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

Friday, October 23, 2020


                                                                         The croc in the therapy pool

Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants to snare foreign investors. They’re a wary lot.  Though excited by big markets and the chance of bigger returns, they’re fearful of losing fortunes, and with good reason: Risk.

Indonesia's ranking in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index has stuck in the low 70s – far from Widodo’s aim at position 40. (Singapore =2, Malaysia and Australia = 14.)

So his government has rammed through more than 1,000 pages of reforms called the Job Creation Law, better known as the Omnibus law.  The goals (set before the pandemic hit) are for an annual per-capita income of AUD 32,000 (currently AUD 4,000) and GDP of AUD 10 trillion in the next quarter-century.

The idea is to clean up the thousands of often contradictory Jakarta and provincial regulations impeding development and ensure controls are centralised, as they were before the democratic reforms of this century.  Almost 80 laws will be amended and thousands of regulations erased.

That sounds meritorious but the Omnibus is finding it hard to get ignition with four different drafts, varying from 812 pages through to 1,035.

Among the clauses shredding red tape are some problematics.  Green tape protections of the environment are also being cut; proponents claim the laws remain strong, but are just being simplified and condensed.

Cynics say it doesn’t matter because any new rules will be snubbed by developers paying off corrupt officials just as past legislation was ignored. 

The illegal felling of protected forests for palm-oil plantations in Kalimantan has been underway for years, the smoke from burning trash sometimes blanketing Singapore. In Sumatra endangered species like the orang-utan are losing their habitat to the fellers and their freedom to wildlife traders.

But the sometimes violent protests against the new laws (600 arrests in the first three days), mainly featuring uni students and labour unions, aren’t focussing so much on saving species but protecting jobs. As in Australia, the shift is to the gig economy, welcomed by the big end of town because it gives more room to hire and fire.

It also fractures the unions’ abilities to represent workers who are spread across different jobs in separate locales.

A regular whinge by investors is that the old laws made downsizing costly as workers had to get 32 months salary if dismissed.  That’s now down to 19 months.

The minimum wage has vanished, though local governments can bring it back provided it’s based on economic growth

Wage rates will be set according to business productivity, not the employees’ education, skills and years of service. Holidays are being cut from two days a week to one.  Long-service paid leave is also being farewelled.

These changes are being cheered by employers’ groups such as the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  The government predicts three million jobs for school-leavers and graduates, plus six million for those who have lost work through the pandemic. No sources for these calculations have not been revealed, but a cuff seems likely.

Missing from the chorus line is the International Trade Union Confederation:

 ‘It’s staggering that while Indonesia is, like other countries, facing the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic the government would seek to further destabilise people’s lives and ruin their livelihoods so that foreign companies can extract wealth from the country.’

Once the protests subside there’s unlikely to be a rush of capital into Indonesia because the reforms ignore the croc in the therapy pool – the rule of law.

In an interview with the WA think tank Future Directions International, Jakarta-based lawyer and business consultant Bill Sullivan said:

“... many companies – including Australian companies – if they are properly advised, would be reluctant to make large capital investments in Indonesia

‘... the legal and court systems ... are almost as opaque and non-transparent today as they were during the presidency of Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno.

‘It is an extraordinary weakness in the development of Indonesia and it’s something that even many Indonesian businesspeople rail about and find very discomforting.’

Indonesia Investments managing director Richard van der Schaar likes the new law but cautions business to wait and see.  In a newsletter to members he wrote:

‘ ... over the past decade or so we have seen the Indonesian government coming up with various ambitious and 'game-changing' programs or plans. However, while they look good on paper, actual implementation in the field has always been the main problem.’

‘Indonesia also has to develop a good track record in terms of policy-making, policy-implementation, policy-monitoring, dispute resolving, and legal and regulatory certainty. Building this good track-record can certainly not be done overnight. On the contrary, it requires years of consistent and quality management.’

