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

Thursday, June 07, 2018


A grave town                                                          

There’s much that’s curious about Blitar.  Harmonious yet discordant, mainly subtle - then abruptly blunt. Certainly different. Well worth sampling.

 It’s not so big; with just 140,000 residents Blitar ranks number eight in the hierarchy of East Java’s cities.

That doesn’t always mean less traffic- smaller towns are often more cramped and crowded.  But through a measure of planning wisdom decades past, the streets are mainly wide and straight.

Later administrations added one-way traffic.  All it needs now are police cameras to snare the hoons who believe space needs speed.

Fortunately they are few (jerks and cops) so it’s possible to cross Jalan Merdeka at almost any point without getting snared for jaywalking or skittled by feral Hondas.

Where to stay? This is not a puff for the grand 19th century Tugu Hotel on this same street, but even if you camp elsewhere take a peek – staff members are accommodating and there are cheaper rooms tucked away.

The central pavilion, where prices start at a million rupiah plus plus, is grand without being majestic. The restorers have been gentle.  Here’s a suite devoted to founding President Soekarno, as is the whole town.

When the 1945 Proclamator of Indonesia’s Independence died of kidney failure in 1970 General Soeharto, who’d ousted him five years earlier, had a grave problem. He feared a Soekarno headstone in Jakarta would become a rallying point for the resentful angered by the 1965 military takeover and purge of communists.

So the remains of the 69-year old were sent 750 kilometers southeast to Blitar where Soekarno had lived as a child with his grandparents.  Soeharto’s fears were well grounded; neither distance nor time has dissuaded pilgrims. The founder’s tomb has become a national shrine and a huge earner for the city.

Well over half the archipelago’s 260 million citizens were born after Soekarno died yet the nostalgia industry seems unquenchable, with busses often delivering crowds keen to commemorate the father of the Republic and his supposed glory times.  On special days, like 21 June, the anniversary of his death, the pride is palpable.

In this intoxicating environment the unwelcome voices are sober historians reminding that although Soekarno was a towering revolutionary he was a midget manager of the economy.  He shunned the West, seized foreign-owned businesses and courted the Reds.
He had nine known wives; the 132-meter Russian-realism Monas (Monumen Nasional) pillar in Central Jakarta is known as ‘Soekarno’s last erection’.  It was supposed to rival the Eiffel Tower.

Unfortunately the Blitar mausoleum is almost as kitsch as the back-scratchers and other trashy souvenirs sold outside the gates.  More authentic is the house where Sukarno lived.

The gravesite’s slab design is weird, for the city and its surrounds are full of creatives.  One village makes kendang jimbe, the goblet-shaped hand drums, and exports to China.

There are potters, carvers, musicians and painters, descendants of the artisans who over 250 years built the Penataran Shiva Temple complex.  This is 12 kilometers out of town on the lower slopes of Mount Kelud, 1,731 meters and last active in 2014.

The reliefs, many showing episodes from the Ramayana epic and scenes of daily life, are marvelously rich and superbly executed. Some are quirky and playful.  All are spellbinding, the past speaking to the present with clarity.

This is not manicured, hyper-commercialized Borobudur, which is not to demean the mighty Central Java Buddhist temple built four centuries earlier. But smaller Penataran is so much easier to wander and ponder.

 However getting there can be tricky.  Blitar doesn’t have taxis, public transport or an airport.  The city is accessible by rail - five hours from Yogya, two from Malang. Then it’s a stroll from station to center – though not beyond. There are becak (pedicabs) but the old peddlers keep to city limits.

There are only four hotels; two rent bicycles.  The roads are mainly flat and there’s much to marvel.  Foreigners still turn heads so Bali-style rip-offs are rare.  Expect to be recruited for selfies.                          

Blitar can be raw. On Jalan Merdeka a door opens onto cages with four long-tailed macaques.  The friendly owner sluices their droppings into the street.  Adjacent is a shop packed with fireworks waiting for one fag to blow up the block.

Down the road is the freshest butchery in the region.  The animals are slaughtered in a back room and the quivering bloody meat barrowed to the shop front.

A street behind is the lush and lovely flower market squeezed between a narrow lane and the railway line.  It’s not signposted or promoted.  It should be.

Diners at the Pacific restaurant are served by a guy in a police uniform - an arresting experience.  Don’t bother looking for Western food away from the Tugu.  Best adapt to the Real Thing with rice.

Further down Jalan Merdeka is the grassed alun-alun (town square) where thousands of Javanese pond herons roost in the banyan trees and slime the streets. Finding wildlife in an urban area is as rare as road rage, so this is special.

Next-door is a prison for juveniles flanked by Blitar’s first shopping mall with a crass fa├žade in the current minimalist style.  More acceptable is the old-era streetscape, which includes the Po An Kiong Buddhist Temple close by the markets. Here women gather to exercise at dawn.

Blitar is supposed to be an acronym for Bhumi Laya Ika Tantra Adhi Raja, the Land Where Kings Reside.  It’s also a land soaked with blood.

