia, uh, 2009
One more year! One more year!

Another one bites the dust?
Corruption watchdogs go after embezzled hajj cash

Friday, December 26, 2008

Indonesia and the Russian bear

Russia seems to be making a full-time occupation of tweaking American interests. Sending warships to Cuba, running roughshod over Saakashvili's Georgia, cutting off oil pipelines to Europe whenever it serves its interests.

In short the old Cold War spirit is back, led by a veteran of those times, KGB functionary Vladmir Putin. Russia's latest salvo: Ramping up its military shipments abroad, including fighter jets to Indonesia. Two were just delivered, with more to come.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Indonesia is famously independent, back to the Sukarno days and the creation of the non-aligned movement, and can buy arms from whomever it wants. So too can it enter into joint ventures with Russian oil and gas interests, which are currently scouring the archipelago.

But consider what Russian dealings have brought to foreign companies like BP, which entered into a business agreement in good faith and got their heads handed to them on a platter. Russian friendship, it seems, has its limits. When the bear is becoming cornered - thanks to a plummeting national stock market and ruble, which together have devalued wealth by as much as 80 or 90% - it's useful to keep that precept in mind.

Today's Top Stories

Anniversary of the tsunami
Still rebuilding, four years on

No Christmas issues in Indonesia
Celebrated peacefully in world's biggest Muslim country

Indonesia getting ... boring, says Australia?!
No major crises in 2008

Massive Sumatran flooding
15,000 displaced in Lampung provinces

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

What a year we've had. As the old Chinese curse goes, "May you live in interesting times."

Global financial meltdown, wars and deaths, terror and heartache. Things you always thought you knew, turned out to be dead wrong. It was the kind of year that makes it hard to be an optimist.

But amid the gloom, there have been moments of clarity and joy. The election of a new president, to break away from the tragic and unnecessary mistakes of the past eight years. A return to honesty and reality, of people living within their means and buying homes they can actully afford. The birth of my beautiful second son.

And so, merry Christmas and happy holidays to all. May 2009 represent not be another missed opportunity in this short life, but a fulfillment of our better natures.

Today's Top Stories

Stimuli all 'round
Indonesia mirrors U.S., plans infrastructure bonanza

Bakries in crisis mode
Find buyers for some debt, in exchange for Bumi stock

Rare Javan rhinos found
Hanging out at Jakarta McDonald's?

Indonesia's chess princess
Irene Sukandar nation's first female grandmaster

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Orangutan Travel: A once-in-a-lifetime trip

Here's an amazing travel opportunity I came across: Not only can you visit the endangered orangutans of Kalimantan (Borneo), but you get Dr. Birute Galdikas as your personal guide and naturalist.

To put that in context, it's kind of like having Stephen Hawking over to chat about the history of the universe, or having Toni Morrison write your Christmas cards. The woman is a living legend, and has almost single-handedly saved the orangutans from extinction.

She's hosting a couple of seven-day trips in July of 2009, which you can read about here and here. The cost is $3395 per person, with airfare within Indonesia included, but you have to get yourself to Jakarta - international airfare is extra.For more info e-mail, or call 619-574-1371.

Space for each trip is only 13 people, so if you have the cash and the inclination, don't miss the chance to spend some time up close and personal with the famed Borneo orangutans ... and with one of the premier environmentalists on the planet.

Today's Top Stories

Look out below: Massive Indo job loss
40,000 shed by year's end

Tourism decline on the way for 2009
Alcohol shortage not helping

Jakarta's Old Town in ruins
Kota Tua heritage site a missed tourism opportunity

Bush shoe-thrower unrepentant
Hailed as hero in Islamic world

Monday, December 22, 2008

Setback for the Treeman

Not all endings are happy ones. Seems like Dede the 'Treeman,' the Javanese villager famed around the world and featured on a Discovery documentary about his rare medical condition, has suffered some setbacks on his road to wellness.

Dede has bark-like growths over much of his body, giving him the look of a human tree and landing him in a local circus act to survive. But after treatment by American dermatologist Anthony Gaspari, it was discovered he suffers from the very common HPV virus ... but that his immune system was so compromised thanks to genetics, that his body wasn't able to fight it off.

He underwent surgery three times this year, the most recent one removing an amazing six kilograms of warts. Unfortunately they've returned since he returned to his hometown, and he's lost much of his ability to function normally. Drugs also haven't had the desired effect, and so more surgery is in the offing. Dr. Gaspari continues to consult on the case, but unless they hit on the right course of treatment for Dede, it looks like he continues the sad battle with a disease that's already cost him his wife and his job.

Today's Top Stories

More mining royalties, please, says government

Anti-porn law affects tourism

SBY follows Obama's lead, discovers inner Keynes

Armies of laid-off workers seek mental help

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Multiparty democracy as comic farce

Here in the States, it's always en vogue to ridicule the rigid two-party political system of Republicans and Democrats. And in quasi-dictatorships, the one-party option, like Golkar back in the Suharto days, is equally risible.

But everyone's ultimate goal of multiparty democracy is a messy solution, too. Just think of Italy, which once gained fame for changing its government every few months. The idea of cobbled-together coalitions, where a party with a laughable minority of votes gets to govern (See: Yudhoyono, Susilo Bambang), is hardly the ideal either.

A cautionary tale on this front comes, ironically, from my normally stable homeland of Canada. The governing Conservatives, guilty of overreaching, faced a political putsch from the three parties in opposition - which included, bizarrely, a party that wants to secede from Canada entirely. Their proposed leader? A hapless fellow who garnered no more than 25% of the popular vote nationally. This led the government to close down Parliament, until everyone figures out what to do. Welcome to politics as Feydeau farce.

This is useful to remember as we get closer to Indonesia's elections in 2009. As much as multiparty democracy is a healthy thing, it can also be healthy for one party - whoever that may be - to win a broad and convincing mandate.

Today's Top Stories

Pre-emptive response to another Mumbai?

Government coldblooded, in seeking captured Indonesian crew

Finance minister sees clouds on horizon

Indonesia loses to Thailand in semifinals

Friday, December 19, 2008

Free Bahasa Indonesia classes!

Washington may be a crime-ridden blotch of humanity full of sneering career politicos, but hey, look on the bright side.

Exhibit A: A 22-week Indonesian language class, offered by the local Embassy in D.C. I'm not sure what government kitty they're pulling the funding out of, but amazingly, it's totally free to applicants. I remember paying hundreds of bucks for my old Bahasa Indonesia class in Vancouver, so I'm green with jealousy. Memo to government functionaries: How about a similar class in New York City?

Starting date for the free class is Feb. 11, 2009, and there are two language levels offered (Beginner I and II). Interested parties should contact, or call 202-775-5231.

Today's Top Stories

Rainy day rice
New flood-resistant crop about to hit Asian markets

Borobudur as popular as ever
Javanese temple one of world's timeless wonders

First Lady: Let them eat cake
Mrs. SBY: Keep up the jewelry purchases, everybody

Want to be RI President? 1.5 trillion Rp, please
Elections not just expensive in U.S.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Faith and footwear

I suppose something must be said about the Shoe Heard 'Round the World.

Sometimes a single unforseen event comes to symbolize something larger than itself, and when it does, there's no stopping the brushfire. Such is the media trajectory of the size-10 shoe(s) tossed at President Bush during his recent Iraqi news conference. Years of a region's - and a faith's - anger, frustration, and personal animosity got distilled into one reporter's action.

The Muslim world, including Indonesia as the faith's most populous outpost, has long seethed seethed with resentment towards the outgoing Republican and his efforts to reshape the region. In that larger context, such a lashing out isn't all that surprising. And there are plenty on the American left who would love to toss a Payless clog or two at the presidential podium.

What will happen to Muntadar al-Zaidi, the spirited stringer for a Cairo-based TV channel, remains to be seen (although apparently he's already tasting some rough justice in Iraqi custody). One thing I will say: It would be nice to have reasoned policy debates about matters affecting geopolitics, rather than having to resort to a flying Florsheim.

Today's Top Stories

Crime, joblessness, tsunami make province one of poorest

Corruption probe starts taking down elected officials

EU now under pressure to lift flight ban

Nomura, Barclays, UBS all advising government

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Come on in, the water's fine!

The pungent Citarum River is getting some international attention, and it ain't pretty.

Environmentalists claim the West Java waterway is among the world's most polluted, and from the accompanying photo they may just be right. Now the New York Times has taken a look at how the river - which supplies household water for 80% of Jakarta and its millions of residents (and factories, which aren't helping with their chemical dumping) - is basically a fetid cesspool.

Enter the Asian Development Bank, and its $500 million loan to help clean things up. Ironically the financial aid is getting some local blowback, from those who say that the kitty will probably be pocketed or misspent. Perhaps so. But given the current state of affairs, even if only a portion of that half-billion makes it into useful cleanup projects, it'll be a welcome infusion for health issues and quality of life.

Today's Top Stories

More interest-rate chopping likely by central bank

Now can we fly to Europe again?

Jakarta summit replaced Thai chaos

One stock analyst's bullish take

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Currency crisis memories ...

Recent financial developments like the 40% drop in the stock market, on the back of a total bank meltdown; the housing implosion tied to sketchy subprime mortgages; and the collapse of Madoff investment funds, a $50-billion Ponzi scheme that wiped out high rollers worldwide; makes me reminisce about the Asian currency crisis of 1997/8.

Remember when southeast Asian economies underwent painful devaluation of their currencies, helped along by the IMF? And were made to institute neocon economic policies to qualify for loans to get them out of the cascading mess? The impact of currency machinations was so great on regular folks, in Indonesia especially, that it even helped bring down Suharto.

Anyhow, seems like the market-knows-best philosophy of those times has proven to be not so ironclad after all. Even hypercapitalist America has been buying stakes in firms left and right, to prevent a catastrophic economic event (read: Great Depression II). And Barack Obama has proclaimed recent events as history's "final verdict" on laissez-faire capitalism.

As I recall, Malaysian head of state Mahathir Mohammad was saying as much at the time, that the IMF could go stuff themselves with their right-wing reforms. Of course he was derided as a fool for being out of step with economic realities. Did he have it right all along, that the IMF was not the saviour of the crisis, but the catalyst?

Today's Top Stories

Foreign investment drying up?

Easy when the price of oil keeps dropping

After huge international uproar

Burned maluku churches to be rebuilt

Monday, December 15, 2008

The next Bali, part 432

If I had a nickel every time Lombok was referred to as "the next Bali" ... I'd be a very rich journalist.

Not that the lush island, nestled to Bali's side, doesn't deserve all the attention. But for some reason it's the only trope that makes sense to Western editors. The latest cliche culprit is the Wall Street Journal, following on the heels of the New York Times' version a couple of months back.

In fact the very same phrase was being used when I was lolling around Nusa Tenggara, back around 15 years ago. One of these days it'd be nice to read about Lombok on its own terms, rather than in relation to its Balinese cousin across the straits. But for an American public not used to exotica, perhaps it's the only way Lombok can be located in the psyche.

Today's Top Stories

Indonesia to be among Obama's first trips?
Plans major address to Islamic nations

Fuel prices cut again
Just in time for, hmm, elections

Fasten your seatbelts: More earthquakes coming
'Superycle' could make 2004 Sumatran quake seem like a piker

Alcohol shortage!
Where's my chocolate martini?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In baby news ...

