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

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)


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