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

Saturday, October 29, 2016


Red for a black May day                                                                    

He was 700 kilometers from the action and wasn’t involved politically or ethnically.  But Anthony Wibowo felt anger and a deep sense of injustice when he heard the TV news.
On 12 May 1998 riots had erupted in Jakarta.  They followed similar outbreaks in Medan (North Sumatra) and triggered violence in Solo, Central Java and other cities. 
The outrages preceded the 21 May resignation of President Soeharto, the end of his despotic New Order government and start of transition to democracy.
More than 1,000 looters and others are estimated to have died, and almost 200 women raped, triggering an exodus of Chinese families to Singapore and Australia.
“I felt mad because humanity was being wounded,” the East Java artist said.  “I didn’t know the victims, but I got goosebumps when watching the news.  I felt powerless.  All I could do was paint.  So I worked throughout the night and by dawn was exhausted.”
The result is Mei Merah (Red May) a large abstract canvas in pastel ochre and carmine (see above). It could be a vast jumble of body parts, the trash from an emergency operating theater – or maybe an orgy.  Or, more simply, a jigsaw.
Individual clues, like fingers, limbs and faces are rare – and even when identified could be interpreted otherwise.
Overall it’s a powerful and chilling work, and the fact that it still hangs in Wibowo’s lounge suggests only an avant-garde gallery or overseas collector would want it on their wall.
Why red and not black?  “It was certainly a dark moment in Indonesia’s recent history,” he said. “But black is the symbol of death – it means everything has finished.

“Despite all this I remain an optimist.  I’m not worried if people like it or don’t.  Whether it gets sold or not – well, I don’t care.  I paint for myself.”  However later he added: “I also paint to build a relationship with the viewer.”
Meanwhile upstairs in his studio only accessed by a hazardous staircase, a large portrait is being created of Siti Hartinah, otherwise known as Ibu Tien. 
The second president’s late wife, widely believed to be the power behind the throne, died two years before her husband quit the Palace. Javanese traditionalists believe that her passing weakened the leader and opened the way to Reformation.
It’s a commissioned work and the otherwise open Wibowo either doesn’t know or won’t say where it’s destined to be hung.  As it shows the dimple-cheeked lady looking empathetic, the buyer is clearly an admirer – perhaps hoping to do business with a dynasty that allegedly still retains authority and influence.
As a child Wibowo was a graffiti kid, obsessed with drawing on flat surfaces like hospital walls and roads.  However in those days he was limited to charcoal so rain soon washed away his art.
When he got married to Endang Marhaeni 44 years ago Wibowo told his parents and in-laws that he’d be able to support his new wife and future family.  (The couple have three children).
He wanted to do this through art but the elders reckoned this was a career with limited prospects.  So he trained as an educator at what is now the Malang State University.  He then used his pedagogical skills to teach art at private schools for about ten years.
He moved to Bali and returned to Malang in 1979.

Apart from stints in classrooms and a couple of years designing furniture he’s been able to make what appears to have been a reasonable living.
That’s the impression from the state of the handsome house he built in the village of Lesanpuro on the outskirts of Malang two decades ago.  It doesn’t shriek wealth like the villas of business tycoons advertising they’re cashed up; there’s a motorbike in the yard not a Land Cruiser.
Writhing exotics, canopies and creepers share the garden with artefacts and statues – including one from the 15th century Majapahit era, blossom-strewn like a shrine. Twisted timbers on one wall – a plough, or a cross?
There are no buildings behind so unrestricted light floods his workplace.  Future obstructions are unlikely, for the slope outside is a public cemetery.  Proximity to the dead seems to spook Javanese, though not Wibowo despite one grave containing the remains of a relative.
The house is culturally nailed to the lower Western slope of Mount Semeru, Java’s highest peak (3,676 meters), daily dusting the lush landscape with fine volcanic ash.  It’s close to the Luhur Dwijawarsa Hindu shrine deep in the forest, and many mosques.  Altogether a multi-faith environment.
Wibowo, 70, is a jolly fellow, an elder of the energetic Malang Art Community, often acting as an adjudicator. He’s exhibited locally and in Surabaya and Denpasar.
His dad was a public servant, soldier and folk seer with a relaxed attitude towards organized religion.  So when his wide-reading son decided to convert from Islam apparently few were fussed.  “Father only said: ‘If you are going to be a Catholic, then be a good one’.”
Since then Wibowo’s faith has influenced his work though it would be wrong to label him a religious artist as his themes are eclectic, swinging from Biblical parable to comment on sexual stereotypes and references to Javanese mysticism.
“My artistic hero was Vincent Van Gogh (the 19th century Dutch post impressionist who also used color as emotion),” he said. “Fortunately I don’t suffer the turmoil he felt.   Degas, Monet and Picasso have also influenced me.
“I’m not really a perfectionist but I know when my work is finished.  I don’t keep revisiting and retouching. Nor do I like being put into boxes like expressionist or traditionalist.  These are Western categories imposed by academics.
“The function of a painting is to reflect the reality of life, which includes suffering and beauty.  I don’t want the viewer to talk about art, but about life.  I hope those who see my work will feel and share my experience.”
Many of his subjects are women, young and old, and not always externally beautiful.  He gets upset about their objectification by society and the way politicians propose laws that victimize females in issues such as pornography, but leave men alone.
“Maybe having artistic talent is a blessing because I can express myself when confronted by serious and unpredictable events, like the May 1998 riots,” he said.
“At least I can draw attention to the need for responsibility in society and how we can determine values.”

((First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2016


Saturday, October 22, 2016


Marketing Majapahit      
It’s the standard overseas tourist circuit: Kuta to surf and drink, Jakarta to marvel at a functioning dysfunctional city, Yogyakarta to be Borobudured and Surabaya to mount Bromo. Then back to Bali. Duncan Graham recommends adding Trowulan in East Java to the list, center of the fabled Majapahit Empire.

Whenever the late environmental educator Suryo Prawiroatmodjo spoke about Majapahit he carefully checked his audience.  If he felt some were hostile he’d tone down his enthusiasm for the kingdom that ruled much of Southeast Asia from around 1293 to 1527.

According to the Nagarakretagama (right) written in 1365 by the poet Prapanca, Majapahit’s tributaries included  present-day IndonesiaSingaporeMalaysiaBrunei, southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines.
 “It was the Golden Era for Java and some fundamentalists fear it may return so oppose any teaching,” Suryo once said. “Majapahit religions were Buddhist and Hindu, with the two co-existing.  They pre-dated Islam – and extremists think temples and other monuments should be destroyed.”
In 1985 terrorists bombed Borobudur in Central Java, damaging stupa.  There were no human casualties.
Now three years after Suryo’s death acceptance of Indonesian ancient history is gaining ground. Leaders of a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) visiting the Trowulan Museum in East Java with their young students were adamant that there were no problems learning about idolatrous faiths that once dominated the land and its people. This was not an isolated example.

There’s even a 22-meter long reclining Buddha in a nearby village that claims to be the biggest in the archipelago.  Originally built for local Buddhists it’s now open to the public for a Rp 2,000 (US$0.15) ticket and attracting big crowds – the majority women wearing jilbab (headscarves) and their families.
Majapahit has moved even further into the 21st century.  It’s no longer a quaint slice of history reserved for scholars.  It’s becoming a marketing opportunity.
In the village of Bejijong about two kilometers from the museum, a craft village is manufacturing bronze Majapahit artefacts and souvenirs, carving statues and producing scaled-down terracotta monuments mimicking the originals.
Fancy a delicate Hindu deity dancing on your mantelpiece? If that’s too subtle by-pass the Joneses with a two-tonne figure of Vishna riding Garuda dominating your suburban garden and getting the neighbors head scratching: If that monster is ancient and precious they really must have won the lottery.  
You thought the piggy-bank a European invention named after the Old English word pygg for potters’ clay?  The Majapahit folk were saving their Chinese coins in similar pots long before the British arrived in the archipelago with their sovereigns - though maybe the idea came through trade.
Little pottery piggies are popular with tourists, along with life-size ones for those with enough coin. 

Most products go to Bali according to Mi’un (left) who employs 11 men in his backyard workshop.  They make figurines using the lost-wax method of casting in a mould made from a wax model.
“I’ve had no formal training,” he said.  “I started the business back in the 1970s after watching others and then developed my techniques.”
These are basic enough and little different from those used by craftsmen six centuries ago apart from gas burners to melt the copper and zinc.
Now becoming trendy are door knockers, handles and other household fittings inspired by the Majapahit era.  If you’d like your new home with air-conditioning and hot water to look like an ancient Javanese dwelling then Bejijong is the place to shop.
Sir Stamford Raffles, governor general of the Dutch East Indies between 1811 and 1816, discovered remnants of the forgotten era in Trowulan’s dense teak forests. He realised its historical and cultural importance and called it ‘the pride of Java’. It was originally known as Wilwatika and probably covered 100 square kilometers.
 Mapping and restoration was continued by the Dutch, and is still underway with visitors able to peer at digs from covered walkways. A large bathing pool called Kolam Tikus wasn’t found till 1914. Nearby is the remarkable split gate Gapura Bajang Ratu.
The temples were the most substantial sites of brick and andesite, but the ordinary workers’ homes did not survive.
The original timber buildings have disappeared under meters of volcanic ash from nearby cones, particularly Mount Kelud, and flooding of the Brantas River. Much of the town was apparently razed during a war in1478.
However floors of bricks, some hexagons though mostly rectangular, wellheads and earthenware water tanks have been excavated.
Fortunately carvings on nearby temples featuring fantasy dragons and scenes from epic tales also include everyday scenes.  These show the small houses used at the time, mainly for sleeping as cooking was conducted outside.
A typical low-roof dwelling would be about five by three meters.  The frame was timber, the walls bamboo, the roof tiled and the main entrance a double door.  These pavilions have been replicated as facades on existing homes lining the streets of Bejijong.
According to the Balai Pelestarian Peninggalan Purbakala (Archaeological Heritage Conservation Center) the craft village idea came from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and was completed in 2014. 
The Rp 16.3 billion (US$ 1.25 million) project includes other villages, but it seems little or nothing has been allocated for promotion. There isn’t even a website.
When this writer visited he was the sole outsider in Bejijong and learned of its whereabouts through a casual conversation with a museum worker.
The Nagarakretagama history has detailed information about Trowulan.  It was written in spider script on long slices of papyrus leaves.  It is recognized by UNESCO on the Memory of the World register and is now housed in the National Library in Jakarta.  However it’s not the only indicator that Majapahit dominated the region.
Wood rots and metals rust, but ceramics survive – even under water.  Porcelain plates from China, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere have been found at Trowulan and on display in the museum.  

Majapahit, also known as Mojopahit (bitter fruit) is named after the Bael tree, or Golden Apple, common in the area and sacred to Hindus.
How to get there
Trowulan is about three hours drive from Malang in the southeast, and a similar distance from Surabaya to the north. It’s just a brief stroll off the main highway linking Mojokerto with Jombang and well signposted.
Chauffeured cars are available in both cities for around Rp 450,000 (US$ 35) a 12-hour day plus fuel and meals for the driver.
Public transport is available but best used by the adventurous with their wallets well secured. The slightly more expensive (around Rp 25,000 (US$ 2.0) big air-conditioned long distance busses are safer.  The drivers drop off passengers at any point on request.
The sites in Trowulan are not in one place so best use a becak (pedicab) to get around – and preferably early as the fields get hot by noon with rain often following later.  Some temples near Kediri are further afield and need a car to visit.
The museum is usually crowded with school visits during the week.  The staff are friendly but few speak English. Some of the displays have poor English translations so best to research before you go.
Despite its international significance (an application has been made for UNESCO registration) 

Trowulan’s potential as a must visit for overseas tourists has yet to be realized. 
The upsides mean harga turis (tourist prices) are rare and visitors are generally free to roam without being hassled by bumptious officials and trinket sellers.
The excitement comes from seeing the temple carvings and realising these were people just like us, loving, building, worshipping, trading – and hoping for a pass to heaven.
It also comes from wandering a landscape which was once the center of a thriving, rich and creative civilisation knowing that a meter below the rich volcanic soils lie treasures yet to be discovered.
Pix – credit Erlinawati Graham

First published in J Plus The Jakarta Post 22 October 2016


Abandon reason all ye who enter here
May the Deity’s goodness bathe your brow and trickle down your shoulders.  Oh blessed one, my most excellent friend, you who are so fortunate, to be reading this edition of J-Plus. 
As foreseen with my third eye you are special above all, chosen by the celestial spirits with whom I commune.  You alone will share in great riches and marvels beyond imagination.
Now follow these instructions carefully. Go to the bank and buy a thousand dollars, ten $100 uncreased bills. Borrow from your neighbors if you can’t afford, they’ll raze, sorry, praise you later.
Put the notes in an envelope for my courier to collect.
Within ten days he’ll be back with a parcel for you containing – wait for it – fifty $100 bills.  What will you do with all that wealth?  Friends and family will bless you forever.  Your name will be sung in paddy and palace, chanted in market and mosque. 
Farewell.  I go hence to my mountain retreat, meditating with seven nubile handmaidens. I await my messenger. Peace.
US pollsters and academics wonder why few facts feature in the presidential campaign.  The reason is simple; journalists winnow the past for grains of truth among the chaff, but the candidates dwell in a separate fact-free universe: The future. 
This is an unexplored land. 
American electors who’ve convinced themselves there’ll be jobs for all in a booming economy fenced off from Muslims and Mexicans simply by filing a ballot-paper are little different from the clients of Indonesian cult leader Dimas Kanjeng.
His followers don’t call themselves Democrats or Republicans but Padepokan.  They’re not centered in Washington DC but Probolinggo, East Java.  Apart from the names and geographical distances they’re still in the same business – planting dreams in the desert of tomorrow.
Despite a lack of yellow hair Pak Kanjeng is a stand-out figure in spotless white, slashed by a sash of authority secured by a broach of mysticism, all topped by a regal turban.  Magnificent!  A headdress needs to be spacious to contain the brains beneath.
Like ‘Make America Great’ the message must be clear and simple:  ‘You will get rich – life will be better.’  Don’t ask how – details are for disbelievers.  Believe in me. You trusted your Pop when a toddler - didn’t he have all the answers?
Small wonder scientists have problems explaining global warming.  Will rising seas drown my house?  ‘On the balance of probabilities, maybe. The modelling tends to indicate a trend.’
We planned an exclusive interview with Pak Kanjeng, 46, who was educated at an Islamic University in Malang. Unfortunately he recently moved from his luxury mansion to a down-market address. 
He’s actually a guest of the authorities who allege – along with charges of murder and blasphemy – that he’s filched Rp 1.5 billion (US$115,500) from his devotees.. 
He did this, say the cops, by convincing around 3,000 credulous citizens that he could multiply money. Investigators claim they confiscated 500 bars of gold, each of one kilogram. Total value - about $21 million.
Hopefully  this evidence is safely secured ready for the trial, not like the mysterious cyanide crystals at the center of another legal event. 
Along with the bullion was local and foreign currency made in a ‘magic box’. Its dimensions are similar to a ballot box.
Kanjeng, like Clinton, Trump and all other guarantors of glory has, his accusers claim,  mastered the ancient arts of alchemy.  One it was turning lead into gold.  Now it’s the transmutation of ticks on slips into a fantasy world our life experience and native instinct says cannot exist.
Then add the gnawing logic which asks:  If these guys really know how to make the  poor rich why have they waited so long? If they’ve found the Eldorado why share with strangers? 
When I’m handed the elixir of life be sure I’ll first be fermenting a brew for family and friends before the formulae goes on Creative Commons.
Pak Kanjeng will be answerable to his critics in a few weeks time, Ms Clinton and Mr Trump on 8 November. Here’s a promise that I guarantee: At least one will be heading for a four-year sentence. Trust me.
First published in J-Plus, The Jakarta Post 22 October 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016


The grit that made Nengah great                                                    

She wasn’t just the smallest person in the group; the petite Indonesian power lifter was clearly the most fragile.
There wouldn’t have been a man under 100 kilos among the early morning crowd of sports fanatics.  Most were well wrapped in heavy jackets stamping their feet against the cold sweeping the open ground where young runners were preparing for a major contest.
It was a blustery Sunday in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and athlete Ni Nengah Widiasih was shivering in her thin red and white nylon top.
At the time she was 22 and from memory weighed 39 kilos.  She didn’t complain, just laughed and windmilled her arms.  Foot stamping was out.
Suddenly her single crutch slipped on the wet grass and she tumbled onto the touchline.  The men rushed to assist but she waved them away.
Awkwardly and slowly she struggled upright, recovered her stick and her dignity while the embarrassed onlookers wrestled with their consciences. 
Big fit blokes ignoring a distressed maiden’s plight - whatever happened to chivalry? But what could we do when the victim was so intent on being independent?
That minor incident showed the measure of the woman who is now the nation’s champion having won Indonesia’s only medal at the Paralympics. To get her bronze she lifted 95 kilos – that’s more than twice her bodyweight, or to put it simply, five full water-cooler bottles.
For the new hero of the Republic has the DIY (Do It Yourself) spirit and the qualities New Zealanders admire – grit and resolve.  She’s a poet (this lady is multi-talented) and embodies the lyrics of the old Nat King Cole song Pick Yourself Up:
Don't lose your confidence / If you slip / Be grateful for a pleasant trip                               And pick yourself up / Dust yourself off / And start all over again.
Since 1893 when NZ became the first country in the world to give all adults the vote regardless of gender women have asserted their rights for equality in every branch of society, government, business, the professions, the military and sport. 
Former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, who spends her holidays tramping mountains, is a contender for Secretary General of the United Nations, the top job in the world body.
The Balinese weightlifter’s determination to be mistress of her own destiny made her an honorary Kiwi, adding to her glittering collection of medals from contests around the world.
Nengah believes she contracted polio as a four-year-old in the isolated Balinese village of Karangasem through a doctor’s dirty syringe.  She was so badly crippled she could only crawl.  She seemed doomed to live out a short life in poverty and pain, illiterate, unemployable, a burden on her family, getting no government help.
Everything changed when she met Latra from the Yakkum Foundation rehabilitation center on a quest to discover handicapped people who needed help. 
Nengah was sent to Yakkum in Yogya, got callipers, had an operation to help correct her twisted leg and spent two months in hospital. After physiotherapy she returned home, started school and took up power lifting, a sport her brother I Gede Suanta had also entered.
Yakkum was started in 1982 by the late Colin McLennan a visitor from Wellington appalled by the sight of handicapped children working as beggars – something he’d never seen in his homeland.
The Indonesian non-government organization partnered with another NGO, the NZ Rehabilim Trust supported by members of the public who love Indonesia.
The Trust is chaired by businessman Bill Russell who runs a consortium of NZ tertiary institutions offering education to Indonesians. He invited Nengah to visit and see world-class facilities for the disabled, including purpose-built classrooms, special sports grounds and horse riding for the disabled.
The results of that government care are shown in the Rio statistics:  NZ (population 4.5 million) sent 203 athletes to the main games and 28 to the Paralympics.  They won four gold, nine silver and five bronze in the Olympics, and in the Paralympics nine gold, 5 silver and seven bronze medals.
Indonesia (population 240 million) fielded 28 sports stars to the Olympics where it collected one gold and two silver, all in badminton.
Nine athletes attended the Paralympics where the only medal was won by Nengah.  She also gained a Rp 1 billion (US $76,400) purse from President Joko Widodo for making the nation proud.  She will also get a monthly allowance of Rp 10 million (US$ 764).
Nengah has told friends she’ll use the money to help her family have a better life. It’s a most justified reward, but raises the question: 
If government thank-you funds can be found after athletes have climbed the peak alone, imagine the medal tally if serious support is given when their skills are just emerging.
Logically there must be thousands of talented Indonesians with the potential to compete joyfully and honorably against the global superstars. As the world’s fourth most populous nation Indonesia could be giving China and the US a fright on the field and in the pool.
Right now in villages across the archipelago like Karangasem, little kids with limitless faith in their abilities are dashing down roads, splashing across rivers, leaping fences and throwing balls.  To rise above the rest they need coaches and facilities.
A 2014 report by the Demographic Institute at the University of Indonesia estimated that between ten and 15 per cent of the population is handicapped.  Among those citizens must be millions wanting to excel whatever their chosen field.
Will the government provide the chance?  Opportunities like those given by Yakkum to Nengah – now setting her hopes on another medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 October 2016)


Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Bamboo bender hits the highway                            

The bamboo bends but does not break.
Zen Buddhists promote the ancient proverb because the image is rooted to a familiar sight in the tropics during heavy weather.
The perennial evergreen grass springs upright once the storms have passed.  Which is encouraging for those confronting crises and who like metaphors, though not for Malang artist Chamim Marka. 
He’s the sort of guy who thrives on clambering over self-grown thickets because success means gainsaying sceptics and naysayers.
Not that he does so in a Donald Trump cocksure way.  Bering a Javanese with a strong sense of politeness laced with mysticism he doesn’t bluster, brag or dismiss.  He just contemplates – then does.

How about working a piece of wood seamlessly so one piece fits into another?  Here’s the challenge: Make a fist-sized object like a carved nut with all sides showing symmetrical patterns. 
Easy peasy – though not if it has to be carved inside a piece of coarse timber that looks as though it has been disembowelled by termites.
Graduate upwards to weird contraptions where the hooks and eyes are not separate attachments fitted together at some later date but created as the wood was carved.  Difficult?   Indeed.  Impossible? Clearly not, because Marka’s art withstands the sharpest scrutiny.

Search for the glue line and it’s not there. It’s almost a standard feature of modern handmade furniture where the backboard and sides of a sofa have been carved separately, whacked together with heavy-duty adhesives and the lot then saturated in black lacquer to hide the flaws.
“I like testing myself with difficulties,” Marka said in a workshop haunted by serpentine shapes and curious contraptions that look as though they must have some practical application
Such assumptions come not from the artist’s vision but the viewer’s expectation.  Levers and legs, nodding shapes that hint of skeletal remains; there must be purpose.  No.  There must not, other than to interpret as you will.
Till late last century Marka was working with timbers imported from Kalimantan.  As supplies shortened his concerns for the environment lengthened.  In 1998 Marka decided to work exclusively in bamboo – a commonplace multi-purpose plant and one of the hardiest.
There were just a few knobbly points to overcome.  He’d been making wooden bicycles, which is tricky.  However there were timbers bent by nature and readymade to dovetail with the artist’s imagination.
But a bamboo bike?  They exist in Ghana though usually only for the four straight pieces of the frame; the other parts are made from conventional materials.
Bamboo is light but strong and widely used as scaffolding on high-rise constructions in Indonesia.  It’s also far cheaper than aluminum and carbon fibre, the standards for high-end bikes.
Marka wanted to make the whole bike of bamboo, apart from the wheel rims and tyres. Mudguards, forks, pedals and handlebars had to be bamboo – though cow horns are often added. Now that’s a test and a half to bemuse the best and brightest.
Though not Marka who solved the problem.  The proof is in his workshop where seven bamboo bicycles await buyers at prices upwards from Rp 35 million (US$2,700).
Several have already gone to Europe, Japan, Australia and the US, said his son Jouhan Jauhari who studied at Yogyakarta’s prestigious Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Arts Institute) and makes figurines for the US comic market.
“Dad’s self-taught,” he said.  “His grandfather was also a carver.  We believe his skills have been passed down over the ages from the men who carved the temples during the Majapahit period (late 13th century till early 16th).”

And to prove it Marka has also built a Gapura Bentar (split gate) entrance to local government offices in Karangploso.  In this suburb 93 artists belong to a collective so the new building also has a splendid pendopo (open sided meeting hall) behind the gate.
Although made of concrete blocks instead of quarried stone, the gate still follows the principles of East Java temple design.  Marka has also won several public art commissions to build statues of famous figures from East Java’s classical history.
But there were no blueprints for his new venture.  Marka said he tried bending bamboo over steam and flame though without success.  Instead he resorted to forcing the bamboo to grow in certain shapes to suit his designs. 
How he did this remains a trade secret, but presumably the plant has to follow a hardwood or steel mould. A friend has a small bamboo forest some distance from the workshop where experiments are conducted.
 Fortunately bamboo is one of the world’s fastest developing plants with some varieties recorded as leaping up to a meter a day.  Yet Marka still reckons it takes about a year to get all the right curves to build a bike.
By now readers may have concluded that his objets d’art are fun pieces which might find a niche in an avant garde studio, but are otherwise impractical.  Wrong again. Marka reckons he’s covered 4,500 kilometers bambooing around East Java in the past six years.
The reasons he’s not spanned more territory aren’t difficult to find. The hard saddle could be used by intelligence authorities to extract confessions from close-lipped suspects, while the fat tyres attract nails.
The bikes also draw stares and inquiries which require halts and another coffee.  If Marka was pedalling through Europe or the US he’d probably make sales as well as miles. But in East Java he’s just another oddball in a creative rural society where quirky characters abound – and are accepted.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 October 2016)

Monday, October 10, 2016


Traditionalists versus Progressives:  Who’s winning?             

Protestants once happily belted out the mid 19th century hymn Onward Christian soldiers. It was composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan (of G & S opera fame) and has a seductively rollicking rhythm.
The sturdy language reinforced the righteousness of the singers’ beliefs. It became a Salvation Army ballad. Now it’s seldom heard –except with new lyrics.
It took more than a century for congregations to realise the gross offensiveness of the words and their opposition to teachings of love and forgiveness. Compassion had been hijacked by the military-minded who saw other beliefs as pagan lands to be colonized.
Traditionalists argued that the hymn’s roots were well embedded in Biblical tales justifying violence. It’s taken a long time for the self-styled Progressive Christians to start reinterpreting the scriptures for those who believe religions should promote peace.
Is the same thing happening with Islam in Indonesia, though extremists still use the more vengeful passages of Al Quran to justify violence?

Islamic scholar Dr Rumadi, (right) originally from Central Java, thinks similar reform may be underway. In 2008 he wrote Post Traditionalisme Islam: Wacana Intelektualisme dalam Komunitas NU. 
The book has now been translated into English as Islamic Post-Traditionalism in Indonesia. The forward by the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) Indonesia’s fourth president and former leader of the mass organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, is surprisingly critical.
He writes that the book does not cover the ‘dialogue’ between Islam and nationalism which predates the foundation of NU (in 1926), adding:
‘The attitude of viewing post-traditionalism as the essence of NU ‘revival’ is frankly quite dangerous because it can be easily misused.’
Rumadi declined to attack the comments: “Gus Dur is not wrong, of course not. But things have been changing.  Since he died (in 2009) there’s been much development of an Indonesian version of Islam that’s different from the Saudi interpretation.” 
Yet every time a progressive tries to release Islam from the intellectual prison of fundamentalist interpretations there seems to be a lashback.
President Joko Widodo recently issued a decree to establish an international Islamic campus.
“I expect this university to be a source of knowledge, Islamic studies, the moral light of Islam and a bastion of balanced Islamic values, tolerant and egalitarian Islam,” he reportedly said.
“Islam in Indonesia is like a patent medical prescription, which is moderate Islam, while other countries are still seeking the formula.”
But the dose had gone wrong in North Sumatra where Buddhists were picking over the ashes of their temples allegedly firebombed by an enraged mob. News reports said the men had reacted after a Chinese woman complained about noise from a nearby mosque.
It’s not just non-Muslims who get offended by high-volume calls to prayer; Vice President Jusuf Kalla is on record asking mosques to remember that at least 25 million Indonesians follow other faiths and turn down their amplifiers for azan.
Tolerance goes beyond accepting all have a right to peace.  The next logical position is that respecting other beliefs dilutes commitment to your own which opens the door to doubts. For some that’s a step too far.  For others it can be exciting to have their views tested – yet still hold strong.
Eight years ago the little-known Cirebon-based Fahmina Institute based on the ‘religious and intellectual practices of traditional Indonesian Islamic boarding schools’ produced Rumadi’s book.

The English translation by Melbourne University academic Rebecca Lunnon released this year gives Rumadi’s study an international readership. It has been published by Singapore’s prestigious Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, recognising the book’s importance in understanding Indonesian Islam as interpreted through the NU prism. 
Although the prose reads well the free flow of the text falters when it hits the speed bumps of names of minor players. Their contributions could have been left to endnotes.
There is also much attention given to tiny points of difference, leading to the assumption that some discussions are more peacock displays of individuals’ erudition than genuine attempts to find answers.
Just as medieval Christian scholars debated the number of angels that could dance on a pin, some schools of Islam (and other faiths) need to get back to the basics of family, morality, worldly purpose and the afterlife – if there is one.
Rumadi, 46, is not a polemicist.  He used to be involved with the Jakarta-based Wahid Institute, a research center founded by Gus Dur, so his writing is not impartial, a fact he acknowledges. 
There are no references in his book to Muhammadiyah (founded 1912), the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia with around 30 million mainly urban members – a fact readers must constantly keep in mind.
The author lectures in Islamic law at UIN in Jakarta and is also a Commissioner at the government’s National Information Commission in Jakarta.
His education has been entirely in Indonesia and includes a PhD from the State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta.   His reputation and analytical skills could be enhanced with overseas qualifications, preferably from a secular campus.
Despite these handicaps Rumadi, 46, has the courage to get stuck into NU.  Publishing criticisms can be dangerous. His friend Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, founder of the Liberal Islamic Network got death threats and a letter bomb after writing in the newspaper Kompas about ‘rejuvenating Islamic understanding’ an article some considered heretical.
Rumadi said he’d had no problems even though writing: ‘The NU theological structure … is unable to wrestle with the wild anarchy of meaning, fails to accommodate rapidly changing social dynamics and is too fragile to be the foundation for social empowerment towards a more social, humanitarian and democratic society.’
Hope for peaceful co-existence now lies, though not exclusively, with the Islam Nusantara (Islam of the Archipelago) movement.  This has been established by NU since Rumadi’s original book was written.
It aims to develop ‘Indonesian as well as Islamic society, improving the welfare of lower classes of society, building democracy and fundamental justice, and expanding peace and non-violence throughout the world.’ Onward, faithful peacemakers.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 October 2016)

Friday, October 07, 2016


Love me, love my language                                                      
The Central Intelligence Agency’s human resources section doubtless had a busy summer clicking through undergraduate language enrolments.  Much the same was underway in Britain at the Joint Intelligence Committee.
When the students eventually get to toss their mortar boards in the air, the CIA and JIC will be calculating: Will there be enough speakers of Arabic, Chinese and Russian to fill upcoming vacancies for spooks and diplomats?
The rule of tongue is that one in five foreign language starters will graduate with high level fluency.  As around 35,000 have chosen Arabic in the US this year, the catchment area by decade’s end should be about 7,000.
Not a lot when few will fancy a career spooling through days and nights  of blurred closed-circuit TV tapes  just to spot the second when the missile codes change hands.
But that Arabic talent pool is an inland sea when compared to the Indonesian puddle. For currently only 300 American students have an interest in the language used in the world’s fourth most populous country, (250 million), plus Malaysia’s 30 million next door.
US foreign affairs strategists recognize that the biggest economy and largest nation in Southeast Asia is of critical global importance.  Indonesia straddles the Equator and sees a third of the world’s shipping slip between its 17,000 islands.  The Republic’s geopolitical position and influence is particularly important in helping monitor Sino aggression in the South China Sea. 
All that seems reason enough to know terabytes more about the sprawling Archipelago, understand its history, culture and identity, its nationalistic strengths and military weaknesses.
However the responsibility of amassing the expertise to competently read regional moods, analyse trends and provide sound advice to policy makers has been outsourced to America’s ANZUS partners – Australia and New Zealand.
Maybe not such a smart idea. Kiwi universities no longer teach Indonesian cultural studies or the language.  That leaves NZ’s big sister, much closer to the former Dutch East Indies, as the one best suited to be sentinel.
Curiously the watchman has lost interest and started to slumber. A sharp prod is needed if the Great South Land is to keep its US Deputy Sheriff badge, awkwardly self-awarded by former Prime Minister John Howard.  That was when George W Bush was in the White House and the two men in lockstep over containing Middle East conflicts.
Once it was different.
Back in the 1970s Australians were encouraged to learn more about their northern neighbor, and not primarily for reasons of defence and trade.  They responded enthusiastically for the images were all benign – cheap holidays in knock-out landscapes, friendly folk, tolerant faiths and a heroic past glimpsed through mysterious temples and unique arts. 
Exotic Asia at the end of the aerobridge, breakfast in Perth and lunch in Denpasar with no wristwatch adjustments required. Wags claimed Bali had become a suburb of the Western Australian capital.
Specialists in Indonesian politics, history and culture joined Canberra’s Australian National University, Monash in Melbourne, Murdoch in Perth and other top campuses.
The traditional centres of excellence at Leiden in the Netherlands and Cornell in the US were being eclipsed by scholars in the Antipodes, often working with Indonesian post-graduates.
This rosy arrangement bloomed anew in 1998 when dictator Soeharto quit the presidency in the face of student fury at corruption, mismanagement and crushing of freedoms.  When calm returned the new nation set about reassembling itself as the world’s third largest democracy.
Then everything exploded.  Literally.
The 2002 Bali bomb planted by Islamic extremists shattered ideas of a peaceful Islam and killed 202 Kuta nightclubbers.  The majority were Australian.  Religious fanatics targeted Westerners in Jakarta where the Australian Embassy was hit by a one-tonne car bomb in 2004 with nine fatalities.  A year later more bombs in Bali killed 20.
Australians turned away from their neighbor and former friend, many in sadness, others in anger. How could this happen in the Island of the Gods?  Too late to remember that Hindu Bali is an aberration; the political pulse throbs in Islamic Java.
Australia knee-jerked by building a new fortress Embassy (see Strategic Review 4 April 2016) and issuing travel warnings.
The law of unforeseen outcomes then kicked in; educational tours by schools and universities were cancelled because insurance cover was either unavailable or too costly.
Youngsters had been drawn to a language which uses the Latin alphabet and considered by linguists to be relatively easy. Suddenly the kids were pushed to look elsewhere by anxious parents and confused career advisors.
Now only 1,000 high school seniors are pursuing Indonesian; the old standards of French, German and Italian have returned as favorites along with Japanese and Chinese to the distress of foreign policy planners, academics and writers who know what Australians are missing.
American born British educated epidemiologist and former Jakarta foreign correspondent Dr Elizabeth Pisani tells a story disclosing the real thinking about Indonesia driving decision-makings. 
Pisani is one of the most lucid and informed writers on Indonesia.  Her latest reviewer-acclaimed book Indonesia Etc: Exploring the improbable nation was published by Granta Books in Britain though originally offered to the Australian branch of the international conglomerate Macmillan.
In a clumsily worded and logically inconsistent rejection note, editor Alex Craig replied: “Despite our proximity to Indonesia, or perhaps because of it, there’s not a great deal of curiosity among Australians about it … it tends to fall under the zone of familiar rather than exotic.”
It seems self-evident, or as Australians say, a ‘no brainer’ not to be Asia-literate.  When old mates live far away in Europe and North America and the people next door outnumber you eleven to one it’s wise to wave, have a chat, share a joke and help keep the street clean. Simple gestures lubricate harmony – and can lead to trade.
Politicians say they deplore the decline but do little to arrest. Colin Barnett is the conservative (Liberal Party) Premier of Western Australia, a major supplier of wheat and meat to its giant neighbor. In Jakarta this year to talk trade Barnett said language is not so important because most meetings are held in English.
Educationalists and diplomats groaned in despair. 
On the other side of politics Chris Bowen, the Labor Party Federal shadow spokesman on economics, startled journalists this year by announcing he’s learning Indonesian, as though this was like nude tightrope walking – weirdly newsworthy.  It is: Only three federal politicians out of 226 are known to be fluent.
Also anxious at the decline are academics like Professor David Hill of Perth’s Murdoch University. He started the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) in 1994 to overcome ‘the substantial academic, bureaucratic, and immigration impediments that had prevented Australian students from undertaking credited semester study at Indonesian universities’.
Since then almost 2,000 have used ACICIS to learn while living in Indonesia – usually in rented rooms or boarding houses with the locals; they’ve returned with deep insights unavailable to deskbound learners in Australia.  Impressive?  That averages less than 100 a year from a country with more than a million undertaking tertiary education.
Indonesian has been classified by the Australian government as a Nationally Strategic Language.
The title sounds grand but only means that special federal funds can be given to universities teaching the topic.  Indonesian is not alone in this category; it includes Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese and Korean.
Despite this support Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Center of Indonesian Law at Melbourne University, told ABC Radio that if the current rate of decline continues Indonesian would not be an option at Australian universities within a decade.
“We're reaching a position where Germany may have more universities teaching Indonesian than Australia,” he said.  “Australia is the only western tradition country in Asia, yet it rates the lowest among all OECD countries by a long shot for second language skills.
“If current trends continue it may end up teaching very little Asian languages except to kids of an Asian background or context.”
Indonesian academic Ariel Heryanto works at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Languages.  It’s a prestige unit, internationally recognized. Yet staff cuts this year to meet lower budgets have further eroded Australia’s stockpile of language skills. 
Professor Heryanto told Strategic Review that travel warnings have been “only a small part of the story”.

“It is hard to make young Australians interested in learning Indonesian … unless that subject has some relevance to their daily life outside the school,” he said.
The Indonesian and Australian governments, plus some Indonesian communities, are trying to effect change.  The Australia-Indonesia Youth Association has branches around the country.  It’s funded by the Australian government through Foreign Affairs and Trade, and also runs the annual National Australia-Indonesia Language Awards.
In Sydney the Australia-Indonesia Association sponsors meetings, events and language competitions.  So does the Balai Bahasa Indonesia in Perth. There are similar groups in other major cities.
But Heryanto said he was “not aware of a sustained, large-scale, and strategic plan with long-term vision.
“The challenge is just too big and complex for ad hoc events and activities. The fruits of those recent attempts, if any, will not manifest anytime soon, or last long.
“Government and non-government efforts are always welcome, but they will not determine or guarantee success…it is unwise and unrealistic to take the unusual situation in the 1970s as a measure of success. All we can do is try to improve the situation gradually, with resilience, passion and patience.”
 The passion seems to have evaporated, while resilience and patience get tested every time there’s a crisis involving the two countries.
These are regular events.  In 2013 Australia was caught eavesdropping the phones of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and his wife Ani, a disclosure which opened serious diplomatic fractures, widened when Australia refused to apologize.
We don’t know what the couple said, but they were probably chatting in Javanese, which must have baffled the buggers. It’s an ancient, complex and hierarchical language with separate registers depending on the speaker and the person being addressed. It’s still widely used in homes, streets and markets.
Although Indonesian is the national formal language taught in all schools, for most it’s their second tongue. Founding president Soekarno argued with his revolutionary colleagues that if Javanese was imposed on the new Republic there’d be little chance of unity.
So trade Malay was chosen. The world would have been different had he selected English, a language he’d mastered. But that was never likely to happen; his distrust of the West was a major driver in his policy planning.
Good for goose, good for gander
While Australia is doing little to promote Indonesian language and culture, Indonesia is equally slack in getting to grips with English.
When mateship stalls at the standard street greeting of ‘Allo Mister’, whatever the foreigner’s gender, then communication collapses. 
Outside Jakarta’s elite offices and major universities quality English is rarely heard except among students from private high schools or language academies where parents pay heavily for native speakers as teachers.
The most prominent is English First a commercial franchise started in Sweden last century. It now has more than 60 branches in big cities.
Every year EF rates non English-speaking nations on their English proficiency based on on-line tests.  These claim Indonesia has ‘moderate proficiency’ with a rank of 32, below Vietnam but above Thailand.
The government-supported Indonesia-Australia Language Foundation which started in 1989 has only three centres.  It trains around 800 full timers a year, mostly serious students seeking overseas scholarships.
In the Indonesian State system English used to be compulsory in elementary schools.  Three years ago the government proposed a ban on English before high school. Deputy education and culture minister Musliar Kasim reasoned that classes should concentrate on the national tongue.
This caused a parent revolt. The compromise is that English is now an elective at elementary level.
Now most of the nation’s 50 million students first encounter the international language in junior high school; they have four hours of instruction every week, almost always from teachers who have never studied overseas.
There’s heavy reliance on grammar and rote learning.  Few kids graduate with confident communication skills and even fewer excited by the prospect of exploring further.
More than 50 percent of Indonesia’s 280,000 tertiary lecturers are unprofessional, according to Ali Ghufron Mukti, director general at the Research and Technology and Higher Education Ministry.
Public universities are restricted from employing native speakers while few private institutions offer money which would attract top teachers from overseas or even retain their own graduates. Salaries above Rp 10 million (US $750) a month are reported to be rare, even for PhDs.
For Professor Adrian Vickers in Sydney University’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies “the low standard of English remains one of the biggest barriers against Indonesia being internationally competitive.
“In academia, few lecturers, let alone students, can communicate effectively in English, meaning that writing of books and journal articles for international audiences is almost impossible.”
The facts support him: In the latest list of countries producing scholarly papers recognized by international academic institutions, Indonesia ranks 57, below Malaysia (35) and Thailand (43).
Lack of English is also threatening peace in the region where minor miscommunications can flare into major misunderstandings.  When Indonesian warships confront foreign vessels allegedly intruding into their seaspace they shout at each other in English
Five of the seven Indonesian presidents have been fluent in English. SBY (2004-14) isn’t a star turn in his homeland where he’s remembered as an indecisive figure, but in Australia he’s become an eminence grise delivering lectures – in English.
Presidents Soekarno, Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid were multilingual. The present President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has a halting grasp. He sent his sons to Singapore and Australia for their higher education.
Soft power diplomacy
In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set up in 1967, the language of communication among the 10 states is English, much to the anger of Indonesian nationalists who rightly point out that their tongue dominates the region.
If Indonesians want others to respect their language they need to do more than just rail against Western hegemony.
One of the best models of exporting culture is Alliance Francaise, the French government’s promoter of the language and everything from cuisine to culture.  Founded 133 years ago it now has branches across the world sometimes linked with consulates, as in Surabaya.
Helping the curious learn more about the French and the civilization they so strongly defend against foreign assaults is France 24 the TV station which curiously also offers an English language service in Indonesia.
The Germans have followed suit with Deutsche Welle another world-wide broadcasting service also funded by taxpayers.  As a non-profit network, programs flow smoothly, unrestricted by advertising breaks.  Schools teaching German can get showered with well-produced education materials
The most recent developer of soft diplomacy is the Chinese government through its Education Ministry.  Though only 12 years old the Confucius Institute has already had a major impact by working with education providers in other countries.
So far about 500 institutes have been established world-wide with the goal of a thousand by 2020.  The organization doesn’t just provide teaching materials; it also pays for native-speaker aides to work with classroom teachers.
Inevitably fears have been raised, particularly in the US that the CI is surreptitiously spreading communism, but so far there’s been no proof that the Institute is a political Trojan Horse.
Indonesia’s poor efforts in the game of turning overseas attitudes without using hard weaponry is Darmasiswa. This is a non-degree scholarship program run through the Department of Education and Culture.  It pays for courses at selected institutions in Indonesia.
Malang’s Malangkucecwara College of Economics [MCE] is one of 104 providers of a six-month Bahasa Indonesia bagi Penutur Asing (BIPA – Indonesian for Foreign Speakers) course.  This year students have come from Eastern Europe and Japan, though only one from the US.
By Western standards the monthly Rp 2 million (US$150) allowances are tiny though sufficient for basic living. The courses tend to attract determined polyglots unconcerned about personal comforts.
Although BIPA programs are available in some overseas countries, usually through diplomatic outposts, these offerings are just brief banner-wavings when compared to the cultural assaults of other nations.
The Indonesian news that gets onto screens and newspapers in the Anglosphere is rarely fun stuff.  Grim clips of floods and landslips, smog and traffic snarls, bizarre happenings involving politics, corruption, faith and justice combine to create an image of chaos and danger.
Indonesian artists, fashion designers (except those working with batik) and sports stars rarely get a Western following. Indonesia has no entertainment export like Korea’s K-Pop to excite the upcoming generation.
As Hollywood knows well films are an effective cultural thrust.  While heavily oppressed Iran has emerged as an active and creative film industry outside the mainstream, Indonesia cinema is largely blank.   The reasons include censorship, a dearth of skilled film makers as creative artists were distrusted during Soeharto’s 32-year reign, and low investment in the industry. 
Exceptions have been the ultra-violent box-office hits Serban Maut (The Raid) and its sequel The Raid 2.  Both featured the Indonesian martial arts of silat. They were directed by Welshman Gareth Evans
The works of the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a prolific writer who came close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, were banned in Indonesia till this century.
Indonesia has few TV documentaries and dramas to offer the world.  Its major outputs are sinetron (soap operas) produced by Indian-controlled companies.  These are based on formulaic acting and predictable scripts, pap even when measured against even the most crass sitcoms from the UK and the US. So no Indonesian versions of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Mrs Brown’s Boys to help the world giggle and gasp.
Indonesian free-to-air TV is available to those within the footprints of satellites like Palapa D.  This includes Australia.  But there is no dedicated Indonesian international service designed to promote the nation’s culture and language.
As a handy distraction from more vital issues, nationalists regularly call for foreigners working in the Republic to be fluent in Indonesian.  Last year a regulation was drafted to compel testing.  The idea was widely denounced as impractical and rapidly evaporated – to the great relief of Australians.

(First published in quarterly Strategic Review October-December 2016)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Learning about politics       

In late July Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo abruptly sacked Dr Anies Baswedan from his job as Minister for Education and Culture. Now he’s a surprise candidate for the governorship of Jakarta with the backing of the Gerindra Party led by Prabowo Subianto, the former general who made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2014.
Before he tossed his peci into the ring Baswedan spoke about his dismissal from the Ministry:
“During the following days neighbours and friends dropped by.  One said her daughter’s homework included the question: ‘Why shouldn’t the Minister for Education and Culture be reinstated?’
“This recognition has been the reward of serving the government for 21 months, though I expected 60. When I told my staff they had a new boss many cried, though I didn’t.
“The response has been astonishing. It’s like being at my own funeral and hearing the eulogies. Teachers, pupils, students everywhere, people I’ve never met, have been thanking me. ”
They’ve also been asking why the former Rector of Paramadina University handpicked by his old friend President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo to revive Indonesia’s sick education system, was politically mugged?
He had an international profile with a gold star personal and professional CV, the cerebral star of Indonesia’s Gen XHe’d been a student activist protesting the corruption of second President Soeharto’s autocracy before heading overseas as a Fulbright Scholar.

His grandfather, Abdurrahman  Baswedan had been a revolutionary hero, journalist, diplomat and minister in one of first president Soekarno’s cabinets. 


Baswedan, 47, would only say that he didn’t see the solar plexus punch coming, and hadn’t had his hand in the till.  He added that he respects the President’s decision, wants no damage done to the “dignity of the process” and that he leaves with his moral and intellectual integrity intact.

He also said he doesn’t know and didn’t ask why he was replaced by Muhadjir Effendy, 60, the former rector of Muhammadiyah University in Malang, adding philosophically: “All jobs come to an end.”
Did an acclaimed scholar fail to apply the ‘why’ question that grounds all academic research?  Baswedan only smiled.  Stonily.  Then he said: “Companies don’t sack their CEOs when their businesses are going well.
“Together we had transformed the Ministry into a working culture of commitment to educational reform for the betterment of the nation.  That’s rare.”

There’s endless speculation, and some facts.  His US doctorate was in political science, but Baswedan carried no party card.  So no patron (or matron) to tell the President to rethink. 
He spent more time in the Ministry with educators than in the Palace among plotters.  He was eclipsing others with publicity, though he denied seeking the spotlight and rejected suggestions of political ambition. 
Education is a powerful portfolio, handling at least 20 per cent of the nation’s budget.  It’s also a political football; anyone who has been to school knows what’s wrong with the system and how to fix.
This creates what Baswedan called the “zigzag of policy decisions when long-term stability is required - which should be left out of politics.”
But the founder of Indonesia Mengajar, a non-profit voluntary national service for young teachers serving in remote schools for a year, .understood better than most and had proven solutions.
Which might have been the undoing of the economist, author and agitator, once listed by the US business magazine Forbes as among the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. 
Until either Baswedan or Jokowi reveal the reason he was knifed perhaps Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers a guide: The wary general whispers that his friend Cassius ‘thinks too much. Such men are dangerous’.
Coincidentally or otherwise, Baswedan’s fall came just after one of his greatest triumphs.  He asked families to attend school opening day with their kids so they could get engaged with education.  They responded in tens of thousands – and the story got international attention.
Baswedan said he’s had overseas job offers.  When asked whether Indonesia can afford to lose exceptional talent, the normally quick-tongued educator let the question hang before responding rhetorically:  “What do you think?”
 “We had 44 breakthroughs with getting children to read each day as the most important,” he said. “We also insisted on evaluating teachers and improving their skills. Only 57 per cent were graded well – but we couldn’t sack the others because they are civil servants.
“How do you develop a successful school where children learn well?  Just create an environment with one word: Fun. That requires leadership.  If learning isn’t fun it’s torture. Then teachers have failed.
“We’ve engaged with community libraries to create 6,000 ‘Reading Houses’. We still have problems with space that must be addressed. We’ve stopped brutality.  There were zero deaths and hospitalizations last year from hazing.
“The idea that children should be hit is morally and legally wrong.  Violence begets violence. We’ve created safe learning environments and eliminated the belief that the more you suffer, the better you learn.
“The National Exam, which put huge pressure on students, has been changed. There’s no minimum passing grade, but a minimum score for each subject.
“Since education was decentralized (after the fall of Soeharto in 1998) the performance of the regions hadn’t been evaluated.  We produced an education balance sheet.  
“This showed some authorities spend only Rp 37,000 (US$ 2.80) a student annually.  Jakarta spent Rp 6 million (US$ 454) yet got a worse result than Yogyakarta’s Rp 500,000 (US$ 38) budget.  We exposed the flaws.”
Changes in education policy don’t come without strife – the latest being plans to lengthen the school day arousing parents to protest.
“Not my policy,” said Baswedan.  “We wanted to shorten the time at school.
“The world has changed. It’s a new era, no longer about absorbing facts but creative thinking.  Education liberates, indoctrination suppresses.
“I’m not talking about programmes.  I’m talking about a movement.”  Will his changes survive? “I hope so.”
(The Jakarta gubernatorial election will be held next February.  Three pairs of candidates are contesting.  Surveys show the present leader is the incumbent Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama backed by the  Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle).  This is the party of President Jokowi, the former Jakarta Governor. Ahok’s ethnicity and religion (he’s a Protestant Chinese) is allegedly an issue for some electors.  Baswedan is coupled with Sandiaga Uno, reported to be one of Indonesia’s richest men. In the 2012 election 4.6 million of Jakarta’s seven million voters went to the polls.)

(First published in New Mandela 5 October 2016.  See:  )