Monday, 28 April 2014

Sometimes, even with the maximum amount of preparation, things still don't turn out the way you want them.  Taking part in a sprint triathlon in Singapore recently with some friends, I could say with confidence that I prepared for the cycling portion of the relay pretty well. Certainly with a lot more enthusiasm and strategic planning than President Obama did in his presidential debate against contender Mitt Romney. At least, I wanted to be where I was, at the race, and I was desperate to do well.

Out of the three sports, swimming, cycling and running, I had chosen the bike because I did not relish drowning in sea water or snapping my hamstring doing a 5k run. The cycling part is a 20k, quite a distance for a Car Free Sunday biker like me. As newbies we opted for the open relay, which, in terms of physical challenge, comes somewhere below the children's mini triathlon. Still, I'm a firm believer in the saying, anything worth doing is worth doing well. Especially where personal performance is at stake.

So, the first thing I did was to get myself a new bicycle and say goodbye to my faithful little folding bike. I opted for a cool-looking road bike with thin wheels and ten gears that set me back a few pennies, but a must if I wanted to be taken seriously.

The next thing I did was to prepare myself physically. A former athlete friend was kind enough to be my coach and help me put in the hours of training without injuring myself. She taught me that discipline and motivation was important to build strength and endurance. So for two months prior to the race, she created a rigorous schedule for me to follow and meticulously logged my performance after every training in a specially prepared journal. That way I could see where I needed to improve, be it my cardio, my stength or my speed.

My bike, affectionately known as The Green Lantern, for its unique colouring, was a delight. It is light, easy to mount and zippy, but sturdy enought to withstand the occasional bumps and falls. I was confident that together, we would do well.

After much practice, 20km didn't feel like a daunting distance to cover. I was ready for the big race. To put myself in the spirit of things, I splashed on some fancy cycling gear, padded pants, helmet, green goggles and a bright green pair of shoes in honour of The Green Lantern.

The morning of the race, I took The Green Lantern to the bicycle maintenance tent at the race venue for a quick health check. All its ten gears were put properly in place and both wheels were pumped with air to the correct pressure.

The race started. I hung my bike on the rack and waited for my team mate, the swimmer to appear and hand me the Champion Chip to record our performance. She finished at an impressive time, far ahead of the others in our group.

I grabbed The Green Lantern off the rack and ran with it to the mounting point, and started to pedal.

On my first pedalling I knew something was wrong. The gears made a horrible churning noise. I moved them about. The noise turned into a clanking sound. Nevertheless, I kept going. There was no turning back now. Barely a few meters into the race, there was another strange noise. This time it came from the back wheel.  A hideous flapping sound. And then my handle bar had a life of its own. The Green Lantern was conspiring to throw me off the saddle at every bump and minor turn. I had to keep holding on to stop myself from falling. In the meantime, I was conscious that however hard I pedaled, I could never move fast enough. I felt I was riding an uncontrollable monster.

I rode around like this for a good 13km before I had to concede defeat. The Green Lantern had a flat tire.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

Nine Lives

Bush the Cat came to the house eleven years ago, during the invasion of Iraq led by his namesake George W Bush. He and his siblings, Uday and Qusay (named after the sons of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, all of whom met with a rather tragic ending) and a female kitten, were the products of a promiscuous female stray cat and an anonymous paramour who found my shoe cupboard under the stairs an ideal place to give birth to her litter. She stayed around long enough to nurse her kittens before disappearing once more into the streets, responding to the call of the wild, followed by Uday who was beginning to discover the use of his legs.

Bush however, stayed on with his siblings, regarding my house as his rightful abode, fed by a regular supply of branded cat food as if he were some pedigree. Which of course he isn't. Far from it. In appearance, Bush is just your run of the mill tabby, and compared to his siblings, actually on the ugly side. Nevertheless, in his heyday, with his long, slim torso, glossy fur, extra long tail and the face like a miniature lion from the Masai Mara, Bush was quite the Tom Cat of the neighbourhood and a fierce rival to his brother Qusay. And a miao that was completely devoid of any aesthetic value. Bad tempered, demanding and horribly loud.

And for a few years, he was indeed the king of the little street where I live. During the day, in the heat of the sunshine, he would spend his time stretched out on the cool stone slabs beneath the gazebo. In the evenings, he would prowl the neighbourhood, climbing from roof to roof and tracing the gutters, marking territory wherever he went. During mating season one could hear his miaoing all night long, usually followed by the most horrendous racket of bloodcurdling cat fights that went on until the early hours of the morning. And each mating season he would come home with some wound or another - a bleeding paw, a lopsided ear, bald fur patches on his back - like some war trophies.

Until one day, I thought it best to put an end to his male shenanigans once and for all, for his safety and the sanity of the household.  And soon, Bush and his siblings displayed a more house friendly temperament. After a few unsuccessful fights, Bush's lack of male drive kept him at home more and more, reducing his territory to the front part of the house and the back garden where he would spend his time eyeing the koi swimming in the pond. The farthest he would venture to was the nextdoor neighbour's rooftop.
Eleven years on, Bush is still around, though his face has become a lot uglier with age, his fur rather scraggy and he has lost a lot of his muscles that were his trademark. Until one day recently, he fell sick. It was just a cold, as his nose was stuffy and had gunk coming out of it. Dr Gustav, the Vet, and the one who gelded him, was called immediately and prescribed him antibiotics and some vitamin shots. But he had difficulty in breathing, lost his appetite and missed out a couple of day's worth of eating and drinking. When he decided to lie down in a corner and had tears coming out of his eyes and green snot oozing from his nose, I knew that it was a lot more serious than just a nasty cold. I took him to Dr Gustav for a thorough check up and a stay at the clinic.

Bush was severely dehydrated and he was losing his consciousness. In only a couple of days he seemed to have lost a lot of weight, had no energy and was unusually quiet. In human terms, Bush would be the equivalent of a seventy-seven year old man. His test results showed that he was not only severely dehydrated but he has a chronic kidney disease. Something that he must have been suffering from for a while now, but undetected, because I don't speak cat language. Perhaps he's been complaining about it for a while, but his ear piercing screeches sounded all the same to me, which I put down as his usual bad tempered self.

But there it is. The cat is dying, there's no doubt about it. Both test results and his USG showed that his kidneys were not only malfunctioning, they seemed to have disappeared altogether. And his liver was swollen to twice its normal size. My relative suggested I put him to sleep and out of his misery, for his sake. The cat was old, for goodness sake. Dr Gustav agreed that prognosis was bad, but he was not into putting animals down. I would have to take him elsewhere.

I asked him what could be done to help Bush, as I wasn't sure whether he would be ready to leave this world. Besides, I wasn't ready to let this ugly, bad tempered cat, out of my life. Apart from injecting him with fluids, treating him with a nebuliser so he could breathe, and giving him antibiotics, there wasn't much to be done. But dr Gustav the vet, had also taken up a course in acupuncture and had began to take in human patients desperate enough to be treated by a vet. He offered to experiment on Bush, by treating him with acupuncture for three minutes a day. He had also just bought himself a new-fangled machine that could feed ion into the skin to help wounds heal quicker. The machine is also good if you want to get rid of wrinkles.

I agreed. After all, what else was there to do?  If the cat had to go, at least it wasn't because he was in pain, dehydrated or not being able to breathe. It would be because his body finally gave up on him, and we had tried everything to make him better.

The first time the vet stuck tiny needles into him, Bush gave one of his ugly sounding miaows. A good sign, I thought. After a few days of treatment, the USG still couldn't make out the shapes of his kidneys, but he didn't show signs of giving up. If he were human, dr Gustav observed, he would be six foot under. As it was, Bush's condition improved considerably. After a week, he was eating and drinking on his own. I decided to take him home. He went straight to the pond, drank a big gulp of water and watched the koi swim. Moreover, he had found his voice - the loud, demanding sound that was ugly as sin but music to my ears, nevertheless.

My cat it seems, really has nine lives.
My driver is rather pleased with himself. He and a friend made a wager on who would be winners in Jakarta's election for a new governor and deputy. He put his money on Jokowi-Ahok pair and came home with two big boxes of cigarettes and fifty thousand rupiah. He himself is a Betawi, a native of Jakarta, and I asked him why he would back a man from Solo.

'I really have no respect for Foke,' he said, of the incumbent governor. 'He said that the Betawis that didn't vote for him, should get out of Jakarta. I mean, who does he think he is? Jakarta doesn't belong to him.'  But why was he so sure that Fauzi Bowo would lose?  'Because the guy is not a nice person.'

I guess that makes a lot of sense.  Alone in the polling booth and faced with a choice between someone you know but  actively dislike and someone whom you don't really know but looks like a nice person, it's probably easier to choose the latter.

Nice seems to carry a lot of weight when choosing a leader these days. A waiter whom I spoke to the night before the capital's election day in a cafe I frequent, made his preference very clear. He would definitely vote for Jokowi-Ahok. Moreover, he had no doubt that the underdog pair would win.

'In my neighbourhood we're given all these flyers,' he said, 'telling us not to vote for Jokowi-Ahok because Ahok is not a Moslem and Chinese. The flyers are really nasty, saying bad things about them and how we must vote for Foke. There's even money being distributed. But I've already made up my mind. I vote according to my conscience, not because of the promise of money or what some awful flyers tell us. These people must think we're stupid or what.'

In between my tuna salad, I asked him what made him so sure that Jokowi-Ahok would win. His calculations were simple. According to him, 45 per cent of people living in Jakarta are Javanese, so naturally they would vote for Solo candidate, Jokowi. Now, say 10 per cent of Jakartans are of Chinese descent and Christians. No doubt they would vote for Ahok. So between them they could easily get 55 per cent. Plus, there's the unhappy Betawi denizens living in burnt slums who, when they asked for help from the governor, were kindly told to go and live in Solo. Those numbers make up more than enough for a clear win. Impressive. Not only is he smart, he also turns out to be right. Jokowi-Ahok emerged as undisputed winners in the Quick Count.

Which is not what I can say about my friend who picked Fauzi Bowo, convinced that Foke would win. His reasoning was that Jakartans like stability and would prefer the devil they know rather than risk a new face that would disturb the order of things. 'There are still many programs to be implemented,' he said, which in retrospect sounded more like wishful thinking. 'Only Foke could continue the job. It's not easy to get all that bureaucratic machinery going, and having a new leader would mean starting all over again.'

'Moreover, a lot of Indonesians are still primordial in their thinking. Things like religion and ethnicity might seem irrelevant to us, the educated middle class, but matter very much to the masses. They would still be influenced by their religious leaders and frankly, I don't think they're ready to have a Chinese candidate. Besides, Jakarta is the home of the Betawi people, so why should they pick a Mayor from Solo to run their city and a little guy from Bangka Belitung?'

As it transpires, most of the ordinary Jakartans are more than happy to import a Mayor from Solo and a Chinese businessman who is Christian to boot, to entrust their sprawling metropolis to. And contrary to some belief, are not so easily swayed by religious or ethnic considerations. Rather, they go for practical matters. They're fed up, and they want change.

Perhaps it's the image they project. With their fresh, youthful looks and signature checkered shirts, Jokowi-Ahok are the new kids in town and the face of change. Perhaps it's because Jakartans, frustrated with the messy state of the city, have had just about enough with what they've had to put up with in the last five years, including the thick mustache.  They want the city cleaned up, and the mustache shaved off.

What is clear, is that Jakartans, like Kus the waiter, don't want too much politic. A recent march I saw at the HI roundabout consisting of a bunch of simple folk and their children, waved cardboard banners saying 'we need money, not politics.'  Nor do they need politicians with too many promises and who act as if they know a lot better than the people they serve.  They also cannot be hoodwinked and manipulated to further the interests of some parties who cynically use the issues of religion and ethnicity to garner support.

'I voted Jokowi-Ahok because I want change,' says a supporter. 'It's time that things are done differently.'

Whether the victorious pair, now greeted and feted like celebrities, would be able to live up to their expectations and produce change, is difficult to tell.  What is clear is the real change makers are the ordinary Jakartans, the more than 53% that voted for Jokowi-Ahok with confidence and power. The power that comes with the ability to freely choose the leaders they want and get rid of those they don't.

'I like the pair because they're humble and down to earth,' says another Jokowi-Ahok voter. 'And they're not corrupt.' And for this country, that's already a big change.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)
What we need to teach at school from a young age as a compulsory subject, is ethics. This is important if we, as human beings, want to evolve to the level where we can interact with each other with civility and not constantly come to loggerheads over the slightest provocation nor keep inherited hatred alive for the next thousand years.  Rather than instiling the notion that we are divided by the differences in our beliefs and that the religion that we follow is, by virtue of us embracing it or because we are born into it, is the one most favoured by a supernatural deity and thus guaranteeing us a good life in the hereafter, we should rather refine our understanding of what being human is all about.

We should, as the Dalai Lama says, go beyond religion. We should instead find that essence of what makes us special as a species on this planet: our common humanity. We share the same desire for happiness, security and harmony. We are all vulnerable to the ills and troubles that our flesh is heir to, here on this earth. Thus our basic humanity is the code we should live by.  Rather than teaching a particular belief that becomes the basis of how we interact with others and how we judge other people as well as how we define our identity, better teach at school practical skills that our children can apply in their everyday life and serve them well into the future as socially mature members of the human community.

For example, along with good manners, we can also teach them the importance of adopting good ethics such as treating all fellow humans equally and with respect, and showing compassion, kindness and tolerance for others. Stuff that the holy books already mandate, but without the trappings of the different religious hues that, if anything, often end up distorting the definition of those ethical behaviours, such as picking and choosing whom to practice kindness and tolerance upon. The human history after all, is one of never ending conflicts mainly for religious and territorial dominance. As the Sage Mahatma Gandhi says: if we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. And the first thing that we need to teach them, again to quote Gandhi, is that 'to give service to a single heart by a single act, is better than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.'

The other important thing to teach children from an early age is science and the importance of inquiry. Better to teach them about the 'god particle' than about God, the definition of which and the knowledge of whom is still until now, a matter of belief, heresay and point of contention. For if we teach them of what science has managed to reveal and continues to reveal, that our planet is a minuscule grain of sand in a shore consisting of gazillions of planets, in a zillion galaxies that make up our ever expanding Universe, then perhaps it will help us put things in perspectives and make us realize what is important and not so important about how we conduct our lives, build our societies and treat the planet. It might even instil a real sense of awe and appreciation of the existence of a bigger thing beyond us that is far above our own blinkered convictions and narrow beliefs.

And when we encourage children to inquire on the nature of things and to ask questions, we plant the seeds for knowledge to grow. We allow their minds to develop and mature into enlightened and thinking individual that can see reality for what it is, rather than be stunted by spoonfed dogmas and barely understood convictions that might keep them in the straight and narrow, and yet ill-prepared to face the world in all its variety and diversity. The desire to ask questions, to show doubt and to search for knowledge, far from taking us away from the notion of divinity and the fear of God, probably takes us closer to the ideal that we are created for. That is to realize our full potentials as a human being and to perfect our humanity.

Science and constant inquiry will also teach us humility about our place in the planetary and cosmic order of things. And that contrary to our solipsistic belief that life and the world is all about us and that God's main preoccupation in the Universe is to monitor our moral health and decide who gets to go to heaven or to hell, humanbeing is just one specie out of many on the planet and, by the way we multiply, use and consume our environment, is probably not unsimilar in nature to a virus or a parasite. Moreover, ours may not even be the only living planet in the Universe. For all we know, we could even be an experiment gone wrong.

Art is also another subject that should be mandatory at school. Appreciation of art allows young minds to develop their finer sensibilities, making them aware of the beauty and creativity in Nature and the world about them. It is through the different manifestations of Art that often gives meaning to life and where we can experience at our most individual and soul level, a taste of the Immortal and even, the Divine.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

Lost Words

The other day I went to the HB Jassin library of Indonesian literature located in the complex of the Jakarta Arts Institute, TIM.  HB Jassin was the pope of Indonesian literature.  He was a professor, literary critic, documentarian of literary works and publisher of the once well-known literary magazine ‘Horison.’  He set up the library from his personal collection back in 1976 to document the riches of Indonesian literature.

Here one can find the original manuscripts of novels and poetry written by some of Indonesia’s finest writers, as well as original letters written by writers and playwrights. Something that even the Indonesian National Library doesn’t have.

The thing that catches my eye is the manuscript of one of my favourite novels ‘Atheis‘ by Achdiat Karta Mihardja, published in 1949.  There is the manuscript, typed and bound with the title of the book hand scrawled by the author on the cover of the book, and underlined with curlicues as if some teenager’s exercise book.  It lies amongst other musty looking manuscripts of some of the most important novels to be written in Indonesia’s modern history, displayed in a haphazard way in a rather sorry-looking glass case.  And I am moved.

Actually the whole place moves me.  From the torn and faded sign of the documentation centre at the entrance made of printed plastic that looks like a temporary thing put up there when the centre was built and somehow failed to be replaced, to the iron steps leading into the painted blue building that from outside resembles a large prefabricated shed, the place hardly does justice to the value of its hallowed content.

A paraplegic man in a wheel chair greets the visitor behind a table with a high pitched jovial voice.  Most of the time I cannot fathom what he’s saying. He is the man in charge of the place.  Every day he has to hoist his wheelchair up the metal steps as the building has no wheelchair access. The mind boggles at this feat, for the steps are high and steep.  And I think, here is the living symbol of the place’s neglect and lack of interest.  

