Thursday, April 13, 2006



Picture the scene if you will. A family is deciding on a tropical holiday the sun kissed beaches, the exotic cocktails, swinging lazily in hammocks suspended from palm trees aged and bent into the wind. They also desire some culture, an insight into another world far from the western standards and mores they are used to. They have narrowed the choices down to a couple. Penang and the Island of the Gods, Bali.

Of course Bali has had a couple of high profile bomb blasts but that was spread over a near 4 year period and more chance of being run over by a bus and all that. Penang is peaceful, maybe not the best beaches in the world but enough to see and do to keep themselves busy, as indeed does Bali. Both grant a visa on arrival, Malaysia affords visitors 90 days free while Indonesia makes you queue at the airport for a visa and you pay $25 each for 30 days but it’s only for a couple of weeks and the nearest Indonesian Embassy is an eight hour drive away.

But at the moment the family is leaning towards Bali and why not? It is without doubt one of the most photogenic islands on the planet with it’s lush paddy fields, volcanoes looming through the early morn mist, mystical Hindu temples nestled on lakes and of course an international airport that means just a change in the superbly efficient Singapore is all that separates you from paradise.

A random flick on the remote brings the family to CNN and lo and behold there is a story about Indonesia. Angry white robbed young men are seen attacking a building in Jakarta belonging to a company that produces Playboy Magazine. But these are no football thugs, these wild eyed youths are yelling ‘Allah Akhbar’ as they throw bricks and rocks at the building. But you relax again when the reporter says this is a story from Jakarta, hundreds of miles from Bali.

The next story attracts your attention though. The camera pans to bathing suit clad tourists enjoying the very beaches you have been fantasizing about with your family, the sands you hope to savour in a few short weeks. You forget about the zealots so far away and enjoy the view until the reporter interrupts your dreams. These could soon be memories, she intones, as an Anti Pornography Bill currently being drawn up seeks to ban bikinis, kissing, immodest dress. A journalist says that there are already enough laws on the statutes to take action against Pornographic images, he worries about who will enforce these new laws, vigilantes? Your mind switches back to those earlier images of young men attacking the Playboy building. Do you really want these morons attacking you on the beach because they take offence at your wife on the beach in a new swimsuit she spent hours deciding upon?

Food for thought. The commercial break sees the Prime Minister of Malaysia explaining the meaning of their handshake when they greet people and how the hand goes to the heart of the greeter symbolizing how the visitor is welcome to both his home and heart. Within seconds the holiday in Bali has been ditched for a smiling Prime Minister who wants to welcome visitors personally to his country.

Of course the Indonesians will, quite rightly, protest that the law is still being discussed but that won’t stop bookings go elsewhere. TV images are powerful and the perceptions they create shouldn’t be underestimated, the damage is done in minutes. Two countries with more in common than they like to admit to seem to be operating in parallel universes and while the one continues to plan for the future the other continues to take one step forward, two back.

There is of course another side to the equation, one that unfortunately won’t be considered by the holiday planner. Malaysia has been a peaceful, tolerant society for the best part of 35 years while Indonesia is still coming to terms with the impact of 35 years of cronyism and nepotism when the state assets were little more than the property of one man, Suharto, and his hangers on. Indonesia has ditched dictatorship, embraced democracy and while it is battling to create new standards on civil institutions it is being buffeted by other less welcome interferences like the rising influence of Islamic parties on daily life and separatist movements in Papua and Aceh. The latter is calmer today as both Jakarta and the separatists took the opportunity post tsunami to talk through their differences. Progress is slow, it can’t be anything but in a country of 17,000 islands and 220 million people but the fact that debate is now open on a variety of topics from Papua to corruption to morals means that somewhere down the line Indonesia may well emerge stronger and, for our armchair holiday planner, a more peaceful option.

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