Thursday, October 04, 2007


Free Burma!

One has to be blatantly ignorant not to be disturbed by the latest developments in Burma (or Myanmar). Everybody hates the old-school types of military juntas (in fact, is there any nation in this world totally independent of the 'military industrial complex' ?). But more disturbing is perhaps the acknowledgement that everything (again) hinges with the realpolitik of economics. Yes, resource-hungry China needs its Olympic Games - and yes, EU or US interests are eyeing Burma's lucrative natural resources. It's a too familiar game.

We are all too familiar with what recently happened with struggles for democracy and independence in our region. East Timor fell prey from Indonesian Military Colonialism into the hands of Australian capital ambitions. The spring of Indonesia's Reformasi lost momentum when successive post-Suharto governments failed to come up with any new vision for a just and prosperous society. Idem-ditto with the Philippines or Cambodia. We only witnessed the reconfigurations of power and the further erosion of sovereignty of the masses. The dominant realpolitik has always been 'globalisation' - that very system that strives for efficiency of capital accummulation rather than redistribution. Globalisation does not need democracy. It needs compliance. It's a boring adage repeated over again - but it's an irony that our pseudo-democracies are endorsing the assumed compatibility between democracy and globalisation.

We just hope that all our support for 'freedom' and 'democracy' for the Burmese people cuts and resonates on a wider and deeper scale. We should regain that bright 1955-1966 consciousness we've lost along the way. We should dispose the popular globalisation mantra, and bring back the term 'neo-imperialism' to our lexicon.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Deglobalised in a Gion Heterotopia

Kyōto, Gion, 15/03/2007 - 15:33


A Greek friend of mine defined it as 'a site where numerous objects (commodities, peoples, cultural ideas) that (logically) shouldn't be together are converging, seizing, interacting within a single space at a certain time.'

I don't know how much my friend referred to ideas by Foucault, Baudrillard (+) or Homi Bhaba, but he gave examples: Jean-Claude Van Damme VCDs in Borneo kampungs, Britney Spears T-Shirts worn by Indonesian fruit vendors. In short, the contemporary world we live in no longer produces semblances of 'originality', a sense of place or time. Commodities from distant places are now floating free in a borderless world. It is a world full of pastiche, 'bricolages' - in short, the world has become a collection of spatial orders full of dislocated and disjunctured objects that are interacting, borrowing, reproducing each other within endless possibilities of new meanings.
All these processes that are now celebrated as 'Globalisation' : borders opening up, people coming together and the instantaneous embracing of 'multiculturalism'...or so they said.

Kyōto's Gion district, the historical leisure quarter of old Japan and 2 weeks away from Miako-Odori, the famous Gion festival of spring. Anticipating to see increasing preparations for the festivities, I strolled along Hanamikoji-dori, but soon found myself stranded in a Starbucks outlet for a macchiato and a cigarette.

I opted to sit on the patio for a better view on the Hanamikoji-dori junction where I would anticipate geikos (geishas) and maikos arriving for their ochaya (teahouse) appointments - but soon I found myself focusing on the objects on my table. A Starbucks Macchiato (an Italian trait, patented in Seattle, containing coffeebeans from God knows where Starbucks got them from), my Indonesian clove cigarettes (sold in vending machines around Japan) and an enamel ashtray ('Made in Thailand'). I began thinking back about 'heterotopias'.

How are the poor Thai labour that made these ashtrays for the classy femme-fatales next to my table connected ? - or similarly, what kind of social networks exist between African or Indonesian coffee farmers and Starbuck's Gen-X management in Seattle ? Sure, these aromatic expressos and macchiatos would be more associated with Jazzy NY lifestyle than anything with these coffee producing countries. My table was in that sense a pure heterotopia. All these objects came together - divorced and disconnected from their origins. Decontextualized.

But surely, heterotopias - if this terminology expresses something meaningful at all - should be as old as human's dawn of existance. An archaelogist found in 1965, for example, that some beads found among Bornean ethnic groups have Venetian, and even Mesopotamian origins. Even during the days of rampant headhunting in Borneo during the late 19th century, Singapore traders were tailor-exporting beads to Borneo catering specifically to colour and size demanded by these 'headhunters.' This is just one example.

Take a look at Japan, and it's hard to find anything that has been originally 'Japanese'. Kanji script has been imported from China, as did Buddhism, Zen, street grids and other cultural elements one would usually associate with traditional Japan. Around the world, and one may find millenia-old technology or cultural ideas that was as widely diffused worldwide as today's images of a baldy Britney Spears, pervert anime movies or violence in Iraq.

So if heterotopias aren't that new after all, what about Globalisation?

Ideas centuries ago were transmitted by direct human interaction, and so every appropriation process must have been immensely build on inter-personal contact, inter-cultural learning. Just imagine how Gujarati traders had to propagate Islam to a largely illiterate population that spoke a totally different language? - at least, the structure of 'globalisation' in the past was build on direct human interactions. With the advent of technology, the dehumanizing large-scale industrial division of labour, these processes were radically speeded up. Humans dropped out from the process, and everything became automated. No longer does a trader have to journey half-a-globe away to convince peoples from another culture that tobacco smoking is cool. Today's global structure is more discriminating (for example, migrant workers are not expected to mingle with host populations), hierarchical and impersonal (expats in Third World countries are merely overlooking the machinery of capital).

