Two enterprising partners teach shy Indonesians to flirt. For a price, of course.
The Central Park mall in West Jakarta rears up like a beast fed fat on global consumerism. The logos of all the usual suspects — Starbucks, McDonalds, Levi’s, Zara — punctuate the mall’s expansive skyline. Inside, a shop assistant totters in over-high heels, barely able to see through lashings of mascara, as a burkha–shrouded woman silently peruses the goods on display. From head-scarved university students sipping lattes to business executives in sharp suits barking into mobile phones, the scene is par for the course for modern-day Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country that is the fastest growing economy of south-east Asia.
On closer inspection, however, there is something unusual afoot. Every once in a while, one of a band of usually weedy and always nervous-looking youth approaches an unsuspecting lady and ambushes her with the question: “Nice guy or bad guy, which one do you prefer?”
At a safe distance two slick men with gelled hair and button-down shirts take careful notes and cluck in disapproval at a fumbled question. They are Lex dePraxis and Jet Vettlev, the two founders of Indonesia’s only ‘love consultancy’, Hitman Systems, an organisation that promises to turn losers into lovers.
Indonesia is a conservative country with a burgeoning and young middle-class. The result is an army of young men who no longer want to settle for arranged marriages but lack the ‘skills’ to find girlfriends. Enter Hitman Systems. Over the last six years, it claims to have trained over 2,000 men in the art of successfully ‘hooking’ a girl.
Lex, 32, has adopted his name from Lex Luthor, the super-villain of Superman comics, and peppers his conversation with management-style jargon. “We divide relationships into three phases,” he explains earnestly, “pre-relationship, engagement, and post-relationship.” Hitman helps men in the first of these phases when it is “important to realise that playing the nice, serious, financially stable guy is counter-productive. You need to make sure you don’t fall into a ‘friend zone’. Instead, intrigue a girl with playful flirting. Make her laugh. Tease her with something naughty.”
Students pay four million Rupiah ($480) for a three-day, 20-hour course. The first day-and-a-half is classroom based, followed by ‘practicals’ that involve unleashing the anxious would-be Romeos into malls where they are instructed to strike up conversations with women. As a follow-up, students are challenged to engage in at least 100 conversations with unknown women over a month. “Small talk with strangers is not part of Indonesian culture,” Lex says, hence this practical class to break down inhibitions and build the ability to “handle failure”.
Seminars are held at least once a month in Jakarta and a few times a year in smaller cities like Medan and Malang. Cheaper, one-day crash courses are available for 500,000-800,000 Rupiah ($50-80).
On this particular Saturday seven men, ranging from a barely-legal 18-year-old student to a 31-year-old oil company executive, gather in a Central Park coffee shop for last-minute instructions before embarking on their nerve-wracking assignments. The student raises his hand, the pimples on his face aquiver, “What if the girl gets angry?” he asks. “Laugh it off and move on,” replies Jet.
The students fan out, tailed by Jet and Lex. Gavin, 25, a portly Masters student in international relations, says that he is confident when making academic presentations but tongue-tied with girls. He sidles up to a mini-skirted lovely seated alone at a Starbucks outlet and asks: “Do you like nice guys or bad guys?” The girl who begins by drawing up her knees as if having spotted an unwelcome insect, relaxes her legs and cautiously answers, “bad guys.” “Which one am I?” asks Gavin. “Nice guy,” she replies pointedly, and looks away.
But later Gavin is exultant. “I did it and I didn’t get slapped!”
Ben, 23, who works for an online company, is more conflicted. “I want confidence, not chat-up lines. I’m not sure this is going to work for me,” he declares mournfully. Yet he signed up because he didn’t want to wait till he got “too old to get a girlfriend.”
Lex claims their students have found not only girlfriends but also wives. “We get a wedding card from a former student every three months or so,” he smiles. He adds that some students, already married, sign up merely to develop better social skills. The company is now branching out to include women, and has already conducted eight sessions.
Operating a love consultancy in conservative Indonesia is not easy. Lex identifies religion as a source of misery; something that “stops them from having the relationships they really want”. He admits to occasional hate mail from angry parents less than thrilled at their children’s new romantically robust outlook, as well as some vigilante groups. So far, however, opposition has only been sporadic.
Lex insists his role is more than merely peddling pick-up lines. “I am a relationship educator,” he says. “I want to reach out to people who are tortured and have no one to turn to for advice. This is really meaningful work.” He breaks off to snap his head towards a lithesome beauty walking across the lobby and pushes one of his nervous protégés in her direction. “Try and get her phone number,” he urges.