The Acehnese Man Guarding Chinese Manuscripts

Believe in momentums? I do. After reading an ethnographic book I discovered the author’s Twitter handle, on which I found a link to someone’s blogpost about a museum of diaspora Chinese literature in Indonesia.


Museum of what?


Yeah, that was my reaction, too. I had no slightest idea such place existed. And to think it’s been 2.5 years since my visit to and subsequent writing of Benteng Heritage Museum, thought of to be the only museum related to Peranakan (diaspora) Chinese in Indonesia.


So with abundant curiosity and some trepidation, since our Facebook message had gone unanswered, my pal Lailai and I trekked to Bumi Serpong Damai earlier this week. We both love books and Lailai is a Chinese descendant from nearby Tangerang neighborhood, hence the mutual interest.


We found the museum in the unassuming Ruko ITC, locked out. The travel agent next door said it was always closed, but offered to pass our note. Almost left disappointingly, we stumbled into a Chinese man who pointed us to a used bookshop across the street.


And there, we found Azmi “Daud” Abubakar. As the blogpost had said, he is indeed of Aceh heritage. After exchanging pleasantries and roaming in the bookshop, we were lead back to the museum.


Honestly, it was not yet quite a museum, but more of a 2-storey shophouse filled with gazillion literatures related to Chinese Indonesians that has become Azmi’s labor of love. The labor of love that was apparent on his expressions as he told us how he, one of 1998 activists from a nearby campus, came to a sad realization how the movement that had nobly meant to challenge Soeharto’s New Order led to yet another bloody persecution of the Chinese descendants. He started to get curious of the once-verboten materials related to Chinese Indonesia, read a thing or two, bought this and that, and before long the literatures and likeminded contacts, including foreign researchers, started to flow into his directions.


Momentum, I’m telling you.


Azmi, later assisted enthusiastically by wife Rini, eventually founded Museum Pustaka Peranakan Tionghoa about five years ago, now located in the shophouse he’d purchased. In there we found stacks of ledgers dating back to Dutch colonial times like Het Chineesche Zakenleven in Nederlandsch-Indie (1912) and Stichting & Vereeniging “Indo-Tionghoa” Semarang (1937), or a fragile picture of Chinese men in European clothing in a house adorned with Dutch and Kuomintang-era flags, marked only with a row of Chinese letters and the Latin word “Palembang”. If that was indeed a snapshot of a Chinese foundation it does make sense, as history books indicated in early 20th century the members of Kong Koan (Raad van Chinezen), a board set by Dutch government, and Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan, an association founded by Chinese diaspora themselves, already held different political views between bygone imperial Chinese, the socialist democratic China of Dr Sun Yat-sen, or the idea of a free Dutch-Indies.


You can’t accuse all Chinese diaspora in colonial times as a willing Dutch ally, as evidenced by a framed yellowing sheet of Kedaulatan Rakjat newspaper from early Independence years, hung on the museum window, that broadcasted a Chinatown bombarded by Dutch Allies for having resisted to play along. In Cabaukan, the 1999 novel that marked the first time a Chinese word put out for public use after a 32-year taboo, which both editions are found in the museum, Remy Sylado also cheekily suggested the same thinking as he used the same Tan Peng Liang name for two characters who contributed very differently to the pre-1945 independence struggle.


You can’t also accuse all Chinese Indonesians as wild mushrooms inundating our motherland as an article in Tempo (17 September 1977, Th. VII No29), another gem found in the museum, chronicled how then Regent Bahrum Damanik had purposely invited the Chinese diaspora to build businesses in the sleepy Tanjung Balai. That now in 2016 suddenly five viharas there were burned after a Chinese descendant complained of an overly loud mosque just mirrored what Ariel Heryanto in Identitas dan Kenikmatan: Politik Budaya Layar Indonesia (2015) wrote of the diabolical politics of New Order that welcome the capitals but not the individuals. Soeharto has died and the diaspora can now freely celebrate Lunar New Year, yet it’s presumptuous to think in reality many Melayu have accepted Chinese diaspora as equal Indonesians.


Azmi saw this through, hence the determination in dedicating the museum to the mainstream Melayu Indonesians, offering a bridge of familiarity between the ethnic groups, as also illustrated by their naming of the adjoining noodle stall “Mie Aceh Cheng Ho”, borrowing from the legendary 14th c. Muslim Chinese admiral. Yet the couple needs serious help to organize the manuscripts scattered about, for as much as they treasure the papers they cannot read Chinese, something crucial that has hindered them from making the most sense of the abundant information around them. So here I am now extending the bridge to my readers who have academic knowledge or genuine interests on the matter, kindly visit the museum and lend your hand. Anyone is welcome, yet as the Minang-hailed Rini said as she fixed her mauve-colored hijab, it’s down to us the Melayus to set things straight for the Chinese diaspora would be instantly flashed by ingrained cynicism.

The man has stood guard of the once-forbidden manuscripts. It’s time for the concerned masses to help in making sense of that almost-forgotten history.

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71 Years On: The Crossroads of Identity?

It started off years ago as Independence Day lunch with some diplomat friends; they’d just returned from State Palace for the ceremony, I’d just finished watching it on TV. Since they’d be in formalwear, I’d dress accordingly in variations of red-white or traditional costume. The diplomats have left but I try to preserve the ritual with my Indonesian pals.

Not always successfully.

I discovered that, curiously, some Indonesians own no traditional attire including the very popular kebaya, or even a contemporary piece of batik and tenun. Curious, since during my short tenure in Manila most locals could tell me of their precious barong (embroidered male shirt) and terno (poufy-sleeved white dress). Curious, since during my own years overseas I always kept a set of traditional garb just in case I had to attend an event representing Indonesia.

Curious, but certainly not fair nor conclusive on the questions of one’s claimed identity, sense of pride or, let alone, patriotic loyalty.

Yet for millennia wardrobe has been one of the most common tools of identity, a showcase for the mindset inside. Even the mere elements can serve as identifiers, like the hard-to-obtain purple dye worn by European loyalty in Middle Ages, or the low hair-knot only sported by a geisha who’d had her mizuage back in the century when the profession wasn’t deemed blatant prostitution. The Divergent movie series offers perhaps the best illustrations on how styles and colors worn by a group elucidate its identity and purpose.

Since  the 18th anniversary of Reformasi in May I’ve been citing here on my column how in certain matters like religion Indonesia has ironically gone more orthodox since. While in the past female Muslim Indonesians who chose to cover-up would adopt a shawl similar to what the late Benazir Bhutto wore, recently the headscarves have become so massive they sometime cover the face. Little girls not yet menstruating are forced to cover up, something that I didn’t even see in Saudi Arabia both times I made umrah pilgrimage. It’s not only the wardrobe, but also the unprecedented levels of preachy attitude and social pressure put on others to follow suit from friends, relatives, colleagues or random celebrities on TV.

Religious freedom is paramount to human rights, which I support, yet I hate it that now I am often made feeling like I wasn’t entirely “wearing” my identity. I’ve lately found myself looking around at gatherings and noticing how Indonesia wasn’t this conformist just 10 years ago; once gasping to realize that Dubai downtown malls on weekends would look and feel more relaxed than the particular vicinity I was in. I’m aware of how bigoted my feelings can sound, which is the worst feeling of all, so I suppress them most of the times.

But the self-restraint broke earlier this week upon watching the newly-restored Tiga Dara movie from Indonesia’s legendary director the late Usmar Ismail. Made in 1956, it showed three sisters playfully exploring romance, eschewing the idea of marriage at the age of twenty-nine, and dancing gleefully with suitors. The parties were full of jazz and swing music, and at one particular outdoor mixer swimsuits were donned by both sexes.

While throughout the movie the eldest was shown in traditional kebaya, her sisters were in sleeveless sundresses and pedal-pushers—one of them was tastefully shot from the back getting undressed, throwing her bra over the bedpost. A hint of Islamic element only came in the form of Malay quartet singing melodiously to young men and women in long tunic over batik with shawl draped simply over the girls’ shoulder, dancing in pair to the tunes.

This lighter and more jovial atmosphere contrasts badly from the countless preaching on heaven and hell drummed up in current Indonesian movies and daytime soaps, or how the recent marriage of a famous preacher’s 17-year-old son was packaged as a glorious poster for teenage marriage. Heck, 60 years ago the Tiga Dara sisters were already laughing at their grandma for having to marry at seventeen, now you urge the sisters’ grandkids to return marrying at seventeen? Am I living in Twilight Zone?

I don’t know when, where, or why the liberated 1956 Indonesia turn into the piety-hysteria 2016 Indonesia. Is it true that one of the things 1998 Reformasi freed from Soeharto’s 32-year oppression was conservatism? Or perhaps the other identity options for the past 7 decades, traditional or modern alike, was sincerely owned up to, no matter how adorably movies like Tiga Dara have immortalized them? I mean, back to my story above, some Indonesians don’t even think of traditional attire as part of their repertoire, anyway.

Maybe, in the matter of identity expression, we are at crossroads. We don’t know where we come from or what we want to be, so we cling to the identity that seems safer or more rewarding in the long term—carried over to the next life, even.

Or maybe, as I don’t have enough anthropology education in me, it is I who am at the crossroads of understanding my own country folks. So before my head cracks in confusion, I’ll head to Gandaria City, where a festival of traditional textiles beyond batiks is being held by Fimela group for the 71st Independence Day. At least among those colorful beauties, I always find a piece of my identity.

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A Small Window Into Stately Frames

The colorful state of Indonesia turns seventy-one this month. As countries go it’s not that old, yet thanks to the tragically poor teaching of history, the earlier decades are starting to fade. Many Indonesians don’t quite know their history and don’t even realize they don’t know.

Art is one of the tools to tell history and preserve memory. Another problem for Indonesia, as art also hasn’t been taught adequately beyond simple drawing or watercolor painting. Our art museums are mostly uninspiring. Children’s artistic talents are often squashed early by parents who prefer professions with a clear career path in this country with high unemployment. Our failure to appreciate art has led many Indonesian masterpieces to find secure home overseas.

Grim? Yes. Is all lost? Perhaps not. There are still places in Indonesia, beyond the vault of private collectors, though far from public eye, where masterpieces have been stored; State Palaces, scattered around Java and Bali.

We really should be grateful that founding father Soekarno was a true intellectual with a keen love for art, for the artworks obtained or commissioned during his administration made up the good base of collection from which next presidents have expanded and preserved in different degrees, reaching now to over 15,000 items. A small fraction of it is displayed now to public for the first time ever.

28 paintings, 4 ceramics, 100 photographs and a handful of art books from State Palaces are exhibited in Galeri Nasional throughout August, curated in the theme of patriotic struggles against colonialism to commemorate the 71st Independence Day, billed the 17/71 Exhibition.

There was Basoeki Abdullah’s ravishing painting of Pangeran Diponegoro during 19th c. Java War, Affandi’s tossed-away “poster” to fire up independence guerillas that Soekarno quietly picked up for safekeeping, Henk Ngantung’s bold strokes that provided the backdrop of independence declaration press conference, or S. Sudjojono’s melancholy illustration of families fleeing Solo and Yogya on foot as Dutch & Allies bombers returned post 1945 independence. And of course, the piece de resistance—Raden Saleh’s masterpiece of the dramatic capture of the proud Pangeran Diponegoro, painted over 2 decades after the actual event and as a rebuttal, if you will, to Nicholaas Pienemaan’s 1830 painting of Pangeran Diponegoro meekly surrendering to the Dutch. Raden Saleh might’ve spent most of his adult life in Europe but you can’t say the man wasn’t patriotic.

Speaking of foreign artists, there was a handful of delightful works from foreign artists on display. There was certainly a little bit of what one might consider as the “Mooi Indie” romanticism, yet brilliant paintings remain brilliant paintings. While Walter Spies’ 1930 rendering of what 9th c. Buddhist settlement around Borobudur Temple might’ve looked like is my favorite in terms of visual, the best background story laid in the acquisition of Diego Rivera’s 1961 depiction of a Malayan girl holding flowers, where Soekarno’s relentless pleads over what was then a part of Mexico’s presidential collection eventually led to President Lopez issuing a decree to release it outside Mexico. Men, women, presidents—clearly Soekarno knew how to charm them all.

Criticisms, I have a few. Some of the painting captions don’t properly cite provenance, some have typos. The photographs were too small for many people to truly enjoy. None of the ceramics had caption at all. I briefly met the curator who humbly acknowledged that disciplined art archiving hasn’t been enforced within State Palaces. On the organization side, the ushers forbid women carrying handbags inside while men clutching male pouches entered smoothly, prompting me to protest.

Yet as a small window into the treasures that help picturing the country’s early history, it’s a good exhibition. Bar the argument with ushers over bags, I had a lovely time. The guidebook said the idea was initiated during Megawati’s presidency, and Yudhoyono started lending out several pieces for public events, but it’s only now a curated collection is brought out from State Palaces to be displayed for public benefit, and for this gracious gesture I sincerely thank President Jokowi.

Next step, hopefully, is the opening of all State Palaces for history & art tours. White House’s such tour is so interesting and well-organized people would line up under scorching summer sun for an attendance. I heard the Bogor Presidential Palace now starts to run a guided tour, hopefully all Palaces, including the two sharing that vast compound in Central Jakarta, will follow soon. If Jackie Kennedy managed to reorganize White House’s art treasures during her husband’s short presidency, without the help of computers or Internet, I trust Indonesian art scholars can do much more than that if welcomed and given latitude to do so.

So yes, bring you family and friends to see these treasures. If you’re enchanted, I suggest a day at the Southeast Asia wing of National Gallery on your next visit to Singapore, where numerous Indonesian art masterpieces including Raden Saleh’s biggest painting hangs proudly. If you’re also into contemporary art, Jakarta Art Stage opens this weekend, giving a merry addition to a weekend spent well catching a glimpse of gilded, stately frames.

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Evening Out the Odd and Even Numbers

After ‘Brexit’ in the UK and another closer to home during the Eid holiday, it seems like the world hasn’t quite had enough. There was another ISIS attack on French National Day, with a third of victims found to be Muslims; Turkey military attempted a coup on authoritarian yet democratically-elected President Erdogan; Donald Trump was officially crowned as Republican Party’s presidential nominee a day after his wife’s speech was proven to have partially plagiarized from Michelle Obama in 2008.

Don’t you wish now that you’d hitched a ride to Jupiter with NASA Juno as they started the journey five years ago? Yeah.

Anyway, we can wallow in mutual misery, or try to catch something new in the horizon, something that may just bring better things into our daily lives. I’ve done my fair share on the first one, so I’m doing the latter this week. Ready to be positive?

The administration of province-city Jakarta is again throwing another experiment to curtail the city’s notorious traffic jams. As one can easily surmise, the root of the problem is horrible mass public transportation system that pushes commuters to owning private vehicles. The sidewalks are so patchy many prefer 3-minute vehicle ride than 15-minute brisk walk. The ones who can afford cars strive to own at least one. The ones with barely above minimum wage sometimes forego meals to afford 36-month installments on a motorbike, a vehicle that can’t even shield one from weather yet is still more practical than maneuvering the public transportation routes.

MRT is coming, but the initial lines to operate within 1-2 years will be simple, so something needs to be done in the meantime. Hence the plan to regulate entrance into Jakarta’s main downtown thoroughfares during rush hours on workdays, to substitute the years-long, ineffective, 3-passengers-in-a-car rule. The cars with license plate ending with an odd number can only enter on odd dates, while the ones ending with an even number are allotted even dates. The argument is commuters will be induced to ride on mass transportation or carpool.

Will they?

I’m a firm believer that a real change in habit requires incentives. What are the incentives for private car riders on this scheme now? Without drastic changes in availability, service and convenience by the time this policy is rolled over, the only incentive is the feel-good sentiment knowing that you’ve somewhat contributed to reducing traffic problems. Noble, yes. Sustainable? After experiencing daily frustration in hailing taxis every morning or during rain, or how carpooling doesn’t work out as nice when you have gym or grocery shopping after work, or once you start factoring fragile kids and aging parents on daily morning timetable —I doubt it is.

So people will start cheating the system. How? Not that difficult, really. People who own only one car can rent for rush hours, lease or buy a second car with opposite type of license plate number, or sell their car altogether to buy two cheaper cars. Will it be a burden to their budget? Yes. Is it impossible to achieve, especially with easy car loan schemes around? No.

People who own more than one car with same type of license plate numbers can swap or sell one car. People who own more than one car with both types of license plate numbers won’t even need to alter their mobility arrangements.

Heck, Uber may even consider altering their app to match license plates to assigned dates.

And those were just the legal way-outs; who’s willing to bet that fake license plates business won’t enjoy a little boon now?

I ran a semi-scientific poll among my networks. After weeding out 2 respondents who don’t commute to Jakarta’s main thoroughfares on weekdays, I got a few dozen valid responses. Two-thirds of respondents own one car, in which 60% (means 40% of total respondents) claim they’ll ride public or carpool on days not allotted to their car. Of the respondents owning more than one car, a whopping 80% (= 26.7% of total) happen to own cars with both types of license plates. If I were to use my small survey as a relaxed projection, the new scheme may alter riding habit of at least 40% but not more than 73.3% of the private car riders.

Not a shabby projection. Provided that respondents will continuously behave in the long run as they answer in a quick poll, that the income level of respondents owning one car doesn’t rise before public transport modes are much improved, that private car riders don’t start counting the sums of odd and even dates in a year, and a myriad of other ifs.

A market researcher pal wryly commented that my poll results were too optimistic. I replied that I was looking for a reason to be optimistic on the get go, hence a bit of bias. And I bet that’s also what’s on the mind of Jakarta administration in launching this initiative. It doesn’t make them more optimistic than previous administrations when launching earlier initiatives. It doesn’t make them more prone to success either.

