Saturday, October 04, 2003

Reward & Punishment

Reward & Punishment

I'm finally going to take a Saturday night off: Tonight I'll be able to relax a bit with friends and maybe watch some TV. I like to reward myself for accomplishing tasks that I've set out for myself to do. To be able to earn tonight's luxury, I had to slog through Friday night and this morning to finish off some presentation slides that I'll need to use on Monday morning.

Rewards need not be something elaborate: even a good dinner of nasi padang at Sari Bundo or a Saturday night watching Liverpool live on ESPN are great joys to be savoured (and Liverpool is playing Arsenal tonight). Every task that I do is tied to some minor reward like this. There's always a carrot-on-a-stick to drive me on. I have to earn my dinner, my TV session or a Saturday morning movie at Plaza Blok M. And rewards taste a lot sweeter after you've thoroughly earned them.

Now what about punishment for failures? Well, guilt often is punishment enough. Or fear for not being prepared for an important meeting or presentation is something that is as great a torment as a smoker being deprived of cigarettes. We recoil from pain and veer towards pleasure. Peace of mind is the greatest pleasure of all.

But I prefer reward as a positive way of pushing me forward. And I realised long ago that the things that give me the greatest joys are the simple things in life: an hour at the coffee shop reading, an Indomie breakfast with kopi tubruk, a mug of Bintang after a tough day's work, a new novel by Milan Kundera. To quote Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music: "These are a few of my favourite things"--they do not cost a lot of money but give me a lot of joy.

Money can be a good form of reward too. But most of the time, I can bypass that. I believe that by focussing on accomplishing the immediate task well, the larger issues, like money, will take care of itself.

Watching Liverpool play tonight will be a great pleasure but another loss to Arsenal will be a pain I'm not sure I can endure...

Friday, October 03, 2003

Myself, Si Parasit Lajang

Myself, Si Parasit Lajang

Si Parasit Lajang (The Single Parasite, or maybe The Parasitic Single; "Lajang" is similar in meaning to "Bujang") is the title of a collection of essays by popular Indonesian female writer Ayu Utami. Her first two novels Saman and Larung were bestsellers in the local market, and popular among many Malaysians too.

My mastery of the Indonesian language is still at its infancy; reading Saman and Larung would be a task that requires a great deal of effort and concentration, even though I did read novels in Bahasa Melayu during my schooldays. I"ll have to attempt them when my mind is freer. I read Pramoedya Ananta Toer sometimes in its original Bahasa Indonesia and find his language relatively easier for me to understand.

It is the modern Indonesian slang used by present-day writers that stumps me at times. It is a pity that Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia have diverged so much. The market for our Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia books could be a lot wider if not because of these differences.

Fortunately I find Si Parasit Lajang an easy read; these are short articles that were published in local journals such Djakarta!, where Ayu Utami writes a monthly column; so the language is easy and conversational.

Ayu Utami is a very interesting writer. As a person, she is also interesting because she is 35 and has so far chosen to remain single. And she certainly is not unattractive (or at least from my point of view).

In Si Parasit Lajang, Ayu Utami gives 10+1 reasons as to why she remains single. It makes me glad to know that there's a woman out there who's willing to take up cudgels for unmarried people.

Being a "confirmed" bachelor myself, I share many of her reasons. I won't go through all of them but I like her first one: "Memangnya harus menikah?" (Does one really have to get married?); and her "+1" reason: She wonders why people are always asking her to explain her spinsterhood when to her it is a natural thing. Just go with the flow: Giving reasons would make it sound as if choosing to remain single is a political stance.

Now, are people who choose to remain unmarried parasites to society? Maybe. Sometimes they become a burden to family and friends. They have no commitments and go about drifting from relationship to relationship, leading a hedonistic life--wasting their own and destroying other people's.

I have nothing against marriage and I do admire people who manage to build up a nice family. Just that to me, marriage is such an important "project" that I am not keen to take it up at the moment. Forgive me, maybe I've been in the IT industry for too long to treat even marriage as a "project". Perhaps it is the wrong paradigm to adopt for such an important social institution.

But it is precisely because it is an important institution that I feel that one cannot treat it in a cavalier fashion. You don't get married because all your friends are already married; and certainly not out of desperation because you are "not getting any younger". Marriage requires commitment and a reengineering of your life. Obvious adjustments need to be made and priorities need to be realigned (Oops, wrong paradigm again: marriage is not BPR--business process reengineering. Or is it?)

Maybe bachelors like me are egoistic and selfish. We only care about ourselves, our own interests, our own pursuits and never spare a thought for other people. Whereas married people learn to care, share and love.

But I've also seen married people becoming more "selfish" because their whole life revolves around their families and they don't have time for friends and colleagues anymore. Well, at least these are better than another category of married people who still try to lead a bachelor life, often cheating on their spouses.

Not sure if I am really a parasite, but I do know I am quite "useful" to some of my married friends who use me as a convenient excuse whenever they want to escape from their wives: They would tell their wives that it is this reckless and irresponsible bachelor called K. who "forced" them to go to this nightspot and made them drink all night. They then top it up with a philosophical comment on how aimless a bachelor's life is and how fortunate they are to have such a nice home and family--scoring enormous points with their wives in the process.

I am actually quite happy to be of "use" to my married friends. In fact, I give them the license to freely use me as an excuse, even when I'm often not present in their all-night revelries. Maybe I am indeed a parasite because of this.

OK, bachelors like us do have some use: There's always someone around who can play Best Man at weddings. I'm quite a veteran at that. Need a Best Man, call me. If you can't get married yourself, at least help other people to get married. But you can bet I'll be cracking my trite but tested wedding joke:
Why is the bride unhappy on her wedding day?
Answer: Because she is not marrying the best man

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Jaguh's World

Jaguh's World

Today, while checking the time on my watch, I was reminded of a friend and colleague of mine who is based in Singapore. For the sake of anonymity, I shall refer to him here as "Jaguh".

Now, Jaguh is a very interesting guy: He is one of the top directors in the multi-national that I work for. Being so successful, he also has very expensive tastes. We all look up to him as the benchmark for what we should all aspire to in our career with the company. He drives a high-end S-class Merz in Singapore and has a huge collection of Rolex watches: GMT-Master, Submariner, Yatchmaster, Daytona--you name it, he has it. And being a bachelor still in his forties, he is often seen in the company of stunning women.

Jaguh reminds me of the successful real-estate salesman character, Buddy Kane, played by Peter Gallagher in the award-winning movie, American Beauty ("In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times").

When I was based in Singapore, I occassionally did end up going on business trips together with Jaguh. During the madness of the dot-com boom a couple of years back, we happened to be in Hongkong together attending a conference. It was a fun time, we wined and dined at expensive restaurants in HK and Macau on company's expense. (But sadly, those days are gone now).

I am someone who is not known for my good taste in clothes or accessories (As for my taste in women--hmm, I'll leave that as the subject for another posting). On one of those nights in HK, Jaguh glared at the watch that I was wearing--a relatively cheap Mondaine watch which I bought during my trip to Geneva in 1999 for the ITU conference. I liked its minimalist design which makes it resemble a Swiss railway station clock and I had been happily wearing it for sometime.

Many people--especially women--told me that they thought the watch was cute. And I had half-hoped that they actually meant the guy wearing it.

But Jaguh looked disapprovingly at my watch and declared that as a regional executive, I am an embarassment to the company: I didn't drive a fancy car (in fact I did not even own one), I never wear designer brands (his suit was at the very least a Hugo Boss and mine was made by a Malaysian Chinaman tailor) and my watch--in his own words--was an "Ah Beng watch".

Suddenly I began to suspect that the women who had commented about my watch being "cute" were actually politely telling me that it was "cheap" and that the guy wearing it was a "cheapskate". I began to feel very self-conscious of my "short-comings".

Together with another HK colleague, he dragged me to a watch shop nearby and asked the salesman to present to me their array of Rolex watches. An hour later I was out of the shop--poorer by an obscene amount of money--with a Rolex Oyster Explorer II strapped to my wrist, gleaming under the bright neon-lights of Kowloon. There was a smile of approval on Jaguh's face. ("A man needs a good watch to show that he has arrived"). So overnight, I was transformed from an Ah Beng to a towkay; and I wasn't sure whether I should be happier for it.

Being based in Jakarta these days, I don't get a chance to meet Jaguh often. But occasionally he does drop by to town and you can bet that he'll be dragging me from one nightspot to another. I am quite fond of him and admire his zest for life. But I can never keep up with his stamina and certainly not his taste for expensive things.

No, I don't wear my Rolex here in Jakarta (it lies unused in my drawer back home in Subang Jaya), as I am always prowling the seedy sidestreets of Jakarta shooting digital photos or doing my "research". My trusty Mondaine still keeps good time and is not as conspicious, making it easier for me to blend into the Jakarta street crowd.

But whenever Jaguh comes to Jakarta on one of his many corporate boondoggle trips, I'll make sure that he doesn't get a chance to see what watch I am wearing. It is tough, but so far I'm succeeding.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Of Blogging, Praying and Diarrhoea

I work in the IT industry but I seldom write about IT-related matters in my blog. Maybe it's because I produce a lot of technical writing as part of my daily job and it feels a bit abhorrent for me to dwell on the subject further in my blog.

Blogging is something I try to do daily--using time I steal in between major tasks. I learn from Muslims who find time to pray five times a day; blogging once a day, in comparison, can't be that tough, can it? To me it serves a similar purpose as a daily prayer: I reflect on things and remind myself of things that are important. It is different from writing in your own private journal. To me putting your thoughts to public scrutiny forces you to be responsible and accountable for your views--it is as serious as vowing to God in prayer.

By publishing to a blog, my faults are more glaring, the weaknesses in my writing more evident. And I always learn from every blog entry, even when no one bothers to read them. I think of my blog as my daily "exercise book"--the type of cheap ruled notebooks with brown covers that we used when we were school-children.

I admire many other blogs which contain good images and pictures. My blog is dull and devoid of pictures at the moment and unfortunately will remain so for a while as managing a "proper" website is too time-consuming a task for me. I can be quite fussy when it comes to web design. It is something that's very creative and interesting. And I do have lots of digital pictures that I can share.

I want to make blogging as something natural and effortless. Sometimes, I am too tired to tackle more serious subjects and just write to "fill up the space".(Today's entry is an example). At times it is like a diarrhoea purge. And my mind does feel lighter after every act of blogging. (My spelling improves too, as I have to take the trouble to look up words like "diarrhoea").

And because I always provide links to subjects that I refer to in my blog, blogging serves as a guide for surfing to me. For instance, I learnt from this diarrhoea website that more than 3,000 people actually died of diarrhoea today (the figure is rising as we speak). And there are also interesting articles about prayer being good for health.

What happens to your blog when you die? There's a non-profit organization who has plans to help archive these dead sites...

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The Corporate Tramp

The Corporate Tramp

Scott Adams makes a living satirizing the idiocy of people in the corporate world with his writings and his popular Dilbert cartoon strip. I have been living life as a cubicle creature for a greater part of my working life and I must say I've had my high and low points.

I admire people would could adapt to the system well and sees the positive aspects of working for a large corporation. They are very motivated and upwardly mobile. The do all the right things to ensure their visibility in the company. They are the ultimate yuppies and corporate animals. Maybe every company needs people like that.

I myself certainly do not have such an aptitude. Certain actions that I've done in the past could even be deemed as career-limiting. My reward has never been promotion or better pay. In fact couple of times in my life, I have chosen to take jobs that doesn't pay as well. My reward comes from helping friends and colleagues and from producing good work. Perhaps it's a little bit too idealistic. But that's what I am.

I have been lucky that I've been able to work for companies that allow me a great deal of freedom to do things in whatever way I choose, as long as I deliver the goods. I am comfortable in such an environment and I try to find ways to inject creativity into everything I do.

