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

Sunday, April 30, 2006


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© Duncan Graham 2006

The stereotypical provincial mayor’s wife is a plump matron swathed in batik, standing slightly behind her husband, splendid in a military uniform. But not in Surabaya.


If you’re seeking Dyah Katarina Bambang don’t look in the five star hotels among the swish set.

Instead try any sweaty public function involving the environment, health or education, particularly if there are lots of kids. However don’t expect the wife of Surabaya Mayor Bambang Dwi Hartono to be a passive participant.

She may be one of the keynote speakers but unlike many public officials doesn’t dash for her car the moment the applause has died pleading other appointments as an excuse for a rest.

Dyah tends to be a stayer and chatter to anyone and everyone, even when the heat is stifling and crowds thick. And it’s not sinetron talk, but real discussions about serious issues.

In a society where protocols and status are more important than qualifications and achievements Dyah is accessible to kids puzzling over assignments through to pensioners with gripes. Every Tuesday she spends an hour on radio taking talk back calls on just about anything outside politics, mainly focussing on her work during the week.

Nor are her interests a fad manufactured to get publicity in the early days of a new-broom administration. Her husband was elected mayor last year nominated by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

However it’s not the family’s first time in the big old Dutch house in central Surabaya that goes with the job.

Bambang became mayor in 2002 and before that was deputy mayor. So his wife is no stranger to public life. It’s just that she does it differently.

Dyah’s upbringing was a key factor. Her father is a teacher and still works into his 70s. Her mother works in a cosmetics factory. Her parents made sure their daughter was never idle or allowed to think herself superior. Cleaning the house wasn’t just left to the maid; young Dyah also had to do her share of sweeping.

She went to Airlangga, East Java’s most prestigious public university and graduated in psychology. Her first job was with a labour agency sending workers overseas. Her task was to assess their suitability by testing personality, aptitude, intelligence and skills.

This gave her insights into the backgrounds, hopes and concerns of young people who leave their homes –often in desperation - and for the first time in their lives head overseas. Many have little understanding of the world beyond their village or the demands that will be placed on them.

She married Bambang when he was still a government school maths teacher with political ambitions. They have three children – a 17 year old daughter and two sons aged 16 and 9. Two go to state schools, the youngest to an Islamic primary school.

Since her husband got involved in politics Dyah has been overseas and seen first hand how other cities are managed. The contrasts with places like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are stark. In Surabaya there are no laws against throwing rubbish out of car windows and few bins available for people who want to do the right thing. Traffic controls are negligible.

In a vast timber-panelled reception room hung with paintings depicting the 1945 Battle of Surabaya the fast-talking Dyah, 38, spoke to The Sunday Post over a lunch of fruit.

How did you know what to do as the Mayor’s wife?

“There were no instructions, no guide book. I didn’t know anything about the role I was supposed to play and at first was quite confused. I had to learn very quickly.

“But I’ve always been a person who likes to do things herself. When our children were young I never wanted them to be cared for by babysitters. I was jealous of anyone who held my child.”

You could have focussed on being head of the household, spending your time at social events and going shopping.

“Of course. But I’m not into buying clothes and very rarely go to boutiques. I want to keep things simple. These shoes for example were bought in the market for Rp 15,000 (US $ 1.60). That’s me!

“No one would have complained if I’d stayed in the background as a traditional wife just appearing at the occasional function. As the mayor’s wife I’m ex officio – I don’t have a formal position.

“But I’ve been given a chance to do things that aren’t available to other women – and I want to take that opportunity. That’s why I’m involved in issues like the environment. I love trees and nature.

“Yes, I suppose I am a modern woman and down to earth. I certainly don’t think of myself as arrogant in any way.”

Dyah has been a strong public supporter of the USAID-funded Environmental Services Program (ESP) in East Java. The US$45 million (Rp 414 billion) five-year project is operating in five provinces and has several objectives.

These include raising health through better management of water resources, the delivery of clean water, reduction of pollution and improved waste disposal.

A critical target is diarrhoea, the second major killer of children under five. Every year about 100,000 little kids die from this easily preventable disease caused by poor sanitation – particularly through using hands, water and utensils contaminated by faeces.

Westerners unused to Indonesian culture find the lack of toilet paper a worry and the prohibition against using the left hand for serving food a bit quaint. But these traditional practices are well founded. Using water is more hygienic than paper provided nails are scrubbed and the waste water not reused.

Although Indonesians are fanatical about personal cleanliness many don’t have access to the basic needs for hygiene. Medical research shows that following a simple regimen of always washing hands with soap after going to the toilet and then drying them properly could cut diarrhoea cases by half.

Polio is also transmitted the same way. Last year a new virus was identified in West Java. Within six months almost 300 cases were detected in ten provinces.

The national government is now trying to immunise 24 million under-fives across the archipelago in a bid to make Indonesia polio-free by the end of this year. The disease is infectious. It can paralyse and kill. Dyah has been involved in the program.

The ESP project, which is being delivered by a company called Development Alternatives, organised a hand-washing campaign with the help of Muslim organisations.

The campaign started last October before the Ramadan fasting month in partnership with the East Java chapter of the Indonesian Ulama Institute.

Community leaders in Malang and the suburb of Wonokromo, Surabaya were trained to set the values of the district by encouraging everyone to use soap and dry their hands. The exercise, which was both spiritual and practical, may be extended to other areas after assessment.

To help strengthen the program Dyah went into the slums of Wonokromo to do a bit of hand washing herself. And when she’s not scrubbing fingernails she’s digging them into rubbish to promote recycling and composting - or into the dirt planting trees with environmental organisations like the Klub Tunas Hijau. (Green bud club)

By dressing simply she doesn’t intimidate ordinary people. Like men in uniform, women who flaunt their wealth and position with a jangle of accessories and a preening of rich fabrics can be hard to approach. Dyah may be a VIP but that’s not on her CV. She has the common touch – and some clear goals.

“I want to help make Surabaya green and clean,” she said. “That’s my ambition and it’s that simple. Everything is related - education, clean water, fresh air, good health.”

Others have tried and failed. On roadsides at the main entrances to the city are signs welcoming visitors to a clean green city. But the metal is rusting and the signs fogged by clouds of exhaust smoke from badly maintained trucks and busses.

“I don’t know what went wrong,” she said. “That was with a past administration. It was before Krismon (the 1997 economic crisis) when everything became very difficult. I’m an optimist and believe we must all do what we can to make things better. We must keep trying.”

That’s a big job in an industrial and heavily polluted city like Surabaya.

“Yes it is. Socialisation is a long and slow process. There needs to be a consistent message and stability in the programs.

“There’s a lot of overcrowding in some kampung caused by illegal migrants from the rural areas coming into Surabaya. That creates health issues. It’s not exclusive to Surabaya – it’s part of globalisation.

“I want to help poor people develop their handicraft skills. I’ve seen projects like that in Lombok and they could be developed here.

“There’s a mountain of problems out there and we’re just at the foothills. But I’m always trying to encourage schools to respect the environment. It was very pleasing to see hundreds of children putting on displays at a recent workshop on clean water.”

At the event, where her husband also endorsed the need to clean up waterways, Dyah sang about preserving nature with Claire Pierangelo, the US consul in East Java and local kids. While the Mayor was with the official guests and heavily into handshaking his wife was mixing with the activists and stressing the health message.

Pompous she is not. Surabaya’s First Couple don’t radiate glamour but they make an effective team.

“People do respond when they see that we’re serious,” she said. “There are already compost-making programs in place using household waste and bins separating rubbish.

“Surabaya is a great city with lots of character, and its very safe. Please don’t be frightened about coming here. Although we’re not yet green and clean we’re
working on it. If you’d like to help you’re welcome.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 30 April 06)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

‘Sending coals to Newcastle’ (in England) means a pointless venture. But the export of fuel briquettes to Newcastle and other Australian cities is turning the adage on its head.

Capitalising on anti-pollution laws that ban the use of wood and coal fires in the West, an enterprising manufacturer in East Java called Indocharcoal is sending near-smokeless fuel to Australia and Europe.

Made from compressed sawdust and waste wood chips the product, distributed as Woodlog and marketed as Hot Rox, meets the new standards for house warming systems and slow-burning stoves.

In the past Australians in the southern states consumed thousands of tonnes of firewood on open fires during the winter months. Scavenging forests and farms for a pick-up load of dry wood was a regular family weekend pastime, often combined with a picnic. Toasting toes on a Sunday night round glowing embers was a lovely bonding ritual.

But as the cities expanded the forests contracted and more people started burning green wood. The removal of fallen timber denied native animals their habitat. Conservationists demanded the forest floor stay cluttered.

Temperature inversion where cold smoke gets trapped at rooftop height became a new and worrying condition in the cities, particularly for people with asthma.

So open fires have yielded to closed combustion stoves and government officers check firewood sellers for the moisture content of their product. Farewell the romance of a roaring log fire.

Into this gap has stepped Krisna Setiawan who three years ago bought out the briquette-making equipment of a factory in Gresik outside Surabaya that was going bankrupt.

“Our product is made from timber-mill sawdust and waste wood chips from furniture factories,” he said.

“The waste is combined, dried and compressed, heated to about 200 degrees centigrade and then forced through a die. We don’t use any glues or chemicals to bond the sawdust.

“The briquettes are about 40 centimetres long, pipe shaped and slow burning. They are sparkless and odourless and almost smokeless.

“They don’t give off any toxins unlike coal briquettes so can be used for cooking, though in Australia the need is for heating. A 20 kilo box of briquettes sells in Australian supermarkets for about AUD $10 (Rp 65,000).

“Demand is good and growing. We’re operating ten machines working seven days a week around the clock.”

Indonesia is facing an acute briquette shortage according to government sources with supplies failing to meet demand as the price of oil-based fuels rises.

Mineral, Coal and Geothermal director general Simon Felix Sembiring was quoted by the ASEAN Energy News Service as saying the country has only three briquette plants.

The total output is 90,000 tonnes but the plants are operating at only one third of capacity. He said Indonesian industry needed 300,000 tonnes a year and households ten times that amount.

Plans were announced late last year for the state-owned coal miner PT Tambang Batubara Bukit Asam to build three new briquette factories with an annual capacity of 500,000 tonnes. However these are not expected to start before 2009.

Krisna said that briquettes made from coal were best used in industry because the discharge of poisonous gas made them unsuitable for household use.

His factory also makes charcoal briquettes for the Korean, Japanese and Taiwan markets. Again this market has developed following the Korean government banning the manufacture of charcoal to reduce pollution.

These briquettes are widely used for cooking in restaurants.

The manufacture of charcoal is an ancient art, traditionally made by pre-heating timber or coal to drive off the gasses, leaving a lightweight but long-lasting fuel which burns bright at a high temperature. Now the process is done in kilns starved of oxygen.

The US car manufacturer Henry Ford is credited with inventing the charcoal briquette using sawdust from his factories.

Krisna said that sourcing suitable sawdust and wood chips was getting difficult as other manufacturers were attracted to the industry. So he has just opened another factory at Mojokerto south east of Surabaya to make pulp packaging from recycled newsprint and cardboard.

“Styrofoam is no longer wanted as mouldings to protect electronic equipment in transit,” he said. “The industry now demands less toxic packaging so we’re meeting that demand.”

Despite his skills in spotting local trade opportunities generated by laws overseas, Krisna, 36, would much rather be at the keyboard of his piano than his laptop. He’s an accomplished classical and jazz musician.

A devotee of the 19th century Polish composer Frederic Chopin, Krisna wishes his finger work on the ivories was equal to his nimble business acumen.

Contracts are being negotiated with importers in Greece, Switzerland and Denmark keen to get Indocharcoal’s products. If this eventuates maybe a trip to Europe will follow with a side stop in Warsaw to soak up the atmosphere.

“It’s very difficult to appreciate European culture and music in Indonesia,” Krisna said. “It’s also hard to earn an income as a concert pianist in Surabaya. This is a city of commerce, not culture. So I make money by recycling and make music for pleasure.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 April 06)



Monday, April 24, 2006



Memo to Philanthropic Culture Vultures: Modern performance space and dedicated gallery urgently required to showcase East Java talent. Help struggling artists get the audience they deserve.

Rewards guaranteed: Your name will ring from the rafters and your reputation chanted in every quarter where the creative gather. Well, at least until the next financial crisis.

“It’s a serious problem,” said Farid Syamlan, manager of Galeri Surabaya in the heart of Indonesia’s second biggest metropolis.

“We keep asking the city council for a good place to hang paintings, but they keep saying there’s no money.”

So this month’s Jambore Kebudayan (Cultural Jamboree) is being squeezed into some hot little rooms centred around Balai Pemuda (Youth Hall) in Jl Gubernur Suryo, the nearest thoroughfare Surabaya has to a boulevard.

The overall location could hardly be better; it’s easy to see and access. There’s plenty of parking. However the facilities will deter all but the most hard-wired devotees of culture.

Sadly the casual visitor will rapidly decide that viewing art is best done outside a sauna and head for the nearest shopping mall and a fix of iced coffee. They won’t be intellectually challenged, but they will stay cool.

So all applause to the artists who are determined to exhibit their skills and display their ideas whatever the conditions.

People like Novita Sechan, 27, from Sidoarjo whose acrylic abstracts have style and depth, the colors good enough to eat. The mother of a young baby, Novita finds time not only to paint but also to take visitors around her works and explain her obsession with form and color. She’s also the exhibition’s producer.

Then there’s the versatile Thoyib Tamsar, 58, who works in coarse fabrics to create mythical three-dimensional monsters. He’s also at home with oils portraying Biblical scenes, like Noah filling the Ark to save wildlife from the rising flood.

His work has an apocalyptic feel with great creatures wrestling to the death as in sci-fi fantasies, but he handles light well and offers canvases that aren’t easy to pass by or forget.

Novita, who studied at the State University of Surabaya, agreed that most of the 11 artists featured were drawing on European styles and subjects. She could offer little explanation, other than the dominance of Western art and the globalisation of culture.

It’s as though the conventional art schools have said the norms of Paris and London determine what is or isn’t art. But this approach cramps the experimental that might find root in the fertile lushness of East Java. It takes courage to be different in art, as in politics.

The exhibition has the usual look-alike Balinese maidens flaunting their smooth shoulders and plump breasts, and still life from the salons which could have come from any era. Only some angular kampung children by Fauzie Muhammad, 49, carry a sense of place and a whiff of Java.

“In Indonesia Yogya leads with original work,” said Autar Abdillah, secretary general of the Surabaya Arts Council. “After that comes Bali, Jakarta and Bandung. Surabaya is way behind.

“It wasn’t always like this, but the arts scene has been slow here for the past decade. We can use some lovely buildings but have to compete with handicraft exhibitions, educational seminars and traders from Yogya who book the space.

“So we’ve nothing really dedicated to show art except a few rooms at the side.”

The multicoloured domed Balai Pemuda can seat 150 people, the theatre alongside 300. Both are relics from the colonial past, jolly on the outside but acoustically flawed. (The larger Taman Budya (Culture Park) in Jl Gentengkali is used for dance and wayang.)

The Dutch Club (“forbidden to natives and dogs” according to an historical plaque) once dominated the Balai Pemuda. But this has been demolished. A local government tourist office uses one part of the complex and keeps to itself. There’s a cinema alongside showing the standard gorefests.

Integration and coordination of history and modern culture, plus a bit of landscaping to create a real arts centre would make the site a splendid attraction.

Despite these drawbacks a special quality of this event (and many others staged in the same spot) is the willingness of the artists to relax and reflect on their work.

Unlike many exhibitions in the West where the drawcard vanishes to his or her hideaway once the first night drinks have been drained, East Java artists are accessible. So the visitor can actually sit down (usually on the sidewalk) and discuss the aesthetics without feeling pressured by a gallery owner desperate to put a red dot on the frame.

After the art comes theatre, with six campuses putting on short plays. The Gresik based community Teater Payung Hitam (Black Umbrella Theatre) that has performed in Australia will stage workshops; the company is supported by a cement manufacturer.

The ticket prices won’t rip your wallet. The best seats in the house cost only Rp 30,000 (US $3.20) and students get in for half price.

Again there’ll be plenty of opportunity for interaction with playwrights and performers at the end of the shows. Surabaya’s creative folk tend to be humble and introspective – sinetron poseurs they are not. So whatever you think of the scripts and direction you’ll get a chance to question the creators and stir their ideas.

Try doing that on Broadway or the West End.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 22 April 06)

Saturday, April 22, 2006



On 21 April Indonesians celebrated Kartini Day. This recalls the brief life of Javanese emancipist Raden Ajeng Kartini who campaigned for women to be educated and independent. She died in 1904 aged 25.

Has her advocacy brought great changes? Not according to Duncan Graham:

Compared to their Middle East sisters, Indonesian women are liberated. The nation’s fifth president was a woman. There are women in high places in government and business, though not many. Only eight per cent of legislators are women.

To the average hail-and-farewell visitor who just notes dress and public behavior, females seem as free as in the West. But try looking deeper.

A good place to start is newspaper WANTED columns for sales and administration. The requirements are specific: Good command of English and maybe Mandarin, a degree from a top university and experience.

Plus something extra not seen in Western countries where discrimination is illegal: Must be under 25 and attractive. Photo required.

So however incandescent your intellect and diligent your record, if you’re blemished by acne or past the quarter century don’t bother applying.

The visible workforce in the flash offices is overwhelmingly female and young. Older women survive only in the government or in backroom jobs. Being unmarried and over 30 is a single-life sentence; if unemployed prospects are minimal.

The demand for secretarial jobs is huge; some of the best and brightest from prestigious tertiary institutions are rotting behind reception desks and customer service counters across the archipelago.

They may be polymaths outside but in the workplace their greatest challenge is serving tea without spilling. Their role is decorative and subservient.

They’re employed as eye candy for the men who come to do business with their boss. They make his coffee, order the cakes for his meetings and buy his cigarettes – often with their own money.

They are not expected to contribute ideas or opinions; that’s a male domain. The only power they exercise is the photocopier switch.

Before their beauty fades they’re expected to get married and leave – to be replaced by the next crop of campus cuties. They have no career path and can only rise through longevity.

The Government’s Manpower Department (the name’s a giveaway) determines wages and working hours but these are not policed. White-collar unions are largely toothless and in some cases have been bought off by management.

Working for a multinational is little different from a local company. Even overseas-funded religious schools think office staff can survive on Rp 1 million (US$ 110) a month.

Staff are frequently ordered to work back without notice. Although secretaries are supposed to be paid overtime the hassle of getting approval after the event means few bother.

Sick leave is rarely taken because the wrath that follows is worst than the illness. Her fortnight’s leave has to coincide with her boss’s holidays. A boss who recognises his underlings as fellow humans with needs and concerns is a rarity

For the privilege of working a secretary will be lucky to start with more than Rp 1.5 million (US $170) a month in the big cities, and a lot less elsewhere.

Clerk Dewi is a composite character drawn from many models. She works as a secretary for a multinational in Surabaya. She frequently has to translate head office instructions in English for her monolingual boss.

Dewi lives in a kos (boarding house) about 10 km from the office and gets Rp 1.7 million a month. Ideally she’d live with her parents, but they’re in another town. This is her monthly budget.

· Transport: Rp 250,000. (She uses bemo (mini busses) but has to change twice; each stage costs Rp 2,000.)
· Meals: Cooking is not allowed in her kos, so all meals have to be taken outside. Rp 600,000. (She eats in warung (roadside cafes) and budgets Rp 20,000 a day for the simplest and cheapest meals.)
· Laundry, make up and hairdressing: Rp 160,000.
· Accommodation: Rp 600,000.

Clearly there’s no room for unexpecteds or luxuries. She gets a uniform and launders this herself. Her private time is spent washing, ironing and maintaining appearances. She has nothing left for entertainment or travel. Health care is covered by company insurance but there’s a monthly limit.

Her Idul Fitri bonus of a month’s extra salary is spent on clothes and presents – and money for her parents.

The kos is the best she can afford. It’s a 10 square metre room with plywood partitions sub-dividing a lounge in a shabby private house. There’s a rough single bed and a wardrobe; no linen. Lighting is a one 15-watt globe.

She shares a small bathroom with six other working women and has to be in by 9 pm every night. Her door is secured by a tiny padlock. Petty theft is common.

Neither working nor living conditions would be tolerated for a moment by any Australian. But in Indonesia complaints result in dismissal or eviction, and there’s no shortage of more docile candidates.

No wonder most believe they can be rescued only through marriage. Dear God, may the next customer be Mr Right.

At a personal level it’s dreary and depressing, but in broader terms there’s a more serious issue: How can a country hope to prosper if the talents and education of half the population are ignored?

Kartini, where are your successors?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 April 06)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

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WE’RE AS OLD AS WE THINK © Duncan Graham 2006

If you’re planning a long life remember this: It’s quality, not quantity, which counts.

“For healthy ageing keep your body fit and mind active,” advised Singaporean psychologist Dr Ng Li-Ling from Changi General Hospital. “Also avoid head injury by wearing protection on motorcycles and bikes and while playing sport.

“On current projections the number of people who will get Alzheimer’s disease will double in the next 25 years with 4.6 million new cases every year.

“Two thirds of the cases will be in developing countries like Indonesia. The rate of diagnosis is likely to be 300 per cent greater in Asian countries than the West.

“This disease isn’t linked to affluence and at the moment it’s untreatable. But research does show that educated people who stay mentally alert are at less risk.

“The other factor is getting early medical advice. It may not be dementia. It could be delirium and can be treated.”

Alzheimer’s disease was first diagnosed 100 years ago. It’s a progressive dementia (loss of brain power) that attacks the structure and chemistry of the brain.

Sufferers find it increasingly hard to remember things and people, to communicate and reason. The stress on families can be overwhelming

There’s no single gene for the disease and the cause is unknown though age, lifestyle and head injuries are factors. Almost 25 million people worldwide have the disease. The number in Indonesia isn’t known.

Dr Ng, vice president of the Alzheimer’s Association in Singapore has been at the Lawang mental hospital to discuss issues in psycho geriatrics with staff and professionals from other towns in East Java.

Together with another psychologist Dr Donald Yeo, medical social worker Ms Yeo Seok Tin and occupational therapist Ms Koh Hwan Jing the team ran a week of workshops supported by the Singapore International Foundation (SIF).

This is a not-for-profit organisation operating since 1991 that sends volunteers around the world to help developing nations.

Other SIF projects in East Java include training trainers in occupational dermatology in Malang, helping with information technology in Surabaya and neonatal intensive care in Madiun.

Team leader Dr Ng stressed that the Singaporeans’ experiences wouldn’t necessarily translate well into the Indonesian situation. Everything had to be considered and adapted to suit local conditions.

Nor was it a case of outside experts coming in with wise words.

“When I was a young student I got lots of help from many people,” she said. “I volunteered for this assignment because I want to share my knowledge with others. We’re also here to learn how Indonesia is handling mental health.”

Her colleague Dr Yeo said there were many myths about ageing brains. These included the adage ‘you can’t treat an old dog new tricks’, and that new brain cells can’t be created.

“There’s new and growing evidence that adult brains are capable of growing neurons (nerve cells and their appendages),” he said.

“New experiences create new connections between neurons. There’s more transfer of information between the hemispheres of the brain in elderly people. The integration of thought processes increases in the brains of active ageing people.”

Tests for dementia that might work in Singapore could fail in East Java because of different cultural values, he said. Patients with low education may be unfamiliar with testing procedures or be confused by the examiner’s language.

Researchers in Singapore had often found more accurate information on a patient’s behavior from the family’s maid because embarrassed relatives wanted to downplay the problems.

Commented Dr Ng: “There’s still a stigma associated with mental disease and the community needs accurate information. Some countries are launching a Mind Your Brain public health campaign to lift awareness. I think that’s great.

“One day we’ll find a cure and I’ll have no work. I’d love to be out of a job!”


The Lawang Mental Hospital is the biggest in Indonesia and one of four controlled by the central government. Others are either private or run by regional authorities.

The thick walled, high ceiling wards are more than 100 years old and set on a rolling 350-hectare site in the foothills north of Malang. They’re a monument to the ‘ethical’ policy of the Dutch administration, a change of heart towards its colonies in the 19th century.

In 1862 a survey of the district showed 600 people in need of mental care. Three years later a small hospital was built followed by the present complex in 1902.

Just before the war it had 4,200 patients. But with the opening of other facilities the bed number has dropped to 700. The average stay is four months. There are almost as many employees as patients.

Treatment of the mentally ill has changed in recent years. Professionals now have access to a pharmacy of drugs to lift depression, abate anger and stabilise moods. Better understanding of issues such as urban stress, grief and hormonal imbalance have also helped patients recover and return to their jobs.

Except in areas where criminals or dangerous people are held, many bars have been removed from the hospital softening the institutional ambience. Overall the place is therapeutically calm and refreshingly spacious.

Day clinics, therapy, counselling and other non-chemical approaches to mental health have also reduced the need for patients to be kept locked up and out of sight.

But in the community mental illness is often seen as the wrath of God visited on sinful parents. The old attitudes persist: If someone’s mad, they’re bad.

When a sick or injured person is admitted to a hospital there’s usually widespread support for the family. That’s not always the case if the treatment is in an asylum.

Although the practice is less common now, Lawang psychologist I Wayan Gara remembers getting regular calls from the police on the nearby highway. They were reporting mentally sick people who’d been dumped by relatives too shamed to seek help.

“Many families with a mentally ill relative first go to a paranormal,” he said. “Later they might visit a community health centre, and only later a hospital.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 April 06)


Sunday, April 16, 2006



And farewell Miss V, you won’t be missed either.

Who are these curious characters? They appear in Indonesian women’s magazines and newspaper Agony Aunt columns where the authors coyly slither past the correct terms for male and female genitalia.

Miss V is a misnomer. In a nation where sex, like investment is not permitted without a certificate, surely she should be Mrs V?

Fortunately the Initial Family won’t be here much longer according to modern linguists. They reckon these nudge-nudge, wink-wink dodos are doomed to extinction.

Just as ‘WC’ has been replaced by the more direct word ‘toilet’, so we’ll start to call things by their proper names as we feel more relaxed.

So welcome penis and vagina to the real world. You shouldn’t be so shy. Both have a place in the Education Department’s Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI). This is the Soviet-sounding authoritative reference to the language so your legitimacy is assured.

I’m sorry you’ve been kept under cover for so long and hope you enjoy your newfound freedom. It may be short-lived. Beware the proposed anti-pornography bill; if this becomes law you may have to be euphemised again. Or should that be euthanised?

Why are so many words now in English? Maybe because the choice is so limited. There are only around 80,000 Indonesian words and now almost one million in English.

No wonder bi-lingual viewers are often nonplussed when listening to the English soundtrack on a film while reading the translation beneath.

‘Give it a shake!’ said an impatient character to her boyfriend in the film Urban Myths shown on local TV. The translation was cepat-cepat (hurry, hurry) which wasn’t too bad. But it didn’t quite catch the scent of the original as in this scene the man was paying a call to nature. In other words, urinating.

Along with stories about floods, landslips, corruption and demonstrations, another regular theme appears in the news: Demands to cleanse Indonesian of the avian influenza of English now sweeping the globe.

In multilingual countries one language is always considered higher and more advanced than the others. Using imports is supposed to show you’re educated and technically literate, in the fast lane.

If the English word is shorter and easier to say – like ‘stop’ instead of berhenti or ‘sorry’ in place of ma’af, then people will use the foreign term.

‘Say No To Drugs’ is snappy and taut. That would take two polysyllabic lines in Indonesian and we always prefer the minimalist approach. Look at narkoba (drugs). This is the telescoped version of narkotika dan obat-obatan terlarang (narcotics and prohibited drugs.)

In 1995 the KBBI said words from regional languages should be used when there were no suitable Indonesian equivalents. Now the policy is to jump straight into English if there’s nothing to wear in the local word wardrobe.

Computer technology and the Internet are giving Indonesian an awful hammering. The purists would like us to use laman (from halaman – backyard) but it can’t compete with ‘homepage’. Nor will balikan (return / change) oust ‘feedback’.

The most widely used English-Indonesian-English dictionary remains the one written by John Echols and Hassan Shadily. The first edition was in 1960.

It seems scholars in Indonesia are too busy translating Harry Potter to prepare a new one. Or is the language being anglicised so rapidly a dictionary will be redundant?

Don’t assume a purloined phrase maintains its virginity once it enters the Archipelago. If you think travel is a verb you’re in for a surprise. In East Java it’s been given noun status, meaning a mini-bus that takes you door to door.

Many linguists reckon there’ll eventually be an Indonesian English, just as Singlish has developed in Singapore. It took ten years in the Fine City – perhaps it will take 25 to evolve here, lah.

Pedants propose rules. But it’s impossible to legislate the preservation of language or force people to lay their tongue to certain words. The pressure is bottom-up.

Woops! Let’s make that ‘use certain words’ and ‘from the grassroots’ just in case prudes think this column is a supplement to the Karma Sutra. The only position being promoted here is the liberation of language from the corsets of conservatism.

(First published in the SundayPost 2 April 06)



Could the little village of Pacet in the hills outside Surabaya become the eco-tourism centre of East Java?

It certainly has the credentials: Dense forests, steep slopes, spectacular waterfalls and fertile valleys. History for the finding. Culture for the curious.

But first these assets have to be spruced up, made safe, properly packaged and sold to cautious locals and nervous visitors.

This is the self-imposed task set by environmentalist Suryo Prawiroatmodjo. He’s a former Surabaya Zoo veterinary surgeon turned Greenie who lives in Pacet, 90 minutes by road from the East Java capital.

He knows the district’s potential having been the pioneer founder of Seloliman, the internationally famous environmental education centre on the slopes of nearby Mt Penanggungan.

This is the sacred mountain of the 14th Century Majapahit kingdom and literally littered with the remnants of pre-Islamic Java. Archaeological surveys have found more than 100 sites, though not all are being preserved. (See sidebar.)

“Before the first Bali bomb European, American and Australian backpackers often included Pacet on their itineraries,” said Suryo.

“I’ve accompanied many foreigners on nature tours and I know what they want. They’re seeking a clean and unspoilt environment and a positive experience, preferably unique. They want to interact with ordinary people and learn about their lives.”

In some villages Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice, is still recognised with ceremonies held to ensure a bountiful crop. Attending such rare and unusual events could be a major attraction to the travel weary fed up with the commonplace and predictable.

These unpublicised celebrations are the real thing, not cut-down versions stage-managed for tourists.

The soil is so fertile in Pacet that rice farmers can get three harvests a year. This means that in many locations the visitor can see rice being planted in one field, fertilised in another and harvested in a third.

Other attractions are the nearby village of Trowulan, once the capital of the 13th Century Majapahit kingdom, now a centre for many archaeological sites. There’s a good museum and most locations are easily accessible by becak (pedicab).

But where could groups of visitors stay? There are plenty of hotels in nearby Tretes, a well-known red light district. But these are for local trade and packed most weekends with escapees from the smog of Surabaya. Listening to paunchy businessmen croaking the tycoon’s anthem I Did It My Way is not a recommended Saturday night experience for the sensitive.

A year ago Suryo was negotiating with the beautifully located Grand Trawas Hotel to sell the district to ecotourists. Although the management was more interested in promoting clear air and birdsong than karaoke, the discussions led nowhere.

Now he’s talking to the Sativa Hotel, owned by the Wismilak tobacco company. This offers cottage accommodation in herb gardens with Majapahit era statuary and is more like an Ubud resort than an East Java hedonistic high rise.

Pacet is well located for travellers exploring Java. It’s also ideal for Europeans heading for Australia and working their way south through Indonesia, stopping in Jakarta, Yogya and Bali. Just add one more stop between the last two locations.

Unlike Bali, East Java doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with overseas visitors. Drive-yourself hire cars and organised tours are rare. Getting to Pacet by public transport means hiring a car and driver, or using busses, mini vans and ojek (motorcycle taxis).

Fine for the adventurous. Others might think that swinging through potholed roads following the crumbling contours minus helmet could test the fine print in their travel insurance. And organised tour groups – the market most likely – usually want all comforts provided.

Some walk trails have been mapped and graded for ease. But many require safety rails in key locations and slippery slopes resurfaced.

One of Suryo’s favorite views is into a valley where ancient trees, long dead, still stand supported by wild figs. Birds transported the fig seeds to the giants’ upper branches. The figs grew vigorously sending vines down to the forest floor, creating scaffolding strong enough to support their decaying host.

The thickly timbered valleys have been saved from the machete and chain saw because they’re legally protected. More importantly they’re believed to be the home of forest spirits. Disturbance could arouse wrath. Tree-clad slopes seldom suffer landslips. Don’t laugh at the old myths; they’re as effective as modern conservation practices backed by legislation.

Suryo and his colleagues in the environment movement are now organising meetings with local community leaders to get their support. A decade ago the sight of blondes in khaki shorts and rugged rucksacks wandering through villages and chatting to the locals excited no alarm.

However the economic crisis, the loss of East Timor and terrorist attacks have ratcheted up suspicion. Occasionally authorities unfamiliar with past tourism think that groups of Westerners straying beyond their hotel pools may be up to no good. So the project has to be explained in detail.

The other concern is raising expectations too high. When foreigners were a regular sight the economy was boosted by sales of food and handicrafts. Those who remember the mini boom would expect its rapid return.

“It’s going to take time to get visitors back,” Suryo admitted. “Travel warnings aren’t helping. There won’t be any great rush. In the meantime we’re bringing classes from schools in Surabaya here so they can learn more about nature.

“One idea being canvassed is for a supplementary charge to be included in any group tour costs to help maintain the environment, just as national parks impose entry fees. This income would have to be directed to a charitable organisation to ensure all locals benefit.”

In the meantime anyone who’s familiar with Indonesia, likes walking and who doesn’t mind roughing it a little should have no problems negotiating their way around Pacet. Wear strong boots and a hat. The locals are keen to help and local transport is available for hire.

The extent of the work required was obvious when Suryo took a group around the lookouts and forests. Facilities are few and rubbish disposal is still a problem.

But Suryo is no stranger to such a tough task. As a member of the Green Indonesia Foundation he was promoting conservation in the dark days of Suharto when earth keepers were considered to be the kin of communists.

He convinced the government that ecological issues were important and got the required permits. International awards followed for his persistence and success. Then came money from the World Wildlife Fund to build centres in Bali, South Sulawesi and elsewhere.

Now his opponents are disquiet and distrust. East Java is certainly all the wonderful things outlined in this story – but the novice overseas visitor’s first and last question is sadly: “But is it safe?”

Suryo and his friends are determined that the answer will remain “Yes” – and the greatest danger will be slipping off a moss-covered rock while negotiating a stream.

If you’re allergic to crowds and want the place to yourself – get in early.


Mount Penanggungan at 1,650 metres is not a scenically striking sight when compared to its prominent neighbours Arjuna and Welirang. Compensation is in the shape and cultural significance.

Below the round summit are four minor peaks. The mountain’s topography convinced the Javanese that their ancient volcano was the duplicate of the Indian holy mountain Mount Mahameru.

Legend says this had been magically transported from the sub continent to the archipelago to become the mother mountain of Hindu and Buddhist religions.

There are more than 100 known temples and other sites on Penanggungan’s slopes covering more than 500 years starting in the late 10th century. Other remnants of past civilisations can be found in Trowulan, around Malang and in Pacet.

These include the recently discovered Buddha Akshobya which may be 700 years old. Unfortunately the well-weathered stone has now been institutionalised, shut into a tasteless railed pavilion (in case it escapes) flanked by rusting government signs.

That hasn’t been the fate of another artefact. Its flat base faces uphill, indicating it probably tumbled from a site above, maybe during an earthquake. The head is missing, but the carvings indicate an arm and a sash. It lies where it fell amongst the trees. Its history is open to speculation and the other body parts await discovery.

The locals are happy to point out these marvels which are not well signposted. Visitors interested in history and culture should find such raw remnants of lost civilisations a highlight of their trip. Pacet is do-it-yourself archaeology.


Seloliman, the environmental education centre, has pleasant bungalow accommodation and conservation activities on many days. See This website includes a good map and instructions on reaching the place by public transport through Mojokerto or Pandaan on the Surabaya – Malang road.

Cars with a driver can be hired in Surabaya or Malang for around Rp 250,000 (US$ 27) a day plus fuel. Hirers also pay for the driver’s food and accommodation.

To avoid misunderstandings and make your stay more enjoyable, hire a local guide. Fees can be negotiated; Rp 100,000 (US$ 11) a day plus food for a knowledgeable person with some English (if required) is a good starting point.

There are guesthouses and hotels in the area that cater for backpackers through to executives. It’s worth getting there early and looking around for something which suits. Avoid weekends and public holidays when the roads are often packed and accommodation limited. Weekday rooms are usually discounted.

(First published in the Sunday Post 2 April 2006)



Women in Business

Nur Saidah had some misgivings when offered a secretary’s job with an Indian firm starting business on Surabaya’s outskirts.

The company was building a steelworks on 16.5 hectares of rice fields at Sidoarjo, far from her home. Public transport was bad, the roads often flooded. She reckoned she’d have to walk barefoot to work in the wet season to preserve her shoes.

The industry is rough, hot and dirty. It’s a tough guy’s business. There’s no glamour in molten metal or fashion in steel-capped boots. Hard hats muss hairdos.

But she gave it a go – and 30 years later knows she made the right decision.

So does her employer – Mittal Steel, now striving to be the world’s number one steel producer with a US $22.6 billion takeover offer for Europe’s Arcelor.

Mittal’s first venture overseas was into Indonesia. Curbs on steel production by the Indian government is said to have been a factor in the move to East Java; other versions have the young Lakshmi N Mittal wanting to make his own way. His Dad, Mohan Lal Mittal, had a steel mill in Kolkata (Formerly Calcutta).

Nur remembers the early days well. Now 53, with two children and married to a Pertamina employee, she’s combined career and family. Her position is deputy general manager in personnel and general affairs at PT Ispat Indo. (Ispat means steel in Hindi).

Despite the lack of a university degree Nur has risen with the company to heights seldom scaled in Indonesia by secretaries with no family connections to the firm.

“When Lakshmi Mittal came here with his wife Usha and young son in 1976 he spoke little Indonesian,” she recalled. “He was only 26. I was hired because I understood English. But Indians speak so quickly – it was very difficult.”

She persevered and gained her boss’s trust. She also set out to learn everything about walking hearth furnaces, roughing trains and other steel talk.

This knowledge was essential as Nur became the go between, attending every meeting, translating Lakshmi’s plans to workers who’d never seen a steelworks.

And this was no ordinary mill, but a state-of-the-art investment in the latest technology, then costing US $ 15 million. Her language had to be precise, her knowledge exact. She also had to be conscious of cultural differences.

At first there were only 200 workers but the plant grew quickly. Now there are 760 on the payroll and a further 500 contractors, working the mill 24 / 7 making rolls of wire. Production has multiplied tenfold from an original 60,000 tonnes a year.

Billets of steel are heated by electric arc and forced through a caster several hundred metres long. This gradually squeezes the hot metal into a smaller diameter. One unit can produce 100 metres of wire a second and is still the fastest in Asia.

As the business expanded, so did Nur’s responsibilities. Now she’s a boss, travels every year to Amsterdam where Mittal is headquartered, and regularly visits steel plants in other countries.

By 1989 Ispat Indo was well established and the company ready for its next move. The first stop outside India had been Surabaya. The second was to be the world.

Under the banner The LNM Group, Mittal bought an iron and steel company in Trinidad and a few years later moved into Mexico. From then on advances were rapid – Canada, Germany, France, South Africa, Algeria, Romania, Poland, the USA and the Czech Republic.

Nur’s boss is now either the world’s third or fifth richest man, depending on which list you read. Labelled by the British press as the King of Steel, the pound sterling billionaire also owns what’s reported to be the world’s most expensive house in central London, bought for US $128.25 million (Rp 1,178 billion).

His 29-year old son Aditya, who went to school in Surabaya, is also in the family business as head of mergers and acquisitions.

“Lakshmi still calls me Mrs Nur and always treats me with respect,” said Nur. “When we have meetings overseas he asks me to sit alongside him.

“It’s a very decent family and always polite. They believe in equality and quality. Their philosophy is that every job must be done properly, however lowly and simple. And I expect that from my staff. Whatever they do it must be done perfectly – even if it’s just serving refreshments.

“To be successful in business you must know exactly what you’re doing. You must give loyalty and expect loyalty. Take your responsibilities seriously.

“I believe in open communication. When I’m faced with a problem I try to handle it immediately. I’ve learned never to give up, to always find a way around a difficulty.

“Women in business need to be able to take care of themselves and not expect to be spoilt. I usually travel alone overseas, even in places like Kazakhstan. If we behave professionally people treat us as professionals.”

Analysts overseas have credited Mittal’s rise and rise on its ability to scour the world to source low-cost scrap metal and sponge iron as feedstock. Mittal is famous for buying state-owned loss-making plants, cutting costs, sacking the idle and turning a profit, though ventures in Ireland and Slovakia failed. China’s booming economy and great hunger for steel has seen the world price double in the past few years.

Nur said the Mittal family was always interested in installing the latest technology in their factories and ensuring they were never overtaken by progress.

Because Mittal’s plants are spread across the globe she gets messages at all times of the day and night. Her day’s activities can’t be determined by local schedules.

“The Japanese have a reputation for hard work, but in my experience the Indians work harder,” Nur said.

“They are also fanatical about getting a good education. One of the problems we have in Indonesia is that not enough people think education is important for the future of the nation.

“University graduates today are seldom prepared to start small and learn the basics. We have to grab the opportunities, to begin at the bottom and work hard. Everything depends on the individual.

“At the end of the day remember that new challenges are always waiting and we must be prepared. Keep in mind that whatever we do today it will not be enough for tomorrow.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Monday 3 April 2006)



© Duncan Graham 2006

Thanks to the TV companies’ commitment to lifting the national knowledge base I’m smarter, wiser - and more evil.

You thought TV means television? Wrong, foolish reader. It stands for Teaching Violence.

I now know how to commit suicide, raise the devil, fleece the poor, torment the vulnerable, hide the loot then corrupt the evidence. And kill.

By gun, knife, poison, pillow, car, pitfall, rope, fire, electricity and water.

Much of this information is fresh. I wasn’t aware of the best cord for a good hanging or the appropriate knot. Thanks to TV these details are now clear.

Shooting and stabbing was old hat. I’d been taught gun skill in army cadets by a sadistic sergeant (is there any other type?) Don’t fire at the head – it’s too small a target. Gut shots disable best.

Thrust bayonets into stomachs like this, then twist the blade to let air into the wound and the blood spurt down the grooved blade.

That was ages ago, but the brute must have led a charmed life because he’s now the principal advisor to Indonesian sinetrons.

While other directors leave gore to the imagination, sinetron producers believe their audience has the IQ of a boiled egg. You don’t understand that this phial contains poison even though it’s being held at arm’s length over a pot of steaming bakso by a crazed harridan? Zoom in for a close up. Hold for several minutes. Nasty, bubbling red liquid. Red for danger, right?

More educational has been the conjuring of demons from the underworld. Maybe you missed it? No worries, it’ll be in another episode or a different station anytime soon. Prefer to get your kicks from CNN? OK, here’s the drum.

Darken the house. The electricity authority PLN can do this for you if you ignore their bill. Alternatively turn off the lights.

Garner heavy drapes and lots of candles. Visit your local concrete caster and buy a few reject gnomes, the more grotesque the better. The district abattoir can supply goat skulls. Put these in a horseshoe around a smoky fire.

Squat in the open gap. Wear weird clothes and lots of rings. Don’t shave for a week. This advice if for warlocks. For witches it’s gratuitous.

A headdress with writhing snakes is de rigueur for graduates of the black arts. Consult an imaginative metal worker. If he’s suspicious say it’s for an opera. Don’t mention soap.

Once comfortably cross-legged toss a powder in the flames. Flour is not recommended as it tends to extinguish. The fire, not common sense; that’s gone already. Chant gibberish and move hands as though stroking a black cat or smoothing a smothering pillow.

With any misfortune a ghastly phantom will arise from the netherworld, wreathed in smoke, awesome to behold. His or her head will be human, with long fangs for bloodsucking. The body will be of a snake, cat, tiger, croc or spider – anything that made it into the Ark will make it into a sinetron.

This satanic being will then laugh a lot, spin like a politician’s statement and vanish to do your bidding. This means getting a blood fix and scaring the souls out of people you don’t like while they take short cuts through graveyards wreathed in blue mist.

I haven’t tried this Macbeth stuff yet because my Indonesian isn’t up to the incantations. But since our maid was growled for burning the breakfast rice last week I fear the surly lass may now be gathering ingredients for a punishing payback.

Why? Because following the logic of the morality morons who say exposure to porn produces perverts, watching violence must lead to doing violence.

A few more sessions of TV and I’ll be the nation’s top serial killer, garrotting, disembowelling and dismembering. Thanks to sinetron I’ll be able to out-rip the Jack and make Claudius look like a Roman romantic.

My neighbours, who say they watch the same programs, are honing their machetes and blessing their Kris even as you read. The slaughterhouse has exhausted its stock of skulls, the supermarket its candles. Come the full moon our once happy street will flood with blood.

You – have – been – forewarned!
(First published in the Sunday Post 9 April 2006)



Barry Clark knew the project was a goer when he saw the classroom decorated with posters, mobiles and colored drawings.

“It was a cheerful place, much like a school in Australia and nothing like the drab places of the past,” he said. “Clearly the messages about making learning fun in a stimulating environment were being accepted.”

The veteran aid administrator has seen a lot of projects over his 12 years in Indonesia. Not all have been so hopeful – though not for want of goodwill.

Demands change, time gets devoured by talk and reality swamps flow charts. Hopes surface only to get drowned by torrents of paper. Fickle fate doesn’t spare aid projects, however much goodwill and cash has been invested.

“However this project has the best chance of any I’ve seen of continuing,” Clark said in his Malang office.

“The Indonesia-Australia Partnership in Basic Education (IAPBE) has been well designed and it’s extremely effective. So far it’s had a positive and potentially lasting impact for about 55,000 kids in East Java.”

Clark has just taken over IAPBE after the previous team leader Geoff Sanderson returned to Australia for family reasons.

The AUD $9.1 million (Rp 64,000 million) project started in 2004 and has only a year left. However it has built up such a momentum that Clark believes it may well survive.

Not all projects keep going after the major donor stops filling the fuel tank. A program may have merit but the decision makers can have other priorities. The best hope for continuity comes when ordinary people see the merit and demand maintenance

Indonesia is still a nation in transition. The new policy is decentralisation – and that includes education. After more than 30 years of authoritarian rule power is being stripped from Jakarta and passed to the provinces.

It all seems highly commendable, but there’s one big problem. Few administrators in the regions have decision-making skills. In the past they’d run to Jakarta for direction; now they have to run the show themselves.

The economic crisis of 1997 compounded the situation. Hundreds of thousands of families pulled their kids out of school to save costs. A generation was in danger of being lost to ignorance. They need to be coaxed back to their desks.

Principals and teachers faced further difficulties when a new Education Act was passed in 2003 promoting the Competency Based Curriculum and emphasising school development. This included getting the community involved in decision-making – a novel experience for many parents.

All very democratic. But how are local governments supposed to handle these bigger responsibilities?

At the time the Australian government’s overseas aid program AusAID had no projects covering the first nine years of schooling. The post-Suharto aid policy was now concentrating on helping Indonesians get access to basic social services. There were clear needs at all levels.

In association with the Indonesian government, the Offices of Education and the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the IAPBE project opened in the East Java districts of Jember, Jombang and Gresik in April 2004.

“This project doesn’t interfere with the curriculum or the regulations which are set by the Indonesian government,” said Clark. “Nor is it putting money into schools. We’re not equipment providers.

“We’re offering the expertise so administrators and teachers can do their job better. This happens at local government and in the participating schools”

Apart from Clark two other Australians are employed. All other staff are local and include 25 consultants mainly from universities and 125 full-time trainers. By July there’ll be 450 more district trainers on the payroll.

The 180 participating State schools and Islamic day schools were selected by local governments. Workshops cover issues as diverse as planning a budget and spending the money wisely, through to lesson planning and classroom techniques. In raw terms this means tips on keeping kids keen.

Teachers and administrators, including principals who attend the workshops then have to act as trainers themselves back in their districts.

New rules for running schools and student attendance have been decided. In one town these have been published in the local paper. True transparency reminding readers that education is everyone’s concern, not just a matter for Mums and Dads.

IAPBE also cooperates with the US Aid Managing Basic Education Project and another AusAID program called Creating Learning Communities for Children. This operates in nine provinces, including East Java. The aim is to create “active, joyful and effective learning.”

“It sounds complex and I’m still trying to get my mind around it all,” said Clark. “Amongst the logistics of organisation and administration of a big program like this it’s important that we never get caught up in the jargon and lose sight of the real reason for being here.

“We’re here to help Indonesia provide the next generation with a better education.

“Although IAPBE has already affected 55,000 students there’s a lot more to be done. People want to get their schools involved. Helping create model schools was one of our early goals, and it’s working. Successes can be duplicated.

“Parents, teachers and local governments are seeing results. Their pressure should help sustain this development even when the overseas money runs out.”

(Information on the project in Indonesian and English can be found on )
(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 7 April 2006)




© Duncan Graham 2006

There are mysteries and magics everywhere in Indonesia.

Caves sweating with the musk of seers past. Lofty retreats where gurus meditate to forecast awesome events. Kris charged with paranormal powers.

And then there’s arisan. Duncan Graham sleuths in Surabaya:

As your eyes scan these lines, across the archipelago people are sitting down to a curious ritual, as Indonesian as nasi goreng.

An arisan is ‘a regular social gathering whose members contribute to and take turns at winning an aggregate sum of money.’ So says an authoritative dictionary. But that’s superficial according to sociologist Dede Oetomo.

“Arisan started in the 1960s and as far as I know was introduced by Chinese traders as a way to get business start-up capital,” he said.

“It developed under Suharto as the powers of RT and RW (neighbourhood administrative units) were consolidated, and used as a means of getting people to come together. The same thing happened with dharma wanita (an association for the wives of public servants.)

“At the time banks weren’t considered a reliable way of saving money so arisan filled the gap. In the 1980s they grew to include items like motorbikes and cars.

“They’re hugely popular. Indonesia is an arisan country.”

Dr Oetomo, a special reader in social sciences at the University of Surabaya’s postgraduate program, confessed to being a member of two arisan, one organised by his mother and aunts.

The events tend to be dominated by women. Arisan coordinators from the swish suburbs gather the cash and convert it into big-ticket goodies to add interest. Down in the kampung an arisan in central Surabaya has a 30 kg sack of sugar in the kitty.

Amassing great courage The Jakarta Post penetrated an all female arisan in a private house. The 10 participants were 40-plusses looking like 30 somethings. All graduates of Widya Mandala University in Surabaya, class of 1986. They meet every month in a different location.

Preparations started a day ahead when hostess Dian Purini Indahyani ordered an attic to architrave cleansing. As March coordinator she had to provide the premises and foot the food bill of Rp 550,000 (US $60).

Long before the first arrival the house was loud with Dian snapping orders and directions on her two colored hand phones with speakers. An endless symphony of ring tones from Bach to Boogie. Your reporter, a mere male with just one old device emitting squeaks, was already feeling inadequate.

Caterers wrapped table legs with red and gold sarongs. Well-placed potted plants masked rain stains on the walls. It wouldn’t be Indonesia without polycarbonate chairs and these came on cue.

So did the ladies in all their majesty. An arisan is also a splendid chance to make a fashion statement, to show off make-up, figure, jewellery and cars – but not husbands or other masculine trophies. These had been left elsewhere – presumably some sweatshop where they slave to support their spouses’ flutter.

Dian’s arisan addicts were nothing like the characters in the famous film of that name. (See Sidebar) Slim, smart and sophisticated they came in their dinky metrominis, green, red and blue. No funereal black Kijang’s for these mobile Mums.

Traditional Javanese circumlocution was flicked away with a swirl of skirts. Like Westerners who know the cost of time, they got straight into the talk.

After an hour of robust gossip individual names were put into a pot and a slip withdrawn. One laughing lady. The rest headed for the rice and rissoles while thumbing SMSs homewards: Sorry kids, no ice cream this month.

At one level arisan is much like a sweepstake or office draw with frills. But it’s more than a bit of yarning, a feed and the chance to take home one million rupiah (US $109). There’s a welfare component - the opportunity to share and bond, something women do rather well.

This was made clear after the formalities: A woman distressed over a personal problem was immediately comforted by her compassionate friends. Forget the cash. This is what they came for; to be fortified by lots of hugs, metaphorical and physical.

Can you imagine that happening in a room full of blokes? No wonder the women don’t want men around their arisan.



The low budget satirical comedy Arisan released in 2003 and directed by Nia Dinata, was a big hit in Jakarta and other cities. And not just because it featured a slice of modern Indonesian culture. It also touched on homosexuality, adultery and oral sex – a publicist’s dream.

The film was briefly shown in Australia during a touring festival of Indonesian cinematography leaving many viewers nonplussed.

By Western standards the so-called shocking sex scene featuring a gay kiss was a yawn. The action wasn’t that moving either. Nor was the dialogue. But it wasn’t meant for overseas showing and needs to be seen in the context of Indonesian culture post-Suharto.

It was certainly a refreshing change from the screamfests and teen traumas that have dominated local cinema.

The film centres on the lives of Jakarta’s rich and idle who preen themselves at an up-market arisan. Their tormented private lives contrast with their trendy chat and displays of wealth.

One character is an infertile designer whose husband beds other women. Another is a bit of a nymphomaniac also married to an adulterer. Their male friend is gay. In other words the standard workaday folk we all have as colleagues and neighbours.

Arisan may have done great things at the box office but it confirmed every moral crusader’s deepest suspicions about life in Sin City. If the conservatives get their anti-porn law passed Arisan will be part of the reason.

Dr Oetomo, who is also a prominent gay activist, said at the time that the film was a breakthrough – but nothing similar has followed in its wake.

Perhaps the scriptwriters are making more by scribbling their names on bits of paper and popping them in a pot.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 7 April 2006)