Friday, October 31, 2008

Political Bombshell: A Sultan on the ballot

How exactly do you run against a demigod?

Now there's a question I bet political hacks like James Carville and Pat Buchanan have never had to answer. But if they were across the Pacific, they might have to. That's because the Sultan of Yogyakarta (aka Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X - try fitting that on a ballot) has announced that's he'll be running for Indonesian president, against the usual suspects like Megawati and Yudhoyono.

If crowds are any indication, he could stir up the race: 200,000 turned out to see him speak. Maybe not that surprising a turnout, since he's supposedly semi-divine. In terms of experience, he's not exactly Sarah Palin: He's governor of Yogyakarta, is extremely popular throughout Java, and in 1998 called for national unity while the country was undergoing a crisis that strained it at the seams. Plus his lineage is stellar: His dad served as VP under Suharto, and going further back, royal ancestors rebelled against the Dutch colonialists.

I have no idea how a demigod would deal with the gritty realities of everyday politics. Or if all Indonesians would have to crouch in his presence, like his palace staff does. But when it comes to shaking up the '09 race, you couldn't have a more interesting contestant.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

For sale: Obama's old house!

Here's a real-estate listing you don't see every day: The former home of the next (hopefully) leader of the free world.

It's Barack Obama's former house in Jakarta, where he lived with his mom and her second husband for a couple of years while growing up. The current owner, 78-year-old Tata Aboe Bakar, doesn't really want to move out ... but everyone has a price, and if someone is flashing millions of dollars in his face, he drops hints that he's willing to negotiate.

In fact a local bar owner, Bartele Santema, already has big plans for the place - even though he doesn't even own it yet. He envisions a Dutch-style coffee house with Barack memorabilia all over the walls (a kind of political Hard Rock Cafe?), and a house coffee blend mixing Indonesian and Kenyan beans. Cute.

The aging owner, for his part, vaguely remembers mini-Barack, but only as a kid who didn't like having his hair ruffled by adults, and who once lost his favorite poodle. He should thank God for his little former tenant, though, because if current polls hold, his real-estate capital gains are about to go through the roof.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lonely Planet reviews the islands

Very excited to get this year's Lonely Planet guide to Indonesia, not least because of the memories it brings back. When I was traipsing through the islands back in the day, it was Lonely Planet that served as my informal tutor. I don't know where that dog-eared edition ever went, but God bless it.
I've always found Lonely Planet more appropriate to my situation than a Fodor's or a Frommer's, which are fine in their own right, but skew more towards the five-star-hotel traveller than the backpacker who prefers to flop in guesthouses with mandis. (For those of you who don't know what mandis, are, well, you're in for a treat ...)

There's an inherent flaw in every travel guidebook, of course. It's like that law of physics that says that once you observe a phenomenon, the phenomenon itself changes, simply thanks to the fact you're looking at it. So it is with guidebook mentions; when a terrific losman gets featured, there's a risk of it getting overrun and ruined. Such is the dilemma of travel writing.
Neverthless, can't wait to dig in to see what Lonely Planet's 11 authors have compiled for this edition, fanning across the archipelago to discover the best of the best. I'll follow up with a fuller review later, but in the meantime you can check out Lonely Planet's Indonesia section here.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Life Changing Travel: The i-to-i story

When it comes to travel, there are different schools of thought. One is the idea of getting away from it all, and detoxifying from daily life with a mai-tai and a beach chair. Not that there's anything wrong with that; in fact I'm very much in favor.

But there's another school of thought, that the meaning of travel is not to get away from life, but to throw yourself into it with both feet. That's the philosophy behind, a British organization that feeds travellers into worthy projects around the globe. Sicne 1994 they've dispatched 20,000 volunteers and taught another 50,000 to be English-as-a-second-language teachers.

Here's information on their Indonesian branch, which currently includes options like working with orphans and disabled people, or teaching English while surfing on the side, both of which take place in Bali. It requires some effort on your part - and a fee, too, which helps fund the projects - but you'll be left with more powerful memories than if you spent your whole vacation drunk in a bar in Kuta.

