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

Tuesday, June 26, 2007



Training was rescheduled at the last minute. The location was far out of town. Traffic was heavy. Based on past experience jam karet (rubber time) would certainly be operating. No reason to hurry.

Wrong call. As the little hand touched 8 and the big hand hit 12 the Persekam team splendid in shimmering blue dashed out of their change rooms like the champions they hope to become.

Then followed two hours of intensive training that had the young women sweating under a blowtorch sun, the coach's relentless and demanding whistles ricocheting off the stadium's concrete walls so every blast was multiplied . If they thought it all too strenuous then they were keeping their complaints to themselves.

If discipline is an essential ingredient to success then the Malang Regency (East Java) women's soccer squad has a grand future.

But first they have to overcome off-field handicaps that Zinedine Zidane hopefuls never have to confront.

"Java isn't like Papua where the religion, culture and crowds support women in competitive sport," said Persekam president Cholis Bidajati. In Javanese soccer the big, powerful yet twinkle-toed Papuans are always discussed with awe.

"Some see soccer as men's business with women staying at home. This is changing. Women are coming to watch games and now they want to get involved.

"Yet there's still a residue who think it's inappropriate for women to be running around in public wearing sports gear."

It's not that the uniforms are immodest. Voyeurs lusting for a glimpse of cheeky underwear as players stretch and bend should go to Wimbledon. None of the women wore headscarves so taking a header can be the start of a real bad-hair day. A battered mop-top is hardly enticing.

The only flesh shows were grass-stained knobbly kneecaps peeping between floppy long shorts and high socks. Any man finding that arousing should consult a psychiatrist.

Cholis is an imposing no-nonsense figure in her starched government uniform and headscarf. It was probably the same when she played as a forward. (The posture, not the outfit.)

Only the most foolhardy cleric would suggest she's a subversive undermining Indonesian spiritual values by encouraging girls to boot balls rather than goggle sinetrons.

A widow for the past two years and mother of two, Cholis heads the statistics section in Malang Regency's planning department. She no longer plays but now busies herself with administration, promotion and fund raising.

In this she seems to have been reasonably successful with the Regency putting Rp 125 million (US $14,000) into Persekam. The Regency doesn't support Arema, the premier Malang men's football team that's backed by a cigarette company.

There's a Catch 22 factor operating here: Women's soccer can't attract sponsorship unless the sport becomes widely popular – but it can't reach that goal without more cash to fund competitions.

Last year Persekam played in Jakarta, drawing 1 – 1 against a university team, then got thrashed 4 – 1 by the dreaded Papuans.

Cholis is the only woman in Java on Indonesian men's soccer's Division 3 Committee.

Before she got involved with Persekam the few women who wanted to play had to do so with men. "But," Cholis quickly added, "they were always accompanied by their families."

"The problem is many get married and leave the sport so there's always a turnover," she said. "Because young women are studying or working long hours outside the home and traveling great distances they have little time for recreation.

"My grandfather and father were active in sport. My parents didn't oppose me playing soccer. Some think it's unfeminine, but I say you can be feminine off the field."

The squad in training watched by The Jakarta Post was more into footwork than facework. Before they go into competitions – often as crowd-warmers ahead of the boys' big match – Cholis gets them to put on lipstick. It's a sort of gender color code so the fans know there are real women under the shapeless tops and baggy bloomers.

Persekam is a mixed team, from veterans like high school sports teacher Siti Sumarni who at 37 shows no sign of weakening or ageing, down to teenagers who are still trying to master (sorry, mistress) the art of dribbling.

They come from all over the Republic and sometimes include Koreans, Taiwanese and the occasional Caucasian from the local international school.

Team sport is the great leveler where the only differences are the skills you can bring to your side, and where the universal language is a determination to win.

"It's fun, it keeps us fit and you make new friends," said Siti. "Some find they can't keep their boyfriends once they discover they're dating a soccer girl.
This is about skill and athleticism. It's not dangerous."

Reminded that the goalie had just taken a ball from a power punt straight into her bosom, doubling up like a man who'd had a boot up his crotch, Siti laughed. "You get used to it."

The weaker sex? Nonsense; the keeper was ready for the next rocket in a trice. If this had been the men's game the stretcher-bearers would already be sprinting across the sward.

Despite the progress (see sidebar) full emancipation is still at the far end of the field. Watching the warm ups in shady comfort an all-male self-appointed group of experts chewed over the problems faced by soccer girls.

They soon concluded that menstrual cycles were responsible for poor performances and a perceived inability to focus on the game. But when joined by a sweaty Siti, who fulfilled her gender-assigned role by bringing the blokes drinks, the bench pundits' positions were quickly declared offside. They retired, red-faced, to find another excuse.

Like many reformers in Indonesia Cholis rejects Western labels. She reluctantly accepted the compliment that she's a pioneer, but elbowed aside suggestions that she might be considered modern and progressive.

"I'm a traditional but not orthodox Muslim," she said with vigor. "There are problems with some ulama (religious scholars) condemning women in sport. I don't argue with them; we just go ahead. The media is at fault for giving these remarks so much prominence.

"I haven't had any mothers complain to me about their daughters wanting to play. Sport offers a healthy alternative to hanging about in shopping malls.

"We don't wear tight-fitting clothes. There's nothing in the Koran to forbid women taking part in sport as long as they take care of their family duties first."

In other words, hubby before hobby.



Women's soccer is doing OK in Asia, though it's well to remember the uplifting figures come from a low base.

China and North Korea are in the front ranks with Vietnam not far behind. The game in that country is sponsored by cosmetic and pharmaceutical firms, and insurance companies.

Muslim Bangladesh is also reported to be dashing ahead with women's soccer despite early opposition from fundamentalists.

According to the world football body FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) the number of registered male and female players is now 265 million worldwide. Although most are men the number of women in the sport has jumped 54 per cent in the past six years to 4.1 million.

The Asian Football Confederation has 85 million players making it the world's largest regional group.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 June 07)

Sunday, June 24, 2007



Imagine this: Indonesia wins the Asian Cup in July to be hailed as regional soccer champions with eyes on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Manchester United gets anxious and Real Madrid revises its tactics to combat the threat from afar.

Indonesia produces its own David Beckhams, household names from Arsenal to Argentina. European clubs jostle to pick the archipelago's best. What a boost to national pride, what great benefits to the Republic's reputation!

Instead of being the butt of coarse jokes, unable even to best tiny Singapore in some sports, this huge nation could build teams renowned for excellence.

These dreams aren't exclusive to Indonesians. Australian entrepreneur and footy fan Geoffrey Gold has also been giving his imagination a workout. He thinks Indonesian soccer is currently in its "blackest period" but there could be light ahead if synergy can be developed with its southern neighbor.

Gold has been commissioned by the Western Australian (WA) government to talk to clubs in Surabaya and Malang. He will report on how soccer can be made the catalyst for regional development in Indonesia using the long established formal relationships between WA and the province of East Java.

There's been a 'Sister State' agreement in place since 1990. It includes sport along with commerce, tourism, education and culture. But till now the big-ticket issues have taken priority.

If everything clicks in the Gold plan, Australian skills in running and marketing football, coaching players (male and female), sports medicine, training youngsters and improving facilities could be made available to Indonesian clubs. In return the teams Down Under could promote their brand names in Asia.

"With the entry last year of Australia into the Asian League there's now a sport that Indonesians can understand and share," said Gold. "In the past Australia has been better known for rugby and Australian Rules football, but soccer is rushing to the front line.

"Soccer in Australia has undergone huge changes in the boardrooms and the field during the past few years. Once it was seen as the plaything of ethnic groups. Now the Socceroos are a united force in the sporting world.

"These changes could really improve relationships at all levels. Indonesians are fanatical about football. Australia is internationally recognized for its sporting skills and resources and has much to offer its neighbor to lift the quality of the game."

Things in the Republic are getting better – though slowly. Proposed management restructuring and the Asian Cup contest are the main drivers- along with the anger of fans denied the chance to see their teams do well.

The Jakarta stadium has been given a US $10 million (Rp 90 billion) facelift and should be able to seat almost 90,000 people enjoying modern facilities. Sports administrators want other regions to follow suit. Till now the comfort of fans has been the last thing on the minds of many clubs.

Instead their attention has been focused on a more basic need – money. There are 36 teams in Indonesia's Premier League. All but four are funded by regional governments, often out of welfare budgets.

The national government has ordered this practice to stop. What could justify taxpayers' rupiah earmarked for the local poor being channeled into the pockets of high-wage players, including big names from overseas?

The obvious answer is vote buying. What mayor or regent wouldn't want tens of thousands of soccer supporters reckoning they're great guys because they've helped the local lads knock out a rival team – particularly at election time.

Next year (or so the plan goes) there'll be no more slurping at the public trough. Instead teams will have to find their own fodder.

Gold reckons this is a good move because it will allow creative and progressive managements the chance to get their act together, be truly professional and better promote their product.

"Because the teams had this regular source of money, supporters and sponsors were considered unnecessary," he said. "At some regional grounds the fans are treated like animals with no-where to sit and disgusting toilets.

"If facilities are improved women and families will feel more comfortable about attending matches."

Ground conditions aren't the only hassle. At the moment Indonesian soccer suffers a severe image problem with fans linked to hooliganism – once the English disease.

A feature at some events is a vicious set piece brawl between the police, supporters and their rivals. That might be a thug's idea of a good day out, but law-abiding citizens who love soccer would rather not take the risk of seeing their kids trampled and car torched.

Next year the Football Association of Indonesia is introducing rules to create Super and Premier Leagues each of 18 teams, and meet new standards of safety, security and accountability. These will include sound financial backing and programs to train youngsters properly.

Malang's Arema is one of the few that don't get government rupiah, a point made often and vigorously by club chair Satrija Budi Wibawa. Arema relies on smokes sponsorship from a big-name brand headquartered in Malang. Other clubs are bound to go knocking on the tobacco tsars' doors, but that may not be a healthy move.

In neighboring nations like Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and Singapore tobacco links to sport are banned. If Indonesia wants to play on the world stage it will have to quit its addiction to cash from ciggies.

The Indonesian League is also funded by a cigarette manufacturer – but no nicotine names are on the Asian Cup sponsors' list. Instead the backers are airlines, hotel chains, electronic goods companies, makers of power tools and sports gear.

These were the advertisers prominent in the recent match between Sydney and the East Java team Persik Kediri at Solo - won 2-1 by the locals. No tobacco ads could be seen on the telecast.

Although he's been involved with Indonesian business since the mid 1980s, Gold only recently realized the importance of soccer in Asia when he saw a game in Kuala Lumpur featuring English team Birmingham City.

"Till then I'd mixed with ex-pats who were only interested in rugby and Aussie Rules," he said. "The enthusiasm for soccer and English teams in particular throughout the ASEAN region is huge.

"People want to see professional football. At the end of a hard day's work this is their catharsis. It's the tribalisation of the modern world. When I came back to Indonesia I suddenly saw the obvious. But the game hasn't been well run or marketed."

If Gold's report is positive and his recommendations followed then formal links may be forged with Australian 11s like A-league team Perth Glory. Indonesian national teams have already used the facilities in WA to hone pre-match skills.

"The question raised in Indonesia is money, the issue in Australia is security," said Gold. "When we can sort these out then everything else will be about football."

(Sidebar 1)


The contest to decide who'll be Asia's top football team will be decided at Jakarta's Bung Karno Stadium on Sunday 29 July. It's being promoted as the biggest sporting event ever staged in Indonesia, expected to draw an international TV audience of close to one billion.

Quarterfinals will be played in Jakarta and the other host countries, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

At the moment hopes of Indonesia making an international mark any time soon seem fanciful indeed. Although Indonesia will be playing in the Asian Cup it has earned its place not through merit but because it's one of the four host nations. The hot favorite is Australia.

The 46-member Asian Football Confederation headquartered in Malaysia runs the Asian Cup.

The first Asian Cup match was in 1956 and it's contested every four years. The trophy has been won three times each by Iran, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Singapore won in 1984. So far Indonesia has never made it to the finals.

The first contest this year involving Indonesia will be against Bahrain on the evening of Tuesday 10 July at Bung Karno.

For more details of matches, times and locations see
(First published in The Weekender (JP) June 07)


Thursday, June 21, 2007



To get some understanding of Javanese mysticism and a sense of this nation's complex history, be in Blitar on 20 June. This is the eve of the death of first President Soekarno, and a major date in the calendar of those who revere his name. Duncan Graham reports from the East Java town:

Once a month on Legi Jumat (Friday in the Javanese calendar), Misril dresses in her best sarong and lacy white kebaya (traditional blouse). She pins back her hair and adds two small daisy-shaped gold earrings. Then leaning on the arm of her nephew Karyadi, the 70 year old shuffles up the polished marble steps and into the sanctuary.

This is a pendopo, the Javanese four-pillared open-walled hall with a richly carved timber ceiling. Inside are three graves. The smaller one in the center is strewn with leaves and flowers. The headstone is a huge black boulder.

Misril carries a tiny plastic bag of pink and yellow petals that she squeezes into the carpet of flowers as she prays. Then she moves away and others take her place. Most are also formally dressed.

"I ask for safety for my family and four grand-children, and I've always received that," she said in kromo, the high level Javanese language. Misril does not understand Indonesian.

"Bung (brother) Karno struggled for Indonesia. He saw no difference between the rich and poor. His soul comes to me in my dreams and tells me to go to his grave.

"I wanted to meet him when he was alive, but that was difficult. Now I can visit him any day."

Indonesia's first president died aged 69 under virtual house arrest on 21 June in 1970. This was five years after being deposed by General Suharto following a bloody coup allegedly engineered by communists, though this is a matter of dispute.

Soekarno was buried in a simple cemetery in his hometown of Blitar, about five road-hours south of Surabaya. The story goes that Suharto feared his rival's grave could become a focal point for fomenting opposition to the New Order government if located in Jakarta.

At first Soekarno was officially remembered only as the Proklamator, the man who happened to proclaim the Declaration of Independence on 17 August 1945. It was as though he was just a bit player in the struggle for the Republic, not its main architect.

Later, when Suharto was well entrenched, it was deemed politically safe to rehabilitate the nation's first President. In 1979 the present grand structure was built to house the body of Soekarno and his parents.

As expected the grave has become a shrine. In the arid Saudi versions of Islam Muslims are not supposed to pray at tombs, but in Indonesia that rule is widely ignored.

For Blitar the grave has become a major earner, with the Bung Karno industry showing no sign of collapsing despite the passing of a generation that lived during Soekarno's turbulent times.

The local authorities have done a good job in crowd control. They've built a huge bus and car station away from the tomb and museum and set up a park-and-drive system – using becak (pedicabs) on a fixed and published tariff.

For Rp 15,000 (US $1.70) you can be wheeled to all locations and back to your vehicle, then have a feed at the scores of stalls while fending off trinket sellers.

Karno kitsch is everywhere, from key rings to T shirts, clocks and other down-market memorabilia. There are photos and busts aplenty, though the artists who duplicate Soekarno's image show little respect for reality.

So you can choose from any version that suits your view of the great man - leonine, saturnine, lean, plump, feisty or thoughtful – but always dapper.

Official presentations of the past gloss over Soekarno's sexual adventures. The badly arranged museum has masses of historical documents and happy family snaps – Karno with wife Fatmawati and five children, including Megawati who was to become the nation's fifth president.

But outside pavement sellers offer the unauthorized versions listing the founding father's nine wives and 11 kids in a smudged photocopied document titled Don Juan, the Skilled Lover. It seems he particularly liked younger women; the age gap was between 39 and 46 years for his last five wives.

Here's another paradox that confuses the outsider; a great statesman saturated in the conservative and rigid culture of Java was a playboy whose sexual exploits put world leaders like John Kennedy in the amateur class. You'd expect Karno to have been condemned for such affairs; instead they added to his stature.

Soekarno was a master orator and probably the only person who could have rallied the masses to fight for Independence. But history shows he fumbled the economy and botched foreign affairs.

All this has been forgotten in Blitar, where the worshipers speak only in respectful terms of the good old days. Any Westerner wanting to know more should just sit quietly in the shade at the tomb site and wait awhile.

It won't take long before you'll be given history lessons you never read, and anecdotes that make Soekarno into a demi-god, a man of mystery and magic who can still influence the present.

"Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the grave before he became president," said retired military man Susilo Adji, on a pilgrimage from Jakarta. "He should return again to receive more wisdom on how to run Indonesia."



But what was Soekarno really like? East Java singer Kadam became a court favorite and has a clear memory.

Nicknamed 'Golden Voice' he first met Soekarno at the Presidential Palace in 1960. The 17-year old was a member of a ludruk (grassroots theatre) 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 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."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 June 07)



© Duncan Graham 2007

Kim Chance offered a blunt message to the Nervous Nellies of Australian business fearful of investing in Indonesia, the perceived land of terror:

"Go to Indonesia and learn that it is safe – or the competition will cut the ground out from under you," he said. "Of course there are sharks in Indonesian business – and crocodiles in Australian business. But they're a minority."

Western Australia's minister for agriculture and food has an unusual approach to the media; he's been a politician for 15 years and a minister for the past six so by now should have mastered the art of doublespeak.

Maybe he guards his words back in his home state where journalists think they have a mortgage on cynicism. But in Indonesia Chance was so upbeat about promoting trade that his edgy minders were constantly trying to insert qualifiers and disclaimers into his enthusiastic predictions.

As he rattled off a list of present and future possibilities – halal meat exports from Indonesia using cattle imported from Australia, Boer goats into Sumatra, Australian raw stock for steel mills, Indonesian laboratories providing tissue culture services, Indonesia manufacturing parabolic solar collectors, village bio-diesel plants using sunflower seeds, importing windmills to lift deep-well water - the bureaucrats blanched.

But however difficult the implementation of these plans, any public servant keen to stay on the payroll doesn't gainsay a minister setting out his vision – even when adding measurably to the workload.

"International relations tend to be over complicated," Chance said. "The rules are that we don't shoot at each other, that we try to make a bit of money, and we have fun.

"I'm here to talk trade but that's not the most important thing. This is about people, about developing good relationships and helping Australians understand more about Indonesia.

"We need to stop considering each other as separate countries. It's far more helpful to take a regional approach. We (in WA) have the raw commodities – you in Indonesia have the labor and the skills for value adding.

"What sort of opportunities? It's as broad as your imagination. Think of the synergies."

WA is a resource rich, export-dependent state. It produces huge quantities of food – mainly grains - and mines vast reserves of minerals, particularly iron, gold, nickel and bauxite that's used to make aluminum. (See sidebar)

Though it has a population of little more than two million, WA is currently riding an economic boom. There's a huge shortage of skilled labor. Wages are high ensuring that manufacturing can't compete against imports from low-cost workforce countries.

But in the nation next door to the north there's a surplus of labor, and according to Chance, a keenness to use local skills in innovative ways and develop new industries.

Later this year Indonesia will have the chance to showcase its products at the Perth Royal Show, WA's most prestigious annual event staged for a week in the big state's capital city. (Perth is just over three hours flying time from Denpasar.)

Past guest nations at the show have included China, Germany, Japan and Malaysia. East Java, which has a 17-year sister-state relationship with WA, has booked a third of the floor space at the Indonesian stand to push its goods and culture.

Chance was in Indonesia for five days in June to check progress with the Royal Show arrangements and help boost two-way trade.

Although he displays a teenager's enthusiasm for the business possibilities between the countries, he's no novice in international trade.

He's been to Indonesia before and several times to the Middle East ramping sales of cattle and farm produce, and checking end-use arrangements. Unlike many Australians, he seems unfazed by the current wave of Islamophobia sweeping the country Down Under.

"I'm learning Arabic," he said. "I'm very fond of Islamic culture. I like the Muslim approach to life. I really enjoy being in Indonesia."

In Batu (a hillltown outside Malang in central East Java famous for its floriculture and horticulture) Chance watched the signing of a memorandum of understanding. This was between a local company and Western Potatoes Ltd for the supply of seed potatoes.

Growers based at Nongkojajar on the uplands of the Bromo-Semeru massif have been importing spuds from other WA suppliers for the past decade, boosting yields by two to three times.

"WA is geographically isolated from the Eastern states of Australia (there's a desert in between) so we can maintain high standards of quarantine," said Chance.

"We don't suffer from potato blight which stops exports from countries like the Netherlands. Consumer demand for potatoes in Indonesia is phenomenal – it's growing at about 50 per cent a year.

"At the moment most of this is going into the snack food market. But in the future potatoes are likely to help provide food security for Indonesians as the margin between rice production and rice consumption narrows.

"In Australia we have expertise in agricultural science, stock genetics, veterinary medicine and animal nutrition. The trade in services follows trade in commodities."

The other rural boom product is milk. As Indonesian consumers move from powdered to long-life UHT (ultra-high temperature) processed milk, the demand for the liquid product is booming.

Many of the high-yield Friesian dairy cattle now being farmed in East Java originally came from WA.

"I'd like to see Indonesian investors getting involved in the Kimberley (north-western Australia) by buying the leasehold of cattle stations (ranches)," he said. "That helps lock in the supply of animals to Indonesia.

"There are no restrictions on Indonesian companies acquiring land. The Sultan of Brunei is already a major landholder."



Indonesia is Australia's tenth largest export market. Apart from petroleum products the major goods are aluminum, live animals, wheat, sugar and cotton. There seems to be plenty of demand – sales of Australian merchandise to Indonesia jumped 22.6 per cent last year.

In return Indonesia sends Australia large quantities of gold, paper and wood, including furniture.

Investment is one-sided. According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia has AUD $2.6 billion (Rp 182 trillion) invested in Indonesia. But Indonesians have sunk just one fifth of this sum into business and property in their neighbor.

There are reckoned to be about 400 Australian companies in Indonesia with most operating out of Jakarta. There's some Australian investment in mining companies working in Kalimantan.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 June 07)

Sunday, June 17, 2007


© Duncan Graham 2007

She's one of Indonesia's most prolific short-story writers with more than 300 published. Plus novels, poetry and a basket full of articles. For these she's collected several awards. When she's not writing she's pushing social and cultural causes.

All this makes Ratna Indraswari Ibrahim worthy of respect; add to this her work practices.

For Ratna is severely crippled and cannot write or use a keyboard; all her stories have to be dictated and transcribed. Duncan Graham met the determined author at her home in Malang, East Java.

While the interviews for this story were being conducted Malang was gripped by a bizarre family tragedy. A young Mum who seems to have suffered emotional, domestic and financial problems – and was clearly mentally unbalanced -poisoned her four children, then herself.

Adding to the tragedy is that the mother (ironically named Mercy) used her handphone to video the deaths of her youngsters. She then arranged their bodies neatly on the bed before committing suicide. The local media published the pictures.

Don't bother ploughing through newspaper archives for more details – just wait for Ratna's next story.

"I'm thinking about it," she said. "The seed is definitely there. I have to get my ideas from newspapers and books. It's not easy getting around."

But she does, and has already visited Australia, the US (where she had leadership training), and China. In some places mobility has been simpler than in her homeland. In many Western nations pavements should be smooth and level, and public buildings must have wheelchair-access ramps and wide doors for the physically challenged.

Ratna has been campaigning for similar laws in Indonesia for decades. Back in 1994 she was given a national award by then President Soeharto for her agitation on behalf of the disabled – arguing that the public should see the person, not the problem, and that all citizens have the right to use public space.

But architects and town planners largely remain unconcerned with the plight of Indonesia's handicapped; the legislation is still not in place, ensuring the disabled usually stay indoors.

"I should start a political party," a frustrated Ratna grumbled as an aside. "There are ten million disabled voters in Indonesia. Maybe then the lawmakers would start to pay attention."

It's not just the indifference of politicians that keeps the crippled out of sight. To have a child who is labeled abnormal is often regarded as a curse, proof to the superstitious that the family has committed some grave sin.

Fortunately for Ratna her parents - who came from Padang in West Sumatra, a region with a reputation for practising heavy-duty Islam - were open minded, progressive and liberal,

"I was born in 1949 and had a good and happy childhood," she said. "I could swim and loved playing outside. I was considered to be a tomboy."

When she was about ten tragedy struck. At first it was thought she'd contracted poliomyelitis, though later diagnoses indicate it may be rickets, a disease that softens bones. Whatever the cause, she lost the use of her limbs and has had to rely on others for her daily needs.

"For the first five years or so I was very angry – particularly with God because everyone else in the family was so fit," she said. "All my five sisters were beautiful. However I think I've only written one story expressing that anger – and I can't remember the title.

"My mother, Siti Bidasari, died only five years ago. She lived long enough to see and enjoy her daughter's success. I'm not trying to be immodest, but she was very proud of me.

"When I was young she told me: 'You cannot walk, but you can write. Not everyone who walks can write. You will do much more than other people because God has given you brains to use.'

"It's true that I may not have become a writer if I hadn't been disabled. I love plants and all living things, and I wanted to become a farmer.

"God made me like this so I could be writer. Originally I wrote for myself – and to please my parents, to show them that I could do other things. I didn't want them crying because I was sick."

The home environment was ideal. Dad, Saleh Ibrahim was fluent in numerous languages, an idealistic lawyer who quit his profession over issues of principle to become a businessman. The family did well - it owned a major cinema and the house was full of books. If it was a toss up between spending on haberdashery or hardbacks the novels usually won.

It was also a remarkably tolerant environment. Young Ratna was sent to a Christian school, liked some of the rituals and asked her parents if they could celebrate Christmas with a tree. They agreed – and they didn't prohibit her from talking to the prostitutes at a nearby brothel.

"I was taught not to see people for their faults," she said, "but to look at their characters piece-by-piece." It's a quality she has taken into her literature.

Mum was an admirer of intellectual and diplomat Agus Salim who also came from Padang. He was one of the founders of modern Indonesia and a writer of the Constitution who stressed the value of education.

While other kids were running the streets, kicking balls and testing the limits of their bodies and the physical environment, Ratna was exploring the limitless world of imagination.

She was exposed to the works of Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Alexandre Dumas and others. Her parents would suggest books she might like – including Karl Marx's manifesto Das Kapital. This was before Soeharto introduced a ban on all works by communists.

"My parents said they would stand by me and visit me in jail if I decided to join the PKI (communist party), but they'd disown me if I was imprisoned for corruption," she said.

She didn't become a Red, but Marx influenced her to consider the plight of the poor, marginalized and dispossessed – the people who now feature in her stories.

Ratna went to Malang's Brawijaya University where her friends had to carry her up stairs to lectures. She wanted to learn more about human psychology but lost interest and channeled her energies into writing and activism.

For 13 years she chaired a Non-Government Organization (NGO) for disabled people, then founded an NGO concerned with environmental issues. She also works for Yayasan Kebudayaan Panjoeng, a cultural foundation to stimulate and preserve local history and the arts.

Her once secluded 93-year old home in central Malang is now overshadowed by a hotel on one side, and a high school on the other. When prayers and public announcements are made on what must be East Java's most raucous and deafening sound system, the mind hibernates for self-protection.

It hardly seems the ideal environment for creativity, but Ratna resting on a bed in her library while she structures her next sentence to be transcribed by secretary and poet Ragil Sukriwul, doesn't seem to mind. She has many visitors who bring her stories that may eventually find a way into her work.

Then there are the students seeking the magic elixir: 'Please tell me how to write.' Ratna's answer is blunt and direct: "Just do it!" So what sort of courses should they take? "Education is not the same as intelligence."

Relationships between the sexes are a major theme in her stories, with situations growing out of male domination of women in a society that's overwhelmingly dogmatic and masculine, and often violent.

Her female characters are usually semi-urban Muslims struggling with life and injustice, battling to raise families while maintaining a sense of self-worth. Their situations are real. Her popularity depends on her readers identifying with the characters and their daily lives. Surprisingly many of her admirers are men.

There are two main streams of women's literature in Indonesia, the traditional romantic novel (love lit) and the new kid on the shelves, sastra wangi (literally 'perfumed writing') but known elsewhere as chick lit.

Ratna rejects both as "pop writing". Despite her distaste she recognizes that the boom in sastra wangi featuring metropolitan teens coming to grips with their sexuality is encouraging young women to learn more about their bodies, human nature and the world they've inherited. "Better read than gossip," she conceded.

The success of these novelettes (check the number of titles in your nearest bookstore) clearly shows there's a great need among curious youngsters constrained by culture and imposed taboos. But it's the open discussion of sex that worries the 58-year old author.

"Sex belongs to God," she said. "It's a matter between two souls, it's not an issue that should be discussed in the open, or treated as vulgar which is how it's handled by men."

She lumps feminism into the same category because of the stress on sex – though in a Western reading of her work she is clearly a feminist writer striving to empower.

The traditional romantic novel is given the flick because it reinforces what Ratna calls the 'Cinderella complex'. This has a passive young woman waiting for some bloke to rescue her from hardships, then transport her to an abode of bliss. How he's constructed this is of no concern to author or reader.

In this genre the woman does little more than hang around, braid her locks, keep her legs together till marriage and look enchanting. She doesn't have to use her initiative or generate ideas. In fact any outburst of intelligence would probably frighten away Mr Right who has a fixation on body, not brains.

Sadly, claims Ratna, Indonesia is an "autistic country." Most women still believe in the Cinderella fantasy, even as they pummel clothes in streambeds, hump water up hills and fall pregnant too early and too often to male chauvinists.

She also attacks public perceptions of Islam as a religion that oppresses women. "People confuse culture with religion," she said. "Islam protects women's rights. It's the culture that creates the role of women in society.

"I want my readers to think about women, how they are treated, to understand their fate. I want to talk humanity – not feminism or individualism and selfishness.

"Our keraton (Javanese regal) culture promotes mutual support. Human beings were created to help each other. Readers will get what they want from my books."

(First published in the SundayPost 17 June 07)##


Thursday, June 14, 2007



The pain of Porong seems never-ending. Transport routes have been damaged and traffic disrupted, but the East Java village drowned by the continuously erupting Lapindo mud volcano has taken the biggest hit.

Though the villagers' problems haven't been resolved their plight doesn't pass unnoticed. There's a regular parade of impotent officials, gawkers and picture snappers, tut-tuting about the unstoppable outflow of gas and grime, and the anguish of the unfortunates caught in the environmental and bureaucratic mess.

Not all outsiders bemoan their inabilities to assist. Bambang Adrian Wenzel is a regular visitor from Malang. He's neither a geologist nor a desk jockey, but he's doing what he can to make a difference – as an artist.

He's sketched the faces of scores of children, emotionally crippled by a disaster that's already displaced an estimated 25,000 people. They've lost their homes, land, jobs, places of worship and schools.

It's a distressing environment. Many have also abandoned hope as the promises of help drown in the slime. The reality has been caught by Bambang in the kids' doleful eyes, disconnected from the carefree youth they were enjoying before they were prematurely forced into adulthood, trapped by the agonies of a problem they didn't cause.

"They're the innocent victims who have lost so much – including their childhood," Bambang said. "I first went to Porong last year with two artist friends from Jakarta.

"We decided that I should keep returning and drawing. Later this year we'll have an exhibition and sale in Jakarta where people will get a better chance to understand what's happening here in East Java.

"All the proceeds will be used to buy books for the children so they can keep learning. We certainly won't be handing out cash to officials."

For Bambang books are as important as canvases and brushes. He draws much of his inspiration from the Greek philosophers with Plato a favorite source.

"I'm interested in the ideas of democracy and human rights. Art is an offering to God and humanity," he said.

Bambang was born into a half Chinese, half Madurese family in the Java east coast town of Banyuwangi almost 50 years ago. After a short spell of formal art studies in Surabaya he moved to Malang "because it's a cultural city with a good artistic environment."

Since then he's maintained himself as a professional artist – a rare feat in an economy where there's little surplus cash for unconventional artworks. He's done this without having to compromise his time with other work, or corrupt his creativity by mass-producing touristy pictures.

The problem in keeping the rupiah river running is that much of his art doesn't fit neatly into the much-favored horses-galloping-in-surf or colorful-fishing-boats-in-harbor genres.

Nor does it meet the overseas visitor demand for soft-hue paintings of languid Balinese beauties. These are the standard lines that have kept his famous cousin, artist Huang Fong, well employed for the past half century by satisfying tourist fantasies of life in the tropics.

"I don't want to do this sort of work," Bambang said. "I'm trying to give more meaning to life. I mostly sell to collectors in America and Jakarta. I've exhibited in Australia and China, and Jakarta galleries handle my work.

"I enter a few exhibitions; I'm currently being shown in the traveling show A Beautiful Death that's been touring Bali and Java. But there's not a lot of interest in my art in Indonesia."

Probably because it's enigmatic, sometimes disturbing and wouldn't fit easily on the wall of a lounge where visitors are invited to relax. It's clear his Chinese antecedents are slowly pushing themselves into the foreground as his work moves from simple to complex and now includes oriental symbols.

A good example is a large picture (few of Bambang's paintings would fit in a Mercedes, though you'd need to be in that class to afford his art), of a broody hen, two freshly hatched chicks peeping from her fluffed-up feathers.

At first glance it's an image of warmth and security. Then you notice the tiny McDonalds logo reflected in the chicken's eye. This theme gets a more brutal treatment when the faces of beautiful women are eliminated in hardedge brush strokes that suddenly run out of paint – like TV images electronically smudged to mask the faces of the guilty or innocent.

Now he's working in multi-media, using slabs of stone to give a three-dimensional effect. He's much influenced by the confrontationist Lithuanian-Polish poster artist Stasys Eidrigevicius.

There are many Javanese cultural icons in his art, and images drawn from the old Buddhist-Hindu temples that surround Malang. These are mixed with religious symbols (he's a Catholic) and social commentary. He blends realism and the abstract.

One installation has a series of blurred monochrome photographs showing sacred texts surrounding a bright multicolored in-focus shot of a shopping mall. He's used this as a stimulant for discussions on the way religion and culture are being drowned by the neon-lit lure of materialism.

"During the Suharto era I felt constrained," he said. "It was difficult to express myself freely. I couldn't develop my creativity and had to be careful, particularly because I'm part Chinese and it would not have been wise to include that part of my culture in my paintings. Now I feel free. I'm learning Mandarin and I sign my art with my Chinese name.

"I could probably make more money overseas, but here I feel in touch with the environment that I love so much. I'm not money oriented. I believe that if you're an artist and serious about your work, good fortune will come to you."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 June 07)


Tuesday, June 12, 2007



Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia.
Ed: Greg Fealy and Virginia Hooker
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
540 pages

Let not your hatred of others cause you to act unjustly against them. The Koran.

Despite this injunction, a minority of Muslims believes they have divine licence to kill unbelievers. The hurt they've done has been far greater than the destruction of people and property within the blast zones of their evildoing.

Their actions have turned the West against Islam. Hatred has nurtured hatred to the point where a Christian political leader in Australia – once the Land of the Fair Go - is now calling for a ban on Muslim migrants and getting good support.

Many Muslims seem indifferent. Religion is not a popularity contest. Who cares what others think?

Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, does: "Never in Islam's history have the actions of so few of its followers caused the religion and its community of believers to be such an abomination in the eyes of others."

Ibrahim's unequivocal condemnation is rare. The standard dismissal put forward by moderate Muslims and Western politicians keen to hose down sectarian rage is that the fundamentalists are fringe dwellers, unrepresentative of the majority.

Islam, the apologists say, means 'peace' and 'submission', while 'jihad' refers to the struggle within, not a holy war. Moslems are tolerant and compassionate, and can live alongside those of other faiths.

That reasoning is now running thin, for too many prominent Muslims are saying the opposite. When Australians think Islam, they see Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the alleged eminence grise of violent jihad. His views were broadcast on television and have been reproduced in this book:

"Allah has divided humanity into two segments, namely the followers of Allah and the followers of Satan …we would rather die than follow that which you worship. We do not want to cooperate … we reject all your beliefs, we reject all your ideologies, we reject all of your teachings that are associated with social issues, economics or beliefs.

"Between you and us there will forever be a ravine of hate and we will be enemies until you follow Allah's law."

Distressful – though allowable in a democracy. But there needs to be counter-views delivered by influential Muslims who are prepared to trash such gross intolerance with moral and theological force. Not too many find the courage, leaving the field to the loonies.

Faced with this sort of rhetoric, backed by media images of white-clad 'holy warriors' waving fists, shouting slogans and acting with impunity, no wonder shallow thinkers equate Islam with terror with Indonesia.

How can that 'ravine of hate' ever be bridged? Certainly not by bland words and soothing comments that are at odds with reality.

Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia doesn't go soft on the hard issues, as the quotes above show. Although it has been compiled from academic research backed by Australian government funds, this is not the transcript of a multi-faith love-in where handpicked moderates make motherhood statements, then pose for happy-snaps.

The subtitle is A Contemporary Sourcebook, so don't expect a cover-to-cover read. This isn't a Karen Armstrong history of the faith. It's a collection of texts (many little known or previously unavailable in English) with commentaries.

This is the volume to turn to when you need facts and opinions about Islam in this geographical area, and ideas to feed critical thinking. It's not for those concrete minds that already know that their way to salvation is the one and only path.

Although there are chapters on Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries in the region with Muslim populations, the emphasis is on Indonesia and Malaysia.

It's a book for those with a lust for learning, who want to hear all sides of an issue and who are fluent in English. It also has an excellent glossary, useful because so many terms are Arabic.

If you're looking for signs of hope – or words that bolster your prejudices - they're all here. The index has only two references to love, but many more to war and terror. Maybe an examination of Christian fundamentalism in the US would glean similar results.

The great issue in the 19th century was the separation of church and state, now a pillar of Western society. For those who can't understand why others would think differently, read Greg Fealy's chapter on Islam, State and Governance.

Gender issues are prominent in modern Western debate. For the reader seeking proof that Islam values men above women there's an excellent section by academic Sally White. This examines tracts – mostly written by men - on how women should behave and manage 'the harmonious family'.

But as the commentaries reveal, these proscriptions should be read against analyses of the texts that are used to uphold the oppression. The principal verse is 'men are the leaders of women' - but other translations aren't so rigid, claiming the critical word is ''maintainers'.

And even if 'leaders' remains, progressives argue it doesn't mean a man can regard housework as unimportant, for leadership includes 'love, protection, education, guidance and humane authority.'

So inevitably it all comes down to interpretation and the way we use the intellects God gave us. Religion defies easy understanding; it has multiple spokespeople, wise and unwise, offering infinite versions. It's unworthy of one-liners whether shouted by the self-styled Defenders of Islam or Christian Bible-thumping bigots.

Illustrating the complexity is a useful extract from an interview that goes to the heart of the matter.

It's between Terry Lane, a prominent Christian and one of Australian broadcasting's most perceptive journalists, and Zainah Anwar, from the Malaysian organization Sisters in Islam:

Lane: Do you mean that this (the Koran) is literally the revealed word of God?

Anwar: Yes, definitely.

Lane: You say 'Yes, definitely', but if I make a comparison between Islam and Christianity, Christianity only lost its ability to control the lives of women when that very notion of revealed truth was rejected.

Anwar: Well, you see there is a difference between what is revealed by God – and that is the words in the Qu'ran (Koran) that comes from God, … and what is human understanding of the word of God ... the human agency, the human intervention.

So coming full circle is the question – what human agency? The clerics (male) and the governments they influence. Indonesia is a highly religious society where regular public affirmations of faith are expected of politicians, and all citizens are required to follow an approved religion. Many find their identity through Islam.

The power of the clerics is obvious; alleged contraventions of the Constitution regarding the introduction of Sharia law in some districts have yet to be tackled by the national government. Law reforms proposed by leading Muslim women that will give women more freedom have not been introduced.

Though the insular graybeards still seem to control public debate on religion in Indonesia from their castles of dogma, other heads are now peeping above the parapet and from the pages of this book. They are brave indeed, risking the charge that they've been westernized.

Today that's a label almost as damning as the tag 'communist' used in the Soeharto era to crush dissent.

For all its faults the West is prepared to publish alternative views as Voices of Islam proves. Even Bali bomber Imam Samudra is given a good run and slanders himself neatly, proving there's no need to censor the extremists:

'I really am a troublesome demon who reeks of death. But don't misconstrue this; it doesn't mean that I'm an antichrist or paranoid. I'm just normal, you know.'

This book is a major and balanced contribution to the most important debate of our times. I hope it gets translated into Indonesian so it becomes more accessible.

(First published in The Sunday Post 10 June 07)




NO FEAR OF FLYING © Duncan Graham 2007

The difference between men and boys is the size of their toys.

The old proverb holds good most Sundays at a recreation park in Malang, East Java, when a crew of alleged adults get together to realize their fantasies.

They're bankers, businessmen (the women, emulating air hostesses, tend to supply food and drink), oil industry executives and just about anyone who had their childhood dreams of freedom in the skies grounded.

"At primary school I always wanted to fly planes – the commercial variety," said Budi Santoso, organizer of the Malang Raya Aeromodelling Club (scaled down to MR AC). "But I didn't choose that path; instead I became an engineer.

"There are four kids in my family, though we only have three children. Am I a frustrated pilot? Yes, I think so!"

They may never get to wrap their palms round the throttles of an Airbus but they'll handle most things short of wearing a peaked cap and calming a cabin full of nervous souls by articulating with authority the sentence of assurance: 'This is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard'.

In fact the wannabe aviators can do more; how many A 320 jockeys have designed and built the aircraft they fly?

Australian aid administrator Barry Clark has been playing (woops! – carrying out aerodynamic experiments) with model aircraft for more than 40 years. He's made his own in the past but the pride of his current fleet is a big yellow craft he bought ARTF (almost ready to fly) in Jakarta. This means it took him only four hours to assemble.

There are few local suppliers outside the capital so members have to rely on friends who travel regularly, particularly to Singapore and Australia where the hobby is big business. Vietnam is now producing some excellent models for those without either the patience to build or tolerant partners.

("Wait a moment, darling; I'll come to bed just as soon as I've fiddled this flap. I've got a drag and yaw problem.")

An expensive pastime? Not if you go for tethered round-the-pole planes controlled by two hand-held cables, according to Budi who makes many of his own parts.

For the free radio-controlled craft the cost depends on what you want, how digitally smart you are (fingers and electronics), and your knowledge of flight science. Set aside Rp 1 million rupiah (US $112) for a basic body, double that for the engine and controls, triple it for the transmitter and toss in another million or so for other gizmos you're bound to want – even if you don't need.

Although there are off-the-peg designs available the real challenge comes from applying the laws of physics, understanding meteorology and being inventive. This can be a really educative and creative sport.

And a damaging one. Anarg, who works for the military where he controls pilotless drones for gunners to practise their aim, found his hobby plane going way off course with a stiff wind up its flimsy backside.

It zipped out of the park, crashed into trees alongside a busy road, then tumbled into the traffic. Just as toast always falls with the marmalade side down, so model aircraft hit hard things nose-first where the expensive bits are located.

In other countries governments and clubs exercise rigid controls on radio frequencies and flight paths, but this country is free of such tiresome rules. That makes for greater hazards and more fun. Wags say there are old pilots and bold pilots – but no old, bold pilots. Except among Indonesian aeromodellers.

"Malang is made up of real enthusiasts," Clark said. "These planes are beyond toys. They can reach speeds of up to 100 kph.

"The club in Jakarta meets out at Halim where there's some serious money. They even fly jets and employ boys to run out on the field to pick up the crashes."

But Malang is mainly do-it-yourself, though there's no shortage of revved up little lads who sit in wonder to watch their elders, and supposed betters, stretch elastic bands, twist bits of wire and rip packaging tape with their molars.

The earth-bound airmen swap ideas, trade tips and tell of fruit shops that will let you filch high-density Styrofoam. Although used to stop apples bruising in transit, the lightweight sheets make ideal wings.

Readers who misspent their youth trimming balsawood and getting their mum's best tablecloth sticky with Tarzan's Grip will be happy to know their ancient skills won't be wasted. Tiny two-stroke diesel and glow engines are still used, though giving way to electric motors.

Wrinklies who reckon they haven't had a good day's flying unless they come home sprayed with fuel mixed to a secret formula, ears ringing from the high pitched buzz, fingers bleeding from propeller mishaps, sneer at the innovations.

But this is also about gadgets and progress. If the Wright brothers had been happy with their prototype we wouldn't now be Boeing our way around the globe.

"About five years ago there was a significant shift in the technology," said Clark. "More powerful lightweight batteries came on the market, along with miniaturized electronic equipment.

"In the past the transmitter would allow only one or two on-off functions. Now you can refine controls of the rudder, elevators, engine speed and ailerons. Some models also let you raise the undercarriage after take-off."

Though not at MR AC. Although one fellow has a big flash helicopter, the 30 odd members - some have up to ten planes - aren't too fussed about appearances. The most spectacular flier, a gaudy biplane with a two-dimensional fuselage, looks like something kicked aside by rubbish bin scavengers.

But in the air, piloted by its designer Sang Ajim the ugly swan transformed into a swallow. It could turn, roll, hover (if the headwind speed is right), flip, fly vertically and upside-down, duck and dive – giving spectacular displays that would rival any air-force show.

The kids loved it all. Even the little ones.

(First published in The Sunday Post 10 June 07)


Friday, June 01, 2007


Muhammad Nidzhom Hidayatullah

It's one thing to preach tolerance – quite another to put it into practice, as Muhammad Nidzhom Hidayatullah is discovering as he faces the greatest test of his philosophy to date.

A few weeks ago an angry man arrived at Nidzhom's Malang office in central East Java. Nidzhom is executive secretary of the local branch of the peak Islamic body Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) (Indonesian Muslim Scholars' Council).

The visitor was carrying a VCD he'd been given that ridiculed and vilified Islam and had allegedly been made by Christians. Nidzhom knew immediately that if it fell into the hands of hotheads it could cause an outbreak of church burning and assaults on Christians.

The 10-minute video shows about 40 people in a room, most dressed in traditional Muslim clothes – the women wearing headscarves, the men in sarongs and caps. At the front a preacher waves a book that appears to be a copy of the Koran.

At one stage in the proceedings the book is put on the floor. In a grainy and shakily-shot scene the participants form a ring and condemn the text with angry words and gestures.

Captions at the head of the video claim it shows a teaching session conducted last December at a hotel in the nearby town of Batu. It was part of a weeklong workshop run by the Lembaga Pelayanan Mahasiswa Indonesia (LPMI) (Indonesian student ministry.)

The caption also said that the people in the video wearing Muslim garb were Christians. Although the LPMI is supposed to be a student organization the participants in the video look middle aged. The video doesn't appear to have made it to the Internet but copies are not hard to find in Malang and are reported to be circulating in other towns.

Nidzhom kept his cool and pondered whether the VCD was an isolated event by a fringe group of rogue Christians, or a sinister attempt by others to stir sectarian strife by purporting to be the LPMI. He also wondered whether the workshop had been taped, copied and distributed by Muslims.

But these weren't priority issues; the immediate task was to defuse emotions in a society where real or imagined insults to a religion can unleash hate and violence. Lives and property were at risk.

(In 1996 more than 20 churches were trashed or burned in East Java. Further destruction and killings occurred three years later.)

Nidzhom urgently discussed the issue with senior members of the MUI in East Java and Jakarta. They consulted the Koran and the hadis (the collection of stories relating to the deeds of the Prophet, and a major source for determining religious issues.)

One of the stories tells of Muhammad going to the town of Thaif to preach and being stoned by opponents of his teaching. Instead of retaliating with force and anger, the Prophet said: 'God, please forgive them because they don't understand what they are doing.'

"We must learn from the life of the Prophet," Nidzhom said. "We were feeling very angry but we could not express our feelings. We must control our emotions and show that this is the way He would have handled the situation.

"If we take action against the Christians they will react and the fighting will be never-ending.

"I understand and realize how people feel, but this is a time when we must be wise. In Islam we should not be condemning other religions. Malang is a good town with a mature approach to religion."

He also distributed copies of the VCD to mosques, a move that has been criticized by some Christians because it could have created widespread outrage and further inflamed tensions. However Nidzhom argued that exaggerated rumors were already spreading about the video and had to be corrected.

He said it was being wrongly claimed that Christians were stamping on the Koran and only by showing the video could this slur be disproved.

"Muslims are under attack by globalization and secularism," he said. "People must know what we are up against. After they'd seen it the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) - a major Islamic organization with a claimed membership of 40 million - told their followers to ignore the provocation and cool down.

"We accepted that this (VCD) was from a radical group that misunderstood religion, and that such people exist in all faiths. Indonesian society tends towards fundamentalism."

He then called a meeting at MUI headquarters of the Forum Komunikasi Umum (FKU) a discussion group of all faith leaders. The Protestants condemned the video and told the meeting that the VCD was the action of a small minority outside the mainstream churches.

They said the actions of the LPMI were wrong and the case was handed to the police. Nidzhom said church leaders had apologized and would work hard to ensure it didn't happen again. (See sidebar)

The self-effacing Nidzhom, 42, said he felt uncomfortable being called a wise peacemaker, though he agreed the situation had been tense with the potential for serious strife. He claimed it could still go bad – particularly if the police do not move quickly on the case.

"God created big and small people and gave wisdom to all," he said. "I consulted with learned men and I also listened to the voices of drivers and other workers on the street.

"Although I believe all faiths have a place in society and we have been created by God to be diverse, I don't want to be called a pluralist. Many say this is not suitable for Indonesia. When you give people labels it narrows thinking.

"We must all appreciate our position in the community. If we respect others and they respect us then all problems can be solved."

Before taking his present job three years ago Nidzhom was a lecturer in religion at the Muhammadiyah University in Malang. He said he had read the Bible and other non-Islamic holy books and had drawn his personal philosophy from reading widely.

"This is a sick time in Indonesia with a great gap between rich and poor," he said. "There is so much greed and concern with status among our leaders.

"God does not see what we are wearing or the type of handphone we are using, but looks inside our hearts and knows what we are doing.

"I've sent my three children to under-developed schools so they know how the disadvantaged are living. When I was sick I went to a third class hospital so I could understand how poor people are suffering.

"I have tried to give my life to society. My prayers are simple: Please God, just give us enough for daily life."

(Sidebar 1)


Pastor Johan Haryono, a member of the FKU who attended the meeting with Nidzhom, said church leaders had offered unqualified apologies to Muslims for the behavior of the people at the LPMI meeting.

Last Saturday (14 April) night about 3,000 worshippers from several different Christian churches attended a service in Malang and applauded speakers who apologized to Muslims for the 'event'.

"However the LPMI – also known as Campus Crusade - has been running for more than 50 years and is good," Haryono said outside the service "But they have walked too far, gone beyond the boundaries, been too emotional.

"To be an evangelist is to love, but they are committing blasphemy against the Koran. That is evil. I have no idea why they did this.

"The tragedy is that we've lost the trust of Muslims and this must be retrieved. We have to improve our internal networking so this doesn't happen again.

"We are grateful to all the Muslim leaders. What they did was very good. They kept the balance. It's finished now – it's up to the police."

(At the time of writing 11 people allegedly involved in the LPMI event were reportedly been investigated by the police, though no charges have been laid. In Indonesia disturbing public order by insulting religion is a jailing offence.)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 June 07)



TOUGH GUYS DIE HARD © Duncan Graham 2007

The United Nations has designated Thursday 31 May as World No Tobacco Day. A worthy idea – but one that's unlikely to have much impact in Indonesia, ranked five in the world for tobacco consumption.

For the figures are rising. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 62 per cent of adult males in Indonesia smoke – up almost ten per cent in six years.

If current trends continue WHO reckons that by 2020 tobacco-related illnesses will be the world's largest single health problem, killing 8.4 million people a year. Half these deaths will be in Asia.

The figures are so big and consistent, the science so conclusive that no one seriously doubts that smoking cripples and kills. So why do people continue? Duncan Graham tried to find out:


Solikia needed no prompting to tell his story – and pass on a warning.

The 70-year old rice farmer from Blitar in East Java had been admitted to Malang's biggest public hospital just five days earlier suffering from acute shortness of breath and chest pains.

The diagnosis wasn't good. He has emphysema and bronchitis. His lungs are irreparably damaged. His body is thin and frail as though he's come from an industrial slum, not a lifetime of open-air work in the country.

He was being treated with antibiotics and when his condition stabilizes he'll be sent home. His body has been so severely weakened he'll probably soon succumb to pneumonia and die.

Solikia said he smoked one and a half packets of cigarettes every day for more than 50 years. Doctors have told him that this is the reason he is now so sick.

"If we got all the packets I've used it would more than fill this room, it would overflow into the corridor," he said in short breaths at the Dr Saiful Anwar Hospital's lung diseases ward.

"My message to all young men and boys, to everyone, is never to smoke. If you feel the need, just suck a sweet or chew something. I started because all my friends, everyone smoked. It was just what we did. But I didn't know anything. Now I regret that I ever started."

Sitting on his bed he tapped his skeletal ribs with his left hand. The other he held up, palm first, as in a pledge: "I swear before God that I will never smoke again."

Discounting accidents and maternity cases, the four top reasons for seeking help at the hospital are upper respiratory infections, tuberculosis, asthma and lung diseases, according to pulmonary diseases specialist Dr Nunuk Sri Muktiati

"Apart from TB the others are all linked to smoking," she said.

"Ninety per cent of the patients I see are smokers. I want to be angry – but to whom do I direct that anger? Smoking is linked to masculinity in Indonesian culture.

"It's difficult to get the message across that smoking kills. I don't know how we can break the connection between smoking and being a strong man."

But she does know how to reach women. Most of her patients are men and they often bring their families to consultations and treatment. This gives Dr Nunuk the chance to empower wives and mothers to protect their children.

"The message I try to get through to the family is that the female head of the household must control what happens in her home," she said. "She should throw away ashtrays and tell guests who want to smoke that it's not allowed."

(A national survey conducted three years ago showed that most Indonesian men light up at home, exposing their families to carcinogenic fumes. The research estimated that 97 million people are unwilling passive smokers – and almost half are children.)

The X rays Dr Nunuk studies during her rounds are graphic enough, made doubly so when the surrounds are clinical. The lungs of a smoker with emphysema exposing collapsed tissue; the dreaded black spots. You don't need to be a radiologist to understand the pictures are death sentences with no appeals.

But there are other more soothing images, much easier to access. The billboards just 200 metres outside the sterile white-tiled walls show fit and happy young men climbing mountains, racing four-wheel drives into stunning scenery and generally having a jolly carefree time.

They're not shown smoking – that's illegal in Indonesia. Advertising mustn't carry pictures of cigarettes and must include a prolix health warning. But the link is clear: The good-life fantasies may be out of reach, but buying and burning thin rolls of tobacco leaf is a fine substitute for the unattainable.

Dr Nunuk also hands out brochures produced by the Association of Indonesian Lung Specialists. She's a past chair of the local branch.

Although providing useful information these are wordy and poorly illustrated leaflets that will never win design awards when ranked against the tobacco industry's smart and seductive ads.

Surprisingly Dr Nunuk isn't just battling timid housewives reluctant to stamp their authority across their domain. The hospital bosses seem equally unwilling. Although corridors and wards have No Smoking signs, the rules are not enforced – except in the areas directly under the control of Dr Nunuk and her like-minded colleagues.

"I want the campaign to create smoke free areas expanded," she said. "Everyone seems to think this is too difficult because of the culture.

"The labels on cigarette packets should be bigger and the message more stark. I understand that the government wants to get tax from tobacco and that many people make their living from the industry.

"My message to the government is that production should be curbed. The authorities should think about the benefits to the health of the community.

"Maybe we should be promoting the idea that men who stop smoking are strong – not the other way around."

Sidebar 1


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 tax rates in the region.

Jobs in tobacco manufacturing make up one per cent of the total industrial sector employment. That's about one million people. Most are women.

This figure doesn't take into account farmers, field processors, transporters, sales staff, advertisers, retailers and others who directly and indirectly make a living from the tobacco industry.

The tobacco market is controlled by a few multinational corporations from the US, Japan and Britain. The value of tobacco leaf imports into Indonesia exceeds the value of exports by US $ 44 million.

(sidebar 2)


Despite the overwhelming evidence that lung cancer is the world's leading cause of preventable death – and that tobacco use is linked to 90 per cent of cases - there are even some doctors who don't get the message, effectively undermining Quit campaigns.

When your health care provider reeks of tobacco smoke his warnings of the hazards are worthless.

Dr Andreas Infianto recalled his time as a medical student in Bandung.

"About 30 per cent of my colleagues were smokers," he said. "It was part of the lifestyle. If we didn't smoke we weren't really considered to be men. Our culture and environment encourage smoking.

"Studying was hard. Smoking seemed to be the only thing that would ease the tensions and get rid of the problems. Then I got asthma and realized I had to give it up.

"But I know many doctors who can't kick the habit."

(Sidebar 3)


Most Westerners who love this country can clearly recall their first moments on Indonesian soil. The sultry heat; the cacophony and the seemingly aimless crowds; the density of the roadside shadows and flickering lights offering hints of mystery.

Add to these images the smells – of burning cooking oil and kretek cigarettes. It's the distinctive and unique odor of the archipelago.

Airports are normally smoke-free. But in Indonesia the tobacco companies have thoughtfully installed glass-walled smoking rooms where nicotine addicts can huddle together in a strange ritual of slow asphyxiation.

The culture shock continues with the posters, banners and billboards. It's like going back in time, to an era when tobacco advertising was legal, a period recalled only by the elderly.

The streetscapes of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries aren't polluted by such signage. Cigarettes cost up to ten times more than brands in Indonesia and in many cases aren't on open sale.

Supply to minors is illegal and the law is strictly enforced. Offending shopkeepers are heavily fined. Health warnings are stark and confrontational.

In France you buy a product that screams Fumer Tue (smoking kills) across one third of the pack. Singapore packets carry photos of sick people in hospital. In Thailand they show diseased gums and other gross medical conditions.

In Indonesia some brands carry sports' images. One has the slogan: The Real Man. The picture shows a Caucasian.

(Sidebar 4)


Could the addition of one word on cigarette packs help deter smokers? Muslim psychiatrist Dr Andri Sudjatmoko thinks so.

The word would be haram – meaning forbidden to Muslims, who usually check that anything they consume is halal – allowed. Even plastic bottles of standard drinking water carry the label halal.

"Islam prohibits the use of intoxicants and drugs," Dr Andri said. "No one is allowed to smoke at Mecca during the haj (pilgrimage).

"Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that affects the brain. People start with cigarettes; some then go on to use alcohol and illegal drugs.

"Smoking creates mood disorders. It depresses taste and affects concentration. Many know the risks but ignore them. I'd like to see a real anti-smoking campaign, something like the one now being employed against drug use.

"Fortunately few women smoke. (WHO figures show 1.3 per cent in Indonesia. In some Western countries women have overtaken men as smokers.)

"That's because of the stigma; a woman who smokes is considered to be a prostitute.

"In this country there's a strong link between smoking and masculinity. Fathers who smoke pass the habit onto their sons when they are teenagers. This connection has to be broken – that's the responsibility of the family.

"Education is the key. Research shows that most smokers have low education levels. The better educated the person, the less likely they are to smoke.

"This is a serious problem in Indonesia. It's complex and multi-functional and has to be tackled on many fronts – including compensation for farmers who want to stop growing tobacco."


(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 May 07)