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The following writings are the words of Marina Mahathir about Indonesia. She sees Indonesia from various points of view based on her experiences in Indonesia.

I’m writing this from Jakarta where I am visiting my in-laws for the holidays. It hasn’t been a good week in Indonesia what with a ship that sank in high seas and 400 people still missing, then the AdamAir crash on New Year’s Day.Plus ongoing floods in Aceh, which hasn’t fully recovered from the tsunami, and the horrible horrible mud flood engulfing villages in Sidoardjo, East Java. If you haven’t heard about this, this is truly corporate greed gone very wrong. A company Lapindo Brantas Inc was drilling in the area for gas and somehow caused hot mud and gas to spew out and it’s been spewing out unceasingly since June. By December it had left 10,000 people homeless and no end in sight. The government is demanding US$420million in compensation but there are concerns that this might not be enough. Check out http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/JAK172519.htm.

I truly don’t spend enough time here, as my hubby will attest, but every time I do, it strikes me how similar and different our two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, are. For one thing, we definitely don’t speak the same language. After 8 years I am finally beginning to get the hang of ‘Jakartan’, in that I’m beginning to understand the slang and am getting some of the inflections. It’s a bit strange to listen to myself sometimes.Still people tend to think I’m really quiet here because I’m too shy to speak Malay for fear of being misunderstood ( or worse, being laughed at) and feel silly speaking English when we’re supposed to be ‘serumpun’.

Language apart, we also have very different mindsets about many things. As much as we like to think of Indonesia as not being as developed as us, and only a nation of maids and labourers, many Indonesians are certainly much more culturally sophisticated than any of us. You just have to read Geonawan Mohamad’s writings, beautiful in English, breathtaking in Indonesian. He’s just done an opera libretto called The King’s Witch with a musical score by Tony Prabowo, performed by musicians from the US here in Jakarta. Indonesian musicians, dancers, costumers and crew travelled all over the world with the renowned impresario Robert Wilson to perform the epic I La Galligo, based on an ancient Javanese legend. Last night at a friend’s house I saw a book on Indonesian exports. The interesting thing is that they did not limit it to just furniture, batik and handicrafts, they included architects, musicians, film-makers, artists and cartoonists, because ” these days creativity is exportable”. I’ve never heard a single government official in Malaysia say that!!! Is that because they don’t think so, they’ve never thought of it or we don’t have any exportable creativity here?

Today I read in the papers that as many as 158 (and counting) film industry people are returning their Citras (the Indon equivalent of Oscars) in protest against the last Indonesian Film Festival in 2006 because they awarded the Best Film Award to a movie that stole the copyright of some songs. They are also demanding some changes in the way the film industry is run by their equivalent of FINAS to better promote the industry. This includes changing the Film Censor Board into a Film Classification Board (although I must say that their Censor Board is nothing like the paranoid lot at ours, the final kiss in Ada Apa dengan Cinta being a case in point). Can you imagine this happening in our country?

Ostensibly Indonesians are mostly Muslims. But even while they are getting ever more conservative, many Indonesians have a much more open attitude than we do about many things. They don’t obssess about eating halal food like we do when they are abroad. They are used to having friends of all religions, sometimes even relatives of all religions. They are not afraid to debate religious issues at all. Recently there was a demo led by Ibu Sinta Nuriyah, wife of former President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), against polygamy!!! Gus Dur is of course head of the 40-million strong Nadhatul Ulama so both he and his wife are very influential . And they’ve both been consistently progressive on many issues affecting Indonesian Muslims. (So, ok, he was a lousy President. Which may mean that religious leaders don’t necessarily make good administrators. But Indonesia has been dealt pretty bad deals, leaderwise.)

Not to say that everything is OK here. The club down the street from where I stay got raided by vigilantes and have since shut down. We are surrounded by three mosques with extremely tone-deaf bilals who insist on high-decibel azan competitions with one another, even at 4.30am. How this converts anyone, I don’t know.

State schools here suck. They’re overcrowded, underfunded and provide low quality teaching. Violence between students of different schools is rife. Yet they have some good private schools. My stepson went to an Islamic private school where he received an excellent education, including a very progressive brand of Islam. One year he wrote, produced and acted in a play which featured Jesus Christ and the parents, all Muslims, came and loyally supported their kids. I can’t imagine that happening in Malaysia, where schools would never even dream of giving students that leeway.

While we think of ourselves as diverse, we don’t have nearly as much diversity as Indonesia. They may all look the same to us, but to them, Indonesians throughout the 17000 islands are all different with different languages, cultures, histories, religions, even looks. They can tell just by the name where a person comes from, whereas we can’t tell a Kelantanese from a Johorian on paper, unless they start talking. My son’s name, Haga Tara, actually comes from two different languages, both meaning light or star. So as similar as we may think ourselves with Indonesians, we really are not.

Until I started coming here regularly about a decade ago, I really knew nothing about Indonesia. Most of us probably know very little or almost nothing about our neighbouring countries at all. Likewise, it’s amazing what stereotypes Indonesians have about us Malaysians – that we are very conservative and snobby towards them. I wonder sometimes how much miscommunication we have between us, just because we assume our cultures and mindsets are the same.