Today's Top Stories

The rupiah, now good for making paper airplanes
If you can't beat them, buy them: Conservationists get aggressive
Wage caps: Saving businesses, or creating more poverty?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Market bloodbath: When will it end?

Just when you think world stock markets can't go any lower ...

Another Monday, another stock-market massacre. This time the Jakarta Index was down 6.3% - and that was relatively strong showing for Asia, since Thailand's index lost 10% and the Philippines more than 12%. Hard to know who's dragging down who, but in the U.S., it's looking like hedge-fund redemptions are one catalyst for this ongoing slide. Investors want their money out, which requires hedge funds to raise capital, which requires them to get rid of stocks at rock-bottom prices whether they like it or not.

As such, the markets have become untethered from the fundamentals, and are simply another victim of the global deleveraging process, in which cash is king. For those with strong stomachs, the good news is that legendary market bears like Jeremy Grantham, of Boston money manager GMO, are sounding like kids in a candy store. Global equities are the cheapest they've been in 20 years, he calculates. But as for emerging markets? In the short term they could fall another 20%, as the bear continues to rampage.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Australia ups Indonesian threat level

Australia doesn't have America's silly color-coded terror system, which assigns threat levels based on shades from yellow to orange to red to a really nice chartreuse (sorry, I made that last one up).

But it does have a system, which has just been raised to the equivalent of Defcon 4, one spot removed from the top (which is reserved for standout basket cases like Iraq and Afghanistan). The reason: The imminent execution of the Bali bombers, which many fear will invite retaliation from the likes of Jemaah Islamiyah.

If you've been following the saga, the Indonesian government response has been almost comic, delaying the sentence countless times already ... presumably in fear of just such an outcome. You can tell they just wish the situation would go away, and I don't blame them, since they're between a rock and a hard place. Carry out the law of the land and risk revenge, or commute the sentence and give terrorists fresh hopes about the lack of government backbone.

Meanwhile would-be tourists (and the poor 'Visit Indonesia' bureaucrats) don't know what to think, since the U.S. itself recently eased its travel warnings about Indonesia in recognition of beefed-up security. Mixed messages, all. But then, no one ever said our post-9/11, terror-paralyzed world would be an uncomplicated affair.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

4th World Love goes to Lombok

If ever you feel like you're not doing anything with your life, here's something to make you even more depressed.

Meet Misty Tosh, who in addition to producing film and TV projects, organizing pilates retreats, and sailing around the world, has set up a terrific NGO called 4th World Love. Looks like it's the flipside of traditional top-down international development, and promotes the radical idea that maybe those in developing nations know what their villages need the most.

Enter Sembalun, a town on the island of Lombok and in the shadow of Mt. Rinjani. Fourth World has opened a community center there, which will house a library and fair-trade cafe as well as classes for English and computer skills. They're accepting donations of clothes, books, and school supplies for the village (as well as cash, natch); interested parties can even sign up to spend time in the village, as part of an ongoing rotation of Fourth World volunteers. And get this, those who chip in $100 get a chance to win a 10-day trip of a lifetime to Bali and Lombok.

Hats off to Misty Tosh and the folks of Lombok, who indeed are among the friendliest of the archipelago. But shame on you for making the rest of us look bad ...!

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pilates in Paradise

God knows with the plunging economy, the two-year-long election campaign, two wars, and everything else about our anxious world, Americans could use a break.

So here's a tempting one, sent in by reader Tannis Kobrinsky. It's a May 25-June 6, 2009 getaway to Bali that mixes luxury travel with intensive pilates and yoga classes. The group (maximum 20) will have stops at Uluwatu and Hotel Tugu Bali in the south, Pemuteran and Tamansari Cottages in the north, and Ubud and Bagus Jati in the island's cultural center. Along the way, unique diversions like taking elephant rides, visiting monkey temples, swimming with dolphins, and a savoring a few legendary Balinese dance performances.

It's all organized in conjunction with Diane Embree's Bali Barong Tours, named Bali's top travel specialist by Conde Nast Travel. Sadly, since I'm a) not flexible enough for Pilates and b) raising my crazy two-year-old boy, your humble author won't be able to participate. But check it out here, have some gado-gado for me, and send a postcard ...

