Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Powerful Woman Number 18

On a good morning at the office, my dear friend Astari told me to check out the latest publication of Foreign Policy.  “It’s on women in the Middle East and Africa”, she further tried to convince me. 

Don’t get me wrong here.  I’m a keen reader on international affairs, the type who’d read anything to enlighten my view of the world. But, I was just finding it difficult to feel excited about reading on the plight of women in the Middle East from the views of a Western publication.  Somehow, I sorta knew how the argument is going to pan out.  The “boogeyman” would be obvious, and so would be the supposed solution to the problem.

And so, while visiting to Foreign Policy’s website, I decided to forego reading the articles on women in the Middle East and Africa, and was attracted instead by a headline that read “The Most Powerful WomenYou've Never Heard Of”.  Interesting I figured. 

The list was made up of 25 women, including former New Zealand PM Helen Clark (currently Administrator of UNDP), Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (who succeeded in restructuring her country’s tattered finance system and cut down on fuel subsidies), and Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong (the only woman in the 25-people Chinese Politburo).

Any Indonesians on the list..?  Of course, sitting at No. 18 is our one and only Ibu Sri Mulyani Indrawati, former Finance Minister extraordinaire, currently “on-sabbatical” at the World Bank.  Some are saying (including Foreign Policy) that she may actually be the World Bank’s boss if the Americans would allow a non-US citizen to take up that position.  Here’s how Foreign Policy described her:

“Indonesia, long the punch line of jokes about Third World corruption, boasts an economy that is much cleaner, stronger, and more promising than it was in 2005, when Sri Mulyani Indrawati took the reins of its Finance Ministry. A former IMF executive director, the 49-year-old University of Illinois Ph.D. instituted a wide-ranging ministry housekeeping, sacking corrupt tax and customs officials. Indonesia weathered the global financial crisis better than most, chalking up an average of roughly 6 percent in annual GDP growth since 2005, while increasing its rolls of income-tax payers from just over 4 million to nearly 16 million in just five years. Now a managing director at the World Bank, Indrawati has often been mentioned as a possible head of the institution -- if, that is, the United States were ever to allow a non-American to take the helm.”

I’ve always been a big fan of Ibu Sri, someone who I look up to as I continue my life-long pursuit of becoming a clean, honest, hardworking servant of the people.  When she was rid off by the political machinations of Indonesia’s current immature democracy, I was heartbroken.  Heartbroken because I’ve always been a believer in the idea that changes need to happen from within.  That there is room for idealism and professionalism in the government.  Ibu Sri has been part of a team that’s made Indonesia’s economy progress so much since the reform era.  And yet, she became the victim of political animals seeking nothing but the interests of a few, and not that of the nation.

Indonesians are always lamenting the brain-drain that continues to plague our society and economy.  Indeed, things have gotten better as the present economic growth is steadily bringing back many Indonesian who’d been “in hiding” abroad.  Nevertheless, I’ve always been of the view that biggest problem with Indonesia is that there are just too many stupid people here.  I know, stupid's a harsh word, but I can't seem to find another nice term for it.  Stupid, ignorant, irrational… In the words of a Cambodian tuktuk driver, “same-same”.

What’s worse is that, the hordes of stupid masses have more than often prevailed over the bright, innovative, and nationalist Indonesians.  Nationalist in its truest form, and not in the way it’s expressed by Laskar Merah Putih when supporting the whore of a Malaysian Prince.  These similar masses were also the ones who deprived us Indonesians of the 2006 Finance Minister of the Year (according to Euromoney magazine) and the 2007 and 2008 Asia's Finance Minister of The Year (according to Emerging Markets newspaper).

My good friend Sade asked me, “will I vote for Ibu Sri if she ever decides to run for President?” Of course.  Could she ever win? Most likely not.  At least, not in a democracy that remains as immature as Indonesia’s current political scene.  Politicians these days rarely judged for their capacity to lead and make the changes that matter to the public.  Instead, they thrive on the public’s misinformation and lack of knowledge.  

Has this made me lose faith in Indonesia’s democracy.  Not at all.  I’ve fallen in and out of love.  But I’ve always remained a believer in love.  Yes, I’ve become jaded somewhat.  But I guess that’s just part of living, and learning from the lessons of life.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Currere Ergo Sum

It’s not often that I read a biography, let alone, an autobiography.  I can’t even remember the last time I did.  Maybe it was Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.  And even then, I didn’t finish the book, reading only parts about the current US President’s life in Indonesia.

So, there I was, 7 o’clock in the morning, in Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport (how I envy the Malaysians for having this, and us Indonesians the dark and gloomy SHIA), looking to break my US$100 bill, so that I’d have small change as I arrive in Phnom Penh later in the day.  I thought about a teh tarik, but as I walked towards the kedai kopi tiam, I was somehow lured into a bookstore by a sign saying “Buy 2, Get 3”.

Nothing from the piles of 3-for-2 books became of interest to me.  But next to them were a pile of Haruki Murakami books.  Just a week earlier I had purchased Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart but had not had time to finish.  Therefore, it would seem silly to buy another of his books.  Well, sillier things have happened whenever I am in a bookstore.  Like, for example, buying a book which I already owned (but with a different book cover), or buying a classic like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center Of the Earth just because it’s a classic and that maybe someday, just maybe, I’d have time read it.

I looked at the price sticker on the back of Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir (WITAWITAR), and sure enough, it was just more expensive than a glass of teh tarik.  And so, foregoing my physical thirst, I succumbed to my intellectual hunger instead.  At least, that’s what I liked to think that I was doing at the time.  As well, I got the small change for my first days in Phnom Penh.

Out of curiosity, I started reading the first few pages of the book on the 1.5 hour trip from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh.  And I simply got addicted.  I was confident that I’d be able to finish the book during my stay in Cambodia.  But of course, that never happened.  Instead, I became consumed by two other books on Cambodia.  A week later, back in Jakarta, I finally got a chance to return to reading WITAWITAR.  And boy was it a good book!

When talking about running, Murakami actually talks about many other things.  He describes the will to push oneself to the limit, about the struggle between the mind and the body, about what it means to be a writer, to be a doer (not just a dreamer), and of course, to be a runner.  It’s a book about realizing one’s best potential through hard work and determination.

Murakami is one of my favorite writers, with Norwegian Wood considered as my most cherished of his books, followed by After Dark.  But what I never knew was that Murakami hadn’t started writing until his late twenties.  It all started with an epiphany while watching a baseball game.  Something along the lines of “If you build it, they will come”, I guess.

Not only that, Murakami does not claim himself to be a talented writer, or a talented person per se.  He has had to make up for this with hard work, as well as well-planned schedules and strategies.  Somehow I always thought that all good writers were just born with talent.  But I guess, Murakami has proven me wrong.  Let’s just hope that he wasn’t being typically-Japanese humble.

Reading accounts of Murakami’s training for the many marathons he has participated in, there were a number of lessons that I learned.  Lessons that I kinda wanna share with those who have yet had the chance to read this light, but filling memoir.
  1. To be a good writer one must have talent.  However, we can never control the quality or amount of talent we have.  We either have lots or little.  And therefore, we can either chose to spend all of our talent in one go, or use it up slowly, to ensure that it lasts a long time.
  2. If we lack talent, than we can rely on focus and endurance.  A good writer is capable of focusing and enduring the ordeal of churning out a good piece of writing.  According to Murakami, more than a mental activity, writing actually has more to do with physical stamina.  In this sense, talent will get you some place, but you can only roam endlessly if you have focus and endurance.    
  3. Running won’t generate ideas for someone experiencing a writers’ block.  The act of running requires so much focus that it’s unlikely one’ll be thinking of anything else but finish the course.  Running, however, will clear your mind, and allow for new ideas to spring out in its aftermath.  As in, after a good run, sit down and write.
  4. When we say things like “18 ‘til I die”, it means that we die when we are 18, because we can never be 18 throughout our lives.  Not in the mental sense, and certainly not in the physical one.  Our ability to survive and thrive depends on our capability to adapt to change.    
  5. It’s no use to fight time, because time will always win.  So, the best thing that we could do is to enjoy the things that we love to do as much as possible.  Our lives have limits, and when we’ve learned to recognize those limits, we’ll be able to enjoy what we have in our hands to the fullest.
  6. It’s never to late to start up something new, and actually succeed in it.  If something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing it your best, maybe even beyond your best.  Murakami didn’t start writing until he was 29, and he didn’t start running until he was 33.  He is now a well-knownwriter and runs at least a marathon every year.
  7. You can learn about yourself by analyzing the things you cannot live without.  Murakami said that most of what he knows about writing was learned through running every day. I am a football fan.  I can’t imagine life without football.  I have no idea yet what this means, but maybe by understanding this fascination, I’d be able to learn more about myself.
I, too, believe that I don’t have that much talent for writing.  I mean, I love reading any beautifully structured sentence, and then repeating it over and over in my head, trying to emulate them with my own words.  However, to sit down and write a long, substantive piece of story, well that doesn’t always materialize into something concrete.  More often, my ideas evaporate into thin the air.  Once in a while, there would be “sparks of genius”.  But, all in all, I am very much an average person. 

And so, if I was to learn anything from Murakami, then to be a good writer (blogs, articles, short stories or even presidential speeches), I’d have to train myself to play that part.  I must make myself more focused and resilient.  But nothing is impossible.  Murakami showed in WITAWITAR that he’s a mere mortal.  But, even mere mortals could ascend to a more deity-like form through determination, endurance, perseverance, focus, and a sound understanding of limits and goals.

Oh yeah, I really feel like going for a run now…

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Khmer Notes: The Cambodian Smile

The ruins of Ta Prohm
In his narration during the opening shots of the 1984 Academy Award winning movie, “The Killing Fields”, the main co-protagonist, New York Times writer Sydney Schanberg, called Cambodia “a country [he] grew to love and pity”. The first time I saw the movie in the early 1990s in Canada, I couldn’t help but share the sense of pity Schanberg felt. However, I honestly couldn’t figure out what’s to love about a country so war-torn as Cambodia.

And so, when the
opportunity was presented to me during a 7-day stay in Cambodia just a few weeks ago (thank God for the ASEAN Summit), I promised myself to learn as much as possible about this country and its people. I knew that I could never be able to understand, appreciate, and love Cambodia the way Schanberg did. But I’d be damned if I didn’t at least try.

It’s not so difficult to feel a ping of pity towards the Cambodian people. Compared to some of the people in Southeast Asia (especially when compared to us living in the sub-region’s archipelago), the Cambodians, to say the least, have endured a tumultuous history. In plain French, “they’ve had it f#&*in’ hard”.

At the turn of the century, they had to fend off the French colonialists, who were finally kicked out in 1953. But as the Vietnam War progressed in the 1960s, Cambodia was dragged into the conflict. Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia in search of refuge and resources, and the Americans went in pursuit and blanketed Cambodia with napalm, agent orange, dart cluster-bombs, you-name-it. Between 1964 and 1975, around 2.76 million tons of ordnances were dropped on Cambodia, more than the Allies had dropped during World War II; it made Cambodia the most heavily bombed country ever. During that period, up to 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed.

And then, there was the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed
around 1.7 million of the country’s 8 million population. The regime experimented with re-creating an agrarian society, purifying the Khmer population from its “enemies” through executions, starvation and forced labour. Ethnic minorities like the Chinese and the Muslim Chams died by the thousands. But most of the regime’s victims were ethnic Khmers: doctors, lawyers, teachers, and anybody assumed capable of intellectually usurping the Khmer Rouge’s backward ideology were systematically wiped out.

The Khmer Rouge was finally driven out by Vietnamese forces.
However, relations among the different factions within the Cambodian society remained violent. Between 1979 and 1987, up to 230.000 people died of residual conflicts. The Khmer Rouge had returned the country to the dark ages: no police or legal system, no schools, no books, no hospitals, no post and telecommunications, and no commerce. Not only that, those who had survived the nightmare continued to live in uncertainty, fearing one day that the regime would once again return.

Three decades of conflict had also caused around 600.000 Cambodians to be displaced,
many living in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Cambodia was also littered with landmines, resulting in around 40.000 people becoming amputees, many of them children. To this day, there may be as many as six million mines and unexploded ordnances in Cambodia. Even the Lonely Planet Guide that accompanied me (a pirated copy I bought in Phnom Penh for US$ 5) warned about going astray from marked roads around the country.

With this as a background, one would have to be skeptical about finding the Cambodian
smile that I’ve heard about so much. But as my days in Cambodia accumulated, I began to feel the warmth of the people, their friendliness towards foreigners, who in the past had done nothing but wreaked havoc on their soil.

Mr. Seng, the day manager at Asia Hotel in Phnom Penh, always had a full smile on his face. When I asked about making a trip to Siem Reap,
he always tried to give a voice of reassurance, indicating that he can and will arrange a pleasant trip for me there. On my last day at Asia Hotel, as I handed over the keys to my room, he asked, “How was the room, Mr. Santo?” When I told him that it was worth more than the US$ 40 per day I paid for, Mr. Seng blushed, bowed and said “Thank you, you’re so kind”, with a grin from ear to ear. He kept his promise, the arrangements in Siem Reap were indeed pleasant and hassle-free.

