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, July 27, 2015


Riding the rollercoaster                            

‘Soft power diplomacy’ sounds contradictory, like ‘tough love parenting’.

Till recently it was a diplomatic favorite, sold to the world as Indonesia’s smiley-face foreign policy by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono [SBY].  This was his explanation:

“We become a nation that is respected, not feared, a nation that is respected, not avoided, a nation whose voice is heard because we are voicing something of value.’

Warming indeed – but what do the honeyed words really mean and how can the laudable goals be achieved?  ‘Soft power’ wasn’t exclusive to the Republic: It’s been served up to Australians by their government, though with a different definition involving people-to-people exchanges.

However when a phalanx of PhDs at a major conference finds the term confusing and a mite worrying, the electorate needs to be suspicious.  The scholars, ever wary of government propaganda, feared soft power was ‘being adopted without a rigorous appraisal of its efficacy as a tool in the bilateral relationship with Indonesia.’

‘Why can’t the experience of an Indonesian student in an Australian university, or vice versa, be simply seen as an individual journey of discovery, rather than in terms of that person’s development as an agent for persuasion for his or her host country once he or she gets home?’ asked academics Jemma Purdey (left) and Antje Missbach (below, right)

These and other concerns were raised at last year’s Asian Studies Association of Australia biennial conference in Perth, billed as ‘the largest gathering of expertise on Asia in the Southern Hemisphere’.

At the time of the talkfest relationships were heading downhill with revelations that Australian spies were tapping the phones of SBY and his wife Ani. Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to apologize and Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was recalled to Jakarta.

Pushing Indonesian fishing boats full of asylum seekers back to the shores of the Republic also antagonized  – a policy that’s still in place despite protests.  Nothing soft about this power.

The faults weren’t all Australian. New President Joko Widodo refused to exercise clemency to two reformed Australian drug traffickers facing the death penalty distressing millions from PM Abbott down to Bali holidaymakers canceling their flights.  Raw power exercised ruthlessly.

Two nations so close and yet so far.  Will the differences, suspicions, myths and misunderstandings stand between us forever?

To help resuscitate the relationship Purdey and Missbach have gathered and edited 13 papers from the conference, published as Linking People.

On the ASAA conference agenda was the question Australia-Indonesia relations: How to stop the roller coaster? The discussion was held before the Presidential election when no one knew the metaphorical fairground ride was about to plunge further with the executions at Nusa Kambangan.

However the book, in a rare example of speedy academic publishing, includes an epilogue updating the story to April this year.

Foreign affairs can be an esoteric and ponderous discipline.  Fortunately the authors have recognized that there’s more to international relations than playing word games with treaty documents. 

There are chapters on law and order, economic relations and education and cultural exchanges – including some intimate insights into the lives of intercultural couples.

The arts and the media are covered, though tourism hasn’t been tackled in depth.  Along with the annoying lack of an index this is a curious omission; every year almost a million Australians visit the archipelago and form ideas and attitudes about Indonesia.  Not all do so through the bottom of a glass in a Bali bar.

What do they think of their neighbors? And what do hospitality workers say about the blonde loud-mouthed giants who invade their lush island? There’s a niche here for some sober research.

Also absent are Indonesian commentators. Only Professor Bob Sugeng Hadiwinata from Bandung’s Parahyangan Catholic University gets into the book with a study of the non-government Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies that’s been running for 20 years.

The editors say others were invited but didn’t respond, suggesting interest in relations with the southern neighbor isn’t high in Indonesia.

Another reason could be the dearth of academic papers in Indonesia where the Western tradition of publish or perish has yet to take hold and where university staff can maintain tenure without conducting original research.

[According to the academic journal database Scopus, in the past decade Australian academics have published 430,000 research papers in the life sciences.  During the same period Indonesian scholars have produced 17,000.  The Malaysia figure is 92,000.]

A common criticism is that Australians are forever stuck in a monocultural view of the world.

For lecturer Alistair Welsh (left)  the cure is clear: Engaging in ‘intercultural spaces’  can have ‘transformative effects’.  Translated out of academic jargon this means the way to better relationships is through long-term face-to-face encounters.

He should know. Last decade Dr Welsh and his wife Julienne taught English at a  pesantren [Islamic boarding school] on an Australian Volunteers International project.

They spent two years at Probolinggo on the north coast of East Java. They refined their Indonesian language skills, learned a lot about Islam and are now passing on their wisdoms  to school and university students in Geelong, Victoria.

Dr Welsh is no fan of short-term study tours, which he says are becoming popular through the Australian Government’s flagship New Colombo Plan to help Australian undergraduates better understand the Indo-Pacific region.

