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

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Kuntoro Mangkusubroto
Working as the hands of God Duncan Graham

At the time it was the toughest job in Indonesia.

Repair a landscape ripped raw by the world’s most extreme natural disaster; house the grief-torn survivors who’d lost more than 170,000 relatives, friends and neighbors; rebuild roads, bridges, ports, power stations, hospitals – all the infrastructure that makes cities function.

Manage a huge budget and be accountable to governments and NGOs in Indonesia and around the world.

Cope with the hostility, the prejudice, the deep-seated suspicions still virulent after 30 years of civil war, the jealousy, the angry confrontationists and the back-stabbers. Aceh was a tortured land drained of trust, particularly hostile towards Javanese from the central government.

That Kuntoro Mangkusubroto stayed the distance, achieved the goals and at 61 looks fresh enough to tackle another epic catastrophe indicates that the director of the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Aceh and Nias (BRR) is a distinctly gifted human being – though he rejects this appraisal: “I’m just myself.”

Four years ago this Boxing Day a massive undersea earthquake off Aceh triggered a tsunami. Waves to 12 meters swept across 800 kilometers of coast and up to 1.6 kilometers inland.

It was a scene from Armageddon.

The world pledged US $7.2 billion and paid $6.7 billion. Thousands of aid workers flooded in with a multiplicity of agendas. Also lured were those who saw the chance to exploit the situation and milk the largesse.

Indonesia ranks 143 on the world’s corruption index and the cynics predicted much of the aid would never reach those hurting most, and that petty bureaucracy would destroy even the best intentioned and most resilient.

There has been some minor project-level corruption that’s being pursued, according to Kuntoro, but the BRR has not been infected. The agency’s accounts have been checked by international auditors and given an unqualified pass.

“We set up an internal anti-corruption unit, the first for any Indonesian government agency,” he said in Wellington, New Zealand. He was in the country to address a conference on disaster risk management and thank Kiwis for their aid. Like Australia, NZ was among the first countries to offer help.

“We developed new standards of accountability for Indonesia and in advance of many other countries.

“We encouraged everyone to blow the whistle if they saw anything amiss. They just had to send me an SMS. I asked my staff to pledge their honesty and promise never to take one penny they were not entitled to have.”

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hand picked the former Minister for Mines, business rescuer, company director, academic and civil engineer to take on the new BRR job in April 2005 Kuntoro dictated his terms.

They included ministerial ranking, direct access to the President (a privilege used only three times) and a salary three times larger than other ministers, an issue that drew much criticism.

“They were able to moonlight to supplement their salaries. I have no other income,” he said. “I do not take speaking fees or envelopes for anything I do.

“I fly economy class and not just to save money. At the back of the plane people talk to me and tell me what’s really happening. I thought this job was the chance given by God to touch the hands of the needy people, to go and do something good.

“Not many have that opportunity. Our success can be measured.”

Kuntoro said he draws his moral values and anti-corruption stand from his parents: “My father was a straight lawyer and my mother a professor of English.

“They brought me up to do good for other people, to be a good person, to be happy. We led a simple life. Although I started as a civil engineer (he was educated at Bandung Institute of Technology and Stanford University in the US), I fell in love with decision analysis.

“This discipline covers so many issues, but above all moral values are the most important. There are consequences to every action and the last defence is your conscience. You can compromise your strategy but never compromise your values.

“Have I been tempted? Many times, but it’s always like that. Life isn’t all about money. How does money relate to family, values and God?

“There were no how-to textbooks available for this job, no models of what to do. The task was so huge. I’ve had to face demonstrations and brutal words.

“Management was a nightmare. People blamed me for being too slow or not sensitive enough, but I had to remember they were the victims and had the right to blame.

“Twice I felt like giving up. I’m not too religious, but I believe. Yes. I trusted that we were sent by God to do this job. We are the extension of the hands of God and it is our duty.”

The first bureaucratic challenge came within hours of Kuntoro being sworn into office at the Presidential Palace. No one in the government would give him the money for airfares to Aceh because there was no system in place and it was a weekend.

The Australian aid agency AusAID stepped in with US $100,000 cash and Kuntoro and his team were able to get to ground zero. But there was no office or housing. Then the United Nations High Commission for Refugees gave the BRR space.

“I thought these things were God’s doing,” he said. “I was just the man in the middle.”

“When I chose staff I sought people of the highest integrity. I didn’t know them before. I asked if they were willing. If they said ‘yes’ they were employed. If they asked ‘how much?’ or ‘I’ll have to ask my boss’ then they were out.

“I have self confidence – some think I have too much. A good manager must have guts and be self reliant, have a nothing-to-lose attitude. You will make mistakes. The art is in solving problems at the lowest cost, to create harmony and make unbiased judgements, to get results.”

In April the BRR vanishes from everything except the history books. One of these will be written by Kuntoro unless he’s headhunted to fix another crisis.

In material terms the BRR has changed Aceh for the better. Much good has come from much horror.

More than 93 per cent of the job has been done. People are back farming and fishing. Traffic chaos has returned. The roads are bituminised, the bridges sturdy, the 125,000 new houses hygienic, the public buildings of a standard better then other provinces. Visa, work permit and import clearance procedures have been streamlined and accelerated, delivered through a one-stop shop.

Land titles now include the wife’s name ensuring her security should her husband die – a reform yet to spread to other provinces. National whistle-blower laws are being considered.

The templates for business and departmental propriety are there for other agencies and managers to pick up – if they so desire. Could corruption be eliminated and Indonesia rank high among the world’s clean countries?

Kuntoro, normally master of the snappy response, paused: “Yes. But only if there’s the political will.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post on Boxing Day 2008)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Romo (Father) Benny in Wellington, NZ


Bashed, bloodied but unbeaten © Duncan Graham 2008

Preaching the universal religious virtues of peace, love, understanding and forgiveness is easy enough before backslapping thinkalikes in a safe house.

In the warmth of the applause the speaker can bask in the sunshine of self-righteousness. The challenge comes when the audience is hostile, even brutal and the environment is the street.

Catholic priest Benny Susetyo has been confronted by the ugly side of Indonesian life and passed the test splendidly. Though not without considerable pain.

In August he was bashed senseless by three thugs and spent five days recuperating and undergoing tests in a Singapore hospital. So far no-one had been arrested for the crime.

His assault came a few months after hoons from the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) thumped peace marchers in central Jakarta, wounding 70. This encouraged the Christian press to claim Father Benny was the victim of a planned assault by fundamentalists aiming to fracture Indonesian pluralism. However the victim doesn’t go so far, saying he doesn’t know why he was bashed.

He said he is no longer in pain and had forgiven his assailants – “of course.” Maybe they were just after his handphone.

If the criminals were religious loonies or hired hitmen who thought their violence might bludgeon the secretary of the Inter-Religious Commission of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference into silence they selected the wrong man.

For the human rights activist is still hammering his message of reform in the way Indonesians use and misuse religion and he’s taking his mission far afield.

His latest stop was New Zealand where he was invited during Human Rights Week by the Indonesian Embassy to promote the Republic as a multi-faith tolerant society. His visit was also used to celebrate the Christmas season.

NZ is a nation that still holds to a Judaeo-Christian heritage and values, but where organised religion is in decline. There are about 40,000 Muslims in the South Pacific country and only a tiny fraction from Indonesia.

“There are so many things that New Zealanders can do to help democracy and promote public civilization in Indonesia,” he told anyone who would listen during a tour in early December.

“I don’t just mean in terms of trade. Visit Indonesia and do whatever you can to explain what’s happening in the world. Spread the message that religion must be on the side of the poor and disadvantaged.

“Religion is being used as an instrument of power in Indonesia, manipulated by the State and big business.

“Religion has been trapped by rituals, people chasing after symbols and failing to find the balance between the state and the market. Religion must be a source of morality.”

Father Benny sees parallels in Indonesia with the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the USSR who presided over the disintegration of the union and the arrival of democracy.

Father Benny claimed that the Russian people eventually grew tired of the way democracy was being mishandled and corrupted, and are now drifting back to totalitarianism. He fears the same disillusionment may infect Indonesians.

He said this is because politicians are continuing to use religion for their own ends and consequently risking harmony in Indonesia.

Benny Susetyo, 40, is normally based in Malang in East Java where he studied for a masters’ degree in philosophy. He is a member of the Alliance for National and Religious Freedom and has written several books on pluralism and religion.

In the mass media he has used Indonesia’s press (“the most free and democratic in Asia”) to savage the government’s response to the Lapindo mud volcano disaster in East Java, demanding that businessman Aburizal Bakrie (who is also the Coordinating Minister for the People’s Welfare) be held accountable.

The meddlesome priest has even dared to demand the government seize the Bakrie Group’s assets to compensate the thousands who have lost homes, land and jobs to the unstoppable eruption of gas and slime. (A Bakrie company was associated with the gas drilling that allegedly caused the eruption.)

Father Benny has also been a critic of the banning of the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect under pressure from hardline Muslims who believe that only their interpretation of the faith is correct.

His other targets have been poorly educated religious leaders who have used the hate passages in the ancient books to provoke violence. So it’s easy to assume the man has garnered many enemies who might want to give him a hard time – literally and metaphorically.

“We need a new paradigm for religious teaching that will interpret the texts in accordance with modern usage,” he said.

“Take off your exclusive glasses and start looking at the world in an inclusive way. The dialogue must be about life. The challenge for religion is to take sides with the downtrodden, the poor, migrant workers – and advocate on their behalf.

“In many cases religion has lost its true essence in bringing peace and justice to the world – advocating solidarity, forgiveness and being good friends with all. Plurality should be the main issue in the development of our national character.”

In an earlier age Father Benny would have been pilloried as a Communist and publicly harassed by the military and police if not jailed. For he is not afraid of putting the boot into politicians and the corporate world, both untouchables during Soeharto’s authoritarian era.

He has focussed on the power of cashed-up business-backed politicians to buy media time and who use religion to clothe themselves with piety in the search for votes.

At the same time he has trust in the common sense of the ordinary people. He said they had not been fooled by the large number of celebrities and clerics who have put their names forward for public office; these candidates have been dumped at the ballot box.

He unsuccessfully supported the removal of religious affiliation from identity cards and thinks it will be some time before Indonesians can accept the idea that the state and religion should be divorced, as it is in NZ and many other Western countries.

“The issue is not to have a religion, but to be a religion,” he said. “Religion has become a plaything of the state.

“The important things are not the number of places of worship, but the creation of a life of togetherness. We have to become better educated and intellectually more mature.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 December 2008)


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

JACK BODY: Kiwi master of Indonesian music

Jack Body
Interpreting Indonesia’s sensuality through the Bard © Duncan Graham 2008

Living in one of the most isolated Western countries in the world requires adjustments and rituals. For Pakeha (white Kiwis) one essential has long been the big trip abroad known colloquially as OE, or overseas experience.

This journey, mainly to explore the northern hemisphere and seek the family’s roots, is an important part of the culture of New Zealand, a country still searching for its identity.

Young musicologist Jack Body was no exception. He’d already graduated with a masters degree from Auckland University and won a prestigious arts fellowship. In the late 1960s he headed for Europe where he studied in Cologne and at the Institute of Sonology at Utrecht.

Then he took the long way home wandering through Europe and South-East Asia with his mind and microphone open. The last stop was Indonesia.

“I was an innocent abroad and I knew next to nothing about the country,” he said. “I’d already been to India and was intrigued by the music I’d heard in the streets and villages.

“But Indonesia was quite different. By comparison I found India to be harsh. In Indonesia I started recording the sounds I heard, like other people take photographs of their travels.

“I followed my ears. I recorded birds, animals, street sounds, music. I was fascinated by the fantastic richness of the culture. I liked the way that people took things easily. They couldn’t be bothered to get hot and bothered.

“What attracted me most? The sensuality.”

Back in NZ Body transcribed some of the music he’d collected, a laborious task but one he thought necessary to understand what he’d heard. He also knew he needed more of the seductive archipelago.

In 1976 he scored a guest lectureship at the Akademi Musik Indonesia in Yogyakarta where he stayed for two years. On his return home he joined the academic staff of the School of Music at Wellington’s Victoria University where he’s now an associate professor.

He’s been a featured composer in the US and Holland, a widely exhibited photographer and he also runs a music publisher called Waiteata Music Press. His speciality has been cross-cultural compositions and experimental electro-acoustics.

In these jobs he’s set out to bring the music of Asia, and Indonesia in particular, to the attention of Kiwis and he’s done this with such success that he’s won a swag of awards, including a NZ Order of Merit in the 2001 Honors List. The following year his recordings titled Pulse won the NZ Music Award for the Best New Classical CD.

And all the time he’s been promoting Indonesian culture, along the way collecting a set of Javanese gamelan instruments for his university donated by Ibu Tien Soeharto, the wife of the late Indonesian president.

This year he’s been back to Indonesia twice, recording music played by the soldiers of the kraton (palace) in Yogyakarta. He said the music was an intriguing and ancient European-derived mix of fifes, drums and other instruments performed by men in quaint uniforms whose origins could well be the topic of a PhD.

Body’s work isn’t the only way Kiwis are learning more about Indonesia. He’s organized numerous residencies in Wellington for Indonesian artists and praised the Indonesian government for offering a range of cultural scholarships for structured three-month arts programs. These are expected to be enhanced later this year when an agreement between Indonesia and NZ is signed allowing young people from both countries to get work visas.

Now 64 Body shows no sign of going stale, repetitive or monotone. If he followed the Shakespeare formula he’d be ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon’ but he moves, physically and intellectually, as nimbly as his students.

He has the quirky mannerisms of a long-time creative artist living in a parallel universe where music rules. While he has to be involved in teaching and university administration his mind seems to be somewhere else, pulling sounds and ideas together for some future fusion.

His latest production (“exhilarating, the most ambitious I’ve ever done”), staged with help from the Indonesian Embassy in NZ and the Asia-NZ Foundation, was the Seven Ages of Man, a ‘cross-cultural, multi-media music theater’ piece based on Shakespeare’s famous lines in All’s Well That Ends Well:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Body’s idea was to mix bits of the Bard in English with music from the Javanese gamelan and a Balinese gamelan, plus an electric violin, four vocalists singing in Javanese and Balinese, and have the lot interpreted in dance and puppetry.

Translation of the Shakespeare was not without difficulties. The verse about the soldier ‘full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,’ caused problems.

“In Shakespeare’s time most of the military were mercenaries, but in Indonesia being a soldier is an elitist occupation,” said Body. “We had to make some adjustments in the language.

”Many people in the English-speaking world have been taught the Seven Ages of Man and I found Indonesians related well to the sentiments.”

The composers included the Javanese gamelan director Budi Putra (originally from Solo but now a NZ resident) and the Balinese gamelan director I Wayan Gde Yudane. Most of the gamelan players were university students and staff, including Jack Body.

In the wrong hands this could have become a real dog’s breakfast, but in fact it worked brilliantly on every level – emotional, imaginative and creative.

There were several reasons; the inclusion of the masked multi-talented Balinese dalang (puppet master) I Nyoman Sukerta as a musician, singer, dancer and actor, was a masterstroke.

So was a lighting system that included a haze machine, recreating in the Wellington timber studio the misty, musty, dusty, mysterious, spooky, smoky and almost tangible atmosphere found in villages and kampongs of Indonesia come nightfall. The only thing absent was the scent of clove cigarettes, for NZ takes its anti-smoking laws seriously.

“The reception has been great,” said the exuberant ethnomusicologist. “I love this synthesis – I’ve long wanted to use dance and now I’ve got the theater bug. We’re hoping to take the production on tour around NZ, maybe even to Indonesia. That would be terrific.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 November 2008)


Sunday, October 19, 2008


The march of the eco-tourists draws closer © Duncan Graham 2008

Are they flashpackers or backpackers plus? They’re the same creature, but the second term is the polite one you use when you meet these knowledge-hungry 60 somethings out to exercise their minds and bodies around the world.

Having done the Australasian wilderness they’ll soon be heading for the mountains of East Java if Janet Cochrane and her Indonesian colleagues have their way.

British academic Dr Cochrane has done the hard yards in the tourism industry. Before teaching at Leeds University she used to lead and organize tours, including outbound events.

She’s also been a frequent visitor to Indonesia, so her surprise at the lack of development in hiking, eco-tourism and cultural tourism carries some clout.

“Trekking tours are extremely popular in other parts of the world,” she said. “It’s amazing that nothing has yet been successfully developed in Indonesia, other than hikes of a day or more up and down mountains which can be extremely challenging.” (See sidebar)

This dearth is now being tackled in central East Java where a group of young Indonesians backed by a conservation center and some of Dr Cochrane’s students, are developing a one-week trekking tour with the pedestrian title ‘A Walk Around Arjuna’.

Arjuna, 3,339 meters, squats between Surabaya and Malang. It last erupted in 1952. Its neighbor is Mount Welirang, just 183 meters lower and a well-known sulfur mine for those brave or driven enough to enter the smoking crater. There’s a 1,000-meter deep valley between the two peaks.

“We want to create an experience where visitors can get involved in local culture and traditional arts,” said Agus Wiyono, executive director of the Kaliandra Sejati Foundation that runs an education and training center. “We’d like them to understand and maybe experience the cycles of rural life, including the harvesting of rice.

“To do this successfully we need to be supported by the local communities, so we are taking things slowly and smoothly. We are calling this our pride campaign and want it to encourage conservation of the environment. We don’t want them to feel threatened.”

Or exploited. The days when tourism was considered benign and a plus for the locals have long gone. The Bali experience, where farmers’ land has been lost to hotels and the post-construction jobs they anticipated have been given to outsiders, is a classic example of the downside of tourism.

Dr Cochrane said the negative impacts include arousing the desire for material goods, particularly the shiny buzzy things that tourists carry. However mobile phone coverage in the Arjuna area is like the landscape - full of holes. So the pleasure of arousing envy by browsing e-mails from Exeter while standing on the crumbling cusp of a smoking caldera will be limited.

Then there’s the danger of infection by the glazed-eye monotone ‘have a good day’ virus that infects city supermarket checkout chicks. If this sickness gets into the Arjuna villagers it would be a tragedy because the locals are genuinely friendly, even though their interrogation of visitors’ age, faith and fertility can get a bit wearing.

Agus and his Kaliandra colleagues, Sapto Siswoyo and Agus Sugianto have been organizing village meetings to help people understand what might happen when the trekking program gets underway in a big way. So far there have been nine sessions involving farmers and householders.

Agus Wiyono said the locals are enthusiastic because they have the chance of adding to the income they currently raise from farming and forestry. They’ll get the opportunity to build and maintain tracks, erect signs, act as tour guides and provide handicrafts, food and accommodation.

The other issue concerning the organizers is whether they should try to limit visitors. If the trekking tours get too popular cashed-up developers from outside might muscle in to build flash resorts and destroy the things that attract genuine eco-tourists.

Although the trekkers are likely to be hardy Europeans and Australians enjoying an active retirement on handsome pensions, they’ll still want their little comforts. They may be prepared to forgo hot showers and sit-down toilets, but they will insist on cleanliness, and their desire for contact with nature will vanish if the little black things on the bedroom floor turn out to be rat droppings.

So the Kaliandra crew are busy explaining about foreigners’ needs and funny customs, like wanting to take part in some of the most boringly repetitious jobs in agriculture – threshing rice by hand and pushing buffaloes to plough paddy.

As a tourist lure Arjuna and its neighboring mountains have so many add-on attractions that even the most wilderness-worn will find something new. It’s not just the views that make high-definition TV look like black-and-white transmissions. The area is rich in culture and history, mystery and magic. For in these lush and fecund mountains the major religions haven’t had the missionising successes they’ve enjoyed in the coastal cities.

Many ancient traditions and ceremonies have survived, particularly those involving planting and harvesting of crops. The locals will share these with outsiders provided they’re not trying to shut down these practices.

Then there’s the chance to spot a rare Javan hawk-eagle, or the grizzled langur. Both are heading down the one-way track made by hundreds of other Indonesian birds and beasts as forests are felled.

“There’s a huge variety of things to see, from ancient temples and pristine montane forests to nightclubs, from hot-springs and waterfalls, to tea plantations and rice fields,” said Dr Cochrane. The area is also cool – Kaliandra is 850 meters up Arjuna. It’s not quite outside mosquito range but they’re not the saber-toothed brutes found on the steaming floodplains far below.

Although it will be another year before the long tour is ready for its first corrugated-sole footfall, shorter one-day tramps around Kaliandra are almost open for business. Check for details and prices.

Kicking-off the trekking trend

Kaliandra isn’t the first to highlight nature tourism based on tramping. In West Java an NGO called the Forum for Information on Nature Tourism has published detailed maps and high-quality booklets promoting trekking around Mount Gede and Mount Pangrango.

This is a big project covering 140 kilometers of walks that takes up to two weeks to complete, though it can be handled piecemeal.

The mountains lie inside a block marked at its corners by Bogor, Cianjur and Sukabumi. UNESCO calls this the Cibodas Biosphere Reserve, ‘an example of an ecosystem in the humid tropics undergoing strong human pressure.’

City-based Indonesians and expats fed up with negotiating Jakarta’s concrete canyons started circumambulating the mountains late last century. They formed a walking club loosely based around the University of Indonesia’s Geography Department and eventually found the time and funds to publish.

Bogor-based Alex Korns, who led the project, has pointed out that unlike the US and many European countries, hikers are ‘free to walk almost anywhere he or she fancies, along paths that wind between farmers’ tiny garden plots.’

It’s the same situation in East Java where the folk who live in the hills seem unworried about pink-skinned men and women in khaki shorts wandering past their smallholdings. The TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED signs that disfigure much of outback Australia are largely absent in Indonesia where ironically it’s the entrances to the national parks that are policed.

Check for more information.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 )ctober 08)

Saturday, October 11, 2008


The curious yarn of a Kiwi in Java © Duncan Graham 2008

Hanging on the wall of a cramped kampong house in Singosari, East Java is a set of grainy soft-focus photos of the family’s ancestors. Sunshine, termites, damp and age haven’t treated them well, and the pictures started with a disadvantage.

In the early days of photography the rules were rigid; you had to dress formal and look severe. Today it’s difficult to sense the soul behind the monochrome stare, humanity in the flat featureless features.

And so it is here with the portraits of a gaunt, long faced foreigner in a bow tie flanked by Javanese teenagers, or with his housekeeper, equally stern. They seem to say; ‘We don’t trust this newfangled technology’.

The man wearing the ‘butterfly’, as they say in Singosari, was Charles Mainwaring Pilliet, a New Zealander who fled a disciplinarian father in his homeland to become an adventurer in South East Asia. He eventually died in 1959 in East Java aged 90, nursed by Mutmainah one of his adopted nieces.

Now 68 she recalled the day of his passing vividly: “As we took the body out of the house a powerful wind sprang up,” she said. “Windows banged open or slammed shut. The trees shook and bent their branches. We knew he was a paranormal.

“He was fanatical about the number seven. We had seven windows in the house and seven trees in the garden. He gave me seven bracelets.”

Who was this strange septenary Kiwi who apparently supported the Indonesian revolution and loathed the Dutch? What was he doing squatting in an Indonesian village and dying poor after being cheated of his wealth by the Madurese wife of a Scottish banker who got Pilliet to sign over his estate to her husband?

At the end of his life the old Kiwi was reduced to boiling buffalo bones to extract fat for sale as a rheumatism cure and getting the kids to hawk this door-to-door.

Now his great, great nephew Michael Pringle is trying to put together the missing threads in the tapestry of his colourful relative’s life. Pringle came to Indonesia 11 years ago to research the story and will return in January to see if he can sew a more complete narrative.

Unfortunately the old man’s books seem to have vanished. Mutmainah said he kept thousands in cupboards and wardrobes, but only the furniture remains.

Pilliet was born in 1869 in NZ’s South Island into a family with legal, journalistic and political connections, and ancestors from France. His mother died when he was three. It seems he didn’t get on with his stepmother and was raised by his grandfather.

Pilliet worked as a merchant seaman, then a miner before leaving for what was then the Dutch East Indies.

“His experiences on the west coast of Sumatra were extraordinary,” said Michael Pringle who is writing a biography of Charles’ father Walter. “Charles hunted tigers and elephants up remote rivers and undertook extremely dangerous exploratory forays into regions which had never previously seen a white man.

“ He suffered numerous bouts of malarial sickness and was probably lucky to have survived. In 1899 he was exploring the northern coast of the Celebes (now Sulawesi) sleeping in the open to avoid leprosy and other diseases that were rife in the villages.”

In Sulawesi Pilliet apparently fathered a daughter with a local woman, though the child later died. He set up house in Kupang, owned a lugger and traded in pearls in Western Australia and Singapore, amassing considerable wealth. He became the British consul in Dili where he worked as a spy monitoring German activities in the area.

He seems to have been fascinated by Eastern religions and philosophies. He read widely and in 1923 moved to Lawang, about 15 kilometers north of Malang where he built a house and had coffee plantations.

“He had a Javanese housekeeper who moved her two young nieces in with her for company,” said Pringle. “Charles became very fond of these children and almost adopted them as his own, picking them up from school and treating them with great affection. He was well regarded by the people of Lawang and taught the local children English in his house.”

Stories vary about his time during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. One version has him being transported to the Changi prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore, though Mutmainah is adamant that didn’t happen.

She said he was arrested by the Japanese and released later when they discovered he wasn’t Dutch. This seems unlikely because New Zealand, along with Australia, was fighting with the Allies and Pilliet would have been considered an enemy alien.

However Mutmainah said that after the war he did stay for a year or more in Singapore where he had a Jewish friend. This may have been during the four-year war for Indonesian independence.

When Pilliet returned to Java he was a poor man though he got some support from his family in NZ.

Why didn’t he go back to his homeland? Mutmainah said this was because of his antagonism towards his father, but Walter had died in 1885 aged 45 from typhoid when young Charles was still a teenager. If this was the reason the hostility must have run deep.

What attracted Pilliet to East Java? Mutmainah said he spoke Indonesian, but not Javanese. He doesn’t seem to have gone native and continued to read newspapers from Singapore, drink whisky, make his own wine and dress as a European.

Pringle is particularly keen to trace his great, great uncle’s books. These were probably in English because the old man refused to use the Dutch language. They may well have been sold to libraries and were probably about philosophy.

If you have any clues or anecdotes, please contact Michael Pringle at
(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 11 October)

Monday, September 08, 2008


Where there’s a Will, there’s a sinetron Duncan Graham

If you consider sinetrons (soap operas) much ado about nothing, the most base Indonesian art form loitering at the depths where tectonic plates jostle for space, then this BTW is about to change your mind.

Lend me your tears, for I come not to bury sinetrons, but to praise them.

My extensive research shows that sinetrons have style and substance. They embrace the wit and wisdom of our times, expose emotions, drive visions, reveal truths. Watch closely and you’ll notice they’re really high culture, up there with Shakespeare.

The prolific penman from Stratford-on-Avon had a way (or as he was wont to say at home, Hathaway) with plots. And so does Raam Punjabi, the producer from Jakarta-on-Ciliwung and boss of PT Multivision Plus, custodian of this republic’s rich tele-literature and clearly a Shakespearean scholar of note. Mainly large currencies,

Take the use of soliloquies. The Bard employed this technique to avoid scene building and shifting and it’s an equally handy cost saver for a budget shoot. The tousle-haired lad who ponders on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the Prince of Demak, astonished at the arrival of Islam in his hometown, has other things on his mind. He’s just learned that his family is more dysfunctional than the House of Windsor. Better to muse aloud than employ set designers.

Black magic practitioners are the unstable staple of a good sinetron. On the small screen they’re usually men with bad teeth and rank hair and a fondness for goat-skull arrangements. But just like the three hags from the highlands they make vile brews, rabbit on over their steaming road-kill menu and unleash fearsome threats we know will come to pass, like night the day.

Scenes in cemeteries are a dead giveaway of the plagiarism, with a grove of frangipani sheltering the mist-shrouded tombstones the tropic equivalent of a blasted heath. Bringing on the banshees is a masterful piece of theater equally effective on SCTV as it was in the Globe where the God-fearing Elizabethans were as partial to a haunting as any modern Javanese.

Treason, treachery and trauma – but what about love? Muhammad Montague and Sri Capulet are faithful remakes of the timeless theme. In Indonesia these involve teenage trysts set in the local high school, a furnace of raw emotions where trigonometry means plotting a three-way affair.

Mr Punjabi knows well that though the path of true love never did run smooth it does lead to his bank.

Who hasn’t thrilled at the sequence where the red-lipped, rouge-cheeked nymph in her seam-straining white shirt and black skirtlet flits and flirts from class to class on level two?

Missed it? No worries, you can catch it tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Meanwhile her beau with a showroom-fresh Mercedes CLK 350 coupe parked among the clapped-out Yamahas gets a glimpse of her long black locks as she steals a glance over the wall of cancerous concrete.

Don’t tell me this clip doesn’t have a direct lineage to Mr WS’s static balcony scene.

The world’s finest wordsmith was flexible enough to add bawdiness to his plots, a bit of light relief for the folk in the pits. Sinetrons follow suit with comedies of errors, using dishevelled security guards as the knockabout buffoons, indifferent to the needs of the anti-hero desperately seeking to break into his mother-in-law’s house and drip caustic soda into her happy soda.

Not that she doesn’t deserve the crimson phial treatment. These brutal, scheming maid-monstering matrons are determined to thwart young love. They make the mad Scotswoman’s ambitions for her weak-kneed soldier hubby a toddler’s bedtime story.

But all’s well that ends well. The villains in the best sinetrons realise that using shabu-shabu as an elixir isn’t so smart (a message that’s lost on some actors if the gossip tabloids are right). Overnight their tattoos vanish and they awake from their midsummer night’s dream with neat haircuts and no interest in a cold Bintang or a winning hand at cards. So they return to mum, the mosque and the patient virgin in the headscarf.

So don’t knock Indonesia’s sinetrons. There’s method in their madness. Remember – the play’s the thing.

(First published in the Sunday Post 7 september 08)


Thursday, September 04, 2008


Confessions of a most misunderstood man

Other faiths and Westerners have nothing to fear from Indonesia, despite a fatwa (binding ruling) against pluralism by religious scholars. Nor should outsiders be concerned about nationalism, according to Professor Din Syamsuddin, head of the Muhammadiyah Islamic organization that claims 30 million members.

On a visit to Malang in central East Java the US trained scholar with a doctorate in political science spoke to Duncan Graham. This is an edited version of the interview on the eve of the possible presidential candidate’s 50th birthday.

The West tends to label you a moderate. Is that accurate and what does it mean?

I don’t come with labels. I don’t know whether I am a moderate or not – that’s for others to decide. I have a principle of taking the median position between left and right in terms of balance.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding – all Muslim organizations suffer from attribution, generalization and stigmatisation.

However I have been strongly against the war on terror. I was misquoted as saying President George W Bush was a drunken horse. I used the metaphor of the kuda lumping (the Javanese hobby-horse trance dance). That was changed in translation and my statement misunderstood.

Now many in the US and the West are supporting my position.

You say you support pluralism, but the MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia - the Council of Religious Scholars), where you’ve long held senior positions, has issued a fatwa against pluralism.

I’m still in the MUI, though not active – I have too many other duties. I wasn’t involved in the fatwa. Most of the members of the MUI committee that pronounced the fatwa were members of NU (Nahdlatul Ulama - a second Islamic organization that claims 40 million members.)

(Syamsuddin was raised in a prominent NU family but moved to Muhammadiyah as a student. He said this was “a rational choice based on my understanding of Islam – I was drawn to Muhammadiyah by the combination of ideas and action with our schools, hospitals and other institutions – what some have called ‘Protestant Islam’.”)

So is the fatwa wrong?

The title of the fatwa is wrong. The context and the title are different. The position has been distorted. The truth of religion is in relativism. It was a mistake of the committee in using the term pluralism and not relativism.

What do you mean by relativism?

This is a semantic problem. The Holy Koran has many verses about religious pluralism. It has also been a mistake made by outsiders to exaggerate by saying the fatwa is against pluralism. I am active in many national and international inter-faith groups and promoting dialogue.

At the top level there seems to be no problem. After every inter-faith conference we see media photos of happy leaders from different religions embracing and passing resolutions of tolerance. Meanwhile in some kampongs and villages people of different faiths keep fighting.

There has to be a new paradigm on inter-faith dialogue. We have to include the excluded. We should focus on the state of being, not believing. We should all be in one big tent. The only exceptions are those who encourage violence. The government must deal with them.

But how do you include extremists of any faith who refuse to even discuss other people’s positions?

This is the dilemma. Everything is in a state of change and we must involve the non-religious sectors of society in these problem-solving discussions. Let me make it very clear: I am totally against terrorism and I took an active and very tough stand against the tragic events (the World Trade Center attacks) in the US. I did not escape my responsibilities, like some others.

The West often finds the apparent inferiority complex of some Muslims in Indonesia puzzling. You are the overwhelming majority. Why should you fear other beliefs?

Islam was put in a corner by the Soeharto government. After reform started (in 1998) Islam in Indonesia faced multi-level problems and new challenges. We have been like the Indonesian proverb about a man who falls from a ladder, gets hurt, causes breakages and is then blamed by the ladder’s owner.

I agree there is a need for reform in Islam, but I do not support the Liberal Islamic movement. They confuse liberal with liberated.

We don’t want our society to be divided. I tell Muslims not to feel inferior, not to loose hope and blame others. The Arabs took Islam into the golden age. I see Muslims in South-East Asia leading the way into a new age of tolerance and understanding. Of course there’s a place for other faiths.

The next time we meet will you by a candidate for the vice presidency?

Why the number two position? Nothing is definite yet, but I think I’m able. I’m the president of a great and complex organization that is almost like a state. Many have asked me – probably yes, maybe no. I must be whole hearted.

If you did get the top job what changes would you make?

I’d like to see Indonesia as the world’s third largest democracy enforcing freedom …


No, that’s too strong a word. Promoting freedom and the people’s social, political and economic rights, and having religious freedom. We need overseas investment from those who accept our sovereign position.

Sounds like nationalism …

I only want what is the most favourable and best possible position for all Indonesians.

I’ve met Kevin Rudd (Australian Prime Minister) and he is a very good man. I like him a lot. We must be good friends with Australia and work together. We are not a threat to each other. Australia needs to become more Asian.

I didn’t get enough time with him. I want to go to Australia soon and propose Australia working with Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan to counterbalance the growing power of China and India.

My obsession if for a peaceful and prosperous world. I want to see a mature, modern and moderate Indonesia facing the world with self-confidence. But at times I feel that I have been a most misunderstood person.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 September 2008)


Sunday, August 17, 2008


Killing the Kwila Trade Down Under © 2008 Duncan Graham

Conservationists are claiming an early victory in the preservation of Indonesian native forests, not by taking action in the lush forests of Papua and Kalimantan, but by protesting on the hard streets of Western cities.

Kwila, also known as merbau and ipil, is an Indonesian hardwood much loved in Australia and New Zealand for its durability, color and price. It’s particularly popular in outdoor furniture, a much sought after consumer item in the two countries that love open-air recreation and barbecues.

Though not at present as winter winds cut across Australasia; entertainment is around log fires in well-sealed houses, leaving the rain-lashed backyards empty.

But once the sun reappears come Spring the buyers will be back, though many will not be able to buy their favorite furniture once present stocks are cleared.

“We’ve been trying to persuade New Zealanders not to buy furniture made from Indonesian timbers that have been illegally harvested,” said Dr Russel Norman, co-leader of the NZ Green Party and a member of Parliament.

“ We’ve been lobbying the shops not to buy kwila furniture for the next season. Of course some don’t care but we are on the cusp of getting there in terms of making people aware of the issues.

“The illegal destruction of forests in Indonesia is a major concern because it’s contributing to global warming. The timber is being cut in Indonesia then exported to Vietnam and China where it’s made into furniture for export.”

Kwila grows to 50 metres and was once common in South East Asia. Traditionally its bark was used a medicine.

According to the Greens about 80 per cent of the illegally sourced wood sold in NZ is kwila. The NZ government reckons this trade is costing the NZ forestry industry $NZ 266 million (Rp 1.9 billion) in lost revenue because buyers are not selecting goods made using local timbers.

The trade to Australia is even bigger. Kwila resists termites, a huge problem in that country, making the timber even more desirable.

Although Indonesia bans the export of kwila that hasn’t been verified as sustainable and legally obtained, conservationists allege the timber is being sent to China using forged documents. Some is made into furniture and sold to Australia and NZ - a lot has reportedly been used in Beijing Olympic Games venues.

Dr Norman was an invited speaker at an event organized by the Indonesian Embassy in the NZ capital Wellington to promote TV programs on preserving orang-utans in Kalimantan where illegal felling is contributing to destruction of the animals’ environment. The films, made by Natural History NZ, are being shown internationally on the Discovery channel. Dr Norman urged Indonesia to pay farmers in Kalimantan and Papua not to fell native timbers.

“Indonesians want to develop economically,” he told the audience. “We’ve chopped down our native forests and it’s not fair to ask Indonesians to do the same without compensation.” NZ banned the felling of native timbers in 2000.

Kwila exports aren’t the only concern of NZ conservationists. In 1999 NZ imported about 400 tonnes of palm kernels for cattle feed; that figure has now jumped to more than 400,000 tonnes as rising milk prices have created a huge demand for dairy products leading to rapid growth in dairy farms.

Large areas of land in Indonesia are being clear felled and turned into palm plantations, mainly for the oil that is now being used to make bio-diesel fuel. The kernels are a by-product.

The campaign to stop Kiwis buying furniture made from Indonesian hardwoods, and spearheaded by the Indonesian Human Rights Committee in NZ seems to having an impact. Harvey Norman stores, a major retail outlet in Australia and NZ and the target of protests in Auckland, has written to the campaigners saying it has stopped buying kwila products and will stop selling goods it has by 31 March next year.

Committee spokesperson Maire Leadbeater said the campaign was starting to change the public perception of kwila.

“I do believe that collectively we have made a difference,” she said. “The NZ government’s recent statements on this issue confirm the close link between illegally logged wood and kwila but unfortunately they are not willing to regulate to stop the imports – yet.

“However retailers are quite sensitive to consumer reaction and many have said they won’t stock kwila next summer.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 August 08)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Disaster management – making the mess less © Duncan Graham 2008

How do two nations celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations? To play it safe stage a traditional cultural event with a lushness of finger-flicking maidens swirling batik and rolling their enticing eyes.

Thirty minutes of gamelan gonging and it’s all over for another half century.

That’s not the way it will be next month (Aug) when Indonesia and New Zealand recognise five decades of a mostly harmonious and relatively stable marriage. Instead a clutch of Kiwis will fly to Jakarta, Aceh and Yogyakarta to share skills on disaster risk management at a conference that’s expected to attract up to 200 participants and impact on nearby nations.

This isn’t a topic for fatalists who believe there’s nothing that mortals can do when the wrath of a vengeful Deity is unleashed, punishing the faithless and tormenting the transgressors with tsunami, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Those who take a more scientific view argue that many things can be done to prepare, though not always to prevent, natural disasters. Their key word is ‘mitigation’, not earthquake-proofing.

“ We’ve got some real skills here in NZ, developed over the years,” said civil engineer Dr David Hopkins, co-leader of the 21-strong Kiwi contingent.

“We have a different attitude - we work with people; we enjoy rolling up our sleeves. Let’s see if we can make a real difference here, not trying to do everything but working in specific areas of expertise because we’re a small country with limited resources.”

Decoded this means NZ can’t compete against big-donor nations like Japan and the US so has to deliver quality, not quantity.

Hopkins, a specialist in earthquake risk management, looks differently at disaster photos, like those from China’s Wenchuan earthquake in May. While most of us gape at the damage he seeks out the constructions that have survived. Then he wonders why.

In most cases the upright buildings have been robustly built using top materials and following best practices. These included steel reinforcement of concrete, cross bracing walls and no heavy loads at high levels. Critical is the use of materials that can flex not fracture, sway not crumple.

Inevitably the cost is initially higher, which is why some are built to lower standards and building inspectors are bribed to ignore non-compliance with regulations.

This isn’t rocket science; Hopkins knows that Indonesian authorities are just as well read on the building codes that have been developed in NZ, Japan, California and other unsteady locations. The problem is getting the rules implemented. To make his point he employs the image of a skyhook using a chain to hold a huge weight above the people.

“Each link is critical,” he said. “We’re very good at strengthening the strong links but not so good at looking at the weak.”

The idea of discussing disaster risk management to celebrate the 50 years of diplomatic relations came from Amris Hassan the Indonesian ambassador to NZ who lives in Wellington, one of the world’s most shaky capitals.

Three faults run north and south through the harbor and city of about 500,000 people. Wellington is also the center of government and the parliament so if disaster strikes the nation’s leaders would be among the victims. Managing the risks is treated seriously and the city has become a center of excellence in earthquake research.

An audit of public and private buildings recently found hundreds needed strengthening and the work is underway. A technique called ‘base isolation’ using rubber and lead blocks between the foundations and beams of old buildings was pioneered in NZ.

Few Kiwis can be unaware that their land is dangerous. The government has a Minister of civil defence and emergency management who will be at the conference.

As former NZ prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said: “It does us a power of good to remind ourselves that we live on two volcanic rocks where two tectonic plates meet, in a somewhat lonely stretch of windswept ocean just above the Roaring Forties. If you want drama - you've come to the right place.”

The last major earthquake in Wellington was in 1855, but there have been several recent disasters nearby. Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island was hit on 20 December 2007 causing considerable damage. NZ gets about 14,000 quakes a year; like Indonesia it’s part of the Pacific Rim of Fire.

Hopkins worked for almost a year in Turkey looking at apartment blocks. He expected fatalism but was “mind-bogglingly overwhelmed” by the positive response to ideas of mitigating the impact of natuiral disasters.

His message to public officials, builders and developers is to ask: “Do you have a defensible position?”

“This means asking if you’ve identified the hazards and potential damage,” he said. “You must have taken all reasonable steps prior to the event to reduce its impact under the four Rs of emergency management – Reduction, Readiness, Response and Recovery.

“You won’t be doing enough to be in a defensible position until you examine these issues seriously and develop a sensible action plan that balances the risks, funding constraints and community expectations.”

Geomorphologist (landforms scientist) Dr Noel Trustrum, the other co-leader of the conference, spent time in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami identifying projects where NZ know-how could be of use. He focussed on the Sumatran highlands where heavy clearing had threatened water supplies.

“We want to marry NZ expertise with Indonesian experience,” he said. “NZ is best at doing what’s absolutely necessary, not looking for Rolls Royce solutions. For example twisting reinforcing iron a different way can be significant.

“The Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR) hands over to local and regional governments after April next year and there is still a lot of unspent money.

(The Indonesian government created the BRR to coordinate reconstruction after the tsunami. Dr William Sabandar, the BRR regional director for Nias, was educated in NZ.)

“We want to maintain relationships with Indonesia and together look beyond to helping in South-East Asia and the Pacific.”

(The conference opened at the Hotel Borobudur in Jakarta on 5 August.)

(First published in the Jakarta Post Tuesday 29 July 08)


Saturday, June 28, 2008


Afi Shamara
Arisan producer turns Wellywood painter © Duncan Graham 2008

Don’t judge a book by its cover, nor a spouse by their partner’s position – a proverb particularly relevant to Afi Shamara.

She’s a woman driven by her creativity fuelled by reading everything and anything, from the late and once banned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer to contemporary writer and poet Remy Silado – and turning her ideas into action.

“I was so excited to read their books, they made me feel as though I was in another time and space,” said the wife of Amris Hassan the Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand. “My imagination was stimulated.”

Particularly by Silado’s Ca Bau Kan (the Courtesan) which Afi pushed on her filmmaker friend Nia Dinata who was equally captivated. At first they thought about making a 24-episode TV series but soon realised the big screen would be more appropriate.

They bought the film rights and set about raising funds and employing directors and artists for their company Kalyana Shira Films. No so simple.

Women filmmakers in Indonesia are still pioneers in an industry dominated by men who weren’t going to give immediate votes of confidence to tyros in tights.

Like most Indonesian films that don’t fall into the genres of gothic horror or teenage trysts, Ca Bau Kan didn’t please the popcorn-crowd. But it did push the boundaries, positively featuring the Chinese in the context of the Japanese occupation and subsequent revolution.

“I loved it but felt it should have run for three hours,” said Afi. “We had to cut it to two hours to meet the demands of the cinema operators and the result was, well, an impasse. It was short (on financial returns) a little bit.”

Though not enough to dissuade her from further film production. Kalyana Shira released Biola Tak Berdawi (the Stringless Violin) in 2004, again to audience indifference and much criticism of the acting.

This situation changed in 2005 when the women, undeterred by failure and male mockery, produced Arisan, a story based on Afi’s experiences with the Jakarta status-conscious, brand-crazy social set, worked into a screenplay by Joko Anwar.

Even after censor’s cuts the metrosexual comedy was a success de scandale largely because it showed gays behaving like anyone else and in one brief scene, stealing a kiss. The controversy did the box office no harm and an estimated 100,000 people bought tickets hoping to be shocked.

By Western standards Arisan was ho-hum, leaving audiences used to sex and nudity nonplussed. But in Indonesia this was groundbreaking stuff with critics enthusiastically predicting a new era in filmmaking and social acceptance. That hasn’t happened.

“Making films in Indonesia isn’t easy,” said Afi in her home perched above Wellington city at the southern tip of NZ’s North Island. “Raising the money and finding sponsors is difficult, particularly for the films that I want to make.

“I’m interested in educating the audience through documentaries, drama and humor. I want to produce beauty, show slices of life.

“Of course there must be a good story line. Indonesia is rich in many different cultures. There is so much material. Few people know about our extraordinary history.

“The other problems are post-production facilities. We’ve had to use facilities in Thailand and Australia to ensure our films look professional. Distribution difficulties are a handicap. Although we have the Jakarta Film Festival there are no art-house cinemas as in Wellington.”

The capital of NZ is also known as Wellywood because of its top-quality film production facilities. These have been led by local director Peter Jackson whose fantasy epic Lord of the Rings trilogy made the city’s creative artists and NZ’s knock-out landscapes world famous.

Although she’s been approached by a Kiwi cinematographer to get involved with a new script, Afi, 42, knows well how film production can be physically, emotionally and financially draining. “After Arisan I just wanted to retire,’ she said – an improbable ambition for a woman with abundant energy and hunger to learn.

Being a producer also meant absence from her husband and four children for weeks, and spending limitless hours lobbying for funds, negotiating complex deals and placating temperamental artists in the hothouse of egos.

As an ambassador’s wife she does her diplomatic duties at the multiple functions that demand her presence, promoting her homeland and culture with an eye to boosting trade.

This she does with a disarming down-to-earth style, popular in a country that loves informality, and where feisty, multi-talented women with ideas and opinions are respected. Her ‘can do’ approach is at the heart of Kiwi values.

The daughter of the late Faisal Abda’oe, former president of the oil giant Pertamina, Afi spent four years in the US where she studied graphic arts. Back in Jakarta she opened the Sunshine pre-school with five friends. Enrolments raced from seven to 200; she pulled out when success meant expansion into primary education.

“I needed to stimulate my artistic side,” she said. “I have always loved reading and I wanted to express myself.” Producing films provided some satisfaction, but Afi has moved on and is now studying art and attending formal classes.

Although her home offers stereoscopic views of Wellington’s rugged harbor Afi is more interested in portraits, preferring to explore the character of her subjects in acrylic. She takes life classes, enjoys pop art, sees herself as an expressionist and is currently producing some imaginative and confrontational nudes.

“I’m the sort of person who loves to mingle and express myself. I have so many friends and family back in Jakarta, so thank goodness for Facebook (the Internet social network). But I love NZ and don’t mind the cold,” she said.

“There is so much to do and see. In Jakarta we’d be going to shopping malls, but here we can walk through the bush and along the shore, breathe in the fresh, clean air, just being a family.

“I walk down to the bookshops and browse and buy. I go to galleries and exhibitions and enjoy the museums.

“If my husband becomes president (he was a politician in the national parliament with Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P party before taking his present appointment in 2006) I’d be pushing for an art culture as in Singapore, museums for children and films for children.

“And I’d like a film censorship system like the one here in NZ where the censor doesn’t cut but rates the film according to the audience so children can’t see adult movies. We should be stimulating our brains, always trying to learn more, boosting our confidence.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 June 2008)


Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Indonesia has changed in the past decade and so must our attitudes, according to Andrew MacIntyre from the ANU and Douglas Ramage from the Asia Foundation writing in The Age (27 May). Duncan Graham has a different take:

Indonesia is changing – but MacIntyre and Ramage are jumping the gun by saying the country is a stable democracy.

Better to wait till after next year’s general election before commenting on the future of our over-populated and under-employed neighbor.

Apologists urge us to overlook the street protests, the outrageous statements by Muslim preachers and the government’s inability to cope with natural disasters as growing pains. If so they’ve been going on for far too long. Adolescence is overdue.

Jakarta’s chattering classes condemn President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for vacillating – a strange response for a former military man trained to be decisive. But they are not alone; disappointment with the man and his nation’s current experiment with democracy is widespread. It’s not all SBY’s fault. He heads a tiny party and has to juggle the labyrinthine politics of a parliament with a gaggle of opponents running multiple agendas.

Like Canadians he has to live alongside a giant and temper his policies accordingly. In this case it’s Golkar, the allegedly reformed political vehicle set up by the late dictator Suharto.

Vice president and millionaire businessman Jusuf Kalla chairs Golkar and is expected to be opposing his boss in next year’s election, handicapping decision making in the run up to voting.

Former president Megawati who heads the PDI-P party will probably try again for the top job. She’s been invisible since loosing power in 2004. Democracy requires a vibrant opposition offering credible comment and alternative policies, something Indonesia hasn’t experienced. There’s a dearth of bright young altruists seeking office so the same old names from the past get recycled.

In the vacuum rampant nationalism is breeding fast. No problem if it’s kept to culture but a real issue when opposing foreign investment and aid, demanding state controls, subsidies and other simplistic solutions to complex economic issues.

Xenophobia is on the rise and a challenge to Indonesia’s relations with the West. Religious intolerance is destroying places of worship and putting dissidents in jail. For most pluralism is a myth.

Australia has moved on since John Howard infuriated South-East Asia by being portrayed as the regional US deputy sheriff; Indonesia has not, and Kevin Rudd will have to work hard to change our image.

Indonesia has more than 40 million unemployed and under-employed, double the population of Australia. The middle-income class is growing, but not at the same rate as the poor. The gap between the haves and have-nots is obvious, ugly and an awful threat to internal stability.

The government continues to ignore its constitutional duty to spend 20 per cent of income on education. An estimated six million kids don’t go to school and 1.5 million teachers are said to be unqualified. Indonesian education is way behind other Asian countries and slipping fast.

Indonesia has not recovered from the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago. Her neighbors have bounced back. The US dollar continues to sit well above 9,000 rupiah and no improvement is in sight.

Short-term visitors think things are looking up because a few cranes have returned to city skylines. Most are building shopping malls, not improving the nation’s infrastructure. Badly run and poorly maintained transport systems along with an unreformed bureaucracy and a corroded legal system make doing business a continuous struggle. Claims for economic growth need to be considered sceptically: Indonesian statistics are notoriously elastic.

A mud volcano that started erupting in East Java two years ago has turned into a huge environmental and social disaster that has been handled appallingly by the central government.

Corruption has grown since Suharto fell, largely because decentralisation has opened further opportunities for graft conducted openly and brazenly. As the US-funded Freedom House report says: ‘… corrupt relationships between powerful private actors, government bureaucrats, politicians, and security officials infuse the political system and undermine it from within’.

There have been many changes, and some positive. The Indonesian press is the most vigorous in the region, though that doesn’t mean it’s professional, unbiased or widely read. There’s been a book-publishing explosion, but much is low-quality religious tracts and translated Japanese comics. Indonesian literature and film is still decades behind the rest of the world.

Australia has been doing well with training programs in education and administration. These need to be enlarged and expanded to have any impact.

Ensuring Indonesian language and culture are properly funded in our schools and universities is critical. Unless we understand our neighbors, their history and the problems they’re facing, misunderstandings are inevitable.

Australia’s military engagement with Indonesia should be viewed with caution. The Indonesian army has long been used as a political police force suppressing internal separatists; if stories from closed West Papua are true the force is being applied with brutality and demands exposure.

All this is not cause for despair; it should help prod Australia and Australians to work harder using fresh ways to improve relationships. That won’t happen if we think all is well and getting better.

Let’s retain the mystery and magic of Indonesia while deleting the suspicion and fear that affects so many Australians and aggravates relationships. But lets do this from a foundation underpinned by a clear understanding of present reality. The turmoil continues; this is a nation in transition.

(First published in OnLine Opinion 11 June 08)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Bambang AW (See story below)

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LAN ARTIST RELEASED (C) Duncan Graham 2008

One of the most overlooked of the Soeharto regime’s many transgressions was the suppression of artists.

I’m not referring here to the easy-come, easy-go pop singers and sinetron nonentities who have corrupted the word, but to intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to expressing their emotions and concerns through writing, music, film-making, sculpture and painting.

Most creative people aren’t motivated by greed; they have to put food on their family’s table but few are materialists. True artists are driven folk whose emotions are often in turmoil as they wrestle to express themselves, to produce works of perfection – yet knowing that state can never be achieved.

They feel deeply. They fight day and night with the demon demands they set for themselves. They strive to transform their spiritual concerns and observations into forms that we, the less-talented observers, may understand and appreciate. They show us windows into other worlds, but we have to open the glass.

In the dreary decades of the so-called New Order administration such people were viewed with suspicion because they’d been conscripted by their consciences, not by despots with corrupt agendas.

Independent thinkers are much feared by all authoritarian regimes, and with good reason; the army may have the guns and bayonets, but the artists have pens and paintbrushes, weapons that can pierce the soul.

We are lucky that Bambang Adrian Wenzel is still young enough to know that his best years still lie ahead and that he now lives in more tolerant times. Older artists haven’t been so fortunate; many were so crushed by censorship that their talents have been lost forever.

The gruesome state of the present Indonesian film industry is one legacy of Soeharto’s 32-year oppression of creative thinkers. The shallowness of much Indonesian literature as it flounders for identity after decades of fear is another example. Three generations of Indonesians have had their souls corroded because they were not exposed to the ideas of the nation’s best and brightest.

Bambang, and a small palette of fellow artists in Malang, have managed to sidestep those perils and are now enjoying an extraordinary freedom their brave predecessors could never have imagined.

Here’s a small, but significant, point. Bambang was born into a half Chinese, half Madurese family in the Java east coast town of Banyuwangi almost 50 years ago.

Being an artist with a Chinese background made him doubly suspect in the eyes of the authorities. Even when no criticism was intended, the New Order spies and censors were constantly alert, seeking symbols they could interpret as subversion.

So anything in Bambang’s art with a sniff of Sinology exposed him to risk. Now he can release that part of his once-imprisoned heart and let it roam free in his art, even sign his name using Chinese characters in red.

He can also relax in his large personal library amongst books on philosophy, politics, history and art where he draws much inspiration knowing that Intel (the sinister intelligence service) won’t be kicking in his door to check for forbidden words.

This means that after a long winter his art is now in early spring and budding brightly. He is moving into mixed media, trying new forms, experimenting without having to look over his shoulder or fear the denouncers. This is a time of dramatic social change with almost everything open to question, and Bambang is up there in front.

What he hasn’t lost is his spiritual search. He remains a Catholic but expresses his faith in the subtlest ways. On the sliding scale that has the religious kitsch of burning hearts and mournful heaven-turned eyes on one end, Bambang’s art is at the other pole.

He has also suffered a personal tragedy with the loss of his wife. It seems this has added sadness to his art, though it is never bleak or maudlin. Nor is it forced.

Because his work is so eclectic many will think it’s not Indonesian. I disagree. For too long Indonesian art has been defined by dancing Balinese maidens and landscapes of rice threshers, a school pioneered by the European artists of early last century and unashamedly plagiarised ever since.

In Yogya the tourist market has defined ‘traditional’ art and made an appalling fist of the job, with the magical and mysterious figures from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics reduced to factory-produced cutouts with all the charisma of sliced bread.

Meanwhile the lovingly rough-hewn carvings, the fecund earth ochres and lush greens of ancient Java have been rejected as too primitive.

Bambang’s work draws on so many themes that it continually challenges. He has chosen to live in Malang, at the heart of the ancient Majapahit kingdom, an area saturated in magic, pre-Islamic carvings and holy sites, a landscape of legends, curious customs and darkest secrets.

Here he is creating new Indonesian art determined by committed Indonesians proud of their ancient heritage. He’s blending ideas of the distant past, pulsating present and an uncertain future laced with personal trauma. He’s not beholden to mindless nationalism, business, the State or outsiders.
Don’t assume his art is insular. His concerns for human rights and justice aren’t confined to Java. They are global, gleaned through his extensive reading - though concentrating on Asia.

For the viewer, instant interpretations have to be discarded as new ideas are revealed, many through just a ghost of a hint, a slim key to open the imagination. Surely this is a major definition of good art: it forces us as onlookers to seek and think and open our minds.

Much of his life is spent articulating the plight of the downtrodden and oppressed, though never in a ham-fisted way. His personal quest to help the poor of Porong left landless by the mud volcano that erupted in May 2006 and hasn’t stopped since, is proof of his commitment to justice and social change.

Bambang Adrian Wenzel is an artist of our time setting new agendas for Indonesian creativity, setting a new dawn for the archipelagic arts.

(Published as programme notes for the Yogyakarta exhibition Floating Souls, May 08)

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Safety in numbers – or fear of the mob? © 2008 Duncan Graham

Is there a transport system anywhere in the world more efficient than Indonesia’s?

Sure it’s shambolic, uncomfortable and unsafe. But it’s also cheap, flexible and ever-present.

Getting to work in Malang is a breeze; no need to study timetables and ransack the piggy bank for the fare as in New Zealand. The bald-tired bemo (minibus) will be waiting ready to zip from end to end of the city for Rp 2,000 (US 20 cents)

Don’t run – he’ll wait, unless he has double the legal load. Another will be along in two ticks. Bending a bule (Westerner) frame into a hairpin to get through the door while watching the wallet, squeezing a 40 cm bottom into a 20 cm bench space, snagging nails on rusting rails and sucking carcinogens from motorbikes and Marlboros are the downsides.

The service is almost door-to-door. Just a short stride to the job. It’s past Klojen market with hazards to negotiate, though no problem given the right attitude.

First are the ranks of becaks (pedicabs), every driver bemused why a foreigner would prefer to walk. The real titanium-torso wrinklies (as opposed to those 70 years young despite their tough trade) sing out in antique Dutch. For them, all bule come from the Netherlands.

Then the butcher slashing and chopping at a window in a wall hung with hands of bananas, all prices negotiable; you’d be silly to pay above Rp 5,000 (US 50 cents) for two kilos of the freshest, sweetest fruit this side of the equator.

A harridan with a bloke’s biceps bullies undecided customers while hacking the twitching meat on a counter with more flies than an Australian sheep station. For ox shanks she uses half a tree trunk, its splintered anvil stuffed with fat and bone chips, probably going back to the Majapahit era. The site is an archaeologist’s challenge – and a health inspector’s.

White-eyed beggars flash their cataracts for aluminium coins. A local clinic not three minutes distant will fix their blindness for Rp 7 million (US $ 760) an eye. NZ charities invite $ 25 donations so one poor Asian can see with the skills volunteered by Western surgeons.

A pregnant too-young teen polishes plastic bottles of water to make them more appealing; acrid smoke spits off a tyre clamp as a man squats to repair a puncture. His mate offers battered and blunt hand tools for sale, tradesmen’s discards.

In the next 100 metres the smell of crushed coffee from beans grown on nearby volcanic slopes competes with the gagging stench of rotting rubbish. This is raked into carts by the yellow-clad sanitary squad scattering black plastic into the breeze. An exhibitionist pisses against a wall under graffiti warning against such behavior because it’s alongside a school.

The kids pay no attention. They’re besieging food carts selling fried bananas, steamed peanuts, frozen colored water and anything that will clog arteries, lift blood pressure and quicken heartbeats.

But then so does running this gauntlet of humanity, maybe 1,000 strong. There are no human threats – many participants in the Klojen kaleidoscope are friendly, acknowledging the curious stranger, the bewildered bule. The rest are indifferent, preoccupied with survival.

And in Indonesia that means being with people who say: Mangan ora mangan, asal ngumpul – we may have nothing to eat but we have each other.

In Wellington, where we’ve been for the past few months, the tidy streets are briefly full only during commuters’ rush hours. Even then the traffic is orderly, disciplined, soon to vanish behind closed doors. Westerners like it that way – Indonesians do not.

This is an issue that can turn multicultural marital relationships into a martial arts contest. I want to be alone – she wants crowds. The bubbling hubbub of life in Indonesia, its rollicking racket is meat and drink to my beloved.

I’d rather read a book looking for knowledge – she’d sooner seek a crowd and glean their wisdom.

Indonesians see safety in numbers – Westerners fear the crowd; it might be a mob.

Not in Klojen. This is a snapshot of everyday – work and idleness, pain and hope, resignation and reward. It’s well worth the walk. The same emotions and experiences flourish in Wellington, though you’d never know. They’re not on public display.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 May 08)


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New Book at Gramedia

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Indonesian influence in Kiwi art © Duncan Graham 2008

In 2001 an ageing wanderer was on his way back to New Zealand. He’d been following a band around Europe and found himself with time to spare in Singapore.

Neville McPherson thought he’d pop across and have a quick look at Indonesia; nothing serious, maybe pick up a souvenir or two, just in and out. Other travelers had spoken warmly about the country, and not just in climatic terms. Like many Kiwis McPherson knew next to nothing about the archipelagic republic hidden on the far side of big, protective Australia. Why not take a peep?

The moment he exited the airbridge at Soekarno-Hatta the reserved teacher from a dusty rural town north of Wellington was tumbled into a totally new and troubling world, quite unlike anything he’d ever experienced.

“I thought Jakarta was a cowboy town, just full on,” he said. “The reckless behavior on the roads, the lack of discipline, the overcrowding and the way people took their lives in their hands was too much.

“I couldn’t cope with the place for more than two days so headed out of the city. It was still overwhelming, but the hill towns were a bit more manageable. I arrived in Bogor and it was there that I fell in love with the country.” Indeed he did, even to the point of becoming a Muslim after long talks with the locals in backpacking hostels.

Back in NZ he hit 60 and decided there were other things to do in life apart from pushing formulae and equations to fidgeting kids. As a young man he’d had yearnings to be an artist and had studied art at teachers’ college. But that was no way to go if he wanted to keep a loaf in the larder and maintain his family. So he buried his ambitions behind the blackboard and bided his time.

He’d done a few big timber sculptures using a chainsaw, including public commissions, but wanted to refine and minimalize his work. The first taste of Indonesia offered inspiration, but how to access the mysteries?

McPherson applied for a job teaching English in Medan, didn’t like the “characterless town” so after six months moved to Pekanbaru, the cleaner 17th century capital of Riau Province.

He stayed for 18 months and took time to tour Bali and other cultural centers, “not to work but to soak it all in”. In Yogya he discovered batik and is currently toying with ideas on incorporating designs popular for printing cloth in the cap batik style that uses metal stamps dipped in waxes.

Now McPherson is back in his homeland and has just held his first exhibition in central Wellington of woodwork and woodcuts where he tries to blend Maori, Western and Islamic images. His newfound faith, which he follows diligently with regular visits to the city’s only mosque, has constrained his artistic expression.

“As a Muslim I can draw abstracts and plants, but I’m not supposed to portray
humans or animals,” he said. “That’s been difficult and I’ve cheated a bit. When
it comes to judgment day maybe I’ll be sent to hell.” This last line was
delivered with a chuckle. His other failing is a reluctance to spread the faith,
as required in Islam.

“I was a bit of a wedding-and-wake Christian before I converted. Like most Kiwis I have a relaxed view of religion. I don’t want to bother others about faith, but maybe I’m making amends through my Islamic ideas and helping people get a better understanding.”

But if he is, the images are subtle indeed. McPherson admits he’s still experimenting with form rather than design, pushing boundaries. He’s planning a bigger work with an inscription from the Koran in Arabic across a hint of NZ’s dramatic landscapes and the curly and curvy symbols found in Maori culture.

McPherson says he has no Maori heritage though he does have Maori cousins.
The traditional designs, also found in Polynesia, include fishhooks, circles, fern fronds and dolphins – causing more problems for an artist following Islam. Some of the patterns share similarities with the calligraphy of Arabic.

Wellington is a city of half a million people with around 3,000 Muslims. McPherson said only five Westerners are regulars at the mosque. There are about 3000 Indonesians in the country with maybe ten per cent in the capital; many are Christian or Buddhist. McPherson hinted at problems with his family accepting his change of beliefs, but no difficulties from others.

In NZ culture, faith is personal and private. It’s considered impolite to ask a person’s religion. There are no identity cards. Although founded as a Christian country and mainly Protestant, recent surveys show the nation is becoming more secular.

Although seen as a curio in Indonesia, McPherson said he was treated with friendship and tolerance. He had problems in only one mosque where a woman lifted the curtain dividing the sexes to gawk at the white-bearded newcomer. She then alerted others that the bule (Westerner) was not praying in the right way, much to his embarrassment. “I didn’t go back to that mosque,” he added dryly.

“Islam is an accepting faith,” McPherson said. “I like the communal life and values. Christianity can be quite judgmental, setting up lots of targets, aspiring to affluence and one-upmanship.”

McPherson says Islam is “gentle” – an opinion quite at odds with much of the Western media where the attitudes and actions of the fundamentalists have hard set the image in a concrete of prejudice. The 61 year old doesn’t see it that way because it hasn’t been his experience.

“I hope that in the future I’ll be able to exhibit in a mosque,” he said. “I like to think that my art will help enlighten people about Islam. I want to return to Indonesia and look again at the tiles and decorations of the mosques for inspiration – and to learn more.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 14 May 2008)


Saturday, May 10, 2008


Push for handicapped rights in East Java © Duncan Graham 2008

A campaign is underway in East Java to force the next provincial governor to ease the plight of the disabled.

Spearheaded by prolific award-winning author and activist Ratna Indraswari Ibrahim, 59, of Malang, a five-member committee called Bhakti Nurani Yayasan (Foundation for the Handicapped) is demanding gubernatorial candidates reveal their policies on access by the handicapped to public facilities.

The election campaign for the position of East Java governor is well underway, though voting will not be held till later this year. Ratna said the candidates had yet to respond to letters.

She hoped to get wide public support from famous people and major companies willing to lead the way in adapting their buildings to make them accessible to all.

Indonesia has signed the 2007 UN Convention on the Rights and Dignity of People with Disabilities, but Ratna claimed there had been no action.

“There are about two million disabled people in East Java, but it seems that we are the forgotten ones,” she said.

“The authorities think we are not important and have no potential. This campaign isn’t for me – it’s for everyone who can’t get access to public facilities.”

Ratna is confined to a wheelchair after suffering from a complex form of rickets, a bone-wasting disease. Despite the severity of her handicap, which means she cannot use a keyboard and has to dictate her works, she’s had more than 300 short stories, poems and articles published.

Ratna said she had visited Australia and the US where building owners and civil authorities were obliged to install special parking areas, wheelchair ramps, wide doorways and toilets for the handicapped.

This is not her first attempt at change. In 1994 she was given a national award by then President Soeharto for agitating on behalf of the disabled – arguing that the public should see the person, not the problem, and that all citizens have the right to use public space.

“Roads in Malang and other cities are so crowded and in such bad repair that using a wheelchair is hazardous,” she said. “Travel is a real difficulty in Indonesia, especially in the villages.

“I have to be carried up stairs in public buildings. Handicapped people don’t want to rely on others. Because someone has a physical disability doesn’t mean that we can’t use our brains and contribute to society.

“There should also be a quota ensuring employers include people with disabilities in their workplaces.

“This campaign isn’t just for the handicapped. It’s a human rights issue that should concern all members of society. I want the media to take this up as a serious issue and stop focussing on matters like celebrities’ divorces.

“It’s my duty to try and get these important changes in place before I die.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 9 May 08)


Wednesday, May 07, 2008


The glamor of Superliss ©

Why are so many Indonesians reluctant readers?

Nurullita (Lita) Berlianti, 35, has a volume of reasons, and speaks with some authority.

She’s one of those blessed people who chose their parents wisely, rearing her in a book-filled home where sitting hunched over a good yarn was considered behavior warranting reward, not reproof. And when she wasn’t curled up in an armchair turning pages she was airbussing her way around the world turning up other cultures

Which is as it should be because her family were publishers, a business now maintained by their smart daughter.

“For most poor Indonesian women the number one priority is putting food on the table for their family,” Lita said.

“Women are so busy. The average woman is multiskilled. She has to be a wife, a mother, a babysitter, a caregiver to other relatives and a manager of limited resources.

“In most cases books just aren’t on her shopping list. Even to buy a small book that retails for Rp 25,000 (US $3) means that she might have to forego five meals.

“Yet the reality is that kids love books and of course they are an essential part of education.”

Another factor may be the policies of past governments that labelled books as potentially dangerous, seditious instruments that might stir the masses to question their leaders.

During Soeharto’s new order administration tight controls were exercised on authors and publishers. Reading then was considered much like drug use today, an evil that could destroy society.

Bookshops were akin to chemists – the wares sealed and held behind locked glass doors. Today the books are on open shelves, but the plastic wraps remain and grumpy guards watch for those who want to peel, not purchase.

So what to do? Lita isn’t short of ideas, including a proposal that the government should better control school curricula so parents don’t have to buy a new text every year. Instead they should be able to pass the same book down to their younger children.

More radical is her suggestion that the government subsidises the cost of paper for book printing, a policy that she said was having an impact on reading in India, making books cheap and available to the masses.

With a government already crippled by maintaining subsidies on basic commodities like rice and fuel, adding another burden to the economy seems unlikely despite its power for good.

So in the meantime Lita and two friends, businesswoman Litasari and psychologist and social activist Dyah Katarina decided to stop muttering and start motivating.

The results of the trois amigos’ energies (pictured above) peaked at an extraordinary event staged last Saturday (26 April) in a shopping mall convention centre in Surabaya.

Dubbed Superliss it was more like a political rally held before a backdrop of a portrait of national heroine Kartini, a pen and a book. In the auditorium more than 1,000 women dressed in yellow, green and blue T shirts, whipped into a lather by silver-tongued MCs, showed the sort of enthusiasm Hillary Clinton could only imagine.

On the stage speakers gave testimonials of how their lives had been changed since they started reading and writing, using the sort of language normally heard at religious revivals and to the huge delight of the frenzied females.

Entering this maelstrom it seemed the show had been sponsored by an over-zealous manufacturer of skin whitener or hair shampoo. Superliss has that certain ring of freshness, the development of a lissom figure and romantic success that accompanies the destruction of dandruff.

“It’s a made up word from our vision and slogan of Seribu Perempuan Menulis (a thousand women writing),” said Dyah. She also doubles as the wife of the mayor of Surabaya, Bambang Dwi Hartono, but would still be formidable without that cachet.

“We want to get across the message that if you don’t read and write you are going to be left behind. Women are such a powerful influence in the family. They can be agents of change. If we can convince 1,000 of the importance of books then they will spread the message.”

On the stage the electrified Litasari cracked jokes at broadband speed, got her listeners laughing and singing, leaping up and down, whooping slogans and generally having a rollicking good time. In amongst the quips were smart tips on reading faster and staying on course.

“Remain focussed on the task,” screamed Litasari, an expert on speed reading. If the sound system had been linked to a tsunami warning it would have ranked as a red alert.

“If you feel you are getting tired suck a sweet. Glance up from the page occasionally, cover one eye and look at something far away. Then do the same with the other eye.”

On big screens easy-to-remember logos, verses, singalongs and pictures pummelled the message that reading is yeah, wow, like trendy, fun, better than fashion. The women were so enthralled most forgot to use their handphones. If school had been like this no one would ever leave half educated.

“It’s true that we are an oral culture,” said Lita who reads her children bedtime stories and knows this is still unusual parenting. “If you’re a bookworm at school you’re likely to be considered a freak.

“In Europe people understand the enormous importance of books and give authors high status in society. That’s part of their culture.

“In Indonesia the growth of television has also damaged literacy, so we have to make reading and writing look glamorous.

“If we had an internationally famous well-established author sitting on this sofa alongside a starlet from a forgettable sinetron (soap opera), the journalists would only be interested in the actress.”

But this time the scribes and lenses were focussing on the femoforce of literacy in full attack mode and never given a moment to ask banal questions about marital status and womb production statistics. “Despite everything I’m positive,” shouted Lita above the din as a thousand lungs praised the written word. “I really think things are improving.

“There are more books being published and more bookshops being opened. A few, like mine, let customers browse – even when they don’t eventually buy.” Now that is progress.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 May 2008.)