In the meantime, the protests continue, though now with pro-Omnibus law supporters collecting lunch boxes and water bottles for their time spent waving professionally printed placards. 

Who’s organising?  The standard reply in Indonesia is the never-defined ‘dark forces’.  A synonym is ‘the oligarchy’ of which Widodo, once champion of the wee folk, is now a full member,




First published in Pearls and Irritations 23 October 2020:

Thursday, October 22, 2020



                        Forgotten: Island, principles, people

Did Gough Whitlam greenlight Indonesia’s violent seizure of East Timor in 1975? The invasion and 24-year occupation took the lives of up to 300,000 people in a population of 650,000 living on a wretchedly poor leftover from European colonisation.

After Indonesia gunned into East Timor on 7 December 1975, killing six Australian journalists along the way, Whitlam (d 2014), argued there’d have been no assault had he still been in office.  Thirty days earlier Australia’s 21st PM had been dismissed by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser was caretaker.

Whitlam’s theory isn’t helped by new research from Dr Bruce Watson, Australian lawyer, investment banker and now author of Forgotten Island drawn from a PhD thesis.  He found cables in NZ proving the Australian government had ‘precise knowledge of Indonesian troop dispositions, and where amphibious forces would land and by what route.’  That was in mid-October 1975.

Watson’s requests for Indonesian documents have been ignored. His dry response: ‘The circle will only be closed when Indonesia’s democracy matures and it feels confident to release its own files on the matter.’

East Timor had been a Portuguese colony since 1702.  During World War II it was occupied by the Japanese.  Australian troops and local militia fought the invaders in a guerrilla campaign which led to the Timorese being hailed for their courage.  When their land was colonised yet again Australian veterans said their mates had been betrayed.

After the war Lisbon reasserted its authority though with little interest in a ‘subsistence agrarian society’ 14,000 kilometres distant, a remnant of its once great maritime authority.

The plunder of sandalwood was causing desertification. One survey put literacy levels below ten per cent and life expectancy at 33 years. The colony had few roads and social institutions.

On 25 April 1974 the so-called Carnation Revolution in Portugal, a soft military coup against a dictatorship, led to the collapse of its colonial empire, mostly in Africa.  A month later in Timor and after a brief civil war the leftish revolutionary group Fretilin declared itself the government.

Australia’s mainstream parties agreed an unstable Marxist enclave next to Indonesia and Australia was a threat to regional security. The Vietnam War was still maintaining high fear levels.

 Indonesia already controlled West Timor, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, so it made sense to run the whole island; some reports claimed Portugal agreed.

The words used when Australia discussed Timor’s future with Indonesia included ‘incorporated’, ‘absorbed’, ‘associated with’ and ‘integrated into’.  A transition period and referendum were floated. Independence – which arrived in 1999 through an UN-sponsored referendum – was in 1975 beyond imagination.

 Whitlam was keen to get closer to Asia and knew the pass to the bridge was held by Indonesia.

That didn’t mean a welcome ticket for a ‘European power’, geographically near but culturally apart.  Watson quotes Asian studies academic Richard Robison saying Asian leaders considered their value system was based on ‘harmony, hierarchy and consensus’.  This they contrast to the ‘confrontation, individualism and decay that characterises the liberal West’.

There was also the worry of international embarrassment. Whitlam feared criticism of Indonesia ‘might induce an attack on Australian domestic policies on race, immigration and treatment of Aborigines.’

The Australian rhetoric about East Timor’s future was rich with warming lines about human rights and self-determination, but as Watson concludes: ‘Australia’s liberal ideals are mere abstractions to be abandoned in the face of realpolitik.’

Why would anyone trust the Indonesian military government which had a history of itchy trigger fingers? It had chased the Dutch out of its other islands and a decade earlier had helped kill an estimated half-million citizens it claimed were Communist.