Yet in the meantime, we’re allowed to feel a tad bit more positive looking into the horizon. For a girl who lives downtown, works mostly from home yet owns a car, I’ve certainly got a lot of positive business propositions now. La, la, la.

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A Festival of Fasting, Fear and Factions

A festival Ramadan has become. For the urbanites, it’s an endless series of retail sales, grocery hunts and iftar invitations, that an atheist friend of mine had busier Ramadan than I did. Add in the nightly firecrackers, once a merriment only in villages without malls, Ramadan in metropolitans like Jakarta has transformed into a festival boasts fasting as an emblem. Shiny, sewn up tightly, worn with pride—yet not the whole festive wardrobe.  

If you think it means Muslim Indonesians are going more secular, enough of us are adamant to prove otherwise. One of the fruits of 1998 Reformasi is decentralization; a move meant to serve locals better yet now often misused to appease the majority by issuing discriminative bylaws, like forbidding the sale of food during the day throughout the monthlong Ramadan.

That such bylaw is discriminative as not all Indonesians are Muslims, some Muslims may not fast due to legitimate reasons, or that religious practice is private than public, didn’t seem to matter. Protests from other citizens, including levelheaded Muslims, went unnoticed. All hell eventually broke loose weeks ago when Serang administrative, under TV cameras, raided food stalls that dared to open, busting rice pots and confiscating dishes as a stall-owner, an elderly lady, crying openly, pleading for mercy.

The netizens reacted quickly not just with damnation, but also with sizable donations; shelling out about USD 20K to the old lady and other stall owners nearby, perhaps in defiance against the law they’re hopeless to change. Conservatives were quick to point that the authorities were only enforcing the law, and within days it became an open assault towards the elderly lady’s characters, so removed from the necessary public conversation about revoking such stupid bylaw.

There are too many discriminative bylaws popped out recently, just when I thought 1998 Reformasi and the Internet age would open the eyes of blindsided Indonesians after 32-year of iron fist rule under Soeharto. And yet the stream of free information, foreign people and new practices often isn’t seen as opportunities to grow, but threats to one’s core, be it tradition, political view, economics, or religion, or all of the above. Faction after smaller faction, over fear of the unknown. And political parties cunningly used this left and right, pun intended, to gain votes.

Indonesians do go online, but instead to discover new things and learn of opposing views they ironically tend to veer towards justifications and protections. Creating a clique, instead of getting intrigued. Some have used Malaysia as preferred reference—a country where it’s apparently a crime to post food pictures on social media during the day throughout Ramadan. Getting online to defensively go inwards—an irony I doubt ever crossed the Internet creators’ visionary minds. Even more so when you think that Indonesia’s much-touted motto is Diversity in Unity. People who dare to speak up for diversity or against discrimination prescribed by clergies are often silenced by their own peer group to maintain a false sense of unity. Even the President has been meek about the issue.

It’s disheartening to watch the grow of conservatism among people you grew up with, the once free-willed, educated bunch who got wide-eyed exploring the world yet is now gradually turning into folks that don’t see anything wrong with the aforementioned bylaws or the blinkered concept of Muslim-only suburbia housing where residents must attend daily prayers collectively in communal mosque as oppose to privately at home and regardless of their daily activities. Shields for their kids against drugs, premarital sex, “un-Indonesian” attitudes, “funny” ideologies or “unholy” vaccines have been cited as a reason, sometimes a subtle code for me the childless singleton to shut my “liberal” views, while, as I wrote here in May, thanks to inadequate teaching of social science in our education, most Indonesians can’t define liberalism beyond “anything-goes Western value” anyway.

Fear of continually being edged out by globalization is widely suggested as the underlying motive for the surprising Brexit vote last week, and the sudden rise of post-referendum intolerance towards Polish and dark-colored immigrants in the UK only adds to the equation. Xenophobia and far-right nationalism are on the rise in western Europe, fueled by the influx of immigrants and refugees that some deemed “un-European” based on race and religion—blind to the fact that enough of top footballers defending their flags in Euro 2016, including Indonesian descendant Radja Nainggolan if I may add, are sons or grandsons of earlier immigrants.

The same nationalistic rhetoric, almost jingoism really, has also been trumpeted about by the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate, Donald Trump, and, to a lesser degree, the newly-minted President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. While I can fathom the lure of nationalistic utopia, I think such feverish pitch usually signal pent-up anger as opposed to reasoned rejections.

And where that would lead us? For UK citizens, it’s saying goodbye to countless opportunities in 27 other countries while having no apparent leader as David Cameron resigned and former London mayor and Brexit movement leader Boris Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for PM post. For Indonesians, it’s a heated tug-of-war between the hardliners and sober minds, with the ignorant majority dragged farther into insularity cloaked in nationalistic pride and newfound piety. Ramadan’s supposed meditative soul, reflective mind and steely patience? Oh honey, as long as people don’t eat in front of us during the day, we’re carrying on with the festival. Now hand me the firecrackers already. Minal aidin wal faidzin.

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Roaring Asian Tigresses Are Coming

Yes, Ramadan has arrived. Guess who else has arrived? The new coterie of Asia’s top models. (What, we can’t talk about models while observing Ramadan? C’mon now.)

Asia’s Next Top Model, one of the franchises spurned from America’s Next Top Model, a highly successful reality show created and produced by former supermodel Tyra Banks over a decade ago. The Asian franchise has only run for four seasons, but it has considerably taken Asia by a storm and, judged from my comfy sofa, turned the Australian franchise pale in comparison.

Perhaps it’s the advantage of sourcing show’s main cast and supporting elements from various countries in Asia. Hosts, juries, mentors, contestants, photographers and sponsors hail from different parts in Asia, most notably Southeast Asia. There’s a healthy rivalry among contestants, and likewise audience, based on nationality, making it an emotionally-investing show. In terms of production, it takes measures as detailed as, for example, themed wardrobe and make-up for contestants and jurors, or chic catwalk for elimination scenes.

