Last updated: 8 may, 2009 - 16:05 GMT

Southeast Asian diary

The BBC's Claire Bolderson travels to Singapore and Indonesia to look at the impact of the global economic crisis - and she's also reporting on how Indonesia's dealing with radical Islam.

Part Eight: Jakarta, Indonesia

Well that's it, we've done the programmes and I'm about to head home.

Ras Muhamad, Indonesian reggae star

Ras Muhamad sings about social issues

I've loved being back in Southeast Asia.

So much is still familiar even if a lot has changed in nearly 20 years.

And I want to end on a positive note so here's one of the best things about the changes since I reported from Indonesia under what was at the time basically a dictatorship.

Okay so widespread corruption and unequal development take the shine off democracy somewhat (plus the fact that most of the political parties are indistinguishable on policy) but people are so much more willing and able to speak out openly and without fear.

I don't just mean the tiny demonstrations - mostly environmental - on the main road outside my hotel almost every day.

I mean the casual chats in the streets, the young business people who don't mind being taped saying critical things, the reggae star Ras Muhamad whipping up a crowd of high school kids with songs attacking the ruling classes.

To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

Latest Flash player available here

Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

And then there are the feisty young women working as journalists and fixers for the foreign press.

A band of clever, confident, professionals - I don't remember such women being visible here in the past.

So there's a long way to go, Indonesia's still not living up to its economic potential by any means but at least you can say that quite openly now.

The local media's still a bit timid when it comes to some of the more sensitive political stories (ie anything involving corruption allegations) but one can't help hoping that in a much freer atmosphere, it's only a matter of time.

I'll be back to find out.

Part Seven: Jakarta, Indonesia

I've been thinking about the whole notion of employment and employment statistics.

Officially, unemployment isn't going up here in Indonesia despite the drop in exports and the significant dip in economic growth.

The statistics are notoriously unreliable but it seems to be in part because a lot of people who were once in manufacturing jobs have returned to agriculture or gone into the service industry instead.

I met a perfect example of that the other day, a young woman who'd worked in a South Korean owned thread factory.

It closed and now she's a working as a maid in Jakarta.

But then there's the question of underemployment.

According to a local newspaper report "the nation's disguised underemployment could be as high as 40%". I can believe it.

I went to interview a minister the other day and from the security people at the gate to the woman who escorted me in the lift, to the numerous civil servants who accompanied various officials I had to meet first, there must have been at least 20 people involved, most of them with no role at all.

It's the same in my hotel. Every time you go through the lobby, neatly dressed young women with absolutely nothing to do approach eagerly asking how they can help you.

They must be bored out of their minds.

Of course it's good these people have jobs at all but they're not well paid and you can see why Indonesia has a productivity problem - and why so many people seek real work overseas.


I mentioned the programme we're going to be doing on Islam from Jakarta and Islamabad on Wednesday. You can post your comments on the subject now on our World Have Your Say page.

One of the areas we'll be looking at here in Indonesia is the growth of radical publishing houses.

They've been set up by people affiliated with the extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

The group's violent acts have waned and it looks like they're taking a different approach to spreading their message.

There's more in this video.

To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

Latest Flash player available here

Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

Part Six: Jakarta, Indonesia

I’ve been looking at the roots of Islam in this country and how the religion gradually and peacefully took over from the Hinduism of the Majapahit empire in Java because we’re going to be doing a live link up next Wednesday with Owen Bennett Jones in Pakistan comparing Islam there and in Indonesia.

Indonesian women in jilbabs

Nearly 90% of Indonesians are muslim

Indonesia’s got the biggest muslim population in the world, and one thing I’ve noticed is that many more women now wear the traditional head-scarf, or Jilbab as they call it here, than I remember from previous trips.

I first noticed it in the small towns of East Java last week but it’s true here in the bustling metropolis of Jakarta too.

I’m not sure whether that’s a sign of strengthening faith amongst Muslims or perhaps a sign of strengthening freedom of expression.

For years the Jilbab was banned in schools and political Islam was marginalised and tightly controlled by President Suharto.

Now there are numerous Muslim political parties – not very big but quite important in this country’s messy coalition politics - and the question of Islamic dress seems to be bound up in a number of things: Faith of course, but also opposition to the establishment, almost a statement of defiance.

Part Five: Jakarta, Indonesia

Driving in from the airport I found Jakarta almost unrecognisable.

Central Jakarta

Traffic in the centre of Jakarta moves at a snail's pace

When I first lived here, there were hardly any tall office buildings or glitzy hotels beyond the two central main roads.

The sky line's changed each time I've visited but now there's been an explosion of construction and the fancy glass skyscrapers stretch out into what I remember as run down suburbs of winding alleyways with wooden houses perched on the edges of dirty canals.

And the swanky apartments and offices have been joined by shopping malls - loads of them - it feels like there's one around every corner, each bigger and brasher than the last which makes it hard to see any immediate signs of the world's economic troubles here.

But it's puzzling. This country suffered a terrible blow during the 1997 Asian crash, it's economy shrinking by a whopping 13.5% in the following year.

It's only just got back to where it was before the crash. So where does all this money come from?

Possibly the answer lies in the world commodities boom of recent years.

Copper, coal, palm oil, timber - you name it, Indonesia's got it.

So will those precious resources help see the world's fourth biggest country through this latest economic storm?

Part Four: East Java, Indonesia

I used to think, when I lived here during the Suharto time in the early 1990s, that the layers of bureacracy one had to go through to achieve anything were all about dictatorial control.

Pak Kusni, Indonesian coffee farmer

Pak Kusni has grown coffee for 25 years

But old habits die hard and 11 years after the old President's downfall - as a direct result of the Asian economic crash - the bureaucracy and the layers of officialdom still exist.

Take my trip to the Javanese coffee farmer.

A local from an NGO working with the farmers said he'd take me.

But after an hour's drive or so, we stopped at the offices of the district head.

There were many introductions, much explanation of what we were up to, hands were shaken, seats taken, time wasted.

Then a uniformed subordinate was despatched to accompany us on our way.

'Intimidating entourage'

Somewhere along the line, as we approached the village of Sidomulyo in the highlands between two volcanoes, we acquired two more officials.

By the time we reached the coffee farmer himself, we had a large and possibly intimidating entourage.

Fortunately, they were easily distracted by producer Sigrun who chatted to them for ages despite having no Indonesian and they no English between them.

Meanwhile I plunged in amongst the bushes of ripening coffee beans with farmer, Pak Kursni who confirmed that yes, the global recession has reached these remote hills.

Coffee bean prices are down and he's worried it's going to get worse.

New markets

Like other countries in East Asia, Indonesia's seen a sharp drop in exports as a result of the global economic downturn.

But Captain Sanjay Mehta, managing director of the company that runs the port in Surabaya, the second biggest in Indonesia, thinks things are picking up as exporters look for new markets to replace those lost in Europe and the US.

He overseas the Surabaya terminal that brings in machinery, electrical goods, grain and chemicals needed in Indonesia needs while exporting copper, paper, furniture, seafood, tobacco and coffee.

To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

Latest Flash player available here

Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

Part Three: East Java, Indonesia

It's good to be back in Indonesia.

Rice field, East Java

Indonesia's national rice yield is one of the highest in Asia

So much is familiar - from the first whiff of sickly sweet clove cigarettes at the airport to the bumper to bumper traffic out of Surabaya.

And then the vibrant green rice fields. I don't know of any green like it, nor anything as beautiful as the perfectly rectangular fields separated by irrigation channels.

Banana trees and palms are dotted around the edges, here and there people are planting or harvesting, there's an occasional spiral of smoke from stubble being burned off.

And here in East Java it's all set against a stunning back drop of volcanoes.

I'm off to meet some coffee farmers in one of the many villages dotted around the hills.

But on the way, I've seen something rather disturbing - a reminder that when it comes to environmental protection, Indonesia's got a long way to go.

The locals, in a town not far from Surabaya, call it The Mud Volcano and if you watch our short video, you'll see why.

To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

Latest Flash player available here

Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

Part Two: Singapore

Hundreds of people chanting, a pungent smell of burning incense, lots of small shrines with offerings of rice, fruit and coconut milk.

No, nothing to do with the recession. It's Vesak Day in Singapore - a day of celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha and I've just been to one of the main temples here.

There were rows of solemn elderly Chinese ladies with black cloaks over their clothes being addressed from the front of the hall by a monk.

Behind him were giant shiny gold statues of the Buddha.

A slow procession of worshippers made their way down a central aisle past a sea of candles, saying their prayers, while in the courtyard a small queue had formed to make offerings at another enormous statue, this time of the reclining Buddha.

And this being Singapore, one of the culinary capitals of the world, there was also food - plenty of it.

Many of the devotees had taken part in processions starting yesterday and lasting through the night and they'd heaped their plates with rice, or noodles and a variety of soups and curries served from steaming vats, the smells mingling with the sticks of incense burning outside.

A crowded, chaotic and colourful birthday for the Buddha.

Part One: Singapore

One day into my first trip to East Asia in eight years and I'm wondering, what does "recession" really mean?

Migrant workers in Singapore

There are tens of thousands of migrant workers in Singapore

Okay I've heard the strict economists' version a thousand times (two successive quarters of negative growth) but in practice it's much harder to define.

Take Singapore. On paper it looks terrible.

The economy's expected to contract by up to nine percent this year because of crashing exports.

But you wouldn't know it if you popped in to one of the numerous shopping malls here or stopped off at any of the thriving restaurants or bars.

Yes some will tell you business has dropped off a bit. And the vast numbers of ships laid up in the coastal waters are a sign of the big slow down in trade.

But Singapore feels almost as vibrant and just as confident as I remember it in the 1990s.


The government isn't saddled by debt so it can happily spend.

There's no sub-prime type crisis either because 85% of people live in government developed properties where sales are tightly contolled.

So a bit of belt tightening here and there, a bit of being careful, but Singapore's basically okay.

Except that is if you're an unskilled migrant worker.

There are tens of thousands of them here and just as they were amongst the first to feel the benefits of globalisation, so they're now the first to feel its reversal.

They're amongst the people I've been talking to for our live broadcast from Jakarta this month.

More details to come so watch this space.

To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

Latest Flash player available here

Play in either Real OR Windows Media players

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.