Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2008

The Jolly Roger Flies Again

PIRACY has a long history; though not, one concedes, an honorable one. And we don’t mean bootleg DVDs and CDs. We mean the real thing. It’s in the news at the moment because some enterprising chaps in Somalia who unsurprisingly find themselves bereft of other ways of earning a crust in the benighted bit of the Horn of Africa they have the misfortune to live in, have turned to stealing merchant ships in the hope of acquiring handsome ransoms. The biggest prize so far is a Saudi Arabian oil tanker, for whose safe and intact release they are asking a whole lot of dosh. Well, you’ve got to think big, especially in these dark days.

If piracy had been mentioned in that wonderful primer on English history, 1066 and All That – by the Diary’s reckoning it beats Simon Schama’s precious paraphrasing by, oh, say at least a Battle of Hastings or two – it might have made some apt if unkind reference to the Vikings and their Longships. Later, revised editions could have referred to the principal place in English overseas adventurism played by such gentlemen as Henry Morgan. He was that Welshman who was such a good privateer in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, stealing gold and silver from the Spanish on behalf of his money-chest and his monarch, in that order of precedence, that by the early 17th century he had become the Privateer’s Privateer. Knighted, he became governor of British Jamaica, rewarded – along with certain other lucky buccaneers – for sterling service to the crown. (Buccaneer has a culinary root, by the way, from boucan, the original beach barbecue favored by those on the run from navies and other buccaneers.)

Later on, piracy became such an issue in the Mediterranean, along the coast of North Africa where your pirate de jour was known as a Corsair, that the then newly minted U.S. Marine Corps, deployed in defense of proto-private enterprise in the area, built a reference to it into their favorite ditty for ramping up esprit de corps. That’s the one that records their predilection for shooting up everything from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. There is, incidentally, some historical justification for sheeting home the blame for the Corsairs on the North African coast to the robbery-with-violence practices of the self-same Vikings who earlier pillaged and pirated England. Still, we probably shouldn’t be too hard on them for starting that tradition. They came from Scandinavia and were probably just trying to escape those nasty winters.

Much closer to home, in our own climatically clement archipelago, a pirate is a bajak laut or perompak. Interestingly, and doubtless in pursuit of additional danger money, the luminaries of the Australian maritime unions have fingered Indonesian piracy as a threat to Aussie life and limb. Guys, try the Straits of Malacca or off the Philippines if you really want to work up a worry. That’s the regional focus of modern-day piracy on a scale that might rate more than a brief mention in the press, or for that matter net more than the on-board petty cash and a can or two of Bintang. And that’s precisely the area in which regional naval and military efforts of long standing have concentrated as a deterrent to robbery on the high seas.

There’s little doubt the nest of pirates on the ungovernable coast of Somalia pose a real threat to world maritime trade and none that they must be stopped. So far this year they have seized 95 ships. Merchant vessels using the Suez Canal must pass within slingshot of the area. That’s why the American, British, Russian and Indian navies, among others, are making an effort there to harass the Jolly Roger (the Skull & Crossbones) that again – even if only figuratively – flies from the masts of ships of evil intent.

Where Mythical Eagles Fly

WE HEAR that Garuda is going back to Brisbane, the third-largest Australian capital city. It dumped this sizeable Bali tourism catchment in 2005 (“after the second bombing” is its preferred corporate line), a decision that oddly coincided with the utterly foreseeable collapse of its let’s-not-pay-our-lease-installments scam and the consequent rushed disappearance of its Airbus aircraft. A return to Brisbane is certainly long overdue. The Queensland capital is a rich resource of potential Bali travellers. Garuda once had the route – and its extension to Auckland – all to itself but will now be competing with Qantas low-cost offshoot Jetstar and Richard Branson’s flighty little Aussie Virgin spinoff Pacific Blue.

Vote for Me, Honey!

YES, we all know about the global economic crisis. Isn’t it a bore? All those silly numbers and even more silly people, it seems. Chaps called Hank and Ben, for starters, not to mention Alan, from the wings, who had shuffled offstage before the tempest hit; then all those Gordon Geckos in the derivatives (derisory, more likely) industry; and finally all those politicians across the globe who apparently couldn’t even spot a speeding debt train, far less wake up to the fact that it was running them over. Still, it remains much more interesting to concern oneself with politics, where the golden rule is all care but no responsibility (if things go wrong). The receivers are never sent in if a bunch of political whackos messes up.

That’s where democracy comes in. We like to think – as a species, that is – that politics, government and all that really complicated stuff is a human invention. Some critics might even suggest that this is why it never seems to work very well. But actually, bees do democracy best. They even vote. Now there’s a thought! They don’t bother with anything as trivial as electing a new president, or about the colour of their ruler’s stripes. They sure as hell don’t set up websites with catchy little populist names like www.BeePM. In the beehive there is no unnecessary argument about popular succession, no expensive lobbying, or (oh joy!) financial fuss.

Actually, all they do is dance. How cool is that for a political party? And when election season comes, the question they vote on is simply this: where on earth to site a new nest? And even then they keep it simple. Those bees are not stupid. They don’t buzz too loudly (far too noisy). They don’t scribble on bits of paper (even though a sister species invented the world’s first paper – see, it wasn’t the Chinese after all, or even the Egyptians – because that’s wasteful of scarce wood resources). According to science (the bit of it that’s not off frying its brains over global warming) the system of range-voting used by bees is probably the most effective decision-making process ever devised. Finding the right location for a new colony is crucial. And it’s a lot more practical than humankind wondering if it can find a new planet to destroy when this one’s done for in several billion years or so. It concerns essentials like protection and resources: Too exposed a site and their nest becomes easy prey for predat
ors such as birds. Too far from good sources of food and the colony will starve.

