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

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Boats stopped: Now what about those in limbo?                       

In 1991 Indonesian troops massacred 200 in an East Timor cemetery, strengthening much of the world’s hostility towards occupation of the former Portuguese colony.
The Republic’s Foreign Minister, the late Ali Alatas, diagnosed the pain as ‘a pebble in the shoe’.  Yet it persisted until a new nation was born eight years later.
The footwear irritant has now returned, this time over the plight of asylum seekers heading for Australia but stranded in Indonesia. There are around 13,500 – a one-third increase in the past two years.
It’s a small number by world standards [Malaysia has more than 155,000] but every one a tragedy.
The human faces behind the statistics can be encountered in a joyless alley alongside a Central Jakarta high rise.  Here the desperate, unwanted by Indonesia and Australia, wait for crumbs of information from the harassed staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Those registered after 1 July 2014 have been told they’ll never be resettled in Australia. They can’t go home, they can’t go on. They are not allowed to work.
Indonesia has 13 detention centers with a total capacity of 1,300. Those who squat in the kampongs usually survive with remittances from their homeland. 
Thousands of bored and despairing young outsiders hanging around with no positive future in view is a recipe for strife. Ethnic, economic, cultural, sexual and religious tensions thrive. The failure of Indonesia and Australia to fix the problem means the pot simmers.
The issue has been conspiracy theorists’ happy place because a sea fog of secrecy laid down by the Australian government has smothered informed debate.
Now some of the mist has been lifted, not by politicians remembering that in a functioning democracy electors have a right to know what’s being done in their name, but through the work of an industrious academic.
For the past four years Dr Antje Missbach has been researching the issue of asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia.  The results of her work Troubled Transit has just been published by Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute. This is the most substantial report to date, looking at the problem from Indonesia’s perspective.
The Monash University academic lived in Indonesia as a teenager.  She has been gathering data, interviewing Indonesian officials, visiting overcrowded detention centers, talking to what she calls ‘transit migrants’ and convicted people smugglers.
Her book also gives Indonesian and Australian human rights activists the facts they need to ramp up campaigns for a just and lasting solution.
Successive Australian governments’ policies have been driven by voters’ fears of unchecked waves of asylum seekers from conflict-ripped regions like the Middle East and South Asia. If they make it to Indonesia they could be ferried south.
Several attempts to solve the problem of ‘crimmigration’ have been tried and discarded.  However the policy now in place jingoistically labelled Operation Sovereign Borders seems to have worked.
It’s an unilateral deterrent justified by the argument that it saves lives. An estimated 1,550 drowned trying to cross the Arafura Sea between 1998 and 2011.
In Indonesian fishing ports where people smugglers load frail craft with the desperate, posters warn No Way – You Will Not Make Australia Home.
More effective have been the messages back to families and friends from the people caught earlier and transferred to detention centres in Nauru and the island of Manus reporting that they have uncertain futures and are living in harsh conditions.
Now boats intercepted by Australian authorities are either escorted back to the Archipelago, sometimes allegedly entering Indonesian waters without permission, or the crew and passengers are put in a lifeboat and pointed north. 
In one case a crew was allegedly paid US$30,000 [Rp 422 million] to return asylum seekers. This has also angered Indonesia, and if correct may have broken international law.
When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was president he called for a ‘regional solution’. Missbach told The Jakarta Post the definition was unclear and more than 40 nations could be included:
“When SBY initiated the so-called Jakarta Declaration [August 2013] he invited representatives from countries of origin, transit countries and resettlement to ‘talk things through’.
“Now under President Joko Widodo ‘regional’ seems to mean only Southeast Asia. The Bali Process [established in 2002 and co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia], which used to be the most important international forum for asylum seekers … seems to have gone rather dormant.”
What could goad the nations into action?  For Missbach it’s the possibility of Sunni-Shia conflict.  Many refugees from Iran and Iraq are Shia, a branch of Islam persecuted in Indonesia. Brawls with local people have already taken lives.
“I think the situation is actually getting worse,” said Missbach. “In October extremists raided a temporary shelter in Yogyakarta and all detainees had to be taken back into detention for their own safety.
“In other places near Medan I hear some landlords no longer rent their properties to Shia people.”
The latest proposal is to put all transit migrants on an island isolated from the locals. After the Vietnam War thousands fled by boat and were housed on Galang Island in the Riau Archipelago.
Vice president Jusuf Kalla and Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan raised the idea this year but have since gone quiet.
“An island would be a very expensive solution as it would require everything being taken there,” said Missbach. “Once Indonesia creates a new island settlement the issue is there to stay.
“The original plan for the Galang camp was to use it for five years. It stayed for almost 20.”  
If this pebble isn’t shaken out soon it could cripple attempts to improve relationships between Indonesia and Australia.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 December 20150

Monday, December 21, 2015


 Welcome to Paradise – you’re on our death list     
‘We sat on the bed in the dark, petrified and shaking.  We began to pray.  Balinese Djona, a Hindu, sat praying holding his hands together …with a sharp knife in-between them, just in case.
‘Jeannie … said both Muslim and Christian prayers to be on the safe side.  She had a wire coat hanger clasped between her hands … I sat praying Christian style, with a white stiletto-heeled shoe in my hands.’
Outside a lynch mob was attacking pregnant Jan Mantjika’s campus home while her Udayana University lecturer husband Djati was away.  In an earlier incident his colleagues had rescued him from a planned abduction.
The Westerner and her friends could hear the screams and shouts as Indonesians were rounded up by militias and slaughtered in the surrounding paddy.
This was Bali, 1965, a year after the young couple arrived from New Zealand, her homeland and the place where he’d been studying agriculture for seven years.  From the start their lives were idyllic – Djati came from a regal family in Ubud where Mantjika was treated like a princess despite being a ‘casteless Kiwi’.
The first nine chapters in her autobiography The shadows that dance in and out of my memory are accounts of the happy days.  A useful contrast against the barbarity to come. though too detailed. 
How she got out of the house to go shopping or have her hair done is of limited interest, particularly when the stories are peppered with clichés.  Only later do we realise that some of her apparently joyful friends and neighbors had other agendas and were dobbing in locals.
After General Soeharto dethroned first President Soekarno a purge of real or imagined communists followed. Academic reports, particularly from researchers overseas, are available but few first-person accounts by non-Indonesians. 
It’s also a fine rebuttal to the massacre-deniers though the chance to present her story to an influential audience was lost when discussions were halted at the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This followed police threats to close the event if the organisers persisted in raising the ghosts.
Back in 1965 the Mantjikas, with one small child and another on the way, could have fled without shame.
Most foreigners did as the tensions built.  Food and basics like soap became scarce. Paranoia flourished.  Distrust spread like flu. Friends and neighbors shunned each other. It was a time to whisper, to be deeply fearful.  
The couple were helping start the island’s first major tourist accommodation, the Hotel Bali Beach, by preparing staff training programs.
This involved Mantjika translating instructions which she often did at night. No curtains because they could not afford materials.  The banks refused to process the travellers checks brought from NZ.
Neighbors seeing Mantjika typing while her husband – also a suspect because he’d studied abroad - held meetings with hotel staff in the same room.  This clearly indicated they were plotting a coup or counter coup, depending on the observers’ politics...
Mantjika’s childhood in NZ’s North Island provided a curse and blessing in Bali.  A headstrong young woman she at first refused to stay hidden, venturing beyond only to encounter the thugs. One gang chased a man into her yard while yelling matiang, matiang!  [kill him].
She saw him beaten and hacked: ‘Bleeding strips of raw flesh hung from his body … the trembling and nausea took a long time to abate.’ He died in the street.
In January 1966 Mantjika started labor pains.  Djati borrowed a car and broke the curfew in a race to Sanglah hospital. Shots were fired but they got though and baby Lawrence was born.
When the killers had exhausted their blood lust a cholera epidemic from corpses dug up by dogs took hold.  Shops had been looted of medicines and disinfectants.  At night neighbors with a sick relative crept out for water to wash the afflicted.
As with many who pull through it’s the tiny memories that remain. For Mantjika it was the squeaking of the well pulleys.
When Djati’s eight rupiah a month salary resumed, rice cost two rupiah a kilo.  They supplemented a diet of dragonflies and snails with food parcels from NZ, though these were often ransacked by customs.
Writing this book has been wrenching but cathartic.  Like others who have survived the soul-shredding experience of discovering depravity and hate in their own community, Mantjika double-bolted the door on her memories.
But the hinges kept creaking; fifty years later with others disclosing the Republic’s awful secret Mantjika believed it was time to tell her story.
She dedicates her book to family and the post-coup generations ‘who never knew what happened because no-one would speak…
‘Unconsciously one files away memories too horrific to want to recall… fear and horror were something we breathed from the moment we woke …’
As a version of normality slowly returned the Mantjikas discovered their names on a death list and a pit on the beach prepared for their bodies.
Soeharto lifted  bans on private enterprise. Mantjika borrowed money and opened Jan’s Tours. It was a gamble. Bali was yet to become the international must-visit destination; the airstrip was so short the few planes used parachutes to brake.  
Business slowly prospered and Mantjika became involved in voluntary work, including raising money for the disabled through the NZ Rehabilim Trust. But the savagery took more victims.  Her marriage collapsed. Nightmares stalked her for years.
The remaining chapters cover family anecdotes of limited appeal beyond the Bali ex-pat community.  For others the book’s core serves as a vital eye-witness history of the most shocking and shameful event in the Republic’s short life.

The shadows that dance in and out of my memory                                                                       
By Jan Mantjika                                                                                                             
Published by Saritaksu 2015     

(First published in The Jakarta Post  21 December 2015)                                                                                               

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Indonesian: The struggle for recognition                     

Earlier this year Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri sent a quiver of concern through the expat community:  He proposed reviving a 2013 regulation forcing foreign workers to pass a language test.
Would executives have to clutter their minds with words they’d never need at their next overseas posting?  Why bother when their Indonesian counterparts were eloquent in English?
The idea sunk but could resurface with the next wave of nationalism.  Duncan Graham reports:

Jack Kreiser, 20, (above, right) is clearly more scholarly than his freshman features suggest.  Unlike the clichéd Ugly American he comes across as polite and reserved, which suits Indonesian culture just fine.  He also has no clear career plan.
 “I’m interested in learning Indonesian and seeing what happens,” he said.  “It’s just for fun.  I’ve always been keen on languages and geography.  My parents worry, but I’m OK – people are friendly and supportive.”
He’s studying at Malang’s Malangkucecwara College of Economics [MCE] (left) on a six-month Bahasa Indonesia bagi Penutur Asing [BIPA – Indonesian for Foreign Speakers] course.  The campus is one of 104 institutions offering BIPA courses across the Republic.

Before he flew to East Java Kreiser studied Indonesian at the University of Minnesota. It has more than 51,000 students.  He was the only one interested in the vocabulary and grammar used by almost 300 million people. 
The figures get worse:  According to the Modern Language Association less than 300 tertiary students across the US are comfortable asking apa kabar? [What’s up?]
What is up? The US is far away so the indifference might be understandable – though not excusable for the world’s most powerful nation.  Surely it must be different in Indonesia’s southern neighbor separated by a narrow sea?
Not so. Fewer than 1,000 senior high school students in Australia are learning Indonesian. Far more were interested in 1972. The decline has been blamed on the 1998 Asian economic crisis, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 and subsequent travel warnings which curbed educational exchanges.
Japanese is now the most popular language taught in Australia.
Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey predicts that Indonesian studies will be extinct at tertiary level within eight years.  And this despite shouts of protest by academics, diplomats and traders dating back decades.
In the Australian Parliament shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has been making headlines by confessing he’s learning Indonesian as though this is something weird, akin to nude tightrope walking.  He told journalists:
We need a broader, less transactional relationship with Indonesia that needs to have mutual respect, and one way we show interest and respect is learning the language.”

 But he didn’t say what his Labor Party would do to change the situation if it wins office at the election next year and he didn’t get widespread support.
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett, in Jakarta last month to check on the 25-year Sister-State relationship with East Java, reportedly rejected the idea that Asian language studies need to be saved.
He told AAP: ‘There are very few parts of the world where meetings aren’t conducted in English and they are generally not with interpreters.’
These are the slaps in the face for the world’s fourth largest nation whose unity has been built on consolidating a national language that’s the most used in Southeast Asia.  Outside this zone Indonesian is dwarfed by Chinese, Spanish, Hindi and English.
BIPA is Indonesia’s fight-back.  It’s a non-degree program run by the Ministry of Education and Culture, designed to promote Indonesian language by providing courses for foreign students.
Apart from these there are 136 BIPA programs in 22 countries, including Australia.
Although some students fund themselves, most are like Jack Kreiser, winners of Darmasiswa Scholarships, an Indonesian Government award scheme started in 1974.  Next year 640 successful applicants from 78 countries will get a monthly Rp 2 million [US $145] stipend and free tuition.
Three of the 19 enrolees at MCE have a Darmasiswa, including Ayaka Mashimo, 20, from Saitama and Yuka Ueno, 21, from Tokyo.  Their learning is even tougher because the Japanese kanji and kana writing systems are worlds apart from the Latin alphabet.
Like many foreigners they struggle with the complex system of prefixes and suffixes. “Most people think I’m Chinese,” said Ayaka.  “I just smile.”  But her colleague insists on explaining that she is Japanese and why she’s in Indonesia.
For those wanting to study privately at MCE, monthly fees, including tuition,  homestay, all meals and field trips amount to US $1,375 [Rp 19 million].  Air fares and visa costs are additional.

“One of the realities is that many Indonesian universities are opening BIPA programs and they are of greatly varying quality,” said Professor David Hill, the founder and director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies [ACICIS]. 
This has placed almost 2,000 foreign students in top Indonesian universities during the past 20 years.
“Even those [BIPA courses] at highly regarded universities are often very poorly taught. I believe such programs won’t attract Australian students unless they are well-run, attuned to the more interactive teaching styles that Australians expect, and widely marketed in Australia.
“There is a plethora of choice, but very little of excellent quality.”

MCE course controller Widodo (right) [“Indonesian is my second language, Javanese my first”] pioneered BIPA and has won awards for his work in Malang.  He agreed that standards varied across the archipelago.
He said MCE classes followed a total immersion program and were kept below 12 to ensure close contact.  He and his staff, who are trained teachers, have produced their own texts called Practical Indonesian.
Notices around the campus along with wayang kulit [shadow puppet] figures remind all that Disini hanya berbahasa Indonesia [here we only speak Indonesian].
 “Not all work is in class,” he said.  “We take trips to markets, events, public buildings and cultural sites.  I want Malangkucecwara to be the center of excellence so foreigners appreciate our life and culture.  As a consultant to BIPA I’ve been pushing for national accreditation of course providers.”
So has the Assosiasi Pengajar BIPA [Association of BIPA teachers], according to its director Dr Liliana Muliastuti.
“We are working with the Ministry to achieve this – maybe next year,” she said. “Interest in Indonesian is growing, particularly from ASEAN countries, and we are sending BIPA teachers overseas.”
The Indonesia Australia language Foundation, a company set up by the Indonesian and Australian governments has offices in Jakarta, Surabaya and Denpasar.  Although the primary purpose is teaching  English, 40-hour courses in Indonesian costing Rp 3 million [US$ 217], less for bigger classes, are available.
Private institutions claiming to have diplomats and multinational company clients are also advertising on the Internet.  Commented Dr Muliastuti: “Until we get national accreditation prospective students should do their own research on the quality of the institution and what it has achieved.”

Master stroke
In October 1928 nationalists at the Second Youth Conference in Jakarta swore the Sumpah Pemuda oath –one motherland, one nation, one language.
Then, as now, Javanese was the most spoken of the Archipelago’s 700 languages, while Dutch was used in government and business.
Instead the far-sighted delegates chose what was once known as Trade Malay and called it Indonesian. The decision was a master stroke, ensuring national unity. 

Fluency dazzles
When a 360-strong contingent of Australian businesspeople passed through the Archipelago last month (Nov) with goodies to trade, the Indonesia-Australia Report  website dug up a news clipping from 1968.
This covered a State visit by the late John Gorton, then prime minister of Australia and his wife Bettina.
Gorton was here to talk about economic and security issues, but the US-born First Lady stole the show by delivering formal speeches and radio chats in flawless Indonesian.
An honors graduate in oriental studies from the prestigious Australian National University, Mrs Gorton’s ability to respectfully relate to Indonesians probably did more to lift Australia’s profile than hours of TV showing suits shaking hands.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2015)

Sunday, December 13, 2015


BTW: A North-South romance for our times
This column touches issues deep and personal – an account of our courtship which one day might lead to marriage.  Have tissues handy.
We met by chance when I was attracted by the size of her lovely resources. Of course as next door neighbors it was inevitable we’d bump into each other, which we did in East Timor back in ‘99.  It wasn’t love at first sight because the differences at that time seemed greater than the similarities.
For example, we had conflicting religious beliefs, histories, knowledge of the world and the way we see democracy. Our tastes are also strikingly unalike.  Dewi Sri is a rice and chicken woman; I’m a wheat and sheep man.  She’s chilli hot – I’m cold beer.
Despite these problems the relationship warmed along with our language.  I said: “Let’s strengthen ties.” She expressed hopes for closer cooperation.
She claimed that improved support would be mutually beneficial.  I added that the bonds of shared interests could overcome any perceived difficulties.
We agreed that there’d be highs and lows but the future retained significant possibilities.
“Our prosperity will be built on a successful and enduring partnership,” she said. I said: “Working together will provide opportunities to gain greater access to value chains for our needs, particularly if we stay in the ASEAN region.”
Clichés sweeter than wine.  Words so bland the heart beat faster. We were getting closer.
We swapped gifts – meaning I gave and she received.  Although I’m not well off by Chinese standards she said she had even less, though her friends’ Mercedes and their Menteng mansions suggested otherwise.  Some things have to be overlooked for love to prosper.
Her extended family needed help.  We called this an ‘aid package’.  It became our little joke.
Suddenly all went wrong.  Mistranslations, once laughed aside, became serious obstacles.  For example, what she called ‘eliminating drug traffickers’ I labelled ‘judicial murder’.
Her family got nasty saying I had territorial and proselytistic ambitions, and only wanted to get my hands on her assets.  She sent me some overseas visitors by boat. I turned them back. “Keep out of my sovereign space,” she snapped.
“How can such two vastly mismatched people get on, let alone become intimate?” asked my Great Aunt Britannia and Uncle Sam.  “You have so little in common.
“If you must go overseas for a partner pick someone like yourself from Europe or North America.  Better the devil you know.”
But we’re determined to make our bond work, though to be blunt it seems I want it more than she does.  Still, lovers can be fickle and no doubt she’ll come round given time.
We’ve put together a pre-nup.  It’s called Succeeding Together. We are so happy about this that we want to share the joy.  Please download free from
It runs to 102 pages and includes a few pretty pictures.  There are a couple of symbolic bridges to cross and some big trucks; these mean there’ll be heavy loads to carry come the wedding. 
You can see me on page 69 astride a horse, contemplating cows. A man alone in the Ochre Outback, at peace with nature and himself.  That’s the sort of stoic I am.
My beloved is a religious, emotional urban lady. She always wants to be with others, so the page 70 picture has her with lots of friends.  Please tick LIKE. She needs admirers.
To tell the truth much of the document is the work of my banking mates Down Under, though I know my sweet would have wanted to contribute if only we could have paid her more. 
Some say this indicates a lop-sided view of the relationship which doesn’t bode well for a contented marriage – but we know that love conquers all.
Smiling Malcolm Turnbull and jolly Joko’s walkabout has helped.  Likewise the 360 business cheerleaders we invited to Yogya and Jakarta last month.  They’re all expecting an engagement announcement anytime soon.
Don’t worry about all the charts and boring statistics.  Just accept that these mean we’ll get lots of money if everything works out as planned. 
Maybe some will trickle down to you.  Who knows?  Wish us well.  Duncan Graham
(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 December 2015)

Saturday, December 05, 2015


Street parade in Turen, East Java

Sendangbiru on the south coast

Thursday, December 03, 2015


A new word, a new attitude                         

If academic Slamet Thohari (right) can get his way – and he often does – then today’s (3 December) title should get a small but significant tweak.
The last three words in the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities would be shortened to ‘the Difabled’[though he spells it ‘Difabel’] meaning people with different abilities.
“It’s important to recognize that someone who is handicapped in whatever way is not treated as though they don’t have a place and role in society,” said the wannabe neologist.
“I think ‘disabled’ is a kind of rude term. We need to see the person, not the problem, as they say in Australia.”
That’s the country the 32-year old activist will be heading to anytime soon.  At the University of Sydney he’ll undertake a four-year PhD program on an Australian government scholarship.
His thesis will compare the way the handicapped are treated in Jakarta and Manila.
“Both are very crowded cities where it’s difficult to move around,” he said. “I’ll be looking at legislation and access and a host of other issues, including religious and cultural attitudes.”
Thohari shouldn’t have trouble adjusting to brash Sydney – he already displays some of the ‘don’t-bother-me-if-you’re-not-serious’ attitudes often found among Western change makers.
It’s behavior he probably refined during a two-year stint at the University of Hawaii studying philosophy on a Ford Foundation Scholarship.
Gone are the basa-basi [polite small talk] rituals that often turn Indonesian meetings into circular marathons.  This man is on a mission and if that offends, well tough.  Life’s too short to pussyfoot around when the cause is just and the need great.
Surprisingly he’s not too keen on following Western models of support for the handicapped.  “The motivation overseas is to make people independent,” he said. 
“Here in Indonesia we have a different culture.  We want to share.  We don’t want to be alone. We work together.  Improving human rights needs to take account of local wisdom.”
Thohari’s approach has clearly been successful.

Last year Malang’s Brawijaya University opened its spacious purpose-built Pusat Studi dan Layanan Disabilitas [PSLD – Center for Studies and Disability Services] on the ground floor of the Rectorate, the most prestigious building on the state university’s campus.
Here students get support from staff, and facilities to compete on equal terms with their fellow 30,000 undergraduates.  These are the students who seldom see issues in jumping drains, skipping over kerbs and running up the stairs of  high-rises without lifts, hazards built by thoughtless planners.
PSLD provides extra lecturers, volunteer helpers for those with mobility problems, Braille readers and other resources. 
There’s ample flat open space for wheelchairs and room to walk if you need to swing a crutch without cracking the shins of passersby.
This is a particular requirement for Thohari, a victim of polio [“the disease hasn’t been eradicated in Indonesia - it’s only dormant”] which means he has one useful leg. 
Logically this has nothing to do with the rest of his body or intellect, any more than baldness, batwing ears or buck teeth mean you’re brainless. 
Yet assuming one physical difficulty impacts on other abilities is a common fault in communities everywhere.  Which is why the UN still thinks today is necessary.
Abdurrahman [Gus Dur] Wahid was almost blind and suffered from other health problems.  That didn’t stop him becoming the Republic’s fourth president.  Didn’t that focus attention on the handicapped?  “Yes, but it wasn’t followed up after he lost office in 2001,” said Thohari.
Like most modern advocates for the disabled he wants everyone to get a normal education.  “Special schools tend to provide learning that doesn’t recognize an individual’s cognitive skills,” he said.  “Often they just teach craft. 
“When they leave students are faced with a double handicap – their knowledge isn’t up to scratch.  Few handicapped people get a tertiary education.
“Now every year Brawijaya allows 20 determined students to enter without having to go through the normal examinations.”
The old metaphor of likening the speed of bureaucratic action to the melting of a glacier is as apt in academia as it is in government. 
To have persuaded Brawijaya to spend serious money on creating, fitting out and funding the PSLD, plus altering the entrance rules, proves Thohari’s persuasive skills. He credits others, particularly support from former Rector Dr Yogi Sugito as a vital factor.
“The breakthrough came in 2012 with an international workshop on campus called Towards Inclusive Education for Universities in Indonesia. It was co-sponsored by the Director General of Higher Education.  Key people attended and responded to what they learned.
“Laws were passed allowing money to be spent on facilities like the PSLD, which may be the best model in the country for others to follow.  Once legislation is in place public servants feel more relaxed about doing something differently.  This is part of the secret to getting things underway.” 
So does a political career entice?  The answer was swift, sharp and uncompromising: “No. I want my own life.”
Thohari’s father died when he was ten.   His mother, who had eight children, sold snacks for a living and piggybacked him to a normal school.  She helped fund him into Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University [UGM] where he studied sociology between part-time jobs.
He also became an advocate for the handicapped, having learned about discrimination without having to attend courses other than those provided by life.  After returning from Hawaii he moved to Malang.
“Yogya had become aware of the issues facing the disabled,” he said.  “At that time Malang was not so enlightened.”
One of his first stunts was to organize a demonstration in front of the Town Hall. Disabled people released thousands of birds to illustrate the freedom they needed to access public services.
He was offered a lectureship in the Department of Sociology and became director of PSLD. But he still works with NGOs and retains membership of a motorcycle club where 70 handicapped people meet.

Different thinking
Thohari outlined four ways of looking at disabilities.
In Javanese tradition the handicapped are seen as gifted people.
Under Islam those who are different are considered objects of charity.
Then there’s the medical model, and finally the social position where disability is socially constructed with the dominant group determining who is ‘normal’.
He said that Javanese culture believes the disabled have inherited magical powers. In traditional parades midgets were portrayed as superior beings with psychic abilities, like predicting lotteries.
In the wayang [puppet] performances and serat [classical literature] the disabled are superior and powerful. The disfigured divine clown Semar is also the wise character and guardian spirit of Java.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 December 2015)


Trading next door? Best know them first                                 
Harold Mitchell seems an OK guy.  A seriously rich media buyer and philanthropist concerned about health and Indigenous art, and also interested in Indonesia.
His personal involvement with the Republic spans ‘many decades’, originally in advertising and now beef.  He chairs the Australia Indonesia Centre, set up by Tony Abbott two years ago with an impressive board.
It has just produced a 102-page upbeat report titled Succeeding Together touting AUD 3 trillion business opportunities.  (Download free at )  
The AIC’s optimism is based on Indonesia’s size (it’s the world’s fourth most populous nation), its growth, particularly in the so-called middle classes, proximity, and possible emergence as a world power, though unlikely under the inward-looking nationalist  President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo.
After visiting Yogyakarta last month (Nov) with Trade Minister Andrew Robb, Mitchell used his Sydney Morning Herald column ( to praise the possibilities for trade with our giant neighbor.
Robb led the 350-strong delegation billed as Australia’s biggest and garnered plenty of positive publicity. Less well known is that as the Qantas Airbuses jetted south, JAL Boeings deplaned more than 1,000 Japanese on a similar mission.
They got to meet Jokowi in his palace, while the Australians only managed a meal with Yogyakarta’s Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, a politically minor figure.
(Japan is the second biggest investor in Indonesia behind Singapore.  Then comes South Korea, the UK, the US, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the British Virgin Islands, Hong Kong and China.)
Nonetheless anything that helps bond Indonesia and Australia has to be good. Positive outcomes include a promised relaxing of our onerous visa rules and bilateral trade talks starting next year. But to cement these worthy ambitions Mitchell and the AIC must first lay down a hardstand of market realities and shirtfront their masters about the problems. 
Only 250 Australian companies are doing business in Indonesia.  There used to be 400.  What went wrong?  Are public perceptions infecting board decisions? 
The Lowy Institute has done the polls: ‘Australians’ 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.’
If the chance to make big bucks is so good why is it necessary to bang the drum, and so loudly?  Any CEO worth her or his salary plots their own course; they don’t need politicians and public servants to GPS the honeypot.
Or is the government just using business to clear the road for diplomats to follow after the executions of Chan and Sukumaran?
Mitchell highlights Indonesia’s tertiary institutions.  Sadly none of its 400 plus universities is ranked among the world’s top 500.  There are some fine campuses with professional overseas links, but an abundance of degree mills; quantity is not a synonym for quality.
Indonesia’s ‘commitment to creating clever generations’ is about equal to our government’s determination to arrest the decline in Indonesian studies.  The local term is NATO – No Action, Talk Only.
 ‘Middle class’ is the wrong label for Indonesians’ growing affluence because it suggests they share our living standards.  A family in this category might have a motorbike on hire purchase, can meet school fees for the ‘free’ education, and both parents have jobs that pay more than AUD 500 a month.
Consumers certainly, but not within co-ee of Australian earners and spenders.
Canberra’s politics provoke despair, but our operators are first-day kindy kids against Jakarta’s knuckle-cracking oligarchs whose ideologies are power and protectionism.
Many institutions are rottenly fraudulent (Indonesia ranks 107 on the Corruption Perception Index); graft impacts almost every contact with the public service.  Some scams are large enough to buy an Australian cattle station.
The endless scandals plus widespread disappointment with a lacklustre president could crash the government should the opposition parties discover unity. That doesn’t inspire investor confidence. 
In Indonesia it’s almost impossible to succeed without wading in the cesspit.  To enforce a contract requires trust in the law.  That’s absent. Check the Churchill Mining saga, or Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine disputes to get a feel for the hazards.
For the personal risks read The Jakarta Globe’s series on the conviction and acquittal of teachers on allegedly fabricated child sex charges at the Jakarta Intercultural School.
Though Indonesia says it wants investors, it’s doing little more than shaking hands.  A boots-on-the-ground assault on corruption would be a start.  So would a public service revolution to attract the smartest, not just those seeking security and pension rights.
The nation’s infrastructure is in an appalling mess. The government knows this but seems at a loss on ways to fix.  There’s a lack of discipline and direction.  Decisions are made and reversed on a regular basis.
Foreign companies can prosper.  Scores of small traders who live in the Archipelago do well, don’t wear suits and didn’t ask the government to hold their hands. 
They say newcomers require time, patience, flexibility and a deep understanding of the culture and the differences to succeed. They also need to come from an environment that thinks well about its neighbour.
That’s why promoting Indonesian Studies and language in Australian schools and universities is so long-term critical. The government’s failure to address this undermines Robb and Mitchell’s mission.


(First published in On Line Opinion   3 December 2015. See: