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 27, 2012


Too young – or too unimportant?                         

Yasmin Ali is now home in Flores telling family and friends about his extraordinary experiences in Perth, the booming capital of Western Australia, and Albany a small holiday town on the State’s south coast.

Unfortunately the teenager’s accounts, garnered over two years, aren’t littered with tales of fun on sun-soaked beaches or happy times in a prosperous society that respects human rights.  Instead his tales are about life in two jails.

For back in 2009 Yasmin, then 13, was arrested when the Indonesian fishing boat he was helping crew arrived at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.  It was laden with 55 Middle Eastern asylum seekers.

Under Australian law Yasmin faced a mandatory five-year jail sentence unless he could prove that he was under 18.  He couldn’t.  Indonesian kids picked up by the people smuggling mafia in Jakarta to work as deckhands don’t carry passports and birth records.

Even if they did have wallets stuffed with certificates the Australian Federal Police wouldn’t accept them as valid, assuming that all Indonesian documents are false unless proved otherwise.

Instead the police X-rayed Yasmin’s wrists using an 80-year old technique that links bone-growth rate to age.  The scans are measured against an atlas of white middle class children from the US.

Medical experts have been rubbishing the system as inaccurate and inappropriate for Asians.  But the AFP refused to change its policy till late last year when a court in Queensland threw out charges because it believed the defendants were underage.

By then around 24 kids like Yasmin were already sharing space with violent criminals and paedophiles.

A visitor to the Albany jail on other business noticed Yasmin and was convinced he looked too young to be banged up in an adult prison. 

He raised his concerns with Ross Taylor, the founder of the Perth NGO Indonesia Institute and a former WA Trade Commissioner in Jakarta.  He started speaking up in the media about the boat kids, claiming they were the unwitting dupes of ruthless criminals and should be repatriated, not prosecuted.

Sadly his campaign wasn’t greeted with widespread applause.  There’s no sympathy for people smugglers in Australia; former Foreign Affairs minister Kevin Rudd labelled them the ‘scum of the earth’.  Few in the public were prepared to differentiate between the godfathers in Jakarta and deckhands in Nusa Tenggara.

There’s been little understanding of the realities of Indonesian village life where poor fishermen are prepared to take great risks for the promise of high wages and a short voyage.  They aren’t told the trips are one way, the journey is hazardous and the cops are waiting for survivors.

Australian lawyers and reporters sought proof that boys like Yasmin were minors.  However school records, letters by village officials and statements by relatives all failed the AFP’s test of verifiable documentation. 

Nonetheless Mr Taylor, journalists and others kept hammering at the Australian government and public opinion. Indonesian diplomats in Australia eventually started trying to obtain convincing paperwork.

At last their efforts have yielded some success.  Federal Attorney General Nicola Roxon released Yasmin and two other children.  They were immediately deported last Friday.  (18 May)  Age verification is now the responsibility of Immigration, not the AFP.

A Federal Parliamentary inquiry into underage prisoners initiated by the Greens is underway, and there’s talk among human rights lawyers about the children suing the Government for wrongful imprisonment.

Many factors complicate the issue.  The lack of an efficient and universal system of recording births and issuing certificates that can be checked against a centralised registry in Indonesia doesn’t help.

Nor does the poor education of village boys who are ignorant of international law and politics and foreign legal systems so have to rely on others for advice. Although Yasmin had free legal aid he pleaded guilty.

Australian judges slamming the cell doors shut say tough sentences are deterrent, sending clear messages to others. 

They don’t.  If they did the boats would stop coming.  So far this year 35 Indonesian vessels carrying more than 2,500 asylum seekers have been caught in Australian waters

Some deckhands don’t know their age or get confused under questioning. It’s alleged Yasmin originally said he was born in 1990.  Others just want to stay with their older mates.

There’s no doubt the ‘scum’ running the refugee boats know that using kids as crew means many are likely to be deported.

