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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Rearranging the region       

Professor John Blaxland sees the world differently.  Particularly Southeast Asia which he sets as the centrepoint rather than an afterthought
To help others cope with this unsettling cartography he offers a sweetener – a grouping of nations to better suit new realities than old regimes.
The globe as drawn by seafarers from afar has Indonesia straddling the Equator. The islands of the archipelago look upwards and see the looming might of China.
Below is the Great South Land, adjacent and inviting; this view is the Australian nightmare, the dread that their empty land will have famished millions tumbling down to smother a European outpost.
Blaxland’s chart squashes this fear of population shift through gravity by flattening the projection so the focus is Darwin, population around 200,000 with satellite suburbs.
The lonely little city atop Australia (the capital Canberra is almost 500 kilometers further than Jakarta)  has been hosting 2,500 US troops on six-month rotations for the past five years. The agreement behind this arrangement remains secret.
At the closest point Indonesia and Australia are just 200 kilometres apart, near enough to suggest a neighbourhood watch might be in order.
Blaxland, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, uses his map to glaze the idea of MANIS as a regional maritime cooperation forum. The word means ‘sweet’ in Indonesian, but here it stands for the cluster of Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore.
He urges against confusion with the 1971 Five Power Defence Arrangements - the same nations plus the UK but minus Indonesia.
“Existing forums, like ASEAN (aged 50) are struggling to reach consensus,” Blaxland told a seminar on Australia and Indonesia Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific held at the University of Western Australia in July.
“A smaller grouping like MANIS would see problem solving more achievable for pressing issues that require regional cooperation.  It would be best to start slowly, gradually generate goodwill and political momentum.
“MANIS would involve collaboration with governments, universities, think tanks, NGOs and community service organisations. Matters to discuss could include police, immigration, border security, legal, judicial, environmental, intelligence, financial and other working groups.
“The groups could exchange information and share concerns.  Closer engagement and sharing of experiences could generate fresh ideas.”
Blaxland is no dreamworld academic.  He’s worked in the military and intelligence so knows how to chat to generals, spies and diplomats. He understands the political sensitivities, like not calling his idea an ‘alliance’.
“With a dose of humility on Australia’s part, and a degree of magnanimous but farsighted Indonesian inclusiveness, the scheme could be made to work,” he said.
Why include a former Dutch colony while the other proposed members have Commonwealth ties? 
 “Indonesia’s population and geo-strategic significance astride the maritime arteries connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans make it the key to multilateral regional maritime cooperation.” In brief, the Republic is now too important to ignore.
Forums thrive in the region.  Many look good, bloom early then wither in breezes of bland.  Blaxland’s word is “cumbersome”.
One of the most unwieldy in title and management is the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. Its 45 members include Jordan and Iran who have more pressing issues almost 10,000 kilometres north-west.
MANIS has been driving around awhile.  That it’s still finding parking space on agendas suggests the tank is full.   Blaxland keeps steering: “This was always something that would take time to get policy traction - and one that would require Indonesian buy-in.”

 The first model rolled out at a 2013 meeting of Aus-CSCAP.  The acronym is unpronounceable but Blaxland reckons the non-government Australian Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific is a useful informal forum for floating ideas about “political and security issues and challenges facing the region.”
The 2014 election all-change in Jakarta gave MANIS a welcome nudge.  New President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, a noted landlubber, surprised many by bringing maritime issues ashore for a policy refit.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi explained this was to “protect Indonesia’s sovereignty … by responding firmly to any intrusions into Indonesian territory”.
Implementation involved much theatre as captured foreign fishing boats were blown up once TV crews were in place.  The big bangs lifted the reputation of Jokowi and his unconventional Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, a former can-do entrepreneur.
Less well publicised were clashes where Indonesian patrol boats were trounced by better armed Chinese craft.  Rhetoric sinks fast when one navy is underequipped. 
Blaxland’s candy got another coating a fortnight after his Perth speech when diplomats from Australia, NZ, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines gathered to worry about militants.  The East Asia Wilayah has been fighting for an Islamic state in Marawi.  More than 600 have reportedly been killed in continuing conflict.
The Filipino city is just 700 kilometres above Indonesia’s Manado where the talks were held.  The envoys said they’d cooperate more closely with intelligence and law enforcement authorities, but didn’t say how.
This concerns the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).  Its July report said that ‘despite the calls for more regional counter-terrorism cooperation in light of the Marawi siege, there are formidable political and institutional obstacles at work, including Philippine-Malaysian distrust that inhibits information-sharing.’ This refers to counter-terrorism responsibilities – police or military?
Blaxland’s group doesn’t include the Philippines.  It may have to if defeated fighters retreat to nearby nations as feared by IPAC director Sidney Jones. Then it would be MANISP which sounds less than sweet.
 “So far I've briefed it (MANIS) in Jakarta to some policy officials and university groups and received very positive feedback,” Blaxland told Strategic Review. “The Indonesian delegation is keen to take it further and we're exploring a policy forum to discuss it in the next few weeks.

“I’ve been speaking on this in Malaysia and briefed some NZ officials on the idea a couple of weeks ago. I'm quietly optimistic it will get off the ground soon.”

First published in Strategic Review 22 August 2017.  See:

Monday, August 21, 2017


Don’t quit – we’re addicted to your suffering  

Cancer wards in Indonesia should have special visitor viewing areas. Like club boxes at sporting events, the spectators would watch the count-down while the watched gasp their way to the siren.
These observatories will be solely for VIPs – Very Immoral People. This group includes tobacco company executives and their advertising agents. In the country next door they work in a barely regulated market, vigorously promoting a product which they know kills, cripples and impoverishes.
According to Australian cancer clinics, smoking more than doubles the chances of a heart attack or stroke; it’s responsible for 85 per cent of lung cancers.  This isn’t fake news – it’s science scripture.
Getting the VIPs to witness their customers’ agonies might be difficult.  Even if attendance was compulsory these guys are seriously rich; in Indonesia they’d buy their way out of any obligation.
Indonesia is one of just eight countries that’s neither a signatory nor a party to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  That puts the Republic way offside with the 180 states which ban or limit ads promoting smoking.
East Java is the heartland of tobacco production and Malang is at the centre.  There’s a cigarette factory directly opposite a Dutch era church and the town square. Even the banks don’t enjoy such a prestigious position.
Malang is also an education city supporting 28 tertiary institutions. Two of the biggest, the Universities of Malang and Brawijaya (around 30,000 students each) plus high schools spill their young learners onto a major road leading to the CBD.
At the first traffic lights they’re confronted by a giant billboard.  It reads in English: NEVER QUIT.  So they don’t.
More than 67 per cent of males over 15 smoke according to Indonesia’s Health Ministry. (The good news is that only three per cent of adult women are users.)
The Ministry predicts that unless serious attempts are made to butt-out the nation will lead the world in smokers by 2030. At the moment it’s number four after China, Russia and the US. While these countries are nudging public health ahead of tobacco company profits, Indonesian firms plan to double output.
That means building a market as the addicts wheeze away at a rate of around 400,000 a year.  So the kids need an introduction to Lady Nicotine who’ll mask facts with fantasies.  
What do lads want?  Fun times, macho adventure, staunch mates and gorgeous girlfriends.  Available for the rich, but few are so lucky.  The rest are puffing to find ‘satisfaction’, to ‘be bold’, become part of the ‘new generation’ and ‘get ahead’. 
That’s what the ads say – and not just in words.  Pictures show the healthiest and happiest youngsters any nation would be proud to display at the Olympics.  Marketing isn’t supposed to target minors so the agencies use adult models with teen features dancing, leaping, singing – all the things coughers can’t do.
Close to 30 million Indonesians live on less than US $25 a month according to the Statistics Agency. Fags are the second biggest household expense after rice.
There’s a price war currently underway with pack contents changing to suit all pockets.  A dozen for Rp 11,000 (an ash-flick above an Aussie dollar) from one brand, with a rival offering 16 for Rp 13,000.  You can’t buy a litre of milk for that money.
The wraps have small health warnings but not the plain packaging introduced in Australia and unsuccessfully challenged by Indonesia in the World Trade Organisation.
Excise on tobacco is just under half the base price though the WHO recommends more than two-thirds. The duties make up between ten and 12 per cent of the national budget.
The government is suffering a massive shortfall in revenue.  An amnesty to persuade citizens to declare money parked overseas scored US $365 billion. The target was five times higher.
 So ramping taxes on smokes could boost the health budget – currently three per cent of GDP and three times less than the OECD average.
But the manufacturers are a powerful lobby able to make reforms disappear in a puff of smoke. .
The big three are Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna (owned by the US company Philip Morris), Gudang Garam and the Djarum Group.  To sanitise their sickening trade the companies sponsor scholarships, sporting events and pop concerts. 
The ad guys they hire have refined ways to by-pass prohibitions on showing cigarettes by picturing stacks of white coffee cups with the top one frothing.  ‘Mild’ is banned, so they call one product MLD, with the vertical stroke on the second letter highlighted.  Health warnings on TV ads flash so fast they’re illegible.
Some NEVER QUIT signs feature a sweating body builder (the sort who’d never smoke) or master craftsman, so any other interpretations of the message must be malicious misreadings.
There’s no doubt the industry is full of smarties. I once lodged for a month in the Malang home of a fine family where dad was a senior staffer with Rothmans and a good provider.  He never smoked and cautioned his kids against starting. 
But I reckon he should still take a turn in the cancer ward observation room.

First published in On Line Opinion, 21 August 2017:  See

Monday, August 07, 2017


 Image result for ASEAN logo                                                
Defending a toothless talkfest       

ASEAN is a dog’s breakfast.  The weird grouping of ten Southeast Asian nations with little in common other than a loosely defined geographical location and a history of rule by foreigners is easy to mock.
There’s no one market, currency, defence force, local language or position on Chinese adventures in the region of around 650 million. ASEAN’s infrequent communiqués are bland wishlists, not firm demands.
Members include communist states, military dictatorships, emerging democracies and feudal regimes.  The tiniest is Brunei with only 420,000; the giant is Indonesia with a population 600 times greater.
Despite its size and strategic importance ASEAN has little clout when measured against NATO, the European Common Market, ANZUS and the other defence and trade pacts dominated by the US and European powers.
After half a century its achievements are hard to catalogue.

Though not for former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Raden Mohammad Marty Muliana Natalegawa (far right with author); he sees the group as far more than an expensive chatathon for elite bureaucrats.
“ASEAN is indispensible,” he told Strategic Review.  “Without it divisions and distrust would still rock the region.  It has been resilient – I think indispensible.

“However it could become irrelevant if it doesn’t initiate policies and see these through.  Indonesia has the responsibility to lead and must do so. 

“If we go AWOL then ASEAN projects on human rights would stop.  There’s a need to prod. We can’t let things just drift, nor can we throw our weight around.  At the same time it’s not good enough for us to do all the heavy lifting.”

Before becoming emissary for the world’s third largest democracy (after the US and India) Natalegawa was the Ambassador to the United Kingdom and later Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, 

The career diplomat lost his job when President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo took office in 2014 and gave the position to little-known Retno Marsudi the former Ambassador to the Netherlands.

She’s also an ASEAN fan though warned against ‘failures to maintain unity and centrality’.  In a recent op-ed for The Jakarta Post she claimed this could lead to the group becoming ‘a proxy ground for major powers’ but didn’t back this with names and details.

Unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has shown little interest in foreign affairs, preferring to repair his nation’s crumbling and over-stressed infrastructure and its clumsy and often corrupt bureaucracy.

For five years Natalegawa was the voice of reason during the regular crises that bedevil foreign affairs everywhere, but particularly among nations with widely differing histories, and ambitions.

That includes ASEAN – but Natalegawa sees great potential where others observe inertia.  He likes to talk about ‘waging peace, prosperity and democracy’ without the phrase sounding trite.

 A favorite term is ‘transformative’ which is sufficiently ill-defined to be a handy tool in any diplomat’s word kit – but again it is use that matters. Natalegawa can even deliver clichés with enough conviction to smother cynicism.

The gist of his message is that ASEAN is a place where key ministers get to know their foreign counterparts – hopefully well enough to count back rather than count down when philistines start threatening. 

For taxpayers funding the junkets / seminars that all seems nebulous; but like British wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill said:  ‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war’.

Although only 54 Natalegawa claims to be enjoying life in retirement with his Thai wife Sarnia Bamrungphong.  The couple have three children and a new grandchild. However he’s now an appointed member of the UN High-Level Panel on Global Response to Health Crises and has seats at other forums.

He doesn’t appear to suffer from the post-power syndrome that infects many high flyers and dismissed suggestions that he’s now an eminence grise doing the campus circuits.  He doesn’t tweet instant advice.

This interview was held during a lunch break at a closed-door session on Indonesia-Australia relations run by a local think-tank at the University of Western Australia.

Here Natalegawa has extra expertise.  He graduated from the Australia National University in 1994 with a doctorate and in 2016 an honorary degree from the same campus for his ‘visionary leadership.’

He dedicated the award to his children and journalist wife for their support during his career.  The couple met at the London School of Economics.

While a student in Canberra, the hot-house of Australian politics, he refined his understanding of the Anglosphere cultivated as a teen at the Anglican Ellesmere College in Britain. (Motto – ‘Striving for one’s country’). 

These insights have been valuable as he handled the regular tensions that trouble the neighbors, from terrorist outrages through animal welfare issues and even personal insults.

In 2013 Liberal Party strategist and pollster Mark Textor criticised Indonesia's outrage at reports Australian spies were bugging the phones of President Yudhoyono and his wife Ani.
Textor tweeted: ‘Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970's Pilipino [sic] porn star and has ethics to match’.
In reality the urbane Natalegawa comes across as the consummate diplomat too sophisticated so swat flies. Also absent is the aloofness donned by lesser lights in his old department.

“We have yet to find equilibrium, but we must keep trying,” he said.  “Both sides need to listen to each other more.  The era of Australian megaphone diplomacy identified by the late President Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid) no longer applies.

“All the Australian academics and public officials I meet seem committed to an honest and sterling effort to improve relationships. Most are polite to a fault; they have genuine empathy and are well informed on Indonesia and the questions from history. 

“That’s not always the case with Indonesians.  We have yet to find the equilibrium so there’s a need for us to know Australia better.  That means improved education so we can communicate and explore issues through two ways.

“We should not be afraid of policy failures; the new normal is uncertainty. We do need to recognize the importance of ideas with an open mind using creativity and integrity. That’s also an individual responsibility.”

First published in Strategic Review 7 August 2017.  See:


Wednesday, August 02, 2017


Go south, young scholar                                                                   
When Kristiarto Legowo stood to open an academic conference in the South Australian capital of Adelaide he must have wondered: Have I really moved out of my homeland to take this posting?
For most of the hundred faces that the Republic’s new Ambassador to Australia could see were clearly Indonesian and young.  The few Caucasians in the lecture theater were mainly middle aged and beyond, white shocks among dark mops.
Why had so many of his compatriots flown 4,600 kilometers south to the Indonesia Council’s Open Conference at Flinders University when the small cluster of Westerners could have travelled north to a similar event? With access to higher wages, paid leave, travel allowances, study grants and stipends their journey would have involved little hardship.
In his first official engagement in the Great South Land Legowo told attendees that Indonesia should reverse the outflow and run similar conferences in the Republic.  His suggestion found wide acceptance, though wish and action don’t always cohabit well.
Getting them to come to us was also an attractive idea for those who’d funded their travel, like Bintar Mupiza and his three colleagues from the Indonesian Islamic University (IIU) in Yogyakarta. Although there was no registration fee the students paid Rp 15 million (US $1,120) each just to attend the two-day forum.
Many presenters were seasoned scholars keyboarding final references for their doctorates or post-docs and keen to defend findings before critics. However the two women and two men from IIU were undergraduates courageous enough to open up about venturing into research.
Their topics were equally challenging: Australia-Indonesia Relations, the Role of the Media on Foreign Policy Decision Making, and Measuring West Papua Independence Activists’ Rights in Indonesia’s Democracy.
Although still works in progress, the Gen Z youngsters’ contributions and their seriousness by finding the funds to fly drew compliments from senior scholars like Indonesian specialist Associate Professor Anton Lucas who used to run the Asian Studies Course at Flinders.
Since his retirement leadership has passed to Indonesian political scientist Dr Priyambudi Sulistiyanto.  Overseas academics are commonly found in Australian campus classrooms because the infusion of foreign talent is believed to enrich learning.
That’s seldom the situation in Indonesia where outsiders in the staff room are often feared as threats. Overseas academics visit to conduct research, meet colleagues and learn the language, but apart from volunteer work few teach; visa restrictions and low pay also deter. (Indonesian academic salaries are about one tenth of those in Australia.)
Foreigners are also faced with the reality that the Republic’s education system has a poor international reputation. Although government funding has risen and the numbers of Indonesian tertiary institutions rocketed, quality has remained earthbound. 
In 1950 Indonesia had ten institutions of higher education, including IIU; now there are more than 3,000 – though not all support the principles of intellectual exploration and critical thinking.
A couple have squeezed into the Times Higher Education Index of the world’s top 800 - the University of Indonesia (UI) and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).
 In Australia six of the nation’s 35 universities feature in the world’s top 100.  Australia has 11 Nobel prizewinners in science, medicine and the arts while Indonesia, with a population ten times greater has none.
According to a University of Geneva study released this year links between Indonesian and foreign universities are ‘noticeably underdeveloped’ when compared to Malaysia and Singapore.
Disincentives include poverty and language barriers because courses are taught in Indonesian.  This is slowly changing as major universities start using English in some seminars. At Yogyakarta’s Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) the Center for Security and Peace Studies is run by Indonesians teaching in English.
Collaboration could help lift standards; Flinders has formal partnerships with eight Indonesian colleges, and other campuses have developed ties.  However the Swiss report noted ‘quite stringent regulations that foreign universities must adhere to should they wish to establish a presence in Indonesia’.
So young Indonesians have to leave their homeland to set the right coordinates for future careers; the best places to showcase their talents are conferences.
Though not just any talkfest; a gathering of sharp minds in a McDonald’s café may yield splendid results just as ideas for independence were conceived last century by the nationalist Budi Utomo (noble endeavour) students in medical school classrooms, but attitudes have changed.
Professor Michele Ford from Sydney University warned participants in a postgraduate publishing workshop at the conference that to build a good CV they need to be careful about the journals they approach and seminars they attend.
The host and event must have a record of scholarship and preferably star speakers.  To get into that firmament usually means travelling overseas. 
More than a thousand Indonesians have graduated from Flinders.  Top names include Dr Pratikno, the former rector of Yogyakarta’s UGM and now Minister of the State Secretariat, and Dr Daniel Sparringa, former Senior Adviser in Public and Political Communication to the last Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Flinders is not the only university attracting Indonesians.  According to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta more than 8,500 – a quarter of all Indonesian tertiary students abroad -head south.  More Indonesians are squirreling away in Australian libraries than in Europe.
While nascent scholars are turning to the west, their Australian counterparts are shying away from the neighbors’ language and culture.  Government statistics show that fewer Australian students are studying Indonesian language and culture in their final high school terms than 40 years ago.
Professor Tim Lindsey of Melbourne University has said that if the enrolment slump continues Germany may have more universities teaching Indonesian than Australia.
So even if Indonesian universities learn how to play in the big league, follow Ambassador Legowo’s advice and start inviting their neighbors to fly north, few lunchboxes will be needed for visitors from Down Under.

The Indonesia Council is a professional association promoting study of Indonesian in tertiary education in Australia.  The author presented a paper at the Flinders conference.

First published in The Jakarta Post 2 August 2017


Tuesday, August 01, 2017


From killer to savior

It was never going to end well for at least one party: Four young men, three rifles and a single monkey.
Or so the hunters thought.
After the animal had been hit by about 20 rounds it seemed dead but was stuck in the top branches. Syamsul was the sharpest shot and might have joined the army to kill other primates had he not worn glasses.
So the bravest of the gallant woodsmen shinned up the tree to retrieve the cadaver for a meal.  Then he made a discovery that was to change his life.
The monkey had been executed for the crime of being simian but her baby was still clinging to its mother’s breast and life.  Shots had grazed its leg and face but done no lasting harm.
Syamsul took the little creature home and discovered compassion. He nursed it back to health and eventually gave it to a friend whose son wanted a pet.  He started thinking about the way he was behaving and his relationship with the natural world.
Syamsul no longer prowls the dense bush which cascades from his three-level home in a kampung flanking Brantas River in Malang.  When he hears men scouring the undergrowth with dogs and weapons he whistles to distract the pursuit.
He used to rain stones from a catapult onto the stalkers till dissuaded by his wife Suli who said he was being too aggressive. Certainly not appropriate behavior for the Buddhist convert and animal protector he’s become since his monkey moment decades earlier.

Syamsul is now an active member of an animal rescue and release field camp in East Java. (See breakout)
Syamsul (left) dedicates his work to his late mother Sutrisnowati who died of cancer in her early 50s.
“I was very close to my Mom,” he said.  “She was a wise person steeped in Javanese lore who taught me how to appreciate and honor our culture and people.  I’d dropped out of high school and just wandered around.  When she died and left me the house I set out to repair the damage I’d done.”
Syamsul is now helping rehabilitate langurs, which are often caged as pets, and so ease their suffering. He wants to encourage more care for the natural world but knows changing social behavior takes time and effort.  The Soeharto-era days of meek communities obeying government orders have gone. Instead he’s trying to alter by example.
This means using his talents as a musician and dalang (puppet master) to promote conservation under the stage name Kardjo.  He’s also mastered the art of wayang suket using dried mendong sedge (Fimbristylis globulosa) to weave the tiny figures.
He uses this skill while storytelling to emphasize the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, and by telling his animal adventure stories.
These include his first job relocating a crocodile and learning how to be wary of wildlife.  A colleague was badly kicked by a supposedly tame cassowary brought from West Papua by a returning soldier who found the bird too big to handle in suburbia.
It seemed docile – until the rescuers arrived; their intentions were good but not their planning.
“Returning animals to the wild has to be handled carefully,” said Syamsul watching field camp workers feed fresh-cut branches of acacia to the langurs living in a cluster of tall wire cages.
“Those born in captivity or captured young have lost foraging and survival skills. This is why we keep visitors away.  The langurs need to discover distrust.  They look ferocious when they make threatening faces but flee when that tactic fails.”
The field camp’s facilities include incubators, scales and a medicine cabinet.  The buildings are basic – dirt floors and bamboo walls but include a small library.

The workshop lists details of the seven males and 14 females going through the stages of acclimatisation. Rinda and Mira, Moses and Oat feature on a whiteboard but the volunteers, rostered to camp overnight as observers and security, try to avoid using names in their daily dealings.
“It makes the task so much harder if we develop emotional attachments,” said Syamsul.  “Our job is to ensure they can survive without our help. We wear masks and gloves and clean cages twice daily to avoid disease transmission.”
Langurs live in groups of five or six lorded by a dominant male; those who’ve spent years behind bars alone don’t know how to relate to others.  Watching how individuals interact with other langurs is critical prior to release which may come months after the animal is brought to the center.
So far more than 50, plus other creatures like the nocturnal loris have been released.  Although the center has access to only four hectares of forest leased from the government the langurs should be safe in the 100 hectare park where indigenous creatures are protected.
Apart from their attraction as pets, monkeys and langurs have been hunted because their meat is supposedly an aphrodisiac and cures skin diseases.  Although not grounded on fact the beliefs persist. East Javan langurs are now an endangered species with probably less than 3,000 in the wild.  As numbers fall values rise.
The illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia is now worth Rp13 trillion (US $975 million) a year according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Opening the cages
Despite being in a heavily used holiday area in Central East Java, only the curious will discover the Javan Langur Center.  It’s tucked away from the foodstalls and sports grounds at the Coban Talun recreational park set 1,350 meters up in the cool and lumpy mountains around Batu.
Known locally as a field station it’s funded by the Aspinall Foundation, an international conservation charity ‘working in some of the world’s most fragile environments to save endangered animals and return them to the wild’.

It was founded in 1984 by John Aspinall, an eccentric British zoo owner and entrepreneur who made (and lost) fortunes though gambling.  He died in 2000.
The foundation has a center in West Bandung and two in East Java.  Last year 15 langurs were imported from zoos in Britain and France for return to the wild in East Java.
Leaf-eating langurs, frequently mistaken for monkeys, have long tails, often close to a meter and twice their body length.   Most have black fur but a few of the East Java variety are orange colored.

First published in The Jakarta Post 1 August 2017

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Australia Plus doesn’t add                                                                   
Most nations strive to show their best sides to the world through international TV channels.  They see these as effective means of building rapport and dispelling distrust. 
On these platforms they serve documentaries, dramas and newscasts made to enhance their country’s real or imagined virtues.  BBC World, France24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other telecasters offer vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend AUD$ 117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is believed to have an annual budget of US$ 300 million.    Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television (CCTV). The Voice of America has US$ 218 million, all from government funds.
We have Australia Plus, run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with the help of Monash University, the Government of Victoria and Swisse - a food supplement manufacturer owned by a Hong Kong-based company.
Through this service we give the world the WotWots. Literally. Also Bananas in Pyjamas and Australian Rules played by no other country apart from a hybrid in Ireland. Yet we live in a region where projecting a positive image among the near neighbours is particularly important as the biggest in the block don’t like us.
According to a recent survey published by the USAsia Centre Indonesians responded to the question: Which country has the closest relationship with President Joko Widodo’s government? by putting Saudi Arabia first at 47 per cent, followed by China, and the US. Only two per cent said Australia.  Clearly we have problems.

Are we ashamed? Citizens may be, but our government is not. This is a new irresponsibility.  Our presentations to the Asia Pacific used to be different. For decades Australian governments believed that broadcasting and telecasting into the region was an important commitment, sowing ideas, informing and influencing. 
Radio Australia started in 1939 using shortwave, mainly to counter Japanese propaganda.  After the war it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of foreign affairs. Other terms commonly found in the literature include ‘globally connected’ and ‘promotion of Australian values’.
Thousands developed their English skills huddled over crackling sets, particularly during the 1950s and 60s.  Technology forced changes. Satellites eclipsed land-based transmitters.  Rebrands became necessary but the vision remained and the mission expanded.
In 2006 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that ABC Asia Pacific (formerly Australia Television International) would become Australia Network, with funding from Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising.
Downer said the ABC would run the network offering “high quality programmes about Australia and its engagement with the region.” Also promised were “extensive news and current affairs programmes, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programmes.” 
In 2011 the Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV which had long campaigned to get the job.  When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company – no friend of Labor - would get the contract the tender process was scrapped and the job given to the ABC.
It was a short victory. After the Liberal-National Coalition won government in 2013 revenge was rapid - Australia Network was turned off. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the network ‘had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’ but gave no facts to back the claim.
The then ABC managing director Mark Scott said the decision ‘sends a strange message to the region that the government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to it to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia’.
Killing the network may have satisfied a political ideology but a legal reality had to be faced: The ABC Charter requires it to be an international broadcaster so the gap had to be filled. Click onto Australia Plus. Image polishers have called it:
…an opportunity for Australian businesses and a case study in corporate entrepreneurship … an endeavour that should be applauded. It is a positive step for the broadcaster, for public institutions in general and for Australian business.
So far few corporates have clapped because their logos have yet to appear on Indonesian screens.  Absent from the sponsors are the 360 Australian businesses which launched a mighty assault on the Indonesian market in 2015 and again this year with 120 delegates.
The new service is believed to cost AUD $20 million a year with three ‘foundation partners’ – in the coy language of one report – ‘signing-on to advertising deals worth in the low single digit million dollar range’.  Presumably this means something between one and three million a year, so still a minority contribution.
As Australian leaders recite the mantra that Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship it might be logical to assume we’d be offering our best and brightest programmes selected specifically for the archipelago and other markets.
According to the ABC ‘the service is delivered as a single stream across all territories.  Programmes do not have separate versions for individual territories’.  So one size fits all in the 43 countries that get Australia Plus. This negates the ABC’s claim that ‘the ABC places the audience at the centre of everything it does’.
In Indonesia three pay-to-use cable services carry Australia Plus.  They get it free.  The ABC says it’s ‘available to three million people in Indonesia’ meaning that’s the number who pay for access to networks each offering 50 or more channels.
We are the closest Western nation to Indonesia with the ability to present a different perspective in the media jungle of Southeast Asia. Australia Plus says its mission is ‘to provide a television and digital service that informs, entertains and inspires our audience with an uniquely Australian perspective.’  Note the order of priorities.
Indonesian viewers comparing Australia Plus with other nations’ presentations might conclude that we’re a poor country offering an inconsistent fare and indifferent to audience needs. 
 This situation may not concern the Government but it appears to worry the ABC. In March this year it made an untitled submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper.  The document noted the expansion of the BBC World Service and other TV networks into overseas telecasting while reminding DFAT of some original principles:
Australia requires a strategy for engagement which enhances mutual understanding and respect and which encourages an exchange of ideas. Establishing strong cultural and social links with international populations will facilitate stronger economic ties and more productive collaboration.
Perhaps this late conscience-pricker might someday get a reaction.  However, so far nothing seems to stir the major parties. They enjoy ABC and SBS excellence at home and offer heart-warming statements about Australia being respected in the region.
If Australia’s overseas TV is supposed to project a robust Western democracy, a creative explorer of art and technology and a leader in education, then Australia Plus is a turn off. 
It could be a splendid showcase in Indonesia and the 42 other nations where it’s available, spreading Australian news, culture, values and opinions, equal to its international competitors. We have the skills and talent.  What we lack is political will.
(This feature is based on a paper presented at the Indonesia Council’s Open Conference at Flinders University this month.  The full text with references can be found here:
First published in Asian Currents 26 July 2017.  See:

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


The politics of pushbikes
Jakarta cyclists are back-pedalling as commuting in the Big Durian gets too perilous, according to the NGO Bike to Work Indonesia. But it’s press ahead Down Under, as Duncan Graham reports.

Visitors to Adelaide have plenty of transport options.  They can jump on busses, taxis, trains and trams with some offering free rides; walking is a joy as the city is airstrip flat, not too windy - and this year seldom wet.
Or they can hire a bicycle during daylight hours – for no charge.
The South Australian capital claims to be the only city in the country offering this non-commercial service.  It started in 2005 with 20 bikes – now it has 400 available from 26 outlets – with most open seven days a week.
The show is run by the non-profit organization BikeSA which has expanded beyond the city center to nearby suburbs – though not yet to Yorketown.
So when the five-member Warren family arrived from their hometown 300 kilometers west of Adelaide they used two wheels to explore while learning lessons about the environment.
The local and state governments which fund the project are promoting cycling to reduce pollution from vehicle exhausts, keep citizens fit, eliminate congestion and eventually         park fossil-fuelled King Car and throw away the key.
Could it happen in Indonesia?  In smaller cities with committed leadership and a disciplined citizenry – meaning drivers stop at red lights and pedestrian crossings - a version of the Adelaide model could be trialled.
 However modifications would be necessary to cope with cultural differences, according to Christian Haag, CEO of BikeSA.
First a mindset change.  People who buy cars as status symbols and sneer at other road users won’t feel comfortable on a saddle until driving becomes more misery than fun through gridlocks and parking problems.
Commented Haag: “Bikes in the West are now seen as transport for smart people and not the poor; millennials concerned about the environment are making cycling trendy.
“About a thousand cities worldwide have a point-to-point system but ours is different.
 “Users have to return the bike to the collection point.  Now our fleet is ageing we may change the model using new machines with embedded GPS sensors so we can track movements.”
In point-to-point commuters leave bikes at train or bus stations for others to use.  The system has gone spectacular awry in some Chinese cities where hundreds of bikes have been dumped because there’s no docking system.
Meanwhile in cities like Brisbane in the Australian state of Queensland bikes in sidewalk racks are going unused because the credit and ID card system of unlocking and using is too complex. Australian law demands cyclists use helmets – not a requirement in cities like Amsterdam regarded as a world leader in bike use.
In Adelaide borrowers leave a driving license as security. Only two bikes a year are stolen, according to BikeSA coordinator Chelsea Austin.
“People return bikes because their licences are too valuable to lose,” she said. “We supply a locking device but sometimes borrowers forget to secure and the bike walks.”
Haag has studied systems overseas and forecasts an explosion of bike use as authorities work out the ideal way to get maximum usage with minimal hassle.
The big money and challenging ideas are coming from China where Ofo bikes are operating an Uber-style app system, now in Singapore. Users book bikes and are sent a code to unlock the machine.
“We’ll soon be scrapping our clunky but robust step-through bikes for new models, including pedal-assisted electric bicycles (known as Pedelec E-bikes)”, Haag said. “The cost will be up to AUD 500 (Rp 5 million) per unit wholesale, so we may have to start allowing advertising.
“We can buy cheaper bikes, around AUD 60 (Rp 600,000) each, but they won’t last.”
Most frames are made in China (35 million a year according to some reports) with European motors but demand is so strong manufacturing may start in Australia.
Public transport authorities who think traffic problems will be solved by getting commercial companies to open hire-bike centers will find their dreams punctured if they don’t spend on facilities.
In some parts of Adelaide there’s already a shortage of kerbside rails where bikes can be chained, so trees and street furniture are being used and annoying pedestrians.  Special cycleways complete with traffic lights just for riders have been installed to make pedalling pleasurable and safe. 
Community awareness programs are also essential. Cyclists can use sidewalks so the idea of shared-space has been promoted.  Motorists must allow a 1.5 meter gap between themselves and cyclists.
Haag is confident future public transport systems will become seamlessly integrated as the public sees benefits and demand action.
BikeSA offers visitors workshops on cycle maintenance, insurance policies and maps to guide their exploration of Adelaide.  A tour of religious centers includes a visit to the Adelaide Mosque, built in 1888 and the oldest major city mosque in Australia.
Haag doesn’t think licenses will be imposed by authorities hungry for revenue, though he said Oregon in the US plans to add a US $15 (Rp 200,000) tax on new bike sales.
“The economics are straight forward,” he said.  “The cost of moving people using conventional transport is continually rising. We need to make it easier to ride a bike than drive a car but we are not there yet.  Change needs leadership.”
Adelaide’s free bikes may soon be history as costs rise – but how will fees be imposed? Membership (difficult for visitors), credit cards, recharge cards, cash at a counter – these are issues still to be determined.
But Haag is convinced the Age of the Bike has arrived.  Though not yet in Jakarta.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 July 2017