As others have written more melodiously, there are places we remember all our lives, and though some have changed forever, it has not always been for the better.
That is true for several of the region’s historic hostelries, like the Raffles in Singapore, the Metropole in Hanoi and the Strand in Yangon.
Degutted and revamped in Laura Ashley style, they retain only a pathetic veneer of their original splendour.
Thankfully, the same fate has escaped Indonesia’s former Dutch colonial hotels, like the Tugu in Malang and the Majapahit in Surabaya.
Anyone visiting East Java would be foolish not to stay at these venerable institutions, which have modernised without surrendering their character and ambience.
Few politicians seem to comprehend this; instead, they regard newness as akin to godliness and view the preservation of vintage buildings as the mark of crusty old fuddy-duddys.
Joko Widodo is an exception. Known as Jokowi, he is the mayor of Solo, a mid-sized central Javan town that has cherished its history and traditions, including its colonial heritage.
Unlike others in the region, Jokowi disapproved of the razing of shop houses and wet markets, the draining of lakes and canals, to allow well-connected cronies to erect shopping malls and commercial towers.
Instead, while allowing upgrades and renovations, he let the open markets and old-style residences survive, so that the local culture and ambience could withstand the assault of brutalist developers.
The people liked it. And when people are content, they tend to work harder, businesses do better, there is less crime and social standards improve – as they did in formerly riot-prone Solo.
Jokowi, 51, who was named the nation’s best mayor last year and is rightly regarded as a reformer and not some weird oriental Luddite, has suddenly reaped startling political rewards.
Earlier this month, he shocked everyone by walloping Fauzi Bowo, 64, the incumbent governor of Jakarta, in the first round of the capital’s gubernatorial elections.
Jokowi’s upset victory was not only due to his relatively clean, efficient and foresighted record in Solo, but also to his dynamic campaigning and his credible plans to tackle Jakarta’s endemic traffic jams and annual floods.
He even had the balls to say that Indonesian’s Constitution must override the Quran in matters of governance and he chose a Chinese Christian as his running-mate. Yet he still succeeded in attracting Muslim voters.
All that said, his triumph also had a lot to do with the abysmal performance of Fauzi, who appeared grumpy and out of touch with the city’s seven million voters.
Backed by the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who must step down in 2014 and is now viewed as a lame-duck leader, Fauzi seemed to think the incumbency would do the trick for him.
But clearly fed up with the status quo and seeking a younger, more dynamic reformist, the people went instead for Jokowi, who won 43 per cent of the vote to Fauzi’s 34, while the other four candidates trailed far behind.
On September 20, Jokowi and Fauzi will go head-to-head in a run-off, which will have significance far beyond the boundaries of the sprawling metropolis.
For a start, it will signal that long entrenched leaders can be removed at the ballot box and that will be noted in Malaysia and Cambodia, which have elections coming up.
Remember, Jakarta has more voters than Cambodia, Laos or Singapore – not surprising given that Indonesia has 42 per cent of ASEAN’s population and that what happens there invariably ripples through the region.
Secondly, it will act as a curtain-raiser for Indonesia’s own presidential polls in 2014. Suddenly, a new figure has arrived and excited everyone, as Barack Obama did in 2004 or Khairy Jamaluddin in 2009.
Of course, Jokowi first has to give Fauzi the bum’s rush in September, but assuming he does that, it is not inconceivable that he will go on to be a candidate for the leadership of Indonesia.
Contact our regional insider Roger at [email protected]