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 http://www.lifeforce.com.au/indonesia/id_pub_simply.htm)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 June 2013)