FAITH IN INDONESIA

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

Thursday, February 09, 2017

GOING TROPPO

A novel bridge between us and them                                                           
Maturity at last.  A novel from Australia that treats Indonesia as a real place, not an Eat, Pray, Love fantasyland of frangipani maidens in sun-kissed ricefields.  This is how Troppo starts:
‘The first story I hear about my new boss is in a brothel in Bandar Lampung.  I don’t realise it’s a brothel at first.  From the outside it looks like a typical Indonesian beauty salon; pink curtains tacked up in a prayer arch over lace, a gritty Salon Kecantikan sign at the front and a becoming ladyboy at the door with toilet paper moulded into boobs’.
That’s an addictive intro.
Troppo is Australian slang derived from ‘tropical’.  To ‘go troppo’ is to abandon normal conventions, to ‘go native’. It also means turning crazy. 
In the hands of West Australian writer Madelaine Dickie, Troppo is a sinewy take on the people next door seeing Indonesians as humans with flaws and qualities, not economic units in a government statement.
The surfing, skateboarding knockabout’s literary talents won her a Prime Minister’s Australia-Asia Endeavour Award. She used this to live in West Java where she was mentored at Universitas Padjadjaran and Universitas Islam Bandung while writing her debut novel.  The result may not be what they expected.
Promoted as a book about ‘black magic, big waves and mad Aussie expats’ Troppo follows the life of Penelope, a name associated with steady faithfulness.  That’s not her bag, so she becomes Penny, as in dreadful.
Miss adventurous enjoys the Indonesian lifestyle, though her hosts have trouble slotting her into their mindsets.  And so will many readers who are not into the religion of surfing and the worship of waves, or too old to remember overwhelming lust and its aftermath.
It’s 2004, two years after the Bali bombing. Penny is 22 going on 16. She’s a part-time hangover artist and full-time risk-taker on a break in Indonesia from her older conservative boyfriend in Perth.  As she says, a bolter when things get too hard.
Soon this liberated lass is getting perved in the shower by masturbators, stalked in the bush by weirdoes and stoned by kids before making it into bed with a thigh-biting pilot who already has a pregnant girlfriend.
While her demure Sumatran sisters are treading an ancient path of service, mapless (but not hapless) Penny is desperately seeking self before her use-by date when tissues sag and a bikini is inadvisable.
The gap between Indonesians and Australians could hardly be wider despite Penny’s sympathies, empathies and occasional eruptions of guilt. She wants to find a bridge but doesn’t know how so turns to gin in a water bottle.
She’s set for a job at a resort where the arrogant and explosive bule boss Mister Shane, a former freedom fighter in Aceh, is in deep trouble with the citizenry.
Penny gets warnings aplenty but this surfing tragic is still in Pollyanna-land even when thugs hurl rocks through windows while a boozy party is underway.
Yet this libidinous lass is no naïf. She speaks Indonesian, likes street food and sleeps with a knife under her pillow ready to turn unwanted amorous advances into limp retreats.  She can even handle unflushed squat toilets.
The tension builds. Fundamentalists are talking bombs. The expats tell her to go.  So do local friends. But with only a third of the book gone and knowing Penny’s temperament we doubt she’ll be dozing on the next bus south.
Penny’s Indonesia doesn’t feature in airline mags. People are kind and cruel, honest and thieving, dirty and clean, treacherous and loyal – like anywhere.  Their cut-and-paste view of outsiders has been colored by brash, exploitative drunks with too much money and too little understanding.
Like Elizabeth Pisani, author of the essential Indonesia Etc, Dickie has insights to offer through her unstable heroine. ‘For Indonesian people Islam is a symbol, not an ideology’. Penny asks a mountain village woman why she has started wearing a jilbab, expecting a deep discourse on faith. The reply - to keep warm.
She ponders the treatment of the elderly: ‘Here the old people aren’t shut away. They continue to be part of the community … everyone has a place.’
The expat group is a handy literary device to explore attitudes:  Ageing academics in an ethnographic wonderland, balding failures seeking compliant brown virgins as the whitegoods market has closed, hucksters running businesses denied permits in their rule-bound homeland – and the drifters turned stayers.
One long-timer says; ‘The whole world speaks English.  Why would I bother learning Indo?’
On the other side are teens trapped by customs dictated by men, controlling clerics, venal cops, dutiful wives whose dreams of a liberated lifestyle are destined to be trashed by frustrated and jealous husbands.
They ask Penny about ‘free sex’ and boyfriends, questions as predictable as ‘where you from, Mister?’
Ponders Penny: ‘Sometimes there are things you can’t explain. Cultural difference so vast you don’t know where to start’.  She says she’s from New Zealand. Australia carries too much baggage in Indonesia.
What these generally unpleasant people share is a common hatred of Mister Shane so plot his downfall through black magic and violence which is bound to have collateral damage.  Enough said.
Less able writers would have resorted to clichés in exploring this swamp but Dickie doesn’t use a monochrome palate.  She has a fine sense of places ‘where the earth holds a memory’ but is more at home with the sea like compatriot writer Tim Winton.
What is it about these beach-crazed West Aussies? They’re always looking away, unlike Indonesians who know they’re at one with the land.
Troppo has already won a major award named after journalist and author Tom Hungerford, so Dickie, now 29, seems set to make a mark.  Hopefully through revealing another Indonesia:
‘There’s something intoxicating about living in extreme places, among extreme people. You never, for a moment, forget that you are alive’.

Troppo by Madelaine Dickie                                                                                           
Fremantle Press, 2016      

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 February 2017)                                                                                                        

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

SUSTAINABILITY SUSTAINED

The village that knows its limits          

                                
Some societies have giant boots; they stamp and shuffle, trampling shoots, raising choking dust.  Other cultures are more delicate:  They tiptoe, taking care not to disturb the sacred soil.
When academic Dr Grace Pamungkas was growing up in Bandung last century national development under President Soeharto was being thrust ahead with missionary zeal.  GDP rises were proof of prosperity – then a synonym for happiness and wellbeing.
Neither she nor anyone else had heard of ‘ecological footprints’ a metaphor that would have aroused mirth, not concern. Green was for grass, not an ideology.
But the little girl did know that leaving just one grain of rice on her plate was naughty.  Waste not, want not, scowled Mom. The daughter is less pernickety now but the message hasn’t been deleted.
Instead it has been expanded, given academic credibility and published for the world to consider – and maybe a plan for others to follow.
“Throwing something away means we don’t know our limits - which is a most difficult thing to understand,” Pamungkas said. “We’ve become a growth-focused economy.  We buy what we’ve been told we want by advertisers, but don’t necessarily need.
“That may be good for business though not for the environment. We can run our lives differently. The problem is defining the question: What is enough?”
One secluded West Java village has known the answer for decades – maybe centuries.  Kampong Naga, 30 kilometers from Tasikmalaya, is a living museum in a hidden valley which has avoided consumerism. 

It has done this partly through location – it’s even unreachable by motorbike, which makes it rare indeed.  Access is only down more than 300 steps. The other factor is residents maintaining rituals which emphasize the sacredness of frugal living.
The 500 Sundanese on the Ciwulan River valley floor call themselves Sanaga, which is also the name of their religion.  Though technically Muslims they follow the teachings of Sembah Dalam Singaparna, a real of maybe mythological being who passed down eight codes of living to his followers.
Some commandments appear joyless but overall are egalitarian - no-one lives better than anyone else.
Pamungkas, 45, now a leading expert on Kampong Naga, is an architect. Other scholars have focused on the cluster of 110 furniture-free thatched homes built from local materials, but the University of Indonesia architecture graduate took a different approach.
For her doctorate at the Victoria University of Wellington Pamungkas studied the ecology of the mysterious village and the way spiritual beliefs can underpin sustainable development.
Through four years research she’s discovered that the Sanaga’s light tread on the land offers a lesson on living without plundering resources.
This is despite the villagers having limited education and contact with the outside world.  They have a battery-powered television but use it only to watch football.  No smartphones. No trash in the river, though the men smoke factory-made cigarettes.
Pamungkas’ road to Kampong Naga meandered. She was recording colonial- era buildings in Jakarta when offered a scholarship to study art history in the Netherlands.
Completion of a course in academic English was a pre-requisite. A colleague recommended   NZ.  While learning how to fill pages with italicized references she met two Kiwi academics keen to know Kampong Naga’s use and re-use secrets.

As an Indonesian who also understood Dutch (the few records were mainly written by the colonialists) Pamungkas was the ideal candidate for a scholarship. She graduated just before Christmas and is now working as a university tutor.
“My supervisor Professor Barbara Vale commented that Western science thinks it’s smart but in some ways the Sanaga are smarter,” said Pamungkas. “Few books, but inherited knowledge. There’s no clinic but they are clearly healthy and fast regularly.
“Kampong Naga applies the principles of sustainable living, something few other societies have achieved. They use ancient beliefs to determine limits – not just through consumption of outside goods - but also by restricting growth and marking areas with a bamboo fence. It’s applied mythology. Taboo breakers could bring curses on all.
“No more houses will be built because they’ve reached the sacred boundary with forest, fields and river.  Families wanting to grow move out.  But they always return for the six annual pilgrimages to the Great Ancestor’s forest grave so I’m confident the culture will survive.”  The tomb has not been seen by outsiders.
Frustrating for any scholar is the dearth of records.  Much was lost in 1956 when the village was torched by Islamic extremists.  A 13th century engraved copper plate, which has since disappeared, is the only known reference to Sembah Dalam Singaparna.
He is supposed to have been one of seven brothers.  Six were capable and smart, while the village founder’s only attribute was leading a humble life.
Most of the limited information is stored not in Indonesia or Holland but the National Library in Australia.
Pamungkas’ mother insisting on a clean plate echoed an ancient Sanaga proverb directed at kids: ‘If you don’t finish your rice you’ll make Dwi Sri cry’.  The rice goddess is a powerful figure in the mythology and at the center of many “heartfelt rituals” apparently related to Hinduism which pre-dated Islam in Java.
“It’s all fascinating and I want to learn more on how religious beliefs can have practical applications,” said Pamungkas who is considering rewriting her 383-page thesis into a more accessible book.
“The only things I couldn’t stand in the village were the smells of decaying bamboo and feces from toilets above fish ponds designed to handle waste and grow food.
“The people are not closed to new ideas – I noticed a solar panel on one visit – so they may build compost toilets or methane gas generators in the future.  But they do consider every step most carefully, measuring changes against the founder’s instructions.
“The message for all is this: Materialism can be checked by traditional beliefs so all have a fair share.”
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(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 January 2017

  

Thursday, January 26, 2017

RETREATING TO THE BUSH

Going free
It’s one of the world’s most desirable destinations, a country of gasp-out-loud beauty and sweaty challenges for the adventurous.  But New Zealand is also big dollar land with budget travellers reluctant  to pay Rp 2 million a day for a bed, meals and travel. So they’re turning to freedom camping – and upsetting some locals.  Duncan Graham reports


 :
Last year more than three million foreigners descended on the tiny South Pacific islands.  Proportionally that’s equal to Indonesia getting 165 million visitors a year instead of its current nine.
NZ is just twice the size of Java but with a population below Surabaya’s.  Sprawling Auckland is the biggest city holding a third of the nation’s 4.5 million citizens; it’s also astonishingly multi-ethnic; Indonesian migrants who prefer urban living settle in this warmer city.
Most visitors want to see deep valleys, snow-capped mountains, regimented vines marching up brown hillsides and scattered white sheep nibbling green paddocks.
They also want to scale the peaks, ski the slopes, dive with sharks, get close to whales, tramp through passes, bungy-jump off viaducts, raft clean cascading rivers, test their courage and get close to nature. For these folk freedom camping is the only way to go.
With limited public transport and then only between the major centers, NZ is DIY (Do It Yourself) tourism for the frugal traveller.  Buy a bike and pedal down dedicated cycleways stretching the length of the land, with most already completed.
For those hooked on the scent of burning fossil fuels a motorbike is ideal. The step-through 80 cc Japanese sepeda motor that clog the Republic’s roads are seldom seen.  To tackle NZ’s long highways and steep hills grunt is needed with a heavy machine – not recommended unless the rider is an experienced throttle-twister on the big brutes.
That leaves camper vans and here the choice is rich.  Clear Customs  (international entry points are Auckland, the capital Wellington and  the South Island’s Christchurch) and you’ll find more rental companies than taxi touts at Ngurah Rai.
Around NZ $50 (Rp 470,000) a day gives visitors the key to a simple van, the type normally used for small goods deliveries and with just enough space to squash a mattress behind the front seats. It helps to have a partner who doesn’t kick in bed.

Top of the range are the big purpose-built motorhomes with air conditioning, a kitchen with electric stove, TV, a double bed and bunks for the kids plus shower and toilet.  Renters can stand without cracking skulls
These are the Ritz on Wheels vans that commercial camp operators like to see enter their gates. That’s  because cashed-up campers pay NZ $50 (Rp 470,000) a night for the privileges of using club rooms, swimming pools and other comforts. .They call their sites ‘Holiday Parks’ and usually include basic cabins.
Inevitably it’s the budget conscious teens and young adults who go for the cheapest transport with no toilets so rely on public facilities. The businesspeople allege that tourists who huddle in sleeping bags on the roadside use the bushes as lavatories and trash cans.
Although this occasionally happens despite a NZ$ 400 fine (Rp 3.8 million), the case has been overstated as most visitors come to view, not vandalize.
Some local councils have passed laws to restrict campers without on-board WCs – but this is hurting the bottom end of the market.  These travellers may not select from restaurant menus but they still spend in supermarkets.

Fortunately there’s an alternative.  The Department of Conservation, widely known as DOC has more than 200 ‘conservation campsites’ in the North and South Islands. The two are connected by a car-carrying scheduled ferry through the spectacular  Marlborough Sounds where hills plunge straight into a still sea.
Facilities at the DOC sites go from basic with no water and ‘long drop’ or compost toilets through to ‘scenic’ with sealed roads, hot showers and on-site rangers.  DOC publishes free maps and details of locations.  Some sites have to be pre-booked through the Internet to prevent overcrowding.
Fees vary from zero to NZ $20 (Rp 190,000) a night per person.
Freedom camping is not for the pernickety but it’s a great way to meet people from around the world. Most come from Australia, then China, the US, Britain, South Korea, Japan, Germany. France and Malaysia.  Indonesians get grouped among ‘Other’.
They are usually found in off-highway wilderness and conservation zones, giving visitors intimate access to the parks and rivers they’d never experience bussing to the next manicured resort. .
 (panel)
How to enjoy
Although NZ gives footloose folk the chance to let the day make the decisions, some forward planning is advised.  Most businesses and services have their own websites so booking transport ahead ensures visitors won’t go without during the peak season.
This starts in October, goes through summer and ends in April as fall, which Kiwis call autumn, begins to bite. This is the most spectacularly beautiful season as green leaves turn to every russet hue known to nature.
Those planning to stay longer than the minimum two weeks needed to appreciate the country often chose to buy a van and sell on their departure. Tourist visas are usually valid for three months stay. Trade Me is the on-line trading site where most sales are made. Also check notice boards in backpacker hostels.
All vehicles must have a Warrant of Fitness, known as a WOF.  This ensures the tyres have tread, the brakes and steering work and all is safe, but it’s no guarantee that the engine won’t fail – so mechanical knowledge can be helpful.
Indonesians can use their own driving licences and will be glad to know the traffic drives on the left.  But this doesn’t mean Indonesian rules apply.
Stop signs mean what they say. So do speed limits. Vehicles must halt when pedestrians step onto the zebra stripes. At roundabouts the hard rule is give way to the right. Drivers tend to be disciplined and polite, but the police are everywhere – often in unmarked cars – and fines heavy.  
Distances are deceptive; because roads twist and turn, rise and fall allow extra drive time. Petrol costs about NZ $2 (Rp19,000) a liter.
DOC is online and bristling with tips. Big towns have I-Sites giving free advice on local attractions.  Calling into these well-signed centers is strongly recommended. 
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(First published in J Plus, The Jakarta Post, 18 January 2017)






Monday, January 16, 2017

CHALLENGING ASSUMPTIONS

Life is like a question    
                                            
We all make snap decisions about those we meet.  Are they hostile, or friendly? Trying to cheat or help?  Should we get close, or avoid?
Mukhanif Yasin Yusuf is a master interpreter of reactions, a skilled catcher of the flickering doubt.  A top student and activist from Yogyakarta’s Universitas Gadjah Mada Hanif knows   not all offer the respect he liberally gives to others.
For although polite and humble his behavior can be a mite disarming. A tad too earnest?  He talks loudly, though not brashly, and stares intently.  Is he dangerous? 
No, he’s deaf, and this is his message:
“There can be stigmas attached to being disabled.  Some see us as weak as pitiful, as objects for rehabilitation, or even as the sources of social problems and diseases, on the margin, maybe even criminal.
“When people sit around in cafes do they discuss what it must be like as a disabled person?  Do you wonder how we feel and what we do?
“Just close your eyes for at least 15 seconds; focus on imagining yourself as disabled and denied work because of your condition.  You are refused entry to school and university as you do not meet the criteria of being physically and mentally healthy.
“You cannot climb the stairs of a multi- storey building for your legs are paralyzed. Or maybe you're scorned and regarded as mad, thought fit for a mental hospital.
“Ponder these issues and remember that unlike you, we cannot open our eyes after 15 seconds and let our imagination fade.  Do you think we can be returned to ‘normal’ as determined by community consensus? 
“If a blind person is trained as a masseur should we say this is an honor when that person could be a scientist?
“Are the disabled not part of the community?  Under God’s Law all are human beings.  Sometimes this is forgotten. Should we be shunned, put in a separate environment, deemed unfit to mingle with others?  We have minds to feel, think and act. We belong to society too, and we contribute.”
Hanif remembers swimming in the Yellow River as an 11 year old. Taking a dip was no big deal for the kids of the Central Java village of Jambudesa and the little lad wanted to be with his mates.
His Mom had told him and his five siblings to keep away for good reason. The river’s name alone gave warning enough, but who wants to hear a carping elder?
 “Everything was done in the river,” he recalled.  “It was used for washing, bathing and as a toilet by people and cattle.”
A few days later he noticed a ringing in his left ear.  His hearing had never been good, but this was something different. 
Perhaps because he’d disobeyed his mother he didn’t tell about his problem.  When it got worse and his parents noticed they assumed tonsillitis.
But a medical check showed this was no simple example of the infection otitis externa, better known as swimmer’s ear, common, painful but treatable
This was a more serious bacterial infection and by the time it was diagnosed his hearing had been irreparably damaged. Now he was totally deaf. On the cusp of adolescence, quivering with life’s possibilities is not the best time to make a balanced assessment of the future.
“I felt as though I had died,” he said. ‘I wanted to kill myself.  I left school, came back, and left again.  For two years I stayed away. I didn’t know what to do except hide myself. 
“I was so angry with God.  What had happened was unfair. I was good at school, particularly mathematics. I wanted to go to university, a journey that was rare for students from Jambudesa.  Now it seemed I’d lost everything.
“My mother said: ‘Life is like a question which we have to answer.  How do we face the future?  If you don’t go to school how will you ever succeed?’
“My father was a teacher in the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) so I knew the importance of education.  I understood what Mom said and followed her advice.”
Indonesia is the better for his decision because Hanif, now 25, has become a leading advocate for disabled students at UGM where he has just completed his first degree in less than four years, ahead of his colleagues.
Instead of maths he turned to the pen to express his emotions.  At school he wrote short stories, screenplays, poems and even scientific articles, winning prizes and getting published locally and provincially.
His first partly-biographical novel Jejak Pejalan Sunyi (Walking Quietly) has been published by Grasindo.  How he wants to pursue higher degrees and an academic career.
Hanif described his hopes in a poem:

            I wanted to explore the world through words on this green campus...
Words that have been made can still breathe...

Coming late to deafness meant he never formally learned signing but has developed lip-reading skills. When these fail he asks for questions to be written.

Hanif talks eloquently and passionately about the plight of the disabled in Indonesia, sometimes reducing his listeners to tears.

 “It takes time to get to know others and find my confidence,” he said.  “I need people to look at me directly when they speak.  Some find that difficult.”

Once on campus he set about founding the Students with Disabilities Forum, lobbying for recognition and access to all facilities, writing and speaking about the issues he and his friends faced:.
Rector Dr Dwikorita Karnawati told The Jakarta Post that UGM had now removed all restrictions against enrolment.
“We must find special ways to help the disabled study and reach their full potential for their benefit and for the good of society,” she said.
“I don’t know the best ways but we can study what is happening globally, improve our wisdom and listen to advocates like Hanif, an exceptional student helping bring about real change.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 January 2017)
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Friday, January 13, 2017

NZ BREAKS FREE OF THE US-ISRAEL LEASH

Doing it their way                                              
At the UN Security Council’s December meeting New Zealand showed the world it’s no megapower’s poodle.
The South Pacific nation co-sponsored a successful motion demanding a halt to settlements in Palestine territory, delighting much of the Islamic world and infuriating Israel.
Egypt drafted the motion also sponsored by Malaysia, Senegal and Venezuela. The US which normally supports Israel abstained from voting.
The win is more bark than bite as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said no-way and pulled home his Wellington ambassador. But it shows how a resolute and tiny Western country can write its own script and play on the big stage.
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully told reporters the motion was “a victory for those who are keen to see the Security Council take some action on the Middle East peace process after eight years of complete inaction.”
McCully won’t be in airport VIP lounges after May as it’s all change in Kiwi politics following PM John Key’s surprise pre-Christmas decision to quit. The top job passed almost seamlessly to his former deputy Bill English.
McCully has been ill and his exit after eight years was expected.  Front runners for the position include Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, 51, and Trade Minister Todd McClay, 48, former Ambassador to the European Union. 
McClay’s background makes him the logical choice. Coleman was formerly Defence Minister so also has international experience.
Kiwis will vote sometime before November; if the electorate rejects  a Keyless National Party  Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman David Parker, 56, could collect the portfolio. Policy shift would be minimal as both parties agree on major issues.
Key’s departure while leagues ahead in the polls, the economy bubbling and budget in surplus should be Politics 101 for leaders everywhere: How to play the dark arts without turning embittered and becoming despised.  Few will copy because most practitioners start believing their own publicity and succumb to hubris.
Had Soeharto resigned as president when popular and development booming Indonesia would now be dramatically different.
Key was a high-altitude money trader working across world capitals when he returned home to revive the National Party, becoming PM in 2008. Now he’s done it his way again – striding out of office even though the seers said he’d win the next election.
This suggests Kiwis do politics like civilised gentlefolk. Wrong. Most of Key’s 37 predecessors were knifed at the ballot box, metaphorically stabbed by colleagues in factional brawls or literally dying at their desks.  He got labelled ‘the smiling assassin’ for despatching slouchers without making them rivals.
Key, 55, rationalized that a fourth three-year term as PM (NZ has no restrictions on leadership tenure) would damage his family and “make room for new talent”. Though usually a euphemism for ‘I’ve lost control of Cabinet’,  seasoned commentators reckon the reasons are genuine.
Key broke all rules governing conservative parties, calling himself a “centrist and pragmatist” driven by “common sense” rather than ego or ideology. He voted for gay marriage, still unavailable in Australia, and ignored overseas trends to lift the pension age though costs are crippling budgets as retirees live longer.
Despite his ease in high places Key remained the happy guy next door, hard to hate. Even his Labour opponents said he “served generously with dedication.” He stayed ordinary while being extraordinary a quality seemingly shared by President Joko ‘Jokowi” Widodo.
Although representing only 4.5 million people Key’s goodbye was world news. His big mates in Washington, London and Brussels called to wish him well. At his holiday hideaway in Hawaii he plays golf with Barack Obama.  Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull reacted with Oz slang: ‘Say it ain’t so, Bro’.  So all the more surprising that NZ backs Palestine.
McCully, 63, a lawyer before entering Parliament, worked backstage. Under his watch NZ’s strange relationship with the US improved when the USS Sampson became the first warship flying the stars and stripes to sail into Kiwi waters in 33 years.
NZ was a founder member of the ANZUS security treaty but in 1986 under a Labour Government went nuclear free banning visits by nuclear armed or powered vessels.
The snub astonished Australia and outraged America but the acronym stayed intact; defence officials quietly kept the three-way alliance afloat while their political masters stared at the horizon.
National favours business and farmers, a powerful force in local politics. Aotearoa, NZ’s Maori name, has been an international human rights and social welfare pioneer and a model for others. 
It was the first nation in the world to give women the vote. It developed a massive government housing program, pensions for all at 65, free public health and education, and  no-fault accident insurance  – policies dear to the electorate.
To pay for the goodies NZ has a high tax economy dependent on tourism and food exports.  Its farmer cooperative Fonterra has a milk packing plant in Cikarang, West Java.
Key and McCully last visited Indonesia in July. NZ doesn’t carry the Islamophobic baggage that weighs down Australia’s relations with its northern neighbor so has a benign image in the Archipelago embellished by backing Palestine.  However it’s a ferocious free trader against the Republic’s protectionism.
Also in December the World Trade Organization upheld a NZ / US challenge to 18 agricultural non-tariff barriers allegedly costing Kiwi exporters more than half a billion dollars. Indonesia will appeal.
Another potential clash zone has been flagged by incoming ambassador Tantowi Yahya who plans to give Kiwis “accurate and up-to-date information” about his country’s policies in West Papua.
Vocal NGOs highlighting alleged human rights abuses in the province are unlikely to stay tuned into the former TV host’s message.
 McCully set up consulates in Surabaya and Bali to boost business and sell high-quality education.  Aid has been channelled to develop geothermal power projects where Kiwi engineers are experts.
Whoever becomes NZ’s FAM the little nation at the bottom of the world will continue to do things its way.
(First published in Strategic Review - 13 January 2017)






Tuesday, January 10, 2017

CONFRONTING COLOUR

A Kiwi in the paddy      
                                           
The greens are darker, denser and deeper in his homeland.  Tones in his birthplace are brighter, shriller. All are teasing, shifting, mysterious even, difficult to catch on canvas.
New Zealand artist John van der Sterren doesn’t shrink from the challenges of Java’s landscapes. “I have the itch,” he says and flexes his fingers.  No arthritis, though he’s 78 and spent his early childhood deprived of all essential nutrients in a tropical concentration camp.
The awful experience scarred in other ways.  “I get depressed,” he adds, “but art is also therapy. Perseverance is very important for an artist. Deep down I know the urge comes from up there.”  He points to the sky, but claims not to be conventionally religious.
 “I’m not so prolific now, maybe 60 paintings a year compared with more than 200 at my peak.  But I can’t keep away from the studio.”
This is a splendid purpose-built building set among the rice paddies of Central Java.  It’s called Villa Sikepan (named after a nearby village) and sits over a disused sugar-cane rail line and stone overpass known as the Bridge of the White Tiger.  Locals claim to have seen this mythical beast so tend to keep clear.
 The three-level home stands alongside a rushing creek, one of hundreds that irrigate the Kedu Plain, the fertile farmlands between the Progo and Elo Rivers just seven degrees below the Equator.
It would be difficult to find a greater contrast with NZ, which accepted the young John and his Dutch parents as refugees. They’d survived more than three years harsh internment during the Japanese occupation of the then Dutch East Indies
About 100,000 non-Asian prisoners filled the camps where the death rate was up to 30 per cent. When the gates were opened after Japan lost the war attacks by vengeful mobs hating the former colonialists took more lives.
The family was offered repatriation to Holland or safety in the South Pacific nation.  They spent two months in Invercargill, one of the world’s most southerly cities. Their only child was eight.
 “It was the most marvellous time,” said the artist.  “We were made to feel so welcome.”
Back in Indonesia the returned Dutch were refusing to recognize Soekarno’s declaration of independence and so began a guerrilla war.  This only ended in 1949 when the colonialists accepted the new post-war reality of surging nationalism.
During the four-year conflict the Dutch briefly gained some mastery over the revolutionaries so the family returned to Indonesia where father Albert worked in the airline industry.  But they rapidly realised the old days were over so headed back to NZ, this time settling in the capital Wellington.
At school John was good at cartooning and keen on music, eventually becoming a cello player with a string quartet. But art didn’t pay in the NZ of the 1960s. “You’d be eating dog food to survive,” said van der Sterren

So he worked with an advertising company for the next quarter century.  Along the way he got married and had two daughters, and pushed Indonesia aside. Art stayed a weekend pastime but became more serious when he met landscape painter Cedric Savage.
“He never taught me, but he did encourage me – and that is so important,” said van der Sterren. “He once looked at one of my works which I thought rather good.  It had a clear blue sky.
“Cedric picked up a brush and painted a horizontal line through the sky.  In one stroke he changed everything.”
Then his company offered to send him to Indonesia to help open a new office. The memories were brutal but the assignment was attractive and Java’s beguiling colors beckoned.  He met French art dealer Didier Hamel in Jakarta who challenged him to take his talent seriously. In 1991 the Kiwi walked out of his day job and into the unknown.
Two years later his first exhibition exceeded expectations. Commissions to paint the Presidential Palace and portraits of the prominent followed, for the man has eclectic talents, shifting from close-up to wide screen with ease.
Some of his earlier figures have Vincent van Gogh intensity.  His landscapes are easy on the eye and getting starker as he ages.
“Looking back it was the right time to turn full-time,” van der Sterren said. “Before the economic crash of 1998 Chinese businessmen were enthusiastic buyers, competing among themselves for new works.”
After trying other locations he settled near Mendut, a 9th century Buddhist monument related to the nearby Borobudur Temple complex, the World Heritage Site that draws millions of tourists.
Once free of office routines van der Sterren toured the archipelago drawing just about everything including shrines and temples that remain from the Buddhist and Hindu eras that preceded Islam.
He has also painted his way across much of Asia. Hamel, who has written two books about his client, describes him as ‘one of the most famous landscape artists living and working in the Far East’.  Van der Sterren’s own books include sketches of old buildings in Surabaya and Jakarta.
Though the area is rich in artists he seldom joins their discussions, arguing that as a foreigner he should not compete with locals. Some are graduates of the prestigious Indonesian Arts Institute in nearby Yogyakarta, the center of Javanese culture.

 “I’ve never been to art school so I’m not in that scene,” he said. “Besides, I don’t like too much natter.  I want to do.” 
He is also critical of current fads for abstract and surrealist art: “Who wants to hang a black superman sitting on the toilet picture in their bedroom?
“To be successful you need to have talent, a good dealer, great friends and lots of luck.  I’ve had all those, particularly being accepted in NZ and becoming a citizen. I return now and again.  But I still find those greens difficult.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Monday 9 January 2017)
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Thursday, January 05, 2017

NUR'S CIREBON MAGIC

Dancing for Islam                                                          
Cirebon dancer Mimi Dewi Savitri died as the last century vanished into history. But her art survives. She was 82 and had been performing till ten days before her passing.
Her granddaughter and legatee Nur ‘Nani’ Anani wants to leave this temporal existence in much the same way – and preferably on the stage. She says this cheerfully. When you have yet to complete four decades on this earth the final curtain seems far away.
“I have much to do in maintaining and demonstrating Indonesia’s traditional culture,” she said. “Fortunately it’s still alive and in good health, though no thanks to the regional government which does little to support the arts.
“When I say this they get angry and I’m not popular. If we had to rely on politicians the arts would not survive. Fortunately some people still like our work - in fact interest is strongest overseas.”
 Nani, whose full name is Nur Ananai Maman Irman, spoke to The Jakarta Post in Wellington after a solo performance at the Indonesian Embassy.
She was in a contingent of 50 creative Indonesians in New Zealand for a course in arts management organised by the Auckland University of Technology. This included a tour of facilities in the South Pacific nation’s capital.
The NZ government offers artists and producers subsidies, courses and awards to encourage participation and growth in all disciplines.
In January Nani will be in the US on her third visit, then again later in the year. Emil Kang, Executive Director for Arts at the University of North Carolina said the dancer would be on campus for a season on sacred /secular boundaries in Islam.
“We are using Sufism as our lens in four non-Arab Muslim-majority nations (Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Senegal) as a way of debunking false notions of a monolithic Islam,” he said.

 “Nani will participate in workshops, classes and conversations on religious studies, Southeast Asian studies and costume design, and dialogues in our center for Muslim civilizations.   

“We are keenly interested in having her share the balance between the preservation of tradition and modern day relevance, and understanding the gray areas of cultural versus religious traditions.”

Nani has also danced in Japan and Europe at venues like the Frankfurt Book Fair adding mystique and movement to events which would otherwise be static.
Nani’s performances set up the audience to expect difference.  Elaborately and colorfully clad with an ornate and regal headdress she mounts the stage as though on a casual stroll, but then kneels and faces away from the auditorium.
For a few minutes of silence all that can be seen is her back wrapped in splendid batik.  She says she is contemplating, entering the spirit of the character she’ll portray.  The mask she later dons has been infused with magic by its long-gone maker.
Some masks she uses have no holes for eyes making the dancing even more difficult.
The gamelan begins. Curious melodies that swirl like moving water, never stopping long enough for a take-home tune as in Western music. It’s not just a dance, but a ritual “between God and earth.”
“I’m the seventh generation of artists and started the dance exercises when I was three,” she said later, not to brag but as a matter of fact. “I didn’t come from a rich family.  We had to borrow and get donations so I could go to university in Bandung.
“Dancing is something I have to do and want to do. It is my choice and joy, but also a compulsion.  The spirits of my ancestors are here. They must be kept alive for this and future generations.”
Not all in her family agree.  Those who follow a more austere version of Islam from Saudi Arabia disapprove of women on stage and claim that the ancient arts are idolatrous. 
Some dances are considered erotic; Westerners would find this difficult to accept as there’s nothing bawdy or revealing, though red in the costume indicates “the madness of desire”.
Nani, who is now divorced, said she is more flexible in her beliefs.  She cites the Walisongo (nine saints) who brought Islam to Java as acceptors of indigenous arts who didn’t try to stamp out ancient beliefs.  These included dances celebrating weddings and harvests – and to guard against supernatural forces.
Supporter Daniel Haryono sometimes asks her to perform at his Ullen Sentalu Museum of Javanese Arts and Culture in Yogyakarta. This draws around 15,000 visitors a month; less than ten per cent are foreigners – a number he’d like to see increase. 
His museum specialises in preserving ‘intangible heritage’ such as folklore and music along with the artefacts normally found in collections. 
“Nani is one of the most successful performing artists in the country,” he said. “She is keeping the traditional dances of Losari in good health.”
Losari is an old village outside Cirebon and closer to Central Java and its influence, particularly the Prince Panji stories which feature in Nani’s dances. She runs her Purwa Kencana studio with about 80 students. 
She said the style of dance, costumes and masks differs from those in West Java. The movements are also said to be more agile, though such comparisons are best left to the keen eyes of choreographers.
 “Losari style is different from Cirebon mask dancing in every way – history, choreography, costume, music and presentation,” she said.
“The dance of King Bandopati Klana reflects aspects of human nature like egotism and arrogance, illustrated by the color red and the mask’s bulging eyes. The message is that these aspects of human nature are not morally good and should not be imitated.
“The Losari mask dance styles were created by the local Prince Angkawijaya about 400 years ago to spread Islam. So this is what I’m doing while preserving the skills of my Grandmother and all her ancestors.”
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(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 January 2017)