Inside, a few wooden tables are scattered about the bare lobby - places for visitors and researchers to sit and read as the public is not allowed into the library itself.  The books are not for loan but only for reference use only.  I was lucky to be given access into the library:  a long room with rows of wooden shelves on either side, dimly lit under energy saving neon lights.  I hear the budget to keep the place going is a mere Rp 11 million rupiah. 

An old typewriter without its casing sits on a table.  At first I thought it’s a display of a nostalgic relic of the days gone by when writers would give birth to their masterpiece by pounding on the keys of an Olivetti or an Olympus.  I am wrong.  A half full coffee cup next to it and a sheet of labels stuck in the roller shows that the typewriter is still fully functional and used to type up the book catalogue labels.  Yes, everything is still painfully catalogued manually.  The world of the digital and the Online has not crossed the threshold of this place of Indonesia’s finest literary oeuvres.

The works themselves are uniquely stored.  They are kept in files or folders inside file boxes labeled and catalogued using what I guess is the Dewey Decimal System.  To find the book the reader looks through the wooden catalogue drawers in the lobby whereupon the library assistant would look through the shelves and in the box files.  I wonder why they keep the books in document files and not simply arrange them on the shelves.  Taking one out of the folder, I understand.  Most of the books are old small paper backs whose pages are thin, fragile and wrinkled, printed as they were in poorer times.  As for the letters and correspondences, they have faded away with age.  They cannot withstand too much handling.

The last time I encountered these books was when I worked as a library assistant at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.  A whole floor of the multi-level library of this university was devoted to South East Asian literature of which Indonesia occupied a large part.  They were all in good condition and students and library members were free to browse and borrow them at will.  The more valuable documentation, such as missionary papers and original manuscripts were kept in a climate controlled room with fridge like temperature. The contents however, were made available to readers on microfiche. These days they’re probably all digitized.

And yet, here in this sorry-looking place is the repository of a history, timeline, thoughts, ideas, ideologies and events that trace the development of this country and help define who we are as a nation.  In these books, some familiar only as titles in school children’s text books, others obscure and unheard of, such as folk tales from the many islands of the archipelago as well as translated stories from local languages that have most likely disappeared, are clues to what it is that makes Indonesia the way it is today.  Hidden, forgotten and eaten away by time.

Soon, no doubt, they will disappear.  Along with our knowledge of our history and the narrative of our own life story. 



The end of the fasting month and with it the Idul Fitri celebrations is the time for Moslems to ask for forgiveness from the family, friends, relatives, colleagues, bosses and even complete strangers.  Meeting and greeting each other, they say  ‘Mohon maaf lahir dan batin’ (I beg forgiveness from the depths of my heart and soul, or something like that).

These days those words of asking for forgiveness are also conveyed via technology, through broadcast messages and electronic spams, including from people you barely know but you receive nevertheless, merely because your contact happens to be in somebody’s smart phone or mailing list.

Some of the more elaborate versions of the greetings are often accompanied by Arabic words and poetic verses designed to tug at the heart strings and move you to tears, as they wax lyrical about how after a month of struggle, restraining one’s hunger, thirst, passions and emotions, one emerges triumphant and victorious, and back to a state of grace, purity and a new beginning.  With all sins wiped clean and forgiven. And with it, a sense of righteousness and virtuousness.

I personally feel uncomfortable with these messages, greetings and wishes.  I think there is a hazard in this use and abuse of the idea of forgiveness.  It is easy to forgive those whose wrongs we can’t really think of, but to those whom we harbour genuine ill-feeling and grievances, a few lines of copy pasted text messages sent en masse or as an email attachment, would hardly mend matters.  

Perhaps these words have become mere platitudes through over use, as meaningless as saying ‘good morning’ when there’s a torrential downpour, or ‘have a nice day,‘ when you don’t care a jot about the person.  This is a pity, as to ask and give forgiveness is something not to be trifled with.  If to err is human, as they say, to forgive is our attempt to be divine, and this cannot be achieved by reducing the significance of the word to the level of the trite, the banal and the cliche on some greeting cards.

Also hazardous is the sense of righteousness and virtuousness that being forgiven and cleansed of one’s sins affords, as it makes one morally lax and irresponsible of the long term consequence of one’s actions.  One needs only go through the annual ritual of the fasting month, pay the obligatory alms, shake hands with a bunch of people at family gatherings, the bosses’ and at high government officials’ obligatory ‘open houses’ to feel that one’s sins are thoroughly cleansed and one’s slate wiped clean, ready for more humanly errs.

How easy life is, and how convenient.  Here is a formula to indulge in one’s human deficiencies and still have instant access to that most comforting of all human condition - the feeling of self-righteousness and being on the right path.  Is it any wonder that we cannot get rid of the corruption and moral ineptitude in this country?  When forgiveness becomes a passport to moral licentiousness.

In jail for corruption? Start reading the Koran, don a head scarf, be more diligent in your prayers.  Soon you will feel absolved from all shame and guilt, because forgiveness is always there for you at the asking to make you feel better and to relieve you of your responsibility.  And when you ask for, take or buy favours, it’s understandable. Because we’re only human and humans are weak and half the time they don’t know what they’re doing.

However, I am always chary of anything that smacks of freebies and hyperbolical promises.  Giving somebody my forgiveness and having somebody asks one in return just because the season calls for it, is ridiculous.  As for exchanging messages of congratulations for having triumphed over evil and regained a state of childlike purity and innocence, sounds a lot like wishful thinking. I don’t think you can become a better person just by reciting more prayers and watching religious TV programs for a month.  At least, not if it only leads to self-righteousness and not self-knowledge.

Because the knowledge of our weaknesses and imperfections should in practice make us stronger.  Stronger in our resolve to be good, kind and honest people and stronger in our capability to restrain our greed, ego and selfishness.  While we are still human beings living with other human beings on this planet.

It should not be an annual ritual for a limited amount of time, after which life as we know it continues as usual, except this time with increased complacency, greater unscrupulousness and more unfettered greed, as we are freed from our sense of guilt, shame and wrongdoing, having been so expressibly forgiven and thoroughly purified.

But God should not be a means to excuse all our imperfections nor become the repository of all our iniquities.  After all, humans create the idea of Divinity as a role model to which we should all aspire in all its qualities: the Love, the Just and the Benevolence.  Then there is no need to mouth forgiveness or play at being holy.  Instead, we will strive to ensure that each and every one of our action is beyond reproach to begin with.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

Feeling Charitable

‘Tis the season to be charitable.  To dig deep into your pockets and share some of the wealth you have with those whose lives, unlike yours, have been overlooked by the bountiful gaze of the Goddess of Fortune.  For Muslims, alms giving to the poor and the needy is a must in this month of Ramadan.  It is an act of merit that would count towards securing a heavenly spot in the after life.

There is a rich businessman in Jakarta who makes a habit of bestowing a generous amount of cash to the poor at this time of the year.  The number of hopefuls gathering outside his house in anticipation of the handout can get quite huge and it is not rare that the rush for cash results in crushes that are fatal.

Once I dropped by to this charitable event.  Very few of those who lined up were actually mendicants by profession.  Obviously feeling poor is a subjective thing.  Many came from out of town and this gathering, waiting for the gate to be opened and receiving free cash, was an annual affair for them.  The trip was always worth it as the businessman is quite generous in his gift.  I was told that in the previous year he gave everyone who came a hundred thousand rupiahs.  This time, they were hoping for an increase as things were getting expensive.

At some point, after a few hours of standing in the sun, their patience ran thin. The gate was supposed to be opened by midday, but still there was no sign of them being allowed to enter.  Some started to complain loudly about the delay.  How inconsiderate of the man.  How long were they expected to wait for?  Last year was so much better organized, etc.
I mentioned that since the man was charitable enough to give everyone coming to see him a fistful of money, the least they could do was show a little patience.  After all, he didn’t have to do it.  Upon which I was told, rather reproachfully, that giving was the rich man’s duty and privilege.  He should be grateful to them for taking his money, as they were helping him earn a large amount of merits that would guarantee him a good place in the hereafter.

I thought this reply was interesting.  I hadn’t thought of it like that.  And here I was, thinking that the act of giving is to show compassion and consideration for one’s fellow humans.  They were probably right.  If it was about compassion, I could think of other ways to perform charity without making hundreds of people throng outside your gate and even risking their lives.

I went to a mosque with a friend to make a donation.  At this time of the year, the bigger mosques set up tables to deal with the number of people coming to pay their obligatory ‘zakat’ payment.  There was some kind of calculation involved of which I was not clear. Other than the ‘zakat’, you can also give a donation with the amount left to one’s discretion.  The money is channelled to help those in need in the rural areas and to give the poor access to much needed capital.  So I was told.

