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, September 18, 2019


PM in gaffe-strewn Indonesian TV interview                       

Scott Morrison has given a rambling error-littered  interview to Indonesian TV where he fudged the figures of casualties in the 2002 Bali bomb blast.

The Prime Minister told English-speaking journalist Andini Effendi that “more Indonesians were killed than Australians” when the reverse is true. 

The final death toll of 202 men and women in the 12 October terrorist attack was 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 23 Britons and 53 from other nations.

In the six-minute clip telecast Monday night on the nation’s top news station Metro TV, the Prime Minister explained that he’d been to memorial services in Coogee, though apparently not in Kuta on Bali.  The terrorist attack took place where the main monument is located on the Jalan Legian tourist strip.

Coogee means nothing to most Indonesians and was translated as ‘Quci’ on the screen. 

Later in the interview Morrison referred to Indonesian President Joko Widodo as the former ‘mayor’ of Jakarta.

Widodo, who this year won a second five-year term as president, was the governor of Jakarta between 2012 and 2014. 

When asked about his personal relationship with Widodo, who he described as a “cheeky character”,  the PM said he talked about his family and a new dog.  Widodo is a Muslim.  Dogs are considered unclean in Islam and rarely kept as pets. 

In North Sulawesi, Bali and other parts of the country canines are cooked and considered a treat.  Hopefully Widodo’s advisers are more culturally aware than those in the PM’s office, so wouldn’t recommend raising these culinary habits in any future jolly chat.

It’s unlikely Morrison would try to build mateship by telling Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu that he’d just enjoyed a bacon burger, or that his ALP opponents carry on like pork chops.

Although the questions in the interview shot in Sydney were unchallenging,  Morrison seemed poorly briefed so padded out time with bland statements.

He said the relationship between the two countries “isn’t just about economics, it’s about security, it’s about regional strategic objectives, it’s about the environment” – which is curious; Indonesia is a case-study mess largely a domestic issue where foreign governments fear to tread,

Or perhaps Morrison was referring to the containers of Australian waste being repatriated after dumping was exposed.

Jungle-clearing fires in Kalimantan are smoking Singapore.  Java’s  rivers are streams of plastic trash.  Reliance on coal-fired power stations and failure to control vehicle emissions have put Jakarta atop the world’s most unlivable cities. 

The relationship is also about education and trade training and people-to-people contacts.  Unfortunately these issues didn’t get highlighted though Australian universities and vocational trainers are bidding against European providers for work in Indonesia.

Widodo has been pushing hard for outside expertise to boost skills and Morrison could  have alerted Indonesian viewers that his country is keen to help.

Nor did the PM use his time to talk about Widodo’s ‘Ten New Balis’ plan to boost visitor numbers and which is being supported by Australian advisors. 

The PM’s experience as a former managing director of  Tourism Australia means that in this industry he should  know what he’s talking about.

The Lowy Institute has been polling Australians on their views about Indonesia for the past 15 years.  This year it reported that respondents’ answers ‘continue to demonstrate a lack of knowledge about our largest neighbour.’ 

In their door-knocking  the researchers must have included Kirribilli House.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 18 Sepember 2019:

Monday, September 16, 2019


 Indonesia’s Dr Strangelove takes final flight                    

Indonesia’s fourth president, the late Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, was never short of a quip.

“First president (Soekarno, who had nine wives) was crazy about women. The second (Soeharto, who allegedly stole US$35 billion) was crazy about money.  The third (Habibie) is just crazy.”  Assessing himself, Wahid added:  “I just drive people crazy.”

That was also an attribute of Bacharuddin Jusuf ‘Rudy’ Habibie who died last week. 

The former aeronautical engineer ran the world’s most populous Islamic country from 1998 to 1999; as vice-president he took over when Soeharto was forced by student riots and the economic crisis to end his 32-year dictatorship.

The Indonesia media has been treating Habibie’s passing as though he was a soldier hero of the 1945 revolution against the Dutch, when for much of his 83 years he was more a distant figure of bemusement and failed grandiose dreams.

He was born in Sulawesi and spent many years in the Netherlands and Germany, studying and working for Messerschmitt; he eventually designed a commuter turboprop for his homeland called the IPTN N-250.  This never took off.

He was much smarter than the thick generals who ruled Indonesia last century and still flick backroom switches.  To them he was Dr Strangelove, an Indonesian version of the mad scientist in Stanley Kubrick's cult classic film, but had to be tolerated because he was protected by Soeharto.
A Sydney Morning Herald backgrounder once reported: “Habibie is short, speaks shrilly and gesticulates wildly, has a decidedly Teutonic manner from his German education, has the ear of his president, and wants to build aircraft, rockets, ships and nuclear power plants.”

Between 1978 and 1998, when Habibie was Minister for Research and Technology, his weird theories were tagged ‘Habibienomics’.  He argued for up-down interest rates plus heavy government involvement in technology rather than encouraging private business to invest.

When Soeharto made him vice president - knowing he’d be no personal threat as he wasn’t a Javanese general - the rupiah crashed to 17,000 against the US dollar after being pegged at 2,500.  It’s now around 14,000.

Jealous of the business clout of the mainly Christian Chinese community he created the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ Association,

Among his errors was buying the East German Navy in 1994.  One of the 39 warships sank on its way to Surabaya where the rest rust for want of parts.  Tempo newsmagazine exposed the scandal and was banned.

But when Habibie became president he used his 17 months as a reformer, giving the media back its freedom, releasing political prisoners and clearing the way for democracy.  Most curiously he ordered a referendum on the future of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, invaded and occupied by Indonesia in 1974.

One version has Habibie getting a letter from the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggesting a decade of autonomy for the province; the idea was to remove ‘the pebble in the shoe’ that had long irritated relationships.

Habibie, furious at what he saw as foreign interference in a domestic issue, went one-better and called a vote.

Some wonder why the all-powerful Army didn’t stage a coup and oust Habibie for threatening the Unitary State.  The generals hesitated because they were confident the Timorese loved Indonesia and would vote to stay in the Republic.

This belief was based on ‘intelligence reports’ from the field claiming no support for independence.  Which is what wise folk say when questioned by men with guns, holding clipboards and noting names.

The four-to-one result threw the military into a fury, taking revenge by scorching the earth, killing and plundering.  Their hate for Habibie was boundless, but he was soon  replaced by Wahid.
Apart from his late social reforms Habibie was till recently thought more a harmless boffin, remote from the serious gamers who carry swagger sticks.  

Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor met him in 2013 and heard him say that his duty was to ‘build a just, open and democratic society’ after Soeharto’s 32-year dictatorship.

“In some respects Habibie’s greatest weakness was his intelligence,” said Taylor.  “An incredibly clever and articulate thinker, Habibie was perhaps too advanced for most people, including me.
“He found it difficult to work at a level that was connected to the common person. Yet he was in every respect a visionary with a brilliant mind.”

In the last few years Habibie’s egghead image has been cracked through two biopics about his courtship of high school sweetheart Dr Hasri Ainun Besari.  The 48-year union was apparently marked by genuine mutual respect and depicted as a grand romance.

After his physician wife died in 2010 Habibie reportedly visited her grave daily.  He is now buried by her side.

Habibie’s engineering and political career won little acclaim, but the Rudy and Ainun love story has gripped the public’s attention and admiration.  Indonesia’s third president is being remembered less as a Dr Strangelove, more as an advanced feminist in a culture that’s still largely patriarchal..

First published in Pearls & Irritations 16 Sept 2019:

Saturday, September 14, 2019


BTW: Mariage sans frontieres

Once upon a time, kiddies, we knew who we were.  I was Sir, your Mom was Madam, you were Miss and your brother Master. Now language is gender-free.

Miss is short for Mistress, an upright position in the 18th century but now with a laid-back meaning in the 21st, so no wonder you want to be labeled Ms.

Here’s another term that needs revising – ‘cross-cultural marriage’ with its hint of annoyance. These are the complex-compound relationships that sparkle with the challenge of delightful differences, so every new day is a discovery of the other. 

Capitalizing on this fantasy an Australian insurance company ran a popular series of cheeky rom-com commercials showing the less than ravishing Rhonda on holiday in Bali getting seduced by dishy Ketut, a resort waiter.

The big screen head-in-the-clouds version has a blond escapee from cold climes swooning in the exotic tropics where love is endless.   The realities are more down to earth, or to be precise, the kitchen.

If one thinks bubur (porridge) should be made with oats and the other insists on rice the relationship will suffer indigestion.

The road to true love never runs smooth but in Indonesia the potholes are more like craters.  Time management is a particular hazard, like leaving for a function on the far side of town at 6pm when the invitation says that’s when the show starts.

For those bule (aka londo) who think punctuality is next to cleanliness and Godliness, slackness is a sin.

It also provides a true test; if the matrimonial deal is real, one party will adapt and tolerate their beloved’s weird ways.  Tiny tiffs can be overcome by chanting just four words five times a day:  ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’.  Or maybe: ‘You’re right, I’m wrong.’

But who says the words? To be he or she, that is the question asked by a Danish prince who also had in-laws behaving like outlaws. In Indonesia the newcomer doesn’t just couple with her or his betrothed – they also join the extended family. 

Approval is essential.  Civil ceremonies abroad lack pictures of batik-clad free loaders parading across a plywood platform to shake hands, bow and kiss. If there are no wedding photos for mother-in-law’s lounge walls positioned at visitors’ eyelines, doubt sneaks in like an unwanted guest.

In a country where PhDs can be bought, even marriage certificates endorsed with government crests are considered forgeries.

The hidden message is that the daughter or son is kumpul kebo, living like a buffalo out of wedlock.  In Indonesia that’s bovine behavior.

‘Inter-marriage’ sounds like a train and bus terminal.  Such places are defined by connection.  They’re also zones of chaos and confusion, with individuals rushing in different directions, so maybe that image doesn’t travel too well.  Likewise: ‘Terminal’. We need a term which implies continuation.

‘Inter-gender union’ has a clumsy post-modern Me Too feel, while capitalists would fret about the connotations with organized labor.  Yet this happens in the best marriages:  One does the cooking, washing and cleaning, while the other consumes, complains and befouls. 

That person is usually the head of the household, the other half, the one who wears the pants – though in our place they’re covered by a skirt.  We can smooth out our pressing problems provided one wields the iron.

Harmony can be elusive.  Glamor gets tarnished, fascination fades, the mystique molds.  The fail percentage is rocketing.  In some provinces almost half new marriages end in divorce, according to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

One of the highest rates is in East Java. Pause to ponder:  Oldies say that until the mid 1970s people of different religions were getting hitched with little or no condemnation by relatives and neighbors. 

That changed with the 1974 Marriage Law.  Interpretations abound, but the website of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta advises that ‘both parties must hold the same religion, if not, one party must convert to the other religion.’

Forcing one member of the couple to renounce the faith they were raised to love must hurt deeply and cause great resentment – hardly the emotions on which to build a stable relationship.  It also seems like an offence against human rights.

Yet joining faiths provides an opportunity for both to learn and develop the tolerance that every responsible leader promotes.  She goes to the mosque on Friday and he sits in church on Sunday.  At home they eat, pray and love together – and the kids take note.

There may be 300 different ethnic groups and six religions in the archipelago but these don’t have to be divisive.  In 1991 the Berlin Wall tumbled and East and West started to live together.  A germane inspiration for the French title at the top of this column – Marriage Without Borders.  Duncan Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post 14 September 2019


Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Unreal estate: House hunting hazards                   

Planning to stay awhile so looking to buy or rent?  Don’t rush to cancel the temporary hotel stay.

Sadly the real estate business in Indonesia is all over the place, literally and metaphorically.  Doubt me?  Read on, then wander around a district where you’d like to live.

There’s an apocryphal tale about newbies not wondering why their perfect find has been empty for so long.  They’ve checked for leaks and security screens, distance to schools and shops and much else before confirming the contract.

Later they discover a nearby center of worship’s amplifiers are soldered on maximum.  The maxim here is ‘listen before signing.’

Here’s another hazard for those prioritizing quietude:  Even in the supposedly residential gated communities families set up salons, childcare centers and shops in their houses, drawing traffic.

In many Western nations there are government-licensed commercial real estate agents – what North Americans call Realtors.  One call will usually deliver the response you’d expect after dialing emergency services.

The salesfolk are hungry.  They’re paid by commission; the more properties they can offload the richer they’ll become.  That’s the theory, though much depends on the state of the national economy. 

In Indonesia the domestic market tends to be s-l-o-w.  Proof is the sight of tattered and torn DI JUAL (For Sale­) and DI SEWAKAN  (For Rent) signs which have suffered more than a couple of wet seasons.

If the phone number is still legible a call usually gets a discontinued tone.  Delete the agent’s name from your notes.  A business which can’t maintain a banner is unlikely to be keeping its books updated.

Even the big names react at their own pace.  This column is still waiting for comment from a major agency that spends a fortune on advertising but not on callbacks.

Buying is difficult: Last year Indonesian Expat published information on foreigners’ rights to purchase property

As the regulations seem to be churned monthly don’t just hire any lawyer, but a law office where conveyancing is their daily nasi goreng and know the Ministry of Land’s latest laws.  Some handy info here:

Unless you’re with a big corporation or campus which has promised housing to lure you to the Archipelago, the reality about realty in Indonesia is DIY (Do It Yourself).

While cruising around suburbs note the TANPA PERANTARA posters.  These mean the owner will not be employing an agent and probably doesn’t want you to do so either.  Decode the message yourself.

In most cities and suburbs properties are found and deals done by word of mouth.  Checking expat groups is a good way to start.

For example in Malang a community-minded couple circulates news of upcoming vacancies and runs ads for newcomers. See East Java Friends on Facebook.

But here’s the rub.  Landlords who know the potential renters are stouter and heavier than the locals assume the extra weight is located in the wallet and so needs slimming.

Best have an Indonesian friend make initial enquiries and establish a price.  Curiously this most important info is regularly omitted from adverts in regional dailies like the Jawa Pos and its scores of spinoffs.  Newspapers may well have disappeared along with supermarket check-out staff in your hometown, but here both survive with house listings.

Aggregator sites worth browsing include
and  Don’t assume they have all available properties or that those advertised are still on the market.

Because the real estate industry is still a mewling babe there’s little mature data available.  Where sales are recorded by government agencies that clip the ticket with stamp duties, capital gains tax and other imposts, it’s possible to work out the price range of pads that appeal.

Here sellers tend to think of a figure and double it because the cousin’s aunt in the next street said that’s what the property opposite went for.  Or so their driver reckoned.

Internationally the real estate industry is getting scientific in collating values and applying useful demographics, such as age and income.

The number of bedrooms and bathrooms advertised are crude measures; the rooms may be small and windowless, the yard tiny and the street a jalan tikus (short cut) used by thousands of motorbikes when the main road is clogged.

Is the electricity adequate?  The sole provider is the government-owned Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) which chokes power to some homes to keep the tariff low.  If you have a microwave and toasters the setting may need to be lifted.

Indonesian landlords want their money up front – all of it – and they usually seek contracts of two to three years.  Change your mind once the ink has dried and it could well be bye-bye all savings.
Disputes with landlords need to be settled face-to-face.   Consumer protection law is not strong, which is being polite.  Tenancy dispute tribunals are a foreign idea. Although legal action is available, anecdotally it’s rare to hear of foreigners winning, however strong their case.

It’s not all grim and gloomy.  There are decent landlords out there – just take time to search thoroughly.  Also don’t forget to say hello to the Rukun Tetangga (RT) the neighborhood leader.
Chances are she or he will already know you’re renting so get in first with the handshakes and learn about your civic duties.  These are seldom onerous and generally include occasional street clean-ups and coffee for the satpam (security guard).  

