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

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Live and let live

If he wasn’t an academic sparring with language, Professor Komaruddin Hidayat would make a fine boxer.

Not because the Rector of the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta would be landing knockout blows. Instead he’d be deflecting punches, sidestepping wild swings and never letting his opponents get close enough for an upper cut.

Example: He supports pluralism. So how does his position fit with the fatwa (prohibition) on pluralism issued by the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI – Council of Indonesian Islamic Scholars)?

“The MUI has a different understanding of pluralism. I look at it in terms of sociology and anthropology. Maybe they consider it theologically.”

Try again: What’s the solution to the problem of Ahmadiyah (the sect under attack for claiming to be Islamic)?

“The government should take action. The police should give them protection.”

Try yet again: At a formal seminar he didn’t use the traditional assalam alaikum (peace be unto you) to address an audience dominated by Muslims.

Assalam alaikum is just a cultural greeting. You can spread peace through behavior, such as smiling and being friendly.”

So would it be right to label him a liberal Muslim, along with people like prominent activist Ulil Abshar Abdalla from the Liberal Islamic Network (JIL).

“You can call me a rational Muslim.”

Does this mean he’s opposed to JIL?

“It’s just a group, and so small. I appreciate that it’s good for intellectual exercises, but nothing else. It has so few followers. It’s difficult to be successful without government support.”

State-funding backs Dr Komaruddin’s university of 22,000 students. He reckons UIN is the finest tertiary institution of its kind in the Republic, and well positioned to create bonds with its counterparts elsewhere.

“We want to conduct research with Western campuses so staff and students can better understand Southeast Asian Islam, as opposed to Islam from the Middle East,” he said.

“We want to build ties based on education, business and good neighbourliness’, explaining Islam as a sociological and historical phenomenon.”

This was one of the reasons Mas Komar (as he’s known) has been in New Zealand with two colleagues. They’ve been presenting the rational face of Islam and hopefully to eclipse the image of tiger-eyed fundamentalists tugging their wispy beards as they demonise everything that’s not Muslim.

On the surface it’s a grand idea, but in discussions with Professor Paul Morris, head of Inter-Religious Understanding at Wellington’s Victoria University it became clear there’s a major obstacle to overcome.

Universities in NZ and many other Western countries teach religious studies, but not specific religions. Graduates do not have the qualifications to get leadership roles in mosques, churches or temples. A taxpayer-funded university like UIN could not exist in NZ.

The separation of religion and State would not have surprised Mas Komar because he’s filled his passport with inky stamps from more than 40 countries.

While many have been nations with Muslim majorities, others have been Western democracies where religion if of little importance.

Globetrotting as an ambassador-at-large for tolerant Islam would have seemed an unlikely career for the third of eight children born in Magelang, Central Java, 57 years ago.

His dad was a soldier, but that was a career the bright lad didn’t favor, and his parents didn’t push.

“My father was quite liberal, a good man,” Mas Komar said. “It was serendipity that put me into the academic life.

“I was sent to the cheapest and closest village pesantren (Islamic boarding school) where I was influenced by a very wonderful teacher. He told us that we had the right to enjoy life, and the good life is Islam. We should be vice-generals of God.

“He taught us about the dignity of human beings, the need for life-long learning and to live decently. God has given us heads to think, hearts to feel and hands to do good things.

“It’s death that creates religion, that makes life meaningful. If you don’t believe in an afterlife then there’s no incentive to do good.

“Everyone wants truth, beauty, peace and goodness. These are values implanted in us by God.”

After doing well at school the inspired student moved to Jakarta and the institution he now heads. Here he gained his first degree (in Islamic education) and then applied for an overseas scholarship.

He was successful (“by accident”) and headed to Turkey where he completed a doctorate in Western philosophy. Back home he returned to the UIN and in 1990 became a professor. Four years ago he was elected rector.

Apart from teaching and touring the world, Mas Komar is an occasional commentator in the mass media promoting his friendly and benign brand of Islam.

“”It’s no longer relevant to talk about conflict between Christianity and Islam,” he said. “Good religion means being a good citizen.

“We don’t like the aggression of global capitalism, but democracy and Islam are compatible. Marginalized Muslims get the benefit of democracy because they can get close to local decision makers.

“The problems we’ve had in Indonesia have not been created by democracy, but by the poor quality of politicians and failure of the political process.

“I’m an optimist. The people (voters) are getting wiser and more selective in evaluating candidates. A lot of lessons have been learned, but I think it will take three more elections to grow the maturity to evaluate politicians.

“The issue is this: How do we articulate the way to behave in a modern state, and how do we manage?

“Don’t make religion part of the problem, but the solution. Religion can solve the problems of society, and Indonesia could be a model, a world leader.

“My philosophy is live and let live. Life is a game. We can live together in a pluralist society.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 November 2010)


Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Listening to tourists – and learning Duncan Graham

The fresh smell air in the dawn, shine of sun, surrounded by volcanoes, smile of peoples along the way, hundreds heritage building, and variety color of shopping. pleasure. Expererience (sic). dreams. here in Bandung, Indonesia.

Don’t judge a book by its cover or a city by its publicity. Presented with this example of tangled English from the Bandung Tourist Board, a concerned Djoni Sofyan Iskandar apologised and promised better communications in the future.
He wasn’t the author, but as the well-travelled boss of the Bandung Institute of Tourism (BIT) and a fluent English speaker he manfully shouldered some of the blame.
“We need to better understand tourists and their needs and to respond appropriately,” he said in Wellington. “Mastering English is essential for everyone working in the business of tourism.”
Djoni was in the New Zealand capital to attend a United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) conference on TedQual.
This is the fancy acronym for Tourism Education Quality, indicating that travellers’ needs are being recognized along with the diversity of the industry. Tourism jostles dairy exports as the most important earner in the economy of NZ, a nation that’s a world leader in outdoor activities.
UNWO is trying to introduce what it calls ‘responsible tourism’ and codes of ethics, particularly in developing countries. The idea is to ensure local people get the benefits and that negative impacts on cultures and the environment are reduced.
Big building hotels and airports in places like Bali, and the inflow of thousands of foreigners with different expectations and values has disrupted traditional lifestyles, widening the gulf between rich and poor. Inevitably resentment follows.
Despite the Bandung language hiccup Djoni and his deputy Joko Suyono launched into an energetic defence of West Java’s capital and a robust promotion of the BIT, a State college with around 2,000 students.
He said 90 to 95 per cent found jobs in the industry, with 40 per cent working overseas. Cruise ships employed large numbers. According to BIT’s senior staff this puts the educator in the vanguard of hospitality trainers in the Republic.
Anyone querying this claim should be in the so-called Paris of Java in May 2012 when Bandung will host a major forum on Rethinking Tourism. This will also recognize BIT’s 50 years as a hotel and tourism academy. The forum will include strategies for sustainable development.
Also likely to be at the talkfest, if he doesn’t get snapped up by another agency in need of a dynamic promoter, will be Nyoman Madiun who directs the rival Bali Tourism Institute.
Like BIT this is classified as a STP (Sekolah Tinggi Pariwisata) or Tourism High School, though these institutions are more like Western polytechnics providing vocational education in management, catering, travel and related activities. The Bali institute was started in 1976 and has 1,300 students.
With his offsider Dewa Gde Byomantara and the two Bandung teachers, Nyoman also attended the UNWTO conference. Like any good entrepreneur he never paused to take a rest from promoting his island and drop reminders that Bandung, for all its grand attractions including Art Deco architecture, is not a destination on most foreigners’ Must See lists.
“There’s a need for the Indonesian government to boost spending in education and visitor facilities,” he said. “At the local level you have to get community involvement and support for tourism.
“We must listen to tourists, find out what they want and respond accordingly. Hygiene, accessibility and security are high on tourists’ demands – and we’ve still got someway to go here, particularly with cleanliness. There are so many streams developing, like cultural tourism, eco-tourism and adventure tours. ”
“Bali was lucky because the Dutch colonial government started promoting tourism early in the 20th century,” said Djoni. “It has continued off and on since then. Bandung is better known for textiles, but that will change in the next five years.”
“Everyone in Bali knows that tourism is our number one earner. It’s in our blood. Our culture is a seamless mix of religion and art that must be preserved,” replied Nyoman Madiun. “If tourists stopped coming tomorrow we would still be praying and dancing.
“We’re now looking towards Russia as a source for visitors, along with ASEAN countries and Western Europe. We want people to explore elsewhere and are promoting a Bali and Beyond campaign.”
Recalling that dour Malaysia attracts 27 million visitors a year while smile-free Singapore pulls in almost ten million, the obvious question is why the magnificent archipelago laden with historical, cultural and scenic riches and jolly people shuffles in with under seven million.
According to the feisty four tourism hotshots, all these figures are rubbery with visitors, business people and tourists being bundled together.
“Malaysian statistics include all those people who cross the Causeway every day from Singapore to Johor Bharu to work or study,” said BIT’s deputy director Joko Suyono. “But it’s not just numbers – the other factors are length of stay and what people do while in the country.
“The Indonesian figures are taken from tour operators’ statistics and don’t include individual visitors. Countries aren’t always measuring the same thing.”
There was also general agreement that the Visit Indonesia campaign was no real match for Malaysia’s Truly Asia advertising, its neighbour’s Surprising Singapore tag and the sub-continent’s Incredible India. All three countries saturate Western television with their joys and jingles.
“That’s because many in government don’t really understand tourism,” said Djoni Sofyan. “There’s not enough money in the budgets. Another problem is with the mentality of the people in the departments.
“There are government regulations that get in the way, such as queues for visas, and difficulties in implementing rules about foreign investments.
“To understand tourism you have to travel, to be a tourist. That’s essential. Too many haven’t been out of the country.”

(First published in the Jakarta Post 24 November 2010)

Monday, November 15, 2010


The Ministerial non handshake: An explanation

Good morning to all men, whether you are of the one true faith or a vile unbeliever destined to burn in hell unless you rapidly convert. Which reminds me, I must plan legislation to assist in this regard.

As your Disinformation Minister I have a responsibility to keep you informed of current events. So I’ve asked my ghost writer to explain the situation as if I’d written it myself - had I not been so busy being pious:

Now I want to make sure you understand the real facts regarding a certain happening featuring a guest to our beloved nation, the center of tolerance in a troubled world.

Let me say this: There have been many wicked lies spread about the reception by sinister forces opposed to the Unitary State, like You Tube.

So let me be absolutely clear; I did not shake hands with a non-man who is not my relative.

As you know, I am deeply pious, so here’s the unvarnished truth. As a very important person in Indonesia I was of course invited to meet another important man.

I did not expect this person to bring a non-male with him, so was caught by surprise. In fact when I saw what had happened I was deeply disgusted. Blatant pornoaksi! Politics and leadership is men’s business. All other people must stay in the kitchen and bedroom.

I will speak to the security guards and make sure they are disciplined for this serious breach of protocol.

When I shook hands with this tall black man I could not control my responses. His grip was firm and irresistible. I recognised him to be a true Muslim because he whispered Assalamu Alai’kum to me - though out of earshot from the Fox News reporter with the US press corps.

I tried to give him a brown envelope containing my nephew’s application for a scholarship at Yale along with a modest gift, but it was rudely snatched away by one of his aides.

As God is my witness I swear that he used black magic, for I could not stop my hand jerking forward once he had moved on. “Yes we can,” he said – and cast a spell. So I was forced against my will to have my hand grasped by this, this … non-male person.

Fortunately as a pious man I was able to resist lingering with the slightly moist palm, the sweet and slender fingers, the genuine warmth that exuded from every pore, the cool gaze from liquid brown welcoming eyes, the scent… That’s enough. I’m not a man to be tempted.

As a true believer I immediately left the room for the nearest toilet so I could scrub the offending body part at least seven times. However I was distracted by one of my assistants.

“Pak,” he whispered, “they’re about to serve lunch.”

What a dilemma! How should a responsible minister of the Republic respond when the dignity of the nation is at stake? Steak, actually, imported Angus and delicious, but be assured I did wash at the earliest opportunity after the six-course banquet followed by some excellent Australian wine.

You understand I had to sample this forbidden beverage in the name of research. I’m a man who needs to know about haram products so I can speak with authority when I warn the faithful of the effects.

While representing you at this function and feeling deeply concerned about the poor of our beloved nation who don’t have enough to eat, my staff were busy checking the records.

Do you know what they found? This leader of the Great Satanic nation is actually one of my relatives! Records kept when he was studying at a Pesantren (as all Indonesians should – and I think I’ll make this compulsory very soon) show his third cousin on his uncle’s brother’s side is also my cousin through my grandfather’s stepbrother’s fourth son.

This means that the non-man who accompanied the visitor is also a relative. That makes it OK for me to make body contact with the American’s companion.

So my actions were halal, God be thanked! Not that I touched the non-man willingly. As I said earlier it was black magic.


Thursday, November 04, 2010


(Picture above: Students from the Al Azhar school in Jakarta performing at the Southeast Asian Night Market on Wellington's waterfront in March 2010. The 2011 market will be held on the Wellington waterfront on Saturday 16 April.)
Learning about our Muslim neighbour

I hope the blinkered public service mandarins note your editorial (1 November) about engaging with a changing world. They need to expand their vision beyond China and India for trade, schooling, immigration and influence in Asia.

So far they’ve been overlooking a closer market of enormous political and strategic importance.

Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy with more Muslims than any other nation. It’s our nearest Asian neighbour, our second biggest market in Southeast Asia. Trade between us is worth almost $1.5 billion a year and growing. Most is in our favour. .

We’re frequently first in line giving aid following natural disasters, like SurfAid assisting with the current Mentawai Islands tsunami response. We’ve been closely involved in advising on earthquake damage mitigation and geothermal energy.

About 25 years ago the late Colin McLennan established a unique rehabilitation unit for disabled children in Yogyakarta. This Wellingtonian’s vision has now expanded to Bali and Nias.

Yet few seem to recognise the opportunities in what Trade and Enterprise calls a “relationship-driven market.” Earlier this year Amris Hassan, the outgoing Indonesian ambassador to NZ, commented in The Jakarta Post that many businesses were failing to seize the openings created through visits by leaders of both countries.

“NZ must capture the opportunities in education. Indonesian students seeking to study abroad provide a big market,” he wrote.
“NZ schools and universities say they want overseas students but to be frank they’re not doing enough to attract Indonesians … there are 20,000 Indonesians studying in Australia. That figure is 50 times larger than the number of Indonesians in NZ schools and universities.“
The NZ Embassy in Jakarta responded with a report underpinning Mr Hassan’s comments. It added that a better relationship in education should provide a direct economic benefit and “form a pillar in a stronger political relationship.”
Worthwhile words, but they’ve stimulated little movement in Wellington ministries. There’s still no government-to- government protocol for education.
It’s the same with tourism. Minimal effort is being put into promoting our attractions in Indonesia, a country of 240 million with a rapidly expanding and cashed-up middle class.
The faults aren’t one-sided. Live cattle sales to Indonesia have hit a gateless fence. A Free Trade Agreement with Indonesia hasn’t been finalised so young people can’t apply for NZ working holiday visas – and vice versa.
Sad because our image in Asia isn’t just clean and green – it’s also safe and welcoming, while Indonesia is a magic, friendly land for our youth to explore and learn about moderate Islam.
This absence of students and visitors means we live in the shadow of Australia while Kiwis only see the Archipelago from 10,000 metres as they fly to Europe for their OE.
Indonesia’s march to democracy is stunning. It has a large economy that will only grow bigger, and it has the power to be more than competitive with China.
We understand Prime Minister John Key plans to visit Indonesia early next year. That’s good news. However if the doors he opens aren’t used by NZ entrepreneurs and departmental heads prepared to include Indonesia in their Asian vision then he’s wasting his time.

(First published in The Dominion Post 4 November 2010)


Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Why wasn’t Indonesia better prepared for the tsunami that hit the Mentawai Islands?

It’s not as though the 7.5 scale earthquake and three-metre wave came as a total surprise. The west coast of Sumatra has long been known as one of the world’s most unstable zones where the tectonic plates kilometres below the earth slip and slide creating chaos on the surface. It was hit badly in 2004 and again in 2005.

With this experience it’s extraordinary that the Indonesian government hadn’t got a system in place ready to cope with tragedy.

Yes, the islands are remote. That’s not an excuse – they’ve always been remote.

Yes, the villages are poor and don’t have infrastructure like airports and emergency centres. Why not? Quite simply, power has long been centralised in Jakarta; as the kilometres from the capital increase, so the cash available for public services shrinks.

The nation’s administration was decentralised following the fall of military dictator Soeharto in 1998. However in reality few provinces have had the courage or ability to run their regions without support or approval from the capital.

The other excuse for the bloated and malfunctioning bureaucracy has been the mantra that Indonesia is a poor and developing nation. Both claims are rubbish. The country is rich in minerals, oil and gas but the wealth has not been distributed evenly. Much has been plundered for personal gain by officials and Soeharto cronies.

Indonesia ranks 111 on Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries, alongside Egypt. NZ is ranked top, along with Singapore and Denmark, as the least corrupt.

The government collects only a third of the taxes it’s legally entitled to gather. This year Gayus Tambunan, a low-ranking tax official, was found to have amassed more than US$3 million from bribes.

The rot continues in the Parliament. This year it planned to deal with 80 pieces of legislation, but has addressed only seven.

Indonesia’s Constitution includes the Pancasila (five principles) philosophy. Number Five upholds social justice for all Indonesians. It does not state these rights are just for city folk.

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the tsunami site he questioned why people had been living in low-lying areas, though they’ve been there for generations. Planning regulations could have prohibited surfline settlement – but rules are easy to by-pass.

After the 2004 tsunami aid from Germany was used to install early warning systems. Sadly many have been dismantled for their saleable parts by fishermen, or have fallen into disrepair.

This has been known for some time, but never fixed.

New Zealand was the first outside country to offer aid to the people of the Mentawai Islands whose homes and families had been destroyed by the tsunami.

The early reports came from Westerners working with Surfaid – an international NGO established by Kiwi Dr Dave Jenkins. Back in 1999 he’d been working in Singapore and took a trip to the Mentawai for a surfing holiday.

He was shocked at the contrast between life on his luxury yacht and the sick and poor villagers who were suffering and dying from preventable diseases, like malaria.

He decided to do something and in the past 11 years has helped raise millions to help improve the health of the islanders. The Indonesian government has now appointed Surfaid as the lead NGO handling the emergency

I’ve just come back from Nias Island, just to the north of the Mentawai where I’ve seen the results of the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake.

After these events the government, supported by aid from overseas worked to rehabilitate the island. The bill was US$ 1 billion.

The repairs have been piecemeal. The main north-south road is in good condition but the roads inland are like NZ’s rocky riverbeds, and almost impassable.

An ambulance I was travelling in as a passenger, not a patient, was unable to reach homes on the outskirts of Gunungsitoli – the provincial capital that sits on the coast and is vulnerable to any tsunami.

Many homes have still not been repaired, though the administration has built a splendid set of offices on a hill, safe from big waves.

In the meantime money from overseas is being used to teach the public – particularly children – about ways they can prepare for natural disasters and what they should do when the earth shakes and the tides rush in.

The agency doing this job is not the government but a unit of Yakkum, an NGO based in Yogyakarta and originally set up by a New Zealand community worker, the late Colin McLennan.

Like Dr Dave Jenkins he was shocked at the sight of sick and poor people who were not being given proper care by the government.

He helped raise millions of dollars and Yakkum, which now operates in Bali, Central Java and Nias, helps thousands of handicapped people recover their lives and become useful members of society.

Indonesians are grateful – but are starting to ask why such responsibilities aren’t handled by the Indonesian government, caring for its own citizens..

(First published in Scoop (NZ) 1 November 2010 and On Line Opinion (Aust) 16 Nov.)