In early 1945, months before atomic bombs ended the Pacific War, Blitar nationalists took on the Japanese occupiers. The revolt was poorly organized and soon put down, but it startled the Japanese who unwisely thought Indonesians welcomed their presence as fellow Asians.  It inspired others to fight back.

Four years later the returning Dutch were the killers. A monument in nearby Peniwen records the shooting of 12 civilians and rape of three women by Netherlands’ troops.  Their gross evil became internationally known and hastened the Dutch departure,

There are more benign reminders of the colonialists.  About five kilometres above the Penataran Temple is the 19th century De Karanganjar Koffieplantage.

Other surviving coffee plantations in East Java hilltowns are often boringly functional, plain sheds with rusting machines; this one is being turned into a museum and education centre by the family of former Blitar bupati (regent) Herry Noegroho.  Though still a work in progress it has great potential and charges foreigners local prices.  An overnight room costs Rp 200,000.

For outsiders seeking some understanding of Indonesia’s complex past and present, the culture, concerns and expectations of the citizens of the world’s third largest democracy - then Blitar is the nation’s one-stop shop.

 A short film by Blitar-born, now US-based director Livi Zheng can be found here:

 First published in Indonesian Expat 6 June 2018

Wednesday, June 06, 2018


 Running down Track II    

Djalal (left) and FM Retno Marsudi  (Photo Erlinawati Graham)


Before losing base support and plunging to earth, Dr Dino Patti Djalal was Indonesia’s highflier.

The cosmopolitan ambassador to the US with a professional wife and three little kids sparkled as the new face of the world’s third largest democracy, a welcome offset to the image of past authoritarian rule.

The Republic ranked as a middle power emerging from a chaotic turn-of-the-century revolution but Djalal pushed the positives.

Not through bellicosity but by promoting the archipelago’s rich culture and the policy of its sixth president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), ‘to have a million friends and zero enemies.’

Appointed to the most coveted job in foreign affairs at just 45 after a six-year apprenticeship as presidential spokesman, Djalal knew citizens back home were bored by their overseas reps’ talkfests on arcane topics. So he played showman and in 2011 staged the world’s largest angklung performance at the Washington Memorial.

With more than 5,000 people rattling the bamboo tubes to the tune of We Are the World, the diplomat startled – and probably annoyed - his staid US colleagues, but delighted compatriots.  ‘This recognises our multiculturalism,’ he said at the time,

Another initiative was to encourage talented Indonesians who’d prospered abroad to help recover their nation’s mana, as they say in New Zealand, meaning honor, respect and status.  Much had been trashed during 32 years of despotic rule under second president and army general Soeharto.

In 2012 Djalal set up the world’s first Congress of Indonesian Diasporas in Los Angeles, recognising citizens who’ve quit their nation to better their lives.

In an elite profession where maintaining stern-faced reticence has been as essential as multilingualism, Djalal was a self-promoter, adding authorship to his CV. Among his nine titles is Nationalism Unggul: Bukan Hanya Slogan (Excellence in nationalism is more than a slogan.)

This pocketbook is more snack than meal, a gallery of selfies with past world leaders, lightened with some self-deprecation: ‘I used to be a frog until Rosa kissed me.’ (Rosa is his wife and a dentist.)

His maxims don’t strain the brain: ‘The worst thing that can happen to 21st Century Indonesians is to live in a strong democracy with weak ideals, or to live in a rich country with poor people, or to achieve progress but lose our soul.’ 

Djalal started life as the son of Soeharto-era diplomat Hasyim Djalal and well up the pyramid. 

First degrees in Canada, then a doctorate from the left-leaning London School of Economics.  He spent 27 years in government service and was a confidante of the last president; the final assault on the summit just needed the clouds to lift.

Then Djalal made the wrong call.  Too sure of his ability and appeal he made a pitch to be a candidate for the 2014 Presidential election.

Joko ’Jokowi’ Widodo, the former Governor of Jakarta and one-time furniture trader with no military background or family ties to the oligarchy but backed by another party, became president.

His priorities were local. He appointed the little-known Ambassador to the Netherlands, Retno Marsudi, as Foreign Minister.

Although Djalal claimed he never joined SBY’s Democratic Party, like Icarus he’d flown too close to the sun of party politics. The wax on his wings melted and he fell far.  

“The experience was a cold shower,” Djalal told Strategic Review in his Jakarta-based NGO where he’s trying to develop a new persona.  “I got a sudden sense of my limitations, of what could be done.”

Too young to retire to a golf course and too energetic to settle into an academic life, Djalal faced a dilemma: How to get back into foreign affairs when the big game is played by governments on Track I?

How about Track II, the unofficial ‘backdoor diplomacy’ used by NGOs, companies and altruistic individuals?  Unable to threaten sanctions or bombs their only tools are trust and words.

