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, October 25, 2015


BTW:  In praise of Ubud censors
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
Silly old Harry S Truman, 33rd president of the United States.  What right had a Democratic wimp who never scored a college degree to write lines like those above?  If alive today he’d be sued for being anti-authority and disturbing the peace.
Now back to the future.  It’s set in New Zealand, normally flagged as a nation of tolerance and liberty, pioneering social change.
This is the advanced liberal democracy where same sex couples get married; don’t try that in uptight Australia.
Yet last month NZ banned a book.
It was the first ban for 22 years so you’d assume it was a knitting pattern for suicide vests or maybe a kitchen recipe for baking black-plague bacteria.
Wrong.  This was a kid’s novel called Into the River and written by a teacher trying to reach troubled teens.  It tells of a Maori boy growing up in an Auckland boarding school where he encounters [shock, horror] sex, drugs and racism. It won several awards.
Even in laid-back Middle Earth nasty things happen, but some folk think silence is golden.  A self-imposed Christian lobby group called Family First demanded age restrictions, effectively removing the book from the market it was written to reach.
Ten days ago the ban was lifted and you can now buy the novel – if you can find one. Author Ted Dawe, who had his typescript rejected by mainstream publishers, funded the book himself.  He now has literary fame, a decent income and is writing a sequel.
Into the River has been swept into page one prominence by the people who tried to dam it. Sociologists call this the Streisand Effect.
In 2003 American singer Barbra Streisand unsuccessfully sued a photographer for US$50 million for publishing a photo of her California mansion. Before she rushed to the lawyers only six people had seen the picture.  After her case was made public close to half a million Googled the photo.
And so it will be with the government’s ban on certain books and discussions at the upcoming Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.  This event is big time among the international literati, but till now little known among the millions whose concerns are rising prices, not the decline of the metaphor.
Now the UWRF is tabloid stuff.  Maybe its existence has even penetrated the Presidential Palace, though the incumbent is better known for his taste in bakso not books. 
The organizers say the ban follows ‘increased scrutiny from local authorities who have the power to revoke the Festival’s operating permit, issued by the national police …  Should certain sessions proceed, it would run the risk of the entire Festival being cancelled.’
The three sessions off the menu were going to chew over the 1965 coup that felled Soekarno and brought General Soeharto to power at the cost of an estimated 500,000 lives.
Maybe the cappuccino sippers in the placid paddy on Bali’s uplands would have got so frothy-lipped by the speeches they’d have lashed out with their laptops and started a new revolution.
Such is the power of ideas.  Such is the paranoia of the guilty.
In the NZ book ban Don Mathieson, president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, said Dawe’s novel ‘had an unhealthy preoccupation with private parts of the body and their potential use in social activity’.
Substitute ‘historical public events’ for ‘private parts of the body’ and you get to understand the minds of the censors.
The UWRF, billed as ‘Southeast Asia’s biggest cultural and literary event’ will be poorer in the short term.  But in the long term we’ll all be richer.  The Streisand Effect will kick in and ensure this fringe festival and the events of 50 years ago will be big news everywhere.
So thank you censors. And by the way - NZ and RI now share something else in common:  International ridicule. Duncan Graham
First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2015


Monday, October 19, 2015


Boy from Balibo makes good                                  

Television news clips of Syrian asylum seekers desperate for a safe haven are distressing enough, even for those who’ve never looked conflict and its awful aftermath in the eye.

But for Jose Antonio Morato Tavares the tragic scenes recall his time as a refugee.

Born in Balibo on the Portuguese side of the border with Indonesian West Timor, Tavares was a junior high school student in the capital Dili when a military coup in distant Lisbon turned his life upside down.

His prescient parents thought the strife would not be confined to the Iberian Peninsula.  The left-leaning Fretilin Party and its rival UDT were edging towards a civil war.  The family fled south and crossed the border to Atambua.

“About 45,000 people were displaced,” Tavares said.  “Some went overseas to Australia and Europe, others moved into West Timor.  I was the eldest of nine; we lived in a four-room house with relatives.

