So You’re Moving to Southeast Asia …
I could not be happier to hear that you have accepted a job in Singapore. I think time spent living and working abroad will completely change your worldview, your resume, and your openness to ideas – at least I hope so, because those kinds of changes are good for you and good for society. Not that anything you believe today is wrong; it is more a matter of personal evolution, of moving to higher levels of thought.
When I was a kid it was a rare experience for an American company employee to be stationed overseas. Relatively few companies, like Singer and Coca-Cola, had run important and longstanding non-US businesses. Later, more and more rising executives did stints in Europe or Asia.
Today, and looking forward, it’s almost imperative that you get some international experience under your belt. The earlier, the better. Since you are not yet 30, I think you will be better able to pick up languages, adapt to strange cuisines, and make friends, than me in my fifties. Although I give it my best. The world of the mid-21st century – the world you will help run – will be much more globalized than the world of today. As the years proceed, the United States is likely to have a shrinking share of global GDP. But perhaps more important than the country you come from will be the enterprises and projects you become part of. You need to be fully prepared to participate in and lead such a world.
I think Singapore is as good as any place to make your base. It is a futuristic city, it is a well-run city, and it is one of the more diverse places on earth. Perhaps most important, it has one of the world’s best airports and probably the world’s best airline, and it’s located in the middle of Asian dynamics. You can relatively easily reach out to everywhere from India to Australia to Japan, although you will likely find intra-Asian distances longer than you think. For my review of Singapore, see this post: http://hooversworld.com/archives/2926.
One of the best things you can do while living in Singapore, in terms of your own personal growth and understanding, is to travel around Asia and visit as many nations as you can. I don’t need to tell you that India, China, and Japan are all fascinating, important, unique, beautiful, and historical. I am sure you will get to them.
But being based in Singapore you may spend more time visiting the (relatively) nearby Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Indonesia. I have spent time in 4 of those 8 nations, and think they are all fascinating and worth the trip. I cannot wait to see the other 4.
Each time you explore one of these countries, you will be entering a new nation, a place with its own identity, its own style, and its own deep culture. No two are alike.
For example, when you visit Thailand, you will visit an intriguing nation, the only country in that part of the world that was never colonized. The Thai people have an energy and a love of life. Bangkok is one of the world’s great teeming metropolises. Thailand is the largest primarily-Buddhist country in the world. It is one of my favorite countries in the world, with among the nicest people.
Islamic Malaysia has an equally unique personality, with its modern cities and advanced economy. I like to call it “Singapore with land,” although if you hang out in that part of the world I am sure you will hear a great deal more about the differences with than the similarities to Singapore.
The Philippines is a beautiful land, the largest primarily-Christian nation in all of Asia. Manila is one of the world’s largest cities.
So each of these nations is an experience not to be confused with the others.
But when you enter Indonesia, you will not enter a nation insomuch as you will enter a world. The country consists of tens of thousands of islands in a volcanic archipelago stretching as far across as the USA stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It contains hundreds of tribes and dialectics, and is the fourth most populous country in the world and the most populous Islamic nation. Each island or island cluster has a story of its own, its own musics, its own architecture, its own celebrations. Only through the strong arm of Dutch Colonialists did it adopt a single identity – “the Dutch East Indies” – which was then carried forward by Sukarno when he and others led the fight for Independence after World War II.
Indonesian music is a favorite of mine, and as you know I collect Gamelan – Indonesian for orchestra – instruments. The orchestra is led by giant gongs, supported by many other metallic “keyboards,” strings, drums, and voice. Gamelan is played slowly on Java and quickly on Bali. Indonesia has many other forms of music, from the bamboo “rattles” called Angklung to the modern music called Dangdut.
The complexity and fascination of the music is equaled by the diversity of the crafts, clothes, carvings, indigenous religions, philosophical beliefs, architecture, wildlife, plant life, food, art, and people of Indonesia. I saw giant fruit bats with wingspans of over 3 feet and amazing monkey jungles. I did not yet get to Komodo to see the dragons.
The island with the most people, Java, has as exotic and intoxicating a history as anywhere on earth. More people, an estimated 124 million, live on this island than any other – the runner-up being Japan’s main island, Honshu. At 48,000 square miles, Java is slightly larger than Cuba, Iceland, or Ireland, but has more than ten times the population of any of those. It is a little over half the size of Great Britain, with over twice as many people.
On the northwestern shore of Java is Jakarta, one of the worlds’ largest metropolitan (or urbanized) areas.
Any list of largest cities is a subjective judgment about where the urban area ends. One of the most consistent and hardworking analysts is Wendell Cox, who generously posts his findings on his website www.demographia.com. His 2009 estimate places the Jakarta urbanized area at #2 in the world list with 23.3 million people, behind Tokyo and just ahead of New York City. If Cox is right, then Jakarta is bigger than the other cities in his top 15, which are (in order after Tokyo, Jakarta, and New York): Mumbai, Manila, Delhi, Seoul, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Osaka, Cairo, Kolkata, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Even more remarkably, Cox predicts that in 2030, based on current and anticipated trends, Jakarta will pass Tokyo to become the world’s largest city, reaching 38.4 million. (If you love big cities like I do, you will also enjoy Cox’s driving tours of the world’s great cities, at http://www.rentalcartours.net/.)
Jakarta has a veneer of modern hotels, shopping centers and office buildings, replete with a contingency of diplomatic and corporate types from around the world. But at its heart the city is a sprawling and lush compound of villagers from throughout the islands. You can smell the smoke of clove cigarettes (Kretek) wherever you go. Usually put down by travel guides for its congestion and pollution (perhaps no worse than Bangkok), I really love this city. Just get out and walk around, breathe deep, and chow down on some gado-gado (hot salad in peanut sauce so thick it’s like melted peanut butter).
Around halfway east on the island lies the ancient capital and ceremonial center of Jogjakarta (Or Yogyakarta) with its Kraton – a walled compound in the middle of the city which is home to Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X and to hundreds of homes of those who work for the royal family. Here you can explore this walled city and hear some of the world’s best Gamelan performances. Nearby you can see the famous shadow puppet play, like you may have seen in the movie A Year of Living Dangerously. A few miles west lies Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument on earth, and a few miles east lies Prambanan, an equally ancient Hindu complex – all in this land which is today Muslim. North is the Dieng Plateau, a land of temples over 1000 years old, one of the most mysterious places I have ever visited.
Java has many other exotic cities which I look forward to seeing someday – Bandung, Surakarta (called "Solo”), Surabaya, Semarang, and many others.
Just east of Java lies famous Bali, which has been a retreat for artists and eccentrics from Europe and America since the 1930s. While some complain that tourism has spoiled this small (2200 square mile) island, I have found spots all over it that you can have to yourself. You just have to study the map and go off in new directions. And even where tourism is strong, the Balinese seem to have adapted pretty well.
Bali is primarily Hindu, one of the main centers outside India. Books have been filled with the unique cultural details of Balinese Hinduism. They have an unusual calendar, 210 days per year. There are thousands of temples on the small island, and each one has a Gamelan. Every 210 days each temple celebrates. People walk for miles with giant fruit and flower constructions on their heads alongside whole Gamelan orchestras walking or riding in pickup trucks as they play.
The center of the island is mountainous and covered with rice paddies. It is about as beautiful and distant as any land most people have visited. There is no east, west, north, or south – only uphill (heavenward), downhill (seaward), clockwise around the mountainous middle, and counter-clockwise. Even the rooms of each house are arranged with these in mind.
Most folks your age will focus on the area around the capital and the airport at Denpasar, which has beach after beach after beach. But to really understand the culture, head inland to towns like the art center Ubud, or one of the other interesting highland villages, each with its own history and royal family.
I have not yet visited the other major islands of Indonesia, but I have read enough Lonely Planet Guides and watched enough videos to have a sense of how fascinating they will be when I get to them.
Sulawesi, which we used to call the Celebes, is probably first on my list. They say it has some of the best diving on earth. You can tell from the map that this many-fingered island is an interesting place to visit. With 16 million people, it is the 12th most populous island in the world. At 67,000 square miles, it is larger than Java and 11th biggest in the world. Sulawesi straddles the famous Wallace’s line which divides the wildlife of Asia from that of Australasia, so it has both types. Wikipedia tells me that 62% of its mammal species are found nowhere else in Indonesia or the world. This is the land of the 5 million “fierce and industrious” Bugis, who speak their own dialect.
Just east of Bali is small Lombok, long the center for those travelers too adventuresome for Bali. Eastward beyond Lombok lie the Spice Islands, the Moluccas, now known as Maluku. What could be more alluring? Certainly it was to the spice-hunters of Portugal, England, and Holland.
And further east is West Papua or Irian Jaya, part of a huge island – 2nd largest on earth after Greenland – shared with Papua New Guinea. This is one of the most remote and mysterious places on earth – perhaps further from Singapore than one can imagine.
North lies the giant island (#3 in the world) of Kalimantan (formerly Borneo), land of Orangutans, shared with Malaysia and Brunei.
And west of Java lies another big one, Sumatra (#6), with fascinating lakes and even more interesting people – 42 million, making this the most populous of these large islands after Java. (For cool information comparing the world’s islands, see www.worldislandinfo.com.)
My own exposure to Indonesia is limited. I have studied its history and culture, collected its musical instruments and recordings. I have checked out crafts from Batik to shadow puppets. All I really know is that I have seen enough to realize the phenomenal depth that is the pool of Indonesian culture and heritage. Like other giant – but better publicized – nations such as China and India, you could explore this world for a lifetime and never see it all, never understand it all.
As a huge nation with a large economy based on extensive agricultural and mineral resources, Indonesia is incredibly important to the region and the world. As one of the most stable democracies in the Islamic world, Indonesia can only become more important in coming years. Over time, I hope Americans will go from knowing virtually nothing about it to recognizing its size, importance, beauty, and culture.
For all these reasons, I hope you use your time in Singapore to explore all of Asia, but particularly the world that is Indonesia. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind as open as possible.