16 May 2017

ISELLA Conference

On the second day of my visit to Pekanbaru, I was a keynote speaker at the ISELLA 2017 conference (International Seminar on Education, Language, Literature and Art) organised by Universitas Islam Riau. Some of the ways this conference proceeded were quite surprising to me, though I guess people who have attended lots of conferences in Indonesia would not find them unusual.

Inevitably, the conference began with plenty of ceremony: a prayer, a reading from the Quran, a dance, welcoming speeches by the Director and various Deans and so forth. In this photo, the dancer on the left is holding a casket from which she offered something to eat to each of the speakers:

And here is the Director of the university giving his welcome speech:

What really surprised me was that, while the various people were giving their speeches, virtually nobody was even pretending to pay attention:

People were chatting, or reading messages on their mobile phones, maybe even playing games on their phones, and a few were sleeping, but none of it seemed to matter.

So, was anyone listening to me when I gave my presentation? I doubt it.

Maybe that is how people do things in Indonesia. The speaker is like a television screen in the corner of your living room, and family life goes on with people sometimes looking at the screen but mostly chatting, eating, or whatever. Perhaps that is quite healthy: people in Indonesia are very sociable, and they enjoy chatting and eating with friends, so in a conference the speech or presentation taking place at the front is largely irrelevant.

It is bit like traditional street opera I have seen in Taiwan: you go there, chat to your friends, eat melon seeds and chicken feet, sometimes watch a bit of the show, and come and go as you please; but the idea of people keeping quiet and listening in rapt attention to the opera is quite alien.

I found it rather disconcerting to give a presentation that nobody was listening to; but none of the other presenters seemed too worried.