“For a year I didn’t go to school. I could only speak Portuguese and Tetum. I just played around.”

Like many who’ve lived through searing times, the agreeable Indonesian Ambassador to New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga is reluctant to expand on his experiences. 

His father lost his government job and the family its home. While they survived on the generosity of others a great tragedy was underway.  If there was a future of peace and hope it wasn’t visible through the gunsmoke and sweat of fear.

In late 1975 the Indonesian Army crossed the border at Tavares’ birthplace killing five Australian journalists covering the invasion, creating a wound in international relationships that weeps still.

An Australian coroner ruled special forces deliberately killed the TV crews; Indonesia claims they were caught in crossfire.

Eventually Tavares’ mother despatched her son to a high school in Bandung. Although he doesn’t dwell on the situation, Tavares was clearly different; a Catholic teen bobbing in a sea of Islam, clumsy with Indonesian and ignorant of Sundanese.  Then there was the funny accent and a foreign name.

A lesser lad would have turned delinquent or run away, but Tavares was tough, determined to excel and make his family proud.

That he did splendidly.  From school to Padjadjaran University where he wrestled with English and memorized economic texts.

“I thought of working with a non-government agency,” he said.  “Instead I tried for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  About 7,000 applicants vied for 52 jobs.  Wow! I was selected.”

Tavares’ career trumps cynics who claim the only way to advance in the Indonesian bureaucracy is through nepotism.

“I had no relatives in the military and I don’t belong to any political party,” he said.  “I wanted to be a better person and make a difference to society.” 

After a year of in-house training and more English he won an Australian government scholarship to Perth’s Murdoch University for a masters degree.

“I learned to ask questions, something we didn’t do in Indonesia,” he said.  “I was amazed that students who put their feet up in tutorials could still pass.  The system was advanced and tough.  I studied 16 hours a day – even in the toilet.  I loved it.”

Eventually he penetrated the highest levels of the Ministry, the elite of all government agencies.  Along the way he even married the daughter of his boss, deputy foreign minister Triyono Wibowo.

Diplomats are different. Those at the summit breathe rarefied air. They enjoy exotic lands and foods, use archaic French terms, make speeches where all applaud, however bland. 

Shaking His or Her Excellency’s hand is greeting a nation by proxy, so first impressions are vital: Dignified, though not aloof. Relaxed, yet respected. Gregarious but not effusive.

 An easiness with euphemisms is handy; a volcanic row is presented as a ‘frank exchange of views’. ‘Further consultation’ indicates a policy heading towards the trashcan.

A group photo of sober suits smiling has probably been photoshopped. 

Tavares, 55, and his diplomat wife Fitria Wibowo, 38, shatter the image.  In egalitarian NZ they used a marae [Maori meeting house] for the 70th anniversary, overseeing a spectacular display of volunteers voted best ever.  Tavares welcomed VIPs and ordinary folk in fluent Maori, dazzling locals. 

There’s another difference – a yawn in NZ but a wake-up in Indonesia

He’s Catholic - she’s Muslim.  Inter-faith marriages are banned in the Republic.

The couple had been colleagues in Jakarta, then posted apart.  Tavares was ordered to Geneva but objected.  He’d done the meeting marathons before; was the next agenda disarmament or beef quotas?  Or was that yesterday?

His moans were ignored, but illuminating the Swiss sameness was rediscovering “this beautiful woman” across a crowded boardroom.  Tavares’ monochrome world burst into incandescence.

In 2012 the refugee battler from Balibo, and the cosmopolitan lawyer raised in a diplomatic household and educated in Vienna and New York were joined as man and wife at a civil ceremony in Bangkok. 

The reception was in Surabaya, but the bride didn’t get the finery and egg-crushing rituals of a traditional Indonesian wedding,

“Speaking personally, I don’t think the prohibition against mixed-faith marriages is fair or constitutional,” said Wibowo, who has just completed a master’s degree in law at Wellington’s Victoria University.

