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, 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.)


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Joko Susilo in Wellington NZ

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Puppet diplomat charms Kiwis (c) Duncan Graham 2008

Dr Joko Susilo is a bit of a cheeky lad.
At a big event in the South Australian capital of Adelaide last year, the Indonesian dhalang (shadow puppet master) took a shot at monolingual Australia; he knew the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd was in the audience and that academics and linguists were lobbying for improved language teaching.
Susilo suddenly stopped his Indonesian commentary to announce: “This is John Howard country – I must only speak English here!”
His aside delighted the 1,000 strong audience unconcerned about an outsider commenting on local politics. And in Jakarta it may well have brought an approving nod from his more famous namesake Djoko Susilo, the outspoken and influential nationalist Indonesian politician who loves baiting Australia.
Susilo, the musician plays it close to the line but he does so with style. Certainly he’s well-placed to poke fun at the West. He married New Zealander Kathryn Knox and has fathered two Kiwis who are now teenagers. He has permanent resident status and lives in Dunedin on NZ’s South Island where he makes a living teaching Indonesian arts and working as a dhalang.
He has a doctorate in ethnomusicology and has been absent from his home in Mojopuro in Central Java long enough to know what appeals to foreigners.
Stints in Australia, England, Scotland (where he was an artist in residence at Glasgow University), Holland and the United States where he’s held visiting lectureships, have helped sharpen Susilo’s communication skills.
When you’re a little brown man with a quirky accent from a curious land far away it helps having a jokey relationship with the audience to transmit complex messages about Indonesian history and culture. Particularly to those whose only knowledge of the archipelago have been gleanings from tabloid headlines about bad, sad and mad events.
Handling this category needs care and charm. Fortunately the bubbly Susilo has these qualities in spades.
His repertoire includes hands-on interaction with the public, handing out the perfectly perforated multi-colored puppets made of buffalo hide. He lets little kids jerk the figures’ spider limbs and finger their grotesque features while he delivers snippets of knowledge. Susilo’s technique is matey, not declamatory or serious. So there’s only a sense of fun, not formal learning.
In his presentations from behind the screen where he cooks under hot lights wearing heavy Javanese clothes Susilo works references to football teams, the weather and local events into the classic Mahabharata and Ramayana epics.
Susilo knows Westerners don’t have the attention spans of the patient Javanese who are prepared to stay up nine hours to watch the full performance. So his scene selections are cut to less than two hours.
He also encourages onlookers to loosen up, to behave like Indonesians, to chat and walk around during the show, to view the puppets from either side of the screen and peer closely at the gamelan players. These are all Westerners drawn from Victoria University’s School of Music, apart from leader Budi Putra who works for the Indonesian Embassy promoting culture.
Budi, 38, who also comes from Central Java, won the job through his ability to play every gamelan instrument and an egalitarian approach to the arts. He arrived in Wellington in 1996, mastered English and chose to stay.
“New Zealanders know little about Indonesia though their interest is strong,” said Susilo. “In Australia, where they understand more about their northern neighbor, enthusiasm is huge.
“In NZ I spend time explaining my country, culture and music. I do that at the start of the performance, in the middle and at the end. I want people to relax and enjoy, for the music of the gamelan is just like heaven.” Then he added with a chuckle: “Well, it is when it’s played well.”
But he wasn’t referring to the bule gongers who have earned their credits by performing in Indonesia, including the cultural heartland of Yogyakarta. During a three-week tour last year they astonished locals with their dexterity and knowledge of Javanese arts and language.
There are two gamelan orchestras in Wellington, one Javanese the other Balinese. Also among the foreign players is Susan Pratt Walton, a pesinden – the woman singer in a Javanese gamelan. She’s from the University of Michigan.
Susilo came to NZ in 1993 when he was 30 for further study after graduating from the Indonesian Arts Academy of Surakarta, though his introduction to the ancient arts started at his birth. Typically his father wasn’t there for the event – he was out of town working as a dhalang, the job that’s been in the family for ten generations.
“When I was ten my mother made a booking for my dad to perform. However she favored the modern seven-day week calendar,” he said. “My traditionalist father used the Javanese five-day week calendar for his arrangements. Not surprisingly there was a double booking. So I had to fill in.”
Another factor in Susilo’s rapport with onlookers is his undoubted competence. Westerners normally feel uncomfortable about peering behind the scenes while a formal performance of any type is underway, but given an invite curiosity usually wins, at least with the kids.
Seeing a dexterous dhalang work a collection of more than 100 whirling puppets, flashing them across the screen, dodging and receiving arrows and spears, spinning them up and down while singing the story and adding sound effects redefines multi-tasking.
In the competition for entertainment interest wayang kulit is seriously handicapped when measured against cinema’s special effects and computer games’ electronic gizmos. You can’t miss the sticks and strings, the manipulation is obvious. Because there’s no sleight of hand watchers have to exercise their imagination.
To keep the shadow puppet arts alive Susilo has composed modern plays for overseas audiences – Wayang Skotlandia in Scotland, Ubu Bush Pig in Tasmania and Karetao Puppet Aotearoa in NZ using Maori tales.
This last production was developed despite early opposition from nationalists who argued that only Maori could work on traditional stories. But jolly Susilo looks and sounds nothing like a cultural colonialist out to plunder other people’s heritage, and he says his work now enjoys Maori support.
In a country where inter-cultural relations can sometimes rub raw on such issues, that’s no minor achievement for Indonesia’s arts diplomat.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 April 2008)