Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Of politics and sausage

As they say, making legislation is like making sausage. There's a final product, but you surely don't want to see the ugly process of it being made.

I'm reminded of that old adage thanks to the political horse-trading that's going on, now that the election numbers are in and the presidential wannabes are all jostling for position. Kalla and Wiranto, SBY and take your pick of Boediono, Megawati, Prabowo, or even the Sultan of Yogyakarta.

It's all a bit unseemly, much like New York Governor David Paterson's recent botched selection of a senator to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In fact the governor was so damaged by the affair that his career may never recover.

Food for thought, that such political negotiations should always be delicate and behind closed doors, never conducted as a virtual wrestling match. The public may know that politicians are craven and grasping creatures, but we'd rather not witness it in action.

Today's Top Stories

Talk about bad timing

Anticorruption chief up on murder charges

The rupiah, back from the dead

VW plans new Indonesia plant

Friday, May 1, 2009

Lombok, getting on my nerves

Someone please stab me in the eye.

Look, I love Lombok as much as the next guy. But the western media's obsession with 'The Next Bali' story is starting to rub me the wrong way. To wit, here's the latest version from Forbes. The trope goes thusly: Bali and its execrable Kuta Beach are overrun with hammered (usually Australian) tourists, therefore it's time to look to other undiscovered islands in the archipelago ... and hey, there's Lombok right next door. Write it up!

If I see one more article like this I'm going to go postal. First of all, Lombok is not as 'undiscovered' as clueless feature editors would have you believe. Second, this story is about 20 years old. Third, there are 14,000 other islands that could use a bit of the spotlight (and accompanying tourist dollars), not just Lombok.

So editors of the world, take note. Of course print journalism is dying a quick death anyways, so this message may get to you a little too late.

Today's Top Stories

World crisis slamming poor

Impressive showing during economic catastrophe

Botched cafe bombing snares Osama wannabes

Golkar, PDI-P, PPP, others form big coalition

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Election 2009: Lessons Learned

Now that we've had some time to digest the numbers - 'quantitative analysis,' they call it in the investment world - we can draw some conclusions from the recent Indonesian elections. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that there was no real surprise.

President SBY's party came out on top, an event predicted by most polls in the runup. What wasn't quite as foreseen was the significant slump borne by the main opposition parties, like Golkar and Megawati's PDI-P. Late in election seasons most populations shift back to the status quo instead of the great unknown, and this time was no different. But the sub-20% showings were particularly crippling.

No wonder it looks like Megawati is reaching out to former Gen. Prabowo Subianto as a running mate, desperate to glean any possible support. But unless a political earthquake arrives in short order, SBY looks to cruise to victory.

Today's Top Stories

Indonesia on alert for flu pandemic

Indo is region's worst greenhouse-gas emitter, says ADB

Global caliphate will have to wait

Presidential challenge leads to rift

Monday, April 6, 2009

Election 2009: It's he-ere!

It seems like the buildup has been forever- although not quite as long as the interminable American version - but the elections are finally imminent. Glory glory hallelujah.

Consensus is that the party of the generally inoffensive SBY will prevail, although polls have been fairly close in recent weeks. The 'Intelligence Unit' of the venerable Economist magazine predicts as much here, although noting that he'll be under rising pressure in coming months thanks to a global economy that's been brought to its knees.

The electoral process will likely be a messy event, given the huge population and the thousands of far-flung islands we're talking about. But let's have a glass-half-full moment, and appreciate the fact that Indonesia has evolved from a longtime dictatorship to a thriving democracy within a few short years. Not many countries in the world can pull off such a jarring transition - witness Russia, which has backslid to the times of yore - but Indonesia has. In that spirit, hats off to the victors, whoever that turns out to be.

Today's Top Stories

24 perish in fireball

SBY crosses his fingers

Indonesia trying to stay ahead of global slowdown

Tensions simmering in eastern province

Thursday, April 2, 2009

And the winner is ... Megawati's party?!

Heed well the old children's fable of the tortoise and the hare. Because with just a week to go before the general elections, a new poll bombshell has Megawati's party pulling ahead.

For months President SBY and his Democratic party have been mopping the floor with rivals in most polls. But this survey by the Strategic Centre for Development and Policy Review has the party of Sukarno's daughter - noted for her particular fondness for cooking and gardening, not so much for her policy brilliance - ahead by a half-point, with SBY's cohorts second and Golkar a close third.

All of them, crucially, fall short of the 20% barrier to nominate a presidential candidate on their own. So may the horse-trading begin in the nation's political backrooms, because it looks like we're in for some delicious chaos. That's democracy, in all its beautiful messiness.

Today's Top Stories

Don't mess with the God of Good Luck

Elections more about music than smart policy

Suitable for lining birdcages

Poachers win; only 3,000 left in wild

Monday, March 30, 2009

Favorite Place on Earth

If there's anyone who knows something about travel, it's Arthur Frommer. The creator of the Frommer's travel-guide series has been to just about every nook and cranny in the world. His favorite of them all, though? None other than Bali.

We find this out courtesy of a new book from National Geographic, "My Favorite Place on Earth," where assorted celebrities let us in on their secret haunts. Other favored spots: The Simpsons creator Matt Groening likes Kauai, Hawaii, while Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler prefers Nepal - and designer Isaac Mizrahi singles out good old Brooklyn. (Big ups!)

As for myself, I'd have to say Cambodia's Angkor Wat, Martinique in the Caribbean, and India's Varanasi. And, of course, my hometown of Vancouver, Canada and my host village of Kota Intan in Indonesia's Riau province.

So, how about you?

Today's Top Stories

No to changing nationalities

Environment minister headed to DC

Overseer offers to resign

Secret spy network hit 103 countries

Friday, March 27, 2009

Food riots as global phenomenon?

