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

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)