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

Friday, March 24, 2017


Lost in transit   
Indonesia was once a short stop-over for Middle East asylum seekers queuing for ferries to Northern Australia.  Now it’s a terminal. The lines are getting longer.  So is the wait for a resolution.  Duncan Graham reports:
The grim posters feature a rickety craft on a rolling sea under a dirty sky. They are captioned:  NO WAY.  You will not make Australia home. The small print warns those registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees in Jakarta after 1 July 2014 will never reach their goal.
The government says its policy will ‘reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia and encourage them to seek settlement in countries of first asylum.’ 
A year ago there were around 13,800 known illegal migrants (the official Indonesian term) stranded in the Republic with about half from Afghanistan.  The number is now 14,475 according to Dicky Komar, the Director of Human Rights in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The increase is despite 1,236 refugees being resettled, mainly in Canada and the US in the same year.  This means almost 2,000 got into Indonesia in 2016 by-passing immigration.  Researchers say the usual route is to fly into Malaysia, take a boat across the Malacca Straits to Sumatra then public transport to Java.
Those who ignored the posters and didn’t drown in the Arafura Sea have been caught by Australian patrols and either turned back or sent to offshore detention camps now holding around 1,360. Most are young men; the majority are on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island – the rest on Nauru.
Those who did heed the posters’ message and stayed in Indonesia are seeing their resettlement hopes dashed daily. Last year Australia took 347 (down from more than 800 three years earlier), the US 761.  These numbers will tumble.  President Donald Trump is cutting the intake and trying to ban people from six Muslim-majority nations.  Refugees from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya are in Indonesia.
Jakarta hasn’t signed the UN Refugee Convention so those trapped in the Archipelago can't legally study or work. Claims to be a refugee are determined by the UNHCR. The process can take years.
Indonesia is getting serious about trafficking. This month [Mar] a Rote Island court sentenced notorious people smuggler Abraham (Captain Bram) Louhenapessy to six years' jail.
He’s not the only one in cramped quarters.  Chairul Anwar of Indonesia’s Transnational Crimes Unit claims the 13 rudenin (detention centres) are full. So around 4,000 squat in community halls or rent rooms around Cisarua in West Java known for its cheap lodgings.
Anwar said it would take 14 years to clear all asylum seekers at the current rate of resettlement provided no new arrivals. He forecast conflict unless the process is accelerated.
Indonesia is confronting the issues but Australia is paying the bills.  This financial year it has budgeted US $1.7 million for the International Organization for Migration and US $43 million to fund ‘regional cooperation arrangements in Indonesia …to manage their asylum seeker populations’.
The social strife forecast by Anwar was downplayed by advocate Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney.  He said there are “large communities of Afghan families” who have been living in Cisarua for many years.
These domestic arrangements could sink soon. This year Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a decree confirming refugees have three options – resettlement, repatriation or deportation, though countries like Iran refuse to accept returnees. Integration is not on the menu.
“Australia has created the bottle neck that leaves asylum seekers in limbo in Indonesia for years,” Rintoul said. “Australia effectively forces Indonesia to warehouse asylum seekers … while they wait hopelessly for resettlement.”
Australian academic Dr Antje Missbach was at a Jakarta briefing where the figures were released.  In her book Troubled Transit she wrote ‘most displaced people in need of protection do not have Indonesia in mind as the ultimate country of final settlement … (but) a way station and the final stepping stone on the journey to Australia.’
After the briefing she told Strategic Review:  “Indonesia is no longer so much a transit country but will become more of a containment country.”
Asylum seekers’ hopes of a life Down Under have collided with citizens’ fears of open floodgates, a popular metaphor in the debate with connotations of the ‘boundless plains’ of the national anthem being inundated. 
The major parties support the turn-back policy; polls show politicians inclined to a more humanitarian line could be thumped at the ballot box.
Although Indonesian officials complain about the foreigners the numbers in the archipelago are small when compared to neighbouring lands. There are now more than half a million asylum seekers in Southeast Asia. Most are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar hunkered down in Malaysia and Thailand after escaping alleged persecution. 

Indonesia also has its own refugees.  According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre there are at least 31,440 citizens ‘who remained internally displaced in Indonesia as a result of conflict, violence and human rights violations’.

The increase in asylum seekers is likely to be discussed in May by a working group of the Bali Process  on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime a talkfest first formed in 2002 and now involving more than 50 nations and agencies. It is co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia.
Rintoul was pessimistic about the outcome. “There will be no constructive results because Australia has used the Bali Process to enforce anti-people smuggling (i.e. anti-refugee) arrangements onto participating countries,” he said.
Commented Missbach: “So far the Bali Process has always been more concerned with protecting borders rather than people; if this is the prime goal they have been successful, but that is to the detriment to the people who need protection.”
Whatever the Bali Process decides, it will be tackling symptoms, and not the reasons people flee.

First published in Strategic Review 24 March 2017

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Letting their hair down  

Malang has long been soccer mad, but yesterday [Sun 19 Mar] the East Java city went even loopier.
A week ago Arema FC won the 2017 President’s Cup beating Pusamania Borneo 5-1 in the final round so the 30-year old club had a victory worth celebrating.

Tens of thousands of supporters known as Singo Edan (Crazy Lions) lined the streets around the railway station and the town hall to see their heroes while waving some ambiguous banners: Did they mean being unique or being ostracized with the slogan – ‘no one like us’?
It didn’t matter because the crowd was good natured and in party mood.  The police had little to do other than back the volunteer marshals who kept the traffic moving.

A group of blind people held a notice saying even though they are sightless they still back Arema.
Before a lion dance the performers’ whips and costumes were purified in incense smoke – a local ritual predating soccer’s arrival in Indonesia from Europe in the 1930s.

(Pix by Erlinawati Graham)

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Making Indonesian schools happy places        

Muhadjir Effendy is ambivalent about his time at a tiny wooden desk.  It happened half a century ago in a Madiun (East Java) madrasah Islamic school.  “The war against illiteracy was being waged,” he recalled. “The concentration was on reading and writing - so not such a happy place.”
Whatever the faults of the system in that era it set one boy on a compass heading to the peak of the education mountain. He took that journey through Java and beyond, garnering prestigious qualifications along the way.
Now the Minister for Education and Culture’s task is to help the present generation find an easier and more fulfilling way to the summit.
“I want schools to be more human,” he said during a one-on-one interview in Malang where he used to be Rector of Muhammadiyah University, now the biggest tertiary institution in East Java. “The school should be every child’s second home, a place where they enjoy learning and want to be there.
“Let’s build a new paradigm. Some class ways have to change; teacher talking and students copying is not right. We need to develop a nation of critical thinkers. My objective is to revitalise basic education in Indonesia.”
Indonesia ranks below Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam on most international education scorecards.
Effendy, 60, said he had never met Joko Widodo before he got the President’s shoulder tap last July following the sudden sacking of Dr Anies Baswedan.
The professor wasn’t given a portfolio pick.  Had choices been offered he would have selected Defence as he studied ‘military sociology’ for his PhD in Indonesia, and regional security and defence policy in the US. 
“Another preference would have been the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education,” he said.  Why not the Ministry of Communication as he was once a student journalist? “Not so interesting.”
“The President wanted me in the Education Ministry because, he said, ‘you believe in our values and you know our vision – we share the same background’. In particular he wanted an improvement in the take-up of the Kartu Indonesia Pintar (KIP - Indonesia Smart Card).
 “When I took on this job about 22 per cent of the cards had been distributed.  Now it’s 70 per cent because I’ve been working with provincial governors.  I hope to reach 90 per cent this year but there are many obstacles and with some my hands are tied.”
(The KIP is a cash-transfer card to ensure poor students continue their schooling. Introduced in 2015 it’s also intended to help bright kids enter university. Almost 20 million are eligible but millions are reportedly missing out. The rate is Rp 225,000 (US $17) to Rp 500,000 (US $37) per semester.
Effendy said the bureaucratic snafus involved a mismatch in data gathering and ways of interpreting poverty and need by different departments. The education future of 900,000 orphans, many without birth certificates, also has to be addressed.
The Minister said the problem was extra bad in Ambon where a prolonged sectarian civil conflict earlier this century had shattered thousands of families.
Effendy flicked aside the suggestion that he was a new broom in the Ministry although he initiated one change.  Last December he held a Christmas function in the office and asked a pastor to address all staff, whatever their faith.
He said his predecessor, now a candidate for the Jakarta governorship had “done the job well” and his policy directions had not been overturned.  Effendy declined to speculate on why Baswedan had been dismissed other than saying the President “needed a new style”.
The Minister said he wants to scrap the national exam system which uses multiple-choice questionnaires: “The President is keen but the Vice President (Jusuf Kalla) is not so enthusiastic.”
Some universities are starting to organize ‘international’ conferences where all have to use English.  This hasn’t bothered confident participants but the shy are often reluctant to display their abilities for fear of ridicule.
“I agree this is an issue,” Effendy said. “Some students can’t express themselves. We need to improve but we have only one official language and all others are labelled ‘foreign’.  This has created a barrier.”
Another contentious point has been Effendy’s enthusiasm for a longer school day though he claims critics have misunderstood the proposal.
“I understand some people’s concerns but eight hours a day five days a week doesn’t have to be spent at a desk,” he said. “Nor does it mean more mathematics and grammar.  It’s already being piloted in 1,500 schools.
 “I encourage teachers to take their students out of school to community sports fields and museums. As I’m also Minister of Culture I can ensure that happens. The idea is to increase involvement with, and understanding of, ethics, aesthetics and kinetics.
“Overseas education systems I admire are those in Australia and Japan where there is a balance between learning and doing.
“Lack of tolerance is a big problem in Indonesia.  We have to live together whatever our ethnicity or religion. This has to be appreciated so it must be taught.  This is the President’s idea and it is also mine.
“Being Minister is a big job. Everyone talks about education and they claim to know what’s wrong - so that means I should understand everything.  I do know that we have to do much more to lift the quality of teaching and facilities.
“For example in Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan (SMK – vocational high schools) we have to upgrade facilities so our graduates get familiar with the latest equipment and can find work.  We have already sent 12,000 teachers to visit factories so they know what’s happening in modern industries.
“Teaching needs to be much wider - about universal values of morality and integrity that are supported by all the world’s major religions.
“Let’s get away from teacher-centered education to a position where everyone is working as partners, not bosses. We have to build equality.  I am going to get rid of our weaknesses in education.”


First published in Strategic Review 14 March 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017


Java’s magic architecture revealed     

From the outside they look unremarkable, only to be picked out among terracotta sameness by keen eyes. The roof is the giveaway.  The lower sides should slope gently over verandas on all four sides while the peak rises sharply.
The shoulder shape is critical, indicating the owner’s importance, essential in a status-conscious culture.   The most important are joglo with a central cone, the others limasan.
These houses are the liveable representations of the landscape in miniature, the gently rising fields suddenly confronted by the upward thrust of a mountain range.
Limasan are the traditional buildings of Java and South Sumatra with a design ancestry of more than a millennia. This we know because the houses sometimes feature on temple frescoes where the playful carvers of legends and the doings of royalty spiced the stories with cameos of everyday life.

Some look as though they were chiselled yesterday as the artist glanced around for subjects; a man hawking goods carried on a yolk, a woman dressed in a long skirt, buffalo ploughing a paddy: These remain commonplace scenes in rural Java.
Volcanic eruptions smothered Borobudur and scores of other monuments to Shiva-Buddha (an evolved mix of indigenous Hindu and Buddhism).  Hot ash rained down destroying almost everything combustible. As the people’s homes were built of timber and bamboo these burned rapidly or rotted slowly as the jungle reclaimed abandoned farms.
The carvings survived, and like photographs contain such detail that curators at the Trowulan Museum in East Java have built a replica.
Western visitors should be warned not to stand upright in doorways or under roof beams. The early Javanese were not tall so built according to their body sizes. However they did construct with a sense of proportion and beauty and a practical knowledge of comfort in a climate of heavy rain and intense sunlight.

As glass was unknown and robbers abroad windows were timber shutters open during the day to snare passing breezes.  Guests could be received in shade on the front veranda without having access to the intimate inside.  The overhang kept rain off the walls.
The high point in the house collected the rising hot air ensuring the lower living area stayed cool. Keeping out the light meant many dark corners where spirits could feel at home. All well and good.  But inside a limasan there’s much more than a few basic tricks of design.
The underside of the roof supported by tall timber pillars is often a masterpiece of carving inside rectangular three-dimensional ceilings.   Like sleeping under the stars and watching galaxies afar wink their way across the dome of heaven, a dozer in a limasan can be lulled by contemplating the impressive decorations above.
Archaeologist Mitu M Prie graduated from the University of Indonesia in 1984.  For a while she worked in her profession before turning to advertising. She started the arts collective Koalisi Seni Indonesia and has long been involved in campaigns to preserve and appreciate Indonesian heritage. 
Her latest work Pancaran Limasan (The Brilliance of Limasan) is homage to the artisans of the Majapahit Kingdoms (late 13th century to early 16th) and their ancestors.
This golden era of Javanese history came when an empire was built by the clever and cunning Gajah Mada, the prime minister under Hayam Wuruk.  The king reigned between 1350 and 1389, consolidating his empire’s power centered on the rich Brantas River flatlands of East Java.
The people prospered through conquest and trade. They had enough disposable income, as modern economists say, to spend on things they didn’t necessarily need but certainly liked.  These included elaborate interior design of a style that reflected the culture – enigmatic.
So there are elaborate patterns, though few depictions of real things, unlike the temple frescoes. This may be a mark of respect to Islam which prohibits images of nature; if so it’s a recent addition as monotheism was a latecomer to the archipelago.
In the finest examples of limasan the posts are decorated and painted in the traditional green and yellow, often with a touch of muted red. Although originals are rare and pricey limasan with glass windows, neon lights and all modern amenities have been built in some upmarket resorts.
Ms Prie’s book also attempts to be a work of art in keeping with its subject.  It has a sturdy cover, many sketches and around 100 photos taken by the author.  Unfortunately these are monochrome or sepia; many are soft focus presumably to give an Olde Worlde feel when sharp colors would have aided appreciation.
The text is tiny, which is another drawback. Publishers of big picture books frequently get carried away by presentation and forgetting contents.  The final product should be easily accessible to all readers – even if that means sacrificing tonal subtleties known only to the designer.  We shouldn’t have to search for a magnifying glass.
The book has been written in Indonesian and poorly translated into English. A skilled sub-editor could have smoothed over some jarring awkwardness in language. There’s no index.
When the Dutch arrived in the 16th century they included European architecture among their cultural baggage – but soon found that a mansion in chilly Amsterdam didn’t transplant well to tropical Batavia.
Those who were least proud borrowed local concepts to create the high roof ‘Indies Style’. Art deco versions are still to be seen in cities like Malang where the wealthy Dutch plantation owners settled.  The intricately patterned tile floors came later.
The best limasan and joglo are exquisite indeed, to be ranked alongside wayang kulit puppets and gamelan orchestras as cultural treasures of global importance.  It’s good they are being recognised - but they deserve a richer record.
Pancaran Limasan (The Brilliance of Limasan)                                                                                  
by Mitu M Prie                                                                                                                    
  Red and White Publishing 2016                                                                                            

(First published in The Jakarta Post 9 March 2017)