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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Close to paradise, far from prosperity        


A Malang-based community development agency is the Indonesian winner of the National Energy Globe Foundation award for 2016.
Yayasan Daya Pertiwi (Daya Pertiwi Foundation - DPF) will now compete through audience and on-line voting against 177 country winners for the grand award of 10,000 Euros (Rp 152 million) later this year. There were more than 1,700 applicants world-wide.
The Austrian-based environmental awards started in 1999.  Last year’s Indonesian winner was Yayasan Ekosistem Gili Indah for its work in restoring coral reefs using renewable energy in islands off Lombok. A reforestation project in Ethiopia won the global award.
The DPF has been recognized for its Integrated Rural Development - Social Forestry and Water Development project on Nusa Penida, an island between Bali and Lombok.
Despite being just 45 minutes by motor boat from one of the world’s most lush and famous tourist resorts where billions have been invested in luxury accommodation, Nusa Penida is arid, poor and overlooked.
About 45,000 people live in 40 villages.  There are few tourist lures other than a bird sanctuary for the rare Bali starling, and diving sites which are difficult to access.
DPF’s Nusa Penida project has had a long and bumpy history. According to Foundation chair Made Polak the first work started in 1987 with limited funds.  These dried up two years later until German agency Bread for the World got involved in 1991.
They dropped out three years later, but were replaced by another German group, the Church Development Service.  That aid lasted until the Dutch Inter-church Cooperative for Development Cooperation offered support.
“This disjointed funding and the small amount allocated each time has extended the project,” Polak said. “The total amount spent since we started, including our own money, has been around one million Euros (Rp 15 billion.)
“Projects like this go through several stages involving planning, education, training and implementation.  These might take up to seven years in East Java, but twice that time on Nusa Penida.
“The island has severe geographical conditions, little infrastructure and high illiteracy. The people had little work. We had to help strengthen them to be self sufficient.”
The project’s economic programs include cashew plantations, fuel and fodder crops and building hundreds of underground tanks to provide continuity of water supplies for people and stock. 
Polak said the reservoirs have been the key to stabilising the community which suffered from droughts.
“The position of women is less advantageous than in Bali as they are still subordinate to their husbands,” Polak said.
“This has now changed and various economic ventures have been developed, like animal husbandry, handicrafts and processing nuts.
“Rehabilitation of degraded land and the underground rainwater catchments have transformed bare limestone rock into a green and flourishing landscape. Thanks to the reforestation program annual rainfall has increased from 42 to 65 days.
“The trees will help increase soil fertility and prevent erosion. Forage planting ensures stock have feed throughout the year.”
Polak said winning the award for Indonesia drew world attention to the needs of isolated communities, and showed how international funds could make a real and lasting difference. The award would also boost morale among the Nusa Penida people and the project’s seven staff.
Turning hate into aid                                                    
Leonardo Sahuburua’s journey to working with YDP in Nusa Penida started with violence and a chance encounter far away.
The man was in a uniform and had a gun. “Are you a troublemaker?” he shouted.
“No,” replied the young environmentalist.  He could smell alcohol on the man’s breath, they were that close.
Maybe the mild response made a difference.  Instead of pulling the trigger the man raised the butt of his machine gun.  Sahuburua put up his arm to ward off the blow and took a heavy hit. 
He ran into the bush, jumped off a cliff and tumbled down a 20 meter slope.  Then he staggered home in agony to his parents in Ambon and told them he had to flee.  They gave him money and he headed for the harbor with no clear plan.
The year was 2000, the place the Moluccas. The once peaceful islands were in the middle of a bitter three-year sectarian conflict pitching Muslims and Christians against each other. An estimated 700,000 people were displaced and 5,000 lost their lives.
Sahuburua reasoned it best to head for Bali as it was unlikely his attackers would pursue him to a place watched by the world. Covering his wounded arm he got on a boat and sailed away from his province and eventually into an entirely new life.
What didn’t end was the pain.   X rays revealed his arm had been fractured in the assault, the bone had knit and he needed surgery.  He now has a 20 centimeter scar to remind him that the Ambon experience was no fantasy.
He also discovered that to love and forgive enemies is one of his faith’s toughest commands.
“I held hate in my stomach towards that man for some time,” he said. “I don’t know who he was and he didn’t know me.
“Eventually I realized hate wasn’t doing me any good and it certainly wasn’t affecting him. I had to let go, though I continue to have nightmares.
After working as a tour guide and with a National Geographic film crew he got a scholarship to attend the Haggai Institute training center in Hawaii. He was taught leadership skills which have been used in his aid work.
Who gave the money?  Sahuburua says he doesn’t know.  “That was in 2006 when I was 30,” he said.  “It was another turning point in my life, along with my escape from Ambon.
“I still cannot stand the sight of uniforms – they trigger the memories.  But if I hadn’t been hit in Ambon I wouldn’t be here on Nusa Penida.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post  21 June 2016)

