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

Thursday, November 30, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

A major private bank in Indonesia has just abandoned one of its public relations activities.

Since 2002 the bank has been sending welcome letters and useful information to selected top-end customers. This is considered good management practice overseas, a proven way to generate client loyalty.

But not in Indonesia. Here the bank’s clients want their financial dealings kept secret – even from spouses and families. Mail from a bank can reveal the existence of Dad’s private accounts. Customers complained – so the bank is dumping its program.

Management books are big sellers in Indonesia. Most are US texts, but the philosophies and techniques they offer don’t always translate well. That’s because they ignore the culture factor. Here are some examples:

Mark McCormack’s Never Wrestle With a Pig (Penguin), a top seller by the man who wrote What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, is brimful with smart business suggestions.

His tips include resisting the urge to dominate at meetings, ending the day on time and encouraging staff to be creative.

Fine in the US and Europe – but ridiculous in Indonesia. In Javanese culture a boss who doesn’t control everything is considered weak.

The widely accepted overseas ritual of asking down-the-line workers to contribute ideas can be counterproductive in Indonesia. Lower level staff reason:

‘If the big man is asking us, it means he doesn’t know. If he doesn’t know he’s not fit to run this show and doesn’t deserve our respect.’

There’s a standard joke among business expats in Jakarta. It runs like this:

How do you pick the staffer with most initiative? Call a meeting and seek advice. It’s the one who’s last to reply: ‘Up to you, Boss’.

And why end the day on time? Although labour laws require overtime to be paid this rule is widely flouted. Staying late at the office, even if it’s just to discuss golf handicaps, indicates importance. In Indonesia underlings don’t have the right to after-hours private lives – they can leave only after the boss shouts for his driver.

It’s not in the employment contract. It is in the culture.

Foreign management texts are also based on the belief that most workers are ambitious. Not in Indonesia.

The Batak manager of a five-star hotel in Surabaya once told me how frustrated he’d become because his Javanese staff didn’t seek promotion. Head office had reshaped all sections and created new positions.

The manager explained this carefully to the workers and insisted none would be sacked. Instead they’d be able to get promotion and higher salaries if they could demonstrate aptitude.

A few weeks later he’d received no applications so made inquiries. Although the pay boost was attractive, employees said they were happy with the old system. They didn’t want to become supervisors because this might distance them from their colleagues who were also their friends.

Built to Last by James Collins and Jerry Porras (Harper) is a guide to the ‘successful habits of visionary companies’. Collins is the author of Good to Great (Harper) and claims to have sold one million copies. This tries to show why some enterprises succeed and others fail.

Both books are valuable for any executive provided they work elsewhere. Don’t expect them to offer templates for success in the archipelago.

For starters much emphasis is placed on publicly listed US companies, while in Indonesia the pattern is for firms to be held by families. So Collins’ ideas on testing leadership skills and the right way to pick a successor don’t apply when the son is going to become CEO whether he likes it or not.

Likewise management gurus’ advice to trust staff and give them space to be creative runs counter to Indonesian business culture.

Count the number of shops you know where the staff are allowed to open the till. If they can they’re probably part of the family.

Watching adult employees sell a product and then hand the money to a child who uses the cash register sends a clear message to the workers: We don’t trust you!

For advisers like Jim Collins this would be a recipe for business failure. In Indonesia maintaining suspicion seems to be the key to success.

The other theme running through all foreign texts is the need to select quality staff – and keep them. That’s certainly good advice in economies where skilled workers are highly mobile, and where labor laws on discrimination, gender equality, workplace harassment, dismissal procedures and compensation are enforced.

Similar rules exist in Indonesia. But it would be a brave worker who tried to insist contract conditions apply unless they belong to a powerful and incorruptible union that employs tough street-smart lawyers.

Management advisors recommend executives maintain good morale and boost productivity by complimenting staff on their work. The fact that this rarely happens in Indonesia means workers are one up on their overseas counterparts.

They have no false ideas of their value. They know there’s an estimated 20 million unemployed and a similar number underemployed across the archipelago.

If those with jobs want to exercise their rights and be treated as equals then they risk being shown the door. Outside is a queue of desperate hopefuls who’ll be happy with less money and will promise to never complain.

Indonesia is a bosses’ market – and they don’t need American textbooks to tell them how to make money.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 November 06)



THE FOUL REFUSE OF TEMAS © Duncan Graham 2006

The Lapindo hot mud eruption at Sidoarjo in East Java is in its fourth month. The disaster has swamped more than 300 hectares of paddy, 20 factories and several villages. More than 10,000 are homeless. With no end in sight the effluent is now being piped into the nearby Porong River.

Using rivers as drains has long been an easy way to dispose of waste – and you don’t need a test tube and litmus papers to know that many Indonesian waterways are heavily polluted. Just an average nose and reasonable eyesight are enough. Some communities aren’t waiting for government action – they’re cleaning up the creeks themselves. Duncan Graham reports from central East Java:

Temas is a small village near the tourist town of Batu, in the hills north west of Malang. Most visitors know the fancy hotels, knockout views and cheery flower gardens flanking the roads, a kaleidoscope of colour.

But behind the prettiness is something ugly. In a back street are the chicken slaughterhouses, with almost 50 households involved in the trade.

Every night when most folk are asleep live fowls are trucked from distant farms, slaughtered and dressed. Unlike Western processors who present a headless, clawless empty carcase to the shopper, the butchers of Temas are more efficient.

The feet, heads, hearts, some blood and the best feathers are all preserved for sale. Every day before dawn three tonnes of chicken meat leave the village for markets in Surabaya, Malang and other centres.

But not the offal and unsaleable feathers. They get dumped in a nearby creek that eventually flows into the Brantas. (See Sidebar)

Apart from the washdown from the fowl abattoirs – with some also used to process fish - there’s a steady stream of white liquid pouring from two tofu (soft soy-bean cake) factories into the same small stream. Then there’s raw sewage.

Every 100 metres or so are tiny unroofed huts with one metre high walls. In these loos with views the village residents relieve themselves straight into the slowly flowing water. Domestic waste and run-off from the roads also spills into the system.

What was a riverlet is now a sewer. It meanders past an irrigated vegetable patch then cascades down a slope to another village. Despite the pollutants men wade waist deep to filter red worms from the mud. These are used as fish feed.

All users of this resource, including a forge hammering out knives and sickles, are within a few hundred metres of each other.

Not surprisingly skin infections and respiratory problems have been reported among farmers working downstream. These have prompted demands for proper water management.

The obvious answer is to ban discharges and force the factories to install their own waste systems and the householders to build septic tanks. But that’s not practical in Indonesia. Factories and families would claim a lack of money, and the government doesn’t seem to have the power or will to enforce regulations.

With no quick-fix solution which wouldn’t cause severe economic hardship to the village, the issue had to be handled with care.

Plant pathologist Arief Lukman Hakim, a Sustainable Agriculture Extension Specialist working for the Environmental Services Program (ESP) in East Java got involved. The ESP is a US-Aid funded program operating in five provinces.

“At first I didn’t know what to do about the problem,” Arief said. “It was very complex. There were so many pollutants. At night the river is running red with blood. I didn’t know where to look for answers.”

Eventually he discovered wastewater treatments using ‘eco-technology’ that had become popular in some villas and hotels in Bali. These were being promoted by a foundation called Indonesian Development of Education and Permaculture (IDEP).

Labelled Wastewater Gardens these used a process developed 20 years ago in the US through the self-contained Biosphere project. This was an experiment to see if people and plants could live in a closed ecological system.

A year ago this month (Sept) about 30 people from 13 villages gathered to discuss the Temas pollution problem with the ESP. The wetland filtration system was proposed. The local administration put in Rp 100 million (US $11,000), and the community donated the land and the labour. The earthworks are now in place and being primed.

The system can’t cope with all the muck and mess – there’s just too much. But when fully operational this coming wet season it should be able to supply clean – but not potable – water for the villagers at the bottom of the hill.

It works like this: The polluted water is channelled into a concrete settling tank where the heavy muck remains. It’s then piped to three lines of contour banks built down the hillside.

Each bank (called a ‘cell’) has been excavated to make a long impervious trench filled with gravel. The water seeps through limestone to help neutralise acids, then into the banks. These will be planted with bushes and trees to suck up and use the nutrients.

The technologists claim that the final product will have significantly less nitrogen, phosphorous and bacteria. It doesn’t use pumps or chemicals and needs little maintenance. There’s no surface water so no smell or mosquitoes.

“I believe it will produce water clean enough for bathing and washing clothes, “ said Arief. “It can probably only cope with 10 per cent of the discharge – but that’s a start. We want this to be an education and demonstration project so other villages can see what to do.”

Will the Brantas ever get as clean as London’s Thames that was once the capital’s sewer but now attracts whales?

“It’s going to take a long time,” said Arief. “Indonesia is now a democratic country and the people are using their new powers. How they determine the future will depend on many factors.

“Land care groups are already in place, cleaning up the environment, planting trees and conserving the watershed. Small-scale waste composting projects have started. There’s an awareness of the problems.

“We can marry the bottom-up approach taken by communities with the top-down administration favored by local government. In most cases we try to use local networks

“The role of the ESP is not to lead but to train trainers and bring in technical advice. How people see their future is for them to decide.”



The Brantas River is East Java’s spittoon, sewer, drain and rubbish tip.

And its water supply.

By the time this 328 kilometre long artery reaches the coastal plain around Surabaya it’s saturated with toxins. The dissolved oxygen in the water during the dry season is often too low to support aerobic life.

And in the wet season it frequently floods, destroying life.

This great – and presumably once majestic - waterway rises on the slopes of the 3339 metre Ardjuna volcano south of Surabaya. From here it goes south, then west, curling round a volcanic range before heading north.

It was once the source of wealth for the mighty Majapahit kingdom of 700 years ago.

It’s so important that it’s been classified as a national strategic river with its own watershed authority. This is supposed to regulate and conserve this most precious and essential element.

Over the years the Brantas has been studied, analysed, discussed and debated by local and international authorities. But by the time it gets near the sea it still looks like an oily scum carrying a fleet of bobbing black plastic bags.

The river drains and feeds about 12,000 square kilometres, a quarter of the province. Its waters are used to grow crops, supply industries and meet the toilet needs of up to twenty million people. Five hydroelectric stations along the river’s course generate power.

So why isn’t the Brantas in pristine condition, sparkling bright, splashing with fish, the pride of the province? Why has it been so abused?

It’s easy to accuse the people. In the past, before urbanisation, the population boom, chemicals, detergents, plastics and noxious industries, the rivers could be used as drains with little harm.

Not now. If the population hasn’t been supplied with proper public health facilities, education on the environment and alerts to the dangers of pollution should the poor really take all the blame?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 November 2006)


Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Writing for the English language media in Indonesia

Duncan Graham

The vehicle I use in Indonesia is a tiny bright green city car, frugal on fuel and nippy for squeezing through narrow alleys and dodging motorbikes. I think the jellybean is ideal for the job – but it has some serious drawbacks. It can be easily squashed – literally and metaphorically.

Foreigners in status-conscious Java are supposed to use a Mercedes, BMW or Peugeot – the blacker the better - and they should definitely have a driver. Otherwise they have no credibility and another purpose – probably to spy or Christianise poor Muslims. Xenophobia is alive and well in Indonesia.

So is distrust. An unaccompanied Westerner claiming to be writing for the respected The Jakarta Post and driving a joke car is certainly suspect, particularly with government officials and Chinese business tycoons. Being asked: ‘Where’s your secretary and driver?’ isn’t the best way to start any interview.

I live in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city and the capital of East Java. It’s a sprawling, chaotic and polluted port and a major industrial zone. Imagine stomping a cockroach on a tile floor. That seems to have been the template for planning.

The Jawa Pos newspaper group dominates the city. This includes a TV station JTV and Memorandum, a yellow-presser thriving on a formula of lukewarm sex, gory crime and mysticism, and Nyata which is Indonesia’s Woman’s Day.

The Jawa Pos is much like any middle market Australian paper with sections on celebrities, fashion, sport and advice on relationships and health – allowing for some eroticism under the guise of education. The writing is often turgid and by Australian standards padded with irrelevancies – but it mixes Javanese and slang in its stories making it part of the community. Its claimed daily circulation is around 300,000 in a province of 36 million people. That’s close to The West Australian’s Saturday sales in a state of just two million.

The superbly-designed national daily Kompas, which allegedly sells little more than half a million across the nation, is disliked by many in East Java because it uses high level Indonesian and is considered too serious.

The Jawa Pos has been extraordinarily successful since the fall of Suharto and the scrapping of controls restricting reporting, advertising and printing. Local inserts have made the paper widely acceptable. When East Java newsmakers think of print journalism their model is the Jawa Pos.

Before former president Gus Dur closed the Department of Information there were 292 print publications. That number rapidly jumped to more than 2,000 before a shakeout. Around 830 have survived.

According to Leo Batubara, a member of the Indonesian Press Council, about 7 million papers are sold nationally every day. He also claimed that most papers reported the same news and that there was little to choose between them

This boom has caught the industry short of quality journalists. The typical local reporter is young, enthusiastic, scruffy, ill-informed, badly educated and poorly trained. Men dominate. They often hunt in packs and feed off each other so copy is frequently generic. The industry has attracted the idealistic who publish their own little mags - and fringe dwellers with dubious credentials. These people hope to pick up the envelopes that some newsmakers distribute to encourage positive coverage.

Young local journalists would be lucky to take home more than Rp 2 million (AUD 300) a month. Kompas and The Jakarta Post pay higher but about one fifth of the Australian rate.

To their credit sections of the industry are trying to purge envelope journalism and lift education levels. The Jakarta Post, which is linked to Kompas and the Gramedia publishing group through shareholdings, bans journalists from accepting handouts and demands ethical standards from its reporters.

The paper also organises regular training programs for its staff. I’ve been privileged to have assisted at three of these sessions conducted at a hillside villa owned by Tempo magazine, which also holds shares in The Jakarta Post.

I’ve worked with senior editors from The Jakarta Post and the RMIT on an AusAID training program to lift standards among reporters organised through the State-run Antara news agency. Courses have been held in Kupang, Mataram, Surabaya and Makassar.

The Jakarta Post is run by PT Bina Media Tenggara, a private company owned by four competing publications. The other two are Suara Karya and Sinar Harapan. An employees’ collective holds twenty per cent of the shares.

Tempo produces an English language cut-down version of its famous weekly with less than half the pages of the original. After a fall in quality earlier this year, the magazine has now picked up.

The other English language productions are the glossy lifestyle mags like Jakarta Kini that celebrate hedonism and are pitched at expats on obscenely high salaries with nothing better to do than vote on best bars and whine about the traffic. Most are edited by native speakers listed as ‘technical advisors’ to comply with government regulations on foreign workers. They’re supposed to be passing their skills onto local replacements but the process seems to be taking a long time.

The international titles like Cosmo and Forbes, and which are published under licence, are in Indonesian – often with English headlines, making a bizarre mix.

Overall the language in The Jakarta Post is high standard and occasionally lively. Factual and grammatical errors are rare. The writing tends to be straight, bordering on the safe and boring – particularly in the Op-Ed pages where space if often taken by pontificating minor academics. Of almost 100 editorial staff only 11 are expats and include Australians, British, Americans and Japanese.

The staff write in English. However copy from regional stringers comes in Indonesian and has to be translated. This adds enormously to the job of producing accurate reports from correspondents of diverse skills and backgrounds and with little understanding of the readership.

Editor Endy Bayuni formerly worked for Reuters; his secondary and tertiary education was in England and he’s studied in the US on a fellowship. He’s aware most readers have accessed the Internet or watched satellite TV newscasts long before the paper is delivered, and are across the hard news stories. Consequently he wants The Jakarta Post to be a writer’s paper, a ‘viewspaper’ like the International Herald Tribune.

A worthy ambition that’s going to require a change in mindset by many staffers. Writing factual and often parochial reports to a formula and churning these out daily is quite different from using these as the base for creative interpretation – a task that takes time, resources and experience.

Nationalism is robust in Indonesia and no-one wants a paper produced by expats whingeing about Indonesia’s huge problems rather than locals analysing them. The problem is matching the top salaries the really clever English-language Indonesian writers can command in multi-national companies or with foreign news agencies.

The Jakarta Post tends to be liberal, critical of the Suharto regime, anti-corruption, interested in the arts and supportive of a pluralist society. There’s a strong emphasis on business and the economy. Human rights issues are usually given a good run. The paper takes shots at the government and other institutions in the style of Australian papers, but seldom applies the robust language we’re used to. Lese majesty is still a crime in Indonesia; for insulting the president the penalty can be six years in jail.

The Jakarta Post can often get away with comments and pictures that Indonesian language papers with a wider and less exclusive circulation wouldn’t dare try lest the mob’s wrath is aroused. Smashing up the office of a publication you don’t like and threatening the staff is still a standard way of protesting, as the publishers of Playboy know well.

Whatever the faults, the press in Indonesia has a real lusty heartbeat. It certainly doesn’t elsewhere in South-East Asia. Newspapers in Singapore and Malaysia are muted mouthpieces for the governments.

There are links between The Jakarta Post and the Department of Foreign Affairs. Two previous editors have been recruited as ambassadors; the present editor’s father was in the diplomatic service and staffers from the department have attended training courses run by the paper.

The Jakarta Post journalists I’ve met are extraordinarily able so it’s not surprising some are poached. I think they’d outshine many Australian reporters and be a credit to any newsroom.

It’s one thing to speak in a foreign language – much higher skills are required for writing on a daily basis, particularly when the job demands wide usage of Western idioms and a deep knowledge of alien cultures, ancient and modern.

The Jakarta Post’s readers don’t fit into any neat mono-cultural category. Surveys show around half are members of the Indonesian elite. The rest are expats from almost every country in the world whose only common link is a language that’s usually their second or third tongue. Indonesian is not a popular world language, so the Japanese, Koreans, Europeans, Indians and Chinese who work in Indonesia read The Jakarta Post.

How does a Muslim reporter cope with the everyday English idioms and references based on the Bible, and the literary allusions we’ve inherited from the great English writers? Does anything fit together if you haven’t studied Shakespeare or read Hemingway? How can you really understand the West when you don’t share a common cultural memory?

When I added to a story about controversial dangdut singer Inul Daratista the line: ‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington’ it didn’t resonate with everyone. A senior editor from the paper who has studied in the US certainly wanted an explanation – but was happy with another writer’s use of ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ despite not knowing of Noel Coward.

How does an Indonesian journalist who’s never lived in the West make sense of the understatements of the reserved British, the overstatements of the brash Americans and the iconoclasm of cynical Australians – and all against a deadline? The best do, and that’s a rare and admirable skill.

The Jakarta Post started in 1983 with technical help from The West Australian. Most days it has 24 pages so it’s a quick read, particularly as advertising is expanding and many stories are ho-hum regional reports. Banks, airlines, property developers, international schools and up-market stores use its pages to reach the so-called A-class readers.

The paper has been making a profit in the past two years despite having a circulation below 40,000 so it’s no surprise that there’s now a rival, curiously titled The Point, inviting the obvious retort: What’s the point? At the moment it’s only going to embassies and has yet to appear on news-stands.

Thailand, which has a quarter of Indonesia’s 240 million population, supports two English language papers.

Distribution problems plague The Jakarta Post. Outside key newsagents in Jakarta, Kuta and the five-star hotels, the paper is almost impossible to find. To ensure a copy you have to subscribe. But deliveries in the regional centres are late and haphazard – a serious problem for a daily newspaper.

A larger readership may be there but it has yet to be reached. Even if the marketing problems could be solved it’s unlikely the paper would take a monster leap in circulation. Indonesians are not great readers and seldom buy papers in whatever language, preferring to get their news from radio, TV and street-corner gossip. One survey claims 88 per cent watch TV, only 17 per cent read newspapers.

Although The Jakarta Post has a reputation for promptly correcting errors and defending its staff, as an outsider I’m extremely vulnerable. Any offended Indonesian who is powerful enough could easily arrange for Immigration to run a visa check. This would probably find flaws though none exist. That’s happened to other Australians.

Alternatively for less than $100 they could get a mob to trash my house. Like my jellybean car, all foreigners in Indonesia are squashable. Tolerance doesn’t mean acceptance.

Many prominent and regular newsmakers understand English but are reluctant to use their skills with a native speaker. The ultra nationalists often refuse to use English. In East Java the tongue of choice is Javanese.

Getting an interviewee’s thoughts down without ambiguity is difficult enough in any language and particularly so with the hierarchal Javanese who have a reputation for saying anything but what they really mean. Hazards abound.

Curiously the people most nervous about my writing have been expats who come from countries with a free press tradition. The only person who changed his mind about cooperating after all the work had been done was an Australian academic working for a US aid agency.

Perhaps the expats’ nervousness is understandable. Those on lucrative contracts tend to live in gated communities surrounded by other Westerners whose duties include making personal ‘security assessments’ every time they go out.

Served by regular travel warnings from their embassies and constantly trading horror stories over their sundowners it’s not surprising they’re so easily spooked. For them the fundamentalists are forever poring over the media seeking insults to be avenged, clipping names for a victim list.

The US and Japanese consulates in Surabaya add to the paranoia. These are high tech forts with round-the-clock police guards plus scores of their own security personnel. Their bags are already packed so they can flee in a moment. The Americans claim they’re in town to improve communication links with Indonesians – but Americans don’t understand irony.

By contrast the French consulate is constantly open to the public and has no guards. It’s the site of intellectual discussion, classical concerts, exhibitions and arthouse films. In Indonesia the French are fearless – we are not.

There’s now no official Australian presence in Surabaya – and perhaps it’s just as well. Under current thinking it would be yet another bunker sending the same message as the Americans and Japanese: We fear you greatly and trust you not at all.

Indonesians who are well travelled use me to complain furiously and in detail about the visa restrictions on visiting Australia. As these people often want to buy property, get medical treatment and educate their kids in our country the onerous restrictions are a real thorn.

The Australian Embassy in Jakarta denies this clear and common truth and flaunts figures saying most applicants are successful. It has no statistics on those who have Australia as their first choice but are deterred by the complexities and obstacles - so choose another more welcoming country for their study, medical care, investment and retirement.

I do get plenty of banter, and not always good-natured, about Australia as the deputy sheriff of South East Asia, being George Bush’s lackey, planning pre-emptive strikes and having plans to break up the Unitary State.

With apologies to Mr Downer and others who claim such sentiments have passed their use-by date – sorry, folks: The view from the penthouse suites enjoyed by the fly-in, fly-out politicians may seem rosy but the people I meet don’t believe a word of our bland assurances however many treaties are signed.

I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for the Australian government. I don’t support its policies on Indonesia, apart from the generous aid donations and some fine but limited programs designed to improve teaching and good governance. The post grad scholarships are great – but our offerings miniscule: Under 700 for a population of 240 million.

For a safe future I desperately want to see closer ties between our two countries at all levels and I don’t think this should be done just through governments.

Regular exchange programs for journalists from both countries would be a great start. This has happened before on one-off projects but not on a continuous basis. The Jakarta Post occasionally takes interns from Australia and New Zealand – this could be formalised into a proper two-way exchange program to the benefit of both countries.

The ACICIS (Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies) is an excellent way for Australian undergraduates to study Indonesian language and culture; it needs to be enlarged greatly with equal numbers of Indonesians visiting Australia.

A few fine people of distinction, and the occasional creative artist pass through on goodwill tours – but make no impact in the kampongs. We need Nicole Kidman or some other locally-loved screen face to tell Indonesians that Australia is a friendly neighbour keen for contact and which means well - a separate, independent country free from US control and which seriously wants to build up a solid, long-lasting relationship.

But then I don’t think it is.

(This paper was delivered at the Media: Policies, cultures and futures in the Asia Pacific Region Conference, at Curtin University, Perth on 27 November 2006)


Saturday, November 25, 2006


FIGHTING TO PRAY IN PEACE © Duncan Graham 2006

In 1517 in Europe, seven people were burned at the stake for teaching their children The Lord’s Prayer in English rather than Latin.

In 2005 in East Java, Muslim preacher Yusman Roy was jailed for two years for leading Islamic prayers in Indonesian rather than Arabic.

After remissions for good behavior an unbowed Roy is now a free man. He’s back at the Islamic school he runs with his wife Supartini at Lawang in East Java, still determined to keep praying in Indonesian.

“The problem with many Muslims in Indonesia is that they don’t think for themselves,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They just follow whatever the leader says.

“They stand in the mosque and mumble, but they don’t understand what the clerics are saying because they don’t know Arabic. What’s the problem with using Indonesian? God understands everything we think and say whatever the language.”

There’s little doubt the feisty Roy had been trying to pick a scrap with Islamic traditionalists, particularly the Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council (MUI), for some time. Not content to lie low in Lawang where he’s left alone by the locals, he published and distributed a little book on his philosophy.

No takers. He then spent Rp 10 million (US $1,100) on promoting a public meeting in Surabaya’s State Islamic University to debate the issue of bilingual prayers.

Not surprisingly the fundamentalists turned up and gave him hell. For them God’s instructions to Mohammed in Arabic had to be forcefully defended. “Why can’t we discuss these issues?” Roy asked. “There’s no commandment to use Arabic. We should debate, not fight.”

Yet ironically fighting had long been Roy’s job. The only son of a Catholic Dutch woman and a Muslim Javanese father who fathered 11 kids with four wives, Roy seems to have had a rocky childhood. He lets his guard down on most personal matters – though not his upbringing and schooling in Surabaya.

His ethnicity was clearly an issue; his Indonesian nationality was constantly challenged and he tended to give knuckle answers.

“I was naughty,” he said. “But I could fight. I like to fight. From the age of 16 I earned money by boxing – Rp 5,000 (US $5.50) a round. I was fast on my feet, a 60 kilo lightweight.” Aged 25, battered and with a broken nose, the pugilist quit the ring.

He then became a debt collector and a thumping success. If you found this young preman (street thug – and his term) leaning on your architrave calmly lighting a Dji Sam Soe you’d be paying up pronto. The tattoo on his rippling forearm of a thoroughly aroused stallion would mightily assist discovery of the mislaid wallet.

But Roy’s soul was on the ropes. What he was doing wasn’t morally right. He knew there was something else – yet it remained elusive. He sought God, but didn’t know where He resided. A come-and-go Catholic Roy looked for help among priests and found some answers.

Though not enough. His friends were Muslim. Slowly he made the transition to Islam but was lax in maintaining his religious obligations.

“It took me about 15 years before I became fully Muslim,” he said. “I read widely and thought a lot. I saw contradictions between what was written in the Holy Book and what people were saying and doing.

“I couldn’t understand Arabic and neither could my friends. The clerics were saying it doesn’t matter what you pray as long as it’s in Arabic. That’s wrong. We have to know what’s being said when we talk to God. ”

Soon after the Surabaya meeting in April last year the police called at his home. Friendly fellows all they asked if he’d like a lift to nearby Malang for a chat. “It was a trick,” he said. “When I got there they arrested me.”

They may have saved his life. While he was in Malang three truckloads of allegedly aggrieved men from the Islamic Defenders’ Front arrived at his school intent on God knows what, but left when they found him absent.

While accepting the truth of this proposition, Roy doesn’t like it. If he’d been murdered his bid for bilingual prayer would have caught public attention and reform in Islam might have been hastened. From zealotry to martyrdom.

He faced two charges - deviating from Islam in his teachings, and inciting hatred by challenging the clerics in the MUI who’d prohibited him from using Indonesian in prayer. He got verbal support from former president Abdurrahman Wahid, legal aid and publicity in Indonesia and overseas. Not enough. He was only acquitted on the first count.

At first life in jail was tough with many wanting to test their skills against the 50-year old former prizefighter. But instead of flexing the foaming stallion he showed a new tattoo on his right arm. This had the words Patience, Prayer and Emotional Control.

“What I did was right - I don’t regret going to jail,” Roy said. “I could not have done this without Supartini’s help.” She said she was proud of her husband and backed his beliefs.

With Roy behind bars she had to run the free school - known as Pondok I’Tikaf, Arabic for meditation - and its 300 students alone. Where did the money come from? “God provided,” she said. “All the other men in jail were criminals. My husband was the only person there for religious reasons.”

Despite fears the self appointed warriors of Islam will return the couple seem unperturbed, putting their safety in the hands of the same Deity their attackers would invoke. The home and school are at the end of a downhill street, above a ravine. The police have cut their phone lines to stop verbal threats, but there’s no security and no easy escape route.

“Prisoners and warders kept away from me at first, but later joined me,” said Roy. “I never went to the mosque because that made me angry.

“I’m not afraid of being charged again, but don’t expect it. It’s the government’s job to protect all citizens whatever their views, and I demand that protection.

“The government should be allowing space for public dialogue and I want to encourage that. The people who attack me don’t know right from wrong – they don’t understand the prayers in Arabic so they don’t pray properly. Quality matters.

“These people are losers. There are many terrorists in Islam – they’ve lost their way. They’ve become criminals and anarchists. Prayer is the foundation of Islam. When that collapses everything else goes down.

“This is what I believe. There’s a group in Indonesia that wants to keep Islam backward. This is a political issue. I’m angry at what they’ve done to me, but I forgive them.

“Many say they support me, but don’t help. I’m fighting this cause as a pioneer with my soul and property. It’s difficult being alone, but I’m sure God will protect me.

“I want my good name restored. I’m an Indonesian Muslim, not an Arab Muslim! Why would anyone want to stop me?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 Nov 06)

Sunday, November 19, 2006



Sydney may have led Australia in promoting its Mardi Gras marches, but that doesn’t mean widespread acceptance of sexual difference in the country next door. ‘Poofter-bashing’ is still a hazard for homosexuals in some parts of a nation that claims to be liberal and progressive.

So what about Indonesia, a land rigid with religion, tense with taboos? Some prejudice, but no fear or repressive laws, according to Dede Oetomo the nation’s leading gay rights activist. He spoke to Duncan Graham in Surabaya:

It will be a quarter century next year that academic Dede Oetomo, fresh from studies overseas, and a couple of friends published the first newsletter for Indonesian homosexuals. This was during the repressive Orde Baru administration when the government banned transvestites from appearing on TV and sexual issues were seldom discussed.

One woman minister famously said there were no lesbians in Indonesia, though most research suggests about ten per cent of the population anywhere in the world naturally seeks same-sex relationships. The official line was to deny that the Republic had been infected by ‘deviants.’

These creatures were fiends from the decadent West, which is where the bright young man from East Java had spent the previous five years. He’d been studying for a doctorate at the prestigious Cornell University in New York, the centre for scholarship on Indonesian issues. Here he’d become part of a campus gay group.

So it wasn’t surprising that some people said he was importing American ideas on sexuality that had no place in Eastern culture. What was unexpected was that this criticism came from the academic gays Dede had met in the United States, not from the locals who were trying to define their desires.

It was an intellectual argument: The outsiders thought Indonesian gays should build their own Asian culture of difference based on traditional practices. (See Sidebar)

But the men and women wrestling with notions that didn’t fit the government approved model of marriage and two kids welcomed Dede’s initiative. They didn’t care where information had come from, as long as it provided help.

“We were really young and naïve and just thought that producing a newsletter was the right thing to do,” said Dede.

“Apart from Surabaya and one or two people in Malang, Solo and Jakarta, the openly gay community was tiny. Looking back I now realise our actions were quite subversive.

“Around 1981 two lesbians ‘married’ in Jakarta and this caused a major media storm. It raised many questions about sexual preference that I felt had to be addressed. I wrote a letter to Tempo magazine and suggested other gays might want to contact me. They did – with up to 40 letters a week.”

After the newsletter Dede and friends started Indonesia’s first gay organisation, Lambda Indonesia – later to become Gaya Nusantara. This is a national rights group now famous internationally not just for linking people, but also for advocating safe sex and fighting Aids, and combating discrimination.

That’s not so difficult in Islamic Indonesia. Unlike Australia and many other Western countries with a Christian heritage, the Republic hasn’t made homosexuality illegal. So the searing debates on whether the law should be changed haven’t happened here, though there is a discrimination issue with age. Heterosexual relations are legal over the age of 16 – but for homosexuals it’s 18.

In Singapore and Malaysia homosexuality is still illegal. These countries inherited their laws from Britain.

“I think there’s more tolerance among the moderate Muslims than the Christians,” said Dede. “Occasionally some radical Islamic group will try and disrupt a meeting, but usually they just want to make a point and then go. At one recent event in Central Java they went home after we paid them Rp 500,000 (US $54).”

In his role as an advocate for gay rights for men and women, and open education on sex, Dede has travelled widely overseas and often works as consultant on health programs for aid agencies.

Dede Oetomo was born in Pasuran, East Java in 1953, the eldest of four children in a bookish Indonesian Chinese upper middle class family. Dede said his siblings are all heterosexual – “as far as I know.”

His father, who worked for a multinational, had dabbled in the Pentecostal Church. His mother had a Catholic background. The family believed in education, open discussion and arguing with older people. There’s an element of zeal in his upbringing.

His mother cautioned him against listening to the “mumbo-jumbo” spook stories of the superstitious maids. She urged him to take a rational and scientific approach to life – and to challenge myth from whatever source. He went to a Catholic school but his education was largely secular.

“I realised I was homosexual when I was about 12,” he said. “I thought I could change. I went to see psychologists, but these sessions were more discussions than counselling. Thank God I wasn’t given electric shock treatment. (A common medical procedure at the time when it was thought homosexuality could be cured.)

“I read widely and realised that this was how I was, and that things were not going to change.

“However I didn’t come out with my family till I was in my 20s. It took them about a year to realise that I wouldn’t be supplying any grandchildren and accept me for what I am. Fortunately my parents have never been into melodramatics. Instead they said it would be a good idea if I could help others. I think I come from a fairly unusual family.”

Dede’s parents hoped he’d become a doctor or engineer – he wanted to be an historian, but ended up as a linguist. He enrolled at the Malang IKIP (teachers’ training college, now the University of Malang) where his intelligence attracted lecturers with US contacts.

He was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship and headed for the states. His PhD thesis was on the language and identity of the Chinese community in Pasuran. When not studying he taught Indonesian to some of America’s top scholars.

Back in East Java he was hit by some covert prejudice when he first sought academic work, finding doors closed despite his high qualifications.

He got a teaching job at the prestigious Airlangga University and started a relationship with a man which lasted 21 years. During this time he wrote extensively for the international media and became the voice of the Indonesian homosexual community.

Now the days of having to meet after nightfall in the yard of a Surabayan government high school have gone. If you’re looking for a partner there are hairdressers, beauty salons, dance studios - and a restaurant in a five star hotel which is well known to be a gay hang out. But it costs Rp 80,000 (US $9) just to get in, limiting access to the rich.

The ‘pink dollar’ phenomenon which has swept the West with hotels, tour agencies, fashion shops and magazines competing for rich gay clients with high disposable incomes has yet to appear in Indonesia.

The shock-horror tabloid headlines full of contrived moral outrage have faded and in their place is factual comment. Much of this has been driven by the needs of public education regarding sexually transmitted diseases, and the emotional problems facing people whose genes have determined their sexual choice.

Dede is no longer the demon in the dark. His academic credibility, ease with the media, reasoned arguments and acceptance internationally have put him in the mainstream. He’s twice stood as a political candidate on a “rainbow platform” of enhancing the rights of minorities. Though unsuccessful, in the 2004 election for the local legislature he scored 235,000 votes.

The Internet has given enormous freedom to people with different sexual needs. The furtiveness has largely vanished, though gays and lesbians still keep a low public profile. A recent lesbian ‘wedding’ in a Surabayan hotel attracted no media coverage.

How much of this change can be attributed to Dede and Gaya Nusantara?

“I agree with those who criticise us because we are communicating with the better educated, media-savvy people in society, rather than those with limited schooling and living in isolated areas,” he said.

“But information is now getting out to the wider community because the topic is no longer taboo in newspapers.

“Some say we haven’t done much and that change would have arrived anyway through globalisation. That may or may not be so, but we’ve given space to people, we’ve opened up the debate. Being gay now is completely different – but also more complex.

“We run a help line, organise face-to-face counselling and offer other services. There’s still a lot more to do. The issue of domestic violence in gay relationships has not been addressed.

“I wouldn’t want to walk home alone in the dark from Sydney’s Mardi Gras Festival, particularly as I’m an Asian. But I feel quite safe in Indonesia. However there are reports of violence by low-ranking military personnel against men who look effeminate

“Now the challenge is to build a new generation of leaders, and reach gay men and women who aren’t at the top end of society to educate them on health issues. The statistics are two years old, apply only in Jakarta and are a bit suspect. But they are all we have to go on.

“The figures for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infection are 22 per cent of waria (wanita – pria = transsexual), five per cent for male sex workers and 2.5 per cent for gay men. Overall gay men in Indonesia are aware of the risks, use condoms and lubricants and are responsible.

(In Australia HIV cases among gay men are reported to have surged to a 10 year high, after a slump in infections. It’s believed the younger generation, no longer bombarded by safe sex messages, has become lax in taking precautions.)

“There’s still some prejudice in society but in international terms we’re ahead. Where it’s really difficult is for men and women who want to come out yet love their family and want to keep that love. We also want happy families. But not the government model.”


The idea that homosexuality is alien to Indonesian culture has been dashed by research conducted by Dede into the warok-gemblakan tradition in the East Java town of Ponorogo.

Here older men called warok, who take a leading role in the Reyog Ponorogo dance, have sex with young boys (gemblakan) in their bid for prowess.

The dance requires the warok, who are usually the local strong men, to wear a huge headdress of a tiger mask surrounded by a mane of peacock feathers.

Dede said he planned to review his research soon. Although the men’s behavior would be classified as homosexual it would be wrong to say that there was a homosexual community in the town as the men may also be married. The tradition has an economic component, for the men had to compensate the boys’ parents with significant and costly gifts.

In South Sulawesi there’s the bissu, a male or female court official who cross-dresses and has sex with people of the same gender. There’s also evidence that in the past people who practised alternative sex were considered healers with special powers – a tradition being continued as the gay community is a leader in promoting safe sex.

(For more information check )

(First published in The Sunday Post 19 November 2006)

Saturday, November 18, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

There’s a critical five-letter word absent from the Framework for Security Cooperation agreement signed Monday 13 November in Lombok between Indonesia and Australia.

The missing word is ‘Papua’.

Despite its invisibility this is at the heart of the seven-page document dubbed the Lombok Treaty by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and his Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirayuda.

Discussions leading to the pact have been running for two years. But the decision by Australia to give asylum to 43 Papuan refugees who sailed to Australia last January put fuel in the negotiators’ tanks.

The document is full of motherhood terms and rubbery words – diplomatic delights like ‘reaffirming’, ‘recognising’ and ‘emphasising.’ If these help establish trust then quibbling is out of place.

Inevitably the Lombok Treaty is short on what will actually be done in real terms, although Article 6 includes an ‘implementing mechanism’. This commits the two countries to ‘take necessary steps’ and ‘meet on a regular basis’.

When there’s a dispute – which is certain given the great gulf between the two countries’ values and cultures – this shall be ‘settled amicably by mutual consultation or negotiation.’ There are no sanctions.

One issue has already been determined: If there’s any strife about interpreting the bi-lingual document then the English text will prevail.

Although the emphasis is on security this isn’t a military alliance. Such a treaty is prohibited under Indonesian law. The issue here is terrorism and just seems to reinforce already existing arrangements with the police and the military.

Nor is the treaty a law. Ahead lies ratification by both governments. In the wash-up only mutual goodwill will make this agreement work.

As anticipated there’s a clause on drug trafficking. Watch out if death penalties are enforced against Australian drug runners and the talkback radio vitriolic shock jocks start slandering Indonesia again, demanding Canberra intervenes. Then the lines on ‘good neighbourliness and non-interference in the internal affairs of one another’ will get a real acid test.

There’s no doubt the Australian government and opposition fear the ‘Balkanisation’ of the Republic and want a unified and stable Indonesia.

Canberra, the region’s perceived deputy sheriff, is facing multiple crises among the alleged ‘failed states’ of the Pacific, along with problems in Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. It certainly doesn’t want more regional hassles.

The key point on Papua is Article 2, Item 3 – a black-letter lawyer’s gem:

“The Parties, consistent with their respective domestic laws and international obligations, shall not in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party, including by those who seek to use its territory for encouraging or committing such activities, including separatism, in the territory of the other Party.” (‘Party’ means nation.)

Does this mean that any future boat people who dig their toes into Australian sand won’t have claims for refugee status recognised?

The answer will come when and if that happens. But any careful reading of the words above – particularly the phrase about ‘domestic laws and international obligations’ - doesn’t score out a repeat of this year’s successful bids for asylum.

At that time the Australian government said it was powerless to act under law once an administrative decision had been made. It also knew the electorate was backing the Papuans.

When the government tried to buttress immigration law this was interpreted as an attempt to appease an inflamed Indonesia. The bid failed in August when Prime Minister John Howard withdrew the Migration Amendment Bill once he foresaw defeat. Even a few members of his own coalition were barracking for the Papuans.

If that same Papuan refugee scenario is rerun in the months ahead, the Indonesian outrage that led to ambassador Hamzah Thayeb being recalled for three months could erupt again.

Indonesians who recall with pleasure the Suharto New Order administration still find it difficult to understand that in a democracy governments are not all powerful.

The shrill lobby groups in Australia seeking a free Papua (which they call West Papua) are unlikely to be muzzled by this treaty. They won’t get any taxpayers’ money. Their demands will be ridiculed and rejected by the government - and probably the Labor Party opposition that has so far given the treaty its cautious blessing.

Yet none of this is likely to quench the determination of the NGOs, church groups and minority party politicians. In fact it could help their cause. In the court of Australian public opinion where ‘getting a fair go’ rules debate, being the underdog is always the favored position.

So the more the Papua separatists are rubbished and their statements undermined, the more their allegations of human rights abuses will get an airing and an audience. These claims will infuriate the Indonesian government and people, and ensure Papua remains the new pebble in the shoe of relations between the neighbors.

Unless serious political and administrative reforms are made to the satisfaction of the locals, effectively neutering the Australian agitators.

It happened in the most western province of the Republic – so why not in the most eastern part?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 November 06)



Tuesday, November 14, 2006



“Never underestimate the potential of Indonesian village women. And never doubt their intelligence.

“The only difference between them and people in the city is chance. The chance to get a broad education. The chance to encounter different people and ideas. The chance to travel.”

Now opportunities are becoming available as more women from the regions seek higher education or go overseas to work. And according to Dra Doni Rekro Harijani they’re returning home with ideas both good and bad – but which are changing Indonesian rural life.

Doni, 67, who was trained as an educator and administrator, has published a book on the issue – The Work Ethic of Village Women. This is based on research she conducted while her husband Soetrisno was the regent of Nganjuk, about 150 kilometres south west of Surabaya.

Her study was undertaken in Karangsemi, where women specialise in handicrafts, usually making plastic handbags.

“I don’t know why I chose that village,” she said. “I’d never been there before but I felt drawn to it. It’s a mixed farming area and not well off.

“Most of the women are mothers, wives or daughters of landless farm laborers,” she said. “Many earn more than their men but they play down their income and achievements to honor their husbands.

“They are seen as the second provider in the family and just claim to be helping their husbands. My research showed they often get up to double their husband’s income.”

Doni said the lives of rural women were changing as three major influences impacted – education, the media and work overseas. However she said not all experiences were beneficial.

On one occasion she overheard young women chatting on their way home by plane from Hong Kong.

The maids were talking about boyfriends and urging one to ‘try before you buy’, meaning to check compatibility prior to marriage by living together. This practice, regarded in Indonesia as a Western evil, is usually known as ‘free sex’.

In some overseas countries maids are treated as equals by the family and sit together at meals. “That would never happen here,” Doni said. “The distance between the maid and the mistress is not too great, but it’s still there.

“Workers who have gone overseas have seen how other people live and the way that women are treated. They read newspapers and magazines. They watch TV. Back in Indonesia the women want a better life.”

Now her husband has retired to live in Surabaya, Doni teaches home economics at a vocational school. Next year she’ll go to Suriname (the South American republic and former Dutch colony) to teach the descendants of Indonesian laborers the elaborate make-up arts used in Javanese weddings.

Doni said life for village women was hard. They were expected to do all the domestic chores, care for the family and earn money.

One of the things they could not do was refuse their husbands’ sexual demands.

“In Javanese culture each gender has its responsibility,” Doni said. “It’s just expected. It’s not ordered. It’s automatic. The pressures are social.

“There are no rape-in-marriage laws in Indonesia and it’s impossible that a wife could refuse sex however tired she might be. It’s her role to obey – she can’t plead a headache!

“I once asked a group of men: ‘When you wake up in the morning do you ever fold the blanket?’ Not one confessed to ever doing that simple job. It’s difficult to change the mindset of men and women. It’s happening, but slowly. Step-by-step. It depends on the individual.

“The old proverb banyak anak, banyak rejeki (many children, good fortune) no longer applies. Women know that a large family means low education and poverty. They fully understand the need for family planning.

“Girls now marry older and teenage pregnancies are getting rare. Unfortunately marriages sometimes take place with a couple that’s related. They want to keep their land and other possessions in the family rather than share with outsiders.

“This can lead to children being born with handicaps like deafness, and birth defects.

“Money is status. It helps give women independence so if there’s a dispute in the marriage she no longer fears being kicked out and becoming destitute. However some estranged couples stay together, maybe sleeping in separate rooms, to preserve the social conventions. Divorced women still have status problems.

“Close communal living also puts constraints on domestic violence because it’s difficult to hide from neighbors.

“Working with the local government we introduced a credit scheme where families were able to borrow Rp 1 million (US $110) to start home enterprises. The annual interest was about one per cent. This was a success.

“Things are now much better than ten years ago. The quality of life for the women and their families has improved. One woman has become the first from Karangsemi to get a university education.

“Village women have a strong work ethic, but they suffer many cultural and social constraints. They need encouragement from the wider society along with moral and material support to help them feel more confident.

“Many things still need to be done. Next time you go to a shopping mall look in the up-market boutiques.

“You’ll see handicrafts priced for Rp 400,000 (US $44). Maybe the women who made them have been paid only Rp 20,000 (US $2). They don’t have anyone who can promote their work.

“When I started doing this my friends asked why I was bothering. My husband had a good position and status. I didn’t need to work and study.

“But it’s my duty to share my education and knowledge with others.

“If we don’t do this our learning is like a big tree – but one which carries no fruit.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 November 06)

Monday, November 13, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Visitors to Indonesia’s second biggest city should not be misled into thinking they’ve come to the heart of modernity.

Remain undistracted by the hectares of tinted glass and columns of reinforced concrete. Do not assume that the steel communication towers of Babel pushing into the sky, the black rivers of cars, the flimsy facades of Futureland mean progress has swamped the past.

In the darkness of this 700-year old city lurks mystery and it’s not far. Only a few steps from the shrill gaudiness and crass commercialism of Mammon Central, Tunjungan Plaza, Surabaya’s most popular and central shopping mall.

It’s just beyond the remit of neon, where the shadows thicken, the street lamps are spare and their wattage dim. Peer carefully and at a three-way junction you’ll spot a thicket of old fig trees, their dangling aerial roots fingering the asphalt, seeking entrance to the underworld.

Around this coppice a low iron fence. There’s a narrow gate. A little path. A strange avenue of hammered rocks, more like headstones. These lead to a pagoda. And inside you’ll be confronted by an ancient carving of a Buddha.

If you’re fearful of the dark visit on a Friday morning for evidence of the previous night’s rituals. There’ll be yellow garlands around the Buddha’s neck, a dusting of petals, offerings of rice in wee wicker baskets, spots of hard wax dripped from candles. The little parasols will have been spruced up. A saffron shawl may have been added.

Then you’ll know you’ve found the right place. Joko Dolog, or Buddha Akshobya.

The 1.5 metre high statue of the Buddha probably doesn’t belong here, though his weathered expression gives no indication of homesickness. He’s supposed to have been moved to Surabaya by the Dutch in the 19th century.

Maybe he came from Candi Jawi near Tretes, 55 kilometres south of Surabaya, where there are tales of a missing statue.

Joko Dolog (sometimes spelt Jaka in archaeological literature) is known locally as the ‘fat boy’. Which implies he’s regarded with irreverence, though there are no signs of mistreatment.

On the contrary, for this is a worship site, special to Hindus, Buddhists and followers of Kebatinan, the traditional religion of Java.

That one statue could combine three beliefs is a tribute to the syncretism of faiths in Indonesia. It’s also a window into the past because around the base is a clear inscription in Sanskrit.

A Buddhist scribe called Nada apparently wrote this in 1289. It reports on East Java being split into two kingdoms – Janggala and Kediri - during the 11th century reign of King Airlangga.

The division followed a succession dispute when Airlangga’s daughter Sanggramawijaya chose to live as a hermit rather than preside as a ruler.

The inscription then says the lands were later reunited under a new king, Sri Wishnuwardhana. This opened the way to the Majapahit era, Java’s ‘Golden Age’ of prosperity and conquest.

The Buddha was carved to celebrate this coming together. It was commissioned by Wishnuwardhana’s son, Kertanagara.

Sadly there’s none of this information at the park holding Joko Dolog, and even less at the provincial museum known as Mpu Tantular. This has been named after the Majapahit poet who wrote of religious reconciliation and used the phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), now part of the nation’s crest.

Two years ago the museum was moved from Surabaya to Sidoarjo, a town 30 to the south of the East Java capital.

Despite having new buildings and plenty of space the museum’s collection has been badly organised. It’s a bit of a sunset home for public servants who either know nothing of their responsibilities – or if they do are unwilling to share.

There are bits and pieces of inscribed stone from the Singosari and Majapahit kingdoms, but no clear provenance. So the only way to discover more is through papers written by archaeologists.

The museum has been built on a collection assembled by a German magpie and educator GH Von Faber in the 1920s. Till recently it’s had a peripatetic life, and when its benefactor died in 1955 several critical pieces vanished.

What has survived and is well worth seeing are the photographs of old Surabaya. Unlike many other collections where the prints are blurred, these are sharp and clear. Some marvellously carved Madurese drums and a few other artefacts justify a visit – but be prepared to fill in the gaps yourself through your own research.

Some attempts at translation mar (or lift) the experience according to your sense of humour. ‘Cannon used in the war for killing the enemies and horses even though it was used in the sea war’ was a particular gem – and there are many other splendid examples.

But of Joko Dolog, surely the most important of all exhibits in Surabaya – no news. Some say he’s not promoted lest he arouse the wrath of fundamentalists who might see idolatry in the weekly worship rituals.

So find him yourself. He’s tucked away just behind the statue of Governor Suryo in the street named after the first post-colonial administrator. Doubtless he was a fine fellow, but the sculptor shows him as a stern-faced bureaucrat.

Nothing like the figure squatting among the trees 300 metres behind looking, well, enigmatic.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 November 06)




Jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan.

The planned signing of a proposed new treaty between Indonesia and Australia this Monday (13 Nov) by the two foreign ministers, is being boosted in the nation next door as a significant advance in relations between the neighbors.

What impact will it have on the average person on either side of the Indian Ocean? Probably not a ripple – though that doesn’t mean the exercise is worthless.

Whatever the backslapping top-level bureaucrats in Western suits (Indonesians) and batik (Australians) say, things aren’t looking good down below.

Poll results released last month (Oct) by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy show almost two thirds of those surveyed think Indonesia is a threat to Australia.

So any initiative, however bland and unformed, has to be positive. Then maybe the hearts and minds of the populace will follow. Maybe …

The only public badmouth so far has been Senator Bob Brown, leader of the minority Greens party. He claims the treaty – properly named the Framework for Security Cooperation – will encourage the development of nuclear power in Indonesia and suppress the Papuan independence movement.

Though the agreement hasn’t been publicly released some details have been leaked.

The seven-page document will have 10 formal articles. One apparently commits the signatories to ‘not in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other party.’

This is a masked reference to the activities of the Papuan independence lobby in Australia that Senator Brown supports.

But then so do the majority of Australians according to a survey earlier this year. Canberra can give Jakarta bucketsful of assurances, but in a robust democracy a government can’t shut down non-terrorist organisations it doesn’t like.

Nor can it easily change the public’s mindset with a few ads, which are apparently also being planned. They’d have to be better than the failed American attempts to portray the US as a peace-loving nation that treats Muslims as equals. That campaign bombed.

The Papua lobby in Australia includes academics notably around the University of Sydney’s West Papua Project, Protestant and Catholic churches, NGOs linked to the Australia West Papua Association, and supporters of human rights. They’re not going to shut up anytime soon, though a campaign is underway to discredit their claims.

This has been led by academic Rodd McGibbon who spent six years in Indonesia working for the UN and US Aid. In a paper titled Pitfalls of Papua released last month (Oct) for the Lowy Institute and neatly laying a welcome mat for the treaty, he argues that activists’ ‘utopian thinking’ have misled the Australian public.

He claims the more backing Australians give Papuan separatists, the more the TNI and hard-line nationalists will suppress the province, thereby setting back reform. He also says the average Aussie doesn’t understand the politics – particularly the strength of Indonesian nationalism.

On this last issue he’s undoubtedly right. International relationships tend to float or founder on perceptions, not facts.

It was the ‘uninformed’ voters who forced the Australian government to be more active in the 1999 East Timor referendum when the official line was to take things slowly.

The new treaty replaces the document organised in secret by prime minister Paul Keating and Indonesian president Suharto in 1995. This was ripped up in 1999 by president Habibie when Australia led peacekeepers during the East Timor referendum - an action seen by Indonesia as a betrayal.

Critics of the original treaty (including the present PM John Howard) were angry there’d been no public debate leading to the pact.

Yet the same thing seems to be happening again. It’s true the Australian government has been talking about the new document for almost two years, but we only know the headings.

These are defence, counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, sea and air security, weapons of mass destruction, emergency relief, fish poaching, people-smuggling, drug running and other crimes.

All well and good. But how are these going to be implemented? Will there be penalties for non-compliance – and if so what? When Jakarta is next outraged by some Australian exercising her or his freedom of speech, what can Canberra do but say the press is free?

What concessions has the Australian government made? The document isn’t a defence pact, so what are the ‘security threats’?

How will the Howard government react if Indonesia kicks out academics and journalists who allege human rights abuses in Papua? Is there a chapter on that possible scenario?

The Australian Federal Police have been active in Indonesia, so will Indonesian police go to Australia and help interrogate Indonesians suspected of terrorism? And how is ‘terrorism’ to be defined? Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir would come under that heading in Australia, but not Indonesia.

Will drug law enforcement lead to more Australians on death row in Indonesia? Indonesians in Australia committing the same offences confront prison bars, not rifle muzzles. This is a major issue among voters Down Under.

In the past environmentalists have condemned nuclear power in the geologically unstable archipelago, fearing an earthquake could release radiation from a fractured plant. The treaty could allow Australian sales of uranium, implicitly encouraging the building of reactors. The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine was 20 years ago – and people still suffer.

There are many more similar questions and concerns. The devil is in the detail and the punters in both democracies remain ignorant – just as they did with the discredited Suharto-Keating deal.

It’s been reported that the new treaty will have to be ratified by parliaments in both countries before taking effect. Maybe then the voters will get to have their say.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 November '06)



© Duncan Graham 2006

A couple of years ago I had a verbal tussle with an Australian academic. She’d been employed by a publisher to scan the typescript of a book I’d written on Indonesia, and was critical of a passage about former president Suharto.

I claimed that while the educated city elite anguishing over human rights and the rule of law might despise him, he was still much admired in the countryside.

The checker said I’d got it wrong. As an expert on Indonesia she knew the man who’d ruled for 32 years was on the nose almost everywhere for his cronyism, corruption, exploitation and neglect of the nation’s infrastructure.

Like Suharto I stuck to my guns, though eventually made concessions. Now, after a weeklong spin through the backblocks of East Java interviewing farmers I know my observations are right. Maybe not then, but after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first two years in office they’re spot-on.

It’s no surprise that the one-time dictator will never be brought to court. SBY has heard the unwavering voices of his country’s rural folk, and knows these are more politically potent than the mutterings of metro mopheads.

Yet the reasons for loving Suharto are perverse. Farmers certainly felt the butt- end of his policies. Many were forced by bureaucrats backed by the military to plant new high-yielding varieties of rice.

The government’s Green Revolution policy boosted yields, but at the expense of time-tested farming practices and cultural ceremonies. The result was fractured communities and poisoned paddy.

Growers who refused the imported hybrids, fertilisers and chemical pesticides could have their crops trampled or burned by soldiers. Those who persisted were labelled ‘Communists’ and threatened with jail. Or they’d just disappear.

So why would anyone who’d been subject to this awful treatment still look back on the past with misty-eyed nostalgia?

The reasoning runs like this: Suharto was the father figure, a great man with good ideas. But these were badly implemented by his underlings. The New Order government was a generally peaceful period. Few demonstrated. (They didn’t dare.) The country fed its own people. Rice, fuel and other basics were affordable. If you didn’t get involved in politics you’d be left alone.

Now rice is being imported. There are high prices, demonstrations and disasters, like the Aceh tsunami, the Yogya quake and the Lapindo mud eruption. None of these things would have happened had the old man stayed in office.

For a Westerner such reasoning seems bizarre. The need to import rice has more to do with a rising population, bad planning last century and shrinking farmland than SBY’s policies. Whatever his faults, he can hardly be blamed for the slippage of sub-sea tectonic plates and bad drilling.

But it’s not like that in the minds of traditional Javanese farmers. They have little interest in the doings of democracy and researched facts, but much time for the idea that Suharto was Ratu Adil, the Just King as predicted by the 12th century seer Joyoboyo.

The present president is often criticised for his good-news photo opportunities, the apparent triumph of style over substance. The administration wants to be seen as modern and efficient. That might work with the chattering classes, but it leaves rural rustics cold.

If SBY really wants to displace Suharto in the heartlands of Indonesia he should get his minders to become mythmakers. (Maybe they already are - but let’s not commit lese-majesty, which is apparently still an offence.)

The spin-doctors could push stories of the president meditating in caves, squatting on summits (the mountain variety), having inexplicable experiences involving kris (wavy-blade daggers) and communing with the supernatural world.

Forget he’s an urbane politician with a PhD and fluent in English; just spread the word that he’s really a raw rural lad from a humble home with a mud floor – though born at the right moment in the cosmic cycle.

A trawl through flaking Javanese texts scratched on lontar leaves should surely reveal a prediction that a man with a name like an airport code is destined to be chosen by the people.

It might give the president the mystical legitimacy he seems to lack in the backward looking hamlets of the Republic. Or should that be his kingdom?

(First published in The Sunday Post 12 November 06)



Monday, November 06, 2006



This Friday (10 Nov) is National Heroes’ Day – recalling the start of the Battle of Surabaya, a pivotal moment in Indonesia’s fight for independence. Duncan Graham reports from the East Java capital:

Hartoyik remembers the day clearly – Tuesday 30 October 1945. World War II had ended in August. The Japanese had capitulated. The Indonesian Republic had been declared but the Dutch had ignored the proclamation. They wanted their colony back.

In Surabaya a British-led force had landed. The Japanese defeat had precipitated turmoil, but Indonesian authorities had already imposed order. One report said the city was ‘a strong, unified fortress.’

The unwanted invaders’ job was supposed to be arresting and deporting the Japanese, and rescuing their prisoners of war. But there was another agenda – helping the Dutch return to power.

In the late afternoon the British commander of the Allied peace-keeping force, Brigadier General A W Mallaby, 45, drove out of his headquarters at the Internatio building close by Surabaya’s Red Bridge to confront a huge mob.

Hartoyik said the Englishman carried a white flag, used a megaphone and spoke in English. He was accompanied by an Indonesian translator. Mallaby appealed for calm and promised to leave once the Allies had done their job.

But Hartoyik and the thousands of lightly armed young men surrounding the building on two flanks were fired up with freedom. They didn’t believe Mallaby’s assurances. Independence had been proclaimed two months earlier and Soekarno was the young country’s first president.

There had already been many bloody skirmishes between liberated Dutch prisoners and Indonesians jostling for power. Soekarno had flown to Surabaya the previous day and negotiated a cease-fire. He then returned to Jakarta.

For the people of Surabaya there was no way the Dutch would be allowed to become masters again. The colonial days were over.

What happened next is open to interpretation.

Hindsight is easy for those who weren’t there. Yet from the accounts by Indonesian and British onlookers it’s clear the situation could have been better handled and bloodshed avoided.

To be fair the British had been misinformed of the political situation by the Dutch and grossly underestimated the strength of Indonesian feeling.

In the confusion outside the Internatio an unknown teenage gunman shot the Brigadier twice in the chest as he sat in his Lincoln car. He died quickly. The British-led troops opened fire, and then retreated to the building.

Hartoyik and his friends rushed back into the kampung alongside Kali Mas (Gold River) and lived to fight for their ideals – an independent Indonesia.

“We had spirit, we were determined,” he said. “We were not going to return to colonialism. The Dutch could not come back. We were patriots and we were not frightened of dying. Our slogan was Merdeka Atau Mati!” (Freedom or death.)

Indeed. They certainly had the numbers if not the weapons and experience. The Allied forces could muster about 6,000 men, mostly tough Gurkhas. They had aircraft, warships and tanks.

The young men who formed the People’s Security Army had come from all over East Java. There were about 20,000 plus another 10,000 militia. Thousands more were ready. Not all had modern weapons. Many only carried sharpened bamboo spears and machetes. A few had Japanese swords.

The furious British retaliated with threats; unless the Indonesians laid down their weapons and surrendered the Allies would bomb the city. The deadline was 9 November.

The Indonesians refused. “It was the right thing to do,” Hartoyik recalled. “War is bad but the foreigners had threatened us with an unacceptable proposal. We had to fight. We had no choice.”

On 10 November the Battle of Surabaya began.

It was expected to be over in a day or two. It lasted three weeks. It cost more than 6,000 Indonesian lives. The fallen will be remembered this Friday (10 Nov).

There’s no need to imagine what Hartoyik looked like 61 years ago. There’s a clear photo of him on the wall of his office at the Indonesian Legion of Veterans’ headquarters in Surabaya.

It was taken when he was part of a bodyguard for vice president Hatta on a visit to Mojokerto in East Java.

The picture shows a slight 15-year old in baggy pants with a helmet hanging from his waist. On his belt are three long magazines. Cradled in his arm is a sub machine gun, looted from the Japanese. Behind is his mate Asror, then 19 and carrying a Dutch weapon. Their armbands read TRI Tentara Republik Indonesia (the Indonesian Army)

About 200 of Hartoyik’s companions are still alive and will be parading with pride in their ochre caps and multicoloured medallions in the city they fought so bitterly to preserve.

The Battle of Surabaya was a brutal conflict. The bombers met no aerial resistance. There were no anti-aircraft guns. The invaders were battle hardened and well equipped. The revolutionaries had only a few plundered weapons, minimal training and their absolute determination.

This was the factor that made the difference.

The Allies, misled by Dutch propaganda, expected the ‘nationalist rebels’ to run in the face of awesome firepower. They didn’t, and their extraordinary resistance convinced the world that Indonesians were absolutely intent on keeping their independence.

The astonished British-led forces, who had earlier described the revolutionaries as ‘no higher than a third grade partisan army’ reported: ‘There is as yet no sign of any weakening of resistance ... our troops are encountering more organised opposition. General improvement has been noticed in tactical movements and fire discipline.’

Thousands of refugees fled the aerial onslaught and the street-to-street fighting. “We were forced to retreat down the road south,” said Hartoyik. “But we kept making stands at bridges.

“We continued shooting and it took them a long time to make progress. We all wanted to be in the front line. No one wanted to be posted elsewhere.”

The Allies eventually won the battle, but lost the war. The British left having suffered about 2,000 casualties. The Dutch returned but faced guerrilla action for four years and eventually gave in as the world sided with the Indonesians.

Hartoyik stayed with the military and became a professional soldier when the full-time army was created. His sons have also followed Dad and become senior officers.

Hartoyik remains spry and enthusiastic, attributing his excellent health to jamu (traditional remedies), fresh water and no smoking. He’s a chirpy little man with no apparent animosity.

“The spirit of nationalism is no longer alive with the present generation of young people,” he said. “They need direction from the government.

“War is wrong and times have changed. But we still need to be patriotic and to be united.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 November 06)

Friday, November 03, 2006

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COME TO PLAY, STAY TO PRAY © Duncan Graham 2006

On 5 November Hindus, including some from Bali, will return to the original heartland of their religion. Duncan Graham reports from Balekambang on the south coast of East Java:

The beach at Balekambang is a broad stretch of sand about 60 kilometres south of Malang. Not Kuta, though good enough.

From afar it looks as though the waves are worth testing as the land slides easily under the Indian Ocean with no apparent drop. But there are no sun-scorched surfies waxing their boards on this stretch of the coast.

Instead warning signs against swimming beyond the red flags, for this beach is notorious for its swirling undertow. Food stallholders say that in recent years at least 100 visitors have been sucked into the clear green waters and perished. Stay long enough and they’ll give ghoulish details.

Regency officials drowned the story, saying they can’t recall any losses. Maybe they don’t want to in case more tourists erase Balekambang from their itineraries – as many are said to be doing for fear of tsunamis.

Apart from the signs there are mobile lifesaver patrols and loudspeaker warnings against venturing far from the shallows.

Not all come to play. This is also a place of culture and religion, for there’s a holy place on one of the three little islands that lie just offshore.

Pura (temple) Sad Kahyangan has been built on rocky Ismoyo and is connected to the mainland by a concrete bridge. There are a few gnarled fig trees and tenacious shrubs, but otherwise it’s all temple.

The island was named after a character in the ancient stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata, as are the other two, Wisanggeni and Hanoman.

There’s also a bridge linking Wisanggeni with the beach, but the central section has been ripped out by waves.

Sad Kahyangan was opened in 1985. It has been modelled on Tanah Lot, the famous temple on the south-west Bali coast and one of the must-see attractions for overseas visitors. But few foreigners travel to Balekambang and the reasons are clear. (See sidebar)

On 5 November expect an influx of Hindus planning to take part in the Purnamaning Kalima purification ceremony. According to the resident priest Djuwarno there are two major pilgrimages to the temple every year – prior to Nyepi, the day of silence held this year on 30 March, and 5 November. Crowds of up to 10,000 can be expected.

“Most come from Bali and stay up to four days camping on the beach,” he said. “We also get many people from Malang and other parts of East Java where there are still Hindu communities. My ancestors have always been Hindu and maybe the family goes back to the Majapahit.”

One of the many great mysteries in the archipelago is why the remnants of the mighty Majapahit kingdom fled East Java and settled in Bali about 500 years ago.

Were they hunted out by converts to the new religion of Islam? Or did some devastating natural catastrophe such as a volcanic eruption drive them from their rich farmlands around the Brantas River where they’d mastered the art of irrigation?

Another theory has internecine warring among the royal families as the reason for disintegration and the flight east. The golden age of the kingdom was around 650 years ago when the charismatic and Machiavellian prime minister Gajah Mada was the power in the land, and the Javanese ruled much of South-East Asia. After his death in 1364 it was all downhill.

There are 32 Hindu temples in the Malang region. Some date back to the Majapahit era – a few have been restored. Others like Sad Kahyangan are recent additions, but such is the design and weathering that it could easily be centuries old.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be treated with the reverence of temples in Bali, for vandals have scratched their memorable names and profound philosophies on the walls, despite signs urging respect.

Access to the temple courtyard is restricted to Hindus who contact Djuwarno and his wife Sunarmi in their concrete home and office perched high on the mainland at the bridge entrance.

The couple then close their food stall, don robes, gather incense and accoutrements and together with the visitors make a little procession elbowing its way through the crowds of unbelievers to the locked temple.

Inside is a small courtyard and sheltered area for prayer and meditation. This faces west, so the sea can’t be seen. The thick walls and the surf drown out the noise from the people outside.

It’s even possible to imagine you’re alone, with just the wind, the tinkling temple bells and the low chants of those still faithful to a religion that once ruled Java for more than 1,000 years.


Balekambang is worth a visit – but best not on weekends or public holidays. On these days up to 15,000 flee Malang, Blitar and Surabaya. If you’re a sensitive soul seeking solace at the seaside, stay away from this getaway. If you’re a laid back people-watcher, enjoy good cheap Indonesian food and chats everywhere, bring a deck chair.

The giggling couples say they’re escaping from humdrum routines and boring study – but many seem to be off the parental leash as they frolic in the foam. Circling them are the wolf packs of Honda heroes hoping for a chance encounter, or maybe an erotic moment as skirts are tucked into panties for a paddle, and the girls make their points in wet T-shirts.

By Western standards of beach party culture it’s seemly Victorian behavior, though prudes might consider it the final breakdown of Indonesian morality. The young together having fun in the sun? Oh, sin severe!

There are no bikinis and the occasional swimsuit is a neck-to-knee job. There’s no whiff of alcohol in the picnic hampers and the cheerful crowds swarm everywhere, so any hanky-panky will rapidly get a football-game audience.

The Malang Regency collects a Rp 5,500 (US $0.60) entrance fee off every visitor plus other small fees for vehicles and parking. Weekend incomes can exceed Rp 100 million (US $ 11,000), but little seems to be spent on local amenities and infrastructure.

Particularly bad is the road around the village of Sumber Rejo, 20 kilometres north of the beach. This meanders alongside woodland and cane fields. It’s pleasant scenery. The whole trip could be done in 90 minutes.

Sadly the journey becomes a gear-grinding ordeal as vehicles tip and roll their way through the sump-gouging potholes. Jagged limestone rocks wait to rip the rubber of the unwary. Business tip: Open a workshop here specialising in shattered suspensions.

As a major tourist road, let alone a regional link, it’s a disgrace. Regency officials say it’s scheduled to be repaired next year, but can’t say exactly when. Until that happens (if it happens) best stall your trip unless you’re driving someone else’s muscle machine and have topped up the tank with extra litres of patience.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 November 06 )




There are ethical issues involved when writing about the extra-curricular activities of cigarette companies.

While not directly promoting cancer sticks, any mention of the manufacturer must rack the product name one tiny notch higher. No responsible journalist faced with the mountain of medical evidence would want to encourage any gullible person to commit long-term suicide.

But in this case the company discourages smokers rather well itself.

According to information in the Bentoel Museum in Malang, East Java, the company’s founder Ong Hok Liong died in 1967 from chronic liver disease. Doctors say this is a particularly nasty way to die.

While working (and he seldom stopped) Ong forever had a fag in his mouth. Such was his addiction to nicotine that he couldn’t stop even when the searing pain in his throat became unbearable.

To ease the agony he took regular swigs of arak, the powerful rice alcohol – but the benefits lasted no more than 30 minutes. The baccy and the booze – a double whammy.

With a case history like that, who needs a government health warning?

The Bentoel Museum is an outstanding example of the East Java way of neglecting tourism. It’s a most worthwhile attraction but gets little or no mention in the travel brochures.

So no wonder that according to the guest book, which museum manager Sujarkasih presses visitors to sign, only one person looked in during September and just two in August.

The museum was opened in 1994 in a rebuilt version of the building used by Ong to work and live. The original was just a bit closer to Jalan Wiro Margo, and it was expected that the road would be widened. It hasn’t, but the result is that the museum is now set at the same address in a pleasant little park complete with gardens and lots of parking space.

The demolition and rebuilding doesn’t seem to have damaged the ambience. The place still feels like a 19th century Dutch home with ample space and cool ceramics, a house to lounge in and watch others work.

Though that certainly wasn’t Ong’s style. He set a cracking pace and was in the factory by 4 am and still at it come nightfall. His philosophy was: ‘Remain humble, work hard and don’t stop, even when you’re successful.’ Or even when you’re desperately ill.

That financial success didn’t come easily and clearly depended much on the material and physical support of his wife Liem Kiem Nio, by all accounts a tough lady and mother of seven.

It was her jewellery that was sold to raise capital for Ong’s ventures. When she wasn’t nurturing the nippers she was stirring the sauces to make the smokes.

For in the cigarette business flavor is everything. Ong’s formula came from mixing Havana flavoring syrup, Cavendish bananas and alcohol with the cloves, which were then added to the tobacco.

As it’s located in the most crowded and chaotic business area in Malang the museum is welcome just as a sanctuary. But it’s much more than that.

Tobacco tourism seems to be a peculiar Indonesian phenomenon. In other countries health authorities have damned the evil weed. Governments have imposed heavy taxes, making a smoke a luxury only the affluent can afford.

Advertising is out, so many companies have taken to sponsoring sport and music shows. There’s no altruism – such events always feature the brand name. In Indonesia we have ads and the promotions - plus museums.

Sampoerna does it better than Bentoel with a smart café in Surabaya and an opportunity to watch cigarettes being hand-rolled by nimble-fingered young women. This is a stylish tourist attraction. Bentoel isn’t in that league, but it was first and is now much in need of a makeover.

Ong’s story is fascinating. He came across success in a strange way, after trying a variety of brand names, including Kendang, Klabang, Lampu, Turki and Djerut Manis. All failed.

A great believer in spiritualism when he wasn’t gambling, Ong was a regular visitor to Gunung Kawi, the mystic mountain outside Malang. Here he meditated seeking success. One day – or so it’s said – he saw, or dreamed he saw, a man selling edible bamboo roots called bentoel.

The other names were stubbed out and Bentoel was lit. The company eventually became the fifth largest manufacturer in Indonesia.

The bamboo root became the company’s grotesque logo; it looks like a heart sliced out of a cadaver during a post mortem – it’s certainly another impactful health warning.

There’s another sobering tale in this story – particularly for businesses committed to upgrading equipment. Ong clearly thought he was doing the right thing when he was ahead of the rest in the 1960s by installing cigarette-manufacturing machines. These boosted production to 1,600 million sticks a year.

Then in 1978 the government forced cigarette companies to make hand rolled smokes; Ong’s gear had been bought with foreign currency loans and he almost went bust. The government reversed the law in 1986, but by then the company was gasping to survive.

There are many other intriguing yarns. One involves the manufacture of klobot. These repulsive objects look like something that should be flushed away, not sucked. They use dried cornhusks instead of paper – an Ong speciality, now seldom seen except in hillside hamlets.

Another tale has Ong fleeing to the mountains when the Japanese came, and later employing guerrillas in the fight for Independence against the Dutch.

Last decade Bentoel was sold to the Rajawali Group and the Ong family is no longer involved. One daughter still lives in Malang. She’s 91 and reluctant to discuss the past.

So the only record is in the museum. It’s supposed to be open from 9 am to 4 pm, but the staff sometimes vanish. Catch it before the displays fade altogether, or because some bean counter in a distant office thinks the place should be shut because it draws no interest.

The problem is that the museum is hiding its light under a bushel. A cigarette company not promoting itself? Unbelievable – but in Malang, true.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 November 06)