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, December 22, 2015


Boats stopped: Now what about those in limbo?                       

In 1991 Indonesian troops massacred 200 in an East Timor cemetery, strengthening much of the world’s hostility towards occupation of the former Portuguese colony.
The Republic’s Foreign Minister, the late Ali Alatas, diagnosed the pain as ‘a pebble in the shoe’.  Yet it persisted until a new nation was born eight years later.
The footwear irritant has now returned, this time over the plight of asylum seekers heading for Australia but stranded in Indonesia. There are around 13,500 – a one-third increase in the past two years.
It’s a small number by world standards [Malaysia has more than 155,000] but every one a tragedy.
The human faces behind the statistics can be encountered in a joyless alley alongside a Central Jakarta high rise.  Here the desperate, unwanted by Indonesia and Australia, wait for crumbs of information from the harassed staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Those registered after 1 July 2014 have been told they’ll never be resettled in Australia. They can’t go home, they can’t go on. They are not allowed to work.
Indonesia has 13 detention centers with a total capacity of 1,300. Those who squat in the kampongs usually survive with remittances from their homeland. 
Thousands of bored and despairing young outsiders hanging around with no positive future in view is a recipe for strife. Ethnic, economic, cultural, sexual and religious tensions thrive. The failure of Indonesia and Australia to fix the problem means the pot simmers.
The issue has been conspiracy theorists’ happy place because a sea fog of secrecy laid down by the Australian government has smothered informed debate.
Now some of the mist has been lifted, not by politicians remembering that in a functioning democracy electors have a right to know what’s being done in their name, but through the work of an industrious academic.
For the past four years Dr Antje Missbach has been researching the issue of asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia.  The results of her work Troubled Transit has just been published by Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute. This is the most substantial report to date, looking at the problem from Indonesia’s perspective.
The Monash University academic lived in Indonesia as a teenager.  She has been gathering data, interviewing Indonesian officials, visiting overcrowded detention centers, talking to what she calls ‘transit migrants’ and convicted people smugglers.
Her book also gives Indonesian and Australian human rights activists the facts they need to ramp up campaigns for a just and lasting solution.
Successive Australian governments’ policies have been driven by voters’ fears of unchecked waves of asylum seekers from conflict-ripped regions like the Middle East and South Asia. If they make it to Indonesia they could be ferried south.
Several attempts to solve the problem of ‘crimmigration’ have been tried and discarded.  However the policy now in place jingoistically labelled Operation Sovereign Borders seems to have worked.
It’s an unilateral deterrent justified by the argument that it saves lives. An estimated 1,550 drowned trying to cross the Arafura Sea between 1998 and 2011.
In Indonesian fishing ports where people smugglers load frail craft with the desperate, posters warn No Way – You Will Not Make Australia Home.
More effective have been the messages back to families and friends from the people caught earlier and transferred to detention centres in Nauru and the island of Manus reporting that they have uncertain futures and are living in harsh conditions.
Now boats intercepted by Australian authorities are either escorted back to the Archipelago, sometimes allegedly entering Indonesian waters without permission, or the crew and passengers are put in a lifeboat and pointed north. 
In one case a crew was allegedly paid US$30,000 [Rp 422 million] to return asylum seekers. This has also angered Indonesia, and if correct may have broken international law.
When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was president he called for a ‘regional solution’. Missbach told The Jakarta Post the definition was unclear and more than 40 nations could be included:
“When SBY initiated the so-called Jakarta Declaration [August 2013] he invited representatives from countries of origin, transit countries and resettlement to ‘talk things through’.
“Now under President Joko Widodo ‘regional’ seems to mean only Southeast Asia. The Bali Process [established in 2002 and co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia], which used to be the most important international forum for asylum seekers … seems to have gone rather dormant.”
What could goad the nations into action?  For Missbach it’s the possibility of Sunni-Shia conflict.  Many refugees from Iran and Iraq are Shia, a branch of Islam persecuted in Indonesia. Brawls with local people have already taken lives.
“I think the situation is actually getting worse,” said Missbach. “In October extremists raided a temporary shelter in Yogyakarta and all detainees had to be taken back into detention for their own safety.
“In other places near Medan I hear some landlords no longer rent their properties to Shia people.”
The latest proposal is to put all transit migrants on an island isolated from the locals. After the Vietnam War thousands fled by boat and were housed on Galang Island in the Riau Archipelago.
Vice president Jusuf Kalla and Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan raised the idea this year but have since gone quiet.
“An island would be a very expensive solution as it would require everything being taken there,” said Missbach. “Once Indonesia creates a new island settlement the issue is there to stay.
“The original plan for the Galang camp was to use it for five years. It stayed for almost 20.”  
If this pebble isn’t shaken out soon it could cripple attempts to improve relationships between Indonesia and Australia.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 December 20150

Monday, December 21, 2015


 Welcome to Paradise – you’re on our death list     
‘We sat on the bed in the dark, petrified and shaking.  We began to pray.  Balinese Djona, a Hindu, sat praying holding his hands together …with a sharp knife in-between them, just in case.
‘Jeannie … said both Muslim and Christian prayers to be on the safe side.  She had a wire coat hanger clasped between her hands … I sat praying Christian style, with a white stiletto-heeled shoe in my hands.’
Outside a lynch mob was attacking pregnant Jan Mantjika’s campus home while her Udayana University lecturer husband Djati was away.  In an earlier incident his colleagues had rescued him from a planned abduction.
The Westerner and her friends could hear the screams and shouts as Indonesians were rounded up by militias and slaughtered in the surrounding paddy.
This was Bali, 1965, a year after the young couple arrived from New Zealand, her homeland and the place where he’d been studying agriculture for seven years.  From the start their lives were idyllic – Djati came from a regal family in Ubud where Mantjika was treated like a princess despite being a ‘casteless Kiwi’.
The first nine chapters in her autobiography The shadows that dance in and out of my memory are accounts of the happy days.  A useful contrast against the barbarity to come. though too detailed. 
How she got out of the house to go shopping or have her hair done is of limited interest, particularly when the stories are peppered with clichés.  Only later do we realise that some of her apparently joyful friends and neighbors had other agendas and were dobbing in locals.
After General Soeharto dethroned first President Soekarno a purge of real or imagined communists followed. Academic reports, particularly from researchers overseas, are available but few first-person accounts by non-Indonesians. 
It’s also a fine rebuttal to the massacre-deniers though the chance to present her story to an influential audience was lost when discussions were halted at the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This followed police threats to close the event if the organisers persisted in raising the ghosts.
Back in 1965 the Mantjikas, with one small child and another on the way, could have fled without shame.
Most foreigners did as the tensions built.  Food and basics like soap became scarce. Paranoia flourished.  Distrust spread like flu. Friends and neighbors shunned each other. It was a time to whisper, to be deeply fearful.  
The couple were helping start the island’s first major tourist accommodation, the Hotel Bali Beach, by preparing staff training programs.
This involved Mantjika translating instructions which she often did at night. No curtains because they could not afford materials.  The banks refused to process the travellers checks brought from NZ.
Neighbors seeing Mantjika typing while her husband – also a suspect because he’d studied abroad - held meetings with hotel staff in the same room.  This clearly indicated they were plotting a coup or counter coup, depending on the observers’ politics...
Mantjika’s childhood in NZ’s North Island provided a curse and blessing in Bali.  A headstrong young woman she at first refused to stay hidden, venturing beyond only to encounter the thugs. One gang chased a man into her yard while yelling matiang, matiang!  [kill him].
She saw him beaten and hacked: ‘Bleeding strips of raw flesh hung from his body … the trembling and nausea took a long time to abate.’ He died in the street.
In January 1966 Mantjika started labor pains.  Djati borrowed a car and broke the curfew in a race to Sanglah hospital. Shots were fired but they got though and baby Lawrence was born.
When the killers had exhausted their blood lust a cholera epidemic from corpses dug up by dogs took hold.  Shops had been looted of medicines and disinfectants.  At night neighbors with a sick relative crept out for water to wash the afflicted.
As with many who pull through it’s the tiny memories that remain. For Mantjika it was the squeaking of the well pulleys.
When Djati’s eight rupiah a month salary resumed, rice cost two rupiah a kilo.  They supplemented a diet of dragonflies and snails with food parcels from NZ, though these were often ransacked by customs.
Writing this book has been wrenching but cathartic.  Like others who have survived the soul-shredding experience of discovering depravity and hate in their own community, Mantjika double-bolted the door on her memories.
But the hinges kept creaking; fifty years later with others disclosing the Republic’s awful secret Mantjika believed it was time to tell her story.
She dedicates her book to family and the post-coup generations ‘who never knew what happened because no-one would speak…
‘Unconsciously one files away memories too horrific to want to recall… fear and horror were something we breathed from the moment we woke …’
As a version of normality slowly returned the Mantjikas discovered their names on a death list and a pit on the beach prepared for their bodies.
Soeharto lifted  bans on private enterprise. Mantjika borrowed money and opened Jan’s Tours. It was a gamble. Bali was yet to become the international must-visit destination; the airstrip was so short the few planes used parachutes to brake.  
Business slowly prospered and Mantjika became involved in voluntary work, including raising money for the disabled through the NZ Rehabilim Trust. But the savagery took more victims.  Her marriage collapsed. Nightmares stalked her for years.
The remaining chapters cover family anecdotes of limited appeal beyond the Bali ex-pat community.  For others the book’s core serves as a vital eye-witness history of the most shocking and shameful event in the Republic’s short life.

The shadows that dance in and out of my memory                                                                       
By Jan Mantjika                                                                                                             
Published by Saritaksu 2015     

(First published in The Jakarta Post  21 December 2015)                                                                                               

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Indonesian: The struggle for recognition                     

Earlier this year Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri sent a quiver of concern through the expat community:  He proposed reviving a 2013 regulation forcing foreign workers to pass a language test.
Would executives have to clutter their minds with words they’d never need at their next overseas posting?  Why bother when their Indonesian counterparts were eloquent in English?
The idea sunk but could resurface with the next wave of nationalism.  Duncan Graham reports:

Jack Kreiser, 20, (above, right) is clearly more scholarly than his freshman features suggest.  Unlike the clichéd Ugly American he comes across as polite and reserved, which suits Indonesian culture just fine.  He also has no clear career plan.
 “I’m interested in learning Indonesian and seeing what happens,” he said.  “It’s just for fun.  I’ve always been keen on languages and geography.  My parents worry, but I’m OK – people are friendly and supportive.”
He’s studying at Malang’s Malangkucecwara College of Economics [MCE] (left) on a six-month Bahasa Indonesia bagi Penutur Asing [BIPA – Indonesian for Foreign Speakers] course.  The campus is one of 104 institutions offering BIPA courses across the Republic.

Before he flew to East Java Kreiser studied Indonesian at the University of Minnesota. It has more than 51,000 students.  He was the only one interested in the vocabulary and grammar used by almost 300 million people. 
The figures get worse:  According to the Modern Language Association less than 300 tertiary students across the US are comfortable asking apa kabar? [What’s up?]
What is up? The US is far away so the indifference might be understandable – though not excusable for the world’s most powerful nation.  Surely it must be different in Indonesia’s southern neighbor separated by a narrow sea?
Not so. Fewer than 1,000 senior high school students in Australia are learning Indonesian. Far more were interested in 1972. The decline has been blamed on the 1998 Asian economic crisis, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and subsequent travel warnings which curbed educational exchanges.
Japanese is now the most popular language taught in Australia.
Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey predicts that Indonesian studies will be extinct at tertiary level within eight years.  And this despite shouts of protest by academics, diplomats and traders dating back decades.
In the Australian Parliament shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has been making headlines by confessing he’s learning Indonesian as though this is something weird, akin to nude tightrope walking.  He told journalists:
We need a broader, less transactional relationship with Indonesia that needs to have mutual respect, and one way we show interest and respect is learning the language.”

 But he didn’t say what his Labor Party would do to change the situation if it wins office at the election next year and he didn’t get widespread support.
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett, in Jakarta last month to check on the 25-year Sister-State relationship with East Java, reportedly rejected the idea that Asian language studies need to be saved.
He told AAP: ‘There are very few parts of the world where meetings aren’t conducted in English and they are generally not with interpreters.’
These are the slaps in the face for the world’s fourth largest nation whose unity has been built on consolidating a national language that’s the most used in Southeast Asia.  Outside this zone Indonesian is dwarfed by Chinese, Spanish, Hindi and English.
BIPA is Indonesia’s fight-back.  It’s a non-degree program run by the Ministry of Education and Culture, designed to promote Indonesian language by providing courses for foreign students.
Apart from these there are 136 BIPA programs in 22 countries, including Australia.
Although some students fund themselves, most are like Jack Kreiser, winners of Darmasiswa Scholarships, an Indonesian Government award scheme started in 1974.  Next year 640 successful applicants from 78 countries will get a monthly Rp 2 million [US $145] stipend and free tuition.
Three of the 19 enrolees at MCE have a Darmasiswa, including Ayaka Mashimo, 20, from Saitama and Yuka Ueno, 21, from Tokyo.  Their learning is even tougher because the Japanese kanji and kana writing systems are worlds apart from the Latin alphabet.
Like many foreigners they struggle with the complex system of prefixes and suffixes. “Most people think I’m Chinese,” said Ayaka.  “I just smile.”  But her colleague insists on explaining that she is Japanese and why she’s in Indonesia.
For those wanting to study privately at MCE, monthly fees, including tuition,  homestay, all meals and field trips amount to US $1,375 [Rp 19 million].  Air fares and visa costs are additional.

“One of the realities is that many Indonesian universities are opening BIPA programs and they are of greatly varying quality,” said Professor David Hill, the founder and director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies [ACICIS]. 
This has placed almost 2,000 foreign students in top Indonesian universities during the past 20 years.
“Even those [BIPA courses] at highly regarded universities are often very poorly taught. I believe such programs won’t attract Australian students unless they are well-run, attuned to the more interactive teaching styles that Australians expect, and widely marketed in Australia.
“There is a plethora of choice, but very little of excellent quality.”

MCE course controller Widodo (right) [“Indonesian is my second language, Javanese my first”] pioneered BIPA and has won awards for his work in Malang.  He agreed that standards varied across the archipelago.
He said MCE classes followed a total immersion program and were kept below 12 to ensure close contact.  He and his staff, who are trained teachers, have produced their own texts called Practical Indonesian.
Notices around the campus along with wayang kulit [shadow puppet] figures remind all that Disini hanya berbahasa Indonesia [here we only speak Indonesian].
 “Not all work is in class,” he said.  “We take trips to markets, events, public buildings and cultural sites.  I want Malangkucecwara to be the center of excellence so foreigners appreciate our life and culture.  As a consultant to BIPA I’ve been pushing for national accreditation of course providers.”
So has the Assosiasi Pengajar BIPA [Association of BIPA teachers], according to its director Dr Liliana Muliastuti.
“We are working with the Ministry to achieve this – maybe next year,” she said. “Interest in Indonesian is growing, particularly from ASEAN countries, and we are sending BIPA teachers overseas.”
The Indonesia Australia language Foundation, a company set up by the Indonesian and Australian governments has offices in Jakarta, Surabaya and Denpasar.  Although the primary purpose is teaching  English, 40-hour courses in Indonesian costing Rp 3 million [US$ 217], less for bigger classes, are available.
Private institutions claiming to have diplomats and multinational company clients are also advertising on the Internet.  Commented Dr Muliastuti: “Until we get national accreditation prospective students should do their own research on the quality of the institution and what it has achieved.”

Master stroke
In October 1928 nationalists at the Second Youth Conference in Jakarta swore the Sumpah Pemuda oath –one motherland, one nation, one language.
Then, as now, Javanese was the most spoken of the Archipelago’s 700 languages, while Dutch was used in government and business.
Instead the far-sighted delegates chose what was once known as Trade Malay and called it Indonesian. The decision was a master stroke, ensuring national unity. 

Fluency dazzles
When a 360-strong contingent of Australian businesspeople passed through the Archipelago last month (Nov) with goodies to trade, the Indonesia-Australia Report  website dug up a news clipping from 1968.
This covered a State visit by the late John Gorton, then prime minister of Australia and his wife Bettina.
Gorton was here to talk about economic and security issues, but the US-born First Lady stole the show by delivering formal speeches and radio chats in flawless Indonesian.
An honors graduate in oriental studies from the prestigious Australian National University, Mrs Gorton’s ability to respectfully relate to Indonesians probably did more to lift Australia’s profile than hours of TV showing suits shaking hands.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2015)

Sunday, December 13, 2015


BTW: A North-South romance for our times
This column touches issues deep and personal – an account of our courtship which one day might lead to marriage.  Have tissues handy.
We met by chance when I was attracted by the size of her lovely resources. Of course as next door neighbors it was inevitable we’d bump into each other, which we did in East Timor back in ‘99.  It wasn’t love at first sight because the differences at that time seemed greater than the similarities.
For example, we had conflicting religious beliefs, histories, knowledge of the world and the way we see democracy. Our tastes are also strikingly unalike.  Dewi Sri is a rice and chicken woman; I’m a wheat and sheep man.  She’s chilli hot – I’m cold beer.
Despite these problems the relationship warmed along with our language.  I said: “Let’s strengthen ties.” She expressed hopes for closer cooperation.
She claimed that improved support would be mutually beneficial.  I added that the bonds of shared interests could overcome any perceived difficulties.
We agreed that there’d be highs and lows but the future retained significant possibilities.
“Our prosperity will be built on a successful and enduring partnership,” she said. I said: “Working together will provide opportunities to gain greater access to value chains for our needs, particularly if we stay in the ASEAN region.”
Clichés sweeter than wine.  Words so bland the heart beat faster. We were getting closer.
We swapped gifts – meaning I gave and she received.  Although I’m not well off by Chinese standards she said she had even less, though her friends’ Mercedes and their Menteng mansions suggested otherwise.  Some things have to be overlooked for love to prosper.
Her extended family needed help.  We called this an ‘aid package’.  It became our little joke.
Suddenly all went wrong.  Mistranslations, once laughed aside, became serious obstacles.  For example, what she called ‘eliminating drug traffickers’ I labelled ‘judicial murder’.
Her family got nasty saying I had territorial and proselytistic ambitions, and only wanted to get my hands on her assets.  She sent me some overseas visitors by boat. I turned them back. “Keep out of my sovereign space,” she snapped.
“How can such two vastly mismatched people get on, let alone become intimate?” asked my Great Aunt Britannia and Uncle Sam.  “You have so little in common.
“If you must go overseas for a partner pick someone like yourself from Europe or North America.  Better the devil you know.”
But we’re determined to make our bond work, though to be blunt it seems I want it more than she does.  Still, lovers can be fickle and no doubt she’ll come round given time.
We’ve put together a pre-nup.  It’s called Succeeding Together. We are so happy about this that we want to share the joy.  Please download free from
It runs to 102 pages and includes a few pretty pictures.  There are a couple of symbolic bridges to cross and some big trucks; these mean there’ll be heavy loads to carry come the wedding. 
You can see me on page 69 astride a horse, contemplating cows. A man alone in the Ochre Outback, at peace with nature and himself.  That’s the sort of stoic I am.
My beloved is a religious, emotional urban lady. She always wants to be with others, so the page 70 picture has her with lots of friends.  Please tick LIKE. She needs admirers.
To tell the truth much of the document is the work of my banking mates Down Under, though I know my sweet would have wanted to contribute if only we could have paid her more. 
Some say this indicates a lop-sided view of the relationship which doesn’t bode well for a contented marriage – but we know that love conquers all.
Smiling Malcolm Turnbull and jolly Joko’s walkabout has helped.  Likewise the 360 business cheerleaders we invited to Yogya and Jakarta last month.  They’re all expecting an engagement announcement anytime soon.
Don’t worry about all the charts and boring statistics.  Just accept that these mean we’ll get lots of money if everything works out as planned. 
Maybe some will trickle down to you.  Who knows?  Wish us well.  Duncan Graham
(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 December 2015)

Saturday, December 05, 2015


Street parade in Turen, East Java

Sendangbiru on the south coast

Thursday, December 03, 2015


A new word, a new attitude                         

If academic Slamet Thohari (right) can get his way – and he often does – then today’s (3 December) title should get a small but significant tweak.
The last three words in the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities would be shortened to ‘the Difabled’[though he spells it ‘Difabel’] meaning people with different abilities.
“It’s important to recognize that someone who is handicapped in whatever way is not treated as though they don’t have a place and role in society,” said the wannabe neologist.
“I think ‘disabled’ is a kind of rude term. We need to see the person, not the problem, as they say in Australia.”
That’s the country the 32-year old activist will be heading to anytime soon.  At the University of Sydney he’ll undertake a four-year PhD program on an Australian government scholarship.
His thesis will compare the way the handicapped are treated in Jakarta and Manila.
“Both are very crowded cities where it’s difficult to move around,” he said. “I’ll be looking at legislation and access and a host of other issues, including religious and cultural attitudes.”
Thohari shouldn’t have trouble adjusting to brash Sydney – he already displays some of the ‘don’t-bother-me-if-you’re-not-serious’ attitudes often found among Western change makers.
It’s behavior he probably refined during a two-year stint at the University of Hawaii studying philosophy on a Ford Foundation Scholarship.
Gone are the basa-basi [polite small talk] rituals that often turn Indonesian meetings into circular marathons.  This man is on a mission and if that offends, well tough.  Life’s too short to pussyfoot around when the cause is just and the need great.
Surprisingly he’s not too keen on following Western models of support for the handicapped.  “The motivation overseas is to make people independent,” he said. 
“Here in Indonesia we have a different culture.  We want to share.  We don’t want to be alone. We work together.  Improving human rights needs to take account of local wisdom.”
Thohari’s approach has clearly been successful.

Last year Malang’s Brawijaya University opened its spacious purpose-built Pusat Studi dan Layanan Disabilitas [PSLD – Center for Studies and Disability Services] on the ground floor of the Rectorate, the most prestigious building on the state university’s campus.
Here students get support from staff, and facilities to compete on equal terms with their fellow 30,000 undergraduates.  These are the students who seldom see issues in jumping drains, skipping over kerbs and running up the stairs of  high-rises without lifts, hazards built by thoughtless planners.
PSLD provides extra lecturers, volunteer helpers for those with mobility problems, Braille readers and other resources. 
There’s ample flat open space for wheelchairs and room to walk if you need to swing a crutch without cracking the shins of passersby.
This is a particular requirement for Thohari, a victim of polio [“the disease hasn’t been eradicated in Indonesia - it’s only dormant”] which means he has one useful leg. 
Logically this has nothing to do with the rest of his body or intellect, any more than baldness, batwing ears or buck teeth mean you’re brainless. 
Yet assuming one physical difficulty impacts on other abilities is a common fault in communities everywhere.  Which is why the UN still thinks today is necessary.
Abdurrahman [Gus Dur] Wahid was almost blind and suffered from other health problems.  That didn’t stop him becoming the Republic’s fourth president.  Didn’t that focus attention on the handicapped?  “Yes, but it wasn’t followed up after he lost office in 2001,” said Thohari.
Like most modern advocates for the disabled he wants everyone to get a normal education.  “Special schools tend to provide learning that doesn’t recognize an individual’s cognitive skills,” he said.  “Often they just teach craft. 
“When they leave students are faced with a double handicap – their knowledge isn’t up to scratch.  Few handicapped people get a tertiary education.
“Now every year Brawijaya allows 20 determined students to enter without having to go through the normal examinations.”
The old metaphor of likening the speed of bureaucratic action to the melting of a glacier is as apt in academia as it is in government. 
To have persuaded Brawijaya to spend serious money on creating, fitting out and funding the PSLD, plus altering the entrance rules, proves Thohari’s persuasive skills. He credits others, particularly support from former Rector Dr Yogi Sugito as a vital factor.
“The breakthrough came in 2012 with an international workshop on campus called Towards Inclusive Education for Universities in Indonesia. It was co-sponsored by the Director General of Higher Education.  Key people attended and responded to what they learned.
“Laws were passed allowing money to be spent on facilities like the PSLD, which may be the best model in the country for others to follow.  Once legislation is in place public servants feel more relaxed about doing something differently.  This is part of the secret to getting things underway.” 
So does a political career entice?  The answer was swift, sharp and uncompromising: “No. I want my own life.”
Thohari’s father died when he was ten.   His mother, who had eight children, sold snacks for a living and piggybacked him to a normal school.  She helped fund him into Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University [UGM] where he studied sociology between part-time jobs.
He also became an advocate for the handicapped, having learned about discrimination without having to attend courses other than those provided by life.  After returning from Hawaii he moved to Malang.
“Yogya had become aware of the issues facing the disabled,” he said.  “At that time Malang was not so enlightened.”
One of his first stunts was to organize a demonstration in front of the Town Hall. Disabled people released thousands of birds to illustrate the freedom they needed to access public services.
He was offered a lectureship in the Department of Sociology and became director of PSLD. But he still works with NGOs and retains membership of a motorcycle club where 70 handicapped people meet.

Different thinking
Thohari outlined four ways of looking at disabilities.
In Javanese tradition the handicapped are seen as gifted people.
Under Islam those who are different are considered objects of charity.
Then there’s the medical model, and finally the social position where disability is socially constructed with the dominant group determining who is ‘normal’.
He said that Javanese culture believes the disabled have inherited magical powers. In traditional parades midgets were portrayed as superior beings with psychic abilities, like predicting lotteries.
In the wayang [puppet] performances and serat [classical literature] the disabled are superior and powerful. The disfigured divine clown Semar is also the wise character and guardian spirit of Java.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 December 2015)


Trading next door? Best know them first                                 
Harold Mitchell seems an OK guy.  A seriously rich media buyer and philanthropist concerned about health and Indigenous art, and also interested in Indonesia.
His personal involvement with the Republic spans ‘many decades’, originally in advertising and now beef.  He chairs the Australia Indonesia Centre, set up by Tony Abbott two years ago with an impressive board.
It has just produced a 102-page upbeat report titled Succeeding Together touting AUD 3 trillion business opportunities.  (Download free at )  
The AIC’s optimism is based on Indonesia’s size (it’s the world’s fourth most populous nation), its growth, particularly in the so-called middle classes, proximity, and possible emergence as a world power, though unlikely under the inward-looking nationalist  President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo.
After visiting Yogyakarta last month (Nov) with Trade Minister Andrew Robb, Mitchell used his Sydney Morning Herald column ( to praise the possibilities for trade with our giant neighbor.
Robb led the 350-strong delegation billed as Australia’s biggest and garnered plenty of positive publicity. Less well known is that as the Qantas Airbuses jetted south, JAL Boeings deplaned more than 1,000 Japanese on a similar mission.
They got to meet Jokowi in his palace, while the Australians only managed a meal with Yogyakarta’s Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, a politically minor figure.
(Japan is the second biggest investor in Indonesia behind Singapore.  Then comes South Korea, the UK, the US, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the British Virgin Islands, Hong Kong and China.)
Nonetheless anything that helps bond Indonesia and Australia has to be good. Positive outcomes include a promised relaxing of our onerous visa rules and bilateral trade talks starting next year. But to cement these worthy ambitions Mitchell and the AIC must first lay down a hardstand of market realities and shirtfront their masters about the problems. 
Only 250 Australian companies are doing business in Indonesia.  There used to be 400.  What went wrong?  Are public perceptions infecting board decisions? 
The Lowy Institute has done the polls: ‘Australians’ feelings towards Indonesia, which have never been warm and have at times been characterised by wariness and even fear, have fallen to their lowest point in eight years.’
If the chance to make big bucks is so good why is it necessary to bang the drum, and so loudly?  Any CEO worth her or his salary plots their own course; they don’t need politicians and public servants to GPS the honeypot.
Or is the government just using business to clear the road for diplomats to follow after the executions of Chan and Sukumaran?
Mitchell highlights Indonesia’s tertiary institutions.  Sadly none of its 400 plus universities is ranked among the world’s top 500.  There are some fine campuses with professional overseas links, but an abundance of degree mills; quantity is not a synonym for quality.
Indonesia’s ‘commitment to creating clever generations’ is about equal to our government’s determination to arrest the decline in Indonesian studies.  The local term is NATO – No Action, Talk Only.
 ‘Middle class’ is the wrong label for Indonesians’ growing affluence because it suggests they share our living standards.  A family in this category might have a motorbike on hire purchase, can meet school fees for the ‘free’ education, and both parents have jobs that pay more than AUD 500 a month.
Consumers certainly, but not within co-ee of Australian earners and spenders.
Canberra’s politics provoke despair, but our operators are first-day kindy kids against Jakarta’s knuckle-cracking oligarchs whose ideologies are power and protectionism.
Many institutions are rottenly fraudulent (Indonesia ranks 107 on the Corruption Perception Index); graft impacts almost every contact with the public service.  Some scams are large enough to buy an Australian cattle station.
The endless scandals plus widespread disappointment with a lacklustre president could crash the government should the opposition parties discover unity. That doesn’t inspire investor confidence. 
In Indonesia it’s almost impossible to succeed without wading in the cesspit.  To enforce a contract requires trust in the law.  That’s absent. Check the Churchill Mining saga, or Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine disputes to get a feel for the hazards.
For the personal risks read The Jakarta Globe’s series on the conviction and acquittal of teachers on allegedly fabricated child sex charges at the Jakarta Intercultural School.
Though Indonesia says it wants investors, it’s doing little more than shaking hands.  A boots-on-the-ground assault on corruption would be a start.  So would a public service revolution to attract the smartest, not just those seeking security and pension rights.
The nation’s infrastructure is in an appalling mess. The government knows this but seems at a loss on ways to fix.  There’s a lack of discipline and direction.  Decisions are made and reversed on a regular basis.
Foreign companies can prosper.  Scores of small traders who live in the Archipelago do well, don’t wear suits and didn’t ask the government to hold their hands. 
They say newcomers require time, patience, flexibility and a deep understanding of the culture and the differences to succeed. They also need to come from an environment that thinks well about its neighbour.
That’s why promoting Indonesian Studies and language in Australian schools and universities is so long-term critical. The government’s failure to address this undermines Robb and Mitchell’s mission.


(First published in On Line Opinion   3 December 2015. See:

Monday, November 30, 2015


A taste in search of a makeover                              

It’s a famous story in the marketing of horticulture.
Yang Tao look like the droppings of a large and unfriendly herbivore from the Triassic Age.  The skin is hairy. Dissecting is probably best left to veterinary surgeons.
When imported into New Zealand last century as Chinese Gooseberries the response was restrained.  Then an advertising spark reckoned the Bard may have made an error.  The answer to the question ‘What’s in a name?’ is not a rose.  It’s Kiwi Fruit.
Chinese Gooseberries morphed again, this time because they look like the indigenous flightless bird’s chick. Or did so to a marketing guru sorely in need of an ophthalmologist.
No matter.  Kiwi Fruit resonated. For once the normally business-savvy Chinese lost out to the entrepreneur growers of NZ who are now just behind Italy as the world’s top producers.

A similar makeover may be needed for tape if the traditional Indonesian snack based on fermented cassava is to find an international market and rise to its producers’ ambitions.
Western vocal chords should rhyme tape with caffé latte, but that’s unlikely. Instead they’ll make it sound like a pre-digital recording medium, or even worse, a stomach parasite.
Not the ideal name outside the Republic where the products include cakes and individually-wrapped bars of candy, which the British call ‘sweets’.  So maybe Java Bites might be the answer.
“We’d like to expand and start exporting,” said Anwari Dufri, a partner with his wife Junaidah in one of the home industries of Sumberpinang.  The village is about ten kilometers outside the East Java city of Jember.
“We were getting some help from the government under its small business program but that’s stopped.  So we just make to order and sell locally.”
Anwari was a lawyer and his wife an economist; the couple quit professional lives to create a business and jobs for their neighbors.
Now they stir, squeeze and wrap.  Mind-numbingly laborious, but financially worthwhile.  With two modern cars and a daughter at university studying history, business is OK – but could be better.
Iffat Amalia (right)  who runs a separate home industry, though part of the same extended family, found an outlet in Hong Kong. 

“Unfortunately sales were slow and the tape expired on the shelves – so we lost that market,” she said. “Tape is famous in Java, and Jember villages make the best.   Distribution is difficult; we only get known outside this area when visitors take home presents.”
Returning travellers who value their reputation must conform to a strict Indonesian cultural practise – providing oleh-oleh [presents or souvenirs] for family, friends and neighbors.
This is the market tape manufacturers rely on, so package their products in easy-carry plastic bags, cardboard boxes and besek, woven baskets where cassava chunks are wrapped in banana leaves ready to fry.  Prices hover around Rp 18,000 [US$ 1.35] for 500 grams
Iffat worked as a midwife until she married into a family of tape manufacturers.  Here she learned the secrets of cleaning, boiling and shredding the tubers, adding a white commercial yeast and nursing the sometimes temperamental fermentation.
Mixed with sugar and flavors - durian is the most popular, but strawberry and chocolate also go down well - tape feels and tastes more like a sweet fudge. The only off-put comes with the cakes, which tend to be heavy and occasionally include long fibers.
After delivering 60 babies Iffat turned from reproduction to production, employing six staff.
“I handle the quality control, though I can’t push too hard otherwise they’d walk away,” she said.  “There are tuber washing and cutting machines but these need capital; workers do the job much cheaper.”
Her knowledge of science is limited to human biology:  “I’ve learned everything about tape from my mother-in-law.”
In the West ‘hand-made’ is a selling point for niche markets suggesting sustainability and care.  Like ‘exclusive’ and ‘executive’ the term is a synonym for ‘expensive’.  Though not in the Sumberpinang home industries where production is entirely manual.

“Cleanliness is critical,” said Anwari (right)whose business is run in a house where the rooms are for making food and living.  “All utensils are scrubbed and dried; any speck of dirt, soap or oil could foul the process.”
Anwari doesn’t have a website or e-mail address, making overseas contact difficult.  Nor does he list the ingredients, a requirement in certification-crazed Western nations.
All the tape producers encountered by The Jakarta Post appeared fit, slim and energetic, which is a thoroughly subjective testimonial.  Somewhere there’s an idle laboratory researcher in need of a Nobel Prize by determining whether tape is good for you.
Another manufacturer has taken a furtive step towards wider selling by advertising in English that his product is processed hygienically, though his other claims are suspect: 
‘Function as to heat of body an [sic] to launch circulation of blood, healing pimple and refine husk.’  So if pimples bother, heart no longer pumps or husks hurt – try tape.

Food for the poor

The South American plant cassava was introduced into Indonesia by the Dutch, probably in the 19th century.  Although a fine source of carbohydrate it gained a reputation as the poor person’s rice, a famine food.
That’s unkind for we know that cassava has fed humanity for more than 10,000 years and is rich in calcium and other essential minerals.
The spindly plants grow from cuttings. They rise to about two or three meters and produce a plump, tapering edible tuber.  Cassava thrives in dry country, so an ideal food source in drought-prone lands.  It can also be used to make alcohol, including a Brazilian beer, which to most connoisseurs’ horror is served warm.
Tapioca starch ground from the tuber is widely used as a thickener in Western recipes.  Making anything edible from cassava is a job for the knowledgeable or scientifically trained.
The roots contain cyanide which needs to be soaked out.  Otherwise a taste could be a terminal experience.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 November 2015)

Sunday, November 29, 2015


According to most Google entries Australian businessman and philanthropist Harold Mitchell is a good bloke.  He has been given many awards and is chair of The Australia-Indonesian Centre. 
In November he spoke at an event in Yogya and wrote about this in The Sydney Morning Herald.  You can read his column here -

Here's my reply - sent, but not published, in the SMH,


Good that Harold Mitchell enjoyed his nasi goreng in an upscale hotel in Yogyakarta, a ‘special region’ not a state, with five universities, not 21.
Also splendid that he sees great possibilities for trading with Indonesia and his enthusiasm for cooperation.  To build these worthy ambitions he must first lay down a hardstand of realities.
None of Indonesia’s 400 plus universities that he mentions are ranked among the world’s top 500.  There are some fine institutions with professional overseas links, but an abundance of degree mills; quantity is not a synonym for quality.
Indonesia’s ‘commitment to creating clever generations’ is about equal to our government’s determination to arrest the decline in Indonesian studies.  The local term is NATO – No Action, Talk Only.
 ‘Middle class’ is the wrong label for Indonesians’ growing affluence because it suggests they share Australian standards.  A family in this category might have a motorbike on hire purchase, can meet school fees for the ‘free’ education and both parents have jobs that pay more than AUD 500 a month.
At times Canberra’s politics provoke despair, but our operators are kindy kids against the heavyweight oligarchs whose ideologies are power and protectionism.
Indonesia is rottenly corrupt (107 on the Corruption Perception Index); graft impacts almost every contact with the public service.  The big scams are large enough to buy an Australian cattle station.
The endless scandals plus widespread disappointment with a lacklustre president could crash the government should the opposition parties discover unity. That doesn’t inspire investor confidence. 
Mr Mitchell has written about the wrongs of cheating in business, but in Indonesia it’s almost impossible to succeed without wading in the cesspit.  To enforce a contract requires trust in the law.  That’s absent. Check the Churchill Mining saga, or Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine disputes to get a feel for the hazards.
Foreign companies can prosper in the archipelago but might wonder why so few have taken advantage of the glistening opportunities currently being spruiked by politicians and bureaucrats.  But they’re on the public payroll, not risking their capital.
Of course ‘we should all get a taste of the real thing that is Indonesia’; not to be found in a hotel ballroom but at the cheap roadside stalls where the connoisseurs dine.

That’s where people-to-people links get formed, and where you’ll also find some of those low profile overseas traders who have succeeded, stayed and remain sane.  Their frank words might give a better feel for the facts.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Spot a crater, tap an app                                     
You’re hurtling, though more likely faltering if in Java, along a major road.  Suddenly you hit a hole that’s probably been there from before the Revolution.  How you respond depends on your location and whether you’re an Indonesian or a Westerner.
Should you be a local in Australasia you’d  direct a few expletives towards those responsible for highway maintenance. Taxes are heavy enough – fix the wretched thing.  You have problems?  That’s your concern, not mine.
 If damage has occurred to self or vehicle you might call a lawyer and demand the road authority pays compensation. 
However an Indonesian in her or his homeland is likely to be more forgiving, knowing that hazards abound; the responsible bureaucrats could be thigh-deep in paperwork, unable to get out and check every byway.

So why not give them a hand by reporting the peril?   Easy to say, difficult to do.  Who to call and where?  Suppose it’s after hours, and the public service office still as a graveyard at midnight?
These were the dilemmas facing four smart information technology [IT] students from Malang’s Kanjurahan University -  Taruna Yoga Pratama, 22, Mohammad Nurul Hakiki, 20, Rico Tetuku Santoso, 20, and Fathur Rohim, 21.
They all ride motorcycles. They’ve  all had accidents, one man three times.  “I just wasn’t paying attention,” confessed Rico, nursing a bandaged elbow and blaming only himself.  “I should have been more careful.”  He laughs.  Your reporter winces.
They  call themselves Team THOR, picking letters from their names to make the amalgam;   like young men everywhere they want to sound macho, modern, and invincible.
Thor was originally a god in Norse mythology but he’s been thumped by an American superhero of the same name who appears in comics and  cult movies now showing in Indonesia and apparently reaping billions.
In the interests of honest journalism we note the THOR fellows though tech-savvy and  pleasant enough,  seem poor candidates to defeat the Frost Giants of Jotunheim in single handed combat should they invade Java.  However if the ammunition is apps the Good Guys will win.
Unlike its parents, Generation Click travels light, uncluttered by pens and paper.  Members interface  with the world through keyboards.  Their IT knowledge may be measured in terabytes, but their face-to-face skills come in kilobytes.  Who needs to talk when you can tweet?
What they lack in muscle and sentences beyond 140 characters  they’ve compensated with marketable abilities by designing an app that’s won them Rp 10 million [US$ 740] in a provincial competition. 
This was organized by an international tech giant and the local government in Sidoarjo alongside the capital of Surabaya. It’s the smallest regency in East Java with some of the biggest factories, so tonnes of traffic.
Sidoarjo’s CityApp two-day Appathon [another verbal concoction derived from ‘marathon’] was part of the Microsoft CityNext program. Team THOR beat out 47 other contestants.
According to the company the Appathon is ‘a global initiative that seeks to transform and modernize the implementation of operational and infrastructure in various cities …
‘It aims to use the imagination and innovation of young people and students in the area of ​​Sidoarjo to develop a technically viable solution to the challenges of urban development.”
There have been similar competitions in Makassar and overseas: Changchun in China, and Kathmandu in Nepal.
Team THOR’s  app is called ROAR for Road Report.  When polished and connected it will be available free. It works like this:
Travellers carry Smartphones loaded with ROAR.  When they encounter craters and other dangers they can just snap a picture in passing.  
ROAR then automatically sends the photo and its coordinates straight to the person in charge of repairs who then presumably despatches a crew of fixers.  No need to fidget with texts or spend a fortune in calls waiting to find someone responsible - just a quick click and  begone.
“At the moment most people grumble about the roads by calling radio talk-back,” said Ari Suryono, head of Sidoarjo’s local and international cooperation bureau. 
“However the complaints aren’t always clear, they aren’t directed to the right people and the location is often vague.
“We believe the app will make a difference by informing us of the problem in real time and providing a precise location. 
“It will probably go live next April.  In the long term it will save us money by getting black spots fixed speedily and of course by making the roads safer.
“We will respond to alerts.  We want to cooperate with the community and ROAR will help us get closer.
“We have a road gang of about 100, but for a lot of work we rely on contractors.  Sidoarjo has almost 2,000 kilometers of roads and maybe 20 per cent need attention.  We spend almost 30 per cent of our budget on highway maintenance.

“It’s the big overloaded trucks that do the damage. They are breaking regulations which aren’t being policed. Yet Sidoarjo’s roads are better than many others in the province.”
Added THOR spokesman Taruna:  “We want to help our governments keep the roads safe and understand the workers can’t find every problem. This way we work with them, not against.”
Suppose the authorities get overwhelmed with reports on ruts and fractures?  Indonesian roads are often like the rupiah and constantly tumbling into an abyss.
“That’s up to them,” said Taruna.  “We are not trying to shame public servants, that’s not our aim.  There should be a good relationship between the people and government.”
Some of the most awful roads in the Republic are on Madura, the home of the THOR lads’ lecturer Mohammad Ahsan.  He agreed that he’ll need his students’ skills to make the island navigable to transports using wheels, not tank tracks. 
“The app will work anywhere,” he said.  “All it needs is to be linked with the right local authority.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 November 2015)

Sunday, November 15, 2015


BTW: Rot in Appletown                                                                           
Batu is the small East Java hilltown famous for fruit, flowers and naughty weekends.  It’s about 20 kilometers outside the city of Malang,
Half way up Mount Welirang it’s a place where parents and teenagers might for once agree on the correct descriptor: Cool.
We hadn’t been to Batu for a while.  Expectations were 840 meters high; even if we caught a chill we’d be warmed with a boot full of cheap apples. No longer.
The local variety is called Manalagi [want more], and allegedly developed from the Rome Beauty introduced by the Dutch.  There are more than 7,000 varieties in the world and the colonialists picked this one? They should offer compensation.
Harder than hockey balls these small apples are a dentist’s delight.  The only redeeming feature is Manalagi’s long shelf life, so the best chance of ensuring freshness is to pick your own.
Once it was easy to chat to a farmer, potter round his plantation with a basket and share a few laughs.  No longer.  A cartel now controls visits at Rp 20,000 a head.
This is little more than a US dollar, though likely to be way below once you digest this column – but still a bite out of the wallet if the car doubles as the extended family’s bus.
Smart marketing – but it’s given a sour taste to the once casual experience of townies meeting toilers, and turned the smallholders into the sort of hucksters that have corrupted Kuta.
Batu also had a reputation for weekend getaways when the gracious hotels tended to be occupied by refined couples.  On weekdays these cultured folk might be enjoying a respectable family life on the plains below, though with different partners.
There’s an old English joke about such places – the receptionist announces a call in the dining room for ‘Mr Smith’ and is besieged by all the guests.
Maybe this market is growing – certainly there’s a rush to build as many rooms as possible in the limited spaces.
Our day trip was strictly pleasures of the palate.  With the political killjoys focussing on booze instead of poverty alleviation, fewer grog outlets and higher prices, cider-making now seemed a pressing need before a law bans home brewing.
Foolish idea.  Nowhere could we negotiate below the Rp 20,000 a kilo tag all traders had connived to uphold.  This was even for fruit that might have been fresh when I was a whining school-boy with satchel and shining morning face, as my literary hero once remarked.
Only back in Malang and in the supermarkets could we buy cheaper imported fruit that was sweet to eat, softer to touch and as unblemished as the salesgirls at the make-up counter.
But at least we got to enjoy the summits and cascading greenery while sitting in a café run by relaxed owners, topping up our lungs with fresh mountain air. 
Wrong again. The restaurants are franchises staffed by bored teens. Batu is not Sumatra or even Riau so the local government hasn’t passed laws prohibiting open fires on windless days.  Or maybe it has and they’re treated with the same contempt motorists give to traffic rules.
This segues to the road between Malang and Batu.  Once a winding lane with a few motorbikes and fewer cars, it now carries a thousand times the traffic.  And it’s still a winding lane.
If British poet Robert Bridges’ famous line is true – and that ‘verily by beauty it is that we come at wisdom’, then the opposite must hold.
Batu’s theme parks play more to Western than Asian images; then there’s the inevitable municipal monstrosities.
The town’s core has been uglified with the addition of giant cartoon characters that originated in the design studios of Disney, not the rich heritage of Java.  Of course there’s a concrete Big Apple, which is appropriate given the armor-plated nature of the original.
Batu means ‘stone’ or ‘rock’. I don’t deny the town’s right to grow or its citizens to exploit its many attractions; nothing stays quaint forever.  But with a little foresight and a touch of imaginative planning Batu could have blossomed and charmed as before.  Unfortunately it has become a hard place.

First published in The Jakarta Post 15 November 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Stopover charm is not enough                                       

Instead of a long state visit Malcolm Turnbull used a ten-hour Jakarta stopover for his first official trip as PM to meet the northern neighbors. 
The much-reported reason before he dashed to Berlin was to ‘reset’ the relationship.
A ‘reset’ follows a circuit-breaker trip.  Flick a switch and if there’s no system fault the lights come on. Easy.
Not this time.
After a year in office we understand little about President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo other than he’s indecisive, believes shooting traffickers fixes drug problems and is powerless to stop regular illegal firestick-farming threatening world health.
We also know the leader of the world’s third largest democracy blows thought bubbles (which his ministers pop) on issues like joining the TPP, and appears awkward at international events.  The Jakarta Post explained this was his ‘contemplative nature’.
Much is scuttlebutt – that he doesn’t read documents, is beholden to oligarchs and bored by foreign affairs.  Newsclips of his meeting last month in the US with Barack Obama and business heads did nothing to erase these calumnies.
On the upside the nation has not been ripped by vengeful losers following the 2014 election. There have been health care reforms and fuel subsidies partially removed. The seventh president is not a military fascist. WYSIWYG, a plain man free of guile. 
His party patron Megawati Soekarnoputri once claimed he was too thin to be a real politician.  If girth equals graft then slender Jokowi should be whistle-clean.
This doesn’t help him wade through Jakarta’s political slimepit, but it endears him to the electorate, though love is on the wane.  Polls showing approval down from 70 to 50 per cent in a year reflect dismay that performance hasn’t matched promise.
He’s failed the smoke alarm test with the fires in Kalimantan; now another challenge looms – a rice shortage following droughts.  If prices rocket with imports the masses will not confine their rage to tweets.
Real warmth between the two leaders will probably remain elusive but Turnbull did well – he smiled a lot and it looked sincere.  Abbott-style pugnacity wins no friends in the Republic where personality trumps policy and visitors must be halus – refined, gracious and sensitive – and have a sense of fun. 
The PM and his wife Lucy obliged. Charm disarms.  Jokowi took Turnbull to the overcrowded Tanah Abang textile market for one of his trademark blusukan (walkabout among ordinary folk).
 Indonesian media described the informal scene as ‘hot, stuffy and boisterous’ but Jokowi was in his element, looking happier than usual.  Jacketless Turnbull, snapping selfies, seemed amused.
Certainly a few hours facetime is better than a diplomatic note, but change won’t come through speed dating.  This courtship needs to be Java-style - slow and seemly.
Turnbull seeking contact points spoke of both being in business. The link is slight.
The silvertail lawyer and banker grew up with vistas of Sydney Harbour; the provincial furniture trader was raised in a shack illegally pitched by the Solo River – not for the view but its ablution values.
One was a Rhodes Scholar – the other an unexceptional forestry graduate. Now the two men have to see each other’s perspective.
The other much thumped drum is that Indonesia is ‘our most important relationship. Absolutely – though the feeling is one-way.  More worrying is that Australian governments have long been hypocritical, disbelieving their own rhetoric.
If otherwise the Turnbulls would have spent relaxed days, not hours in Indonesia, reviving friendships built over long careers in public life.
There’d be no need for a ‘biggest ever’ 300-strong business delegation coming in Turnbull’s wake because substantial trade would have been built long ago.  Communications with Jakarta would be as stable as they are with Manila and Singapore.
No costly ephemeral PR exercise called Window on Australia because the image would already be benign. If that money had been put into scholarships the number of Indonesians currently studying in Australia (below 14,000) might overtake the Nepalese,
Jokowi’s pre-election statements included Nawacita (nine principles, mainly motherhoods) and Mental Revolution. This called for a strong military, food and energy independence and reduced reliance on foreign investment.  The delegation led by Trade Minister Andrew Robb might ask if these short documents are still valid.
Business opportunities are being crimped by Jokowi’s capricious approach to policy, a tumbling rupiah and the growth of strident nationalism and protectionism.
Earlier this year Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey told a Griffith Asia Institute forum that the Australian public was generally hostile and ill-informed about Indonesia.   The polls prove his point, and the situation is getting worse.
The government hasn’t seriously backed Indonesian studies which Lindsey predicted will be extinct within eight years. This isn’t a new universe in the galaxy – other educators have been observing the same for much of this century.
Presumably Robb’s mob is Asia-aware, but if the pessimists are right the next generation of Australian exporters and investors will know little about their market.
The Turnbull trip listed the standard trinity of topics favoured by visiting Australian politicians – trade, security and investment. All important but having no immediate impact on the daily lives of the toilers; they tend to see their neighbour seeking to control Christian Eastern Indonesia according to polls cited by Lindsey.
Window on Australia should help diminish ignorance about Australia, but doesn’t confront the absurdity of a secular sport-obsessed nation having neo-colonial ambitions.   Indonesians fought for four years to expel the Dutch; they can be seismometer-sensitive to real or imagined threats to sovereignty in ways Australians find hard to understand.
Edgy issues like the death penalty and visas were off the agenda. The problem of 11,000 asylum seekers stuck in the Archipelago while heading to Australia was apparently not addressed.  This was despite Indonesian kite-flying ahead of the leaders’ meeting which Turnbull kept stressing was about ‘jobs and growth’.  So the failed boat people’s fate remains a pebble in the shoe.
After the meeting came statements no-one could fault – the need for more cooperation, cattle breeding and tourism. No detail, no contracts, no aid packages.
Contrary to some media reports this was not Turnbull’s first overseas trip as PM.  His priority was tiny, placid New Zealand for two days last month. He’ll spend more time in Malaysia coming back from Europe than the nation where the relationship is allegedly so important.
Academics, businesspeople and others with long-term knowledge of Indonesia say building good connections needs time and personal engagement.  This trip says the government knows it knows better.
Indonesians are too polite to say so, but they recognize the realities:  The Australian PM comes across far better than Abbott. He appeared to have had a fun break. But his real mission was in Europe and elsewhere where he’ll meet 19 other world leaders.
No reset yet.  The system faults remain but the two men seem to have found a switch. Maybe the switch.

(First published in New Mandala on 13 November 2015
and The Canberra Times on 14 November 2015)


Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Kids who can’t say Mommy                                          

Two years ago Joan McKenna Kerr (right) and her colleagues from the Autism Association of Western Australia [AWA] scoured East Java for interns.
Their offer was nectar:  A training program for health and education professionals learning early intervention techniques for autistic children. 
The location – dazzling Perth on the placid Swan River.  Cost – zero.  Air fares and accommodation  included plus allowances.
The sting? Study for six weeks, eight hours a day, six days a week plus homework. Political junketeers  checking golf courses unwelcome.
Hundreds applied.  Small teams were picked from five cities – a total of 20 people.  Psychologists, teachers, therapists and nurses.
“We wanted those with passion and a real commitment to helping kids, not those motivated to advance their curriculum vitae or open private practises on returning to Indonesia,” said McKenna Kerr.
“They had to display competency and leadership.  They had to work with local people.
“We insisted on high level English but saw good candidates with limited language skills who in a typically Indonesian way would get support from their friends.  We had to adjust.
“This was the first time we’d run such a project.”
With the students long back in their homeland McKenna Kerr, the chief executive officer of AWA, and Tasha Alach, the organization’s executive manager for early childhood services returned this month (Oct) to see if the exercise was worthwhile.
In short the answer is: Yes, plus.  So more training will follow.
In Blitar at the Sekolah Dasar Luar Biasa [State special elementary school] they reunited with  principal Suud Wahyudi who’d still have a stamp-free passport had AWA stuck to its rigid  requirements.
“We learned much about autism and information that can be used to help parents and children live a better life,” he said.  “It’s made a difference to the way we teach.”

Said parent Lilik (above) :  “My daughter Revita Selvadita, 17, has moved ahead.  She has more confidence and plays with others.”  
Commented McKenna Kerr: “Our decision was vindicated.  The school, like others we’ve checked, is outstanding.  It’s implementing many of the techniques we taught. 
“Apart from small size classes [18 teachers care for 133 kids, including 20 who are autistic], and grouping children by skills, not age, they’ve introduced visual cues. Autistic kids stress easily; they don’t respond well to words.”
Classroom walls have Velcro strips with small pictures of activities, such as catching the bus home, play time, music therapy and rest periods. The pupil peels the picture and heads to that activity.  The system also works for deaf children.
Less than one per cent of the population has a developmental nervous disorder grouped under the term autism, coined last century from the Greek  autos meaning self.  It’s usually noticed before age three [See breakaway] when the child isn’t communicating.  Four of every five autistic kids are boys.
There’s probably a genetic cause, though factors like medical problems may have a role.  There’s no cure; research continues worldwide but the situation isn’t hopeless.  The AWA says children given the right training can progress, attend a normal school and eventually get a job.
At a new Autism Center in Blitar parents are also schooled on handling their offspring.  Shouting and scolding is a waste of time and emotion – the child isn’t being naughty but has a neurological defect.  Positive behavior support works best.
Having a hyperactive child unresponsive to standard conventions often overloads families; marital breakdowns can be collateral damage.  Parents’ emotions swing between deep distress and fierce determination to help.
Born and educated in Ireland where she took a degree in sociology, McKenna Kerr has no family members with autism.  She was in Aceh for two years last century with her husband who was involved in a health project.
“I didn’t see children with disabilities,” she said.  “Handicaps were considered a curse for wrongdoing.  The best way to help is through early diagnosis and therapy, not hiding the child.”
In Perth she started working for AWA, a not-for-profit agency funded by State and Federal Governments and donors.  The association with Indonesian schools is though the Western Australia-East Java Sister State agreement, but the idea first came from Indonesian students concerned that the Perth facilities weren’t available in their homeland.
Links have also been made with Surabaya’s Airlangga University where 48 teachers and therapists are being taught to use AWA’s techniques.
“Not all ideas travel well between cultures, but these are ripples in a pond,” said McKenna Kerr.  “We’ll be back next year to run workshops on communication; we’ll include our former interns as local instructors.
“Indonesia has made huge advances in caring for autistic children.  Even candidates for local government are recognizing the need.
“Australia and Indonesia are neighbors.  We have a responsibility to share knowledge.”

Tantrums and techniques

How do I handle a disruptive child who continues to throw sand?
The teacher’s plea at a Q & A session at Bhakti Luhur Catholic institution in Malang led by former AWA intern Sister Elizabeth Witin (right) drew this response from McKenna Kerr:
“Imagine this: You’re in a foreign airport; no-one speaks your language and you can’t understand the signs.  That’s the world of an autistic child.
“You’re in a room with 20 TV sets each on a different channel.  That’s why they retreat to routine. We know this from empirical research.
“Autistic children can’t read situations or people well.  They want to escape from environments they find overwhelming.
“They’d rather not be challenging.  Saying ‘no’ does nothing – teach to their strengths.
“All children are different.  Structure the day, stick to routines.  Teach the child to calm himself. Use color codes and pictures that can be understood, though it takes time to realize an image is a symbol for the real thing.
“We publish practical tips for teachers and parents.  Work on the building blocks of learning. It’s not easy, it takes time, but it can be done. We need to commit ourselves to the child’s needs.”

Love is all you need – but in truckloads

Like most parents who discover their child has autism, the message was delivered slowly and corrosively.  For Eny Susilowati, 33 and her videographer husband Farid Mukh Pakhrudin, 30, it wasn’t till their daughter Elvina Salsabila Alfany was in her third year that they started seeking advice.
Other mothers were hearing the most rewarding word in every parent’s lexicon – Mommy.  But no magic for Eny.
“Elvina wouldn’t make eye contact,” said her mother.  “Her language was gibberish.  She kept spinning around and couldn’t concentrate.”
The eventual diagnosis was an asteroid hit.  “I was so depressed; we knew nothing about autism. There are no genetic flaws in my family or my husband’s.
“I wept and wept and thought about killing myself.  Farid persuaded me that I could not leave Elvina alone; we had a joint responsibility.  He is such a good man and shares our daughter’s care.
“Like all parents I wondered what I’d done wrong. I thought God had punished me.
“I bled during pregnancy and had contractions long before birth.  I was eating a lot of seafood.  Now I fear it may have been polluted.
“I got emotional and angry for no reason; it was not a good pregnancy.
“After the diagnosis we sought help from the mosque. I was told to bathe at 3 am with my daughter.  We all got sick afterwards.  Many doctors don’t know much either – we’ve had to go to Surabaya [a six hour drive] to find the best medical help.
“Since then we’ve been determined to do our own research and work out the best upbringing.”
That includes putting Elvina on a  non-dairy diet and trying dolphin assisted therapy where the child interacts with the intelligent sea mammals.  This is a highly disputed technique condemned by some medical authorities as quackery.
However after a costly session in Jakarta Eny said her daughter started to eyeball her parents and can now repeat counting up to ten in English.
Elvina’s parents are regular visitors to the Autism Center where treatment is free.  While the children get therapy the adults chat.  Inevitably a busy market of ideas and experiences pops up in the lobby; support reinforces resolve.
“I realise that we have so many shared problems,” Eny said.  “We wanted another baby but that plan has been cancelled.  All our energies must go to helping our daughter.
“The special school is good, but Elvina won’t go there. We want her to be in a normal school. This is my dream.  That is my commitment.
“I tell her:  Elvina: In my eyes you are normal.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 November 2015)