Throughout my stay in Siem Reap, I was taken around on a tuktuk, driven by a short, kind man who calls himself Baby. I thought it
was a weird name for a guy, but he later told me that it was because he was the youngest in the family. As I ventured to Angkor Wat, and took in the beauty of Bayon, Baphuon and Ta Prohm, Baby explained to me in his broken English how Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider” had caused a sudden hike in the flow of tourists into his country, particularly in Siem Reap. God bless Angelina, I thought.

Baby used to be a farmer, cutting lotus flower and paddy for around US$ 80 per month. When I
asked him if he liked being a tuktuk driver, he answered with a smile, “Of course, driving tuktuk, many tourist give me tips!” On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by his house, made of dried coconut leaves. His 1.5 year old boy was running around without pants, and at the back, his brother-in-law was taking a shower with underwear still on. “Next month Khmer New Year… before New Year I’m happy… after New Year I’m sad,” he explained, adding “Before New Year I have money. After, no money”. He said all this with a big smile on his face.

On the river Tonle Sap, I met Sam Bo and his boat-driver partner, Vy. Vy is a Muslim Cham, who greeted me with “assalamualaikum” when he found out that I was from Indonesia.  Throughout the trip, Sam Bo told me stories of his “floating village”, where everything actually floated. There was a floating grocery store, a floating church, school, pig-sties and chicken coops, and even a basketball court. I saw a kid swimming in the murky shallow waters, smiling and waving at me taking a photo. Another also wanted his photo taken, but the boat was going too fast for me to zoom and click in time.

Sam Bo recounted how the
country has progressed so much under Hun Sen. He told me about his sister, who is now working in a clothing factory near Phnom Penh, making US$ 150 per month (or US$ 200, if she clocked in enough extra hours). Sam Bo’s words brimmed with confidence, a seeming belief that things will get better. “No more war in Cambodia. Economy is good. More people happy”, he added, while looking at the sun lowering over the horizon. And as the boat neared the shore, Vy pointed out (with a big smile) to the mosque with new orange paint, a standing symbol of increasing tolerance among ethnic groups in Cambodia.

I guess, for a country that has suffered so
much in recent history, maybe most Cambodians believe that things could never get worse. The only way is up, and they seem to be upbeat about it. The days of fearing the return of the Khmer Rouge are over.

Cambodia appears like a country coming to terms with its past. The signs of history
are all around them, reminding them of the folly that men can do. I saw it in the eerie walls of Tuol Sleng prison, and the faces of Buddha destroyed by grenades. But in the end, no one seems to dwell on these, preferring instead to move ahead. An Indonesian friend there told me that the country’s politics remain susceptible to conflict. But somehow, from the people, I got the sense that they’re just tired of conflict.
Bayon smile

As I looked at pictures I had taken at Bayon, I couldn’t help remembering that the faces emanating from that grandiose temple had all shown big smiles. Indeed, even the gods appear to be smiling at the Cambodian people.

In the end, was all of this enough to make me learn to love Cambodia the way Sydney Schanberg did? Not really, maybe a few more weeks there would’ve done it for me. But at least, it has made me feel less pity towards the Cambodian people. Because that’s the one thing that I failed to discover behind the smiles greeting me throughout my stay there.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Khmer Notes: Hu’s in Town…?

A couple days before the start of the 20th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, I ventured to the Peace Palace, where the Summit would be taking place. To my surprise, my friends and I were greeted by a banner that had little to do with the ASEAN Summit. The eye-brow raising banner read: “Welcoming the State Visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China, H.E. Mr. Hu Jintao”.

“Interesting,” I figured. And things got more interesting when I took a sunset trip to the Cambodian Royal Palace, and was welcomed by the proud photos of Cambodian Royal Family with the Hus. I would stay in Phnom Penh for 4 more days, and ‘til last day of my visit, the photos of the Cambodian and Chinese “royalties” never went down. They were there when I got back from Siem Reap too. The banner at the Peace Palace did go down, though, maybe because it would’ve been kinda inappropriate for the other ASEAN Leaders to see.

During the weekend prior to the ASEAN Summit, Chinese President had visited Cambodia and carried out talks with King Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Some sources say that the Prime Minister’s office didn’t have much to do with the invitation, and that it was the Royal Palace that extended the welcome to the Chinese President. Some are even saying that the visit was “self-invited”, timed perfectly before the ASEAN Summit as a means to “rattle ASEAN” (or at least, the ASEAN Chair) into not discussing certain sensitive issues like, ow shall we say, the South China Sea.

