The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, August 23, 2019


Flagging racism

The ironies were stark and troubling.  On 17 August most Indonesians joyfully celebrated their nation’s proclamation of independence from the Netherlands 74 years ago.

A few weren’t having fun. Next afternoon young Papuans studying in East Java and who are suspected of wanting self rule, were brutally bashed and teargassed on the pretext they’d ‘slandered’ the Republic’s flag.

The bloody clash came three days after the national release of a much trumpeted film recounting the struggles of Javanese against colonial oppression.

Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), is based on the novel of the same title by the once-banned writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925 – 2006).  In the film the fictional indigenous student hero Minke is regularly taunted by the dominant Dutch as a ‘monkey’.

This was the same smear allegedly hurled by provocateurs and police who raided the students’ dormitory in Surabaya, where a flagpole is supposed to have been bent letting the cloth touch the ground.

Possibly a furphy, as circulation of the insult was made by ultra-nationalist vigilantes who’d besieged the building, cut power and flung stones.  Either way the response seems to have been over the top.

Also in Surabaya, the nation’s second biggest city after Jakarta, is the fine old Majapahit Hotel named after a pre-colonial Javanese empire.  

A painting in the foyer shows a youth climbing on the roof in late 1945 and ripping away the bottom blue strip of the Dutch tricolor.  This left the flag red and white, now the national symbol. 

The incident, which may be apocryphal, is embedded in Indonesia’s history of achieving freedom, and the lad who did the deed a hero.

Today Papuans who raise their own Morning Star flag risk 20 years behind bars.

After the raid local newspapers frontpaged photos showing gore-streaked faces and limbs of students who swore they were unarmed when clobbered by the cops.  At least six were injured and 43 arrested.  The prisoners were questioned for nine hours, then let go without charge.
Videos circulating on social media appear to have right-wing demonstrators shouting ‘get rid of the Papuans’ and ‘monkeys, get out’.

There are around 300 ethnic groups in the Archipelago. The Javanese dominate and some are prone to think themselves superior.

The violence, and in particular the ‘monkey’ slur, infuriated crowds in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua province, 2,800 kilometers to the northeast.   They torched tyres in the streets and a local government building.

Another protest of about 10,000 took place in Jayapura, the capital of Papua Indonesia’s easternmost province.

Posts implying Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has ordered an investigation into the Surabaya incident have not been confirmed.  The East Java Governor  Khofifah Indar Parawansa did apologise, telling journalists the incident didn’t reflect the views of most residents.

The ABC had East Java police spokesperson Frans Barung, saying the dorm was stormed to stabilize the situation because of the students' ‘provocative actions on allegedly committing slander on the national flag’.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the ‘referendum’ to decide who would run the former Dutch territory of Nieuw Guinea.  This involved 1,025 ‘leaders’ hand-picked by Indonesia.  Unsurprisingly they decided against independence.

Indonesia called it an ‘Act of Free Choice’; Western observers labeled it an ‘Act Free of Choice.’
Earlier this year a 1.8 million signature petition demanding an independence referendum was handed to UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet.  Jakarta labeled the event a stunt.

There’s little chance of a referendum or any serious investigation of the human rights abuses frequently recounted by separatists.  A slight majority of the 3.6 million residents are indigenous Melanesians and nominal Christians.  That ration won’t last as increasing numbers of settlers from Muslim Java will tip the balance. 

Like the First Australians, the indigenes will then be a minority in their own resource-rich land.
Grasberg – also known as Freeport - in the Papua highlands is the world’s largest gold mine and the second biggest copper mine, its royalties essential for the national economy.  In 2017  the government earned US $756 million.

The Indonesian military has a heavy presence in Papua where there are irregular skirmishes with the lightly-armed West Papua Liberation Army guerillas.

Last December road workers were reportedly ambushed and shot  The facts can’t be verified as foreign journalists are banned, but 19 may have died.
Bobby Anderson, a research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has been studying violence in the province.  He concluded:

‘Despite the wealth Indonesia earns through Papua’s abundant natural resources, a dearth of government services results in ordinary Papuans having the lowest incomes, the lowest educational levels, and the highest mortality rates in the country.

‘Papua’s deaths, both spectacular and mundane, hint that, while Indonesia has coherent policies toward Papua’s natural resources, it has no coherent policy toward Papuans.’

Some delegates at this month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu attended by PM Scott Morrison raised concerns about the situation in Papua, only to be told by Indonesia to butt out.

Volumes of laws are supposed to protect Indonesians’ civil rights but the only ones jolting action  concern blasphemy rather than racism.  

The government has set up Inter-Religious Harmony Forums to counter extremism.  These usually get involved only after conflict erupts.

The new generation of Papuans is now more aware of their land’s history and like Minke in Bumi Manusia, starting to kick against what they see as injustices and subjection.  Minke’s goal was freedom from Amsterdam’s authority; Papuans want release from Jakarta’s grip.

 First published in Pearls and Irritations, 23 August 2019:

Monday, August 19, 2019


Ledalero: Exporting indigenized religion and priests          

The Bible was brought to Indonesia by thousands of European missionaries across the centuries. While there are restrictions today on how and where foreigners can preach in Indonesia, there aren’t too many who are keen to come.

By contrast, Indonesia's Catholic graduates are now taking their version of the word of God to the West.

The top Catholic institute in Indonesia is the Ledalero Sekolah Tinggi Filsafat Katolik (STFK Ledalero), a college of Catholic philosophy that is run by the Societas Verbi Divini (SVD) – the Society of the Divine Word. The college is located just outside Maumere in East Flores, East Nusa Tenggara.

“We’re now the largest provider of SVD apostles (also called Verbites) to the world,” said counselor Bill Burt, an Australian.

“We have about 300 young men studying. This year’s graduates will be going to Russia, Latvia, South American countries, Norway, Poland and Ukraine and Australia.”

Burt will soon retire to Melbourne; then there will be only two non-Indonesian priests in Sikka regency, including the capital Maumere.

Ledalero's staff canteen has a wall displaying the portraits of the college's leaders, past and present. The early rows show bearded sages with stares severe; however the most recent photos are of dark-skinned and clean-shaven men – just like the diners. The church is becoming indigenized, and not just in Indonesia.

“As foreign priests retire or die, Indonesians have been filling their places and adapting the teachings,” said Burt. “In Australia there are now only two native-born SVD priests across the whole continent. The rest are mainly from Vietnam and India. 

“Few young men want to join the church in the secular West, but in Flores, having a son take holy orders is a matter of family pride.” 

Burt’s road to religion started when he was a teenager working for Australian Immigration in Sydney. His job included processing recipients of the prestigious Colombo Plan scholarship. The students were smart and determined and often returned to senior government jobs in their home countries. Many were from Indonesia, and Burt developed friendships.

“Like most Australians, I didn’t know much about Indonesia but the students helped open my eyes,” he recalled.

He then joined the Australia-Indonesia Association [AIA]. “We talked about language, culture, literature and cuisine. It was totally non-political," said Burt. 

“Then one day in 1965 after work, I was confronted by a man who said he was from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.  He told me that the AIA was a Communist front. 

“He asked me to inform on the members and report their activities.  This was before the Sept. 30 coup.” 

Founded in 1947 and still in operation today, the AIA's requests for a response to the past charge that it was a Red redoubt have been ignored.

Burt never took up the mantle of government spy because he quit public service and instead started training with the SVD.  In 1969 he was sent to Flores.

Since its founding in 1875 in the Netherlands by exiled German priests, the SVD had set up missions overseas, including the Dutch East Indies.

Men in cassocks had already entered the archipelago in the early 16th century when the Portuguese came sniffing for spices. Dutch Jesuits followed and the SVD three centuries later.

It now claims to be the world’s biggest Catholic missionary congregation with more than 6,000 religious members, of which 4,000 are ordained priests. Last year, Father Paulus Budi Kleden, a 54-year-old Flores native, was appointed the order's Superior General in Rome.

The faith Ledalero exports is not the original, imported European variety but Asian, filtered through Indonesian culture. East Flores has a major cult of worshipping Mary. One priest quietly noted: “She’s even more popular than Jesus.”

“The SVD has evolved and is more concerned with educating the poor and human rights issues,” said Burt. “Three years ago, we sponsored a seminar on the killings of real or imagined communists after the 1965 coup [that] brought [former president] Soeharto to power.”

Indonesia’s most famous Jesuit priest and philosopher, Franz Magnis-Suseno, wrote that Ledalero was the first education institution in the nation “courageous enough” to talk publicly and critically about the genocide.

Despite its remote location, Ledalero runs a press that produces theological theses, an international journal and books on the mass killings, a topic mainstream publishers still tremble to touch.

The SVD men aren’t navel gazers. Some are helping to expose the plight of returning Indonesian migrant workers (TKI) who have been infected with HIV, which they then pass on to their wives and through them, their children.

New drugs can stop the virus developing into the often fatal condition, AIDS. Originally recruited to spread the Gospel, SVD members have found themselves working to stop the virus spread by ensuring that patients take their medicines.

Next year Ledalero hopes to achieve university status. One problem in upgrading is recruiting native English lecturers, particularly since missionaries will be working overseas where English is the first or second language. The other issue is that its well of money is running dry, partly caused by the criminal behavior of clergy around the globe.

“We used to get most funding from Germany through public contributions. That’s collapsed during the past five years. Scandals involving pederast priests in countries like the US, Canada and Australia have had an impact," said Burt.

“Now we’re learning self-sufficiency by developing a farm and businesses to maintain funding.”

Fortunately Ledalero's buildings are relatively new. An earthquake in 1992 destroyed everything on the 11-hectare site, so the Church of St. Paul, lecture rooms, administrative facilities and dormitories were all rebuilt.

To stop its graduates from thinking they’re above the masses they’re supposed to serve – or "up themselves", as Australians say – the STFK offers a quote by the German Jesuit, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) for contemplation: 

“The number-one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim him (Jesus) with their mouths and deny him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” 

First published in The Jakarta Post 19 August 2019

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


Soccer diplomacy                                      

If Indonesia and Australia are to ever play well together, they need a kick.  If not up the backside, then into the arena of international relationships.

Here’s a man for the job -  former soccer star Robbie Gaspar, 38, the first Australian to play professionally in Indonesia.   Although now retired his favorite word is “passion” for the game and getting young Indonesians involved.

Politicians advocate transnational trade while bureaucrats urge security to dampen distrust, but Gaspar offers a readymade solution:  Football fun.  He argues that soccer’s global appeal brings all levels together where they can revel in sharing the things which unite.

Soccer thrives in the Republic in quantity of raucous support, though not always quality of facilities and play. Indonesia is 160 in the men’s world rankings.  The game is currently dominated by European and South American nations.  Australia is 43rd.
Gaspar’s concerns are not desultory.  Back in his hometown Perth this decade he joined other retired professionals in Pro Football Training, an enterprise to lift the game – and the health of those who play and watch.
A spin-off is the Soccer Super Heroes (SSH) for children which Gaspar wants to export to Indonesia. The company claims to be training more than 1,600 youngsters a week through school and club based programs.
Gaspar has been exhorting action by State and Federal governments, big business and sports administrators in both countries.  So far the handshakes have been warm but wallets have yet to be opened. 
His cheer-leaders are hoping the kick-off of an Indonesian version of SSH can coincide with next year’s 30th anniversary of the Sister State relationship between East Java and Western Australia.
At the 25-year benchmark in 2015 WA gave one billion rupiah to support disabled kids.  Backers of Gaspar’s plan reckon far less is needed to get SSH going, starting in Surabaya.
The indoors program uses places like badminton and futsal courts. It’s designed to bring pre-schoolers into the game so they grow up enjoying sport and staying fit; parents are encouraged to get involved.
“We need to wean the next generation off their cellphones and get them outdoors,” Gaspar said. “Constantly stuck to a screen isn’t healthy.  Exercise and participation are important for physical and mental health.  So is self esteem and confidence. All this starts at home.”

Gaspar  runs the talk.  His family migrated from Croatia where soccer is king, so after getting honored as a teen champion in Perth, the midfielder joined a club in his parents’ homeland. 

Not a happy time as the former Yugoslav state was still torn from its war of independence.  So Gaspar headed to clubs in Brunei (QAF) and Malaysia (Sabah) before being recruited to play in Indonesia. 

Like most Australians he knew little of the country.  An early jolt: Although English might be understood in the boardrooms, it was alien in the changerooms.  So he rapidly learnt the language and is now fluent.

He also found the differences with his previous teams striking.

“Indonesians were disciplined,” he said. “In other places we’d have to drag players out of the carpark for training, but here they were already jogging on the grounds before the scheduled start time. Indonesia has more football potential than anywhere else in Asia.”

That was in 2005.  Gaspar stayed for seven years and at various times wore the colors of Persib Bandung, Persita Tangerang,  Persiba Balikpapan and Persema Malang.

Although he says it was a great experience working with fine athletes and performing before sellout crowds, it wasn’t always win-win.  But the faults were not with the players,
First the politics.  Disputes over who ran the game climaxed in  2014 after Kemenpora  (the Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs)  and the football association couldn’t settle on who was running the game.
So the world governing body FIFA showed Indonesia the red card,
The suspension, which has since been lifted, ruled the national team out of the joint 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaigns, a mighty blow to fans, players and Gaspar. 
Next were business attitudes.

“Many club owners are frustrated footballers who think they know best,” Gaspar said.  “They reckon the players are hobbyists when in fact they are professionals land and should be treated with respect

“These are the top sportsmen from 260 million people.  They need to be appreciated, paid properly, rested after long trips and fed well.”
When Gaspar found his colleagues weren’t getting a fair deal he became an advisor to the players’ union, FIFPro Asia.  Now he’s working part time as Player Development Manager with the national Professional Footballers Australia organization.
Then there’s the pros’ dread – their 30 plus use-by date:  A new generation of nimble ball benders is invading the pitch.  Where to go when the knees creak and the final whistle blows?
“It’s another problem for Indonesian athletes,” said Gaspar who’s studying accountancy so his money stays in play when the muscles won’t.  “They need care when their career  is over.”
Like many Indonphiles he’s vexed by his fellow Ozzies’ indifference to their neighbor.  At first his disquiet is muted – “relationships could be better,” he says politely.  But when elbowed lets rip:
“Too many Australians are superior - they think they’re better than Indonesians. That’s partly the media’s fault because they frequently report on crises rather than explain more about the country.
“Governments are fine with handshakes all round, but little happens later.  This has to change; we can make it change.”
Gaspar’s  playing code runs into his life values: “Be humble, stay positive, work hard, never stop learning, keep fit, listen to your parents and enjoy your sport.”
Jingoists  paranoid about Western ideas corrupting their culture would find the list hard to contest.
“Indonesians and Australians have so much in common,” said Gaspar. “We both love our families and sport. Let’s build on the positives by playing together.”

 First published in The Jakarta Post 13 August 2019


                                        All hail, Queen Mega

This week Indonesian streets are bursting with red and white bunting, celebrating the late leader Soekarno’s proclamation of independence from the Netherlands on 17 August 1945.   

