Seamless Semarang, Seemingly

When you travel with the genuine willingness to soak in the atmosphere of the destination, there are almost no boundaries of what you can enjoy. That’s the quality I value more on travel mates—the ones who aren’t boxed in just a particular category, be it adventure, shopping, or culinary. Focus is useful, but doesn’t mean your itinerary should be dull. And that’s what Semarang served us up during our recent trip.

My friend Miss TamTam found out that we both had always wanted to see the Lunar New Year celebrations in Semarang, so we worked out our schedules to make it. Lying on the northern coast of Java, Semarang port has been bustling with regional trade for centuries and hence became one of the oldest settlements of Chinese immigrants on Java, shown by the city’s culinary pride loenpia (spring rolls) and the quaint Khonghucu temple Tay Kak Sie (circa 1746) that still stands elegantly to this day deep in Semarang’s Chinatown. 

The Chinese most associated with Semarang is perhaps Zheng He, often spelled Cheng Ho, a palace eunuch who rose to become admiral in Ming Dynasty and commanded sea voyages in much of Asia in early 15th c. His multiple arrivals in Sumatra and Java are well recorded, as well as his instructions to construct buildings attributed to Islam. A Hui native, one of China’s five main native groups, Zheng He was very likely born Muslim, or at least “strategically” converted to Islam that was flourishing during his career. With that demography it is no wonder that Zheng He remains well respected in this part of Southeast Asia, with the grand temple Sam Poo Kong in Semarang serves as perhaps his most resplendent memorial. 

Semarang residents and tourists flocked to Sam Poo Kong since the early hours of Lunar New Year to secure the best spots for the merry band of barongsai (dragon and lion dance) in their most ecstatic performance. While quite a handful of Tionghoa folks performed prayers in the housed altars separated by a moat, most of visitors who filled the central atrium and grand hall were of no Chinese heritage. Men, women and children clapped, laughed, and jostled to snap the best pictures that the performance had to be delayed and paused as announcer desperately tried to insert a semblance of control. Nobody threw a fiery sermon on how any Chinese was a greedy alien never to be trusted, like the ones unapologetically shouted off during recent street rallies in Jakarta. No government official accusing Imlek celebration to sway Muslims from performing daytime prayers, like the Bogor officials who treated their adult citizens like babies who couldn’t manage their own time. 

The street rally I saw was a parade on Semarang’s main avenues, an annual tradition sponsored by the local department store which was joined in hordes by cultural groups and school marching bands—many of whom were young ladies in hijab. Hijab-wearing women were also easily found in Pasar Semawis, the Lunar New Year night market in Chinatown—peddling batik and food, dining with their elderly Chinese bosslady like the Solo girls I shared the roadside table with, laughing along as a Tionghoa standup comic delivering racy jokes in local dialect, or nonchalantly getting temporary tattoo in dragon motif while her husband patiently waited. 

There had been a noise rising from Semarang in the weeks leading to Imlek regarding a certain pork-eating festival, voiced out by the usual culprit of Islamic hardliners. The matter was resolved rather quickly as the committee agreed to rename the festival into a non-descript “Semarang Culinary Festival”. I arrived too late to witness the festival, but I couldn’t help to notice how banal it was for the rabble-rousing hardliners to backtrack once the festival name amended. It’s all about shows and symbols, instead of essence and knowledge. I quietly asked around about the incident and most locals shrugged it off as yet another group of unemployed youths got caught up in religious fervor. 

Maybe Semarang could shrug it off, but Jakarta, with countless incidents already and the hardliners hell-bent on turning the on-going Gubernatorial election as a springboard of nationalism-veiled jihadism, is nowhere near that state. Getting more impossible as a couple of mosques announced they wouldn’t perform funeral rites, a fardhu kifayah (mandatory for the society) mind you, for deceased residents who’d been known to support candidate of different religion. Maybe Semarang, the seat of the Governor of Central Java, wouldn’t remain this calm should Tionghoa candidates ran on its next Mayoralty or Gubernatorial election. Would Semarang be the next of Singkawang or W. Kalimantan, another Tionghoa enclave in Indonesia, where Tionghoa candidates have been peacefully elected for legislative and executive positions?

Nobody knows. But until that happens, you and I can humor ourselves that, as displayed grandly and joyously during Lunar New Year, race and religions cards don’t seem to poison the soft-spoken people of seamlessly unified Semarang.

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Fire Sale: Muslim Voters and the Chinese Bogeyman

Jakarta’s politics never ceased to amaze me. Just when I thought the religion card couldn’t have been used more coarsely, Instagram delivered a surprise earlier this week. And to think I actually logged into Instagram to avoid the highly-political Twitter.

It started with a group of hijab-wearing women posting the hashtag #MuslimvoteMuslim that went viral. When I did a quick search, the hashtag didn’t conclusively show allegiance for Gubernatorial candidate No. 1 or No. 3, but it’s very clear showing no support for Gubernatorial candidate No. 2, the incumbent who happens to be a Christian. Within the same day a riposte appeared on the same social media platform, a #Muslimsvotesmart hashtag that was promoted by also hijab-wearing women and, interestingly, Arab-Indonesians who wear no hijabs.

As I’ve written here before, I’m no fan of Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. I have misgivings about certain aspects of his policies, and I believe for a public officer he runs his mouth too freely it constantly sparks unnecessary conflicts. Yet I am very, very much against drawing the voting line based on religion because, to me, it goes directly against our country’s “Unity in Diversity” motto. The Constitution clearly recognizes equality for people of all religions, ethnicities, tribes and races—we all pay taxes, we all can vote, and we all can be voted for. Murmurs of sectarian preference have always been around, but to put it openly in public like this, to me, is scary. Why?

To me, #MuslimvoteMuslim supporters are saying that no matter of merits and qualifications non-Muslims aren’t good enough to lead Muslims in civil matters, which show how they fundamentally fail to distinguish between choosing someone to lead a mosque or manage a province. To me, #MuslimvoteMuslim is a slippery slope to saying no to electing a non-Muslim to be mayor, police chief, association chair(wo)man, office manager, and one day, class president in an elementary school. To me, #MuslimvoteMuslim and its possible variations like “Melayu vote Melayu”, “Javanese vote Javanese”, or “Tionghoa vote Tionghoa” (no, I’m not blind to non-Muslims or Chinese-descendants voting for Ahok precisely because of his race and religion) is against the inherent idea of Indonesia. To me, #MuslimvoteMuslim is using religion to exercise one’s constitutional right to vote while denying another’s right to be voted for based on constitution, hence is as much a slap to human rights as Trump’s blocking of Muslim refugees in the US that, ironically, most Muslims in Indonesia are loudly protesting about.

On the other hand, the #Muslimsvotesmart campaign, while I realize was born as a reaction and noble in intent, also poses a problem. The problem is, again, putting one’s religion as the factor voters have to be conscious about. It’s difficult to remind people not to vote based on a candidate’s religion when the voters are simultaneously reminded of their own religion. Just as the campaign it purported to counter, the #Muslimsvotesmart campaign fell swiftly into the religion card.

Yet, what if the hottest card is not religion? As I heavily-hearted left Instagram to reenter Twitter, I stumbled into a new survey. Run over 1,016 Muslim Jakarta voters by Nathanael Gratias, a US-based Indonesian pursuing Ph.D in Politics, the survey showed that while respondents were fully aware that not only Ahok was a Christian but also that some clergies had forbade Muslims to vote for non-Muslims, those didn’t factor in voting decision as pivotal as when respondents were reminded that Ahok was of ethnic Tionghoa. In this survey, it’s the ethnicity that matters, not faith.

Apparently, doesn’t matter that History 101 taught in Indonesian schools cited anthropology sources proving that ancestors of people now united under the Republic of Indonesia came from Yunnan in southern China tens of thousands years ago, or that the “newer” immigration flows from China have gone on for centuries– some citizens of Indonesia’s capital that was only formed in 1945 still think of Chinese descendants as aliens. Something foreign, best to be suspected or feared altogether. Worse than Trump who uses relatively recent Islamic extremists to ban refugees from Muslim-majority countries, and more like the views Hitler held of Jews who’d been living in Europe since Middle Age. Legal, but unequal. The bogeyman people quietly tell kids to stay away from.

I think it’d be interesting if the survey could be modified to include majority of non-Muslims Jakarta voters to see if the same tendency showed. If yes, then there’s a bigger problem. It means 71 years of being unified under the same republic gives not much more than the same seal on ID. This is even scarier as ethnicity is a very slippery slope to splitting hairs on “nativity”; soon Dayaks could again refuse Madurese they deemed “immigrants”, Bajau folks kicked out of Tarakan or Labuan Bajo, Balinese rejecting every other native groups making a living in their rich province, and the adventurous Padang tribe not allowed to move and open another Padang restaurant in any other province.

How fragile the fabric underneath Indonesia, it remains. How undisturbed the political powers of this grim reality that they wittingly played both the religion and race cards for the country’s capital’s Gubernatorial election. How nonchalantly the Muslim voters and Chinese bogeyman have been manipulated, for a stake that is not only a Governor’s seat but a sense of national identity. Regardless who wins comes February 15th, the fire sale has cheapened us all.

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Fear Not the Label, Hear the Dragon Ladies Roar

Last weekend over a million women marched on the US capital and world’s major cities the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration to protest against Trump’s repeated racist and misogynist comments, including his threat to meddle with women’s reproductive rights, which, regardless of the marches around the world, he made true the first day in office by reinstating the “global gag rule” to ban NGOs from, among others, providing abortion assistance.


That in 2017 women still have to fight for our rights, in a country as developed as the United States, is tragic. That the women who marched earned nicknames, like “nasty women”, is pathetic.


Strong women have gotten the myriad of bad nicknames. In Asia, “dragon lady” and “tiger mom” have been thrown around. But what if it took a handful of dragon ladies to transform Asia’s largest country into modernity?


Cixi was born to a medium-rank government official father in China’s last imperial dynasty Qing (1644-1911), who started off in the low rung of Emperor Xianfeng’s harem. European countries were actively pursuing entrance into China that time, against which Emperor Xianfeng, raised in 5000-year-old antiquated belief that China was the best country the world revolves around, chose to engage in long wars that only ended in bitter defeats. Raised by a father who welcomed daughters’ opinions, Cixi offered counsel into opening up on equal footing, only to offend the xenophobic Emperor. If Empress Zhen hadn’t interfered to soothe the Emperor’s ego, or Cixi hadn’t given birth to the Emperor’s first son in April 1856, which propelled her as the highest consort only second to the Empress, China’s course might’ve run very differently.


It was right after the Emperor’s death in August 1861 that Cixi made her moves. With the young prince under her care, 25-year-old Cixi strategized to earn her and 24-year-old Empress Zhen not only equal titles of Dowager Empress but also the official seal on behalf of the crown prince. That she, with limited education, in the era when women simply served as birth vessels, managed to pull it off by recruiting allegiance from her forward-thinking brothers-in-law to outmaneuver the Board of Regents, men from elite family with decade-long Confucian training, shows her inherent ability to read and lead people.


