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, October 28, 2010


A Man for all Cultures Duncan Graham

A prophet is not without honor – except in his own country and among his own kin.

Apart from being a Biblical text it could be the epitaph for Balinese composer Wayan Gde Yudane who finds his work better appreciated outside the Archipelago.

“To be honest, I’m not very popular in Indonesia,” he said in the New Zealand capital, Wellington while shuddering with a pneumatic-drill toothache.

“That’s why I like to live here. People enjoy my music and they respect me as a composer, though I’ve also had to wash dishes in a restaurant to make ends meet. I’ll have to get my tooth fixed in Indonesia. Dentists in NZ are so expensive.

“Despite these problems I can hear my music played here. I don’t know that I can do so in my homeland. The people there just listen to pop. In Wellington I offered to teach gamelan free. No Indonesians took up the chance – only Kiwis.

“I wrote the music for the NZ Trio when it performed in Jakarta. (In 2007) They play the best chamber music in the country, but when I went to the hotel they (staff) treated me like rubbish. Indonesians can be racist towards other Indonesians.”

The lean and lank Yudane wears the uniform of the Indonesian artist – black shapeless clothes, long hair, bearded wildman looks and benign countenance. His detached demeanor is at odds with intense feelings about his craft.

Though to call him an artis is to corrupt his creativity. The word, hijacked from English and since corrupted, has lost its quality of compliment. It’s been devalued by tabloid overuse, particularly when describing sinetron mayflies.

The 46-year old musician is no temporary talent or cultural monoglot. The son of an architect who made gamelan instruments, Yudane started his career, primarily as a sound and scenic designer in theater. That was after studying at the Academy of Performing Arts in Denpasar, graduating in 1991.

At that time gamelan music was everywhere. “I was surrounded by it – my family, my neighbors, my friends,” he said. “It wasn’t something separate. I was encouraged to become a musician.”

One of his earliest jobs was in Japan, at the Kumamoto Performing Arts Festival. He designed sets for the Singapore Arts Festival, then got a scholarship to study and work in France with the Le Temps Fort theatre company.

Yudane is now well known overseas, particularly in Australasia and Europe, as a contemporary composer experimenting in fusing the gamelan with Western music and instruments.

In Australia he won The Age newspaper’s Critics Award for Creative Excellence for his work with the Adelaide Festival. He also scored strong reviews for his “dramatic and technically ferocious” work Paradise Regained dedicated to the Bali bomb victims.

For the past six months he’s been working as artist-in-residence at the NZ School of Music. It’s not the first time he’s been in the South Pacific nation. He held a similar position eight years ago at Victoria University and is married to a Kiwi teacher.

Yudane’s farewell concert, titled Musical Hunters and Collectors (“I’m both) included Temporal Paradox, which involved a violin and a viola along with the gamelan, and the self-explanatory Causality for Piano.

Apart from his own compositions there were works by Wayan Lotring and Wayan Beratha.

Lotring, who died in 1983, is considered to be the most famous gamelan composer of the 20th century. He was responsible for a revision of Balinese compositions back in the 1920s; Yudane attributes this to the influence of the Dutch who brought Western music to the Archipelago.

Beratha, who is now 86, is credited with pioneering the gong kebyar style of gamelan, with lots of sudden clashing and mood shifts.

“I don’t know how to best describe gong kebyar,” Yudane said. Suggestions included fireworks, a metaphor he rejected because the image was too ephemeral. “Maybe like turning on a light switch – that’s better.

“I studied under Beratha – he’s my hero. But he won’t listen to my music – he doesn’t like it. He says it’s too Western, that it’s gone too far and is too individualistic.

“That’s OK. I’m a contemporary composer. The gamelan doesn’t just have to play traditional Indonesian music. I write what I like, though I want it to be listened to by everyone. My interests are eclectic. (The French composer) Debussy is my favorite.

“I tell students in Indonesia: ‘You must learn the tools. You must be able to write music. It’s OK in Indonesia to memorise, but you can’t do that overseas. You don’t need to go abroad but you must listen to music from everywhere.’”

Individualism: It’s the Indonesian curse (or quality) to be seen as different, strange, or maybe even dangerous if you stand apart from the crowd, like to walk alone and feel comfortable with your own company. No problems in the West, but a worry in the East.

“This is why so many follow pop kitsch (he spits out the words, as though he’s found a cockroach in his coffee) even though Indonesians claim to like gamelan,” he said.

“I don’t follow any trends, and I never will. Sometimes I feel that I’m not part of Indonesia.”

Wellington has two sets of gamelan, Balinese and Javanese, both played by performing arts students. Only one musician is Indonesian – Budi Putra, the cultural officer at the Indonesian Embassy.

Balinese gamelan music is quite different from Javanese, strident, energetic and declamatory. It’s also more disciplined than the enigmatic and subtle Javanese style.

By the time you read this Yudane will be back in Bali composing for film and theater. Then he’ll move to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, where he’s been before, and expects his work will get recognition and respect.

That doesn’t mean the man is vain or arrogant – he’s humble and polite, but hates the superficiality of pop with a loathing others reserve for snakes in the toilet - along with the public’s indifference to Indonesian music.

“My message to other composers is this: ‘Please don’t just listen to what you like. Widen your interests. Every single day new music is being made in the world. Make sure your work is interesting and exciting. Don’t go with the flow’.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 October 2010)


Monday, October 25, 2010


Making 1,000 friends – and zero enemies

Shortly after arriving in Wellington the new Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand, Antonius Agus Sriyono was introduced to a senior public servant.

“Just call me Tony,” said the casual Kiwi. Fortunately the newcomer had researched his posting well. He’d read about egalitarianism Down Under so wasn’t too nonplussed.

“I’d discovered this culture of informality grew out of the first settlements (in the early 19th century) when immigrants had to build their own houses and do everything themselves whatever job they’d had in their home country,” he said.

“This was the first time I’d encountered such familiarity in my 26 years as a diplomat. Usually it’s deferential, ‘sir’ or ‘excellency’. As a Javanese I know all about protocols. But I replied: ‘OK, just call me Agus’.”

This anecdote might give the impression that the Archipelago’s new man in the South Pacific (his responsibilities include Samoa and Tonga) is so laid back and adaptable that his Embassy is a retirement waiting lounge for burnt-out bureaucrats.

When he got the job his colleagues in Jakarta congratulated Agus on being appointed to a position where the occupations would be golf, fishing and sleeping.

He’s relaxed – but that’s not a synonym for slack. “I play a little golf but only at weekends,” he said.

“I don’t fish and I’m happy with six hours sleep. Everyone has to be here by 9 am and many are still working at night.”

As darkness doesn’t come till after 9 pm during summer and Jakarta is six hours behind Wellington, recreation time for staff is going to be in short supply if the 15th ambassador to NZ maintains the pace.

His priorities are getting more Indonesian workers into NZ (tough because language levels must be high and jobs scarce), more post-graduate students into NZ universities (difficult because Australia’s the favored destination) – and the top issue, improving trade.

In this task he faces several hurdles: Indonesia imports almost NZ$ 900 million (US $680 million) worth of goods from NZ, mostly primary produce. But the reverse trade, mainly petroleum and paper, is worth only NZ$ 570 million (US $430).

NZ is the international leader in dairy farming and grassland management. Agus said he was keen to get these skills into Indonesia to boost local supplies as the population consumes more milk – as opposed to milk powder. He’s initiating talks with Fonterra, the dairy cooperative that buys and processes most milk in NZ, to encourage investment in the Republic.

The second is that many business heavyweights in Indonesia think the NZ market with only 4.25 million people is too small to warrant their attention. Agus counters that although consumers are few they’ve got full wallets.

Then there’s the Free Trade Agreement between NZ and Indonesia, which has not been completely signed off despite being approved almost two years ago. The problem, according to Agus, is that Indonesia still subsidises some forms of agriculture while NZ farming is free of government support.

Also caught up in the FTA dispute is the working holiday scheme, which would allow young people to spend a year in each other’s countries earning, touring and hopefully developing understanding of other cultures.

The scheme already operates between NZ and Malaysia, Singapore and China, along with many European countries.

“Smart but poor people who would benefit from using these visas don’t have the money for air fares to go abroad,” Agus said. “We’ve got to find a way to get around this difficulty. I don’t want to see only the rich get such opportunities.”

If there have been any hiccups in Agus’s career they get swiftly swallowed. He was born in Magelang, Central Java in 1957 where his parents were teachers keen for their talented lad to join them at the chalkboard.

But Agus had other ideas. He’d always been a leader, even in school. He went to Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta graduating in international relations. After three years working in public relations for the property development company Ciputra Group he joined Foreign Affairs in 1984. Donning the dark suit and entering the high priesthood of diplomacy fulfilled a long held ambition to master the refined arts of subtle statespeak.

“I’d always been interested in history,” he said, “I don’t know why – maybe it’s in my genes. I have about 3,000 books in my library. Many are about leadership.

“I tell my staff they must learn to lead, to communicate effectively and clearly in speech and writing. They must mingle with the local people. They must have 1,000 friends – and no enemies. They must separate the personal from the professional.”

He’s had one book published – a text on international relations – and is now a third of the way through writing a book on the Cold War. Apart from English his language skills include Dutch (his first posting was in The Hague and his parents spoke Dutch), French, Portuguese and some Russian.

Agus’s last post before Wellington was Moscow where he was deputy chief of mission for two years. With his wife Astuti Retno Widiati Sriyono he has three children. One son is a diplomat in Australia, another a journalist with Tempo magazine in Jakarta and a daughter at school in NZ.

“I am conscious that Indonesia ranks 111 on the International Corruption Index and that NZ is the least corrupt country in the world,” he said. “I have zero tolerance of corruption and that applies to myself.

“One must have integrity. I learned that from my parents, and it was reinforced by the late Ali Alatas (foreign minister under the Soeharto regime). I worked for him as a private assistant. He was my hero.”

But successful diplomacy requires compromise. Doesn’t that cause difficulties?

“No problem, I’m a Javanese. I’m lucky – I come from the majority ethnic group and the minority religion. (He’s Catholic.)

“All diplomatic actions should be based on inter-cultural understanding of other countries and their history. I’m committed to fixing problems. What I preach is what I do and I try to do my best. I want to be a good listener. (He is.) Every night I pray: ‘God, I put myself in your hands’.

“There have been ups and downs but I’ve never regretted my career choice. Emotionally, rationally and professionally it’s a most satisfying job and I don’t expect this to be my last posting.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2010)


Monday, October 04, 2010


A new solution to traffic jams

Traffic jams are expected to vanish throughout Indonesia once a new edict by a leading agency takes effect.

The surprise fatwa from the MUI (Motorcyclists’ Union of Indonesia) was announced just before mudik, the annual pilgrimage to hometown and parents undertaken by many Indonesians at the end of the slowing month.

MUI secretary Bangbang Twostroke said the fatwa prohibited the use of cars, which were now haram.

Although it was difficult to impose a fatwa on those groups that didn’t follow MUI’s teachings, it was expected that most would accept the ruling to avoid drawing attention to themselves and creating unnecessary conflict.

The roads would be far less congested once the fatwa was in place and all four-wheel vehicles were either locked up or deported. He added that two-wheel transport goes back centuries so reverting to the past would create a purer nation.

“You can’t hide on a motorbike,” Bangbang said. “Everyone can see what you’re up to. Behind the tinted windows of cars all sorts of immorality can take place.

“The MUI has long been concerned about the rise in popularity of other means of transport.

“We’ve had to accept the government’s five-brand policy, but there have been issues in some regions that have disturbed local communities.

“Allegations have been made of moves to Toyotarise Indonesians. I’ve even heard of preman (thugs) with Manado accents trying to Nissanise locals with promises of high trade-ins and cashbacks.

“The Mercedes trinity star is known to have other meanings. Those of us who believe in only one brand find the symbol offensive.”

The police have been instructed not to tolerate attempted conversions from two to four wheels by outside forces with other agendas.

FP1 (Friendly People of Indonesia) squads were ready to assist the police and ensure the fatwa was obeyed. Mr Bangbang rejected reports that FPI members had already started trashing cars as ‘baseless accusations from dark forces planning to overthrow the Unitary State’.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Agama (Automobile, Gasoline and Mechanical Appliances) said no comment would be made on the MUI’s fatwa, though the minister welcomed any moves to restrict the number of road users, particularly those who didn’t follow the number one brand.

“In the past we’ve been tolerant of deviants like Suzuki and Yamaha, but it’s now time to disband them,” he said.

“The Minister realises this is a controversial move. It may be in breach of the Constitution, which allows citizens freedom to ride the brand of their choice. But no matter. Our founding fathers did not appreciate the threats now coming from outside. Public order must be maintained.”

During the slowing month, when petrol tanks may only be filled between dusk and dawn, reports of surly young men in gangs hanging around foodstalls at nightfall astride motorcycles have been causing concern among supporters of cars.

Last month it was claimed motorcycle numbers in Indonesia would double by 2015. Last year 6.5 million pedestrians converted to motorbikes, the majority choosing to follow Honda. For every car that rolls onto the road, five motorbikes take to the streets.

Mr Bangbang said it was clear the infrastructure could not cope. There just wasn’t enough room on public roads, so some users have to go. It was right and proper that those evicted from the highways should be the rich driving foreign cars and taking up too much space.

If action wasn’t taken now Jakarta could suffer a stroke as its traffic arteries became clogged by the cholesterol of unconstrained private transport.

“The reality is that this is a Honda nation,” he said. “Those who want to follow other forms of transport should move to North Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara or Bali where different brands are tolerated.

“However the transmigration of motorbikes from the overcrowded roads of Java to the quiet tracks of Central Kalimantan and elsewhere will continue. This means that the majorities in those regions may soon become the minorities.

“The alternative if for dissidents to embrace two-wheels with fervor if they want to remain citizens. This is a move that can only enhance democracy by ensuring that all Indonesians follow only one way.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 3 October 2010)