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, December 05, 2019


Can a dotcom driver turn schools around? 

In October Indonesian President Joko Widodo startled teachers, parents and political seers by making Nadiem Makarim, 35, Minister for Education and Culture.

The Harvard-educated entrepreneur is not a politician.  He has no public sector experience.  The last two ministers were also outsiders – but senior academics. Makarim’s skills are in applying information technology to everyday matters.  He upended the taxi industry with his on-line transport system Go-Jek, now reportedly worth about US $10 billion.

Widodo hopes his captain’s pick will drive the nation’s bogged school system back on Highway 2Morrow. But steering the lumbering education road train around the bollards of rigid thinkers won’t  be like zipping past  potholes on  a motorbike.

Dr Totok Suprayitno (right) gets a tad defensive when talking to a foreign journalist.  

No problems handling local media, but the head of research and development at the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) has a fair idea of the issues that puzzle outsiders.

There’s one particularly awkward question:  Why is the state of Indonesian schooling so bad when the Constitution mandates 20 per cent of  spending must go on education?  
Suprayitno tried but got choked by jargon.  The World Bank explains the conundrum better than most:

‘By 2018, spending on education was greater than any other sector, approximately meeting the 20 percent target of total government expenditure. However, since the national budget is 15 percent of GDP, this education expenditure is only three per cent of GDP, one of the lowest in the region.’

 “The figure is now 3.3 per cent,” said Suprayitno.  “Yes, it’s below Malaysia with almost six per cent, but all countries face challenges and these are always changing.  One size does not fit all.  Even in your country (Australia) you have problems.”

This is where the stats get squishy.  Federations like Australia, the United States and Malaysia fund education nationally and through the States, so comparisons can be flawed.

“Education control used to be based in Jakarta but is now being decentralized,” Suprayitno said.  Then he added:  “But too much decentralization isn’t good.  We have to concentrate on the quality of learning outcomes.”

The last sentence means ‘check results’.  It’s  the sort of verbiage  beloved by educationalists world wide.  Their highly competitive profession chews up experts and theories, and then vomits messes of acronyms and geekspeak for others to mop up - and recycle.

A corny and mildly sexist joke in the business says it’s unwise to chase a bus, a pretty woman or an education policy, as another will pass by shortly.

At the heart of the squabbling is understanding how humans learn – a topic still furiously debated. How are we able to look at sets of markings and turn these into speech where ideas can be expressed?
 Cognitive science is the discipline and one of the most prominent experts is Virginia University psychologist Daniel Willingham, a critic of the traditional ‘learning styles’ theories once popular in Indonesia. 

 These hold that individuals absorb knowledge differently so need specialized teaching.
Willingham has focused on study habits which he claims have been shown to work through scientific research. 

Topping the policy pop charts for the last few years have been responses to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Every three years it tests 15-year-olds across the world in reading, maths and science. The results are supposed to show how well adolescents will handle problems when they grow up and want to enter the workforce.

The thinking behind PISA is this mantra: ‘Modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know’.

In 2018 more than half a million teens from 80 countries took PISA tests; the results have still to be released. In the 2015 study Indonesia ranked 62 out 72 participating nations.  Although there were marginal improvements from the 2012 results, the overall outcomes were dismal.

One glimmer of hope:  Indonesian girls are doing better than boys across all subjects and particularly reading.  Not many want to take up the hard disciplines like science but those who do are usually female.

The World Bank has analyzed these and other figures to conclude that 55 percent of Indonesians who complete school are ‘functionally illiterate’ compared with 14 percent in Vietnam and 20 per cent in other OECD countries.

Demographic trends suggest that by 2030 the population will be around 296 million (currently estimated at 271 million) and heavily skewed to youth; the country has a median age of 28 compared to the US and Australia's 38. 

This means the Republic will soon have a vast and overflowing labor lake. Whether these potential employees will be able to navigate their way into work – and jobs that are satisfying and well paid – will depend on the education they’re getting now.  In the recent past the need was for brawn.  Now it’s brains.

Almost all Indonesian children finish elementary school.  Then the dropouts start, with just above half completing secondary school according to the World Bank.

Indonesia is the 16th largest economy in the world.  Optimists are predicting it will be in the top ten by 2030, a forecast which depends on investments  and workforce qualities. As economists say, a strong economy begins with a strong, well-educated workforce. 

In this gloom Indrah Pratiwi (right) is a beacon.  The daughter of farmers in a remote West Java village, she was the first in her family to get a tertiary education.  After graduating in international relations from the nation’s top public campus Universitas Indonesia she got work with the MEC gathering data.

The 29-year old  could be a poster child for Indonesia’s post millennials: “I’m educated and independent.  I have a good job which is well paid.  I can set an example of what a woman from an isolated area can achieve if she stays at school.”

But her research led to some embarrassing discoveries.

At a Jakarta workshop for teachers from distant districts she projected charts illustrating her findings.  Every one showed Jakarta, Yogyakarta (Central Java) and Riau (Central Sumatra) tops on school retention, reading and most other subjects.  

The images also had West Kalimantan and Papua squatting at the bottom. Troubled by these stats she’s bypassed education authorities by using social media to show what’s possible.  This is not Pratiwi’s job;  it’s her passion.

“I write stories about children being successful through education,” she said. “Boys in particular can’t see the value and want to get working with the men in jobs like fishing.

“I put my stories on Facebook and send them back to children in my village.  They keep asking for more.”

Then comes the crunch:  When asked if she’d want any children she might have in the future to be teachers Pratiwi’s response was decisive: “No.  The salaries are so poor.”

