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

Friday, May 08, 2015


As readers will know, this blog consists almost entirely of my writings. When I find the work of others that I'd like you to savor I usually put in a link.  However this outstanding diary by my friend Frank Palmos is so good, so gentle and perceptive, so right for this time of anguish and ridiculous assertions that I thought it worthy of inclusion in its entirety.  Read this and you'll understand a little more of ordinary Indonesians and a lot more of the compassion and humour  this veteran newsman has brought to his work.


Back in 1961 I learned my Indonesian from student friends and listening to the
Imams in small mosques in Kampung Bali, an inner suburb of old Djakarta as it
was known then, and another mosque just south of Bandung, where I shared a
room with two brothers in a small house on a laneway called a Gang. My Siswa
Lokantara Fellowship provided an allowance of around US$5 a month.

I had expected the Imam in the Kampung Bali mosque – now long replaced by a
much larger showpiece in the welter of rebuilding in modern Jakarta – to start
lecturing our Friday kampung gathering about the importance of Islam or launch
into a political tirade. I was the only foreigner, seated on the floor in a crowd of
around 100 men on one side of the mosque, while around the other half sat the
ladies. A diaphanous curtain strung down the middle separated us.

I was not asked to bend in prayer, but I was a respectful audience. There was
subdued whispering between flirtatious young men and girls, through the
curtain, and even a bit of murmuring if the Imam’s lecture fell flat. It never did
fall flat for me.

On my first visit, the Imam announced me and welcomed my attendance. He then
gave lessons in hygiene to young mothers, told the men and women to use a nail
brush to clean their nails at all times, especially when preparing food, which is
how I knew gosok was to use a brush. His parishioners were urged to be polite
and kind and attend to the education of their children, and to look after their
own affairs except when they perhaps noticed a neighbor had not appeared for
some time, and then they must knock on the door and see if help was needed.

The price of rice was a disaster, he said, so mothers were to keep in mind the
wise use of corn on the cob ground fine and to always keep boiled water on hand.
Not a jihad to be heard in those days. Even in Bandung where they took religion a
little more seriously, but down there I heard the same helpful hints and advice to
young mothers and that oranges from nearby Garut were cheap and should be in
every family kitchen for good health. I travelled widely, on very slow moving
buses with unbending wooden seats, and even slower trains that stopped for no
apparent reason between stations, giving me time to learn even more colloquial
Bahasa, and answer questions about my family, my house, my school, and did I
know the Australian lady named Nyonya ‘Smit’ who had fair hair and lived in
Adelaide, and of course I said that I did. Everyone in Tasik Malaya knew her
because she was an Australian nurse who was very nice and friendly. I was
Australian therefore I must know her. By 1992 I had logged around 200 days of
conversation on cheap public transport.

Last week in East Java, I logged another few hours. Déjà vu. The seats were a
little softer, but not much better than 1961‐62, as my wife and I rode the train
from the beautiful town of Malang in East Java back to Surabaya, where I had
chosen to stay again at the historic Majahpahit Hotel, to introduce Alison to a
little history and show her the spot where the first fatality of the 1945‐1950
Revolution occurred. Train and bus riding is the dream situation for young
foreigners trying to improve their Indonesian, and for me it was just like old
times. I tried to gently open an inquiry into the Capital Punishment story that
was on the cities’ front pages, but they wanted to tell me of a split in a football
competition in Surabaya, which worried them. Ladies who had been strangers
when they sat down opposite me enjoined me into a chat about baby health, the
weather, my family, how lovely my wife was (sitting alongside me but not
understanding the conversation) and did we have children and was schooling
expensive as it was here in East Java.
Another man, a stranger also to them, joined in, showed off a little by saying he
had a good friend in Australia. The friend was a Mister Will‐ison (Wilson) who
lived in Melbourne and was very friendly, and laughed a lot, and did a good job
for them. I must know him. He looked a bit like me, and had black hair and he
was helpful but my Indonesian was better than his, but he tried hard. I said of
course I knew him, and agreed that Mr Willison had black hair, looked a bit like
me and was friendly, and promised the man I would say hello from Benny in
Bangli town, for him. “He’ll remember me. He was very nice,” said Benny, and the
others nodded approval.

We heard more about the Lapindo hot mud environmental disaster in Sidoarjo,
which had entombed several entire villages, that these days even diesel and
kerosene fuel was more expensive under this new government and the unusual
fact that not one of my audience had ever been on an aeroplane flight. One
mother said she went shopping as a pillion passenger, paying a young
motorcyclist to take her every market day for R3,000 (40 cents) because the
traffic made walking difficult for her. One boy asked me how Real Madrid would
go this year, which astonished me. I bought a railway magazine that said a new
train would be on the Jakarta‐Surabaya line and run at 200 kmh and China would
be paying for a new rail somewhere. But it didn’t say when this fabulous train
would be running.

Meanwhile, we chugged along at a safe 50 kmh, stopping
every now and then to wait for another down train to pass us. A taxi from
Gubeng Station Surabaya CBD to the Majahpahit cost 50 cents, on the Bluebird
meter, and I learned more about the football club split in Surabaya from the
Madurese driver.
In my scores of conversations in East Java and later Jakarta, as I was leaving, just
one person commented on the hot news of Capital Punishment and the
executions the next day. It came from my oldest friend from my 1961 Bandung
university days: he was rather blunt, saying that the two persons to be shot were
“not really Australians” being Chinese and Indian, but in any case most people
wanted all drug carriers shot, Indonesians especially. The newspapers carried
massive amounts of front page copy on the case, describing how fourteen
riflemen would be used, sketches and photographs of the massive parade of
officials involved, and the TV droned on and on, but showing only city scenes.

Away from town, the issue was not on the daily conversation agenda. The rare
political comment was a put down or comment of disappointment on the new
President, but it was the price of schooling (a really hot topic), fuel, food, building
or buying a house, family health, too many traffic jams and among the boys, local
and European League soccer.

In Surabaya the Jawa Pos, which publishes in a score of cities, carried a photo of
me with Alison in a long front page story of my return to the town to have my
history Surabaya 1945: Tanah Keramat (Sacred Territory) published in Bahasa
Indonesia. The reporter was rather astounded that a foreigner, even one who
had worked on the Jawa Pos as a translator back in 1962, would have so much
praise or interest in Indonesian history.

I was saddened at some of the comments that revealed a shortcoming of
knowledge on their own history, but then I experienced that in Vietnam all the
time, where the Communist Party blames the United States for any of their
failures and hardly any young people know about the War and are more
concerned with their mobile phones, games, videos and learning English.
Among the educated youth in Indonesia, there were two themes: what was so
special about their country, Indonesia? After hearing this sort of puzzlement,
which is really their polite way of saying it was kind of me to study their history,
I explained to them that their early history will become increasingly important
as the years go on, and especially to the reporters I explained why the Republic
of Indonesia and Indonesians were special.

On 10 November next, my book will be presented publicly on what is more easily
described as Indonesia’s Anzac Day ‐ Heroes Day in Surabaya. This year is the
70th anniversary of the Battle for Surabaya in which British forces attempted to
reinstate a Dutch Colonial administration at the end of the Japanese occupation,
1942‐1945. I pointed out that since the 17 August Proclamation of Independence
and especially after sovereignty in 1950, Indonesia has remained territorially
intact, despite the extraordinary geographically‐splintered islands, scores of
ethnic groups and languages, customs, religions and population densities ranging
from intense to sparse and weather ranging from equatorially stifling to
chillingly cold.

Thus my lecture took the following form: Indonesia is quite remarkable. Growing
more important. Changing within itself, yet maintaining its total form. Since the
foundation of modern Indonesia in 1945, the USSR, once powerful on the world
stage and within the Indonesian Communist Party, had fallen apart. Indonesia
had lasted 70 years already whereas the USSR, just 74 years from 1917‐1991,
freeing its numerous captive East European states such as Poland, Hungary,
Rumania, Bulgaria, East Germany and the three Baltic States.
This was also the week of the Bandung celebrations marking the 60th year since
the famous 1955 Asia‐Africa Bandung Conference, and I reminded the young
reporters that half the attending states whose leaders paraded their new
independence confidently at the original Bandung conference no longer existed
in their original form.

Pakistan split from India over religion, Bangladesh split from Pakistan over
religious issues, Korea is still split, there are still two Chinas, the Sudan has split
north and south, Syria and Libya are in turmoil with massacres and splintered
territories, Nigeria is in constant turmoil over religion and territory, and the
Congo has become a failed state, as have several smaller West African
dictatorships. The Yemen is in yet another civil war, north against south, Sunni
against Shia, the Lebanon has lost all its former glory and is a patchwork of
conflicting religious powers and Jordan how houses a million displaced persons
from surrounding failed states. Tito’s Yugoslavia, the darling of the 1955‐1965
Asia‐African “Newly Emerging Nations” bloc that became the basis of the nonaligned
(non US‐USSR) movement, is long gone and in its place are seven smaller
states that exhibit hostility among themselves; Croatia, Slovenia, Kosovo,
Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia/Herzegovina. Even Czechoslovakia is
split again, into a Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yet Indonesia continues on as one
nation, one people, one language. Think positive, I tell them. I do. So do the
ordinary, friendly, quick‐to‐smile millions who are just as afraid of the lunatic
fringe Islamists as we are. In our era it is the mind‐altered Bali and Jakarta
bombers fuelled by hatred and envy of the West and supported by Middle East
finance that scare most city Indonesians. Yet even they are not nearly as
pervasive as the fanatics of my early years of the 1960s, when Kartosuwiryo in
West Java, and Kahar Muzakar’s gangs in southern Sulawesi were on the loose.
They also exhibited the blind hatred for others, but this time it was not the West
but hatred of their own people for refusing to turn their archipelago into an
Islamic State, and the numbers they killed ran into many thousands. Throughout
all this, Indonesia has survived. For the better.

Worried about the rise of the headscarf? Don’t bother. This phase will also pass, I
predict, and Indonesian women will mostly return to their natural various
cultural roots. The Middle East is not setting a very good example for them to
follow, so they will go back to their demure but natural style of dress. They do
not, however, wish to raise their youth to be tattoed or pierced, to shout
profanities, or parade their boorish manners as they see some Australians
behaving in Bali. Two hundred and fifty million people are still under one state
umbrella, still using and improving Bahasa Indonesia, now a far more flexible
and pleasant language than in my “basic Malay” days, and they actually have
elections where parties more or less follow the rules while so many of their past
allies are now miserable, failed states.

‐Frank Palmos
(Historian Dr Francis Palmos established the first foreign newspaper bureau in
the new Republic of Indonesia in 1964, the era of “Guided Democracy” and the
“Years of Living Dangerously.” His first interest in early Republican history was
when acting as a translator for the Colombo Plan in Surabaya in 1961, but his
interests turned into his full time occupation in 2008 at the University of
Western Australia. His book Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory is a comprehensive
history based on Indonesian documents from the first days of the Republic. The
original manuscript was formally presented to the East Java government in 2011
and described Governor and Mayor as a Cultural and Archival Treasure. In 2012
Frank was award the symbolic Keys to the City for this work. Frank has been a
member of the Indonesia Institute for more than five years.)

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