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

Monday, November 28, 2005



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually they arrived and rushed inside to report the tragedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(First published in The Sunday Post 27 November 05)