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

Sunday, August 30, 2015


BTW – Ten top things to love about Indonesia

Checked a listicle recently?  Grab one while you can. By the time this newspaper is lining the floor of a turtledove’s cage, listicle will be as yesterday as ‘twattle’, the splendid 17th century synonym for gossip.
Don’t know the word? It’s not a bodily gland as you might think.  The Oxford English Dictionary says listicle is ‘an article on the Internet presented in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list’.
That’s incomplete.  The missing line should read: ‘Designed for those with limited attention span who prefer brevity to substance’.
But what’s the point of protest?  If you can’t beat ‘em, join up.  Here’s my Top Ten:
Angkutan.  Public transport gets a bad press because many busses and bemo [minivans] are battered and crowded.  However the drivers want passengers and will hit the brakes the moment a pedestrian looks weary, even when the vehicle’s full.  Try hailing a bus between scheduled stops or catching a cab off its rank in over-regulated Western cities – you’ll still be standing in the rain a twelvemonth hence.
Facilitation payments. Not to be confused with bribes which all agree are morally and legally wrong. FPs, also known as expediters, are good value – Rp 50,000 [US$3.70] to ensure a document gets to the top of the in tray and processed tomorrow.  Better than waiting the 20 business days common where the bureaucracy is clean, but so rule-bound constipation is an occupational hazard.
Water in lavatories. The use of slang air [water pipe] is more hygienic and efficient than Western toilet paper.  It also conserves forests that might otherwise be pulped. However the drought could create a messy situation.
No renovation regulations. There are – but seem to be overlooked.  Which means home improvers can rip out walls, add extra storeys and do whatever they like - apart from build a place of worship different from the neighbors’ faith.  Safety tip for non civil engineers [uncivil engineers?]: Google ‘load bearing beams in earthquake zones’ before starting work.
Coffee. My grandfather always called the black beverage ‘Java’ and I now know why. Where else can you drink such magnificent coffee – and I don’t mean the stuff advertised on TV, but the Java served in Java village roadside stalls.
Mosque timekeeping.  Curmudgeonly non-Muslims complain that calls to prayer are an annoyance when they’re really a benefit.  No need for a clock on the wall consuming nine-volt batteries when there’s a free timekeeper with a 10,000-watt sound system.  Want a wake up call or reminder that it’s bedtime and guests should go?  Other nations label this noise pollution, but in Indonesia the pious keep our days in order, spiritually and practically.

Security.  With nosey neighbors a thief’s chances of success are zero.  Should one slip past the night watchman he’d never escape the tut-tutting matrons sweeping the sidewalk with brooms and eyes sharper than closed circuit TV.  Any disturbance in our street after 9 pm comes from caterwauling, not cat burglars.
Sex education.  To be frank [instead of Duncan], I’d be happy if someone would silence the lusty Toms’ nocturnal naughtiness.  The upside is that their activities train toddlers in the facts of life. The randy roosters provide the same service as they harass their harems, kings of the kampong.  Western kids have to wait till they can use the Internet to learn of life’s raw realities.
Kaki Lima. Mosques share the soundscape. Mobile kitchens clack brakes, bang gongs and honk horns to promote their menus. Why spend hours queuing for the right spices, translate an oil-stained Javanese cookbook and slave over a hot stove when the authentic taste will pedal up to your front gate?  Food poisoning?  The more streetfare consumed the tougher your stomach’s resistance to other bugs. Immunisation without injection.  Begone, Big Pharma.
 Motorbikes.  What other nation can boast that its highways are more heavily congested than those in the Republic? ‘You don’t see traffic like this where I come from,’ moan the ignorant expats.  Motorbikes are a blessing, not a curse. If these commuters weren’t using two wheel transports they’d be sitting in cars taking up to five times the space.  Now that would be gridlock. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 August 2015)


Friday, August 28, 2015


Sister Act: Siblings in trade and aid                                   

Western Australian public servant David Edwards was keyboarding in his ground floor Surabaya office when friends phoned from the nearby US Consulate General.  Their message was grim: Hundreds of demonstrators were heading his way determined to cause trouble.

The Americans were the West’s watchmen in the East Java capital so their intelligence was likely to be sound.  Edwards and his three Indonesian colleagues grabbed the most important files and rushed to safety at a nearby hotel.

The protestors roared in and trashed the premises.   Phone lines were ripped out, windows smashed and computers thrown on the floor. 

But the thugs’ bid to divorce Australians and Indonesians has boomeranged; this month (Aug) a pioneering regional relationship celebrates its silver anniversary.

It was September 1999 when the Regional Director of the WA Trade Office was urged to flee; yet again Indonesia and its southern neighbor were not enjoying marital harmony. 

Some claimed rent-a-mob agents with other agendas had recruited the vandals.   However many were genuinely angry that Australia was supporting the East Timor referendum approved by President B J Habibie.

Destruction of the Surabaya office came at a bad time.  The Asian financial crisis had hit Indonesia and President Soeharto quit. So did hundreds of Australian businesspeople. 

Outraged by Indonesia’s failure to protect its guest WA considered closure, though that would have shown mob rule dictates policy.  Instead the staff shifted into the Australian Embassy.

It was not a happy move.  The Jl Rasuna Said fortress, often a destination for demonstrators, was no longer the open and friendly center once located in Jl Thamrin.
The trade office eventually found a discreet Jakarta high-rise address.

