modern trends


We walk through garish corridors haphazardly hung with children’s paintings. By local standards it’s a big house with a big kitchen, and although it’s on the edge of whatever is left of Denpasar’s ricefields, there is no garden. Ibu Putu Etiartini introduces me to ‘her’ children.

One of the young girls has a freshly bandaged foot and is on crutches.Buoyed by the friendly atmosphere, I blurt out “Hey what happened to you?” – only to realize that her right foot is missing. In the matter of fact, practical way that Balinese can sometimes assume, Ibu Putu glosses over what I hope is my concealed mortification, explaining that the girl had to have her foot amputated. Apparently her foot, twisted at birth, had developed a infection from a cut she got as she hobbled through the streets of Kuta begging barefoot.  Gangrenous, it was left unattended.

In truth, all of these kids have been left unattended. On the streets in the urban sprawl that now engulfs Denpasar, Kuta, and Sanur, their Fagin-like minders appear a couple of times a night on shiny new motor bikes to collect the money from their grubby young charges. Parents get some of the cut but often stay out of the way, at home on the other side of the island. The children are left to their own devices. This smiling young girl who now has no right foot and has had several operations (and more to go) is one of the lucky ones – Ibu Putu found her and brought her under the care of the YKPA foundation which she founded for street children in 2005.

Ironically, despite the fact that the parents of these children so blatantly allow their children to be exploited, YKPA legally still has to convince them to give permission to the foundation so their children can get the care and education they never would receive otherwise. Even more ironic are the cases of two of their recent charges, who, because of having been taken off the street no longer provided an income for their unemployed parents – and as a result the parents revoked their permission to have them kept at YKPA.

Part of the issue is desperate poverty brought on by the aridity of the northeastern tip of the island. Another part is the cold-hearted mafia that has developed the system that takes advantage of the lack of education and effective government welfare nets – from the point of view of the parents it can look like the simplest solution. But overwhelmingly it is the willingness of the majority, perhaps too busy with dreams of new motorcycles or even perfect holidays, to simply ignore what is going on around them.

Poverty has also taken its toll in the villages in the Batur caldera. Pande Putu Setiawan has been exposed to the harsh realities of life here since his youth, through the work of his father, a paramedic who devoted nearly his entire life to providing basic health care to the impoverished villages in the Kintamani region. Prompted by his father’s example, Pande decided to set up the Komunitas Anak Alam.

With a primary focus on providing education to the children of these villages, the group of young volunteers Pande leads are dedicated to providing the kinds of opportunities that many of the children, especially girls, would never have even dreamed of. These volunteers, students and young budding professionals,  often dig deeply into their own pockets and happily sacrifice their own time. Though Kintamani is a major tourist destination promoted by, amongst others, the government, little evidence of the dividends filters into the villages of Songan and beyond.

Yet this is not all simply a case of a lack of modern sense of civic responsibility. Nor is it just the abject failure of the social services department to do something more meaningful than promise paltry sums which often enough don’t even get disbursed (the average sum per child per day promised to various orphanages is about Rp 3000, or 30 US cents). There is a collective shrug when the subject of the poverty-stricken in these areas is discussed – “these people have been begging for centuries, it’s their way” says popular local wisdom

Harsher still are the effects of personal shame. Social stigmatization, once set in, is a difficult stain to erase in a deeply conformist and communal society. Once one falls into the margin, it takes a lot to stand up and be counted amongst the smiling.

This is not something new which has sprouted within the ranks of the new arriviste bourgeoisie. Along with the many great qualities that have dazzled visitors to the island since the 18th century, there has always been something of a dark, fatalistic side to traditional Balinese culture. One brutal example of this deep sense of stigma is that which attaches itself to any family with handicapped children. Until as recently as a decade ago many of the island’s handicapped simply never left their compounds – perhaps loved at home, but hidden away from the public eye.

When the late President Gus Dur held a meeting of the handicapped ten years ago at the Grand Bali Beach, many who attended at his insistence had never left their homes before. Not a few had no formal schooling. “I was stunned and excited to meet so many others in a similar situation. A year later, missing them terribly, I decided to get in touch with them all.” says Putu  Suriati – a victim of polio who got her first wheelchair as an adult from American Judy Slatum.

That started the ball rolling. Soon, with the aid of an Australian confined to a wheelchair, Vern Cork, the group turned into a collective, and eventually they formed a legal foundation, Yayasan Senang Hati. Education and empowerment feature large on their agenda. Supported by donations and some of their own efforts at sales of arts and crafts, and a variety of activities, what really shines through is the sense of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.. “Several of our graduates are now working in hotels on the islands” the organizers told me proudly.

