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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Teenagers in a twisted world     


“Dad, how come we didn’t know some people in Indonesia hated us so much?  We had heaps of friends and everyone was always nice to us.  Was it anything we did or said?”

A troubling question from 14-year old Ruth Scott to her father Robert after his Muslim friend Urip and 20 other academics and students had been torn apart by a female suicide bomber.

On that fateful day at a Christian university in Central Java, Robert was scheduled to deliver the lecture.  Instead he’d invited Urip to speak in a bid to build religious tolerance and understanding.

So Robert was watching from the back of the hall when a Jemaah Islamiyah fanatic struck the podium targeting Westerners but killing Indonesians. 

The Scott family flees to New Zealand in deep shock.  Ruth mourns the loss of her friends and those she’s had to leave, particularly her best mate Ari, (Urip’s daughter), and her happy life in Indonesia. 

Back in her safe and snug homeland Ruth rejects counselling and makes a telling point about Kiwi’s ignorance: “No, I hated it.  They had no idea about the bomb.  Or Indonesia.”

Robert blames himself for not realizing militant Islam had grown so fast and penetrated the campuses.  His daughter’s questions scratch the guilt scabs raw.

Fortunately it’s fiction and on the keyboard of a writer hostile to Indonesia The Red Suitcase could have been a polemic against Islam.  But prize-winning author Jill Harris turns the brutality of religious intolerance around, to nurture understanding of the complexities of faith and culture.

This is something she knows well, having spent a “tumultuous” three years in the early 1960s teaching English at the Christian Satya Wacana University in Salatiga, Central Java with her journalist husband Ian.

The couple had been inspired by a Protestant minister in NZ who told them their nation’s future lay in Asia, not Europe.  At the time most young adventure seekers spent their gap years in Britain.

“We did not have exalted ideas about ourselves and certainly no belief in the superiority of Western values,” she said forcefully.  “We wanted to learn about our neighbors, to get alongside people of another culture. Missionaries?  Heavens no, horror, horror.”

It took almost a year to get visas, time spent learning Indonesian from the only available text in NZ.

“It was an incredibly tough time but a life-changing experience,” she recalled.  “Martial law was in place; on the drive from Jakarta we were stopped by soldiers ten times.

“We lived on Indonesian wages, but in fact got less than local staff who took other jobs to survive. We called the local shop Tidak Ada (don’t have) because it was almost always empty of stock.  Relatives sent us food parcels. Yet we never felt unsafe.

“The economy was collapsing – people were eating rats.  Rice that sold for four rupiah a kilo when we arrived was priced at 95 rupiah when we left.

“Many, many times I wanted to give up.  It was very difficult, but it changed my life in a positive way, though I’ve never completely bridged the cultural gap.

“Back in Auckland I realised how racism was part of our society.  In those days Maori people were hardly recognized.  That’s no longer the situation.”

While in Indonesia Ruth gave birth to her two sons.  Medical problems gave her further insights into the Republic’s health services. 

On her return Jill taught Indonesian and gave public lectures on NZ’s closest Asian neighbour. The couple also helped establish the NZ-Indonesia Association, a non-government organization dedicated to improving relationships between the two nations and which still exists.

The Red Suitcase maintains the message that NZ’s future lies in understanding Asia, the same direction given by the minister who first inspired the couple to head to Indonesia. Fortunately it does this subtlety. Just because readers are young doesn’t mean they can’t spot and reject a barrow-pusher.

Later the story moves to another level as Ruth discovers letters from an airman relative killed in World War I1 and enters the “slippery nature of time.”  But it’s the Indonesian bombing which sets the scene for a girl rushing into womanhood and confronting the great questions: Why is life not always good?  Why do people cause grief?

Teenage novels have accelerated far beyond tales of enchanting princesses who find true love and live happily ever after.  Kids who get hate and horror served on breakfast TV can’t be protected from the great tragedies of the world they’re entering.

“Hush – you’ll understand when you grow up,” is no longer an acceptable response when Generation Net reaches the age of inquiry. A child’s book no longer has to be childish.

Jill Harris understands this market, reasoning that modern kids need frank answers in fiction that reflects reality, not tip-toeing around the topics that set adults trembling.

The Red Suitcase is her fourth book, but the first based on her time in Indonesia.  The title comes from the real life discovery of a box holding almost 100 letters from the writer’s journalist uncle Colwyn Jones, a bomber navigator who died in Europe.

These facts form the major plot as the fictional Ruth comes across similar correspondence, entering “a sliding time zone,” that puts her into the aircraft raining death over Germany.

Despite the Scott family’s ghastly experience in Indonesia they don’t hate the country,  peppering their conversations with Indonesian, illustrating the author’s “affection” for the archipelago.

“The media now offers a softer image of Indonesia,” she said. “But Indonesian is no longer taught in NZ schools or universities.”

Although Ian has been back, leukaemia has prevented Mrs Harris, 75, from returning to the land that shaped her thinking.  Her next project is to publish the couple’s Salatiga diaries so readers can understand more of life in the Soekarno era.

“Indonesia taught me about resilience, tolerance and friendship, and what it means to be really poor,” she said in her batik-draped home.  “It also helped me discover myself.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 November 2014)

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Horror tourism – heritage that hurts
Discussion of the massacres of late 1965 is still taboo in many areas of Indonesia, and the mass graves off-limits.  Not so in Cambodia where the horrors of the Pol Pot regime are now major tourist attractions.  Duncan Graham reports from Phnom Penh on a nation that’s being transparent about its vile past and turning it into an economic resource.

 Choeung Elk is serene. It was once an orchard.  At the center of the tree-filled park about 15 kilometers outside of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is a tall monument of concrete and glass.  The windows are stacked with what appear from a distance to be small boulders.  The building is topped by a Buddhist stupa.
The trunk of one stout tree is a mass of multicoloured cottons suggesting a joyous or prayerful place.
There are ponds, shady meandering walks and some small pits surrounded by low chain fences.  Visitors who peer among the stones and soil, the leaves and insects, can spot small spherical objects and what seem to be fractured fibrous sticks.
Close up the rocks under the stupa are revealed as piles of skulls, the blank eye sockets staring through the glass.  The beribboned tree is a shrine; it was used to smash out the brains of small children. Bullets were expensive and in short supply so the executioners beat their victims to death using farm tools, like hoes, and iron bars.
Loudspeakers hung in the trees played cheerful music to drown out the screams of those being killed so local residents wouldn’t know what was happening.  But they did.  They saw trucks full of prisoners roll through the gates and then return empty.
Choeung Elk was one of more than 300 killing fields in Cambodia; about 9,000 people died there after first being processed at S 21, also known asTuoi Sleng, a three-storey high school in the capital converted to a torture center.
The skulls, teeth and bone fragments are the remains of the victims of mass killings which swept Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.  This was more than ten years after Indonesia’s genocide where at least 500,000 people were murdered for being communists, or supporting communist ideals.
The number of humans slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge [Red Khmer] in what used to be Democratic Kampuchea, is also a guesstimate, but certainly exceeds one million.
They were killed for the opposite reason to those who died in Indonesia – for not being totally committed communists.   However, as in the Indonesian pogroms, many were slaughtered arbitrarily to settle personal gripes, to satisfy psychopathic urges or for no logical reason.
Anyone who wore glasses was automatically suspect as an ‘intellectual’ and therefore an enemy of the state.  The same fate befell many creative people in Indonesia. Because they were writers, artists or film-makers they were suspect.
The Khmer Rouge were eventually defeated by their former allies, the North Vietnamese.  The country, which has now returned to a monarchy, could have attempted to hide the great shame of its terrible past, and – like Indonesia – smothered all information.

Instead, and to lift the curse of history, the government promotes study and discussion of its gore-soaked history and encourages tourists to visit the grim remnants of evil that litter the land.
Ribbons to remember;  babies were bashed to deaath on this tree.
It sounds ghoulish and at first it feels awkward, almost voyeuristic.  Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, not morally challenging. But turning the hideous recent past into a modern attraction works in Cambodia largely because it’s handled openly and with dignity. There are no touts, signs are few and visitors are left to wander and contemplate mortality.
This, whisper the pits and ponds, is how humans can behave when driven by fanaticism and delusional ideology. It’s our shameful story, say the Cambodians, but it could be yours.  Be ever alert; cruelty knows no political or cultural borders, malice is universal.
The classrooms in what used to be the Tuol Svay Prey High School, now the Tuoi Sleng Genocidal Museum have no desks, only rusting metal beds where the political prisoners were manacled and tortured. 
But in their weirdly methodical way the Khmer Rouge first photographed every victim, and these pictures have been preserved. .  The walls of the school are covered in their portraits.
In other rooms are the devices used to inflict terrible agony, like metal baths where men and women were held underwater till they signed confessions that they were capitalist spies who harbored hopes of overthrowing the regime. Outside the exercise bars used by students became gallows.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Genocidal Museum, along with the Angkor Wat temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage site in the north of the country, are the reason why Cambodia – a nation of only 15 million – attracts more than four million tourists a year.  This number has been growing by more than 15 per cent annually during the past few years. 
By comparison, Indonesia with a population of 240 million draws less than 9 million visitors a year.

Why go into the dark?
Seeking horror on your holidays is even the subject of academic research into the psychological needs to visit sites of tragedy.
The Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain has been studying ‘where death education and tourism studies collide (to) … shine critical light on the social reality of death.
‘Dark tourism can also reveal tensions in cultural memory, interpretation and authenticity, and political and moral dilemmas in remembering our heritage that hurts.’
Apart from Cambodia, dark tourism sites in Europe, like the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Poland and the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars, are visited by millions every year.
Holocaust Memorial Museums are also popular and can be found around the world [though not in Indonesia] far from the places where the awful events occurred.
Dark tourism isn’t new; for more than 250 years people have been visiting Pompeii in Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site preserved by the ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. So it must be filling some basic need.

(First published in The Jakarta Post J Plus 23 November 2014)


Sunday, November 16, 2014


BTW                                                                                                                   Up, up and away

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Thank You for choosing Leopard Air, and remember our fares are always advertised as cheap. Enjoy your flight.  We hope to see your credit card again soon. Have a Nice Day. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 November 2014)

Monday, November 10, 2014


The Year of Essential Reading                                

An election year doesn’t just bloom politicians – it also fertilizes a flowering of books.  So far this year two excellent additions: Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc [review published in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2014] and Australian journalist Hamish McDonald’s Demokrasi.
The books are different yet complementary.  One is an anecdotal tour of the archipelago using the micro to illuminate the macro, this one a crisp, more formal historical, social and political state-of-the nation account. Both are essential reads for anyone interested in this complex and curious country.
McDonald was a foreign correspondent in Jakarta between 1975 and 1978. In 1980 he earned his reporter’s Medal of Honor by being banned for writing Suharto’s Indonesia, a book reviewed at the time as ‘solid, well-written and balanced … a combination that is rare.’
The same qualities are present in Demokrasi, making it an ideal resource except for one crippling omission – no chapter notes.  This is strange because McDonald is now with the Australian National University; academics are ferocious about referencing, however notable the writer and lucid the writing.
McDonald, a mite bashfully, explains Demokrasi is “a quick overview …and in some aspects has been streamlined for ease of reading.” Possible translation: We’ve cut references to keep costs down. Suggestion:  Put the sources on a dedicated website.
This book was written before the inauguration of President Joko [Jokowi] Widodo but remains current with much background on him and his failed rival, Prabowo Subianto.  This includes the allegation that Prabowo once told ethnic Chinese businessman Sofyan Wanandi, that he was ready ‘to drive all the Chinese out of the country, even if that sets the economy back 20 or 30 years.’ 
Sofyan, also known as Sofjan, helped start the anti-communist think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS] in 1971, and offered advice to the Soeharto government till 1988. 
McDonald wrote this book helped by a fellowship and room at the CSIS in Jakarta, but also spent time in the provinces, including four days in West Papua, though restricted to the capital Jayapura.
A stupid decision by the military because it meant the author had to rely on the views of others who believe a slow genocide is underway through warfare and transmigration from Java, making the Papuans a minority in their own land. Had McDonald been allowed free access he might have come to different conclusions.
This is a book to help fit together the complex pieces of the sleazy and corrupt jigsaw of Jakarta politics.  For example, it reminds that Vice President Jusuf Kalla was mired in vote buying during the 2004 Golkar conference.
President Jokowi was helped to become Jakarta Governor by Prabowo, which partly explains the old general’s surly opposition. McDonald reports that despite Jokowi’s “perceived disregard for political guile … [he] paid careful homage to entrenched power groups”. 
These included the Special Forces unit Kopassus; when soldiers were accused of breaking into a jail in 2013 and killing four prisoners, Jokowi visited their headquarters as “a gesture of support.”
Nothing is quite what it seems in Indonesian politics where candidates jettison principles according to the wind direction, marry into each other’s families like medieval European royalty and go party shopping; if rebuffed they just start their own fiefdoms and tack on the word ‘democratic’.
Western palates are not always appropriate to savor this noodle bowl of power. In commenting on the Muhammadiyah organization McDonald writes: “Labels are difficult:  Orthodox does not necessarily mean conservative; ‘progressive’ or ‘modernist’ can also look orthodox and revivalist.”
So let’s add a new word to English: ‘Demokrasi’ - the Indonesian way of doing democracy. 
The chapter on religion opens with a marvellously contradictory image – pious young men reading the Koran before a suggestive portrait of the goddess Nyai Loro Kidul, the so-called Queen of the South Sea.
This synthesis of traditional beliefs with an imported faith has helped create a largely tolerant society, though pockets of hate remain.  Strangely Indonesia’s position as the largest Muslim nation by population “is not matched by its authority on religious or Middle East questions. It remains a receiver of wisdom from the Arab world, rather than a messenger of multi-religious tolerance.”
Why?  That’s a question for another book.
The challenge facing Western writers is to find the genuinely positive aspects of Indonesia.  It’s easy to focus on the negatives - appalling neglect of the infrastructure, corruption that corrodes everyone’s lives, a dysfunctional public service, persistent and debilitating poverty and an absence of basic services. Just one figure tells much - 14 per cent of urban dwellers don’t have access to toilets.
Though McDonald doesn’t shy from the faults and flaws he’s usually optimistic, even amidst illegal land clearing, the despair of conservationists everywhere: “The picture is a familiar one; good intentions and policies at the top undermined by a lack of enforcement capacity on the ground and by the corruption of the agencies supposed to monitor and guard the forests.  Still the approach [mapping to determine protection zones] cannot be written off.”
Indonesia hasn’t fallen apart. It’s not Egypt. It’s not Thailand. Terrorism has so far been contained. The media is so free some outlets publish manufactured stories.  Democracy seems to have survived. Despite the bitter election campaign and fears of blood in the streets, the election and inauguration went well.
McDonald wraps up his book with “an old Jakarta saying: ‘Anyone who thinks he understands the situation is sadly mistaken’.” He’s right. For outsiders the Indonesian journey is serpentine. It scales peaks and crevasses. It diverts. It is never ending.
Some of American poet T S Eliot’s verse could have been written for Indonesia: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.
Demokrasi – Indonesia in the 21st Century                                                                                  
by Hamish McDonald                                                                                                     
Published by Black Inc, Melbourne                                                                                         
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 November 2014)

Saturday, November 08, 2014


Two neighbors, two systems, one dream                            
The 5 November State Memorial Service for the late Gough Whitlam, 98, Prime Minister of Australia between 1972 and 1975, revives memories of a time similar to this year’s rise of Joko (Jokowi) Widodo as the Republic’s seventh President.
The election that brought the Whitlam Labor Government to power ended a 23-year rule by conservative forces.  Like Jokowi’s ‘Mental Revolution’, Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’ campaign excited optimistic reformers desperate for a fairer, more equal nation that respected its minorities.
As with Jokowi, it was the idealistic young who embraced the revolution and demanded much of their leader.
Fate decreed that Whitlam had only three years to deliver; maybe he had a premonition that his haters would never rest.  Certainly he understood the need for haste.
Australian troops were immediately pulled out of the Vietnam War; the White Australia immigration policy (widely and rightly despised in Indonesia) was shredded; Australia’s sphere of influence was redrawn to include Asia. Racial discrimination was outlawed.
Fault-free divorce dampened down much of the ugliness of marriage disintegration.  Benefits previously restricted to widows were made available to solo Moms. Equal pay gave independence. The right of women to break free from abusive relationships without being stigmatised by poverty had a huge impact on society,
In indigenous affairs the great changes included the recognition of Aboriginal land rights.
 Was it the incompetence of Whitlam’s clumsy ministers which crashed his government?  Many failed to understand the subtleties of administration and how to handle hostile bureaucrats, believing enthusiasm trumps management. Or was it the ruthless right determined to evict socialists trampling their sacred turf?
In a worrying reminder of allegations that America’s Central Intelligence Agency was involved in the 1965 coup that brought down President Soekarno, it has long been hinted that the CIA’s hand was also behind the dismissal of Whitlam ten years later because Australia was drifting away from US influence.
In 1975 Whitlam’s government fell because, like Jokowi’s today, it did not have a majority in Parliament – in this case the Senate.
Elements of the Establishment had been outraged by Whitlam’s election, just as they are with Jokowi getting his slippers under the Presidential bed.  However Whitlam was not a lad from the riverbank but a government lawyer’s son, splendidly schooled and raised in Canberra, the political heart of Australia.
After serving in the Air Force for four years and reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant he worked as a lawyer before entering Parliament in 1952.
These credentials should have made him acceptable, but the Tories considered Whitlam a class traitor by joining Labor, traditionally the party for battlers with dirt under their fingernails. 
In a riveting panegyric at the Sydney Town Hall service, Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson said:
I don't know why someone with this old man's upper middle-class background could carry such a burning conviction that the barriers of class and race of the Australia of his upbringing and maturation should be torn down and replaced with the unapologetic principle of equality.”
Like President Jokowi, Whitlam stood apart.  Although some saw him as imperious (it can be difficult talking up to a man 1.94 meters tall), and he could be intimidating, he was able to communicate at all levels, addressing most as ‘comrades’ whatever their rank.
Like Jokowi he also had great sense of self-deprecating humor.
But here the similarities end, for Whitlam had oratory. As with President Soekarno Australia’s 21st Prime Minister was a skilled and erudite public speaker who drew huge crowds.  So far President Jokowi has not learned how to mesmerise and inspire the masses while still retaining his common-man charisma.
Those who heard Whitlam knew they were in the presence of a visionary determined to make a difference for his nation.  This was never just another self-server mouthing platitudes.  Proof is that thousands gathered in Sydney to remember a man who lost government almost 40 years ago, yet whose legacy lives on.
Australia’s political history can be dated BW and AW, before and after Whitlam.
Among the mourner-celebrants was actress Cate Blanchett, just a child when Whitlam was elected. In another skin-tingling speech the double Oscar-winner said her international career had been shaped because her health care and university education had been free (a policy abandoned by later governments), and Whitlam had understood the importance of culture.
I am the product of an Australia that engages with the globe and engages honestly with its history and its indigenous peoples,” she said.  “I am a small part of Australia's coming of age.”

She recalled Whitlam saying: ‘All other objectives of a Labor government – social reform, justice and equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities – have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish.’

Whitlam’s speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, who wrote a biography titled A Certain Grandeur, talked about “the Whitlam touch …that lives on in the way we think about Australia, in the way we see the world. You would go the barricades with such a man.” 
Does Indonesia’s new leader have such a touch?  Will citizens go to the barricades for Jokowi should his opponents combine to topple?  In this culture is it necessary to have a certain grandeur?
Or are Indonesia and its politics altogether different from the country next door and the only thing we share is a dream for betterment?
(Malang-based journalist Duncan Graham was a media secretary in the Whitlam ministry.)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 November 2014)

He touches still the millions  – who share his vision for a more equal Australia, a more independent, inclusive, generous and tolerant Australia. And a nation confident of its future in our region and the world.
You will forgive an old man's pride, but the last time he performed that little gesture of his was in 2001, as we entered the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the scene of his triumph 30 years before.
But his great stage was the House of Representatives – stage, pulpit, arena. For a decade, he won memorable victories in the House of Representatives.
In 1975, he fought his mightiest fight, in defence of the House of Representatives, and suffered his worst defeat, on the verge of victory. First and last, Gough Whitlam was the member for Werriwa. More than a place in outer Western Sydney.
To him, modern Australia in the making – with all its growing inequalities in "schools, hospitals, cities"- his shorthand for all the social conditions for decent Australian living, including, dare I mention, sewerage in the suburbs.
He saw that only the nation's Parliament and the nation's government could bring quality and equality to areas of Australian life, where Canberra had never before dared or cared. From Werriwa too, came his magnificent obsession with electoral equality, one vote, one value.
He believed with a passion, that this nation of immigrants must crash through the barriers of intolerance and prejudice about birth or background, race or religion. This was a new voice, new themes, a new agenda for Australia.
The Whitlam agenda remains part of the Australian agenda. 
"Contemporary relevance, comrade" – that was his watchword. And if ever he soared too high – or too long – there was always the other member for Werriwa, Margaret, to bring him back to earth.
And Mick Young. "The fun is where I am, Mungo". 
The irrepressible Mungo McCallum had asked him if he missed the fun of Canberra, when Bob Hawke sent him to liven up Paris. Gough was very serious about making us laugh. Not least at himself, and his ego.
There was a lot of laughter in the Whitlam years. Some tears too. But always, energy, urgency, enthusiasm. For the high and noble calling of political service. Drive and purpose for his party and his country. 
He believed profoundly in the Australian Labor Party as the mainstay of Australian democracy and equality. And always, there was the sense of living Australian history. And making it.
In his rich and mellow autumn, he worried occasionally lest he be like King Charles, remembered mainly for losing his head.
Your tributes – your presence here today – attest his true place in the hearts of his fellow Australians.
Paul Keating is right: "There was an Australia before Whitlam, and there was a different Australia after Whitlam".
He was the bridge. Within the wonderful continuity of our national life –our long parliamentary democracy underpinned by strong political parties– Gough Whitlam built a bridge.
As he put it in 1972: "Between the habits and fears of the past and the hopes and demands of the future". Optimism, enthusiasm, confidence – over fear, prejudice, conformity.
That is his enduring message to the men and women of Australia.
Graham Freudenberg was Gough Whitlam's speechwriter.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


The Happy Theologian 


Studying other religions hasn’t led to a dilution of Zainal Abidin Bagir’s faith.

“My experiences and reading of concepts from Buddhism and Christianity have enriched my understanding of Islam,” said the Director of the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies [CRCS] at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University [UGM].

“Many religious leaders fear that people will change their beliefs if they learn about other faiths. They are suspicious and fear competition.  They make everything political.

“It’s probably a cliché, but dialogue dispels concerns. It’s unfortunate that our education system puts children in boxes based on faith.  When we group students on the basis of their interests and not their religion they are motivated to understand more.

“We don’t need to preach pluralism.  When there’s open space it becomes natural.”

This year Dr Bagir has been a visiting lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington.  It’s the second time he’s been in New Zealand, having been involved in an inter-faith conference several years ago.

He’s been running two undergraduate units – Islam in the Contemporary World and Political Islam. An earlier unit on Democracy and Pluralism raised questions like: ‘When religion is said to be compatible with democracy, does it refer only to the liberal kind? Can democracy live with a conservative religion? If diversity is a mark of today’s democracy, what kind of pluralism is required by a pluralist democratic polity?’

Back at UGM he teaches postgraduates in the academic study of religion, and the philosophy of science and religion and contemporary issues.  He said there were no restrictions on class discussions because his students knew what to expect and were attracted by inquiry.

However In 2012 the university banned Canadian liberal Muslim author Irshad Manji from speaking at the CRCS after threats of violence from extremists.

The prohibition angered Dr Bagir and others who condemned the decision. “Better some shattered glass than our broken integrity,” he said.  “We should not give leeway to people who claim to represent certain religious views.  If it’s a crime, it’s a crime. [Since then a new rector has been elected.]

“If I could give a message to president elect Joko Widodo then it’s to re-establish the rule of law and give equality to all citizens, to support their human rights regardless of religion.  By not acting against intolerance we privilege intolerance.”

Dr Bagir’s early interest was mathematics, a subject he studied for his first degree before switching to religious studies.  “I thought I needed to learn about other things,” he said. “I was more interested in intellectual issues. Moving from maths to philosophy was not so big a jump as people imagine.”

He was born in Solo, Central Java, to “well-off, though not rich” parents with a batik factory. It was a liberal family where his father, a writer on faith issues who later opened a free school, encouraged broad discussion of religion among his eight children. 

This upbringing nurtured an inquiring mind, which led the young man away from calculus and into philosophy.  As a teenager he started to wrestle with the troubling ‘what’s it all about?’ and ‘why am I here?’ questions of life.

He moved to the West Java capital so he could study at the prestigious Institut Teknologi Bandung [ITB] – a tertiary educator with “a better intellectual atmosphere and the opportunity to be critical.” 

That was in 1984 when he was 18 and General Soeharto’s Orde Baru [New Order] government exercised total control.  In that year the military opened fire on anti-government protestors at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta, officially killing 24, though this figure is disputed. 

There were allegations that a Christian soldier entering a mosque while wearing boots had triggered rioting. At the time the media was strictly controlled but the ITB students were getting information about the incident through underground publications.  It was a disturbing discovery about the reality of religion and politics.

At ITB Dr Bagir came across the work of British philosopher and Nobel prizewinner Bertrand Russell.  He also started out as a mathematician, publishing the classic Principles of Mathematics when he was 31.  Later he became a famous leader of anti-war protests.

Like Russell Dr Bagir was drawn to logic.  He won a scholarship to study for a master’s degree at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Kuala Lumpur, and then went to the US, taking a doctorate at Indiana University.

In 2005 his book Science and Religion in the Post Colonial World: Interfaith Perspectives was published in English, though most of his writings are in Indonesian.  Four years later he was appointed Indonesian associate for an UNESCO Chair in Inter-religious and Intercultural Relations.

One of the major differences between Indonesia and the West is the separation of faith and state. Dr Bagir said he recognized the difficulty in changing government policy on matters like the inclusion of religion on citizens’ identification cards but said the option to put ‘other’ on the cards was already available. 

However he acknowledged this was not always easy in small communities where officials made Islam the default religion for the non-religious. The assumption that a person who didn’t follow a religion was a communist, or had no morality, still persisted.

“This is the result of more than 30 years of government propaganda and the indoctrination of generations of schoolchildren,” he said.

“I’m a pluralist, though not in the MUI [Indonesian Ulema Council] sense.”  In 2005 the MUI issued a fatwa, or prohibition, against pluralism defined as seeing all religions as equal.

“Not all religions are the same, but we need to respect diversity.  It contributes to the richness of life.  All the major religions accept submission to the will of God.

“My father once asked me to do ‘what makes you happy’.  Religion should be about doing good to others, how you deal with other people.  That’s more important than faith as a personal issue.”  

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 November 2014)

Monday, November 03, 2014


Kalimantan – why care?   

Looking for Borneo is wrongly titled.  It should have been called Looking After Borneo – because it’s really – as veteran travel writer Bill Dalton says in the foreword –   “a call to action, a plea to save this special place from the ravages of development.”
Fair enough – the lush photos and quirky paintings, the splendid layout and care for detail    make this a fine addition to Green literature. The plight of orang-utans facing fast death by firearm or slow extinction through loss of habitat is reason enough for attention.
But if these things are so important, why are the Australasian contributors to this lovely book living in Bali and Lombok? Their commitments to Kalimantan are genuine, but like US forces in Syria, their boots aren’t on the ground where their talents might be even more effective.
Readers who can’t get to Borneo, the world’s third largest island can maintain their concerns by buying this book, as the author cheekily suggests, though not for personal gain.
None of the contributors got paid.  Should there be any profits these will go to three charities – two of them in Kalimantan.
 Looking for Borneo is also a handy resource with a list of internet links under the heading What Else Can You Do? Good idea, but how effective are these likely to be against the big dollar developers clearing the bush for palm plantations, deaf to the conservationists’ concerns.
Here’s an answer, though hopefully more a reinforcement for urgent action than passive acceptance:  This review was written under a blanket of haze blown across the Java Sea from the illegal burning of forest trash in Kalimantan, a practise that was supposed to have been halted long  ago, yet continues every year to smother this country and its neighbors.
Another reality: Borneo, Asia’s largest island, is shared by three nations – Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, the latter controlling almost three quarters of the land mass.  In 2007 the tripartite Heart of Borneo Conservation Agreement was declared at the urgings of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Splendid decision - but this year the WWF reported that 10 per cent of the supposedly protected forest cover of what it calls ‘Asia’s last great rainforest’ has been put to the chainsaw since pen scratched paper.

Last year education consultant Dr Mark Heyward published Crazy Little Heaven, an account of a 17 day cross-Kalimantan journey with a few mates taken almost two decades earlier. Looking for Borneo is an extension and enlargement, embellishing Heyward’s earlier prose with photos by David Metcalf, landscapes so juicy the sap runs, portraits so clear the sweat has odor.
Then there’s Khan Wilson’s surrealist artwork featuring manga-eyed maidens, their tilted heads resting on well-upholstered bosoms,
These are also supposed to have been inspired by Heyward’s words, though the link is tenuous and the colors more interior than exterior.  The style is Bali-spa hedonistic and repetitious, but the pictures are joyous enough even though out of place.

Another addition is a 14-track CD featuring the skilled guitar work and composition of polymath Heyward, mainly in what Dalton labels ‘kampong folk rock’. Party stuff rather than gentle listening, though the ballads, when allowed to rise above the backing, encourage contemplation.
So altogether a substantial package assembled for good reasons. The problem is structure.  The early parts of the book don’t coalesce despite Borneo being the central theme.  The words are about a man’s brief mid-life venture into the heart of the unknown (real and personal) with a few mates last century – a tale already told in his earlier book
It’s a pity that Heyward didn’t revisit his walkabout and record his impressions anew now his vision has matured and understanding broadened.  Then readers would have before and after examples to aggravate their wrath at the despoliation.
Towards the end we get the hard update:  “East Kalimantan is the province with the highest gross regional product in Indonesia, yet a quarter of a million of its people are classified as poor.”
Heyward canvasses eco-tourism, a ban on new plantations and boycotting palm oil products as possible solutions, but rightly recognizes there’ll be no change without “strong political will … and better law enforcement.”
Looking at how national parks are managed in the rest of the world might help, but not all overseas strategies survive transplantation to countries where the politics are brutally corrupt and where personal gain regularly trumps national interest.
 Indonesian solutions have to be found for Indonesian problems – and if the powers in Jakarta don’t care about their environment and citizens, then why should others?
Maybe it’s too late.  Heyward says the Dayaks are already divided between urban dwellers and bush people; missionaries have planted alien faiths; technology and a cash economy are impacting on forest folk along with cultures everywhere.
No doubt some will prefer clicking files in air-conditioned offices to blowpiping proboscis   monkeys in the dripping canopy, but if their environment is preserved the Dayaks will have the chance to choose how and where they live, a basic human right.
It’s not just the traditional occupiers and users of Borneo’s riches who will then benefit.  The whole world will literally breathe easier if this great green lung survives. That makes it a matter too important to leave to the cabals in Menteng, so they also need to read this book.
Looking for Borneo                                                                                                                   
by Mark Heyward, David Metcalf and Khan Wilson                                                    
Published by Creatavision Publishing 2014   168 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 November 2014)