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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


   A man of passion and purpose    



In 1993 Australian rock phosphate trader Ross Taylor was showering in a Jakarta hotel when his fingers tweaked a marble-sized lump in his left armpit. 

Normal?  Not really, but it could be put on hold. Business first, deals to be done, money made. The growth might even vanish.

It didn’t. In a Singapore hospital Ross and his wife Katherine got the dreaded diagnosis: Metastatic melanoma, stage four skin cancer, spreading wildly into vital organs.

Ross probably caught the killer disease while performing the teenage ritual of the times, surfing under Australia’s searing sun wearing nothing more than board shorts and a carefree grin. Australians have the highest skin cancer incidence rate in the world.

The family headed home to Perth and an expected short future together.  The prognosis was awful – just ten per cent chance of surviving beyond three years.

Yet Ross, 62, is still here through a mix of diet and determination, medication and meditation.  With the help of other battlers and his family he fought for his life - and won. 

He’s so fit he puts his heath stats on the Internet.  He’s also still surfing, though now well clad and sunblock-smeared. Next month (July) he’ll be in Yogya before heading south to push his board into the Indonesian Ocean on a quest for the best beach break.

“A journalist once asked if I was glad I’d had cancer,” he said.  “I thought it a stupid question, I wouldn’t wish disease on anyone. Later I realized that without it I wouldn’t have changed.

“Before I got ill it was all business. Everything else had to wait. I’d only been present at four of my daughter’s first nine birthday parties. Cancer altered everything and put me on a journey that’s been absolutely inspirational.

“Cancer strips you raw. It makes you look differently at everything.  It’s good to have a nice house and big car – but what’s really important in life?  

“I’ve spent time with dying patients in palliative care and never heard one say their triumph was buying a Mercedes.

“In their last moments most ask: ‘Have I made a little difference to the world as a human being?’  I’d dread to be in the position of having to say ‘no’.”

Once he had cancer blown out Ross returned to Indonesia, this time as the Western Australian Government’s Regional Director, promoting trade with vigor. WA and East Java have a long-standing Sister State agreement.

Much of his work involved helping high country dairy farmers and potato growers lift yields and improve quality using WA livestock, seeds and expertise.

Although he’d always been restless, the scarifying encounter with the Big C gave Ross new energy to live every moment to the full. 

He started Lifeforce Cancer Support Services, became National Vice-President of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council and more recently founder and president of the Indonesia Institute.

This Perth-based NGO is a lobby group promoting better relations between the neighbours.

For these achievements and services he has just become a member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honors list.  The award is for “significant service to Australia-Indonesia relations, to primary industry and transport, and to the community”.

This bland cover-all phrase hides the astonishing achievements of a man who has written top-selling inspirational books on combating cancer (including one in Indonesian that’s sold 40,000 copies), raised huge sums for cancer research and all the time banged the gong for understanding and respecting the people next door.

He’s done this by lobbying and commenting in the media, including this newspaper. Unlike many Indophiles Ross hasn’t indulged in basa basi, the ultra-polite behaviour refined by Javanese to mask their true views. 

Instead, like Sumatran Bataks, he’s directly criticised both countries’ policies and to good effect.  A major Institute win has been helping get scores of young Indonesian fishermen released from Australian jails.

Under Australian law foreign minors caught crewing asylum seeker boats should be repatriated.  But those unable to prove their age were slammed into adult prisons.

Another recent target has been the Australian live beef export market.  Ross accused both governments of “inept handling” following revelations of cattle mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs. Bans were imposed, damaging all. Exports have now restarted.

A current objective is to by-pass immigration roadblocks holding up the reciprocal working holiday visa program.  This was designed to encourage young people to live and work in each other’s countries for up to a year.

However a mix of bureaucratic inertia and political distrust has prevented applicants from accessing the scheme.

His bid to address “the issues that really matter in developing a deep and trusting relationship” hasn’t always made Ross popular. 

His reasoned and informed comments on matters that divert mature understanding in both nations - like jailed drug runner Schapelle Corby, kids drinking toxic arak in Bali, and terrorism - often lures redneck Indophobes from their bunkers of bigotry.

But Ross’ background as a businessman, further reinforced by the Monarch’s recognition, has given him the clout and carapace to withstand slurs.

“I never get criticism from Indonesians for speaking frankly,” he said. “In Australia we tend to tip-toe around issues, fearful of giving offence.

“Indonesia has changed so much yet Australians seem stuck in a time warp, thinking our neighbor is still run by a dictatorship supported by the military.  We have a distorted perception, and that’s very strange.

 “On the other side topics like asylum seekers that are driving Australian politics are underwhelming Indonesians.

“The relationship keeps bumping along; the good news is that despite all the challenges the barometer holds strongly.  Our mindset has to be grounded on more than business and trade.”

And the cancer?  “Business can be rough, but the big lesson I’ve learned is to be kind and considerate to each other.  Life is fragile.”

(The Lifeforce website in Indonesian can be found at

(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 June 2013)


Monday, June 10, 2013


Frenky Simanjuntak

Inspired by Orwell                            

What does a corruption-buster do when hassled for a backhander?

Pay up and get back to business because protests waste time and temper – or berate the official and call the cops?

Raising Cain isn’t smart when the gouger wears a uniform.

This was the dilemma faced by Transparency International’s Frenky Simanjuntak when being fingerprinted by the police for a clean slate certificate required for a foreign scholarship.

“To be honest I paid the Rp 10,000 (US $1),” he said.  “It wasn’t a legal charge but I reasoned the money would have gone into the staff fund.  Some argue this is disguised welfare for people on low wages – but it’s still wrong.

“Though the police have the highest bribery rate in Indonesia with up to 40 per cent corrupt according to TI research, I have a little sympathy for their dilemmas. In some cases they have cars but no fuel, so resort to shaking down motorcyclists for gas to maintain their patrols. Reform must be integrated.”

Big corruptors outrage the electorate and inflame headlines with their gross behavior.  But it’s the petty everyday graspers who are hardest to eradicate because they’re tolerated by the public as the price of doing business.

“Corruption thrived for the 30 odd years of Soeharto,” said the former manager of TI’s economic governance department in Indonesia, “but decentralization has made the problem worse.

“We are making progress in countering corruption, though it’s a slow process.  There’s a strong need for education about the damage caused to the country, but so far most effort has been put into prosecution.”

Indonesia ranks alongside Egypt at 118 according to TI’s corruption perception index, slipping down from 100 the previous year. New Zealand, Finland and Denmark are the least corrupt, all at number one.  The US ranks 13.

TI is a non-profit organization operating in more than 100 countries and promoting good governance.  It is funded by agencies, governments and individuals and publishes the donor list on the Internet.

Frenky, 38, quit his job in Jakarta this year after winning a NZ government scholarship to study public policy.  He listed transparency, ease of accessing information and good law enforcement as key factors in clean administration, along with social intolerance of dishonesty. 

Shortly after arriving in the South Pacific nation he saw media hounding of a government politician who had been rude to a hotel waiter.  Public distaste of the policy maker’s behavior forced the man to quit parliament.  Commented Frenky wryly: “That would not have happened in Indonesia.

“Our education system is a disgrace.  Schooling is not about understanding integrity but rote learning. We should be teaching honesty and accountability from the very beginning.

“At TI I worked with the private sector in anti-corruption projects.  Foreign bosses often asked: ‘How can we do anything here without paying bribes?’

“The answer is to join with other companies where all agree not to support corruption.  Overseas countries that have laws prohibiting their nationals from bribing public servants in Indonesia and elsewhere are effective.  They provide the initiative for business people to work together.”

Before joining TI Frenky worked as a researcher with another Non Government Organization, the now defunct Center for East Indonesian Affairs under sociologist Dr Ignas Kleden.

The center closed when overseas funding evaporated, though not before Frenky had spent six years on conflict resolution in Kalimantan between indigenous Dayaks and Madurese transmigrants, and in Ambon between Muslims and Christians.

He was involved in voter education projects leading to the 2004 election particularly in Papua, a province he first visited as an anthropology student on fieldwork from the University of Indonesia.

“The things I’d heard about Papua were very scary, but that wasn’t true,” he said.  “They are intelligent and funny people and I really enjoy their company.

“There has to be a peaceful resolution to the problems after pulling out the military.  But I don’t want to see West Papua secede.”  His wife Florencia Yuniferti also works as a university researcher in the province.

Frenky’s track into the dirty world of corruption started as a child when he read British writer George Orwell’s famous allegory Animal Farm in English, a language he’d been encouraged to study by his parents.

“For me politicians were like the pigs in the book,” he said.  “They talk glibly and make lots of promises.  There’s always the possibility of change, however dire the situation.”

The exception on his loathe list is former president Gus Dur - “a powerful Muslim leader with an open-minded approach.”

Frenky’s father, an executive with a fertiliser company, traveled widely overseas, returning with books and stories of a wider world to grow the imaginations of his four children.

The Christian Batak family moved from Palembang in South Sumatra to the capital when Frenky was a babe.  So he considers himself a Jakartan raised in an ethnically diverse district where, he said, he never experienced prejudice.

At university he demonstrated for democracy and became a political activist, though “not hard core, and never arrested”.   He started working for NGOs “because I felt a responsibility to be an agent of change – and wanted to work where it matters.”

Though shrinking from the idealist label he added: “I want to contribute something, to myself, the people around me – and the community.”

After two years studying public policy in NZ he’ll be looking for a position with the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK – the Corruption Eradication Commission) – if it still exists after a new president is elected in 2014.

The job he wants is in public education, not bugging hotel rooms and retrieving fat envelopes from startled crooks in sting ops.

“The KPK does a good job, but prosecution and prevention should be separate,” he said. “We need to explain that corruption is stealing from our country, denying the government money necessary for public works.

“You cannot be a corruptor and morally pure.  That may not be the situation legally but it is so ethically.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 June 2013}


Sunday, June 09, 2013


Sharing is caring

As the family’s only car owner my sister in law is an unpaid de-facto cabbie, carting siblings, nieces, nephews and a saloon of other relatives to schools and shops.

Like many women drivers SIL doesn’t exhibit the brash, bash-through behavior of male road users preferring to be cautious – a fine quality when avoiding the brutal, careless and confrontational drivers.  And that’s just the pedicab pushers.

My admiration goes beyond her skills behind the wheel. For SIL always travels with a full tank of patience.

Not towards other motorists.  They get the heavy horn treatment if they haven’t hit third gear before the lights flick to green. Her tolerance is for others in the car.

An excursion isn’t a journey of one driver and five passengers.  It’s a trip with six drivers.

No matter that most don’t have licenses or have never driven – these are not impediments to giving advice:

“Overtake him, go faster, push in, don’t worry - he’ll brake, ignore him, he’s smaller, you can get through there, turn left, no, sorry right, ha, ha, wrong again …”

At first I thought SIL would boot the brake through the floorboards and scream: “Will you all shut up! If you reckon you’re so smart, drive it yourself,” then jump into the next passing bemo with the keys in her purse, shouting: “Just leave me alone!”

Of course being an Indonesian she’d never display such impoliteness.

I almost succumbed, demonstrating crassness and maladjustment. Instead I swallowed my tongue for I was not in a culture where driving is a job for one – here it’s gotong royong.

This is the communal self-help system (a ‘busy bee’ in some parts of Australasia), not confined to threshing rice and building mosques.  Apart from driving it also extends to education.

After setting an assignment at a prestigious East Java university I was astonished to find the students in the library huddled in clusters.

“This is not a group task,” I raged, impotently. “I want to know what you’ve learned and what you think as an individual.”

I might as well have spoken in ancient Greek because it was clear no one understood.  Independent, alone, solo, unaccompanied – what do such words mean?

A student explained in a voice used for the young and witless:  “We have to work and assist each other so when we graduate and want a job we can call on our former colleagues for help.”

Sharing as an exercise in future proofing.

The West has the do-it-yourself (DIY) cult that keeps home hardware stores hammering – Indonesia’s practise is DIT (do-it-together).  No wonder around 50 million Indonesians use Facebook – the highest number in Southeast Asia.

Scots say too many cooks spoil the broth – Indonesians assume the more chefs the better the meal. Westerners claim a camel is a horse dreamed up by a committee – Indonesians reckon only a group could have designed a horse.

We think two’s company, three’s a crowd, a mass a misery.  The more the merrier; there’s safety in numbers.

Foreigners here try and avoid eye contact with other outsiders.  Why seek out folk we’d never acknowledge at home?  Indonesians abroad seem forever happy to meet fellow expats.  No wonder Indonesian friendliness is world famous.

Demographics determine attitude. In my home state there’s a square kilometer for every human.  In Java, the world’s most populous island, I rub up against 960 people (and a similar number of motorbikes) in the same hundred hectares.  Even soy beans in tempe have more space.

The proverb makan gak makan asal kumpul (even though we have no food we have each other) sums up the situation. A song of the same name celebrates a life compressed.

If English poet William Wordsworth had lived in Indonesia he wouldn’t have wandered lonely as a cloud.  He’d never find himself apart, and certainly wouldn’t get to see a host of golden daffodils – they’d have all been trampled.

Given such a cultural background it’s no wonder my SIL has no problems with backseat drivers.  Me? It’s walk, or adapt and join the car chorus.  No local license but I’m a foreigner and a man so clearly know it all: ‘Hey, keep left …’ 

(First published in The Sunday Post, 9 June 2013)


Monday, June 03, 2013


Enrico Halim

Take a ride on the wild side        


If you’re around Jakarta’s Jalan Sudirman next month (June), fed up with air-conditioned luxury cabs and feeling adventurous, keep an eye open for a pink bemo.

Or maybe magenta.  The color is still being debated, but it’s likely to be standout shrill.

Either way the driver will be Pak Kinong so you’ll be in good hands.  He knows the back streets like his steering wheel because he’s been driving the noisy, smelly three-wheel rattletraps since 1970.

Except that this time he’ll be at the controls of a clean and quiet spruced-up electric machine – the Bio Bemo.

So if you’re ready to chance a ride you’ll be helping take down the capital’s appalling pollution by a few grams of carbon monoxide, which has to be all good.

So where’s the risk?  Although the bemo has been mechanically checked it shouldn’t be on the road.  

Law-conscious Westerners shy at riding unlicensed transport because it might void insurance policies, but that doesn’t seem to bother too many Indonesians, including Enrico Halim, the man behind the Bio Bemo

“We want the machine registered but transport laws don’t say anything about electric bemos,” he said.  “So the bureaucrats have told us to go away and find a solution workable to them.

“Most technical issues have been fixed – it’s the paperwork blocking us from going forward.  We’ve spoken to Jokowi (Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo) who said the idea is ‘very interesting’.” A low wattage response, but Team Bio Bemo sees a spark of support.

Enrico, 44, doesn’t fit the image of grease-stained mechanical inventor.  Originally from Bandung he’s a graphic artist trained in the US who teaches part-time at Tarumanegara University.   He set up an agency called Aikon, ‘an institution for the open minded pursuing the better Indonesia’.

A petrolhead he is not.  He rides a (non-electric) motorbike and is more interested in making his city safe and sweet than being seen at the wheel of a black saloon from Stuttgart.

Which is why he’s pushing to convert old bemos to electric power locally rather than import glitzy modern machines – a solution favored by the big transport operators.

Bemos may have been sidelined but there are still about 500 operating from eight stations in Jakarta. “They are part of our heritage, first imported from Japan during the Soekarno era,” Enrico said. “Sadly our education doesn’t teach us to respect history.
“Bemo are efficient, able to negotiate narrow and crowded streets, to go on roads inaccessible to other vehicles. They are particularly good shifting produce to and from traditional markets.”

The two stroke engines are noisy, thirsty and dirty.  So Enrico and his mates have built a pick-up using four standard batteries and a Chinese 48-volt brushless electric motor.

The orange prototype has been on the roads for almost three months.  The next model, out soon, will carry passengers.

The gas engine and transmission have been removed, so the clunky gear system has also been eliminated, giving passengers a smoother ride.

It’s claimed the maximum distance is 75 kilometers on a full charge, though best to park after 50 to avoid battery damage.  This is within the range of many routes, though not all. An overnight battery top up using a standard household cable should cost a few thousand rupiah.

Enrico isn’t all torque - he’s also into social engineering.  “I want to put the Bio Bemo within the reach of owner–drivers,” he said. “At the moment they earn about Rp 150,000 (US$15) a day but more than half of that goes on gas and oil. 

“We’ve been talking to banks and should be able to negotiate a Rp 30 million (US$3,000) loan for conversions, repaid over 30 months with the money saved.

“Half the drivers who have seen the Bio Bemo are enthusiastic.  The others are worried about range and recharging time.  We’re considering is a battery exchange program.”

Jaywalkers won’t be able to hear or smell the Bio Bemos so a “fun sound” from little drums on the Bio Bemo’s wheels may be added to alert the unwary.

Enrico has long been keen on alternative energy and for a while experimented with hydrogen power. His interest switched to electricity when visiting his daughter Kintaka who is studying in New Zealand.  In Wellington he saw local government staff driving electric-powered cars to promote the capital’s clean and green credentials.

Using the Internet (“my mechanic is Pak Google”) he plugged into an international ring of incandescent electric vehicle enthusiasts.  They included pioneers of the Philippines’ distinctive E-Jeepneys, the flamboyantly decorated electric mini-busses now becoming popular in Manila.  Three experts came to Jakarta and gave advice.

Overseas aid agencies have signalled interest in the Bio Bemo (Greenpeace backed the E-Jeepney project).  However Enrico is wary of getting too much support that could over-engineer the bemos, ramp costs and make the vehicles too dear for drivers.

For example, lithium batteries and fast chargers would triple the conversion cost.

“Our Filipino friends couldn’t imagine why our government isn’t supporting the project,” Enrico said. “They also noted that electricity in Jakarta is about half the cost of power in Manila.

“I hoped we might interest local universities, but there’s been no enthusiasm.  It seems the Bio Bemo isn’t sexy or modern enough.  Of course we’re using really old technology and looking for long-term solutions.

“Everyone seems to be depending on Jokowi and Ahok  (deputy governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama) to have all the ideas and do everything.

“They are just two men.  We should solve problems ourselves.  The main point is this:  Why doesn’t the government see this as a practical solution to some of Jakarta’s transport problems?”

Maybe it will after the Bio Bemo team heads to City Hall on 22 June in an all-out bid to turn on the public servants’ interest and maybe even get them to authorize registration.

In that case foreigners might be more willing to try a trip.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 3 June 2013)


Sunday, June 02, 2013


Tangled in Papua’s political thickets                                             

Fifty years ago this month (May) Indonesia took over administration of what is now known as West Papua.  Two years later the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM – Free Papua Movement) started.

Following the fall of President Soeharto in 1998 some thought the time ripe to seek independence.  But how to do it?  In the remote province few knew more than the meaning of merdeka  (ironically gained from studying Indonesian history), the urge to demonstrate and a symbol.

On Biak Island off the north coast there was political will - but no flag.  Activist Filep Karma had seen the Morning Star but couldn’t remember details.

Employing a seamstress would have attracted the police so Karma sprayed blue and red spray paint on a piece of white cloth.  This was raised over a water tank at the harbor.  A prayer meeting was held.  It was a makeshift, amateurish, largely spontaneous and certainly na├»ve protest.

The unarmed demonstrators brandished Bibles and sang hymns.  That didn’t stop the military opening fire, apparently after some soldiers had been assaulted.

Karma was shot but survived.  He alleged 29 were killed.  Witnesses claim bodies were dumped at sea.  The Army said just one person died, and the washed up corpses victims of a giant wave far away.

Also in Biak was American doctoral student Eben Kirksey who heard (but didn’t see) the shootings.  Had he been able to film the event – as journalists did in 1991 at Dili’s Santa Cruz massacre – the world might have paid more attention.

East Timor is now an independent nation, in part because of the outrage following the Dili killings. But West Papua remains firmly Indonesian with the support of Western governments.  With revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, the problems of the region get little international attention.

In Dr Kirksey’s Freedom in Entangled Worlds we get a book with enough insights to fill in the gaps – but not an objective account. 

The Indonesian government’s refusal to let in foreign journalists means that most reports come from partisan sources – including the military.  As in Syria this leaves us wondering who to believe.

The author first encountered Papua in the 1990s when travelling from the US to Jakarta as an exchange student.

During the night refuel the teenager got a whiff of the exotic and mysterious, penis gourds and grass skirts, oppressive heat and the scent of kretek (clove) cigarettes,  

Later he returned as an adult planning a thesis on the independence movement and globalisation.  Instead he was “drawn into a struggle for freedom … (becoming) an advocate who accompanied West Papuan activists in political meetings.” In 2005 he worked in Washington as a human rights advocate.   Hardly the language and position of an even-handed academic.

Nonetheless Dr Kirksey’s extensive research has been accepted and he’s now a lecturer at a Sydney University where he teaches ‘environmental humanities’. He’s also become a media commentator on West Papua.

This book proves not all dissertations translate well into mainstream non-fiction.  There are plenty of fascinating anecdotes illustrating the cultural complexities and the author’s undercover work, but these have been forced into theoretical moulds and decorated with jargon. 

So we get mixtures of Melanesian myths and magic laced with half understood (or misunderstood) stories from the West, guaranteed to engross all – then given equally weird explanations.

To try and make sense of it all he uses extended metaphors drawn from the natural surroundings – jungle roots.

West Papua is quivering with spies.  It’s almost impossible to do anything or meet anyone without being observed and reported to Intelligence, so activists and Dr Kirksey have taken great risks to garner information. 

The man is no dilettante.  He spent three months with one tribe, speaks Indonesian and a Creole called Logat Papua and interviewed 400 people. Impressive.  So is his lack of arrogance.  His achievement is ‘not a monograph with pretensions to completeness (but) a story of compromises situated within multiple entangled worlds’.

Tangled indeed. The layers over traditional beliefs have included Dutch colonialism, the Second World War, fundamentalist Christianity, academic analysis, capitalism, massive mineral exploitation and military oppression.

The missionaries introduced hopes of the Messiah’s return.  The Allied armies’ cargo brought proof of the riches beyond the mountains that could appear out of the sky given the right mantra.

Instead, ironically on Christmas Day 1971 Freeport arrived to dig a giant hole and take away the province’s riches.  What were the poorly educated and uninformed (or misinformed) Papuans to make of it all?

That so many have mastered the complexities of international business and politics, and aroused global concerns about exploitation and alleged human rights abuses is a tribute to their abilities, tenacity and courage.

There are signs of hope.  President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is reported to be pushing for a ‘development through compassion’ solution before he leaves office next year. 

One way would be to listen the Papuans’ grievances, ranging from dispossession, through torture and murder, enough of their dreadful plight articulated in this book to warrant action that doesn’t involve violence.

The danger is that Dr Kirksey’s book will be considered antagonistic by the military, restricting a peaceful and just settlement of this suppurating wound infecting Indonesia’s relationship with the rest of the world – and particularly Australia.

Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the architecture of global power.
Eben Kirksey
Duke University Press 2012
322 pages

(First published in The Sunday Post, 2 June 2013)