Then followed a four- year protracted guerilla war against the stubborn Dutch who couldn’t sniff the stench of post-war rotting colonialism.  After an estimated 150,000 deaths, the majority civilians, the United States of Indonesia was internationally recognized.  Australian unions were active supporters of the revolutionaries.

Queen Juliana abandoned her Asian possessions and for decades the new nation was a republican patriarchy.  Now the people next door have a de-facto monarch – Megawati Soekarnoputri.

At her party’s fifth congress in Bali this month the 72-year old Grandma stamped her feet and authority on the politics of a nation where the median age is 30.

Although Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, 58, is the elected president, Megawati is she who must be obeyed.  Nepotism thrives in the nation’s most popular party with ‘democratic’ redundant in its title.

In 1965 Soekarno was deposed after a coup allegedly engineered by the Communist Party.  The late General Soeharto (1921-2008) grabbed the Presidency till he was felled in 1998 when the economy crashed.

During his authoritarian rule bids by Soekarno’s family to squeeze back into politics were crushed.  When the first president died in 1970 his body was whisked to the distant East Java town of Blitar so his grave wouldn’t become a shrine for Jakarta subversives.  (It’s now a mausoleum and draws huge crowds of pilgrims daily.)

Soekarno had nine wives and 11 kids.  Megawati was his second child and first daughter.  Her patronym is supposed to mean ‘cloud goddess’.

Mega, as she’s widely known, had little public life till the mid 1980s when she joined the Soeharto-sanctioned Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI).  She was considered a harmless Mum so to honour her Dad (now titled Proklamator) she was allowed a seat in the House of Representatives (DPR).

This was a puppet parliament in the steel grip of Soeharto and the military, but it gave Mega a platform to promote paterfamilias’ secular nationalism, though now much diluted by political Islam.

Soeharto got nervous so organised a split of PDI members and thugs to break up a meeting. In the following riots five died and 23 went ‘missing’.

By then the long-oppressed press was getting braver in reporting dirty tricks so Mega became a focal point for dissenters. The PDI was renamed PDI-P, the last initial standing for Perjuangan, meaning ‘Struggle’.  Soeharto’s Golkar Party, which always won elections, began to crumble.

With the shunt to democracy this century Mega became fifth president by accident.  She was vice president appointed by the legislature to the reformist but erratic Abdurrahman (Gus Dur) Wahid.  In 2001 he quit after being threatened with impeachment so she got bumped into the top job. 

Little happened during her dull reign, with commentators quipping she left the Army to run the show while she went on manoeuvres in shopping malls.  Madam has the magic name but not Soekarno’s charisma and oratorical skills which terrified Australia when he condemned the West at huge rallies during the Cold War.

The voters could see behind the image and wanted reform.  In 2004 Mega lost to one of her ministers Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in the first direct election by the people.   She stood again in 2009 and was heavily trounced by the same man, becoming a splendid hater.

In the 2014 presidential election she belatedly ordered the PDI-P to endorse Widodo, then Governor of Jakarta. Even after he won Mega called him a ‘functionary’ in public.  For her the former furniture salesman who’d been elected by popular vote owed his success to her regal recognition.

Most political observers thought otherwise and attributed Widodo’s win to his humility and ability to connect with the wong cilik, the wee folk who make up the bulk of the electorate.

In this year’s elections Widodo garnered a second five-year term; the PDI-P collected the top position overall with almost 20 per cent of the votes.  Twenty parties contested, but only nine won seats.

Now Mega is scheming to get either Puan Maharani, 45, to take over the party so she can contest the presidency in 2024, or her half-brother Prananda Prabowo, 49. 

(He’s no relation to Prabowo Subianto, the bitter losing contestant in this year’s presidential contest, who also attended the PDI-P congress.  That’s like Bill Shorten getting VIP treatment at a Liberal victory knees-up where Scott Morrison’s offspring are offered a clearway to future power.)

Red-jacketed PDI-P Congress delegates endorsed Mega as chairwoman without the messy business of voting. Any policies on the agenda were swamped by personalities.

She told Widodo publicly to include many PDI-P members in the Cabinet he’s forming ahead of his October swearing in.

Under the Indonesian system ministers can be appointed from outside politics.  Widodo is known to favour technocrats and promotion on merit, but is fettered by Mega’s chains and those of minor parties coalescing with PDI-P.

When Widodo first took office Mega reportedly pumped up the pressure to slip her friends into key positions, including the military. He had to make her daughter Puan Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs; the lady has yet to display any notable qualities that warrant high office other than  bloodline.

The Constitution prevents Widodo from standing again, so he no longer needs the sovereign’s patronage.

As a mild-mannered Javanese in a culture which respects the elderly, regicide is not an option.  But with five years’ experience of running the world’s third largest democracy, Widodo has built a stand-alone reputation so may quietly find ways to step around the throne.

First published in Pearls and Irritataions, 13 August 2019

Monday, August 05, 2019


Bewitched, bothered and bewildered                                

Readers know they’re in for a rollicking time when a supposedly serious-minded academic starts with a blunt admission about his former profession.