For those of you who were wondering why I haven't been posting for a couple of days ...

Welcome to the world, Julien Bryce Arthur Taylor!

Happy and healthy, 7 lb 3 oz, and hungry as a horse. Born Thursday night in New York City.

More posts as sleep allows ...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Indonesia's richest man no more ...

Times are tough all 'round, apparently. And not just for Detroit automakers or Wall Street investment banks. Just ask poor Aburizal Bakrie.

The Master of the Universe - business tycoon, Indonesia's richest man in 2007, cabinet minister to boot - has been bumped from his position atop the country's wealthiest, according to Forbes magazine. Heck, he's not even a billionaire anymore.

So who's the fellow with the deepest pockets now? Meet Sukanto Tanoto, pulp-and-paper king with a $2-billion net worth (although even that's been carved in half in a single year). Next up are the Hartono Brothers (sounds like a WWE tag team), Budi and Michael, who get a royalty every time you suck on one on those irresistible Djarum clove cigarettes.

As for Welfare Minister Bakrie, well, he might be applying for welfare soon himself. He dropped to a shameful ninth. We'll be taking donations to help him out.

Today's Top Stories

Former foreign minister, UN ambassador dies at 76

Mudflow, what mudflow? Australian oil & gas firm flees liability

Hey, it's better than Bush

Caused by rampant Sumatran deforestation

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Corruption, American style

Indonesia's been on the front lines of anti-corruption-fighting this last while, with the commission that's been kicking ass and taking names. Seems like every day some new bank honcho or government functionary is taken down. No wonder the nation climbed in Transparency International's index this year, becoming 'cleaner' than 17 additional countries.

But to those who thought Indonesia had corruption issues all to itself, we present for your enjoyment: Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich! Brazen enough to try selling President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to a half-dozen suitors for a cushy job, or cash, or maybe a combination of both. (Oh, and a gig for his wife too.) As MSNBC's Keith Olbermann said, this guy's either the dumbest SOB in the world, or the craziest.

Goes to show that corruption can happen anywhere, at any time, and not just in the developing world. The potty-mouthed Mr. Blagojevich is now out on bail, vowing to get back to work, and maybe even make that Senate appointment anyways. Shocked and amazed yet? Since it's Chicago politics we're talking about, though, no one should really be that surprised ...

Today's Top Stories

Indo growth slowed by commodity plunge
No one's buying anything anymore

Malukus blowing up again?
Troops arrive to quell sectarian violence

More bird flu flaps
Two additional cases crop up

Australia offers a hand
Funds on the way to help Indonesia through credit crunch

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Irresistible adventure travel

Adventure-travel buffs, saddle up. GAP Adventures has uploaded its list of Indonesian options for 2009, and it's a perfectly delectable menu.

In fact there are six adventures on tap, each more excruciating to read about, since with two toddlers I won't be able to go! Nonetheless, here they are, herein and forthwith: Bali Adventure, eight days including climbing Mt. Batur; Discover Lombok, nine days including summiting Mt. Rinjani; Best of Bali and Lombok, 15 days combining the best of both islands; Indonesia Island Hopping, 13 days that includes Komodo and its dragons; West Papua, 15 days in the jungles of the Baliem Valley; and East Indies Sea Trek, 10 days of sailing through Nusa Tenggara.

It's all through the world's biggest adventure-travel company, so presumably you're in safe hands. None is a bargain-basement trip - the new West Papua one runs around $3500 US, for instance - but the lineup sounds like a veritable factory of great travel memories.

Today's Top Stories

Obama gets Supreme Court go-ahead for presidency
Nutbars claimed he was ineligible Indonesian citizen

Indonesians return from Mumbai
Five nationals were trapped in Oberoi Hotel

More holiday trampling
Good intentions gone bad for Idul Adha

Fiery soccer matchup for ASEAN cup
Indonesian fans want Singapore to go down hard

Monday, December 8, 2008

New book on children's rights

There's an intriguing new book coming out that touches on Indonesia, called The Trouble With the Alphabet. The overarching theme is children's welfare, and it's set up so that each letter of the alphabet, such as I for Indonesia, deals with children's rights in that particular nation.

(Are there any countries that begin with X? Q could be Qatar, I guess ... but I digress.)

Each chapter also links to a particular charity in that country, Indonesia's being World Neighbors, which from its website looks to be a bottom-up approach to finding local solutions to poverty. The book was conceived, written and illustrated by Colorado artist Caryn West, and you can buy it here.

In fact the project is so planet-conscious, that it was even manufactured using wind energy. A great stocking-stuffer for Al Gore!

Today's Top Stories

Sudarsono hat tricks sends Indonesia into final four

Behavioral change needed before it spins out of control

President and VP celebrate Idul Adha

Experts mull taking Bali products worldwide

Sunday, December 7, 2008

People and nations, living on credit cards

Ironic, isn't it. Just as families are learning to live within their means, instead of taking out mortgages they can't afford and charging everything on plastic, governments are doing the exact opposite.

To wit, Indonesia's new $5-billion round of emergency loans, added on to U.S.' $700-billion TARP program to buy up toxic assets ... or purchase equity stakes in banks ... or whatever they say it's for today.

Not that I have any better suggestions. In fact some government spending may be very necessary, as economists like Nobel laureate Paul Krugman points out in the New York Times, to prevent us all from tipping from a severe recession into a Depression of historic proportions. We're all Keynesians now.

But if this Great Credit Crunch has taught us anything, it's that bad debts have to be repaid eventually, in one way or another. And by borrowing big to pay for past sins, we're sticking our children and grandchildren with the bill. Happy inheritance!

Today's Top Stories

Former bellboy corners market

Gratuitous story with no real point, but hey, it's about models

Jakarta garbage becomes designer art

Not just for Somalis anymore

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Islamic fashions rock the catwalk?!

It seems like an oxymoron - along with jumbo shrimp and military intelligence - but it looks like Islamic fashion is undergoing a bit of a boomlet.

The faith's couture is usually associated with simple head-to-toe burqas, which don't seem like a natural fit for the world's catwalks. That's the territory of insane Western designers like Christian Lacroix and Dolce & Gabbana. But take a look at this report of the Islamic Fashion Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which belies the cultural stereotypes.

Apparently burqas and abayas can be fashion-forward , according to Muslim designers like Tom Abang Saufi and Indonesian Ronald Gaghana. In fact as the oil-rich Saudis, Qataris and Dubai dwellers have become increasingly brand-conscious over the years (just check out their malls), it's become no contradiction to demand the finest in designer wear.

The fashion festival rotates through Indonesia in coming years, so get ready for an influx of pret-a-porter couture. Although given the truly insane designs you see every year in Paris and Milan, I'm not really sure that's something you'd want to import.

Today's Top Stories

World's dirtiest river no more?
Asian Development Bank gives $500 mil to clean up Citarum

You get a bailout! And you get a bailout!
Indonesia gets $5 billion in emergency loans

Take that, Myanmar
Indo humiliates soccer rival in ASEAN matchup

Hajj boondoggle?
Ministry pockets trillions in rupiah for annual pilgrimage

Friday, December 5, 2008

Heartwarming story of the day: Balinese orphanage

In case you think you're just one person, not significant enough to change anything about the world, check out this story. It was sent to me by Cynthia Dammerer, about how a local hotel group is helping out a Balinese orphanage. Kind of puts things in perspective.

“The traffic buzzed remorselessly down the highway, with cars, vans and bike jostling for the best position along the busy road between Nusa Dua and Benoa Harbour in beautiful Bali. Balinese families, sometimes three or four to a bike, pressed to get to work or home again.

Our van swung suddenly into a rough country lane heading to a rubbish dump, up past the tethered cows and parked cars. A pile of dirt and gravel metres high spread out opposite a small blue-and-white painted office, with two low-slung buildings on either side of a central pathway clogged with sitting children and wheelchair-bound young adults. The quietness seemed at odds with so many children present.

This is the setting of the YPAC orphanage and rehabilitation centre in Nusa Dua Bali, on my first visit in December 2006. It was a sobering glimpse of children’s life in another world. The teachers in charge eyed us suspiciously as we arrived – escorted by Yasa, who has volunteered at orphanages around Bali for years. Helping out, delivering donations when possible, and gathering small financial windfalls.

But this children’s facility only received enough rupiah from the government to feed four children rice each day. There are 59 of them. Some boys and girls live permanently in a small dormitory with mouldy mattresses on the floor, bereft of sheets or pillows and any home comforts. The doors on the toilets and showers do not close since the hinges are rusted open, and they are used to the full glare of traffic in the central pathway.

There is no refrigeration for the little food they do have. As meals generally consist of rice or noodles for breakfast lunch and dinner, rats have very little to attract them, but they saunter cockily about in the kitchen anyway. Classrooms are dingy, dull and lifeless, devoid of teaching aids bar a blackboard, but still we can detect a spark – an interest in learning today’s math lesson despite these surroundings.

We come bearing gifts from Australia . Used text books, dictionaries, games, novelty gifts, used clothing and shoes and some meager art supplies. We have also collected enough money in lieu of gifts at a recent 60th to buy the kids a desktop computer for their own use, and some new tables and chairs to eat the bowl of rice from. It is heartening to see the wide smiles of pleasure derived from a pre-loved baby-born doll, or an atlas, an Eeyore hat, an Eagles football or Ice Age watch. But it makes us more determined not to forget these brave kids – some who are physically disabled, some who are mentally impaired, and some who are burdened for life with both.

These children are forgotten no more. Upon hearing our stories and seeing our pictures, the General Managers of the six Accor hotels in Bali , crossing all brands - All Seasons, Novotel, Sofitel and Mercure – took it upon themselves to adopt this one orphanage, and make a real difference for a sustained period of at least two years.

The next time I visit to deliver supplies, I weep when I see the hard work they have all done personally. Manual labour, all with a determination to make their efforts sustainable, and directed at helping the children and their caregivers “help themselves” long-term. A new fridge gleams in the clean and freshly-painted kitchen. It also has food in it. Toilet doors close, plants are used as decorative dividers, and the children, smiling and happy. I’m positive they have grown a few inches. It turns out they have indeed grown: As a group, the Accor Hotel General Managers have organized for a nutritious lunch box to be delivered to each child each day they attend school.

We came bearing four lap-top computers – given kindly by the head of a large Aussie corporation, who upon hearing the story immediately proposed the donation. The children’s eye’s danced when they realized they can learn how to use a computer in the future. But the cost of electricity is high in Indonesia, so a co-sponsor was found for that cost as well. The roof is to be repaired, before it leaks onto the fresh renovations during the wet season, or caves in completely. The leaning wall and sewer are set to be repaired imminently, and the leaks into the playground will cease. An Australian company is generously helping Accor with that cost. The mattresses will be up on bases, and furnished with sheets and pillows.

Other guests have gotten into the infectious spirit of helping, and are advised what the children need, or would consider a treat. At Christmas time, the hotels put a letter in each guest’s room encouraging them to buy an extra present, and then deliver hundreds of packs of much-needed art supplies, stationery and gifts to the orphanage. One guest even bought a new TV at the local hypermart.

You can’t help all the people who are in need in the world. But you can help some, and if we all did that, there might be some happier lives and more nurtured souls."

Today's Top Stories

December surprise: Rate cut
Indonesian central bank slashes interest rates to boost growth

More huge Sumatran earthquakes likely
Get ready, say scientists in Nature magazine

Clintons' Indonesia ties could be troublesome
Illegal Riady contributions rear their head again

Bank troubles redux
Indonesian oversight sucks almost as much as U.S.?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Get Obama some nasi goreng, stat!

The news that U.S. president-elect Barack Obama has a hankering for nasi goreng, bakso and rambutan - no joke - has got my taste buds flowing.

Thankfully the consulate-general here in New York has a useful roundup of Indonesian eats in the city. There aren't that many, especially in comparison to Chinese takeout eateries that dot pretty much every block. But at least there are a handful where you can mainline your daily fix of tempeh, gado-gado, or mi goreng.

I can only personally vouch for two - Bali Nusa Indah on 9th Ave., and Java Indonesia Rijstaffel on 7th Ave in Brooklyn, which ironically is just down the block. Fine establishments, both. And there's a strange collection of restaurants in the Queens enclave of Elmhurst, which must mean a thriving Indonesian community out there.

As long as we're on the subject of Indonesian cuisine, check out Evi Nasution's food blog here. She's Indonesian, in Winnipeg, and misses home, so give her some moral support! And NYC chef Mark Tafoya recently went to Pesta Blogger 2008 in Jakarta, as one of five foreign bloggers from around the world - lucky duck - so visit his Indo musings here.

Today's Top Stories

Indo government decides to crank up palm oil plantations

Din Syamsuddin says moderates still hold sway

Protesters demand compensation from Java mess

Indonesia called on to mediate MILF talks

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

New book by Yours Truly ...

On a selfish note, I have a new book out, just in time for the holiday shopping rush (that is, if anyone has any money left in this recession!).

It's called Thirty Things To Do When You Turn Thirty, and it's a collection of insightful essays from prominent thirtysomethings. People like singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, bestselling author Tim Ferriss, NBA star Chris Webber, Trading Spaces' Paige Davis, Huffington Post blog queen Rachel Sklar, the New York Times' Jenny 8. Lee, Google VP Doug Merrill, Time Inc.'s Vivek Shah, New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner, Penn State football legend Adam Taliaferro, Tango Diva founder Teresa Williamson, Paramount Pictures' Amy Powell, violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, Kiva founder Jessica Flannery, and many more.

It's the latest in a series from Sellers Publishing, and you can also buy it here at Barnes & Noble. The contributors put a lot of their heart into it, so check it out and maybe learn a little something about life.

Today's Top Stories

Yudhoyono must not like the poll numbers
Quibbles about methodology

We're number three! We're number three!
Not the most corrupt country in ASEAN

Don't mess with the maid
Malaysian woman gets jail for domestic abuse

Indonesian exports plummeting
Global demand going bye-bye

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

World AIDS Day & Indonesia

Yesterday was World AIDS Day, and judging from some startling new numbers, Indonesia is going to need a fresh strategy to cope with this deadly disease.

The Health Ministry puts the number of cases nationwide at 18,000; the Association of Indonesian Physicians Concerned About HIV/AIDS puts it at 270,000. That's not just a clerical error ... that's a serious disconnect, that's putting lives at stake.

In fact it's somewhat reminiscent of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, with his ineffectual response to HIV while his nation was ravaged by it. Given the recent push by Papuan legislators to implant sufferers with microchips, it looks like the crisis has left the realm of science and common sense, and is becoming tinged with outright panic.

So the administration needs to get real, get over the stigma, and start working to save lives. AIDS isn't a death sentence like it was in the '80s, but it still can be, if people aren't properly informed about it.

Today's Top Stories

Prosecutors want 15 years for former intelligence chief

Al-Zawahiri spouts off yet again

Goverment boosts growth forecast

Too commercial, says Rieka Roeslan

Monday, December 1, 2008

Need funding? Buy a bank

Here's an innovative idea in social entrepreneurship, fresh out of Indonesia: Nonprofit organizations going capitalist, and buying banks.

That's what relief outfit Mercy Corps did, to give it an instant country-wide network for its microfinance projects. Bank Andara could serve as a funding clearinghouse for 2,000 microcredit programs across Indonesia, and with its existing web of ATMs, make accessing cash quick and easy.

It's all recounted in the latest edition of BusinessWeek, and chief exec Neal Keny-Guyer spells out why the ultra-capitalist route makes sense for do-gooder organizations too. If the $300-million, 3,500-employee NGO likes what it sees from Bank Andara, banks in other countries like the Philippines might be next.

An added bonus: Given the current state of the banking industry, nonprofits could pick up financial institutions for a song, if they were so inclined. (See: Washington Mutual, Wachovia, Citibank, etc.) Just make sure you're not getting their toxic debt as part of the deal.

Today's Top Stories

Offers to hold next month's ASEAN meetings

Big rallies for independence in eastern province

Indonesia inflation rate falling to five-month low

Government checking papers of foreign workers

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Eat Pray Love winners!

Congrats to the winners of our fantabulous Eat Pray Love giveaway, Justin Hampton of L.A. and Evimeinar Nasution of Winnipeg. Which begs the question, what's an Indonesian doing in the frozen tundra of Winnipeg, especially at this time of year? But I digress ... copies are on the way.

For those less fortunate, get Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling tale of her travels through Indonesia here, and check out her personal website here. And thanks again to the kind folks at Viking press. If you need a good stocking-stuffer for the holidays, here's a review excerpt from the New Yorker magazine:

"At the age of thirty-one, Gilbert moved with her husband to the suburbs of New York and began trying to get pregnant, only to realize that she wanted neither a child nor a husband. Three years later, after a protracted divorce, she embarked on a yearlong trip of recovery, with three main stops: Rome, for pleasure (mostly gustatory, with a special emphasis on gelato); an ashram outside of Mumbai, for spiritual searching; and Bali, for "balancing." These destinations are all on the beaten track, but Gilbert's exuberance and her self-deprecating humor enliven the proceedings: recalling the first time she attempted to speak directly to God, she says, "It was all I could do to stop myself from saying, 'I've always been a big fan of your work.'"

Today's Top Stories

6.0 blast strikes Sumatra

Heads back to Mumbai

Replaces Iran as head of 40-nation body

Jakjazz 2008 kicks off

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Struggle for the soul of Islam?

Are we seeing a battle for the soul of Indonesian Islam, playing out before our eyes?

Historically moderation has been the keyword, one that espouses tolerance as well as loyalty to one's faith. But with the world going to extremes, I wonder if it's a philosophy that's in retreat, even in Indonesia.

The Jakarta Post has an article on the subject, with the news hook being the passage of the pornography bill, the emergence of shariah law in some areas, and the banning of the sect Jamaah Ahmadiyah, all of which tends towards a stricter Qu'ranic interpretation of the world.

But more interesting than the text of the article itself, is the plethora of reader comments. It's a real kaleidoscope of views, from the 'unity in diversity' crowd representing traditional Indonesian values, to the one-Islam view that hews closer to the Middle Eastern version. It's always a challenge to represent the moderate middle in a cultural debate, but let's hope the cherished Indonesian traditions of tolerance don't disappear in a world gone mad.

Today's Top Stories

Isolation, lack of HIV knowledge helps disease to spread

For isolated Javanese tribe, everything's good

Down with imperialist fabrics!

Wields Cheney-like power behind the throne

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Meaning of Mumbai

What makes me saddest about yesterday's Mumbai massacre, apart from the death and destruction that fill our screens, is how some of the most memorable places in the world are all being subsumed by terrorism.

New York, London, Madrid, Bali ... the connotations these places bring up are no longer the greatness of human achivement, or the timelessness of their natural beauty, but the tragedy and gore of aimless terror.

I've been to Mumbai, strolling along the grand gates of the waterfront, chewing betel nut purchased at local newsstands, drinking chai tea brewed in huge brass pots. Now I feel those days have been stolen by the Deccan Mujahadeen, replaced by images of evil and human frailty, collected around the carnage of the Taj and Oberoi hotels.

I pray for those affected by yet another massacre, and hope that my beautiful memories of Mumbai will one day be restored.

Today's Top Stories

Et tu, Yudhoyono?
Graft scandal hits president's family

Clerics with too much time on their hands
The enemy of faith is ... yoga?!

Indonesia condemns Mumbai attacks
Government reaffirms anti-terror stance

General Motors: Dead in US, alive in Indonesia
New plant to start production in 2009

Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Dow Jones ASEAN Index

Much ado has been made in recent months about shariah-compliant investing, especially with all the petrodollars washing around the Middle East. Muslim investors are looking for someplace to stash their billions, that's in line with Qu'ranic precepts against drinking, gambling, and the charging of interest. (So how does Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal become a major Citigroup shareholder? But I digress.)

Anyhow, such investing has just been made easier, by the formation of the Dow Jones Islamic Market ASEAN Index. Included are shariah-compliant companies in six of the 10 ASEAN nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam). It's weighted by market cap, comprises 284 firms, and will serve as the basis for exchange-traded funds (ETFs) based on the same principles.

All well and good. Too bad it's rolling out just as everyone is shying away from exotic investments of all kinds (and as the petrostates are running low on cash, thanks the plummeting price of oil). Niche ETFs are dying by the boatload because of their tiny size, and investors are all retreating to the safety of U.S. Treasuries, which are now yielding next to nothing. In comparison, funds based on shariah-compliant ASEAN companies are anything but a safe haven ... maybe that's why the index has only a single licensee thus far.

Today's Top Stories

Elephants on the rampage
Sumatra overrun by the ornery mammals

Chevron taps Riau for more oil
New Sumatran field kicks off production

Government wakes up, smells coffee
Asks Australia for crisis loans

Obama misses nasi goreng
Yudhoyono speaks with Barack; wants rambutan too

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Of U.S.-Indonesia military ties

The military relationship between the U.S. and Indonesia has always been a bit of a head-scratcher. Under strongman Suharto, it was pretty tight, with joint exercises and copious supplies of military hardware. In recent years it's cooled off, just as a democratic government has taken hold.

Ironic, for a U.S. administration that famously wanted to spread democracy around the world ... especially in Muslim countries. It's as if they were taking revenge for human-rights slights like the East Timor debacle, but long after the fact. Go figure.

At any rate, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on U.S.-Indonesia relations as a crucial test of Barack Obama's leadership. Will he restore joint training between the Pentagon and the Indonesian military, and risk angering some in his own party (like Senators Pat Leahy and Russ Feingold)? Or will he hold off and risk angering Defense Secretary Bob Gates, said to be a fan of restoring ties, and who is being wooed to stay on in the new administration?

Between a rock and a hard place, as they say. Welcome to the presidency.

Today's Top Stories

Possible interest-rate cut in the offing

Even Garuda barred from airspace

Visit Indonesia year vs. global economic crisis

Liquor shortages plague the nation

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Best and Worst Places to do Business

Can you name the best place in Indonesia to do business? How about the worst?

You don't have to guess anymore, because consulting firm KPPOD (with assists to the Asia Foundation and USAID) has come out with its ratings of 243 'regencies' throughout the archipelago. Using criteria like infrastructure, taxes, security, and 'Capacity of Mayor' (I love that one), they've ranked cities from top to bottom.

(Check out the original survey link here, and Reuters' recent take here.)

And so, without further adieu, the winners: Blitar and Magetan in East Java, Prabumulih and Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra, and Jembrana in Bali. The stinkers on the other end of the spectrum: Rokan Hulu and Rokan Hilir in Riau, Labuhan Batu in North Sumatra, and two different precinct of Nias Island.

I feel particularly bad for Riau, my old stomping ground. But hey, the numbers are the numbers ...!

Today's Top Stories

CIA book to be banned?
Legacy of Ashes claims Adam Malik was an agent

Bloggers under fire
Wordpress being muscled to give up identity

Indonesia takes on Big Pharma
Set up local production or buzz off, says health minister

Dubai gold rush
Indonesian firms want in on the action

Monday, November 24, 2008

Now online: Life Magazine's archive of Indonesia photos

Life Magazine may be dead and gone, another victim of the print-to-digital revolution, but its iconic photos live on. In fact Google is now hosting their entire photo archive, of which there are about 200 shots of Indonesia at critical moments through the country's history.

It's quite an amazing voyage down memory lane. There are photos of Indonesian leaders in the fullness of youth, like Sukarno and Suharto; images of visiting dignitaries, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Soviet Union's Nikita Kruschev; nature shots from decades ago, of Sumatran tigers, Borneo orangutans and Komodo dragons; and regular folks caught in a moment in time, from mosque-goers to Balinese dancers.

In total the Life archive consists of millions of photos dating back to the 1750s, and is helpfully broken down by factors like people, places and events. Most were never even published, so it's well worth a look ... if only for a glimpse of when print journalism was still king, and the public collected Life Magazine photos as the precious specimens they were.

Today's Top Stories

Papua forges ahead with controversial plan to monitor disease

Government discusses capital controls to save embattled currency

An innovative way to combat deforestation

Indonesia turns to World Bank for budget help

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cruise Update: The Spice Islands

If you feel like getting away from it all for a while - far, far from the crashing Dow - reader Michael Corbett sends in word of a unique Indonesian cruise opportunity.

The Orion is Australia's only five-star expedition cruise ship, and usually travels to spots like Oz's Arnham Land, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Antarctica. But in 2009 they're adding Southeast Asia to the roster, with its Spice Island Adventure.

On the itinerary are islands like the Malukus, Komodo and Sumbawa, and the legendary dive site of Alor, along with rarely-seen spots like the uninhabited isle of Satonda. The nine-night adventure kicks off Sept. 10; prices range from staterooms at $6,365 all the way up to $13,325 for the 'Owner's Suite'.

Not cheap, to be sure. But to be on an expedition ship ranked #2 in the world by Berlitz Cruises (complete with luxury touches like gyms and spas), it could be one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips to tell the grandkids about.

Today's Top Stories

Friday, November 21, 2008

Free stuff! Eat Pray Love giveaway

By now everyone knows about Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. It's Elizabeth Gilbert's massive Oprah-blessed bestseller about travel and self-discovery, and now the good folks at Viking press have sent along a couple of copies for Everything Indonesia readers.

To enter for the free drawing, send an e-mail to with "Eat Pray Love" in the subject line, and your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. I'll draw a couple of names from a hat and send free copies to the winners. If you're not one of those selected, then help out the author and buy the book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

For those of you not familiar with the book, here's the review from Publisher's Weekly:

"Gilbert (The Last American Man) grafts the structure of romantic fiction upon the inquiries of reporting in this sprawling yet methodical travelogue of soul-searching and self-discovery. Plagued with despair after a nasty divorce, the author, in her early 30s, divides a year equally among three dissimilar countries, exploring her competing urges for earthly delights and divine transcendence. First, pleasure: savoring Italy's buffet of delights--the world's best pizza, free-flowing wine and dashing conversation partners--Gilbert consumes la dolce vita as spiritual succor. "I came to Italy pinched and thin," she writes, but soon fills out in waist and soul. Then, prayer and ascetic rigor: seeking communion with the divine at a sacred ashram in India, Gilbert emulates the ways of yogis in grueling hours of meditation, struggling to still her churning mind. Finally, a balancing act in Bali, where Gilbert tries for equipoise "betwixt and between" realms, studies with a merry medicine man and plunges into a charged love affair. Sustaining a chatty, conspiratorial tone, Gilbert fully engages readers in the year's cultural and emotional tapestry--conveying rapture with infectious brio, recalling anguish with touching candor--as she details her exotic tableau with history, anecdote and impression."

Today's Top Stories

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ouch! Jakarta Index falls some more

Here we go again. Another day, another 2% drop for the Jakarta Index. Indonesian stocks are caught in the downdraft of the American market (magnified by the fall of the rupiah), where the Dow is now below 8,000 and basically where it was five years ago. What was that about 10% annual returns, that our financial advisors kept telling us about?

You're probably wondering about where to invest your money, when nowhere is safe. Good thing I just wrote an article for Canada's Globe Investor magazine, on what Ben Graham (the king of value investing) would do right now. The answer is he'd probably be buying.

In a nutshell, Graham looked to buy companies with low price/earnings ratios and low debt, that are selling at a discount to their book value. With the carnage going on right now, it's the first time in a long while that a lot of companies fit that description. Sure, things could go even lower, thanks to investor panic. But it's impossible to predict an absolute bottom, and according to the numbers, plenty of stocks already look pretty darn cheap.

Value investing is a long-term strategy, though, so don't expect to make big money in the next days or months. But if you're holding for many years, those who buy now, when things are at their bleakest, will be nicely rewarded. Consider Ben Graham himself: He almost went bankrupt in the Great Depression when the market lost 90% of its value, but by sticking to his principles, ended up a millionaire who retired in the south of France.

Today's Top Stories

Sulawesi furby gets worldwide attention
Private equity takes a run at Bumi
Final exam for Indo airlines

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Accor Hotels cornering the Indonesia market

It's tough times for the hospitality industry, but you wouldn't know it by how Accor Hotels chain is expanding its footprint in Indonesia. My friend Cynthia Dammerer sent an update of what's happening on the ground:

"Accor will open its 7th hotel in Bali in May '09, a five-star Pullman-branded hotel - the first internationally branded complex for the Legian region, that is growing steadily in popularity with tourists. Complete with restaurants, bars and boutique shops, the hotel sits opposite the famed Kuta beach, at the quiet Legian end, and offers five-star luxury in guest rooms and suites; Pullman "welcomer service"; and edgy new standards that is setting the brand apart worldwide.

"General Manager Philippe Battle believes that the Pullman Bali Legian Nirwana will appeal to upscale tourists, wanting to be close to, but not in the heart of the action. For more info check out

"There are also the new pool villas at Novotel Lombok - the original and best resort still in south Lombok. The visionary who selected the Kuta Beach location for the Novotel Lombok could not have forseen just how popular the region would become once it was discovered by the general tourist public, other than surfers and those wanting to truly drop out for a few weeks. Emaar, the Dubai-based conglomerate, has recently invested US$600 million in a 1200-hectare parcel of land on the beachfront behind the Novotel, and plans to open an Armani and Ritz Carlton Hotel there, after the new international airport is built there in 09/10.

Novotel has just built beautiful private pool villas that are proving very popular with honeymooners, coupled with luxury beach candlelit dinners. Once the new development starts and international flights increase, expect huge traffic to the palm-fringed azure sea and white sands. It's Indonesia's best-kept secret."

Sounds fab. Of course if these hotels explode in popularity, they won't be such a secret anymore. So let's keep this to ourselves. :)

Today's Top Stories

Uh oh, more Muslim cartoon controversy
Forest carbon credits taking off
Tempo vs. Bakrie

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Aceh on the rise ...

Mother Nature is always quick to replace one natural devastation with another. And so we forget about the massive tragedies that have aleady passed from our consciousness.

Good thing institutions like the Red Cross and Grameen Bank don't forget, though. Their microfinance efforts in the northern Sumatra province, an area which was in danger of being completely wiped from the map in the tsuanmi of 2004, are helping families get back on their feet. In one Acehnese village alone, 90 women got loans from local partner Yamida to start bakeries, and buy oyster boats, and kick off countless other projects.

In total, more than 17,500 women in Aceh are able to earn a living thanks to the work of Grameen and the Red Cross. In times of life or death, political issues like Aceh's separatist movement or strident version of Islam take a back seat, and are replaced by simple images of people helping people.

Today's Top Stories

Monday, November 17, 2008

New Indonesia doc: The Burning Season

Looks like an Australian documentary about Indonesian deforestation, The Burning Season, has been picking up some big awards. It recently won an Inside Film prize for best documentary, for its creator Cathy Henkel.

Labelled an "environmental thriller" for how it chronicles the competing concerns of palm oil plantations, the endangered orangutans of Kalimantan/Borneo, and entrepreneurs who are trying to sell carbon credits to Western polluters (and thus funding the forests in their natural state), The Burning Season took 18 months of shooting on four continents to complete.

The issue seems to be reaching a tipping point, as environmental organizations try to get the word out before the razing of forests gets too out of hand. After all, such clearing results in 20% of global carbon emissions. At such a rate - 300 football fields an hour, it's said - the "lungs of the world" are in serious jeopardy.

Maybe that's why Henkel has managed to recruit a new American fan to spread the gospel: None other than California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Can't hurt to have The Terminator on your side.

Today's Top Stories

Sunday, November 16, 2008

7.5 Earthquake Hits Sulawesi

It's one of the world's sad ironies that natural disasters so often hit nations that are the least equipped to handle them. Something like a Hurricane Katrina is horrible enough when it happens to the richest country in the world, so when the developing world is affected by Mother Nature, the effects are even more dearly felt.

And so to the news of a massive 7.5-magnitude earthquake beneath the sea floor near the island of Sulawesi. The nearest town was Gorontalo, and no word on casualties or property damage yet, but the strength alone was enough to cause a serious tsunami warning. In fact it was an earthquake the triggered the Sumatra tsunami of 2004, and which devastated the region in so many ways that are still being dealt with.

It can't be said that earthquake news is ever surprising in Indonesia, since the archipelago owes its very existence to seismic bursts throughout history. After all, the country sits right on top of the "Ring of Fire," the Pacific Ocean's minefield of volcanoes and fault lines. Such is the inescapable fragility of everyday life.

Today's Top Stories

Friday, November 14, 2008

Say it ain't so, Rihanna!

Terrorists have claimed another, unlikely victim: Rihanna's upcoming Jakarta show.

With Indonesia on alert after the execution of the three Bali bombers, some countries have put out travel advisories about visiting. Until the situation shakes out, and we see if Jemaah Islamiyah or brother organizations take any revenge, many diplomats are saying it's best to be cautious.

And so, the sultry R&B songstress from Barbados has canned her performance, saying security wasn't up to par. Perhaps understandable, since the 20-year-old doesn't really want to get caught in the nexus of international politics, religion and terror. She just wants to sing 'Umbrella', God dammit!

Refunds are available for disappointed concert-goers, or you can wait until January or February, when she plans to come back. But if I was Rihanna, it's not the Smiling Bombers I'd be wary of. What about Indonesia's new anti-smut bill, which takes aim at women dressing scantily in public? That's her whole schtick!

Today's Top Stories