I gave a handful of cash and hoped that it would go to where they said it would and felt a minute thrill of pleasure that my little contribution might mean something to someone.  The lady behind the table wrote me a receipt.  She held my hand for a little while and said a prayer.

‘Now your wealth is ‘halal’,’ she kindly informed me.  ‘Charity giving cleanses your earnings.’  I was rather taken aback.  All this time I thought that I had earned my living in an honest and professional way.  But obviously my wealth is tainted.  Still, if I had earned it the shady and corrupt way, it was good to know that there is a way to launder it back to pristine cleanliness.  Now, if only paying taxes gave me the same heavenly guarantee and good feeling.

A couple of days ago I received a text message.  It was from a relative.  The few times I’ve met him were on family gatherings.  He is always hard up.  For some unfortunate reason, luck had not been on his side and he would use the occasion to cadge for some money.  No, hello, how are you and what have you been doing for the last four decades since we saw each other last, but, it was, I need such and such an amount to pay for such and such thing, could I have some money please.  To be honest, I feel sorry for him and on more than a couple of times have given him something.

The text message said: hello, how are you.  Am I going to be lucky this year?  I will be visiting your sister next week so you can give me the money then.

I am ashamed to say the sentiment that I had on reading the message was far from charitable.  I’m still finding it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that to help someone is a privilege for which I should be grateful.  After a few deleted words, the only sensible thing I could muster was: ‘if you’re lucky, then yes, I will give it to my sister to pass on to you.’  The line between feeling sorry and feeling annoyed is getting pretty thin.

And yes, I am giving him some money, not out of fear of being barred from the kingdom of heaven or to cleanse my wealth, but because I choose to.    (Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

The Missing Tempeh

The ubiquitous tempeh that accompanies every Indonesian meal has been rather elusive lately, as tempeh makers around the country have stopped production in the last few days to protest the rising price of soybeans.  Prolonged drought in the US has increased the price of the commodity, affecting the local tempeh and tofu makers who rely on imported soybeans for the raw material.  You can be sure, once they start producing them again, the cost for these fried fermented soybean patties, the main staple of the Indonesian diet, will no longer be so humble.

The question of course, is why, given the country’s reliance on soybeans, Indonesia cannot grow and produce enough of it to feed her people and hence less dependent on imports and the vagaries of other country’s weather misfortunes?  The same thing goes with other staples such as rice and sugar. 

Of course, when growing and producing our own crops cost a lot more than importing them from other countries, it’s often easier and cheaper to just buy them, even at the expense of our farmers’ livelihood and, more importantly, at the expense of the country’s ability to develop the skills and technology to grow our own food.

It’s true that these days, with global trade, there is less need for a country to produce everything since you can always buy them from other countries the way they buy stuff from you.  However, when the depth of our globalisation and extent of our global interdependence is such that changing weather patterns in the US and India and consumer patterns in China have a direct effect on the basic food that we have on our dinner plate, then surely something is wrong.

While it’s good to be able to enjoy say, exotic fruits from other countries at a price that a household can afford, however, when it’s more expensive for us to buy locally grown fruit, say mangoes or bananas, than the same fruits imported from a long way abroad, then we have a problem.  Especially when some local indigenous fruits disappear off the shelves altogether to be replaced by foreign varieties because it’s easier and cheaper to get them than the ones from home.   

Moreover, it is ironic, as we always refer to Indonesia as our ‘tanah air’ (land-water).  And yet, here we are, acting as if we have neither of these things, preferring instead to focus on GDP growth and the health of our finance and consumer index as indicators of how well the country is doing, instead of focusing on the health of our land and water as our natural and sustainable capital.   

After all, what good is there in having a strong purchasing power if we don’t use it to better the quality of everyone’s life and the condition of the planet that we leave to future generations?  When we don’t invest it to promote research and innovation that can enrich the quality of our lands and the crops so our farmers can thrive and actually grow food for us now and for tomorrow’s children.  When we don’t invest in our water and our seas so that we can research ways on how to keep them clean and the fishes in abundance so that our fishermen can make a sustainable living out of them.  So that there is no longer any need for them to descend into the already congested cities to eke out a living as poor labourers, petty traders, menial workers or without employment.

While we cannot deny the importance and desirability of material growth - be it for comfort, welfare, security, convenience, status and momentary happiness - to pursue it as an end in itself, separate from our needs for social and environmental happiness, can only land us in trouble.  Already we are overwhelmed by the excesses of our materialism in the forms of mountains of waste, polluted air, scarce water, expensive energy use and cities that are unpleasant to live in as they are designed to accommodate buildings rather than people.

Money might enable us to buy tempeh, but when tempeh is no longer available because the soybeans can no longer be grown, then it has no functional or nutritional use.  Actually, money is not a problem in this world.  Currently there is a lot of money around in the world.  However, it is mainly in the pockets of the few and used to generate more money and not to solve global problems.  If anything, poverty is increasing with 2.5 billion people living under $2 a day in a world becoming more vulnerable to climate and environmental upheavals. 

And still we continue living in an Industrial Age vacuum that reduces the meaning of life to one of making, using and throwing things in the most effective, productive and massive way, as if we own Mother Earth.  We might not have meant it, but our activities has left us with our resources depleted, our water and air polluted, our biodiversity diminishing, our industrial, consumer and toxic wastes damaging our health and the environment.

We have significantly impoverished the planet.  It is therefore, time to look at Nature not as a Resource to be exploited but as a Capital whose use comes with a cost and must be returned undamaged and with interest.


Season to Indulge

What I like about the fasting month, is the amount of indulgence that it promises.  Let's be honest, compared to the other months of the year, the Ramadan month is one of excess, where demand shoots up and prices sky rocket as people consume more meat, more rice, more delicacies and more of everything as if the world's coming to an end.  This is the month when companies and households have to dig deep into their pockets and fork out an extra month of salary to give to each and everyone of their employees, staff, the neighbourhood security, the rubbish collectors and newspaper delivery boys to help pay for the additional expenses.

Not only that, the beginning of this month is invariably marked by an excessive display of emotions and drama as various religious experts come to loggerheads on which day this holy month is actually supposed to start as they try to make sightings of the appearance of the elusive new moon, convinced it seems  that the slightest mistake in calculation would result in the reduction of their heavenly rewards, much to the amusement and bemusement of the public and the Netizens.

It is also the time for verbal superfluity as we are inundated with a deluge of messages mass broadcast via every available electronic devices from people known and unknown asking for forgiveness for wrongs done whether deliberate or not, and words that may have hurt whether intentional or not, in a language so florid and poetic, though with as much sincerity as a cut and pasted text could muster.  This exercise in asking for forgiveness will be repeated later on at a much larger scale towards the end of the fasting month, creating a bonanza for the telecom providers.

But this is also a good month to earn divine merits and excel in good behaviour. Those who wish to ensure a favored place in the afterlife can use this holy month to devote themselves to extra prayers, reading the Koran, restraining their tempers, feeding the orphans, giving alms to the poor and taking a break from their porn browsing.  As one of the biggest surfers of web porn, it would be interesting to see if there is a marked reduction in accessing porn in Indonesia during this month.  However, keeping one's mind pure shouldn't be too difficult as all the TV stations compete in serving righteous programming, while the thugs are quite ready to put you back on the strait and narrow should you find yourself succumbing to the devil's temptations of alcohol and massage parlours.

This is also the season when shopping malls go all out to entice the faithful to part with their hard-earned money so they would succumb to the wordly desire for conspicious consumption, whether in the shape of fine clothes or restaurants and eating places that offer a smorgasbord of irresistible foods to soothe and delight the deprived palates.
Businesses make the most money at this time of the year as new clothings and footwear are a must to celebrate the end of the fasting month, the Idul Fitri.

For the millions who make a modest living in the city, the fasting month is when they prepare themselves to make their annual trip back to their home villages, blowing their savings on new motorbikes or train tickets, bearing gifts and money for the folk at home, not only to share their wealth and also to show that they have made something of themselves in the big city.

While for the better-off, the breaking of the fast moment, at sundown, is an opportunity to eat out with families and friends, hang out and entertain clients over food in ways they can't do during normal days.  That is to say, with a lof of people, a lot of food and for a lot of days.  I know a friend whose social calendar is full for the month as every evening is taken up with a breaking of the fast event somewhere.  Because on a fasting day, every evening's 'buka puasa' is a feast that is looked forward to with great anticipation.

But let's get back to the sweet indulgence of the fasting month.  Yes, it is the time for picky eaters like me to let down my hair and really revel in the cornucopia of sweets, puddings and all types of desserts that are cloying, sticky and preferably drowned in a pool of liquid palm sugar and a generous swirl of coconut milk.  Come sundown, regardless whether I'm fasting or not, my sweet tooth become vampiric fangs and I join the hunt with the more devout devotees for a glass or bowl of 'tajil', the dessert consumed to break the fast as a sugar kick before moving on to the main meal.

