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, June 11, 2011


Finding history’s buried treasures Duncan Graham

It would soil this story to say that the junior high school students approached the task with enthusiasm.

Turning over the earth may be one of humanity’s most basic, tiring but satisfying tasks – but for wealthy Jakarta kids it’s a job that should be done by others,

Some handled the trowels, forks and other garden tools as though they were live rats. Others shrunk to the back of the crowd to see if they could catch a cellphone signal, for the ancient Majapahit era capital of Trowulan is full of dead spots.

Few succeeded because patrolling teacher Sharon Maminta has a keen eye for backsliders. She knows all the teenage tricks, hustling her charges to the front, frustrating their plans for Blackberry chatathons.

However some, like Kanina Anindita, 13, had no qualms about getting dirt under her fingernails. She was soon rewarded with success, the shattered shards of an earthenware pot uncovered only centimeters below the surface.

No matter that workers organised by veteran conservationist and educator Dr Suryo Prawiroatmodjo had planted the artefact. Making the students play Indiana Jones minus the heroics was part of a weeklong history, culture and the environment workshop he coordinated in East Java at the end of April.

Ms Anindita and friends plotted the pot’s location, then measured and photographed the precise spot where it was found. She drew a careful plan like a professional archaeologist and got suitably outraged when a clumsy classmate (a boy, of course) trampled the diggings.

“It’s a waste of time if we just come here, stand around and do nothing,” she said. “Learning about the kingdom of Majapahit, its strong government and the culture that blossomed here has been a great pleasure.

“I’ve also been impressed to see how some monuments have been reconstructed. I’m proud to have this as part of my past.”

At this point sceptics need to be assured that these are the Mentari International School girl’s own words spoken in flawless English with no ‘you knows’, ‘stuff like that’ and other corruptions of language so frequently found among Western teens.

“These are bright students, but till now many have not been exposed to life outside Jakarta,” said Ms Maminta while 58 young people sat on the floor of the Trowulan Museum making terracotta figures, modelled on the 15th century examples in the surrounding glass cases.

Others tried to decode inscriptions in ancient Javanese lettering etched on tombstones and moulded in clay.

Ms Maminta spent ten years teaching in the Philippines honing her disciplinary and organisational skills before moving to Indonesia three years ago to teach world history.

“They also come from privileged backgrounds,” she said “Every year we run a community study week to take the students out of their comfort zone. It gives them insights they can’t get in the classroom.

“This is an inter-disciplinary course involving science, history, geography, language, economic and mathematics. They are discovering how the Majapahit people lived and worked – even what they ate.

“The other factor is that by living together they also learn how to interact with others. It makes them better people.”

The campsite and center for most activities was distant from Trowulan. This was the sprawling ‘Integrated Outdoor Campus’ of the University of Surabaya (Ubaya) at Trawas, about two hours by car south of the East Java capital.

The two-year-old campus is on the cool lower slopes of Mount Penanggungan, summit of the sacred mountain Mahameru, transferred from India according to Majapahit legend.

Operations manager Theophilus Hermawan said he remained confused at the role of the complex he controls. “I don’t know whether we are a university campus, an outdoor training center or a tourist resort,” he said.

While he and his superiors work out the next stage the desk-bound executives come at weekends to bond and discover new muscles. Although called a campus there are no full-time students.

On weekdays schools like Mentari enjoy imaginatively designed buildings set in 38 hectares of lush bush – some of it planted, the rest left as virgin forest, ideal for adventure trails,

Thankfully absent are the standard kitsch statues common in similar attractions that owe more to Disney than the diverse culture of East Java. Ubaya has its own low-key style. At times it’s a mite over-manicured, but overall the tone works.

There’s a composting station, a flock of sheep, a flying fox, botanical gardens and ample space to explore. Accommodation includes North Sulawesi-style high-stump timber houses with solar powered hot water and composting toilets – but limited communication. Internet addicts will suffer withdrawal symptoms. For those seeking spiritual relief there are sacred spaces and much mysticism.

Some of this was provided by villagers recruited by Dr Suryo to demonstrate their ancient skills in puppet creation and music making. Elder Tri Wibowo Jayakusuma got instant Justin Bieber fame when his alleged fortune telling powers were revealed.

It was a neat reversal: The mall rats in skimpy shorts now had to listen to sarong-clad grannies, the people who are seen but seldom heard in the kitchens of city apartments. They showed how to make madu mongso (black sticky rice), a delicacy. The process is laborious. Quicker to order a pizza – even in this remote area.

More interesting to the girls was the preparation of lulur, a skin whitening cream made from leaves garnered in the forest supermarket. Vanity then, as now.

“History has long been taught by listing the names and dates of kings and battles,” said Dr Suryo. “We are reminding the students that the past also included the lives of ordinary people who went about their business as we do.

“The Majapahit, once the supreme trading force in lower Southeast Asia developed sophisticated technology to pipe water. They built with extraordinary precision that makes us wonder at their knowledge and skills.”

After almost a millennium the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom suddenly collapsed around five centuries ago for reasons not clearly understood, with many fleeing to Bali.

Dr Suryo’s education philosophy resonated with student Tegishtha Andhika Iman Soewarno (Tata), 14, whose research revealed an ancestor may have been an assistant in the Yogya court of Prince Diponegoro.

He was the Javanese guerrilla hero who took on the Dutch, only to be defeated in 1830 by being tricked into peace talks – then arrested and banished.

“Unfortunately it seems possible this ancestor may have been involved in the Prince’s betrayal,” said Tata ruefully.

“Through this experience I see the past as it was. It’s given me a new perspective. My family comes from East Java, but till now it’s been a distant place, not so important. No longer.”

(Disclosure: The author was provided with free accommodation and meals).

(First published in The Jakarta Post Tuesday 7 July 2011


Monday, June 06, 2011


Not a ghost of a chance for Cannes

Living overseas means few chances to see how the Indonesian film industry is progressing after decades of Soeharto’s scissors and suppression.

Are the newly liberated creative forces challenging the world with their passion and purpose, telling the Indonesia story as never before?

Is Jakartawood shaking Hollywood and Bollywood?

Back in the Big Durian and a chance to check the latest offering, Pocong Mandi Goyang Pinggul. Numerous translations present – take your pick: Shrouded Corpse Bathing while Hip Shaking, or Unstable Dancing Ghost takes a Bath.

Posters showed nubile maidens heading to the bathroom hoping to freshen up. Sub-text: They’ll be frightened out of their wits. And presumably their clothes.

The title was a mite off-putting – it hardly had the ring of The King’s Speech but sounded more cerebral than Kung Fu Panda 3. The advertising stressed the film had been made in Indonesia and Hollywood. So we got a few over-exposed stock shots of LA and a man in dark glasses who irons his own shirts, proving he’s a real bule (foreigner).
The storyline had promise. Grime and heavy metals come out of our taps, so a ghost would be logical. Rats use our drains as a turnpike, so why not a phantom of the pipes? The special effects might be fun.

Sadly the ghost never got into the shower. It appeared in bedrooms and hallways looking like a black-faced Ronald McDonald wearing a white sheet, about as scary as the neighbor’s maid asking for a cup of sugar.

The ghost also popped out of the fridge. This was a good health message, reminding the audience never to leave defrosted fish for more than a week.

There were a few other spooks but they lived in a graveyard, wore clean shrouds despite spending most time in the dirt, shaking their shimmering black locks, lovely as a shampoo commercial.

The happy news here is that even being interred shouldn’t mean a bad hair day.

The slapstick routines included a man chased up a ladder by a ghost, losing bladder control and saturating his pursuer. This had the audience wetting themselves with laughter.

A scene with a dwarf would have offended Western human rights activists, but making fun of the handicapped seems to be a national sport.

There must have been a plot, but maybe I blinked. People dancing in a disco, drinking like fishes and having a car accident. One patient’s face is like the inside of a papaya, but no matter a month later the survivor looks fine.

Our hero likes to Skype with Sasha, his girlfriend in California. This is Sasha Grey (aka Marina Hantzis), an American porn stardust who must be desperate for work now she’s turned 23 and started to droop.

The couple exchange heartfelt wit and wisdom: “I miss you.” “I miss you too.” Masochistic Sasha sits on hot leather sofas in a bikini so clearly she’ll come to a sticky end. She also leans forward a lot, presumably to satisfy the boyfriend who’s turned kinky since the accident.

His worried mum gets a private eye to check the lass. He finds her swimming alone in her luxury villa with the door open. As they do in California.

She can’t talk until she’s showered, which means undoing her top and the tap. The latter is more interesting, but sadly the ghost doesn’t appear – presumably lost somewhere in the plumbing on his way across the Pacific.

Is this burnt-bottom Sasha? No, that’s her deceased twin.

The film ended abruptly. Handphones switched off and couples started rearranging their clothing. More flesh was exposed inside the theater than on the screen.

Soft porn? This was mush porn, as erotic as a cold shower with a dancing ghost in Antarctica. As intellectually appetising as the leftovers in the frightener’s fridge.

Last year the same company produced The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak. To the producers’ delight this was condemned by the MUI – the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars.

So far the self appointed guardians of public morality have wisely refused to act as unpaid promoters and trash this film. It does the job well enough itself.

Take it easy, Cannes. The definitive Indonesian entry will be a while coming yet.

(First published in The Sunday Post 5 June 2011)


Saturday, June 04, 2011


Greg Moriarty = Right man for 2011?

According to The Australian newspaper’s conservative commentator Greg Sheridan, the new Australian Ambassador to Indonesia is the right man for the times.

Maybe that means Greg Moriarty can articulate Australia’s position in a robust way without fearing to offend Jakarta. The appeasement policy has run its course; Soeharto has gone and democracy is finding its feet. The Archipelago no longer faces ‘Balkanisation’.

Moriarty isn’t a newbie – he was in Jakarta 12 years ago as a political counsellor. Like most senior staff he studied Indonesian in Yogya. So he shouldn’t have been sledgehammered on arrival at Soekarno-Hatta by either the convolutions of Javanese politics or the chaos of the Republic’s capital.

He’s also served as Ambassador in Iran so is hopefully across Islamic affairs, if not security alerts and working in a bunker. The transition isn’t smooth: Indonesia follows Sunni Islam and Iran Shi’a.

Moriarty’s appointment means a return to promoting a career diplomat. His predecessor Bill Farmer once ran Immigration, and according to Sheridan was given Jakarta by former PM John Howard as a reward for services during the boat people crises.

Reward? The posting may be prestigious but the job is firefighting, hosing down blazes before they turn into conflagrations without making anyone wet.

In Surabaya at a function on a Madura ferry organised by the East Java branch of the Australian Indonesian Business Council and before 170 guests, Moriarty said all the usual worthy lines about close cooperation and economic ties. Meanwhile the Australian public was reeling from revelations that Indonesian abattoirs have been gratuitously brutalising Australian cattle.

If Moriarty is as tough as claimed then maybe sharp words are being exchanged out of public earshot. Indonesians who care not a whit about animal welfare are wondering what the fuss is all about, unaware that across the Arafura beast bashing arouses extreme wrath.

Indonesia doesn’t have a pet culture: Only Chinese keep dogs while cats are scavengers and targets for kids’ gings. The mangy, rabies-infested mongrels of Hindu Bali and Christian Nias are not for patting.

PM Julia Gillard has reportedly been getting an e-mail a second about the problem. It’s not an issue that’s going to boost Indonesia’s image among ordinary Australians who, apart from Bali, aren’t too fond of their neighbours.

Indonesia gets a fair whack of Australian taxpayers’ money, around AUD $2.5 billion in development assistance over five years. The aims are splendid – to decrease poverty, improve potable water supplies and lift education.

None of this decency seems to impact on Indonesian bureaucrats who continue to treat their generous neighbours with suspicion and sometimes hostility.

Indonesia’s infrastructure desperately needs upgrading. The taxation system should be pulling in trillions, but misses out through corruption and maladministration. Is it Australia’s job to pick up the shortfall? There never seems to be a lack of local cash for new mosques, shopping malls and opulent buildings for politicians – so why not schools and roads?

There are no limits to the problems flowing from two so absolutely dissimilar nations living so closely. Apart from people smuggling by Indonesian nationals aided by bent officials, the absence of impartial justice is a major block for foreigners investing in the Archipelago. So is the mass of regional regulations and authorities on the take. Nationalism and radical Islam add to the woes. Australian Islamophobia doesn’t help.

Moriarty is a former Perth lad who headed East after his days at the University of WA. Along the way he’s attracted ribbing from those raised on Conan Doyle and Spike Milligan

Professor Moriarty was Sherlock Holmes’ arch enemy and Count Jim Moriarty a bizarre character in The Goon Show. Greg Moriarty remains amused. Just as well. There won’t be too many laughs in the months ahead sorting out cattle eye-gougers, Aussie drug mules and ticket touts offering one-way trips to Christmas Island – arrival not guaranteed.