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

Saturday, March 31, 2007



The quotes and comments in this story could not have been published during Soeharto's New Order era. That's because they would have offended SARA – the government prohibition on discussing issues of religion, race and ethnic relations.

Asking why three per cent of the population controls most of the nation's wealth is still a sensitive question. Depending on the company and the questioner it can reveal nasty prejudices and ugly stereotypes.

East Java farmer Jani, 48, doesn't share these hang-ups. He thinks the Chinese are successful because they work hard and follow some simple formula. He says so to anyone who asks, and he follows Chinese business values.

"I left high school before graduating and worked for a Chinese in a motor spare-parts shop in Malang," he said.

"The boss told me that if I was dishonest I'd always be looking for food, but if I was honest the food would come looking for me.

"I've found that's true. I would rather go hungry than tell a lie.

"I was also taught the rule of five. If I earned Rp 5,000 I should use Rp 2,000 for my daily needs and set aside Rp 1,000 for education, Rp 1,000 for unforeseen problems and the rest for my parents.

"When the Javanese get money (Jani is a Javanese Muslim) they just spend. They want to plant now and harvest the same day. The Chinese are prepared to wait."

These basic management principles seem to have worked, for Jani and his wife Kusitah are now a local success story, controlling much of the honey trade in Tulus Besar, a village on the slopes of Mount Semeru.

Honey and royal jelly from the district is famous in the province for its quality. (Royal jelly is the high protein bee secretion that's used to nurture young queens and is reputed to have health benefits.)

Jani has 80 hives close to home, another 200 in Blitar (about 90 kilometers south west) and more still in Central Java. He also buys honey from other producers.

He's taught himself the skills of the apiarist and is able to coax more honey from his hives than most farmers using another simple aphorism: "If you look after your bees, your bees will look after you."

Last year he grossed Rp 400 million (US $ 44,000) for a profit of almost half that sum, a significant amount for a farmer who started with no knowledge, minimal education, no money, and no land or other assets.

He's turned down offers of loans from a trader in Singapore, and two local banks that have sent their managers to see him with inducements to borrow.

"I'd rather use my own capital, then I don't risk other people's money," he said. "For about two years I could only afford one meal a day. I know what it's like to be poor.

"Every job I left was never on bad terms, and only to try and better myself. My first boss is still a family friend.

"I worked as a driver, mixing concrete on building sites, and in a furniture factory. Then I got as job in a honey packing shed and by watching others learned how to farm bees.

"Many friends and neighbors can't understand how someone who was once a laborer is now a landowner and boss.

"I tell them they must be disciplined and look for opportunities. If they really want to succeed then they have to be totally determined. Sadly few are prepared to do that.

"I also tell them that there will be failures along the way. However we learn from our mistakes. I've never prayed for money. I've prayed for help in using my brain to find opportunities."

With success come problems. Jani said he'd like to market his honey under his own name, but fears others would copy his label and use it to sell a diluted or sub-standard product that would drag down his reputation. He doesn't believe there are any copyright laws that would protect his brand.

So he sells direct in unmarked bottles to people who know that the food is guaranteed pure. He also sends 225-kilogram drums of honey to Jakarta where the product is tested for purity and exported to France.

The other factor in his success has to be his personality. He's a friendly, open bloke and deceptively relaxed about business, though clearly concerned with detail. Curiously he claims never to have been stung, which presumably means that even the bees like him.

During the wet season Jani spends Rp 1 million (US $ 110) a week on maintaining his bees, feeding them sugar and controlling diseases. He buys new queens from Australia to upgrade his swarms.

In the dry season he moves his hives around East and Central Java chasing blossom during the dry season. The best yields come from kapok, longans (a fruit similar to lychee) and coffee. Hives are shifted at night by truck and dropped on farms or forest reserves. He has an apiarist's permit to use government land.

Although employing workers he has to supervise them closely, keeping him from more productive tasks. "Unfortunately it's a fact of life that you can only trust people about 50 per cent of the time," he said.
"In the Koran it says that if you help people they will help you. That's been my experience with other farmers, but not always with workers.

"Many Chinese that I know who now have their own businesses also started like me with nothing. They've been successful because they've worked hard.

"We must stop being jealous and angry – and look at the Chinese from a different perspective."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 March 2007)


Monday, March 26, 2007



You've probably seen them on TV news, big burly blokes pouring out of pick-ups and getting stuck into petty lawbreakers.

The villains – often rural folk seeking city fortunes - have usually built shanties on riverbanks, railway reserves or other public open space. They're tolerated for a while till someone important reckons the huts are an eyesore, or because the land is wanted for development.

Then the heavies are sent in to rip down the plastic and push over the flimsy dwellings. In these set-piece dramas the distraught locals protest furiously, but the boys in khaki keep smashing.

These upholders of authority are the Satpol (Satuan Polisi) a term probably best translated as public order officers.

They're employed to protect state property and uphold regency regulations, and they're not always the most popular guys in town. Theirs looks like a tough task, not something you'd expect a woman to do in a culture where many jobs are considered gender specific.

Now meet Diana Ina who isn't just one of the mayor's militia in Malang. She's the boss of his 260-man hit squad and the only woman in charge of Satpol anywhere in East Java – maybe in Indonesia. Only four staffers are women – and they have office duties.

"It's the sort of job where a woman needs the full support of her family," Diana said. "Unfortunately that's rare. I'm lucky – I do have the backing and understanding of my husband and children. I'm on call 24-hours a day and I'm often out with the patrols.

"Sometime I think that the problem with women getting top jobs in the public service or in private industry isn't always because of oppression by men.

"Often it's the women themselves showing no ambition, saying: 'I'm just a housewife.'

"They should be making greater efforts to get a proper education and training. We can do anything – but we must be capable."

Diana started work in the East Java Governor's office after graduating in public administration from Malang's Brawijaya University.

Twenty years later after holding a number of positions and proving her efficiency and effectiveness as the head of a district – particularly in handling aggressive Madurese traders who were defying local edicts - she got the chance to take the top Satpol job.

Now aged 50 she's had the hot seat for three years. It carries the rank of Commander, which is similar to Lieutenant Colonel in the police force.

Satpol agents generally don't carry firearms. They do however wield sticks and batons for crowd control and self-protection. They don't handle traffic – that's a police responsibility.

"Most of the time we're trying to enforce regulations and by laws," she said. "We also back-up the police at demonstrations or football matches when fans get unruly.

"Violence in public and peace in the kampong is one of the contradiction of Indonesian culture. When men are together in a mob and get provoked they can be brutal.

"Yet back in their home localities, and among family and neighbors, they behave quite differently. They are polite and respectful."

Though not always to authority. Respect isn't high for either the police or Satpol. Ignorance of the law is not accepted as an excuse, but the problem is made more difficult because many don't see it as their responsibility to keep track of legislation. The poor have other concerns.

There's also some confusion over which government department has the job of ensuring the people most affected are up-to-date on regulations.

So a two-month grace is imposed between a new law coming into effect, and the Satpol moving in.

Diana said she stressed to her staff the need for fairness when dealing with offenders. She said women had better 'people-skills' but few were attracted into working as law enforcement officers.

She agreed that part of the problem might be image. Unlike the tight and slinky uniforms worn by women police, Satpol use big black boots, baggy pants, shapeless shirts and unflattering berets. Great gear for kicking down doors and turning out squatters, but not to turn heads.

"Uniforms are being reviewed, and on some days I wear a skirt," she said. "But there are many other priorities. One of the most important is to review penalties.

"When we prosecute people who break building codes and don't get the right permission the fine is only Rp 50,000 (US $5.50). That might have been a significant amount 30 years ago (when it was about US $25) – but not today.

"So some try their luck and go ahead with their business without permission. If they're caught they just pay the fine. It doesn't bother them."

Is corruption an issue? "Hopefully no bribes are being taken by my staff. I stress that they must be honest and earn the respect of the public."

Have you ever been assaulted? "No. There have been many confrontations and threats but I've never been hit. Many of my staff have been hit. I tell them not to be aggressive, to try and understand human nature."

Do you have problems leading a male workforce? "Some were resentful at first. I follow an open management style. We have to work together and go ahead together. I need them and they need me."

Don't you feel compassion for poor people who are just trying to live, who don't have a job or enough money to rent or buy a house? "Yes, of course. But the law is the law and must be upheld. That's my job."

In her Malang headquarters the effectiveness of Satpol is everywhere on display. One office has been taken up with confiscated banners and produce sold illegally. Outside are rows of food stalls and kaki lima, food carts that have been seized.

Beggars are also picked up and sent back to their hometowns, or passed on to the Social Welfare Department.

The TV voyeurs' crime show delight is the sight of Satpol officers raiding brothels and herding squealing girls into vans. Diana claimed that prostitution in Malang – a city of almost one million people – had ceased on her watch.

"We want Malang to be a morally clean city," she said. "If I hear of kos bebas (boarding houses used by men and women) I'll close them down.

"The problem in Malang is drugs. This is an education city with young people from all parts of Indonesia studying in the local universities. We need information from the public to keep us informed of drug deals and dealers and alert the police.

"Unfortunately we don't yet have a free contact phone line. People often say they wanted to call us but didn't have the money. I hope this problem will be fixed."

Your advice to women? "Let's struggle together to show we can do anything – even jobs that are traditionally seen as men's work. We can have careers and maintain our home responsibilities. Don't be afraid to try."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 March 07)



Wednesday, March 14, 2007



The tragic crash of the Garuda jet in Yogya has rightly fired up all the usual critical concerns in Australia (and here) about safety, training and maintenance in Indonesia's airline industry.

But it has also highlighted the close cooperation between the two neighbors.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent his personal sympathies (five Australians were among the 21 fatalities), and Prime Minister John Howard has offered medical and other help.

Australian air transport investigators have been working alongside their Indonesian colleagues. Data from the Boeing's flight recorder (the so-called black box which in fact is oval and orange) has been analyzed in Australia and the US.

These gestures seem genuine - no conditions attached. When it was suggested in a TV interview that the Australian specialists would only be treating their fellow nationals, Howard was adamant that the aid was for every burned body, whatever the color of their passport.

This is all as it should be – neighbors helping neighbors in a time of strife – no questions asked.

In Indonesia it's called gotong-royong, in Australia it's mateship. Sure, there's the Lombok Treaty signed last year to formalize such cooperation – but as an Aussie in Indonesia I like to think this instant generosity is heartfelt and needs no signatures and stamps.

How sad that these get-togethers only seem to happen when there's a tragedy.

This reinforces the image of Indonesia in the minds of ordinary Australians as a mire of chaos, crises and corruption.

The Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand, Amris Hassan, recently complained to The Jakarta Post that coverage of his country in the local press was rare and miniscule.

He shouldn't worry. No news is good news.

Next door to the Shaky Isles, in the bulky continent that stands as the Great Antipodean Wall between Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Indonesia is seldom off the TV bulletins and broadsheet pages.

The stories usually feature terror and trauma. Unlike NZ, the Australian media treats Indonesia seriously by maintaining news bureaux in Jakarta. One of the Yogya crash fatalities was award-winning journalist Morgan Mellish from the Australian Financial Review, one of those seriously injured is Cynthia Banham of the Sydney Morning Herald. Both were based in Jakarta.

Foreign reporters don't have to go far to find copy in the Republic. Indonesia isn't just one of the most fertile agricultural countries in the world, it's also rich in resources and stories.

Many are tragic. In a nation of 240 million that's been cruelly plundered and neglected by past administrations, where democracy is a toddler and where the rule of law is a farce, there are bound to be tales of evil deeds, neglect and maladministration.

Inevitably these events eclipse the stories so many of us try to write focusing on the good and great things that are happening across the archipelago. For every loony packing nails into a crude pipe bomb in Poso there are thousands of decent folk agitating for understanding and tolerance.

While one crazed cleric condemns the unity of humanity, thousands more preach peace, love and a common heritage.

These stories also need to be told, but they're getting shoved aside by the hard stuff, the bangs and the blood.

Although politicians and the media set the public agenda, it's the ordinary people who form opinions. Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising of all.

The leaders of the splendidly professional Batak dance group Suarasama that has performed overseas regretted that they'd never played in Australia "because it's too hard to get visas."

When such concerns are published the official response is that most applications are granted. Maybe – the government controls the figures – but the perception is that Indonesians aren't welcome Down Under.

This street-talk has to be undermined so the goodwill created when we come together in grief can flow through to other issues. Just meeting the people next door on a personal basis can help wash away the stains and prejudices to inspire the comment:

"Why, they're just like us, worried about their kids and jobs, wondering how to make ends meet and what the future holds."

Vice President Jusuf Kalla wants more tourists to visit Indonesia. A good call – but it needs to extend beyond Bali so outsiders can get a better idea of the marvels of this complex land and the robust resilience of its people.

Any Indonesian campaign to boost visitor numbers also requires a broader knowledge base and a radical re-education about modern tourism. Not all potential visitors are surf-crazed hedonists wanting to doss-down with a keg of Bintang.

A theme in the worthy Indonesian film Long Road to Heaven is that the blinkered bombers were inflamed by the sight of young people dancing, drinking and enjoying themselves. That was their cardboard-cutout view of foreigners – evil unbelievers to be damned for their misdeeds.

If only those deranged haters had a broader and more mature knowledge of the multicolored universe they might not have seen things in monochrome.

Indonesia is more than landslips and runway skids. It's not just tsunamis and the shuffling of tectonic plates. This country holds no copyright on corruption – just google the devious doings of the Australian Wheat Board in Iraq for proof.

A few Australian nutters may see themselves as part of the deputy sheriff's posse in Southeast Asia, but most of us are just humble folk trying to learn more of the world beyond the tragedies and wanting to do more than help and grieve in troubled times.

Nations that share together stay together.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 March 07)


Tuesday, March 13, 2007



The great green, greasy machine trundled slowly through the field, slashing the leaves off the vegetables, tearing them clear from the vines. Behind the cutter bar and the whirling battens, and just in front of the tractor wheels tramp a row of workers.

Their job is to pick up the squash and lob them onto a conveyor belt. This rolls the vegetables up a ramp and into big wooden bins. Two forklifts scurry around the paddock gathering the full bins and loading them on a truck.

The work is non-stop, intensive and exhausting. Most passers-by wouldn't give the scene a second glance, for this is modern, mechanized New Zealand agriculture.

Except that the workers are Indonesians.

All have come from Tulungagung in central East Java. They're part of a scheme to use Indonesian laborers on short-term contracts to keep NZ horticulture in business.

For the farms are flourishing, the crops are heavy and the export demand for NZ produce is expanding. Just one problem – not enough labor.

Four years ago Trish Dooney, a businesswoman in Hawkes Bay on the east coast of NZ's North Island together with her Indonesian husband Igun, brought some of his extended family to NZ on work visas.

Till recently NZ and Australia have kept their doors slammed shut against overseas workers. Indonesian maids and construction hands could travel overseas north and east as part of the Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI - Indonesian labor force) – but not south.

Powerful Western labor unions feared locals would lose jobs to foreigners and that wages and employment standards would tumble. But the acute demand for workers in the booming economies Down Under has forced a rethink.

The Indonesians who came with Dooney and Igun adapted quickly and caught the attention of local growers. With the help of the NZ embassy in Jakarta the couple brought in a few more relatives. This year the number has jumped to 155 and a little family initiative has become big business.

Igun is now employed by a major horticulturalist as recruiter and organizer of Indonesian labor. Other companies are clamoring for workers, but the selection and visa procedures are prolonged, so they won't get staff in time for this year's apple harvest.

"So far it has worked brilliantly," said Dooney who imports Indonesian artifacts for a shop she runs with her sister Lyn Mitchell. The two women buy directly from villages in Bali and Java, and commission work to their own designs.

"The men suffer from the cold, but adapt. Most reckon NZ is amazing. They also get on well with the Maori (the original inhabitants of NZ).

"When it was just family members we were able to cook and care for the men. Now the program is big, and could get bigger. It could swell to thousands. The growers are desperate.

"However the NZ government plans to change the regulations this year, and they may favor Pacific Islanders rather than workers from other countries.

"The selection process in Java must be done carefully. Indonesians are excellent workers. They don't complain. They've had some culture shocks but they've coped. But the scheme could come apart if any abscond."

NZ has a serious problem with visa overstayers from many countries. They arrive as three-month tourists, find work and friends, rip up their return tickets and disappear into the community.

That hasn't happened yet with the Indonesian farm laborers because they are continually warned that one defection could close the door to future workers.

At a furnished suburban house Husnul Waladi, 28, lives with 30 young single men, steaming Thai rice, micro-waving lamb chops and acting as a go-between with the bosses. He plans to marry and start an English school back in Java when his 6 month work visa expires in June using the NZ $4,000 or 5,000 he hopes to have saved.

He'd prefer to return to NZ and eventually get permanent residency. He's already bought a car and a laptop – but realistically reckons becoming a Kiwi is a dream too far, for he's already homesick. And starting to ask questions about Indonesia.

"The bosses treat us fairly and we're not being exploited," he told The Jakarta Post. "Everything is well organized. There's no inequality here – why should there be in our homeland? There's nothing to hope for in Indonesia – why?

"Put this in your headline so SBY (the Indonesian President) knows: 'Why don't we have equality in Indonesia?'

"The other hardship is the fiscal (Indonesian departure tax of Rp 1 million per person). Why should we pay this on top of passport and visa charges and airline tickets?"

The men have to repay airfares of NZ $1,700 advanced by their employer and are taxed about 22 per cent on their earnings. If they don't work a full year they get a tax refund. Accidents at work are covered by insurance.

The minimum wage rate is NZ $11.50 an hour, but rates vary according to the crop. The men work in gangs and the Indonesians stick together.

They pay NZ $70 a week for accommodation and use of vehicles. They spend about NS $15 each a week on groceries.

"Indonesians who come here should understand English," said Waladi who has made a video of his NZ experiences to show potential applicants in his hometown.

"You have to work hard, maybe 7 am to 5 pm or later six days a week. I've never worked so hard before in Indonesia. We don't stop on Fridays for prayers – but that's no problem. (Some workers are Hindu and one is a Christian. Most are Muslim.)

"You must also be disciplined and obedient. We're paid the same as NZ workers. We haven't had any problems or experienced racism – everyone is very friendly. We try to do our best.

"The things you hear about Westerners being wicked, pornographic and arrogant aren't true. Those stories are spread by people who've never been abroad – they're just like frogs trapped in a coconut shell."

Said Dooney: "This is a win-win situation for Indonesia and NZ. It's changing people's lives. We're in this together. They've helped us enormously and we're helping them. I just hope no-one gets greedy."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 March 07)

Monday, March 12, 2007



Have you caught up with the good news that our legislators want to change the Press Law? That they've time to consider the needs of journalists indicates that the nation's serious problems have all been solved.

If it's not too late may I suggest a few amendments? I know the best and brightest among the elected elite have been giving media matters the benefit of their refined wisdom for some time - but in case they've overlooked a point or two I offer the following suggestions:

Article One: All reporters must look like respectable members of the Fourth Estate and not like street thugs and layabouts. OK, I know many are – but do they really have to advertise it with bomber jackets and baseball caps promoting engine oil?

For some dressing down is a statement of rugged individuality, but that doesn't help the Uniform State. I reckon the system they have at Metro TV is pretty neat. All staff are kitted out in blue jackets and shirts, making them look like stewards on a PELNI liner with Surya Paloh as Captain Ruthless.

So blue has been taken. How about yellow? That should please Jusuf Kalla and help him start coming to terms with satire.

But isn't yellow the symbol of cowardice and aren't all journalists brave as bulls, I hear you ask. (Well I would if you bellowed a little more loudly.)

Red has already been cornered by Megawati – and who wants to be linked to losers?

Article Two; It will be illegal for photographers to snap leaders steering important visitors to their seats, unless the guests have impaired vision.

There is an important exception. Many politicians are blind to the real needs of the people so such circumstances legitimately warrant a hand under the elbow. These pictures will be permitted.

Article Three: Journalists who write opening paragraphs of migraine-inducing length, with clauses and subordinate clauses, each one referring to some obscure point that's absolutely unnecessary in the story, and which does nothing to enhance the topic, albeit one that has caught the public interest over the last few weeks and months, and which reflects on the state of the nation, as seen in the recent moves for more debate on this and other important issues, will be banned from opening their laptops.

Unless they work for Tempo.

Article Four: Cartoonists will be prohibited from putting the names of characters on their briefcases and instead will have to draw likenesses of the individuals so they're immediately recognizable. Have you ever seen anyone walking around carrying a huge wallet labeled TOMMY? Ridiculous – the man's a convicted criminal!

Article Five: The labor laws and our seniors must be respected. There are rules about using the aged and handicapped. Writers who employ crippled and exhausted clich├ęs in their copy will be prosecuted for word abuse.

Article Six: The use of terms like 'seasoned observer', 'sources close to the President' and 'an official who declined to be named' will be banned. Journalists must tell the truth. The terms above should read: 'my Mum', 'Palace shoe-shiner' and 'Jusuf Kalla'.

Article Seven: Newspapers must not put four paragraphs of a story on Page One and the next 44 paragraphs on Page 31, thereby driving couples crazy who share one paper at the breakfast table. Editors who continue to offend may find themselves cited as co-respondents in divorce cases and have their publishing permits revoked.

Sorry, didn't you know press licensing will be reintroduced? Apparently the Bureau of National Intelligence has reported that certain unnamed subversive overseas elements are seeking to disturb the populace. So to protect the people it's essential only those approved by the government will be allowed to publish.

I've been told no reasonable person will object to this clause and I should check. Article 666 for definition of 'reasonable person.' "If you don't read the small print that's your fault," said Ministry of Truth spokesman Eric Blair.

He added that anyone suggesting this implies a dilution of democracy and curtailing of press freedom will have an opportunity to discuss their concerns with the relevant authorities. Apparently they'll be visiting selected editors just prior to dawn anytime soon.

(First published in The SundayPost 11 March 07)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007



Apart from artistic style there seems to be little in common between Indonesian painter and sculptor Kaisar Wijantono and his preceptor from the past, the Dutch expressionist Vincent Van Gogh.

From all historical records the prolific post-impressionist 19th century artist who shot himself when aged only 37 – and then took two days to die – lived a tormented life. The self-amputation of his left ear, which he then gave to a prostitute, is one of the most famous anecdotes in artistic history.

Who knows what black dogs of depression howl in the cavernous conscience of Kaisar, but the 40-year old Javanese presents as a wholesome and balanced individual with a steady hand, offering a cheerful and positive face to the world.

While Kaisar’s style is distinctly European and often enigmatic, there are no swirls of anguish and flecks of doubt in his work – and hopefully not in his soul.

“Van Gogh was not mad,” said his admirer with some vigor. “He was certainly misunderstood. But he was a genius.” Like the brooding Dutchman Kaisar has his own self-portrait. It shows a pensive artist in a paint-splotched smock, apparently seeking inspiration in a caffeine fix.

Coffee cups and cigarette butts litter his cluttered workplace, but no sign of absinthe, the wine and wormwood liquor that sustained Van Gogh and is supposed to have affected his sense of color. Instead the Javanese finds inspiration in classical music, particularly Beethoven, and the ochre and emerald tones of rural Java.

Kaisar is one of those most fortunate Indonesian artists who can make a reasonable living from his work without having to drive a bus or a desk during daylight hours.

His success has negated his parents’ predictions that a man with no ‘proper’ job would be doomed to a life of penury. His needs are frugal (he’s a single parent of an eight year old) and he doesn’t seem to hanker for wealth.

“I’ve always been a professional, ever since I left the Jakarta Art Institute where I had teachers who loved the European tradition,” he said. “I wandered around Indonesia for five years. I liked adventure and knew that one day I’d settle down. I was offered a job with (the oil company) Pertamina, but I rejected the chance. All I wanted to do was paint.”

Van Gogh was a Christian fanatic to the point of being rejected by church conservatives. Kaisar is far more balanced. He was raised a Muslim but converted to Protestantism when a religious teacher at his primary school forbade students to greet people of other faiths.

“I thought this was quite wrong, even though I was young at the time,” he said. “In my heart I was a rebel. I thought I could not trust anyone to teach me about religion, so I had to find out for myself.

“We should not criticize others – that’s the role of God. Just enjoy life and don’t hurt anyone.”

There’s no history of artistic talent in Kaisar’s family. He was born in Malang where he still retains a modest studio on the back veranda of his parents’ house in a kampong on the edge of the East Java city. But most of his time is spent in Jakarta where the big commissions attract.

He recently finished a seven-meter high statue of Moses commissioned by an overseas construction company for its Jakarta headquarters. He’s also created other statuary for private clients and doesn’t seem to mind shifting from oils on canvas to cement on walls, though the two seem incompatible.

The serious money is in sculpture where the size of the assignment demands the client put cash up front. With painting the outlay on oils and canvas is small so the artist can self-finance, paint what he likes and speculate on finding a buyer later.

He’s had exhibitions in Jakarta, Surabaya and Malang, worked on furniture designs in Australia and is now preparing for another show in his hometown.

Unlike his mentor Kaisar has avoided still life and landscapes, preferring portraits. He’s attracted by real and mythological historical incidents, beautiful women, the village poor, artisans and humble folk.

One of his major works called Maestro (which he completed in a night of intense work) shows a wood carver fitting a magically charged mask to a dancer’s face that can’t be seen, while a black cat prowls.

The setting is clearly tropical and from the costumes and features, Javanese. But in the background through a wedge of light beyond the carver’s hut rise green hills in the style beloved by Renaissance artists, particularly with religious subjects.

His Dwarapala is another substantial canvas showing one of the two great statues of the fearsome guardians against evil spirits. These goggle-eyed figures festooned with skulls were probably part of the entrance gates to the Singosari palace, the 14th century kingdom centered just north of Malang.

“When I went to Singosari I was disappointed to find that the statues are in a developed, urban area,” Kaisar said. “There are houses all around and the figures are just at the side of the road. I wanted to create a more natural scene, as it might have been in the recent past.”

So four village girls, each with a baby on her hip, stand before the awesome carving, their expressions bland as though adult life has rushed on them too soon, stealing their youth and locking them into inescapable responsibilities.

Kaisar is vague about prices. His big works sell for about Rp 10 million (US $1100) in Malang, but fetch higher sums in Jakarta.

“I’m lucky, I have plenty of work, though I don’t go looking for it,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t have enough money – then it comes!

“Clients seem to find me. I now spend about half my time on sculpture. I don’t have a gallery. I really only want to sell to people who appreciate my art.

“I like working in Malang. The light here is soft, the air cool. It’s easy to get access to people. The situation is less hectic, life is slower.

“When we look at a picture, what is our reaction? It should show feeling. There should be character. We should not be afraid to express our beliefs. Life is art. If you want to be an artist you must love life. Life is beautiful.

“I live for painting. I don’t paint to live.”

(First published in The Weekender (Jakarta Post) February 07)





Si Gale-gale sounds like a lonely backblocks farmer's fantasy – a rich harvest for any Freudian psychoanalyst to winnow. But this is culture, so read on with safety and don't hide the paper from the kids.

Once upon a time Datu Panggana went into the forest on the shore of Sumatra's Lake Toba where he discovered a small tree, minus branches. Being a bit of a sharp man with the axe he set to work and had soon transformed the trunk into, well, a trunk.

As you might have expected, this resembled a woman. Bao Partiga-tiga happened to be passing by. He was a dealer in materials and fashion accessories. The two lads thought it might be a fun thing to clothe the figure with the best gear available. Come nightfall and the fellows' fun was over, but the clothes and jewels could not be removed.

There's a cautionary tale here that might resonate with married men but we'll let it pass, along with the rest of the story. This involves the sap rising, the carving coming to life, marriage proposals and lots of other jolly woodland events, like cursing, magic spells, barren wives and nasty spirits.

If you haven't heard this tale before, worry not. Hardly any Indonesians have apart from the Batak who own the folklore. Their numbers would probably be challenged by New Zealanders who are not only familiar with the plot, but have also seen it performed on the streets of their national capital.

For during a week in windy Wellington a group of 10 Batak artists called Suarasama (one voice) danced the Si Gale-gale ritual in their black suits and red mitres looking much like a bothering of bishops. Props included a wooden-faced puppet standing at the end of a carved coffin and waggling his ochre fingers.

Their audiences were hundreds of curious Kiwis watching performances inside and outside the world-famous Te Papa National Museum of New Zealand.

The Bataks were there along with other Indonesian performers and composers from Java and Bali to take part in the 26th Asia Pacific Festival, a celebration of music and performance from around the region.

Festival artistic director Professor Jack Body from the NZ School of Music at Wellington's Victoria University agreed that the definition of 'Asia-Pacific' was a bit squishy.

"It doesn't go as far as India but it does include China," he said. "Indonesia has always been welcome but there have been political tensions. Indonesia joined in 1980 but membership lapsed even though the fee is only US $100 (Rp 900,000).

"You've been on-and-off members for some years. I suppose it's not easy to develop a national organization in a country as diverse as Indonesia and keeping all the different groups informed. I'm really sympathetic towards those difficulties."

Body's concerns aren't just academic. He spent two years teaching Western music at the Art Institute in Yogya and has been active since in pushing for Indonesian involvement in international events. He also helps organize teaching of the Javanese gamelan.

At one time he had access to buckets of money through the NZ-Asia Foundation. This was trying to improve relationships with neighbours and helping pay for artists air fares to the shaky isles, but that cash has almost evaporated.

This means the Festival has been afflicted with the curse of seeking sponsors. This year that onerous task was eased by the Ford Foundation helping four composers attend with the North Sumatra provincial government backing the Batak team.

"This is an opportunity to show that North Sumatra isn't just a place of natural disasters, but also has rich cultural traditions and art forms," said Rithaony Hutajulu who manages Suarasama with her husband Irwansyah Harahap. '

"It's also our chance to say thank you to the people and government of NZ who so generously helped us after the 2004 tsunami." Total aid topped NZ $ 90 million (Rp 600 billion) from a population of four million.

Suarasama was formed in 1995 by the US educated couple who both teach ethnomusicology in Medan.

The other Indonesian crowd-pleasers were wayang kulit (shadow puppet) shows overseen by the effervescent Dr Joko Susilo, originally from Solo and now an academic at Otago University in NZ's South Island.

Apart from the performances he and colleague Budi Putra, who teaches gamelan in Wellington, ran workshops explaining the art of making the puppets, and the stories behind their characters.

These were hands-on events with audiences famished for information. Why does this puppet have a long nose? Why is that one's face red? Not easy for anyone to grapple who has never visited Indonesia but expects a one-line answer.

The gamelan orchestra has been functioning at the School of Music for the past 25 years. All performers are Caucasian and they've made several trips to Java and Bali playing the complex instruments to their own compositions – making the gamelan as universal as the piano. (Last year a gamelan festival was held in Berlin.)

Curiously none of these events were followed up by tourism promotion. No brochures were distributed – not even posters showing the location of Lake Toba – or Indonesia. Organizers agreed this was an oversight.

Kiwis are great world travelers and the questions asked at the public events showed a genuine curiosity. This was unlike Australia where emotions tend to be grounded on fear and suspicion.

Commented Body: "We're too far away in NZ. No one is going to bother us down here. We want to know about other people. Indonesia is very important to us. Music transcends lines marking territories, theories and cultures."

Filipino academic and conductor Ramon Santos has been another long-term advocate of using music to banish boundaries. He said a meeting of the Asian Composers' League in the early 1970s made a startling discovery that helped start the festivals: "We suddenly realized that we all knew Mozart and we all knew Beethoven, but we didn't know what our colleagues were doing in neighboring countries. How come?

"Why not get together and absorb the different aesthetics of our cultures and traditions? Music helps bring people together."

Veteran Javanese composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur, who lists himself in the 'Western-educated' category because he trained in Paris, agreed. At this Festival he found himself fascinated with mouth music demonstrated by some participants. Their cyclical breathing skills allowed notes to be maintained for long periods.

Slamet, who works at the leading edge of experimental contemporary music helped start the Indonesian Composers' Association (AKI) in 1994. This now has 110 members. "In the past the accent used to be on the differences between East and West," he said.

"We've finished with that kind of thing. No more. Ideas of centralization and competition are out of date. We recognize the existence of difference. Composers have to get ideas from everywhere. Compositions need to be cross-cultural.

"There are only two types of music – good and bad." So how do you tell the difference? "Ah! No one knows."

And if they did they tended to keep criticism sotto voce. All invitations to be frank on the record were declined – and off the record comments were by most critical standards in the arts industry most restrained.

At times the conference workshops and debates - which ran parallel with the performances – tended to become as obscure as the music the experts from 23 countries study and make.

The solo performances demanded intense concentration – to enjoy the piece and spot the ending. Was the audio hum part of the work or an aberration? There was seldom a crashing finale - compositions might suddenly revive once the clapping started. Catchy, shower-humming tunes were out. These may have been the sounds of music but they certainly weren't The Sound of Music.

Not all were seeking the purity of mountain flutes played by goatherds. NZ composer Helen Bowater was in Yogya one New Year's Eve where she found inspiration in the celebrations with "jubilant crowds blowing countless varieties of hooters ingeniously created from recycled junk."

To the average visitor this the midnight soundscape bouncing down Yogya's Jalan Malioboro would have been one great raucous racket, but Bowater used her experience to create New Year Fanfare. This was played by the NZ Symphony Orchestra in a splendid timber-clad and acoustically perfect concert hall in central Wellington.

After the performance Bowater said that her time in Java as a gamelan player was "one of the most moving musical experiences of my life – it's such a creative place and people were so tolerant."

Other cross-cultural creations included Spinning Mountain, a collaboration between composers Gareth Farr (NZ) and I Wayan Gede Yudane from Bali. This full work will be performed in Wellington in March.

In between the notes were the esoteric debates. Does composition precede performance – or are they simultaneous creative events? Are value paradigms cross-cultural? Can European composers learn from their Asian counterparts, or is traffic just one-way?

Is music political? Or should it be seen as timeless and spiritual, far above the mire of worldly events? If you accept that religious teachings have inspired great compositions then it's logical (though not always emotionally sound or wise) to argue that politics can do the same. It's OK to accept John Lennon's Imagine as a generic cry for peace, but when that's made specific – as in Iraq – discord begins.

"This has been a Festival of delights," Brody told The Jakarta Post as delegates and performers snapped the locks on their instrument cases and headed for the airport in a sweat of hugs and handshakes. "It's been creative, entertaining, shocking and exciting.

"We had to sort through 450 scores from the region and chose the few that would best represent diversity and innovation.

"We wanted the composers and artists from Indonesia to project their country as a multi-ethnic and creative nation – and not just a cheap holiday in Bali or Java.

"The Indonesians have done just that and made a major contribution to the Festival. They've brought performances and ideas that have been far more beautiful and wonderful than I've ever heard before."

(First published in The SundayPost 4 March 07)



STAYING IN THE SADDLE © Duncan Graham 2007

It looked like the start of a rough ride for any Indonesian ambassador, particularly a novice on his first posting to a Western country.

The headline in the New Zealand capital daily read: Plug Pulled on Musical. The story alleged that pressure from the Indonesian embassy had resulted in a composition titled Papua Merdeka (Free Papua) being dropped from the official program of an international music festival.

But Amris Hassan, Indonesia's ambassador to NZ, Samoa and Tonga didn't seem to be thrown at encountering a potentially dangerous diplomatic hurdle so early in his new career.

Pragmatically the accomplished horseman noted that the story was a single column piece on page six of Wellington's The Dominion Post and hadn't been followed up by any radio or TV stations.

Also the allegedly offensive mixed-media presentation by Australian activist and composer Martin Wesley-Smith, critical of Indonesia's handling of conflict in the province, had been shown a day later than scheduled at the same venue.

"It might have been a different situation in Australia – maybe page one," Hassan reflected as he composed a denial. "Here in NZ relationships with my country are in good shape. But I can't influence the media any more than President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono can in democratic Indonesia.

"The NZ media by contrast with Australia isn't so interested in issues of conflict and hasn't been so negative. The problem is getting the NZ press to recognize us. Sometimes there's only one story a month about Indonesia."

Hassan took office last December after a nine-month drought with no ambassador. The Wellington job should be a posting worth fighting for – the city is a crucible of cultures and the timber-clad embassy an old-world delight. But it's been more like an airport waiting room with four ambassadors in the past five years.

Hassan flicked questions about the diplomatic revolving door across to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta, but said he intended to remain in NZ and create some stability.

"I admit the constant changes have been a problem. The process of ambassadorial appointments is a long and tedious process through parliament," he said. "However I understand the way things work."

So he should. Before taking up his present job Hassan, 48, was a member of the House of Representatives in Megawati Soekarnoputri's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). In the parliament he was deputy chair of the commission on defence, foreign relations and information, with a reputation for moderation and balance.

Before entering politics he lectured on international relations at the University of Indonesia for 14 years. He was educated at the American University of Cairo and got a masters degree in Britain.

His father, Professor Fuad Hassan was also a diplomat and Minister for Culture and Education in Soeharto's New Order government.

Hassan claimed his background and experience provided the contacts necessary to by-pass bureaucrats and get things done. And that seems to be the case with some early first wins.

These include resumption of the defence forces' cooperation program that had been frozen since the 1999 East Timor independence referendum, rising trade favoring Indonesia, and an increase in Indonesian students and workers in NZ. These wins despite operating on a budget and agenda designed by his predecessors.

"However I'm still not happy because up to 80 per cent of that trade is oil and gas and you don't need an embassy to sell petroleum products," he said. "I want to see more Indonesian manufactured goods on sale here – particularly footwear and furniture.

"NZ education standards are good and relatively affordable when compared to the US and Europe. There are two NZ schools in Jakarta. Many Indonesians are now apprehensive about going to America and Australia. I think NZ can fill that vacuum. It's no longer looking just to the Pacific."

Not so easy – with the journey handicapped by geographical ignorance rather than a history of conflict and suspicion. Hassan said he's found many Kiwis remain Eurocentric and seem to think that Indonesia is somehow linked to India.

Indonesian business people were overlooking the chances of selling NZ meat and wine to Indonesia's growing middle classes and exploring a big niche market, he said.

Then there are the transport problems. Garuda has pulled out of its NZ service and freight tonnages are too small to warrant a direct shipping service. This means all containers have to go through Australia or Singapore.

There are only 3,000 Indonesians in NZ, a nation with a population of four million. There are almost three times as many Malaysians in the country – probably because both nations are members of the Commonwealth.

Apart from real or imagined attempted bans on musical compositions about Papua, there are few serious issues of conflict between Indonesia and NZ. A few sailors and tourists decide to tear up their work contracts and visas and disappear into NZ's multicultural crowd where ID cards are not required and jobs are almost everywhere.

This is a problem – but Indonesians aren't the most serious offenders. There are no illegal fishers, and if there are any buxom drug mules rotting in Indonesian jails they're not getting top media coverage. There are human rights activists in NZ hustling the Papua issue, but they don't have the profile of Aussie activists.

"I've been asked why we haven't signed a treaty like the one negotiated in Lombok last year between Indonesia and Australia," Hassan said.

"We don't need one. That just assumes there are problems."

Hassan said he wants to see more NZ journalists going to Indonesia on exchange programs, more Islamic scholars visiting NZ to talk about religious tolerance and the new democracy – anything positive to encourage Kiwis to recognize the crowded islands to the north of their big empty neighbor.

Other plans include developing sister-city relationships and maybe having an Indonesian film festival. This last task shouldn't be too difficult. Hassan's wife is film producer Afi Shamara. Her most famous work is the 2003 metrosexual comedy hit Arisan. Other films are Ca Bau Kan (A Courtesan) and Biola Tak Berdawi (The Stringless Violin).

If Hassan can stay in the saddle, ride the rodeo of Jakarta politics and last his full term he should do well in NZ. He's affable, open and handsome, with language skills so high he can even decode Kiwi vowels.

He's already been photographed on horseback in a thick wooly jumper, the uniform of the bush. Stand by for pix of him wearing a beanie at a rugby international and barracking for the All Blacks

Relishing the outdoor life is a quality Kiwis respect. Intellectuals are fine – but only if they can also tramp the mountains, sail the estuaries and ride the bloodstock.

"I'll do what I can, but it has to be both ways," he said. "We must both have higher profiles."

So what's been the best job – academic, politician or diplomat?

"There were fewer burdens in Parliament and it was easier to make headlines," he said. Maybe he'd already forgotten about Aussie composers with a political agenda.

First published in The Jakarta Post 24 Feb 2007)




Febroary 18 marks Imlek – the start of the Chinese New Year. This time it's the Year of the Pig. But despite the animal's 2007 status there's no porcine reprieve likely. Contributor Duncan Graham reports from Surabaya:

They die before dawn in a squealing, grunting slaughter to satisfy the tastes of Surabaya’s non-Muslim community.

Every night about 130 porkers go under the knife in the biggest abattoir in East Java, known as Potong Hewan (literally ‘cut animal’). It was built by the Dutch in 1927, run by the city government and is right in the heart of the old city, close to the Arab quarter.

“This is a traditional slaughterhouse using the old methods,” explained veterinarian Wiryadining who has studied meat processing systems in Western Australia

“It was built when this was the edge of the city. Don’t expect to see anything modern like power saws and continuous chains. There are no plans to upgrade.

“We’re only working at around 80 per cent capacity. It’s a sign of the economy – chicken and fish are cheap. Few can afford beef. Pork sales are almost all to the Chinese and that market is stable.

“The place isn’t hygienic by Western standards, but the system works well. Indonesians like their meat fresh – not frozen.”

Export standards do not apply. Wiryadining, one of two vets employed, said she and health inspectors regularly checked all animals and processes. The killing and cutting rooms are roofed and partially walled – sometimes with tiles. But they’re not fully enclosed. There are no cool rooms or chillers, so all slaughter has to be done at night.

This isn’t just to take advantage of the lower temperature; this is a kill-and-carry operation, with the carcases carted by pick-up or pedicab directly to city markets. The meat isn’t wrapped and seldom covered.

Twenty minutes after walking into the abattoir a dismembered steer can be bumping its way to a dawn butcher’s stall, its red meat quivering, the blood still seeping.

By 7 am the yards are being hosed down and last night’s partly digested meal of grain and grass is drying in the sun for sale as fertiliser. All the gore and offal, skin and flesh has been dispersed across the metropolis. Content cats preen themselves among the flies, anticipating nightfall and more gluttony.

In Indonesia nothing gets wasted. The bones are ground down for fertiliser, the blood processed for chicken food. Even cows’ snouts are sold for a Surabayan delicacy called rujak cingur.

The cattle are mainly from Madura Island. About 200 are processed six nights a week starting at midnight. They’re so domesticated and trusting that they walk into a black barn of blood-splattered stalls and clanking chains, then submit to their throats being slit while a prayer is intoned.

The practice in many other countries is to first shoot the beast in the head with a captive-bolt pistol – but that’s not an approved Islamic process.

The swine come from a village near the central East Java town of Kediri, about 130 kilometres southwest of Surabaya.

The less docile pigs are herded into a dead-end alleyway and stunned before meeting the knife. This is done by a heavy electric shock, delivered through a long two-pronged fork pushed over the animal’s ears. The skin is scraped free of bristles using hot water to open the pores before the beast is gutted.

“The area where we kill and dress the pigs is completely separate and walled off from the rest of the slaughterhouse,” said veterinarian Endra Wijaya. “There’s no possibility of contact and the men who work with pigs never touch goats or cattle.

“Nine of the ten slaughter men are Muslims – the other is Christian. There’s no problem – provided they don’t eat the meat.”

Commented Wiryadining: “Women don’t work in this industry in Indonesia. It’s against our culture to have men and women working together – it’s not safe for women. Butchering is a man’s job in Islam.”



Although pigs are unpopular in many parts of the archipelago there are at least 8 million in Indonesia, according to an Australian study on animal health.

The dislike is because of the prohibition in the Koran: “Forbidden to you are dead meat, blood and the flesh of the swine …”

The Bible has a similar warning in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) where there’s a long list of the clean and unclean. In the latter group is anything without a split hoof. That includes rabbits and pigs.

Jews also keep pig meat off the menu. It’s not kosher.

Modern Christians chomping over breakfasts of bacon, ham sandwich lunches and rabbit pie dinners rationalise that such rules, along with the Adam and Eve story are irrelevant in an age of reason.

But science has shown pig meat can be dangerous; it’s another nice but naughty food - deliciously and sinfully fatty and a contributor to heart disease. If not properly cooked the trichina parasites carried by pigs can invade your body.

“Spot on!” cry the purists of all faiths. “Our Holy Books knew what was right long before white-coated rationalists started squinting down microscopes.”

The film characters of Miss Piggy and Babe have no fan clubs in Indonesia. There can’t be too many citizens of the Republic who’ve been taught nursery rhymes and games about little pigs going to market, though some are alleged to be involved in pork barrelling and not a few averse to telling porkies.

For those unfamiliar with American and English slang, the first refers to using taxpayers’ money for political ends – the second is a euphemism for lying.

Pigs’ teeth are said to resist biodegrading, so some historians claim the arrival of Islam in the archipelago can be dated from the sudden absence of these remains in archaeological digs.

What’s a strict Muslim to do if starving and only pig meat is available? According to Muslim contacts the Koran is accommodating: If you’re driven to eat pork to stay alive (but don’t desire the meat) then Allah is forgiving and merciful.


(First published in The JakartaPost 19 Feb 07)


Monday, March 05, 2007


© Duncan Graham 2007

The other morning as I unfolded the local newspaper my cornflakes went soggy, the yogurt soured and the unmonitored toaster turned incinerator. For there across page one was one of the most depressing pictures I've ever seen.

This was not a grim photo of the latest disaster. No masked soldiers pulling plastic-wrapped corpses from yet another landslip, no tear-stained women staring at the hungry ocean praying for survivors from yet another maritime tragedy.

These things are sad and awful. But they've happened and cannot be undone. This story was about the future – which can be changed, given political will.

The picture showed some of Indonesia's best and brightest. Sturdy young people, fit, well-dressed, educated, intent, seemingly determined. They are the achievers who will inherit the archipelago. They're the top crop with the capacity to husband the Republic's resources, solve its problems and lead us into a better world.

Generation Hope. We depend on you. You're all we have.

So what was so wrong?

These promising youngsters, and there were reported to be 110,000, were sitting in the Bung Karno stadium – though not to watch soccer. They'd come to fill in application forms for a handful of positions at a TV station.

My knowledge of the job problems facing young graduates isn't academic. A relative has just joined the market, and is getting increasingly depressed as she suffers knockback after knockback.

In most cases the employer won't even bother to say she's been rejected; the absence of a phone call or e-mail as days turn into weeks is proof enough.

Those who find the manners to reply: 'Sorry, but no thanks', don't say why. She won't ask because questioning superiors is not part of the culture.

The law in my country requires bosses – if asked - to explain why a candidate failed so she or he can correct their faults, and to ensure staff hirers don't discriminate. Unions are tough and applicants assertive.

These are alien ideas to anyone who knows that workers here have minimal rights that few dare exercise, and must be grateful for whatever is offered. Salaries are rarely advertised and the successful usually know the size of the pay packet only when it arrives.

My relative wants to work in industrial psychology – that's her qualification. But as personal and family pressures mount to get a job she's turning more and more to mind-numbing work far below her intellect, tertiary education and skills – and there goes her dream career and her parents' sacrifices.

What's on offer? Hardly anything worthwhile and even then the environment is like a dinosaur documentary where everything is a predator.

A few positions as secretary or receptionist - euphemisms for office dogsbodies at around Rp 1 million (US $110) a month. In the big cities this isn't enough for clothing, transport, wholesome food and half-decent accommodation.

Selling phone systems, bank loans and health foods on commission only – no retainer. Donning a tart's outfit to push perfumes or smokes in shopping malls.

Now multiply her case by millions and you can see why that Page One picture was so gut-wrenchingly depressing. The conversation in the endless queues is not about success, but survival.

In the lucky country next-door hope in the future is our birthright, hard-wired into the national psyche. Kids from ordinary families are expected to say they intend to become astronauts or zoologists or anything in-between.

The limits are those you impose yourself. Coming from this background the plight of Indonesia's unemployed looms as a major tragedy, a cloud of economic ash from the fall-out of failed policies, smothering possibilities.

The prospects for all nations depend on the will of the world's youth. If our golden boys and girls are having their ambitions, their education, their lust to achieve and contribute turned to dust at such an early age - what hope for us all?

Don't cry for me and my cremated toast, Indonesia. Weep for the lives we are wasting, the future we are destroying and the opportunities we are ignoring.

Weep for the barren times we are marching towards led by the grim battalions of the jobless who mustered at Bung Karno Stadium.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 Feb 07)



Bureaucrats everywhere seem to be afflicted with the same handicap: They don't listen to advice from those they're supposed to be serving.

Particularly so when they deal with the poor and disadvantaged. As educated people they know the theories and figures. As civil servants (a term many reject) they live in a different world, far from squalor and penury. They see their job as telling people what they can have and should do. They don't consult because the poor are not their equals or superiors.

Now imagine a government agency where clients are treated with respect, given information on their rights and options, and their real needs recognized – as opposed to the needs shown on a pie chart.

That's the idea behind a refreshingly robust World Bank report called Voices of the Poor, billed as 'the most comprehensive assessment of poverty in Indonesia for the last ten years.'

The report was assembled by researchers who went into villages and kampongs with a simple trigger question: What do you think about the services you get and how can they be bettered?

There's always a danger of raising expectations when running major social surveys, particularly with people unused to positive attention. Interviewees sometimes assume that discussions with outsiders wearing shoes and carrying clipboards are a harbinger of change.

"We were aware of that," said community development specialist and report author Nilanjana Mukherjee. "Our researchers were Indonesians who identified themselves with the academic institutions or other agencies they work for, not the World Bank.

"When we started talking to one person we often ended up with 50 keen to give their views."

The researchers focused on issues that feature in the Millennium Development Goals. The Indonesian government is a signatory to the MDG, a worldwide bid to reduce poverty by 2015. Governments have agreed to do their jobs better and tackle issues of education, maternal health, gender equality, child mortality, AIDS and other diseases.

The responses from almost 500 people should rock any decent administrator who joined the government to serve her or his fellow citizens. Here are some of the complaints:

· In July 2005 the national government promised to provide free education for the first nine years of schooling. The schools retaliated by imposing their own local fees for examinations, buildings and certificates. The poor can't pay, the kids continue to miss out – and the Jakarta initiative falls apart.
· The public water authorities won't supply piped water to the poor because it's believed they can't find the cash. So the thirsty have to buy in dribs and drabs, and pay up to 33 times the price of tap water.
· Teachers, health workers and other officials often don't go to work in remote villages because they can't stand the poor sanitation and living facilities that go with the job.
· Trained midwives operating under a system introduced in the 1990s to reduce mother and child mortality are shunned because they charge too much, and provide a less caring service than local birth attendants.
· Millions still defecate in the same water they use for bathing and washing because water closets are seen as expensive and smelly, and the health dangers haven't been made clear. No officials have told them that hygienic pit toilets can be installed at little cost. Schools are still being built with too few toilets – or sometimes none at all.
· The attitude of many government officers is that poor = stupid, so there's no need to explain policies or enlighten people with public information. In a top-down power pyramid the people without are expected to be passive recipients of decisions made far away. Cry those at the bottom of the heap: "Who will hear us?"

It all sounds colonial, and it is.

"Poor men and women are aware they are often not served well, but they don't know what to do," said the report.

"Complaining to local political leaders or the mass media is alien to most of them; they cannot imagine reaching such people nor do they believe that these elites will pay attention.

"Residual memories of the harsh tactics of the Soeharto regime stifle most dissent."

And the cynics are right. In the few protests by villagers recorded by the World Bank's researchers, nothing changed. Distrust of officials remains high.

One birth control campaign at the time forced all married women to have a spiral in their wombs, with dissenters being chased down by government workers. Many suffered from months of bleeding and pain.

So the lax, corrupt and indifferent service providers suffer no penalties for their immoral behavior and ineffective procedures. The system grinds on, powered by outdated policies that don't work according to the informants.

Those policies have been the use of subsidies, scholarships and health care cards – with all services delivered by the government on the assumption that this is the most efficient way.

It could be if the bureaucrats were driven by the essential qualities required of all welfare providers – professionalism, objectivity, diligence and care - backed by speedy systems flexibly managed and humanely delivered.

The introduction of democracy and decentralization has created big opportunities for regional administrations to do things differently. Few seem to have taken up the challenge.

Ms Mukherjee said she was optimistic that things would alter, though putting in projects was not the World Bank's job. No targets had been set. It was up to regional governments to discuss the issues raised by the report and respond.

"I've seen some radical changes in the past few years and a lot more people in the bureaucracy are open to dialogue," she said. "I think the water problem may be fixed but I fear the sanitary issues may not be addressed. There are major environmental problems here and the government isn't doing a lot.

"Change happens when intermediaries, such as non-government organizations (NGOs) get involved to help the poor."

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 Feb 07)




The official all-male Saudi delegation was more than a mite surprised. They knew that Indonesian women are allowed to drive cars and might even be found in offices working close to unrelated men – though undoubtedly in inferior positions.

But to discover in East Java a feisty Muslim woman minus headscarf as head of a branch of a national government department was a bit more disturbing. Particular when the business conversation turned to issues of testicle size, ejaculation rates and sperm count.

For Dr Herliantien is the only woman in Indonesia running a livestock artificial insemination center – and when you're dealing with potentially embarrassing issues there's just one way to behave – direct and matter-of-fact.

She's also a lot of fun, though it's clear that behind the laugh lines are the scars of some tough times on her road to the top.

"I didn't experience discrimination while studying veterinary science at Surabaya's Airlangga University, though there were only seven women and 42 men," she said. "The difficulties came after graduation.

"I had a staff problem at one time so I challenged the man to compete against me. If he could do the job better then he was welcome to it. He backed down."

Not surprisingly, for although this public servant is no Madam Lash she's also no cipher. Unlike some bureaucrats she didn't get her job by coming from the boss's village or having a dad in the military.

"I came from a poor family in Surabaya, one of eight children," she said. "My parents were determined we should have a good education – for them this was the number one issue.

"My mother was a strong woman who'd had minimal schooling. Yet she confronted the local Catholic schools and successfully pleaded with them to enroll me despite having no money."

Clearly the policy paid; all eight kids have become tertiary educated professionals. Herliantien is the only vet, a discipline she chose because her father was involved in selling animal feed.

The chance to work for a private company where she could earn a mint was turned down, because it meant living in a dormitory and separation from her husband, sculptor Djoni Basri.

So instead she joined the government and for the first few years had to walk or hitch rides to work at a farm on the slopes of Mount Arjuno, north west of Malang in East Java. The couple didn't even have enough money for a motorbike.

At the time livestock husbandry was hardly taken seriously. The story goes that president Soeharto had a ranch and got interested in cattle breeding. He decided that artificial insemination (AI) was the way to lift the quality of the nation's herd, and suddenly the cash tap was turned on.

Helped with grants and loans from the Japanese, a purpose-built facility was created on a beautiful 67-hectare site seven kilometers outside the ancient city (now the village) of Singosari. The center's slogan: One drop of semen – One million hopes.

Herliantien studied in Japan, learned English, worked in the laboratory, became its head and four years ago while still in her 40s took over the whole complex.

This now houses 134 bulls and bucks, many that she's selected and imported from Australia. All have names. Hygiene and health care are critical issues, making the center a five-star hotel for celebrity studs with massage and pedicures on the house. Plus free sex.

Twice a week Dandy, Missy, Rozzy and their mates are led to a dummy cow draped with a hide and sprayed with the odor of oestrus.

With a minimum of foreplay and indifferent to the feelings of his mechanical mate he mounts and enters an artificial vagina made of wrinkled rubber and pre-warmed for maximum pleasure.

His ejaculate is trapped in a test tube, passed into the lab and after checking for sperm quality is diluted and frozen in thin glass tubes known as straws. These are preserved at low temperature in liquid nitrogen, then sent to farmers around the province for use by trained inseminators. One ejaculate can be used to serve up to 300 cows.

This means that a bland old bovine with no redeeming features can carry the offspring of a mighty broad-shouldered bull whose mum may have been a top Aussie milk machine, and his dad the sire of splendid vealers Down Under. Genetics rules, right?

The AI system has been a huge benefit to Indonesian farming. The Singosari center (one of nine in the nation) has been so successful that it has won numerous awards and international accreditation.

It's the showplace of choice when presidents and other heavyweights want to display Indonesian innovation and the ability of government agencies to exceed targets and meet overseas standards. It also has a clever marketing and promotion section producing, among other things, school materials encouraging kids to drink milk and eat meat.

The center is exporting semen and aggressively hunting for new markets. It sells fish sperm (it would take another story to explain how this works) and has pioneered a program offering farmers a choice of progeny. The technique used is a commercial secret.

What would you like in your stable – a red calf or a black and white cutie? Male or female? One that will go to the butcher – or the dairy?

A quarter of the 78 staff are female, and not all are wearing white coats in the air-conditioned lab and offices. Herliantien urges young women to take on any task, but it seems it's the blokes who have the hang-ups.

Why aren't women working in the bull barn? "Because the bulls are too strong," said an otherwise progressive male supervisor, a little sheepishly. So are there men on the staff like Bali bodybuilder Ade Rai so powerful they can stop a determined 750 kilogram bull with the scent of heifer on heat up his nostrils? "Well, no, but …"

"Women should not be deterred from getting work in animal husbandry," said Herliantien, 51. "It's quite wrong to think we can't work with animals and outside. It's a very satisfying job.

"Issues of complexion and dirt no longer apply. There are cosmetics and sunscreens to stop our skin turning black and protective clothing like overalls to keep you clean.

"This is not a female take-over. We need to work cooperatively with men, not in competition.

"Using money we've earned through exporting semen we run an incentive scheme paying bonuses, and a study program sending employees around the country and overseas.

"I urge my staff to use every opportunity to better their education and continue sending their children to school. We need to think ahead, to understand what others are doing.

"Even though our budget is inadequate we've been able to do so many things because we're committed. We've been able to adapt. We don't get lazy.

"We'll create a new breed of beef cattle - the Indonesian Red. It might take 25 years, but we'll do it. I want to show it can be done. Our dream will come true."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 February 07)



Free market economists loathe monopolies – particularly when they're enforced by legislation.

Apart from stifling commerce monopolies create an arrogant and idle management smug with the knowledge that their indifference to customers will never boomerang.

That's the theory – and it seems logical. Though not in Indonesia where a government monopoly in the finance market is run like a private bank – as though the hounds of robust competition are baying at the doors.

And well they may be next year if anti-monopoly laws are enforced as expected, breaking the grip on the pawn business held by PU Pegadaian for more than a century.

(The anti-monopoly laws that have been in place for the past five years excluded Pegadaian).

If that happens the company owned by the Department of Finance should be in a key position to fight off opponents, according to Malang region head Budiyono. He's a veteran of the great shake up in the 1990s when new management dragged Pegadaian into the modern world.

"It was difficult and there was much resistance," he said. "But we were able to turn attitudes around. Cultural change is not easy, but here's proof that it can be done. We are planning ahead. We have a good brand and are trusted."

If your idea of the pawn business is circa Dickens, a grimy shop in a street of many odors run by voracious misers then prepare for a pleasant surprise.

There are more than 850 Pegadaian branches spread across the archipelago, their logo not three balls (the hallmark of the Italian Lombard bank that introduced pawnbroking into Britain) but the scales of justice. This symbol is used in the British legal system and its offshoots to represent law courts.

Pegadaian's motto is 'overcoming problems without problems' and the offices are usually bright and cheery, painted light green and white. All the ghastly trappings of government bureaucracy – bored and rude staff watching TV, filthy and crowded surroundings, unnecessary paperwork and 15 watt globes – are absent.

This outfit could teach the private sector a few things about promoting a positive corporate image. The staff seem genuinely friendly and all (even the backroom bosses) wear badges proclaiming 'NOW – Customers are always Number One' as though a rival office had just opened next door.

Yet the people who use this service (and at last count there were more than 12 million) have little choice.

If you need cash in a flash you can try your local loan shark (and most villages and kampong have someone who'll lend a few thousand), a gold shop that might buy your heirlooms for a pittance, the banks or Pegadaian.

"Our main competitor is Bank Danamon which is offering a product called Danamon Simpan Pinjam (DSP) for the bottom end of the market," said operations manager Swasono Widodo. "But the paperwork and procedures take time and many people feel uncomfortable in big buildings. Most Indonesians are not bank-minded.

"Our system is different – it's friendly and fast – we strive to ensure that you can be in and out with money in your purse within 15 minutes.

"We're also open on Saturdays and in some places like Manado we operate at night. You don't have to open an account. The banks can't possibly match us."

Clearly it's good business. Widodo said that last year the company earned Rp 500 billion (US $55 million) profit, and the growth rate is astonishing – nudging 40 per cent in the past two years. Non-performing loans are around 5 per cent.

In the branch visited by The Jakarta Post middle-aged and elderly women offering gold and jewelry as collateral half-filled the waiting room. Doubtless some feel shame at having to use the service, but there were no downcast eyes as in Western pawnshops.

Bunting and adverts for other products and services showing jolly folk with pure white dentures, the sort who normally feature in shampoo ads, gave the place a friendly feel. Unlike banks, where edgy guards think every customer plans a heist, security was unobtrusive.

Widodo said customers were asked for receipts to prove they owned the pledge. However few people kept such documents so staff had to make an assessment on honesty. He said using Pegadaian to launder stolen goods was rare and not a problem as it has been in the US and Australia.

Valuations are done on the spot and interest is charged at the rate of 1.6 per cent every 15 days. Business goes up by about 20 per cent during Idul Fitri and Christmas when cash is needed for gift-giving, and at the start of the school year.

Loans are for a maximum of four months with a ceiling of Rp 900,000 (US $ 100). The pledge can be sold if not redeemed five months after deposit.

Most people want to pawn gold – less than 20 per cent offer electronic goods, computers and cameras – only digital models accepted.

Widodo defended the high rate (38.4 per cent annually) by saying there were risks involved. Many people didn't return for their goods and sales might not meet valuation. On the counter a shabby five-year-old radio-recorder priced at Rp 550,000 (US$ 60) looked far from a best-buy compared with the dearer – but glitzy new models with the latest bells and whistles.

Many branches now offer an Islamic Syariah service where an administration fee is charged and a complex tariff formula used to avoid charges of usury. This service was introduced in 2004 and so far has attracted only 250,000 customers.

Another product is micro-credit where small entrepreneurs can borrow to start an enterprise or upgrade equipment. Security required is a certificate showing ownership of property, like a house or motor vehicle. The interest rate is between 1 and 1.6 per cent per month and the maximum is Rp 200 million (US $22,000).



Indonesians feel at ease with the pawn system – as they should. It has been around a long time as it has in the West, operating back in the Greek and Roman empires.

When the British were running the Dutch East Indies in the early 19th century Governor Stamford Raffles liquidated the Bank van Leening and reversed a law banning pawnshops. (He also introduced the use-the-left-side road rule.)

The Dutch bank had a credit system that used short-term pawning of goods, mainly gold, silver and fabrics.

Raffles, the absolute free marketer and founder of Singapore, threw the pawn business open to everyone – though shops had to be licensed.

The Dutch returned to power in 1816 and didn't like Raffles' reforms one bit. But it took them till 1901 to cancel the private operators and create the government monopoly that remains today.

Though not for much longer. Next year it could be back to Raffles' rules. If you plan to use the law change to muscle in, then bankers beware: Pegadaian may be a government outfit but it will be no pushover.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 February 07)