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 31, 2009


Love me, love my feline © Duncan Graham 2009

Memo Indonesian women: So you think it would be cool to hook a Westerner? Make sure you first check his passion for pets, or your catch could turn into a catastrophe,

Successful inter-cultural relationships demand understanding, tolerance and patience in spades. These factors feature in mono-cultural marriages, though by comparison they have a walk-on role, they’re not the starring characters in the daily dramas of domesticity.

All the clutter of culture, from washing the dishes (Indonesians do this plate-by-plate in cold running water, Westerners in a sink of hot water), to the way the WC is used (no details required), can quickly eclipse the honeymoon.

But these are all hiccups compared to his and her attitudes to pets. Particularly cats.

Unless these issues are resolved early in the mating game the results can be cataclysmic. Sharing your partner with a puss can be the catalyst for a critical marriage moment. When he says: ‘Love you, pet’, who’s he addressing?

Cats have no status in Indonesia. There’s a score or more of scrawny crinkle-tail strays in our street in Malang and none seem to have a home, though some kind folk put out their scraps to keep the animals alive.

Others put out poison to try and get some peace from the caterwauling while unsterilized toms cruise for queens. One Tom Cruise, seeking sanctuary in a house with a foreigner, perished in the roof. It took weeks to get the stench out of the house, and several layers of paint to cover the ceiling stains.

In the West cats are pampered pussies. Harm a cat and the law gets its claws out. Catricide is an imprisoning offence.

If your neighbor buys a Mercedes you can be sure he or she is a veterinary surgeon, not a property developer or merchant banker. You can even get acupuncture for your pet.

Cats’ culinary needs are promoted on TV commercials with the hype and style of shampoo ads in Indonesia: ‘Added vitamins and factor X19 keep fur bright.”

Large sections of Western supermarket aisles (catwalks?), equal to the amount of space given to rice in an Indonesian shop, are dedicated to pussy products. These come in colored packaging with prices to match, and include hygienic kitty litter, collars with bells (so you can bell the cat despite Aesop’s fable), medication to cure every known condition, bedding and baskets, even jewellery.

These goods are all listed in a catalogue.

The latest gizmo is an electronic door that can only be opened by a cat with an implanted microchip. This restricts all but the owner getting access to the house and prevents strays coming in to watch an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on TV or reading T S Eliot. The cat, of course, owns the house; the humans are only the occupiers.

The religious in Indonesia display holy book verses on their walls, little catechisms encouraging the Almighty to bless the building. Australians favor epigrams like: ‘A house is not a home without a cat.’ The Portuguese put it more bluntly: ‘A person who doesn’t have a cat is a scoundrel’.

Indonesian women who like to think they are the real ibu rumah tangga (boss of the household) seem to have problems with this arrangement beloved by bule (foreigners). Some wives get so worked up they turn catatonic. Others just become catty.

They imagine cats (the cleanest of God’s creatures) bring awful diseases into the house. Like cataracts and catarrh.

It’s true some breeds tend to shed hairs, claw carpets, clamber up curtains, vomit hair balls, steal the fillet steak while you’re answering the phone during dinner and bring headless rodents into the lounge as trophies to impress guests. However these are minor matters when compared to the benefits from being owned by a cat with charisma.

These include keeping the bed warm (better than an electric blanket, just purrfect), having someone to share your meal when you’re missing the missus, and playing with the mouse and pawing the keyboard when you’re lost for words.

In fact this By The Way should also include the catchline: ‘Additional reporting by Meow’.

(First published in The Sunday Post 31 May 09)

Thursday, May 28, 2009



Flying clear of the grey areas © Duncan Graham 2009

Viewers of the addictive National Geographic TV program Air Crash Investigation know all about flight crew confusion as systems malfunction, alarms wail, dials spin like propellers and the plane turns turtle.

Cockpit chaos has a fancy academic label – crew resource management, and it’s a key topic in pilot training according to student Cendra Perkasa.

“Team building is extremely important, particularly with multi-national, multi-cultural aircraft crews,” he said.

“In the commercial pilot licence course I’m undertaking this is a major issue. We must know each other’s weaknesses and strengths and can use these in an emergency.”

Cendra, 21, is a final year student at New Zealand’s Massey University School of Aviation, and the son of Air Vice Marshall Eris Herryanto, the director general for defence facilities in the Indonesian Defence Department. He’s the man who buys the republic’s armaments.

When Cendra graduates with a multi-engine aircraft licence at the end of this year he hopes to become a Garuda pilot.

Problems faced by aircrew aren’t confined to staying up-to-date with mechanical and procedural changes, remaining physically fit and mentally alert, and living a stress-free lifestyle.

There are also cultural issues that have sometimes featured in crash post-mortems where junior staff have feared contradicting the captain when they see the boss’s errors. Better to nose dive into the ocean than insult the status of a senior by gently suggesting the plane levels out.

“The Massey instructors know about the problems with some cultures, particularly Asian, where young people are not supposed to question or challenge their superiors,” Cendra said.

“The junior crew must have the confidence to alert the captain to any errors and the captain must listen to what they are saying. Anyone can make a mistake.

“There has to be harmony and honesty. This is professionalism, acting as a team. I don’t know that this always happens in Indonesia where observance of the rules is sometimes a bit greyish.

“When I get back to Indonesia maybe I can start changing things a bit.”

It would be easy to flick aside his comments as naive, the mouthings of a lad barely out of his teenage years and who would hardly know which way is up. But while his little friends were pushing toy trains across their bedroom floors Cendra was at 10,000 feet getting intimate with ailerons, flaps and stabilisers. He’s been in and around aircraft since he was a toddler, taken into the cockpits of the F 16 fighter jets his dad flew during his long air force career.

“When I was a child I always wanted to fly,” he said. “I wanted to join the air force but eyesight tests showed I was one per cent minus.

“I’ve since had corrective laser surgery, but by then it was too late to enter the military so I decided to become a commercial pilot. In any case there aren’t too many planes in the Indonesian Air Force so opportunities are limited.

“I chose Massey because the training is so thorough and great emphasis is placed on safety and problem solving. NZ is really good for aviation; everything is done well, from forecasts to friendly air traffic controllers.

“In Indonesia there’s a bit of an attitude of: ‘Problems? Ah, well, no worries.’ Pilot training isn’t just about rudder and stick – it’s also about good management and developing decision making skills. These include caring for the passengers.”

All fliers will know what he means. We slyly watch the crew stride through the departure lounge, dragging black boxes stuffed with manuals and forecasts. Do they look neat and efficient, capable and cautious?

One stagger or alcoholic belch and every passenger would race back to the check-in to demand another flight. We want these men and women to keep us aloft, and we also expect them to have gravitas.

It’s the same with the in-flight announcements. The voice must be friendly, but authoritative, no slurred speech or nervous hesitancy. If the captain sounds unhappy, what’s he doing holding the joystick?

On all these simplistic and subjective measurements the fearless Cendra comes across as a levelheaded lad with The Right Stuff, at home in a profession where youths with maturity are kings of the sky.

Add a moustache and his image would be right for the life-size cardboard cut-outs travel agents employ to persuade querulous customers to open their wallets, take to the stratosphere and trust their destiny to someone they’ve never known.

“It is also important to be clear and fluent in English (the language used in international aviation) to communicate with air traffic control staff,” Cendra said.

“I had to pass level 6.5 in the International English Language Testing System to get entry into this course, and all training is in English.”

His instructor said Cendra was a good student who would have no problems. “He’ll go far,” he said, and although this is the standard pilot’s joke the prediction should literally and metaphorically come to pass.

The young Indonesian chose a degree course so that he’ll have the right academic qualifications to enter airline management when his flying days are over.

Cendra could have studied in Jakarta at a far lower cost, but believed the Massey course has high credibility in Indonesia where Garuda has employed its graduates, including Pudji Susanto who was the standout academic graduate in 1995.

The Aviation School attracts students from around the world giving trainee pilots insights into other cultures. International commercial pilots with the right aircraft certification have a global work ticket and are not confined to their country’s flag carrier.

The three-year degree course is expensive at $NZ 140,000 (Rp 840 million) plus at least $NZ 1,000 (Rp 6 million) a month living costs.

The school uses a civil aviation airport at Palmerston North in the lower North Island of NZ, a location that gets lashed with heavy winds and rain.

“This is a problem,” said Cendra, “but it gives us the ability to handle take-offs and landings in difficult conditions.

“I love flying. When I’m in the air I feel free. On the ground I don’t have the same freedom. It makes me happy.”

Which should put passengers at ease. If the pilot feels good, then let’s stop sweating and just follow the calming instructions to ‘sit back, relax and enjoy the flight’. Provided, of course, the in-flight entertainment isn’t showing Air Crash Investigation.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Wednesday 27 May 2009)

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Master shipbuilder who impressed the world

Under normal circumstances the death of Assad Abdullah al-Madani this month (May) would have passed little noticed outside Pagerungan Kecil, a flat 5.6 square kilometer island north of Bali and east of Madura.

Governments tend to officially recognize the rich, powerful and famous, often overlooking the talented and creative little folk.

Yet it’s these unsung, ordinary achievers going about their lives quietly and competently who give the nation its great strength, rather than the strutting generals, preening politicians and ephemeral pop stars.

This obituary would not have been written had two foreigners not met Assad in late 2002 when the traditional boat builder was about 68, though “still robust, big-bodied, sharp-minded and commanding respect,” according to marine archaeologist Nick Burningham.

He now lives in Western Australia, but had been in and around Indonesia for many years, generally messing about in boats.

The other outsider at the meeting was Philip Beale, a cashed-up Englishman who’d become obsessed with the flaking carvings of ships that he’d seen on the Borobudur temple terraces in 1982.

The carvings had been made a thousand years or more earlier. Beale was captivated by the idea that the masons had depicted ships that may have sailed southwest from Indonesia taking spices to Madagascar and Africa. He resolved to replicate the craft and sail what came to be called the Cinnamon Route.

Beale wasn’t able to realise his dream for another 20 years when he commissioned Burningham to help build a replica.

But who to carry out such a formidable task? Was there anyone still alive with the skills to translate the ancient carvings into a real ship?

After some disappointing leads the two men met Assad who agreed to complete the ship in four months. He’d already built more than 40 big boats and had a substantial local reputation.

Assad’s ancestors probably came from the Gulf of Aden in the late 19th century as Muslim Hadhrami missionaries to Sulawesi. The family settled on the then empty and almost barren island before the Second World War and struggled to survive.

Assad told Burningham that during the occupation there was no rice on the island and people could be beaten to death by the Japanese just for bringing coffee from Java. The family planted coconuts. Assad married Fatmah and became a supercargo on a 30-ton trader, then a boat builder. The family prospered and the island population grew. It now supports more than 1,000 families.

But could a man with just basic education re-create a ship he’d never seen? Burningham built a model. “Assad and Abdul (the head shipwright) looked at the model very rarely, but they had absorbed the design and shape, and built as accurately as if they’d been taking measurements from a set of drawings every day,” said Burningham.

“The only deviations from the design were to make the finished ship more attractive and neater on construction.

“Working with him was easy and pleasant – none of the usual frustrations or misunderstandings – no attempts to introduce sub-standard materials when I wasn’t looking.

“Longitudinal symmetry was scrupulously avoided because of the philosophy that Assad called ganjil. If there was symmetry there would be a kind of perfection and wholeness, so the ship would be content in itself and would have nothing to seek – it would not be eager to find friends, cargo, income, fish, new lands or anything else.

“Assad’s role was also imbuing and amplifying semangat, the life force in the developing hull.

“A good master-shipwright is believed to have the mental strength, focus and consistency to influence in a beneficial way the developing character of the boat. And character is destiny.

“He was confident that he could have the ship built better than anyone else – and he was right.”

The 19 meter long, 4.25-meter wide boat was built by 26 barefoot men using basic tools like adzes. The timber was sourced locally and from Papua. A hand auger bored through the keel for the ship’s navel, and the shavings were given to Assad and Beale.

The wood from the hole represented the placenta and would help the ship know where it belonged.

The ship cost Rp 250 million (US 24,000) and was launched in 2003 in an emotional atmosphere. “It is widely believed in Indonesia that mental concentration is important in ceremonies which contribute to the life-energy of a ship,” said Burningham. “She rode the water proud as a lion.”

A month later at a major event graced by the then president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, the expedition led by Beale set off into the Indian Ocean.

Named Samudraraksa (guardian of the sea) the ship successfully sailed to West Africa with a multi-national crew of 15. This became an international event stirring Indonesian pride, adding to the belief that people from the archipelago had been pioneer global traders, selling spices in Africa and returning with iron tools, and maybe even slaves, long before Europeans started exploring the world.

Assad’s masterpiece is now in a museum in the Borobudur complex, close to the carvings that inspired its construction. Beale, who was given an award by the Indonesian government for his services to culture, is at sea with the Phoenician Ship Expedition. This will try to recreate the first circumnavigation of Africa in 600 BC.

Assad lived to see the triumph of his skills on display and died on 3 May from a stomach disorder. His eldest son Rauf, 43, is continuing dad’s work as a shipbuilder though using woodworking machines. One of his grandchildren, Azmi, is studying English at a university in Malang, East Java, so he can market the boats overseas.

Rauf said he had a moral responsibility to continue his father’s work, though the economic crisis had hit orders.

“My father was a hard worker and persistent,” he said. “He was also friendly, humorous and patient. Since he was seven years old he was clever at drawing and making toy boats.

“Apparently he got this talent from his father. At the beginning it was only a hobby, but he was motivated to help fishermen by building boats that made it easy to catch fish. His philosophy was to build quality craft and on-time.”

Said Burningham: “Assad was a great craftsman who combined an aesthetic and sculptural genius for traditional ship building with integrity and can-do management. The world is diminished by his passing.”

(With additional reporting by Arnold Metekohy)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 May 09)


Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Indonesia’s Mr Try-Hard gets voters’ nod Duncan Graham

Out of the chaos of Indonesian politics has come forth clarity. More than half the voters in the world’s most populous Muslim nation prefer moderate secular parties rather than those sheltering under the crescent of Islam.

On the surface this looks like good news for the West, particularly Australia which has long had an edgy relationship with its northern neighbour. (See Scoop 22 April 2009) About 240 million people are squashed into the archipelago that straddles the equator. More than 40 million live below the poverty line, earning less than $US 2 a day.

The election results are also warming for New Zealand. Indonesia remains our biggest market in South-East Asia. Our exports are worth about $NZ I billion and growing fast, so the stability of our big customer is of great importance. A free trade agreement between the nations was signed in February.

The just released official results of the 9 April election have closely followed informal exit polls. They’ve shown the Democratic Party of the incumbent president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (widely known as SBY) ahead of all 38 parties seeking power, winning 21.04 per cent of the vote.

Second was the Democratic Party of Struggle led by the former president Megawati Soekarnoputri with 14.52 per cent, a whisker ahead of Golkar mustering 14.23 per cent.

Golkar is the political vehicle designed and driven by the late president Soeharto to hold absolute power for 32 years. More recently it’s been steered by the vice-president Jusuf Kalla.

Fourth with 8.16 per cent was the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) that has kept its Islamic credentials in the background while campaigning hard against corruption. This has caused a frisson of fear among those who suspect the party has another agenda.

In New Zealand most Indonesian voters backed SBY.

Clearly with these results a coalition will have to run the 560-seat Parliament, known as the DPR. How that’s going to be engineered is the critical question, though this time round SBY can bargain from a position of strength.

Under the Indonesian system the people directly elect the president and vice president for a five-year term. In the 2004 election the Democratic Party was a tiny player with less than eight per cent of the vote. But the electorate wanted SBY, not his principal rival Megawati, by a margin of three to two.

Optimists say all this shows Indonesians have embraced democracy and are making it work. Those who don’t use rose-coloured glasses note only 61 per cent of the nation’s 171 million eligible electors bothered to vote and millions were disenfranchised through registration stuff-ups.

Critics of SBY’s administration during the past five years often overlook the huge problems he faced and give insufficient weight to his skills in keeping the political system intact and the economy on course.

For a Kiwi comparison, imagine Jeanette Fitzsimons being elected PM by popular vote while the Greens bump along the bottom in Parliament.

In 2004 SBY campaigned for the nation’s top job with businessman Jusuf Kalla, thereby binding Golkar into the government. SBY still hasn’t chosen his running mate for this year’s election. Golkar gave SBY the numbers on the floor of Parliament, but the compromises required eroded much of his authority.

Unless SBY picks a mightily unpopular running mate, or someone considered corrupt, the man with a public approval rating of 70 per cent looks set in the job. Megawati will challenge but she’s a lacklustre candidate famous for being aloof and believing she deserves the job just because her dad was the country’s first president.

Westerners dealing with Indonesia have been barracking for SBY, not because he’s been an outstanding leader but because the alternatives look so scary.

During the authoritarian and corrupt rule of General Soeharto that ended in 1998 with the Asian economic crisis, the military ran the country and just about everything else. The army had seats in Parliament, controlled many businesses, had a major internal security role, oversaw the police and were considered untouchable.

Although the army’s influence is no longer so blatant it’s still a major force behind the scenes. Boosters for SBY highlight his academic qualifications (he has a doctorate in agriculture), his urbanity and English skills learned while studying in the US, and his middle ground, ultra-cautious politics. He appears to genuinely believe in democracy and has gravitas on the international stage.

Supporters play down the fact that he was a four-star general before entering politics and comes from a military family. His father, father-in-law and one son are, or were, soldiers.

Two former generals with questionable human-rights records were major party candidates in this year’s election and Megawati is largely regarded as a tool of the military.

SBY has been unable to stop the imposition of some aspects of Islamic Sharia law in the provinces. These include forcing female bureaucrats and students to wear headscarves, banning alcohol, enforcing prayers and setting up community patrols to sniff out sexual naughtiness, though the Constitution appears to prohibit such local initiatives.

By contrast, and after decades of oppression, the media in Indonesia is now the freest in South-East Asia, robustly pushing the old barriers on a wide range of social and political issues.

Despite doomsayers claiming Indonesia would become another Pakistan as fundamentalism flourished, that hasn’t happened. The battle against terrorism, with significant help from the Australian Federal Police, has notched up many wins against the bombers.

SBY’s push against corruption has had limited success; pulling out the wallet remains the standard way to bypass stalling bureaucrats at all levels. The arrest this month of the Corruption Commission boss Antasari Azhar on charges of being involved in the murder of a businessman has crippled the clean-up campaign.

The judiciary is still a mess, continuing to use colonial Dutch law from early last century, and the over-staffed public service a dinosaur sturdily resisting extinction. Outsiders trying to do business need to tread warily.

The economy has slumped, though not as much as expected and less than other Asian nations. Poverty and poor quality education remain major concerns, although there have been patchwork successes in improving the lives of those on Struggle Street.

The consensus, both inside and outside the Republic seems to be that Mr Try-Hard has made a reasonable fist of handling one of the world’s toughest tasks – and given the line-up against him is clearly the best bloke around.

There are two standout dangers: If he wants to divorce Golkar and get a workable majority in the Parliament, SBY may be forced to cohabit with the PKS and other minor Islamic parties. This could let the extremist tail wag the reformist dog.

The other concern is that the opposition parties frustrated at their inability to find candidates with popular appeal may combine to spoil SBY’s legislative program out of spite. Success here seems less likely; though the emotion is real they’ll find it hard to bury differences because so many are single-issue or policy-free parties.

The election for the president will be held on 8 July, with a run off on 8 September if no candidate gets above 50 per cent of the vote.

* (First published in Tuesday 11 May)