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

Wednesday, December 21, 2005



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2005



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2005)


Monday, December 12, 2005



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

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


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

The signs of a new beginning.

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

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

Why ever not?

But first you’d better hear his tale.

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

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

Mohammed presented the principal with the following options:

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

Guess what? The school boss chose number 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the banner he’s looking a bit ragged.

(First published in The Sunday Post 11 December 2005)

Sunday, December 11, 2005



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 06, 2005



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some top quality Australian soybeans are exported to Japan.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




IT WON’T HAPPEN TO ME © Duncan Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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