Indeed, Cambodia has had strong relations with China ever since its independence from the French in 1953. Throughout much of the Cold War, China supported King Norodom Sihanouk during his many political struggles, particularly after the 1970 coup, which gave rise to the US-sponsored government of Prime Minister Lon Nol. Between 1975 and 1978, China was also on-hand to support the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime with weapons and supplies. And following the UN-supervised elections in 1993, China continued to support the Cambodian Royal Family, this time to Prince Norodom Ranaridh and his FUNCINPEC Party.

Cambodia’s current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, (the longest serving Head of Government in Southeast Asia) had never been a favourite of China. His close ties with Vietnam led him to be labeled by the Chinese as a “puppet” of Hanoi. However, since 1997, Hun Sen has been active in seeking support from Beijing, striking a balance between relations with the Chinese and the Vietnamese. The strategy was successful, particularly because of the Chinese Government’s growing ire at FUNCINPEC’s ties with Taiwan.

Between 1997 and 2005, China has provided over US$ 600 million in investments, grants, and aid. Hun Sen has always been appreciative of China’s engagement, stating more than once that China rarely ties economic assistance with improved governance, human rights issues, or even democratic values. Much of this assistance has been aimed at developing high-profile and government buildings and facilities. Someone pointed out to me the Office of the Prime Minister (which lies next door to the Peace Palace) and said: “That was a gift from the Chinese”.

Not only that, China has supported the strengthening of Cambodia’s military (especially those loyal to Hun Sen) through weapons delivery and training. As well, China has emerged as Cambodia’s number one trading partner and investor. In 2011, China’s foreign direct investment in Cambodia was $1.19 billion, almost 10 times that of the United States. Therefore, in addition to having strong political leverage, the Chinese are also keeping up tabs through their economic prowess.

Hence, I don’t think it should come as a surprise that many saw Hu’s visit to Phnom Penh (on the eve of the ASEAN Summit) as a way for the Chinese to influence Cambodia’s handling of its Chairmanship in this regional organization. Last year, during Indonesia’s Chairmanship, it was public knowledge that China continuously lobbied Indonesia to omit sensitive issues from ASEAN’s agenda, including for the ASEAN+ and EAS meetings. Indonesia never paid heed to such calls. Instead, we succeeded in getting China and ASEAN to sit down on the negotiating table and agree on the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC on the South China Sea.

During his bilateral with Hun Sen, the Chinese President asked Cambodia not to push talks on the South China Sea “too fast”. Under the same breath, President Hu pledged to double bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2017 and announced fresh aid to the poor country. The Cambodian leader responded by stating that while other ASEAN countries would likely raise the issue, Cambodia has left the issue off the official agenda for the meeting.

Later on, during interviews with the press following the ASEAN Summit, Hun Sen balked out at claims that there had been disputes between ASEAN and China, stating that the two sides are “strategic partners”. The Prime Minister even added that the region should remember that China last year granted ASEAN over US$ 10 billion in credit for infrastructure development. He was quick, however, to also state clearly that “Hu Jintao did not tell [him] that [he] have to do this or that…”

Indonesia has set the issue of South China Sea as one of its priorities for ASEAN this year. In particular, Indonesia looks to carry on the momentum created by last year’s agreement on the Guidelines of the DOC to ensure implementation of cooperation projects in the South China Sea as well as to develop a code of conduct in the disputed waters.

Will we see this coming to fruition, especially when considering Cambodia’s status as Chair of ASEAN and its apparent close ties with China?

It must be recognized that China may have in its capacity to use influence over Cambodia in driving a wedge among the ASEAN countries in addressing the issue of the South China Sea. The Cambodians would never admit to such a thing, of course. However, when considering that Cambodia has no claims over the South China Sea, then it probably has less interest in pursuing the South China Sea issue when compared to, say, Vietnam, the Philippines, or even Indonesia.

In the end, in further pushing the South China Sea issue, ASEAN must rely on Hun Sen’s assertion that the ASEAN-China dialogue over the South China Sea “is a process that one cannot abandon”. Indeed, the year’s just started, and we still have many more ASEAN meetings to attend and observe. I therefore, would like to be more optimistic about the prospect of Indonesia achieving its target vis-à-vis the South China Sea. But somehow, it’s hard to ignore the feelings of uncertainty and lack of confidence emanating from various corners of the ASEAN region.