Asian Games 2018: Jakarta & Palembang, Aug 18-Sept 2

Asian Games 2018: Indonesians swell with pride

Cautious optimism for successful Games that will show progress as maturing democracy

Performers pose as they wait to take part at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 18, 2018. PHOTO: AFP
Workers on a makeshift raft installing nets last month to cover a polluted river beside the Athletes' Village at Kemayoran district in Jakarta. The country has spared no effort to ensure a successful Games.
Workers on a makeshift raft installing nets last month to cover a polluted river beside the Athletes' Village at Kemayoran district in Jakarta. The country has spared no effort to ensure a successful Games. PHOTO: REUTERS

Sandra Hamid could not resist a peek. The country representative of the Asia Foundation think-tank was ambling around the refurbished Gelora Bung Karno stadium last week, wheeling her 94-year-old mother when she spotted an opening in the fence and nipped inside for a closer look.

Until recently, the sprawling 280ha sports complex, built with Soviet funds ahead of the 1962 Asian Games, was gloomy. But now, there is polish and a professional look to the complex for this year's Asiad.

And the 80,000-seat stadium has been topped off with a buffed, almost delicate metal roof seemingly poised for take-off.

"Everything looked so good. People were busy getting things ready," said Sandra. "I felt so proud."

A similar pride prevails across Indonesia, which stepped up four years ago to host the Games after initial host Vietnam withdrew, citing economic difficulties.

The authorities have pulled out all the stops. President Joko Widodo has pressed some of the country's biggest stars into service to publicise the Games.

Loudspeakers in the capital's shopping malls ring with tribute songs to the Games including the theme song Meraih Bintang or Reach For The Stars by Via Vallen, who racked up 8.1 million followers on Instagram by rebooting a dangdut tune with catchy lyrics.

Movie star Dian Sastrowardoyo, whose youth-oriented smash hit is widely credited with renewing mass interest in the country's movie industry, also took part in a leg of the torch relay into Jakarta.

And in his address to Parliament on the eve of last Friday's Independence Day, Mr Joko called on all Indonesians to be gracious hosts and make the Games a success.

"Let us prove that Indonesia is ready to lift Asia's position in the world," he said.

Keith Loveard of business risk consultancy Concord Consulting says the Games will be a big boost to Indonesia's image.

"The Jokowi administration has done what's needed to get all the essentials in place," he said, using the name by which most Indonesians refer to the president. "That's a plus for Indonesia's soft power."

The planning, however, has uncovered some uncomfortable truths about one of the world's densest cities. News of a smelly canal that snakes past the Athletes' Village has been fodder on social media, and prompted authorities to deploy nets to halt evaporation and deodoriser to mitigate the stench.

News sites show videos of officials spraying the offending canal with torrents of the chemicals.

And last Friday, air pollution measured 185 micrograms at noon compared with 170 mcg in Beijing, according to US Embassy data.

Still, a sense of cautious optimism has descended on Jakarta for the respite offered to a city beleaguered by politics. Last year saw a bruising local election. This month, Mr Joko announced his candidacy for re-election and is up against his former rival Prabowo Subianto.

But the polls, slated for April next year, has stirred some acrimony when Mr Joko named as his running mate a conservative cleric who helped jail former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian who was Mr Joko's former deputy governor.

"I don't follow the news about the Asian Games too closely," said Mulyati, 30. "But, yeah, this country needs a distraction from all the politics."

The Games, which will see an estimated 17,000 athletes and officials as well as 5,000 media in attendance, are the city's second turn at hosting the competition. Many events will also take place in Palembang. In 1962, the Asian Games were a sort of coming-out for the young republic.

"I'm so proud that after so many years Indonesia can host an international sporting event," said Usman Hamid, country director for Amnesty International and one-time student protester. But he questioned why it took a major event for officials to fix the city's problems.

For Sandra, the successful staging of the Games will be another milestone in the country's maturation as a democracy. The victor of last year's gubernatorial election in Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, pushed on with the planning and execution of the Games. Most importantly, Sandra said, 73 years and one day after Indonesia declared its independence, staging the Games is a chance for this sprawling country to leave politics aside - at least for a few weeks - and come together.

"Indonesians are fiercely patriotic," she said. "This is a chance to come together and be Indonesian."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2018, with the headline Asian Games 2018: Indonesians swell with pride. Subscribe