Diverse, multi-religious Jakarta is the world’ s social media capital, reports Zakir Hussain

AS I WRITE THIS, preparations for Indonesia’s July 9 presidential election are underway. It is an unprecedented straight fight between the capital’s unassuming but popular folksy governor Joko Widodo and the polished yet temperamental former general Prabowo Subianto.

The battle is the talk of the town among cab drivers and at coffee shops and almost everyone has an opinion. But there are no tanks on the streets or policemen standing guard outside campaign headquarters; where things get really heated is on Twitter and Facebook, for Jakarta is the world’s social media capital. There was even a recent movie called Republik Twitter, about a university student who travels here to find the love of his life he met through but where else Twitter. Jokowi, as the governor is known, has 1.5 million followers, while Prabowo has some 750,000. (By comparison, outgoing President Yudhoyono has 5 million.) The reason Jokowi is in the lead is that, since entering office in October 2012, he has embarked on ambitious efforts to weed out bureaucrats seeking bribes for public services, relocate street vendors off busy thoroughfares into markets and other public spaces, clean up the canals that contribute to annual floods, spruce up public parks and make himself available to those who want to see him. As a result, he gets a daily stream of petitioners at City Hall. Construction of a 32km-long mass rapid-transit system Indonesia’s first subway system is also underway through the heart of the capital, as is a separate 30km-long monorail network.

If this sounds like things are looking up for the city known as the “Big Durian,” they are. The capital of 10 million sees its population double during the day as many residents from the outskirts of Asia’s second-largest metropolitan area (after Tokyo) travel into the thriving center for work. Congestion remains a major issue, and like much of the city, it’s often unpredictable you could cover 20km in 20 minutes in a car on a good day, and spend an hour crawling 2km on a particularly bad one. But there are options people can get on an ojek or motorcycle taxi at a street corner, or brave the TransJakarta bus network that has dedicated lanes in a bid to encourage people to switch to buses and leave their vehicles at home. That is, alas, a very tough proposition when rising incomes have made cars that much more affordable.

Even as it is political season in Jakarta, the big story about the capital of Southeast Asia’s largest country, 16 years after becoming a full-fledged democracy, is really the booming economy. Where five years ago, many wouldn’t think of relocating here, many are now moving in, be they freelancers or consultants. Decades of centralized control mean that even as an aggressive decentralization of power to the regions takes place, the national capital is where the money still flows fastest. And so skyscrapers with upwards of 50 stories and swanky shopping malls with brand name shops are going up. Lavish luxury hotels are opening, including the Raffles Jakarta. Companies from all over the region are moving in to take advantage of growing consumer purchasing power even though for now, the “consuming class,” as the consultants describe it, numbers just one-third of the population of 250 million.

All this has made Jakarta a much more vibrant place to live over the three years I have been here. New restaurants and watering holes open up almost weekly, with a range of cuisine from Argentinian to Uzbek for a third to a half of what you would pay in Singapore. Indonesia’s growing weight in the region, and the fact that the Asean headquarters are housed here, have seen Jakarta become a diplomatic hub in its own right.

Muslim-majority Indonesia is largely tolerant and inclusive, especially in diverse, multi-religious Jakarta. Ahead of the April general election, election commission officials went out to a transgender neighborhood to encourage them to vote. At the same time, hard-line groups are also free to demonstrate publicly, making for occasionally lively copy, though the police often keep a watchful eye on them. Ubiquitous metal detectors at the entrances to most hotels, malls and office buildings are a reminder of the real terrorist threat, though thanks to police and intelligence work there has been no major attack in the capital since 2009.

Still, there has been an endless stream of possible stories, aided by officials who are generally open and willing to engage with journalists, and by the plethora of newspapers, news websites and TV stations. There is even a Japanese- language Jakarta Shimbun, published daily. Ministers and newsmakers often give their mobile numbers, and comment fairly freely. But they may not always pick up calls or reply to messages. When that happens, it’s better to turn to Twitter.

Zakir Hussain is the Indonesia bureau chief for The Straits Times.

Letters to the Editor

IN HER WIDE-RANGING and scholarly story [“The Gin & Tonic is humble no more,” Number 1 Shimbun, May 2014], Mary Corbett appropriately mentions the important work of Dr. James Lind in the dread disease of scurvy, the scourge of mariners for centuries and the adoption by the Royal Navy of the citrus juices, lemon and lime, as anti-scorbutic measures.

The great 18th-century marine explorer Captain James Cook was a firm believer in Lind’s observations and was also a great supporter of Vitamin C-rich sauerkraut, which he preferred to citrus juices. He had noticed that Dutch ships routinely carried sauerkraut provisions and had less scurvy than British crews.

In June 1768, Cook ordered the loading of three-and-a-half tons of the pungent pickle on his ship the Endeavour for his first epic voyage to the southern seas. Once at sea, the crew initially disdained the condiment, calling it unpalatable. The cunning Captain Cook solved the problem by declaring that, in principle, servings of “Sour Krout” as he wrote it, were for officers. Lower ranks could take it or leave it.

The result was a surge in demand from the lower deck seamen and a rationing of supplies. Cook wrote in his diary that the moment common sailors see their superiors set a value on something, “it becomes the finest stuff in the world.”

In the Endeavour’s three-year voyage, not a man was lost to scurvy, thanks to Cook’s “Sour Krout.” But despite Cook’s advocacy of preserved cabbage, the citrus solution was the way the Royal Navy eventually dealt with the scurvy issue, as Mary recorded.

So Brits remain “limeys” instead of “cabbage heads,” as might have been the case if Cook’s example had prevailed.

— Geoffrey Tudor

I WAS VERY SORRY to hear about the passing of John and D [Rich; “In Memoriam,” Number 1 Shimbun, May 2014]. I actually got to know John in the final period of his life, when he wrote an article for Korea Witness, a book published by the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club in 2006. I got the piece from John by dictation. He told me about his memories of critical periods, including the Korean War, where he was one of the first broadcast TV journalists. (If Vietnam was the first “television war,” Korea was the pre-television war, and John was one of the original TV correspondents he would send the film by air to NY, then provide voice to match by phone.)

I talked to John for more than an hour on the phone, calling from Seoul to either London, where he had family, or Maine. I last contacted him at the FCCJ where he was visiting. He picked up the phone in the lounge. I said, “John Rich?” He responded, “No, he died some time ago.” Then he quickly corrected, with a laugh, “This is he.” John’s last great achievement is an enormous photo book of pictures that he took of the Korean War, which were uncovered in an attic. I saw it a few days ago on the shelf of the Korean Overseas Information Center a terrific, colorful volume, with pages of pictures plus text by John.

Don Kirk