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

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Jakarta's paradise for marmalade moggies

Our normal pied-a-trottoir in Jakarta is an alleged three-star hotel off Jalan Raden Saleh. It’s favored by Arabs disinterested in anything other than the local ladies.

The accommodation is cheap and clean and the extra curricular activities add spice lacking in grander hostelries. The short-stay visitors don’t speak Indonesian and their friends don’t know Arabic but as the poets say, love conquers all. The riyals also help.

This time we’re in Menteng and the difference is like moving from the steaming swamps of Jayapura to the cool heights of Mt Bromo.

I’d like to report this as an exercise in finding out how the other half lives, but in reality it’s discovering how half of 0.01 per cent of the population thrives in colonial grandeur.

Cliché recyclers usually describe Menteng as a ‘leafy suburb’, but the evergreen menteng, also known as Burmese grapes, are now rarely found.

There are plenty of other trees, but the real attraction is the solid Dutch architecture that has so far resisted the Philistines who see little of merit in the steep tiled roofs, shuttered windows and whitewashed walls of a Euro-centric past.

To live in Menteng is to jump back in time. Soekarno told the Dutch to go to hell, but it seems they just hibernated in Menteng, waiting for the political climate to change.

Actually there are more Javanese in our villa than wrinkled ex-imperialists. But the latter control the soundscape, shouting greetings as though they’re the far side of a canal and not in the same narrow corridor of hard ceramic where consonants ricochet and vowels skate off the polished tiles.

The locals have learned how to shuffle, to be spare in manners and movements, to keep the pace slow. Menteng is a fine place to refine the Indonesian art of energy conservation.

Traffic is so calm it’s even safe to cross the streets without first getting three insurance quotes. The Hondas are muffled by a sense of reverence for the place and its up-market residents. Even the mosques use quietspeakers.

The Australian ambassador lives nearby close to the Vietnamese; across the road are the Saudis and Iraqis. If they used their lovely surrounds for a street party maybe the Middle East protests and the asylum seeker issues could be sorted out under the soothing perfume of the frangipani.

There’s certainly good reason to celebrate. A century ago this year architect PAJ Moojen designed Menteng as Jakarta’s first garden city.

Sadly, in keeping with the new AD (Age of Distrust) recent residents have done their bit to destroy the planner’s inclusive vision by excluding outsiders with high walls and steel screens.

Fortunately casual servants leave gates ajar as they gather around roadside snack vendors after saluting their bosses farewell. And the slow sliding gates that release black Mercedes leave time to gape.

The police, bored brainless, are happy to chat, treating twilight strollers like human beings with no agenda other than to enjoy the environment.

This includes marmalade cats, pixie-faced beauties, confident they’re in a moggy’s paradise. Westerners fear the cruising full-helmet motorcyclists but they love their prowling pets.

These lynx-like lovelies are several species removed from their kinky-tailed cousins that hang around kampongs quivering with fear, for there’s little kindness towards cats elsewhere.

Menteng’s cats are regal, as befits creatures that patrol this Alice in Wonderland world, with its mysterious little openings in the rusting fences and crumbling concrete, creeper-festooned gateways to dank and curious places.

The embassy courtyards are swept by movement sensors, monitored by cameras, but high tech cannot reach the musty nooks and crannies where the pussies prowl, knowing the secrets.

Outside the Australian fortress squatted a thin man carefully smoothing out yesterday’s papers for resale. Does the ambassador ever offer a cheery wave, as befits a neighbor when he comes and goes?

Stupid question. Bemused response. Poor fellow – he might get recognised if, like Dick Whittington, he befriended a cat, preferably marmalade. Even then I doubt he’ll ever make Lord Mayor.

Menteng is many things, but it’s not egalitarian.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Teen’s bedroom sells sameness Duncan Graham Before we became distrustful of one another and developed machines to scan, sniff and probe for threats, embassies were show-off buildings. They displayed their nation’s wealth, culture and standing through good design, size and presentation. Now many, like the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, look more like a fortress built to house a Middle East leader. Anyone wanting to enter this hostile place is obviously a risk just by seeking entrance. Spending time in a Jakarta traffic jam with a failed air conditioner would be more fun. If Indonesia had followed the trend its embassy in Canberra would be offering a similarly warped welcome. Instead it has adopted a relaxed and friendly approach to help change perceptions of Indonesia. On a widely used visitors’ map of the capital of Australia is a list of 19 free major attractions, such as the Commonwealth Parliament, the National Gallery, and the Australian War Memorial. Only one Embassy of Canberra’s 93 overseas missions is on the list. It’s Indonesia. Great initiative – but it almost collapsed some years ago. Insensitive people wrote abusive comments in the visitor’s book about army brutality during the East Timor referendum. Then a succession of bombings targeting Westerners in Jakarta (including an attack on the Australian Embassy in 2004 killing 11) dampened enthusiasm. The openness would also have failed if the welcome job hadn’t been given to the right person, proud of his homeland without being jingoistic, informed but not a smug dispenser of boring facts, and – most important – able to relate to Australians who prefer mateship to protocol. Soegito Hardjodikoro isn’t a pinstripe diplomat unprepared to comment on the weather without getting an official clearance. Nor has he studied international relations at a prestigious overseas institution. “My campus was the kampong,” said the 71-year old education officer who meets and greets visitors to the embassy’s cultural center. “I became a musician and composer when my father, a businessman in Solo, and the lurah (local community leader) put together a gamelan and I learned to play. “That led me to teaching the various instruments. Then I married Ilse. She was Dutch but had been born in Java. She migrated to Australia at the end of the war and became a citizen. “I moved to Canberra, learned English and started teaching the gamelan in Australian university music departments. In 1985 I joined the Embassy and I’ve been doing this job since.” The job includes being the second or third greeter after the laid-back Batak security guard who happily airs his ethnic group’s robust disdain for Javanese, and Yulianti Tantina (Tina), another local staffer who moved Down Under to study and now helps Soegito organize school visits. Soegito and Tina’s positions don’t record a blip in the shoals of First Secretaries, Counsellors and Political Attaches that glide through Canberra’s diplomatic pond. As ‘outside staff’ they’re among the bottom feeders, but their jobs have the potential to generate ripples of positive change. For although official relationships between over-populated Indonesia and the great empty land below the archipelago are currently in good shape, the same can’t be said about attitudes among ordinary folk. The respected Lowy Institute polled 1,000 Australians in 2010 and found one-third distrusted Indonesia – a ranking that hasn’t changed much over the years. A separate poll run by a New Zealand research company claimed Indonesia was the least liked overseas country among Australians, closely followed by Israel and India. So helping improve Australians’ attitudes towards their northern neighbor has to be worthwhile in any language. Neither country is going to shift its geographical position anytime soon. “I know the figures show the number of Australian students studying Indonesian is falling, but that hasn’t been my experience when it comes to learning the gamelan,” Soegito said. “All my students are Australians. Although I travel outside Canberra the weekly classes are in the Balai Wisata Budaya (Visitor’s Cultural Center) attached to the Embassy.” One of his compositions that accompanied a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance drew this comment from a local critic: ‘One might wish for more beautiful harmony of arts and culture in Australian politics.’ In the cultural center the musicians learn how to keep their backs straight while sitting or kneeling on the floor while they try to understand the complex rhythms and beats of a musical form more than 1,000 years old. Soegito shows his dexterity by hammering out a gamelan version of Waltzing Matilda, an old song about a sheep thief who suicides rather than get caught, and often regarded as Australia’s unofficial national anthem. When students take a break they have plenty to stimulate their interest. To get to the center they have to run a gauntlet of stone figures from the great Sanskrit epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata before passing through a Javanese candi bentar (split gate). Inside, apart from the expected maps and photographs is a kaki lima (itinerant food vendors cart), well equipped though minus the ingrained grease and cracked plates that seems to be the source for the diarrhoea attacks that follow when foreigners sample the delights. There’s also a splendid becak (pedicab) in such excellent condition it could be safe to ride. The seat is unripped, the canopy intact and its not plastered with advertisements for Megawati. Otherwise it looks the real thing. In the library is a copy of the Australian film The Year of Living Dangerously, strictly banned in the Republic for decades, and 1945 photos showing Australian troops liberating Javanese women imprisoned by the Japanese. But the star attraction is a mock-up of a typical Indonesian middle-class teenager’s bedroom, complete with a clunky computer and tiny TV with rabbit’s ears. A school uniform lies on the bed, a Harry Potter translation on the dressing table and a Peterpan poster on the wall – so heaven knows what videos are on the handphone. “We want to show Australian students that their counterparts in Indonesia live much like they do,” said Soegito. “The bedroom is obviously more cramped – there’s far less space in Indonesia, but we’ve tried to make it authentic. “We also offer one-day excursions for schools, an initiative between the Embassy, the National Zoo and Aquarium showing Indonesian animals and birds. Lunch is Indonesian food at a picnic. “The kids then come to the Balai Wisata Budaya for Indonesian games and musical workshops. “I just want to help people understand Indonesia. I’ll only retire when my knees give way and I can’t squat or kneel down to play the gamelan.” (First published in The Jakarta Post 12 April 2011) ##