The global economic crisis has made "pessimism porn" something of a favorite pastime these days. More and more publications are talking up apocalyptic scenarios like food and water shortages, devalued currencies, and huge spikes in crime rates as old orders break down. (Great piece in the New Yorker recently that should be required reading.)

Poorer countries have some familiarity with phenomena like food riots, since when you're living close to the poverty line, even slight changes in commodity prices can be the difference between eating and not eating. Hence situations like Haiti, where elements of the government fell when food prices got out of hand.

Indonesia too has seen some isolated food rioting in recent years, and there could be more to come depending on how deep this crisis goes. But when you hear experts talking about such possibilities in America, it's time to rethink your assumptions about the world. Here's forecaster Gerald Celente on the possibility of social breakdown in the US itself, not just the so-called Third World.

Even level-headed writers like Peggy Noonan are being told by expert buddies to start growing their own food and stockpile gold coins. Rewind to 2007, and who would've thought any of this craziness would come to pass?

Today's Top Stories

52 killed, search for missing underway

Indonesia likes Chinese idea

Second time in just a month

Rebel leader in Papua raises passions

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Of slow blogging, and the reasons for it

Sorry for not posting for a while. In this economy-from-hell, I had to go and make some money while I still could!

But by way of an excuse, here's an interesting Slow Blogging Manifesto that I came across, and that nicely justifies my absence. Should blogging be about multiple daily posts, or should it be about more occasional worthy insights? Should bloggers work with a mindset of ever-passing deadlines, or with a goal of deeper breakthroughs?

The author's position is obvious ... here's a sample: "Slow Blogging is a rejection of immediacy. It is an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament."

When time passes and we're all six feet under, is an ephemeral blog any kind of legacy to leave? Perhaps we should all return to the writerly habits of yore, and write personal letters in longhand. At least it would be something tangible to hold on to ...

Today's Top Stories

Leader Nicolas Jouwe offers mixed messages

Poor fruit picker on the receiving end

Hey, anything's better than stocks

Won't get a prez candidate, but will shape results

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Whither Papua?

Word that a key leader of the Free Papua movement is finally warming up to the idea of Indonesia.

Somewhat of a mystery, for beliefs that have been decades in the making for Nicolas Jouwe. A feint to wrest more powers from the government, and prevent much-needed funds from leaking back to Jakarta? An admission that a tiny country, alone, might not reach the promised land via independence alone (viz: East Timor)? Or a personal power grab, since he apparently would like to advise SBY on Papuan affairs?

Perhaps a combination of the three. Or, even, a touch of well-timed propaganda from the government - he was meeting with Minister Bakrie, after all, who might not be the most trustworthy mouthpiece in the world.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Currency's new world order

And you thought the rupiah had problems?

It almost went unnoticed, but this week we saw the first hints of a major global shift in finance and geopolitics. The Chinese are wringing their hands about their massive (read: trillion-dollar) investment in US Treasury bonds, say their leaders. Huge government spending in response to the financial meltdown, leading to the full-speed printing of money, leading to the eventual devaluation of American currency, is what's causing the nervousness. Seems rational to me.

Presumably this Chinese trial balloon will lead to a shift in how they invest their money, i.e. not US Treasuries as the default investment of choice. That, in turn, will put major pressure on American currency in years to come, and a significantly ramped-up inflation level. Not Zimbabwe, hopefully, but something to which Americans haven't been accustomed since the early 1980s when inflation reached double-digits.

Perhaps the only thing saving the US dollar right now is that a major alternative, the Euro, is also a major basket case, as they figure out how to prop up horrendous Eastern European economies. Long-term, though, remember this week as an early sign of the end of America's currency hegemony.

Today's Top Stories

World Cup: The bid is in
Indonesia wants football's greatest event

Obama says, Apa kabar?
Talks to SBY on the phone

iPhone 3G on the way to Indonesia
Get ready for the addiction

SBY figuring out new coalitions
What to do after Golkar defection?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Forbes: Indonesia's top billionaires

I thought we were all broke by now. But apparently there are still a few billionaires left in the world, according to Forbes magazine's new list.

Five Indonesians among them, in fact, close on the nerdy heels of Microsoft's Bill Gates. (Sorry, Warren Buffett, you can apply for social assistance now.) The winners: The Hartono brothers, Michael and Budi, whose love goes into every clove cigarette you suck down. The result: $1.7 billion. I haven't done the conversion, but that's a whole lot of rupiah.

Others with enough money to pay their mortgage include Sukanto Tanoto, of paper-construction-and-palm-oil fame; Martua Sitorus, another palm-oil magnate; Peter Sondakh, a telecommunications-and-hotels king (what's with the strange combinations?). If palm oil is such a sure path to enormous wealth, no wonder they're cutting down forests with abandon. Sorry, orangutans ...

Today's Top Stories

Indonesia runner-up for Asia's top travel destination

Whispers of stroke in advance of elections

Bad day in Gorontalo province

No wonder after Jakarta Index falls straight into toilet

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In breaking Buddha news ...

Pop quiz: How long would it take for a bar featuring a huge Muhammad statue, overlooking all the tasty drinks and appetizers, to be burned down? My guess is between five and seven seconds.

Even normally laid-back Buddhists, though, have got their backs up over Jakarta's Buddha Bar. Hence the new ruling that the trendy spot be shuttered, as offensive to the religion's followers. Fair enough, I suppose, since a massive Christ looming over one's mai-tai would probably be considered offensive too.

But note well that this Buddha Bar chain has a New York City outpost, which has gobbled up tourists' money for years now, with nary a peep from the local community. I suppose with ultimate enlightenment on their minds, true Buddhists have greater things to think about than who's misusing their religious iconography ...

Today's Top Stories

Stocks can go up? Hallelujah
US financials show signs of life

Aussies freed from Indo jail
Silly Papuan trip sparked international crisis

SBY kicks off Defense University
Praises warfare of all kinds

Not the way to woo EU
MD-90s keep crashing

Monday, March 9, 2009

Help Nila Tanzil!

When I wrote about Tourism Queensland's brilliant marketing campaign a while back, promoting the Best Job in the World, I had no idea that someone familiar might actually get it.

It's basically a stint blogging from a gorgeous island off the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkel, scuba, hike, fish, and write about how great your life is, thereby promoting the wonders of Australia. Oh, and you get $100,000 a year too. Not a bad gig.

Anyhow, it looks like the terrific Indonesian blogger Nila Tanzil actually has a shot at it. She's been writing about her travels for ages, so it's a perfect fit. Of course there are others who want it, too, and apparently there's public voting involved. So go to this link, and vote your ass off for her. It'd be fabulous to see a worthy Indonesian came out on top of an intense global competition.

Good luck Nila!

Today's Top Stories

Bomber wants out of Hotel Gitmo, please

Presumably to woo fickle EU

Scrambling for votes in advance of elections

Shocker: Ads promote unrealistic body image

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Obama snacks and postmodernism

Somehow I love the fact that "Obama snacks" are hitting the Indonesian streets. Not because they're nutritious (I assume not) or even legal (ripoff of likeness), but because they're a perfect distillation of messed-up postmodern society.

Something real, hopeful, and meaningful transformed and reworked into something cheap, throwaway and probably harmful. A powerful image taken over and destroyed by being associated with typical consumer emptiness. Postmodern theorists like Jean Beaudrillard might posit that nothing in our society is real or meaningful anyways (viz. his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place), so a takedown of a particularly hopeful image - that of the new leader of the free world - by a little street-level capitalist hustling is perfectly appropriate.

If everything these days exists in a media simulacrum, a mirror of a mirror of a mirror of something else, a clever pastiche of things that were once original, isn't an Obama-branded snack part of that glorious and totally degraded mosaic?

A bit heavy, I know. But kudos to the Obama snack-sellers for their unintentional but brilliant contribution to postmodern debate.

Today's Top Stories

Central bank predicts rupiah will strengthen
In related news, L.A. Clippers plan to win NBA championship

The return of Golkar?
VP Kalla taking big, compensating for something

World energy solution: Seaweed?!
Sure, why the hell not

Most Indonesian domestic violence related to cash woes
Financial crunch only going to get worse

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Kalla: Indonesia's Cheney

Media wags have long called him Indonesia's version of Dick Cheney, but VP Jusuf Kalla's decision to take on President SBY is taking his Cheney-ness to a new level.

American VP Cheney demonstrated a certain Machiavellian brilliance, nominating himself to be George W. Bush's VP after supposedly leading the search. (Um, I decide ... on me!) Once in office, he essentially ran the White House, thanks to his deep knowledge of how to work the bureaucratic levers of government. Poor old Dubya didn't have a chance.

But even Cheney didn't have the brass balls to take on the sitting president who had made him VP in the first place. But such is the goal of Golkar's Kalla, who modestly claims that provincial leaders came to him in supplication. Nothing to do with his own ambition, of course.

The Greek tragedies all had core lessons in hubris, or overweening ambition, that ultimately brought down their heroes. Given the latest polls, Kalla is going to get a brutal lesson in the dangers of hubris very soon.

Today's Top Stories

To 7.75%, as world economy goes into crapper

World's most endangered mammal

Curious logic from Indo government

Who's afraid of fatwas?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spotlight: Hotel Sedona Manado

Time for a guessing game. The newest winner of Indonesia's best resort, from the World Travel Awards?

Seems I gave it away by the title of the post, but it's the Hotel Sedona in the diving Mecca of Manado, beating out a number of better-known luxury chains. Those rival general managers must be gnashing their teeth.

Perched at the top of North Sulawesi, far from Jakarta's bustle and smog, Manado is known mainly by scuba divers and snorkelers for its rich undersea life. The hotel and its 247 suites are only a couple of years old, part of a hotel network that's prominent in Asian locales like Myanmar and Vietnam.

I don't know much about the Sedona chain, but given that its Manado resort fronts a fabulous private lagoon, and boasts diving that's perhaps unparalleled on the planet, I can only assume that the World Travel Awards know what they're talking about.

Today's Top Stories

Death toll from bird flu climbs to 119

To help impoverished Muslim nations

I'm better than just OK, says ungrateful VP

By then it'll be some new technology anyways

Monday, March 2, 2009

Let's create an Indonesia bubble!

As the Dow sinks into oblivion today, it strikes me that the only real money is ever made during ridiculous asset bubbles. The dot-com bubble of 1999-2000, the home-price bubble of 2002-2007, the grand old South Sea and Dutch Tulip bubbles. As long as you got out in time, you made serious coin.

After all, regular savers always seem to get shafted. The Protestant ethic of work-hard-and-save seems to have been blown apart in this latest meltdown, when savings-account interest rates have approached zero and stock portfolios have been totally obliterated. Bubbles even destroy those who haven't really participated in them.

Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Let's create a crazy asset bubble, and then get out while the getting is good. And why not Indonesia? Let's pump the idea that Indonesia is the Next Big Thing, drive the Jakarta Index into the stratosphere, and then cash in our chips and go live on a private island somewhere with a lifetime supply of mai-tais. Who's with me?

Today's Top Stories

Species more endangered than ever

Put the money under your mattress, everybody

Kalla runs for prez, hurts SBY's feelings

Mainly because no other banks are left

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Random musings on rice for breakfast

I like to think of myself as pretty attuned to the Indonesian psyche ... as much as any white Canadian can be, anyways. But one leap I was never able to make: Having rice for breakfast.

Now, I know it's far healthier than any sugar-laden product from Kellogg's, or the deadly bacon-and-eggs combo that clogs up most Western arteries. But I could never wrap my mind around rice in the morning. In fact I was so psychologically damaged after my first stint in Indonesia, that I couldn't eat (or even look at) rice - at any time of day - for at least six months afterwards.

Now, I suppose since much of the country is around or below the poverty line, you eat what you've got. Which, with that climate and terrain, is usually rice. Understood. And perhaps one day I'll get beyond my biases, and enjoy some basmati or jasmine varieties as the sun comes up. But until then, nasi goreng in the a.m. is one cultural bridge too far ...

Today's Top Stories

Battles Juarez to a draw

Thai star takes golf tourney by two strokes

Indonesia leads successful $3 billion issue

Former general lags badly in polls

Thursday, February 26, 2009

World's Best Featherweight?

Indonesia isn't known for its boxing traditions, but you wouldn't know it by Chris John's massive success.

The 29-year-old is 42-0 with 22 knockouts, and is defending his WBA title this Saturday against American tomato can Rocky Juarez. With a Marciano-like record like that you'd think John would be more known worldwide, but this will actually be the first time many boxing fans have seen him take to the ring.

He's still on the undercard, as a setup to the larger Lightweight match between Juan Manual Marquez and Juan Diaz. But after this week's bout, one of only a handful he's fought outside of Indonesia, maybe John will be the main draw in boxing matches to come.

Today's Top Stories

Kalla to challenge SBY?

Jakarta airport will dispatch staff on rollerblades

Indonesia gets on stimulus bandwagon

Plane crash greets EU audit team

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Islamic bonds hit paydirt

Well, the rest of global finance may be going up in flames, but at least there's one bright spot: The Indonesian government's successful issue of Islamic 'sukuk' bonds.

They'd been aiming for a 1.77 trillion issue, but ended up at a cool 5.56 trillion ($467 million). And not in any old economic environment, but the worst crisis since the Great Depression, when pretty much everyone is afraid of virtually everything - other than US Treasuries. Not a bad showing.

The sticky thing is how to issue bonds in the first place when Islam bans the charging or issuing of of interest. Sukuk represent an end-run around that problem by being structured as profit-sharing arrangements, drawing cash from underlying physical assets like rental income.

Now that the first issue has been snapped up, you know the government is going to be holding sukuk sales as often as people want to buy 'em. Like, how about tomorrow? This may not be the most politically correct salutation, but to the Finance Ministry wonks who pulled this off: Mazel tov!

Today's Top Stories

Yawning fish discovered off Indonesian coast
New species rocks scientific world

ASEAN rights: Um, later
Financial crash first order of business

Aceh peace in trouble
So says Finnish Nobel Prize winner

Mud volcano a human rights violation
Driller in big trouble for Java disaster

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Sultan Goes Online

I've always wondered how divine religious figures throughout history - Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, etc. - would cope with modern society. Would they be on Facebook? Would they Twitter?

I'm being facetious of course, but here's a real-world example. Java's divine Sultan, Hamengkubuwono X (related to Malcolm X?), is aiming for the country's presidency, and has set up a website to help him get there.

Nothing technologically Earth-shattering here - the usual tidbits like a 'Statement of the Day,' a smattering of bad campaign photos, and a boring news feed. But I do like that they have a contact page for someone who's supposedly semi-divine. Does God send e-mail? I hope his missives don't go into my bulk folder ...

As for the his connection to the heavens, given that SBY is leading in the polls by such a healthy margin, the Sultan might need all the help he can get.

Today's Top Stories

What about the Papuan penis gourd, dammit

Banking sector is fine shape, says BI

$300m investment, fending off Chinese buying spree?

Government's Islamic bond sale exceeds expectations

Monday, February 23, 2009

Spotlight: Le Meridien Nirwana Bali

Think of Indonesia, and you don't automatically think of golf. But maybe you should.

Specifically if you stay at Le Meridien Nirwana Bali, whose Greg Norman-designed course has been awarded the best golf course in Asia for the fourth year in a row. For golf-addicted business travellers, of which there are many, having 18 holes alongside your luxury resort is something close to perfection.

Le Meridien isn't the most well-known hotel brand in the world, but the Starwood-owned group does have some standout locations like their New York City outpost on 57th St., whose recent renovation has a sleek modernist feel. In Bali the Meridien is near the Tanah Lot Sea Temple, removed from the usual Kuta craziness, and its unique golf course (one of only four on the island) winds through 30 hectares of terraced rice fields.

The top accommodation option, for those who still have a job and some savings (or, even better, a corporate expense account): The over 200-square-metre Presidential Suite, completely done in authentic Balinese decor. But its the links that are the resort's real draw for the golf-obsessed. As Asia's Leading Golf Resort (so named by the World Travel Awards), what's not to love?

Today's Top Stories

Could get four years for 2007 Yogyakarta crash

Not many left, but they're not happy

Worthy but depressing travel option

VP goes off-message, disses bureaucrats

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hillary postmortem: Indonesia as 'cornerstone'

Off she goes, to put out other diplomatic fires around the globe. Iran's nascent nuclear program, North Korea's usual swaggering, all converging at once, as if the world didn't have enough to deal with.

But before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departed Jakarta, she helped write a new chapter in U.S.-Indonesia relations. Long-dormant mutual interests are being revived, with Indonesia free of all the old Suharto associations that had chilled relations initially, and the U.S. free of the unilateralist course it charted over the last eight years.

In fact many are citing Indonesia as a "cornerstone" of new-and-improved American foreign policy, both a symbol (of Muslim rapprochement) and a gathering force in population and resources. The question, then: Will Indonesia seize this historic moment, and come to the fore to exhibit leadership and moral principle, bringing disparate nations together? Or will it recede into its own messiness and complexities, content to let other countries take the lead?

Today's Top Stories

Dragged down by world troubles

Special-forces atrocities don't trouble Prez hopeful

Central bank doesn't have any other choice

Indonesia leads efforts

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hillary in Jakarta: The lovefest begins

And so, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Indonesia, starts a new era in American foreign policy. A lot less unilateral arrogance, a lot more inclusiveness and so-called smart power. Hillary famously kicked off her Senate run with a 'listening tour,' and in her new position she seems to be taking a similar tack.

Indonesia's a logical place for the Obama administration to start, as a kind of translator to the larger Muslim world. With its traditions of democracy and tolerance, not so steeped in reactionary Wahhabist thought like much of the Mideast, and with its personal links to America's head of state, it's proving itself as a critical bridge for the State Department.

Unfortunately her Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirajuda took the occasion to bring up the issue of a $5-billion lifeline, to help get Indonesia through the coming economic storms. In itself, nothing Earth-shattering. But mentioned in conjunction with improving ties, it gives off a certain whiff of pay-to-play politics. New ambassador, Roland Burris?

Today's Top Stories

Indonesia urages US to fill leadership vacuum

New polls show power of moderates

US will consult about strategy

Guantanamo inmate could meet with government officials

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Total Stock Market Surrender

In the investing biz it's called 'capitulation,' when people simply give up. Investors throw up their hands, sell what they've got, and put their cash under a mattress. We may be at that point now.

The crisis of confidence wracking global financial markets has become so deep and profound, that some observers are questioning the long-term viability of pure capitalism. Even pro-market forces like French President Nicolas Sarkozy have mused that laissez-faire capitalism, as a concept, is essentially dead.

What a shift from recent times, even just last year. The author Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan) has opined that the stock market itself is a kind of mild Ponzi scheme, in that if people lose faith and start pulling their money out, it all falls apart like a house of cards. That's the historical moment we're in, when the Jakarta Index, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and every other benchmark out there is being beseiged by an utter lack of confidence.

For good reason, since many American banks are now effectively insolvent, owing more than they're worth. But given that equities are priced for Armageddon, for those with a cash pile and a long time horizon, it could be a time when fortunes are made.

Today's Top Stories

Anyone got some Liquid Paper?

Sec. of State wooing Muslim nations

Government opening up more land for plantations

Strategic partnership coming together

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Peace Corps in Indonesia?

An interesting sideline to Hillary Clinton's upcoming Indonesia visit: She's open to restarting the Peace Corps. Whether Indonesia is open to that, is another question entirely.

It's a bizarre historical tidbit, dating back to the 1960s when father-of-the-nation Sukarno allowed the program for a couple of years. But since then it's been dormant, and knotted up with what many see as the program's implications, i.e. that Indonesia is in need of outside help because it can't handle its own affairs or development.

The Peace Corps doesn't have to have that negative subtext. They might want to take a page from the program I participated in as a starry-eyed young'un, Canada World Youth: It's been there for decades now, and it's not a one-way offer of assistance, but a two-way exchange. Indonesians come to Canada as well to assist in development projects (my own pairing was situated on a dairy farm in a poor rural area), before we headed back overseas to help a tiny Sumatran village.

That way there's no condescension involved, but a reciprocal relationship where people from both countries have their world view forever enlarged. Case in point, your humble author, who wouldn't be writing about Indonesia were it not for my time with Canada World Youth all those years ago.

Today's Top Stories

Sec. of State arriving Wednesday

Exports hardest hit

Civil servants, er, encouraged to spend locally

International Yoga Festival coming to Bali

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hillary to Indonesia, Decoded

In the old Cold War days, so-called Kremlinologists used to decipher the smallest signs from the Soviet Union's rulers, trying to gain a peek into constantly shifting allegiances and power centers.

In that spirit, let's decode what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's upcoming visit means for Indonesia. It's no small event: Rather than paying homage to the usual Asian destinations of China, Japan and Korea, the U.S. is making a point of adding an important new ingredient. The world's most populous Muslim country, and an inherently complicated one, full of political cross-currents and sticky religious issues.

I see a few fingerprints on this momentous addition, first of whose are Barack Obama's, who has a moving personal history in Indonesia. But the repowered State Department - whose staffers greeted Hillary with wild applause, almost as a liberator - is certainly behind this shift as well. It signals not only a new engagement and respect for the moderate Muslim world, but a willingness to wade into interesting geopolitical thickets.

Of course, Indonesia and its tricky issues (like its vocal cadres of Islamic militants) might demonstrate to American officials that lasting resolutions aren't so easy. But more power to them and to Hillary's imminent visit, for at least trying to change the game.

Today's Top Stories

7.2 magnitude, followed by dozens of aftershocks

Poor Dede can't overcome his condition

Beats graft case, again

Rare good news for an endangered species

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Exclusive Interview: Robin Bush, Part Two

Yesterday we kicked off our exclusive chat with Robin Bush, the Asia Foundation's country representative for Indonesia. Today we continue with her thoughts on Aceh reconstruction, the upcoming 2009 elections, and what everyone needs to know about Indonesia.

EI: What's your take on the status of development in Aceh province, post-tsunami, and what still needs to be done?

RB: The relief and reconstruction effort in Aceh has resulted in dramatic levels of development. The peace accord to date still holds, and Aceh has the potential of being able to return to being a somewhat normal place. That said, donor assistance is, as it should be, on the downswing and most donors if not already withdrawing, are in exit strategy mode. As the financial resources dwindle, and with an election coming up, it will be important to monitor the situation closely to ensure that local conflicts don’t re-emerge around contestation of shrinking resources.

EI: What are shaping up to be the biggest issues in the upcoming '09 elections?

RB: The economy, unemployment and poverty are the largest set of issues. President Yudhoyono has been strategic and astute in his management of the financial crisis so far – but it has not yet hit the real economy, and in coming months when unemployment becomes more widespread, he will be in a very vulnerable position. That said, other issues like anti-corruption and security are also key issues, and on those fronts Yudhoyono is seen to have been an effective leader.

EI: As someone who's lived in Indonesia for a long time, what are a few things Americans should know about the country, that they don't?

RB: They should know that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, is the fourth largest democracy in the world, and the largest Muslim democracy in the world. They should know that most Indonesians actually really like America – they like the culture, the people, they like to go to school there, they like to take holidays there. They should also know that Indonesia is a country of contrasts – of women in headscarves and tight jeans; where 12 Lamborghinis can be pre-purchased before the show room in Jakarta even opens yet where 100 million people live on less than $2/day and children die of malnutrition; where it is not unusual for Muslim villagers to help their Christian neighbors build their church …yet where 100s of ‘thugs’ can be mobilized to burn it down. They should know that Indonesia’s story of reform and democratization is one of the great untold success stories – to transform within 10 years from an authoritarian dictatorship to a vibrant, growing, stable democracy is an incredible feat, and one which Indonesia gets much less credit than it deserves.

Many thanks to Robin Bush for her insights, and best wishes for her ongoing work for a better Indonesia!

Today's Top Stories

Flooding paralyzes Java
Pantura overtaken by floodwaters

Corruption 101
Anti-graft drive comes to the classroom

Pertamina boosting security at refineries
Last month's fire triggered panic buying

Kalla pushes fair trade at The Hague
VP continues swanning around the world

Exclusive Interview: Asia Foundation's Robin Bush

No offense to politicians, but when you need a real State of the Union, you don't go to political hacks. You go to people like Robin Bush. As Indonesia's country rep for the Asia Foundation, she's steeped in local culture, with her heart and soul dedicated to making the country a better place.

Today we have the first of a two-part series, chatting with Robin about issues like development, politics, Islam - and what every American needs to know about Indonesia.

EI: What led you to be Asia Foundation's country rep in Indonesia , and what does your work entail?

RB: Indonesia is really home – I grew up here, and then lived in Indonesia off and on during the '90s doing my Masters and PhD research, then joined the Foundation in 1998. Prior to being Deputy Rep and then Country Rep, I was the Director for the Foundation’s Islam and Development programs. As a political scientist with a focus on Islamic politics, The Asia Foundation is a place I really wanted to work because the Foundation is known for its political economy approach to reform and development. It engages with both state and non-state political institutions, and since the 1970s, the Foundation has partnered with Islamic organizations on a wide range of reform initiatives - from women’s literacy, to pro-poor budgeting. Currently, I provide overall management and direction for the Foundation’s work in Indonesia, which includes economic policy reform, election monitoring and education, women’s political participation, anti-trafficking, legal reform, security sector reform, and pro-poor and gender budgeting.

EI: Is your sense that Islam in Indonesia is being pulled in a more militant direction, or is it returning to its tolerant roots?

RB: There are always fluctuations and exceptional incidents, but overall, my sense is that Islam in Indonesia is returning to its mainstream center. Though one could argue that it never actually left that center, but was hijacked for awhile by more stringent voices that had political momentum for a time due to international factors which tended to polarize societies and left no room for a mainstream center. Either way, it does seem that the Muslim mainstream majority in Indonesia has regained dominance of the public discourse, and has effectively marginalized militant and extremist elements. That is not to say that Indonesian society is less Islamic – it is more Islamic in the sense of being more pious, more spiritual, but that is a different phenomenon, one that is actually taking place in many part of both the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

EI: What's been the local response to Barack Obama's victory, since he has such strong roots there?

RB: The euphoria in Indonesia around Obama’s victory and inauguration has been palpable and strong. There is certainly an element of Indonesians taking pride and even a kind of ‘ownership’ of Obama. There is also just the hope that Obama will understand the complexities of Indonesia a bit better than the previous administration. There is certainly a desire on the part of political elites for Indonesia to play a bigger role on the international stage, and they hope Obama will encourage that. But for the most part, the average Indonesian is just amazed that a black man that lived part of his life in Indonesia could be president of the US, and they hope that this very very different figure of a US president will bring about change at many levels.

Tomorrow: Robin Bush on Aceh reconstruction, the 2009 elections, and what everyone needs to know about Indonesia

Today's Top Stories

Valentine's Day activities banned by PKS party

Democratic Party aims to exceed 20%, ditch coalitions

Exactly what took down US economy

After bustup with boyfriend Chris Brown

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Spotlight: Amanjiwo

It's often assumed, by Western travellers anyways, that Bali is home to Indonesia's best luxury hotels. Not necessarily so. Today we look at Amanjiwo, the Java resort that overlooks the legendary Borobudur.

For those unfamiliar, Borobudur is the stunning 9th-century collection of Buddhist monuments in Central Java - a rich reminder of Buddhism's past inn the archipelago, and (almost) on par with Cambodia's Angkor Wat temples in terms of being able to take your breath away.

Amanjiwo is Aman Resorts' Borobudur location, ranked among the 101 best hotels in the world by Tatler. There are only 34 luxury suites, looking over vistas like Mt. Merapi (author's note: I scaled it right before it blew up back in the mid-'90s), terraced farmland, and Borobudur itself. Infinity pools set into ricefields, personal butlers on-call 24-7, showers of fresh rose petals upon your arrival. Um, what else do you want?

Today's Top Stories

Don't piss off the panda

Ant Global Partners opening Indo clean-tech fund

Islamic bonds hitting market for 'Sharia Economy Festival'

Sec. of State skips disappointed Australia

Monday, February 9, 2009

EU travel ban = history?

A spot of good news for the beleaguered tourism industry (finally): the European Union is mulling over overturning the travel ban on Indonesian airliners.

The brutal ban, in effect since the summer of '07 following a spate of accidents, put a crimp in Visit Indonesia year and has been a major dent in the operations of prominent airlines like Garuda. Even during the best of times, airlines are an awful business (remember slimeball Gordon Gekko's advice in the movie Wall Street?), and this - combined with runaway fuel prices - has been no help to the bottom line.

The ban's slated to be scrapped this summer, in the wake of new safety measures implemented by Indonesian authorities. Given that the EU has already given the green light to dodgy operators like Pakistan International - where I think every passenger is given a parachute, along with their coffee and peanuts - it's only fair that the 51 Indonesian airliners be given a long-awaited break.

Today's Top Stories

Kalla, Golkar waiting by the phone for a call

Latest victim of anti-porn law

One submarine, slightly used

More than 500 set adrift by Thailand

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Breaking news: Airport taxis might not be legit!

From the "No shit, Sherlock" department:

The UK Foreign Office sent out an alert recently, that unlicensed cabs at Indonesian airports might - gasp! - be charging people too much money. Not only that, they're "in poor condition, are unmetered, and don't have a dashboard identity license." Sacre bleu!

First of all, sounds like most New York City cabs. (As Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, all you need to get a cab license is to have a face.) Secondly, as Lonely Planet or any other handy travel guidebook will advise, quasi-airport-cab leeches are a common sight in Jakarta and around the world. Get into a car with some schlump in his cousin's beat-up '89 Tercel, and you deserve to be charged more money.

In other breaking news, the sun rises in the east.

Today's Top Stories

New Pertamina chief was former Halliburton flunkie
Darth Vader's - sorry, Dick Cheney's - favorite firm

Ponzi scheme blew through $65 million
Supposedly invested in Indonesian oilfields

Hillary Indonesia-bound
Confirmed: Clinton, State Dept. officials book trip

Indonesians blow off smoking, yoga bans
Clerics not so powerful after all?

Friday, February 6, 2009

And justice for some ...

Here's a Zen koan: When the Supreme Court screws you over, where do you turn for justice?

Presumably the answer is nowhere, since they're the highest authority in the land. Which makes it such an unbeatable location for graft. So says the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, whose new survey just singled out the Indonesian Supreme Court as the most corruption-ridden institution in the land. In fact, 65% of respondents said they had to fork over bribes when dealing with the nation's highest court.

What balls! More ballsy, even, than the U.S. Court handing over the presidency in Bush v. Gore ... but I digress.

Other fascinating tidbits from the survey: Bandung is the most graft-mired city in the country, and the national police only came in eighth in corruption. Indonesian cops have to take it up a notch, and start taking big bribes and knocking some heads. Haven't they seen all those movies, that feature plotlines about corrupt cops? Hollywood needs you!

Today's Top Stories

New Pertamina head takes charge
Cranking up production despite low prices; OPEC faints

Obamamania at prayer breakfast
Kalla in US, sucks up to chief exec

Tempo co-founder passes away
Yusril Djalinus felled by stroke

Hillary Clinton on way?
Could visit Indonesia in Feb.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cheap money! Rates cut again

Welcome, Indonesia, to the brethren of panicked central banks. Monetary-policy wonks around the globe are slashing interest rates as fast as they can, to keep just ahead of the brutal recession that's already hit most nations.

Indonesia's the latest contestant, cutting rates another half-point to 8.25%. Granted, still relatively high, compared to America which has already cut rates to near-zero in an effort to stimulate a dead economy. But the Indonesian central bank in particular is between a rock and a hard place, having to simultaneously support the feeble rupiah, which is (like most emerging-market currencies) abandonded by investors in times of financial turmoil.

Let's hope that this policy of cheaper money jumpstarts more lending and investment. But beware the beast looming on the horizon: Inflation, which can be just as traumatic to populations (if not more) than steep stock-market losses. At some point central banks will have to hike interest rates in a hurry, to protect their devalued currencies. The U.S. in particular, to prevent the Chinese from fleeing Treasury bonds and thereby creating a run on the dollar.

Today's Top Stories

Missing hikers found alive
Seven students rescued from Java's Mt. Halimun

And pastries for all ...
Indonesian foundation funds Gaza bakery

Divorces up tenfold
One reason: Political differences?!

Shhh ... VP Jusuf Kalla meeting US intelligence director
Secret meeting not so secret

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cricket in Indonesia?!

Sport is an intensely cultural thing. No matter how much you try to interest Americans in soccer, it'll never happen, because it's just not part of their culture. They'll always come back to their beloved baseball, NFL football and basketball.

Same thing with Canadians. If it's not hockey, they could care less.

Which is why I take this article on cricket in Indonesia with a big grain of salt. Given how obsessed Indonesians are with sports like soccer and badminton, I find it highly unlikely that they'll jump ship in favor of the sport of bowlers and wickets.

Now local expats, like Indians and Australians: That's another story. It's in their blood, and they'll never give up the passion until they're six feet under. Heck, I bet they even understood that cricket reference at the pivotal moment of the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

As for me, a red-blooded Canadian who thinks solely in terms of frozen rinks and hockey pucks ... I've never even heard of Ricky Ponting!

Today's Top Stories

More Burmese being rescued by the day

Presumably being smuggled to Australia

Oil-smacked Russians thankful for the cash

Bali tries to stamp out diseased dogs

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Spotlight: Oberoi Lombok

The island of Lombok may have long been seen as Bali's kid sister, but it boasts some serious five-star luxuriousness of its own.

Exhibit A, the Oberoi Lombok, a 24-acre garden paradise dotted with thatched guest villas fronting a white-sand private beach. Its spa features open-air massage pavilions, its villas house marble sunken baths and four-poster teak beds, and everyone enjoys exclusive 'butler service'.

The luxury chain has 30 hotels worldwide, most in India (including the unfortunate one in Mumbai). As for the Oberoi Lombok, it's racked up multiple awards from the mag Conde Nast Traveler, including Top 10 Asia Pacific Resorts and Best Overseas Leisure Hotels. Current prices range from $250 per night for the luxury pavilion to $780 a night for the Royal Villa.

As much as I'd like to keep Lombok under the radar, with award-winning accomodations like those, Bali's little cousin isn't likely to remain much of a secret ...

Today's Top Stories

Yoga ban ridiculed as "pointless"
Resistance growing to MUI edicts

SBY support growing
Election seen as his to lose

Indonesia exports tanking
Biggest drop in seven years

Obama: So far so good
Relations improving with Muslim world

Monday, February 2, 2009

RIP, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika

Now it's just getting silly.

After the head-scratching news that yoga was posing a dangerous risk to the Indonesian population, now comes word of another target. Specifically Lions and Rotary clubs, those fraternal associations chiefly known for their charitable works.

Such outfits aren't really helping the needy, but are actually "fronts for Freemasonry and the world Zionist movement," according to the ultra-conservative Islamic group FUU. Oy vey. Where are the voices of moderation, pushing back against this nonsense?

As a glorious cauldron of hundreds of cultures, languages and ethnicities, Indonesia is a shining example of 'Unity in Diversity,' the national motto. Don't let the nation slip backwards into the sclerotic hatreds of the rest of the planet. That would be too sad for words.

Today's Top Stories

$5.6 billion worth of emergency credit

Still fall short of lofty goals

The health crisis no one wants to talk about

Multiple wives? Be careful what you wish for

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Introducing ... mortgage-backed securities! No, really

Someone please pass a word of advice to Danareksa Investment Management.

The finance firm is launching 100 billion rupiah worth of ... wait for it ... mortgage-backed securities. It's the first such debt issuance in the country, and it's coming in February, backed by Bank Tabugan Negara.

Um, I don't know how to tell you this, guys, but ... mortgage-backed securities are exactly what got us into this global financial mess. The credit crunch, the asset devaluation, the bank blowups every couple of days? Mortgage-backed securities, where home loans are sliced and diced into risky tranches that PhD-level physicists can't understand.

I hope you know what you're doing, because you're stepping into a true financial minefield. If housing prices collapse in Indonesia, and owners all find themselves underwater (owing more than the house is worth), then those mortgage-backed securities won't be worth the paper they're written on. In fact, those fancy products on the verge of making the American financial system totally insolvent.

But, as the French say, bonne chance!

Today's Top Stories

Myanmar refugees headed home
193 boat people were stranded off Sumatra

In it to win it
Indonesia's shock candidacy to host World Cup

No eye contact, please
Luxurious life of a Sultan

Obama protest?!
Local Muslims don't like Pakistan strike

Friday, January 30, 2009

Yoga ban!

I mean, come on.

I have no particular beef with the Ulema Council that recently banned yoga for Indonesian Muslims. But don't they have better things to do, than touring the country's gym classes and coming out against Hindu chanting?

Our global financial system is near total breakdown, some governments (i.e. Iceland) are actually falling, the Mideast is blowing up yet again, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq continue apace, global warming is threatening the entire planet ... and our most pressing issue is yoga?

Priorities, people. If the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression has taught us anything, it's to figure out what's important and what's not. This is not important. Our world has many threats facing it; but a college kid in Birkenstocks, chanting 'Om' while doing the downward dog, is most certainly not one of them.

Today's Top Stories

Riau Airlines debuts
From Pekanbaru to, uh, Pekanbaru

Meth with your coffee?
3.5 tons seized in Internet kiosk

Megawati mulling VP
Sultan, Akbar Tandjung, Sutiyoso among possibles

Letter pushed Suharto out?
Top ministers withdrew support en masse

Thursday, January 29, 2009

CIDA in Indonesia

It's a sad truism that one of the main casualties of a global recession is going to be philanthropy.

Some notable exceptions, to be sure - like the Gates Foundation, which plans to give more this year than ever before, and New York City mayor-slash-billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who's ramped up his giving to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

When it comes to cash-strapped nations, though, I imagine foreign aid and charitable giving is going to be hurting for several years. When you're having trouble paying your own bills and covering your own mortgage, whether you're a country or an individual, you're less likely to have ready money to send elsewhere.

In that challenging context, some organizations deserve real credit for their massive and ongoing efforts in Indonesia. In particular the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA. Check out their lengthy list of Indonesian projects here. Overseas projects like those may not get a lot of credit back home ... but they're the right thing to do.

Today's Top Stories

No smoking in public places? Ha
Don't mess with my Gudang Garam

Magnitude of 5.6, flashbacks to 2004

Submits bid to FIFA for 2018 or 2022

$4-billion government issue coming up

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Apa kabar, Obama?

Need proof that Barack Obama still has a place in his heart for the place where he spent a couple of years growing up? He's actually chatting up State Department staffers in Bahasa Indonesia.

News of the exchange comes in the Jakarta Post, reporting that Charles Silver - a former staffer at Jakarta's U.S. Embassy - greeted him with a 'Selamat siang, Bapak.' Obama swiftly came back with a 'Terima kasih, apa kabar?' He praised Silver's accent, and said he wanted to visit his old neighborhood in Menteng.

We're betting that beyond the usual pleasantries, his Bahasa is probably a little rusty. (Maybe he can take those free classes given by the Indonesian embassy in D.C.!) Given his previously-stated desire for nasi goreng, rambutan and bakso, we're taking bets that Obama will be headed to southeast Asia in short order. Odds, anyone?

Today's Top Stories

Obama to Muslim world: It's a new era
Hand of friendship instead of clenched fist

Golkar expelling Sultan?
Divine VP wannabe in trouble with party

Kalla planning US trip
SBY's deputy to meet Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton

Global warming could wipe out Jakarta
Potential flooding, massive population a bad recipe