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

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vale Gus Dur 7 September 1940 - 30 December 2009

FAREWELL GUS DUR: President RI 20 October 1999 - 23 July 2001

I interviewed Gus Dur for a book on Indonesia and spent most of the time laughing at his jokes. There's one below. He was an extraordinary man, a true democrat, liberal, learned and impossible to dislike. History should treat him kindly - just as he treated others. His impact on Indonesia endures leaving it a far better country after the ravages of Soeharto.
Duncan Graham

By Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur)

Back 10 centuries ago, just before the Crusade was launched, the Pope decided all Muslims had to leave Jerusalem peacefully or there’d be bloodshed. Naturally there is a big uproar from the Muslim community. So the Pope strikes a deal. He proposes a debate with a member of the Muslim community. If the Muslim wins the debate, all the Muslims can stay. If the Pope wins, all the Muslims will have to leave.
The Muslims realise they have no choice. They look around for a champion who can defend their faith. No one wants to volunteer, it's too risky. But they finally pick their representative, an old Mullah who unknowingly agrees without understanding what he’s getting himself into. He agrees on the condition that neither side is allowed to talk but communicate by miming, as he’s almost deaf. The Pope agrees.
The day of the great debate comes. The Mullah and the Pope sit opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raises his hand and shows three fingers. The Mullah raises his middle finger. The Pope waves his fingers in a circle around his head. The Mullah points to the ground and stamps his right foot. The Pope pulls out a wafer and a glass of wine. The Mullah pulls out an apple. The Pope stands up and says: ‘I give up. This man is too good. The Muslims can stay.’
An hour later the cardinals are all around the Pope asking what happened. The Pope says: ‘First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there is still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all about us. He responded by pointing to the ground and stamping his feet, telling me that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple reminding me of the first sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?’
Meanwhile, the Muslim community has crowded around the old Mullah in total astonishment. ‘What happened?’ they ask. ‘Well’ says the Mullah, ‘first, he said we Muslims had three days to leave Jerusalem. I told him - up yours! Then he said this whole city would be cleared of Muslims. I told him none would leave this land!’
‘And then?' asks a woman. ‘He took out his lunch and I took out mine,’ says the Mullah.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Albertus Herwanta

All roads, it’s said, lead to Rome.

The one that took Albertus Herwanta to the capital of Italy and the heart of his faith started far, far away – in a field in Central Java.

It was as a lad on his grandmother’s farm that he became close to the environment, experiencing the seasonal changes, conscious of the cycles and inter-dependency of plants, soil and animals, aware of the rituals of planting and harvest. He learned that the Javanese are never separate from nature.

All this, plus widespread reading (particularly British economist E F Schumacher’s seminal Small is Beautiful), and research helped clear the way to his present job – Indonesia’s Father Green.

When the young seminarian from Yogyakarta was ordained after theological studies in Malang, he pondered his future. What order to join?

“The Benedictines attracted, though I didn’t really want to shut myself away from the world,” he said. “I thought the Jesuits would be too difficult. My elder brother hadn’t succeeded - and he’s cleverer than me.

“So I chose the Carmelites. That seemed the right compromise. I wanted to teach (his parents had been schoolteachers) and do parish work.”

Which spirits up an image of a cosy living in a peaceful suburb or terraced village, every home easily reached by foot or bike. Here the priest knows the pious and the lapsed, their hearts bright and black, the trembling doubts of the devout and the holiness of the humble.

That picture doesn’t quite fit his present position. As Councillor General for the Carmelites he spends a lot of time squashed in Boeings. His parish covers Asia, including the sub continent of India, and Oceania, including Australia. That’s well over two billion souls, so ministering to all is a task beyond even the considerable energies of this articulate 51-year-old.

So is the brief he’s been given: To implement the charges laid on Catholics by Pope Paul 11 in 1990. The late pontiff’s message for the World Day of Peace was to ensure that “respect for life and the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation.”

In layperson’s terms it means Catholics have to care for the environment. The Carmelites (properly named the Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and established in the 12th century), hearkened.

Father Albertus has drawn the short straw – or won the big prize - depending on your outlook: Get the message to the masses. Green is good and Godly.

Before being transferred to Rome two years ago Father Albertus was settling for a year off from running a senior high school in Malang with 800 students, boys and girls.

Apart from studying for a master’s degree in education in the US he’d been teaching since he was ordained in 1987, and principal for ten years.

“I wanted time out, to recharge the batteries,” he said. “I was feeling tired. I hoped to do research, more reading.” He admired the writings of the late Javanese intellectual and diplomat Soedjatmoko, and Columban Father Paul McCartin’s A Theology of Environment.

Man proposes, God disposes. When you dedicate your life to a multinational corporation and suddenly get shunted to head office for six years then it’s time to shred personal plans, adjust to jet lag and learn how to pronounce spaghetti bolognaise correctly.

“Fortunately I’d studied Spanish while in the US so that helped, along with my knowledge of Latin,” he said. “The first two months were difficult. My colleagues come from eleven different countries so we all use Italian.”

Although he heads the Carmelite’s curiously named Commission for International Justice, Peace and Integrated Creation (is there any other sort?) his basic job is raising awareness of the threats to the environment and the need for action now.

Despite his position he will not be attending the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this month (December). Instead he’ll be in the Philippines propagating his message.

“What’s the point in going to Denmark and spending a lot of money on hotels for a few days of talking when I could be in Asia helping address this very serious challenge and maybe influencing thousands?” he said in Malang. He stopped off in the central East Java hilltown to address a seminar for 70 Catholic teachers.

“If we can inspire teachers to be involved in environmental issues then we can have an impact on the wider community. Teachers are still respected. They may not have much status now but they do have authority. The children can help raise awareness in their families that we are talking about an important issue that affects us all.”

Before handing the teachers over to former zoo vet and now green activist Dr Suryo Prawiroatmodjo to give practical tips on making environmental studies fun, Father Albertus spent an hour inspiring his listeners.

Using the sort of energy normally seen in TV commercials for caffeine drinks he sang and joked his way script-free through the barriers brought to the seminar by the overworked educators: Oh Lord - not another topic to add to an already crowded curriculum – and on our day off, too!

“I know they’re under pressure,” Father Albertus said, “I’ve given them the theological foundation for preserving the environment.

“The Genesis verse which says humans must fill the earth and subdue it has been misinterpreted – the earth is not to be exploited and destroyed but nurtured and worked in partnership. We are called to contemplate the peace of God through the beauty of nature

“Altering habits, lifestyles and mindsets is a huge challenge. We can’t change others unless we first change ourselves. We have to start little by little, turning off taps, picking up litter, making compost, recycling. It has to be repeated again and again.

“It means raising awareness, motivating, helping people understand what’s going on, building their knowledge. The situation in Indonesia is getting worse. Governments are slow to respond – these things can be done better through private organisations.

“The next step we’ll take is to run seminars for public school teachers and through them join with the Muslim community. This is not an issue of theology, we don’t proselytise. The critical question to ask is this: Do we want our grandchildren to inherit the mess we are making?”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 December 09)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Minahasa’s green assassin Duncan Graham
Eceng gondok is the Houdini of the weed world.

If it could talk, like the revolutionaries of 1945 it would be forever shouting Merdeka! (Freedom). In North Sulawesi it’s happy beyond measure – particularly in Lake Tondano.

From the Lambean Mountains, studded with tall clove trees in fire-red finery, the 14 kilometer long lake looks tourist-brochure perfect.

Smoke from smouldering rice straw drifts slowly across still waters, shimmering in the sunlight, blue-gray as the heavens. A lone fisher in a flat-bottom canoe carved from hinterland timber rhythmically hauls in his net, hand over hand. His grandfather showed him how and his grandfather learned the same way.

Closer and the scene changes. No water laps the foreshore boulders. They’ve disappeared under a carpet of lush wide-leaf plants so thick maybe a child could run across to the lake, hundreds of meters away.

The village kids know better, so use bamboo walkways. Eceng gondok (water hyacinth), one of the world’s worst waterway pests, is dense but gives no support. And if it’s not controlled soon the lake will no longer support the 300,000 people who depend on it being fresh, full and hearty for their living.

“Lake Tondano has many functions and it’s the responsibility of everyone to provide care,” said engineer Jefry Karlos, boss of water quality in Minahasa Regency.

“Unfortunately many communities won’t cooperate because they think the health of the lake isn’t their responsibility. The Regent is very disappointed,

“The lake water creates electricity from two hydro stations. (The lake is 600 meters above sea level.) We reticulate the water to the towns and villages.

“The flatland paddy that surround the lake provides rice. Millions of fish are farmed in netted ponds in the lake. There’s huge tourism potential but this hasn’t been realised.

“In 1935 the lake was 40 meters deep. Now it’s only 15.”

Lake Tondano, just above the equator, is the center of a resource-rich rural region with landscapes that define rugged beauty. Unlike Java there are few people and a lot of wilderness, some of it little touched. Agriculture is the biggest income earner. This is an area where political candidates promote themselves wearing cowboy hats and on horseback.

Despite its critical economic and lifestyle importance the 4,600 hectare lake, formed by a huge volcanic explosion millions of years ago, has for too long been used as a sewer and garbage pit. Unexploded munitions from the Japanese occupation in the 1940s are believed to lie under a concrete jetty once used by flying boats.

Lavatories and drains empty straight into the lake. Women scrub clothes on the shoreline then toss dirty, phosphate-rich suds into the water. Fertilisers run-off from the surrounding 20,000 hectares of rice fields and market gardens, lifting nitrogen levels.

These effects are invisible. The water hyacinth is not. The weed creates a mosquito paradise. Apart from being an eyesore it starves the water of oxygen and kills fish.

Karlos said his office hadn’t heard of marine life dying, but Irwan Hartonio who has 34 ponds each with 2,000 fish near the village of Kakas has different tales. He also remembers when the water lapped halfway up the stone foundations of his home.

Now it’s far away, under the thick green smothering sward with its deceptive pretty pink flowers. The lower water levels are blamed for regular daily power cuts. Low rainfall has also been a factor. Many businesses and homes have standby generators.

“In 2008 we had a budget of Rp 1 billion (US $ 100,000) to get rid of the weed,” said Karlos. “We can’t spray because it will kill the fish. So every Friday for six or seven months government workers pulled heavy clumps of water hyacinth to shore where it rotted in piles.

“Then the money was finished.” But the free-floating vengeful weed was not, and like a Biblical plague it’s returning in force, seven times seven.

To try and convince the villagers that the lake had to be saved the government put up a huge sign explaining the need for action and distributed pamphlets.

Could The Jakarta Post see these? Sorry, said Karlos, the sign has gone and there have been no reprints. So what are the plans? Hopes that an investor will arrive and build a biogas plant to generate methane. Or maybe a factory to turn the weed into cattle feed or fertiliser.

Have such white knights galloped in to save damsel Tondano in distress, their saddlebags stuffed with greenbacks? Well, not yet, and it seems none are on the horizon.

A proven use for water hyacinth is furniture manufacture. The weed is pulled and sun-dried. The strong brown stalks are plaited to form ropes. These are then woven around wicker and wood frames to make tables, chairs and sofas.

These are particularly attractive to overseas buyers concerned about conservation. Here’s a sustainable product, which improves the environment when it’s harvested.

A small cooperative called Kerajinan Eceng Gondok (water hyacinth handicrafts) at the lakeside village of Watumea employs up to 30 to make the furniture – but only after orders have been received. The government has given some training, but the community says it has no money for marketing, so its products are little known and work intermittent.

“We can’t borrow money from the banks because the government won’t help with a guarantee,” said Sintje Supit, the co-op coordinator. “Without capital we can’t pay the workers.” Her complaint is familiar among small businesses across the Republic.

And still the water hyacinth multiplies, like a horror movie featuring alien slime. When one area is cleared the wind whips across the water bringing mother clumps from afar, moving like bilious squid, eager to colonise empty shores with their fecund daughters.

“We’ve controlled waste from restaurants and hotels getting into the lake,” said Karlos, counting one victory in one minor skirmish in a major war. His agency doesn’t employ anyone to monitor water quality.

“I don’t know how it got here and when it started. Ten years ago. Maybe more. (One report suggested the mid 90s.)

“We’re motivated to save the lake, even though we don’t have any money. The important thing is to get rid of the weed and bring the benefits to the people.

“How can we look after our lake? This is a very serious problem but many communities just want the government to do the job. Yet we lack the funds.”

Eceng gondok lacks neither the resources nor the will. Here’s a tip: If you’ve ever planned to visit this lovely lake, don’t hesitate. It may not be here in the future. .


Going feral

Water hyacinth can look lovely in a garden pond surrounded by concrete frogs. But once it escapes into the wild it goes wild. The seeds are tough as cockroaches and can survive for 30 years.

Originally from tropical South America, sales of Eichhornia crassipes from garden shops are now banned in many Western countries.

The weed got into Florida in the 19th century but is now reported to be under control. In Africa is has done huge damage to Lake Victoria. Tondano isn’t the only Sulawesi victim. There are reports of rivers getting blocked near Makassar.

Despite its reputation for blanketing waterways and clogging power station turbine blades, the weed gets a good press with its ability to absorb heavy metals. So it can be used to clean up rivers polluted by factory discharges.

Though only if guarded 24 / 7.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 December 2009)


Friday, December 04, 2009


No place for lazy teachers Duncan Graham

Haji Lalu Syafi’i wasn’t aware of the old English maxim that cleanliness is next to Godliness. However he agreed it matched his rubbish-free campaign, particularly as Mataram is littered with signs saying it’s a progressive and religious city.

To report that the director of education in the capital of Lombok is on a mission would be pushing journalistic licence. But only a little. He’s hot on professional discipline but he’s not a disciplinarian, preferring a persuasive approach. A benign controller.

Syafi’i would like to be Mr Clean, but still has a way to go, though by Surabaya standards under-crowded and orderly Mataram is the Singapore of Eastern Indonesia.

“According to my religion the rivers must be kept clean,” he said. “But because of the culture people don’t follow this rule. They just throw their rubbish in the water, as in the old days.

“We claim to be moral people yet we are abusing the environment. Conservation is a moral message.

“The culture also says the young must obey their teachers, so we are putting this message through the schools.”

It’s one of many. Syafi’i is initiating significant reforms throughout the 300 schools and 82,500 students under his control, starting with the teachers.

There are 5,000 of them and not all are wildly embracing their leader’s ideas. “Some do not want to change their habits,” he said. “They come to school late and they’re lazy. They think that having a quiet class means they’re doing their job properly. That’s a challenge.”

While not excusing slovenly practices in a profession with a high burnout rate, it’s easy to see how some have learned to hunker down in a hostile environment that has long been inimical to best practice.

Classes so crowded that the shy and sly can cruise through semesters without saying a word or being noticed. Oven rooms that bake the brain. Regimental rote learning with the mind in neutral. Protocols that take preference over performance.

Indonesian teachers may have high status but the pay doesn’t match. To keep their family’s rice-cookers full many have to sell cellphone subscriptions and run roadside stalls after work.

A promotion system that rewards long service over merit, and a culture which respects age even when the elderly are inept and idle is another concern. The notion that a smart young chalkie just a few years out of university should leapfrog gray-headed time-servers is bound to cause resentment in the staff room.

Syafi’i understands these factors well. Before becoming the boss of Mataram’s education department five years ago he served 20 years before the chalkboard in a variety of schools. Along the way he picked up a handy Western aphorism – “an ounce of practice is worth a tonne of theory.”

He also used his time to ponder the faults of the education system he served, and to wonder why Indonesian schooling was stumbling behind other Southeast Asian nations.

Not just think – but do. Whenever an opportunity presented Syafi’i took the chance to go overseas and sniff the wind. In 2003 he was in Malaysia. Two years later he was looking at curricula in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

In 2006 he went to Australia to study vocational education, then to China for a mathematics competition. That was followed by a trip to Japan.

Last year he was in New Zealand and this year he’s been to Holland. All the while he’s been promoting sister-school relationships so Indonesian kids, like their leader, can open their minds to other cultures and ways of doing things.

Class sizes abroad are often a fraction of those in Indonesia where public school teachers can face a room of 40 plus. There are obvious difficulties in cutting workloads – insufficient space and too few teachers, but a pilot project of 18 students per class is now underway.

Earlier this year 19 Mataram students went to NZ for a fortnight. Their experiences pushed them to raise serious questions and stir the winds of change.

On their return the teenagers asked why they have to study 13 or more topics in senior high school when their counterparts abroad are able to focus on just the five or six major subjects they’ll need for post-school education.

And why can’t they question and challenge sloppy teachers who aren’t up to date with their subjects? Should taboos on doubting authority apply in a learning environment?

From his overseas trips Syafi’i has gleaned wisdoms, ideas and techniques that he’s now applying in Mataram. Back in the days of Soeharto’s New Order authoritarianism the word would have been ‘enforcing’, but in a democracy reformers have to shuffle, not march.

“I’ve learned that if you want to change others you must first learn to change yourself,” he said in his spotless office. “You must set an example, become a role model. It’s not do as I say but do as I do.

“That’s why I moved into administration though I love teaching. If I’d stayed in the classroom I could bring benefits to only a few but in this job I can benefit many.

“Teachers and principals must serve. This is the key to education. You can’t force – only the army can do that. But we do supervise and monitor our teachers closely.

“I want staff and students to interact. I’ve found that the best teachers and principals tend to be women – they don’t create so many problems. They are more honest than men and don’t misuse money.”

The rule now is that Mataram’s teachers must be at school ahead of the students, ready to greet as they enter the gates at 7 am. Staff are not supposed to give bleary-eyed grunts or make sarcastic comments on the kids’ dress and behavior, as teachers worldwide are wont to do, but be friendly.

And more than that. The teachers are also expected to have such a good rapport with their charges that they can ask about their families and toss in the odd casual question and comment to show they’re in touch and the pastoral care is genuine.

Syafi’i, 48, came from a family of farmers and was the first to seek higher education – initially at a teachers’ training college in Malang, East Java. He married a teacher, Hajjah Bq Mimi Mariani, who is currently a primary school principal.

He’s not content to remain in Lombok and hopes to get promotion to Jakarta where a new breed of progressive broad-shouldered teachers is slowly heaving the education system into the 21st century.

“We should not think of what we can do to lift education in Indonesia,” said Syafi’i, who is clearly no fan of the NATO (no action, talk only) administrative style often found in the provinces.

“Our job is to put our ideas and plans into practice. The doing is the important thing.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 November 2009)