A STIFF UPPER LIP IN SURABAYA © Duncan Graham 2005
When young English teacher Alex Gough arrived in Surabaya about 12 years ago there was a small but active British community functioning in the East Java capital.
There was also a British Consul backed by a system of “wardens”. Their job was to maintain contact with expats and pass around information. There was also a branch of the British Council promoting arts, culture and education.
“I can remember gathering around the pool at the Consul’s house with other British expats and drinking gin and tonics,” said Gough. “This was during the 90s when the political and economic situation was unstable.
“To my surprise we were told very clearly that we were on our own and there was no way the British Government was going to repatriate us if things got nasty.
“At the time the Americans were organising muster stations for their citizens and the Koreans had pick-up points. We just had to keep a stiff upper lip. That’s how it felt, like something out of Our Man in Havana.” (The famous Graham Greene novel).
Now there is no honorary British Consul in Surabaya, a job that traditionally fell to the manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corporation, but later passed to industrialists who worked far out of the city. The wardens have also vanished, more victims of Internet communication.
And last year the British Council closed its beautifully refurbished study centre in central Surabaya. This was a marvellous place for locals and expats to read English literature, watch British videos and discuss international affairs over a cup of Javanese coffee.
Many of the Council’s resources have been passed on to the Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS) in Surabaya. It’s a fitting location. (See sidebar).
And Gough, the one-time footloose English hitchhiking backpacker from Kent who fell in love with Indonesia and an Indonesian, is now well established. Through durability and status he’s become the de-facto head of the tiny British community in Indonesia’s second biggest city.
It’s not a position he’s sought or promotes, and thinks the idea a hoot, particularly as his first arrival in Indonesia was with turtle smugglers plying the Malacca Straits. At the time his knowledge of the archipelago was of “a few blobs in lots of water.”
Now he speaks fluent Indonesian, wears a tie and manages a prestigious English language college with about 400 students and a reputation for excellence.
There’s been no conscious plan to Anglicise the place, but half Gough’s expat staff at the Indonesia Australia Language Foundation (IALF) are British. Ironically this makes the Australian institution probably the largest employer of Britons in Surabaya.
Where are the Aussies? Some are out in the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) helping local English teachers improve their skills (see The Jakarta Post 7 September 2005). But persistent travel warnings and a bad press have made many Australians reluctant to travel west of Bali.
Another factor is the low wages offered to Australian teachers who can earn much more in Korea and Japan and where visa restrictions and tax imposts are reported to be less onerous. For British teachers seeking overseas experience Indonesia is not a worrisome neighbor but a distant and exotic location.
Warnings against foreigners gathering in places like up-market hotels where they may present fundamentalists with an easy target, have also served to keep expats at home. Even in the well-known Jatim Club in the Kamar Dagang dan Industri (KADIN – Indonesian Chamber of Commerce) building, a cheery spot where business folk quaff lager longer, the English is more Rhine than Thames.
The Expat Women’s Association of Surabaya has only about five Britons in a total membership of around 100.
“The situation is different in Jakarta where the British have a substantial presence but in East Java we are now such a small group of teachers and technical advisers that we can’t maintain a separate identity,” Gough said.
“That’s not a problem for me. My wife Dinda is Javanese and I’ve become a Muslim. We live in the community. But our two-year old daughter Olive is British and like me can only stay here on a visa.”
It’s these sorts of citizenship difficulties that often confound expats in Indonesia who form relationships and have children. For these people consular offices have traditionally provided information and sometimes assistance. That’s when they’re not promoting trade opportunities or encouraging tourists.
France, Germany, the US, the Netherlands, India, Sweden, Japan, Sri Lanka, Belgium and Denmark all have consular or honorary consular services in Surabaya.
The centralisation of services and the expanding use of the Internet have weakened the demand for a local presence, but Indonesian culture prefers face-to-face contacts, particularly in business.
“It’s a shame to see the British Council break up in Surabaya,” said Gough. “There’s a great need for cultural events to promote our way of life and that’s not happening. The cross-cultural component of education is extremely important, and we teach this at the IALF.
“Surabaya gets a hammering in the guide books and Westerners tend to roll their eyes when they hear East Java, but I find living here is great. Sure there’s some pollution but this is nothing compared to some industrial cities in China.
“The British should be far more active here. If you come here with the right attitude it’s an awesome experience - and I don’t mean that in the American sense of the word. This is a wonderful country – it’s so many countries within a country.
“As a bule you can’t lock yourself away in an expat enclave and pretend it’s Gibraltar. You either like it and join in, or hate it and get out.
“East Java is very Indonesian. It’s also very safe. There’s so much to do and see. But there’s no point in living here if you’re really not into the place.”
BRITISH BRIGADIER’S DEATH SPARKS BATTLE
In the recent history of Surabaya there’s no more famous – or infamous – Briton than Brigadier General A.W. Mallaby.
He was the unfortunate officer who led the Allied forces trying to clear the way for a return to Dutch rule after the Japanese capitulated in 1945.
Mallaby landed in Surabaya in late October with troops from the British 49th Indian Infantry. Their job was to restore order, but independence fighters loyal to President Sukarno’s proclamation of the Republic two months earlier were not about to open the door to Europeans.
The situation was chaotic with the fate of many Dutch prisoners of war and former Japanese soldiers in the balance.
Sukarno flew to Surabaya and negotiated a truce with Mallaby. The cease-fire was proclaimed the following day but five hours later an unknown gunman shot Mallaby dead close to the Red Bridge. A major monument records where he fell.
The assassination maddened the British who demanded the partisans surrender their arms by 9 November. They refused and on 10 November the Battle of Surabaya began with the defenceless city bombed by aircraft and shelled by warships. The ITS, the beneficiary of the British Council’s closure, has been named after this event.
Despite their firepower and war-hardened experience it took three weeks for the British to gain control. The young Indonesians fought with great ferocity and retreated slowly, but they paid dearly for their bravery.
The many war cemeteries which dot the suburbs of Surabaya are testimony to the terrible slaughter. The toll has long been disputed but the late historian and former government minister Dr Roeslan Abdulgani told this writer that more than 6,300 Indonesians died in the battle.
The last British troops left in November 1946.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 September 05)