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, August 26, 2012


The Monas mystery gold heist:  Episode One

 Why doesn’t Indonesian television produce local detective programs?

Instead of banal sinetron following a predictable plot, viewers could pit their wits against cunning sleuths battling vile villains across Southeast Asia’s Sin City, home to 12 million stories.

The BBC has been telecasting such programs since John Logie Baird first caught a cathode ray.  The US has never let go of the genre.  Nor has Hong Kong where kung fu cops jump off 40 storey towers to chop up snakeheads..

So why no Achmad of the Archipelago, a silat-master righting the wrongs, defending the poor, confronting the corrupt?  What an arresting idea!

Maybe there’s insufficient wrongdoing in the Republic to stimulate scriptwriters?  Methinks it safe to eliminate that theory.

Could such programs be haram?  Negative: Goodies always vanquish the baddies, though sometimes the two can be inseparable.

So here’s a few suggestions to get the creative juices haemorrhaging.  First we need a hero.

Haji Sjahrit Holmes (I Gusti Ayu Puspawati ) of Jl Bond, disguised as a street musician deducts the obvious others have overlooked while giving his pipe a workout in the kampong. Tobacco sponsorship?  Elementary, my dear Wayan.

Hamzah Poirot promenading La Rue des Thamrin spots clues missed by the clumsy gendarmerie, revealing the dominatrix in the Hyatt as the guilty one, not the scowling satpam.

Nyonya Marples would have no problem seeing the flaws in the alibis of a sinister itinerant vendor poisoning the innocent with toxic bakso. (Is there any other sort?)  This would be The Curious Case of the Kaki Lima.

Murder on the Yogyakarta Express could have a cast of candidates, one wearing a yellow jacket, another green and the third red.  One goes missing. The train gathers speed. It’s heading downhill.  The guard has disappeared.  The emergency lever doesn’t work. A metaphor for the state of politics?

Not interested?  So how about a police series:  The Thick Khaki Line could feature the gallant gumshoes of Precinct 13 covering the notorious Tanjung Priok waterfront. The lads ensure nothing gets through without their knowledge.  And cut.

Too British?  Here’s an original idea – let’s steal from the States.

The Funda Mentalist would have a bland, near mute actor (Nicholas Saputra) playing the role of a psychic.  He and his sidekick Fatima (Alya Rohali) fetching in a blue burqa with matching sunglasses, dispenses with old fashioned policing methods, like door knocking and DNA testing. 

They solve the crime in 38 minutes plus commercials just by looking mysterious.  Should do well in superstitious Java.

There’s no shortage of adaptable ideas to suit Indonesian tastes.  The Modest City, (preserving Asian values), The Touchables (story consultants - KPK), Irian Five-0 (“obscure, confused,” say critics) and BD (Big Durian) Confidential (the smell says it all).

Ponder the plotlines.  It’s dawn at Matabukit Police Station in an overcrowded, rubble-strewn industrial area known for its sleaze.  And that’s just the cops.

A man rushes in, blowing a whistle, waking the duty sergeant.  “The 50 kilograms of gold atop Monas has been stolen,” he shouts, and is promptly arrested for disturbing the police.

What the flatfoot doesn’t know is that the whistleblower has top contacts.  Minutes later the phone rings.  Within seconds the crimson-faced cop releases the prisoner.

The man then reveals himself as Jusuf Bond (Dude Harlino), famous foreign agent assigned by Blok M (Christine Hakim) on the trail of the crim behind the Great Monas Mystery.

Some character tweaks would be required.  Yusuf’s tipple is three fingers of Teh Botol on ice.  His favorite car is a custom-built black Kijang with a bed in the back for kips during daylong traffic jams.

Pak Bond only beds his wives, but being polygamous is allowed four.  They always wear headscarves so their tresses don’t tangle in helicopter blades while choppering over the Presidential Palace or speed-boating down the Ciliwung. Proprieties must be maintained.

Enough imagining.  Now it’s over to the TV stations. Naysayers might argue that viewers aren’t ready yet for programs featuring smart and honest police – the idea is just too fantastic.

Far more believable to the poor are the antics of the rotten and restless in millionaires’ mansions.  Duncan Graham

(First published in The Sunday Post 26 August 2012)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Monday, August 13, 2012


Not a back seat person    


When she finishes performing at the London Paralympics in September athlete Ni Nengah Widiasih, 19, will fly to the far side of the world.

The tiny Balinese powerlifter will spend ten days in New Zealand inspiring people with her life story and helping raise money for other disabled Indonesians.

Her trip comes thanks to the energy and initiative of Bill Russell, the chair of the Rehabilim Trust.  This NZ charity supports young, physically handicapped Indonesians learn skills they can use to earn money, and become independent.

“I first met Nengah six years ago.  She’d been crippled by polio and could only move on all fours,” said Mr Russell. The same disease also struck his father shortly after the family moved to NZ from Scotland when Bill was a teenager.

“Nengah went to Yogya for treatment and operations, then took up weightlifting in the 40 kilogram class.  Her achievements have been astonishing.”

The class relates to the athlete’s weight.  At the 2011 ASEAN ParaGames Nengah won gold, lifting 87 kilograms. NZ is sending a team of 26 to the Paralympics, Indonesia only three. 

Helping the disabled in the Republic is a curious turn about for a man whose first knowledge of Indonesians was as enemies in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

In 1963 President Soekarno tried to crush Malaysia claiming it was a creation of the former British colonial power. Commonwealth forces, including NZ soldiers, defended the new nation.

Private Russell was ready.  He’d been in Peninsula Malay since 1961 starting as a 22-year-old professional soldier patrolling the Thai border, stopping communist guerrillas heading south.

“I enjoyed being with the locals,” said Mr Russell.  “I got invited to weddings and other events. I learned a few hundred words of Pasar Malay.  There was a gentleness and politeness.

“I saw people with nothing – a situation I’d never encountered in NZ.  It caused me to think about ways to help.

“Fifty per cent of our troops were Maori.  The Malays were surprised to discover we were multicultural, unconcerned about color and ethnicity.  It helped us relate.” 

Fortunately he never saw Indonesians at the wrong end of his rifle.  When Soekarno sent three aircraft to parachute troops into Johore the young Kiwi was heading the other way on leave.

After three years soldiering he returned home, joined an agricultural supply company, got married and raised a family. He also became involved with Rotary, the volunteer international service club, and still serves in senior roles.

“I’m not a back seat person,” he said.  “My modus operandi is to make a difference.  So many people have helped me and I want to pass that on and leave things better. I’ve learned this is best done through an organization.”

It wasn’t till 1981 that he got back to the tropics – this time to Indonesia – first on holiday, then on business.  Since then he’s made well over 100 visits. 

“I’ve been so lucky and seen so much,” he said. “But I’m not a culture buff.  The more I think I know, the less I realise I know. I started a company selling seeds for horticulture and looked around for a market in Indonesia.

“In those days business was done on the strength of a handshake. A trader in Medan once owed me US $30,000.  I reminded him – he apologized for the oversight and I got a cheque a couple of days later. 

“I still stay in contact with the family.  It’s important to develop personal relationships when doing business in Indonesia. 

“This is a message I push to NZ education institutions trying to recruit Indonesian students: You’ve got to understand your customers and they need to know you – just sending in business cards doesn’t work.”

Next month (September) Mr Russell will be in Bali running a workshop where 20 Indonesian agents will get information on NZ education services from tertiary providers and immigration authorities.

His company, Education Network Indonesia, is a group of universities, polytechnics and schools presenting a common approach.

“We need to taker a fresh look at Indonesia as an education market,” he said.  “In a few years Indonesia will be a major manufacturing economy with a lower cost structure than China.

“There’s going to be a big demand for middle level management skills. This is an area where we can really help.”

While wandering the Archipelago last century the seedsman heard of Colin McLennan, a fellow Kiwi working at the Yakkum rehabilitation center he’d founded in Yogya.

“At the center a young girl wearing callipers was learning to walk using parallel bars,” Mr Russell said.  “Eventually she stepped away and walked by herself.  I saw her smile.  It’s something I’ve never forgotten.”

Impressions are fine, but actions are better.  Back in Wellington and with others (all the Rehabilim Trust’s eight unpaid directors have visited Yakkum) he set out to raise funds from well-wishers, church groups, service clubs and philanthropists around the nation.

Interest earned on money left by Mr McLennan when he died in 2007 can only be used for scholarships; two disabled young Indonesians are now being helped to study tourism and pharmacology. 

Mr Russell has promised that all donations go to Indonesia so he approached Kiwi economist Gareth Morgan who immediately offered NZ $3,000 (Rp 23 million) for Nengah’s air fares. 

In NZ Nengah will be taken to the Halberg Trust formed by former middle-distance runner Sir Murray Halberg, a gold medal winner at the 1960 Rome Olympics. 

The trust’s policy is to ‘honor sporting excellence and link people with a disability to sport and active leisure, whatever their ability and without exception.’

Said Mr Russell:  “I hope Nengah’s visit will boost people’s understanding of Indonesia while showing her that in this country we respect the rights of the handicapped.

“Sport is a major influence in the lives of the disabled in NZ. It would be great for Indonesia if Nengah wins.  Then more attention might be paid by the government to the needs of the handicapped.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 August 2012)


Friday, August 03, 2012


Welcome to Transit Indonesia Year    

The NIMBY syndrome is well known in Australian politics.  ‘Not In My Back Yard’ refers to electors’ demands for governments to relocate prisons, landfills, airports and other undesirable but essential services in someone else’s suburb.

The same thinking is alive in the toxic asylum-seeker debate Down Under.

So far this year more than 6,000 asylum seekers have arrived, mainly from the Middle East claiming sanctuary from war and persecution.  They’ve been using Indonesian fishers as ferrymen to Christmas Island, an Australian territory.

About 4,000 boat people are in mandatory detention, but even this system – like the hazardous sea voyage that’s taken hundreds of lives – doesn’t deter.

Outgoing Human Rights Commissioner Catherine Branson commented:  "As far as I'm aware, our system is the strictest in the Western world and there's no evidence that it works.”

Here in Indonesia an estimated 10,000 are waiting for third nation settlement, some supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees, others in hiding.  Overcrowded Indonesia doesn’t want them and they don’t want to be in Indonesia, fearing police brutality, local hostility and long delays.

There’s been a surge of boats leading to the fasting month of Ramadhan – seven last week. (w/ending 21 July) There’s also been a spate of arrests of asylum seekers and officials illegally providing embarkation assistance along Java’s south coast. It seems the government is now responding to Australian pleas for Indonesia to better police exit points.

What about entry ports? How the foreigners get through Soekarno-Hatta in such numbers with suspect documents is a great mystery.  Australians visiting the Archipelago must have visas and usually can’t board planes without return tickets.

The Labor government wants some refugees who get to Christmas Island, less than 400 kilometers south of Jakarta, sent to camps in Malaysia for processing. 

The Liberal opposition wants them shipped to the Micronesian island of Nauru because Kuala Lumpur, like Jakarta, hasn’t signed the UN Refugee Convention. 

An earlier attempt to involve Timor Leste failed.  Cynics might assume most favor an ABA solution – Anywhere But Australia. 

The Greens, who hold the balance of power, are demanding processing on Australian soil and the refugee quota to be lifted from 13,750 to 25,000.

Others urge Australia to face global realities. Australia’s Refugee Council, an NGO, says the country recognized only 0.56 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers.

The latest solution-de-jour is for Australia to pay for processing in Indonesia.  This plan comes from refugee advocates’ proposals to a three-man expert committee set up by the government to try and break the political logjam.  Almost 70 submissions have been lodged. 

The committee’s report is expected next month (Aug), but its findings won’t bind the political parties.  Their responses show they’ve already dug deep defensive trenches to repel fresh thinking.

A Labor Party splinter group called Labor for Refugees wants more diplomats sent to Jakarta and the Embassy to handle asylum claims.

The Perth-based NGO Indonesia Institute suggested a “major detention processing center” be built in Kupang, creating jobs and injecting life into East Nusa Tenggara’s moribund economy.

This isn’t totally left-field thinking.  After the Vietnam War thousands of anti-communists fled south on little boats.  Many were temporarily housed on Pulau Galang, an Indonesian island close to Singapore. 

Times change. The Indonesian government can no longer throttle public comment or crush angry responses – as shown in mob attacks on the Ahmadiyah sect and Shiite Muslims.  This group is well represented among asylum seekers, particularly Hazaras from Pakistan and Central Afghanistan. 

Could these Australian relocation ideas work?  The more important question is: Would Indonesia agree? The plans have been conceived in isolation without input from the Indonesian people.  Even if the government agreed, at what political cost?

In May President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was bruised when he approved a five-year cut to Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby’s 20-year sentence. 

Although a legal attack by the anti-drug agency Granat failed, it showed how democracy has advanced when a president’s actions can be so publicly challenged – impossible under Soeharto. 

The signal is clear:  Ministers may make deals with their foreign mates in exclusive hotels  – but if the majority in the gritty streets outside are hostile the pledges are meaningless.

Hungry and homeless citizens living on less than US $2 (Rp 19,000) a day, peering through wire fences at Sri Lankans and Iraqis being safely housed, well fed and enjoying free health care courtesy of Australian taxpayers might not see the sense and justice in this transit lounge arrangement.

Processing in Jakarta? Imagine Jl Rasuna Said blocked by thousands of foreigners clamouring to get into the Australian Embassy fortress to lodge asylum claims.  The building is already too small to handle current business and expansion is planned,

Some might be inclined to show their displeasure at the ballot box in 2014; hotheads may not be prepared to wait that long. 

Johnny Hutauruk, deputy head of the Human Trafficking, Refugees and Asylum Seekers unit told the Sydney Morning Herald: ''On the one hand we have to guard our sovereignty - we don't want too many of these people here - but we also must respect their human rights,

''There are some refugees in Puncak (West Java) and you see cultural conflicts between refugees and locals … they bring with them their habits and their culture, which is perhaps not in tune with local culture and traditions.''

Being Indonesian, the polite Mr Hutauruk is less blunt than his southern neighbors – but he’s saying the same thing: NIMBY.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 August 2012) 

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