He also had to move at speed.  Fame perishes fast - ‘former’ is a giveaway adjective in the top line of a resume.  In 2012 he’d won a Marketeer of the Year award.  Two years later the last product on the shelf was himself.

Djalal opened the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) at a Jakarta suburban address so drab he cooked up excuses to meet contacts elsewhere. 

The shame-days have gone.  A supporter offered space in a South Jakarta high-rise with a towering Salvador Dali bronze Homage to Newton in the marble lobby – grand enough to comfort VIPs.

Officially opened by FM Marsudi in May, the FPCI’s ‘School of Diplomacy’ offers modules in speech writing and public speaking, workshops on geopolitics, global trends and other issues parked under the international relations umbrella.

“I used my own money,” Djalal said.  Like pensioned generals he hangs on to his previous title.  When it was suggested the FPCI might have a hidden financier he kept his diplomatic cool:  “There are no big entrepreneurs behind me – I’m beholden to no-one.

“This is a non-profit, non political and non religious foundation. The rent is about Rp 2 billion (USD 142,000) a year and staff wages a similar amount.  We get our money from our courses, workshops and sponsors.  We can create space and do things that governments can’t do.  I’m far more effective now than before.

“Our mission is to promote peace and bring foreign policy to the public.  That means finding out how to talk to ordinary people about these issues.  They may not seem interested but that changes when, for example, the price of imports rise.

“We want to develop understanding between nations.  Our youth exchange program with China should help reduce Sinophobia”.

The Institute’s researchers have set up overseas study tours including one to North Korea, returning just before the North and South leaders’ Panmunjom summit in April.

The next ambition is to run backgrounders in Indonesian current affairs for incoming diplomats.

Djalal claims more than 6,000 came to one of his events; many participants are students of international relations. There are 18 ‘FPCI chapters’ on tertiary campuses.  The mailing list has 40,000 subscribers.  He says there’s nothing quite like the FPCI anywhere in the world.

If true this reflects either his entrepreneurial skills - or reveals great gaps in the universities where low pay and lower prestige deter top talents.

Djalal has been in Perth this month (May).  Freed of diplomatic gags he talks bluntly:

“I’m dying to kill the idea that Australia has a hidden agenda on Papua.  I think that’s rubbish.  (NGOs in Australasia, though not governments, have been supporting independence.)

“Australia should not be part of ASEAN which is geographically apart, though China is now working to redefine Southeast Asia.

“Australia is supposed to understand Indonesia best because it’s next door but in fact only a very small group understands us, while we don’t understand you.  There are stereotypes on both sides that need to change.”

(First published in Strategic Review 6 June 2018 -

Thursday, May 31, 2018


 WORDSMITHS OF NO WORTH                     

It was a splendid idea and it has worked.

Instead of reporters tracking elusive academics to explain their expertise, why not get the scholars to do it themselves – then hire journos to slash the verbiage and prune the deadwood?

Finding lucid academic writing makes Jason’s Golden Fleece quest a trip to the deli.  An impenetrable thesis once ensured tenure, but keeping a campus job now means communicating with citizens in terms they understand.  

But how? In 2008 Andrew Jaspan, then 56, had just lost editorship of The Age in a staff purge. Having built high-level contacts in Melbourne since arriving from Britain four years earlier, he turned to flogging the notion of a newsdesk staffed by subs who’d work with writers. The polished prose would be freely available on-line to all through the Creative Commons system.

 The Conversation would be run as a not-for-profit (NFP) with the tagline  academic rigour, journalistic flair’. Features would have ‘a readability index set to an educated 16-year old.’ 

Jaspan must have had the gift of the gab because he coaxed the Federal Government, the Commonwealth Bank and some sandstone unis to kickstart.  Ignition fired in 2011 and The Conversation raced away.

It now trumpets 27,000 contributors, 10.7 million ‘unique readers a month’ plus offshoots in the UK, the US and several other countries, including Indonesia.  There’s much emphasis on quantity. 

Hold Page One revelations are rare, but copy based on research is usually fresh and informative. Not so with op-eds; few challenge The Australian’s stable of stirrers.

According to NSW University Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs, ‘in a media world experiencing disruptive change The Conversation stands out as an exemplar of informed, knowledge-based communication and healthy democratic discourse.’

This and other endorsements have been used as curtain raisers for the website’s annual appeal.  Wrote editor Molly Glassey: ‘We need to raise a quarter of our annual budget in a fortnight to continue the important work we’re doing.’

Last year, according to reports lodged with the Australian Charities and NFP Commission, expenses were about $6 million.

Why these demeaning daily begathons when the site is already maintained by some of Australia’s richest institutions?  Readers are being pressured to pay to read research they’ve funded as taxpayers.
Like many publishers, The Conversation’s business model is founded on the view that keyboarders dwell in a Nirvana beyond debtors.  US author Harlan Ellison’s rant is worth watching:

Tertiary teachers and researchers publish to maintain their credibility.  The website paves a path to the wider audiences they seek, so – the thinking goes - no need to reward those already comfy on campus payrolls.