Today's Top Stories

Sign of the apocalypse: Indonesia gets Hallmark channel
Ultimate Fighting: Indonesia vs. Malaysia
Local terror cells not going away

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's Bahasa Indonesia for "hanging chad"?

It's standard practice for the U.S. government and various NGOs to send election observers to dodgy developing-world nations, to make sure everything's on the up and up. Well, America had better be on its best behavior, because Indonesia is sending 10 professional journalists to monitor the McCain-Obama smackdown on Nov. 4.

It's a joint project of Boston's Emerson College and the U.S. State Department, and is being headed up by Dr. Gregory Payne. Emerson faculty will team up with veteran journalists like broadcaster Shellie Karabell, in giving the visiting students a few tools to cover next year's Yudhoyono-Megawati matchup in their home country.

In-house prep will take place Oct. 24-28, and then students will fan out to battleground states like Ohio, Virginia and Missouri to see the madness firsthand. If they're looking for a flawless election in the world's foremost democracy, though, I shudder to think about what they're going to see. Voting stations crawling with lawyers from both sides, squabbling over fraud allegations? Diebold machines breaking down, being hacked, or spitting out incorrect results? God forbid, more hanging-chad nonsense from Florida?

Yikes. The American electoral system is like sausage; I'm not sure I want to see every step of it being made. But transparency is a good thing, I suppose, so best of luck to our Indonesian visitors ... and maybe they can teach the lazy American media a thing or two about covering elections, as well.

Today's Top Stories

Fatburger coming to Indonesia!
Red Cross branches out into microfinance
Not the best way to lure the Olympics

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Colin Powell rejects Islamophobia

American politics is generally about who can roll in the muck for the longest. Which is why it was so remarkable to see somebody take a principled, unpopular stand against discrimination.

That somebody, who spoke out forecfully this weekend against anti-Muslim bias, was General Colin Powell. The same general who invaded Iraq the first time around, back in 1990. Not only did he back Barack Obama for president, but he denounced the "Muslim" and "terrorist" rumors dished out by those ugly McCain robocalls.

More importantly, he pointed out: So what if Obama was Muslim? Can't a Muslim be an American, or die for their country, as many Muslim-Americans have in Iraq and Afghanistan - like Karim Rashad Sultan Khan, who Powell cited and who lies in Arlington Cemetery? This brave stand reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's defense of gay rights a couple of years ago, as a singular voice of true decency.

The sad part about this is that Powell is the first to recognize just how McCarthyite this kind of exclusion and hatemongering is. Every other politician just lets it slide, for fear of endangering their own election prospects. No wonder Powell is admired by almost three-quarters of the American people. God knows he's been very wrong in the past - thinking Bush and Cheney would be terrific leaders, for example - but on this issue he's dead right.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Exclusive Interview: Mark Johnson on Indonesian art

So far on this site we haven't really touched on the subject of Indonesian art, so let's rectify that in blowout fashion. Mark Johnson is one of North America's premier experts on the subject, running his own tribal art-dealership (check it out here) and having dealt in the field for more than 25 years. We sat down with him to discuss the beauty and complexity of Indonesian culture.

Everything Indonesia: When it comes to Indonesian art, most Westerners think of narrow areas like batik and wayang. What should people know about the whole spectrum of tribal art?

