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

Monday, October 19, 2009


First impressions count most Duncan Graham

The reflections of foreigners arriving in Indonesia are now part of the nation’s stock of timeworn clich├ęs.

Being mugged by humidity as you exit the plane, asphyxiated by the spice of burning cloves, stung by the acrid tang of hot oil from roadside fry-ups, choked by the endless fug of exhaust fumes.

It was like that in the old days before aerobridges, indoor smoking bans and air-conditioned taxis with tinted windows. You either loved it and stayed - or threw up and never returned. Now the first impressions are no longer olfactory – they’re visual.

It’s a toss up between the airport crowds and the abundance of cigarette adverts as to which dominates. Both make Indonesia a distinctive destination quite unlike any other.

Unless a victorious sporting team has arrived from conquests overseas, security guards at Western airport arrival gates outnumber greeters. Just the odd spouse (and some even ones too), a business partner or company car driver and that’s the welcome party.

Not so in Indonesia. Elsewhere flying is as ho-hum as catching a bus, but here it’s still a major event. So the extended family, friends, kampong – sometimes the whole village - have to be there to celebrate the return of the rover.

The crowds come even when the traveller has only been next door to Malaysia for a short stint of babysitting or construction work.

(It would be churlish to suggest they’re all there to claim a share of the souvenirs that Indonesians returning from abroad must carry.)

With such enormous receptions who wouldn’t feel wanted? Forget the temperature of the weather – this is real human warmth. No one turns on such shows for expat individualists; we just dart out alone to the cab rank, head down, trying not to show our envy.

So far, so good. When Mohammed Nuh, the acting Culture and Tourism Minister was giving out a top toilet award to Surabaya’s new – though already overcrowded - Juanda airport terminal, he reportedly commented that loved lavatories ‘enhance the image of national culture.’

While it might be better to judge Indonesian culture on more esoteric levels, a clean cubicle does help give a good impression on entering a country. If issues at the bottom end of society are treated seriously, then the top end must be splendid.

If only. Such expectations are rapidly flushed away as you hit the highway and a screaming streetscape of advertising for just one product.

Hollywood toga movies featuring classical Rome always include a long shot of a banner-bedecked avenue, an essential triumphal entrance for the victor.

In modern Indonesia the flags and posters flanking Juanda’s roads are for the losers. They look bright. The captions are smart and sometimes funny. But the reality is funereal.

Not mild.

These adverts suggest a healthy country life but lure millions into addictions and disease. This includes the estimated 500,000 Indonesians who will suffer ghastly deaths from cancers of the lung and other vulnerable organs this year, but who are unreliably informed that using the weed will ensure a jolly life, making them slim, sophisticated and popular.

It’s not just Australia and European Union nations that have long-banned tobacco advertising; so has Singapore, Malaysia and almost 170 other countries. Which makes Indonesia a standout exception, and an airport entrance celebrating nicotine a rare international experience.

Is this the ‘national culture’ Minister Nuh wants to promote? This magic and mysterious country has so many world-class products, like batik, original artwork, imaginative handicrafts and fine furniture made from sustainable materials that could be advertised with pride at the international gateways.

And not just goods. There are many awesome attractions in Java, an island so rich in accessible history that other nations salivate with jealousy. How about higher education? Rough in the past but getting better now, with the smarter universities upgrading staff, curricula and facilities and bidding for overseas students.

So what message is the government allowing the tobacco companies to give visitors? There’s only one conclusion: This is an administration that cares for airport hygiene but not for its people’s health.

(First published in The Sunday Post 18 October 09)


The loneliness of the long-distance composer

An executive search for an international event organizer who could attract local and overseas funds probably wouldn’t give Michael Asmara a second glance.

Anyone who freely admits he gossips with geckos, shares his rice with the little lizards and tells them not to squabble should not be taken seriously.

Naturally the guy also looks a bit wild – certainly not a mile-a-minute man and no Indonesian army-style buzz cut. If he tried to wear a suit it would reject him. He’s so low profile he’s almost horizontal, great for a stimulating conversation through a evil fog of continuous cigarette smoke, but certainly no hustler.

Yet the 53-year old composer gets things done big time – though he says he’s not sure how.

Charisma and credibility have to be factors for the founder and director of the Yogyakarta Contemporary Music Festival. His talent is clearly acknowledged by his peers and his personal moral code means that he hasn’t used the festival to promote his works. Trust must be another for he’s not driven by lust for lucre.

Around him composers were going grey by the minute as their musicians either caught dengue fever or couldn’t catch the tempo. Committee members soothed spirits and boosted egos, sorted schedules and paid bills. Asmara turned off his handphone and lit another smoke

“I don’t know where the money comes from,” he said. “I can’t make a living through music but I survive. It’s quite difficult to explain. Birds get by without money – why not me?

“I tell the committee – don’t be ambitious. Be humble. You are nothing. Just learn, learn, learn. When they fight. I say- ‘don’t do that – live in peace.’

“Perhaps I’m a dreamer. Living in peace is my dream. I’m an atheist. I want to be at one with nature – maybe this affects my music. Sometimes I want to run away from life.” This comment didn’t ring true – Asmara may seek rest but he also has zest.

If Asmara doesn’t go looking for dollars they sure come looking for him. In the past he’s been invited to Europe, Japan, South-East Asia and New Zealand where his work has been performed and he’s given lectures.

This year’s festival picked up US $5,000 (Rp 50 million) from the Asian Cultural Council and support from a chorus of other local and overseas sponsors. That sort of backing doesn’t come for a Mickey Mouse show

The proof of Asmara’s abilities was clear with the staging of the fifth festival in mid October. This drew composers from 15 nations with 41 performances over three nights. Crowds of up to 250 came to hear some challenging music at the French Cultural Center. Most were young.
“I know 80 per cent prefer pop and jazz,” Asmara said. “I don’t force people to come. They can listen or not. I hope they’re stimulated. I’m not a music missionary – I just offer ideas.”

Asmara started the festival in 2003 “because I was lonely and needed friends.” This wasn’t just a slick line in self-deprecation. Other composers, like the immaculately suited Karen Keyhani from Iran – a standout among the jeans and sandals - also confessed to loneliness, the quest for the elusive, teasing tone, the right chord, the fickle note, the need to capture and escape.

If you don’t seek perfection above and beyond all else, then making music is not for you. If your partner is a composer expect to spend torrid nights alone while your lover strives to seduce the muse.

The festival took a rest because of the 2005 Yogya earthquake but is now back bigger and, well, maybe better, though Asmara said he was still dissatisfied with the quality.

But then this seemingly happy man never will be truly content. If you’re dispassionate about contemporary music you’re in the wrong genre.

The biggest applause was given to splendid performances by violinist Rieko Suzuki interpreting works from France and the USA – though both seemed more pre 20th century than post modern.

Hair splitters turned to the enigmatic veteran composer Slamet Abdul Syukur, 75, a Toulouse Lautrec figure always surrounded by elegant women, expecting the violin work to be condemned.

Like Asmara, Syukur is a composer who doesn’t just push boundaries – he jumps them with work featuring unusual instruments.

“I loved Rieko’s playing and the compositions,” Syukur pronounced. “They had emotion – that’s all that counts.” With this verdict the disciples stopped debating whether the works pre-dated the expressionist Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg who died in 1951. His Second Viennese School is supposed to mark the birth of contemporary music..

“The criteria is that the compositions must be new,” said Asmara whose past work has included Cooking Music featuring kitchen utensils. Another had motorbikes and sirens. Those who define contemporary music as electro-acoustic have closed off the options.

“In selecting the entries we looked for music that has been inspired by tradition. It must explore original ideas.

“We particularly want to encourage women composers, the old and the young like Yuri Nishida from Japan who is doing extraordinary work with the gender (a gamelan instrument).

“I feel uncomfortable if the participants are all men. I want to hear those from Asia. I want the festival to stay in Yogya, but this is not an exercise in nationalism – I hate that sort of thing.

“Yogya is rich in composers but they don’t get noticed. They don’t know how to promote their music. Typical Javanese – just enough is enough. I want them to get exposed to other ideas, to improve.”

Asmara sheepishly revealed he’d come from a Yogya ‘blue-blood’ family; as a child he was familiar with dance and Western classical music. His father tried to dissuade him from a career in music but the lad was already playing the organ and didn’t fancy a future in medicine checking other people’s organs.

He went to the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogya for three years then studied in Japan where he married, though the relationship didn’t survive. He played the guitar and piano but wanted to compose. His work started winning prizes.

“I wasn’t frustrated by Bach and Beethoven,” he said. “I just wanted to enjoy myself, to compare the gamelan with Western music, to experiment.

“I get my philosophy from Javanese culture. I never think I succeed or fail. I want to feel, to think deeply. We couldn’t have done this (run the festival) in the Soeharto era. Too much bureaucracy.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 October 09)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Filling the Fiji vacuum Duncan Graham 2009

One of the saddest sights in Suva, the capital of the tiny nation of Fiji, is the Parliament building.

It’s reputed to be a splendid example of Pacific island architecture representing traditional Fiji values.

But this can’t be confirmed. The gates are locked and rusting. Weeds are pushing through the driveway. Three years ago Fiji went through yet another coup and the power of the ballot box yielded to the rule of the gun.

There have been four coups in the past 22 years but this didn’t stop Indonesia opening an Embassy in this troubled former British colony.

It was a smart move. As the Commonwealth and European Union punished Fiji for overthrowing democracy, other countries have filled the gap.

“Indonesia’s interests in the Pacific islands used to be served by our embassy in Wellington, but because Suva is the hub of a growing region it was decided to establish a presence here in 2002,” said the Indonesian Charge d’Affaires, Pinardi Priambodo.

“Fiji doesn’t produce much so most of the trade is in Indonesia’s favor. In the past five years the growth rate has been 2.77 per cent.

“The other issue that takes our time is caring for the interests of Indonesian seamen and sorting out disputes with employers. Many problems come about because the Indonesians haven’t read or understood the job contracts they signed back in Jakarta.”

Indonesia isn’t the only nation taking a new interest in a zone once dominated by Australia and New Zealand. The imposition of sanctions and other controls on aid, sporting contacts and government visits by fellow Commonwealth countries has created a vacuum largely exploited by China which is now ramping trade and aid.

Last year Indonesia did business worth US $24.5 million (Rp 250 billion) in the Pacific islands served through Suva. By Indonesian standards it’s little more than a mid-size town with only 200,000 people, but it’s the biggest city in the South Pacific outside NZ, and a multicultural mix of locals, transients, other islanders, Indian traders and Europeans seeking a quiet life.

Indonesia’s natural sphere of influence has long been South-East Asia but its push into the Pacific is logical, according to Pinardi.

There are historical Indonesian links with the peoples of Polynesia. The current theory is that they arrived about 3,000 years ago after travelling south from Taiwan and China, then moved through the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippines and then deeper into the Pacific, reaching Fiji via Tonga.

Though Indonesia isn’t part of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum it has the status of a ‘dialogue partner’. Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda attended the forum’s post-summit meeting in Queensland, Australia in August this year.

Pinardi, who is also known as Pak Klik, a nickname that defied simple etymology, is single and “under 40”. He was previously stationed in Seoul where he specialized in economic issues, spending his spare time on the snowfields. By the time his tour of duty had finished he’d skied seven of the 12 slopes near the Korean capital.

Seeing his love of snow it fits the curious posting system of Foreign Affairs that he should be sent to a tropical island. He runs six Indonesian staff including four lively young diplomats seemingly uninfected by the past rigid bureaucracy of the Soeharto era (Pinardi labelled them ‘the fantastic four’), and five local staff.

Unlike many embassies it’s a relaxed low-security office. Despite the military coup and alleged human rights abuses Suva isn’t full of soldiers and most locals seem indifferent to the political tension, more concerned with public service sackings, the devaluation of the Fiji dollar and the resulting high cost of living.

With no direct air links to Indonesia there’s little demand for visas. For Indonesians wanting to see Fiji the good news is that they don’t need visas, prices are cheap and they can stay for four months, enough time to explore the lush, coral fringed 300 islands.

Indonesia has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Fiji to develop tourism but so far little has happened.

Pinardi arrived in Fiji in June after the departure of the last ambassador. The son of a Christian pastor and academic Pinardi was born and educated in Salatiga in Central Java and educated at the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta.

“I got into diplomacy by chance,” he said. “I planned to be a banker because I’d trained in economics. But when I went to get the transcript of my studies legalized I chanced to see an advert for the Foreign Service.

“I later spent 18 months at Monash University in Australia learning trade negotiation skills, knowledge that came in useful in Korea.

“In Fiji we’re not just concerned with trade. We’re very keen on providing technical assistance, sending Pacific Islanders for training in Indonesia.”

It’s a strange reversal of positions. While the big Western nations are giving aid to Indonesia, the Republic is busy providing assistance to the Pacific. This has ranged from training farmers in artificial insemination of dairy cattle, using the latest fishing technology and navigation aids, and rehabilitating people with disabilities.

“We’ve been passing on our skills in rice planting,” Pinardi said. “Farmers in Fiji used to broadcast their rice seeds. We’re training them in our system planting seedlings in rows while walking backwards. We’ve also donated small agricultural tractors.

“The other skill we’re teaching is in the multiple uses of bamboo. Fiji people don’t do as much with bamboo as we do in Indonesia.”

So while other countries may consider Indonesia to be a poor, low-tech developing nation, Fijians have another view, particularly those who’ve been the lucky recipients of programs like ‘capacity building for poverty reduction.’

The Indonesian touch can be found everywhere from imported Toyota Kijang vans through to handicrafts and women’s clothing. Fiji was once a big garment exporter but Commonwealth sanctions and cheap Chinese imports have crushed the industry, creating opportunities for smart Indonesian businesspeople and not just clothing manufacturers.

Furniture is a trade where Indonesia has few competitors. The big resorts have been ordering large quantities of tropical style rattan and water hyacinth chairs, tables and sofas that can be used inside and outside. They appeal to the environmentally-conscious because they’re made from renewable materials.

“We want to improve people to people ties and build cultural understanding,” said Pinardi. “We’ve been giving scholarships for higher studies at Indonesian universities.

“Fijians are very musical people and great singers. We do have a set of angklung (bamboo xylophones) but no gamelan orchestra. Maybe in the future.”


Deja Vu

Being in Fiji in 2009 is a bit like living in Indonesia during the repressive Soeharto years.

Outside journalists are not welcome and the local media is heavily controlled. Australian publishers have been kicked out. The newspapers originally responded by leaving blocks of white space to show readers that local political news had been cut by military censors, but now they fill the columns with bland tales.

Only those with access to overseas TV newscasts would have known that Fiji had been expelled from the Commonwealth on 1 September.

Fiji won independence in 1970 and became a republic. When the country was under British control in the 19th century indentured laborers from India were brought in to work the sugar cane plantations. Many stayed and now about half the national population of 800,000 is Indian. Most are Hindu, though seven per cent are Muslim.

Although the Indians and native Fijians (who are mainly Protestant) seem to get on together there have been few mixed marriages. The two cultures are radically different and don’t share the same values.

Past coups have been explained as bids by native Fijians to retain control of their country, fearing the democratic vote of one person, one value could put Indians in charge.

But the situations is more complex and involves native Fijians owning the land. The industrious Indians can’t get freehold land and many, especially the better qualified, have fled to Australia and NZ.

The present military strongman and self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama says he wants to rewrite the constitution, reform land laws and eliminate corruption.

Despite the sanctions and pressures from his neighbors he is refusing to allow elections till 2014.
First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2009

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ida Falkner-Head


Have stethoscope, will travel Duncan Graham 2009

Young Indonesians keen to travel and earn a good salary should consider nursing, providing they have the calling to care, according to Ida Zuraida Falkner-Head

“However you must be able to speak and understand English at a high level, keep studying and be prepared to learn about Western culture,” she said. “This means getting out and mixing with foreigners.

“You’ve got to build your knowledge of medical practices overseas or you won’t get work outside Indonesia. But if you’re good and qualified you can work just about anywhere.”

This is the message that Ms Head, a registered nurse in general nursing and obstetrics, regularly delivers to nursing students on return visits to her homeland from her present base in Hamilton, New Zealand.

NZ relies on overseas labor to maintain its healthcare services more than any other nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Many caregivers come from the Philippines, South Africa and Fiji – so far few from Indonesia.

This is a situation Ms Head would like to change because she believes Indonesian nurses are good at caring. Qualified nurses have to pass stringent English tests to practise, even if they’ve come from English-speaking countries. (See sidebar.)

Before taking her present job at the Eventhorpe Rest Home and Hospital where she is a ward sister, Ms Head has worked and studied in Europe, the US, the Middle East, Australia and Indonesia.

She was born in Palembang, South Sumatra and wasn’t keen on entering her father’s business as a commodities trader. Her mother wanted her to be a midwife, but the young Ida had broader ambitions and trained in Jakarta in general nursing.

“As a child I really wanted to travel,” she said. “So I used to dig holes in the garden hoping that I might be able to get overseas that way.”

For a while she worked in the private sector, travelling the region with the SOS Indonesia medical care agency specialising in servicing multinational companies. Keen to improve her skills she went to the US where she studied nursing management at California State University in Los Angeles, and later to Austria where she focussed on oncology and emergency medicine.

At SOS she frequently met Westerners working in Indonesia for international companies. One was Welshman Adrian Falkner-Head, a consulting civil engineer whose job meant he was constantly travelling.

The couple married and the energetic Ida, instead of being the passive partner, found her skills much in demand wherever her husband’s career led.

Her husband died 12 years ago and since then Ms Head has spent most of her time in NZ. But she regularly returns to Jakarta where she owns a house, using every opportunity to persuade young Indonesians to set high goals for themselves.

Not all want to hear. A group of nursing students from Brawijaya University in Malang who attended one of her lectures commented afterwards that they liked the idea of high wages and good conditions overseas. However they weren’t so keen on working for the higher qualifications required, particularly building their English skills.

The general attitude seemed to be that a few seminars at university and getting a basic degree was a big enough load to get them into the workforce without undertaking further studies.

Like civil aviation, English is the international language of the top hospitals in the world, including Saudi Arabia. You’re unlikely to last long in an emergency ward if you press the surgeon a scalpel when he or she asks you to dress the scapula.

“Nursing practices in Indonesia can be quite different from those in Western countries,” Ms Head said.

“For example here in NZ we don’t have to worry about the cost of treatment. If we want to order more dressings or drugs the registered nurse’s primary and only considerations are the medical needs of the patient. This makes a nurse’s life much less stressful.

“The other issue is the patient’s ability to pay. In Indonesia one of the first questions asked of an incoming patient is ‘where’s your deposit?’

“In NZ we don’t care if you have money or not, only how we can make you better.”

Like many Western countries NZ has a universal health care scheme funded through taxation. This runs alongside a private medical system catering for people with their own health insurance.

But the level of care is the same whether the hospital is private or government. The main issues are the waiting lists in the government system for patients to see specialists or have non-essential surgery.

Ms Head (“I find the double-barrel surname too awkward for everyday use”) said she preferred to work in small hospitals where there was a more friendly and intimate atmosphere. Although the hospital where she currently works is almost 30 years old it’s been designed to look more like a private home with pictures on the walls, cheerful furnishings, a minimum of signs and few tiled walls.

It specialises in rehabilitation and palliative care and is located in a quiet suburban street to diminish the institutional atmosphere that makes many hospitals intimidating fortresses of doom.

“The other difference is in the culture,” she said. “In Indonesia the doctor is the boss, but elsewhere doctors and nurses work as equals, in partnership to ensure that the one and only issue is the care of the patient.

“Doctors show respect for nurses here and we are given a lot of responsibility. The pay is good and we get extra if we have to come in if there’s an emergency on our days off.”

(A mid range nurse earns about NZ$ 60,000 a year (about Rp 35 million a month) though specialist nurses can receive a third more.)

“However there are no short cuts,” she said. “Apart from high level language we must continuously upgrade our skills. In Western nursing you can’t just depend on your original basic training.

“Every year I have to renew my practising certificate and I’m always undertaking extra training, internally and externally. Even though I’m 55 and have been nursing all my working life I don’t find this a burden. I think it’s essential.”


Check before you fly

Indonesian nurses thinking of working overseas should do their own research to check whether their qualifications are acceptable and do this before applying to migrate.

Most Western nations have their own compulsory national registration systems and websites.

In NZ the authority is the Nursing Council –

People giving migration advice must be registered by the government. See

Overseas trained nurses must have studied for at least four years in an accredited school of nursing and must be able to score 7.0 in each band of the IELTS examination. (International English Language Testing System.) This is a tough test - higher than the university entry requirement of 6.0.

Getting registered doesn’t mean the applicant will automatically get a job.

In some cases overseas-trained nurses have had to work as lower-paid caregivers while they build their skills.

A particular problem facing Indonesian nurses has been the lack of a national registration scheme.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 Sept 09)