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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Feeling like one grain of small green pea © 2007 Duncan Graham

Like most foreigners I’ve made some awful errors. No point in compiling a list – there’s insufficient space. Best to confine my revelations to the recall of one ghastly event.

I should have known better. I’d been in the country long enough to sense the sensitivities. My motives were pure. But I’d forgotten the old saw: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And my feet rapidly hit that road outside the Surabaya tourism department not so long ago.

It happened like this: As a happy resident grateful to a country that’s offered friendship and overlooked my foibles and mispronunciations, I thought I owed something in return.

Word addicts suffer side effects. Like a disgust for those who abuse language. Scold your spouse or scald the cat, but whatever you do don’t violate the vulgate.

And that’s happening in spades, particularly in tourist brochures. The most ghastly gaffes are a hoot. Getting a mention in Lonely Planet, is a coup – though not when the backpackers’ bible gives a full paragraph to quote a guidebook:

‘Bromo should be the choice, for only there, on the crater rim with the sea of sand stretching below as far as the eyes can see on one’s left and the ghostly grumble mixed with dense lumps of smoke crumple up from the inner pitfall on one’s right, and on the height of 2,383 meters above sea level would one see how lustrous the aurora of the sun in mixing colors of white, pale yellow, yellowish red turning red appears from behind the hills quite in front, to brighten the atmosphere to daylight, does one feel oneself to be like one grain of small green pea amidst a vessel of sand – you’ll be aware of the greatness of men!’

It’s not just the government that gets it wrong big time. A favorite is a hotel in Batu, East Java that invites guests to ‘lay down at the poolside (and) enjoy the sunburn.’

OK, have a giggle, move on. Who cares? Well I care because I live here and hate to see this archipelago of astonishments sneered at by supercilious Singaporeans-la or the Truly Asian Malaysians who produce the most meticulous International English prose in their PR.

The Europeans may be forgiving, but our near neighbors aren’t.

So duly authorized by a folder of fully franked letters of introduction, smart in pressed batik and shoes like mirrors I respectfully presented my humble self at the office of the Big Man.

An ingratiating preamble; surely Sir’s department had a Westminster reputation with outstanding staff producing credit-worthy material?

This was bending the truth into a hoop; the grimy office was overstaffed and underworked. Its pamphlets came in two grades - ink stencils or heavyweight gloss with smudged text, blurred color and glued pages.

But I confined myself to the language, kept my knees together and posture attentive. I just loved the brochures – the language was practically Shakespearian when compared to my Indonesian. Who else writes jemput (to be picked up) when he means jembut (pubic hair)? Or should that be the other way around? Ha, ha!

But little mistakes can creep in – you know how it is. That’s why newspapers have so many copy-editors. If Sir would care to occasionally use a native speaker’s services, absolutely free and no strings attached, maybe I could help polish the prose a little?

Get your competent colleagues to e-mail me the text. Just in case there are any teeny-weeny errors that might want correcting, so together we can help visitors really appreciate this most perfect of provinces …

In the West the unwelcome can be forcibly evicted. The Javanese solution is for the host to get up and stride out, trembling in fury, while the guest is in mid sentence, tea cup poised, and let the sidekicks show you the other door.

One was apologetic: He disclosed that the brochures had been written by the boss who had a master’s degree from a Mickey Mouse campus 30 years ago. Although the young graduate from Airlangga University (East Java’s finest) knew the department’s handouts were gobbledygook he dared not gainsay a superior.

Maintaining protocol, he explained, was more important than improving performance. So home ways you go quick – and your business you mind yourself, ya. Like Frank Sinatra, we do it my way.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 November 2007)




Basitia Putri was adamant; she didn't like the letter U.

But what did the 14-year-old public high school student mean? Was this a new form of teenspeak, shorthand for 'you' and implying an identity crisis? However her same-age colleague Amirul had no such hang ups. "U is good," he said in the clipped, dismissive way that Generation Now uses for Generation Past.

It took time to decode: U is the shape of the new classroom configuration used at the students' Jombang school (SMPN 3), replacing the straight rows of desks facing a teacher.

"I prefer the old system," said Basitia. "Now we're always discussing things. I feel uncomfortable having to look at my friends. I feel embarrassed having to confront the teacher."

"I like the exchange of ideas, " responded Amirul who wants to be a biologist. "There's no way you can hide. I think this is a much better approach to learning. It helps us think."

Jombang is one of three towns in East Java (the others are Jember and Gresik) that have been involved in an Australian-funded program to lift education standards and help teachers cope with the new curriculum.

As with education policies anywhere in the world, a snappy new term had to be devised. In this case it's PAKEM. A dictionary search will be fruitless – the word is another of those linguistic soups that must consume hours of bureaucratic imagination.

The acronym refers to Pembelajaran Aktif, Kreatif, Efektif dan Menyenangkan meaning active, creative, effective and enjoyable ways of learning. The program includes staff interacting with students, doing hands-on exercises outside the classroom, using their imagination to stimulate creativity and generally taking a more flexible approach to teaching.

Hardly an eyebrow elevator in the West, but revolutionary in Indonesia's basic education system.

The Australian and Indonesian advisors on the three year project that's now coming to an end were too culturally savvy (or too fearful of higher authorities) to offer any public criticism of past education practices.

They didn't need to. If it's deemed necessary by the Indonesian government to introduce 'effective' education programs now, what's been going on in the 62 years of schooling since Independence?

Sarimah had no inhibitions about slandering the old rote-learning, chalk-and-talk ways delivered in sterile settings by robotic staff. She's been a teacher at the Banjardowo 1 primary school in Jombang for more than 25 years. At first glance she'd fit the stereotype of the rigid conservative, a my-ways-are-best classroom tyrant. But never judge an educator by her drab khaki uniform.

"The standard teaching systems, where we used to stand at the front and talk and the kids stayed silent and just wrote what we said, were not producing results," she said.

"They were just learning today and forgetting tomorrow. I was frustrated but didn't know how to change. I was enthusiastic when the chance came for our school to be involved. (Sixty schools out of more than 1100 in the Jombang area have been participating.)

"Yes, it was difficult to change teaching practices. We'd been doing it the same way for so long and we all get fond of our personal habits. But they were boring and the kids would go to sleep.

"The new ways are much harder work and I think maybe 90 per cent of teachers don't like that at first. But look at the impact on the pupils! They are learning inside and outside the classroom. I'm so happy that I was selected. I'd love to go overseas and see how schools are run in other countries."

Sarimah said she had no concerns about taking advice from foreigners although she knew some of her colleagues were wary that other agendas might be hidden in the AUD $9.1 million (Rp 70 billion) Partnership in Basic Education program.

"We are neighbors – we cannot live alone and apart," she said. "We are still a developing nation so we should be happy to accept aid and ideas. A few are suspicious, but I think the help is genuine. There should be no limit to getting new knowledge.

"I feel so sorry for the Western victims of Indonesian terrorism. I want to say that to tourists and shake their hands – but I can't speak English."

Jumari, the head of another primary school with almost 350 pupils has embraced the new learning systems with relish. Australian project advisor Peter McLinton ranked Jumari's Curahmalang II school as one of the best he'd seen with the students busy and having fun while getting educated.

Schools usually respond to visits by important outsiders with rigid displays and formal events, but Jumari's school was more concerned with intellectual inquiry than protocol when the evaluators arrived.

"Education is the most important issue in our society," Jumari said. "Everybody has to go through the school system so it's critical that we get it right.

"The old teaching ways died because they couldn't adjust. It was a closed system. It wasn't transparent. There are some in the community who don't want to change – I used to be one of those.

"Only when I saw the results was I convinced. You can see the difference in the schools that have been participating in the program and those that haven't.

"I want to improve my students and myself. (He has just completed a post graduate degree course, ranking the third top student in Surabaya.)

"If I could talk directly to the President I'd say that the Government must honor its Constitutional duty to allocate 20 per cent of the national budget to education.

"This money must go to educating the people and not into the pockets of bureaucrats. We need resources. The idea of PAKEM has been there for a long time – but till now it's been dead! We are showing how it can work – now we want help."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 November 2007)


Monday, November 05, 2007

Arie Tulus

Posted by Picasa


Recovering missionary-suppressed art © 2007 Duncan Graham

Tomohon isn’t a place you’d normally bracket with the internationally known arts centers like Ubud in Bali and Yogyakarta in Central Java.

That could change if poet and painter Arie Tulus succeeds in his campaign to put the North Sulawesi hill town on the Indonesian cultural map.

Sulut (Sulawesi Utara, North Sulawesi) is already well established as the Republic’s most Christian province through its status as a missionary hive.

It has also been dubbed the ‘city of flowers’ though that’s nothing special. There are many garden centers throughout the archipelago, usually just outside the bigger lowland cities and at the higher altitudes that favor floriculture and horticulture.

Tomohon is pretty in a haphazard way, though not for its slab-concrete and toilet-tile architecture that’s elbowing aside the lovely old traditional two-storey timber houses. The charm comes from the flower sellers that line the main road from the capital Manado, 45 minutes drive distant.

A few overseas tourists, mainly backpackers attracted by diving on the reefs off the nearby islands occasionally detour to the cool hills. But apart from some historic sites including caves built during the Japanese occupation to store ammunition, peak-and-lake scenery that’s easy on the eyes, and the chance to hike without sharing the track with thousands, there’s little to keep visitors.

“We used to have a rich artistic heritage,” said Arie. “You can see this expressed in carvings on the ancient above-ground stone tombs known as waruga. (The images on these sarcophagi are unique, showing jolly, saucer-eyed faces and frock-coated figures.)

“However much of this was lost when the Dutch banned burials in waruga because they feared the spread of disease. The missionary influence was powerful and suppressed our pre-Christian animist culture.”

The Minahasa and other tribal groups in North Sulawesi are unusual because in the early 19th century the people made a wholesale switch from animism to Christianity, primarily Protestantism.

This gained them job and education benefits from the colonists, but it didn’t make them popular with the Muslim Javanese. Soldiers from Manado condemned as ‘Dutch dogs’ were used to put down dissent in the Java War that started in 1825.

After independence there were ill-fated bids to go it alone that resulted in the Indonesian air force bombing Manado in 1958, but if there are any remnants of separatism left they are well hidden. Now the bid is to promote a local identity within the current political structure.

“The character of the Minahasa people is open to all,” said Arie. “We are tolerant and friendly, and although we want to see the renaissance of our art we are not closed to outsiders, though we don’t want to see Bali-style development.

“So if Indonesian or European artists want to come here and work, well that’s fine. We are trying to develop the Mawale (home-coming) Art Community that will reflect this land and its people and inspire others. I have no real fear that newcomers will change the quiet character of this place.”

Arie, 45, is a multi-skilled craftsman, as artists must be to survive in Indonesia where patrons are few and governments great with supportive rhetoric though not with rupiah. “I paint because I enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t do it to make a living.”

He was educated in the local Christian schools, then studied art at the Manado teachers’ college under the late Johny Rondonuwu who used the waruga motifs in his work. Arie later took a degree in management and now teaches art at the University of Manado.

Just up the road and across a fast-running stream is the Pniel church where a large and busy mural created by Arie above the timber-framed altar draws parishioners’ eyes during dull sermons. It shows Jesus in a landscape of Old Testament scenes, including a guilty couple making a dash from the Garden of Eden.

In the maze of his little studio in the farming village of Kakaskasen, close to the home of his parents, Arie has been preparing a set of seven life-size statues. These were commissioned by the relatives of a local family wiped out in the Flight 574 Adam Air crash of 1 January this year.

All stand in formal black and white Western wedding dress, the spooky figures staring blankly at the goose-bumped onlooker. When there’s no work underway Arie wisely shrouds the statues’ faces lest they unnerve visitors.

Then comes the contrast: In the front room are stark, simple-line semi-abstract nudes that might well offend conservatives elsewhere. Arie claims no problems – maybe because he’s a well-regarded local known for his faith, or because Sulut is more tolerant.

Round the corner are shrill acrylic landscapes in the style of the European impressionists, some stacked by the walls, others tacked to the ceiling, for this man is prolific and painting himself out of space. The troubled Dutch expressionist Vincent Van Gogh is one of Arie’s art heroes, along with the American splash-and-smear abstractionist Jackson Pollock.

Elsewhere are large collections of miniatures he’s done of village life; bullock carts rocking and rumbling over the potholed roads, kids reluctantly dragging themselves to school, dancers rehearsing. Five books of poetry, all illustrated. Love is a constant theme.

Arie’s self portraits are mildly schizophrenic. Some show an unkempt Salvador Dali-like wildman, others a neat monkish figure praying (or wringing his hands) over a Bible, titled Prayer for Indonesia. Coming to terms with an intolerant Christianity that tried to eliminate art considered pagan takes some intellectual gymnastics.

With a group of like-minded friends he started the Mawale Art Community this year. The MAC publishes prose and poetry, and runs readings and workshops on Minahasa art, culture, music and history. Some members’ work is on the Web at

About 200 meters beyond his studio rise the foothills of smoldering Mount Lokon, its green slopes giving no hint of the rumblings within this active, 1580 meter-high volcano. It’s another source of inspiration in a hugely rich and little exploited environment.

“We should never try to limit ourselves in our expression,” Arie said. “My hope is that the influence of Tomohon can help lift other artists to express themselves.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 Nov 07)


Friday, November 02, 2007


Grassroots theatre rising again in East Java © Duncan Graham 2007

Organizers reckoned around half a million people attended this year’s five-day Malang Festival – a marvelous annual free event staged in the East Java city's elegant boulevard – Jalan Ijen.

Official participants and many onlookers wore period costumes; favorites were the floppy light khaki of the 1945 Revolutionaries and the pith helmets and twirly mustaches of the Colonialists.

The mood was nationalistic, fun and upbeat. The crowds were enthusiastic about the huge blow-ups of old time photos that lined the street – their genuine interest proving history is not bunk.

Overwhelmingly popular were the ludruk (grassroots theatre) shows, coarse, traditional, improvised knockabout music-hall style performances with men and transsexuals playing the roles of women to the clang of gamelan. The language was low Javanese and the huge crowds loved it, particularly the rude words.

Before television spread to the towns and villages ludruk artists could be found almost everywhere. According to one researcher, by 1965 there were 40 times more dramatic groups in Java than in the US.

Ludruk producer, Henri Supriyanto a lecturer in culture and art at UNESA, the State University of Surabaya, said: "Ludruk is the theatre of the poor. It's a political movement.” Other academics have described it more formally as theatre that 'amplifies and highlights issues of social importance drawn from everyday life.'

Founding president Soekarno was a fan and reportedly hosted 17 performances at his Bogor palace. But Soeharto's New Order government was intolerant of criticism. At first ludruk was controlled, and then suppressed.

A crowd favorite at the Malang shows was East Java singer Kadam a long-time performer who became famous under the patronage of Soekarno where the vocalist with an extraordinary range became a court favorite.

Nicknamed 'Golden Voice', Kadam first met Soekarno at the Presidential Palace in 1960. At that time the 17-year old was a member of a ludruk group from Surabaya invited to perform in Jakarta.

"He took a real liking to me and I returned to the palace and his home in Bogor 13 times," Kadam, 64, said at his home in Malang. "He even picked me up because I was very small, and always waited for us to change after our performances so he could chat to us.

"I was never frightened of him because he treated everyone as equal. He didn't discriminate between high and low. He felt he was in touch with the village people – and he was.

"He was a teacher. He hadn't come from a business background. Unlike other leaders he never forgot his roots. What he said was in his heart and people understood that.

"He was a most exceptional person. There has never been anyone like him. I feel that God has accepted his soul."

Kadam said he earned enough money during the ludruk heydays to buy land and help him survive when the shows fell out of favor.

The Jakarta Post went backstage (meaning behind sheets of ripped plastic and rusty corrugated iron). We watched the players preparing to set the audience roaring with delight at the slapstick routines, songs and robust social comment on everything from the Lapindo mud volcano to politicians' behavior.

The actors had to improvise, do their own makeup while catching the director's orders, rehearse lines, calm nerves, fix their outrageous costumes and boost each other's egos – and all for Rp 30,000 (US $3.50) a night.

Maybe it was like this in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare's plays were performed in a similarly rugged environment by people who wanted to act – not for gain and glamour – but because the stage is their world.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 November 07)