How has Indonesia fared? I’m pleased to report that we haven’t done too shabbily ourselves. The host/main juror for the first two seasons was Indonesia’s renowned top model and for MTV Asia VJ Nadya Hutagalung, model Kelly Tandiono is this season’s resident mentor and Ayu Gani (accessible through Instagram ID @ganegani) won last year. A select of Indonesian photographers, fashion designers and models have also participated.

Indonesia sent two models this year, Aldilla Hopkin-Hamid and Patricia Gunawan (Instagram ID @aldillazahraa and @patriciagouw, respectively), with Patricia finishing as the 1st runner-up in addition to become the face of Close-Up, the second brand ambassador for Subaru and the covergirl for Harper’s Bazaar Singapore’s beauty edition.

Not shabbily at all, ladies and gentlemen. Go Indonesia!

In fact, go Asia! This year’s winner, the statuesque Tawan from Thailand, just as Ayu Gani from Indonesia last year, would work in London for a year under a leading European modelling agency. It may not seem too robust, but in the bigger scheme of things, it marks a new constant: every year, an Asian model is guaranteed a chance to be exposed to major European media and walk its runways.

Europe, where most of established fashion houses and half of global cosmetics giants reside; two industries that haven’t really given much emphasis on catering to Asian women, despite the bulk of business growing steadily here in the last decade. Asian features and postures haven’t been considered classic beauty deserving their own flattering silhouettes, while Asian tones haven’t been served well in the color palettes.

But that should change now that Asia no longer remains some exotic holiday destinations, bloody democracies, kooky traditions or immigrants living in the pockets of European society, but a fresh face entrusted to represent desired lifestyle labels. Before we dream of Asian fashion and cosmetics to go global, we first must make Asian faces an equal player on global stages. Europe is the perfect gateway for such.

To be fair the world has started to “warm up” to Asian features in the past decade. India and Japan have won international beauty pageants in recent years, while this year Miss Universe titleholder hails from the Philippines and Indonesia finished third for Miss World. Maybelline, the New York based beauty brand, recently appointed its first ever Asian model for worldwide campaigns, the exquisite Taiwanese model I-Hua.

Hollywood, however, remains perhaps the toughest to crack into—Asian actors, including a few of Indonesia’s own, have been mostly assigned to stereotypical roles, mostly as feeble little men or martial art mobsters. So few Asians on its A-list roster that for the three leading roles in The Memoirs of Geisha, for example, Hollywood resorted to stars of Chinese descent from three different Asian countries, failing to cast an actual Japanese actress. For six seasons straight one of its most successful TV shows, The Walking Dead, has only featured one (!) Asian-American character– who may not survive next season.

You may assume at this point that I’m consumed by looks. I’m not. I’m just being very realistic that in the world increasingly run by and lived on media, visuals hold certain power. Unless you’re Batman, you can’t hope to be accounted for by largely being unseen. And I want Asia including Indonesia to wield bigger power through not only recognizable, but also desirable looks so that we can also dominate the supply side of global markets—markets like cosmetics and luxury products that, proven in the past decade, withstand recessions better than most other industries. That means well-footed branding that translates to physical productions and real job openings in the long run—two things that will serve well multiple emerging markets in the continent.

Now while you’re peeking at the aforementioned social media accounts of Asia’s newest top models, I’m starting to closely monitor the next franchise aired on my cable; Britain and Ireland’s Next Top Models. Because whoever wins that title will most likely be the closest rival as Asia’s winner treading her way into the fiercely competitive European modelling industry. As one of the greatest minds from Asia has taught us, one must know one’s opponents just as knowing oneself to win the war.

No longer crouching and hidden, Asian tigresses are coming. Hear us roar.

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Patriotically Going On A Spending Spree

A common conversation topic nowadays is how slow the economy has become. Friends in media and show businesses find it difficult to obtain advertisements and sponsorships, pals in fast-moving consumer goods and telecommunications (typically easy to shell out dough) confirm cutbacks on non-pivotal promotions because sales have been slow.

Slowing down consumer spending is not exactly news. My contacts in retail industry have whined, in varying degrees, about missing targets as far back as Idul Fitri last year—a trend formed along subsequent Christmas and Chinese New Year. An argument says consumers have shifted to online shopping, where goodies are more varied in types and prices. While it’s possible, I haven’t seen the numbers that conclude that the decline from physical stores have all migrated to their online counterparts. Referencing consumer confidence reports for the past year, lower consumption is the likely reality.

For a few of investments in real sector that I have, lower purchasing power and stretched-out terms of payment is all too much of a reality. As my income come solely from contract jobs and dividends, instead of steady paychecks, I ended up cutting back expenses myself.

My father criticized this decision as we compared notes on our investment portfolios recently, when I moaned the state of our economy. He said if the downturn bothered me that much, I shouldn’t have made it worse by spending less. Then he threw me the classic after-all-that-education-I-paid-for-I-still-had-to-explain-this-to-you eyeroll.

Okay, okay– so on my way to earn business degrees, which admittedly Dad paid for, I did learn early that consumption makes up the basic equation for economic growth. The other key factors are invariably savings, investments, and Government spending. How so? Consumer spending drives business, which gives reason for producers to not only run the business but also expanding it (read: committing investments). If consumption is miniscule, businessmen have no reason to expand or invest– no matter how low the interests given by banks for business loans.

How much consumption weighs in on our growth? A few years ago economist Chatib Basri, then the Minister of Finance, was widely quoted in media citing 55% as consumption’s contribution to our economy (do Google his “Belanja Pangkal Kaya” write-up). Even if the percentage has changed recently, I don’t suppose it will be so much as to eliminate consumption as the formidable driver of our economy—which means, with just a little hike in consumption, the economy as a whole will considerably grow.

The government, on their part, recently started to spend on infrastructure developments. While it is great, it takes a while for the effects to trickle down into much of the real sector. Our consumption will carry more instant effects. So, you want us to get out of this downturn? Shop.

Now, while it may seem imprudent to spend when your income doesn’t come according to a certain schedule, like us freelancers, it isn’t that hard to sit and work out a sensible spending budget. Moreover, a large chunk of urbanites do enjoy steady paychecks and thus have no reasons to curtail spending. I always suspect an intangible part of the consumer confidence rate is psychological connection—people around complain of economic woes, you start feeling you’re having some, too. Chances are you’re not. So why not spend more?

And in Jakarta on this last week before Ramadan plenty shopping opportunities are offered by local talents. There’s the first Muslim Fashion Festival (Muffest), organized by the newly-formed Indonesia Fashion Chamber, a growing group of seasoned designers who during their time in previous fashion organization had successfully run Indonesia Islamic Fashion Fair for years. Held in Istora Senayan, Muffest is featuring dozens of Indonesian labels, some of which are critically-acclaimed labels like NurZahra, which in March 2014 became the first ever modest fashion label to grace Tokyo Fashion Week.

Another worth checking event is Fashionlink Ramadan Market, collaborated by the Jakarta Fashion Week (JFW) organizer with Senayan City, featuring the most promising local designers groomed by JFW in recent years.

Naturally consumption does not constitute only of purchasing wardrobe. You can also spend on food, books, furniture, white goods, renovations, travel and services like spa and car maintenance. Develop a hobby and dedicate a leisure budget for it. You don’t even need to buy new things—you can spend on preloved or vintage merchandises and still get the economy rolling.

Now, especially on travel—it is one sure way to spur growth far beyond your postal code. Idul Fitri is a much-awaiting break for many Indonesians, not just to visit family but also to travel. Step out of your comfort zones; try new destinations that aren’t yet popular, sample their cuisine and crafts. There is a growing number of domestic adventure tours to some of Indonesia’s most remote and jaw-dropping corners– like Kakaban Trip, with whom my pals and I went island hopping in East Kalimantan and East Nusa Tenggara since last year and which I can recommend for their professionalism.

So put this down, and go out there. Shop, eat, travel. Let your budget, not contagious negative sentiments, dictate your spending. These months in Indonesia, really, spending is patriotic. It’s for the economy. Be merry and go on your spending spree. Wheeeee!!

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From ‘Kafir’ to ‘Komunis’: The Bogeyman Lives On

A long while ago I read somewhere that the more diverse a group, the stronger the bond must be created to hold them together as a group. Logical. In the case of The Prince and the Pauper, or Beauty and the Beast, it was blind love. In the case of a nation as colorful as Indonesia? Perhaps fear of a common enemy will do.

As a girl who was born and raised in the heyday of Soeharto’s iron-fist rule, I clearly knew who the bogeyman was then. The bloody coup supposedly run by Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, thwarted ingeniously just in time by then Lieutenant General Soeharto and loyal troops, was drummed up into historical books, annual TV movie run and various other propaganda mediums. Not until I left the country as an adult and be exposed more to the world that I came to understand the oversimplification of ideologies and history that Soeharto’s New Order had consciously done, and how similar to 1950′s America my growing up under his rule had been.

Then 1998 Reformasi came and I thought, whoa, as information distribution would be free now, the masses wouldn’t be structurally duped any longer. I felt like it was the dawn of the Age of Aquarius for all Indonesians. Yet what happened? Just a decade into what was supposedly the enlightenment in democratic governance, we were handed another bogeyman. Kaum kafir. The infidels. The heathens. The non-believers—either not believing in the Almighty, or merely not believing in the same Divinity we do.

The Islamic hardliners have been having a great run for several years now. For a long time most people, including levelheaded Muslims, were too afraid to contradict the garden variety of hate speeches spewed about daily and twice on Fridays. Yet the public seems to have gotten a teeny bit wiser lately—many Muslims have openly called out the likes of FPI as common thugs dressed in Middle Eastern garbs, and the vocal Islam-based political parties received paltry votes on 2014 election.

Which means it’s probably time for a new bogeyman. Yet what surprised me the most is that, instead of presenting a new one, the powers that be decided to dust off the shelves and brought out, again, the good old PKI and its leftist ilk.

In 2016.

It doesn’t matter that our own founding father’s legendary concept of “Marhaenism”, the little people, is rooted to Marxism. Doesn’t matter that the country’s prized philosophical ideology Pancasila, in its mission to support the little people, owes at least its 2nd and 5th principles to socialism. It doesn’t matter that the current ruling party never shied from touting leftist ideals, such as a welfare state, during their opposition years.

Neither does it matter that since the fall of the Soviet Union a couple of decades ago communism is generally considered as a failed ideology, Chavez’ political and economic experiments have left Venezuela virtually bankrupt, China is the world’s largest customer for luxury products and that Cuba is last year’s largest growing market for the unapologetically capitalistic Airbnb.

How do you fear something that, while has lent wisdom to your country’s own fundamentals, is an extreme spectrum ideology that no longer holds power over the world?

What is even sadder is that, it may just still work. Thanks to inadequate teaching of social sciences in our education system, many Indonesians still lump communism, socialism and atheism in one box while throwing consumerism, hedonism, capitalism and liberalism in another. If you think that’s horribly misguided, wait until you hear that once an angry mob set Das Kapital on fire because the book is teaching… capitalism.

I’m never one to attach myself to any ideology for I believe nobody can be that black-and-white consistently throughout life, and I’m not here to defend communism since frankly there’s nothing left to defend. But I’m never a fan of dumbing down another generation on basic social science while other nations are racing to cure cancer, create renewable energy, or reach Jupiter.

This resurrection of phobia against the supposed resurrection of communism, while amusing at times, is troubling in principle. Troubling that one can get hell-bent in defending or attacking what one doesn’t fundamentally understand for one never being properly taught on; troubling that there are people adamant to keep a fearful bogeyman on and on.

I don’t know who they are, and I’m dumbfounded as to why the country’s highest office hasn’t stopped National Police for curtailing public discourses over political science or arresting people over silly t-shirts. Does it count as a Mental Revolution when we let a bogeyman loose among our men, women and children, Mr President?

While I pretend that Mr President reads this column and hence is now pondering my question, you can go underground to see that, now that anything which can be labeled ‘leftist’ is verboten, the price tags of such illicit materials will only soar to the sky. And you won’t need a communist to tell you that, a capitalist will do just fine.

So yeah, have fun with the ‘kafir’ and ‘komunis’ bogeyman. I’d rather go and have my nails done.

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Jakarta Socialites: Right Dress Code, Wrong Code of Conduct

I’ll start by saying that I don’t typically frown upon people just because they’re wealthy and well-connected or, for the sake of the argument, deprived and doomed.

Yet sometimes, some people just keep behaving in certain ways that I can’t help wondering if their circumstances help shaping their attitudes, logical fallacy rules be damned.

Earlier this week I had to attend what was supposed to be a lovely afternoon at the Museum Nasional Indonesia. We all know how dowdy Indonesian museums tend to be, but since photography book launching and the unveiling of fashion couture exhibition were on agenda, I got my hopes up. I honored the heritage fabric dress code by donning the vintage hand-drawn batik scoured at Triwindu flea market years ago and charged up my phone for snapping pics of the gorgeous designs.

What happened later, in the room full of government officials, culture voyeurs, fashion enthusiasts and socialites, was far from the gorgeousness of any couture featured inside. And instead of pictures, I almost snapped at people.

A gaggle of society ladies, in the best garb and makeup no doubt, just couldn’t remain shut. It is one thing to chirp around before the event commences, it’s another to buzz like hungry bees after it starts. They kept on chatting, laughing, even taking selfies after MC and honorary guests started making opening remarks just a few meters away. Didn’t help that the high-ceilinged hall amplified any voice inside.

Others in the audience, myself included, tried shushing them. Repeatedly. The buzz died for 2-3 seconds before picking up again, throughout speeches by the fashion designer who was holding the soiree and the chairwoman of one of Indonesia’s most powerful charities. The chattering got so loud that the next speaker, a chairwoman of one of Indonesia’s largest media groups, had to ask them to respect the designer and themselves– positioning herself like those gabbing women were supposed to be, a supporting friend of the designer. The noise disappeared for perhaps a full 23 seconds before returning in a vengeance.

At that point I was ready to walk up and shushed them personally, but then the most honorary guest, the spouse of Indonesia’s Vice President no less, was up to give remark. I thought that would clam up the socialites. Boy was I so wrong. They kept on spewing all kinds of noises that halfway through Missus VP paused then said, “I should probably just stop here since nobody’s listening to me anyway, right.”

She then almost unceremoniously hit the officiating gong. Most of us were too stunned to mouth anything than the variations of “Oh, my God.” The offending women? Most of them didn’t even register what was unfolding. A couple of them muttered that the VP’s spouse was “ngambek”, a word mostly associated with childlike tantrums.

Listen, the only ones behaving like bratty children throwing tantrums were you, rude socialites. You women had no basic manner to stop chatting when speakers giving remarks, and had no decency to alter your attitude after repeated direct requests. You gave no respect whatsoever to others in the audience who was trying to listen to the speakers. You didn’t reserve due respect for the spouse of Vice President. Heck, you didn’t even give a damn when the designer went up to speak—although you were probably decked head-to-toe in his designs.

What did you learn growing up– in school or from your mother? Were you raised by wolves, before suddenly stumbling into money and designer duds? Did you think just because you’ve invariably helped supporting Indonesian fashion and charities, and perhaps your hubby has donated to political causes, that you were privileged to misbehave wherever and whenever you landed your fancy feet? Nobody is that privileged, madams!

In fact, the real privileged people, like a prominent businesswoman or certain old-moneyed mother-daughter sitting politely throughout the debacle, know how to carry themselves properly at any event. They know when to be merry, cordial, or how to remain mum when speeches get wordy (which even weren’t that afternoon). The real society swans know how to gracefully step aside when it’s other people’s moment to take the limelight. The real class act doesn’t only faithfully follow the dress code, they dutifully adheres to code of conduct.

All socialites are snooty and self-centered, a pal commented after reading my impromptu tweets that afternoon. Full disclaimer; I’ve met Beverly Hills babes and Park Avenue princesses. But guess what, as self-centered as those pampered American trust-fund babies can get, they still know how to mind their surroundings, demonstrate a sense of decorum and stop yapping when needed. Perhaps those Swiss finishing schools do help, after all. Maybe American civilization is truly several steps ahead of us. Or, American socialites are simply too afraid to pull uncouth behaviors at fashion events because the designers are huge enough to not be afraid of banning them at next events, just as Anna Wintour can ban them off Vogue pages.

So there’s your choice, callous Jakarta socialites. You’d been a nuisance before, but what you pulled at Museum Nasional this week really crossed the line. Use your abundant money to get educated on proper etiquette and code of conduct. Because next time we will shush you on your face—your pricey handbag, diamond or husband’s connections be damned.

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Mengurai Lipstik, Tas, Ponsel, dan Pasar

Bila Anda termasuk pengguna aktif Twitter di Indonesia, mungkin seminggu ini perhatian Anda banyak terpaku pada perselisihan tajam antara 2 (dua) akun tentang pembelian dan pembayaran kosmetika asing untuk dibisniskan. Di antara banyaknya komentar yang lumayan sexist seperti “Urusan emak-emak lah, twitwar dagangan lipstik” ada beberapa yang bisa melihat cukup luas dan berkomentar, “Nggak mengira bisnis impor kosmetik besar juga, ya.”

Besar atau kecil itu relatif. Tapi bahwa pasar tercipta dari permintaan (demand) dan pasokan (supply), itu mutlak. Situ cari, sini punya, kita dagang. Pasar tidak harus berbentuk fisik seperti grocery market dekat rumah atau pasar modal (capital market) layaknya Bursa Efek Indonesia—selama demand bertemu supply, market tercipta. Di era digital ini, walaupun masih dalam bentuk seadanya, mungkin karena dukungan infrastruktur dari Pemerintah juga masih lemah, pasar banyak yang berangsur pindah ke dunia maya. Secara hakikat pasar juga tidak perlu restu dari Yang Maha Esa, emaap, maksud saya dari Yang Maha Penguasa.

