published by Jakarta Globe, September 24, 2009

One of the most embarrassing moments for Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo occurred on the second day of this year’s Idul Fitri holiday. What could be worse than that?

It was indeed a sad sight for all of us. I was sitting on my comfy couch enjoying my Idul Fitri food when I saw people on TV crying for help. They were being sandwiched like animals. I suddenly felt guilty for enjoying my Lebaran moment.

I later found out that it was all because of zakat (alms) worth Rp 40,000 ($4.16) per person and packages that the governor was giving out at City Hall. Two people were sent to hospital with serious injuries.

Watching the news I realized how poor this country really is. On a day when Muslims are supposed to enjoy themselves, there were people screaming and yelling for only Rp 40,000. Any government official who also watched the news should have felt ashamed.

But of all people, it is of course Fauzi who should carry the most guilt. The shameful tragedy happened in front of City Hall as he tried to celebrate Lebaran.

There are two things Fauzi should think about during his time as governor of Jakarta.

First, he needs to improve the quality of life for people in this city. The tragedy gave us all a clear message that poverty does exist in Jakarta. The officials might be able to present us with statistics showing how welfare has been boosted, but that’s only on paper.

The reality is, people are still poor. They are hungry and they don’t have decent jobs. We are indeed a poor city with countless slums and dirty rivers.

All those tall office buildings and fancy shopping malls that Jakarta’s officials might be so proud of are just an illusion. Behind those high, strong walls, people live in tragic conditions.

What Fauzi should think hard about is how he and his men can develop the right strategy to make this city a better place for everybody. He should realize that this city has long been unfair to many.

Jakarta is heaven for people with money. We have it all. We arguably have some of the world’s best shopping centers. We have many expensive restaurants and cafes. Some of my friends even say that Jakarta’s nightclubs are better than those in Singapore or Bangkok.

But those places only satisfy a small group of people. The majority are left with no choice.

Second, Fauzi should think about why he and his staff made such an embarrassing mistake.

He said similar alms-giving events had been conducted by previous governors. But if it was a regular event, why did we witness such horror?

I remember I participated in an event called Sahur on the Road, conducted by the Central Jakarta administration a few weeks ago. The event began with the mayor explaining that any gift distribution to the poor should be done in an orderly manner. She said, “It’s our official policy.”

But the “official policy” was not what I saw on TV.

It’s so typically Indonesian for government officials and politicians to always boast of their commitment to the public, how they care about the poor, and how they always put the people’s needs as the country’s first priority.

But the truth is, the poor are always treated as a political commodity. The latest tragedy we saw this Lebaran was a clear example.

Fauzi told the media the event was a Lebaran gathering, not a zakat distribution. So why were money and gifts involved?

Because the less-fortunate won’t come to an event if they don’t get money. That’s how easily they can be exploited by government officials and politicians.

If the governor wanted to give alms to his people, he should have given through the appropriate institutions — as he said he had also done.

If the governor wanted to have a Lebaran gathering, there was no need to distribute money. If he hadn’t, we could see whether or not the poor really love their governor.

published by Jakarta Globe, September 18, 2009

The holy month of Ramadan is a time when many people are inclined to reassess some of their most basic assumptions about Islam. It’s a time when Muslims are encouraged to pray more, give more, interact more and fully explore their religion, inspiring them to become better people.

But just as Muslims have Ramadan, people of other religions also have ways of recharging their faith. Christians have Christmas, Hanukkah for Jews and solstices for modern pagans.

In addition to these special occasions, many believers also practice complicated prayers and rituals on a daily basis.

It’s a big question for atheists as to why people are so devoted to their faith. They are curious why billions of people believe in something they can’t see or touch.

A nonbeliever once asked me, “Why do you believe in God? You haven’t even seen him.”

“Because belief is something you can feel in your heart and you don’t have to see to believe,” I replied.

But my answer didn’t satisfy him. He wondered why I needed to listen to all that talk about heaven and hell when the clerics themselves have no certain proof of an afterlife.

He confronted my faith: “I don’t understand why you, and all the other people of faith in the world, believe in the words of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. They were just ordinary people like you and me, who just happened to be smart enough to create some of the world’s greatest poetic books.”

It’s obvious that due to dramatic changes in the world, the major religions are having a hard time after a few centuries in the safe zone. People have started to question the validity of religion on various issues.

Islam is being attacked from every direction due to the terrorist acts committed by Muslim fundamentalists. Western society started to accuse Islam of being an irrational religion after the 9/11 tragedy. And with suicide bombs occurring everywhere, including in this country, Islam finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable position.

Other religions are having the same problems: Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,’’ for example, attacked the pillars of Christianity, while some people have become suspicious of Judaism because of the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine.

Living in an era where the trend is toward atheism can be tough for the devout. You can forget your religious commitments and feel happy about it, because it’s easy to find the information you need to hate your faith.

If you are a person of faith, try not to be offended by what nonbelievers think of you and your religion. And who knows, at some point those nonbelievers might have a good point that you can learn from.

We believers don’t always have all the answers. We may think we have the answers, but with all the scientific research out there, I think we have to accept the fact that sometimes we can’t always provide the world with good answers.

I remember asking my Islamic studies teacher during my first semester at university, “Why do non-Muslims go to hell when they die?”

My teacher said, “Because they are sinful for being non-Muslims.”

Unsatisfied with his answer, I tried to dig out some more information, and asked him, “What if those people don’t know anything about Islam, let’s say they live in a very remote area in the mountains where the word Islam has never even been heard of? Will they still go to hell?”

He said, “Don’t go too far. There are things people have no need to find out. They are God’s secrets.”

And that’s where the main problem lies. We believers think we have the answers to everything, because when we are stuck we can always say things like, “Because God says so.” But that’s something that people on the other side can’t accept.

But with all the doubts and accusations, I still believe in my faith. It’s not easy, of course. Especially when you are young and there are so many temptations out there. I want to prove to people that I’m Muslim but not just because I was born one.

To blame religion for all the wrongdoings in this world is easy. But we also need to look at honest and humble religious people who try to make this world a better place.

It’s a challenge for religion and all people of faith to prove that we can indeed bring peace to this world. Through our long and complicated prayers, we have to show that God does exist. As my mother always says, “People say God can’t be seen. They’re wrong. God’s presence is around us, every minute, every second.”

published by Jakarta Globe, September 13, 2009

During the election, the presidential and vice presidential candidates talked a lot about the economy, politics and international diplomacy. But no one really broached the subject of education and how they would equip our children with the knowledge to compete against other nations.

They were probably feeling quite smug, knowing that many Indonesian students have won international academic competitions. At first glance, our students seem ready to face the future. But is this really the case?

Every morning, I pass by a small elementary school on the way to the office. I always see tired little children at the gate, lugging their bags around. I bet their backpacks are filled with weighty tomes, as mine was so many years ago.

For so many years, our education system has been about memorizing and writing. I remember when I was an elementary school student, my teacher would come into the classroom and tell everyone to open their notebooks. Then she would dictate straight from the textbook and make us write it down. During tests, it was always the students who could memorize the most information who got As.

I used to wonder why in the world I had to write down everything that was already in the textbook. Why couldn’t I just read it at home instead? But I never had the chance, or the courage, to ask the adults around me. Then there was the way the teachers worshipped students who excelled at math and science — I was considered one of the stupid ones because I hated math, chemistry, biology and physics.

I was so embarrassed in high school when I didn’t get into science class. My grades weren’t good enough so I was channeled into the social science class. I didn’t have any problems with social science. I discovered I was pretty good at it and I enjoyed studying it. But the ostracism was too much. It seemed to me that everyone looked down on me, and the teachers certainly didn’t lavish the kind of attention on us that the kids in the science class received.

Now I feel like I have an obligation to tell the world how unfair our education system is to some students.

When I lived in the United States for two years, I had the chance to visit some schools in my neighborhood. One of the main differences was that the students in America looked happy. Granted, they have better facilities, but I think the real reason they were so happy was because they had the chance to explore the subjects they really liked.

In developed countries, a student who sings well is encouraged to pursue that talent. If they fail at math or biology, it doesn’t really matter. Teachers will always praise their singing talent.

It’s the understanding that each student is unique that really makes the education systems in advanced countries so effective.

Our students are good when it comes to memorizing theories but they are weak in the implementation. That’s ironic when we see how students here have to lug around all those heavy books every day.

What is it that’s wrong with our education system? Is it the curriculum or the quality of our teachers? I think both. And it’s the job of our president and vice president to improve the quality of the education system.

They must make education a national concern. People are talking about the environment and all the concerns about global warming. But no one really talks about how poor the quality of our education is.

Some people may not take issue with our education system, but that’s only because they’re either too rich or too poor.

The rich have no problem because they can afford schools of an international standard. In Jakarta you can see this very clearly; expensive schools are being built every day. And for the poor, they are often unable to make their children’s education a top priority as they struggle just to survive each day.

What most people don’t realize is that education is a powerful tool for boosting a country’s economy in the long run. By creating a good education system — which also means free education — the government gives its people a chance to become economically secure.

We should learn from countries like South Korea and Singapore that place great importance on education. Look at them now. They were like us so many years ago, but now they can stand proudly among other advanced countries. If they can do it, so can we.

Picture taken from

Sometimes we are too arrogant that we forget the presence of others. Such an attitude is commonly seen due to the kind of life that we have in this great city of ours, Jakarta. But when we need their help we suddenly feel glad that they are here.

It’s the same thing with tukang ojek. We sometimes try to ignore that they are real; but once we get stuck in Jakarta’s crazy traffic and we need to be somewhere quickly, we know we can always count on our lovely tukang ojek (by saying this, I assume everybody knows very well what a tukang ojek is).

I know this because I learned the hard way. About two months ago my car got broken due to my careless driving style and it had to be put in the workshop for more than a month. Going to my office in Sudirman with the help of public transportation was definitely not a choice since there’s only one kind of bus that passes my area of living which is frustratingly so unreliable.

So, one morning I went to ojek station near my house and told one of the guys that I would need their service every morning. Ojek service may not be cheap, but during my no-car experience for a month, I proved myself that ojek can be a very reliable transportation in Jakarta.

For a month a very polite forty-something man would come to my house at 8 every morning with his old motorcycle. He would wait for me patiently while I was still busy preparing all the things I needed to take to the office. When I was finally ready I would usually say, “I’m sorry for waiting too long.” And he always replied with a smile, “It’s no problem.” He would lend me his ugly-looking helmet and we were both ready to conquer Jakarta’s cruel traffic.

Using ojek service every morning for almost a month was an eye opener for me. Despite the fact that you will breathe Jakarta’s dirty and polluted air and you will sweat a lot due to Jakarta’s hot weather, I realized that through ojek we could get and learn many things.

First, ojek without any doubt is the fastest transportation service you can get in this city. Nothing can beat it. And for that reason you can always save a lot of time by using ojek. It takes me at least an hour to go to my office during rush hour with car. But, with ojek I can expect to arrive less than 20 minutes; although that depends on how good the tukang ojek is.

We all know how frustrating traffic in Jakarta can be and sometimes it can be very unpredictable too. And when you’re driving your car, there’s nothing you can really do when trapped in traffic congestion. When you’re stuck, it only means you’re stuck. But it’s a different story if you use a motorcycle. You can do a lot of circus tricks on it, and that’s exactly what most tukang ojek are really good at.

Second, to ride ojek means you can learn how bad the quality of our air is. You will understand that to put Jakarta among the cities with the worst air condition is no joke at all. You will realize that the pollution in this city is so bad that you would probably think it would actually kill you if stayed outside for an hour or so.

Middle-up people in Jakarta always avoid being outside too long. We always want to be inside of something; either it’s a car or a building. As long as there’s air conditioner we’re be happy. But that kind of mentality is not really what we need to have right now. We should be aware that we need to pay more attention to our environment. And Jakarta’s air condition is a very good indicator how we have lost our interest in appreciating our environment. I believe we are all familiar with the flood tradition that this city has to face every year. I myself had the worst flood experience this year when my city car had to be towed because I tried to fight the rain and flood (not a very wise decision).

What I have found out is that riding ojek can be a good moment of truth for us to realize that we have to take some serious actions to save the air and the whole environment. To suck such unhealthy air, you will understand this is not the kind of air we want our grand children to have.

Third, by using ojek you might be able to appreciate Jakarta’s motorcyclists better. I know that’s not easy because I’m among those guys who always curse at those crazy motorcyclists too. My car has been hit a few times already by irresponsible motorcyclists who usually flee so quickly after hitting or making a scratch on somebody’s car.

But try to be on the motorcycle seat during rush hour in Jakarta’s traffic. You will understand how riding a bike in Jakarta is no fun experience at all. It’s hot and it’s tiring, all you want to do is get to your destination as soon as possible. You will no longer care about the traffic light, the sidewalk, people crossing the street, and even the police officers. All you want to see is the finish line.

I’m not saying we should tolerate those motorcyclists who break the law. But it’s important to make a note on why they do it and then find the right solutions.

Fourth, which is probably the most important one, ojek can give you a good lesson on what life is really like in Jakarta.

Yes, we may have been aware of those unlucky people on the streets (street beggars and pengamen). And we probably have always helped them by giving some money too. But trust me, to see such a phenomenon from our comfortable car while having our air conditioner and radio on is so different from seeing it “live”.

By having yourself on the seat of ojek, you will be part of the real Jakarta; the kind of life most people in this city have to face. You will see how life is so much about struggling in this city.

Ojek may not be something that we can be proud of as people of Jakarta. But its presence, like it or not, helps us in many ways. It is, without any doubt, the most reliable transportation service when time is not on our side. Ojek can also be a very good tool to enjoy Jakarta in a very unique way and it’s also a good medium to grasp Jakarta’s real life.

So next time you take an ojek, never forget to treat the tukang ojek nicely. When you hand him the money after enjoying Jakarta’s city tour, reply his gratitude by saying, “You’re welcome, I love you too.”

His name was Entjik Mohamad Apan. He is my great great grandfather. Of course I never met him. But I have heard a lot of stories about him from my grandmother. Everybody in my maternal grandmother’s family is so proud of him. He was the first “Bupati” in Tanjung Pinang, a small city island in the province of Kepulauan Riau.

My grandmother always reminds me that I’m an island boy (anak pulau). She says it’s in my blood. I’ve never been to Kepulauan Riau or Tanjung Pinang, but once lived in Dumai, Riau, for a year when I was a kid. Now the voice within me tells me I shoud come home.

My Uncle Wanda has been in Batam for several years now and he keeps telling me to visit him. By the way, Batam is just an hour away or so from Tanjung Pinang by boat (I think so). As an island boy, my Uncle grew up in a small city Malang, Jawa Timur, along with my mother and his two brothers. They speak Javanese so well just like any other Wong Malang. But I think it was his destiny to come home to where he really belongs. After so many years trying to find the right woman, somehow his love landed to a woman from Tanjung Pinang and got married three years ago.

Sometimes I wonder if what my grandmother tells me is right. Am I really an island boy? During my short visit to Bali more than a month ago, I realized how much I enjoyed being in the beach and feeling the heat of the sun. Everything else just felt so right too. One word to describe it: Free.

I can’t wait to have my so-called comeback. The food is also a big factor why I want to go to Tanjung Pinang. People have been telling me how tasty Tanjung Pinag’s food is. And it’s all about sea food. There’s this unique creature they love to eat called Gonggong. I can picture myself sitting by the beach on a cheap-plastic chair while enjoying Tanjung Pinang’s famous dishes. I can picture myself being so free and peaceful.

The more I think the more I know I have to come home. I have to go to where it all started. I have to go to the place where my soul belongs to. A place called Tanjung Pinang where hundreds of small islands are united by the spirit of people like Entjik Mohamad Apan.

It’s amazing. My grandfathers were both in the military. They both received “Bintang Gerilya” which means they both fought the war for Indonesia’s independence. Here comes the amazing part. Both of my grandfathers died on August 17th. They passed away on a Thursday and were buried on a Friday. So, they are both resting peacefully at Taman Makam Pahlawan. For that reason I sometimes tell my friends jokingly, “I’m the chosen one.”

For me and my family, August 17th is a very sacred date.

I never met my paternal grandfather; he died when my father was still in high school. I’ve heard stories about him from my father and his siblings. They say that my grandfather, whose name was simply “Barley”, was so much into arts. He was a big and dark-skinned man. His old pictures at my grandmother’s house look a bit scary.

If I never met my paternal grandfather, I was very close to my maternal grandfather. He was a very nice person. I loved him with all my heart. He was the first person who taught me English; I remember how he encouraged my mother to put me and my brother to an English course in Malang. My Mom didn’t have enough money at that time, as my Dad was back in school, but my grandfather helped out although his monthly pension was not really that much.

Today, I went to Makam Taman Pahlawan Kalibata with my maternal grandmother, Auntie, and Dela for “ziarah”. We Muslims are encouraged to visit the cemetery before the holy month Ramadan. The weather was very hot, couldn’t complain because it’s Jakarta. We were lucky my grandfather’s tomb was not so far away from the entrance, and that’s because he died in 1967.

We poured the rose water into his tomb and the flowers we had bought at the entrance. We prayed for his peacefulness. I managed to take some good pictures, trying to look like a professional photographer. After 15 minutes being exposed in the sun, I began to sweat like crazy. My face turned to red and I felt like jumping into a big swimming pool.

One thing I like about Taman Makam Kalibata is the fact that it’s so neat. Compared to other cemeteries like Karet, Kalibata is so nice and organized. I always joke this fact by saying, “Military men are so neat, even when they’re dead.”

I hope my grandfathers are resting in peace.

I always thought taking a becak at night is a very romantic experience. So when my girlfriend suddenly shouted excitedly, “Look, there’s a becak!” while walking at Braga, Bandung, I spontaneously replied, “Let’s go around the city with it.”

I could see her approval to my idea. She looked so happy and couldn’t wait to jump into the becak’s small seat. I asked the “abang” becak how much I needed to pay to go around Alun-Alun with his becak; he answered politely with his Sundanese accent, “20 ribu aja atuh.” We almost had an argument to get a cheaper price, but soon realized that it would be too cruel to bargain (realizing that we’re not that thin).

Bandung’s weather proved to be so much more breathable than Jakarta’s and circling around Braga and Alun-Alun with becak was indeed a romantic experience. We didn’t talk that much during our ride. Perhaps, we were squeezing our bodies too hard on the small becak’s seat. But we still managed to smile and admired the excitement riding the becak. It had been so long since our last becak experience.

From our seat we could hear how the tukang becak was trying so hard to keep his vehicle moving. I felt so guilty for being too fat. I told myself if only I could replace him and let him sit instead and enjoy the scenery; but soon changed my mind, not wanting to let myself embarrassed.

One thing we learned from having our first becak experience in Bandung was the fact that it wasn’t easy to take pictures while being on the seat of a becak. My girlfriend tried her best to hold her pocket-sized camera at the right angle, but she just couldn’t get a good picture. And she gave up.

But again really, taking a becak ride was indeed a fun experience (and romantic too, depending whom you’re with). It felt so peaceful to have the soft wind hit our faces. The sound of cars, motorcycles, and people walking by somehow felt like God’s beautiful symphony from our becak’s seat. Not to mention how were surrounded by old and colonial buildings.

I wish it would’ve lasted so much longer. If only the tukang becak had been stronger, I would probably have asked him to take us not only Braga and Alun-Alun but the whole city Bandung with his becak. But I knew he had to take a rest, he was already losing his breath when we finally told him to stop.

I didn’t have the heart to give his Rp 20,000 that he had asked. Instead, I gave him an extra Rp 5,000 for his generosity. He smiled and looked happy. I said, “No, I thank you. You just gave us a happy experience!”

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guebukanmonyet is Tasa Nugraza Barley. He's a free man with unique thoughts and dreams. He sees his life and this world differently from anyone else. That's because he knows what he wants; and for that reason he doesn't want to be the same. Read why he blogs, here.

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