Indonesian President Joko Widodo being interviewed by Fairfax journalists Jewel Topsfield and Peter Hartcher at the presidential palace in Jakarta.Photo: Jefri TariganJakarta: I can’t pinpoint the moment I fell in love with Indonesia.
A friend knows exactly. He tells this wonderful anecdote about a security guard at a Jakarta museum asking if he wanted to come inside and lie down to escape the heat.
The next day he quit his job in Singapore and moved here. “There is no way you could even sit on the museum steps in Singapore,” he told me.
I know what he means. Indonesia is everything Singapore is not: dysfunctional, chaotic and polluted. Jakarta, with its gridlocked traffic, is the megalopolis that expats love to hate.
And yet I have never felt more alive. The clogged streets with their treacherous footpaths might be hard to navigate but they pulse with energy. I love the wit of Indonesians on social media. I love the steamy nights, waking to the call to prayer and the drama of torrential downpours.
Anything seems possible here even when so much is bloody difficult. I was recently trapped in floods in Jakarta. The eight-kilometre commute from my office took three hours. As the water lapped against the side of the taxi, the driver got the giggles. It struck me, not for the first time, that no driver in would ever have the sanguinity to laugh about this level of madness.
I watched a fleet of green-helmeted Go-Jek motorcycle taxi drivers pick their way through the waves. Go-Jek was Indonesia’s first unicorn (a start-up with a value of over $1 billion). It’s the ultimate example of a company making lemonade out of lemons. Go-Jeks do not just ferry passengers around the congested streets, squeezing through spaces cars could only dream about, they also save you from ever having to leave the house. I have Go-Jeked (it’s a verb here) someone to wax my legs, cut my hair, deliver cranberry juice and drop off a pram I bought online. It arrived exactly 56 minutes later.
Indonesia is a country of extraordinary stories. The warmth, openness and generosity so many people have shown me has been incredible. My favourite word in Indonesian is boleh (you may). I heard it so many times – you may interview me, you may come in, you may visit.
And yet Indonesia is dogged by problems that can seem insurmountable. Barely a day goes past without a corruption scandal hitting the headlines. Last November 18 officials were suspected of graft relating to the Monument of Integrity erected in Pekanbaru, a city in Sumatra, to mark International Anti-Corruption Day. It was not satire. “Peak Indonesia,” someone tweeted.
There are concerns about rising Islamic conservatism and religious intolerance, with the former Chinese-Indonesian Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – known as Ahok – jailed for blasphemy last year and an unprecedented crackdown on the nation’s LGBT community.
But there are also unsung heroes everywhere.
The Sumatran school doing its bit to tackle the national rubbish crisis by allowing parents to pay fees with recycled rubbish, the Muslims who provide security outside churches at Christmas, the women of Rembang who planted their feet in blocks of concrete outside the presidential palace to protest against the environmental damage caused by a cement factory, the Acehnese fishing communities who welcomed Rohingya refugees when the rest of the world turned its back.
Struggling to articulate Indonesia’s contradictions, I find myself craving my favourite comfort food, martabak manis, a sweet pancake stuffed with chocolate and grated cheddar cheese. It’s a much loved food combination here I once thought disgusting. Now I snap: “How is chocolate and cheese any different to caramel and sea salt?”
But unlike my friend’s instant crush on Indonesia, my relationship with the country was a complicated slow-burner.
Jewel Topsfield interviewed Indonesian President Joko Widodo, centre, with Fairfax Media’s Peter Hartcher, left. Photo: Jefri Tarigan
My first few months here in early 2015 were harrowing.
Within days of my arrival, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, rejected the clemency pleas of Bali Nine heroin smugglers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, despite their remarkable rehabilitation.
From this moment their death by firing squad seemed inevitable.
Reporting on the lead-up to the executions was like watching a film, heart in mouth, that you already know ends tragically. I barely slept for weeks.
Relations between the two countries soured, exacerbated by Tony Abbott’s disastrous reminder of the billion dollars in aid had donated after the 2004 tsunami.
” and Indonesia are like divorced parents who have to stay together for the sake of the children,” one Indonesian official told me.
The anger some ns felt towards Indonesia at the time was visceral. I deplore the death penalty – now more than ever – but felt a responsibility not to fan the flames of hate.
Many Indonesians see drug smuggling through a different prism to ns; a crime akin to cold-blooded murder or terrorism because it can lead to the deaths of addicts.
And there were also Indonesians who were deeply affected; among them the guards and fellow prisoners who became close to Chan and Sukumaran and their indefatigable lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, who has been fighting to end the death penalty in Indonesia since 1979.
Mulya would later describe the night the ns were shot as the darkest moment of his life. “I failed. I lost,” he tweeted, heartbroken, at 4am.
For a long time I didn’t let myself acknowledge the executions had affected me. It seemed nothing in the face of the grief faced by Chan and Sukumaran’s loved ones.
But I was haunted by photos of them as children, Sukumaran with a broad toothy grin and Chan an impish smirk.
For weeks afterwards I dreamed my son, 18 months old at the time, fell into a swimming pool. I would dive in and try to rescue him but each time his slippery, muscular body would squirm out of my hands until I realised I was powerless to save him. I would wake soaked in sweat, again and again.
I remember reading former Melbourne radio journalist Brian Morley’s account of witnessing the hanging of Ronald Ryan in Melbourne and how it changed him. I marvelled he was still alive to tell the story. The last execution carried out in seemed so long ago although it was only 1967.
Jokowi last year suggested Indonesians would eventually change their minds on execution laws, as citizens of other countries have done in the past.
I hope one day to write a retrospective piece when the death penalty seems as remote and archaic in Indonesia as it does in .
Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed in 2015. Photo: Anta Kesuma
I still have to pinch myself I got this job. I was terrified when appointed that I would never live up to the previous Fairfax Indonesia correspondents. I poured out my heart to a mentor. “No two correspondents are the same,” she said. “Follow the stories that interest you.” It sounds so obvious but it is among the best pieces of career advice I have received.
Fairfax Media is blessed to have two superb Indonesian journalists – Karuni Rompies and Amilia Rosa – who are gutsy, charming, dogged, unflappable and insatiably curious.
Accompanied by either one of them, I criss-crossed the archipelago in search of stories that interested me and (I hope) gave readers some insight into the complexity and wonder of one of ‘s closest but least understood neighbours.
The n media is generally blamed for this lack of understanding. We are told we are only interested in the three Bs: boats, beef and Bali.
There is no disputing that Aussies’ misadventures in Bali, the seamy underbelly of the Island of Gods and anything that might jeopardise the holiday plans of 1 million ns a year drives traffic to Fairfax websites.
Some of the stories read like Hollywood scripts. The n who escaped from Kerobokan jail via a sewage tunnel just weeks before his sentence finished and has taunted police on the run ever since and the Byron Bay woman Sara Connor jailed over the fatal assault of a Bali police officer.
But Bali made up only a part of our reportage.
We investigated the devastating legacy of toxic levels of mercury from illegal gold mines on child-bearing women in Lombok.
It can be difficult for foreign media to access Papua (the independence struggle here is one of the most sensitive topics in Indonesia) but we reported on the mysterious disappearance of Papuan Martinus Beanal as conflict simmered around the Freeport mine. The area surrounding the mine, which many indigenous Papuans see as the root of their oppression, has long been the site of a low-level insurgency.
We wrote about the “real estate deal of the millennium”: the forgotten Indonesian island of Run in the Banda Sea that was swapped for Manhattan 350 years ago.
Run Island, famed for its nutmeg, was once exchanged for Manhattan. Photo: Jefri Tarigan
The man expected to challenge Jokowi for the 2019 presidential election, Prabowo Subianto – usually referred to as a “former military strongman” – told us over breakfast that his love for animals meant he had to negotiate with ants.
We explored Indonesia’s struggle to come to terms with one of its darkest chapters – the massacre of an estimated 500,000 people suspected of left leanings in 1965 and 1966 – and the surreal paranoia about a resurgent red peril.
I wanted to highlight the inspirational stories too: the former extremist who established a school in Medan to deradicalise the children of terrorists, the footpath warriors reclaiming the pavements for Jakarta’s pedestrians and the charismatic crisis manager handling Indonesia’s natural disasters one tweet at a time.
We interviewed child brides, a rain shaman, street musicians, former political prisoners, participants in the world of competitive birdsong and a much loved defender of the waria, Indonesia’s transgender community of biological men who believe they were born with the souls of women.
In Toraja, South Sulawesi, where people are completely at home among the dead, I reflected on our sanitised buttoned-up attitude to death in the West, where the body is quickly dispensed with and grief is largely a lonely, private affair. We had witnessed manene, an intimate ritual to pay homage to ancestors, where corpses were removed from their coffins, groomed and dressed in new outfits. “Were you revolted?” a friend asked. In fact I had been moved. At its heart, the ceremony is an expression of love.
Living with the dead in South Sulawesi. Photo: Alan Putra
In Probolinggo, East Java, one of the centres of black magic in Indonesia, we investigated the killing of a woman suspected of being a sorcerer.
We met terrorist attack survivors, women who formed a support group for those who wear the niqab, religious leaders, fans of Indonesia’s weird architecture in the 50s and 60s and the president of Indonesia.
The access we were granted was extraordinary.
In June 2015, Amilia and I travelled to West Timor to investigate vague – but potentially explosive – claims an n official had paid people smugglers to return a boat of 65 asylum seekers to Indonesia.
I was highly sceptical. Then prime minister Tony Abbott had described people smuggling as an “evil trade”. Surely would not reward criminal activity?
We were ushered into a room at Kupang police station. I was astonished General Endang Sunjaya, the then police chief of East Nusa Tenggara, had agreed to even meet with us.
He told us the six crew members on the people smuggling boat had all sworn under oath they received about $US5000 from an n official to return to Indonesia. Their accounts were corroborated by asylum seekers who were separately interrogated.
“The money is now being kept as evidence that this was not a made-up story,” General Endang told us. “This is very unexpected. If it happened in Indonesia it would constitute a bribe.”
I was pouring with sweat and my eyes were beginning to bulge. I frenziedly scribbled a note to Amilia: “Let’s get out of here before he changes his mind and says this is all off the record!!!!!”. Amilia calmly ignored me and sipped her tea. “Could you show us the money sir?” she asked sweetly. “Boleh,” the general replied and showed us photographs of piles of crisp US dollar notes.
Later Amilia, bemused by my shock, asked if the n government was likely to respond. I said it would almost certainly not comment “on water matters”.
Sure enough Abbott refused to comment on “operational matters”, although he never denied had paid the people smugglers. “What we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook,” he said. “I just don’t want to go into the details of how it’s done.”
Amusingly, Indonesian journalists were not familiar with the idiom “by hook or by crook” and translated it literally. “Abbott simply insisted that he would ‘stop the boat by inducement or with criminals’ and refused to elaborate on ‘how it is done’,” Antara news reported.
I’ll always be grateful for the refreshing – and generous – level of access that Indonesian officials have provided to us over the past three years. It is a world away from the team of media flacks employed to massage the message back home.
We won a Walkley Award for our coverage of the cash for boat turnbacks scandal and it triggered a Senate inquiry.
From left, seated: Captain Yohanis Humiang with head of the people smuggling division of Nusa Tenggara Timur, Ibrahim, and Rote police chief Hidayat. Photo: Supplied
Analysts have claimed Indonesia has been at a crossroads for so long it has been parodied by The Simpsons. “Look at me, I’m reading The Economist. Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?” Homer asks, after ordering a steak on a plane. “Nooooo,” deadpans Marge.
But once again things seem precarious.
Identity politics in Indonesia (and other southern Asian countries) has been named one of the top global risks for 2018 by US risk analysis organisation the Eurasia Group.
Islamists’ increasing sway over Indonesian politics was demonstrated in the lead-up to last year’s gubernatorial election, with massive street protests denouncing the reformist Chinese-Christian governor Ahok.
The allegations Ahok had insulted Islam and his subsequent blasphemy trial proved catastrophic for his re-election bid despite polls showing that Jakartans were overwhelmingly satisfied with his performance in office.
Former Jakarta governor Basuki ”Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo: AP
The 2016 and 2017 Islamist mobilisation has been recognised as an important shift in Indonesian politics. A new paper by n National University academic Marcus Mietzner and others says opposition to non-Muslims holding political office has hardened.
All eyes will be on the 171 provincial elections in June which are likely to be a bellwether of the 2019 presidential elections. Already there are fears religion, ethnicity and race will be used to sway voters.
I will be watching with bated breath. After three years reporting on politics I feel personally invested.
I recently met a man who had a map of Indonesia tattooed across his face to reflect his love for his country. He was an environmental activist working in a remote village in Bogor regency to turn plastic rubbish into fuel. This powered a generator and provided electricity for the village.
I thought it would make a great story. The tattooed man who loved his country trying to tackle Indonesia’s trash crisis. And then it struck me I had run out of time.
And in that moment I realised how much I will miss chronicling this complex and confounding country. Life will never be quite the same again.
Jewel Topsfield was the Indonesia correspondent for Fairfax Media from 2015 to 2018.