Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.
This week we're featuring a fascinating four-part series on Indonesia's emerging and aspirational middle class by Joanne Sharpe. We've published three so far, with the final piece to be posted on Monday. This is from part 1:
It's 6:15am on a Sunday morning, and waves of people are breaking over the Sudirman traffic artery in central Jakarta. Hundreds of thousands of cars traverse Sudirman through the week, slowing almost to standstill during peak hours. But every Sunday morning, designated Car Free Day, Sudirman is given over to thousands of cyclists, runners and strollers.
It's a pageant of lycra-clad executives on expensive road bikes, young people on fixies in bright colours, and the occasional swarm of kids from nearby neighbourhoods on creaky old bikes too big for them. Runners wear Skins and smartphones. In an urban culture where being seen on the street used to be a sure and stigmatising marker of poverty, investment banks now sponsor fun rides and social running clubs organise over Twitter ('#marilari', or 'let's run').
Meet Indonesia's growing, aspirational middle class. Indonesia has always been big, but it's Indonesia's growing economy that has caught Australia's attention in recent years. Indonesia is the world's 16th largest economy (Australia is 12th), and the transition of millions of Indonesians out of poverty into a 'consuming class' is a big part of that continuing growth story.
Part 2 looked at the Indonesian middle class in the context of urban living:
Apartment living in Jakarta is still relatively uncommon, and the preference for moving to the suburbs for some fresh air rather than live near work is clear. But that may be changing. In the CBD it is boom time for 'kost' (boarding houses). In the old, central neighbourhoods like Setiabudi and Benhil, houses are making way for midrise blocks with up to twenty rooms for rent. Many boarders are early career unmarried office workers, but many are established professionals who own property but can no longer face the commute every day.
Yudi, a wealthy executive with an international firm, has taken this to its logical extension. He has just bought a two-bedroom apartment in Rasuna Epicentrum, right in the centre of the CBD. Next year, his children will attend schools in central Jakarta, although on the weekend they will go back home to the suburbs to play.
Yudi has come to the end of this patience with his two-hour commute from his suburban home in Cibubur, south of Jakarta. Yudi was spending as much on his weekly commute as he would on a modest room in a kost. 'Petrol alone costs me Rp 600,000 ($60) per week. So times four, that's Rp 2.4 million ($240). Plus the toll, which is Rp 20,000 ($2) per day. Not to mention wear on vehicle. So it's better to have a kos.'
As the middle class grows, ever more cars are hitting the streets, with an estimated 1.1 million more cars in Indonesia this year. People who already have cars opine that other people shouldn't be allowed to have so many.
This debate is writ large at the moment, with Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi) publicly opposing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's push to introduce low cost, 'green' cars to Indonesia. SBY wants to develop a manufacturing industry and give more people access to the trappings of the middle class; Jokowi fears his city could grind to a permanent halt. After decades of neglect, public infrastructure development is ramping up, but nothing will change in the short term.
And part three examined the impact of the growing middle class on the 2014 Indonesian elections:
In Indonesia, the word for 'vote' is the same as the word for 'voice'. The urban middle class is vocal on Twitter but said to be apathetic at the ballot box, until the right candidate comes along. How is the noisy middle class shaping Indonesia's political future?
Jakarta Govenor Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has risen to such prominence that it's hard to remember a time when he was the underdog for the 2012 gubernatorial race. A charismatic small town mayor with a track-record of reform, he and running mate Basuku Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok) were behind in the polls two months before the first of two electoral rounds.
As political consultant Yunarto Wijaya explains, 'all the surveys predicted that (the incumbent) Fauzi Bowo would be the next Governor. In my survey, two months before the election, I only had about 23% voting for Jokowi/Ahok'. Some polls predicted that the incumbent could win the first of two electoral rounds by as much as 49%.
But, Yunarto says, much of the middle class remained undecided. A survey by respected pollster Indonesia Survey Institute (LSI) confirmed that an unusually high 30% of respondents made their decision within the last week of the first round election. And on the day, says Yunarto, it was the middle class that turned out in force for Jokowi. Jokowi/Ahok won the first round with 43% of the vote to the incumbent's 34%. They went on to win decisively in the run-off.
LSI called the first round election result a 'middle class protest'. Does the growth of the middle class herald a sea change in Indonesian politics?
To be clear, pollsters here are using a broad measure of the 'middle class' that captured up to 40% of the population, a group that incorporates a good chunk of the 'emerging' or 'developing' middle class, as well as what we might consider the middle class proper. In Jakarta, where overall voter turnout was just 63%, it's not a stretch to see how emerging middle class may be able to exert real pressure.
Still on Indonesia, our regular writer from Jakarta, Catriona Croft-Cusworth, examined why Australia has received a much harsher Indonesian criticism over spying allegations than the US:
Kerry's visit to Indonesia this week indicated that Washington, at least, is keen on becoming Indonesia's close friend. Kerry visited Indonesia's largest mosque, took selfies with students, and assured Jakarta that the US was taking intelligence-gathering reforms 'very seriously'.
Washington is committed to its 'pivot' towards Asia, at least in rhetoric, and is making the effort to engage in the region through gestures such as Kerry's tour. Meanwhile, Australia has all but shut down communications with Indonesia, perhaps accepting estimates that diplomatic relations will be put on hold until a new Indonesian president is sworn in in October.
Australia's own Asia 'pivot', the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, has been shelved by the Abbott Government and the latest spying revelations show that even with the policy in place, Australia’s loyalties remain with Western nations over Asian ones.
Almost 10,000kms to the northwest, the political crisis in the Ukraine deepened. John Besemeres, always sharp and elegant, argued that a potential civil war 'essentially flows from Putin's attempt to foist his own geopolitical dreams on the Ukrainian public':
What's needed, ideally, is fresh elections, hopefully yielding a new, competent and legitimate leadership with the wisdom to rule for both ends of the country. An EU-US economic package with enough noughts to compete with Putin's offer and a renewed IMF support deal would also be highly desirable, if not essential.
It's hard to be optimistic about any of this. Until recently the US leadership has been focused elsewhere, and many influential EU leaders believe Russia is best not provoked, and Ukraine is a basket case they should shrewdly avoid taking on. They seem to view the emergence of a Putinist anti-Western empire flush on their borders with remarkable equanimity.
The EU's responses so far have tended to be too little, too late. With the Sochi Olympics out of the way, and given his conviction that the West is in terminal decline, President Putin may be prepared to throw some more weight around to win the battle for Kyiv.
Rory Medcalf's analysis the Chinese naval exercises continues to make waves. This week Rory looked into a Jakarta Post article which quoted an Indonesian military spokesman as saying that Jakarta had allowed Chinese navy vessels to pass through Indonesian waters as 'a token of our friendship':
The report needs to be treated with caution. A few elements don't stack up.
For a start, the TNI spokesman, Rear Admiral Iskandar Sitompul, does not appear to have said anything about Australia when referring to the Chinese naval exercise, suggesting that the 'Indonesia thumbs its nose at Oz' headline may be a bit of editorial mischief aimed at stoking Australia-Indonesia tensions.
Second, the details quoted about the Chinese exercise are not consistent with the Chinese navy's own official reports about what took place.
The Chinese version is that three ships were involved: two destroyers and a large amphibious transport ship, with this taskforce traveling directly from its base in China. The Jakarta Post version includes the extraordinary assertion that the vessels included multiple submarines, and that they were returning from 'anti-piracy training in the Gulf of Aden'. Either these details are incorrect, or the Jakarta Post and the TNI spokesman are referring to quite a different Chinese taskforce.
This raises new and interesting questions, whether about the tempo and nature of Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean, or the accuracy of Indonesian media reporting.
Finally, it appears normalisation in Australia-Fiji relations is pressing ahead. The Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward-Jones wrote on Monday that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's trip to Fiji represents a 'game changer':
By moving now, Australia sets its own terms for the relationship with Fiji, no longer hamstrung by waiting for an unreliable Fiji Government to act on conditions set by previous Australian governments and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Bishop's approach restores a political element to the relationship, which at the very least gives Canberra the ability to keep talking to Bainimarama, who has the last word on whether elections go ahead or not. Australia also needs a political relationship with Fiji for other reasons: so it can pursue important regional or international policy initiatives and so it can elevate requests for the Fiji Government's assistance when Australian investors or tourists need help.
If Fiji has an election that meets even a minimum standard of freedom and fairness, Australia would have no choice but to accept the result, which may very well be an elected government of Voreqe Bainimarama. Far better that Bishop establish a relationship with him now on Australia's terms than to seek to meet him for the first time after the election, when he, not Canberra, would set the terms.
Photo by Flickr user Peter Ras.