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

Monday, May 29, 2017


Thriving on a zigzag life      

Back in the 1970s when Australia ‘discovered’ Asia there were few books to guide newcomers to the Republic.
Texts about the 1965 coup that felled first president Soekarno were mainly academic.  More relevant was American travel writer Bill Dalton’s Indonesia Handbook and the translated works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer made more exciting because they’d been banned by second President Soeharto – though few outsiders could understand why. 
Blanche d’Alpuget’s Monkeys in the Dark and Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously both featured reporters in Jakarta.  Koch, surprised by success mused that the public wanted ‘to see the Australian imagination cross that little bridge into Asia’.

There was another must-read – Australian journalist Bruce Grant’s Indonesia, 1964 and revised in 1996 proving its enduring relevance.  Looking back he describes it as ‘a young man’s book … with a brash and critical tone.’
Although now eclipsed by time, events and Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc, 

Grant’s book was once an essential for any Westerner trying to wrap her or his mind around this complex, compound nation.
Now Grant, 92, has released his autobiography Subtle Moments.  The author is a polymath with the enviable knack of locating himself at the center of major events as a reporter, diplomat, academic, novelist and lover during his ‘zigzag life’.   
Above all he is an informed prosemaster from a pre-Facebook time when Australian newspapers demanded excellence and editors debated viewpoints with their contributors.
 Born in Western Australia Grant won scholarships which took him to university and a world wider than the wheatbelt where ‘space and heat … the baked earth and lack of rain meant that growth was sparse and low.  The hills were worn down’.
As an only son he could have inherited the family farm.  Instead his inquiring mind lured him into a world of learning and adventure as a foreign correspondent covering the Hungarian Uprising and the Suez Crisis, both in 1956.
He worked for The Age where his elegant style suited the quality Melbourne broadsheet.  He found journalism ‘a useful antidote to daydreaming’ while deadlines helped sharpen his natural skills.
Covering Southeast Asia out of Singapore he became friends with the late Ananta Toer (they were the same age), and the Indonesian’s nemesis, journalist Mochtar Lubis.
Later Grant was appointed High Commissioner to India and was close to the reformist Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1972 – 75); the two men realised their country needed to refocus its interests from Europe to Asia.
Grant had studied ‘the sardonic, mocking, fatalistic message of Australian history’ so understood its fears and foibles.  As a public intellectual involved in statecraft he took part in pivotal debates about Australia’s mates and neighbors.
He cites the joint Australian-Indonesian police co-operation approach to terrorism after the 2002 Bali bomb as a model to follow rather than aggressive military action like that taken in Iraq by the US with Australia riding pillion.
This is a book that will have many important Indonesians rushing to read because Grant doesn’t shy from details about his complex personal life – including painful correspondence from his son about remarriage.
 After divorcing his Australian sweetheart Enid Walters he settled with American poet Joan Pennell, but that relationship became ‘essentially an intellectual commitment to reforming the world.’
He then wedded Kompas correspondent Ratih Hardjono – they had worked together on assignment in Croatia. She wrote another essential volume though this time for Indonesians - The White Tribe of Asia – an analysis of Australian history, politics and culture.
When the marriage started to crumble and his wife turned to Islam Grant sought advice from Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur).  By then Hardjono was running the State Secretariat and had fallen for a much younger man in the Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama.
After the former fourth president passed away in 2009 Grant wrote a newspaper obituary disclosing the Indonesian leader had asked for details of their correspondence to be kept confidential.
Now Grant reveals the intimate contents of this and other letters:  ‘May God bless us together in finding our different targets in life although with the same aim: To make other people happy while we ourselves are suffering,’ wrote Gus Dur.

Grant’s fiction includes a trilogy about affairs between older Australian men and younger Asian women, which start well but end badly.  As academic Alison Broinowski has noted, ‘the metaphor for the relationship between Australia and Asia is overt.’


Writes Grant: ‘The novels are hopeful in tone and neighborly in disposition, but in recognition of reality, none has a happy ending.’

(Cartoon from the book of Australian PM Gough Whitlam
 ‘discovering’ Asia by Indian cartoonist Abu Abraham.)

In Crossing the Arafura Sea (2015) the principals are an Australian businessman hoping his nation will ‘count for something important in its region’ while ‘she is the daughter of an Indonesian mystic whose secret hope is that she will become the country's president.
 Grant parallels his autobiography, which he subtexts as Scenes on a Life’s Journey, with Australia seeking its international role.  He concludes his nation, first settled by Europeans in the late 18th century and only federated in 1901, is ‘still a kid’ in its relationships with Asia as he said in a recent broadcast.


This is not a stationary list of triumphs and big names but the restless story of recent times told by an articulate hack still gripped by the journalist’s three-letter palsy - Why?


Adventurers heading to the Archipelago and concerned they might be seduced by Indonesia should consult this splendid book before jumping the next jet to Ngurah Rai.


Subtle Moments by Bruce Grant                                                                                                    Monash University Publishing 2017                                                                                          


(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 May 2017)

Friday, May 26, 2017


Dumping a free trade deal           
For the past two years Australian exporters’ prospects have been jollied along by forecasts of a looming free trade agreement with their giant northern neighbor.
Once in place grain carriers and beef boats would sail past unconcerned customs officials and into the increasingly hungry ports of the world’s fourth largest nation; Indonesian vegetable and mineral oils will head Down Under to a similar welcome. 
Prefacing this nirvana have been big show-and-sell missions to the Archipelago, ministerial handshake photo-ops and glowing statements implying negotiations are running briskly and on the same page.
So all being well the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) should be signed before 2018 dawns. 
However all is not well and that sunrise now seems remote.
The possibilities have been eclipsed - not by nationalist Indonesians fearing floods of foreign goods, but by parochial politics in Australia.
Late last month [april] the Federal Government abruptly announced dumping duties on Indonesian copy paper imports.
“The impact of the decision is potentially lethal,” Australia-Indonesia Business Council President Debneth Guharoy told members. 
“It flies in the face of the visiting President’s pointed request in Sydney for a fair go on paper and palm oil. (In February Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo promoted the CEPA in Australia.)
“We unilaterally decide to turn the (asylum seeker) boats around, stop the exports of live cattle, raise hell over the death penalty and now rollback their paper. Each and every time, we expect the Indonesians to bow to our self-promoted higher standards, our much-touted lofty principles.
“Those of us who have lived in, worked in or frequently travel to Asia cringe at the disdain with which these proclamations are treated by our neighbors.”
Indonesia Institute President Ross Taylor, a former national vice-president of the AIBC, warned that the problem should be “handled with subtlety”.

“Otherwise we run the risk of this tariff issue becoming a catalyst - for those who are anti-free trade - to have the CEPA stall or collapse,” he told Strategic Review.  “That would be a great disappointment.

“Getting an agreement was always going to be a tough task - Indonesia is really focused on the need for big infrastructure projects that can be funded by North Asian countries.

“However it can be done with goodwill and considered perseverance by both sides. The decision by Australian officials to impose the tariff at this time was less than helpful; Mr Guharoy is right in that regard and we share his concern, as would Indonesia.”

The head of Indonesia's negotiation team was reported by Fairfax Media claiming the duties would affect discussions.
“We explained to Australia that it (the dumping accusation) is not true, but they insisted just to protect their industry,” Deddy Saleh was quoted as saying.
“So it means there is unfairness. How can we conduct negotiations when we know that our counterpart is not fair? Negotiation takes mutual trust from both sides.”
The duties will please supporters of trade barriers; they argue free trade agreements are an easy way to avoid developing complex policies to stimulate local yields and build food self-sufficiency.  Instead FTAs favor efficient producers like Australian wheatgrowers who can swamp local markets and put poor farmers out of business
 ‘Dumping’ means an exporter is selling goods overseas below the homeland price. 
Apart from deliberate attempts to weaken rivals through trade wars, there are two main reasons for dumping: A manufacturer has a surplus it can’t shift at home, or its products are being subsidised by government for local political reasons, such as keeping an unprofitable factory running to save jobs.
The upset started when a private company in Victoria complained to the independent Australian Anti-Dumping Commission that paper manufacturers in Indonesia (and some other countries) were undercutting local prices and threatening profits and jobs.  The Commission agreed and told the government.
Despite Australian Paper’s nationalistic name the company is owned by Nippon Paper Industries of Japan.
Its two mills are in Gippsland, a rural area 160 kilometers east of Melbourne.  AP is the biggest employer with around 1,300 on the payroll.  It makes about 600,000 tonnes of paper products a year and much is exported.
The unemployment rate in Gippsland is 9.42 per cent against the national average of 5.7 per cent, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.
To stop interest in trade with Indonesia flagging after the latest setback the AIBC has asked National Development Planning Minister Dr Bambang Brodjonegoro to help buoy the disheartened.
“For the first time ever, a ranking Indonesian Minister will visit five of our capital cities (in June) on a whistle-stop tour,” said Guharoy who claims Indonesia could be the fifth largest economy by 2050 with Australia then ranking 32.
“The mission is to talk about Indonesia's economic outlook, the opportunities they present and against that backdrop, encourage Australian enterprises to engage.”
The AIBC has been pushing local businesses to recognise openings in the Indonesian market with 250 million consumers and a growth rate of more than five per cent compared with Australia’s 2.4 per cent.
Indonesia is Australia’s 12th largest trade partner, mainly importing wheat, beef and sugar, and selling oil and some manufactured goods.  Total two-way business is worth about US $11.4 billion.
An AIBC delegation will appear before a Parliamentary Inquiry on the Trading Relationship with Indonesia in Canberra this month.  [may]  “We have an unintelligent relationship with our large neighbour and it does warrant examination,” said Gutharoy. “But I'm not so sure that the politicians will welcome the candor.”
Australia’s dumping duties are likely to be appealed to the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation, a body not known for swift decision-making. Unless the Indonesians ignore Australian protectionism and abandon their own, a free trade deal is unlikely anytime soon.
First published in Strategic Review, 26 May 2017 -

Friday, May 12, 2017


(Photo credit Erlinawati Graham)

Diplomat Fitria (Rennie) Wibowo (above with her husband and fellow diplomat Jose Tavares) has offered an articulate and thoughtful response to the jailing of Jakarta Governor Ahok for blasphemy,  not by waving a placard in a tiny protest crowd but by writing a powerful plea.

Apart from her prose skills she is also a lawyer educated in New York and Vienna and with post-graduate qualifications from Wellington, New Zealand.  Rennie, 40, is a Muslim - her husband Jose a Catholic born in Balibo - now part of Timor Leste.  They were married in Thailand as inter-faith marriages cannot be solemnised in Indonesia.  Her career diplomat father Triyono Wibowo was deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs between 2008 and 2011

Her statement below - reproduced with her permission:

 ... and so I am compelled to comment...

I think most importantly we need to be cautious because we are being torn apart as a people.

God knows what forces are behind all this, but we need to wake up, fast! All the confused politicians, all the self-righteous fools, everyone who is playing along thinking they're only trying to maintain peace and unity. This is not about one man, this is about the hope, aspirations, and effort to become a truly great nation, hindered and shattered by powers that feed on the very instability of this nation.

Wake up, and realize that none of us will have a better future, in a better Indonesia, if we don't move forward together.
Whatever your race or religion, this is your country, and you are as responsible as the next person to make it a better place. Free of corruption, free of conflict, free of injustice, and free of all the negative things that will hamper you, your children, your family and friends, the next generation from living decently and comfortably in this country.

And for those of us in despair and disappointed at the moment, I understand if you love this country a little less right now.
But whatever you feel or do, don't ever lose hope, because it's the very foundation of what keeps us motivated for betterment.
Don't let anyone or any group of people take away your right and dreams for building a better future.
Don't let anyone or any group of people intimidate you into thinking there is no place for you or any honest, hard-working, selfless persons in this country.
Be brave my fellow Indonesians, whatever your roots or affiliations may be. Muster the strength to fight ignorance and discordance. Have courage to respect differences in all its forms, and to sow the seeds of unity.

God bless Indonesia.


Monday, May 08, 2017


Research a transport to fun    

Dr David Reeve gets revved up about Indonesia’s ‘Transports of Delight’.  To show he’s no desk-driving academic his latest book includes a picture of author in an angkot the mini-busses which plague the major cities.
However the Australian is a portly professor so wisely chose to use the front seat; in this position the hazards are few: A gear shift in the ribs, springless seat spine hammers and lung disease from the driver’s smokes.
If inside the cramped low-roof van with 15 other passengers (licensed to carry ten) Reeve might have pondered re-titling his talks to Indonesian students while preparing exit strategiest without getting stuck in the slot that mimics a doorway. ‘Transports of Discomfort’ sounds more apt.
 Angkot is a squashed word for angkutan kota (city public transport), also known as bemo or oplet depending on the city and local language. They’re the cheap drop-anywhere, wait awhile, overworked and under maintained minibusses which properly belong in a scrapyard not a street.
Novice tourists find these transports quaint, then change their minds after one trip.  Reeve is no newbie being taken for a ride but a class-hardened lecturer whose Indonesian credentials started almost a half century ago and have yet to take a break.
He’s taught at the Republic’s top tertiary institutions and is now a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales where he’s an Aspro – not a headache cure but an Associate Professor; Indonesia is not a sole trader in compressed language.

Reeve’s interest is not the mechanics of angot (they seem to be largely powered by prayer) but the social attitudes fueling the words and designs, particularly in Padang where the art is vibrant.  Not to the level of the Philippine’s crazy-kitsch jeepneys, but more gaul (cool / trendy) than in other Indonesian metropolises.
His book Angkot dan Bus Minangkabau subtitled ‘popular culture and popular values’ squints at the vans’ often garish decorations as they cruise the West Sumatra capital thrusting the up-you message of hormone-charged kids everywhere: ‘We’re rebels hunting a cause while waiting to grow up.’.
Angkot have a bad name in Minang society and are generally seen as undesirable and transgressive in established adult mainstream opinion,’ Reeve writes. ‘Angkot may be popular with the youth community but adults have a stream of criticisms.’
These include leadfoots’ aggression, road skills, pollution, counter-culture, opposition to traditional conservative mores of a matriarchal society - and noise. Many have been customized into mobile discos with flashing lights and sound systems that would blast the vehicle into space if tipped from horizontal to vertical.

The signs they display are generally macho, concerned with prestige, high tech and speed – ironical as the clunky loaf-shaped angkot spend much time loafing in traffic jams. Fantasy images are drawn from universal pop, Disney and violent films. 
Curiously sex is rarely seen in the artwork;  this is probably to keep tutt-tutting authorities at a distance, though obscene language gets tolerated. PC they are not.
In 2006 Reeve was at a Padang wedding where he got excited by the ‘dramatic and memorable language and decorations’ used on the angkot.  He writes: ‘I was struck by the distance between the ideas expressed there and in more official accounts of the values that are supposed to operate in West Sumatra society’.
And not just in that province. Authorities nationwidc tell citizens to obey the road code, follow the ten-point Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga family welfare rules, not dump rubbish and Say No To Drugs. Readers can judge the effectiveness of these harangues from their own observations.
Reeve is a funny man able to pack an auditorium with students who tend to listen and laugh rather than tweet enjoying his wordplay, highlighting Malang’s ML angkok route. This is local adolescent slang for sex – Making Love.
His work sounds a hoot, but it’s serious.  It included dissecting 780 bodywork slogans to find the lurking cultural directions; curiously 58 per cent are in English.  Well, a sort of English if your 
Dremwold is Holliwood.

These aren’t adverts but statements of owners and drivers that reveal their fantasies of living the good life overseas and having adventures in wild places – the same themes exploited by cigarette adverts. Designs reflect the young men’s codes, morals even, for some are evangelical.
A supporting industry of spray painters, sticker printers and other artists using their imagination and motifs off the Internet, TV, films and comics, serving the angkot drivers’ desires to be different.
  “Research can be fun,” Reeve says which sounds like the sort of statement which might fill the Indonesia Circle with another round of protestors.

“For me (the angkota of Padang display) a set of values presented in especially lively, dynamic, funny and creative ways.’

(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 May 2017)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017


Celebrating the Combat Cooks     

Blurred monochrome photos of the Indonesian Revolution generally show training and fighting, meetings, celebrations, speeches, thrusting fists and strident banners. 
Peer closer.  What’s missing?
Were they all subservient homebodies while the gallant guys were out defending the new nation?  Did females have no role during the four-year fight from the 1945 Proclamation to the 1949 withdrawal of the Dutch after two failed ‘police actions’ to recover their colony?
The truth is women played a major part but historians have overlooked their importance.
“Journalists have not been interested in my story,” said Moeljati, 85, a former member of the Laskar Putri (Women’s Army) in Surakarta, also known as Solo. She is one of five surviving veterans in the Central Java city.
“It seems that everyone has paid attention to the men and ignored us even though hundreds volunteered.  We also served.
“I was still in school when I heard broadcasts by Bung (brother) Tomo that fired my spirit so much that I was determined to help kick out the Dutch.  I didn’t hate them as individuals but I did hate what they were doing to my country.
“My main job was to go around shops, farms and houses collecting rice, sugar and other foods for the jungle kitchens that supplied the fighters.  People gave willingly.”
Bung Tomo (Soetomo) was a revolutionary firebrand known for his emotional oratory on Radio Pembarontakan (Radio Rebellion) though Moeljati recalls it as Radio Tunggal (Radio One and Only).
Veterans’ homes are often shrines to the turbulent years of fighting for independence. But there are no medals on the walls of Moeljati’s house or awards on the cupboard and only a few faded documents and pictures in a file.
One is of her former colleague in the kitchens, Siti Hartinah. In 1947 she married a lieutenant-colonel called Soeharto who later become second president.  Siti, known as Ibu Tien, died in 1996 aged 72. Many Laskar Putri wed soldiers after the war according to Moeljati though she claimed they had little interest in romance while serving.
“I was among the smallest and youngest of the volunteers,” she said.  “There was no conflict among us whatever our age, background or religion. I suppose we were also looking for adventure.
“The men treated us with respect. We worked together like members of one family with a clear goal – to defeat the Dutch.  Nothing else mattered.
“We didn’t get paid or have proper uniforms, just a red and white arm badge which we sewed ourselves along with shirts and trousers often made from sacking.
“We had parades every day and I was shown how to use rifles and revolvers.  I scored top marks for shooting.  I never fired at any Dutch soldiers – most were in tanks (probably armored vehicles) and when they came we hid.  Would I have tried to kill?  Mmm.  Maybe.”
Towards the end of her life Soeharto’s wife was dubbed Ibu Ten Per Cent for allegedly creaming government contracts, but for the Laskar Putri there are no bad words: “She did not forget us and gave us houses and our children scholarships when she became First Lady,” said Moeljati.
Her friend Suwarti, 87, joined up because she wanted to be in the front line.  Instead she was made a reservist and first-aid nurse treating guerrillas returning to hideouts after sorties against Dutch troops.
“We expected our camps to be attacked but that never happened,” she said.  “I also worked filling sandbags for defence.  Some women ran messages tucked in their sarongs because the Dutch did not suspect them.

In 1989 a memorial was built in Solo recognizing 114 women who served, though the number is believed to be much greater.  The monolith needs a makeover; names are dropping off and the surrounds are cracking.
A photo from around 1946 shows women apparently marching with mock weapons, though Moeljati says she remembers an abundance of abandoned Japanese arms available which they called gun-gun.
The two women said they regretted the revolutionary fire had gone out and that the modern generation seemed not to know the sacrifices made to create the Republic.  After the Dutch abandoned their lost cause Moeljati became a maths teacher and Suwarti a doctor’s assistant.
Last year a local hotel invited the veterans to a talk show on Kartini Day. They get involved in arisan (women’s welfare club) and take a lively interest in current affairs.
They were scathing about corruptors – “betrayers of the nation and cowards,” said Suwarti.  Both women stressed that they were just humble individuals who had obeyed a call to service and proud they had done something to help build their country.
“Don’t call us heroes,” said Suwarti, “we’re not dead yet.”


While researching for his book Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory Australian historian Dr Frank Palmos found that British and Dutch commanders could not understand how the revolutionaries got food and water to keep fighting.
“The heroine behind the scenes was a 42-year-old East Javanese woman known throughout Surabaya as Dar Mortir (real name Darijah Soerodikoesoemo),” he said.
“With scores of female helpers she successfully created 51 combat kitchens to support the independence fighters, starting out in a small way by creating her first kitchen during the first major clash against the British-Indian forces between 27 and 30 October. 
Bu Mortir’s role in the revolution was forgotten for 30 years until a chance finding of a manuscript she dictated to her nephew in 1972 was discovered in the underground archives of the Tugu Heroes’ Museum in Surabaya … but left unread, in the vaults until 2015.”
Palmos has translated the 11,000-word text into English with local writer Johannes Nugroho handling Javanese phrases.  Palmos plans to present a copy of Ibu Dar Mortir: Combat Queen to Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini next month [may].

(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 May 2017)