As an expatriate working for a multinational operation here in Jakarta, I am not considered part of the organizational hierarchy. Visitors often ask me what my responsibilities are. Well, I always tell them that I do the stuff that nobody else wants to do. Which is quite true, as my skills (if I have any at all) are most applicable in areas which do not fall under any neat categorization.

In one of his writings, Albert Einstein wrote that he sometimes feels like a "tramp among the sciences"--referring to his work which does not belong specifically to any branch or discipline of science such as cosmology, quantum mechanics or mathematical physics.

Even though many people think that as an expatriate I am very well-paid compared to the locals, I consider myself a "corporate tramp". I don't exactly belong to the organization here and I have no stake in the future of this company. I don't even see myself as having a long-term future in the multi-national corporation of which the present operation belongs to.

Someday--and it could be soon--I'll have to move on. And hopefully, there are other places that are as accomodating as Jakarta has been, to tramps like me.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Living Dangerously: the Year, the Book & the Movie

Living Dangerously: the Year, the Book & the Movie

Tomorrow is September 30th. Like Malaysia's May 13th 1969, September 30th 1965 is a pivotal moment in Indonesia's history. Not many of the younger generation of Indonesians are fully acquainted with the events that happened then. Perhaps the more recent May 13 riots in Jakarta 1998, triggered by the collapse of the rupiah holds more significance to them.

But all of them would have heard and studied about the "Gestapu"--short for "Gerakan September Tiga Puluh". It is often referred to as an "abortive" coup d'├ętat by Indonesia's Communist party, the PKI. But events that triggered the coup is still unclear and remains a hot subject of debate among many academics still.

The mood and atmosphere leading to the coup that ultimately caused the downfall of Sukarno and paved the way for an insignificant army general called Suharto to rise to power has been milked to the maximum in the fiction book, The Year of Living Dangerously, by Christopher Koch. (I was lucky to have my own personal copy autographed by the author here in Jakarta recently).

This was romanticized further by Peter Weir's movie adaptation of the book, starring a very young Mel Gibson and a surprisingly seductive Sigourney Weaver. The movie and the book were banned in Indonesia during the Suharto years and only in the last couple of years were they released in here. I enjoyed both the book and the movie. In fact I've even taken the trouble to visit many of the places that make the backdrop for the events in the book such as Hotel Indonesia. (that will be the subject of another blog entry).

"The Year of Living Dangerously" has become a cliche phrase for journalists writing about Indonesia. How did it originate? It actually came from Sukarno himself. Sukarno was a dramatic orator; every year during Independence Day, he would designate a "theme" for the coming year: On August 17, 1964, he declared it the start of the Year of Living Dangerously. Well he did not exactly use those words: Sukarno was a master of many languages and had a fondness for sprinkling his speeches with foreign phrases. He called  the coming year "Tahun Vivere Pericoloso" ("live dangerous" in Italian) or "TAVIP".

Why was the coming year a "dangerous" one? Firstly, it was the time of Konfrontasi: Sukarno protested against the formation of Malaysia and considered it a plot by so-called Neo-colonial Imperialists (referred to as Nekolim) to maintain control in the region. Sukarno actually pulled Indonesia out of the United Nations because he protested against the election of Malaysia into the Security Council that year. The battle-cry then was "Ganyang Malaysia" (Crush Malaysia). Konfrontasi was actually a euphemism for an all-out war against Malaysia.

And then there was the Partai Komunis Indonesia or PKI--which was then a legitimate political party--among the largest in the world after the Soviet's and the Chinese Communist Party. They were gaining prominence and influence, and almost protected by Sukarno, who wanted a form of "Guided Democracy" where the forces of Nationalism, Religion and Communism are all played against one another in a political balancing act with him as the Supreme Dalang (shadow puppet master). Of course he has a label for it: Nasakom (Nasionalisme, Agama, Komunisme).

It was a heady year, filled with economic turmoil (inflation was a few hundred percent), questionable foreign adventures (the pullout from UN, the Confrontation against Malaysia and the close alignment with Communist China) and growing disillusionment among the younger generation who did not grow up during Indonesia's bloody struggle for independence against the Dutch in the 1940s.

