Different Strokes, Different Folks & Special Needs

Indonesia is an archipelago stretching 5,120km from east to west. The total number of surveyed and documented islands within its domain range from 13,466 to 18,307, depending on whose data you’re referring to. Similarly, the actual number of languages and ethnic groups that inhabit Indonesia’s territory will remain debatable.

Indonesia lies in the Pacific Rim of Fire. Tectonically, it is highly active and hence prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which mercifully, occur a lot less frequently than the “once in 50 years” defined by the folks in Singapore in charge of keeping our flood waters at bay. On this chain of islands, a string of volcanoes stretches from Sumatra to the Banda Sea. Volcanic ash spewed by these fiery mountains has given rise to fertile soils, supporting the most populous island in the world, Java. Apart from fertile soils, volcanoes are also capable of carving out some of the most spectacular, otherworldly landscapes on the planet.


My love affair with Indonesia started in September 1993 when I climbed my first Indonesian mountain Gunung Merapi in Central Java via the dangerous and now banned Kaliurang route. After a visit to Mt Bromo (which I visited repeatedly after that), I became totally hooked. I would go on to climb many more volcanoes in Indonesia, but it was not just about climbing. Engaging the locals was a bit part of these “climbs” and over the years, I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to the way of life of people who seem a world apart from us. It has all been a rather interesting, insightful and enriching experience, my failure to convince people who make condescending remarks like “don’t expect me to spend my money on a Third World country” notwithstanding.

My main aim in this last trip in August 2017 was to climb Gunung Rinjani. Next to Mt Bromo, Rinjani has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Fit and fiery folks from all over the world (including the more open-minded Singaporeans) attempt this peak to feast their eyes on the incredible scenery. Just when you think you’ve gotten the best photos you could have taken, a slightly more beautiful sight captures your attention. The mountain exudes a charm, holding those with an eye for beauty. Upon reaching the summit on National Day, I asked my guide Fhandrie to take a shot of me holding the Singapore flag. I immediately uploaded it on Facebook. Yes, in this Third World country, there is mobile signal on a pile of pumice rocks 3726m in the air. A full account of my Rinjani expedition will be posted on Knapsack Treks.

After descending from Rinjani back to Sebalun Lawang, I made a beeline for the village of Tetebatu. Going by economic indicators, Lombok may be considered a poor place with pumice stone being it’s main export, but traffic jams on roads leading to Mataram are a daily affair. The economic indicators notwithstanding, there is quite obviously a lot less real poverty and misery here than the slums of Jakarta.

By virtue of its rice terraces and monkey forest, Tetebatu is sometimes referred to as the new Ubud. But unlike Ubud, Tetebatu lacks a thriving artists’ colony or dance theatres. Besides, Lombokian culture pales beside Bali’s colourful, mystical and exotic rituals which are already world renowned. Fortunately, however, Tetebatu looks set to retain its rural charm and is unlikely to become another commercialised, tourist-infested Ubud, keeping the obnoxiously “atas” Singaporeans who don’t want to spend their money on a Third World country out. Being the kampung boy who spent my school holidays in Malaysian towns and villages in the 1960s, Tetebatu brought back many happy childhood memories.

Maybe that’s why I have a distinctly unSingaporean view of “poverty”. I prefer to use the word “misery”. If you’re happy, you are not in poverty no matter what the economic indicators say. If you’re living in misery, you aren’t wealthy no matter what the economic indicators or bank statements say. Life here is without any luxury or even some creature comforts like hot showers, but it goes on instinctively, guided by genes and hormones. The boys instinctively grow up to work on the fields, the girls instinctively grow up to cook and sew. The boys instinctively know how to woo the girls. The girls instinctively know how to respond. They instinctively start relationships, get married and have children without the need for aid or incentives. Life and death follow the course of nature without any need for expert advice or intervention.

After leaving Tetebatu, I descended from the cool and peaceful highlands to Kuta – not Bali’s Kuta but Lombok’s Kuta – another wannabe that hasn’t quite made it (fortunately). Land sales were going at a brisk pace, upmarket F&B establishments are springing up like bamboo shoots. The sand on Lombok’s Kuta is nowhere as fine and beautiful as that in Bali. The beach is also a bit too rocky and topless bathers are absent. Kuta’s popularity may be due entirely to the proximity of the new airport.

There are better beaches out on the islands, but there is virtually no law enforcement in these parts. With the arrival of tourist dollars, crime rates also escalated. Bear in mind that in these happening places, drugs are easily available and many of the perpetrators are not locals. A number of women were reportedly molested by locals or raped by fellow travellers.

Even in relatively unhappening Kuta, the local airport shuttle service seemed to be run by a mafia. They harassed and intimidated the Blue Bird driver I called. I wish the company could lobby for enforcement in the interest of their own drivers’ safety. Will such lawlessness be a teething issue or a perennial problem? I believe that things will get better. I also suspect that no matter how hard they scrub, there will always be some residue to be managed by those who dare.

I ended my trip in Jakarta before flying home. And as you can see from my Facebook musings, the misery of the homeless on the streets of Jakarta put them far worse off than the humble inhabitants in the plentiful, bountiful highlands of economically depressed Lombok. What is true wealth? What is genuine poverty? Life is actually a very simple, personal, instinct-driven process we manage with a spiritual mindset, detached from complexity of academia and other expert opinions.

And while I was away, some interesting things had happened. Thanks to mobile internet, I knew about it.

I wonder what rules they might impose in future if someone decided to do a Miley Cyrus next.

Then, there was this boy who got kicked out of a music school when they discovered that he was autistic. True to form, the keyboard heroes mounted their moral high horses and went on to vilify the school. The next thing that I won’t find surprising is that the vast majority of these easy heroes don’t know the first thing about autism. It’s the same with posts like this one.

The majority of Singaporeans manage to reap sufficient benefits from CHAS and PG. It’s adequate for most people, so while these folks can effortlessly play hero and vilify NUH, they really couldn’t care less about changing the system, much less contribute more to public funds to help the needy.

Just look at all the autistic people on our public transport who get strange stares and hastily vacated seats around them. Are there really so many sympathisers around? Do they realise how demanding it is to look after these children and are willing to do it themselves? They probably do know, but they’re not true sympathisers who can be of any help; they’re just easy keyboard heroes and I wouldn’t take them seriously. How many people actually turned up at the funeral of the proverbial guy who had 5,000 Facebook “friends”. The same principle applies here. The parents shouldn’t be too happy with the virtual support they see online.

Next, I have something to say about the caregivers (or those who are supposed to care) of autistic children. The child is your responsibility. It may sound harsh, but I know this too well. Don’t think that music schools or art classes are places you can dump your child while you get on with your life. Be considerate and understanding. Move on and forgive people who are unable to manage. For those who can manage or are willing to try, be personally involved and give all the support they need. It’s simply unreasonable for people to expect mainstream music schools to accept students with special needs without proper planning, staffing and arrangements with the parents. This spoon-fed nation keeps giving me the facepalms.

© Chan Joon Yee

Dewdrop Books