The original accessible shop-front displaying goods and cheerful posters was Australia’s only visible presence in Surabaya, so an easy target.  It had been opened to put substance into the WA-EJ Sister State Agreement first signed in 1990.

Till then relations had been handled by national governments, but local politicians and businesspeople saw the benefits of regional administrations dealing direct, by-passing the filters of Jakarta and Canberra.

The reasoning made sense.  State and Province are physically close.  WA ships megatonnes of wheat and other agricultural produce to Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak. More trade loomed as Indonesia prospered.  EJ’s huge industries saw export opportunities, particularly furniture and household goods.

Not all hopes have delivered.  Upbeat forecasts have been dragged down by the gravity of global economic forces beyond local control.  Some ideas, like sharing TV programs never went to air because players failed to appreciate cultural differences.

Yet the agreement has survived for 25 years and recently resuscitated after a spell in a political emergency ward, justifying celebrations last week (21 Aug). These will continue with gatherings and conferences for the rest of the year.

The office has a new boss, Chris Barnes, formerly managing director of PT Icon International Communications in Jakarta. .

Despite reports that the operating budget will be cut, there’s guarded hope for a return to the glory days when events were well attended by equal numbers of Australians and Indonesians chinking glasses and building trust.

What’s been achieved? Little in dollar terms because late last year a WA government razor gang spotlighted the stand-alone office, then costing more than AUD $600,000 [Rp 6 billion] a year.

Its effectiveness in trade was being eclipsed by success in supporting non-business organizations like the Karya Mulia School for deaf children and specialist visits by the Autism Association.

Solar and wind power projects in remote villages have also been welcome. Sport has been a big winner, with tours by basketball youth groups and soccer teams. 

There have been two-way visits by scientists, academics and public servants.  Cultural groups have performed in both countries – all organized under the loosely worded Sister State umbrella.

Apart from the aid projects tangible outcomes have been “a bit scarce” according to Phil Turtle, the WA chair of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council.

Attempts to sell lupins to replace soy beans imported from the US to make the highly nutritious bean cake tempe have so far been unsuccessful. This will be a tough market to penetrate requiring long-term perseverance, something that Australians don’t always do well.

More successful has been the export of seed potatoes, which have boosted yields in EJ’s fertile vegetable-growing uplands and the transfer of dairy technology.

The office has survived largely because WA Premier Colin Barnett’s bid to close was met with howls of protest from a chorus of powerful people, including his own Liberal Party colleagues. 

It seems many believe there are more important things to neighborly relationships than buying and selling grains and groceries, and that the future still looks promising as boundaries blur between trade and aid.

 “Trade and investment was always the priority for both sisters,” said former regional director Martin Newbery.  “However I must say more was achieved in terms of people to people and cultural exchange than in trade. “

It was a reality accepted by EJ Governor Soekarwo and WA Governor Ken Michael when the agreement was last resigned.  Although briefly recognizing the trade benefits they stressed issues of friendship and mutual understanding, adding:

“This is a relationship that has changed peoples’ lives in a positive way.”   So trade and aid can be siblings, not rivals. Now to bring the office back to Surabaya.

 [Disclosure: The author received two travel grants under the agreement to explore media partnerships.]

(First published in The Jakarta Post  28 August 2015)

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Chef on the go                                          

If Garuda and Komodo food trucks don’t start appearing around New Zealand in the coming years it won’t be for want of trying.
When it was suggested, only half in jest, that Burhanuddin [Burhan] Bitju, 44, might become an Indonesian KFC Colonel Sanders  and sell nasi rendang outside the NZ capital of Wellington he didn’t laugh away the idea.
“Why not?” he replied.  “We all need a goal. I look around and there are openings everywhere. 
“Next year I’ll bring a young entrepreneur from Indonesia to see what can be achieved.  Of course there are risks – but no risk, no gain.”
When Burhan’s guest arrives the first thing he should note is how his Macassar-born host has adapted to the small South Pacific nation he entered as a student about eight years ago, even to the weather where winter temperatures often struggle to rise above single digits.
 “My parents were rightly concerned that I should have a profession,” said Burhan.  “My father was a teacher and my mother a cook who sold her wares in the market.
“As the eldest of four children I often helped deliver her foods.  That gave me much knowledge about customers and marketing.
“After graduating as an engineer from Hasanuddin University I was urged to enter the bureaucracy for the security and a pension. But I wanted to be in business.”

So he turned his back on supervising concrete pours on building sites to stirring vegetables in a hotel kitchen. Then he started a catering company but that didn’t still his restless spirit. 
When he wasn’t cooking he was reading, certain his talents could do more than pay the bills, or “just keep going round in circles.”  He’d never been out of Indonesia but reckoned his future was overseas.
To turn dreams into reality he needed two things – the international language and a globally accepted qualification.  He studied English, scanned the Internet and eventually clicked onto Wellington.
Here he met Bill Russell who runs Education Network Indonesia, a business linking students from the Republic with NZ educators. He recommended the Wellington Institute of Technology.
After graduating in professional cooking Burhan soon found work.  With income and security he brought his wife Indriani Taha and daughter Gabriella from their tropical home to the world’s windiest city 7,000 kilometers south east of Macassar.
It wasn’t an easy transition. 
“My wife was most unhappy for the first three months,” he said. “She missed family and friends and couldn’t speak English. Shifting home is tougher for women.