My favorites are the 'cendol', the green jelly drink with slices of jack fruit served in a tall glass of palm syrup and coconut milk; 'bubur sumsum,' a sort of white pudding that you spoon in dollops and serve with palm syrup and coconut milk; the 'candil', sweet potato balls swimming in a bowl of, you've guessed it, liquid palm sugar and served with a spoonfull of what else if not coconut milk; black glutinous rice and mung bean porridge plus a whole bunch of desserts whose tastes are made the more divine with a good helping of palm syrup and coconut milk.. Never mind the afterlife, a bowl of any one of these sweets, puts me in heaven already.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

Sixth Sense Technology

These days, a common view at a dinner table is no longer lively conversations but each person becoming absorbed in their own gadgets, communicating their innermost and heartfelt thoughts to everybody and nobody in particular, through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social network platforms, while ignoring the person next to them.

Because we live in a world where technology dictates our behaviour.

This is why one of my favourite TED talk lectures is Pranav Mistry’s The Thrilling Potential of Sixth Sense Technology.  It was actually delivered back in 2009, a year before the iPad came to market, and yet his invention, called SixthSense is well ahead of its time, even for today.  SixthSense is a wearable device that enables new interactions between the real world and the world of data.   

Wearing the device that has a camera and having a couple of sensors on the fingertips, for example, you can take photos just by framing the object with your fingers and thumbs, dial phone numbers on the back of your hand, while placing a chip on a piece of paper you can turn the piece of paper into any digital device, whether to watch a video, play games, a touch-based computer screen and anything that today’s tablet computer can do plus more. 

The finger can also be used to make 3D digital drawings anywhere, create a watch on your wrist to tell the time and bring books, magazines and newspapers to life by linking what you see with the information available in the digital world. 

The implication of this innovation is enormous, especially the advantages it can bring for the disabled and the elderly where everyday task can be done with just a movement of the fingers or the sound of a word.  Of course, it must be developed so it can be mass produced and easy to use, but all digital technology should, I think, be steered in this direction.  To adapt to human behaviour and not the other way round. 

WhatI find exciting about Mistry’s invention is the potential for digitizing our world in a way which is human and intuitive.  While current technology and the digital world is sucking us into a life that requires us to interact with gadgets (whether the computer, the smart phones, the tablets), making us into individuals who feel more connected in a virtual world as opposed to the real world, and turning us into socially withdrawn beings who find more comfort spending time interfacing with our computer screen than engaging in face to face conversations, what Mistry offers is the opposite.  It is to turn the world around us into a digital device even as we interact like normal human beings, using our entire bodies, not hunched over our mobile devices.

Wearing the device, we become the computer, capable of browsing the Internet by moving our fingers, performing cut and paste by merely pinching our fingers and transferring it onto an ordinary piece of paper, turning any wall or surface into a digital screen where we can find information, download a map to search for a particular restaurant, check the weather and even talk to our friends.  And we can do all this while going out for a walk in the fresh air, hanging out with friends and being active.

Nowadays, a lot of the time, friends and families gather only to be close physically, while mentally everybody is elsewhere, and often finding conversing and interacting with the invisible world more rewarding, honest and authentic than the strained verbal exchanges that real life conversations demand. 

It’s getting to the point that people are finding it easier to speak their mind and have a productive conversation through their gadgets even as they are in the same room.  Certainly, in offices, the real discussions and even arguments are easier done through the digital exchanges in a Blackberry group, rather than in meeting rooms.  That is, using the thumbs rather than the mouth.

A SixthSense technology on the contrary, is where we are in control of the technology and not the other way round.  Imagine a technology that actually increases our curiosity about the people that we meet, the places that we visit and the things that we see around us, without making us addicted to our gadgets and trapping us into a life of staring and interacting with a screen. 

Instead, the technology becomes another part of our senses, but one that allows us to connect with the mine of information that the world wide web provides whenever we wish.  A technology that is digital in the real sense of the word, that is using our fingers. 

When we travel, touching our boarding pass can tell us at a glance where to go at the airport and whether our flight is delayed or not.  When we order our food, we can immediately get information on the amount of calories and nutrients it contains.  Meeting people, we can get information about their profession, hobbies and musical taste. All the stuff that we can find Online without having to go Online. 

Then our real world will no doubt be a lot more fascinating than our virtual world.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)


Monday, 14 January 2013

Youth of Today

I was asked to speak about the youth of today at a recent Asian Youth Forum held by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung held in Bangkok, and I tried to identify what it is that makes the youth of today different from the youth of say, a decade ago.  One salient difference is how much digital technology has changed our behaviour today, even more so amongst the younger generation who is the main user of the Social Network, and make up the larger population of the digital world.

We know already that Indonesia is the third, if not second largest user of Facebook and the microblogging site Twitter, and one needs only look around to see how mobile gadgets are becoming an indispensable part of their lives.  Indeed, it is likely that the urban youth of today go to bed with their smartphone on their pillow and check their email, texts, Twitter and Blackberry messenger even before they get out of bed in the morning.  The youth of today are creatures of multitasking. They can eat, talk, drive and do things while their fingers continue to text at lightning speed on their mobile.

So, I would say, the youth of today, thanks to the ubiquitous technology, have a power that they didn't have a mere few years ago, when media consumption was limited to watching the TV, listening to the radio and reading a magazine.

First, they have at their fingertips the power of communication.  Through the many social media platforms such as Twitter and blogging sites, young people have an endless and continuous channel for expressing whatever it is they have on their minds, their thoughts, their fears, their opinions, their ideas and their dreams about everything and anything under the sun without reservations.

They are no longer mere consumers of the media and passive targets of advertisers.  Instead, with their vocal opinions on things that matter to them, from fashion, music, celebrities, to politics and current issues, they are generators of trends and shapers of taste, influencing advertisers on how to market and sell their products, and the government on its policies.  A full blown discussion on Twitter can cross over to the traditional media, bringing the topic to the fore and infecting the general public.  Breaking news is no longer the domain of the electronic media, but is often born in the Twitterverse.

The other power that young people of today have, is the power of connectivity.  Through the same social media platforms, the youth of today are citizens of the Net that know no borders or boundary.  Distance and time are no longer constraints as they are constantly connected to a world that deals in the Now and in the Instant, whether in Jakarta, Singapore or New York.  Everybody on the planet is only a tweet away.  Even Lady Gaga.

This connectivity gives them the ability to spread ideas globally in a matter of seconds, giving rise to a new type of activism never seen before. Both revolutions and riots can be organized through the social network in ways that real world institutions find difficult to track or control.  Today's youth are no longer objects, but with their changing avatars and changing status updates, they're masters of their own identity.  They are also effective changemakers and activists when they wish to be.

Another power that the technology brings, is the power of knowledge.  Gone are the days when good teachers, a complete set of encyclopedias and a well stocked library, are doorways to knowledge.  Today's five year old is a research master when she's with her iPad with Internet connection.  The youth of today have the key to knowledge at their finger tips and can access the wealth of information through their friend Google.  A school boy with a mobile gadget can know a lot more than a teacher without Internet connection. Not only are they no longer at the receiving end of Information, they are producers of information through their blogs, Facebook posts, YouTube uploads, websites etc.
These days, the role of a teacher is someone who facilitates their learning process rather than passing on knowledge.

Today's young people also have an incredible power of creativity at their disposal.  The digital life has made it easier for them to foster and showcase their talents. YouTube can turn a nobody to a superstar and enable anyone with an internet connection to set up their own video channels and show off to the world. Photographic sharing sites and blogs can turn them into photographers, writers, publishers and even citizen journalists complete with their audience and critics. Theirs is a world of innovation, creativity and productivity limited only by their imagination.

Altogether, they have the means and capacity to change the world for the better.  In the middle east, they helped bring down autocratic regimes.

There is however, a downside to this power.  When the use of technology itself becomes the end and not the means. When it controls human behaviour and not the other way round.  When the power of connectivity means disconnecting from real life and real issues.  When virtual communication is replacing vocal communication.  And when easy access to information results in information overload and the inability to tell the difference between what's relevant and what's merely noise.

So that instead of changing the real world, they're in danger of getting distracted and lost in the virtual world.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

Graduation Day

The other day I had my graduation.  For the past year, I've been following a course held by MIT Sloan School of Management Executive programme called IDEAS Indonesia, together with United In Diversity.  It is a leadership course designed to bring together people from the three sectors, private, public and civil society, to teach us to co-create prototype initiatives to address some of the most pressing problems we face today.  The method is to breakdown the sectoral thinking and decision making that we normally employ when dealing with complex issues, by creating an environment that is inclusive and wholistic, and employing a mental model that goes to the source of our being and who we are.  What my professor calls Eco System, as opposed to Ego System.