Monday, June 20, 2016


Don’t stir the giant possum next door                                  
Back in the 1970s presenters on the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation) stations were urged to use a ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent.
This ludicrous instruction was designed to please the plumb-in-mouth British and the quick-lipped Americans. It only succeeded in annoying Australian nationalists who wanted their own ‘strine’ recognised.
But like the Greek philosopher Plato’s fabled lost land of Atlantis, the ‘mid-Atlantic’ was also the place where Australians secretly wished they lived, close to cousins.
That’s still the sad situation as the Federal election campaign cranks its way to the 2 July climax when more than 15.5 million citizens will go to the polls.  Australia is one of 22 nations (the majority in Latin America) that make voting compulsory. Turnout is usually around 95 per cent; the 2012 US Federal election had a 55 per cent turnout.
Australia has a bicameral parliament with 12 senators elected from each of the six states plus two each from the two Territories. The House of Representatives has 125 seats.
In what has been a yawn-inducing eight-week campaign, candidates have for the most part stuck to scripts prepared by party bosses. 
The first televised clash between Labor leader Bill Shorten and Liberal Malcolm Turnbull - the current Prime Minister - was a Bland v Bland show. Veteran political journalist Paul Bongiorno called it ‘the most unwatched leaders’ debate in its 32-year history’. 
At the time of writing most pundits reckon Turnbull, backed by the rural-based National Party, will win the Lower House by a whisker. However because this is a double-dissolution election with all Senate seats contested (normally only half the Senators retire every three years) predictions are best left to those studying chicken entrails.  Minor parties may hold sway in the Upper House.
Unlike the US presidential contest, foreign affairs are seldom mentioned as the two major contestants gargle the same chants on domestic affairs – the sacred trinity of more jobs, less tax and higher growth.
Agreed positions include the ANZUS Security Treaty with America and New Zealand (wholehearted approval), keeping asylum seekers in detention to deter others (accept with a tweak here and there), and avoid upsetting Indonesia.  Or as Australians say – don’t stir the possum.
An exception is the minority Greens Party which wants the offshore detention centres closed and more refugees welcomed, but so far attracted little support.
Occasionally a maverick breaks ranks.  The most important has been Deputy PM and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce commenting on Australia halting live beef shipments to Indonesia in 2011.  He implied this led to a surge in asylum seeker boats carrying Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians but coming through Indonesia.
As reported in Strategic Review on 4 April this year, the exports were abruptly stopped by the former Labor government when activists published videos of gratuitous cruelty at Indonesian abattoirs. The ban was imposed a few weeks ahead of the fasting month of Ramadhan when beef is in much demand, infuriating importers and consumers.
Indonesia, unwilling to feature in its neighbor’s domestic disputes, denied Joyce’s suggestion.  The minister’s more disciplined colleagues reheated the usual menu of excuses – the media misreported, the candidate misspoke, words were taken out of context, blah, blah.  But voters nudged, winked and connected the dots.
Cattle are once again being shipped across the Arafura Sea and the slaughterhouses have allegedly stopped brutalising stock. Animal welfare activists want the trade scrapped, but pastoralists are grinning again under their broad-brimmed hats. Australia is the world’s largest live stock exporter, and Indonesia the biggest buyer.
It’s the same with wheat, another market Australia is desperate not to lose; mature politicians know one perceived slight could reignite anger.  The most inflammatory issue is likely to be West Papua independence. Although Labor and Liberal swear support for Indonesian control of the province, some left-wing unions goad Indonesia by flying the Morning Star flag banned in Indonesia.
Andre Siregar, the Indonesian consul in Darwin, has reportedly asked for an outdoor mural of the flag to be erased. The north coast port is home to activists agitating for separatism. Siregar’s alleged involvement ensured wide coverage and a reminder of Indonesian intolerance.
Australians can relate to former Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau’s famous anxiety about being close to the US: ‘Like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, if one can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.’
Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, is not always friendly or even-tempered. As it’s not part of the Anglosphere few Australians know what to make of their huge northern neighbor. Around a million enjoy cheap holidays in Bali every year but few go further than the Hindu island and into Islamic Java where the real power throbs.
Last year’s Lowy Institute poll revealed Australians’ feelings towards Indonesia. It said these had fallen to ‘the equal lowest point in our past decade of polling … This places Indonesia on a par with Russia and Egypt.’  
Only 34 per cent of Australians surveyed regard Indonesia as a democracy, though the world’s fourth largest nation has had that status since 1999.
In the mid 1990s the acerbic Labor PM Paul Keating went to Jakarta and said: ‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.’
Astonishingly Keating, an avowed democrat, got on well with then President Soeharto whose reputation was already being shredded by students and activists kicking against the dictator’s corruption. 
His decision to step down in 1998 amidst widespread riots was followed by Indonesia’s scorched earth withdrawal from East Timor.  Then came the 2002 Bali bomb and other outrages targeting Westerners.
Australians started rethinking the Keating doctrine, noting that a reciprocal view never comes from Indonesia.
 ‘Indonesia is important’ has become a mantra uttered by every Australian PM since Keating.  Tony Abbott, the man Turnbull overthrew last year, promised his foreign policy would be ‘more Jakarta, less Geneva’. It wasn’t, and Abbott’s clumsy and futile attempts to save two Australian drug traffickers from the death penalty added angst on both sides.
The routine comments about the relationship will surely be repeated again by whoever wins next month’s election. The voters will pay little attention; they fear Indonesia is too complex to comprehend, too weird to fathom and too unpredictable to trust.
It also remains too close for comfort – a situation unlikely to change this side of the next Ice Age. That leaves Australians having to ignore the facts, or accept and adjust. Or as they say in the vernacular: ‘Get real’.
(First published in Strategic Review 20June 2016 -  )

Thursday, June 09, 2016


Forget Size, Think Proximity                                                           
Rustic Bullsbrook is just 40 kilometers from Perth.  It’s so close to the Western Australian capital most drivers keep toeing the gas to tourist temptations further north.
Those who stop for a snack and chat encounter a curious mix for a slow country town.  Among the bulky farmers and sun-bleached orchardists are trim Asian men, unobtrusive, speaking perfect English. Quiet, friendly guys.
Only when airborne do they let rip in Pilatus PC 9 turboprops, darting and diving across the Stirling Range. For behind the town is the Pearce Air Force Base where Top Guns learn their trade. This is a high security defence establishment, but not all inside are Australians.
The rest are Singaporeans enjoying freedom unavailable in the skies of their homeland hamburgered between Indonesia and Malaysia.  The pilots’ presence isn’t secret, but rarely paraded. The issue of foreign military on sovereign soil, often raised in the Philippines and Japan, is a ho-hum.
For Australia has an asset the city state lacks - space to exercise the island’s military muscle. The little red dot has economic clout, strategic influence and something its big near neighbor needs – a strong and reliable presence in Asia and a society which shares its Anglosphere principles.
These include respect for the rule of law, stable government, a similar outlook on the world and a corruption-free, well-educated society with few religious hang-ups.
The sauce on the patty is English as the standard language and a shared history as former British colonies. These factors lure Westerners prepared to put efficiency, discipline and cleanliness above free expression and press independence in a state long run by one party.
The unspoken conclusion is that these values are not shared by others in the region, which logically infers they are perceived as unstable and unreliable.
PM Lee Hsien Loong thinks his country and Australia are ‘politically like-minded, strategically aligned and economically complementary’.  He’s also talked of ‘a special warmth in the relationship because of our temperaments and national ethos, because of our preference to be direct and straight and candid and to the point, and informal.’ 
This long-standing marriage of convenience is being further consummated. More than 5,000 kilometers north east of Bullsbrook, 14,000 Singaporean military personnel will be using facilities at tropical Shoalwater Bay in North Queensland paid for by the visitors.
The 25-year AUD $2.25 billion investment labelled ‘an enhanced defence training agreement’ was announced just before PM Malcolm Turnbull called the Federal Election for 2 July. It wouldn’t have given his Liberal Party much electoral advantage – Australia’s two major parties tend to agree on defence policy.
Australia was first to recognise independent Singapore in 1965. It has ‘Southeast Asia’s most professional and well-equipped armed forces by some order of magnitude’ according to Dr Euan Graham (no relation). 
He’s just published a paper for the Sydney-based Lowy Institute where he directs the International Security Program, stamping Singapore as Australia’s ‘natural peer partner’:
Although not always evident to Australians, the stark fact is that Australia needs Southeast Asia more than Southeast Asia needs Australia. Singapore is the exception to this rule, because of its clearly defined, long-term defence interests in the country.
Originally titled Size isn’t Everything but now The Lion and the Kangaroo (Merlion would have been more apt), the paper details the 719 square kilometer island’s security strategy.  With only 5.2 million residents, a causeway to Malaysia (31 million) and just 45 minutes by ferry from Indonesia (250 million) it’s hardly surprising the nation keeps glancing over its shoulders.
Indonesia celebrates its military past with Heroes’ Day on 10 November when revolutionaries confronted returning Dutch colonialists; Singapore’s Total Defence Day (15 February) recalls the 1942 British surrender to Japanese troops.
Writes Graham: ‘A pointed reminder…not only of potential external threats, but also of the dangers of leaving the job to others’.
So Singapore ‘cultivates public and private partners omni-directionally, encouraging as many as possible to develop a stake in the city state’s security and prosperity’. Apart from the US it has a network of defence relations with 13 countries as diverse as Brunei and Israel.
Graham labels Singapore and Australia as ‘odd men out’ in the region, feeling ‘insecure in their strategic environments’:
The relationship may not be permanently crisis bound, in the basic sense that the two states no longer view each other as a direct security threat, a major advance from the mutual suspicions of the past. At the same time, the bilateral relationship consistently fails to realise its potential, despite periodic hopes placed in it from Canberra.’
