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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Endah Setyaningsih

Encountering Indonesia’s realities   


In her mid 20s Endah Setyaningsih took a leap into the unknown.

The University of Indonesia (UI) graduate had a good well-paid job, a permanent position with a private company using the knowledge she’d gained getting a degree in public health.

She had friends and family in Jakarta, the city where she’d lived for most of her comfortable life.  Why risk it all on overseas education, and then join a non-government organization (NGO) on a remote and undeveloped island where conditions were rough and living primitive?

“I wasn’t confident,” she said. “I was scared. “I thought about it for a long time.  I just knew that working for the community was something I had to do, but till then I’d never had the courage.

“My mother gave her blessing though she had many concerns, including that I was single. (Her father had passed away.) 

“I’d been unemployed for three months after first graduating, so I knew about being jobless.  I had no clear plan. My bosses, friends and family thought I was crazy.”

Though not now.  Following a Masters degree in Australia she spent almost four years monitoring health needs and evaluating remedial programs on Nias, the quake-smashed island 125 kilometers off North Sumatra’s west coast.

Last year Endah was invited by the business and government funded NGO Asia-NZ Foundation to join its Young Leaders’ Network, giving inspirational lectures and encouraging others to take up community service.

Now she’s a PhD scholarship student at the Victoria University of Wellington, working on ways to motivate midwives and improve the survival of mothers and babies.  Her fieldwork is likely to be in Sumbawa in East Nusa Tenggara.

When Endah graduates she plans to work with the United Nations or an NGO, developing policies to stop babies dying.

“Indonesia still has a bad record among ASEAN nations,” she said. “Progress is being made, though I don’t think we’ll meet the Millennium Development Goals of reducing child mortality by two thirds by 2015. There’s still so much to do.

(The young child mortality rate in Indonesia is around 29 deaths per 1000 births according to the World Health Organization.  In most developed countries it’s below five.)

“A doctor’s job is to work with the person to cure sickness.  A public health officer’s task is to get rid of the problems that create the disease.”

Although Endah constantly cites luck as being significant in her success and downplays her achievements, she conceded that hard work has been another essential factor along with family support.

As a teenager she wanted to be a lawyer and was attracted to UI mainly to be involved with the university’s traditional dance group. She studied public health only because she had vague and unformed ideas about community service. Slowly these began to take shape.

“I realized something was not right in society and I wanted to be part of the change,” she said. 

“My parents worked for the government and my family is liberal. We were encouraged to do what we wanted and told that religion was a personal choice.  So I’m a Muslim but I have a Protestant sister and a Catholic brother.

“My grandfather’s philosophy was simple: Be nice to each other – because everything else is secondary”.

After studying she joined SurfAid International, a humanitarian NGO started by New Zealander Dave Jenkins.  In 1999 the Singapore-based doctor was holidaying on a yacht in the Mentawi Islands when he encountered malnutrition, deep-seated poverty and easily preventable disease in coastal villages.

He gathered a few mates to register SurfAid, and then started raising funds from Western surfers to buy mosquito nets and provide basic health care. The organization has since expanded and now runs multiple projects.

Nias was brutally damaged by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed 155 and shredded coastal communities.  Three months later a major earthquake took 800 lives, injured 2,000 and left many thousands homeless. 

Endah often had to walk for hours to reach villages because the interior roads were too rough to take vehicles.  At other times she slept in boats.

“As an Indonesian living in Jakarta I had absolutely no idea how bad the situation was for so many people,” she said. “Now I consider myself lucky because my eyes have been opened to see other sides of my homeland.

“When I arrived in Nias I was shocked.  In the city we’d been talking about issues like globalization and free trade, yet here were villages without running water and toilets, where the people had little schooling and didn’t speak Indonesian.

“I felt inadequate because there was so much I couldn’t do.  I had to adapt and learn the local languages. Although the infrastructure has been repaired and the situation is almost back to normal, the psychological damage remains.

“The experience made me think: ‘I’m lucky enough to be strong, educated and enjoy a good life.  Why don’t others have the same opportunities?’

“Apart from poverty, the problems in such areas include a lack of resources, proper hygiene and knowledge about good health, the key to a better life.”

In Wellington Endah lives alone in a student flat and when not studying swims in the ocean and tramps the hills surrounding the NZ capital.  She mixes with locals to improve her language and cultural skills and follows the outdoor life favored by New Zealanders rather than the mall culture of Jakarta.

During the Christmas break she returned home, surprised to find her friends happy with her new life.

“I didn’t realise that I could motivate others,” she said. “Make the most of your opportunities. If you work hard and have a dream you can be what you want to be. Without realising it you will start to walk in that direction.

“Compared to others I have only done a little for the community. I know I have to do much more.

“Thank you for interviewing me – I hope my story can be useful for others.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 February 2014)

Sunday, February 16, 2014


By the way: 

The RAID - Redemption

Good morning delegates. Welcome to the committee formed to Respond to Australia’s Incursion Demeanor, which we’ll now call the RAID. I’ve asked Joe Taslim to be our technical advisor and take the minutes.

As you know our southern neighbors have been behaving like the arrogant colonial godless sons of convicts posturing as deputy sheriffs that we all know they are.

(Nods all round).

We’ve shown our measured displeasure by withdrawing our ambassador.  Even if we want to send him back we can’t because the road to the airport is flooded.

They won’t send their envoy home because he comes from Perth.  He’s waiting till the heat waves have passed.

Anyway, enough gossip. First item on the agenda – how to make Australia take us seriously – yes, Minister?

Thank you, Madame Chair:  I suggest we give them smartphones with GPS apps for their navy.  Then they can find our maritime borders.

… and we can eavesdrop Tony Abbott’s wife.  But do we have the money?

We’ll make them pay for it.  They give us more than half a billion dollars a year for aid projects like schools in Nusa Tenggara.  We can siphon off some of the cash.

Haven’t we done so already?  Anyway, seems a fine idea.  My cousin’s a Samsung agent – I’ll talk to him for a morning price.  (Sends SMS) Yes, delegate.

Order, order! I don’t think we should let this get out of hand. Let’s just urge the President to call his best friend.

He’s tried, but Abbott won’t pick up the phone. Perhaps it doesn’t work.  Along with his navy’s GPS. We could send him one. I’ll chat to my cousin. (Sends SMS)

Maybe the Australian Prime Minister has been attacked by black magic, like our President.

Tell him to pray.

But he’s a Catholic.

Tell him to pray for a conversion.

Here’s another one: Let’s re-arrest Schapelle Corby – that’ll turn their media feral.

Aren’t they already?

Excuse me Madame Chair; I think it’s time to talk tough.  First we ban visas on arrival for all Australian tourists. 

Treat them like they treat us. Make them fill in a 14-page form in Indonesian, apply in person in Canberra and pay ten times the price.  No Internet applications allowed.

Great thinking – let’s go further and include immigration arrival and customs forms – all in Indonesian! Make them learn our words, like demokrasi, teknologi, bisnis - we’ll become a world language leader yet.

Profile them – anyone tall, white and blue-eyed needs to be detained!  And sniffed by a quarantine dog.

Do we have any dogs?

The Balinese do.

But they’ve got rabies.

Even better.

Hang on friends, I like what I’m hearing, but suppose they bypass Bali and head for Phuket?  Think how much we’ll lose in tax on Bintang sales.

Who cares?  It’s like banning exports of unprocessed ores.  OK, thousands will lose their jobs and the economy will crash but we’ll teach those greedy multinationals that we’re not a banana republic.

How about this: We bring back all those students in Australia and make them go to our schools and universities. That’ll cripple Australia’s education industry and boost our own …

What? No way!  My daughter’s in Melbourne on an Australian scholarship. I don’t want her coming back until she’s got a foreign husba … I mean, qualification.

Order, order!  I’ve got a message here from the TNI – they’re going to send the fleet into the Arafura Sea, provided they can get fuel.

AusAID can pay.  Do they have GPS sets?  I’ll talk to my cousin. (Sends SMS)

Excuse me again - I hear the Australians have bought lifeboats to send asylum seekers back to our shores.  What do we think about that?

They’re trying to corrupt us.  Let’s reflag them with the red and white, the boats, I mean, not the refugees. Fill them with  pencak silat fighters, and return to sender.  That’ll shake them up and shows we’re honest.   OK with you Joe? Is Iko Uwais free?

Delegates, thank you for your inputs.  I think we now have the basis for a policy.  We’ll have it ready once the elections are over. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 February 2014)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


PT Schapelle: Making crime pay                                     

First, an apology to the Indonesian people.

Regret for the way some sections of the Australian media are giving the impression that paroled prisoner Schapelle Corby, 36, is a heroine deserving fame and worthy of respect. 

She’s not a splendid athlete who’s won gold at the Sochi Winter Olympics after years of gruelling training. Nor is she a humanitarian aid worker awarded for rescuing refugees. 

Goodness, she’s not even a sinetron star heading for another divorce, just one more convicted drug smuggler with no known laudable qualities. Hardly the ideal role model most families want for their daughters.

Yet after almost ten years inside Bali’s Kerobokan jail for trying to import more than four kilos of marihuana into Indonesia, the high school dropout reportedly stands to collect up to AUD $3 million (Rp 32 billion). The windfall for exclusive interviews with women’s magazines and tabloid television programs.

This is twice the amount she’d have got by winning a Nobel Prize after a lifetime jiggling test tubes in a cramped laboratory seeking a cure for cancer.

At Rp 3.2 billion for every year behind bars it’s also more than double the salary of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.  While she marked time he ran the world’s fourth most populous nation.

Even if Corby had stayed out of strife, got some qualifications and moved beyond working as a part-time  ‘beauty therapist’ in Queensland, it would have taken the rest of her adult life to garner such money.

No one would wish to be banged up in the overcrowded Hotel K with people you’d never want to meet again. There are reports she suffered mentally, as do many prisoners who get no compensation for their misery.

If Corby stays in Bali she’ll probably keep the cash.  Australia has proceeds of crime legislation to stop prisoners making money from their misdeeds, but similar laws don’t exist in Indonesia.

If this indicates a society with no appetite for criminals’ sob stories then Indonesia is far more mature than its southern neighbor.

Not all Australian journalists are slathering to learn about Corby’s nasi goreng diet and encounters with cockroaches, both six and two-legged. Having continually claimed innocence, it’s unlikely the Ganja Queen will now confess to being a drug runner and dob in her gang.  Now that would be a real scoop.

Serious commentators (those who don’t have cheque books) have been using Corby’s parole as an opportunity to take a hard look at Australia’s relationship with its northern neighbor and the national obsession with the story.

Compare the media’s response towards that of another Australian, Renae Lawrence. She’s Corby’s age, also got 20 years for carrying drugs into Bali, but gets little attention. 

On the surface the former panel beater seems more deserving of concern because of her tough childhood in an allegedly dysfunctional family.

When she was arrested her father told reporters that Lawrence was ‘gullible, na├»ve and bloody stupid (though) not a bad kid’ who got caught up with the wrong crowd.

Maybe – but to do victimhood well it helps to be telegenic. The plain-faced lesbian lacks the feminine figure of her better-groomed cellmate, a woman oozing innocence.  Who needs alibis when you’ve got glittering blue eyes?

Corby looks like the standard Aussie surf-chick preening at Ngurah Rai’s baggage carousel, thirsting for a good time on paradise island, ready to let it all hang out. Even her name evokes mystery; who’d show interest in a Mabel or Enid?

The commentariat observes Corby represents every Aussie’s daughter, sister or girlfriend, an innocent abroad unaware (or unconcerned) that foreign nations have different laws. But for the grace of God there goes someone we know.

In any case, so the thinking runs, ‘everyone knows’ Indonesian authorities are lax and corrupt, more likely to focus on a blonde’s cleavage than her boogie board. 

Corby’s sentencing, streamed live on TV, a practice not allowed in Australian courts, opened the rusty can of racism.  The Indonesian judges were abused and the legal process shamefully slammed because proceedings weren’t in English.

Lobby groups convinced of Corby’s innocence have campaigned with savage intensity. Supporters and conspiracy theorists argue no one would take marihuana to Bali when it’s far cheaper than in Australia.  They claim criminal baggage handlers put the drug in Corby’s bag, and that this evidence was ignored for sinister reasons.

Despite this, polls show most Australians now think the Indonesian court probably got the verdict right but the sentence wrong.

There have been several books on the Corby case and now a telemovie. Her family has scored some wins against the media, getting handsome payouts for copyright infringements and defamation.

There’s no sign PT Schapelle will be out of business anytime soon, meaning less space for stories of worth that impact the lives of millions.


(First published in The Jakarta Post, 11 February 2013)


Secrets of the kampong 


The kampong is the place foreigners seldom go without good reason and a local guide, though not because of violence.

The dark and pokey lanes, houses leaning into, over and against each other, the claustrophobia all combine to make those who value space feel unwelcome. 

To ignorant Westerners, kampongs seem to be the imagined dens of Eastern vice. For others, who only glimpse them in passing, the statue-flanked gateways celebrating freedom fighters and Pancasila pledges hint of robust communities deep within, united by nationalism and a shared history.

What happens beyond is a mystery for many, though not for Robbie Peters who spent a year in Dinoyo, a kampong of 10,000 on the flank of Surabaya’s ironically named Kali Mas (Gold River).  Maybe it glittered once; now it’s better known as Kali Coca Cola.

The Australian academic picked an ideal time to start his research as major social change erupted across the nation.

Fine for him, not the locals. The rupiah dived, prices rocketed.  Jobs vanished, and when they resurfaced they were different.

Fortress Soeharto was breached. There was violence in the streets.  For a while it seemed that no one could hold the country together. The new word was krismon, short for krisis moneter, no translation needed.

But Indonesia didn’t break down like Egypt or crash like Syria.  The gears grated, the engine coughed, but democracy kept edging forward and stayed on the road – a modern miracle of social change insufficiently acknowledged.

The streetscape scars remain.  The defining image of the Republic’s second largest city has been the rusting skeletons of high-rise developments where work abruptly halted when the banks went bust.

Now new glitzy hotels and air-conditioned malls are opening, giving short-term visitors the confidence to report modernity and prosperity despite the smog and traffic chaos.

The observers might be at ease with spreadsheets but know nothing about the claustrophobic kampongs where ordinary folk live and toil in their sprawling ‘informal industrial estates.’

Dr Peters does and it’s a pity that his Surabaya, 1945-2010 has such a bland
title and confusing cover, because this is more than a dissertation spruced up to earn a place on shop shelves.

Although the author has produced a useful book that goes beyond its narrow title to provide a broader picture of the nation’s development, there are flaws.

Many monochrome photos are so bland they hardly justify inclusion.  The in-text references annoy because they work like speed bumps. Even the most banal quote has been attributed. Right for a thesis, wrong for a book.

This isn’t just about Dinoyo; the micro is the macro. Through the kampong we see the nation. Developers crash, the powerless are crippled, then crushed again. Markets burn, malls rise.  The military triumphs, the masses are cowed – but just for a while.

The outside view is of an industrious and pious society.  That’s true, but the inside story includes corrupt administrators, exploiters, gamblers, prostitutes, drug-takers and the seriously slimy.  Then there’s the poor – around 40 per cent during krismon.

Surabaya is a great place for adventure, but a tough town to love.  It’s rough, messy, wretchedly hot, flat and featureless.  From the air the saw-tooth roofs of factories spread to the horizon.  At ground level the choked roads are so bereft of landmarks it’s easy to get lost.

Decay squats alongside development, much of it crass. But behind the fences of graffiti and rust are frangipani-shaded graveyards and mosques where ancient beliefs thrive.

On the adjacent boulevards the solid homes of the former colonialists now house top bureaucrats and business people who believe they run the city.

Surabaya has a heart and it beats in places like Dinoyo where Javanese and Madurese live so closely there’s no space left for the intolerant.  Proximity has created character and togetherness has molded society. 

In rows of houses with no backyards and windows opening straight into alleyways you can touch the wall opposite. One person’s dirty washing is everyone’s business.

Through Dr Peters’ observations, trawling of papers past and profiles of people like Rukun, the one-time guerrilla fighter in the war against the Dutch, we get insights into the lives of the wong kecil (ordinary folk) that continue to shape modern Indonesia. 

Rukun became a factory worker then a suspect communist during the 1965 post coup d’etat and went on the run.

Betrayed by other residents he was tortured and ‘electrocuted’, an editing error that should have been picked up by this scholarly publisher, for Rukun survived his ordeal to become a source for much history.

A key informant for Dr Peters was town planner Johan Silas who has been a major influence in cleaning up Surabaya, popular for advocating preservation of kampongs when the military administrators wanted demolition.

The men in uniforms sought control yet remained fearful of the masses that could easily over-run authority should their anger be aroused or despair become intolerable.

Dinoyo’s latest shift is to a suburb of boarding houses for workers in nearby industries.  Incompetent governments continue to seek the upper hand. Now toll road development threatens. 

Will the kampongs survive? They’ll evolve and have already started to go vertical.  Indonesians, with their splendid quality of stoic resistance need people and see safety in numbers.  That’s something few Westerners understand – unless they read this book.

Surabaya, 1945 – 2010 by Robbie Peters
NUS Press Singapore 2013

(Review first published in The Jakarta Post 10 February 2014)