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

Monday, July 31, 2006



It would be an error to assume all the Caucasians seen at any meeting of the East Java branch of the Indonesia-Australia Business Council (IABC) are Australian.

Some are British nationals. Others are American, Indian and Dutch.

Likewise with the members whose ethnicity appears Indonesian. Some have permanent residence status in Australia or are Australian citizens.

“Although we were established to help improve business relationships between Indonesia and Australia in fact we’re open to everyone,” said IABC secretary general and public accountant Frans Iskandar.

“We’re the only international business group left in East Java. There were once similar organisations and chambers of commerce involving the Americans, Germans, Taiwanese and the Dutch – but they’ve all closed despite having a big presence here.” (The Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese hold the bulk of the KITAS visas for foreign workers in East Java.)

There are many reasons for the exodus of Westerners but most relate to the economic crisis of 1997 and the 1998 political upheaval that saw many foreign investors quit the archipelago. Australian companies that remained have tended to install local management.

The other factor is the energy and time required to nurture membership and keep the interest alive. Clearly the IABC’s survival is due in large part to the energies of Frans and his tennis partner Alim Sutrisno who chairs the IABC and has a home in Perth, Western Australia.

Frans got the honorary position in 1993 and spends at least 20 hours a month on organising IABC activities, including factory visits, golf days and addresses by visiting experts on tax and management. When the Western Australian (WA) Government maintained a trade office in Surabaya that load was shared – but Frans and his committee are now on their own.

The IABC in East Java is a branch of the Jakarta council which has a much larger membership. It’s affiliated with the Australian-Indonesian Business Council (AIBC) that’s active throughout Australia. (See

“There’ve been some real ups and downs in the relationships between Indonesia and Australia,” Frans said. “The time after the referendum in East Timor was the worst.

“The present crisis over the Papua asylum seekers seems to have passed with the return of the ambassador to Canberra. We have to survive these difficulties – we’re neighbours. I don’t think the travel warnings against visiting Indonesia are having much effect on business – our people tend to ignore them.

“We need to get things into proportion. Radicals form less than one per cent and haven’t been active here. We should not be afraid.”

IABC members cover most categories and include education, property development, light engineering, fishing, packaging, steel manufacturing, sea transport and aid projects.

Some members run factories with hundreds of workers – others are one-person shows. Foreign business interests are thin on the ground in East Java so there’s no separation of heavyweight and lightweight.

In keeping with its background the IABC is a mixing of mates where someone who makes the tubes for your toothpaste will happily exchange ideas and contacts with a teacher of Australian Studies.

Membership is free, and although expats are in the minority the language is English. Monthly meetings are usually held over breakfast and sponsored by corporate bodies keen to promote international ties. About a quarter of the people who attend are women and the tone is informal.

The local Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) and the East Java government’s Bureau of International Cooperation are also represented. IABC meetings are probably the best way for any busy businessperson on a brief visit to swap name cards with the East Java’s movers and shakers.

Frans turns 65 this year but has no plans to retire, fearing his active mind will rot if his body becomes idle. He formerly had business interests in Brisbane but like many people in East Java now prefers Perth which is only a 3 hour 20 minute flight from Denpasar. Perth is home to about 10,000 Indonesians.

The WA capital has an Indonesian consulate and particularly vigorous AIBC led by Ross Taylor, a former Surabaya-based government trade officer.

Frans’ interpersonal skills include fluency in several languages, extensive international travel and overseas work experience with the United Nations. These qualifications make him an ideal person to bridge cultural barriers – and he wishes Australians would also strive to be bi-lingual, if not multi-lingual.

“Australians tend not to understand Indonesia and Indonesians well enough,” he said. “They need to shift their mindset, to be positive about this country. It helps if they learn some language and are friendly – not arrogant or too wary. It’s good if you can stay longer and get to meet people on a personal level.

“There are still plenty of opportunities here, particularly in service delivery, bulk foods, medical and veterinary equipment and medicines – and in the mining industry with expertise and supplies. And in exports from Indonesia, furniture is still good business.

“The national government is friendly to investors but there are still many barriers, particularly the manpower laws which require heavy compensation to be paid to dismissed employees.

“However things are looking up and overall I’m positive about the future.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 July 06)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Transplanting Western business values and management systems into Indonesia is no simple task, as many foreign experts have found.

And it’s not that easy for overseas trained Indonesians either, as Ayda Sulianti knows well.

“The culture is so different from America,” said the US-educated director of Mitra Intertrans Forwarding (MIF). “Education levels are not so high here and there’s still a tradition of accepting what the boss says without offering a different view.

“We’re taught to be humble and not say what we think.

“That’s a practice I’m determined to stop. I’m here as part of the team – I can’t do without them and they can’t do without me. Coming back to work in Indonesia after the US has been a real culture shock.”

MIF is a unit of the Meratus Group, a Surabaya-based shipping company that started inter-island operations in 1957 with one ship.

The Indonesian shipping industry was de-regulated in the late 1980s and the company expanded. It now has 33 vessels operating on 19 routes and owns more than 11,000 containers. It also services Singapore and Dili.

If you’re using a product from Nestle, Coca Cola, Sampoerna, Indofood, Maspion or Bintang in the outer reaches of the archipelago the chances are it will have been shipped by Meratus.

MIF started in 1989 as a freight forwarding company to fill Meratus ships, but it’s not allowed to steal clients from other operators. It also acts as a general agent for international shipping lines.

Ayda, who heads a staff of 280 in 12 branches across the nation, made an unusual career move when she joined her family’s company five years ago. She had previously worked as a store manager with a clothing company in the East Java capital’s up-market Galaxy Mall.

She studied industrial economics at the University of Surabaya, did a retail management course in Singapore and took a masters degree in finance and marketing in Oklahoma. Her personal interests were designing clothes.

Freight forwarding means stuffing big ugly steel boxes with almost every product imaginable, banging them onto trucks and ships, and delivering the product intact and on time.

It’s a business of cubic metres, customs duty, lost dockets, risks and insurance, things going astray and awry, finding new clients and keeping the old. The Joseph Conrad world of leisurely coastal trade in the tropics vanished with the container and ironclad wharf and crane schedules.

“The shift from working with clothes in shops to putting containers on ships is, well, a bit something,” Ayda admitted. “The first six months were hard, but anyone should be able to make such a transition if they’re determined. I know that what I’m doing is right.”

As with all new managers entering an old company she inherited staff she hadn’t selected. Some were able to rise to her democratic management style – others found it heavy weather.

“I don’t want ‘Yes’ people around me,” she said. “In Indonesia there are 99 ways to say ‘Yes’ and all mean ‘No’. Fortunately the education system is getting better and the international schools are teaching students how to think and be more open.

“We need to instil bravery in employees so they’re not afraid to speak out.

“The need to adapt is not just one-way traffic. I’ve had to learn how the staff think and feel. Of course a few people had to be sacked because they were reluctant to change and felt uncomfortable with the new situation.

“That wasn’t done till they were given time to adapt and had their work evaluated.

“Dismissing people isn’t easy, but it’s more difficult to keep such people on the payroll when their attitudes can infect other workers.

“I don’t talk a lot but I ask lots of questions. I look at the details. I want to know what’s happening and why. We’re proud to be local, but our standards must be international.”

Ayda’s style of management included her taking the secretary’s role at weekly meetings and having a different staffer acting as chairperson. If no one said anything she wouldn’t comment to help them out. Now she says that contributions are common.

Staff are recruited directly from universities and other professions. English is widely used in the company and workers with low language skills are provided with free tuition. Office procedures follow those of big business in the West.

In Indonesia people work because they need the money. In the West there are other reasons, including women wanting to get out of the house in the empty suburbs and socialise. Indonesians tend to find their social needs are met in their community.

“I don’t have a preference for men or women employees,” Ayda said. “It depends on the person and their skills and attitude, though I’ve found some women tend to bring their personal lives into the workplace.

“There has to be a very clear separation. In my private hours I’m a quite different person. (She paints in oils and favours landscapes.)

Ayda said one difficulty she’d faced was being a physically small woman with a quiet voice. In a male-dominated culture many expect the boss to be big, loud and aggressive. To maintain the team spirit she asks employees not to address her as ‘Ibu’ which isn’t easy for some.

She said “one or two” men had found it difficult to work with a young unmarried boss (she’s 37) but most had adjusted. In the West some women have taken on masculine traits to assert their authority in the workplace, but Ayda said she hadn’t fallen into that trap.

“I’m very happy being what I am,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to be a man. As a woman I can do many more things than a man – I have much more freedom. I can wear trousers or a skirt – you can’t!

“I can go shopping for dresses and bags. I can be a housewife. I can manage a company. Women are multiskilled. We are not second-class.

“Women wanting to get on in business should try many things and be confident in their decisions. They should seek to achieve their personal goals and never give up.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 July 06)



Saturday, July 22, 2006


LESSONS IN CORRUPTION © Duncan Graham 2006

Consider the number of children in state primary schools. At least 30 million are supposed to be facing blackboards and flexing their minds. Their education is free. That’s the law.

But parents attempting to enrol their kids with an empty purse will be rapidly shown the school door, according to social activist Ramida Siringoringo.

“There are uniform fees, money for school texts, a contribution to the building fund, farewell gifts for teachers and other imposts,” she said. “At schools in the Jakarta suburb of Depok that comes to about Rp 700,000 (US$ 75) per child a year– it can be more elsewhere.

“It’s an impossible amount for any poor family – and magnified if they have other children.

“Yet the government’s contribution to poor families hit by last year’s fuel price rise is only Rp 100,000 (US $11) a month.”

When a family decides that whatever the cost their child must be schooled, what happens to these payments?

According to Ramida rolls of rupiah can get rerouted into the teachers’ pockets rather than the stated destination. So with her colleagues in the Indonesian Street (formerly Sunshine) Children’s Organisation (ISCO) she’s trying to make school administrations accountable, their transactions transparent and parents more inquisitorial.

Their leverage is cash to put little people behind primary school desks who might otherwise be left outside the gates. ISCO staff in Jakarta, Medan and Surabaya work in the kampongs to identify the genuine needy and then help them send their kids to school. This month (July) and next (Aug) they’ll be organising new enrolments.

Official figures claim 18 per cent of Indonesia’s 230 million people live on less than Rp 130,000 (US $14) a month.

“One problem is that the schools know we have money from donors so they often think we’re an easy touch,” said Ramida, the ISCO project manager during an audit of the organisation’s Surabaya activity centre.

The centre is based in a rented house deep in Kapasari, a district where second hand goods are traded and the plight of Indonesia’s urban poor is on open display.

Battered bike frames, ripped footwear, eviscerated electrical goods, worn and torn clothes – the rejects of the rich scavenged from their rubbish bins all find their way here.

That such shoddy trash has value is a more graphic example of the state of the economy than any pie chart in an annual report.

Children sponsored by ISCO are also required to attend out-of-school classes run by the organisation to strengthen their knowledge. These are fun-and-learn activities, in contrast to many schools where teaching methods are old fashioned and boring.

“When we sponsor a child we demand accountability,” said Ramida. “We want to know where past cash has been spent and how the transactions can be verified. You’d be surprised how few bursars insist on giving or receiving receipts.”

Checking school financial records can be educational. Why did they pay Rp 200,000 for a fan when the retail price is half that? And why is there a 30 per cent mark-up on the schoolbooks supplied by the teachers?

Because of their bargaining power ISCO workers have been able to buy texts directly from publishers and save parents big sums. It’s a tactic that hasn’t endeared them to some teachers who’ve seen such extras – like selling school texts - as a legitimate prop underpinning their meagre salaries.

A primary school principal will be lucky to clear Rp 1.6 million (US $174) a month, with staff paid around half that amount. So by aiding parents and trying to erase corruption isn’t ISCO inadvertently contributing to the hardship of teachers?

“It’s the job of the government to raise salaries to a decent level so teachers don’t have to resort to such measures and create problems for poor parents,” said Ramida. “It’s our job to help the needy.”

The ISCO Foundation started in 1999 during the economic crisis when thousands of kids were pulled out of school so their families could survive. (See Sidebar)

The idea was to give money directly to the schools so the children of poor families could return to class. On the surface it seemed a reasonable response to a serious issue. But simple solutions carry hidden problems which create more work.

Example: How do illiterate parents help their offspring with homework? And why should parents spend on schooling when there aren’t enough jobs to go around? Education won’t guarantee a career in Indonesia.

Then there are the schools that milk donors and think this right and proper.

“Some principals get quite aggressive when we push for details of their spending,” said Ramida. “Because all ISCO staff are Indonesian they think we should also be corrupt and not bother with accountability.

“Parents also need to be empowered, to have the courage to ask administrators where the money will go and to see receipts.

“That’s difficult in Javanese culture. Educators are considered superior beings whose intentions should not be doubted. Parents have the right to know how and where their money is being used.

“Slowly we’re having an impact. But it’s going to take a long time – there are so many poor families.”



The ISCO Foundation was set up by several European businesspeople in Jakarta in partnership with Indonesians. It’s a non-government organisation with no religious or political affiliations.

The Board is led by Pascal Lalanne, the managing director of international Telco 1rstWAP.

ISCO’s vision is “to give an equal chance for education, development, dignity and hope for the future to every child.”

The mission is to stop kids on the edge of society from becoming street urchins or child laborers.

Begging from motorists stopped at traffic lights, and pedestrians using overpasses is a social sore in Jakarta, Surabaya and other cities. Beggarbabes too young for kindergarten and too tiny to reach the window bang on car doors demanding money while the police look elsewhere.

The Foundation started with 50 kids in two Jakarta suburbs. Now it’s supporting 925 through eleven units based in Jakarta, Medan and Surabaya.

Staff work at street level and mix with the families. Should an affluent household plead poverty to exploit the system, the scam is usually exposed by offended neighbours.

Families are means-tested so few get all school fees paid. The parents’ contribution may be small but it’s designed to help them manage their own affairs and not become dependent on handouts.

The students’ school attendance and work is regularly checked by ISCO staff who can offer help if the child is lagging behind or assist the family.

(For more details of ISCO see )

(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 21 July 06)



In a nation of paradoxes, this one’s a real head-scratcher:

Why is a former four star general turned politician best known for being slow and indecisive, while his deputy – a businessman – has a think-it, do-it image?

No soldier advances far in any army if he or she can’t make snap decisions in a crisis, while corporate czars have a reputation for caution - taking their time and checking all options before signing off on policy.

No problem if these two were small-time players in some backwater legislature, but the men in this story run the biggest show in South East Asia.

Indonesia’s sixth president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) always looks happiest on the parade ground. His Dad was a soldier and he married into a military family. One of his sons has donned the khaki.

With that background most would expect the commander of a nation of around 240 million people and a similar number of political, social, economic and environmental problems to be Action Man.

Election analysts reckon Yudhoyono didn’t get 60 per cent of the popular vote in 2004 just because he sought to clean up a country corroded by corruption. Voters wanted the reforms to be run by a tough man at the top who was also a democrat.

His three predecessors (Habibie, Gus Dur and Megawati Sukarnoputri) had been ditherers, while the first two presidents (Sukarno and Suharto) had been no-nonsense heavyweights.

However there was one daunting problem; while Yudhoyono had the credentials his Democratic Party didn’t have the numbers. His handpicked running mate Jusuf Kalla was in a similar position.

Kalla was a politician and self-made entrepreneur with a reputation for straight dealing. He’d built a transport and industrial conglomerate in South Sulawesi and successfully moved his Kalla Group into Java.

Kalla had been kicked out of Golkar when he backed Yudhoyono. Golkar is the party founded by Suharto and which ran Indonesia for 32 years. After the 2004 election Golkar formed a loose ‘Nationhood Coalition’ with former president Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) – creating a potentially formidable opposition.

But the smarter heads in politics rapidly realised that although Yudhoyono and Kalla could be trounced in the Parliament, they had the people’s mandate for change - and the voters were in no mood to tolerate party poopers for the next five years.

Kalla was sweet-talked back into Golkar and in December 2004 elected party chairman in a landslide.

Suddenly Yudhoyono had real muscle in the Parliament – and a debt to his politically nimble offsider. As Yudhoyono wandered the world glad-handing leaders, the older Kalla zipped around the archipelago tackling the really messy problems. His major triumph was getting peace in the north Sumatra province of Aceh, a goal that had eluded all previous administrations and the Dutch colonialists.

The December 2004 Tsunami that did most damage in Aceh certainly helped the long-time warring separatists and military rethink their priorities and tactics in the province. But it was Kalla’s persistent energy and political skills in pushing for reconciliation that kept the peace initiatives alive and ultimately successful.

Then Kalla started making decrees, which is the president’s prerogative, and blandly offering views that contradicted his colleagues.

The scuttlebutt flared: will the real president please rise?

Physically they’re like an old-time stand-up comedy duo – the plumping and ponderous president looking older than his 57 years, and his bouncy little sidekick seemingly younger than 64. Both deny any rift and claim they work as a team.

Which is what you’d expect them to say – but in this case it could be true. Part of the problem is the public’s expectations. In the past VPs were of no consequence – just fete-openers when the big man was overseas. Kalla is reinventing the job and having fun.

When Yudhoyono speaks off the cuff it’s usually to make some worthy but boring observation. Kalla’s cracks are newsworthy. When told that a local version of Playboy would be nude-free he quipped this meant Indonesian men were being duped into buying a misrepresented product.

Then he unveiled plans to lure wealthy Arabs to Indonesia. It seems the VP doesn’t want the usual idyllic isle and shopping spree promotion. He knows what Middle East males really want. Advertising the availability of widows and divorcees seeking men with Mastercards would be a big come-on.

In the West such an idea would be clawed to shreds, but in Indonesia where men are number one citizens, not all saw this as insulting and degrading to women.

The feminists said the predictable things and the remark was later reinterpreted by Kalla’s spin-masters - but it was the guffaws from the blokes around the VP that indicated Kalla has got the common touch.

More important was Kalla’s performance at an open public meeting held in East Java last month (June). This was to discuss a huge mud eruption from a ruptured gas well - and showed the man at his best.

The villagers and others whose lives and businesses have been seriously damaged by the non-stop hot and stinking ooze now covering hundreds of hectares were rightly furious - and demanding compensation. They were in no mood for bland assurances.

Kalla deftly ad-libbed his way through the claims and counter-claims. He bluntly accused the company (linked to a fellow minister Aburizal Bakrie) of being at fault and ordered payouts. That sort of plain speaking is unusual in Indonesian politics – unless directed at another nation.

Inevitably the idea that Kalla might go for the top job in the 2009 election has taken root. But it’s unlikely to flourish – the terrain is wrong.

Kalla is from South Sulawesi and however popular he becomes the geography of his birth is a major handicap in a country where ethnicity is more important than education.

Java is the nation’s most heavily populated island - the source and centre of all power. It’s a given that the country has to be run by a Javanese.

Then there’s his age. The man may be spry but if by some fluke he did become the nation’s seventh president he’d be 73 by the time his term finished. Running Indonesia is no job for a pensioner and Kalla says he’s not interested.

Of course he has to say that or the partnership would be untenable.

But there’s one thing more. Kalla seems to have slipped into the VP job as though it was tailor made. He usually looks at ease and in charge – and that’s not always the situation with his boss. Kalla isn’t into photo opportunities or bland comments and seems little fazed by criticism.

In a country where protocol is more important than policy, jolly little Kalla as VP can leave the salutes and parades to his more uptight superior, and get on with being Mr Can Do.

At the moment both appear happy with the arrangement and the public seems to have adjusted. Whether it can last for three more years is another head-scratcher.

(First published in On-Line Opinion, w/ending 22 July 06)


Saturday, July 08, 2006


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THE MAN WITH MANY FACES © Duncan Graham 2006

About six years ago Swarsito realised his life wasn’t going anywhere. He worked in the East Java town of Malang as a builder’s labourer – a job with more applicants than opportunities.

There was also the problem of physical strength. He’s a light, elfin-like figure, not a hulk. Hauling bricks and mixing concrete requires brawn, not brains.

For a while he tried selling fruit, which was equally unprofitable, particularly when the produce matured faster than the arrival of buyers.

That didn’t bring in enough cash and his wife Sutami was pregnant again. (The couple now have ten children.) A follower of Javanese mysticism he meditated regularly. But in the search for answers to his big questions about finding work and maintaining his family a higher involvement was required. So he spent a week meditating atop Mt Arjuno. This is the 3339-metre peak south of Surabaya.

His faith was soon rewarded. To pass the time while waiting for customers for his fruit stall back in Malang he started carving faces into the hardened crusts of rotten fruit.

Then it occurred to him that wood would make a more lasting medium. Talents he never knew he had began to develop under the blade of his pocketknife. Here was a chance to explore his creativity. He bought more tools to gouge, chip and smooth, paint to fill in the features of the characters he knew so well from the traditional Javanese Panji stories.

A few people liked his work – including a dean at Malang’s University of Brawijaya. He introduced his friends. Some were foreigners. Sales grew. His work has been exported to Belgium, Holland and Australia – but most trade is done from a roadside stall.

He also discovered another gift; he was a paranormal. In the masks he made for dancers he was able to call in the spirits, good or bad according to the mythological figures they portrayed.

He changed his name to Tito, gathered some artists and started a dance troupe called Kepang Budaya Malang (Malang Cultural and Spiritual Group) which stages shows three or four times a month. Its repertoire includes a fire-eater, acrobats, singers, a band, mask dancers – and horse trance dancers.

This is not the refined tourist experience which can be found in Bali. Cultural purists in East Java heap contempt on kuda lumping (Horse trance dance) for its coarse movements, brutality and the fighting in the audience that sometimes follows.

When the spirit enters the dancer through smoke or having incantations whispered in his ear, he experiences spasms and goes rigid.

When his limbs eventually relax he’s a horse. He eats grass or grain, gets whipped by his trainer and prances around the performance area. Some dancers are so convincing the crowd gets frightened and fears infection by the spirit.

Release can come only through a reversal of the infusion.

Tito, 52, spoke to The Jakarta Post in his tiny house deep in a Malang kampung where he and his sons turn slabs of wood into strange and contorted faces. In a curtained niche are racks of masks, grotesque and benign, huge and complex, tiny and neat – all used in the performances.

Is it difficult to find the right wood?

No. I get mine from Mount Arjuno. The problem is getting the cow tails (used for the hair on some masks). The abattoirs sell to the big buyers who take two tonnes at a time.

Why do you think you’ve been successful?

Because the God told me to work with wood. He is wise and fair and gave me talent. I seek guidance from God. Before this I was just a coolie.

You follow Kebatinan which is not an approved religion. Is that a problem?

No worries. I’m a Muslim on my KTP (identity card).

Why did you change your name?

To make it shorter and easier to remember. But I’m not a harsh man like the former president of Yugoslavia!

Is there black magic in your masks?

It’s very easy for me to do that, so I ask buyers what they want. If they’re going to use the mask for their collection, to hang on the wall, then there’s no black magic. .

If I sell to a performer that’s different. But at the end of the show they have to pray and send the spirit back to the compass point where it came from.

One of my sons can do this too – he’s got the gift. I can’t put spirits into animals, only masks

Are the spirits good or bad?

That depends on who you are.

Can women meditate and also get these gifts?

Yes, they can.

If I pay you, will you curse my enemies and those who do me wrong?

I only want to do good. If you ask me for help in getting a soul mate I can do that. But I won’t help you get a divorce.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 July 06)

Gedung Setan

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© Duncan Graham 2006

It’s easy to get lost in Surabaya. Billboards eclipse the few signposts; selling smokes is more important than giving direction.

The press of traffic also prevents visitors to the East Java capital from getting an easy fix on their bearings in a city with few prominent landmarks.

The exception is Gedung Setan, though not because it’s tall or architecturally striking. It’s memorable for its bulk, its brooding colonial presence looming over the kampong like a medieval castle, the solid sense of history and mystery. So out of place it’s not easily forgotten.

Then there’s the reputation. For Gedung Setan - at the junction of Jalan Diponegoro and Jalan Banyu Urip - is Surabaya’s Spookhuis, and you don’t need to be Dutch to understand the meaning.

So powerful is this reputation that the 35 families living in the two-storey building are all Christian, though the area is overwhelmingly Muslim. They even have their own Pentecostal chapel in the main room upstairs with blood red crosses on the walls – talismans against any devils still lurking in the nooks and crannies.

It doesn’t need an excess of imagination to people the 200-year old monster with phantoms. Although electricity has been connected lighting is dim and generally restricted to the rooms partitioned off by the squatters.

They’ve used plastic sheets, plywood and other scavenged materials to erect shacks inside Gedung Setan. Despite its size the two entrance doors are narrow and hidden, but surprisingly high.

Local versions say the building was used as a mortuary holding bodies prior to their burial in a nearby cemetery. The graveyard has now gone and in its place are the brothels of Jalan Dolly, Surabaya’s notorious prostitution centre.

If the building had been designed as a common warehouse for rice or other bulk goods it seems reasonable to assume the doors would have been wide enough for carts to enter. The narrow doors give some credibility to the mortuary story.

Another yarn has Gedung Setan being used as home for thousands of swiftlets whose edible nests fetch top prices in Chinese cuisine. If so they were late invaders for custom-built swiftlet barns have no windows and only tiny access holes. Now only feral pigeons are in residence.

Some resident families cook in the narrow corridors. The smoke from their stoves has blackened the walls and ceilings adding to the gloom. Under the soot can be seen the outlines of massive pillars supporting the sagging tiled roof. Timber props have been added to stop the ceiling falling.

The floor upstairs is made of heavy rough-hewn planks of teak. Despite its size and robust construction the building throbs with the traffic pounding the streets below.

Many windows have been boarded. The 50 cm thick walls are crumbling – though look good enough to last for a few more decades. There was nothing temporary or slipshod about Dutch construction techniques that included brick laying without cement.

Although it’s widely known as Gedung Setan (the Devil’s building) those indifferent to superstition say the name is really Gedung She Tan recalling the Chinese family which once held the title. This explanation came from Pentecostal authorities.

However the few written records say the family name was Teng Sioe Hie.

The building is not registered in the Surabaya City Council’s list of sites worth preserving despite its antiquity. Maybe because of its name.

According to Dutch historian G H von Faber the building was originally the residence of Sir J A Middelkoop who later became Prefect of East Java in the early 1800s. But its design is more industrial than recreational, and the location is suspect. The privileged Dutch lived in the city centre close to the river.

Australian academic Howard Dick who wrote the book Surabaya, City of Work records two stories associated with Gedung Setan.

In one the building is haunted by the ghost of a woman who murdered her illegitimate infant. Of course she’s doomed to forever search for her lost child, asking whoever she encounters for information.

In the other yarn the wraith is of a former galley slave whose back had been branded. Wanting to keep his past a secret he ordered that his corpse should not be washed before burial – but this led to his finding no rest.

None of these stories bother the building’s caretaker Gondo who lives on the ground floor with all the creature comforts, including air conditioning.

He says the residents are the descendants of Chinese who fled the persecution of real or imagined communists unleashed in 1965 with the fall of Sukarno.

“It was safe here,” he said. “I don’t know if that was because people feared the place so only Chinese and Christians would enter, or because Surabaya was a calm city.

“There’s no landlord so no rent. It’s an ideal situation. The land title has been lost and the original owners long gone.

“We live here and do our own renovations. When the building is full of people the ghosts flee.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 7 July 06)

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Madura off the north coast of East Java doesn’t enjoy a good press.

Many guidebooks highlight the island’s aridity and the exodus of its inhabitants. The Madurese have a reputation for ferocity and religious fervour. So few tourists visit outside the dry season bull races.

But there’s a man-made attraction on Madura well worth a day trip.

The 54 metre-high lighthouse of Sembilangan is a marvellous piece of Dutch engineering that’s easily accessible and open to the public. It’s one of five historical lighthouses listed by Indomarinav (the Indonesian Marine Safety Navigation Department) as worthy of preservation.

Three (including Sembilangan) were built in 1879. The lighthouse at Cikoneng, Tanjung Priok was erected in 1885 and one in Kapoposang, Makassar in 1957.

The three oldest were constructed from hundreds of thick cast iron plates made in Holland, shipped to Indonesia, and bolted together. Although records are imperfect it seems they were all prefabricated by L I Enthoven and Co in Gravenage (The Hague).

Despite the Sembilangan lighthouse’s long exposure to the weather - particularly salt spray - the only obvious rust is minute surface flaking. Cast iron doesn’t suffer from corrosion like steel, which is iron mixed with carbon to make it stronger, lighter and malleable.

Although the light is now illuminated by electricity instead of burning carbide, the lens is the original. The lamp (two white flashes every ten seconds with a range of 19 nautical miles) still alerts mariners.

Although many ships now use global satellite navigation this can be turned off by the US military which controls the system.

The American Lighthouse Foundation works to preserve the old buildings and sees these as part of its national heritage. In Holland there’s a similar organisation called the Netherlands Lighthouse Club.

In the US and Europe there’s a lively industry of tours, books, magazines and souvenirs all devoted to old lighthouses which are seen as places of romance and tragedy. Long before carbide and electricity were invented, promontories and hazards were marked by fires burning atop rock cairns – and some remain.

Britain’s rich ghost story tradition includes phantom keepers extinguishing the light during a storm to lure craft to their doom, and shipwrecked sailors seeking sanctuary only to find the keeper has gone mad with the solitude. Sinetron scriptwriters should explore this genre for more loopy plots.

Indomarinav’s website implies that the government would also like to promote many of Indonesia’s 60 listed lighthouses as tourist attractions, but the infrastructure is lacking.

There are no signs to the Sembilangan light and no brochures or accurate information about its history. Lighthouse buffs are famished for facts – and that’s their essential food.

Although built on a small island among the mangroves, there’s a narrow causeway whose custodian extracts Rp 3,000 (US $0.30) for every car squeezing through a narrow gateway.

The lighthouse staff will unlock the doors and let you climb the 16 levels to the top up iron ladders. Here you can shiver with fear on the narrow gallery while gazing across to East Java and feel the wind howling through the thin rails and across your white knuckles.

If vertigo isn’t your problem you can also wonder at the precision with which the 12-sided tapering tower was erected before laser levels were invented. And how did the builders ensure they had all the right parts – particularly when many carry the same number?

This is a landfall beacon and a light to guide ships approaching Surabaya into the cluttered channel between Madura and Java. Surabaya’s port of Tanjung Perak is the second busiest in the archipelago.

At the tower’s ten-metre diameter base are some crumbling barracks once used for staff quarters and workshops when the carbide arc needed regular maintenance. Among the trees on the beach are food stalls. Try the local speciality Rujak Manis Madura, a mix of fruit and vegetable with a brown sauce for Rp 2,000 (US $0.20).

Although entry is free the staff expect a small fee for their services – usually Rp 5,000 (US $ 0.50). The place is a popular spot for local teenagers seeking privacy and with the courage to climb the ladders. At least one couple went all the way without having to go all the way. ‘I lost my virginity on level six’ says the inscription – though the signature didn’t indicate gender.

Sembilangan is on the extreme western tip of Madura and near the town of Bangkalan. If you fancy an overnight stay the Hotel Ningrat has VIP rooms for Rp 195,000 (US $21) with timber furnishings in a curious style mix of old Madurese and Javanese plus a dash of Chinese.

There are regular car ferries between Surabaya and Kamal Harbour on Madura. The trip takes about 40 minutes and costs Rp 55,000 (US $5.50) each way.

The lighthouse is just a 20-minute drive from the ferry through some lush countryside. Unlike Java the roads are not crowded.

A bridge between Java and Madura is under construction and may be finished within two years if the funds keep flowing.

(For details of other lighthouses check
(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 7 July 06)


Sunday, July 02, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Here’s a slice of good news to dunk in your breakfast coffee this Sunday morn: Common sense may be returning in matters of public security.

Passengers on Garuda international flights are now trusted to eat their baked omelette using a steel knife.

A real 17 cm long knife with a serrated blade and unbendable. (I tried.) The sort which vanished from the plastic trays of plastic food after terrorists armed with box cutters hijacked four airliners in the US.

Following the 2001 outrage any likely offensive weapon was banned from the cabin. Passengers’ bags were X rayed and every sharp confiscated. Women’s nails are now rotten and ragged because thousands of files, clippers and other lethal aids to beauty have been filched from their owners’ purses.

The security industry exploded (sorry, expanded exponentially). Everyone wanted their own metal detector.

A five-star hotel manager in Surabaya told me he found his shiny new walk-through machine an embarrassment. It was working too efficiently and revealing the concealed handguns worn by many top business gents.

The manager sought police help; his employees were loath to try and seize the weapons as a man will not willingly divorce his pistol. Even if successful how could untrained staff handle and store the guns?

The police advice? Ignore the weapons as most would be licensed. That made everyone feel much safer.

Meanwhile more civilised guests with solid wristwatches, heavy leather belts and a pocket full of loose change were being frisked.

Dangerous guys indeed: unable to open fire they could throw coins in your face, whip off their belts, thrash you with buckle or karate chop you with the watch wristband. Be ever alert.

Security advisors ransacked their brains to out-think the terrorists and close off the opportunities.

National security senior fellow Dr Stephen Flynn put the following scenario to a US Senate subcommittee earlier this year:

The low-paid driver of a container truck in Surabaya is persuaded to back his vehicle into a warehouse while on his way to Tanjung Perak, East Java’s major shipping port.

The container has been loaded with shoes destined for the US. The manufacturer has been certified safe and the cargo carefully sealed by authorised inspectors.

But the door hinges are prized off by the smart terrorists who slip a dirty radioactive bomb amongst the footwear. The bomb is inside a lead-lined box so escapes detection by the container terminal’s X-ray machine.

The container goes from Surabaya to Jakarta and Hong Kong - and eventually to Chicago. The doors are opened and …

The hyper-imaginative Dr Flynn testified this was “the terrorist scenario that most keeps me awake at night.”

What keeps me awake is that these over-paid experts think Surabaya a good spot for bomb transfers. Don’t they know the locals are so nosey such an operation could never go unnoticed? They’d all want a pair of sneakers and the container would be gutted in a trice.

The difficulty of making the world absolutely safe from the crazed and devious was well illustrated by Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.

She told a Rotary meeting in Australia that she’d cynically asked Prime Minister John Howard if pencils should be banned from aircraft because their sharpened points could be used to stab crew in the eyes.

In a rare moment of candour (she didn’t know there was a journalist in the audience) Vanstone also admitted that many government decisions were designed to make the public think something effective was being done about security when total safeguards were impossible.

It’s clear we’re all starting to relax – and let’s hope that’s OK. Guards at police HQ in Surabaya are no longer interested in pushing mirrors under cars’ skirts, while shopping centre security men would rather chat than wand bags.

So congratulations to Garuda for letting us use real cutlery. Now the airline needs to do something about another potential weapon.

The stale bun I was served last week was a cricket ball in disguise - so hard I could have lobbed it down the aisle and knocked out the purser. This should be drawn to Dr Flynn’s attention and raised at the next US Senate sub-committee. Along with Minister Vanstone’s pencil plot.

(First published in The Sunday Post 2 July 06)

Johan Silas and ITS students

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CARING FOR THE KAMPUNGS © Duncan Graham 2006

Surabaya is Commerce Central, raw and gritty.

The Republic’s second biggest city hits the newcomer with a concrete statement wreathed in smog: Here the rupiah rules. There’s plenty of room to make millions, but little space for intellectual debate.

Particularly for those who think a pinch of chaos is a good change promoter but unrestrained development a damaging ethic, especially for the poor.

That hasn’t stopped award-winning architect Johan Silas from pushing urban planning issues with vigour. He’s been doing this through the mass media to an often indifferent public and a bored bureaucracy for much of his professional life.

Now people are listening – and reacting. He spoke to Duncan Graham in the housing and human settlements’ laboratory at Surabaya’s Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS).


Like any good architect Professor Silas has a well-hewn, lived-in face. That doesn’t mean homely; though polite and accommodating you get the feeling that if he tolerates fools he does so reluctantly.

The niceties have to be observed – particularly in cultured East Java. So there’s a bit of dancing around before he gets a grip on the questions and wrestles them down. He seems to be thinking: Is this going to be a demanding discussion – or can I just go through the motions then get back to something more important?

As a veteran of the media he understands the value of the one-liner. As an acclaimed academic he knows that planning is an immensely complex issue that demands seasoned responses.

To be fair he’d just come back from two weeks in Aceh and was due to return in a few days time. His job there is with the Asian Development Bank where he runs a team of 30 supervising a huge rebuilding program.

With his ITS colleagues Silas has designed a temporary timber house that can be nailed together in around a day using basic tools and limited skills. The materials cost about Rp 10 million (US $1,100). So far more than 600 have been built for survivors of the 2004 tsunami.

For this and other innovations he was awarded the Scroll of Honor in 2005 by United Nations Habitat. It’s not his first international recognition; governments and professional bodies in France, Japan and ASEAN have shown their appreciation.

He’s been a guest lecturer in Australia, Europe and Japan. The wonder is he stays in East Java. He’s not even a local but a native of East Kalimantan who graduated from the seminal Bandung Institute of Technology 43 years ago.

Now he can claim to have lived in Surabaya for longer than two thirds of the present population, such is the huge and continuing movement into the port city of people from other towns and provinces.

For anyone sensitive to the ambience of place, the tone and mood of a community, the importance of blending past and present to create an acceptable new way of living, Surabaya must seem the pits.

A map of this sprawling ancient city looks like an upturned plate of noodles. There’s no easily discernable centre, no grid, no locus of power with radiating boulevards. A river twists and turns to the north, but also slices directly to the east. One arm is obviously natural, the other artificial.

Most cities make waterways the focal point for transport and recreation. A riverside home is usually prime real estate. But this is Surabaya, and the silt-laden sewer Kali Mas (Gold River) is grossly misnamed.

So the rich have left the once busy river to the poor and jobless who squat on its black banks and watch Styrofoam scum bob by. Those with cash and work have settled in gated suburbs to the west. Here they display their absence of taste by building European-style mansions. These don’t even chance a nod of recognition to Javanese culture and traditional design, let alone a tropical climate.

Is planning in Surabaya an oxymoron?

It seems that way. There are building codes and penalties for those who break them. Local governments have the power to demolish unapproved constructions but that seldom happens. So people just pay the fine and regard that as the fee for bypassing regulations.

We certainly have urban planning, but there’s a discrepancy between plans and implementation. I’ve been fighting this for a long time.

Was Surabaya always such a mess?

No, not at all. We’re dealing here with a city at least 700 years old, probably more, which was planned on the mandala of Javanese cosmology. There were two keratons (Javanese ruler’s palaces) north and south where Jalan Pahlawan exists. Now only the names remain.

There were also two alun-alun (town squares). People lived in villages around the points of the compass according to their trades and backgrounds. The planning had harmony.

What happened?

It’s very difficult to say. The Dutch tried hard not to disturb the structure but the centre shifted to Grahadi (the governor’s palace) about 200 years ago. Then early last century the Dutch did development work to the south around Wonokromo and excavated a canal to drain flooding to the east.

They also attempted to build a walled city to the north but the soil wasn’t suitable. It was still European thinking.

What to you think of these developments to the north- west where the rich are now living?

I hate them, their bombastic names like Singapore in Surabaya and European street statuary featuring Greek and Roman myths. There’s nothing Indonesian about these estates. It’s all crazy.

But this is the private sector and it can build housing very quickly. I’m more concerned about homes for the poor.

Do you favour the destruction of the kampongs as in Singapore and their replacement by flats?

No I don’t, though I recognise space is at a premium. We’ve already designed rental flats for workers in the centre of Surabaya and these have been a success. They’re four or five storeys high and still retain the sense of community and togetherness that’s such an important part of Javanese living.

But the kampongs are horizontal living and can harbour and spread disease. They get crowded as more people come to the big city for work. There are problems with access and services.

Remember that the kampongs house 60 per cent of the population. They are the places where people from the villages learn to live in the city. They’re like a school.

There’s a need to nurse the community and help people make decisions about the way they want to live. Through ITS we started Citizens’ Councils where planning issues can be discussed using the people’s language. Some of these discussions are broadcast on radio.

The Kampong Improvement Program (KIP) was first introduced in Surabaya in 1924 and focussed mainly on sanitation. It’s been intensified since then to improve the quality of life.

The program has been quite successful, but it can’t keep up with the rate of growth. In the late 1970s KIP was introduced nationally for all urban areas.

We don’t want the kampongs invaded and taken over by the middle classes. They are so important to maintaining cohesion. Without workers from the kampong the city couldn’t function.

The idea is that the kampongs should be maintained as a transitional zone and improved. They should co-exist with commercial and urban development to supply the labor and services they need. This is the ‘shared-space’ model of planning.

We can and should get a closer relationship between the middle upper and middle lower segments of society. The next generation should be better educated and trained and they’ll be the ones who want to move out of the kampongs and find the privacy they seek.

Why is the river such a mess?

Bad maintenance and planning. It used to be the principle means of communication and transport. But a bridge collapsed across the river near the port about 50 years ago and has never been repaired, so water traffic can’t get upstream.

In the 1960s and 70s it was regularly flushed. Not now. It all comes back to costs. Don’t ask me why – I’m not in control! It certainly needs to be dredged.

Yes, I do get very angry about these things. The government raises all these taxes but doesn’t spend the money on urban maintenance. Where does the money go?

The shopping mall construction boom continues. Where are all the tenants and customers going to come from? Many shops are empty. I can’t understand how they can survive.

Neither can I. The data used to sustain these developments is flawed and there’s definitely an oversupply. There’s been too much speculation and a lot of bankruptcies will follow.

They have also created problems of traffic management and infrastructure because planning codes have not been followed.

Count your successes.

Till recently we’ve managed to constrain development to the south and prevent Surabaya linking up with Sidoarjo – though that’s happening now. We also contained industrial development to the southeast.

There’s a master plan taking us through to 2025 and a law prohibiting the clearing of kampong unless required for a major road. The kampongs survived the economic crisis surprisingly well.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Surabaya is so different from anywhere else. People here have a great sense of attachment and egalitarianism. It’s not like Jakarta – we don’t demand local identification cards – anyone can move in. About 50 per cent live close to their work.

It’s the second best solution to Jakarta, the major transport, business and supply hub to most of Eastern Indonesia. It’s the whole diverse deal, moving very fast and hugely important to this nation. The bridge to Madura (see The Jakarta Post 3 February 2006 ) will make a major difference.

You can’t compare Surabaya to anywhere. It’s twice the size of Kuala Lumpur with one tenth of the resources. I stay here because it’s so interesting.

The people are starting to understand the issues because they are feeling the effects of bad decision-making through crowded streets and cramped living space. They have the right to enjoy urban facilities. I detect frustration. But they don’t yet have the power.

Democracy in Indonesia is still a kind of ritual. It’s not yet a way of life. I hope that soon it can become a bargaining chip for the people to make a better city.

I’m an anarchist – change comes from chaos. And change is the only certainty. We have to understand the past so mistakes are not repeated.

Improving the kampongs has been my lifetime’s work. Yes, I’m always optimistic.

(First oublished in The Sunday Post 2 July 2006)