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

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bakrie & Bumi: The saga continues

The always-dramatic dealings of the Bakrie family have caught the attention of America's foremost investing newsweekly.

Barron's has an article this week on a head-scratching financial conundrum. Execs of coal giant Bumi Resources have announced a big share buyback within a couple of weeks, setting the price at a fixed level (2,500 rupiah). Here's the crazy thing: Shares are currently trading well below that level, in fact more than 400% below it. Theoretically, then, you could quadruple your money within days ... a better investment than almost anything else on the planet, except some aggressive loan sharking.

So what gives? Basically, folks don't believe the Bumi/Bakrie story. "Put simply, few Indonesian investors think it will happen," author Eric Ellis writes. HB Capital managing director James Bryson says he would be "very surprised" if the buyback actually takes place. Given that Indonesians know the Bakries and Bumi far better than Western investors, we'll stick with them, and look at this apparently once-in-a-lifetime deal with a very skeptical eye.

Today's Top Stories

Solar eclipse wows astronomers
Indonesia gets front-row seat

Cops fire on Papuan crowd
Trying to destroy local police station

Indonesia wants Hambali
Bali bombing mastermind currently in Hotel Gitmo

No stretching allowed
World snickers at yoga ban

Monday, January 26, 2009

Spotlight: Como Shambhala Estate

There are hotels where you flop down for a night in between flights, which all look basically the same (Radisson, anybody?). And then there are hotels which promise to detox you from daily life, and leave you a better person than when you came in. Bali's Como Shambhala Estate claims to be one of the latter.

Como bills itself as a "residential health retreat," pairing luxury digs with a busy activities schedule for body and soul. On the menu, items like pilates and yoga by the riverbanks, rice-paddy hikes, and talks on vedanta philosophy.

Rates for the Ubud resort range from $300 for a garden one-bedroom, up to $1,600 a night for the three-bedroom private villas. Pricey, for sure. But for a locale that's been named one of the top 10 spas in the world by SpaFinder - and is sister resort to Como's Parrot Cay location in the Caribbean, Conde Nast Traveller's number one spa on the planet - might be worth a once-in-a-lifetime splurge.

Today's Top Stories

Barack shows off some of his Bahasa Indonesia

Indonesia still trying to shake off old dictator

Less cash being sent back from overseas

East Timor rears its head - again

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Global Changemaker Announced

While most teenagers are playing video games or vegetating in front of the television, Alanda Kariza is changing the world.

The 17-year-old was recently selected by the British Council to be Indonesia's 'changemaker,' joining 59 other youngsters from 50 countries around the globe. Her qualifications: She founded the organization The Cure for Tomorrow, with the modest goal of saving the planet, at the age of 15. Oh, and she's even authored a book already.

Next stop for the ambitious changemaker, the famed World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There she'll get to hobnob with some of the greatest achievers on the planet - and, hopefully, teach some of those world leaders about Indonesia. Kudos to Kariza for her accomplishments at a tender age; to learn more about the changemakers program, click here.

Today's Top Stories

Good luck enforcing that one

Illegal flight led to serious jailtime

Holding group meetings in phone booth

Indonesia only place on planet to see it

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Indonesia ETF

Someone please give the folks at Market Vectors their due. In a year when the Jakarta Index has been ravaged beyond recognition, down basically by half, they're rolling out a new ETF (exchange-traded fund) comprised totally of Indonesian stocks.

In the long view, smart indeed, to be buying when emerging markets are at a bottom. But good luck finding investors when they've essentially gone into their bomb shelters, not buying anything but the bluest of blue-chip American stocks. In fact most are ignoring equities altogether, and opting for plain old money-market funds until this vicious economic storm passes.

Market Vectors has brass balls, because many exotic ETFs have been shutting their doors this year and last, since they just haven't garnered enough investors to be viable products. I hope this isn't the case for this new ETF (managed by New York-based Van Eck Global), because apart from this new addition, I think the only pure Indonesia play out there is Eaton Vance's closed-end Indonesia Fund. Victory goes to the brave, and this launch is certainly brave.

Today's Top Stories

Retired General emulating Suharto's style

New study by Brookings' Lex Rieffel

Protesters use the old rotten-egg method of debate

Seven tons of smuggled clothes nabbed at Jakarta airport

Thursday, January 22, 2009

King of sambal discovered!

Have you ever wondered about the guy who has cornered the sambal market, at least the sambal available here in America? Every time you ladle hot sauce on something, he gets a few pennies?

I was sniffing around the Web to try to find out, and came upon this old article in Los Angeles magazine. The guy's name is David Tran, he runs Huy Fong Foods, and he's an ethnic Chinese immigrant who arrived from Vietnam in 1980. He started it with $50,000 in family savings, and it's now a multi-million-dollar enterprise shipping tons of chile sauce every year.

What an entrepreneurial story! And congrats to the guy who managed to take an everyday kitchen staple and completely dominate the business. Somehow I think that even in the worst of recessions, sambal will continue to survive and thrive. Especially with Indonesians, who just can't live without the stuff.

Today's Top Stories

Bad time for ETF debut, though

Beaten and abandoned by Thai military?

Down 57% in 09

Followed closely by customs, immigration

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Spotlight: Hotel Tugu Bali

Another day, another installment in my quest for Indonesia's best resort. Here's one I've heard from quite a few quarters: The Hotel Tugu Bali.

The luxe chain has a number of locations scattered around the archipelago, from Lombok to Malang, but Bali is perhaps its flagship outpost. It's "one of the world's best hotels," says London's Tatler, and is a "sampling of paradise," according to Architectural Digest.

Indeed, there's no mistaking it for a Courtyard by Marriott: It's festooned with Indonesian antiques, and is nestled by the Batu Bolong temple along Canggu Beach in Bali's southwest. Apparently its dining staff even feeds Indonesia's President, which - to someone like me, who's used to eating cockroaches from Cambodian street stalls - all sounds very chi-chi.

Many of the suites are startlingly original, like the bungalow floating above its own lotus pond, dedicated to particular Belgian painters or German artists who have made Bali their home over the years. While the top-flight accommodations go for $600 a night (US), other suites can be had for a more accessible $250. If life had a pause button, I'd probably press it and stay at the Tugu Bali for a while - at least until the money ran out.

Today's Top Stories
Garuda should be cutting prices, say travel agents

Just in time for global recession

Not yet, say Europeans

Clobbering Golkar, PDI-P, thanks to fuel-price cuts

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's Jakarta speech?

It's official. Barack Obama took the oath of office, moved his stuff into the White House, and George W. Bush is headed back to the tumbleweeds of Waco. Millions of people witnessed it all, so it must've really happened.

So now that it's logged in the history books, the countdown clock begins on Obama's major address in a Muslim capital. It's been alluded to many times, will set the stage for a new era of relations between America and the world, and is supposed to take place within his first 100 days of office. Given his personal history, you've gotta think it's going to be in Jakarta. And what a triumphant return it will be, for a scrubby little kid who loved his nasi goreng.

As he mentioned in his inaugural address, "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." New era, indeed! Book your Jakarta hotel room now, because surely an Obama visit is in the works.

Today's Top Stories, All-Obama Edition

Ilham Anas raking it in

Jakarta goes bonkers for new president

Prez will have to put out fires around the globe

Americans try Indonesian eats

Monday, January 19, 2009

Starbucks taking over Indonesia

If you're a slave to venti caramel macchiatos or gingerbread nonfat lattes, like me, you're in luck.

If you're in Indonesia, anyways. Back in the States, not so much: The ubiquitous coffee chain is closing stores, paring costs and doing everything it can to boost a slumping stock price. In a cratering economy, overexpansion and high debt levels are very dangerous things. Even with original founder Howard Schultz back at the helm, they're playing it safe and getting back to basics.

But the good folks at Starbucks in Indonesia - if I'm a caffeine addict, are they my drug dealers? - tell me that a 10% expansion is in the works. They're already in big population centers like Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Bali, Jogjakarta, and Medan. But at only 73 cafes for hundreds of millions of people, they hardly need to worry about saturation at this point.

Conspiracy theorists, take note: In the Austin Powers movie series, Starbucks was actually Dr. Evil's vehicle for global domination. Next time you order a grande Pike Place blend, keep that in mind. :)

Today's Top Stories

Bakrie debt restructuring looking skeevy

They've got balls, sort of

Could team up to take on SBY juggernaut

Population now critically endangered

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama inauguration looms

As the inauguration of Barack Obama hovers only hours away, it's a time for not only looking forward, but looking back.