As the programme comes to an end, I try to think back about what I've learned in the past year and what sticks in my mind.  Granted in the bigger scheme of things, this is not exactly earth shattering event.  Not unlike the discovery that scientists made a few days ago when they found a new subatomic particle, the Higgs boson - the particle that underlies all the matter in the universe and what helps give the universe size and shape.  The so-called 'god particle.'  This is a discovery that took over half a century to make.  And it should be celebrated by all of us on this planet that have a curiosity about our origins, and not only by a few scientists.
While my graduation may not have much by way of cosmic significance, nevertheless I try to view it as the culmination of a year-long journey of discovery and learning for me and my colleagues at the IDEAS programme.  And perhaps there is no harm to see it in the context of our relationship with the world, and even with the universe and the Higgs boson particle.

So, what have we learned?  What discovery has been made?

For one thing, we learn that as we wish to transform the world, the first thing we need to do is transform ourselves.  As the secret of the universe lies in its smallest particle, we learn that the secret of true knowledge lies in the source of knowing deep within ourselves.  All we have to do is to connect with it.

We also learn that in order to really connect, with ourselves and with others, we need to know the different levels of communicating; through deep observation and deep listening.  Not through superficial downloading and reconfirming of old opinions, but with open mind, open heart and open will.  We cannot get to the source of the human heart by closing barriers, in the same way that it is only in the breaking up of atoms can we get to the source of all things.

We learn that there are two sources of learning, by reflecting on the experience of the past and by learning from the future as it emerges.  While I'm still trying to grapple with the meaning of learning from the future, I understand that in order to embrace the future and all its generative potentials, we have to free ourselves from the burdens that we carry.  We have to let go of the past. We must suspend our voice of judgment, voice of cynicism and our voice of fear that keep us stuck in our old identity and narrowness.

We have to let go of our old habits and mental model so we can welcome new ideas, act with authenticity and create a new reality that is not merely a rerun of the old.

We learn to say goodbye to our small self, to merge with our big Self, the Self that connects us all to each other, to the planet and to the universe.  In other words, to become that god particle.  That magic particle that gives shape to who we are, our world and the universe that we inhabit.

As we let go, we have to let come.  This requires an awareness of being that keeps us rooted to the present.  We must always remain in the present.

Our learning is a journey, both individually and collectively.  But then life too is a journey.  A journey where the ride is more important than the destination.

In this I am reminded of an essay by Robert Hastings 'The Station' from which I quote an excerpt:

Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no station in this life, no one earthly
place to arrive at once and for all. The journey is the joy. The station is an illusion--it
constantly outdistances us. Yesterday's a memory, tomorrow's a dream. Yesterday belongs to a
history, tomorrow belongs to God. Yesterday's a fading sunset, tomorrow's a faint sunrise. Only
today is there light enough to love and live.
(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

Lonesome George

The one piece of news that rather affected me this past week is the death of Lonesome George, a 100 year-old giant tortoise at the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador, and believed to be the last of its subspecies.  Apparently as far as giant tortoises go, 100 is a fairly young age, as Lonesome George’s kind could live up to 200 years.  Lonesome George was the last one of his kind, and the Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni is now officially extinct.

Moreover, Lonesome George led a rather lonely life too.  Hence the name.  Since 1972 he was part of the Park’s breeding programme, but he never did succeed in producing any offspring or showed interest in mating with the female tortoises that he shared his corral with.  And his sad existence became a symbol not just for the Galapagos, but for human’s struggle to preserve the richness and diversity of the planet.

Lonesome George’s disappearance also reminds us of the other wildlife species that are endangered:  the tigers, elephants, rhinos, pandas and many others, whose lives are threatened because we humans are calling the shots on who or what gets to live on this planet and our activities are pushing our more vulnerable fellow creatures over the edge of existence.

It makes me wonder about how we humans actually value Nature and all the species within it in.  I fear we don’t.  Because we can only value things economically. 

This can be seen in the result of the Rio+20 summit that fails to come up with a global action to respond to the eco-perils that the earth is facing.  It seems that a multinational gathering is not the best way to come up with planetary solutions that all nation-states can agree on.  Because the issues are discussed from the perspective of human, not planetary, needs.

Meanwhile, the inequality in the economic conditions of the over seven billion people living on the planet means that any global discussion on creating a sustainable future for our world is bound to be stuck, with each country only concerned in putting forward its own vested interests.  For developing countries, sustainable development can sound a lot like anti-development, and green initiatives to protect the environment and preserve biodiversity can be taken as a ploy to keep the poor forever in poverty.

Personally, our inability to agree on how to value Nature and all the other living things on the planet, is because of how we view ourselves and our role.  As the dominant species, we always put ourselves at the centre of every action we take and legitimize it as the special right we have as the smartest creature around.  Elephants are poisoned because they attack the village, whereas it is humans that are encroaching on their territory.  Orang Utans are killed because it’s cheaper to have them dead than having to care for them when their forests are chopped down for plantations.

Moreover, we still need to emit CO2 and use a lot of energy because everyone on the planet has a right to want to catch up on having their cars, TV sets, nice houses and their wealth of material possessions.  Any attempt at slowing this down is seen as unfair and unjust to a lot of human beings still living below the poverty line.  Our purpose as humans is to be economically well-off, even if it means doing without clean air and other species.

By defining ourselves in economic terms however, not only are we taking ourselves out of the Nature equation, but we’re systematically impoverishing the entire planet of its wealth.  A species that believes a motorbike is worth more than an Orang Utan is one that has evolved out of synch with the environment that it lives in.

In a recent discussion amongst friends, I argued that I would rather sponsor an endangered animal to make sure that it’s welfare is taken care of, than a human child, for the simple reason that it is our privilege as the thinking and dominant species to be the guardian of this planet.  And because once extinct, like the Dodo, we can never have the animal back.  Whereas in terms of number, there are seven billions of us and counting.  Humans will not only proliferate, but have the capacity to destroy the planet and themselves in it.  

On the cosmic level however, regardless of our dreams and beliefs, humans are merely current winners in this particular evolutionary race.  It was not like that when dinosaurs walked the earth and there’s no guarantee that we will last forever either.

In Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi film Prometheus, it turns out that the ‘gods’ that created human beings also had plans to destroy our entire planet.  It is a mystery why our creators went to all that trouble of populating the Earth with humans only to wish to destroy us. 

A possible answer lies in the fact that perhaps we’re not worthy guardians who can be trusted to look after the planet after all.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

The Gibbon Guy

I am in Central Kalimantan to meet Chanee, the Gibbon Guy.  He greets me at the airport in Palangka Raya, a slim man in his early thirties with a boyish face and a mop of brown hair neatly brushed and a fringe half covering his big blue eyes.  He doesn't look like someone who's spent the last fourteen years living in the jungle with gibbons for company.  He's French.  His real name is Aurelien Brule, which is a bit of a mouthful for anyone other than the French to pronounce, so when he visited Thailand to see gibbons in the wild for the first time, the Thai called him Chanee, their word for gibbon. The name has stuck ever since.

Chanee is taking me to his camp, a gibbon conservation and sanctuary near the Pararawen National Park in North Barito, Central Kalimantan. The journey there is an eight hour drive by road followed by an hour boat ride on the Barito river.  The camp, called Kalaweit, after the local word for gibbon, is an 8 hectare of forest land acquired by his foundation, which is attached to a conservation organization based in France, and which he set up back in 1998, after a year long effort to get the permit from the forestry department.  Back then he was only 18 years old, Jakarta was burning, a regime was changing, nobody paid him much attention, but Aurelien only had one thing in his mind.  To save and protect the gibbons.  After calling on the forestry department every day for a year, the Indonesian government finally gave him the permission to set up his gibbon foundation, the first of its kind.

It was evening when we reached the camp and the wooden boat we travelled on finally ceased emitting its deafening noise.  I was able to take in the dark outlines of the trees beneath a black sky sprinkled with a million stars and the constant humming sound of the night insects.  A small dirt path take us to a wooden building where our supper await us on a long table in the verandah lit by lamps powered by a generator that provides electricity for three hours in the evening.  Our bedroom sleeps two or three people on mattresses laid on the floor.  We have taken Chanee' s advice and brought mosquito nets.  The mosquitos here can give you malaria.

I practice my French with Chanee but soon find it easier to communicate in Bahasa with him, which he speaks with the fluency of one who has spent the last fourteen years mingling with just about about anyone, from the Betawi family who took him on when he was homeless while waiting for his permit to be issued, to the local boys who now work for him in the camp, feeding and looking after the gibbons.

We go to bed early as there's not much to do when the lights are out.  I toss and turn in my sleeping bag as I listen to the noises of the night.  I didn't realize the forest can be so noisy.  Some time before dawn I'm woken up by the strangest mixture of sounds, howls, yelps, hoots, whoops and a bunch of ear piercing wails like a siren or an alarm that go on and on, each time getting louder and more cacophonous.  The gibbons are awake.  All 131 one of them in cages within the camp forest.

Gibbons have fascinated Chanee all his life.  When he was 12, while other boys played football or watch TV, he spent his afternoon studying gibbons at a local zoo.  Everyday for five years.  When he was sixteen he published a book all about gibbons, which gave him some recognition and attracted a French celebrity who wanted to make his dreams come true.  And that dream was to see gibbons in the wild.

I told him he must have been a gibbon in his previous life.  I've never met anyone so focused on what he wanted to do he actually dropped out of university to live in a place a million miles away from home.  But his home is where the gibbons are.  Currently there are around a hundred thousand in Indonesia but that number is dwindling as they are rapidly losing their home, which is the forest.

Unlike other apes that can live and forage on the ground or be fed by humans, gibbons need tall trees to survive.  On the ground, they are vulnerable to human diseases.  They are also vulnerable to each other.  Gibbons are very territorial and a family, consisting of a monogamous pair and their offspring need a lot of space to themselves.  Their loud, melodious and distinctive cries are warnings to other gibbons to stay away.  A solitary gibbon is likely to be attacked and killed.

But their biggest enemy are humans, who kill the adults, steal the baby and sell them to people as playthings, who then abuse and then abandon them when they mature and become dangerous to keep.  Most of the gibbons in Kalaweit camp came in poor conditions, with human diseases and traumatised behaviour.  Chanee makes sure they are well fed, returned to health and found a mate.

Rehabilitating them into the forest however, is often not a choice.  Deforestation is already depriving them of their natural habitat.  The only thing that Chanee can give them is a safe sanctuary where they can still swing and jump about with their long arms and be as wild as they can get.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

On Good Habits

They say if you want to create a habit, you stick at whatever it is you want to do for at least 21 days in a row.  After a while, your brain gets used to it and you start doing it without thinking.  This is particularly recommended for positive things such as taking up meditation, journaling and physical exercises.

Matt Cutts, in his Ted Talk called ‘Try something new for 30 days,’ finds that picking up an activity (like biking to work, taking a photo a day and writing a novel) and sticking at it religiously for thirty days not only makes him healthier, more productive but also increases his self confidence.  Telling people that you’ve just finished a novel, for example, can make you sound a lot more interesting than just saying you’ve spent your days doing the same old thing at the office.  After completing a hike up the Kilimanjaro, he even finds himself an exciting person.

The key to this of course, is to start doing it consciously and work your way until it becomes second nature and you begin to miss it or feel guilty if you don’t do it.  You can also do it for giving up bad habits, such as smoking, adding sugar to your tea and snacking on fried food.  Self restraint, focus, discipline and the motivation to achieve your goal are essential to make this exercise work.  These in themselves as we all know are desirable traits to have as productive and successful individuals.  There is nothing I admire  more than people who cannot start their day without a 10k jog round the block.

In my case, unfortunately, this kind of attempt almost always fail, not so much because I lack the self-discipline and find it difficult to resist temptation.  It is because I’m not very good at goal setting, even with goals I set for myself.  Once anything becomes a goal (hitting the treadmill, writing a haiku a day, being a good listener, waking up at the crack of dawn) it metamorphoses from being a ‘desire’ into an ‘obligation,’ thus changing the fundamental nature of the goal.  I am ashamed to say that being conscientious is not my forte.

When I feel that something becomes an obligation, even the most pleasurable thing, such as watching one good film on the DVD a day and consuming a piece of dark chocolate on a daily basis, becomes a chore and a bore.  Though I think it’s not so much about having a low boredom threshold as a pathological condition; sometimes I think my mental model is fundamentally flawed.  While most people would gain pleasure and a sense of achievement at having accomplished something or fulfilling a goal, I find having a goal and then fulfilling it actually devalues the whole process and takes away the fun and meaning of the activity.

This partly explains why I will never be good in a structured organization, for example, or in anything that requires one to demonstrate a willingness to climb up whether the career ladder or social position.  I find the rewards and satisfaction that come with achievement not so attractive.  At times, off-putting even. 

A professor once told me that people do things because of three things:  love, money or glory.  Beneath every action, there is always one of these motives in different shades and degrees.  You can also say that the reason people do things is because of the rewards; the feeling that there is a sense of purpose and meaning in it.  I often hear people say they do things, especially good things  (like charity, hard work, pray, help other people) because they want to go to heaven, earn more money and to feel a sense of achievement.  None of which I find all that inspiring or particularly attractive incentives. 

Which makes me ask myself, what is it that makes me want to do something and actually get it done?  I find that the answer is the same one that I used to give when I was a petulant child:  I do something because I want to and not because I have to.  And the less purpose, reward, expectation or obligation attached to it, the greater the enjoyment.  The meaning of the action comes from the freedom from having those constraints.  If, for instance, I am expected to pray a certain number of times a day in order to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven and all the rewards that go with it, I quite happily forego the offer and dwell in purgatory.

On the other hand, it does make me good at doing things I choose to do for absolutely no reason, and for a lot longer than 21 days.  Such as not eating what was once my favourite food, the tomato, which I haven’t touched for over a decade.  I cannot remember the reason, but probably because I couldn’t be sure whether the stuff is a fruit or a vegetable.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)


My friend called me up the other day sounding distressed.  Something happened to her and she needed to talk.  Lately she had been unable to sleep and was prone to very bad headaches.  Moreover, she felt that at times her energy would be drained from her until she was completely exhausted.  While at other times, her energy level would shoot up so much it caused glitches to her electronic gadgets.

Clearly something was wrong.  I did notice from our last meeting that her face had broken up into uncontrollable spots which she thought was hormonal.  I told her to take a break from her stressful work.  Perhaps things were getting on top of her?  Certainly she looked pressured.  It’s normal with ambitious, young women trying to carve a career for themselves.  They keep long hours and don’t stop until suddenly they find themselves unwell.  So she took off to Bali.

I did not see her until a week after she returned.  Instead of feeling better, her condition worsened and she needed my advice.  Apparently when she was in Bali she went to have a massage at a place near the hotel where she was staying.  To cut a long story short, the woman told her what her problem was.  She had lots of negative energy inside her which she needed to clear out.  It was put there by people who were not happy with her.
The woman helped cleanse her of some of the negative energy and gave her some oil and incense to take home and tied a piece of string around her wrist for protection.  My friend was not to worry, because other than the bunch of negative energy she had swirling about inside her, Shiva is also residing within her.   

At this, I paused.  Now, I’m all for keeping an open mind to all sorts of peculiar things happening in the world.  As a matter of fact, I often wish I could see things like ghosts and beings from different dimensions, and go astral travelling whenever I feel like it.  Not because I doubt them.  But because I feel I’m missing out on a lot of exciting things.  Myself, I find it hard just remembering my dreams.  I am doomed as it were, to be a prisoner of my three dimensionality.  My eyes cannot see more than the images bounced off the back off my retina and my ears cannot hear more than what tickles the eardrums.

Which doesn’t mean that everyone else is the same way. 

‘So, the massage lady says Shiva is inside you?‘

‘Yes.  Isn’t that the craziest thing?  I don’t know what to make of it!’

I was careful not to cast judgment, however.  Just in case.  Shiva after all, is a Hindu deity.  He is also The Destroyer.  My friend showed me on her iPad the photos of the place where the woman gave her the massage.  The room was full of old bottles of unguents and other oily stuff.  The place spelled out the heebie-jeebies.  I noted the three Rangdas, the Balinese child-eating demon queens, in the background, covered in black and white check cloths.  She insisted they were ‘barongs,‘ the lion-like creature, the good guy who fought Rangda.   

I pointed out the long tongues, the bulging eyes, the long hair and the upward-turned fangs.  A quick google on the iPad proved I was right.  The woman who gave her the oil was a devotee of the demon leyak queen, which in the fight between the good and evil, was very much on the evil side.  I told her I hoped she hadn’t used the oil on herself?

Apparently, that was not the end of it.  A week after her Bali trip, my friend was sitting at the balcony of her apartment looking at the bright lights of Jakarta, when suddenly she heard a voice telling her to go inside, put the oil on her face, burn the incense and seat herself in a lotus position. 

And then for the next few hours she swore she could feel that her body was possessed by an entity.  She even engaged in hours of conversations with this being whom by then, she was convinced was Shiva.  She was also convinced it was because of him that she could never keep a boyfriend for long.  Shiva had gotten quite possessive.

I could see that her mind was finding it hard to grapple with all of the weird things happening to her.  I advised her to exercise caution and to stay away from the oil and the incense.  At least, until she knew what was going on.  More importantly, she was to get other opinions.  Meanwhile, I gave her the number of my facial therapist.  He might be able to get rid of her break outs.  Moreover, he is a mine of knowledge, from the history of Hinduism in Java to the theory of Quantum physics and to why it is that planes always crash in Mt Salak, Bogor.  Who knows, he might be able to put things in a more rational perspective.  Plus, he makes house calls.

A few days later my friend called me up.  She had met my therapist who came to her apartment.

‘And?’ I asked, all agog.

‘He wondered what Shiva was doing in the corner of the room.’
(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

Going Gaga

I'm not going to write about the Lady Gaga saga. It's too depressing.  Besides, too much has been discussed about it already.  Suffice to say that if I had my way I would nuke those hardliners till they glow.  Or, as my war-minded friend says, make them disappear the mysterious way, just like the criminals in the old Soeharto days when he was the dictator around here, and not these moral dictators who think they're doing God's work by intimidating people who do nothing except mind their own business. No, I would rather talk about this gem of a seafood place I tried for the first time the other day.

I also have nothing to comment about our police who, lacking the manliness to square up to the thugs, prefer to keep the peace by petting and feeding the mad dog meat rather than locking it up where it belongs while telling everyone else to stay at home and not venture to the street because it's a dangerous world out there.  Because protecting sane and ordinary people from crazy and uncontrollable attacks is just something beyond their professional skill.

Instead, it seems that the police is more interested in protecting our so-called 'culture' from the wicked influence of Lady G than upholding the law and cracking down on unruly behaviour. Why the police think we need them to dictate our musical taste is beyond me, but one cannot help wonder what culture it is that they have in mind that needs protecting.  As one of the most corrupt countries in the world and a voracious consumer of Internet porn sites, it could hardly be said that our morals are beyond reproach, while when it comes to erotic performances, surely Lady G pales in comparison to the sexy gyrations of some of the local 'dangdut' artistes.

As to corrupting our youth, we can leave that to the shameful shenanigans of many of their leaders and elders who make a living out of being appalling role models not to mention robbing the future generation of a better future through their inability to do their job of improving welfare and education.  If anything, Lady G could teach our young people a thing or two about the merits of hardwork, the importance of developing talent and creativity, and what it takes to be a global success at a young age.

The said seafood place is in North Jakarta, an area that I rarely frequent.  The last time I was here was a longtime ago when the eating places had dirt floor and hard wooden benches to sit on.  But the seafood, big fat crabs and juicy prawns, were out of this world.  This time however, the whole place feels out of this world.  At least out of Jakarta.  It's in an area called Muara Karang, in a huge seaside estate called Pantai Indah Kapuk, where massive development had transformed this former marshland into a dream city of concrete, tall buildings, bright lights and shopping spaces for the ethnic Chinese community.  Here there is even a huge Buddhist school that would look quite at home in the middle of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

That's the beauty of a democracy in a pluralistic country.  Diversity is seen as a blessing, rather than a curse.  This after all, was the vision with which Indonesia was founded.  Ideally, there is a place for everybody, where all can feel safe and their freedom to express their religion protected.  Unfortunately for democracy to really work requires the ability and the will of the communities to live alongside each other and accept each others' differences.  Where this will is lacking, for example in cases where minorities rub shoulders with an unwelcoming majority, democracy by voting or consensus cannot be implemented.  It would be like Switzerland doing a referendum on the building of minarets.  The answer would always be a rejection of what is outside the norm.  Instead, it is for the government to ensure the protection of these minorities from the tyranny of the majority through clear policies and law enforcement.

Unless, of course, the government is a lily-livered bunch of politicians more concerned with vying for the next election and pandering to the lowest populistic sentiment, than actually doing what is good for the integrity of the country.  In which case it's easier and more convenient for them to capitulate to the moral dictators, knowing that the majority of the ordinary people would be too acquiescent and apathetic to confront those rabble rousers.

After all, when it comes to a discourse on morality, only those with the fanatical conviction have the loudest voices and the fearlessness to take to the streets.  As to the moderate, more secular and beer-drinking rest? Well, nobody wants the risk of being called infidels, morally deficient and worshippers of Satan.  While the police, reduced to pusillanimity in this mob democracy of thugs, armed gangs,and stick-carrying religious zealots, cannot do much other than watch in the sidelines and hope they don't get hurt.

But then enough of this gag-inducing brouhaha.  I do recommend for you however, to try this seafood place called Bandar Djakarta at the Green Bay in Muara Karang.  The crab in black pepper sauce is so yummy it can leave you absolutely gaga.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

The Beer Monster

I’ve discovered that even more annoying than getting bad service from the flight attendants when you’re flying on a plane, is sitting next to a person who is willfully rude to the crew for absolutely no reason other than because he is a genuinely obnoxious person. 

The other day I had the unfortunate experience of being in that situation, and I could tell you, it was like being stuck in a farce where I found myself being part the reluctant audience and part the unwilling commentator providing some sort of narrative to the unfolding buffoonery for the entire flight.  In short, it was the kind of experience that would make one lose faith in human nature.

We were in the business class section of a certain national airline and my fellow passenger was an aging, burly caucasian chap with tattoos on his arm and with as much prepossession as a jailbird on the lam, though I hesitate to describe him not because I don’t wish to be judgmental, but because there really is no excuse for rudeness whatever you look like or where ever you come from.

As the plane was waiting to take off, a cheerful and pleasant flight attendant came by with a tray and offered the passengers fruit juices by way of pre-flight refreshment.  And for the next hour and a half I was subjected to conversations on the merit of the airline’s refreshment that went something like the following:

Passenger:  ‘I want beer.’  There was no beer on the tray.  Only the standard apple and orange juices.  The stewardess, still with a full tray and lots of passengers to serve, asked him to wait.  She finished her round and went back to the galley.

Impatient passenger: ‘Do I get my beer today or do I need to wait until tomorrow?‘  The stewardess was somewhat flustered and apologetic.  The plane was taxiing by this time.  I looked at him askance.  Couldn’t he wait until the plane was in the sky before ordering beer and make do with a glass of juice?  The attendant came with a can of beer and a glass.

Irritated passenger:  ‘It’s not cold.  Why is the beer not cold?  What kind of service is this?  I want cold beer.‘  More apologies from the attendants.  Apparently the cans hadn’t been in the fridge on the plane long enough.  The plane readied itself for take off.  He insisted on holding his glass of warm beer.  I was beginning to feel dislike for my fellow passenger.

When the seat belt sign was switched off, he asked for another can of beer.  Then the food trolley came.  The choices were smoked salmon with aragula salad, a tuna pastry or cold cut chicken.

Hungry, impatient and irritated passenger:  ‘What’s this rubbish?  Where’s the hot food?‘  The smiley attendant explained that since it was only five o’clock in the afternoon it was not dinner time yet. 

Rude passenger:  ‘This is rubbish.  What you have here is rubbish.  I’m not eating this rubbish.‘   He picked a tuna pastry nevertheless. 

‘Bread rolls?‘  the attendant offered, still with a smile.
Very rude passenger:  ‘Are they baked yesterday or last week?‘
The attendant looked confused and couldn’t understand why he was so angry.

He proceeded to attack his food with gusto, all the while foul expletives came forth from his mouth about the rubbish food he was eating.  The attendants were too nice, I thought.  Anywhere else in the world, especially on airlines where you’d be lucky even to get a smile from the flight attendant, he would be arrested for verbal assault and may be even thrown off the plane. 

‘This is the worst food I’ve ever tasted on a plane in my life,’ he repeated, as the attendant cleared his empty dish,  ‘It’s rubbish.  I’m eating rubbish.  I want another beer.’  The attendant looked visibly distressed.  I gave her a sympathetic smile.  ‘The salmon was delicious,’ I said, hopefully loud enough for him to hear.  I made a mental note of how many cans he’d downed. 

He got up to the toilet for the third time and could be heard complaining about the food in the aisle.  I could hear the attendants whispering in distressed voices behind the curtains.  ‘May be his wife just left him,’ I said to a passing attendant, trying to cheer her up, but also with a touch of maliciousness. 

When he came back his mood had improved significantly.  He even asked for more of the rubbish food.  This time he opted for the salmon dish.  Plus the bread roll.  And another can of beer.  It was cold.  Perhaps that was the root of the problem.  Warm beer turned him into The Hulk.     

By the time we were making our descent he was calling the flight attendants ‘dearie’ and gave the Purser boisterous high fives.  He was onto his seventh can.  When the plane landed he was still clutching onto his beer.  It jogged about in the glass.  Inwardly I hoped it would spill all over his knee-length cargo shorts and down his hairy legs.  It didn’t.

As the plane taxied, he pushed his seat backwards and stretched out, belching and closing his eyes, the empty beer glass by his side, hands on his belly.  He seemed contented.  I was ready to strangle him.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)