November 14-20, 2008

Time to Reset Our Moral Compass

WELL, it’s done. The three convicted 2002 Bali bombers have been executed. Indonesia has exacted the penalty prescribed by its law for their revolting act of terrorism: the indiscriminate mass-murder of 202 people. This has finally brought to an end the contemptible and raving renditions of hate from these three killers that were, for reasons unclear and certainly unexplained by the authorities, permitted to continue, and to be disseminated, virtually to the end.

It is time, then, to say this: The death penalty is wrong. It denies our most precious attribute, our humanity. It is not punishment; it does not deter; and it certainly is not correctional. It is vengeance. Judicial murder – for that is what it is – cannot morally or ethically be the answer to anything. Cold-blooded execution is a situation far removed from and completely different to, say, shooting dead a murderous offender to foreclose on or forestall his offence. One is reminded of the author George Orwell’s apt summation of capital punishment – drawn from the days when he was Eric Arthur Blair, British colonial policeman, in Burma – in his comment on the moral dilemma caused by sharing with a condemned man an instinctive step around a puddle on the path to the gallows and the fact of his planned, scheduled and minutely organized violent death at human hands only minutes later.

These are not things that the lunatic Imam Samudra, Mukhlas or Amrozi – or even their chief cheerleader, terrorist incentivizer and Muslim cleric Abu Bakir Bashir, co-founder of Jemaah Islamiyah – would necessarily comprehend. Perhaps they did not know that what they did flies in the face of the great moral strength and zest for learning historically found in Islam, or that it defames the heritage of the great caliphate they say they seek to restore.

We do not know either, thank God, whether the Bali bombers found puddles they instinctively stepped around on their final walk. The truly moral, if they are also believers in a supreme being, will say a prayer for the souls of the departed bombers; and if unbelievers, will pause for quiet reflection. What Imam Samudra, Mukhlas and Amrozi did was heinous, but nonetheless they were men. It is strange that there is more charity in the hearts of some of the bereaved than in those of others not so closely involved in the frightful tragedy of indiscriminate terrorism. We all might usefully reflect on the words of John Donne, the 16th century English Jacobean poet, mystic and Christian cleric, who wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Yet morality is a universal principle (the many who claim to be that ultimate oxymoron, a moral relativist, would disagree, but they are a leading cause of many of today’s world’s moral problems). By definition, the fundamentalist cliques in any religion deny universalism. Sadly, no more so is this the case than in politicized Islam, which at its most fevered outer edges has made a religious rite of terrorism and regards as collateral damage only Muslims (and then of the right stripe) who are unlucky enough to get in the way. All the others are infidels, worthless, expendable, legitimate targets: surely the greatest denial of humanity one could find.

Unfortunately, the soap opera the authorities made of their incarceration and ultimate executions was tailor-made for exploitation by sensationalized media reporting, primarily in Australia. A demonstration against the executions (before the event) that drew 100 protestors in Jakarta was shamelessly portrayed up as a major incident – in a city so large that more than that number customarily stop to gawk at a traffic bingle. The communal grief naturally seen in Indonesian village society – demonstrated at the funerals of the bombers, albeit with the vocal assistance of imported hotheads – is another opportunity to the ill-informed to promote the “mass protests” line that sells newspapers or draws people to watch TV. This sort of reporting draws an inaccurate picture for people far away and unversed in local realities. What is essential is that events are understood, in context, for what they are – and for what they actually represent. A lot of moral compasses need to be reset at this time.

A Hearty Red, Not a Low-Pitched Whine

INTERESTING to see the article by Laurane Marchive in last week’s paper, headlined Many Whine for Want of Wine. It’s so true! It’s true too that, though many Indonesians now quaff the product of the grape, it is not a mass-market commodity. Primarily, as Marchive writes, it is drunk by expats. Oh, and tourists, whom Indonesia is apparently interested in attracting to visit.

The ins and outs of why wine supply – like supply of many products in Indonesia – mostly qualifies for a “Nice Try. Fail” are beyond the scope of The Diary to examine, far less explain. Suffice to say that if the government organization Sarinah has a monopoly on the handling of alcohol in Indonesia (that is to say, the legal handling of alcohol), it is small wonder that it rates a consistent “F.” There’s more to setting rules and tax levels than endlessly debating them and then writing into regulations. They need to be applied consistently, fairly, openly and free of the customary under-the-table dealing that is so much a feature of Indonesian business-government relationships. A supply system also needs to be in place that will fill orders as and when they are placed. Damn it, that devil is in the detail again!

A Fillip in Tourism Figures

A RISE of nearly 13 percent in tourist arrivals in Indonesia in the January to August period is great news, especially for Bali (and apparently Jakarta, which recorded a rise of nearly 30 percent). The figures were reported by the National Statistics Bureau and show that nationally, up to August, a total of 4,069,474 international tourists dropped by to say hello.

Bali – of course; need you ask? – got the biggest share at 1,353,683 arrivals, up 20.15 percent. Wonder what percentage of these people would have liked to drink wine on their visit? Just asking. Interestingly, Singapore (15.69 percent) and Malaysia (10.85 percent) were the top sources of incoming tourists, followed by Japan with 8.28 percent. Australia was fourth with 5.99 percent, followed by Korea (4.67 percent), China (4.52 percent) and Taiwan (3.45 percent).

This is of course Visit Indonesia Year on the international tourism calendar. Our target (oops!) was 7 million. They’re saying the full-year total on figures so far should be 6.5 million. We hear Tourism Minister Jero Wacik is unfazed by this apparent shortfall. He’s busy putting the hard word on Japan, Russia and other countries to find the missing half million visitors quick-time.

Don’t You Just Hate That!

THE happy chappies at the Oxford Dictionary – custodians of English as it should be written and spoken, surely the most thankless of tasks these days – have come up with a new Top 10 list. That’s the list of the 10 most irritating phrases. The Diary is glad to see that heading the list is “at the end of the day,” a phrase made doubly annoying by its ubiquitous use by motor-mouth politicians who can never stop talking until their little clock winds down. In second place is “fairly unique,” which is not only annoying but also ignorant, since something is either unique or it’s not.

Third place on the dishonor roll went to “I personally,” a tautological statement which, The Diary is pleased to record, BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphreys describes as “the linguistic equivalent of having chips with rice.” Quite right. It’s either kentang goreng or nasi. And there’s no prize for guessing what your Indonesian dinner companion will choose. Also making the list is “shouldn’t of,” used by the ignorant in place of “shouldn’t have.” Others are: “At this moment in time”; “With all due respect”; “Absolutely”; “It’s a nightmare”; “24/7”; and “It’s not rocket science.”

They appear, along with many others, in a book called Damp Squid, named after the mistake of confusing a squid with a squib, a type of firework. Sounds like a good Christmas present for the linguistically challenged.

Time for a Tearjerker

AMERICANS love a pageant. They go all gooey. Come January 20 next year, when Barack Hussein Obama takes the oath of office as America’s 44th president, they’ll have an opportunity to get even more lachrymose than ever. The inauguration – that quadrennial festival held in wintry Washington at which the citizens crown their uncrowned king, and the few who want to brave the risk of contracting pneumonia can actually get along to see the show – falls in the year that marks the bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

The 2009 Inauguration will be themed around “A New Birth of Freedom,” tying together one president from Illinois who freed the slaves and another who broke the ultimate racial barrier in American politics.

It Should All Be Plain Sailing

AFTER this year’s Sail Indonesia snafu (a lovely acronym, the polite version of which reads “Situation Normal All Fouled Up), it’s good to hear that those responsible may be looking at organizing things a little better next time. Sail Indonesia 2008 was remarkable not only for the fabulous scenery and amazing cultures viewable en route from Darwin to Belitung, but also for the fact that 105 of the 121 participating private yachts were threatened with seizure by customs demanding duty bonds of between 5-10 percent of the yacht’s value.

Organizers want the government to back the establishment of a national committee to coordinate the event. This coordination may avoid a repeat of the significantly depressing public relations outcome in 2008. Perhaps the coordinators can help advise customs that the yachts taking part spend only three months in Indonesian waters and thus are not liable to pay duty.

The visiting yachties spend a lot of money in Indonesia on their odyssey, in all sorts of out-of-the-way places that otherwise wouldn’t see the income. They should be able to feel confident that they will avoid the “front with the dough now or we’ll lock you up” predilections of officials in faraway places.

We hear 230 yachts are registered to take part in the 2009 float-by.

They’re Putting the Bite on Again

FIRST they won’t let you have a drink with your dinner. Then they tell you that you can’t have dinner either. The National Food and Drug Monitoring Agency – its Indonesian acronym is BPOM, which, Limerick-style, goes nicely with “it’s gone” – has introduced complicated requirements for the certification and registration of imported products. They say this is motivated by a desire to protect local manufacturers (does anyone produce sultanas in Indonesia?), safeguard the health of Indonesian consumers and (of course) increase tax revenues.

BPOM is said to be refusing to accept testing and certification from the product’s country of origin – don’t touch that foie gras; it may be liver! – and to be insisting that all imported products get a detailed Indonesian-based evaluation. The Diary, along with most sensible and price-conscious consumers, prefers to buy local product when available, and to taste. But at the same time – and for the same reason that the authorities should get their heads around the principle that French wines come from France, Australian wines from Australia, Jack Daniel’s from Tennessee, and so on – there are some food products that are necessarily absent from the Indonesian domestic inventory.

It’s sensible to insist – as BPOM apparently is – that food labels and ingredients be listed in Bahasa Indonesia. It’s even sensible to have a regulatory regime in place to do all the things the BPOM says it wants to do. But there’s a catch. If you’re going to have a regulatory regime in place, you need to work out first what the rules are going to be, and have the means of conducting the required tests.

Unless of course their real aim is to have a lot of empty warehouses around the place. That might be their policy. Or it might be a secret foreign-exchange saving scheme. Perhaps they thought that no one would notice the sudden, unexplained erection of yet another impenetrable trade barrier.

Tell it like it is, Phil

IT’S interesting to see that Britain’s chief wag, Prince Philip, has again got up the noses of a lot of people who can’t understand wry wit, or appreciate the comedic fact that the 87-year-old gent, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has a lifelong habit of opening his mouth and putting his foot in it.

So he’s a silly old duffer? So what? At least he’s a one-man Comedy Central who doesn’t need the essential prop of four-letter words most of today’s “wits” can’t do without, to get his audience giggling. His offence this time was to tell his hosts in Slovenia – like much of Europe’s new patchwork of mini-states, it was once part of the late and lamentable Yugoslavia – that tourism was prostitution. Well, the sex trade does well anywhere, but that’s not what HRH meant. He meant it ruined countries by bringing in lots of unwashed, vacant-minded voyeurs who got underfoot.

He’s wrong, of course. But that’s never stopped him before. The Diary remembers an incident from long ago when Prince Phil arrived in the bleak, windswept and ubiquitously rainy Scottish islands on yet another of the interminable meet-and-greets that are inflicted on the royals as part of their job description, to be met by yet another obsequious local official with a banal inquiry.

It went like this: Pipsqueak: “How was your flight, Your Highness?” HRH: “Have you ever been on a plane?” Pipsqueak: “Oh yes, Your Highness, many times.” HRH: “Well, it was just like that.”

Be Quiet Down There at the Back

FORGET about the pox. Dottiness was always the real English disease. And even though Old England is no longer a place you can pretend has any connection with a recognizable past or even, officially, a sense of humor, apparently dottiness persists as an endemic ailment among the busybodies who nowadays are paid to regulate everyone’s lives for them.

So it is that we learn a local council in London has told a group of chatty old age pensioners – including a 96-year-old and her friend who worked in the health service for 40 years – to shut it: they’re making far too much noise over their communal afternoon cuppas. If they don’t keep the noise down, they’ve been told, the four benches they sit on to have a natter will be removed. Apparently their chirruping disturbs local residents. Perhaps it drowns out all that (c)rap coming from those ghetto-blasters.

Said one of the potential evictees: “When I told my doctor that we might be having our benches taken away, he asked me if I had been drinking. We don’t drink and sit on walls, throwing cans of lager around the place. We don’t sing in the middle of the night. It’s unbelievable.”

One suspects the complainants might drink and sit on walls, throwing cans of lager around the place – and sing (out of tune and something truly banal) in the middle of the night.

Hector blogs at

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