Forward, back but don’t touch

By Karim Raslan, The Star

The allegation that Malaysia had violated Indonesian territory is symptomatic of political issues in Indonesia – they rise, gather momentum, seemingly explode and then just as quickly disappear.

WITH Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono preparing for their annual bilateral meeting in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, tomorrow, this tukang cerita found himself pondering over the ever-changing landscape of bilateral relations: first at a gleaming, if half-deserted upscale shopping mall and, secondly, at a rooftop party high above the Jakarta skyline.

The Belleza Permata Hijau is a flamboyantly rococo shopping centre in the heart of Jakarta. It also happens to be almost empty.

I had been invited to participate in a talk show (called Big Baz) for the recently-launched Kompas TV station. Our topic was the latest Indonesia-Malaysia bilateral spat – over allegations that Malaysia had violated Indonesian territory – and the show’s host was an old friend and fellow columnist Pak Budiarto Shambazy.

Since we columnists stick together, I’m here despite knowing next to nothing about border markers, the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty, MOUs or Camar Bulan and Tanjung Datu in West Kalimantan (“Kalbar”).

The Belleza’s echoing atrium provided an elegant, if slightly surreal backdrop for the weekly show.

There was also a string quartet of four pretty girls in brightly coloured dresses practising their music.

They appeared to be having difficulty keeping the time. Truth be told, they’re not that tuneful either.

In the meantime, the producers and cameramen were testing the sound and lighting.

For some reason, I was sweating profusely. I tried not to think about how wet my hair was or the moisture on the back of my batik shirt. The thought of looking drenched on national television made me sweat even more.

So, in an effort to cool down, I sat and chatted with my fellow guests: a leading PDI-P politician, Pak TB Hassanuddin (who’s partly responsible for the way the issue exploded into the public domain); a nervous bureaucrat, Pak Sutrisno; and a supremely calm and efficient foreign policy specialist, Connie Bakrie – who assured me that she wasn’t a member of “that family”.

Since I had been totally baffled by the controversy, I asked Pak TB (who’s also a former general) to explain what’s going on. Given that he’s the deputy head of the influential First Commission of the Indonesian Parliament which deals with issues of national security, I received a thorough briefing.

Later (and on air), I suggested that he should visit Kuala Lumpur to explain to the Malaysian public what’s going on since most people, including me, are both bemused and confused by the whole affair.

Pak TB and I had faced each other many times on Indonesian TV. As such, our encounter was accompanied by a good deal of gentle joshing. Indeed, the last time we met he even threatened to eat me!

The actual taping was slightly disappointing.

The Belleza had terrible acoustics and we could barely hear one another speak. A number of scenes had to be retaken and Pak TB’s robust enthusiasm was swamped by the technical details.

Finally, in the penultimate section, a sinetron star – Marcella Zalianty – joined the panel. This immediately caused a frisson of excitement.

Tall, fair-skinned and very good-looking, Marcella had earlier released a documentary called Cerita dari Tapal Balas (“Stories from the Frontier”) that delved into the lives of ordinary Indonesians at Kalbar’s Entikong border crossing.

Her presence reminded me how the lines between celebrity, politics and activism were blurred in Indonesia.

Sadly, even with Marcella on board, the technical details still overwhelmed the rest of the production.

Finishing up, I salam my fellow guests as Pak TB introduced me to the latest and youngest addition to his family. We laughed and agreed to meet for lunch.

Jumping into my car, I headed off for a party in Jalan Sudirman.

As I watch the city pass by my window, I realise that there’s a certain rhythm to political issues in Indonesia. They rise, gather momentum, seemingly explode and then just as quickly disappear.

What I’d just experience was the tail-end of the latest bilateral spat – an issue that was reaching its natural end.

Later, and high above Jakarta’s streets on a hotel balcony with the glittering lights of the city’s countless skyscrapers below me, I watched the party guests dancing the poco-poco.

Swaying gently, the dancers moved forward then back, their footwork surprisingly neat and precise. There’s a lilt to the poco-poco and subdued energy as all the focus was directed into maintaining the overall form while the dancers’ bodies never touched.

The restrained elegance of the dance – with its careful self-containment – is an apt metaphor for our bilateral relationship: maju, undur tapi gak sentuh.

Have fun in Lombok, guys!