The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, February 26, 2016


A bite-size problem   
Eddy Suparman (pictured, left) agreed – it was a tricky issue so he’s not inclined to make radical changes anytime soon.
However the 62-year old founder of Super Jaya, Malang’s biggest krupuk manufacturer will soon hand over to his son Erik (right).  The scion studied mechanical engineering at Brawijaya University and has a few ideas of his own.
“It’s an ethical problem,” said the old man who started the company in 1976.  “If we install more machinery there’ll be fewer jobs for the locals.  They are our neighbors. They’ll suffer and so will the kampong.
“We bought three machines for Rp 45 million (US$ 3,400) each eight years ago; that removed 24 jobs.  We didn’t sack them, they replaced others who left or retired.”
Seeing the way the company makes krupuk is to jump back in time – not pre-industrial revolution, but gear-meshingly close.
Krupuk are Indonesia’s triumph over the West’s potato crisps. The delicious light crackers are roadside food stall favorites, occasionally found in upmarket eateries claiming to serve authentic village fare. 

They’re ready on stained benches among the coffee grounds in old 20-liter fuel drums with a window cut in one side and the brand name stencilled on the front.  Soon these will be collectors’ items - airtight plastic containers are becoming popular for hygiene fusspots.
Street-food customers help themselves and pay about Rp 100 (less than one US cent) a piece.  The previous consumer’s fingernail droppings are extra.  This ritual is so ingrained it needs a Neil Diamond number – say, Crunchy Krupuk Suite?
The traditional eatery culture is now being replaced by labelled bags at five times the cost.  Apart from being cleaner the packaging adds to the rubbish mountain.

Most krupuk are round, the size of a saucer.  Others are oblong.  They are made from tapioca flour – which is said to be a good source of dietary fiber - salt and a few other flavors, including onion and prawn. 
As a bonus the buyer also gets a tobacco taste; most men processing, packaging and selling can’t function without a fag.
Manufacturing isn’t complex, but it’s labor intensive.  The 100 workers spend much of their time doing jobs that machines would love to do.
Super Jaya turns out 750 kilos of krupuk every day – and these are short days because it’s the rainy season and the product is sun dried.
“We’ve tried using ovens but it hasn’t been a success,” said Erik. “That’s a pity because we could then work around the clock and not be slaves to the sun.
“However the taste has to be right.”  Indeed; this snack market may be vast, but that doesn’t mean it’s not discerning.
Once a bad word spreads – and Australian wildfires don’t move faster than Indonesian defamatory food appraisals – traders should consider transmigration.
Flour from West Java is mixed into dough with warm water, squeezed through a press to make spaghetti-like strings, pummelled then processed again till the texture feels right.
Another machine stamps out little swirls onto bamboo-frame racks lined with shadecloth.  After being steamed for 20 minutes in a sealed room they are spread outside on a concrete floored yard.

At tables nearby women do the same job using cookie cutters.  In the background the apparatus that will eventually replace them bang away relentlessly, never tiring.
The workers start at 6 to catch the dawn  and leave for home at 12.30 when the dark clouds roll over the mountains and tumble down to the East Java city. 
The working environment is smoke, steam and, hot oil – but the outlook is grand – an ocean of terracotta roofs with the sacred Mount Kawi in the background.
These guys have no meteorological training but their rain-spotting skills could be used by radio stations.  There should be competitions at the 17 August Proclamation Day fun fairs for the fastest dash for cover without dropping a single snack.
When the baby pressings, about the size of a Rp 500 coin, are ready they’re dunked in boiling palm oil for a few seconds.  In that brief moment they puff up like an affronted politician and turn into an adult krupuk.

Laden into big plastic bags inside bamboo baskets astride bicycles – though the progressives use motorbikes - they head to markets.  When the Dutch strolled the streets the scene would have been much the same.

Though for not much longer.  “If you come back in five years there’ll be more mechanisation,” said Eric, though not in earshot of his father who was prowling the factory checking every detail.
 “Dad starts work at 5 am – he always wants to be here ahead of the workers.  He’s here when they leave.  He started the business from nothing and knows every process; nothing escapes his eye.
“We used to export to Malaysia but krupuk needs to be kept in an air-tight jar or bag, otherwise they go soggy after a few days.
“We don’t use our brand name on the product which is still sold in bulk.  Many changes could be made.”
This looks like an industry to excite the foreign entrepreneurs President Joko Widodo is trying to woo.  They’d install new equipment,  a computerised production line and lifting  by robots.
Erik says business is doing well; the nearby grand family villa is proof:  “I’m optimistic – demand is growing and we can only just keep up.”
Then workers like Ibu Sulik who has been with the company for 31 years and has family on staff, would have fewer repetitive strain injuries from punching out patterns.  But unless they can be retrained to punch computer keyboards and trace motherboard malfunctions they’ll also be jobless.
Then the government will have its modernising investors – and  a rising unemployment problem.

First published in The Jakarta Post 26 February 2016

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Polishing the Plin-Plan President      

Jolly Jokowi - man of the people - as seen before his election
The always dapper Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo is a splendid advocate for batik.  Most days he wears a new design; whatever the colour or pattern the traditional shirts dazzle on his slim athletic frame. 
His plump PDIP (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) boss and former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, who famously dismissed him as ‘a party official’, once remarked that he couldn’t be a politician because he wasn’t sufficiently portly.  She might have added ‘Machiavellian’.
If Jokowi wasn’t running the world’s third largest democracy he could grace a catwalk for models are supposed to be seen, not heard.
Unfortunately being the seventh president of the Republic requires him to give speeches. These neither arouse not inspire - they anesthetise. The pause, so important in oratory and mastered by Megawati’s father first president Soekarno, becomes an embarrassment with the reserved Javanese:  Has he lost his way, his notes or both?
It’s not the only disenchantment with the man who seized the top job in the 2014 direct election by a narrow margin.  He won not so much for what he was, but what he wasn’t – a member of the corrupt oligarchy that’s run the nation of 250 million for so long and so badly.
Unreal expectations were also projected onto the former Governor of Jakarta, considered a friend of the wong cilik (ordinary folk) by taking walkabouts (blusukan) to hear the word on the street.
The illogical leap followed that he’d be a Lee Kuan Yew scourge of corruptors and a compassionate Nelson Mandela on human rights and social issues. A reformer, though not a liberal; the term carries negative baggage, particularly with Muslims.
The man Indonesia wanted - but hasn't got

These hopes have been shredded with Jokowi’s failure to wield a big stick against the rent-seekers and his flawed reasoning for executing drug traffickers.
Economically he’s plin-plan - one minute a protectionist, the next a free trader; anti West, then welcoming foreign investors.
His politically savvy supporters aware of the disappointments have been involved in makeovers partly led by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.  Unfortunately they’ve compounded the problem
Retno is the first woman to hold the position and a surprise pick.  Jakarta scuttlebutt claims her credentials include a close relationship with Megawati.
The former Ambassador to the Netherlands doesn’t have the intellectual firepower of her predecessor Dr Marty Natalegawa. This is obvious from attempts to bolster Jokowi’s credentials as an international statesman when all evidence indicates his policy priorities and personal interests are domestic.
To counter this image Retno took letters urging peace from Jokowi to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. 
No request had been made for Indonesia to broker a deal.  Unsurprisingly nothing came from the trip – Indonesia, like Saudi Arabia, is a Sunni Muslim nation that trashes Shia – the majority faith in Iran.
On her return Retno, who presumably hatched the idea, made much of the 20,000 kilometres travelled on her ‘diplomacy marathon’ but nothing on the results:
“We in the Islamic world … need to ensure that the region where most of the Muslim population resides, the Middle East, is peaceful, stable and prosperous, and continue to voice Islam as rakhmatan lil alamin (a blessing to the universe).”
The next stage in the attempted transformation  came during this month’s (Feb) trip to the US-ASEAN Summit where it seems the President said little and achieved less.
‘Jokowi conveys words of wisdom’ said one headline over a story about a courtesy call to Choummaly Sayasone of Laos on becoming chair of ASEAN: ”I am sure the chairmanship will lead ASEAN to be better and more successful.”
If Jokowi thinks the octogenarian  former general who  has been running the People’s Revolutionary Party in his Marxist-Leninist  state  for the past decade can put pep and purpose into the 39-year old ASEAN then the Indonesian is letting diplomatic niceties eclipse reality.
While Jokowi was heading to California, Indonesia’s  TV One (a station owned by a conglomerate headed by Aburizal Bakrie, a strong opponent of Jokowi during the 2014 election) telecast an  ‘exclusive’ interview with the President.
This turned out to be a brief love-in with lawyer and media executive Karni Ilyas heavily buttressed with thumpty-thump music and fast-edited  clips of the President looking decisive.
Jokowi claimed problems of infrastructure were holding back the nation, but failed to explain  how the roads will be rapidly  broadened and lengthened before gridlock cripples the economy.  The mounting frenzy against LGBT groups and ‘deviant’, sects of Islam didn’t get a look in.
Jokowi comes across as a nice one-on-one guy, not the tangiest spice on the menu but the sort householders might elect as their RT (Rukun Tetangga) neighbourhood chief. He’d sort out stray cat and rubbish problems without snarling or taking sides; there’d be no suggestions he’d trouser their donations for paving the footpath.  Nor would he initiate anything.
The wong cilik still seem to like him as his former opponents are in more disarray than the US Republicans.  However it would be naïve to think no plots exist in a country where conspiracies go with the rice.
The real power is muttered to be the tough-talking US-trained  former four-star General Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Chief of Staff of the President’s Executive Office, whose credentials include a past business partnership with Jokowi. 
Despite his military background Luhut dresses plainly.  In batik he looks scruffy – so little chance of promotion – particular as he’s reported to be much disliked by Megawati.
So for the meantime Jokowi looks svelte and safe – provided he stays home and stops trying to be someone else.

