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


© 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)


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