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

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Aotearoa’s Lombok learning link © Duncan Graham 2009

Lombok folk probably know more about New Zealand than most Indonesians, particularly those who still think the South Pacific islands (also known in Maori as Aotearoa) are an offshore colony of Australia.

This knowledge has nothing to do with the efforts of paid NZ government agents promoting their little country of just over four million people. It does have everything to do with Istiqlal, (“my name’s easy to remember – just think of the big mosque in Jakarta”), the principal of a big government vocational college in Mataram.

“Everyone knows about Australia because Lombok, like Bali, is an Australian holiday spot, but NZ is a bit of an unknown. Kiwis tend to get a bit cranky when Indonesians confuse them with Australians,” said Istiqlal, demonstrating his comprehensive grip on the vernacular, perceptiveness and past tertiary studies in Darwin.

“I thought it was about time we helped build our relationships with NZ by sending them some of our students to improve their cultural understanding and experience of the world outside Lombok. There were a few difficulties, but I like a challenge.”

His wish was granted. The difficulties included no easy access to NZ. Australia is less than a couple of flying hours away at its closest point and just a meal and an in-flight movie between Bali and Perth.

Garuda no longer serves NZ and the cheaper fares require travellers to first fly north to Brunei, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. They then have to hang around the sensory deprivation units known as airport terminals waiting for connecting flights. This makes the journey southeast unnecessarily long and exhausting.

The other hurdles were the cash and education imbalances. Despite having free food and lodging the cost of sending an exchange student to NZ for a fortnight was around Rp 25 million (US $2,000) – a heavy burden for some Indonesians.

Then came the language problem. Many Australian schools teach Indonesian, but that’s not the case in NZ where European languages and Maori still dominate the curriculum, with Chinese and Japanese plodding along behind.

Nonetheless, in late March 18 teenagers from various Lombok schools found themselves in the capital Wellington, shivering in a sparkling autumn day that most Kiwis considered brilliant and balmy. In August a similar number of NZ students will be in Lombok facing heavy humidity and a diet dominated by rice.

Since Istiqlal took over SMK Negeri 4 (State vocational college) in May 2008 the rule on campus has been that the 850 students, the majority girls, must master English. To underline the message he insisted that anyone meeting him on the school grounds had to open the discussion in English.

“This had the effect of many people trying to avoid me,” he noted wryly. “But we produce graduates in tourism and they must be able to use the world language. That’s not so easy because till now we haven’t been able to employ native speakers – though that may change.

“My goal is to make our college number one in training for the hospitality industry with international standards. I don’t just want our alumni to be content with basic jobs; I expect them to become hotel managers and even owners of hotels in Indonesia and overseas.”

Bill Russell, the chairman of NZ company Education Network Indonesia, which brokered the exchange program, confirmed that Istiqlal’s college was exceptionally well equipped with modern teaching facilities.

“Some Westerners go to Indonesia and say: ‘We’re all right, you’re all wrong’,” commented Bill Russell. “They need their bums kicked. There are so many talented students who could hold their own anywhere. I always feel humble in Indonesia.”

Proving his point was Lombok lad Muhammad Haikal, 16, who gave a humorous off-the-cuff speech in laid-back English at a formal Indonesian Embassy function in Wellington. This was after spending sleepless hours squashed in an Airbus jumping time zones.

He didn’t even have time to change out of his sweat-soaked crumpled clothes, which would have fazed most public speakers because the VIP audience was in suits, crisp uniforms and pressed batik.

Istiqlal, 41, is no stranger to NZ. He was with a group of principals who flew south in 2008 on a study tour. For the energetic teacher who uses the Internet day and night like an international futures trader, this was no junket. He was one of the few that did any follow up work once he was back in the archipelago.

He promptly reported to the Education Department with ideas on how the trip could be used as a feeder into an educational highway, not a one-way street, - the fate of many study tours.

Astonished bureaucrats in Jakarta told him he was the only participant to come back with anything in writing and invited him to address principals from around the country on his plans.

He told them that in Wellington he’d met the Indonesian Ambassador to NZ, Amris Hassan who matched the Lombok teacher’s enthusiasm by endorsing a student exchange program.

The Ambassador took him to a Malaysian restaurant because there’s no Indonesian eatery in Wellington and said: “Since I took up this post two year ago I’ve been wondering why so many Malaysians come to NZ to study and so few Indonesians, and what to do about the problem.”

Amris Hassan introduced Istiqlal to Bill Russell and the ENI. This is a consortium of NZ secondary and tertiary institutions now recruiting Indonesian students. (See sidebar)

“Coping with the weather is going to be their biggest problem, followed by comprehension,” said Istiqlal as the Lombok students, many wearing headscarves, stole glances at their short-skirted Amazon hosts, wondering how they would fit in to the casual sport-mad lifestyle of NZ.

“We gave them cross-cultural courses before they left Lombok and of course they’ve seen many bule (foreign) tourists in Lombok, so the way they behave and dress shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

“Religion isn’t a concern. Parents know that their children will be staying with Christian families, with some studying at Catholic schools. Our cultures, foods and lifestyles are quite different, but the schools and host families are most concerned with the care of their visitors.

“This is a pilot project. I love NZ and want others to enjoy this country. The education here is world class, the people are friendly and everything is clean. It’s not just a land of sheep and dairy cows. I’m working very hard for NZ and wish we could get more government help.”


Handshaking opens doors © Duncan Graham 2009

Jane Holloway finds the heavy international promotion of New Zealand as a clean, green under-populated outdoor adventure land full of knockout scenery a bit of a handicap.

When trying to persuade Indonesian teenagers that they should enhance their education in NZ, preferably at St Catherine’s College in Wellington where she’s the principal, she also stressed that the country does have shopping malls, cosmopolitan cities, cellphones, and lots of urban attractions.

“Wellington is a compact, safe, cultural city, easy to explore with a good social life,” she said. “That’s a real strength.”

To convince the students’ parents that they should send their offspring to a land far away she mentions money. A short-term education program (usually of around 12 weeks) costs about $NZ 6,000 (US $3,500 – Rp 40 million) less than in Australia.

“NZ dropped out of the Indonesian education market during the Asian economic crisis 11 years ago,” Mrs Holloway said. “Australia stayed on – so that’s made our task so much more difficult. It’s a bit like re-inventing the wheel.”

St Catherine’s College is one of several high schools and universities that have joined Education Network Indonesia to sell the benefits of Kiwi education. They are getting there, though slowly. Four years ago 194 Indonesians got long-term student visas – last year the number jumped to 249.

ENI chairman Bill Russell said education and accommodation in NZ was much cheaper than Australia though the education quality was equal or better. To get a three year university qualification would cost around $NZ 100,000 (US$ 59,000 – Rp 670 million) including full board and lodging.

“This is about ten per cent less than Australia without considering exchange rates,” he said, before dashing off to handle another study tour.

“A lot on people don’t understand the downstream benefits of overseas student programs. Apart from improving international relationships and generating goodwill the students spend their money in their host country.

“ Now education is being decentralized in Indonesia progressive teachers and officials are realising they can improve their education overseas.

“We’ve signed memoranda of understandings with four provincial governors and are putting together upskilling courses in English and maths in NZ for Indonesian teachers. NZ is a world leader in all aspects of tourism and that’s a real attraction to overseas students.

“District by district we’re building a rapport between Indonesia and Kiwis. We’re getting a tremendous response by making personal contacts. Building relationships is critical in Indonesia. Handshaking really does open doors.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Monday 27 April 2009)


Wednesday, April 22, 2009


There’s a group of 17 Indonesian academics currently studying English at Massey University. Five of the seven women in the group (see picture below) wear jilbab, the Islamic headscarf.

Before leaving their homeland they worried about discrimination. Their fears were based on reports of attacks on Muslims in Australia. Though sporadic these assaults get a good run in the Indonesian media.

The women, who have been in Wellington for more than a month, report no hostility. Like the 3,000 Indonesians now living in NZ they are discovering that although this country does have pockets of racism it doesn’t have the Australian hang-ups about Indonesia and Islam.

It would be warming to think we are a more tolerant society, but the reason for our acceptance may have more to do with geography and history than a generosity of spirit.

Indonesia is Australia’s big nation next door, 240 million people in an overcrowded archipelago with porous borders where democracy is still struggling after more than three decades of repressive military rule.

Australians have long considered Hindu Bali their backyard cheap exotic holiday destination, like Kiwis favor the Pacific islands. But few tourists venture into adjacent Java where Islam dominates, and where they might learn more about their neighbours. The Bali bombers, who killed 88 Australians in 2002, were Muslim fanatics from Java and their crimes have not been forgotten. Three Kiwis also died in the blasts but we’ve moved on.

Deep in the psyche of Australia is the fear of the ‘yellow peril’, millions tumbling out of Asia into the vast empty and loosely defended resource-rich continent below. ‘They’ were up there and it was obvious that gravity, if not poverty and envy, would force them Down Under.

This simpleton’s view was nurtured during the late 19th and early 20th century by a virulent anti-Chinese media campaign. The ‘White Australia’ immigration policy didn’t officially end till 1973; some Asians think it’s still in place..

The demons are no longer Chinese, but Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and others, particularly ethnic Hazaras who follow the minority Shi’ite branch of Islam. Many have been genuine asylum seekers fleeing conflict and persecution – a few have been economic refugees seeking a better life.

After paying people smugglers huge amounts they’ve been shepherded through the Indonesian islands where poor fishermen will ferry cargoes of humans across the Timor Sea. People smuggling is not a crime in Indonesia; it is in Australia.

Losing their boats and freedom is no great deterrent to the fishermen. Their families already have the up-front fees from the smugglers, and life in an Australian prison with good health care and wholesome meals is often better than the breadline existence in a coarse-life coastal village.

Until the authorities woke up, many fishermen were getting a free flight home at the end of their discounted sentences with their wallets stuffed with cash garnered in gaol. Though only a few dollars a day were given to buy necessities in return for doing basic jobs, the sums were vast when compared with earnings in their heavily plundered seas.

The previous Liberal government claimed its tough line against people smugglers reduced the flow, but changes in the law under Labor are said by the Opposition to be encouraging the risk-takers.

Previously the asylum seekers, (‘illegals’ in the tabloid press, ‘unlawful non-citizens’ to the bureaucrats), were sent to Nauru under the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’.

Those who made it to the mainland were sometimes given TPVs – temporary protection visas. These did not allow relatives to join the refugees who could be deported once Australian authorities decided the dangers they faced in their homelands had abated. Some who were rejected by Australia were accepted by NZ.

Now the TPVs have been dumped. The boat people are taken to a detention camp on tiny Christmas Island, Australian territory 500 km south of Jakarta. Here claims for asylum are processed. The island has been excised from Australia’s migration zone.

The boat that last week was allegedly fire bombed killing five and putting scores in hospital, has again roused national ire about Islam and Indonesia – a debate that’s seldom heard in this nation.

There are about 360,000 Muslims in Australia, ten times more than in NZ, and they’ve built mosques in most big cities. Well-reported conflicts with local communities over the establishment of Islamic schools, and occasional extremist comments by radical imam have kept the fire stoked.

Australian politicians claim thousands are mustering in Indonesia waiting to make the perilous sea journey in rickety boats. Some arrested by Indonesian authorities have told reporters they ‘loved Australia’ and its ‘good and kind government which would help them solve all their problems’.

Clearly they hadn’t heard the rabid Australian talkback radio comments where the ‘queue jumpers’ have stirred the old fears about ‘the threat from the north’. The fact that there’s no orderly queue for refugees seeking entry to Australia hasn’t dented the myth.

Not have they hearkened PM Kevin Rudd’s claim that his policy is ‘hardline, tough (and) targeted’.

New Zealand, with the huge barrier of arid Australia to the northwest, the vast Pacific to the north and only penguins below has no such concerns. Even if Fiji Frank becomes more ruthless it’s unlikely that flotillas of little boats crammed with the oppressed will set sail for NZ across 2,000 km of empty ocean.

In short, border protection is not a major public issue in NZ, making this country a more welcoming nation to Muslims refugees, migrants and students. As the Indonesian academics in Wellington are now discovering, Islamophobia has yet to cross the ditch.

(First published in Scoop 22 April 2009)


Kartini’s legacy gets the Kiwi touch Duncan Graham

They see themselves as the inheritors and custodians of the spirit of Raden Ajeng Kartini, national heroine and pioneer of women’s rights.

They are modern Indonesian women who are pursuing their own careers through further education and offering the younger generation role models of independence without devaluing their culture.

However their pride is cautious and conservative. Outside Indonesia they are seen as stand-alone professionals, respected for their learning and skills and what they do.

Yet they also know that when they are back home in Malang, East Java they’ll first be assessed as wives and mothers. However smart they may be in a competitive workforce they’ll still be viewed as second-class citizens by many Indonesians, just by virtue of their gender.

“Women are getting better educated and as a result more independent,” said Dr Lily Agustina, an agricultural scientist and lecturer at Malang’s Brawijaya University where she heads a study program.

“There are plenty of opportunities for women in Indonesia, but men are still seen as the head of the household. So are we modern Kartinis? Well, not yet.”

Lily, who specialises in organic farming, was one of seven senior women academics from Brawijaya who have been studying English full time in New Zealand. They’ve been accompanied by ten male colleagues from the same university.

Although they are all highly qualified, mainly middle-aged and well-established in their prestigious positions they have chosen to leave their husbands and children for three months to improve their education overseas. They’ve been doing this in an egalitarian Western country where their status is that of just another student.

New Zealand has been a leader in women’s rights, the first country in the world to give women the vote. That was in 1893, 14 years after the Javanese aristocratic Kartini was born and when she was starting to mildly question the established order and develop her ideas of equality.

Kartini died after childbirth aged 25 and was declared a national heroine in 1964 with her birthday a national holiday.

Her legacy is the acceptance of women’s rights to education, though in other areas, such as property rights in marriage, women still lag behind. The Brawijaya seven have been noting NZ law where a divorced wife automatically has the rights to 50 per cent of her husband’s property, and where joint ownership of bank accounts and land titles are common.

But old ideas about gender roles die hard.

“Men and women can’t be the same because they have different functions,” said plant tissue culture expert Dr Wahyu Widoretno. “Women give birth. Men can’t do that. In our religion men have to be the leaders.”

Eavesdropping was Professor Woro Busono, the deputy vice rector of student affairs who contributed: “And women can’t have more than one husband,” a remark that was greeted with brief and brittle laughter by the ever-so-polite Indonesian women. Fortunately for him there were no Kiwi feminists nearby or an international incident might have exploded, demanding ambassadorial intervention.

Wahyu added pensively, her mind on her domestic situation more than the battle of the sexes: “We don’t know how they can survive without us.”

Others, like Dr Nurul Isnaini from the faculty of animal husbandry, had a more robust take: “We all have our roles but men and women should treat each other with respect, whatever we do. I think we are the new Kartinis.”

The Indonesian academics have been sent to NZ as part of Brawijaya’s bid to set up international study programs where the classroom language will be English. Next year the university plans to recruit students from nearby Asian countries to learn in Malang and establish Brawijaya as a tertiary institution of regional repute.

The 17 Indonesians have been studying at Massey University in Wellington, the NZ capital. On their return they will head new post-graduate programs across several faculties.

For most it has been their first trip to a Western country. They have been staying with host families and their home university has paid all their expenses.

When they arrived in NZ they found that their years of formal study of English to be of little help when they crashed into the Kiwi vowel-warping accents head on. “We had to rapidly learn a new tongue – Tarzan English,” said analytical chemist Dr Atikah who had no qualms about making the appropriate arm-waving, finger-wagging gestures to embellish her requests.

“We were not fluent in English. Our education had been formal and passive. We had concentrated on theory, not practise.

“We’ve had no discrimination, though we were a little concerned before we left home because we’d heard of attacks on women wearing headscarves in Australia. That has not happened. People here have been friendly and helpful.

“We’ve had to forget about jam karet (rubber time). Here we have to be disciplined and that’s been good for us. I’ve changed my habits, and I hope I won’t change back again when I return home.”

Other shocks have been the pace of life – “rush, rush” commented Lily, though most visitors from Europe, the US and Australia reckon the NZ lifestyle is so laid back that it’s practically stationary.

Ignorance of Indonesia has been a concern so the academics have had to spend time explaining that the republic is not a hotbed of terrorism, but a land where friendly folk help each other through the principle of gotong royong – community self help.

When challenged on their mild disapproval of the Western culture of individualism they acknowledged that NZ society, despite it’s mind-your-own-business philosophy, had a similar set of values when it came to people assisting their neighbors at times of need.

(That morning a NZ community had rapidly raised $NZ 8,000 (Rp 50 million) to repatriate the body of a penniless young Kiwi who had died after a fight in Bali.)

The way Kiwi women dress and behave did not worry the academics, though it would distress the police in some Indonesian provinces. “That’s their culture and their business,” said Nurul. “I think it’s more of a problem for the men.”

Commented economist Dr Kusuma Ratnawati: “Some of the difficulties facing women in Indonesia come from within. Many are not brave enough to assert themselves. Some feel their jobs are not as important as men’s work.

“It’s important that we help empower them to have confidence in themselves, to lift their spirits.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 April 2009)

Picture above: From left Hamidah Nayati Utami, Wahyu Widoretno, Atikah, Ani Mulyasuryani, Lily Agustina, Nurul Isnaini, Kusuma Ratnawati.