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

Friday, April 25, 2014


Book me a future                                          
Today (23 April) is UNESCO World Book Day.  Duncan Graham reports from Yogyakarta on a community initiative to encourage reading,

When university administrator Heny Wardatur Rohmah was pregnant with her first child she went into debt.
Not to buy maternity gear or baby clothes, but books.  “I believed that if I read aloud to my unborn child then she would also develop a love of reading,” Heny said. “I wanted her to be clever.”
She is, most certainly.  Syakiri Divany Wijaya (Diva), now 11, is an exceptional child, known locally as Ratu Buku (the Book Queen).  She could read by age three, is a chess champion and public storyteller with a remarkable handle on English.
Her sister Nayahani Imara Wijaya (Naya), 7, is also smart and equally curious.
Whether the girls could hear their Mom’s voice while in the womb is a matter for medical science to ponder.  What’s not in doubt is the environment in which they’ve been raised. 
The girls’ parents started a free local library in a room at the back of their building materials store in the village of Tegal Manding, about 14 kilometers from Yogyakarta.
It proved so popular that it attracted government support.  NGOs and corporates keen to discharge their community service responsibilities on a worthy cause also got involved by donating books and equipment.
Now the original book room has expanded sideways and upwards to create areas for reading and playing games, principally chess.  Outside is a red tree house where individualistic kids can read in peace and let their imaginations soar.
Hanging from a branch is a sturdy swing for those who can’t sit still while their heads are in a book.
Below is a motorbike-powered van that tours kampongs and villages.  The outfit was donated by a company to the local government for use during the 2010 Mount Merapi eruption, then repainted and fitted out as a mobile library.
This is Mata Aksara (Seeing Letters) and it’s the creation of Diva’s father Nuradi Indra Wiyaya (Adi) and his uncle Badruddin, a man with a talent for inventing and making educational toys and puzzles.
“As a family we’ve always been keen on reading, and we wanted to share our enthusiasm,” said Adi, who studied child psychology at university.
“My father Ki Wahyu Pratista, who used to teach in  a madrasah (Islamic school) wrote a book on philosophy and also helps as a library volunteer.
“Neighbors liked the idea and started coming in to read and borrow. The interest grew and here we are spending much of our time on the project.”
Once a week he drives the motorbike to six villages and asks what sort of books they want.  In one case this has had an astonishing economic impact. (See sidebar)
The 4,000 volume collection is eclectic.  There are giant picture books designed for class reading and given by the US-supported Asia Foundation, news magazines donated by journalists, comics from Japan, an encyclopaedia and a wealth of other material.
There’s even a critical analysis of Karl Marx’s writings by Jesuit Franz Magnis-Suseno. This sits alongside biographies of first President Soekarno, his deputy Mohammad Hatta and shelves full of volumes on other national and international famous names.
“I like reading about these people,” said Diva. “One of my heroes is Marie Curie (the Polish / French physicist and first woman to win a Nobel Prize), and Leonardo da Vinci (the 15th century Italian polymath).
“I also enjoy legends and funny stories, but I don’t like comics because there are too may pictures. However my friends want to hear ghost stories, so that’s what I have to read to them.”
Also in the library is a separate room with two computers linked to the Internet and a TV monitor. Rules prohibit watching anything other than documentaries on DVDs.
Adi said he gets frustrated by official attitudes towards reading. He rejects the idea that Indonesians put money for food before books, pointing out the high uptake of costly cellphones, even among the poor.
When Mata Aksara started to expand Adi’s friends thought he was wasting his time and should concentrate on selling cement and loading lumber.
“Only a minority like books, yet these are the key to education and our future,” he said. “They are so important, yet so ignored.  Too many think libraries are for the elite but we’re showing they’re for everyone.
“Orde Baru (Soeharto’s New Order administration) stopped the development of reading habits through tight censorship and printing restrictions. Now we have to catch up.
“Free libraries do work in Indonesia – we’ve only lost about 50 books, and what does that matter?  If they’re stolen it means they’ re being used. I hope that in the future everyone will be able to have books in their homes.”
Said Diva: “I don’t know what I want to be – it changes every day.  Sometimes a doctor, maybe an archaeologist.” Then she went back to her book.
(Breakout One)
Comic start
Indonesian literature graduate, film maker, blogger, author and self-confessed impulsive book buyer Lutfi Retno Yahyudyanti, 30, came across Mata Aksara through a radio program about books and her book club.  Her day job  is communications manager with an NGO concerned with forestry.
To justify her love of books she quotes a verse from the Koran: ‘Read, in the name of your Lord who created.’
“Some parents prohibit their children from reading anything other than  text books because they think literature will distract from schooling,” she said.
“I tell my radio listeners that the culture of reading has to start early, but not with serious books.
“When I was young I enjoyed comics, even against my parents’ wishes, but I grew out of them.  Now I’ve moved on and read a vast number of topics. I read to learn how the world works.”
(Breakout Two)
Knowledge is profit
The well-paved roads of the Central Java village of Nglebeng Margorejo Tempel are flanked by low stone walls.  Without them the dense salak palms, which already arch across the lane, would surely take over like some mutant science fiction plant. 
The people wouldn’t be able to flee and the vicious thorns would shred their flesh.
Salak, also known as snake fruit because of its scaly brown husk, has long been grown in villages around Yogyakarta.
When the Mata Aksara mobile library first visited Nglebeng several years ago the community asked for books on plant breeding and organic farming.
According to Adi the village has since stopped using artificial fertilizers in favor of organics and now harvests three times a year instead of two.  Growers have also developed a variety called salak madu (honey snake fruit) that sells at a premium.
“All this came about because the people started reading books that gave them information appropriate to their needs,” he said.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 April 2014)

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Obeying the Commandments
Twenty minutes before pray-off the pews were full. Disappointed worshippers in their best heels tottered down the aisles as though a catwalk, hoping the early-birds who’d captured much space might share their good fortune. Few obliged.
The warm-up act featured a sextet in blazers blue – the theme colour for this year’s Good Friday service.  They sang superbly, as did a soaring soprano, a Kate Cambridge dressalike.  On the ceiling images of arrows and stars swirled.  If the congregation hadn’t been so sober and subdued it could have been a nightclub.
Instead it was the Gereja Kristen Indonesia, a major Protestant church in Malang.  The multitudes had come to remember the cruel death of a good man, and be reminded of the ageless lesson: Intolerance begets hate which begets violence which begets war. 
Everyone could participate.  Giant TV screens carried the message and opportunities to note what friends and neighbours were wearing, for a crane camera swooped and soared above the crowd.
This is what it must be like in the Yemen or Afghanistan. The drones circle high like vultures; their lenses focused for signs of AK-47s or improvised explosive devices.  Should a hellfire missile be launched – or should the forgiving joystick god in Langley let the drone Passover?
But here in church the almighty surveillance controller could have spotted only backsliders reading comics instead of Bibles, or fashion faux-pas, like crucifixes that don’t match shoes.
 Islam does public worship better, insisting women wear sajadah, the same white envelope and stay at the back.  The men, who make the rules, can kneel at the front in their smartest sarongs and colourful caps.
Then the readings. The preacher urged his flock to follow the text, a good excuse to power up smartphones and check the Bible app along with Facebook.  Soon we’ll procession an electronic device to the pulpit.  There’s a precedent: Moses brought down the commandments on tablets.
Suddenly a crash and much shouting.  Had terrorists struck?  The police were supposed to be on duty but they were in a huddle far from the church gates, presumably working out who to shake down.  There’d be no shortage of victims; Easter brings out the finest European limos, and many would have full ashtrays or other defects demanding fines.
Fortunately the noisemakers were not modern fanatics bent on persecuting a minority faith, but their counterparts from two millennia past.  The glistening helmets shook as soldiers flogged a brutalised Christ down the aisle to face his temporal judge; a proud Pontius Pilate presciently dressed in a tunic featuring a crown and cross.
The lashed Jesus crashed convincingly on the plywood stage, and was then dragged away. Though not before we witnessed in shock and awe his ripped and ragged clothing, his gore-splashed pain-wracked features - though those who hath eyes to see noticed he was wearing glasses.
Spectacular – but attention was rapidly re-focussed on the altar where the screens flashed scenes of Calvary at sunset and cataclysm worthy of a Russell Crowe movie.  Somewhere must have been the message from the nailed man – to forgive our enemies – though it could have been swamped by the special effects.
The logistics involved in Communion were handled impressively. If the congregation had tried to come to the priest there would have been a traffic jam equalling those outside and we’d have to call back the centurions. 
Trays of tiny white bread cubes were passed among folk whose diet is rice.  Drain cleaner masquerading as wine was served in thumbnail plastic cups to people who live in an alcohol-free culture.
All this dispensing and gathering was done while the orchestra played and choir sang, so passed pleasantly enough. Also passed was the peace, though without eye contact or handshake warmth.
After two hours Jesus had been laid in his cave grave and it was all over for three days. There was a rush to the exits; worshippers woke their Muslim drivers and drove away in a blast of horns, annoyed at the delays, hungry and tired.
We had supped together.  We had experienced the transubstantiation. We’d remembered the awful persecution and death of a man who had tried to change the world through love.  But we returned to the darkness as we had come; strangers all.


Nosey neighbors and the Indonesian voice  

Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni (Heni) is 38 and not yet married.  So what?  That’s hardly a knock-out issue worthy of an opening line.
Except that Heni, like many Indonesian singles, still lives at home.  She’s not a lesbian.  Her mother asked, concerned that might explain her daughter’s apparent disinterest in men.
And not just her Mom.  The family, neighbors, friends – just about everyone is concerned about Heni’s marital status as the barren 40s approaches.
So what’s a gal gotta do when faced with such outrageous personal intrusions?  Get mad, get even? If you’re Heni you make a film.
“It will be called 30 Something and will focus on my life,” she said.  “It’s going to be funny and a little bitter. The pressures I’m under are common for Indonesian women, particularly in small communities.  I hope it will help me better understand our culture.
“My Mom thinks that if I wed I’ll be safe, but I know that’s no guarantee.  She tells me: ‘I don’t care who – just marry before I die’.
“I appreciate her concern and that of the neighbors.  I don’t want to hurt them.  They’re good people, though like all Indonesians, nosey. I’ve already broken many cultural rules, like coming home late which arouses suspicion.
“You’ll only find me in the malls if the weather’s hot and I need to cool.  I prefer angkringan (eating cheap food and sitting on the sidewalk.)  I can live frugally.  My life is borderless.
“I know what I’m doing. I’m not a prostitute or doing drugs, I’m working as a film maker.  I want to live my life my way. I have many men friends, but marriage is not my priority.”
Instead her prime interest is shooting documentaries and running the now well-established Yogyakarta Documentary Film Festival, turning 13 this December.
What could be finer for a film fanatic than watching, criticising and selecting the nation’s best creative work?  The downside is that the genre has still to find clear focus in the Republic.
“There are many problems, including that documentaries are seen as patriotic and nationalistic government propaganda” she said. “That’s what we had to watch during the Orde Baru era when I grew up.
(The government-sponsored docudrama Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI  (The Treachery of the Communists) was compulsory viewing for school children till 1998 when President Soeharto lost power.)
“The standard of entries is getting better but it’s a slow process. Directors’ styles remain conventional, often imitating overseas trends, so I hold workshops to encourage film makers’ creativity.
“Schools have the ability to show films but that’s not on the curriculum.  My dream is to change that situation – we need to start with the young.
“The other concern is screening.  We don’t have a tradition of art-house movie theaters.  Selection and distribution are dominated by the Cineplex 21 chain, the biggest in the country. We have to pay to get them to show our work.
“Television stations aren’t willing to buy documentaries, arguing that screenings give crew and cast exposures so that should be enough. So far there’s been no interest in crowd funding.
“You can’t make a living making documentaries in this country.  That’s the reality.  I fund my films through working as a researcher and other jobs.  I can make US$ 1000 (RP11.5 million) go a long way.
“I try to get my films shown at festivals overseas where they are given respect.  Then people in Indonesia start to pay attention. I don’t submit them for censorship.”
Heni grew up in Yogya, the daughter of a college administrator.  She started to study political science at the University of Gadjah Mada but found little connection between the theories she was being taught and the life she saw around her, so dropped out.
She’s a self-taught film maker who has won four awards. Her 90-minute film, Denok and Gareng, tells the story of a courageous couple trying their hand at pig farming after years of street living.
Janji Jabrik (Jabrik’s Promise) features a young man struggling with an HIV infection from using dirty needles.  While his friends rapidly perish from AIDS he stoically tries to stay alive for his wife and child. Jabrik has since died.
Pengabar Kematian (The Herald of Death) is about a man who uses a trumpet in a village to announce the death of residents instead of broadcasting the news through the mosque’s loudspeakers.  He does this to give the passing a more personal touch.
Heni found these and other stories while working for a community health clinic in Yogyakarta.  She has also helped deaf people make a film and is now working on a feature about villagers’ beliefs in mountain spirits.
Her skills have been refined through an internship with the non-profit media arts organization Women Make Movies in New York.
 Last year she was one of two Indonesian women given the inaugural John Darling Fellowship (named after the late Bali-based Australian director) to attend a post-graduate course at the Australian National University called Thinking with a Video Camera.  She has also been supported by the German cultural organization the Goethe Institute and attended the Berlinale film festival.
“I’m not into poverty porn,” she said.  “This is my job and I do it seriously. I respect the people I film and their stories.  I want the audience to get closer to the subjects.  I hope my work encourages viewers to be reflective.
”American films tend to be issue-driven, while European cinema is character-driven, a style I follow.  I don’t intrude with commentary – I’m more of a fly-on-the-wall director.
“I love to travel.  I’ve found Europe, and Germany in particular, to be the most accessible for independent documentary makers. I also admire Japanese documentaries because they reveal that nation’s culture
“We Indonesian film makers have got to find our own voice, not imitate others. Documentaries should hold up a mirror to society.  It’s not about nationalism; it’s about understanding who we are, and to make a better society.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 April 2014)

Thursday, April 17, 2014


The Passion of Easter                                               
This coming weekend expect church pews to be packed.
Congregations will spill into carparks, sometimes even the street. Laggards will have to make do with closed circuit telecasts, bottom-pinching metal chairs and maybe a slither of shade under blue plastic
For many Westerners, especially from Australasia, Easter in Indonesia is an extraordinary experience.  We know the population is overwhelmingly Islamic so are astonished to find the principal event in the Christian calendar treated with respect and celebrated with passion almost everywhere.
It’s not like that Down Under.
Population differences aren’t the only factor. Religion is on the way out according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  In 1911 only one person in every 250 put ‘no religion’ on their census forms; now the ratio is one in five. The non-religious tend to be under 30 and better educated.
More than eight per cent even refused to answer the question about religion, as they’re entitled to do though all other questions are compulsory. That’s because the State is legally prohibited from getting involved in religion, although Parliaments still start with prayers.  No Ministry of Religious Affairs, no ID cards stamped with a faith approved by politicians.
It’s the same next door in New Zealand, a country settled in the 19th century by the fervent faithful from the United Kingdom. The mainly Protestant migrants held beach services on arrival before seeking food and shelter – then set about building churches.
Last year’s census shows that less than half the NZ population claims to be Christian, while 40 per cent say they don’t follow any faith. Catholics have now overtaken Protestants for the first time.
This makes the South Pacific nation one of the most secular countries in the world – but all this discarding of religion doesn’t seem to correlate to wrongdoing:  NZ is the least corrupt nation in the world. (Indonesia ranks 114 on the international corruption perception index.)
It doesn’t need spreadsheets of statistics to prove the social shifts. Just a peep inside most churches on a Sunday (don’t linger lest you get kidnapped by an eager pastor) shows a flock of few, mainly elderly women. Multiple services have shrunk to just one, and many parishes have to share ministers.
In Indonesia churches are being built.  In the country next door they’re being closed. 
The upside is that poor attendances and limited funds have encouraged ecumenism. Smaller towns often share a worship center – as the Catholics enter the Presbyterians depart.
Bucking this trend are the charismatic evangelical denominations that attract young people with rock music, and churches catering for Maori and Pacific Islanders.  Other faiths are faring better; there are now more Buddhists than Baptists in both countries.
Islam is also rising, mainly through immigration. Numbers are small – Australia has about half a million Muslims and NZ 50,000.  The faith isn’t monocultural as in Indonesia because adherents come from multiple traditions, liberal Europeans through to conservative Arabs.
As in Indonesia, some are only nominally religious, agreeing to worship occasionally to satisfy their families.
Living in the Southern Hemisphere may also be a factor in the decline because so many references are irrelevant.  Easter pre-dates Christianity, a festival to herald spring as snows melt, soils defrost and dormant seeds sprout.  But in Australasia it’s autumn and a time of death and decay, a hunkering down – not an opening out.
Eostre was a pagan German goddess, usually portrayed as a virginal nymph frolicking in a cornucopia.  An appropriate symbol for the carnival of commerce that Easter has become with eggs and chocolate rabbits (representing fertility) hopping onto shop shelves soon after the Christmas baubles are packed away, and nary a sight of a crucifix.
In southern Australia Easter offers the last chance to get away before winter hits and head for the coast with rod and line. Even on Good Friday the fish keep biting.
Easter Monday isn’t a religious day but it’s still a holiday.  The kids are on their two-week term break, and the weather is usually mild enough for camping. At this time the Great Northern Highway leading out of Perth is like the Puncak Pass on a long weekend.
Yet here in the sweltering archipelago straddling the Equator millions will don their best clothes and head for church where they will freely and joyously worship, even if that means enduring prolix sermons and hard pews.
There are worrying pockets of intolerance and rejections of plurality in Indonesia, but what nation doesn’t have its bigots? You seldom hear of Australia’s Abu Bakar Bashirs because they’re usually ignored by the mainstream media or treated with derision, often by their own congregations.
The standout reality is that so many Indonesians will openly and abundantly celebrate their Christianity in a sea of Islam during a national holiday enjoyed by all. This has to be a fact worthy of national pride and international applause.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 17 April 2014)


Wednesday, April 16, 2014


 Medicines, makeup, and more to discover       

Imagine a natural resource with proven health benefits, inside and outside the body, growing in abundance in the wild, easily cultivated - though little understood.
Consider a commonplace raw material with enormous untapped potential where Indonesia leads the world in exports - yet lags in knowledge.

Turning around this situation is the goal of Dr Noer Kasanah (right) and her colleagues in the Fisheries Department at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University.  With the help of a New Zealand aid program they’re working to reveal the hidden curative powers and other qualities of seaweeds.
“About 780 varieties have been identified, though there could be more,” said Dr Noer, who originally trained as a pharmacist. “However only 56 are currently known to be commercially viable.
“The red variety (at least 450 types), which grows furthest from the shore is the most economically important, but until our research is complete we won’t know if there are others that could yield valuable compounds.
“Indonesia is a mega-diversity country with huge potential.  Who knows what we can find and the applications waiting to be uncovered?
“Most discoveries into the properties of seaweeds have come from overseas.  I’m not happy about that, particularly as we are such a major producer.”
Seaweeds are already used in slimming pills (they work by tricking the body into thinking the stomach is full) and wound dressings.  They’re the source of iodine, which is found in a wide range of medicines and is vital for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland. 
The applications don’t stop with drugs. Seaweeds are part of the diet in many cultures.  They are also used in cosmetics and fertilizers.
However the major commercial uses are in medicines – including anti-bacterial compounds, make-up and food additives. Agar, which is extracted from seaweed, is widely used in foods.  If you ate a jelly, sampled sushi or drank a soup today, chances are that your snack included elements of seaweed.
Seaweeds are already a useful earner.  Four years ago just three million tonnes were exported; this year the prediction is ten million, making Indonesia the world’s top producer. Most of the weed goes to Europe.
If the quality is improved and further processing undertaken then incomes could be even higher and jobs kept in the Republic. Seaweed, particularly the red variety (the others are brown and green), has long been harvested in villages on Java’s south coast and islands in Nusa Tenggara. (See sidebar)
Requirements include an accessible beach, few hazards like rocky outcrops and low wave movements – the opposite to a surfer’s dream. 
British naturalist Alfred Wallace was among the first to research the archipelago’s seaweeds – a misnomer because they’re really marine algae. That was in the 19th century. A few Dutch biologists added to the knowledge, but little has been done till now.
 “We’re concentrating on East Nusa Tenggara because it’s a poor and undeveloped area,” said the US trained Dr Noer.  “It’s also part of the weed-rich Coral Triangle. (The base is Indonesia, the apex the Philippines and the sides Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.)
Working in her laboratory with staff and students, and using a three-year NZ government grant paying Rp 600 million (US$53,000) a year, Dr Noer’s team has started mapping the biodiversity, collecting seaweeds from the south coast near Yogyakarta for laboratory analysis.
At this stage Dr Noer thinks the greatest promise lies in antioxidants for human health, and antibacterial agents in aquaculture.

In her submission for funds Dr Noer stressed the importance of the research having practical commercial outcomes that can be applied in remote areas where low-tech rules.
Inventing a splendid process that relies on stable power, sterile workrooms and white-coated technicians may not be the way to go on rugged islands overlooked by Jakarta resource allocators.
Although some species are toxic (“the deeper the weed, the more potent the poison,” commented Dr Noer), seaweeds have featured in the foods of Japanese and Koreans for centuries.
Above all seaweed fits marvellously into the current global political agenda: It’s plentiful, organic and sustainable. It doesn’t always need to be harvested from the wild. When cultivated – and it’s a rapid grower - controls can be exercised. Some areas produce year round – others only during the wet season.
Although half the population might question the need for make-up it’s hard to argue against harvesting a natural product that feeds and cures and even helps clean teeth.
Buyers usually want weed that’s been dried to below 38 per cent of its original weight. Simple processes, like washing the weed of salt and sand, keeping it free of contaminants like ropes and chicken droppings, and being more selective, can help improve products and prices.

Weeding out the problems
The difficulties facing social engineers trying to introduce new ways of working were obvious at the aptly-named village of Sauna on the coast of Penida Island south east of Bali,
In the shade of a giant sea almond tree on a coral beach 18 women and girls, some of primary school age, slowly plucked seaweed shoots off plastic rope.
Men brought them baskets of weed, harvested from an off-shore nursery where they’d been planted a month earlier.  The shoots were then carted further up the beach and sun dried on plastic sheets.  If it starts raining the weed has to be covered quickly. All the procedures are labor intensive
It takes about five kilos of wet weed to make one kilo of dried product.

The top quality weed fetches Rp 16,000 (US$ 1.40) a kilogram.  Other weeds get less than half that price.
An earlier attempt by a community agency to cut-out the middle men and deal directly with exporters was countered by a sudden surge in prices that the agency couldn’t match. When they gave up, the price tumbled.
The people see no urgency to change. “If you want me to work harder I need more money,” said Suwarto, 60. (right)
The women had only vague ideas of why the weed is wanted overseas and the end products. “We just plant, grow, harvest and dry,” they said. “After that it’s not our business.”

First published in The Jakarta Post, 16 April 2014.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Finding the right path 

Minding myself                                                                                                             
 engrossed by the intricacy of a seedling’s growth:                                                                      Startled!                                                                                                                                  
By an old man’s friendly call
One bright dawn in the uphills of Bali the paths of two men merged in a green paddy. The differences between them were as mountain to valley.
One was a respected and prolific Balinese sculptor and artist, then aged 108. The other a footloose Australian from an elite background “seeking a place in which to develop my obscure talents.” He was 24.   Neither spoke the other’s language.
John Darling recalled the moment he first met Gusti Nyoman Lempad:  “He could tell that I was trying to find an unimpeded view of the mountains. He beckoned me to follow him, and so the glory of the morning was laid out before us.  We sat on the grass of a paddy bank to appreciate the short moment of beauty that precedes the day.”
The chance encounter led to one man taking the road less travelled, the other having his talent revealed to the world through television.
Eight years later Lempad died “a conscious death”. John Darling, now fluent in Balinese and a friend of the family (he lived on Lempad’s land), was asked to film the artist’s spectacular cremation in Ubud.
The result was Lempad of Bali, a film shown on TV in Australia and several other  countries.  Now it’s been redigitized and is available free on the Internet, along with John Darling’s book of the same name.
It’s all in an E-package that Jakarta publisher Mark Hanusz believes is probably the first of its kind in Indonesia.
The book is in English and Indonesian and has great pictures.  There are apps for Apple and Android.
John Darling went on to become an ethnographic film maker, poet and lecturer, but fell ill and returned to Perth.  He died in 2011.
Since she scattered her husband’s ashes in Bali, Sara Darling has been preparing John’s work for publication, supported by the Melbourne-based Herb Feith Foundation.  This is named after the famous Australian scholar of Indonesian politics who died in 2001.
“The decision to make the book and film widely available was driven by a desire to fulfil John’s last wish,” Sara said. “He had an unique experience to tell because he lived in Bali for 20 years. Now it’s out there for all to enjoy, along with John’s memoirs and poetry.

Melbourne University Professor Charles Coppel said Herb Feith and John Darling were “ideal examples of Australians committed to better relations with Indonesians.
“They lived for long periods in Indonesia on Indonesian terms that endeared them to their Indonesian friends. That made them stand out among Indonesian ‘experts’ and gave a special quality to their work.”
This quality comes across in film and book, though unfortunately the latter is too short.  Maybe that’s to be expected from a poet who preferred brevity, and a film director who spoke through his images. 
But it leaves great gaps. We learn much about Lempad – we also want to know more of his biographer, and how such an odd couple related and communicated. “John was always a deep thinker, and at heart an artist,” wrote Sara.  So was Lempad.
Other books are promised later this year to coincide with an exhibition in Bali of the work of the man who many consider the island’s greatest artist. These will celebrate Lempad’s work but are unlikely to reveal more about the other man whose destiny was set in a Bali ricefield in 1970.
Since then too many Australians have come to use Bali as their backyard party zone,  cheap and exotic, an inhibition-free week at the poolside bar without ever encountering the mystery and magic of the hinterland and isles beyond. 
For them the rich culture comes in roll-up canvases of saleable sameness, Kuta trinkets, so tawdry it’s clear the sellers have a cynical understanding of foreigners’ tastes and values.
Although beloved of academics, John Darling’s work was never exclusive.  It was made for general viewing and no special appreciation of art or Indonesia is necessary to enjoy the film and book. 
How come people like Herb Feith, a Jewish refugee from Austria who settled in Australia as a child, and John Darling, who left his homeland to study the British Empire in Oxford, fit so well into Indonesia and want to share their insights?
One of many answers has to be accepting the Archipelago on its terms, to get in sync with its pulse and absorb a different world view. Here’s a clue:  “Bali subverted me,” the film maker wrote. “The way of life around me soon dominated my thinking.  It became apparent that here was a story to tell and that I owed it to my friends and neighbors on the island to help them tell it.
 “Poetry and film … have much in common, images, symbols, myth, rhythm and other resonances beyond the immediate.”
Here are fresh ways for Australians to see their northern neighbor, not through commerce and defence, but respect and wonder.  This is the paddy path to build mature people-to-people relationships, the must-have phrase in every politician’s lexicon, so often said, so seldom done.
Elusive knowledge,                                                                                                                      A product of receptive seeing                                                                                            
Coming to us                                                                                                                              
In black and white                                                                                                                   
And hot and cold                                                                                                                      
And nature rhythms                                                                                                                 
Oh, what are we                                                                                                                       
But receptacles                                                                                                                     
Which occasionally overflow.
Lempad of Bali                                                                                                                           E book and embedded video                                                                                                 Published by Equinox Books, Jakarta  , 2014                                                                 Download free:

 (First published in The Jakarta Post 14 April 2014)

Saturday, April 12, 2014


The village that won’t die  

Rising from the rubble: Nicholas Saputra, 11, (left) and Wildan Dwi Saputra, 10.
Like a dragon settling after a good meal Central Java’s Mount Merapi continues to rumble and belch.  Officials urge awareness.  Most villagers understand the dangers but want to stay.  Duncan Graham reports from Gempol, Malegang Regency.

The video’s special effects are astonishing, Steven Spielberg quality. But this is reality.
A flood to challenge Noah roaring down the river at maybe 60 kilometers an hour, boulders half as big as cars rolling like soccer balls, tree limbs thrashing the filthy foam like drowning men.
Banks are gouged and breached. Houses crumple and vanish. People rush to higher ground.  Maybe Armageddon will look like this.
Cut to the present. A dozen villagers gather in the Gempol (Central Java) community hall, a four-post, high roof traditional joglo.  They’ve come to hear the latest news from Sudiyanto, the elected head of the dusun (remote village).
He clicks a laptop file and projects a video of a meeting held two days earlier in another village.  The locals have no wish to see again the shaky footage shot by a brave neighbor in January 2011, but tolerate a viewing for visitors. 
The Gempol people want to move on, and for some that means away. They think the village is too dangerous despite diversion of the Kali Putih (White River), so they plan to relocate.  That suits the government.
But others want to stay with their homes, land, history and jobs.  They prefer to believe the assurances of engineers that their town is now safe and they reject contradictory advice from bureaucrats.

The dispute in the village 20 kilometers from Yogyakarta off the road to Magelang is shaping as a classic example of the social trauma that so often follows natural disasters everywhere in the world.
During the crisis all work together.  Later the cohesion crumbles and neighbors turn against each other, often over aid distribution and land use.
This drama began after Mount Merapi exploded in late 2010.  Although Gempol is 18 kilometers from the summit, the village lies in the path of a river that rises high on the mountain’s slopes.  This became the channel for the lahar on that awful January day.
Lahar is a Javanese word that’s pushed its way into English. It’s the fast-moving mix of volcanic mud, ash, debris, water and rocks that follows volcanic eruptions.  Lahar can be enormously destructive, but early warning systems helped save the lives of all the Gempol people.
Local warden Widodo was monitoring his walkie-talkie when the alert came from higher up the valley. The little mosque’s speakers screamed ‘lari, lari, lari’ (run, run, run) and Widodo bashed a steel pipe to sound the alarm. Signs in the streets showed the evacuation route.

“I didn’t have to do much,” he said. “We’d already seen the black clouds and knew from experience that a lahar could follow heavy rain.  We can build to reduce earthquake damage, but nothing stops a lahar.”
When the flood had passed the residents found 43 of their 160 homes had vanished.  Rubble from another 23 remained.  Most of the rest sustained some damage. Sections of the nearby main road had been torn away.
Families moved to a temporary camp about a kilometer distant and stayed for two years while the men went to and fro rebuilding their homes.  The giant boulders dumped in their yards were painstakingly fractured by hammer and chisel and stockpiled for sale as roadmaking material.

A house once stood here – 
residents Sumiyati (left) and Nur Hidayati,

Some of the rebuilt houses look better than the originals, according to resident Nur Hidayati, another reason to stay. “The lahar was a tragedy but for some of us it’s been a blessing in disguise,” she said.
Authorities say they are motivated by safety in wanting Gempol empty (see sidebar). However rumors swirl that the government wants the land to build a truck depot or set up a tourist center.
“The government has offered those who leave Gempol Rp 37 million (US$ 3,220) to buy land and rebuild – but that’s clearly not enough,” said Sudiyanto.  “A minimum of Rp 50 million is required.
“But the real issue is the people who want to stay.  They’re getting nothing, yet their needs are the same.”

High school dropout Sudiyanto, 39, (left) fossicked for food in rubbish dumps during the 1997 economic crisis, He then went Riau as a laborer before returning to his village where he set about learning leadership and ways to use modern technology.
“He understands that information is power, and to fight governments communities need to be equally well informed and better prepared,” said Dr Sari Timur who runs the Yakkum Emergency Unit. She came across Gempol women when helping in the refugee camp and has since been acting as a resource person.
“We don’t interfere,” she said. “If we are asked we put them in touch with individuals and agencies that may be able to help. What Sudiyanto and his supporters have been doing is extraordinary.  This is a text book case of community self help and transparency.”
Despite his successes Sudiyanto remains Javanese-modest. He’s papered the joglo’s walls with photocopies of correspondence, financial reports and letters sent to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and regional heads. Nearby are the receipts proving postage. Just one reply – a down-the-line referral that perished on its journey.
Sudiyanto’s quest to preserve Gempol has come at a cost.  Eighteen families have already moved.  Some have abused him for challenging the government. Countering this have been invitations to explain his campaign to other communities.
Also displayed are the damage statistics and a map.  Any civil servant trying to drown community opposition with bombast should approach Gempol with great caution.  A sign reads: Perjuangan Warga Gempol Mengharap Keadilan (The Gempol people’s struggle is to hope for justice).
Processions and street demos have been organized and the local media encouraged to report. Sound and vision of meetings and visits are recorded for those unable to be present and a record of what was actually said.

After the flood the government built Sabo check-dams upstream to slow lahar and dump sediment. It has also spent Rp 64 billion (US $56 million) on a new bridge (right) and  a 2.3 kilometer concrete sloping-walled trench almost 100 meters wide to divert future lahar flows.
It’s this impressive example of civil engineering, much bigger than the original river, that gives the villagers confidence to remain.
“The difficulty is that government departments are not sticking to one clear message, and that’s confusing” said Sudiyanto. “All we want is to be treated equally and fairly.”

Still unsafe?
Despite the government diverting Kali Putih at huge expense it seems that Gempol remains a danger zone.
Sujadi, manager of the Regional Disaster Mitigation Agency BPPD, referred inquiries to a letter from the Geological Disaster Technology Research and Development Agency BPPTKG, which he said had been sent to Gempol.  He said this made the risk clear.
“This village is one of several that could be threatened and we are concerned about everyone’s safety,” Sujadi said.
“We are offering money to people to relocate but we don’t want to force them to move.  The grant of Rp 37 million was set two years ago and may be reviewed. It was available only to people who moved to secure locations.
“There are no plans to turn Gempol into a tourist park or anything else.  We are not sending conflicting messages.  However the people must understand that if they stay in Gempol they could be in danger if another lahar flows.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 11 April 2014)

Thursday, April 10, 2014


I'm always mindful of an Australian diplomat announcing the end of terrorism just before the Marriott bomb, but nonetheless the Indonesian election has so far gone splendidly.
No-one heeded the call of the jailed loathsome preacher Abu Bakar Bashir to bomb polling stations
In our booth there was great good humour though the ballot papers were of Senate length and complexity.  Everything was conducted simply and efficiently - the AEC should come here and study the system.  Maybe Indonesia can find an aid programme.
TV coverage has also been spectacular with imaginative graphics (the best on Kompas TV being parties depicted as shhips in a race) and robust debate laced with lots of laughs.  So far former general Prabowo's Gerindra party has been trailing Golkar.  Most commentators agree that the PDI-P vote fell far short of forecasts and the party will have to form a coalition.  With whom?  That's the question. This could be the way for the old guard to maintain control.
 It's three month before the direct presidential election.
Inevitably there have been issues.  A neighbour's maid claimed she'd been offered (and accepted) Rp 50,000 to vote for PDI-P by supporters away from the polling station, an allegation impossible to prove when names aren't available.  Nor are statutory declarations.
There's still a month to go before the final figures are out and plenty can happen.  But unless a major problem is disclosed or a fanatic lights a fuse, this has to be a triumph for Indonesian democracy. 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014


Not a neutral priest

Religious leaders should educate their followers about political issues, but not recommend candidates, according to prominent Catholic priest Benny Susetyo, 45, former executive secretary of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference,
However the social activist left no doubt about his presidential choice when interviewed during a brief visit to his hometown Malang by Duncan Graham.
            It’s a priest’s calling to be concerned with souls, to teach the Gospel.  How do you justify your involvement in politics?
            A priest’s job is also to speak out on issues concerning the people’s welfare, morality and ethics, to be concerned for humanity, peace and justice. That’s the teaching of Catholicism; these are the values of all religions. I’ve studied the contestants’ statements and policies and read the polls. Indonesians are not stupid.  We know Jokowi (Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo) is strong on these important issues.
            Is your impartiality in question?  Your brother (Andreas Eddy Susetyo) is a Partai Demokrasi Indonesia – Perjuangan (PDI-P) Legislative Assembly candidate.  You say you’ve known Jokowi since his days as mayor of Solo and keep in close touch.  Perhaps you should also have spoken to other candidates.
Not necessary. The others are all Orde Baru (New Order – the Soeharto era administration) figures. Their policies and records tell me enough. I agree Jokowi has yet to be tested, but he’s the only candidate concerned with human rights.  He will not ignore Christians if elected. I reject neutrality.
             Are you in danger of putting off Muslim voters by expecting Protestants and Catholics to vote for Jokowi?
I’m not trying to cause divisions and wish religion wasn’t part of politics.  Jesus was a politician because he advocated for the poor and weak against the rulers – but he wasn’t a member of a political party. Many religious people don’t understand politics, so need information, to have issues explained. That’s my role. A priest must also follow his conscience.
            Has that got you into strife?
With a few, though not the Vatican. Pope Francis has spoken out against inequalities caused through bad economic policies.
            Isn’t this all academic?  Non-Muslims are such a small minority with little influence.
Every non-Muslim is still part of our Republic. Everyone has influence, whoever they are, irrespective of their religion.
            You’ve just returned from London and Oxford where you spoke on ‘Pluralism in Peril” in Indonesia. What do you mean?
All the evidence shows intolerance is growing and spreading beyond the original pockets. I’m particularly worried about the conflicts that followed the Arab Spring coming to this country, brought by young radicals who have been fighting there.  
            Why not the other way around, with Indonesia exporting its successful version of democracy?
That won’t happen.  Our culture is completely different.  We lean more towards the US than Arab countries.
Are human rights an important issue in this election?
No.  But they should be.
            What do you expect from the next president?
To stamp out corruption, that’s number one. He should uphold Pancasila (the nation’s five philosophical principles) and strengthen the rule of law. He must stop the abuse of power and care for the poor.  
            Many argue Indonesia needs a strong leader so the president should be a military man.
Like Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general, but weak?  The Indonesian people don’t need a dictator. We want honest leaders with rational policies, not populist slogans. If you interview me in five years time I hope that religious issues won’t be part of the campaign.
How do you feel about the future of democracy in Indonesia?
Optimistic if the people are rational in their approach to politics, but not if we continue following the culture of the elite.