(First published in New Mandala 23 February 2016.  See:

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Rubbishing the Republic
This is the year of Wonderful Indonesia, hopefully netting more than US$9 billion [Rp 126 trillion] from foreigner visitors.  Visa free entry has become available to scores of nationalities in a bid to boost arrivals lured by the promise of vistas green and clean.  Sadly many will be disappointed.  Duncan Graham reports:

When Younglive Suban (right) was driving in New Hampshire he behaved like any Indonesian.  He tossed his cigarette butt out of the window without checking the rear vision mirror.
Tailing him was a patrol car.  “Young man, do you know what you just did?” asked the cop after pulling the student over. “Do you think the US highway is your ashtray?” The fine for littering was US$ 500 [Rp 7 million] but the officer was compassionate.
“That taught me a lesson,” recalled Suban who now manages a two-hectare upmarket tourist resort in North Sulawesi.
“I’d never thought like that before.  I changed my ways. Now back in Indonesia the car is my garbage can when I’m out driving.  I wish others would do the same.”

Amen. It’s not difficult to locate lookouts across tumbling green hills – just spot a pile of rubbish.  If heading into the forest follow the trails of drink bottles and cans.  Well-prepared adventurers include a knife and dye marker in their backpacks.
The first is to carve your famous name into tree trunks, the second to scribble an immortal message on any flat surface.  What to say? The current trend is for something obscene – that’s always good for a laugh.
“It’s sad, not funny,” said Basaria Tiara, second-in-charge of the Minahasa Regency Tourist Department.  “Of course it wouldn’t take long for a couple of men and a small truck to collect the mess and do some basic clean ups.
“The problem is this: Who is responsible and where’s the budget? Is it the department dealing with roads, or parks, or health or education? When the Reformasi policy came in after the fall of Soeharto [1998] the regions took over many jobs but there’s been little coordination.
“Money for capital works is available, but not maintenance.  If we put out bins they get stolen.”
One of most publicised inland tourist attractions in North Sulawesi is Bukit Kasih [variously translated as Hill of Love or Hill of Mercy.]  It’s a multi-faith 950-step journey round a smoking, steaming amphitheatre of raw geo-thermal activity.

Although only opened in 2004 the place is now so badly damaged that it’s more liability than asset. Acid rain from the sulphuric fumes has eroded the infrastructure and stained the kitsch statues. Some walkways are impassable.  Visitors hoping to find a place of peace are harassed by touts.
 “That’s what happens when you let officials run tourism,” said Suban, a dedicated disciple of private enterprise.
“The government is doing a good job publicising Indonesia abroad and helping draw in tourists, but they must also look at the infrastructure and understand the market. It has several segments – not all want to sit at poolsides drinking.
“Many want to explore and learn.  I feel ashamed when I take people to a site and find garbage.”
The problem is nationwide. Environment and Forestry Ministry waste management director Sudirman recently told a seminar there were so many problems with rubbish in Indonesia that he was thinking about declaring a state of emergency. 

Before talking to J Plus Suban and his business colleagues from the Himpunan Pramuwisata Indonesia [Indonesian Tourism Group HPI] where he’s secretary, spent a day picking waste off the beach in Manado.  The capital of North Sulawesi is famous as the base for exploring the Bunaken National Marine Park.
Divers come from around the world to marvel at the coral wonderland – but get offended by pollution. From the top floor of a harbor-front hotel pods of plastic can be seen swirling in the bay below.

“Maintaining a clean environment is really the government’s job,” said Suban.  “They don’t do it, so we have to.  It’s not just foreigners who want cleanliness – so do we.”
HPI vice president Freddy Siwi, who runs a backpacker lodge in Tomohon mainly catering for locals, thinks the answer to making Indonesians care is to turn trash into cash.  He’s started a collection centre for plastics and cardboard and plans to buy a machine to compress the refuse ready for sale to recyclers.
“We need a system of reward and punishment to make an impact,” he said. “If there are laws against littering they’re ignored.”
One of North Sulawesi’s must-see sites is the 1,324 meter Mount Mahawu and its green crater lake, though often shrouded in cloud. A good road leads to the park office.  There’s space to park and a sturdy staircase to the summit. Signs against shooting, logging and littering appear to indicate discipline, though many have been targeted by graffiti goons.
The Bern family from Belgium obviously thought the notices inadequate; they left a sack at the entrance with a ‘Save the nature’ message shaming others to drop their empties in their bag, not the bush.
Tiara denied that Indonesians don’t love their country. “A clean environment isn’t just for tourists,” she said. “It’s also important for our lives, our health and our children.  We just need a mindset change.
“If we have good places travellers will come.  The government doesn’t listen to locals but maybe they’ll pay attention to people from overseas.  So please speak out.”

Clean up Australia
Indonesian visitors to Australia 25 years ago would have found the land to their liking. A night drive in the bush was enhanced by the glint of discarded beer cans marking the road shoulders. The more cans the closer to a town and its liquor shops.
Those days are largely gone thanks largely to the inspiration and determination of builder and yachtsman Ian Kiernan. While sailing in the late 1980s he was appalled at the pollution of Sydney Harbor.
With a few mates he organized a litter lift; to everyone’s surprise about 40,000 volunteers arrived to pick up 5,000 tonnes.  Clearly the mood had swung towards environmental care.  That drew political interest so governments got involved.
The Clean Up Australia campaign was born as a not-for-profit organization. The public backed Kiernan, now 75, because he came across as a rugged individual who cared and had no other agenda. In 1994 he was made Australian of the Year.
Parallel with the widespread collections of garbage has been legislation. Most states impose fines of AUD $400 [Rp 4 million] for litterers.
(breakout 2)
Only losers litter
Like Manado and the Minahasa highlands, Malang in East Java is an internationally-known tourist town.  It also has knock-out scenery, enhanced by ancient cultural sites nearby.  The temples of the 14th and 15th century Majapahit era draw visitors, along with a cooler climate.
Malang labels itself ‘green’ and ‘flower city’, but also has a trash problem, particularly in waterways.
Despite signs forbidding dumping in rivers and beauty spots, these are headstones in cemeteries of plastic and food scraps – rodents’ picnic grounds.  Building rubble is tipped in any open space, often near houses.
“It’s a worry we are trying to combat in several ways,” said Ismintarti, head of the public parks section in the local government. “Many don’t care because they think it’s not in their backyard.  But the city is their backyard - and ours. My staff have to pick up what they drop, and that’s not right.
“We are making Malang more beautiful through growing and planting flowers, so citizens enjoy and respect.”  The city has a splendid but little known nursery that could compete with botanical gardens overseas.
“We ask residents to accept personal responsibility and not assume cleanliness is solely someone else’s job,” she said. “We’re using traditional means like posters, and social media to get the message across.  We also employ an Environment Ambassador.”
Shinta Maulidya, 19, the lady with this fine title, spends her days talking to children and young adults.  Drop your Styrofoam cup in a park and you’re likely to get a tap on the shoulder from a pretty teen instead of a burly cop.  “I ask them to put their trash in the right place,” she said. “They are starting to take notice.” 
It’s pointless arguing - Maulidya is a debating champion, speaks good English and has the law on her side. Fines of Rp 100,000 [US$7.25] can be imposed and smoking in parks in prohibited – a rule widely ignored.
Said Ismintarti: “It’s social engineering. Changing people’s behavior takes time.  Are we getting cleaner?”  She paused for a moment. “Yes.  I really think we are. But still far to go.”

First published in J-Plus - The Jakarta Post 21 February 2016

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Not to everyone’s taste                                         

The largest supermarket in Tomohon looks much like any other in Indonesia.  Glaring neon, watchful staff, alluring labels; most products on display in the North Sulawesi hilltown are to be found in Jakarta, Surabaya or Medan.
However there are differences.  For starters there’s ample choice in liquor.  Cartons of canned beer at bulk prices and a bonanza of brands openly displayed, not hidden behind the check out desk so the thirsty can be scrutinized: Are you really over 21?
Whisky and brandy in hip flasks or big bottles, brands never before encountered at prices way below airport duty-free. If not to your palate the drinks double as drain cleaners, guaranteed to burn off the most stubborn stain.
Then there’s the food: Bacon and ham in large quantities mixed with other meats.  If you don’t know a pork chop from a lamb cutlet, the head of a boar, preferably wild, will indicate.  Should your interests turn to the exotic here are the ingredients for rat or bat stew.

Confused because the barbecued beasts look similar?  The long bi-colored tails of the rats are folded and included in the presentation. The rodents are braised and skewered for sale; apparently they taste like rabbit but retain a distinct oily smell.
The nocturnal flying mammals grow plump in this part of the world. Trapped as they fly from their roosts, dewinged and singed they bare their teeth on the butcher’s slab a last moment of screeching defiance.
The so-called bat wings served at Halloween parties in the US are chicken wings served with a black sauce, but in Tomohon they are the Real McCoy.
The French have a vegetable dish called ratatouille. Here you can prepare one with meat, or make  a batatouille. An academic study published last year warned that the megabats, also known as flying foxes, could become a threatened species if the slaughter continues.
Alternatively a slice of reticulated python could slither down well.  These non-venomous snakes with batik-like markings can grow to 10 meters.  A kilo will cost Rp 75,000 [US$ 5.50].  They are not listed as needing protection. Yet.
Unfortunately another favorite of the Minahasa bush meat trade is imperilled. The Crested Black Macaque, known locally as yaki, is on the critically endangered list.  Anecdotally it is still being seen on plates, but all The Jakarta Post could find were signs warning people to protect and report traders.
By now readers will have realised that most citizens in what used to be called North Celebes are not Muslim and enjoy foods and drinks that are haram [forbidden] elsewhere.  They also like dogs, which are decidedly not requiring conservation.

They trot around the church-filled city as though they own the place, tails wagging like bunting. Eyes bright, noses damp, they sniff the clear mountain air for the chance to mate or scavenge.
A sleek, fit gang is led by an aristocrat with Dalmatian ancestors; his followers include a squiffy shortlegs whose great-great grandma was probably the great-great grandchild of a terrier. The naughty nine prance through the gates of a government office intent on mischief.  The security guards pay no attention.
Traffic swerves around a bitch and her suckling pups sunning on the warm asphalt. A lean and lanky pseudo-greyhound strolls into a shop for a de-flea scratching by shelves of bread. He decides when he leaves.
There are about 100,000 humans living in this city and from the noise the same number of canines. At nightfall Tomohon becomes Barkville.  The upside is no caterwauling – it’s a feline-free zone.
This far north peninsula is closer to Manila than Jakarta. The culture, faiths and cuisine are radically different.   A casual visitor might conclude they’ve found pooch paradise.
Restaurant menus feature the local delicacy rintek wuuk known as RW. Elsewhere in the Republic the initials stand for Rukun Warga [local community leader] so care is needed or offence could follow.
Tomohon also has a traditional market.  It looks like any other except for the bush meats – and dogs, the main ingredient of RW, a spicy, tasty high-protein dish.  Or so they say.

Unlike the other exotic foods which are delivered dead, the dogs arrive alive. Connoisseurs scan the cages poking the mongrels for a better look.  Few oblige. One snaps, but these mutts show none of the bouncy behaviour of their free colleagues.
“They’re not pets,” says the executioner who knows a bit about other cultures’ attitudes. “In the West I’ve heard you don’t eat dogs – but these are anjing hutan.
Forest ferals?  More like kampong strays.  No snarling ferocity, no challenging their captors and demanding the right to roam - as wild beasts do when trapped. 
Some look sick; old scars crease their flanks, saliva soils their throats. Most pretend to sleep. Two use their ancient beguiling skills and liquid eyes to plead contact. They’ve given up being Man’s Best Friend.
Further prodding; a big hound is selected. The buyer shrugs when asked his criteria.  “It’s for a feast,” he grunts as though that’s reason enough.

After being clubbed to death a gas-fired  blowtorch is used to burn off the fur and roast the skin till every handsome color, tail tips and ears have gone.  These are genuine hot dogs.
The consumers don’t wants throats slit.  “It tastes better with the blood,” one remarks.
The bloated black carcase is weighed – 12.8 kilos.  The price - Rp 35,000 a kilo. In the supermarket it’s a third more.  Grubby notes to the equivalent of US $32.50 are counted.  The customer shoulders the corpse and heads home.
In another section of the market a lanky cur wanders among the shoppers. No one kicks, throws stones or curses. This isn’t Java.  Tomohon folk like dogs.