Cixi didn’t see foreign interest in Chinese silk and tea as a stealing of China’s treasures, yet as an opportunity to trade off with other things her people needed, including rice. She installed Robert Hart, a 28-year-old British literati as Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs, whose diligence and honest work would multiply Chinese revenue for future decades. Cixi also built Tangweng College and put American missionary W.A.P Martin to modernize the education for mandarins who’d only been trained in classic Confucian. She promoted open-minded officials like Earl Li to key positions.


Women can’t handle pressures? Cixi constantly battled criticisms from her own court, which she chose to manage democratically. When it was time to squash armed uprising, she listed the help of 30-year-old American adventurer Frederick Townsend Ward to set up a modern army, before later investing for Chinese navy overhaul and the country’s first railroads.


Perhaps borrowing from scholar Sun Tzu’s wisdom to understand thy enemy, Cixi sent out China’s first representative to the West, hiring Harvard Law graduate Anson Burlingame for the job, one of his visits which was chronicled by Queen Victoria, then the monarch of world’s largest empire. One of Burlingame’s accomplishments was securing a treaty with the United States that dictated a better treatment over Chinese migrant workers who’d started arriving in California.


I read a study somewhere that shows when you give power to a woman, she’ll invest in education and human well-being. You want to read how Cixi personally prove the study, Jung Chan’s critically-acclaimed 2014 biography can detail it all.


Child emperors grew up and died, Empress Dowager Cixi, backed by Empress Dowager Zhen, continued to steer China forward, indirectly made it possible to transfer into constitutional monarchy and later a republic. Interestingly, a republic led by open-minded elite like Dr. Sun Yat Sen and General Chiang Kai Shek who both were married to the strong-willed and Western-educated Soong sisters.


For almost a century before Mao’s 1940s rise, China’s pivotal turn into modernity was orchestrated and assisted by strong women. They had to be strong, for society wasn’t willing to give them room. They had to wield with conviction, because otherwise nobody else would’ve passed them the baton. They had to think twice as smart and work twice as hard, just to receive half of compliments reserved for their male counterpart. Cixi was portrayed inaccurately (hello, fake news) by an English biographer and her tomb was desecrated by Republican soldiers. The Soong sisters were called hapless society girls. In 2016 Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing Wen was mocked “imbalanced” as a childless singleton. A century after being branded “nagging iron-jawed angels” for demanding voting right, American women promoting equality are called “nasty” by the establishment, that they simply had to march again.

Against the politics among countries, women worldwide, despite having come a long way, still have a long way to go. If it took dragon ladies of China to welcome modernity, maybe it takes iron-jawed dragon ladies worldwide to obtain equality. Fear not the labels, ladies, for history shows it’s up to us women to get our rights. The march continues, hear the dragon ladies roar.

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New Year and the Surreal New Normal

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of last year was “surreal”, which perfectly sums up how 2016 was pretty much worldwide and, like it or not, prepares us for 2017 onward. I personally think Merriam-Webster was being kind, because I would have picked “insane” as the word of the year.

Insanity was abound not just in far-flung parts of the world—Brexit, Trump, Syria—but also in corners right here at home. Just look at the escalating tensions over ethnics and religions lately, partly thanks to the rise of conservatism in the recent decade.

I’ve never been a fan of DKI Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama and frankly I think what he repeatedly said about Al-Maidah:51 was unwise and uncalled for, but catering to the incessant demands of hardliners like FPI to portray this as a holy war for all is just as necessary in the short run and dangerous in the long run. That the President shared a stage momentarily with FPI leader during a mass rally and a Gubernatorial candidate felt the urge to pay respect to FPI headquarter is not being practical in politics, it is normalizing the likes of FPI in state affairs. Why are we normalizing vigilantes? Why does the establishment fear vigilantes? Don’t our taxes still pay for armed police and military, and yet we kowtow to vigilantes armed with white robes and batons often enough to set precedence for their ilk to demand even more in the future? So insane it’s surreal, I should get my tax money back.

Judging from Donald Trump’s first press conference as a President-elect, it’s probably what some American taxpayers are also thinking about. Not only after winning the election his outbursts could still be baited by a movie award acceptance speech or a mere tweet, he publicly had a shouting match with a reporter and denied answering another, in addition to repeat the baseless claim about Mexico paying for a border wall that prompted no less than a former Mexican President to tweet a rebuke. Is this the new normal, executive elites exchange disagreements casually over social media posts instead of vetted diplomatic channels? Is it also the new normal for journalism, supposedly the vanguard of democracy, when other journalists didn’t come to their colleagues’ rescue upon public mistreatment by establishment that’s represented by Trump? So insane it’s surreal, especially when taking place less than 24 hours after Barack Obama’s lucid farewell address on human rights and responsible information that I wonder if some of Trump voters secretly wished to take their vote back.

And don’t get me started on how educated and moneyed people around me start believing and distributing hoaxes, from vaccines to religions, on WhatsApp Groups and Facebook, without using the same fancy gadget to at least try Googling trustworthy, impartial news sources. So insane it’s surreal their schools should retrieve the diploma back.

No wonder so many icons departed last year—the cool set refused to join us on the spiraling rat race down the intelligence gutter. It is indeed the age of smartphones, when the phones are smarter than some humans using it.

My fengshui devotee friend blames it all, including the sad state of economies, on the mischievous Year of the Monkey that started early February 2016 and will end this month. While it’s indeed a tempting notion to assume that 7 billion human beings have fallen victim to supernatural mega forces that reduce us to an unintelligent and irrational pack for the past 11 months, it’s simply irresponsible to rest our fate on the turns of an ancient calendar.

Obama advised to start real life engagement with people you disagree with online. Not only I resolutely agreed with that idea, I’m going on the limb here to suggest people to take up reading again. Reading academic science books instead of pseudo-science or science fictions, reading history books from both accounts instead of relying on salacious conspiracy theories over people’s social media accounts, reading holy books with inquisitive mind instead of inflamed loins.

And if after reading books voraciously you still have resources left, allow me to indulge you to traveling to places you’ve never been so you’ll get to meet new people on their own turf. Try being the minority who needs to figure out how things are from the knowledge or wisdom only locals can offer. Try visiting downtrodden areas and see how challenging it is for science teachers at local schools with very limited tools to teach basic knowledge like round Earth that your educated friends carelessly dump thanks to some fiery sermon they hear last Friday or Sunday.

Even if the world seems set on enforcing a new normal for all of us, it doesn’t mean that we can’t retain some sort of sanity for ourselves. For me, I suppose, it’s even more reading, traveling and spending time with people in real life than I’ve increasingly done in recent months. In fact, I may just go to the Shangxi province in China, where Seattle-based animator Casey Latiolais’ giant glass rooster was sculpted as such to bear striking resemblance to Donald Trump, pompadour head and pointing finger intact, or to Shenzhen, where a company created a luxurious, functioning, Toilet Trump. Perhaps in their own way, the Chinese are also trying to find their new normal.

Gong xi fa cai, everyone. Oh Rooster, please be less insanely surreal.

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Mata Hari and Pham Xuan An: The Spies Who Loved Differently

The most intriguing souvenir I picked up during my recent Vietnam trip was Larry Berman’s Perfect Spy, a biography of Pham Xuan An, a journalist working clandestinely as spy during the Vietnam War.

Hanoi’s H.63 intelligence network maneuvered to make Saigon government to send An to study in California on August 1957, when Vietnam was divided and the US had started to meddle in. The long-term scheme ordered An to study “the enemy” while building his future cover. The curious yet pleasant young man soon charmed the Americans he met, many became lifelong pals, and the journalism degree got him a strategic job upon returning to Saigon, then seat to liberal South Vietnam that was America’s springboard in the war with the communist North.

The position with Reuters, then TIME, granted An access to briefings and communiques issued by Saigon government and US Embassy. Added his intimate knowledge of Vietnam and keen understanding of American mindset, An became an effective go-to for everyone trying to make heads from tails. South Vietnam’s espionage bureau CIO considered him their own, the CIA tried to recruit him, foreign journalists thought he worked with either or both, while all along An was spying for North Vietnam—feeding analysis smuggled in meat rolls to be carried by a female liaison.

An was never caught because he was disciplined to take advantage of two lives while keeping them separated. He used media training to dissect various information coming his way for composing astute analysis for Hanoi, yet never veered from publicly-available information while objectively writing for media. When An’s cover was revealed in 1976, most people were shocked. An, who never bothered to learn Marxism-Leninism until after the reunification or hide his dismay over the Soviet system implanted, maintained two things to his death in 2006; all he’d wanted was to see his country reunited, and American free thinking was such a gift he wanted it for his kids. Loving his country while openly admiring the enemy, Sun Tzu would be proud.

Such a stark contrast to Mata Hari. Born to Dutch-Frisian parents in a Dutch town, on 1895 Margaretha Geertruida Zelle married an army officer stationed in East Indies (now Indonesia) in hopes for adventures. While Gerda was enchanted by the local cultures, domestic boredom and son’s death befell upon the couple. Repatriation to Amsterdam in 1902 was followed by a bitter divorce where she was denied spousal support and child custody. Gerda decided to finally seek the dream life, arriving with outdated wardrobe and little money in Paris that had just hosted World Fair which included the building of Eiffel Tower.

The belle epoque movement gave Gerda the window to sell her new persona as Mata Hari, means “eye of the dawn” or “sun” in Malay, an Oriental-descendant dancer raised in ancient Hindu rites and Javanese mystique. What she did really was draping on layers of costume that would be peeled off as she moved rhythmically to an appropriated repertoire, climaxing show by falling to the floor barely covered. A highly tasteful burlesque-y number at best yet passed on as a cultural fest to Parisians hungry for any exoticism from the Orient.

She gained fame and fortune she’d coveted, simultaneously moonlighted as an elite courtesan. Her desire to continue living grandly after her career dimmed supposedly got her into German performance halls and later, as World War I intensified, the hands of their intelligence network. Mata Hari reportedly either tried to alarm the French, or angled to be recruited as double agent. More ironically, her alleged status as agent H21 was blown when she tried to rescue her lover, a Russian soldier who later testified against her in French court. Facts and fictions would mar any war, yet Mata Hari’s own love for boasting or blurring her life accounts effectively surpassed efforts to prove her claim of innocence.

Vietnam awarded Pham Xuan An medals for well-noted contributions, while the Dutch let Gerda Zelle be executed in October 1917 with little evidence of actual espionage for fear of jeopardizing their “neutral” status in WW I. Most of An’s American friends came to forgive him, nobody came to Gerda’s rescue. I finally deduce it’s because An loved Vietnam, while Gerda loved Mata Hari. An worked to free his beloved from foreign intruders, and succeeded; Gerda needed the foreignness of Mata Hari to feel loved and free, and failed. In the age when we’re constantly told to reach for individual dreams and recrafting personas as needed, Mata Hari’s fate couldn’t have felt more strangely.

As strange as pop culture’s continued spotlight on her. This year alone two books are published, Michelle Moran’s Mata Hari’s Last Dance and Paulo Coelho’s The Spy—the latter which, while sweetly featured an autographed tribute in the Indonesian edition, didn’t offer much beyond what I’d read in Richard Skinner’s 2001 The Red Dancer where a chapter was dedicated to Javanese gamelan orchestra that had inspired Gerda greatly.

Tragedy sells, yes, but as this year already sends endless tragedies, I yearn for stories with real meat rolled in it. The spies loved differently, and we deserve different spy stories—more of the likes of An, and less of Mata Hari.

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Left or Right, If You Wing It Vietnam Feels Just Right

My last column talked about how Trump’s win further pushed the world that was already leaning right. Depressing is the word muttered openly among friends, and a pal quietly told me of having returned to anti-depressant in the following days.


I decided to travel with an ex colleague-turned-friend whose career potentials had already been jeopardized by Brexit. We figured we’d see the world before it was going unceremoniously down the drain. My friend had never been to Vietnam and I only had a 4-hour stopover in Saigon from Siem Reap years ago, so we decided to give Vietnam a go. It turned out to be quite a trip.


The mix of Chinese heritage, French colonial history, US-Vietnam War and globalization give into the mélange that present Vietnam is. Their history alone seems filled with endless fighting against occupations—kicking back the Chinese up the Mekong River after a millennium, pushing the French out after a century, and sending the Americans packing after over a decade. Not that the footsteps didn’t linger to this day.


The Chinese left indelible remarks on the cuisine (noodle and pork, check), religion (the mix of Confucian and Tao otherwise known as Konghuchu in Indonesia, check), and even fashion (a cheongsam with higher side slit that makes up áo dài, check).


Although their language is now only spoken among the elderlies, well-heeled youngsters and tour guides, the French left architecture, patisserie and the love for operas—while their latter-day socialist brethren befriended Vietnamese independence patriots.


In fact, “patriot” is pretty much the only word bestowed upon any Vietnamese since in the narratives on museums or official communiques we saw, not that I was suggesting some was unrightfully so.


The Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, named Maison Centrale when French colonialists built it in 1896 as their largest and most secured prison in Indochina, made Guantanamo Bay look almost humane. Foot shackles were used throughout, even in solitary cells. Windows were few and small, rations were often rotten, walls were painted black and as if the imprisoned souls needed more crushing… a guillotine awaited death row convicts in all its glory. Now a museum, it’s full with memorabilia and mural tributes for Vietnamese patriots, the latter which eerily reminded me of Indonesia’s own Lubang Buaya monument.


The Vietnam government later used it to imprison US Air Force pilots during 1964-1973 Vietnam War, including John Mc Cain whose aircraft got shot down in 1967. The pilots thought it was an irony to dub it “Hanoi Hilton’, perhaps ironically unaware that compared to the conditions during the French colonial time it was considerably indeed a Hilton.

More of the Vietnamese side of the war was featured grandly, vintage American military relics and enlarged pictures of napalm bomb victims include, on the War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels in Saigon. Rightfully Vietnam was telling its side of the story; twice I’ve been to the Museum and twice I admitted how eye-opening it would be to those having learned about the war solely from the America’s, or God Forbid, the Hollywood’s perspective.  As for the Cu Chi Tunnels, though I’ve trekked into the Japanese WWII tunnels in Sumatera and the Egyptian pyramid, the multi-level, short-ceilinged Tunnels, some of which were snaking into Cambodia, were literal hellholes. We went into a replica of the first level, and those minutes felt so inhumane I couldn’t imagine living there for years during the war. 

Yet while the black-and-white communism video shown in the Tunnels were so outdated it was hilarious to watch Western tourists urged to watch it in 2016, the socialism rah-rah quickly got tiresome as we ventured into more historical sites during the trip. Hey, I’m an Indonesian, I’m not blind to what greedy European countries did back then as they did to us in four centuries prior to our 1945 independence, and the US was especially pesky during the Cold War, but at some point, especially at sites related to the late President Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, I felt like being repeatedly forced to gobble the equivalent of Soeharto-era Monas diorama of the century-plus French occupation and the decade-plus US-Vietnam War.


Ironically, outside the Government-run venues, some of them were housed in drab Soviet-style edifices I must say, Vietnam was bustling in colors and commerce. We were staying in backpackers’ districts, yet beyond Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market where the outlier shops were Government-run with fixed prices, everything else was up for grabs in good bargain. We even got to haggle for day excursions, metered taxis, credit card surcharges and, most ironically, shops specializing in vintage communism propaganda. On his memoirs Robert McNamara might’ve correctly regretted the mistake of going into the Vietnam War, yet as capitalistic sensibility roars so audibly perhaps it’s the Americans that inadvertently left the last watermark. I laughed a lot last week as I often couldn’t tell the left from the right

Can I tell all about Vietnam in one column? No. Do I still recommend a visit? Heck, yeah. In fact, go soon. If Trump were to deliver on his promise to kill the Trans Pacific trade deals, Vietnam’s roaring economy would be one of the first to suffer. But right now, left or right, if you wing it Vietnam feels just about right. 

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As the World Keeps Tilting to the Right

When Donald Trump was formally nominated earlier this year by the Republican National Convention to run for president, to the dismay of many Republicans nonetheless, an article appeared on my Twitter feed. It was a long read about how J.D Vance’s new book Hillbilly Elegy encapsulated the silent yet steady brokenness of the white working class in American small towns due notably to globalization, which neither GOP nor Democrats have offered solutions beyond, respectively, capitalism mantra and smug condescension. It went on to explain how Trump swiftly scooped this forgotten basket by the lingo and mannerism they could relate to.


As Brexit had just happened, where older and less-cosmopolitan citizens outvoted their counterparts for a more insular Britain, I couldn’t help feeling a chill down my spine. Yet I consoled myself with the thought that Americans, equipped by a solid political education, would rise above. I posted the link and moved on.


I had to repost that article earlier this week as the world was grappling with the unthinkable reality of President Trump of the United States. I suppose the friendly, curious, brave, egalitarian Americans I lived next to during some of the best years of my life have indeed changed, or at least outnumbered by the exact opposites. The so-called Rust Belt—Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—industrial states populated by working class that have traditionally voted Democrat since the late 1980s, yet saw their jobs increasingly lost to cheaper immigrants or overseas outsourcing in recent years, all went for Trump. I can only imagine Andy Warhol turning on his grave demanding his Pittsburgh museum to be relocated.


Yes, certainly Hillary Clinton’s staunch support for Planned Parenthood alienated the devoutly religious, as Benghazi and email scandals angered many while the leaked campaign memos soured her for Bernie Sanders’ millennial supporters. Yes, there are still men and women who aren’t ready for a female Commander-in-Chief, however qualified. No, I’m not blind that Ku Klux Klan issued a formal support, drummed up continuously on its newspaper Crusader that believes the USA was founded as a White Christian Republic.


Yet I think the seething anger in feeling marginalized in one’s own country that has given the initial and perpetual fuel to the nationalistic, racist and xenophobic rhetoric that Trump has tirelessly trumpeted about and eventually sold politically as the return to the great old American identity. Because how else can you explain that after repeated insults on Latin-American immigrants enough Latinos voted for Trump, that after blatant misogyny enough women voted for him, that after the public mockery of a disabled person enough human-rights-championing Americans voted for him, or how Florida as one of the first states to suffer greatly in climate change apocalypse actually delivered the sufficient electoral votes for the man who was adamant it was all a Chinese-made hoax?


Trump even only lost out a hairline to Clinton in popular votes, pocketing 25.5% to her 25.6%, while 46.9% of voters didn’t exercise their rights, which means out of 231.56 million eligible voters approximately 59 million Americans consented and 108.6 million Americans couldn’t have cared less for Donald Trump dragging the US to the right while holding access to its nuclear codes.


Eight years after Americans were toasted as a great nation to have risen above 9/11 to elect an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama, Donald Trump managed to convince enough Americans that they’re not all that great and that only he could show the way to be great again.


Around the world the sentiment has echoed. After enjoying abundant freedom and 2-way bridges to colorful exposures, people who don’t feel they can shine the brightest retreat to their true color—burning bridges and building walls. I have no political science background but a political pundit pointed out that over 2,000 years ago on its masterpiece The Republic, the great Greek philosopher Plato already warned that just as democracy would rise out of failed oligarchy, tyranny would come out from liberty when passion overwhelmed wisdom and a populist autocrat seizing up the masses. Sounds familiar?


Brexit, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in Europe, Pauline Hanson in Australia, the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. In varying degrees in 2014 both Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo rode on the nationalism wagon with a sprinkle of jingoism. Trump’s election handed the hardest blow not only due to the size of America’s economic influence but also to its nonchalant slap on the country’s history built by brave immigrants and its promise, written on the Statue of Liberty, to welcome the huddled and tired masses to the land of the free.


As American parents are struggling even more to teach their kids not to be a bully and bigot while fearing for the future, borrowing the eloquent words of CNN commentator Van Jones, the world including today’s Indonesia keeps leaning inward and to the conservative right where, I’m afraid, right or wrong, as long as propagated by the tyranny of masses, will always be right. You fear ISIS? Then you should fear this.

Perhaps while waiting for the pendulum to swing back to the center, I’ll find a hideout and reread The Republic.

As published:


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Rebels and Disrupters at Jakarta Fashion Week

Attending a fashion week is always fun to me, but I admit that after having seen countless shows year after year sometimes things can start to look somewhat similar. So it’s nice when suddenly a rebellion springs on and off the runway.


The 9th Jakarta Fashion Week (JFW) started off strong last week as Jenahara sent hijab models in dark-colored leather pants, gleaming chainlinks and graffiti-ed skirts down the runway under Nirvana’s most iconic song, while multimedia featuring the raw words of punk rock princess Patti Smith. Half of the audience, myself included, roared in applause, while the other half, notably hijab-wearers, stunned in silence. I was lucky to talk privately to Jenahara afterwards, in which she clarified her message of women in veils as free-willing, non-repressed individuals with their own passions and rebellions, just as her unveiled sisters– unlike what’s been much portrayed by Western media. While Jenahara, one of the young designers groomed under the Indonesia Fashion Forward incubator, might’ve intended that message to non-hijab-wearing crowd, everyone in the audience felt the jolt.


Rebels came out again on the tribute show by label-designing local celebrities, where Tities Sapoetra created wacky prints and bedazzled embroideries inspired by David Bowie, models Simone and Kelly Tandiono partnering up behind Cover Me Not swimwear and sent a sassy collection to honor Amy Winehouse, while Oxcel paid an homage to Muhammad Ali. It may not be high on the fashion bar, but certainly delivered much oomph to brighten the night.


A more tribal kind of rebels arrived in ancient motifs and bold colors of Nias, the exotic island off the coast of Sumatra known for their athletic and agile stone-jumpers, through Happa Happa label by the rarely-disappointing designer Mel Ahyar. The cultural references, including on the textile, remained—even on the menswear lot—yet she managed to rein them in enough to make the collection fairly urban-appropriate (you do need to strip off the styling accessories, however). Happa Happa is never for the faint of heart, and this latest collection keeps it as much.


Au courant urban sensibility was also present in refreshing silhouettes and daring palettes on collections showed by Friederich Herman and Danjyo Hiyoji. Friederich’s designs felt more playful with a tinge of preppiness in those short pleated skirts, while Danjyo’s gave off a city-dwelling bohemian vibe.


Yet perhaps, into the 6th day of the fashion week when this column is written, the wildest surprise was delivered by Suzuki Takayuki, the Japanese designer on his 2nd year collaboration with label Bateeq. The Japanese’s exquisite fabrics and refined executions met Indonesian batik essence already won my heart last year, and the white-blue stripe touch was revisited this year, yet this time he shook the audience by coming on the runway, armed with scissors and spray-paint, to turn a ball-gown into a poufy tutu. The statuesque model Paula Verhoeven stood still as the soft-spoken Takayuki went wild swish-swashing with both hands, drowned into his own creative mad zone, while audience ooh-aahing and mostly forgetting to snap pictures. The most suspense finale, hands down. Takayuki-sama, anata wa kuree-jii!

What about off the runway? A little sharing economy initiative is quietly introduced on the Fashionlink marketplace by a group of young entrepreneur and a longtime fashion insider. Kostoom is basically an Uber to connect young designers who aren’t yet economically-sized for clothing manufacturers, and relatively well-equipped, home-based tailors who’ve lost much of private clientele now that most people prefer to buy off-the-rack clothes. It works through web and app and meant as a B2B model, which I think has a fair shot in bridging the persistent gap between Indonesian fashion designers and garment industry.


Last, and quite an irony, is the post-criticism initiatives by H&M, as presented in a talk show during JFW, to combat their image as a fast fashion label. As I wrote on this column last year, The True Cost by Lucy Siegle and Overdressed by Elizabeth Kline, the first (on a film documentary format) was featured on last year’s JFW, clearly detailed the damages on resources, working condition and worldwide waste of discarded clothing. When it first started to send low-priced new styles every 6 weeks to stores, H&M was considered a bona fide disrupter to the institutionalized 2-season fashion cycles—forcing bigger labels to issue a pre-fall, summer 1 and 2, or even resort collections throughout the year. Yet the disruptions have indisputably wreaked havoc on resources—just imagine the fibers and fuels used every 6 weeks to churn out new collections worldwide—that as long as H&M refuses to lengthen the period between cycles, their much-touted initiatives to improve working conditions and recollect used clothing for fiber recycle will still fall flat. I never held H&M against the low wages, because it’s depends on the country’s government where they manufacture, but H&M can re-change the fashion cycle. Years ago, along with the likes of Topshop and Zara, they did it for the global fashion industry to begin with.

Now let me put on my rocking scarf by rebellious artist Eko Nugroho and MajorMinor label, as I head to JFW’s closing show. See you there?

As published:



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Amazing Indonesian Women, Racing On

Like a lot of people who aren’t in denial on how American politics influence our world, I started the week by picking my jaw up off the floor after listening to the video of Donald Trump’s very vulgar conversation on women. Watching the presidential debate later, I was more appalled that far from acting repentant, Trump spent time either mansplaining or hovering behind Hillary Clinton’s back.

In Jakarta, went around memes comparing the wives of gubernatorial candidates on their looks.

Women have gone to space, won Nobel prizes, presided over countries and organizations like IMF and World Bank, with another woman just another step of leading the United States, and yet misogyny is often written off as “locker-room talk” while remaining very physical.

I had a choice to call the wrath of Zeus upon men, or focus instead on women. For my sanity I chose the latter. So let me tell you the stories of two amazing women.

The first one is Louisa Kusnandar, who I met during my business commentary segment on the now-defunct The Indonesia Channel where she was the anchorwoman. We soon discovered that we lived in the same compound, so a friendship blossomed and continued even after we moved on to other projects. Me and my usual drama, she and her 2-year-old son, would bond over sugary treats from time to time.

It was a big surprise a while ago when she announced that she’d be representing Indonesia in Amazing Race Asia season 5, a franchise from TV reality show Amazing Race. With only days left from departure I rushed to her apartment and, while listening to the story, ended up helping pick and pack necessities to make a compact, 7-kg backpack manageable for her toned yet petite posture.

The 29-year-old Louisa had spent her girlhood as a reporter traveling and adventuring, like scuba-diving, while silently yearning to challenge herself further in competitions like Amazing Race Asia. But as in the case of many women, marriage and motherhood took place– and the ambition took backseat. Yet the difference between her and many other women is that she decided not to let go off the ambition. She and 30-year-old lawyer Treasuri Tamara decided to apply this year, and lo and behold, were picked with 20 other contestants from 2,000 applicants across Asia.

As I hugged her goodbye that afternoon, I sensed palpable anxiety underneath her excitement. I told her that regardless of the result, her braving the challenge, that also included leaving her family during the quarantined taping, was already something to be proud of.

I was glad to see a hint of pride when I welcomed her home recently. The iron-clad rules disabled her from spilling the beans prior to show airing that premiered last Thursday evening in AXN channel, but she let out that through the physically-demanding and mentally-challenging race that was also peppered with team politicking and finicky luck, she learned that she could get stronger than what she already knew she was. And regardless of the outcome, which she’s still barred from stating, that discovery of her inner steel, a source of both pride and humility, is something nobody can ever take away from her.

The other woman reclaiming the path to long-held dreams is my former colleague Shima. In her early 40s with over a dozen of years of cushioned career in multinational companies, Shima could no longer shake off the earthy call of farming. Yes. My finance wizard friend, whose expertise would typically send the regional Finance Director to tizzy whenever she took a long leave of absence, quit her well-paid job to become a farmer. Real farmer– dirt, soil, seed, mud and whatnots.