As such, the New York Times has just run a series of essays on the individual cities where Obama came to be the man he is. First on the list, an essay penned by Endy Bayuni, the chief editor of the Jakarta Post. In "Obama's Indonesian Classroom," he puts Barack's childhood days in historical context, conjuring up images of Indonesia then - only shortly after the Year of Living Dangerously, with the fall of Sukarno and the rise of Suharto, still beset by mass poverty and in the grip of military control.

What a difference with the Indonesia of today. And what a difference between a little boy of 10 years old, growing up in Indonesian schools and living on the outskirts of Jakarta, and the soon-to-be leader of the free world.

If it were fiction, nobody would believe it. As Bayuni ends his essay, with a wish for Obama from the Indonesian people: Selamat.

Today's Top Stories

Fuel depot fire rocks Jakarta
Pertamina says supplies won't be interrupted

Palm oil vs. the orangutans
Famed scientist Birute Galdikas on the warpath

Indonesia abstains from UN vote
Says wasn't hard enough on Israel

Give me a break
Padang mayor mandates Korna recitation at work

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hillary Clinton on Indonesia

Everyone has talked about Barack Obama's connections to Indonesia, which are deep and resonant, dating back to his formative childhood years in Jakarta. But no one has discussed what Hillary Clinton's appointment as Secretary of State means for Indonesia.

After all, as head of the vast army of Foggy Bottom, she'll have her own team - and, some Obama supporters fear, her own agenda. No one would put it past the Clintons to be pursuing their own goals, even while leading America's dipomats around the globe.

Indeed there's a curious history between the Clintons and Indonesia, in the form of Lippo Group vice-chair James Riady, who was indicted, pled guilty, and paid million in fines related to campaign contributions for the 1996 US presidential election. The name Riady still conjures up images of Clinton corruption, particularly on the American right, and it wouldn't be surprising if Hillary wanted to distance herself from those old associations.

Any lingering bad blood, though, doesn't seem to be affecting her geopolitical outlook. Presuming she's on board to carry out Obama's wishes, Indonesia should be nicely positioned in coming years for an cozy bilateral relationship. In fact here's what Hillary said in her recent confirmation testimony before Congress, giving kudos to both Indonesia and Obama's mom (and herself) in a single rhetorical flourish:

"As a personal aside, I want to mention that President-elect Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was a pioneer in microfinance in Indonesia. In my own work on microfinance around the world – from Bangladesh to Chile to Vietnam to South Africa and many other countries -- I’ve seen firsthand how small loans given to poor women to start small businesses can raise standards of living and transform local economies. President-elect Obama’s mother had planned to attend a microfinance forum at the Beijing women’s conference in 1995 that I participated in. Unfortunately, she was very ill and couldn’t travel and sadly passed away a few months later. But I think it’s fair to say that her work in international development, the care and concern she showed for women and for poor people around the world, mattered greatly to her son, and certainly has informed his views and his vision. We will be honored to carry on Ann Dunham’s work in the months and years ahead."

Today's Top Stories

Anti-Israel anger boiling over in Indonesia
Gaza incursion has ramifications around world

Hot stock: Telkom Indonesia?
US investing site says poised to pop

ING says Indonesian bonds are hot
30% return? Sign me up

No miracle on Hudson here
Tragic ferry toll could top 300

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Alert: Best Job in the World!

Seems we could all take some marketing lessons from the Australians.

After all the money and resources poured into the Visit Indonesia 2008 campaign, Australia's tourism industry has just made everyone else look like fools. For the relatively tiny sum of $100,000, they've created a true frenzy and are getting great press around the planet.

The idea: They're offering $100,000 to the winner of the 'Best Job in the World,' who will get to kick back on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef for a few months. Snorkel, scuba, eat, swim, suntan, and basically just blog about how fabulous their life is. They're already received 2,000 video applications; the competition's open until Feb. 22, and world media are lapping it up like cats over a saucer of milk. "Oh boy," says the CEO of Tourism Queensland. "What have we done?"

Pure genius. Indonesia, take note. Now if every tourism commission offered such a great life to us poor bloggers, we'd really be in business!

Today's Top Stories

Indonesian cybersquatter loses case
Hands over domain name to world's second-richest man

Religious violence doubles
Culture of tolerance in retreat

Papua overreaction?
Aussies get three years in prison for illegal trip

Indonesia Southeast Asia's only free country
So says U.S. organization Freedom House

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Indonesia's best resort?

As estimable TV shrink Dr. Phil is fond of saying, you can't fix a problem if you don't acknowledge it. And so, here goes: I have a raging hotel fetish. I love the glossy brochure photos, the list of glorious amenities, the promise of luxury pool cabanas and hot-stone massages. So sue me.

Which brings me to a burning question: What's the most fabulous five-star resort in Indonesia? I'll be rolling out a few candidates at irregular intervals. But to start, here's one I've heard mentioned in quite a few corners: Amanwana.

It's part of the Aman group of ridiculously plush resorts, and is located on tiny Moyo Island, to the east of Bali and off the coast of Sumbawa. There are touches like the Jungle Cove Spa, catered campfire barbecues, and dinner cruises by starlight. But the defining feature is that you don't get a typical hotel suite, but an ultra-luxury 'tent,' with a canvas top, hardwood walls and local Indonesian artwork, all plunked in the lush Moyo jungle with a view of impeccable white sands.

Now for the bad news. Rates are an eye-popping $700 per night for a jungle tent, and $800 for an oceanside spot. But for a moment, let's pretend we didn't lose all our money to Bernie Madoff ... and sign me up!

Today's Top Stories

John Maynard Keynes, anyone?

Um, forget about that whole colonization thing

Just try to make it better than 'Australia'

Get the rambutan ready - they're his fave

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Exclusive Interview: Don Emmerson, Part Two

Yesterday we started our chat with Don Emmerson, Stanford professor and renowned Indonesia expert. Today Everything Indonesia continues the conversation, on the subjects of Indonesian Islam, present and future; being a Westerner who speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia; and his favorite memories, of a country that has defined his life's work.

EI: What tensions do you see developing in Indonesian Islam ... the traditional values of tolerance, versus the more strident forms we're seeing worldwide?

DE: This topic is too complex to warrant a brief answer. Insofar as democracy implies majority rule, it follows that to some extent and in some ways Indonesian democracy will naturally express Muslim-majority-rule. A scale from tolerance to stridency is too one-dimensional to capture the diversities, subtleties, and dynamics involved in the interaction of ostensibly religious with political identities and actions in Indonesia. Indonesia is not on the verge of becomine an "Islamic state," whatever that elastic designation might actually. Yet the syncretic version of Islam that Clifford Geertz conveyed in The Religion of Java (1960) is today far harder to find.

Some observers worry over the possibly freedom-squeezing implications of a bottom-up syariah-ization process unloosed by decentralization, as local communities adopt this or that aspect of "Islamic law." But on closer inspection, this trend seems more often tied to an ethical inspiration than to a legalistic ambition. In view of the ubiquity and cost of corruption in Indonesia, this is not an altogether bad thing. (If a local government bans alcohol, how much should a liberal object?)

That said, the relative impunity of hotheads who use intimidation to enforce a cramped and prejudicial understanding of Islam certainly merits ongoing concern. The status of women, including their freedom of choice, is to varying extents at risk in parts of the country where orthodox interpretations have gained in prominence and popularity. The Council of Indonesian Ulamas (MUI), a Suharto-era creation, has taken on a rather aggressively illiberal life of its own. Indonesia remains, nevertheless, a "not-Malaysia" in the sense that Jakarta has not sought to coopt Islamism to the point of ensconcing illiberal Islam inside the state itself. At the same time, Indonesian Muslim intellectuals, whose influence should not be exaggerated, remain more venturesome and more willing to challenge and reconsider orthdoxy compared to their counterparts across the Malacca Strait. Indonesians remain fortunate that Islam in their country is still nowhere nearly as racialized or bureaucratized as it is in Malaysia. By comparison, in Indonesia, the cross-cutting cleavages of religion and ethnicity noted by Geertz half a century ago also, still, exercise a moderating effect.

EI: Are Indonesians surprised when they encounter a Westerner like yourself who's so fluent in Bahasa Indonesia?

DE: When I first went to Indonesia, after studying the language at Cornell and Yale, I was told, "You speak our language better than we do." This, of course, was not true. The subtext was: "You speak our language formally, correctly, based on your having learned the words and the rules in a classroom. You speak book Indonesian, not street Indonesian." A distinctly back-handed compliment! I no longer get that response, nor are Indonesians whom I meet now for the first time surprised that I speak Indonesian tolerably well. And this is most encouraging. If native-speakers of English take for granted the ability of foreigners to speak their language, why shouldn't Indonesians take for granted the ability (and the courtesy) of foreigners who speak theirs? This stance seems to me all the more reasonable in view of how easy it is to learn Indonesian as compared to, say, learning Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, Chinese, or Japanese.

EI: What are your favorite memories of travelling in Indonesia?
DE: Too many to recount. Among them, here's just one: the peaceful contemplation of the flat central Javanese plain and a train crossing it, shrunk to the size of a toy by the distance from my perch on the edge of a cassava patch a short walk up from what little is left of the small temple of Ratu Baka not far from Prambanan, a deeply tranquil sight enhanced by the fact that while droves of camera-toters explored the latter, the former was still quite untouristed the last time I was there.

Many thanks to Don Emmerson for his time and insights. He's welcome back anytime!

Today's Top Stories

10 suspected of consorting with Jemaah Islamiyah

Deciding issues will include job losses, rupiah weakness, economic growth

SBY pulling out all the stops

Decided to set sail in treacherous waters

Monday, January 12, 2009

Exclusive Interview: Indonesia expert Don Emmerson

When it comes to Western interpreters of Indonesian culture, they don't come any more senior than Don Emmerson. The distinguished Stanford prof is director of the Southeast Asia Forum, a senior fellow at the university's FSI, and took part in the National Commission on U.S.-Indonesian Relations, among countless other notches on his resume.

In part one of the interview, Everything Indonesia talked with Emmerson about his abiding love for the country, the upcoming elections, and the prospect of US-Indonesia relations under Barack Obama.

EI: You have a storied interest in Southeast Asia, when did your fascination with the region begin?

DE: It dates from the mid-1960s when I was a grad student in political science at Yale and got to know (and read the work of) Southeast Asianist historian/Indonesianist Harry Benda and French sociologist/Vietnamologist Paul Mus. I was torn between universalist political science and contextualist area study. Area study won. I was lucky enough to receive a Ford Foundation grant to do my dissertation field research in Indonesia in 1967-69. (The revised results later appeared as Indonesia's Elite.) However, having been born in Japan and raised in a succession of (non-Southeast Asian) countries due to my father's foreign-service career, I suppose (in retrospect) there never was any doubt that I would wind up working on international affairs. The spectacular diversity of Southeast Asia especially appealed to me, perhaps in part because my itinerant childhood had already led me to appreciate the pleasures of heterogeneity, including not only the actual, empirical varieties of reality, but the multiplicity of subjective ways in which its manifestations can be apprehended, interpreted, and acted upon. Southeast Asia is, in my experience, wonderfully unsettling to closed minds, including the mind of the scholar who needs the reassurance of homogeneity to reinforce a view of the world based on answers not questions.

EI: The election's coming up in 2009, what are shaping up as the definitive issues for that vote?

DE: Issues could be listed, but is there really one that is "definitive" in the sense of being make-or-break for every candidate nation-wide? Corruption? Perhaps. But one consequence of decentralization, combined with the sheer variegation of Indonesia (speaking of heterogeneity!), has been to bring local issues to the political fore. In that context it helps to distinguish the April parliamentary elections from the subsequent presidential ones. The latter will of course feature national personalities. If there is a wild card, I suppose it is the impact of the current global economic crisis on Indonesia. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 certainly contributed to Suharto's fall in 1998. But, so far at least, the damage done to Indonesia by this latest downturn has been less severe. In addition, personalities (as opposed to issues and programs) remain important in Indonesian politics, and in this respect, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has, so far, come across rather well in comparison to his predecessors and rivals. As of January 2009, this year's presidential contest is still Yudhoyono's to lose.

EI: How do you see US-Indonesia relations developing in coming years, particularly under Barack Obama, who has his own history with the country?

DE: Chances are Obama will visit Indonesia in 2009. This is most likely to occur in mid-November before or after the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Singapore, to which he will be invited. Some say he could and should travel to Indonesia within the first hundred days of his administration. But foreign-policy crises in the Middle East and South Asia (and the possibility of new ones arising elsewhere), plus the overriding domestic political priority on getting the US through what is arguably the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, would seem (as of now) to favor a later visit.

As for the longer bilateral prospect, barring surprises, it looks pretty good. I sometimes joke that inside the Beltway Indonesia is seen as the "not-Iraq," the "not-Afghanistan," and the "not-Pakistan" all wrapped up into one Big Comforting Otherness: i.e., a Muslim-majority place that does actually seem to be a stable democracy that has overcome (at least for now) the threat of religio-political-communal violence. And this positive impression matters to the relationship quite apart from where Obama happens to have spent part of his childhood.

The question, I suppose, is whether a presidential visit to Indonesia would turn out to be substantively more than an exercise in public relations: the partial mending of an American image so badly damaged by George W. Bush. We need also to remember that, despite the distance from Java to Gaza, Obama's policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also matter. What Obama says and does in that regard between now and a possible Indonesian visit will affect its success or failure as a venture in public diplomacy.

EI: Any potential flashpoints between the two countries, that need to be worked on?

DE: "Flashpoints" seems too strong a term. Indonesia and the US have, in effect, agreed to disagree on various matters, but especially if Yudhoyono is re-elected I don't see rancor erupting in a major way. As the economic crisis worsens, trade-related issues could become divisive. Human rights, including the intimidation of minority groups, will remain matters of concern. But when disagreements arise, and they will, as long Indonesia continues to "look good" in American eyes by comparison to some other parts of the Muslim-majority world, the Obama administration is likely, ceteris paribus, to continue giving its counterpart in Jakarta the benefit of the doubt.

Tomorrow: Emmerson on the state of Islam in Indonesia

Today's Top Stories

Third time in six weeks

Was on way from Sulawesi to Kalimantan

Attorney-general doesn't give up

Could surprise world in years to come

Sunday, January 11, 2009

SBY vs. Megawati: Astrological smackdown

We all know national elections are coming up this year, and that SBY is trouncing competition like Megawati and the Sultan in the polls, thanks to a fortuitious drop in fuel prices. But what do the stars say about the matchup? Canadian astrologer Georgia Nicols has this year's forecast, that might shed some light on the 2009 ballot boxes:

SBY: Virgo

"Work is where you totally shine in 2009. Furthermore, even though all people like to enjoy their work, for you it is especially important. Many of you are quite modest. However, you need to be needed and you find great satisfaction in being useful. Many of you are a bit detached and cautious. Your good-luck factor couldn't come along at a better time. Just when you are seeking the right kind of work (again), and a sense of joy and fulfilment for whatever you do, the heavens are going to help you find this in 2009 and into 2010. Yes! This is the best break you've had regarding your job/work since 1997-98."

Megawati: Aquarius

"Since the turn of the millennium, you've been searching for meaning in your work. By 2005-06, some deserving recognition came your way. Since then you've been determined to improve your status and your reputation in the world. This year is a great time to initiate new projects and expand your activities. You'll enjoy studying anything that will benefit you and raise your consciousness. This Jupiter influence attracts auspicious opportunities and favourable situations for you to use to your advantage. It also magnetizes important people to you--people who can help you and open doors for you ... Your career peak begins in 2013-14, and this is your time of harvest. It's the culmination of wherever you've been putting your energy."

I'm no stargazer myself, but it sounds like Yudhoyono's career peaks this year, while Megawati's doesn't crest for a few years yet. Advantage SBY?

Today's Top Stories

Ferry capsizes off Sulawesi
250 onboard, some rescued

East Timor: Finally stable?
Jose Ramos-Horta: What assassination attempt?

Health alert: Mercury widespread in Indonesia
Toxic metal is used in gold mining; someone tell Jeremy Piven

SBY vs. Pertamina
Ridicules company for fuel shortages

Saturday, January 10, 2009

To Durian or Not To Durian ....

... that is the question.

I have a great cost-saving idea for the Indonesian government, in these tough economic times. Get rid of all customs personnel at the ports, borders and airports, and replace them all with a solid wall of durian. Any non-Indonesians will be automatically repelled!

For the unfamiliar, durian is a unique, spiky fruit which looks like a pineapple gone mad. It's got an inside that's kind of squishy, kind of sweet, and kind of garlicky. As a Canadian brought up on maple syrup and salmon jerky, I never acquired the taste, and in fact I'd like to see all durian tossed into the fiery pits of hell.

But many folks swear by the singular charms of durian, even distilling the flavor into ice cream. Perhaps one day I'll understand the logic, and become a true son of the islands. But until then, I hope the government takes me up on my suggestion, and gives me 10% of their cost savings. Direct into my checking account, if you please.

Today's Top Stories

New Obama intelligence chief has Indonesia ties
Dennis Blair pushed for improved relations after East Timor debacle

Finance Minister praised by Newsweek
Sri Mulyani Indrawati profiled for sidestepping recession

Support for Islamic terrorism falls
Events like Bali bombings horrified public

Indonesia and France push for Gaza accord
SBY and Sarkozy teaming up

Friday, January 9, 2009

Friendster? Really?!

On the iconic American TV show Saturday Night Live, comedians Seth Myers and Amy Poehler have a regular segment called "Really?", in which they take a ridiculous fact and make merciless fun of it for a few minutes. (Here's a recent example, from when New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught with his pants down with a hooker from New Jersey.)

In that spirit: Friendster is hugely popular in Indonesia? Really?! Nothing against that particular social network, but in the U.S. at least, Friendster was popular about five years ago and then faded fast into oblivion. But according to tech blogger extraordinaire Budi Putra, a full 60% of Indonesian Internet users have a Friendster account.

Say wha? It's like hearing about a friend who's really into 8-track cassettes. I remember reading Wall Street Journal stories and PBS reports that remarked on Friendster's downfall, along with the strange fact that it was still popular in the Phillipines. It seems we can add Indonesia to that list.

As a Facebook addict myself, I have an interest in seeing all my buddies in one place, and not gathering on a dying platform. At least I can take comfort in the other bit of Budi's news, which is that Facebook is the fastest-growing social network in Indonesia, with a 645% growth rate in 2008 and over 800,000 Indonesians already getting on board. At a population of hundreds of millions, though, Facebook still has a long way to go.

Today's Top Stories

The local Bernie Madoff??

Huge Indonesian coal investment on the way

New poll has him only trailing Megawati in the east

Don't book your Palestine tickets yet

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Party at the White House!

Word of advice to Barack Obama inauguration organizers: You might want to have some emergency sambal on hand, because a number of Indonesians are going to be on hand for the festivities.

Not just the usual government types, like Ambassador to the U.S. (and spelling-bee champ) Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, but actual Obama relatives. Unfortunately the President-Elect's stepfather Lolo Soetoro - second husband of Obama's mom Ann Dunham - isn't in good enough physical condition for the long journey. But Lolo's niece Yana Trisulo, her husband and cousin will all be bum-rushing the Lincoln Bedroom.

Somehow Indonesian actress Ayu Azhari also scammed an Inauguration invitation, even while big American celebrities are complaining that they can't get access to the hottest ticket in town.

Hey, I'd like to go too. Maya Soetoro-Ng, do you visit this site? Help a blogger out!

Today's Top Stories

Also known as Exxon Mobil

Munir's murder going unpunished

Silly crackdown on Jakarta's foreign nationals

French humanitarian worker stabbed in Aceh

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Garuda: Totally insane?

I don't know what they're smoking in the executive suites of Garuda Indonesia, but I'll definitely have some.

In the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, when other airlines are frantically slashing routes, mothballing new orders and looking for spare coins under the seat cushions, Garuda is doing the exact opposite. It's actually adding routes, like the new Singapore-Yogyakarta service, and planning to double its entire fleet by 2013.

What gives? It seems it's not really a profit grab - after all, nobody's making profits these days - but an effort to gain significant market share while other carriers are cutting back. With a planned 128 aircraft, including a fleet of new Boeings being delivered in 2009, Garuda will have a much bigger Asia-Pacific footprint (and more planes to dispatch to Europe, once the EU ban is eventually lifted). They'll also have the wherewithal to muscle in on new routes like Denpasar-Adelaide and Surabaya-Hong Kong.

Savvy, or suicidal? As investing guru Warren Buffett is fond of saying, "Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful." So though it seems clinically insane, maybe Garuda's going against the grain might actually be a stroke of genius.

Today's Top Stories

Tectonic plates aren't happy right now

Interest rates shaved by a surprise half-point

Government plans to issue sukuk in February

Relatives invited to Washington, DC bash Jan. 20

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Healthcare: Now sucking globally!

One things that never fails to puzzle me: Americans' neocolonial attitude towards medical care in other countries.

To wit, a recent New York Times article on an intrepid reporter's medical adventure in Lombok, once she deigned to venture away from the luxe confines of the Oberoi hotel. When her husband suffered a fractured ankle after falling into a ditch, they contemplated a $120,000 airlift back to New York City, and ended up springing almost $10,000 for a first-class ticket back home for treatment by American doctors.

Now, come on. Anyone who's been to a U.S. emergency room knows that the situation here is just as horrendous as anywhere else. The few times I've been in one, have reinforced my desire to never get sick again, ever. They're all disasters. And first-class medical facilities in other countries, anywhere from Thailand to India to Singapore, are just as good - if not better - than the best American hospitals. In fact at some top-flight ones, you get Western-trained doctors, marble hallways, gourmet food and recuperation at a five-star resort, all for a fraction of the price.

So can we all stop assuming that the U.S. has the best medical care around? That is all.

Today's Top Stories

Idea floated to protect Gaza

Unlikely sports movie in works

Aceh overrun with giant pachyderms

Magical fellows' pick: The Sultan

Monday, January 5, 2009

Top Indonesian bloggers announced

To paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton commercial ... when Fatih Syuhud speaks, people listen. He's the reigning king of Indonesian bloggers, and he's just announced his top 10 bloggers for 2008.

Without further adieu, the lucky winners are: Nana Podungge, Tasa Nugraza Barley, Rima Fauzi, Primadonna Angela, Agni Amorita, Anita Carmencita, Muyla Amri, Deden Rukmana, Sherwin Tobing, and Dedi Sanusi.

Credit where credit is due, so many congrats to this year's top 10. And let's not forget past winners, who continue to dominate the field: Champion bloggers like Ong Hock Chuan, Enda Nasution, Jennie S. Bev, and Budi Putra. Together you're helping raise Indonesia's profile around the world.

Today's Top Stories

Series of quakes hit Papua
One reached 7.6 on the Richter scale

SBY leads in poll shock
Clobbering competition, including Megawati and Yogyakarta's Sultan

Southeast Asian stocks: 2009 forecast
The "Year of the Castrated Bull," indeed

Muchdi acquittal: Major human-rights setback
Activists up in arms over fishy verdict

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Top 10 Posts of 2008!

I've only been at this a few months, but who says I can't do a Top 10 list like every other blogger in the universe?

And so, in the lazy spirit of those old Seinfeld or Golden Girls clip shows, where they cobble together old stuff without having to put together any new material ... some of Everything Indonesia's most-trafficked posts of the year. Who am I to argue with the people?

Herein and forthwith, in no particular order:

10. Faith and footwear
George W. Bush gets pelted with a size 10 in Iraq

9. The Mideast blows up, again
Old grudges never die

8. Jakarta Index at rock bottom
Everyone's money goes up in smoke

7. The Flores Hobbit
Rare Indonesian find rewrites history of evolution

6. Obama Wins
President-Elect says: Yes we can!

5. Exclusive Interview: Mark Johnson
Expert on timeless wonders of Indonesian art

4. Plight of the Treeman
Javanese villager captures world's imagination

3. Bahasa Indonesia for global language
Let's start a movement!

2. Exclusive Interview: C. Holland Taylor
On Indonesian Islam, past and future

1. Obama's old house
Former Jakarta home on the market - for a price

Friday, January 2, 2009

Jakarta's alcohol shortage, pondered

The Butterfly Effect holds that relatively small events often have unintended consequences, like a butterfly fluttering its wings in China leading to a hurricance in Florida.

A new real-life example of the theorem: Indonesia's recent alcohol shortage has caught the attention of one of the world's foremost economists.

University of Chicago prof Steven Levitt had a massive bestseller (three million copies) with his book Freakonomics, which sifted reams of data to come up with observations like the effect of legalized abortion on crime, the importance of word choice in selling real estate, and crunching numbers to discover cheating patterns in the world of sumo wrestling. (No, really.)

Anyhow, in a new post on his blog, he sets to thinking about Jakarta's alcohol shortage, caused in part by a crackdown on black-market importers, which is annoying non-Muslims and starting to have a very real effect on the tourism industry. The central question: Whether cutting down supply will actually have the opposite effect, in terms of making alcohol more desirable than ever (in the economics world, a so-called Giffin Good).

Like Prohibition in the U.S. in the 1930s, something scarce becomes even more valuable.

Today's Top Stories

Almost two-thirds ownership of local bourse

10,000 protest Mideast troubles

Gen. Muchdi escaped punishment for Munir Said Thalib murder

Government anti-terror campaigns can't stem the tide