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

Thursday, August 30, 2007



At a recent event in the Indonesian city of Surabaya organized by the East Java Regional Government, journalists were handed the standard media kits of brochures and statements in a thick folder.

Only later did I discover an envelope. Inside was 150,000 Indonesian rupiah – about NZ $ 25. Not much in the West, but for local reporters a useful sum making attendance worthwhile.

The two major national newspaper groups in Indonesia (Kompas and Jawa Pos) prohibit their staff from taking such payouts. These are usually disguised as ‘transport money’, and along with a good feed are bribes to write a positive story and ensure return invitations.

Although I gave the money back to the nonplussed government officials running the show I have some sympathy for those pocketing the cash. When their monthly pay is below NZ $300, and they see their less scrupulous colleagues stuffing their wallets, the temptation is great.

And it’s also part of the culture. Paying for services that Westerners think should be free, such as police investigations of crime, and having to grease the palms of public servants for permits and licences is commonplace.

If journalists are getting handouts from government departments and companies to put a positive spin on their reports, how trustworthy is the copy Indonesians read and the reports they hear and see? It’s a question the public is apparently now starting to ask. But first a bit of background.

For 32 years till 1998 Indonesia was in the iron grip of an authoritarian military-backed government led by General Soeharto. The media was rigidly controlled thorough publishing licences, restrictions on advertising and curbs on printing.

The censorship was well known. Creative scribes and sophisticated readers learned how to write and read between the lines in a few stories, but overall the media was bland and boring.

When Soeharto was forced to quit following street riots and a crashing economy, his successors dumped licences as part of the shift to democracy. Publishers went wild; print publications jumped from less than 300 to more than 2,000 before a reality check. Around 830 have survived.

According to Leo Batubara, a member of the Indonesian Press Council (IPC), about seven million papers are sold nationally every day – a tiny number in a country of about 240 million, so the market is wide open.

He also claimed only 30 per cent of print media companies and 40 per cent of the electronic media make a profit. But these figures are hard to prove or disprove as many publications are embedded in private companies with other agendas.

This boom has caught publishers short of quality journalists. The typical local reporter is young, enthusiastic, scruffy, ill-informed, badly educated and poorly trained. Men dominate. They often hunt in packs and feed off each other so copy is frequently generic.

The industry has also attracted idealists who publish their own little mags - and fringe dwellers with shonky credentials, operating like print paparazzi feeding off the envelopes and selling scandals to the infotainment mags.

The other growth industry has been in tertiary education. To take just one city as an example - Malang in central East Java, a town of less than one million, has more than 30 ‘universities’. Some offer froth and bubble courses in mass communications for wannabe TV presenters and comic book editors; few have credibility with hard-nose reporting or links to the industry.

Faced with these realities the IPC, which gets an annual government hand-out of 16 billion rupiah (NZ $2.5 million), wants to start its own school of journalism, citing public complaints about the quality of reporting as the motive.

Australian aid has been used to try and lift the hacks’ game, with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology holding workshops in the regions through the State-owned Antara news agency. Western Australia’s Murdoch University has also run a course for selected Indonesian investigative journalists.

(There may be opportunities here for NZ tertiary institutions that can balance theory with practice; Amris Hassan, the energetic new Indonesian ambassador in Wellington has been boosting trade and aid ties between the nations, and PM Helen Clark has been busy in the archipelago. This new-found interest in the Republic seems to be a bid to fill the gap caused by Indonesian public distrust of Australia and its support of the US in Iraq. When Indonesians think of the real or imagined enemies of Islam, NZ doesn’t rank.)

But whoever does the training it isn’t going to do more than embroider the edges if the sheet doesn’t get washed.

It’s not just the poor education standards, low wages and petty payouts corrupting the media that are the problem. The major threat to the impartiality of Indonesian journalism is coming from the big companies, and the tobacco industry in particular.

Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia that has neither signed nor ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Indonesia has some of the slackest controls on smoking in the region. Health activists are almost silent having been financially crippled by legal action when they unsuccessfully claimed TV tobacco company sponsorship of programs – including newscasts - was advertising in disguise.

Cigarettes are cheap, taxes are low and recently introduced restrictions on smoking in public are considered a farce when no controls are put on smokestacks and fuming car exhausts.

Compulsory health warnings on smoke packs and ads are miniscule and wordy. Attempts by a few gutsy politicians to bring the country into line with nations who care for their citizens’ health are countered by tobacco tsars’ reminders that up to five million workers depend for their livelihoods on people staying addicted to nicotine.

The streetscapes of Indonesian cities are dominated by huge billboards promoting fags – sights not seen in most neighboring nations. There’s hardly a paper or magazine that doesn’t inhale the cash from these ads – and that includes the Weekender magazine produced by the prestigious English language daily The Jakarta Post.

Not surprisingly tobacco companies don’t like being portrayed as purveyors of poisons and killers of citizens. So they try to boost their image by seeming to be socially responsible. They also need allies in the looming war against health activists. What better way than cuddling up to the media and satisfying needs?

In Indonesia Sampoerna (the name ironically means ‘pure’), now owned by the US giant Philip Morris, has started seducing journalists. It has already hosted a media workshop in association with the Independent Journalists’ Alliance attended by reporters from 19 publications, including the serious current affairs magazines like Tempo and Gatra.

Now it’s funding media prizes with cash awards equal in most cases to six month's salary for the average reporter. These goodies are being delivered through a foundation that carries the cigarette company’s name.

Last December, at a swish function in a five-star hotel to hand out the cheques, journalists from around Indonesia were treated to some wise words about social responsibilities and the dangers of taking bribes. The media’s role in a democracy and the need for fairness, accuracy and balance were rightly stressed.

The problem is that this sage advice was coming from people of standing who were supping with the devil and had forgotten to bring a long spoon. They’d allowed their good names to be associated with one of the nation’s principal dealers of death and disease.

In many other countries, including Indonesia’s near neighbors, the Sampoerna media award show would have been a no-show – boycotted by journalists, unions and publishers with principles.

The weight of public opinion is tilting slowly against this manufacturer of a toxin that’s killing an estimated half-a-million Indonesians every year, but the media seems unable to kick the habit.

Yet despite these serious problems, Indonesian newspapers offer a far more lively and liberal read than the dailies in Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia that are little more than government mouthpieces. Indonesian legislators complain a lot, and may have muzzled some TV satire, but so far they’ve yet to reintroduce the Soeharto controls.

The current hazard is the tobacco industry. Dumping smoke ads may briefly damage the publishers’ fiscal health, but failure to quit scars the industry’s credibility.


(First published in Pacific Media Centre 16 August 07)



The trade of the urban water carrier is medieval. It started long before the discovery of steel and the ability to shape it into piping. But these remnants of a pre-industrial age still ply the kampongs of Indonesia’s big cities, dragging crude two-wheeled carts awash with plastic drums of clean, but not potable, water.

These traders have bought the water from anyone with a tap that’s connected to the public supply. By the time this essential commodity is doled out to the end users, usually in pails of just a few litres, the price has jumped to 33 times the standpipe cost.

Good business for the supplier, but a raw deal for the consumer. And this is no niche market; 40 per cent of Indonesians don’t have access to piped water, so those who can’t afford the water carts use rivers for their ablutions. Watching waterways can be a relaxing pastime in other countries, but the stench and color of Indonesia’s trash-choked rivers is not a savory experience.

This grossly unfair trade in water was exposed in a World Bank report titled Voices of the Poor. The business exists because public utilities believe that if they install piped water in the poorest kampongs users wouldn’t have the money to pay their monthly bills like residents in upmarket areas.

But the World Bank researchers who undertook what they claimed was ‘the most comprehensive assessment of poverty in Indonesia for the last ten years’ say the poor can and will pay for cheap tap water.

On the surface it seems like an easy-fix issue demanding no high-tech solutions. Extend the reticulation, install a meter and register users. It’s not difficult paying bills in Indonesia where officials make regular visits to homes to collect dues and the culture tolerates tiny trades. It’s even possible to buy single cigarettes while basic commodities, like washing powder are sold in sachets affordable to those with little cash. And that’s a lot of people.

The Indonesian government reckons about 40 million live below the poverty line of spending US $2 a day, with a further 100 million teetering on the edge. In total that’s more than half the population.

But the water suppliers, known as PDAMs, are in a financial mess of their own. In the post-Soeharto shake-up they were transferred to local governments and many have become insolvent. They’ve been shackled by restrictions on borrowing so can’t spend on boosting services.

All that’s lacking is the political will to implement a new system – and that’s where the problem lies – not with lack of funds.

In fact the country is awash with cash according to a just released public expenditure review assembled by the World Bank along with the Indonesian Government. The review trumpeted:

“Indonesia’s post-crisis period is over; the country now has sufficient financial resources to address its development needs.’ This is the result of frugal accounting, revenue boosts and slashing subsidies – policies that have produced a US $15 billion windfall.

This is the biggest boost to the coffers since the 1973-74 oil shortage when prices suddenly quadrupled as a result of the Yom Kippur war, giving primary producers like Indonesia massive profits.

But how to spend this sudden surge of money? In the days when iron-fisted General Soeharto ran the country all expenditure was determined in Jakarta.

Suharto quit in 1998 after the Southeast Asian economic meltdown and massive riots against his authoritarian regime. Now Indonesia has democracy and decentralization. Of last year’s US $70 billion budget US $25 billion was distributed to provincial governments. The theory is that these administrations should know where the real problems lie – but that doesn’t mean they’ll be fixed.

For the 32 years of Soeharto’s rule the regions were denied any effective say in the nation’s affairs. They proposed projects that might or might not get the nod, according to the whims of bureaucrats in Jakarta and the political contacts of the provincial governor, usually a retired general.

The lack of ‘good governance’ skills at the local level has led to aid donors, like Australia, funding training programs to teach officials how to handle budgets and make decisions. But the bureaucracy is a lumbering, clunking rundown machine, the result of Soeharto’s ‘disguised unemployment’ policies of filling fictitious jobs.

Spending on government administration, excluding teachers and health professionals, saps almost 12 per cent of the budget. Similar countries allocate half this percentage.

Government desk jockeys are fearful of change; one study showed local administrations were taking nine months to frame annual budgets leaving only three months to quit the cash. Another factor making bureaucrats twitchy is the fear that if every piece of paperwork hasn’t been signed and stamped by a boss, they may be charged with corruption. At last count a massive 3.1 per cent of the GDP – that’s US $10 billion remained unspent.

In the past officials openly topped-up their meager salaries by taking a cut on projects. Deals with private contractors were inflated by up to 20 per cent with the surplus distributed to the pen pushers. This system, though now illegal, remains deeply entrenched.

So although Indonesia can now pay its bills the World Bank claims investment in infrastructure is only three per cent of GDP. This is half the expenditure recorded before Soeharto stepped down. Indonesia has now slipped way behind its neighbors, with a large number of its citizens unable to get basic services. Apart from the water problem, one third of the population doesn’t have access to electricity and most secondary and suburban roads would be better classified as goat tracks.

Past pro-poor programs have relied heavily on subsidies, though these are grossly inefficient and shoot wide of the mark. Although some fuel subsidies have been erased (the pump price of premium petrol is less than US $ 0.50), fiscal props still account for an outflow of US $12 billion a year. Most of this goes on electricity, which is good news for those with air conditioners and washing machines.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, is a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals, a worldwide bid to reduce poverty by 2015, with access to clean water a critical factor in improving health. So will a cashed-up Indonesia now seize what the World Bank calls ‘a unique opportunity’ and ensure all its citizens get access to taps, even if the water has to be boiled before drinking?

Don’t bank on it. The 500 people interviewed for the World Bank report took the opportunity to bad-mouth public administrators, a right they dare not exercise during the Soeharto era when dissidents might vanish, the media was muzzled and anyone in a uniform had to be respected – and feared.

Commented report author Nilanjana Mukherjee: “I've seen some radical changes in the past few years and a lot more people in the bureaucracy are open to dialogue. 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.”

Old habits die hard: According to citizens surveyed the attitude of many government officials is that poor equals stupidity. So there’s no need to explain policies or enlighten those at the bottom of the heap with information that might get them uppity. As the proverb goes, what you don’t know, you don’t miss. The water carriers will be in business for a while yet.

(First published in Online Opinion (Aust) Aug 07) ##

Wednesday, August 29, 2007



Visiting Mount Bromo, East Java's premier tourist attraction, is soon to get a little easier and more comfortable – though only because a banker found facilities a disgrace.

Mount Bromo, the huge cone squatting like a boiling pot in a 10-kilometer wide 'sand sea' of lava is a big money spinner for locals and the government. It's part of the 50,000-hectare Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park – a must see destination.

According to official statistics last year 65,000 people made the trek. About 25 per cent were overseas visitors, mainly from Europe, Malaysia and Japan.

The standard way to get there is to drive east of Surabaya for about three hours towards Probolinggo along the coast road, and then turn south. At the villages of Ngadisari and Cemorolawang the hotels and guesthouses are set for pre-dawn trips in 4-wheel drive vehicles. These are organized to view the sunrise from a lookout at Puncak Penanjakan, 2,770 meters above sea level - and almost 400 meters above sulfur-smoking Bromo.

It would be good to add the adjective 'clear' to the description above, but the truth is the chances of the vision splendid aren't always that good, particularly during the wet season. Fickle weather, clouds, rain and mist can't be avoided – but the press of people, defective crowd management, the rubbish and graffiti-strewn lookout – these could all be controlled.

What should be a pleasant experience sometimes becomes an ordeal. Deliberately lit fires in the dry season obscure the view and set watchers choking as the smoke billows upwards.

Sigit Pramono, president director of Bank Negara Indonesia, followed the sunrise ritual last year. And found it wanting.

"I'm a keen photographer and I've seen many fine places overseas," he told The Sunday Post. "I think the Bromo-Tengger area is one of the most beautiful in the world.

"But the problems are the conditions – they're very bad. So is tourism management."

So he persuaded the bank to donate Rp 10 billion (US $1.14 million) to upgrade facilities at the lookout. Improvements include a new parking area, a better sightseeing platform, toilets and a general clean up. Work is now underway and should be finished by August.

"It took time to get through the bureaucracy even though we're donating the money," Sigit said. "The Tengger people need a quality tourist industry to supplement their agricultural economy.

"I hope what we're doing will be an example of what can be done, and encourage others to help improve tourism. There should also be a book of photographs published to spread the word about this lovely place."

However the other curse of Indonesian tourism – rip-offs of unsuspecting visitors - look set to continue reinforcing the sweat-stained travelers' credo: Do your own research.

For example there's a much more interesting legal route into the national park than the heavily promoted northern access. The way in from the southwest offers tourists an opportunity to see people and places that haven't been corrupted by commercialism.

This road turns east at Purwodadi (half-way on the highway between Surabaya and Malang), and then wends up the hill to the vegetable and dairy town of Nongkojajar. Many of the udderful Friesians you'll see cudding by the kerb are from Australia.

There's also another slow and pleasant back way into the park from Malang through Pakis and into Nongkojajar that's a grand eye-filler. Few outsiders use this sealed road. Apart from the opportunity to see rural life up close, there's every chance of catching fairs and weddings, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays. These are staged by the locals and therefore the real thing.

From then on the journey through Tosari to the park entrance at Wonokitri and beyond is a knockout wonder.

For those who want to take it slowly there are low-cost losmen (inns) and a two star hotel in Tosari with prices starting at Rp 375,000 (US $43) a night. Otherwise you can go there and back (from Malang) in a day.

The Tengger villagers are skilled horticulturalists working the acute slopes by hand. Their labor produces a multi-colored grid of freshly turned rich black volcanic soil, the green of blooming plants alongside the brown of withering leaves. Sunflowers speckle the landscape with yellow, matching the saffron sarongs wrapped around roadside shrines.

For the ingenious and tough Tengger are the last remnants in Java of the once mighty Buddhist-Hindu Majapahit kingdom that ruled much of South East Asia more than 700 years ago.

The main crops are potatoes, cabbages and squash. To see men and women tilling, planting and harvesting on land tilting at around 70 degrees is to redefine arable land.

It is also highly hazardous with landslips gouging deep wounds in the hillsides.
Because the slopes are so steep visitors can quiver above the landscape and see the farming below as though from a plane. Aerial photography without going aloft.

At Wonokitri the hustling starts, but it's not heavy duty. Visitors are encouraged to leave their cars and hire a jeep at Rp 250,000 (US $30) for the rest of the journey. This isn't necessary as the roads are asphalted and in reasonable repair.

However if you suffer from vertigo, are unsure of your driving skills and don't fancy having your paintwork shaved by trucks overladen with potatoes and people - with a sheer unprotected drop on one side - then hiring may be worth considering. Always assuming you trust the local drivers. In late May a truck slipped over the edge killing 12 and injuring many more.

Park entrance fees are Rp 4,500 (US 0.50) per person if you're an Indonesian citizen, and five times that if your skin is white and you can't wrap your tongue around eksploitasi dan diskriminasi. If you can and don't fit the stereotype of a cashed-up colonial they may make you a de-facto local.

The board in the tollgate office lists visitors' home countries. Although there are columns for Americans, Australians and a community of European nations, all are included under the rubric Belanda (officially meaning Dutch, but colloquially any non-Indonesian.)

Only around ten to 20 try this route every day. So the farmers and stallholders haven't become blasé and are prepared to stop and chat about their lives. No hassles from fake watch floggers, but you'll be urged to bid for wooly caps that you'd never dare wear elsewhere. You'll also have bunches of 'edelweiss' (looking suspiciously like cauliflower gone to seed) thrust under your nostrils.

This is an experience you probably won't get in the European Alps where the genuine wild plant is a protected species.

Don't let the beauty, atmosphere and flora go to your head. It's unwise to do a Julie Andrews in the tropics and dance down the hillsides singing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music. Apart from showing your age and taste, one von Trapp trip could be terminal - lose your footing and lose your life.

Nor is this a good place for trainee TV weather forecasters. Before you can say 'bright, sunny periods expected' you'll be wrapped in a thick and chilly mist. When the light shafts through like a religious painting from the Renaissance, be nimble with your Nikon.

While you're fingering the focus ring and eyeing the aperture, the clouds have closed in and you can't see the white of your knuckles. Or the grand canyon sweeping into the distance from the precipice where you're positioned. Take strong nerves, stronger shoes and warm clothes; like the stock exchange index the temperature leaps and falls in moments.

Overall these are minor matters. As with the wind, they're not worth getting under your skin. The upsides – literally and metaphorically – give value with every astonishing and soul-lifting view.

(First published in The Sunday Post 26 August 07)



Rachmah Ida
WATCH WHAT I SAY YOU WATCH © Duncan Graham 2007

Imagine a production-line where the manufacturer knows little of the consumers, but still claims to understand their tastes.
Imagine a mega-business controlled and dominated by men where the customers are overwhelmingly female – yet women have no say in the product.
Imagine not - this is real. Welcome to Indonesia’s sinetron (TV soap opera) industry, a father-knows-best dream factory that’s way out of touch with its audience, according to Dr Rachmah Ida.
This professional media observer said she’s found that the Indonesian TV industry is conceited, arrogant, overwhelmingly male and unadventurous.
Ida, 38, a lecturer in media at Surabaya’s prestigious Airlangga University, has spent four years studying and analysing audience reactions to sinetron.
She is also a researcher at the university’s Center for Women’s Studies and has written on the way women – and particularly celebrities - are portrayed on TV.
Another interest is the way women are supposed to be seen as the moral guardians of the nation, though seldom as individuals.
Ida studied in Australia under an Australian aid scholarship. She has been awarded a PhD from Western Australia’s Curtin University for her cathode ray marathon viewing, and of course, her academic analyses.
“The audience I found is quite different from the one imagined by the sinetron producers,” she said. “They rely on surveys by media research companies for audience profiles and numbers.
“I spent four months in a Surabaya kampung watching women watch sinetrons. I found viewers to be highly critical of the programs and the characters.
“Their education had stopped after junior high school, but their tastes were quite sophisticated. They often ridiculed the glamour and settings; for them the storyline was most important, particularly if it related to their world.”
For many Indonesians TV watching is a group activity and the source of comment. People watch with friends and neighbors. Often the set is on as background to the domestic chores, though not in Ida’s house where her daughter’s homework, reading and personal study take priority.
In her research Ida found kampong audiences weren’t satisfied with the stations’ offerings. The women also bought and rented VCDs, including soft-porn titles – debunking the idea that sex on the screen is strictly men’s business.
Ida said the sinetron market was dominated by one major production house, PT Multivision Plus, which reportedly controls 80 per cent of the industry. It’s run by Surabaya-born Indian Raam Punjabi.
So his tastes determine the content and his boosters claim he shapes society. But that doesn’t match Ida’s findings. She says the viewers know it’s all froth and bubble and doesn’t change their lives.
Actresses may be forever bulging their eyeballs across the screen, but women feature off-screen only as make-up artists and caterers. The producers, directors, scriptwriters and technical crew are mostly male, according to Ida.
The highest-ranking woman in the industry is Punjabi’s wife and business partner, Raakhe.
If you think some sinetron scenes break the rules of cinematography, you’re right. The producers believe their audiences watch on small TV sets so need prolonged close ups and high-contrast colours to impact.
However Ida’s research showed kampong viewers have big screen sets and can catch plot lines without having slow zooms and close-ups repeated. And repeated.
Sinetrons tend to fall into four main categories:
· Moral Muslims. A hothead youngster goes astray but is rescued by benign friends and relatives wearing well-pressed headscarves and sarong who lead the backslider back to the mosque.
· Morbid mysteries. Superstition, black magic and things that go bump in the night. Devious folk in discourse with devils. The resurrection of those with rigor mortis is de-rigueur. Humans transmogrifying into beasts is the weekly scene-stealer – but don’t expect Spielberg-quality special effects. These ghouls are for giggles.
· Dysfunctional families. Machiavellian mothers-in-law and manipulative maids brew poisons and plan the demise of their dearly unbeloved – while the naïve Bapak is otherwise engaged. Expect many faces to be slapped and doors slammed.
· Campus crises. Boy (with big car) meets girl (with big ambitions). Boy looses girl to rotten rival. Girl realizes mistake, repents. Education? The kids in these teen traumas are more interested in sex and status than studies.
Indonesia’s population of around 240 million is so diverse and scattered there can’t be any typical TV viewer. Generalities are inevitable. But Ida claims the sinetron producers and telecasters using research data to construct an audience have got it wrong.
“Neither the TV stations nor programming producers nor production houses know who they’re talking to and what the public is,” she said. “Even worse they don’t know what will sell well in the market.
“No-one else has conducted a survey like mine with a real audience.
“Viewers aren’t fooled. They’re contemptuous of many stock characters like the scheming mother-in-law and the femme fatale. Such figures don’t feature in their experience. They jeer at some situations as being beyond credibility, or just plain stupid.
“The audience isn’t passive. It’s critical of much of the fare. The women I encountered saw most sinetrons as Jakarta-centric and unreal. Few teenagers are interested.
“Television is an important part of Indonesian life. People want entertainment. But they also want stories that relate to the lives they lead. They don’t want the fantasies of a fictional world constructed by men in the metropolis.
“The producers’ position is obvious and instantly recognisable; any talk about the sinetron as art is for them the height of absurdity.
Ida said viewers were labelled gluttons for goods, wallets to be opened to advertisers. The agenda was about raising rupiah, not intellectual standards.
In her research Ida also learned that you never visit an Indonesian TV station on a Wednesday afternoon hoping to interview an executive. For that’s the wrist-slashing or champagne-popping time when the ratings are released.
In the commercial television circus, ratings are the thumbs up or down equivalent of Roman gladiatorial games. If the figures are plunging, so are executives’ careers.
Few of the people at the top were prepared to talk to her for her research. An exception was Ishadi SK, the president director of Trans TV who told Ida: ‘There’s no idealism behind this business, only how to be profitable.’
There are more than 60 local stations operating across the nation. Another 50 applications for new services await approval. Does more choice mean diversity?
Commented Ida: “After the resignation of Suharto (in 1998) there’s been little significant change among the players in the television business.
“Ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few and is all about creating the so-called ‘little kings’ of regional ownership. Having more TV stations doesn’t lead to more diversity in programming.
“To minimise their risks and uncertainties private TV stations tend to play safe by repeating programs or copying other stations’ productions rather than having the courage to introduce alternative or new programming models.
“The future is scary because media ownership is so restricted. I’m not optimistic of any meaningful change.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 August 07)


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Merdeka! Indonesian workers in Taiwan celebrate Independence Day

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SEX IN THE CITY © Duncan Graham 2007

In seeking help for a recently bereaved relative we spoke to a businessman friend of the family; could he please help find an office job for the young widow?

He'd talk to his colleagues and see what was on offer. He predicted no difficulties in her quest for a wage despite knowing little of her qualifications and work history: "She's beautiful," he said, "she'll have no problems."

For that sexist comment he should have copped a verbal knee in the groin. Instead he was thanked for his wisdom.

Do bosses really select staff on the basis of their bra size, so that a DD lady gets an AA rating? Is wearing a short skirt the best way to get on a company's short list?

Does a dearth of wrinkles on a bleached bimbo who failed kindergarten count for more than aptitude and intelligence with a dark-skinned MBA who wears glasses?

If you answered 'yes' to the above questions, take a bow. (After unbuttoning the top of your blouse.) You fully understand the realities of the Indonesian office workplace, a Jurassic environment where caveman rules, rule.

For these brutes of business a gender issue never gets on their agenda. They think emancipation is a synonym for emasculation, and suffragette the misery suffered from jet lag.

Kartini? Isn't that one of those new metro mini autos?

Don't believe me? Just check the sits vac columns: 'PT MegaGlobal Enterprises Inc. seeks secretary for President Director. Must be under 25, unmarried, 1.60 m tall. Send large full-color photo.' How about education and word-processing skills? Not important.

Having a secretary who can distract a boardroom of your mates as she pirouettes across the parquet ensures that it's not just profits that rise. Why bother showing off a trophy from the golf course when you've scored one from the typing pool?

Can't afford a BMW in the executive parking bay? A Big Mammary Woman in the outer office is a lot cheaper and will take your mind to places the automobile can never reach.

In this forgotten world by-passed by liberal philosophy, feminism and equality, business is a boys' club, and the girls are just extras in the background to stimulate limp egos.

Secretaries, receptionists, public relations' staff, bank-tellers and other customer meeters-and-greeters aren't selected on their ability to explain products and procedures.

They're chosen for the way they can smile lasciviously, directing gaze away from the small print, diluting the determination to lodge a complaint or go to a rival company.

The fact that many modern industrialized countries have now introduced laws prohibiting sexual harassment, and have abandoned compulsory retirement ages is proof positive that Western legislators are senile.

When reporting back to family on an overseas trip, I praised policies of letting people stay at work if they're capable and keen. The sight of grannies behind tills and steering wheels, and sixty-somethings taking your term deposit turns no heads elsewhere, but the information had heads shaking in the archipelago.

Instead of admiration there was pity. And this from women:

"Why aren't their husbands giving them enough money to stay at home where they should be? How sad that an older woman should have to work."

Explaining that the ladies wanted jobs – not just for the money but also for self-fulfillment, to assert their independence, to give them status, to use the education and skills they'd amassed and to make a contribution to society -had little impact.

For these matrons the only reason for a young woman to go out to work is to find a husband, to swap maidenhead for a Mastercard. Once married she can close down the computer and prepare the crèche.

Mamas who want their daughters to succeed in business without even trying offer silent prayers as their little girls mature: Dear God, may she be beautiful, not brainy.

Will things ever change? Not while the Government continues to call its employment department Manpower, and not till women start revolting. (OK, no smart comments, thanks.)

Don't expect any help from men – they're more than happy with the present set-up, claiming it's part of the culture.

So was slavery – until the enlightened and civilized ensured it was abolished.

Well it was, wasn't it?

(First published in The Sunday Post 19 August 07)


Travel warning for ‘brave family fighters’ © Duncan Graham 2007

Every day a special complaints hotline set up by the Indonesian trade office in Taiwan gets about 300 hits from distressed Indonesian workers.

Around ten per cent concern serious issues, including alleged sexual assaults, physical and emotional abuse, withholding of pay and slashing of wages, bad living conditions and breaches of work contracts.

The issues are so worrying and consistent that a senior Indonesian official has called for the whole Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI – Indonesian overseas labor force) system to be overhauled from the top down.

The claims were made by Ferry Yahya, head of the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei (the capital of Taiwan) at a public event in Taipei this week to raise awareness of Indonesia’s labor contribution to the Taiwan economy.

There are around 105,000 Indonesian workers in the island state, about one third of the total overseas labor force. Most are women domestic workers.

“We installed the SMS (short message service) system last year to handle concerns and it takes a huge number of hits,” Ferry said.

“We treat these complaints seriously and pass some on to the Taiwan government authorities for action. We also have three shelters for women fleeing abuse.

“But there’s also a need for the whole TKI system to be revised. This has to be done upstream.

“These people are brave fighters for their families, but they have to be better prepared back in Indonesia. They should be able to speak foreign languages, particularly English and Mandarin.

“Not all labor agencies are fair in their dealings. Some add fees and charges that aren’t in the employment contracts.

“There’s a great need for clarity and transparency in documents, with government officials scrutinizing contracts. There are regulations controlling agents but they are not being enforced. I’ve raised these issues in Jakarta. The matter is urgent.

“The situation for Indonesian workers is better in Taiwan than many other countries. The pay here is higher and there are counseling services available. But I must stress that being an overseas worker isn’t easy.”

About 200 Indonesians are in detention in Taiwan for allegedly breaking their visa conditions and running away from their employers. So far this year 13 have died from natural causes and accidents. There has been one suicide.

Ferry said language differences were at the heart of many disputes. Most Taiwanese speak Mandarin and few among the older generation speak English.

There is no independent union representing Indonesian workers in Taiwan.

At the event, staged at the studios of Radio Taiwan International (RTI), eight maids working in Taiwan were reunited with family members who flew from Indonesia to meet their relatives and celebrate Indonesia’s Independence Day.

RTI chairman Yu Cheng said his station’s Indonesian language programs were the only way workers could get information about local and international events in their native tongue.

Ferry said the event was promoted to lift awareness of Indonesian workers’ rights. “We must show employers that the TKI are human beings with strong emotional ties to Indonesia,” he said. “They’re making great sacrifices to help their families back home. They needed to be treated with respect.”

Any Prayogiati, 35, originally from Cilacap (Central Java) said she had been hit in the back by her employer when she couldn’t understand instructions. She has been in Taiwan for 18 months and works in an old people’s home handling incontinent patients.

She said she originally found the work disgusting but was prepared to keep going because she could send about Rp 5 million (US $550) home every month.

Any said she was able to attend the event only at the last minute when organizers persuaded her employer that she wouldn’t run away. If she took a day off every week her pay was deducted.

“I wasn’t paid for several months as my salary was used to repay the labor contractor’s fees,” she said.

“There are no Islamic prayer facilities so I have to use a Buddhist shrine and ask God for His forgiveness”.

Her husband Maryoko could not come to Taiwan because he is also a TKI working at a prawn farm in Malaysia.

(First published in The Sunday Post 19 August 07)


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Hardiastarti - the Merry Widow

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The Merry Widow and the Shed of Tears © Duncan Graham 2007

As a caring and sharing center for women it’s the pits. The shed is basic bloke; a couple of truncheons hang on the wall along with a thick web belt, the macho man’s favorite fashion statement. A scruffy banner promotes the local football team Arema Malang, the champions of East Java.
Truck batteries leak acid on the coarse concrete floor and the chairs are as hard as the pain being expressed. The smoking yard outside is an oil-puddled knackery for bashed autos. When trains rumble past everything shakes.
But this is the best that can be found for the headquarters of Pekka (Program Pemberdayaan Perempuan Kepala Keluarga). The World Bank, which supports the program, clumsily translates this as ‘Indonesia Women Headed Household Program’, but that’s something of a euphemism. ‘Empowering Single Mums’ might be more direct.
“We’d prefer to be more central, but this is the only place we could find,” explained group leader Hardiastarti. “We borrow it from a men’s club. We used to meet in my home, but the neighbors didn’t like to see so many women coming into their street.”
What will the neighbors say? It seems to be the dominant question directing behavior in small communities everywhere, maybe more so in Indonesia. Hardiastarti, 47, is conscious of the conventions and doesn’t want to offend, but she’s also a change agent bucking traditions.
If these push-pull factors are worrying her she’s not letting on. She dislikes discrimination but takes a charitable view of other’s attitudes. Nor is she letting her own marital hassles drag down her ambitions to lift the lives of those less lucky.
“If divorce can be said to be good, then I made a good one,” she said. “I was married for 11 years and we had two daughters. But he went off with another woman. In 1999 when the girls were 10 and 5, I divorced him. Fortunately that’s relatively easy in Indonesia.
“Before we split I got him to pay regular maintenance for our children. That stopped in 2004 so I confronted his new wife. She agreed with me that he had to keep up his responsibilities and the payments restarted. Women have to work together on these issues.”
In telling others of her experiences Hardiastarti soon realized that her story was unusual. Most divorcees only get the kids and the contempt. When the breadwinner vanishes so does the cash and status.
There are no government welfare benefits for wives alone, no child support schemes where public servants track down runaway husbands, to garnishee their salaries as payment for their kids’ education and upbringing.
In a culture where the community consensus is that women are responsible for failed unions the discarded wife is doubly victimized. Men see her as sexually famished so easy prey; women fear she’s out to steal their hubbies.
Nowhere is the discrimination clearer than in the language.
Technically janda is a widow and diceraikan is a divorcee. But the first word is widely used to cover both conditions in the hope that no-one will ask for details of his last resting place – which is likely to be another lady’s bed rather than a cemetery.
Hardiastarti is a noble exception, a taboo breaker. While others drop their voices and scour the corners for eavesdroppers she’s cheerfully upfront about her own fractured life and the need for women to take a tough stand.
This hasn’t made her a harridan. Not for her the dumped Western feminists vengeful cry – ‘All men are bastards!’ You won’t find her in self-defense classes perfecting the knee in the crotch.
“I believe in fate,” she said. “This is my life, the one that God has decided. I thought I was a good wife, but my husband wanted another woman. I should not feel sad and grave – I want to get married again.
“Before the break up I wasn’t like this. Divorce has made me stronger. I realized I had to help others.
“At present our culture won’t sustain the laws that operate in the West where abandoned wives get community support and the police will intervene in domestic violence. I can’t imagine men being charged with rape in marriage.
“There are some laws to protect women but they aren’t strong. So if there are going to be any changes we have to introduce them ourselves. The male politicians won’t do it. They think they’re superior. They just want to tread women down.
“Pre-marriage contracts that determine property ownership in the case of a marriage breakdown may be alright for celebrities in Jakarta where both have careers. But these aren’t for ordinary people where the expectation is that the man earns and gives his wife a household allowance every month.
“My advice to young women is to get a skill before you get married so you can retain your independence.” And her words to young men? “Be responsible. Fulfill your obligations. Treat your wife as an equal.”
Hardiastarti said that women headed about one in seven households in Indonesia. Some had to turn to kawin seri (serial mock marriages), not because they were immoral but because they had no other means of providing for their children.
Pekka, which started in 1991, now has branches in eight provinces. It works to help widows and divorcees take control of their lives, build self esteem, develop economic independence and eyeball society without shame.
Hardiastarti knows this is a tough call, and not just from her own experience. Although she has no formal social work qualifications (she used to be a university lecturer in marketing, and later had her own catering company) she seems to have some rare listening skills that encourage other women to tell their torrid tales of matrimony gone bad.
Encouraged by the empathy of others in the room, and indifferent to the presence of this lone male reporter, a Catholic mother of three tearfully claimed to have been beaten up by her husband, who had originally trained for the priesthood.
She said he’d taken another woman four years ago and was now living with a former prostitute. In the meantime the discarded wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which she thought could be the result of having had a civil wedding and not a church blessing.
Hardiastarti heard the long sad story without comment, just smiling encouragement to continue while others were weeping and touching. She could suggest no solutions, but knew that offering an unshockable non-judgmental ear might help ease the pain just a little.
“Once a woman has children she has to concentrate fully on their welfare,” she said. “In this culture if the kids aren’t good the mother gets blamed. Very few men divorce and become single parents. The women have to start their lives again from zero.
“May I say this to your readers? Please care and have sympathy for widows and divorcees. Don’t think of us as bad – we’re just people with a different experience of life. The system in Indonesia is not fair – men don’t suffer like women do when a marriage ends. Treat us as equals.
“I’ve had many problems, but I’m happy. I want all janda to be happy.”

(For Pekka contacts see: )

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 August o7)

Sunday, August 05, 2007



English-born marine anthropologist and architect Michael Johnson spends a lot of time at Probolinggo harbor on the north coast of East Java, just messing about in boats – or to be more technical, studying their construction.

When the fleet is in, the wharves are stern-to-bow with multicolored fishing craft offloading their catch or taking on ice and stores for another sea venture.

"This is a sight I used to see as a teenager when I was apprenticed to a boat-builder in Yarmouth, Cornwall," he said.

"No longer. The fish stocks have been depleted and boats now are all made of fiberglass and steel. The old skills used in making wooden boats have just about been lost."

Though not in Indonesia, where keen-eyed craftsmen who can wield an adze and cut a seaworthy craft out of forest timber with all curves in the right places are still gainfully employed.

This is the workforce that Dr Daniel Rosyid, head of the Center of Marine Studies at Surabaya's Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS) hopes can be used to create a new industry making practical and luxury boats for the overseas market.

Rosyid, who is also chairman of the East Java Educational Council, has formed a company called PT Teknologi Kapal Kayu Indonesia (Indonesian wooden boat technology) with Johnson as technical advisor. They've established a yard at Probolinggo, just 500 metres from the harbor.

Here they are already sawing, chipping and boring the keels and planks. On the order books are boats for French naval architect Francois Vivier - a 9.7-meter traditional gaff cutter, two 4-meter lug-rigged rowing and sailing boats, and a 7.8-meter classic yacht. Vivier is based in Pornichet, South Brittany.

Other projects under development include a 12-meter twin-screw sport fishing or service vessel, and a pilot cutter. This is a replica of a 1901 Norwegian lifeboat. A boat reconstruction project in Kalimantan is also being supervised.

Two wooden fisheries training vessels built for the Bupati (regent) of Jembrana in Bali have already been delivered. These were constructed in a yard in Surabaya, but the high cost of renting land near deep water has forced the company to move to Probolinggo where costs are a fraction of those in the East Java capital.

Although Surabaya is the Republic's second largest port and a major ship construction center, the government shipyard PT PAL dominates the industry. This specializes in large steel-hulled vessels, mainly for the navy.

Probolinggo is a commercial fishing boat harbor used by smaller timber craft, many built according to remembered designs passed down through the generations.

Tied up in the Probolinggo harbor is the Robert Guillemard. This is a 16.5-meter
West Sulawesi-style boat known as a bago lambo - a general purpose vessel using wind and diesel power. (Guillemard was the French sniper who shot and killed the English admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.)

Johnson designed and built it for Paris-based TV journalist Gregoire Deniau who allegedly failed to continue payments after spending about 85,000 Euros (Rp 1,000 million) on construction and fittings.

Rosyid has now put the 15-ton ocean-going eight-berth boat on the market for 60,000 Euros (Rp 720 million) hoping it will attract buyers in the leisure and diving market, and further promote Indonesian know-how.

"I want to set up a world-class boat building facility in Probolinggo," said Rosyid. "There's a niche market here where buyers of custom-made yachts and other pleasure craft are particular about quality and originality. It's similar to the market for hand-built sports cars.

"We're also well located close to Malaysia, Thailand and India where new money is looking for recreation opportunities.

"We can build yachts to international Bureau Veritas certification standards at a fraction of the price they would cost elsewhere – always assuming yards overseas could find the workers and the timber."

Europeans are sensitive to buying wooden products from Indonesia unless they can be certified as sourced from timber that hasn't been illegally logged.

Johnson has bought teak from Madura and found a good supply of ten-year old agathis, a timber similar to kauri pine.

"Yards in Europe charge out labor for 40 euros (Rp 500,000) an hour," Johnson said. "We cost at the equivalent of four euros – and are paying the men well above local rates.

"Students from ITS have been involved in projects, including designing and building canoes for use in Aceh by in-shore fishermen. Now they can get experience on bigger and more complex projects.

"A lot of skills were lost in Europe during World War II but they are still here. The men only need to be trained how to work from computer-generated drawings and to use modern power tools. They understand the rest."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 August 2007)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


© Duncan Graham 2007

Late last year print journalists from around Indonesia were treated to some wise words about social responsibilities and the dangers of taking bribes. The media’s role in a democracy and the need for fairness, accuracy and balance were rightly stressed.

The problem is that this sage advice was delivered at a dinner paid for by a manufacturer of toxins. It was articulated by people who were supping with the devil and had forgotten to bring a long spoon. They’d allowed their good names to be associated with one of the nation’s principal dealers of death and disease.

In many other countries, including Indonesia’s near neighbors, the media award show in Surabaya, East Java, where these speeches were given wouldn’t have been held – or it would have been boycotted. That’s because it was sponsored by a cigarette manufacturer – in this case Sampoerna, owned by the US-based Philip Morris.

The glitzy event, staged in a five-star hotel following a fine dinner, had some crass moments but was mainly a pleasant evening with sophisticated hosts. Mild, even cool. The winners collected cheques for Rp 18 million (US $2,000). For many this would have equaled six month’s salary or more.

Of course the whole lavish bun fight was staged for two purposes only:

First – to relentlessly push Sampoerna’s name and link it with standards of media excellence.

Second - to seduce wordsmiths so we’ll give the tobacco lobby an easy ride on the rugged road ahead. For the weight of public opinion is tilting the scales slowly against this manufacturer of a product that’s killing thousands of Indonesians every year.

At this point an interest has to be declared; I enjoyed the food and soft drinks. If that makes me a fellow traveler then I must wear the label. With shame.

Having confessed this sin it’s time to make amends – a job made a mite more difficult because I was the recipient of Sampoerna’s hospitality. No doubt my fellow hacks at the function already feel the same constraints. Never bite the hand that feeds you.

But bite we must if the media is to rescue its credibility from these nicotine-pushers operating behind smokescreens of corporate care. And the time to do it is now, because plans are underway for another media seduction this year.

Doubt not that the looming fight to bring Indonesia into line with governments that put the health of their citizens above the need to stay sweet with the multinationals is going to be rough and long. Unlike its customers the tobacco industry isn’t going to expire anytime soon – big profits are at stake.

However the fag-factories won’t use that argument. Instead they’ll highlight the loss of jobs and sponsors should the health professionals and their backers get their way.

These spoilsports and pleasure police (for that how they’ll be portrayed) want all tobacco advertising banned, taxes bumped up and a raft of other controls imposed.

These may well cripple the tobacco industry; they should also stop millions of Indonesians getting crippled by heart and lung diseases.

This is the media’s fork in the road; do we accept or reject the medical claims that cigarettes kill and maim?

If we reckon the 12 warning words on the bottom of every pack sold in Indonesia are a health hoax then we’d better start researching the evidence and publishing the facts. (The French aren’t so mealy-mouthed. They say it straight: Smoking Kills.)

However if we accept these warnings are soundly based and properly made then we have a duty to alert consumers. But who’ll believe we’re not pulling punches if at the same time we’re taking the tobacco lobby’s goodies?

No responsible reporter would promote illicit drugs or go soft on this ghastly trade. Yet if the scientific evidence accepted by the World Health Organization is correct, the chemicals in cigarettes kill far more than illicit drugs and bring misery and poverty to millions.

Sampoerna wants its media prizes to become an annual event and has already called for nominations for this year's awards. The Poison Pulitzers?

Extinguishing that ambition is easy. Journalists' unions and the national Indonesian media chains like the Kompas-Gramedia network and its affiliates and the Jawa Pos Group need only blacklist tobacco company prizes.

That shouldn’t be difficult; major employers already say they outlaw envelope journalism – the practice of newsmakers paying reporters to write favorable stories.

Without the mainstream media’s support the awards will have zero credibility. No professional would ever want to list such a tarnished trophy on her or his CV.

Quality journalism deserves recognition. Let’s find a sponsor – but one that doesn’t kill. The tobacco industry needs the media more than we need their blood money and smarmy sycophancy.

It should butt out of our business.