Does anyone in Gion today, despite daily images of 'Third World' poverty on cable televisions, care about underpaid coffee farmers or Thai labour after all ? Are we humans actually de-Globalised ?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Belgium's Linguistic Barrière

St. Pieters Leeuw, 9 Dec 2006 / Kyoto, 6 Jan 2007

(Here it goes again, an Asian attempt to exoticize a Europe that isn't as rational as we used to think she is)

"Als we alles moeilijk kunnen maken, waarom moet het eenvoudig zijn?" ("If everything can be made difficult, why should we make it simple?"), laments a Belgian when he was asked how Belgium is managing her bilingual situation.


Belgium has indeed complex ways in handling her bilingual (or trilingual - if the German-speaking minorities in the southeast are counted in) mess. Once a unitary state, Belgium has been federated since 1972 into two separate states to accommodate the growing militancy and identity resurrection of her Dutch-speaking Flemish majority. The division has been mainly linguistic.

The federal division of Belgium (België/Belgique), reflecting the linguistic division of Dutch-speaking Vlaanderen state and French-speaking Wallonie

Vlaanderen State in the North has been traditionally a Dutch-speaking area, the homeland of the Vlaamingen (Flemish people) continuous to the Brabant and Limburg provinces of southern Netherlands - while French has been traditionally spoken in Wallonie State in the south adjacent to the French borders. Brussel/Bruxelles is officially bilingual, although a majority of 'Brusselaars' are Francophone.

The linguistic divide: Flemish Brabant and Wallon Brabant

Bilingual Brussel: roadsigns with both Dutch and French versions of placenames

Flemish assertiveness of their Dutch-speaking heritage may have been a reaction against the historical domination of French language among the Belgian ruling elites around Brussel/Bruxelles, which is located within the heartland of Vlaanderen. The solidification of Flemish identity may have reached a turning point after World War II - when Vlaanderen was transformed into the wealthy industrial growth center of the nation - while the traditional coal industries located in Wallonie nosedived into decline. The shift of economic power to Vlaanderen, needless to say, called for the reconfiguration of political power - and along with these shifts, the domination of French language itself was being contested. The language issue became the main battleground for these political tug-of-wars.


One example might be the contestation over the national education system, which as a result of political contestations, was later decentralized. Flemish students and politicians quickly seized momentum, during the general 1968 student discontentment throughout Europe - to overturn the domination of French language in the higher education system. The French-languaged academic establishment in Leuven (Louvain), became a primary target. By 1972 their actions succeeded in forcing a split of the renowned Catholic University of Louvain, turning the main University into a Dutch-speaking institution while forcing the French-speaking constituency to establish a separate campus.

Echoes of 1968 anarchism in old Leuven/Louvain: "Don't Vote, Think for Yourself"

The linguistic border between Vlaanderen and Wallonie is perhaps the most extreme 'cultural' partition that exist in western Europe. While it is easy to observe linguistic gradations, for example, along the German - Dutch or German - Danish borders, the linguistic border between the Anglo-Saxon speaking north and the southern Francophone world is clearly defined in Belgium. No trace of Dutch language can be found, for example, only 10 meters within Wallonie State and vice versa (Brussel/Bruxelles being the exception) - and this also includes the willingness of people to communicate.

No trace of Dutch language 10 meters within Wallonie, the northernmost frontier of the Francophone world (Senegal being perhaps its southernmost border)

As a general rule, Wallons can't speak Dutch, while the Flemish will never talk in French to Wallons (despite the Flemish being generally able to speak French as a second language). The militancy of Dutch-language is even institutionalized in many Municipal Offices throughout Vlaanderen, to levels where public servants won't even consider communicating in French to fellow Wallon citizens.

St. Pieter's Leeuw: A rustic small town, but linguistically militant

The above text reads (photo taken at the St. Pieters Leeuw Municipal office):
"St. Pieters Leeuw is a Dutch-speaking Municipality. It is compulsory by law (article 12 K.B. 18.07.1966) for all personnel to exclusively use Dutch in matters of communication."

I asked one public servant at the municipal office whether this in fact implied an official ban on the use of French language. Without bothering to be politically correct, she replied, "You see, these are official measures for us to defend our Flemish heritage." I was surprised.

This all, however, does not imply that Belgian identities are not fluid. The cultural distinction between Wallons and Flemish is something that can't be easily categorized as an 'ethnic' denominator. I interviewed a mixed Wallon-Flemish family - and while the father is a Wallon, the daughters consider themselves as Flemish mostly due to their schooling in a Dutch-speaking education system in Vlaanderen. Even the difference of having French-sounding or Dutch-sounding names may not reflect one's actual Wallon or Flemish identity.

The most visible linguistic battleground throughout Belgium is the annoying inconsistency of road signs. Riding from north to south (from Vlaanderen to Wallonie), foreign car drivers may first find themselves familiarized with the Dutch versions of many Belgian cities. For example, Wallon cities with their French names (i.e. Liege, Namur or Mons) may show up in their Dutch versions (Luik, Namen, Bergen) on signboards throughout Vlaanderen. Many drivers (e.g. Britons) find themselves completely lost once they cross into Wallonie where the Dutch names are suddenly replaced by their French versions. Conversely, this also counts for those driving from south to north., e.g. French names for Flemish cities (Anvers, Bruges or Hal) substituting their original Dutch names (Antwerpen, Brugge, Halle).

And of course, these signboards are often vandalized by rivaling language extremists.

Wallon politicalinguistic correctness: Flemish Halle changed into it's 'correct' French name, only 20 meters before the linguistic border

Of course, all Belgians remain united when it comes to football, travelling abroad or when collectively rejecting the term 'French Fries' (which, as this Flemish website claims and defends, is of Wallonian Belgian origin)..

DL / Hamburg Dec 2006

Belgian Nationalism: nevermind the language mess, it's in the Frites !!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Macau's Lesser-known Aliens

Macau dawn at Rua da Felicidade

Macau, 25 Dec 2006 / Chek Lap Kok Int'l airport, 26 Dec 2006

Overshadowed by its popular neighbour Hongkong, Macau S.A.R.(Região Administrativa Especial de Macau da República Popular da China) has an interesting life of its own. A longtime Portuguese colony before she was silently handed over to China in 1999 without much fanfare, Macau has earlier become the leisure proxy for its more rich neighbours. But even under the new Chinese administration, Macau keeps on steaming ahead with its leisure machine at the forefront. The ever expanding casinos, bars, and with new rising 'middle classes, Macau is beginning to attract large numbers of migrant workers into her lap. Filipinos fill the bulk of jobs: security guards, karaoke girls, babysitters, gardeners, casino staff to convenient store owners, while Indonesians make up the second layer of the 'lower' labour force.

Embedded in the influx of migrant workers is the entire social baggage and supporting system: Filipino convenient stores, Pinoy internet cafes, money remittance agencies, etc.

A Pinoy ad....and problem.

Signs of Indon presence in Macau

Echoes of Dear Chairman, once influential in Macau during the 1960s

Monday, December 18, 2006

Germany’s Ideological Borders Revisited

(From a Border Discussion at the Schifflersgrund Grenzmuseum and preliminary oral histories collected from Lindewerra,Thüringen, December 2006*)
Remains of the DDR border viewed from Hanstein Castle, Bornhagen,Thüringen

The history of Germany’s ideological boundary (1949-1990) that separated the former BRD (Bundes Republik Deutschland – better known as West Germany) and the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) as the world’s most absurd form of human partitioning is now well known. Most people will be quite familiar with the history Berlin’s ‘Schandmauer’ and the much- visited Checkpoint Charlie.

Lesser known to non-Germans is the previous 1,400 km stretching border, which ran throughout the countryside. When Germany’s partitioning into different occupation zones (British, French, American and Soviet) began in July 1945, they naturally chopped-up the countryside according to Germany’s old state borders. One such border site remains well preserved for historical significance in Schifflersgrund at the Thüringen-Hessen boundary.

DDR Borderpoles


The establishment of the American – Soviet occupation zone boundary (known as the ‘Whiskey-Vodka linie’) that followed the old German state borders of Hessen & Bayern (both under U.S. occupation) and Thüringen (under Soviet occupation) posed one major problem. The Americans heavily depended on the north-to-south German railway stretching from Hamburg down to München in order to keep the logistical lifeline running for its troops in the far south. Problematic was the fact that the rail ran through a small stretch of Soviet-occupied Thüringen. Frequent harrassing of U.S. supply trains by Soviet troops drove the Americans to renegotiate the boundary with the Soviets in order to bring the railway under total U.S. control. In September 1945 the Soviet Army agreed for a territorial exchange, and this particular chunk of Thüringen territory through which the railway ran was officially transferred to U.S.-occupied Hessen. In return, the Soviets demanded an equal portion of Hessen to be annexed over to Soviet-controlled Thüringen.

It seemed to be a fair and nice deal on paper.

By the stroke of a pen, four villages in Hessen suddenly woke up one morning finding themselves under Soviet occupation (and the future DDR), while two Thüringian villages struck ‘luck’ by being handed over to ‘free’ U.S.-occupied Germany.

A border memorial stone erected near Bornhagen, littered with some recent pro-DDR grafitti


Other villages, like Lindewerra, simply found out in 1949 that they were to be separated forever under the new DDR from their jobs, families and farming grounds on the other side of the once fluid borders.

Gerlinde (69) looking across to Lindewerra, where the Werra river previoulsy separated the DDR from BRD

Gerlinde Kohler (69) remembers, “we were still allowed to move back and forth with permission over the boundary before 1949. Stricter border patrols were introduced soon after, though it was still possible to play hide-and-seek with the guards as locals were still able to use old footpaths into the surrounding forests which were less-frequently patrolled.”

People were not allowed to migrate, though those still holding jobs in the West were given limited permission to cross the Werra river until 1952. Gerlinde’s father used to commute weekly between Lindewerra (in DDR) and his working place in Oberrieden (in BRD). Until one day in 1952, the DDR border guards stopped the rivercrossing boat from running. Gerlinde´s father was stuck on the other side while his family was trapped in Lindewerra. Sensing that the border was going to be shut forever, he managed one early morning to smuggle his family out in time. With DDR border guards close at her heels, Gerlinde managed to swim across just in time. Her grandparents, however, stayed behind. She never saw them again.

"There was a short period of time when we would stand on the riverbank and exchange messages to the other side." Soon after, the DDR even prohibited its citizens from waving or smiling to the West.


“Germans are always the best in what they do” said Oliver Rau, a local Thüringian political scientist, “ and this included the DDR in its border management.”

As the border was rather meant to keep East Germans as hostages inside, the way fences were erected was an ‘art’ in itself. The DDR government built its border fences approximately 10 to 20 meters inside and away from the actual boundary. A deliberate tactic to give east German escapees a false sense of security once they managed to climb over the fence (many escapees committed the error of resting or taunting border guards once they climbed over), this 10 – 20 meter space between the fence and the actual DDR-BRD boundary was intended to function as a last and easy shooting zone for DDR border guards.
The intact border fence at Schifflersgrund

After the opening of the borders in late 1989 and Germany`s reunification soon thereafter, most physical differences between villages in border areas dissapeared., though the landscape is still left scarred with barren lands where the shooting zones and fences once menacingly stood. While eastern Germans like Willi Stüber (79), would rather like to erase the 40-year DDR rule from his memory, in no way does it imply a wholesale acceptance of free fight capitalism of the West. “Life was hard back then, but it still is now”, said Willi, “though less worse than it used to be.”
Willi Stüber (79) remembers

It was simply the repression and partitioning they hated the most.


* Thanks to Chris Oesterheld
Gerlinde Köhler-Brill, Willi Stüber
Wolfgang Ruske, Viktor Speiser & Oliver Rau (Grenzmuseum staff)
and Ronald Gundlach (Burgermeister of Bad Sooden-Allendorf)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Jungle Cosmopolitanism

Tivai Ngang, Punan Busang headman of Long Unai

Retro Fieldnotes from Long Unai, Sarawak, January 2003

Tivai Ngang, a man in his mid-fifties, doesn't need a passport to enjoy the fruits of global border crossings. The headman of a Punan Busang tribe in Sarawak that has moved over from Indonesia 22 years ago, bordercrossing and transnational associations are as close to his heart as hunting wild boar or shooting monkeys with his blowpipe. An unlikely comparison at first sight, but he may have lots in common with your average Southeast Asian expat that has emigrated to settle and work abroad to Singapore, New Zealand or the US...well maybe more

Southeast Asian expats abroad are usually permitted to hold one job. Tivai instead multitasks to sustain his livelihood. Besides rice farming, he still adheres to his previous semi-nomadic hunting-gathering activities to support his family's subsistence,: he still hunts, collects sago starch, taps resins and harvests eaglewood ('gaharu') deep down in Borneo's inhabited rainforests.

While your average Southeast Asian expat has to compensate stress at work with physical workouts at fitness clubs/wellness centers and spas, Tivai doesn't need to.

Southeast Asian expats might be involved in transnational deals and fund flows, and may own properties both in Southeast Asia and abroad. Tivai has transnational access to forests, rivers, and may decide to sell whatever he extracts - depending on favourable market prices - to any country of his liking. (Indonesia/Malaysia/Brunei)

While your average Southeast Asian expat would rarely speak more than 2 languages, Tivai is multilingual and speaks 8 (Punan, Kenyah, Kayan, Iban, Bazaar Malay, Bahasa Indonesia proper, a bit of Banjarese and Foochow Chinese), out of neccesity for having to deal with Indonesian/Malaysian government officials, neighbouring ethnic groups, Foochow traders or Banjarese middlemen.

Southeast Asian expats would usually emigrate in single unit families. Tivai emigrated his entire village in 1984 from Indonesia to Malaysia...


The story of Long Unai

The story of Tivai's village moving to Sarawak is only one example out of numerous village migrations that have occurred during the last century in Borneo. Up to 1984, the Punan Busang hamlet was located on the upper reaches of the Iwan river at Long Ikeng Iwan, one of the most isolated settlements in East Kalimantan at that time. The Indonesian Government in 1984, out of embarrassment that nomadic hunter-gathering communities 'tribes' still existed side by side our national aircraft industry, set out to 'civilize' these 'savages'. In doing so, the government initiated semi-forced resettlement programmes, and most Punan hamlets were ordered to join the more 'civilized' Kenyah and Kayan settlements downriver.
The Upper Balui

The Busang Punans of Long Ikeng Iwan received a governmental order in 1984 to resettle at Data Dian, a Kayan village which also seats the Kecamatan (Sub-District) center. This posed some problems for the Punans. First, they weren't prepared to abandon their semi-nomadic lifestyles with a sedentary farming culture as the government insisted them to do so. Secondly, this forced resettlement only separated the Punans further away from the gaharu-rich forests which provided them much of their basic needs. Always disregarding the border's existence, this also included the large tracts of adjacent rainforests in Sarawak, where gaharu reserves were abundant.
Punan Busang Migration map from Long Ikeng Iwan (Indonesia) to Long Unai (Malaysia)

Tivai, being the young headman of the Long Ikeng Iwan hamlet at the time, decided that resettlement was something too much to risk for. Fearing intimidation by Sub-District officials and police, he silently led his fellow villagers on foot one early morning into Sarawak. They decided for a suitable place at Long Unai, on the Upper Balui river, still in close proximity to the rainforests on both sides the border they had roamed for years.

Long Unai was classified by the Sarawak government as an illegal settlement until it gained official recognition in 2001. Despite having pledged allegiance to the Malaysian Yang Dipertuan Agong, Tivai and his followers still sell gaharu to Long Nawang on the Indonesian side, where Banjarese middlemen still offer better prices compared to their Chinese competitors on the Sarawak side. But Tivai never looks at his newly acquired Malaysian citizenship as permanent. "If the Indon government provides us free healthcare and education like they do in Sarawak, we might move back to Indon someday. The forests there are richer, and the waters still more abundant with fish."

A good lesson about what 'citizenship' really means...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Smokers Should Learn from Farters

Kansai Airport, 9 October, 11:00 AM

Sarcastical smoker's warnings I found around Kansai airport - though the visuals aren't as concise as the Japanese are usually known for. The first picture obviously shows that these signs were designed for festival-attending tourists.

And now, smokers should learn from farters:

Useful information, just realized that a fart consists of deadly gases...(otherwise, they wouldn't use the analogy, right?)
Yeah, a fart, it's a gas gas gas..

Random Images from Kansai Airport (Osaka)

Kansai Airport, 9 October, 10:40 A.M

Another airport thingee. Kansai airport, built on an artificial island (built by the Dutch) in the Osaka/Kobe bay, is Japan's second largest hub after Tokyo's Narita airport.

I noted one interesting souvenir shop: a Ninja shop. It's quite cool to bring a duty-free Ninja's outfit for display back home, unless you're from Basilan, Maluku, Poso or Pattani....

Suvarnabhumi Int'l Airport (part 2)

A better look during my second transit at Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Int'l airport.

Minor Glitches:

Tranfer here please ! glitch excused (it's 'falang' language after all)

Note below the confusing direction signs for immigration and baggage claims:

Friday, October 06, 2006

Lost in Sushi Translations

Japan has earned a special place in the hearts of culinary travelers - and the most traditional of Japanese cuisines, in its original, truncated, fused or corrupted forms, have gone global - from Oslo to Capetown, from Dubai to Auckland, from Brooklyn to Bojonegoro...

Of course, tourists flock in increasing numbers to Japan, and enjoying a traditional 'hardcore' Japanese meal is an important highlight of every visit to Japan. Kyoto remains one of the most popular travel destinations in Japan, and with the influx of tourists, traditional Kyoto restaurants have been 'internationalized'. Not quite...

Translating the bulk of dish names from traditional Kanji to English is one thing that has been taken for granted in a Japan that has never been eager to 'globalize' its own self.

Bizzare translations and misspellings are common - and one can only guess that most of these extra-terrestial translations are made by electronic Japanese-to-English pocket dictionaries, or translation websites (e.g.

"Please do not pour soy sauce directly from the bottle. Please use the brush."

Monday, October 02, 2006

Suvarnabhumi Int'l Airport: Thaksin's Last Megaproject

Suvarnabhumi's boarding gates

Bangkok, October 2, midnight

Bangkok's Don Muang International Airport finally closed its doors on the night of 27 September 2006, after 96 years in operation (and where it will then be transformed into a VIP/military airbase). Don Muang will forever stand as the symbol of Bangkok's transformation from a marginal Southeast Asian city into a regional and global hub, replacing Rangoon since 1962 as Southeast Asia's most important transportation hub when Burma faded away from the international scene.

Don Muang's coziness (or crampness some would say) and colourful history (which includes covert Indonesian-Malaysian peace negotiations in 1966, hordes of evacuation flights from Vietnam in 1975, the hijacking of an Indonesian plane in 1981, drug trafficking dramas, etc) has finally come to an end. Enter Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Suwan-na Phoom, 'Land of Gold') International airport.

Suvarnabhumi International Airport already made history by being marked as the swansong of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's endless series of megaprojects and alleged corruption scandals. The airport project, itself in the making for over 40 years and another lucrative profit tap for Thaksin's family coffers (see Bangkok Post, Sept. 13, 2006), had been bogged by several delays and false starts. (Thaksin initiated its soft opening late last year, though largely symbolic). Without much fanfare, Thailand's new military rulers kept the official 28 September opening on schedule, while Thaksin, himself ousted by a bloodless coup d'etat on 19 September, could only watch (if he does at all) from the sidelines at his London hotel sanctuary.

I flew through Suvarnabhumi on its fourth day being in full operation. First impression: it IS huge, but simultaneously, being dominated by colours of steel, very cold and menacing. Its grandeur alone was a local attraction, to a point where the government had to publicly discourage the public from sightseeing and jeopardizing the traffic to and from the airport. (Bangkok Post, 1 Oct, 2006)

Both Suvarnabhumi and KLIA may outdo Singapore's Changi in terms of grandeur, though I doubt Changi would soon drop out from the favourite airports list. Changi was designed with human psychology in mind: passengers just want to relax, feel cozy, or shop after long haul flights, without having to walk for miles to reach the immigration gate. Suvarnabhumi and KLIA are made to stun and intimidate visitors. Yes, they really have ways to make you WALK.

Many smoking rooms had yet to be opened, but following our excellent Southeast Asian traditions, everything could be 'fixed'. A willing airport janitor showed us places where we were (supposedly) allowed to smoke: in the fire exits !

Though the flight transfer was smooth, a serious problem occured during take off. Apparently one of the two major runways suffered from surface cracks, and hundreds of incoming and departing flights were being bottlenecked on the apron. It took 80 minutes for our flight to taxi away from the terminal to the main runway.

Smooth as silk...

Cold demeaning steel
Suvarnabhumi's displays of light
One of the few operational Smoking rooms
Japanese Mild Sevens & Marlboros, Korean-made Esses & Salems

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cockfighting in Upriver Sarawak: E-Gov Makes Things (not quite) Easier

Apai Regang is expected to download a permit in PDF form if he wants to see his cock fight


When former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad urgently called for Malaysia's cyber-wiring back in 1996, the entire nation was dragged into an obsessive hi-tech internet craze, spearheaded by such Orwellian-sounding megaprojects like 'Cyberjaya', 'Malaysia Multimedia Super-Corridor', 'Technopreneur Development', 'Smart Schools', 'E-Bario Project'. E-Gov.

In line with Dr. M's national call to get cyber-wired, the Malaysian government urged State governments to set-up e-gov (electronic government) websites all the way down to Resident and District Offices to improve efficiency of information dissemination, governance and public services. And yes, this call even resonated down to the deep verdant jungles of East Malaysia's Borneo States of Sarawak and Sabah. (we'll return to this e-gov thing in a moment)

Kapit Division in Sarawak is a predominantly rural and forested area, inhabited by numerous ethnic groups that still practice swidden (incorrectly called 'slash-and-burn') agriculture, among which the Dayak Iban constitute a significant majority. The majority of Ibans reside in traditional longhouses along the banks of the Batang Rejang and Balleh rivers , and while there has been a longstanding trend of urbanisation from upriver longhouses to major cities, Iban traditions are still well-kept in place.

Map Kapit Division in Sarawak


Known in the past for being land-hungry, independent and ferocious headhunters, the Ibans had to be painstakingly subjugated under strict rulings by successive Sarawak governments ever since the arrival of Sir James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak, back in 1841. After Iban inter-tribal warfare and headhunting were finally laid to rest in 1924, 'Iban problems' were far from over. The Brooke government was subsequently plagued by efforts in preventing Ibans from migrating northwards in search for better economic opportunities offered by the discovery of oil reserves in Miri and Brunei. One major problem was the oft-resulting land disputes among Ibans and communities in their new destinations. For this, the Brooke government had to enforce numerous regulations to prevent Ibans from out migrating from their very homelands around Kapit, and Ibans were required well into the 1960s to carry travel permits wherever they intended to go, even within Sarawak.

Other restrictions placed upon Ibans since the Brooke period was related to gambling, often the result of debt problems between Ibans and Chinese traders - or the main cause of personal vendettas that often resulted in brawls and homicides. What has been difficult for successive governments to keep in check, however, was gambling in the guise of cockfight gatherings during traditional Iban celebrations such as Gawai (harvest feast) or death ceremonies. Hence, Ibans were for a longtime required to apply for 'Cockfight Permits' (Lesen Sabong Ayam) from the Kapit Resident Office.

While travel permit requirements for Ibans were lifted more than 40 years ago, Cockfight Permits made it well into the age of cyberspace...


The e-gov website of the Kapit Resident's office is a fancy and well-designed homepage (its sister-website owned by the Kapit District Council even requires you to have a Flash plugin!), complete with information for tourists, as well as downloadable government forms for locals in PDF format. (i.e., Marriage Application forms, Business licence applications, etc.). This includes the Cockfight Permit.

Download Cockfight Permit ('Lesen Sabong Ayam'):

Here's the catch. Since cockfighting throughout the Kapit Division is a predominantly Iban cultural practice, the website's administrator surely must have uploaded the forms anticipating masses of Iban downloaders in mind.

Now consider this:

- None of the Iban longhouses throughout the Division enjoys telephone, let alone internet connection.
- There's only one internet cafe throughout the Division, so it would cost an Iban (if he's a computer-literate) RM 2.30 to obtain and print a cockfight permit (RM 2.00 minimum internet time + 30 cents for printing two pages).
- This internet cafe is located by coincidence next to the Resident's Office in Kapit where, ironically, hardcopies of Cockfight Permits can be obtained for FREE.

But again, it takes 3 to 5 hours by river for an ordinary upriver Iban to reach Kapit town - so it would take him at least one full day back-and-forth just to obtain (download?) the permit application. He then has to return to his longhouse upriver to have this application signed by the longhouse leader (Tuai Rumah), plus another trip to hand in the filled application to the Resident. This all would cost an Iban 2 days travelling time back-and-forth and at least RM 100 for travel costs.

A single cockfight rarely lasts longer than 3 minutes, so would anyone expect Ibans to care about these permits at all?

Roots of Asian Nationalisms & Globalisation (Notes from a talk by Benedict Anderson)


I just stumbled upon old notes I took from a talk that Prof. Benedict R. O'G Anderson gave last year at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Kyoto University. Not intending to litter this blog with overtly indigestible academic stuff, it's nonetheless very stimulating...a critical and reflective talk that doesn't take 'globalisation' as we know it, for granted.

To the uninformed, Benedict Anderson authored the influential book "Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism" back in 1983. He is known in Indonesia for having co-authored "A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1 1965 Coup in Indonesia" (1966 - popularly known as "The Cornell Papers"), which concluded that the Indonesian Army (hence, Suharto) had prior knowledge to the events. For this, he was banned from visiting Indonesia by Suharto's New Order regime from 1966 to 1998 (including physical humiliation at Halim airport in 1981 when he was lured by Indonesian authorities to attend a seminar in Jakarta)


CSEAS Talk - 27 April 2005

Topic: 'Macam Macam' (BA's own words)

"Twenty two years have passed since I wrote Imagined has been quoted, praised and criticized over the years, and I've come to a certain point where I feel I have lost ownership of it. Imagined Communities is just like a little girl that has grown up and ran away to marry a truck driver from somewhere...I have now relinquished any left responsibilities over her..."

"I have my own share of criticisms aginst Imagined Communities. I treated 'Nationalisms' as separate and fixed analytical units..and that is the disadvantage if one attempts to undertake a comparative study. It's just like I've looked at the stars, and I could only go as far as commenting "oh, that's a bright star", "that's a little star"....Imagined Communities went as far as recognizing the main threads, the similarities or differences of these nationalisms, such as the role of print capitalism, colonial education, ....but back then, in my own naivete, i wasn't able to capture the larger interrelationships, or the larger forces of gravity that gave rise to these nationalisms."

"This is exactly the point which I'm intending to return to, and I will start by seeking explanations to the following question:
"What was the global field of gravity that gave birth to all these nationalisms - or what was the global field of gravity in which these nationalisms were able to operate during their initial stages ?"

"This brought me back to the question of rethinking the crucial elements of early 'globalization' that occurred during the latter half of the 19th century (1870 - 1900), in my opinion one of the most interesting periods in history. Two inventions were crucial in the birth of early globalization:

1) The invention of fast, cheap & safe modes of travel - the railway, the steamship: the sudden mass movements of people, the increased flow of ideas

2) Instant modes of communication - the telegraph: news about revolts and revolutions were instantly transmitted around the world...experiences of people in different parts of the world became instantly and vividly accessible...."

"We can look at all these revolution and nationalist movements around the world during that time as operating within a covert sub-global structure...waging covert projects through the technological advantages of early global communications, and in many ways, it renders my previous East-West model (the idea of Western nationalism being copied by post-colonial subjects) irrelevant. (DL: think of Chatterjee ?) Some nationalist movements in Asia and the Americas even preceded nationalist movements in Europe, e.g. Filipino nationalism is way much older than, let's say, Irish or Scottish nationalisms."

"Also, we have to situate this sudden outbreak of revolutions and nationalisms around the world within the vacuum period in the left-wing camp, that is the period between the death of Marx (1883) and the rise of Lenin to celebrity status in the 1920s. The Left during this vacuum was dominated by the Anarchists, particularly those based in France & Italy. These small bands of anarchists were involved all around the world, overthrowing & assassinating kings, dictators, reactionaries (e.g. Austria, Montenegro, etc). In many cases, these militant anarchists were the first 'suicide bombers'. This, coupled with rapid development of the global press (+ the invention of photo-relaying techniques), suddenly placed the anarchists in celebre spotlights around the world - inspiring oppressed peoples as far as Asia and the Americas, with ideas that revolutions (& violence) are viable alternatives to social change."

"The international postal-service, intiated in 1874, was also one way through which anarchist ideas about revolution were disseminated. As early as the late 1890s, French anarchist newsletters had permanent subscribers in more than 20 countries around the world, spanning from Europe to East Asia to Latin America."

"The revolution in the Philippines, the oldest nationalist movement in Asia, itself inspired by creole revolutions waged in the Carribean states (Cuba), inspired the birth of the Chinese nationalist movement against the again, this all wouldn't be possible without the existence of a global communication system. We also have to look at the itinerant characters behind it. Jose Rizal travelled to Japan, coming in contact with early Chinese nationalists, and heading afterwards towards Europe through the US. This was all made possible by fast & cheap transportation (the steamship). This was way before the era of Tan Malaka or Ho Chi Minh, both who were itinerant characters as well."

"We keep on discovering new things about the past, and the current trend of trying to break up history into these stupid bombastic advertiser-type timelines (e.g. 'post-WW II', 'post-9/11', 'post-Cold War') serves nothing but to obstruct our efforts in understanding how globalization operates."

"This will be among others the focus of my forthcoming book."


(DL: "Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination" - was published in Jan. 2006 by Verso)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Tips for Hunting Dji Sam Soe Abroad

The Dji Sam Soe brand (pronounced G SAHM SOO), produced in the Indonesian port city of Surabaya since 1913, is considered by many as Indonesia's ultimate clove cigarette.

Filterless and handrolled, containing a blend of American and Javanese tobacco, flavoured with Sulawesi cloves, the brand's ownership has recently shifted to, yes, Philip Morris (after PM bought out the majority of PT. H.M. Sampoerna's stocks in 2004/2005).

There's only one agonizing pitfall for every Dji Sam Soe enthusiast or addict. Its lack of filter and high nicotine contents (Nicotine 2.3 mg, Tar 39 mg) earned the brand a 'no import' status in many countries. While other filtered Indonesian brands like Gudang Garam or Sampoerna A Mild are legally exported to Europe, Asia and even South America, Dji Sam Soe rarely passes the standard maximum nicotine limit barrier.

So here are some clues where to find (mostly smuggled) Dji Sam Soes in the most obscure places around Southeast Asia outside Indonesia:


Phnom Penh: The Bali Cafe (379, Sisowath Quay, Mekong waterfront) occasionally stocks them for US$ 2.00/pack. The local Khmer (or Cham?) staff speak excellent Bahasa Indonesia, though the Restaurant is owned by a Malaysian Chinese (faithful being Truly Asia ??)


Bangkok: Look for the cigarette stalls around Ramkamhang University. Why ? Clove cigarettes are widely associated with 'muslims' (only God knows why), and it's no coincidence that many Pattani Malays ('Southern Thais') study at Ramkamhang. Depends on luck. (Sampoerna A Mild is more widely available) 60 Bahts/pack. (Thanks to Sittha Lertphaiboonsiri)


a) Restoran Padang Pusako, near the Central Police Station (Balai Polis). Of course it's not put on display. The owner will usually deny at first stocking them. So, order some food, have a chat, and ask again. Expect RM 3.50/pack.
b) Some obscure cosmetic shop at the basement of the KOMTAR Bus Terminal building.

Fruit stall #9 (Chinese owned) at the market right in front of the Melaka intercity bus terminal. When in doubt, ask any group of squatting men around the Terminal (they're usually Indonesian migrant workers on R&R, spending their hardwon salaries on recharging their mobile phones).

Kuala Lumpur:
Everybody knows Chow Kit lah. No need to explain.

Kajang (Selangor):
a) Central Market: look for the white Shopmobiles (selling Indonesian medicines, minyak angin, bintang toedjoe, jamu, etc.) on Saturday mornings.
b) Same white shopmobiles also frequently visit the Kajang Central Bus Station (Pusat Hentian Kajang)

Bangi (Selangor):
Cigarette stalls at the Bangi Night Market (Pekan Malam Bangi)

Kuching (Sarawak):
The cheapest Dji Sam Soe you can find, smuggled straight out from West Kalimantan - RM 2.50/pack (cheaper compared to its original Indonesian price). Look for the cigarette stall in front of the taxi & van terminal near Electra House.

Miri (Sarawak):
a)Look for the small WARTEL (telephone stall) next to Pelita Tunku building. Owned by a Chinese. If you don't have the looks of an 'Indon' (= scruffy) he will deny selling them.
b) The 4th meatbutcher from the left at the Central Meat Market.

Belaga (Sarawak):
The only Chinese minimarket in this sleepy upriver town sells Dji Sam Soe at the cashier. RM 2.00.
No wonder, Belaga is the third capital of the Sarawak Logging Republic (after Sibu & Kapit), with a majority consisting of Indonesian logging workers.

Haven't been there yet. I'm sure the Bugis sell them.

almost forgot...

No Chance

But what does this whole subaltern marketing of Dji Sam Soe tell us ? How are these markets identified (those involved need at least some cultural and demographic knowledge). Another interesting question: what kind of social interfaces and networks are created and involved in this whole transnational underground marketing of a single pack of Dji Sam Soe ?
(upcoming: the Ethography of Commodity Flows)

Happy hunting...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Batam's Jaded Dream

Back in 1973, Presidential Decree no. 41 was full of big developmentalist dreams and hopes. Batam Island was the big ambition of the day, something our Indonesian Government projected to be "The next big thing after Singapore around the Malacca Strait"...

Big hopes indeed for Batam back then: A projected bustling freeport Island, torrents of investments pouring in, a resort heaven, shopping paradise, a bustling international name it.

Thirty-three years on - and Batam is in full swing, indeed. Third rate Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian businessmen coming for sex, shadowy businesses, shantytowns, illegal taxis, bustling sex trade, human trafficking, illegal gambling, and thousands of unemployed young men from all around Indonesia (Timor, Medan, Tanjung Balai, Central Java, Manado, Palembang, Padang..) scraping for bits and pieces of the (faded) Batam dream, with the usual baggage of sporadic ethnic clashes here and there...

Batam quite reminds us of those other less-fortunate ("cheap leisure proxies") Southeast Asian border cities...think of Hatyai (Thailand), or Poipet (Cambodia) - still, it was a strategic rallying point for anti-IMF/World Bank activists to lambast the ever paranoid and authoritarian Singapore government for harrasing and banning civil society organizations from monitoring the Big Money proceedings.

Global, not quite...
Hang Nadim Airport: Counter for Job Seekers. Is the system running at all?
A peek outside the hotel: Disposed tissues, cigarette packs, condoms. Helps in profiling your average Batam visitor...