“We were spending NZ$400 [Rp 3.6 million] a week on phone calls to Macassar.  It was our daughter’s rapid adjustment to her new life and school that persuaded us to stay.”
Gabriella started school with the traditional cium tangan [pressing the teacher’s wrist against her forehead], a gesture of respect which delighted staff but didn’t fit NZ’s egalitarian culture.
The little girl, who is now 10, accepted the situation and immersed herself in her alien environment.  “She’s doing well because she finds school fun,” said her Dad. “I think the system in Indonesia is too rigid.”
Burhan became a Wellington Hospital chef serving staff and patients and Indriani also found work in the same building.  Lesser couples might have come home exhausted every evening ready to put their legs up on the sofa.
But Burhan’s feet were too itchy for a man with the get-up-and-go spirit Kiwis admire. He saw a niche – Wellington had about 20 Malaysian eateries but no Indonesian restaurants.
Others had tried but failed.  Wellington is a high-income public service city; people eat out but are fussy about the authenticity of the cuisine. 
Paying high rents and establishment costs for a shop in a prime location would be prohibitive. Why not go mobile?  The Indonesian model was the popular kaki lima [literally five legs, but meaning a hand cart kitchen] which cook food on the roadside.
That wouldn’t work in NZ with its strict hygiene regulations, but a more modern version of the same idea might.
 He bought a small truck once used to serve coffee for NZ$7,500 [Rp 67 million].  Employing his engineering skills for the first time he installed more equipment, painted the bodywork, named it Komodo [‘Indonesian food with bite’], and with a partner set out to serve.
This year he added a second truck called Garuda [‘like the eagle we’re flying high’] which he runs with Indriani after they finish work at the hospital.  They park at fairs and events, like the regular Sunday morning fruit and vegetable market on the Wellington waterfront.  It’s a great location but competition is fierce.
Ten other trucks selling fare from France to Mexico prove the city’s multiculturalism. Burhan offers four takeaways – nasi bakar [barbecue rice], nasi rendang [beef with rice], mie bakso [noodles and meatballs] and sate ayam [chicken satay].
“It’s important to be friendly and understand local tastes,” he said. “Kiwis want flavor but not too spicy. They ask questions.  I tell them Indonesia is more than Bali; I’m getting travel brochures from the Embassy to hand out. I want to create a strong customer base.

 “I accept all comments and see criticisms as chances to improve. Knowledge leads to success. The kitchen  is open so customers can see how I work and know everything is clean.”
Unlike other migrants trying to do business in NZ, Burhan doesn’t complain about the health and safety regulations.  “When the food inspectors come around I don’t get anxious or try to hide things,” he said.
“Although it’s not like this in Indonesia I accept that rules are necessary to protect the public. I’ve never had trouble getting permits – council staff don’t try to make things difficult.
“I urge other Indonesians interested in overseas opportunities to have the courage to change their way of thinking.  I want to help people study and work here. But they must have properly researched goals and put in lots of effort.
“The money we’ve spent on airfares and other expenses has been an investment in our family’s future.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 26 August 2015)

Saturday, August 22, 2015


Maju! The cry of the student soldiers 


Suhario [Kecik] Padmodiwiryo died in Jakarta last year on 19 August. 

He was 93 and a prominent hero of the 1945 Battle of Surabaya. Historian and journalist Dr Frank Palmos claims the former General was ‘the brightest literary star to emerge from Surabaya’. Yet Kecik’s passing was poorly recognised.

That defect is about to be repaired with the publication of his vivid memoir Revolution in the City of Heroes, translated into English by Palmos.

The battle in early November formed, fired and fixed the clay first shaped by president Soekarno’s declaration of independence on 17 August 1945.

Other cities, including Jakarta, had largely accepted the allies’ arrival to disarm the Japanese and repatriate the 70,000 European prisoners of war.

Though not in the East Java capital where thousands of young people [pemuda also known as Arek Suroboyo] rightly deduced that the British Indian army had another agenda – to reinstate the Dutch once the occupiers had gone.

The British little understood they were entering ‘the cauldron of the Surabayan revolution’.  They relied on the colonialists’ arrogant advice that Indonesians would joyfully welcome the return of their masters.

The Dutch refused to accept the world had changed forever after Japan had defeated the European colonialists. They loathed Soekarno and dismissed the proclamation. Grave errors.

Europeans who tried to retake their homes and businesses found the properties occupied by Indonesians who refused to budge.  Kecik reported what happened next:

‘Battered and bloodied bodies were spread around the inner city streets that had once been elegant shopping centers. This was a prelude to open warfare’.

The next movement came quickly. Dutch officers and administrators moved into Surabaya’s Hotel Oranje, now the Majapahit, the city’s most prestigious address.  They claimed local expertise but didn’t realize the ‘menial hotel staff and dining room waiters’ were dentistry students who understood Dutch.

The spies eavesdropped the braggarts and learned their plans to raise the tricolor of the Netherlands Kingdom above the hotel. So schoolboy Kusno shinned up the pole, and ripped off the lower blue stripe to create the flag of the Republic.  It was game on.

Kecik was a medical student given military training by the Japanese.  As deputy commander of a 500-strong force he helped retake the Hall of Justice headquarters of the Kempeitai, the hated secret police.  But his ‘troops’ were beyond control: 

‘They moved in a jumbled formation and all seemed in aggressive high spirits, which they enhanced by continuous slogan shouting: “Maju! Maju! Maju! Advance! Advance! Advance!”

‘Any formal effort to organise these boys into a more disciplined advance or to coordinate their firing would have failed. My military knowledge was useless here because all tactical principles had merged into one: Advance!’

The book has a curious genesis. In the 1960s Kecik, now a General, had been on a military course in Russia.  When he returned Soekarno had been deposed by Soeharto who was purging Communists and real or imagined fellow travelers.

Though he’d also been to the US for similar training Kecik was put under house arrest.  With no formal duties he compiled his memoirs drawing from ‘my lively imagination [which] had the dreaded habit of accurately foretelling the dark future of my lovely town.’ 

Comments Palmos: ‘For pure, unselfishly written diarizing, nothing in Indonesian literature compares. It has no peer in Indonesian literature as a step-by-step record of ground level activity in the fight for independence…at a time when the future of the proclaimed Republic looked bleak indeed.’

Palmos had been a foreign correspondent stationed in Jakarta towards the end of Soekarno’s rule.  Five years ago his research into the Battle of Surabaya was being hampered by a lack of first-person accounts. 

To his surprise he discovered Kecik was still alive and writing his four-volume text   Pemikiran Militer [Military Thinking].  

Armed with a video camera the Australian immediately flew from Perth to Bekasi.  The two men got on well and the old soldier agreed to work on a translation of the Surabaya section of his memoirs. 

The book’s credibility is enhanced by Kecik’s stern criticism of some pemuda for their sadism, and contempt for later accounts that glamorized his former comrades as gallants wearing headbands and striking ‘bold heroic poses’:

‘We were gathered on serious business, with fashion or posturing playing no part in this life or death contract we were entering into to win independence.’

This is not a monochrome memoir, brave Indonesians versus treacherous Westerners.  There are human moments - a Sikh soldier telling a boy whose gun misfired to go home, a Catholic and Muslim under fire praying together in high Javanese.

The English version includes information Palmos gleaned from other sources, including interviews with Roeslan Abdulgani, later to became foreign minister.

The slaughter – maybe close to 20,000 died - might have been lessened had the British conducted their own intelligence and known more of the Javanese culture of respect.

 According to Kecik truce negotiators ‘ [Captain Harold] Shaw and Abdulgani were civilized, educated and polite men who would in peace time have become friends, whereas [Shaw’s superiors] were unnaturally stiff in their approaches to our Governor, resorting to haughty postures.’

As the Revolutionaries set about arming themselves they confronted Japanese soldiers standing to attention at an armory.  From his earlier contact with the occupiers Kecik understood that they would not take the initiative and defend their weapons because they’d been trained only to follow orders.

Had they been told to remain passive, or were orders about to be given?  The young men grabbed the guns and retreated as their foes stared rigidly ahead.  But elsewhere there was serious fighting as the Japanese retaliated.

Australians in particular now have the chance to understand why their northern neighbors are such determined defenders of their revolution, and how the battle has defined the nation and underpinned the fortitude of its people.

Diplomats and public servants seeking a better relationship should read Revolution and reflect that neither Malaysia nor Singapore had to fight for their independence like the Indonesians.

Writes Palmos: ‘Kecik’s book corrects the common, mistaken assumption that
Indonesia was free from the day independence was proclaimed on 17 August 1945.’

Revolution in the City of Heroes                                                                            by Suhario ‘Kecik’ Padmodiwiryo, translated by Frank Palmos,
Published by Ridge Books, Singapore
206 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post  16 August 2015)

Monday, August 10, 2015


Less ballast, more compass        


The Australian-Indonesian relationship is in the pits.  That’s widely agreed. Now - where to from here?

Aside from the moral need to live in peace with the neighbours, public servant Peter Varghese has listed reasons for repair in a speech at the ANU marking the 50th anniversary of the university’s Indonesia Project. 

Unfortunately the DFAT secretary offered few new tools or resources to do the job and sailed past awkward facts. He wants business and citizens to supply ‘the ballast it [the relationship] needs to cope with momentary political crises or differences in policy.’

A favourite image among diplomats, ‘ballast’ is both inappropriate and aged, dating back to 1988 according to Griffith University Professor Colin Brown.

Ballast is inert – it has no value other than keeping a craft upright.  It can’t determine direction.  Sinking vessels ditch ballast first.  ‘Compass’ provides a better metaphor.

Seeing the turbulence the relationship has encountered under DFAT’s captaincy of ‘20 federal agencies cooperating with Indonesian counterparts in more than 60 discrete activities’ maybe it’s time to set a new course away from the ‘economic diplomacy’ followed so far.

One direction could be sport, an area where we excel and Indonesians, for all their enthusiasm and ability, flounder.  Another is entertainment.  The Indonesian industry is huge, but quality poor. With almost half the population under 25 we need to understand the value of popular culture to connect – something not easily done by diplomats with serious agendas and countenances to match.

Korean business is getting into the Archipelago led by its K-pop musicians and film stars.  Exchange programmes for elite scholars are fine, but it’s the mood of the  masyarakat, the masses, that shape Indonesian politics.

Why do Australians rank Indonesia alongside Russia on Lowy Institute’s ‘feelings thermometer’?    Don’t blame the media for highlighting incompetence and extremists, but successive governments that have failed to help balance with well-funded Indonesian language and culture studies in schools and universities.

This is a two way street;  respect will return if and when President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo implements his promises to make his nation a clean, modern and moderate state.

Varghese highlights Indonesia’s advances into democracy, more stable than Thailand’s, more transparent than Malaysia’s and far livelier than Singapore’s.

But it’s still a work in progress, fragile and threatened by oligarchs more interested in power than policy.  Last year the parliament tried to kill direct local government elections. US democracy advocate Freedom House has scored Indonesia as ‘partly free’.

Another theme has Indonesia as a growing economic giant soon to dwarf Australia.  We’ve heard this wake-up call before, but hard-nosed business people seeking stability and certainty rank facts above rhetoric.  Which is why we do more business with tiny Singapore and distant New Zealand.

The World Bank definition of ‘middle class’ (what Varghese also curiously calls ‘consumer class’ as though others don’t shop and eat) is a household with an annual disposable income above US$3,000; the figure less quoted by business boosters relates to those living below US $730 a year; that’s the sum earned by about half the population of 250 million.

Economic progress is shackled by appalling transport systems, narrow damaged roads and crowded hubs.  The World Economic Forum ranks Indonesia at 62 for the quality of its infrastructure; Singapore is at 5 and Malaysia 25.  Administration systems are decades behind international standards. Inflation is well above seven per cent.

Corruption has been tackled piecemeal at the big end of town but continues to strangle the Republic’s public service.

Fair application of the rule of law, essential for investors and locals alike, remains elusive. Although Indonesia celebrates 70 years of independence this month the legal system remains largely based on Dutch law. 

A peaceful and prosperous Indonesia is in everyone’s interests.  These hazards illustrate the need to recognise the complexities and get the relationship right.  Neither we nor they have been successful so far.  President Jokowi seems indifferent to his southern neighbour, while PM Tony Abbott hasn’t endeared with megaphone diplomacy from afar.

Meanwhile his British counterpart has been up close and personal. When David Cameron was in Jakarta last month he huddled down in sealed rooms with men in suits to talk trade.

Then he entertained by taking a blusukan [street walkabout].  He shared a pisang goreng [fried banana] plus a selfie with 20-year old popstar Maudy Ayunda (who’s also a student at Oxford) and reaped positive publicity as a fun guy.  Now that’s putting ballast into international relations.

(First published in New Mandala  7 August 2015.  For comment see:

See also in The Age:

Also in The Canberra Times:



Mais oui, mon President: Le mot juste     
Is President Joko [Jokowi] Widodo a ‘Yes Man’?
Skilled users of English know the phrase doesn’t mean what learners of the international language often assume, a mistake frequently leading to confusion and embarrassment.
 A ‘Yes Man’ isn’t someone who accepts a reasonable request [that’s a man who says ‘yes’], but a weak person who agrees with everything proposed by his friends and superiors to ingratiate himself.
Central Java businessman Michel Romagnan (right), who says he’s responsible for dubbing the President as a ‘Yes Man’ though with a Gallic twist, claims long term friendship with Jokowi from late last century when both were furniture traders.
 “In my dealings Jokowi was positive,” he said.  “That’s the fine quality that gave him his nickname.  I want the world to know this and why his name is spelt incorrectly.”
 Romagnan lives in the President’s hometown and by Indonesian standards Surakarta, also known as Solo, is a small city.
Till now the reserved trader has been worried about speaking out lest the next time he samples a bakso [meatball soup] he might find one of Jokowi’s many relatives sitting alongside on the warung [roadside stall] bench who’ll say: 
‘Hey, you foreign fiend!  Why have you been tittle-tattling to these hacks from the Big Durian about our President? What’s said in Solo stays in Solo’.
Romagnan, 71, now wants what he says is the true story of how the President got his name before other versions are set in concrete.
So far it has been widely accepted that Jokowi is a truncated marriage of the President’s two names. A second explanation was published in The Jakarta Post last October when a French furniture dealer who only wanted to be known as Bernard claimed naming rights for the Republic’s seventh president.
He said he created the label ‘Jokowi’ adding the first two letters of his second name to separate him from other suppliers also called Joko – a common name in Indonesia.

However Romagnan, another French-born businessman who lives the life of a recluse on the slopes of Mount Lawu on the outskirts of Solo, says Bernard’s account is wrong.
Adjacent to Romagnan’s villa and organic vegetable farm is the Mangkunagoro 1 Forest Park, about 1,200 meters up the northwest flank of the 2,550 meter volcano that straddles Central and East Java and accessed via some of the steepest roads on the island. The President’s family owns the land next door, according to Romagnan.
Alongside is the curious 15th century Sukuh Hindu temple, widely known for its erotic statues and strange provenance.  It’s believed to be the last temple built before the arrival of Islam.  Its style – a pyramid of uncarved stones on the highest of three terraces - is quite unlike other monuments of the period, more like a Mexican Maya temple than a Javanese place of worship.
In this setting of history, mystery and wild beauty Romagnan explained that like Bernard he also used to be involved trading tables, exporting wardrobes and selling bureaux.  This was the business followed by Joko Widodo before he entered politics, first as the local mayor in 2005, later as Governor of Jakarta prior to winning the Republic’s top job last year.
The two men knew each other through business and Asmindo, the Indonesian Furniture Entrepreneurs’ Association, which the future president chaired in 2002.  His company was called PT Rakabu.
Romagnan now suffers from a debilitating condition that affects his speech and movements.  So he communicated through his friend Michael Micklem (below, right), also a local furniture exporter originally from South Australia, to help tell the tale.

 “The real story is a lot more interesting,” said Romagnan. “In December 1989 when I was 45 I came to Solo as a furniture consultant to a large factory called Roda Jati.

