Malaysia is a small country and our future as a nation lies in us coming to terms with external forces and harnessing them for our future.
IT’S dark but wherever you look there are people — mothers with their children, trishaw men waiting for customers, dock-workers and day-labourers gathered in groups — their tired faces momentarily revealed by occasional pools of light: old gas lamps and harsh fluorescent light hanging from inside various warungs and stalls.
I’m driving through Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak, port district, one of Indonesia’s most important transportation hubs.
However, this is not the port proper. That’s elsewhere. Here, the work is manual and time-consuming: a throw-back to the past.
Hundreds of trucks are lined up waiting to be unloaded and then perhaps reloaded. Ships tower alongside the docks. Even in the gloom, there are stevedores darting around the cargoes: gigantic spools of steel wire, crates of electronics, tractors and earth-moving equipment.
I have just finished dinner with an old friend, Ustaz Khoiron, whose home and mushollah are in the middle of nearby Bangunsari; one of the city’s oldest and most notorious prostitution districts (termed lokalisasi).
The handsome forty-nine year Nahdatul Ullama religious leader of kiyai (ustaz) is a rare individual. Despite his surroundings he remains calm, dignified and open-minded.
Imbued with his faith he and his wife Roudhatol Jauharoh and their three children have lived quietly in this corner of Bangunsari since 1984 — tending to those in need.
“You could say that we live on the very edge of hell (neraca) — amidst the bars and prostitution dens but we’ve helped one another and slowly this area’s character has changed for the better. There’s nothing to be gained by blaming the women and isolating them. Instead we’ve tried to help them change.
“Over the years some of them have married, some have moved to ‘Dolly’ (Surabaya’s largest and still thriving lokalisasi), others have returned to their homes in the interior — to Madiun, Kediri and Trenggalek.
“The economy makes it more difficult to change. Life is still very tough for the ‘wong cilik’ (little people/poor) for the ordinary man and woman. In the past few years, the middle classes have prospered but we’ve been left behind.
“Life’s got much better for them. There are new malls and private schools. They have their full-time jobs, their cars, houses and credit cards.
“However, for the ‘wong cilik,’ it’s nearly impossible to find full-time work and the pay is low. At the same time prices of everyday necessities — cooking oil, rice, tempe — are always rising.
“Many of the women in Bangunsari have families to support. We encourage them to change their ways but it’s not easy and often the only other option is to become a TKI (or overseas worker).”
Still, Ustaz Khoiron conceded that in terms of law and order Surabaya — always a rough, industrial city — had improved under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s leadership though his wife felt that much of this was due to the Mayor’s determination and leadership.
“He’s [SBY] a good man. I don’t doubt his intentions but he’s not a strong leader and the Parliament is often against him. Many people aren’t satisfied. There just aren’t enough jobs.”
Returning to my hotel in the bustling Tunjungan Plaza shopping complex, I notice the large two-storey high, Pond’s cream advertising hoarding just outside the lobby.
The aching beautiful face of the young Sinetron actress Bunga Cinta Lestari (most Indonesians know her simply as ‘BCL’) beams with pride and joy as her husband, the Malay-sian TV host, Ashraf Sinclair places a suitably adoring if tentative kiss on his wife’s cheek.
For me, writing the Ceritalah columns has always been about listening to people, observing their surroundings, telling their stories and pointing out the small and subtle ironies in the way we live our lives and view the world.
Whilst I understand that of the late, the columns become better known for the political coverage (especially the fairly constant criticism of Umno and Barisan Nasional), the underlying intention of writing has also been about travelling, about opening the mind and experiencing the new and the unexpected.
When all is said and done, Malaysia is a small country. We were not included amongst the Group of 20 nations that met in Washington last week. As such it’s important that we don’t become too insular and self-obsessed.
The March polls whilst exciting and enervating have made us a little too inclined to navel-gazing just as the rest of the world implodes economically. Instead of trying to understand what the impending recession means for us here in Southeast Asia, we are focused on money-politics in Umno.
I am a firm believer in the need for us as Malaysians, to reach beyond our boundaries, especially since our livelihood as a nation is so dependent on trade. Our future as a nation lies in us coming to terms with external forces and harnessing them for our future.
Moreover, regular Ceritalah readers will know by now the importance I place on our largest neighbour, Indonesia.
As growth tapers off domestically, the archipelagic republic will become an ever more important part of our economic, social and cultural hinterland — Maybank’s dramatic acquisition of Bank Indonesia International earlier in the year being a case in point.
In addition, no Malay Muslim can afford to ignore developments in a 250 million strong nation.
With elections slated for 2009 (for the Republic’s Parliament in March and for their President in June), Indonesia will be entering a period of uncertainty.
The economic turmoil and political infighting has strengthened the position of Yudhoyono’s predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri — a lady whose links with Malaysia are limited at best.
Over the next few months, I will be criss-crossing the republic writing about how Indonesia is changing (or not, as the case may be), offering in a sense just like Ashraf, my own tentative ‘kiss’ for this extra-ordinarily complex and engaging nation.
Brace yourselves — things are going to get very exciting in the Nusantara.