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, June 30, 2014


Not all sweetness in the mill                                                  

Imagine a distant future when the only cultural artefacts left after the Great Tsunami and the Big Warm are sets of sinetron DVDs, circa early 21st century.
Anthropologists study the programs intensely seeking clues to times past.  So this is how the people lived, residing in marvellous mansions wearing splendid clothes and startling make-up.
These white-skinned beauties never worked, yet never wanted.  Their frantic days were full of intrigue; scheming mothers-in-law, schoolgirls planning liaisons, and everywhere maids eavesdropping, ready to pour on the gasoline of gossip should the flames of malice grow dim.
After thorough study cultural historians deduced these programs were true reflections of 2014. They wrote theses about the Age of Affluence concluding that Indonesians were wealthy, idle and evil.
Now look back 160 years.  How did people live then?  With no cinema, television or photography the only resource we have is the printed word.  In the early 1900s this was largely controlled by the Dutch.
So till recently it’s been the colonial-eye versions of the olden days which have provided our knowledge.  Now through the Jakarta publisher Lontar we’re getting the chance to see different versions of the times conceived by indigenous authors.
The Saga of Siti Mariah was written by Haji Mukti who was probably born in 1850 from a Dutch father and Javanese mother. His name may be a pseudonym and it seems he wrote himself into the novel as Sondari, the most decent man in the book and who’d made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
His work first appeared in a Bandung newspaper as a serial between 1910 and 1912. It was written in Malay, the lingua franca used by traders across the archipelago.  Later this became the accepted tongue when the founders of independence realized that imposing the complex and hierarchical Javanese would alienate everyone outside the main island.
The story was reprinted again as a serial in Jakarta between 1962 and 1965, then 22 years later as a book edited by Indonesia’s foremost man of letters and President Soeharto’s most famous political prisoner, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
So here’s one of the earliest known examples of fiction published in Indonesia, set locally and written in what was to become the national language. This makes it an important document, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it reflects the times.
The plot seems to have been drawn from European literature rather than Javanese.  It starts in 1854 and runs for much of the century as children are born out of wedlock, abandoned, raised by strangers, overcome hazards, make good in the world and eventually find their rightful place.  This being pre-DNA they need birthmarks to ensure later identification and alert the reader to take out tissues for the reunions to come.
The cast includes misused concubines, villains of boundless evil, well-meaning fumblers, honorable men led astray and good salt-of-the-earth types to keep our faith in human nature intact.  Unfortunately most are cardboard cutouts rather than complex personalities.
There are empty graves, a tiger that declines to dine on a passerby, curious encounters everywhere and enough coincidences to get the characters out of one crisis and into the next episode.
Siti Mariah is a much misused but stoical beauty who knows her womanly duties. The main setting is a huge sugar mill owned by a rich and ruthless Dutch widow who manipulates her family and employees.  
Translator Catherine Manning Muir claims the book is ‘a window into the workings of a brutal colonial state’ though it’s really more about the nastiness of evildoers, balanced by fine deeds of ordinary folk.
The system was feudal and easily condemned from the vantage of the present. But imposing today’s values on yesteryear’s political and economic systems is a useless exercise.  We’d do everything differently with hindsight.
The Dutch-run sugar industry used a forced cultivation system called Cultuurstelsel which determined the crops grown by the peasants and the quantity to be exported.  It restricted people’s choice and movements and was eventually scrapped in 1870 in favor of free trade.
This is the period covered by the book, yet little of the economic policy seeps into the plot, which remains people-centered.  When officials do appear they’re part of the landscape, village heads and mill managers who sort out problems and dispense wisdom, rather than act unkindly.
In one brief section a wayward Islamic teacher tries to stir strife among the workers, but the dutiful employees reject the man’s teachings and are reunited with a benevolent boss.
If there is a political message it’s that some Dutch sugar tsars squandered their wealth and created hardships in the colonies by letting the mills run down.  The author sets a few scenes in the Netherlands and reserves much of his bile for European opulence, but his real intention is to produce a moral tract.
Haji Mukti’s deity is a God of wrath and retribution. When the harridan tumbles into the mill machinery and gets dismembered in gory detail, the triumphant author adds in italics:  ‘Praise the Lord God Almighty!’
Just in case the message gets missed the writer steps out of the text to offer asides:  ‘Dear Reader, that was how things were in the old days when people resisted the devil’s lustful temptations, but now it has all changed.  The old ways have been scuttled.’
A quaint device that doesn’t help the writer and reader bond.  It may have worked a century ago when literacy levels were low, but today it smacks of religious propaganda. Read it nonetheless as another piece in the jigsaw of the Archipelago’s history.
The Saga of Siti Mariah                                                                                                                          by Haji Mukti (translated by Catherine Manning Muir)                                                            Published by Lontar     

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 30 June 2014)                                                                                                           

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Getting more students into Indonesia                              
At last Australia has got a guernsey, as we say, meaning we’ve scored a place in the Indonesian presidential debate, albeit late and brief.
Both candidates made inoffensive statements about the relationship between an over-populated archipelago and a near-empty continent during their third debate.  Joko Widodo (Jokowi) said the issue was trust, which is true.  This is a fragile quality that has to be earned, not bought, or even wished into existence by a politician.
Prabowo Subianto said Australians suffer from Indophobia, which is also correct - though the more appropriate word migh be ‘Islamophobia’. News about Indonesia frequently opens with the line ‘the world’s most populous Islamic nation’ so ‘Indonesia’ and ‘Islam’ are regularly conflated in the electorate’s mind.
Either way the zephyr from the Great South Land that’s been rustling the leaves in Menteng was a sigh of relief, not a climatic event.  Neither candidate had used the moment to start a fresh round of Australia bashing. 
Unless an Aussie druggie gets executed before 9 July, West Papuans land in Darwin seeking asylum or spies are caught bugging cellphones, it seems relationships between Jakarta and Canberra will be too far down the candidates’ lists to warrant spending further breath.
The debate could not have given a clearer example of the differences between the two nations.  In last year’s Australian election campaign Liberal leader Tony Abbott declared his foreign policy would be “less Geneva, more Jakarta.”
Before he’d had time to sink back into the leather of the Prime Minister’s limo he was deplaning at Soekarno-Hatta. At the time stopping Indonesian-flagged asylum-seeker boats was the boiling issue in Australia, though tepid for most Indonesians.
Now the presidential candidates, having already canvassed issues as diverse as the weight of military tanks through to encouraging animation, have got around to discussing their wary neighbor and the need for mateship.  Sadly neither man has offered any firm ideas on meeting these laudable hopes.
Last year former Australian PM Julia Gillard announced her Asian Century policy.  This included encouraging young Australians to study in Southeast Asia so the next generation won’t suffer from the phobias articulated in the TV debate.
Now Ms Gillard is political history only remnants of her policy remain.  Welcome the New Colombo Plan which offers scholarships and grants of up to AUD $5,000 (Rp 57 million) for undergraduates to study in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
It’s a fine idea though so far a total of only 300 grants have been offered.  Just five of the 40 full scholarships announced so far will be used in Indonesia.  More will follow and the number of countries will expand in what Australia likes to call the Indo-Pacific Region.
Australian academics report their students are keen on Indonesia, but frustrated by cumbersome visa procedures.  Applicants are treated as workers needing a Kartu Izin Tinggal Terbatas (KITAS Limited Stay Visa).  Their cases are handled by the Department of Manpower. 
This means a humble undergraduate seeking to bolster her language skills in a cramped Yogya classroom is handled like a foreign CEO wanting to run a multinational atop a Jakarta high rise and needing to persuade authorities that a local can’t do the job.
Last year more than 17,000 Indonesians were enrolled in Australian teaching institutions. The imbalance is appalling: Though the numbers are inching up, fewer than 500 Australians are studying in Indonesia, against 2,000 in China.
Professor David Hill, director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), said it takes up to four months “and a very substantial bureaucratic effort” to get a visa.
"This makes it difficult for students wanting to negotiate their own way into Indonesian schools and universities, he said.
During the detail-free TV debate Jokowi talked about prioritizing diplomacy “through education and culture.”
Have the candidates’ back-room policy wonks got no creative proposals?  How about reversing and going beyond Australia’s commendable, though tiny, New Colombo Plan by offering unlimited student visas to young Australians willing to enrol in Indonesian schools and universities – and fast track the procedures?
In the archipelago they could learn their neighbor’s culture and language, tuition that’s getting harder to find in their homeland as enrolments tumble and courses close.
Two years ago Professor Hill told the Australian government that if the decline in teaching Indonesian continues, expertise in Indonesia will be extinct within ten years. Where better to study the language than in the Republic?
Jokowi talked about “P to P” relationships.  Presumably P = People and not poultry or potatoes, though in politics any interpretation is possible.
Here’s P for Plan - a chance for Indonesia to seize the initiative, kick aside the bureaucratic barriers and invite Australians to study here. Imagine - Indonesia as an income-earning education destination, not a departure lounge. Wouldn’t that build trust and help eliminate the phobias?

Sunday, June 15, 2014


The Emperor’s new clothes
Was there no-one in the vast kampong of Jokowi’s boosters, minders and assorted acolytes with the  courage to tell their boss the truth -  that he had a white paper thrusting out of his otherwise natty suit at Monday’s great TV debate?
This wasn’t one of those reminder notes you stick on the computer screen to remember a bakso takeaway, but something more serious, maybe a Five Year Plan, though the pages seemed blank. That means it must have been a Five Year Plan.
On every camera shot the offending appendage grew bigger, threatening to envelop the man. It started as A4. Two squirming embarrassing minutes later it was A3, then A2, then big as a campaign poster.
The whole nation knew – but not the presidential hopeful? Doesn’t the man ever avert his gaze to see what’s going on down there?
Even his running / overtaking mate Jusuf Kalla noticed the wardrobe malfunction because it blocked his view of the giant image of himself on the studio’s back wall.
But JK’s an old hand and knows what to do in grave situations: Look elsewhere.
Adjusting his alleged boss’ dress in public might have created an image of Daddy telling scruffy son to smarten up. It was bad enough trying not to be the biggest guy on stage despite having the smallest stature.
Jokowi’s wife Iriana might have got away with it – she looks tough enough to stare down any giggling Gerindrans. It would have been a touching scene – a possible First Lady tripping across the stage in her trademark pink batik to straighten hubby’s socialist tie, dust off the dandruff and tuck away that naughty paper.
The You Tube clip would have eclipsed Psy’s Hangover.  The whole universe would have spent the week discussing Mrs J’s fashion statement rather than the pedestrian statements of the sartorially challenged. 
Michelle Obama would have phoned for style tips, batik orders would have flowed like the Ciliwung in January. We’d have been invited back into the World Cup. Taylor Swift would have declared:  “Pink is the new Red!”
What does all this tell us about a Jokowi administration should he win the top job?  Suppose the boss forgets to zip up his trousers or spreads Eggs Benedict down his shirt while digesting the news – will no one have the stomach to say: ‘Excuse me Sir, may I suggest a blusukan to the bathroom before meeting Xi Jinping?’
Under Soeharto public servants survived by following the ABS (Asal Bapak Senang) rule saying whatever was necessary to keep the boss happy.
Imagine the conversation in early May, 1998:
Is the rupiah stable this morning?  Adjutant: ‘Yes Sir!’ (Aside: It has been for the past ten seconds, but otherwise it’s plunging like a toilet cistern.)
Are the masses revolting?  ‘No Sir!’  (Aside: Only the students.)
Is this how we want the seventh president to be treated?
Likewise should the throne be filled by plump Prabowo, former slim general.  He’s a man who likes to stroke his microphone stand, presumably to stop it going limp. Why didn’t a technician tell Mr P that the thing stays up by itself?
At other times the commander stuffed his left hand in his trouser pocket as though fumbling for the keys to his horse.  Then he could gallop out of these badlands to where he’s the sheriff, not some prolix grinning academic in geeky glasses.
Note:  Get this guy’s university tenure checked tomorrow. About time he disappeared. No place for such types in Orde Baru Plus.
Even those deficient in Indonesian would have learned plenty through the candidates’ body language. Hatta ‘Tonto’ Rajasa kept a tight rein on his feelings hoping this might inspire the Lone Ranger to self control.
It didn’t work.  The Colt .45 finger was soon unholstered. My, the old gunslinger is fast on the draw. He’s started pointing it at … everyone!   OMG!  Just stare ahead, and pretend no-one notices.
That’s what Jokowi’s doing and it seems to be working for him, though he did look weird with those papers falling out.  Maybe it’s a gimmick to divert attention from what he’s saying. Except that JK’s doing all the talking. Duncan Graham

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Mates no more?                                
One month to go before the world’s third largest democracy and our nearest Asian neighbour elects a new president for the next five years. Who’s ahead and what are the implications?  Duncan Graham reports from East Java:
Kiwis have a marvellously grotesque way of describing the acceptance of unpalatable policy changes: Swallowing dead rats.
There’ll be much consumption of deceased vermin in Washington and Canberra should former Indonesian general Prabowo Subianto get elected president of Indonesia in the 9 July poll; the man is on a US visa blacklist  for alleged human rights abuses, and Australia is believed to have the same prohibition.
If Prabowo is Indonesians’ democratic choice – as seems increasingly possible - there’s no way the head of a nation of 240 million and the world’s most populous Islamic country is going to be escorted into a sealed sideroom should he front at a Sydney airport immigration counter.
The words used to justify this fricassee a la rodent will be collectors’ items – allegations unproven, changing times, practical considerations – but the protests once President Prabowo is out of the airport carpark are likely to seriously damage Australian-Indonesian relations.
Past president, the late Gus Dur, and present incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) were enthusiastically accepted, with the latter addressing the federal Parliament in 2010. Soeharto was never welcome, making only one visit to Townsville in 1975.
The only way Prabowo would be universally applauded would be through engineering the peaceful cessation of hostilities in West Papua and robust prosecution of the military involved in alleged human rights abuses.
As the former Kopassus (special forces) commander’s record in problem solving so far has been force first, a speedy and fair resolution of the strife seems unlikely. He has already been quoted wanting a return to an era where the police are feared by the citizenry; his party colleagues have been seducing Islamic organizations, including the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders’ Front).
This is the para-military pseudo-religious group whose thugs specialise in threatening those they consider anti-Islam. During the fasting month of Ramadhan (starting this year on 28 June) they like to trash bars and aren’t fond of Christians or female pop stars who don’t wear headscarves. They usually act with impunity. God knows what they’ll want in return for their support.
Imagine the new Indonesian president’s motorcade in Australia negotiating gauntlets of protests, his speeches heckled, demonstrators in pursuit, flags burned, Indonesian sensitivities inflamed.
With Prabowo as President it’s unlikely Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be praising the “statesman” and “good friend” (the words he’s used for SBY). Nor would Foreign Minister Julie Bishop be predicting relationships will “strengthen, broaden and deepen”.
The US and Australia will have to chant the mantra that they’ll work with whoever is democratically chosen. But if that man is Prabowo relations between the two nations could hurtle back to the darkest days of the despot Soeharto, the candidate’s former father-in-law. (Prabowo is now divorced).
Although the position of Labor and Liberal is to respect Indonesia’s sovereignty, minor parties like the Greens don’t hold back when criticising Indonesian administration of West Papua.
They are backed by churches, non-government organizations and an active separatist lobby.  These groups may be small, but they are shrill and usually get traction in the media.
Joko Widodo (Jokowi) is still leading the polls.  As president he’d have no blood on his hands and would likely find friends everywhere in Australia. He’s already been to West Papua and promised access by foreign media, though that pledge could be thwarted by the military. However unless he lifts his game significantly in the next few weeks chances are he’ll be overtaken.
This hasn’t been the campaign for Prabowo to win but for Jokowi to lose.
Two months ago the then Jakarta Governor was the media darling far in front of any rival, his popularity founded on his humble man-of-the-people image, something the arrogant Prabowo has always lacked.
Metro, the TV station backing Jokowi, regularly shows him cycling to the office and inspecting roadworks alongside clips of Prabowo in helicopters and limos.
It’s a programming policy that’s backfiring; television audiences don’t see Barack Obama crawling out of manholes after sewer inspections.  The US President waves from the doorways of Air Force One as world leaders gather below to pay homage. Prabowo’s not there yet, but choppering into rallies helps craft the image.
 For the older generation of Indonesians, presidents carried an aura of ruthless authority, a presence that tolerates no questioning. If they did step into a selected crowd it was to show the peasants how to do things properly, like plant rice.
Prabowo’s contrived appearances in military style garb, riding a Palomino, standing tall in jeeps, hectoring crowds, reinforce that return to the past. Stories of his bullying and temper are widespread.
The man is an iron-clad product of the 32-year Soeharto era of shameless patronage, gross corruption and total authoritarianism. Like all soldiers he’s been trained to give and take orders, to see enemies and eliminate them. He’s a hawk in the Dick Cheney eyrie.
Prabowo wears the freshly tailored camouflage of democracy only to win office. He’s a life member of the unreconstructed elite that controls the nation through an incestuous network of patronage. Orde Baru (Soeharto’s New Order administration born in 1965) never really died when the old man stepped down in 1998, it just hibernated awhile.
For a thorough analysis of Prabowo’s past read Gerry van Klinken’s piece in Inside Indonesia
By contrast Jokowi is just a self-made businessman from a provincial town who has done well in local government. He seems to genuinely want reform, though finds his Mental Revolution philosophy hard to articulate. His mates don’t carry guns or shout orders, his relatives aren’t married to generals.
In talk shows he listens intently and appears to respect questioners.  His answers tend to be thoughtful, though faltering; they’re not glib or dismissive. An electorate desperate for change is projecting too many qualities on the man.  They laugh too easily at his limp jokes, clap too wildly at his statements.
 If Jokowi really does want the top job he’s so far not displayed the raw, snarling hunger shown by his opponent desperate to capture the palace.
 Jokowi is also handicapped by the presence of former president Megawati who often accompanies him on the campaign trail (along with her ambitious daughter Puan Maharani), like a mother ensuring son’s jocks are clean. She’s also there to remind the electorate that she’s the kingmaker, rightful daughter of the nation’s founder Soekarno who has selected Jokowi to do her bidding. Surveys indicate this rankles with the electorate.
There’s no Mummy figure in Prabowo’s battalions blitzing their way through the electorate suggesting a return to the golden era of cheap rice (because it was subsidized) and less crime (because suspected criminals were shot on the street, their fly-blown corpses a  warning to the lawless), and to make the nation great.
What else matters to the average voter?  Human rights abuses – who cares?  International relations – nothing to do with us. Foreign investors – kick them all out, we’ll do everything ourselves. Religious intolerance? If they don’t like it let them leave. Only a public outcry has forced Prabowo to modify a policy clause that ‘the State must regulate religious freedom’.
Overblown rhetoric and wild statements soon collide with reality once candidates turn winners. That’s true worldwide. Pledges are shredded and the language twisted and warped to explain why words aren’t being honoured. John Howard’s ‘not a core promise’ is a classic in the genre.
Watching the passionate debates night after night on Indonesian TV arouses admiration:  For all the screamingly obvious faults this is a nation with the most free and robust media in Southeast Asia.
Indonesians are embracing democracy, and whatever we think, they’re doing it their way.  We’re the ones who’ll have to adjust to the new people moving in next door.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 10 June 2014)


Handling Prabowo – Australia’s dilemma   

In a secret underground vault somewhere in the Australian Capital Territory sit two documents – Plan J and Plan P.  One will be unsealed after 9 July, the other shredded, though their preambles are identical.
The opened document will first need a brisk shake in the Canberra frost to sanitize some of international diplomacy’s most mouldy clichés.  Nonetheless they’re the yeast that helps keep world peace:
Australia will welcome the Indonesian people’s choice; the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader will personally phone to congratulate the winner; the Government will look forward to a long and amicable relationship; the Foreign Minister will travel to Indonesia as soon as practically possible to discuss matters of mutual interest. 
It’s also common to offer an invitation to visit. Read carefully to see if one is included – a good barometer to gauge the political climate.
That’s where any similarity in the two documents ends, because Plan P deals with responses to the election of military man President Prabowo Subianto, Plan J to the victory of civilian President Joko Widodo. The first paper is thick and full of appendices – the second brief.
Should the former Kopassus commander win then Australian-Indonesian relationships, reportedly now back on track following meetings between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Batam last week, will be in danger of a major derailment.
To understand why Australians are concerned about Prabowo read Professor Gerry van Klinken’s forensic biography is in the prestigious journal Inside Indonesia
Elsewhere it has been reported that Prabowo is on a US visa blacklist for alleged human rights abuses; Australia is believed to have the same prohibition, as Canberra usually trails Washington.
If Prabowo is Indonesians’ democratic choice there’s no way the triumphant head of a nation of 240 million and the world’s most populous Islamic country is going to be marched into an airport detention cell like an asylum-seeker should he front a Sydney immigration desk minus visa.
Of course Prabowo might take the position of US comedian Groucho Marx: ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member’, and snub his neighbor.  This would leave Australian diplomats counting floor tile patterns in an antechamber off the Presidential Palace waiting room every time there’s a need to discuss urgent matters.
Should Prabowo fly south the terms used to justify stamping his passport will be collectors’ items – allegations unproven, changing times, practical considerations, national interest – but the language wouldn’t be so mealy-mouthed once his limo leaves airport security.
Indonesia’s fourth president, the late Gus Dur, and present incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) were enthusiastically accepted, with the latter addressing the federal Parliament in 2010, giving a splendid speech that still resonates. Soeharto was never welcome, making only one known official visit (to Townsville, north east Queensland) in 1975.
The only way Prabowo could be universally applauded would be through engineering the peaceful cessation of hostilities in West Papua, settlement of just concerns and robust prosecution of the military involved in alleged human rights abuses.
As the former Kopassus (Special Forces) commander’s record has been force first, a speedy and fair resolution of the conflict seems unlikely. He has already been quoted wanting a return to an era where the police are feared by the citizenry.
With Prabowo as President it’s unlikely Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be praising a “statesman” and “good friend” (the words he’s used for SBY). Nor would Foreign Minister Julie Bishop be predicting relationships will “strengthen, broaden and deepen”.
The trouble with democracy is that sometimes electorates install leaders that outsiders who claim to be democrats don’t like. The Lebanese election of candidates from Hezbollah, a terrorist organization in the eyes of western countries, is a classic example.
 After the Indonesian election the US and Australia will recite the diplomat’s pledge:  We’ll work with the people’s choice. But if that man is Prabowo relations across the Arafura Sea could become choppy indeed, making the waves from revelations that Australian spies tapped the phone of SBY’s wife Ibu Ani just gentle ripples.
Imagine President Prabowo’s motorcade in Australia driving through gauntlets of protestors, his speeches heckled, demonstrators in pursuit, flags burned.  Indonesian sensitivities would be inflamed, and the air thick with the haze of retaliatory threats
The late Ali Alatas, longtime Foreign Minister, once described East Timor – then the major problem in Australian-Indonesian relations – as ‘the pebble in the shoe’. With West Papua the irritant is set to become a rock.
The official bi-partisan position is that ‘Australia is fully committed to Indonesia's territorial integrity and national unity, including its sovereignty over the Papua provinces.’
However minor parties like the Greens, aren’t bound by such statements. They are backed by churches, non-government organizations and an active separatist lobby.  These groups may be small, but they are shrill and usually get traction in the media.  The Morning Star flag, banned in Indonesia, flutters regularly in Australia.
Then there’s International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP), established in Britain in 2008, with members from many nations.  The Australians include Melissa Parke from Fremantle, Western Australia, Queensland Senator Claire Moore and Laurie Ferguson from Sydney.  All are feisty members of Labor, the second largest party in Parliament.
The IPWP is pledged to ‘support the inalienable right of self determination for the people of West Papua’. This is a highly provocative statement.  Most Indonesians are committed to the ‘unitary state’ and fear separatism.
As president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) would have no blood on his hands. He’d likely find friends everywhere in Australia, not just because he appears to be a mild-mannered reformist, but for what he’s not: An authoritarian Soeharto-era leftover.
He’s already been to West Papua and promised access by foreign media, though that pledge could be thwarted by the military.
Whatever the outcome Indonesians are embracing democracy and doing it their way.  Australians are the ones who’ll have to adjust to the new people moving in next door, whoever they are.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 June 2014)

Monday, June 09, 2014


Few facts in media wasteland                                                          Duncan Graham
Indonesians who remember the bleak times when autocrat Soeharto imprisoned the nation’s press are pinch-me amazed at the media freedoms they now enjoy.
Those too young to know must rely on research organisations, like the US-government funded Freedom House.  It reports that Indonesia’s ‘media environment continues to rank among the most vibrant and open in the region.’
Delete the qualifier ‘rank among’.  In Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia the government-controlled, and often owned, media is anaesthetically bland. 
In communist countries like Vietnam and Laos the media is back-to-back pronouncements on what fine things the government is doing to benefit the people – without the opinions of those people being heard.
Criticism and dissent is contrived and directed, like the so-called protests (above) in Hanoi and elsewhere against Chinese gas-drilling in a disputed area of the South China Sea. (Clue: Be suspicious of demonstrators carrying professionally-made banners in perfect English.)
In Thailand the press was relatively open (though not to criticise the Royal Family) till the May coup put the military in charge of the media.
None of these nasties operate in Indonesia.  There have been defamation threats and some have made court with mixed results; ten journalists have been killed since 1992, and anti-pornography laws are shutting out videos on serious issues posted on sites like Vimeo. But overall it’s better to be a news consumer in the archipelago than anywhere else in the region.
This is democracy, but it’s being corrupted by self interest as media heavyweights use their enormous power and money to influence electors in the 9 July direct people’s poll to install a president for the next five years.
Bias is nothing new, as Rupert Murdoch has shown in Australia with News Limited’s blatant opposition to the Julia Gillard’s government and backing for Tony Abbott. Robust stuff, but amateur hour when compared to the misrepresentations, fabrications and distortion of ‘news’ now underway in the Republic.
In Australia voters are generally educated and question news sources. They also have widespread access to multiple media outlets where other views get aired.
This is not a good time for professional journalism in Indonesia as media owners blatantly use their toys for self promotion.  A recent gross example had a picture of the politically ambitious Minister for State Owned Enterprises Dahlan Iskan on page one of the Jawa Pos plus an op-ed linking him to Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew. 
Dahlan owns the paper, which has the second largest circulation in the country. (Kompas is first). The Jawa Pos group has more than 100 dailies across the nation.
Surya Paloh owns Metro TV and the Media Indonesia daily.  He also chairs NasDem, the minority party now supporting the PDI-P’s Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) (below) in his bid for the presidency.
Metro is a 24-hour news channel and it’s dominated by the former Jakarta Governor’s frequently flat speeches. These are then given yeast by ‘political observers’ who seldom disclose their leanings or patrons.
It’s the same at MNCTV, RCTI and Global TV, free-to-air channels owned by Hary Tanoesoedibjo. He’s Indonesia’s James Packer, a man with such a heavy wallet he makes Clive Palmer look like a slim beneficiary.
Hary is backing Jokowi’s rival, the disgraced former Kopassus (Special Forces) general Prabowo Subianto who quit the army after being charged with exceeding his authority during the 1998 crisis that led to Soeharto’s downfall.
Then there’s the Viva Group which runs two channels, TVOne and ANTV.  These are owned by the Bakrie Group whose paterfamilias Aburizal Bakrie (‘Ical’) leads Golkar, the nation’s most powerful and best organised party built by Soeharto as his political fortress.
Bakrie strove mightily to top the parapets but that ambition was thwarted by lack of popular support; he too has turned to back Prabowo, buttressing defences against Jokowi in the DPR (Legislative Assembly).
None of this partiality would matter much in a well-informed electorate with easy access to choice.  But Indonesians rely on television for information, which Soeharto cleverly ensured with the Palapa One satellite launch in 1975.
At that time when many Australians in remote country towns had no TV access (the government had chosen terrestrial transmission), Indonesian peasants in volcano villages and coral islets were cradled by TVRI, the government channel. 
That’s where they learned how the world worked, as determined by Pak Harto in Jakarta. Among his policies was SARA, a ban on public discussion of ethnic, religious or race issues. Alternative ideas or views were also taboo.
The tradition remains. Indonesia is a country where people prefer to watch, not read. Flickering images trump ideas.  Kompas, the most credible and professional newspaper, sells just half a million copies daily to a population of 240 million. (The Herald Sun sells that number in Victoria alone.)
The Internet is unavailable or unreliable beyond the urban sprawl. In this media wasteland television dominates all vistas, every plain.
Research conducted by political scientist Djayadi Hanan and his colleagues at the University of Paramadina shows 80 per cent of Indonesians rely on TV for their news. Paradoxically this doesn’t mean news stations like Metro are popular, garnering only three per cent of the audience, primarily A-class urban viewers.
Bakrie’s two channels do better, but Hary Tanoesoedibjo excels because his stations telecast quizzes, slapstick comedies and sinetron. These are the plot-thin, absurdly popular soap operas that keep millions on edge. Will the wife discover the Bapak’s mistress?  The loudmouth maid already knows and she has a toxic tongue.
She’s not alone. The political poison is already at spring tide.  In a tropical version of the Barack Obama birthing debate, Jokowi has published his marriage certificate to prove he’s not a half-Chinese Christian but a Javanese-born Muslim and therefore fit to lead a multi-ethnic and supposedly secular nation with pluralist values.
Surprisingly he hasn’t faced demands to unzip and show he’s been circumcised. Well, not yet.
On the other side it’s rumoured that Prabowo was emasculated in a shooting accident.  This is why his wife, Siti Hediyati Hariyadi, fourth child of Soeharto, quietly filed for divorce after her father quit office, and why the old soldier never remarried.
What’s true and what’s vile scuttlebutt? The absence of independent fact-checking mainstream media staffed by fearless journalists is doing a disservice to the electors of Indonesia who sorely need an ABC.
A major Ford Foundation funded report compiled by international researchers led by Yanuar Nugroho of Manchester University, titled Mapping the Landscape of the Media Industry in Contemporary Indonesia, concluded:
‘There is an increasingly common perception that these media owners’ interests have endangered citizens’ rights to media, since they are using their media as a political campaign tool to influence public opinion.

’Our research finds that media owners turn the media into a simple commodity, with
the audience being treated as mere consumers rather than rightful citizens.’


Romancing the road 

While attention has been focussed on the spectacular rise of air travel in Indonesia, most people still use public bus transport for inter-city commutes.
These can vary from nightmare journeys in ancient rattletraps literally held together with wire where seats are shared with goats and poultry, through to luxury travel with toilet, spacious leg room and sleeper seats.  Duncan Graham has taken a few rides.
The transit people in Canada’s chilly Edmonton have come up with a smart idea to keep their customers amused.  Since 1999 they’ve run a poem competition.
Organizers say the project ‘celebrates the work of poets and makes riding public transit a more enriching and pleasurable experience.’ Presumably it also takes passengers’ minds off chattering teeth and dead fingers.
Across the border in somewhat warmer Madison, Wisconsin there’s a similar contest, cleverly called Bus Lines.
A few other countries have devised creative ways to promote the delights of being imprisoned in a steel box racing down a highway and controlled by someone you don’t know and pray remains awake, but it seems only Indonesia has Bismania.
It’s not the ideal title, suggesting louts who put their dirty boots on your seat, blow smoke in your face and razor-slash the upholstery. In fact they’re fun people with serious intent, a consumer-awareness and lobby group that started in Jakarta in 2007 and in Malang the following year.
The legally incorporated club’s motto is Ayo! Naik Bis! (let’s go by bus), and it has a code of ethics; ‘We will not accept free rides lest we compromise our right to criticize’.  Its members are mainly professionals and university students who have thought deeper about their nation’s transport problems than many political candidates.
Driver Hari, 46 and never had an accident
 “though I’ve seen plenty”

The Jakarta Post met 15 supporters (half the local membership) at Malang’s pitted and puddled Arjosari terminal where the big busses bounce and buck their way into position amid clouds of dust, some heading as far as Medan, 72 hours distant.
Not all noise comes from the fuming diesel engines and klaxon blasts, for Arjosari is hustlers’ heaven.  Here the jobless gather to garner a few rupiah by shouting travellers onto a bus, any bus.  If it happens to be going your way then that’s a bonus.
Any uncertain victim with white skin heading for Jakarta will be steered onto a bus for Bali; all touts know that’s where foreigners really want to go.
Work on a new terminal has stopped and weeds are sprouting. When will construction restart? Everyone gave the same answer: “Only God knows.”
Bizmaniacs can tell the age of a bus at a glance, however much it has been disguised by panel beaters.  The oldest they noted was built in 1982, long before most of the spotters had been assembled.
“If I became Transportation Minister I’d  take off the fuel subsidy and subsidize spare parts so buses can be better maintained,” said spokesman Dudi Sudarmono, a public servant when he’s not admiring axle lengths and sizing up horse power.
“Passenger waiting rooms need to be improved to make the travel experience more pleasant.  We want a fit and proper test for drivers and better working conditions. In some areas outside Malang we hear that bus driver licenses can be bought.

Checking the hardware – Bizmaniacs Rezha Hadyan  (on the ground)
and Adi A. Firdaus (on the bus).

“Some drivers work 12 hours with only brief breaks.  They get paid a commission so have no insurance.  That’s not fair to them and it’s not safe.  Then there’s the issue of traffic overcrowding and highway repairs.”
Because Indonesia’s roads are so rough the buses need a minimum of 42 centimeters clearance. This makes alighting tough for the elderly and handicapped unless the conductor puts out a step. It’s even better if the driver actually stops.
What about other hazards like the asongan (hawkers) and ngamen (buskers) who are allowed on many routes, their presence noted by a sudden close clutching of handbags?
“That’s complicated for us,” said Hendra Rakhmanto who works in the pharmaceutical industry. He’s something of a romantic who loves the colors of the busses.
“These are little people; they need jobs but have no skills. They bother passengers but can’t get money elsewhere.  This is a problem the government should address.”
In early May the Malang branch hosted a national convention attended by 800 Bismaniacs, including Rezha Hadyan who plans to enter the diplomatic service when he finishes his international relations studies at Malang’s Brawijaya University.
“I could fly back to my family in West Java for holidays at around the cost of travel in an executive bus (fewer seats, two drivers and a toilet) but I prefer travelling by road,” he said.
“The drivers and conductors are cheerful and friendly in Malang; it’s not like Jakarta.”

High Tastes

Catching the bus: Bambang Gunawan Lie

David Lie vice president of coach builder PT Morodadi Prima, which has a factory at Singosari on the Malang-Surabaya road, said there were two main lanes of bus design – European and Chinese.
“We prefer the European,” he said.  “Their ideas are more elegant and the accessories, like air conditioning, are hidden.  This creates a more aerodynamic look. We may be a growing and changing country but our tastes and demands are high. Twelve years ago there was no air conditioning – now it’s essential.
“The problem is that while we make fine and comfortable busses the roads remain crowded and poorly maintained. How can you travel smoothly and fast when the highways aren’t the right standard?”
It’s easy to detect the Chinese style – big rear-view mirrors thrusting ahead like heavy-duty proboscises, turning the bus into a monster-movie mutant caterpillar.
Along with technical improvements in transmission, air-conditioning, engine efficiency and seat comfort, the other evolution has been in livery. 
If the body has leaping tigers and galloping horses it should be parked and left to rust in peace.  Today the emphasis is on long, sweeping abstract designs in pastel, supposedly creating an impression of tranquil movement, flowing gently like a stream.
Wildlife is also popular.  “We have more animals in Arjosari – deer, pandas and dolphins – than any zoo in the province,” commented one Bizmaniac dryly.
David’s father, Bambang Gunawan Lie started the carrosserie (a borrowed French word) in 1964, and the company has just had a big birthday bash.  He said the industry had changed dramatically since the fall of Soeharto and the lifting of chassis import restrictions.
“You can say that the growth has been linked to Reformasi (the 1998 change to democracy),” he said. “The demand for busses is growing as more people have money and want to travel.”
His company, which produces between 400 and 500 vehicles a year and employs almost 600 workers, is far from the largest in Java.
The bare frames are shipped into Indonesia from companies overseas. These are little more than the engine, wheels and flat steel frame, the foundation on which to build the body.  The finished product can cost around Rp 3.5 billion (US$300,000).
  The most popular chassis are Japanese Hino. Their suspensions are said to be particularly tolerant of rubble roads. However some companies modify the imports to add their cheaper versions of air suspension.
 (First published in The Jakarta Post 9 June 2014)

Thursday, June 05, 2014


This Karnoval’s not over    
On 6 June in 1901, first president Soekarno was apparently born in Surabaya, though that’s contestable. He died 69 years later and is buried about 170 kilometers south of the East Java capital in the city of Blitar where his family once lived and where some believe he first saw the world.
In 1970 nervous authorities reckoned this resting place was far enough from Jakarta to ensure the tomb of the Proklamator of Independence could not become a shrine and rallying point for resistance against Soeharto, the man who grabbed the top job after a coup d’état five years earlier.
For a while the isolation tactic worked.  But once Soeharto had been dethroned in 1998 the people of Blitar set about reinstating their favourite lad’s reputation as the nation’s founding father. Duncan Graham reports from Soekarnoville, aka Blitar.
There have been several standout decisions made during Indonesia’s Independence history.
Using Bahasa Malay (instead of Javanese) for the new nation’s language was a uniting masterstroke. So was the concept of accepting Pancasila (five principles) as a State ideology instead of a statement specific to one faith.
The third was not embalming the body of Bung (brother or mate) Karno and putting him in an icy mausoleum, like Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Had that happened Blitar would be in adulatory overdrive rather than third gear, though accelerating.
A grand museum has been built near the grave and for the past 15 years June has been proclaimed Soekarno Month.  This year it started on the evening of 31 May with a carnival of weird and even weirder floats, like the one from the Archives Department that featured a flag of a filing cabinet, or the Water Supply Department’s phantom taps – hardly a turn-on.

The show then spilled into the next day with serious speeches, goose-step marches, a squadron of Roman legionnaire lookalikes carrying Pancasila tin shields, shouts of Tandyo! (high Javanese for Ready!) and dancers whose incendiary beauty could inflame a reception for Hollywood hots.
“The first of June should be a national holiday to recognize Pancasila Day when Soekarno first talked publicly about the five principles,” said Djoko Harijanto, the former creative director of the parade and still prominent in the organization.
“For us Pancasila and Soekarno are inseparable and this is the time.”
Inevitably many displays featured the first president punching the air, splendid in white suit and black glasses; this is the image that spooked the West fearing a red demagogue was leading the giant new nation leftwards.
Those slack on history, or blessed with enough imagination to fill the gaps, showed Soekarno as scarecrow, supernatural figure, blotchy-faced drunk and everything in between.
Soeharto’s paranoia was misplaced.  His predecessor has been celebrated but not deified. A pop-eyed version with internal fluorescent lights braced by a big stick up his backside (which explains the pained features) can’t be taken seriously.
SMP 2 Blitar (Junior High School) teachers Mohammad Ashari, Nurul Purwandari and Suwarno bin Ruslan did better with a Chinese dragon to celebrate ethnic diversity. They followed this next day with a giant fruit and vegie salad of threaded carrots and drooping chilli cooking in the ferocious sun faster than on a gas stove.
“This is part of our studies and we all have to be here,” said science teacher Nurul.
“Pancasila is important, particularly to challenge corruption, though not all in the new generation are interested.”
And not just the students.  Hundreds of grey-suited public servants were drafted to appear at the aloon-aloon, the great grass square that features a giant banyan tree at the center of a high-level gazebo.
From this vantage point The Jakarta Post clearly saw scores of bureaucrats sitting, smoking or lounging while a choir sang the national anthem and the Pancasila principles were barked out. Only the more serious and those closer to the official dais snapped to attention.
“I’d like to have P4 (see breakout) reintroduced so everyone understands how vital this document is to the development of our nation,” said Djoko Harijanto. “The principles should be used in everyday life.’
“By recognising and respecting ethnic and religious diversity. We need a nation free from fear where we can accept independent thinking.  By building gotong-royong (community self help) so we work together – as we’re doing now.”
Saffron-jacketed Buddhists pushed their own barrow (literally) behind an Islamic group in dazzling white, strong enough to blind a detergent commercial. Their banner read: Pancasila Sakti (divine power).

One group had an unstable ogoh-ogoh (giant papier-mâché ogre). Unfortunately this tailgated a float that stopped suddenly in the heavy traffic as the police had failed to close the roads or control the huge crowds.
The great sabre-toothed monster toppled, and then savaged the nation’s founder with Styrofoam fangs before the fight was broken up. Make of that what you will – sinister symbol, fearsome prediction, or just another stuff-up and chance for a laugh.

There were several bands among the 50 odd (as in all meanings of the word) floats, performing brilliantly, badly and occasionally worse.  No-one cared. Pancasila is esoteric stuff, but this night was never going to be cerebral.
Perhaps there were a few foreigners embedded in the five-deep crowds that lined the two kilometer journey from Mayor’s home to office, though none were reported by marshals.
“I regret this,” said deputy mayor Haji Purnawa Bukori, “we’ve got to attract the tourists.  I agree this is a marvellously colorful and fun event that many visitors would love to see, but we’re not doing enough publicity.  I promise, next year will be different.”
But before then there’s the rest of the month to fill with functions and speeches, culminating on 21 June, the day Bung Karno passed away – though not from Blitar.

Thwarting extremists
Like many aspects of Indonesian history, the origins of Pancasila are the stuff of myth and magic.  Some believe the document was dug up by Soekarno in a field behind Pegangsangan Timur in Jakarta, a Moses touch. 
The less romantic credit medical doctor Radjiman Wedyodiningrat with the words and the Revolutionary Council with refinements.
These included shifting ‘Belief in One God’ to first place, and deleting a clause that would have made Indonesia an Islamic republic and Muslins subject to Sharia law.
Faith is represented by a star on the coat of arms. A chain symbolizes a just and civilized humanity, a banyan tree for national unity, a buffalo head for democracy with rice and cotton for basic needs.
In 1984 Soeharto imposed a Pancasila indoctrination program for all students called P4. This has now been scrapped, but like Djoko Harijanto, political historian Professor Hariyono (below) thinks the topic should be revived.

He teaches it at Malang’s State University; his latest book Ideologi Pancasila was published in February.
“The problem is that too many just pay lip service to Pancasila, like your disinterested public servants in Blitar,” he said.
“In the past P4 was taught uncritically. Pancasila is important and needed even more than before, but it must be applied to our daily lives. The rule of law must be respected. Why are we still tolerant of criminality?
“Our education is at fault because it relies on students memorizing, not analysing,
“Pancasila has been manipulated by governments. Now it’s time for it to be rejuvenated. Events like those at Blitar make people happy, but no-one is thinking.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 June 2014