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