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 20, 2006


THE STORY THAT WON’T GO AWAY © Duncan Graham 2006

The much traveled Bali lawyer Erwin Siregar is about to take his wife and children to Japan for their Christmas holiday.

On his return in January he hopes he’ll be flying again, this time to Australia in the company of drug-runner Schapelle Corby. The 29 year old is currently a guest of the Republic for the next two decades; address Kerobokan Jail, known to Australians as Hotel K.

Siregar already imagines the scene: Walking into the airport lounge, TV crews everywhere jostling for interviews, cheering crowds of diehard supporters. By his side the famous / infamous Gold Coast brunette flashing her baby blues, her décolletage jail-chic, radiant with her new-found freedom. Then maybe the white knight will get some of the US $120,000 (Rp I billion) he claims he’s owed for defending the former beauty therapist.

It’s an appealing fantasy. Literally, for its fulfillment depends entirely on the success of Siregar’s latest bid to prove that Corby did not wittingly import 4.1 kilos of marihuana through Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport in October 2004.

This extraordinary appeal is being made to the Supreme Court in Jakarta and it’s basically a review of the published evidence and judgment. It will not require the appearance of either Corby or her lawyer, though he or his staff may be in the capital to keep an eye on things.

It’s not the first attempt. One got her term knocked down to 15 years – another had the 20-year sentence reinstated.

Siregar said one of three results could be expected: Corby’s 20-year sentence would stand, or it would be reduced, or she’d be acquitted. Although the prosecution is opposing the appeal, Siregar said a higher sentence could not be imposed.

Like any good defense lawyer he says he’s optimistic. “One day justice will come,” he said in his modest Denpasar office. “Maybe next month.

“Till today I still think she is not guilty. I see it in her body language, in her eyes. I have been a lawyer since 1981. I have handled maybe 200 drug cases in that time. There are so many reasonable doubts in this case.

“I think only crazy people would bring expensive marihuana from Australia to Indonesia where it’s cheap. She’s not a drug user – blood and urine samples prove that. She has no record in Australia.”

Siregar then rapidly ripped apart what he claims are the flaws in the prosecution and court decisions, and the grounds of the challenges.

If you’ve followed this seemingly endless Australian tear-jerker that tends to leave Indonesians cold, you’d know the appeal points are not new: The police didn’t take fingerprints. Her luggage wasn’t weighed on arrival in Bali then compared against the check-in weight in Australia; this might have shown that the drugs could have been added to her boogie bag by back-scenes airport staff.

Then there’s the court’s refusal to use teleconferencing facilities so an alleged witness in Australia - apparently too frightened to fly to Indonesia - can claim the drugs were his.

Siregar is too savvy to hard prose his criticisms of the courts that have so far found his arguments spectacularly unimpressive. Instead he put his hands over his ears, then over his eyes, indicating that maybe the learned judges didn’t quite catch the points being made by the defense.

A day before talking to The Jakarta Post two complimentary copies of Corby’s just released biography My Story, co-authored by Kathryn Bonella were delivered to Siregar, courtesy of the prisoner.

One was for him, the other for his expert witness in the earlier failed High Court appeal, law professor Indriyanto Seno Adji. The inscription ‘Be Positive’ included a hand drawn ‘Smiley’.
Displaying the usual loser’s response, Corby’s book is not kind to her defense team that she sacked after the verdict. There was lawyer Lily Lubis, Vasudevan Rasiah and Siregar. Jakarta lawyer Hotman Paris Hutapea, who usually gets tagged “flamboyant”, resigned according to Siregar.

Rasiah has been the focus of much of Corby’s wrath. Although he is often labeled ‘lawyer’ in the Australian media, Siregar said Rasiah was not a lawyer but a ‘contractor’.

“A week after the verdict Schapelle called me and apologized and said she wanted me to stay on the case,” Siregar said.

“I replied: ‘I will never leave you alone. If you don’t sack me then I’ll stay with you to the end.’”

In her book Corby criticizes Lubis, claiming she was constantly crying and didn’t have the skills to mount a vigorous defence. Siregar agreed his legal colleague had limited experience and had not pushed the point about alleged weight discrepancies.

But he refused to comment on her performance, saying he had seen her cry only once when the first verdict was announced. He said Lubis brought him into the case sixty days after Corby was arrested because of his experience.

Corby’s book is reported to be selling well with 17,000 copies jumping off the shelves in the first week. If normal author’s royalty conditions apply Corby and Bonella should share ten per cent of the retail price, currently around AUD $30 (Rp 200,000).

Publisher Pan Macmillan claims Corby wants to use the proceeds to pay for her defence. Siregar made some quick calculations and reckoned that even if sales stay good she wouldn’t have enough to clear her debts.

However if she loses the extraordinary appeal and retains her convict status neither she nor Siregar will see any royalties. The Australian government will seize it all because that country has laws banning criminals profiting from ill-gotten gains.

In her book Corby claims that AUD $80,000 (Rp 560 million) has been spent on her legal fees. Siregar said he’s received only US $3,000 (Rp 27 million) from Rasiah. If Corby and her supporters can’t find the cash Siregar reckons the Australian government should pay. He’s already sent a bill but this has just been rejected.

“So far I’ve been doing this for humanitarian reasons,” he said. “I’m a Christian, my wife is a Sunday school teacher.

“I come from a poor family in Sumatra. I went to high school in Surabaya but didn’t have enough money to study law.

“So I came to Bali and worked on the beach and as an illegal tour guide to get enough cash to put me through university.

“I see Schapelle maybe every two weeks or so. I think she likes me very much. We talk about religion, life, the law. Are her spirits still high? Yes. Till now.”

And what happens if the extraordinary appeal fails? “We can appeal again if there’s new information from a reliable witness.”

Whatever the verdict one thing is certain: This story still has legs.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2006)




FOR YE HAVE THE POOR ALWAYS © Duncan Graham 2006

Next time your car window is knuckled by a beggar jangling bottle tops, or wagging an amputated stump across the windscreen – ignore.

This advice isn’t being offered by a callous Caucasian, infuriated or embarrassed beyond reason, but by the head of a government department, Dra Wiwik Indrasih.

“The more people pay, the more the beggars are encouraged to stay,” she said. “Please don’t give them money.”

Wiwik runs the Social Department in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city and scavenging ground for around 2,000 beggars. Being a government officer she has the figures down to final digits, but acknowledged the statistics are elastic.

At the time of researching this story intersections in the East Java capital were almost free of beggars following yet another clean up – the latest called Operation Justice. But by the time keyboarding began a few had already shuffled back onto the streets.

“Our public order staff pick them up and take them to our centre where they can be held for three days,” Wiwik said. (See sidebar)

“We check their identities and see what the problems are. About 90 per cent come from towns outside Surabaya, so we give them a ticket to return home. If they’re from Surabaya and fit for work we try to train them so they can get jobs as pedicab drivers or gardeners.

“If they come back to Surabaya three times after being warned away we call the police. They’re arrested and jailed for three months.

“But even this doesn’t always work as prison provides food, a bed and shelter that’s often much better than the life they’re living on the streets.”

Surabaya doesn’t have a workers’ permit system like Jakarta to prevent country folk from trying their luck in the Big Smoke. So anyone can jump a bus and with a two-string guitar strum their way across the province to a supposed Eldorado.

Wiwik’s staff said a beggar who puts in the long hours at a busy location could pocket around Rp 30,000 (US $3) a day. That’s less than doing shifts at a lathe in some sweatshop – but the gap isn’t so wide that it would force someone to get a ‘proper’ job.

The begging environment is probably the most carcinogenic occupation in a city where pollution is a serious health hazard even for those shut in air-conditioned offices. Shame must also be a factor, particularly in Java where self-pride is important, though Wiwik claimed there’s a rotating culture of begging in some families and groups.

“The parents are beggars and teach their children to beg,” she said. “They grow up and their children go on the streets. They don’t want to do anything different. It’s very hard to change their attitude.”

When the crossroads get clogged and there’s a non-stop drum beat of fingers on car windows, the public complains. Newspapers run stories and the politicians demand action.

Then banners are printed and hung across the streets. These announce that begging is illegal and offenders face prison.

Watching the indigent continue to ply their trade under these stern warnings flapping in the breeze is one of Surabaya’s more curious sights. The police on point duty whistle and wave through the traffic stream but ignore the lawbreakers alongside.

“The police don’t think it’s their job to make arrests,” said Wiwik. “There’s no coordination between departments.”

The street kids are sent to hostels run by non-government agencies. An annual subsidy of Rp 500,000 (US $55) per child is paid by the department, plus school fees of Rp 350,000 (US $38).

Next to problems with maids and the shenanigans of sinetron stars, the audacity of beggars is a prominent topic among the chattering classes. A popular theme has beggars living in mansions and being chauffeured to the best pads by agents who cream off the takings.

Do these tales of business beggars have substance? Wiwik said she’d also heard the stories but didn’t know if they were correct. She didn’t have proof. However the looks and grins that circulated among her staff while the question was being put and answered indicated the tales aren’t all urban myths.

“The number of beggars is decreasing,” said Wiwik. “Eight years ago during krismon (the economic crisis) there were more than 5,000.

“As Indonesians we are ashamed to have beggars on the streets. I hope by 2010 there’ll be none left in Surabaya.”

(Sidebar 1)


The Social Department’s processing centre (Pondok Sosial) is way out of town, beyond a minibus terminal, close to a rubbish dump and vacant wasteland. Despite the location it’s not a totally bad environment taking all factors into consideration.

These include the lack of a national universal welfare scheme and the reluctance of politicians to vote enough funds to support the needy. The culture expects families to care for the aged, infirm and unfortunate – not the state.

Then there’s the reality of poverty, unemployment and underemployment in an overcrowded archipelago.

The statistics rise and fall depending on how high the hurdle is set and who is stabbing the calculator - but 20 million seriously poor seems to be the most accepted (and unacceptable) figure.

That’s equal to the population of Australia.

The Surabaya centre was opened eight years ago. It’s clean, has some pleasant gardens and the grounds are spacious. The rooms aren’t – just a few square metres, though people prefer to eat and chat outside. The place can accommodate 250 but when The Jakarta Post visited the number was less than half.

Only adults stay at Pondok Sosial – children are sent to hostels run by non-government organisations. Most are long-term residents, the elderly poor without families and those who are mentally ill and can’t afford hospital.

Even in modern Western countries there’s no satisfactory way to handle these tragic cases. An institution is always an institution – however calm the pastel shades of paint on the high walls and bars.

There are about 90 staff at the centre. Drugs are used to pacify the violent and cheer the depressed. Attempts are made at therapy and the men’s section was exercising during the visit.

The gates to the compound stay open during daylight hours, and guards are only in place at night. Escape would be difficult because the place is so far out of town and any absconder easily spotted.

(Sidebar 2)

In a bid to get a beggar’s side to this story arrangements were made for an apparently crippled man to be interviewed in Malang. He’s a regular feature at a busy intersection and seems to do well – though being unable to reach for handouts has them tossed down from the windows of the big black saloons.

Watching him scrabble for small change spinning towards a drain and among moving traffic is an ugly sight, demeaning for all involved

The middle-aged man’s tactics included shuffling on his bottom between cars and motorbikes. One stiff and ulcerated leg jutting ahead, wrapped in filthy bandages and apparently blood soaked, helps open wallets.

To avoid embarrassment at having a discussion with a well-dressed foreigner in full view of passing cars, a rendezvous was organised round the corner in the shade of a tree.

It was only 20 metres distant – but would it be unfair and unethical to ask him to drag his leg that far?

No worries. He got up and strolled across to the tree. Yes, he’d be happy to be interviewed – but no name and no photos.

He explained that his children were getting support from the Social Department in Surabaya. If government staff saw his picture in the paper working as a beggar, they’d cut off his kids’ benefits.

(Sidebar 3)


There are 15 charities in Surabaya subsidised by the Social Department to assist street kids. Many organisations are religious.

The Institute of Training to Self Help Activity (LBM) cares for 20 street kids. It also runs a credit service for what it calls ‘tramps and loiterers’ with entrepreneurial flair.

“If people can save a sum for at least three months then we’ll lend them double that amount or more for a little business project,” said LBM head Soemijodo Hadidjojo.

“We’ve helped well over a hundred buy their own pedicabs or start food stalls. In that time only three borrowers have defaulted.

“People without ID have most problems with officials. Without the right documents they often can’t get any help. Few have birth certificates. We try to get them proper papers.

“We’re also trying to train the unemployed to be shoemakers. Three shoe factories have closed in Surabaya and there’s a demand for cheap school footwear.”

Surabaya’s poor tend to squat on thin strips of land alongside rivers, drains and the railway. One cramped three-level slum holding more than 150 families is just across the road from the Governor’s vast office complex, though well-hidden from public view.

The credit system works like this: Families are visited and their plans discussed. If these seem practical the applicants are invited to deposit money with the LBM. These sums are usually small – under Rp 50,000 (US $5.50) a month. They’re recorded in little books.

When a record of regular saving has been established the savings are handed back. Money is lent and repaid over ten months to make calculations easy. There’s no interest and there are no administration charges.

“It’s like a bank, but of course it’s not,” said Soemijodo. “The banks won’t open accounts of less than Rp 500,000 (US $55) and have heavy admin charges and high interest rates. The poor just don’t go near the banks.”

Cholisah and Murjito heard about the scheme only by chance and have used it to effect. She now has a small food stall outside a Catholic hospital while he has a compressor across the road and repairs punctures. Together the couple say they can earn about Rp 45,000 (US $5) a day and are repaying their loan at Rp 20,000 (US $2) a month.

The crossroads where they work is also a favored area for supposed young mothers using suckling babes to enhance their compassion routine.

The money allegedly received by the beggars from generous motorists isn’t that much less than the income of the entrepreneurial couple. But Cholisah and Murjito have their dignity.

(Extra sidebar beggar story)


Surabaya motorists are getting a temporary respite from the demands of beggars thanks to the city clean-up campaign. But that’s bad news for Satinah, her pedicab-pushing husband Djuanrydi who gets about Rp 15,000 (US$1.50) a day, and their three little kids.

“I’m just too frightened to go on the streets at the moment,” she said. ”The last time I was stopped by the police. They told that if I begged again they’d call the Social Department and have me taken away.”

So the family is down Rp 10,000 (US $1) a day, which is what Satinah says she got during an afternoon rush-hour shift at nearby crossroads. If she took along her daughter Dini, 2, maybe she’d get Rp 1,000 more.

A few drivers abused her, she said. However most just ignored her pleas for a handout. The generous ones usually gave a Rp 100 (US 1 cent) coin.

The family lives in one tiny room in the sweltering depths of an airless kampong where the gangways are just wide enough for two people to pass – provided neither is plump. Rats have chewed the rafters. The floor is cracked concrete.

If this is an example of a beggar’s mansion as imagined by cynics and skeptics then most of us would prefer the underside of a bridge. At least the family is supporting the president’s demands for citizens to follow thrifty and modest lifestyles

It’s a conscience-kicking experience to recognize beggars whose demands I’ve rejected on their beat - then to discover when I entered their homes asking for help to write this story that they remembered me from past arid encounters

Viewed through a windscreen (avoid all eye-contact), they’re a nuisance. Up close and personal they’re fellow humans with crippling problems defying easy resolution.

Originally from Madura, Satinah, 26, is a lively young woman who only completed primary school. She says she’d like to work as a maid but won’t be separated from her kids. Finding a home where the whole family would be accepted is impossible.

She’s lost her identity card which means she can’t get help from the Social Department. Her friends in the same kampong go begging together when the clean-up campaigns run out of energy. Few have ID cards.

Supriatin, one of the few Christians in the kampong, said she had to beg to support her two children because her husband Rudi had suffered a stroke.

Working the traffic has given these women the confidence to express themselves with force. “Change the president,” they chorused with vigor when asked for a solution – but failed to nominate a successor.

“He put up the price of fuel, now he’s doing the same with rice. We got Rp 100,000 (US $11) a month for three months to compensate for the fuel price rise – now nothing.

“No-one at the top knows what it’s like to be like us. We only want money, food and jobs.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 December 2006)




To pad out programs telecasters everywhere screen station promotions.

Favored are clips of jolly industrious people in clean and colorful costumes smiling as the camera pans landscapes of loveliness. Flags flutter with pride. Clean-limbed youngsters look upwards and ahead through clear skies; satisfied oldies smile in contentment. Stirring music leads to a climax of achievement.

The idea is to create an image of one big happy family with the TV station an integral part. It’s all part of the quest for national identity.

Angst-driven Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho likes to try his hand at catching that slippery concept, but takes a different approach.

The same sort of people fill his frame, but their ragged clothes are as faded as their hopes, their blemished faces seldom joyful. Instead they’re angry, sad, resigned, gutted by grief or exhausted with frustration. Some have passed through the pain to find a level of resignation. There’s a leavening of humor.

“What’s it like to be Indonesian?” he asked. “Trying to express identity in a country of so many islands, regions, languages and ethnic groups is difficult.

“Film can let us discover what it’s really like. Listening to sobbing is being Indonesian. The human face is the face of our archipelago. See the face and you understand the family.

“All the clichés of pluralism and multiculturalism can be made honest through film.”

Though only if you point the lens into places where most dare not go. Nugroho has done this by, among other things, traveling to Papua and documenting the independence movement.

He got away with it by exploiting the window of tolerance briefly opened by fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid – and by being himself.

For the cherubic Nugroho comes across as a naive philosopher rather than mad plotter determined to dismantle the Unitary State. He’s just one friendly little man, not the rabid leader of a mob – seemingly more dreamer than devious.

He must have driven the security apparatus in Papua mad; here was this gentle Javanese importing 400 Morning Star flags and encouraging people to sing the prohibited anthem for his camera, yet claiming all the while to be a nationalist who didn’t want to cause trouble.

(This was to make Bird Man Tale, dedicated to murdered Papuan leader Theys Eluay.)

“I don’t want separatism,” Nugroho said. “I feel rich if we have Papuan culture. If we lose that, we lose a beautiful thing. This is neither about the economy nor about losing access to natural resources. It’s about losing someone from the family.”

All very reasonable, but unlikely to soften the hearts of the hard men wearing wrap-around sunglasses and bulky objects in their waistbands.

These guys and their bosses tend to take the George Bush line – you’re either with us or against us. Nugroho’s middle way confuses. So does his language. He thinks a chat, a laugh and a smile are the ways to solve problems when the policy seems to be that only force speaks sense.

“I’m not harming anyone,” he said. “So why should anybody want to harm me? I respect anyone who doesn’t use violence.”

Nugroho comes from a cultured Yogya family. His siblings are artists or academics. His father published books and Mum ran the post office. In 1965 when the military came and demanded lists of communists in the area Dad refused to oblige.

That made him a fellow traveler in the black or white reasoning of the guys with guns, but another factor confused this simplicity; Dad was also a national hero having fought the Dutch for Independence.

For two months he was under house arrest. The tension eventually passed and the family survived the bloodletting that followed the rise of Suharto. This ghastly period was recalled in Nugroho’s film A Poet – Unconcealed Poetry.

Young Nugroho went to an Islamic primary school and a Catholic high school – though he remains a Muslim. When he wasn’t in class he was in the front stalls saturating himself in the possibilities of cinema.

He went to university and studied filmmaking for four years - and law for a similar period. He graced the courtroom for only a twelvemonth before abandoning the security of profiting from people’s misfortunes to showing them on the screen.

Though not to his own profit. One of his first films was about street kids. Making gritty documentaries is no sure road to a fortune in Indonesia. Nugroho has nine films to his credit – he says only two have made money. His topics have been the poor, the marginalized and the brutalized – unpopular issues in his homeland where audiences overloaded with their own problems prefer escapism.

When he’s far away Nugroho, 45, gets the accolades for leading Indonesia’s new wave cinema. A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.

He’s won numerous prizes in Europe, Singapore and Japan – and enough cash from overseas to open an independent studio in Jakarta where he employs 20 people.

In Perth, Western Australia to show his work at an international conference on media policies and culture in the Asia-Pacific region, Nugroho spoke to The Jakarta Post.

“I always chose difficult issues,” he said. “I’m not opposed to films with happy endings. There are plenty of these, but we also need films to discuss social problems.

“Tragedy also raises questions of what it’s like to be human. If it bleeds it’s alive! That’s why I choose open endings for my films.

“I love oral traditions and poetic language. Song is an important part of narrative. Song is prayer.

“Indonesian television is about the rich and glamorous, the vulgar gossips. It’s the language of violence. Consumerism is commercialism without ethics.

“When I was making films during the Suharto period I was up against the military. Now the opposition is materialism and centralism. This is a pluralist society, a multicultural country – how can we understand this nation from Jakarta?

“I don’t belong to anyone. I’m free. My responsibility is to give people room for non-violent freedom of expression. Many politicians don’t want to hear the anger, the crying of the people.

“The problem now is not the military but market forces and censorship by society. Hindus and Muslims have opposed my films. The ultimate censor is loss of sponsorship.

“I’m not against globalisation unless it’s delivered on other people’s terms. It’s good when different communities can get the best out of each other for each other.

“My films tend to be shown only in universities and abroad. The early 70s were the golden years for Indonesian cinema before it was killed by censorship and pop culture.

“There are now around 40 films a year made in Indonesia. Most concern horror or teenage love. Very few are good.

“I’m pessimistic about the future of film. The archipelago is rich in stories, but there’s no money to get them made. Cinema is only surviving in the shopping malls for the middle classes.

“It’s not that film is important by itself. The importance is because it’s the medium of dialogue, the way we can understand each other.

“Indonesia doesn’t have a regional cultural strategy – this shows we don’t respect multiculturalism. Yet this is the only way that we can define ourselves.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 December 2006)



Monday, December 18, 2006


Duncan Graham © 2006

It’s every hard-pressed manager’s nightmare: A gripping, vice-like chest pain. Maybe just indigestion after a rich meal. Maybe not.

Heart attacks are an occupational hazard for people in business and other high stress jobs. Victims are usually middle-age workaholics who smoke, eat the wrong food and don’t exercise. Most are men

They rush to a doctor and the prognosis is bad. Surgery is required. But where to go? Who wields the steadiest scalpel?

When former president Megawati Soekarnoputri had medical check-ups in Singapore she sent a clear message to all Indonesians about the quality of the nation’s health system.

Her husband Taufik Kiemas endorsed his wife’s views by choosing the nearby Western Australian capital Perth for his heart surgery.

It seems that if you’re an Indonesian with a serious health problem and plenty of money you head straight for the nearest airport rather than the closest hospital.

Back in the 90s before the economic crisis, many sick Indonesians chose Australia for treatment. Agents helped patients find the right doctors and hospitals, sort out visas and accommodation for the family, and somewhere to convalesce.

When the rupiah exchange rate multiplied exponentially those agents found business too tough and quit the market. Now the currency seems to have stabilized, and a new Australian company has entered the field.

Validus International is a health services management business linking the sick to the services they need. The company is contracted to Perth’s Mount Hospital to provide an international patient liaison officer and is affiliated to other hospitals and services, including a fertility clinic.

Validus is seeking patients from Mauritius, Malaysia, China and Indonesia – but according to managing director Mark Riseley the Indonesian market is the company’s priority.

It has opened an office in Jakarta managed by a doctor and will be running seminars for surgeons and general practitioners in the capital and other big cities in the coming months.

“The cost of surgery and other medical treatments in Perth is about the same as Singapore,” said Riseley in his Perth office. “The airfare is a little more expensive but that’s a small amount in the overall cost.

“Australia is ranked second by the World Health Organization for healthy life expectancy which reflects the quality of healthcare available. (Japan is number one.) The facilities in Perth are world class.”

Perth is close - just over three hours flight from Denpasar. The lifestyle is relaxed, the climate benign and the claims by Validus about fees and services may well be correct. But Indonesians (and many expats) prefer instead to head for Singapore where medical care is well promoted.

The tiny city state is closer to Jakarta and has some other significant advantages. It has a no-fuss, no-fee entry system. Most foreigners can just fly or ferry into the island and get stamped in on arrival for a short-term visit.

To visit Australia requires a visa in advance and forms with more than 40 questions. Malaysians and Singaporeans can apply for Australian visas through the Internet, but not Indonesians.

Medical visas are free. Tourist visas cost AUD $70 (Rp 500,000) which is non refundable if a mistake is made on the seven page application form. Although Embassy officials claim around 97 per cent of visa applicants are successful, the perception is that entry into Australia is difficult, and therefore unwelcoming.

Riseley said an Australian health visa can be arranged within three to five days – or 24 hours in an emergency. But however efficient the bureaucracy it can’t compete with Singapore’s simplicity.

“I’ve been talking to the Immigration Department and the current system of sending medical data for visa assessment by locked bag twice a week to Australia will soon be replaced by direct digital transmission,” said Riseley. “That should speed procedures.” A new visa application center has also been opened in Jakarta.

Riseley trained as a physiotherapist in Australia and Canada, then worked in the Middle East where he saw the need for international health care and patient management services.

The chair of Validus is health administrator Glyn Palmer, president of the West Australian Health Care Association. He was previously CEO of St John of God Health Care in Perth.

“In the past there were good contacts between the Catholic hospitals in Indonesia and Australia,” he said. “Australia is the equal of any country in the world in providing the best medical care.

“We also have a large knowledge base in medical care and this has to be shared.”

Palmer said he would organize seminars in Indonesia where doctors could get free information from visiting Australian surgeons and physicians on the latest procedures and medications.

He would also be talking to Indonesian doctors’ associations and working to build relationships with hospitals. He agreed that the pivotal point in getting business was the patient’s doctor who would usually offer advice on the best place for treatment. For Validus to succeed it’s critical that medicos are aware of facilities in Australia.

Doctors who refer patients to hospitals overseas can collect commissions of between four and ten per cent of the hospital bill.

The other gateway is medical insurers who have links with hospitals and laboratories where they direct their members.

Riseley said Singapore currently takes 370,000 overseas medical patients a year – Malaysia 270,000. Validus has set itself modest numbers for starters – just 450 by the end of next year.

“We understand that building relationships in Indonesia is extremely important,” said Palmer. “We must respect cultural differences.

“We’ll be going to Indonesia regularly, communicating and listening. We’re selling a good Australian product and we’d like more Australian government help.

“The visa process is frustrating – it takes too long. Singapore does a wonderful job, and we have a lot to catch up on.

“Australia is a favored education center for about 20,000 Indonesians a year so we can build on those contacts and family ties. Word of mouth is also important. The response so far has been enthusiastic.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 December 2006)



Saturday, December 09, 2006



French Muslim scholar Soheib Bencheikh, 45, has been touring Java giving speeches and meeting key people, including the Indonesian Ulemas’ Council (MUI). He was born in Saudi Arabia, lived in Algeria, studied in Egypt and now heads an Islamic teaching institute in Paris.

Bencheikh, the former Grand Mufti of Marseilles, became famous for supporting the ban on Islamic headscarves in France. Before giving a speech in Arabic to staff and students at Surabaya’s State Islamic University he spoke to Duncan Graham:

Isn’t Islam and democracy a contradiction? Doesn’t Islam say only God can be supreme, not the people?

Have you ever heard God speaking to you? He speaks through the people. He’s left a message to us that must be interpreted by us, the people. Men and women have their own understanding of that message.

Those who say Islam and democracy can’t co-exist don’t understand either term. There’s a great lack of knowledge.

To be a thinking person is to always be searching and constantly having doubts. How can an intelligent human have total belief in any faith?

They can’t. The 100 per cent believer doesn’t exist. Nor is there a 100 per cent atheist. Between the extremes of total belief and non-belief there are many positions – and these are constantly changing. Today you may have only a few doubts – tomorrow, many.

The real test for all theologians is to constantly interrogate the self.

Last year the MUI issued an edict against pluralism, liberalism and secularism. What’s your respnse?

They’re going backwards if they think they’re still living in a time when nations were separate and didn’t interact.

The idea that the state should be more Islamic is coming from history, not the holy texts.

A secular state protects minorities. If France didn’t have liacite (the law prohibiting the state recognising religion and now a core value in French culture) then Muslims would be at risk from the Catholic majority. This protects everyone – but many Moslems don’t understand the history of liacite.

A secular state also protects by keeping politics out of religion. Politicians try to use religion to further their personal interests. Without religion, political debate can be rational and free of dogma

Religion without politics attracts only those genuinely interested in faith – it liberates religion from the opportunists.

In Indonesia the majority follow Islam, and the state demands all belong to one of the government-approved religions.

We should not use force, but respect. There should be no pressure on the conscience - people should be free to choose or not choose.

All the more reason for a secular government to protect the minorities. Even here in Indonesia you have to be prepared to recognise that Islam is a minority religion in the world.

The reality is a future where there will be no single majority religion.

How do you respond to those who say the Koran is the word of God and cannot be questioned or tampered with in any way?

The book itself isn’t sacred – it’s the objective ideas within the text. When we talk about the book we have to think about the language that was used, the context, and the culture at the time – even the weather!

In Indonesia we’ve had a preacher jailed for leading prayers in Indonesian.

At the time of the Prophet there was no unified Arab language. The language used in the Koran was that of the Prophet’s tribe. From the very first Muslims were authorised to use their own languages.

Some say that although Muslims in Indonesia are in the majority they suffer from an inferiority complex.

Arab civilisation was once the highest in the world. It helped lead to the Renaissance in Europe. Now everything has moved to the West. Arab civilisation is finished! We need to be part of what’s happening in the West – either that or live in the nostalgia of the past.

It’s always easier to blame others for our problems rather than look into ourselves to see what’s wrong. We have to recognise that we don’t have a monopoly on ethics and morality.

If the light goes out in your room is it best to sit in the darkness, or ask your neighbors if you can share in their illumination, or fix the problem?

Export your Indonesian form of Islam to the world. Don’t try and import from the Arabs.

You have a moderate form of Islam here synthesised with other beliefs. We should not be afraid to express our ideologies, ask questions of ourselves and through such questioning, develop our thinking.

Modern Islam is sweeping away all traditions – that’s too easy and not convincing. The challenge is to go back to the Koranic text and apply new readings that are applicable today.

Islamic culture is brilliant! If you love others you want to share your culture with them – and we want to share.

Muslims were wrong to protest against Danes when cartoonists lampooned the Prophet.

This is what freedom of expression means. Even if people are mocking, at least they’re showing an interest in Islam and starting to recognise it as part of society.

Could you talk like this is Saudi Arabia?

Yes, because I’m not attacking Islam.

But you’re attacking some people’s ideas of Islam.

The people most disturbed by the idea of a secular state are politicians who try to maintain power by using Islam. These legislators are hypocrites. This power is temporal.

Islam is not the property of individuals – it’s a message to the world.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 December 06)

Friday, December 01, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Apples from Batu in central East Java were once nationally famous, a prize product of Indonesian agriculture. Now this emblematic industry is dying. Duncan Graham reports:

It used to be the standard weekend family excursion for the frazzled folk of Surabaya: Drive to Batu, about two hours south, overnight in one of the many hilltop hotels and come home with a weighty wicker basket of cheap hand-picked apples.

It’s not just the Lapindo mud volcano blocking the toll road that’s crimped this pleasant pastime. Batu apples are now more expensive than imports. They’re not well presented and don’t taste so good as the foreign varieties.

Easier to wheel a trolley into the local supermarket and buy big Fujis from China, every one flawless in their dinky plastic waistcoats. Or glistening rose-red Washingtons from the US, looking more plastic than real. Or crispy Gala from New Zealand.

The pretty rolling town of Batu, about 20 kilometres outside Malang, is still a popular getaway and literally blooming. It welcomes visitors to its flower-filled streets with some grotesque statuary.

Most feature the local produce, including an Atlas-like man attempting to heave a huge concrete apple. The monument is chipped and worn and the figure looks bowed down.

Which makes a useful metaphor for an industry that isn’t quite on its knees, but is heading there according to a new report.

Australian student David Cook, 42, spent a year at Muhammadiyah University in Malang conducting a field study into the Batu apple industry. He concluded that production is declining and farmers are turning to more profitable crops.

“I think there’s little likelihood of government-initiated change,” he said. “Apples will remain iconic in Batu because most backyards have trees. Many are old, diseased, not particularly productive, but nevertheless a constant reminder of days gone by.”

His report, which has been published by the Australian Consortium for In Country Indonesian Studies, claims cheap imports, particularly from China, failure to plant new varieties and poor management techniques are to blame.

A separate report on East Java fruits commissioned by the Western Australian government’s trade office and written by Indonesian researcher Budi Daroe ignored apples. The unhappy state of the industry and the quality of the produce ruled apples out of any potential export business.

Cook’s findings have been confirmed by Abdul Kadir, the former head of the Agriculture Department in Batu, and Sumeru Ashari, head of horticulture in Brawijaya University’s Agriculture faculty.

However Professor Sumeru said there were signs that the industry could recover as Dutch experts offering new varieties had promised help.

It was the Dutch who first planted apples in Batu about 80 years ago. Growing apples in the tropics has never been easy. They favor mild climates and do well in temperate parts of the globe.

The sub-tropical areas around Batu are 1,000 metres above sea level and cool. It’s a frost-free zone and two crops can be harvested year round if the trees are defoliated by hand to stimulate fruiting.

There’s plenty of sunshine, and ample rain in the October to March wet season. The soil is fertile and well drained, particularly on the hillside terraces.

However it’s this style of farming that’s now a problem. The narrow rows and steep slopes make the use of heavy machinery like tractors dangerous. Heaving 20-kilogram baskets of fruit up and down steep banks is not a welcome job for school leavers who’d rather work as motorbike couriers.

Elsewhere in the world apple trees are now planted on flat land where picking, pruning and spraying can be mechanised, and the backbreaking tasks eliminated.

In the past this didn’t matter because Indonesian labour was cheap and plentiful. But that’s also the situation in China which has now become a major exporter, savagely undercutting the price of the local product.

There have been massive new plantings of modern varieties in the People’s Republic during the past two decades – and most have been on level land.

More than 500,000 hectares have been dedicated to apples in Batu, with smaller plantings at Poncokusmo and Nonkojajar east of Malang. Manalagi is the main variety. (See sidebar) Some published figures claim two million trees – others up to eight million. Commented David Cook:

“There’s a great variation on tree numbers because the official number depends on whether you include all apple trees or just the productive ones.

“Batu has a severely ageing apple tree population. Small farmers have large abandoned orchards that they can’t afford to rip up, replant, fertilise or change in any way.

“Instead farmers leave the older trees to fend for themselves, though they still send laborers to check for fruit. Most likely is that the true figure of trees that are too old is much higher than any of the statistics reveal.”

Not surprisingly much of the produce is poor quality. Apples that can’t be retailed go to a juicing factory at Kusuma Agrowisata, a large hotel and agro-tourism enterprise in Batu. This has only 14 hectares of apple trees, so buys in at least half a tonne of fruit from local farmers every day.

On receipt the misshapen apples have to be checked by hand, with blemishes, bruises and rot cut out before washing.

An estimated 80 per cent of the Batu crop is juiced or processed to make dried apple chips and other products, including alcoholic cider – which sells at more than double the price of beer. All are marketed within Indonesia.

As the apple industry goes sour farmers are turning to flowers, vegetable and garden plants for their income – and doing well. It takes five years for an apple tree to become productive, but cut flowers for the export market can provide a return in months.

Popular is Sandersonia, also known as Christmas Bells or Chinese Lanterns, a native of South Africa. Up market housing developments and the new international airport terminal at Surabaya have bought tens of thousands of ornamentals from Batu.

“Foreign investment in cut flower production – mainly from Japan, with some interest from Singapore and China - has been successful for a number of reasons,” said Cook.

“It gave farmers the capital to bulldoze their apple trees and use the land for greenhouses – something few were prepared to do or fund on their own. Local and foreign investment is not going into apples.

“There’s a lot more direct selling with garden plants and cut flowers, with no middlemen. The work is also easier than harvesting apples.”



If Eve had plucked a Manalagi apple at the behest of the serpent, the whole history of the world might have been different. Adam – who always looks like a Caucasian in the Biblical pictures - would have knocked back the fruit as too tough for his taste.

Consequently the Tree of Knowledge would have remained out of reach and Isaac Newton wouldn’t have discovered gravity by sitting under an apple tree in 1665 pondering the physics of windfalls.

The Manalagi (‘give me more’) apple developed from the Golden Delicious imported by the Dutch, and famous for its long shelf life. It’s a small white-green apple, slightly sweet and usually too hard for Western palates.

And indigestible for many Indonesians too if supermarket sales are any guide. Put a tray of Manalagi against the imports and the local produce will still be there when the other bins are empty.

Fresh produce prices rock and roll through the year according to supplies and seasons. Earlier this year David Cook’s research found the price of Batu apples, both Manalagi and the thick-skinned Rome Beauty above Rp 15,000 (US $1.60) a kilo compared to Fuji from China at below Rp 10,000 (US $1).

Apples are among the earliest known edible fruits with references dating back more than 5,000 years. The tree is a native of Kazakhstan in central Asia. There are now more than 700 cultivars world-wide.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 December 06)



Thursday, November 30, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

A major private bank in Indonesia has just abandoned one of its public relations activities.

Since 2002 the bank has been sending welcome letters and useful information to selected top-end customers. This is considered good management practice overseas, a proven way to generate client loyalty.

But not in Indonesia. Here the bank’s clients want their financial dealings kept secret – even from spouses and families. Mail from a bank can reveal the existence of Dad’s private accounts. Customers complained – so the bank is dumping its program.

Management books are big sellers in Indonesia. Most are US texts, but the philosophies and techniques they offer don’t always translate well. That’s because they ignore the culture factor. Here are some examples:

Mark McCormack’s Never Wrestle With a Pig (Penguin), a top seller by the man who wrote What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, is brimful with smart business suggestions.

His tips include resisting the urge to dominate at meetings, ending the day on time and encouraging staff to be creative.

Fine in the US and Europe – but ridiculous in Indonesia. In Javanese culture a boss who doesn’t control everything is considered weak.

The widely accepted overseas ritual of asking down-the-line workers to contribute ideas can be counterproductive in Indonesia. Lower level staff reason:

‘If the big man is asking us, it means he doesn’t know. If he doesn’t know he’s not fit to run this show and doesn’t deserve our respect.’

There’s a standard joke among business expats in Jakarta. It runs like this:

How do you pick the staffer with most initiative? Call a meeting and seek advice. It’s the one who’s last to reply: ‘Up to you, Boss’.

And why end the day on time? Although labour laws require overtime to be paid this rule is widely flouted. Staying late at the office, even if it’s just to discuss golf handicaps, indicates importance. In Indonesia underlings don’t have the right to after-hours private lives – they can leave only after the boss shouts for his driver.

It’s not in the employment contract. It is in the culture.

Foreign management texts are also based on the belief that most workers are ambitious. Not in Indonesia.

The Batak manager of a five-star hotel in Surabaya once told me how frustrated he’d become because his Javanese staff didn’t seek promotion. Head office had reshaped all sections and created new positions.

The manager explained this carefully to the workers and insisted none would be sacked. Instead they’d be able to get promotion and higher salaries if they could demonstrate aptitude.

A few weeks later he’d received no applications so made inquiries. Although the pay boost was attractive, employees said they were happy with the old system. They didn’t want to become supervisors because this might distance them from their colleagues who were also their friends.

Built to Last by James Collins and Jerry Porras (Harper) is a guide to the ‘successful habits of visionary companies’. Collins is the author of Good to Great (Harper) and claims to have sold one million copies. This tries to show why some enterprises succeed and others fail.

Both books are valuable for any executive provided they work elsewhere. Don’t expect them to offer templates for success in the archipelago.

For starters much emphasis is placed on publicly listed US companies, while in Indonesia the pattern is for firms to be held by families. So Collins’ ideas on testing leadership skills and the right way to pick a successor don’t apply when the son is going to become CEO whether he likes it or not.

Likewise management gurus’ advice to trust staff and give them space to be creative runs counter to Indonesian business culture.

Count the number of shops you know where the staff are allowed to open the till. If they can they’re probably part of the family.

Watching adult employees sell a product and then hand the money to a child who uses the cash register sends a clear message to the workers: We don’t trust you!

For advisers like Jim Collins this would be a recipe for business failure. In Indonesia maintaining suspicion seems to be the key to success.

The other theme running through all foreign texts is the need to select quality staff – and keep them. That’s certainly good advice in economies where skilled workers are highly mobile, and where labor laws on discrimination, gender equality, workplace harassment, dismissal procedures and compensation are enforced.

Similar rules exist in Indonesia. But it would be a brave worker who tried to insist contract conditions apply unless they belong to a powerful and incorruptible union that employs tough street-smart lawyers.

Management advisors recommend executives maintain good morale and boost productivity by complimenting staff on their work. The fact that this rarely happens in Indonesia means workers are one up on their overseas counterparts.

They have no false ideas of their value. They know there’s an estimated 20 million unemployed and a similar number underemployed across the archipelago.

If those with jobs want to exercise their rights and be treated as equals then they risk being shown the door. Outside is a queue of desperate hopefuls who’ll be happy with less money and will promise to never complain.

Indonesia is a bosses’ market – and they don’t need American textbooks to tell them how to make money.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 November 06)



THE FOUL REFUSE OF TEMAS © Duncan Graham 2006

The Lapindo hot mud eruption at Sidoarjo in East Java is in its fourth month. The disaster has swamped more than 300 hectares of paddy, 20 factories and several villages. More than 10,000 are homeless. With no end in sight the effluent is now being piped into the nearby Porong River.

Using rivers as drains has long been an easy way to dispose of waste – and you don’t need a test tube and litmus papers to know that many Indonesian waterways are heavily polluted. Just an average nose and reasonable eyesight are enough. Some communities aren’t waiting for government action – they’re cleaning up the creeks themselves. Duncan Graham reports from central East Java:

Temas is a small village near the tourist town of Batu, in the hills north west of Malang. Most visitors know the fancy hotels, knockout views and cheery flower gardens flanking the roads, a kaleidoscope of colour.

But behind the prettiness is something ugly. In a back street are the chicken slaughterhouses, with almost 50 households involved in the trade.

Every night when most folk are asleep live fowls are trucked from distant farms, slaughtered and dressed. Unlike Western processors who present a headless, clawless empty carcase to the shopper, the butchers of Temas are more efficient.

The feet, heads, hearts, some blood and the best feathers are all preserved for sale. Every day before dawn three tonnes of chicken meat leave the village for markets in Surabaya, Malang and other centres.

But not the offal and unsaleable feathers. They get dumped in a nearby creek that eventually flows into the Brantas. (See Sidebar)

Apart from the washdown from the fowl abattoirs – with some also used to process fish - there’s a steady stream of white liquid pouring from two tofu (soft soy-bean cake) factories into the same small stream. Then there’s raw sewage.

Every 100 metres or so are tiny unroofed huts with one metre high walls. In these loos with views the village residents relieve themselves straight into the slowly flowing water. Domestic waste and run-off from the roads also spills into the system.

What was a riverlet is now a sewer. It meanders past an irrigated vegetable patch then cascades down a slope to another village. Despite the pollutants men wade waist deep to filter red worms from the mud. These are used as fish feed.

All users of this resource, including a forge hammering out knives and sickles, are within a few hundred metres of each other.

Not surprisingly skin infections and respiratory problems have been reported among farmers working downstream. These have prompted demands for proper water management.

The obvious answer is to ban discharges and force the factories to install their own waste systems and the householders to build septic tanks. But that’s not practical in Indonesia. Factories and families would claim a lack of money, and the government doesn’t seem to have the power or will to enforce regulations.

With no quick-fix solution which wouldn’t cause severe economic hardship to the village, the issue had to be handled with care.

Plant pathologist Arief Lukman Hakim, a Sustainable Agriculture Extension Specialist working for the Environmental Services Program (ESP) in East Java got involved. The ESP is a US-Aid funded program operating in five provinces.

“At first I didn’t know what to do about the problem,” Arief said. “It was very complex. There were so many pollutants. At night the river is running red with blood. I didn’t know where to look for answers.”

Eventually he discovered wastewater treatments using ‘eco-technology’ that had become popular in some villas and hotels in Bali. These were being promoted by a foundation called Indonesian Development of Education and Permaculture (IDEP).

Labelled Wastewater Gardens these used a process developed 20 years ago in the US through the self-contained Biosphere project. This was an experiment to see if people and plants could live in a closed ecological system.

A year ago this month (Sept) about 30 people from 13 villages gathered to discuss the Temas pollution problem with the ESP. The wetland filtration system was proposed. The local administration put in Rp 100 million (US $11,000), and the community donated the land and the labour. The earthworks are now in place and being primed.

The system can’t cope with all the muck and mess – there’s just too much. But when fully operational this coming wet season it should be able to supply clean – but not potable – water for the villagers at the bottom of the hill.

It works like this: The polluted water is channelled into a concrete settling tank where the heavy muck remains. It’s then piped to three lines of contour banks built down the hillside.

Each bank (called a ‘cell’) has been excavated to make a long impervious trench filled with gravel. The water seeps through limestone to help neutralise acids, then into the banks. These will be planted with bushes and trees to suck up and use the nutrients.

The technologists claim that the final product will have significantly less nitrogen, phosphorous and bacteria. It doesn’t use pumps or chemicals and needs little maintenance. There’s no surface water so no smell or mosquitoes.

“I believe it will produce water clean enough for bathing and washing clothes, “ said Arief. “It can probably only cope with 10 per cent of the discharge – but that’s a start. We want this to be an education and demonstration project so other villages can see what to do.”

Will the Brantas ever get as clean as London’s Thames that was once the capital’s sewer but now attracts whales?

“It’s going to take a long time,” said Arief. “Indonesia is now a democratic country and the people are using their new powers. How they determine the future will depend on many factors.

“Land care groups are already in place, cleaning up the environment, planting trees and conserving the watershed. Small-scale waste composting projects have started. There’s an awareness of the problems.

“We can marry the bottom-up approach taken by communities with the top-down administration favored by local government. In most cases we try to use local networks

“The role of the ESP is not to lead but to train trainers and bring in technical advice. How people see their future is for them to decide.”



The Brantas River is East Java’s spittoon, sewer, drain and rubbish tip.

And its water supply.

By the time this 328 kilometre long artery reaches the coastal plain around Surabaya it’s saturated with toxins. The dissolved oxygen in the water during the dry season is often too low to support aerobic life.

And in the wet season it frequently floods, destroying life.

This great – and presumably once majestic - waterway rises on the slopes of the 3339 metre Ardjuna volcano south of Surabaya. From here it goes south, then west, curling round a volcanic range before heading north.

It was once the source of wealth for the mighty Majapahit kingdom of 700 years ago.

It’s so important that it’s been classified as a national strategic river with its own watershed authority. This is supposed to regulate and conserve this most precious and essential element.

Over the years the Brantas has been studied, analysed, discussed and debated by local and international authorities. But by the time it gets near the sea it still looks like an oily scum carrying a fleet of bobbing black plastic bags.

The river drains and feeds about 12,000 square kilometres, a quarter of the province. Its waters are used to grow crops, supply industries and meet the toilet needs of up to twenty million people. Five hydroelectric stations along the river’s course generate power.

So why isn’t the Brantas in pristine condition, sparkling bright, splashing with fish, the pride of the province? Why has it been so abused?

It’s easy to accuse the people. In the past, before urbanisation, the population boom, chemicals, detergents, plastics and noxious industries, the rivers could be used as drains with little harm.

Not now. If the population hasn’t been supplied with proper public health facilities, education on the environment and alerts to the dangers of pollution should the poor really take all the blame?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 November 2006)


Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Writing for the English language media in Indonesia

Duncan Graham

The vehicle I use in Indonesia is a tiny bright green city car, frugal on fuel and nippy for squeezing through narrow alleys and dodging motorbikes. I think the jellybean is ideal for the job – but it has some serious drawbacks. It can be easily squashed – literally and metaphorically.

Foreigners in status-conscious Java are supposed to use a Mercedes, BMW or Peugeot – the blacker the better - and they should definitely have a driver. Otherwise they have no credibility and another purpose – probably to spy or Christianise poor Muslims. Xenophobia is alive and well in Indonesia.

So is distrust. An unaccompanied Westerner claiming to be writing for the respected The Jakarta Post and driving a joke car is certainly suspect, particularly with government officials and Chinese business tycoons. Being asked: ‘Where’s your secretary and driver?’ isn’t the best way to start any interview.

I live in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city and the capital of East Java. It’s a sprawling, chaotic and polluted port and a major industrial zone. Imagine stomping a cockroach on a tile floor. That seems to have been the template for planning.

The Jawa Pos newspaper group dominates the city. This includes a TV station JTV and Memorandum, a yellow-presser thriving on a formula of lukewarm sex, gory crime and mysticism, and Nyata which is Indonesia’s Woman’s Day.

The Jawa Pos is much like any middle market Australian paper with sections on celebrities, fashion, sport and advice on relationships and health – allowing for some eroticism under the guise of education. The writing is often turgid and by Australian standards padded with irrelevancies – but it mixes Javanese and slang in its stories making it part of the community. Its claimed daily circulation is around 300,000 in a province of 36 million people. That’s close to The West Australian’s Saturday sales in a state of just two million.

The superbly-designed national daily Kompas, which allegedly sells little more than half a million across the nation, is disliked by many in East Java because it uses high level Indonesian and is considered too serious.

The Jawa Pos has been extraordinarily successful since the fall of Suharto and the scrapping of controls restricting reporting, advertising and printing. Local inserts have made the paper widely acceptable. When East Java newsmakers think of print journalism their model is the Jawa Pos.

Before former president Gus Dur closed the Department of Information there were 292 print publications. That number rapidly jumped to more than 2,000 before a shakeout. Around 830 have survived.

According to Leo Batubara, a member of the Indonesian Press Council, about 7 million papers are sold nationally every day. He also claimed that most papers reported the same news and that there was little to choose between them

This boom has caught the industry short of quality journalists. The typical local reporter is young, enthusiastic, scruffy, ill-informed, badly educated and poorly trained. Men dominate. They often hunt in packs and feed off each other so copy is frequently generic. The industry has attracted the idealistic who publish their own little mags - and fringe dwellers with dubious credentials. These people hope to pick up the envelopes that some newsmakers distribute to encourage positive coverage.

Young local journalists would be lucky to take home more than Rp 2 million (AUD 300) a month. Kompas and The Jakarta Post pay higher but about one fifth of the Australian rate.

To their credit sections of the industry are trying to purge envelope journalism and lift education levels. The Jakarta Post, which is linked to Kompas and the Gramedia publishing group through shareholdings, bans journalists from accepting handouts and demands ethical standards from its reporters.

The paper also organises regular training programs for its staff. I’ve been privileged to have assisted at three of these sessions conducted at a hillside villa owned by Tempo magazine, which also holds shares in The Jakarta Post.

I’ve worked with senior editors from The Jakarta Post and the RMIT on an AusAID training program to lift standards among reporters organised through the State-run Antara news agency. Courses have been held in Kupang, Mataram, Surabaya and Makassar.

The Jakarta Post is run by PT Bina Media Tenggara, a private company owned by four competing publications. The other two are Suara Karya and Sinar Harapan. An employees’ collective holds twenty per cent of the shares.

Tempo produces an English language cut-down version of its famous weekly with less than half the pages of the original. After a fall in quality earlier this year, the magazine has now picked up.

The other English language productions are the glossy lifestyle mags like Jakarta Kini that celebrate hedonism and are pitched at expats on obscenely high salaries with nothing better to do than vote on best bars and whine about the traffic. Most are edited by native speakers listed as ‘technical advisors’ to comply with government regulations on foreign workers. They’re supposed to be passing their skills onto local replacements but the process seems to be taking a long time.

The international titles like Cosmo and Forbes, and which are published under licence, are in Indonesian – often with English headlines, making a bizarre mix.

Overall the language in The Jakarta Post is high standard and occasionally lively. Factual and grammatical errors are rare. The writing tends to be straight, bordering on the safe and boring – particularly in the Op-Ed pages where space if often taken by pontificating minor academics. Of almost 100 editorial staff only 11 are expats and include Australians, British, Americans and Japanese.

The staff write in English. However copy from regional stringers comes in Indonesian and has to be translated. This adds enormously to the job of producing accurate reports from correspondents of diverse skills and backgrounds and with little understanding of the readership.

Editor Endy Bayuni formerly worked for Reuters; his secondary and tertiary education was in England and he’s studied in the US on a fellowship. He’s aware most readers have accessed the Internet or watched satellite TV newscasts long before the paper is delivered, and are across the hard news stories. Consequently he wants The Jakarta Post to be a writer’s paper, a ‘viewspaper’ like the International Herald Tribune.

A worthy ambition that’s going to require a change in mindset by many staffers. Writing factual and often parochial reports to a formula and churning these out daily is quite different from using these as the base for creative interpretation – a task that takes time, resources and experience.

Nationalism is robust in Indonesia and no-one wants a paper produced by expats whingeing about Indonesia’s huge problems rather than locals analysing them. The problem is matching the top salaries the really clever English-language Indonesian writers can command in multi-national companies or with foreign news agencies.

The Jakarta Post tends to be liberal, critical of the Suharto regime, anti-corruption, interested in the arts and supportive of a pluralist society. There’s a strong emphasis on business and the economy. Human rights issues are usually given a good run. The paper takes shots at the government and other institutions in the style of Australian papers, but seldom applies the robust language we’re used to. Lese majesty is still a crime in Indonesia; for insulting the president the penalty can be six years in jail.

The Jakarta Post can often get away with comments and pictures that Indonesian language papers with a wider and less exclusive circulation wouldn’t dare try lest the mob’s wrath is aroused. Smashing up the office of a publication you don’t like and threatening the staff is still a standard way of protesting, as the publishers of Playboy know well.

Whatever the faults, the press in Indonesia has a real lusty heartbeat. It certainly doesn’t elsewhere in South-East Asia. Newspapers in Singapore and Malaysia are muted mouthpieces for the governments.

There are links between The Jakarta Post and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Two previous editors have been recruited as ambassadors; the present editor’s father was in the diplomatic service and staffers from the department have attended training courses run by the paper.

The Jakarta Post journalists I’ve met are extraordinarily able so it’s not surprising some are poached. I think they’d outshine many Australian reporters and be a credit to any newsroom.

It’s one thing to speak in a foreign language – much higher skills are required for writing on a daily basis, particularly when the job demands wide usage of Western idioms and a deep knowledge of alien cultures, ancient and modern.

The Jakarta Post’s readers don’t fit into any neat mono-cultural category. Surveys show around half are members of the Indonesian elite. The rest are expats from almost every country in the world whose only common link is a language that’s usually their second or third tongue. Indonesian is not a popular world language, so the Japanese, Koreans, Europeans, Indians and Chinese who work in Indonesia read The Jakarta Post.

How does a Muslim reporter cope with the everyday English idioms and references based on the Bible, and the literary allusions we’ve inherited from the great English writers? Does anything fit together if you haven’t studied Shakespeare or read Hemingway? How can you really understand the West when you don’t share a common cultural memory?

When I added to a story about controversial dangdut singer Inul Daratista the line: ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington’ it didn’t resonate with everyone. A senior editor from the paper who has studied in the US certainly wanted an explanation – but was happy with another writer’s use of ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ despite not knowing of Noel Coward.

How does an Indonesian journalist who’s never lived in the West make sense of the understatements of the reserved British, the overstatements of the brash Americans and the iconoclasm of cynical Australians – and all against a deadline? The best do, and that’s a rare and admirable skill.

The Jakarta Post started in 1983 with technical help from The West Australian. Most days it has 24 pages so it’s a quick read, particularly as advertising is expanding and many stories are ho-hum regional reports. Banks, airlines, property developers, international schools and up-market stores use its pages to reach the so-called A-class readers.

The paper has been making a profit in the past two years despite having a circulation below 40,000 so it’s no surprise that there’s now a rival, curiously titled The Point, inviting the obvious retort: What’s the point? At the moment it’s only going to embassies and has yet to appear on news-stands.

Thailand, which has a quarter of Indonesia’s 240 million population, supports two English language papers.

Distribution problems plague The Jakarta Post. Outside key newsagents in Jakarta, Kuta and the five-star hotels, the paper is almost impossible to find. To ensure a copy you have to subscribe. But deliveries in the regional centres are late and haphazard – a serious problem for a daily newspaper.

A larger readership may be there but it has yet to be reached. Even if the marketing problems could be solved it’s unlikely the paper would take a monster leap in circulation. Indonesians are not great readers and seldom buy papers in whatever language, preferring to get their news from radio, TV and street-corner gossip. One survey claims 88 per cent watch TV, only 17 per cent read newspapers.

Although The Jakarta Post has a reputation for promptly correcting errors and defending its staff, as an outsider I’m extremely vulnerable. Any offended Indonesian who is powerful enough could easily arrange for Immigration to run a visa check. This would probably find flaws though none exist. That’s happened to other Australians.

Alternatively for less than $100 they could get a mob to trash my house. Like my jellybean car, all foreigners in Indonesia are squashable. Tolerance doesn’t mean acceptance.

Many prominent and regular newsmakers understand English but are reluctant to use their skills with a native speaker. The ultra nationalists often refuse to use English. In East Java the tongue of choice is Javanese.

Getting an interviewee’s thoughts down without ambiguity is difficult enough in any language and particularly so with the hierarchal Javanese who have a reputation for saying anything but what they really mean. Hazards abound.

Curiously the people most nervous about my writing have been expats who come from countries with a free press tradition. The only person who changed his mind about cooperating after all the work had been done was an Australian academic working for a US aid agency.

Perhaps the expats’ nervousness is understandable. Those on lucrative contracts tend to live in gated communities surrounded by other Westerners whose duties include making personal ‘security assessments’ every time they go out.

Served by regular travel warnings from their embassies and constantly trading horror stories over their sundowners it’s not surprising they’re so easily spooked. For them the fundamentalists are forever poring over the media seeking insults to be avenged, clipping names for a victim list.

The US and Japanese consulates in Surabaya add to the paranoia. These are high tech forts with round-the-clock police guards plus scores of their own security personnel. Their bags are already packed so they can flee in a moment. The Americans claim they’re in town to improve communication links with Indonesians – but Americans don’t understand irony.

By contrast the French consulate is constantly open to the public and has no guards. It’s the site of intellectual discussion, classical concerts, exhibitions and arthouse films. In Indonesia the French are fearless – we are not.

There’s now no official Australian presence in Surabaya – and perhaps it’s just as well. Under current thinking it would be yet another bunker sending the same message as the Americans and Japanese: We fear you greatly and trust you not at all.

Indonesians who are well travelled use me to complain furiously and in detail about the visa restrictions on visiting Australia. As these people often want to buy property, get medical treatment and educate their kids in our country the onerous restrictions are a real thorn.

The Australian Embassy in Jakarta denies this clear and common truth and flaunts figures saying most applicants are successful. It has no statistics on those who have Australia as their first choice but are deterred by the complexities and obstacles - so choose another more welcoming country for their study, medical care, investment and retirement.

I do get plenty of banter, and not always good-natured, about Australia as the deputy sheriff of South East Asia, being George Bush’s lackey, planning pre-emptive strikes and having plans to break up the Unitary State.

With apologies to Mr Downer and others who claim such sentiments have passed their use-by date – sorry, folks: The view from the penthouse suites enjoyed by the fly-in, fly-out politicians may seem rosy but the people I meet don’t believe a word of our bland assurances however many treaties are signed.

I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for the Australian government. I don’t support its policies on Indonesia, apart from the generous aid donations and some fine but limited programs designed to improve teaching and good governance. The post grad scholarships are great – but our offerings miniscule: Under 700 for a population of 240 million.

For a safe future I desperately want to see closer ties between our two countries at all levels and I don’t think this should be done just through governments.

Regular exchange programs for journalists from both countries would be a great start. This has happened before on one-off projects but not on a continuous basis. The Jakarta Post occasionally takes interns from Australia and New Zealand – this could be formalised into a proper two-way exchange program to the benefit of both countries.

The ACICIS (Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies) is an excellent way for Australian undergraduates to study Indonesian language and culture; it needs to be enlarged greatly with equal numbers of Indonesians visiting Australia.

A few fine people of distinction, and the occasional creative artist pass through on goodwill tours – but make no impact in the kampongs. We need Nicole Kidman or some other locally-loved screen face to tell Indonesians that Australia is a friendly neighbour keen for contact and which means well - a separate, independent country free from US control and which seriously wants to build up a solid, long-lasting relationship.

But then I don’t think it is.

(This paper was delivered at the Media: Policies, cultures and futures in the Asia Pacific Region Conference, at Curtin University, Perth on 27 November 2006)


Saturday, November 25, 2006


FIGHTING TO PRAY IN PEACE © Duncan Graham 2006

In 1517 in Europe, seven people were burned at the stake for teaching their children The Lord’s Prayer in English rather than Latin.

In 2005 in East Java, Muslim preacher Yusman Roy was jailed for two years for leading Islamic prayers in Indonesian rather than Arabic.

After remissions for good behavior an unbowed Roy is now a free man. He’s back at the Islamic school he runs with his wife Supartini at Lawang in East Java, still determined to keep praying in Indonesian.

“The problem with many Muslims in Indonesia is that they don’t think for themselves,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They just follow whatever the leader says.

“They stand in the mosque and mumble, but they don’t understand what the clerics are saying because they don’t know Arabic. What’s the problem with using Indonesian? God understands everything we think and say whatever the language.”

There’s little doubt the feisty Roy had been trying to pick a scrap with Islamic traditionalists, particularly the Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council (MUI), for some time. Not content to lie low in Lawang where he’s left alone by the locals, he published and distributed a little book on his philosophy.

No takers. He then spent Rp 10 million (US $1,100) on promoting a public meeting in Surabaya’s State Islamic University to debate the issue of bilingual prayers.

Not surprisingly the fundamentalists turned up and gave him hell. For them God’s instructions to Mohammed in Arabic had to be forcefully defended. “Why can’t we discuss these issues?” Roy asked. “There’s no commandment to use Arabic. We should debate, not fight.”

Yet ironically fighting had long been Roy’s job. The only son of a Catholic Dutch woman and a Muslim Javanese father who fathered 11 kids with four wives, Roy seems to have had a rocky childhood. He lets his guard down on most personal matters – though not his upbringing and schooling in Surabaya.

His ethnicity was clearly an issue; his Indonesian nationality was constantly challenged and he tended to give knuckle answers.

“I was naughty,” he said. “But I could fight. I like to fight. From the age of 16 I earned money by boxing – Rp 5,000 (US $5.50) a round. I was fast on my feet, a 60 kilo lightweight.” Aged 25, battered and with a broken nose, the pugilist quit the ring.

He then became a debt collector and a thumping success. If you found this young preman (street thug – and his term) leaning on your architrave calmly lighting a Dji Sam Soe you’d be paying up pronto. The tattoo on his rippling forearm of a thoroughly aroused stallion would mightily assist discovery of the mislaid wallet.

But Roy’s soul was on the ropes. What he was doing wasn’t morally right. He knew there was something else – yet it remained elusive. He sought God, but didn’t know where He resided. A come-and-go Catholic Roy looked for help among priests and found some answers.

Though not enough. His friends were Muslim. Slowly he made the transition to Islam but was lax in maintaining his religious obligations.

“It took me about 15 years before I became fully Muslim,” he said. “I read widely and thought a lot. I saw contradictions between what was written in the Holy Book and what people were saying and doing.

“I couldn’t understand Arabic and neither could my friends. The clerics were saying it doesn’t matter what you pray as long as it’s in Arabic. That’s wrong. We have to know what’s being said when we talk to God. ”

Soon after the Surabaya meeting in April last year the police called at his home. Friendly fellows all they asked if he’d like a lift to nearby Malang for a chat. “It was a trick,” he said. “When I got there they arrested me.”

They may have saved his life. While he was in Malang three truckloads of allegedly aggrieved men from the Islamic Defenders’ Front arrived at his school intent on God knows what, but left when they found him absent.

While accepting the truth of this proposition, Roy doesn’t like it. If he’d been murdered his bid for bilingual prayer would have caught public attention and reform in Islam might have been hastened. From zealotry to martyrdom.

He faced two charges - deviating from Islam in his teachings, and inciting hatred by challenging the clerics in the MUI who’d prohibited him from using Indonesian in prayer. He got verbal support from former president Abdurrahman Wahid, legal aid and publicity in Indonesia and overseas. Not enough. He was only acquitted on the first count.

At first life in jail was tough with many wanting to test their skills against the 50-year old former prizefighter. But instead of flexing the foaming stallion he showed a new tattoo on his right arm. This had the words Patience, Prayer and Emotional Control.

“What I did was right - I don’t regret going to jail,” Roy said. “I could not have done this without Supartini’s help.” She said she was proud of her husband and backed his beliefs.

With Roy behind bars she had to run the free school - known as Pondok I’Tikaf, Arabic for meditation - and its 300 students alone. Where did the money come from? “God provided,” she said. “All the other men in jail were criminals. My husband was the only person there for religious reasons.”

Despite fears the self appointed warriors of Islam will return the couple seem unperturbed, putting their safety in the hands of the same Deity their attackers would invoke. The home and school are at the end of a downhill street, above a ravine. The police have cut their phone lines to stop verbal threats, but there’s no security and no easy escape route.

“Prisoners and warders kept away from me at first, but later joined me,” said Roy. “I never went to the mosque because that made me angry.

“I’m not afraid of being charged again, but don’t expect it. It’s the government’s job to protect all citizens whatever their views, and I demand that protection.

“The government should be allowing space for public dialogue and I want to encourage that. The people who attack me don’t know right from wrong – they don’t understand the prayers in Arabic so they don’t pray properly. Quality matters.

“These people are losers. There are many terrorists in Islam – they’ve lost their way. They’ve become criminals and anarchists. Prayer is the foundation of Islam. When that collapses everything else goes down.

“This is what I believe. There’s a group in Indonesia that wants to keep Islam backward. This is a political issue. I’m angry at what they’ve done to me, but I forgive them.

“Many say they support me, but don’t help. I’m fighting this cause as a pioneer with my soul and property. It’s difficult being alone, but I’m sure God will protect me.

“I want my good name restored. I’m an Indonesian Muslim, not an Arab Muslim! Why would anyone want to stop me?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 Nov 06)

Sunday, November 19, 2006



Sydney may have led Australia in promoting its Mardi Gras marches, but that doesn’t mean widespread acceptance of sexual difference in the country next door. ‘Poofter-bashing’ is still a hazard for homosexuals in some parts of a nation that claims to be liberal and progressive.

So what about Indonesia, a land rigid with religion, tense with taboos? Some prejudice, but no fear or repressive laws, according to Dede Oetomo the nation’s leading gay rights activist. He spoke to Duncan Graham in Surabaya:

It will be a quarter century next year that academic Dede Oetomo, fresh from studies overseas, and a couple of friends published the first newsletter for Indonesian homosexuals. This was during the repressive Orde Baru administration when the government banned transvestites from appearing on TV and sexual issues were seldom discussed.

One woman minister famously said there were no lesbians in Indonesia, though most research suggests about ten per cent of the population anywhere in the world naturally seeks same-sex relationships. The official line was to deny that the Republic had been infected by ‘deviants.’

These creatures were fiends from the decadent West, which is where the bright young man from East Java had spent the previous five years. He’d been studying for a doctorate at the prestigious Cornell University in New York, the centre for scholarship on Indonesian issues. Here he’d become part of a campus gay group.

So it wasn’t surprising that some people said he was importing American ideas on sexuality that had no place in Eastern culture. What was unexpected was that this criticism came from the academic gays Dede had met in the United States, not from the locals who were trying to define their desires.

It was an intellectual argument: The outsiders thought Indonesian gays should build their own Asian culture of difference based on traditional practices. (See Sidebar)

But the men and women wrestling with notions that didn’t fit the government approved model of marriage and two kids welcomed Dede’s initiative. They didn’t care where information had come from, as long as it provided help.

“We were really young and naïve and just thought that producing a newsletter was the right thing to do,” said Dede.

“Apart from Surabaya and one or two people in Malang, Solo and Jakarta, the openly gay community was tiny. Looking back I now realise our actions were quite subversive.

“Around 1981 two lesbians ‘married’ in Jakarta and this caused a major media storm. It raised many questions about sexual preference that I felt had to be addressed. I wrote a letter to Tempo magazine and suggested other gays might want to contact me. They did – with up to 40 letters a week.”

After the newsletter Dede and friends started Indonesia’s first gay organisation, Lambda Indonesia – later to become Gaya Nusantara. This is a national rights group now famous internationally not just for linking people, but also for advocating safe sex and fighting Aids, and combating discrimination.

That’s not so difficult in Islamic Indonesia. Unlike Australia and many other Western countries with a Christian heritage, the Republic hasn’t made homosexuality illegal. So the searing debates on whether the law should be changed haven’t happened here, though there is a discrimination issue with age. Heterosexual relations are legal over the age of 16 – but for homosexuals it’s 18.

In Singapore and Malaysia homosexuality is still illegal. These countries inherited their laws from Britain.

“I think there’s more tolerance among the moderate Muslims than the Christians,” said Dede. “Occasionally some radical Islamic group will try and disrupt a meeting, but usually they just want to make a point and then go. At one recent event in Central Java they went home after we paid them Rp 500,000 (US $54).”

In his role as an advocate for gay rights for men and women, and open education on sex, Dede has travelled widely overseas and often works as consultant on health programs for aid agencies.

Dede Oetomo was born in Pasuran, East Java in 1953, the eldest of four children in a bookish Indonesian Chinese upper middle class family. Dede said his siblings are all heterosexual – “as far as I know.”

His father, who worked for a multinational, had dabbled in the Pentecostal Church. His mother had a Catholic background. The family believed in education, open discussion and arguing with older people. There’s an element of zeal in his upbringing.

His mother cautioned him against listening to the “mumbo-jumbo” spook stories of the superstitious maids. She urged him to take a rational and scientific approach to life – and to challenge myth from whatever source. He went to a Catholic school but his education was largely secular.

“I realised I was homosexual when I was about 12,” he said. “I thought I could change. I went to see psychologists, but these sessions were more discussions than counselling. Thank God I wasn’t given electric shock treatment. (A common medical procedure at the time when it was thought homosexuality could be cured.)

“I read widely and realised that this was how I was, and that things were not going to change.

“However I didn’t come out with my family till I was in my 20s. It took them about a year to realise that I wouldn’t be supplying any grandchildren and accept me for what I am. Fortunately my parents have never been into melodramatics. Instead they said it would be a good idea if I could help others. I think I come from a fairly unusual family.”

Dede’s parents hoped he’d become a doctor or engineer – he wanted to be an historian, but ended up as a linguist. He enrolled at the Malang IKIP (teachers’ training college, now the University of Malang) where his intelligence attracted lecturers with US contacts.

He was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship and headed for the states. His PhD thesis was on the language and identity of the Chinese community in Pasuran. When not studying he taught Indonesian to some of America’s top scholars.

Back in East Java he was hit by some covert prejudice when he first sought academic work, finding doors closed despite his high qualifications.

He got a teaching job at the prestigious Airlangga University and started a relationship with a man which lasted 21 years. During this time he wrote extensively for the international media and became the voice of the Indonesian homosexual community.

Now the days of having to meet after nightfall in the yard of a Surabayan government high school have gone. If you’re looking for a partner there are hairdressers, beauty salons, dance studios - and a restaurant in a five star hotel which is well known to be a gay hang out. But it costs Rp 80,000 (US $9) just to get in, limiting access to the rich.

The ‘pink dollar’ phenomenon which has swept the West with hotels, tour agencies, fashion shops and magazines competing for rich gay clients with high disposable incomes has yet to appear in Indonesia.

The shock-horror tabloid headlines full of contrived moral outrage have faded and in their place is factual comment. Much of this has been driven by the needs of public education regarding sexually transmitted diseases, and the emotional problems facing people whose genes have determined their sexual choice.

Dede is no longer the demon in the dark. His academic credibility, ease with the media, reasoned arguments and acceptance internationally have put him in the mainstream. He’s twice stood as a political candidate on a “rainbow platform” of enhancing the rights of minorities. Though unsuccessful, in the 2004 election for the local legislature he scored 235,000 votes.

The Internet has given enormous freedom to people with different sexual needs. The furtiveness has largely vanished, though gays and lesbians still keep a low public profile. A recent lesbian ‘wedding’ in a Surabayan hotel attracted no media coverage.

How much of this change can be attributed to Dede and Gaya Nusantara?

“I agree with those who criticise us because we are communicating with the better educated, media-savvy people in society, rather than those with limited schooling and living in isolated areas,” he said.

“But information is now getting out to the wider community because the topic is no longer taboo in newspapers.

“Some say we haven’t done much and that change would have arrived anyway through globalisation. That may or may not be so, but we’ve given space to people, we’ve opened up the debate. Being gay now is completely different – but also more complex.

“We run a help line, organise face-to-face counselling and offer other services. There’s still a lot more to do. The issue of domestic violence in gay relationships has not been addressed.

“I wouldn’t want to walk home alone in the dark from Sydney’s Mardi Gras Festival, particularly as I’m an Asian. But I feel quite safe in Indonesia. However there are reports of violence by low-ranking military personnel against men who look effeminate

“Now the challenge is to build a new generation of leaders, and reach gay men and women who aren’t at the top end of society to educate them on health issues. The statistics are two years old, apply only in Jakarta and are a bit suspect. But they are all we have to go on.

“The figures for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infection are 22 per cent of waria (wanita – pria = transsexual), five per cent for male sex workers and 2.5 per cent for gay men. Overall gay men in Indonesia are aware of the risks, use condoms and lubricants and are responsible.

(In Australia HIV cases among gay men are reported to have surged to a 10 year high, after a slump in infections. It’s believed the younger generation, no longer bombarded by safe sex messages, has become lax in taking precautions.)

“There’s still some prejudice in society but in international terms we’re ahead. Where it’s really difficult is for men and women who want to come out yet love their family and want to keep that love. We also want happy families. But not the government model.”


The idea that homosexuality is alien to Indonesian culture has been dashed by research conducted by Dede into the warok-gemblakan tradition in the East Java town of Ponorogo.

Here older men called warok, who take a leading role in the Reyog Ponorogo dance, have sex with young boys (gemblakan) in their bid for prowess.

The dance requires the warok, who are usually the local strong men, to wear a huge headdress of a tiger mask surrounded by a mane of peacock feathers.

Dede said he planned to review his research soon. Although the men’s behavior would be classified as homosexual it would be wrong to say that there was a homosexual community in the town as the men may also be married. The tradition has an economic component, for the men had to compensate the boys’ parents with significant and costly gifts.

In South Sulawesi there’s the bissu, a male or female court official who cross-dresses and has sex with people of the same gender. There’s also evidence that in the past people who practised alternative sex were considered healers with special powers – a tradition being continued as the gay community is a leader in promoting safe sex.

(For more information check )

(First published in The Sunday Post 19 November 2006)