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

Monday, July 30, 2012


Indonesian Islam Down Under   


                                           Kilbirnie Mosque, Wellington

Here’s a message for Indonesian Muslims who feel their faith is flagging:  Move to a country where you’re a minority.

“It can be a challenge and there may be downsides, but after ten years in New Zealand I’m more pious than I was in Jakarta,” said Agam Jaya Syam (above, right), chairman of the Indonesian Community Association in Wellington.

“Back home I accepted a lot of things uncritically, but here we find our beliefs and values being challenged.  For example my son Fachry asked why we can’t eat pork.  In the past I would have said it’s forbidden.  Now I’ve had to add the reasons why, explaining how pigs feed and their digestive system works.”

There’s another plus: Worshippers with conflicting views on how their faith should be practised bury divisions when faced with the reality of being the few among the many.

“When you’re in a minority – and a very small minority – you tend to overlook little things,” said Fawzan Hafiz (above, left) , a past president of the International Muslim Association of NZ (IMAN).

“Differences don’t seem to matter so much.  The larger the group, the less the compromise.  That’s when history, culture and custom come into play.

“In NZ we have a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community. More than 40 nations are represented in the congregation at the Wellington mosque.  The beauty of Islam is that it can adapt.”

A few Chinese Muslims arrived in NZ during the South Island gold rush about 150 years ago.  However they had little influence in an overwhelmingly Christian nation, for by 1950 there were only 150 throughout the whole country.

Eleven years later the number hadn’t even doubled.  Then Indian Muslims started coming from Fiji. Students from Asia began to arrive, along with refugees from the Middle East.

Islam also began attracting locals disillusioned with other faiths.  Now ten per cent of Muslims in NZ are Maori and Western.

Today NZ has around 40,000 Muslims.  They worship at 35 prayer centers and mosques, including one in Invercargill, which at latitude 46’42” may well be the world’s most southerly – and coldest.

About 150 of the 400 Indonesians in Wellington use the local mosque and a central city room in a shop for Friday prayers.

The mosque, a printing warehouse converted with local funds and money from Malaysia, can accommodate more than 1,000 worshippers.  It was opened just after Muslim terrorists slammed two commercial jets into New York’s World Trade Center, releasing a global cloud of Islamophobia.

Though little across NZ, according to Fawzan.  There had been some graffiti and a broken window, but these were examples of vandalism by street kids and not linked to bigotry.

When The Jakarta Post visited at 7 am on a cold Sunday the outside gate was open and the doors unlocked.  No guards were present.  Later, on a Saturday afternoon, the rooms were full of Somali children and their moms in colourful ankle-length ethnic dress.  A few headed for the shops wearing black burqa.

“The atmosphere here is different,” said Fawzan.  “NZ is generally pretty tolerant.  The people are good – there’s no religious prejudice.”

But then there’s not much religion in the South Pacific nation of 4.25 million. 
Census statistics show one third of the population indifferent to religion.  Church attendances have tumbled and Sunday service pews in the traditional denominations grow thinner and greyer every year.

The present Prime Minister John Key is not religious though his mother was Jewish. His predecessor Helen Clark, like Australian PM Julia Gillard, is also an atheist.  Laws on the separation of faith and state prevent the government from funding religion or having a Ministry of Religion.

An absence of piety doesn’t indicate immorality or lack of compassion. A George Washington University survey of 208 nations called How Islamic are Islamic Countries? ranked NZ number one for implementing policies in keeping with Islamic values.  Indonesia was number 140.

When Kiwi businessman Tim Mackay was killed in a 2009 Jakarta terror bombing the RI Embassy in Wellington offered unqualified public apologies and sympathies.

 Agam Syam wrote in the local press that he felt “betrayed and ashamed” by terrorists, adding: “If we cannot create peace and instead make trouble and take human lives, that is not Islam.”

“It would be impossible for an Indonesian president not to be Muslim,” said Nourina Djamal who has spent seven years in NZ after a similar period in Australia.

“However we must differentiate between those born Muslim and those who want to be Muslim.  If our politicians were truly Muslim there’d be no corruption and there’s be care for the poor.

“I’m happy that there’s no official religion in NZ and I don’t think that causes problems.  People don’t ask about religion and it’s illegal to question faith when applying for a job.

“However I don’t like the sex education in schools – I think there’s too much information, it’s too extreme.”

Nourina wears a headscarf in her job at a supermarket, but her 20-year-old student daughter does not – although she did at school.

Agam’s wife Silviana Dewi Warli  (left) works for NZ Post.  In the street she dons a headscarf – but not in the office.  “I’m not ready for that yet,” she said. 

The couple have been wondering whether to send their son back to Indonesia for Islamic schooling because there’s only one Muslim school in NZ – in Auckland, 700 kilometers north of Wellington

Both women claimed neither they nor their children had suffered discrimination or abuse but were sometimes greeted in the street by others who recognised fellow Muslims.

However stories of casual racism are often reported in the media.  Human Rights Commissioner Joris de Bres reported that although race relations were “relatively healthy” prejudice existed, with Asians the principal target.

Asians are expected to overtake Maori as the second largest ethnic group in NZ by 2026.

The Wellington mosque administration appears to have made earnest efforts to merge into the wider society.  Every year it holds an Open Day, inviting visitors and questions, and offering a wide variety of foods from Islamic countries.

Leaders are involved in inter-faith groups and the Koran has been read from lecterns in some progressive churches. 

There are no loudspeakers atop the minaret and even if noise abatement laws didn’t exist there’d still be no broadcast calls to prayer, according to Fawzan.

“Why should we disturb local residents who aren’t Muslims?” said Fawzan.  “That doesn’t help improve relations with the community.”

 (First published in The Jakarta Post 30 July 2012)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


If you want, you can                                                                

 Getting gender balance in public life isn’t just a matter of encouraging women to enter politics.  There are other issues – like the bureaucracy, culture, and a down and dirty image.  Then there’s relatives.

When Ledia Hanifa Amaliah entered the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR – House of Representatives) in 2009 and had to attend late night meetings her mother-in-law asked:  “So after this you will leave my son?”

Ledia found this amusing: “My three sons and my husband (Bachtiar Sunasto, an education consultant) have been enormously supportive.  Before we got married he knew I wasn’t going to be a kitchen person but an outside woman.

“Family backing is important, but that’s not the only factor. Women wanting to enter politics need to be educated – and that’s something our school system doesn’t do well.  We need to learn self-esteem, to be assertive, to be articulate without emotion.”

It also helps if you have relatives who spot your interest and ability at an early age.  Both Ledia’s parents worked and encouraged her to be independent – even to the point of selecting her own school (“I chose the one with the best Scout group”) - and responsible.  As the eldest child with two brothers she was expected to help with their upbringing

Another significant figure was her late grandfather Hasan Nataperhana who was involved with regional politics.

“He encouraged me to read certain books and phoned me every week from Bandung when we were in Jakarta,” she said.  “He urged me to ask questions about everything and always spoke in Sundanese.

“At the time I didn’t realise that he was leading me in this direction, but now I’m really thankful. It was an unusual family for the times.  I was blessed.”

After graduating with a degree in chemistry Ledia considered a career in industry, but decided this wouldn’t suit her personality – confined to a factory and regular hours.  So she returned to study – this time for a master’s degree in social psychology.

This led to work with non-government organizations and the conservative Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS – Prosperous Justice Party), the successor of the Justice Party that failed when it couldn’t muster more than two per cent of the vote.

Campaigning on its Islamic credentials and anti-corruption platform the PKS is now the fourth largest party in Parliament with 57 seats and 7.88 per cent of the popular vote.

However its gender- balance at just over five per cent is the lowest in the DPR, and far below the professed 30 per cent goal of all political parties.

Ledia agreed it wasn’t a good look, blaming a failure in strategy and an inability to marshal critical support even though a third of the party’s candidates in 2009 were women.

Despite being kneecapped by these crippling facts she struggles on womanfully, commenting frankly on mainstream issues, from the plight of Indonesian workers in Malaysia through to the lack of hospitals in the Republic.

A further handicap has been a testy relationship with the media, which she alleged is unfriendly towards women in politics, though she excluded this paper from her criticism.

“Some of my colleagues have decided that they don’t want to talk to journalists and would rather pay them to write good news,” she said.  “I don’t take that view even though I’ve been badly misquoted.  I believe in transparency.”

She’s run workshops for the husbands of women considering politics, telling the men that if their wives have the potential and interest in public life then the whole family will be blessed.

Ledia could also have added that men need a tough hide when they take a Prince Philip role, forever a couple of steps behind the monarch.  Bachtiar Sunasto has had to put up with mothers pitying him when visiting his children’s school alone when Mom was campaigning, lecturing or meeting constituents.

She’s also written a book with a self-explanatory title - If we want, we can “not to show off but to give encouragement.”

Unlike many of her opponents at 43 she has age on her side, an easy relaxed disposition and has yet to learn the dark arts of dissembling that tend to repel young idealists from politics.

“I entered public life to make my country a better place,” she said.   “Women considering politics should build their capacity – by that I mean acquiring skills and knowledge. 

“You must be fit and a fast learner.  It helps to have other languages and be conscious of social issues.

“I do believe that if we can show that we’re competent then we won’t be rejected by voters.  I try to be honest – that’s difficult but it’s important.

“I think women are less corrupt than men.  We support each other, that’s what we do, while men don’t like to share.

“My career has helped me meet many people and learn of different issues. (She spoke to The Jakarta Post while leading a five person-team from the DPR Commission V111 to New Zealand to look at disaster management and social issues.)

“For example in NZ I’ve been impressed by how minorities, like the Maori, are treated with respect and the way that equality is handled, particularly as we have so many ethnic groups in Indonesia.” (The treaty of Waitangi signed in 1840 between the British and Maori, is still used to determine disputes.)

Political ambitions? “I don’t want to be president, but I would like to be a minister for health or social welfare.  But only after I’ve built up my experience so I can handle the bureaucracy – they’ve had 30 years experience.

“I wouldn’t want to have portfolios in women’s empowerment and child protection – they’re just not effective.”

How do her religious beliefs fit with being a woman politician? “The principles of Islam have to be implemented in daily life.  The Koran encourages women to go into public life. 

“The faithful man and woman should go hand-in-hand together in worship. As Muslims we have an obligation to improve society. Politics is for everyone.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 July 2012)

Thursday, July 19, 2012


A taste of the Archipelago

Apart from pain and misery the other affliction facing patients in hospital used to be the food.

You think Styrofoam sandwiches are exclusive to airlines?  Wrong – hospitals were in the business of bland long before the Wright Brothers went aloft.

Times change. Hospitals now serve balanced healthy meals and a mixed menu.  The Vibe Café in Wellington Hospital has taken this further by preparing theme meals based on international cuisine.

In mid July it was Indonesia’s turn when chef Burhan and sous chef Arifai Enrang, both from Makassar (below left and right), offered a diverse lunch menu. 


It included Sop Jagung Manis (sweet corn soup), Rendang Sapi (beef with sauce, rice and vegetables) Kambing Goreng Kecap Manis (fried lamb with sweet sauce) Opor Ayam (chicken with Indonesian curry and coconut cream) and everyone’s favourite Gado-Gado (mixed vegetables and peanut sauce).

Pisang Goreng (fried banana) was the desert.

Wayang figures on the counter, an Indonesian flag on the wall and  mobile server Bharat Patel dressed in batik (see above) added to the flavour.

Most customers were hospital staff, including doctors concerned with diets, so the meals were tasty and nutritious – stimulating much positive comment and interest in the Archipelago.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Shame Australia, shame

Many weird stories come out of Indonesia: A smoking orang-utan hooked on nicotine, the public servant jailed for confessing his atheism on Facebook. 

Some yarns are funny like moralising politicians caught surfing porn during parliamentary debate.  Others are sad: A 15-year-old faced five years in jail for hoofing it with a cop’s sandals. 

But few can be as strange as the linking of the Australian Graduate School of Leadership with the Jenderal Soedirman Center.  The joint venturers intend to set up a leadership and ethics education institution to rid Indonesia of corruption.

JSC head Bugiaks was reported saying: “Leadership and ethics education should be an effective way to create new leaders who bring prosperity to the populace.

“Corruption is like a chronic cancer, and has to be cured by preparing upcoming leaders with a good ethics.”

Some might consider the proposal a joke, the money better spent on seeking the Philosopher’s Stone.  Wrong; it’s a golden goal.  Even though corruption is to the public service and business what rice is to the cuisine, at least someone is trying and that’s to be applauded.

The problem is that Australia has been chosen to teach Indonesia leadership as though we have a reputation in this area.

That used to be the situation. When others straddled the fence after Indonesia declared independence we were in the forefront, recognizing a new nation.  The government shilly-shallied for a while but the unions were resolute, custodians of our conscience 

When emergency assistance was needed after the 2002 Bali bombs, we responded with alacrity and unqualified generosity. Fundamentalists had killed 202 innocents, including 88 Australians, and injured 240 - but we didn’t let the bombers’ hate poison relationships with our neighbours who had also suffered terribly.

We were leaders in compassion.  We gave $7 million for an eye centre and $2.5 million for local victims, with many flown south for treatment.

Apart from the $1 billion government aid following the 2004 Aceh tsunami, ordinary folk across the continent gave money and goods without question.  It was the same with the 2006 Yogya earthquake, the Mount Merapi explosion and every other major natural disaster to hit the catastrophe-prone Archipelago.

Even when the need has been less urgent Australia has been there with health and education programs, offering scholarships, building schools, training and advising.  We give almost half a billion dollars a year.  We are Indonesia’s top aid donor.

We led the way in good governance.  We’d inherited the great Westminster system.  We upheld the rule of law and ministerial accountability.  We believed in human rights and made it law. Our public service was staunchly independent, like our judiciary.  We were the model nation, an example to the world.

In a region where despots rule, violence influences votes and states fail we could help a struggling democracy. It was our duty.

When Australia supported the East Timor referendum we were still in front. The issue was clear:  Indonesia was in the wrong, disgracefully so, and Australia in the right.

We took the moral high ground and risked war.  We upheld the great Australian principle – we did the Right Thing.  We led the world and stood tall.

No longer.

It’s time to apologize to the Indonesian people and confess that all the knowledge and wisdom we’ve been smugly offering is now dross.  In truth we are as base as those venal politicians who run the Republic for themselves.

We cannot show leadership because we’ve abandoned that ideal.  We cannot teach ethics because we’ve been gutted of that quality through our inability to fix the asylum seeker problem that has killed hundreds and brought anguish to thousands.

A difficult situation?  Yes, extraordinarily so, complex and tangled.  Beyond solution?   No, given intelligence, goodwill, honesty, a determination to put the preservation of life above political career – and leadership.

We’ve long been the Lucky Country, rich in resources, young and free as the anthem says.  Happy to rest on our record of excellence.

Zip back the body bags of the drowned and see the results, the decomposition of political leadership.

(First published in On Line Opinion 11 July 2012.  Read reaction here


Monday, July 09, 2012


Let kids leave and learn                                                                   

Is taking 20 students on a brief visit to an isolated Western nation going to make any difference to the quest for harmony?

At first glance the question seems too silly to consider.  While you read this story more of our fellow humans will have suffered in violent conflicts across the globe.  Only the most naïve Pollyanna would expect change just by boarding a Boeing.

Yet Mukhamad Nurochman (Nur) believes flying 8,000 kilometers worthwhile in the sense that every journey starts with a single step, while travel is both personal discovery and adventure.

For who knows what seeds might germinate when students’ fertile minds are exposed to the sunlight of differing ways of doing and thinking? Particularly so when those young people are likely to be influential in the future because they come from families able to afford the cost of Rp 24 million (US $2,700).

Nur, 42, has just completed his third trip overseas – and his second to New Zealand - leading Indonesian students from the Al Azhar Islamic Senior High School 1 in South Jakarta and accompanied by a female teacher, Wahyuni.  (The other program was to Taiwan with 15 students.)

The eight girls and 12 boys aged between 15 and 17 have just spent a fortnight at Wellington High School, a co-educational college with a no-uniform policy. 

Some found this liberating.  At home uniforms are compulsory and include headscarves.  Given their freedom overseas some preferred to let their hair down – metaphorically and practically.

“This had nothing to do with fear of mockery,” said Nur.  “This is a safe country where religion is a private matter.  There’s been no discrimination.

“This is a challenge for us.  We’d hope that they’d wear headscarves for the rest of their lives after leaving Al Azhar, but that’s up to them.”

When the cage is opened, who knows where the bird will fly?  This is the dilemma facing parents who send their children to schools seeking recognition under the Rintisan Sekolah Bertaraf Internasional (RSBI - International Standard School Program).

Apart from using English, RSBI also requires schools to develop links with Western schools – not always an easy task for an Islamic school.  Inevitably the hosts have cultures, practises and values different from Indonesia.

Rizky Aninditha, 16, said apart from improving her English she also wanted to discover what it was like living apart from her family

“I’ve made new friends and been able to spread Indonesian culture,” she said. In Wellington the girls performed the spectacular Saman dance of a thousand hands,(above) recognised last year by UNESCO as part of the world’s cultural heritage.
Added her friend Sabrina Nurul Hidayah, 16: “It’s been a happy experience.  People have been so kind. I’ve learned much about many things, including the confidence to approach others.”

Nur’s personal journey proves determination vaults hurdles. He grew up on the north coast of West Java near Cirebon, in tiny Kuduk Keras (‘hard rice’) where his father was a village official and father of eight.

Nur’s destiny could have been a sugar cane cutter or onion picker, standard jobs in the district. But the boy had ambitions beyond laboring  - he wanted to be a doctor to help people, but study costs crippled this noble goal.

Fortunately his parents mustered just enough money for five semesters at the State Teachers’ College in Yogyakarta.  Why? “Because it was the cheapest city,” he said.

“I was concerned with the gaps between the rich and poor. I want peace – I hate war. We don’t teach for money but to do good deeds. Then we are blessed.”

Nur, who is studying for a master’s degree on teaching English, started his tertiary education as a hick from the sticks.

“At first my grades were terrible, Cs and Ds,” he said.  “I had to master English and decided this required skill, not talent.  I studied almost 24 hours a day.  I read everything I could and watched Western films. I was active in student groups.”

He also met and guided young Australians studying Indonesian in the ancient Central Java city, contacts that benefited both sides.  To pay for the rest of his education he worked as a teacher.

After graduating he joined a small English school on Rp 300,000 (US $34) a month before moving to Al Azhar in Jakarta where his abilities were recognized.

In 2008 Nur spent five months in Georgia on the State Department’s International Leaders in Education Program for “outstanding secondary teachers.”  Later he wrote that in the US he learned values of “informality, openness and equality.”

His experience should have led to closer ties, but requests to build sister-school relationships with Indonesia were turned down.  Nur won’t speculate whether Islamophobia was the reason, but the US loss has been NZ’s gain.

At the high school the students spent the first hour every day in an English class together before being split up and assigned to standard classes.  They were taken on excursions and lived with host families briefed on their guests’ prayer responsibilities, preference for rice dishes and religious dietary needs.  Apparently these details caused no problems, with some families even seeking out a halal butcher.

“Abroad we experience different teaching systems,” Nur said.  “In Jakarta we have classes of up to 37, here it’s around 14 and the facilities are better.  The students study five subjects, not 14.  The teachers are more relaxed and the students obey.

“School exchange programs help broaden young minds, and that’s a teacher’s responsibility. Participants learn to be more independent and apply their learning in life.  I hope Kiwi students will be able to visit Al Azhar next January during NZ school holidays.

“If we can improve contacts and communication between people the world should be a more peaceful place. We have to help each other and pass our knowledge onto the next generation.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 July 2012)


Sunday, July 08, 2012


Frauds and cocks: Men and sex                                              

This is a book about sex – but gray bureaucrats flicking pages for porn will have to work hard to find anything erotic.

Dirty words – a few, though in context.  Dirty minds – sadly, an abundance.

Also dismayed will be those who assume ‘sex’ always refers to women, objects used to sell consumer goods by advertisers with limp creativity.

However Men and Masculinities in Southeast Asia will satisfy anyone seriously interested in gender issues, particularly this overdue addition to well-established Women’s Studies.

What does it mean to be a man in Indonesia?  At village entrances around the Archipelago fossickers through the undergrowth may encounter a little man, his hard wife and two crumbling kiddies.  Despite suffering concrete cancer the manikin looks sober and responsible.

The statues were erected during the Family Planning program of the New Order government to show the ideal Indonesian – by his dress a Muslim - leading two kids. Never mind that President Soeharto fathered six.

But there’s another guardian of many kampong gateways, a snarling muscle-bound warrior defeating the Dutch.  Here the model is the US film character Rambo.

Will the real Indonesian guy please jump onto the pedestal?  Family Fellow. Action Man – or someone else?

The confusion is enough to drive a lad into the arms of Mistress Nicotine – and there he is again, on posters pushing a SUV into the rock-strewn hinterland, firm-jawed, gazing into the sunset. 

Though nothing dangles between his white lips we know the Real Man inhales.  He also poisons his lungs and rots his gums, but this information is confined to medical texts.

After decades of feminism, masculinity is only now becoming a serious study topic for social scientists.  Some were present at an International Congress of Asian Studies held in Kuala Lumpur.  This book is a collection of eight papers developed following the conference.

The topics are diverse, covering the way Filipino fishers define their manhood through to violence and patriarchy in Timor Leste.  But the study of Malay National Servicemen in Singapore is the gem.

It rips off the coverlet long used to show the island state as a happy land of ethnic equals, publishing comments about race and prejudice seldom seen in print. 

The revelations were gathered by Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons, senior academics at Sydney University’s Department of Indonesian Studies, who also edited this collection.

If a Muslim Singaporean is called to fight in some future conflict against an Islamic nation like their near neighbors, where would their loyalty lie?  This question is at the heart of the alleged discrimination against minorities in Singapore’s armed forces

Apparently the system ensures the Malays mark time in lower ranks, far from serious weaponry and promotion, kept down by racial stereotypes.

 In retaliation the Malay conscripts consider themselves physically and morally tougher than their ethnic Chinese comrades who they label materialistic and promiscuous, ready to run when the lead starts flying.

Also by the same authors together with Australian PhD candidate Sophie Williams, is a study of Singaporean Chinese men who zip across the water to unzip their sexual fantasies in Batam.

The Lion City rakes get their directions from a sex site inaccessible in censorious Indonesia.  Here lads trade information on their exploits and ladies advertise their services. 

Not all are Indonesians.  Western women are also in demand by the Singaporeans who leave their upright wives and uptight city for fantasies abroad.

The researchers pick apart the men’s on-line comments and how chatline contributors build a reputation among their fellow sleazemasters. 

Much of this is sickening as the men (many with daughters, all with mothers), hide behind virtual identities to verbally debase the women who service them.  By doing so they reveal themselves as inadequate, dishonorable, fantasy heroes and real-life losers.

Comment the authors: “ … (on line) conversations about sex … render the sex act almost invisible… thread members must demonstrate their sexual capability and experience – and through it their masculinity – without actually describing their own performance.”

Most women would consider this infantile, indicating it’s time to change the diaper, but apparently it’s all about brotherly bonding among alleged adults.

The same imperative drives the gangs in Jakarta according to Murdoch University social scientist Ian Wilson’s study titled The Biggest Cock.

In some risky research the Western Australian lecturer followed jago (a cock, but in reality an urban warlord) as they patrolled their asphalt, intimidating locals and extracting protection money.

The gangs they control battle each other for lucrative territory.  They are thugs-for-hire by business people wanting to evict tenants and intimidate rivals.  Politicians seeking to frighten off rivals or make a political point through trashing property are also clients.

For jago “acts of violence are motivated by a deep sense of justice, honor and order, one that transcends that of the law and the state.”

Jago and preman (literally ‘free men’ but in truth gutter crooks and stand-over merchants) aren’t a recent phenomenon. They were operating before the Dutch arrived, with some becoming famous figures skilled in pencak silat (Javanese martial arts), supposedly impenetrable by bullets and knives through drinking magic potions and undertaking esoteric rituals.

Some of these myths continue today with jago gaining reputations so fearsome that they don’t need to hammer heads or trash foodstalls.  Just swaggering in leather jackets, cracking their bejewelled knuckles can be enough to ensure compliance.

Royal families have almost disappeared in Republican Indonesia, but in Jakarta and other urban deserts a man can still be a king – not through chivalry, selfless bravery and protecting the weak – but by being atop a decrepit rubble-strewn parking lot.

Women take heart – you are the superior sex. 

Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons (eds)
Routledge, 2012
163 pages

(First published in The Sunday Post 8 July 2012)

Sunday, July 01, 2012


 Inheriting the curse of culture

Are disputes over rinsing a coffee cup grounds for divorce?  Can conflicts about ironing ever get smoothed over?  When clocks aren’t in sync is it time to wind up a marriage?

These are some of the tangled questions any couple considering a mixed culture relationship need to consider before tying the knot.  Otherwise it might strangle the pair once they’re hitched.

When you fall in love there’s no space for the trivia of domesticity.  Who cares about the kitchen and laundry when attention is focussed on the bedroom?

But once the fantasy fades the upheavals begin.  These can be seismic enough when he and she share the same culture.  When they’re not, the molehills don’t become mountains – they’re the real Ring of Fire.

As always, it’s the simplest and silliest things that cause the biggest problems.  Like washing up.

In my culture this is a duty to be shared.  In hers it’s a job that men are genetically programmed to be incapable of performing.  If they do manage to sneak into the kitchen (assuming they know its location) and start scrubbing. then everything from teacups to toothpicks has to be washed again by the born-to-clean professional.

My system requires a sink full of hot water mixed with detergent.  Hers uses running cold water and a soap-soaked sponge.

With the absolute certainty that would give me honorary life membership of the Front Pembela Islam, I know my way is right. That’s because, well, ‘er, because it was taught by my mother.  It kills germs and doesn’t waste a precious resource. 

She claims the static water gets greasy and fouls other dishes.  She also knows her system is superior because she learned it from her mother.  In any case, this is the way things are done in Indonesia.

The differences are irreconcilable – like those over the ironing.

I say it’s unnecessary to iron underwear, sleepwear, socks, towels, tea towels and just about everything else apart from the clothes we wear outside.  That was the way my parents handled the laundry because it saves time and power.

She says everything must be steamed, heated, pressed and folded and it doesn’t matter if the job takes for ever – because that’s what happened when she was toddling around her mother’s knees.

Are these serious matters?  Is the President a Muslim?
If there’s one issue that really puts a mixed marriage into the blender it’s jam karet. This has nothing to do with fruit conserves but everything to do with the elasticity of time.

If you come from a culture where your parents taught that punctuality is next to piety, then marrying an Indonesian will really stretch your wedding band.  Though not if you learn how things function in Indonesia. Here time is a work in progress, not a reality that’s been running for millennia.

The hour marked on invitations has nothing to do with a start for the event.  It’s just a helpful indicator of when invitees might consider commencing bathing, changing and applying make-up.  Only when these are complete can we call a cab.

Two hours late - who cares?  What’s one hundred minutes or more when everyone is doing the same? Except the naïve and fidgeting Westerners who have been pacing the empty function room since the advertised start, boiling up their blood pressure, shredding their nerves.

It’s said that love conquers all.  If so it needs to have some heavy armor to defeat the battalions of cultural differences that threaten to over-run mixed-race relationships.

So what’s the solution?  Cut yourself free from the cords of culture binding you to a different country, a lost lifestyle, an alien world.  Altering the beloved’s work styles and attitudes might mean changing the qualities you first found so cute and adorable.

Westerners living in Indonesia face the dilemma that confronted the dinosaurs:  Adapt or die prematurely of a stress-induced coronary.

(Written in the lounge, comfortable in ironed undies, hearing the tap run in the kitchen, a forbidden zone.  It’s 3 pm.  We might leave for a friend’s wedding soon. It’s set to start at 2.  But hey, take it easy.  I also want to be late for my funeral.) 

(First published in The Sunday Post 1 July 2012)