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More adventurous than the average bear

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

An Indonesian reacts to my Jogjakarta Travelogue

"Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius." - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


Him: Wow. This has GOT to be the most depressing travel writing I've ever read. It baffles me how you manage to make one of the most beautiful countries in the world so degenerated, so unappealing, and so unworthy of visitation. I think it's not Indonesia's fault, it's YOUR fault to think that every country should be as clean and sterile as your beloved Singapore. Well let me tell you something, miss - Singapore may be safe and sterile, but it has absolutely no character whatsoever. Most of your people are faceless, character-less, and are more than ready to leave and betray their own country if there's a better and more financially viable opportunity elsewhere. Most Singaporeans have no real love and nationalism towards their country, and I think that's sad. And admit it - most of you are so sick and tired of your mundane, uninteresting country that you try and travel out of your pathetic culture-less little island as often as you can - even to such 'dilapidated' countries like Indonesia. You know, most first-world citizens can understand that each country has different ways and can think positive about third-world countries. They can turn their otherwise dirty and uncomfortable travel into a charming, positive, life-affirming experience. It's so sad to see a Singaporean like you who just cannot see past the poverty and lack of polish that Indonesia has and realize that what you're getting in Indonesia - nature's beauty, culture, and history - is something that all YOUR dirty Singaporean money (who, 50% are from Indonesian investments in Singapore ANYWAY) cannot buy. Grow up and stop complaining!!!

PS: If you want decent food that are perhaps closer to Singapore "perfection", don't go to Jogja, you silly person!! Jogjakarta isn't exactly what we call the showcase city of international standard! In Jakarta, you can get all the hygienic, BIG-portioned, International-standard food you want. And plus, what are you, an ignoramus?? RIJSTTAFEL IS PRACTICALLY EXTINCT IN INDONESIA!! It's part of our colonial past and most current-generation Indonesians don't even know what it is anymore! In fact, the only place I can think of that still serve authentic Rijstaffel is Jakarta's Oasis restaurant, and THAT'S IT!

Me: I'm not surprised that you found this depressing travel writing - because Indonesia was depressing.

A place where people try to cheat you of your money every day (if it's of any comfort, they didn't try and cheat me as much as in China), of blatant discrimination against foreigners (who have to pay 10x the entrance fees for Borobudur and Prambanan that locals do), where KKN is a way of life and whose people seem to love eating junk food.

Dirt and discomfort are relatively minor downsides of a country compared to these. And do note that the romanticised talk of the "charming, positive, life-affirming experience" just smacks of Orientalism.

I have no idea why you think I think every country should be clean and sterile, or that I find Singapore the best place on earth. Your rant about Singapore, while having much merit, is irrelevant to your aim of sliming me, just as the fact that South Korea has an unhealthy attitude to plastic surgery is irrelevant when one is talking about North Korea being being a brutal, authoritarian regime.

While you are stuck on your moral high horse, you might like to note that I only said that it was "annoying" that no one knew what Rijstaffel was - not that people should be as familiar with it as nasi putih.

Incidentally, I have been to Jakarta and I find the food there wanting. Not to mention in the same league of soulessness as Singapore.

Him: First of all, I know exactly why you have so many complaints about Indonesia - it is because you're a Singaporean - and every sane intelligent being in this universe knows that that's what Singaporeans are best at - complaining. Your so-called travelogue is just a long list of complaints, and it's literally hurting my eyes reading them. Don't you have just a sliver of humanity and find something positive about your travels? I have been to horrid places like Malaysia - where taxis are so smelly, decrepit and even more 'ancient' than in Jakarta that you have to haggle for prices on every trip just as you would for Jakarta's Bajaj and Myanmar - where there are no escalators - but still, I can find something good to write about those countries. And I'm not even that much of a positive person!

You are saying that my rant about Singapore is irrelevant. In most other cases this is perhaps true but I have my reasons for bringing Singapore to the equation. I see that the root of your displeasure and constant complaining stems from the fact that you live in one of the most, if not THE most sterile, safe, and developed country in the world. In other words, you were born with a silver spoon stuck up your posterior and grew up spoiled rotten amidst the comfort of your picture-perfect infrastructure establishments. This will inevitably mar your judgement on other countries on a subconscious level. The analogy would be getting sick from a drop of tap water when one only consumes Evian water all one's life.

Either that, or you're just not cut out for traveling. Perhaps you should realize that and stay in that golden cage of yours. Lord knows, it's better for yourself, and better for the Indonesians as well - I'm sure they can afford one less high-maintenance, fastidious tourist such as yourself.

We can find faults in everything. Even I can easily find ten faults within the one minute that I stepped my two feet on Changi Airport. But out of common decency and being a reasonable person that I am, I chose not to complain.

By the way, paying 10x entrance fees when you're a foreigner is not a discrimination. In fact, you should feel honored that you're charged 10x, because then you can say that it is YOUR money that contributes to a greater extent the preservation of the attraction. I guess that explains why Indonesians treat foreigners with more courtesy while treating their fellow countrymen like second-class citizens. If you think that this is discrimination, then you should visit Brunei - a land where its citizens don't even pay for anything and yet foreigners have to pay for everything. Is that discrimination? Of course not. It's just common sense. Likewise in Indonesia - e.g. Borobudur is not Universal Studios Singapore, which is privately built for profit. It is owned by all Indonesians. Why should tax-paying Indonesians pay to visit their own property?

Foreigners paying extra for admission fees is actually a prevalent phenomenon in many countries.

In fact, I can ask you the very same thing - why do foreign students in Singapore secondary schools have to pay $200 for monthly school fees but locals only pay $5? Why are foreigners charged $300 for a single night at Mount Elizabeth hospital when locals only pay $100? Think about that. Subsidization is not discrimination.

BTW, I seldom find food wanting in Jakarta. I do, often find food wanting in Singapore. Food in Singapore is, as the Chinese puts it, "有美沒有味" - pretty to look at but tasteless. Well, I guess as you commented on your Plaza Senayan Marygold clock video, "De gustibus non est disputandum". However, I still maintain that upscale food in Jakarta is up to international standards.

BTW don't start quoting Confucius on my account - I actually can barely speak Mandarin / any Chinese dialects.

Me: If you beg the question about my complaints (and hurl insults at me to boot), then there is nothing I can say. I will just note that I am fair. For example, if I recall correctly I expressed admiration for Borobudur and Prambanan (thou. Saying positive things for the sake of saying positive things is dishonest and condescending - just as much as saying negative things for the sake of saying negative things. To have a genuine engagement it is necessary to take off the kid gloves.

As for me being a high maintenance tourist, you obviously have no idea what you're talking about. I take budget airlines, sleep in hostels, eat street food and essentially never take taxis in developing countries. Perhaps to Indonesians "high maintenance" means something very different, like "low expectations".

I have nothing to say about your justification of differential pricing (not to mention being unable to recall places which have differential pricing by *nationality*). No, actually I have to say that I will be very glad to "honour" the Indonesians I meet in the future. As for Borobudur belonging to Indonesians that is extremely problematic. Suffice it to say that UNESCO declares that the UNESCO World Heritage Sites "belong to all of humanity", and that Indonesia is a State Party to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, and has not only acquiesced to this but actively endorsed it.

Healthcare in Singapore is priced differently because it is state-subsidised as a matter of public policy, and being a basic good. Furthermore, there is a subsidy by individual - i.e. the government pays the healthcare provider the differential for each citizen/PR who is given subsidised treatment. I am very certain that the Indonesian government does not pay the foundations maintaining Borobudur and Prambanan for each Indonesian they pay host to. Incidentally Mount Elizabeth is a private hospital so foreigners and locals pay the same rates.

I don't disagree with you on Singaporean food. I don't understand why you have to look at it as a zero-sum game, as if every flaw of Singapore is a plus point for Indonesia, and vice versa.

Him: Betwixt honesty and insult lies a very fine line.

Reading your entries on Indonesia, it gives me an impression that you have made it a point to ridicule the country. As any red-blooded Indonesian, it is my right to be insulted by your negative insinuations. That said, I do not mean this as a zero-sum game at all.

Perhaps I am emotional, but when you are being too honest about something, it is almost certain that you will end up offending someone. This is not like an African-American calling himself the N-word or a Jewish comedian making fun of his own race - you're dealing with a country that is not your own, and if social conventions mean anything to you, you should show some respect. It does not matter if you're the analytical sort and value honesty above everything - even to the point that you can safely state that it's OK for me to be brutally honest about your Singapore to reciprocate. The point is, writing derogatory remarks about others will inevitably evoke offense. Not every person has the stomach to swallow brutal honesty.

You could be more compassionate and perhaps end this post with some sort of sympathy - or at least pathos - but you had to rub salt on an open wound by showing further 'honest' quotes.

As a citizen of a developed nation, any insults, or even a single speck of condescending remark towards a less-developed nation will be frowned upon. Such is the fate of the privileged. I'm sure you had enough quality education to be able to realize that.

Now that I've stated my reasons, I hope we can get past the personal issues and get on with the facts.

Your argument about UNESCO is slightly off the point. True, Borobudur is a world heritage site and Indonesians are aware that it might be a problem in the long run as to who has the right to manage the site - but that does not in any way mean that the Indonesian government can treat Borobudur as anything but a property of the Indonesian government. As long as Borobudur is within the sovereignty of Indonesia, it is ultimately possible that Indonesia can deem that it is within Indonesia's power to treat Borobudur as it sees fit.

The different ticket pricing between local and international tourists in Borobudur IS a huge controversy, even in Indonesia. However, it is most certainly not based on racism or discrimination. A lot of policies in Indonesia are very much outdated and as you might realize, tourism in Indonesia (outside Bali) is not in a developed state. Even Bali itself is not as tourist-friendly as it is supposed to be, and pales in comparison in regards to tourism infrastructure to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, let alone Singapore.

30-odd years ago, the dual admission ticket pricing policy was adopted because Indonesia was miserably poor. Therefore, the government decides to charge Indonesian citizens less than foreigners - based on the (somewhat incorrect) assumption that all Indonesians are poor and all foreigners are rich. They figured that when a foreigner can shell out thousands of dollars in air ticket cost to fly to Indonesia, then the admission ticket price to tourist attractions in Indonesia should be proportionate to their transportation cost, based on the comparative study conducted by the Indonesian government in developed nations. Foreigners are also given further incentives such as preferential treatments, shuttle bus services, etc (I have no idea how this is enforced - the only time I've been to Borobudur was 20 years ago when I was 7).

I'm not saying that this is a correct decision - but I will say that this is an inevitable decision. In one way or another, realization that Indonesians were in fact poor and foreigners were in fact much wealthier will occur and there is no just way to satisfy both the goal of maintaining enough income to preserve Borobudur and being fair to all visitors regardless of nationality.

Perhaps I can illustrate that a similar phenomenon also occurs in Singapore - whereby (historically) poorer ethnic Malays and Indians are exempted from paying school fees while (historically) wealthier ethnic Chinese have to pay a certain sum - albeit a meager one at that. I don't see this as a discrimination - but rather as a correct reflection on prevalent social stratification. I have no idea how the current situation is - but that is how it was a decade ago.

Getting native Indonesians to even pay at all in order to visit Borobudur was in itself a huge difficulty. As I said before, Borobudur is not like e.g. Resorts World Sentosa. Borobudur is something that the native has a spiritual, historical, and even intellectual relationship with. Charging admission for Indonesians to enter Borobudur is perhaps as controversial and repulsive as charging the Japanese to visit the Meiji-jingu or Fuji-yama.

Lately, as Indonesia progressed to become a functioning democracy and has a relatively healthy economic growth, it is soon realized that not all Indonesians are poor (anymore) and not all foreigners are (still) wealthy. Incidentally, the most vociferous opinion about the obsolescence of the dual admission price system came from inside Indonesia. If I recall correctly, this issue was widely debated in various national fora.

So while your argument about unfairness in admission prices has its merits, you should realize that it does not stem from discrimination per se.

By the way, I was perhaps too quick to judge that you are a high-maintenance tourist. I'll take that back. You are, in fact, a delusional tourist to think that Indonesia has the same standard as Singapore. By GDP per capita alone, it is a fact that an average Singaporean makes in excess of 10 times an average Indonesian. Obviously, this reflects in the level of development in Indonesia as well. Street food in Indonesia cannot be compared to street food in Singapore (if there is one). If you want something that satisfy your Singaporean high standards, then obviously you should foray to the upmarket facilities in the developed parts of Indonesia. However, this is something you choose not to do but you still complain nevertheless. 一分钱一分货 - you get what you pay for.

Also, thanks for correcting me about Mount Elizabeth hospital charges. I was slightly confused. What I mean to say was foreigners has to be admitted in (at the very worst) a 4-bedded accommodation without having the option for a more reasonable 6-bedded accommodation.

I apologize if my rants about Singapore offends you - but I am not sorry to feel offended by your Indonesian travelogue. Along with my fellow countrymen I have strove to rebuild Indonesia's image from terrorist-torn chaos to an increasingly decent country to visit. And I'm not going to let some uneducated reader deduce from your posts that that's what Indonesia only has to offer - some unhygienic frozen chicken nuggets and unchewable sate kambing.

The internet is a free forum - you have the right to write whatever you wish. But I refuse to think that you are so inhumane that you would mean harm to my country so I implore you to think about the implications before you write.

PS: Tell me, do you take satisfaction in pointing out the bad things about other countries? Are you doing this so you feel more assured that you're much better off being Singaporean? Is this a theme of your blog - insults masked by honesty?

Me: Sure, I know people will get offended and I am acutely aware of double standards and 'minority' privilege. I'm not disputing that that will happen. But as one of my sociology lecturers said, "My aim is to offend at least 2 people every lecture... I want to offend at least 10% of the people every lecture... or at least to get 10% of the people thinking about things that they've never thought about before." If we never dared to offend people, we would never get anywhere.

It's good to know that Indonesians themselves are not in accord over discriminatory pricing. I can assure you that there was no preferential treatment - the only 'advantages' we got were an airconditioned 'welcome' area and 'free' tea/coffee and mineral water.

In Singapore Malays are exempted from paying school fees, that is true. But just because a policy exists in one place does not mean that it is justified elsewhere. For example, I oppose this policy.

The Japanese do not pay to visit Meiji-jingu or Fuji-san - but then foreigners do not either. As I've said, Indonesia is the only place I've found such discriminatory pricing policies.

Where did I think Indonesia had the same standard as Singapore?! My observation about Indonesian street food was that it was junk food. This comes not from comparing it with Singaporean restaurants. One must compare like with like - I did/do not expect Indonesian street food to be of Michelin Star quality. I speak of my experience with street food (or the closest thing to such) all around the world. And Malaysian street food is better than in Singapore, incidentally.

I am not offended by criticism or rants - only by irrationality.

PS: I point out bad things about Singapore also. And I point out good things about other countries. So your hypothesis is false.

Separately, on YouTube:

My video: Spectacle at Jakarta Shopping Centre (Mall): "Totally pointless and not even aesthetically appealing"

Him: It is NOT pointless. You obviously know nothing about watchmaking. This isn't just some TOY you can control with a remote or your cheap quartz watch. The movement of the dolls are actually integrated to the clock gear system and it's very complicated to make. This is a genuine Seiko clock from Japan, custom made for Plaza Senayan. It costs tens of thousands of dollars. It's the same reason why a rolex costs $10,000 - genuine clocks are complicated to make.

Me: I have the highest respect for people who pour time, energy and expertise into setting up elaborate Rube Goldberg machines, but this does not mean that there is some worth - teleological or otherwise - in making them.

The mere complexity or cost of something does not lend it intrinsic (or even, perhaps, extrinsic) value.

You might want to look up "White Elephant" in the dictionary.

Him: You're saying that just because you think that it is "pointless" and aesthetically unpleasing, you assume that it's a white elephant. Well then, you might want to look up the term "philistine" in the dictionary. Anyway, the point of the elaborate clock is to tell the time in a spectacular way. Simple as that. I appreciate the engineering and design value of a musical clock, but I feel that it is pointless explaining the reason why to (what I assume) a utilitarian such as yourself.

Me: De gustibus non est disputandum. As I mentioned it is "not even aesthetically appealing"

Him: Oh my. Quidquid latine sit, altum videtur, non? Anyway, as I have implied, just because you think that it is not aesthetically appealing, doesn't mean that it's pointless. Unless you can convince me otherwise.

Me: You missed out the "dictum" in "dictum sit"

[Addendum: Comment he posted on my YouTube profile:

"I like you, Gabriel. I thought you were disdainful but I was wrong. You're complacent, condescending, acerbic, and have a penchant for proverbia latina - you remind me of my very own self. Latine loqui coactus sum quoque. Perhaps somewhere in a parallel universe, we can actually be amici. Salve!"]

In conclusion, I draw your attention to the Google results for "indonesia sucks" with those for "indonesia rocks" - though there are more for the later, virtually none of them are praise for it; most are for some rock concert or for geology-related sites.

someone: "wow, that eric person is really sad

i'm like...dude, i know your country used to be a great empire with lots of civilisation, culture, history etc, but that doesn't change the fact that it's now a shithole

and few sgpreans wd disagree with him that sgp is boring and sterile and has no culture or history next to indonesia...but at least its a boring and sterile with first world amenities"
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