IDR 350 Million Houses & FPI: A Ludicrous New Normal for Jakarta?

What a week it’s been for Jakartans. If you’re one of the people who are now worried whether the city would commit to make a progress for someone like you, you’re not alone. Most minorities or advanced-thinking Jakarta residents carry that doubt now, secretly or openly.


Race and religion cards have been dealt by both sides along the campaign trail. It’s well-recorded how now Governor-elect Anies Baswedan and running mate Sandiaga Uno didn’t restrain the conservative hardliners to ride on their wagon, in some occasions seemed too happy to be sharing a ride. Unfortunately the Ahok-Djarot ticket wasn’t exactly squeaky clean on the issue as well; some of my Christian or Chinese friends told me stories of serious peer pressure from collecting IDs when Ahok was still trying to run independently down to casting vote on election days, and the usage of Muslim-looking rioters circa 1998 in campaign video released a couple of weeks ago.


Living in Chinese-dominated housing complex on West Jakarta in 1998, our house suffered damages. I personally know how it feels running inside the house and scrambling to switch off any lights when a mob outside throwing rocks at you. I didn’t have the luxury to occupy the Parliament House with activists because I was too busy taking turns in neighborhood watch with the Chinese uncles and aunts in our blocks. The mob outside our house that evening, where my parents still live to this day, was a ragtag crew who wasn’t wearing any Muslim paraphernalia or chanting Allahu Akbar. The video gave me mixed feelings—I was reminded of one of the most traumatic events of my life, yet at the same time got confused with the Muslim generalization. I was sad the day the campaign video was released, because it meant both sides were officially playing race and religion cards regardless of the higher stake of national unity. The election was in Jakarta, the exemplary dirty plot was made available for all Indonesia.


Yet for all my disagreements with Ahok, I have much more serious problems with the likes of FPI granting access to governance. It was quite hard to see someone like Anies Baswedan who’d been known for outreaching voluntary teaching Indonesia Mengajar and profound phrases like tenun kebangsaan illustrating how a national identity formed like handwoven fabrics is now in bed with religious fascists. I suppose Anies read statistics and understood that riding on the momentum of conservatism for Governor’s seat was worth shredding his precious tenun kebangsaan. You, Sir, now gave tenun a bad name.


Besides turning the word ‘tenun’ into countless jokes, what will Anies bring for Jakartans in the next five years? He threw many promises on campaign trail, yet the one grabbing most attention was the promise of landed houses for the cost of IDR 350 million with front payment of either 0% or IDR 0 (I wasn’t sure—he kept flipping on the pledge). Anybody who’s been house-hunting in Jakarta, let alone involved in property business, knew how superfluous that promise was. Being a good resident who respects democracy I won’t debate the plausibility of that scheme anymore, I’ll just march down to Anies and Sandi after inauguration and demand to see the houses. I don’t own a landed house yet—if there are such houses for that price in Jakarta I’d like to purchase one before the end of the year, please.


Another promise was an improvement to the present, cash-less, smartcard program Kartu Jakarta Pintar (KJP). Now used to obtain goods and services related to health or education, the card would be made available to churn out cash as well. A tempting offer for any household on tight budget, yet I genuinely wonder how the government would guarantee its usage for the intended purposes. Cash is so liquid it can leave no paper trail on Indonesia’s bustling informal sector—I want to watch how Anies and  Sandi personally make it used to, for example, finance infant vaccinations instead of shiny contraptions.


Even if all the rosy promises came to fruition, one fact remained unchanged– race and religion cards are now proven effective for open political campaigns. There aren’t moderate Islamic clerics strong enough to lure back devout Muslims sidetracked by firebrand hardliners, despite the repeated claims of tens of millions of Muslims adhering to peaceful organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. It may easily go downhill now; if a non-Muslim man can’t be Governor, perhaps now a non-Muslim boy can’t be Class President? Since only men can lead a Muslim prayer, perhaps now a woman can’t lead the country? The post-1998 conservatism trend wasn’t started by Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno, but it was their 2016-1017 Gubernatorial campaign that openly milked it to the best. Rizieq Shihab cozily standing next to Anies delivering victory speech was possibly a new normal Jakartans would need to stomach now.