Watson: ‘From Soeharto’s perspective, the concepts that grounded Whitlam were not merely irrelevant but so removed from his experience as to be incomprehensible. This was a collision of worlds in the making.’

Were the leaders’ discussions corrupted by misunderstandings based on cultural differences and misinterpretations?  On 6 September 1974 Soeharto took Whitlam to Semar’s cave in Central Java where the Indonesian General sometimes meditated.

Although fat-bottomed, coarse-faced Semar is portrayed as a clown in the ancient wayang kulit (shadow puppet) stories, he’s also the wise dhanyang (guardian) of Java.  Soeharto thought himself the modern manifestation.

Watson reckons Soeharto (d 2008) ‘had developed tepaselira (mutual respect) with Whitlam so honoured him by sharing his mystical beliefs.’

Another take is that the agnostic Westerner – who told others the cave experience was a ‘curiosity’ - concluded Soeharto was a mite nutty – and so underestimated his canniness.  In other words, the cosmopolitan scholar was outmanoeuvred by an untutored soldier.

In Forgotten Island Watson postulates that the cave visit meant Timor’s fate ‘had likely been sealed. The mutual understanding between the two men was complete.’

How could this be?  It would be difficult to find any shared interests or history.  Watson: ‘Whitlam was born into a life of comfort and privilege with a heavy emphasis upon education, liberal thought and culture...

‘While Whitlam was digesting Pericles and grappling with Latin declensions, Soeharto was tending buffalo in Java, with no settled home and without even the ownership of a shirt ... His was a peripatetic lifestyle and given the uncertainty surrounding his paternity he was rotated amongst distant relatives.’

Australia’s a liberal, humanist democracy which promotes individual freedoms and the rule of law.  Mainstream parties and leaders spruik these values.  Whitlam and the ALP seemed to be upholders – though not when dealing with Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. Watson asks:

‘(Why) the broader Labor Party, many members of which were far to the left of Whitlam and included at least one Communist, did not display greater resistance to Whitlam’s acquiescence to Soeharto’s actions?’

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation, since 2000 the third-largest democracy.  Ostensibly it’s a secular state though almost 90 per cent follow Islam.  Australia is a giant continent, four times bigger than Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago.  All important facts – but here’s the killer: For every Australian there are 11 Indonesians. 

Australia is better armed, more disciplined and has powerful friends which it believes would dash down from northern latitudes to help.  But if Indonesia invaded we’d still be in big strife.

According to Watson’s careful analysis, Soeharto’s New Order regime was ‘the antibook of the principles enunciated by the Whitlam Government: authoritarian, violent, illiberal, and undemocratic.

‘(Whitlam) did discard self-determination and he did ‘greenlight’ Soeharto.  But holding him personally responsible for the violence is a step too far although the opprobrium remains. 

‘Whitlam gambled that Soeharto would incorporate Timor quickly and quietly. He should have taken note of Soeharto’s long record of state violence before endorsing Timor’s incorporation.’ 

Soeharto was an enigmatic, superstitious rural Javanese once labelled by his superiors as only ‘a moderately capable man.’  Apart from running the country for 32 years he became a champion kleptocrat, allegedly pocketing more than US $ 38 billion while never facing court.

Sir Keith (Mick) Shann, Ambassador to Indonesia 1962-66 reportedly said: ‘I don’t understand the Indonesians. I doubt any Australian does.’

Maybe it’s time we tried harder.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 22 October 2020: 





Thursday, October 15, 2020



                                          The comeback kid heads to Washington


Calon Presiden Prabowo Subianto memberikan sambutan dalam Pembekalan Relawan Prabowo-Sandi di Istora Senayan, Jakarta, 22 November 2018. Pasangan Calon nomor urut 02, Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno menggelar pembekalan relawan dengan tema Bergerak Menjemput Kemenangan yang berisi tentang langkah-langkah dan strategi bagi relawan untuk menjaring suara masyarakat, dengan dihadiri sekitar 3000-an orang relawan. TEMPO/M Taufan Rengganis(Pic:  Tempo)

Champions of Donald Trump’s style of politics will warm to Prabowo Subianto. They’ll understand why Washington is forgetting Indonesia’s Defence Minister was once banned from the US and Australia for alleged human rights abuses, and get onside with another tough.

