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)