Australian academic wages are among the world’s tops.  Salaries vary; but on Jacobs’ campus associate lecturers start at $73,597 rising to $98,127, lecturers around $30,000 more.

These figures are beyond belief for uni staff in countries like Indonesia where many moonlight to survive. See here:

It’s the same with part-time tutors jostling to get onto the escalator. In such cases the subs would be earning more from cleansing copy than the author gets from her or his salary.

A fairer system would be to offer contributors an advertised rate; those who reckon filing for The Conversation is part of their job description could forgo fees.  Payment would also sharpen selection – budget-conscious editors could reject floss or demand higher quality.

To its credit this issue has been raised in The Conversation

Payment would set an example for the other tertiary education no-pay websites to follow. These undermine professional freelancers. That’s particular noxious when the institution teaches journalism and expects its graduates to get paid work.

Figures from The Conversation’s annual report appear to show its employees take home $135,000 pa.  Chief editor Misha Ketchell disputed these calculations and claimed the average editor earns well less than 90k.’
Jaspan quit his creation last year after facing a ‘staff revolt’ according to The Guardian.  The British paper started an Australian edition in 2013.  Faced with plummeting ad income it’s also turned to shaking a can in readers’ faces, though using genteel language - ‘a small favour’.

The Conversation says it will never follow the Murdoch Press and go behind a pay wall. But giving academics space is also helping kill reporters’ jobs, and set the agendas in understaffed newsrooms with drained editors.

The ABC is a regular user along with other mainstream media.  Another source of income would be to charge commercial publishers that apply pay walls, like Fairfax and News Ltd, re-run fees.

But the real earner could be advertising, a dirty word to the purists, but the source that has sustained newspaper and magazine jobs across the decades.

The Conversation already carries job ads tucked away at the end of the features. No need to sell diets and vitamin supplements; there are opportunities for promotion of campuses, courses, books, films, grants and fellowships.

Then this otherwise commendable website could stop bothering little readers for our loose change every time the end of the fiscal year draws nigh. The Big End of Town has the cash; tap on their windows like Jaspan did a decade ago – and raise enough to pay the wordsmiths.

Duncan Graham June 2018


Monday, May 28, 2018


Buy fantasy fun, light up, die young

Do advertising agencies have ethics?  Questionable in Indonesia where a NEVER QUIT campaign is running free. In a market where controls are lax and the government dithers, the tobacco lobby makes the US National Rifle Association look responsible. Duncan Graham reports from the smoking heartland of Java.

Ibu (Mrs) Liya (above) is a trader most rare, close to being unique.  She deserves an award.  Instead the small businesswoman in Solo, Central Java, is losing customers.

She refuses to sell cigarettes from her roadside warung (eatery) “because smoking is not good for people’s health.”

Indeed, though Western visitors rightly reckon that the war waged on the weed by health authorities has never been prosecuted with Australian vigor. 

The signs are obvious - literally. Many cities are visually polluted by huge billboards and banners urging consumers to buy. 

Ad-agencies in Indonesia seem unworried about using their talents to sell poisons. Their target is the young; as an estimated 450,000 coughers die every year the industry has to replenish the pool lest producers follow their wheezing customers and spit away profits with the phlegm.

More than 180 countries have banned tobacco advertising though not the land next door which hasn’t ratified the UN Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The other bludgers include the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Honduras.

This sick trio also backed Indonesia’s failed bid last year to have the World Trade Organization stub out Australian plain packaging laws.

Indonesian ads are cheeky and pernicious though clothed otherwise. Popular now is the slogan in English: Never Quit.

‘Quit’ is widely used in the West to wean users. So the text has been flipped to double-entendre with pictures of sweating athletes seemingly striving for greatness.

To entice those into exercising mind above muscle, a rival company is pitching for students.  The caption over a photo of a bookish man at a desk reads in Indonesian: ‘Overcome tiredness, achieve success’.

On the crass-scale these rank alongside the infamous More doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette ads that littered US mags last century.

Indonesian law prohibits images of users lighting up which worries the industry not one flick of a fag.  Why show gap-tooth yellow-gum inhalers facing agonising departures? Better promote bright young things entering a life of escapades and fun in exotic spots.

The guys race up mountains, skydive, kitesurf and jetski - pastimes which need lusty lungs, not bronchitis. 

Megabuck videos mimic Nat Geo adventures in wild places, the hazards challenged by guys in four-wheel drives while pretty lassies laugh approval of their blokey behaviour.  This being Indonesia the cheerers are modestly dressed as the people’s morality must not be damaged.

An estimated 67 per cent of adult males smoke, though only three per cent of women because many associate the habit with prostitution.  Laws force advertisers to add health warnings but not as the main message. Alerts are footnotes and absent on posters the big brands use to sponsor youth concerts above their logos.

The descriptor ‘mild’ is supposed to be off limits so one company has invented MLD, highlighting the vertical stroke on the L.

Brands advertise  special manufacturing techniques like ‘triple roasted’. One claims it’s using ‘reduced smell technology’.

A year ago reports forecasting a total TV and radio ad shut-down set the broadcasters quivering; they get more than half a billion Oz dollars a year pushing nicotine arguing that as smoking is legal they have the right to screen.

The threatened TV ban quickly vanished; now companies want heritage status for kretek cigarettes which use cloves and were developed in Indonesia in the 19th century.  If successful promotions could by-pass other controls.

Every assault on profits, however MLD, is countered by prodding politicians to remember half a million growers and 600,000 factory workers, mostly women who’d have few other job prospects, depend on selling death.

The tax take rises every year with a 10.4 per cent excise ramp scheduled for July, though 13 per cent was originally proposed. So manufacturers have been playing with sizes and running a price war, promoting one company offering 16 for Rp 10,000 ($ 1). 

A pack of 25 in next door Australia can now cost more than $35.

Statistics are contradictory: Customs and Excise says sales in Indonesia dropped last year by 1.6 per cent - others claim production rose 13 per cent boosting government revenue to USD 14 billion.

Measure this against Australia: With a population one-tenth of Indonesia’s and where less than 15 per cent smoke the government reaps almost $10.7 billion.

The other hoary line is that ads are designed to get smokers to switch brands, not encourage uptake. However a Muhammadiyah University study showed almost half the smoking teens surveyed started because they identified with the lads in the ads. The World Health Organisation reckons one in four teen boys carry smokes in their school satchels.

Though supplying minors is illegal the kids have no trouble buying - though not from Ibu Liya’s warung where she takes her principled but solitary stand.

Duncan Graham ( is an Australian journalist writing for the English-language media in Indonesia.

First published in On-line Opinion 28 May 2018. See:

Monday, May 21, 2018


Let’s take n imaginary peep into the suburban homes of two Indonesian families for insights into their lifestyles, values and plans.  And their most intimate and final moments.
Just like couples around the world Dita Oepriarto and his wife Puji must surely have wanted the best future for their teenage sons Yusuf and Firman, and their pre-adolescent daughters Fadhila and Pamela Rizkita.  Tragically that ambition included killing others and their own violent deaths.
It was probably much the same for Anton Febrianto, his spouse Puspitasari and their four kids.  Like their relatives there were two teens Hilta Aulia Rahman and Ainur Rahman, and two primary schoolers, Faisa Putri and Garida Huda Akhar.
The first family lived in Surabaya, the capital of East Java.  The second had their home in the nearby city of Sidoarjo.
To their neighbours the families were OK, a bit reserved though that’s not unusual when people rent so seldom get to know the community well - or get exposed to other opinions and interpretations.
The kids were home schooled so had few friends.
They were religious and caused no trouble, so that was fine.
Until one bright Sunday morning in May, when the long-planned secret early trip  was executed. 
They were Muslims going to churches, though not to pray.  Their purpose was to kill as many other fellow citizens they’d never met but who didn’t share their perverted beliefs.
Imagine the two mothers preparing their daughters for the last day of their lives.  What dresses did they chose, what colours?  Maybe the pretty pink for nine-year old Pamela – so feminine.  It made her look cute, often drawing complements when they went shopping. 
In truth it was a hand-down from Fadhila, three years older and just approaching womanhood.  So the dress was a bit on the big size.  Which was ideal for hiding the suicide belt.
How did Mum get the fitting right?  She couldn’t ask the local tailor to do the stitching for fear of questions and gossip, so sewed the strong fabric herself after measuring her daughter’s wee waist; the tricky bit was making sure the pockets could take the short steel pipes.
The other problem was weight as Daddy kept stuffing nails and bolts into the belt till there was no more room.
“Do we have to?” Fadhila surely asked in the whining tone pre-teen girls have perfected in all continents.  “It’s what Allah wants,” said Yusuf, 18, ignoring his mother as he’d done for the past few years, determined to exercise his male authority.
 “Stop complaining – this is your blessing and today you will meet all the martyrs who have gone before.”  Puji knew her son and picked up the tremor in his voice.  She desperately wanted to hug him but was sure she’d be pushed away. .
Then the wires to the handphone battery had to be tucked away in the hems; that job needed time and concentration.
The girls must have watched their mother’s needlework and barraged her with the questions all children ask while preparing for a holiday jaunt.
The oldies could have told the truth:  Parents should be honest and set the right example – that’s a rock in all faiths.  Had they followed that moral precept it might have gone like this:
“We’re taking a ride on Daddy’s motorbike all the way to the place where the infidels gather, for this is the day they worship Satan.
“When we get there remember to press any button on the handphone when I shout Allahu Akbar! Then your body will be sliced in two and your breakfast and blood will be splashed across the church walls and tiles.
“Everything in your body will be shredded, heart, lungs, liver and the tiny womb which will never be filled.
“Your bones will be splintered and flung with great force along with the nails and bolts into anyone nearby, ripping their flesh, smashing their limbs, gouging their eyes.
“Your head will probably be blown off your neck and eventually found far away.
“This what the preachers say is the will of Allah, Now, do you want to come?”
Had she told this truth the girls might have started screaming, bang doors to be let free.  For like their friends Faisa, 11, and Garida, 10, Fadhila and Pamela did not welcome death.
We now know from others that they hated the jihad videos they’d been forced to watch, the dirty black flags, guns firing and stuff where they closed their eyes. Like humans everywhere the young know instinctively, deep in their souls, beyond the reach of the mad and bad, that given the choice they’ll leap for life.
Choice was denied.
Had it been otherwise the girls’ tantrums would have been terrible. The neighbours would have banged on the door and the plans would have failed.
So Mummy lied: “Why today, my precious ones, we are all going to Paradise.”
Puji’s hands were trembling as she dressed her darlings. Years earlier she’d given birth in pain and joy – now there was only fear. 
The men must have noticed the hesitation and ordered prayer.  The women obeyed for that was another will of Allah, as explained by the ustadz.  He was the unquestioned authority who could read Arabic, or said he could, and had been to Mecca, so must be wise.
Yet the mothers harboured secret doubts.  The mosque leader was a known lecher and rumoured to have pornography on his smartphone.
He had four wives, which is allowed in Indonesia for the Prophet, peace be unto him, had 13; but the mothers feared their husbands might follow the greybeard’s example.
Now that would never happen, though in paradise they’d have access to 72 virgins each so would have no energy left for their spouses.
Puji wondered why the teachings make no mention of satisfying women’s desires in the afterlife, and why her husband and sons insisted she and the girls be involved.  She kept these questions to herself lest she be condemned for heresy.
In her reading of the Holy Book men were supposed to be just and compassionate warriors while the women stayed at home to care for the children. The practicalities of the present pushed her concerns aside.
Mass murder needs detailed preparation. Had the motorbike’s tyres been pumped and the tank filled and the license up-to-date?  It would be awful if the engine spluttered out or the police ordered the machine off the road far from the target.  And what about the house? 
Fadhila had adopted a kitten – or more likely it had adopted her - that she’d rescued from a drain.  It slept on her bed and followed her everywhere.  It had been named Maria after one of Muhammad’s wives.  This caused a minor upset for Dita said that was also the name of the mother of Jesus. 
Smart Fadhila knew her texts.  She reminded him that Muhammad loved cats and had once cut off his sleeve rather than disturb the animal when he went to pray.
Could Maria come with them on the motorbike?  “No, angel, there’s no room. We’ll just leave her a fish and some milk on the doorstep”.
Then there was Pamela’s doll, a Disney Snow White.  It had been given by Grandma so could not be discarded by Dad who hated anything associated with the West and the US in particular.  Would that be allowed?  “Just as long as you keep her away from the handphone.  We wouldn’t want an accident.”
As Puji buttoned her daughter’s dress she would have marveled at the unblemished skin, hair soft as duckdown, her open, smiling, trusting face.  For Pamela and Fadhila there’d be no romance and marriage with the right boys – and Puji already had a couple in mind.
There’d be no grandchildren to fill the house with laughter and care for her as the years passed. The agony was coming to the boil.  She had to shout No. But that would be a sin.
Dita was on edge and demanding they move because the Christians kept to a timetable. If Puji didn’t obey the brutality would start again and she’d be bashed into submission.
The Honda fired on the first kickstart.  It took time to get everything arranged on the short saddle.  Dita was trying to talk to Anton on his phone and go over the plans again.  No answer. Pressed close to her daughters Puji could feel their heartbeats and frail bodies.
She desperately wanted to call Puspitasari and hear her cousin’s voice, to know if she too was terrified, wondering if what they were doing was right. 
It was not. Moments earlier the other couple had been pulped in their home when nervous Anton accidentally crossed the detonator wires.  By chance – or God’s grace – the youngest were outside and survived.
Puji must have looked back. The washing was almost dry and for a moment she thought to stop the bike and collect the clothes before realizing there was no point.  What would they all wear in Paradise?  They couldn’t go naked, that would be immoral.  And what would they eat?  There would have to be rice.
So many questions.  No doubt Gabriel would have it all organised as following the men they entered the abode of peace reserved for the righteous.
Dita swung the bike onto the road.  They were on their way to more than murder, mutilation and suicide. They were going to blast Indonesia’s reputation for tolerance.


For the facts check here:

and here:



Thursday, May 17, 2018



The man on the far left represents Kebatinan.  Then Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinuism, Protestants, Catholics and Islam.

Five guards and an inmate died in a Jakarta prison riot last week, allegedly launched by Islamic State.  More than 150 terrorists are held at the overcrowded jail where turmoil erupted six months ago.
Then early on Sunday church bombings in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, killed nine at the start of the Muslim fasting month.
In March police said they’d smashed an Internet jihad group known as the Muslim Cyber Army.  It was accused of spreading fake news to stir the gullible and destabilize upcoming elections.
Where do the radicals recruit? At universities, according to Indonesia's Intelligence Chief Budi Gunawan.
He claimed almost 40 per cent of students have been exposed to zealots ‘trying to mobilise new terrorists.’
There are close to 3,000 tertiary education institutions in the Republic.  Most are private and run by religions.  Some are resisting the fundamentalists.
It was a most worthy event.  Whether it can add value is another matter.

Days before the Jakarta riot and Surabaya bombings around 600 citizens of Malang gathered on a sweaty Saturday to support the Deklarasi Malang Berdoa (the Declaration of a prayer for Malang) hoping the initiative will spread from the East Java city throughout Indonesia.

The timing was important.  Campaigning for regional elections is well underway; fears that some candidates will invoke hate against non-Muslims have already come to pass so the occasion was intended to head off further agents provocateurs.

Sponsors of the Malang bash organised by a local inter-faith committee included churches, the Jawa Pos newspaper and the Islamic University of Malang (Unisma) where the gathering was held. 

The need for harmonis was hammered with force by rector Masykuri Bakri delivering the most stimulating speech of the two-hour show, evoking shared national values and a vision of togetherness that brought frequent outbursts of applause.

Curiously few of the happy clappers were from his private university associated with the mass Islamic movement Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).  On this campus, with more than 7,000 students, women must wear jilbab (headscarves).

However most in the auditorium covering their hair were white-clad Catholic nuns; they overwhelmingly outnumbered the Muslims. When one religion is the majority by nine to one, reconciliation usually gets initiated by the anxious minority, quietly fearful that racist violence will erupt again as it has so many times.

The last big bloody outrage was two decades ago when Soeharto’s Orde Baru (New Order) 32-year dictatorship crashed.  The fury was worst in Jakarta where ethnic Chinese were raped and killed, and their businesses burned.  (For more on the 1998 riots see:

Well-prepared families bolted to Australia – mainly Perth - where they’d secured permanent residence, sent their kids to local schools and bought homes.

Since then the huge December 2016 rallies against former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) led to the ethnic-Chinese Christian’s two-year jailing for blasphemy.  Estimates of more than half a million fist-thrusting protestors have reminded all that tolerance in Indonesia is fragile and easily shattered by demagogues.

To assure the nervous that this won’t happen during the regional election campaigns now underway, and next year’s national vote for the President, was an army lieutenant colonel, and the head of the local police.

Splendid with swagger sticks and shirts sagging with medals and ribbons, the duo attempted to cool concerns with tedious addresses about their impartiality.  This century the late president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) separated the army and the police forces, which are slowly becoming more professional.

They need to be.  A recent paper by Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey claims ‘the growing influence of Islamist hardliners, repressed by the Soeharto regime is ‘fracturing the national consensus on pluralism’.   

‘Australia needs to ‘rethink dated Soeharto-era attitudes to Indonesia.’ he added.  ‘Commitment to electoral democracy remains strong but support for liberal democracy is less certain and concern for international opinion much diminished.

‘In fact, expectations of Indonesia’s rise are already fueling experiments with populism, xenophobia and regional assertiveness (triggered to a great extent by virulent Sinophobia).’

Adult members of the audience didn’t need a foreign academic to tell them what’s embedded in their DNA.  Indonesians find it difficult to be frank with outsiders, but when they do Muslims reveal deep resentment towards the ethnic Chinese (below two percent of the population of 260 million) for their wealth and business success, often alleging corruption.

The scapegoats respond by saying their achievements are due to discipline, hard work and pursuit of quality education.

While some in the minority try to prove they are committed to the nation by converting to Islam and funding mosques, others aggravate by showing off in public and fuelling resentment.

Helping offset negative perceptions was a contingent at the Declaration from Ma Chung University, including athletic martial arts performers as a curtain-raiser.  The campus opened in 2017 and has less than 2,000 students; yet it’s already ahead of Unisma – born 1981 - on the Unirank website.

Before this century discrimination was legal.  Ethnic Chinese born in the country and eligible for Indonesian passports, and whose families have called the archipelago home for generations, were barred from using Chinese names, calligraphy and language.

They were also shut out of the armed forces and government.  Many turned to banking and now dominate the profession.

During his brief tenure (1999-2001) President Gus Dur scrapped the bans. He also recognized Confucianism as an approved religion along with Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

All were represented on the Malang stage plus a surprising addition - an adherent of kebatinan, the traditional Javanese faith. The government calls this a cultural practice, refusing requests for a higher status for fear of diluting Islam.

The intent was good but unbalanced. All speakers were men, middle-aged to elderly. The only women to get before the public were dancers and musicians in the warm-up. 

Few opinions would have been changed by the Declaration as attendance indicated acceptance of a multi-faith society.

The next task is to broadcast the message to the kampong, villages and pesantren  (Islamic boarding schools) where the millions don’t always hear the moderates.  Here the primacy of the pribumi (indigenous) is often strongest, intolerance greatest and ‘virulent Sinophobia’ most likely.

The Jakarta prison riot was not well covered in Australia - more details here:

First published in Pearls and Imitations, 17 May 2018

Wednesday, May 02, 2018


FINDING TIES THAT BIND                                             

The Australian Embassy in Jakarta (Source: Dezeen Magazine)

In early April, NSW Governor David Hurley spoke about Indonesian-Australian relationships. Although largely ignored by the mainstream media his speech was not the usual whitebread served by those elevated to positions supra-politics.

Hurley launched some awkward statistics:

*            Thirteen per cent of Australians see Indonesians as trustworthy.  Switch that around and the figure is 53 per cent.

*            Nineteen per cent of Australians say they have a good knowledge of Indonesia. The reverse is 43 per cent.

*            Unfavourable perceptions of the people next door?  Australians 47 per cent, Indonesians ten per cent.

The former chief of the Australian Defence Force is beyond the range of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.  Like the Russians in Syria, diplomats chose not to retaliate against the retired general’s missiles.  Hurley is too big and important; returning fire might escalate the issue.

Compare this to the reaction to my review in The Jakarta Post of Strangers Next Door? edited by Melbourne University senior academics Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae.

Charge d’affaires Allaster Cox responded that he was ‘somewhat taken aback’ while giving no signs that he’d read the book.  It’s a thoughtful collection of essays by concerned academics and journalists, with many unhappy at the state of affairs between Indonesia and Australia and wanting major changes.

This is Cox’s second term in Jakarta – he served in the pre-democracy 1990s so is qualified to judge the betterment or otherwise of the relationship.  This could have been a valuable contribution. 

Instead he applied the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s stock defence against incoming dissent – to ignore the anxieties, but if seriously provoked, fire a barrage of garbled statistics to fog the debate.  Here’s a sample:

‘More than 20,000 Indonesians study in Australia each year, making Australia the most popular overseas destination for Indonesian university students.’

According to the Department of Education and Training, more students head to Australia from China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, and even Brazil than the world’s fourth largest country (260 million), and conveniently next door. Brasilia is 14,400 kilometres from Canberra.

Cox also claimed that the ‘New Colombo Plan sends thousands of Australians to Indonesia every year to live, study and learn more about our closest neighbor.’

The NCP is a fine initiative but the statistics are coarse - fourteen scholarships to Indonesia awarded this year.  The most popular destinations for these bright hopes are Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and China.

‘Mobility grants’ of up to AUD 6,000 have gone to 13,000 tertiary students in 2018.  Around 2,100 go to Indonesia - ten per cent of their counterparts venturing south.

Here’s another disturbing figure: 1.25 million Australians fly to Indonesia every year – mainly to Hindu Bali rather than Muslim Java, yet only 200,000 Indonesians visit Australia.

That’s six to one.  We get visa-free entry – they pay AUD 140 per person and have to complete a 15-page form.  Malaysians (340,000 visitors) and Singaporeans (400,000) pay AUD 20.

Whatever verbal pyrotechnics DFAT ignites, that policy displays discrimination or distrust or both.

Cox wrote that ‘the truth is that Australians are not indifferent to our nearest neighbour. That does a disservice to the many ways in which our countries and people work together at all levels and doesn’t do justice to the very healthy Australia-Indonesia relationship’.

This misdiagnosis is BS unqualified when measured against Hurley’s figures and his unsettling observations at the top of this page.  He delivered  some in Indonesian at the Fourth Indonesia-Australia Dialogue organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Ironically it was supported by DFAT.

Hurley said Australia needs ‘ to go beyond the successful management of incidents to one of action flowing from shared interests, cooperative leadership within the region, support for shared imperatives and initiatives, and binding economic interests.

‘It is therefore important to ensure that our leaders and people gain a better insight into what motivates and drives each country.’

Which is the general message of Strangers Next Door? except that it’s being sent by academics and journalists who call the shots as they see them. 

Blunt assessments from NGOs and campuses are not enemy ordnance.  Independent research and commentary may not polish the government’s self-made image, but demeaning other views is the real disservice. 

Outsiders are trying, like Hurley, ‘… to overcome trust deficits, taking steps that will bind rather than simply link the two countries.’

Australian embassy in Jakarta
Source:  ABC

Here’s an early task for new Ambassador Gary Quinlan, 67, when he settles into the five-hectare Jakarta fortress and presumably his final posting.  It’s the biggest and most costly of our overseas missions with 500 workers well protected from the hurly-burly of the world’s third largest democracy they are paid to understand.

Defuse the smug we-know-best siege mentality nurtured during the past few years behind the Embassy’s blast-proof and critic-resistant walls.  If you still judge the Strangers Next Door? authors’ words unworthy, at least tune in to the concerns of His Excellency.

First published in Pearls & Irritations Wed 2 May 2018