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

Monday, March 28, 2016


Diehard myths threaten Indonesian democracy     


You have to know the past to understand the present. Astronomer Carl Sagan
Official public monuments are the victors’ version of history.  The most conspicuous example in Indonesia is Pancasila Sakti [Sacred Pancasila] where the inscribed founding principles of 1945 are overshadowed by giant statues of seven officers slaughtered in an alleged communist coup 20 years later.
General Soeharto, who later became the Republic’s second president, linked the separate happenings to give his authoritarian Orde Baru (New Order) administration a top coat of imagined legitimacy. He composed the oxymoron ‘guided democracy’.
Although many ‘facts’ about the event have been debunked by US scholars, families still go to Pancasila Sakti in East Jakarta to gawp at sickening dioramas of the killings to shape their understanding of history.
Indonesia identity has many wellsprings.  The original has the theme of perjuangan [struggle] culminating in first president Soekarno’s proclamation of independence on 17 August 1945.
Unlike their neighbors on the Malay Peninsula, Indonesians didn’t wait for a benign European overseer to bestow freedom.  They seized it and hung on through a grim four-year guerrilla campaign to drive the Dutch from their prized colony.
This story has now become more accessible to Westerners this year with Australian journalist Dr Frank Palmos’ translation of Student Soldiers (published by Obor), the memoirs of street fighter Suhario Padmodiwiryo.
There are few kampongs in Indonesia without a concrete spearman or machine gunner guarding the entrance below the slogan Merdeka! [Freedom].  Repainted every August they remind the smartphoners: This is how the oldies built the land you now enjoy.
Earlier history offers more nuanced explanations of influences that have formed the world’s largest Muslim nation with a reputation for practising moderate Islam.
Long before the 16th century Europeans arrived in the Spice Islands, Chinese and Indian traders brought their different faiths and worldviews. These helped create the mighty 15th century Majapahit Kingdom, still seen by utopians as the Golden Age.
Their crumbling temples, sacred sites, masks, dances, music and ancient beliefs litter the landscape of Java as adat, the customs and traditions that maintain Indonesian values.
Some believe such symbols and tenets are indigenous, mystical, ready to reappear and unique to the archipelago. The critical question: Could the well-embedded folklore, coupled to Soeharto’s corrupted version of the past, threaten Indonesia’s teenage democracy, born 1998, still fumbling with change and frustrating its citizens?
Australian academic Dr David Bourchier thinks there’s a chance.  He’s been identifying the remnants of collapsed ideologies and deciding which remain viable, like archaeologists rebuild shrines from shattered stones and vandalised statuary.
He’s spent the last two decades assembling the pieces for Illiberal Democracy in Indonesia: The ideology of the Family State published by Routledge.

The cover features a cynical tableau by Solo artist Herri Soedjarwanto in the 19th century British cornucopia style.  It shows a jolly Soeharto at the head of a food-laden table, surrounded by admirers.
The author calls it “an intellectual detective story”.  It’s certainly that, and better than the sanitized accounts of the nation’s gestation and birth pangs served to schoolkids since the 1965 coup.
The lust for freedom from Dutch colonialism peaked in the 1940s. The Indonesia we know today almost didn’t happen as blue-sky notions collided with international events. Fundamentalists came close to forcing a theocracy. The occupying Japanese could have run amuck as their empire collapsed.
Had the Marxists triumphed the People’s Republic of Insulindia would now be worrying the West. If sentimentalism had prevailed Indonesians would now be speaking Javanese and have a Thai-style dysfunctional government.
The bright youngsters who imagined a new world and are now lauded as nation-building heroes, would today be condemned as traitors.  In West Papua [‘taken over by Soeharto in 1969] they’d be imprisoned for seeking independence.
One of the few women among the founder-thinkers was lawyer Maria Ulfah Santoso who protested the absence of basic rights in the draft Constitution.  Her concerns were flicked aside by the macho men. 
Like her fellow activists during the 1920s Santoso had been educated in the Netherlands.  They dined on an eclectic menu - Marxism, Fabian socialism, notions of the nation state, church  interpretations of a secular society, free thinkers, European anti-colonialism; if there was an ‘ism’, it was there.
At the same time, though far away, the feudal Japanese were getting interested in the Dutch East Indies with an empire in mind.  They’d already shown muscle; in 1905 they thrashed the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War.
Writes Bourchier: “Accounts by early Indonesian nationalists highlight this first victory by an Asian nation over a European power … as a tremendous inspiration…The Japanese changed the way Indonesians thought about themselves.”
So hardly surprising Indonesians welcomed the 1942 invasion and for a while cooperated till  discovering the new rulers’ real interests were resources for war. The brutality of the romusha forced labor system scarred families everywhere. The invaders might be fellow Asians but not allies; Indonesians would have to fight alone for freedom.
First Vice President Mohammad Hatta found the Japanese imperialism unpalatable.  Although feted as the ‘Gandhi of Java’ during a visit he was unmoved by flattery. Indonesians should give thanks; a lesser man might have imported the North Asian military ideology.
Ki Hajar Dewantara, a Javanese journalist and activist whose writings combined elements of Javanese, Indian and Theosophical thinking, was another spreading ideas of ‘Eastern Democracy’ and ‘feeling-of-family.’
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew with his ‘Asian values’ popularized the same idea.
Cosy notions, easy to understand and exploit – one nation, one kin group.  The citizen children would be properly guided by wise and just rulers [Ratu Adil] demanding obedience. No need for checks and balances.
By contrast with the refined and respectful Javanese approach to authority, the  Western model of democracy puts power in the people’s hands; everyone an equal individual entitled to her or his opinion, sceptical of authority and demanding limits to state power .
The Decent Daddy principle is now legless. But before Soeharto was revealed as a kleptomaniac allegedly accumulating $9 billion, his definition of the State ruled for 32 years: A big happy family with bloodlines and beliefs stretching back into the misty rural hinterland where all was pure and perfect.
Some hanker for those good old fantasy days. T-shirts of Soeharto captioned ‘better in my time, ya?’ are on sale. While liberals see Indonesia’s democracy as a beacon to Asia and the Islamic world, others claim it’s a quarrelsome Western implant upsetting indigenous values of harmony.
Could Indonesians, fed up with corruption, inactivity and political bickering retreat to  ‘a more culturally authentic style of rule?’ Translation: Authoritarianism.
Bourchier warns that  for Indonesia to avoid repeating history “there needs to be a concerted effort to construct a national identity more in tune with the needs of a pluralistic, dynamic, democratic nation.
“A necessary first step is to look critically at romantic notions of the Volksgeist [spirit of the people] in both legal and political thinking.
“It is only with an understanding of how key concepts such as musyawarah [consensus after long discussion] gotong-royong [community self-help] kekeluargaan [shared kinship] and adat came to be part of Indonesian public discourse and how they have been deployed for anti-democratic ends that they will begin to lose their seductive power.”
Perjuangan – the struggle continues.

(First published in Strategic Review - see )

Thursday, March 17, 2016


The Great Walls of Green     

Long before the Internet developed listicles of trite clickbait [‘ten fun ways stars tie their bikinis’] serious students of classical history learned of the Seven Wonders of the World. 
They included the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  These supposedly existed in the Eastern Mediterranean around 200 BC, but destroyed three centuries later.
Nothing remains; artists later let their imaginations loose, but the marvel remained a mystery.  How was it done?
Zip forward two millennia to when US architect and academic Stanley White patented his ‘vegetation-bearing architectonic structure and system.’ Fortunately a copy editor reduced it to ‘botanical bricks’.
These were described as ‘plant units capable of being built up to any height, for quick landscape effects, the vertical surfaces covered with flowering vines, or the like.’
That was in 1938, not a time for inventing anything which didn’t explode or fire projectiles, so the idea lay dormant.  Now its slumber is over, and green walls – also known as living walls - have become the new architectural statement for prestige buildings, or to cover mistakes.
Jakarta and Surabaya have a few, but in Asia Singapore is leader. Changi Airport has some spectacular examples and even normally austere government offices have been given a soft green edge.

In the East Java city of Malang authorities at the University of Brawijaya wanted to screen a roadside rubbish dump so turned to horticulture lecturer Medha Baskara. (left) He’d studied the work of French botanist and ecological engineer Patrick Blanc in Holland and France.
Blanc [which curiously translates as ‘white’] is credited with reviving and expanding White’s ideas.
“The green walls at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris are stunning and exciting,” said Baskara. “Blanc calls his creations ‘vertical gardens’ and there’s one at a resort in Bali.
“I spent a whole day just admiring the designs and decided to help introduce the idea to Indonesia.  By building a green wall on campus we could beautify the university, create projects for the students and promote the concept.”
The result is a 27 meter long curved metal frame three meters high and clad with a hanging carpet of glass wool, the insulation also used in motorcycle riders’ jackets.  Twenty different types of plants are pushed into slits in the material. 
 Selection is important – if one variety blooms early or late the effect can be spoiled.  Likewise with positioning; sun-shy plants will perish with no shade

An automatic pumping system runs for one minute every hour delivering water through a pipe on the frame top.  The water, which includes nutrients, drips down and irrigates the plants.
Unlike traditional botanical gardens where admirers have to keep back lest they trample flower beds, green walls let visitors get close.  For workers the extra advantage is standing or sitting to prune, not crawling on hands and knees among the mud and snails.
“In Europe green wall designs try to create a wild, irregular jungle feel,” Baskara said.  “However Indonesians prefer symmetry.  Maintenance can be low if tanks, timers and pumps are used, but the capital investment is higher – it cost the university Rp2.5 million [US$183] a square meter to build and equip this wall.”

Some systems use pots suspended on a wire frame.  Others adapt PVC gutters or drainage pipes with holes or slots for the plants. Plastic cool drink bottles hung horizontally can also be effective. There are other growing media coming on the market which are cheaper and easier to use.
The only limits are those imposed by a lack of creativity. The challenge is to make green walls accessible to all using low-cost or recycled materials, and not just for big business projects. [See breakout].
“Ideas like vertical gardens are giving horticulture and agriculture courses new status on campus,” said Baskara.  He was raised in a home where his teacher parents had a garden and encouraged his interest in nature.
 “In the past medicine and law, business and management were the key disciplines. Now students concerned about global warming and conservation are turning to botany and what they can do to protect the future.
“They are taking their learning and skills into the world and will hopefully apply them.”  One of his graduates, Dias Anggarsari, 23, who spent time up a ladder helping build the green wall is now employed with the local government maintaining Malang’s parks and filling them with plants.
The office she shares with her colleagues faces a green wall. “It’s a marvellous job,” she said, “This is what I wanted – to work with nature and do something that adds beauty.”

Not a tree - a vertical garden

A green Jakarta?
The Indonesian capital is planning to have 34.51 percent of the city green by 2030 through creating garden roofs and green walls.

Under Jakarta’s Spatial Planning bylaw the city should provide incentives for residents to create green open spaces.

Jakarta Development Planning Agency head Sarwo Handayani reportedly said he was confident the target could be reached, but land would have to be bought.

Jakarta’s environmental plans have been reduced several times since the 1970s. Grey office towers, shopping centers, glass-walled apartments and hotels have gobbled anything green.
The result is that families tend to use the air-conditioned malls for recreation, while overseas the places to exercise, relax and meet friends are the parks.
In the 1970s more than 37 per cent of Jakarta was said to be public open space.  Now it’s down to less than 20 per cent.

How green was my kampong?

The residents of Sukun New Camp 3 [that’s the name, not a translation] call it their ‘main road’ with some sense of irony.  It’s 1.9 meters wide so can be negotiated by kaki lima [mobile food carts] while the by-lanes are just 1.2 meters across.
The kampong is sandwiched between Malang’s Sukun Cemetery and a cluttered highway linking the East Java city with Blitar.
That tends to reduce the planning options, particularly when the 350 households have green ideals but no spare space and little money.  So the only way is up, using recycled bottles and cans for the plants.
These soaring ambitions have resulted in transforming what could have been a decrepit slum into a showplace of blooming creativity which has won scores of local and international awards.
Community leader Zainul Arifin said the process began in 2009 when residents sought ways to make their kampong healthier.
“We started growing a huge variety of plants, including medicinal herbs, but there was so little room,” he said.  “So we turned to rooftops and walls.

“Now New Camp 3 attracts international visitors, including from the World Bank, and Indonesian politicians.  This has been a community effort – apart from planting we’ve made and installed 70 compost bins for household scraps.”
The abundant greenery also softens traffic noise.  The plants convert carbon di-oxide, of which there’s an excess from traffic, into oxygen.  They make the urban feel rural. No masks required.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 March 2016)


Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Avoiding the ugly Okkers                                                     
All nations get labelled.  However complex their culture, sophisticated their citizens or rich their history all get boiled down to a one-liner.
Most are negative - the sexy, arrogant French, the aloof class-conscious English, and the quaint, simple Irish – even though they’ve produced some of the world’s greatest writers.
Leaders accept the tags if positive – the Germans are proud of their reputation for being hard-working and disciplined; likewise with the Japanese, famous for their politeness and efficiency. Indonesians get a bit of both, smiling but superstitious.
But the negative images? Outrageous falsehoods! 
The latest to plead unfair and say the world has got it wrong is the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia.
Paul Grigson reckons his country’s reputation for sending uncouth boors and bogans [alayan or anak lebay is probably the nearest local equivalent] to Bali is undeserved.  The career diplomat, apparently a fan of Indonesian coffee which proves he has taste, underlined his claim this way:
From a million plus visitors “the number of cases dealt with by the consulate in Bali last year was in the low hundreds.”
As the interview with the Philippines-based social news network Rappler was about crass conduct rather than trade and investments or lost passports, there’s a perceived problem – and as politicians say at election time - perception is reality.
Stereotypes are simplistic and clich├ęs grow trite but most started life as facts.
Presumably the vague “low hundreds” Grigson highlights were the extreme cases where the police became involved, and through them the Australian authorities.
Only people in serious strife would go to the consulate which doesn’t have a reputation for accommodating idiot drunks (as opposed to those who’ve suffered misfortune or accidents) so these figures are a poor indicator.
Undercover research isn’t necessary to show the extent of the concern.  Jalan Legian and surrounds is much like any Australian city’s night club district, though with a higher level of tolerance for push and shove, swearing, shouting and vomiting.
In Australia disorderly conduct, generally known as offensive behavior, is subject to on-the-spot fines.
However in Kuta uniformed police are rarely seen and bouncers seem loathe to intervene.  The visitors’ loud mouth conduct may be ugly, but their wallets need emptying before management gets heavy. Locals watch the circus with contempt.
A subjective survey by travel app Triposo ranked Australians fifth in a list of notoriously bad tourists.  Americans, Brits, Russians and Chinese were ahead, with the government back in the People’s Republic now threatening travel bans on those who bring shame on their nation.
Grigson said the reputation of Australians in Indonesia “shouldn’t be tarnished because of a few misbehavers.”
Absolutely, just as all Indonesians should not be judged by the evil actions of a fundamentalist few with crazy agendas.  But as the bombers and corruptors make the news rather than the gracious majority, so the Bali brats are giving tourists from next door a nasty name in the archipelago.
So what to do?
Indonesia could prosper from the sort of tourists who go to New Zealand for the scenery, culture and adventure, earning that tiny country more than US$54 million every day.  Twelve per cent of the workforce is involved. That’s a serious slice of the economy.
Grigson praised the Indonesian government’s policy change allowing Australians visa-free entry and urged visitors to wander wider; if they harken his words there’s a chance the image might get slowly repaired and the Republic succeed in reaching its goal of attracting more than ten million foreigners.
“I think for far too long we’ve understated the importance of Australian tourism to Indonesia,” he reportedly said, claiming his countryfolk spend more time and money here than other visitors.
“There’s a myth Australians come to Bali, they stay five nights and six days, stay cheap and then go home.
“But actually, they stay longer than any other tourists … they come for a long time, spend more than anyone else, and most importantly they come back. Australians are interested tourists.”
Those who follow His Excellency’s excellent advice and venture across the Bali Strait won’t be seeking pool parties and wet T-shirt competitions; they don’t exist.  The big hotels cater for sober-suited businesspeople, not slobs in skivvies.
The mountainside resorts market tranquillity amid plantations, not happy hours.  Beer is only available in the bigger cities. The spirits to be found will be in mysterious temple compounds predating the arrival of Islam, not in supermarkets.
Australians working their way through Java’s magic mountains will be more mature, modestly dressed, quieter spoken, better educated and in search of beauty, culture and rural Indonesia. They’ll admire, show respect and put questions about history, art, lifestyle and cuisine.  They’ll try the language and probably bring their kids.
Inevitably the locals will ask these weird wayfarers dari mana? Trekkers should carry compasses, as geography is not always a strong point with rural folk who sometimes locate Australia in Europe or North America. A huge map on a Malang school wall has Indonesia bigger than China.
Indonesians discovering that their nearest Western neighbors can be decent people with a genuine interests should help offset the negative views generated by the slobs.
At this stage it’s too ambitious to expect a massive reappraisal of the Ugly Okker, but one step at a time – away from Bali.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 March 2016)

Sunday, March 06, 2016


BTW: It’s about respect, not recruitment

Last weekend we missed a wedding.  Only distance and other commitments prevented our attendance – we were in Jakarta, they were in Wellington.
We hear it was a happy and loving event celebrated at St Andrews’s on The Terrace.  This is a fine old Presbyterian church in the New Zealand capital, a city whose physical and spiritual foundations were largely set by Scottish immigrants who arrived around 1840, stout people of faith with a vision of equality.
The wedding was conducted before friends, relatives and well-wishers, and then followed by a party. There were all the usual trappings, flowers, cakes, drinks.
The happy couple aren’t just active fellow parishioners – they are also our hillside neighbors where most residents are professional couples or retired.
The newly betrothed live just down the road in a modest house where they tend the garden and take their small dog for regular walks.  They’re friendly low-profile business folk. When we’re in Indonesia they keep an eye on our house.
So what?  Marriages happen most weekends and suburban life is hardly worth Page One of a national newspaper.  Except in Indonesia; that’s because the couple is gay.
Their union was legal – NZ passed same-sex marriage laws in 2013 by 77 to 44 votes in a Parliament dominated by centre-right conservatives. 
NZ wasn’t number one in the world to legalise LGBT weddings – that was the Netherlands - but it was the first in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s still the only one.
Louisa Wall, the politician responsible for introducing the proposal told her political colleagues: “Excluding a group in society from marriage is oppressive and unacceptable.

"This is not about church teachings or philosophy; it never was. The principles of justice and equality aren't served if the key institution of marriage is reserved for heterosexuals only."

Before the debate politicians had been subjected to intense pressure from the Catholic Church, self-appointed groups claiming to represent ‘the family’ and the so-called Christian lobby, mainly Protestant evangelicals.  Muslims, who form less than one per cent of the population, also joined the moral police.
‘Prayer Rallies’ were held outside the legislature and threats made to start a new political party.  That didn’t eventuate.
Some Christian protestors seemed to have forgotten a couple of precepts attributed to Jesus – ‘judge not that ye be not judged’ and the absolutely unqualified ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’. 
As in the Republic today there were forecasts of Old Testament hell and damnation if LGBTs got their way.  It’s true - there have been earthquakes. NZ, like the Archipelago, is on the unstable Ring of Fire, but the earth was trembling when Aotearoa, as it’s known to Maori, was still an empty land.
Predictions that traditional marriage would drown under a tsunami of godless LGBTs seeking holy matrimony have also proved groundless.  In the first year after the law was passed 520 female couples and 406 male couples tied the knot.
More than a quarter came from Australia where fundamentalists still get frothy-mouthed at the idea and politicians tremble.
In 2014 more than 20,000 male-female marriages were registered.  So the ratio is around five per cent, though the number of LGBT unions has since dropped.
The former minister at St Andrew’s, now with preaching in Sydney, is a prominent theologian and champion of human rights including marriage equality,
She is also a lesbian.  Perhaps her appointment in 2001 turned some away from the church.  But their places in the pews were quietly taken by LGBT folk rejected by other churches.  Their presence has enriched the congregation and broadened its outlook, but it hasn’t made anyone change their natural preferences.
At no time have we heard:  'Hey you, let's be lesbian and gay.’ the fear voiced by Vice President Jusuf Kalla.  No-one has promoted LGBT lifestyles or sought to recruit. Recognition of difference is about respect, not recruitment.
St Andrew’s is Progressive Christian, a philosophy foreign to Indonesia. Other faiths have addressed parishioners.  Indonesian Muslims have played the gamelan before the altar.
  But we’re careful telling this tale in Indonesia lest we cause offence.  That’s already happened and we’ve lost friends.  Not Indonesians, but ‘Christian’ visitors from NZ. Duncan Graham 

First published in The Jakarta Post 6 March 2016