Brexit, Trump, Anies, and God know what can happen this Sunday in France. The continuing nausea may just be our new normal, peeps.

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Deep, Blue, and Keeps Being Hip

“You hail from and live in the world’s largest archipelago, yet you don’t scuba-dive? How is that?”

A Frenchman, already a licensed Dive Master then, asked me point-blank over a decade ago. My bellydancing pal Hanna, a diving enthusiast, asked the same question rhetorically a few years later.

The answer I gave them is the same I’ve given to anyone since- I won’t be able to walk nor talk, while everything below 5 meters comes off blue and cold until you upload the pictures onshore later, so why bother scuba diving at all? No self-respected diver has accepted this answer kindly so far, I duly noted.

Well, you can never argue about hobbies now, can you? I’ve met Hawaiians who don’t surf, Masai folks who don’t run, Brazilians who don’t samba and Gulf Arabs who don’t know how to saddle a camel.

Now what about Indonesians who do scuba-dive? The exact number is anyone’s best guess as none of the diving associations operating in Indonesia ever disclosed the number of diving license issued, but if the 11th Deep and Extreme annual exhibition in Jakarta last week were to be used as a benchmark, the number is sizable, and growing. The stats I gathered from the organizer showed growth; from 50 exhibitors in the 1st year to 150 on its 11th year, from 25,000 visitors last year to nearing 27,000 this year. As many longstanding exhibitions in Jakarta have had a hard time attracting sponsors, participants and visitors due to economic slowdown in the past two years, this is quite a feat.

Do visitors spend, though? The organizer has no access to transactions booked by exhibitors, yet from what I observed in the past two years attending Deep and Extreme, visitors eagerly spend. And not just on needs but also for wants—like neon-colored oxygen tanks and Rp3 million suitcases made of materials able to store damp wetsuit just in case you need to immediately travel after washing up ashore. For the business girl in me, once wants-based purchases are apparent, the demand is in a clear uptick.

So, the interest keeps growing, but is it sustainable? I was fortunate to attend the exhibition this year with a journo-turned-seasoned-diver-and-explorer friend who introduced me to Andi Zulkifli of Master Selam, a Master Instructor and one of the most respected figures in Indonesia diving community. I appreciated how Andi admitted that while there are committed and genuine natural-loving divers, presently diving is largely a trend—a recreational activity one picks chiefly due to peers, hip factor, or the sudden grow of disposable income. The last factor which, I shall add, fueled by economic growth during the last presidential administration that gave rise to the middle class and has also boosted other leisure activities— this year the yoga-focused Bali Spirit Festival is on its 10th while Ubud Writers and Readers Festival will be on its 14th. The difference is while one only needs stretch pants to start yoga and healthy eyesight to take up reading, a basic wetsuit can set you back Rp2 million. Not to mention that yoga studios are plenty within city limits, while diving sites take farther distance and thus, bigger costs.

One would think the higher “barrier to participation” would’ve helped chopping off the bad apples on the onset, but facts remained that there are still plenty recreational divers ruining underwater coral reefs for pictures and polluting far-flung islands with plastic bottles—long before New Caledonia cruise ship crashed onto Raja Ampat or the aptly-named Great Pacific Garbage Patch made it to National Geographic. To be fair, all hip hobbies suffer from this self-sabotaging attitude. Just as my diver friend Lailai met a girl bedecked in the priciest diving gears nonchalantly tossing cigarette butts into the blue water, I’ve shared classes with people obsessed with Rp 2million Lululemon pants, perfecting poses for Instagram posts, or spreading their clique’s mattresses around so they won’t practice next to strangers—completely oblivious to yoga’s core principle to shed oneself of upadana (attachments).

The good news is, at least the diving community in Indonesia is trying to fight the garbage problem. From Andi I learned that about 20% of the fee paid off to PADI for each license issued goes to cleaning up Indonesian seas, a great initiative that will only be effective when doubled with constant individual discipline from every diver dunking their body into the ol’ big blue. Borrowing Andi’s answer on the aforementioned question of the diving sustainability as leisure and business— people would still come as long as Indonesia’s underwater was still worth enjoying. And that’s the insight every stakeholder in any watersport should permanently nail in mind, or our grandkids would only know the oceanic riches through reruns of Finding Nemo.

As for me, so far the siren call doesn’t die— alluring continuously for snorkeling. In fact, my pals and I are going again soon. So if you happen to see a group of girls gallivanting about West Papua’s Kaimana waters next month, wave. I’ll be the one in polka-dot tankini and matching red lipstick enough to make the fishes swoon.

Hip, hip, deep into the blue!

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Chicks Throwing Kicks on Flicks

Chick flicks. As a self-respecting, longtime moviegoer I despise that term, used loosely for romantic comedy, teen drama and musical genres. It alludes condescendingly to movies deemed lovey-dovey, fairy tale-y, or full of visual fluffs without much meat. Though I personally never liked overly sappy movies, but to insinuate only women can enjoy sentimental, substance-less entertainment is sexism. 

What about chick flicks that are about chicks kicking ahead—based on real chicks?

Let’s start with Dangal, the 2016 Bollywood production that made it to our cinemas recently. Based on a true story, Dangal narrates the uphill struggle of a former national wrestling champion accepting the reality of four daughters and no sons to achieve his dream of India winning international championship. What the movie ends up showing is the laborious struggle suffered by his preteen daughters once they trained as wrestlers.

Right off the bat was the restrictive kurti clothing and rejection from male-only training facility. The former champ built a makeshift tent by a crop field, got hand-me-down shorts from a nephew then enlisted the nephew as a training partner. When his eldest needed to test her prowess in a real match, then only available to boys, he pushed his way until an organizer relented. When the daughter defeated every single boy in roadside competitions, the father endeavored to procure a proper mattress so she could train for proper championships—where later she easily beat off girls in her class to win national medal and, after another arduous battle of a different kind, became the first Indian female wrestler to win international medals.

The journey was no picnic. Father and daughters faced jeers from peers, boos from neighbors and the garden variety of insults from perfect strangers—mostly because girls tried to excel in a male-oriented field. Never once “patriarchy” uttered, but that was what the movie was all about. Even as it ended happily, some critics pointed out that the girls were only kicking well under their father’s tutelage to fulfill his dream.

The critics had a point, yet taken into account how deep patriarchy runs in India – where you can still find a widow self-inflict death after her spouse’s demise—sometimes it still takes a man to help cornering chances to show women’s capability. Once the chance is grabbed the women can well prove on their own how they equalize the playing field. It is not ideal, and some hardcore feminists may hate me for saying so, but sometimes that’s the grim reality. Once the first layer of glass ceiling cracked, the pioneer women should give chances to their fellow sisters to form the critical mass needed to crack further layers. Geeta and Babita might’ve initially wrestled because of Dear Ol’ Dad, but now Indian girls could dream to become wrestling champs on their own. In the cutthroat corporate world that’s the practice that has been adopted by a number of advanced-thinking men and women, some of whom I was lucky to be mentored under.

That was also the exemplary action of Dorothy Vaughan who supervised female black mathematicians working under NASA in the 1960s, as illustrated in 2017 Hollywood production Hidden Figures. Facing gender and race discriminations, Dorothy saw the opportunity to move her group ahead through mastering the then-novelty IBM computing machines— even as she had to trick her way into a computer programming book available only in the public library’s Caucasian section. Far from making their jobs obsolete, her self-learning expanded the group’s knowledge into the new technology that they became indispensable—prompting, eventually, white mathematicians to come for guidance.

Pivotal, door-opening, helps from the more ‘privileged’—male, white, or both— came in the form of risk-taking bosses, chance-taking judge and supportive husbands in the case of geometry analytic wizard Katherine Goble and ballsy engineer Mary Johnson. Despite creative generalization to arrive in a happy ending, Hidden Figures still serves up a monument of bravery many parents and women can aspire to foster—especially in Indonesia.

If you think Indonesia’s gender gap portrayed in the recent UNDP’s Human Development Index is heady statistics, let me offer more grounded pictures; to this day in Indonesia, regardless of merit, daughters can still be pushed aside for sons when parents have limited funds for education while female employees receiving less than their male colleagues. What Indonesia needs more, what we should keep marching for, is mothers who split chores equally to her kids, fathers who dare to invest the family’s limited funds in smart daughters than mediocre sons, foundation directors who open scholarships for capable women in male-dominated fields, HRD execs who fight for pay according to merit than gender, and political parties who offer patronage to female cadres more than just for their winning looks. I can fight off catcalls and gropes on my own, but opening windows of chance in education and work often takes another person to make it possible. That’s what Indonesia should focus more on.

Their only fault is having a crazy father, the dad in Dangal exclaimed. You need to see what your daughter can become, the academic advisor in Hidden Figures pushed. An advance for you is an advance for us all, Dorothy reiterated to Katherine and Mary.

Now that’s my kind of ass-kicking chick flicks, chickadee, which we need to see more of. Dissecting Beauty and the Beast, next?

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The Ugly F-Word of Forecasting

Oh, the ugly F-word of forecasting. I despise that one more than any other F-word around. I didn’t like it much throughout schools, and I loathed it on monthly basis when pursuing marketing career in the fast-moving consumer goods industry.

It’s not the numbers that I hated, for I’ve always been pretty good in math and statistics. It’s because forecasting is about sorting out, ironing out, and making models out of a jumble of quantitative figures and an array of qualitative factors to tell where customers will move to next. To make prediction one can often rely on general guestimate (guess plus estimate), yet to forecast a trend one needs to have a solid data-based analysis.

SPSS was the cutting edge software in my last semester at business school over a decade ago, and since then more sophisticated tools have emerged. Doesn’t mean forecasting is now a much less tenuous or a much more certain task to execute well. It has made or broken quite a number of high-flying corporate careers over the years.

That was why I attended the recent launch of Indonesia Trend Forecasting book by Bekraf with much interest. Forecasting the trend for one industry is hard enough, let alone simultaneously for four creative economy subsectors as Bekraf announced that day; craft, fashion, interior design and product design. I was intrigued.

I was more intrigued when I discovered at the launch party that the forecasters managed to formulate the same four trends for the aforementioned four subsectors; Archean (Earth shapes), Vigilant (calculated aesthetics), Cryptic (bio-engineering), Digitarian (Gen Z). There were corresponding product installations at the launch venue and, distributed to guests, the forecast books.

I’ve since devoured two of Indonesia Trend Forecasting books—Fashion, and Textile & Pattern. I like how each of the four trends uses Indonesian natural or cultural characteristics for visual references—a shape of ancient boulder here, a peek of handwoven fabric there, a splash of gemstones somewhere. I like how for every trend there are guidelines for shape, color and texture. I give it a due credit that each trend is preceded with narrative of the underlying concept—the narrative which, if I understood the speeches given at the launch party, was a product of discussions with industry’s stakeholders.

Yet in reading through the narratives that I started to develop my concerns. From my training and experience I understand that trends are supposed to be focused and pointed, not widening to include almost the whole spectrum of social phenomenon in the last couple of centuries. There is a considerable jump from Earth-bound elements to Internet-depended, Gen-Z urbanites, for example.

Trends are supposed to usher the users into a couple of defined corridors, not into several highways with multiple lanes each. There were too many trends to begin with, and each trend featured elements that may not exactly in sync with some of the elements of other trends. I’m not sure how to find red connecting dots between Primigenial and Post-Dynamic, for instance. At the end of the book I was quite uncertain which trend I had to follow if I were a designer. The choices were simply too wide.

My other question was how the four major trends came to be forecasted. How much historical quantitative data was inputted? How versatile the qualitative measures, including the aforementioned FGDs, were taken? Was there any specific, measurable forecasting tool used? It would support the books’ credibility much stronger if information about data sources, forecasting methods and other credentials were disclosed in the book.

How will these Indonesia Trend Forecasting books support designers? At their form now, I suppose they serve as a nice additional reading. For non-designers, they may serve as a visually-pleasing reference of how Indonesia’s rich heritage could be translated into design references. Yet as actual forecasting books, I believe they could use a sharper, more focal lens.

As I applaud Bekraf’s efforts to provide effective forecasts for the country’s creative industry, here’s looking forward to tighter editions in the future. By next year, perhaps? Cheers.

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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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