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

Tuesday, July 26, 2005



If you're an Australian farmer perhaps you’ve had overseas backpackers turn up on your property looking for a bit of casual work. Maybe you’ve even employed some to take on seasonal jobs like seeding and fruit picking.

Chances are you’ve found these young people keen and interesting. Just chatting during lunch breaks can lift understanding of cultures and values for both boss and worker.

If these travellers are European they’ll have come from Britain, Holland, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, France, Italy, Belgium and Finland.

If Asian they’ll be Koreans, Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan, or Japanese.

These people aren’t illegal. They’re holders of a one-year Working Holiday Maker visa.

The idea is to allow single young people aged between 18 and 30 to have a holiday, get to know us and earn a bit of cash.

This year about 100,000 are expected to be wandering the wide brown spending an estimated 1.3 billion dollars – and helping out many rural enterprises along the way.

The program is reciprocal, so young Aussies can also travel and work in the countries on that list.

But did you notice a significant omission in the participating countries – Indonesia, the nation next door.

Australian authorities say the Indonesian government hasn’t asked to get involved. Maybe it hasn’t been invited.

The Indonesians I know are capable workers, innovative and interested in their southern neighbor.

Poor exchange rates and low wages in their homeland make it difficult for the average Indonesian to buy a return air ticket and have enough cash to tide them over.

But many can and will muster enough from family and friends if they know they can find well-paid work in Australia.

What’s so important about young Indonesians?

Since the independence vote in East Timor, the Bali bomb and the Schapelle Corby case the amount of misunderstanding and ignorance on both sides has been enormous.

Myth and innuendo seems to have replaced factual information.

Maybe if we meet a few more ordinary Indonesians in the workplace we’d discover that they’re not all radical terrorists – and they’d learn that we’re not all godless hedonists.

(Broadcast on ABC Radio National's Country Viewpoint program 2 August 05)


GETTING TO KNOW YOU © Duncan Graham 2005

You’re lucky to be reading this scoop because you’re among the first to hear of the Indonesian government’s new plans for visitors. It recently fell off the back of a becak. It’s a long document, but the principal points are:

· Australians will no longer be able to rock into Bali, get an on-the-spot visa and wander the archipelago.
· The new system requires applying for a visa weeks in advance and paying a fee of about $65. It will be a complex form and must be completed entirely in Indonesian. Any mistakes, however minor, will mean the application will be rejected and the fee lost.
· Nationals of other countries will be allowed to lodge their applications via the Internet, but not Australians.
· A full medical conducted by a doctor selected by the Indonesian government may also be required. The cost of this must be borne by the applicant.
· All young female applicants for visas who claim to be married to Indonesians will be treated with suspicion.
· All immigration and customs documents must be completed in Indonesian.
· Indonesians are warned against travelling to Australia following violence against mosques and women wearing headscarves. The Indonesian government apparently doesn’t think the Australian government is doing enough to prosecute these terrorists and is just hiding behind statements about ‘free speech’.

Fortunately my exclusive leak has now been revealed as a false document and the Indonesian government has yet to impose such onerous restrictions. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t, because that’s how Indonesians who want to visit Australia are treated.

The Indonesian media has been carrying stories critical of Western help given to the victims of the Aceh tsunami. Westerners have been accused of having other agendas. These include acting as spies, seeking to help the separatist movement and wanting to ‘Christianise’ the Acehnese who are almost entirely staunch Muslims.

Most Australians, knowing their nation’s indifference to religion, may find this last claim a bit of a giggle – and the idea that Australian troops want to get involved in a prolonged and nasty civil war where Muslims are killing Muslims is far fetched.

But not for ordinary Indonesians. Outside Bali and Yogya many are unable to differentiate between Australians, Americans and Europeans. The term Belanda, meaning a Hollander is also generic for any white skinned foreigner.

It’s also useful to remember that Indonesians have so long been fed misinformation by previous governments that they often prefer myth to fact.

Americans are distrusted because of their perceived arrogance and their foreign policies which are seen as anti-Islam. Others remember that the CIA was allegedly involved in supporting separatist movements in Sulawesi and may have had a hand in the coup which toppled first president Sukarno in 1965.

The Dutch are widely disliked because they were the colonialists who lorded it over the country for more than three centuries, took as much as they could and gave little back. Others who have seen the Australian flag and the portraits on our currency laugh at denials that we are no longer a colony of distant Britain.

We can certainly plead that we, the people next door, are different and separate, but at the moment it’s all uphill. We are still seen as the lackeys of the US, anti Islam, pro-separatists with territorial ambitions. A recent survey of 6,800 Indonesians showed that our foreign policy was linked with the US as the most disliked.

Indonesian media coverage of the foreign relief efforts in Aceh gave the Americans the biggest share of positive publicity, largely because they went out of their way to lionise local journalists.

Someone with a bit of sensitivity should have told our military in Aceh to wear uniforms identifying them as Australian. Instead many wore ubiquitous camouflage and some used dark glasses – a mistake in Indonesia.

Prime Minister Howard and Indonesian ambassador Iman Cotan both claimed relations between our countries are now better than ever because of Australia’s speedy response to the tsunami tragedy. That’s probably right at the highest official levels, and probably correct among some intellectuals. I’m also sure it’s wrong almost everywhere else, except among the ordinary people of Aceh who received our aid.

Our government and NGOs are doing excellent work in Indonesia, helping the Aceh victims, rebuilding the infrastructure, giving advice. But we are not doing enough in other areas and we are not doing our PR well.

In 2003 the Australian Embassy in Jakarta issued only six press releases and last year only 28 non-tsunami releases. Aid is not free of politics; I want my country and its programs to be well known and widely used. We have a good story to tell and a culture worth promoting. A goodwill tour by Nicole Kidman, the best known Australian in Indonesia, would do more good for our image than 1000 pictures of men in grey suits shaking hands.

Richard Gozney, the previous British Ambassador to Indonesia and a fluent speaker of Indonesian, was something of a celebrity appearing on TV talk shows and explaining his country in down to earth terms. Our official representatives may register among Jakarta’s elite, but not in the mass media.

We have been outstandingly generous to Aceh, but before the tragedy quite stingy. We offer less than 400 postgraduate scholarships to a nation of 240 million. We fund Australian Studies course at a handful of universities when there are thousands who could benefit.

In Indonesia our cultural programs are miniscule. The French, who have no historical reasons to be involved in the country, do a much finer job pushing their literature, art, design and film.

The library in the Australian embassy in Jakarta has been closed. The WA Trade office in Surabaya has been shut down. The best known English teaching franchise in Indonesia is run by a European company. Travel warnings continue to deter Australians from visiting Indonesia.

The Youth Exchange Program for young Australians to visit Indonesia was cancelled last year. The budget for the Australia Indonesia Institute has been cut and cut again. The new chair of the Institute is Allan Taylor, the former director general of our spy agency ASIS, so Indonesian paranoia about our real motives in Aceh now has some facts to feed on.

Indonesians get their ideas of the US – and by extension us - from films and TV programs. Sadly these are seldom quality offerings; most are B-grade trash which show handsome white men and luscious blondes solving problems with guns and technology. Their opponents are usually sinister dark skinned buffoons who can’t shoot straight and mangle English grammar.

My country is not a godless cesspit of pornography and violence harbouring colonial ambitions and I want Indonesians to know that. My rants may be ineffective, but making it easier for Indonesians to visit Australia and see for themselves is one way to counter the myths.

Maybe making it as easy for Indonesians - as it is for Australians - to visit the people next door.

(This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Perth International Festival Writers' Week in February 2005. Published in The Jakarta Post 29 March 2005)




If you’re planning to visit East Java, maybe to climb magnificent Mt Bromo, you’ll probably end up staying a night or two in Surabaya. Ignore the naysayers; Indonesia’s second largest city is full of surprises. Duncan Graham charts the latest:

Culture buffs looking for a grand old building, an authentic slice of the East Java capital rich in history should not go past Grahadi. This is the nearest thing to a palace in Surabaya and is now open to the public.

This sprawling 16,000 square metre former Dutch garden house was once the governor’s residence. It’s now the principal reception centre for dignitaries visiting East Java.

Its wide forecourt and deep lawns also make it an ideal parade ground for students and public servants practising for the next big show. These are regular events and usually include children from distant schools in astonishing fantasy outfits – frequently a cross between cheerleaders and fairies, creating a paradise for photographers.

The performers march and cavort around some dinky little cannon of unknown ancestry, two caged cockerels to signify the Province and crow up the dawn, and a mighty flagpole.

Built in 1795 by Dutch commissioner Dirk van Hogendorp, Grahadi must have originally dominated the city. That’s because it fronted Kali Mas, the river which bisects Surabaya and was once a major transport route. Now the river carries little traffic so access to Grahadi is from Jalan Gubernur Suryo.

The change in orientation meant switching the main entrance from the north riverbank to the south-side highway. Till recently most present-day visitors have been unaware that the river is just outside the rear of the building.

Now tourists have the chance to peep down the once-handsome promenade where in colonial days families would have participated in the passing parade and soaked up the evening cool.

The Dutch may have been solid builders and competent constructors, but as designers they didn’t leave soaring architectural monuments. Grahadi isn’t lofty but it’s certainly substantial. It was built to last of big red bricks laid without mortar and has well outlived the colonialists. The timber flooring upstairs is teak, robust and enduring.

The roman pillars supporting the top deck and making a grand entrance statement (and a shady veranda) are all recent editions, which mask the original rather plain structure. These have been embellished with a frieze showing scenes from the Battle of Surabaya when in November 1945 the British tried to retake the city after the defeat of the Japanese and were met with fierce resistance.

Inside there’s all the paraphernalia of protocol and a wide variety of donated gifts. Visitors can see the handicrafts of East Java and portraits of governors since Independence. The first, Pak R.T. Soerjo is also remembered in the little Kroesen Park facing Grahadi where his large statue shows the governor in the uniform of the post-colonial era.

Just behind him is another park, quiet, spooky and thick with banyan trees. Here Joko Dolog, the mysterious 13th century statue of Buddha Akshobya, sits with a Sanskrit inscription clear around the base. On Thursday nights this is a busy place for the superstitious and pilgrims of many faiths praying in clouds of incense.

The walls of Grahadi carry an eclectic collection of pictures featuring events from the Majapahit kingdom through to the Revolution. Some fine old photographs show Grahadi in the early 19th century. There’s also a well preserved and rare Seni Reog Javanese dance headdress from Ponorogo made of a tiger’s head and peacock feathers, and occasionally wheeled out for a performance.

The building is carpeted in the European fashion although the tropical heat of East Java is better suited to tiled floors. The upstairs rooms can be reached by a small staircase indicating the building was designed more for work than pleasure. Otherwise there would have been a grand staircase where the fashionable could make sweeping entrances in a grand swish of skirts.

There are four well-furnished bedrooms. These are used only for high-ranking guests. The present Governor lives elsewhere, and his offices are some distance away in Jalan Pahlawan.

More than 30 staff work at Grahadi, a name derived from the Sanskrit Graha (meaning house) and adi, implying distinguished. Formerly it was known as Simpang (deviation or crossroads), the name now allocated to the nearby road junction.

Staff members are happy to show visitors around, but to appreciate the place properly it’s worth sitting quietly in the cool courtyards of the building’s wide wings. These are the unembellished tiled and timbered rooms more appropriate to the climate and genuinely East Java.

Take time to reflect on the past. Here the big kitchens and shuttered quarters for workers look much like they must have appeared two centuries ago. That was when Grahadi was the place to be seen – the administrative and legal centre of Surabaya, busy with business and alive with the adventure of a growing port.

(Grahadi is open to the public at weekends and public holidays unless a major event is underway. Times 8 am to 5 pm.)

(First published in Jakarta Kini, May 2005)




There are many ugly sights in polluted, grimy Surabaya, Indonesia's second biggest city. But by far the most distressing and evil is outside Tunjungan Plaza, the city's glitzy and most popular shopping mall.
TP, as it's known in the East Java capital, is a honeypot for street traders and beggars, lured by the pollen of prosperity that dusts the mall's well-off customers.
Annoyed by the traffic congestion caused by the two-wheeled food carts of the kaki lima, Surabaya city authorities have imposed stringent controls. Police and security now restrict parking and work hard to keep the street open. But they've done nothing about the beggars.
They're nowhere near the problem of kaki lima and in most cases cause only minor inconvenience and embarrassment. Except for the little kids. Really little kids.
The sight of a begging child of maybe three years carrying a baby of perhaps three months, maybe less, is gross in any culture. In a country that has signed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and emphasises the social responsibilities of religion, it's obscene.
Everyone agrees, but no-one will do anything about this running sore. Particularly when the issue is raised by a bule (foreigner).
No-one has been rude enough to say it's none of your business. They don't need to. Instead they've given the complainant the "rubber wall" response.
On each occasion I've prefaced my concerns with this statement: "I'm not being critical of your country. It's a matter of universal human rights and decency. There are many examples of child abuse in my own country.
"As an Australian I cannot claim the high moral ground. We are holding almost 100 asylum-seeking children in detention camps. My country's great shame is the way many kids' needs have been ignored and their bodies exploited, in some cases by churches and churchmen.
"But when these awful cases are exposed action is taken. Forget the fact that we hold different passports. In the common name of humanity can't we take action here?"
In Australia we tell outsiders who offer even the mildest criticism of our culture to "butt out". Fortunately Indonesians are more polite. But the message is the same.
So far I've been to five separate agencies, government and non-government, and spoken to senior people. The responses have been remarkably similar:
"Yes it's a problem and something must be done. But it's very difficult. If they're just hunted away they come back. What can we do?"
Then follows a standard speech about syndicates controlled by preman, (street thugs) beggars with suburban mansions who earn fortunes shaking plastic cups, and people refusing to work because tapping car windows at intersections is more profitable than labouring.
These may well be urban myths for no-one can point to any proof of such operations other than "everyone knows it's true".
But even if such stories are true, does it matter?
No society with any claim to humanity can tolerate beggarbabes darting in and out of the traffic risking their lives for 50 rupiah. Most cannot even reach the car windows they're supposed to scratch and evoke pity. They are certainly the right size to inhale exhaust fumes, for their little faces are in the thick of carbon monoxide.
"You don't understand, you'll get used to it. It's just part of Indonesia," one Australian businessman told me. His wife had joined a group of expat women who have raised funds for orphanages, and he was sympathetic. But nothing more.
I'm not a newcomer to Indonesia. I've visited slums and lived in kampung. I've studied social psychology and understand the cycle of dependence. I can put up with adult beggars, but not beggarbabes.
I've taken my concerns to an Indonesian Rotary Club which is involved in many worthy causes, including paying students' school fees - and to charitable organisations which are also helping the poor to overcome the hurdles. And, of course, government departments.
Using an Indonesian friend who avoided saying his concerns were driven by a bule, the complaint was ping-ponged between the Surabayan City Government and the East Java Government until we all got tired of the game. In a rage one night I confronted a policeman standing five metres from the tiny kids squatting on the kerb. The baby was asleep, its little head unsupported so it flopped across the girl's lap as though its neck was broken. It looked more like a battered doll, but breathing. "Yes, it is a problem," the policeman said, and not unkindly. "But it's not my job."
Naturally a bule raging to a cop drew onlookers. I appealed to them knowing the police are widely disliked and distrusted. They sided with the policeman. It takes a foreigner to do that.
So at least I've done something positive.

(First published in Online Opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate - 28 July 2003. Forum at the Indonesia-Australian Language Foundation, Surabaya, 29 April 2005)
Surabaya, founded 1293, is Indonesia's second biggest city. It's a major industrial port and the capital of East Java. Population around 5 million. It gets its name from a mythical battle between a shark (sura) and a crocodile (baya). Posted by Picasa

Pasir Putih Asylum Seekers

THE LOSMEN OF LOST DREAMS © Duncan Graham 2005

East Java’s Pasir Putih is the frazzled Surabayans’ weekend escape spot, a four-hour drive east from smog city. Despite its name the beach is more grey than white, but the sea is shallow and safe. It’s ideal for parents who want to relax and let the kids have a splash, a sail and a bit of freedom.

Freedom? That’s something a small group of foreigners at Pasir Putih long for as they gaze across the Madura Sea and wonder when they’ll ever leave their involuntary home and reluctant host.

Decision time is looming. Their claims for refugee status have been rejected and officials say their only option is repatriation. (See sidebar) But still they hope.

These are the almost forgotten folk, 27 Iraqis, five Afghans and three Iranians who fled their homelands but failed in their bid to reach Australia.

They are all former customers of people smugglers whose Indonesian boats were turned back by the Australian Navy.

They were then caught by Indonesian police and transferred to Pasir Putih where they pray against the odds for a home in the West.

‘I cannot return to Afghanistan, it’s too dangerous,’ said Juma Khan Nasiri, 25, a veteran of three attempts to reach Australia. The first in 2001 cost him US$4,000. It lasted only a day before the boat’s engines broke down an hour out of Surabaya. There were about 300 people on board.

Trip two cost US$500 and for this fee he spent 15 days in the ocean, again with a failed engine. ‘We just drifted,’ he told The Jakarta Post. ‘I don’t know where we went, but I think that God helps us.’ This time the boat had around 150 passengers.

They eventually landed on Sumba Island in Nusa Tenggara and were sent to Jakarta after sheltering in a mosque.

Undaunted, Nasiri and 130 other hopefuls tried again in 2002. He said he now had only US$200. This just happened to be enough for a spot on an unnamed boat which set out from Mataram in Lombok.

They were never to glimpse their promised land. Instead the boat was boarded off Ashmore Reef (in the Timor Sea) by Australian Navy sailors. Nasiri alleged he and five other young men were handcuffed when they protested against not being allowed to proceed, and that some passengers had threatened to sink the boat.

Nasiri said he was a Muslim from a persecuted minority sect. He is a personable young man with an extraordinary grasp of English despite claiming no university education, formal learning or close involvement with native speakers.

‘I just wanted to talk to the people who were responsible for making the rules that said we could not land in Australia,’ he said. ‘I have an uncle in Adelaide (South Australia) and I will do any work. Some Afghan families have already been granted refugee status.’

He said the boat’s engine was repaired, the people were fed and after five days found themselves closer to Indonesia than Australia. They beached near Kupang.

The asylum seekers occupy an old six-unit losmen overlooking the beach. Each unit has its own toilet. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) pays for their food and accommodation. This allegedly causes resentment amongst some Indonesians.

There are no obvious guards and the foreigners are free to mix with locals and tourists at the beach. The children cannot go to school, an issue concerning the adults.

Some units have television sets and other electrical appliances bought by sympathetic visitors, including relatives who have become citizens of Western nations.

Firas Noubi, 29, was on the same boat as Nasiri, but says he was not handcuffed.

With six other relatives, all members of the minority Mandaean religion, Noubi fled Iraq for Australia where his mother now lives on a permanent resident visa.

The Mandaeans come from the Iraq-Iran border and follow the teachings of John the Baptist but say they are not Christian. They claim persecution by Muslims and the state.

Unlike Nasiri, who said he enjoyed good relations with local Indonesians, Noubi said there were some tensions and alleged that he’d already been assaulted.

Noubi’s Iraqi neighbors are the Munir family led by aunt Rajaa Yousif, 55. They are Catholics and include three feisty young women who have become fluent in Indonesian. The family has three relatives in Germany, one in Holland and claim there are none left in Iraq. They said they were prepared to go anywhere. They also alleged they had received no help from Indonesian Catholics.

Noubi and his family said they paid US$1000 each for their place on the boat from Mataram. ‘We thought the Australians would be sympathetic towards us when they saw the old people and the children,’ he said. ‘The sailors just replied that they had to follow their government’s new rules and could not accept refugees from the sea.

‘We cannot go back to Iraq. It’s too dangerous. We want to go anywhere where we will be treated as people.’

Noubi, a goldsmith who has had a university education in his homeland, said he did not want people to feel sorry for the failed asylum seekers, but to understand their plight.

‘We are fed and sheltered but we are not allowed to work,’ he said. ‘We’ve been here more than three years and we don’t know what the future holds. We have nothing to do. We feel like animals, not humans.

‘Why can’t anyone find a solution? The problem is small enough.”


The Australian government has taken a tough stance against people smuggling from Indonesia with a ‘border protection’ policy of turning back boats and locking asylum seekers who make landfall in offshore camps.

During the past 20 years the average number of asylum seekers has been about 1,000 a year. At the height of the people smuggling controversy only 4,000 made it to Australia. Now few boats attempt the journey.

The Australian government says genuine asylum seekers should stay in the first safe camp after fleeing their homeland and apply for refugee status through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Australia currently accepts about 6,000 refugees a year.

However a Human Rights Watch report claimed many asylum seekers knew little or nothing about UNHCR offices in Malaysia and Indonesia. The smugglers told them that applications in those countries would fail and they would be arrested.

Despite their bravery, initiative and determination – all qualities which make ideal citizens - the boat people have been dubbed ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ by a hostile Australian public. The anger has grown since the advent of Islamic terrorism.

Some fear fundamentalists may seek a sea entry to Australia bypassing checking procedures in the official refugee camps. Others claim the asylum seekers are not victims of persecution but ‘economic refugees’ attracted by Australia’s welfare system and high wages.

Ronnie Bala, a spokesman for IOM in Jakarta said the UNHCR had rejected all the Pasir Putih people’s claims for refugee status and resettlement in any country.

‘Their status is now ‘irregular migrants’,’ he said. ‘It’s better for them to go home, but we won’t force them. It must be voluntary and we’ll give them up to US$1,500 as resettlement money.

‘In the past four years 877 people have left Indonesia for Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. So far no problems have been reported.

‘I don’t know how much longer the Indonesian government will allow the situation (at Pasir Putih) to continue but we will feed them and counsel them to return.

‘They should respect Indonesian rules and not take advantage of Indonesian generosity.’
(Published in The Jakarta Post 23 July 05)

Friday, July 22, 2005



Duncan Graham © 2005

In May 2005 conservationists worldwide celebrated the 15th anniversary of Indonesia’s first non-commercial, non-government environment centre. Duncan Graham reports:

When Kermit the TV cartoon frog sang ‘It’s not easy being green’ environmentalists grabbed the phrase with gusto.

They knew all about battling bureaucracies and developers when it came to the contest between profit and preservation. But few had to cope with an even bigger obstacle: Public apathy and ridicule.

In Indonesia indifference to conservation ranges from big companies clear felling rainforests to individuals dropping used tissues in the street because they can’t be bothered to find a rubbish bin. So when East Java student veterinary surgeon Suryo Prawiroatmodjo started arguing that nature needed protection he met some blank looks and crass comments.

Even his colleagues at Surabaya’s Airlangga University couldn’t understand the young agitator’s obsession, born through childhood visits to East Java’s forests. “Are you going to organise picnics?” they jeered.

At the time the international NGO Greenpeace was vigorously challenging governments to stop whaling and dumping nuclear waste. In the eyes of the conservatives then exercising absolute power in Jakarta a young Indonesian intellectual talking conservation was clearly in the same suspect category.

But Dr Suryo silver-tongued his way through intelligence interrogations, military scrutiny - then into ministerial offices and governor’s mansions. Again and again he explained that the environment mattered and rescue should be a national concern.

“They came back with the standard lines that every Indonesian activist knows well,” he said. “Like: ‘We haven’t got the time or money to worry about such things. We’re all too busy trying to survive from day-to-day’.

“I replied that if they didn’t start conserving the nation’s natural resources these would soon vanish and with them any chance of future income. Then we’ll all be really hungry. Slowly the message got through.’

Dr Suryo won over some powerful friends who gave his campaign credibility. In 1982 he quit castrating cats and started working full-time for the Jakarta-based foundation Yayasan Indonesia Hijau (Green Indonesia). From there he won a research scholarship to the US to study conservation. Along the way he encountered overseas donors impressed with YIH’s dedication.

The potential benefactors also had thick wads of scepticism amongst their dollars. One philanthropic group included a former Dutch ambassador to Indonesia on its governing council. He told his board that Indonesians were unworthy of support: “If we give them funds, they’ll be whittled away,” he said. “It always happens. Conservationists will become corruptors and parasites.”

Replied Dr Suryo: “There’s nothing certain in life; you can’t guarantee that Indonesia is 100 per cent corrupt. Not all follow that philosophy; some of us are genuinely concerned about the future and we need your help to achieve our dream. The issue is universal.” He won, and the money started moving.

With cash from the World Wildlife Fund almost 4 hectares of poor quality land was bought near the village of Seloliman. This is an hour’s drive from Surabaya on the slopes of the sacred volcano Gunung Penanggungan, the centre of the ancient Majapahit kingdom.

Cottages and a meeting hall were built. The area was landscaped and the
Pusat Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup (Environmental Education Centre) was formed.

Dr Suryo says more than $US 1 million has flowed into the Centre from Holland, the US, UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. Although legally he remains the founding director he is no longer involved in the day-to-day activities for reasons revealed alongside.

Apart from collecting influential support in Indonesia and abroad (including German architect and academic Dr Ulli Fuhrke who became a partner in the enterprise) Dr Suryo has some rare gifts. He has benign tenacity and can tolerate fools and frauds in authority without openly displaying contempt and losing their backing.

On 15 May 1990 Indonesia’s first non-commercial, non-government environmental centre was opened. Since then thousands of local and overseas people have been through its organic gardens, marveled at the improved fertility and lived in its cheerful little cottages. The slogan is Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.

PPLH has also spread to West Irian, South Sulawesi, West Java and Bali. Although foreign funds are still used to support specific projects the aim is to be self-supporting. PPLH Seloliman (the Javanese word means sleeping elephant, which is the shape of a nearby rock) takes paying guests, mostly from Australia.

The centre is seldom promoted by travel agents or government tourist officers who can’t understand why Westerners want to stay in the countryside. Most visitors find their way there through the Internet or word-of-mouth from backpackers who shy from packaged hedonism in the quest for a different experience.

(For more information check


After the fall of Suharto the petty surveillance of green activists vanished. Dr Suryo won a prestigious Swiss award for his work, was nominated to join Caretakers of the Environment International and became a world figure in the conservation movement. Within the decade PPLH Seloliman had about 50 workers and was functioning beyond his most ambitious dreams. Here was sustainable agriculture thriving in the soil, not books.

Then tragedy struck. In 1999 Dr Suryo was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic, incurable and debilitating inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. He has undergone three operations and lost a major part of his bowel. Sometimes he has to use crutches.

The cause of the disease is unknown. It may be genetic but ironically it can also be caused by chemicals in the environment. It crippled him physically and spiritually as he had to withdraw from PPLH Seloliman.

“At the time I was very angry with God,” said Dr Suryo, a follower of Kebatinan, the traditional religion of Java. “I was caring for nature – but why had nature made me ill? I tend to be superstitious and always believed I was being guided in my work for the environment.

“Crohn’s disease altered everything. But I reflected on the change in my life. I began meditation. Control of PPLH passed on to a new generation of young conservationists. That might not have happened had I stayed well.

“Now I’m almost 50. I write and run workshops when the disease is in remission. I grow trees, but the environment is more than planting trees. I want people to understand the importance and inter-connection of wildlife, nature, clean air and water and unpolluted soil. We must understand and care for the land.”

Savagely underscoring his message was the death of almost 50 villagers near Seloliman in landslides following flash floods last year. The upper slopes of the mountain had been clear felled; there was nothing to break the rush of mud that exhumed boulders and ripped out roots to crash on houses in the valleys below.

In a weird twist the deforestation only came about after the end of the Orde Baru government. “Before then people were afraid to cut trees down,” said Dr Suryo. “They never knew when the military might come and start shooting if they entered the forest.

“With democracy they reasoned that it the government could give big companies licences to plunder the timber, then it was now the turn of the little people to get their share of the wealth.”

(Dr Suryo’s fears appear to be well based; about 40 per cent of the exports through Surabaya’s container terminal are timber products, yet there are few forest replanting programs underway.)

Spin-offs to Dr Suryo’s unending campaign include a post-graduate program in environmental education at the Surabaya State University, which is said to be the first such course in Indonesia. Widespread land rehabilitation programs and the establishment of the national Environmental Educators’ Network are also among his credits.

When he’s fit enough he shows government officials, teachers and land developers how to preserve the environment, recycle rubbish and make compost fertiliser. Unlike many upper class Indonesians he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.

Yet despite the real successes Dr Suryo has been damaged, and not just by the physical pain. “It is difficult to persuade people that they can have a better quality of life through changing their traditional ways of doing things,” he said.

“There are new problems arising for Indonesia. Water quality has to be addressed. Apart from pollution we have rising salt levels in ground water. Then there’s the human factor which takes its toll. It’s not always easy for some people to overcome jealousy. But I still believe in education as the source for a better future.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 April 05)




The few Australians who venture east of Kuta and enter Wallacea – the Indonesian islands crunched between Kalimantan, New Guinea and Australia – often find the terrain curiously familiar.

The people, language, culture and lifestyle are all strikingly different but in many areas the landform, savannah and some of the wildlife are just like parts of Northern Australia.

Wallacea (named after the famous 19th century English naturalist Alfred Wallace) is hot and dry. Vegetation is often sparse; rivers which run in the wet season die in summer. Rainfall is shrinking. Fresh water is getting scarce.

The topography has been tortured by great upheavals in the past. The distinctive ochre hue that paints the arid landscape of the Great South Land - and thought by many to be unique to that continent – also tints this part of Nusa Tenggara.

For eco-tourists the centrepiece of this fascinating transition zone between Asia and Australia is the sea and land Komodo National Park, five main islands and a splash of islets between Flores and Sumbawa. The biggest is Komodo and its major attraction is the internationally famous ‘dragon’. (See sidebar).

Before the economic crisis, terrorist bombings and travel warnings scared away the tourists, Komodo National Park attracted 30,000 outsiders a year, mainly from North America and Europe. That number has now been cut by half.

The 1,817 square kilometre park was created in 1980. Despite its protected status the area and its wildlife are under constant threat from poachers, according to a new series of guidebooks published by The Nature Conservancy’s Indonesia Coastal and Marine Program. They’re titled A Natural History Guide to Komodo National Park.

Three volumes cover the land mass, the marine areas, and park management. Written in English and Indonesian, the pages enhanced by fine line drawings by Donald Bason, the books should satisfy the most curious of tourists and add significantly to the pleasure of any visit.

In the past factual information has been hard to assemble. It’s all there for anyone with a fast Internet connection or access to a good marine science library, but it’s all over the place.

In my experience the rangers on Komodo have been as dormant as the dragons when it comes to presenting facts. That’s understandable; it takes a real effort to keep smiling in the face of a barrage of questions from bule who have come half way round the world to see this marvel, and are not going to leave until they’ve sucked the sap out of the experience, whatever the heat.

Issues which fascinate the visitor may be ho-hum to the ranger who just hopes to find a placid reptile, make sure no-one goes home limbless, and then retreat to the shade of a lontar palm. Conservation, asset maintenance and promotion are awkward partners.

So this guide is not just useful – it’s indispensable reading before you brave the washing-machine turbulence between the islands and after you hopefully make it to land. (Hint: Wrap the books in plastic – getting saturated is just one of the lesser hazards of negotiating the park.)

More than welcome is the plain English text, particularly useful to those who don’t have the international language as their mother tongue. Too many science writers seem to believe their credibility depends on producing unintelligible polysyllable-choked sentences the length of a long yawn.

The author, US ‘seacologist’ Arnaz Mehta Erdmann, has chosen a question and answer format. In the hands of government publicists this style patronises and frequently frustrates; the queries authorities pose are not those you usually want to ask. But in this case the questions assume intelligence and the answers genuinely meet the need.

Volume Two records the park’s marine life. The pictures and descriptions should be enough to help check anything you’re likely to encounter among the 1,000 plus species of fish. If you want more help there’s a good bibliography. (The author is no amateur. With her husband, marine biologist Dr Mark Erdmann, she won international fame in the late 1990s for identifying the lobe-finned coelacanth, the so-called ‘fossil fish’, in North Sulawesi.)

More than 3,000 people live in the park. Most are the descendants of recent settlers. They make their living mainly by fishing for squid and shrimp, and from assisting the infrastructure of tourism, with the monster lizards being the box-office stars.

This industry is fragile; dragons have recently become extinct on Padar island. This happened after poachers killed off the Timor deer, the reptiles’ main food source.

The park’s 70 rangers have a tough job. They must persuade the poorly-educated locals (including 16,000 others from the islands of Flores and Sape who also fish the rich waters) that bombing and poisoning the reef may fill the scuppers today but will surely result in destruction of their livelihood as the coral dies. Firing the savannah may produce a venison steak barbecue, but regular burning and felling will change the habitat and destroy some of the 254 plant species.

If these go, so will many of the 277 animal species. Because most are dependant on each other for food, shelter, fertiliser and other essentials, upsetting the balance has some unpleasant effects. Extinction is forever.

The Komodo National Park is not just an extraordinary eco-system. It’s an international treasure which Indonesia has to husband on behalf of the world. That tricky task can be made easier if rich visitors wanting to gape, and poor locals struggling to survive can understand what’s happening and why they should care. These books explain all, succinctly and well.



Komodo lizards may well have been the source for the myth of Chinese dragons. Ancient seafarers heard stories of these weird monsters even if seldom encountered.

The first description was published following a 1910 Dutch expedition to the area which shot and skinned two beasts.

Komodo dragons (known locally as ora) are monitor lizards and the largest left on earth. This family has members weighing just 20 grams that you’d welcome in your garden, up to the Nusa Tenggara monsters. You’d never want to encounter these among the flower pots; they can check in up to 150 kilograms.

The carnivorous reptiles are sun worshippers; if they get too cold the meat in their gut starts to rot and that could be fatal. So all that lounging has purpose. No wonder they can live for up to 50 years.

In the past rangers would shoot a goat and bait the big beasts so tourists would get a guaranteed sighting. This policy has now been dropped because lazy lizards were becoming dependant on humans for their food.

Dragon-spotters now have to peer in the branches or creep close to their burrows. The stench of rotting flesh is usually a good guide to a dragon’s lair and a splendid reason to carry a telephoto lens. A nimble ranger with a stout stick to deter any grumpy old man dragon is essential. It also helps if you can sprint faster than 10 km an hour.

On Komodo island reptile viewing has become so organised that some Westerners prefer the more natural situation on Rinca. There are a few dragons left on the west coast of Flores. Aeons ago when the sea was much lower and they could swim short distances between islands the dragons had a much larger range; they may even have lived in Australia.

There are probably about 2,000 animals left in the wild. Numbers seem to be decreasing. Apart from pressures on their environment the creatures suffer an acute gender imbalance. For every female there are three males which must create a lot of domestic dragon dramas.

The females lay one clutch of about 18 eggs every year, then hang around for a while waiting for the hatchings nine months later. After that the little ones are on their own in the big cruel world.

Slow or trusting dragonettes are unlikely to be snapped by tourists. They’ll be snapped up by dad, uncle, elder brother, feral dogs or wild boars and never get a chance to feature in anyone’s photo album.

In the cauldron of Komodo animal kin ties count for naught and conservation is a luxury for the well-fed. The national park may be an international treasure but these hazard isles are no place for the sluggish creature or squeamish human. Nonetheless go soon; this place is special.

(Published in The Jakarta Post 7 June 05)



Indonesia ranks high on the International List of English Corrupters, even when it’s recognised that many forms of the world tongue are now considered legitimate variations.

Singlish, the singsong language of Singapore belongs to that rich island; linguists say it should no longer be measured against the round-vowel speech of Britain’s Home Counties any more than the drawl of the Southern States should be matched against the nasal twang of New South Wales.

India (Hinglish), Malaysia (Manglish), South Africa, Pakistan, the West Indies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – each former colony, dominion or whatever has broken away from the mother-tongue as much as it has from the motherland.

It’s not just the accent – each country has developed its own vocabulary and syntax.

Indonesia, which was only briefly ruled by Westminster, has found it difficult to easily embrace the international language. Dutch is no passport to anywhere but Clogland, and first President Sukarno wisely banned it from schools. Unfortunately he also briefly campaigned against English even though he was a polyglot.

So there’s some excuse for signs like KEEP YOUR POLITE (outside a Buddhist heritage site near Malang) and DON’T BE SLOPE TO CRATER (at a volcano). Anyway we get the message.

And we probably understand Juanda airport’s warning that “MANY BAGGAGE REAL LIKE” though maybe this is not the best way for an international gateway to present a professional image equal to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

President Susilo and many of his ministers speak excellent English so surely government tourist guides could do better than “The crater of Mt Bromo is largely open with belch of smoke especially from its bottom.” The right words are particularly important when it comes to history: “The incident made the Nederland angry until one of them Mr Pluegman died.”

Sensitive men (aren’t we all?) should beware the Surabaya City Council’s promotion of “the cut of the married couple.” This is “a ceremony to cut boy’s sex to make him grows old and to gives a sign that he has been grown up … The boy who has been feenger has his sex cut, then he was brought around the kampoeng by palanguin.”

Best not be a feenger, or if you are stay clear of the nation’s second biggest city.

The Hindu temple complex at Prambanan near Yogya is a world-class heritage site. It was “apprehensive condition when found” according to the official brochure which is pockmarked with errors. As entry to the site carries a $US10 fee for anyone with a white skin (Rp 7,000 if you look Asian) it seems reasonable to expect that they might get the English right.

The introduction of computer translation software has eliminated the need for copywriters to employ high-cost native speakers to check their language – and it shows:

“Sale location Atom Market is strategic enough, residing the north side entrance. There is about more than 20 merchant which in every day vend the typical home snack of the market. Saturday and Sunday are much waited day, because that day are the most crowded day so the way to get big profit, may simply be collapsible.

“Mostly they have tens of year elaborate typical home snacks. Like the confession of mBok Hajjah Mariyah which come from Madura sell the Mush of Madura and Kelanthing. With her congealed maduranis dialect, he says that, mush of Madura and kelanthing are processed and made by herself.

“The main ingredients are starch rice powder and sugar. By her arms skilled to blend that ingredients turn into typical food and very tease of our appetite.” (Hello Surabaya magazine)

The same journal tried its hand at promoting the Ampel Mosque: “Mosque which its tower boosting high. Is still stand sturdy? It amazed many people and wag tongue to marvel when staring at the tower and its stanchion. That it present a strong mystery to the world, that its buttonhole, can not be it means faded by the epoch.”

Even the top-of-the-pile ad agencies with major clients stuff up the language: “Start all over again today with new classy breed new breed what we wish for ..” If you can decode that then you’ll need a smoke and a good lie down.

Or maybe I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps the idea is to run a few words of English in an ad just to give the product prestige. Because so few people understand English mistakes will go unnoticed. What the words say is of no consequence, like the health warnings on cigarette packs that clearly deter no one.

I wouldn’t want readers to think this litany of complaints represents any sort of linguistic superiority. My Indonesian grammar is a dog’s breakfast. Among my many contributions to the mirthful lives of Indonesians is to confuse murah (cheap) with muda (young), ramah (friendly) with ramai (crowded) and rambut (hair) with rumput (grass). Any salon under my management would probably advertise ‘crowded young grasscuts’.

I have a substantial catalogue of gross mispronunciations but most involve confusion with words about behavior in bedroom and toilet. As this is a newspaper your children may pick up I won’t provide a list. It’s bad enough that adults corrupt both languages; let the kids find their own dirty words.

(Published in The Jakarta Post 14 May 05)




Transvestites, transsexuals and other gender-benders have long been part of Indonesia’s entertainment industry. Their ability to amuse and enchant often hides a great sadness. Duncan Graham meets one tough, clever woman in East Java:

If cruelty, rejection and hostility during childhood can determine attitudes in adult life then Lina Sutrisno has a thousand reasons to hate. Probably more.

That she shows no signs of bitterness is a tribute to her determination that nothing would halt her precious ambition: To be a woman.

For Ibu Lina was born Ano Liong Thay. A boy.

In his early school years in Malang little Ano found no pleasure in the company of knockabout boys. He had male genitalia, wore trousers and was considered by classmates and teachers to be male.

But he wanted dolls and dresses, mascara and nail polish – behavior that rapidly singled him out for derision. He didn’t realise it at the time but through some quirk of nature he was a transsexual

Ano’s parents, who ran a small general store in the Klontong market, were not sympathetic to their little lad’s situation. His mother was Christian and her son was sent to a Catholic school. And it was here that his position became most distressful when a priest and sisters rejected him as evil.

Unable to tolerate the sneers and derision from children who didn’t know better, and the adults who should have done, he fled school in second year high. He also made his first move to Islam, a religion he found more accepting and which she now embraces with grace.

After working in his parents’ shop Ano entered puberty and felt the overpowering pull of his feminine side. He grew small breasts but also facial hair. His male organs remained undeveloped but he shaved and wore women’s clothes.

His parents’ marriage broke up and he was truly alone. Aged 15 Ano changed his name to Lina, after a Roman royal called Queen Messalina, a character in a popular film of the time. It was a clear statement of independence; ‘he’ had become ‘she’. Two years later she got her KTP (identity card) with the classification ‘female.’

Lina moved to Jakarta and only there encountered people with wider knowledge and tolerance. A friend who had lived in Holland reported on European perspectives. Fortunately at that time some advances had been made overseas in the recognition and treatment of transsexuals, particularly by an American physician, Dr Harry Benjamin. She learned that surgery could help change her body and soothe her mind and spirit.

‘Surgery meant big money,’ Ibu Lina said in the beauty salon she now runs in her hometown. ‘I knew I had to strive hard to get those rupiah. I was on my own. So I learned make-up and hairdressing and became successful. I worked in Jakarta for seven years. Then I had to find a doctor who would do the operations.’

No easy task. President Suharto controlled the media and there were to be no detailed stories of sex changes littering the pages of the nation’s press. Strange things might happen in the decadent West, but Indonesians had to be protected from such information – even when needed for serious reasons by people who had been born incomplete and desperately needed to know the facts.

Slowly and by word of mouth Lina’s road led to the Surabaya surgery of Professor Dr Johansyah Marzuki. But before any operation could be undertaken Lina had to get supporting letters from specialists in a wide range of fields, from urology to psychiatry. And every one wanted a close look at her naked body, along with their fee. Once they’d peered and probed and satisfied their curiosity some then rejected her, applying personal moral strictures instead of professional counselling.

This gross embarrassment lasted for three years; it would have discouraged any lesser person. Lina wasn’t confronting some ordinary disease that could be revealed to arouse public sympathy. Instead she was facing a future of being physically incomplete and emotionally ambiguous; it was psychologically scarifying and extremely personal.

‘Everyone wants to be a woman or a man, not half and half,’ she said. ‘I had a problem and I knew I must be clever enough to get the money to solve the problem.

‘I remained determined. I didn’t care what people thought. I knew that I wanted to be a woman when I’m called to God.’

Through hormone treatment Lina grew a pair of most presentable breasts that gave her the courage to wear a bikini on the beach. But the hormones had unpleasant side effects. Eventually Ibu Lina had two operations – one to enhance her breasts, the other to remove the small male genitalia and shape it into a female form. That was in the early 1980s.

Then she started to lose body hair though the hormones had been discontinued. Now at 53 her skin is smooth and soft. She looks 13 years younger than her age, a tall and extremely feminine woman proud of her sexuality and her substantial achievements. And also with the courage and self-confidence to tell her story.

Through her long quest to consolidate her gender Ibu Lina learned much about human psychology and the powerful drive women have to retain their looks and battle ageing. Through her encounters with the medical profession she began to assist doctors working in cosmetic surgery and has built a good business specialising in the laser removal of hair, warts, birthmarks and wrinkles. Ironically her salon is only a few hundred metres from the parents’ old stall and where she endured so much public humiliation.

Ibu Lina has been married twice in a bid to fulfil her destiny as a woman but the unions were unsuccessful. She has an adopted daughter and has recently started turning her multiple talents to doll making and painting. Like many transsexuals she is highly creative. Along the way she’s built an impressive array of qualifications and skills that have customers from afar seeking her services.

She is also strongly supported by other women in business who understand how difficult it is to survive alone.

‘I know about discrimination. I can’t forget the cruelty – though I do get close to forgetting,’ Ibu Lina said. ‘ I hate cruelty. I only want love. Now I know we can finally only get true love from God. My childhood years were undoubtedly bad. However I knew what I wanted and I never cried. I was never angry with God.

‘Even now the position of women in Indonesia is not good. To succeed we must be very smart and intelligent. Where there is a will there has to be a way. I urge young people in whatever they are doing and however they have been made to value themselves above all.

‘Don’t worry about what others think – it’s not their business. No one asks to be born a transsexual – people should be more flexible in their outlook and thinking. Everyone is different. Keep an open mind. Who knows what handicap can visit you or your family? Respect difference.’


Although often incorrectly labelled waria (a combination word from wanita (woman) and pria (man)) transsexuals are not necessarily homosexuals.

Nor are they transvestites who are men with a phobia for cross-dressing. For true transsexuals the need to become totally male or female can be a life and death matter. Literally. Some researchers claim only 50 per cent survive beyond age 30; social oppression, personal shame and never-ending bigotry frequently lead to suicide.

Gender and sex are separate though often confused. In transsexuals the area of the brain that determines gender identity is in conflict with the reality of different sex organs.

Transsexuality is also known as gender dysphoria – mental trauma regarding gender. It can be experienced by people who are born either male or female. It is believed to be caused by hormone mix-ups that may be linked to the mother suffering stress at a critical time during pregnancy though the evidence is unclear. About one in 30,000 babies is born transsexual. The phenomenon also occurs in animals.

The condition should arouse compassion and understanding. In other cultures transsexuals are often revered and considered to have special mystical powers. But in the Indonesia of the 1960s positive attitudes towards the handicapped were rare. It was to take another 40 years before the nation had a near-blind man as head of State. Last century the different were to be persecuted, even by the church.

During the early days of Orde Baru there were no open bookshops full of modern texts on sexuality, no Internet to browse, no ‘Dear Doctor Love’ newspaper columns. Sex in its many manifestations was a taboo topic, particularly in regional towns.

Although society is now more open, in many communities people like Lina may still be subject to hostile stares and whispered comments – actions that can seriously damage the emotionally frail.

(Published in The Jakarta Post 14 May 05)



PARIS, SURABAYA Duncan Graham © 2005

It’s a concept that at first looks a little, well… to be polite, misplaced.

A French Springtime in Surabaya? Loving couples promenading down avenues of budding blossom flanked by the majestic reminders of the Napoleonic Era; the chill of winter banished by a shimmering sun rising over the City of Romance?

Come off it – this is the industrial hub of East Java, the rumbling, gear-grinding, smoking second city of Indonesia, the megalopolis of Mammon. The sun is seldom seen through the covering cloud. Spring? The city is either damp or dry, forever hot, never dormant.

But none of this dissuades Herve Mascarau, the new director of the French Cultural Centre, for one moment. That might suggest the man is a fresh-faced newcomer to the archipelago and like the old Dutch colonialists determined to stamp the ethos of Europe on the tropics, whatever the cost.

But M Mascarau is not wet behind the ears. He knows Indonesia (see sidebar) and is well aware of the differences between his homeland and his posting. One may be the centre of culture the other the crucible of commerce, but in his view that’s no reason why the two can’t cohabit.

This week (w/starting Sunday 24 April) M Mascarau announced the French Spring Festival of Surabaya, a celebration of music, dance, cinema and the visual arts spread over two months and climaxing with a gala dinner to celebrate the French National Day.

Officially this falls on 14 July as every student of revolutions knows. But that’s midweek, not a good day out for the industrious folk of Surabaya. So the event has been shunted back to 9 July, which proves that although often tagged as inflexible at home the French are forever pragmatic abroad.

“For many years French cultural centres in Asia have been running festivals known as ‘French Spring in Asia’ offering a strong contemporary image of the artistic creativity of France,” Mr Mascarau said.

“Now we’re including Surabaya in the circuit which has previously involved Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.

“It means that costs can be shared and high class artists invited.”

They include the dance program Giap Than by Regine Chopinot, a show that “approaches with grace the freedoms and constraints which develop in the relations of seduction.” This was originally created for last year’s Festival of Hue in Vietnam.

The Franco-German jazz quartet Watson-Lauer will perform on May 11 and three days later the multi-talented Sergent Garcia will entertain crowds with its eclectic repertoire from Rock to Reggae.

Crowds? That’s certain because these performances will not be restricted to exclusive venues. Surabaya lacks a concert hall so many shows will be staged at places like Balai Pemuda a popular central city forecourt and small hall, making shows accessible to most.

Other events - like an exhibition of drawings called Women of Indonesia by Morocco artist Titouan Lamazou -will be shown at the French Cultural Centre, a magnificent 90-year-old mansion built for a Chinese sugar baron and splendidly preserved.

This will also be the venue for The World of the Orchid exhibition, a celebration of a flower that many Europeans see as the symbol of Indonesian exoticism. The films will be shown in mainstream cinemas in Surabaya and Malang.

“I want to work with local festivals and local people,” said M Mascarau. “I’ve met the governor and the mayor and successfully sought their cooperation. This means many resources can be shared.”

The French Cultural Centre (known locally as CCCL – Centre Culturel et de Cooperation Linguistique de Surabaya) opened in 1967. It has become the lively heart of European culture in East Java. But this is not an ex-pats hideaway; most participants are Indonesian.

The British Council has closed and the Australians have no official presence, despite being the country next door. The Germans’ Goethe Institute is a shadow. The once mighty Dutch are best represented by a small library run by volunteers and the Americans are behind bars. Literally, for their consulate is a fearsome fortress and the location of choice for many demonstrations.

By contrast CCCL is well-advertised and wide open. Despite its grand past, formidable title and splendid ambience, the place is accessible to all. The French may think themselves superior in Europe but they certainly don’t in Surabaya.

No guards tickle your car’s underbelly with mirrors as you drive into the forecourt; no closed circuit cameras monitor your movements. Over-zealous satpam won’t demand your credentials, even if you look like a Jakarta poet.

The library has almost 5,000 books and is one of the best in Surabaya. A little café overlooks lush lawns where open-air events are held in the dry season. French television TV5brings the latest Gallic spin on events, or you can watch DVDs on a big screen.

It’s this welcoming atmosphere which may well be responsible for the centre’s popular French classes. Last year more than 2,000 studied the language despite the French having no historical or cultural links with Indonesia.

“We have 153 cultural centres around the world and four in Java – Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and Yogya,” said M Mascarau. “In France culture is a national concern and is given significant government support. We are very proud of our language and art and we believe this can be the foundation for international friendship.

“Of course trade may follow, but unlike many other foreign missions this is not our prime concern.”


Herve Mascarau’s first job after graduation from the University of Nice was in Yogyakarta where he taught French at the Gajah Mada University. That was in 1975 when the Central Java city had only a handful of people proficient in any European language other than Dutch.

M Mascarau was 25 and ready for national service once he’d graduated after studying Latin and Greek. However the French government allowed potential conscripts to serve their time as volunteers in non-military postings abroad.

So with his wife Christine – also a teacher – the couple set about learning Indonesian language and culture with serious intent.

“It had to be,” he said, “otherwise we would not have survived. We were pushed into the deep end. Whatever we wanted had to be asked in Indonesian. Very few spoke French.”

When his national service obligations ended M Mascarau was offered a substantial job with the French Government. The couple stayed for six years in Yogya before being posted to Morocco. Their careers then took them to Singapore, Morocco again, Paris, New York, Holland, Paris again and now Surabaya with a four-year contract.

Mme Mascarau is establishing a postgraduate program in French in Bandung which she visits regularly from Surabaya. The couple live in a snug cottage at the rear of CCCL where M Mascarau is also the French Consul.

There are only around 30 French nationals in East Java registered with the Consulate. However big French businesses like the Carrefour shopping centres and the Accor hotel group (which is expanding in Surabaya) are well-represented and regular supporters of CCCL’s activities.

“I love this country, the people are really delightful,” M Mascarau said. “The culture here is so rich and diverse it would take three lifetimes to understand and appreciate the complexities.

“I spent the first few months back here just observing and listening, getting the flavor of East Java.

“People often say Indonesian is easy. That’s wrong – there are no easy languages. All have their subtleties and different thought processes. To really speak a foreign tongue properly requires enormous effort and understanding.”

So why bother to learn French? It may be fine as a language for loving but is hardly the tongue of trade.

“If you want to buy something in the world, then of course you need English,” said M Mascarau somewhat sardonically. “But if you want to sell then you need to know French. Who wants to spend all their time speaking English and eating McDonalds? In 53 countries in the world French is the official language. It is, of course, the language of taste.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 April 05)


DOING GOOD IN PARADISE © Duncan Graham 2005

The 26 December tsunami brought a huge wave of international aid to Aceh. But many humanitarian projects in Indonesia aren’t triggered by major disasters. Duncan Graham reports:

After American midwife Robin Lim finished breakfast she strolled down to the Ubud clinic in the Bali hills to check on the mums-to-be. But squatting patiently on the verandah, his forehead corrugated with pain was a stranger and clearly not an inquiring dad.

Many days earlier Made Sujana had tumbled out of a coconut tree and gashed his wrist badly. He said he’d been to hospital and received seven stitches. The wound had got steadily worse. He’d been back five times, then run out of money. Someone told him about the Ubud clinic. Ms Lim inspected the raw suppurating tear exposing white tendons below a puffy red arm, then phoned her nearby Australian friend John Fawcett.

Did he know a surgeon who might be able to speedily clean and stitch the wound for free? Did he have enough antibiotics? She feared gangrene had already started and death or amputation could follow. In a country without a national health scheme, welfare benefits or workers’ compensation a one-armed stonemason would be doomed to penury.

The former Perth academic did have such a contact and the drugs; 30 minutes later Pak Made was in a ute heading for hospital.

Finding help for a 50-year old artisan was clearly not in Ms Lim’s brief. The mother of seven is a volunteer at a birthing centre called Bumi Sehat (Healthy Mother Earth). Although Indonesian politicians push the ‘developing nation’ tag, their nation is resource rich; it also has public and private hospitals, an extensive network of clinics and millions of mega-rich entrepreneurs, many of whom pay little or no tax. (The Australian Government agency AusAID reported that just three million Indonesians are registered taxpayers in a workforce of 98 million, and only half a million submit assessable accounts.)

As a foreigner with a fragile and restricted work permit Ms Lim could have shooed the man away, told him to present himself to the local medical services. ‘But that’s the reason his wound got infected,’ said Ms Lim. ‘He knows the clinic can help, even though that’s not our job.’

Like Ms Lim, John Fawcett, 72, a former potter and lecturer in Australia who had a mid-life crisis following a medical catastrophe, is an unpaid self-appointed health fix-it in a foreign country. After losing job, marriage and health he went to Bali to recuperate. There he chanced upon extensive cataract blindness – a condition seldom seen in Australia - and set out to change the situation.

Cynics observe there’s no place left for people like Mr Fawcett in his homeland. Australian retirees are the refuse of First World efficiency. They’re supposed to quietly putt and sail their way into an anonymous sunset, maybe stand for some committee if they have the ego for politics and like addressing envelopes rather than issues. It’s the government’s job to address serious social problems, not old folk with time on their hands and no appropriate modern qualifications. Australia’s loss – neighbor’s gain.

But in Indonesia these do-gooders are big fish in a tiny pond. Mr Fawcett has transmogrified into ‘Dr John’ despite having no medical qualifications. He’s a modest man and doesn’t like the adulation; it’s the penalty for being a famous and revered active bule (foreign) philanthropist whose achievements are formidable. He and others have chosen to help the poor of Indonesia, though that nation hasn’t asked for their assistance and in many cases resents their interference.

The John Fawcett Foundation, using money from the Rotary Club, the Australian government and many companies, associations and individuals, has established mobile eye clinics and a hospital where thousands of free cataract operations have been performed. That’s won Mr Fawcett and his friends awards and plaudits in Australia and elsewhere, but he’s not a hero with some local ophthalmologists.

‘Of course some say we’re taking rice from the mouths of professional Indonesians who rely on medical intervention to increase their earnings,’ said Ms Lim. ‘ Donor-supported Bumi Sehat advocates pre-natal care and peaceful natural childbirth. We practise minimal intervention unless there’s something seriously wrong. All our mothers breastfeed. Bali has a very high rate of Caesareans and each operation improves a doctor’s income.’ (The maternal mortality rate in Indonesia is 373 per 100,000 live births, the highest in the region. But in Bali the rate is almost double, usually from haemorrhaging, and probably because of extensive malnutrition.)

(The counter-argument is that the people being helped by bule are the authenticated poor who could never afford a surgeon’s services, so the professionals aren’t losing a single rupiah.)

There’s an extensive network of ex-patriots in Bali and to a lesser extent on other islands who regularly rally to a deserving cause. They are often backed by tourists astonished and dismayed by the poverty beyond the bars and boutiques. In late 2004 fame struck a four-year old Lombok boy with advanced and untreated encephalitis which caused his elephantine head to distort, popping his eyes. After successful operations funded by Australian and European donors and organised by a group called One Garden Foundation, a more normal little Ahda was pictured at a Bali hospital surrounded by his grateful Islamic family.

The awkward and whispered question remains: Why didn’t Muslims raise the cash to pay for the boy’s surgery? And where were the local doctors ready to do the odd pro bono job? Indonesia is famous for the principle of gotong royong, or community self help where all in the village assist the unfortunate – but in this and many other cases it’s the ex-pats who do the job. Indonesians have their own acronym for blow-hard politicians and administrators who promise to deliver – NATO (No Action, Talk Only.) It’s seldom applied to bule.

‘I’m not religious, but our Christian culture seems to promote compassion, while other faiths believe a person’s handicap or accident has been pre-ordained by an omniscient and vengeful deity so intervention is useless,’ said Mr Fawcett. ‘Errors in a previous life or recent sins rather than malnutrition, genetic defects and disease are accepted as valid reasons.’

To counter such fatalism he argues that the sufferer’s encounter with the foundation and the opportunity for a cure must also have been part of God’s master plan. And if the cause of the illness or handicap was diagnosed as black magic, the cure must be white magic in the shape of inter-ocular lenses, drugs and plastic surgery.

‘Most Indonesians cannot understand what motivates foreigners to come here and volunteer,’ he said. ‘When we explain that our services (which have now extended into cleft palate surgery and tuberculosis detection) are free, they respond with surprise and disbelief. In this country everything has a price ticket. If you’re too poor then you just have to tolerate the disabilities and die prematurely.’

Charitable work inevitably exposes gross deficiencies in the Indonesian health system. White skinned critics are as unwelcome in Indonesian government offices as foreign loudmouths are in Australian agencies. ‘If you don’t like it here, butt out,’ is a national mantra on both sides of the Arafura Sea.

Australians are especially vulnerable to such attacks; senior Indonesian administrators and politicians know well their affluent neighbor’s Achilles’ Heel: ‘Why don’t you go home and sort out your own Aboriginal problems?’

The difference is that indigenous health is being tackled by the Federal and State governments, albeit inadequately. So Bali provides a convenient outlet for under-employed Australian and other civic-minded foreigners. Americans seem to be driven by anger at their government’s foreign policies so seek to make amends in some small way; others are drop-outs from a materialistic culture. Some are driven by gratitude or guilt because Bali has given them profitable businesses and rich experiences.

Then there’s the environment. Bali isn’t a hardship posting, a desert strewn with landmines. It’s accessible, beautiful and the Hindu religion is benign. You can slurp through a dish of dew-fresh mangoes amongst the bougainvilleas, then work in a stricken village, the scene softened by tropical green and lush landscapes. Later back to the pool for sundowners. It helps offset the frustrations in dealing with an alien culture and an often obtuse bureaucracy.

An exception to this pattern was the huge and spontaneous help expats gave to victims of the 2002 Kuta bomb; the John Fawcett Foundation alone flew 48 Balinese to Australia for treatment. Others toiled in the gore and grief to the point of collapse, offering aid and comfort.

The unmet needs are genuine, great and not confined to Bali. Adjacent Muslim Java, the source of the fundamentalist bombers, is not such an attractive location for donors, though poverty and inequality are widespread, the health and social problems huge. Mr Fawcett and others are slowly trying to push their yayasan into Java and other islands, but the going is tough.

Many reason that if Westerners are offering assistance there has to be a catch. Either they are attracting overseas cash and stealing a percentage, or they are spies for John Howard and George Bush, or subversives planning dismemberment of the Unitary State. If such motives are proved hollow, then the bule must be out to ‘Christianise’ the locals.

This slur gained substance when a US Christian group planned to take 300 tsunami orphans. Aceh is staunchly Moslem. The idea was scrapped in the face of a hostile media and political response.

Missionaries are tightly controlled in Indonesia but it’s clear a few US English teachers have another agenda. Mr Fawcett has been forced to add a new clause to his foundation’s mission statement to head off the suspicions: ‘ … to operate without alignment to any governmental, institutional, political or religious organisation.’

US nationals Jenny and Maria O’Donnell who recruit specialist volunteers to work in village schools screen for proselytisers. Their Volunteers and Interns for Balinese Education (VIBE) foundation stresses its independence and makes foreigners pledge no interference.

‘In a country as religious as Indonesia most people can’t understand how humanitarian aid can be divorced from faith,’ said Mr Fawcett. ‘The idea of humanists having values with no strings attached is hard to grasp.’
Prior to spending her holiday helping at Bumi Sehat Australian veteran midwife Shirley Tidy encountered a doomsayer among her colleagues. The woman told her: ‘You can’t change the world.’ Ms Tidy reported that all nurses on duty responded: ‘But you can give it a go!’

It’s not just health problems which get the golden bule touch; in Bali there are projects to help kids go to school, employ the handicapped, recycle waste, open libraries, clean up the environment, develop organic farms, offer micro-credit, train teachers, empower women, combat AIDS … who needs government?

Ms Lim (a lapsed Catholic) and her Indonesian colleagues have been winning the thanks of locals for their selfless service for years. But she’s sufficiently long-toothed to know the malicious eye such successes with envy. As in the West, jealous opportunists are poised to invoke xenophobia, oust the intruders, then plunder their resources and cash streams. Cultural and political sensitivity plus a deft tongue are other necessary qualifications for bule in Indonesia.

In Indonesian law yayasan (charitable foundations) must have local directors and not all are altruists sharing the foreigners’ values. Board coups and rip-offs by staff are an occasional occupational hazard. And as long as foreigners are prepared to dig deep in their pockets, the pressure on Indonesian politicians to collect taxes, cut funding on grandiose projects and boost education and health budgets is lessened.

Can bule-backed yayasan survive the inevitable retreat when the foreigners remember aged parents back home and hunt out the return tickets? Ms Lim is optimistic: ‘The tremendous efforts Indonesia has made in education have started to pay off. The new generation won’t abide corruption and is supporting projects which can provide future stability. These are baby steps. There are growing pains for sure, but we’re heading for a more humanistic future.’

Sometimes the best intentions turn bad. Mr Fawcett has suffered the trauma of persuading a family to let their daughter have a cleft palate operation; the girl died during post-operative care throwing the Australian into another bout of soul-searching. And there’s a five per cent failure rate for cataract surgery. Those who stay blind are not a good advertisement for trying the bule cure instead of praying or making offerings. Fortunately for philanthropists (and slipshod doctors) Indonesia is not yet litigation crazy; the medically damaged tend to forgive rather than blame.

‘There’s the proverb of the monkey doctor who helped a sick fish,’ said Ms Lim. ‘He took it to his surgery in the tree and told the fish he was now safe. We do our best but can’t always anticipate the consequences.

‘When you encounter terrible things and you know you have the ability, knowledge, resources and education required to help – and no-one else is prepared to do so - then you have to do what you can. You just can’t walk away. Somehow you have to make a difference. What happens later is another matter.’

(Donations to the John Fawcett Foundation are tax deductible. Click for details. To help Bumi Sehat and other yayasan check and )



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Thursday, July 21, 2005


A FATE WORSE THAN TRETES © Duncan Graham 2005

Eco-tourism is big business in Europe, Australia and the US. Indonesia is a late starter but wants to catch up; Duncan Graham reports from the slopes of Mount Penanggungan:

At the heart of plans to encourage nature tourism in East Java is this question: Can the virginity of the pretty little hill town of Trawas be saved from the sad fate of its raped neighbor Tretes?

Tretes, a one-hour drive southeast from the East Java capital, was once a charming upmarket weekend getaway for harassed Surabayans. Now it’s so full of villas many vistas have vanished. The tiny wending streets are choked with traffic and pollution. Prostitutes wander the streets in daytime.

Property developer Adelie thinks there’s hope for Trawas – provided he can get a little environmental advice from Indonesia’s Mr Green, Suryo Prawiroatmodjo, who shares his passion for preservation.

It’s an odd couple; corporate tsar and grass-roots activist. But both are educators and nature enthusiasts. Adelie is president director of PT Grand Interwisata that owns and runs city serviced apartments and hotels, including the spectacularly located Grand Trawas.

Suryo began his career as a Surabaya Zoo vet. Later he worked for Yayasan Indonesia Hijau (Green Indonesia Foundation) in Jakarta, went to the US and then started Environmental Education Centres around the country with the help of international green groups.

With a knock-out view of Mount Penanggungan, the sacred mountain of the 14th Century Majapahit kingdom, the Grand Trawas seems to have it all: Cool climate, views to distract even on a honeymoon, and peace – though the birdsong can be little unnerving if you mistake it for HP ring tones.

But like all good businessmen Adelie wants more – in this case more appreciation of the glories of the environment surrounding his company’s hotel. And these are spectacular indeed, from cascading rice fields to puffing volcanoes and pristine tropical forests – rare in East Java where the axe and chainsaw have ruled long and hard.

So the two men are planning a series of educational walk trails around Trawas. They hope that if managed correctly foreigners will stop off to try a bit of eco-tourism on their way to and from Yogya and Bali, for Trawas is about midway between the two top tourist spots.

It’s happened in the past. Before the Jakarta riots of 1998, the Bali bomb of 2002 and the deterrent of relentless government travel warnings Europeans loved the place for its serenity and difference. Most were young backpackers who stayed with villagers and explored the land themselves. Their impact was minimal and presence benign. No Coke machines and golden arches followed and the locals overcame their natural suspicion of blondes in shorts.

Now the idea is to introduce eco-tourism for all, whatever their age. This means the trails have to be safe, well marked and accessible. At the moment they’re fine for those with the ability to dance across mud-smeared boulders (watch out for the dangling vines) and dart up vertical slopes wrapped in mist. However but not everyone is so nimble and fearless.

There’s much to do. But Adelie, a quietly spoken and cultured man, thinks it’s all achievable with the cooperation of local authorities.

‘We’re not looking for them to make financial contributions, but we do want the people to appreciate that nature trails are major attractions in other parts of the world and create employment,’ he said. It was difficult to hear his voice in the rain forest above the roar of ten thousand wings as he was sitting under a yellow butterfly flight path. They were being lured by treetop blossom, white as snow.

‘We’ll be seeking sponsorship from major companies who are also keen on preserving the East Java environment,’ he said. ‘So far tourism promotion has concentrated on Mt Bromo but the Province has so much more. It has to be done carefully. Tourism mishandled can also pollute and corrupt.’

To achieve that worthy aim is going to require some nifty social engineering. During one planning trip visitors were admiring the view across shimmering irrigated terrace that Suryo hopes will become the centrepiece of a rice education tour. To the onlookers’ dismay children from a nearby primary school and under orders from a teacher cheerfully emptied their classroom’s rubbish bin straight into an adjacent stream.

‘If it was organic waste it wouldn’t matter, but most is black plastic and styrofoam which doesn’t break down,’ Suryo moaned as the noxious black bags bobbed away. ‘People can change their habits but they must understand why.

‘I’ve escorted enough bule on tours to know what they want, and that means a clean and unspoilt environment. And of course that’s also essential for everyone’s health.’

So how did Trawas get to escape the machete and firestick? Some slopes are just too acute to farm, while valleys have a spooky reputation. Many villagers are followers of Kebatinan, the original religion of Java, and they respect the spirits who lurk in the dense, dark undergrowth. To disturb such ancient places may bring awful misfortune – as indeed it has; last year almost 50 were killed just a few kilometres away after heavy rain caused landslips on newly cleared land.

So in Trawas you can still get up-close and personal to towering, straight-backed giants, touch the much-torn trunk of the pule tree whose bark is used as a malaria medicine and wonder at a banyan which may have been a seedling when Raffles ruled Java. Now the great trunk has rotted away; it stands supported only by its aerial roots.

On one hillside a giant weather-damaged Buddha Akshobya, maybe 700 years old and only recently discovered, surveys his luscious landscape. Is this the mysterious statue which was said to have been struck by lightning in 1331 and then vanished? Certainly this is Java Wild as it used to be – before the Dutch brought the tools and botany of Europe to assault this lovely land then plant it with alien seeds.

A small eagle glides above the treetops; swallows dart among the mayflies, shiny-carapace beetles, half the size of a golf-ball, plop onto palm leaves. Across the valley is a vertical curtain of multiple greens. In the distance a horizontal carpet of incandescence; Joseph would have envied such a coat.

Said Adelie: ‘The air is clean, the water sweet; agriculture is still practised here much as it was when wet-rice growing techniques were imported from Vietnam 3,000 years ago. We have culture, history and beauty, much of it untouched by modernity. And it’s all accessible.

‘Yet we have to be realistic; it will take time before the bule return. In the meantime we must bring schoolchildren here so they can appreciate their heritage and understand the issues of good planning and preservation for the future enjoyment of all.’

(Published in Jakarta Kini, July 05)




A famous French TV journalist has launched Indonesian wooden boat-building skills into Europe with the commissioning of a 16.5 metre sailing craft based on a traditional archipelago design.

The keel of the unnamed 12-tonne boat coded K111 has been laid in the Mitra PAL shipyards in Tanjung Perak, Surabaya. The boat is expected to be ready for delivery early next year.

It will cost Paris-based reporter Gregoire Deniau about 100,000 Euros (Rp 1,220 million) and will be used on the Red Sea, mainly as a pleasure craft. The shipbuilders hope that the high profile of K111’s new owner will help promote the Surabaya shipyards overseas.

K111’s designer, marine architect Michael Johnson, said it would cost four to five times that amount to construct the boat in Europe though getting the timber outside Indonesia might prove impossible.

Commercial wooden boat building skills are now rare in Europe and North America as aluminium and fibreglass are widely used.

Although Indonesians seldom follow the Western system of naming boat types, this two or three-sail style of craft is generally known in Sulawesi as bago lambo, a general purpose fishing vessel using wind and diesel power.

It is being built of seasoned merbau timber from West Irian. The design is based on the traditional flat Indonesian pajala keel with a draft of 1.1 metres. This allows shallow in-shore operations. Lateral rudders provide stability. Maximum speed is expected to be nine knots.

The boat builders are handpicked shipwrights from Central Sulawesi who have worked on other projects with Mr Johnson in Surabaya. They use electrical drills and saws along with ancient hand tools like adzes.

Although the K111 design is based on traditional ideas, modern technology is also employed. To overcome the difficulty of obtaining naturally curved wood for the keel boomerang shapes are created by laminating selected planks.

Last year two wooden fisheries training vessels designed by Mr Johnson were built in Surabaya for the Bupati of Jembrana in Bali. After the tsunami hit Aceh 20 canoes were built for local fishermen to use inshore. These are now being assembled in Aceh by students from the Centre for Marine Studies at the Institute Technology Sepuluh Nopember Surabaya (ITS).

Almost Rp 2 billion to build the canoes was donated by Pt Terminal Petikemas Surabaya (TPS) the Indonesian-Australian company that runs Surabaya’s sea container terminal.

ITS Marine Studies director Dr Daniel Rosyid said the wooden boat project fulfilled a dream he’d held since 2002. In that year ITS sent 20 students and a 12 metre sailing boat they’d built to an international competition in the US.

The boat, a replica of craft used during the Napoleonic Era in France, was judged the most beautiful entry.

“At that time I envisaged a situation where Indonesian wooden boat-building skills might be commercially recognised in the West and now that’s happened,” Dr Daniel said. “I believe this project will help improve our international relationships. We need to build new friendships that have been so sadly damaged since the so-called War on Terror began.

“Here we have an Englishman working with Indonesians to build a boat for a Frenchman to be used in the Middle East.”

Mr Deniau’s discovery of ITS skills came about by chance. Two years ago he was in East Java on an unsuccessful attempt to interview the US consul about the invasion of Iraq. While in Surabaya he met the then French consul Olivier Debray who invited him to lunch.

Also at the table was Mr Johnson, an Englishman who normally lives in France but who was then working as a consultant marine architect to ITS. The conversation moved away from war zones, into boat building and eventually a firm contract.

Mr Deniau, an award-winning journalist who specialises in reporting from war zones, was not at the keel laying selamatan (blessing ceremony) because he was shooting a program in Somalia.

(Published in The Jakarta Post 2 July 2005)



Despite its Gallic origins the idea wasn’t so much risqué as risky.

Many Indonesians consider their national anthem a sacred song. Like the flag it must be treated with proper solemnity; to tamper can be sacrilege, particularly when the change agent is a foreigner.

So it was with some trepidation that the VIP audience in the magnificent garden of Surabaya’s French consulate last weekend (9 July) heard pianist Patrick Zygmanowski announce the Trio Innova’s new composition – a mix of the benign Indonesia Raya and the bellicose Marseillaise.

‘We’re playing it to bring the two countries closer together,’ he said, and if applause is any guide the anthem gado-gado was a great success. This was probably because the wordless blend was delivered with respect – and joyful verve.

The occasion was the early celebration of the French National Day, which in Surabaya is traditionally held on the Saturday preceding 14 July. This allows French artists to perform in Jakarta at their embassy on the correct date and gives Surabayans the rare chance to get first bite at the cherry.

The innovative Mr Zygmanowski (his ancestors were from Poland, the home of the composer Chopin) is a fine ambassador for French culture. That’s because he seems to genuinely like Indonesia, a country he visits regularly.

‘Despite the very different cultural traditions there really is a public here for European and classical music, though that’s not well understood in Europe,’ he told The Jakarta Post.

‘I like to play here. There is something special about this country. People like the French touch. The public is so kind despite a tendency to take handphone calls while we’re playing! Music is a language you don’t need to learn to understand.

‘I love Asia and spend six months of every year in Japan, a country whose culture and people are surprisingly close to Indonesia. Music is universal. It needs to be played everywhere.’

And Mr Zygmanowski, 35, is certainly doing his bit. His Japanese wife Tamayo Ikeda is also a concert pianist. They met in Paris as teenage music students and have been together since 1992. Though currently pregnant with the couple’s second son Ms Ikeda normally tours the world with her husband as the Fine Arts of Four Hands.

Their repertoire includes works from Ravel and Stravinsky who both wrote music for two pianists at the same keyboard. As a married couple playing together they are a genuine rarity because such intense artistic collaboration can put strains on the best of relationships.

Although specialising in the European masters Mr Zygmanowski also plays the esoteric avant-garde music of veteran Indonesian composer and performer Slamet Abdul Sjukur. (A profile was published in The Jakarta Post in May to mark his 70th birthday.)

Because she is soon to give birth Ms Ikeda is not on this trip to Indonesia and Timor Leste. Instead her husband is performing as Trio Innova with two friends: David Zambon who plays the tuba, and Jean-Marc Fabiano who is a whiz with the piano accordion.

This much maligned ‘squeeze box’, normally associated with Middle European rustics reminiscing around a campfire, has been accepted as an instrument with a place on the concert platform only during the past century. Traditionally it’s self-taught.

Consequently there are few top flight players and only a handful of students in the conservatoires of Europe. Mr Zygmanowski heard the accordion – a portable instrument of bellows, keyboard, buttons and reeds - as a child. The sound stayed imprisoned in his memory and was not released again till he met Mr Fabiano by chance in 1999.

They played together but realised a bass was required. Enter tuba player David Zambon who handles the elephantine and seemingly cumbersome brass instrument with the dexterity of a flautist. ‘He produces an incredible sound and is a real prodigy,’ said Mr Zygmanowski who is no mean slouch at the ivories; he started learning aged six and gave his first recital as an 11-year old.

Prior to last Saturday’s performance some in the Surabaya audience doubted that the trio’s music could be well received. The lush gardens provided a marvellous setting but the air was damp. Unseasonable rain threatened, sucking the notes into the low black clouds scudding over the tricolour-decked trees. The romantic notion of a concert under the stars seemed a fantasy in industrial Surabaya.

‘The consulate’s Steinway is the finest in Indonesia,’ said an unperturbed Mr Zygmanowski who also claims the East Java capital has the nation’s best music schools. ‘We weren’t bothered by the environment or the acoustics and the audience responded with enthusiasm.

‘We have teaching and performing commitments till August 2006. These include a return to Indonesia in December with my wife. Later we will play in New York at the Carnegie Hall.

‘To be a musician on the world circuit is to be extremely fortunate. It is also very difficult. Unlike concert singers we don’t get a lot of money and we can’t afford a big house and car.

‘But it’s a peaceful life. You can be free to make music and touch everyone. You can meet so many people. I hope our children will become musicians.’

(Pubished in The Jakarta Post 16 July 05)