‘Ethnography’, says Dr Will Buckingham when introducing Stealing with the Eyes, is ‘that curious brand of high-minded intrusiveness amongst peoples too polite, or too powerless, to tell you to go f*** yourself.’

Subtitled Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia, on one level it’s about a young British graduate’s adventures in Tanimbar late last century.  Ostensibly he went in search of three carvers and to learn more of adat, a word with more definitions than dictionaries.

It can be culture, magic, ritual, wisdom, tradition, a reason for doing unreasonable things, an excuse for avoiding people and places, and a jumbled mixture of the lot. Adat is ever-present in rural Indonesia but in Tanimbar it’s most fertile for here the dead walk, women give birth to octopuses and witches are the root of all wrongs.

The island is isolated, 570 kilometers southeast of Ambon in the Banda Sea, though not so distant it couldn’t be reached by Europeans brandishing Bibles, guns and empty barrels to fill with exotic foods for shipment and profit.

After the Second World War it became a center for ‘primitive’ art, drawing collectors and a few tourists. A booklet for craftsmen by a normally prurient government suggests ‘differences in the sexes of sculptures should be made explicit. The sexual organs should not be seen as shameful or pornographic.’

A weird place, and a fine location for a thinker to learn more about himself, his purpose and Western values, not always well scrutinized by its practitioners: 

Books based on academic theses usually include sparkling tributes to the kind folk encountered during research. These glowing acknowledgements lead outsiders to think they’ve missed a perfect world where none are bitchy and bastardly, grasping and lying; mistakes are seldom made and rapidly forgiven. Generosity is unqualified.

Apart from setting tone through observation, the best about Buckingham’s prose is its apparent honesty.  Written more than two decades after working on a project with Ambon’s Pattimura University, this memoir squints at self and society from afar:

‘Curi mata: stealing with the eyes. The accusation was inescapable. What else did Westerners do, the whole world over, if not this? They roved here and there, taking other people’s lives and homes as things to be photographed, consumed, ferried back home.

‘Wasn’t anthropology itself no more than a vast enterprise of stealing with the eyes? Wasn’t the entire world, under the guise of knowledge and science, a cabinet of curiosity for the West?’

Buckingham finds the required ‘informants’ but anthropology isn’t run in a sterile laboratory.  By showing interest the newcomer warps reality, just as a TV news crew’s presence can encourage thugs to change a demo to a riot.

He does meet helpful people, but also gets snared by petty feuds; he’s misinformed, manipulated and exploited. A statue promised as a gift because the artist was being guided by his ancestors turns into a demand for money and a most discomforting episode where Western understandings collide with local expectations.

Such events rarely appear in scholarly works unless buried under obfuscating jargon, which Buckingham avoids.  He gets seriously sick and is treated with a range of traditional cures from pills, to massage, to group therapy.  None work; the fever eventually extinguishes, though later returns.

Buckingham heads to Ambon to sort out visa hassles: ‘The bureaucratic demands of the Indonesian state were no less binding and complex than the adat demands of the ancestors.’

But should he return to Tanimbar?  He’d made friends, garnered information, improved his Indonesian but was running out of money. His inquiries had been led off the textbook track; oral history gets embellished according to the moods of the myth’s custodians. Are there any certainties?  Time for a rethink:

‘What sicknesses and discontents, I wondered, had I brought to Tanimbar? And now that I had left, drifting away with wind and tide, what greater discontents would I bring by returning? What do you here in this poor land? These were questions to which I could find no good answers.’

But he does go back, this time to the village of Tumbur where he’s visited by the self proclaimed ‘best sculptor in the village’.  And indeed Damianus Masele doesn’t exaggerate.

Buckingham’s tape-recorder, the anthropologist’s equivalent of a doctor’s stethoscope proving qualifications, spooks informants so he discards the device – only to find the artist demanding to be recorded.

He’s asked to sign a document absolving Masele of blame should the Englishman be struck by disaster after seeing a sacred object, but instead chooses not to view; had adat taken hold?.

The villagers think of Westerners as men with guns and women in bikinis. Both frighten: ‘Sex and death. Death and sex. Tanimbarese dreams of the West, and Western dreams of Tanimbar. The two were almost-perfect mirror images.’

Back in Britain Buckingham gets seriously sick again, leading him to abandon higher study and turn to writing – which seems to bring release.  Then he discovers his old notes:

‘Tanimbar carved me. It refashioned and remade me in ways that eventually put paid to my relationship with anthropology, this queasy enterprise at the tag end of colonialism.

‘It is thanks to my time in Tanimbar that I found myself eventually heading down new paths, as a sculptor of sorts myself, but one who worked in words rather than in wood and stone, fashioning stories and tales from fragmented dreams, recollections and imaginings.’

And it’s thanks to this book that we can also ponder the world’s ways, learn and discover without having to be tested by Tanimbar and bewitched by adat.

Stealing with the Eyes by Will Buckingham
Haus Publishing, London, 2019
231 pages

First published in The Jakarta Post 5 August 2019

Friday, August 02, 2019


Reading Indonesian Politics 
To Western observers raised in societies which thrive on oppositional politics it all seemed too weird.
Joko Widodo, the just re-elected president of the world’s third largest democracy was pictured sitting in a one-class MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) carriage.  Alongside him Prabowo Subianto, the man whose utterances on the hustings had led many to fear he wanted to unravel democracy.  For some the scene was incomprehensible.

