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

Friday, September 29, 2006


SEEKING THE SOUL IN CLAY © Duncan Graham 2006

It’s sticky, slimy and dirty, and at the first encounter, difficult to love. But in the hands of the creative artists of Malang in East Java, drab clay is moulded and fired into beauty worth beholding. Duncan Graham reports:

Mohammed Atim will probably pot on till his worn fingers no longer sense the potential hidden in the clay and waiting for release – when he knows the magic of transmutation has been lost.

Atim, who opened his business more than 25 years ago, was one of the first modern potters to start working in the Malang district of Dinoyo. That sounds impressive, but a quarter century is but a fleck in time in the history of Java. Clay was being worked close by in much the same way during the Majapahit Era, more than 700 years ago, and doubtless long before that.

Atim fires his pots in an open wood fire, as did his ancestors. This has bolstered his business against the fuel price jolts that have made products manufactured using fossil fuels so expensive. Sourcing forest timber is a problem, so he uses old pine packing cases and other waste woods. These tend to be light, full of resin and burn fast, making the process even trickier.

“When I began there was no competition,” he said. “Now there are shops everywhere. The clay around here is difficult to work and can produce pots which break easily, so we use clay from Wendit on the outskirts of Malang.”

Despite being an important thoroughfare for the East Java hill city, Jalan Mayjen Panjaitan where Atim has his shed is a crowded and busy street. It’s made even more cramped by shopkeepers using the narrow pavements as showcases. Or even as workshops.

Many find the sidewalks a handy place to paint, varnish and air-dry their creations – making a stroll hazardous for the clumsy. In other towns you have to watch for the pitfalls – in Dinoyo it’s the potfalls.

Cynics and malevolents might think the top-heavy pots are put outside to ambush passers-by on the principle that you break, you buy.

Should an accident occur you may have a bruised shin but your wallet won’t be lacerated from close encounters with fragile objects. The harga turis (tourist’s price) disease, which infects so many towns, has yet to flare in Dinoyo.

The prices are reasonable and open to bargaining. By Western standards, dirt-cheap. Visitors from outside the archipelago are rare – and so are rip-offs. Almost all customers are locals, or day-trippers from Surabaya.

Making ceramics is believed to have originated in China. In most modern factories the pots are roasted in giant gas-fired or electric-powered kilns. The latest models - which you won’t find in Dinoyo but can be seen elsewhere in Malang factories where Chinese ceramics are made - have computer control systems. These take much of the guesswork out of temperature and time.

But that’s not the situation when using wood. For this you need qualities that can’t be measured. Is the fire too hot – or too cold? Temperature ranges are critical and mistakes made during the firing can mean flawed pots and fractures where there should be smooth surfaces. Selling crumbling ceramics is no way to win return custom.

Atim has been doing the job for so long he knows heat without using a thermometer. He can sense when the baking is complete. That’s experience, and all attempts to get him to describe the details failed – not through secrecy, but because time-tested instincts and feelings are hard to express.

He also knows what buyers want - without employing market researchers. Locals with spacious gardens, lobbies or hallways seek big bountiful and curvaceous feminine pots (Rp 60,000 or US$6.80) to make an entrance statement.

For those with smaller living quarters and less arrogance, multicoloured hanging lanterns sell for only Rp7, 000 (US 80 cents). Although the style is the same each pot has been painted differently.

To make a living Atim and his neighbours have to produce what the market wants, including practical items that are always in demand. Garden furniture is an evergreen.

When times are quiet most craftspeople like to experiment and produce something that expresses their personal tastes. That’s why it’s worth poking around a bit. Hiding behind the racks of best sellers and shrouded by a coat of dust may be something unique overlooked by purchasers with rigid notions about what’s good.

Potters like Wahyudi Wibowo (also known as Yudi), are always pushing the market with new designs. He’s a teacher of the ceramic arts and often displays original work by himself and students.

His colours tend to be more autumnal, closer to the soil than the sometimes-garish decorations of his neighbours’ ceramics. However when he sells out a line is often not repeated, so buyers get only one chance.

Next to Yudi’s shop Tjipto designs, makes and sells original and delicate metal work, including mirrors surrounded by floral designs priced from Rp 350,000 (US$ 37). Westerners who associate welding with heavy industry should watch artisans make filigree. In his cluttered back yard even the scrap looks lovely where flame has been tested on metal.

Moslem craftspeople are forbidden from depicting living creatures so are challenged to create abstracts. Despite this prohibition, frogs flourish in many designs, as do birds.
One couple who joined their lives together for better or worse last January commissioned terracotta discs from Pak Atim to remember the event. They probably – and rightly – recognised that while paper rots and crumbles, burns and fades, clay withstands.

Proof is everywhere. In the nearby town of Trowulan, once the centre of the Majapahit kingdom, is a museum full of relics of the era. Among the practical pots, bottles and bricks are clay figurines of everyday life. Like tiny toys or models, they may have been fashioned in fun to pass the time on a dull day.

These little pinch-pots of housing and people are the only remaining records that show the designs of buildings and the ethnic groups which once lived and worked in central East Java.

It’s not just diamonds that are forever.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2006)



MAN OF THE TREES © Duncan Graham 2006

When Djauhar Asikin took over as director of Purwodadi Botanical Gardens he found it was off-limits to some young children.

Here was East Java’s most prestigious government park, designed to conserve species, conduct research and educate the public. Yet some strict Muslim families had imposed a ban on visits.

For the park also had another proclaimed purpose which Djauhar ranked below the other priorities. However the teenagers disagreed. For them the prime reason for Purwodadi was recreation, which in their minds meant smooching with the opposite sex.

So instead of entering the gardens to view an exotic display of orchids the impressionable kiddies were seeing erotic displays of … Well, you can fill in the dots yourself.

That was two years ago, but the children are now back in thousands. The visitors even include Islamic schools educating their charges about the pilgrimage to Mecca by using mock-ups of the Holy City on the park’s open areas.

“It’s the only large space the teachers could find,” said Djauhar. “We’ve been promoting the gardens and visitor numbers are increasing. Last year we had 150,000. That means privacy for romance is now limited.”

So lovers beware: If your intentions are amorous rather than arboreal steer clear at weekends when crowds are densest. Weekdays? You can always try your luck amongst the creepy-crawlies in the leaf litter, but with 180 staff pruning, potting and planting across the 85 hectares, the chances of a peeping Tom or Tomasina are high.

Purwodadi is one of four government-run botanical gardens, known as Kebun Raya. Bogor is the biggest and most famous. The other two are in Cibodas (West Java) and Eka Karya (Bali) – a recent addition.

The first three were established by the Dutch with Purwodadi created just in time on 30 January 1941. The following year the Japanese were in control and preserving the archipelago’s botany was not on their agenda. The park was used to grow plants that could produce oil for the invader’s war machine.

After Independence the park’s original purpose was revived and Purwodadi now specialises in dry area species. At 300 metres above sea level it’s classified as lowland, and with five or six rainless months it’s grand for hardy plants.

The collection of 15,000 specimens covers almost 4,000 species. Not all are from Indonesia. There’s a prickly Mexican section with cacti. Although trees dominate there’s also a wide range of bamboos and bananas.

Djauhar took a masters degree in horticulture at Reading University in England. His previous job was head of planning at Bogor. He conducted The Jakarta Post on a two-hour stroll of his rolling tree-clad spread, with deciduous and evergreens – quite unlike the manicured geometry of lush Bogor.

What are your roots?

I was born in Malang where my father was a civil engineer. I didn’t like the harshness of that profession. I preferred nature and loved gardening, so I became a horticulturalist.

When I came back here from Bogor I was surprised how few knew about the park, even though it’s on the main road between Surabaya and Malang. I suppose that’s because people are racing to their destination and don’t notice us.

I think that with more visitors we’ll get more money to better pay the staff and improve facilities, like toilets.

Purwodadi is great value compared to other recreation places, like tea plantations and safari parks. Our entrance fees are only Rp 3,500 (US 40 cents) and on weekdays you can bring your car and drive around for an extra Rp 6,500 (US 70 cents). To celebrate our 30 January birthday I made entrance free and we had about 20,000 visitors.

Never again! The rubbish was everywhere. Maybe our one-day limit is about 10,000.

Why do people litter such a beautiful place?

It worries me. If there are three classes, the rich, the middle and the poor it’s the latter that usually don’t care about the environment. Their priorities are surviving from day to day.

So lifting the nation’s economy and with it education is important. Our employees are constantly reminding visitors to use the bins.

Do you see any changes in public attitudes?

Yes, there’s better understanding of the need for conservation. I think recent landslips in East Java, which have caused dreadful damage and loss of life, have made people realise the need to plant and preserve trees.

We have the capability to produce thousands of seedlings for reforestation, but usually not the species that people want. When we’ve planted mahogany the trees have been cut for firewood.

We need fast growing species that don’t produce good burning timber. We need the public’s cooperation.

Has the park been changed since the Dutch era?

We’ve altered some of the layout but the broad avenue leading from the entrance to the Bougainvillea is as originally planned. We’ve built new houses for orchids and the plants we collect from the wild every year in field trips to Kalimantan.

An area near the river has been allowed to return to its natural state. There’s now access from the park along a footbridge across the river to a 300-hectare forest next door.

We’re doing research on the medical benefits of some plants.

Sadly there’s not much East Javanese culture to be found here – unlike the gardens in Bali.

What’s your main ambition?

To get more and more people to enjoy Purwodadi and appreciate the environment. The potential is huge. Unlike Bogor we don’t get travel agents organising tour groups, and very few foreigners – maybe only 100 a year.

Promotion isn’t easy. We have a budget of Rp 500 million (US $55,000) a year – Bogor has Rp 5 billion (US $550,000)

For 11 years in Bogor I was in the office with computers and meetings. I had to use my mind. Here I can use my heart. No more headaches! Here I can get out and do my own thing – which is to make the gardens better and better.

I really don’t like to be called ‘director’ because that puts me apart from the staff. This is my job – and my hobby. I love it.

(Purwodadi is open daily from 8 am to 4 pm. It’s on the east side of the main highway from Surabaya to Malang, and 65 kilometres south of Surabaya.)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2006)


Wednesday, September 27, 2006



You have to watch your language in the lexicon of the deadly disease AIDS. ‘Cure’ is out, along with ‘solution’, ‘antidote’ and ‘remedy’.

Instead try ‘treatment’ and ‘therapy’. For as yet there’s no vaccine to prevent the scourge and no drug that will return the patient to full health.

In direct language – AIDS is a death sentence.

Offsetting that bleak diagnosis are medicines that can hamper the progress of the disease. They’re known as antiretrovirals, or ARV. They come from the laboratories of Western science, require heavy use and can have some nasty side effects on the skin, joints and stomach. They’re also expensive.

Is there anything else? Traditional therapists think they may have some helpful suggestions, and they’ve just been sharing their ideas at the 8th ASEAN Congress of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Surabaya.

One of the organisers, acupuncturist Putu Oka Sukanta said complementary alternative medicines (CAM) could help the body fight the disease and soften the downsides of the conventional drugs.

However they were not a substitute. Patients with AIDS should continue taking their prescribed medication.

It’s believed that only in Indonesia are hospital doctors using conventional medicines along with traditional therapies. These include acupuncture, acupressure, nutritional supplements, massage, breathing exercises and meditation.

“CAM tries to balance the yin and yang in the body through an holistic approach so the body can retain its natural functions,” Sukanta said.

“The problem is that AIDS is a political disease. By that I mean it involves human rights, religion, discrimination and the right to treatment.

“Part of our job is to empower AIDS patients to they can exercise their rights and obligations, and help them lead productive and fulfilling lives in society.”

There’s no let up in the warnings and predictions of awful times ahead unless heavy-duty measures against the disease are taken now. Activists use the term ‘epidemic’. At this stage that seems hard to justify as the official numbers of people suffering are miniscule when measured against the population, and put alongside an estimated 500,000 deaths annually from tobacco use.

Sukanta said the main hot spots are Papua where the disease has been spread through heterosexual contact amongst tribespeople, the big cities where intravenous drug users operate, and the sex industry where prostitutes with HIV pass the disease to their clients who then infect their wives. Once in the family HIV can get into the children and the wider community.

“There’s been a lot of ignorance about AIDS,” said Sukanta who has been working since 1997 with patients who have the disease. “At first there was denial that it could occur in a religious country like Indonesia.

“It was seen as God’s damnation and a Western affliction. Now things are changing. Government policy is getting better. (See Sidebar).

“Some Muslim teachers and women in jilbab (Islamic headscarves) have become infected, so religious leaders have had to face the facts and widen their horizons.”

Getting an accurate count is impossible in a country where many people don’t consult doctors, while those who do may be misdiagnosed. Post mortems don’t always follow unexplained deaths. But somewhere between 90,000 and 130,000 Indonesians are officially believed to be living with HIV.

Activists say these are just the obvious early shoots above an enormous underground root structure of undiagnosed sufferers, with an estimate of four million druggies nationwide. Not all inject, but those who do are taking terrible risks if they don’t use clean needles. Around 50 per cent of new HIV cases are mainliners.

The worst-case scenario has around 300,000 dying of the disease by 2025.

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) damages the body’s immune system and lets in AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.) You can only get it only through the transfer of body fluids – usually by sharing syringe needles or having unprotected sex with an infected person.

It was first identified in 1981 and since then an estimated 25 million people have died of AIDS, most in Africa.


In a bid to halt the disease some countries are running high profile campaigns. These include frank sex education in schools, condom use promotion and needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users.

In Indonesia these are all contentious, so a prime role is educating lawmakers, educators and religious leaders of the dangers of AIDS and the need for action.

A few weeks ago Presidential Regulation 75 (2006) came into force, restructuring the National AIDS Commission. (NAC) Its predecessor was the National AIDS Control Commission. Note the significance of the change.

Part of its task is to disseminate accurate information “in such a way as not to result in social unrest”. The wording is a good indicator of the continuing sensitivity.

Australian psychologist Dr Jane Wilson, the country coordinator for the Joint United Nations Program on HIV / AIDS, believes the new authority is a major move forward.

“The estimates of Indonesians with AIDS were first made in 2002. They’ll be updated this year,” she said.

“The NAC is a serious bid to do something constructive. It’s very genuine and includes representatives of the community, non-government organisations and people who’ve tested positive with HIV / AIDS.

“I’m not sceptical at all. The people involved are committed and know what’s happening. So does the Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare, Aburizal Bakrie. We’ve never had leadership like this.

“There’s a growing awareness of AIDS. It doesn’t just involve fringe groups. Housewives are now getting infected. Up to 100 referral hospitals (hospitals which have ARV drugs and special training) are now taking HIV/AIDS patients.

“However only 3,500 people – that’s less than two per cent of suspected cases - are actually getting ARV drugs.

“Traditional therapists are often the first contact that sick people make with any health care provider.

“Antiretrovirals are very effective, but they’re a life-long treatment. I’ve had friends die from AIDS, so anything like traditional Chinese medicine and therapies, along with prayers, which might improve the quality of life and ease suffering, has to be welcomed.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 September 06)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Dr Ice Cream (see story below)

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After spending seven hours in a Malang hospital’s emergency unit, what’s a medico got to do to wind down?

If you’re Dr Lisa Setiawati then you open a business and see only the sweet and smooth things in life, not the gore and shattered limbs of the daily routine.

And while she gets a steady stream of broken bodies into the hospital needing repair – usually the result of motorbike accidents and fighting - customers to her ice cream parlours have blossomed and her enterprise thrived. She’s now negotiating to franchise her concept into Jakarta, Bali and Surabaya.

Four years ago she decided to sell her commercial laundry and use the profits to sell ice cream. She’d been a pioneer in the Laundromat business, but other operators soon arrived and profit margins tumbled.

On a brief visit to New Zealand she’d sampled the vast varieties and rich flavors of that country’s dairy produce, with ice cream a major on the national menu.

Although Indonesians like ice cream it’s an up-market extra usually enjoyed as a sit-down snack. In the West it’s a recreation food often eaten in the street and on the run – a practice considered impolite in the archipelago.

“Cooking had always been my hobby, even though in my childhood as the only daughter I was banned from the kitchen,” Dr Setiawati said.

“I considered opening a restaurant, but my research showed that the clientele tended to be static. People also go to eat quickly, then leave, rather than sit around and talk.

“Malang (in central East Java) is a university town, constantly refreshed by new intakes of students. I thought an ice-cream café would be an ideal place where they could sit around and chat.

“It’s also a food that’s not exclusive to any one age or ethnic group”

She chose a shop in Jalan Galunggung, a street within easy range of almost 20 campuses, and the decision was right. A second shop has been opened on a by-pass and this, she said, has also done well. The name Confetti was chosen because it’s associated with celebrations and happy times.

At first she bought ice cream from a factory at Probolingo on the north coast of East Java, but transport difficulties created too many problems. She had already researched the manufacture of ice cream and knew the ingredients and mechanical requirements.

She understood the need for close attention to detail, the importance of the right serving temperature (5 degrees C), the need to get the texture correct so the product scooped easily while staying firm. A slight sheen also helped presentation, particularly when garnished with fruits.

So Dr Setiawati took another business leap. She bought a machine, ordered fresh milk from the nearby hill town of Batu, and set up a factory. She now employs 35 staff making or selling her products. Throughout she keeps a close watch on the manufacture and health standards.

Every three months she writes a new menu of her latest ideas – adding flavors like green tea and durian along with the standards like chocolate and vanilla. One product has been designed for diabetics. Each new concoction is heavily promoted through the print media to keep public interest high.

The décor, crockery and furniture in her cafes have also been her selection. Throughout her ambition has been to create an atmosphere where customers will take it easy - and keep ordering.

“I’ve never formally studied management or business,” Dr Setiawati, 35, said. “Nor do I want to – I’ve had to do enough study to become a doctor. I believe in the principle of learning-by-doing. Having an MBA is no guarantee of success.

“It’s important to be observant and to understand all the processes of business. Many people make the mistake of trying to please themselves, like selling the sort of clothes they prefer – without considering the customer.

“You have to be interested in the product and know the processes. But at all times you must keep an eye on the profit.”

Unlike many small business proprietors she’s not constantly in her factory or shops, believing that bosses who do that show distrust in their employees.

She holds a monthly meeting with her staff who are encouraged to air their grievances and talk through problems. These get-togethers were also used to evaluate the business. She said her management style was being aware of detail, listening and communicating – skills which come from her profession.

Dr Setiawati said she has no intention of quitting her hospital work because she enjoys the challenges that come from the great variety of cases that rush into the emergency unit.

She also put her talents to work as a volunteer after the Yogya earthquake where most injuries were similar to those met in the emergency ward – lacerations, fractured skulls and bones.

“I work seven hours a day, four days a week, in the hospital where I’ve been for seven years,” she said. “I don’t have a private practice so can concentrate on Confetti after hours. If the franchise negotiations are successful the shops will have to sell my ice cream, but will be free to market their own snacks.

“Infrastructure is a big problem in Indonesia. I send ice cream to Bali packed in insulation and using busses. It’s cheap and so far successful, but for other deliveries I’ll have to buy a refrigerated van.

“I’ve seldom had problems with people taking me seriously. Maybe that’s because I’m a doctor and people trust me. It might be different if I was a housewife.

“I recommend any woman or man who’s interested in business to go ahead – you’ll never know if you never try. You can’t just stay alone in the house. Motivation is very important. So is creative energy.

“Try something new. Don’t be afraid. Get out of your routine. I never wanted to be in a situation where I was dependent on others.

“I want to stay calm, to not get headaches. I pray to God. I want to do my best and not hurt anyone. I see a lot of pain and problems in my hospital job, but we should respect life and never forget to count our blessings.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 September 2006)




If you’re seeking jazz in Surabaya there’s no need to scour dim and dingy back streets for smoke-choked cellars. Just take an evening wander down Jalan Pemuda, the East Java capital’s main drag, and you’ll soon hear the music you crave.

For the Garden Palace Hotel features jazz bands at its sidewalk café where the smells and sounds of the city roll over the low hedge between patrons and pedestrians. If you’re on the outside you can enjoy the music without feeling compelled to buy drinks, though space is cramped and pavements potholed.

If you’re inside you can sit down and relax under canvas – that’s if you can shut out the din from the police sirens, honking autos and malfunctioning car security alarms. The hotel’s response to the cacophony of klaxons is to crank up the sound system to a point where it’s equal to the shock waves of a bunker-busting bomb.

Cool? Well, that’s questionable, despite the mist jets. Unwinding? Maybe, if you’re immune to the stress factor that usually accompanies crowds and noise.

If you think jazz is best played in a closed and cosy cavern during the early hours where the atmospherics enhance the music, then maybe this is not for finicky you. Nonetheless it’s currently the best on offer and the organisers deserve heartfelt applause for getting this far.

For jazz isn’t the most popular music form in Indonesia’s second biggest city where Top 40, Golden Oldies, Dangdut – even Reggae - rule. It’s the timeworn standards that pull the crowds of all ages, and where tin-ear crooners in the audience think they can do a better job than the performers.

It used to be different, according to Latief Darmawan who coordinates Surabaya’s C Two Six Jazz Club. The title sounds like a memorable riff but is just the street number of the gentleman’s suburban home.

“In the 1970s and 80s jazz was alive and doing well in East Java,” he said. “Interest waned after many popular performers went to Jakarta in search of more work and money.

“However things are now slowly picking up. We have about 500 enthusiastic members. About half are students and maybe 20 per cent women. Jazz seems to be seen as men’s music.

“We’re doing our best to popularise jazz. Unfortunately it has an image of being elite and expensive – which isn’t the case. By playing so close to passers-by in the city we’re getting good promotion. They can hear, they can like – and then love.”

Latief, who lectures at a hospitality industry training college, was one of the driving forces in this year’s Jazz in the City Festival, the first major promotion for some time. Apart from the hotel he got backing from a local radio station and a cigarette company.

Hotel staff said the three-night event this month (Sept), and which attracted ten bands competing for an Rp 5 million (US $550) first prize, was popular with patrons and may become a regular annual feature.

The winner was Jazz Friend, four young blokes who play in other bands but stitched together their group to bid for the big prize. Big? Well, by Surabaya standards any local band is lucky to collect Rp 600,000 (US $66) for a taxing gig in a toffee-nose hotel, so getting eight times that amount was well worth the effort.

They won the contest with a program of fusion, which seems to be the favored form. Fusion, also known as jazz rock, started in the 1960s as a reaction to rock along the lines of: If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.

For the hard-wired traditionalists it’s base stuff because there’s much repetition and minimal improvisation. However as a music bridge for those who find jazz too intellectual, it’s a reasonable compromise.

Of course many claim there’s nothing cerebral about jazz; it’s all about feeling. Which is why the form arouses so much passionate debate.

Of the four men, Anmad Salis Sauhar Firdaus (guitar), Sonny Sunarno (keyboard), Alkautsar Firdransyah (bass) and Yusak Mahu Nugroho (drums) only the first makes some sort of living from music. The others all have side jobs.

“I can earn about Rp 1 million in a month playing two nights a week, but pick up more than that in tips,” said Firdaus. “I don’t just play jazz. I have to do everything and keep moving around.

“I like jazz because of the freedom. You can play from the heart and the soul. I’d like to see it combined with traditional Indonesian music on the gamelan. That’s been done in Bali, though not here.”

Sadly Jazz Friend has no female singer and no saxophonist. To a Western ear the lack of a wind instrument tends to make the music feel unbalanced. The sax is rare in Surabayan jazz – or any band - so the audience seems indifferent to the absence.

Said Sonny: “Jazz requires dedication and skill. That’s often rare in music. With jazz you can be dynamic and free. You’re not closed off from other influences. It’s universal music. We want to be better appreciated by audiences.”

Did they have any problems playing a music form that’s often described as ‘the purest exponent of American democracy, celebrating individualism and compromise, independence and cooperation’?

“Sure, I’m a nationalistic Indonesian,” said Latief. “But music is global. It cuts through the boundaries. Like soccer.”

(First pubished in The Sunday Post, 24 September 2006)

Friday, September 15, 2006



Javanese culture is like the meat in the sandwich. The slices of bread pressing on either side are Western lifestyles and Saudi Islam. But the filling is rich and nutritious, with protein, fruits and vegetables – enough to sustain.

You can digest the simile and make your own biting interpretation. Which is how it should be. For some things about the Javanese are not easily absorbed, according to culture buff and author of the metaphor above - Dr Soetrisno.

A former regent and Golkar parliamentarian in the Suharto era, and before that an administrator in the Department of Education and Culture, Soetrisno has now turned to writing.

With five published books on Javanese philosophy and arts to his credit he should be in a good position to help deconstruct the mysteries – though in doing so he tended to make them even more complex.

That’s not a criticism. As he said himself, some concepts just defy easy translation into English and Western logic.

“I learned much from my grandfather who was a village head in Blora (Central Java) where I was born,” he said.

“He told me about the symbolism of Javanese architecture, the way a house should be planned and built, the significance of the four main pillars, the importance of status and politeness.

“I learned the gamelan, the Javanese alphabet and how to sing. The language is alive and well, widely taught though spoken in different dialects according to the region.

“He gave me Javanese philosophy, and I still remember his words – to daily exercise the body, the mind and the soul. These were the basics and they should be held in balance. He said I should always be ready to discuss anything, and never let my brain become idle.

“We judge a person by five qualities – their way of speaking, sitting, eating, walking and dressing.

“I was blessed with a good memory, but warned against becoming an absent minded professor.”

The caution must have stuck because at 68 he’s still intellectually spry and direct, quick to contradict, a quality unusual in Javanese who often prefer to agree when they disagree.

“The Javanese are good at using hidden words,” he said. “’Yes’ is never absolutely ‘yes’, as I learned from my mother. It’s to preserve harmony but the origins of this behavior aren’t known and kids are often discouraged from asking ‘why?’

“However I encouraged my children to question the traditions and I’ve tried to fathom them myself. Why shouldn’t we sit on a pillow or perch a plate on our palm while eating?”

Apart from his fascination with Javanese traditions, Soetrisno has an extensive and eclectic collection of original paintings and artefacts from across the archipelago and overseas. These represent many other cultures.

Some works were gathered during tours he made of the Pacific and Hong Kong, and later of Europe, as leader of a Javanese folk art group of singers and musicians. A graduate of Airlangga, East Java’s most prestigious public university and Yogyakarta’s Gajah Mada University, he briefly studied in the US.

The urbane Soetrisno now teaches public administration at Brawijaya University in Malang. He lives in Surabaya where he spoke to The Jakarta Post:

“Traditional culture isn’t dying, but it has moved to the periphery of social life,” he said. “Some performances of theatre and dance can now be seen only in the villages, or in the cities as part of Independence Day celebrations.

“What’s happened? Well, television and modern entertainment has been partly responsible. But I also blame some artists who aren’t being creative enough by reinterpreting the stories and keeping interest alive.

“Much is imitation, not original. Maybe 75 per cent of young people in the cities don’t understand the traditional arts because they’re seldom taught.

“Despite this I don’t expect them to die out. The Javanese have a great capacity for acculturation. We withstood 350 years of Dutch colonisation, rejecting things and adapting others.

“We’ve taken some Dutch words – but not many. We no longer sit on the floor – but we sometimes bring our feet up and squat on the chairs. We eat at tables, but often with our hands.

“We have many ceremonies to honor the dead, at the funeral – then 40 days, 100 days and 1,000 days later. But in Mecca I was shocked to see they just bury the corpse and forget it – no flowers and no headstone.

“The sinetron (TV soapies) you see where Muslims use supernatural powers to fight ghosts and demons don’t follow the Saudi interpretation of Islam.

“The men who brought Islam to Java centuries ago adapted to fit local cultures and practices. For example they used the five-pointed star fruit to illustrate the obligatory duties of a good Muslim

“Only a few strict Muslims reject Javanese values – most people respect them. Some kiai (religious teachers) have a blinkered view of religion and won’t let students in their pesantren (boarding schools) have access to other ideas.

“We Javanese are very proud of our culture. We keep it alive by consulting our five-day week calendar for auspicious dates and holding special events, like burying a buffalo head at the start of a new construction. Some of these old ways date back to the Hindu era. All religions point to God.

“It’s much more difficult to be Javanese than a Westerner. You can drink beer, eat a hot dog, wear jeans and a T-shirt, and lounge in the chair. I can’t.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 September 2006)


Tuesday, September 12, 2006



Two years ago Mario Sugianto was sent by his company Pt ABB Sakti Industri to a training course in Bangkok.

Assessments of his skills were mostly excellent, with a near perfect score in mathematics. And a 10 ranking for management style.

Unfortunately this measured aggression – and while that might suit the army, it’s no longer appropriate in modern multinationals.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I’d got my MBA through the University of Western Australia and thought I was pretty good. But this was a wake up call and I had to change.

“I was warned by psychologists on the course that this would not be easy. It wasn’t – but I’ve altered my behavior. I’m no longer rough and tough. I now spend more time listening. And I think it’s been effective.”

Sugianto’s new approach was soon tested when last December he was appointed as ABB’s branch manager in Surabaya.

The office had been without a manager for almost three years and the 66 staff and subcontractors had become slack. A workplace culture had developed which put worker interests ahead of the company.

Cleaning up the show was never going to be easy, particularly when the new broom was young (he’s 34) and from Jakarta.

If Sugianto had stuck to his pre-Bangkok axe-man style he’d have probably read the riot act and sacked anyone who answered back. In a previous job he’d done just that, kicking out half the staff and earning great applause from his bosses – and undying hatred from his former colleagues.

“At the time I didn’t care,” he said. “I was 27 and I considered staff over 40 to be old and slow. I didn’t give them a chance to show they could change and perform better.

“I thought this was the professional way. You can justify almost anything by saying that. Now I know I was wrong.”

So in his new position in Surabaya he opted for the personal touch, trying to understand what had gone wrong and why.

Instead of making enemies of his colleagues he sought to win them round to accepting that things were now going to be different.

“I told them to close the book on the past and to open a new one,” he said. “I wasn’t into blaming for what had happened. They were good people and I needed them.”

Eventually only one person had to be shown the door.

The Zurich-based ABB Group operates in 100 countries with a workforce of more than 107,000. It’s listed on stock exchanges in its hometown, New York and Stockholm.

ABB makes, sells and services equipment used in electrical power generation and transmission, and turbochargers for ships and big diesel engines. Its clients are power generation authorities, factories, miners and other major users of electricity.

In the second quarter of 2006 the company announced a big jump worldwide in orders and profit. Its main rival is Siemens.

Earnings before the payment of interest and taxes was US $640 million compared to US$ 371 million in the same period last year. Most of this growth was in Europe. The company said orders in Asia were “flat”.

Before joining ABB in 2001 Sugianto worked for a French telecommunications company.

Sugianto spent the first six months of this year reorganising the ABB office and two workshops in Surabaya, including making them flood-proof. He introduced new procedures with the emphasis on safety – a major issue for multinationals.

Among the other changes was demolition of a wall separating the electrical and turbocharger workshops. The two functioned separately and would not share ideas. The turbo blokes reckoned they were the elite.

“It was our Berlin Wall,” said Sugianto. “My message was that we were all working together for one company. My style is to walk around and talk to the staff, to discuss their problems in a practical way.”

Now he’s planning to open another branch in the oil city of Balikpapan (East Kalimantan) and is exploring other opportunities in Nusa Tenggara.

“In a gloomy economic climate with uncertainty in law and regulations we’re probably among the few optimists – if not crazy – who believe in this country’s potential,” he said.

“Indonesians planning to work for multinationals must have an excellent command of English. Europeans are fluent in its use and it’s the language that’s used to communicate between branches around the world.

“I was lucky that my parents pushed me to learn and stressed the importance of education. The other factors are independence, maturity and responsibility.

“That means you can take constructive criticism, always seek to improve your performance and be responsible for everything you do. If you work well only when you’re watched then you’re not responsible.

“I’ve learned that it’s possible to turn a bad situation into something positive. Sure, it’s easier to clear the workshop or office of non-performing staff and start again, but that’s no challenge.

“In the past I didn’t care about people or how long they worked. I just wanted the job done. Now I think: ‘How would I respond if my bosses treated me like that? Workers aren’t units – they’re human beings.

“Respect others and they’ll respect you. Put yourself in their shoes. Who’s happy with a dictator? Who wants to work in a prison? Tyranny is not the modern style of management.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 September 2006)


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Karen and Soleh (story below)

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© Duncan Graham 2006

There aren’t too many pesinden in Indonesia and probably none quite like Karen Elizabeth Sekararum.

A pesinden is a woman who sings with a gamelan orchestra, often as a solo performer. That simple description masks the need to have a wide range of language skills and vocal talents including mimicry and theatrical ability.

Pesinden are sometimes encountered at communal village events, usually in isolated regions. In the cities they’re occasionally heard at lavish traditional weddings where the host families think the couple should be honoured by something more special than a keyboard and a pop song in English.

Karen also dances the complex, sometimes stilted movements that can accompany the music. When this pesinden is drummed onto stage by her husband there’s a surprise factor in store that the costume and make up can’t hide; she’s a robust Caucasian. Duncan Graham reports from Tumpang in central East Java:

According to current archaeological research wet rice cultivation skills, including the use of buffalo, were brought to the archipelago by animists from southern China or Vietnam. That was during the Dongson period, around 3,000 years ago.

But to the traditional farmers of Tumpang, about 25 kilometres east of Malang, this little town on the western slopes of a cluster of volcanoes known as Pegunungan Tengger is where the rice story really began.

Older residents can still remember when cooks who took great pride in their kitchen arts made special trips to Tumpang to select the finest grains, no matter that the price was three times higher than the basic produce.

Then came the government-promoted Green Revolution and the introduction of high-yielding hybrids needing fertilisers and pesticides. The old varieties, with their special flavours known only to the most discriminating diners, were discarded. Their substitutes were grains that could produce three harvests a year – an increase of 50 per cent.

Quality yielded to quantity. A sacred crop became a commodity. Other casualties were the traditions of seeding, growing and harvest, presided over by the rice goddess Dewi Sri (also known as Rejeki – which translates as ‘good fortune’) and her consort Jaka Sedana.

To make the simple difficult, he also has another name – Raja Brana. His job is husbanding the other elements in rice growing, including the soil, the natural predators of pests, and other plants.

But these time-tested myths have no place in modern agribusiness, nor in the arid Arabic versions of Islam that have been gaining hold in Indonesia during the past few years.

Soleh Adi Pramono knows much about the old ways. As a child he was taken by his grandmother to the ancient ceremonies, the nightlong dances, the mysterious wayang kulit (shadow puppet) shows. His father, uncle and grandfather were all performance artists.

After training as a dancer and dalang (puppet master) in Yogya he returned home determined to maintain the old culture. In this task he’s been blessed with an extraordinarily talented helpmate, Karen Elizabeth Sekararum.

Originally from Wisconsin University the young anthropologist came to Malang to enrol in an intensive Indonesian language course. As a child she’d already spent time in Indonesia and been infected with the country’s smells, sounds and culture.

She met Soleh, found her cultural, emotional and spiritual niche and stayed. She’s adapted well, speaking hierarchal Javanese fluently as well as mastering the songs, music and movements that accompany the gamelan. Her conversion is so complete that her husband thinks she might have been a Javanese in a previous life.

This implies that she’s abandoned Western ways as some do when they settle into the tropics along with sandals and sarong. Not so. When dealing with other Westerners she’s still the brisk, unquiet, no-nonsense American: You want to know what I think? Here it is, both barrels.

The couple have two equally gifted daughters, Sonya, 14 and Ndaru, 9, and the family has just (Sept.) acknowledged 17 years of their Mangun Dharma art centre. He’s the artistic director; she’s the managing director. Typically they celebrated the birthday with a performance of wayang kulit, masked dancing and singing – in Javanese, of course.

The key performer was little Ndaru who played in the orchestra then gave a long wayang kulit show as the dalang.

The setting in the hills above the Tumpang market was a delight with a grassed amphitheatre and timbered pendopo (open walled hall). Close to 200 people, including a few foreigners, enjoyed the professionally presented performance and a fine meal with the air so mountain-chilled even the mosquitoes went into retreat. It was all most refined and relaxed.

But a few kilometres down the road (and down market) were crowds of thousands blocking the traffic. They were there to watch a dangdut dancer and singer on a rough stage– screeching pop tunes in English at an amplified volume equal to a Boeing on take-off.

“Maintaining Mangun Dharma and the traditional arts hasn’t always been a smooth journey,” admitted Karen. “There are so many other attractions. The cost of staging a big performance with a gamelan orchestra puts it out of the reach of many people, particularly with the economic crisis.

“Other ASEAN countries seem to have pulled out of the problem, but not Indonesia.

“There are also fashions in the arts, as with most things. Some tend to think the traditional arts are out of date.

“Few tourists come to East Java since the Bali bombings and travel warnings. There’s so much talent and so many artistic attractions in and around Malang but they’re not well promoted. This is a major and important cultural centre.

“There tends to be a view that East Java culture isn’t worth considering and that the pure dances have to originate in Central Java. There’s an opinion that if it comes from Solo it must be perfect, but if from Malang – well, never!

“If that’s what they want, well we can do that too. We need a lot of gigs and we can go with the flow. But if we’re not keeping the local culture alive and not letting it become a museum piece, then who is?

“Banyuwangi (on the far east coast of Java) is doing a good job in preserving and publicising the traditional arts. There’s some fine work being done in Madura. Surabaya takes a lot of culture from everywhere and is dynamic.

“But the tourism authorities in Malang don’t seem to give a rat’s arse about promotion.

“Television stops people going out, but paradoxically it also helps to preserve culture by broadcasting performances that might otherwise not be seen. It’s actually doing a good job of keeping the arts going.

“Now there’s the threat of the pornography bill, which is so narrow-minded and against the syncretism of Java. (Among other things the bill seeks to regulate women’s dress and public behavior.)

“The repercussions on tourism and culture could be huge, but no one seems to really understand this. I’m baffled, but I think people will reject the bill when they realise the implications. I’m not going to wear a jilbab (headscarf). I wouldn’t be able to work. The arts would be finished - gone.

“We’ve been struggling to get by, and I don’t know why. But we’re still here.”

Indeed, and in the month of The Jakarta Post’s visit she had seven gigs booked ahead. Although Mangun Dharma’s fans are small compared to their raunchy rivals, the performances show no sign of concessions. Every component, from make up and movements, to costumes and choreography demonstrated care and commitment.

The puppets are nothing like those sold in tourists shops, but glimmering works of art, intricately made and coloured. Many have been designed by Soleh, with one set created for a performance he devised on rice and the Green Revolution titled: The Descent of Good Fortune and Material Wealth.

These are now in a museum of cultural history at the University of California in Los Angeles

It’s the same with the masks. All have their own stories and characters and are made at Mangun Dharma. The centre also teaches dance and gamelan playing and has more than 50 students enrolled.

The East Java arts put heavy demands on the audiences, particularly those from outside. At the 17th anniversary celebrations some urban Indonesians nibbling coconut cakes to the music of metallophones confessed that they didn’t understand the Javanese words being sung.

To enjoy the stories, appreciate the movements and be sensitive to the subtleties requires prior research. It’s not just a fun night out – it’s also an intellectual challenge – and all the more rewarding as a result.

This is particularly so for Westerners craving logic and order – even though the Greek myths at the base of much European culture are equally supernatural, fantastic and irrational.

It takes Karen about 90 minutes to make up for a performance of Javanese art. Soleh sometimes fasts prior to a special event such as ruwatan, the ritual purifications associated with birth and other rites of passage.

Foreigners who watch her sing and dance do so in a state of awe at her achievements. So do some of the locals, but not all.

“A dalang at a gig I gave in Blitar recently used the opportunity to be contemptuous of a non-Javanese performing as a pesinden,” she said. “He was getting some cheap laughs from the audience but didn’t realise I could understand what he was saying.

“It’s a type of resentment. That sort of thing happens but not often. When I sang in Javanese he was taken aback. Others tend to ask: ‘Why can she do it and not me?’

“The point is I work hard. I study and practise every day. I spend a great deal of time making sure everything is done properly. When is one person more Javanese than another? If you scorn your own culture, if you neglect it, that means you don’t care. If you’re concerned for the culture, you’ll do it.

“Yet I don’t see the situation as hopeless. Indonesia is so unpredictable. Just when you want to give up because it’s all so depressing, then suddenly things blossom and there’s change.”


Foreigners often wonder why the Indonesian national anthem sounds like a Western tune better suited to European classical orchestras - rather than an Indonesian traditional song accompanied by the gamelan.

Perhaps because the gamelan is not well known internationally, though the sound is distinctly Indonesian.

The gamelan gained great attention at the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition where many countries showcased their culture. An exhibit from Java featured a traditional kampong and included a gamelan.

Among those showing interest was the young impressionist composer Claude Debussy. His friend Robert Godet wrote:

‘Many fruitful hours for Debussy were spent in the Javanese kampong . . . listening to the percussive rhythmic complexities of the gamelan with its inexhaustible combinations of ethereal, flashing timbres.”

Twenty years later Debussy wrote of ‘Javanese rhapsodies, which instead of confining themselves in a traditional form, develop according to the fantasy of countless arabesques.’

The gamelan’s pentatonic scale repetitive harmonies are believed to have influenced the Frenchman in his compositions.

(Additional research from Claude Debussy and the Javanese Gamelan by Brent Hugh.)

(First published in The Sunday Post, 10 September 2006)


Four Hands + son Kaito (story below)

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To sing Surabaya select the key of C major. That’s C for Commerce writ large in the machine melodies of Mammon. For the East Java capital is famous for its industry and chaos, its energy and pollution.

And the pianistic talents of its citizens.

Sounds, well, out of tune with reality?

You’d better believe it because the author of this unusual statement is no sycophant, but a robust critic, a professor of music in Paris, an international concert pianist, and a teacher in Asia and Europe.

Frenchman Patrick Zygmanowski, 36, first visited Indonesia four years ago. At the time he found audience behaviour abysmal and musical standards not much better.

But since then he claims there’s been a significant change, which he puts down to maturity, more listening, travel to Europe by teachers and students, and a growing sophistication among musicians and lovers of classical music.

“I’ve run master classes in Jakarta, Denpasar, Yogya and Surabaya, and there’s no doubt that the top students in Surabaya are now the best,” he said. “They’re even better than in Singapore.

“I hope that next year in association with Indonesian music schools we’ll be able to organise a national piano competition with preliminary rounds in Medan, Jakarta and Bandung – with the grand final in Surabaya.

“Students in Paris have lost their passion. They expect free access to everything, museums, art courses, and the theatre. Here in Indonesia it’s a big thing to go to a live performance.

“I was asked how many concerts would be held in Paris because there are only three or four a year in Surabaya. I said there’d be around 30 – every day! Classical music should be for everyone, not just the rich.”

The other change noted by Zygmanowski is a growing respect for artists in Indonesia. He said it’s no longer commonplace for people to take mobile phone calls during a performance.

“Sadly it’s not like that in China,” he said. “The concert halls and facilities are incredible – and so are the pianos. But people talk, chat on the phone, smoke and eat chips. It’s very distracting – but what can you do? It’s the culture.”

What hasn’t changed in Indonesia is the stiff presentation of music, reminiscent of the era before US composer Leonard Bernstein started talking to audiences, explaining the music, deepening appreciation and introducing fun.

At a Surabaya Symphony Orchestra performance in a five-star hotel to celebrate this year’s Independence Day the atmosphere was solemn and restrained while the music was lively and mostly joyous.

“It’s still like that in Japan and China,” said Zygmanowski’s Japanese wife Tamayo Ikeda who is also a concert pianist. “The women wear puffy ball gowns and lots of taffeta. It’s rigid. I can’t stand that. I want to be myself.

“The teaching is also very strict – the Japanese are like the Germans, disciplined, which is probably why so many want to go to that country. You have an obligation to do exactly what your teacher wants and you cannot express your own opinion. It’s so different in France – a completely new world of teaching.”

Ikeda, 35, went to Paris as a teenager to further her music studies which began when she was three. The couple have been together since 1992 and have two sons. Their bilingual firstborn Kaito, 4, has started playing the piano.

Her move to Europe as a teenager was in the tradition of top Japanese musicians who study the classical European arts at their source.

Zygmanowski, who started studying music when he was six, said most of his students in Paris were from Japan and Korea. To help them better understand classical music and the culture which gave it life, he asked them to visit art galleries and read poetry associated with the era of the composer they were trying to master.

“If, for example, you’re playing Debussy, a particular favorite for the Japanese, you should see the works of (impressionist painter) Claude Monet and read the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire,” he said. “Then come back a week later and we’ll discuss everything. I believe it’s important that the teacher and student develop a special relationship”.

Apart from running master classes in Surabaya the couple performed as a piano duet (meaning four hands on one keyboard) with a program of Mozart, Ravel and Gershwin.

Their style is flamboyant, with both bottoms bouncing on the shared stool, Ikeda’s long hair taking flight as in a TV shampoo commercial. She’s a particularly demonstrative player and lets her arms soar high above the keyboard. Her husband is not much different. The effect is a whirling windmill of limbs.

To get at some of the notes they had to make spider-like arm movements over their partner’s flying wrists. They encouraged the audience to clap in time – which in an Indonesian auditorium is usually considered crass behavior by the bejewelled set peering over their designer spectacles.

The couple’s performance, which was as much theatre as music, caught the audience unawares – but the response was overwhelmingly positive, with three encores.

“Four hands is a difficult performance - it’s much easier to play alone,” said Ikeda. “Originally we didn’t want to play together, but we’ve made it our speciality and in classical music that’s unusual. We have to be in emotional synch, to listen to the music.

“We have to feel each other’s characters, to respond to each other’s feelings, to sense moods and make allowances. It’s rare and it’s really rather wonderful. I think it’s easier because we’re married.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 10 September 2006)


Thursday, September 07, 2006



The Netherlands War Graves Foundation does a great job maintaining its seven cemeteries in Indonesia.

But those that predate the war, like this one in Surabaya, are no longer respected. The tombs have been plundered for valuables. The ghouls’ tunnels remain open as a sign to others: ‘Don’t bother – we’ve robbed this corpse.’

There are flower sellers nearby, but the time for petals to be scattered at the Jalan Peneleh graveyard have long gone. Villagers use it for a shortcut. Washing hangs under the little roofs. Tree roots have lifted the slabs.

Some read: ‘Never to be forgotten.’ They lie.

Others have no words. The marble has been taken for tabletops. Angels weep over drying baskets. Neither fame nor fortune can protect the dead from the living. The one-time rulers of Java have turned to dust.

Historian Eddy Samson (pictured) and his friends have repaired a few broken graves for families in Europe who want their ancestors’ bones to rest in peace.

But most memorials are just crumbling – waiting for the time when the land will be needed for a highway or shopping mall. Then the last remnants of Dutch colonialism will be erased. Forever.

(First published in the Sunday Post 3 September 2006)

Monday, September 04, 2006



It’s become part of the diplomatic creed: Dear God, may understanding of culture, history and politics improve on both sides of the Indian Ocean so our peoples may live in peace and prosperity, now and forever. Amen.

Such is the need that even atheists would applaud.

Indonesians seeking an incandescent example of the relationship hassles with their big southern neighbor will be illuminated by the reported comments of legislator Djoko Susilo.

He claimed the withdrawal of contentious immigration legislation by Prime Minister John Howard was to “trick the Indonesian Government.”

Djoko is entitled to his theory and as a member of the House of Representatives Commission 1 overseeing security and international affairs his opinions have wings.

We should be thankful the National Mandate Party (PAN) member is a politician and not a pilot. His views are so far off course any plane he flew towards Sabang would end up in Merauke.

Howard is certainly a Machiavellian politician, regarded by many commentators as the most accomplished in Australia’s recent history. But to suggest that he wasn’t fair dinkum in trying to get his Migration Amendment Bill through Parliament is like saying President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono didn’t really want peace in Aceh.

Yet it’s easy to see how Indonesians can misunderstand the situation because politics in Australia, as elsewhere, are complex.

Howard pulled the bill when it became obvious he didn’t have the numbers to get it passed in the Senate. That was a shrewd move to avoid the shame of a defeat.

A few members of his own Liberal party had even broken ranks and voted against the bill in the lower house – though not enough to make any difference. Reading opponents’ speeches and comments (see The Jakarta Post 22 August for one Labor member’s reasoning) it’s clear they were conscience-driven.

You have to live in Australia to understand the present depth of feeling against Indonesia and Islam and which is driving populist politics. It’s not just terrorist bombs – Indonesian fishers poaching shark in Australia’s northern waters is an issue with real bite.

In one survey of 551 private and public schoolchildren in Victoria earlier this year more than half saw Muslims as terrorists. (To be fair, one third also reckoned Aussies were racist.)

An election is due next year. Howard’s bill was a ploy to reinforce his fame as defender of the virgin Great South Land against the world’s rapacious riff-raff.

As an immigrant society Australia takes more than 100,000 newcomers every year plus humanitarian cases, but wants to pick and chose. Don’t come unless you’re invited and we’ve checked you out.

Contrary to Djoko’s assertion Howard is widely believed to be doing his best to improve relations with Indonesia. That may not have been the situation when he took office 10 years ago, but it is now. When President Susilo made his first official visit to Australia in April last year Howard had already been to the archipelago 11 times.

The problem is that Howard has been trying too hard, and his efforts have been translated as appeasement.

For any long-standing democracy with a sense of history that’s an inflammatory charge. The word is volatile, the fuse lit back in 1938 when British PM Neville Chamberlain was dealing with an increasingly militant Germany.

There are a few Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and churches in Australia pushing for an independent Papua (or West Papua as it’s known Down Under.) Their voices may be shrill, but their numbers miniscule.

Protests outside the Indonesian consulate in Perth have now dwindled to one a month and only a handful attend.

Both government and opposition speak of respecting Indonesian sovereignty, but neither can speak for the uncontrollable NGOs.

It’s always a mistake in Australian politics to assume that public interest can be gauged by placard wavers. Aussies are too busy with work and sport (maybe that should be the other way around) to burn flags or shake fists – but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel strongly in their hearts.

So when Howard tried to make life even tougher for boat people seeking refuge, the compassion factor kicked in. The public knew that not all are so-called ‘economic refugees’, or terrorists masquerading as the persecuted.

Most asylum seekers have proved to be genuine. Stories of those who’ve done well despite all the problems are legion. There’ll be one in your suburb or workplace for sure.

The Little Aussie Battler who makes it despite fickle fate and all the bastardry of bureaucrats is a powerful icon. It even applies to folk with dark skins and funny accents – a positive side to multiculturalism.

A similar thing happened in 1999 when the people elbowed the government into supporting the East Timorese referendum. Records show Howard clearly wanted any change to be minor, calibrated and delayed.

The voters remembered that the rugged Timorese supported the Diggers fighting the Japanese in the 1940s at terrible cost to themselves. It was a debt that had to be repaid and to hell with diplomatic delicacies.

Djoko reportedly argued that it was incomprehensible for Howard to withdraw his legislation when he held power in both houses of Parliament.

That overlooks the numbers. In the Senate the Liberals have 39 seats, Labor 28 with nine held by minor parties.

It needs just a couple of gutsy politicians to go against their mates and the minors to back Labor for the government’s will to be thwarted.

That’s what was going to happen – so Howard took his bat and ball and went home. It’s called democracy in action – and the regret is that there’s not enough of it on either side of the Indian Ocean.

First published in The Jakarta Post 4 September 06

Friday, September 01, 2006


THE CURSE OF KAWAH IJEN © Duncan Graham 2006

Got a problem with polluted water? Seek the factory. Search for the clear- felled land. Or a toxic dump.

Human-made causes. All fixable given cash and political will.

But what happens when the source of the pollution is natural, never-ending and gargantuan?

That’s the situation in the north-east corner of East Java where the seeping crater of the Kawah Ijen volcano is poisoning the waters used by 50,000 people for drinking and bathing, and scalding their irrigated crops.

The water is hyper-acidic, saturated with almost all known minerals. Its long-term effects on the people are not known, but 90 per cent have black teeth. The condition is caused by an excess of fluoride, a compound added in tiny doses to the water supplies of many Western nations to reduce tooth decay.

Skin and eye problems are also encountered. These are easily seen. What’s happening to the bones and brains? Are any of the minerals retained in the body? More study is needed to reveal the other effects.

The crater lake, one of the biggest in the world, holds about 36 million cubic metres of water. It’s about 200 metres deep and the water temperature varies between 20 and 40 degrees C. Although regularly replenished by rain, this is no diluent. Gasses burping from the bowels of the earth through the water like bubbles in a fizzy drink create extreme pollution.

About 50 litres a second leaks from the crater into the Banyupahit-Banyuputih (bitter and white) River. This flows down to Asembagus on the Straits of Madura. Here more than 3,500 hectares of rich land are irrigated from the dammed river.

The favored crop is rice – but this is acid-sensitive. Around 70 per cent of plantings fail. Sugar cane is more tolerant but far less profitable.

The water exceeds all standards for irrigation and drinking. No fish skim the waterways, no riparian reeds whisper in the breeze. This is a brook that babbles death – toxicity on a grand scale.

What’s to be done? After a seminar in Surabaya earlier this month (Aug) involving local and Dutch experts, and attended by about 85 people The Jakarta Post canvassed solutions:


According to Indonesian government vulcanologist and geochemist Sri Sumarti the problem was identified almost a century ago. In 1921 the Dutch built a sluice near the outfall. When the lake was full the gate was lowered and excess water flushed out to sea after downstream farmers were alerted.

“The crater lake last overflowed in 1976,” she said. “The sluice has been renovated since then and could be used but that solution is no longer appropriate.

“We don’t know why the lake levels are decreasing but its probably seepage through the porous ground. The level is now 15 to 20 metres below the sluice.”

Dr Manfren van Bergen from the University of Utrecht said the Dutch started watching volcanoes seriously and keeping records of activity after 1918. That was when Kelud exploded killing about 5,000 people near Kediri in central East Java.

That volcano also had a crater lake, and the fountain of hot mud and rock devastated 15,000 hectares of good land.

“After Independence the Dutch were unwelcome for a while, but the records of volcanic activity were preserved in Holland,” he said. “Long term information is critical in forecasting events.”

Now international relationships have improved, the old statistics are available and more than Euro 600,000 (Rp 7 billion) has been allocated to research on Kawah Ijen.

The money has been spent on projects leading to the Surabaya seminar and emphasising the hazards.


During and after the workshop, which was also attended by affected farmers and government officials, some obvious and imaginative proposals were made:

The big engineering project response was rapidly demolished. It would take at least 55 kilometres of piping to drain the lake and send the water to the sea. The pipes would have to be made of acid-proof materials. There were no engineers or economists present to put a rupiah tag on that notion, but all reckoned the figures would be stratospheric.

Diluting the acid is also a no-no. This would take mountains of limestone, and even then the gasses would continue to percolate according to Dr Ansje Lohr from the Netherlands Open University.

She’s been involved in a survey of 23 villages in the area. This found only a “partial awareness” of the problem – despite the black teeth and the sulphur-yellow water. Surprisingly many said the water was not distasteful – maybe because it’s all they’ve ever drunk.

Few were aware that the problem was the crater-lake, and those who did thought a return to the Dutch flushing solution should be tried. They didn’t know the lake level had dropped.

Even families who bought drinking water or who had an uncontaminated well were still affected by swallowing water while bathing.

“There are many unanswered questions because there’s been little research,” Dr Lohr said. “Cattle graze the area, so will bakso (meat balls) made from the beef be contaminated? And what about vegetables and cereals grown with the acid water? We don’t know.

“Most farmers depend on irrigated water. They want to grow rice, but most of it dies. The people are getting really poor.”


The priority, according to Dr Budi Widianarko from Soegijapranata Catholic University in Semarang, is to get clean drinking water to the villagers.

“We can’t handle the two issues of public health and finding a long term answer simultaneously,” he said. “Access to safe water is critical. Any new wells must be free from future contamination. Solutions for agriculture are more complicated.

“The pollution is causing more and more problems, economically, socially and in people’s physical and mental health.”

Dr Budi forecast that in the long run government subsidies would have to be paid if people were to stay in the area.

These could make up the difference between profit from a rice crop and a cane harvest so farmers would concentrate on producing sugar.

But should the people remain? If the risks to their well being are acute, the impact on health unknown and the chances of making a good living remote, then maybe the long-term solution is to relocate the farmers and abandon the land.


Because the waters are full of minerals could these be extracted and sold? Geoscientist Dr Thom Bogaard from Utrecht University thought gypsum could be recovered, but again the cost might exceed the value of the mineral.

“More research is required,” he said. “This isn’t just important for Kawah Ijen but all volcanoes in Indonesia as people move higher and higher to make a living. About ten per cent have acid lakes.

“The danger is that one solution could create another problem. Any answer has to be sustainable.”

The hot turquoise waters in the caldera don’t deter tourists – with the French particularly enthusiastic. The acid river also flows through the Baluran National Park. What’s the impact on the wildlife? Again the same answer: We don’t know.

Maybe crop growing should be forgotten and visitors farmed. That would mean extensive upgrading of facilities. It takes six hours by bus and foot to reach the crater from Banyuwangi which is enough to deter all but the most determined.

What happens next? That’s up to the national, regional and local governments as they study the findings of the Surabaya seminar. Anticipate more talkfests.

There’s another scenario that’s beyond all the planning and report writing. Kawah Ijen is dormant – not dead. If it explodes again all the puny attempts by humans to control nature will vanish in a hail of volcanic ash and storms of acid water.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 September 2006. )