First published in The Jakarta Post 18 February 2016


Can we retrieve our moral values?                                Duncan Graham
Now here’s the rub.
Only those lacking compassion and the determination to discover alternatives would find the so-called Pacific Solution acceptable.
Nauru and Manus are poor locations for camps though probably not the ‘hell’ refugee supporters allege; over-egging claims do advocacy harm. We need a reasoned debate with practical proposals, not hyperbole.
Nonetheless prolonged detention and delayed claim resolution would break anyone’s spirit.  That’s immoral and inhumane.
The cramped accommodation sounds far from ideal though probably better than the Calais camp and detention centres in Southeast Asia.  Services include flying the seriously sick to Australia for treatment.  That doesn’t happen in Indonesia, where refugees squat where they can.
The Pacific Solution will be ranked in the future alongside the Stolen Generation and trusting churches to care for kids as policies of shame.
Nor is it acceptable that only those with enough money to pay smugglers and who pass through other safe nations to reach Australia should have priority over the poor already in refugee camps with proven fear of persecution.
We can’t be sure there have been no recent arrivals because our democratically elected leaders won’t share information with their voters.  That’s authoritarianism and it should outrage us all.
Fortunately for the government the media crisis means there are few journalists with enough resources to investigate, while the ALP has decided to play possum to its lasting dishonour.
No-one wants people risking their lives to get here. If the boats have stopped that’s something we might all agree is positive. Some points need to be acknowledged while deploring the overall policy, the demeaning of inmates and staff, and the cost.
But an equally effective and more humane way than creating misery has to be found to halt human traffickers and deter people from trying to reach Australia by sea.
Fortunately we have a forum capable of finding a solution.  Unfortunately it has failed.
The Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, more succinctly labelled the Bali Process, started work in 2002.  It has almost 50 members and will meet again in Jakarta next month.
Its splendidly-titled job is to ‘enhance cooperation on border and visa systems to detect and prevent illegal movements; increase public awareness in order to discourage these activities and warn those susceptible, and …deter people smuggling and trafficking’. 
Here’s how to judge its effectiveness: According to Parliamentary Papers close to 45,000 have crossed the Arafura Sea since the Bali Processors first shook hands.  The largest number was just three years ago; 17,202.  Around 1,000 may have drowned.

A Queensland University review published before Australia’s unilateral action in turning back the boats found that ‘the Bali Process has only produced limited tangible outcomes and has had no immediate impact on the levels and patterns of migrant smuggling in the Asia Pacific region’.

Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono persistently called for a ‘regional solution’ without offering details. It’s been a regular chorus – this month former Indonesian foreign minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda​was was telling the Asia Dialogues on Forced Migration that the Bali Process needs to be ‘dramatically’ strengthened. 

Fairfax Media, in reporting the forum – a sort of warm-up to the Bali Process – said the meeting warned that unless forced migration is managed under a comprehensive regional plan, it will have "permanent and intensifying negative impacts on countries in our region".
Well, yes, but hasn’t that happened already?  Is everyone deaf or indifferent?
The push factors, like the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar urgently need addressing but this world issue is too complex for swift local solutions. However we can fix the pulls.
Here are some measures that could help.  Those already in Indonesia need to be processed quickly by the UNHCR, which means allocating extra resources for the agency is mightily stressed. This is another area where Australia could assist.
Those found to be economic refugees can be repatriated (something Indonesia can do because it’s not a party to the Refugee Convention), the others moved to a camp awaiting third-country settlement – though not Australia.
We are prosperous and have boundless plains to share.  Not all refugees carry radical disruptive agendas – many would enrich our society and make fine citizens. Our quota could increase.  But all need to be deterred from risking their lives at sea.
There are about 13,500 asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia. That’s miniscule in a nation of 250 million, but Indonesia is not a migrant society and has some aversion to foreigners.
Those escaping Iran and Iraq are either Christian or Shia Muslim. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Sunni and intolerant of what it calls ‘deviant sects’.
There’s already been conflict – eight died in a 2013 brawl in a centre funded by Australia. There have been reports of brutality and fighting on Nauru and Manus, though nothing on this scale
According to Monash University anthropologist Dr Antje Missbach, whose book Troubled Transit looks at the situation in Indonesia, there’s little chance the country’s present administration will ratify the Refugee Convention.
 Missbach writes that Jakarta fears ‘Australia could then designate Indonesia as a safe first country and return people there, which Indonesia wants to avoid more than anything else.’  If correct then reassuring our neighbour that these concerns are groundless could shift another obstacle.
Indonesia’s concession could be to tighten border controls and vigorously pursue corrupt immigration officials and police who help the people smugglers. 

There’s been loose talk in Jakarta about using an island. In the 17 years from 1979 around 250,000 mainly Vietnamese refugees lived on Galang near Singapore until resettled. The Indonesian camp was run by the UNHCR. It is now empty.
Unfortunately the apparent deterrent success of the Pacific Solution has reduced the urgency to find a better way.  The moral pressures being applied by medical professionals, churches and others are commendable, but a spit in the wind of intolerant opposition.
Unless they propose real alternatives acceptable to most Australians, banner wavers do little more than encourage the idle human traffickers in Indonesia to think business might pick up soon. Better to lobby the Bali Processors to confront their responsibilities and find that elusive regional solution.

(First published in On Line Opinion 18 February 2016.  See:

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Not a monochrome artist

If your art tastes need spicing with enigmas, curiosities, contradictions, challenges and puzzles – don’t go looking for realism, like that created by Solo painter Herri Soedjarwanto.

His portraits of cherubic people look more like touched-up photographs, which is one of the criticisms flung at the medium by those who prefer their art to be abstract.

Soedjarwanto was a leading student of Dullah, Indonesia’s so-called King of Realism, a palace favorite when Soekarno ruled.  He finished some of Dullah’s works after the old man died of a heart attack in 1996. 

They include a stirring crowd scene featuring the first president meeting the people under a canopy of billowing red and white flags – a nationalist’s fantasy.

However if you think such paintings are too unsubtle, romantic and triumphantly jingoistic and prefer raw commentary, then you need an artist like Herri Soedjarwanto.

“People can have more than one personality,” he said in his crowded Solo studio where he’s been for the past 20 years, surrounded by canvases from floor to ceiling.

 “Some paintings I create for clients are realistic. Like these Balinese couples in traditional dress just after their wedding – but my other work comes from the heart.”

And what a troubled organ – or so it seems.  In one large canvas a phantom image of Soekarno weeps over a tortured landscape of poverty, misery and chaos.  All the Proclamator’s dreams for a prosperous and happy nation destroyed by greed, intolerance and corruption.

Then there’s a pastoral of second president Soeharto, shirt open, sleeves rolled up, holding a sheaf of rice.  He presides at the head of a table laden with plump farm produce held by sturdy farmers.  Even the beasts look fan-struck.

The jolly father figure who held the top job for 32 years sits surrounded by chubby children and  contented citizens in a pastoral landscape of fecund prosperity, though one hardly-noticed figure on the left edge has turned his back and is walking away like an unwelcome guest. Democracy?  No-one is saying.

The work is Pak Harto si Anak Desa [Soeharto the Villager]; it hangs in the East Jakarta Museum Purna Bhakti Pertiwi, which celebrates the life and rule of the second president.

Soedjarwanto said the artwork was bought for Rp 40 million [US$ 3,000] by Soeharto’s late cousin Sudwikatmono and donated to the museum, clearly considering it a tribute to his relative.

But the painting has also been used on the cover of Illiberal Democracy in Indonesia by Australian academic Dr David Bourchier and published this year.

The book is certainly not a eulogy for the late leader now widely regarded as a corrupt despot whose rule crushed dissent, criticism and artistic endeavor.  Swap Soeharto’s face for Jesus Christ and the painting could grace the wall of an evangelical or charismatic church more concerned with praise than purpose.

“It’s up to others to decide what the picture means,” said Soedjarwanto.  “I leave it for you to judge.  You think it a parody? OK.”

But it’s clear the artist, who wears a revolutionary’s beret, is no lover of the general who overthrew his hero.  One of the largest realistic paintings in his studio shows a younger Soekarno with Fatmawati, the second of his nine wives. That’s not for sale.

Other works are either benign portraits of beautiful people and professionally executed with every hair and dimple in place, or ghastly visions of Armageddon. 

Although Soedjarwanto and his Chinese wife Meilina are Muslims, some of his work has a Biblical doomsday feel.  Urban capitalism stands in a cloudscape underpinned by spindly poles held upright by starving masses. When it all totters – cometh the Apocalypse.

The nearest old master would be Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Dutch painter of mass scenes of misery.  However Soedjarwanto insists his hero is really the abstract artist Pablo Picasso [with whom he shares a birthday – 25 October] though the Indonesian hasn’t embraced the Cubism of the Spaniard’s later period.

Soedjarwanto’s formal training in art was with Dullah but his talents were on display while still a teen when he made a living drawing comics.  Although based on Javanese real and mythical heroes they follow the American style of dramatic close-ups, stark sentences and dynamic action.

The lines are clear and proportional, the techniques so polished and professional they look as though they’ve come from a veteran in a commercial art studio.  Clearly the man has an exceptional talent with brush and pen.  

Sometimes he runs classes, but he’s probably a tough teacher.  Any pupil measuring their natural ability against his would be found wanting.

“Like Picasso I try to be multi-purpose,” he said.  “If I’m feeling good I paint realistic portraits, but when I’ve become depressed with the news I have to get rid of my feelings through art.

“I get my ideas through the news and street talk.  I know what concerns the people. They don’t feature in newspapers like politicians but they still have strong opinions which they are not afraid to share.”

No pictures involving the present President?  “Not yet. I’m waiting for his leadership and actions to reach me.”

One particularly savage piece has Justice as a male lawyer with a torn blindfold stabbing a knife through shattered scales – a response to alleged judicial scandals.

Soedjarwanto tried to explain the contradictions: “For me, painting is a communication tool. In the daily round should I limit myself to talk about one thing only - beautiful girls, splendid mountains or concentrate on poverty?

“No! Every day I talk about everything from the trivial to the serious, about feeling happy through to ugliness, suffering and injustice.  That’s what my art reflects – everything.  It’s like a diary that records my emotions

“I know this confuses buyers who like to collect portraits or landscapes and need a consistent supply.  They want me to specialize.  Never mind; I won’t be intimidated to trot after their ideas.  I just want to be honest and follow my conscience, wherever it goes.”


(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 February 2016)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


Stuck fast       


The abusers of institutionalised children in the 1960s could not have imagined a Royal Commission half a century later investigating their evil deeds.
But in 2016 those responsible for keeping asylum seekers away from our shores should be aware - and perhaps fearful - that in some more caring and concerned future they may be called to account for harm done through their actions.
Eye witnesses at this imagined inquiry will be hard to find, for few independent observers have made it to the detention centres. Those who have worked in the camps will need immunity before giving evidence; the Australian Border Force Act prohibits government employees and contractors revealing what’s going on.
Dr Antje Missbach suffers none of these restraints because she’s been looking at the issue from Indonesia, the point of departure for more than 25,000 asylum seekers since 2012.
The Monash University anthropologist has spent four years researching the tragedy of what she calls ‘transit migrants’ – the Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Burmese, Sri Lankans and now Somalis  who expected to use Indonesia as a brief staging post on their way to Australia.
But in 2013 the Australian Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders started pushing asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia. Another policy makes those registered in Jakarta with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees after 1 July 2014 ineligible for resettlement in Australia.
According to the Australian Government the tactics have worked and no boats have made it to the mainland.
This has left more than 13,500 people in limbo, and the number is increasing.  They can’t work and the kids don’t get schooling. The Indonesian government has shelter for one in ten, the rest fend for themselves, their presence often causing conflict with locals.  Although many are Muslim, those from Iraq and Iran tend to be Shia, while Indonesia is overwhelmingly Sunni. 
In 2013 a brawl left eight detainees dead. ‘Tension and deep animosity had been building in the centre (in Sumatra) between the Burmese Muslims and Buddhists, yet no precautions had been taken to prevent violence,’ reports Missbach.  Australia helps fund the centres.
Australia sees the transit migrants’ plight as Indonesia’s problem caused by lax border controls allowing easy entry to the Republic, with corrupt officials assisting their movements through the archipelago and onto boats heading south.
Indonesia reckons this is Australia’s problem because that’s where the asylum seekers were heading.  Impasse.
Missbach’s book has been published in Singapore as Troubled Transit by the Yusof Ishak Institute.  Other scholarly investigations of immigrant movements have focussed on Europe and North America.
This appears to be the first in-depth examination of how and why the asylum seekers get to Indonesia, what pushes and pulls them, how they are faring and what happens next.
Not much, although there’s been loose talk in Jakarta about setting aside an island.  There’s no apparent urgency, though that could change in a flash if more serious conflict erupts between reluctant guests and hostile hosts.
Just before the Christmas break Australia hosted the so-called ‘2 + 2 Dialogue’ of Indonesian and Australian foreign and defence ministers. The bland 33-point communiqué was a text-book of diplomatic clichés -  ‘welcoming’, ‘noting’ and ‘underlining’ but no mention of the stranded asylum seekers.
The nearest was a reference to a meeting of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, scheduled for March.
Although Indonesia has long promised to sign the Refugee Convention this hasn’t happened. Missbach believes the chance of ratification under President Joko Widodo ‘remains minimal’.
Jakarta fears acceptance could lead to the establishment of a domestic asylum system.  Missbach comments:  ‘Australia could then designate Indonesia as a safe first country and return people there, which Indonesia wants to avoid more than anything else.’
Troubled Transit is a professional report thankfully devoid of the usual polysyllabic jargon some academics seem to think necessary to distinguish their work from journalism. 
The only impediments to smooth reading are in-text references.  These are like speed bumps and should not be used by publishers seeking wider readership.
Missbach’s poignant stories of individuals remind that behind the acronyms and initialisms are despairing human beings caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare.  
Recounting the personal without losing her objectivity must have been tough.  Three boys she knew drowned trying to reach Australia.  Some authorities thought her a spy. Why would a German researcher working with an Australian university be in Indonesia?
Despite the suspicions she got to state officials, jailed people smugglers and even into detention centres– impossible in Nauru or Manus Island.
Missbach interviewed those who’d learned some English or Indonesian to by-pass interpreters and so avoid risking her informants’ privacy. Many were ‘severely distressed or traumatised’.
Breaks in Germany and Australia became essential ‘to distance myself from the field and its psychological burdens.’
This book is more than a primer for appreciating the issues. It could also be Exhibit A when the Royal Commission into harm done by Asylum Seeker Policies is eventually appointed.