Artinya, hanya karena penguasa tidak mengijinkan sebuah produk atau jasa diperdagangkan secara bebas, bukan berarti pasarnya tidak akan tercipta dalam wilayah kekuasaan. Selama masih ada yang meminta dan yang bersedia memasok, pasar gelap (black market) akan tercipta. Malah cenderung lebih gegap-gempita, karena dipersulit aksesnya. Jumlah dan jadwal keberadaan pasokan tidak menentu, mendorong pembeli untuk membayar premium demi mendapatkan produk atau jasa tersebut. Premium ini, setelah dipotong biaya operasional, bukan saja menjadi laba operasional bagi penjual, tapi kemungkinan jadi laba bersih karena ketiadaan 1 (satu) elemen yang biasanya ada di pasar terbuka; pajak.


Sekarang, siapa yang berhak memungut pajak? Yang Maha Penguasa. Nah, dengan logika dan realita sederhana di atas, yang diajarkan ke mahasiswa Ekonomi dan Bisnis sejak tahun pertama, Anda tentunya jadi sadar betapa konyolnya penguasa yang terlalu rajin melarang atau mempersulit impor ini-itu, entah karena nasionalisme atau isme-isme lainnya yang begitu cetar membahana. Dikiranya itu akan mematikan pasar? Yang ada malah penguasa kehilangan pemasukan untuk membiayai pembangunan, paling tidak dari cukai impor dan pajak penjualan. Sedap.

Itu baru soal pajak. Belum lagi soal kepastian pelayanan purna-jual, perlindungan konsumen saat produk atau jasa bermasalah, penyelesaian sengketa bisnis antara mitra seperti Lippensaga yang sedang ramai di Twitter sekarang, dan sebagainya. Namanya juga pasar gelap, sulit mencari titik terang.

Di sini mungkin Anda akan menukas, seberapa sih bisnis kosmetika sampai keran impor harus diperlonggar. Sebelum repot menggali berbagai data besar, coba iseng susuri Instagram dan hitung secara kasar volume dan nilai perdagangan kosmetika yang terjadi dalam seminggu di platform itu saja (kita belum bicara WA group, arisan, dan forum lainnya lho, ya). Kenapa demand melonjak? Keinginan untuk mencoba sesuatu yang baru diimbangi meningkatnya kemampuan finansial. Kategori beauty, baik skincare maupun makeup, pesat berkembang sampai menciptakan pasar klinik medis kecantikan dan jasa makeup artist di luar kebutuhan panggung profesional.

Ini baru bicara kosmetika, belum berbagai impor lainnya, misalnya makanan ringan, elektronika dan luxury goods. Bila Anda sering menjelajahi garis terluar Indonesia, misalnya Tarakan (Kalimantan Utara) atau Sabang (Aceh Darussalam), dengan mudah akan mendapati berbagai packaged consumer goods yang “tembus” dari negeri jiran. Barang relatif murah yang kalau diizinkan masuk resmi juga belum tentu akan menjadi market leader yang, anu, membunuhi karya anak bangsa, tapi karena sulit didapat justru jadi oleh-oleh yang lebih diincar pelancong penasaran ketimbang, misalnya, cemilan setempat.

Elektronika, gawai dan luxury goods, lebih jauh lagi, sampai menciptakan pasar sekunder (tangan kedua) dan bursa barang tiruan yang sama riuhnya dengan pasar gelap primernya. Karena 6 (enam) bulan lalu iPhone 6s telah beredar di Singapura jangan tanya berapa impor individual secara resmi (beli via online shop asing) atau tidak (titip teman) yang telah terjadi karena demand tidak terpuaskan, dan bayangkan bila beberapa bulan lagi tetap belum masuk bisa mulai beredarlah di pasar sekunder iPhone 6s yang baru sebentar dipakai oleh pemiliknya. Saat barang baru dibatasi masuknya, barang lama akan makin didaur-ulang ke tangan kedua, ketiga, dan seterusnya. Umumnya, secara informal. Negara dapat apa? Dapat gengsi mengekang dan sekilas cerita, nyaris tidak kuasa memungut pajak.

Luxury goods, “barang branded” istilah populernya di Indonesia, kurang-lebih sama. Berapa beda harganya sih kalau berburu ke luarnegeri, seseorang pernah bertanya. Selisih harga dan pengembalian pajak penjualan (GST) memang menarik, tapi keberagaman pilihan mulai jadi alasan yang lebih menggiurkan. Model dan warna luxury goods yang masuk resmi ke Indonesia sering terbatas karena sulitnya perizinan resmi, membuka pintu lebar-lebar ke wirausaha perseorangan yang, entah bagaimana, bisa mendapatkan benda-benda ini. Bila para drug mule (kurir narkoba) sering mengaku dijebak, para handbag mule atau shopper ini melakukan dengan sadar dan penuh perhitungan komisi jasa. Dilaporkankah komisi jasa ini ke dalam SPT Pribadi, kita tidak tahu. Kehilangankah Negara akan potensi pendapatan pajak penjualan, sekarang Anda tahu.

Dan itu baru pasar gelapnya untuk barang baru, belum bicara pasar sekundernya yang sering dianggap santai sebagai bazaar lucu-lucuan barang bekas bermerek diantara ibu rumahtangga, tapi akhir-akhir ini telah berkembang sedemikian pesat sampai bisa menyewa aula di mall mewah metropolitan dan memperjualbelikan tas, sepatu, dan jam tangan berharga puluhan juta rupiah.

Situ cari, sini punya, kita dagang.

Apakah saya sinis terhadap kewirausahaan yang tercipta secara organik diantara celah-celah ini? Oh, tidak. Saya menghargai kegesitan menyikapi peluang. Apakah saya menganggap Yang Maha Penguasa banyak kehilangan potensi pendapatan dan kesempatan untuk justru melecut karya anak bangsa agar lebih kompetitif dalam persaingan bebas? Nah, setelah 800+ kata di atas, menurut Anda sendiri bagaimana?

La, la, la.

Posted in Beauty Bee, Econ & Biz, Fashion, Virtual World | 1 Comment