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, August 30, 2006

Temara at Perth Zoo

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“Temara has always been something of a bad seed. Moody and temperamental she is prone to fits of jealousy...” That’s according to Leif Cocks, an Australian who’s known the testy teenager all her life.

Others, like her close friend Kylie Bullo offer a more generous assessment: “Temara is feisty and intelligent. She’s going through puberty and pushing the boundaries. A bit stubborn and wary of people.”

Sounds like someone you know? If so they’re not qualities that endear or augur well for a loving relationship. But in this case they’re the characteristics which may well keep Temara alive when she moves from Australia to Indonesia, probably in the next two months.

Temara is set to become the first zoo-born Sumatran orang-utan to be released into the wild in a bid to refresh the gene pool. The species – one of our closest biological relatives – is teetering on the edge of extinction.

The transfer will be to the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in South Sumatra. There are only around 50 orang-utans in the park which has the capacity to take 1,000.

The transmigration of 14-year old Temara is an exercise fraught with hazards. Will her hard-wired ancient instincts return to help her adjust to an alien environment where she’ll be battling on her own? Or will she mope, fret and die far from her Western comforts?

She’s spent her lifetime in a metal enclosure, never having to worry about her next lettuce or getting toothache. No forest fires threatened. Her trees were steel frames. Her parents were also born behind bars, so they haven’t been able to whisper the secrets of survival in a rain forest to their daughter.

Could we thrive if suddenly sent back to the Majapahit Kingdom?

Cocks thinks it’s going to work – otherwise he wouldn’t be giving his approval. He’s the curator of exotic mammals at the Perth Zoo in Western Australia and president and founder of the Australian Orang-utan Project (AOP).

With the help of the Perth Zoo the organisation funds security at Bukit Tigapuluh. It has also been rescuing orang-utans who have been taken by poachers and sold as pets, and orphans whose parents have been shot by forest loggers.

Some of these animals have been returned to the wild and many have had problems. In some cases their foster-parents treated them like family, wearing nappies and eating at tables – not the ideal training for a future in the treetops.

Hand-raised orang-utans are known to be mentally inferior to their wild mates. They are also prone to diseases, including hepatitis and malaria.

Keeping them as pets is illegal, but the practice is alleged to continue, with a tame orang-utan a status symbol for any Big Man in the military, government or business. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) claims there are more orang-utans per square kilometre in the gardens of Taipei tycoons than in the wild, and that five or six die for every one that makes it in the concrete jungle.

The last wild orang-utan recorded in the 147,000-hectare Bukit Tigapuluh park was in 1830. The animals now present are all rescued pets and their progeny. Cocks said that so called ‘benign conservation’ – meaning just stopping poachers and loggers – will not work and that parks need to be restocked.

Cocks is confident that threats from guns and chain saws are minimal, that villagers who get income from maintaining the park are supportive, and that it’s time to try and release an animal to boost the park’s breeding program.

“Modern Western zoos have moved dramatically from being a menagerie of curiosities to an agency for conservation,” said Perth Zoo’s chief executive officer Susan Hunt.

“We want to improve understanding of the natural world. We’re involved in research – we’re a shop front for conservation programs. This is a pilot project and if successful more releases into the wild may follow – maybe even a Sumatran tiger.”

So Temara will be flown in a crate from Perth to Jakarta and then trucked or airlifted to Jambi for a staged ‘soft release’. Senior keeper Bullo will stay for three months working with Indonesian rangers to slowly ease the transition from Western Australia to the tropics.

The zoo started breeding orang-utans in 1970. Gestation is around 260 days and getting them to mate is not too difficult. However they have the lowest mammalian reproduction rate – one offspring around every eight years. The big problem is keeping the young alive. Maternal rejection is a serious hazard for creatures born in captivity.

Orang-utans are intelligent and consequently sensitive and prone to stress. They need to be housed and handled with great care, recognising that mental health is as important as physical wellbeing. Most early attempts to keep wild animals in zoos failed.

The Perth Zoo, which got its original animals from a private collection in Malaysia in 1968, seems to have mastered the skills. It claims to have the world’s most successful breeding program with 25 young born in the past 35 years. Seventeen survived infancy.

Part of the secret is in understanding the animal’s psychology and social behavior. Orang-utans can live into their 50s. They’re territorial and tend to prefer their own company. But they also want to know the whereabouts of their colleagues. So the Perth Zoo has attempted to replicate adult female territories. In each enclosure is a tower for the animals to climb and keep an eye on their neighbours.


Orang-utans (a corruption of Orang Hutan – person of the forest) were originally thought to be a species of feral humans. It’s believed that they separated from hominids (the family which includes modern humans) about 10 million years ago.

Although they have 97 per cent of human genetic make up, of all the great apes orang-utans are the least related to humans.

They’re the only members of the great ape family found outside Africa and only in South East Asia. In prehistoric times they lived in the area between north India and Southern China but are now confined to Indonesia.

They thrive on fruit and will eat eggs and insects, but are mainly vegetarians. They’re diurnal and live in trees where they build sleeping nests. There are two types - the Borneo and the longer-haired Sumatran. As the islands have been separate for more than a million years the two are sub-species, but will inter-breed in captivity.

Orang-utans have long arms and are spectacularly agile climbers. They can walk upright but usually prefer to be on all fours. At the Perth Zoo they’re the most popular exhibit.

Although they’re big and strong with males weighing up to 95 kilograms, the animals are shy. They have a reputation for docility towards people and are often photographed cuddling their keepers. King Kongs they are not.

It was once believed they could talk, but being super-smart refused to do so lest they be made to work. They’re unable to speak but have been taught sign language. They have excellent memories and in captivity can use tools.

They’re among the cleverest primates, with an intelligence claimed to be equal to a five-year old human. So theoretically they should be able to program a DVD player, a task that frustrates many adult humans.

Keepers offer these insights:

“Give a screwdriver to a chimpanzee and he’ll throw it at a mate. Give one to a gorilla and he’ll use it to scratch himself. But an orang-utan will use it to escape.

“Give 10 problems to a chimp and he’ll solve six in half an hour – but never solve the other four. An orang-utan will take a week – but solve all ten.”


Comparing an Australian supermarket aisle displaying pet food with a similar shop in Indonesia shows how much our southern neighbors dote on animals.

Aussie stores allocate hectares of shelf space to doggy biscuits, cat meat, bird seed and fish flakes; the Indonesian equivalent may have only a few tins of undersize sardines packed for pussies.

Never kick a dog Down Under. (Or an underdog). People who mistreat pets are often jailed and fined, and suffer the curses of a pitiless public.

There are associations to save seals, conserve whales, rescue bears, rehabilitate wounded wildlife and protect anything and everything endangered, whether feathered, finned or furred, almost anywhere on the planet. Including orang-utans in Indonesia.

Although the AOP only started assisting the Bukit Tigapuluh Park two years ago it will have donated AUD $181,000 (Rp 1.25 billion) by the end of next June. Most of the money has come from concerned individuals, the zoo and the Australian government.

Perth Zoo CEO Susan Hunt said she was negotiating an agreement with the Indonesian government for the zoo to make a long-term commitment to conservation at Bukit Tigapuluh. She hoped this would be in place next year.

“Gone are the days of zoos taking from the wild,” she said. “It’s time to actively participate in animals’ survival, and if necessary their reintroduction into the wild.”

(For more information check )

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 August 2006)


Tuesday, August 22, 2006



Could Indonesia’s hopes for a future pitch at World Cup soccer have its roots in Perth?

The question isn’t as silly as it first seems for there are 16 Indonesian teams in the Western Australian capital.

“About 4,500 Indonesian students live here and the majority seem to love soccer,” said Indonesian consul and footy fan Aloysius Lele Madja. “We also have teams competing in badminton, table tennis and volley ball.

“The sports facilities here in Perth are wonderful – super – something we don’t have in Indonesia, along with training and management. That’s a big problem.”

Dr Madja knows what he’s talking about. During a stint at the Indonesian Embassy in Bonn between 1987 and 1991 he took a course at a sports school as a soccer trainer. It’s a qualification that does him no harm in sport-crazy Australia where he’s worked for 18 months. Last year he saw the Indonesian soccer squad train in Perth for a month.

To kick off a week of Independence Day celebrations he’ll be presenting trophies to the top teams. On the big day there’ll be all the formal procedures as laid down by Jakarta, including a reading of the Proclamation and a flag raising. These will be followed by a lunch of sate and other archipelagic delights for those who can spare the time, for there’s no public holiday.

On the 18th the consulate will host parties for other diplomats and Australian government officials.

Last year the proceedings got washed out by rain. August is still winter in southern Australia and the weather unstable. This year the dignitaries will keep their batik dry as funds have been found for a canopy.

Included in the onlookers on the 17th will be about 50 Aussie kids from State and private schools who’ve been studying Indonesian. Earlier in the week the polyglot Dr Madja (he speaks German, French and Hungarian, along with a smooth European-accented English) will announce the winners of an Indonesian writing and speaking competition at Curtin University.

The topic: What are the advantages and disadvantages of learning another language? The prize: A ticket to Jakarta to attend next year’s Independence Day events.

There are around 8,500 Indonesians registered with the consulate. It’s believed many more live in Perth but prefer not to have official contact with their government’s representative.

The cheerful Dr Madja, 54, runs a remarkably relaxed consulate which gives no hint that relationships between the neighbours are strained. The modern two-storey building has two steel gates which can be remotely controlled. On the day of this interview both were wide open. There were no visible security guards or police patrols. No bag searches or frisking.

Western Australians clearly have a lot to learn from Indonesians about staging street protests.

Dr Madja said the Australia Free West Papua Association had scaled back its weekly demonstrations outside the consulate to one a month, usually attended by single digit crowds. Association coordinator Neil Sullivan confirmed the situation but described the protest as a ‘vigil’.

Are participants aggressive? “Not at all,” Dr Madja said. “They’re sincere, but just don’t seem to have the numbers. We don’t have too many enemies.”

(His comments overlook the fact that during recent controversies Indonesian authorities in Australia got threatening letters including some containing bullets and allegedly toxic powders.)

During his 23 years service with the Department of Foreign Affairs Dr Madja has had encounters with suspicious authorities in Russia, Germany and Italy – but so far no problems in Australia – apart from ignorance.

Do you agree with Australian Prime Minister John Howard that the difference between our countries and cultures is huge?

On some points. It seems that Australians don’t know much about their neighbour. Your main interests are in Europe or the US – except when security or crime issues crop up. Many seem to say: ‘Indonesia? Forget it!’

How to make Australians think differently about Indonesia – that’s the issue. The perceptions are terrorism and radical Islam. A small group spoils so many other things. But it’s very difficult to change prejudice. We should try to find out how we can get rid of the impediments.

Against this is the great friendliness of people here and their kindness. You never get strangers in Europe saying ‘good-morning’ as you walk along the street. The response of Australians to Indonesians suffering in natural disasters has been generous - excellent.

The challenge for us is how to change things politically. There have to be more people-to-people contacts, but that’s tempered by the travel warnings.

The Australia Indonesia Business Council has been complaining that fewer Indonesians are visiting Australia. Is that true and if so why?

Student numbers are decreasing. I think the growth of international schools in Indonesia is a major reason. Perth is certainly popular because it’s so close and air fares are reasonable. But it’s cheaper to send children to Malaysia and Singapore for further education.

Any solutions?

I’d like to see an Indonesian school in Perth. Many families have children being educated here and not speaking their own language. This could be a big business opportunity. There are Australian schools in Jakarta, Bali and Yogya. Why not an Indonesian school in Perth? There are Islamic schools here.

Maybe the problem is our inferiority complex. Some think that doing things the Indonesian way is not so good and that all things from abroad are excellent.

I meet so many smart people who’ve come from Flores. Why is that?

The Catholic school education we got was very good. It was thorough and disciplined. We had a native English speaker and he was tough. We really had to work hard.

Why did you become a diplomat?

I was going to be a priest, and then a writer. But after waiting two years for a publishing permit for the Flores Post I gave up and went to Jakarta. Maybe when I retire I’ll grow Western Australian wildflowers in Flores. (The state is internationally famous for its wide range of colorful wildflowers.)

Were you a good soccer player?

I think - yes! I used to play almost every day. But my two sons (he has four children) are playing rugby. I’m trying to understand cricket.

And the Indonesian World Cup team?

Maybe by 2030. Or 2050. It’s my dream!

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 August 2006)



Monday, August 21, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Every day en route to Surabaya’s Chaos Central I’m accosted by a weird collection of highway hustlers ambushing motorists at traffic lights.

Included in the line-up of windscreen dusters, furry toy sellers (and sellers of furry toys), bare-breasted beggars suckling gooey infants and ghouls in ape masks (just the thing for the office boss) are paperboys.

Some go to extremes in a bid to flog the news. During the World Cup a few
painted their torsos in what seemed to be an attempt to replicate national flags.

Even veteran drivers in the East Java capital, hardened to bizarre sights at intersections, were moved to double-check their door locks. But apart from shock and awe these garish gents sweating rainbows didn’t seem to be scoring any extra sales.

No wonder. Who wants to read results when we’ve heard them already on the radio and seen the action on breakfast TV? No need to stay up all night – highlights were replayed while the coffee was brewing and the rice steaming. Moving pictures beat static photos almost every time.

This is the challenge facing papers around the world: How can we compete against the instant news reports of the 21st century electronic media? Who didn’t know Nadine wasn’t Miss Universe long before dawn?

Despite on-screen layouts and high-speed presses, papers still have to be distributed using wheels and wings. The result seems foregone: TV and Internet 1, Newspapers 0.

Yet any newspaper obituary is likely to be like the first reports of Mark Twain’s passing – greatly exaggerated.

The long predicted birth of the paper-free office is still in gestation. Many believe it has yet to be conceived. We’re still culturally wedded to A4 and don’t trust the screen sirens.

On a flat sheet of paper it’s real. On a flat screen it’s not. Computers crash. Power failures send data into some gigabyte graveyard. Viruses duplicate and devour. If the Dead Sea scrolls had been stored on a hard drive there’d be one less world religion.

Newspapers feel comfortable and useful. Try lining the kitty-litter tray or wrapping the rubbish with a CD.

For an outsider, seeking to make sense of the Indonesian newspaper industry is like trying to understand the Javanese: Difficult beyond reason.

When Suharto controlled the media there were less than 300 licensed newspapers and magazines. When liberated by his successors the number jumped to more than 2,000. It has now slumped to around 830.

Yet investors still lust to be tycoons of type. Clearly many will go belly-up, so the motive must be ego enhancement. Who doesn’t want a name card with the title Publisher?

There are even rumours of a rival to this publication. This assumes someone either has pockets deeper than a Lapindo bore or has detected a reserve of credible companies desperate to advertise but who haven’t found anyone wanting to take their money.

When I started journalism in Australia, afternoon papers were an essential take-home commodity. Now almost all have gone, alleged victims of TV. Like exotic creatures they still exist in isolated pockets in Indonesia, but looking at the arid contents and an environment clear-felled of ads they’ll soon be extinct.

Elsewhere newspaper circulations are audited. Seldom here, so any figure on copies sold has to be treated with much scepticism.

Although seeing someone actually buy a paper is a rare event in Surabaya the custom of pinning pages of a daily on a wall on Jl Basuki Rachmat draws serious crowds.

So maybe it’s not true that Indonesians are indifferent readers – they’re just not prepared to pay Rp 3,000 (US 30 cents) for stale news when that money will buy a bowl of fresh meatballs.

Publishers serious about helping raise education levels and expand knowledge should consider giving away their papers. Most profit comes from selling space. Retailing costs make margins miniscule.

In Perth, Western Australia, local newspapers have become phenomenally successful by distributing copies free. The journalism is credible and pages are thick with ads.

If tried in Surabaya we’d all be winding down the car windows and getting a copy. The paperboys could retain their shirts and dignity. Literacy might flourish – and more forests fall to feed the pulp mills.

(First published in The Sunday Post, 20 August 06)



Tuesday, August 15, 2006


THE CAVIAR OF THE EAST © Duncan Graham 2006

When Achmad Basuni and his wife Siti Mariah were building their new house in 2000 great good fortune swiftly flew in the window.


A pair of swallows darted into the half finished kitchen and cast knowing eyes around the walls and rafters. Like all astute real estate buyers they knew exactly what they wanted: Security, space, a cool atmosphere, friendly co-tenants and easy access.

Any Westerner who found feathered ferals moving into their kitchen would probably call a pest exterminator, but this couple rejoiced. “It’s a blessing from God,” said Achmad who runs a motorbike workshop. Commented Siti: “I felt pity on them. I didn’t want them disturbed. So we just stopped building there.”

The kitchen was given over to the visitors and the home rapidly re-designed. When the swallows laid their first clutch Achmad substituted a pair of swiftlets’ eggs bought for Rp 60,000 (US $ 7)

Swiftlets have dark plumage. They’re closely related to swallows and slightly smaller. In flight they look sickle-shaped. Swallows are migratory and move between continents and hemispheres. Swiftlets live only in the tropics and usually nest in caves.

Unlike their bigger and better travelled cousins swiftlets build quite different homes; their nests are edible, keenly sought and highly prized: They’re the raw material for the Chinese dish Bird’s Nest Soup – also known as the Caviar of the East.

Depending on the quality and season a kilo of swiftlets’ nests (that’s around 100) can fetch around Rp 10 million (US $1,150) at the barn door.

News about the swallows’ selection flew rapidly round the couple’s village of Jeru, about 20 kilometres west of Malang in East Java. Soon a stranger was knocking with a startling offer: He’d buy their house for Rp 300 million (US $34,000), double its market value.

No sale. Achmad and Siti knew that if their unwanted bidder was prepared to pay that much cash it must be worth a lot more to them.

There are now more than 40 birds flashing in and out of their selected home through small holes set high in the four metre walls. After daybreak the birds zip across to Balekambang Beach on the south coast where the flying insects they catch on the wing are most prolific. The birds return at nightfall, a round trip of about 160 kilometres.

There are a few other lucky folk in Jeru. You can pick their bird barns by the flat grey windowless concrete walls. The giveaway features are small entrance and exit holes, about the size of two bricks.

Some families rejected by the birds find their neighbours’ good luck difficult to swallow. “The big problem is thieves after nests and eggs,” said Achmad. “One farm spends Rp 2.5 million a month on security, five times the normal rate for guards.

“Others visit paranormals to persuade the birds to relocate. I know someone whose house has been abandoned three times by swiftlets after black magic has been applied. But the birds eventually came back.

“I don’t know why we were chosen. We’re just ordinary Muslims, certainly not fanatic about faith.”

Those more pragmatic than psychic are said to be using recorded sounds of swiftlets broadcast through speaker systems to entice passing birds to enter their barn. The birds emit clicks to guide them, a system known as echolocation.

Nests are harvested every three or four months after the chicks have flown. A pair of swiftlets can raise two or three broods a year. Buyers from Surabaya do the rounds of the roosts and take the nests for processing.

Environmentalists are concerned that nest harvesting isn’t always well managed. Greedy gatherers who take nests before the chicks take wing are threatening the species.



Swiftlet nests are made from the birds’ saliva produced by glands under the tongue. The nests’ edible qualities have been known for at least 700 years. What’s not known is how the discovery was made and why anyone would think a dirty nest could make a tasty dish.

Our ancestors must have choked on a lot of sticks encrusted with dung and vomited feathers and broken eggs before they found an edible variety.

The stratospheric price means bird’s nest soup is a food only for the mega rich. Few restaurants in Surabaya have it on their menu. Those who do can charge up to Rp 2 million a bowl (US $225).

For this sort of money diners want more than a lip-smacking experience. So it’s no surprise the nests are supposed to possess extraordinary characteristics from improving skin tone to warding off tuberculosis, curing consumption, dysentery, malaria … the list has no full stop. And, of course, enhancing sexual performance.

These claims are unlikely to be denied by anyone whose credit card has just melted on the restaurant cashier’s swipe machine. The catch is that the real or imagined benefits don’t come with just one big banquet to celebrate the commercial coup. Promoters say a regular diet of 10 grams a day is necessary.

The cooking process is critical. A microwaved or boiled nest will be nutrition-free. Best to steam slowly after soaking which expands the nest. The taste is said to be sweet, more like a dessert.

Surabaya distributor Dendy Van Hallen said the best nests came from bird barns in Java. These nests were usually clean and glossy, almost transparent. Cave nests from Papua and other outlying regions were often contaminated by feathers and dirt and worth only Rp 1 million a kilo (US $114).

“I send to restaurants on demand,” he said. “Most ask diners for a week’s notice so they can prepare ahead – it’s not a dish you can order on the spot. The bulk of our nests go to Jakarta.

“We do little preparatory work in Surabaya – cleaning up the nest is done in the restaurant where they soak and remove impurities.”

If you’d like to make your own soup at home a Malaysian company sells boxes of six tiny jars for Rp 200,000 (US $ 23). Each jar has an off-white jelly which the label says is made from birds’ nests, ginseng, sugar and ‘white fungug’.

Indonesia produces 80 per cent of the world’s edible birds’ nests. Most come from West Java and are exported to Hong Kong, Holland, Singapore and Taiwan. The last official published figures show Indonesia’s annual production around 27 tonnes. That’s a lot of swiftlet spit.


(First published in Jakarta Kini, August 2006)


SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL – AND SLOW © Duncan Graham 2006

It’s the curse of the consumer society: Garbage, and how to get rid of it – economically, hygienically and fast.

In Surabaya – and many other cities – it works like this: Depending on the area families pay a regular monthly sum (usually around Rp 30,000 to Rp 50,000 (US $3 – $5) to the elected Rukun Tetangga (RT) local neighbourhood association.

The RT is responsible for security and basic services – including garbage collection. If the system is well run householders get a daily visit by a man pulling a large high-sided barrow. When full this is wheeled to a central collection point and the muck heaved by hand into a container for later trucking to a landfill site.

Only in the up-market gated suburbs is any attempt made to cover the garbage. Normally it’s open to rats, cats, flies, scavengers and the weather. Delays in pick-ups (deliberate and accidental) sometimes result in left garbage composting or spilling into the street.

A few disciplined families separate their organic leftovers. Most don’t, so last night’s inedible bakso (meat ball soup) goes into the same bin as the plastic bags, newspapers, broken china, grass clippings and what the cat brought home.

Official figures are old and dodgy but the best guess is that Surabaya generates about 3,000 tonnes of garbage every day – with around 70 per cent domestic refuse.

Enter conservationist Satrijo Wiweko (Koko) who used to work for the Seloliman Environmental Education Centre near Mojokerto, about 90 minutes drive south of Surabaya. The centre promotes sustainable agriculture and has been running since 1991.

Koko reasoned that a more efficient and sanitary way of quitting garbage would be to cut out the central transfer points and the haul across the city spreading the stench and loose litter - and process the stuff at the local level.

It seemed like a good idea, and it probably is. But despite the proven advantages it has still to catch on – though not for want of energy.

Koko is a jolly, solid tenacious fellow with the build of a bar bouncer and the resilience which normally goes with that job. It’s a vital quality – he may not be getting any physical knocks but he receives plenty of knock-backs in his mission to clean up Surabaya.

Being Java these rejections aren’t into his face. No-one mutters: ‘You and your notions are cuckoo.’ Instead they smile, say they’re interested and that they’ll look into it.

Mirror men.

Koko works for Yayasan Sahabat Lingkungan (YSL - Foundation for a Friendly Environment). Four years ago he decided something more practical than banners and brochures was needed.

He put his hands into his pockets, pulled out Rp 20 million (US $2,000) and in a Surabaya kampung built a demonstration rubbish recycle pilot plant to say: No need to read or listen to me. Look and learn. Here’s proof. This is how it can be done.

“Every day we get 20 barrows of garbage from the surrounding streets,” he said. “We also receive all the refuse from the local market. We sort this into bins for glass, plastic, paper, cardboard, aluminium, metal, bones and wood.

“About 70 per cent of the garbage is organic and we use this to make compost. Every month we earn about Rp 8 million (US $850) selling compost and the other materials for recycling.

“We’ve set this up as a working model and are constantly visited by government officials who admire what we’re doing and write reports. But very little happens.

“It’s difficult to implement change in Indonesia when people think the old way of doing things is OK.”

His system is hardly rocket science: A 90 square metre slightly sloping concrete pad with a gutter running down the middle. A roof to keep off the rain and enough space to sort the incoming garbage.

Organic material is piled on the pad, covered with soil and watered. An electronic probe is used to check the temperature. After a month of rotting and turning the dry compost is packed in 50-kilogram bins along with some rice husks for aerating. These are sold to gardeners for Rp 90,000 (US $9.50) a unit.

Clucky hens and randy cocks, garrulous geese and custard-yellow goslings scratch through the piles seeking edibles. Which for a kampung chicken is just about anything. They amuse guests and keep fly numbers down. When fat enough they’ll make their own contribution to income.

When The Jakarta Post visited the project a dozen impressed undergraduates from Surabaya’s two most prestigious public tertiary institutions – Universitas Airlangga and Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (November 10 Institute of Technology -ITS) were taking notes.

Said Airlangga chemistry student Haning Meilia: “Garbage disposal is an issue which worries us and which we discuss in class. Not everyone understands that much rubbish can be recycled.

“People keep their homes clean but don’t always worry about the environment beyond the gate. Maybe it’s a matter of education. In my boarding house we separate the organic waste and make compost.”

“It’s the government’s job to get the people to keep the environment clean,” said Airlangga economics student Gunawan Aribowo. “There’s money to be made in rubbish. Making compost is cheap and simple.”

Koko’s composting and recycling project isn’t the only show in town. Slums near the railway lines specialise in sorting rubbish, but don’t compost.

A multinational has been backing a similar system which uses machines to shred green material. But why aren’t these projects commonplace?

“There are many factors involved,” said Haning. “People are lazy and don’t want to get involved. It’s a bit smelly and people don’t like that. (The smell was mild and certainly much better than the raw garbage. The final compost was odourless.)

“The government should be getting involved but the problem is the bureaucracy. It’s not responsive. There’s no coordination.

“You need people like Mr Koko to push ideas like this, to show people how it can be done.”

And is he dismayed at the slow progress? Koko, the ever-patient, shrugged and smiled: “There are about eight units like this so far. Nothing changes quickly in Indonesia.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 August 06)


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sugar Cane fields in East Java

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East Java:

Smart operators know the tour market is full of niches, like eco-tourism and adventure hikes. Then there are the mechanical history buffs. Duncan Graham reports from Sidoarjo where the sugar season has just started:

Many Indonesians would find it hard to believe that thousands of otherwise normal men would want to spend their time rebuilding, admiring and playing with dirty old machinery. For love, not money.

They gather in groups across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and like nothing better than a chat about piston slap, cylinder capacity and the viscosities of bearing lubricants.

They fossick through rubbish dumps in grease-stained overalls. They put up their oily hands at deceased estate auctions and poke into tumbledown hay sheds. They’re sustained by the hope that one day they’ll find something decrepit and unique which might be restored to working condition given time, money and skill.

These nostalgia fanatics are usually older men living on good retirement pensions and prepared to travel far in their quest for the flawless flywheel. Their idea of romance is revolutions – not the street-brawling variety, but the speed of a spinning wheel.

Now imagine finding a factory where these marvellous machines still function, doing the job they were designed to perform a century ago. It would be a mechanic’s paradise, a sweet treat to step back in time and feel the vibrations of the industrial revolution which powered European conquest of the globe. Just seeing the old names stamped with pride on the cast iron casings would make magic moments.

Such roaring, whirring and clanking places wrapped in steam exist still in East Java - as functioning commercial sugar factories.

There are 26 in the province and the government owns the majority. Although originally built and run by the Dutch, the factories were seized by the State during the 1950s.

In that decade relationships between the Netherlands and Indonesia tumbled to a low point. President Sukarno ordered the former colonialists out and took over their plantations, businesses and factories.

Although the machinery was already well worn when the Indonesian government moved in, few sugar factories have been upgraded.

Watoetoelis is only an hour’s drive outside Surabaya and on the edge of East Java’s cane country. Visitors can always pick the sugar towns, not necessarily by seeing fields of green cane which are often hidden behind houses, but by the thin railway lines wriggling unevenly alongside the road.

These were built for wagons pulled by little locomotives to cart the heavy cane to the factory. However in many operations the produce is now shifted by truck, making the narrow roads even more crowded.

Watoetoelis started business in 1838 as NV Cooy & Coster Van Voor Hout, and their factory was rebuilt early last century. Its equipment is all driven by steam, generated by burning cane waste (known as bagasse) after the juice has been extracted through crushing and rolling.

Cane crushers in Australia also burn bagasse but use the heat to power turbines which make electricity to drive the equipment. In Europe most local sugar comes from sugar beet.

“It’s extraordinary that the machinery still works so well,” said the factory’s finance manager Drs DD Poerwantono. “Of course we have breakdowns and it’s impossible to get spare parts. So we have to design our own.

“The Europeans who made this equipment built it to last. It’s sturdy and strong and needs maintenance. But unlike much modern gear it keeps going.”

In most businesses the capital spent on equipment is written off as depreciation in a few years as the machines get worn or become inefficient and need replacing. As the jargon goes, they have built-in obsolescence. As the money invested at Watoetoelis was in Dutch guilders in the 19th century, the present owners are enjoying a real bonus.

Inside the vaulting, dark factory the steam powered pistons push and pull huge wheels, some up to five metres diameter. Mounting such heavy equipment requires pinpoint precision and rock-hard foundations. If a belt isn’t aligned exactly right wear on a bearing can make it overheat, burn or shatter. Imagine a 20 tonne wheel flying loose at speed in a factory where 350 men labour in primitive conditions.

When these monsters were installed there was no way of using computers, lasers or other modern measuring devices to ensure balance – just the skill of dedicated craftsmen long gone.

To see these marvels in action – not as museum pieces but actually working to produce a needed product – would enchant and astonish mechanical history buffs who usually have to make do with pictures and models. Even people who think it indecent to peer under a car bonnet can’t help but wonder at the industrial ingenuity of yesteryear.

Some of the sugar factories want to open their gates to organised groups of tourists, but realise organisation and upgrading is required. In most cases new walkways between the spinning wheels and worm drives would have to be installed.

In Watoetoelis, for example, protective rails are often missing, steel ladders are rusted and stairwells slippery. To get from one area to another visitors have to wade through great piles of loose bagasse.

The factory has already commissioned videos to explain the sugar-making process and staff are keen to show visitors around. But that’s not their primary job, so multilingual guides with public relations skills would be required before scheduled tours can start.

The countryside around the sugar factories is a delight. Because Western visitors are still rare, the residents remain genuinely friendly and the prices of their products are seldom inflated. In the villages colourful local produce, like krupuk (crackers) are dried in the sun.

Other home industries such as furniture making can be seen; most manufacturers are proud to display their wares and pass the time of day, for the pace here is unhurried.

Watching cane cutters labor in the sun slashing the tall plants, making bundles and loading trucks helps Westerners appreciate the advantages of a mechanised society. (The first harvester was invented in Australia).

Each man is expected to chop a tonne a day and for this he receives Rp 30,000 (US$ 3.40). At the corner of the cane fields are little cemeteries where past generations of sugar growers rest in peace.

Watoetoelis is only 36 km from Surabaya which has plenty of good quality hotels in the three to five star range, with rates much lower than Jakarta. Modern cars with driver can be hired for Rp 250,000 (US$ 25) / day plus fuel and driver’s meals.

The factories usually run between May and November. Because they are government owned permission to enter has to be obtained from head office. Contact the East Java Government Tourism Service for assistance on Jl Wisata Menanggal in Surabaya – phone (031) 853 1814. E-mail


Health-conscious foreigners blanch when they see Javanese heaping spoonfuls of sugar into their tea and coffee, but locals joke that they have to support their farmers.

In fact they are more likely to be helping overseas growers including Australians, for Indonesia has been importing sugar since the 1960s.

The price is set on the world market and has a history of wild fluctuations making growing sugar a risky business.

Sugarcane growing started in Indonesia more than 300 years ago. It reached its peak about 80 years ago when about 180 factories were said to be operating.

However by the time of the Revolution only 30 factories were still functioning. The industry was nationalised in 1957 but there have been recent moves to encourage private investment.

The machinery in the old mills may be fascinating, but the process of turning cane into sugar is not so romantic. After shredding the cane juice and water are mixed with lime to stabilise the acid level. Evaporators and centrifuges are employed to make the sugar with molasses as a by-product.

Raw sugar is brown and has to be bleached to make it acceptable in the kitchen. It’s also widely used in the commercial food industry, particularly for soft drinks.

Sugarcane can also be used to make the petrol substitute ethanol. If world oil prices continue to rise cane growing may become a more profitable venture.

Only 30 per cent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar beet which is grown in Europe. Sugarcane is a tropical crop which needs at least 600 mm of rain a year.

(First published in the Sunday Post 13 August 2006)


Friday, August 11, 2006



It’s a burning question in the West, a non-issue in Bali and a rare query in Java.

Should the bodies of our loved ones be consigned to the flames or the soil?

For this country’s Muslim majority there’s no debate; cremation is banned and wherever possible the corpse must be interred before sundown on the day of death.

Hindus put their dead to the torch, often in lavish open-pyre ceremonies, as most tourists to Bali know. Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants all accept cremation.

But in Indonesia the process remains unpopular despite official approval and a strong Western trend towards incineration. Only ten per cent of the non-Muslim dead in Surabaya are burned in the city’s crematorium. That’s about 80 a month. With four furnaces available the staff are not over-worked.

“There are many positive advantages with cremation,” said Ario Karijanto who claims to have the largest funeral service operating in East Java. “It doesn’t pollute the groundwater like bodies decaying in the soil, and it’s more practical.

“Cremation takes up no space in a country that’s already overcrowded with the living. You can keep the small urn of ashes in your home or garden or scatter them in the sea or a favourite spot - you don’t need to keep visiting a graveyard.

“The problem is the expense. Government fees for all the required certificates are high because so many Christians are Chinese, and the price of diesel fuel has risen. Cremation can be double the cost of a burial

“We don’t push cremation onto families. We give them the facts and let them decide for themselves.”

The latest figures from the US claim almost 30 per cent of body disposal is by cremation. Next door in Canada it’s 63 per cent – in Australia 55 per cent. In Britain cremation societies have been promoting the process since the 1870s and now only 30 per cent are buried. It’s also popular because it’s cheaper.

Orthodox Jews and some fundamentalist Christians reject cremation. Rome gave approval to Catholics in 1963. Apart from tradition, opponents think a cremated body cannot be resurrected come the New Jerusalem.

Ario is the seventh generation in his family to be an undertaker. Like many forensic scientists, pathologists and others involved in the death industry he’s a jolly and lively fellow – essential qualities when every working hour is a stark reminder of our mortality.

His big shop has a vast collection of coffins. They start from particleboard plain - used for the 1,200 pauper burials he conducts for free every year as a community service. They then go to the elaborate, the grotesquely huge (to barge your way into the afterlife), the kitsch and the quite beautiful.

In this last category are teak coffins carved with traditional Javanese designs, the inlays painted soft red and green – so well made that they’d grace any living room. It seems a sin to let them burn or rot.

Coffin sizes follow the clothing system. Were Papa’s shirts L, XL or XXL? We have a casket to suit.

How deep do you have to dig for an all-in funeral cost? That’s like asking the price of a car – Kia or Mercedes? A simple casket and transport will cost around Rp 5 million (US $540). After that it can be anything up to Rp 300 million (US $32,000) if you want the full send-off.

Hearses in Indonesia are not the lavish black limousines used in the West but plain white vans looking more like ambulances. In the Republic the favoured saloon color for the living is black; in Australia it’s white. No wonder the two neighbors have such a difficult relationship.

Most Indonesian families prefer to handle arrangements themselves so undertakers are still a rarity. There are only six in Surabaya, a city of maybe five million people. Relatives wash and dress the corpse at home and employ community and religious organisations to handle the ceremony.

The Surabaya crematorium known as Eka Praya is in one corner of the Kembang Kuning (Yellow Flower) cemetery which is reserved for non-Muslims. There’s even a Jewish section. This is not a good place to visit – and another reason to favor cremation.

The 34-hectare cemetery is already close to overflowing with graves shoulder-to-shoulder, toe-to-toe and sometimes stacked. The problem is not just the dead, but also the living.

Gangs of menacing men carrying gleaming sickles and small brooms quickly surround visitors to their territory. They’ll slash you a track through the imaginary undergrowth and whisk phantom leaves off the tombstone whether you like it or not – then demand money.

Because it’s a largely Chinese area visiting families are assumed to be rich and therefore ripe for exploitation. Similar gangs do not roam the Muslim or military cemeteries. Commented Ario dryly: “They’d get shot if they did.”

At night the place is an open-air brothel with male and female prostitutes offering cheap services on mats tossed over the graves.

“Rest in peace? The place is a slum,” said Ario. “We need a memorial garden like those in the West where ashes can be cemented into a wall or buried in flower beds.

“It should be a quiet place of contemplation. With such a facility I’m sure the number of cremations would increase.

“After a while people forget their dead relatives and the graves fall into disrepair. Then the land is wanted for other purposes. Cremation makes things easier.”

And how will Ario go when his hour comes? It took some moments for the otherwise nimble-tongued undertaker to reply.

“It doesn’t really matter, it’s just a matter of time - slow decay or fast fire,” he said at last, the delay indicating that maybe it did really matter. “It will be up to the family.”



Colleagues aware this story was underway were keen to offer their own ‘facts’ about cremation. The most popular has the bodies being taken from the coffin, the corpse stripped of valuables and the casket resold.

Ario and the crematorium manager Surawi both dismissed this as a myth and gave guarantees that when the family saw the lid screwed down it stayed that way right into the flames. They also offered a practical note; in the tropics opening a sealed coffin unleashes awful odors.

It takes between two and three hours to cremate a body with temperatures up to 1,000 degrees. The ashes (cremains?) are then raked out and crushed.

Because everything surrounding death is so sensitive the industry in the West has developed its own euphemisms. Crushing is ‘processed to a consistent size and shape’ – meaning that bits of bones are poked into the jaws of a hand-cranked mincer.

At Eka Praya the ram of choice is someone’s artificial hip which survived the flames. Surawi said scissors, clamps and other medical tools were sometimes found among the rakings when people died during surgery.

It takes around 150 litres of diesel to burn a body to ashes. An 80-kilogram body gets reduced to about one kilo of grey granules and white powder.

The brick-lined retorts (called ‘ovens’ by the workers) were built in 1958. They can take only one coffin at a time.

Well water may not get poisoned by body fluids leaching through the soil with cremation, but the atmosphere gets a whoosh of thick black smoke when the burner (a long metal pipe) is shoved under the coffin and fired up.

If you want to think of a wispy pure soul ascending to heaven keep your eyes down. Do not glance at the belching chimney – unless the dear departed was a former driver of a container truck or a Jakarta bus.

In such cases the process is just right.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 July 06))




In 11th century Britain King Canute took his throne to the seashore and ordered the tide to stop rising. Or so the legend goes.

The ruler’s smart idea was to crunch the court sycophants who were always praising his regal powers. Not surprisingly the waves kept coming and the point was made: There are some things mortals cannot do, however grand their titles.

Perhaps Education Minister Bambang Sudibyo should read a little history and ponder the Canute story. He might be joined by his colleagues from Malaysia and Brunei who signed a commitment to revitalise Malay as the region’s national language.

The subtext reads: Let’s stop evil English creeping up the beaches of the archipelago, polluting the people and swamping our lovely language.

Good try chaps; we wish you well, but won’t be taking bets on your success anytime soon.

Of course it’s necessary to ensure high quality Indonesian is spoken at official functions, though in East Java many events are conducted in Javanese, particularly when ordinary electors are present. Politicians hustling for votes know they have to use the language of the village and kampung, whatever the martinets in Jakarta say.

The decision by Sukarno and the founders of the Republic to make Malay the national language was a masterstroke in nation building – but it hasn’t stopped regional languages being the first tongue for most Indonesians.

If Mr Bambang is serious then we’re going to hear some bizarre speeches as the words Presiden, demokrasi, delegasi, perspektip, kampanye, informasi, problem, sistem, partisipasi, strategic planning, sosial, politik, ekonomi, krisis, teori, fakta and scores of others get deported.

Can you imagine any official harangue which doesn’t contain most of the words above – all lifted from English with the spelling warped to satisfy local palates? You’re welcome to the plunder – we’ve been hijacking other countries’ words for centuries. How do you think we learned to run amuck?

Mr Bambang’s staff may fossick for replacements drawn from the rich vein of local languages – but they’re unlikely to gain currency.

That’s because language is a living entity. Like the tide it has a force of its own that no minister can change, however splendid his or her position or majestic the legislation.

Linguist Deny Arnos Kwary heads the English diploma program at Surabaya’s Airlangga University, East Java’s top public tertiary institution. He’s also a translator and has turned seven management and accountancy texts from English into Indonesian.

His job isn’t made easier by the disproportions: Almost one million English words and only around 80,000 Indonesian. No wonder film-fans get bemused when a long English discussion gets reduced to a one-line subtitle. Dubbed voices are even weirder when the lips keep working but the voice doesn’t.

Deny remembers one character rejecting a proposal with the statement: ‘That’s out of the question.’ It was translated as di luar pertanyan which is literally correct but quite wrong. Tak mungkin would have been appropriate.

“Language can follow one of two rules,” Deny said. “Either its prescriptive or proscriptive. It depends how we want to use it.

“I’ve got no problem with English words invading Indonesian particularly when there’s no appropriate local word. Language evolves, and people want to use English because it’s a status language.

“Nor do I have problems with magazines using English headlines above Indonesian text or as advertising slogans. In many cases it’s so much more efficient.

“English is also polite. You can choose from so many words to make a point, and you can also use it to maintain secrets in front of others who are monolingual.

“In multilingual countries one language is always considered higher and more advanced than the others. And of course that’s English.

“So if you use English words and phrases in your speech it shows you’re educated and technically literate, up to the minute. If the English word is shorter and easier to say then people will use the foreign term.”

Deny studied at the University of Indonesia at the feet of the renowned linguist Professor Anton Moeliono. According to Deny in 1995 the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI) Indonesian Dictionary policy was to introduce words from regional languages when there was no suitable Indonesian equivalent.

For ‘curiosity’ the professor proposed cabaran, but it never caught on because it wasn’t widely known. So we’re left with ‘kuriositas’.

The other trend is to preserve the English spelling and not Indonesianise the introduced word.

“There have been problems when a word like restructure is written as restrukturisasi which translates back as restructuring,” Deny said.

Although only 31 Deny is already sensing his age. His teenage students are using jayus which he thinks means ‘is that right?’ – but he’s not so sure. It could be a corruption of jaya (successful, prosperous, triumphant). And for a while he was confused by BT (bad temper).

“Eventually there’ll be an Indonesian English, just as Singlish has developed in Singapore,” he said. “It took ten years there – perhaps it will take 25 to arrive here.

“People complain and propose rules. But it’s not possible to legislate to preserve language or force people to use certain words. The pressure is bottom-up.”

The standard English-Indonesian-English dictionary remains the one written by John Echols and Hassan Shadily published 45 years ago by Cornell University and revised three times since. There’s hardly a page without a word that didn’t come from English. Or from French, Dutch, Arabic, Portuguese and other languages.

Which might lead us to assume that Indonesian is like Indonesia: It enjoys unity through diversity and will thrive in its own way – whatever the politicians say.

For the incoming tide read: Globalisation.


(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 August 2006)



Esthi Susanti Hudiono


In the guise of upholding morality, television’s reality crime shows are the pits.

One of the more obnoxious (and sad) routines shows grinning police rounding up prostitutes desperately trying to hide their faces. But where are their pimps and clients?

“I’d like to see a law like those overseas where men who use illegal sex workers are also prosecuted,” said activist Esthi Susanti Hudiono. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. This society still stigmatises sex workers.”

Esthi is the director of Hotline Surabaya, the East Java capital’s first and longest running non-government organisation (NGO) dedicated to fighting HIV / Aids.

It started 17 years ago in the daily newspaper Surya where Esthi worked with senior journalist Julius Siyaranamual. She proposed a column where readers could phone in with their stories and anxieties about sex and sexual diseases. Counselling would be available.

At the time this was a brave idea. The government was still in denial, claiming morally pure Indonesians could never be infected by evil Western sicknesses. Sex was an almost taboo topic in the media and had to be handled discreetly.

This was despite Surabaya’s international reputation for having South East Asia’s biggest population of prostitutes – with some estimates of 20,000.

Yet the idea took off and the two writers soon had plenty of copy and people seeking help. Plus support from outside agencies, including USAID and the Australian Government’s AusAID program. Later came the Ford Foundation – all offering funds to help curb the spread of HIV.

The money was used to expand the project, hire staff and open a clinic for sex workers shunned by prejudiced doctors. Hotline Surya eventually outgrew the newspaper – but by then Esthi and Julius were loath to return to daily journalism.

“That was my epiphany,” she said. “I’d entered something which I couldn’t stop. I was offered jobs with the aid agencies, but I wanted to stay independent and an activist. It’s been a struggle and there are always difficulties. But changes are happening.”

So Hotline Surabaya was created with a board of prominent people. It moved to a few cramped rooms in a former hospital and the two reporters set about educating sex workers. Surprisingly many were ignorant of how their bodies worked, and unaware of the risks they took with men who wouldn’t use condoms.

Apart from the usual workshops and discussion groups the sex workers became actors in two plays written by Julius and which were performed in Jakarta, Yogya and Surabaya. The idea was to give the women confidence and the courage to speak out – and for audiences to recognise them as fellow humans.

Last year Julius died of a heart attack. Now Esthi runs Hotline Surabaya with about 40 staff. Some are former sex workers. New funding sources have been found and fresh directions are being taken.

She spoke to The Jakarta Post in a shoebox office dominated by towers of reports.

Can you detail the changes you spoke about?

There’s now a greater awareness of HIV /Aids and less official discrimination, though it still exists in some private hospitals that fear losing patients if they treat people with HIV.

That’s not the case with Dr Sutomo Hospital. This is the biggest public medical facility in East Java where they get around two new HIV patients every day

We’ve expanded into the prevention of trafficking and have opened a centre at Banyuwangi. (The last stop on Java before taking the ferry to Bali.) We’re working with the Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) to alert village girls to the dangers of getting lured into sex work.

We’ve also got a women’s shelter in Surabaya and we’re helping factories and transport companies get the safe sex message to men.

What are the official statistics on HIV?

Whatever they are, I don’t trust them. So many cases go unreported. Some are undetected because doctors don’t diagnose properly. Only blood tests provide proof so we’re offering these free.

Surabaya is supposed to have the third largest HIV population after Jakarta and Papua. Maybe five per cent of the sex workers are infected and around half of the intravenous drug users.

Is the industry changing?

As the economy slumps and men spend less on sex, the competition for customers gets more acute. Many women are leaving the brothels and working on their own, looking for business on the streets and on ships.

This is very dangerous. There’s a lot of violence.

Others are working out of hairdressing salons and massage shops, trying to get regular clients.

You’ve been to many other countries and studied their systems. Does Hotline’s approach differ?

We’re all determined to control sexually transmitted diseases and reduce risky behavior. However attitudes are not the same in the developed world.

The structure of our society is patriarchal. It takes a moral perspective and seeks to blame. Officials want to change people’s behavior while I think we first have to change society. We have to fix the health system and ensure human rights are respected and that people have dignity.

Everyone should have the right to move around the nation, to stay where they want to stay, to work, to get a proper education and good health services.

Hotline is unusual because we’re not doctors but psychologists and sociologists.

Is there any particular achievement that gives you pride?

We’ve won some awards which means we’re now recognised. We worked for two years with officials and legislators of the East Java government to get a new law against discrimination. So there’s now a budget item for HIV education and prevention.

We’ve stayed with one clinic and two doctors because we don’t want to build an empire. As you can see we’re not into grand surroundings and facilities. We offer our clinic as a model to be adopted by the government health service, and that’s underway as a pilot project.

Can you enlarge on your empire building comment?

If activists and NGOs want to work for the people they should do this unselfishly. They should not get involved to satisfy their egos. There’s a danger of seeing yourself as a saint. I think women handle this better than men.

I have no power. Our job is to help people exercise their power themselves – whether politicians legislating, managers running their workforce or sex workers being strong and negotiating.

Does work in this area take a toll?

It’s a spiritual struggle. Relationships are built – and people die. It’s important to be involved, but not so deeply that you become ineffective.

We must be aware of burnout. If I get angry at the things I see and hear I’d be angry every day and couldn’t work. I don’t want to retire. (She’s in her mid 40s) There’s so much to do. I’ll probably die in the job.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 August 2006)





There’s a small group of active Indonesians who dare to blog in English.

Why ‘dare’? Because they open themselves to attacks by nationalists who claim Indonesians should use their country’s official language. These xenophobic throwbacks to Sukarno-era isolation see use of the international tongue as a betrayal of the Revolution – almost a threat to the Unitary State.

In their defence the bloggers argue that it’s only by using English that they can communicate with the world and help outsiders understand this complex country. The reality is that Indonesian is little used beyond a slice of South East Asia.

Now local writer Maggie Tiojakin is taking the same track by publishing her first book in Indonesia in English, complete with retail prices on the back cover in Singapore and US dollars – but not rupiah.

Is she letting down the side – or pioneering a necessary move? I think she’s doing more for this nation’s image with one slim collection of short stories now accessible beyond the archipelago than untranslated volumes in Indonesian only a few scholars will read.

Writers from the former British colonies have bested their one-time masters by producing shimmering English prose that pushes the language – and our understanding of ourselves through different cultures – to new intellectual levels.

V S Naipul and Jean Rhys from the West Indies; Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arunhati Roy from India; Tash Aw from Malaysia and scores more have all enlarged our minds and world.

Jakarta-born Tiojakin is an emerging talent. She studied and worked in the US for almost six years and handles English competently and with clarity. She’s an easy read, sometimes too easy.

Clearly she’s still discovering the extraordinary versatility of English and its ability to explore new byways in the search for meaning. Writing short stories is considered one of the most difficult literary tasks. Wider reading and a spell in Britain amongst expat Asian and African writers might refine her skills and style.

None of this is meant to dissuade. The five stories handle with care the universal emotions we’ll forever try to express and comprehend: Defining a sense of place and the quest for purpose; the blood-rushing joy of new relationships and the scald of schism; living with compromise; maintaining hope when much seems hopeless.

Good literature gives us insights into life – and Tiojakin provides a few with her cameos. A sick lad returns from America to die at home. A young woman in the US struggles to understand desire. A man opts for another woman while forever lusting for his first love. An affair fractures a childless marriage. A couple break up. This is adult angst, not teenage trauma.

Tiojakin has learned to restrain her emotions. Maybe she should let them loose, step in, not back. Absent from Homecoming is a loving obituary for her father ‘2194 words too short’, written three years ago. You can find that on Keep a tissue close by.

This is a serious writer at home in Western culture with its moral freedoms and the difficulties these create. Her characters worry about love and sex but not in the coy way of early Malaysian authors nervously itching for release from cultural constraints.

Tiojakin is a global girl. When her characters are Indonesian this is incidental. The settings are mostly America, apartments not kampung. There are no tut-tutting aunts and interfering neighbours despairing of the young, no nostalgic pars on smouldering kretek, shadow puppetry and other clich├ęd images over-used by outsiders fumbling to explain Indonesia.

She doesn’t touch on the sexual mores and religious hang-ups that torment this nation. Perhaps later? Let’s hope so. As a smart young local she knows these issues define modern Indonesia to outsiders through hypocrisy and double standards.

Thanks to two-dimensional journalism the world tags this country for its corruption, natural disasters and seemingly weird priorities: Playboy over poverty, skirt lengths over the length of schooling. What a rain forest of tropic topics to enliven cold climate readers if handled with panache.

The ‘Commonwealth Lit’ post-colonial writers share a common past and similar education. Many are Anglophiles, craving for contact with the ‘Old Country’. The Republic’s former Dutch bosses left no similar love-hate heritage, so Indonesian writers have to make their own journey. Frequently that’s to the US rather than Europe.

Tiojakin is taking that rugged trip alone. It takes grit. People who read English are unforgiving of sloppy prose and garrotted grammar – as writers for this paper know well. High standards are expected.

Overall Tiojakin pleases and deserves applause. More careful and tighter editing would have helped and the cover is bland. Put these quibbles aside; Tiojakin’s next book will be better as she takes greater risks with the language and her feelings, and hopefully uses these to explore her homeland and the people she knows better than we foreigners.

Then you’ll be glad you read her first offering. I am.


Homecoming, published by Mathe Publications, Jakarta. 121 pages.

(First published in the Sunday Post, 6 August 2006)


Friday, August 04, 2006



The media hasn’t been getting a good press in Indonesia.

Count the issues: Corrupt hacks pocketing cash-stuffed envelopes to write saccharine reviews of business and government; idle reporters plagiarising the copy of their smarter colleagues here and overseas; editors seeking public office while sifting the news.

Since Suharto fell and his successors lifted media restrictions, an information-starved public has wolfed up the offerings.

But the industry has tripped over itself in the rush to profits. Smart machines and smarter screen jockeys have produced luscious layouts and gripping graphics. Sadly the copy hasn’t always matched the technology for there’s a dearth of well-trained observant and critical writers.

So how good are Indonesian journalists?

“Like journalists everywhere, there are good and bad,” said visiting Australian wordsmith Andrew Dodd.

“I’ve met some bloody good ones who have a lot of attitude. By that I mean they’re really curious and know when something needs to be fixed. They care about accuracy and talking to all sides. I love it when I see that – it’s really encouraging.

“But I’m concerned that some still report official policies uncritically, and they’re not always the older generation. That’s not journalism where I come from.”

Dodd coordinates a program designed to boost the skills of Indonesian reporters, editors, media-watch organisations and academics from communication study courses.

The idea of using Australian aid to train media workers came when Indonesian news agency Antara got involved. The aid is part of the five-year AUD $2 billion (Rp13,600 billion) Indonesia Australia Specialised Training Project (IASTP).

Other programs on teacher training, health care and administrative skills are being run separately in Indonesia and Australia.

Last year a group of Indonesian journalists spent three months in Australia studying modern media practices at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

This year Antara and IASTP agreed the training should be done in the tropics using wisdom gleaned from the 2005 students and a clearer understanding of their needs and concerns.

Classes have been held in Kupang, Mataram, Surabaya and Makassar. In each location about 20 local media workers have talked and typed their way through an intensive six-day course involving theory and practice.

Dodd, a former print reporter and TV and radio producer was contracted by RMIT International, which also hired local trainers, including two from The Jakarta Post. Two Indonesian-based Australian journalists were employed.* The others were experts in corporate news, investigative journalism, ethics, media law and covering crises.

One exercise featured diplomats from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta holding media conferences on so-called ‘illegal fishing’ problems in the country next door. This is a hot topic in Australia but a cool issue in Indonesia.

An analysis of a mythical company’s balance sheet devised by business scribe Her Suharyanto foxed all. Hidden in the figures (but not too deeply) was a radically different story to the one told by the press release. Students reproduced the handout glowing with predictions of prosperity - and missed the deceptions and looming bankruptcy.

Another task involved sending reporters into local markets. They were assigned to get stories from old women about sport, ethnic minorities about local history and kids’ comments on the economy.

The idea was to hunt for fresh talent, to steer journalists away from routine and predictable sources - frequently plump pontiffs and boring old blokes in batik.

The trainers urged a more critical approach to the statements of authorities and clarification of jargon. They stressed that journalists reporting for the independent media had a responsibility to their readers, listeners and viewers to be clear, unbiased and honest – and not parrot official lines without probing reasons.

Pushing ‘good governance’ (the latest buzz-phrase for accountable administration) and gender awareness, the program also emphasised ‘change management.’

Can journalism make things better or worse? Should the media support the government because in a democratic society the elected reps are the people’s choice? Or should it take a watchdog role, snapping at the hems and cuffs of the well-heeled?

Under Suharto such questions weren’t openly discussed. Critics could be censored. Careers were terminated. So were lives. The brave were sidelined and the timid prospered.

Antara editor Maria Andriana assisted with the course in Australia and all Indonesian centres, and watched the trainees’ reactions and progress:

“Our surveys show 90 per cent of participants implement the training in their jobs, so they’re getting real benefits,” she said.

“There’s been a wide spread of talent, age and experience. This has helped broaden views.

“Indonesia and Australia want to improve human resources, and journalists have a key role in society as change agents. Gender awareness is a new concern for us in the smaller cities and an important issue.”

Commented Her Suharyanto: “In this country political opposition has still to find a credible and consistent voice. So the need for more professionalism in the media is a critical factor in developing democracy.”

(*Declaration of interest: The writer was one of the trainers.)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2006)


Wednesday, August 02, 2006



Indonesia was once self-sufficient in rice. Now the government is again considering importing this staple food. What’s happened? Is it loss of land, insufficient water, poor water quality, lack of environmental care or something else? Contributor Duncan Graham reports from Trawas, a hill village 90 minutes drive south of Surabaya:

Back in the 1980s almost all stories about the Green Revolution were positive.

Heavily promoted new varieties of rice promised higher yields. Insecticides kept pests at bay. Fertilisers boosted crops. Only now are the downsides becoming obvious. Many are social.

“In the past decisions on planting and harvesting were made by the community,” said conservationist Siegfried Tedja. “For example when the rice was ripe the women would be the first to go into the fields and select the best heads for reseeding.

“Now farmers can buy seed and make individual decisions about managing their crops based on research. Farming is becoming modernised and mechanised. Ceremonies to encourage fertility are disappearing. There’s less working together and the social connections are fractured.

“The younger generation is attracted to the cities. The environment is being damaged and given less care. There’s less cooperation with neighbours and more competition.

“Why are we now planning rice imports? I’m not getting involved in the politics, but know this question bothers many. This is the age of rationalism where we know a lot but understand little.

“There’s a need to rediscover the old community wisdoms which balanced nature – and before those ways of thinking are lost. We should know how farmers feel about their lives, whether they still respect their crops, the water and the land.”

To this end Siegfried’s environment centre Pring Woelong has been helping run a four-day workshop in Trawas for 40 farmers from the mountain regions south of Surabaya.

Most study will be done on farms and in Javanese, the traditional language of the villagers.

The workshop was described by Siegfried as a “listening, not lecturing” exercise and involves the Merdeka University in Malang. It’s supported by money from the Environmental Services Program that’s seeking to improve water management and quality in East Java. (See sidebar)

Dr Gunawan Wibisono who directs environmental research at Merdeka said he encouraged his students to learn more of the ancestral wisdom used by farmers. Science undergraduates needed to understand the links between sustainable agriculture and culture.

“Local people manage their resources with knowledge handed down through the generations,” he said. “It’s a different approach to that used by academics.

“The Majapahit era ended about 500 years ago after Islam arrived in Java and things started to be done differently.

“Traditional beliefs were related to nature and spirits and this has continued in Bali. But the radicals will not tolerate this kind of thing. (The workshop opening ceremony included a procession of food and a ritual involving breaking pots of water over tree roots.)

“Pure Islam is very respectful of the environment. The goodness of this activity is that it’s a matter of performance and results – not religious beliefs.”

Commented Siegfried: “All faiths care for the land and water. The issue is not religion but the way some people interpret it.”

Among the workshop participants was Try Wibowo, 41, who farms two hectares in a village near Mojokerto, about two hours drive southwest from the East Java capital.

His land is so rich he can usually harvest three crops of rice a year. He also grows beans and corn and some herbs. The farm has been in the family for generations and supports Try, his wife, four children and father.

“Money is still a problem, but it’s enough,” he said. “Since forest felling there’s been less water available though the quality is still good. But I want the forests back.

“More and more factories are being built and usually on the best land for growing rice. I don’t want to see the next generation in these factories. Who would work for someone else when they can be independent and on their own land?

“Farming is hard work, and it’s dirty. Even though it looks terrible to you as an outsider it’s 100 per cent more healthy than working in an office or factory.

“I’ve come to this workshop because I want to share my knowledge and ideas. I want to learn from others.”

(sidebar 1)


The USAID-funded Environmental Services Program in East Java is supporting the Trawas workshops. The US$ 45 million (Rp 425 billion) five-year project is operating in five provinces and has several aims.

The program is not a dam builder or fund source for big engineering projects.

With a hulu ke hilir (headwaters to downstream) approach programs include raising health through better management of water resources, the delivery of clean water, reduction of pollution and improved waste disposal.

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

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

“Indonesians are very fussy about personal cleanliness,” said Dr Jim Davie the Australian advisor to the ESP in East Java, and who has been associated with this country for the past 30 years.

“However many don’t have access to the basic needs for hygiene. Following a simple regimen of always washing hands with soap after going to the toilet and then drying them properly could cut diarrhoea cases by half.”

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

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

The ESP project, which is being delivered by a company called Development Alternatives, is tackling this problem with the help of Muslim organisations.

A hand-washing campaign was started last October before the Ramadan fasting month. This was in partnership with the East Java chapter of the Indonesian Ulama Institute.

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

The question now is how to supply soap to those families who are so poor that this item is considered a luxury?


Many Westerners judge a country’s hygiene, development and world ranking by one simple test: Is the tap water fit to drink?

The answer is ‘yes’ in Singapore (which imports and cleans water from Indonesia), and most other developed countries – but ‘no’ in Indonesia.

(There’s a counterpoint: Why waste huge sums making tap water potable when most of it is used to wash cars and clean yards?)

Another test is to ask if a town has a deep sewage system. Homes in East Java’s cities don’t have access to a mains sewerage system. They rely on septic tanks that can leak and pollute the ground water.

Supplies from municipal waterworks known as PDAM vary enormously. Householders in Surabaya clean their bathroom water tanks of sediment weekly even when using filters. Pressure in many areas is so low pumps have to be installed.

However in Malang the water is clean and bright. But everywhere tap water has to be boiled and most families prefer to buy bottled water if they can afford it.

Many can’t – and it’s the urban poor who are the focus of the ESP project.

Money is being made available to PDAMs through the program to find new sources, upgrade equipment and recover money from consumers.

However no element in the project can stand alone. If the raw water is heavily polluted the PDAMs have to spend more on cleaning. If the sources are distant the recovery costs are higher.

Upland clearing has put silt in the waterways so reforesting catchment areas and keeping these clean is another part of the jigsaw.

There’s anecdotal evidence of thousands of dead wells across East Java. The situation in Sidoarjo (a burgeoning satellite town near Surabaya) is reported to be serious and a new supply has to be found.

Although it rained hard last wet season some parts of the province suffer drought because the use is greater than the recharge. (One study found the storage capacity of the Brantas water basin halved between 1976 and 2002).

If the source is in another district, administrative problems arise when authorities want to keep the water for their own people. This problem underscores the need for a plan that cuts across political boundaries in the national interest.

It’s the same with waste disposal. The so-called sanitary landfill is the standard system. New tip locations need to be found away from beaches and rivers. Ideal sites may be in other regencies. The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome so common in the West also flourishes in Indonesia.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 August 06))