Hard to imagine a similar setting with Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi exchanging pleasantries in a New York subway, or Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn amicably chatting in the London tube.
The two rivals sharing a public transport system bench in a staged gesture of reconciliation will hopefully bring social stability and invigorate business.  Smart politics for those satisfied by the superficial, but it was also exquisitely Javanese.

That’s because the culture prizes harmony above confrontation, according to the late US anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ responses are too blunt and don’t always carry the meaning accepted elsewhere.  Which is why the President’s pronouncements are often misunderstood.

When asked last year whether Australia should join ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Widodo used a favorite phrase: ‘I think it’s a good idea.’  This was interpreted as the Republic wanting its southern neighbor in the ten-member alliance. 

Aaron Connelly, research fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute tweeted: ‘Reality check: Australia has not been invited to join ASEAN, and will not be invited to join ASEAN in our lifetimes. Jokowi was offering a Javanese response, trying to be polite.’

Another Widodo reply that perplexes aliens is: ‘Why not?’ – most recently used in a question about appointing younger people to Cabinet.  The corollary is ‘Why?

Although Geertz’s doctoral studies were conducted in the 1950s, Religion in Java remains one of the most authoritative books on the values of the citizens of the world’s most populous island.  It’s also a great tool for expats trying to get a handle on their new posting.

Also worth remembering is that more than 60 per cent of Indonesians are Javanese.  Numerically, financially, academically and culturally they dominate Indonesian politics and business.  The power mainly resides in West Java.  Central Java is about culture and East Java industry.

Nor should the Javanese be seen as homogenous.  Geertz defined three aliran or ‘streams’ in the ethic group’s religious structure: The orthodox Santri, the Abangan which mix Islam with animism and Hindu traditions, and the Priyayi nobility.

Although some academics have disputed this analysis, it remains a classic in social studies.
News reports of the 20-minute MRT journey said Subianto and Widodo, both in white shirts for the tailored occasion, were now ‘best friends and brothers’; the bitterness of the election contest had been blown away by a zephyr of goodwill and would not persist like Jakarta smog.

To those who prefer symbols to words, the splendidly choreographed commute, equal to the West Side Story Jets and Sharks makeup scene, concluded with a meal of sate; in the background a display of punakawan shadow puppets symbolizing friendship.

All this left many outsiders shaking their heads in disbelief.  The slanders and threats delivered during the campaign by both sides were so intense and prolonged that true pacification will take years.

When asked why he had not congratulated the winner for three months, Subianto reportedly used a Javanese excuse: ’I have to follow ewuh pakewuh (the culture of feeling uncomfortable) manners, a congratulation should be conveyed face to face.’

The Javanese may make gestures of forgiveness, but they seldom forget, said Geertz.

A much circulated slur had the President labeled a Communist, Chinese and Christian, a triple-curse in a country where the majority is Muslims.  

The fact that Widodo was four years old when the 1965 coup against the Communist Party erupted seemed to bother few, while the idea that a former slum kid with classical Javanese features might be Chinese is asinine.

Such malice must have wounded deeply, particularly as all accounts of Widodo’s past in the Central Javanese city of Solo reveal an Abangan Muslim.  Ironically his opponent’s Mom, the late Dora Marie Sigar, was raised as a Christian in North Sulawesi.

Subianto refused to accept the election result which gave Widodo the win by ten percentage points. Nine people reportedly died and hundreds were injured when the loser’s supporters demonstrated violently in Jakarta in late May.

When these tactics didn’t change the result, Subianto went to the Constitutional Court with thousands of documents alleging systematic fraud.  The justices were unconvinced.

Some claim the MRT meeting means the former general may now have accepted that the electoral process was fair and balanced, that most voters want Widodo to lead them for the next five years, and that the former general has swallowed his pride.  That final assumption may be hasty.

Western democracies trash bad losers.   However Subianto’s outrage at being unhorsed by motorcycling commoner was needled by more than his Priyayi aristocratic family’s dynastic expectations; his father, economist Sumitro Djojohadikusumo (1917 – 2001), was one of the nation’s founders.  The other factor was Javanese spiritual beliefs.

This is another trait puzzling and confusing foreigners:  How can sophisticated and Western educated Indonesians like Subianto, who spent three years at the American School in London, also accept supernatural omens and mysticism?

In the Gerindra Party leader’s case an ancient paranormal’s prediction collided with the reality of a modern vote count.

The 12th century Javanese seer Joyoboyo forecast that the island would eventually be lead to greatness by Ratu Adil, the Just King. Second President Soeharto assumed he was the chosen one, but Subianto has long been encouraged by his admirers to assume he deserves the mantle.

So far the augury has failed, but there’s another election scheduled for 2024 when Subianto will be 72.  Will he contest again?  Why not?

First published in Indonesian Expat, 1 August 2019

Friday, July 26, 2019


                                          Jokowi is no Lee Kuan Yew

Even read in English it’s a stirring speech with hints of John F Kennedy’s inaugural address: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’.

By the standards of Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, a normally awkward public speaker, it was well delivered, calling on voters to move on from the hates of the 17 April election campaign and embrace Pancasila.

This is the nation’s founding philosophy - belief in one God, a just and civilized humanity, a unified nation, democracy and social justice. 

It seems churlish to write that restating these five principles won’t start a cultural revolution.  There will be improvements  - but lasting universal reform needs a powerful and charismatic leader. Widodo is not that person. 

Widodo’s victory address came almost three months after he beat former general Prabowo Subianto by ten percentage points.  The furious loser unsuccessfully appealed to the Constitutional Court claiming a stitch-up while his supporters fought police in a two-day central Jakarta demo that allegedly left nine dead and hundreds injured.

The mild-mannered former furniture salesman’s win rebuffs the theory that unfulfilled promises are turning voters to demagogues like Donald Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. 
Had the megalomaniac Subianto won it’s likely he’d have halted the two-decade growth of representative government.  The world’s third largest democracy would have been rammed back to the dictatorial style of his former father-in-law Soeharto, the Republic’s second president who ruled for 32 years till 1998.

Widodo’s speech followed a bizarre meeting with Subianto in a MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) carriage.  Hard to imagine a similar setting with Trump and Nancy Pelosi exchanging pleasantries in a New York subway, or Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn chatting in the London tube.

Widodo assumes that the two rivals sharing a public transport system bench in a staged gesture of reconciliation will bring social stability and encourage business confidence, the other message in his speech.  For Subianto it represented weakness; his Gerindra Party is now demanding seats in Cabinet.
Words are one thing, will is another.  Although Widodo will be stronger and wiser in his second and final five-year term, he still lacks wholehearted support of the nation’s two governing forces – the Jakarta oligarchy and the military.

Widodo’s speech before a 30,000-strong crowd had some tough-guy warnings about combating

The nation’s seventh president comes from neither camp but has so far maintained balance by keeping former generals who hate Subianto on side. 

 He’s also been careful not to clash with his party’s autocratic chairwoman, Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of founding President Soekarno.

corruption and bureaucratic inertia, factors which continue to frighten away overseas investors that the President wants to welcome.

‘The speed of service, the speed of providing permits, is the key to bureaucratic reform,’ he said. ‘I will check it myself, I will control it myself. The moment I see something that is inefficient or ineffective, I guarantee I will trim it.  I will remove the official in charge. … If there is an institution that is not useful and problematic, I will dissolve it.

’No more old mindsets.  No more linear work, no more routine work, no more monotone work, no more working in the comfort zone. We have to change.’

That’s unlikely to happen and not just because one man can’t handle a nation of 270 million alone.  Comparisons with another regional reformer, the late Lee Kuan Yew, are handy but not always appropriate.  

Both have been tagged ‘Mr Clean’, but the ethnic-Chinese Prime Minister’s ruthless style doesn’t suit the Javanese Widodo.

When the Cambridge-educated leader took Singapore out of the newly-formed alliance with Malaysia in 1965 the city-state was as rotten with corruption as Indonesia.  But it had less than two-million people so easier to manage.

After race riots in 1969 Lee, a self-styled ‘nominal Buddhist’, clamped down on religious politics, breaking up faith-based communities and forcing integration.  That can’t happen in Indonesia where almost 90 per cent are Muslims.

Lee was a fixated intellectual who stamped his standards on all. These included promoting ministers by merit. He claimed to be a democrat but crushed opposition and the press to get his way and make his country an economic marvel.

Although comment in Indonesia is crippled by harsh defamation laws, it has the freest press in Southeast Asia, far more robust than Singapore’s timid media.

Widodo faces opposition from  agitators for a Caliphate who’ll never be placated by talk of Pancasila, and big business hostile to his war on graft.  These capitalists promise reform but rarely deliver.  It’s the same with the public service.

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has had many spectacular successes, but remains threatened by institutions like parliament and the police.  After a year of investigation the cops have yet to find the acid-throwers who blinded one eye of a KPK officer investigating the police.

Also still to be solved is the case of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib.  The 38-year old lawyer was assassinated in 2004 with an arsenic-laced drink while heading to Europe aboard the state-owned airline Garuda.

One senior bureaucrat who tried to clean up tertiary education rorts was Patdono Suwignjo, Director General for Science, Technology, and Higher Education

In a bid to boost teaching quality his section shut down 243 diploma mills in 2016, and then hit what he called the ‘practical reality of Indonesian culture.’

Politicians or their friends owned many of the shonky institutions.  ‘Pressure was applied to reverse the rulings’, Suwignjo told this writer.  ‘We resisted, but now try to make them more professional.’

Compromise rather than confrontation has long been the Javanese way of resolving differences and effecting change.  Such dealings take time; five years is not enough for the transformations Widodo seeks.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in Indonesia.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 26 July 2019.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019


Never give up or go down                                              

“Women must empower themselves.  Whatever our age and status we need to work together and understand the feelings of others. Never be a burden on your children – they have their own lives. I don’t feel guilty about being alone and independent.”

A stirring statement, delivered with force, knuckles rapping the table, the coffee cups jumping as in an earthquake. 

Tati (Tatik) Soepijarniwati seems too small, too slight and too old to agitate – but doubters beware. This is no recent graduate from the Me Too movement asserting rights.  She started exercising these when aged about 11.

It happened in Singosari where her family has lived for generations. It was the capital of the 13th Century Tumapel Kingdom, which she admires and depicts on her batik.

Tatik’s test came in a sudden confrontation with a Japanese soldier during the occupation.

“He stopped me in the street and told me to salute his flag,” she recalled.  “I refused and he got angry.  I had no intention of obeying.  So I told him I had to get home to care for my dying mother and had no time to follow his orders.  Fortunately he let me go.”

Tatik, 86, has only strengthened her resolve since she was a wee pre-teen staring down raw power, an armed invader who could have slapped her around to make a point. 

Now she runs an angklung group of retirees making music from shaking bamboo tubes and giving public performances; when not on stage she designs batik to illustrate the rich history of Central East Java.  In between she does her darndest to keep her generation from slumping into misery.

Her quest includes visiting the psycho-geriatric ward in the nearby Lawang Mental Hospital where she talks to staff about the issues of growing old.  She was recently in Singapore to look at facilities for the aged (“we do things better here”) and gives pep talks to the depressed and distressed.

The ward is clean and bright, but it’s the raw end of the medical spectrum and not for the delicate. Rallying new Mums suffering the baby blues is a zephyr compared with encountering the maelstrom of shattered minds and hopes of the mentally sick, offering cheer to those discarded by their families and suffering from the ennui  psychologists label ‘resignation syndrome’.

To do this Tatik has assembled a long list of mnemonics, the easy-to-understand memory jerkers built around commonplace words.

A favorite is saiki, Javanese for ‘now.  In her system the letters stand for Sehat (health), Activitas, Inspirasi, Kreativitas and Innovasi: “Use these principles and all will be well.” Coming from a younger woman, however well qualified, the words would float away.  But her manner and age give them weight.

Tatik went to a Catholic school and learned Dutch which she still speaks despite getting little practice for that generation totters on the edge of extinction. She also has some English, garnered when her late husband  worked with foreign engineers in the oil industry.

She trained as a health professional and developed her ideas while working with a German doctor on the family-planning programme.

During the Soeharto New Order government an intense national campaign rammed down the brakes on runaway population growth.

In one of the world’s largest social engineering exercises, thousands of women community leaders were employed to advocate dua anak cukup (two kids is enough).

The two finger V-sign was plastered everywhere; it featured in garish statues showing the Ideal Family – with the eldest child usually a boy.

It worked.  Tatik’s mother had ten children, she had two daughters.  The old proverb banyak anak, banyak rejeki (many children many advantages) was given a twist with the last word replaced by  masalah (problems).  The message got through: Big families are poor.

Though not all.  Cynics noted that while the second president was urging contraception his wife Siti ‘Tien’ Hartinah had tripled the quota.

When the programme stabilized Tatik became a midwife, mainly working in the villages; here she used the moments of intimacy to urge women to space their pregnancies and insist their husbands use condoms.

Inevitably some guys grumbled that she was a trouble-maker by poking into their bedroom behavior. Which worried her about as much as the Japanese soldier’s bayonet.

“Women are so often the victims,” she said.  “Men need to have much greater respect. We get tired from raising children and doing housework and are often too exhausted to enjoy sex. 

“Husbands have to understand these facts.  Attitudes are improving but they are not yet good enough. Women should not wed before they’re 25; however I do not approve of the western ‘try before you buy’ culture of living together before marriage.

“Intercourse may satisfy physically, but marriage is about the joining of our souls.” 

Despite her frankness she retains some prudery, complaining about a huge statue on the road to Malang of Ken Dedes, the first queen of Singosari and mother of the Rajasa dynasty that later ruled all Java, because she’s portrayed topless.

Tatik’s husband, who worked for the State fuel company Pertamina, died last century but she refused to remarry, saying she was a “one-man woman”.

Physically agile she doesn’t use glasses and only has some slight problems with hearing.

Unlike many pensioners she has embraced modern technology.  She uses a cellphone and has a WhatsApp Messenger account.  A diary helps her track appointments.

But on some issues she remains implacably in the past, an ardent supporter of the ten-point Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (family welfare programme) launched in the era of Soekarno, a man she admires:  “I went to every rally where he spoke.”

Criticised for ‘manipulating motherhood’, PKK  has since moved from health and hygiene towards education, a cause Tatik urges on all who come within earshot, though always politely.

“The elderly can get apathetic if they don’t get involved in society,” she said, dissociating herself from the stay-at-homes. “Don’t be jobless, or a floater. 

“Grab knowledge from the tree and reach as high as you can. Then when you’ve found education open your mind. Don’t be arrogant or lazy; mix with people who can inspire.  Eat meals together.  Read books – take an interest in everything.

“I have my cat and chickens.  I am never lonely.  I go to the mosque twice a day to pray and contemplate, to seek peace.

“I don’t care what religion you follow, you can still get guidance from God.”

First published in Inside Indonesia 136