“This was owned by Pak Miyono, who was Joko Widodo’s uncle. Pak Joko had just left his position as Roda Jati’s general manager to set up his own business. But he still maintained good relationships with his relative and visited often. Pak Joko and I soon became good friends.

“When my contract with Roda Jati finished I decided to stay on in Solo and start my own company.

“The furniture trade was booming and Pak Joko became one of my suppliers. I pushed him to follow a furniture exhibition in Jakarta. It was the first time ever at Kemayoran and we were very successful.

“There were several Jokos trading with me at the time so I decided to simplify the situation by giving them all nicknames. 

“Joko Widodo stood out from the others because he was always very positive.  I’d ask him:  ‘Can you make this?’ and he’d reply, ‘Yes, sure.’

‘So Joko Widodo was nicknamed the ‘Yes Joko’. But being French I used the equivalent ‘Oui’.  Our president’s name should be spelt Joko-oui.”

Romagnan has grainy photos from the 1990s showing a nattily dressed Joko Widodo doing deals and checking products, but these are too poor to reproduce.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but in this case they are silent witnesses in the verification of the versions.

Whatever the truth – and maybe all are correct - the president should be glad that in his earlier years he wasn’t dealing with furniture traders from New Zealand.

They might have added the suffix ‘wee’.  This is derived from 15th century English but still persists, particularly in the South Island, and also Scotland.  It means ‘small’ or ‘of no importance’ as in a ‘wee issue’, though more commonly employed as a term of endearment.

Jokowee would be neither a good fit for the tall Javanese, nor an accurate description of the problems he’s facing.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 August 2015)


Sunday, August 09, 2015


It’s one of the more startling sights encountered while driving in Western Australia.
Sweeping seascapes are to be expected along coastal highways. Turn a corner and there are the beaches, the sky-blue ocean melting into an ocean-blue sky.
Deep inland are the multihued crumbling cliffs of the parched Pilbara known as breakaways.  The arid zone reveals itself slowly like a strip tease; the trees shrink, thin out and eventually disappear - a gradual revelation while entering the naked desert.
But there’s little to prepare the traveller for the sudden and dramatic appearance of towers, domes, arches and battlements in broadacre farmland where buildings are rare.
It looks as though a Spanish settlement has been lifted from the Iberian peninsula and another age by a giant hand and dropped into the bush 16,000 kilometers and a hemisphere away  – and that’s just about right.
New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town, is just over a two-hour drive north of Perth on a quality highway so easily reached.

However that wasn’t the situation when Dom Rosendo Salvado Rotea (right) and his fellow monks trudged behind their ox cart through the tick-infested undergrowth of the Victoria Plains.  Their quest was to find Aborigines that they knew, with the certainty of zealots, were in need of the Bible.
The sun scorched black-robed Europeans eventually found their potential flock on the banks of the Moore River, known to the Aborigines as Garban; this sounds like a grand waterway but is little more than a narrow stream prone to flooding, nothing like the wide watercourses found further north. 
However in 1846 the British settlers, who had only been in the new colony since its founding 17 years earlier, had yet to clear-fell the timber, sow wheat and free their merino flocks to turn the native vegetation into fine wool; the ring of axe striking hardwood was drawing close but when Salvado trekked north much was virgin.

The Noongars, the tribe that had occupied the State’s Southwest for probably 50,000 years, maybe double that timeline, were using the river as a bottomless larder of fish and waterfowl. In the hinterland were kangaroos, emus, wild turkeys, edible nuts, roots and berries – protein aplenty.
Dom Salvado, then a 32-year old Benedictine Order missionary, was a big-picture visionary.  He must have kept the sceptics chuckling as he battled huge obstacles to bring Christ to those considered heathen though they had their own complex and ancient spiritual beliefs.
The few surviving portraits show a formidable black-bearded figure, a crucifix stuffed into his backpack harness like a sword, iron determination in his stare. The statues, and there are plenty, have him challenging the elements.
At Moore River the Spaniard recognized a Garden of Eden only lacking the word of God, a situation not to be tolerated.  With his European mindset a settlement had to be established though the Aborigines were nomadic.

The Central Mission was founded with a few wooden huts to the bemusement of the mobile Noongars who camped in small temporary leaf and bark shelters - and the discomfort of Salvado’s fellow Catholics who needed more substantial dwellings.  They’d already been through a searing summer – now they faced a wet and chilling winter. 
It was a test of faith and many failed.  Only Salvado and his mate Joseph Serra had the Right Stuff needed to plant the cross in the wilderness. But that needed funds, so Salvado walked back to Perth where he held piano recitals to raise cash.
The donations were welcome but insufficient to match the man’s ambition so he sailed back to Europe, returning in 1853 with tougher monks and harder currency.
Although appointed to run the Diocese of Perth he convinced the Vatican that his real place was with the Noongars.  In 1867 he became Lord Abbot of New Norcia, named after the fifth century Saint Benedict who was born in the Italian town of Norcia.

The cemetery (left) includes the graves of 130 monks and nuns who gave their lives to the mission. The tangible legacies of Dom Salvado, who died in 1900, are the assertively European buildings making no concessions to the local environment. These include the Georgian-Italian style Mission Church where he’s buried, a monastery, two colleges that educated more than 3,500 Aboriginal students, and two orphanages. 
When these closed in the early 1970s it looked as though New Norcia would collapse back into the ochre soil from which it rose.  The huge brick and stone buildings needed substantial maintenance and no longer suited the times. Institutions were considered unsuitable for parentless kids; State schools were opening and support for the established religions was dwindling.  As the pews emptied so did the collection plates.
The Aborigines, whose presence was the reason for the establishment of New Norcia, have shifted. A few embraced Catholicism and settled round the mission.  However most moved to the towns as white settlers evicted the original occupiers from their traditional lands and turned the native bush into wheatlands.
Yet New Norcia [population 318] hasn’t crumbled – instead it’s starting to thrive as a multi-purpose destination, supported by tourism.  A museum and art gallery have been opened.  Arts and crafts are being developed; its textile collection is claimed to be the largest and most significant in Australia.
Visitors can wander the complex freely except for private quarters.  It’s only a 130 kilometer drive from Perth, though 40 plus tonne road trains heading north to the iron mines compete for space.

The foundations of buildings that flank the highway are being shaken by these juggernauts so the federal government will fund an AUD $30 million [Rp 300 billion] by-pass. Work starts next year
For the faithful, whatever their denomination, there are live-in spiritual retreats held throughout the year.  They are presented by the monks and visiting religious leaders, men and women.
The monks maintain their 1,500 year old traditions and invite visitors to join them in the six daily prayers.  Salvado and his followers planted olives and these continue to yield oil that’s pressed and bottled for sale. A flour mill ground wheat to make bread.
An education center has been built recording the history of the Noongars and their reliance on the land and river which has turned saline following massive clearing.  Some wildlife, like white cockatoos and kangaroos have adapted to the invasion of alien farming practices – other species have vanished.
The buildings of New Norcia aren’t the only curiosity. Close to the past is the future; eight kilometers south a 35 meter wide satellite dish rises above the greenery like a giant saucer sitting on the treetops. 
Deep Space Antenna 1 is a tracking station owned by the European Space Agency. The dish follows the Rosetta robotic space probe and is expected to be involved in the 2017 BepiColombo project to study Mercury.

The art of extinguishment

The monks followed the European tradition of planting crops but the terror of Western Australia was about to strike. What anthropologists label ‘firestick farming’ was the Noongars practice of burning the bush so kangaroos came to nibble the regrowth, then fall to spearmen hidden among the trees.
Fire and wheat are incompatible and in 1847 what old timers call the Red Steer was raging and roaring towards the mission. What to do?  No hoses, little stored water.
Instead the ever resourceful Salvado turned to faith; he grabbed a painting brought from Rome called Our Lady of Good Counsel and thrust it into the path of the flames.
The wind suddenly stopped and turned, saving buildings and crops – or so the story goes.  The Noongars saw what the monks called a miracle – an event that is said to have boosted conversions.
The painting survives, like the mission. But Christianity in Australia is not doing so well, with all major denominations slowly losing support. 

(First published in the  J Plus supplement to The Jakarta Post, 9 August 2015

Sunday, August 02, 2015


By the way: Making a clean breast of it

This column is about to reveal a bosom truth, so intimate it may be wise to hide the newspaper from the children and other impressionable members of your household.

On mature reflection just smudge the words – it would be unfair to deny readers the chance to be informed about the more acceptable doings of the world that feature on the inside pages.  Like events in Syria.

Enough.  You have been warned.  You read, your risk.  Now here’s the uncensored exclusive:

Western women have breasts.

Half the Indonesian population understands this because they assume their overseas sisters have been made in the same mould and need these organs to suckle babes.

But those of us who rely on television for imported news and entertainment know that foreign females are significantly different.

Large numbers have black skin, many have slit eyes, and some have frizzy hair. But the ones we are studying have a little cloud, or puff of smoke attached to their chests.

As it’s illegal to show people inhaling nicotine on television, though not to be seen enjoying glamorous and exciting lives from consuming the drug, let’s assume the actresses are not having a quiet drag off-camera and exhaling once back on set.

How the clouds get there is a great mystery; in nature they usually form when heat rises after being generated at lower levels. Consequently it can be assumed that a similar phenomenon is taking place.

Sadly Indonesian chest clouds don’t enhance the delightful curves normally associated with the female form. Nor do they have the beauty of the cotton-wool cumulus that float across our skies.

Instead they have ragged edges and a grubby look, like a soiled undergarment – a real meteorological disturbance presaging dirty weather.  As this column promotes serious discourse and prohibits puns we’ll not suggest a storm in a C cup.

Emission or appendage, the clouds have a life of their own, strangely not always moving at the same pace as their owner.

Should the lady lean over while wearing a low-cut top the cloud puffs and expands.  However it disappears altogether when she stands upright, provided her profile is not too prominent.

Should her blouse swell to the point where buttons seem ready to pop, the cloud magically reappears.

Indonesians who travel overseas should be warned that the climate elsewhere is different, and that chest clouds can’t be seen.   In other latitudes women have plump, flesh and blood hemispheres that they are often proud to reveal.

They believe that what the Deity has created can’t be a matter for shame.

Your correspondent once encountered 30 academics from a famous East Java university on a short language course overseas; despite their education some were unaware that New Zealand women’s chests are cloudless.

This was during the summer when Kiwi lasses, who have spent the chill winter months embedded deep in multiple layers of wool, start to moult.

The lecturers and professors, upright family men radiating power and prestige in their homeland, found the cloud-free environment so titillating they often skipped lectures to conduct their own research.

Some of their female colleagues reckoned this behavior threatened to create cleavage in the group.  However most reasoned that because learning is an uplifting experience, the men needed the photos to remember the trip.

Thanks for the mammories.

My wife, who’s a woman so thinks she knows better, previewed this BTW and made an outrageous statement:  She said the chest clouds are not natural but digital graffiti driven by bureaucratic prudery.

She also reminded that it wasn’t so long ago that Victorians in England dressed their table legs with skirts lest the sight of naked timber arouse diners’ lust.

Nonsense. This is 2015 and we’ve just turned 70.  We’re grown ups in the midst of a Mental Revolution; we’re modern folk who keep abreast of the times.

 Public servants have better things to do than watch hours of B-grade Hollywood movies just to spot and blot a few centimetres of the fairer sex’s anatomical superstructure.

They’re far too busy ensuring taxpayers’ funds are spent wisely on confronting corruption, improving efficiency and repairing the nation’s infrastructure.  Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post on Sunday 2 August 2015)


Saturday, August 01, 2015



Thank you for your interest in New Zealand’s support after the tsunami and the outstanding work that’s being done in Indonesia by GNS Science, and Noel’s book. 

It’s a tribute to the resilience and determination of the Indonesian people, and the Acehnese in particular.  These are also the qualities shown by the author (below) who has long been battling a serious illness.

Let’s start by going from the macro to the micro and our fridge in Wellington.  It’s probably like yours – a confetti shower of notes.  They include useful phone numbers, police, doctor, chemist and so on.

Also magnetised are reminders from the local council, the Earthquake Commission and other authorities on what to do in an emergency.

However the fridge in our kitchen in Malang in East Java has no such information; that’s not because police and the fire brigade don’t exist, but because they’re not trusted. 

An Indonesian proverb translates that if you go to the police to report the theft of a goat you’ll end up loosing a cow, meaning you’ll have to bribe to get action.

If you call an ambulance to get to hospital you’ll need a lot of money and even more patience.  It won’t be a speedy trip – expect to average less than 20 kilometres an hour.  There may be laws requiring motorists to give way to emergency vehicles but they are neither obeyed nor policed.

A helicopter evacuation, common in New Zealand?  The National Disaster Mitigation Agency has one to cover the whole archipelago of 17,000 odd islands.

In these circumstances people have to help themselves, just as our predecessors did before the state took over.  Some communities organise to provide support and aid known as gotong royong– in other places the residents are too transient.

The problem is that these groups are acting in isolation.  Their effectiveness, efficiency or existence depends on where you live and the energy of the volunteers.

Encountering these circumstances, people of goodwill in advanced nations like ours often want to get involved and push their government to help fund NGOs like this one in Central Java, which has been set up to support the stricken when disasters hit.

I’ve worked on a couple of Australian aid programs and believe they are not always the best way to assist.  In Malang a waste-treatment plant donated by the European community stands idle because no one has been trained to use the machine.

In another example delicate audiology equipment funded by a Rotary club to a hospital in East Java can’t be used because there’s no money to calibrate the apparatus.

A few years ago the NZ-Indonesia Association brought Dr Sari Timur the director of a Yogyakarta emergency service to Wellington to understand how we do things.  She saw the hospital base isolators, or quake breakers, something she’d never seen before.

We took her to the Police, the Health Department, Civil Defence and all the other organisations we depend upon.  She’s returned to Indonesia with a bag full of ideas.  She knows which ones will take root in that different environment.

We also learned from her that survival in an emergency doesn’t always need high-tech gear approved by Health and Safety.  Indonesians know how to improvise and Dr Sari passed on much useful knowledge.

Last year the Wellington Rehabilim Trust brought Bali paralympic athlete Nengah Widiasih to NZ to see facilities.  She visited organisations like Riding for the Disabled – something that apparently doesn’t exist in Indonesia.

She’s just won a silver medal in Kazakhstan; I like to think part of her success can be put down to being inspired by other disabled high achievers she met in this country.

GNS Science and other organisations have been involved in similar projects bringing professionals to NZ.

This is how I think we should be delivering aid, by helping key people come here and discover for themselves the way we operate so they can pick and chose what they import when they return.

In the audience tonight are Indonesian students who will be doing just that.  They’ve lived and studied here – many under NZ Government scholarships - and they know best what will and will not work in their homeland.

For our size we are a generous nation, but could do much more by adding more scholarships and freeing up our visa system.  There are work and holiday visas available to young Kiwis to spend time in Indonesia and vice versa.

Unfortunately the bureaucratic barriers are so great few have been able to participate.  It’s the same in Australia – and it’s a problem that needs fixing.

The NZ Indonesia Association continues to raise this issue with both countries because we believe that the most effective way of improving relationships is through ordinary people getting to know each other.

Official visits and big projects have their place – but nothing beats individual contacts and word of mouth. 

So when the students here go back to Jakarta, Surabaya or wherever, I hope they’ll tell their families and friends that Kiwis are decent and friendly folk who want to live in peace with their neighbours, and help when things go wrong.

We are not a NATO nation and the Indonesians here will understand the acronym – No Action, Talk Only.

This book by Noel and his colleagues is proof that we are people you can trust to do – not just debate - in times of crisis, wherever it happens.

(This speech was delivered at the launch of Aceh Revives by Dr Noel Trustrum at the Palmerston North Public Library on 21 July 2015. The book covers the recovery of Aceh following the Indian Ocean Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.)