I flew back to Indonesia on Singapore Airlines, middle seat, economy. The journey took over 30 hours as I had to briefly overnight in Singapore (in by 2 am; out by 6 am). Singapore Airlines must have the most comfortable seats on an international flight since I was able to fall asleep despite being shoehorned by a 6 foot five engineer from Texas on one side and a young sleeping Japanese man on the other. As the latter slept, he leaned over to my shoulder and a thick shock of black hair went into my face. Woken abruptly, I reeled. For a second, I thought his black hair was a huge tarantula coming at me!
The excitement on the plane was provided by an East Indian woman who passed out in the aisle. The Air Singapore stewards brought out the oxygen and called repeatedly for a doctor. After ten minutes, one appeared – a Chinese-looking man in a yellow polo shirt. (Obviously he had not paid attention to the fashion advice that people with his skin tones should not wear yellow! Since I have the same skin tones myself, I know. I avoid yellow like the plague.) I anxiously tried to see what was happening but she was in the aisle just on the other side of me and I couldn’t get high enough (without conspicuously standing on my seat) to see. The stewards were very busy. One took off his jacket as though he really meant business. There must have been half a dozen airline staff leaning over her. The doctor soon left and after about an hour, she finally got up and returned to sit in her seat. I heard buzzing about low blood pressure. She was a Tamil woman in a sari who seemed all right for the rest of the journey. She looked younger than me. When you reach my age and younger people pass out on planes, you start to worry that it could easily happen to you. However, I was impressed by the competence of the Singapore Airlines staff.
Eventually I arrived in Jakarta and went straight to our small spartan OFI office where I promptly went to sleep. Upon waking, I read the Indonesian daily newspapers to catch up on the news. What is in the news and what the media emphasize says much about the culture of a nation and its people. So I try to peruse the newspapers wherever I am. What is fascinating is that much of what is of great interest and concern in Indonesia is totally unknown in North America.
The largest number of letters to the editor in the Jakarta newspapers did not deal with the on-going presidential election, corruption trials of prominent politicians, or economic issues. Rather pages were filled with indignant rants about the fact that the current Miss Indonesia allegedly does not speak Indonesian. Her brother, the Indonesian actor Yusuf Iman, defended his sister by saying she was home-schooled in English and didn’t go out very much so she can’t practice her Indonesian.
Her selection was probably influenced by the fact that last year’s Miss Indonesia spoke English so badly she called Indonesia “a city.”
As far as I am concerned, I don’t think any beauty queen is chosen primarily for her intellectural or linguistic achievements so the flap about the current Miss Indonesia is really irrelevant. In any case, she promised to brush up on her Indonesian language skills for the Miss World contest. She probably speaks some Indonesian (being Indonesian!) but froze at the beauty contest when asked questions.
Other news that filled the newspapers was the case of an ordinary housewife who had expressed a complaint via e-mail to her friends about the treatment she had received at a local hospital. She was arrested for defamation. It was claimed that she had tarnished the reputation of the hospital and one doctor who had treated her. She was kept in jail for three weeks, unable to receive visitors, and cut from contact with her two infant children, one of whom she was still breast-feeding.
Prita’s nightmare came to an end after presidential candidate and former president, Mrs. Megawati, visited Prita in jail and an outpouring of outrage from the public forced the government to release her. However, the charges against her were not cancelled. She will still have to go to court and defend herself, despite the fact that the e-mails she sent were private missives to her friends.
In Indonesia the freedom to express an opinion is guaranteed under the constitution. People are very concerned that this case will gag public opinion and people will now be afraid to send private e-mails criticizing anything to their friends. Welcome to Indonesia – and the rest of the world – where what you say, even in a private e-mail, may have repurcussions once it hits the internet and is recycled for public distribution.
Malaysia-bashing was also prominent in the newspapers. Malaysia is a neighbor that shares the northern third of Borneo with Indonesia and extends into continental Asia north of Singapore. What is interesting is that there is currently relatively little Singapore bashing in Indonesia.
The front pages of newspapers were filled with a photo of an Indonesian maid in a Jakarta hospital. The maid was allegedly tortured by her Malaysian employer before being rescued. The maid was photographed receiving a sympathy phone call from the president of Indonesia himself.
Many Indonesians were also upset by the incursion of the Malaysian Navy into Indonesian territorial waters off Ambalat, somewhere near East Borneo. Members of the Betawi Brotherhood Forum and other Moslem youth groups demonstrated in the hundreds in front of the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta and declared that they were ready to wage war against Malaysia. Letters to the editor suggested that Indonesia would win such a war because Indonesia had more war experience than Malaysia, despite the fact that the Malaysian army is better equipped.
However, some in Indonesia were not convinced because the Indonesian military has been hit by numerous disasters, despite the fact that they currently are not fighting a war. In the last three months over a hundred personnel have died when two military planes and two helicopters crashed. As usual, these accidents sparked heated debates about the reasons for their occurence. The army blamed bad weather. Others blamed lack of funds for maintenance. Letters to the editor asked how could Indonesia fight a war if military aircraft keep crashing and weapons and equipment are outdated. In reality, it is highly unlikely that any war will be fought between Indonesia and Malaysia, neighbors who share much in common and fellow members of ASEAN (Association of East Asian Nations), the most important grouping in the region.
Possibly the best Malaysian scandal that tittilated the Indonesian public and upstaged the Ambalat row with Malaysia involved a 17 year old Indonesian model who claimed that during her one year marriage to a member of Malaysian royalty, the prince of Kelantan state, she was slashed with razor blades, injected with strange substances, burned with a cigar, and locked in closets. The model escaped from the prince but was abducted after a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. While her mother went public with her daughter’s story, Manohara herself escaped from her husband in Singapore. Represented by Indonesian celebrity lawyer Hotman Paris(no, I am not making this up!) who is known for his flashy Italian sportscars, the teen model sued the prince in an Indonesian court while he counter-sued in a Malaysian court.
Manohara’s story is slightly reminiscent of the Lady Diana – Prince Charles saga where an innocent young girl doesn’t really understand what she’s getting into when she marries into royalty (Obviously, the details are very different; it is probably preposterous to think of Prince Charles with a burning cigar locking people up in closets!). Manohora was tricked into marriage. The Prince of Kelatan invited the sixteen year old Manohara to dinner where she was told his family had already sent out the wedding invitations. In typical Indonesian graciousness, she did not want to embarrass his family so she married him. She had seen him before since she was fourteen but always with a group of friends.
The prince apparently was alternatively abusive and “extremely sweet and gentlemanly,” a pattern typical of many abusive spouses. Most of the time, apart from the abusive interludes, Manohara and the prince allegedly “only met up for dinner”during their marriage. Manohara is very pretty with plump cheeks and a sweet look that is a vision of childlike innocence. She speaks about setting up the equivalent of “Boys and Girls Clubs” in Jakarta where children have a place to go to after school. Manohara and the abused Indonesian maid represent, in some way, Indonesia’s frustration that the fourth largest country in the world in terms of population is not given the respect that many feel it deserves.
Manohara showed some class. She cited someone who had once said “Forgiving is freeing yourself” about her attitude to her husband even after the horrific abuse she allegedly suffered.
Let us hope we can all show the same type of class after terrible things are done us.