The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, September 29, 2014


Getting the Big C in focus  


Cancer is a word, not a sentence, say survivors who know that the vile disease can be thrashed.  All that’s needed is the right treatment, limitless support layered with luck – and a powerful positive attitude.

Being confronted by a major task with a deadline also helps - like producing a book ahead of the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

“Publishing requires huge energy,” said New Zealand geomorphologist Dr Noel Trustrum as he red-inked text corrections and sorted page proofs in his hometown of Wellington.  He’d just returned from another ten-day high-tech radiation treatment in Auckland, 650 kilometers distant.

“But this has kept me going.  I’ve had no time to think about my cancer.”

There’s another factor in play: every page carries a story or picture of resilience and recovery from appalling tragedy, courage in crises and the determination to look ahead; the bigger picture shrinks individual problems.

Aceh Revives – Celebrating 10 years of Recovery in Aceh is a then-and-now account of what’s happened since the world’s third largest recorded earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, heaving the ocean floor and triggering a huge tsunami.

At least 230,000 people perished as a tidal wave up to 30 meters high smashed its way through coastal communities in several Indian Ocean countries. Aceh took the brunt; around 170,000 were killed and 500,000 of the province’s 4.5 million population were left homeless, jobless and landless.

The city of Banda Aceh was heavily hit.  In the book Imam Munandar recalls “a large black blanket creeping over the land” and his desperate, but unsuccessful search, for members of his family. 

Five weeks after the wave Dr Trustrum arrived on an assignment from NZ Aid to report on long-term needs. The small South Pacific nation had already provided emergency support and now wanted to help prevent further tragedies.

He’d been an irregular visitor to Indonesia on watershed management aid projects since 1988 but was unprepared for the “sensory overload” he encountered in early 2005.

“I soon became overwhelmed by the full force of sights, sounds and smells,” he wrote “It felt surreal to the point that I found myself being desensitised to the reality of the situation.”

Geomorphologists (“skin of the earth scientists”) are multi-discipline people who study landforms and the forces that shape them. Dr Trustrum, who’d originally trained as a geologist, had been selected because he was one of NZ’s leading specialists with more than 30 year’s experience in Europe, Japan, Vietnam and Pacific Islands.

In Aceh he met conservationist Mike Griffiths another Kiwi and long-term Indonesian resident.  He’d established the Leuser International Foundation in 1994 to protect the ecosystem around the 3,404-meter high Mount Leuser.

Griffiths knew his way around and had the right contacts.  By the time Dr Trustrum returned to his Wellington office in the government-owned company GNS Science where he worked as a senior development specialist, he already had the makings of a reforestation project to stabilize the land and provide security for farmers.

He also had gigabytes of photos, for he was a keen landscape photographer, a fascination developed during his teen years when his father had a darkroom.  The photos showed the devastation and led to a small book called Scars: Life after the Tsunami.

He’d kept the lens of his special panoramic camera mainly focused on the torn townscapes and ripped lands rather than the numbed and battered people struggling to understand what had happened. 

Three years later he organized a workshop on disaster risk management in Jakarta to celebrate 50 years of NZ-Indonesia diplomatic relations.  Also there was Indonesia’s famous Dr Fixit - Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, then director of the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Aceh and Nias (BRR), now head of the President’s Delivery Unit. He suggested Dr Trustrum’s photos be published to commemorate the disaster.

Then fate intervened with a rare liver cancer.  He underwent a major operation that went wrong.  Doctors reckoned he’d last six months.. “But they didn’t know Noel,” said his wife Helen. “He’s determined.”

He recovered, but this year the disease reappeared – hence the radiation.

Despite these traumatic events he was determined to revisit Aceh in case the cancer made it impossible to travel.  With the help of translator Kadek Krishna Adidharma and photographer Udo von Mulert he set out to record the “inspirational stories” and reshoot the scenes recorded in 2005.

Supported by NZ Ambassador David Taylor, Dr Trustrum mustered eight corporate sponsors to back the 218-page book, which includes poetry from people like award-winning Bali midwife Robin Lim who also rushed to help in Aceh.

Aceh Revives, published by Saritaksu Editions in Bali (run by another Kiwi, Sarita Newson) will be launched at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in early October and then in Jakarta at the NZ Embassy.

“Rehabilitation is still a work in progress, but overall it’s pretty amazing,” Dr Trustrum said. “There’s now very little evidence of broken buildings though the fear remains. 

“Eight four-storey escape buildings have been built on pillars allowing waves to rush through the lower levels, but many houses would still be vulnerable if another tsunami hit.

“There’s also a huge need for a better evacuation strategy. In April 2012 there was another big quake; gridlock followed as people trying to get to higher ground were moving against those seeking to reach the escape buildings (pictured right) closer to the sea.

“It’s been a fulfilling exercise to discover the powerful untold stories of the recovery that demonstrate the ability of the human spirit to endure, recover and rebuild.

“This isn’t just about Indonesia.  It’s about what happened, how people coped, what’s going on now and the lessons learnt– this is of international importance.

“The resilience of the Acehnese people has inspired me to move beyond my own personal struggle for good health.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2014)


Friday, September 12, 2014


Singapore Sleaze                                                          

As a scene of unzippered sordidness this should be a contender for the AVN (Adult Video News) awards, also known as the Porn Oscars - except it was real life.
At dusk in an open lane alongside a busy restaurant and well-lit road, the meat market was being stocked – a regular event.
Four women, who might once have been young, shuffled into line and stared through the crowd.  They wore the standard uniform  -  stilettos, tiny skirt and tinier blouse.  Before them their pimp vigorously spruiked their physical virtues to the ogling men.  In case they couldn’t understand his language he raised three fingers, then circled the thumb and forefinger. S$30 (Rp 275,000) for a session.
Some red-light spot in San Francisco or Sydney’s King’s Cross?  Maybe Amsterdam’s notorious De Wallen district where girls pose in shop windows? Or could it be Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy?
No, all those sex centers are too dignified.  This one’s base and coarse, yet it’s in prim, clean, image-conscious Singapore, the heartland of Asia’s conservative moral values where failing to flush a public WC will get you a S$500 (Rp 4.6 million) fine.
The little red dot where the media is controlled, where graffiti vandals get whipped and chewing gum is banned, is also the center of sleaze.
You won’t find the wares and whores of Geylang listed in the splendid brochures handed out by the Singapore Visitors’ Center, though by chance we found the area through a tourist promotion officer at Changi Airport.
We’d arrived late, missed flights and had no prior booking. “I could get you into Geylang,” he said hesitantly, trying to gauge the likely reaction, “but it’s the red light area.”
“But is it safe?” asked my wife.
“Of course,” he bristled.  “This is Singapore.”
That was more than a decade ago and we’ve used the suburb’s hotels on every trip since, finding them clean, convenient, well-located between two MRT (subway) stops just a few minutes ride to the upscale attractions, like museums and galleries.

It’s also surrounded by restaurants. No posh waiters to call you ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ as they shake out your serviette, only sweating girls in  shorts and bum belts pointing at pictures on greasy menus; but the food is plentiful, good value and absolutely authentic.
However Geylang is no longer quite so secure, according to Police Commissioner Ng Joo He, since last December’s riots in Little India, a suburb just five kilometers distant. The first major public disturbance in the city state since 1969, the riot followed a fatal traffic accident, and involved 300 migrant laborers trashing emergency vehicles.

A Straits Times report of the Committee of Inquiry into the mayhem revealed the situation in Geylang is now a bigger concern.
 “If Singaporeans are irked by the littering, the noise and the jaywalking in Little India they’ll certainly and quickly sense that there exists a hint of lawlessness in Geylang,” Commissioner Ng said.
Police statistics appear to uphold his claim. Last year 135 serious crimes were reported in Geylang (including ‘outrage of modesty’) compared with 85 in Little India, while the number of public order offences was double.
Yet none of this deters the tourists seeking relatively cheap rooms rather than  participating in the street services.  Some, elderly folk and those with children, have clearly not googled Geylang in depth.
Reality hits while filling in forms and having passport details copied by the smartly uniformed hotel receptionists.  As the procedures drag on couples with no luggage hand over S$20 (Rp 185,000) bills, grab a key and bolt for the lift, no questions asked.
There’s so much to see in Geylang, and it’s non-stop.  You won’t encounter Dior or Chanel here, but the stores sell most things found in Orchard Road, though the brands won’t be familiar.
Though a new regulation now prohibit alcohol sales between 2 am and 6 am the streets stay busy, and open-front coffee shops keep trading. Passersby flop into plastic chairs, dribble their way through soft-boiled eggs and rice porridge, then doze off hangovers till  the fridge is unlocked.
Along with the prostitutes, mainly Chinese who rarely speak English, there’s a resident population of pensioners who spend their time exchanging banter with the girls between jobs. 
These old men sleep in nearby rooms but spend their days in the cafes reminiscing of virilities lost while nursing S$6 (Rp 55,000) Tigers.  The local bottled beer is twice the price of its Indonesian equivalent.

The old fellows’ days are numbered, not through police harassment but because Geylang is being gentrified.  The colonial era buildings, including the curious blocks with curved concrete outside staircases, are being smashed down to build more hotels and apartments.
The men who do this work, mainly Tamils and Bangladeshis, wander Geylang in large numbers, picking their way through the sidewalk trade in bootleg cigarettes, video porn and drugs that are supposed to enhance men’s performance.
The law says such medicines can only be dispensed by registered chemists handling doctors’ prescriptions.
The law prohibits pornography and tobacco sales outside registered shops.  It’s illegal to solicit for sex, but any man alone in Geylang (or even with his wife) can expect to be sleeve-plucked and invited to negotiate for the services of his choice.
The police say they now deploy five squad cars in Geylang every weekend though blue uniforms are rarely seen. Presumably they are busy elsewhere sniffing out unflushed toilets.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower says the total foreign workforce is now more than 1.3 million, with around a quarter working in the construction industry.  These are mainly single young men who find freedoms in Singapore they’d never encounter back on the sub-continent.
Without outlets for their passions it’s reasoned that they’d tend to violence, so minor infractions are overlooked lest heavy handedness causes friction.
Those who step out of line  lose their jobs, are blacklisted and on the next Boeing leaving Changi.  After the Little India riot 55 men were deported. That tends to ensure some respect for the law.
Despite Commissioner Ng’s anxieties we’ll continue to use Geylang till the new hotels push prices into the stratosphere.  By then the district will be dead, its sunset folk dispersed, the girls back in Shanghai and Geylang just another boring suburb in an emasculated Lion City.
Accommodation prices vary depending on whether there’s a convention in town.  Rack rates start around S$150 (Rp 1.4 million) not including tax or breakfast, but Internet prices can be below S$100.
The rooms are small and poor value when compared to prices in Javanese cities, but usually clean, secure and well maintained.
Most of the foods familiar to Indonesians can be found in Geylang; Westerners who fumble chopsticks will have to adapt or go hungry. S$15 will get you a spectacular feed served on a chipped laminate-top.
Metered taxis from the airport cost under S$20 and take about 30 minutes.  It’s more fun and cheaper at S$2.40 (Rp 22,000)  to take the MRT direct to Aljunied or Kallang.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 September 2014)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Releasing the imprisoned talent   

Releasing the imprisoned talent                          
Art as a career has a bad name in Indonesia. Across the archipelago the same story repeatedly emerges in profiles of creative people: Their childhood talents were acknowledged but the family forbade formal study lest it interfere in the real purpose of life.
That meant being educated for a conventional profession. This being a culture of obedience the smart kids dried their eyes and brushes, let the paints harden and clay crumble. They became bankers and teachers, doctors and public servants, earning money, raising families, being seen as respectable and responsible.
In the case of Tatik Simanjuntak this meant training to be a lawyer, though she has never donned the black cloak of jurisprudence.
Instead she wears workshop plain and practical, and does what she wants – which is paint exquisite designs mainly drawn on glass. She takes these from the Hindu / Javanese epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, using wayang kulit figures but providing her own subtle interpretations. 
Although the term is usually translated as ‘leather puppets’ wayang is closely related to the Javanese word for spirits – bayang. For some the puppets are grotesque two-dimensional figures who jerk and gyrate their way across a simple screen -  poor guys’ TV.  For others they are a glimpse into another ancient world of magic and mystery. Only a few can enter that universe.
Tatik’s transition to professional artist is recent. She felt she couldn’t move until her father passed away, lest he die distressed because his daughter had disobeyed.   It wasn’t until 2007 that she was ready to uncage her spirit. By then she was 40 and a late starter indeed.
Has this caused problems?
“No, I don’t think so,” she said in her Malang studio.  “That’s given me time to mature and know what I want. I’ve never had formal lessons in art.  I’m still developing and experimenting - I’ve destroyed work that I don’t like.
“My friends from law school days are always facing problems – I’m not.  I don’t have a BMW but I’m happy, and I want others to be the same. I hope that can be done through my painting.
“I wasn’t a good student, just doing enough to pass.  I preferred to write poems than take lecture notes. I didn’t rebel – in Indonesian culture that could lead to a curse.”
Instead she’s been blessed. Her 20 square meter studio at the back of the town hall, perched above the Brantas River slashed in the volcanic rock far below. She’s in a cluster of similar buildings provided rent free by the local government to encourage artists to develop their businesses.
It’s a good idea, though there’s little passing traffic.  Fine for a quiet work environment, but not as showroom.  Fortunately the few who have found her have been the right people, including officials from the Governor of East Java’s office who bought 20 original pieces as gifts for diplomatic visitors.
“As a child in an army family we were constantly on the move,” she said.  “I was often sick and raised by different relatives in different towns. I learned to adjust and adapt.
“I like working and being alone. At first I painted portraits, but then started to draw from our culture.  I realised the wayang figures were the first true art in Java, caricatures of characters.
“I didn’t feel that I could change their features but I could add different backgrounds and ornaments.”    
After graduating she worked in a shop making handicrafts before turning to her first love. Since then her art has been shown at exhibitions in Bandung, Surabaya and Jakarta as well as her home city.  Last year she sent more than 50 pieces to Jakarta anticipating the sale of a couple.  All sold bar four.  It seemed that the once unwell child left to her imagination had found her place.
“As a child I loved to visit galleries and look at art books by myself. I was attracted to the work of Rembrandt which is probably why my work is in sombre tones.” The 17th century Dutch portraitist was famous for his iconography, the careful inclusion of other images to strengthen the principal feature, a style also followed by Tatik.
“When I lived with my grandmother she used to listen to wayang stories on the radio,” Tatik said.  “I used to lie there awake, absorbing the tales and characters. I so wish that children today were interested in our culture.  Bimo is my favourite.”
Also known as Bima or Werkudara, Bimo is a frightening, but soft-hearted figure – which might explain Tatik’s other passion – teaching art to poor children.  She started doing this in Malang’s alun-alun, the town square used by hundreds every day for chatting and recreation.
This led to an invitation to teach at Sunan Kalijojo, an elementary Islamic kampong school where she works one day a week. Here she encourages students to use their imagination to turn objects they find, including rubbish like drinking straws and plastic cups, into art.
“I also tell them about the wayang and batik designs so these are not lost” she said. “I have talent and I think it is the responsibility of artists to try and pass their skills on to others, particularly if they wouldn’t normally get that education.
“It’s hard to classify my work, or the sort of artist I am. I find the medium of glass to be most satisfying, and it doesn’t matter if the surface is flat or curved (as in big jars). Special inks imported from Europe are used to make sure the pictures can’t be rubbed off. I’m still experimenting and developing.
“There are many challenges.  Unlike canvas, glass can’t absorb.”
Glass painting was popular last century prior to the Japanese invasion and is often classified as ‘folk art’ by gallery curators. A reverse form was introduced from the Netherlands during the colonial era.
“Painting is expressing the wisdom of the heart,” Tatik said. “There must be chemistry between the artist and the viewer. If I had children I’d let them decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives.”

First published in The Jakarta Post 10 September 2014)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


Bland words to save face   


It’s taken nine months to produce just 311 words that are supposed to create an ‘understanding on a code of conduct’ for security cooperation between Indonesia and Australia following spying revelations.

Note this is not a code of conduct, but an ‘understanding on’ a code of conduct’.  Not even an ‘understanding of..’ This isn’t English, its bafflegab.

With an output of just over one word a day, authors would have been sacked by their publishers; newspapers employing journalists with this level of productivity would have collapsed.

But this much heralded slice of bureaucratise signed last week (28 Aug) by two foreign ministers, Marty Natalegawa for Indonesia and Julie Bishop for Australia, was never going to be a Lincolnian call to higher purpose.

Its purpose was twofold - to save face, and let outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) retire next month (Oct) with grace having recovered his pride,  clearing the scrub for an academic position in Australia.  

Last year former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden - brave whistleblower or despicable traitor, depending on your perspective - revealed in The New York Times that Australia had been spying on its nearest neighbor.

Not just eavesdropping suspected bomb-makers but also the phones of SBY -  “a dear and trusted friend” according to Ms Bishop - and his wife of 38 years Kristiani Herawati.   The excuse? It was rumoured she’d been plotting to keep the presidency in the family.

Imagine the fury if we’d found that Indonesia’s intelligence agencies had been listening to Margie Abbott’s intimate chats with her spouse to learn about Liberal pre-selections.  We’d be expelling the Indonesian ambassador and half his colleagues.

Unsurprisingly Indonesians were not amused, yet their reaction was surprisingly restrained. Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was withdrawn from Canberra and cooperation in some areas was put on hold. There were small demonstrations outside the Jakarta Embassy, but ambassador Greg Moriarty stayed put.

When authoritarian General Soeharto ruled Indonesia, Australian tourist flights to Bali were turned back when a 1986 newspaper article offended the president. That hurt.

Seasoned observers in both nations agree the August signing changes little; earlier demands for an Australian apology have not been met.  The Jakarta Post editor Meidyatama Suryodiningrat wrote that the document “presents little new other than to smooth over a political rift without really reducing suspicions or even furthering the trust between the two neighbours.”

However he did concede that the ‘joint understanding’ made it easier for president elect Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to start afresh in relations with the Republic’s southern neighbour.
The document has two clauses:
·                    The Parties will not use any of their intelligence, including surveillance capacities, or other sources, in ways that would harm the interests of the Parties.
·                    The Parties will promote intelligence cooperation between relevant institutions and agencies in accordance with their respective national laws and regulations.
What does this mean? Who defines ‘harm’ and how is it measured?  It’s a subjective term. What interests?  Clearly it’s an agreement a lawyer’s clerks could shred.  If it had been a tin of beans shoppers would be demanding a refund having found the can empty.
There are references back to the 2006 Lombok Treaty, a ten-point agreement tagged as a ‘framework for security cooperation’. 
Despite the grand title this is another pedestrian paper. It gives either party opportunities to create their own meanings of open-ended phrases like ‘endeavouring to foster’ and cooperation ‘within the limits of their responsibility.’  If there’s a dispute the English text prevails.
Despite the flaws this is probably as good as it gets when it comes to negotiating agreements between two such radically different nations, cultures and political agendas.
A hard-nosed Indonesian negotiator might have pushed for no spying or trade sanctions would be imposed.  Australia needs Indonesia far more than the reverse. But that was only going to happen with a new administration in Jakarta keen to display its machismo.
SBY, constantly lauded as the best Indonesian president Australia has had, was not inclined to be assertive, wanting settlement before his compulsory retirement after two five-year terms. 
The Indonesian electorate’s interest had also swung to other issues in the wake of the contested presidential election result.
This ensured Australian hands stayed on the keyboard for the word-a-day essay. If there are any Indonesian fingerprints on the page they’re not visible to the naked eye.
First published in On Line Opinion on 2 September 2014

Monday, September 01, 2014


A town of sleaze and no calendar  

You wouldn’t want to stay in Paruk, even if it was the only sanctuary available during a tsunami.  If the fare didn’t finish you, the supernatural would – be extra wary for comets portending tragedy.
This fictional Javanese village is not the quaint abode of gentle rustics who maintain benign traditions while nurturing their fertile slopes.
In the words of Ahmad Tohari, the author of the trilogy The Dancer, the people of Paruk are ‘impoverished and backward … thin, sickly [and] foulmouthed.’  Among this crew of dirty old men and their conniving wives there’s just one attractive inhabitant, a talented artist called Srintil.  She’s inherited the spirit of a long dead ronggeng dancer to become a seductive performer who ‘wooed without words, enticed with the power of magic.’
Srintil was one of the few survivors of a mass poisoning that overtook Paruk in the midst of a drought when many townsfolk died after eating contaminated food.  Raised by a couple of relatives she exhibits her talents at an early age and is soon returning fame and fortune to her otherwise blighted birthplace.
She becomes a prostitute, which is her destiny, but falls in love with her childhood sweetheart Rasus who at times takes the role of narrator.  He gets into the army by accident and finds religion, though remains consumed by desire.
Although we’re told the people of Paruk don’t keep calendars, readers who know the recent history of Indonesia will sense calamity coming.  For this is 1964 and a communist agitator called Bakar (meaning ‘burn’) is stirring the folk, even though they have little interest in abandoning their apathy and don’t even understand the meaning of ‘proletariat’.
Doom approaches, and though Srintil wants out from being the party’s propaganda dancer it’s too late.  Dreadful things are happening in distant Jakarta’s crocodile hole and Paruk is about to be dragged into the pit.
This is a difficult book to grasp emotionally.  Some of it is porn with the author gratuitously embellishing the story, though there’s always been a level of obscenity lurking beneath the politeness and respectability of Javanese culture.
The Serat Centhini [The Javanese Story of Life] commissioned by Surakarta Sultan Pakubuwono V early in the 19th century is so full of sex that translations into modern Indonesian are reportedly still unavailable.
 So it’s surprising that this book was ever published back in the more uptight early 1980s when the censor was king.  It was first serialized as Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk [The dancer of Paruk Village] in Kompas, a high-standard broadsheet keen to promote literature, and with a reputation for the serious, not the salacious.
American ethnomusicologist Rene Lysloff, who translated the text, came across a bound copy of the book by chance when undertaking research in Banyumas [Central Java], and found it fitted his fieldwork:
‘I pondered the ethnographic truth of the novel, wondering whether fiction could be separated from fact in its depiction of an isolated Javanese village and the people who lived there’, he wrote. ‘I felt certain that he [Tohari] had described a real world within the fiction of his novel.’
A ghastly conclusion, for if Paruk and its vile residents represent reality, the police and child protection authorities should be heading into the hinterland right now armed with warrants.
Yet the author is renowned, not as a smut merchant but as a scholar and prolific writer, a Muslim intellectual who advocates a holistic understanding of Islam, ‘one that embraces existing forms of culture.’
At the end of the second book in the trilogy, A Shooting Star at Dawn, the communists break with the culture that nurtured them by vandalizing the graves of the village ancestors. Then arsonists attack. After the coup of 30 September 1965, the slaughter starts.
In the final book, The Rainbow’s Arc Srintil is imprisoned and raped, though not before Tohari has laid some ground rules for the reader, including ‘the courage to acknowledge historical truth.’ 
This is an astonishing statement when set against the current blindness towards the massacres, despite some debate flowing from American film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing.
How did this taboo topic even get into print 30 years ago? Apparently the version in the book is not the one that appeared in Kompas, which was written to fit the government’s view of events.
The horrors, the killings, the moral questions raised and the whole sickening purge of communists, sympathizers and even those like Srintil and her neighbors who had no interest in politics, is confronted.
Here The Dancer finds its worth, though the dilemma remains: In the earlier chapters Paruk and its people are painted in such lewd hues that it’s difficult to feel great sympathy when they are treated brutally.
They didn’t deserve such a fate – no-one did.  They were victims because they were ignorant, just ordinary people with simple beliefs who became useful scapegoats in Soeharto’s time of terror.
Does this mean they are at fault? In this context the story seems to by-pass the author’s aim to honor the nation’s culture and traditions.
Tragedy befalls Paruk ‘because it never tried to find harmony with God’, whatever that means. Dr Lysloff helpfully adds an endnote explaining that the author wanted to describe a community ‘entirely without contemporary notions of sin and virtue’ – and in this he has succeeded.
He has also mastered the tricky art of keeping the reader on track, even when we have little empathy with the characters.  This is stirring drama covering the most significant years since the birth of the nation. 
Some claim it’s been written with raw honesty to make Indonesians see themselves without the benefit of a government lens. Others dismiss Tohari’s work as so much indulgent fantasy that shames a modern nation with strong religious values. For this reviewer the former explanation carries most weight.
The Dancer                                                                                                                                by Ahmad Tohari (translated by Rene TA Lysloff                                                                 Lontar, Jakarta, Modern Library of Indonesia, 2012                                                                         462 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 September 2014)


City of 100,000 Sacrifices  

They settle on the sidewalk of a pretty park, squatting wherever there’s shade and shelter. Then they unpack their suitcases and like magicians reveal their gifts, talents – and needs.
Indonesian women, mainly 20 and 30 somethings, singing, dancing, preparing food, making handicrafts, reading the Koran, seemingly happy.  It’s a scene common across the archipelago, hardly worth a comment except for one tragic omission. No children.
Duncan Graham reports from Hong Kong on the sadness, suffering and resilience of the nation’s remittance heroines.
Dewi Karina (above) is attractive, cheerful and smart. The creative 33-year old makes beautiful flowers out of plastic and whatever materials she can find, and she teaches her skills to others at no cost.
Back in her home town of Surabaya live her two teenage children – and her former husband.
Divorce is one of many hazards faced by the Tenaga Kerja Indonesia [Indonesian work force - TKI] who labor overseas to get their families ahead - while their partners grow restless and sometimes roam.  TKIs don’t just suffer homesickness – they also risk family disintegration.
Another danger is exploitation and brutality.  Earlier this year Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, became internationally known for all the wrong reasons.
She alleged she’d been forced to work 21 hours a day and so badly beaten she was hospitalised on returning to East Java.  She carried just US $9 (Rp 100,000) in her wallet after working for nine months.  Her beautician boss was charged with assault and criminal intimidation; the matter is still before the courts.
The case shocked because Hong Kong is reputed to be the safest overseas posting for Indonesian domestics, with labor laws well enforced, unlike the Middle East.

Every Sunday the Indonesians gather in Victoria Park for their weekly bonding.  More than 100,000 are employed in the former British colony, now the Special Administrative Region of China, and most spend all day at the 19 hectare park.
Early arrivals, like Khumaidah, 33, bring rolls of plastic to cover the kerb under a footbridge, ready for her friends to sit.  She’s bareheaded and wears a scoop-neck pink T-shirt, but later ducks into the women’s toilet, emerging in an all-encompassing print dress and green jilbab, the right headgear for a Koranic reading.
“There’s no discrimination here,” she said.  “More and more women are wearing headscarves.” Badges proclaiming ‘I love Allah’ are common.
Dewi, 30, wanders by in black, collecting for Gaza Strip victims of the Palestine-Israel conflict.  Everyone contributes. The activist says it’s her way of expressing solidarity with fellow Muslims overseas.
In between sits Nyami Kaswadi, 47, (below)  who has lugged about 50 kilograms of books from her employer’s flat to set up her Pandu Pustaka suitcase library, an eclectic mix of pop fiction, literature and self-help books.
“I want to show the people of Hong Kong that we are not prostitutes,” she said forcefully.  “We are proud wives and mothers who have left our homes and families only because there’s no work in our homeland.

“We can spend our spare time sitting around and gossiping, or we can use the opportunity to learn.  I’m not upset if borrowers don’t return books.  That means they are being read.”
Nearby a tambourine band gets set to sing Islamic songs, while around the corner a small group is vigorously dancing to a raunchy Western tune.  The lyrics celebrate women’s role in society, asserting individuality and equality.
Their energetic leader Saniya is a member of Aliansi Migran Progresif, [AMP] a self-help organization that ensures workers’ rights are respected.
“If our members have problems with their bosses we act as go-betweens,” said AMP President Yuni.  “This can be a tough country, but the laws do protect foreign workers.
“Difficulties include adjusting to the lifestyle and language. Although English is widely used, caregivers need Cantonese to help the elderly.”
A few local men pass through and there’s cheerful banter. Some women have married Chinese and settled in Hong Kong.  There are whispers about lesbianism, and it’s clear there are several same-sex couples in the crowds, doing little to hide their affection.  It’s joyless being alone in a foreign land.
Bored Leisure and Cultural Services staff wander around hoping to snare a trader, for ‘hawking’ is prohibited. Fat chance.
The women outnumber the officials by several hundred to one, so who knows whether bungkus (take-away) plastic boxes of bakso (meat ball soup), nasi campur (rice and mixed vegetables and a dozen other delicacies are changing hands for cash or friendship.
A Dutch couple from Jakarta with a new-born stop to chat – politely declining requests to nurse the blond baby from women desperate to relive the joys of motherhood they’ve forsaken. Their expressions are heart-ripping. Being separate from their kids is like a gaol term.

Lia Samatron’s (left) perfect English and easy confidence with bureaucracy makes her the go-to for first-timers registering at the nearby Indonesian Embassy, conveniently close to shops selling the spices that gave the islands their first name.
“I used to run a travel agency from my home,” Lia said.  “When I’ve saved enough I’ll go back and re-open.
“There are so many opportunities for improvement.  One of the (Indonesian) banks here runs courses on small business management.  If you’re motivated you can learn much that will get you a better job.
“This education should be available in Indonesia.  We shouldn’t have to leave our homes and families.”
The basic wage is about HK $4,000 (Rp 6 million) plus food and accommodation, usually a tiny space in a cramped high rise.
 “Who’d want to be a maid in Indonesia?” Lia asked. “The money is bad and so is the treatment. Here we can earn enough to help our families, and get our children a good education.”
Wanti, 47, agreed. She’s putting her two daughters through Malang’s Brawijaya University and is determined they’ll not have to labor overseas. 
Across the spectacular harbor on Kowloon Peninsula Icha, 24, has taken on the local dress style of short shorts while showing her new friend Wati, 27, the sights.  These include a cruise liner that pours its contents of well-heeled overseas tourists into an already seething shopping mall.

“I like Hong Kong because I have freedom to do what I want and wear what I like,” said Icha, a four-year veteran.  “I can’t be myself in Indonesia.” 
Two Indonesian men approach and the couples are swallowed by the crowd.  No-one pays any attention:  Hong Kong is a city where you mind your own business and get on with life.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 August 2014)