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

Monday, March 30, 2015


Waking from the American Dream                         

About a dozen Indonesians, all illegal immigrants, thought they’d found their niche in the United States.
The men had good jobs with a nickel mining company, enough money for a car and rented a big house where they cooked rice in every known archipelagic combination.
They’d probably still be there enjoying their American dream had they understood the local culture a little better.  But one fine Sunday morning the lads felt so happy they opened all the doors and windows to let out the music.
Loud noise is OK in Indonesia – even essential to disperse malevolent spirits.  But not in US suburbs on the Sabbath.  A neighbor complained.  The police arrived and checked identities.  End of dream.
New York based journalist Ramdani [Dani] Sirait (above) visited the men in prison before they were deported and added another anecdote to his store of cross-cultural stories.
These have now been blended into one; Green Card is the writer’s first novel, and based on his three plus years as the Antara news agency’s bureau chief at the United Nations HQ in Manhattan.  It covers the adventures of Rafli, a young man from North Sumatra working on a cruise liner and wanting more from life.
“Rafli isn’t me,” said Dani, though hero and creator come from the same island. “Some other characters are modelled on real people, though I’ve changed their names.
“The American Dream is still alive.  There’s an estimated 110,000 Indonesians in the US.  Maybe more than half are there illegally. They are brave and ambitious.  They deserve our respect. That’s why I wrote the book.”
Rafli jumps ship and begins his quest for the worker’s Holy Grail, the permanent residence document known as the Green Card. With no visa or other permissions he’s an alien, certain to be on the next Boeing to Indonesia if caught.
He gets jobs the Americans don’t want and meets other Indonesians.  Not all are fair. Erina has a Green Card because she was once a US citizen’s wife. 
A false marriage might get the document, but Rafli is vulnerable and easily exploited. The lady wants money. If he doesn’t pay she might call Immigration; then it’s bye-bye the USA. 
Larger forces are about to play a role in the drama. Two hijacked commercial jets plough into the Twin Towers, paranoia sets in and differences spawn doubt. Rafli, always worried that one day he’d get a tap on the shoulder, becomes doubly fearful when the government demands all aliens get registered.
If he fronts the authorities he’ll get caught.  If he doesn’t he might get asked to identify himself on the street because his features and accent fit the profile of an imagined terrorist.  Read the book to discover what happens – this feature is not a spoiler.
Dani, now 47, remembers well the bright September morn when the world crashed into a new era.  “It was a beautiful day, one of the best times to be in New York,” he said. “At first we thought it was a stupid pilot who’d lost his way.  I just managed to get out a news flash on the real situation before phone lines and Internet connections were cut.
“Later came the suspicions.  Some authorities linked my name [Ramdani] to Ramadhan [the fasting month] and I was pulled out of lines at airports three times. I was annoyed, but I understood what was happening.
“Many thought I was Vietnamese or a Filipino.  There’s not much knowledge about Indonesia in the US.”
As a journalist Dani has the enviable knack of being in the right place at the right time.  Before being assigned to New York he was in East Timor reporting on the last Indonesian troops to leave – later he was in Aceh after the tsunami.
He was on the palace round when travel-crazed Abdurrahman Wahid [Gus Dur] was the Republic’s fourth president.  Dani criss-crossed the world reporting historical events. In Pakistan he asked President Pervez Musharraf what he thought about Gus Dur calling the world’s Islamic leaders to meet in Jakarta.
Unfortunately the Indonesian President hadn’t got around to inviting his Pakistani host so the question created a display of red faces and diplomatic gymnastics. “It was a challenging, funny and exciting time,” Dani said. “I was far too busy to start my novel.”
When Antara recalled him to Jakarta to drive a desk he suffered from the foreign correspondent’s itch.
Having seen overseas reporting trends he proposed giving Antara’s correspondents video cameras to file vision with text. When the idea bombed it was time to find the exit.  For seven years he worked for the mining company Freeport in Jakarta and West Papua as deputy to the head of communications.
Now he’s executive director of the Indonesian Business Coalition on AIDS promoting awareness of the disease and strategies should employees become ill.  His next novel will be about a woman who copes with HIV.
“I won’t be happy with Green Card until it’s a film,” Dani said. “I’ve been talking to a producer and director but the problem is the cost of having to set scenes in the US.
“Indonesians get their ideas of America from films and television, beautiful people in branded clothes.  The media seldom shows the down and outs, the badly maintained buildings, the garbage.
“Indonesians are resourceful and many could make it, particularly in areas like information technology.  We work hard and have a reputation for being friendly, flexible, multi-skilled  and agreeable – that’s why so many are employed on cruise liners.
“Preparation is necessary – particularly competence in English, and qualifications.  Despite everything Rafli’s story is one of success. When opportunity meets chance it can be a beautiful marriage.
“I tell people keen to go overseas:  ‘I hope you have Rafli’s spirit. Instead of complaining he does something. Don’t be afraid. The world is our workplace’. 
“Rafli represents the youth of Indonesia, the people we need to make our nation great.”
Green Card by Dani Sirait                                                                                            
 Published by Kompas Gramedia, 2014                                                                                   
  234 pages                                                                                                                                   
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 30 March 2015)                                                                                                                                            

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Silence or music beyond the grave?                         

Composer Slamet Abdul Sjukur, a true Javanese eccentric, has vacated the podium of Indonesian contemporary music that he’s dominated for more than 50 years.
 He died in a Surabaya hospital on 24 March after suffering a fall.  He was three months short of his 80th birthday and still working.

Fellow composer Michael Asmara, who founded the Yogyakarta Contemporary Music Festival, said Indonesia was lucky to have had such talent.
 “Slamet should be inaugurated as a national hero,” he said.  “His music was inspired by the gamelan.  He explored the slow tempo and silences. He opened the door to contemporary music; now it’s our duty to continue his dream of sounds.”
Composer and ethnomusicologist Jack Body, former professor in the New Zealand School of Music who studied the gamelan in Yogyakarta, said Slamet was a pre-eminent Indonesian composer with an international reputation.
“More than this he was an extraordinary personality whose warm generosity, humility, and most especially, his wry, subtle humor attracted everyone who met him,” Professor Body said.
 “His passing is a great loss not only to the musical world, but to the many, many people who had the privilege to be his friend. He is irreplaceable.”
Slamet’s music, which often married mainstream instruments with domestic sounds like ticking clocks, tinkling china and the hubbub of humanity, was intellectually demanding. But the man was richly funny, with a contagiously effervescent personality. 
Physically he was short and crippled following a childhood illness.  He had awful eyesight, bad teeth and hobbled with a crutch.  Yet he was always surrounded by beauty, claiming that the secret of his sexual successes was to treat women as equals and independent.

“I was brought up to respect women,” he once told this writer (left). “. Sadly many men in Asia don’t do that.

“I don’t want to monopolise a woman, take her freedom or curb her independence. I like strong and clever women. I give women full attention and they find that sensual. I’m gentle and not in a rush. I don’t talk nonsense. I listen.

“A woman instinctively knows whether a man is sincere. She can feel the vibrations of love. I don’t look with lust.”
 He attributed much of his philosophy to his Eskimo grandmother Astikea who taught him the value of silence and “to do everything with love, because it’s the most important thing in life”. 

His grandfather was a Turkish mystic called Arsjad who gave Slamet numerology; this features in his compositions, including one worked around the date of Indonesia’s Independence, 17 – 8 - 1945.
The couple’s daughter Canna married a Javanese pharmacist Abdul Sjukur.  Their sickly son Soekandar was renamed Slamet [ ‘safe’ in Javanese] the traditional way to ward off bad health.
As a child he studied the piano privately for four years and the gamelan in Surabaya before entering Yogyakarta’s Sekolah Musik Indonesia [the Indonesian music academy]. 
Later he spent 14 years at the Paris Conservatoire with a French government grant. He was particularly drawn to the music of Maurice Ravel.
He was called home to teach at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts. In 1983 he was awarded Hungary’s Zoltán Kodály Commemorative Medal for his musicianship. Instead of this being ranked an honor for the composer and his country, the award cost Slamet his job.
 Hungary was then a communist state and the Indonesian government reckoned their talented citizen must have been infected by ideology.
When the paranoia subsided Slamet became a life member of the Akademi Jakarta following further European awards, including Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government.
In Surabaya where he lived in a crowded kampong, he founded a philharmonic society. He headed the music committee of the Jakarta Arts Festival and composed for the stage, films, orchestras and individual instruments in Indonesia and Europe.
As a freelance composer he spent time every month in Jakarta teaching.  He helped establish the Alliance Francaise and the Pertemuan Musik Surabaya [Friends of Music] which ran monthly concerts, lectures and workshops.
Last year his friends and admirers staged a four-day series of concerts and seminars in Surabaya celebrating his 79th birthday.  They also published a 334-page festschrift.
At the time  Slamet told The Jakarta Post:  “I live music, I dream music.  When I wake I must not get up quickly but take time to remember the notes … to feel the emotion, the truth.  That’s what’s important. 
“There must be a sense of balance and discipline in composition. This must come from within. After we play, we understand. Music can be the voice of God.
“When I look back on my early work I’m not ashamed. For me creating music is a necessity, it is something that must be done. Perhaps I am a magician.
“Music is the gift of life, but it must be treated with intelligence. I chose to follow a quiet road that’s far from the normal
“I’m not afraid of death – I’m too silly to think about it, though I might like a requiem, and I’m too busy. Why worry about age?
“The only problem I have is not having a problem. My advice to the young is to seek the new, to live and enjoy the moment, to maintain the spirit of togetherness.”
“I don’t know if there is music beyond the grave.  I only know it is here and now. This celebration of my life and work is beyond my expectations.
 “What do I want on my gravestone?  Here’s something said to me many years ago by one of my students: ‘Here lies an artist.  When we spoke, he listened and understood.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 26 March 2015)


Sunday, March 22, 2015


Calculating the cost of giving    

A hefty new motorbike van is just the transport needed for the kids of Kalipare, a village between Malang and Java’s south coast. It can climb hills and cope with the rugged roads even with a full load of giggling girls.
The St Yohanes elementary school has 54 students, but almost a third live too far to walk.  Few families can afford their own motorbike.  Reality check: No free transport, no education.
Fortunately a generous person gave Rp 21 million [US$1,650] to buy the machine, which is pleasing news for the school. There are no company logos, so no commitments to commerce.
However the gift didn’t come with money for fuel, maintenance and salary for driver Yulius Katijan .  Consequently these expenses have been lifted from the general school budget.  This means the ‘library’ (right) will remain a junk room until another donor appears to pay for stock and refurbishing.

These are the sort of issues that poor schools in Indonesia have to juggle when government cash is not enough.  They are also encountered daily by Father Bonifasius Hudiono, 53, who heads the Karmel Foundation in East Java.
Karmel supports 7,000 students in 61 village schools and 60 kids in an orphanage.  Some money comes from the Indonesian government, though Father Bonifasius alleged that local officials cut 20 per cent off the grants.
He committed himself as a man of God after completing theological studies 25 years ago. Although he insists that thumbing a calculator hasn’t replaced his commitment to the cross, his days are spent wondering when the next rupiah will arrive.
 “Deus providebit” [God will provide], he said, and to test his faith checked Karmel’s bank balance on his smart phone. Lo and behold, Rp 10 million [US$770] had just been deposited.
Didn’t he want to know the source?  He knows the person, but not how they got their cash.  So if it was from trading stocks in companies that make cigarettes, alcohol or weapons would he accept?
“These are ethical questions that we haven’t started to think about in Indonesia,” he said. “I have taken money from a tobacco company’s education foundation, but thought that to be OK because it wasn’t directly associated with smoking. We won’t promote the company’s products.”
Taking a principled stand on moral issues is easier in countries where governments fund compulsory education and no-one is denied schooling for want of money.  But in Indonesia there’s little space to debate such niceties when the needs are raw and urgent.
Only three pupils at St Yohanes are Muslim, according to principal Wuryanto. But down the road at St Antonius junior high school the majority are Muslim.
 “We are not seeking to Christianise students – that’s a lie,” said Father Bonifasius. (below) “We are trying to provide high quality education and care so children in isolated areas get a chance to succeed. Parents who appreciate what we’re doing will eventually make the schools self sufficient.
“Attracting business donations is becoming difficult as the government gets more efficient in taxing companies, which are now less interested in Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR]. [See breakout]
“We’ve had money from Europe and Japan but these donations tend to be for one-off projects.
“People give for a variety of reasons.  Maybe a few think they are buying a ticket to heaven.  But most are genuine, giving thanks for the church’s help or because they’d like to share their blessings.  We want people to give with a good heart.
“I don’t sell poverty.  When people ask what they can do to help the poor I just direct them to a specific need at a school.”

Endang Haryani (above) doesn’t get to follow her training as an engineer.  Instead, like Father Bonifasius, she spends her time hunting rupiah for Malang’s non-denominational Foundation for Educating the Handicapped [YPAC], supporting and training about 140 young people.
She’s also had to look overseas. Recently she got a direct donation from the New Zealand Embassy and a rehabilitation charity in NZ to upgrade facilities at the school.
“We’ve been operating for 60 years and the government allows us use of the building,” she said. “We need Rp 1.5 billion [US$ 115,000] a year for running costs – we get Rp 45 million [US$3,500] from the government.
“The rest comes from donors.  Although we’ve put up many proposals for CSR funding we’ve had only one response – from a bank. Not all donors want to be involved with the handicapped.  It’s definitely getting harder to raise money.”   
Need for reform
The Corporate Social Responsibility system, where companies pay for community services, can be thinly disguised advertising.  Users of a small recreation park in Malang promoting good health are left in no doubt that a tobacco company has funded the equipment.
In 2012 the national government enacted a 2007 law requiring companies that manage or use natural resources to bear a social and environmental responsibility.  The original legislation applied to all corporates, but strong objections from business whittled application down to extractive industries.

Dr Dwi Budi Santoso ( right), vice director of Brawijaya University’s Development Economics and Society Study Center agreed that the CSR system was unfair because it depended on a company’s location, size and interests, and the skills and contacts of fundraisers.
“I was an advisor to a local government in East Java in its negotiations with a gold mining company,” he said. “We wanted CSR to be built into the agreement but the company refused because it would have diluted profit. So the permit was refused.
“Companies can play favorites with CSR, and it’s difficult to enforce. There’s not much trust between government and business and there’s a lack of accurate data. The whole tax system in Indonesia needs to be reformed to make sure the disadvantaged who need funds get State support wherever they are.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 March 2015)

Sunday, March 15, 2015


BTW Lies, damned lies, and car sales
It should have been a pleasant experience.  After years of using public transport and hire cars it was time to buy our own.
Thanks to a small legacy we could afford something modest.  The Low Cost Green Car project initiated by the former government had helped create four locally-built models.
When President Jokowi was Jakarta Governor he criticised the LCGC program for putting more wheels on the road. Now as the Big Man he could undo his predecessor’s initiative by adding higher taxes.  Best buy now.
By using the Internet we knew exactly what we wanted.  All that was left was to agree on a price.
Oh ye unwise and foolish virgins!  Know ye not the way of the car lots?
The Internet price was Rp 113.8 million.  ‘Sorry, we haven’t got round to updating – it’s now Rp 128 million’.
Try somewhere else.
We took a test drive and agreed to buy, particularly as the salesman had offered a Rp 8 million [US$ 620] discount.  We paid the Rp 5 million [US$ 385] deposit to settle the legal Offer to Purchase and awaited confirmation from ‘upstairs’.
Three days later the ‘discount’ had shrunk to one million and it would take up to a fortnight to return the deposit.  It arrived next day only after threatening legal action. 
The original ‘discount’ was never a reality, just a bait for suckers like us.  We’d been gazumped.
On to showroom two. A better price and deal.  Licking our burned fingers we asked: “Do you have the car we have just described?”  Yes, indeed, esteemed sir and madam.
Wrong question.  We should have asked: “Do you have the car that we want in your yard in this city that is ready to go and that we can buy right now at the agreed price?”
This is the question the salesman chose to hear: “Does your company have a car that we don’t want, but you want us to have at a higher price?”
Through a Guantanamo Bay interrogation process we discovered that ‘our’ car was still iron ore in the Western Australian Pilbara.
Walking out we overheard our ‘friend’ being admonished for telling lies. A hint of honesty - or a ploy to make us return?  It failed.
The next salesperson  was a lean lady on heels so high they made her hazardous to low-flying aircraft.  To show she understood performance specs of an OHV 3 cylinder engine she wore a skirt so short and tight it deserved a fatwa [ban].
That was according to my wife.  I was too busy with my head under the bonnet to notice.
Yes, they had the model we wanted [the car, not Ms Micromini] and it would come from Surabaya.
We viewed next day. So could we drive away after  a wash and licensing?
Sorry, no.  That would take two weeks and we, the buyers, would have to negotiate registration – even though the advertised price had included ‘all on-road costs’.  The deal had changed because the car had come from another city; naturally this hadn’t been mentioned earlier.
Referral to a mysterious manager who kyboshed carefully constructed deals and demanded more was standard practice in all yards.
Surveys of trusted professions regularly rank nurses and other health workers at the top, with politicians and car sales staff squirming at the bottom. 
Also lurking in this bracket are journalists, which just proves the public can get things wrong.
Though not with car showrooms.  The folk who work in these glass-walled citadels of capitalism operate with different values to those who expect integrity in business. They think ethics has something to do with film animation.
Jokowi was right.  There are too many cars on the road so we won’t add to them. Using  angkutan  keeps us in touch, physically and emotionally, with other ordinary folk.
 Public transport is cheap and efficient. The drivers look scruffy, belch kretek smoke and scream Javanese obscenities at other road users.  But unlike a local airline, angkutan run regularly, stop where you want, and for a set price provide a straight no-nonsense deal. 
Which is more than the suave game-players in car lots can manage.  Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post Sujnday 15 March)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


No screaming when love is a bird       

On 22 March birds from across the Archipelago will flock to Central East Java competing for the Arema Cup V, a major national contest staged by the Ornithological Society of Indonesia.  

In February 2015 the rules were changed:  No screaming, no fighting, only fair play.  To enforce the law some of the most humorless soot-suited guards on the market had been hired to patrol heavy steel barriers separating judges and contestants.
If this was a prize fight, a wrestling match or even a football game the security might be understandable – onlookers can get worked up when the sport is violent.  But this was a contest of birdsong, not brawlers.
“We’ve had to stop owners from whistling when the judges are working,” said event organizer Alvan. “How can they hear the song properly above noise?  But some still get excited.”

Indeed. While the men in black were glaring and fist shaking to pacify birdmen in one part of the 400-strong crowd, supporters on the far side of the square were clapping, chirping and semaphoring.
Their energies were supposed to urge their tiny darlings to reach the top notes that will give their owners the big notes.
Like car-audio technician Oyong Zams and his mate Zamboni Maszams who pocketed Rp 2 million [US$ 160] and a gold-colored lion trophy when their love bird Valentina, 3, won the second round.
Not all contestants came by car, proving the sport is egalitarian.  Those who couldn’t persuade a mate to hold the cage on the back of a motorcycle had devised straps to backpack their way to the avian arena.
Here they would test their talents against the best in the ornithological version of Indonesian Idol staged in an old bus depot.
The Indonesian word for ‘bird’ is burung, also a euphemism for the male sexual organs.  So the conversation amongst entrants peering at their adversaries is sometimes jocularly bawdy.
By now you’ve guessed that Indonesian songbird competitions aren’t for the genteel.  Although the birds are petite and sweet their owners don’t always share the same qualities. Your correspondent had to rearrange his knuckles after every handshake.
Yet these same bonecrushers, with great delicacy, served miniscule morsels of hand-picked insects or the finest kibbled grain to tempt their beloveds.  When the sun elbowed its way through the black clouds, the birdmen, carrying sprays like pistols, stopped everything to shower cooling droplets on frazzled feathers, then moved the tweeters to deeper shade.
To keep their protégés ready for the big moment the cages were hooded like tea cosies.  Some were made of best batik, others of velvet. Princesses in the Age of Chivalry could not have received gentler care.
Every time the sweethearts opened their bowels or dropped an inedible husk, the bottom tray of their gilded coops was whipped open and washed.  If the birdmen’s wives get the same attention, then marriage to one of these guys should make cohabitation with charming Latin lovers or caring feminists a tiresome bore.

“It’s true - if you look after your bird, your bird looks after you,” said Oyong.  “I have to keep my thirteen safe from cats and rats.  Thieves can also be a problem. The best birds tend to come from Solo and Yogyakarta, but Malang ranks third.”
Apart from the pouting promotion girls working for a tobacco-company sponsor, birdsong contests seem to be men’s stuff.  An exception was businesswoman Hamida, 38, (below) who chose her wardrobe to match the plumage of lovebird Blue Ice.

Water authority official Agus Irawan, 49, is a fledgling who started in the sport six months ago with one bird.  “I spend only Rp 3000 [US 25 cents] a week on feed,” he said, “but it can be expensive to enter – Sexy cost me Rp 4 million [US $320].”
Bystanders thought this sum too ludicrously small to warrant more than a sneer.  One claimed his rainbow-hued parrot had been imported from Holland for five times Agus’ investment.
To ensure the losers don’t let fly alleging bias, half the judges had been recruited from outside Malang.  For each of the 29 contests including Best Lovebird Executive, Mixed Star Import and Yellow Crowned Bulbul Professional, the birds were gathered in a group and given pep talks by their carers.
Then the cages were placed on tall stools so the judges could check the hopefuls’ health and fitness to perform, like doctors before a boxing match.
Having passed the medical, the birds’ aviaries were hauled aloft alongside a number.  The owners were ordered away and the guards locked the gates, giving the death stare to anyone who looked likely to cause a flap.
Suddenly the singing started as the pampered pretties realised they were among rivals.  Had cage doors burst open love birds would have become war birds.
Much though we’d like to believe otherwise, avifauna doesn’t use song to charm humans.  They exercise their voices to define territory and threaten intruders – unless the outsiders are member of the opposite sex shopping for a mate who can reach a higher scale.
Imagine the thought-track: ‘He’s got a loud beak but will he make a good provider?  I need more than gnats and beetles – my sister’s already getting larvae from her cock’. 
The twelve white-shirted judges appeared to listen intently before shouting results to adjudicators. After a few minutes they swapped positions to ensure no favoritism. The scene resembled a stock exchange bear pit where crazed brokers bawl out quotes.
But here the crowd was too far back to hear the thrill of the trill. The hubbub only subsided when the judges announced their decision.  Then the gates opened for the rush to retrieve winners and losers.
“I’m not in it for the money,” said Agus, who stayed true to his wish. “It’s difficult to find wildlife in the suburbs, apart from sparrows, so this is a way to get closer to nature and understand conservation.”
First published in The Jakarta Post 10 March 2015)

Monday, March 09, 2015


Frogs farewell spawns curse   

Back in the early 1980s a fresh young undergraduate loved wandering through the paddy that was an integral part of the Malang Teachers’ College campus.
On her walks Dwi Listyorini (right)monitored the crops thriving in the fertile East Java valley dusted with rich volcanic ash, for this is three-harvests-a-year farmland with some of the world’s finest soils; she marvelled at the color transformations of the ripening rice and admired the graceful white herons soaring in to feed in the shallows.
Above all she enjoyed hearing the frogs call after rain:  “I loved their song,” she recalled, “it was beautiful, a natural thing. They sounded so happy and made me feel happy too.”
But Dwi wasn’t just a romanticist.  There’s a sharp edge to this smart lady. As a biology student she needed specimens to dissect, so it was easy to pop a jolly gargling frog into her bag then slice it on a laboratory bench.  One less among the millions wouldn’t make a difference.
Then the world slipped into overdrive.  Indonesians lusted for higher education and the government eventually responded.  The college became the Malang State University [UM].  Student Dwi became Dr Al-Jabari after winning a doctoral scholarship to study genes at the Tokyo Metropolitan University and marrying a Palestinian computer expert.
On her return she found new classrooms had sprouted where grains once grew. Ponds had been drained.  Parking lots, a tennis court, even a swimming pool had been installed.
Trees she remembered for their grace and shade had disappeared.  So had the wandering streams, now disciplined to follow straight lines, by-passing buildings and channelled under roads.  The rice bowl had been caked with concrete.
Also gone were the frogs – or almost all. The 45-hectare campus chorus is now jack hammers and shovels scraping aggregate as UM races to meet the demand for more teaching space.  More than 30,000 students are enrolled in eight faculties.
“In 1995 we had seven species of frog on campus,” Dr Al-Jabari said.  “In the last survey published in The Journal of Tropical Life Science my students discovered only three varieties.  The others have disappeared through pollution and loss of habitat.
“It seems as though we’ve been cursed for what we’re doing to the environment.  Now we have to buy our frogs.”

The biotechnical laboratory that Dr Al-Jabari heads needs about 100 frogs a semester for student dissection.  They cost between Rp 10,000 [US 80 cents] to Rp 15,000 [US$1.20] each and they come from the village of Sambigede, about an hour’s drive west of Malang.  
The shelves of her top floor laboratory glisten with jars of partly dissected amphibians, their pop eyes peering blindly through a soup of preservatives at the sterile world of science, webbed fingers clawing the glass.
 “Indonesia is rich in frogs,” said Dr Al-Jabari who also lectures on vertebrate biodiversity and conservation.  “Although there are only 42 species in Java there are more than 400 others across the archipelago.”
That sounds significant, but world-wide there are twelve times as many – some authorities claim the ratio is 15 times more. This year the discovery in Sulawesi by an international research team of a previously unknown fanged frog was announced.
The find has excited natural science because this species gives birth to live young, by-passing the egg-laying favored by its relatives.
“Frogs are good indicator species for the health of the environment. Their skins are moist and permeable so they are sensitive to pollutants,” said Dr Al-Jabari.
“There are stories of developmental abnormalities among tadpoles exposed to chemicals.  Around the globe there have been reports of declining numbers.
Biology student Siti Lutvaniyah seeks signs of frogs on UM campus

“Few children respect frogs and boys like kicking them.   They think they’re slimy and disgusting. There’s a belief that frog urine is poisonous. Indonesian culture doesn’t have the relationship with frogs that’s found in the West, as in nursery rhymes and Kermit.”
Kermit the Frog was the most famous of the late American television puppeteer Jim Henson’s Muppet creations, first appearing in 1955 and still internationally popular.
His song, It’s not easy being Green has become an anthem for conservationists.
Dr Al-Jabari’s suggestions for campus development include fewer single-level buildings to allow more green areas, and underground car parks.
“As scientists we have a responsibility to tell the truth about frogs,” she said. “We need to get back to nature.  Where frogs thrive the environment is clean – that’s the proof. In my garden at home there’s always a frog.”

Frog Factory
Supplier of amphibians to UM is Ibu Risman, and it’s just a tiny slice of her business in Sambigede,. The serious money comes from her frog abattoir, slaughtering and processing 200 kilos of the little creatures every three days for human consumption overseas.
The amphibians are delivered in sacks and cut up soon after arrival.  It takes about twelve frogs to make a kilo.
In a covered yard alongside her house three women squat on the floor.  One beheads, another skins, pulling the leather off like a glove, while the third yanks out the stomach and trims what’s left with a pair of scissors. 
As they die the twitching frogs spread-eagle their bodies, exposing a white tummy. Nothing is wasted – the heads and guts are used to feed fish and the skin is said to make a tasty cracker.
The frog legs are packed in ice and trucked to the city of Kediri where they are reprocessed for export.

While awaiting their fate the croakers stay silent, as though they know resistance is useless.  Occasionally one leaps away, hiding behind plastic buckets and Styrofoam boxes. But the killer trio are deadly efficient and soon have the escapee in hand and ready for the knife.
Local men collect the frogs at night while wandering the paddy with spotlights strapped to their foreheads.  A good session might yield one hunter five kilos of frogs.  Ibu Risman also buys snakes paying Rp 44,000 [US$ 3.50] a kilo.
Most are Enhydris plumbea, the rice paddy snake endemic to South Asia and not listed as endangered. They are killed for their skin and blood, which is used in traditional medicines along with the intestines.  Occasionally the hunters bring in big pythons which get sold as pets.
Indonesia is reported to be the world’s largest exporter of frogs for human consumption selling 5,000 tonnes a year, mainly to France, Belgium and the US. Although the food is haram [forbidden] to Muslims, frog leg soup known as swikee can be found in many restaurants in Indonesia serving Chinese food.
The good anecdotal evidence – at least from this one village – is that frog numbers aren’t declining.  The species is Hylarana erythraea, the Green paddy frog.
“I’ve been in this business since 1973 and there’s no shortage,” said Ibu Risman. “We can keep up with demand.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 March 2015)
Since this story was published Dr Al-Jabari has pointed out that  she teaches animal development using frogs and heads a Genetic Regulation laboratory - not a Biotechnical Laboratory.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Carnival of capital punishment      

The posters were the giveaway.  Professionally produced with near perfect English, some almost works of art, showing Tony Abbott sprouting horns above the caption: ‘Go to hell Abbott with your druggies’.
These were no slogans scribbled on torn cardboard by outraged citizens spontaneously reacting to real slights.  This was the Indonesian standard rent-a-mob shouting outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in late February, probably for a feed and a Rp 50,000 [AUD 5] note.
Who was behind this choreographed display? ‘Dark forces’ is the usual Indonesian response, meaning anyone from a political party, the army, and the police through to an individual with a gripe and the cash.  Some protestors claimed to be Pemuda Muhammadiyah, young members of the second largest Islamic organisation in the nation.
Despite this faux anger there’s no doubt that Australia is genuinely on the nose as the execution of the Bali Nine masterminds Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran swirls closer and the comments from Australia get shriller.
Tony Abbott linking the 2004 tsunami aid with a plea for mercy was so counterproductive and stupid it begs the question: Who is advising the PM on handling relations with Indonesia?
If Jakarta diplomats then they need to squeeze out of their fortress, ride busses, wander markets and mingle with the crowds to hear the public voice.  If it’s Foreign Affairs and Trade staffers they should be buttonholing academics who know Indonesia and are almost in despair at the way everything is turning to custard.
All this could have been foreseen and contingency plans prepared.  Ideally we should have been advancing abolition of the death penalty world-wide long before two of our citizens shuffled to the head of the queue in the nation next door.
Australia is not the only one at fault.
Indonesia has turned the upcoming executions into a circus of nationalism, the chance to bore it up the West and show who’s really in charge.  The ‘go to hell’ slogan is significant because it was used by first President Soekarno in the 1950s when he nationalised Western companies and ordered expats out of the country.
Despite Indonesia declaring independence 70 years ago this August the ghost of colonialism lingers, an insecurity not encountered in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.
The police are also keen to party.  They’ve staged a ghoulish public dress rehearsal in Bali demonstrating how the condemned men will be dragged away to their deaths on the prison island of Nusakambangan.
Pictures of hungry coffins and animated enactments of the execution have fed the media.  It’s not quite the excesses of the French Revolution – but it’s certainly getting close.
What’s overlooked in the glee at having a deaf-to-reason president who seems to care nothing about international concerns is the needless damage being inflicted on a nation long seen as chaotic and corrupt.  Now it’s being painted cruel.
And not just to the condemned.
Politicians pontificating in the capital about deterrents don’t get to labour in the killing fields.  No blood on their boots.  No sleepwalking like Lady Macbeth as the nightmares play, rewind, replay.
That’s the fate of the wong kecil, the little people who get to do the State’s dirty work.   Pity these unwilling actors in the Jakarta-produced horror show, and think how it’s going to scar their lives.
Let’s start at the end.
In Indonesian executions ambulances collect the corpses, not hearses.  Paramedics are used to accidents and trauma.  Their job is to rush the ill and injured to hospital.  They’ve been trained to save lives.
Not this time.
Instead they’ll load bodies into coffins.  Maybe they’ll first unpin the target aprons to be washed, ironed and reused, because butchering is expensive. The entry mark for a 5.56 mm bullet is little more than the diameter of a ballpoint pen, but the exit wound is fist sized and gaping.
So the back of the victims’ shirts will be ripped and splattered with blood, bone splinters and slices of pink flesh, the front soaked in a frothy mix of gore, tears and vomit, the pants filled with urine and excreta for every orifice  opens up in the death throes. 
The stench a mix of warm blood, faeces and upchuck laced with cordite.
If the marksmen have blinked back a tear when squeezing triggers – for only unhinged monsters can kill another defenceless human in cold blood without a ripple of revulsion – then an officer will have fired a final shot into the temple.
Hunters know that killing wounded animals this way bursts the brain and blows out the eyeballs on stalks like mushrooms.  In a flash facial features become unrecognizable.
This is what the nurses will see as they lift the limp bodies.  However ghastly the accidents they’ll attend in years ahead, the execution ground scene will stay bright, every line sharp, every color clear.
All other events are misadventures, acts of God.  This one is deliberate.  An inhuman act of man.
But we’re jumping ahead.  Before the medics move a doctor has to pronounce death. Earlier he’d located the men’s still beating hearts with his stethoscope, a procedure we know well.
Is there any communication between professional and patient?  Does he comfort by repeating the universal Doctor’s Lie - ‘this won’t hurt’ while ensuring the bull’s-eye is correctly placed? 
Or does he, like the Singapore hangman Darsan Singh, whisper that they’re going to a better place?
Doctors graduate with the Hippocratic Oath.  The structure varies but the heart of the matter lies in three simple words: Do No Harm.
Did the execution doctor swear so?  If he uttered those sacred words will his conscience turn cancerous and gnaw away his insides to an early grave?
In 2008 Catholic priest Charlie Burrows witnessed the execution in Indonesia of two Nigerian drug traffickers. Later he told the Constitutional Court that the men were “moaning again and again for seven minutes” after being shot. He’s likely to be present. praying when Chan and Sukumaran die.
Will the gunmen light up a smoke and stroll across to view their handiwork?  Unless they’ve served in West Papua the only objects in their sights till now have been cardboard cutouts shaped like a charging armed brute.
Now they’ve shot unthreatening prisoners tied to chairs and posts, rocking with terror. Close-ups of what an assault rifle can do will sear their souls.
A step back from the hands-on procedures of judicial murder are the prison guards.  Some have got to know the condemned men well.  They’ve looked into their eyes, they’ve exchanged banter, and they’ve recognized fellow humans who made mistakes.  Let he who hasn’t fire the first shot.
Do they not weep?  For the condemned, themselves and their country, knowing all will be contaminated by this evil event.
Then the weaponry experts calculating the trajectory of death.  They signed up for a career in military engineering, not a role in an abattoir.  If they’ve chosen the site carefully the sand or soil should be sufficiently friable to soak up the blood.
Organizing a killing is like planning a wedding – making sure nothing can go wrong in the Unhappiest Day of Our Lives.  This is the job of the lawyers and administrators who pledged to serve the community.
Participating in a project to kill wasn’t on their job description. When they lie with their wives in the joy of bringing new life into the world, will they falter because they’ve been cursed by helping end another?
How do all these brutalized people, the unwitting mechanics of murder following Jakarta’s orders, feel about capital punishment?  In other countries they’d sue the State for exposure to such corrosive horrors.
At the head of this long line of victims stands President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, leader of the world’s third largest democracy, once keen to make it the world’s greatest, elected just last year on a wave of hope for change.
 He could be an international statesman, a champion of human rights praised for his compassion and courage by eradicating capital punishment and accepting the wisdom of the 16th President of the United States.
For when he was about Jokowi’s age Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Washington where he said: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice”.

 First published in On Line Opinion 3 March 2015.  For comments see:

Sunday, March 01, 2015


Better starve than borrow                            

In 2007 knockabout guitar-strummer, tour guide and sometime barista Zulfikar (Fikar) could usually be found serving guests at Bukittinggi’s Bedudal Café, a backpackers’ favorite in the West Sumatra city.
Enter former public servant Peter Johnston (left) seemingly just another footloose Australian trying to understand Indonesia. But this encounter would change not just the two men’s lives but those of hundreds of Indonesians.
Peter was no wide-eyed newbie. His archipelagic wanderings began in 2004.  He’d formally studied the language in Yogyakarta.  So when he harangued against inequalities it was clear his concerns were not freshly found.
He figured the poor were forever shackled to poverty without capital. In his homeland the state welfare system where he’d worked as an administrator and social worker, helped with schemes to kick-start people’s lives. But this was Indonesia where indifference to the plight of the lowly was endemic in banks and government.
So how could the folks in the Lucky Country next door help their less privileged neighbors without being patronizing?  Click light bulb moment: Microcredit.
Great idea – but bars everywhere sweep up grand schemes along with the fag ends and plastic trash come closing time.
Despite his scepticism Fikar kept his mind open.  Over three days and a few more coffees the two men devised a small no-interest loan scheme to help poor entrepreneurs start a business.
It would be called Bamboo because, Fikar reasoned, the plant is strong, resistant, sustainable and multipurpose.  His mother had even used it to make clothes during the Japanese occupation of the 1940s.
But then, as usual, the Westerner left.
“I thought it would all be forgotten once Peter moved on,” he said at a Bamboo board meeting in Bandung.  The Australian members used their own money to pay for travel and accommodation.

“In any case, I had no experience of banking and the credit system – only its faults.”  He’s involved in a long legal case fighting a company that allegedly upped its interest rates without consultation.
What he did have was local knowledge and understanding of the hand-to-mouth way the poor in Indonesia live and the pressures on family budgets.  A smart kid, the youngest of ten children born in Bukittinggi, his ambition was to become a lawyer.
Reality hit: No money, no study.  Plan B – use wits.  He picked up English from the tourists, rapidly became fluent and opened a guide business, Lite n’ Easy. When the haze from burning forests drove overseas visitors away he learned how to fix computers. It was a fickle life.
“I had zero capital and rented a motorbike,” he said. “I was just stuck.”
is mother His mother had warned hiom never to go into debH
His mother had raised him to beware of debt.  “Better you don’t eat than borrow,” she’d said, “avoid loan sharks.”
These are the high-interest unofficial credit suppliers that cruise the meat and vegetable markets, They typically charge Rp 200,000 (US $ 17) to lend Rp 1 million (US $ 83) over 40 days) keeping small businesspeople afloat, or savaging them in a sea of debt - depending on your economic philosophy.
For Fikar there was no ambiguity – but much doubt about the chances of undermining a harsh lending system embedded in the culture.
“I wanted to do something to help the poor get out of their debt cycle,” he said. “There’s no leadership from the government – it’s just about impossible for small people to get ahead.
“I’m a bit of a rebel and despise a bureaucracy that seems to believe that if you can make it more difficult, then why not?  How can you fight an elephant?”
The answer came when Peter made good on his promise with a draft for AUD $500 (Rp 5 million). Fikar, 40, was astonished:  “I told my friends to pinch me
“I lived near the market and regularly passed a café that never had food on display after midday.  I knew the owner and wondered how he could live like that.  So I asked what he’d do with a no-interest loan.
“Of course he wanted to know who was behind it. Why would Australians want to help when Indonesians refused?
“Eventually we lent him Rp 1.5 million (US $125) which he spent on building stock.  Now he has a bigger shop and his wife has a sewing machine which she uses to make money.”
So Bamboo Micro Credit was born.  It’s now an independent secular foundation taking donations from Australians and channelling these to borrowers through Fikar in Bukittinggi and agents in Malang (East Java) and Bandung (West Java).  Hundreds have been helped as the loans are repaid and the money recirculated through new clients.

“We are all smart in Indonesia, we are not buffaloes,” Fikar said. “We have so much potential but are being held back because the banks don’t want to know anyone whose collar is not smooth.
“Not everyone is right for a BMC loan.  They must have plans for a sustainable business, so inevitably some people hate me, but I’m not going to be bothered by their negative energy. We now charge an administration fee of ten per cent but the loans remain interest free.
“We’ve lost a little – but more than 90 per cent of borrowers repay.  If they default their friends and family won’t get loans in future, so there’s social pressure. Yet we have to be tolerant and understand there are other demands on families’ budgets, like paying for weddings, funerals and Idul Fitri celebrations.  Sometimes we have to accept a slow payer so knowing the culture is important. Most applicants are women.
 “I urge people just to be honest and tell me if there are problems with repayments.  Misfortune can happen to us all – but don’t hide from me.  I’m not Dracula.
“The Australian board doesn’t interfere and I only consult Peter if there’s a tricky decision to make.
“Now I think I might get to university.  Then I can really understand the law and use that knowledge to protect the poor.”

The Birdman of Bunulrejo

Even as a small boy Farit Hermansya was an accomplished gunman.
Together with his mates and an air rifle he’d travel to forests near Blitar in East Java and shoot every perching bird within range.
“I killed hundreds,” he said.  “The numbers are countless.”
Then one day he had an epiphany. He’d winged a bird.  It looked in the little one’s eyes knowing it was about to die. There was a brief contact between two living creatures.  Instead of wringing the bird’s neck he tried to save its life.
Farit failed, but at that moment he turned from killer to conservationist and began breeding exotic birds, mainly little finches and parakeets.
It’s a hobby gaining popularity as Indonesians get more disposable income, with many coming to Farit’s home in the Malang kampong of Bunulrejo.  Not all buyers had cages, so he reckoned business might prosper if he supplied both bird and lodging.
His business plan called for Rp 5 million (US$400) to buy wood and tools.  But where to find such a sum?
“I knew it was pointless going to the banks,” he said.  “They want security like the certificate for my home or motorbike.  I have a friend who works as a debt collector – he warned me against even trying.”
But a neighbor told him about a non-government community development organization called Daya Pertiwi that also acted as a Bamboo Microcredit agent.
Farit, 29, scaled back his plans by buying tools second hand and scavenging timber.  He was given a ten month Rp 1 million (US$83) no interest loan which he’s repaying at Rp 100,000 a month.
A big cage can cost Rp 170,000 (US$14) but most average half that sum.  The birds are more expensive with orange colored plumage fetching Rp 650,000 (US$52).
“I don’t expect there’ll be a need to borrow again once this loan is repaid,” said Farit.  “I can expand with the extra money I’m now earning. I tell every buyer not to kill.  I still feel guilty about the birds I’ve shot.”
(Disclosure:  The author is an occasional advisor to Bamboo Microcredit.)
(First published in J Plus The Jakarta Post 1 March 2015)