EAST JAVA’S THRIVING DUTCH CONNECTION © Duncan Graham 2006
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)