It’s an expansion of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). This includes visa and trade benefits, nudging the relationship closer to that between Australia and New Zealand where relaxed entry and residence rules apply.
Graham calls the CSP  a ‘natural evolution of strategic convergence’. It was signed last year before PM Tony Abbott was deposed by Turnbull.  Despite his pre-election promise to be ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ we now know his real interest was an hour’s flight north -  ‘possibly the most pro-Singaporean PM in Australian history.’
The Singaporeans aren’t the only foreign military Down Under. By next year 2,500  marines will be rotated through Darwin as part of the US Government’s Asia-Pacific policy. The Northern Territory port is 830 kilometers from Kupang.
Singapore also has strategic value to the US.  Graham claims it ‘probably outstrips’ Washington’s treaty-based alliances with the Philippines and Thailand.  This involvement in Singapore is set to expand with the deployment of  combat craft and multi-mission aircraft.
Should any of these moves concern Indonesia?  The Republic was allegedly not told in advance of the 2011 Darwin deal, arousing theories from paranoid politicians about the US having eyes on West Papua’s mineral resources. Others saw it as a move to block China’s interests in the area, which is closer to the truth.
Then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono didn’t detect any insult so the issue had a limited shelf life. But with the new President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo there’s been a surge of nationalism, and prickliness about foreign influences.
Indonesia has maritime security deals with Singapore and Malaysia, a ‘defence cooperation  agreement’ with Australia, and a defence pact with Japan signed last year.  ASEAN as a self-styled ‘security community’ is more aspiration than action, sharing little other than a region.
Terms like ‘pact’ and ‘agreement’ are slippery.  They don’t necessarily mean that if one party gets thumped another will join to retaliate or do more than growl from afar.
Indonesia, a founding member of the 1961 Non Aligned Movement, has failed to lock in its security with other nations at any depth. Instead it relies on its immense size for protection and a standing military force of 386,000 plus 400,000 reservists and militiamen. 
Singapore has 72,000 with 312,000 in reserve through universal male conscription, but is far better prepared.
European and US visitors are often surprised to see the site names carved on Australian war memorials are all located in other lands. There’s no equivalent of the Battle of Britain or Gettysburg – and that’s how Australia, with 58,000 full-time defence personnel plus 45,000 reservists sees the future – tackling conflict at a distance.
Indonesia under Jokowi not only aims to be self-sufficient in beef but also arms acquisition – a curious ambition as weapon industries in other nations are far more sophisticated and their products widely traded.
For example, a French company has just won an AUD$50 billion contract to build 12 new submarines for Australia.  Even China imports weapons, planes from Russia and helicopters from France.
Indonesia makes its own Pindad assault weapons under licence from Belgium, but also uses American M16s. If Indonesia goes it alone with separate arms standards its military will find it even harder to work with allies.
That aside the Australian Defence White Paper published this year calls for closer defence relationships with Indonesia; so far cooperation has largely focussed on counter terrorism, humanitarian work and disaster relief.
The ADWP predicts that Indonesia will eventually become the largest defence spender in Southeast Asia. Before that happens the Republic needs to confront its critical domestic problems of poverty, inequality, corruption and infrastructure.
There’s no point in having sophisticated weaponry if the roads, ports and airports are too clogged, damaged and inadequate to cope with rapid military movements.
Then there’s the question of cash. Indonesia is trying to reform its tax system with revenues falling far short of predictions. Two years after schedule Indonesia has just released its own White Paper on Defence.  This says spending will be held at one per cent of GDP. Singapore’s is 3.3, Australia’s just under two.
As Indonesia struggles with the legacy of decades of misrule, Singapore rushes ahead.  But Graham warns that:
While Singapore in some senses represents Asia in microcosm, Australians need to be alert to the trap of perceiving it as a proxy for the region.
The CSP is not an alternative to bilateral engagement with Indonesia, or other key ASEAN members. Nor would it be wise to cast Singapore in that light. But it can be an important source of strategic ballast and continuity for Australia.
So Singaporeans in uniform will be an even more regular sight in Bullsbrook and now Shoalwater Bay.

 (First published in Strategic Review 9 June 2018.  See:

Tuesday, June 07, 2016


No passion for plastic   

It’s the universal way adults squash kids considered too smart for their own good: ‘You’ll understand better when you grow up.’
That’s not a line recommended for anyone planning to mollify, patronize or divert Melati and Isabel Wijsen from their goal to rid Bali of plastic bags.
The cynical oldies are right.  Age weakens; the fire in the belly gets quenched by downpours of reality. Yet the barely-teens already understand this dampening of dreams.
“With our friends we’ve been running Bye-bye Plastic Bags since 2013 and it’s true that it has become tiring,” said Melati.  “There have been disappointments. However we got encouragement after the TED talk went global this year attracting many people.” 
The sisters’ flawless 11-minute presentation in London was delivered without autocues and loaded on the Internet. It’s had about a million hits.
The talks are based on the themes of Technology Entertainment and Design with the slogan ‘Ideas worth spreading’.
The pair originally launched their crusade at the Green School near Ubud where conservation and social-change initiatives are mainstream rather than optional extras.
Bali’s economy depends heavily on overseas tourists lured by the island’s lush beauty. Yet many locals and visitors drop their rubbish with minimal thought to the consequences, but maximum damage to the environment.
That hardly mattered when food wraps were banana leaves and drinks came in coconut shells.  Toss the leftovers in bush or brook and keep conscience intact. Organic discards rot, plastic persists.
Indonesia is reported to be the second worst polluter of the world’s oceans, bested only by China.
The Wijsens and their schoolmates consulted Professor Google and found this and other alarming facts about plastic longevity.  Science suggests survival for centuries.

Five per cent of Bali’s plastic bags are reportedly recycled, but only the desperately poor find scavenging pays. Black smoke and the caustic odors of cremated trash rise with the sun over Bali beaches.   
Elsewhere the rubbish is buried. You and I will biodegrade long before our shopping bags – unless other materials are used to lug groceries from market to pantry.
“We are paying women in mountain villages to make bags from old newspapers,” said Isabel, 13, though she looks older than her sibling. “We also distribute ones made from cotton; what we really want is plastic bags declared illegal by 2018.”
The story of their eventual meeting with Bali Governor I Made Mangku Pastika has been well told in the TED talk.
Like many yesterday politicians Pastika made the error of ignoring a couple too young to vote and carrying no plans for more malls. Instead, as the former police chief soon discovered, the petitioners had a more potent tool - social media.
The girls staged a pseudo hunger strike, garnered enough free publicity to make a candidate for public office weep, and set out to muster one million signatures urging change.
The police called. Something sinister must be afoot. But two bubbly adolescents can’t be tarred with the Marxist brush or hints of being manipulated by ‘dark forces’ – the standard smears to destroy opponents.
Eventually Melati and Isabel got to meet the big man, who promised to back their crusade.  There you are young ladies, a quick pose for pix and now run home to Mommy.
Another school assignment ticked off?  Not quite.

“We understand that getting a law passed doesn’t mean it will be implemented,” said sage Melati, 15, watching helmetless motorcyclists pass by.  “Had we been boys this activism would not have worked. In any case they mature slower. Nor would it have been successful if we weren’t Indonesians.  As foreigners we’d have been deported.”
The girls know how bureaucratic inertia and caution erodes promises. At one stage they got inside Ngurah Rai Airport to seek signatures; permission has now been rescinded by nervous officials.
The sisters were born in Bali. Mom, originally from the Netherlands, runs a villa booking agency.  Dad, from Surabaya, builds joglos, the traditional Javanese houses.
When they turn 18 they’ll have to choose sides – Indonesia or Holland. The latter will provide a widely welcomed passport – the former credibility in the clean-up campaign. Then there’s further education; Isabel favors the creative arts, her sister social science.
Melati has already received what she calls “reach outs” regarding a scholarship to Harvard.  “I now attend school for three days a week because the other two are taken up with responding to requests for advice and speeches. 
 “We have to keep going; our friends are supportive. So are our parents.”
The family speaks US English at home and trots the globe. In India they learned of Mahatma Gandhi’s use of civil disobedience. They imported his example.
Apart from overtaxing the adjective “cool” the teens impress by spooling through arguments for action, dropping facts like their elders, who are clearly not their betters, litter the landscape.
The BBPB crew has produced a booklet in Indonesian which explains the issues, and a logo designed to be internationally adaptable. 

The candi bentar (split gates) found in Bali temples can buttress the Eiffel Tower for French campaigners or the Statue of Liberty for Americans.
They’ve had a ‘small grant’ from the Internet ‘campaigning community’ Avaaz.  Associating with an organization that has stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia on its lists could be risky; the girls are careful to qualify their activism as ‘positive’.
Their advice to others whose idealism still flares?  “Work as a team.  Define your goals. Walk the talk.”
When a photo shoot alongside a gutter ended, the lens capped and notebook closed, the girls continued to collect trash though they had other pressing needs. They do get down and dirty. 
Metaphorically?  Kids can start anything, as the siblings say. The test is maintaining the ideal when they graduate to the school of hard knocks where the grubby deals get done.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 June 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Self-inflicted wounds      

 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty: Drug Crimes                                           

Indonesia has been rightly promoting its many positives.

It’s the third largest democracy with Asia’s freest media; it’s the globe’s most moderate Muslim nation and ASEAN’s economic powerhouse.

The biggest archipelago is a resource-rich environment open for business and tourism.  It’s inviting the world and her husband to pack their bags, jump a Garuda and head for Wonderful Indonesia.  As the ads say - ‘know it, love it’.

 What’s not to like?

Only a cruel and illogical approach to the drug problem by maintaining the death penalty – with authorities checking carbines and cable ties for the next round anytime soon.

Indonesia’s stubborn refusal to discard this primitive and ineffective practice – now being proposed for rape - is corroding all the splendid qualities which make the 17,000 plus islands and their multi-ethnic peoples a delight.

Why does the government allow twisted thinking to dash down all the exciting images it has been building over the years? Why continue to drive on the wrong side of history when most have switched to the other lane?

 Only 37 nations still have judicial murder on their statutes and exercise the law.

Apart from Indonesia the key culprits are China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia plus several rogue states.  Does an otherwise progressive and reformed Indonesia happily stand in this company of brutes?

A further 50 countries still have the law though haven’t used it for the past decade. Six retain it only for mass killings.

Like the Dutch beheader’s sword now hanging idle in Jakarta’s Kota Tua, the gallows, stakes, electric chairs and chopping blocks from 102 nations now rust and rot in museums - examples of how their ignorant forebears behaved before they elevated  human rights above all else.

Every day President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo faces a mountain of compelling issues, including repairing the nation’s infrastructure, boosting the economy, calming inter-faith tensions and eradicating poverty.

Despite the workload he’s found time to back the death penalty, arguing that it’s necessary to curb drug trafficking.  So far 14 peddlers of illegal addictives have been executed under his 18 month watch.

During the ten-year rule of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, only one of the 19 victims had been condemned for drug trafficking.  The others were murderers.

Last year’s clutch included men from the Philippines, France, Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil, Indonesia and two Australians who had reformed during their decade in detention.

The killings led to widespread condemnation. Australia, Brazil and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors.  This is the diplomatic equivalent of publicly walking out of your neighbor’s house because you find their behavior repellent.
Inside Indonesia, Komnas HAM (the National Commission on Human Rights) wants capital punishment abolished.  So do ten other NGOs that have written to Luhut Panjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Police, Law and Security Affairs asking for ‘a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition of the death penalty’.
Last month President Jokowi told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that shooting traffickers was necessary because up to 50 citizens died every day from drug abuse.
The figures come from a 2008 study by Universitas Indonesia and Badan Narkotika Nasional (BNN – the National Narcotics Agency).  Academic researchers have labelled the findings ‘ambiguous’, inaccurate’ and ‘over simplistic’. 
Even if the statistics are accurate, an annual total of 18,250 deaths is about four per cent of the World Health Organization’s estimate of smoking-related fatalities.
Using the President’s logic then Philip Morris, the largest trafficker of addictive substances in Indonesia, should be tied to a stake and shot to shreds.  As the British businessman died in 1873, directors of the American company could be executed instead.
Indonesia will win the World Cup before this happens, even though it’s the logical extension to the President’s reasoning. Apart from an international outcry it would cause a stampede of investors.  The economy would collapse, as it did when Soekarno nationalised Western businesses in 1958.
President Jokowi has also argued that ‘shock therapy’ will curb the drug menace.  Curiously the threat of death, even a painful and prolonged sentence through metastatic lung cancer doesn’t change behavior. So why should a quick 5.56 mm bullet dishearten?
Every time one of Indonesia’s 60 million nicotine addicts pulls out a fag they’re confronted by a fume-wreathed skull and the slogan Merokok Membunuhmu (Smoking Kills You).  Yet still they smoke.
Drug traffickers are indisputably evil. Traders in jail are daily reminders of tough penalties. The facts show the present policy is not a deterrent but a distraction.
The collateral damage caused is extreme. 
Those gleefully announcing the killings to come don’t do the foul deeds themselves. They’re distant from the macabre prison rituals.  They don’t see the ripped flesh, hear the death rattles before dawn, smell the vomit, sweat the nightmare.
They don’t pass their remaining lives forever recalling they’ve helped slaughter defenceless beings in cold blood, the worst thing anyone can do to another human.
All involved in the vile process are corrupted. So is the reputation of a fine nation, crippled by a flawed ideology that has no place in a moral universe.
 (First published in The Jakarta Post 26 May 2016)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Hearing The First Smile 

Gunungan  courtesy of John Casey


More than 40 years ago a group of Indonesian characters quit their homeland for ever. They didn’t travel lightly. On their 7,600 kilometer journey south they carried something rare and precious – the indigenous culture of Cirebon.

Why did they flee?  Perhaps they were escaping a society little interested in their presence, threatening even. Had they stayed in the north coast port, soulless brutes might have attacked during a wave of religious intolerance.

For not all wanted to maintain the celebrities’ ancient and impressive lineage, claiming supporters were idolatrous and should be purged. The tomb of Sunan Gunungjati, one of the 15th century Walisongo (nine saints), is in the West Java city and reportedly threatened by extremists following the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi sect.

The travellers’ back story is threadbare. Before moving they probably lived in the 16th century Keraton Kasepuhan (Sultan’s palace),

Maybe they were asylum seekers sent by their guardians to a haven where the locals had a reputation for tolerance, though knowing little about the newcomers’ culture.  Would they be accepted or pushed aside and ignored?

Today we happily report that all fears proved groundless. According to their custodian Jennifer Shennan (left)  the Indonesians settled well and are often seen in public where they charm and mystify.

Her late husband Dr Allan Thomas was the rescuer.  He paid several sacks of rice to secure their freedom, packing them in stout timber boxes for their long flight.

When the lids were lifted the migrants, guarded by the plump sage Semar, emerged to the delight of the welcoming onlookers.  And so The First Smile Gamelan and accompanying puppets began their new life in New Zealand.

The ten-piece collection of instruments includes a rare gambang kayu a wooden xylophone using teak slats.  Most ensembles have only brass metallophones. 

“They won’t be going back,” said Shennan, a dance teacher and musician in Wellington. “We thought about it after Allan died in 2010. 

“But as the Indonesian Ambassador Jose Tavares says, the collection has been here so long it’s now a New Zealand gamelan.

“Before being offered to Allan they hadn’t been played for 50 years – perhaps longer because of religious prohibitions on wayang kulit performances. The instruments are certainly antique – maybe 400 years.

“Others have warned that if the gongs went back the brass might be cut up and melted down.”

That won’t happen in NZ where the instruments and puppets live in The Long Hall on a splendid clifftop overlooking Wellington harbor. Till recently they were used regularly for concerts but need repairs.  These will be funded by the Indonesian Embassy.

Ethnomusicologist Thomas encountered the gamelan in the 1970s while studying in Java.  At the time he wrote:

‘Gamelan music is a curious mixture of the obvious and the intricate.  It is a simple sound effect and rich sophisticated literature at the same time. The exhilaration of gamelan for a Westerner is in the simple fact of it being alive – not castrated for a concert’.

Shennan said her late husband often spoke of music going beyond business and politics, helping people from different cultures get to know and understand each other better through feeling.

“When we perform in NZ audiences are magnetized,” she said. “Even people who know nothing about Indonesia don’t just look and leave.  They get drawn in by the magic, and because they can wander around and see both sides of the screen.

“There’s nothing precious about the tradition.  I’ve never heard anyone say outsiders shouldn’t be involved.  On the contrary, Indonesians want to share.”

Picture courtesy John Casey

The collection of 140 puppets includes some weird figures, like the utterly vile Ketepeng Reges (left) , evil spirits which try to break the concentration of meditators, and Badjul Sengara, a giant with the face of a crocodile.

Then there’s Dewi Rekatawati, who looks like something between a mermaid and a grub.  She’s a wife of Bima, one of the five Pandava brothers who fought their cousins the Kauravas in the ancient Mahabharata classic.

Her son Gatotkaca has magical powers to fly.  His headdress loops forward and is attached to the cap, a signature mark of the Cirebon puppets.  Marking pauses in the theater are the showstopping gunungan the mountain-shaped symbols also known as the Tree of Life.

Earlier this year Dhalang (puppet master) Joko Susilo of Otago University curated an exhibition of the puppets in a near Wellington regional gallery called Shadow Play to showcase Indonesian art and music.

He said the wayang purwa (original puppets) were created to stage the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, along with old Javanese tales and satires, and celebrations of local events like weddings and anniversaries.

In its new world the gamelan doesn’t always perform traditional works.  Thomas and his friend, the late Jack Body from the NZ School of Music, were also composers, Visual artist Gerard Crewdson, (below) who plays the kenong (a high-pitch cradled gong), has written Cantor’s Infinity.

This is based on the calculations of 19th century German academic Georg Cantor who developed set theory in mathematical logic. Less complex is the farewell song Now is the Hour which has been adapted for the gamelan.

The players are multitalented and include Tai Cha teachers, a computer programmer and librarians. 

Because of its age and fragility The First Smile is usually heard in the Long Hall.   Most outside performances are now conducted on a more modern set donated by the late Ibu Tien Soeharto, wife of Indonesia’s second president.

It’s called Gamelan Padhang Moncar.  It’s led by artistic director Budi S Putra and its players include some musicians from The First Smile.

“Padhang is brightness or daylight in Javanese, while Moncar means growing or developing vigorously,” said manager Dr Megan Collins. “We are the first gamelan in the world to see the new day. (The International Date Line running down the 180 degree longitude passes alongside NZ).

“It can also be interpreted as harmony and growth reflecting the aspirations of the group, so we’re planning to play in Java and Bali next year”

First published in The Jakarta Post 25 May 2016)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


­­­­­­­­­­Diplomacy sashays down the catwalk                                  

Yuku Moko comes across as an infectiously affable guy, a Falstaff of fashion.
The cut-and-sew industry the rotund Sulawesian inhabits tends to attract extremes – the reserved craftsperson that prefers to let her or his work speak for itself – and the flamboyant entrepreneur whose personality is marketed as part of the product.
Moko is in the latter class – but there’s one way to get him riled:  Suggest he’s a designer.
“I’m an artist,” he emphasised. “I draw and paint.  Others do the cutting and stitching and modelling. Listen to me, please: If you call me a designer I will get a red-colored face.”
Instead he got rounds of applause for his collection of mainly evening and casual wear “dedicated to peace and friendship between the people of New Zealand and Indonesia.”
The Indonesian Government’s NZ Embassy recently staged its Extravaganza fashion show in Wellington.  It featured seven leading creators, who, with the one exception, were happy to call themselves designers,

The two-hour invitation-only occasion attracted more than 100 and included half the diplomatic corps stationed in the capital “This is the first event of its kind in NZ promoting the richness and diversity of Indonesian design,” said Ambassador Jose Tavares, who was born in East Timor famous for its unique woven arts.
“We are showcasing the versatility of Indonesians, modern fashion trends in the archipelago and our provincial textiles.
“These include songket (patterned hand woven materials with gold and silver threads), ikat (woven dyed yarns) and, of course, batik and introducing them to the NZ fashion scene.”
Added MC Joannes E Tandjung, who has been studying for a doctorate at the Sydney Law School on the legal protection of batik:  “These are more than just clothes.  They symbolise the beauty of our great nation.  Fashion is an effective tool of diplomacy.”   
Apart from Moko the designers were veteran Rudy Chandra who specialises in evening wear and Carla Setja Atmadja who started in the fashion business with silver jewellery made in Bali.
Nita Seno Adji trained as a lawyer but moved into developing hand embroidered dresses; his work featured wayang (shadow puppet) figures and butterflies.

Defrico Audy’s offering included designs inspired by the culture and fabrics of South Sulawesi which he described as “glamorous, edgy, eclectic and sometimes ethnic.”
Handy Hartono used batik to effect in cotton clothes for women and men: “The basic concept is comfort and simplicity.”
Sikie Purnomo studied fashion design in Melbourne, followed by courses in Hong Kong and Milan before starting his own labels in 2003.  He’s now producing Muslim clothes and exporting to the Middle East.
Most of the designs were liberating.  Absent were the cocoon styles which wrap Indonesian women into shapeless bundles like rolled carpets, crimping their movements.
Most mannequins in Extravaganza were willowy Caucasian Kiwis who towered over the designers.  This created a curious effect.  The sombre tones of many materials stood out against the women’s white skins.  The contrast highlighted the clothes in a way seldom seen when worn by Southeast Asians.
The models also showed the outfits with flair and energy, particularly when parading the second half of Moko’s 20-piece assemblage. Bra-less they bounced around the room on the Wellington waterfront as though the extraordinary designs worn with √©lan were everyday wear, something tossed on because it was first in the wardrobe. 
This suited Wellington, a multicultural city and film industry hub where dress freedom rules and street talk includes Maori, Hindi, South Pacific languages and more increasingly Chinese. The styles and colors also matched the season, as summer yields to fall, or what Kiwis call autumn.
“You don’t normally associate trench coats with Indonesia,” said Tandjung while introducing the show.  “But this is the Southern Hemisphere and windy Wellington”.

Moko, 64, (right) originally known as Mohamed Yauri Yusuf Helmi Abdul Auf Mokodompis is from Makassar. The youngest of ten, his father was a musician and his mother made her own kebaya (tight Javanese blouses).
 He didn’t start out in the rag trade where every colleague is a darling, but in the profession of dour suits and wary decisions hedged by caveats.  For more than 20 years he was a banker, which is as distant from glamor as denim is from silk.
 “I was naughty,” he said.  “I probably worked only two days a week.  It was so frustrating, because my heart was elsewhere, but I needed the security and money.
“After my parents died and my marriage collapsed I retired and went to Japan for six months.  I’d always been an artist and got involved in advertising and interior design. I had a breakthrough when Ibu Tien (wife of the late President Soeharto) bought a cushion I’d made.
“Banking taught me to be careful with money. Despite this I’m probably not a good businessman because I sometimes tell buyers that the clothes they want are unsuitable.
“My market is the elite and each piece is individual. There’s no danger a woman will go to a function and find someone else wearing the same dress.”
He produces about 20 “art products” a month which sell for around Rp 10 – 12 million (US $770 – 915).  He’s closed his shop and spends much time on promotions overseas and at events in shopping malls.
He refuses to be pinned down to any region: “My inspiration comes from Sabang to Merauke. There are so many clever artists, so much potential in Indonesia. But there’s still a way to go, a lack of confidence.
“The concept of malu (shame, and not being different) needs to be used in moderation. There’s too much materialism, a focus on quantity not quality.
“My philosophy is to stay humble, work hard and be kind. Train your mind to see good in everything.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 May 2016)