The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, May 08, 2021




Forever foreign              


“You can’t simply decide to be Asian. You must have an Asian culture. This means, for a start, changing your attitude and improving your manners. Asians don’t go around telling others what to do.”

That contradiction from the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was in response to a journalist who asked whether Australia could affiliate with ASEAN.

More than a quarter century has passed since the PM’s provocative pronouncement. Although most Australians have reluctantly accepted they don’t live in the mid-Atlantic twixt the US and Europe, Canberra remains as only a ‘dialogue partner’ outside the Southeast Asian ten-member block. 

Twelve per cent of the Australian population was born in Asia (2016 census), yet ASEAN’s leaders reckon the Great South Land remains the same white outpost it was in the 19th century.

As for nations, so for individuals.  Here’s the uncomfortable though slowly changing reality:  Ex-pats may marry a local, have a residency permit, be fluent in Indonesian, love the cuisine and be unbothered jumping traffic lights, but we’ll be forever foreign.  That’s because skin-color, facial features, behavior and body size scream: Non pribumi. (Sanskrit pri = before and bhumi = earth.)

The maintenance of separation is more subtle, a deeply embedded view that only a pribumi can be a true Indonesian. The word is overloaded with hard-to-grasp connotations. The US Library of Congress reckons it means:

Literally, an indigene or native. In the colonial era, the great majority of the population of the archipelago came to regard themselves as indigenous, in contrast to the non-indigenous Dutch and Chinese (and, to a degree, Arab) communities. After independence the distinction persisted, expressed as a dichotomy between elements that were pribumi and those that were not.

To say non-pri are rejected or spurned would be too harsh.  It’s more about holding onto identity than discrimination.  Endy Bayuni, a former editor of The Jakarta Post, is sufficiently pribumi to venture where a non-pri fears to tread, suggesting Indonesians’ ‘inferiority complex’ may have developed from centuries of violent suppression. Whatever, the uncomfortable fact remains:  Ex-pats will never get full membership of this nation’s exclusive club.

Government ministers claim the Republic is multi-cultural because around 300 ethnic groups live together in the Unitary State.  The term has a different meaning in the West. 

A large sign on a wall at the Brawijaya University Hospital in Malang lists all medical staff.  Everyone has an Indonesian name.  In an Australasian hospital there’d be names with links to Africa, India, Europe, China, the Asia Pacific, South America and the Anglosphere. That’s multiculturalism.

Those who’ve married an Indonesian know about the sometimes annoying, often funny but always challenging differences which need to be handled dexterously if the relationship is to endure.

Trip-ups can include gaps in ages, education, expectations, likes and hates, politics, ideology, religion, money matters and the overweight baggage both dump on one twisted-wheel trolley while heading for arrivals.

To check the legal hassles of such adventures click here:   If keen to know how some cashed-up beautiful people met and merged try

Compounding the obvious difficulties are the subtleties.  Prime is jealousy. Bule (Caucasian) brides tell of hostility from locals refusing to acknowledge the lady demands equality, so won’t have her husband considered the household head.

Indonesians who move from Ibu to Mrs will likely be assaulted by the green-eyed monster. The malicious will tell all who’ll listen that the match wasn’t made in heaven but in the goldfields where she must have been digging.  Then they’ll whisper she’s struck paydirt, even when her nugget is so tainted with impurities of alimony it’s almost worthless.

If not jealousy, it’ll be spite.  There must be something wrong with him / her if they couldn’t find a soulmate from the same background.  Backbiters and the bitter won’t accept there’s a reason called love, and it can transcend all the difficulties.

Communication remains critical.  The national tongue is Bahasa Indonesia, but for most locals it’s not their first language, just the one they use in formal settings.

If your darling is Javanese you’ll have problems unless you’re a polyglot with a PhD in linguistics as there are multiple levels depending on whether you are talking up or down the social ladder.  In Malang there’s even an argot which stirs up spelling so the city becomes Ngalam.

When your beloved is rabbiting along with her or his mates and you fear they’re talking about you and your faults, the tiny seed of doubt slips into a crevasse of the mind.  Here it starts to germinate, irrigated by anxiety.  If this sounds familiar, it’s time to talk.

That’s fine if she and he are equally competent in one language – a rare situation.  In most cases the Indonesian member of the union is the more linguistically adroit, and the language used in kitchen and bedroom is English.

That statement is made as an Antipodean where being monolingual is a badge of merit.  Speaking BI doesn’t necessarily equal communicating.

Shock and awe – the listener’s face goes blank and the eyes flicker to my wife for an explanation.  She speaks the same words but understanding is immediate.

Until an academic offers a more credible reason the problem is that few expect to hear a stranger use BI, particularly the stilted, formal, weird-accent variety we’ve learned, so find comprehension difficult. 

Indonesians reckon they’re friendly, and if that means the casual exchange of pleasantries and passing waves, then the cliché is spot-on.  Going deeper can be awkward even on a so-called liberal campus.  Is it safe to talk politics and religion without alienating colleagues?

If seeking a fellow expat so you can explore the taboos and exchange anecdotes about Widgiemooltha or Woolloomooloo it’s worth asking:  Would I enjoy this idiot’s company back in my homeland?  Better look for an Indonesian who shares my interests.

It will take truck-loads of effort, but eventually we may get to expunge the arrogance of Mahathir Mohamad by creating a global citizenry. Cross cultural marriage can be a good start.  Just be prepared for some hiccups along the way, laugh a lot at the mutual mistakes, and learn to ignore the envy.   


First published in Indonesia Expat, 7 May 2021:


Wednesday, May 05, 2021



          Stoking the fires in West Papua


We know this order will lead to more killing, more torture, more suffering of my people. The Speaker of the Indonesian House [of Representatives], Bambang Soesatyo, has urged the Government to ‘destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later’.



Indonesian government censors are slipping up. Maybe they’re too hungry and tired during the fasting month of Ramadan to choke every tweet which criticises Jakarta’s West Papua crush-dissidents policies or promotes independence for the far eastern province. (Confusingly there are two provinces – Papua and West Papua, but the latter term is widely used for both.]


Indonesians seeking information that hasn’t been well washed by the Army normally have to use VPNs to bypass the blue pencils. But the statement above by Benny Wenda, Interim President of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, got through.


It follows the ambush of a motorcycle squad led by Special Forces Brigadier General Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, 50. He was reportedly shot on 25 April while heading to see school buildings allegedly torched by separatists. If correct it suggests the guerrillas have better intelligence than their opponents.


Two years ago nationalists killed 19 workers on the serpentine Trans-Papua Highway. The 4,600-kilometre road will open up land to outside settlers against the wishes of local tribes. 


Outsiders are barred so regular allegations of abuses by the military are rarely independently tested. Half the population of more than 1.2 million are Melanesians. The rest are mainly migrants from other parts of the archipelago leading to fears the nominally Christian indigenes will soon become a minority.


Last month’s killing of such a senior officer aroused the wrath of the government and army which launched Operasi Nemangkawi to find the attackers. They are believed to be from the poorly armed West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization.


President Joko Widodo declared the WPNLA a terrorist organisation and ordered the police and military “to chase and arrest" all rebels involved: "I want to emphasise again that there is no place for armed groups in Papua." 


Widodo’s words were followed by Soesatyo who brought a tanker-load of fuel to the conflict with his comments about ignoring human rights, drawing this response from Wenda: 


“Amnesty Indonesia has already condemned the Speaker. In the last 24 hours, we have reports that people are fleeing the villages in anticipation of the crackdown. Helicopters are being deployed over the villages, reminding me of what happened in 1977 when I was a child.”


 As in so many fights for independence, irony is ever-present along with the bombs and bullets. Widodo’s and Soesatyo’s statements could have been delivered by Dutch generals between 1945 and 49. The Netherlands was fighting Indonesian nationalists who said they were in a War of Revolution. The Hollanders’ term was ‘Police Actions’.


Whatever the title it left an estimated 100,000 Indonesians and 6,000 Dutch dead before the conflict was settled following intense pressure on The Hague by Washington. However, the west end of the island of New Guinea stayed with the Dutch till it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 through an UN-sponsored ballot.


