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, January 27, 2008



I've had the good fortune to interview a few famous people, many who'd like to be famous, and far too many infamous.

Future plans include talking to past Indonesian leaders to better understand and interpret the history of this complex and mysterious country.

So far – not much luck. Pak Soeharto said no and now it’s too late.

Ibu Megawati won't answer my e-mails, and I'm not confident that flying to Germany to meet Pak Habibie will be that rewarding. Gus Dur? I scored there and it was a lot of fun.

Perhaps I'd have more success interviewing a ghost.

That's what I've asked my extended family to arrange in this cynical Westerner's attempt to debunk their trembling tales of phantoms and malevolent machinations.

If the undead really roam the streets of Malang during the haunting hours then I'm happy to stay up with notebook and pencil ready to record. I'd have the camera handy, but fear the wraiths would be gone in a flash.

Not that the demons have any dark corners wherein to lurk – almost every house is fully lit for no-one (except the bule) sleeps without a 100 watt globe to warm their souls. This phenomenon is known as globalisation.

Our neighbors are garden-proud folk, though few have trees. For this is where the fiends in the foliage waken come sundown, sweeping the street clean of soccer-mad kids and gossiping housewives. The light thickens, leaves rustle, trunks tremble and the boughs sigh – sure signs that hobgoblins have opened their branch offices.

Most residents are middle-aged with teenage kids and out-of-town jobs. Javanese predominate, but our family is made up of God-fearing Christians from North Sulawesi, so technically immune to Javanese mysticism.

If only.

When a niece-in-law took sick a doctor and a dog-collared priest were consulted. The former prescribed Western drugs, the latter 'saw' three evil spirits lurking in her body. One was a big bloke, the other a gremlin and the third too foggy on the man of God's X-ray vision to be identified.

I said it could have been suffering radiation sickness. Or image problems. Not funny, Mister Duncan. Just go back to your laptop.

Close questioning revealed a spurned suitor had recently given the uni student a cute doll. It was suggested that this be destroyed, as it was the source of the black magic causing the physical problems.

The family really got into the spirit of things. When the doll was furiously assaulted with scissors by vengeful female relatives (a sight to deter any male considering extra-marital activities) the sick lass called out in pain – and shortly after recovered.

To the doll mutilators standing among entrails of shredded calico and punctured plastic, its glass eyes stilettoed into the ceramic, the link was clear.

I wasn't convinced. The young woman was in hospital at the time and to my mind medical treatment was responsible for her return to health.

In this response I was in a minority of one, just as I was when a brother in law found a snake in his house.

Snake? This one was so tiny it better resembled a worm on steroids. Its sin was to behave like a serpent, and the Bible has much to say that's uncomplimentary about such creations.

So it was chopped, slashed, hung, drawn and quartered before being burned at the garden stake – and even then was still alive said onlookers in the ten-deep crowd. Christian compassion and forgiveness? Forget it.

What was it doing in the house? Looking for an apple? A dispute with a disgruntled employee was recalled. The snake had been sent into the house as revenge. Presumably it had been given its slithering orders.

So where do ordinary grudge-carrying folk get the skills to infuse dolls and snakes with spiritual toxins? If it's that easy, can the opposite be employed so we can spread joy, not fear?

A bit of white magic to help those who do us good, like finding a bundle of unmarked greenbacks with the right numbers that banks will accept? If we can curse can we not bless? Apparently things don't work that way.

Sorry, I have to click SAVE now, lock the doors and windows, and flood the house with fluorescence. It's almost 6 pm. The shadows are lengthening. The street is falling silent.

I wouldn't want any ghoul getting into the keyboard and mangling my prose. I can do that well enough, thank you, without the help of harpies sent by affronted interviewees whose names I've misspelled and comments misquoted.

First published in The Sunday Post 27 Jan 08

Thursday, January 24, 2008


High rise but no risk in safe Taiwan © Duncan Graham 2007

It’s not difficult to hear Indonesian spoken in Taiwan – sometimes easier than encountering English. That’s because there are more than 100,000 Indonesians living in the booming East Asian island state.

Young Taiwanese cynics joke that if the Communists from Mainland China invaded their tiny island the war would be over by lunchtime. However the more patriotic older generation and the military will have none of this negativism; they reckon the conflict wouldn’t end till nightfall.

Living alongside a dragon on steroids focuses the mind admirably and produces a culture of intense awareness. No wonder the nation supports eight dedicated TV news and current affairs channels against Indonesia’s one, and that major street protests are about joining the UN.

Modern Taiwan was born in 1949 when the nationalist Kuomintang led by General Chiang Kai-shek fled to Formosa Island when routed by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. Defeat must have been anticipated because the Nationalists shipped big buckets of cash and much of the nation’s portable heritage out of the country.

Some of this art is on display in the splendid but sterile, look-don’t touch, National Palace Museum in capital Taipei. If you’re a serious scholar of Chinese antiquities this is the spot to visit.

Taiwan is also the place for film buffs, with a vibrant and restriction-free local industry. Taiwan shows movies like celebrated director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution that you’ll never see uncut in Indonesia. There’s even an explicit TV sex channel so repetitiously boring viewers become their own censors.

Before the rise of militant Islam, Western defence strategy hung on the expectation that the next major global conflict would be triggered
when the army of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) crossed the Straits of Taiwan.

This is the 120-kilometer wide waterway that separates 1.3 billion Chinese who are controlled by a Communist government and the 23 million people of what is now democratic Taiwan, properly known as the Republic of China (ROC). Confused? It’s one giant Chinese puzzle.

But if the hawks think Taiwan is the future flashpoint for World War 111, there’s no sign of tension in the orderly streets of Taipei, uncluttered till the evening. Although all young men have to undergo national service there’s no outward feel of militarism or threat – except from nature.

Taiwan sits in typhoon alley, directly in the path of the giant boils churned in the South China Sea that head for the mainland, dumping oceans of rain across the 36,000 square kilometer island, gouging hillsides, flattening forests.

The locals are used to it all, and unlike Jakarta seem well prepared for the floods. High concrete walls flanking the Keelung River at its most vulnerable points protect Taipei streets and homes, though the Singapore-style subway system was flooded in 2001. When extreme danger is forecast schools, shops and businesses close till the typhoon moves on.

Tourists watching telecasts of swirling clouds and purple cones, black eyes and hyped reporters spraying terms like ‘Cat Four’ start checking their airline tickets for early departure penalties. Meanwhile the Taiwanese stay indifferent, even when their brollies are disemboweled and horizontal rain at AK-47 muzzle velocity finds all the chinks and cracks.

When not threatened by the PRC or targeted by typhoons between May and September the island is rocked by earthquakes. So this doesn’t seem the ideal spot for the world’s tallest building. But Taipei 101 (‘one more than perfection’) is a must-see marvel, and not just for height; the anti-sway technology involves suspending a 660 tonne ball inside the building.

Taipei 101 (that’s the number of floors and the address) is an engineering feat but not an architectural beauty. Like the surrounding buildings it’s fascist era drab, just right for a city that offers pylon and smokestack vistas. It’s also soon to be overtaken in height by the Burj Dubai in the Middle East with a planned 141 floors.

If you prefer staying horizontal try the bullet train opened this year. It hurtles up and down much of the 394-kilometer-long island to Kaohsiung, making land travel a joy rather than a misery.

Like Indonesia, the country was handicapped by an authoritarian military regime for decades and is critically reviewing the recent past in a bid for a new identity. It’s now trying to distance itself from the hard-line US-backed policies of the Kuomintang and dreams of conquering mainland China.

For most outsiders Taiwan is the name that’s found on the manufacturer’s plate under their camera, computer or TV. Like Singapore, the Taiwanese have few natural resources so rely on their intellectual skills, adaptability, hard work and tenacity to survive. Being Chinese that’s not difficult.

They also want tourists, but need to lift their game to encourage Indonesians. Getting a visa means negotiating with unfriendly officials in Jakarta. If they don’t like your questions they just whisk a curtain across the counter window. A visa costs Rp 350,000 (US $ 38) and takes a week or more to organize – but the paperwork is less offputting than Australian visa applications.

Eva Air is the national airline, flying direct from Jakarta and marginally cheaper than others at Rp 4.4 million (US $477) return. The staff wear uniforms last seen in East Berlin before the Wall fell, and serve Russian ice cream during the five-hour flight. The outfits are depressing but the confections are uplifting.

Once in the country the treatment of visitors improves significantly, though for a nation so advanced the absence of English is surprising. Trying to work out how to use a hotel room’s air conditioner or kettle (which I thought was a rice cooker) when all instructions are in Mandarin is a humbling experience for those who thought they were technically literate. Fire evacuation procedures? Pray they’re never needed.

A major exception to the monolingualism and boring buildings is the magnificent Grand Hotel, a giant red honeycomb built by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, complete with a hidden escape tunnel ready for the mainlanders’ invasion. So much for faith in the defence forces. The tariff starts at Rp 1.7 million (US $180) a night but you can get excellent rooms downtown with a robust breakfast and wireless internet for a third of that price.

Just watch what you plug in or your hair dryer could start smoking, whatever its age; unlike Indonesia the power is 110 volts.

The other unnerving experience is coping with the currency. Despite its grand title the New Taiwan Dollar is worth only Rp 280. Paying 390 dollars for a fast food outlet’s bucket of chicken and chips is enough to decide it’s time to diet.

There are strong links with Indonesia based on the family ties of Chinese Indonesians who fled to Taiwan after the 1998 riots that led to Soeharto quitting office. There are also 10,000 Indonesians in Taipei studying Mandarin; the university language schools have a reputation for excellence.

Then there are the 105,000 Indonesian domestic workers and laborers – the biggest overseas labor force in the island – who keep the economy booming. The annual per capita income in Taiwan is US $16,000 (Rp 148 million).

Taipei is claimed to be safer than Singapore and if the way commuters park their unguarded motor scooters at the roadside with key in the lock and helmet on the handlebars is an indicator, then the claims could be true.

If you plan a visit to the far more vibrant, glitzy and crowded Hong Kong (only 80 flying minutes away and no visa needed for Indonesians) it’s worth adding a few days to the trip and including Taiwan for the sights and differences – and to help understand the complexities of our powerful and smart neighbors.

(First published in the Sunday Post 20 January 2008)##

Monday, January 14, 2008


In the good books or the genes? © Duncan Graham 2008

The pious argue it’s necessary to follow a faith for practical and spiritual reasons. Their argument runs that without a religion humanity would have no moral map to follow and society would tumble into the mire.

So what about the debauched behavior of some who loudly profess their faith, like the Catholic priests who’ve abused children, the Muslim fundamentalists who bomb crowds, and the Protestant televangelists who’ve ripped off their congregations and deceived their wives?

Well, say the religiously entrenched, these few flawed individuals are unrepresentative of the majority; you don’t dump the rules of football just because a few play offside. Humans are forever prone to sin. If the leaders at the top have backsliders all the more reason for maintaining vigilance among the common herd.

This bleak view of human nature has long troubled Jakarta educator and children’s storywriter Derek Robertson. He believes we don’t need ancient parchments and finger-wagging clerics to remind us that it’s wrong to steal and hurt others.

He reckons the so-called Golden Rule that’s supposed to feature in most religions: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is a good enough template for all. As human beings we understand this instinctively without having to be forever reminded what real or imagined prophets instructed long ago.

It’s an argument that makes sense to rationalists and free thinkers, but it’s a hard one to push in the pews and prayer halls. So Robertson has set out on his own personal search for meaning and called this The Moral Compass.

“I’ve lived an interesting, rewarding and deeply fulfilling life,” writes Robertson, and indeed he has. A former teacher he spent three years as a Labor politician in the South Australian Parliament before moving to Indonesia 13 years ago for a job with a United Nations agency.

Also with him came his wife Penny and their three children, including Shona who has Down Syndrome. Their fruitless search for a school that would take a handicapped child led to Penny establishing the now famous Australian International School.

The devout would probably claim the couple has been rewarded because they’ve followed the Judeo-Christian code of behavior that comes unbidden with their Australian-European heritage, even though they may not kneel on Sundays.

They’ve been fulfilled because they’ve pursued with passion the rights of children who are different to be properly educated and treated with dignity and equality – and that quest was hard-wired into their cultural background.

Robertson has a more pedestrian take: ‘If I am in any way blessed it is because that is the way it is. Good fortune and good genes.’

To counter those who reckon they have a mortgage on ethics Robertson has had to bolster his thinking with some facts. Or some disputed facts, like evolution.

If you subscribe to the Adam and Eve story and believe there’s a master plan for the universe, this is not a book for you. But if you’re floundering in doubt like Mother Teresa – whose diaries reveal that she was tormented by anxieties even as she ministered to the destitute of Calcutta in the name of Jesus – then this can be a useful read.

The current world leader in the genre is trans-Atlantic journalist Christopher Hitchens. His latest work God is not Great, subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything (Allen and Unwin, 2007), does a ruthless demolition job on organized religions. His thinking has come from his experiences in war zones where all sides claim their righteousness of their cause and close affinity to the Deity as they launch their missiles and fuse their bombs.

Robertson says that religions like Islam and Christianity owe their successes to the conversion of kings who then used the new faiths to support their own authority: “Even more than trade, religion has served the state to reinforce in-group compliance and out-group conquest.”

Correct – but that doesn’t mean all leaders embraced a new religion with cynicism just to keep the serfs servile. They were still men of troubled minds and must have kept one eye on the hereafter and the possibility that a new faith might be a surer path to paradise as well as a handy mob-control system.

According to Robertson most of us tend to ‘do the right thing’ as Aussies like to say. We do this instinctively because we know that’s the only way we can survive – and it’s a lesson learned over millions of years, long before religion was invented.

Just as we no longer need tails now that we walk upright, so we don’t need priests telling us what we must or must not do. In other words ethical behavior comes with the ability to suckle and crawl, no handbook required.

Also in the genes is the instinct for faith, says Robertson, and it’s located somewhere in the mid-brain – ‘atavistic, primal and visceral’. We follow organized religions like we pursue sport ‘because they meet the same intrinsic human needs for belonging to an identifiable, mutually supportive group. They give us a feeling of importance beyond the here and now.’

In Australian mythology the early explorers of the Great South Land believed there was an inland sea that would be revealed if they only looked hard enough.

Until the truth was known it was great sustaining story. Philosophers like Robertson who claim there is no creator God and only emptiness beyond disturb the comforts we enjoy from not thinking too deeply. The discovery may be arid, but the journey is intellectually worthwhile.

Unfortunately Robertson has provided neither an index nor a bibliography to his stimulating little work. These are major defects. He quotes many of the world’s leading thinkers in a way that invites us to read further, but makes that task unnecessarily difficult.

As he knows these books, and even includes page numbers where he’s lifted sentences, though not editions and other necessary publishing details, this absence is particularly annoying. It makes the journey in search of answers to the ultimate question – why are we here? – a plod.

Let’s end on a positive point: The fact that an outsider can publish a book that doesn’t kowtow to organized faith in a country where religion rules is surely a sign of tolerance.

Robertson, Derek: The Moral Compass.
PT Eka Kolese, Jakarta, 2006
210 pages
First published in The Sunday Post 13 Jan 08