The Diary is indebted to that fine English journal The Spectator, for reminding its readers in a recent edition that bees really do approve of the KISS principle. As in Keep It Simple Stupid. When election time comes around at their hive, about 5 percent of them scout out the best new locations, return to the nest and divulge the coordinates of their prospective sites to the rest of their community in an elaborate jig. The other bees buzz off to take a look, coming back to dance with the bee they think has chosen the best site. And after only about two weeks (short campaigns are so much better) the bee with the most dancers wins, whereupon the colony relocates. Apparently they make the best possible decision about 90 percent of the time. Democracy is a simple, highly efficient, prehistoric, decision-making process established in the insect kingdom more than 60 million years ago. It’s just that most modern humans aren’t close enough to nature to learn how best to do it.

Meanwhile, Back at Our Hive

WE’VE just got through the agonizingly slow business of the U.S. presidential selection process. And as is generally the case – leaving aside George W. Bush-era curiosities like Florida and hanging chads – the Americans have elected to boogie for the next four years with the candidate who best got them groovin’. But the party isn’t over. Here at home we have the presidential and legislative elections next year. By that time the whole of Bali – and most likely the rest of Indonesia – will be blotted out by the colorful banners of the rival political parties, at the rate they’re going up now. And long before then we will all be buried under the wholly notional results of pre-poll opinion polling, that inexact science that employs battalions of pollsters with really complicated minds and deploys them with volumes of very simple questions.

Pre-poll polling released by pollsters Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) on Nov. 20 holds few surprises. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Partai Demokrat was leading the field on 16.8 percent – sampling was conducted in late October-early November – with Golkar (the party of Vice President Jusuf Kalla) a shade behind on 15.9 percent and Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP third on 14.2 percent. At this stage, then, the three major parties are wrapping up nearly half the vote.

It’s early days, of course, but there would be comfort for the incumbents in two key facts: first, that PD and Golkar between them have nearly a third of prospective votes; and second, the general rule in democratic systems that those in office – provided they are not grossly incompetent or total tossers – are best kept at their desks during times of crisis.

It’s Core Issues, Not Core Values

IN TIMES of plenty, when discretionary spending currency units are around by the shovelful, many people like to play with fun ideas, like saving whales or worrying about when their coal exports are going to end up frying them. In times of trouble, such social core values go to the wall. Some might see this as selfishness. We’re talking people like Greenpeace and those kooks from PETA, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. Oddly however – and doubtless this is galling for activists who unlike Australia’s environment minister, former musical conscience Peter Garrett, didn’t win a seat on the gravy train for just the price of a principle – when times get tough, people tend to get personally focused.

So it is no surprise to see that the Morgan poll in Australia – favorite poll of Gary Morgan and, probably, some other political tragics – shows economic issues are seen by 37 percent of people as the single most important problem facing the world today, well ahead of the environment at 26 percent and “social issues” – however defined – languishing on 9 percent. The former bête noir, “terrorism and security issues” – not without coincidence a primary focus of the former Howard government’s determination to concentrate the voters’ minds on unspecified, unquantifiable and frankly rather fanciful risks to the Land of the Fleece and the Home of the Sav – also rated only 9 percent. The Aussies have come a long way from the heady days of the government-issue fridge magnet (“be alert, not alarmed”) and opportunities to get even with pesky neighbors by calling the hotline to report they overheard them planning a terrorist act.

We’ve Just Got to Mooove It

THE morning walk is great exercise. It’s something many people try to do, in the relative cool of the just-after-dawn gloaming. One long-term Bali-resident couple – they’re avid readers of The Diary, of course – makes this a regular practice and, over many months, has made many friends of the wave-as-we-go-by kind in their quiet area of the Bukit.

As everywhere in Bali, if you go anywhere on foot, you see some fabulous sights. That’s not counting the morning ablutions at a neighboring building site, often the cause of much embarrassed giggling and running for cover on the part of those caught sans culottes. Just keep your eye fixed on the road in front of you – that’s always a sound idea anyway, for other reasons – and you’ll be right.

But recently, trekking slowly along a rare flat section of their morning aerobics route, they came across something that, at least from their point of view, significantly caps the whole experience so far. At the side of the road, trying to get a feed among all the plastic bags discarded by passing locals – don’t you hate that – was a little brown cow they often see there. You’ll know the sort. About as big as a Great Dane, but if the Hound of the Baskervilles happened along it would be well in the shade. Or off at a fair clip to hide in the trees, which might be a more sensible response.

This day, however, they didn’t just get to chat with their little bovine friend. Its owner – well, they assume that it was its owner – appeared with an offer he evidently thought would be too good for random, perambulatory bules to pass up. Would they like to buy his cow? Apparently, he just had to move it, in return for an unspecified consideration in rupiah. Sadly for this entrepreneurial gentleman, acquiring a cow was not on the passing strollers’ agenda.

Welcome Back

CYNTHIA Banham, The Sydney Morning Herald journalist badly injured in the Yogyakarta air crash in March 2007, is back at her desk as diplomatic editor for the newspaper. Her many friends and acquaintances – The Diary among them – say a hearty welcome back.

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