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

Saturday, September 29, 2007



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(First published in The Weekender (JP) October 2007)

Sunday, September 23, 2007



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example: What’s the Australian national dish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(First published in The Sunday Post 23 September 2007)


Friday, September 21, 2007



When Mohammed Fanani first arrived in Hong Kong more than three years ago he was prone to weeping.

As a reporter in Jakarta he’d covered enough sad and sickening stories to grow the carapace that police, social workers, medics and other front-liners develop to handle the tragedies that befall the unlucky and unwary.

But the tales he encountered in the former British colony seemed unstoppable. “Indonesian maids who had been bashed and bleeding, their faces and bodies bruised and telling me their tales in despair were too much,” he said. “I cried when I met them and heard what had happened. These are courageous women – I respect them.”

Fanani is tougher now, though not because the stories have diminished. As editor of Suara (Voice), the principal Indonesian language newspaper in Hong Kong, he exposes domestic violence, contract rip-offs and pay rorts that make life for some TKI (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia – Indonesian labor force) real anguish.

A page one story reported a welfare group claim that Indonesian maids were being shortchanged by US $55 million (Rp 500 billion) a year. The story alleged some recruitment agents were urging employers to pay less than the legal wage.

Being bashed by the boss for real or imagined misdemeanors is the dark side of the dream of working overseas to get cash for struggling families back home. But there are other perils of their own making.

Ninety Indonesians were in Hong Kong jails when this story was written, serving sentences for breaching visa conditions or committing crimes, like theft and drug use.

It’s a rich source of material for any wordsmith, but Fanani, 37, seems to be wearying of the litany of these predictable and numbing woes. There are welfare organizations, shelters and the Indonesian Consulate available for maids (the new euphemisms are ‘domestic workers’ or ‘home helpers’) who hit hardships, and they need to get tough, join unions, flex some political muscle and access help.

So Fanani is planning to move his paper into new directions while continuing to expose cheating agents and brutal bosses, and push for laws to be upheld.

He’s also got the guts to allow criticism of the Indonesian Consulate in his paper – risky because the bureaucrats could make life unpleasant, shut off contacts and bad-mouth his reputation among advertisers.

Suara has four other competitors in Hong Kong, but it’s the only paper that employs professional journalists from Indonesia. It’s no bland rag, like so many similar papers that rely on hand-outs and staying sweet with officials.

“Consulate staff regularly get angry with me, but in reality they support us,” Fanani said. In one edition Suara got stuck into the Consulate for alleged poor service to its nationals and being closed on Sundays, the only time maids can get away from their jobs to seek advice. Another story reported a public demo outside the building.

“We tell the truth and I think the advertisers believe that we’re a newspaper that’s trusted by the readers,” he said. “I uphold the traditions of fair and balanced journalism. We’re serious about our job.”

After graduating in Indonesian literature from Diponegoro University in Semarang, Fanani worked for a local newspaper, a journalists’ union and later with the Jakarta broadsheet Warta Kota.

Elsewhere in the world newspapers are struggling to maintain circulation as the new generation gets its information hotter and faster from television and the Internet. But Fanani is one lucky editor, bucking the trend big time.

When he first took over Suara eight months after it was started by a Hong Kong publisher that also produces a paper for Filipino maids, Fanani had 18 months to make the tabloid pay.

At the time it was a 16-page monthly with a giveaway circulation of 25,000. Now it comes out twice a month and has a print-run of 35,000, soon to be bumped to 50,000. Some editions run to 40 pages.

The growth is also due to a rising readership more aware of its rights and prepared to spend locally. In 2004 there were 75,000 Indonesian maids in Hong Kong. Now they’re pushing 110,000.

The journalism may be fine, but as the cynics say that’s just the stuff that fills the space between the ads. In this essential part of the equation Suara
is doing OK with a fiscally fit advertising-to-editorial ratio of 60 – 40, and sometimes more.

So Fanani and his bosses are winners and grinners in their splendid spacious office overlooking the harbor, views so seductive that it takes a major effort to concentrate on the job.

“Hong Kong is a great place to work, though not to live,” he said. Home is a 5 X 3.5 meter apartment which he shares with wife and son and costs about Rp 5 million a month.

Suara’s ads promote hand phones, banking and remittance services, and labor agencies. Lawyers are also starting to advertise, indicating there’s money in representing distressed homehelps who aren’t getting the aid they need from the nation’s officials.

Readers pick up their copies of Suara on Sundays when they gather in their thousands at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for a mega gossip and to eat Indonesian food at nearby restaurants.

“Our research shows that they like funny stories about culture shock and they read these first,” Fanani said. “Then they take Suara home for the more serious news, so it gets into the houses of the wealthy. The paper uses copy from Tempo Interaktif, Sinar Harapan, Kompas, the South China Morning Post and other sources.

“We’re told there’s about 100,000 Indonesian Chinese living in Hong Kong, many of them doing business and who fled Indonesia after the 1998 anti-Chinese riots. We want to reach them with messages of investment and tourism.”

And also to turn around the myths about Indonesia in a Chinese city that knows little of the archipelago, apart from being a source of domestic labor and natural disasters.

“I want the people of Hong Kong to know that Indonesia has a relationship with China and the Chinese going back more than 1,000 years,” Fanani said. “We are a new multi-racial democracy with 20 million Chinese compared with six million in Hong Kong.

“We are not the nation that’s negatively portrayed in the Western media. Although my mother Rochmiyatun who still lives in my East Java hometown of Ngawi is not educated, she is very intelligent and accepting. She can live at peace with everyone whatever their background or belief.

“She has been a major influence in my philosophy of wanting the people of Hong Kong to realize that Indonesia is a great nation of peaceful people.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 September 2007)


Saturday, September 15, 2007



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The dignity of the long distance worker © 2007 Duncan Graham

Most stories about Indonesian domestic workers who labor overseas are grim. Abuse, rip offs, brutality, with some Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI – Indonesian overseas labor force), coming home in wheelchairs or coffins.

But this yarn is cheeringly different – undoubtedly because the woman involved is in a class of her own.

Kaimah, 31, left Cilacap in Central Java, her husband Elia Tri Madi and their three year old son Reza two years ago with one goal: To raise enough money to buy medicine for her younger sister Suwanti who was suffering from bone cancer.

The disease is now in remission and Kaimah has stayed on in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to earn more money for Reza’s education.

Taiwanese employers reckon Indonesian maids have a reputation for being flexible and placid – unlike their colleagues from the Philippines. Kaimah’s boss Chen Kong runs a printing business; he said Filipino workers were better educated, but tended to be arrogant and consider themselves superior.

But in putting the tiny Kaimah on his payroll he’s got anything but the standard complaisant TKI. Instead he’s fostering a political activist in the making.

“We are hired for our ability to do menial work that the Taiwanese don’t want to do,” she said. “Many people look down on domestic workers from abroad, but we are ambassadors for our country.

“We should keep our head high, be proud of being Indonesians and tell the Taiwanese about our great nation. We should be able to sing and dance so we can show other countries that we are cultured people.

“But we’re not just muscles. We have brains and we must use them.”

This isn’t just empty rhetoric. Kaimah doesn’t shuffle behind her employers trying to be invisible in a pale uniform, but pedals a bike around Taipei wearing bright colors, jostling for space with the locals as an equal. She doesn’t need company when going out.

She has taught herself Mandarin and English and is at ease in both, speaking up with fluency and vigor.

On one occasion witnessed by this reporter the feisty Kaimah was in a Taipei restaurant when it was visited by a delegation of senior Indonesian bureaucrats and national politicians on an official visit to Taiwan.

Others sat silent, conscious that in the presence of such VIPs there was no role for humble manual workers. But Kaimah, who was caring for her boss’s son, was unfazed by the event, the surroundings or her place in the proceedings.

“Maybe it’s because my family originally came from West Sumatra,” she said. “I may be a Javanese but I don’t like this going round and round. I want to be direct.”

So she took the opportunity to dispense with the standard Javanese formalities and give the visitors a good blast about the plight of the TKI.

In her sights were employers who maltreat workers, labor agencies who cheat TKI out of their wages with illegal fees, banks who charge 19 per cent for loans, and workers who sign contracts they don’t understand.

Kaimah stressed that the Indonesian government should take a more vigorous role in protecting its citizens abroad and enforce the law. The visitors, nonplussed by the outburst, just nodded and departed.

Late last year the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei (there is no embassy because Indonesia officially follows the One China Policy, recognizing only the People’s Republic of China) installed a computer system that records short message service (SMS) calls 24 hours a day from disgruntled TKI. So far it has taken more than 7,000 hits.

It also runs three shelters for abused workers and those seeking new placements.

But Kaimah isn’t just critical of bureaucrats, bad employers and sly labor agencies. She also knows that some TKI get themselves into trouble for not being assertive and trusting too much. Some get into relationships with Taiwanese men, though they have families back home.

Lending money to ‘friends’ who then abscond with the cash, trusting others to repatriate money instead of using banks and running away from employers add to the woes of the vulnerable and ill prepared.

Walking off the job isn’t an unusual response by maids working in Indonesia who get scolded by their bosses, or find family pressures to return to their village irresistible. But breaking a contract overseas can be serious. At any given time more than 200 TKI are in detention in Taiwan following breaches of their work visas.

There are 105,000 TKI in Taiwan and most are women. They’re attracted by the high wages but not all manage to repatriate their earnings. Budget management is critical; some let their earnings go to their head.

“The temptation to buy things like handphones and clothes is very great, but we have to remember why we are here,” said Kaimah. “Some women earn a lot of money but they lose it to grasping relatives or spend it. Within three months of returning home they have nothing.

“If they’d been careful they could have used the capital to start a business.”

In the absence of an independent trade union for the TKI Kaimah has become the workers’ unofficial representative. Her ability to confront issues and language fluency also led her to be recognized as an outstanding representative of her country at a big public event. This was staged by Radio Taiwan International and local companies to thank the TKI for their contribution to the economy.

Kaimah took the opportunity at the event to read an emotional and highly personal poem she’d written about the trials of long distance separation and which was published in the national press.

In it she praised the faithfulness, love, support and tolerance of her husband who she hadn’t seen for two years. He works for a catering company in Jakarta.

“It’s important that the Taiwanese recognize that we are family people who have made great sacrifices to go overseas far from our loved ones,” she said. “People who become TKI have to be strong. It is difficult.

“I’m proud to be an Indonesian but want to know why we have to export our labor and can’t provide jobs in our homeland, when the economy of other countries is so good they can employ overseas maids. Why?”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 September 2007)


Friday, September 07, 2007


Lourdes in East Java © Duncan Graham 2007

Last July a mob of Muslim radicals reportedly forced the cancellation of an international religious gathering at the Karmel Valley Catholic retreat in West Java.
There’s a similar retreat in East Java based in a Muslim area. But in this case inter-faith relationships are said to be good. Duncan Graham reports:

There are about 6,000 households in the village of Puhsarang on the slopes of Mount Klotak. Around 20 per cent are Catholic and another five per cent Protestant. That's a significant number because nationally Muslims are supposed to form almost 90 per cent of the population.
Worshipers who go to the monthly midnight services held on the eve of hari jumat legi (Friday in the Javanese calendar), certainly aren’t short of prayer room, though hundreds of outsiders normally pour into the area. At Easter 17,000 people turned up – many staying overnight in the hotels and guesthouses that cater for the influx. There's also a camping ground.
For Puhsarang is a Catholic sacred place with 14 hectares of statuary, chapels, a grotto of Our Lady, graveyards, a cave, water gushing from a rock, a columbarium and a mausoleum - the only one in East Java.
Here the bones of bishops and many priests lie close to the ashes of people who have chosen to be cremated and remembered in this lovely place.
Sounds a bit like Lourdes, the town in the French Pyrenees where five million pilgrims come every year seeking cures? You're not wrong. Much has been done to replicate that famous attraction, including several sets of paintings donated by the French.
Puhsarang has yet to produce a Bernadette Soubirous. She was the teenager who claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary several times in the mid 19th century and turned Lourdes from a place of no importance to a center of faith and healing. (The sesquicentenary is next year.)
Puhsarang may not have a visionary, but it does have what the locals call ‘holy water’. Like Moses you can smite a rock wall alongside the grotto, and out it gushes.
The cautious and concerned who know that to keep your stomach intact you don't drink from taps or springs in Indonesia may be wary of sipping. Fear not – it's already been sterilized by ultra-violet light. Faith is fine, but in matters of hygiene even the devout trust in technology.
Local religious teacher Maria Magdalena Kasri Evayanti said the pilgrims came from many parts of the archipelago and were mainly ascetics seeking a spiritual experience.
"We follow the Javanese calendar because this fits in with the Catholic tradition," she said. "Though no miracles have been officially authenticated, many people say they've been cured of sickness after using the water."
Inevitably Puhsarang has become a tourist spot, and the deputy head of security Jacobus Sugeng knows immediately the religion of visitors without even asking – not that he makes such personal inquiries.
"Muslims come to picnic and enjoy the surroundings," he said. "They pay no attention to anything else. The Protestants look at some of the holy objects though not too seriously.
"Only Catholics show reverence, take bottles of water, pray in public and know which way to follow the Stations of the Cross."
These are 15 sets of gold-colored statues on a long walk through the landscaped gardens showing the traditional story of Jesus' progress from condemnation through crucifixion to ascension. Curiously it's the final empty cave with no statues that has most emotional impact, not the figures in frozen poses at the other 14 locations.
Each figure cost Rp 5 million (US $560) and the artists were all Muslim, according to Jacobus. Five of his 16 staff are Muslims and Muslims run many of the food and souvenir stalls that line the walkway into the complex.
So don't assume because someone is offering you a plaster saint or an illuminated missal he or she is an adherent to the Church of Rome.
There's been plenty of strife between Christians and Muslims in South Sulawesi, Ambon - and more recently in West Java. But Puhsarang has escaped sectarian violence – probably because it's open to all faiths and supports so many non-Catholic households.
Puhsarang is promoted by East Java tourist authorities who are particularly proud of what they call the antik church. Although this translates as antique it can also mean eccentric. This is more accurate because the building is only 70 years old and was extensively rebuilt in 1999 in a most curious and imaginative style.
If you're not a Catholic and find much religious art to be kitsch you may be put off from a visit to Puhsarang. That would be a mistake because the architecture and engineering of the church and adjacent buildings are well worth the trip.
For the huge roofs are unsupported by multiple uprights, beams, bearers or cross members. Instead at each corner are big steel pillars leaning back to take the weight of tonnes of terracotta tiles.
They do this through thin steel rods that replace wooden slats, the standard way to carry the weight of tiles – two to a kilogram. The design is known as wireframe, and it's impressive.
The rods sag between supports giving the roof a dished appearance, as though the whole structure is about to cave in. This is supposed to resemble the style of the Majapahit era, the Javanese kingdom that ruled this area 700 years earlier.
Some of the terracotta tiles have been replaced with glass in the shape of a cross, creating a powerful image using natural light. Elsewhere the walls and pathways have been made of river-rolled stones. A bit uncomfortable underfoot – so wear stout shoes.

(Puhsarang is about two and a half road-hours southwest of Surabaya. The route is far from the Lapindo mud volcano. To book accommodation e-mail

(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 September 07)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007



If concern for the nation, a passion to right the wrongs and intelligence are all that’s needed to reform Indonesia, then the Republic can look ahead to a glorious future.

Though only if the young idealists erupting with enthusiasm to create what they call a ‘New Indonesia’ get the chance to apply their vision and realize their hopes. To do that they have to go home.

Returning is something a group of young Indonesians who are working and studying in Perth, Western Australia (WA) talk about a lot. There are the superficial longings – for a warmer climate and rice that tastes the way Mum cooked it – and the more emotional concerns of family reunion.

But overriding nostalgia is worthwhile, well-rewarded work in their chosen field that will provide long-term security. And that’s hard to find in Indonesia.

Badai Fatturrochman, 21, an accounting and finance student would love to return to professional soccer, but reckons he couldn’t score more than Rp 5 million (US $550) a month; he thinks four times that amount would be a fair wage, but knows he’s kicking uphill and against the wind.

James Martin, 26, who despite his name and appearance is an Indonesian Muslim with Arab and Jewish forebears, and his wife Nuraini Kusuma Wardani, 28, understandingly want their firstborn (currently domiciled in Nuraini’s womb), to have a decent chance in life.

So they’re hanging on in Australia hoping to get permanent resident (PR) status so their child will be able to have access to career, lifestyle and other opportunities beyond the archipelago. Nuraini, who has studied hospitality, works as a chef.

Not that James has lacked chances. He got a scholarship to study in Australia, has been in the country six years and will stay till maybe the end of the decade. Although he’s studied economics he works as a waiter for AUD $13 (Rp 100,000) an hour, the sort of money he can’t imagine getting in Jakarta, even as a hot number-cruncher wearing a tie.

“I’d love to go home, but my parents want me to stay,” he said. His military father was determined his son would get a good education – and the insurance of PR should chaos erupt again and the firebrands take to the streets. Perth, a calm and wealthy city is little more than three hours flying time from Denpasar and a popular bolthole.

“I want to help my country,” James said. “I want to know why we have been left behind by countries like Malaysia and Singapore. Why can’t we get ahead? We have the natural resources and the people.

“We need to create better infrastructure, to clean up the country, the get rid of corruption. And we need Australian investment.”

And to this end he and other young Indonesians in Perth are working to help make their country’s presence at the Perth Royal Show in September a stand-out success.

This year the annual week-long showcase of farming and industry, a major event in the WA capital, has invited Indonesia to be the guest nation. Rommy Begenk, who produces a high-quality Indonesian-language giveaway tabloid for the 8,000 Indonesians in Perth and their Aussie friends called Voice of Indonesia, has designed the poster.

Other promotions are being planned to show that the tropical archipelago is really a welcoming wonderland of diversity and charm, not terror central.

In June they ran a concert called Care for Indonesia in the Perth Concert Hall starring, among other pop idols, Glenn Fredly and Dewi Sandra. This was to “create awareness of Indonesia” and raise funds for a mobile library for the poor.

Rommy also says he wants to rush back to the Big Durian and build his design business, but first needs to amass some hard cash. Like others he denied having been seduced by the Australian lifestyle – but having an Australian girlfriend is another reason not to jump the next Boeing heading north.

Jessisca, 19, from Papua is unusual and not because she comes from an outlying province. She’s studying maths and science at the University of WA; business, accountancy and economics are the favored faculties for Indonesians abroad.

She went to school in Singapore and has ambitions of working in New York. But she’s also much taken with Australia because she likes the way that people are treated with respect, “even taxi drivers, bus drivers and teachers.” The downside for this young Christian is the amount of swearing she hears.

“The critical question for all of us is this: How do we survive,” she said. “It’s the financial situation. In Indonesia the chance of getting a good job is remote unless you have the right contacts. But here there are so many opportunities.”

Indeed. WA is leading the Australian mining boom and the only thing in short supply is labor. In Indonesia you scrabble for work; in WA bosses scrabble for workers.

Accountancy graduate Anwar Helmy, 28, can’t get a job in sensitive areas of the Australian economy where citizenship is required, so is working as a book-keeper. Unlike his friends he’s not so upbeat about the future of his country.

His wife Fency Sjafei, 25, who has an Australian master’s degree in information technology, works with the national telco Telstra on data processing. She also spends time as a volunteer on a local Indonesian language radio program.

“If the right conditions existed we’d really go back,” said Fency. “We feel so emotionally attached to our homeland.” But when will those conditions become apparent?

“That’s the really tough question,” said Anwar. “Our friends in Jakarta say the job situation doesn’t look good, even for people like us. We’re not alone with overseas qualifications; there are thousands more coming in all the time from Britain and the US.”

So here’s another dilemma for these golden lads and lasses; they want Indonesia to introduce transparency and fairness in government and business, but know the best way to get a job is through nepotism.

Fency is also expecting and discussing what language they should use at the home they’re buying when their bi-cultural bub is born. At the moment it’s Indonesian inside the house, English outside – though ready to seep in under the eaves like dust and smother the mother tongue.

Complaints? Nothing worth writing home about. They mix with Aussies, but tend to stick together “because that’s out culture of togetherness.” They hear of racism but say they’ve had no personal encounters, though are distressed at perceived growing public hostility to Islam. They say they haven’t encountered the evil and debauched West of popular mythology.

Any other messages for the folks back home, particularly the old fellows who run the show? “Give the young generation a chance to build our country,” said the effervescent James who doesn’t blush when his wife says that he’d really like to be a future president. “Give us the space, give us the respect. We can do it.”

So while they wait for the economy to bloom back home – and without their help - the roots sink deeper, anchoring them to the ochre-rocks Down Under: Jobs, money and possessions, proper salaries and decent working conditions, cars, Aussie-born babes, friends, romance - even mortgages.

How long before gum trees smell sweeter than mangoes and the dreams of helping the homeland frizzle in the Antipodean sun?


(First published in The Weekender (JP) September 2007)

Erosion in East Java

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Monday, September 03, 2007



Few who've climbed to the top of the pile remember their origins. Once fame and fortune arrive it's farewell to their lowly past, according to East Java potter Ponimin.

"The grassroots people get crushed by the political and social system," he said. "Most aren't smart enough. They get tricked by those who are more ambitious.

"The poor also want to succeed, to have materialist goods, but they get trampled. The few who do reach the summit discover it's an illusion and what they hoped to find isn't there. They like to claim they're clever and strong, but in fact they're just victims of the social environment."

But how to express such ideas? Ponimin is an easy-going man who laughs a lot and talks more, particularly about art. You won't find him wearing a headband and shouting into a megaphone at a street protest – though his passions may be just as strong.

He doesn't have a good way with words, – particularly when trying to reach foreigners as he's discovered when lecturing overseas. His skills are in his hands where the language of clay crosses all barriers.

He was chosen as the only Indonesian artist to be represented at the third Asna Clay Triennial held by the Arts Council of Pakistan late last year. His work – according to local press reports – 'mesmerized' visitors and was the center of attraction, competing with sculptures and artifacts from nine other countries.

Reach of No Hope is the artist's title for his work, a large installation that needs plenty of space. It shows dozens of small plump figures clawing their way up ropes and ladders on a pyramid made of sticks.

It's a work that's gone through several changes. Earlier versions shown in Surabaya were titled Climbing on Empty Expectation Stairs.

The structure can be seen in many ways. The symbol of the pyramid is widely used in graphic representations of society – a few at the top and many at the bottom.

It also looks like a scaffold, an instrument of torture.

Those who get to the top crawl like flies across the ceiling, unable to go further. Others tumble to the floor. Some are shattered. It's a metaphor that transcends cultures. The extra quality is the expression on the faces of the figurines.

For the little people are cherubic, jolly wee terracotta urchins, nothing like the grotesque and greedy caricatures normally used to represent the avaricious and ambitious. This is no allegorical work, so the observer is bemused.

"I think their behavior is funny, that's why I make them look happy," he said. "I'm disgusted by the actions of our politicians and leaders since Reformation – but what can we do? We're powerless. As Javanese we tend to accept the situation. So maybe it's better just to laugh."

Ponimin's work has already been shown in Bangladesh and Japan, supported by the Indonesian government through the department of tourism. He hopes that next year it will be displayed in India.

Being an artist with a message is difficult in Indonesia where there are few arts grants. Ponimin, 40, originally from Jombang in East Java, studied at the school of fine arts in Yogya where he worked in most media but eventually settled with clay.

A grandfather had been a potter making kitchenware, but the old man died before young Ponimin could learn the techniques, so he came late to clay.

Jombang is in the heart of terracotta country. The mighty Majapahit Empire flourished 700 years ago in the fertile lowlands fed by the Brantas River. The land was so rich that life wasn't one long struggle to survive.

There was time to develop culture, fight wars, expand trade and create art. The dark riverbank clays were so easy to handle that the people used them to make bricks, tiles, pottery and figurines. Surviving examples give the best clues to how the people of that era lived.

Ponimin loves the local clays' plasticity and the way they hold their shape. They contain little grit. He doesn't have a wheel, preferring the coil system where cords of rolled clay are built into shape using the fingers to smooth and pinch.

"This allows for more creativity," he said. "A wheel makes for uniformity."

Although his studio in the hillltown of Batu looks like a production line with scores of black figures drying in the sun and waiting to be fired in an open oven, every piece is individual.

This is the work he has to do to keep the rupiah flowing. "It's my industrial art," he explained. "Only when I've done enough can I get involved in my fine art. I want to extend the images and ideas that I've been showing overseas but there are no sponsors for this sort of work."

However there have been plenty willing to pay serious money to Ponimin provided he follows their designs, not his.

The clients are housing developers and recreation park investors whose ideas of art come not from the ancient culture that they've inherited and which surrounds them, but from European history books.

Ponimin has had to make statues of dinosaurs, Roman gladiators, Egyptian pharaohs, chariots, figures from Greek mythology, armless Venus de Milo look-alikes, unlimited galloping stallions and even the Sydney Opera House.

These are used to give 'quality' to the tropical urban landscape. Don't worry about the potholes and open drains; a fine figure in a toga nursing a cornucopia keeps the mind off the mundane.

Or maybe they're just a sly way to put statues of semi-clothed maidens around gateways and on median strips. If they featured bare-breasted Javanese virgins there might be an outcry from self-appointed moral guardians, while anything that looks Caucasian and classical is acceptable.

Ponimin is aware of the incongruities and tries to fight them. He teaches art at the Malang State University and pushes his students to look at the local culture and landscape for inspiration.

But they also know what sells. So in the shadow of Mount Kawi, a mountain rich in magic, they're busy molding sway-back Balinese beauties with mask faces, just big enough to fit into a traveler's bag.

"I never think about selling my fine art," Ponimin said. "This what I want to do to express myself. I plan a new installation that reverses the pyramid and has grains of rice trickling down to the people who suffer from all the weight above them."

No doubt they'll still look like happy hobgoblins rather than the gaunt downtrodden masses that normally feature in the art of social protest.

(First published in The Weekender magazine (JP), September 2007)


ON A WING AND A PRAYER © 2007 Duncan Graham

For Malang lawyer Sunu Setyonugroho, who has a deep and irrational fear of heights, there’s only one cure. He goes halfway up Mount Banyak at Songgoriti, Batu, East Java. He stands 1,300 meters above sea level, quivering on the edge of a sheer drop, far above a lovely patchwork landscape of tilled fields and ochre-roofed hamlets.

Then he runs and jumps.

Don’t try this unless you’re attached to a filigree of hair-thin cables connected to an airfoil, a long billowing pillow of polyester called a wing. It’s also useful to have a good understanding of air currents, weather patterns, thermals and cold fronts.

Useful? Wrong word. Essential? Absolutely.

Then you can just sit back in your harness on Cloud Nine for an hour or more, salivate over the view and contemplate the majesty of the universe as you pity the ant-people busy hundreds of metres below. The only noise is the air slipping through the wing that you can steer with a gentle tug on the cables.

Eventually we all have to come down to earth. If you’re really skilled and don’t get caught by a sudden gust, you can glide precisely into the center of a ten-meter diameter circle at the landing field. If you’re not then you can vanish into a patch of high-stalk corn or tumble into an irrigation ditch.

Only a couple of contestants at the Batu Open Paragliding international event staged in late July came a cropper. These mishaps garnered giggles, though no one sought the farmers’ opinions.

Most pilots, like the Malaysian team of five – including two women for this is a unisex sport - managed to get impressively close to the target. They neatly dodged the onlookers who cluttered the field, indifferent to the possibility of getting a head kicking by a pilot coming in too fast.

Although the paragliders seem serious about safety, wearing all the right protective gear so they look like First World War bi-plane fighter pilots, it’s the adrenalin rush that keeps the contestants coming.

Retired Malaysian commando Basit Bin Abdul Rahman, 56, can no longer get his kicks from a Kalashnikov so he wanders the world looking for the best launch spots.

“Peninsular Malaysia is too flat and there are too many trees in Sarawak,” he said. “I’ve paraglided in South Korea and Taiwan and at Lake Toba in Sumatra, but this site in Batu is very good.

“If you’re not careful paragliding can be dangerous. But if you’re mentally and physically fit and know what you’re doing, then it gives great peace of mind. You can forget your problems up there.”

At 13 Nur S B Sahar seemed too young to have problems, but being a teenager has its own traumas. She also said paragliding helped her to get a better perspective on the world, both literally and metaphorically.

“I crashed once coming in to land and bruised my leg,” she said. “My parents support me, but worry and urge me to be careful. This is my third competition.”

Paragliding looks elite because you can spend around Rp 20 million (US $2,200) or more on the gear. Then come the training expenses, for this activity is well regulated; you can’t just fling yourself into the yonder unless you intend making an exit statement.

Radio contact with the support staff who control the field has to be maintained. It costs around Rp 200,000 (US $ 22) a session to fly tandem with an instructor. Allow ten days for training to a basic proficiency level.

In Batu the local government has been smart enough to realize the tourist potential of their topography. The 3,000 square meter landing field, the paved road to the jump site and a shelter have all been paid for by the city administration.

Like nature and vacuum, bureaucrats abhor silence. This led them to install a huge sound system at the event, blasting totally forgettable ‘music’ across the landscape. They couldn’t understand that paragliders are nature lovers seeking to be at one with the environment.

On the positive side, a dozen little lads had been trained to expertly fold the wings for Rp 1,000 (US $0.10) each, leaving contestants free to unzip, unwind and find their feet.

Although the winged ones from across the world who come to Mount Banyak are high fliers, that doesn’t mean they’re big spenders. At night they prefer to bunk-down in low budget hotels where they can swap yarns about up-draughts and down winds.

There’s a camaraderie about paragliding that brings disparate folk together. Like serious surfers they tend to be individualists, mostly professionals, in search of a special and exhilarating experience. They travel with a purpose and like to test themselves. When they’re really in their element, their souls also soar.

In the air they are all grace; on the ground with a 15-kilogram wing packed on their back they look like biped turtles. With a GPS (global positioning system) in their pocket they know where they are by latitude and longitude, rather than through political geography. Add a passport and credit card and the quest for freedom is underway.

Dwi Rubingi discovered paragliding in 1999 when he worked in New Zealand where extreme sports are popular. When he returned to East Java he had enough money to build a motel close to Mount Banyak, hoping paragliders will drop in.

“This is a great site because you can go out almost every day,” he said. “In NZ we could fly on only three months every year.

“Wind speeds are checked before taking off. If it gets stronger than 20 kilometers an hour you could find yourself going backwards.

“The best paragliders tend to be the French, though the Chinese are also very good. In places without high mountains paragliders add lightweight motor-driven propellers to their gear to the distress of the purists.

“The world record of covering 426 kilometers was achieved in South Africa. (The Indonesian straight distance record is 44.5 kilometers, set in Wonogiri, Central Java.) The sport is probably most developed in South Korea where much of the gear is now made using new high-tech materials.”

The 30-square meter crescent-shaped wings aren’t parachutes. On the leading edge is a honeycomb of cells that fill with air and provide the lift. Anything less than 20 kilometers an hour and you could stall, anything more than 60 and you’re really moving. The safest maximum height is 3,000 metres though going higher and faster is part of the game.

And finally, what about our vertigo-challenged lawyer who introduced this story? Sunu says he has no problems paragliding but still doesn’t like standing on the edge of high buildings. Well, not without his wing.

(For more information, including a club and site near you, check

(First published in The SundayPost 2 Sepember 07)



This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of literal translation and imposing Western cultural values on Indonesia. It's also a story about the hazards of aquaculture.

Almost a century ago administrators of the then Dutch East Indies established a complex of 44 big concrete tanks in the village of Punten (near the central East Java town of Batu), to be used for breeding fish.

The colonials chose the site well and built soundly because the hatchery is still operating, now under the control of the East Java provincial government. It's claimed to be the only government-run fish farm producing larvae and fingerlings for farmers in Indonesia

Thousands of big colorful fish splash through the constantly running water. They're ikan mas, said hatchery director Dewi Nur Setyorini. This translates as goldfish, and that sounded right, though many looked far too big to fit into a round bowl on the drawing room dresser.

These aren't just for decoration, they're also for eating, she explained.

Westerners with closed palates and minds find many kitchen practices in the archipelago strange, and some repulsive. The delight in dog-meat shown by people in North Sulawesi is particularly abhorrent for those who think eating man's best friend is on a par with cannibalism. (If you fancy some it's sold under the euphemism RW.)

Grilling the family goldfish is a mite less disgusting, though it ranks alongside barbecuing the budgie. Neither would make a decent meal.

Fortunately for the credibility of this story a check of the Latin name revealed that ikan mas translates more accurately as carp, a distant relative of the goldfish.

But we still weren't in clear water for in some Western countries carp have pest status. They're considered inedible because they're muddy-water feeders, have an unpleasant flavor (say the detractors) and their flesh is bony. They're also despised as a game fish.

That's the situation in Australia and parts of North America, but not Asia where carp is a much-favored dish. Which means that there's no accounting for taste, and that the Punten hatchery should never be short of local clients.

Provided it doesn't get contaminated.

A past record of business success is no guarantee of future prosperity. Dewi is well aware of the dangers because the hatchery doesn't control its own source of water and pressures from other users are increasing.

"When the hatchery was built in 1918 it was in an isolated area," she said. "Now we're surrounded by houses and farms. The river has to flow through 1,500 metres of other people's properties before it reaches us. The water is discolored, particularly after rain. Fortunately so far no problems."

Professor Rustidja who heads fisheries research at Malang's Brawijaya University and works with students at the hatchery agreed that the chances of disease or poisoning were significant.

Farmers upstream are supposed to notify the hatchery when they plan to use pesticides, but rivers in East Java are considered drains, the place where everything from human excrement to plastic bags can be dumped. Over-use of chemical fertilizers on riverside crops is raising nitrogen levels in many waterways.

"The hatchery was hit by a virus in 2001 that inevitably wiped out the whole stock," he said. When all tanks share the same water there's no escape.

"Sediment is already a problem and the tanks have to be regularly cleaned of sludge. We must be constantly alert to any changes."

At the hatchery the biggest and best carp are selected, three males to every female, and put in a breeding tank overnight. The females lay their eggs – 80,000 per fish - in a floating network of palm fronds.

These are then removed, the fertilized eggs are washed out and either sold or allowed to grow for sale as fingerlings. Another species produced is the gaping-mouth lele (freshwater catfish) that's as popular as chicken in roadside eateries throughout Java – and a lot cheaper.

The nursery runs workshops to help farmers understand the complexities of aquaculture and the opportunities for expansion. Although excavated ponds can be used these are prone to leakage and contamination. Concrete pools are more efficient and manageable, but the capital cost is high. Seacage aquaculture is reported to be getting more popular. (See Sidebar)

Where running water isn't available ponds must be regularly aerated using pumps and sprays, adding to the expense. The upside is that the market is huge and hungry, particularly as chicken prices rise. Fish provide the most important source of animal protein in the world.

The Punten hatchery, together with Brawijaya University is also experimenting with fresh water lobsters (also known as crayfish) as a possible commercial crop. These originally came from Australia, though two varieties found in Papua have also been used for research.

So far farmers who've tried growing the lobsters have not been impressed with results, reporting losses of up to 50 per cent.

"The potential is there because the lobsters fetch high prices," said Rustidja. "More research needs to be done on management. Other fish varieties, including seawater species like kerapu (groper) can also be farmed.

"The demand is certainly impressive. Unfortunately inquiries from up-market restaurants and exporters can't be met. That's because we can't yet guarantee consistent supplies of large quantities."


According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 90 per cent of the world's fish farm production takes place in the developing world, with Indonesia ranking number two in output.

The fresh and salt-water industry is scattered across the archipelago with most enterprises small scale. Seacage aquaculture tends to be run by villages.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has been working with Indonesian scientists to check the impact of seacage aquaculture on the environment and develop management guidelines. Most research has been done in Europe and North America – little in the tropics

If the farms aren't run properly pollution and disease may affect fish in the wild.

This is a major concern in Australia where the industry is tightly regulated. In Indonesia there are reported to be few controls and the seacage business is expanding rapidly.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 August 07)



© Duncan Graham 2007

It has to be one of East Java's most extraordinary sights; after hairpinning up and down serpentine laneways on the flanks of Mount Arjuno, through tiny villages and thick forest, to come across a 5,000 square-meter palatial Italian-style mansion.

Finding Villa Leduk is a bit tricky. This multi-columned celebration of the Renaissance, looking like the ultimate in standout opulence, is the rural estate of Jakarta architect and designer Bagoes Brotodiwirjo. But it's tucked away behind a conservation and education center that's also part of his grand design.

The Kaliandra Sejati Foundation that Bagoes chairs is a collection of Javanese bungalows set into the contours of the mountain slopes. Many have been built in the pre-European way – no mortar between the flat red bricks, shuttered windows, carved teak furniture and fittings, and terracotta tiles. Verdigris verandah posts; ochre walls and green swing doors; shade and cool breezes – it's a place for contemplation.

Although constructed only a decade ago the cottages look centuries old. The only giveaways are flush toilets and electric lights.

It would be difficult to find a starker contrast with the big Tuscany-in-the-Tropics palace next door.

Within the foundation's complex are restaurants, high-roofed meeting halls, richly manicured (but seldom geometric) gardens, riverlets and ponds. Gamelan music (there are three sets of instruments) slips through the drooping branches, the rain splashing in tune off the glossy leaves.

Kaliandra will be a principal location for the five-day Panji Festival scheduled for the first week in September, just before the start of the fasting month of Ramadan.

The Panji stories date back 700 years to the Majapahit era and have influenced many aspects of Javanese culture, including the way crops are grown and harvested, forests maintained, sickness cured and relationships organized. (See sidebar)

The Panji festival is an international initiative. It started in August 2004 with a meeting at the French Cultural Center in Surabaya. Present was East Java activist and educator Suryo Prawiroatmodjo and Javanese arts scholar Lydia Kieven. Originally from Germany she's currently in Australia studying for a doctorate.

Artist Suprapto Suryadarma was another key participant. He's a spiritual dancer and wayang choreographer from the Padepokan (art center) Lemah Putih in Solo, famous for having developed a Wayang Buddha performance.

Others at the original meeting included traditional and contemporary artists, farmers, doctors and educators. All agreed that Panji culture could help recover local identity and counter globalization.

The committee has now been joined by Agus Tinus, a lecturer in tourism at Surabaya's Petra University, and puppet master and choreographer M Soleh Adi Pramono. He's based at Tumpang, a village outside Malang.

With such a diverse and dispersed group it's no surprise that the ambition to stage a festival has taken longer to achieve than first expected. Sponsors have been found and the show will at last hit the road. Or in this case, the mountain.

Apart from theatre, the idea is to recall the Panji cultural practices in land husbandry, batik design, architecture, music, medicine (through the use of herbs) and food. Organizers hope the past can teach the present much about conservation and living in harmony with nature.

Another expectation is that the festival will boost pride in the history of Java before the 1945 proclamation of the Republic, the point where much official teaching starts.

Activities have expanded to include an international seminar on Local Wisdom from the Panji Era at Merdeka University in Malang (on 5 and 6 September), theatre at Soleh's Mangun Dharmo arts center and land care studies at Kaliandra.

The name refers to a clever American acacia-like tree (Caliandra calothyrsus); it's smart because it can fix nitrogen in the soil and – unlike many foreigners - is happy in humidity.

At 850 metres above sea level Kaliandra is a top location and not just because of the elevation. It can accommodate 120 people and is billed as a center for studying the environment, culture and community development. Last year 20,000 visited, mainly school and university students.

Because the area is so well watered the statuary and buildings have been draped in a patina that disguises age. Are the Majapahit images squatting in the foliage priceless relics from a millennium ago, or concrete copies from an antiques-while-you-wait workshop?

If the design is the same does it matter whether it has been chiseled by an iron adze or an electric-powered angle grinder?

"This is an ideal clean and relatively unspoilt location for festival participants to learn about our culture and study East Java flora and fauna," said Suryo. Seventeen years ago the former veterinary surgeon established Indonesia's first outdoor environmental education center at the nearby village of Seloliman.

"Panji isn't just about mask dancing. It represents a way of life that includes recognizing local wisdoms and respecting nature.

"In the past rural people understood the importance of working within the cycle of nature. Now clear felling of forests, locating noxious industries in farm areas, land and river pollution by chemicals and waste are upsetting the balance and killing the environment.

"Through this festival, and the young people who will participate, we'll be able to reinforce the need to care for our resources, reforest for the future and reconnect with nature. This is everyone's responsibility."


The Indian epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana are reasonably familiar to literati in the West where they've been infrequently performed. The Panji legends, once well known throughout South-East Asia, are now foreign outside Java - and to much of the present generation of Indonesians who prefer TV to live theatre.

As in all good yarns that don't fade with fashion the tales are about love and adventure. It's the evergreen theme: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. He gets her and the throne and she gets him and the status.

The heroes in this home-grown saga are Prince Panji (who could also be the Hindu god Visnu), and Princess Candrakirana. The tales are set in the 11th century and became popular during the following 200 years of the Majapahit era, though some claim the Panji period spanned the 8th to the 15th centuries AD.

The Majapahit era was the golden age of Java when the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom is believed to have controlled much of lower South East Asia through trade and conquest. So revisiting the Panji stories is to celebrate pre-Islamic Javanese triumphs and values.

(For more information see postings on: For details of the academic program contact Dr Gunawan Wibisono )

(First published in The Sunday Post 2 September 07.)