While freedom can’t be compromised and locking kids in adult jails is unconscionable, the ugly irony is that living conditions in Australian prisons can be better than in some Indonesian villages. Inmates are well fed and have access to free medical care and education.

There are reports that Yasmin is now so fluent in English he’s been acting as an interpreter for other Indonesian prisoners.

Why did it take a small lobby group and the media to goad the Australian government into action?  Why didn’t the Indonesian authorities, backed by an outraged public and pushed by probing journalists, loudly demand that the Republic’s young and vulnerable citizens be immediately repatriated?

That’s what happened last year when a 14-year old Australian boy spent several weeks in custody in Bali after being arrested on drug charges.  The howls of protest were so shrill Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard even spoke to the youth by phone when he was in custody telling him that everything possible would be done to get him home.

There’s no record of Indonesian ministers contacting Yasmin and his teen friends with similar assurances.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa has reportedly said a regional solution is needed to fix the mess.  A good starting point would be for Australia to stop its hypocrisy and Indonesia to stop the people trafficking mafioso. 


Sunday, May 13, 2012


Where there’s sugar, there are ants


Maybe you’re reading this squashed in traffic or wading through blackwater while coughing up smog but hey, take it easy.  Really, life is good.

Forget increasing prices and decreasing services, high inflation and low wages.  Ignore roadblocks and rubbish, corruption and collusion – you’re doing OK.

How do I know?  Because of the Javanese proverb ada gula ada semut, the title of this BTW. Why else are foreign leaders taking Jakarta junkets and overseas economists making three-day analyses?  

Would VIPs like UK Prime Minister David Cameron be jostling for a photo op with the President in a peci if they couldn’t sniff cash in the kampongs?

These altruists have been telling us we’re doing fine, better than most.  Investing used to be risky, now it’s frisky. 

Let’s jump in.  Hotels will be overflowing with carpetbaggers drawn to the newfound equatorial Shangri-La.  They’ll pay millions for a bed.  Even more for one in a room.

We used to be an Asian Tiger before bounding into a fiscal pit. Now we’ve clawed ourselves out and become BRICed in with the economic elephants of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

That’s what the boosters have been shouting during their Big Durian stopovers: The Archipelago’s awash with rupiah and the friendly foreigners want to bail us out.

Behind this newly minted interest are statistics showing bulging wallets among the growing middle classes, folk who earn above US$ 3,000 a year.  That’s Rp 2.3 million a month.

Sounds good until put into context: The World Bank says half the nation’s population earns just one tenth of that sum.

So if you’ve got a full-time rewarding job count your fortunes. You’re in a minority. More than 30 million are underemployed; another nine million have no work at all.

When you stagger home for a couple of hours before heading back to your sweatshop take stock of your new prosperity.

Is there milk in the fridge, bread on the table? Has your Honda got four wheels, not two?  Is a flat screen TV on the wall hiding fractures in the plaster?  These are the economists’ markers of prosperity.

Well, lucky us. I fit the demographic though without all the goods. No kids or maid, but some relatives to support – a cultural duty foreign economists exclude from their equations.

Apart from bread (home made), food is from the local markets.  No mortgage or debts, yet we need at least Rp 5 million a month for the basics.  Any extra income is spent on maintaining a jerrybuilt house, which is what most of our neighbors are doing. 

This isn’t a whinge list. I’m satisfied with our lot. The alluring archipelago has riches that money can’t buy.

Its good guests are now stopping by, even if Jakarta’s just a refuel-point on a flight path to somewhere else.  Pity they prioritize selling above buying.  Sad the smoke of rhetoric has clouded the view past Jl Thamrin to the problems beyond.

Police motorcade outriders would have kept the beggar babes at bay but the visitors should have noticed shopping malls marketing glossy imports, though not the crumbling kerbs where rombeng (second-hand traders) flog their scavenged trash.

They’d know the power resides in Jakarta.  They wouldn’t know that in many villages there’s no power, real or metaphorical.  Even in cities like Malang flicking a switch doesn’t mean a light will ignite.

Spending time in this diverse and demanding nation would reveal how and where the West can best help. Investing in infrastructure would be a good start.  Rich, poor or in-between, we all need better transport systems.

Buying more finished goods (batik’s fantastic) instead of raw materials would help create jobs.  Offering tens of thousands of overseas scholarships to the talented poor would yield future dividends for givers and takers

So what did we get out of the PM’s visit – guns or butter? Apparently the former as the Brits may now lift their arms sales embargo. 

Good trade Mr Cameron, your arsenals will stay busy.  But why do we need more weapons? Surely not to control the envious majority hoping to enjoy their nation’s world famous economic boom?   Duncan Graham

(First published in The Sunday Post 13 May 2012)

An example of the boosting here:

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Cooking up confidence                                           

Indonesian chefs are among the world’s best.  They are well respected, reliable and work hard. But they have one major problem  - a lack of self-confidence.

That’s the opinion of Irwan Ruchimat, who hasn’t suffered from this deficiency thanks to an “open-minded” upbringing and a determination to take charge of directions in his life.

The test came when he turned up to work one morning at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Central Jakarta to find it ringed by 11 tanks even though most occupants had fled. 

The time was May 1998 and the riots that led to the fall of the Soeharto government were well underway.

“I thought this wasn’t the best way to develop my career,” Irwan commented dryly.  “I decided it might be best to go overseas.”

So he headed for New Zealand when such moves were easier, and where a friend was singing about the opportunities.  Fortunately Irwan wasn’t just a dab hand with a wok – he also had a couple of other sharp knives in his top drawer making him a wanted employee:  He’d already worked abroad, and he spoke English.

Now he’s an ambassador for the Indonesian Chef Association helping guide young people in the hospitality industry to get ahead by heading offshore.

“I tell them that the cooking part is easy,” he said.  “It’s the English that’s difficult.  If you want to work overseas put mastering language skills ahead of your kitchen abilities.

“Before flying to places like Australia and NZ get some experience in Indonesia and another country because conditions can be quite different.  Moving directly from Jakarta could be a shock.

“Here (in NZ) it’s tough.  Things are done differently.  Workers are focussed and have self confidence in their abilities – that’s something Indonesians need to develop

“Labor costs in Australia and NZ are high.  As a result there are few workers in the kitchen, so we must be able to do everything, including cleaning plates - something I hadn’t done in Jakarta.  (Chefs in NZ earn from Rp 140,000 an hour, more with overtime).

“I recommend trying Dubai because it has a large number of restaurants and hotels, including international chains.  Conditions for workers are better there than other places in the Middle East.”

Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu has been reported saying that 100 chefs will be able to work in NZ under the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.

However the details have yet to be determined and it seems unlikely visas will be available till later this year.  Issues to be resolved include the qualifications required.

NZ has an unemployment rate of almost seven per cent and visas are not given to overseas workers when skilled locals are available. 

“There are currently few vacancies and chefs might have to wait long periods for a job,” said Irwan.  “A local friend has just spent six weeks hunting for work.  We need a central point for applicants to seek positions. I’d also love to see NZ chefs in Indonesia.”

Irwan credits his unusual upbringing in Bandung for his present success.  His lawyer father insisted the family be fluent in English.  While other kids were flying kites Irwan and his siblings were being ferried on Dad’s Vespa to study at the British Council library.

At home the family did not employ a maid.  Mum and an aunt did the cooking.  The children were allowed in the kitchen, and so was Dad, who also owned a restaurant specializing in Sundanese batagor (fried fish dumplings).

With typical Kiwi understatement Irwan claims he could hardly boil water when he entered the National Hotel Institute in Bandung.  However it’s clear he already knew the difference between a bread roll and breadfruit – and that cooking could make him a breadwinner.

After graduating he worked in Singapore, then Jakarta before having his life-changing encounter with the Indonesian military.

In the NZ capital Wellington he soon got a job – and a surprise:  His Indonesian diploma wasn’t recognized.  So he had to retrain in culinary arts at a polytechnic where he found he was teaching his tutors who weren’t skilled in Indonesian cuisine.

“The situation has changed since then, but it’s important to make sure your qualifications are acceptable,” he said.

There are several Malaysian restaurants in Wellington, but no Indonesian eateries, much to the chagrin of ambassador Agus Sriyono.  He and others have been trying to encourage entrepreneurs to rectify the omission – so far without success.

farah quinnThe situation is different in Auckland, the country’s biggest city where there are several Indonesian restaurants.  Celebrity chef Farah Quinn (pictured left) from the Ala Chef show has been in the city to stir interest in the archipelago’s rich and varied cuisine. 

She’s been entertaining Kiwis on local TV wearing outfits that would boil over  Indonesian Broadcasting Commission censors but have helped promote her homeland’s many charms.

“Working in NZ is heaven for me,” said Irwan, 40, who spends his spare time fishing and following football. He’s been in the country for 12 years and has become so acclimatized that he, his wife Irma Iryanti and four children have lost their immunity to Indonesian stomach cramps.

On a recent visit to Bandung the family spent half their six-week holiday getting medical treatment after eating bad food, despite taking all precautions.

“In Jakarta it was difficult to get unpolluted fish,” he said.  “We could smell the oil.

“Here in NZ there’s a growing interest in Indonesian food, though most only know of Balinese cuisine.  We have to tone down the chilli to match local palates.  I’d say rendang (beef cooked in spices and coconut milk) is our national dish, followed by nasi goreng (fried rice), sate (satay), and soto (clear meat soup).

“I enjoy everything – including fish and chips.

“Preparing Indonesian, Korean, Japanese, Tex-Mex or European food isn’t difficult. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the North Pole or South Pole provided you have the right method, good equipment and fresh food.

“With self-confidence maybe Indonesian chefs can do much better than Kiwis.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 May 2012)


Thursday, May 03, 2012


Rini Sugianto
Have mouse, will travel                                                         

Fancy a Tinsel Town career? What could be finer than glamor and glitz from sunup to sunup; wherever you go red carpets wait, cameras flash, fans swoon, bubbly flows, limos glide.

If that’s your fantasy avoid the technical end of filmmaking. 

Here you’ll probably get paid reasonably well, travel to exotic lands and see your name on the big screen.

But by the time the credits roll the lights are on and the cleaners are sweeping you and spilt popcorn towards the EXIT signs.  Consider this a metaphor for a tough job in an exciting industry, provided they are risk-takers.

“This is a business of hard work and long hours,” said animation artist Rini Sugianto.  “It’s not for those who aren’t fully dedicated.  I don’t want to be rude but newcomers have to learn to learn the basics, to animate bouncing balls before tackling facial features.

“Unfortunately many Indonesian would-be animators look for short cuts.  I’m happy to help young people who don’t wait for me to send them something. For others that’s a problem and I’m trying to get my head around it now.”

Rini is currently working in the Weta Digital visual effects studios in Wellington, New Zealand on The Hobbit.  The film, produced by Sir Peter Jackson who directed the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, is due out in December.

Along with other non-celebs Rini and her colleagues will buy their own tickets to see the film. They’ll sit through to the end hoping their names are spelt correctly then party – and wonder what next, and where.  Their photos won’t gloss the social pages and no teen screamers will crave autographs.

Yet the film could not have been made if around 80 animators hadn’t spent 50 hours a week or more bonding like soulmates to their computers, finessing each shot, 24 frames every second long after the stars have soared back to their penthouses.

Animators make the production absolutely believable, so keen observation skills are another required quality. With nimble fingers, sharp eyes and fertile minds their mice slowly nibble away the barriers between fantasy and reality letting viewers slump deeper into their seats and another world.

Cartoon films using thousands of drawings, each one slightly different from its predecessor were being made 100 years ago.  Computer film animation is one of the new transforming jobs that hardly existed last century.

An animator’s village is the world.  With show reels of their work on line, a passport in their jeans and English on their tongues the digital generation is young, keen, smart and ready to roll.

This is an informal industry where what you’ve done and can do overpowers qualifications or the way you dress.  Many now work at home.  Hazards include burn out, fractured marriages and repetitive strain injuries.

Rini, 32, was one of the few Indonesians who saw the possibilities while at school in Lampung and Bogor.  While her friends chased boys, fashion and fun the teenager was chasing a cursor across a screen.  Her childhood, dominated by sport, computers and comics, including Tintin, had “different priorities.”

When she entered Bandung’s Parahyangan University the best fit for her talents was architecture.  But when she graduated the Indonesian economy had been crimped by the Asian economic crisis.

Working for a Jakarta company producing 3D images of furniture wasn’t going to meet Rini’s surging ambitions.  Instead of waiting for times to change she took an animation course, sadly discovering local directors were “squeezing production time and sacrificing quality.”

Next stop San Francisco for further study, followed by animating games and small films.  She spent five years working in the US, her last as a supervisor, before heading to NZ in 2010 with her Australian Shepherd bitch Kali.

An “open-minded family” that didn’t try to restrain their independent daughter smoothed passage for the overseas adventuress.  Rini arrived in the US with little English so threw herself into the culture, making local friends, avoiding expats. 

Her adaptability is so complete that this month (May) she’ll marry an American special effects expert who shares her love of mountaineering.  Her plan is to scale the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on every continent.

Already underfoot is Kilimanjaro, the 5,895-meter mountain in Africa and NZ’s Ngauruhoe, Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings.

“Like airline pilots, the animation industry uses English,” said Rini, whose advanced language masks her origins. “A Jakarta animator with excellent abilities and wanted by Weta had to be turned down because his language was limited.

“The business is highly competitive and global.  I’m with people from NZ, Australia, the US, Britain and Germany.  Most are men.  Five Indonesians are working on The Hobbit, but I’m the only animator.

“It’s not just the artists who are mobile. US companies are moving to Canada. Others are going to Singapore.  The new center for animation is India where they’re really hard workers.

“I wish Indonesia could be there but the bureaucracy involved in setting up a company would be too difficult.  High-speed Internet access is essential.
“The feature-film industry is project-based.  I was offered a job with Weta on The Adventures of Tintin, (left) directed by Steven Spielberg who I’ve never met, then given the chance on The Hobbit.  Other projects are around but these are secret. 

“People come from all over the world to work at Weta (The company has employees from 35 nations). They’d do anything to work here. 

“Graduates will be stuck if they accept Indonesian standards. They need to put their work out there, let people bash it. Once you get comfortable you’re in danger.  There are so many resources available, including courses on line.

“You can learn by yourself if you’re artistic and technically literate. You must be multi-skilled but really skilled in one area.  (Rini is also a photographer and sculptor).

“My father, who works in real estate in Indonesia, always said that he didn’t worry about me because I’m independent.  He knew I’d always figure out a way to get ahead.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 May 2012)


Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Indonesians dying in southern seas                                                  

They’re called National Heroes as though working overseas is dangerous.  It is. Not all the millions of Indonesians who venture abroad to clean, care and labor survive unscathed.

They remit Rp 60 trillion a year but the cash is often bloodstained.

Some return with the scars of judicial whippings and employer torture from nations like Malaysia.  A few come back in coffins, killed in workplace accidents or executed in places like Saudi Arabia. 

But few would expect mistreatment in an advanced and well-regulated democracy like New Zealand.  This is the world’s least corrupt nation, famous for its universal welfare system, concern for minorities and serious about its international obligations.

This image took a battering while NZ Prime Minister John Key was in Jakarta last week (week ending 21 April). His visit was about trade but Mr Key also discussed human rights issues in Papua with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

While the two men were talking about the Republic’s problems in its backyard province, a coronial inquest in the NZ capital Wellington was hearing disturbing stories of cruelty and exploitation of Indonesian citizens in Mr Key’s own backwater.

The inquest was into the deaths of five Indonesian seamen and their Korean captain on 18 August 2010.  The men drowned when their Korean-registered trawler Oyang 70 capsized in the Southern Ocean 750 kilometers east of NZ’s South Island while trying to drag aboard a massive haul of fish.

Robert Leyden, a ship’s surveyor advising coroner Richard McElrea, told the inquest the Indonesians could have lived if proper management systems, safety procedures, equipment maintenance and emergency drills had been in place.

In brief it was alleged the men didn’t know what to do when they were tipped into the icy ocean and no one took charge. 

Coronial inquests are like a court and held following accidental deaths.  The findings often result in changes to laws and practices.

The week-long inquest, involving seven lawyers and 15 witnesses, heard evidence given to NZ Police by the 31 Indonesian survivors.

The men were recruited from Tegal on the north coast of Central Java to work on the stern trawler alongside eight Koreans, six Filipinos and one Chinese.  Not surprisingly there were language barriers.

Tragically that wasn’t the only problem.  Through the police statements (no Indonesians attended the inquest) the survivors alleged physical and verbal abuse, unsafe working conditions, excessively long shifts of up to 20 hours and a culture dominated by catch, not care.

Faced with a huge haul, possibly 100 or more tonnes, the captain left it too late to slash the bulging net when it began to tip the boat.

Four months later another Korean fishing boat, No 1 Insung, sank in the Southern Ocean, perhaps after hitting an iceberg.  Two of the 22 men who died were Indonesian.

Spurred by these disasters and 32 Indonesians walking off the Oyang 75 last July, a team from the University of Auckland’s Business School researched conditions aboard foreign charter vessels operating in NZ waters.

The team interviewed 144 people, including surviving crew in Indonesia and the widows of the men who perished.  Their report found that “disturbing levels of inhumane conditions and practices have become institutionalized.”

Last year there were 27 overseas registered ships fishing in NZ’s exclusive economic zone employing about 2,000 foreigners recruited in their homelands through manning agents.  The men are supposed to be paid NZ rates of around NZ$15 (Rp 112,000) an hour but the reality is allegedly closer to NZ$1 (Rp 7,500). 

Not in NZ’s waters, surely? That’s been public reaction and the title of the University report, which found the Indonesian recruits signed two contracts, one to be shown to NZ authorities and the other for a fraction of the proper wage. 

The researchers heard stories of manning agents locking the men and their families into huge penalties if they complained or jumped ship.

At the coronial inquest have been officials from NZ Government departments responsible for checking foreign charter vessels. Their statements have shown a lack of cooperation between agencies and conflicting evidence about the way regulations were enforced.  Tellingly, officials say procedures have been tightened since the Oyang 70 sank.

The inquest is producing shocking headlines but the NZ government has long known that evil things were happening in the foreign boats fishing its economic zone.

Since 2005 there have been eight separate incidents involving 90 Indonesian ship- jumpers alleging inhumane physical, mental and sexual abuse and non-payment or under-payment of wages. They weren’t alone: Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese fishermen have also quit.

In most cases the men were rapidly repatriated before detailing their claims.  That situation changed after the Oyang 70 sank and police interviewed the survivors. 

Separate from the University research has been a ministerial inquiry.  Submissions from ship owners and agents denied allegations of cruelty and bad management.  The inquiry has made 15 recommendations.  So far only six have been accepted. 

The government is stalling on the rest, including the key points that foreign vessels be re-flagged to NZ so all local laws apply, and NZ observers sail with the ships to ensure compliance. These await the coroner’s findings later this year.

A letter from the widows read to the inquest by lawyer Craig Tuck who helped found the NGO Slave Free Seas, spoke of “the heart-wrenching loss of our loved ones, yet we still do not know what happened to cause their demise.”

Maybe next time Mr Yudhoyono meets Mr Key the President can ask about progress in rectifying human rights abuses in NZ’s seas.

(First opublished in The Jakarta Post 1 May 2012)