She said that during the presidency of Soekarno (1949 – 1967) teaching had status and was a well rewarded profession; however it had since been diluted by training colleges lowering entry standards to boost enrolments.  She alleged this had attracted mediocre students wanting a secure job with a pension rather than drawing idealists motivated to help lift the next generation.

In October almost 90 teachers gathered in Jakarta for the half-day workshop run through an Australian aid program called Inovasi.  This claims to use ‘a distinctive locally focused approach to develop pilot activities’.  Through autopsies of these programs it hopes to discover what does and doesn’t work.

Its projects are in East Java, Kalimantan and the eastern islands of the archipelago.  The program will die mid 2020 unless renewed.  Further funding should depend on results but Australia has been felling aid to Indonesia.

In 2015 it cut funding by 40 per cent from AUD 542 million to AUD 323 million.  Next year the axe will chop deeper to AUD 298 million.  

When the budget was first slashed the Australian Foreign Minister was Julie Bishop.  Now out of Parliament she works for one of the biggest foreign aid contractors Palladium.  This manages the Inovasi program so there are hopes her influence may keep the show on the road.

Erix Hutasoit (left)  the provincial communications officer for an Inovasi project in Kalimantan, stressed the need to see every district separately, and not just because of ethnic, cultural and language differences.

“In the past it was them and us,” said Hutasoit.  “The teacher was the ultimate authority.  He or she sat on a platform at the front of rows of desks and told the students what to write and read.”

Modern classroom practice has teachers interacting with students, encouraging them to express themselves and question; this behavior bumps into some cultural traditions which expect little people to accept whatever a big person says is factual.

“We’re not hostile to Western ways of thinking and doing, or ideas from abroad,” Hutasoit said. “But the structure and economy of every village in Kalimantan depends on the environment.  Some schools are really small.  It’s not like Java where the policies are made.”

Kalimantan takes up almost three quarters of the island of Borneo.  The rest is owned by Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and Brunei. The province is four times larger than Java though with only 12 per cent of the population.  President Widodo has authorized the building of a new capital in Kalimantan to ease pressures on overcrowded Jakarta.

Ratih Niati (left) is a Dyak, the original inhabitants of Kalimantan.  She teaches because “I want to be useful to my people.”  She’s clearly a star, covering her class walls with pictures and being energetically engaged with students by reading stories.

Children’s books in the West are no longer an afterthought to adult fiction and now have the status of literature with high-level incomes for ace authors and illustrators.

British writer Joanne (J K) Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series pitched to teens is reported to be the world’s first billionaire author.  Her books have been translated into Indonesian though her fantasy world of wizards in Hogwarts School sits more comfortably in British society than Indonesian culture.

Hutasoit said commercial publishers were now becoming more adventurous and realizing that pictures helped children read and release their imaginations.  However there were no examples provided at the workshop.

Indonesian school books tend to be wordy and uninviting; only those approved by checkers in Jakarta get used after being scrutinized for subversive views and ensuring the right moral messages are enforced.

This is a hangover from the authoritarian Soeharto era of last century when heavy rules were imposed on publishers to purge manuscripts of opinions hostile to authority.  Bookshops were more like pharmacies, with volumes kept inside locked cabinets like addictive drugs. This led to a vast reduction in reading which modern educators are trying to address.

A World's Most Literate Nation study last year by Central Connecticut State University ranks Indonesia bottom but one of 61 countries in terms of reading interest.  The lowest is Botswana, the highest Finland.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had earlier reported that just one in every thousand Indonesians read books regularly.

Qoriatul Azizah is in the 0.1 per cent.  Although from another Inovasi project she wasn’t at the Jakarta workshop.  Had she attended and brought along her teaching gear the East Java chalkie would have been a star turn.

For she spends much of her personal time designing large colorful story books  dominated by art, a stark opposite to the pedestrian text-dense titles provided by the Ministry and its departments.
“Most of our students come from homes without books,” she said.  “That means the parents don’t even tell fairytales to their children so there’s no culture of learning by sharing.

“We have a rich oral tradition using wayang (shadow) puppets so there’s no shortage of stories.”
She has modeled her books on those developed by a non-sectarian non-governmental organization called Room to Read based on the US West Coast.  It’s funded by philanthropists and claims to have  ‘benefited 16.8 million children across more than 37,000 communities in 16 countries’ since it started in 2000.

It began operating in Indonesia in 2014.  In 2017 along with the charitable foundation it started ‘​a ​digital ​platform ​that ​combines literacy ​professional ​development ​videos ​and engaging ​children’s stories.’ It’s producing more than 200 ​​digital storybooks in Indonesian and 20 teacher-training videos.

Over three years Room to Read says it’s gathered a stable of a hundred writers and illustrators who have produced 60 ‘culturally relevant’ new titles to support the official National Literacy Movement. Around 420,000 books are being distributed to four thousand schools.

All good and worthy – till the mists lift and the size of the mountain is revealed:
No Western states are as complex and huge as Indonesia, with more than 50 million students and close to three million teachers.  It’s the fourth largest education system in the world after China, India and the US.

About 16 per cent of the nation’s 250,000 primary schools are supervised by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and seven per cent are private; the rest are run by the MEC.

Teacher Azizah says she wants to go overseas to study classroom techniques.  Her principal Asri Suprihatin has visited schools in Malaysia and Singapore – and it shows.

Suprihatin runs Sekolah Dasar Negeri (State elementary school  SDN) Punten 1, just outside Batu in the Central East Java hills, is the sort of campus which gives visitors hope that the archipelago’s education system can one day rank high on world lists.

Every Thursday is Java Day when the 500 students and 31 teachers dress in traditional Javanese clothes, eat Javanese food and speak Javanese. It’s the school’s initiative.  In this district Indonesian is the second language among those born locally.

Punten 1 staffers appear to be flexible and professional; absent is the grim weariness which infects some restrooms:  ‘This would be a great job if it wasn’t for the kids.’  

However English teacher Lena Letor said it was difficult to handle classes of 30 students in small rooms when presenting difficult subjects.  She still focuses on grammar when modern methods stress communication and building vocabularies.

The adults interact easily with their charges in a bright and airy environment which is more garden than yard.  It helps being among apple orchards and vegetable farms 1,000 meters above the baking plains below.

The teachers have changed their 40-year old sterile classrooms into art galleries with murals of fun facts to stimulate young minds.  

It’s the norm in the West, but still rare in Indonesia where decorations are often considered distractions. The Lowy Institute gave a damning report last year saying the ‘high-volume, low-quality enterprise’ of Indonesian education was ill equipped to meet expectations of creating an internationally competitive system:

This outcome has reflected inadequate funding, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures, and poor management but has most fundamentally been a matter of politics and power.

The political causes of poor education performance include the continued dominance of political, bureaucratic, and corporate elites over the education system under the New Order and the role that progressive NGOs and parent, teacher, and student groups have had in education policymaking since the fall of the New Order government (in 1998), making reform difficult.

One of the Room to Read program’s main goals is to boost literacy, particularly among girls in poor nations.  Fortunately in this area Indonesia has lifted its game; according to UNESCO 99.7 per cent of young people can now read and write.  But as reported earlier that’s not necessarily ‘functional literacy’.

The problems come with comprehension, retention rates and school leavers equipped for a workforce rapidly moving from manual tasks to digital solutions.

A simple example:  Indonesian motorists now have to buy cash-loaded cards to tap-and-go on toll roads.  For decades the gates have been controlled by staff taking cash.  Good for drivers as the bottlenecks have gone.  Bad for the semi-skilled workers whose jobs have also driven away.

A Strategic Review essay last year put a lens over the post-school training sector struggling with poor facilities and yesteryear’s instructors using equipment no longer found in modern factories.  

When the story was published the education portfolio was in two places, with technical and further education (TAFE) slotted into the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education.  Under the new minister TAFE has returned to Education in the hope that the whole school experience can be integrated.

The World Bank says almost 26 million Indonesians live below the poverty line, and another 20 per cent ‘vulnerable of falling into poverty, as their income hovers marginally above the national poverty line.’

The consequences of millions of unwanted youth in overcrowded cities competing for a shrinking number of manual jobs are also worrying.  An Australian government report put it succinctly:

Unemployment is a major life event.  It can have a devastating impact on people’s lives.  It affects not just the unemployed person but also family members and the wider community. 
The impact of unemployment can be long-lasting.  As unemployment becomes more long-term, its impact becomes more far reaching, often affecting living standards in retirement.  The loss of income by the parents can damage the prospects of the next generation.

This is the stark reality facing Minister Makarim and his staff.  If he doesn’t tear his hair out and quit in frustration from dealing daily with bureaucratic procedures from the Mesozoic Age, he has just five years to deliver the goods.

The next election will be in 2024.  The law forbids Widodo standing for a third term.  The eighth president will have their own solutions to any lingering education crisis and probably their own Dr Fixit, for everyone has been to school and is consequently an expert.

It took Makarim a decade to develop Go-Jek when he was mainly dealing with can-do business hustlers and cogent problem-solvers, not can’t do bureaucrats and self-serving politicians.
To make the FINISH line and still be sane, Makarim will need to make many extraordinary educational policy and administration backups and U turns. 

These would warrant a book if successful. Go-Ed maybe?  If it’s a best seller that might prove Mr’s Gen X skills are just what’s needed to move Gen R2R (Raring to Read) into the fast lane.

First  published in Strategic  Review 5 Dec 2019.  See:

Friday, November 29, 2019



Expat blogs praise the joys of living in Bali.  A low-cost paradise, they say. Sundowners with fellow retirees while a maid (‘a real treasure’) prepares dinner and ‘our’ gardener trims the lawn. Good time to bitch about deemed interest rates on pensions.  Below the green paddy, the cheerful reapers.

This is Indonesia.  So is East Java, though unalike Bali on every measure. A peek next door.

 All our street’s a stage
 And all the men and women in it mainly hawkers.                                                      
They have their exits and their entrances                                                                              
And all in their allotted time must play the scene.

The late Kiwi ethnomusicologist Jack Body used the dawn chorus of Java’s towns to compose strange soundscapes of vendors’ horns and hails, jingles and drums.

The welder bangs a spanner on an acetylene cylinder in his pedicab. The vegie seller sings out sayur.  A rhythmic rap on hollow wood announces the bakso (meatball soup) cook.

He’ll boil a breakfast broth on his kaki Lima (five foot) pushcart while the neighbours in pyjamas collect to chat.  Semi-feral cats gather and yowl in season.

The language is Javanese, an ancient hierarchical tongue where a wrong word can cause offence.  Fortunately we’re egalitarian so all use the common version Ngoko.

The parade is thinning.  The jamu lady vanished last year.  She carried a basket of bottles on her head, stirring a herbal mix on the spot to fix most moans - menstrual cramps, a sore back, inflamed throat.

Now the shops sell sealed packs of traditional medicines.  Stock up - no waiting for the pedestrian pharmacy’s cure-alls.

Though nothing for hangovers, an unknown condition in this dry community; we were pushed into prohibition a decade ago by Muslim enforcers demanding all adhere to their interpretations of piety.

These include setting the time. Alarm clocks are unnecessary.  The 4.15 wakey-wakey comes with azan, the taped call to prayer through loud screechers.

Not all are as considerate as our local Al Ma’shum mosque which has dialled down the volume; others claim the shriller the din the holier the message.  The blessings of uproar aren’t exclusive to Islam; Christians can be equally raucous in the eastern islands where they control the knobs. 

Sawojajar is a suburb of Malang, eight degrees under the Equator.  It’s a hilltown 444 metres above and 90 kilometres south of the provincial capital Surabaya, the Republic’s second biggest city and a major port.

Malang is a start point for the mainly European tourists heading to Mount Bromo, the spectacular volcano nearby.  It’s named after Brahma, the Hindu creator god who once ruled all but now treads lightly on this land where 90 per cent are Muslims. 

On its slopes live maybe 100,000 Tenggerese, remnants of the Majapahit Kingdom which ruled before the arrival of Islam in the 15th century.

Either that or a volcanic explosion or maybe both forced the royals and their followers to flee east to Bali, which may be why the island remains largely Hindu.  Away from Bromo there’s a few scattered settlements. 

In the hills behind our suburb is a modern Hindu temple and school, well hidden. It was trashed last century, then rebuilt.

Our street has 70 semi-detached cottages.  When built 30 years ago all were single storey.  Now second floors are common as prosperity rises; there’s only space to grow up and we’re doing the same.

No building permits required.  What’s the load-bearing capacity of this crossbeam?  Mmmm – looks OK. Whaddya reckon?

This is dicey and DIYCE (DIY + Civil Engineering ex Google) while hoping the wire-and-nails bamboo scaffolds hold.  Health and safety laws - insurance?   Sorry, not with you.

The workers were recruited through mulut ke mulut (word of mouth).   Facebook is fast though less efficient. The rate is 100,000 rupiah ($11) a day per tradie plus coffee and cakes for smoko. 

The guys start a bit before 8 and knock off around 3.30, six days a week.  They’re jacks of all trades and licensed in none. They’ve mastered everything from plumbing to power on the job.  On Fridays one takes a long break to pray.  The others slumber.

I’m a bule – meaning Caucasian. Or londo, long nose.  It’s assumed I’m from the Netherlands or the US.  Few guess Australia, which is probably just as well. 

This year the ABC’s extraordinary Australia Talks poll of 54,000 found 80 per cent ‘expressed distrust’ of Indonesia.  Although no such survey here I imagine a similar result. 

Our national reputation has been corroded by spying on a past president, a proposed embassy move to Jerusalem and securing East Timor after the 1999 referendum.  That last action is defensible.

In local tabloid tales of fantasy and fear, Australians are coarse kafir (unbelievers) planning to splinter the Republic and plunder its riches.
Yet personal discrimination is rare.  Neither government policies nor crass Okker behaviour in Kuta bars have been smeared on this head-down foreigner. So far no fist-shakes, only handshakes. 

The only non-Indonesian within coo-ee is a Dutch businesswoman married to a local and with three wee boys.

Next August there’ll be a Big Bash.  The 17th marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of modern Indonesia in 1945 with the proclamation of independence by Soekarno. 

The Dutch ignored him and then jailed him as they set out to recover their lost colony.  A four year guerrilla war took the lives of at least 100,000 before the Hollanders quit. 

Australians were not passive onlookers as we are now with West Papua killings.  The Jakarta Embassy says it plans to re-publish in English and Indonesian an old government-commissioned photo-filled book Australia and Indonesia’s Struggle for Independence. 

Commented Ambassador Gary Quinlan: ‘Today’s generations, certainly in Australia, don’t know how important Australia’s energetic support for Indonesian independence was. We lobbied for Indonesia in the newly-created UN Security Council and were chosen by Indonesia as its representative in the UN discussions which led to independence.’

Opposite my mother-in-law’s house is the city’s Heroes’ Cemetery with hundreds of graves of those who died fighting on their own soil to create their own country.  Most cities have similar fields of remembrance.

National pride in evicting the powerful Europeans after three centuries of occupation, dread of disunity and maintaining religion are the bedrocks of Indonesian culture and the bricks of identity.   The most contested is religion.  Officially the nation is secular.  Unofficially it’s Sunni Islam.

Shia Islam, practised in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan is banned in Indonesia and its supporters persecuted.

Citizens must follow an approved faith which is stamped on ID cards -   Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian.

Australians would protest such gross invasions of privacy; Indonesians accept it as right and proper.  However not all are committed.  Society is split between the largely rural Abangan – who tend to blend traditional beliefs with Islam - and the more orthodox Santri who are more likely to be city dwellers and better educated.

Atheism is not allowed.   Kebatinan, the original faith of Java has the official status of a folk tradition though still practised by millions, usually quietly.  We know – we’ve witnessed under full moons in the ruins of once glorious temples built when Europe languished in the Dark Ages.

Al Ma’shum’s kyai looks like a cartoon preacher with white beard and matching robes; he’s a friendly fellow, waving to this lapsed Presbyterian on his dawn strolls. The parishioners nod as they head home to change from whitewear into work gear.

The women in mukenah (prayer shawls) sit apart lest their shapes and scents distract.  Indonesia is not a Gulf State, but women are still in the rear – in this case literally – and presumably immune from lustful dreams about slim-hip lads in the front rows.

Separate are the misanthropes of the Saudi-funded Al Ashr pesantren (Islamic boarding house), just 300 metres and several centuries behind; young male ascetics chant inside high walls daubed with Arabic slogans.  They’re good at glaring.

Seeing the satpam (security) knocking off triggers a reminder: Today it’s our turn on the refreshment roster and to pay 25,000 rupiah ($3) towards his monthly service.

He’s a bluff guy employed to frighten scavengers who upend bins seeking plastic bottles and aluminium cans, and put up red-and-white bunting on national days.  Like the US, every house has a flagpole.  He’s usually dozing or watching TV sport.

Like most men he’s soccer-mad, though Indonesian teams are spectacular losers. Football is big business, wildly popular and more wildly corrupt. The Archipelago has skilled players, lousy coaches and primitive facilities. Expect some changes now it will host the U-20 World Cup in 2021.

By 6.30 the babes are being nursed by plump carers while Dads and Mums head to work.  The littlies kick balls around the commuters’ motorbikes. Whining kids with satchels and shining morning faces creep like snails unwillingly to school.

The stroke victims catch the sun in wheelchairs.  All five are late middle-age.  Once were smokers.  Their wives look exhausted.

On this street stage there’s child care, aged care and everything between, blending, organic. The bitumen is a sports ground, a market, a community hall, a thoroughfare.   Come weddings, wakes or circumcisions the road is closed and a tent raised.  All attend, if only for the feed.

A quarter of Australians are reported to be lonely.  Again no similar studies in Indonesia (mental health is not a front-page issue here) but chances are that there’d be only a few suffering solitude.

No need to open a smartphone app to know what the neighbours are doing and saying. Just open the gate.

The women run an arisan, a monthly get-together and microfinance business.  Subs are pooled and distributed, and visits to the sick or bereaved are organised.

Indonesians engage easily in conversations with strangers.  The steps into familiarity start with asking where you’re going and rapidly lead to questions about the family’s origins, age, the number of children and religion. 

In the west we’d open with a weather comment and maybe venture into mention of work.  Fertility and faith are off limits till much later but in Indonesia they’re the ice breakers.

Every year we elect a Rukun Tetangga, a neighbourhood leader.  This is now a voluntary position and powerless as the formal local government bureaucracy has moved in, but the RT is still handy for whinges about things like potholes and telcos’ broken wires.
Rukun means harmony.

The Great Australian Fear of millions of Asians happily quitting their ghettos and pouring into the empty land below does not apply to Javanese, even though their island is already overpacked. Rindu Kampung Halaman is the common phrase for feeling homesick.  The Javanese are not like the Chinese and Indians who move overseas, settle and adapt.

This is neither Struggle Street nor a Hollywood neighbourhood comedy.  An old crank opposite gets shitty because my pigeons poo on his washing. Street parking causes friction.  The avenue of mango trees lures scrumpers.

Yet rage is rare.  When living is close, rukun must rule; keeping the peace is a task for all.   That’s Java style.

 First published in Pearls and Irritations, 29 November 2019.  See:

Thursday, November 28, 2019



It’s so obvious, and so is the question: Why wasn’t it done long ago?

The logic of geography is clear; on one side a huge under-populated continent efficiently producing vast amounts of food. Next door an overcrowded archipelago that can’t grow enough to satisfy its almost 270 million citizens.

Clearly the two should get together and trade. No doctorate in economics needed to see the sense, but understanding the social and political realities helps explain why it hasn’t happened.

A New Platform for Deepening Economic Ties tries to untangle the almost completed Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

The 36-page report is from the USAsia Centre - ‘Australia's leading think-tank for the strengthening of relationships between Australia, the Indo-Pacific and the US’. Most funding comes from governments. It’s based at the University of WA.

The report’s clunky title and bland text suggest authors Poppy Winanti and Kyle Springer have been seduced by the negotiators’ bureaucratese. Fortunately clever infographics lift understanding. Here are the issues:

‘Indonesia’s share of Australian trade has remained far smaller than Australia’s trade with other nations in the Indo-Pacific region. It has consistently sat at around two per cent of Australia’s trade, with no growth trends for the past ten years.

‘Not only does Australia trade far more with distant economies in the region than with its closest neighbour, Indonesia-Australia economic ties suffer from the lowest bilateral trade volumes of any contiguous pairing within the G20.’

Minus jargon, the IA-CEPA is a free trade agreement between Australia and Indonesia that rubs out tariffs and other barriers. These have long boosted Jakarta and Canberra tax takes, but made buying and selling across national borders costly and onerous.

Inevitably many traders have given up and looked elsewhere for easier deals.

It took more than a decade to create the IA-CEPA and it’s still unsettled. The eager Aussies have done their bit; now they’re waiting for Indonesia’s April-elected parliamentarians to say OK.

They probably will, as their advisors recommend uncapping pens. Last year President Joko Widodo urged Indonesians to shake off any inferiority complex and see their potential as international business stars.

The talks have been arduous and tough. However the walk ahead may be even longer as rent-seekers won’t lift barricades that quickly.

Another fear is that an unforeseen event might tip the deal on its side before it gets traction. Like a blown tyre on a motorway can lead to a roll-over and a pile up, so perceived insults to national pride could shut down the show.

This happened in 2013 with revelations of Australian spies tapping the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his late wife Ani. Unsurprisingly the trade talks shuddered to a halt.

When about to restart Indonesia executed two Australian drug runners, ignoring mercy pleas from the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

This is why all the urgency in getting this deal moving is being fuelled by Australia.

The IA-CEPA gets a run almost every week in the mainstream media Down Under, and often outside the business pages. The rural press has gone gaga with forecasts of huge sales. However it’s rare to read much in the Republic.

This suggests there’s more here for Australia than Indonesia, though the report points to the benefits ‘anticipated to boost Indonesian exports to Australia’. Electric cars get a mention – though they’re way down the road - along with furniture and textiles.

Even with a showroom-polished IA-CEPA some Indonesian exporters won’t buy; complex quarantine rules and quality controls stay put, making the small Australian market too bothersome unless profits are sizeable.

Also contentious is the increased quota on work and holiday visas eventually allowing 5,000 Indonesians a year into the Great South Land. Australian unions have objected yet these visas are unlimited for most European backpackers who labor on market gardens and farms.

After an IA-CEPA handshaked by all, bulk carriers of Australian wheat won’t necessarily offload straight into Surabaya’s silos. If Black Sea growers can deliver quality grains cheaper than the neighbours, then that’s where the bakers will buy.

Service industries like education and health care will be open to Australian providers. Getting approvals may be the easiest part; the labyrinthine Indonesian bureaucracy

is infamously corrupt, opaque, and untouched by the IA-CEPA. Only the most persistent and flexible entrepreneurs will survive.

The Australian industry-backed group Sustainable Skills has been struggling for three years to develop trade training in Indonesia. It’s still talking. So are German providers who’ve also spotted a market.

President Widodo has been calling for foreign money but lenders are wary. According to the report Australia has $5.6 billion invested next door, compared with $720 billion in the US and $480 billion in the UK. Even little Luxembourg gets four times more in deposits from Australia.

The reasons for this weird imbalance include Indonesian nationalists’ fears of relying on a Western country for loans and food security, and a flawed Investor State Dispute Settlement system. In short – distrust.

Ironically trade was flourishing long before European colonialists arrived in the region and started imposing rules. Makassan adventurers were regular visitors to the Kimberley coast, gathering shellfish and sea slugs for Chinese medicine.

They brought iron cookpots, metal tools, cloth, rice and exotic plants like tamarinds in their multi-hulled prau. Some returned to South Sulawesi with Aboriginal wives and artifacts. Where trade treads, friendships follow – another reason for pushing the IA-CEPA.


First published in Strategic Review, 27 November 2019:

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Australian Alert!  Your neighbor has changed                       

Telling Australians their ideas about Indonesia are out-of-date can be a head-banging exercise.

Ambassador Gary Quinlan knows this well.  The boss of Australia’s Jakarta Embassy has been back to his homeland five times this year promoting the positives of his posting and telling listeners to update the software between their ears.

On one trip to coastal New South Wales where he was raised and educated, Quinlan spoke to Newcastle University staff and students.  His message was clear:  Their big neighbor was young, dynamic, keen for investors, and democratic. 

His speech wasn’t covered by the print media though Quinlan is a local lad made good, having won high academic and national recognition for his long and distinguished public service. 

Before starting work in Jakarta last year he was Australia's chief negotiator with Timor-Leste over the East Timor maritime boundary dispute. The parties reached agreement.

On future trips to Australia Quinlan hopes to say the same thing, though louder, to editorial boards of Australia’s major media organisations.  It will be a tough sell in a scorched earth market of shriveling sales.  In this ill-explored digital landscape bemused managers flounder while trying to determine directions.

Some overseas newsrooms in Jakarta, like Australian Associated Press, have closed.  Others have slashed staff or followed The Australian broadsheet and re-titled their journalists ‘Southeast Asia correspondents’.  These busy reporters are expected to cover a region of ten nations and 640 million people.

To the annoyance of serious writers Indonesian stories most likely to get a run Down Under are quirky tales of Aussie teens getting smashed on drugs or motorbikes and finding Indonesia police react differently to cops in suburban Sydney.

The stories get pushed higher if the alleged offender / victim is a sporting hero.  Laws targeting blasphemers and gays are also good for a few paragraphs. 

Readers might forget economically important Closer Economic Partnership Agreements for Bilateral Trade, but they’ll surely remember the ‘bonk bans’, proposed laws to jail unmarried couples found in the same bed.

The politics of Indonesia are so complex comment is usually restricted to academic journals.  The doings of Washington and Whitehall are equally knotty but cut-and-paste copy from the Anglosphere doesn’t need translating.

 “Improving people-to-people relationships is a big challenge because it depends ultimately on the attitudes of Australians and Indonesians to each other, not just on government policy,” said Quinlan.

In the past year the Embassy has run more than ‘25 major public diplomacy programs’ plus film, fashion and food festivals.  Seminars have been held on millennials and democracy, artificial intelligence, and women in business.

Australia’s multiculturalism has been promoted but Quinlan knows this can be misunderstood as the two countries have different understandings of the term.

In Indonesia it means a mix of citizens from the Republic’s 34 provinces and 300 ethnic groups.  In Australia it refers to settled migrants. About 30 per cent of Australia’s 26 million people were born overseas.

Demographic trends suggest that by 2030 Indonesia’s population will be around 296 million and heavily skewed to youth; the median age is currently 28 compared to Australia's 38.
In this year’s Lowy Institute survey of Australian public attitudes, 59 per cent disagreed with the statement that ‘Indonesia is a democracy’ – which it has been for all this century.

The poll revealed Australians think their country’s ‘best friend in the world’ is New Zealand, then the US and UK.  Four per cent reckoned ‘China’, just one per cent ‘Indonesia’.

Against these facts Quinlan’s work is all uphill though he praised government-to-government dealings.  In a recent speech he said:  ‘Politically, our relations are not fragile; in fact, they're very resilient.

‘Like any countries, especially close neighbours, we can always be hostage to events, but both countries have a fundamental interest in strong good relations and both are seriously committed to that.’
Maybe, though not enough – which will always be the case when Indonesians outnumber Australians more than ten to one.   Here are some more headaches:
In 2014 the Australian Government started the New Colombo Plan for young Australians to study in the region.  Indonesia tops the list with 7,554 short-term ‘mobility grants’  of up to AUD 7,000; however only  65 have chosen Indonesia in the past six years for the prestigious scholarships  worth AUD 69,000. More popular locations are Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.  

Meanwhile Australia has been slashing aid to Indonesia. In 2015 it cut funding by 40 per cent from AUD 542 million to AUD 323 million.  Next year the knife will slice deeper to AUD 298 million.  

Well over a million Australians fill Bali’s bars and beaches every year, yet the Institute says its long-term polling ‘has demonstrated the wariness with which Australians and Indonesians regard each other.’  

Many visitors think Hindu Bali is a separate state and not a province in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, just a short ferry ride across the 2.4 kilometer strait, but a formidable barrier for unadventurous Aussies.  Money changers in Australian airports sometimes advertise ‘Bali Money’.

 “We have to move on - there’s too much ignorance among many Australians about Indonesia, often based on out-of-date images,” Quinlan said. “Indonesia is growing so quickly and developing so fast, there’s widespread creative energy among young Indonesians.

" We need to tap more of this potential, especially for young Australians.”

First published in Indonesian Expat 25 November 2019:

Sunday, November 24, 2019


BTW: What’s free about Free Trade?

On occasional trips to Australia my wife heads to a major no-frills store that sells almost everything.  Here she buys bras that fit, are comfortable, long lasting and cheaper than in her mother country. 
They’re made in Indonesia.

She also stocks up with a brand of Indonesian noodles she won’t buy in her homeland.  She reasons that exporters have to meet Australian quality and content standards, so consumers in Indonesia get second class goods or foods with additives not allowed Down Under.

Sounds daft – but maybe she’s right.  Garden tools bought in Oz are still snipping sharply after their local equivalents – three times more expensive - have rusted away.  

In the Australian store domestic electrical appliances, also from Indonesia, are guaranteed for a year.  If a purchase is crook (defective) it’s speedily swapped,  plus an apology. Try doing that in Indonesia where complainants are considered criminals out to swindle.  

Australian politicians have been crying hallelujah over a new free trade deal, the clumsily titled Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

After ten years in the talking the agreement was signed in March.  It’s waiting for the new politicians in the DPR  to uncap their pens and sign away some tariffs.

In reality the underwear and kitchenware now on shelves Down Under didn’t jump excise hoops as none have existed for many years.  So the agreement is no big deal to flexible Indonesian exporters.
They’re the smarties who’ve learned that one size doesn’t fit all markets.

Indonesians want cheap so get cheap.  Australians also want cheap, but with quality that’s enforceable by law.  So the  kettle or toaster on display in Australia may have been built with more care than those on sale in the Republic, though both came from the same factory.

Tariffs are taxes often added for political rather than economic reasons.  Nationalist governments use them to shield slack producers from cheaper imports.  

When you’ve finished enjoying this BTW take a peek in your pantry.  If you’re prone to xenophobia best sit down before reading the small print on the sack:  the Archipelago’s staple food may have come from Thailand or Vietnam where they grow the white grain cheaper than in Java.

Australian cockies (farmers) are highly-mechanized growers of wheat, sugar, rice and other foods in such huge quantities they need to sell overseas.  Importers want the goodies but don’t want to upset farmers or self-sufficiency advocates.

If the IA-CEPA is eventually waved through, we shoppers have a question:  Will prices plummet?  Let’s be optimistic:  the chances are about equal to sea levels dropping and Jakarta air becoming refreshing.  

There are many other outstretched hands to fill  before Indonesians get a taste of Australia – particularly if it’s alcoholic.  Here the issue is religion for Muslims aren’t supposed to booze.  So no free trade here.

A bottle of red or white wine starts below AUD $10 (RP 96,000) in its state of origin.  Jakarta doesn’t want us suffering hangovers and Islamic organizations getting stroppy, so slaps on taxes of up to 140 per cent.

Indonesian exporters face similar imposts, like quarantine and packaging rules. This nation is a mighty producer of tobacco but Canberra doesn’t want citizens getting lung cancer so adds a 70 per cent tax.

Nicotine addicts should not expect  packs below AUD $35 even though the Indonesian product retails for under $2.  If you’re thinking of stuffing  fags in your bags check your credit card limit; only 25 sticks are allowed duty free. A fine reason to quit.

Is the deal being oversold? It’s certainly complex (21 chapters plus annexures and schedules) so not a holiday page-turner. A business organization survey this year found many members unmoved by the FTAs which so excite politicians.

The ABC's business editor Ian Verrender claims FTAs ‘have very little to do with trade, free or otherwise. (They’re) diplomatic agreements, designed to cement relationships and shore up political and defence alliances.

‘The very idea of a free trade agreement is a contradiction. You don't need a complex agreement to trade freely.’