Be discreet but friendly and helpful.  In one of the world’s most densely populated islands harmony and cooperation are essentials. Back home you probably won’t know your neighbors but here they’ll all know you.

(Your correspondent has experience renting in Surabaya but no legal qualifications – so get your own professional advice.)

(First published in Indonesian Expat 11 September 2019)

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Never forget the past         


Adolf Heuken’s publishing experiences offer a droll comment on the interests of Indonesian and expat readers.

The prolific writer produced scores of books during his 55-year career which ended eight days after his 90th birthday late last month.

He spent most of his time in Jakarta where he built a reputation as the foremost historian of the nation’s capital and its cityscape.

In his book-filled Menteng study late last year I asked about his most popular title.  Was it Historical Sites of Jakarta, or Deutsch-Indonesisches Worterbuch - Kamus Jerman-Indonesia the German-Indonesia dictionary, first published in the 1980s and still in print?

Or perhaps even Mesjid-mesjid tua di Jakarta, a catalogue of old mosques in the capital compiled by a Catholic primarily for Muslims?

“None of these,” he replied, slowly shuffling his walking frame from a high desk; he worked in a semi-upright position after suffering back problems, though his mind stayed sharp 

‘It’s this - Ensiklopedi Orang Kudus (Encyclopedia of Saints) and its spin-offs,” gesturing to a row of small booklets, each one featuring a name.

For a serious scholar working in his adopted land these books were a sideshow.  Yet they are still popular and sought by expectant Catholic and Protestant parents seeking ideas for their offspring’s name, its origins and associations. 

They’re also purchased as presents by well-wishers for religious junctures in a child’s life, like Christening and first Communion.

But the German-born Jesuit who arrived in this country in 1963, and later became an Indonesian citizen, is most likely to be remembered by Indonphiles for his well-illustrated coffee-table books on the old buildings of the city once known as Batavia.

In many cases his records are the only ones easily accessible; rock drills and backhoes have smashed to rubble so many old and gracious buildings as developers with more money than taste compete to build higher and more garish apartment blocks and shopping malls.

When lost for ideas they have a line of galloping horses at the entrance to disguise the rows of stables at the rear masquerading as houses.

However a new generation of architects and landscape artists aware that the public hankers for buildings with character and sober standout qualities have Heuken’s work for inspiration.  This is his legacy and the future Jakarta will be richer as a result.

Heuken was born in Coesfeld in North Rhine-Westphalia, near the university city of Münster, where he planned to become a monk. Instead he studied to enter the Society of Jesus, the Catholic congregation mainly favored by intellectuals.  His interest was always history and this began to flower as Jakarta developed.

A skilled linguist he wrote in German, Indonesian and English.  He could also read and write in Dutch, which he said was essential for anyone trying to understand the history of the archipelago.

Following the 1965 coup Heuken, became concerned with the activities of a fellow Jesuit, Joop Beek (1917-1983). 

Heuken alleged the Amsterdam-born priest who came to Indonesia before the war and was imprisoned first by the Japanese and then by Javanese militia who thought him a colonialist, was straying far from his ministry.

Beek had moved from Yogyakarta where he was teaching to Jakarta; in the capital he became a militant Red-hater and advisor to second President Soeharto.

Beek trained student activists backing the Indonesian Army and doubled as a spy, telling Western intelligence operatives of events in Jakarta during the months after the 30 September 1965 coup when an estimated 500,000 real of imagined Communists were killed.

Heuken was so worried by his colleague’s partisanship that he wrote to the Vatican and for a while Beek was withdrawn from Indonesia.

Dr Grace Pamungkas who co-wrote  two books with Heuken before moving to New Zealand for her doctorate, said she was blessed that she’d met Heuken at a seminar in 1998 when studying architecture.  He offered her work as a researcher and she later became an author.

“I have learned to be super critical about the originality of references when they’ve been acknowledged and formally recognized in public, or even in scientific forums,” she said.

“In so many ways we have to check to make sure we are using the most original information about any historical event, or someone’s life, or a building before we publish.

“A favorite phrase which he used in English was ‘a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory’.  He also quoted first President Soekarno: ‘Jangan sekali-kali meninggalkan sejarah’ – never forget the past..

“I hope I’m not biased when I say he’s the only Indonesian historian readers can trust in presenting historical works based on the best available original sources.

“Sometimes he seemed like a senior doctor who’d know of something wrong in another doctor's report or a medical journal. He got angry when he found misinformed writing on Indonesian history – which was almost every day.  But through this frustration he maintained his principle of always producing high quality work.”

Heuken was disciplined, a habit enforced by his parents  when he was a child.  He started each day with Mass in a Menteng chapel at Jalan Prof Muh Yamin before opening his books at 8 am and working through till 1.30 in the afternoon.  He’d return to reading and writing later in the day and often stayed studying into the night.

His research included visiting sites, questioning occupiers and trying to find previous owners.

In 2008 Heuken received the Das Bundesverdienstkreuz am Bande award (Star of the German Federal Republic) for his work in developing German-Indonesian relations.

It’s the highest German Government recognition for a lay person’s service to the State.

First published in Indonesian Expat, 28 August 2019


Tuesday, August 27, 2019


Farewelling friends, finding allies                                             

When Hugh White writes, governments read.  

That’s not a response necessarily enjoyed by other academic commentators on foreign policy, but the Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre has credibility established over time.

After graduating he worked as a journalist, advisor to ministers, intelligence analyst and a senior public servant. 

In his latest book How to Defend Australia White, now 66, writes that ‘since the 1970s, Australia’s defence forces have been planned primarily to defend the continent independently against a local adversary — in effect, Indonesia’.

Yet for many years China has been aggressively enlarging its influence and worrying both countries, while Indonesia has shown no appetite for foreign adventurism.

Canberra’s response to White has stressed that Australia promotes peace and friendship towards Indonesia and bears no ill-will.  Jakarta sends the same message. However both sides remain unsure, their citizens sometimes paranoid.

There are many factors in play; foremost are shallow media reporting, ignorance and distrust built over generations.

In the 2019 Lowy Institute survey of Australian public attitudes, 59 per cent disagreed with the statement that ‘Indonesia is a democracy’ – which it has been for almost two decades.

Despite more than a million antipodeans hitting Bali beaches every year, the Institute says its long-term polling ‘has demonstrated the wariness with which Australians and Indonesians regard each other.’

Why so when both nations sweat over how to manage tensions caused by Chinese ambitions beyond its borders, while relying on the People’s Republic for trade and investment?

Logic suggests Indonesia and Australia should be working together, but suspicion about ties with America linger; in 2003 US President George W Bush called Prime Minister John Howard Washington’s ‘deputy sheriff’ in Southeast Asia.  

Jakarta hawks haven’t forgotten the arrogance and see it reinforced by the increasing presence of US troops in Darwin, the Australian city closest to the Archipelago. 

Since 2012 almost 7,000 US Marines have been rotated through a training base ‘to build trust and relationships with each other and across the region to preserve stability’, according to an official statement.

Then there’s this year’s partnership with the US to develop the deep-water Lombrum naval facility.

This is on the 2,100 square kilometer Manus Island in the Admiralty Archipelago, part of Papua New Guinea.  It’s also being used to detain around 400 asylum seekers caught by Australian naval patrols while trying to reach the continent in boats launched from Indonesia.

Now labeled the Lombrum Joint Initiative, the so-far publicly uncosted plan is to make the port a joint US-Australian military forward-defence post, allegedly to counter Chinese expansion.   Manus is less than 700 kilometers from Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia’s Papua province.

Australia’s foreign policy has been underpinned by ANZUS (the Australia, New Zealand and US Treaty) for so long many thought it set in stone. President Donald Trump’s international relations inconsistencies have taken a hammer to that rock.

ANZUS was signed in 1951 when Australia had a population one third of its present 25 million, and feared the rapid spread of Communism,

In those Cold War days Indonesia’s President Soekarno’s scorching anti-colonial speeches, and his leaning towards Russia and China, frightened Australians to get under the US umbrella. 

They remembered that the Japanese warplanes which attacked north coast ports and towns more than 200 times during the Second World War had taken off from airfields in the captured Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

If lumbering prop-powered planes loaded with munitions in West Timor could hit northern Australia, what might long-range modern jets do to the southern cities?  Which is why Australia bought 24 F111 high-tech fighter bombers from the US in 1963; these were capable of reaching Jakarta, dumping payloads and returning to Darwin.

The perceived need to attack a neighbor’s capital vanished in 1966 when the West-friendly General Soeharto ousted President Soekarno and closed down Konfrontasi.  The undeclared war against the new federation of Malaysia was defended by British, Australian and NZ troops.

Relative calm settled till 1999 when Australia supported the East Timor referendum where citizens of the former Portuguese colony voted four-to-one to go it alone following 24 years of Indonesian rule.

Australia led the international peacemaking taskforce after pro-Jakarta militia, allegedly backed by the military, initiated widespread violence.  Conspiracy theorists claimed Australia’s motives were to fracture and weaken the Republic.

This was one of the reasons advanced by the Bali nightclub bombers for the deaths of 202 people, including 88 Australians, in October 2002.  Two years later a car bomb outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta killed nine.

Further relationship damage came in 2015 when Indonesia executed two Australian drug runners after ten years on death row, ignoring all pleas for compassion.

In this year’s Lowy Institute poll measuring ‘best friend in the world’, NZ topped the list ahead of the US and UK.  Four per cent of respondents said ‘China’, just one per cent ‘Indonesia’.

Australia is more advanced and richer than Indonesia, but the population ratio is 11 to one; a frightening fact for the nervous.

Atheist one-party China is far bigger with 1.4 billion people; the government has imprisoned Australian citizens, persecuted the religious, acted belligerently, stoked trade wars and threatened Hong Kong dissidents. 

But apart from the 1989 Tiananmen Square slaughter of democracy activists, so far China has not been involved in the up-close and personal incidents which have upset Australia’s dealings with the world’s most populous Islamic country.
Aside from the joint ventures in Darwin and Manus, White claims the US can no longer be seen as Big Brother in the ANZUS family.  He writes that the American response to the growth of Chinese power has been ‘feeble and faltering … and there is now a very real chance that the US will not remain the primary strategic power in Asia.
 ‘That means Australia must consider whether it needs forces capable of doing much more — defending Australia independently from a major Asian power. Australia has never really explored this question, because it has always assumed that it was both unaffordable and, thanks to great and powerful friends, unnecessary.’
 Researchers at Sydney University’s US Studies Centre agree.  Their report Averting Crisis released in mid-August reasons that as US military clout weakens Australia should look locally for friends.
The analysis suggests ‘robust diplomatic, political and military consultations with near neighbors, particularly Indonesia, should be conducted before Canberra embarks on establishing a long-range land-based offensive strike capability’.
So instead of those on either shore of the Arafura Sea squinting at each other and seeing potential enemies, they might consider being allies.  That’s going to need a major rethink in the electorates of both democracies.

First published in Strategic Review, 27 August 2019.  See

Saturday, August 24, 2019


Want to sleep well?  Become a teacher                                        

It’s a curse that’s dogged educators since 1903: ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.’

Just one pithy line from the prolific Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman – a drama / comedy now rarely performed.

It was delivered in 1903 so should have been eclipsed by reason long ago.  It’s also objectionable for the gender-specific assumption.  Yet it persists as an age-authenticated quote for parents who put status before service, fearing their children might opt for a chalkface career.

Though not Dr Anita Lie.  The professor doesn’t pause to reload when targeting the GBS cynicism:  “Teaching is the noble profession.

“The image hasn’t always been good.  It started deteriorating under (second president) Soeharto when the focus was on economic development, but now it’s getting better.  

“People in general still treat teachers and the profession with respect, though we have to attract more entrants from the middle classes and above.

“As a teacher you can go to bed with a clear conscience every night.  You sometimes encounter emotionally troubled kids, but you are doing good things.  Teachers help other human beings become better – that’s like being a doctor.”

For the Professor at Surabaya’s Widya Mandala University these are gospel truths.  They are not glib marketing lines to dissuade ditherers from enrolling in the ubiquitous management studies.

Yet she’s no Pollyanna.  The Graduate School Director knows the profession is in deep strife despite rivers of rupiah; the Constitution mandates 20 per cent of the national budget flows to education. 

At first glance a splendid scene.  Last year more went into education than any other sector of government.

Pause the applause.   The World Bank soberly reminds that the national budget is 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.  That means the Republic’s education expenditure is only three percent of GDP.  That’s one of the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Lie believes decentralization following the fall of Soeharto in 1998 was too fast, leaving provinces unable to cope with the cascade of cash and weight of power tipped out of Jakarta.

“The issue has not been about the amount, but how it’s used,” she said. “Expenditure has relied on the goodwill of regional heads.  Corruption is still a concern.”

One of the more brutal analyses of the state of Indonesian schooling came last year from a report by Andrew Rosser, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. 

On the plus side he found most had access to desks.   Indonesian kids are starting school earlier and staying longer which is all commendable.

The minus is lousy teaching – a factor which could thwart President Joko Widodo’s plans to develop a ‘world-class’ education system by 2025. That’s shortly after his term expires.   Lie backs his vision but reckons it will take at least 15 years.

The need for English isn’t an indulgence.  It’s linked to productivity and the export-based economy sought by the government.  Workers in high-tech industries will flounder without the international language of trade in their toolkit. 

Overseas investors will head elsewhere if communication is difficult. Although Vietnam’s 12-year Project 2020 language boost has reportedly fallen short, the country has overtaken Indonesia and Thailand in English proficiency.
Rosser wrote: ‘…, numerous assessments of the country’s education performance suggest that it has a long way to go before it will achieve that (world class) goal.

‘Many Indonesian teachers and lecturers lack the required subject knowledge and pedagogical skills to be effective educators; learning outcomes for students are poor; and there is a disparity between the skills of graduates and the needs of employers.’

Lie agrees:  “The problems have been going on for so long.  Every administration realizes this but gets overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to start.”  There are 50 million students and close to four million teachers working in 300,000 schools spread across the nation.

 Lie’s doctorate was earned at Baylor University in Texas where she studied English literature.   Now she focuses on teaching methods.

Along with other academics one of her current jobs is evaluating English language teachers under the national government’s plan to improve classroom expertise.  Here she’s seeing teachers perform face-to-face as they seek certification.

“Some are alright, but most are not, though they have good hearts and many are creative,” she said.

She recorded one playing the role of a dahlang (puppet master) before the whiteboard, using a broom as a prop with the characters talking English.  Despite this imaginative approach his language was judged inadequate.  He’s been sent back to lift his game.

“It’s not always the teachers’ fault,” said Lie.  “Some principals fail to supervise well so allow staff to continue bad practices.  Others don’t know how to improve.

“I asked one whether he used English to explain the points he was making in class.  He replied: ‘If I taught in English they wouldn’t understand what I was saying.’

“I’m surprised such people can be teachers.  No, that’s the wrong word – I’m frustrated.  Yet overall I’m also cautiously optimistic.”

No Australian teacher of Indonesian could hold her or his job if they hadn’t spent time studying in the archipelago.  They’d also need to be regular visitors to upgrade their competence and cultural knowledge. Yet thousands of Indonesians teaching English have never visited the Anglosphere.

Lie has some solutions: “I’d like to see major exchange programs where Indonesian teachers can go to Australia and Australians come here.

“At the end of the day the government is responsible for education, but there’s no way it can do so on its own in this huge country. 

“Businesses, philanthropists, non-government organisations and citizens must be involved.   Education has to be a concern for the whole of society.”

That includes pushing the next generation to drop the myths and take up teaching.

First published in The Jakarta Post 24 August 2019