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

Wednesday, March 03, 2021


        Messengers beware

The first who told of Lucullus ' coming so angered Tigranes that he had the messenger’s head, effectively ensuring no-one brought bad news. Deprived of fresh intelligence Tigranes watched while war raged, listening only to flatterers.


Even if Indonesian activists haven’t read Plutarch's Life of Lucullus they’d recognise their predicaments when facing President Joko Widodo, stand-in for the first century BC King of Armenia. 

Widodo comes across as humble, serious about improving the sprawling archipelago’s infrastructure.   His determination to build roads, rails and ports deserves applause, which he enjoys.

Unfortunately he hasn’t done well at social engineering and pandemic control, so no clapping.  He’s had a Chinese Covid-19 jab, but that’s ineffective against the virus of hubris.  So when he asked for public feedback, few have been brave.

The infection originated from media tycoon and Nasdem (National Democrat) Party founder Surya Paloh, 69, whose role is kingmaker, not candidate.  He’s from the north Sumatra province of Aceh; the convention has only Javanese in Jakarta’s White House.

Shortly after Widodo won the top job standing for the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), Paloh suggested the Constitution be changed, letting the President serve more than two five-year terms.

Widodo said ‘no’, knowing he’d never get backing from his party’s matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri, 74.  She wants her dull daughter Puan Maharani, 47, currently Speaker of the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR House of Representatives) to contest the presidency in the 2024 election.

Paloh’s obsequiousness must have gone to Widodo’s head because he’s losing his sheen as a man of the people.  This image once put clear air between himself and his arrogant rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, beating the oligarch 55 to 45 per cent in the direct vote.

In 2015 during his first term Widodo hosted Malcolm Turnbull, showing off his commoner’s credentials by taking the PM on a signature blusukan. This was a supposedly unstaged public market meet-the-wee-folk walkabout.  Those stunts are long gone as Widodo becomes more aloof.

The blusukan delighted a tie-less Turnbull who snapped selfies with cheerful traders.  However it horrified the security detail trying to handle the unconstrained crowds.  The crew cuts who wear sunnies at night and think this makes them invisible, started urging more discipline.

They weren’t alone.  Jakarta palace functionaries had been urging their boss to be esteemed by all, and not just the riff-raff.  A preferred portrayal would be more like Kim Jong-un surrounded by fawning geriatric generals scribbling down the Dear Leader’s inspiring instructions as he tours another missile site.

No journos in those staged shots from Pyongyang. In Jakarta the unkempt media youngsters thrusting smartphones don’t show enough respect for the guy who runs the world’s third largest democracy.

In 2018 a law was passed making it illegal to ‘disrespect Parliament or its members’. Unnecessary - just tickle an old one – the 2008 Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik (ITE) Law.  It’s supposed to regulate on-line deals, but includes a defamation and insults clause with up to four-years jail for offenders.

After autocrat Soeharto quit in 1998, new media legislation gave some protection to journos and publishers facing malicious litigants. The independent National Press Council was tasked with settling disputes outside the courts.  However the ITE law takes precedence.

Rights’ activists reckon this threatens free speech. Andre Arditya , political editor of The Conversation’s Indonesian edition, wrote: ‘The ITE Law is one of the largest barriers to freedom of expression in Indonesia. The article of defamation and the article of hate speech in the ITE Law are most widely used as the basis for criminal reporting.


‘ ... (Widodo has) completely ignored criticism from the public against him. If there is a response, it usually takes the form of threats, intimidation and arrest of critics.’

In 2018 a teenager in Sumatra was reportedly sentenced to 18 months jail for insulting Widodo on Facebook. Last year South Kalimantan on-line local media editor Diananta Putra Sumedi was sentenced to 14 weeks jail for his reporting of a land dispute, even though the Press Council had apparently resolved the issue.

Last year Amnesty International claimed to have found 29 cases of harassment and intimidation against academics and journos across two months:

‘The right to freedom of expression has already been on a decline in Indonesia in recent years, which is exemplified by the increasing number of people convicted of defamation, blasphemy and makar (treason) simply for expressing their opinions online or organizing peaceful protests between 2014 and 2019.’