“I come from a liberal family that didn’t raise objections.  About a third of my relatives are Catholic.”

Said her husband: “Religion is personal.  Fitria has her faith, I have mine.  We respect each other’s beliefs and don’t interfere.  Sometimes she accompanies me to church.

“Mixed marriages aren’t uncommon among diplomats. The former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has a Thai wife. [She reportedly converted to Islam].

“I’ve never thought of changing my name or faith to get ahead.  The basis of my Catholicism is love.  Turning the other cheek and loving the enemy is nearly impossible to do, but we must try.

“Religion is a way to God. Everyone has their own path.  But the path is not God.  It is so tragic when people fight over faith, but I believe Indonesia is changing.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 October 2015)

Friday, October 09, 2015


Could SBY bridge the divide?                                                    Duncan Graham

People Can Change - but not President Jokowi, as portrayed by executed Australian Myuran Sukumaran

 Late last month a small workshop was held in Perth.  It involved 20 influential Australians and former Indonesian president Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono [SBY] who retired last October.  The Constitution prohibits a president serving more than two five-year terms.
The private chat encouraged more optimism than SBY’s public speech a day later because participants believed their visitor was listening.  However the formal address was not a pathfinder and largely bypassed by the media. 
Here was a chance to refill the tank with high-octane ideas so the coughing and spluttering vehicle carrying his nation and its neighbour into the future might find second gear.  Sadly SBY missed the turn.
This is not to diminish the importance of the house-full event organized by the USAsia think tank, which has made SBY a Senior Fellow. 
Anything said by the previous leader of the world’s third largest democracy deserved an audience.  His 2010 speech as President to the Federal Parliament encouraged belief that both nations could bond better.  SBY scattered goodwill and we loved it, even if his past as a general in a brutal army made us feel a little queasy.
Since then much has gone sour. Australia bugged the phones of its “great friend” and his wife Kristiani – refusing to apologize for what former PM Tony Abbott called “reasonable intelligence-gathering operations”.
Australia ignored regional solution proposals for handling asylum seekers fearing corrupt authorities would make plans unworkable. It then violated territory to turn back Indonesian ferries knowing the Republic’s navy was too weak to react.
There were other insults, enough for a touchy guy to snub the island continent forever.  That SBY has overlooked the contempts shows mettle – a quality Australians respect.
So he’s scaled the high moral ground but so far failed to capitalise on the achievement.  It was the same in 2004 when directly elected with a majority above 60 per cent.
In those brief and blissful moments SBY had the people’s mandate to reform the judiciary, start repairing the nation’s crumbling and congested infrastructure, and reinforce the ideology of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity] by respecting minority rights.
But he dithered, and the opportunities drowned two months later; a tsunami hit Aceh in North Sumatra and all energies rightly focussed on recovery.
Now SBY has another chance.  He’s only 66, but already an eminence grise. He ruled for a decade without using the Army; Indonesia stayed intact while other Muslim-majority nations imploded; poverty was reduced on his watch and the economy strengthened. 
He has a real doctorate, an Order of Australia and shirtfronts of international awards. He’s also a visiting professor at the University of Western Australia.
 He speaks and even sings English. Unlike his successor Joko [Jokowi] Widodo who is reported to be indifferent to foreign affairs and uncomfortable among diplomats, SBY is so cosmopolitan he probably knows the best nasi goring in the world’s capitals. 
Indonesian electors remember him as a pedestrian president, but overseas he has the gravitas absent in the current leader.
SBY used his Perth address to challenge the neighbors to rediscover each other, though news reports emphasised his comments on commerce.
Business is hugely important but canny traders don’t need a retired politician to chant the mantra that Indonesia is big and getting bigger, so more mouths to feed.  Any entrepreneur unaware of this hard-set fact should start Googling Sits Vac.
If Indonesia hopes to lure more than the 265 Australian companies now in the archipelago [there are 360 in tiny Dubai, according to Trade Minister Andrew Robb] it must answer some blunt questions:
When will Indonesia develop a clear and stable policy on commodity imports?  When can foreigners invest knowing disputes will be settled legally, fairly and openly?  When will the corrosion of corruption be confronted with Singaporean resolve?
SBY is no longer leading man but he hasn’t left the stage.  As head of the fading and graft-tainted Democratic Party he knows how the gears grind in Jakarta’s political machine.
This creates an advantage of contacts, and a problem of impartiality.  Smart ex-leaders cut past ties to avoid the silent-phone curse that bedevils the power-famished, like Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad.
 Britain’s Tony Blair became a peace envoy in the Middle East while New Zealand’s Helen Clark headed for a top UN post in New York. 
Likewise an important new role awaits SBY away from Jakarta – as an international relationships guidance counsellor. Where better than with Australia where the shouting matches are a constant concern?
SBY’s Perth speech spoke of more people-to-people exchanges, particularly students.  Here he can do something; Australia is willing [more than 10,000 Indonesians are enrolled in secondary and tertiary education] though few Australians have found the right visas to open their tablets in Indonesian tutorials.  It seems Indonesian Immigration has a touch of xenophobia.
In the private meeting SBY was told that “some of Indonesia's smartest young people should be invited to work in Australia with tech start-ups to create innovation jointly between our two countries. Indonesia has some brilliant young minds.”
A splendid idea, with a rider:  “Australians need to understand Indonesia is not an enemy but rather a potential partner.”  To change that perception the Republic has to remove a serious impediment – capital punishment.
For five of SBY’s ten years in office he kept his nation on the right side of history.  When the firing squads reloaded, three of the four victims were murderers.
In April SBY abandoned a visit to Australia after drug traffickers were executed, citing a “disturbed relationship”.  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop described his words as “gracious” and evidence of disquiet among Jakarta’s elite.
So SBY has some moral authority, though tarnished, to champion abolishment.  Now he needs the courage to help Indonesia join the majority of nations that have freed themselves from the evils of primitive punishment.
There’s urgency here:  further shootings are promised.  If these go ahead the bullets will shred more than flesh.  There’ll be deep wounds to reputation and relationships. 
SBY might respectfully point that out to his successor using the most refined Kromo [high-level Javanese].  From his vantage point SBY can see how judicial murder demeans a government, dashes down the positives and nurtures ill-will.
Others have said this before; but the Elder Statesman’s baritone will be heard in the archipelago above any chorus of foreign human rights activists calling for - wishing for, praying for - a compassionate Indonesia.

(First published in New Mandala 9 October 2015)

Friday, October 02, 2015


Vigilance in verse  


There’s a buffalo thief abroad. Be on guard. We need a plan.  It must be good. Best recruit a seer who can spirit a tiger.

Those lyrics in Minangkabau were sung and played by New Zealand ethnomusicologist Dr Megan Collins as part of her initiation into the mysteries of West Sumatran music.  They were composed as an exercise in imagining a potential threat.

A tuneful community alert.  A song instead of a siren.

Government orders, official posters and stern pronouncements about dangers by grim men in uniforms have their place, but nothing comes within a chord of a memorable ditty.

In 1907 an earthquake and tsunami killed thousands who rushed to the beach in Simeulue Island [150 kilometers off the west coast of Aceh] to collect fish when the ocean retreated. The survivors wrote and recited the song, which became part of the local folklore.

“Spreading important safety messages through music storylines continues,” Collins said.

“It was effective when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit.  Only seven islanders from a population of 78,000 on Simeulue perished.”

Elsewhere more than 250,000 coastal dwellers in 14 countries were swept away.  The heaviest death toll was in Aceh where about 170,000 died.

Even earlier, memories of the gigantic 1883 Krakatau volcanic explosion in Sunda Strait, which killed an estimated 36,000, have also been preserved in verse.

Collins is an expert on the music of the rabab pasisia selatan.  She says the instrument looks like a baroque violin, though purists who think only a Stradivarius is worth caressing with a horse-hair bow might label it a folk fiddle.

Which isn’t far wrong.  “It’s the people’s instrument,” Collins said.  “It’s made in the villages by craftsmen.  The music is usually heard at weddings and other community events, often accompanied by a flute and a singer.

The rabab’s ancestor may have been the European violin carried by Portuguese or Dutch sailors centuries ago. Collins, who has studied organology, the science of musical instruments, says its provenance is still unproven.

Perhaps a nostalgic minstrel mariner off a three-masted Dutch fluyt and fiddled to remind him of another land. A Minangkabau person was drawn to friendship by the music, which happens in a perfect universe, and was gifted the violin.

Of course it could have been acquired through robbery, not romance, but we digress.

For more than two years in the 1990s Collins studied the music of the Minangkabau at the Indonesian Arts Institute in the West Sumatran capital of Padangpanjang.  Her doctoral fieldwork with masters of the art was in Pesisir Selatan village on the coast.

The rabab is not played like the violin with the musician standing or sitting, but by squatting cross-legged.  It can’t be held hands free under the chin.  It’s a four-string fiddle though only two are played; one lies slack while the other has mystical powers which some claim to be curative.

The instrument is often played by dukun the traditional healers and spirit mediums
Collins modestly claims she has still to reach the level where she can understand the instrument’s supposed magic qualities.

In the meantime Collins’ skills can entice and enchant Kiwis who hear her CDs, play in concerts or on national radio where she’s performed in six one-hour programs featuring the sounds of Sumatra. 

Collins was raised in a musical family that traces its ancestors back to mid 19th century migrations from Ireland, England and Scotland.  As a child she was “a closet bagpipe fan girl” but instead learned the piano and violin.

Now her mission is to “exoticize music, to get rid of its orientalism” so it speaks to all whatever their ethnicity or national allegiance.

And Indonesians can enjoy her talents too when she tours Java in mid 2016 with the Wellington-based Gamelan Padhang Moncar playing in Yogya, Solo and Malang.

Collins, 43, now manages the gamelan, a role entrusted to her by Professor Jack Body who died earlier this year.  He led the orchestra on a tour of Java in 1993 when Collins was one of the players.

“That kicked off my enthusiasm for Indonesia,” she said. “I won a Darmasiswa Indonesian Government scholarship.  Java was too crowded which didn’t suit a Kiwi country girl, so I went to Padangpanjang. 

“Apart from a few tourists passing through I was the only foreigner.  I lived with a local family so became immersed in the language and culture.” 

Her initiation included rubbing her fingers with limes over an open fire to make her hands supple. She is now fluent in Indonesian and Minangkabau, which she prides herself on speaking with the accent of a native speaker.

Don’t assume all this is esoteric stuff for oldies and academics.  Sumatra’s sounds survive because they’ve adapted, embracing pop and dangdut the throbbing amalgam of Middle Eastern and Indian music.

“Minangkabau music isn’t rare, it’s popular,” Collins said. “It’s played on television and radio and uploaded to YouTube.  A song about a  flash flood that took out a major highway has been viewed more than 50,000 times.

“Siril Asmara’s VCD Sum-Bar Mananggih [West Sumatra Weeps] about other natural disasters following the 2004 tsunami sold 15,000 copies in 2013.  Composing and playing music can have a cathartic effect.”

Collins is now cooperating with NZ geomorphologist Dr Noel Trustrum and Indonesian scientists to produce a multi-media book on preparing for emergencies; it’s based on the principle that local oral wisdom trumps imported knowledge.

Trustrum has worked on aid projects in Indonesia including Aceh and recently published a book of photos and essays about the restoration of Banda Aceh and the resilience of its people.

“Messages can be locally generated, changed and moved between genres,” Collins said.  “They are an amazing way to create awareness and remember the tragedies of the past.

“Think of the Western children’s song Twinkle, twinkle little star. We all know the tune.  Now swap lyrics or create new ones. The rabab is ideal for this because it’s a story-telling instrument.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 2 October 2015)