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

Monday, November 30, 2015


A taste in search of a makeover                              

It’s a famous story in the marketing of horticulture.
Yang Tao look like the droppings of a large and unfriendly herbivore from the Triassic Age.  The skin is hairy. Dissecting is probably best left to veterinary surgeons.
When imported into New Zealand last century as Chinese Gooseberries the response was restrained.  Then an advertising spark reckoned the Bard may have made an error.  The answer to the question ‘What’s in a name?’ is not a rose.  It’s Kiwi Fruit.
Chinese Gooseberries morphed again, this time because they look like the indigenous flightless bird’s chick. Or did so to a marketing guru sorely in need of an ophthalmologist.
No matter.  Kiwi Fruit resonated. For once the normally business-savvy Chinese lost out to the entrepreneur growers of NZ who are now just behind Italy as the world’s top producers.

A similar makeover may be needed for tape if the traditional Indonesian snack based on fermented cassava is to find an international market and rise to its producers’ ambitions.
Western vocal chords should rhyme tape with caffĂ© latte, but that’s unlikely. Instead they’ll make it sound like a pre-digital recording medium, or even worse, a stomach parasite.
Not the ideal name outside the Republic where the products include cakes and individually-wrapped bars of candy, which the British call ‘sweets’.  So maybe Java Bites might be the answer.
“We’d like to expand and start exporting,” said Anwari Dufri, a partner with his wife Junaidah in one of the home industries of Sumberpinang.  The village is about ten kilometers outside the East Java city of Jember.
“We were getting some help from the government under its small business program but that’s stopped.  So we just make to order and sell locally.”
Anwari was a lawyer and his wife an economist; the couple quit professional lives to create a business and jobs for their neighbors.
Now they stir, squeeze and wrap.  Mind-numbingly laborious, but financially worthwhile.  With two modern cars and a daughter at university studying history, business is OK – but could be better.
Iffat Amalia (right)  who runs a separate home industry, though part of the same extended family, found an outlet in Hong Kong. 

“Unfortunately sales were slow and the tape expired on the shelves – so we lost that market,” she said. “Tape is famous in Java, and Jember villages make the best.   Distribution is difficult; we only get known outside this area when visitors take home presents.”
Returning travellers who value their reputation must conform to a strict Indonesian cultural practise – providing oleh-oleh [presents or souvenirs] for family, friends and neighbors.
This is the market tape manufacturers rely on, so package their products in easy-carry plastic bags, cardboard boxes and besek, woven baskets where cassava chunks are wrapped in banana leaves ready to fry.  Prices hover around Rp 18,000 [US$ 1.35] for 500 grams
Iffat worked as a midwife until she married into a family of tape manufacturers.  Here she learned the secrets of cleaning, boiling and shredding the tubers, adding a white commercial yeast and nursing the sometimes temperamental fermentation.
Mixed with sugar and flavors - durian is the most popular, but strawberry and chocolate also go down well - tape feels and tastes more like a sweet fudge. The only off-put comes with the cakes, which tend to be heavy and occasionally include long fibers.
After delivering 60 babies Iffat turned from reproduction to production, employing six staff.
“I handle the quality control, though I can’t push too hard otherwise they’d walk away,” she said.  “There are tuber washing and cutting machines but these need capital; workers do the job much cheaper.”
Her knowledge of science is limited to human biology:  “I’ve learned everything about tape from my mother-in-law.”
In the West ‘hand-made’ is a selling point for niche markets suggesting sustainability and care.  Like ‘exclusive’ and ‘executive’ the term is a synonym for ‘expensive’.  Though not in the Sumberpinang home industries where production is entirely manual.

“Cleanliness is critical,” said Anwari (right)whose business is run in a house where the rooms are for making food and living.  “All utensils are scrubbed and dried; any speck of dirt, soap or oil could foul the process.”
Anwari doesn’t have a website or e-mail address, making overseas contact difficult.  Nor does he list the ingredients, a requirement in certification-crazed Western nations.
All the tape producers encountered by The Jakarta Post appeared fit, slim and energetic, which is a thoroughly subjective testimonial.  Somewhere there’s an idle laboratory researcher in need of a Nobel Prize by determining whether tape is good for you.
Another manufacturer has taken a furtive step towards wider selling by advertising in English that his product is processed hygienically, though his other claims are suspect: 
‘Function as to heat of body an [sic] to launch circulation of blood, healing pimple and refine husk.’  So if pimples bother, heart no longer pumps or husks hurt – try tape.

Food for the poor

The South American plant cassava was introduced into Indonesia by the Dutch, probably in the 19th century.  Although a fine source of carbohydrate it gained a reputation as the poor person’s rice, a famine food.
That’s unkind for we know that cassava has fed humanity for more than 10,000 years and is rich in calcium and other essential minerals.
The spindly plants grow from cuttings. They rise to about two or three meters and produce a plump, tapering edible tuber.  Cassava thrives in dry country, so an ideal food source in drought-prone lands.  It can also be used to make alcohol, including a Brazilian beer, which to most connoisseurs’ horror is served warm.
Tapioca starch ground from the tuber is widely used as a thickener in Western recipes.  Making anything edible from cassava is a job for the knowledgeable or scientifically trained.
The roots contain cyanide which needs to be soaked out.  Otherwise a taste could be a terminal experience.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 November 2015)

Sunday, November 29, 2015


According to most Google entries Australian businessman and philanthropist Harold Mitchell is a good bloke.  He has been given many awards and is chair of The Australia-Indonesian Centre. 
In November he spoke at an event in Yogya and wrote about this in The Sydney Morning Herald.  You can read his column here -

Here's my reply - sent, but not published, in the SMH,


Good that Harold Mitchell enjoyed his nasi goreng in an upscale hotel in Yogyakarta, a ‘special region’ not a state, with five universities, not 21.
Also splendid that he sees great possibilities for trading with Indonesia and his enthusiasm for cooperation.  To build these worthy ambitions he must first lay down a hardstand of realities.
None of Indonesia’s 400 plus universities that he mentions are ranked among the world’s top 500.  There are some fine institutions with professional overseas links, but an abundance of degree mills; quantity is not a synonym for quality.
Indonesia’s ‘commitment to creating clever generations’ is about equal to our government’s determination to arrest the decline in Indonesian studies.  The local term is NATO – No Action, Talk Only.
 ‘Middle class’ is the wrong label for Indonesians’ growing affluence because it suggests they share Australian standards.  A family in this category might have a motorbike on hire purchase, can meet school fees for the ‘free’ education and both parents have jobs that pay more than AUD 500 a month.
At times Canberra’s politics provoke despair, but our operators are kindy kids against the heavyweight oligarchs whose ideologies are power and protectionism.
Indonesia is rottenly corrupt (107 on the Corruption Perception Index); graft impacts almost every contact with the public service.  The big scams are large enough to buy an Australian cattle station.
The endless scandals plus widespread disappointment with a lacklustre president could crash the government should the opposition parties discover unity. That doesn’t inspire investor confidence. 
Mr Mitchell has written about the wrongs of cheating in business, but in Indonesia it’s almost impossible to succeed without wading in the cesspit.  To enforce a contract requires trust in the law.  That’s absent. Check the Churchill Mining saga, or Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine disputes to get a feel for the hazards.
Foreign companies can prosper in the archipelago but might wonder why so few have taken advantage of the glistening opportunities currently being spruiked by politicians and bureaucrats.  But they’re on the public payroll, not risking their capital.
Of course ‘we should all get a taste of the real thing that is Indonesia’; not to be found in a hotel ballroom but at the cheap roadside stalls where the connoisseurs dine.

That’s where people-to-people links get formed, and where you’ll also find some of those low profile overseas traders who have succeeded, stayed and remain sane.  Their frank words might give a better feel for the facts.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Spot a crater, tap an app                                     
You’re hurtling, though more likely faltering if in Java, along a major road.  Suddenly you hit a hole that’s probably been there from before the Revolution.  How you respond depends on your location and whether you’re an Indonesian or a Westerner.
Should you be a local in Australasia you’d  direct a few expletives towards those responsible for highway maintenance. Taxes are heavy enough – fix the wretched thing.  You have problems?  That’s your concern, not mine.
 If damage has occurred to self or vehicle you might call a lawyer and demand the road authority pays compensation. 
However an Indonesian in her or his homeland is likely to be more forgiving, knowing that hazards abound; the responsible bureaucrats could be thigh-deep in paperwork, unable to get out and check every byway.

So why not give them a hand by reporting the peril?   Easy to say, difficult to do.  Who to call and where?  Suppose it’s after hours, and the public service office still as a graveyard at midnight?
These were the dilemmas facing four smart information technology [IT] students from Malang’s Kanjurahan University -  Taruna Yoga Pratama, 22, Mohammad Nurul Hakiki, 20, Rico Tetuku Santoso, 20, and Fathur Rohim, 21.
They all ride motorcycles. They’ve  all had accidents, one man three times.  “I just wasn’t paying attention,” confessed Rico, nursing a bandaged elbow and blaming only himself.  “I should have been more careful.”  He laughs.  Your reporter winces.
They  call themselves Team THOR, picking letters from their names to make the amalgam;   like young men everywhere they want to sound macho, modern, and invincible.
Thor was originally a god in Norse mythology but he’s been thumped by an American superhero of the same name who appears in comics and  cult movies now showing in Indonesia and apparently reaping billions.
In the interests of honest journalism we note the THOR fellows though tech-savvy and  pleasant enough,  seem poor candidates to defeat the Frost Giants of Jotunheim in single handed combat should they invade Java.  However if the ammunition is apps the Good Guys will win.
Unlike its parents, Generation Click travels light, uncluttered by pens and paper.  Members interface  with the world through keyboards.  Their IT knowledge may be measured in terabytes, but their face-to-face skills come in kilobytes.  Who needs to talk when you can tweet?
What they lack in muscle and sentences beyond 140 characters  they’ve compensated with marketable abilities by designing an app that’s won them Rp 10 million [US$ 740] in a provincial competition. 
This was organized by an international tech giant and the local government in Sidoarjo alongside the capital of Surabaya. It’s the smallest regency in East Java with some of the biggest factories, so tonnes of traffic.
Sidoarjo’s CityApp two-day Appathon [another verbal concoction derived from ‘marathon’] was part of the Microsoft CityNext program. Team THOR beat out 47 other contestants.
According to the company the Appathon is ‘a global initiative that seeks to transform and modernize the implementation of operational and infrastructure in various cities …
‘It aims to use the imagination and innovation of young people and students in the area of ​​Sidoarjo to develop a technically viable solution to the challenges of urban development.”
There have been similar competitions in Makassar and overseas: Changchun in China, and Kathmandu in Nepal.
Team THOR’s  app is called ROAR for Road Report.  When polished and connected it will be available free. It works like this:
Travellers carry Smartphones loaded with ROAR.  When they encounter craters and other dangers they can just snap a picture in passing.  
ROAR then automatically sends the photo and its coordinates straight to the person in charge of repairs who then presumably despatches a crew of fixers.  No need to fidget with texts or spend a fortune in calls waiting to find someone responsible - just a quick click and  begone.
“At the moment most people grumble about the roads by calling radio talk-back,” said Ari Suryono, head of Sidoarjo’s local and international cooperation bureau. 
“However the complaints aren’t always clear, they aren’t directed to the right people and the location is often vague.
“We believe the app will make a difference by informing us of the problem in real time and providing a precise location. 
“It will probably go live next April.  In the long term it will save us money by getting black spots fixed speedily and of course by making the roads safer.
“We will respond to alerts.  We want to cooperate with the community and ROAR will help us get closer.
“We have a road gang of about 100, but for a lot of work we rely on contractors.  Sidoarjo has almost 2,000 kilometers of roads and maybe 20 per cent need attention.  We spend almost 30 per cent of our budget on highway maintenance.

“It’s the big overloaded trucks that do the damage. They are breaking regulations which aren’t being policed. Yet Sidoarjo’s roads are better than many others in the province.”
Added THOR spokesman Taruna:  “We want to help our governments keep the roads safe and understand the workers can’t find every problem. This way we work with them, not against.”
Suppose the authorities get overwhelmed with reports on ruts and fractures?  Indonesian roads are often like the rupiah and constantly tumbling into an abyss.
“That’s up to them,” said Taruna.  “We are not trying to shame public servants, that’s not our aim.  There should be a good relationship between the people and government.”
Some of the most awful roads in the Republic are on Madura, the home of the THOR lads’ lecturer Mohammad Ahsan.  He agreed that he’ll need his students’ skills to make the island navigable to transports using wheels, not tank tracks. 
“The app will work anywhere,” he said.  “All it needs is to be linked with the right local authority.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 November 2015)

Sunday, November 15, 2015


BTW: Rot in Appletown                                                                           
Batu is the small East Java hilltown famous for fruit, flowers and naughty weekends.  It’s about 20 kilometers outside the city of Malang,
Half way up Mount Welirang it’s a place where parents and teenagers might for once agree on the correct descriptor: Cool.
We hadn’t been to Batu for a while.  Expectations were 840 meters high; even if we caught a chill we’d be warmed with a boot full of cheap apples. No longer.
The local variety is called Manalagi [want more], and allegedly developed from the Rome Beauty introduced by the Dutch.  There are more than 7,000 varieties in the world and the colonialists picked this one? They should offer compensation.
Harder than hockey balls these small apples are a dentist’s delight.  The only redeeming feature is Manalagi’s long shelf life, so the best chance of ensuring freshness is to pick your own.
Once it was easy to chat to a farmer, potter round his plantation with a basket and share a few laughs.  No longer.  A cartel now controls visits at Rp 20,000 a head.
This is little more than a US dollar, though likely to be way below once you digest this column – but still a bite out of the wallet if the car doubles as the extended family’s bus.
Smart marketing – but it’s given a sour taste to the once casual experience of townies meeting toilers, and turned the smallholders into the sort of hucksters that have corrupted Kuta.
Batu also had a reputation for weekend getaways when the gracious hotels tended to be occupied by refined couples.  On weekdays these cultured folk might be enjoying a respectable family life on the plains below, though with different partners.
There’s an old English joke about such places – the receptionist announces a call in the dining room for ‘Mr Smith’ and is besieged by all the guests.
Maybe this market is growing – certainly there’s a rush to build as many rooms as possible in the limited spaces.
Our day trip was strictly pleasures of the palate.  With the political killjoys focussing on booze instead of poverty alleviation, fewer grog outlets and higher prices, cider-making now seemed a pressing need before a law bans home brewing.
Foolish idea.  Nowhere could we negotiate below the Rp 20,000 a kilo tag all traders had connived to uphold.  This was even for fruit that might have been fresh when I was a whining school-boy with satchel and shining morning face, as my literary hero once remarked.
Only back in Malang and in the supermarkets could we buy cheaper imported fruit that was sweet to eat, softer to touch and as unblemished as the salesgirls at the make-up counter.
But at least we got to enjoy the summits and cascading greenery while sitting in a cafĂ© run by relaxed owners, topping up our lungs with fresh mountain air. 
Wrong again. The restaurants are franchises staffed by bored teens. Batu is not Sumatra or even Riau so the local government hasn’t passed laws prohibiting open fires on windless days.  Or maybe it has and they’re treated with the same contempt motorists give to traffic rules.
This segues to the road between Malang and Batu.  Once a winding lane with a few motorbikes and fewer cars, it now carries a thousand times the traffic.  And it’s still a winding lane.
If British poet Robert Bridges’ famous line is true – and that ‘verily by beauty it is that we come at wisdom’, then the opposite must hold.
Batu’s theme parks play more to Western than Asian images; then there’s the inevitable municipal monstrosities.
The town’s core has been uglified with the addition of giant cartoon characters that originated in the design studios of Disney, not the rich heritage of Java.  Of course there’s a concrete Big Apple, which is appropriate given the armor-plated nature of the original.
Batu means ‘stone’ or ‘rock’. I don’t deny the town’s right to grow or its citizens to exploit its many attractions; nothing stays quaint forever.  But with a little foresight and a touch of imaginative planning Batu could have blossomed and charmed as before.  Unfortunately it has become a hard place.

First published in The Jakarta Post 15 November 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Stopover charm is not enough                                       

Instead of a long state visit Malcolm Turnbull used a ten-hour Jakarta stopover for his first official trip as PM to meet the northern neighbors. 
The much-reported reason before he dashed to Berlin was to ‘reset’ the relationship.
A ‘reset’ follows a circuit-breaker trip.  Flick a switch and if there’s no system fault the lights come on. Easy.
Not this time.
After a year in office we understand little about President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo other than he’s indecisive, believes shooting traffickers fixes drug problems and is powerless to stop regular illegal firestick-farming threatening world health.
We also know the leader of the world’s third largest democracy blows thought bubbles (which his ministers pop) on issues like joining the TPP, and appears awkward at international events.  The Jakarta Post explained this was his ‘contemplative nature’.
Much is scuttlebutt – that he doesn’t read documents, is beholden to oligarchs and bored by foreign affairs.  Newsclips of his meeting last month in the US with Barack Obama and business heads did nothing to erase these calumnies.
On the upside the nation has not been ripped by vengeful losers following the 2014 election. There have been health care reforms and fuel subsidies partially removed. The seventh president is not a military fascist. WYSIWYG, a plain man free of guile. 
His party patron Megawati Soekarnoputri once claimed he was too thin to be a real politician.  If girth equals graft then slender Jokowi should be whistle-clean.
This doesn’t help him wade through Jakarta’s political slimepit, but it endears him to the electorate, though love is on the wane.  Polls showing approval down from 70 to 50 per cent in a year reflect dismay that performance hasn’t matched promise.
He’s failed the smoke alarm test with the fires in Kalimantan; now another challenge looms – a rice shortage following droughts.  If prices rocket with imports the masses will not confine their rage to tweets.
Real warmth between the two leaders will probably remain elusive but Turnbull did well – he smiled a lot and it looked sincere.  Abbott-style pugnacity wins no friends in the Republic where personality trumps policy and visitors must be halus – refined, gracious and sensitive – and have a sense of fun. 
The PM and his wife Lucy obliged. Charm disarms.  Jokowi took Turnbull to the overcrowded Tanah Abang textile market for one of his trademark blusukan (walkabout among ordinary folk).
 Indonesian media described the informal scene as ‘hot, stuffy and boisterous’ but Jokowi was in his element, looking happier than usual.  Jacketless Turnbull, snapping selfies, seemed amused.
Certainly a few hours facetime is better than a diplomatic note, but change won’t come through speed dating.  This courtship needs to be Java-style - slow and seemly.
Turnbull seeking contact points spoke of both being in business. The link is slight.
The silvertail lawyer and banker grew up with vistas of Sydney Harbour; the provincial furniture trader was raised in a shack illegally pitched by the Solo River – not for the view but its ablution values.
One was a Rhodes Scholar – the other an unexceptional forestry graduate. Now the two men have to see each other’s perspective.
The other much thumped drum is that Indonesia is ‘our most important relationship. Absolutely – though the feeling is one-way.  More worrying is that Australian governments have long been hypocritical, disbelieving their own rhetoric.
If otherwise the Turnbulls would have spent relaxed days, not hours in Indonesia, reviving friendships built over long careers in public life.
There’d be no need for a ‘biggest ever’ 300-strong business delegation coming in Turnbull’s wake because substantial trade would have been built long ago.  Communications with Jakarta would be as stable as they are with Manila and Singapore.
No costly ephemeral PR exercise called Window on Australia because the image would already be benign. If that money had been put into scholarships the number of Indonesians currently studying in Australia (below 14,000) might overtake the Nepalese,
Jokowi’s pre-election statements included Nawacita (nine principles, mainly motherhoods) and Mental Revolution. This called for a strong military, food and energy independence and reduced reliance on foreign investment.  The delegation led by Trade Minister Andrew Robb might ask if these short documents are still valid.
Business opportunities are being crimped by Jokowi’s capricious approach to policy, a tumbling rupiah and the growth of strident nationalism and protectionism.
Earlier this year Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey told a Griffith Asia Institute forum that the Australian public was generally hostile and ill-informed about Indonesia.   The polls prove his point, and the situation is getting worse.
The government hasn’t seriously backed Indonesian studies which Lindsey predicted will be extinct within eight years. This isn’t a new universe in the galaxy – other educators have been observing the same for much of this century.
Presumably Robb’s mob is Asia-aware, but if the pessimists are right the next generation of Australian exporters and investors will know little about their market.
The Turnbull trip listed the standard trinity of topics favoured by visiting Australian politicians – trade, security and investment. All important but having no immediate impact on the daily lives of the toilers; they tend to see their neighbour seeking to control Christian Eastern Indonesia according to polls cited by Lindsey.
Window on Australia should help diminish ignorance about Australia, but doesn’t confront the absurdity of a secular sport-obsessed nation having neo-colonial ambitions.   Indonesians fought for four years to expel the Dutch; they can be seismometer-sensitive to real or imagined threats to sovereignty in ways Australians find hard to understand.
Edgy issues like the death penalty and visas were off the agenda. The problem of 11,000 asylum seekers stuck in the Archipelago while heading to Australia was apparently not addressed.  This was despite Indonesian kite-flying ahead of the leaders’ meeting which Turnbull kept stressing was about ‘jobs and growth’.  So the failed boat people’s fate remains a pebble in the shoe.
After the meeting came statements no-one could fault – the need for more cooperation, cattle breeding and tourism. No detail, no contracts, no aid packages.
Contrary to some media reports this was not Turnbull’s first overseas trip as PM.  His priority was tiny, placid New Zealand for two days last month. He’ll spend more time in Malaysia coming back from Europe than the nation where the relationship is allegedly so important.
Academics, businesspeople and others with long-term knowledge of Indonesia say building good connections needs time and personal engagement.  This trip says the government knows it knows better.
Indonesians are too polite to say so, but they recognize the realities:  The Australian PM comes across far better than Abbott. He appeared to have had a fun break. But his real mission was in Europe and elsewhere where he’ll meet 19 other world leaders.
No reset yet.  The system faults remain but the two men seem to have found a switch. Maybe the switch.

(First published in New Mandala on 13 November 2015
and The Canberra Times on 14 November 2015)


Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Kids who can’t say Mommy                                          

Two years ago Joan McKenna Kerr (right) and her colleagues from the Autism Association of Western Australia [AWA] scoured East Java for interns.
Their offer was nectar:  A training program for health and education professionals learning early intervention techniques for autistic children. 
The location – dazzling Perth on the placid Swan River.  Cost – zero.  Air fares and accommodation  included plus allowances.
The sting? Study for six weeks, eight hours a day, six days a week plus homework. Political junketeers  checking golf courses unwelcome.
Hundreds applied.  Small teams were picked from five cities – a total of 20 people.  Psychologists, teachers, therapists and nurses.
“We wanted those with passion and a real commitment to helping kids, not those motivated to advance their curriculum vitae or open private practises on returning to Indonesia,” said McKenna Kerr.
“They had to display competency and leadership.  They had to work with local people.
“We insisted on high level English but saw good candidates with limited language skills who in a typically Indonesian way would get support from their friends.  We had to adjust.
“This was the first time we’d run such a project.”
With the students long back in their homeland McKenna Kerr, the chief executive officer of AWA, and Tasha Alach, the organization’s executive manager for early childhood services returned this month (Oct) to see if the exercise was worthwhile.
In short the answer is: Yes, plus.  So more training will follow.
In Blitar at the Sekolah Dasar Luar Biasa [State special elementary school] they reunited with  principal Suud Wahyudi who’d still have a stamp-free passport had AWA stuck to its rigid  requirements.
“We learned much about autism and information that can be used to help parents and children live a better life,” he said.  “It’s made a difference to the way we teach.”

Said parent Lilik (above) :  “My daughter Revita Selvadita, 17, has moved ahead.  She has more confidence and plays with others.”  
Commented McKenna Kerr: “Our decision was vindicated.  The school, like others we’ve checked, is outstanding.  It’s implementing many of the techniques we taught. 
“Apart from small size classes [18 teachers care for 133 kids, including 20 who are autistic], and grouping children by skills, not age, they’ve introduced visual cues. Autistic kids stress easily; they don’t respond well to words.”
Classroom walls have Velcro strips with small pictures of activities, such as catching the bus home, play time, music therapy and rest periods. The pupil peels the picture and heads to that activity.  The system also works for deaf children.
Less than one per cent of the population has a developmental nervous disorder grouped under the term autism, coined last century from the Greek  autos meaning self.  It’s usually noticed before age three [See breakaway] when the child isn’t communicating.  Four of every five autistic kids are boys.
There’s probably a genetic cause, though factors like medical problems may have a role.  There’s no cure; research continues worldwide but the situation isn’t hopeless.  The AWA says children given the right training can progress, attend a normal school and eventually get a job.
At a new Autism Center in Blitar parents are also schooled on handling their offspring.  Shouting and scolding is a waste of time and emotion – the child isn’t being naughty but has a neurological defect.  Positive behavior support works best.
Having a hyperactive child unresponsive to standard conventions often overloads families; marital breakdowns can be collateral damage.  Parents’ emotions swing between deep distress and fierce determination to help.
Born and educated in Ireland where she took a degree in sociology, McKenna Kerr has no family members with autism.  She was in Aceh for two years last century with her husband who was involved in a health project.
“I didn’t see children with disabilities,” she said.  “Handicaps were considered a curse for wrongdoing.  The best way to help is through early diagnosis and therapy, not hiding the child.”
In Perth she started working for AWA, a not-for-profit agency funded by State and Federal Governments and donors.  The association with Indonesian schools is though the Western Australia-East Java Sister State agreement, but the idea first came from Indonesian students concerned that the Perth facilities weren’t available in their homeland.
Links have also been made with Surabaya’s Airlangga University where 48 teachers and therapists are being taught to use AWA’s techniques.
“Not all ideas travel well between cultures, but these are ripples in a pond,” said McKenna Kerr.  “We’ll be back next year to run workshops on communication; we’ll include our former interns as local instructors.
“Indonesia has made huge advances in caring for autistic children.  Even candidates for local government are recognizing the need.
“Australia and Indonesia are neighbors.  We have a responsibility to share knowledge.”

Tantrums and techniques

How do I handle a disruptive child who continues to throw sand?
The teacher’s plea at a Q & A session at Bhakti Luhur Catholic institution in Malang led by former AWA intern Sister Elizabeth Witin (right) drew this response from McKenna Kerr:
“Imagine this: You’re in a foreign airport; no-one speaks your language and you can’t understand the signs.  That’s the world of an autistic child.
“You’re in a room with 20 TV sets each on a different channel.  That’s why they retreat to routine. We know this from empirical research.
“Autistic children can’t read situations or people well.  They want to escape from environments they find overwhelming.
“They’d rather not be challenging.  Saying ‘no’ does nothing – teach to their strengths.
“All children are different.  Structure the day, stick to routines.  Teach the child to calm himself. Use color codes and pictures that can be understood, though it takes time to realize an image is a symbol for the real thing.
“We publish practical tips for teachers and parents.  Work on the building blocks of learning. It’s not easy, it takes time, but it can be done. We need to commit ourselves to the child’s needs.”

Love is all you need – but in truckloads

Like most parents who discover their child has autism, the message was delivered slowly and corrosively.  For Eny Susilowati, 33 and her videographer husband Farid Mukh Pakhrudin, 30, it wasn’t till their daughter Elvina Salsabila Alfany was in her third year that they started seeking advice.
Other mothers were hearing the most rewarding word in every parent’s lexicon – Mommy.  But no magic for Eny.
“Elvina wouldn’t make eye contact,” said her mother.  “Her language was gibberish.  She kept spinning around and couldn’t concentrate.”
The eventual diagnosis was an asteroid hit.  “I was so depressed; we knew nothing about autism. There are no genetic flaws in my family or my husband’s.
“I wept and wept and thought about killing myself.  Farid persuaded me that I could not leave Elvina alone; we had a joint responsibility.  He is such a good man and shares our daughter’s care.
“Like all parents I wondered what I’d done wrong. I thought God had punished me.
“I bled during pregnancy and had contractions long before birth.  I was eating a lot of seafood.  Now I fear it may have been polluted.
“I got emotional and angry for no reason; it was not a good pregnancy.
“After the diagnosis we sought help from the mosque. I was told to bathe at 3 am with my daughter.  We all got sick afterwards.  Many doctors don’t know much either – we’ve had to go to Surabaya [a six hour drive] to find the best medical help.
“Since then we’ve been determined to do our own research and work out the best upbringing.”
That includes putting Elvina on a  non-dairy diet and trying dolphin assisted therapy where the child interacts with the intelligent sea mammals.  This is a highly disputed technique condemned by some medical authorities as quackery.
However after a costly session in Jakarta Eny said her daughter started to eyeball her parents and can now repeat counting up to ten in English.
Elvina’s parents are regular visitors to the Autism Center where treatment is free.  While the children get therapy the adults chat.  Inevitably a busy market of ideas and experiences pops up in the lobby; support reinforces resolve.
“I realise that we have so many shared problems,” Eny said.  “We wanted another baby but that plan has been cancelled.  All our energies must go to helping our daughter.
“The special school is good, but Elvina won’t go there. We want her to be in a normal school. This is my dream.  That is my commitment.
“I tell her:  Elvina: In my eyes you are normal.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 November 2015)

Sunday, November 01, 2015


Natural disasters: Are we prepared?   

The warm up included boisterous singing of Indonesia Raya led by an unstoppable  cheerleader, a loop of videos showing rescue workers in Hi-Viz vests scrambling through rubble – and one unusual addition.
The MC told the 1,000 delegates that should an earthquake or other awful event strike the Solo hotel ballroom, we should get outside to the evacuation area.
Such warnings are standard at public gatherings in New Zealand, though rare in Indonesia.  The instructions in the equally quake-prone South Pacific nation, learned like the national anthem by all school kids, are ‘drop, cover and hold’.  This means getting under something solid when the masonry hails down.
However in the Solo venue there were no sturdy tables – just plush chairs packed as tight as a cattle-class flight.  For this was to be a grand event graced by President Joko Widodo and tickets were hot.
To the great disappointment of the crowd he didn’t front, leaving the big speech to Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo.  He spent time praising NZ’s determination to share knowledge with its giant near neighbor.
Locally known as the Shaky Isles, miniscule NZ has one resident to every 60 Indonesians.  Its economy is based on exporting milk and meat, and importing tourists.
So not much in common with a massive Asian republic except this: Both countries have front-row seats at the intermittent thunder and flame show called The Pacific Ring of Fire.  Three-quarters of the world’s volcanoes roar and rumble here; the grinding tectonic plates show how eggshell fragile we humans are when Atlas shrugs.
In 2006 the nearby city of Yogyakarta was hit by a magnitude 6.4 quake that killed 5,700.  In 2011 a magnitude 6.3 quake killed 185 in the NZ South Island city of Christchurch.
In both cases the damage was caused by previously unknown faults, underpinning the need for more research to map danger areas and alert citizens to the risks.
"This isn't Russia"
“The difficulty is keeping people aware and prepared for natural disasters,” Dody Ruswandi (right) told The Jakarta Post at the sidelines of the three-day Disaster Risk Reduction – Resilience for Life Conference in mid October.  “We’re all alert after an eruption, landslip or earthquake, but concerns tend to relax when nothing more happens.
“Overall we are getting better at understanding that natural disasters can happen anywhere and anytime, that climate change is creating new problems, and that we are living in a high-risk country.
“We may not have much equipment, but we do have an agreement to call on the Army for help.  In some overseas countries the military doesn’t want to accept a civilian role. I’m not interested in building an empire – this is not Russia.
“I congratulate the media for helping raise awareness – almost every newspaper and TV bulletin features a crisis somewhere in the world.  Although we still have far to go we are improving.  We’re no longer managing disasters – we’re now managing risks.”
Ruswandi is secretary general of Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana [BNPB – the National Disaster Management Authority] set up in 2008 in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Yogya quake. It’s directly responsible to the President.
The quakes have shaken up Indonesian administration, literally and metaphorically.  Apart from BNPB there’s also a Consortium for Disaster Education which trains front line responders and publishes safety messages.
Dr Dwikorita Karnawati, the Rector of Yogya’s Gadjah Mada University [UGM] and a British-trained engineering geologist with expertise in landslips, agreed with Ruswandi’s upbeat assessment. 
“We are now treating these things seriously,” she said.  “However the budgets for coping after the event also need to be used for training when there’s no disaster.
“Awareness is one thing; willingness to allocate funds is another.”
UGM has a deal with NZ’s Geological and Nuclear Science agency now known as GNS Science, to share technology, research and training.  The NZ invention of base isolators, where the pillars of major buildings sit on rubber blocks allowing the construction to shake but not collapse, is available in Indonesia, though apparently not yet used.
Further proof of attitude change was in an exhibition where more than 100 government and non-government agencies and commercial companies showcased their products. 
Hard hats and big boots, hazard-protection gear in colors so shrill they could even be seen through the haze of Riau peat fires, crackling walkie-talkies, loud hailers and tools to dig out survivors.  There’ll still be a need for citizens to claw away shattered bricks seeking trapped neighbors when walls tumble; but after the professionals move in they need the world’s best equipment.
Four-wheel drive vehicles with satellite dishes and gen sets, drones to map the disaster zone and pin-point problems, first-aid kits and when these are too late, body bags.

Disasters are now big business.
Pick of the bunch was a low-cost early warning device developed by a UGM team headed by Japan-trained civil engineer Dr Faisal Fathani (below, left with Rector Dwikorita).  They’ve patented a solar-powered system which collects rainfall and measure tremors.
If the downpours are heavy and likely to cause flooding, or the ground shakes at an alarming rate, the device triggers a siren to alert residents and flashes data to emergency headquarters.  The system is now being manufactured in bulk and distributed across the provinces.  It has also been exported to China.

 “Emergencies can happen very quickly, so early warnings are critical,” said Fathani. “There were problems with people stealing tsunami alerts dropped in the ocean by the government, so we’ve given local communities the responsibility of caring for the terrestrial systems.
“Vandalism is unlikely because villagers own the system – they realize their lives depend on knowing of dangers in advance.”
Also back to basics was the Yakkum Emergency Unit, a NGO based on the slopes of Yogya’s temperamental Mount Merapi.  Their contribution was a simple kit collecting rain to grow hydroponic vegetables and using the waste to raise fish.
Survivors of the initial shock can die later for want of food and drink.  But with a few shards of rescued plastic, wood, aluminium and ingenuity life can go on.

The thin blue line
New Zealanders can’t stand visual pollution.  That means most outdoor advertising is banned and essential signs, such as traffic controls have to be approved. 
The forests of banners and billboards that shield motorists from the stunning scenery of Indonesia are absent in NZ; tourists can feast on the environment rather than be urged to buy smokes.
NZ Ambassador Dr Trevor Matheson
So when it was proposed that big notices should be erected around the Wellington seaside suburb of Island Bay warning that this was a tsunami danger area many of the 7,000 residents objected.
“Yet signage was essential,” said GNS Science’s Michele Daly.  “We had meetings where someone came up with the idea of painting blue lines on the roads.  These mark the likely high-water mark in case of a tsunami when you’d need to get on the right side.
“Some feared this might reduce home values, but that hasn’t happened. People seem to appreciate that this is a community that cares.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 November 2015)