James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Indonesia

  • Pancasila buffs only: all things Indonesia update

    I had no idea how many readers know about, care about, and have forcefully-expressed opinions about Indonesia! After the jump, specimen reactions on two main points (in response to earlier posts here, here, and here).

    One concerns whether Indonesians of all varieties, and not just members of the Muslim majority, are enthusiastic about the ascent to glory of former Jakarta resident Barack Obama. One reader, whom I quoted earlier, said it was a sectarian matter: Muslims loved him, Indonesian Christians and other non-Muslims didn't. Many, many readers have written in to disagree; in fact, everyone I heard from saw it differently. I quote a sample letter below.

    The other has to do with the airport tax that surprised me. The theme of many correspondents was: you don't know the half of it! I include a letter concerning the "fiskal tax," a steep levy imposed not on foreign tourists, who are generally richer than Indonesian citizens, but on Indonesians thinking of going overseas.

    This is a one-time only update: fight it out among yourselves from here on!

    I should probably also say that, ever since my initial visit to Indonesia in 1981, while my wife's parents were working there, I have been enchanted by the place. In the current Atlantic I mention the indelible memory of my wife's and my very first moments in the country, when as soon as the airplane's doors opened on the tarmac we could smell the kretek cigarettes and hear the tones of gamelan. We've been to many parts of the country and always look forward to the next visit there. When I mentioned the incident of penny-ante bribery I encountered at the airport, it was mainly out of surprise that something taken for granted 20 years ago could still be found. Even when this was a lot more prevalent and the Suharto regime was boundlessly corrupt, it didn't make Indonesia a bad or unlovable place.

    Here, a short sample of gamelan, which I never get tired of listening to. Once, in Java, we saw a gamelan gong being forged  and bought one to take home.  The music is this video, by a skillful but obviously non-Indonesian ensemble, starts 45 seconds into the nine-plus minute clip. (For some less traditional but very seductive gamelan, try this; for a more traditional and very energetic music-and-dance performance, here.) After the jump, some recent mail.
     


    ____________
    About whether Indonesian response to Obama was split on Muslim/non-Muslim lines, as one correspondent said, William Ruscoe of Kupang, Indonesia replied:

    Not to pester you but [this] statement is absurd.  I have yet to meet an Indonesian Christian out here in eastern and Christian Indonesia who was not an enthusiastic Obama supporter. My Timorese wife did think that Obama was Islamic but a bit of googling corrected that.

    My first trip to Indonesia was 1971 and I have lived in Timor (East and West) since 1991. I speak the language. Flores is catholic and out here there is a big difference between christans (protestants) and catholics who are supposidly non christians I guss. There are so few moslems out here in NTT that the politics is all protestant against catholic. Both sides love Obama. At least Obama knows where the country is.

    I have no idea whom he was talking to but it certainly wasn't a representative sample.

    I heard from other people to the same effect. Now, about the departure tax and related matters, from Stephen Bjorge of Jakarta:

    In Indonesia, unfortunately you were caught at the airport by a relic of days gone by, the departure tax, which is also found in Kathmandu and Yangon. Because I know the tax is slightly anachronistic, therefore perhaps unexpected, I always advise visitors to reserve Rp100,000 for the airport (were you really charged Rp 150,000 ? [Answer: Yes.] It was Rp 100,000 in December, and I sent a friend to the Jakarta airport yesterday with only Rp 100,000 and she had no problem).

    You may not have noticed, but there is an additional exit tax levied on all residents of Indonesia. It used to be Rp 1 million "fiskal tax," consequently, most residents don't pay as much notice to the Rp 100,000 airport tax. Until January 1st, every resident of Indonesia departing Indonesia was required to pay the "fiskal" of Rp 1 million (USD 100).  This was raised to Rp 2,5 million on Jan 1....

    The fiskal is a longstanding, clumsy method of taxing those residents who have the wherewithal to travel internationally.  It assumes that most residents wealthy enough to travel, evade income tax (predominantly true). Theoretically, you could claim back the fiskal tax on your annual tax filing, but only if you filed.  But this is worth commenting, they have raised the fiskal, but if you are a registered taxpayer, you are exempt from the fiskal exit tax.  So there is a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage normative tax-paying behaviour, which I find encouraging.  At the same time, the necessary publicity of the new rules has been lackadaisical, which is typical of Indonesia....

    Finally, as an American living in Indonesia the past 5 years, thank goodness for Barack Obama!  Even though I have been received politely these years, ever since November 4th, it has become a new day in Indonesia.  The Indonesians are really excited by Obama and have personalised his victory, so that when he finally returns to Indonesia, I am anticipating an ecstatic homecoming celebration and a victory tour.

    Oh, yes, Pancasila: it's the official philosophical foundation of the modern Indonesian state. If only all states had such a thing!

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