The students did not see Sukarno as the national hero who united a nation of 17,000 islands (from Sabang to Marauke). They only saw economic decline, joblessness and hunger. They felt disillusionment towards a President who womanized and squandered the nation's scant reserves on grandiose nationalistic projects such as Monas, Hotel Indonesia and Sarinah.

And then there were rumours that Beijing was going to supply arms to the communist-led "Fifth Force"----the people's army to "complement" the existing army, naval, air and police forces--with the blessing of Sukarno.

It was a year of living dangerously indeed. And Guy Hamilton (played by Mel Gibson), arrives in Jakarta as a rookie Australian foreign correspondent, ready to savour the excitement and exoticism that is Indonesia and in the process, falling in love with a staff of the British embassy (Sigourney Weaver). I often watch the movie again and again whenever I'm back in KL, to re-experience the colourful chaos that is Jakarta (but I must say, my own personal experience living here has not been as exciting as Mel Gibson's).

The Year of Living Dangerously culminated in the September 30th coup in 1965, where the communist-led faction of the army, seized control of key installations in the city, cruelly murdered six high-ranking army generals and dumped their bodies in an old well, in Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole). (Henceforth, the event was referred to as Peristiwa Lubang Buaya).

What happened next were fierce reprisals from the regular army against the communists, leading to a nationwide witchhunt and slaughter of which there are still no reliable figures for the number of people that were actually killed. (Mel Gibson managed to hop on the last flight out of Jakarta, into the embracing arms of Sigourney Weaver).

It was the beginning of the fall of Sukarno and the slow ascendency of a quiet army general called Suharto, who easily crushed the abortive coup. Some say the CIA was behind it. But that is another story for another blog entry.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Sukarno's Sarinah

Sukarno's Sarinah

Visitors to Jakarta will notice the Sarinah departmental store, located in Central Jakarta, though they might not bother set food there. It is not a glitzy mall in the class of Plaza Senayan or Taman Anggrek, but for some reason I am pretty fond of the place.

It is located within walking distance from my hotel. I frequent the place almost daily, as there's quite a good food court at the basement where I sometimes have my meals and also it is convenient for me to take a shortcut through the store when the taxi drops me off at Jalan Thamrin on my way home from office.

The city's busiest McDonalds outlet (also the first in the country)--open 24 hours--is located within the Sarinah complex. And obviously it also has the tightest security in town. What more when it is located right next to Jakarta's Hard Rock Cafe.

There's another Sarinah located at Pasaraya Blok M and both are good places to shop for local handicraft. But the one located along Jalan Thamrin is the original one. In fact it was the first modern departmental store in Indonesia--the pride of Sukarno--when it was opened in the sixties.

Sarinah was in fact named after the servant girl who brought up Sukarno when he was a kid. Sukarno wrote a book called Sarinah in the forties, expounding his view about women and their role in society. Sukarno considers his nanny Sarinah as one of the greatest influences in his life.

Sukarno adores women and his insatiable appetite for them is legendary. A trivia question that I like to ask my Indonesian friends is: How many wives did Sukarno have? Name them. (This will also make another interesting blog posting). The present president Megawati is actually Sukarno's daughter from his (technically) third wife, Fatmawati.

In his autobiography, (as told to Cindy Adams, an American lady journalist which he himself confessed to be "the most attractive female journalist he has ever seen"), he defends his weakness for the opposite sex: To him, women are beautiful creatures of God, to be admired, adored and respected.

Sukarno was also very devoted to his mother--a popular photo of him kneeling and kissing the hand of his aged mother is widely reprinted in many books. When Sukarno died in 1970, he was buried beside his mother's grave in the town of Blitar, East Java.

The historical Sarinah mall stands today, almost as a monument symbolizing Sukarno's adoration for the many influential female figures in his life. These days, late at night, at the Sarinah McDonalds outlet, one can sometimes find specimens of the fairer sex, offering companionship for the night, for a fee.