Mark Johnson: Indonesia is at the crossroads of Asia and Oceania with two very connected, yet distinct, art and culture styles that also have hybrid elements of both. The cultures of Java and Bali (along with Madura, Lombok, and Sumbawa, the lowlands of Sumatra, and coastal regions of Borneo and Sulawesi) have centuries of influence from India, China, Southeast Asia, and Arabia. Their art styles would be recognizable to scholars and collectors of South, East, and Southeast Asian art. The people that inhabit the “outer islands” of Sumba, Flores, Timor, the Moluccas, as well as the interior and highland regions of Sumatra, Borneo, and Sulawesi have more in common with the Polynesian peoples of the Pacific. Oceanic scholars and collectors would find much in common with this grouping. In fact nearly all of these peoples in this region are part of the great Austronesian expansion into Island Asia and the Oceania and in fact are related linguistically and culturally, with roots going back several millennium. Indonesian runs the whole gamete of tribal and classic Asian art. In the so-called “classical” art world, there are ancient stone monuments, megaliths, bronzes, terracottas, and sculptures similar to other ancient Hindu-Buddhists cultures of India and Cambodia. Even today, Bali and parts of Java perform dance routines taken directly from Indian Hindu mythology. The so-called “primitive” societies create fantastic masks, carve incredible wood sculptures, forge metal objects, weave intricate textiles, basketry, and beadwork at a level more sophisticated that most other and more well-known tribal cultures in other parts of the world. And yet it is common for both “classical” and “primitive” cultures to blend elements of both. You can find animist roots in Java and Bali as well as Hindu and Chinese elements in the remotest jungles of Borneo.

EI: How and why did you first get interested in this field?

MJ: I was originally influenced by Central Asian carpets and textiles collected by a few friends I knew back in the early 1970’s. I also liked the idea of traveling to interesting parts of the world and made a decision to quit my job and explore Asia, while looking for inexpensive works of tribal art. I really did not expect it to go anywhere other than having the experience, but in the mid 1970’s travel in Asia was cheap, and there was relatively easy access to authentic artifacts. I was lucky enough to find buyers for many of the items I bought, which allowed me to return repeatedly to Asia and continue this budding business. I had also made my way to Sumatra and Malaysia while focusing on the Central Asia, so I had gained some familiarity with artifacts from that region as well and eventually shifted my emphasis to Island Southeast Asia. I became fascinated with other art forms, such as sculpture, beadwork, and masks, and ultimately incorporated these items into my inventory, along with the textiles that had been my primary interest. I now specialize in art from all of the Asian tribal cultures, but my particular interest is in the artifacts of the various Dayak cultures of Borneo Island.

EI: What distinctive styles of art stand out for the individual islands, from Sumatra to Sulawesi to Kalimantan to Nusa Tenggara?

MJ: The tribal cultures of these particular islands have many similarities, including some artistic styles, but they are also know for specific individual works of art. Nias Island is well known for stone megaliths, architectural elements, and small to mid-size wooden ancestor figures, often topped with elaborate carved crowns. The Batak culture of north Sumatra Island (around Lake Toba) carves wood shaman’s staffs whose lengths are covered with mythical ancestors, animals, and human figures. They carved magical wood charms, often in a very refined style, that are brought to life with the essence of human or animal parts. The Lampung region of southern Sumatra is famous for woven textiles that depict ships and ancestors that relate to these island cultures connection to sea migrations and life transitions. Borneo (or Kalimantan) has it all: Incredible wood sculptures of ancestors and spirits; beautifully painted and carved panels for houses and granaries; wonderful weavings; an vast range of basketry, colorful beaded panels with anthropomorphic figures that adorn hats, jackets, skirts, baskets, and baby carriers; fantastic masks, that morph the images of man, animals, birds, and spirits; and the most elaborate funerary objects such as ossuaries carved in the form of dragons, deer, water snakes, and hornbills that are place up high on ironwood columns. The Toraja people of the highlands of Sulawesi are famous for mysterious, almost alien like, wood ancestor figures that are place in balconies carved out of limestone cliff faces. The tombs themselves are chiseled out of these same cliffs and sealed with wood doors decorated with buffalo or human motifs. The primary islands of Nusa Tenggara (Flores, Sumba, Alor, Lembata, Roti, Savu, Timor) are famous for their ikat dyed textiles. Many of the islands, especially Sumba and Timor also have stone statues and monuments. Farther out from Timor (Tanimbar, Leti, Babar) they are known for delicately carved wood ancestor figures and shrines. All of these culture groups build traditional houses with cosmological and symbolical features, such as roof lines that resemble boats and wall panels with status and protective symbols.

EI: Since the Dayak people are of particular interest to you, what is it about their art that speaks to you?

MJ: They do it all and they are highly skilled in all of these artistic medium, especially wood sculptures, textiles, beadwork, architectural elements, weaponry (shields and swords), tattoos, and dress. Besides the vast range of artistic styles, the art and motifs are more unique (even within Indonesia) and seems to have a deeper root into an archaic past. Some of the oldest wood sculptures resemble Hawaiian Tikis and clearly are prototypes to much of the more recognized forms found in the Pacific. Yet, you can see a clear connection to other ancient mainland cultures, such as the Dong Son of Vietnam, the Dian of Yunnan, and the Shang Dynasty of China. They also use abstraction, motifs in negative space, and other highly complex and sophisticated art techniques, only recently appreciated in the West, yet they have been doing this for centuries. It would take many pages of information to scratch the surface of the range and complexity of Dayak art.

EI: In the U.S., is appreciation of the beauty and complexity of Southeast Asian tribal art growing?

MJ: It has steadily for years. My first awareness of art from this area was in the 1970’s, and it seemed very few others were interested or even knew where Indonesia was located. There had been some earlier exhibitions and sales of Indonesia art before this time, but really not much and almost nothing in the mainstream art world. By the 1980’s more and more Americans were starting to travel to exotic locales, such as Indonesia (especially Bali). This certainly contributed to more awareness of these cultures and their art. Also, around this time a few major museums started exhibiting Indonesia art more publicly, often with catalogs that made it easier to appreciate the forms. Today, most collectors of tribal art are aware of Indonesia and many that only collected African or other Oceanic art in the past are now seriously looking at collecting in this area, especially since the prices are generally less expensive. However, there is still a lot of ignorance about the art of this area and more needs to be done to properly promote the highlights. And unfortunately, but inevitably, there are thousands of fakes and reproductions available in the shops of Jakarta and Bali that confuse the marketplace.

EI: What's been your most memorable experience of travelling in Indonesia?

MJ: There are so many, but I loved traveling through the Toraja highlands looking at the old tombs in the cliff faces. And once, back in the 1980’s, I sailed with a small group on a large catamaran throughout Nusa Tenggara, visiting Lombok, Komodo, Flores, Alor, Lembata, Sumba, Savu, Roti, Ndau, Timor. I also spent a month on Lake Toba (the first place I visited in Indonesia, back in 1976), which was one of the most interesting and peaceful times of my life. Mostly I love the people, who have always been so amazing friendly and helpful. And lastly, you just can’t beat the incredible variety and flavors of the food! Selamat makan!

Today's Top Stories

Big surprise: Indonesia wins pencak silat gold
HSBC bets big on Indonesia
Illegal animal trading in East Java

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Surprise smash: Rainbow Warriors

When you're looking for original ideas on the big screen, best not to look to the usual film factories like Hollywood (or India's Bollywood, for that matter). Case in point: Laskar Pelangi, or Rainbow Warriors, a groundbreaking Indonesian film that's turned into an out-of-the-box hit.

A thumbnail sketch: It's about a group of kids struggling to get an education on the island of Belitung, and is based on the novel by Andrea Hirata. Not your typical blockbuster plot, but you wouldn't know it from the box-office receipts, since two million Indonesians have already bought tickets.

In fact it's on track to become the local version of all-time box-office champ Titanic, surpassing reigning king Ayat-Ayat Cinta, or Verses of Love, a chick flick that pulled in three million moviegoers. Rainbow Warriors producer Mira Lesmana is using the tide of popularity to push for the movie's central theme, of accessible education for all. After all, there's no law (except maybe in major American studios) saying you can't embed a terrific story with an important social message.

Today's Top Stories

Surfer dudes put down pot, go for gold
Orangutans vs. biofuel boom
When in doubt, blame the CIA

Friday, October 17, 2008

Tourism and bad timing

As we all know, 2008 is Visit Indonesia year. The government had lofty goals of attracting seven million tourists by the end of December, and engineered a nice publicity blitz to make it happen. Heck, Visit Indonesia even has its own Facebook page.

Alas, world financial events intervened. The Dow dropped by 40%, the Chinese stock market by half, housing tumbled all over the world, and as a result ordinary folks out there are feeling extremely cash-poor. Their retirement funds have tumbled, they couldn't sell their homes if they tried, and they're trying to come up with their next mortgage payment, not go on a lavish trip overseas.

That's why it's such unfortunate timing for a big tourism push, which was meant to vault Indonesia into a Thailand-style vacation hotspot. God bless him, Indonesia's tourism minister is trying to put a positive spin on the world financial meltdown, by saying that people are stressed out and need vacation more than ever.

Maybe so. But when people are simply struggling to fill their gas tank or pay their utility bills, and their credit cards are already maxed out, it's not just a winning equation for the tourism industry.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Indonesian Idol musings

I'm ashamed to admit I follow American Idol as much as any other mouth-breathing knucklehead. Which got me wondering about whether there's an Indonesian Idol.

Silly question ... of course there is, just like there is in every nation on the planet. In fact I think the brains behind American Idol and Britain's Pop Idol - Nigel Lythgoe, Simon Fuller, Fremantle Media and the rest of the gang - are secretly bent on world domination. Putting subliminal messages into sugary pop songs, implanting microchips in contestants' brains to ensure maximum docility, etc.

But now that I'm up to speed on the glorious victories of Joy Destiny Tobing, Mike Mohede, Ihsan Tarore, Rini Wulandari, and Januarisman, I'm overcome with curiosity. Who's the Indonesian equivalent of vapid host Ryan Seacrest? Of strung-out judge Paula Abdul? Of dream-destroying Simon Cowell?

Someone has to fill me in, because from New York City, Idol overlords only deign to tell me about all-American products like David Cook, Jordin Sparks, and Kelly Clarkson ... at least, that is, until the next robo-artist emerges from their secret underground factory.

Today's Top Stories

More Papua independence rumblings
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Microfinance 2.0: Kiva changing the world

The original idea of microfinance came from pioneers like Grameen Bank. Led by founder Muhammad Yunus (author of banker to the Poor), it was among the first institutions to grant tiny loans to small-business entrepreneurs in the developing world, getting them the initial start-up capital to work themselves out of a life of poverty.

The next wave - kind of a Microfinance 2.0 - is person-to-person lending, where entrepreneurs won't have to deal with banks at all, but can acquire funding from individuals. Enter Kiva, co-founded by my friend Jessica Jackley Flannery. You choose the project you want to fund, make the loan, and then assuming the loan is repaid (which it almost always is), you actually get the money back to fund even more projects.

Makes you wonder why no one has thought of this before. In fact Kiva has been so successful, with over $46 million directed to projects around the world, that almost every single loan request on the site has been fulfilled. (Here's just one example, of a Balinese corn farmer.) Indeed, the site's desperately looking for new initiatives to fund. Goes to show that even in a troubled economy, and with people's own pocketbooks hurting, the right philanthropic idea can take off into the stratosphere.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Indonesian universities on the rise

Good news from the ivory tower of academia, where all three of Indonesia's most prominent universities leapt up smartly in the world rankings.

The University of Indonesia rose from 395th to 287th, the Bandung Institute of Technology from 369th to 315th, and Gadjah Mada from 360th to 316th, according to Times Higher Education Magazine. Still a ways to go to crack the top 200 - and even longer to reach the lofty atmosphere of Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, which topped the global list - but still, significant improvement for a single year.

How one even goes about quantifying such a planetary ranking, I have no idea. Who's to say the 315th is any superior to the 316th? Indeed in the U.S., the annual business-school rankings of US News & World Report are always rife with controversy, since at some point it's a subjective affair. Same thing with Maclean's magazine's rankings in Canada, where many institutions simply refuse to participate in the surveys.

But however they crunch the numbers, kudos to Indonesian academics, and here's hoping the positive trendline continues. After all, 2006 was actually the country's best showing ever in the rankings, so there's still some lost ground to be made up.

Today's Top Stories

They're waiting for sweeps week
No more rice shortage, apparently
Indonesians: McCain sucks

Monday, October 13, 2008

Jakarta Index: Rock bottom?

In one way, the plunge of world stock indexes is every investor's worst nightmare. A taste of the Great Depression, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times just stated. (If you don't believe me, just open your third-quarter 401(k) statement.)

But here's something else about the Great Depression: It's when a lot of people made their fortunes. If you bought in 1932 when everyone else was selling, with blue-chip companies available for pennies on the dollar, your heirs today would be very rich indeed.

Keep that nugget in mind as the Jakarta Index and the Dow struggle with their lows. Years from now we may look back on these days as a historic buying opportunity. Victory goes to the brave, and there's no one braver than those wading back into stocks during tumultuous times.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Obama on a roll

With every new poll that comes in, it looks more and more like the U.S. will have its first-ever President with some significant knowledge of, and experience with, Indonesia.

Barack Obama is holding onto traditionally Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, successfully wooing tossup states like Ohio and Florida, and even making inroads into red-state bastions like Indiana and North Carolina. Check out the site Five Thirty Eight, which now projects a more than a 90% chance that the Democrat will take the White House.

As they say, though, a week is a lifetime in politics, and we've got a few of those left to go. Throw in the so-called "Bradley effect," which accounts for frequent last-minute swings towards white candidates over African-American opponents, and no one really knows how the electoral-college votes are going to shake out.

But it's looking very possible that a landslide is taking shape, largely thanks the economic explosion that is not only affecting American families of all stripes, but is threatening to drag the nation down from its hyperpower status. Now that Obama is within striking distance, I wonder, is this horrific mess something he really wants to preside over? Be careful what you wish for ...

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Er, your city is sinking

Global warming is the big worry these days, but by the time the melting polar ice caps get around to raising sea levels, it looks like Jakarta might be in a spot of trouble.

That's because the city is already sinking, thanks to residents tapping groundwater on a massive scale. "It's like Swiss cheese," says the World Bank exec who's trying to raise the alarm. "People are digging deeper and deeper, and so the city is slowly, slowly sinking."

By 2025, in fact, the city will be 40-60 cm lower than it is now. The witch's brew of a dense (and growing) population, insufficient water infrastructure, groundwater tapping, and six months of the rainy season are enough to overwhelm almost any noble effort. Apparently a program of dredging the existing canals that crisscross the city, along with building a new $560-million canal to buttress those efforts, will help mitigate the increasing floods.

But as for groundwater tapping, I'm not exactly sure how you tell residents to stop. Poverty has a tendency to focus the mind on immediate needs, not the survival of your city decades down the road.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Indonesia vs. Guinness Book: Deforestation Smackdown

So who's right?

For the second consecutive year, the Guinness Book of World Records has given Indonesia the dubious title as the nation with the highest rate of deforestation in the world. That works out to 52 square kilometers per day, 300 football fields every hour.

The Indonesian government, not surprisingly, is crying foul. They say only about a million hectares a year is being cleared, not the 1.8 million that the Guinness Book suggests, which draws on data from environmental organziations like Greenpeace. Yale University, by the way, had its own rankings of environmentally friendly countries, which ranked Indonesia an anemic 102nd out of 149 nations.

If enough data is arrayed against you, and you're complaining about every result, it sounds like you're (what's called in the political world) 'gaming the refs'. Maybe the government should quit whining about rankings, and try to aim for better results. If your defense is that you're "only" clearing a million hectares a year, it's hard to sympathize ...

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Chateau Petrus with your nasi goreng?

Fine wine's always been an interest of mine. As evidenced by my recent article in the Financial Times, in which I recount how owning cases of great Bordeaux is much more satisfying than seeing your shares in Lehman Brothers drop to nothingess. (And provides healthy returns, too.)

I never realized it was a real interest in Indonesia, though, until I saw this article from Reuters. Apparently wine classes, vintage tastings, and wine-savvy bars are sprouting up throughout Jakarta. Notes to local aficionados: Chicken satay goes well with port, while goat pairs nicely with Australian shiraz. Lamb with coconut milk? Think California chardonnay.

More power to local wine lovers, since quaffing a great Lafite-Rothschild or Margaux is one of life's inestimable pleasures. But I thought Muslim law was pretty clear on the subject: No alcohol. As such Indonesia still has among the lowest per-capita wine consumption in Asia, at less than a litre a year (as compared to those grape-loving Singaporeans). All the more for me ...

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Uh oh: The meltdown continues

It's often said that if the American economy gets the sniffles, the rest of the world catches the flu. So what happens if it's the U.S. that catches the flu, and in a bad way? Does that put every other economy on their deathbeds, calling their lawyer to put together a final will and testament?

We'll soon find out. Indonesia's composite index fell around 10% in a single day Monday, the kind of drop that would have American market commentators running for their bottles of Maalox. (Even the 777-point Dow plummet the other day wasn't as big as that, percentage-wise.) One culprit is that Indonesian inflation is running at a two-year high of 12%, worrying enough to practically guarantee more hikes in interest rates, which are already lofty at over 9%.

But the core worry is that global stock markets are undergoing a rout of historic proportions, and investors are fleeing for shore - away from emerging markets and dodgy currencies, and towards money-market funds, government treasury bonds, gold, and not a whole lot else. Contracting economies means less energy consumption which means Indonesian commodity concerns, like coal companies, get hammered. Only thing to do is batten down the hatches and hope that the storm passes, with your house still standing ...

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Plight of the Treeman

It's not every day that Indonesia makes American primetime television schedules. But check out the Discovery Channel this Sunday for the story of the 'Treeman,' a fascinating tale of bizarre science - and touching cross-border cooperation.

The treeman's real name is Dede, a rural villager not far from Bandung, and he became famous worldwide because of a condition that caused bark-and root-like growths over much of his body. American dermatologist Anthony Gaspari of the University of Maryland sympathized with his plight (on top of everything else, his wife left him), and travelled to Java to help Dede find the root cause.

Medical testing revealed that the growths were plain old warts, or HPV ... but because of his low count of white blood cells, they had been able to run wild over his body, instead of being kept in check by normal antibodies. Apparently with an ongoing course of treatment - although not without conflict between doctors like Gaspari, and Indonesian authorities - Dede has already seen remarkable improvement, and is on track to regain some semblance of a normal life. Learn more about the shocking Discovery episode here.

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From the bloody obvious department
Insert MILF joke here
Indonesian army to hold yard sale

Friday, October 3, 2008

A real-estate bull market?!

As CNBC host/lunatic Jim Cramer is fond of saying, there's always a bull market somewhere. Exhibit A, Indonesian real estate. In America right now home prices are reaching new lows every quarter, as the long-forgotten housing boom continues to deflate. Oh, and no one can get a mortgage anymore. Because no one has any money, at all.

But I digress. In Indonesia at the moment, real estate seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much. Check out this article, in which Housing Minister Yusuf Asy'hari points out to Reuters that investors - fed up with paltry returns on their bank deposits - are gravitating towards the solidity (and inflation hedge?) of housing. Indeed, prices are up 12% in a year, says the Indonesia Property Study Center.

Such real-estate price pressures aren't all that surprising if you're cramming in 230 million people, most on the island of Java that's only about the size of Mississippi. Asian-property bulls beware, though, that real estate doesn't always go up ... and when it eventually comes back to Earth, as the credit crunch leaks across the Pacific, the carnage could be brutal. Take one look at American foreclosure stats right now, and maybe keeping your money in plain ol' bank accounts isn't that stupid after all.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Next medical tourism hotspot: Indonesia?

Healthcare in the U.S. may be a total nightmare. Ironically, though, that botched system represents a major opportunity for many Asian countries.

That's because if you build a five-star medical facility, Western patients will come, in search of quality care at a fraction of the cost. Just look at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok (pictured at left), famed for its marble floors and resort-like amenities. Or Johns Hopkins' outpost in Singapore, or Wockhardt hospitals in India. If an American or British traveller can get a hip replacement or a major heart operation by Western-trained doctors, recuperate in a luxury hotel for a couple of weeks, and still save 50% on the total bill, it's hard to fault them for it.

Indonesia's obviously seen the writing on the healthcare wall, because now there's news that a number of world-class medical facilities are in the works. Meant for Indonesia's own upper-class clientele, but surely designed with one eye towards international visitors. It's a shame such top-notch care won't be available to the public at large, but then, that's no different from the American story ...

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