FAITH IN INDONESIA

FAITH IN INDONESIA
The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, December 31, 2007


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SAPATUN

Banana lady minds her own business © Duncan Graham 2007

Most Western countries provide pensions for the poor. That’s not the situation in Indonesia where the extended family is expected to support the needy. But what happens to a widow with no children? Duncan Graham reports:


It took some tricky negotiations for permission to use the photo above, though not because it had been snapped by some sly paparazzi while the celebrity was sans make up, dirty bra straps cutting into surplus fat.

Slim, neatly dressed Sapatun was well aware of the camera but the result was not to her liking. “If my friends see this they’ll laugh because I’m showing my teeth,” she said.

Some persuasive chat was required – all true. ‘Ibu, your smile is a real delight. It lights up the whole street when you turn the corner. It makes everyone’s day that much better. Clearly it’s one of your better points, particularly when the sunlight winks off your silver crowned front tooth.

‘This is a much better picture than the stern formal one you want and where you look like a politician. You see it’s already charmed me into wanting to write your story.’

This was no guile. The picture truly reflects her personality which is at the heart of her sales pitch along with her vocal chords.

For every day bar funerals, in scorching heat or torrential rain, Sapatun tramps the potholed and puddled asphalt of Malang hawking bananas, winkling customers out of their homes by singing Pi-sang! laying such heavy emphasis on the last syllable that the first one vanishes.

On a good day she might make between Rp 7,000 and Rp 10,000 profit, which is around one US dollar or less. On a bad day – well, nothing.

She prefers the cheery middle-class areas with a mixed ethnic population rather than the monocultural kampung or the gated enclaves of the rich.

“I buy about ten hands of bananas, and maybe some papaya in Pasar Buring (Buring market on the south side of Malang) every morning about 7 am,” she said. She has a working capital of Rp 60,000 (US $6)

“Then I start off for the housing areas. I don’t use a becak (pedicab) or bemo (public transport). Why should I spend the Rp 2,000 (US 20 cents) for a lift when I can walk?

“I keep going until I’ve sold everything, or till it gets dark and I’m too tired. I’m fit, though I sometimes get headaches.”

No wonder, for she carries the fruit in two wide woven baskets stacked on her head. At the start of the day she has close to 20 kilos pushing down on her skull. The load is softened by a coiled towel, but lifting and lowering the baskets requires a real knack. Either your arms get jerked in their sockets, or you overbalance and drop the lot. Not a good sales pitch.

The tendency is to push the descending load away from the body. Ergonomically unwise; that’s the quick way to tear a back muscle, as government health and safety officials warn in Western campaigns to instill proper work practices.

No one has told headstrong Sapatun this, and even if they did she’s not into style change. Maybe the way she squats in one movement as the wide baskets tumble downwards helps dissipate the weight. Chiropractors take note: Sapatun claims no spinal agony though she repeats this exercise 20 to 30 times a day.

At this stage in a profile it’s normal to highlight the age of the interviewee. Sorry, can’t oblige. Sapatun doesn’t know, reckons 50 plus. Maybe plus plus, like a hotel bill. So study the picture again and make your own best guess.

When you do, take into account that she spends all daylight hours in the open, and doesn’t use the skin creams sinetron starlets recommend. Also remember she weighs less than 50 kilos and has the frame (though not the height) that teens would squeal to achieve.

Her parents came from Madura, the long, dry island that lies parallel with the north coast of East Java, but Sapatun was born in Malang in the district where she trades. This is her world, her alpha and omega.

She wanted to be a farmer. She likes nature and being outside, but could never find the money to buy land.

She may have gone to school briefly – the facts here are sketchy because Sapatun only speaks Jawa pasaran (market Javanese). No problem for the locals for this is the patois of Malang. Big problem for outsiders who’ve been told that Indonesians speak Indonesian.

Sapatun married young. Her husband, also a street trader, died about six years ago. The union was barren. That’s a major tragedy for poor Indonesians. This is the converse of the Javanese proverb: Many children, much welfare.

When told that modern Western states supply decent pensions she laughed at such an incredible notion. The idea that a government could be benign and caring was fantasyland.

She lives in a tiny shack with no electricity and uses kerosene for cooking and light. She eats when and where she can. Sometimes her customers share a snack.

“People are generally kind and want to have a chat,” she said. “They usually like to talk about their children.” And how does she feel looking at the smart houses, the fecund mums, the flash cars? To fit the stereotype this story has to carry the bitter taste of revolt and anger.

“Angry? If I get angry I might go crazy,” she said. “Why would I want to do that?” (This wasn’t the only question that Sapatun found absurd.)

“My life is buying and selling. It’s walking and eating and bed. This is what I do. I don’t want to envy other people. What they do is their business.

“I’ll do this as long as I can. I want to work and be independent. I would never beg. I think that’s shameful.”

This comment presented an opportunity not to be missed. One of the curses of Malang is the work-shy youth who strum slack-string plywood guitars and howl like wolves hoping householders will pay them to shut up and move on.

So what did Sapatun feel about these wastrels? How about a fruity comment on idle kids? Oldies are seldom short of gratuitous advice for the young.

Unlike Eve and the apple, the banana lady would not yield to temptation. “I don’t think about them - that’s their concern,” she said.

Suitably trounced, there was only one question left that Sapatun might bite. Any comment for the buyers of her wares?

“I just want to say that I only make between Rp 500 and Rp 1,000 (five to ten US cents) profit on a hand of bananas. Then you try to beat down my price. I can end up selling for what I paid, so what do I live on then? That’s not fair.

“Please think about other people and how they have to live. That’s all.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 30 Dec 2007)

Monday, December 24, 2007

DIGGING UP POLITICS

THE TROUBLE WITH HOBBITS © Duncan Graham 2007

The sub-title for this review could read: Australiana Jones and the Tropical Leprechauns, but that might deter readers who expect learned discussion on these pages.

Although The Discovery of the Hobbit is about a serious topic, the unearthing of skeletal remains in Indonesia that have rocked thinking about the evolution of humankind, it’s also a rollicking, bone-jarring adventure.

Political intrigue, rampant nationalism, confrontations across continents, backstabbing and badmouthing, skeletons in cupboards and, of course, skullduggery.

The bare bones of the story are well known: Back in 2004, an Indonesian-Australian (or should that order be reversed because the funding came from Down Under?) team of archaeologists digging in a cool cave called Liang Bua on Flores, claimed a remarkable discovery.

They said that a year earlier they’d found the remains of a woman, a member of a previously unknown species of mini hominids, a now extinct race of dark-skinned people with small brains and long arms. Measured against a modern Caucasian the first lady of Flores would have just reached her big cousin’s navel.

She and her family (other remains were found later) were baptized Homo floresiensis by the scientists. But the term Hobbits resonated with a public still in thrall of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The little woman had probably died about 18,000 years ago and her race vanished maybe 5,000 years later. She was about 30 when she perished from unknown causes.

Not all were delighted with the find; although the scientists seem to have tried to be inclusive, the Australians, and Professor Mike Morwood in particular, were doing all the running.

The international media was going ape and all wanted to talk to the bearded bule who looked the part of the dauntless white explorer. A planned press conference for Jakarta to coincide with the Australian release of the news and featuring Indonesian experts didn’t go ahead and Morwood seems not to know why.

As all foreigners who live in this country understand well, robust nationalism, well infected with xenophobia is as widespread as dengue fever. In Yogyakarta, far from Flores, and not involved in the dig, was Professor Teuku Jacob, head of the palaeoanthropology laboratory at the prestigious University of Gadjah Mada.

This senior academic was also a war veteran who had broadcast resistance messages during the Japanese occupation. His lifelong friend was another hero from the same period, Raden Pandji Soejono, a Javanese aristocrat and former head of the National Center for Archaeology.

Soejono had worked at Liang Bua in the 1980s but had not excavated deeply and apparently hadn’t had his work published. In the world of science this is an awesome failing.

As the skeleton had been found in Flores she was Indonesian and the grubby hands of uncouth foreigners insensitive to protocols should be kept well away from her fragile fibula. This was so delicate that when first found (by Indonesians while Morwood was absent) it ‘had the consistency of wet blotting paper’.

In this book Morwood said he ‘anticipated healthy debate’ about the find. But by his own admission he was ‘a newcomer to Indonesia who was politically naive’.

When Soejono wanted to hand over the skeleton to Jacob without allowing the finders to set terms for access and be acknowledged, a distressed Morwood was told that giving credit to young researchers was ‘not the Indonesian way.’

If you think only the coarse and the crass behave badly and that the better educated have evolved to follow superior codes of behavior, then this book is a revelation. Be you peasant or professor, we are still subject to the human evils of jealousy, hoarding, chicanery, dinosaur-sized egos and all the other sins of Adam. This is particularly so when personal reputations are at stake and someone else is invading our territory.

You can understand their sensitivity; if you’d built your life and a splendid teaching career on the foundation of a theory that was suddenly undermined and destroyed by an upstart from afar digging on your patch, you’d be fighting to discredit the discovery.

Then there was the overburden of bureaucracy, and not all on the Indonesian side. At one stage Morwood was forbidden to travel to Indonesia by his fearful university because a government travel warning had been issued.

He eventually got permission for a quick trip provided he prepared a detailed schedule, including the exact time to travel from Soekarno-Hatta to the railway station. Easier to date a dodo.

I can’t tell you how it all ended because it hasn’t. Morwood and his supporters still reckon theirs is the biggest find in a century, set to rewrite evolutionary theories.

Meanwhile Jacob, backed by scientists from overseas, including Australia, say the wee lady was a retarded modern human pygmy suffering from microcephalia. This is a neurological disorder where the child is born with a small head.

It seems that in this fossil fight Morwood has all the big battalions of international science on his side and that Jacob is running a guerilla campaign for which he’s well equipped.

At one stage the old professor took a team of six researchers to Flores and spent five days measuring bodies, concluding that there were families of small people, perhaps with Hobbit ancestors.

Adding a touch of mysticism, the locals had tales of hobgoblins in the hills called Ebu Gogo who when given food also ate the plates.. Australian Aborigines have similar yarns (minus the dispensing of dishwashing), as do other cultures.

The book, co-authored by science writer Penny van Oosterzee gets bogged down at times with some lessons in archaeology. It’s also corrupted with clichés when more imaginative writing would have lifted the text.

Fortunately these complaints are offset by some frank and funny anecdotes. An earlier proposal for the Hobbit to be called Homo floresianus was fortunately buried when it was realized how palaeoanthropology students, with minds as dirty as their fingernails, might corrupt the name.

An artist commissioned to paint a portrait of Ms Flores shouldering a dead giant rodent added male genitalia. Apparently someone thought Hobbiteses too ladylike to have been rat-catchers and that equality had yet to evolve.

Thoroughly fed up with the demands of a film crew re-enacting a raft journey to Flores Morwood jumps up to remonstrate, falls over and breaks a bone. The confrontations between the deadline-conscious Australians and the status sensitive Indonesians should be used in handbooks on cross-cultural behavior.

Eclipsing all this are the fascinating questions. You don’t need to be an academic to build your own theories: Were the Hobbits really hominids? Their brain volume measured only 380 cc which is chimp size. The previous minimum qualification for entry to the human club was 500 cc, but definitions crumble once exposed to the light of fresh finds.

The evidence is that the Hobbits used stone tools, had captured fire and worked in groups. So they probably had language. Did they co-exist with humans? How did they become extinct? Or have they?

Why Flores? It may have once been joined to adjacent Sumbawa, the possible source of migrating hominids. Deep and turbulent waters protected the island from intruders. The so-called ‘island rule’ decrees that mammals shrink over the ages when confined to islands with limited resources and no predators.

Now it’s Professor Morwood’s turn to tremble every time he reads the scientific journal Nature; how long before the next batch of bright young wombats digs up more bones and artifacts that will make the Hobbit as dated as the safari suit? Watch this space.

##
The Discovery of the Hobbit
By Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee
Published 2007 by Random House Australia
326 pages
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(First published in The Sunday Post 23 December 07)

Monday, December 17, 2007

ARNDT''S STORY

SEEING THE POSSIBILITIES ABOVE THE PROBLEMS © 2007 Duncan Graham

What’s the premier academic journal on the Indonesian economy? The answer is going to upset nationalists, but according to the authors of a biography on 'the grand old man of Asian economics' it’s an Australian publication.

The Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies remains the pre-eminent source of accurate and unbiased information on the financial health of this country.

If survival is a measure of success, and in the corrosive world of university writing any slip in credibility and peer respect means an end to publishing, then the BIES deserves the accolades.

The journal was started in 1965 against significant opposition and indifference. That it began was due almost entirely to the belief of one academic in the importance of Indonesia as a proper subject for serious research by scholars in the nation next door.

That man was Heinz Wolfgang Arndt who died in a car smash in Canberra five years ago aged 87 and still working. He had just completed another visit to this country, proof that his interest in Indonesia went far beyond crushing numbers on fiscal follies.

He loved the archipelago and its people despite hostility from some rabid xenophobes. In 1964 Arndt was invited to deliver a lecture at the Hasanuddin University in Makassar, but the introduction by the rector Arnold Mohonutu was far from friendly.

In a 40-minute harangue the rector claimed the West was 'out to crush Indonesia by bringing about her economic collapse', arguing that all foreign aid was motivated by imperialist designs … and reminding Australians that they were 'stooges of the British' outnumbered ten to one by Indonesians and their powerful army.

With that sort of welcome, most Australians would have said Up You! and caught the next plane home. But Arndt had endured greater insults to the lasting shame of the British.

For Arndt was originally a German scholar with a Jewish background who had fled to Britain to escape the Nazis in 1933. At the time eminent academics in the UK were encouraging their colleagues to move to the West.

He studied at Oxford, embraced British values and wanted to change his citizenship. But after the war began Arndt was arrested as an enemy alien, shipped to Canada and treated despicably before his status was revised and he was allowed to return to the London School of Economics.

It seems we never learn; how many people today are being demonized by the West, not because of their personal views, behavior or character, but because they were born elsewhere and follow a different religion?

Spending eight months in detention (where he started a camp university) and being labeled a 'communist trouble-maker' tempered but didn't destroy his pro-British sentiments, say the authors of Arndt's Story. He was naturalized in 1946 and quit Europe to teach economics at Sydney University.

In post-war Australia academic inquiry wasn't highly regarded by the general public. Arndt wrote that 'ignorance and apathy' seemed widespread. So he set out to become a left-leaning public intellectual and was soon involved in major economic debates, including reconstruction, immigration and inflation.

In 1949 he was offered a job in Yogyakarta as an economic adviser but couldn't accept for personal reasons. Instead he moved to University College Canberra as professor of economics.

His spell as a Fulbright scholar in the US seems to have been a generally unproductive and frustrating time because of low academic standards and racism which he detested. He later spent time in India as a visiting professor where he became interested in the economics of developing nations. But he didn't like India.

His trips to the sub-continent included stops in Southeast Asian capitals where he found Indonesia particularly enticing. Back in Australia as chair of a new research school at the Australian National University (ANU) he proposed making Indonesia a major project.

‘Almost everyone he consulted advised against the effort,’ the authors of Arndt's Story recalled. ‘Soekarno's 'Guided Democracy' was in full flower and the Indonesian economy was in tatters. Moreover, Indonesia was in its state of confrontation – Konfrontasi – with Malaysia.’ There was also doubt that Indonesia would cooperate or even let Australian researchers into the Republic.

Arndt’s letters home during a trip to Indonesia in 1964 reveal ‘ idealism, optimism and great enthusiasm, but not zealotry or gullibility. His eyes were fresh, he went without preconceptions.’ If only more Australians could follow his example.

He also discovered inflation at 600 per cent, massive corruption, manufacturing running at less than 20 per cent of capacity and foreign trade frustrated by a mass of regulations.

Publication of the national budget and supporting statistics was banned. At a meeting of economists one dared to question a minister. The reply showed the tenor of the times: 'The fact that you think economic problems important shows how your mind has been corrupted by Western liberalism.'

Change 'economic' to 'security' or 'terrorism' and you can encounter similar responses today.

Arndt pushed on, even when the 1965 coup made the chaos even more chaotic. (Curiously this book claims ‘at least 100,000’ died in the post-coup anti-Communist purge when most authorities estimate five times that number.)

But once Soeharto had consolidated his position and announced that economic development must take priority, guided by experts and not the military, Arndt and his team of young scholars had already established valuable contacts with their Indonesian counterparts. They were able to get information denied to others, including the public, for publication outside Indonesia.

From then on Arndt was a regular visitor to the archipelago gathering data and providing independent analyses. Indonesian economists were invited to Australia and a great bond was built between the intellectuals of the two nations.

The role of the so-called Berkeley Mafia – the University of Indonesia’s US-trained economists – is widely known in the story of Soeharto’s New Order government. The influence of the Australians under Arndt has not been well recognized till now.

The authors claim that Arndt's staff and students "constituted the best repository of intellectual capital on the Indonesian economy that any institution could boast."

Not all were impressed with Arndt taking the role of ‘a prominent defender of the (Soeharto) regime, but by no means an uncritical one’. Some Australian academics and church groups thought Arndt’s work reactionary, ‘symptomatic of the intellectual and moral decadence of the Australian bourgeoisie’, even part of a CIA-inspired plot.

Apart from opening up this little-known recent history, the biography shows just how much can be achieved by one person in the seemingly almost impossible task of getting Indonesians and Australians to understand one another.

Clearly Arndt coupled his determination with charm, diplomacy and a powerfully inquiring mind that seems never to have been corrupted by Western arrogance – another lesson for expats. It's easy to see why he would have been liked in this country where resilience and genuine interest in the culture is so admired

Without Arndt's enthusiasm for Indonesia the West would know a lot less about this extraordinary land and be poorer as a result. Where others saw only an economic basket case unworthy of their talents, this idealistic and brilliant scholar knew how important it was for Australia to engage with Asia and stop seeing itself as a European state. He was way ahead of his time.

Arndt's Story
By Peter Coleman, Selwyn Cornish and Peter Drake
Published by Asia Pacific Press (Australian National University)
Published 2007
Pages: 338

(First published in the Sunday Post 16 Dec 07)
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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

MERCURY RISING IN KALTENG

Jungle school pushes danger message on mercury

Duncan Graham

Anyone wanting to learn about the environmental issues and impacts of mercury could refer to students at Bina Cita Utama (BCU) in Palangkaraya regency, Central Kalimantan.
And this is not just because staff at the province's first and only National Plus school have set assignments to research the damaging effects of the heavy metal; there's a pragmatic side also, for the school is in a province where mercury is a real threat, and factual information is sparse.
Alluvial miners, working in the Bornean mountains that feed the broad rivers in the area, still use mercury in large quantities to separate the gold from the sand by forming an amalgam. The used mercury is then dumped in the water.
So far, analysis of water from the nearby Rungan River has not given cause for real alarm, though swimming in the water and eating the carnivorous fish species that ingest and store the poison isn't recommended. But that is not the situation with other waterways.
The Rungan is relatively short; but bigger rivers nearby, like the Katingan and Kahayan, have high levels of mercury. The waters rise in the distant Muller and Schwaner Ranges, where gold is sought by hundreds of miners and their families, mainly from Java. A reported 240-square-kilometer expanse of native jungle has already been plundered.
Yadi Mihel, 40, lives on the Rungan riverbank near BCU with his three children.
"We know there is mercury in the river, but we don't know the percentage," he said. No one has been here from the government to tell us. All I know is what I've read at the school, where I've seen warnings saying it can affect the brain and the skin."
The school walls are cluttered with posters produced by the students giving chapter and verse on the dangers of mercury. And as locals are free to come and go, the students' message about the hazards is becoming widely known.
Using resources provided by the Global Mercury Project, funded by the World Health Organization and relevant United Nations agencies, the students have learned that mercury used in mining is a problem with no easy solution.
The miners are poor and although they eventually get sick, they have no other work -- without the gold, they'd starve. At best, they make only Rp 100,000 (US$11) a day. If the use of mercury were made illegal, the processing would continue out of sight of government officials.
The BCU students agreed that the only practical solution appeared to be the creation of other work that paid better than panning for the precious metal. But what "other" work? Tourism is seen as one possible answer, but Central Kalimantan does not have an international airport.
The more the students looked at the issues, the more complex they became.
Bina Cita Utama -- which means nurturing noble ideals -- is an unusual school. It is based in a Subud community called Rungan Sari, about 35 kilometers northwest of provincial capital Palangkaraya. Kalteng, short for Kalimantan Tengah, is the local name for the province.
Subud was started in the 1920s by a Javanese Muslim seer, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, and claims to be an awakening of the inner self; a spiritual movement and not a religion. People of all religions and no religions are said to be followers of the movement.
The name Subud has been distilled from the Sanskrit words susila (morality), budhi (reason) and dharma (duty). Subud followers define the name as "the possibility for human beings to follow the right way of living".
In most cities, supporters live in their own homes and get together at a center; but in Kalteng, they have built a well-resourced community on leased land in a jungle clearing.
Many homes are palatial, reflecting the affluence of those Subud followers who are professionals and businesspeople from overseas. Two houses have been converted into classrooms. Not surprisingly, the school has plenty of teaching and playing space, and good facilities.
BCU, which is associated with the U.S.-based education charity Susila Dharma International, started in July 2005 as a bilingual, multicultural school with 28 children from ages 5 to 16. Its student body has now expanded to almost 40 -- and most are Dayak, the indigenous inhabitants of Kalimantan. Dayak students live outside the Subud community and are bussed to the school. The plan is to increase enrollments to 200.
The school has only six students of foreign backgrounds -- five Australians and one Portuguese -- who live in the Subud community.
The National Plus concept was introduced to Indonesia in the late 1990s, and bridges the gap between national and international schools. Expatriate children are allowed to study at National Plus schools, where the teaching medium is often English and the students follow an international curriculum.
BCU is a fee-paying school that offers scholarships to Indonesian nationals and is open to the public. It is run by a nonprofit foundation and has two principals: Dr. Gunarjo S. Budi, a physics lecturer at Palangkaraya University who teaches mathematics and science at BCU, and Australian educator Karsten MacDonald, who carries the title "principal counterpart".
MacDonald said the local education system in Kalimantan was based on rote learning, with classes of up to 60 students. Primary school teaching hours lasted from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., and teachers were frequently absent. Corporal punishment was not unusual.
"A newspaper reported that 53 percent of students in Kalteng failed the national exams," he said. "The local government knew the system was failing, but weren't sure how to proceed."
MacDonald said Kalteng officials responded positively to the establishment of BCU.
"When they heard about the community here planning a National Plus school, they were highly supportive. They now believe that a school like BCU could become a model for others in the province," he said.
"We provide a learning environment which is non-threatening and high quality. At the same time, we maintain the integrity of the indigenous culture. All children learn the Indonesian language and culture, so they will not lose their cultural identity."

First published in The Sunday Post 9 December 2007

Friday, December 07, 2007

DON'T SEND AID - BRING STUDENTS

Don’t send aid, bring students Duncan Graham © 2007

Foreign aid is damaging the development of democracy in Indonesia.

It’s maintaining the handout culture inherited from the Dutch colonialism that kept Indonesia as a mendicant nation.

Aid also perpetuates the image that the country is backward; it is – though only in the reluctance to introduce change.

Indonesia doesn't need the $2 per citizen given in non-emergency aid by the Australian government, a major donor. The country is rich enough and if administered properly (meaning the internal tax take is handled efficiently and leakages plugged) then it could be self-sufficient.

The Indonesian tax office has long run a banner and billboard campaign to persuade people to pay their tax to help grow the nation. It's been overwhelmingly ineffective; business people regularly brag that they dodge tax because they don’t want to support corrupt officials.

Most governments don't plead for citizens to pay tax – they threaten and enforce.

This year Darmin Nasution, director general of taxes, confessed that only a third of the nation's 3.3 million taxpayers meet their responsibilities regularly. He said the number of taxpayers should be around 25 million. (The workforce is four times larger but low earners are exempt.)

Indonesia has a value added tax but it's only enforced in upmarket hotels and restaurants. Most small business run cash-only transactions and accurate books aren't kept.

About ten per cent of total government revenue comes from tobacco tax. According to WHO figures, tax as a proportion of the total cigarette price averages 31 per cent in Indonesia – one of the lowest rates in the region. Elsewhere it's more than double.

Despite the small tax base, these incomes contribute more than 70 per cent of the
State budget. Imagine what could be gleaned if all defaulters coughed up.

Reform of the tax system doesn't need a reinvention of the wheel; there are plenty of efficient revenue administration systems around the world that the Indonesian government can adopt and adapt. But that needs political will.

The Indonesian Constitution states 20 per cent of the nation's budget has to be allocated to education. The government ignores this charge, arguing it doesn't have the funds. It allocates less than 12 per cent. In the latest published figures Indonesia spent only 0.9 per cent of its GDP on education; Malaysia earmarks nearly eight per cent.

The result is a disaster. Most exams are tick-a-box tests. Rote learning is the norm. As emeritus professor Budi Darma, an acclaimed novelist bemoaned: “Students don’t want to read. They only want the synopsis of a novel. There’s no status in buying books.”

For many the idea of studying to better the mind is a foreign concept – education is to get a certificate to get a job. If you're not smart enough to pass you pay the teacher to up the marks or buy a forged diploma. In Central Kalimantan the local government claims more than 75 per cent of teachers aren't qualified and at least 20 per cent are absent at any one time.

None of these well-known problems need the fix of foreign intervention. They do need to front the queue of priorities if Indonesia is not to slip even further behind its ASEAN partners as a dumbed-down nation.

Overseas aid experts have no magic formulae unknown to Indonesians on making banking and business controls watertight, crushing corruption and collecting revenues. All that's required is the absolute determination displayed by governments elsewhere who demand a clean corporate image.

The Indonesian land agency is clogged with almost 3,000 land dispute cases. Clashes over ownership are regular and often violent – four villagers were shot dead by the military when the army took over farmland in East Java in June. Property laws pre-date World War 11. Past Indonesian governments have had ample time to write new legislation, but that hasn't been on their list of must-do tasks.

The public service is cumbersome and bloated, the result of past policies to disguise unemployment by getting ten to do the job of one. The third largest bureaucracy in the nation is the Muslim-dominated Department of Religious Affairs.

Some Australian aid programs teach 'good governance' and administrative reform. Worthy tasks, but they're pushing uphill against generations of corruption and indifference at all levels of society. Indonesia is a country where bureaucrats vie for postings to 'wet' departments like taxation, customs and immigration where the illegal take is highest. It's almost impossible to get any official licence, permit or certificate without paying a bribe.

Although Western politicians continually praise Indonesia for its transition from a military-backed autocracy to democracy it's a chorus that isn't echoed at the top in the Republic. Vice president Jusuf Kalla regularly comments that Western-style democracy isn't appropriate for Indonesia. He says economic development is being hampered because democracy allows workers and others to protest.

Employees are angry at pitiful wage levels and lousy conditions, but the unions aren't well organized and some get bought-off by bosses. In most areas the legal minimal wage is around AUD $90 a month; many get far less. According to business groups the real reason developers shy away is because the rule of law isn't applied, the legal system isn't transparent and the system of getting permits is cumbersome, lengthy and corrupt.

The World Bank reports that Indonesia ranks badly against regional economies in starting a business, employing workers and handling permits. It takes an average 224 days to get all the licences compared with 147 in nearby nations.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general, seems to understand the need for reform. He says all the right things but his orders often go AWOL down the line. Being the leader of a minority party beholden to his deputy's powerful Golkar party for support means he has to spend time hosing down threats rather than igniting change.

The president, who was directly elected by the people, leads the six-year old Democratic Party. This won only 7.5 per cent of the vote during the 2004 legislative election.

The 'developing nation' label was hammered hard by former strongman Soeharto during his 32-year reign as president. It has become a mantra, recited unthinkingly by almost all Indonesians and insultingly accepted by overseas aid donors.

Developing? How long can a nation stay in perpetual puberty? Malaysia turned 50 this year and has long been a robust and independent adult. Modern Indonesia is 12 years older.

That many Indonesians are obscenely poor is not in doubt. Officially about 20 million are unemployed and a similar number under-employed. According to the Australian aid agency AusAID seven per cent of a population of 242 million live below the international poverty line of one US dollar a day.

The statistics don't lie. A visit to the crowded kampongs of Jakarta and Surabaya, or to remote villages will prove poverty is real and wretched. Equally a trip to any gated suburb in those same big cities will reveal the most ostentatious displays of gross wealth on a scale that would match Hollywood

Here are some more figures about Indonesian 'poverty':

· The Indonesian government claims its corrupt citizens have parked about US $100 billion in Singapore, money embezzled from banks and government projects.
· One third of Singapore's 55,000 megarich are Indonesian citizens.
· The Soeharto family is alleged to have squirreled away US $15 billion during its 32 years in power.
· In 2005 the Sampoerna family sold their tobacco company to Philip Morris and pocketed US $5.2 billion. Vice president Jusuf Kalla urged the family (the name translates as 'pure') to reinvest in their homeland but at last reports they were looking to buy overseas casinos.

Overseas non-emergency aid is mostly going to education, governance, infrastructure and health. The needs are genuine, but as long as paternalistic Australia does the job there's no need for Indonesia to get its act together and build better services for its own people, or make serious attempts to recover stolen cash. In a democracy that's what governments are supposed to do.

Despite all the deficiencies Indonesia isn't a failed state. It has all the civil engineers and skilled labor needed to build hospitals, schools, highways, rail lines, airports and bridges - all the factories required to supply the cement, steel and equipment – all the know-how to deliver potable water.

If Indonesia lacks some high-tech gear or specialized advice it can buy such goods and services from overseas. The only thing absent is the determination to pass and implement the laws, allocate the resources and get on with the job.

For every school in the archipelago funded by overseas taxpayers that's one less burden on local administrators, one more plush house for the military or luxury car for the bureaucrats.

Teachers and dedicated mid-level government officers who get some of the benefits from overseas aid are generous with their thanks. Others are suspicious. After Australia got involved in the East Timorese 1999 bid for independence, and since Australia has been supporting George Bush's Middle East adventures (always perceived as anti-Islam), many Indonesians believe our motives aren't pure.

Australia has some of the best fire-fighting skills in the world, truly tested by fire. Every year Indonesia has massive scrub fires in Kalimantan, usually deliberately lit, and that it can't control. The smoke haze has Singaporeans and Malaysians wheezing and weeping, sometimes for weeks.

But Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban wants no help from outsiders. He said foreign aid would "disturb the country's sovereignty." This isn’t an isolated case.

The more fundamentalist say Western aid is part of a 'Christianisation' campaign; others think foreigners are spying and scheming to promote regional separatism. Even among moderates there's a deep resentment against outsiders doing basic things that the local administration can and should do, and anger against their own idle governments who let foreigners take over.

There are about 40,000 Indonesians in Australia. The majority are fee-paying students and their families. Most are Christian Chinese Indonesians, rich because you have to be to pay the airfares and fees. They are not a representative sample of the Republic's citizens and they're not going to be the future administrators and politicians. The public service is almost entirely Muslim.

At the moment Australia gives 'partnership scholarships' to 600 clever students chasing post-graduate qualifications. A further 270 are offered as 'development scholarships'. The total cost is $78 million with most of the money going into the pockets of Australian educators.

Australia is widely seen as a nation that doesn't like Indonesians, despite its great generosity towards the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh and the quake in Yogya. The perception has a lot to do with foreign policy, crass comments by senior politicians about pre-emptive strikes against terrorists and deputy sheriffs in South East Asia, and tough visa application rules. Politicians claim Indonesian attitudes have moved on, but these issues still rankle on the street.

The $458 million we're spending in Indonesia this year would buy a lot of scholarships for the smart but poor who could pick up skills for use in their homeland – and learn that the West isn’t the hotbed of evil portrayed by fundamentalists.

(First published in Online Opinion 5 Dec 07)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

DON'T MESS WITH MISS COMMUNICATION

Feeling like one grain of small green pea © 2007 Duncan Graham

Like most foreigners I’ve made some awful errors. No point in compiling a list – there’s insufficient space. Best to confine my revelations to the recall of one ghastly event.

I should have known better. I’d been in the country long enough to sense the sensitivities. My motives were pure. But I’d forgotten the old saw: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And my feet rapidly hit that road outside the Surabaya tourism department not so long ago.

It happened like this: As a happy resident grateful to a country that’s offered friendship and overlooked my foibles and mispronunciations, I thought I owed something in return.

Word addicts suffer side effects. Like a disgust for those who abuse language. Scold your spouse or scald the cat, but whatever you do don’t violate the vulgate.

And that’s happening in spades, particularly in tourist brochures. The most ghastly gaffes are a hoot. Getting a mention in Lonely Planet, is a coup – though not when the backpackers’ bible gives a full paragraph to quote a guidebook:

‘Bromo should be the choice, for only there, on the crater rim with the sea of sand stretching below as far as the eyes can see on one’s left and the ghostly grumble mixed with dense lumps of smoke crumple up from the inner pitfall on one’s right, and on the height of 2,383 meters above sea level would one see how lustrous the aurora of the sun in mixing colors of white, pale yellow, yellowish red turning red appears from behind the hills quite in front, to brighten the atmosphere to daylight, does one feel oneself to be like one grain of small green pea amidst a vessel of sand – you’ll be aware of the greatness of men!’

It’s not just the government that gets it wrong big time. A favorite is a hotel in Batu, East Java that invites guests to ‘lay down at the poolside (and) enjoy the sunburn.’

OK, have a giggle, move on. Who cares? Well I care because I live here and hate to see this archipelago of astonishments sneered at by supercilious Singaporeans-la or the Truly Asian Malaysians who produce the most meticulous International English prose in their PR.

The Europeans may be forgiving, but our near neighbors aren’t.

So duly authorized by a folder of fully franked letters of introduction, smart in pressed batik and shoes like mirrors I respectfully presented my humble self at the office of the Big Man.

An ingratiating preamble; surely Sir’s department had a Westminster reputation with outstanding staff producing credit-worthy material?

This was bending the truth into a hoop; the grimy office was overstaffed and underworked. Its pamphlets came in two grades - ink stencils or heavyweight gloss with smudged text, blurred color and glued pages.

But I confined myself to the language, kept my knees together and posture attentive. I just loved the brochures – the language was practically Shakespearian when compared to my Indonesian. Who else writes jemput (to be picked up) when he means jembut (pubic hair)? Or should that be the other way around? Ha, ha!

But little mistakes can creep in – you know how it is. That’s why newspapers have so many copy-editors. If Sir would care to occasionally use a native speaker’s services, absolutely free and no strings attached, maybe I could help polish the prose a little?

Get your competent colleagues to e-mail me the text. Just in case there are any teeny-weeny errors that might want correcting, so together we can help visitors really appreciate this most perfect of provinces …

In the West the unwelcome can be forcibly evicted. The Javanese solution is for the host to get up and stride out, trembling in fury, while the guest is in mid sentence, tea cup poised, and let the sidekicks show you the other door.

One was apologetic: He disclosed that the brochures had been written by the boss who had a master’s degree from a Mickey Mouse campus 30 years ago. Although the young graduate from Airlangga University (East Java’s finest) knew the department’s handouts were gobbledygook he dared not gainsay a superior.

Maintaining protocol, he explained, was more important than improving performance. So home ways you go quick – and your business you mind yourself, ya. Like Frank Sinatra, we do it my way.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 November 2007)

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EDUCATION CHANGES IN JAVA

FORGETTING CHALK AND TALK © Duncan Graham 2007

Basitia Putri was adamant; she didn't like the letter U.

But what did the 14-year-old public high school student mean? Was this a new form of teenspeak, shorthand for 'you' and implying an identity crisis? However her same-age colleague Amirul had no such hang ups. "U is good," he said in the clipped, dismissive way that Generation Now uses for Generation Past.

It took time to decode: U is the shape of the new classroom configuration used at the students' Jombang school (SMPN 3), replacing the straight rows of desks facing a teacher.

"I prefer the old system," said Basitia. "Now we're always discussing things. I feel uncomfortable having to look at my friends. I feel embarrassed having to confront the teacher."

"I like the exchange of ideas, " responded Amirul who wants to be a biologist. "There's no way you can hide. I think this is a much better approach to learning. It helps us think."

Jombang is one of three towns in East Java (the others are Jember and Gresik) that have been involved in an Australian-funded program to lift education standards and help teachers cope with the new curriculum.

As with education policies anywhere in the world, a snappy new term had to be devised. In this case it's PAKEM. A dictionary search will be fruitless – the word is another of those linguistic soups that must consume hours of bureaucratic imagination.

The acronym refers to Pembelajaran Aktif, Kreatif, Efektif dan Menyenangkan meaning active, creative, effective and enjoyable ways of learning. The program includes staff interacting with students, doing hands-on exercises outside the classroom, using their imagination to stimulate creativity and generally taking a more flexible approach to teaching.

Hardly an eyebrow elevator in the West, but revolutionary in Indonesia's basic education system.

The Australian and Indonesian advisors on the three year project that's now coming to an end were too culturally savvy (or too fearful of higher authorities) to offer any public criticism of past education practices.

They didn't need to. If it's deemed necessary by the Indonesian government to introduce 'effective' education programs now, what's been going on in the 62 years of schooling since Independence?

Sarimah had no inhibitions about slandering the old rote-learning, chalk-and-talk ways delivered in sterile settings by robotic staff. She's been a teacher at the Banjardowo 1 primary school in Jombang for more than 25 years. At first glance she'd fit the stereotype of the rigid conservative, a my-ways-are-best classroom tyrant. But never judge an educator by her drab khaki uniform.

"The standard teaching systems, where we used to stand at the front and talk and the kids stayed silent and just wrote what we said, were not producing results," she said.

"They were just learning today and forgetting tomorrow. I was frustrated but didn't know how to change. I was enthusiastic when the chance came for our school to be involved. (Sixty schools out of more than 1100 in the Jombang area have been participating.)

"Yes, it was difficult to change teaching practices. We'd been doing it the same way for so long and we all get fond of our personal habits. But they were boring and the kids would go to sleep.

"The new ways are much harder work and I think maybe 90 per cent of teachers don't like that at first. But look at the impact on the pupils! They are learning inside and outside the classroom. I'm so happy that I was selected. I'd love to go overseas and see how schools are run in other countries."

Sarimah said she had no concerns about taking advice from foreigners although she knew some of her colleagues were wary that other agendas might be hidden in the AUD $9.1 million (Rp 70 billion) Partnership in Basic Education program.

"We are neighbors – we cannot live alone and apart," she said. "We are still a developing nation so we should be happy to accept aid and ideas. A few are suspicious, but I think the help is genuine. There should be no limit to getting new knowledge.

"I feel so sorry for the Western victims of Indonesian terrorism. I want to say that to tourists and shake their hands – but I can't speak English."

Jumari, the head of another primary school with almost 350 pupils has embraced the new learning systems with relish. Australian project advisor Peter McLinton ranked Jumari's Curahmalang II school as one of the best he'd seen with the students busy and having fun while getting educated.

Schools usually respond to visits by important outsiders with rigid displays and formal events, but Jumari's school was more concerned with intellectual inquiry than protocol when the evaluators arrived.

"Education is the most important issue in our society," Jumari said. "Everybody has to go through the school system so it's critical that we get it right.

"The old teaching ways died because they couldn't adjust. It was a closed system. It wasn't transparent. There are some in the community who don't want to change – I used to be one of those.

"Only when I saw the results was I convinced. You can see the difference in the schools that have been participating in the program and those that haven't.

"I want to improve my students and myself. (He has just completed a post graduate degree course, ranking the third top student in Surabaya.)

"If I could talk directly to the President I'd say that the Government must honor its Constitutional duty to allocate 20 per cent of the national budget to education.

"This money must go to educating the people and not into the pockets of bureaucrats. We need resources. The idea of PAKEM has been there for a long time – but till now it's been dead! We are showing how it can work – now we want help."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 November 2007)

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Arie Tulus

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ARIE TULUS

Recovering missionary-suppressed art © 2007 Duncan Graham

Tomohon isn’t a place you’d normally bracket with the internationally known arts centers like Ubud in Bali and Yogyakarta in Central Java.

That could change if poet and painter Arie Tulus succeeds in his campaign to put the North Sulawesi hill town on the Indonesian cultural map.

Sulut (Sulawesi Utara, North Sulawesi) is already well established as the Republic’s most Christian province through its status as a missionary hive.

It has also been dubbed the ‘city of flowers’ though that’s nothing special. There are many garden centers throughout the archipelago, usually just outside the bigger lowland cities and at the higher altitudes that favor floriculture and horticulture.

Tomohon is pretty in a haphazard way, though not for its slab-concrete and toilet-tile architecture that’s elbowing aside the lovely old traditional two-storey timber houses. The charm comes from the flower sellers that line the main road from the capital Manado, 45 minutes drive distant.

A few overseas tourists, mainly backpackers attracted by diving on the reefs off the nearby islands occasionally detour to the cool hills. But apart from some historic sites including caves built during the Japanese occupation to store ammunition, peak-and-lake scenery that’s easy on the eyes, and the chance to hike without sharing the track with thousands, there’s little to keep visitors.

“We used to have a rich artistic heritage,” said Arie. “You can see this expressed in carvings on the ancient above-ground stone tombs known as waruga. (The images on these sarcophagi are unique, showing jolly, saucer-eyed faces and frock-coated figures.)

“However much of this was lost when the Dutch banned burials in waruga because they feared the spread of disease. The missionary influence was powerful and suppressed our pre-Christian animist culture.”

The Minahasa and other tribal groups in North Sulawesi are unusual because in the early 19th century the people made a wholesale switch from animism to Christianity, primarily Protestantism.

This gained them job and education benefits from the colonists, but it didn’t make them popular with the Muslim Javanese. Soldiers from Manado condemned as ‘Dutch dogs’ were used to put down dissent in the Java War that started in 1825.

After independence there were ill-fated bids to go it alone that resulted in the Indonesian air force bombing Manado in 1958, but if there are any remnants of separatism left they are well hidden. Now the bid is to promote a local identity within the current political structure.

“The character of the Minahasa people is open to all,” said Arie. “We are tolerant and friendly, and although we want to see the renaissance of our art we are not closed to outsiders, though we don’t want to see Bali-style development.

“So if Indonesian or European artists want to come here and work, well that’s fine. We are trying to develop the Mawale (home-coming) Art Community that will reflect this land and its people and inspire others. I have no real fear that newcomers will change the quiet character of this place.”

Arie, 45, is a multi-skilled craftsman, as artists must be to survive in Indonesia where patrons are few and governments great with supportive rhetoric though not with rupiah. “I paint because I enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t do it to make a living.”

He was educated in the local Christian schools, then studied art at the Manado teachers’ college under the late Johny Rondonuwu who used the waruga motifs in his work. Arie later took a degree in management and now teaches art at the University of Manado.

Just up the road and across a fast-running stream is the Pniel church where a large and busy mural created by Arie above the timber-framed altar draws parishioners’ eyes during dull sermons. It shows Jesus in a landscape of Old Testament scenes, including a guilty couple making a dash from the Garden of Eden.

In the maze of his little studio in the farming village of Kakaskasen, close to the home of his parents, Arie has been preparing a set of seven life-size statues. These were commissioned by the relatives of a local family wiped out in the Flight 574 Adam Air crash of 1 January this year.

All stand in formal black and white Western wedding dress, the spooky figures staring blankly at the goose-bumped onlooker. When there’s no work underway Arie wisely shrouds the statues’ faces lest they unnerve visitors.

Then comes the contrast: In the front room are stark, simple-line semi-abstract nudes that might well offend conservatives elsewhere. Arie claims no problems – maybe because he’s a well-regarded local known for his faith, or because Sulut is more tolerant.

Round the corner are shrill acrylic landscapes in the style of the European impressionists, some stacked by the walls, others tacked to the ceiling, for this man is prolific and painting himself out of space. The troubled Dutch expressionist Vincent Van Gogh is one of Arie’s art heroes, along with the American splash-and-smear abstractionist Jackson Pollock.

Elsewhere are large collections of miniatures he’s done of village life; bullock carts rocking and rumbling over the potholed roads, kids reluctantly dragging themselves to school, dancers rehearsing. Five books of poetry, all illustrated. Love is a constant theme.

Arie’s self portraits are mildly schizophrenic. Some show an unkempt Salvador Dali-like wildman, others a neat monkish figure praying (or wringing his hands) over a Bible, titled Prayer for Indonesia. Coming to terms with an intolerant Christianity that tried to eliminate art considered pagan takes some intellectual gymnastics.

With a group of like-minded friends he started the Mawale Art Community this year. The MAC publishes prose and poetry, and runs readings and workshops on Minahasa art, culture, music and history. Some members’ work is on the Web at www.sastra-minahasa.blogspot.com

About 200 meters beyond his studio rise the foothills of smoldering Mount Lokon, its green slopes giving no hint of the rumblings within this active, 1580 meter-high volcano. It’s another source of inspiration in a hugely rich and little exploited environment.

“We should never try to limit ourselves in our expression,” Arie said. “My hope is that the influence of Tomohon can help lift other artists to express themselves.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 Nov 07)

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Friday, November 02, 2007

LUDRUK IN MALANG

Grassroots theatre rising again in East Java © Duncan Graham 2007

Organizers reckoned around half a million people attended this year’s five-day Malang Festival – a marvelous annual free event staged in the East Java city's elegant boulevard – Jalan Ijen.

Official participants and many onlookers wore period costumes; favorites were the floppy light khaki of the 1945 Revolutionaries and the pith helmets and twirly mustaches of the Colonialists.

The mood was nationalistic, fun and upbeat. The crowds were enthusiastic about the huge blow-ups of old time photos that lined the street – their genuine interest proving history is not bunk.

Overwhelmingly popular were the ludruk (grassroots theatre) shows, coarse, traditional, improvised knockabout music-hall style performances with men and transsexuals playing the roles of women to the clang of gamelan. The language was low Javanese and the huge crowds loved it, particularly the rude words.

Before television spread to the towns and villages ludruk artists could be found almost everywhere. According to one researcher, by 1965 there were 40 times more dramatic groups in Java than in the US.

Ludruk producer, Henri Supriyanto a lecturer in culture and art at UNESA, the State University of Surabaya, said: "Ludruk is the theatre of the poor. It's a political movement.” Other academics have described it more formally as theatre that 'amplifies and highlights issues of social importance drawn from everyday life.'

Founding president Soekarno was a fan and reportedly hosted 17 performances at his Bogor palace. But Soeharto's New Order government was intolerant of criticism. At first ludruk was controlled, and then suppressed.

A crowd favorite at the Malang shows was East Java singer Kadam a long-time performer who became famous under the patronage of Soekarno where the vocalist with an extraordinary range became a court favorite.

Nicknamed 'Golden Voice', Kadam first met Soekarno at the Presidential Palace in 1960. At that time the 17-year old was a member of a ludruk group from Surabaya invited to perform in Jakarta.

"He took a real liking to me and I returned to the palace and his home in Bogor 13 times," Kadam, 64, said at his home in Malang. "He even picked me up because I was very small, and always waited for us to change after our performances so he could chat to us.

"I was never frightened of him because he treated everyone as equal. He didn't discriminate between high and low. He felt he was in touch with the village people – and he was.

"He was a teacher. He hadn't come from a business background. Unlike other leaders he never forgot his roots. What he said was in his heart and people understood that.

"He was a most exceptional person. There has never been anyone like him. I feel that God has accepted his soul."

Kadam said he earned enough money during the ludruk heydays to buy land and help him survive when the shows fell out of favor.

The Jakarta Post went backstage (meaning behind sheets of ripped plastic and rusty corrugated iron). We watched the players preparing to set the audience roaring with delight at the slapstick routines, songs and robust social comment on everything from the Lapindo mud volcano to politicians' behavior.

The actors had to improvise, do their own makeup while catching the director's orders, rehearse lines, calm nerves, fix their outrageous costumes and boost each other's egos – and all for Rp 30,000 (US $3.50) a night.

Maybe it was like this in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare's plays were performed in a similarly rugged environment by people who wanted to act – not for gain and glamour – but because the stage is their world.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 November 07)

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Wiwik Lo

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WIWIK LO - ENTREPRENEUR

Solving the TKI’s gift-giving problems © Duncan Graham 2007

The end of the Muslim Ramadan fasting month in mid October is a time of reconciliation and the seeking of forgiveness. It’s also the occasion for family gift giving.

That’s not easy if you’re among Indonesia’s 2.5 million overseas workers who want to send home presents or cash.

Bank transfers are probably the safest, though heavy commissions are often charged for exchanging the local currency into rupiah, and then shifting it from bank to bank. And for many Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI – the Indonesian overseas labor force) banks are strange and forbidding institutions.

Giving relatives in Indonesia a cash withdrawal card they can use at an ATM is handy, though only if you can trust them not to lend the card to others.

Trust is a factor in short supply in Indonesia, according to Hong Kong entrepreneur Wiwik Lo. She should know; before she became the joint owner of a major trading company in the former British colony she was a TKI maid from a village near Blitar in East Java.

In that position she saw all the rip-offs, and not always by immoral bureaucrats and businesspeople. So-called friends and even close family members found their honesty hard tested when entrusted with carrying a big sum on behalf of a domestic worker.

Sometimes not all the money arrived at the destination. Stories abound of cash and courier vanishing.

“I don’t know why there’s so much dishonesty,” said Wiwik, 34, now joint director of JIL Indonesia Limited. “Corruption is a serious problem.”

So with her husband David she sought a solution; why not set up a business that allows the TKI to pay the money to a reputable firm that then arranges for goods, not cash, to be delivered to the domestic worker’s family back home?

The idea was an instant snap-on. What started as a one-room two-person show in a harbor-side shopping center has now spread to two floors and 140 employees in Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Every month 16 containers full of goods for Indonesian families leaves Hong Kong port. During Idul Fitri (the celebration at the end of the fasting month) that number has jumped to 21. JIL is now planning to expand into Macau, Taiwan and Thailand.

The company offers several services; for HK $ 429 (US $55) a 45 kilogram Sembako (basic necessities) parcel will be delivered directly to the TKI’s family wherever they live in the main islands of the archipelago.

Alternatively the domestic worker can do her own buying in Hong Kong, have the goods packed and sent door-to-door back to Indonesia for HK $ 10 (US $1.30) a kilogram.

It used to cost HK $14 but other companies noting JIL’s success have tried to undercut the business. “We’ve had to trim our profit margin, but our business has increased,” Wiwik said. “Turnover is huge and growing. We have to run two shifts a day to cope.”

Another option is for the TKI to select and pay for bigger goods like motorcycles, fridges and television sets from a catalogue in Hong Kong. Agents then buy in Indonesia and organize for direct delivery to the selected recipient.

Wiwik, who arrived in Hong Kong as a naïve and nervous teenager 15 years ago, is now one of the most famous Indonesian maid-to-made-it stories in the region, appearing on television and sponsoring Independence Day events and welfare programs for TKI.

She has become a Hong Kong citizen and taught herself Cantonese which she handles fluently. Her intimate knowledge of Indonesian behavior and thinking has helped her establish systems that she thinks are close to 100 per cent cheat proof.

It’s not enough that the donor should sign a consignment note authenticating contents; she also has her photo taken alongside the packaging with the dispatch number so she can’t claim a mix up later – though the most devious sometimes argue that the picture has been doctored.

Packing has to be tightly supervised to ensure pornographic VCDs and other baddies aren’t included. They also have to watch for maids using the service to smuggle commercial goods into Indonesia for resale on behalf of businesspeople.

The company tries to employ Indonesians but the Hong Kong government bans male TKI. So almost all the lugging and heaving at JIL has to be done by Indonesian women.

Goods are triple-packed in Hong Kong to deter pilfering by dishonest drivers carting the goods to villages in Indonesia. If the contents don’t arrive as listed, or the carrier claims an extra fee, he’s penalized by the company double the value of the attempted rip-off.

“We guarantee that we’ll deliver,” Wiwik said. “It’s important in business to treat customers with respect and handle their complaints seriously. If the listed goods don’t arrive we can be contacted by phone and will trace the problem.

“Usually it turns out that family members have plundered the package and stolen the sandals for Mum before she can open the box.

“We have to be very careful in selecting staff and agents. There has to be a strong and close relationship between workers and bosses. I delegate responsibility. If I catch anyone cheating or being idle they get one warning. If they do it again, they’re out.”

Wiwik, and her husband David, who she met through a mutual friend in Jakarta, are hands-on bosses. In the chaos of the packing, storing and checking they are everywhere. Little slips past their sharp-eyed attention.

“We work as a team,” Wiwik said. “I came from a poor but strong farming family where I was taught to work hard. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

“Unfortunately Indonesians have a reputation for laziness. We are also disadvantaged by our love of protocol and status. I’m not the sort of woman who wants to leave business to my husband and lead a social life dressed in the best batik lording it over others. I don’t look down on anyone.

(A major complaint by maids is the contempt shown to them by their fellow citizens working for airlines and the government.)

“There are huge opportunities for business in Hong Kong. I’d be so happy if others could find success. I just wish Indonesia was as organized and disciplined as other nations. When I go back to Indonesia I feel so much pity for the people.

“Maybe it will change some day. Maybe. But the pressure has got to come from below.

“I want to show the people of Hong Kong through my company that Indonesians are capable, and can be as good in business as anyone else.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 October 07)

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E-BUSINESS IN INDONESIA AND NZ

Ease in E-business start-up © 2007 Duncan Graham

News that Indonesian public servants are resisting the introduction of electronic business transactions known as e-government should not surprise anyone familiar with systems overseas.

The benefits to the consumer are huge; the downside for the bureaucrat is just as large. Once e-government processes are installed correctly pen pushers become redundant. Also farewelled are the opportunities for pocketing extra fees.

E-government came to Indonesia with a 2001 Presidential instruction on Telematica, meaning telecommunication, media and information. This was supposed to put citizens on-line to access services, not to wait in line.

According to an ASEAN review only 23 of 265 regencies in the Republic are ‘preparing’ e-government networks. In many cases these are just websites that may or may not get regularly updated.

Now, six years later Djoko Agung Harijadi, the boss of e-government has been reported saying the public service isn’t ready for the system, citing ‘resistances’ and ‘lack of awareness.’

One of the best examples of how e-government works can be found in New Zealand. This country ranks equal first alongside Denmark and Finland as the world’s number one cleanskin in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Indonesia comes in at 143 along with Gambia and Russia.

One reason for this purity rating has to be the widespread use of e-government that removes any chance for corrupt public servants to milk the system or treat their fellow citizens with contempt.

Indonesia ranks 123 down the World Bank’s list measuring ease of doing business. NZ comes in second place, just behind Singapore. It takes about six months to start a business in Indonesia. In NZ it takes one day.

Registration can be done from home or the office – anywhere with an Internet connection. A printer and scanner are also required. The only other physical requirements are a reasonable level of English and a credit card.

It works like this:

The potential businessperson (and it can be an Indonesian citizen) checks on the Internet the registry of NZ business names to ensure his or her choice hasn’t already been taken.

If there’s no exact or similar match the new name (let’s call it Golden Futures Limited) is reserved for 28 days for a fee of NZ $10 (Rp 70,000) paid by credit card transaction.

This takes about five minutes and confirmation of name and company number is e-mailed back to the client. No problems unless the Registrar reckons you’ve chosen a name too close to an existing brand. No Nescafi or McDanolds, thank you.

You then have a month to turn Golden Future’s engagement into a marriage. All the forms and instructions to register the company are on the Internet (www.companies.govt.nz) and in plain English.

You need to download the consent of shareholder and consent of director forms and give these to the individuals to sign. These people do not have to be NZ citizens and can use their Indonesian addresses. KTP (identity cards), KK (family cards), letters from the Rukun Tetangga (community head), police, bank, employer or anyone else aren’t required.

Once this has been done the forms can be scanned and uploaded to the NZ Companies Office.

The only catch for people living overseas is that they must provide a NZ address as the company’s registered place of doing business. Post office boxes aren’t allowed so you need to find a friend in NZ who will allow you to use his or her address for serving any hard-copy correspondence, though in fact most communication is via e-mail.

Provided you’ve filled in all the boxes correctly, paid the NZ $150 (Rp 1 million) and you’re not banned from being a company director through a prior fraud conviction, then Golden Futures Limited will be a legal entity within one working day. As Indonesia is five hours behind NZ it pays to lodge the documents during the night.

Maybe there’s a public servant squirreled away in some neon-saturated Companies Office cubicle watching your forms and signatures flash across the screen. If so she or he doesn’t communicate well; when you stuff up and fail to tick the right box a curt red message zips back telling you to try again. As Kiwis are generally polite you’re probably dealing with a machine. No wonder Indonesian bureaucrats fear the mouse-clicks of progress.

One other catch for overseas applicants; you don’t need an Internal Revenue Department (IRD) number (known elsewhere as a tax file number or in Indonesia as a Nomor Pokok Wajib Pajak) but without it you’ll be hit by the top tax rate.

Unfortunately the IRD hasn’t streamlined its processes to the Companies Office level of sophistication. The forms can be downloaded, there’s no fee, but completed applications have to be returned by mail. For anyone living in Indonesia that’s not always a fast or secure service.

You can communicate with the IRD through e-mail, but you have to register first so privacy can be preserved. But to register you must have an IRD. This is the e-version of the chicken and egg riddle. No doubt a computer will find a solution.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 October 07)

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DJONI BASRI

Sculpting questions about human rights © Duncan Graham 2007

In most Indonesian cities the principal crossroads are graced (or disgraced if you like) by statues in the style known as Soviet Realism.

These show muscle men snapping their manacles, thrusting forward, determined to engage with some enemy. They are valiant, determined, aggressive and always triumphant.

There’s a not-so-jolly quartet of giants in beanstalk green just down the road from sculptor Djoni Basri’s home in Malang, East Java: A soldier, farmer, student and Muslim cleric stand tall, arms linked. Their concrete features confront the future six meters above the fume-filled intersection where limping beggars tap windscreens. It’s an unsubtle reminder to the masses below revving at the red lights that they too must strive in harmony to develop and prosper.

This is the sort of propaganda sculpture Djoni despises, though he also makes groups. One of his latest has a life-sized cluster of adults standing around, aimless. A child plays in the foreground; a dog sniffs one man’s trousers. A couple of women (rare in public art) look nonplussed.

“They are like politicians,” Djoni said. “They’re elected to lead, but they don’t know what to do other than argue. They’re supposed to help the poor, but they do nothing - though they want others to think that they’re doing something.”

It’s called Para Pecundang (The Losers) and you can see it and other works of this passionate man early next month (Nov) at a solo exhibition at the Galeri Cipta II in Central Jakarta.

All are of people. Djoni is a flexible artist who can create soft finger-size babies in hardwood and Styrofoam though to big fellows in bronze. The most notable in this metal is a larger-than-life statue he made of first president Soekarno for a North Sumatra commission. Like all true artists he’s never fully satisfied with his work, though in this case the disappointments are more acute.

The current trend seems to deify the revolutionary and much art shows little resemblance to photographs of the man. Djoni wanted the features to reveal the real Soekarno, the womanizer and economic fumbler along with his qualities as an intellectual and charismatic leader.

But others who had a say in the job sought to downplay these leveling human traits in favor of the look of the mesmerizing orator chosen by destiny. Inevitably the result is a compromise.

In his publicity photos Djoni strikes the authorized up-you pose of the wild Indonesian artist, unkempt beard, street-cred cap, sucking a fag to show he couldn’t care a damn.

Up close in a neat suburban house shared with his government veterinary surgeon wife Herliantien and university student son he looks tamer, more like a public servant on leave, though that impression is rapidly cut away once he starts talking.

“What’s my message?” he asked, whacking his right fist into his left hand. “Human rights, human rights, human rights!” When he gets animated he chisels into his sentences, showering chips of consonants as though language is timber to be tamed.

“All my work is a form of protest at what is happening all around. I want to show the reality of life, the poor who have been ignored or forgotten. I want people who see my art to think about what’s happening and ask – ‘what can we do?’

“Consider the plight of maids sent to countries where they are exploited and abused. We export our young women – what nation can be proud of that? When I look at what’s going on I feel despair because I know it wasn’t supposed to have been like this.”

This makes him sound like one of those creaking figures in the new democratic Indonesia - an unreconstructed Soekarnoist who now feels free to bemoan Soeharto’s demolition of his predecessor’s social engineering: “I’m a universalist, not a nationalist,” he proclaimed. “Nationalism solves nothing.”

One of ten children born in Surabaya Djoni took off for Yogyakarta as soon as he could fend for himself. It wasn’t a question of his parents having other plans for their talented son – life was too much of a struggle to be worried about career paths.

Once in the heart of Javanese culture Djoni knew he’d discovered the right place: “It was a rich environment both on and off campus,” he said. “I learned how to express myself, socially and in art. I was like a fish that’s found water.”

The place to swim and frolic was the Yogyakarta Art Institute. At that time it was the pre-eminent art school in the nation, attracting the best and brightest.

After studying sculpture idealism yielded to the pragmatic need for income. He worked for TV station SCTV where he eventually became art director doing everything from set design to the finished glitzy, garish facades used in this make-believe world.

Djoni doesn’t need to verbally chainsaw that period of his life before he turned full time professional artist, his feast or famine income supplemented by teaching computer graphics. He says it all in a little sculpture showing a small girl pulling her reluctant infant sibling away from a TV set. It’s titled Television to be Telepoison.

Potential buyers beware. His work doesn’t come cheaply and he’s as reluctant to put price tags on his works as he is to put labels on his style. One of the dirtiest words in his lexicon is ‘commercialism.’

“My art hero is Rodin (late 19th century French realist sculptor Auguste Rodin),” he said. “If you have to call me anything I’d accept being an impressionist.

“I have to work fast because the ideas come quickly and can go just as easily. I have to follow what God points out to me. It’s like a calling. I do what I want to do. It’s up to others to judge my work. I just want my family to be proud of me and my work.

“I draw my ideas from my observations of daily life, my experiences and the culture of East Java.

“I’m still looking for the right beliefs in God, the right tools and the right knowledge. I want to stimulate thinking. Art is the only way to touch people. Is it wrong to be an idealist?”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 October 07)

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Friday, October 05, 2007

WAHYU ADITYA

Animated about local talent © Duncan Graham 2007

Check www.dot-project.blogspot.com and you’ll find an intriguing little work in progress. It starts with a sperm circling an egg, and then segues into a series of pictures of a loving couple with a child. These then morph into death and destruction.

The idea is to keep all images within the frame and rotating, a sort of life cycle of inevitability and despair.

The notion is so pessimistic it seems Wahyu Aditya (Adit), 27, the Jakarta-based animator behind the concept, may be growing cynical about hopes for love and peace, despite his extensive work and worthy pleadings.

He says he’s concerned by anxiety and hate and wants to create a better world through art. He says No to War, but retreats from being labeled a pacifist. As a strong nationalist he’d fight should Indonesia be invaded.

However there’s certainly no doubt about Adit’s effervescent and abundant creativity in the minds of talent-spotters from overseas. He’s been given a Rp 100 million (US $11,000) grant by the Dutch to develop a story line for an animated feature-length movie.

Now the British Council has handed him an International Young Creative Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Next month (October) he’s off to London along with a few selected supersmarts from what the Council calls ‘ten transitional countries’ to see how the Brits do things.

It’s also his chance to showcase Indonesian young talent. This has been nurtured by Adit’s determination to wrap the hands of computer-savvy kids around a mouse, give them some clues and lots of space.

If you need convincing just check a couple of international-class shortclips on You Tube, one using chalk on a blackboard, the other working with buttons.

Adit has helped these sparks ignite their creativity through his company Hello; Motion, a school of animation and cinema that’s behind last month’s (Aug) Hello; Fest motion picture arts festival in Jakarta.

The event attracted 3,000 youngsters intoxicated with the possibilities. It was also sniffed out by a tobacco company keen to seduce more addicts. So Adit is confronting another moral problem: Should he accept cigarette sponsorship when he’s no friend of fags? For the answer watch the credits on his future productions.

“Animation is an art form and it’s not difficult,” he said. “With the new technology that’s now available animation is cheap and simple. Free share-ware software is almost as good as the expensive stuff. The only limit is imagination.

“Animation is complete; it incorporates creativity, manual and intellectual skills, learning and logic. You can be an animator at home and also hold another job.

“You can make movies with a handycam or a handphone or a scanner. With the Internet you can get an audience.” He boasts that his website gets more hits than the one run by Indonesia’s beloved roly-poly intellectual, Wimar Witoelar.

As a change-agent Adit comes across as cautious and withdrawn, preferring to show his ideas rather than tease them apart in words. On a one-to-one he’s no incendiary. The fire in the belly seems to be reserved for the ether. Or maybe it’s because he lives in a fantasy world of minimalism; one flick equals a thousand thoughts.

As a schoolboy in Malang, East Java, it soon became apparent that he was unlikely to follow his family into a medical career. His flair for drawing was quickly applied in school magazines that were more comics than the staid and joyless journals that delight education authorities.

After two years studying media in Australia he took a job at Trans TV as an animator on station promotions – though having to use his own computer.

“Producing school papers was a good grounding,” he said. “I discovered how to be entertaining with just one sheet of paper. This was the Ghostbusters era (a sci-fi comedy that led to many video games.)

“I also learned a lot at Trans but I had another mission. I wanted to upgrade my knowledge and make movies and TV programs.

“Studying in Australia was good for the theory but we were ahead in Indonesia because we had access to the latest pirated software. But television is a lot of bureaucracy.”

It’s also an abundance of unimaginative hand-me-down concepts and techniques that Adit loves to lampoon. On one of his many websites sinetrons (soap operas) are brutally ransacked for their rich store of clichés.

One hilarious sequence he’s lifted has crash zooms and rapid-fire close-ups of a startled actor confronting a crime scene, repeated to the point where even the goldfish on top of the set gets the plot. Another counts the clash of cymbals every time men and women make eye contact at a wedding that goes wrong.

Sinetron play-safe producers may think their audiences are suckers for formula films, but Adit credits them with brains and spirit. “I want the viewers to be inspired and to have knowledge,” he said. “Too many believe Indonesians can’t do clever things. We can.

“Advertising agencies making TV commercials think overseas productions and ideas are better than local – they’re not.”

Adit’s ambition to cook up one billion rupiah (US $109,000) a month through his idea ovens has yet to be realized, but his company is already employing 12 full-time staff and 20 freelancers.

He has just come back from Korea where he discovered a strong international demand for Indonesian material. The many folk tales found in the archipelago could be a rich source of plots for an animated TV series.

Apart from erasing the negativity and lack of self-confidence among potential filmmakers, the difficulty is trying to release local creativity from the stranglehold of Disney and Manga. Too many celluloid characters obviously carry the DNA of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, or the genes of the bug-eyed, pointy-jaw poppets raised in Tokyo.

“I want to change the mindset about animation and Indonesia,” Adit said. “I want the outside world to think that Indonesia is a modern and creative country, not a nation of corruption.

“I hope the new generation will be inspired – and create change.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 October 07)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

READING IN INDONESIA

BRINGING THE NATION TO BOOK © 2007 Duncan Graham

In many other countries novelist Budi Darma would be a National Treasure, probably the recipient of a hefty grant to help the septuagenarian keep keyboarding.

But this is Indonesia, and as this eminence grise of modern Indonesian literature knows well, culture and the arts aren't on the government's must-fix list. Nor are books the top buy in the average family's shopping trolley, despite more people finding the courage to enter bookshops.

Now if Budi had been a fading TV star instead of an academic luminary we'd be elbowing each other aside to get his autograph and words of wisdom.

"There have been two print-runs of my Orang-Orang Bloomington (People of Bloomington) each of 5,000 copies," he said. "For Indonesia that's not too bad."

For an acclaimed collection of short stories first published 27 years ago and still on the shelves, that wouldn't be considered too bad in somewhere like New Zealand where reading is the national pastime and there are more books than sheep. But the population of the archipelago is 60 times larger than the Shaky Isles.

"The problem is our culture," said psychologist Audifax, who is also an author, analyzing characters and plots in popular fiction, including Harry Potter. "We're an oral society. We watched events like wayang kulit (shadow puppets) in the past, and now we're hooked on television."

But there's another, more sinister factor operating. Writers have long been considered dangerous people in Indonesian society, terrorists with word grenades. The Dutch built the jails that were filled by Soekarno and then Soeharto.

During the New Order government it was unsafe to be seen in the company of books authored by people like the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the greatest of Indonesian writers last century. Overseas he was being nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature; in his homeland he was black-banned.

In the darkest days of Soeharto bookshops were like chemists; the plastic-covered products were in a glass case behind the counter. You had to make your selection (that carried the censor's approval stamp), and then run away to read your purchase in somewhere less austere.

There's no tradition of free public government-funded libraries as in much of the British Commonwealth, and the idea of reading a book at bedtime is considered weird.

Bookshops are better now, though most still deter browsing by shrink-wrapping, denying customers chairs while a stockpile of staff watch your every move.

They have reason: When workers' backs are turned some students whip out their mobile phone cameras and snap the pix or text they need for the next assignment.

There are some great exceptions, like novelist Richard Oh's welcoming QB World bookshops that look and feel more like Borders in Singapore, the necessary stop for all book-loving expats on visa runs to the island state. Then there's the new kid in Indonesia, Johan Budhie Sava with his TM Bookstores, also trading as Togamas.

His shops are spacious with some spots to sample the text and not all books are sealed. The store in Surabaya has 20,000 volumes and the place is far more welcoming than the Gramedia and Toko Agung stores.

"It's little by little," Johan said. "People are slowly starting to become more interested in books. Times are changing, but price is still a factor. It's difficult to move anything with a tag of more than Rp 50,000 (US $ 6)."

Budi Darma is also cautiously upbeat. He reckons the change started in 1999. When fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid closed the Department of Information there were 292 magazines and newspapers. That number rapidly jumped to more than 2,000 before a shakeout. Around 830 have survived.

"It's been the same with book publishers, particularly in Yogyakarta," he said. "Three or four people in a kos (boarding house) with some computer skills could become instant publishers. Of course the problem has always been distribution and competition for shelf space."

Much of this output has been a waste of trees; there may be hundreds of new titles but the print size is large, the print run small, pages are few and the quality of language and grammar worries purists.

The much awarded Budi Darma, who is now an emeritus professor, has spent much of life training teachers at the State University of Surabaya.

"The reality is that writing is a lonely job and most Indonesians prefer to be in groups," he said. "It's not a high status profession as it is in the West. (He studied in the US).

"Nor does it enhance your status to have a library at home. People are more concerned with cars and houses and furniture. They think buying books is a waste of money."

Although she accepts the truth of this statement, the electric Lan Fang is outraged that men prefer to spend on tobacco instead of type. "People are also so busy, with both parents working," she said. "Many genuinely don't have time to read."

Lan has been writing for about 20 years and although she started as a teenager she's no superficial author of chick lit, a genre that bookseller Johan Budhie Sava believes is now boring readers. She writes about relationships with more maturity and understanding.

Like her mentor Budi, she has also tried her hand with success at short stories, a form that does well in Indonesia but not in the West. Many writers, like Lan Fang, got their break in newspapers.

This is another big plus for Indonesia; in Australia and other Western countries, short stories have had to yield to the pap of infotainment. For some the road into the bookshop must start with the discovery of fiction while checking the sports results over breakfast.

But when the nascent bibliophile does make it past the surly security guards who know everyone is a thief, they're likely to be disappointed. A good guide to public taste (or the publishers' definition) is shelf space.

The sastra (literature) shelves look like an afterword; tomes on theology, how to make a mint in business (from the US) and comics (from Japan) push everything else off the edge. Most depressing is that large numbers have been written and published overseas where they've proved their salability; then local publishers buy up the rights.

"You can make a better living as a translator into Indonesian rather than an author in Indonesia," said Budi wryly. "I agree that there's a great gap in our national literature caused in part by bad education and the censorship of the New Order era when generations of creative talent were crushed and we were not encouraged to inquire.

"After we gained Independence most intellectuals looked to the West and did not try to understand the philosophy of their own country – even up to now. In many ways we have become too westernized.

"Most writers live in the big cities. They don't really know society in the country as Pram did so can't reflect it in their writing. We do not understand our own earth. Authors have been cut off from their traditions. And of course Indonesia is dominated by Java.

"Many still think that literature is not enjoyable, that it's difficult to digest. They just want to read a synopsis rather than the book.

"Now we have the freedom to write and read. But it seems that we haven't yet learnt how to handle that freedom."

(First published in The Weekender (JP) October 2007)
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Sunday, September 23, 2007

AUSTRALIAN CITIZENSHIP TEST

TESTING TIMES DOWN UNDER Duncan Graham

Readers considering migrating to Australia take note: If you can somersault through all the hoops regarding character, health, background, qualifications and intent you’ll face another hurdle: A citizenship test.

Better start now by reading up on Aussie history, politics, culture and football. If you don’t understand that this secular country was founded on Judaeo-Christian values, and that cricket is an arcane sport and not an insect, you could miss out.

There’ll be 20 questions randomly drawn from a list of 200. There won’t be a separate English language test, according to Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews. No need – candidates will need a high level of English just to wrap their minds around the questions. Example:

Australia’s political system is a …
1) Parliamentary democracy
2) Monarchy
3) Dictatorship
4) Socialist state

With Queen Elizabeth’s image on the currency and the Union Jack prominent in the Australian flag, images that flummox most new arrivals, answer 2 seems reasonable. And as all state governments are run by the Labor party, 4 also has merit. Sport dictates almost everything so 3 could give a pass though the correct answer is 1.

Failure to know the name of the nation’s first prime minister (a question which floors the average native born) could mean you’ll bypass a country where the economy is in overdrive, jobs are for the picking and choosing, wages are among the top in the OECD countries and health and welfare benefits ranked with the most generous in the world.

People seeking citizenship in the US, Canada and Britain apparently have to pass such tests but this is the first time the idea has migrated Down Under. Though not as far as New Zealand; the contrary Kiwis have given the notion the flick.

The author is the Australian government which will be facing an election later this year. This has led cynics to claim it’s another ploy to retain the conservative Liberal-National coalition that’s held power since 1996.

The fear factor is a powerful driver in Australian politics. In the 19th century anti-Chinese riots on the goldfields led to the notorious White Australian migration policy that didn’t officially die till the 1970s.

In the 2001 election the coalition led by veteran John Howard swept back to power riding on a people smuggling scare, with allegations that some Middle Eastern asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia were willing to throw their babies overboard to win sympathy for their plight.

The allegation was later found to be untrue, but by then the easily spooked electorate had plumped for a party determined, as Howard famously said, “(to) decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come.”

The boat people now seldom set sail from Indonesia, but xenophobia is still buoyant, or to be precise, Islamophobia.

Arab applicants for permanent residency (PR) visas will be asked more questions than other ethnic groups; this appears to be a clear breech of the long standing non-discriminatory policy of migrant selection.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Australia’s peak Muslim authority, is one of many groups that has called for a review.

If these government responses are part of a ‘we’re-tougher-than-you’ campaign to win re-election they may have boomeranged. Although Andrews says the citizenship test is reasonable and supported (according to government surveys) by 60 per cent of the electorate, they’ve been widely ridiculed.

Example: What’s the Australian national dish?

1) A meat pie?
2) A meat pie with a can of beer?
3) A meat pie with tomato sauce and a can of beer?
4) A Chinese takeaway?

Australians tend to take a relaxed response to nationalism; Australia Day (26 January) is a good time to lie on the beach, not stand to attention. Flag wavers and jingoism are seen as suspect, so attempts to formalize national pride tend to get ‘rubbished’ as Australians say.

Former national newspaper editor Frank Devine commented: “I have deep misgivings about moves towards codifying Australian values in order to test intending immigrants … They are a masquerade, one thing pretending to be another, security precautions against the spread of Islamic radicalism that are hoopla-ed as a means of elevating Australia’s civic consciousness.”

So where does this leave the potential migrant? Australia is a magnet for workers from Asia. To cope with the booming economy, fuelled by the resource industry feeding famished Chinese steel mills, hundreds of overseas workers are entering the country every week.

Many are tradespeople, even laborers in meat works doing the jobs Aussies reject. There are at least 500 categories of work that can’t be filled by locals, with health professionals in strong demand

If they stay for four years, keep out of trouble and still have work they can apply for PR and citizenship, and will then have to face the test.

But as Devine commented: “We go through this process to get a driving licence. However knowing the road rules doesn’t guarantee we’ll be good drivers.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 23 September 2007)

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