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, November 19, 2012


Welcoming the Islamic New Year 

It was a morning for outrageous masks, spectacular costumes, whip-cracking strongmen, rocking horse jousts, lovely ladies and regal romeos dancing in the streets and fun everywhere as Kediri celebrated  Muharram, the Islamic New Year’s Day on Thursday (15 Nov)

Kirab Kediri, the annual carnival of the central East Java town, ran for two hours and covered five kilometres.  It began about seven years ago to help maintain local culture through a secular NGO called Garuda Mukha.

From a small start the event has grown to embrace hundreds of performers and attract thousands of onlookers delighted by the performers, many using gongs and other ancient instruments they claimed were from the Majapahit era, more than 600 years ago.

The previous evening about 200 people from all faiths gathered to commemorate Satu Suro, the first day of the month of Sura in the old Javanese calendar.  Rituals included the purification of kris, the Javanese wavy-blade daggers.  Duncan Graham


Reimagining Majapahit                                        

It’s late on the eve of Satu Suro, the first day of the Javanese month of Sura, and a sweaty night in the central East Java town of Kediri. 
Tucked behind a café on Jalan Airlangga, named after the 11th century king, is a courtyard roofed by a splendid pleated canopy

People gather quietly.  Soon hundreds are present, men, women, and children.  There’s no gender inequality or dress discrimination. 

Some wear black waistcoats and blangkon (batik headdress) the formal attire of Javanese nobility – others are casual in jeans and T-shirts. The atmosphere is relaxed, not reverential.

To one side is a small Dutch-era house.  Its high ceiling rooms are already full.

On a wall above portraits of brides and sages long past hangs a commonplace kitchen clock ticking away the minutes to midnight.  The crowd seated cross-legged on a red carpet falls silent, though no instructions have been given.
The lights click off. Corner shadows rush to fill the space along with the smoke of burning incense.

 A lone bat, its sonar recalibrated, finds an exit and flaps away into the darkness. Maybe this is where it hangs out, only to be disturbed on this once a year ceremony. An omen? No-one seems disturbed.

A gong is struck.  Hard.  The walls thump in sympathy.  A hand bell starts ringing ting, ting, ting, ting.  It’s joined by a statement, a song, a chant – only the wise knew for the words are first in kawi (old Javanese) then kromo (high class Javanese.)

The voice is baritone but the singer is a woman, dressed in priestly white, with rare vocal talents, one moment high pitched, the next ululating.  But this story is not about
Wenny Setyo Jayawardhani.

Sitting alongside is her brother, Jaka Lelana (above) the man who has done much to make this extraordinary event come to pass.  He wears a gaudy shirt that would be acceptable on a Pacific cruise liner, but seems to jar in a celebration of an ancient culture.

He insists it’s the real thing, a predecessor of the more sober intricately patterned batik.  He should know.  As an initiator of Kediri’s cultural revival he’s hot wired into the lore of the ancient East Java kingdom of Majapahit.

To hold such a position would normally require a wrinkled brow under a grey thatch, a slight stoop and cautious step.

But Jaka is no wizened rustic.  He’s a cosmopolitan 45-year old engineer and director of a major chemical plant at Gresik on the north coast.  Eight years ago he miraculously survived a major factory blast that killed three colleagues and injured scores.

After the explosion he meditated and then started Garuda Mukha (the face of the mythical eagle that’s the symbol of Indonesia) with a few friends and relatives.  Now hundreds come.

When the organization isn’t planning ceremony it campaigns to preserve ancient buildings.  But the core concern is harmony.

Jaka wants to eradicate fundamentalism through a return to old values – starting in his hometown. “Kediri was an important kingdom, more than 1,100 years old,” he said. “I want us to rediscover our cultural past. 

“We never had terrorism, this is something new and unwelcome. It’s from the Middle East, not Indonesia. We all want safety and security, to respect each other.

“I’m Muslim – like most people here, but I have a brother and sister who are Hindu. Your religion is your business.  If you don’t believe in my God then I’m sorry, but that’s all.

“The objective is to celebrate one culture, different religions.  The Majapahit kingdom was the real Indonesia.”

If so it must surely be in this sanctum, throbbing with mystery, rather than the nation’s lifeless museums.  There’s a modern ochre portrait of Gajah Mada (1290 – 1364) the famed Prime Minister and military tactician believed responsible for extending the kingdom throughout Southeast Asia.

He raises his kris with rippling biceps, peers from his frame through racks of flags including the Red and White. Others feature the eight-pointed star of the Majapahit and curious jawless skulls.

This is a Javanese historian’s heaven. Every nook holds an artefact and relic, from tiger heads to wayang kulit puppets said to be made from human skin.

A heavily bound box contains scores of kris, the sacred daggers, reputedly charged with magic.  When the chanting and gonging stops, the lights flick on and everyone gets stuck into the donated cones of rice, hardboiled eggs and chicken thighs.

Then Jaka’s eldest brother Tono Setyo Bimosemo gets to purify the kris.

He does this slowly in a fug of incense smoke, treating each weapon with care, touching its hungry blade with potions and wrapping the handle in a white garland.

The task continues till dawn before a table heavy with the food and flower offerings usually seen in Bali.

But this is Java, separated by a narrow channel and a religious gulf.

 “There are no problems with Nahdlatul Ulama (the huge Islamic organisation centered in East Java),” Jaka said.  “They were suspicious at first but now join in.  (Many in the crowd wore headscarves.)

“Muhammadiyah (the more urban-based movement) is another issue, but this isn’t syirik (an event to be avoided on religious grounds). In the morning we celebrate Muharram (Islamic New Year)

“We can’t bring back the golden years of Majapahit.  They’re gone, but the spirit remains.  We must remember our historical roots.”

Jaka and his nine siblings were raised by their soldier father who took his children to watch the wayang kulit and nurtured a love of ancient Javanese culture.

Dad’s remains now rest in a heroes’ cemetery.  His portrait, alongside his stately wife, peers down approvingly on the strange proceedings below – or maybe that’s the atmosphere intoxicating the imagination.

“A great nation is one that respects its cultural history,” said Jaka.  The yellowing portraits seem to nod.

In the street outside Honda hoons scream ahead, careless of danger and disturbance, never looking sideways or behind.  The culture custodians still have some distance to travel.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 November 2012)


Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Lifting the nation’s reputation        


The prognosis was grim. Nengah Widiasih, a four-year old in the isolated Balinese village of Karangasem, was so badly crippled she could only crawl. 

That was 1998.  She was a victim of polio.  She seemed doomed to live out a short life in penury and pain, illiterate, unemployable, a burden on her family, getting no government help.

This year she was the only woman representing Indonesia at the 20th Paralympics in London. Next year she plans to enter university.

Her extraordinary turnaround is the result of determination – her own and those of assertive advocates for the disabled working outside government.

So far Nengah has won medals in China, Thailand and Malaysia. At the 2011 ASEAN ParaGames she collected gold, lifting 87 kilograms. In four years time she hopes to be at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.  

Nengah competes in the 40-kilogram class, meaning she has to clock in under that weight and be as ruthless about her diet as any fashion model.

Powerlifting looks like a Star Chamber procedure for persuading sinners to recant. Athletes lie on their backs under a rack holding a horizontal bar.  Weights are added at each end; the bar has to be raised with arms fully extended. It’s a lone sport competing against a number. The preparation is psychological and physical.

Competing as a disabled athlete is no soft option. According to Paralympics International “winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus.”

 Despite her impressive achievements no business has offered sponsorship. While other athletes train in gear blossoming with the logos of local and multinational companies Nengah wears a simple red and white top emblazoned with one word – Indonesia.

“Paralympians don’t attract the same attention as other athletes,” she said.  “It shouldn’t be so. Nobody asks to be disabled. We train just as hard to achieve excellence on top of having a handicap.”

Indonesia doesn’t take the Paralympics seriously. Only four athletes (and 11 officials) went to London. This was the first year a team returned with a medal, David Jacobs’ bronze in table tennis.  The other contestants were swimmer Agus Ngaimin and long jumper Setiyo Budi Hartono.

Singapore, with just two per cent of the Archipelago’s population, sent eight athletes, Malaysia 23.

While the athletes were training in Solo, Indonesian Olympic Committee chairwoman Rita Subowo was reported as saying the small number was due to “a lack of preparation and poor facilities.

“In the future we must improve training facilities,” she said. “We must change our vision and make Olympics and Paralympics our highest targets.”

Nengah believes she contracted polio when a doctor used a dirty syringe, though the highly infectious disease is usually transmitted through contaminated food. 

Also known as infantile paralysis, polio was once a major threat to young children, particularly those in the tropics and poverty.  However aggressive international immunisation programs have almost eliminated the disease.

The last big outbreak in Indonesia was in 2005 when more than 200 children were paralysed. 

Nengah wasn’t the only member of her family stricken.  Her older brother Gede Suartaha was also infected.  The karmic view prevailed - that the commission of sins had caused the family’s distress.

The crippled kids were kept out of sight and school.  Their lives lurched into a new orbit only when discovered by Latra Nengah, working for the Yakkum rehabilitation center in Yogya, on a quest to winkle out the handicapped for help.

At first Nengah’s stonemason father refused fearing his daughter might disappear. Eventually he yielded for Latra had credibility and a silver tongue. Originally from the Balinese backblocks he’d been burned in an accident, treated by Yakkum and returned.  Later he started a rehab centre in Bali.

Nengah bussed to Yogya, got callipers, had an operation to help correct her twisted leg and spent two months in hospital.  After physiotherapy and so many injections she can no longer bear another needle she returned home upright, started school and took up powerlifting, a sport her brother had also entered.

She uses equipment supplied by Paralympics Indonesia and stored at the Yayasan Pembinaan Anak Cacat (Institute for the handicapped) where she boards and trains four times a week.

On a recent trip to New Zealand funded by Kiwi philanthropist Dr Gareth Morgan she saw world class facilities for the disabled, including purpose-built classrooms, special sports grounds and horse riding for the disabled.

Four wheel electric scooters, widely used by the disabled, also attracted.  However heavy traffic and potholed roads in Bali would make their use impractical, she said.

“We have laws in Indonesia ensuring wheelchair access to public buildings, but they don’t seem to get implemented,” she said.  “”My school has two stories and no lift.”

Nengah can walk for about 300 meters on level ground using a single crutch, but getting up stairs is difficult.  She strives to be independent, resisting help even when she takes a tumble.

Her overseas tours and successes have given her status and responsibility.  “I know that I’ve now become someone others look up to, and that means having to speak in public” she said. 

“People keep asking me questions.  They hear what I say but can never experience what I feel. So I prefer telling about myself through Facebook, communicating with everyone.”

Her entries include passionate poems like the following:

Mother, your noble teachings have settled my life.
My surroundings have changed, I have seen so much.
Sometimes I get washed away,
Sometimes I stand straight to challenge its heavy flow.

“If you have a dream you must work hard to achieve it,” she said. “I want all handicapped people to have the opportunities that I’ve had, and to follow me if that’s what they wish.  I hope to study at university – maybe computing – and keep competing.

“I want to bring back more medals for my country.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 9 November 2012)


Monday, November 12, 2012


Australia discovers Asia – cautiously                  

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Asian Century policy is full of warm words.  Here are some cold facts:

Australians are mainly big, white, brash, irreligious, pragmatic and well paid.  We live in a nation where powers are separated and the rule of law rules.

Indonesians are generally small, brown, restrained, religious, superstitious, exploited and poorly paid.  You live in a nascent democracy dominated by moneymen and the military. 

We’re eighth on Transparency International’s corruption perception index where being number one is pure. You rank at 100

Our background is as recent transplants, Judaeo Christian, British democratic and colonial. Our independence was granted amicably.

Your history is ancient with Hindu and Buddhist traditions, feudal, patriarchal and colonised.  Liberal Islam dominates.  Independence was bravely won only after four years of brutal fighting.

Our education and health services are free. Yours are supposed to be free.

You have to carry ID cards and follow an approved religion. We don’t, and won’t.

You celebrate community – we praise individualism.

One hundred Australian cents buys almost 10,000 rupiah. For every one of us there are 11 of you.

Our friends speak English and live far away in Europe and the US.

Your friends are – well, we don’t really know, but fear they’re in the Middle East.

We eat foods based on wheat and milk, and drink alcohol.  Often to excess.

Your diet is based on rice and water.  Moderation is a virtue.

We speak the international language.  You use a language unrelated to any European tongue and unknown elsewhere

We play rugby, Australian Rules and cricket on excellent facilities and we do all sport well. You play soccer badly and practise in the street.

You live in a sprawling archipelago with porous land borders where scores of ethnic groups still hold their ancient lands.  We occupy an island continent stolen from the original inhabitants.

Your home is the tropics, rich, fertile and well watered.  Ours is an arid land.

These and other factors have shaped our identity and made us different.

How can such two such radically different cultures intersect peacefully? 

Governments seem to think the way is through trade and aid.  So Australian taxpayers give around half a billion dollars a year to Indonesia. 

There’s no sign kampong folk know of this generosity, or if they did it would enhance their understanding.

We’ve been neighbors since Gondwanaland split. For much of that time we’ve viewed each other with suspicion laced with ignorance and travel warnings.

There was a moment when this wasn’t so.  In July 1946 Australians accompanying PM Sutan Sjahrir in Yogya were showered with petals and  shouts of ‘Australia, Australia!’ 

It was a hosanna moment when we backed Indonesian independence.  It could have led to a permanent bonding where Asian Century statements would have been as unnecessary as reproclaiming the Commonwealth of Australia.

Sadly, tragically, the baton was dropped and our arena shifted to Europe, our spiritual homeland.  The decades of distrust began.

Now we’ve heard that you’ve got money.  That means you must need foods and goods. It’s time to say hello, see what you want and how much you can pay.

Are these the foundations for a good and lasting relationship?

We want to join Asia but does Asia want us?  I haven’t heard anyone in Indonesia talking about the Australian Century.

All the ideas in the White Paper are good.  They are also too few and too limited.  Maybe too late.

One of the best is expanding a scheme to allow 1,000 young Indonesians to wander and work in Australia for a year. Previously the number was 100.

Generous? Do the maths: Indonesia has 240 million people. The median age is under 28.

Working Holiday Visas have been available for years for other, mainly European nationals, keen to go Down Under.  What better way to learn of another culture by getting dirt under the fingernails, make friends alongside workmates?

For Indonesians it’s the Work and Holiday Program.  The same?  Not quite.  For this deal applicants have to pass an English test, be tertiary graduates and approved by their own government.

The scheme is reciprocal but Indonesian bureaucrats have built barriers.  Australians are only allowed to teach English, work in hospitals and tourism.  There are reports of students giving up on the paperwork and going elsewhere.

Though jobs are not restricted in Australia, Immigration demands applicants have at least AUD $5,000 – 50 million rupiah.  Fees, insurance and air fares put visas even beyond the reach of the new Indonesian middle classes, defined as those who earn more than US $3,000 (29 million rupiah) a year. 

Are Australian leaders really serious about an Asian Century where curious and open-minded youngsters can poke around their neighbor’s culture to erase prejudices and load facts? 

If so Australia needs to cease discriminating against Indonesia.

And Indonesia needs to stop being fearful of its neighbor.  We’re not all Kuta bar slobs determined to fracture the Unitary State and steal jobs off becak drivers.

Just as you’re not all fundamentalists bombing your way to a Southern Hemisphere caliphate.

Australia’s Asian Century policy is a gentle shuffle forward.  The hype makes it sound like a Southeast Asian version of the open border European Community that’s helped dissolve ancient hatreds and foster unity through people-to-people contacts. 

It’s not. It should be.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 November 2012)

Monday, November 05, 2012


Indonesia's Ambassador of dance                                              

Indonesia’s got original talent – so why do many acts mimic Western pop?

Why has the plump South Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style You Tube video garnered more that 620 million hits (and rising) while the indigenous Poco Poco gets scant attention?

(An Indonesian version has attracted only 200,000 viewers –a Swedish clip with women in overalls trying to imitate the Indonesian moves almost six times more.)

These questions puzzle choreographer and dancer Yohanes Nyoman Suko Utomo (below) as he tries to decode the international entertainment industry.

Unless the media-manipulated appetite for hype over substance is reversed, Nyoman will remain bemused long after his supple limbs succumb to cramp.

In the meantime he throws up his hands and laughs:  Itulah Indonesia.” (Well, that’s Indonesia.)

However there may be another explanation for his Blitar Rose Dancers not getting the publicity they deserve.  Nyoman dances not just for dollars but to delight.

“I’m not money oriented,” he said.  “Money must not be first. Art cannot be measured by money.  Art is to provide satisfaction.”

These sound like the words of a virgin dilettante yet to be bruised by a world more interested in profit than supplying soul food.

Yet Nyoman is no ingénue.  He has performed in Turkey, Switzerland, France, Holland (three times), South Korea (eight times), New Zealand (where he spoke to The Jakarta Post), Britain (twice) …

The list must stop somewhere but a phone call halted the flow.  Enough to say he has danced through desert sheikdoms and robust republics, showcasing Indonesian culture for much of his adult life.

Now 42 he’s old enough to be sour and cynical about a business that chews up and spits out the good, the bad and the luckless.

That he’s not says more about his sunny outlook than torrents of words.  Like many artists Nyoman prefers to communicate through his medium, often referring to himself in the third person, a distracting trait for the interviewer. 

A favorite punctuation involves drawing his hands up from his stomach, expanding the palms, and then thrusting outwards.

It’s a gesture that embraces a flowering of expression from a deep inner source, and it illustrates advice given by his teacher Guruh Soekarnoputra:  “Let it flow – don’t expect anything too much. Trust.”

Although a member of his sister Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, Guruh is best known as a performer than a politician.

The youngest son of the late president Soekarno ran a dance studio in Jakarta.  Here the multi-talented Nyoman (he can play several instruments), studied for two years before turning professional.

Nyoman’s first group formed in 1995 was called Suryo Linuwih (see more light).  Two years later the title shifted from Javanese to English and became Blitar Rose.

What’s in this name?  Best consult Shakespeare: ‘That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.’

“Many people love roses,” said Nyoman. “The name attracts.  It’s different and I love Blitar.  It’s where my grandfather performed in the kuda lumping.”  (A traditional Javanese dance featuring mock horses.)

The East Java city and last resting place of Soekarno was also home to Nyoman during his formative years.  Although he says his affinity for art encountered few obstacles at school it hit a hurdle that’s tripped many other creative kids from conservative families.

As the son of a policeman who believed only a public service career could provide security, young Nyoman didn’t glide into his chosen career. 

The situation might have been different if the family maid hadn’t taken her charge to a concert of classical dancing.  He was just four and remembers it clearly.  The door to the magic had been unlocked.

Later after Nyoman had visited Holland and seen modern dance he declared:  “This is the real me.”  His father relented and the gifted lad skipped out of a future of khaki-clad boredom and onto the stage.

Much of Blitar Rose’s international work comes through Kemenparekraf (the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Energy) to promote Indonesian culture abroad.  It’s currently touring four works featuring five women and two men, including Nyoman.

The dances originated in West Java, Bali, Aceh and Sumatra and include the mesmerising Tari Piring (plate dance) where the swirling artists perform with large pieces of crockery ready to spin away and shatter should concentration lapse.

Nyoman has adapted the dances, shortened them to suit modern audiences and fit the locations where Blitar Rose performs.  These are often diplomatic and trade events where culture is a warm up, not the principal purpose.  Cavernous convention centers aren’t ideal venues.

Getting and holding the attention of an unfocussed audience is a tough gig. Nervous presenters shuffle notes; distracted delegates adjust nametags hoping they’ll be spotted by VIPs. 

So Nyoman’s technique is to present short, dynamic, high-energy dances that shout ‘stop and watch’.  That’s because they’re clearly professional and refreshingly different from the shuffle-and-twist TV routines. 

When the dances end the audience is left wanting more, not thankful they’ve done culture and can now do commerce.

“I watch modern and traditional dance from elsewhere and I like some of Michael Jackson’s movements, but I don’t borrow from other choreographers,” Nyoman said.  “Everything is from my head. I design the costumes and steps, combining the traditional and modern. 

“I select dancers from the 60 students at my Jakarta academy. I choose them for their attitude and ability to bring out their inner beauty.  Their skills must be professional. I prefer dancers who are tall and slim. I use my instinct and I’m usually 99 per cent right.”

Nyoman laughed a little at the suggestion he’s an ambassador of Indonesian culture.

“I prefer to take a low profile,” he said.  “We are here to entertain.  It’s difficult to change people’s perceptions about Indonesia but we try through art. 

“I love my country and our culture and showing it around the world.  I don’t want it discarded by the younger generation.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 November 2012)


Sunday, November 04, 2012


An office affair                                                  

The first time I entered the entrails of an Indonesian government department it took time for my pupils to dilate.  The place was Kedari in Southeast Sulawesi during the 1980s and I was seeking permission to visit an isolated island.

Columns of khaki-clad men and women were sitting at plain desks reading newspapers or watching TV on full volume.  An occasional one-fingered typist clacked out a letter. Only the boss had a phone.

The lights were squint-level dim, the air thick with the fug of fags, the heat unchallenged.

It was a woodcut from a Dickens novel minus ledgers and goose quill pens. Later I discovered it was typical.

Somewhere in Indonesia is the template for a department building.  Rows of square concrete columns in-filled with bricks to create sets of cells, then plastered with white tiles for that special toilet ambience. This arid design has created a matching culture.

Buying jobs, promotion through seniority, policy packaging being more important than delivery, corruption and arrogance have all crimped competent administration.

Seen from afar Jakarta is a modern city – the high-rise skyline makes a statement of power and authority.  But behind the tinted glass are poor Internet connections, petty rules, lousy wages and worker exploitation.

Is there enough of this to support 600 pages keeping the general reader informed and entertained?  Only when written by a talented journalist following the number one rule of his craft:  Take the ordinary and make it irresistibly interesting.

Gideon Haigh is a prolific Australian writer best known for his books on cricket, a skilled wordsmith clicking his mouse into nooks and crevices to find the facts within.

A lesser journeyman writing on the evolution of the office would be struggling to lay 1,000 words in a straight line, let alone make them sexy.  Haigh finds fertility at every level in the high-rise phallic symbols dominated by men but largely staffed by women.

Consider how the big Indonesian banks present themselves.  Cathedral foyers to crush creditors but comfort investors; security guards to open doors and tellers who stand so you feel important and don’t notice how severely they clip your credit cards - and everyone in sight as young as an Olympic swim squad.

The office isn’t just where we work.  It’s also the environment where ruthless bosses ensure we spend more daylight hours than at home with our kids.  The office is where we interact with others, gain friends, make enemies, get rewards, plot – and often find romance.

Who hasn’t waited mad with thirst till a certain someone headed for the water cooler, hoping no one will notice your coincidental rendezvous?  The heat generated in the photocopy room doesn’t always come from the machines.

It’s not an office without an affair, a place where reputations are ripped like a memo in a shredder and the politics have a brutality equal to a Jakarta gubernatorial contest.

The modern office grew out of banking and public administration, particularly in England.  The famous diarist Samuel Pepys has given us a view of 17th century office doings, little different to today apart from the technology. 

The invention of the telegraph and typewriter created a social revolution.  Nimble-fingered women were better than men at many tasks and paid less.  They were, notes Haigh, the first knowledge workers.

There was resistance.  ‘(Women’s) flighty temperaments would prove ill-suited to the rigors of the working day and a distraction from its serious cares; they would be de-natured by diversion from their biological destinies’ reports the author. But reality intervenes and firm policies crumble when weathered by economics, shifting attitudes and time.

A lesser writer would have found a few literary and historical references and cemented this rubble with quotes and statistics.  Haigh goes further and deeper, noting the evolution of the office in popular culture.  How many rom-coms are set in offices compared with the casting floor at Krakatau Steel’s foundry?

Haigh’s book may be an epitaph.  Western countries faced with rising costs are pushing the electronic office.  Many overseas banks have already downsized and are little more than small shops, their customers on line.

Outside Indonesia government departments are doing the same.  Why travel far through vile traffic and queue for hours when you can download and submit forms electronically 24 / 7?  Office towers are being converted into apartments, reversing the trend for workers to commute from dormitory suburbs.

Soeharto’s policy of disguising unemployment with make-believe jobs in the bureaucracy has resulted in the population equivalent of Singapore living on the public payroll.  Getting their child into a lifetime government office job with pension remains the prime ambition of many parents.

Against this conservative mass, reformers seeking to shrink the public service face a task so formidable that ousting the Dutch from their former colony would be just a poke with a bamboo pole.

After reading The Office it seems there’s little left to reveal other than the fate of this institution in Indonesia.  Where will we poor supplicants be when the rest of the working world has turned to the Web?

Probably still sitting on benches outside bland buildings waiting respectfully for the fuehrer of the filing cabinets to wield his rubber stamps and give us permission to keep on living.

THE OFFICE – A Hardworking History
Gideon Haigh
The Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University Publishing) 2012
610 pages

(First published in The Sunday Post, 4 November 2012)


Have faith in the curriculum

I was once warned by a cynical Australian academic to never run after a bus, a pretty woman or an education policy: That’s because another would arrive shortly.
He was right.  To be appointed an education minister’s deputy is to be anointed with the right to churn the curriculum without consulting the public.  Consequently Musliar Kaslim’s top down decision to shake up the system after just a year in office is no surprise.
First an apology and retraction. When I read the Deputy Education and Culture Minister’s plans to ban teaching English in elementary schools I assumed the fellow was a grunting Neanderthal, awarded this important job for services involving envelopes and politics.
Wrong, and wrong again.  Prof., Dr., Ir., H Musliar Kaslim MS is the former rector of Andalas University, the nation’s oldest outside Java.  .
So why is such an eminent, Philippines-trained scholar trashing the syllabi like the Islamic Defenders Front in a Blok M bar?
Here’s the clue: Andalas doesn’t have an education faculty.  This gives Dr Kaslim a warrant to wreck.  For the authority to revolutionize the classroom can only be exercised by those who’ve never scraped their fingernails across broken blackboards for decades.
The Deputy Minister’s speciality has been agriculture.  This involves tilling the passive soil, manipulating trace elements, destroying weeds, nurturing the right growth, dosing with pesticides.  The similarities with education are obvious.
Chalkies who’ve coped with crowded classes of mixed abilities and backgrounds without succumbing to sedatives might differ.  Their experience shows children pick up languages best when young, their minds supple.
Almost 500 years ago St. Francis Xavier said ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man’ – but he was the unbeliever who brought Catholicism to the Moluccas, so an inappropriate role model.
Religion and Indonesian are to be given primacy. Heaven forbid the Republic should follow bilingual Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, the dunces of Southeast Asia, ridiculed by everyone. 
The best teachers are forever flexible. Obviously they are not the right people to write policy. Nor are parents. Better leave it to the doctrinaires. Their slogan: Never let the facts get in the way of a good ideology.
Imagine Dr Kaslim in the health portfolio. He’d be telling doctors how to pen prescriptions. Moms would have to check baby’s whereabouts before he tossed out the bathwater. Patients would demand drugs and get dogma, seek surgery and be offered scripture.
Some believe faith is personal and the state should keep out of its citizens’ soul space.  They think children should learn about all religions, then be left to decide what path – if any - to select once they can reason.
Could this be Dr Kaslim’s hidden agenda, the liberation of young minds, even freethinking? 
Perhaps not. The Deputy Minister, who has been to Mecca, has been quoted as saying that teaching English in primary schools is haram.  This BTW also doubles as a polite invitation for footnotes so scholars can research his interesting assertion.
Some of Dr Kaslim’s ideas on trimming topics are laudable. There’s evidence of subject overloading. The eradication of English at primary school should stop harassment by grubby lads shouting ‘Allo Mister’ and giving foreigners the finger.  In future they’ll use grammatically perfect Indonesian embellished with respectful gestures.
Lacking the full picture some educators have reacted negatively to Dr Kaslim’s other plans to scrap science in primary school and noted contradictions.  Earlier this year he lamented the lack of Indonesian PhDs – just a fraction of those in nearby nations – and encouraged higher education.
A most worthy goal.  If these future doctorates are in theology they’ll have to be studied in Arabic or Hebrew - those in the hard sciences researched and written in a language other than Indonesian.  Maybe in the global tongue.
But not to despair – the Deputy Minister allegedly told journalists that English could be understood in six months.
Teachers nonplussed by the new policy can relax.  Just schedule half a year to master the medium used in science, technology, medicine, the arts, mathematics and computing.  But first the serious stuff: Religion. 
There must be some Nobel prizes there. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Sunday Post 4 November 2012)

Friday, November 02, 2012


Michael Reynold Tagore


Imagine the scene.  Which is appropriate, because this story is a lot about fantasy.

It’s late December 2001.  The place is a cinema in the Pluit Mega Mall, North Jakarta.  In the dark sits Michael Reynold Tagore, a young man feeling, almost knowing, that in the next three hours he’s about to experience something special in his life.

He’s right.  The curtains open on another world, Middle Earth.  It’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the recounting of Professor J R R Tolkien’s classic British novel written 70 years earlier.

The US $93 million epic, which won four Academy Awards, had been made by New Zealand director Sir Peter Jackson in his homeland.  It grossed more than nine times its budget. The following two films were also major hits.

Reynold wasn’t aware of the book – it hadn’t been published in Indonesia.  He only knew about the film from a poster.  Lacking suburban ghosts, teen tearies and car chases it was never going to be a ripper success in Indonesia. But the watcher in the stalls was entranced and imagined his name on the big screen.

“This was my world,” he recalled. “It was the film I’d be waiting for with dragons and wizards.  Most normal people weren’t interested in this geeky movie, but I wanted to be involved. I watched the DVD again and again till I knew every scene.”

Apart from getting to understand animation techniques he also built his language skills listening to Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen who plays the wizard Gandalf.

On 19 December 2011, exactly ten years after the opening of LOTR, as fans know it, Reynold signed on as a texture artist to work on the sequels.  He moved to Wellington, the centre of NZ filmmaking, and met his language coach. 

He’s employed by the visual effects company Weta.  (Weta is a Maori term for a grasshopper-like insect.) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will have its world premiere in Wellington on 28 November, prior to international release on 14 December.

One year later The Desolation of Smaug will be in cinemas, and There and Back Again in June 2014.

For creative artists continuity of work is another dream come true.  The film industry is no place for those with a mortgage.  Jobs run for as long as it takes to make the movie.

“This doesn’t worry me,” said Reynold who is 33 and single. “Once you start to feel comfortable you take your foot off the gas.  I like to do new things.  I have to aim higher.

“I never wanted to wear a suit, to be a ‘real person’. My parents hoped I’d get into business or be a doctor, though I can’t even look at blood.

“I was a rebel, but I’m really a nice person.  Just a bit stubborn.  All I wanted to do was draw, but no one could see a career in art.

“I never wanted to end up in my friends’ jobs. They told me to grow up – but I didn’t.  I just knew I had to get away, go overseas, though I wasn’t sure how.”

As a child in East Java where his father had a paint factory, and later in Jakarta as a teen, young Reynold preferred to doodle rather than swot.  While his classmates were studying spiders, Reynold was sketching Spiderman.

Teachers must have despaired.  “I was getting punished a lot,” he said.

His mother had a talent for embroidery but her son wasn’t into bouquets and blooms.  “For me the more disgusting the idea the better, provided it wasn’t real,” he said.  You can see some of his creations at

At Tarumanagara University he still couldn’t settle, taking six years to finish a four-year degree in graphic design. It was a course he hated but the only one available close to his interests.

He got work as a commercial storyboard artist, drawing multiple illustrations of the scenes to be shot.  The job wasn’t well paid and there seemed to be no striving for excellence.

Time to jump a jet. He enrolled at Sydney University of Technology, got more certificates, then worked in Melbourne and Adelaide on films and computer games.

He also discovered directors rely heavily on applicants’ show reels and references, focusing on compatibility.

“Negativity can be contagious,” he said.  “That’s not good for morale or creativity. There are lots of different personalities involved.  You’re competing with people from all over the world.”

Like most digital imaginers Reynold is a contractor putting in 50 hours a week, more when deadlines loom.  He works with nine others, cans on ears, coffee in one hand, mouse the other, finessing 3D detail.  Mediocrity is not an option.

Each artist confronts large computer screens – on one side reality, the other virtual reality.

In the computer-animated Happy Feet 2, made in Australia, Reynold worked on landscapes and snow.  With the Hobbit films he’s been refining computer images so neither the audience, nor the creators, can tell whether the original was a man or a manipulation.

Reynold became an Australian.  He now has a passport that allows permanent residence in NZ and easier entry to the countries where his skills are in demand.  “I want my freedom,” he said. “I want to go everywhere.”

But not to work in Indonesia because dual citizenship isn’t allowed. “The industry still isn’t big enough or sufficiently professional,” he said “I visit my mother in Surabaya and enjoy Indonesian food, my great hobby, but I now have to buy a visitor’s visa.

“My tip on getting into film?  Practise like crazy; otherwise you’re just wasting your time.  Aim higher.

“I love going to work. It’s important to do what you want to do.  Give it one hundred per cent – you only live once.  

“This is the job I’ve been dreaming about for years. This is where I know I’m worth something.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 November 2012)