FAITH IN INDONESIA

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

INDONESIAN CHRISTMAS IN PERTH

RICE CHRISTMAS IN THE WEST © Duncan Graham 2005

Poke your head into the nave of this Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI - Indonesian Christian Church) and there’s the congregation squirreling away with Christmas decorations. There’s tinsel aplenty, a tree blossoming with baubles and no shortage of advice.

Nothing unusual here – it’s happening this week right across the archipelago.

Among the voices practising carols is that of Pastor Ben Maleachi. Worshipers at the GKI Jl Wahid Hasyim in central Jakarta will recognise his cheerful interpretation of the scriptures.

So what? Churches are busy in every province. It’s that time of the year.

Hang on - there’s something different about the setting. The clean pavements outside are empty – no kaki lima, (food carts) no warung (roadside eateries). The muscle machines cruising the broad highway tow monster speedboats. The blonde drivers wear bikini tops. The sky is crystal clear and needles the eyes. It’s shimmering-hot. There’ll be no rain for months. No pollution, just the tang of sea salt.

Nor are there any security guards and no one has dug holes for bomb disposal.

Step inside GKI Perth, Western Australia, where this Sunday more than 100 Indonesians will celebrate Christmas with a service and a light lunch. But no gift giving.

“This is a very inclusive congregation,” said Pastor Ben who has just taken up the ministry in Perth after 19 years in Jakarta. “There are people here from Sulawesi, Java, Sumatra, Nusa Tenggara – just about everywhere. This is a church for everyone.”

“We celebrate Christmas in a very humble way,” said church member Budiman Simatupang, a Batak from Medan. He’s now an Australian citizen and works in a chocolate factory.

“We’ll share a simple meal and it won’t be a turkey. We haven’t followed those Anglo traditions. There’ll be rice. Of course. It wouldn’t be a meal otherwise.

“Christ was born in a stable, not a grand palace. We enjoy our celebration, but we haven’t made it into a commercial event.”

But many Australians have, whatever the intensity of their faith. This time of the year is a retailer’s heaven, much to the chagrin of religious leaders. Lunch on Christmas Day tends to be a family affair, often marred by over-indulgence.

The services at GKI Perth are in Indonesian, but one pew is reserved for those who need a running English translation of the service through earphones. The few Caucasians who attend do so with their Indonesian spouses.

The church building used to belong to the Methodists. In 1977 falling attendances forced them to join with the Congregationalists and Presbyterians to form the Uniting Church in Australia.

Now the UCA is handing over this building in a prestigious beachside parish to the expanding GKI which should fully own the premises within ten years. Officially it’s known as ‘an Indonesian congregation of the UCA’ and started operating in 2000 with 49 parishioners.

On many Sundays during the academic year the congregation can reach 180, a figure that would delight many mainstream Australian churches in the suburbs where religion is a low priority. Now many families are on holiday and have returned to Indonesia.

Church elder and academic Purwanto Danusugondo, originally from Yogya, said
the large number of Indonesian churches in Perth (see sidebar) reflected the multiple movements and denominations in Indonesian Protestantism.

People could select from traditional, evangelical or charismatic. However there’s only one Indonesian Catholic congregation in Perth.

“We are not trying to maintain Indonesian traditions here but provide a church where people can attend a service in their home language,” said Purwanto who has been in Australia 35 years. “Many don’t understand English that well, so don’t want to attend Australian churches.

“If you divide people according to race and ethnicity then you’re not a true Christian.

“We’re thankful that we are in Australia. We find ourselves being more religious since we came here. We are a little disappointed that some Australians are doing ungodly things.

“We are fortunate that in Indonesia we had missionaries introducing us to the scriptures. Now it is our turn to repay the kindness by celebrating Christianity in Australia.”

In his pre-Christmas sermon Pastor Ben spoke of the firebombing of a UCA church hall in Sydney following the beach riots earlier this month.

“The GKI knows about such things,” he said. (More than 400 churches in Indonesia have been trashed or burned since 1998). “We pray for our nation and for Australia. We pray for peace and understanding everywhere. Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart.”




INBALANCE

The Indonesian Consulate in Perth says about 10,000 Indonesians are living in the Western Australian capital. About half are students, the rest retired or in business.

Probably the most famous are members of the Gudang Garam tobacco empire who are reported to have spent millions of dollars on buying prime waterfront real estate. They include the family of the company’s president commissioner, Rachman Halim.

Perth has long been a popular location for Indonesian property investors, attracted by the state’s proximity to Java. It takes only 3 hours 20 minutes to fly from Perth to Denpasar which is in the same time zone, and less than an hour extra to Jakarta.

Several up-market districts have become popular with well-heeled Indonesians. These suburbs are close to universities, the Indian Ocean and the Swan River. This is a calm, wide waterway that adds charm to an attractive and well laid out city of around 1.5 million people. The lifestyle is generally more relaxed than other Australian capitals.

For those who can afford it, a house or apartment near education facilities gives the family a base while their offspring are at school or university. The city’s medical facilities have also been a draw card: Politician Taufiq Kiemas, the husband of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, is among many Indonesians who have had major surgery in Perth.

The recent violent clashes between young men from a Lebanese background and those with an Anglo-Celtic heritage that occurred on Sydney beaches have not been duplicated in Perth.

At least 27 Indonesian community organisations have been formed in Perth. About 14 are Christian, four Islamic, including a branch of ICMI – the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals. Some are specifically for students. Others represent ethnic groups, like the Balinese, and the Minangkabau from West Sumatra.

The last Australian census recorded that the majority of 47,000 Indonesian-born people living in Australia were women, well-educated, ethnic Chinese and Christian. More than 50 per cent had become Australian citizens.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Wednesday 21 December 2005)
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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

INDONESIA'S YELLOW PRESS

CRIMOTAINMENT PLUS A SPLASH OF SLEAZE © Duncan Graham 2005

Indonesians often criticise the Western media for base standards and publishing pornography, but the accusation is laden with hypocrisy. Duncan Graham reports on an Indonesian exercise in double standards:

When it comes to lurid layouts, the front page of Surabaya’s Memorandum deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

While most newspaper editors think three or four stories with maybe a couple of photos are enough, the staff of Memo are distressed unless they’ve managed to shoehorn in at least 15. Plus a dozen pictures, three or four graphics and a cartoon. Then toss in a handful of advertisements.

Woops, we forgot the reverse blocks, multiple fonts and colors – green, yellow, blue and red. Lots of the latter, and for good reason as the photos are usually a gore fest. Britain has its yellow press, but East Java has what locals have dubed Koran Merah – the red paper.

The result is a dog’s breakfast. But apparently it’s what the readers like. Every day about 60,000 copies are sold making Memo the second most popular daily in Surabaya. The first with 300,000 copies across the province is Jawa Pos, which also owns Memo.

Jawa Pos is the sort of paper Dad can bring home and leave lying around for the kids to thumb through. If he did the same with its sister rag his reputation would be in tatters. So would his marriage.

Many Western countries have their gutter press. The term ‘tabloid’ doesn’t just refer to the page size – it also infers a down-market product. But few have anything quite like Memo and its equivalents in the other major towns.

“You’ve heard of the Infotainment industry? Well, we’re into Crimotainment,” said deputy editor Suyono. His paper’s masthead carries the motto: ‘Working and struggling for the country,’ but the copy below tells of brutal rape, machete murders and dirty doings in the kampongs.

“We’ve surveyed our readers and we know what they want. Their number one choice is crime, number two is mystery followed by sex. After that it’s sport and local politics. The average reader is male, over 25 and with a high school education or below.”

Memo has been around for 23 years and has a staff of 70 journalists – almost all men. It seems to be most favored by drivers of taxis and pedicabs, day labourers and the apprentice thugs who hang around bus terminals for their work experience. As most copies seem to be pored (and pawed) over by groups, readership must be much higher than sales.

The advertisers certainly think so and rush to fill the gaps between the stories, even though rates for some products and services carry a 25 per cent loading. This is to discourage the more salacious according to Suyono – though the deterrent seems ineffective.

Shy of a massage with Campus Girls or Macho Boys and think phone sex might be safer? Viara is waiting for your call 24 hours a day and this sleepless nymph is just 21. Can you imagine?

Well, you don’t have to because there’s a picture of her, and lots of other ladies, with their mouths open or doing strange things with their hands. Exactly what is difficult to determine because the quality of reproduction and newsprint are so poor.

Think you’re not up to the occasion? Turn the page and there are more ads for ‘man oil’ and other ‘vital’ medicines, including ‘Sta-Erect Plus’ which is said to be imported. From the decadent West, of course.

There are even titillating products for madam. Creams, ointments and pills to give her the d├ęcolletage on display in Mexican sinetrons.

The inclusion of these ads reinforces Suyono’s claims that 40 per cent of readers are women. If so they must be browsing behind closed doors because flaunting a copy in public would be sending some very obvious signals.

Djoko Tetuko, who heads the paper’s Ombudsman team, said his job was to check that copy follows guidelines and ethics. Stories had to be balanced and accurate.

British tabloids have Page Three girls thrusting their buxom assets, and the broadsheets occasionally have nudity in context. But most Western newspapers draw the line at corpses believing such pictures show the pornography of violence, let alone invading privacy and distressing relatives.

In Australia last month several police officers were disciplined for e-mailing colleagues gruesome photos of two men who died in the desert.

Tetuko said this illustrated the problems with defining ‘pornography’.

“The regulations have changed since the fall of the Suharto government,” he said. “Advertisers get letters from the police to say their copy has been approved. We follow the law. We have very few complaints.

“We show respect for the dead, and we do not pay the police to get the pictures. We don’t show bare breasts. So we have ethics, right?”

Perhaps it’s cultural prurience and what seems (to Westerners) to be upside-down censorship: Do ageing blokes in need of ‘man oil’ really prefer mangled cadavers, severed heads and montages from the morgue to a pretty girl in a bikini? The nearest Memo gets to showing intact flesh is on its Artist page where alleged celebrities pose provocatively in clothing that covers almost everything bar arms and ankles.

The best revealing displays are in the underwear departments of Indonesian shopping malls, though the models always seem to be white skinned and blue-eyed. Maybe this is the reverse of the Western racist syndrome where toffee-nosed magazines run photos of topless Africans but keep Caucasian nipples under cover.

The other component of Memo is mystery. “We’re a superstitious race,” said news traffic manager Hery Setiawan who deals with the paper’s regional stringers. These are the reporters who talk to the wide-eyed who claim to have been chilled by spooks, had weird encounters with the netherworld and confronted phantoms rising from graveyards.

As an intelligent man did he believe the black magic stories? “Well, the people interviewed certainly do,” he replied.

Suyono said circulation was increasing. “I don’t think sales will go down as the population gets better educated,” he said. “Our only competitors are the police reality shows on TV. As long as we have corruption and an economy in crisis we have no worries.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2005)

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Monday, December 12, 2005

LOW LEVEL CORRUPTION

A LITTLE LESSON IN CORRUPTION © Duncan Graham 2005

A few weeks ago a smart new banner began billowing between the power poles at a major intersection down the road.

It was a nice fresh colourful ad, yet to succumb to the fading powers of sunlight and the fretting effects of wind.

It read: KNOW OF CORRUPTION? REPORT TO THE POLICE.

A good message, right for these times of change. From the heart of the capital the president has declared war on KKN (Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism) and here are the cops in a distant province leading the charge against this insidious enemy.

The signs of a new beginning.

So when my friend Mohammed told me his story of an encounter with the big C I urged him to follow the banner’s advice.

He considered this for only a moment. “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he replied soberly.

Why ever not?

But first you’d better hear his tale.

Mohammed has IT skills so was asked by a neighbour, the principal of his local school, to set up a new computer. This had been bought with money from a government program designed to upgrade education.

After several unsuccessful attempts he opened the casing and peered inside. The ‘new’ computer had been fitted with a very old second-hand hard drive, unable to load modern software.

Mohammed presented the principal with the following options:

1) Seek out the swindler and get him to reinstall the original hard drive.
2) Return the computer and get the money back.
3) Report the matter to the police.
4) Buy and install a new hard drive

Guess what? The school boss chose number 4.

“It’s like this,” said Mohammed in a tone normally used for children.

“If we went back to the shop the manager – if he was there - would deny any knowledge and send us to his supplier who’d be on the far side of the city.

“If he wasn’t sick or overseas on a business trip he’d say he knows nothing. He’d refer us to the wholesaler who’d probably be in Jakarta. And so we’d go on and on up the distribution chain, but getting nowhere.

“No one would take responsibility. At best they’d blame it on a nameless rogue employee who has since left for who knows where.

“Because there are no consumer protection laws as in your country we’d never get the money or the original hard drive back. We’d waste a huge amount of time.”

OK. So go to the cops. They’re asking for reports like this. They need public support.

“If we went to the police maybe they’d want money to investigate. Or they might blame us for not checking inside the computer when it was bought, even though it came as a sealed unit, apparently in the original packaging with all the TESTED tags in place.”

He was silent for a moment before adding a rider: “And maybe the principal is also in on the scam. He’s got his kickback and doesn’t want questions asked.”

So a new hard drive was bought (with more government money) and installed. The circle of deceit remained unbroken and everything went on just as before.

Well, that’s not actually correct. The last time I saw the big banner it was looking rather drab. The lettering was stained and gusts had ripped the anchor strings. There was a tear in one corner.

Clearly it hadn’t been made with quality materials or hung correctly.

As taxpayer’s money was involved I thought it might be worth inquiring who ordered the banner, who made it and what were the specifications. Then again, maybe not.

And Mohammed? Well he used to be positive, cheerful and inclined to optimism, being a young fellow with a working wife and new baby. He often said there were opportunities ahead as the New Order era had passed.

Maybe it’s my imagination but now he doesn’t seem quite so buoyant. Once he had plans. Now he’s inclined to resignation. “What can we do?” is his favourite expression.

Like the banner he’s looking a bit ragged.

(First published in The Sunday Post 11 December 2005)
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Sunday, December 11, 2005

MONKASEL

SUB SURFACES IN SURABAYA © Duncan Graham 2005

On 5 December the Indonesian Navy will be celebrating its 60th birthday in Surabaya. There will be a parade and other events to mark this important day, though most will be for VIPs at the docks.

The closest ordinary people will get to a warship will be alongside a McDonalds restaurant. Duncan Graham reports:

What do you do with a weapon of mass destruction when it has passed its use-by date?

Fighter aircraft and artillery are often turned into memorials. Warships are cut up for scrap unless the vessel is in a high-cost labor country where the expense of demolition is more than the worth of the metal.

Australia is such a nation. The Down Under answer is to sink decommissioned craft near popular beaches where they become recreational diving spots and a fish refuge.

The Surabaya solution has been to turn a killing machine into a tourist attraction.

In the heart of Indonesia’s second largest city and alongside a major shopping mall squats Pasopati 410. Once a pride of the Indonesian Navy, this massive submarine is now a quietly rusting hull looking like a sad beached whale far from its aquatic home. Certainly incongruous, absolutely grotesque, bizarrely fascinating.

Ten years ago it began its slow journey from undersea to parking lot. Cut into 16 slices, the 1,050 tonne steel sausage was trucked inland piece by piece, reassembled and renamed Monkasel.

This is an acronym constructed from Monument Kapal Selam, or submarine monument.

The idea, floated by the then regional governor, was to encourage tourism, preserve the nation’s maritime history, stress nationality, honour heroes and “motivate the society to love the sea.”

Built in Vladivostok in 1952 it entered the Indonesian Navy’s Eastern Fleet ten years later when then President Sukarno preferred communist arms suppliers. It saw service in the campaign to force the Dutch out of Irian Jaya but to the great good fortune of all mariners enjoyed a passive life.

It seems that Pasopati 410 (named after a traditional Javanese arrow) was employed as an intimidator rather than destroyer, for there is no record of the monster firing any of its 12 torpedoes in anger.

Visitors who pay Rp 5,000 (US 50 cents) may get a guided tour of the interior if they wake the dozing pseudo sailor girls in their saucy uniforms. Sadly their mumbling presentation is unlikely to honour heroes or inspire a love of the distant sea. They certainly don’t welcome visitors and their ability to answer non-standard questions is zero.

There are no brochures or signs in English so anyone without a good knowledge of Indonesian will find themselves adrift.

Despite these annoyances a visit repays the effort. The 63 crew who drove this 76 metre metal fish were certainly brave men and the tour worthwhile just to see what they had to endure. The experience is not recommended for the claustrophobic.

Negotiating the engine room, bridge, crew quarters and other chambers is hazardous as the interior bristles with head-high valves and hip-level levers, all designed to crack skulls and tangle bag straps. Imagine what it was like in action on a swelling sea, the thumping, stinking diesel engines sharing the same cramped space with men working, eating and sleeping.

Then there was the ever-present fear of a leak or equipment malfunction while deep underwater. Russian subs have a poor reputation for safety, even now.

The official histories don’t tell the full story. After the fall of Sukarno in 1965 all things Soviet were off limits, and that included spare parts for the former Russian ships. (see sidebar)

Pasopati was one of 14 Whiskey-class submarines bought from the Russians. This underwater fleet rapidly surfaced and diminished as vessels were cannibalised to keep their sister craft operational.

Surabaya is a major naval port and exhibiting an old submarine helps keep the past alive. Where else can you find such an attraction outside your hotel window? Other major cities have subways; Surabaya has a sub.

Kiosks and cafes have been built around Monkasel and alongside the murky waters of the misnamed Kali Mas (Gold River). The area has become Surabaya’s substitute for lovers’ lane, a popular weekend spot for young couples who need time to themselves away from prying eyes and puritanical parents.

“We’re just going to the mall, Mum, have a bite at McD then do a history assignment. We won’t go outside the area. No need to worry.”

Maybe it’s better this way. The submarine was preserved to help stimulate nationalism, but most visitors to Monkasel now prefer to make love, not war.

(Monkasel is open from 8 am to 9 pm weekdays and to 10 pm on weekends.)


A FLEET FLEET?

Although Indonesia maintains the biggest navy in South East Asia its fleet is not in good repair. It can put to sea but its combat abilities are questionable.

On 8 December there’ll be an exercise involving 40 warships from Surabaya moving through the Straits of Makassar to seas near the Ambalat region. This oil and gas-rich area was the site of a territorial dispute with Malaysia earlier this year

In Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak naval port, rows of old East German warships can be seen looking distinctly distressed. These also have a fascinating past that doesn’t appear in the official histories; they’re the remnants of a famous deal done in the early 1990s by B.J. Habibie, then minister of research and technology.

Criticism of the purchase by some journalists led to the banning of two news magazines. This focussed international attention on press freedoms in Indonesia and highlighted other aspects of the authoritarian regime.

Earlier this year Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh was reported as saying that the Navy’s “vessels are almost obsolete and some are second hand.” He said the Navy had less than 130 patrol craft.

The cost of bringing the Navy up to strength where it can really defend the archipelago’s extensive sea-lanes would be around US$ 2.7 trillion according to some military sources. The most pressing need is for fast patrol boats.

The Navy currently has two German-built submarines which have been in service since the 1980s.

The purchase of four new submarines from South Korea has already been announced. These will cost US$ 270 million each and are expected to be delivered in 2008.

Neighbouring Singapore has four submarines, all from Sweden. Malaysia has ordered three subs from France to establish its first underwater fleet.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Thursday 8 December 05)
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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

EAST JAVA K9 SQUAD

GOING TO THE DOGS IN SURABAYA © Duncan Graham 2005

For many Indonesian Muslims travelling abroad, concern over deep vein thrombosis or lost luggage barely features. The major worry comes when they arrive in Western airports and suffer the sniffer dog ordeal, as customs canines paw passengers’ bags, salivate over skirt hems and drool into trouser cuffs.

Dogs are widely used by security agencies overseas but seldom seen in Indonesia where the animals are considered unclean. But the East Java police run a pack, and most handlers are Muslims. Duncan Graham reports:


If you’ve ever doubted the old joke about pooch lovers who take on their animal’s features, a visit to the police dog squad in Surabaya will convince you otherwise.

The kennels are near the big bus terminal of Bungurasih, but meeting their lodgers it’s clear this hound home should be called The Baskervilles.

It’s a job to tell who is the scariest – the snarling satanic Rottweilers or their grim no-nonsense handlers clad in Ninja-black and red. It’s Fang and Fang – take your pick.

Certainly any street protester thinking of giving authority the finger would make a rapid reassessment when confronted by a two or four-legged member of Polda’s Unit K9, also known as Satwa (fauna).

He’d probably be left digitless after the encounter, and Brutus would still be waiting for his share.

No wonder it took just two dogs to pacify a mob of Malang soccer hoons who thought disrupting traffic was a clever way to celebrate their team’s recent victory against Jakarta.

A couple of growls from the handlers plus some lip-licking by the spring-loaded muscle-packs straining at the end of their fraying leashes and even the most brainless bonek (hooligan) turns into an upright citizen. That’s because Indonesians fear dogs, according to Captain Tri Atmulyanto, K9’s senior vet and unit boss.

“They’re also terrified of getting rabies if bitten,” he said. “Fortunately few know that rabies doesn’t exist in East Java and all our dogs are vaccinated against disease. Dogs are very effective here for crowd control.”

K9 is a pun on ‘canine’, though most locals think it’s a sinister code. The unit has 27 handlers and 22 dogs, Rottweilers, Dobermans, German Shepherds (also known as Alsatians), Golden Retrievers and Labradors. The last two are drug detectors; the others are used as crim-catchers and to scare the pants off the lawless. This is the real Fear Factor.

The squad is particularly short of bomb dogs since their last explosives expert died (of old age, not shrapnel) and is anxiously waiting for replacements from Jakarta.

But good dogs are hard to find. They must be at least a year old, and preferably female; bitches are less prone to be diverted by the scent of a sister on heat. Only one per cent of those with potential actually has the nose for the job and can make it to the front rank.

It’s the same with the handlers; many are called but few are chosen. Recruits are sent to Jakarta for training; only the exceptionally dogged are able to bond successfully with their charge to become a coordinated and formidable team.

The squad is on constant standby and can be sent anywhere in the province when an emergency arises. However they have only one roadworthy vehicle designed for dog transport.

Four of the handlers are Christian – a faith with no rules against close contact with Man’s Best Friend. They include Alexander Ubwaria, originally from Ambon. He’s been with K9 for 25 years and is the longest serving officer. Two handlers are Hindu and the rest Muslim.

“The Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council) has pronounced a qulbul mullam edict which means we can work with dogs,” said Captain Tri.

“Dogs were trained to guard flocks in ancient times so we’ve been told we can use them if it’s for the benefit of society.

“Although Muslims are supposed to clean their hands seven times after touching a dog’s saliva we’re allowed to wash only once using detergent. Soap wasn’t available centuries ago so the extra washing was necessary in those days.”

All the handlers are men. In an explanation bound to make feminists bare their teeth, Captain Tri said women weren’t suitable because their menstrual periods distracted the animals.

That ‘problem’ doesn’t seem to arise in Australia where female quarantine officers lead floppy-eared Beagles into airport luggage halls to stuff wet snouts into passengers’ packs. The main difficulty is stopping people patting these cute scent-detectors, usually dressed in dinky matinee jackets, as they waddle round the baggage carousel exercising their narcotic noses.

Should they snort a cache of cocaine they just sit alongside the drug mule, wag their jolly tails, look up at the offender and give a doggy grin. Understandably this is seldom returned.

Apart from the religious issues, the other significant problem at K9 is climate. The thinking breeds like Labradors tend to be longhaired and don’t enjoy the heat.

The shorthaired varieties like Dobermans can tolerate the tropics. But their heads are as thick as their shoulders; they’re prone to bite first and ask questions later.

So the refined retrievers soon get dog-tired and need regular replacements. These come from private breeders in the cool hill towns outside Surabaya.

Captain Tri wants to get his leash around the neck of a few Belgian Shepherds. These are supposed to combine Einstein-level IQ, sensitive noses, jaws which can crunch femurs and a short coat.

Although Javanese tends to be the first language of most Surabayans the K9 Unit insists on giving commands in quality Indonesian and English. This really foxes monolingual delinquents who quit school early.

Did the officer shout: “Rip his throat out!” or is he just asking Nero if he’d like: “A kip and time out?” Either way, when the K9 lads and their mates show up it’s best to shoot through. Fast.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Tuesday 6 December 2005)

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SELLING SOYBEANS

GETTING A SLICE OF THE TEMPE MARKET © Duncan Graham 2005

Next time you sit down to a plate of nutritious tempe or tofu you could be digesting food from Down Under.

Australian farmers are making a vigorous bid to supply the raw product for Indonesia’s premier health foods. These are made from fermented soybeans and enjoyed across Java and other islands as a snack or the main course.

Three sugarcane growers from Queensland have sent 22 tonnes of beans to Jakarta as a trial shipment. These are being rebagged and distributed to tempe manufacturers in West and East Java to see how the beans compare with those currently used to make the famous food.

The three farmers – Murray Cannavan, Alfio Musumeci and Andrew Lashmar – have been growing soybeans for many years, but as a nutrient for their sugarcane during fallow periods in the production cycle.

When the soybean plants are almost mature they are ploughed into the ground as green fertiliser. Any beans harvested have been sold for stock food. Now the men think it may be a smarter idea to grow soybeans as a cash crop and export these to Indonesia for human consumption.

To learn more about tempe and the market the three men spent a week in Jakarta and Surabaya talking to manufacturers and traders.

Soybeans are indigenous to China and have long been a part of that country’s diet. The bean appeared in Japan about 1,000 years ago but didn’t get to Europe until the 17th century.

Soybeans are now widely used in Western cooking where soymilk and other bean products, including cake, oil and flour are promoted in the health food industry. Vegetarians find soybeans are a good meat substitute, high in calcium. Soy sauce has a place on most kitchen shelves.

Tempe is believed to be an Indonesian invention and has long been a home industry in specific areas. Malang, in central East Java, claims to produce the tastiest product. The town is also famous for its kripik tempe, a crispy cracker made by deep frying thin slices of fresh tempe in a batter of secret ingredients. (See sidebar.)

Although Indonesian farmers produce soybeans most tempe manufacturers prefer to use beans from America. These have a reputation for being bigger, cleaner and with higher protein. This is the market the Australians want to enter, arguing that their field-fresh beans can be speedily supplied at a competitive price from the country next door rather than hauled from the other side of the world.

The Australian farmers said Indonesia uses more than one million tons of soybeans a year, but can produce only one tenth of its needs.

“The problem is that although soybeans are quoted at a world price, US growers are heavily subsidised by their government while we get no support,” said Mr Cannavan.

“We have no illusions about the forces we are up against, but we can deliver a premium product to the customer’s specifications. We know how to harvest quality beans and can offer new varieties.”

Mr Cannavan and his colleagues each grow less than 200 hectares of sugarcane and are principally family farmers. Their properties are in the Burdekin region, a sub-tropical zone 100 km south of Townsville, an export port on the Queensland coast close to Papua New Guinea.

“This is the largest sugarcane growing region in Australia, but sugar has suffered from some enormous fluctuations in the world price so growers need to support their incomes through other crops,” said Mr Lashmar.

“The Burdekin is a fully-irrigated and agriculturally stable area with about 300 days of sunshine every year. The year-round climate is suitable for cropping. Apart from sugar and soybeans we also grow other legumes and sunflowers, a source for cooking oil.”

Even though Australia wants to export soybeans it still needs to import 300,000 tonnes a year. These beans are mainly used as the basis for poultry, pig and dairy-cattle food where the animals are intensively farmed.

Some top quality Australian soybeans are exported to Japan.

Although Australian farmers don’t get subsidised like their American counterparts, they are getting government help. In their bid to penetrate the Indonesian market two Queensland government officials - agricultural scientist Stephen Sinclair and trade expert Rob Wardrobe who is based in Jakarta accompanied the Mr Beans.

The team wanted to bring some beans with them to show off to tempe manufacturers and decided to mail these ahead to the Australian Embassy. However the package vanished in the post so the growers have had to tour empty-handed and a little red faced.

“CHEAP AND SMELLY”

According to Australian-trained tempe expert Professor Tri Susanto of Malang’s Brawijaya University, Indonesia’s first president Sukarno once derided his country folk as “a tempe race of people – soft and smelly.”

“Unfortunately tempe has long been associated with poverty and villagers, a cheap food for people who can’t afford meat,” he said.

That’s certainly not the situation now, particularly in the West where soy products are seen as wonder foods.

Tempe is made in Japan and there are reports of American stores selling tempe burgers. There’s even a tempe ice cream. However the food is little known elsewhere outside Indonesia.

When Professor Susanto was studying fermented bean products at the University of New South Wales he made tempe in the laboratory for his Indonesian colleagues hungry for their favourite food.

The food may be healthy, but the conditions under which it’s made are far from the standards demanded by fastidious Westerners. In Malang about 500 home industries have formed a cooperative to lift quality and market their products.

A typical kampung operation involves mum, dad and the kids de-husking and boiling the beans.

The de-husking used to be done by treading with bare feet but most families now use a machine sold by the coop, which is also encouraging the use of stainless steel containers.

Squashing beans between hibiscus leaves makes the fermenting agent, or mould. This is added to the boiled beans. The mixture is then drained, put in shallow wooden trays and covered by pinholed plastic.

If the room is dark, well aired and the temperature right (Malang has the ideal climate between 25 and 30 degrees) the magic of incubation starts. Two days later the beans have turned into a cheese-like cake ready for slicing and sale.

Most people in East Java buy tempe fresh from daybreak vegetable sellers who get their supplies transported from Malang overnight. The scarcity of refrigerated transport is another impediment to industry growth.

Professor Susanto stressed that the mould was not a bacteria. While it was possible to make bad tempe by prolonging or speeding fermentation the chance of illness was “less than 0.01 per cent,” he said.

How can the first-time buyer spot “good tempe”? A quality product won’t crumble when cut and the beans bond well. If the mycelium (the creamy-white substance which covers the beans) has turned black, this is a sign of over-fermentation.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Sat 3 December 2005)

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THE RISKS OF DRUG RUNNING

IT WON’T HAPPEN TO ME © Duncan Graham

When Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he found it incredible that young people would still try to smuggle drugs in and out of Asia when the penalties were so high, he reflected widespread incredulity.

On 2 December Nguyen Tuong Van, a young Melbourne salesman, is due to hang in Singapore for trying to smuggle 400 grams of heroin. The island state has already executed more than 500 people mainly for drug offences.

There are 228 Australians in gaol awaiting trial in 60 nations. Some face the death penalty. A further 175 have been convicted and are serving sentences, most for drug smuggling.

The Indonesian court appearances of Schapelle Corby, Michelle Leslie and the Bali Nine have been given saturation media coverage in Australia.

Australian travel documents all warn of the dangers of using and carrying drugs. Big signs at Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport and other entry points shout the same clear message.

Tourists may get waved past some Asian checkpoints but Australian customs controls are ruthless. All bags are sniffed by drug detection dogs and either opened or X rayed. Getting through an Australian airport sometimes seems to take as long as the flight.

There’s no way any traveller could be unaware of the awesome risks. Yet still they try.

Why?

As a journalist I’ve put this question to criminals in Australian jails and the results reveal the mountainous task confronting social engineers.

Some pitiful creatures are so hooked they’ll chance anything for a fix. Airport arrests of these unfortunates are rare because they’re such obvious emotional and physical wrecks they’d make useless mules.

Australian police identify two main groups; individual users who find drugs cheap and easy to obtain in Asia and think taking some home would be a good idea, and couriers recruited by drug syndicates.

Many are alleged to owe money in Australia and have been offered the chance to clear their debts by smuggling drugs.

How do cocaine czars, who never risk travel with body belts of the white stuff, convince these fools that they’ll pass customs surveillance?

Obviously the high financial rewards are an inducement, but the most powerful arguments are that only the careless get caught and smart operators will always be able to fool or bribe authorities.

The word on the street, which carries far greater clout than all the official warnings, is that drug smuggling is easy. “Everyone” has a mate who’s done it dozens of times with success and made a mint.

This is why using reformed druggies to lecture students in Australian schools on the evils of narcotics has not been a success.

While adults hear former prisoners tell of their torments with horror and vow never to be tempted, researchers have found that the kids think: “What a loser! Look at that dithering moron. No wonder he got caught. It’ll never happen to me. I’m far smarter.”

Psychologists say it’s the same bravado which makes young men believe they’re bulletproof and can drink to excess and drive fast cars.

The statistics say otherwise, but what would those clumsy cops and dopey doctors know?

Likewise with the SAY NO TO DRUGS banner campaign now sweeping Indonesia. It was tried in Australia and failed because the message was saturated in hypocrisy.

Modern kids aren’t easily fooled. The gateway drugs to narcotics are nicotine and alcohol, both legal and taxed. A few years ago heroin related deaths in Australia peaked at more than 700, but have since reportedly declined through harm reduction programs.

Yet 19,000 people die annually from tobacco-related diseases, and the figure in this nation is reported to be around 500,000.

Australia has a drug problem that’s taken seriously by lawmakers and the courts. There’s no death penalty, but as a reporter I’ve seen the conditions and can assure doubters that spending years in a jail Down Under is no holiday.

To answer the question as to why anyone would use or smuggle drugs, just look for the answer in any home or workplace.

How many of your friends, relatives and colleagues smoke although the packet warns tobacco use can result in cancer and heart attacks? Deaths from these diseases are truly awful and the impact on families devastating. These are severe penalties indeed.

If educated and aware adults are prepared to ignore clear government health warnings backed by irrefutable statistics - should we wonder that the impressionable young are also just as willing to take risks to get their drug of choice?

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Sunday 4 December 2005

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

PETRA CHORALE

NEW LEADER FOR JOYFUL CHOIR © Duncan Graham 2005

Petra Chorale – East Java’s internationally famous choir – has a new musical director.

Aprilia Wisminarni Takasenserang (pictured) will face her first major test as conductor of the prestigious choir at a gala Christmas concert in Surabaya on 2 December.

But the 29-year old mezzo-soprano is no stranger to public events in Indonesia and overseas.

Before taking on her new appointment she worked closely with the previous director, the charismatic Aris Sudibyo who has moved to Irian Jaya with his soprano wife Evelyn Kok.

Under his direction the choir won championships at festivals in Kupang and Bandung. It also performed in Jakarta, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, and in many Indonesian provinces.

In Surabaya the choir has developed a loyal and significant following for its lively and joyful presentations of sacred and secular music, particularly pop classics from composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Phantom may have slunk into his backstage crypt at the opera in London and New York but his melodramatic passion trills on in Surabaya.

There are 25 members of Petra Chorale drawn from the staff and students of Petra University. There are two other choirs composed of junior and senior undergraduates, and Aprilia has to direct them all, from those aspiring to be Indonesia’s Sarah Brightman through to melody makers who’d be happy in a karaoke bar.

“Although our mission is to develop church music we also love to blend the traditional with the modern and interpret the music through dance,” Aprilia said.

“Our repertoire includes classical choral music, Renaissance madrigals, Afro-American spirituals, pop, contemporary and Indonesian folk music.”

The Petra choirs may have hijacked some classics but they’re not static stand-and-deliver performers. They have a reputation for providing lively entertainment with spectacular costumes and traditional instruments from across the archipelago. Their programs often included the frivolous along with the classical.

If you quiver at the thought of encountering a quaver, fear not. You don’t need a starched shirt to attend one of their concerts, just an open heart and a willingness to accept surprise.

Music aficionados in Surabaya still relive a snappy and original interpretation of the banal pop song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ at a French Consulate concert developed by voice coach Richard Awuy. This turned a chamber-music room into a music hall with diplomats dancing alongside divas.

Although the congregations of most churches are expected to sing every Sunday, the result is not always praiseworthy. The same goes for church choirs and invited vocal groups who often perform brackets of hymns jazzed up with a couple of guitars to attract a younger audience.

Protocol for these events usually requires visitors to leave expressions of pleasure locked in the vestry. Some charismatic churches allow applause. Others expect Pastor Grim to briefly shift from sin-spotting to nod his or her recognition of the performance on behalf of the silent parishioners. These worthies occasionally wonder whether the Deity could be better praised with singers staying in tune and sharing the same song sheet.

Under Aris’ tutelage Petra Chorale offered its service to churches across East Java who believed their choirs could lift voices along with hearts and minds. In the university’s formal language this reads: “To intensively support church services and to promote good choir ministry.” This policy will continue with Aprilia.

“I’ll also be concentrating on building the organisational structure and management,” she said. “We need to find more orchestral talent. Most student musicians have learned the piano, while we need strings and woodwinds. I’m out to spot new abilities.”

The choir doesn’t back an orchestra but uses individual musicians to set the mood. Members need to be multi talented, as the choirs’ repertoire requires them to sing in Indonesian, regional languages, English, Italian, French and occasionally Latin.

The singers are unpaid volunteers, but presentation and promotion are anything but amateur. Petra runs a Church Music Appreciation and Development Program but this can’t confer degrees. Many on the campus have long been urging the university authorities to create a full-blown music department.

Aris was an architecture graduate from Petra but had to study in Singapore to get his music credentials. Aprilia came from Semarang in Central Java, where her parents were both singers. She studied civil engineering at Petra, but her real interest was chords, not concrete.

She graduated in 2000 but since then has preferred to employ her soaring musical talents rather than build high rises.

In the absence of a music department, graduating in other professions seems to be the pattern. Aprilia’s colleague, tenor Adi Margono who leads the Petra Chorale, learned hotel management.

In her new position another skill will be in great demand from the young director; maintaining harmony on and off the stage among more than 100 artistic people married to their interpretation of music.

When Aris and his wife quit Petra earlier this year after eight years developing music at the university there were reports of many choristers being emotionally distressed at the split between campus and couple.

“We have to all work together, it’s like being in a family,” said Aprilia. “We are so close, it’s important to maintain that feeling. We have to be united and continue to produce fine new musicians.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday 26 November 2005)

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PETRA CHORALE

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Monday, November 28, 2005

URBAN MYTHS

BELIEVE ME, THIS REALLY HAPPENED © Duncan Graham 2005

Have you heard the one about the Indonesian driver taking a call on his handphone at a gas station in Jakarta?

The phone fired off sparks, the fuel exploded and the man was incinerated, which is why Australian gas stations prohibit the use of cellular phones on their forecourts.

True? Well the first part isn’t, but the second is.

Neither HP manufacturers nor oil refiners seem to have found any proof that chatting while filling the tank can be explosive, though the cost may ignite tempers. But that hasn’t stopped the ban on HP use at bowsers Down Under.

The unfortunate, infamous and mythical Indonesian motorist takes his place in folklore along with the Australian family who took their elderly Indonesian relative on a car trip from Perth to Sydney.

This is one long journey across some very arid and empty country.

Along the way the visitor passed away. The flummoxed family wrapped their kin’s corpse in a sheet and tied it on the roof. They then headed for the nearest police station, more than 1,000 kilometres distant through searing heat.

Eventually they arrived and rushed inside to report the tragedy.

But when they came out the car had been stolen! Neither vehicle nor relative has been seen since.

How do I – and just about every other Australian - know this story? Well a policeman’s cousin told it to me. Or was it his neighbor? Anyway, I’m sure the source was authentic. Mind you, the journey may have been from Adelaide to Darwin, though it could have been the other way around, and the deceased may have come from Malaysia.

What it does prove is that urban myths aren’t confined to Indonesia, though this country does seem to manufacture more than most, with Australia running a close second.

The story of the South American venomous spider under the toilet seat in a Jakarta restaurant is well known – but may have been made up by a rival eatery. Everyone knows it’s true, even if the restaurant’s name keeps getting changed. They got the ‘facts’ from a waitress who saw the bite on the corpse. Sorry, her niece.

Also widely circulated is the yarn about the Indonesian worker who tumbled into a huge vat in a cool drink factory. His body wasn’t discovered for several days and by then thousands of bottles have been consumed round the archipelago.

Funny this, but the same tragedy happened in Australia – except that the dissolved employee was working in a brewery. Of course.

It’s astonishing how many are prepared to pass on weird SMS messages from unknown people, and by doing so give the stories unwarranted authority.

Unfortunately not all are a giggle; rumors about church and mosque desecrations, terrorist targets and bomb locations have the potential to cause serious panic. If you haven’t had a few of these recently then your HP isn’t working or you’ve run out of credit.

Aphrodisiacs always feature in urban legends, probably because reputable medicine manufacturers have to keep their claims in the realm of the proven. The latest Australian myth suggests a diet of crushed emu eggshells can lift a limp libido, but the scientific community remains unaroused. However emu farmers are reaping profits.

Why do so many of us prefer the implausible to the plausible? Professional journalists spend most of their time checking the accuracy of reports only to have them tossed aside in favour of the fantastic. Word of mouth is more potent than truth.

Superstitious neighbours say that in the trees outside my gate lurk spirits ready to pounce on the unsuspecting at nightfall. Which is why everyone is indoors at dusk except the incredulous Westerner.

Modern men don’t believe such old Javanese tales. I’m more concerned with the power blackouts. I’ve been told these have nothing to do with the wet season or poor line maintenance.

The problem is space aliens sucking electricity out of the transformer on the corner to feed their death rays. A colleague whispered me about this, and he should know. His father-in-law has a good friend whose aunt works in PLN …

(First published in The Sunday Post 27 November 05)

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FAREWELL AIR PARADISE

VALE AP © Duncan Graham 2005

Dreams die at daybreak. And that’s how it was for thousands of Australians this week who woke to find their Bali holiday plans shattered by the downing of Indonesian airline Air Paradise.

Apart from the personal anguish of lost money and jobs, and the hassle of having to make new plans, in the great scheme of things there’s nothing extraordinary about the story.

Businesses collapse every day because they misjudge the market and skid off the profit runway. From mini-marts to multinationals all are subject to the raw law of the corporate jungle: Earn less than you spend - and die.

Airlines wrap themselves in the gloss of exotic locations and pretty hosties, but in the end they are just common carriers as the insurance policies say. Bemo or Boeing, you jump on, sit down, bounce about a bit, then climb off at another location. If one stops operating you find another.

So why get weepy over the demise of yet another little airline?

Even to the most varicose-veined traveller Air Paradise did offer something a mite different. It understood the mindset of Aussie holidaymakers in a way never appreciated by Garuda.

Of course AP’s significantly lower fares put travellers in a good frame of mind from the start. This was a holiday airline that flew only to Bali. Ngurah Rai wasn’t just a refuelling stopover on the way to somewhere else, but the destination.

As the company slogan said, Bali is our home - and it resonated. Cabin crew on every airline wish you a pleasant flight but their lips are usually on autopilot. Seldom with AP staff, maybe because they got to sleep in their own beds most nights.

With AP your fellow passengers weren’t going on to London or New York and determined to be grumpy all the way. They were people like you keen to swap yarns about shops with the best bargains and restaurants with the coldest beer. So flying was fun, and the kilometres clicked away in no time.

AP flights from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane took off in the morning when travellers were fresh. It also meant most passengers were in Kuta or Ubud with enough daylight hours to settle in and look around.

The shortest journey was from Perth and took only 3 hours 20 minutes, much less than a flight to Australia’s east coast capitals.

No wonder Bali has been Western Australian’s most popular holiday spot, and AP the favoured transport. At one stage the airline, which promoted itself as family-friendly, was bringing in 20,000 dads mums and kids every month from Down Under.

The other factor in AP’s favour was its underdog status that appealed to the Aussie sense of determination – a boisterous youngster taking on the old blokes of Garuda and Qantas and doing it in style.

In this case the upstart was Bali entrepreneur Kadek Wiranatha whose capacity for generating business has been tainted by the curse of misfortune.

The airline was due to launch in 2002, but take off was postponed till February 2003 following the first Bali bombing. Then came the SARS scare that hit the payloads of carriers world wide.

The second Bali bomb did even more damage to bookings.

The Australian government’s persistent travel warnings also did nothing to encourage holidaymakers to add Indonesia to their itineraries. Better try peaceful Malaysia where Australians get a free three-month visa on arrival.

But AP kept aloft and invited home-going passengers to contribute their loose change to a charity Wiranatha had established. This was not to help his ailing airline but to assist orphans and other victims of terrorism. Few knew the boss, but he seemed like a decent, can-do sort of bloke.

When the doomsayers said Bali had been blasted off the world’s tourist map, the sight of AP’s four Airbusses waggling their yellow tails on the aprons of Australia’s airports gave travellers new heart.

If a feisty young Indonesian airline was still in business despite all the problems, then it deserved a fair go. And Aussies were starting to squash their bottoms into cattle-class seats and tackling ayam goreng with plastic cutlery when the bombs went off again.

Hard-nosed business analysts exercising hindsight say the airline was vulnerable because it relied on one market. But in fact AP was already planning to expand beyond Australia and bring visitors into Bali from Shanghai, Seoul, Osaka and Tokyo.

Most Aussie travellers will recover and fly again, probably with Qantas which has boosted its profile by promising to honour about 1,500 AP tickets issued before 23 November.

But will Bali tourism survive? It’s become an article of faith for travel writers and hotel hustlers to put on a brave face and say the island will bounce back.

All except fundamentalist terrorists pray their optimism will win out, but the question is when.

Robert Murdoch, the Australian head of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told ABC Radio that Bali hotels were operating at below break-even levels and many would go bankrupt.

Aussie holidaymakers whinge about ruined holidays, but the Balinese have more serious concerns. AP’s collapse will have a knock on effect throughout the nation.

It’s not just the 350 airline workers who face a bleak future; think of the hotel staff, the bus drivers, the handicraft makers, the shop workers … Then there’s the impact on the Indonesian economy, already reeling with 18 per cent inflation and millions unemployed.

Bali needs everyone’s support, not because of maudlin sentiment and to boost business, but to preserve a decent society. The grounding of AP must not be seen as a triumph for terrorism.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 26 November 05)
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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

CYBER TRAVEL IN S.E. ASIA

PACKAGE YOUR OWN TOUR © Duncan Graham 2005

Fancy a break in Bali – five days with some white-water rafting thrown in? The hotel deal looks OK, but riding rapids gives you collywobbles.

So how about a week in Malacca plus guided tours of the Straits settlement? The history bit appeals, but the hotel is too expensive and you have only two days.

The problem with package tours is that you have to take the travel agent’s offering and it’s almost impossible to tailor your tastes to their product without paying big premiums.

So why not design your own package and pocket the commission?

It’s not so difficult and the cost savings can be significant.

All you need is an Internet connection, a credit card and organisational skills, plus patience and perseverance. For ease and comfort it helps if you have a personal high-speed system, but working from a Warnet is just as effective.

A bit of research makes the process easier. If travelling overseas check visa requirements and make sure you have more than six months before expiry. (The passport, not you.)

Get an impartial guidebook of the area you fancy. Lonely Planet seems to be the world standard, with the Rough Guides a distant second. These books tell you how it is with the gloss rubbed off.

Many countries run government web sites promoting their wares. Naturally these show unspoilt beaches and uncrowded streets. Best to seek Virtual Traveller websites where people post frank comments and useful tips.

Let’s assume you’d like to visit some neighbour countries. First air fares: Type ‘Travel Jakarta to Singapore (or wherever)’ into your search engine and select an airline.

Many now encourage Internet bookings. Select the flight you need and confirm booking through Visa or MasterCard, or sometimes American Express. The airline then e-mails you with a booking code that you show at the airport check-in.

I’ve yet to encounter any problems using this system in Indonesia or other APEC countries. In most cases it’s as speedy as presenting a standard ticket.

However there are some cautions. It’s essential to read the pinhead-size print on the airlines’ conditions. Some tickets include airport taxes in their charges – others don’t. And watch out for the synonyms: Is an ‘airport tax’ the same as a ‘passenger service charge’?

Well, sometimes. If you don’t check carefully you could find yourself paying a surcharge in the departure lounge just when you’ve quit the last of your local money. This is a problem in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

Not all airlines have user-friendly sites. I’ve found Air Asia to be the simplest, but the ease of use is offset by the discomfort of jostling for somewhere to sit, as the company doesn’t allocate seat numbers.

OK, you’ve organised the flights. Now look for accommodation.

The Lonely Planet books rank hotels and offer comments and prices. These change with time so ensure you update off the Web. Just search for ‘Hotels Phuket’ or wherever you fancy and you’ll be hit with multiple choices through a portal that brackets rooms according to price and location.

This part of the hospitality industry is well advanced in electronic booking to the point where the buyer can be overwhelmed by choice. It’s like buying milk in a supermarket: Low fat, calcium added, vitamin enriched, flavoured (six varieties), local, imported … no wonder customers get shelf-shocked.

Discipline is important. Select your star rating and price in advance and keep a note of the sites you visit otherwise you’ll be going round in circles.

Also check the location and access. Your dream deal may turn out to be nightmare if you have to pay more in cab fares than room rates and find your hotel is directly under a flight path.

So study city maps in guidebooks and on the Internet. Check the calendar for local festivals. Arriving in Kuala Lumpur during the Indian Deepavali festival when every contract worker from the sub continent is in town to celebrate can be daunting.

Keep a clear head while manipulating your mouse or you’ll confuse rupiah with ringgit and think you’ve scored a bargain when in fact you’ve just bought the presidential suite in the Sheraton. Type ‘Exchange Rates’ into the search box for up-to-date values because most charges are in the local currency.

Hotels in some big cities and resorts have organised a late stay booking service. This is really handy for the budget traveller. It works like this:

Cooperating hotels notify the agency that they have unsold rooms for particular nights and often discount these heavily. Sometimes breakfast is included, sometimes not. During peak periods a surcharge may apply. As with the airlines, read the small print.

You book through the Internet using your credit card and don’t pay the hotel. If you find a good deal you have to negotiate a longer stay on the Internet and not at the reception desk.

Of course there can be hiccups and hazards, as with using agents. Designing your own package tour is not for the nervous who fear Internet fraud. Reputable sites have encrypted pages when you give credit card details.

To make a booking you’re required to fill in ID or passport details and credit card information. Hassles can arise when you have a different address for your credit card statement than your home address.

Indonesians with only one name also encounter minor difficulties because the system expects everyone to be binominal. Repeating the name seems to satisfy the machines that read your form. And if you haven’t got a postcode just invent one or your application will be rejected, as empty boxes are anathema.

Check your e-mail regularly even when on tour because these booking systems do not use phone or fax contact.

Finally – travel insurance. Indonesians tend to ignore what Westerners consider essential. Whatever your views you can shop for rates and buy on the Internet.

People still sit around travel agents and queue at airport offices, but such primitive behavior is no longer essential. Why go to town to buy someone else’s holiday offering when you can custom-make your own at home? Vacation
adventures start at the keyboard.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 November 2005)

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

ISLAMIC IN-FIGHTING

FIGHTING FOR FAITH © Duncan Graham 2005

By Indonesian standards of religious conflict the attack was relatively mild.

In late July an estimated 10,000 youth stormed the Bogor, West Java compound of the Ahmadiyah religious group. Some buildings were burned. The 700 residents fled, but no one was killed or seriously injured.

The police were reported to have been present. There were no arrests, but the hoons earned the wrath of vice president Jusuf Kalla, other senior figures in the government and mainstream Islamic organisations.

The attackers called themselves the Indonesian Muslim Solidarity Group. They claimed they were motivated by a fatwa (edict) issued by the peak Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) - the Indonesian Scholars’ Council.

The MUI had declared Ahmadiyah a deviant Islamic organisation because it allegedly does not recognise Muhammad as the last prophet. Ahmadiyah was formed in Pakistan last century. It has an estimated 200,000 followers in Indonesia where it’s been operating for about 80 years.

Ironically – or perhaps deliberately - the assault occurred just as an international forum on inter-faith issues held in Bali called for the recognition of pluralism and the right of individuals to choose their own religion. The forum was opened by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who stressed the need for tolerance and understanding.

The government-sanctioned MUI responded by declaring secularism and pluralism forbidden under Islam. In its national congress just after the Bali forum, delegates also approved fatwa against inter-faith marriages, joint prayers with people of other faiths unless led by a Muslim, and women leading prayers when men are present.

MUI executive Cholil Ridwan ordered preachers nationwide to spread the edicts. In keeping with the Indonesian practice of creating acronyms to simplify complex issues and give them a twist he referred to secularism, pluralism and liberalism as SIPILIS. This is also the Indonesian word for syphilis.

In the past similar edicts from Islamic conservatives in Indonesia have roused limited ire. But this time opponents mounted a full on verbal attack that lifted the issue onto the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

A rapidly formed assembly of religious leaders and leading intellectuals, including former president Abdurrahman Wahid (widely known as Gus Dur) condemned the MUI edicts and asked the government to ban the organisation.

Although Indonesia claims to be a secular state religion is an all-pervading political and administrative issue. The Department of Religious Affairs is the nation’s third largest bureaucracy.

According to the department about 85 per cent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims. All citizens have to profess one of five approved religions and have their faith stamped on compulsory ID cards.

The religions are Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Local wags say that Indonesians are free to practise religion, but not free to practise no religion.

Foremost among the opponents of MUI has been scholar and activist Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, 39. In 2003 he attracted the wrath of the old men for publishing a newspaper article criticising conservative Muslim leaders. Another Islamic group issued a fatwa to kill the young critic, but so far he has survived.

Ulil belongs to the Liberal Islamic Network which raises issues of pluralism and gender equality at every opportunity. Not surprisingly it’s been labelled anti-Islam and a tool of the West. As Ulil also fronts a think tank called the Freedom Institute, which is widely believed to have US funding, this charge resonates. (Ulil says the money comes from a major philanthropist.)

He is also head of the Research and Human Resources Development Department in Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of two major Islamic organisations in Indonesia and which claims a membership of 40 million. (The other is Muhammadiyah, which like NU also condemned the attack on the Ahmadiyah compound.)

“I’ve had a solid Islamic education in a conservative and traditional environment,” Ulil said. “I was educated in the madrasah and pesantren (Islamic schools) and I went to an Islamic university. (He studied Syariah – Islamic law.)

“I have developed my understanding of Islam through my curiosity. I can challenge the conservatives on their terms. I’m ready to engage in dialogue with them. If you want to be a reformer you must have earned your credentials from within your own organisation.”

At the heart of the issue is the direction and power of Islam in a nation recently liberated from authoritarian control. Under the New Order government of former general Suharto public discourse was heavily censored. Specifically banned were discussions of race, religion and ethnicity.

Also kept on a tight rein were radical Islamic organisations. Particularly curbed were those calling for Indonesia to become an Islamic state and throw off the concept of pluralism enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

When Suharto resigned in 1998 after 32 years in total control these restrictions were lifted as Indonesia embraced democracy. But freedom of speech and assembly didn’t just apply to liberals, and it wasn’t long before Friday prayers were being used to raise the once taboo topics.

In 1999 during Gus Dur’s presidency serious violence broke out between Muslims and Christians on the island of Ambon in the Moluccas, and around Poso in Central Sulawesi. An estimated 9,000 people have lost their lives and up to 100,000 made homeless in this poorly reported conflict.

At the height of the fighting Islamic radicals from Java sailed to Ambon against the president’s orders allegedly to defend fellow Muslims. Sporadic shootings and bombings continue to occur despite peace agreements.

It’s against this recent history that the clash between the MUI and the liberals is taking place. It’s not just a case of who determines how Muslims should behave and what they should believe – it’s also a struggle for the place of Islam in the state, and a fear that Indonesia will be Christianised if Islamic power wanes.

“There’s a strong indication that radical Islam is gaining ground,” said Ulil. “It’s definitely something that moderate Indonesian Muslims must take note.

“At the same time there’s a reform underway in Islam which is equal to the birth of Protestantism through Martin Luther. Most of the pesantren are dynamic institutions going through a very interesting process of re-evaluating Islamic theology.

“I’m not defending all pesantren but I reject the claims by some Western politicians that pesantren are breeding grounds for violence. It’s dangerous to take a monolithic view. The fundamentalists have come from a background of secular education promoting zealotry and bigotry. They have no real understanding of Islam because they haven’t been through the rigid analysis of religion. They are not speaking in God’s name.”

But who does? Mustering a mob to protest any issue is easy in Indonesia which has an estimated 20 million unemployed or under-employed. During last year’s general election thousands of young men were paid the equivalent of a couple of dollars to swell demonstrations and plant banners.

Many openly admitted they were happy to wear a candidate’s T-shirt and distribute propaganda but had no intention of supporting him or her at the ballot box.

Consequently there are always suggestions that attacks, like the one on the Ahmadiyah compound and those in Ambon, have been orchestrated by what commentators like to call ‘sinister forces’. This is local code for die-hard New Order power brokers unhappy with political developments diluting their once rigid grip on society.

Although no one will name names such spoiler tactics have more sinister overtones than an attack driven by a spontaneous feeling of outrage.

Conspiracy theorists allege an international Jewish-Christian-Chinese-Capitalist Western master plan to undermine Indonesian Islam. These notions were once confined to the fringe but have moved towards the centre following the fall of Suharto and the independence of East Timor. A PEW global attitudes survey released this year claimed 38 per cent of Indonesians viewed Christians unfavourably.

October marks the start of the fasting month of Ramadan and a time when fundamentalists seek to impose their standards on others. Watch out for more demonstrations – real or contrived - against liberalism as the world’s most populous Islamic nation wrestles with concepts of democracy.

(First published in The Diplomat (Australia) October 2005)

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Monday, November 14, 2005

SEX AND INDONESIAN YOUTH

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YOUTH SEXUALITY “NOT DANGEROUS”
© Duncan Graham 2005

To stay healthy and be responsible Indonesian youth should have access to condoms and other contraceptives in places where they feel relaxed about obtaining them, according to a new report on sexual health.

Although young Indonesians are hungry for information on sex, many parents, teachers and religious leaders believe education should suppress youth sexuality.

The report titled Youth, Sexuality and Sex Education Messages in Indonesia: Issues of Desire and Control was written by East Java academic Dede Oetomo and Dutch social studies lecturer Brigitte Holzner. It has been published in the British journal Reproductive Health Matters.

“If sexuality is a form of knowledge-seeking that creates identity and connectivity, then sexuality is not something dangerous that should be suppressed,” the report authors said.

“Young people can have a healthy, informed and responsible sexual life. By providing information and the means to sexual health we actually reduce the risk of young people inflicting harm on themselves.

“Non-prohibition does not mean ‘you must have sex’; on the contrary it means having information and the acceptance of desire, dialogue, negotiation and pleasure. This is the meaning of empowering young people in relation to sexuality.

“(However) the dominant prohibitive discourse in Java denies and denounces youth sexuality as abnormal, unhealthy, illegal or criminal, reinforced through intimidation about the dangers of sex.”

Research for the report included open discussions with young people in Surabaya, and analysing the contents of youth magazines and publications on sexual health.

The authors said young Indonesians were fortunate to be living in a country with one of the freest presses in Asia where the opportunities to discuss sexuality were growing.

A highlight of this media freedom was the hostile public reaction to a new draft Criminal Code that sought to prohibit adultery, cohabitation, oral sex and homosexuality under 18. Outraged citizens demanded the State keep out of their bedrooms. The authors described the response as “refreshingly strong.”

Magazines about celebrities, music and fashion also invite readers to write about their lives and ask questions about relationships. The researchers found the replies did not carry “preachy remarks” from “nanny-like parent figures”, or treat young people as incapable of taking care of themselves.

The images of young people found in the magazines didn’t show them as frightened of sexuality and needing protection. Instead they were experimenting with pleasure using caution and responsibility.

Most participants in the group discussions had already engaged in some form of sexual activity. Only a few thought they should maintain their virginity until marriage. None had read government publications about sexuality.

“Our sample did not seem to be impressed by proscriptions by State and religious sources,” the authors said. “They relied on their own will and found the information they needed.

“They were not activists for sexual rights but young citizens living a right that officially is denied to them.”

Dr Oetomo, a special reader in social sciences at the University of Surabaya’s postgraduate program, is also prominent in the Indonesian gay rights movement. He told The Jakarta Post that many young people were damaged by lack of reproductive health services and accurate information about sex.

The damage included unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted diseases like HIV /AIDS, depression and suicide.

“For example, girls become pregnant while still at school because they don’t have access to contraceptives,” he said. “These are only provided to ‘married couples’. In most cases the girl is expelled and her future ruined.

“Young people must be able to be active citizens in their society, have pleasure and confidence in relationships and all aspects of sexuality.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Sunday 6 November 2005)

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

MISSIONARIES IN INDONESIA

FROM KALIMANTAN TO MALANG VIA BIRMINGHAM
© Duncan Graham 2005

The life of a missionary kid (they call themselves MKs) is so dramatically different from the upbringing of most children that there’s even an Indonesian webpage devoted to the experience.

Sample: MKs fly before they can walk. They speak two languages but can’t spell in either. They have passports but no driving licences. When watching National Geographic TV specials they recognise someone. Or think the featured wildlife looks tasty.

Obviously the trauma rate is high. The quandary facing English MK Jonathan Heath was adjusting to life in the industrial city of Birmingham, England. His formative years had been in a West Kalimantan village in a high-stump house eating fresh-killed meat from the forest. A wide brown river outside the garden was his swimming pool.

How does anyone handle the concrete jungle after a boyhood spent in the real jungle with Dayak playmates?

Answer: They don’t. Well, not without a lot of difficulty.

Solution: Return to Indonesia.

But the days of gaunt God-driven white folk in pith helmets trekking their version of salvation into the heart of darkness have all but gone. The Indonesian government no longer welcomes foreign pastors unless they’re headed for seminaries where they can preach to the already converted, and Malang in central East Java seems to have more than most.

So whether by happenstance, or through the mysterious workings of the Deity, teacher Heath has found himself back in the archipelago with plans to stay indefinitely as the principal of Malang’s Wesley International School

Now when such cherished ambitions are let loose by the husband they often founder on the rock of marriage. He may want to revisit the land of his childhood and bask in the tropic sun of happy memories, but his partner will surely have other plans.

Fortunately for Heath his English wife Esther is also a former MK. She’s been well immunised to adapt and make the best of whatever she finds.

She was raised in poor, landlocked Malawi in southern Africa. So she’s also experienced a childhood quite out of the ordinary. Consequently the culture shock of moving to East Java has been little more than a language jolt.

A similar destiny awaits their children Nathanael, 5, and Abigail, 3 with another on the way who will be born in East Java. The kids are already in a local kindergarten so they’ll pick up Indonesian and the culture, but as the couple are quick to note, Malang is far from Pontianak.

“This is a very safe city to the point where some families from Jakarta and Surabaya prefer that their children study here,” Heath said. “Although there have been threats of church closures following the problems in Bekasi Regency, this is not West Java.”

Nonetheless the school takes security for its 100 students from ten countries seriously. Their new purpose-built campus has a winding entrance and a modern take of the drawbridges that protected castles in medieval Europe.

In the Wesley version a flick of a switch sends a steel-plated section of the road skidding away leaving a big and impassable pit.

The school started in a house in 1971 when missionaries – mainly from the US – wanted their kids to have an American schooling.

Most of the missionaries have long gone but the school has moved three times and expanded to cover all study years and meet the educational needs of expatriates’ kids. These are now mainly Korean, in business or as staff in the seven, government-approved, local Bible colleges.

The curriculum remains US based and Heath - the school’s first non-American principal - claims that graduates have no trouble entering most American and Korean universities.

“This is an evangelical non-denominational Protestant school,” he said. “To get enrolled here you must be fluent in English as that’s the means of instruction.

“It’s getting more difficult to recruit teachers because of the reports of violence and political tensions. We want our teachers to have the support of congregations back in their hometowns so we maintain partnerships with the rest of the world.”

Heath stayed in Indonesia till he was 18. Apart from schooling in Kalimantan he was also educated in Bandung, Jakarta and Malaysia. After graduating from Loughborough University in Leicestershire he taught mathematics in Birmingham schools where most students were Asian immigrants. He also went to theological college for three years.

After many years in Britain the pull to Indonesia became too much. The family moved to Malang a year ago with Heath as a teacher. Now he’s been promoted as the boss.

Heath’s experiences growing up as a proclaimed Christian in a predominantly Muslim nation have made him a hard-nosed realist. The school was briefly closed during the political unrest following the fall of Suharto in 1998.

“There’s no direct threat to Christianity in Indonesia, but almost every day we hear about an incident somewhere in the country where a church has been closed,” he said. “That tends to create an impression of threat.

“People are far more alive in their faith in Indonesia than Britain which professes to be a Christian country but where most do not practise.

“Here we are constantly aware of the spiritual dimension of life. The challenge is to be aware of our spirituality.

“Christianity will continue to thrive as a strong and tolerated minority religion in Indonesia but the future depends on the government – whether it leans towards Pancasila or an Islamic state.

“We cannot proselytise. Our role as Christians and whites is to set a positive example through the way we live and behave as peaceful people. We all have to work hard to ensure good relations with the rest of the community.

“If there’s any trouble then both sides need to stand up and promote tolerance together. I don’t think it’s difficult to be a Christian in Indonesia.”

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CONTENTIOUS WORK

Wesley International School was opened by the US based Oriental Missionary Society, now known as OMS International.

John Wesley (1703 – 1791) was an English theologian who started the evangelical Methodist movement. He spent two years in the US as a missionary.

The OMS began in 1901 with missionaries going to Japan with the ambition of putting a Bible in every household. That meant ten million, but the effort had minimal impact. Today only one per cent of Japanese are Christian.

A few years later Korea, China and India were targeted by the OMS. Indonesia was included in 1971.
OMS International says its missionaries “are urged to work toward the goal of making themselves dispensable by training and encouraging national co-workers who can take their places of responsibility in the work.
“It is not the aim of OMS to establish a foreign church, but to assist in the establishment of the indigenous church.” This is widely known as ‘church planting.’
In the 1980s foreign missionaries started complaining that the Indonesian government was tightening visa regulations to restrict their activities.

The Department of Religious Affairs said only about 20 foreigners were legally working as missionaries in East Java.

Five mainstream religions are allowed to openly practise in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Hinduism. According to the Department Protestants and Catholics form less than ten per cent of the population and Muslims almost 90 per cent.

Occasional news items of foreign teachers being deported for allegedly working as missionaries, and claims that some aid workers in Aceh were missionaries in disguise seeking to Christianise tsunami victims keep the issue alive.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 5 November 2005

Saturday, October 29, 2005

60 YEARS AFTER THE BATTLE

THE DEAD ARE MANY © Duncan Graham 2005

We can only hope that a later race of people who have no need for battle remember how it used to be – and tell their children.
(Netherlands War Graves Foundation)

The scene is so peaceful it’s difficult to know how it used to be. The gardens are lovingly manicured. The frangipanis are in bloom and sprinkle their blossom in the little breeze that helps soften Surabaya’s sultry heat. Large lilies stir easily in the ponds. Only the headstones are stationary.

Thousands of white crosses sprout from the level lawns. Many with round carved ends indicate that beneath lie a woman’s bones. Some crucifixes are tiny. Here lies a child, there lie many. Not all have names, just the single word ‘Onbekend’. Tombs of unknown victims. Some contain many remains – ‘Verzamelgraf Ngawi’.

Plain Buddhist headstones are scattered amongst the crosses. The Muslim dead, former infantrymen, lie in an adjacent plot under plain headboards.

Although all the years of the Japanese occupation and the war of Independence are represented in this cemetery, the last three months of 1945 are the most common dates recorded.

For this was the chaotic period 60 years ago when the Allies sought to liberate prisoners of the defeated Japanese, and the Revolutionaries fought to prevent the Dutch returning.

The British backed the Dutch and bombarded the city from the air and sea. Indian troops battled freedom fighters. The Battle of Surabaya was underway and all sides suffered terribly.

There are no flags flying from the poles above the 5,000 dead in Surabaya’s Kembang Kuning cemetery, though the majority who rest here were once Dutch. The old political and nationalistic hatreds whose harvest lies under the green sward have long turned to dust along with their victims.

Surabaya has many Heroes’ Cemeteries where more than 6,000 young Nationalists lie. Few know the Dutch also share the sadness of those terrible times and that there are people who still remember and wish to pay their respects.

When the Japanese invaded in 1941 the Royal Dutch East-Indian Army (KNIL) had a fighting force of 120,000. Most of the officers were European. The rank and file were from Java, Ambon and Manado.

In the brief fighting which followed about 3,000 soldiers on the Dutch side were killed. About 900 sailors perished in the Battle of the Java Sea. The Japanese took 37,000 KNIL soldiers prisoner but released most of the local troops.

The Dutch men were put to work on military projects and around 3,000 died, many on the notorious railway between Burma and Thailand. Women and children were housed in camps where many died from malnutrition, disease and brutality.

In the fighting for Independence which followed the Japanese defeat at least 1,000 Dutch soldiers were killed.

Fast forward to the present. On most days an individual, a family, a group of friends arrive from Europe to fulfil their commitment to the past at one of the seven Dutch war cemeteries on Java.

Ancol (near Jakarta) has the graves of hundreds of men and women executed by the Japanese; in Menteng Pulo (Jakarta) are buried the remains of those who didn’t survive the camps, and the ashes of 700 Dutch prisoners who died in Japan.

The Pandu cemetery in Bandung is near the Leuwigajah graveyard at Cimahi. Dutch soldiers who died in Sumatra were reburied here. At Semarang in Central Java are the Kalibanteng and Candi war cemeteries – the latter for the military, the former for prisoners of war.

All are maintained by the Netherlands War Graves Foundation “to ensure that the victims and this piece of history will always be remembered.” The work is carried out by Indonesians – the victors tending the graves of the vanquished.

Surabaya historian Eddy Samson often helps Dutch people who make the pilgrimage to East Java to pay homage to an ancestor. Samson and ten friends have formed ‘Team 11’ to preserve the cultural history of the East Java capital. They also repair smashed stonework and shattered headstones.

“Although the graves in the war cemetery are well marked and good records kept, that’s not the case with the resting places of those who died during peacetime,” he said

“In the old cemetery at Peneleh (in central Surabaya) which was closed in 1900 many graves have been desecrated. The marble has been chipped off for sale and the tombs have been robbed for any valuables that may have been buried with the corpse.

“Although the land is still owned by the Dutch it’s not maintained. It’s not so bad in the new cemetery although vandalism has occurred. But finding your way around is difficult.”

Outside the fence that protects the war graves, foreign visitors are intimidated by gangs of men who demand money for whisking a few imagined leaves away from the burial plot. It’s not a smart idea to go there unaccompanied. The general cemetery is also a popular place to find prostitutes.

Inside the war graves area and among the neat white markers, order prevails. Access is controlled and ‘tips’ are banned.

“Only in the war cemetery are the graves safe, and those who died can rest in peace,” said Samson.

(For more information contact the Dutch organisation YPKIB in Surabaya at ypkib@yahoo.com )

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 October 2005)
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Friday, October 28, 2005

SPECIALITY INDONESIAN FOOD

INDONESIA’S MEAT TREAT FEAT © Duncan Graham 2005

To set the scene let’s turn to a better wordsmith and the opening of Macbeth, minus the toothless crones and blasted heath.

In their place Javanese maidens and a leafy street in suburban Surabaya. Across the road, a small orphanage. Next to that an Islamic kindergarten. Adjacent are ordinary middle class houses.

An in one a meat processing factory.

Home industries are the heart of entrepreneurial Indonesia; if any zoning regulations exist to prohibit business in urban areas they are certainly not being applied.

But Roso Bektiono’s enterprise isn’t just wrinkled tradesfolk in a backroom quietly carving handicrafts. This business (which in other lands would be labelled a noxious trade) roars. Literally.

At around 3.30 am, six days a week, motorbike couriers arrive with 200 kilos of quivering fresh-killed beef, straight from the slaughterhouse.

This is bundled into a big pot sitting on the banks of an open drain. For the next seven hours a lion-hearted kerosene-powered fire will cook the meat on the first stage of its transformation into abon.

You don’t know abon? That’s not surprising. It’s an expensive speciality, little advertised and unknown to the average cook. Connoisseurs of Javanese cuisine will have encountered abon and probably use it to embellish their main dishes.

Sometimes it’s promoted in supermarkets as ‘floss’. This is a misnomer. In most English-speaking countries floss is associated with a sugary confection often found at fairgrounds – while a flossy woman is not a tag any respectable female would accept. Dental floss is the hypochondriac’s toothpick.

Others label abon as ‘shredded beef jerky.’ Wrong again. Beef jerky is made from meat cut into strips and dried slowly in an oven or microwave. This food is an American favorite and carries imagery of wagon trails and tough cowboys chewing away their even tougher evening meal.

So best stick to abon – and return to the process.

After boiling off the fat the meat is put through a rotating drum armed with spikes. This teases out the fibres into long strings. The process is like the TV shampoo ads where robotic combs cascade through the gleaming black hair of white-skinned beauties.

Surprisingly this is not so difficult with brown boiled meat because the beef cuts are taken only from the sinewy legs of the beasts. Any fatty bits which have withstood the boiling are picked out by hand.

At this stage Roso’s secret ingredients of herbs and spices, along with sugar and salt are added. The recipe was passed down by his late mother, Murtini. She brought the family formula from Yogya when she moved to Surabaya 25 years ago to start making abon.

The next stop is most certainly from Shakespeare, though the three young women who round about the cauldrons go cannot be compared to the bard’s opening characters.

Nonetheless there’s plenty of double, double toil and trouble. The fire burns and the cauldrons bubble before the hurlyburly’s done. And heat so intense that any flies attracted by the smell, smoke and steam die at the doorway. The staff here get a real workout – no need for slimming salons after a day making abon.

When the shreds are well cooked in copra oil they are skimmed out of the vats and put in a crude press powered by a car jack to squeeze out the cooking oil. The packed meat is then teased apart in another machine.

Finally a couple of girls armed with ordinary dining forks sit alongside a wicker tray full of abon. Their job is to give the product a bit more of an airing by tossing it around a bit.

After drying the abon is packed in lots of 100 grams in a plastic bag. These retail at the gate for Rp 7,600. The price in nearby supermarkets is almost double.

“For every 100 kilograms of fresh meat we can make about 70 kilograms of abon,” said Roso. “It’s a popular product among Javanese and Chinese, and it can be used in so many ways.

“Some people like it on bread; others have it as a side dish, or add it to soups and omelettes. It’s very low in cholesterol – in the quarter century we’ve been selling abon I’ve never heard of anyone suffering a heart attack.

“When properly made, abon has a shelf life of a year and doesn’t have to be kept in a fridge.”

There are five small businesses producing abon in Surabaya. Roso also makes abon from chicken, while others convert horsemeat and fish.

The West Java agricultural research institute Institut Pertanian Bogor has conducted trials on making abon from marlin. The University of Riau has been experimenting on the suitability of other fish species to be abonised.

Although the history of abon is vague it was probably, like beef jerky and salted beef, developed while cooks waited for someone to invent refrigeration. In those days a steer had to be consumed in one sitting, so it helped if you had a big family.

Meat putrefies fast, particularly in the tropics. In most Western countries it’s chilled immediately after slaughter. It is also frozen – a process used as much to kill parasites as to preserve.

And the final question: What does it taste like? Give it a try. It’s more sweet than spicy, and you’ll never guess that it’s really meat.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Friday 28 October 2005)

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