Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Air Asia: "At Least We Didn't Crash!"

Man what a day I had yesterday. On my last full day in Indonesia I was forced to travel from Jakarta to Jogjakarta to get a re-entry permit so I could come back without having to endure the several-week-long nightmare I'm going to detail in the next post I write. My flight out of Jakarta for Taiwan was scheduled to leave at 2.20pm the following day. So I booked a flight on Air Asia at 8 in the morning, scheduled to land in Jakarta at 9am. I had left my bags, including my computer, all my clothes, and everything else at my buddy's apartment, figuring that I would surely have enough time to retrieve them and return to the airport. I was only going to be in Jogja for the day, and the stingy b*%&!@s at Air Asia charge you for checked baggage.

I arrived at the airport and everything went smoothly. I fell asleep as we were taxiing down the runway. When I awoke we were landing, and I thought to myself "man that was quick", and was getting all set to get off the plane when I noticed that we were landing back in JOGJA. "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!". It turns out that someone had forgotten to flip a switch or check the oil or something. So they called their engineer, and within about 20 minutes the plane was ready. Still time to do what I need to do. But guess what? The Indonesian Air Force Academy, which uses Adi Sucipto airport in Jogja, at that moment was having some sort of exercise, and they closed the airport for 30 minutes. So we had to wait. And wait. And when the airport finally reopened (after an hour) the Air Asia folks discovered something else wrong, and so we had to sit on the tarmac for 30 more minutes. All tolled we got to Jakarta at around noon, 2 hours 45 minutes late, leaving me not enough time get to Kuningan to get my bags before my afternoon flight (1). What was I going to do? My computer, my clothes, my phone, my keys, everything...gone.

However, in this life if you spend any more than 2-3 minutes feeling sorry for yourself before setting about to address the problem you're just digging a deeper hole, making it harder to eventually put the whole thing behind you. So I tried to figure out how I might be able to engineer the transport of my luggage to the airport. Of course, all the plans I came up with failed. So eventually I came to the tough conclusion that I was going to have to leave everything in Jakarta and pick it up when I get back in August. At first this seemed like an impossibility, but then as I thought about it became clear to me that there's nothing there I can't live without. The computer is probably the most inconvenient, but fortunately I brought a backup harddrive just incase I needed to access any data in Jogja. I've got an extra set of keys in Honolulu, and the phone, well, nobody calls me anyway. So I'll be alright. But it's definitely inconvenient, and there will be hundreds of small problems that crop up over the next couple of weeks because of this. I'm still alive, though, and I'm going home, which is the important thing.

I don't know why I put any faith in Air Asia in the first place. Because if something can go wrong here, it will. That's no joke. Airline management in Indonesia is so bad it's comical. But I still fly (because I have to), and for some reason I still expect them to be on time. I think to myself "it can't happen again, can it?" But it does. The problem is that the standard of service is so bad, it's so beyond your expectations in a bad way that your brain just can't cope with the crappiness of it. Hope springs eternal and despair is born anew.

So as a public service to all the would-be travellers, I've created the following guide to airlines in Indonesia. You can use this guide to pick the appropriate airline consistent with the level of misery, discomfort, and inconvenience you want to experience. Here goes:

Air Asia: A budget airline operating out of Singapore or Malaysia (what's the difference?). Among the cheapest, and probably among the most reliable, but I hate them. Plus they are arrogant ("Now Everyone Can Fly"; "The Best Airline in the World!") and they have sneaky ways to trick you into paying additional charges on their website.

Batavia is a big Indonesian carrier. I've flown with them a couple of times, and they seemed to be okay; only one of the two flights was late.

Garuda: Overpriced and undercleaned. This is Indonesia's "flagship carrier". Of course, they're not allowed to fly planes to Europe or the US. Hmmmm....

Lion Air: Lion Air is a budget option and they have frequent flights, but they are late about 80% of the time (in my experience) and their prices fluctuate wildly within hours. Still, as near as I can tell, this maybe the most popular carrier in Indonesia

Mandiri: Not bad. Comparable to Batavia.

Merpati: Crashes frequently. 'Nuff said.

Sri Vijaya: I've never flown SV, but chances are they suck.

Wings Air: Chances are if you have to go out to the eastern portion of Indonesia you'll be flying on one of Wings' turboprops. They are okay, but the planes smell funny and make odd noises.

But thank God for Taipei. That's where I am now. I think I mentioned in a previous post that China Air books transit passengers without charge in the Novatel near the airport if there is room available, and thankfully this time there was. The Novatel claims to be "5-star", but to tell you the truth it's probably closer to 4.6. They are seriously lacking in gold-leaf accoutrements. But it will do in a pinch. So I traded in some dollars for Chang-Kai-Sheckles (2) and made my way over to the hotel. After a good night's sleep I woke up to enjoy the wonderful complementary breakfast buffet, which includes as much bacon as you can eat.

Now I feel much better and the world doesn't seem so out to get me as it did before. It's important to focus on the positive things, like big mountains of bacon and the free nippers of 15-year-old scotch you can sample at the airport here. So bearing that in mind, I've come up with a new model for my new arch-nemesis Air Asia: "At Least We Didn't Crash!"

(1) Probably the funniest thing about this is that the Air Asia cabin crew had the gall to charge people for refreshments and food after causing them to sit in the hot airplane in Jogja for 2.5 hours. Nice, eh? High-class folks, those Air Asia peeps.

(2) Chang-Kai-Sheckles (CKS) is the currency in Taiwan.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Suka Dan Duka Kehidupan Pahlawan Devisa: Challenges Facing Overseas Workers in Indonesia

Today’s post is inspired by the fate of Ruyati, an Indonesian national who was beheaded in Saudi Arabia last week for murdering her boss. Ruyati had allegedly been tortured, starved, and denied payment by her boss, which evidently drove her to commit her crime, but details are still sketchy. The government of Saudi Arabia has repeated flaunted established cannons of international relations (and law) by refusing to inform the government of Indonesia that Ruyati was to be executed or to provide any other information about the case. Consequently, Ruyati’s family only found out after the execution and was unable to provide legal and moral support. This story has provoked public outcry in Indonesia, but Ruyati is only one of dozens of Indonesians trapped by circumstances beyond their control in a far-off land.

Indonesia is a major international supplier of cheap labor, sending millions of people abroad each year (tenaga kerja Indonesia, TKI) to earn money working in low-skilled occupations such as construction and housekeeping. Nations like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia benefit from the cheap labor, because the Indonesians do work that other people aren't willing to do (or demand a higher wage to do). These migrant laborers generate billions of dollars a year in income, which is generally sent back to Indonesia as remittances. Remittances refers to money sent home by immigrants to support families, and is such an important part of the Indonesian economy that the migrant labors have publicly been declared pahlawan devisa, or "heroes of foreign exchange". Remittances have come to be viewed as an important part of development financing; in fact the total amount remitted by migrant laborers worldwide by far outweighs money provided by wealthy nations to developing countries as foreign aid. Remittances are now the second biggest inflow to many developing nations (behind foreign direct investment, FDI). According to the World Bank, remittances worldwide totaled $325 million in 2010. There are positive and negative aspects to this dynamic. Remittances are direct payments, and so they enter the economy without the complex (and expensive) bureaucratic and regulatory process that characterizes foreign aid. The decision as to how to spend the remittances is made at the lowest level rather than in the offices of NGOs and multi-lateral agencies. However, if a region receives too much money in the form of remittances it can increase inflation, because there are "too many dollars chasing too few goods".

But there is a human aspect as well (1), and the story of Ruyati and the countless others that constantly appear in the Indonesian media remind us of that. Migrant workers face a number of problems in their temporary homes, including
  • Discrimination. Migrant workers are often the target of prejudice and differential treatment in the hosting nation
  • Poor working and living conditions. Migrant workers are often forced to live in substandard and/or overcrowded conditions and often lack access to basic hygienic services
  • Physical, mental, and sexual abuse. Migrant workers frequently fall pray to abuse from bosses and rape/sexual assault is an all-to-frequent occurrence.
  • Deception and changing contractual obligations. A common tactic of human traffickers is to attract workers (especially females) with promises of jobs as housekeepers or care providers. However, once the potential workers reach the destination country they are forced into the sex industry.
  • Withheld pay or sudden pay deductions. Migrant workers often have their passports and other official documents withheld by their employers, essentially making them hostages. Moreover, in many cases the employer makes arbitrary deductions or completely withholds the employee's pay due to perceived and/or contrived failings.
  • Unfamiliarity with laws and policies of the hosting country. Migrant workers often cannot speak the language of the hosting country and thus have difficulties navigating the legal-bureaucratic system to lodge complaints or seek protection. Moreover, in many host countries, advocacy for migrant workers is lacking.
This is an important geography topic because geographers have always been interested in flows of people, money, and goods. Geographers are also interested in networks, and migrant laborers create networks of money and movement through their actions. Understanding these flows can help us situate them in their larger political and economic context and can help policy makers craft laws and programs to address the needs and concerns of migrants. Geographers classify migrants into two broad categories with some general but distinct characteristics: long-term and temporary. One of the main questions geographers ask about migration is why it happens. Migrants are generally motivated by two sets of factors: push factors and pull factors. These are pretty intuitive; push factors exist at the point of origin and serve to drive the migrants to seek better opportunities. Push factors would include low employment opportunities, poor environmental conditions, political repression, and so on. Pull factors occur at the destination country and attract people. These include work opportunities, freedom, etc. Push and pull factors generally work together to drive migration; that is, a combination of factors both at the origin and destination contribute to the decision to migrate. This concept was first published by Everett Lee in 1966 and has become part of the standard curriculum in introductory geography courses. I’ve included a diagram from the original article below; see my footnote for a description of intervening obstacles (2).

Ernest Ravenstein also formulate a number of general principles regarding migration in his seminal "Laws of Migration" in 1889. Among these general rules are:
  • Migration is a step-by-step process starting with places close by extending later to places further away
  • Most migrants move to places relatively close. This is generally interpreted to mean that most migration occurs internally (within the country) rather than externally (to foreign countries).
  • There is always a counter-current of return migration, but this return current is often weaker than people leaving.
  • Most migration involves movement from the countryside to the city
  • Females are more likely to migrate short distances, whereas males are more likely to travel longer distances.
There are different types of migration, and the applicability of these principles depends on the type of migration being discussed. For an interesting project, you can identify a nation that experiences significant in-migration or out-migration. Examples would include Mexico, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Can you locate data from the UN, the World Bank, or other online sources to determine the nature of the migration from these countries? Why does this migration occur, what does it tell us about the country, and what sorts of obstacles do the migrants face?

From this post we can understand how flows of migrants are an important part of the global economy. We can also understand the challenges faced by migrants, which gives us a better appreciation of what some people go through in the search for a brighter future.

(1) The picture to the right is of Sumiati, an Indonesian national working as a housekeeper in Saudi Arapia. Sumiati's boss used scissors to torture her. She ended up requiring urgent care at an emergency medical facility.

(2) In the past distance has been an important part of analysis of migrants, but “globalization” seems to have modified and even rendered obsolete traditional theories about the connection between distance and migrant flows. Through time-space compression globalization has made travel easier and cheaper, and it has also dampened the effect of “intervening obstacles”.


Lee, Everett. 1966. A Theory of Migration. Demography 3:1, pp47-57.

Ravenstein, Ernest. 1885. The Laws of Migration. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society XLVIII, part II: 183

Migrant Care Indonesia (in Indonesian)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Scenes From the Back of an Ojek (Part I)

One of the many problems plaguing Jakarta is traffic jams, known locally as "macet". One way around the traffic jams (literally) is to hire a motorcycle taxi, or ojek. Ojeks are nimble, maneuverable, and they can cut right through the traffic. The downside is that they are dirty and dangerous. But you have to take the bad with the good, right?

On a recent afternoon I made my way out of the bubble and hired an ojek for an hour-long tour. The driver asked me where I wanted to go, and so I told him I wanted to see some crowded street markets and then get in a traffic jam. He was slightly taken aback by this, because usually people try to avoid traffic. But he acquiesced to my project after I explained to him that I wanted to create a photoessay describing the ups and downs of the life of an ojek driver (and after I showed him 50,000 rupiah). The following pictures provide a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of everyday folks in the megacity.

Like I mentioned previously, ojeks are able to cut through traffic jams fairly easily. There's usually a current of ojeks and other motorcycles flowing through stopped traffic. They accumulate at traffic lights and other bottlenecks, and when the way is clear they speed through the intersection in a big hurry to get to the next obstacle. Ojeks, like gases, expand to fill the available space. As I was riding around on the back of the bike today I was thinking of traffic as a viscous fluid, with cars and trucks thickening and often stopping the flow. In this way ojeks increase the liquidity of traffic. They are also able to pass through alleys and trails (and sidewalks) that can't be traversed by cars, as you can see in the first picture to the right. This alley is near the bubble and is where we began our odyssey. In the second picture you can see a big pile of garbage, which is the state bird of the special district of Jakarta. We passed through a few markets and went over a couple rivers. In the third picture you can see our first impasse of the SUV trying to enter the narrow alley we were traversing. Car people often don't like to make way in Jakarta; it seems to be a kind of class warfare. This particular driver didn't seem to understand that he wasn't going to be able to make it home if he didn't first let us get out of the alley. But finally we squeezed by and moved into Menteng, a very upscale neighborhood in central Jakarta. This is where President Obama lived when he was in Jakarta, but he says he didn't live in one of the ritzy places. You can see a blurred picture of a gated home in the 4th picture. That's as close as your going to get. Menteng's a pleasant place to have a walk. You can also challenge your math skills by attempting to count the number of servants running willy-nilly to pick up caviar and sleeping security guards.

Besides ojeks, there are a number of other forms of for-hire transportation. The most familiar are taxi cabs, but these are also the most expensive and are beyond the reach of most regular folks. There are innumerable buses as well, but these stay on the main roads and don't really link the innards of the kampung with the major arteries of the city. Thus there are other options to meet the needs of you average Joko, Bambang, and Budi. First up we've got a mikrolet. These modified trucks are found in a number of cities in Indonesia and ply regular routes indicated by a number on the window. Besides mikrolets you can also ride a bemo (short for "becak motor", which also operates along a fixed route. Bemos are a bit lower on the ladder of comfort than the mikrolet, but what they lack in safety the make up for in the Citroen-esque ugliness of their design. Bemos were originally part of a Japanese development project and were introduced in 1962. They are also limited to certain parts of town. The next conveyance you see is a bajaj. These were originally developed in India and can be found in Thailand as well (tuk-tuk). I've never ridden one of these in Indonesia because, although they are cheaper than taxis, they are wider than motorcycles and thus aren't as maneuverable and can't get through the same tight spaces as an ojek. On top of that they are really loud and they don't seem to have mufflers. Bajajs are restricted to certain parts of the city. They have a sign on the side that tells what part of the city they are authorized to travel through. The government said in 2001 that they were going to phase out the bajaj, but here we are ten years later and Jakarta is still lousy with them. I hate these damn things.

On the way back to the bubble we encountered something I didn't expect to see: a herd of cattle. These particular livestock specimens were feasting on the nutritious bounty of trash that has been carefully strewn about the side of the road. And in the last picture you can see my new friend "Mr. Jay", who did a really outstanding job of getting me in and out of traffic. Mr. Jay told me he's originally from Surabaya (Indonesia's second largest city), but he moved to Jakarta 21 years ago to make money. He's been driving an ojek for 10 years now. He said the money he makes fluctuates pretty widely from day to day and it's hard to plan a budget. However, on most days he earns less than $10 and admits that it's hard to make a living as an ojek driver. Part of this is due to the fact that anyone with a motorcycle can be an ojek driver; there are no required permits.

In addition to the pictures, I shot a couple of short movies with my crummy digicam. These will be screened a Cannes next year. The first video, "Traffic 1", provides a taste of what your in for when you ride an ojek through town. Pay attention to the toxic fumes coming out of the bajajs. Then notice how you encounter people going the wrong way, pedestrians, and street vendors. My personal favorite part of this short is the heartbreak experienced when a shortcut really is a deflating experience.


The next video starts off on the sidewalk, which my driver used to get around a broken-down bus. Watch out for the big hole in the ground! I think this video really highlights the influence of one of my cinematic heroes, Ingmar Bergman. If you really look close, you can see a kernal of Kurosawa as well.


Stay tuned for the next installment of "Scenes From the Back of an Ojek". I've included some sneak peaks below.


A good site on Bemos (in Indonesian) can be found here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

GeSMOGraphy! Jakarta's Smog Problem and the Temperature Inversion

Sitting here in the bubble waiting on papers to clear, I was at something of a loss as to what to write about. Then it hit me, like a ton of particulate matter suspended in the lower atmosphere: I’ll write about the dense layer of smog that perpetually blankets the Greater Jakarta Metropolitan area. I noticed a layer of low-lying clouds on the plane ride from Jogja to Jakarta last week extended out 20-30 minutes of flight time, which must be around 100 miles (on approach). I’m hesitant to say with certainty that this regional cover is smog rather than something natural, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The megacity of 20 million belches out so much pollution on a daily basis that it obviates the need for sunscreen on “clear” days.

To give you an idea of the amount of crud, I walked barefoot outside on my friend's 32nd-floor terrace here in the heart of Jakarta. I counted the steps required to get the bottom of my feet covered with urban grime (see photo to the right) which, due to the height of the terrace, can only have been deposited via settling. It took a mere 17 steps to accumulate the filth you see in the photo, and a full 3 minutes to scrub my feet clean.

What is smog, you ask? “Smog” is a combination of the words smoke and fog and refers to air pollution from cars, coal burning for electricity generation and other industrial sources. There are several different types of smog, but among the most common are photochemical (1) smog, which results from the reaction of some industrial pollutants and sunlight. There is also particulate smog, which consists of the dirt, soot, dust, and other crud that makes it into the air.

Smog is a fundamentally geographic phenomenon because it is trans-regional in effects and the severity of smog is influenced by a number of factors including topography, latitude, and atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Smog is also a factor of development and counter-intuitively can give us clues as to the prosperity of a city. A significant percentage of smog comes from cars, which are relatively expensive goods. As people make more money in the developing world, one of the first things they buy is a car or motorcycle. Thus more smog might suggest that more people are making the leap into car ownership. In addition, bigger cities produce more smog, and in places where rural-to-urban migration is significant the problem is compounded. Rural-urban migration is seen by development geographers as part of the process whereby countries become rich, and so smog is an unfortunate byproduct of this process.

But smog can gives us clues about the climatological characteristics of a region as well. In the US the place most known for smog is Los Angeles. While it’s true that Los Angeles is a sprawling city with millions of cars (2) traveling millions of miles, there are natural factors at work as well. When the air quality is at its worst in LA it signals the presence of an inversion layer. Normally in the lowest layer of the atmosphere (3) the air temperature decreases as your elevation increases. You’ve probably experienced this if you’ve ever been hiking in the mountains. Under normal circumstances warm air at the surface of the earth can rise up through the atmosphere, where it cools down and is blown out by upper level winds. If there is pollution it will be carried away. However, when a temperature inversion is present it means there is a layer of warmer air higher in the atmosphere. Cool air won’t rise through warmer air, and so the inversion layer acts as a lid on the cooler, and in the case of LA, dirtier air below. Since the air can’t circulate, it accumulates smog (4). At night the air cools thus breaking the inversion layer barrier and allowing the pollutants to dissipate.

Landforms also contribute to smog problems. Another city known for its smog, Mexico City, also periodically experiences an inversion layer. However, Mexico City is in a valley (5) surrounded by high mountains (see the satellite image to the left). The mountains trap the polluted air. The problem is much worse in Mexico City than Los Angeles because there are so many more people and the government has been less able to implement measures to alleviate the problem.

Jakarta's smog is mainly produced by automobiles (70%) and is exacerbated by a temperature inversion and relatively light winds attributable to its location close to the equator. The air doesn't really circulate much here, and so the pollution tends to accumulate. Being close to the equator also ensures that there is a lot of sunlight year-round, which fuels the chemical reactions that lead to photochemical smog.

As yet another demonstration of how much crud there is in the atmosphere, I set up a little experiment. Out on the aforementioned terrace I scrubbed two of the "white" floor tiles as clean as I could get them. You can see the tiles to the right. The letters I taped on the tiles stand for "control" (C) and "experimental" (E). While I'm here in Jakarta I'll check the tiles on a daily basis. I'll clean the control tile daily to serve as a contrast; the experimental tile will be left to accumulate grime. We'll see if there is a noticeable accumulation after a couple of days.

In Hawaii we sometimes experience air pollution as well, but ours is a result of the volcanoes on the Big Island. You’ve probably noticed that on some days this “vog” (volcanic fog) is worse than other days. This is due to geographic factors as well. As you probably know, most of the time the weather in Hawaii is pretty breezy. This is caused by the trade winds, part of the global atmospheric circulation described in a previous post. The trade winds blow the vog away, but when the trades die down the air tends to become stagnant. This is a more frequent occurrence in the winter months. These are the days when it's most humid and hazy outside.

(1) The prefix photo means "light". Can you think of some other "photo" words? What do they have to do with light?

(2) I read once that one-quarter of the surface area of Los Angeles is covered with cars.

(3) The troposphere….I’ll write a future post about the vertical layers of the atmosphere when I can figure out a way to relate it to Indonesia. But for now you can see for yourself in the diagrams below. I took these from Texas A&M's Oceanworld site. The first graph shows the decreasing temperature with elevation in three US cities. Temperature is on the x-axis; elevation is on the y-axis. As you can see, the temperature decreases as you go higher in the troposphere. The second graph is a close-up of the first. Notice on the Dallas and San Diego plots that temperature actually increases with altitude. This is an inversion layer.

The inversion layer in San Diego is caused by an upwelling of cool water in the ocean near the city. The cool water in turn cools the air closest to the ground.

(4) Hawai'i frequently experiences an inversion layer as well. Hawai'i inversion layer is associated with a consistent area of high pressure (sinking air) in the eastern Pacific that is part of the global atmospheric circulation system.

(5) The mountains around Los Angeles also contribute to the smog problems there.


Suhadi, D., Awang, M., Hassan, M., Abdullah, R., and Muda, A. 2005. Review of Photochemicla Smog Pollution in Jakarta Metropolitan, Indonesia. American Journal of Environmental Sciences 1:2, pp110-118.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I've Got the KPK on Speed-Dial!

I knew it was just a matter of time before it happened. One of the people I encountered in my dealings with the state apparatus here asked me for a bribe! I’m not going to say who it was or what department was involved, but the experience provides the opportunity to address probably the most important issue facing Indonesia: official corruption. Normally I try not to dwell on the negative aspects of Indonesia because there are so many positive things to focus on, but being here in Jakarta brings out the worst in me.

Corruption in Indonesia is a fact of life. The country routinely ranks near the bottom of corruption surveys. From what I’ve seen, though, not all corruption is created equal. The most pernicious form of corruption is that afflicting the highest levels of government. This includes rigging the bidding process for government contracts, siphoning money from the treasury, and tampering with elections. This type of high-level corruption has been a feature of governance in the archipelago even before there was such a thing as Indonesia., but it really took hold during the last part of the 20th century (see below).

On the other hand, everyday corruption affects the average Dewi and Joko on an almost daily basis. This takes the form of bribes (suap) and unofficial taxes and fees or pungli (short for pungutan liar). I call this structural corruption. Much of this type of corruption stems from the early days of Indonesia, when the future of the nation was all but certain. In an effort to gain support the government dramatically increased the number of people employed in the civil service. The ranks of the bureaucracy swelled faster than the ability of the government to pay, and so enterprising government officials began to pad their incomes by accepting bribes (2). Thus this type of corruption has to be understood as a type of payment for services, and although it is damaging to public trust and the overall health of the nation, it is at least partially rooted in exigency.


In an effort to combat the problem, the government established the Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantas Korupsi, KPK) as an independent body with enforcement and adjudication powers. The ambit of powers granted to the KPK is really astonishing; they pretty much exist outside the existing legal and political framework and can do just about anything they want. They can recruit officers from any branch of government, they can seize assets, and they can initiate electronic surveillance.

The KPK has experienced a 100% success rate in the cases it has taken to trial. Between 2004 and 2009, the KPK prosecuted a number of high-level government officials, including
  • 17 members of parliament
  • 5 ministers and other cabinet level officers
  • 5 provincial governors
  • 18 mayors and district heads
  • 3 ambassadors and 4 consul generals
Opinions are mixed as to the efficacy of the KPK. Many people think that the whole organization is window dressing and aims at middle level corruptors. These folks feel that corruption is such a large part of the political culture here that there is no way to address it. Part of this is due to the sheer scale of the problem. The KPK has limited staff and limited budget, but the complaints are limitless. The KPK also goes after very powerful people; one high-level police official investigated by the KPK likened the agency’s crusade to “a gecko fighting a crocodile” (1). Several plots including very high-level government officials aimed at undermining the credibility of the KPK have been uncovered, and president Susilo Bambang Yudhayono (SBY) has even claimed to have received anonymous messages on his personal cell phone demanding he end the crusade against corruption.

Most foreigners I meet are very pessimistic about corruption here. It’s easy to be gloomy about it when …. However, I have a different view. The rapacious corruption I alluded to earlier really blossomed during the 30-year “New Order” (Orde Baru) rule of strongman president Suharto. Between 1965 and 1998 Suharto used his position to channel money and contracts to his family and close friends, creating a nepotistic oligarchy that essentially controlled the nation’s economy. Because of the authoritarian character of the regime, most people were afraid to speak out, and those that did were quickly silenced or marginalized. Suharto resigned in 1998 amidst social unrest triggered by the Asian Financial Crisis. Now, little more than a decade after Suharto’s fall, it seems to me that people are starting to recover. People are free to speak their minds and civil society is growing rapidly. In my mind all this bodes well for the struggle against corruption here; not only are people waking up but a non-governmental institutional structure is developing. Thus I think it’s just a matter of time before people start challenging structural corruption, and once that process starts I believe it will rapidly gain momentum. All it takes is for one person to stand up in the government office and announce that they refuse to pay the bribe, and others will follow. People are tired of corruption here their willingness to passively accept it is ending.

And there are efforts to clean up government apart from the KPK as well. Solo and Jogja in Central Java are good examples. Jogja's squeaky-clean mayor Herry Zudianto has introduced one-stop shops for business permits the streamlines the process and eliminates opportunities for small-scale graft. Solo mayor Joko Widodo has followed this example and has further changed the relationship between bureaucrats and citizens; previously customers at government offices would meet with officials in private booths, which provides an easy environment for the taking of bribes. Now, though, clerks serve customers from open counters in full view, which literally improves transparency. When interviewed by the Economist, mayor Widodo said that the cost (with bribes) of getting an id card used to range between 25,000-100,000 rupiah ($3-$12); now it's 5,000 rupiah. But more remains to be done. Indonesia needs to increase salaries for civil servants so they aren't under pressure to pad their incomes. The recruiting process also needs to be reformed so that the best and brightest rather than those most willing and able to pay make the ranks.

(1) The police official was denigrating the KPK with this remark, but KPK supporters turned the slogan around, using the Indonesian word for gecko (cicak) as an acronym for "Love Indonesia, Love the KPK" (cinta Indonesia, cinta KPK).

(2) In addition to this, the poor economic policies of the Sukarno regime (Sukarno was president before Suharto) spurred a high rate of inflation while the national debt spiraled. Under these circumstances, the real wages of government employees were no where near the level required to meet household needs.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Afternoon With An Artist...

This weekend one of my friends and a rag-tag mob composed of folks from Singapore and Jakarta descended upon my temporary home here in Jogjakarta for a couple of days of culinary tourism, so I decided to tag along. A couple of the retinue desired to "buy some art", so we stopped by the studio/home of S Teddy D, a famous contemporary Indonesian artist. Teddy was one of the founding members of the Taring Padi group of artists, which formed in the late 1990s in Jogja. The Taring Padi artists are known for their politically-themed art and their commitment to use their art as a medium for social critique. The movement grew out of the social and political unrest that ultimately led to the downfall of longtime strongman president Suharto in 1998.

Teddy's new studio/house is called "Art Merdeka" (Freedom Art) and is located on the outskirts of Jogja. Next to the house is a workshop that Teddy has given to his friends as a refuge to work on art projects. His "Art Merdeka" company is a kind of coop that provides services to artists, including packing, metal casting, studio space, and assistance getting into local and international expositions. Teddy is a very welcoming person and is down-to-earth, friendly, and easy to talk to. His celebrity doesn't seem to have gone to his head, and he has an obvious commitment to take advantage of his success to assist his fellow artists. He seemed to be pretty proud of his new digs and jokingly told us "now I'm rich". After serving us some Acehnese coffee Teddy introduced us to his wife, Theresia Agustina, who is also an artist. He told his mission as an artist was to raise awareness about social issues, and while he started as a political artist his work over the past several years deals with environmental themes as well. Teddy also said that there's been a transformation in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto. Before the fall, people were afraid to talk about politics, and so there wasn't a great deal of political expression. "But now anyone can scream anything", he said. Thus Teddy is concerned with how people in smaller cities and towns can find a voice amidst the noise. One way is through "Forest Art Festivals", like the one held in Blora in 2005. Teddy and some fellow artists organized this 5-week multimedia exposition for local youth and invited performers from as far away as Australia, Italy, and the US. This festival was a kind of celebration of forest resources, which had suffered from neglect and exploitation over the past 30 years around Blora. The artists and other participants planted new trees to replace those that had been cut. Another art festival took place in Salatiga and celebrated the natural springs of the area. Teddy told us he was really interested in local stories about the springs because these contain a lot of knowledge about how to maintain and care for the springs as natural resources.

Teddy gave us all some books and showed us around the studio. The following excerpt, in typical artbook language, vaguely hints at something than might be, under certain specific circumstances, as something resembling a lucid description of the artist's work:

It is also important to underline Teddy's attitude when he does exploration in art. He does not want to be trapped within dichotomy between two-dimensional and three-dimensional works, or between fine art and applied art. According to him, in two-dimensional painting there are still many things and many imaginary spaces that can be explored; and in three-dimensional artwork there are also many technical challenges and opportunities that need to be responded. What is always important to be done, according to him, is never-ending experiment to keep questioning everything through his artworks, which often are absurd, weird, unreasonable, eccentric, fantastic, imaginative, and even very vulgar.

I've included some photographs to the right to give you an idea of some of his current projects. Teddy does painting, drawing, sculpture, and installations, and even has a musical group that does "sound performance". He's had solo expositions in Singapore, China and Hong Kong has participated in dozens of group shows throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

We also got a chance to see some of his wife's work, which was more in line with my taste. Theresa (Tere for short) works with a range of media as well, including sculpture, drawing, and video art. Stylized figures are a major feature of Tere's art, but the themes vary. In 2010 she had a show in Jakarta called "Happyartland" with figures designed to illustrate various aspects of life in Blora. The current work around the studio takes Noah's Ark as its theme and definitely has an environmental message. Tere has made some very detailed etchings of plant seeds with the idea that these seeds will be transported on a new ark to save traces of this world. She also has a series of stylized figures representing the next generation. To the left you can see a picture of the wooden ark that Tere designed and had built. The piece is about 3 feet long and 2 feet high and has working parts, including the rudder and the vents. In addition it can be closed or opened to reveal or conceal the cross section. The submarine ark is really cool and I had an overwhelming desire to play with it.

All in all I had a pretty good time hanging out with Teddy. He graciously invited me back to stay at his place, and I think he meant it.

You can see some more of Teddy's work here, here, and here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Capital On The Move?

A topic that emerges from time to time in Indonesia is the possibility of moving the capital from Jakarta to someplace in the hinterlands. The potential move cropped up in the news again late last year when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono endorsed the notion first forwarded by the Home Affairs Ministry. Although this debate has died down a little bit over the past few months, it’s certain to emerge again. Besides, it provides an opportunity to explore and apply a couple of interesting geographical concepts relating to city size and function.


The Rank-Size rule (Zipf’s law) is often used in geography classes to predict the size of cities in a country. Zipf's rule shows a general pattern of populations of cities according to rank. According to the rank-size rule, if you list the cities according to population you should notice that the second largest city has half the population of the largest, the third largest has a third the population of the largest, and so on. Thus according to the rank-size rule, if the largest city has 1 million people, the second should have around 500,000, the third 333,333, the forth 250,000, the fifth largest 200,000, etc (1). This rule is very useful in some situations because it matches up well with population data. But does it work for Indonesia? Well, let's take a look at the populations of Indonesia's 11 largest cities (2):

Jakarta 9,588,198
Surabaya 2,765,908
Bandung 2,393,633
Medan 2,109,330
Berkasi 1,993,478
Serang 1,786,000
Depok 1,751,696
Tangerang 1,537,244
Palembang 1,441,500
Semarang 1,438,733
Makassar 1,334,090
Source: Wikipedia

If we applied the rank-size rule to Indonesia and round Jakarta’s population to 10 million, then we would expect the population of Surabaya to be 5,000,000, and Bandung to be 3,333,333. But isn’t consistent with the figures. This is especially so since Berkasi, Depok, and Tagerang are all considered to be part of the Jakarta regional urban agglomeration. Thus we have to use a different model for explanation.

This is where the concept of the primate city comes in handy. A primate city is far larger than other cities in the nation and, the words of Mark Jefferson, who came up with the idea, “is always disproportionately large and exceptionally expressive of national capacity and feeling”. Another condition of the primate city is that it is more than twice as large as the next biggest city. Usually the primate city is also the capital city. Paris is the most commonly cited example (3). Several factors contribute to the disparity between the primate city and the second city. Since it is so big, the primate city acts as a magnate for both migration and investment. This means that new talent, new ideas, and new opportunities are constantly flowing into the city, creating a positive feedback loop. But there are negative aspects as well. The prosperity of the primate city comes at the expense of other cities. Moreover, primate cities are often characterized by a wide range of urban problems: traffic jams, floods, poor sanitation, crime, slums, to name just a few (4).

Moving the Capital

So why move the capital? And is it even possible? Let’s take each of these questions in turn starting with the second question first. It certainly is possible to move the capital. In the past several countries have moved their capital cities, including the United States. But more recently, Brazil, Pakistan, and several others have moved their administrative capitals to new locations. In some cases the move involves only some administrative functions, as is the case with Malaysia’s administrative city of Putra Jaya. Reasons for moving the capital city vary. In the case of the United States, Washington DC was planned and built as a special district in part to prevent bickering between the several states over which one would enjoy the prestige of hosting the national capital. In other cases the capital is moved to an isolated or peripheral region (Brasilia) to balance out development and population. These are sometimes called “forward capitals” because of the intention to move the area “forward” using the new capital city as a springboard.

A more nefarious explanation comes from one of my favorite geographers, James Scott. He writes in “Seeing Like A State” that the “gridded urban order” of the planned capital city is a form of state simplification envisioned to make controlling the population easier. Pretty sneaky, eh? According to Scott (and other geographers), states in general try to address problems by simplifying them. They do this by using statistics and measurements, and translating very complex social problems into a few key explanatory variables. Another geographer, Tanya Li, refers to this as “rendering technical”, whereas Arun Agrawal and some others call it “legibility”. Anyway, if you happen to be looking for a good read, check out the Scott reference in the references.

In Indonesia advocates of moving the capital city cite all of the reason I mentioned above (of course, no one has explicit said that a new, orderly capital will enable increased surveillance of the population). For example, in Jakarta the number of vehicles is increasing 10 to 15% per year, while roads are being built at a rate of .01% per year. There is also the risk of various types of disasters, including floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Lastly moving the capital would enable the government to start from scratch, thereby increasing both efficiency and prestige.

Proposed destinations range from Jonggol on the outskirts of Jakarta to places as far away as Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo and Jayapura in Papua. The big obstacle is the expense involved. Many experts argue that moving the capital will do nothing to ease the congestion and environmental problems, because Jakarta will remain the commercial center of the nation. Government officials have proposed moving the commercial center as well, but exactly how that will be accomplished is unclear. It's one thing to move government offices and personnel, it's a completely different task to shift the entire commercial and financial apparatus of a nation.

For now the debate seems to have cooled a little. But it's certain to come up again, especially since there is no relief in site for Jakarta.

(1) Let’s practice. Say you have a country, we’ll call it Keithopia, which adheres to the rank-size rule. If the capital city (Keithopolis) has 1,600,000 people, how many people will the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th largest cities have?

(2) These numbers are only for the city proper, not the entire metropolitan area.

(3) A starker example comes from Thailand, where the largest city (Bangkok), is far larger than the second city, Ratchasima. The population of Bangkok is “everyone in Thailand”, whereas Ratchasima has around 300,000 inhabitants.

(4) Can you use population data found on the internet or in another source to find additional examples of both primate city countries and countries that follow the rank-size rule? Next see if you can find out what major problems these primate cities face.


Jefferson, Mark. 1939. The Law of the Primate City. Geographical Review 29.

Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like A State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Cacophony of Commerce...

Following up on my last post on the informal economy in Indonesia, I decided to introduce my readers to some examples in a fun kinda way. For this post I biked around a couple of neighborhoods in Jogja looking for mobile street vendors selling various types of food from bicycles or pushcarts (pedagang kaki lima). Here in Indonesia food vendors circulate through neighborhoods selling their delicacies. They use sounds to attract customers and wake up sleeping foreigners. The sounds are associated with specific food products, so locals instantly know who's coming around the corner. I find this to be an interesting form of communication that really adds to the atmosphere of the kampung (neighborhood), especially when I'm not trying to sleep.

Your task is to match each of the following sounds with the pictures below. Don't scroll down too far, because I put the answers at the bottom of the post. I bought something from each of the vendors in exchange for them allowing me to photograph and record them, so this counts as a culinary adventure as well. They were all very entertained at the notion of some weirdo foreigner recording them.

I uploaded each of the sounds to youtube, so you should be able to listen to them using the embedded players below. I'm sorry about the bulkiness, but I couldn't get any of the html code mp3 players to actually work. The Blogger software makes it very difficult to include audio files in a post. If you know how to embed mp3 files with individual players please let me know. I spent a couple of hours trying, though, and I'm not exactly "gaptek", as the Indonesians say.

This first sound is the only one that is electronically generated. It's pretty gloomy, actually, but it never plays all the way through. I think the recording must be powered by a dynamo driven by the tires of the bicycle. Anyway, this tune sounds like it belongs in the cut scene of one of the original nintendo games where a princess is abducted by evil mushrooms or something like that.

The recording isn't a very good one because I recorded it on a busy street. But it's the sound of a woodblock, which is very distinctive and can be differentiated from the rest of the sounds pretty easily.

The third sound is made by tapping on a ceramic bowl and is instantly recognizable. I saw several pushcarts serving up this food in during my field trip, and they all used the same sound to attract customers.

The sound in the forth clip is made by tapping a metal pot lid with a fork or other utensil. This one also is clearly recognizable by people in the area.

The fifth sound is pretty obviously a gong. Very easy to differentiate from others.

Lastly we have a horn. You can hear this one from a long way off.

Now for the pictures. The first vendor featured below sells bakso, a delicious meatball and noodle stew I described in a previous post. He's found a steady clientele at Wisma Bahasa, so he stops by almost everyday. In the picture you can also see one of my former teachers, the lovely and talented Roro.

Next is the Swiss Roti (bread) vendor. He usually comes through my neighborhood twice daily; once at the crack of dawn and again as the sun is setting. There are several bread vendors that make the rounds.

The third picture is of a rujak vendor. Rujak is a snack of chopped mixed fruit served with a sweet peanut sauce. It's quite delicious, and healthy too.

In the next photo below we have a siomay vendor. Siomay is a popular street food that originates from Bandung in West Java. It's a type of fish dumpling served with peanut sauce, and is usually pretty good. The taste of this particular siomay bore a striking resemblance to dog food, however.

In the fifth picture we've got an ice cream salesman. There are also ice cream salesmen that subcontract with the larger suppliers, like Walls, and they have a music track all their own, but this is a do-it-yourself guy.

Last is the bak pao salesman. Bak pao is a steamed pasty that I assume is an adaptation of a Chinese dish. Here it's generally filled with chicken, green peas, or chocolate. I much prefer the chocolate ones.


Sound 1 Picture 2
Sound 2 Picture 4
Sound 3 Picture 1
Sound 4 Picture 3
Sound 5 Picture 6
Sound 6 Picture 5

Update July 2011:  Below is another video of a putu vendor provided by my friend and fellow geographile at UH, Wendy Miles.  Thanks much Wendy for the awesome video.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Indonesia's Informal Economy...

In the US we're used to heading to the mall, big-box store, or supermarket to do our shopping. However, commerce takes a different form here in Indonesia and other countries in the "developing" world. Although there are malls and supermarkets here, you're more likely to to business with a small-scale neighborhood enterprises, pushcart vendors, and a variety of service providers that carry their shops on their backs and bicycles. Most of these small businesses are part of the informal economy. The informal economy covers a wide range of economic activity that takes place beyond the reach of government regulations and tax collection (1). Informal employment is generally non-contractual and employment is often based on kinship and social relations. Although this off-the-books type of business has been around for a long time, the term "informal economy" was born from an International Labor Organization (ILO) report on Kenya in 1972. Since that time analysis of the informal sector has grown quite a bit, but the original characteristics are still valid:
  • ease of entry into the market place: there are few or no regulatory barriers in terms of permits and licenses that have to be obtained. Moreover, it doesn't require a lot of money to start up a business.
  • reliance on local resources, including labor and materials
  • family ownership
  • small-scale operations
  • labor intensive activities (2)
  • utilizes skills acquired outside the educational system
  • markets are unregulated and competitive
There are good and bad aspects to the informal economy. On the plus side, the informal economy absorbs people that can't find work in the formal sector, and thus cuts down on unemployment. This is really important in developing countries where rural-to-urban migration swells the population of cities; people moving to Jakarta from the countryside have the opportunity to work in the informal sector until they find their way in the city and land a "regular" job. It also enables people to independently identify and take advantage of opportunities, and in this way it helps develop the entrepreneurial skills of the population. Additionally, the informal sector provides a buffer in harder economic times. This was demonstrated here in Indonesia after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, when formal jobs declined dramatically. Many people moved over to the informal economy to make ends meet.

However, there are drawbacks as well. Among the largest of these is the inability of the government to collect income taxes from the tens of thousands of small businesses in the informal economy. This means less money to provide public services, such as health and education. Moreover, most informal sector enterprises are beyond the reach of government regulators, so the gado-gado you buy off the street, while cheaper, is not subject to the same health codes and standards that govern restaurants. People working in the informal sector are affected as well; they typically have little or no job security, and regulations governing safety in the workplace are frequently ignored. And most of the positive aspects of the informal sector are negated if the informal sector functions as a final destination for laborers and entrepreneurs, rather than as a temporary "holding tank" until they find opportunities in the formal sector.

You can see the percentages for formal and informal sectors around the world on the map below. I took this from a site called "Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis". It's the only map I could find without doing some scanning, so sorry about the superfluous notes.

It's traditionally been very difficult to get accurate statistics on the informal economy because of its under-the-table and off-the-record nature. However, it is generally accepted that more than 50% of the workforce in developing countries is employed in the informal sector. In some countries it can be as high as 90%. Compare this to 4-6% in wealthy countries and you have quite a contrast. Estimates for Indonesia are that 70% of the workforce is in the informal sector, with a higher proportion in the countryside compared to the cities (80% to 25%). There is also a gender component here; women are more likely to be engaged in informal employment than men (2:1), and they are also paid less. The large informal sector (and lack of information about it) makes it difficult to create policies to protect workers, provide services, and encourage economic development.

Recently I spent a day chatting with people employed in the informal sector around Jogjakarta. Though they all expressed the same concerns about healthcare, they seemed to appreciate the open nature of the informal economy. The tailor working at the stall in the picture to the right told me that in a day he and his partner make about 50,000 rupiah ($6 or so) which they split. He said he usually sleeps in the stall. He told me there are no regulations governing his business and that they don't pay taxes, so overhead is low. Also the machines they use are pedal-powered, so there is no electrical bill. He said that anyone could start up a business like this one. The drink vendor in the second picture to the right told me that he did a pretty good business because he has a regular clientele. He has two pushcarts; one he operates during the day in a business district, while at night he sells sweet drinks at the Alun-Alun, a large park area south in the Kraton where people congregate in the evening. He told me that it wasn't hard to start up a business, but he did have to be inspected periodically by the health department. He also told me that sometimes there can be fierce competition because so many people move to the city and start small businesses like his.

Household helpers (pembantu rumah) also form a significant part of informal employment here. However, they have different circumstances than the folks described above. In many cases the employer provides lodging and meals for the pembantu, but the pay is significantly lower. However, the employer also assumes some responsibility for the pembantu and has certain obligations, sometimes including providing education and money for the pembantu's family in case of emergency. And while can't state this as fact, it seems to me that there is an expectation that well-off people will employ household helpers, which provides jobs for a significant number of low-skilled people.

Anyway, that's a wrap for today.

(1) Some economists differentiate between the "informal sector" and "informal employment". The first term refers to businesses that are not formally registered with the government, whereas the second term refers to all the people that are employed on a "casual" basis. This includes people working for established companies without contracts and benefits.

(2) "Labor intensive" means that the production process relies more on human labor than machines.


Graph of supply and demand of labor from Food Policy Analysis, 1983 World Bank and Stanford University. Click on the graph and your computer should show it to you against a white background so you can examine it.