Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Battle of the Bumis

Hate Thy Neighbor. Quite a universal rule, isn't it? Well, if you live in Indonesia, your neighbor is Malaysia. And boy! Do you hate them.

It will hit you as soon as you arrive in the country, and it's all the weirder that both share more than a few commonalities. Most of the ethnic Malays from Malaysia migrated from the Indonesian archipelago some centuries ago, mostly from Sumatra and Sulawesi islands; so the language is very similar (just a few more differences than between American and British English), the cultural base pretty much the same, and the religion and customs, too. During the independence movement, there were even some people who were dreaming of creating a big Malay country that would join both of them (and some of today's radical Islamists are still hoping for it); they saw it as a mishap in history that Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch while Malaysia was part of Her Majesty's empire.

But things did not play that well - both countries actually fought a covert war just after Malaysia's independence. Since 2000, the latent hate has been livened by a series of rows that raged from outcries at the treatment of the Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia to the scandal of the thieving of a song to the tensions over the sovereignity of the Sipadan islands (and the oil around it).

Indonesians see Malaysia as a fur-coated tart, whose only call to glory is that her husband's family trailer was luckily discovered sitting on an untapped oil field - the haughty Nouveau Riche syndrome. Malaysians see Indonesians as a bunch of hicks who are far too numerous for their own good - albeit quite useful as your underpaid maid.

What about us? Who's the best? I propose a poll (next column), where you can make up your mind based on the few points below comparing both countries. Please note that 1. I don't mean to tickle the nationalist pride of either of these people; I like 'em both and 2. it is a silly list compiled by a silly foreigner who don't know a damn about what she's talking about anyway.

- 1: Airports. A win for Malaysia - hands down. To its defense, Sukarno Hatta airport in Jakarta does have some local flavour, by which I mean a couple of traditional wood carvings and a javanese-shaped brown roof that provides some character. But that's all there is to it. As for KLIA... Ah!!!! KLIA. Marvel of new technology, beauty of steel engineering, free wifi everywhere, efficiency and logical organization (a rarely found quality, in my modest opinion). It's been voted several times best airport in the world/continent/region, and if you stop by around here, it's a nice choice for transit.

- 2: Taxi drivers. I'll have to give my vote to my dear country. Granted, sometimes Jakarta's taxi drivers can be a little too chatty, so if you want to read your book or listen to your Ipod podcast you have to resort to the old trick of pretending you don't understand a word they're saying: not very honest, but it spares the akwardness of dismissing friendly chatter. Whereas in KL (Kuala Lumpur, for the uninitiated) I've actually been yelled at by a taxi driver for not being able to give him directions to the street where I wanted to go to. No comment.

- 3: gruesome murders. That's a tough one. Munir's killing scenario, in Indonesia, was definitely worthy of a James Bond movie (the old ones): imagine a prominent human rights activist, very well known for uncovering foul play by the army and the dictatorship, poisoned with arsenic (arsenic!!!) while on board a Singapour-Amsterdam flight and found dead, foam on the side of the lips, at landing. That's a good one: guess who might be behind that? But Malaysia had the Altantuya Shaariibuu case: a beautiful model from Mongolia (yep), with political connections that went as high as the Deputy Prime Minister and Defense minister (or, shall I say if I do not want to be tried for diffamation, "are said to reach..."). She was shot dead, and afterwards some people thought they'd make her body disappear by blowing it up, using a type of explosive in service among the Malaysian security forces. Unluckily though, it did not dawn on them that pieces of flesh scattered on a few hundred meters perimeter might indeed attract attention. Hmmmmm.... Can't decide on who wins this battle.

- 4: civil society. Well, a big win for Indonesia, because although Malaysia is officially a democracy, wide range censorship and autocensorship does not really nurture a heathy debate in a country (with the notable exception of Malaysiakini), whereas Indonesia's is quite lively. So much so that I even heard not one, but several Malaysian activists saying that Indonesians are well ahead of them in terms of democratization. Please dwell for a minute on the impact of such a statement: it's huge. It's as if a Frenchman said that the United States have Culture: even though you might find some evidence of it, your sheer genes are preventing you from uttering such a blasphemy.

- 5: capital city. It's all linked to the fact that Malaysia is pretty rich, when Indonesia sadly remains a third world country. Jakarta is a mess: polluted, with a urbanization plan that is a challenge to any logical mind. KL is teeny tiny (in Asian standards), with a glorious public transportation system, pockets of green in its outskirts that remind you there's some jungle out there. Locals do complain about the traffic; that makes Jakartans scoff. And Ladies, in KL you can walk around in heels without fearing the treacherous pothole that is an ever-looming threat to your delicate ankles in Jakarta.

- 6: food. I personally love KL's food diversity that reflects the cultural variety of the country: 60% of Malays, 30% Chinese and 8% Indians. The chinese street food is fantastic, there are little Indian eateries everywhere, and of course all the traditional Malay fare. The mix of it all is a real pleasure. I have to say though, to come back to the issue of the nationalist arguments between the two countries, that I was shocked to be offered once in a restaurant a "traditional malaysian soup", called Soto Ayam Madura. Soto means "soup"; "ayam" is "chicken" and "Madura" is... an Indonesian island off of Java. So much for the "traditional Malaysian" label.

Now please, Ladies and Gentlemen, to your votes! You might argue that those random categories are not enough to judge the merits of the nations. Why not... but this is my blog, so I do whatever I want.

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