Despite the evident good that YKPA, Kommunitas Anak Alam and YSH have done and are doing, even today government and Balinese society support for these two desperately needed programs remain sporadic at best. They mainly survive on donations from individuals.

Yet they remain inspired to keep at it. These stories have come out of the dark closet of society’s denial. Street children, impoverished villagers and the handicapped, denied of education in their own homes, have responded to schooling, education, special courses, and come out shining.  Behind each one of these stories is a fierce sense of personal dedication, a defiance of the so called “natural order of things”, and the awareness that there is nothing that can stop you if you have the will.

The real stigma lies with a society and a political system that cares little for its needy, with a government which pours its attention into an industry of luxury and leisure whilst ignoring the dirt poor and the unfortunate. As elements of our society, at least we can change that. As individuals we can be aware and can care. Helping those who already want to help themselves is the least we can do.

When People Turn a Blind Eye and Leaders Go Deaf

Rio Helmi, 10 February 2011

Democracy is a term whose precise meaning is elusive, especially so in developing nations. For leaders more worried about superficial legitimacy than actually taking on the task of improving the lot of their people, ‘democracy’ revolves around elections and how to get through them intact. It has become something of an industry standard; when others dispute results and methods, one can always refute these protests simply with “Hey, we held free elections”. Somehow human rights end up secondary on the display shelf.

Naturally, not only do elections supposedly legitimize regimes in their own countries, but they also legitimize other more powerful democracies (the “West”) dealing with these regimes towards their own ends. These are marriages of convenience between parties that come to an understanding mostly without really understanding the other party, something of an agreement between thieves. Human rights issues are just minor thorns, burrs caught on the trousers of powerful men striding across new fields to be plowed.

One may claim that 20th and 21st Century intelligence gathering serves to properly brief their respective governments, but intel blunders amongst super powers are legendary, whether as a result of compromise or incompetence (Think “weapons of mass destruction” farce). It is rare that actual members of foreign administrations venture deep into the psyche’s of their counterparts, it’s an area left to academics and eccentric expats from whom only sound bites are heard.

It is politically incorrect for well educated people to have biases against race and religion, but many still carry the coding of centuries of such bias in their cultural DNA. There is scarcely a ‘modern’ western nation now where one does not find sizeable and growing neo-fascist movements, and concern about migrants..

On the other side of the moat things are hardly better. The first encounters between most countries with western powers were filled with attitudes of vast superiority, suspicion, miscommunication, betrayal, and often widespread blood shed. So no matter how absurd it might seem to us, it is not too difficult to stir up suspicion and hatred again – terms like Great Satan sounds ridiculously tinny to many of us, but to embittered, disempowered people it resonates.

I’m sure this all sounds simplistic, but it is a 1-100,000 scale map of the heart of an old world that is gradually dying: a product of centuries of violence and invasions (e.g. Alexander the Great, Jingghis Khan, Chinese imperial despotism, the Turks beating on the gateways of Bavaria, the Inquisition, the persecution of Jews and Moors in Europe, European colonialism, slavery, the two World Wars, Stalin, Vietnam – in no way an exhaustive list).

Some how the anachronistic zeitgeist of the first seven decades of the 20th Century is still lurking in the hallways of power of even the most ‘advanced’ nations, despite decades of political evolution since the 70s when Kissinger embarked on his détente with the USSR and Nixon landed in Peking. It took decades before the world media could even bring itself to write the name properly as Beijing. Some even created a myth that the PRC had changed the name in the 80s, when all they were doing was correcting the Latin script spelling. A small but telling example. But look at it from the other end: imagine if Egyptians or Indonesians would refer to Obama’s birthplace as the “Isles of Sandwich”?

To segue Obama into all this, his current stilted position on Mubarak, his VP’s dealing with Egyptian VP Suleiman, a known military iron fist, the US administrations reiterated praise for the “restraint of the Egyptian military” whilst Egyptian military police continue to ‘disappear’ protestors – all of this is a sign that traces of this outdated, poisonous zeitgeist is still flowing through the ventilation shafts of Washington DC.

Even the fact that that the verb ‘to disappear’ has become transitive in colloquial language is a sad indication of language reflecting the non evolution of US power policy, arrested by 9/11. Somehow the increased mobility and tech connectivity we have seen in the last decades hasn’t led to more understanding, it is simply translated as  more opportunity for the materially and politically ambitious. Obama, I was happy when you were elected, and the speech in Cairo was great. But you are seriously losing traction on ‘change’ here.

What we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt is beginning of a movement that may still be brutally suppressed but not stopped. It is the new world that is coming. Islamic fundamentalism grew out of colonial meddling. But now many Islamists are getting a sense of something new in the offing. The Muslim Brotherhood is not Hezbollah, far from it. The Tunisian Islamists want to work with others, they are not the Somali fanatics that Ayaan Hisri Ali ran from. And the intellectuals are cautiously engaging with them. They all know that they could be rewriting the ground rules.

This is a civil movement started by a new, younger generation: intellectuals, professionals, and now older workers. They are inspiring others to join. And many of the older generation are galvanized by them. This was especially the case when an emotional TV interview with an Egyptian Google executive, Wael Ghonim whose was released after 12 days of captivity, was broadcast, blindsiding Mubarak’s administration.

In Indonesia a similar thing happened 13 years ago – it was the students who took the initiative, we all followed. But the reform on the government’s side has stagnated. Yet the civil movement is evolving as we speak, perhaps not in an organized formal manner, but people are more informed and engaged. If the older leaders can’t open their hearts then they shouldn’t lead. To lead is to inspire, to inspire your people to work their hearts out for their country and for the world. Leaders that think of their people as cattle to use an electric prod on belong in Gulags.

In relation to Egypt, here in Indonesia we have something of a different but related situation. The anachronistic zeitgeist here is the wisps of a mindset that has its roots back in the first decades days of the Republic, during which several attempts to create Islamic states failed – but it has been cunningly reinfused as movement against immorality.

This is what fuels the fundamentalist mobs  such as FPI who have brutally harassed bars, attacked “non-believers”, burned churches, even killed Ahmadis on camera. And of course there are the more infamous bombers, whose spiritual leader, linked to Al Qaeda, is set for trial next week – Abu Bakar Ba’asyir calmly told reporters Thursday that “The Prophet was like me”. If he wasn’t such an old fox one would suspect he was delusional. But he is definitely holding on firmly to another world vision for which it is clear that there is detailed game plan. A clear and present plan.

Our President has dragged his heels for years. It is clear that these mobs have transgressed the constitution. He has finally decided to be more firm with the mobs (so far mostly in  words). Their answer: “We will ‘Ben Ali’ you SBY”. Yet these thugs, who dote on all things Arabic, have no clue that Tunisia was not an Islamist movement, nor that things are changing drastically. They too are stuck in a defunct time zone. Many of us have turned a blind eye to the outrages they have perpetrated. And our leaders have become so deaf, engrossed in their own political survival that it has taken a long-growing clamor for them to finally hear. But whether they will respond adequately is not yet clear. If they don’t, we will all suffer.

What we all, whether super-power or just a power in our own backyard, need to remember is that the world situation is constantly evolving, we are constantly creating it. Others react to what we do, as a result opinions and attitudes are formed much, much faster now. Time to be brave: embrace the future.


I enjoy football as much as anyone else. But I haven’t watched one world cup game this time. Not only have I been super busy, and could not be bothered to set up my tv for off-cable reception at home,  I somehow just don’t feel like endorsing a lot of what is going on.

Just watching which emotions gets stirred up by this super-hyped up event is a lesson. Having people enjoy and admire athletes perform is uplifting, I won’t deny it. I have a lot of respect for the all the hard training and skill that goes into it.

But there is a more disturbing side to the competition which has now become completely acceptable, many would say inevitable. And I am not even talking about the hooliganism or the strange, vicarious chauvinism of fans rooting for their favourites, invoking God and whoever else they chose to believe in. If anything they could almost be called the victims.

Sure, it didn’t take too long after the Olympics, for example, were re-established early last century for sports to exploited on an internationally political level. Hitler vs Jesse Owens made sure we wouldn’t miss that. But those days were almost innocent compared to now. FDR didn’t even send Owens a congratulation cable, much less an invite to the White House. Imagine today’s White House passing that one up (“No We Can’t”?).

Every four years the networks and sponsors scramble to outbid each other – the payoffs are enormous. Obviously all the fans are a huge cash cow, nothing wrong with that in a free market capitalist world, and I’m sure some North Koreans watched a few games too. And so when the players get huge pay checks, one could argue that’s their due, and it pays off in the level of sheer athletic brilliance it ensures.

The part I don’t get is: where has the sportsmanship gone? Where is the respect to all the fans aside from some inane bubbling in shlock magazines that are more interested in hair styles than anything else? How many Peles are there today?

Are you telling me that it’s too much to expect from someone who is getting paid millions and millions to be aware that they are a role model to the young the whole world around? I can understand that there is a huge pressure to perform, but how does it come that a player has no sense of shame when, literally under the spotlight and watched by billions of people, he kicks someone in the shins, stomps on their leg, pulls their shirt, and whatever else?

Is just winning and gladiatorship really uplifting? There is more respect due for a side that plays well but loses gracefully than a side that wins by playing a nasty game, then races around crowing.

Still trying to make up my mind whether or not to watch the finals.