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

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


Sanctuary for prowlers and yowlers        

Too much clutter in the house?  No problem: Indonesia’s roving rombeng (junk collectors) will buy your discards.  But suppose they meow? That signals a catastrophe. 
Britain and Australia have the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals The US has a similar outfit minus the prefix. Malang in East Java has Asri Rahayu Agustina (Leotina). (above)

Some cat lovers get a little unhinged, preferring felines to humans, even starting to smell and look like them.  But the former fitness-center owner giving sanctuary to fourpaw refugees is no soft-touch eccentric.

Although some anti-socials among the 16 dogs are chained most of the 80 cats doze in spacious cages  or wander outside and there are no odors to annoy.

“As a child I always loved animals and couldn’t stand to see them ill-treated,” she said.  “I’m a Muslim and we should be caring. There’s a famous story of the Prophet preparing to pray but finding his favorite cat Muezza asleep on his clothes.  Rather than disturb his pet he cut off the robe’s sleeve.

“Unfortunately few are so kind.  They see a lovely cat in the market and pay thousands of rupiah - maybe up to a million (US$74) and then find looking after the animal is boring.”

In the rich character mix of Indonesian kampongs and villages there’s often a carer. Usually a woman, the pussy protector scatters scraps for the strays who soon discover Cat Cafe and call their mates.  

Some see this as a humane gesture - others a curse because it encourages the beasties to stay and breed. Which they do in great numbers.  Then the less sympathetic seek to cull.

The problem of controlling semi-ferals without resorting to brutal means like trapping and poisoning challenges most societies.  

If someone doesn’t drown the moggy they drive to somewhere secluded far from home, then dump and flee.  If they have a smidgen of compassion they offer it to Leotina.

“I usually refuse because if they took on a responsibility they should see it through,” she said.  “Only if they say they’ll throw it away will I take it in and hope to find a foster home.”

Not all her charges are purrfect. There are some saber-tooth tabbies who’d be licking their chops on the sofa while the foolish family which offered refuge search for their toddlers.

Cute kittens transmogrify into ferocious toms and fecund queens. Two months after a raucous night on the tiles one becomes eight.  Cats can live for up to two decades.

Abandoning unwanted pets isn’t an exclusive Indonesian issue, but elsewhere it’s taken seriously. Offenders in Western countries face fines, jail and the wrath of society.  

In New Zealand ditched furballs become ruthless wildlife killers, slashing numbers of rare bush creatures and flightless kiwis - nocturnal feeders and easy prey.  

In 2011 Australian live cattle exports to Indonesia were suddenly halted after a film showing abattoir workers deliberately mistreating stock was leaked to the media by activists.

Breeders claim they lost AUD $600 million and are now chasing compensation.  Indonesian importers also saw their businesses slaughtered. Beef buyers faced higher prices and diplomatic dramas erupted. And all because some poorly supervised butchers saw no harm in bashing beasts that were about to be killed.

Leotina, 52, has lived in the US so knows how foreigners get angered by cruelty.
Strays handed in to shelters overseas get restored to health and microchipped before offered for sale.  They are also sterilized, a practice that Leotina wants all owners to follow unless they are professional breeders.

“The offput is the cost,” she said. “Vets can charge Rp 600,000 (US $44) for a male and double for a female.  I’ve had help from students training to be animal surgeons but they aren’t always reliable.  It’s the same with volunteers offering assistance.  Sometimes they come, oftentimes not.”

So she ends up doing much of the feeding and cleaning herself along with one worker, Suhartono to walk the dogs.  His chores include carting water because the old building she uses rent-free hasn’t been connected to a supply.

The dogs have been rescued from backyard butchers. Malang is an education city with thousands of students from eastern islands where canine cutlets are a favorite.

Man’s best friends aren’t much loved in Muslim-majority Java where they’re judged unclean.  So anyone dispatching a stray won’t worry the village - unless Leotina happens to be passing. Her particular gripe is with breeders who keep the trade alive.

She relies on kindhearts supplying bulk foods.  She believes President Joko Widodo is a friend of animals; when Jakarta Governor he supported a ban on topeng monyet, the dancing monkeys used to entertain children.

“God sent animals to test us,” said Leotina. “We must love them all and not discriminate.”

Adopt, don’t buy

The non-profit Jakarta Animal Aid Network also urges pet shoppers to adopt, not buy.

Co-founder Femke de Haas said the network was cooperating with the national government through the Agriculture Ministry to improve animal welfare.

“There are more shelters opening, usually started by individuals,” she said.  “They mean well but we need regulations and oversight on issues like cage sizes, hygiene and premises.  There was a shocking situation recently when 180 dogs died in a fire.

“There can be cultural problems when people see animals as being less than humans but the situation is improving.  (She has lived in Indonesia since 2002).

“Government officials agree that there should be protocols but they don’t know how these can be implemented”.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 January 2018)


Monday, January 22, 2018


No-deal neighbours

The end-of-year deadline to conclude the Australia-Indonesia free trade talks has come and gone.  Now the ambition is ‘early next year’ according to Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita.  That will clash with the lead up to the 2019 Presidential election when parochial concerns will be more pressing than the contentious issue of concluding business with the folks next door.

It’s a pity Donald Trump didn’t lend his talents to the negotiations. The self-appointed master deal maker might have come up with the ‘most tremendously exciting best agreement ever, wonderful and big.’

But even with the hyperbolic American leader’s skills any Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) would have been revealed as fractured once Air Force One had left the tarmac.

To say that negotiating the IA-CEPA was always going to be difficult is several fathoms below understatement so applause for those who tried hard.

Their reasoning was sound even if their understanding of the subtleties of Indonesian thinking and culture was flawed.  Two countries right alongside each other.  One has a growing population and shrinking farmland, the other has ample space and massive supplies of grain, beef and milk.

‘Partners in Prosperity’ sang the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry but few Indonesians joined the chorus.  They need imports but buy reluctantly.  Apart from the shame of having to rely on outsiders to supply the daily needs of the world’s fourth largest nation, Indonesians fear that buying essentials from afar will diminish their jingoistic claim to be an international independent power.

Kutukan means curse, now a relic word in English but throbbing in Indonesia where it’s regularly used, even in the mainstream media. It explains why things expected to come to pass fail despite propitious signs.  

The IA-CEPA was doomed largely because Australia wanted the agreement more than its neighbour, even though President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was reported to be keen to have all documents signed by year’s end. The Javanese are skilled in telling foreigners what they want to hear, while Australians have been naive to think ‘yes’ always means what it says.

Indonesia is gripped by nationalism and its sibling protectionism. So is Australia: In April and in the midst of the negotiations Canberra slapped a tariff on A4 paper imports from Indonesia (and other countries) after the sole manufacturer alleged dumping.  The company is called Australian Paper, but it’s owned by the Nippon Paper Group.

Australia also got greedy assuming that proximity gave an unassailable edge.  Indonesia is now importing wheat from the Black Sea at USD 100 a tonne less than the Fremantle price, and bringing in buffalo meat from India.

There have been other neon signs flashing caution. Talks started in 2010, hibernated when the two countries were quarreling over capital punishment, then woke last year.

While Jokowi was apparently agreeing with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about urgency during a visit to Sydney in early 2017, back in Jakarta he was talking about ‘food sovereignity’.

The rhetoric is at odds with reality; even staples like salt and rice (Indonesia used to be an exporter) are now being elevated from bulk carriers into silos at Tanjung Priok (Jakarta) and Tanjung Perak (Surabaya). Source nations include Thailand and Vietnam.

The IA-CEPA negotiators kept smiling in public, sometimes overdoing the grins when they called a media conference in September to announce minor gains that had already been trumpeted in February.

The language also failed to connect: Turnbull spoke of a ‘high quality’ agreement while Indonesia’s lead negotiator Deddy Saleh chose the adjective ‘good’.

Australian universities want to open campuses in the archipelago - an ambition that frightens Indonesian educators who fear students will migrate to quality teaching.

What Indonesia really wants Australia can’t deliver - massive capital investments to keep Jokowi’s infrastructure projects moving. Australia is not within coo-ee of China and Japan in supplying materials and loans.  

Australians also rightly fear much would be lost in a country noted for corruption and bureaucratic quagmires, and where the rule of law can be elusive.

Australians are bound by rules that don’t always bother other traders.  It’s illegal for Aussies to bribe public officials anywhere.

The World Bank lists New Zealand as the number one country for doing business (Indonesia ranks 72nd) so it’s no surprise Australian investors head across the Tasman Sea rather than the much narrower Arafura Sea.  

The other demand has been for jobs in Australia for nurses, maids and construction crews - extending the Republic’s people exports beyond Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.  

Indonesian workers are often multi-skilled, willing and prepared to live in remote areas, but few have good English or understand Australia’s rigid health and safety laws. Bali holidaymakers would have seen bare-head labourers wearing thongs scrambling up bamboo scaffolding and across work sites littered with hazards.

The work culture obstacles could be overcome with intensive training, but selling this idea in Australian states with high unemployment would generate a political firestorm. Australians will probably go to the polls in late 2018 or early 2019.

If trade talks restart next year there’s little chance much energy will be applied.  Indonesia will continue to buy primary produce from Down Under, though only if it can’t get cheaper from elsewhere, and Australian traders will still complain about tariffs and other imposts suddenly levied.  

This market potential is everything its boosters claim - expanding and close.  What they don’t say is that it’s damnably difficult to achieve when the two sides have different expectations, agendas and cultures.

(First published in Strategic Review 22 January 2018:


Friday, January 12, 2018


      Visit Down Under and pay up              

Indonesians will not be getting cheap and easy-to-obtain Australian visas available to Malaysians and Singaporeans. Australian campaigners seeking better access for Indonesian tourists have been officially told there will be no changes. This is despite the Republic giving Australians free visas-on-arrival and the Australian government claiming it wants more Indonesian visitors.

The AUD $20 (Rp 211,000) on-line visas known as Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) are used by citizens of a dozen countries including the Republic’s near neighbors. However Indonesians have to pay seven times more for permission to visit the Great South Land.

They also have to complete a complex form with more than 50 questions and provide references and bank statements.

The Perth-based Indonesia Institute (II) has been urging a relaxation of entry requirements so Indonesians wanting to holiday Down Under can use ETAs.

The Institute believes more visitors will improve people-to-people relationships but that high-cost visas inhibit travel. However at the start of 2018 the II has been told that Indonesians won’t get ETAs.  No reason has been given.

Acting Assistant Secretary Ben Meagher of the Department of Home Affairs wrote to II President Ross Taylor saying Australia was “currently taking steps to transform Australia’s visa system to make it easier to understand (and) navigate.”  However “expanding access to the ETA program is not being considered.”

Till recently Indonesians had to seek Australian visas through approved fee-charging agents but can now apply directly on-line. Tourists can normally stay for up to three months at a time. The visas are valid for three years.

Apart from Malaysia and Singapore, Asian countries whose citizens can use ETAs include Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.  Decisions are usually given the same day, often while the applicant is on-line.

Taylor said he recently encountered a family of 21 from East Java visiting Perth.  While welcoming he apologised for them having to complete 357 pages of forms and pay AUD $2,940 (Rp 31 million) to enter the country.

“I just wonder when our Federal Government will put aside the secret fear of Indonesia - despite the people being respectful, easy-going and polite - and welcome our neighbours as friends,” he said.

Australia is losing a large and expanding market driven by young people seeking overseas holidays through special on-line ‘last minute’ airfare deals.

 ”Indonesians who want to take a long-weekend break can’t chose Australia as it’s too expensive and too slow to comply with the Australian visa requirements. And that’s a major loss to the Australian economy.

“Air Asia proudly boasts on the side of its aircraft: 'Now everyone can fly’. Maybe they need to add…'except to Australia’.”
According to Immigration and Border Protection figures, last year Indonesians represented about four per cent of the 64,000 visa overstayers.  Most defaulters were from Britain, the US, China and Malaysia.
Australia has been attempting to lure more Indonesian visitors. Last year the Jakarta Embassy launched its Aussie Banget (Real Australia) strategy to dispel stereotypes about beaches and barbecues.
Former Ambassador Paul Grigson said the Embassy was “trying to encourage Indonesians and Australians to think of what we have in common.  Clearly that encouragement does not extend to matching immigration rules..
Although numbers have risen the imbalance is huge. About 200,000 Indonesian tourists visit Australia every year but seven times more Australians enter Indonesia, most to holiday in Bali.
Taylor said: “When Indonesia scrapped the US $35 (Rp 470,000) Visa-On-Arrival fee for Australians (in March 2016) the Republic lost about US $30 million revenue. 
The next 12 months saw arrivals from Australia rise by over 16 per cent. This delivers around US $165 million annually to the local economy. Is there a lesson here for Australia?
(First published in Pearls and Irritations 12 January 2017.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Turtle time to open minds

Franklin carries distinction.  Two US Presidents were so labeled, Pierce and Roosevelt after the surname of founding father Benjamin.

Also a school-going turtle who ‘could count by twos and tie his shoes’, the star turn in a series of Canadian children’s books and a TV series.

In East Java there’s the multi-talented artist and musician Johannes Aziz Suprianto.  Rings no bells?  Try Aziz Franklin.

“I’ve long liked turtles because they’re independent, inquisitive, always go forward and carry their home,” he said. “So my puppet tells about the importance of developing a sense of curiosity about the world.

“That’s Franklin; on the stage he talks to me and I respond because I’m also Franklin.”

The Malang-based teacher and entertainer is a master of the sapeh or sape, a traditional lute from Kalimantan, which he finds more satisfying than the guitar he played till three years ago.

Along with green Franklin, the unusual flat-bed sapeh captures kids’ attention as the two Franklins subtly urge them to do well, stay the distance and beat down the barriers.

“What will you do when you grow up?” he asks around 50 elementary school children at a home-grown kampong arts festival while parents look on.

As the youngsters are scratching for answers which might suit Mom and Pop, Franklin throws in suggestions:  “Who’s going the be a doctor? Or a scientist?  Hands up those who’ll be teachers.  And who’ll be a pilot?”

The idea is to aim high and not clip the wings of the riverbank littlies where their adult role models are largely day laborers and snack sellers.  Franklin reminds them to open books; in this community some of the far-sighted leaders have set up a small library and reading room.

But without the money for private colleges they’ll still have to rise above the schooling on hand.  Independent research shows that although attendance is up quality is not.

Every three years Indonesia participates in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  The latest report tested 540,000 students from 72 countries. Although there have been some improvements - particularly among girls - Indonesia ranks 62, far behind most of its neighbors, including Vietnam.

Commenting on the findings in the on-line journal The Conversation Dr Arnaldo Pellini at London’s Overseas Development Institute said inequality and school performance remain an issue in Indonesia: 

The percentage of low performers in science among disadvantaged students is among the highest globally.’  Although Indonesia spends 20 per cent of its budget on education it bumps along the bottom ten nations in reading, science and maths. Singapore tops all; educationists say this is because the country invests in teaching.

“We, the people, and not just the parents must work to improve schooling,” said Franklin, 51.  “That means using every means possible and not just sticking to old techniques.

“In the Soeharto era we knew little about world events because information was tightly controlled.  So I had to work it out myself, seeking secret sellers of illegally printed or second-hand books by overseas and local authors.  

“I found writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Muchtar Lubis which were banned.”

After training as a teacher Franklin joined Teater Keliling (wandering theater) founded in 1974 by director Rudolf Puspa to take drama to ordinary people beyond Jakarta.

Performances were licensed and restricted, and scripts checked.  Apart from local works by authors like the late dissenting poet and dramatist Rendra (Willibrordus Surendra Broto Rendra who died in 2009), they also staged the anti-establishment theater of Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco.
“We were followed by Intel (intelligence agents) and questioned about our work,” Franklin said. “We always had to be careful.  It was a frightening, exciting and challenging time, learning parts in buses and trains, a new town every night or so, not knowing how the authorities would react.  

“Now we have freedom. The problems today are fake news and getting youngsters to realize their potential.”   

The theater group toured several countries, including Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Germany and France.

Among the books Franklin scavenged were the fairytales of the 19th century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen.  The teacher found European yarns also had a place in Indonesia alongside the indigenous fables told by his grandmother to help him sleep “and inspired me to become a storyteller - though my talents come from God.” (He’s a Catholic.)

From this mix plus embellishments has come Franklin’s present repertoire. His skills, drawn from working with the other knockabout creatives in Teater Keliling include ventriloquism, magic, singing - even hypnotism.  

“I’m no longer interested in politics,” he said, though activism lurks in his reasoning: “Indonesia is a rich country, but the citizens are not rich.

“I want to help open their minds. I know what can be done because I’ve been overseas and worked with clever people.  There are many creatives in Malang, but if you want to be famous you have to go elsewhere.  

“Now anything is possible. But each individual has to make the effort themselves.  That’s Franklin’s message - strive to be the best.” The big green turtle smiles and nods vigorously.  So does his creator. The kids laugh and clap. Their spirits have been lifted, and perhaps their futures.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 December 2017)


Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Look back in wonder
Fifteen years ago this story was published in what was then the quarterly print magazine Inside Indonesia.
For some curious reason the title cropped up during a recent visit.  I'd kept the copy on a small disc which can no longer be read - but fortunately it survived on the Web.  So here it is:
The East Java Provincial Government, like most administrations world wide, is not above a little dissembling. You get it on the road into Surabaya where the official welcome signs note that Indonesia's second biggest city is 'Bersih dan Hijau' - Clean and Green.
The signs are best seen at first light. By 9 am smog blurs the image and attention is distracted by beggars and newspaper sellers who swarm around any slow-moving car. Which is just about any vehicle, for the traffic density is close to gridlock. Try not to breathe.
That's in the dry season: In the wet roads are flooded from door to door, so pavement, verge, drain and bitumen merge into a seamless black scum where floating objects best remain unscrutinised. Then Surabaya stalls as saturated engines short circuit.
And the green? Most obvious on bright coloured giant billboards offering sexual, sporting and social success for the tiny price of a pack of smokes. Real trees are as rare as a shark (sura) fighting a crocodile (buaya), the city's mythological origin.
The authorities claim Surabaya has a Centre. If there is a focal point it has to be Tunjungan Plaza, a garish multi-storey department store full of over-priced goods and costly American fast-food shops. Here the poor peer, the middle class preen, and salesgirls professionally ignore customers with cash.
For Surabaya has not been planned, or if that claim is denied, the planners were corrupt, inept, or asleep. Probably all three.
Like some sci-fi squid from outer space which feeds on city sewers, Surabaya is devouring Gresik up the coast, climbing into the hill town of Tretes, swallowing nearby Sidoarjo, to be stopped only by the Straits of Madura. But even then its plastic excreta can be found far offshore.
Who can tell where it all begins and ends, because it doesn't. Surabaya defies definitions and census-takers, but four to five million for the area around the port could be a reasonable guess, with 30 million more in the hinterland. Or maybe that's the other way around.
At least 20,000 are prostitutes, for among its many credentials this sweaty, grimy industrial megapolis seven degrees south of the equator is reputedly Southeast Asia's biggest brothel, with the accessories of disease and despair to match.
And yet...
Without doubt Surabaya is Scunge City.
And yet and yet.
Unlike Bali, Surabaya doesn't care whether you come, and unlike Jakarta it's indifferent to whether you go. The few tourists who find themselves in Surabaya wander bemused, clutching handbags and hands, restless eyes playing spot-the-mugger.
Relax: Even the thieves are indifferent.
Expat businessmen and government officials are not to be spotted in public, except at product launches. They're more at ease gliding between hotel and office behind the black windows of their chauffeur-driven Super Kijangs.
Ignore them: They only mix with their own kind, then sell themselves as experts on the culture and economy.
In a narrow trench alongside Tunjungan Plaza, crushed by a motorbike park, are the warungs where shopgirls on $60 a month and their boyfriends retreat from their air-conditioned glitzy workplace to eat well for less than one Australian dollar.
And so can you. Rip-offs are rare and gawking at Western intruders is subtle.
For although Surabaya is chaotic, grotesque, dirty, impossible to negotiate, crass in its Soviet-realism monuments, noteworthy for its lack of notable buildings, events and attractions, try finding any place more Javanese.
The language of the kampungs and the street is Javanese, not Bahasa Indonesia. Advertisements for cigarettes, mobile phones and dandruff-cures may be English in a pretence of refinement, but the world language is rare outside the campuses.
What you see is what you get. The indifference towards Westerners extends to the locals. This is not special treatment, it is the treatment. Surabaya is raw and honest. No 'morning price', no concessions and, best of all, no contempt.
The obsequiousness, sneers and arrogance, so much the part of the local response in other Asian cities towards white skinned creatures outside their environment, is seldom encountered in Surabaya. You are obviously a walking cash box, but the temptation to make a quick withdrawal is usually found only among a few taxi drivers late on a wet night.
Yet what you see is not what you get. The splendid Majapahit Hotel, reputedly the most expensive in Indonesia and a marvel of indulgence and beauty with a fine historic past, is hidden behind a drab fence which blends anonymously into a coarse streetscape of commercial sameness.
Likewise with Kampung Sasak. Even the locals have difficulty finding the entrance of this Arab quarter, which leads through a cramped street of traders to the ancient Ampel Mosque, founded by Sunan Ampel, one of the nine holy men who brought Islam to Java.
The mosque, in this densely packed centre of Middle Eastern commerce, always seems to be busy with the business of worship, unlike the landmark Agung Mosque near the toll road to Malang. This grand blue-domed and government-built celebration of Islam, with a Catholic church in its shadow as forced propaganda for tolerance, is as sterile and obvious as Ampel is potent and hidden.
There are hundreds of other nooks in Surabaya which reveal some of the complex and subtle nuances of this fourteenth century remnant of the Majapahit Kingdom. That they're absent from the guide books is no indicator of a desire for privacy; it's just that the government has a stereotyped view of foreigners and thinks visitors only want poolside drinks and American breakfasts.
When Surabaya was created, the deity which governs tourism blinked, and praise be for a marvellous escape from Mammon.
The best food is often found in the gloomiest, oil-lit warungs, original handicrafts in the drabbest shops, the finest dancers and singers in schools where the concrete is cancerous and the architecture indistinguishable from a public toilet.
East Java proclaims it is a Muslim State, but even the most pious will visit a paranormal in times of strife. Ghosts lurk in banyan trees, wayward spirits send lax students into trances, mystics are consulted by brokers who trade on the Net. At midnight, street people drift to a Chinese temple seeking a peep into the future. Islam is just the outer skin of an onion covering animism, Hinduism and other ancient mysteries.
Slim girls in gladwrap-tight jeans revealing navels, shoulders and their readership of Cosmopolitan, hold hands with friends covered from head to toe in the tradition of their grandmothers. Men smoke, drink and gamble, then pray.
To find the secret places and learn of the magics you need a special guide. Not a professional from a hotel - they'll only take you to KFC. The person you require will find you and will be insulted if you offer money, though a feed and help with English conversation will be appreciated.

How to meet such a marvel?

It's not that difficult. Wander the streets and markets alone, with an open mind, friendly face and polite gestures. Take your time. You'll be seen and watched. If you're sending the right signals someone is bound to find the courage to practise their English. Don't rush. Build an acquaintance - or walk away if the mood or person isn't right.
In a few days you'll have met a few of his or her friends, had a meal or two, maybe visited the family home, exchanged views and discovered differences. With luck you'll find more in common despite the Timor Sea of misunderstanding, language, religion, income, experience and lifestyle which separates us as neighbours. Then the smog starts to lift.
Since the British bombed the city in November 1945, Surabaya has been deceived and betrayed by successive governments in Jakarta, but its residents remain resilient, independent, stoic, Javanese.
For although Surabaya is rough and ugly, its people are genuine, keen to share, humble but proud. They apologise for the manifold faults of government, but retain hope for change. They hunger for knowledge. They thirst for understanding. Yet they are not ignorant or unsophisticated.
You may find wrinkled men sucking clove cigarettes who can debate philosophy having read the greats in Greek; young women studying John Donne and other metaphysical poets in the original yet destined to become secretaries; students who know more of Australian politics than the average Okker undergraduate. They hate KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) but know that without it they will surely miss the best jobs.
It's a humbling experience to continuously meet fluent self-taught English speakers when you're struggling with a language which is supposed to be easy, to discover the astonishing achievements of young people handicapped by lack of money, few books and a 1950-style education system.
Despite the universe-sized problems which beset this cumbersome and fumbling democracy, the next generation is largely incandescent with energy and determination to right the wrongs, all tempered with reality and an undercurrent of fear. Expect to be dazzled and confused. But never dismayed.
All this and more, as the tourist brochures like to say. Seek and ye will find. In Surabaya.
Duncan Graham ( is a Perth based journalist who can't get enough of East Java.
Inside Indonesia 69: Jan - Mar 2002

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Going with the flow       


As an event it was spectacular; as dance it swirled past the barriers of culture and language. As theatre it was emotional, the quality international.  

But few shared the moving experience. The location was the small Panji Museum set among paddy in Tumpang village, East Java; maybe only 150 in the audience.

The museum includes a replica of the 1,000-year old Candi Jolotundo, the royal bathing pool on sacred Mount Penanggungan about 100 km north west.  

Choreographer Matheus Wasi Bantolo arrived at Tumpang from Central Java just a few hours before he and 25 local and visiting dancers were to perform Panji plays at a local festival.

“At first I decided to stay on the stage,” he said. “Then I wondered how to use the foreground, to get closer to the audience.  I thought it might make the show more dramatic.”

Indeed.  Bantolo started his Kidung Kayungyun masked dance at the water’s edge then moved into the shallow pool fed by a mountain stream.

Bantolo said the Javanese title was difficult to translate but implied being “ensnared by personal feeling like love or revenge …I developed it from a contemporary mask performance we staged earlier in Singapore and Thailand.”

In an master stroke Bantolo scooped out a long fishing net on his left, then another from the right while singing and accompanied by a gamelan; it looked like a Biblical tableau of casting nets to feed the multitude. Even without flapping fish it was a powerful image.

The Panji Museum is being developed by Malang entrepreneur Dwi Cahyono, 51, (right)   
to promote Indonesian culture and history focusing on Central and East Java.  Displays start with an archaeological dig and lead through reality and myth to the present.  

Indonesians seldom queue outside museums so Cahyono has added a swimming pool and picnic ground only accessed through the artefact-filled auditorium. Visitors get shanghaied by history like air-travellers ambushed by duty-free shops while heading for the boarding gate.

Some of Cahyono’s ideas were gleaned during a 2016 tour of New Zealand.  This included the National Museum Te Papa, and director Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington used to make props for the Lord of the Rings films.

The Panji themes are universal; think Romeo and Juliet. Boy Panji Inu Kertapati, Prince of Jenggala, meets girl Dewi Sekartaji princess of the Kediri Kingdom.  He’s already booked but guess what - they tumble into love.
Crisis! Dewi disappears on their wedding day - did she know of the Other Woman, get cold feet or spirited away by a foe?  
Panji sets out to retrieve his True Love.  He confronts rivals, fights assailants and triumphs as befits a gallant. This gives space aplenty for sideways romps into intrigue, faith, politics, threats, moral and gender issues and what it means to be human.  
Spoiler alert: Dewi transforms herself into a man Panji Semirang. Will her lover be duped? Think Rosalind in As You Like It.
Panji stories allegedly originated in East Java but are found throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand they are called Inao. Nationalists claim this shows Java is the origin of much Asian art rivaling India, the source of the epic performance poems Ramayana and Mahabharata.

“Culture should be central if international relationships are to be improved,” said Bantolo, lecturer at the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI - Indonesian Arts Institute) in Solo. Also known as Surakarta the city is near Yogyakarta.

“Some mask dances are nearly extinct; maybe fifty per cent of Indonesians don’t know the culture.  We are trying to conserve and revive and make the stories more popular through contemporary choreography. But kayungyun remains the base.

ISI has set up a Centre for World Dance Studies to promote masked dancing and attract overseas students. Bantolo has performed in the Netherlands, Britain and Germany, and been a guest lecturer at Michigan State University.  He plans to enrol for a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London next year.

Our take of the Panji tales isn’t simply a love story between Panji and Dewi, though that’s been the standard interpretation,” he said.

Rather we always keep an eye on what we feel is the story’s higher humanity. So throughout our creative process we hold onto the cultural symbols reflected in the Panji narrative.

“These include keblat papat, the Javanese interpretations of the four cardinal points and associated elements to maintain harmony and balance. Then there’s the interplay of the macro-cosmos and micro-cosmos, agrarian culture, and the arts of carving and painting masks; all are sources for our creative ideas.

“The challenge is to reflect these ideas differently - as a cultural dialogue. The dance movements are drawn from the court styles of the Keraton Surakarta (Solo Palace Court) and the Pura Mangkunegaran (Sultan’s Palace).

“Our innovations include sharing masks between multiple dancers. The story is told through tembang (sung poetry) and monologuesIt’s a mix of theatre, opera and dance.”

Bantolo, 43, was brought up in a liberal Catholic family of creatives which let him choose a career. His grandfather was a dalang (puppet master). He was playing in the gamelan at ten.

He said an early reference to masks in performances appeared in an 11th century manuscript from the royal court of Jenggala. (The short-lived kingdom was probably located at Sidoarjo near Surabaya).

To mask can mean to hide one’s face or wear a different face, an imitation,” he said.
A mask can represent a certain personality, a community or the values of a cultural system. By wearing masks,rather than hiding we expose and explore something about the reality of the human condition.
“I want the world not just to enjoy and respect our creativity, but to understand what’s behind our culture and the way we think and feel.  Indonesians are close to nature and the universe.  We have so much to share.”
(First published in Inside Indonesia 23 December 2017: