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, September 30, 2013


Dwi Cahyono
Earning through yearning                                       

If it’s true that American industrialist Henry Ford once said ‘history is bunk’ he would have heard the applause of many Indonesians.
Though not Dwi Cahyono. His hands would have been folded, his features grim.  Although he hasn’t built any cars, the Australian-educated Malang entrepreneur has made a pile of money in his East Java hometown.
He’s also spending it – on history.  His project has so far drained around Rp 1.5 billion (US $130,000) in set-up expenses.  Then there’s the running costs including the wages of ten people.  Click COMPUTE: That’s close to Rp 30 million (US $2,600) a month.
All this is feeding a cash-hungry beast that Dwi knows (and if he didn’t others keep enthusiastically reminding him) will continue to gnaw through his wallet.
“But the funny thing is this,” he said.  “The more I spend it seems the more I earn from my other businesses.  And then there’s the satisfaction that comes from doing something worthwhile to make a difference.”
What difference?  Well, to date more than 15,000 schoolchildren have been transported into the past after stepping into Dwi’s Museum Malang Tempo Doeloe (old days), which opened last year.  .
Unlike most dim-lit DON’T TOUCH museums, particularly those run by governments, Dwi’s enterprise is a bright hands-on affair.  Visitors can caress the stone chip tools of pre-historic times and make terracotta figures like those from the Majapahit Era, half a millennium ago.
The imaginative ponder this: The dirt under their fingernails was once trodden by princes.
How do you spin a potter’s wheel without using electricity? Our ancestors didn’t have smart phones but they weren’t stupid.
Students don the clothes of Javanese nobility, take happy-snaps, paint masks and act out puppet shows.  Later they can look in awe at a life-size model of first President Soekarno at the 1947 KNIP (Central National Committee of Indonesia) Congress in Malang and generally have a jolly time.
Fun in a museum? That’s an oxymoron.
“For most kids these places are boring, dull, even scary, nothing like shopping malls,” Dwi said. “They think old is bad, new is good.
“Museums in Indonesia are usually just storage places, warehouses. The color is always the same – gray. I want to change the situation.”
So he has. His version, bright as a detergent commercial, is in a converted 1928 house with high ceilings and original tiled floors of such beauty it should be a crime to tread the ceramic. The displays are as inviting as any fashion boutique.
For Rp 15,000 (US$1.30), and less for students, it’s a walk-through experience starting with the arrival of humankind’s ancestors in the archipelago. The remains of Java Man found last century on a bank of the Bengawan Solo River could be more than 500,000 years old.
The trail then leads into the development of civilizations and the arrival of traders and invaders.
Finally the rise of kingdoms, Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation, the Revolution and into the modern era.  This is no kill-time experience waiting for a train at the nearby station: set two hours aside to properly enjoy.
Building a museum has long been Dwi’s dream.  As a student in Sydney he saw how the city first founded in 1788 was crazy about preserving its past – and not inside glass cases.
Whole streets of stone and timber buildings, particularly around The Rocks where the British first settled, have been preserved.  Many have been converted into offices, shops and restaurants attracting tourists and earning their keep.
Back home he opened the Inggil (Javanese for ‘high’) restaurant with a history theme and filled it with all the curious and quaint artefacts that came his way, most relating to Java – and that includes the cuisine.
 He says this has been a success and is now an essential stop for European tour groups. A few years ago he initiated the Malang Tempo Doeloe festival staged in Jalan Ijen, the grand boulevard of Dutch houses.  Visitors, and they come in thousands, are expected to dress in the clothes of yesteryear.  That means pith helmets and baggy khaki pants for tuan, and cloche hats and pleats for nyonya.
Next year’s event should be spectacular as it marks the centenary of the Dutch establishment of the city – though written history goes back to 760 AD
Dwi has also organised groups of up to a thousand volunteers to clean and paint old buildings threatened with demolition. His campaign against the giant billboards that scar the cityscape is still underway.
Although he’s visited museums in China, Vietnam and elsewhere to glean ideas, it’s those in Singapore that Dwi finds most attractive, like the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Malay Heritage Center and the Peranakan Museum, - a celebration of Straits Chinese-Malay culture.
Singaporeans clearly envy Indonesia’s rich and ancient past; although the tiny red-dot city’s story only really began in 1819, it squeezes every passing year for drops of memory.
One of many difficulties facing Indonesian museums is the lack of local curators. Dwi has yet to find a tertiary institution teaching museum management.  Another issue is persuading citizens not to call in the rombeng (second-hand goods traders) when they clean out grandma’s cupboards.
If the collection that includes Japanese uniforms and equipment is an indicator he’s been mighty persuasive, though who knows how much has been tossed out by folk who think like Mr Ford?
“We learn from history,” Dwi said. “We need to remember and understand what our parents and grandparents did to develop our cities and culture, our religions, art and language.
 “Unfortunately the government doesn’t understand the importance of culture, though there’s one good sign.  The new DPR (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat – Legislative Assembly building) has followed the style set by Dutch architect Thomas Karsten, who designed Malang Town Hall in the 1930s.
“Malang is rich in history, we are so blessed. It was the heart of the kingdom of Majapahit that controlled much of lower Southeast Asia.  This is ours – our traditions.
“Of course making money is necessary – but what we do with it is also important.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 September 2013)

Saturday, September 28, 2013


 Words for the blood, not the brain                                     
‘Nationalism is an infantile thing – it’s the measles of mankind’.
If Nobel prizewinner Albert Einstein’s quip is right, then it’s time to extend vaccination programs in Indonesia and Australia before the epidemic hits.
For there are troubling signs that rational thought is being infected by the virus of base political rhetoric.
Consider the comments of new Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.  The Queensland politician feels uncomfortable with Indonesians buying 10,000 square kilometers of Northern Australia (an area twice the size of Lombok), to raise cattle for consumption in the Republic.
Like all populists the minister knows that his views play well with the xenophobic.  These suspicious folk were revealed last month (Aug) through an Australian government-commissioned survey. This showed almost half the respondents believe Indonesia is a threat.
Mr Joyce doesn’t disparage directly, preferring the fuzzy phrase ‘national interest.’  But the message is clear: Who’d want sinister foreigners with their funny habits, strange language and curious religion sitting on our land? Goodness, they might even make it more productive.
Nonetheless Mr Joyce’s mutterings have copped some stick, as Australians say.  A maturing electorate?  Maybe - or because his boss, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is trying to be nice to the people next door and show his Asian credentials.
Despite Mr Joyce’s concerns a sale will probably go through after scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board. The Chinese, British, Americans and many other nationals, including presidential hopeful Aburizal Bakrie, have owned leases over big pastoral stations (ranches). Discrimination against Indonesia is unlikely, even though the reverse operates.
On this side of the Arafura Sea there’s no way Australians can buy even a grain of the Archipelago.  Apart from leasing a condo the best we can do is enjoy property held in the name of an Indonesian spouse or business partner.  The risks are obvious.
Mr Joyce is a member of the conservative National Party (in coalition with the Liberal Party majority), but even some supporters, particularly those with properties for sale, reckon he’s singing yesteryear’s song.
Not so in Indonesia. What Perth academic Professor Krishna Sen calls ‘nationalistic fervour’ remains top of the pops.
Writing on The Conversation website she made the embarrassing (for Australians) observation that the present Indonesian Cabinet is smart, well-educated and understands more about Australia than its counterpart does of Indonesia.
Three key members of the Indonesian Government, including vice president Boediono, studied at Australian universities. Six have PhDs.
So all the more surprise that such a sophisticated ministry seems determined to bang the nationalistic drum with its policies, knowing that the risks of rousing the masses are real and damaging.
According to the London-based economic think-tank Global Trade Alert, Indonesia has implemented 198 protectionist measures that ‘are harmful, or almost certainly harmful to Indonesia.’ Another 88 are in the queue.
Further proof that foreigners aren’t wanted came with the release this month (Sept) of figures showing a six per cent drop in work permits. For Australians the figure is even greater - about a third, down to just over 2,300 in the past year.
Employers here and elsewhere usually want the best person for the job.  Are qualifications and experience of less value than birthplace? Does citizenship trump merit?  In the current climate the answers are ‘yes’.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal Jakarta-based management consultants John Kurtz and James Van Zorge commented on ‘the curse of nationalism’, adding: ‘Policy changes in the mining, retail, horticultural and oil and gas sectors have led foreign investors to reassess the risk of doing business here.’
Foreign companies take profits out of the country so are easy to demonize: ‘You are poor because they are greedy’. Investors also take risks and create jobs. That’s usually overlooked
Elections are great opportunities for politicians to offer slogans rather than plans. Mr Abbott’s one-liner ‘stop the boats’ resonated with an electorate deeply worried about Middle Eastern and Sri Lankan asylum seekers being ferried to Australian shores by Indonesian fishermen.
How that’s going to be achieved is another matter. The plans revealed so far, including Indonesian ‘transit ports’ for refugees, seem set to inflame emotions.
National flags are useful symbols but can also mask purpose. All the indicators are that next year’s presidential election will be a policy-free affair driven by personalities draping themselves in red and white.
The dog whistling has already started. Terms like ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘sovereign rights’ stir the blood but dull the brain.
In 2010 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressed the Australian Parliament.  He said the first challenge facing the two nations was to ‘bring a change in each other’s mindset’.
He continued: ‘The most persistent problem is the presence of age-old stereotypes – misleading, simplistic mental caricatures that depict the other side in a bad light.’
It will be sad and damaging if next year’s candidates follow Mr Joyce’s misleading and simplistic view that the nation will be better off without outsiders, their money, expertise - and friendship. 

(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 September 2013)

Friday, September 27, 2013


Sacred space or hyperkitsch?     

The remnants of Thailand’s ancient capital Ayutthaya attract millions of foreigners every year, keen to tread the splendid and much restored UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
Before it was plundered and ripped apart by the Burmese in April 1767 following a two-year war and siege, Ayutthaya was one of the world’s largest cities.
Today tourists are bussed from the new capital Bangkok to wander the crumbling red-brick ruins and sagging stupa, until infected by the NATO syndrome: (Not Another Tourist Object).
 This is the curse that comes from visiting worthy cultural sites in oppressive heat, hounded by touts flogging trinkets, and where sunscreen cream is as essential as sensible shoes.
But far from the main site and elephant rides, rarely noted in tour guides is another wat (temple) so curious, so overwhelmingly fascinating that any visit dispels discomfort and revives enthusiasm. 
Though don’t expect speedy enlightenment unless you’re a Buddhist scholar. The philosophies underpinning the Tha Ka Rong Temple are complex with a local twist and a regional twirl.
You won’t find many foreigners at what translates as the Monastery of the Landing of the Crying Crow – we spotted only one among several hundred Thais thronging the compound.  The crows, ravens from the descriptions, are also absent, though plaster caricatures remain.
The lack of a Thai passport doesn’t mean non-Buddhists are unwelcome; they’re just politely accepted, offered smiles but otherwise left alone.  There are no entrance fees and hustlers are absent, though there are plenty of opportunities to lighten over-weight wallets. All are off-the-wall.

The tone is set at the entrance of what used to be two riverside monasteries that merged last century after spending the previous four hundred years apart. The shock starts with a statue of a white Brahman cow, flanked by a row of grinning saffron-clad plastic babes hugging black begging bowls, leading to a gold-colored Buddha.
The locals say that so many glasses have been left behind by careless novice monks that the Abbott put them on the mannequins. This makes quite a spectacle.
Reckon these dummies are just too kitsch for comfort? Then maybe you’ll be more inspired or frightened enough to open your purse at the entrance where you’ll encounter a skeleton offering a wai as you drop money in his box.
This experience is a mite disconcerting as the traditional Thai greeting is normally performed with grace.  It’s true old bony used the latest toothpaste, and dark glasses help to soften the stare, but the mechanics are clunky and his (her?) movements jerky.
Consequently logical Westerners expect the skull to snap off from the vertebrae with each shuddering bow, and the finger bones to flick apart as the palms snap together. That they don’t is a tribute to Thai technology or divine control.
There are several jolly skeletal ones around the complex; some have a voice that presumably says sawasdee. The larynx is obviously absent so the greeting gets garbled.  Or maybe that’s how skulls talk; at least they don’t get tongue tied.

Scary?  Not to the locals who encourage their children to feed the fleshless one with baht and watch him rattle: ‘This is what happens to naughty kids who don’t finish their curried fish cake.’
More macabre are the wax figures of monks past and present, so superbly made that even now I wonder whether they aren’t the real person preserved by secret embalming herbs.
If so the potion should be used at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital Museum where the mummified bodies of executed murderers stand in baking trays to collect the dripping body fluids, a gruesome warning to visitors not to become serial killers.  The Thais do gruesome tourism well.
There’s no slime or antiseptic odor around Tha Ka Rong which is famous for the cleanliness of its toilets having won an award in 2006. So the exhibits must be just that, though the fans waft the monks’ hair, one certainly shivered and I’m sure the venerable fellow holding a cigar dropped ash.
The unshod crowds wander through a series of carpeted rooms well furnished, though not always wisely.  Apart from the figures the walls are covered with photos of famous visitors, flashing lights and even a section devoted to ASEAN. 
Here nationalistic Indonesians can drop their rupiah in a bowl under the red-and-white. From the Philippines?  No worries this temple’s egalitarian, with a slot for everyone.
If there is an air of reverence it’s well disguised.  The casually-dressed devout pause to pray at the shrines they favor then move on to throw coins in revolving buckets for luck or peer into glass spheres to glimpse the future.  If all this seems too placid there are rows of bells to be rung as prayers.
Even the ubosot, the most holy room is open to visitors of any or no faith who can sit on the high-backed chairs.  The walls and floor are made of ancient teak planks that escaped the Burmese assault, even though the temple was occupied by the army during the 18 th century fighting.
When worldly needs overtake spiritual concerns there’s a long jetty where women cook meals to order on narrow boats, balancing steaming cauldrons as the decks bob and sway.  In the water a flotilla of plump catfish thrash the water competing for multi-colored food pellets.
Their cousins may be sizzling on the floating barbecues at the other side of the boardwalk, but this is a piscine paradise.  These fish are protected in the temple complex that includes a section of the Chao Phraya River.
On weekends thousands make the 90 minute drive from Bangkok for a day out at Tha Ka Rong, many to hear a popular preacher.  Despite the huge numbers the temple and its surrounds are well maintained.
Most religions are serious affairs of the soul, where grim-faced clerics wag fingers. Tha Ka Rong shows that faith can be fun.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 September 2013)


Monday, September 23, 2013


The Peaceful Painter   

The difficulties faced by children with famous parents are so universal there should be a special word to describe the situation.
Like ‘offspringomitis’ (an inflammation of problems encountered when Dad or Mom is in the public eye).  It fits, but doesn’t have the right ring. Maybe schitzoneed – the condition of wanting, yet not wanting.
When the kid is young the benefits flow, particularly if the parent is financially successful and generous to his or her family. Later the name can become burdensome.
Koko Mozes knows the symptoms well.  As the eldest son of renowned East Javanese painter Mozes Misdy he was always the little-noticed lad giving his father a hand stretching canvases, packing cases, squeezing tubes and generally keeping just out of frame.
Sometimes he ventured an opinion.  Sometimes it was heard.
It was good apprenticeship because the boy was artistically talented.  He wanted to learn and Dad was happy to teach, but the danger was obvious; whatever the youngster did it would always be compared with the art of the elder.
So for five years Koko worked as a photographer doing portraits, weddings and other commercial work.  “I didn’t find this satisfying because photos are just a flat memory, not something that incites a reaction,” he said.
“So I turned back to art. I’ve learned so much from my father.  We both work in oils. Now I have to make my own name.”
Having recently secured a commission to produce 300 original paintings to hang in restaurants and hotels in China, (the buyer saw his work in Surabaya) Koko is already achieving his goal, though he still helps his father prepare for exhibitions.  The next is scheduled for Jakarta later this year, where Mozes senior is now working. .
But quantity doesn’t always equal quality, as his mother Fatimah reminded him. “He still needs maturity,” she said – and he agreed as a dutiful son should when his Mom sits in at an interview, pointing out that her husband has an international reputation, having exhibited in Australia, Thailand and Malaysia.
“Little by little,” Koko conceded, for some of his work is still dominated by Dad’s powerful brushwork.
Mozes’ small pictures start from US $800 (Rp 10 million). Now most buyers are Chinese, an indicator of where disposable incomes are currently centered along with (according to Koko) Indonesian indifference to art.
Much of Dad’s work isn’t just large, it’s wide-screen cinematic.  Pairs of canvases, each up to four meters long are part of his speciality, designed to dominate a hall.  It’s the sort of art loved by big business to hang in foyers and boardrooms, to make a statement about the company that has little to do with the product.
A picture of packets of paper clips or sacks of cement hardly enchants, but a panorama of beached boats or flowers can be restful and, according to Fatimah, assist in the negotiations.  It’s all about mood, though money is the motivator.
And the rupiahs have certainly been running.  Twelve years ago Mozes senior opened a lavish three-storey gallery hung with his awards, in Banyuwangi.  This is the little town on the far east coast, better known as a ferry port for travellers heading in or out of Java, not a location to linger.
“When the gallery opened there were about 220 artists working and living here,” Koko said. “It was the high point and we had a thriving cultural community. Now there are only 20 left.  They’ve scattered around Indonesia but most have gone to Bali.”
For that’s where the tourists head – 1.8 million in the past year – and not all are after the beaches and booze. Art is also a major attraction, with trends as fickle as food fads.  A few years ago it was cats, then birds and fish. Demure maidens in batik seem perennial.
It’s a market Koko doesn’t want to enter.  “I’ll stay in Banyuwangi and develop my own style, and make buyers happy,” he said. 
“I want to be known as a peaceful painter, focusing on the environment, helping people understand what we’ve done – and what we are doing – to nature.”
For this he’s well placed.  The region is heavily timbered, and not all of it plantations.  There are two national parks - Baluran to the north and Alas Purwo on the peninsula of Blambangan.  This is the name used when the Majapahit kingdom ruled more than 500 years ago.
The Kawah Ijen volcano with its spectacular smoking sulphur-lake caldera is nearby.  It’s a favored spot for adventurous Europeans, but there’s no integration of the experience with local art and culture. This annoys Koko who argues that the local government should follow Yogyakarta’s example and promote Banyuwangi culture.  
Although the area is drier than Central Java and in places looks more arid Australian than lush Indonesian, Koko prefers darker, less tropical greens that give his work a slight feel of mystery.  His father favors pastels.
“I try to use my imagination rather than focus on a particular location,” he said.  “I’m particularly concerned about damage to the environment. I like to think how the land looked before we started felling trees and building towns, before global warming.
“When I do put a man-made structure, like a cottage, into the landscape, it’s usually rotting and crumbling as nature recovers the space.”
By contrast his father often includes figures in his landscapes, usually relaxing after work, along with portraits of women, clothed and nude.
“My Indonesian hero is the late expressionist Affandi, and overseas, Van Gogh,” he said. “Even though I don’t want to live in the shadow of my father, it’s a good shadow to have.
“At the same time I don’t want people to look at my paintings and say –‘Ah, that’s Pak Mozes’.  I hope they’ll say: ‘Look, a Pak Koko painting’.
“My father will be 72 this year yet he’s still seeking perfection. That’s also my aim, and I’m only 40.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 23 September 2013)


Sunday, September 22, 2013


Cap this, Prince Panji     

The old slogan ‘if you want to get ahead, get a hat’ still holds good in Indonesia. In East Java’s recent gubernatorial election campaign it’s no accident of advertising that the winners wore peci, the rimless black cap.
Although widely considered an Islamic headdress it’s also associated with nationalism.  Early photos of first president Soekarno show him sporting the blangkon. The Javanese turban is now seldom seen outside weddings and Yogyakarta where it’s worn by men in the kraton, their rank determined by the batik pattern.
When the young revolutionary abandoned the blangkon, with its hints of feudalism, for the more democratic peci, it became the sign of resistance.  Now the hat supposedly asserts the wearer is genuinely Javanese, a Muslim and a Republican.
But there’s another hat that’s even more indigenous, for the peci was probably an import, and  related to the Turkish fez.
Though some reckon it’s a beret, the Panji cap looks more like a pedal-pusher’s helmet, perching on the hair rather than the fish-bowl crash hats used by motorcyclists. It was identified more than a hundred years ago by Dutch archaeologists squinting at temple reliefs in East Java.
They originally believed the carvings were an extension of those found on the Central Java sites of Buddhist Borobudur and Hindu Prambanan.
Later it become clear that the art and culture of East Java stands apart from its Indian origins and western neighbor.
German art historian Dr Lydia Kieven has now taken what she calls a ‘new look’ at the religious function of temples during the Majapahit kingdom, the so called Golden Era, roughly 1300 to 1500 AD.
Although now better described as a cultural archaeologist, truth is she’s a sleuth, and should be the hero in a TV series where the gumshoe spots the overlooked clue that reveals the full story.
For the many temples of East Java are not well preserved. Weather, time, vandals and official indifference have eroded many reliefs leaving the gaps to be provisionally filled by the imaginative and inquisitive.
Following the Cap Figure isn’t a grab-me-and-read title (why not Pursuing Panji?) but this isn’t an E-novel for a long journey.  It’s a serious study that grew out of Dr Kieven’s doctorate at Sydney University.
Without trying to dilute the book’s importance in any way or deter readers, there are some irritants.
PhD thesis writers understandably want a readership beyond supervisors and examiners.  Years of intense study deserve more than leaving just another shelved reference for the next generation of students, so why not publish for a broader market?
Fine– though only if the research is totally rewritten to suit that different public  – the eclectic inquirer.
Dr Kieven may not be an Indiana Jones action hero, but she’s a robust explorer who’s collected some fine stories in stone, and that’s meant climbing mountains and probing caves.
 Who wouldn’t want to know more about ‘monkey and ungrateful man’ and ‘the bull and the crocodile’?  Or Dr Kieven’s key question – why does the cap figure appear so often, and only on the Majapahit temples?
The points raised are too fascinating to be lumbered by eight-point footnotes, slabs of tables best left in the library, polysyllabic prose and in-text references.
The best example of what could have been done is the magnificent Worshipping Siva and Buddha the temple art of East Java by Ann Kinney published in 2003.  This coffee table book with big color pictures and an easy-read text includes a chapter by Dr Kieven.
Unfortunately the photos in Following the Cap Figure are mainly monochrome and small, often too tiny to see the feature being discussed.
Who was Panji and why did he wear his cute cap with front and back peaks? It must have been fashion and status because like the blangkon and peci it offers no protection from sun or rain. Earlier carvings show it worn by commoners, then higher ranks.
For Dr Kieven the capped chaps are intermediaries who ‘prepare and guide the pilgrim to an encounter with the sacred’.
The mythical Prince Panji was the all East Java lad-about-forest who lost and then found his lover Princess Candrakirana, deliciously translated as Moonbeam.  Their quest for true love provides the setting for scores of stories, many erotic,  that surely delighted the Majapahit folk thriving on the Brantas River’s fertile floodplains.
These producers and traders were so cashed up that they could indulge in art, so confident they could unleash their creativity and set new directions.
Dr Kieven sees the gadabout as a Javanese cultural hero, but Panji was also a fertility symbol and the cap was linked to Tantri stories.
She defines the concept of Tantrism as ‘macrocosm and microcosm as one … the central goal is the union of the individual soul with the cosmic soul.’ Are the cap figures leading the relief reader in this direction?
Anyone fascinated by Javanese history can field test their theories against Dr Kieven’s ideas and research, and here the book’s small size is an advantage.  Apart from the later sites on Mount Penanggungan most East Java temples are accessible, often found squashed alongside kampong.
Only poorly policed regulations stand between history and another housing development or toll road.
To suggest that more is yet to be learned about the Majapahit era is not to belittle the author’s extensive work, only to say the field  has only been partially tilled, not ploughed.
Shouldn’t locals be doing this research?  It’s a question that niggles all outsiders working in the archipelago. Elsewhere Dr Kieven has written of how she’s settled these concerns:
“Later on I realized that the presentation of my expertise as a foreigner did in fact contribute and strengthen the knowledge, the pride and the respect of the Javanese people concerning their rich cultural heritage.”
Now to find the best way to spread that knowledge.
Following the Cap Figure                                                                                                                  by Lydia Kieven                                                                                                                             Published by Brill, 2013        

(First published in The Sunday Post 22 September 2013)                                                                                                                                           

Monday, September 16, 2013


Sige Dina Voges
Two halves make whole   

Good morning and welcome to Malang.  My name is Sige Dina Voges.  I’ve been a tour guide here in East Java, North Sumatra, Bali and Lombok for more than 36 years.
You’re right, my first name is Japanese, my second Indonesian and my surname Dutch, though I’m an Indonesian citizen.  You’d like to hear my story? Many people ask.
I was born in 1942, the year the Japanese invaded Java. My mother, Charlote Schneider, was a German citizen although born in Medan. She was living in Batu on the slopes of Mount Welirang.  In those days it was a hilltown retreat for the colonials.
My Dutch father wasn’t present when I arrived. He’d been arrested by the Japanese, then transported to a camp in Bandung.
Although my mother was European she was protected because Germany and Japan were allies.  Although pregnant she and her friend Peggy, who also had a husband in the camp, went by train to West Java to try and see their men. That was very brave.
My father burrowed under the wire to see her. He knew she was expecting. A day later the men were transported to Thailand.  They were sent to work on the railway between Bangkok and Burma. 
About a quarter of the 60,000 Allied prisoners of war died on the jungle track before the war ended.  Half the indentured labor – many of them Indonesians – also perished. It was known as the Death Railroad.
My mother thought my father had gone forever.  She became friendly with a Japanese officer who protected her. His name was Honda.  He left her his samurai sword and decorations when he was deported at the end of the war. That’s why I have a Japanese name, but my father was Karel Voges.
When the war ended my mother heard that her husband had died on the railway, so she married an Indonesian man from Manado. But my father had survived; it was his brother who had passed away. In the chaos it seems their names had been mixed.
When the truth became known my parents divorced. He went back to Holland, married and migrated to Australia.  I wasn’t told he existed.
After the Japanese left the guerrilla war against the Dutch began and ran for four years.  It ended when Queen Beatrix surrendered sovereignty on 27 December 1949.  That was my birthday – I was seven years old.
Those were harsh times for Europeans in Indonesia but I don’t remember any cruelty or unkindness towards me. I could speak Indonesian and Javanese, so mixed well with the other children at school even though I’m a blond blue-eyed European.
I really can’t recall any bad things happening to us, though some Europeans, including women and children, were killed by revolutionaries when the Japanese camps were opened. We kept a low profile.
My mother had no other children. She worked with Indonesian women and was well liked. She wanted to help people.  My stepfather, John Pejoh, was Indonesian.  I don’t know exactly but that must have made a difference particularly when President Soekarno told the Dutch to ‘go to hell’ and started nationalising foreign businesses.
My step father got sick and died suddenly when he was just 39.  Only then did my mother reveal that my real father was Dutch and probably alive.  But I wasn’t interested. 
I fell in love with a Manado man. I married when I was 17 and had five children. Two of my sons died but the other three are living in Jakarta and Bali.
One day I was working as a tour guide when a woman in the party queried my name. She put me in touch with a couple in Bangkok, also Voges.  Through them and the International Red Cross I was able to find my father.  He was an architect working on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
We met in Singapore between flights. I must have been in my 40s.  When my father held me for the first time something special happened. I discovered the real me. Although I had never seen him before, I immediately knew him.
I stayed with my Dad several times before he died aged 88.  My mother also died at the same age. They never met again after Bandung. My father had children, so I have another family in Australia.
My father was not an arrogant colonialist. Like many men who have been through terrible times he never spoke about his experiences in Thailand. When I divorced I took his name.
Surprisingly I still have some European habits.  I’m precise about appointments and hate jam karet (rubber time). I wear Western clothes, but eat Indonesian food, particularly Manado cuisine.
I also dream in Dutch, though I’ve been fluent in several local languages since I was a child.
I’m neither ashamed nor proud of the Dutch treatment of my country.  What’s done is done. Move on. I’m not interested in politics. I’m a Catholic, though not that serious. I believe in God. Who else can I turn to when I have to talk after all the things that have happened to me?
Like my mother I’m a woman who likes people.  I can adjust. I’m humble.  I’ve visited Holland several times.
Unfortunately Indonesia is not a truly multicultural country like Australia where even the foreign born and ethnically different can be accepted. 
Javanese are friendly, caring and communicative, not like the Dutch. Indonesians know we need each other.  Yet most see me as a Belanda (technically a Hollander, generally anyone with white skin), and rich. I’m Indonesian, alone and poor. I have no social security. 
I’m a product of the war. I’m half and half. I don’t want to retire in Holland, though I’d get health care there and I’m not well. I prefer to live with Indonesians and keep working.
This is my country. Yet I’m still considered an outsider.  That’s sad. When I die, throw my ashes in the ocean.

First published in The Jakarta Post 16 September 2013

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Achmad Djoko Santoso
Prescription for calm            
How’s a body supposed to settle after a tough day slicing cadavers? For one anatomist playing the gender (a type of metallophone) helps release the mind from the gross physical encounters.
Fair enough. People whose job puts them in touch with the dead are entitled to a little eccentricity. But how about recovering after stressful sessions treating patients with poorly articulated symptoms?
Singing a revolutionary song from the war against the Dutch, of course. This tells the story of local sympathisers hiding and feeding guerrilla fighters in the forest.
Then there’s the unwinding following the delivery of heavy duty lectures before the sharp minds of a demanding new generation of university students. A session at the kelir, the white screen where the puppets perform is prescribed.
Dr Achmad Djoko Santoso is a polymath who humbles those who can only tap keyboards.  He’s equally at ease peering through microscopes at human tissue in Brawijaya University’s medical school laboratory, as he is on the stage with a gamelan orchestra where he takes many parts, including singing in Javanese.
“Every sound in the gamelan has a meaning, a philosophy,” he said at his home in the East Java hilltown of Batu.
“I don’t mean that this applies solely in Java – it’s universal.  When we listen to the gamelan we begin to feel content. When I play I feel peaceful.
“Rice is for the body, but music is for the heart, the soul. We relax and the problems of the day start to fade. I tell this to my students as a prologue to lectures
“Music can heal. Sometimes I recommend it to my patients. (He also runs an early-morning and evening general practice from his home surgery).  Occasionally they’re surprised because they expect a prescription for pills, though most know my treatments. I often sing to children as I examine their complaints.”
Like Prince Charles he plays music to his flowers and has a lush garden to prove either the effectiveness of the therapy or the fertility of the volcanic soils. Unfortunately his aged apple trees look terminally sick.
Dr Djoko used to be known as ‘Five Ds’.  Apart from being a lecturer (dosen), a doctor and a puppet master (dalang) he was also a politician - a member of the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah (Regional Assembly) and a Dewan Pimpinan Cabang, the local Golkar party leader.
Now 63, he concentrates on music and medicine and sees the two as intertwined.
“A doctor can get close to the community,” he said. “I became interested in anatomy because it’s the basis of all medicine.
”My speciality is micro-anatomy. This helps towards an understanding of the wider world.  It relates to my music because a dalang is supposed to be knowledgeable. When I see blood I remember the red of the gamelan.”
Dr Djoko grew up in the small settlement of Jemekan near the East Java city of Kediri where his parents were farmers. Before television and the Internet the people made their own entertainment centered around the night-time shows of wayang kulit (shadow puppets).

His dalang grandfather lived next door so the young boy was raised in an environment of pure Javanese song and sound, undiluted by outside influences.
He was the eighth of nine children, and the first person from his village to enter university.  Now 15 members of his extended family have received a tertiary education, with several becoming doctors.
At the end of his long garage is a set of gamelan instruments and a wide, white screen. Here the magic unfolds. The puppets dance and proclaim, attack and retreat. The street noise disappears. The flat characters become rounded; like humans they are flawed and heroic, steadfast or wicked. 
Performances with Dr Djoko’s friends are usually held on kliwon, the last day of the Javanese week.  At Brawijaya University he’s helped form three gamelan groups though the campus doesn’t have a music department. They play at formal events.
The preparation includes donning a songkok, the Javanese batik headdress, then a black jacket and sarong.  Finally he thrusts a sheathed and heavily gilded kris (dagger) in the waistband.  Then all is ready.
Of the many wayang characters in the epic Ramayana, Dr Djoko relates best to Hanuman, the white monkey king.  He leads the army that helps Prince Rama rescue his bride Sita from the ten-headed demon, King Rawana.
“I identify with Hanuman because he is always hungry for knowledge,” Dr Djoko said. “Although he’s an animal he behaves better than humans.”
He’s also involved with ludruk, the indigenous knockabout street theater, often peppered with political satire and men dressed as women.
“I love my nation and my people, but I have to struggle for my culture,” Dr Djoko said. Although he insisted on being interviewed in Indonesian he soon lapsed into English picked up through studies abroad, including Australia.
He also relaxed with the Western pop song ‘I can’t stop loving you’.  Though no Ray Charles, his voice is a soft and pleasing baritone.
This was followed by an English commentary as puppets representing Australia and Indonesia flicked across the screen then clashed.  You already know the result, but the doctor is more teasing imp than nationalistic ogre. He now believes that the best way for the gamelan to survive is to synthesise with modern music.
“OK, I’m Javanese, you’re londo (a foreigner), yet we’re the same” he said. “Maybe I’m multicultural.”
Which is logical, for a dalang can’t be locked in a cage of ideology. Some dictionaries define the word as mastermind.  He has to be versatile, a sage of many parts, philosopher, story-teller and improviser. Leadership skills and credibility are critical.
Confuse the wayang characters and there goes the reputation, for there’s bound to be an iconoclast in the audience.
“The wayang is a synthesis of Indonesian and Hindu culture,” said Dr Djoko as he pegged the puppets back in their places. “It brings harmony and peace.  Isn’t that what the world wants?”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 September 2013)

Sunday, September 08, 2013


When green isn’t clean         

Two years ago the fish farmers of Kakas in the Minahasa highlands of North Sulawesi gave up their fight.  To stay in business they had to shift a further 150 meters into clearer water and abandon their shoreline investments.
“What else could we do?” said Petrus Lamongi (above) whose family raises goldfish.  “We’ve tried most things but with no success.  It’s such a huge problem.”
No scientific knowledge is required to understand this story of gross aquatic damage, reported to be among the most severe in Indonesia. There’ll be no dispute about the facts, no sceptics to neuter concerns, as in the global warming debate.
Microscopes aren’t needed.  Just a squint for a second is proof enough.
Lake Tondano, the once splendid sparkling center of the Republic’s most northern province, is being garrotted. The noose circling its banks is lush green and pretty pink, seductively enchanting, but eceng gondok is a rapacious coloniser and ruthless killer.
Elsewhere it’s known as a type of water hyacinth.  It came from the Amazon Basin and was exported as a decorative pond plant.  Then it escaped to become the world’s most invasive plant.
Whoever dropped a runner in Lake Tondano about 20 years ago should be tried for corrupting the environment.
The free floating perennial isn’t the only threat to the 4,300 hectare freshwater lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano, 600 meters above sea level.  Nutrients from surrounding paddy and sediment from the clear-felled hills are also doing awful damage.
In 1934 Dutch engineers measured the lake’s depth at an average 40 meters.  Forty years later it was 28 meters and two years ago just 12, according to the North Sulawesi Environmental Management Agency.
If it was just another tourist attraction then the harm would be limited.  But Lake Tondano is ‘the heart of North Sulawesi, representing the source of water supply for a large proportion of the population,’ according to a report by international consultants Mott MacDonald.
‘It is also a source of water for gravity irrigation of crops - mainly rice… it’s the center of cage-reared fish of northern Sulawesi. Equally important is its role in electric energy in a cascade of dams under the lake.’ 
Between 2003 and 2005 the lake and its surrounds were mapped and researched.  About a third of the watershed was identified at risk.
Areas of land were replanted with around 10,000 trees. Erosion banks were installed in 21 demonstration plots that included crop rotation to reduce runoff.
The long term aim was to help lift incomes and living standards for the people who rely on the lake for food and irrigation. The Minahasa Region, centered on Tondano town, has a population of more than 300,000.
Suitably impressed the Czech Republic began funding a five-year US $415,000 (Rp 4.3 billion) rehabilitation project through its development agency in association with the Minahasa Regency.  That was in late 2008 – and it couldn’t have started at a worse time.
The global economic crisis hit Europe and within two years the funds had vanished.  But not the weed.  Locals had dragged some of the huge green carpets ashore to dry but the task is Herculean.  Enthusiasm wilted when the cash flow stopped.

Small sheds were erected on the lakeside housing engine-powered shredders so the dried nitrogen-rich material could be processed into fertiliser.
The machines stand idle, quietly rusting while the wind-whipped weed laughs its way to the further bank, dropping seeds that can last up to 30 years. Rabbits are supposed to be prolific, but eceng gondok can double its population in just over a month.
Despite its criminal record, that includes harboring mosquitoes and starving the lake’s nike fish of oxygen, the weed has some redeeming qualities.  It sucks up heavy metals including arsenic so can purify polluted water, particularly from industrial sites.
The dried stems are strong, particularly when braided into ropes. Woven through wood or bamboo slats it makes robust chairs and sofas, though manufacturers say the gray material is too waxy to take paint or varnish. It can also be used to make paper.
“The main aim was to bring new cropping patterns that would benefit farmers and also introduce crops for production of bio fuels,” said the former project manager Dr Karel Peter Kucera.

“There’s a shortage of fuels for transportation and cooking, so farmers have started to cut the trees again. Bio fuels could be used to address this situation.

“We identified about 15,000 hectares that could be used to establish agroforestry plantations. We also recommended harvesting the eceng gondok and use it for production of organic fertiliser, bio gas and furniture.”

In 2011 the Environment Ministry launched a Lake Rescue Plan (GERMADAN) to save 15 lakes, including Tondano.  It is understood most attention is being given to Lake Kerinci in Central Sumatra and Lake Rawapening in Central Java.

This year nine ministries signed an agreement for ‘sustainable management’ of the lakes.  No budget was announced.

An Environment Ministry officer said regional governments had to do more to protect their lakes.  In Tondano’s case allowing the spread of fish farms was aggravating the problem becaus feed and excrement encouraged weed growth.

In April this year North Sulawesi, Governor Sinyo Sarudajang told Antara News that he was committed to handling  the problem. German experts would visit the lake “soon” and see if the weed could be used to make bio-gas. 

 However his staff said it was not known when the German team would arrive.  A circuit of the lake found no sign of control measures, and villagers claimed nothing was being done to halt the invader.

Indonesia isn’t the only victim of eceng gondok, but it seems to be one of the most passive.  Elsewhere a war is being waged with machines, chemical sprays and insects, though all have their downsides.  An infestation in Florida is now reported to be under control.

“The lake should be saved,” said Dr Kucera, “but it needs a good feasibility study and I think honest international and local investors.”

First published in The Sunday Post 8 September 20130


BTW: Putting women in their place
Let’s get this straight:  News of schoolgirl virginity tests is a splendid sign of progress.  Only an education authority that’s created a world-class learning system would have enough time left to put the carnal ahead of the cerebral.
So watch out for a flowering of PhDs and Nobel Prizewinners from Prabumulih, South Sumatra, every one intact.
Is it jealousy of young women, their vitality and power, that so arouses our leaders - or the revenge of the impotent?
In Amsterdam they’d be wearing dark glasses in De Wallen, nervously fidgeting under the red lights, but here they’re the saluted, chauffeured self-appointed custodians of other folks’ morality.  
Like Governor Rusli Habibie who’s banned women secretaries in his province’s public service.
Seeing a khaki-clad posterior makes staff focus on bottom lines beyond the accounts.  The edict is to stop affairs, - but suppose the bureaucrats are gay?  Silly thought – this is Gorontalo, not Gomorrah.
Misogyny yarns keep us from worrying about politics and poverty and we haven’t had a good one since Banda Aceh banned ladies straddling motorbikes. So thank you, provincial prudes, for revving up the debate about the proper place of women in society as decreed by us, masters of the universe.
Remember the story in the Good Book:  Sage Adam was happy in the garden reflecting on higher matters when Eva sashayed past with the apple.  And the world has gone to custard since.  If she’d just stayed in the kitchen we’d all be living in harmony, brothers in arms, not armed. 
Women are delicate creatures as every bruised husband knows well.  The term ‘fairer s*x’ relates to skin color, not justice.
 It’s up to us gentle men to suggest laws that will protect their sensitivities and ensure we are not seduced into sin. Here are some more:
Extend the straddle ban to bicycles. How does a woman cycle side-saddle? That’s not our problem.  We just pass the edicts. When it comes to s*x we just can’t help ourselves so you must control yourselves.
Back to the list: Women should be banned from Merdeka Square so they can’t see Monas.  Mockingly known as Soekarno’s last erection, the 132 meter tower thrusting into the sky is a Freudian challenge to lesser lads. 
Only men should work in fuel station forecourts pumping gas. Cars are male and should not be treated like women.  This is a straight society.
The front seats of bemos are to be reserved for men.  A woman sitting alongside a driver who constantly plays with his gear stick is clearly in a perilous situation – particularly if he withdraws and selects reverse while hurtling forward.  We won’t even mention pulling on the handbrake.
And while talking about traffic there has to be a total ban on women wearing seatbelts. It’s true the law requires belts to be used, but it’s secular and therefore wrong.  The strap goes across a woman’s, er, upper torso and separates her, er, feminine features.
This gives them prominence and causes distress to male passengers who are otherwise studying worthy texts, learned writings or playing Angry Birds.
What happens in an accident?  Thank you for asking, that shows your caring nature. Don’t worry – we men will belt up and be safe.
Some women like music.  That’s halal.  But playing a double bass is absolutely haram. The sight of a large instrument in such an intimate position can drive male concert goers into a frenzy when we came to be stimulated intellectually, not emotionally.
Another job on the banned list is piloting aircraft.  Grasping a joy stick, sitting in the cockpit and then heading for heaven is not right. It’s true angels have wings but you’ll never see one commanding a 747.
So if you hear the pilot welcome you aboard in a feminine voice, leave the aircraft immediately to preserve your honor.  Even if it’s at 10,000 meters.
I could go on, but you get the drift. Women and men are different and the latter must always be on top.  Otherwise we’ll feel insecure and start doing improper things to the economy and the running of the nation, and it will be all your fault.

(First published in The Sundayh Post 8 September 2013)


Wednesday, September 04, 2013


Beware! Retail therapy can make you sick       
This sign saying returns not accepted is illegal
The contaminated New Zealand milk products scare highlighted the need for robust consumer protection.  How does Indonesia fare? The Sunday Post investigates:
Even hardened community activists agree: Indonesia has fine consumer protection laws, as good as any found overseas.
Yet few shoppers know they’re shielded. Rights are whispered when they should be shouted. Adequate laws are policed inadequately.
Although governments try to guard consumers’ wallets and health, administrators’ efforts are hit-and-miss, and resources limited.
They are failing to explain how the system works, particularly to the most vulnerable - those with limited education and low incomes.
While supermarkets used by the middle classes get food safety spot checks, traditional unrefrigerated markets sell meat and fish in the open, threatening public health.
In short, Indonesian consumers are still babes in the market jungle, easily savaged by sharp-fanged vendors unburdened by ethics. The present system of checks and balances has passed its use-by date.
Despite a brief push in Malang to clear shelves of stale an­­d contaminated food during Ramadhan, law enforcers face an uphill task to lift shopper security to international levels.
It’s not just the government’s fault – buyers are also failing to flex their legal muscle and keep traders honest.
“Why don’t they? That’s a really easy question, and there’s a really difficult answer,” said veteran consumer advocate Indah Suksmaningsih, former chair of the Indonesian Consumers’ Foundation (YLKI) and now chair of the Southeast Asian Consumer Council.
“People are so brave to speak up in a group, but not as individuals.
“We are also very forgiving and tend to forget.  Things are getting better for consumers largely because of competition among retailers and the rising middle-class becoming more discriminating. 
“However the big issue isn’t whether people are getting value for money, but whether people are being valued, and their rights to basic needs are being met.”
If awareness is measured by the number of grievances, then Indonesia is staggering and far behind its neighbors.  YLKI’s counterpart in Kuala Lumpur reportedly gets 40 times more calls and letters.
However this masks the fact that the Malaysian office just receives complaints while the Foundation takes action, according to Indah.
“When we raised the specific issue of electricity services we got 2,000 complaints in a month,” she said.
“Indonesians get very angry if we just talk about problems and do nothing.  We’re here to help but we’re not complainers’ servants. This is not a way for people to get a lot of money out of a company.”
So how do consumers get their gripes taken seriously?  With great difficulty – and that includes negotiating thickets of acronyms to determine who does what and where.
The government publishes a handful of posters and brochures but these are not widely available, according to Soemito, head of the Malang Consumers’ Foundation (YLKM)
“I’ve lectured on the law at universities and departments, including the police,” said the former Jakarta tour guide who gave up his business to arouse and inform consumers.
“This job should be done by the government, and that includes classes in schools.  The authorities talk a lot, but it’s NATO (no action, talk only).
“Frankly speaking they are not committed.”

­­­Heading to the mall? Caveat emptor   

At first glance Indonesia’s electronic superstores look just like those overseas. Seductive rows of white washers, icy fridges and shimmering widescreen TVs.
All the big international brands are there to comfort quality-conscious consumers.  Uniformed sales people and neon-saturated showrooms complete the picture, apart from one striking addition:  A test bench, bristling with power sockets. 
Hawk-eyed customers watch while staff struggle with tightly-fitted Styrofoam moulds and shrink-wrapped plastic so the device can be checked.
Do the LED lights glow, the screen flicker and the blades turn?  OK, it’s a deal.
It’s also a clear statement of distrust.  Caveat emptor, as the lawyers say. Let the buyer beware.
In nations where strong consumer protection laws are enforced shoppers take their goods still factory-sealed.  If they malfunction, retailers refund or exchange to keep customers happy – and stay the right side of the law.
 “We have good consumer laws in Indonesia, and they’ve been in existence since 1999,” said Tulus Abadi, spokesman for the Indonesian Consumers’ Foundation (YLKI)
“However consumers aren’t well informed about their rights and how to get redress. The law isn’t being implemented well.”
The foundation is a 40-year old Jakarta-based non-government association with 22 staff.  It’s funded by donations (including from the Jakarta Governor) to ‘raise critical awareness’ of consumers’ rights and responsibilities.
It produces the magazine Konsumen edited by Tulus free of advertisements apart from community service promotions, like the World Health Organization’s pleas to ban tobacco sponsorship. It publishes reports of product tests and dangerous goods alerts, along with news about law changes.
A non-scientific survey by The Sunday Post of academic staff at a Malang tertiary institution showed most were unaware of consumer protection laws.  However all said they had returned goods at some time and been satisfied.
Ironically the well-signed office of YLKM, a local non-government consumers’ advocacy, is just opposite the campus back gate where it has been for 13 years.
YLKM director Soemito and his volunteer colleagues get up to 20 calls a day because their number is  just inside the yellow pages phone directory (under the rubric ‘YLKM’ though there’s no indicator of the meaning).
 However only five per cent follow through with formal complaints.
Consumers’ main concerns are with electricity supplier PLN, the banks and financial services. Soemito said borrowers often failed to read the small print – or if they did the meaning wasn’t clear.
Imposts, like charges for early loan repayments, riled customers.  “There’s little point in approaching lawyers,” he said.  “Few understand the law or have bothered to read it.”
Under the 1999 Consumers’ Rights legislation every district (there are more than 430) should have a consumer’s dispute resolution center (BPSK).  So far almost 170 have been established across the archipelago.
Where strong consumer laws operate retailers exercise caution when buying from wholesalers.  Handling dud goods is costly and damages reputation.
That’s not a concern where market kiosks sell cheap goods cheaply.  In the crowded caverns where bargain hunters stalk and scammers lurk the dangers of being ripped off are greatest.
These are also the places where NO RETURN signs thrive, though the photos in this story were shot in mainstreet stores.  Tulus said such notices are against the law.  So is the practise of marking up goods, then discounting the higher price in a supposed sale.
Another trick seen in an electronic goods store is labelling with two tags.  Buyers who pay the low sum have to take faulty goods back to the agent for repairs or exchange.   
Postage to a distant factory may not be worth the cost and hassle.  For a premium the shop will handle returns.
Black goods are also a problem, though easily spotted.  Panasanic radios and Tashiba TVs are obvious frauds, but careless buyers can be blinded to the difference by low price tags.
Shops changing use-by-dates, particularly on imported goods, is another unscrupulous dealers’ tactic.  Any tampering with the date stamp should alert shoppers to be cautious.
“Despite these and other problems the bigger nation-wide stores are starting to comply with the law,” said Tulus.  “It’s a slow process that could be accelerated by buyers avoiding shops that sell low quality goods – and demanding their rights when things go wrong.”
Another reason for few complaints may be the well-publicised treatment given to Tangerang housewife Prita Mulyasari, jailed in 2009 for defamation after criticising a medical service.
The YLKI says complainants should first approach the store manager.  Be clear about the problem and keep receipts and packaging.  If no action, send a letter saying if unresolved within seven days the matter will be referred to the YLKI.
If that doesn’t work the next step is the BPSK dispute resolution center.  The one in Malang handled just 34 complaints last year (27 so far this year) and claims a 90 per cent success rate.
 In January the Trade Ministry set up a national on-line system for disgruntled consumers ( In July 60 complaints were recorded and apparently resolved.  Its website logo has a bespectacled kangaroo urging citizens to be ‘thorough before buying’. Calls to the Jakarta office to check figures went unanswered.
Tulus said YLKI welcomed the initiative though he said it was still early days to judge its effectiveness. 
Head offices of the three major national retailers were contacted by phone and e-mail for their policies on consumers’ rights, PT Matahari which runs a department store of the same name and the Hypermart supermarkets did not reply.
Neither did the PT Hero Group that has supermarkets Hero and Giant. However individual store managers confirmed refunds and exchanges were available if customers returned goods within a few days.  There were no notices seen advertising this policy.
The supermarket PT Carrefour also failed to reply but does display large signs near checkouts claiming ‘100 per cent refunds’ for intact goods, excluding underwear, returned with invoice within seven days.
The Indonesian Retail Merchants’ Association (APRINDO) was invited to comment on its advice to members regarding consumers’ rights but did not respond.

The burning of the beef

It looked like another staged media stunt when a government hit squad forced the branch of a major national supermarket to torch more than 20 kilos of prime meat contaminated with maggots while The Sunday Post was present.
Two search and destroy teams, each of seven public servants from public order, health, pharmacy and agriculture were led by Yenny Mariati of Malang’s Consumer Protection Department.
Staff were mustered in a car park.  They were given secret instructions and the list of targets only when ready to roll.  The exercise appeared genuine.
“This is routine before Idul Fitri and Christmas,” said Yenny. “We make random checks and shops aren’t alerted.”
Yet a few streets away beef of questionable ancestry was being chopped on a roadside block and fish gutted on the floor of a market where the poor shop. Ms Hygiene was noticeably absent.
“We’d like to do more, but I have only five staff,” said Yenny.
“Not good enough,” countered Ary Widy Hartuno, a volunteer with consumer advocacy group YLKM who watched the cremation with a ho-hum air.  “This sort of action should be happening all the time.
“We get complaints and forward them, but not all are pursued by officials They need to be tougher, proactive and confiscate more.  Of course they should have extra staff.
“At the same time we must be aware of bad buyers trying to cheat shops.  We’ve had examples of people seeking to return goods like laptops that have been altered or parts taken.” 

Consumer watchdogs Ary Widy Hartuno (left) and Soemito
Ary, a public servant in an unrelated department, said he fought a protracted battle with PLN (the State electricity supplier) overcharging for power installation and tardy services.
He eventually won and got compensation, but the experience was so tortuous he decided to campaign for consumers’ rights, joining YLKM to prod bureaucrats into effective refereeing.
“PLN is a monopoly and government owned,” he said.  “That makes many officials think they don’t have to treat their customers properly.  That’s clearly wrong.”
Earlier the khaki –clad inspectors had swooped on a suburban mini-mart and seized jams, biscuits, jellies, flour  and baby food.  Two plainclothes policemen were present in case of trouble, but startled shop owner I Wayan Sudirya offered no resistance.

Shop owner I Wayan Sudirya (white T shirt) is forced to destroy goods as public service inspectors watch

“I’m not angry – they’re just doing their duty,” he said as the bureaucrats made him empty jars and rip up packets, then sign a document confirming the destruction. 
“Suppliers have been dumping old stock, and I’ll take this up with them.  I don’t have enough staff to check every item.”
Titik Mujiati of Malang BPSK, who has been ransacking shelves for five years so customers aren’t put at risk, said offences committed included incorrect or no labelling, and out-of-date merchandise.
She said her forays tended to net the same quantity and type of foods every time – indicating that some retailers reckon the chances of getting caught are slim so taking risks worthwhile.
“Perhaps I’ve been a little bit stupid,” said Wayan, a grocer for 23 years.  “I must be more careful in the future.”
The law says shoppers have rights to:
  • Convenience, safety and security.
  • Quality goods and services with warranties.
  • Clear, correct and factual information.
  •  Consumer education.
  • Be treated equally and truthfully.
  • Compensation or replacement if goods don’t match description or fail.
First published in The Sunday Post 18 August 2013
The YLKI website is