The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, May 19, 2013


The man who loved Java                                         

On 2 February 1824, Sir Stamford Raffles, his sick wife Sophia and their son Charles left Bengkulu (then known as Bencoolen) on board the Fame.  They had been waiting months for a passage to Britain and had booked on another ship, the Borneo.

Then the Fame arrived and the impatient family’s goods were transferred. The former Lieutenant Governor of Java thought this was one of the happiest days of his life.  He wrote presciently: ‘We were, perhaps, too happy.’

That evening a steward ignorant of chemistry went into the hold to uncork a brandy cask.  He was carrying a candle. Also on board was a load of saltpetre, an essential ingredient in gunpowder.

The ship was about 50 miles off the coast of Sumatra.  All made the boats before the Fame was ripped apart, but the story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Also in the hold was what Raffles described as  ‘the cream and best of everything I had collected learnt and attained.’ 

According to Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles and the Golden Opportunity the collection included 300 bound volumes and many unbound, shadow puppets and craft, even a gamelan orchestra. 

All Raffles’ notes, maps, drawings, plants and stuffed animals were also lost. Fortunately his History of Java had already been published.

The value (in today’s currency) was US$4 million, but the loss to Indonesian history and appreciation of the archipelago was immense.  Raffles collected ‘for cultural propaganda to prove back in England that Java had been, and could be again, a great and civilised country’.

Lesser men would have dissolved in despair.  The family was already grieving from the earlier death of yet another child, and the Fame fire would have suggested a curse. But Raffles set about drawing the map of Sumatra that had been lost with the ship to the admiration of Sophia.

When he eventually managed to sail Raffles wrote: ‘Perhaps I was too much attached to the things of this world. The lot of man is a mixture of good and evil, and we must be content with it – and at all events we know that all worketh for good in the end.’ 

Are these the words of a devious wrongdoer?  Raffles was admired, but also mauled by critics during his brief lifetime – he died aged 45 of a brain seizure.  Many were driven by jealousy of a former clerk with limited education and contacts who became a star administrator and founder of Singapore.

It didn’t help that he was English, small, had no military experience, was a faithful lover, keenly interested in other cultures and the environment, and ‘physically fragile’ – hardly the sort of man who’d appeal to the Scottish and Irish warriors subservient to his civilian rule. 

The British invaded Java in 1811 during the Napoleonic Wars and held the Dutch colonies till 1816. 

Raffles and his boss Lord Minto understood their interregnum would be brief should peace break out in Europe.  Reforms had to be swift. ‘While we are here let us do as much good as we can,’ he said.

The new Lieutenant Governor agreed. His motives were not religious – he had little time for missionaries and was ‘vituperative’ about the Dutch administration. Raffles set up a committee with the instructions to ‘consider the inhabitants without reference to bare mercantile profits.’ 

Comments Glendinning: ‘But the relationship between the common good and the profit-making purpose of the (East India) Company answerable to shareholders, was uncomfortable.’

Raffles’ committee recommended the abolition of ‘all kinds of servitude’ and a major shake-up of the taxation system. He ‘sought to promote the value and beauty of the indigenous culture and its pre-Islamic Hindu heritage’. 

Once the bloody work had been done and the Dutch suppressed, Raffles set about his benign dictatorship. 

In this biography he comes across as a free trader, a visionary reformer ahead of his time who loved Java and its people, particularly villagers, supporting them against claims of indolence. Inevitably he attracted haters.

But they were up against Raffles’ determined widow Sophia, his second wife.  His first, Olivia, famous for reversing the Dutch policy of excluding Eurasian wives from functions, died in 1814. Sophia bore Raffles five children but only one survived to adulthood and then died unmarried.

Sophia wrote a biography of her husband celebrating his public service.  Yet Raffles died in debt to the East India Company, undermining his detractors’ allegations of corruption.

This is Glendinning’s eighth biography, written in her early 70s. She writes with clarity, impartiality and controlled enthusiasm.

There have been many biographies of Raffles, some hagiographic. This isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s hostile.  ‘Raffles’ story, in a work of fiction, would strain credulity,’ she writes.  ‘His good fortune and his ill fortune were both of an extreme kind.  He became the entrepreneur of his own ideals and an utopian imperialist.’ 

She described writing the biography as ‘an act of concentration in both senses. There are a great many strange characters churning around in this book, and a great many clamouring outside it.’ 

So she’s set up a website including titbits, links and an events diary celebrating the life of an extraordinary Englishman, famous for founding Singapore, but fascinated by Java, an island he served briefly – but well.

Raffles and the Golden Opportunity
Victoria Glendinning
Profile Books 2012
350 pages


Friday, May 17, 2013


Farewell Indonesia’s Green Renaissance Man    

Here’s proof that attitudes and values can change faster than we think, and that citizens have the ability to wake interest when governments yawn.

Not too long ago conservationists were considered siblings to communists, dangerous even when just respectfully suggesting that caring for the environment might be smart.

That was the situation when Suryo Wardhoyo Prawiroatmodjo first proposed building a rural centre to promote sustainable organic agriculture and teach the benefits of nurturing nature.

Radical?  Hardly, but this was during Orde Baru (New Order) days when ideas that didn’t flow from Soeharto’s presidential palace were considered subversive.

However the credentials of the young and physically small veterinary surgeon from the Surabaya zoo were above reproach.  The son of a high-standing Javanese family educated at the prestigious Airlangga University, Suryo might have some whacky notions about trees, but there was no hammer and sickle in his kitbag.

His interest in animals and plants came from an aunt who owned a plantation, loved the outdoors and developed her nephew’s understanding of the interconnectedness of nature.

True, he was a member of the Green Indonesia Foundation. He’d been overseas studying wildlife management at the University of Western Virginia and conservation education in Britain, but unlikely to stir the masses.

So in 1988, with no red taint detected in his green credentials Suryo was allowed to set up Indonesia’s first environmental education centre at Trawas, in the hills above the steaming floodplains of north East Java using foreign funds.

Even by the mid 1990s few  tourism officials had heard of Seloliman.  But it was well known among hundreds of international  backpackers who followed instructions in the Lonely Planet travel guide to make their pilgrimage using bemo (minibuses) and ojek  (motorbike taxis) up winding tracks.

Communication was chancy and visitors had to hope accommodation might be available.  This could be a simple cottage with an open-roof bathroom set in rows of vegetables alongside bamboo classrooms.

Europeans loved the experience and ambience, but it took a few years before Indonesians felt comfortable and schools ready to bring students to stay and learn by getting their hands dirty and lose their fears in the forest.

By then Suryo was well known internationally.  In 1990 he had won awards in Geneva, Washington DC and Rio de Janeiro.  It took a further five years before his achievements were recognized in Jakarta with a medal for ‘participation in development’. 

About this time Suryo fell out with the committee running Seloliman over principles of management. He also became seriously ill with the incurable Crohn’s Disease, a rare and debilitating bowel condition, ironically often linked to environmental factors, but in his case more likely genetic. 

Buddhist architect and philanthropist Bagoes Brotodiwirjo paid for Suryo to get surgery in Singapore that included removal of much of his gut.  Back in East Java his movements were restricted by excessive tiredness, dietary needs and toilet proximity.

Despite these handicaps he turned to running seminars and travelling across the archipelago setting up environment education centres in South Sulawesi, Bali, Kalimantan and West Papua backed by the World Wildlife Fund.

Like many pioneers he was better celebrated overseas than in his homeland, lecturing in Thailand, drawing teachers and senior students from across the world to his workshops in the East Java wilderness.

At these he urged young people to hearken to the elders and appreciate ancient wisdom. He created puppets and games based on traditional tales, believing the past had much to teach the present. 

“I want to give confidence to the villagers, tell them that what they’ve been doing is a treasure from our ancestors,” he said.  “We need to love Mother Earth for sustainable humanity.”

He was quietly persuasive, not strident, and this seemed to calm sceptics.  It certainly opened the wallets of foreign aid agencies.

Academically sound he never used his education to stand aloof.  The functions he organised always included farmers and professors, faith leaders and bureaucrats.

Suryo had little time for modern mainstream religious practices and was a student of the 14th century Majapahit empire that once ruled much of Southeast Asia from its East Java heart. Not because of its military and trade triumphs, but because it worked with – and not against - nature.

Mt Penanggungan from Suryo's house
He loved the 13th century Panji stories of wandering royals, which originated in East Java, spread up to Burma and are entrenched in wayang (shadow puppets).

Suryo built a modest multi-level cottage with his partner Anton Ayungga in the village of Tamiajeng that matched his outlook, gazing across green paddy to dark Mount Penanggungan.

This is the dormant volcano magically transported from India to Indonesia to become the mother mountain of Java’s Hindu and Buddhist religions. Its slopes are an archaeologists’ heaven with about 100 known sites, including temple remains.
Sadly Suryo was not in his beloved home entertaining friends with food cooked to ancient recipes served in Majapahit-style pottery when he died this week (wed 8 May) in a Jakarta hospital following a relapse. 

He was aged 57 and was Indonesia’s Renaissance Man, drawing knowledge from every culture, every land, and full of wonder at everything.  As a teacher he had the ability to infect others with his enthusiasm and awe.

Suryo’s story is proof that the individual can make a difference, even when confronted by a suspicious state. Publicly he was always optimistic, but privately he regretted that Indonesia was slow to realise that destruction of the environment and waterway pollution was a serious problem impacting on all citizens and their future.

His ashes will be scattered at Candi (temple) Kendalisodo on Mount Penanggungan.

Suryo was an environmental agitator, a pioneer and a hero,” said Jakarta environment lecturer Stien Matakupan who along with hundreds of teachers here and abroad is helping spread his philosophy of care for the land to future generations.

“His spirit, his inspiration will stay with us.” 

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 May 2013)