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, May 31, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Today (31 May) is World Anti-Smoking Day – a time to ask: Will any Indonesian government ever Quit?

It seems unlikely whatever the health warnings, for the nation is absolutely, totally addicted to tobacco.

Not necessarily hooked on nicotine but its after effects: The sweet and deeply satisfying taste you get when inhaling large amounts of money.

Last year that came to a reported Rp 30 trillion (US $3.3 billion) which is no incentive to stub out.

Anti-smoking activists argue that if the Indonesian government boosted the tax take it could maintain revenues while discouraging smokers through higher prices. The cost of cigarettes by Western standards is laughably low. Most brands sell for less than one US dollar for a pack of 12. The price in Australia is seven times greater.

Of course a price rise would make addicts fume and they might express their wrath through monster street demos, something the government doesn’t want. Nor do commuters.

Curiously there aren’t likely to be any protests outside the huge tobacco factories in East Java even though they make a product that kills and cripples millions.

That’s because the companies employ tens of thousands who depend on their salaries to stay alive in a country with no social security net to catch the unemployed.

How many Indonesians die from their addiction? Certainly far more than those who perish through the use of narcotics. But don’t expect a Say No To Smokes banner campaign like the one targeting drugs.

(But isn’t nicotine a drug, Daddy? Yes, but it’s made and used by nice, decent, law-abiding and moral folk – so that’s OK.)

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report said 23 per cent of Indonesians over the age of 15 were smoking in 1995. That’s around 40 million people generating more smoke than Merapi.

That same authority claims half of long-term smokers will die from tobacco-related diseases. That’s 20 million unnecessary deaths, the majority gruesomely ghastly as anyone who’s sat by a relative or friend suffering from cancer will confirm. Most victims are men (few women smoke in Indonesia) and likely to be breadwinners, so the families also suffer.

Doctors claim tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death. Before they cough their last most sick smokers spend time in hospital. Logically any reduction in smoking would have a positive effect on health care with beneficial repercussion for those whose illness isn’t self-inflicted.

Faced with these internationally accepted facts you’d expect Indonesian health authorities to be lobbying hard to make the archipelago a smoke-free zone.

No doubt they are but they’re out-gunned by the big battalions and their awesome firepower. In this country these are reported to include not just the manufacturers but also the departments of industry and finance, manpower, industry, trade and agriculture.

They don’t want the government to sign the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – so it hasn’t. However it has been signed by 168 other countries.

Never mind the deaths, the heartbreak, and the loss of family income. Ignore the health facts. Just keep the jobs intact and the taxes flowing.

Stripped of emotion and considered economically Jakarta’s stand against the world’s medical authorities has some benefits.

Smokers keep thousands of hospitals, doctors, nurses and other health professionals employed. The funeral business depends heavily on smokers. So does the advertising industry.

This is one of the few countries left where advertising is legal. The Tourism Department should exploit this for all it’s worth:

Visit Indonesia and see marvellous multi-colored billboards and snappy TV commercials showing happy, fit, well-adjusted, good-looking young people climbing mountains, having fun and adventures, celebrating life – and guess why!

There’s an intellectual component to all this. You won’t see a picture of the product or anyone using it so you might wonder why they’re happy and hopeful? Answer: Because they’re going to meet their Maker sooner than the rest of us!

If Indonesia Quit the jobless would include heart surgeons and grave-diggers, ad agency creative directors and headstone carvers, tobacco farmers and roadside hawkers … Just imagine if they all packed the streets round the House of Representative’s complex and how we’d all get to work.

Big businesses like to talk about their corporate responsibilities. Get real! If the tobacco tzars believed that they’d close their cigarette businesses and open factories making ethical products.

Let’s clear the air for a moment. Too many people and too much money depend on tobacco, so nothing will change.

Many things in Indonesia are compulsory, but smoking is like the takeover of Papua - an act of free choice.

If you decide to ignore all the facts and warnings – well, that’s your decision. But please don’t blow your filthy fumes in the faces of those of us who don’t fancy heart attacks, impotency and cancer.

Just enjoy, ya!

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Wed 31 May 2006)



Monday, May 29, 2006


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It looked like a scene from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

The pampered white-skinned elite toiling barefoot in the broiling sun and black mud of East Java’s rice paddies, swinging hoes. The conical coolie hats were no disguise; it was clear these air-con mall rabbits were right out of their natural environment.

But dig they did – and slash and thresh and plant. Some even tried to wrestle the cumbersome wooden plough dragged behind two frisky buffaloes to the great amusement of their brawny master who handled the primitive tool with dexterity.

“There’s a social awareness component in this exercise,” said science teacher Stien Matakupan from Ciputra, a private school in Surabaya. Lessons are taught in English and the school prepares students for the international Baccalaureate.

“These children come from rich families with maids and gardeners. They’ve probably never been with rice farmers before. This is a good way to broaden minds and develop high-order thinking skills.”

To their great credit the kids really did get dirt under their fingernails. And up their arms and legs and even in their hair. (Tip: Don’t scratch your head when planting rice.) They also cut their hands when wielding sickles, but made little fuss.

Here seemed to be an example of why the Chinese tend to succeed wherever they go – by adapting to the situation.

The feared snakes never slithered out of the stubble and no-one got washed down an irrigation channel so the exercise looked a success.

Stien is an extraordinary teacher whose path as an environmental educator was set by her parents. Most weekends the family, led by her academic father who’d studied in Europe, would get out of Jakarta and into the countryside for picnics. These experiences had a profound effect on their daughter.

In the late 1990s she met Suryo Prawiroatmodjo (see The Jakarta Post 19 April 2005) the founder of the Environmental Education Centre at Seloliman in East Java.

“He was an inspiration and I was determined to promote understanding and care of the land,” she said. “However I found few teachers interested.”

Since then she’s been to Australia, Sweden and Vietnam on scholarships and to boost her knowledge of teaching. She’s a member of Caretakers of the Environment International, a network of educators who share their experiences and teaching techniques across the world.

Ciputra’s high school coordinating principal Andrew Vivian said Stien was “very good at picking up overseas ideas and making them work in Indonesia.”

“She’s pioneered programs and applies a rigorous assessment to practical work,” he said. “She’s a great role model for her colleagues.”

Stien wants students to get out of the classroom and into the field – in this case Purwodadi, a rural village one hour’s drive south of Surabaya.

Ironically the enthusiasm she found among Australian teachers who run hands-on educational excursions has been dampened by the recent imposition of heavy safety and duty-of-care requirements.

Occasional accidents have led to court action and the payment of big damages. Now classes must be accompanied by teachers trained in first aid and life saving, while special insurance cover has escalated costs.

Such litigation has yet to become common in Indonesia so more flexibility is allowed.

This must have been a difficult event to coordinate.

I got permission late last year, so it’s taken six months. Of course some parents were anxious. We had to postpone the class for a few weeks because of heavy rain and fear of floods. The 36 students are all volunteers. They’re living under canvas.

What are you hoping to achieve?

The Indonesian national curriculum includes environmental education but doesn’t say how this can be taught, other than through reading texts. This is a pilot project so I hope other schools will see what we’re doing and follow suit.

We have teachers from the humanities, languages and maths here so we’ll all be applying this weekend’s experiences in other disciplines. For example costs and yields in primary production could be an economics exercise.

How did you find farmers willing to let students trample over their fields, inevitably causing damage? I saw retaining banks broken.

We cooperated with Pring Woeloeng, a conservation foundation which has a share farming arrangement with local farmers. (The coordinator, Siegfried Tedja said he was keen to offer similar services to other schools.)

Why didn’t you just let the students observe? Why is it necessary to get them to work?

People learn by doing. Competence can’t just be gained in the classroom. Teaching values is also important, to learn respect for different classes in society, to be able to mix in the community.

When we’re born we can’t chose our class. These children have been blessed by fortune – but who knows what will happen in the future?

What’s been the feedback?

More students have signed up for a future weekend in the paddy. They want the fieldwork to be longer.

As an outsider it concerns me that schools like yours are offering rich and varied educational experiences, while poor schools and many government schools don’t have these opportunities – or don’t make them.

I agree there’s a huge gap in our society and we must all do our best to close it. Later many of these students will become big businessmen. I hope that through this experience they’ll understand and appreciate the way other sections of our nation live and work.
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Monday 29 May 2006)



Primary producers in Indonesia are in an economic position little different from their counterparts elsewhere in the developing world; they’re usually price takers, not price makers.

Frequently short of capital and desperate for cash flow they’re often forced to sell at the farm gate at the price set by the buyer.

Small farmers who can’t deliver consistent quantities of their produce at an acceptable quality are particularly vulnerable. Middlemen with cash bundle the commodity from several properties, process, package and resell in bulk.

If the farmers did their own value-adding their incomes could increase and become more stable.

That’s the thinking of Surabaya pharmacist Dr Hans Siwon who has been researching the economics of essential oil production in East Java.

His particular interest is patchouli, a plant cultivated by many farmers because it’s fast growing, easy to handle and can be harvested several times.

The leaves are dried and then steamed in a distillery to yield patchouli oil. The more sophisticated stills are made of stainless steel and pressurised. The light brown oil is widely used in the cosmetic industry and as a stabiliser in perfumes to hold their scent.

During the 1960s it became popular as the fragrance of choice for hippies.

It’s also employed in many household products. If the tissue on your desk or air-freshener in your car has a fragrance it’s probably based on patchouli oil. It’s also reported to be a component in low-tar tobaccos.

In the crude wood-fired stills found on most farms 100 kilograms of dried leaf will produce only two kilograms of oil, currently selling for around Rp 140,000 a kilo. The dregs from this process made up of hairs from the leaves and other debris also contain oil. This mix is normally thrown away.

Dr Siwon claims to have developed a simple process to retrieve the extra oil from the dregs and which could double the yield.

“Ideally this should be done in an industrial centrifuge (a high-speed spinning machine which separates solids from liquids),” he said. “However the capital cost and the maintenance and calibration skills required make this process unsuitable for farmers.

“My system applies basic filtration techniques using special paper and which can be employed with little training. There are other tricks which can improve yields – like drying the leaves in the shade, not direct sunlight and slowing down the distillation process.”

The metre-high bush is believed to have originated in India. It’s popular among small farmers because it doesn’t need pesticides and thrives without fertiliser. However it’s potassium hungry; yields can be boosted if ash from the still and processed leaves can be returned to the soil.

Dr Siwon has been conducting his research at Surabaya’s prestigious Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS) for the past year with assistant Wiyono.

Dr Siwon has been working in Indonesia since 1984 at universities and as a consultant on the chemistry of natural products. His original assignment from the Dutch government was to investigate traditional medicines.

Dr Siwon said world demand for patchouli oil would continue because it was impossible to synthesise as the molecules were complex. However Indonesia was not the sole exporter and many other countries in the region produced the oil. If the price rose too high farmers would expand their plantings and create a glut.

“The current price is so low it’s turning growers away,” he said. “Ideally they should be getting about Rp 300,000 (US$ 33). (In the mid 1990s poor weather conditions in some countries pushed the world price to US$ 60 (Rp 540,000)

“However the return rises rapidly once the oil leaves the farm gate and it passes through the hands of middlemen. A phial of five millilitres retails for about US$3.50 (Rp 32,000) – that’s US$ 700 a kilogram (Rp 6.3 million).

“If the yield could be improved on the farm and some processing controlled by the growers their incomes would improve.

“There’s room for a partnership between farmers and businesspeople to improve the industry.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Monday 29 May 2006)



Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hana Ananda in action

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LOVE – OR BOMBS AND TERROR © Duncan Graham 2006

It has to be one of the most remarkable religious sights in Surabaya. Maybe anywhere.

Every Wednesday afternoon around 4,000 poor people are bussed free from their kampung around the city to a suburban stadium in the East Java capital. Here they listen to thumping evangelical rock music, hear passionate Christian sermons and collect a bag of rice and other food on the way out. Sometimes they’re given powdered milk or a box of goodies from Australia.

Outside the kids sing and exercise in age groups led by young teachers. Mums get their babies’ health checked and the sick can seek a cure though healers laying on their hands. Some pray with vigor. Others seem indifferent.

From dress and behavior it’s clear not all participants are Christian. In fact they’re probably a minority.

This weekly two-hour event has been underway since 1999. It’s a huge logistic operation organised by the Pondok Kasih (House of Love) Foundation and the energy is Hana Ananda.

She’s a former Pentecostal Sunday School teacher who recovered from a crippling illness through prayer. Her epiphany came when she saw beggars ignored at church gates by departing parishioners smug with sanctimony having just heard a sermon on giving.

Her self-imposed task of reaching out to the poor and reconciling faiths has created a major industry with 80 staff. This is part bankrolled by her husband Harry, a rich importer of commercial kitchen and laundry equipment.

An overseas consultant involved with the foundation estimated the cost of giving to be at least US$ 500,000 (Rp 4,400 million) a year. The foundation’s annual report includes an auditor’s statement but no figures.

Other support comes from donations including an Australian Christian NGO called International Needs. So far 300 containers full of goods and clothing have been delivered from Australia and Japan, and from the US through the Samaritan’s Purse charity. These gifts have also been on-sent to other provinces, including Aceh and Nias.

Every Friday when Muslims are at prayer there’s a two-hour discussion in the Pondok Kasih office with pastors from 23 different Protestant churches. The aim is to sort out differences between denominations, share problems and work together. Intra-faith disputes can be as damaging as inter-faith friction.

On the office walls are photos of staff working with the handicapped, homosexuals, the poor, Muslim youth and senior clerics – and chatting with VIPs. Pondok Kasih isn’t just into hallelujahs; it runs practical projects, including water purification, health clinics, an old people’s home, an orphanage and rehabilitation centres.

Hana, 61, said she’s been dubbed the local Mother Theresa (a Catholic nun who worked in Indian slums) by some, but rejected the honor. She spoke to The Jakarta Post two days after some powerful preaching at the stadium:

Surely most of the people at the stadium were Muslims?

I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I only know they’re poor and in need. Of course some come because of the food but they also need love.

Aren’t you attempting to Christianise them?

If you’re writing about this you must be very careful. Religion is an extremely sensitive issue in Indonesia. This is a Muslim country. Better that you explore how we can all live together in love and peace. Expose the humanitarian issues.

Everyone knows what’s happening at the stadium – you can hear the noise streets away. As a journalist I should report what’s happening honestly …

Pray to God for guidance in what you write. Lives can be lost, churches closed over this issue. I could be killed if some people read the wrong things. I only want to help people live a better life. I want my country to be peaceful, united and prosperous.

I don’t want to convert people. Do you think you can buy a person’s religion with a packet of rice? If so you’re insulting them.

How do you manage to run these huge weekly events without trouble? (The indoor stadium is well secured with high walls and heavy steel gates. Scores of security guards monitor arrivals and marshals help the crowds. When The Jakarta Post visited there was no palpable tension and the participants – mainly women - seemed to be having a good time.)

It’s a miracle that it’s happening in Surabaya. It’s not happening elsewhere yet, but I pray it will. There were some problems in the beginning and threats to report me to the police but that didn’t happen.

We have very good relationships with the Muslim clerics. They see our integrity and defend me. We even pay for circumcision ceremonies for the poor.

I’m a triple minority – a woman, a Christian and Chinese – yet I can talk to Muslims at all levels, so others can do the same. I respect them and they respect me.

I’ve read the Koran. I say to clerics that because Islam means submission to God I can be classified as a Muslim because I submit to the one God whom we all worship.

It’s easy to get along with well-educated and liberal leaders at inter-faith forums. Isn’t the problem with the people in the village and kampung?

I don’t want to answer that question. I don’t discriminate. People have needs. I just love the people. We must have reconciliation. I only want to say positive things.

I’m not just dealing with top clerics. I’m also talking to village heads.

To avoid being accused of Christianisation why not get government agencies to distribute the foods and goods instead of including it with religion?

The donors give because they trust Pondok Kasih. I don’t think they’d trust the government.

I have to be held accountable when I die. I have to do these things, that’s my belief. When I die all this will continue – successors have been trained.

I love my country. We need to restore the image of Indonesia in the world as a country free of hate and suspicion. I believe that requires people to recognise Jesus and bend the knee. But you don’t need to be a Christian to love Jesus.

Why is there such an issue with religion in Indonesia? Is it because there’s no clear separation of faith and state?

Maybe. It’s also a problem of history. The Dutch came here with the Bible in one hand, a gun in the other. We were oppressed by white colonialists.

Christians today are also to blame for failing to develop a relationship with Muslims. Too many Christians are affluent and arrogant and exclude themselves from the community. There’s a big gap. We must soothe, not provoke – respect people’s dignity, treat them as human beings.

If we as Christians don’t go to Muslims with love they will come to us with bombs and terror.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 May 2006)

Monday, May 15, 2006



Having surfing as a major interest on your resume would probably not endear you to most bosses.

Surfers don’t have a great public image despite SurfAid International programs in isolated areas of the archipelago where boardmasters have helped local villagers start health programs.

For those with beach phobia, meeting a wave of surfies in Kuta is to encounter the blond and bronzed with but two thoughts: Where’s the next big break – and where’s the coldest beer?

Hardly the credentials for suit and tie deal making.

But Martin Newbery has made the transition without having to abandon his great love of the rolling ocean. Though over 50 he still rides the foaming curlers when he’s not promoting his State’s credentials as a valuable trade partner for East Java.

Newbery is the new regional director for Western Australia’s Trade Office in Indonesia. He replaces Trevor Boughton who is opening a fish-lure manufacturing business in Batam.

“I used to work in the human relations department with the Australian Department of Finance,” Newbery told a meeting of the Indonesia Australia Business Council in Surabaya.

“As a public servant I was rewarded with good holidays which I frequently spent in Indonesia searching for surf.

“One day in Bali with some friends I decided to go across to Java and see more of Indonesia. I arrived in Surabaya 32 years ago. It was really great.

“There’s been a lot of changes since then but the character is still here. So are the opportunities.”

Western Australia and East Java have a long-standing sister-state agreement. This includes an exchange program for people in government and private enterprise to boost their knowledge of cultures and create trade opportunities.

Next year the State’s premier agricultural event, the Perth Royal Show, will host a display of Indonesian goods and handicrafts.

Newbery spent two years formally studying Bahasa Indonesia back in Australia. He quit the Australian bureaucracy when a friend urged him to get into business in Indonesia. His first venture was airfreighting fresh fruit and other perishable produce out of Sydney and into Jakarta before the big supermarkets developed their own systems. His second was managing an Indonesian prawn fishing venture.

“We got seven 250-tonne prawn trawlers from Australia and crewed these with local deckhands and Australian trainers,” he told The Jakarta Post. “I had some misgivings at first because prawn boat skippers are rough and tough. There were plenty of prejudices.

“The Australians expected the Indonesians to be lazy, passing their time in prayer rituals. The Indonesians expected the Australians to get drunk and punch them. We had to get all this stuff out into the open.

“In fact it worked out well even though they had to spend up to two months at sea in cramped quarters. The Australians said the Indonesians were the best deckhands they’d met and the Indonesians liked the Australians because they treated them with respect and as equals.

“I’ve learned that Australians and Indonesians have almost the same sense of humor. There were no troubles and that’s something I’m very proud of – the business is still running and the ships are all crewed by Indonesians.”

Newbery is based in Jakarta on a three-year contract and plans to spend one week in every four in East Java. The WA government used to have a shop-front office in central Surabaya. This was trashed during the turmoil over the East Timor referendum late last century.

The office then moved to a higher security location away from the city centre but shifted to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta after the first Bali bomb. It’s now in a separate building in Kuningan.

“Relationships between our countries depend on many things, including politics,” Newbery said. “My focus is on business. I’m often asked if it’s a good time for Australians to go to Indonesia because of the spat over the Papua refugees getting visas.

“I say it’s the best time to be in Indonesia because your competitors are all going to Malaysia. There’s plenty of action here.”

Newbery said that although WA was a resource-rich state exporting bulk quantities of wheat, gold, nickel, iron and other minerals the government was looking ahead to a time when these commodities will be exhausted.

Diversifying into biotechnology, tourism and specialised services was a priority. Newbery has commissioned research into the fresh fruit market from Budi Daroe of the East Java Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Farm produce from East Java to South East Asia is usually transhipped through Jakarta. That involves double handling and delays – a serious hazard for perishables. Newbery is exploring the idea of using Australian skills and equipment to process and pack fruit and vegetables in Surabaya and export direct by air.

Past agricultural success stories have included the import of high-yielding dairy cows into East Java and using new varieties of seed potatoes from WA.

The other major interest is the maritime industry. Newbery said WA was becoming a world leader in building and maintaining specialised equipment for the shipping and oil industry, particularly for deep-sea operations and navigation systems.

“I want Indonesian business people to let me know what we can do together,” he said. “Needs are often mutual. So are the benefits. I can help match inquiries. I’m very serious about this and our services are free.”

(Martin Newbery can be contacted on The office manager is an Indonesian - Lydia Agam. Tel: (021) 5290 2860.)


Wednesday, May 10, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Feel like a career as an author? Always assuming you can write there are some essential extras according to prolific East Java novelist and historian Dukut Imam Widodo. These include:

· Have a supportive spouse and family.
· A fat wallet.
· Limitless patience, personal discipline - and
· A day job.

“I usually get up around 3 am and write till about 5 am,” he said. “I do a bit of exercise and after breakfast drive from Surabaya to Gresik. (He works as manager of general affairs for a Japanese smelter. Gresik is about 25 km north west of the East Java capital)

“If I’m lucky I can be home by 9 pm, depending on the demands of the job and the traffic. I get to bed by 10 pm. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

The latest product from this scarifying routine titled Tempo Doeloe Malang (Malang’s Olden Days) will be released this month (May) by Yogya publisher Bayumedia, with the printing bill being paid by the author.

Widodo says he’s had to resort to vanity publishing because his past experiences have been, well, far from satisfactory.

He claims copies of his book Tempo Doeloe Surabaya have been squirreled away by the Department of Tourism to be handed out as souvenirs to VIPs.

A similar fate has overtaken Tempo Doeloe Gresik with the Bupati (Regent) snapping up a bulk order but not distributing.

For his latest work he’s trying to be both author and marketer – a job he’s approaching with formidable energy at every forum he can find. If the book flops it won’t be for want of T-shirts and promotional CDs.

It all sounds extremely frustrating.

“I’ve been paid, so that’s OK. But I’d really like to see government agencies selling my books. People ask me where they can buy and I can’t tell them! I want Indonesians to know about the past before it disappears. Frankly the amount of demolition of old buildings makes me feel like crying.

“I’m never going to deal with the government again.”

Tell our readers about your latest book’s background.

“This has taken me 15 years to research and write. I’ve been able to get little information from the city authorities. Most historical documents I’ve found have been in the Netherlands.

“I’ve been there twice and have followed these visits up with e-mail inquiries. They’ve been extremely helpful and all services have been free. But when I wanted copies of documents from the national archives in Jakarta they charged me Rp 500,000 (US $ 56).

“The culture here towards books and history, reading and writing is so different from the West. But the kids seem interested. (This conversation was held in a gallery showing Widodo’s photographs which attracted scores of viewers.)

“The basic problem is the quality of education in Indonesia. We’re not taught to respect books.”

Can you make money from writing?

“Yes. I’m a businessman. I’ve written 26 novels. I’m 51 now and I’ve been writing for 25 years. But when you take into account the time involved in research the returns aren’t that good.

“I have to think: Who will buy? The answer is big businesspeople with a sense of history and a feel for culture. Some have already put in orders. I hope every school library will have a copy.

“I wanted Tempo Doeloe Malang to be 900 pages long. (It’s a coffee table book with sepia pictures.) That would have meant a retail price of Rp 750,000 (US $ 84) which is too much.

“So I’ve had to cut it by a third so it will sell for around Rp 375,000 (US 42) which I hope will be acceptable.”

Are you a qualified historian?

“No – but I can tell you more about history in East Java than most lecturers. I love listening and researching – it’s something I got from my father.

“I’ve had lots of help with this book, particularly from Oei Hiem Hwie. (A former political prisoner who was held on Buru Island with the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and now runs a library in Surabaya.)

“Some of the chapters have been written by my friends and students using data I’ve collected. I hope these people will become the historians of the future.

“I don’t write in an academic style to bore people. History should not be too serious. I want to keep my prose light and funny so people will enjoy. For example one section is about the internationally famous Mata Hari who lived for five years in Malang.

“She was born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Zelle in 1876. She came to Java as a teenager and became an exotic oriental dancer. When she returned to Europe she was a lover of many famous and powerful men.

“In the First World War she worked as a spy and double agent and was executed by the Germans in 1917. I’ve written a novel about her, but the facts are in Malang Tempo Doeloe.

“My next book will be about old advertising and night clubs.

“To be an author you’ve got to be a little bit crazy. Writing is my hobby. I want to keep doing it till I die. But it would be impossible without the support of my wife Kiky Ernawati who I married when I was 22.

“I tell you this: Behind every successful writer is a good woman.”



Saturday, May 06, 2006



Has television murdered indigenous culture? Have the daily demands of job and family, maintaining mortgages and keeping ahead of the bank devoured the time once spent relaxing and creating?

Before John Logie Baird’s invention changed the planet forever the people of Java watched a big white screen backlit by flickering oil lamps. Across this canvas jerked the phantom characters of ancient dramas, their adventures told by the dalang (puppet master).

A wayang kulit (two-dimensional puppets made of animal skin) performance can be taxing indeed – on the imagination and bottom. Some start in the early evening and go on to daybreak. Seating is often basic, like the technology. No computer graphics to numb the brain.

Better to stay on the sofa and doze off on a dose of cathode rays.

That’s the theory behind the demise of Javanese culture but not all are giving in. One of the more resilient - and most unlikely custodians - is Karen Elizabeth Sekararum.

She’s the American-born managing director of the Mangun Dharma Art Centre in Tumpang. This is a village about two hours south of Surabaya. It lies on the western slopes of a cluster of volcanoes known as Pegunungan Tengger.

The art centre opened in 1989. It’s run by Karen with her Indonesian husband M Soleh Adi Pramono. It includes a substantial open pavilion (pendopo) with a gamelan orchestra and many fine examples of East Java carvings.

Karen is an anthropologist and University of Wisconsin graduate who came to Indonesia to study theatre 17 years ago and stayed. She is now fluent in Indonesian and Javanese. She dances and is an accomplished pesinden (a woman who sings with a gamelan orchestra.)

You can see her and others perform in Surabaya at the Taman Budaya (Cultural Centre) on 19 May as part of a performance schedule for winners of the young dalang competition that started two years ago.

“In the past our skills were much in demand, but television has become the favoured entertainment,” she said. “Now the money isn’t available for sponsorship. Few people are interested in the old dances and stories.

“The demand for performances at weddings and other gatherings has also dropped off.

“But Mangun Dharma is determined to preserve the culture and we’ll custom-make a performance to suit anyone. We also teach and have foreign students here to learn the crafts, including tari topeng.”

The tari topeng (masked dance) tradition goes back at least 1,000 years. Although a few tales written on palm leaves (lontar) have survived, written records are few. Javanese is essentially an oral culture with variations in stories and dances from district to district. This is not a theatre form where you can go back to the original text.

Tari topeng can be found throughout Java and Bali where it is now performed for tourists. But few places in Java apart from Yogya have enough overseas visitors to support cultural events and pay the artists.

Because there’s so much variety and local interpretations of Javanese theatre it’s difficult to generalise. In some dance versions up to 40 different characters are portrayed – and all by the one actor.

The complex plot is usually recounted off stage by the dalang.

Ability to remember the lines, use the right mask and the correct hand movements mean this is a role for no ordinary artist. Some stories are in prose, others in verse. The dalang also has to be a linguist because there are regional differences in Javanese. Not having a list of stage directions also compounds the task.

It’s believed that the Panji story cycle that originated in Java (as opposed to the Mahabharata which came from India) was performed in wayang kulit as well as tari topeng. It became popular during the Majapahit Era, the so-called Golden Age of Java about 700 years ago.

When Islam gained ascendancy in Java the remnants of the Hindu families moved to Bali, which they already ruled. With them went the dances – and topeng. The stories were embellished and took on local flavours.

Comic characters, sinister plotters, deceived lovers, just regents, flawed rulers and brave suitors come alive with the masks. They encounter curious events, enduring passions, mind-stretching coincidences and help from the afterlife.

If you’ve sat through Gilbert and Sullivan and suspended judgement on plot and logic then you can cope with Javanese art.

Masks now on sale in tourist shops are sometimes mass-produced and can even be found manufactured from hard plastic – with price tags of Rp 600,000 or more. The authentic versions, which are carved at Mangun Dharma, start at a quarter of that price.

Not surprisingly the counterfeits get short shrift from Mangun Dharma’s carvers. They use wood cut from the local nyampoh tree using a set of hand tools.

As the mask is carved, so the history of the craft and the 1000-year-old story are slowly worked into the wood by hand. The topeng really becomes the character in the hands of the dancer.

“Because the traditional arts in Java are integral to the well-being of the community they have to reflect the changes in the artist’s world,” said Karen.

“The Mangun Dharma Arts Centre exists to reinforce the sense of identity that grows from the act of making art. We want to give the arts back to the community at the local and international level.”

(For more details see

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 May 06)



Street banners advertising products and events in English aren’t uncommon in Indonesia.

But in Dutch – the purged language of the former colonialists? Now that’s exceptional.

It happened last month (April) in the East Java city of Malang to advertise the town’s 92nd birthday.

Born in 1914? Nonsense! Step outside the sloping suburbs and you’ll stub your toe on a slice of Majapahit terracotta, maybe 700 years old. And the locals will yawn.

Or trip on a well-hewn and scuffed slab of carved granite dislodged from a Buddhist temple of centuries past. Bystanders bemused at the outsider’s awe will ask: So what’s new?

“We’re celebrating the Dutch decision to raise Malang’s status to that of a city on 1 April,” said an official involved in the month-long celebrations. This explains the welcome signs in the language of the former occupier and says much about tolerance and reconciliation.

There’s no doubt Malang (which curiously translates as ‘unfortunate’) is a much loved city by people from the Netherlands. The snap-happy pale-skinned visitors who stroll the streets are usually Dutch or other Europeans seeking to rediscover their past.

Guilt-tinged Western youngsters wrestling with the cruel history of their ancestors can often be found in Malang looking for answers and explanations.

Although its history goes way back, the city’s premier buildings date from the so call ‘ethical policy’ era of early last century. The prime boulevard is Jalan Ijen a splendid street of restrained architecture little changed since the days of pith helmets and cloche bonnets.

Though tea and coffee plantations helped Malang prosper there’s little ostentation of the type found in the estates of the sugar barons in towns like Pasuruan on the north coast.

As part of the one-month long birthday party about 250 citizens got together in the beautifully renovated public library (also on Jl Ijen) to hammer out ways to better promote their grand city’s many advantages.

Among them was Nanny Donosepoetro, head of the hotel department in Malang’s Merdeka University. Every year about 100 new graduates in tourism are released into the market by her campus – but only around 50 find work.

So it wasn’t surprising that many students used the opportunity to question the bureaucrats who filled the stage to nod yes, Malang had lots of potential, but no, there wasn’t enough money for promotion.

“The problem is that although they say the right things few in the government really understand the importance of tourism and the benefits it brings to the community,” Nanny said.

“There needs to be cooperation between the academic sector, industry and government. There are so many segments of tourism, from family groups through to young singles wanting a different experience. We have just about everything anyone could want, but the bureaucrats are stifling development.

“Most government officers involved in tourism have never worked in the industry and don’t understand that it’s constantly evolving. In fact some even want money when they get involved in projects.”

Malang Tourist Centre manager Sugiyanto who organised the event wouldn’t comment on the allegation of government officers asking for handouts. But he said he was disappointed local mayors and regents didn’t bother to attend the seminar despite long-standing invitations.

The top speaker was Soekarwo, the East Java Provincial secretary who surprisingly agreed with much of the criticism, thereby skilfully disarming the students.

“The problem is the mindset of the bureaucrats who aren’t flexible enough to cope with the new paradigms,” he said. “They don’t appreciate the need for consistent marketing and the necessity to have a good working relationship with people in the hotels and travel agencies.”

As the third most important person in the East Java government his statements went some way to placating those advocating clearer and more positive approaches towards tourism.

As a visitor to Western Australia under the Sister-State Exchange program Soekarwo said he’d been enchanted by the development of Fremantle. This once sleazy port outside Perth has been transformed into a sophisticated city of street dining and boutique shopping beloved by international visitors.

Not all seminar participants could wrap their minds around Soekarwo’s idea of people wanting to sit at sidewalk cafes amongst screaming seagulls and bush flies. No one seemed to think this a viable alternative to a hyper-chilled shopping mall, although Malang’s climate supports outdoor living.

However all agreed that Malang had the works – cool weather, culture, landscapes, friendly people relaxed around foreigners and a really clean city - as opposed to a city with a slogan saying it’s clean.

Then there’s tangible history going back to Buddhism and Hinduism and the remarkable synthesis of these two great religions pre-dating the arrival of Islam.

The hotels aren’t bad, but with a few exceptions tend towards the bottom end of the market. There’s more variety in the orchard town of Batu, a favourite weekend getaway for frazzled Surabayans.

The participants heard that Singapore spends at least US S 65 million (Rp 600,000 million) a year to promote an island city-state with about one tenth of the population of East Java.

“There’s still a long way to go,” said Sugiyanto. “We’ll have to run another seminar in a few months time to follow up on the issues raised here. I really believe tourism can help the economy recover. We can’t stop here just because a few of the older generation are disinterested.

“We have to think of the future and the employment prospects for young people who are proud of their city and want to share its multiple attractions.”

(First pubished in The Jakarta Post 5 May 06)





In 1996 Solomon Tong and a handful of friends made an important decision. They had deep pockets and a worthy ambition of long standing: To boost culture in East Java.

At last the economic times felt right. Appreciation of good music was growing. People seemed to be spending on recreation and the arts. It was time to move on and up, to form a Surabaya Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and create a fitting platform for the talent of Indonesia’s second major city.

Fast-forward ten years to the present - and take an interlude for introspection. The economic crisis has savaged all but the most resilient. Any spare cash is salted away should harsh times return. Now only Tong and one major donor remain. But the orchestra is still intact.

The SSO performed at Easter, has another scheduled for Independence Day in August. Undoubtedly there’ll be a big event at Christmas, complete with the 150-member choir. Plus three other concerts in cities outside Surabaya during the next few months.

It takes Rp 30 million (US $3,400) a month to retain the 56 musicians and a similar amount to stage a major performance. These are held in a central Surabaya hotel ballroom and are usually sell-out shows.

“But even with a full house of 1,000 paying guests we still lose money,” lamented Tong, the SSO’s conductor. “Fortunately most musicians can make around Rp 7 million (US $790) a month as teachers so they don’t have to rely on concerts for their incomes.

“The orchestra is heavily subsidised. I make my money from selling pianos and other instruments – I take nothing from the SSO.”

Tong is a member of a most extraordinary Chinese family that came to Indonesia in 1949 after the father died. His Chinese mother, who worked as a tailor, had been born in Yogya but moved to Xia Men after marriage. The union produced seven sons and one daughter.

All the boys are still alive. Five are preachers with Jakarta-based international evangelist Stephen the most famous. Apart from Solomon the other secular Tong is a businessman overseas.

Solomon Tong was 10 when his courageous mother brought her big brood back to her birthplace. But life in their chosen country was not going to be easy. As an alien young Tong was denied entry to university.

So his passion for music had to be confined to private classes. Among his teachers was the eccentric composer Slamet A Sjukur (see The Jakarta Post 31 March 2006).

Tong wasn’t just a fine instrumentalist; he was also a tenor and his ambition to join a school choir thrust him into a life of music that led to a teaching career.

How did you become a professional musician?

“I’m largely self taught. I spent five years in the US teaching music and singing in opera after I’d learned English with the help of Mexicans. I found them easier to understand and more helpful.”

What do Surabaya audiences want?

“The SSO has to be all things to all people. For example in the last concert we had works by Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – plus WS Gilbert and Stephen Schwartz. In previous programs we’ve included Phantom of the Opera.

“So you see we must be eclectic and give the audience what it wants. It’s no good if people go away dissatisfied.”

The audiences seem to be dominated by Chinese.

“That’s true. About 70 per cent are ethnic Chinese and it’s the same with the orchestra. It’s a cultural and economic issue. The Javanese tend to prefer dangdut and the gamelan. They learn the guitar.

“Studying music can be very expensive. A good piano may cost Rp 80 million (US $9,000) – a guitar around Rp 40,000 (US $4.50). The cheapest seat at a SSO concert costs Rp 100,000 (US $110).

“The young like music – but have no money. The old have the cash but don’t always want to spend on music.

“In Chinese culture the enjoyment of classical music is seen as a demonstration of good taste and high education. You’re considered to be a family of standing. You’ll have many admirers and get much respect.”

Can you fill the orchestra with players just from Surabaya?

“No. We have no problem with the strings, but there’s a difficulty with the wind instruments. So we have an arrangement with the conservatoire in Yogya that sends us players. That’s been in place since we started and it works well.

“We do have some outstanding local talent. I think local girl Pauline Poegoeh, 22, is the best soprano in Indonesia. She was the feature artist at our Summer Opera Night last year and was enormously popular.

“Valerie Christabel Gunawan is only 11 but another lovely soprano who has sung at our concerts before full houses.”

How long can you keep going?

“There’s a constant struggle for money. I’m pensioned from the Petra University where I used to teach and I have a music business.

“God has gifted me with excellent health. I was an athlete as a young man. I have a good biorhythm. If that remains I’d like to keep going till I’m 75 – which is in eight years time.

“I’ve already conducted 45 major performances. I love classical music but I’ve never been to its source in Europe. I want to travel but fear that if I go away for too long the SSO will collapse.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 May 06)