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 16, 2010


Finding Samoan roots in Indonesia

Where did the big brown-skinned people of the Pacific Islands originate? For Samoan public servant Tevita Simeki there’s no doubt his ancestors came from the Indonesian archipelago.

Thousands of years ago people from China slowly migrated south and then east. The evidence is based on DNA research, pottery fragments, farming methods and a few words.

Lua (dua) for two, lima for five and sefulu (sepuluh) for ten are widely quoted as examples of a distant shared past.

It’s a theory supported by many anthropologists, linguists and historians, though those who know Javanese are small, wiry-limbed people find the idea hard to grasp.

Tevita has no such qualms, and his beliefs were reinforced by three months in Java as a guest of the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs studying culture.

“I learned so much from Indonesia,” he said. “Samoan culture is under constant assault from Western values and entertainment. Indonesians seem to have resisted this international pressure, holding on to what they have while still accepting Toyotas and McDonald’s.

“In Yogyakarta I was impressed to find a modern, developed city with Western technology yet the people are maintaining their own music and dances. There’s no sign the culture has been corrupted by outside influences.

“It’s the same with meals. Everywhere I went in Java I ate local foods, like fresh ayam kampung (village chicken), now hard to find in Samoa because so much food is imported and frozen. There’s a lot that we can learn in the Pacific from Indonesia.

“A big problem we’re facing in Samoa is the way families try to gain status by putting on lavish and costly ceremonies such as for weddings and funerals. These events are done to impress, but they can be financially crippling.

“That can happen in Indonesia but it seems to me that people in Java are able to keep these things in check.”

Tevita, 26, was educated in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific where he studied history, politics and geography.

After returning to his homeland he became a public servant and a rapid riser. He is now a senior internal affairs officer in the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development charged with preserving Samoan culture.

Last year the Samoan government approved his bid to take an all-expenses paid Indonesian Art and Culture Scholarship, joining 15 other handpicked bright young folk from other Pacific nations. The program, also involving applicants from other nations, has been running for seven years,

Tevita and his colleagues face a huge task trying to slow down the tsunami of Western civilisation threatening (along with rising sea levels) to swamp their isolated tiny communities.

Although Samoan families tend to be big, the population of Western (properly known as Independent) Samoa is less than 200,000 spread across 17 islands, some little more than sand spits. An estimated 70,000 live on American Samoa, a separate state.

As in Indonesia, tens of thousands have migrated overseas seeking work and better opportunities, though Samoa’s tropical laid-back villages look appealing to stressed-out city dwellers.

Samoa is about 4,400 kilometers northeast of Sydney and 3,700 kilometers southwest of Hawaii. It was previously a German colony, then administered by New Zealand. It became an independent republic in 1962.

It lies east of the International date line and like Java is just below the Equator. Though lush and fertile the soil is not worked intensively as in Indonesia.

More than half the 260,000 Pacific Islanders living in NZ are Samoans, some gaining fame as rugby players. Around 55,000 also live in Australia. Their remittances along with foreign aid help keep the Samoan economy alive. Local wages are low by Western standards, about three tala (Rp 10,000) an hour.

Tevita’s department is using television documentaries to promote Samoan culture, but the programs tend to be static discussions. The idea of getting across social messages using Indonesian sinetron (soap operas) where dramatic story lines reinforce traditional values is attractive, but there’s no money for big budget productions.

Tevita, who is also a dancer and musician, said he’d been impressed by the formal training of Javanese dancers in Yogyakarta. He liked the fact that artists could make a living displaying their skills and talents at important functions – something that hasn’t happened in Samoa though cultural groups do perform at tourist resorts.

Pacific island dancing, usually accompanied by rhythmic drumming, is vigorous, unlike the slow refined movements of hand and eye by Javanese performers. The Samoan handicraft industry is not well developed.

“We have limited resources – we’re used to that,” Tevita said. “Indonesia is resource rich but it’s the way you’re using your culture that I find so impressive. It’s not just in the hands of the old people – youth are widely involved and they are doing so with passion.

“We have museums in the Pacific but not arts centres as in Indonesia. This is something I want to introduce where young artists can be trained and our customs recognized, respected and preserved.

“It comes back to people knowing their true selves – who they are. Samoa needs to get back to its roots. Like Indonesians we are community people with decision-making undertaken at the local level through big meetings. The way to power and authority in Samoa is through service. This is what I believe and want to do.

“Our language is hierarchical, like Javanese. Different words and tones are used depending on whether you are talking up to authority figures or to ordinary people. The young are forgetting this.

”A particular issue not experienced in Indonesia is the influence of returning migrants who import Western ideas. This is something faced by all Pacific nations.

“Naturally Jakarta and the other big cities are a shock for people from the Pacific but we were all made to feel welcome. Although only one member of our group was a Muslim the rest who were Christians went without daytime food during Ramadan (the fasting month leading up to Idul Fitri) to give him support.

“I never felt homesick. Maybe our ancestors really do come from Indonesia.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 May 2010)

Saturday, May 01, 2010


The tough task of boosting trade: Amris Hassan

Amris Hassan, 51, the Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand, ends his three-year term this month. (April) A former academic, PDIP politician and businessman he reflects on terrorism, lost opportunities and his bid to boost business and educational ties between the two countries.