Now the blacklist has been burned.  This month Prabowo (as he’s publicly known without inferring intimacy) is scheduled to visit the US after earlier making trips to Russia and China.  As reported in this column earlier, these arms-shopping jaunts have made Washington fear the world’s third-largest democracy is warming to Beijing despite its South China Sea claims.

Presumably the invitee will get an earbashing similar to that of FM Marise Payne when she met State Secretary Mike Pompeo in July and again this month; he fumed against Communist ‘exploitation, corruption and coercion’ and ‘malign activity’ in the region.

If Pompeo asks Indonesia to join his ‘alliance of democracies’ Prabowo might want to plagiarise Payne’s response: ‘The relationship we have with China is very important, and we have no intention of injuring it ...We make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest, and about upholding our security, our prosperity, and our values.’

Although not his job (the FM is professional diplomat Retno Marsudi) Prabowo can also remind his host that Indonesia’s non-alignment policy forbids defence pacts and military alignments – although joint military exercises are allowed. Indonesia bans Communism but it’s deeply in debt to China through infrastructure loans and trade.

It’s also the recipient of Beijing’s so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’. FM Wang Yi has reportedly told Indonesian minister Luhut Binsar Panjaitan that ‘China is willing to work with Indonesia on vaccine research, production and distribution, and support exchanges of relevant departments and medical institutes to help ensure access to affordable vaccines across the region and around the world.’

Luhut, another former general, is Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment and close to President Joko Widodo.

Prabowo is Indonesia’s Il Duce who likes to parade on horseback in knee-high boots and cowboy hat.  He could again try for the top job of the world’s fourth most populous nation at the 2024 election.  By then he’ll be 73 in a country where the life expectancy for men is around 70 (83 in Australia), and the poli is almost as plump as Kim Jong-un.

Yet he remains raving ambitious, driven by a sense of destiny which darts past some truly awful notes on his CV.  These include being dishonourably discharged from the military in 1998 by the Dewan Kehormatan Perwira (Officers’ Honour Council) for ‘misinterpreting orders’ relating to the kidnapping of anti-Suharto pro-democracy student activists.

In 1997 and 1998, KONTRAS (Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence) reported 23 young men had been abducted by Tim Mawar (Rose Team) from the army’s special forces unit Kopassus.

One was found dead, nine were released and 13 are still missing.  The commander of the 27,000-strong Army Strategic Reserves denied all charges.  But at the inglorious end of his military career Prabowo fled to exile in Jordan.

Before Covid-19 clampdowns on protests, members of the Indonesian Association of the Families of Missing Persons regularly demonstrated outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta.

Their protests have been less than effective.  To the organisation’s anguish, last month Widodo appointed two former Tim Mawar members to the Ministry of Defence, now headed by Prabowo

Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo is an aging prince of the Jakarta oligarchy, a mega-rich Java blue-blood reputed to have an explosive temper, untested by this journalist as interview requests are ignored.

However, The Guardian’s Kate Lamb does know.  Last year she scored an audience in his private jet during the presidential campaign which he lost to the civilian Widodo 55.5 – 44.5 per cent.  He was also humiliated in the 2014 election by Widodo 53.15 - 46.85.

Lamb reported Prabowo ‘exudes a complex kind of swagger, he is clever, charismatic and also, a bit erratic.

‘After asking a series of questions about whether he is playing identity politics, cosying up to Islamist hardliners for political gain, an exasperated Prabowo unleashes a tirade.

‘I am not somebody who is afraid of white people,’ he thunders, slamming a saucer down onto the polished wooden table in front of him.

‘Don’t come and teach me democracy! Don’t teach me politics of identity, I know! I was a commander, I had Christian soldiers, Hindu soldiers, die under my command. You think I am going to betray them?’

After that outburst (he later apologised) Lamb presumably didn’t get a chance to ask about the fate of the 13 students.  In any case he’s long denied involvement.

Till their divorce in 1998 Prabowo was married to second president Soeharto’s second daughter Titiek. The union produced one son Didit Hediprasetyo, 36, who was educated in the US.  He now lives in Germany and works as a fashion and industrial designer where he’s known as a socialite.  He’s not married and his dad has not remarried or been linked romantically to any women.

Prabowo’s father was Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, a French-educated economist and academic who served in Soekarno and Soeharto cabinets.  He also worked in Europe where teenage Prabowo was schooled in London.

His mother Dora Marie Sigar was a Protestant from North Sulawesi, diluting her son’s claim to being a pure Muslim.  His younger brother Hashim has reportedly converted to Christianity.

Such issues are important in Indonesia where family history and religion dominate public talk .  There’s no space for atheists and agnostics, and for those who are it’s best to stay in the closet.

After returning from Jordan Prabowo joined Hashim’s paper and pulp business which owns or has concessions over 12,000 square kilometres in East Kalimantan, the province chosen (before the pandemic) as the site to build a new capital.

Prabowo’s Nusantara Group reportedly controls 27 companies involved in energy and primary production.  Last year the General Elections Commission gave his net worth as ‘Rp 1,952,013,493,659’ (AUD 185 million). Hashim is supposed to have almost six times more.

Despite his post-army career as a successful capitalist Prabowo also portrays himself as a protector of the wee folk as president of a farmers’ association and a market traders’ NGO.

After losing last year’s bitterly fought presidential election Prabowo initially refused to accept the result.  Supporters of his party Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) rioted in Jakarta.  Eight died and hundreds were injured. 

To universal surprise Widodo then offered his rival the Defence portfolio, sold as an ultra-smart move neutering opposition.  The crude Lyndon Johnson quote about FBI head J Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) is relevant: ‘It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’.

The other view is that Widodo should have let Prabowo, having strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage, to be heard no more, retire to his ranch and breed Lusitano horses. 

Instead he has a platform and credibility as a senior minister with a government credit card, welcomed in Moscow, Beijing and now Washington.  Next stop Australia?

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 15 October 2020:





Wednesday, October 14, 2020



                                       Keeping the myths flying


Yogya artist Djoko Pekik's version of the 30 September clash.  Like many artists he was feared and persecuted by the Soeharto regime and spent seven years in jail, though never charged.

It’s that time of the year again when Indonesians look sideways at the neighbours, whisper about family histories, question loyalties.

At dawn on 30 September our street’s flagpoles were empty.  Then the retired lady opposite who’d worked for the military scolded the forgetful security guard.  Soon every gateway post carried the red-and-white at half-mast, not to remember a genocide, but the deaths of six generals in Jakarta 55 years ago. 

Political systems nurture bogeymen so the kiddies don’t play naughty.  Indonesia’s regularly revived demon is Communism though the ideology was most brutally destroyed with the deaths of maybe half-a-million and the persecution of tens of thousands.

Java’s rich culture includes the wayang kulit, shadow puppets played on a front-lit screen to entertain, teach and terrify.  Second president Soeharto became the nation’s dalang, the choreographer twisting the village theatre to add G30S, the sinister sign for Gerakan September Tiga Puluh, Thirtieth of September Movement.

In the typewriters of army propagandists this became the acronym Gestapu with all the awful reminders of Hermann Göring’s Geheime Staatspolizei.

Some background:  During his 1945-1965 rule founding president Soekarno ran an anti-imperialist ‘Jakarta, Beijing, Pyongyang axis’ policy terrifying the West. When he started Konfrontasi with Malaya as the former British colony moved towards independence, strategists feared a second front would weaken the war in Vietnam.

 Not all were on Soekarno’s side.  The military imagined a peasants’ revolt as the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) cracked its knuckles, so coo-eed the West which cupped its ears.  Communists were also considered godless which roused the religious.

General Soeharto rapidly ousted Soekarno after the coup, consolidating his position by declaring martial law, banning free media and launched saturation promotion of only one version of events.

This included a claim that dancing naked communist women had mutilated the six generals’ genitals before their bodies were thrown into a well.  Autopsies proved this untrue, but like Donald Trump, Soeharto knew repeated lurid lies become truths.

A crude film about the coup called Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of G30S/PKI) was regularly telecast on the state channel TVRI.  Viewing was compulsory at schools every October, though the graphic scenes would rate it R in the West. 

A museum outside Jakarta and giant statues of the dead generals keep the myth’s heart throbbing.  General Abdul Nasution escaped the attackers who killed his five-year-old daughter Irma.  His house has been preserved with bullet holes in the walls, and enough yard space for tour buses.

Although the failed coup is still officially labelled Communist, it was long suspected the military was involved, covertly aided by MI5 and CIA operatives. 

Following the putsch, a massive slaughter of real and imagined reds began.  The army said the killings were spontaneous, driven by the people’s anger at the generals’ deaths.  In reality soldiers were handing lists of suspects to civilian militias, and supplying machetes and guns to the vengeful.

A 1968 secret CIA report claimed the massacres ‘rank as one of the worst  mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.’

That didn’t concern Australian PM Harold Holt who told the New York Times: ‘With 500,000 to 1 million Communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.’

Few visitors know Bali’s sands are blood-soaked. The death squads were brutally active on the so-called isle of peace and harmony where Australians love to frolic.  Few of the 80,000 victims, including women and children, were active PKI members but targeted in revenge killings often involving land and community disputes.

On the Catholic island of Flores, priests stood back while their parishioners were chopped and shot, their bodies tipped into mass graves.

Overseas historians reckoned – but couldn’t prove- the slaughter was engineered by the army.  That assumption is now concrete, thanks to an outstanding Australian academic.  Dr Jess Melvin’s brilliant research was sourced on 3,000 pages of original army documents she collected during a field trip to Aceh.

On the anniversary of the regime change she wrote in The Jakarta Post:

‘My latest research has proven the Indonesian military planned the killings. The military spent at least one year preparing to initiate and implement its attack. This included deploying civilian militia groups to support its operation.’

During the 2014 presidential campaign, the successful contender Joko (Jokowi) Widodo promised an investigation into the genocide.  That’s been wiped from his agenda.  Instead he’s been photographed watching and approving the ghastly film.

Now in his second term Widodo – a small town civilian businessman before entering politics – is seen surrounded by uniforms.  They urge vigilance against an uprising, with no evidence one red seed is germinating. Under-employed, and in search of purpose, the men in khaki continually remind they ‘saved the nation’ so need respect and power.

Melvin warns: ‘Perhaps most worryingly, the military in Jokowi’s second term continues to increase its influence. Jokowi has allowed key military figures to hold important positions in his administration.

‘This includes the defence minister and former opposition leader, retired general Prabowo Subianto, who has called for a return of the military’s Total People’s Defence doctrine.’ (This has the military backing civilian militia groups.)

 ‘(Indonesia) faces two stark choices. It can seek to investigate and make public the atrocities that occurred in 1965-1966, in the hope of never again allowing the country to sink into such horrific violence.

‘Or it can continue to deny military agency behind the 1965-1966 killings, while actively re-establishing one of the key policies that allowed the military to commit such atrocities in the first place.’

A few days into October our street flags were lowered, folded and stored in the watchman’s hut, ready for next year.  Even if the standard-bearers had read Melvin’s research, they’d not believe a word.  Such is the depth of indoctrination.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 14  October 2020: