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, December 20, 2006


THE STORY THAT WON’T GO AWAY © Duncan Graham 2006

The much traveled Bali lawyer Erwin Siregar is about to take his wife and children to Japan for their Christmas holiday.

On his return in January he hopes he’ll be flying again, this time to Australia in the company of drug-runner Schapelle Corby. The 29 year old is currently a guest of the Republic for the next two decades; address Kerobokan Jail, known to Australians as Hotel K.

Siregar already imagines the scene: Walking into the airport lounge, TV crews everywhere jostling for interviews, cheering crowds of diehard supporters. By his side the famous / infamous Gold Coast brunette flashing her baby blues, her d├ęcolletage jail-chic, radiant with her new-found freedom. Then maybe the white knight will get some of the US $120,000 (Rp I billion) he claims he’s owed for defending the former beauty therapist.

It’s an appealing fantasy. Literally, for its fulfillment depends entirely on the success of Siregar’s latest bid to prove that Corby did not wittingly import 4.1 kilos of marihuana through Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport in October 2004.

This extraordinary appeal is being made to the Supreme Court in Jakarta and it’s basically a review of the published evidence and judgment. It will not require the appearance of either Corby or her lawyer, though he or his staff may be in the capital to keep an eye on things.

It’s not the first attempt. One got her term knocked down to 15 years – another had the 20-year sentence reinstated.

Siregar said one of three results could be expected: Corby’s 20-year sentence would stand, or it would be reduced, or she’d be acquitted. Although the prosecution is opposing the appeal, Siregar said a higher sentence could not be imposed.

Like any good defense lawyer he says he’s optimistic. “One day justice will come,” he said in his modest Denpasar office. “Maybe next month.

“Till today I still think she is not guilty. I see it in her body language, in her eyes. I have been a lawyer since 1981. I have handled maybe 200 drug cases in that time. There are so many reasonable doubts in this case.

“I think only crazy people would bring expensive marihuana from Australia to Indonesia where it’s cheap. She’s not a drug user – blood and urine samples prove that. She has no record in Australia.”

Siregar then rapidly ripped apart what he claims are the flaws in the prosecution and court decisions, and the grounds of the challenges.

If you’ve followed this seemingly endless Australian tear-jerker that tends to leave Indonesians cold, you’d know the appeal points are not new: The police didn’t take fingerprints. Her luggage wasn’t weighed on arrival in Bali then compared against the check-in weight in Australia; this might have shown that the drugs could have been added to her boogie bag by back-scenes airport staff.

Then there’s the court’s refusal to use teleconferencing facilities so an alleged witness in Australia - apparently too frightened to fly to Indonesia - can claim the drugs were his.

Siregar is too savvy to hard prose his criticisms of the courts that have so far found his arguments spectacularly unimpressive. Instead he put his hands over his ears, then over his eyes, indicating that maybe the learned judges didn’t quite catch the points being made by the defense.

A day before talking to The Jakarta Post two complimentary copies of Corby’s just released biography My Story, co-authored by Kathryn Bonella were delivered to Siregar, courtesy of the prisoner.

One was for him, the other for his expert witness in the earlier failed High Court appeal, law professor Indriyanto Seno Adji. The inscription ‘Be Positive’ included a hand drawn ‘Smiley’.
Displaying the usual loser’s response, Corby’s book is not kind to her defense team that she sacked after the verdict. There was lawyer Lily Lubis, Vasudevan Rasiah and Siregar. Jakarta lawyer Hotman Paris Hutapea, who usually gets tagged “flamboyant”, resigned according to Siregar.

Rasiah has been the focus of much of Corby’s wrath. Although he is often labeled ‘lawyer’ in the Australian media, Siregar said Rasiah was not a lawyer but a ‘contractor’.

“A week after the verdict Schapelle called me and apologized and said she wanted me to stay on the case,” Siregar said.

“I replied: ‘I will never leave you alone. If you don’t sack me then I’ll stay with you to the end.’”

In her book Corby criticizes Lubis, claiming she was constantly crying and didn’t have the skills to mount a vigorous defence. Siregar agreed his legal colleague had limited experience and had not pushed the point about alleged weight discrepancies.

But he refused to comment on her performance, saying he had seen her cry only once when the first verdict was announced. He said Lubis brought him into the case sixty days after Corby was arrested because of his experience.

Corby’s book is reported to be selling well with 17,000 copies jumping off the shelves in the first week. If normal author’s royalty conditions apply Corby and Bonella should share ten per cent of the retail price, currently around AUD $30 (Rp 200,000).

Publisher Pan Macmillan claims Corby wants to use the proceeds to pay for her defence. Siregar made some quick calculations and reckoned that even if sales stay good she wouldn’t have enough to clear her debts.

However if she loses the extraordinary appeal and retains her convict status neither she nor Siregar will see any royalties. The Australian government will seize it all because that country has laws banning criminals profiting from ill-gotten gains.

In her book Corby claims that AUD $80,000 (Rp 560 million) has been spent on her legal fees. Siregar said he’s received only US $3,000 (Rp 27 million) from Rasiah. If Corby and her supporters can’t find the cash Siregar reckons the Australian government should pay. He’s already sent a bill but this has just been rejected.

“So far I’ve been doing this for humanitarian reasons,” he said. “I’m a Christian, my wife is a Sunday school teacher.

“I come from a poor family in Sumatra. I went to high school in Surabaya but didn’t have enough money to study law.

“So I came to Bali and worked on the beach and as an illegal tour guide to get enough cash to put me through university.

“I see Schapelle maybe every two weeks or so. I think she likes me very much. We talk about religion, life, the law. Are her spirits still high? Yes. Till now.”

And what happens if the extraordinary appeal fails? “We can appeal again if there’s new information from a reliable witness.”

Whatever the verdict one thing is certain: This story still has legs.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2006)




FOR YE HAVE THE POOR ALWAYS © Duncan Graham 2006

Next time your car window is knuckled by a beggar jangling bottle tops, or wagging an amputated stump across the windscreen – ignore.

This advice isn’t being offered by a callous Caucasian, infuriated or embarrassed beyond reason, but by the head of a government department, Dra Wiwik Indrasih.

“The more people pay, the more the beggars are encouraged to stay,” she said. “Please don’t give them money.”

Wiwik runs the Social Department in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city and scavenging ground for around 2,000 beggars. Being a government officer she has the figures down to final digits, but acknowledged the statistics are elastic.

At the time of researching this story intersections in the East Java capital were almost free of beggars following yet another clean up – the latest called Operation Justice. But by the time keyboarding began a few had already shuffled back onto the streets.

“Our public order staff pick them up and take them to our centre where they can be held for three days,” Wiwik said. (See sidebar)

“We check their identities and see what the problems are. About 90 per cent come from towns outside Surabaya, so we give them a ticket to return home. If they’re from Surabaya and fit for work we try to train them so they can get jobs as pedicab drivers or gardeners.

“If they come back to Surabaya three times after being warned away we call the police. They’re arrested and jailed for three months.

“But even this doesn’t always work as prison provides food, a bed and shelter that’s often much better than the life they’re living on the streets.”

Surabaya doesn’t have a workers’ permit system like Jakarta to prevent country folk from trying their luck in the Big Smoke. So anyone can jump a bus and with a two-string guitar strum their way across the province to a supposed Eldorado.

Wiwik’s staff said a beggar who puts in the long hours at a busy location could pocket around Rp 30,000 (US $3) a day. That’s less than doing shifts at a lathe in some sweatshop – but the gap isn’t so wide that it would force someone to get a ‘proper’ job.

The begging environment is probably the most carcinogenic occupation in a city where pollution is a serious health hazard even for those shut in air-conditioned offices. Shame must also be a factor, particularly in Java where self-pride is important, though Wiwik claimed there’s a rotating culture of begging in some families and groups.

“The parents are beggars and teach their children to beg,” she said. “They grow up and their children go on the streets. They don’t want to do anything different. It’s very hard to change their attitude.”

When the crossroads get clogged and there’s a non-stop drum beat of fingers on car windows, the public complains. Newspapers run stories and the politicians demand action.

Then banners are printed and hung across the streets. These announce that begging is illegal and offenders face prison.

Watching the indigent continue to ply their trade under these stern warnings flapping in the breeze is one of Surabaya’s more curious sights. The police on point duty whistle and wave through the traffic stream but ignore the lawbreakers alongside.

“The police don’t think it’s their job to make arrests,” said Wiwik. “There’s no coordination between departments.”

The street kids are sent to hostels run by non-government agencies. An annual subsidy of Rp 500,000 (US $55) per child is paid by the department, plus school fees of Rp 350,000 (US $38).

Next to problems with maids and the shenanigans of sinetron stars, the audacity of beggars is a prominent topic among the chattering classes. A popular theme has beggars living in mansions and being chauffeured to the best pads by agents who cream off the takings.

Do these tales of business beggars have substance? Wiwik said she’d also heard the stories but didn’t know if they were correct. She didn’t have proof. However the looks and grins that circulated among her staff while the question was being put and answered indicated the tales aren’t all urban myths.

“The number of beggars is decreasing,” said Wiwik. “Eight years ago during krismon (the economic crisis) there were more than 5,000.

“As Indonesians we are ashamed to have beggars on the streets. I hope by 2010 there’ll be none left in Surabaya.”

(Sidebar 1)


The Social Department’s processing centre (Pondok Sosial) is way out of town, beyond a minibus terminal, close to a rubbish dump and vacant wasteland. Despite the location it’s not a totally bad environment taking all factors into consideration.

These include the lack of a national universal welfare scheme and the reluctance of politicians to vote enough funds to support the needy. The culture expects families to care for the aged, infirm and unfortunate – not the state.

Then there’s the reality of poverty, unemployment and underemployment in an overcrowded archipelago.

The statistics rise and fall depending on how high the hurdle is set and who is stabbing the calculator - but 20 million seriously poor seems to be the most accepted (and unacceptable) figure.

That’s equal to the population of Australia.

The Surabaya centre was opened eight years ago. It’s clean, has some pleasant gardens and the grounds are spacious. The rooms aren’t – just a few square metres, though people prefer to eat and chat outside. The place can accommodate 250 but when The Jakarta Post visited the number was less than half.

Only adults stay at Pondok Sosial – children are sent to hostels run by non-government organisations. Most are long-term residents, the elderly poor without families and those who are mentally ill and can’t afford hospital.

Even in modern Western countries there’s no satisfactory way to handle these tragic cases. An institution is always an institution – however calm the pastel shades of paint on the high walls and bars.

There are about 90 staff at the centre. Drugs are used to pacify the violent and cheer the depressed. Attempts are made at therapy and the men’s section was exercising during the visit.

The gates to the compound stay open during daylight hours, and guards are only in place at night. Escape would be difficult because the place is so far out of town and any absconder easily spotted.

(Sidebar 2)

In a bid to get a beggar’s side to this story arrangements were made for an apparently crippled man to be interviewed in Malang. He’s a regular feature at a busy intersection and seems to do well – though being unable to reach for handouts has them tossed down from the windows of the big black saloons.

Watching him scrabble for small change spinning towards a drain and among moving traffic is an ugly sight, demeaning for all involved

The middle-aged man’s tactics included shuffling on his bottom between cars and motorbikes. One stiff and ulcerated leg jutting ahead, wrapped in filthy bandages and apparently blood soaked, helps open wallets.

To avoid embarrassment at having a discussion with a well-dressed foreigner in full view of passing cars, a rendezvous was organised round the corner in the shade of a tree.

It was only 20 metres distant – but would it be unfair and unethical to ask him to drag his leg that far?

No worries. He got up and strolled across to the tree. Yes, he’d be happy to be interviewed – but no name and no photos.

He explained that his children were getting support from the Social Department in Surabaya. If government staff saw his picture in the paper working as a beggar, they’d cut off his kids’ benefits.

(Sidebar 3)


There are 15 charities in Surabaya subsidised by the Social Department to assist street kids. Many organisations are religious.

The Institute of Training to Self Help Activity (LBM) cares for 20 street kids. It also runs a credit service for what it calls ‘tramps and loiterers’ with entrepreneurial flair.

“If people can save a sum for at least three months then we’ll lend them double that amount or more for a little business project,” said LBM head Soemijodo Hadidjojo.

“We’ve helped well over a hundred buy their own pedicabs or start food stalls. In that time only three borrowers have defaulted.

“People without ID have most problems with officials. Without the right documents they often can’t get any help. Few have birth certificates. We try to get them proper papers.

“We’re also trying to train the unemployed to be shoemakers. Three shoe factories have closed in Surabaya and there’s a demand for cheap school footwear.”

Surabaya’s poor tend to squat on thin strips of land alongside rivers, drains and the railway. One cramped three-level slum holding more than 150 families is just across the road from the Governor’s vast office complex, though well-hidden from public view.

The credit system works like this: Families are visited and their plans discussed. If these seem practical the applicants are invited to deposit money with the LBM. These sums are usually small – under Rp 50,000 (US $5.50) a month. They’re recorded in little books.

When a record of regular saving has been established the savings are handed back. Money is lent and repaid over ten months to make calculations easy. There’s no interest and there are no administration charges.

“It’s like a bank, but of course it’s not,” said Soemijodo. “The banks won’t open accounts of less than Rp 500,000 (US $55) and have heavy admin charges and high interest rates. The poor just don’t go near the banks.”

Cholisah and Murjito heard about the scheme only by chance and have used it to effect. She now has a small food stall outside a Catholic hospital while he has a compressor across the road and repairs punctures. Together the couple say they can earn about Rp 45,000 (US $5) a day and are repaying their loan at Rp 20,000 (US $2) a month.

The crossroads where they work is also a favored area for supposed young mothers using suckling babes to enhance their compassion routine.

The money allegedly received by the beggars from generous motorists isn’t that much less than the income of the entrepreneurial couple. But Cholisah and Murjito have their dignity.

(Extra sidebar beggar story)


Surabaya motorists are getting a temporary respite from the demands of beggars thanks to the city clean-up campaign. But that’s bad news for Satinah, her pedicab-pushing husband Djuanrydi who gets about Rp 15,000 (US$1.50) a day, and their three little kids.

“I’m just too frightened to go on the streets at the moment,” she said. ”The last time I was stopped by the police. They told that if I begged again they’d call the Social Department and have me taken away.”

So the family is down Rp 10,000 (US $1) a day, which is what Satinah says she got during an afternoon rush-hour shift at nearby crossroads. If she took along her daughter Dini, 2, maybe she’d get Rp 1,000 more.

A few drivers abused her, she said. However most just ignored her pleas for a handout. The generous ones usually gave a Rp 100 (US 1 cent) coin.

The family lives in one tiny room in the sweltering depths of an airless kampong where the gangways are just wide enough for two people to pass – provided neither is plump. Rats have chewed the rafters. The floor is cracked concrete.

If this is an example of a beggar’s mansion as imagined by cynics and skeptics then most of us would prefer the underside of a bridge. At least the family is supporting the president’s demands for citizens to follow thrifty and modest lifestyles

It’s a conscience-kicking experience to recognize beggars whose demands I’ve rejected on their beat - then to discover when I entered their homes asking for help to write this story that they remembered me from past arid encounters

Viewed through a windscreen (avoid all eye-contact), they’re a nuisance. Up close and personal they’re fellow humans with crippling problems defying easy resolution.

Originally from Madura, Satinah, 26, is a lively young woman who only completed primary school. She says she’d like to work as a maid but won’t be separated from her kids. Finding a home where the whole family would be accepted is impossible.

She’s lost her identity card which means she can’t get help from the Social Department. Her friends in the same kampong go begging together when the clean-up campaigns run out of energy. Few have ID cards.

Supriatin, one of the few Christians in the kampong, said she had to beg to support her two children because her husband Rudi had suffered a stroke.

Working the traffic has given these women the confidence to express themselves with force. “Change the president,” they chorused with vigor when asked for a solution – but failed to nominate a successor.

“He put up the price of fuel, now he’s doing the same with rice. We got Rp 100,000 (US $11) a month for three months to compensate for the fuel price rise – now nothing.

“No-one at the top knows what it’s like to be like us. We only want money, food and jobs.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 December 2006)




To pad out programs telecasters everywhere screen station promotions.

Favored are clips of jolly industrious people in clean and colorful costumes smiling as the camera pans landscapes of loveliness. Flags flutter with pride. Clean-limbed youngsters look upwards and ahead through clear skies; satisfied oldies smile in contentment. Stirring music leads to a climax of achievement.

The idea is to create an image of one big happy family with the TV station an integral part. It’s all part of the quest for national identity.

Angst-driven Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho likes to try his hand at catching that slippery concept, but takes a different approach.

The same sort of people fill his frame, but their ragged clothes are as faded as their hopes, their blemished faces seldom joyful. Instead they’re angry, sad, resigned, gutted by grief or exhausted with frustration. Some have passed through the pain to find a level of resignation. There’s a leavening of humor.

“What’s it like to be Indonesian?” he asked. “Trying to express identity in a country of so many islands, regions, languages and ethnic groups is difficult.

“Film can let us discover what it’s really like. Listening to sobbing is being Indonesian. The human face is the face of our archipelago. See the face and you understand the family.

“All the clich├ęs of pluralism and multiculturalism can be made honest through film.”

Though only if you point the lens into places where most dare not go. Nugroho has done this by, among other things, traveling to Papua and documenting the independence movement.

He got away with it by exploiting the window of tolerance briefly opened by fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid – and by being himself.

For the cherubic Nugroho comes across as a naive philosopher rather than mad plotter determined to dismantle the Unitary State. He’s just one friendly little man, not the rabid leader of a mob – seemingly more dreamer than devious.

He must have driven the security apparatus in Papua mad; here was this gentle Javanese importing 400 Morning Star flags and encouraging people to sing the prohibited anthem for his camera, yet claiming all the while to be a nationalist who didn’t want to cause trouble.

(This was to make Bird Man Tale, dedicated to murdered Papuan leader Theys Eluay.)

“I don’t want separatism,” Nugroho said. “I feel rich if we have Papuan culture. If we lose that, we lose a beautiful thing. This is neither about the economy nor about losing access to natural resources. It’s about losing someone from the family.”

All very reasonable, but unlikely to soften the hearts of the hard men wearing wrap-around sunglasses and bulky objects in their waistbands.

These guys and their bosses tend to take the George Bush line – you’re either with us or against us. Nugroho’s middle way confuses. So does his language. He thinks a chat, a laugh and a smile are the ways to solve problems when the policy seems to be that only force speaks sense.

“I’m not harming anyone,” he said. “So why should anybody want to harm me? I respect anyone who doesn’t use violence.”

Nugroho comes from a cultured Yogya family. His siblings are artists or academics. His father published books and Mum ran the post office. In 1965 when the military came and demanded lists of communists in the area Dad refused to oblige.

That made him a fellow traveler in the black or white reasoning of the guys with guns, but another factor confused this simplicity; Dad was also a national hero having fought the Dutch for Independence.

For two months he was under house arrest. The tension eventually passed and the family survived the bloodletting that followed the rise of Suharto. This ghastly period was recalled in Nugroho’s film A Poet – Unconcealed Poetry.

Young Nugroho went to an Islamic primary school and a Catholic high school – though he remains a Muslim. When he wasn’t in class he was in the front stalls saturating himself in the possibilities of cinema.

He went to university and studied filmmaking for four years - and law for a similar period. He graced the courtroom for only a twelvemonth before abandoning the security of profiting from people’s misfortunes to showing them on the screen.

Though not to his own profit. One of his first films was about street kids. Making gritty documentaries is no sure road to a fortune in Indonesia. Nugroho has nine films to his credit – he says only two have made money. His topics have been the poor, the marginalized and the brutalized – unpopular issues in his homeland where audiences overloaded with their own problems prefer escapism.

When he’s far away Nugroho, 45, gets the accolades for leading Indonesia’s new wave cinema. A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.

He’s won numerous prizes in Europe, Singapore and Japan – and enough cash from overseas to open an independent studio in Jakarta where he employs 20 people.

In Perth, Western Australia to show his work at an international conference on media policies and culture in the Asia-Pacific region, Nugroho spoke to The Jakarta Post.

“I always chose difficult issues,” he said. “I’m not opposed to films with happy endings. There are plenty of these, but we also need films to discuss social problems.

“Tragedy also raises questions of what it’s like to be human. If it bleeds it’s alive! That’s why I choose open endings for my films.

“I love oral traditions and poetic language. Song is an important part of narrative. Song is prayer.

“Indonesian television is about the rich and glamorous, the vulgar gossips. It’s the language of violence. Consumerism is commercialism without ethics.

“When I was making films during the Suharto period I was up against the military. Now the opposition is materialism and centralism. This is a pluralist society, a multicultural country – how can we understand this nation from Jakarta?

“I don’t belong to anyone. I’m free. My responsibility is to give people room for non-violent freedom of expression. Many politicians don’t want to hear the anger, the crying of the people.

“The problem now is not the military but market forces and censorship by society. Hindus and Muslims have opposed my films. The ultimate censor is loss of sponsorship.

“I’m not against globalisation unless it’s delivered on other people’s terms. It’s good when different communities can get the best out of each other for each other.

“My films tend to be shown only in universities and abroad. The early 70s were the golden years for Indonesian cinema before it was killed by censorship and pop culture.

“There are now around 40 films a year made in Indonesia. Most concern horror or teenage love. Very few are good.

“I’m pessimistic about the future of film. The archipelago is rich in stories, but there’s no money to get them made. Cinema is only surviving in the shopping malls for the middle classes.

“It’s not that film is important by itself. The importance is because it’s the medium of dialogue, the way we can understand each other.

“Indonesia doesn’t have a regional cultural strategy – this shows we don’t respect multiculturalism. Yet this is the only way that we can define ourselves.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 December 2006)



Monday, December 18, 2006


Duncan Graham © 2006

It’s every hard-pressed manager’s nightmare: A gripping, vice-like chest pain. Maybe just indigestion after a rich meal. Maybe not.

Heart attacks are an occupational hazard for people in business and other high stress jobs. Victims are usually middle-age workaholics who smoke, eat the wrong food and don’t exercise. Most are men

They rush to a doctor and the prognosis is bad. Surgery is required. But where to go? Who wields the steadiest scalpel?

When former president Megawati Soekarnoputri had medical check-ups in Singapore she sent a clear message to all Indonesians about the quality of the nation’s health system.

Her husband Taufik Kiemas endorsed his wife’s views by choosing the nearby Western Australian capital Perth for his heart surgery.

It seems that if you’re an Indonesian with a serious health problem and plenty of money you head straight for the nearest airport rather than the closest hospital.

Back in the 90s before the economic crisis, many sick Indonesians chose Australia for treatment. Agents helped patients find the right doctors and hospitals, sort out visas and accommodation for the family, and somewhere to convalesce.

When the rupiah exchange rate multiplied exponentially those agents found business too tough and quit the market. Now the currency seems to have stabilized, and a new Australian company has entered the field.

Validus International is a health services management business linking the sick to the services they need. The company is contracted to Perth’s Mount Hospital to provide an international patient liaison officer and is affiliated to other hospitals and services, including a fertility clinic.

Validus is seeking patients from Mauritius, Malaysia, China and Indonesia – but according to managing director Mark Riseley the Indonesian market is the company’s priority.

It has opened an office in Jakarta managed by a doctor and will be running seminars for surgeons and general practitioners in the capital and other big cities in the coming months.

“The cost of surgery and other medical treatments in Perth is about the same as Singapore,” said Riseley in his Perth office. “The airfare is a little more expensive but that’s a small amount in the overall cost.

“Australia is ranked second by the World Health Organization for healthy life expectancy which reflects the quality of healthcare available. (Japan is number one.) The facilities in Perth are world class.”

Perth is close - just over three hours flight from Denpasar. The lifestyle is relaxed, the climate benign and the claims by Validus about fees and services may well be correct. But Indonesians (and many expats) prefer instead to head for Singapore where medical care is well promoted.

The tiny city state is closer to Jakarta and has some other significant advantages. It has a no-fuss, no-fee entry system. Most foreigners can just fly or ferry into the island and get stamped in on arrival for a short-term visit.

To visit Australia requires a visa in advance and forms with more than 40 questions. Malaysians and Singaporeans can apply for Australian visas through the Internet, but not Indonesians.

Medical visas are free. Tourist visas cost AUD $70 (Rp 500,000) which is non refundable if a mistake is made on the seven page application form. Although Embassy officials claim around 97 per cent of visa applicants are successful, the perception is that entry into Australia is difficult, and therefore unwelcoming.

Riseley said an Australian health visa can be arranged within three to five days – or 24 hours in an emergency. But however efficient the bureaucracy it can’t compete with Singapore’s simplicity.

“I’ve been talking to the Immigration Department and the current system of sending medical data for visa assessment by locked bag twice a week to Australia will soon be replaced by direct digital transmission,” said Riseley. “That should speed procedures.” A new visa application center has also been opened in Jakarta.

Riseley trained as a physiotherapist in Australia and Canada, then worked in the Middle East where he saw the need for international health care and patient management services.

The chair of Validus is health administrator Glyn Palmer, president of the West Australian Health Care Association. He was previously CEO of St John of God Health Care in Perth.

“In the past there were good contacts between the Catholic hospitals in Indonesia and Australia,” he said. “Australia is the equal of any country in the world in providing the best medical care.

“We also have a large knowledge base in medical care and this has to be shared.”

Palmer said he would organize seminars in Indonesia where doctors could get free information from visiting Australian surgeons and physicians on the latest procedures and medications.

He would also be talking to Indonesian doctors’ associations and working to build relationships with hospitals. He agreed that the pivotal point in getting business was the patient’s doctor who would usually offer advice on the best place for treatment. For Validus to succeed it’s critical that medicos are aware of facilities in Australia.

Doctors who refer patients to hospitals overseas can collect commissions of between four and ten per cent of the hospital bill.

The other gateway is medical insurers who have links with hospitals and laboratories where they direct their members.

Riseley said Singapore currently takes 370,000 overseas medical patients a year – Malaysia 270,000. Validus has set itself modest numbers for starters – just 450 by the end of next year.

“We understand that building relationships in Indonesia is extremely important,” said Palmer. “We must respect cultural differences.

“We’ll be going to Indonesia regularly, communicating and listening. We’re selling a good Australian product and we’d like more Australian government help.

“The visa process is frustrating – it takes too long. Singapore does a wonderful job, and we have a lot to catch up on.

“Australia is a favored education center for about 20,000 Indonesians a year so we can build on those contacts and family ties. Word of mouth is also important. The response so far has been enthusiastic.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 December 2006)



Saturday, December 09, 2006



French Muslim scholar Soheib Bencheikh, 45, has been touring Java giving speeches and meeting key people, including the Indonesian Ulemas’ Council (MUI). He was born in Saudi Arabia, lived in Algeria, studied in Egypt and now heads an Islamic teaching institute in Paris.

Bencheikh, the former Grand Mufti of Marseilles, became famous for supporting the ban on Islamic headscarves in France. Before giving a speech in Arabic to staff and students at Surabaya’s State Islamic University he spoke to Duncan Graham:

Isn’t Islam and democracy a contradiction? Doesn’t Islam say only God can be supreme, not the people?

Have you ever heard God speaking to you? He speaks through the people. He’s left a message to us that must be interpreted by us, the people. Men and women have their own understanding of that message.

Those who say Islam and democracy can’t co-exist don’t understand either term. There’s a great lack of knowledge.

To be a thinking person is to always be searching and constantly having doubts. How can an intelligent human have total belief in any faith?

They can’t. The 100 per cent believer doesn’t exist. Nor is there a 100 per cent atheist. Between the extremes of total belief and non-belief there are many positions – and these are constantly changing. Today you may have only a few doubts – tomorrow, many.

The real test for all theologians is to constantly interrogate the self.

Last year the MUI issued an edict against pluralism, liberalism and secularism. What’s your respnse?

They’re going backwards if they think they’re still living in a time when nations were separate and didn’t interact.

The idea that the state should be more Islamic is coming from history, not the holy texts.

A secular state protects minorities. If France didn’t have liacite (the law prohibiting the state recognising religion and now a core value in French culture) then Muslims would be at risk from the Catholic majority. This protects everyone – but many Moslems don’t understand the history of liacite.

A secular state also protects by keeping politics out of religion. Politicians try to use religion to further their personal interests. Without religion, political debate can be rational and free of dogma

Religion without politics attracts only those genuinely interested in faith – it liberates religion from the opportunists.

In Indonesia the majority follow Islam, and the state demands all belong to one of the government-approved religions.

We should not use force, but respect. There should be no pressure on the conscience - people should be free to choose or not choose.

All the more reason for a secular government to protect the minorities. Even here in Indonesia you have to be prepared to recognise that Islam is a minority religion in the world.

The reality is a future where there will be no single majority religion.

How do you respond to those who say the Koran is the word of God and cannot be questioned or tampered with in any way?

The book itself isn’t sacred – it’s the objective ideas within the text. When we talk about the book we have to think about the language that was used, the context, and the culture at the time – even the weather!

In Indonesia we’ve had a preacher jailed for leading prayers in Indonesian.

At the time of the Prophet there was no unified Arab language. The language used in the Koran was that of the Prophet’s tribe. From the very first Muslims were authorised to use their own languages.

Some say that although Muslims in Indonesia are in the majority they suffer from an inferiority complex.

Arab civilisation was once the highest in the world. It helped lead to the Renaissance in Europe. Now everything has moved to the West. Arab civilisation is finished! We need to be part of what’s happening in the West – either that or live in the nostalgia of the past.

It’s always easier to blame others for our problems rather than look into ourselves to see what’s wrong. We have to recognise that we don’t have a monopoly on ethics and morality.

If the light goes out in your room is it best to sit in the darkness, or ask your neighbors if you can share in their illumination, or fix the problem?

Export your Indonesian form of Islam to the world. Don’t try and import from the Arabs.

You have a moderate form of Islam here synthesised with other beliefs. We should not be afraid to express our ideologies, ask questions of ourselves and through such questioning, develop our thinking.

Modern Islam is sweeping away all traditions – that’s too easy and not convincing. The challenge is to go back to the Koranic text and apply new readings that are applicable today.

Islamic culture is brilliant! If you love others you want to share your culture with them – and we want to share.

Muslims were wrong to protest against Danes when cartoonists lampooned the Prophet.

This is what freedom of expression means. Even if people are mocking, at least they’re showing an interest in Islam and starting to recognise it as part of society.

Could you talk like this is Saudi Arabia?

Yes, because I’m not attacking Islam.

But you’re attacking some people’s ideas of Islam.

The people most disturbed by the idea of a secular state are politicians who try to maintain power by using Islam. These legislators are hypocrites. This power is temporal.

Islam is not the property of individuals – it’s a message to the world.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 December 06)

Friday, December 01, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Apples from Batu in central East Java were once nationally famous, a prize product of Indonesian agriculture. Now this emblematic industry is dying. Duncan Graham reports:

It used to be the standard weekend family excursion for the frazzled folk of Surabaya: Drive to Batu, about two hours south, overnight in one of the many hilltop hotels and come home with a weighty wicker basket of cheap hand-picked apples.

It’s not just the Lapindo mud volcano blocking the toll road that’s crimped this pleasant pastime. Batu apples are now more expensive than imports. They’re not well presented and don’t taste so good as the foreign varieties.

Easier to wheel a trolley into the local supermarket and buy big Fujis from China, every one flawless in their dinky plastic waistcoats. Or glistening rose-red Washingtons from the US, looking more plastic than real. Or crispy Gala from New Zealand.

The pretty rolling town of Batu, about 20 kilometres outside Malang, is still a popular getaway and literally blooming. It welcomes visitors to its flower-filled streets with some grotesque statuary.

Most feature the local produce, including an Atlas-like man attempting to heave a huge concrete apple. The monument is chipped and worn and the figure looks bowed down.

Which makes a useful metaphor for an industry that isn’t quite on its knees, but is heading there according to a new report.

Australian student David Cook, 42, spent a year at Muhammadiyah University in Malang conducting a field study into the Batu apple industry. He concluded that production is declining and farmers are turning to more profitable crops.

“I think there’s little likelihood of government-initiated change,” he said. “Apples will remain iconic in Batu because most backyards have trees. Many are old, diseased, not particularly productive, but nevertheless a constant reminder of days gone by.”

His report, which has been published by the Australian Consortium for In Country Indonesian Studies, claims cheap imports, particularly from China, failure to plant new varieties and poor management techniques are to blame.

A separate report on East Java fruits commissioned by the Western Australian government’s trade office and written by Indonesian researcher Budi Daroe ignored apples. The unhappy state of the industry and the quality of the produce ruled apples out of any potential export business.

Cook’s findings have been confirmed by Abdul Kadir, the former head of the Agriculture Department in Batu, and Sumeru Ashari, head of horticulture in Brawijaya University’s Agriculture faculty.

However Professor Sumeru said there were signs that the industry could recover as Dutch experts offering new varieties had promised help.

It was the Dutch who first planted apples in Batu about 80 years ago. Growing apples in the tropics has never been easy. They favor mild climates and do well in temperate parts of the globe.

The sub-tropical areas around Batu are 1,000 metres above sea level and cool. It’s a frost-free zone and two crops can be harvested year round if the trees are defoliated by hand to stimulate fruiting.

There’s plenty of sunshine, and ample rain in the October to March wet season. The soil is fertile and well drained, particularly on the hillside terraces.

However it’s this style of farming that’s now a problem. The narrow rows and steep slopes make the use of heavy machinery like tractors dangerous. Heaving 20-kilogram baskets of fruit up and down steep banks is not a welcome job for school leavers who’d rather work as motorbike couriers.

Elsewhere in the world apple trees are now planted on flat land where picking, pruning and spraying can be mechanised, and the backbreaking tasks eliminated.

In the past this didn’t matter because Indonesian labour was cheap and plentiful. But that’s also the situation in China which has now become a major exporter, savagely undercutting the price of the local product.

There have been massive new plantings of modern varieties in the People’s Republic during the past two decades – and most have been on level land.

More than 500,000 hectares have been dedicated to apples in Batu, with smaller plantings at Poncokusmo and Nonkojajar east of Malang. Manalagi is the main variety. (See sidebar) Some published figures claim two million trees – others up to eight million. Commented David Cook:

“There’s a great variation on tree numbers because the official number depends on whether you include all apple trees or just the productive ones.

“Batu has a severely ageing apple tree population. Small farmers have large abandoned orchards that they can’t afford to rip up, replant, fertilise or change in any way.

“Instead farmers leave the older trees to fend for themselves, though they still send laborers to check for fruit. Most likely is that the true figure of trees that are too old is much higher than any of the statistics reveal.”

Not surprisingly much of the produce is poor quality. Apples that can’t be retailed go to a juicing factory at Kusuma Agrowisata, a large hotel and agro-tourism enterprise in Batu. This has only 14 hectares of apple trees, so buys in at least half a tonne of fruit from local farmers every day.

On receipt the misshapen apples have to be checked by hand, with blemishes, bruises and rot cut out before washing.

An estimated 80 per cent of the Batu crop is juiced or processed to make dried apple chips and other products, including alcoholic cider – which sells at more than double the price of beer. All are marketed within Indonesia.

As the apple industry goes sour farmers are turning to flowers, vegetable and garden plants for their income – and doing well. It takes five years for an apple tree to become productive, but cut flowers for the export market can provide a return in months.

Popular is Sandersonia, also known as Christmas Bells or Chinese Lanterns, a native of South Africa. Up market housing developments and the new international airport terminal at Surabaya have bought tens of thousands of ornamentals from Batu.

“Foreign investment in cut flower production – mainly from Japan, with some interest from Singapore and China - has been successful for a number of reasons,” said Cook.

“It gave farmers the capital to bulldoze their apple trees and use the land for greenhouses – something few were prepared to do or fund on their own. Local and foreign investment is not going into apples.

“There’s a lot more direct selling with garden plants and cut flowers, with no middlemen. The work is also easier than harvesting apples.”



If Eve had plucked a Manalagi apple at the behest of the serpent, the whole history of the world might have been different. Adam – who always looks like a Caucasian in the Biblical pictures - would have knocked back the fruit as too tough for his taste.

Consequently the Tree of Knowledge would have remained out of reach and Isaac Newton wouldn’t have discovered gravity by sitting under an apple tree in 1665 pondering the physics of windfalls.

The Manalagi (‘give me more’) apple developed from the Golden Delicious imported by the Dutch, and famous for its long shelf life. It’s a small white-green apple, slightly sweet and usually too hard for Western palates.

And indigestible for many Indonesians too if supermarket sales are any guide. Put a tray of Manalagi against the imports and the local produce will still be there when the other bins are empty.

Fresh produce prices rock and roll through the year according to supplies and seasons. Earlier this year David Cook’s research found the price of Batu apples, both Manalagi and the thick-skinned Rome Beauty above Rp 15,000 (US $1.60) a kilo compared to Fuji from China at below Rp 10,000 (US $1).

Apples are among the earliest known edible fruits with references dating back more than 5,000 years. The tree is a native of Kazakhstan in central Asia. There are now more than 700 cultivars world-wide.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 December 06)