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, February 15, 2006


ALL WE NEED IS LOVE, LOVE, LOVE © Duncan Graham 2006

Is Valentine’s Day just another Western commercial gimmick to revive retail sales, comatose after New Year celebrations? Duncan Graham tickles Indonesian love life:

When the question: “Are Indonesian men romantic?” was put to a Rotary Club meeting of 20 professional women in Surabaya it took some minutes for the laughter to subside.

No, they weren’t optimistic about getting flowers, presents, a card – any small token of their husbands’ endearment.

But they would most certainly treasure such gestures.

There’s one message to men that comes across loud as a sound system at a kampung wedding. The broadcasters are the articulate, independent women interviewed for this story. They say with clarity sharp and accents clear: Show your love. Don’t take your partner for granted!

“Indonesian men are good hearted but they’re ashamed to demonstrate affection – particularly in public,” said surgeon and professor Rowena Ghazali-Hoesin. “That’s Indonesian culture – but it’s changing. Slowly.

“Sometimes we just need our men to show their love, their real intention. My husband’s romantic in the bedroom, but not elsewhere.

“However, come to think of it, he does peel my mangoes and papaya. Now isn’t that romantic? (Quipped a friend: “She trained him well!”)

“In Holland I heard that men took their wives breakfast in bed. I told my husband. He replied: ‘Yes, but what do they really want when they do this’.”

Onny Asri deals with heavy-duty shippers from across the world who do business with her freight forwarding company. Not all treat her seriously at first though she’s the boss. (Her husband runs a labour supply company.)

“Men from Malaysia and Singapore tend not to be so respectful, though men from Europe, America and Australia treat me as an equal and are very polite,” she said.

“In the West it’s ‘Ladies First’. In Eastern culture it’s ‘Men First’.

“We can’t expect Indonesian men to change overnight. But they have many good qualities. They are responsible and take care of their families. They like to be close to their children.”

It took years for lawyer Boetet Ildrem Pantjoro to get her first personal present – a pearl necklace – from her late husband. But she remembers he was always very good about buying modern electrical appliances for the home.

“Indonesian men will give flowers and gifts when they’re courting,” she said. “But once they have the marriage certificate shows of affection are gone with the wind.

“Respect? Oh sure, our culture has respect for mothers. But their sons are considered crown princes.”

“Valentines Day? My husband (a paediatrician) doesn’t know what that is!” laughed social worker Wiwiek Teddy. “Men are too busy to worry about these things.

“This is a patriarchal society and women are always considered inferior, although that’s changing, little-by-little.

“The influences are the Western media and overseas travel. Valentine’s Day is not part of our culture, it’s more for young people. Attitudes differ according to the generations.

“If you live in the big cities and have been exposed to foreigners and other lifestyles then you’re more likely to be romantic.

“It also depends where you come from in Indonesia and your ethnic background. For example in Padang (West Sumatra) the Minangkabau have a matriarchal society.”

Academic and sociologist Emy Hendrarso is teaching her 18-year old son to respect women and wants men to be in touch with their feelings. Her husband is a Bupati (Government officer in charge of a Regency).

“The average Javanese is ashamed to show love to his wife because he’s been brought up to think that women are subservient,” she said. “Women do want romance. There’s not enough.

“Love has to be maintained throughout life.”

Despite all the laughter and joke cracking, the sub-text was that the women loved their husbands, admired their abilities, enjoyed their company – but didn’t get enough of it.

These aren’t firebrand feminists on a revolutionary mission, but women who’d welcome a glacial change in their significant others

So what should men do? Opening doors and letting her go ahead would be a major step forward. Touching in public goes down well when the gesture is heartfelt and the situation right. Listening to her views as though they really are important. Introducing her to others as your equal. Walking together.

You don’t have to break your journey to buy a thorn-free plastic rose from the roadside vendors who blossom today (14 Feb) if puce makes you puke. Just give her a call and say you love her – always assuming you do.

Or if that’s going to ruin your hectic schedule – send an SMS. I LUV U is the minimum message and will take only a moment of your precious time. Cost? About Rp 300 (three US cents) so it won’t wrinkle the bottom line.

And according to the experts (the women in this story) simple gestures carry more impact if spontaneous and not just on one day of the year, with the prompt coming from a shopping mall display.

Exclaimed florist Ida Hendro whose business should bloom this week: “It’s simple. Just show your love!”



Valentine is more than just the patron saint of manufacturers of chocolates and frilly underwear.

Don’t assume universal agreement on who, why, when and what about Valentine. There are at least three in the histories wrapped in mysteries, so take your pick.

The most popular version features a priest who spread Christianity among the Roman military around AD 270. For his initiative he was beheaded by a disapproving administration.

While waiting for the sword to fall Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s sightless daughter.

When about to meet his fate he sent her the note that’s launched the card business: “From your Valentine.” But how did she read it? She didn’t need to - Love is Blind.

OK, that last line is a bit of journalistic licence. That has to be allowed. Early Popes are alleged to have tampered with the facts about St V to make them more palatable to a church trying to stamp out licentiousness.

Fundamentalists urge their followers not to be led into the pit by displays of cute cupids and plump hearts. Apparently the event isn’t as harmless as it seems.

It’s all a plot to “whitewash perverted customs and observance of pagan gods and idols,” thundered one Christian website.

There’s no sign too many are taking notice. Every year the malls overdose on pink. Like Santa, Val’s in town big time, and he’s not going anyplace soon. Stand by for the Easter Bunny.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 14 February 06)



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