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

Thursday, August 25, 2016


How backstreet Bali money changers cheat      
Unseasoned visitors to Bali, relieved they’ve safely negotiated Ngurah Rai’s fickle Customs and Immigration, suddenly get hit by the cacophony that’s Indonesia.
Still inside the terminal they have to pass a wall of money changers screaming rates.
These are almost the same and always lower than the offerings outside, particularly around Jalan Legian, Kuta’s boutique, bar and massage strip.
Here the rates swing so wildly smart travellers should go on red alert: How can the Australian dollar be worth 9,700 rupiah at the airport, anything from 9,999 to 10,499 in Kuta, while bank websites quote less?
In a mainstream bank the sale of 20 flawless Australian polymer $50 notes might yield Rp 9,900,000.
Not enough for the greedy. Two doors down chalkboards spruik rates 599 rupiah higher.   Half a million extra in Bali goes a long way. Close to 20 beers – or an equal number of plates of nasi goreng.
Indonesian banks have security guards with truncheons, tellers who should be catwalk models and comfy seats to soften the corporation’s skills at gouging customers. (Disbelievers should check how much they’ll pay to buy back their dollars.)
So let’s do the Right Thing and give business to the little guys struggling in the backstreets.
A fine intention – but flashing above every smile and charming Om swastiastu greeting should be the ancient wisdom chiselled in granite – caveat emptor – buyer beware.
The scams work like this:  The rates are disturbingly good and often end with an odd numbers, like 99 or 87.  Let’s say you settle for 10,397.
The friendly agent puts your one thousand dollars on his desk which is wet with coffee stains and dusted with fag ash.  So your notes have to be moved around a few times.
Figures are stabbed on a calculator. All agree – Rp 10,397,000.  For first timers in the Republic this is an astonishingly big sum.  Jokes about being a multi millionaire are made. Everyone laughs - some too enthusiastically.
A friendly lad saunters up.  ‘Where you from?’ Even if you reply ‘North Siberia’, the response will be the same: ‘Then you know my friend, Mr John?’ A mother with a breastfeeding baby wants to touch your white skin. Others come to peer.
Meanwhile the teller is apologising for having so many old and grubby notes of such small denominations. ‘You know how it is Pak, lots of little businesses.’ A sympathetic nod and a few words.
So the 20, ten, five, two and one thousand rupiah notes get mixed while the foreigner tries to keep track.
Notes with a face value of Rp 2,000 look confusingly like Rp 20,000.  How to spot a counterfeit?  ‘No, no, all good.’ The tropical sun thrashes all beneath.
‘Aduh!  There’s been a mistake, so sorry, we’ll have to count that pile again’.  The baby starts to cry.
The patter continues.  ‘What your job? You like Bali?’  ‘Nice batik – how much you pay?’
The chat is polite and earnest; it would be churlish not to engage the questioner. Which requires a fleeting disengagement from the transaction.
Suspicious foreigners looking for sleight of hand, a quick conjuring of notes into capacious sleeves, will be disappointed.  Rio-style knifepoint robberies are not the way of doing things here..
The Kuta hucksters don’t need such coarse systems; they rely on you, the confused novice, allowing yourself to be scammed.
‘Please check.  OK la?’  So many zeros, is this a ten or hundred thousand note?  Other people are coming in the shop.  A nearby mosque has turned up its speakers.  Everyone is talking in a language you don’t understand; did someone say ‘sucker’?
Standing alone, straightening crinkled notes, fingering the grime, fearing germs. Trying to remember which pile seemed to have a 17,000 rupiah shortfall, saying how much you like Indonesians – suddenly it’s all too much and time to trust. It really is a lovely family.
‘Would Madam like an envelope? Be careful, there are many thieves in Kuta.  Thank you for coming to our shop.  Have a nice day.’ Everyone shakes hands.
Only back in the hotel with more than 400 notes spread across the bedspread do you realise you’ve been fleeced.
Where’s the receipt? Where was the money changer?  Gang (lane) Six – or was it Nine?  The left hand side of the alley? No, the right.
Even if steps are retraced the dealers will be absent and no-one will remember you.  ‘Another shop, lady. Not here.’ 
Don’t expect sympathy – smug hotel staff will say you should have used their safe service – even though it offers only Rp 9,000 to the dollar. The police will imply you are stupid for not going to a bank or an authorized money changer who gives receipts along with a low rate.  Consumer protection?  Another joke, ya?
Not a Happy Hour, but you’ve learned the penalty for avarice. Chances are you’ve only lost a few hundred thousand, and what you’re left with was probably much like the hotel rate.
After all – you came to Bali to experience something different.
Duncan Graham is an Australasian journalist who lives in East Java. Once bitten in Bali he’s now doubly shy.
(First published in Indonesian Expat 24 August 2016)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


If a country can’t feed itself, who can?                                                       Duncan Graham
Nearly 20 million Indonesians are still malnourished. 28 per cent of Indonesia’s children are underweight and 42 per cent suffer from stunted growth.  UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
How can this be in a nation which has the planet’s most fertile island in its vast archipelago, and millions of skilled farmers harboring centuries of local wisdom?
If a country can’t produce and distribute enough nutritious food at prices the poor can pay, where can it turn? To rethinking the way it does agriculture – or importing from those with knowhow.
Thailand and Vietnam, with far advanced mechanical farming methods, are selling rice to Indonesia - an internationally awkward admittance of policy failure.
These and other disturbing facts have led foreign and local agricultural economists to suggest Indonesia rethinks ways to achieve food security.
The report Feeding Asia by the Perth-based policy think tank USAsia was released earlier this year at the Jakarta In the Zone forum attended by NGOs and politicians, including former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.  The report says:
We must collaborate better on agricultural research and the diffusion of valuable knowledge and methods. We need to create more efficient supply networks in the region. Frameworks for collaboration must be strengthened. Many nations in the region have radically expanded their agricultural output and have knowledge to share.
Japan and Australia were singled out as countries keen to offer their research and expertise.   
On the surface a noble aim. The needs are pressing, and recognized by Joko Widodo when campaigning for the presidency. All data continues to show demand growing, resources shrinking and costs rising as they have for the past 13 years. 
A shortage of basic commodities, or prices beyond reach of the majority, can create serious c communal strife. Rice isn’t just a carbohydrate – it’s a social and political force.
The 32-page report was prepared by Australian ‘innovation consultancy’ Knowledge Center. It highlights the positive impact on India and Pakistan of the 1960s Green Revolution which introduced new strains of wheat, ramped production and saved millions from starvation.
So the report’s proposals have been packaged as a Second Green Revolution. Not the ideal title as it recalls the days when change was pushed by Soeharto’s Bimbingan Masal (BIMAS - mass guidance) program.
Farmers tend to be conservative folk with long memories.  Even today villagers recall the military backed Green Revolution campaigns of the 1970s forcing them to use the Peta and Pelita high-yielding hybrids, expensive artificial fertilizers and pesticides of which they had little understanding.
At first yields increased dramatically and Indonesia stopped importing rice.  But the downsides included nitrogen runoff polluting rivers, the balance of nature upset and the socially-corrosive loss of autonomous decision-making.
Minor pests, like hoppers, became a major problem.  Government subsidies for fertilisers were withdrawn. Maladministration was rife. El Nino weather changes caused unforeseen upsets. 
Badan Urusan Logistik (Bulog) was created as a government agency to hold stocks and stabilise food prices, restricting farmers’ ability to trade on the open market.
Now Indonesia is again a rice importer, an undesirable situation in a nation prickly about ‘sovereign rights’ and its ‘great power’ image with a population projected to reach 322 million by 2050.  By then more than 70 per cent will be urbanites.
So who is going to grow the food, how and where?  While Java’s fertility is famous, the outer islands have dry acidic soils and limited rainfall.
There won ‘t even be enough water for irrigation if the report writers are right, while clogged infrastructure will remain till the government resolves to fix roads and rail.
Delegates learned that 35 per cent of food is wasted because fresh produce can’t reach householders.  In East Java’s highlands bundles of vegetables are carried downhill on bicycles because pick-ups can’t reach market gardens on unmade roads.
Even big urban supermarkets use small van deliveries; the roads don’t allow big trucks which could reduce costs through economies of scale.
Refrigerated transport remains rare in rural Indonesia. Fish, fowl and beef traders in traditional markets have no cool rooms. Sellers fan meats to ward off flies and keep milk in Styrofoam boxes.  They rely on early-morning shoppers to clear stock before it goes bad and becomes a health issue.
Another waste is in reticulation, with nearly half of Indonesia’s piped water reportedly lost during transmission.
Growers with no clear land title can’t access essential credit. The report says ’many small holdings are not properly registered, especially outside Java; less than 25 per cent of rural landholders have registered tenure.’
Policy planners considering all these interlocking issues also have to weigh in fickle weather.  Climate change is creating droughts and floods in areas where extremes were once rare.
Nationalists may wince but Indonesia already relies on imports - like grains to make breads and instant noodles for local consumption and export. Western Australia is Indonesia’s granary because wheat can’t thrive in the tropics. The Northern Territory, with its vast pastoral plains, is the Republic’s offshore beef ranch.
An example of positive partnership has been seed potatoes from Western Australia boosting yields in Java from ten to 35 tonnes per hectare. Speakers warned proposed tariffs could threaten this advance.
One possible solution discussed at the forum is ‘urban farming’.  Vegetables are grown hydroponically using recycled water in large climate-controlled buildings close to markets and labor. 
Known as Indonesia Berkebun the farms already operate in parts of Jakarta and other major cities, but only industrial scale projects will make a difference. Foreign investment in agriculture can be a politically touchy issue.
The report and forum’s take-home message is that the dream of self-sufficiency cannot be achieved while the population soars and little is done to ease the difficulties. Whatever the name, new systems will need farmers on board, not off side.
Getting belligerent with a country which feeds you is not the smartest idea.  Nor is protectionism which preserves inefficiencies. Collaboration delivers harmony along with food.
*First published in The Jakarta Post 23 Augst 2016)

Saturday, August 20, 2016


BTW: Uniformity – one way of viewing the world

On the day when Indonesia paraded its smart red and white outfits at the Olympic opening ceremony my wife ducked the monthly community gathering of granddames known as arisan.
That’s because Her Naughtiness didn’t have the right uniform. 
Fortunately the Rio jackets weren’t chosen by organizers for the 120-minute chatathon famous for its rigorous topic-selection process: 
Should another sign be erected warning motorcyclists against competing in the 250 meter asphalt sprint? Little kids also run the course as there’s a lack of training facilities.
Perhaps the riders should be disqualified.  Or better still drug tested because it seems they can’t read the warnings.  That could be tricky as everyone knows the treasurer’s son is a major offender and his Mom might have a Sun Yang meltdown if her precious was accused.
So best concentrate on issues less controversial.  How we look is more important than what we do, so let’s all wear a uniform while we pass around the cakes and comment on the cooking.
Protests that Suharto’s Orde Baru era had long gone and citizens were now allowed to express their individuality were dismissed as latent Communism.  With Hari Kemerdekaan coming this Wednesday and the red-and-whites already fluttering it was time to remind that unitary applies to citizen as well as state.
So Madam was issued with a bolt of cloth and told to tailor-up an ensemble to suit the status of the street.
The color mimics our fish pond when cleaning is overdue so at least it’s faithful to the local environment.  The shapeless design will ensure no errant husbands are lured to check their flagpoles when the ladies stroll by.
Having decided to flaunt the edict my beloved felt it unwise to attend the opening ceremony and so missed out on the gossip.  No matter; the catch-up came with the dawn street-sweep when creased pyjamas and tatty nightgowns can be worn outside without shame, headscarves and bras optional.
The Indonesian team did look neat in Brazil’s seaside city– and also tiny.  Just 28 competitors against Australia’s 418 – but the blondes have more space to flex their anti-Asian prejudices - and so much exercising from jumping to conclusions about their northern neighbor.
True, the folks Down Under have a catchment area of only 24 million people to select their top athletes, but they haven’t got the issues and distractions that beset the archipelago of 250 million.
Like ensuring everyone looks and behaves the same, whether in religion or sexual preference.
In New Zealand (population 4.5 million - Olympic competitors 199) graduating high school girls dash to Wellington harbor on their final day. They fling themselves off the wharf wearing the uniforms they’ve endured for the past six years.
Teachers warn against this wet ritual but to no effect.  The teens have reached the age of defiance, and determined to make their own fashion statements.  These tend to be brief.
So unlike Indonesia, where offices demand staff wear the corporate gear and perform like robots when dealing with customers, and some tertiary institutions make students don the same wardrobe.  Aren’t universities supposed to encourage independent thought and action?
Foreigners don’t understand the economics. These regulations encourage the textile trade and assist administrators with shares in clothing companies.
Outsiders also fail to realise that looks trump (to use a prejudicial term) performance.
This month the Malang football club Arema celebrates its 29th anniversary with fans, rightly known as Aremaniacs, plastering streets, bridges and walls with crude banners.
They’re celebrating with such abandon that their posters threaten to eclipse the streamers for 17 August, which remembers a pivotal moment in world history.
No matter that the team hasn’t been able to make a serious mark since 2012.  The screaming traffic stoppers aren’t commemorating victory.  They’re compensating for the facts of failure using the excuse that malang has another meaning – unlucky. 
The crazies wear blue – Arema’s color.  It’s important to be uniform even when there’s little worth celebrating. 

First published in The Jakarta Post - J Plus 20 August 2016

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Getting landsick                               
In the 1990s TV audiences in Britain and Australasia got to see the remarkable story of Indonesia’s Sama Bajo.
The documentary Below the Wind was made by the late Australian director and former Bali resident John Darling. Years earlier he’d encountered the sea gypsies of Southeast Asia when shipwrecked on a South Sulawesi island. He called them ‘gallant … retiring but daring people’ living a hard but ‘cheerful and dignified life’.
When Darling heard later that the ocean nomads were being arrested for illegal fishing near Australia he decided to tell their story.  Much footage was shot in Rote, Indonesia’s southernmost island in the world’s largest archipelago.  It seemed the Sama Bajo’s traditional lifestyle was doomed
Duncan Graham, a script editor for the film, went to Rote to investigate.

When Baid Muin saw the cover of the Below the Wind video she became a mite emotional.  So did her friends who remembered life in distant Sulawesi.
Yet the photo is bland, just a dark stretch of water lined by stilt houses. In the foreground ripples around an empty prau, known as a lippa-lippa.  No people present.
Yet this was once a home for the Sama Bajo.  Though not the home.  All their resting places are temporary. For maybe 12 centuries they’ve lived on boats or beaches.
Below the Wind tells of mariners getting landsick if they spend long periods away from the ocean and recounts their proverb: Fish today, food tomorrow. Sow today, food in six months.
That’s changing as the advantages of a more stable  life attract – vegetables to break the monotony of fish and rice, education for the kids, consumer goods and satellite television to entertain while the men spend days – and sometimes weeks - away.
In South Sulawesi fish stocks were getting low and the tribe’s shacks overcrowded. So they scanned the seascape for a new mooring among Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.
The landless Sama Bajo are the poorest people in the region and have to settle where accepted.  Till recently they’ve ignored national borders, building on beaches from the Sulu Archipelago in the northern Philippines, to Malaysia.
With no maps, GPS or compasses, using only inherited encyclopaedic knowledge of stars and winds, swells and tides, one small group navigated their tiny shallow-draught craft 1,000 kilometers from South Sulawesi to Papela on the northeast coast of Rote.
The island is in Indonesia’s most eastern province, Nusa Tenggara Timur. Jakarta is 2,000 kilometres to the West – Darwin 800 kilometres to the South. 
The Sama Bajo had been to the long and narrow Rote before, but only for short stays
Much of the islands 1,200 square kilometre landscape is rangeland scrub used by cattle.  When around 100 Sama Bajo arrived in 1990 few locals were concerned.

“Why should we be worried?” asked Bupati (Regent) Lens Haning (left) . “We welcome them. We’ve given them certificates for land, helped them with housing and built an ablution block.
“Rote is for all Indonesians, not just the people of Rote, just as all Indonesia is for us. They are Muslim and most on Rote are Catholics and Protestants. As long as people respect each other’s culture there’s no problem.”
When reminded that countries like Fiji have been ripped by conflict between indigenous people and latecomers who stayed, expanded and became politically and economically powerful he shot back:  “That’s Fiji – not Indonesia.”
The Kia (spiritual leader) at Papela is Haji Thosin Badjideh.  He emphasised that there were no tensions with the locals; the immigrants’ village and graveyard is separate from the Christians who sail bigger boats from a port nearby. 
He said there were about 300 members of his community representing three generations since the first fleet.
The kids originally filmed look fit and lively despite (or because of) their limited diet. Their descendants also appear well; there were no bloated stomachs or xylophone chests obvious, though proper inquiries by health professionals might disclose deficiencies.
Hearing problems have been reported because the men dive deep to scavenge for shells and trepang.  (See breakout) Women plaster their faces with burak, a ground rice and herb powder to counter sunburn.
Medical research suggests ocean fare reduces the chances of strokes and heart attacks because fish contain Omega 3 fatty acids. 

The men are small and lean, apart from Haji (a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) Thosin.  “We (Rotenese) have assisted them, but they have also helped us,” he said.  “For example, they have taught us new fishing techniques.”
When seeking the glistening blue-black  ‘baby tuna’, known in the West as ‘bullet tuna’, the Sama Bajo set 300 meter lines using multiple hooks decorated with chicken feather lures.  Before the newcomers local fishers favored single hooks and bait.
They work from light one or two-man lippa-lippa (a term also used by northern Australia Aborigines for canoes) and fish about ten nautical miles offshore.  They report no shortage of stock and return with catches of 50 or more.
Survival at sea depends on remembering, watching and analysing the most subtle moods of sea and season. Where peasants see swells, seafarers see roads. The Sama Bajo read nature like religious scholars scan ancient scrolls.
Once the mountains dip below the horizon there are no landmarks. No life jackets, flares or radios, just wits and wisdom to stay safe.
Though Below the Wind shows sturdy construction underway in Papela, only battered remnants of their beach shacks remain, thatched with Lontar leaves and propped by bleached posts.
Much has changed since Darling uncapped his lens. Some families in Papela have now moved a few meters inland where they live in rough cement-block homes with corrugated iron roofs.  In a small market women sell surplus tuna at Rp 15,000 (US$$1.10) a kilo. 
“Because there’s no cold store we cannot preserve the catch,” said Haji Thosin.  “So unless there are many buyers we have to accept whatever is offered or dry the fish we don’t sell.” 
Being a Same Bajo is to sail with tragedy. Locals said that three years ago three boats went missing in a storm.  No alerts were sounded, no search organised. Twenty men just failed to return and no bodies were recovered.
“This is a village of widows,” Baid Muin said. “There’s one man for every three women and many fatherless children.”
The tone of Below the Wind is resigned sadness, an acceptance of the inevitable erosion of an ancient culture and lifestyle by the assaults of modernity. 
Darling believed the shortage of fish, Australian hostility and economic upheavals would sink the Sama Bajo’s traditional ways, beliefs and values.  But the killer wave was always going to be interference by bureaucrats
These ocean wanderers don’t carry passports.  They have no permanent abode, no address for government mail, no bank accounts. Few have birth certificates.  Census officials find the Sama Bajo impossible to compartmentalise.

They can’t remember when they came.  They may have been here for years but might all sail away tomorrow. They speak strange languages. Are they even citizens?
In Malaysia some have been forced onto the land. In Australia they’d be classified as illegal immigrants and put in detention, or called poachers and jailed. 
Darling believed he was recording an epilogue for Indonesia’s Sama Bajo, but two decades later his pessimism hasn’t come to pass.
Maybe this is because the resilient Sama Bajo have adapted to change, fish prices have risen and stocks stabilised.  In addition they navigated wisely, steering clear of Australia and making landfall among the tolerant folk of Rote.
(The author thanks Bupati Lens Haning for land transport and hospitality.)
Sea rangers
About one million Sama Bajo follow the sea hunter-gatherer tradition across Southeast Asia.  Anthropologists believe people in Borneo turned from farming to ranging the seas about 800 AD.
Because few are conventionally religious the Sama Bajo are sometimes disrespected.  In Indonesia, where everyone must belong to one of the six government-approved faiths, the orthodox use derogatory terms which translate as ‘spit outs’. 
Below the Wind records ceremonies involving placenta being buried at sea and rituals around the slaughter of turtles. According to one interviewee the Sama Bajo believe the sea is home, a road, food, a friend, a brother and a sister – all enshrined in a genderless spirit called Oma Medi Lau.
(Breakout 2)
Nasty neighbors

The title of Darling’s documentary refers to the name used by the Sama Bajo for the Great South Land, once part of their territory
But last century Australia got fed up with incursions into its claimed zone. The first laws against ‘poachers’ were passed in 1906 because the Sama Bajo were said to be ‘too industrious’.
No matter that they had been visiting the beaches of northern Australia for at least 600 years. They came to gather trepang, also known as beche de mer (French for ‘sea-spade’) and sea cucumber, though it’s a marine animal.

Trepang are used in Chinese cooking and medicine. They are sea-floor scavengers surviving on rotting fish and plants.  Enthusiasts claim they have healing and aphrodisiac qualities, though this belief may have more to do with the creature’s phallic shape rather than any vitamin values.
In 1981 Indonesia agreed that the Australian Fishing Zone be expanded to 320 km offshore. Australia gained around 80 per cent of the sea between the two nations’ shorelines and set about creating total exclusion.
For a while traditional fishers, meaning sail-only craft, were allowed to continue dropping their lines in a specified area.  But when bigger boats (not necessarily crewed by Sama Bajo) started ferrying Middle East asylum seekers the Australian government got tough, arresting and imprisoning crewmen who ventured too far, confiscating and burning their vessels.
Without GPS the Sama Bajo say they don’t know if they’ve been blown over the imagined border.  “We don’t have problems now with the Australians,” said Haji Thosin. “Embassy officials have been here and agreed we are not deliberately breaking their laws.  We’ve won!”
(breakout three)
How to get there
Fly direct to Kupang from Surabaya or Denpasar. Rote is connected by two ferry services.  Confusingly these leave and arrive in different ports.
The express ferry takes about 90 minutes from New Port in Kupang to Ba’a. It’s only for passengers and light goods. It stays dockside when seas are rough. Timetables can be elastic, so check beforehand.
 The slow boat (four hours) leaves from Pantai Baru and carries vehicles.  Wings Air flies daily.
About 120,000 people live on Rote making their living from fishing and farming. One quarter of one per cent are Sama Bajo.
Surfers head for Nembrala south of Ba’a. A small resort can organise everything from tickets to diving gear at rates starting from US $185 (Rp 2.4 million) per person per day.  Lower cost accommodation is reported to be available.
The island ring road is generally good and uncrowded, but little public transport.  Unless you’re a flexible knockabout traveller, best plan well ahead.
What to buy
Ikat cloth made by native Rotenese is beautiful and cheap with regional designs.  See weaving in Ba’a’s cultural village.  Also handcrafted silverware and the sasando, a stringed instrument made from Lontar palms.  The music is memorable.

(First published in The Jakarta Post - J Plus 13 August 2016

Friday, August 12, 2016


When trade worlds collide          

The street peddlers who hawk kitchenware, garden plants and sweet pastries have no Javanese word for ‘disposable income’.  But they can sniff money, which is not too difficult when the carports are full.
Twenty-five years ago during the Asian boom, Sawojajar was just another ricefield on the outskirts of Malang, the ancient Indonesian hilltown - population one million.  Developers slapped asphalt on the richest volcanic soil in the world and knocked up crude terrace housing. They flogged two-bed homes at 20 per cent interest to young couples who’d broken with tradition: both worked.
The buyers represented another new demographic with no easy translation: Upwardly mobile.
Change accelerated when their ambitious offspring headed for the city’s 28 tertiary institutions. Previous generations had rarely gone beyond high school. Now the kids are in the workforce; they’ve moved from two wheels to four and park the babes with the oldies while working long shifts.
So extra storeys have been added and individual designs smothered sameness. Other tastes are changing: Three new boutique bakeries sell to locals who once ate only rice. The supermarket stocks yoghurt and iced coffee – unknown last year.
Enlarge by 60 million and this is the much-hyped ‘emerging middle-class’ whose accounts Australia is desperate to open but has yet to find the passwords.  The exceptions are grains (competing with Russia), milk powder, meat (now also from India) and a few niche foods.
Last year former Trade Minister Andrew Robb led the “biggest ever” delegation of 360 hungry traders to Java, all keen to partner.
Nine months later there are few births to announce. Australia-Indonesia Business Council President Debnath Guharoy, a man who has been more hard-nosed than most in his assessments of the hurdles, tried to be upbeat:
“While the feedback (from delegation) participants was very positive, there is no formal survey to back up any claims,” he told this writer.
“Robb's visit stirred Australia's lacklustre involvement with Indonesia … and more of our exporters are engaged.  New entrants from our non-traditional sectors are exploring investment opportunities … ranging from electricity to e-commerce, shipbuilding to tourism.
“Perth's Oropesa signed an MOU in Palembang to develop a new port in the Special Economic Zone. Others are looking at similar opportunities in the infrastructure arena.
“Existing investors … are adding hundreds of millions in dollars to their current operations across the country. Good news, getting better.”
But is it?  ‘Engaged’, ‘exploring’, ‘looking’ are euphemisms for failure.  Businesses that nail major deals usually trumpet success to investors – but the orchestra has been curiously mute. 
There are many reasons but two harsh facts remain deeply embedded: Our neighbors are protectionist and we are free traders.

The second is Indonesian pride and fear.
The nation of 250 million desperately wants to be seen as a big guy on the world stage.  But when it has to import rice (it was once a major exporter), the dream of self-sufficiency fades to black.
While reluctantly offloading containers, Indonesia dreads reliance on its Western neighbor for food and energy, worried the archipelago could be economically drowned and its farmers ruined.  This is Indonesia’s version of our asylum seeker nightmare and just as politically potent.
Last year Guharoy told the media that Australia was unpopular in Indonesia because it didn’t consult, citing the sudden halt in live beef exports back in 2011.
But Indonesia isn’t popular in Australia  because it takes a fickle approach to trade, one moment dropping harbor booms against imports, the next lifting  them when stocks fall and domestic prices rise.
Seeking stability Australia still publicly reckons a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is possible.  Negotiations collapsed three years ago but were cranked up again in March.
Till this month the signs were sunny.  Trade Minister Thomas Lembong, 45, was a Harvard-educated urbane banker who knew how to talk business in a language all understood.
He visited Australia, said an agreement was on its way and seemed to charm all he met.  Though not back in the Republic. The Australian effused he was an ‘apostle of liberalisation’ which was probably the kiss of death in a legislature and bureaucracy favouring tariff and tolls above competition. 
Lembong also failed to keep food prices down (an impossible task in an ill-disciplined and corrupt nation) so was flicked sideways.  He lasted just 11 months, his protectionist predecessor Rachmat Gobel, four weeks less.
News of Lembong’s replacement by Enggartiasto Lukita, 64, brought this scathing attack from The Jakarta Post’s managing editor Rendi Witular:   
“A veteran politician with a questionable past and no slight expertise in both domestic and international commerce (who) crawled up the national ladder” through property deals.  He was a member of the “graft-ridden budget committee.”
Witular added: “For the first time in more than a decade, Indonesia has a trade minister with no international business network and who lacks the eloquence in English to sway his international counterparts during trade negotiations.”
Lukita’s opposite number is also a newcomer.  Steve Ciobo replaced Robb (who retired from politics) in the new government and almost immediately headed to Jakarta waving a ‘position paper’ called Two Neighbours: Partners in Prosperity.
The jargon proposes more people-to-people links because “there are vast, untapped areas of complementarity.” There’s no Javanese word for that either.
No counterpart document has come from the Indonesians. A similar paper was produced earlier this decade with no discernible result.
Ciobo, a lawyer and Liberal politician for the past 15 years, came out of the meeting with Lukita saying nothing of value other than he had nothing to say.  
Despite the changes in personnel Indonesia and Australia continue to claim they want a free trade deal by the end of 2017. By then there’ll be a new minister in Jakarta with another ideology, and headlines from Canberra will be shouting: Trade Deal Soon.
Meanwhile back in Sawojajar no-one has time for reports or gala dinners. They just get in and meet the needs.

 (First published in New Mandala 12 August 2016 - see:

Tuesday, August 09, 2016


The spores of success            

Like many farmers Sumadi is a man of few words but many thoughts. More pensive than dour; a stranger to puffery and pessimism.
Just one complaint: Though a diligent Muslim he never seemed to get ahead.  He also worked hard providing for his wife and six children in the village of Plumpungrejo near Blitar in East Java.
He runs a small earthenware business making garden pots and other domestic objects from clay mined nearby and fired in the yard behind his house.
He does this so well that he gets asked to stage workshops and lectures on his techniques.  Even so a breakthrough remained elusive - until one night about four years ago.
When the light got too low to work he wandered inside and turned on the television, just to relax.
A program on growing mushrooms caught his imagination, mainly because the featured farmer said he’d earned enough money to go on the Hajj.
Making the pilgrimage to Mecca was an ambition Sumadi had long harbored - but one he’d never reach on the Rp 7 million (US$540) monthly earnings from his pottery.   The program hadn’t been recorded, so next day he headed to Blitar and bought a book on fungiculture.
Two years later he was in Saudi Arabia circumambulating the Kaaba and throwing stones at the devil, all bills paid using mushroom money.
Surely a shining example of enterprise that must have attracted the government’s business promoters?  “No, nothing,” he said. “No interest.”
When offered congratulations for thinking laterally and investing wisely he replied: “No, thank you. My success is the will of God.”
If so then the Deity chose the right vessel for His wisdom because Sumadi is a careful planner who has taught himself the tricky art of mushroom cultivation.

“There are so many factors involved,” he said.  “It looks simple and easy; it’s not. The temperature, light, materials and humidity must be just right.  I’ve had up to 90 per cent success, but so far not 100 per cent.”
The capital outlay has been two windowless sheds and bamboo racks which Sumadi built with his sons. The growing medium is a mix of sawdust and rice husks which he wraps in plastic to make a bottle-shape bag. 
On one end the plastic is crimped with a rubber band round a collar.  The other end is left open.  All materials have been scavenged.
The containers are then stacked inside a big tank and steam sterilized for several hours. 
This term suggests scientists wearing hazmat suits measuring microbes, but this is backblock Indonesia where conditions are raw.

Nonetheless Sumadi’s system works.  The mycelium harvested from other mushrooms is stored in bottles and then poured into the bags.  These are then stacked horizontally on the racks and within a few days – or weeks depending on the weather – the big white oyster mushrooms sprout.
And what a spectacle.  Hundreds of plate-size fungi, clean as virgin snow, ready for harvest.
Now the downside.  The mushrooms have a shelf life of only two days.  Because East Java’s rural roads are too narrow and congested the fungiculturist is limited to selling in nearby towns.
Sumadi said he’d like to expand and market in cities like Malang and Surabaya. He has the space and the smarts.  He also seems to have the capital. But fixing the flawed infrastructure that limits rural ventures is beyond his control

Killer mushrooms
There must have been many trials and even more errors as our ancestors wandered nature’s supermarket. 
Bad choice could be fatal. One fungus might be edible, another toxic.  Some are hallucinogenic.
The oyster mushroom is found in much of the temperate and tropical world growing on decaying trees. It kills and digests roundworms and is one of the few known carnivorous fungi.
Canny woodsmen probably discovered it was safe by watching animals nibble and survive.
It wasn’t till the First World War that cultivation began in Germany during food shortages, with growing techniques brought to Indonesia in the 1980s.
Agus Heri Santoso, head of nutrition in the National Government’s Politeknik Kesehatan Kemenkes Malang (Malang Health Department Polytechnic) reckons mushrooms are magic.
“It’s a high protein low-calorie food full of vitamins and minerals,” he said. “Mushrooms reduce triglycerides (created by excess calories) and cholesterol.  They help with the immune system so assist the anti-ageing process.”
A sentence of caution:  While the scientific literature backs the nutritionist’s claims, it also warns that some people have a hypersensitive reaction to the food. 

Santoso (right) is a trim 49 but looks younger. Because he eats mushrooms? Hard to tell, for his diet includes vegetables, fish, cereals and milk.  As a role model for his 150 students he exercises and doesn’t smoke. So any one or all factors could be responsible.
With his colleagues he’s experimenting with mushroom nuggets which include chicken.
“Balanced foods have to compete with processed products containing preservatives and promoted on TV – which is where many people get their information,” he said.
“Mushrooms have a low image.  They are seen as meals of the poor, yet paradoxically widely used in high class cuisine overseas
“As youngsters we ate foods straight from the field. That’s now rare. I want Indonesians to eat their own produce wherever possible and not rely on factory fare.
“Many new home industries can be developed, like growing mushrooms.  As scientists we must share our knowledge and work together with farmers.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 August 2016)