She’d spent months surveying lands, vegetation, crop cycles and everything in between, all the way to Thailand. She found a business partner and is now set to farming once deciding on the land parcel– that invariably will be out of any city limit, so far removed from her usual station by Jakarta’s Golden Triangle. Trading her leather pumps with rubber boots, for a venture that she’d never tried her hands on before. As a friend I offered cheers, but without first asking her if she’d perhaps lost some of her marbles.

Her husband has a great corporate career and with their only daughter now in her teens, the family has indeed got their finances in order, a much-awaited time career women typically look forward to finally enjoy for themselves—to splurge on vacations, handbags or beauty treatments. Instead, Shima is taking such huge risk on uncharted waters. She said time waited for nobody including her to give this long-held challenge a go, boom or bust risks well understood. I finally nodded, gave her a hug, and said that, boom or bust, she’d unwaveringly have my support.

Women in 2016 have indeed come a long way. They’re educated, well-versed in career, and are starting to stop shying away from pursuing dreams that only aren’t domestic, but also predate domestic life. These are seemingly regular women around us who nevertheless are so ballsy in racing for their dreams, taking that leap of faith, that it makes Trump’s pussy-grabbing braggadocio and Pilkada DKI memes much more insulting.

Many guys may have never left 1950s, but most women have. Now, which ones that you’d rather your daughters and nieces aspire to? I’d start with these two women on their amazing races.

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Pardoning the Turkeys, I Mean the Tax Evaders

Despite the years I spent in the US I never quite understood the pardoning of the turkey by the President before Thanksgiving. Doesn’t matter how many times a well-meaning American tried to explain it to me, I always ended up wondering why anyone would need to pardon a turkey.


I guess the same dogged incomprehension is also what’s on some people minds’ about the tax amnesty program rolled out by the government in recent months. Doesn’t matter how slow, simple and patient a well-meaning official attempts to explain the intrinsic objective and benefits of tax amnesty for a country, there are always people shrugging it off as an easy swinging door for fat cats. If you’re one of those well-meaning souls, you have my sympathy. I’d rather focus on the ones already understanding the benefits and in the position to partake.


No doubt the real targets are seriously rich Indonesians who have undeclared and/or untaxed assets domestically or overseas. Yet interestingly, many people outside that bountiful bracket are just as keen to participate. While some of them do have stashed assets or unreported income, many of them simply fall into the category of having not reported investments or income streams that have been taxed to the final—upper-middle class folks who lead relatively normal, non-tycoon life and don’t practically owe the government back taxes in that respect.


A bigger, almost undiscussed group is taxpayers who are in the position to participate in tax amnesty yet harbor a huge doubt on how the government would make do of their repatriated financial assets. What are the Government’s solid plans to use these funds to boost the country’s economy growth? What if the economy remains stagnant and these assets won’t grow? What if the IDR keeps falling and these assets will devalue along? Are there even contingency plans in place? It’s not so much of the taxes they’ll need to start paying after repatriation, it’s really how much the assets will be valued in the future once repatriated.


Those are the questions floated around in small circles at certain boardrooms, dinner parties, art gatherings, overseas marathon trips, or even quiet evenings by an apartment compound’s private swimming pool. Reasonable questions, as money has neither religions nor passports, one must say. Almost no solid assurance in the form of sound plan coming from the Government, one also must say.


Another interesting thing also floated about in these circles is that while most expressed no doubt on Sri Mulyani Indrawati’s expertise in managing the country’s economy and finance, most acknowledged that the Government doesn’t solely consist of Ministry of Finance. There are other ministries with their own problems, agenda, and level of capacity that is well beyond what the Minister of Finance’s control and responsibilities. As a middle-aged businessman half-jokingly remarked, Sri Mulyani is a great colonel he’d happily go to war with but there are other colonels plus a commanding general whose prowess in growing the economy he seriously questioned. And if it’s on the mind of businessmen of his stature, imagine the doubts hanging on the back of real tycoons with massive assets to bet on.


As for me, while I’m in no immediate danger of becoming a tycoon, I do pay my taxes, and every single time I filed my annual tax returns I couldn’t help feeling a sense of helplessness in noticing that the largest bulk of my taxes would go to foot the payroll of useless parliament members, police squads that often forgot to protect and serve, and underperformed civil servants. That helplessness often turned into seething anger whenever I trekked outside the comfort of Java into horrible ports with no ship routes, hills without electricity, villages without decent schools, and so on and so forth. The President has been loudly touting the merits of digital economy, even went on to urge Indonesian SMEs to follow the giant footsteps of Alibaba, yet everyone who travels often enough into the central and eastern time zones of Indonesia understand that 3G is mostly available within the limits of province capitals and big towns. And here I thought President Jokowi has traveled around every Christmas and Lebaran.


Back to tax amnesty. From the Tax Office’s online dashboard as per 29th of September the fines of declared assets from around 234 thousand files are recorded at IDR 89 trillion of the IDR 165 trillion goal, while the declared assets hit IDR 2,798 trillion of the IDR 4,000 trillion target. Not too shabby, with one day remaining on the first cut-off date and both numbers have hit past the 50% mark. The fines will rise in coming months, yet the tax amnesty submissions shouldn’t necessarily grow less if the Government can come forward more convincingly in detailing their plans to boost the economy.


October 20th will mark the second anniversary of this administration. The citizens have been patient and, as the progress of tax amnesty suggests, remains relatively trusting and cooperative. But long-term trust must be earned. Now time for your bold move, Sirs.

Don’t make me go talking about turkeys on my next column.

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