When I took up the appointment in 2007 I wasn’t given any specific objectives, other than maintaining the good relationships that have marked our 50 years presence in Wellington, and improving Indonesia’s profile.

I decided the Embassy had to be active, like a corporation out to make a profit. I demanded and got more funds and have spent a lot of time using my position to push Indonesian manufacturers to lift their game by expanding into export markets.

That hasn’t been easy. Once they heard that NZ has only around four million people some companies didn’t see the need to make the effort. One food additive manufacturer told me that he could sell more products in Bogor, so why bother?

So I decided to do things the other way around and take NZ businesspeople to Indonesia. That’s yielded results. We now have NZ retailers importing outdoor furniture, shoes, clothes and other consumer products from Indonesia.

In some cases our goods, like women’s clothing, are more expensive than those sourced from China. But I’ve been able to show that Indonesian materials are higher quality, and that counts when selling to the Western world.

NZ exports huge quantities of dairy foods to Indonesia and around the world, and does so very efficiently. But any Tom and Jerry can produce milk. The art is to find the niche markets for products like gourmet cheeses and milks. There are millions of Indonesians like me who are prepared to pay for high quality foods.

There’s still a long way to go, but bilateral trade has expanded enormously. It was worth NZ $1.2 billion (Rp 7.8 trillion) in 2006. Now it’s almost doubled to NZ $2.2 billion (Rp 14.2 trillion).

There’s a great deal of goodwill towards Indonesia in NZ. It hasn’t always been that way. Indonesia’s profile as a nation ruled undemocratically by the authoritarian government of President Soeharto was not well received by Kiwis.

When I first went to Wellington I didn’t realise the level of egalitarianism in NZ, and the dislike of nepotism, bribery and corruption. It’s critical that Indonesian diplomats and official visitors go out of their way to mix with Kiwis and get to understand ordinary people, and not just government officials.

New Zealanders can be frank and direct, but that’s OK. You know exactly what they think. They are friendly and discrimination and racism is almost non-existent.

In attempts to establish pathways to ASEAN, some NZ prime ministers visited the Republic during the Soeharto administration and President Soeharto came to NZ in 1972. But the real breakthrough came when the late President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) visited NZ in 2000.

Kiwis warmed to his humanity and liberalism. They said: ‘This blind guy can be a president? We had no idea Indonesia was so different.’ They became aware that the authoritarian era had passed and Indonesia had become the most democratic nation in Asia.

Then came the tragedy of the 2004 tsunami. Kiwis are emotional and sentimental people and responded with great generosity. People in the streets were collecting money for the victims.

In 2005 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to Wellington and two years later Prime Minister Helen Clark made a serious trip to our country, despite Australian travel warnings.

At this stage official relations between Indonesia and NZ are at their warmest. Sadly, many businesses are failing to seize the openings these visits have created, particularly with education follow-ups. NZ must capture the opportunities in education. Indonesian students seeking to study abroad provide a big market.

NZ schools and universities say they want overseas students but to be frank they’re not doing enough to attract Indonesians. Maybe it’s the Commonwealth syndrome where efforts are concentrated on countries like Malaysia and Singapore, when Indonesia is NZ’s nearest ASEAN neighbor.

Or perhaps it’s because to most Kiwis, Asia is China and huge efforts have been put into developing contacts and trade with that country.

There are 20,000 Indonesians studying in Australia. That figure is 50 times larger than the number of Indonesians in NZ schools and universities. However we have already helped develop school and teacher exchange programs and these are progressing well.

Look at the long-term benefits of building contacts and networks in international relations through education. Vice President Boediono, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa and the President’s youngest son Edhie Baskoro have all been educated in Australia.

Yet NZ has a very high standard of education, providing students with a clean environment and costs are relatively lower. This isn’t just an academic observation. My children attended schools in Wellington and one daughter will return to study economics at university this year.

The other good news is that more Kiwis are visiting Indonesia. Garuda is planning to reopen its NZ service and should have flights to Auckland from Jakarta and Denpasar via Brisbane early next year.

Another area I’ve been keen to promote is the earth sciences. NZ is a leader in geo-thermal energy and can help us a lot.

Like Indonesia NZ is on the Ring of Fire and subject to earthquakes. The country experiences more than 14,000 tremors every year. NZ has been developing new technology to help soften the impact of big quakes and strengthen public buildings.

We organized a conference in Jakarta two years ago that was attended by a large number of Kiwi scientists explaining how they do things. Also present was the NZ Minister of Civil Defence and our Minister of Foreign Affairs.

A similar workshop in Yogyakarta was conducted a year later. As a result a new Geo Sciences Center will be opened at the University of Gadjah Mada.

Against these positives have been the problems of perception. Some still see Indonesia as a nation of extremists. Just when I think I’ve convinced people otherwise there’s been another bombing and I’ve had to start all over again.

The converse is that NZ is thought to be a part of Australia. There should be a NZ – RI Friendship Association. Similar organizations have been established by Germany and Japan in Jakarta. USINDO (United States-Indonesia Society) is another excellent model.

I don’t know whether I’ll go back to politics or teaching, but I’d really like to continue with the diplomatic service. We’ll see.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 April 2010)