12 August 2011

And now, an Indonesian overview of recent international events

Karim Raslan is one of our favorite columnists in the Jakarta Globe.


Rascals Abound

Karim Raslan | August 11, 2011
Ceritalah: Tell me a story

Most journalists — including this tukang cerita , or storyteller — are a little mischievous. We can’t help it. All too often we find the rich and powerful flaunting their wealth and power in our faces. Of course, we’re just observers, cordoned away. Indeed, our only leverage is in the news and how we choose to present it.

At certain times of the year — such as the first week of the fasting month — we look forward to a brief respite from the grind of reporting and analysis. However, this past week has been one of the busiest and most disconcerting on record as the news has run far ahead of our ability to manage or at times even comprehend it.

So instead of being the players we’ve become the “played” — passive onlookers as riots roil London, Nazaruddin the fugitive politician is detained in Cartagena, Colombia, and bourses the world over melt down.

Let’s start with London. A man (suspected of dealing drugs) was shot dead by the police. In the ensuing anger, violence erupted in the poor, working-class suburb of Tottenham. Shops were looted and cars burned. Within hours, copy-cat riots flared up across the city and then later the entire country, coordinated by smartphone users and Twitter.

As I watched the news footage of torched and looted shops and buildings, I was taken aback by the ferocity, cold-bloodedness and swiftness with which it was all happening. Once-peaceful cities succumbed to street gangs and hoodlums, seemingly in an instant.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that this may be a harbinger of what’s to come, as communities — even in highly developed countries — without work or hope descend into lawlessness and rage. I had to stop and remind myself that this was not Bogota, Athens or Moscow we’re talking about here. This was London — once the financial hub of the world, where Russian plutocrats and Indian steel tycoons rub shoulders with football stars and investment bankers.

Then there’s the latest global financial meltdown. Billions of US dollars were wiped off stockmarket capitalizations from Sao Paulo to New York, Hong Kong and Frankfurt in the wake of the downgrading of the US government’s credit rating by Standard & Poor’s from AAA to AA+.

Following weeks of childish posturing in Washington, the US gridlock momentarily abated via a half-baked compromise to rescue the country from default.

Somehow, the brazen irresponsibility of the Washington elite didn’t feel that far removed from the gangs roaming the streets of Britain. What’s the difference between boys wearing hoodies and congressmen in suits who’d willingly risk plunging their own country into default?

Nonetheless, at least a deal was hammered out, and pledges were made to reduce expenditure growth by as much as $2.4 trillion over ten years. The debt ceiling mess raises serious questions about democracy’s ability to manage crises.

As I watched markets tumbling, I paused again to think: is this merely the prelude to a much-feared double-dip recession? Are we walking blindly into a rerun of the 1930s?

Of course, it’s still the “best of times” for Indonesia. The streets are crammed with cars and people, so much so that local tycoons have proclaimed that the republic is undergoing a decoupling as politics has a declining impact on business. As a friend said: “It doesn’t matter who’s running the country just as long as they’re pro-business!”

Which leads me to Nazaruddin’s surprise arrest. Will the fugitive ex-Democratic treasurer sing like a canary and reveal all? How much of what he’s been saying is actually true? Who’s guilty of taking bribes and who’s innocent?

Jakarta’s chattering classes have been so agog at the young politico’s extraordinary pronouncements that I’m beginning to feel that the case could well bring the political and commercial worlds back into alignment with a bang. Will there be a slew of shocking revelations?

Will we start looking on once-revered icons with a little more scepticism — or even loathing? Will this scandal leave the Democratic Party strengthened or weakened? As President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s approval ratings slide, will Nazaruddin’s arrest stop the decline or hasten it?

A quiet week was all I wanted and now I’m swamped. Time for a break, if only my BlackBerry would stop winking at me. But there’s no rest for the connected. I’m a tukang cerita and it’s time to jalan-jalan the streets in order to find more stories.  

Karim Raslan is a writer who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

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