So here’s a holiday tip: To back Indonesian businesses, lift standards and help the nation’s economy, go shop in Australia. Though not for smokes.

 First published in The Jakarta Post 23 November 2019

Thursday, November 21, 2019


Color brightens lives twixt rail and river    


It’s embarrassingly compelling.  Like a lecher at a bedroom keyhole the sight draws and repels. 

Trains heading west out of Malang station slip through a dense forest of ramshackle houses.  Rail companies usually clear land flanking the line.  Not here. If the carriage windows opened passengers could snitch fruit off breakfast tables.  Check the washing lines - Wow! those undies are so brief.

Safe behind tinted glass passengers squint into bedrooms and kitchens while the occupants notice only moving metal.  It’s rude, but it gives outsiders a chance to see the intimacies of kampung life.

Now voyeurs don’t need to travel.  Instead of furtive guilt-laden glances they can see and be seen, strangers and locals on the same level discovering their common humanity.

“It’s no problem, we don’t care,” said Valentinus Sutrisnanto (above) as a tour group passed his home’s open doorway.  “We smile and they smile back.  We talk - I hear most are happy to wander around and look at our murals.  They certainly take many selfies.”

And leave many rupiah.  Although the entrance charge is only Rp 3,000 (US 21 cents) Kampung Kesatrian, aka Kampung Tridi (Three Dimension), visitor numbers jump into the thousands on public holidays according to gatekeeper Habibah, 26. (left)

“People come from Russia, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia,” she said.  “They hear about us from Facebook and the Lonely Planet tour guide.”  Instead of tickets she gives souvenir key-ring hearts she’s sewn.

Many among the 240 families squashed higgledy-piggledy between the rail and the river Brantas have set up cafes and food stalls.  Guests negotiating the narrow stairs and streets can buy refreshments, then rest on the steps and seats.

If that was all, just a cramped urban village which lets people pay to peer, then this story should end now.

However the tale is larger and more colorful.  Literally, for every building, rooftop, wall and sometimes even the sidewalks have been painted in pastels, green and yellow, pink and orange.

On these backgrounds are murals of pop stars, Disney characters, international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and wayang kulit puppets, jumping out of frames to create a 3D effect.  Leaping lions are a favorite for this is Arema soccer heartland where fans reckon players are the big cats, not oligarchs in Jakarta.

Before retiring Sutrisnanto, now 64, was a station official waving all clear so locos could roll.  In 2011 he won a three-year term as Rukun Warga (RW), the local administrative official.

The 240 families must reckon he does a signal job because he’s been re-elected three times.  Again, what’s so unusual?  Let’s turn the page.  No, don’t.  This next bit is important.

The RW is a Catholic, his wife Anita Albertina a Protestant, while almost all the other thousand residents are Muslims.

Readers may remember when former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) was jailed for blasphemy.  He was a Christian and some Islamic authorities claimed a verse in Al Koran means only Muslims can lead other Muslims.

Half a million placard-wavers packed Jakarta’s Monas Square 212 demo in early December 2016 to agree.

“That hasn’t been the situation here,” said Sutrisnanto, “we’ve had no conflict.”  While he was talking to The Jakarta Post a neighbor in traditional Islamic garb came for a chat, seemingly unconcerned he was facing a cross and flanked by pictures of Jesus; also present was a lady sweeping the floor for a  service to be held in the RW’s living room.

So what are the problems?  “Trash.  We’ve told everyone to use bins but garbage still gets into the Brantas.  We never see stuff thrown during the day but some do at night upstream.

“This concerns me; I know foreigners who otherwise like our village get sickened by seeing plastic on the riverbank.”

To underline his point a young Dutch couple wouldn’t get off the steps leading to the water.  “We don’t see this in Europe,” they said staring at putrid black blobs that didn’t invite close scrutiny.

Nor will they encounter anything quite like Kampung Tridi in their homeland or other Western countries.  The initiative wouldn’t get past the first planning bureaucrat because nothing would meet health and safety regulations, while public-risk insurance premiums would be steeper than the railway embankment.

Motorbikes share space with pedestrians. Some lanes are just one-person wide. Steps are uneven. Bricklayers forgot to use spirit levels and the mortar crumbles easily.  The paint, supplied free by a manufacturer, covers many blemishes so visitors aren’t repelled – unless they look too closely. 

Away from the river everything is clean – which wasn’t the situation a few years ago when tourists feared to tread.

“The kampung was filthy,” said Sutrisnanto.  “We had petty crime, thieves, beggars, drunks and drugs.  The police were often called.  Now we don’t even have security guards.”

He claims the turnaround came when residents decided they wanted a better environment.  Nearby were two other painted kampung drawing tourists, so they went one better with 3D murals.

The key was not to look for advice from social workers or get feasibility studies, but to return to the traditional Java principles of gotong royong (mutual cooperation) and musyawarah (consultation and consent.)

Meetings were held weekly. Jobs were found for layabouts so they felt belonged.  No government department has been involved, so no concrete memorial signed by a minister.

“We did everything ourselves,” said Sutrisnanto stopping to chat to a mixed group - two German women and a cluster of Jakarta Moms. “The money from ticket sales is used for maintenance and to help widows, single mothers and the poor. 

“We distribute sembako (nine essential foods) to households twice a year.  All our income and spending is audited and made public.

 “As you can see, it’s been a success.  The secret is constant communication, talking to people face-to-face, listening to their complaints, advocating for them, explaining what’s happening and why.”

Which sounds like a formula for politicians to follow.

First published in The Jakarta Post 19 November 2029