His message?  Stay long term.  Live and eat with the locals, not your white-skinned mates. See the world through Indonesian eyes. Appreciate differences. Learn that not all values are exclusively Australian; many are universal. 

Equally appropriate advice for Indonesians in Australia.

Linking People
Edited by Antje Missbach and Jemma Purdey
Published by Regiospectra, 2015
298 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 July 2015)

Thursday, July 23, 2015


A shot of reality                                                           

The story so far:  To the boredom of electors who think otherwise, Australian politicians on the hustings pronounce that our big island continent is part of Asia.

They also add a moral instruction while largely ignoring their own advice:  We must get on better terms with the neighbours, particularly Indonesia. There’ll be bumps along the way but our special relationship will help us stay on track.

What speakers, what dates? Silly questions - this rhetorical routine has been part of the election cycle from way back when, as necessary as a candidate’s rosette.

The problem is this:  Voters haven’t bought the message.

Our deafness has been obvious for years. Academics have long warned about the decline in studying Indonesian – less than 1,000 are learning the language in their final school year.  Only 15 of the nation’s 43 universities teach the culture.

Clearly parents and their kids have ignored the politicians and decided that Chinese, Japanese or a European tongue will serve them better.

Almost a million Australians holiday in Hindu Bali every year – but only a fraction venture west into Muslim Java where the real power resides.

Investors also plug their ears to Canberra’s pleas to boost sales to our 250 million neighbours. Two-way trade is worth only $15 billion.  We do more business with Thailand and even more with Singapore.

The Lowy Institute for International Policy has tracked the decline of public trust.  The latest polls show  ‘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’.

In his new book Condemned to Crisis? former diplomat Ken Ward argues that President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo is more indifferent than hostile. He wants his nation to be a world power but considers little Australia, with just one tenth of his citizens, too unimportant to help.

The brutal execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, despite pleas and petitions for clemency, can’t be dismissed as yet another passing judder in the relationship following spy allegations, asylum seeker push backs and live cattle export bans.

The gunshots didn’t just terminate the reformed drug smugglers’ lives; they also marked the end of the flawed reasoning that’s been our foreign affairs policy. We’ve seen the raw Indonesia and been horrified. Now we’re back on the real road.

Perth researcher Dr Greta Nabbs-Keller has read the map and been brave enough to tell the truth: 

There’s no special relationship between Canberra and Jakarta and there never was, precisely because the goodwill expressed toward Australia by individual Indonesian political leaders, diplomats and military officers has never really permeated Indonesia’s broader political elite or public consciousness.  Instead, there’s confluence of common interests and personal rapport between leaders at key junctures.’

That rapport is rare and common interests limited. Our history, culture, values, lifestyles and language owe little to Asia.  The praiseworthy migration program that has brought more than seven million new settlers since 1945 has included  Chinese, Vietnamese and Indians – but the greatest numbers have come from the UK and NZ. 

We remain a predominantly European nation eating foods, playing sports and following faiths rooted in another continent far away.  Our ‘special relationships’ are confined to the Anglosphere, particularly the UK and the US, which are also the major investors in Australia.

We claim to have good intentions and be part of the neighbourhood; but we’ll soon have 2,500 US marines in Darwin, just 830 kilometers from Kupang the capital of Nusa Tenggara province.  Imagine our reaction if the Chinese army set up a similar base on Indonesian soil.

 It’s depressing enough to give even the most one-eyed fan of Indonesia reason to turn elsewhere.  Yet despite these depressing facts there are solid practical and moral reasons to stay staunch, listen to the politicians’ messages and demand they hear their own voices.

Indonesia is neither about to move nor shrink.  It will remain our nearest neighbour and the world’s fourth most populous country with almost 90 per cent Muslim.

If we don’t know what’s happening next door, what the folk are thinking and doing, understand their concerns, how can we ever be mates?  And if we’re not – then what are the alternatives?

The time for appeasement has passed. We can’t ignore issues like Indonesia’s vile use of capital punishment, its corrosive corruption and seriously damaged application of the rule of law. We should be strong in condemnation, adding our voices to those in Indonesia who are equally appalled and seeking reform.

Our principles are not for sale, and Indonesia is unlikely to honour a nation that doesn’t plainspeak its values. Developing a respectful relationship built on a hardstand of facts is going to be a long, tough sweat – but the end result should be a safer world for our kids.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 23 July 2015.  For comment see:

Thursday, July 09, 2015


Building mateship, not subs                                               Duncan Graham

Last century American Senator William Fulbright (right), who founded the exceptional international exchange programme that bears his name said:
In the long course of history, having people who understand your thought is much greater security than another submarine.

A few weeks ago academics William Maley and Bambang Nugroho  wrote in The Jakarta Post that the way back to normality was through leadership of ‘skilled professionals’.
This has been a common theme since Australia’s Ambassador Paul Grigson was recalled following the executions of drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Don’t fret, the argument runs, now the Ambassador is back in his Jakarta fortress the diplomats will get the Indonesia-Australia relationship back on the road again provided, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott says, journalists don’t get in the way.
This is a seriously flawed assumption.
Diplomats follow the policies of politicians who take their cues from the public mood.  They can’t ‘lead’ anything.  I think they helped get us into this mess by misreading the character and philosophy of Indonesia’s new President, the uncompassionate Joko [Jokowi] Widodo.
The path forward won’t come from professionals in bombproof shelters but suburban folk seeing for themselves how their neighbors live, understanding their values and appreciating what’s really happening next door.

Five years ago former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono  (left) asked the Australian Parliament for a more constructive relationship, unaware our spies were eavesdropping his wife Ani’s phone.
His words were described as ‘forthright and touching’, ‘transformative and moving’. His appeal inspired; fresh schemes followed, old ones blossomed.  While officials pondered individuals took action.
Among them was Perth journalist and historian Dr Frank Palmos who has done more than a talkfest of cultural attaches to improve our image in Indonesia.  He’s achieved this by writing Sacred Territory, the definitive history of the Battle of Surabaya and then using his own money to have the book translated into Indonesian.
Around 5,000 copies should be released on 10 November, the 70th anniversary of that nation-defining event, and published by a major newspaper chain. 
Palmos’ determination to help our neighbours get to know their real history instead of the one constructed by the late President Soeharto has earned him enormous respect. Fortunately he’s not alone. 
In 2010 former Western Australian Trade Commissioner Ross Taylor gathered a group of like-minded volunteers to start the Indonesia Institute  offering an alternative tough-love voice to balance the constrained views of government.  It’s become the go-to source for informed comment outside officialdom.

Retired social worker and public servant Peter Johnston (right) initiated the Bamboo Micro Credit scheme in 2007  to offer interest-free loans to small entrepreneurs. It now lends millions of rupiah in three cities and is expanding as ordinary Australians donate small sums to fund the initiative.
There are many other examples – these are just ones I can vouch for personally.  Never underestimate the power of a determined individual.
However a clear-eyed look at the official schemes show they’ve been too few and small for any deep and lasting impact. 
Although the Joko Widodo administration seems to have sidelined SBY’s hopes, both nations need to engage beyond the professionals’ issues of aid, trade and barricade.  These are important, but they’re not the stuff of chats in the bus.
True friendship requires trust and the best way is through talking to people across the street, understanding their quirks and concerns, applauding  their achievements, empathising with their difficulties.
It’s true in my kampong and your suburb; it’s true in our world.

The Australia-Indonesia Bridge School Partnership  is a splendid project.  It started seven years ago and funding ends this year.  So far 112 schools have been involved along with more than 450 teachers.
Certainly not to be rubbished. But put this in perspective; there are about 32 million primary students in Indonesia attending 150,000 schools. Way to go.
The prestigious New Colombo Plan  is another fine idea, this year helping 60 of Australia’s smartest undergraduates learn in locations throughout the Asia Pacific Region. There are many other scholarships.
Top of the schemes has to be the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies driven by a small group of dedicated academics led by Murdoch University’s Professor David Hill. It’s been running for 20 years and has helped more than 1,600 undergraduates get to know their neighbours. 
More than 900,000 Australians are studying at Australian tertiary institutions.  Not all are interested in overseas cultural studies, or Indonesia. Let’s assume just one tenth of one per cent.  That’s 900 – and ACICIS is handling 80 a year.

There are eleven Indonesians for every Australian so there’s a limit to how much one country can do.  But on these figures Australia isn’t even coming within coo-ee of having meaningful contact on any scale.
Yet this worrying situation could be vastly and easily improved:  Not through spending big money - but by eliminating barriers.
Australia has agreements with 31 nations to offer visas allowing young people to wander and work in Australia for up to a year.  Many Australians will have met European and East Asian backpackers under this scheme and made lasting friendships.  All now have a better appreciation of each other’s cultures.
Such encounters are not surprising as last year almost 240,000 visas were issued. They’re commonly known as Working Holiday visas, - though the official term  is Working Holiday Maker; to further confuse there are two classes – Working Holiday class 417 and Work and Holiday class 462. 
This latter group includes Indonesia and caps the number at 1,000.  This visa requires applicants to have functional English, have completed two years undergraduate study and – these are the curly ones – AUD 5,000 [Rp 53 million] and ‘a letter of home government support’.
These restrictions do not apply to applicants from the Working Holiday class countries.
Last year only 436 Indonesians were successful. Anecdotally they find the financial and government approval fences too high to leap. The visa costs AUD 420 [Rp 4.4 million] and chest x rays aren’t on long weekend specials.
 So the applicants Australia needs and who would benefit most, the smart but poor, the incandescent visionaries with no friends in Jakarta’s high places or fathers in the army, these kids aren’t getting to see the country next door and the chance to erase myths and hang-ups.
The visa scheme is reciprocal, but unbalanced. Eighteen months ago a seminar co-sponsored by the government-supported Australia Indonesia Youth Association   heard that between 10 and 14 visas had been issued to young Australians, though many had applied.  It seems the kids are keen, but the bureaucrats are not.
The irony is that these walls, topped by broken glass, have been built by governments saying they want more people-to-people contacts.
Tourism is supposed to expand the mind with rich experiences helping the traveller better comprehend the world’s complexities.   To visit Australia Indonesians must answer 52 questions on a 17-page visa application paper form.

In June Indonesian sculptor Ono Gaf (left) spent time in Perth visiting galleries and fellow artists.
Australian friends raised money for his travel and other expenses.  The total was AUD 865.   The biggest expense was not the airline tickets but the visa. It cost AUD 408.

It would have been less if Ono hadn’t applied through an agent or had his first application rejected; his sponsor’s letter guaranteeing accommodation and ensuring he used his pre-paid return ticket was deemed insufficient security.

No appeal allowed.  No correspondence.   Your money has gone.  Start again.

Earlier he’d visited Singapore on a similar mission.  No visa required yet that nation state is just as paranoid about public safety - and has even experienced Indonesian terrorists bombing the city during first president Soekarno’s Konfrontasi venture. (left)

Had Ono been a citizen of Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania or 33 other countries his visa would have been free.
Last year 150,000 Indonesians arrived as tourists. Double that number came from Malaysia, and even more from Singapore.  Citizens of both nations apply for visas on line and pay AUD 20 [Rp 210,000].
Our priorities are not advancing arm-in-arm, but buying arms. We are planning to spend at least AUD 36 billion on new submarines, maybe ready for 2030. If they are ever built they may protect us against enemies yet to be imagined – though it seems the government has read the Murdoch Press which has Indonesia not a friend but a potential threat -  ‘armed and dangerous’.
By comparison, next to nothing is being spent on improving relationships in the here and now.  Back to the words of the late Senator Fulbright and the submarines – the greatest security comes when we understand each other.
The business of creating that understanding isn’t just the task of ‘skilled professionals’, or governments.  It’s your job, it’s my job, it’s our job.

(This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Indonesia Council’s eighth open conference held at Geelong’s Deakin University in early July.  Australian author and journalist Duncan Graham lives in East Java. He’s been contributing to The Jakarta Post for the past decade.)    

This paper has also been published in New Mandala:

Monday, July 06, 2015


Making a business splash         

Pagowan looks like a nice place to raise the kids.
On the eastern flank of smoking Semeru, at 3,676 meters Indonesia’s highest volcano, the village soils are so rich signs should alert visitors against standing stationary lest they take root and sprout leaves.
Instead notices tell people not to dump trash.  Such prohibitions can be found elsewhere in East Java, usually presiding over garbage-filled gullies.  However in Pagowan the warnings work for the landscape has yet to be plastic-wrapped.
The lushness, density of palms and paddy, air so clean it should be exported, winding roads reasonably maintained, quaint bridges and spacious well-spaced houses make Pagowan look like an Indonesian version of rural England.  Or New England.  There’s just one thing missing – jobs.
“There are no factories here,” said Salim Gombloh, 38.  “Apart from shops, government offices and a few hotels in Lumajang [the nearest city of around 130,000 souls] the work is farming and laboring.
 “If you don’t want to sweat in the fields all day or hang around with an ojek [motorcycle taxi] you have to look elsewhere.  For me that meant the Middle East where I was employed as a driver.”
Agus Nadir, Salim’s younger brother by eight years, also quit the village.  He headed first to Malang [East Java], then Bali working for tour and travel companies.  Inevitably he encountered foreigners; by observing their curious ways he soon discovered why they’d come to Indonesia, their likes and dislikes, anxieties and expectations.
On the top of his list for pickiness are the Russians.  “I had one group that spent the whole day complaining because their driver arrived one minute late,” he said.
“Indians always look for problems – but that’s OK because it means we learn how to cope with all the possibilities.
“Europeans are fussy about time keeping.   People from Sweden and Norway know what they want.  I’ve found Australians the best. They’re friendly, don’t discriminate and seem to like our more relaxed lifestyle.
“Above all most visitors want good service and value for money.”
All this has been an education Agus has put to good use with Salim. The siblings have turned entrepreneurs, boosting the economy of their birthplace without building smokestacks or digging mines.
When Salim returned from overseas he knew he’d have to invest carefully.  Otherwise he’d run out of cash and be forced to pick coconuts, hew timber or grow the pisang agung [giant bananas] that thrive in the area to support his young family.
Salim had long been an adventure sportsman, particularly keen on Motocross, aka MX.  This is the British-originated cross-country motorcycle racing, now an international sport with MX 77 a famous event.
Like his brother he knew backpackers were also keen on outdoor activities.  Fine, but apart from pastoral charm Pagowan had little else.  Except Kali Asem. 

Although labelled ‘an intermittent stream’ by geographers, on the mountain lowlands it’s  a well-trained  river running year round, fed from Semeru’s regular rains and emptying into the Indian Ocean. The name translates as ‘sour river’ – and maybe it is when the volcano spews sulphuric acid but now it provides the fresh water needed for the rice.
The brothers had some money – but only half the Rp 30 million [USS 2,250] needed to purchase a five person raft.  So they deflated rafting and turned to tubing.
After picking up 50 old bus and truck tyres and a compressor they got their mates to add rubber seats.  Then they knocked up a base camp out of bamboo, bought helmets and life jackets – and trained local staff.
Ngibar 77 from nginyut bareng [drifting together] with the two digits as a sop to Salim’s MX obsession, opened for business early this year. It now employs up to 30 villagers in a variety of jobs.
 “It would have cost us ten times more if we tried to create this in Jakarta,” said Agus.  “Apart from the banners we’ve done most of the work ourselves.”
How about the neighbors?  Having rupiah flow into Pagowan seems a noble notion, but progress has an undertow: Strangers sticking camera lenses into folk’s faces, churning up the tracks with their four-wheel drive Menteng monsters, discomforting the comfortable.
“Fortunately there have been no problems,” said Agus.  “The village heads support us. It’s easier because we were born here.  It might have been different if an outsider had tried to start a business.” 
So far all their clients have been Indonesians paying Rp 55,000 [US4.20] per person for a couple of hours on the river. The price includes being picked up seven kilometers downstream and trucked back to base, use of the gear and snacks.
“I’ve seen adventure tourism in Bali and know how this appeals to young people,” said Agus. “The problem is getting overseas visitors to find us; this is off the regular tourist route that only features Mount Bromo and Yogyakarta.”
It takes about two hours by bus to reach Lumajang from Probolinggo, the northern coast city used by many as the starting point to reach Bromo.
The southern approach road between Malang and Jember is a scenic switchback as it climbs to 700 meters at Picket Nol, overlooking a Martian rubblescape of giant boulders flipped down the hillside like marbles during Semeru’s 1967 eruption.
There are other regional attractions close to Pagowan including the Mandara Giri Hindu temple in the adjacent village of Senduro, but again the visitors are local. During two days in the area J Plus only saw Indonesian tourists. 

The crew working for Ngibar 77 can handle little more than the gender-neutral kampong cry of ‘Allo Mister’. This is no great problem as the compensation for minimal English is an abundance of helpfulness, though fussy foreigners used to Balinese language skills may find this worrying.
“This is something we have to improve,” said the enthusiastic Agus keen to cover all bases. 
Another factor is insurance – a yawn for Indonesians but an issue for litigious travellers from afar.  Ngibar 77 employs one guide for every two tubers – or one for one if the client is a child. The river runs fast; there are boulders aplenty to churn white water and tip a tube.  However Kali Asem seldom tops two meters and the riverbanks are not distant.
“We’re hoping to get insurance through the local tourist department and some financial support – but that hasn’t happened yet,” said Agus. “Maybe later this year.”
Salim’s wife Tutik Hariyanti, 37, and other women prepare snacks and drinks for the tubers and guard their vehicles parked in a private yard.

In a good month a guide can earn around Rp 3 million [US$ 230] which is far above the gleanings of farm laborers; but the work is seasonal, depending on school vacations and other holidays to push people onto the roads in search of something new.
“We ask our clients for feedback and spend time evaluating our performance,” said Salim.  “The problem with success is that others try and copy.  We now have another village that’s just started tubing so we have to keep improving.”
 (All pix by Erlinawati Graham)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 June 2015)



Finger-lookin’ good         

It was a high culture event in the East Java city of Malang’s most prestigious building – the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat [DPR – the People’s Representative Council.]
The invitation list was the usual mix of dilettantes, freeloaders and connoisseurs found at art exhibition openings everywhere; matrons dressed to kill and men in bemedalled uniforms who’d never done so. On the sidelines the unkempt artists, fiddling with their berets as though they’d just come from a Montmartre garret.
And then there was plain-clothed Zumpotus [Ikha] Shalikha, 25, who clearly didn’t fit, but just as clearly didn’t seem to care.  She was there to make money, but unlike the long-haired men with huge canvasses and price tags to match, her creativity could be bought for only Rp 15,000 [US$1.15].
Low though it was, this charge had been inflated by a third from the price list at her studio.  “I thought that crowd could afford to spend more, and I was right,” she said. “Even public servants were getting a mahendi.

These are the temporary tattoos that have become an essential fashion statement for Indonesian women, particularly among  the late teens and ladies who lunch.
Mahendi are not to be confused with the tattoos favored by overseas tourists wandering Kuta, looking for something to accompany their dreadnoughts and tell the folks back home that I’ve Been To Bali Too.
Mahendi appears to be an Indonesian corruption of the Sanskrit word mendhika, meaning henna, the dye made from the leaves of the small African and Asian tree Lawsonia inermis.
Ikha’s work is original; there are no skulls and crossbones, no upholstered blondes or arrows piercing hearts.
“Ikha’s art is not haram [forbidden],” said her husband Rahmat Hidayat, 31.  “It’s said that the wives of the Prophet used mahendi. No-one has ever suggested what we are doing is wrong.” [Some religious authorities claim having a tattoo is a sin because it embellishes God’s work.]
“Our tattoos vanish within a fortnight. Prohibition is against permanent marks. We have a sign outside saying sah untuk sholat [legal for prayers].  Mahendi has become popular since local TV started screening Indian movies with women wearing complex designs.
 As Ikha’s workplace is their front veranda in the couple’s tight-packed kampong just meters from a mosque it’s safe to assume the zealots would have interfered long ago had there been any hint of impropriety.
“In the West it seems that tattoos on women indicate prostitution, but that’s not the situation here,” said Ikha. “I don’t do men, although I’ve put our daughter Aisyah’s name on my husband’s arm.”

The crowd that eavesdropped  this interview unanimously agreed that tattoos were only for women and the idea that an inking could make guys look macho was greeted with ridicule.
There’s little doubt Ikha was a problem at school in the village of Bulu Lawang, about 15 kilometers outside Malang. The seventh of eight children she didn’t want to end up doing menial work. Academically she was no standout, but any shortfall was filled by determination.
 “I was always doodling,” she said.  “I preferred drawing to listening to the lesson.” She was also experimenting with liquids to try and get the colors right for drawings.
Her teachers probably thought she was a lost cause but her business has now been running for two years and her income far exceeds that of her former tutors.   She’s become the major breadwinner, a fact that makes her sound engineer husband proud, not jealous.
“Ikha is very clever and creative,” he said.  “She doesn’t sit around watching sinetron [soap operas].  She’s always active and seeking opportunities, not waiting for them to come to her.”
Rahmat is no slouch either.  He learned English by watching foreign films.  “Of course talent is essential but by itself it’s not enough,” he said.
“You have to make your own luck.  It’s also important to be honest and treat everyone fairly and equally.”
The couple borrowed Rp 2.4 million [US$ 185] from a bank and topped this up with loans from relatives to make banners and other promotional materials.  All the money has been repaid.
Every evening Dad, Mom and Aisyah, 3, pack onto a motorbike with three plastic stools, a fold-up picnic table, banners, stands, carpet and other gear and head to the Malang Night Market.
When The Jakarta Post visited Ikha had four customers in the first hour. Her maximum has been 30 in one night.  The women said they just wanted to look attractive, the girls to show off to their friends next morning. Their menfolk who paid grunted monosyllables, unable to understand why women want spiderwebs on their knuckles.
Ikha started out in business making and selling accessories, little decorations to pin on headscarves and blouses.

Customers admired her hand art and she added the tattoos.  Instead of using commercial dyes she makes her own from crushed leaves mixed with volatile cajeput oil to produce a russet color.
Ikha loads the mixture into a thin plastic cone and uses this like a batik canting, the little hand tools used to draw hot wax onto cloth, though her dyes are cold.
Decorating the hands, wrists and ankles of women at a wedding can earn her Rp 3 million [US$ 230].  When she started she was the only show in town – now mahendi are being offered in beauty salons, though at several times the price.
She’s a rapid worker and can complete an intricate design in about five minutes.
“My challenge is to constantly create new patterns,” she said. “High school girls in particular are always looking for something fresh and different.  I check the Internet a lot to get ideas but most designs are my own.
“With fashion you have to be ahead.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 26 June 2015)


Can we ever be mates?  
It all started so well.  In 1945 and during the following four-year struggle for independence against the Dutch, Australians were mainly on the revolutionaries’ side.
That was largely through sympathetic reporting by the small number of Jakarta-based foreign correspondents.  British and Dutch newsmen [it took many years before women got overseas postings] were regarded with suspicion, but Australians were seen to be friends.

No longer.  What’s gone wrong? Long before President Joko Widodo stopped taking phone calls from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and went ahead with the judicial killing of two Australian drug traffickers, there had been missteps, stumbles and tumbles.
After the fall of first president Soekarno in 1965 it seemed that relationships between the neighbors would improve.  The stridently anti-communist Soeharto took control, Konfrontasi was cancelled and fears of a Red Invasion vanished.
But ten years later Indonesian troops killed five Australian media workers at the East Timor town of Balibo, a story pursued since ‘with vigorous determination’ though no one has been convicted for what Australians see as murder.
It’s likely few Indonesians have heard of the event because books and a feature film have been banned – but the people next door have not forgotten.
‘For many Australian journalists the deaths of their colleagues were a rallying point for exposing Australian government complicity in covering up inconvenient details of the event in order to maintain positive relations with Indonesia,’ writes  Ross Tapsell in  By-Lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings, a history of the way Australian reporters have covered the Republic.
Don’t be discouraged by the silly alliterative title.  The author is an academic at the Australian National University and has based his research on interviews with those who were there.
After Balibo the Indonesian government started expelling foreign journalists.  That didn’t stop reporting or commentary.  A 1986 Sydney Morning Herald [SMH] story about corruption in the President’s family gave heart to Indonesians who hated the repression and graft of the New Order government, but infuriated an administration that had long conflated reporting with promotion of national development.  The slogan was ‘free but responsible’, with the government determining the definition.
Five years later came the Santa Cruz massacre when Indonesian troops gunned down at least 250 protestors in Dili.  The tragedy was widely reported in Australia where sympathies were with the Timorese who had helped Australian troops in the war against Japan.
The 1999 Referendum which gave the Timorese their independence marked another low point, now used as the gauge to measure the current anguish following Indonesia’s use of the death penalty against drug traffickers.
Tapsell doesn’t just focus on the difficulties faced by Australian journalists trying to understand the complexities of Indonesia while satisfying the simplistic analyses of their bosses; he also recognises the work of the Indonesian support staff and the problems they faced.
The camera operators, translators, advisors and fixers have seldom been acknowledged, though Yenny Wahid, daughter of the late President Gus Dur who worked for the SMH, did win a Walkley Award.  She was nominated for Australia’s top prize not by her employer but her Australian colleague, Louise Williams.
The foreign correspondents agree that they would have struggled without the help of Indonesian staff who were crushed between two loyalties.  Indonesian bureaucrats and army generals demanded the Indonesians curb their Australian bosses’ interest in stories that might show the Republic in a bad light.
The answer to the question: ‘Whose side are you on?’ had to be: ’The Truth’ – but that was of no interest to partisan officials who believed ‘my country, right or wrong.’  When things went bad the foreigners could jet out of the country; the locals had to stay put and take the blame.
Strident nationalism isn’t exclusive to Indonesia.  Australian correspondents have also faced hostility from their own nation’s diplomats and leaders who believe reporters aggravate situations that could be handled better without public scrutiny.
Having media organizations send extra staff to Indonesia to cover big stories like the Schapelle Corby case can cause friction with correspondents who live in the country and understand the subtleties. 
The megaspectacles [like the recent executions] draw interest away from other issues and paint everything about this complex country in black or white.
Several Australian journalists, frustrated by an inability to get the big story published have written books about their experiences.  Though quickly out-of-date because events move so fast they provide insights into the making of history.
The job can lead to serious damage.  The ABC’s Peter Lloyd suffered so much stress after covering the Bali bombing in 2002 that he turned to drugs. Two Australian journalists died in the 2007 Garuda crash in Yogyakarta and one suffered horrific burns and lost both her legs
Cynthia Banham’s extraordinary recovery and return to the media says much about personal courage and commitment to journalism.  It’s curious that her story is not in the book.
Also absent is any mention of Michael Bachelard who reported for Fairfax Media till early this year and did far more than just cover Jakarta politics.  His long pieces on life outside the capital, including West Papua, filled the gaps in Australians’ knowledge of their neighbor.
Tapsell’s book is a reworking of an earlier doctoral thesis, but it should have been updated.
Apart from these omissions, a few mistakes and occasional sloppy sub-editing this useful book helps explain why Australians and Indonesians see the world so differently.
Why bother? The pay is lousy, the work intense and the risks great. Peter Lloyd said: ‘Ours is the high minded vocational pursuit of truth and meaning.  We’re in it to shine light where others would prefer it to remain dark… Even the most hard-faced, cynical old hack secretly believes it to be true.  Otherwise they wouldn’t still be doing the job.’
And if they didn’t democracy would be a hollow concept.
By-lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings                                                                                               
 by Ross Tapsell                                                                                                               
 Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014    

First published in The Jakarta Post 29 June 2015)                                                                         


BTW: Another ban? Let’s drink to that
I’d like to propose a toast – to prohibition.
If the government goes ahead and bans alcohol we’ll be facing an exciting and interesting future; no shortage of news.
The only visitors who’ll come to marvel and spend will be abstainers. Tourist authorities should prepare their marketing ploys now.  Suggestions:  Go where it’s Dry – Indonesia, the Arid Archipelago or Want to Try Teetotal?  Visit Indonesia- No Temptations!
Multinationals will have to recruit their ex-pat staff from temperance societies, perhaps not the largest talent pool. But hey – who wants big projects and foreign investment?  Better no development if the bankers are boozers.
Naturally the negative thinkers will remind us that prohibition was tried in the US between 1920 and 1933 and was such a failure the law had to be repealed.
But that was America; Indonesia is different; the locals will embrace the new rules and there’ll be no thirst for change.
My Muslim friends who drink say that they remain 95 per cent religious because beer is only five per cent alcohol.  That’s supposed to be a joke.
What won’t be funny will be the hundreds who’ll die in agony or go blind through drinking bad moonshine.  It happens now when they can still buy the pure stuff in the supermarkets – how serious will it get when they can’t?
The upside is that there’ll be more jobs for health workers, police, lawyers, warders, ambulance drivers and grave diggers. Signwriters will earn a fortune making banners warning of the evils of drinking cocktails of battery acid, drain cleaner and flyspray.
Social historians note that prohibition in the US helped develop the criminal gangs that smuggled and sold liquor, creating a new and violent underworld. Who hasn’t heard of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago?  But that was in America; Indonesia is different.
Politicians, the rich and influential were always able to get their hands on beer, wine and spirits, whatever the law said.  Even President Woodrow Wilson had his own private supply.  Corruption thrived. One famous bootlegger told The Washington Post that 80 per cent of Senators and Congressmen continued to drink. But that was America;  Indonesia is different.
We already have a ban on pornography to protect the impressionable young.  But if you want to know how to bypass censorship by downloading a legal free app with just one click of the mouse, ask any adolescent.
During the fasting month of Ramadhan liquor has always been banned in the hotels of my town which gets a good income from tourism. That hasn’t stopped drinking – it has just meant that visitors get their drinks served in teacups, not glasses.
In its international dealings Indonesia advocates the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other states, even when, like Myanmar, the government ruthlessly persecutes Muslims.  But no such taboo exists when it comes to interfering in the lives of citizens – what they do in their office, bedrooms and now kitchens and dining rooms.
If the wowsers win, public order officials will burst into homes and rip open fridges in their search for the aberrant bottle, then prosecute the naughty adult who thinks a drink complements a meal and believes in free choice.
Religious zealots will have something else to do other than persecuting pluralists and opposing church-building.  Street scavengers will get extra returns by telling police they found an empty beer can in the trash at number 35.
 The US filled its jails to overflowing, lost vast revenue and spent more energy chasing brewers instead of bandits before realising that human behavior can’t be so easily controlled.
But that was in America; Indonesia is different.
Drinking to excess causes real harm.  The curse of drunk drivers, brawls outside pubs and alcohol poisoning are major issues in some Western countries. The problem is not the grog, but the ‘excess’.
Binge-drinking, going out to get plastered and behaving violently and obscenely is unacceptable anywhere.  Fines, public health warnings and other campaigns make a difference, but peer pressure is more powerful.
Changes come when individuals take responsibility for their own behavior, not when governments make decisions for them.  But this is Indonesia – and it’s different. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post Sunday 28 June 2015)