Widodo has neutered parliamentary criticism by making Subianto Defence Minister, and handing goodies to small parties.  Veteran Australian academic and writer Max Lane, who lives in Indonesia, has listed the President’s surviving antagonists: ‘The social justice wing of civil society – human rights and environmental NGOs, student activists and the smaller more activist trade unions – and some media, such as the Tempo group.’ .

As in Australia, defamation is an arena to play word games.  In Indonesia it’s been used against journos who expose government corruption, big business wrongdoings and remind potential investors that hazards abound in the Republic’s rugged corporate and legal jungle.

Reporters Sans FrontiĆ©res’ World Press Freedom Index puts Indonesia 119 among 180 countries. (Australia is 28th.)  The Economist Intelligence Unit has Indonesia recording the lowest democracy score for 14 years.  Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks Indonesia 102 out of 180 countries.

Widodo may be getting concerned about overseas perceptions of his democracy lest they impact on his bid for more foreign investors, already spooked by his mishandling of the pandemic, putting health of the economy above the wellbeing of citizens.   

Human Rights Watch says the response has been ‘weak, with low testing and tracing rates, and little transparency.’  Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre reports 1.3 million cases and close to 35,000 deaths, the highest levels in Southeast Asia.

In a speech earlier this month Widodo pondered the possibility of asking the DPR to revise the ITE law ‘if it is proven that the legislation has not provided a sense of justice.’

So far little has happened apart from delegating a police chief to write guidelines, possibly not the ideal person to advise on free speech and media rights.

Widodo’s comments are, as usual, too vague to decode with certainty.  Does the President want the ITE Law to be refined to appease critics – or further strengthened to shut them down?  The man is Javanese, and his words fit a culture which is famously opaque.  Tigranes was too direct.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 3 March 2021:





Friday, February 19, 2021


                    No rush – the women can wait.

Five years ago a Bill was put before Indonesia’s 575 Lower House (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat) MPs urging them to penalise sexual violence. Activists stressed the need for urgency as the scourge was increasing.  They’re still waiting.

Pessimists’ fears were amplified when 430,000 plus cases were reported in 2019, and even more since the coronavirus has sent millions unemployed, fracturing families and stoking stress. 

Activists say these numbers are hillocks and the real figures mountainous as few speak out.  Support for battered wives is rare, and in suburbs and villages where families are packed close, bedroom battles swiftly become public property.  Then all know who’s at fault.  Guess what? It’s rarely the fellow.

In 2018  Baiq Nuril Maknun, a primary school teacher in Lombok, recorded her principal’s  sexual harassment.   Although a confidante had put the story on-line against Maknun’s wishes, she was sentenced to six months jail for distributing immoral material before being given a presidential pardon. Her boss was acquitted.

Indonesia ranks just behind the Philippines as the most dangerous nation for women in the Indo-Pacific.  That’s according to a survey by the Singapore-based research company ValueChampion. Reasons include inadequate assault laws, social inequality and poor health care. 

The Indonesian Criminal Code defines the offence of rape, though not abuse, exploitation, slavery and online harassment.   The idea of marital rape has still to be widely accepted.

Because the proposed legislation gives women the right to say ‘no’, opponents have argued this would lead men – who are supposed to have a greater sex drive - seeking relief outside wedlock and so exacerbate the situation.

Despite tentative backing by the two main secular parties, PDI-P and Golkar, it seems the bill won’t be debated this year.  Fundamentalists assert changes will upset the nation’s moral purity and pollute its culture with vile Western perversions.  

These include casual sex, same-sex marriage, unmarried couples living together and community acceptance of gays, all bundled together under the tag seks bebas (free sex).

Support for reform is strong if a study involving 2,200 respondents is to be accepted.  Research by the International Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID) and the Indonesian Judicial Research Society (IJRS) reported around 70 per cent back the Bill.

The scepticism is fuelled by the small sample and the distinct difference between the values of urban respondents and rural residents.  Almost half the population lives outside the big cities.

The reality known to all change agents is that 88 per cent of the population claims to follow Islam.  That huge cohort in a republic of 270 million wields political clout.  

Just as Australians get their impressions of the world’s fourth largest nation through media clips of floods, volcanoes and drug busts in Bali, so the Indonesian press tends to highlight stories about perceived permissiveness, as though Oz is defined by sex scandals.

Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Indonesia, but consenting adults are regularly harassed by clerics and their zealous followers.  In orthodox  Aceh gays get whipped in public.  Last month two late-20s men in a consensual relationship were beaten 77 times each.  Five thrashers were involved to avoid tiring the torturers. 

President Joko Widodo has publicly said he wants the brutality to stop. It continues, and draws tourists.  His writ is supposed to cover the whole archipelago of 6,000 occupied islands, but the north Sumatra province goes its own way.

During his 32 years in power the late President Soeharto tried his hand at social engineering by defining the roles of men and women: the bapak-bapak brought home the rupiah, the ibu-ibu kept the house and kids clean and fed, and the bed ready.  It was called Ibuism (‘Ibu’ means mother) and ensured women were tied to sink, stove and cradle. 

Their approved community involvement was through the Dharma Wanita (women’s duty) organisation where a member’s status depended on her man’s job.   If he had a high position in a government office his spouse could boss around other wives, whatever her age, education and leadership skills.

Since Soeharto’s departure in 1998 women have dashed ahead, though progress is uneven.  Dharma Wanita has gone and the General Elections Law mandates 30 percent of candidates for national and regional legislatures must be women.  That doesn’t mean they get pre-selected for winnable seats.

Constitutionally Indonesia is a democratic secular republic. It’s not a Gulf State and has women running major corporations and holding powerful Cabinet positions.  Between 2001 and 2004 Megawati Soekarnoputri, a daughter of first President Soekarno, ruled as fifth president. More up-to-date standouts include Foreign Affairs Minister Retno  Marsudi, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Manpower Minister Ida Fauziyah. 

Despite the latter lady’s title, her job does include woman power. Around 53 per cent  aged 15 and above are in the workforce compared to 82 percent of men. (The Australian figures are 60.7 and 70.9 percent.  However they are suspect because many work part-time.

Yet behind the modernity lurks a patriarchal tradition which puts men as family heads, women subservient to their needs, and prioritises community calm above personal distress. 

The women’s lobby wants the reasoning behind the bill articulated through government campaigns, specifically to explain that sexual violence is more than brutal rape of a stranger.  As in Australia, most assaults occur in the family home and involve intimate partners.

The thinking thwarting reform runs on these illogical rails: Marriage authorises sex so all intimate behaviour is consensual. If the relationship turns bad, women should mask their bruises and show their smiles to maintain harmony.  If an underage girl becomes pregnant the pressure to wed is intense.

In 2019 the law was amended so both parties can marry at 19.  It used to be 16 for girls.

However the global NGO Girls, not Brides which fights to stop child marriage, reports  ‘religious courts or local officials (can) authorise marriages of girls even earlier, with no minimum age in such cases.’  

So what can reformers do to accelerate change?  Conservative Indonesians may reject their neighbour’s liberal attitudes, but they’ll be happy to accept our Liberal leader’s habit of entreating citizens to pray.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 19 Feb 2021: 

Monday, February 08, 2021


 Being Murdoched - and no restitution


Till now GetUp hasn’t needed disciples rah-rahing the activist group’s crusades. Endorsements come when targets mouth off.  If GetUp is getting so far up their nostrils they start to snort loudly, then the NGO’s efforts must be effective.  Or so the reasoning runs. Though not this time.

To environmental justice, human rights and other worthy issues, GetUp has added public broadcasting.  It’s trying to arouse anger against the impact of News Corp’s never-ending siege of the national broadcaster through the just-released video Murdoch & Morrison v. The ABC.

The 26-minute programme is billed as ‘an explosive new documentary revealing the conservative campaign to gut, discredit and ultimately abolish our iconic public broadcaster  ... (It) exposes the work of the Murdoch media, the Institute of Public Affairs and their allies in the Morrison Government to abolish the ABC’.
That promo should rally all who uphold John Reith’s broadcasting principles; presumably that includes GetUp’s reputed one-million members.  Not so. Three days after going on-line the YouTube page had recorded only 9,000 views.
If that audience included conservative politicians and News Corp’s directors they’d have clicked away before the credits, realising nothing to fear. There are useful backgrounds and sober observations by former ABC senior executive Michael Ward and Macquarie Uni’s Professor Ed Davis; however no damaging disclosures which might lead viewers to cancel subs to Murdoch’s mags and rags.
MM v ABC does three things wrong:  It preaches to the choir which knows the sermons by heart.  It neither exposes anything new as promised, nor examines the criticisms, and it’s poorly constructed.
GetUp trumpeted ‘no TV station is going to air it. And Scott Morrison and the Murdoch Press will do everything in their power to discredit it over the coming days.’
The more pedestrian reason for rejection is that it’s not good enough.  Maybe the discrediting is coming, though so far it seems the PM and News Corp have more important things to do.

Much space is taken stressing the ABC’s value in emergencies.  Correct, though overdone since smartphones have outsmarted transistor radios.  During the current conflagration north of Perth, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services website continually updated warnings and tracked the inferno.

A strong case for investigating alleged political influence on the ABC is the cancellation of its ABC Life website after a carpet bombing by News Corp.  

According to the site’s former deputy editor Osman Faruqi, the ‘idea was that Life’s team of digital journalists would work with already existing ABC programs to help their stories travel further.

‘The second goal was to help the ABC connect with audiences that had little affiliation with the broadcaster. ABC Life’s key performance indicators were explicit: develop a relationship with these Australians by producing content relevant to their lives, and bring them into the broader ABC fold.’

Faruqi features in MM v ABC saying he was packaged by Andrew Bolt as ‘a green Muslim leftist’ even before ABC Life was launched in 2018.  News Corp’s search engines must have flagged a non-Anglo to vilify.  Mum Mehreen is a Greens senator and on the rabid rights’ hate list. 

Faruqi said ABC Life had exceeded expectations.  His case would have been strengthened with data and supportive internal reports.  Why no questioning of management and its decision to kill?

Those hoping for a punchy doco with certainties delivered by respected thought-leaders on public broadcasting’s importance to democracy will be weeping at the lost chance.

Where are the views of scholars who’ve studied the British original, the catastrophe in NZ when the national telecaster went semi-commercial, the situation in Canada and the struggling PBS and NPR in the US?

At times MM v ABC looks more like a home movie. Six minutes are wasted with members clapping the ABC and staff frolicking as Bananas in Pyjamas.

Cute stuff, but confronting a machine as ruthless and formidable as News Corp needs loading heavy artillery with tungsten-tipped facts. 

Unaddressed questions could have included: What’s an adequate service? Should the budget be indexed?  The formula ABC good, News Corp bad is too simplistic for serious debate.  ABC defenders anxious about issues like overstocked and overpaid management worry they’ll give ammo to opponents, but need to be clear-eyed to stay authentic.

Why weren’t the ABC’s stalkers questioned about their reasoning?  Even though they can’t walk straight, ideologues need the odd plywood prop of truth and lackey band of logic to stay upright.

The PM’s Trumpism: ‘there are no further cuts (to the ABC budget) because there no cuts’ should have been forensically examined.  Last year the mainstream media reported $84 million and 250 jobs slashed.

Likewise former IPA director James Paterson’s bubble that ‘the case for privatising the ABC is getting stronger every year.’  British philosopher Bertrand Russell said it well: ‘The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.

Bolt’s fatuous assertion that the ‘toxic’ ABC is ‘a menace to our democracy’ should have been challenged face-to-face.  Why does he dread diversity and quality? 

We’re aware he’s feeding the trolls, but if he quivers at being confronted by the likes of Paul Barry he should be lampooned.   The gap left by the late John Clarke and Bryan Dawe has still to be filled.

One sector crippled by a lack of funds and ignored is the overseas service ABC Australia.  Originally a showcase of our values, talents and culture, it’s now stuffed with AFL (not played west of WA), repeat promos and state news.  Only marginally better than a test pattern. 

Reluctantly kept on life support because transmission is compulsory under the ABC charter, it ranks below other international services.   That’s so shameful even the Dirty Digger in a New York apartment should be squirming at how his birthplace presents itself to the world.

MM v ABC was a fine ambition, poorly executed.  The job should have been given to a tough producer who knows how and where to hit heavyweights.  It’s worth watching to hear Ward, Davis and Faruqi, but otherwise sad to say this time GetUp has stuffed up.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 8 Feb 2020:
Murdoch & Morrison v. The ABC - GetUp fails a commendable mission - Pearls and IrritationsPearls and Irritations (



Sunday, January 31, 2021



             Indonesia’s plague policy:  Pray and pay

A wall sign at Malang’s Lavalette Public Hospital advertises Covid-19 tests for Rp 250,000 – about AUD 23.  That’s cheap; other Indonesian clinics are charging double or more.

To put the fee into perspective consider this: It takes two days for an Indonesian tradie to earn a quarter of a million rupiah, four for a factory hand. 

The high charges for testing explains why the rate is so low, making a spittoon of stats about spread of the plague and death rate, the essential info which shapes public health planning.

Late last year Our World in Data, an Oxford University non-profit, reported Indonesia testing 16 / 1,000 suspects.  The Philippines figure is 54 / 1,000.

Indonesia’s Health Ministry says the nation has more than one million cases and almost 30,000 deaths.  Independent epidemiologists fear the figure is three or four times greater.

Yet President Joko Widodo has told his 270 million citizens the policy of balancing health and the economy has been successful. 

CNN Indonesia reported him saying: ‘We are grateful. Indonesia is among the countries that can control these two crises well.’ 

As the police are getting keen on prosecuting critics of the administration during the President’s second five-year term, better not say his statement is untrue.  Instead we’ll suggest he may have been poorly advised. 

Unfortunately it’s not the first time.

When the virus was already travelling well, the government offered AUD 10.4 million for web ‘influencers’ to promote tourism.  The nutters who most likely sowed that idea would have been the Gen Z court whisperers hired to help old politicians plug into young voters’ thinking and behaviour. Fifty per cent of the population is under 40.

Fortunately it was clobbered by public outrage led by medics and journos who read more than memes and understood the virus was real.

The standard Indonesian response – also favoured by some overseas leaders – has been to call on the Almighty.  That hasn’t worked either as the Lowy Institute’s ranking of 94 countries’ handling of the pandemic shows: Indonesia is in position 85.

Business lobbyists, more worried about bottom lines than full hospitals, have had more success than their Oz colleagues in pushing for prioritising of the economy. 

This became clear late last year when Widodo finally tossed out Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto after 14 months of fumbling.  He’s most infamous for predicting the satanic infection will fly over the world’s fourth most populous nation because the people below are so pious.

For all his faults (he let hospitals cry out for essential equipment) Putranto is a medical doctor.

His replacement is not. Budi Gunadi Sadikin has been running the task force for national economic recovery.  Before his promotion he led a state bank and a state aluminium company. In the Indonesian political system ministers can be appointed who aren’t elected politicians.

A vaccination programme using the Chinese Sinovac vaccine has started targeting medical workers.  Unlike other countries jabs aren’t being offered to the vulnerable elderly, only those under 60. Indonesia is the first state outside China to give the go-ahead.

So far it’s taken two weeks for 250,000 medical workers to get needle number one.  Widodo, 59, got his second last Wednesday.  The early queue includes the police, military and public servants.

The president told the media about 30,000 inoculators are readying syringes in clinics and hospitals, each medic giving 30 jabs a shift.  That should result in close to one million pricks a day.

The service is supposed to be free though the government is pondering a parallel programme for those prepared to pay.  They’ll probably prefer one of the better appraised vaccines from the West than the donated Beijing product which has not undergone stringent testing.

Trials of Sinovac in Turkey reported efficacies of 91 per cent, 50 per cent in Brazil, then revised to 78 per cent, though only 65 per cent in Indonesia.  The discrepancies are being blamed on different participation rates and data interpretation, creating more confusion.

The Widodo government claims two thirds of the population will bare shoulders within a year.  That figure is also being scrutinised.  If the testing regime is so inefficient, why would delivering vaccines be any better? 

To be fair the logistics are confronting. With around 6,000 occupied islands across an archipelago 5,245 kilometres wide, hampered by inadequate transport and inept bureaucracy, the task is immense.

It’s also expected many will reject.  Distrust of the government is widespread, partly because oldies remember the nation was ruled for 32 years last century by a dictator who ensured the only news read and heard came through his PR filters.

Then there’s the problem of scientists broadcasting a muddled message – an issue not confined to the Republic. The ABC reported University of Indonesia epidemiologist Dr Pandu Riono saying advice was often dismissed when the infection was getting into gear: ‘The denial of the Government at that time was extremely high.

‘Giving input to the Government is a big challenge for me, especially how to translate academic findings into policy. Officials tend to listen more to their expert staff, not academics from outside the bureaucracy like us. The Government should have involved all universities from the start.’

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 31 Jan 2021: