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

Monday, October 14, 2019


How not to engage with Asia.

Every decade or so a Western Australian watcher from the cast-iron balconies of the State’s Parliament glances outwards.  Looking away from the Darling Range rippling in the heat rising from the Swan Coastal Plain, the beholder wonders: What lies North West?

Maybe adolescent markets hungry for the abundance of minerals and foods coming from the State’s hinterland?  Just seeing neighbours as consumers is a bit crass, so policies need to be packaged with ribbons labeled ‘relationships’ and ‘friendship’.  The latest is ‘engagement’.  Unwrapping reveals a mostly empty box.

In 1990 Education Minister Dr Geoff Gallop (later Labor Premier and now director of Sydney University’s Graduate School of Government) pushed the State towards Southeast Asia and Indonesia in particular.

After the government changed so did priorities. Liberal Premier Colin Barnett (2008 – 17) tossed aside suggestions of promoting Asian language studies.

'There are very few parts of the world where meetings aren't conducted in English and they are generally not with interpreters,' he told AAP when visiting Jakarta.

This was wrist-slashing news for Australian academics and educators campaigning to boost Indonesian in schools as enrolments had tumbled by a third following the 2002 Bali bombings.  They reckoned monolingualism threatens security, defence, trade and personal relationships.

Murdoch Uni Professor David Hill was commissioned to report by the Federal government; he stressed the ‘need to act decisively and urgently to rebuild Indonesian skills in Australia’. 

Barnett didn’t see needs.  No votes here.  But when Labor went to the polls in March 2017 it promised another try at sending cheerios towards the people next door who are not like us.  A policy to ‘engage’ would be devised.

In proper administrations details precede policies. Here it’s the reverse. Premier Mark McGowan’s pledge has become a case study in implementation stuff ups.  

It took almost 30 months to produce the 56-page Asian Engagement Strategy 2019-2030 Our Future with Asia, with acres of splendid pictures and dazzling charts.

The public launch at the end of August carried a price tag - $320; this is steep for a coffee and choc muffin even in Perth.  When a politician’s speech is the appetizer only the truly famished on corporate expense accounts would have bothered.

Indonesian Institute president Ross Taylor, a long-standing and vigorous advocate for closer personal and business ties, took the surprising step of warning members to stay away from the “exclusive and price-prohibitive function …The Strategy is a public document and should be made widely available, and not be held captive to those who can afford this price.”

Attendees were addressed by Peter Tinley.  In January he won the Asian Engagement portfolio off Bill Johnston whose claim to the job was based on some language skills garnered as an exchange student in Bandung, West Java.

Tinley, a former major in the SAS, spent time in Iraq but has no known connections with Asia.  He highlighted WA’s closeness to the expanding Asian markets and the State’s importance as a producer of minerals, grains, beef and other foods.

Such stale statements are distasteful to anyone who has ever read a map and a newspaper, which presumably includes corporates.  Curiously Tinley didn’t startle his audience by letting slip that Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere and not betwixt the UK and the US.  My God! Why hadn’t we been told before?

His speech was thinner on details than the serviettes, so we inquired.

 It took Tinley’s office three weeks to produce these Yes Minister jewels:  ‘The six priorities match global economic trends with the State’s unique strengths and resources, with an overall aim to strengthen and diversify the State economy, and create future-proofed jobs for Western Australians.’ Translation app couldn’t cope.

‘The Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation has commenced work on the next phase of the Asian Engagement Strategy, which involves scheduling activities that deliver on the ‘Government actions’ outlined in the Strategy. An implementation plan is in development and will include annual analysis and reporting of progress and outcomes.

‘The Minister … has been undertaking work to activate businesses and communities around the actions of the Strategy.’  Translation:  Dithering in progress.

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of a Sister State Agreement with the province of East Java, signed during the despotic regime of President Soeharto.  In the early days it started well with several exchange programmes.  

One of the most lasting was bringing Indonesians to visit dairy and potato farms resulting in the Republic importing pregnant Friesian heifers and seed spuds, significantly boosting yields.

Tinley’s office said ‘a number of projects to mark the 30th anniversary are under discussion including  cultural/arts exchange,  bilateral visits involving senior officials and a possible visit by East Java youth delegation.’  Translation: Head scratching continues.

Small positives from the strategy and in place are Access Asia Business Grants.  These should help small-to-medium size shows explore opportunities.  Grants to $10,000, but the pool has only $1.2 million available till June 2021.

Otherwise the ‘engagement’ lacks the essentials for moving into a successful marriage.   Determination on all sides to make it work, and commitment of ample resources.  Translation:  Political will. 

(Disclosure:  The author received two research grants from the Sister State Agreement in the 1990s.)

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 14 October 2019

Saturday, October 12, 2019


BTW: Message to ad execs:  Please Quit                            

As a nipper I knew about baddies.  They were paunchy bald men wearing sloppy trousers and horizontal striped T-shirts who squinted through eye masks.

Now it’s cyber crims. Clip-art shows a hooded figure hunched over a laptop in a darkened cell, an image as silly as childhood’s imaginary villains.

The 2019 evildoers wear sharp gear and work in fluro-saturated studios.  These keyboard jockeys move mice faster than a scurrying rodent; they tap like Jakarta jazzman Joey Alexander hits the ivories.

Away from their domain we’d find them fine neighbors, happy with community clean ups.  Well mannered and law-abiding, they join gyms rather than huddles of smokers’ on high-rise forecourts.

Decent folk?  Don’t be deceived. They call themselves creatives and advertising account executives, and have two jobs. 

One is to financially cripple the poor. The other is to make self-harm fun.  In brief, they sell suicide.

They use their talents to offer insecure boys dithering at masculinity’s portal a cheap way to enter manhood.  Like the Devil’s pact with Faust, they swap fantasies for souls – and internal organs.

Let’s put it more bluntly: They proffer loaded revolvers suggesting the barrel be inserted in the mouth and the trigger pulled. 

The metaphor is flawed because a bullet results in a speedy death.  Their product draws out the agony, day by day, till the victim succumbs in a mess of bloody phlegm before horrified friends and family.

There are many dreadful ways to die; preventable tobacco-caused lung and heart diseases rival the Inquisition.  They’re the biggest killers in Indonesia.

And the kids are getting hooked.  The number of under-18 smokers is rising. In 2013 it was 7.2 per cent; now its 9.1.  Were there high fives in the ad agencies when those figures came out?

Six in ten Indonesian men are addicts.  They are druggies but don’t get arrested because their drug of choice is nicotine.  And the government says that’s legal.

In those cities where the burghers care not a whit for their youngsters’ health, giant billboards on roads leading to schools show the life poor lads would love.

Most posters are arty – and artful. The adjectives are tough-guy:  Pro, strong, bold.  Slim studs sweat in boxing rings and scramble up mountains. To thrash rivals and snare coy maidens requires stamina; men must not give up.  It’s the definition of machismo.

So the slogans read:  ‘Don’t Quit’ or ‘Never Quit’.

The educated copy writers know ‘Quit’ is a magic word in the West.  It grew from an Australian doctor-led campaign which the government eventually backed.

Outdoor tobacco ads disappeared in 1996 after public protests which included defacing posters.

Shop displays are banned (packs hide in a closed cabinet), and the health warning with a ghastly graphics of rotting bodies now covers 75 per cent of the plain package.
These policies have had a thumping impact.  In the 1970s about 44 per cent of adult Australians smoked; that’s now down to 15 per cent.  What’s gone up has been the expense – from 40 cents a pack to around AUD 33 (Rp 330,000).  The government tax take is 75 per cent.
That’s 15 times dearer than the same toxin will cost in Indonesia next year when the price is likely to jump 35 per cent after a boost in excise.
To be a smoker in Australia you have to be rich or stupid – or both.  Hooked Indonesian users shrug off the government health warning Peringatan merokok membunuhmu (smoking kills you) like they ignore traffic lights.  Anecdotes trump facts:  All inhalers know a Grandpop who smokes a pack a day and still pedals a pedicab.
As the world leader in combating tobacco Australia is loathed by Big Baccy.  Philip Morris took Australia to an international tribunal to have the plan packaging laws declared illegal.
It took seven years and AUD 24 million before the government won,
Indonesian politicians who want the kid killing stopped have already been confronted by tobacco industry claims that thousands will be thrown out of work if laws are tightened, particularly women. 

That argument could be used for maintaining prostitution, but the legislators say morality is more important than money.

First published in The Jakarta Post 12 October 2019

Thursday, October 10, 2019


Democracy – can it be improved?         


The April general election in Indonesia which saw President Joko Widodo returned for a second five-year term was a logistical megatrial for the Komisi Pemilihan Umum (General Elections Commission - KPU), and an ordeal for participants.

Around 240,000 candidates jostled for over 20,000 seats in local and national legislatures in the world’s third largest democracy.  (India is first, the US second). 

Ben Bland of Australia’s Lowy Institute called it ‘the most complicated single-day ballot in global history’. 

Although almost 600 of the seven million Indonesian election workers reportedly died from exhaustion, the event was reckoned a success, though the operation may be modified next time round in 2024. Indian parliamentary elections this year were spread across six weeks.

The original Greek idea of democracy (‘demos’ - commoners, ‘kratos’ - strength) has been around for 2,500 years yet it’s still a work in progress. No nation has a mortgage on how best to represent the will of the people so ensuring voting is fair and equal is a global issue.
Now Indonesians and others have the chance to comment through a neighbor’s parliamentary inquiry. The search for definitions and better ways has spread to Australia, a self-governing democracy since 1901. 
The Senate (the upper house representing the States in the national parliament in Canberra) is holding an open inquiry into Nationhood, National Identity and Democracy and inviting submissions – including from foreign individuals and associations.
The British Economist Intelligence Unit publishes a Democracy Index.  This ranks 164 United Nations member states into ‘full democracies’, ‘flawed democracies’, ‘hybrid regimes’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’.  It does this by measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political cultures.
Indonesia is labeled a ‘flawed democracy’, along with neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. This group also includes the United States where only 55 per cent got involved in the 2016 elections.
More than 80 per cent of the 193 million eligible Indonesian voters exercised their rights though participation was voluntary.  These figures seem to show the Republic’s teenage democracy is robust and optimistic despite having the ‘flawed’ tag.

Indonesia only became a democracy this century after 32 years of the late General Soeharto’s New Order dictatorship so many questions are bubbling to the surface.

Foremost is this:  Is democracy, which comes from a Western cultural tradition, the best model for choosing leaders? The winners are happy, the losers not so, like supporters of the failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

They claim it’s unfair that a villager laboring in a rice field should have the same single-vote power as a member of the educated elite debating esoteric issues in Jakarta’s high-rise offices.

As outlined in Strategic Review two years ago a hankering remains for the traditional decision-making systems like musyawarah (consensus after long discussion).  That way differences can be resolved without resorting to a binary Yes-No vote.
A decade ago US social scientist Larry Diamond’s book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World, argued that a renewed democratic boom needs ‘vigorous support of good governance—the rule of law, security, protection of individual rights, and shared economic prosperity—and free civic organizations.’

Why should a ‘full democracy’ nation like Australia indulge in a spate of navel gazing?  The riots in Hong Kong show political ideologies can no longer be confined by high border walls when the Internet wafts across oceans and immigration controls.

Thousands of Chinese students studying in Australia and raised to believe in the supremacy of a one-party state have been clashing with pro-democracy supporters on Australian streets and campuses.  Free-speech issues have been wrenched out of political science tutorials and onto the front pages of mainstream newspapers.

Of the 800,000 overseas students in Australia, 230,000 are from mainland China.
Submissions to the Senate inquiry are not confined to Australian citizens and agencies based Down Under, so psephologists, policy analysts, journalists and others here and elsewhere can make their own points.   They do not have to be specific to Australia.

They need to be quick as the closing date is the end of this month.  
Of interest to internationalists are three questions among the many flagged for attention:

*          What role does globalization and economic interdependence and economic development play in forming or disrupting traditional notions of national identity?

*          What are contemporary notions of cultural identity, multiculturalism and regionalism?
*          The extent to which nation states balance domestic imperatives and sovereignty and international obligations;
The inquiry’s discussion paper to aid submitters can be downloaded here:   
The paper states that ‘around the world, voters seem increasingly dissatisfied with how democratic politics works for them. Public trust in democratic institutions is declining. Notions of national identity, which can be the roots of a democratic community, are changing as our world becomes increasingly interconnected.’
Apart from disillusionment there’s growing disinterest.  This month The Guardian newspaper polled 1,075 voters, finding only 15 per cent follow events in Canberra closely.
A similar number showed no interest in politics, with the rest casual consumers of national affairs.  What Australians really like is sport.
The discussion paper adds: ‘There is a wealth of evidence showing a worrying decline in the level of public trust. In 2007, 86 per cent of Australians were satisfied with how democracy works in Australia. That figure is now 41 per cent.
‘Evidence also suggests that those with the lowest incomes are least satisfied with democracy.’
These issues aren’t limited to the Southern Hemisphere. British researchers have revealed around half of UK voters reckon the big parties and politicians don't care about the wee folk who put them into power.

A Pew Research Center study in the US disclosed that only 17 per cent of Americans said they can trust the government in Washington to do the right thing 'just about always' or 'most of the time'.
Australians won’t be the only people studying the Senate inquiry’s findings due next May. 

Whether the Australian Parliament or other legislatures will implement any recommendations is another matter.

First published in Strategic Review - 9 October 2019.  See:

Wednesday, October 09, 2019


Fifty shades of green                                                                  

There may be cleaner streets in hilltown Malang than this East Java nook, though they’d be hard to find.

But then so is the place itself - Kampong Glintung.  It’s well off a main drag, down a drab driveway, imprisoned by a high factory wall smeared by graffiti.  None of the images are artistic or original.

The clang of metal from the hidden workshop doesn’t better the ambience.  Maybe the GPS has given the wrong spot and it’s time to turn back.

Then bang!  A hit to the eyes, not to the ears.  Grim yields to charm right at the junction where ugliness ends and beauty begins.  

The house of retired driver Sukoco, 60, and his family mark the intersection.  Although their two-storey home leaves no space for a forecourt, it could still justify being named Verdant Villa.

With no room to spread out the couple have grown up, clothing their abode with a multicolored vertical garden.

“Malang is getting hotter every year,” said Sukoco’s wife Sri Winarti, 58.  “Pollution is a problem.  So is littering.  But plants make such a big difference.”

She’s not a lone voice.  Apart from the color there’s a feeling of calm though many of the residents are busy in the alleys.  The location is hard concrete urban, but the talk and activities are green.

An open drain runs alongside the asphalt.  Unlike the residents it’s in a rush so there’s no odor.  The occasional plastic bag shows not all obey the ‘Don’t Trash’ notices.  “The rubbish comes from upstream,” said Sukoco, gravity feeding culvert water onto street plants.

It’s not just individuals’ homes that are flowering.  Every flat spot on the sidewalk has a pot.

The locals call their project Glintung Go Green, or  ‘3G’, which is smart publicity as the term is widely known from wireless mobile technology. But here it signals bringing the country to the city.

The idea was first planted by agricultural advisor Bambang Trianto seven years ago when he was elected Rukun Warga (RW – community leader) for a nearby street.

When Indonesian Expat visited 3G, he was in Jakarta running seminars on how to get city dwellers to find the sweet spot in the spectrum between blue and yellow.

On the phone he said that as RW he tried to persuade residents to garden.  But his successor was not so keen and the project faltered. The family moved in 2017 and decided to lead in their new home by doing, not directing.

Going green can give warm fuzzies, what academics label ‘virtue signaling’. But sustaining moral comfort entails more than words and water.  

Laggards need encouragement.  Like marriage, nature requires regular refreshment. Some plants can survive a nuclear winter – others shrivel in a sunbeam.  Having a green thumb helps, but skills can be nurtured if there’s an abundance of enthusiasm.

“I don’t know the names of the plants but I know what they want,” said Sri Winarti.  “I’ve taught myself by watching them grow, and listening to people with more experience.”

Bambang’s wife Erni Irianto, 62, can identify some species.  Her favorites are members of the Sansevieria trifasciata family.  Also known as snakeplants they seem to withstand excesses of care or neglect, so good starters for amateurs.

“The kampong was quite dirty and polluted when we arrived,” she said. “There was also a lot of petty crime.  We wanted people to feel proud of their streets so started putting plants on top of walls.”

It was a technique also used by Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew whose government draped Vernonia elliptica over the facades of old buildings to disguise the grime. 

In Indonesia the curtain creeper now bears the late Prime Minister’s name. It’s become a trendy plant around hotel foyers, though not over-used in 3G.

That’s because the 150 households aren’t into monoculture.  If a shrub can be grown from a cutting those with abundance offer twigs to others.  Seeds and suckers get swapped.  Outsiders can buy. A bunch that plants together blooms together.

In one street is a State elementary school where the students play in a yard that was once a dustbowl.  Now the kids have shade from trees and should grow up more aware of the value of nurturing the environment.

Awards and a notice board of visitors’ compliments decorate one wall of Bambang Trianto’s house.  Among them a message from Michael Clifton, formerly of the Australian Trade and Investment Commission:

‘Privileged to witness an inspiring model of community pride in action.  Powerful proof of the power of passion and leadership to change lives.’

Bambang has a home business making tempe (soybean cake).  On the roof above the kitchen he and his wife are building a seminar room where the principles of conservation, composting, recycling and developing the green economy can be taught.

“We think this will be the only place in Indonesia where a community is educating others,” she said.  “We haven’t had any government support.

“The most effective way to explain the benefits of going green is by example.  That’s what we’re doing.”


First published in Indonesian Expat, 9 October 2019

Monday, September 30, 2019


The national wound weeps still                                

Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he opened Macbeth with three witches on a blasted heath chanting enigmatic predictions.

So did the devil script-writer for the Lubang Buaya (Crocodile hole) fantasy when he set the ghoulish scene for the 1965 Indonesian coup, casting an orgy of dancing nudes castrating six murdered generals.

It’s the primeval male terror – sibylline women de-sexing potent men and destroying masculine power. The only fightback is demonization.  Fed to a prudish public the images are repulsive and compelling.  Even more so in Java where the supernatural lurks in every dark cranny.

Published post mortems revealed no violation of the generals’ genitals.  Lubang Buaya was a disused well used to dump the bodies, not the lair of leviathans.  But the lurid tale is too deeply buried in the nation’s psyche to be exhumed by facts.
If maliciously spreading fake news can be dubbed a success, the myth of the Communist Gerwani women mutilating the nation’s guardians has to be judged ‘one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in modern history’.
That’s according to Dutch sociologist (and ‘militant anthropologist’) Saskia Wieringa, and Indonesian feminist lawyer Nursyahbani Katjasungkana.
They estimate one million killed and another million imprisoned following the coup; the impact on a country then with around 100 million citizens meant hardly a family or neighborhood would have escaped untouched.
Propaganda and the Genocide in Indonesia: Imagined Evil is the latest in overseas publications in English focusing on the events of 30 September.  Both authors played major roles with the prosecution at the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) on 1965 Crimes against Humanity Indonesia, held in The Hague almost four years ago.
Their research led to a scrutiny of the state’s brainwashing of millions through a ‘campaign in which Communists were painted as atheist, hypersexual, amoral and intent to destroy the nation’.
In fact many so called Reds were deeply religious and most were dedicated nationalists.  However they wanted land reform and redistribution of wealth.  These mild ambitions were often enough to warrant death sentences.
The victims didn’t face trial. Their ‘crimes’ were by association. Moms who’d sent their children to a kindergarten run by someone with community concerns became suspect.
The IPT report concluded that ‘the State of Indonesia must be held responsible for mass killings, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearances and sexual violence.’  It also found the US, the UK and Australia were complicit.  However neither Indonesia nor the allegedly conniving countries were represented.

The Indonesian government loudly rejected the report’s conclusions, and all official moves towards openly confronting the past have slipped into silence. Even though the truth has been tipped into mass graves along with the victims, the bones keep clawing to the surface to haunt the present.

There are ironic parallels with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Chinese authorities have also tried to smother knowledge of the Beijing slaughter of maybe thousands of pro-democracy citizens by the People’s Liberation Army.

Although dedicated to ‘the younger generations who grew up in a climate in which history was distorted and critical analysis made suspect,’ the chances of inquisitive teens finding this book aren’t good.  

It’s been published in Europe in academic English; the hard-copy costs more than Rp 2.2 million, the e-book version ‘from’ Rp 340,000.

This is a problem, because Imagined Evil collects and sifts the events leading up to the ‘coup’ and packages them well.  Having so much compact information is valuable for fact-hungry but time-starved readers.

It analyses the ‘why’ theories and the aftermath.  The 1965 violence was the worst of many berserk events in this nation’s short history, but it wasn’t a stand-alone, raising the embarrassing question:  Are Indonesians basically brutal?

In the absence of alternative texts on school library shelves, generations have grown up with just one version - the 1984 film The Betrayal of G30S/PKI, No chance of avoiding manufactured history – the kids had to watch this gruesome falsehood every year.

After the 1998 fall of President Soeharto there seemed hope for exposure and reconciliation. Fourth President Abdurrahman Wahid apologized for the mass killings and unsuccessfully tried to get the ban on Communism lifted.

Almost 20 years ago the Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat (People’s Consultative Assembly - MPR) proposed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That led to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in 2000 as a restorative justice NGO dedicated to building ‘fair, democratic and inclusive societies’ but has yet to stir.

Genocide defenders argue that the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) was a gang of traitors victimizing ‘innocent’ Muslims, who could only be saved by the heroic army.  And if the Reds hadn’t been purged they would have rooted-out anti-Communists.  It was kill – or be killed.

The authors have  detected similarities between events now and half-a-century earlier, concluding that resistance to reconciliation is driven by the military and radical Muslims arguing apologies will welcome back Communism. They write:

 ‘The lid should remain on the box – the truth must not be revealed. Shady political manoeuvres, corruption and the very real threat of Islamist terrorism have created an atmosphere in which the ghost of Communism has been revived and anti-communist conspiracy theories flourish.

‘A mixture of sexual slander, now directed at LGBT groups, and the bogeyman of the revival of Communism, has been concocted as a toxic potion to sway Islamic masses.’

The final chapter is the most worrying as it reveals hoax and hate campaigns are being foisted on army recruits and youth attending mosques:  ‘It is surprising how easy it is to conflate Communism with human rights, and it is a struggle to defend the pluralism and diversity that used to characterize Indonesia.’

Routledge, London, 2019
210 pages

First published in The Jakarta Post 30 September 2019


Bali alert! Busybodies at large                             

It was excruciatingly embarrassing.

The hotel receptionist was adamant:  We either proved our marriage or we left.  Voices were raised which drew more staff and onlookers to the foyer. Security guards appeared.

Our two-night stay earlier this year in the East Java regency of Jombang (motto – City of Tolerance) had been paid in advance through an on-line booking site with no-refund conditions. 

Passports don’t specify marital status and we hadn’t packed our marriage certificate.  It’s in Kiwinglish from a NZ registry office so more likely to bemuse than convince.

Reluctantly we used our Indonesian ID cards as licenses to lie abed together – though not a pleasant stay as anger at the humiliation simmered throughout. 

The cards were passed around and photocopied.  They also include, age, job, address and affiliation with one of the six approved religions.  Atheism is not an option in Indonesia.  Nor is privacy.

We’ve used sharia hotels which follow Islamic law before and had no hassles.  No booze, a Koran by the bedside, a prayer mat in the wardrobe and an arrow on the ceiling pointing to Mecca. No bacon for breakfast – but that’s all.
These minor irritants could enlarge into serious impediments with new legislation passed by the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR - House of Representatives) criminalizing consensual extramarital sex and gay relationships. Penalties start with six months in jail.

The outrage hasn’t been confined to human rights groups; businesses are also sweating. Hoteliers foresee jets diverting to more liberal lands like Thailand and Cambodia.

Neatly tagged a ‘bonk ban’ by the Australian media it’s delivering headlines the Republic doesn’t want. But it’s an own goal and foreseeable as the changes have been debated for years.

President Joko Widodo, 58, is a Muslim moderate, though his clerical sidekick Ma’ruf Amin, 76, is not.  Widodo fears the negative publicity will impact his target of 20 million overseas tourists next year and damage appeals for investors to park their dollars in his once welcoming archipelago.

He wants the legislation held back and reconsidered by DPR members elected in April and due to be sworn in next month.  He hopes the new politicians will be less Tory and prune the contentious bits; the danger is that they could be more zealous and fertilise the shoots.

(Some foreign media have reported that Widodo has ‘ordered’ a delay by the DPR.  Not possible; he’s politely ‘requested consideration’.)

Around 1.2 million Australians visit Indonesia every year, almost all landing at Kuta’s splendid Ngurah Rai airport.  Balinese follow Hinduism which is more relaxed about sex than Islam, the nation’s dominant faith. Island life may be laid back but hardline Jakarta-made laws still apply.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at first dampened panic by saying the rules will not be enforced for two years.  Then, most curiously, it let loose the frighteners by re-issuing a travel warning (‘exercise a high degree of caution’), and details of the conducts unbecoming:

‘Adultery or sex outside of marriage, encompassing all same-sex sexual relations’, and ‘cohabitation outside of marriage with charges only proceeding following a complaint by a spouse, child or parent’. 

However these are Australian government interpretations from translations of the new laws; they may not tally with either local understanding or enforcement. Other reports say accusations can also be lodged with the police by ‘community leaders’, which includes any self-styled guardian of public decency, aka Peeping Toms.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country and prides itself as morally superior to the decadent West.  However a study cited by the Indonesia Institute for Criminal Justice Reform claims – surprise, surprise – that local teens are just as curious about sex and keen to explore as their overseas cousins, with 40 per cent exercising their desires ahead of marriage.

Then there are the practical problems.  Indonesian jails are so overcrowded remote isles are being considered as crim dumps.  We know about penal colonies so could assist by organizing fact-finding tours of Christmas Island.

Indonesians are skilled at bending laws. This is not authoritarian China with cameras on every lamppost.  Uniformed police are seldom seen after the morning and evening rush hours, so it’s unwise for motorists to assume a red light means STOP to all road users.

Cigarettes glow under NO SMOKING notices while plastic bags filled with garbage bob down grimy streams past banners prohibiting rubbish dumping.

The new laws may get overlooked in some areas, but they’ll lie in wait like unsleeping gin-traps with jaws agape ready for the unwary paw. Tenderfoot tourists are the target species as they’re known to be well-heeled.

There’s also a long tradition of mob enforcement known as ‘sweeping.’  This involves self-righteous thugs wearing religious garb hitting hotels and demanding to see the register.

There have been fewer reports of these shakedowns recently.  Maybe the police are getting more professional and less likely to be intimidated by hoons swearing they’re driven by piety.  That could change if the volatile mix of religion and politics is given a fundamentalist shake.

The government’s slogan selling tourism abroad is ‘Wonderful Indonesia’.  ‘Worrisome’ might be a better fit.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 30 September 2019.  See:

Wednesday, September 25, 2019


A can-do Kiwi evolves and earns        


Frank Sinatra crooned that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, but work and pleasure don’t rhyme to most people.  An exception is Kiwi inventor Paul Dixon and his company Environeer.

“If business is fun we get more done and enjoy coming to work,” he said.  “In that way everyone benefits.  It’s what makes you happy at the end of the day.”

It sounds like the stuff that comes from gurus wearing kaftans and beads, but Dixon is a serious dirt-under-fingernails entrepreneur even if his methods are a mite unusual.

Clients entering the New Zealander’s Surabaya showroom don’t get the traditional greeting - ‘please take a seat’.  That’s because there aren’t any.

Instead visitors are invited to stand and discuss their needs around a waist-high table.  Another difficulty:  It’s too small to share papers and a bag.  No worries, there are hooks underneath.

The room has an array of Environeer’s assembly systems like belt and roller conveyors built to industrial needs; the walls are covered with posters featuring the company’s designs, so the absence of chairs doesn’t suggest a cash-flow problem.

For guidance guests need to check a small notice listing ‘seven benefits of a standing desk’ also known as an ‘active workstation’.  Most relate to mental and physical wellbeing, such as lowering blood sugar and trimming waistlines.

The idea doesn’t stop at the door.  Inside the workshop are lathes, metal guillotines, pipe benders and a furnace to melt aluminum waste and cast the molten metal into new shapes.  There are also small workbenches on wheels.

In Australia and NZ tradesmen (‘tradies’) look like gunslingers from an old Western movie, electric drills in holsters and belts of screwdrivers in place of ammunition.

“This way of working doesn’t suit Indonesians,” said Dixon.  “So we’ve built moveable benches which can be pulled around the factory. There’s no time wasted moving to and from a static workbench and wondering where you’d left the hammer.  The key thing is simplicity.”

He’s a fan of US businessman Paul Akers who promotes waste minimization processes known as ‘lean thinking’ and used in Toyota car production lines.

Dixon is in his early 40s so too young to be labeled eccentric.  Unconventional is a better fit.  He grew up in the center of NZ’s North Island where his father was an academic, though also keen on woodwork. Instead of playing with bought toys the wee lad mucked around with the off-cuts in his Dad’s garage.

When he was four his parents gave him an old cash register which he pulled apart “just to see how it works.  If you don’t know how something is put together how can you fix it?”

The downside of being blessed with curiosity is being cursed by boredom.  This has turned many Kiwis into DIY (Do It Yourself) experts able to fix things without waiting for spares from overseas.

It’s called the Number Eight Wire attitude. The real thing is a standard four millimeter wire used in farm fencing, but also serves as a metaphor for Godzone resourcefulness.
Part joke and rural myth about fixing broken machinery, the term’s supposed to represent the ingenuity that keeps a country of only 4.5 million people in the vanguard of international innovation.
NZ has produced three Nobel laureates, including Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), labeled ‘the father of nuclear physics’ and the greatest experimentalist of his age.
Dixon thinks the quality isn’t exclusive to his geographically-isolated homeland.  “South Africans have it too,” he said.  “They were separated last century by the anti-apartheid sanctions so couldn’t get new parts.”

After graduating from university with a degree in material science Dixon took on any task he could find.  A spell cutting drill cores for miners led to a move across the Tasman and work in the West Australian northwest town of Port Hedland, then at the height of the iron-ore boom.

He stayed for about ten years mainly specializing in equipment to suppress the ochre dust which smothers buildings and trucks across the ore-rich Pilbara region.

At the time big company employees worked up to three weeks straight and then took a week off.  Most flew to the State capital Perth, 1,600 kilometers to the southwest, to catch up with families.

Dixon, a single man, headed to Denpasar, 300 kilometers closer.  Instead of lounging poolside in Kuta he deserted the tourist strips to see how people were living and working, trying to understand how Indonesians think.

He soon discovered that while Bali is rich in culture most of the gear used in workshops and building sites came from Surabaya.  So next stop was the East Java capital to do the same things again – wandering, observing, asking, and noticing opportunities where others only saw difficulties.

“I understood little about Indonesia and couldn’t speak the language,” he said.  “I didn’t have a fistful of name cards and knew no-one.  I didn’t ask the Embassy or trade commissioners for advice. I had no local partners or management consultants.

“That’s not my style.  I learn as I go along and just let things evolve.” 

Which they did. Stuck in an airport by a flight delay he struck up a conversation with Hanna Agustine who was dissatisfied with her job in an Indonesian company so agreed to help him rent some space and get started.

Now she’s the business development manager of a company that stresses safety so designs and builds guards around machinery, particularly assembly-line gear.

Environeer is certified by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization).  It has a workforce of about 50 and no debts.

“I’m like the Chinese,” Dixon said.  “I keep away from banks and put all our earnings back into the factory.” 

Could other expats follow the same path?  “It’s all about attitude. We do things in a slightly different way.  Not everything is about making money.  We can learn so much from different cultures.”

First published in Indonesian Expat, 25 September 2019



Wednesday, September 18, 2019


PM in gaffe-strewn Indonesian TV interview                       

Scott Morrison has given a rambling error-littered  interview to Indonesian TV where he fudged the figures of casualties in the 2002 Bali bomb blast.

The Prime Minister told English-speaking journalist Andini Effendi that “more Indonesians were killed than Australians” when the reverse is true. 

The final death toll of 202 men and women in the 12 October terrorist attack was 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 23 Britons and 53 from other nations.

In the six-minute clip telecast Monday night on the nation’s top news station Metro TV, the Prime Minister explained that he’d been to memorial services in Coogee, though apparently not in Kuta on Bali.  The terrorist attack took place where the main monument is located on the Jalan Legian tourist strip.

Coogee means nothing to most Indonesians and was translated as ‘Quci’ on the screen. 

Later in the interview Morrison referred to Indonesian President Joko Widodo as the former ‘mayor’ of Jakarta.

Widodo, who this year won a second five-year term as president, was the governor of Jakarta between 2012 and 2014. 

When asked about his personal relationship with Widodo, who he described as a “cheeky character”,  the PM said he talked about his family and a new dog.  Widodo is a Muslim.  Dogs are considered unclean in Islam and rarely kept as pets. 

In North Sulawesi, Bali and other parts of the country canines are cooked and considered a treat.  Hopefully Widodo’s advisers are more culturally aware than those in the PM’s office, so wouldn’t recommend raising these culinary habits in any future jolly chat.

It’s unlikely Morrison would try to build mateship by telling Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu that he’d just enjoyed a bacon burger, or that his ALP opponents carry on like pork chops.

Although the questions in the interview shot in Sydney were unchallenging,  Morrison seemed poorly briefed so padded out time with bland statements.

He said the relationship between the two countries “isn’t just about economics, it’s about security, it’s about regional strategic objectives, it’s about the environment” – which is curious; Indonesia is a case-study mess largely a domestic issue where foreign governments fear to tread,

Or perhaps Morrison was referring to the containers of Australian waste being repatriated after dumping was exposed.

Jungle-clearing fires in Kalimantan are smoking Singapore.  Java’s  rivers are streams of plastic trash.  Reliance on coal-fired power stations and failure to control vehicle emissions have put Jakarta atop the world’s most unlivable cities. 

The relationship is also about education and trade training and people-to-people contacts.  Unfortunately these issues didn’t get highlighted though Australian universities and vocational trainers are bidding against European providers for work in Indonesia.

Widodo has been pushing hard for outside expertise to boost skills and Morrison could  have alerted Indonesian viewers that his country is keen to help.

Nor did the PM use his time to talk about Widodo’s ‘Ten New Balis’ plan to boost visitor numbers and which is being supported by Australian advisors. 

The PM’s experience as a former managing director of  Tourism Australia means that in this industry he should  know what he’s talking about.

The Lowy Institute has been polling Australians on their views about Indonesia for the past 15 years.  This year it reported that respondents’ answers ‘continue to demonstrate a lack of knowledge about our largest neighbour.’ 

In their door-knocking  the researchers must have included Kirribilli House.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 18 Sepember 2019: