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

Monday, December 31, 2007

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Banana lady minds her own business

Most Western countries provide pensions for the poor. That’s not the situation in Indonesia where the extended family is expected to support the needy. But what happens to a widow with no children? Duncan Graham reports:

It took some tricky negotiations for permission to use the photo above, though not because it had been snapped by some sly paparazzi while the celebrity was sans make up, dirty bra straps cutting into surplus fat.

Slim, neatly dressed Sapatun was well aware of the camera but the result was not to her liking. “If my friends see this they’ll laugh because I’m showing my teeth,” she said.

Some persuasive chat was required – all true. ‘Ibu, your smile is a real delight. It lights up the whole street when you turn the corner. It makes everyone’s day that much better. Clearly it’s one of your better points, particularly when the sunlight winks off your silver crowned front tooth.

‘This is a much better picture than the stern formal one you want and where you look like a politician. You see it’s already charmed me into wanting to write your story.’

This was no guile. The picture truly reflects her personality which is at the heart of her sales pitch along with her vocal chords.

For every day bar funerals, in scorching heat or torrential rain, Sapatun tramps the potholed and puddled asphalt of Malang hawking bananas, winkling customers out of their homes by singing Pi-sang! laying such heavy emphasis on the last syllable that the first one vanishes.

On a good day she might make between Rp 7,000 and Rp 10,000 profit, which is around one US dollar or less. On a bad day – well, nothing.

She prefers the cheery middle-class areas with a mixed ethnic population rather than the monocultural kampung or the gated enclaves of the rich.

“I buy about ten hands of bananas, and maybe some papaya in Pasar Buring (Buring market on the south side of Malang) every morning about 7 am,” she said. She has a working capital of Rp 60,000 (US $6)

“Then I start off for the housing areas. I don’t use a becak (pedicab) or bemo (public transport). Why should I spend the Rp 2,000 (US 20 cents) for a lift when I can walk?

“I keep going until I’ve sold everything, or till it gets dark and I’m too tired. I’m fit, though I sometimes get headaches.”

No wonder, for she carries the fruit in two wide woven baskets stacked on her head. At the start of the day she has close to 20 kilos pushing down on her skull. The load is softened by a coiled towel, but lifting and lowering the baskets requires a real knack. Either your arms get jerked in their sockets, or you overbalance and drop the lot. Not a good sales pitch.

The tendency is to push the descending load away from the body. Ergonomically unwise; that’s the quick way to tear a back muscle, as government health and safety officials warn in Western campaigns to instill proper work practices.

No one has told headstrong Sapatun this, and even if they did she’s not into style change. Maybe the way she squats in one movement as the wide baskets tumble downwards helps dissipate the weight. Chiropractors take note: Sapatun claims no spinal agony though she repeats this exercise 20 to 30 times a day.

At this stage in a profile it’s normal to highlight the age of the interviewee. Sorry, can’t oblige. Sapatun doesn’t know, reckons 50 plus. Maybe plus plus, like a hotel bill. So study the picture again and make your own best guess.

When you do, take into account that she spends all daylight hours in the open, and doesn’t use the skin creams sinetron starlets recommend. Also remember she weighs less than 50 kilos and has the frame (though not the height) that teens would squeal to achieve.

Her parents came from Madura, the long, dry island that lies parallel with the north coast of East Java, but Sapatun was born in Malang in the district where she trades. This is her world, her alpha and omega.

She wanted to be a farmer. She likes nature and being outside, but could never find the money to buy land.

She may have gone to school briefly – the facts here are sketchy because Sapatun only speaks Jawa pasaran (market Javanese). No problem for the locals for this is the patois of Malang. Big problem for outsiders who’ve been told that Indonesians speak Indonesian.

Sapatun married young. Her husband, also a street trader, died about six years ago. The union was barren. That’s a major tragedy for poor Indonesians. This is the converse of the Javanese proverb: Many children, much welfare.

When told that modern Western states supply decent pensions she laughed at such an incredible notion. The idea that a government could be benign and caring was fantasyland.

She lives in a tiny shack with no electricity and uses kerosene for cooking and light. She eats when and where she can. Sometimes her customers share a snack.

“People are generally kind and want to have a chat,” she said. “They usually like to talk about their children.” And how does she feel looking at the smart houses, the fecund mums, the flash cars? To fit the stereotype this story has to carry the bitter taste of revolt and anger.

“Angry? If I get angry I might go crazy,” she said. “Why would I want to do that?” (This wasn’t the only question that Sapatun found absurd.)

“My life is buying and selling. It’s walking and eating and bed. This is what I do. I don’t want to envy other people. What they do is their business.

“I’ll do this as long as I can. I want to work and be independent. I would never beg. I think that’s shameful.”

This comment presented an opportunity not to be missed. One of the curses of Malang is the work-shy youth who strum slack-string plywood guitars and howl like wolves hoping householders will pay them to shut up and move on.

So what did Sapatun feel about these wastrels? How about a fruity comment on idle kids? Oldies are seldom short of gratuitous advice for the young.

Unlike Eve and the apple, the banana lady would not yield to temptation. “I don’t think about them - that’s their concern,” she said.

Suitably trounced, there was only one question left that Sapatun might bite. Any comment for the buyers of her wares?

“I just want to say that I only make between Rp 500 and Rp 1,000 (five to ten US cents) profit on a hand of bananas. Then you try to beat down my price. I can end up selling for what I paid, so what do I live on then? That’s not fair.

“Please think about other people and how they have to live. That’s all.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 30 Dec 2007)

Monday, December 24, 2007



The sub-title for this review could read: Australiana Jones and the Tropical Leprechauns, but that might deter readers who expect learned discussion on these pages.

Although The Discovery of the Hobbit is about a serious topic, the unearthing of skeletal remains in Indonesia that have rocked thinking about the evolution of humankind, it’s also a rollicking, bone-jarring adventure.

Political intrigue, rampant nationalism, confrontations across continents, backstabbing and badmouthing, skeletons in cupboards and, of course, skullduggery.

The bare bones of the story are well known: Back in 2004, an Indonesian-Australian (or should that order be reversed because the funding came from Down Under?) team of archaeologists digging in a cool cave called Liang Bua on Flores, claimed a remarkable discovery.

They said that a year earlier they’d found the remains of a woman, a member of a previously unknown species of mini hominids, a now extinct race of dark-skinned people with small brains and long arms. Measured against a modern Caucasian the first lady of Flores would have just reached her big cousin’s navel.

She and her family (other remains were found later) were baptized Homo floresiensis by the scientists. But the term Hobbits resonated with a public still in thrall of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The little woman had probably died about 18,000 years ago and her race vanished maybe 5,000 years later. She was about 30 when she perished from unknown causes.

Not all were delighted with the find; although the scientists seem to have tried to be inclusive, the Australians, and Professor Mike Morwood in particular, were doing all the running.

The international media was going ape and all wanted to talk to the bearded bule who looked the part of the dauntless white explorer. A planned press conference for Jakarta to coincide with the Australian release of the news and featuring Indonesian experts didn’t go ahead and Morwood seems not to know why.

As all foreigners who live in this country understand well, robust nationalism, well infected with xenophobia is as widespread as dengue fever. In Yogyakarta, far from Flores, and not involved in the dig, was Professor Teuku Jacob, head of the palaeoanthropology laboratory at the prestigious University of Gadjah Mada.

This senior academic was also a war veteran who had broadcast resistance messages during the Japanese occupation. His lifelong friend was another hero from the same period, Raden Pandji Soejono, a Javanese aristocrat and former head of the National Center for Archaeology.

Soejono had worked at Liang Bua in the 1980s but had not excavated deeply and apparently hadn’t had his work published. In the world of science this is an awesome failing.

As the skeleton had been found in Flores she was Indonesian and the grubby hands of uncouth foreigners insensitive to protocols should be kept well away from her fragile fibula. This was so delicate that when first found (by Indonesians while Morwood was absent) it ‘had the consistency of wet blotting paper’.

In this book Morwood said he ‘anticipated healthy debate’ about the find. But by his own admission he was ‘a newcomer to Indonesia who was politically naive’.

When Soejono wanted to hand over the skeleton to Jacob without allowing the finders to set terms for access and be acknowledged, a distressed Morwood was told that giving credit to young researchers was ‘not the Indonesian way.’

If you think only the coarse and the crass behave badly and that the better educated have evolved to follow superior codes of behavior, then this book is a revelation. Be you peasant or professor, we are still subject to the human evils of jealousy, hoarding, chicanery, dinosaur-sized egos and all the other sins of Adam. This is particularly so when personal reputations are at stake and someone else is invading our territory.

You can understand their sensitivity; if you’d built your life and a splendid teaching career on the foundation of a theory that was suddenly undermined and destroyed by an upstart from afar digging on your patch, you’d be fighting to discredit the discovery.

Then there was the overburden of bureaucracy, and not all on the Indonesian side. At one stage Morwood was forbidden to travel to Indonesia by his fearful university because a government travel warning had been issued.

He eventually got permission for a quick trip provided he prepared a detailed schedule, including the exact time to travel from Soekarno-Hatta to the railway station. Easier to date a dodo.

I can’t tell you how it all ended because it hasn’t. Morwood and his supporters still reckon theirs is the biggest find in a century, set to rewrite evolutionary theories.

Meanwhile Jacob, backed by scientists from overseas, including Australia, say the wee lady was a retarded modern human pygmy suffering from microcephalia. This is a neurological disorder where the child is born with a small head.

It seems that in this fossil fight Morwood has all the big battalions of international science on his side and that Jacob is running a guerilla campaign for which he’s well equipped.

At one stage the old professor took a team of six researchers to Flores and spent five days measuring bodies, concluding that there were families of small people, perhaps with Hobbit ancestors.

Adding a touch of mysticism, the locals had tales of hobgoblins in the hills called Ebu Gogo who when given food also ate the plates.. Australian Aborigines have similar yarns (minus the dispensing of dishwashing), as do other cultures.

The book, co-authored by science writer Penny van Oosterzee gets bogged down at times with some lessons in archaeology. It’s also corrupted with clich├ęs when more imaginative writing would have lifted the text.

Fortunately these complaints are offset by some frank and funny anecdotes. An earlier proposal for the Hobbit to be called Homo floresianus was fortunately buried when it was realized how palaeoanthropology students, with minds as dirty as their fingernails, might corrupt the name.

An artist commissioned to paint a portrait of Ms Flores shouldering a dead giant rodent added male genitalia. Apparently someone thought Hobbiteses too ladylike to have been rat-catchers and that equality had yet to evolve.

Thoroughly fed up with the demands of a film crew re-enacting a raft journey to Flores Morwood jumps up to remonstrate, falls over and breaks a bone. The confrontations between the deadline-conscious Australians and the status sensitive Indonesians should be used in handbooks on cross-cultural behavior.

Eclipsing all this are the fascinating questions. You don’t need to be an academic to build your own theories: Were the Hobbits really hominids? Their brain volume measured only 380 cc which is chimp size. The previous minimum qualification for entry to the human club was 500 cc, but definitions crumble once exposed to the light of fresh finds.

The evidence is that the Hobbits used stone tools, had captured fire and worked in groups. So they probably had language. Did they co-exist with humans? How did they become extinct? Or have they?

Why Flores? It may have once been joined to adjacent Sumbawa, the possible source of migrating hominids. Deep and turbulent waters protected the island from intruders. The so-called ‘island rule’ decrees that mammals shrink over the ages when confined to islands with limited resources and no predators.

Now it’s Professor Morwood’s turn to tremble every time he reads the scientific journal Nature; how long before the next batch of bright young wombats digs up more bones and artifacts that will make the Hobbit as dated as the safari suit? Watch this space.

The Discovery of the Hobbit
By Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee
Published 2007 by Random House Australia
326 pages

(First published in The Sunday Post 23 December 07)

Monday, December 17, 2007



What’s the premier academic journal on the Indonesian economy? The answer is going to upset nationalists, but according to the authors of a biography on 'the grand old man of Asian economics' it’s an Australian publication.

The Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies remains the pre-eminent source of accurate and unbiased information on the financial health of this country.

If survival is a measure of success, and in the corrosive world of university writing any slip in credibility and peer respect means an end to publishing, then the BIES deserves the accolades.

The journal was started in 1965 against significant opposition and indifference. That it began was due almost entirely to the belief of one academic in the importance of Indonesia as a proper subject for serious research by scholars in the nation next door.

That man was Heinz Wolfgang Arndt who died in a car smash in Canberra five years ago aged 87 and still working. He had just completed another visit to this country, proof that his interest in Indonesia went far beyond crushing numbers on fiscal follies.

He loved the archipelago and its people despite hostility from some rabid xenophobes. In 1964 Arndt was invited to deliver a lecture at the Hasanuddin University in Makassar, but the introduction by the rector Arnold Mohonutu was far from friendly.

In a 40-minute harangue the rector claimed the West was 'out to crush Indonesia by bringing about her economic collapse', arguing that all foreign aid was motivated by imperialist designs … and reminding Australians that they were 'stooges of the British' outnumbered ten to one by Indonesians and their powerful army.

With that sort of welcome, most Australians would have said Up You! and caught the next plane home. But Arndt had endured greater insults to the lasting shame of the British.

For Arndt was originally a German scholar with a Jewish background who had fled to Britain to escape the Nazis in 1933. At the time eminent academics in the UK were encouraging their colleagues to move to the West.

He studied at Oxford, embraced British values and wanted to change his citizenship. But after the war began Arndt was arrested as an enemy alien, shipped to Canada and treated despicably before his status was revised and he was allowed to return to the London School of Economics.

It seems we never learn; how many people today are being demonized by the West, not because of their personal views, behavior or character, but because they were born elsewhere and follow a different religion?

Spending eight months in detention (where he started a camp university) and being labeled a 'communist trouble-maker' tempered but didn't destroy his pro-British sentiments, say the authors of Arndt's Story. He was naturalized in 1946 and quit Europe to teach economics at Sydney University.

In post-war Australia academic inquiry wasn't highly regarded by the general public. Arndt wrote that 'ignorance and apathy' seemed widespread. So he set out to become a left-leaning public intellectual and was soon involved in major economic debates, including reconstruction, immigration and inflation.

In 1949 he was offered a job in Yogyakarta as an economic adviser but couldn't accept for personal reasons. Instead he moved to University College Canberra as professor of economics.

His spell as a Fulbright scholar in the US seems to have been a generally unproductive and frustrating time because of low academic standards and racism which he detested. He later spent time in India as a visiting professor where he became interested in the economics of developing nations. But he didn't like India.

His trips to the sub-continent included stops in Southeast Asian capitals where he found Indonesia particularly enticing. Back in Australia as chair of a new research school at the Australian National University (ANU) he proposed making Indonesia a major project.

‘Almost everyone he consulted advised against the effort,’ the authors of Arndt's Story recalled. ‘Soekarno's 'Guided Democracy' was in full flower and the Indonesian economy was in tatters. Moreover, Indonesia was in its state of confrontation – Konfrontasi – with Malaysia.’ There was also doubt that Indonesia would cooperate or even let Australian researchers into the Republic.

Arndt’s letters home during a trip to Indonesia in 1964 reveal ‘ idealism, optimism and great enthusiasm, but not zealotry or gullibility. His eyes were fresh, he went without preconceptions.’ If only more Australians could follow his example.

He also discovered inflation at 600 per cent, massive corruption, manufacturing running at less than 20 per cent of capacity and foreign trade frustrated by a mass of regulations.

Publication of the national budget and supporting statistics was banned. At a meeting of economists one dared to question a minister. The reply showed the tenor of the times: 'The fact that you think economic problems important shows how your mind has been corrupted by Western liberalism.'

Change 'economic' to 'security' or 'terrorism' and you can encounter similar responses today.

Arndt pushed on, even when the 1965 coup made the chaos even more chaotic. (Curiously this book claims ‘at least 100,000’ died in the post-coup anti-Communist purge when most authorities estimate five times that number.)

But once Soeharto had consolidated his position and announced that economic development must take priority, guided by experts and not the military, Arndt and his team of young scholars had already established valuable contacts with their Indonesian counterparts. They were able to get information denied to others, including the public, for publication outside Indonesia.

From then on Arndt was a regular visitor to the archipelago gathering data and providing independent analyses. Indonesian economists were invited to Australia and a great bond was built between the intellectuals of the two nations.

The role of the so-called Berkeley Mafia – the University of Indonesia’s US-trained economists – is widely known in the story of Soeharto’s New Order government. The influence of the Australians under Arndt has not been well recognized till now.

The authors claim that Arndt's staff and students "constituted the best repository of intellectual capital on the Indonesian economy that any institution could boast."

Not all were impressed with Arndt taking the role of ‘a prominent defender of the (Soeharto) regime, but by no means an uncritical one’. Some Australian academics and church groups thought Arndt’s work reactionary, ‘symptomatic of the intellectual and moral decadence of the Australian bourgeoisie’, even part of a CIA-inspired plot.

Apart from opening up this little-known recent history, the biography shows just how much can be achieved by one person in the seemingly almost impossible task of getting Indonesians and Australians to understand one another.

Clearly Arndt coupled his determination with charm, diplomacy and a powerfully inquiring mind that seems never to have been corrupted by Western arrogance – another lesson for expats. It's easy to see why he would have been liked in this country where resilience and genuine interest in the culture is so admired

Without Arndt's enthusiasm for Indonesia the West would know a lot less about this extraordinary land and be poorer as a result. Where others saw only an economic basket case unworthy of their talents, this idealistic and brilliant scholar knew how important it was for Australia to engage with Asia and stop seeing itself as a European state. He was way ahead of his time.

Arndt's Story
By Peter Coleman, Selwyn Cornish and Peter Drake
Published by Asia Pacific Press (Australian National University)
Published 2007
Pages: 338

(First published in the Sunday Post 16 Dec 07)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Jungle school pushes danger message on mercury

Duncan Graham

Anyone wanting to learn about the environmental issues and impacts of mercury could refer to students at Bina Cita Utama (BCU) in Palangkaraya regency, Central Kalimantan.
And this is not just because staff at the province's first and only National Plus school have set assignments to research the damaging effects of the heavy metal; there's a pragmatic side also, for the school is in a province where mercury is a real threat, and factual information is sparse.
Alluvial miners, working in the Bornean mountains that feed the broad rivers in the area, still use mercury in large quantities to separate the gold from the sand by forming an amalgam. The used mercury is then dumped in the water.
So far, analysis of water from the nearby Rungan River has not given cause for real alarm, though swimming in the water and eating the carnivorous fish species that ingest and store the poison isn't recommended. But that is not the situation with other waterways.
The Rungan is relatively short; but bigger rivers nearby, like the Katingan and Kahayan, have high levels of mercury. The waters rise in the distant Muller and Schwaner Ranges, where gold is sought by hundreds of miners and their families, mainly from Java. A reported 240-square-kilometer expanse of native jungle has already been plundered.
Yadi Mihel, 40, lives on the Rungan riverbank near BCU with his three children.
"We know there is mercury in the river, but we don't know the percentage," he said. No one has been here from the government to tell us. All I know is what I've read at the school, where I've seen warnings saying it can affect the brain and the skin."
The school walls are cluttered with posters produced by the students giving chapter and verse on the dangers of mercury. And as locals are free to come and go, the students' message about the hazards is becoming widely known.
Using resources provided by the Global Mercury Project, funded by the World Health Organization and relevant United Nations agencies, the students have learned that mercury used in mining is a problem with no easy solution.
The miners are poor and although they eventually get sick, they have no other work -- without the gold, they'd starve. At best, they make only Rp 100,000 (US$11) a day. If the use of mercury were made illegal, the processing would continue out of sight of government officials.
The BCU students agreed that the only practical solution appeared to be the creation of other work that paid better than panning for the precious metal. But what "other" work? Tourism is seen as one possible answer, but Central Kalimantan does not have an international airport.
The more the students looked at the issues, the more complex they became.
Bina Cita Utama -- which means nurturing noble ideals -- is an unusual school. It is based in a Subud community called Rungan Sari, about 35 kilometers northwest of provincial capital Palangkaraya. Kalteng, short for Kalimantan Tengah, is the local name for the province.
Subud was started in the 1920s by a Javanese Muslim seer, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, and claims to be an awakening of the inner self; a spiritual movement and not a religion. People of all religions and no religions are said to be followers of the movement.
The name Subud has been distilled from the Sanskrit words susila (morality), budhi (reason) and dharma (duty). Subud followers define the name as "the possibility for human beings to follow the right way of living".
In most cities, supporters live in their own homes and get together at a center; but in Kalteng, they have built a well-resourced community on leased land in a jungle clearing.
Many homes are palatial, reflecting the affluence of those Subud followers who are professionals and businesspeople from overseas. Two houses have been converted into classrooms. Not surprisingly, the school has plenty of teaching and playing space, and good facilities.
BCU, which is associated with the U.S.-based education charity Susila Dharma International, started in July 2005 as a bilingual, multicultural school with 28 children from ages 5 to 16. Its student body has now expanded to almost 40 -- and most are Dayak, the indigenous inhabitants of Kalimantan. Dayak students live outside the Subud community and are bussed to the school. The plan is to increase enrollments to 200.
The school has only six students of foreign backgrounds -- five Australians and one Portuguese -- who live in the Subud community.
The National Plus concept was introduced to Indonesia in the late 1990s, and bridges the gap between national and international schools. Expatriate children are allowed to study at National Plus schools, where the teaching medium is often English and the students follow an international curriculum.
BCU is a fee-paying school that offers scholarships to Indonesian nationals and is open to the public. It is run by a nonprofit foundation and has two principals: Dr. Gunarjo S. Budi, a physics lecturer at Palangkaraya University who teaches mathematics and science at BCU, and Australian educator Karsten MacDonald, who carries the title "principal counterpart".
MacDonald said the local education system in Kalimantan was based on rote learning, with classes of up to 60 students. Primary school teaching hours lasted from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., and teachers were frequently absent. Corporal punishment was not unusual.
"A newspaper reported that 53 percent of students in Kalteng failed the national exams," he said. "The local government knew the system was failing, but weren't sure how to proceed."
MacDonald said Kalteng officials responded positively to the establishment of BCU.
"When they heard about the community here planning a National Plus school, they were highly supportive. They now believe that a school like BCU could become a model for others in the province," he said.
"We provide a learning environment which is non-threatening and high quality. At the same time, we maintain the integrity of the indigenous culture. All children learn the Indonesian language and culture, so they will not lose their cultural identity."

First published in The Sunday Post 9 December 2007

Friday, December 07, 2007


Don’t send aid, bring students Duncan Graham © 2007

Foreign aid is damaging the development of democracy in Indonesia.

It’s maintaining the handout culture inherited from the Dutch colonialism that kept Indonesia as a mendicant nation.

Aid also perpetuates the image that the country is backward; it is – though only in the reluctance to introduce change.

Indonesia doesn't need the $2 per citizen given in non-emergency aid by the Australian government, a major donor. The country is rich enough and if administered properly (meaning the internal tax take is handled efficiently and leakages plugged) then it could be self-sufficient.

The Indonesian tax office has long run a banner and billboard campaign to persuade people to pay their tax to help grow the nation. It's been overwhelmingly ineffective; business people regularly brag that they dodge tax because they don’t want to support corrupt officials.

Most governments don't plead for citizens to pay tax – they threaten and enforce.

This year Darmin Nasution, director general of taxes, confessed that only a third of the nation's 3.3 million taxpayers meet their responsibilities regularly. He said the number of taxpayers should be around 25 million. (The workforce is four times larger but low earners are exempt.)

Indonesia has a value added tax but it's only enforced in upmarket hotels and restaurants. Most small business run cash-only transactions and accurate books aren't kept.

About ten per cent of total government revenue comes from tobacco tax. According to WHO figures, tax as a proportion of the total cigarette price averages 31 per cent in Indonesia – one of the lowest rates in the region. Elsewhere it's more than double.

Despite the small tax base, these incomes contribute more than 70 per cent of the
State budget. Imagine what could be gleaned if all defaulters coughed up.

Reform of the tax system doesn't need a reinvention of the wheel; there are plenty of efficient revenue administration systems around the world that the Indonesian government can adopt and adapt. But that needs political will.

The Indonesian Constitution states 20 per cent of the nation's budget has to be allocated to education. The government ignores this charge, arguing it doesn't have the funds. It allocates less than 12 per cent. In the latest published figures Indonesia spent only 0.9 per cent of its GDP on education; Malaysia earmarks nearly eight per cent.

The result is a disaster. Most exams are tick-a-box tests. Rote learning is the norm. As emeritus professor Budi Darma, an acclaimed novelist bemoaned: “Students don’t want to read. They only want the synopsis of a novel. There’s no status in buying books.”

For many the idea of studying to better the mind is a foreign concept – education is to get a certificate to get a job. If you're not smart enough to pass you pay the teacher to up the marks or buy a forged diploma. In Central Kalimantan the local government claims more than 75 per cent of teachers aren't qualified and at least 20 per cent are absent at any one time.

None of these well-known problems need the fix of foreign intervention. They do need to front the queue of priorities if Indonesia is not to slip even further behind its ASEAN partners as a dumbed-down nation.

Overseas aid experts have no magic formulae unknown to Indonesians on making banking and business controls watertight, crushing corruption and collecting revenues. All that's required is the absolute determination displayed by governments elsewhere who demand a clean corporate image.

The Indonesian land agency is clogged with almost 3,000 land dispute cases. Clashes over ownership are regular and often violent – four villagers were shot dead by the military when the army took over farmland in East Java in June. Property laws pre-date World War 11. Past Indonesian governments have had ample time to write new legislation, but that hasn't been on their list of must-do tasks.

The public service is cumbersome and bloated, the result of past policies to disguise unemployment by getting ten to do the job of one. The third largest bureaucracy in the nation is the Muslim-dominated Department of Religious Affairs.

Some Australian aid programs teach 'good governance' and administrative reform. Worthy tasks, but they're pushing uphill against generations of corruption and indifference at all levels of society. Indonesia is a country where bureaucrats vie for postings to 'wet' departments like taxation, customs and immigration where the illegal take is highest. It's almost impossible to get any official licence, permit or certificate without paying a bribe.

Although Western politicians continually praise Indonesia for its transition from a military-backed autocracy to democracy it's a chorus that isn't echoed at the top in the Republic. Vice president Jusuf Kalla regularly comments that Western-style democracy isn't appropriate for Indonesia. He says economic development is being hampered because democracy allows workers and others to protest.

Employees are angry at pitiful wage levels and lousy conditions, but the unions aren't well organized and some get bought-off by bosses. In most areas the legal minimal wage is around AUD $90 a month; many get far less. According to business groups the real reason developers shy away is because the rule of law isn't applied, the legal system isn't transparent and the system of getting permits is cumbersome, lengthy and corrupt.

The World Bank reports that Indonesia ranks badly against regional economies in starting a business, employing workers and handling permits. It takes an average 224 days to get all the licences compared with 147 in nearby nations.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general, seems to understand the need for reform. He says all the right things but his orders often go AWOL down the line. Being the leader of a minority party beholden to his deputy's powerful Golkar party for support means he has to spend time hosing down threats rather than igniting change.

The president, who was directly elected by the people, leads the six-year old Democratic Party. This won only 7.5 per cent of the vote during the 2004 legislative election.

The 'developing nation' label was hammered hard by former strongman Soeharto during his 32-year reign as president. It has become a mantra, recited unthinkingly by almost all Indonesians and insultingly accepted by overseas aid donors.

Developing? How long can a nation stay in perpetual puberty? Malaysia turned 50 this year and has long been a robust and independent adult. Modern Indonesia is 12 years older.

That many Indonesians are obscenely poor is not in doubt. Officially about 20 million are unemployed and a similar number under-employed. According to the Australian aid agency AusAID seven per cent of a population of 242 million live below the international poverty line of one US dollar a day.

The statistics don't lie. A visit to the crowded kampongs of Jakarta and Surabaya, or to remote villages will prove poverty is real and wretched. Equally a trip to any gated suburb in those same big cities will reveal the most ostentatious displays of gross wealth on a scale that would match Hollywood

Here are some more figures about Indonesian 'poverty':

· The Indonesian government claims its corrupt citizens have parked about US $100 billion in Singapore, money embezzled from banks and government projects.
· One third of Singapore's 55,000 megarich are Indonesian citizens.
· The Soeharto family is alleged to have squirreled away US $15 billion during its 32 years in power.
· In 2005 the Sampoerna family sold their tobacco company to Philip Morris and pocketed US $5.2 billion. Vice president Jusuf Kalla urged the family (the name translates as 'pure') to reinvest in their homeland but at last reports they were looking to buy overseas casinos.

Overseas non-emergency aid is mostly going to education, governance, infrastructure and health. The needs are genuine, but as long as paternalistic Australia does the job there's no need for Indonesia to get its act together and build better services for its own people, or make serious attempts to recover stolen cash. In a democracy that's what governments are supposed to do.

Despite all the deficiencies Indonesia isn't a failed state. It has all the civil engineers and skilled labor needed to build hospitals, schools, highways, rail lines, airports and bridges - all the factories required to supply the cement, steel and equipment – all the know-how to deliver potable water.

If Indonesia lacks some high-tech gear or specialized advice it can buy such goods and services from overseas. The only thing absent is the determination to pass and implement the laws, allocate the resources and get on with the job.

For every school in the archipelago funded by overseas taxpayers that's one less burden on local administrators, one more plush house for the military or luxury car for the bureaucrats.

Teachers and dedicated mid-level government officers who get some of the benefits from overseas aid are generous with their thanks. Others are suspicious. After Australia got involved in the East Timorese 1999 bid for independence, and since Australia has been supporting George Bush's Middle East adventures (always perceived as anti-Islam), many Indonesians believe our motives aren't pure.

Australia has some of the best fire-fighting skills in the world, truly tested by fire. Every year Indonesia has massive scrub fires in Kalimantan, usually deliberately lit, and that it can't control. The smoke haze has Singaporeans and Malaysians wheezing and weeping, sometimes for weeks.

But Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban wants no help from outsiders. He said foreign aid would "disturb the country's sovereignty." This isn’t an isolated case.

The more fundamentalist say Western aid is part of a 'Christianisation' campaign; others think foreigners are spying and scheming to promote regional separatism. Even among moderates there's a deep resentment against outsiders doing basic things that the local administration can and should do, and anger against their own idle governments who let foreigners take over.

There are about 40,000 Indonesians in Australia. The majority are fee-paying students and their families. Most are Christian Chinese Indonesians, rich because you have to be to pay the airfares and fees. They are not a representative sample of the Republic's citizens and they're not going to be the future administrators and politicians. The public service is almost entirely Muslim.

At the moment Australia gives 'partnership scholarships' to 600 clever students chasing post-graduate qualifications. A further 270 are offered as 'development scholarships'. The total cost is $78 million with most of the money going into the pockets of Australian educators.

Australia is widely seen as a nation that doesn't like Indonesians, despite its great generosity towards the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh and the quake in Yogya. The perception has a lot to do with foreign policy, crass comments by senior politicians about pre-emptive strikes against terrorists and deputy sheriffs in South East Asia, and tough visa application rules. Politicians claim Indonesian attitudes have moved on, but these issues still rankle on the street.

The $458 million we're spending in Indonesia this year would buy a lot of scholarships for the smart but poor who could pick up skills for use in their homeland – and learn that the West isn’t the hotbed of evil portrayed by fundamentalists.

(First published in Online Opinion 5 Dec 07)