The authenticity of the poll has long been challenged by Wenda and his predecessors. It was called the Act of Free Choice with 1,025 voters selected from an estimated 700,000 Papuans. 

Western media observers labelled the exercise an Act Free of Choice.  The result was unanimous support for Indonesian control.


Cynics claim the low-intensity struggle waged since then with little independent scrutiny is more about money than sovereignty. 


Explainers tag the province ‘resource-rich. That’s an understatement. The Grasberg mine, once owned by the US company Freeport, but now majority held by the Indonesian government, is the seventh-largest gold mine and the second-largest copper mine in the world. Both minerals are fetching top prices.


This is one reason why Indonesians have little sympathy for the ‘terrorists’ who are usually imagined to be puppets controlled by nameless outsiders. These sinister forces apparently want to plunder the goodies and impoverish the nation, repeating the policies of the Dutch colonialists.


The loss of another province after the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999 would further destroy the ‘Unitary State’. This concept is held as strongly as Australian politicians invoke the ‘Anzac Spirit’ to demonstrate their nationalism.


Reinforcing the international conspiracy theory is that Wenda, 46, isn’t in his homeland. He lives in Oxford after escaping from a jail in West Papua in 2003 and fleeing into Papua New Guinea. He’d been charged for leading an independence rally and faced 25 years behind bars.


With the help of European NGOs, he got political asylum in Britain where he leads a global campaign for independence.


Another activist working from overseas is Indonesian Veronica Koman, 32, who remains in Australia where she came to study postgraduate law. In 2019 she won the Sir Ronald Wilson Human Rights Awards for exposing human rights abuses in West Papua. 


Indonesian authorities want her back to face accusations of sedition. An account with her name tweeted that declaring independence fighters as terrorists meant "Indonesia has just burnt the bridge towards a peaceful resolution".


Australia always denies backing Papuan separatists, though supporting NGOs – often faith-based - are operating from the continent. So far this hasn’t become a hot issue in relations between Jakarta and Canberra, probably because Covid-19 is getting a higher priority and the two nations are cooperating on disease control. 


 However, it remains a slow burner ready to flare if the death of the one-star general is followed by fierce and unchecked retaliation drawing overseas outrage. Some media are already carrying reports – sourced to the ‘Nemangkawi Public Relations Task Force’ - that nine members of an ‘armed criminal group’ were killed in a shootout three days after the Brigadier General died.


Footnote:  I first applied for a journalist’s visa to enter West Papua four years ago. It was endorsed by an Indonesian Ambassador. Despite assurances there are no problems and it’s being processed, I’m still waiting.


First published in Pearls & Irritations, 5 May 2021:




Thursday, April 29, 2021



             Handling the Ramadan Challenge




It’s Ramadan, the annual fasting month practised strictly, laxly or somewhere in-between by the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. Living as a non-Muslim foreigner in Indonesia where 88 per cent of the 273 million citizens say they follow Islam can be physically challenging. It’s also intellectually confusing and socially engrossing.


Three hours beyond midnight and the street’s satpam (security guard) is on his regular patrol. He carries a metal bar, not to frighten potential housebreakers, but to bash the steel power poles three times. Then he shouts sahur – the meal to start the day. For after 4.27 am, the faithful will abstain from food, drink and sex, though rarely cigarettes, till 5.32 pm. That’s when sirens, like those used in air raids, tell it’s time to get stuffed.  


The times, which change marginally every day, are published on newspaper front pages.


The fact that three families in our street in Malang (East Java) closest to the ringing steel are not Muslim and would prefer to snooze is immaterial. Complaints to the local community leader would probably be heard politely, but he’d do nothing. If there are noise abatement laws in Indonesia they’re forgotten.


Also ignored are bans on the sale and use of fireworks. While the oldies pray, gangs of pre-teen boys roam the streets throwing bangers and yahooing, though rarely violent or vandalising. To newcomers they look and sound frightening though not enough to warrant calling the cops. In any case, there are none in sight. The lads don’t have access to grog. This is not Australia.


Swedish researcher Dr Andre Moller reports parents saying it’s safer to let the kids go feral because of this ancient belief: ‘When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened, the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are chained.’ 


So what could go awry with mobs of mini-hoons tossing crackers which they think a hoot? Only the nerves of those who first think gunfire. This is not the US.


In the first week, Malang looked more like Melbourne during a lockdown, but after seven days of no income, economic need displaced religious fervour. Restaurant front doors stay closed during daylight, though not those at the side.


 International chains like McDonald's continue to do business (ostensibly for non-Muslims) but pull down blinds so passers-by can’t see miscreants. 



In the past packs of sanctimonious thugs conducted ‘sweepings’ by trashing businesses that didn’t close – or pay. The government is clamping down on extremists since they started targeting the police.


Later as sunset looms the smell of boiling fat and smoking sate is as ubiquitous as the chanting of Koranic verses in Arabic. It may well be a beautiful language as its 422 million users worldwide attest, though not when yelled by the tone-deaf through scratchy sound systems atop mosques.


Mid-afternoon the ravenous start gathering at Takjil, a cluster of temporary stalls set up by the local government for street food. Most in the thick crowds wear masks, but social distancing is impossible.



Also unthinkable is having any intelligent conversation. The hungry are obsessed with food and talk of little else. In the final week, grumpiness becomes the norm. Menstruating women are allowed to eat and it’s astonishing how many have prolonged periods, even grannies.


Although Indonesia is challenging its southern neighbour for first prize in the vaccine stuff-up stakes with less than three per cent of the 273 million citizens fully covered to date, religion isn’t at fault. The Indonesian Ulema (scholars) Council has pronounced shots are halal. Their reasoning: The needle is thrust into muscle and not the bloodstream so nothing nutritious is absorbed. 


In a bid to check crowd-spread of Covid-19 President Joko Widodo has ordered police to stop Mudik.  This is the movement of millions of big-city dwellers heading to their hometowns to take a break with relatives and hand out presents.  



For the young, this is usually money. Lucre is indeed filthy in a cash economy, so kerbside entrepreneurs sell plastic packs of new notes. (Pic right) Snacks were traditionally gifted in hand-woven wicker baskets. Now they’re plastic and sold in shops.


There’ll be roadblocks till mid-May, though many will be avoided as travellers use Jalan tikus – literally rat roads, but meaning shortcuts through villages. Even Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin has publicly conceded the reality – the smart will get through whatever edicts are pronounced in Jakarta.


Maids, drivers, gardeners, nannies and others who keep the megarich comfortable, take off along with an extra month’s salary, for this is also a time to buy new clothes. Their employers who fear getting their hands dirty usually camp out in Singapore hotels.


Ramadan will climax on 13 May with the Idul Fitri celebrations, a week of feasting to end the fast. In Western countries where Muslims are a minority (2.6 per cent in Australia), mags run soft features by well-nourished writers on the health and spiritual benefits of doing without, along with picture spreads of exotic foods.


A less charitable version published in The Jakarta Post had the editorial board sermonising that the original ‘moral lesson’ of abstinence is that ‘we are expected to stand in the shoes of those who are destitute or poor.’ However, the iftar fast-breaking meal has become a ‘splurge’, a show-off indulgence in top restaurants.


The Prophet Muhammad’s meals at sundown are supposed to have been dates and water.

For kafir, the unbelievers who find Ramadan a time of tension and nothing like the version in the glossies, the solution is to move further east to an island where Christians rule – or cope.



With Covid crimping travel, adjusting is the only alternative in a society where minorities have rights but exercising them is pointless. So crank up the AC to lessen the din and accept this is life in Java.


On the streets of Australia whingers about Christmas slow-down risk being told: If you don’t like it, go back where you came from. In Indonesia the fasters look with pity at the forlorn foreigners not participating in the togetherness.  They offer to share and give the Ramadan response: Mohon ma’af, lahir dan batin – Please forgive me, body and soul 


First published in Pearls & Irritations, 29 April 2021: