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

Thursday, June 29, 2017


Study the past, manage the future                         

Even though she’s an Indonesian citizen by birth, Ida Suhardja, 66 (left), knows about discrimination.
The genes from her ethnic Chinese father seem to have dominated those of her Javanese Mom so she has round features and a white skin. Responses by others depend on their level of prejudice.
If zero then this lady is your friend and you’re welcome at her Omah Djadoel (olden  house) museum in the East Java town of Blitar.
She won’t talk about the persecution following the 1965 coup which felled President Soekarno and still a taboo topic for many.  The Chinese were targets as real or imagined Communists. According to Australian historian Robert Cribb, Communist strength in Blitar was ‘especially conspicuous’.  There are reports of three mass graves south of the town.
Instead of harboring the horrors Suhardja prefers to recall an event when she was about eleven.  Soekarno visited her school and singled her out for special attention, stimulating her sense of nationalism. 
“I liked him so much and felt very proud that I was the only child who got to shake his hand,” she said.  “He was friendly towards the Chinese.”
However his successor Soeharto imposed heavy regulations on the Chinese, curbing the use of language and signs, forcing name changes and prohibiting entry to the public service.
“It’s OK now,” Suhardja said cheerfully.  “There’s been no discrimination since Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid – fourth president between 1999 and 2001) took away restrictions.” 
By then she’d changed her religion three times – from Buddhism to Protestantism at the time of the coup and then to Islam when she married a Muslim.  “Now I just believe in God and inner beauty,” she said.
Along the way Suhardja garnered an assemblage of old tools, gadgets, knickknacks, art works and a philosophy which could have fed resentment at the absence of tolerance.   Instead she’s chosen not to dwell on the dark times and employ her artefacts to celebrate diversity.

Many came from her father who collected porcelain and statues; others were donated by neighbors for last century the Chinese in Blitar lived together in a compound of around 150 families.
In 1970 Soekarno died and was buried in Blitar where his family had connections.  His grave has become a shrine attracting thousands and supporting an industry of trashy souvenirs.  The main road to his memorial is kampung kitsch offering mass-produced toy drums, back-scratchers, plastic puppets and T-shirts featuring the fist-thrusting Proclamator.
Suhardja owned buildings close to the tomb.   Why not use these to show visitors a more substantial story of Indonesian history and culture by putting all the goodies in her home on public show?
So three years ago she opened her museum and filled it with a thousand objects.  She also took the opportunity to put up signs displaying her reasoning that “harmony creates happiness” and that the five steps to nationalism are “knowledge, respect, love, care and preservation of the past.”

To justify the museum her line is; ‘A great nation is one which cares for its history.’  Unfortunately not all get the message.  “I’m struggling against an indifferent society,” she said.
“I haven’t been to university so have no curatorial skills.  I just do what I can but it’s getting too much.  I’m not arrogant – I know I need help but I’ve shown what can be done and that many want to know more.
“The interest is there.  Now I want the government or a philanthropist to take over – not to sell the collection but to treat it properly.”
Outside her cluttered museum a concrete horse purports to pull a wooden cart while motorbikes race past.  Inside Suhardja shows schoolkids how a Morse-code tapper works, but they’re into smartphones. 
She cranks a gramophone, drops a needle and the scratchy tunes of last century flow through the rooms and into the yard; here stone coffins and troughs for pounding rice stand close to carved wardrobes.  The grotesque features of wayang puppets peer from the corners.
Some objects have been labelled and grouped according to function or style, but there’s no catalogue so the provenance is unknown. 
The show stopper is a large ceramic singing bowl which sends out a clear tone when the rim is rubbed with a wet wrist.  It competes with a drumbeat of drips from a leaky roof.
For some the phenomenon shows black magic at work; even the owner, who knows the secrets, proves her Javanese credentials by refusing to sleep in the building for fear of ghosts.
But for rationalists Faraday waves (named after a 19th century British scientist) develop when the frequency of the rubbing reaches the point where the pottery naturally vibrates.  This information is not available in the museum so the curio remains a gimmick rather than a marvel of the natural world.
The singing bowl sets the tone for Omah Djadoel – an eclectic mix of mystery and the mundane, beauty and gewgaws, trash and treasure, all looking for purpose.

“I love our heritage and culture,” Suhardja said. “By studying the past we can manage the future.  I’ve been to Europe and seen museums and the respect held for history.
 “This collection has a message about the strength of the nation, the diversity and adaptability of the people.
“Those who made these objects have long gone but their creativity lives. Some people think I’m eccentric doing this but I believe that God will help me find a place where these things can be admired. I’m waiting.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 June 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Indonesia’s ‘likes’?  Not the isolationist neighbors                       

On the surface the foundations for friendship are standouts: Australia backed Indonesia in its struggle against the return of colonialists last century and not just through words.  Waterside workers blockaded ships supplying the Dutch with arms.

When natural disasters hit, the neighbors move fast and dig deep; relief following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami exceeded AUD $1 billion.

More than a million Australians visit Bali each year.  Every sun and fun seeker spends on average well above  US $1,000 according to Indonesian research.

This year AUD $323 million goes to aid projects across the archipelago.  Indonesians are hungry for Australian meats and grains, and thirsty for milk; producers are keen to trade and want to send more. 

Political bonds have bounced back, according to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  She reckons  relationships are ‘in very good shape’ having been pummelled senseless in 2015.

In that year ambassadors on both sides were yanked home after Indonesia forced reformed drug couriers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran before a firing squad.

All regrettable – but all past, says Australia. Time to move on. Spin is a bureaucrat’s art form, but a release of fresh data should sink Canberra’s buoyancy.

Despite all the goodwill Indonesians reject their neighbor’s hand.  Instead they prefer a feudality 8,000 kilometers distant with a reputation for brutality that’s so bad Jakarta bans citizens working there as maids and labourers.

New research asked: ‘Which country has the closest relationship with President Joko Widodo’s government?’  Indonesian respondents chose Saudi Arabia (47 per cent), followed by China (38 per cent), and the US at six per cent.

Finding Australia in these ranks is like a Where’s Wally? children’s puzzlebook: Just two per cent.

The figures come from the Asian Research Network’s Survey on America’s role in the Indo-Pacific published by the US Study Centre at Sydney University and the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia.

 The authors dub it ‘the first major, multi-country survey of public opinion since the 2016 US election … the product of a network of think tanks in the Indo-Pacific - Australia, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Indonesia’.

The survey was run in early March 2017.  It explores ‘the public perception of free trade, foreign investment, national security concerns, the likelihood of conflict, isolationism, military presence, immigration, the influence of US President Donald Trump and US and China relations’.

Between 750 and 908 interviews were run in each country, most self-administered through the Internet though those in India and Indonesia were ‘in-person’. A similar survey last year – minus India - provides a handy baseline.  The absence of Malaysia and Singapore is a curious omission as both are major players in the region.

The results show that the popularity of American values has shrunk. With a new administration in Washington more than half of Australians questioned see American influence negatively, though not to the point where they fear the US won’t ride to the rescue should invaders hit the vast plains of the Great South Land.

Who could those baddies be?  Although Australians and Indonesians reckon chances of a war between them are low, with a clash involving titans China and the US more likely, results are ‘highly asymmetric’.’ Six per cent of Australians but 17 per cent of Indonesians say ‘conflict between their nations is very or extremely likely’.

Isolationism runs deep in Australia; almost half reckon closing the curtains is the right response to spats afar. Meanwhile across the Arafura Sea nationalism surges, as it does in India.

Consistency is not a strength of attitudinal surveys and this one holds to the tradition. When asked: ‘Which country is the most hostile towards Indonesia?’ Indonesians nominated Malaysia (41 per cent), then  Australia (22 per cent) and the US (13 per cent).

Yet elsewhere in the report Malaysia is considered the second friendliest nation after Saudi Arabia. The Southeast Asian federal monarchy is mainly Muslim, so it seems faith drives feeling.

Indonesian section author Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia, is a former Indonesian Ambassador to the US.  He commented that support for Saudi Arabia is ‘not surprising since Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, many of whom go to Mecca each year’.

The first part of the last sentence helps explain, but not the second. Earlier this year King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visited Indonesia; he was the first Saudi sovereign in almost 50 years to drop by the nation with the highest number of Muslims,

After talks President Widodo revealed he’d won a new haj quota of 221,000 a year.  That’s 0.08 per cent of the population - hardly ‘many’.

What other factors are in play?  They’re unlikely to be financial. After the octogenarian ruler and his 1,500-strong entourage had farewelled the cheering crowds, Indonesians discovered that adding pomp and splendour to a shared religion doesn’t equal cash.

Once out of waving distance the Saudis announced they’ll invest US $65 billion in China, almost ten times the Rp 89 trillion (US $6.71 billion) sum pledged to Indonesia. Widodo said he was  ‘disappointed’ and drily noted that he’d even held a brolly to keep Indonesian rain off the old man’s thawb.
This snub could be a pragmatic view that putting the theocracy’s oil money in a godless socialist one-party nation will be safer and yield more. It could also mean that the Saudis have a poor opinion of democratic Indonesia which is not an Islamic state.  They also know risking riyals in the republic can be hazardous.

On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index Indonesia ranks 91; New Zealand and Singapore head the list. The same two nations also lead in clean administration measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Indonesia comes in at number 90.
Research into the opinions of Saudis towards Indonesia could reveal whether the warmth is reciprocated, and if not, why?  At the same time Australians might ask: Why don’t our neighbors like us?

First published in Strategic Review 20 June 2017.  See:


Selling smokes with smut           

Politicians debating a new Tobacco Bill might want to look at the way the addictive is marketed. 
Indonesia is one of only eight countries that’s neither a signatory nor a party to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  That puts the Republic way offside with the 180 states which ban or limit advertisements promoting smoking, and prompts this question for parliamentarians:
Is the lawmakers’ priority the physical health of its citizens, or the financial health of the tobacco industry? 
Big adverts in public places linking a deadly product with good times and sexual prowess sounds like debauched Europe, degenerate Australia or too-liberal America - but surely not in upright, uptight Indonesia? Yet that’s happening.
Exposure of a workshop producing drugs to corrode young bodies would provide a feast month for the media. There’d be leaks to TV stations of raids, lurid details in tabloids pushing the limits of taste, and manufactured outrage.
The sleaze-masters involved in marketing by shooting the pix, hiring the models, writing the scripts, printing and distribution would be publicly hounded before being convicted.
Yet suggestive smut is on display right now and few seem concerned.  Transgressors have no fear of sudden bursts of Kopassus AK-47 fire; prisoners will not gulp cleaning fluid to avoid interrogation.
Instead the guilty continue to work in high-rise comfort, enjoy top salaries and get home early to their kids, for these people are nicotine promoters - a protected species in Indonesia:  The untouchables’ job is to boost Big Tobacco and ramp sales by devising ways to get citizens hooked. 
They do this by shouting loudly that for around one US dollar a packet consumers can find happiness, enjoy adventures, get great girlfriends and snare success in the boardroom and bedroom.
Their quest is to find the images and phrases which suggest these achievements without actually promising fulfilment.
The prominent, colorful and creative banners and billboards that flank roads in the tobacco heartland of East Java can’t be ignored.  They also mask views of Welirang, Arjuna, Semeru and the other mysterious mountains so create visual pollution - but that’s an issue for another column.
One of the latest slogans is ‘longer is better’ as though the use of English mitigates the offence. It’s a variation of the old saw ‘size matters’. Of course the ad highlights the length of the cigarette.  Don’t snigger; what other interpretation is possible? 
Other posters say ‘Don’t Quit’.  This captions a picture of a craftsman striving for perfection. Any resemblance to the internationally-famous term for breaking the habit and regaining health must be coincidental.  Cheeky, eh?
The ‘account executives’, as they call themselves to mask their grubby trade, are employed in an industry which is illegal in countries where governments prioritize public health.
Indonesia is so wedded to tobacco promotion that it took its big southern neighbor to the World Trade Organization in a bid to beat back Australian laws enforcing plain packaging. Supporting litigants were the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Honduras.
Although an official decision has yet to be announced, Bloomberg News has reported a win for Australia. (American billionaire Michael Bloomberg who co-founded the media group also funds an international campaign to cut an estimated six million deaths a year from smoking),
If the WTO decision is confirmed, Indonesian health authorities’ attempts to reduce harm from smoking will be strengthened.  So will the companies’ resolve to fight change.
Five years ago Australia became the first country to start plain packaging. Since then Britain, France, Ireland, Hungary and New Zealand have either followed or will do so soon.
Purchasing smokes in Australia today is like buying condoms half a century ago – an almost shameful act.  Locked cabinets are opened only on request.  The price of a pack will soon be AUD $40 (Rp 400,000), thirty times dearer than in Indonesia and a cost so high cigarettes are now a prime target for burglars.
The plain packaging law – which Indonesia and its three friends argued was a breach of trade rights - enforced bland brown wrappers with small brand names and horror pix of sick smokers. The packs look grubby, not something a sophisticate would want to flaunt.
Grim graphics are also required in Indonesia but the message Peringatan Merokok Membunuhmu (Warning – smoking kills) is tiny compared to the funtime images.  Even more blatant is the sponsorship of music shows by the tobacco companies. 
Because these don’t directly name a brand the alerts don’t get used. Elsewhere such promotions aimed at youth are illegal.  Indonesia has banned tobacco promotion in the mass media, and ads targeting minors.
This rule is ignored: The hipsters featured on the hoardings may be over the age of consent, but their antics, like racing on office chairs, are certainly adolescent. One slogan is barefaced: ‘Shape of New Generation’.
According to the Indonesian Health Department more than two-thirds of males over 15 light-up to look manly.
Indonesia is the fourth largest consumer behind China, the US and Russia. But while these and other heavy-user countries have signed the WHO’s Framework, Indonesia has yet to find a pen. 
Instead companies plan to double production so logically more deaths will follow. Current estimates start at 244,000 a year and rise to more than 400,000.  Strokes and cancers are agonizing ways to die.
Australia’s former Health Minister Nicola Roxon who introduced the plain packaging law has been promoting tougher controls on the world’s baccy barons.
She cites four key factors in medicos winning the fight – ‘smart researchers, very professional public servants, recognised non-government organisations and a skeptical media’ – meaning journalists have not always been swayed by denials of damage.
In 2015 cigarettes were the second largest family expense after rice, according to the Indonesian Government Statistics Bureau, with households spending three to five times more on cigarettes than on education.
Another cause for concern?

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 June 2017)


Monday, June 19, 2017


Indonesia’s woman to watch                                              

Yenny Wahid knows her place:  It’s everywhere.
With the collapse of other contenders the second daughter of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), the fourth President of Indonesia, has become the face of struggling religious harmony in the nation with the largest population of Muslims in the world.
It’s a role she seems to enjoy despite it ravaging her personal life.  “Maybe not my fate but an obligation,” she said while running late between public engagements.  “I also need to work smarter and manage time better.” This last hope lacked conviction.
In late April Wahid spoke to 1,000 women splendidly dressed in batik sarongs and tight lace kebaya blouses at the Jakarta headquarters of the Japanese-Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai.
Followers had gathered to honour Indonesia’s 19th century women’s rights advocate Raden Adjeng Kartini under the banner The World is Yours to Change. Wahid was the keynote speaker.  Although lionized she never looked prideful, wandering off the red carpet to chat to bystanders.
 In her speech Wahid suggested deletion of the ‘Y’ in the title but wrapped this with an easy demeanour which diluted organisers’ embarrassment.
Next stop a distant hotel to moderate a discussion.  Here the gender imbalance was flipped. At the Kongres Ekonomi Umat (Muslim Economic Congress) elderly men ruled ten to one.
A speaker who complained of insufficient cash to open a university because he had two wives drew titters.  Wahid didn’t react.  She preaches equality and respect but is too smart to behave like some feminists and slap down a misogynist among mates.
The smile never subsides because everyone is paparazzi ready to record a slip but up close the hard brown eyes tell another story: Controlled determination. 
Wahid comes across as bright and polite, but she’s also firm and a little wary; she’s accompanied by an ‘adjutant’ who carries police ID but keeps his distance.
During his two five-year terms President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wore the moderate Muslim crown.  He was welcomed in the West and given entrée to the speaking circuit after retirement in 2014.
SBY lost the eminence grise lustre late last year when he waded into the political sewer in a failed attempt to get his oldest son Agus elected Governor of Jakarta.  He denied allegations of funding mobs to bully voters but the stench stuck.
Another claimant to the coronet was Dr Anies Baswedan, former university rector and Education Minister celebrated for his Indonesia Mengajar project putting volunteer teachers into remote schools. Descriptors included ‘intellectual’ and ‘moderate’.  The latter is now seldom heard.
The US-educated academic abdicated when he teamed up with some of the more dubious players in the power game.  Their goal was to defeat the ethnic Chinese Protestant Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja (Ahok) Purnama at whatever cost; it seems Baswedan didn’t care that his side was using xenophobia and vile threats like denying burial rites to Ahok voters.
His supporters included the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) street thugs who masquerade as pious Muslims, and failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto who helped bankroll Baswedan’s successful bid for the capital’s top job.
The departures of men with feet of clay now leaves Zannuba Ariffah Chafsoh Rahman (Yenny) Wahid as a singular voice; her task is to explain that the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) applies to all Indonesians – even the kafir (unbelievers).
She’s no neophyte – as Director of the Wahid Institute she’s been articulating the organisation’s values of ‘seeding plural and peaceful Islam’ since her father died in 2009. 
Gus Dur and his wife Sinta Nuriyah had four daughters, but Wahid says she was closest to her Dad sharing his interest in politics. Her Mum (below, right) is also active in reconciliation despite being confined to a wheelchair since a car crash in 1992.

Wahid reported for the Fairfax Press when the Indonesian Army trashed East Timor after locals broke free of Indonesian rule in the UN-supervised 1999 referendum. The team including Wahid won a Walkley Award, Australia’s highest prize in journalism. 
She got a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard, and returned home as an advisor to SBY.  While lobbying as secretary general for the Muslim Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (National Awakening Party) Wahid met her future husband Dhohir Farisi. Now a businessman he used to be with Subianto’s Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) party.
Wahid’s reputation is rising.  She talked to US VP Mike Pence on his visit to Jakarta and will meet the Pope in the Vatican.  She’s also ambitious and won’t discount a future role in the UN.
“I’d like a Cabinet position, maybe Foreign Affairs, but would worry about being away from my family,” she said. In Indonesia ministers can be appointed from outside the Parliament.
“We need to link Indonesian Islam to the world, to bring enlightenment and influence to other countries, to show that there’s another way of Islam.
“I get my values and spirit from my Dad.  He said ‘be brave, don’t hate and don’t lie’.
He followed the Javanese principle of sumeleh which means love of God and acceptance when all things that can be done have been done.  It’s not fatalism.

“It might be easier if I was a man in this macho society, but then the pressures could be physical rather than mental.” 

As in many cultures the way women dress and behave is minutely scrutinised for signs of unorthodoxy; pragmatic Wahid, 42, comes across as an Ibu, a safe homely matron.
She mentions her spouse more than her qualifications and sometimes brings her children to events, which softens the image of activists as joyless agitators.  One daughter came to the Soka Gakkai, skipped, charmed and stayed with Grandma when Wahid left. All very domestic.
She’s made the pilgrimage to Mecca but won’t use the honorific Hajja “because I don’t want to make it an issue.”

She wears a half headscarf, frustrating accusers hinting of Western values, but appeasing those who see the jilbab as a mark of oppression.

“This is the way I express my right to wear what I want,” she said. “My grandmother covered like this – it’s my symbol of struggle. I sleep well.” 


First published in Inside Indonesia, 19 June 2017:

Wednesday, June 07, 2017


Many goats, few cats, ample fish   
The Indonesian government’s Ten New Balis program aims to beckon investors to create fresh tourist lures.  One obvious candidate is an islet off East Java’s north coast.  But transition won’t be easy.
Gili Ketapang ticks most boxes as a desirable destination: It’s less than an hour from a major port so day trips are easy. Although ferries are grossly overcrowded the passage is usually calm and busy with traffic. 
The timid will discover an outlet for their limited adventuresome spirits while those keen on culture, history and ecology will find puzzles to stimulate the mind.  But how to promote all without spoiling?
“This is our development dilemma,” said village head Suparyono, 49, (right) the senior government official on the 68 hectare island eight kilometers from Probolinggo.

“We definitely want more tourists to help our economy and tell the world about ourselves.  But we don’t want visitors to start buying land for their businesses or damage our traditions.”
Whether disembarking at the public jetty or beaching a charter boat on the sandy western tip of the tear-shaped isle the newcomer is met with a welcome and a warning.
The prohibition could have included bans on littering – which is a serious concern – but highlights instructions on how women should dress, particularly while snorkelling. Unsurprisingly Bali’s bikinis are taboo; so is even modest beachwear.
While men can make a splash in shorts women struggle to keep covered as tugging waves threaten to reveal a sliver of skin. However there are few chances of locals suffering a moral upset because visitors, mainly from social clubs, hang around the beach where they camp and frolic among themselves.
Unchaperoned outsiders wandering the kampong concerns Suparyono.  “Some locals want to pinch guests’ skin, particularly if it’s white, because it’s so unusual” he said. “They also stare a lot and ask for cigarettes as they assume everyone smokes.

“We need to provide tour guides who can explain the cultural differences. We don’t want outside agents doing this. Our religious leaders are not ready yet to understand tourism. But people are friendly and this is a safe place.”
(In the interests of factual reporting your correspondent found much curiosity and only benign harassment.)
The islanders may be sedate but the elements are less easily controlled. With only two metres between high tide and the peak a tsunami could sweep all away.
 “Impossible,” said Suparyono. “We’d be shielded by Madura.”  The bigger island is 60 kilometers north and tethered at its west end to Java by the Suramadu Bridge; Madura is more than 6,000 times larger than the islet and its population 375 times greater.
It would be a brave soul who confessed to following a faith other than Islam on Gili Ketapang.  The majority are Madurese and speak a different language. 
Few locals over 30 seem to understand the national tongue; those who do were schooled on the mainland or married into the community from elsewhere.  The effect makes visitors feel they should have brought passports and phrase books.
Suparyono taught elementary school before taking his present job and is proud that most people want to remain.
“There are 9,671 residents and only six have gone overseas (as maids or laborers),” he said with bureaucratic precision, presumably up-to-speed on overnight births or deaths.  “Unlike Madura our population is growing.  (Half the seven million ethnic Madurese live away from their homeland.)
“There’s plenty of fish because we are conservationists.  We don’t use cantrang (trawl nets banned by Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti but this year unbanned by President Joko Widodo) because we want to sustain stocks.

“Anyone who isn’t lazy can get work on the boats (there are around 800) or processing the fish.  What we don’t eat we sell in Probolinggo.” The kids look fit and there are many oldies, suggesting a piscine diet helps folk thrive.
Some families have clearly done well judging by their modern homes. Seen from the sea the terracotta roofs and whitewashed walls give a Mediterranean feel. However authorities are behind on planning; grand mansions front old shacks and narrow tracks of crushed coral.
Houseprouds’ kitchen devices don’t get overused as power is rationed.  Suparyono said new diesel generators will be relocated away from the school where the rhythmic bang-bang disrupts classes.
The island is dry so water is pumped from Java through an undersea pipe.  Yards have rain tanks and there are a few wells.  Some have become mystical – see breakout.
In Gili Ketapang everyday is car-free – the ferries are too small to carry large goods;  an armada of motorbikes has made it across the straits, though more for status as they are poorly suited to squishy sand and tyre-ripping coral.
Only the toughest trees survive the goats which probably outnumber humans.  Some have adapted to gnawing cardboard and tissues but so far haven’t evolved into plastic digesters – which is a pity as there’s little shortage.
Around half the women wear bright headscarves but not the all-covering jilbab found on the mainland.  Sarongs are unisex fashion.  Babies are made up like dolls.
Another aspect of local lifestyle is practical.  Properties are fenced – not because of theft (there are no police on the island) but to repel the voracious nannies and billies patrolling the perimeters like an occupying army, ever alert to a breach of security.
There’s no formal tourist accommodation on Gili Ketapang            so visitors need to make prior arrangements with householders.  Otherwise there are beds aplenty in Probolinggo’s hotels and guest houses mainly catering for trekkers heading to Mount Bromo.
Semeru, Java’s highest (3,676 meters) mountain, features in pre-Islam cosmology as a transplant from India where it was called Mahameru.
Geologically it’s a perpetual puffer with 55 major eruptions in the past two centuries.  In local mythology Gili Ketapang used to be part of Java but was blasted away during some massive explosion of Semeru long ago.
The hard science is less romantic:  Basically the island is a coral reef and barren sandspit in a shallow sea.
A more recent oral history has Shaykh Maulana Ibrahim, one of the 14th century Walisongo (nine saints) who brought Islam to Java, visiting from Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan). Along with spreading the word he also cleansed a cave occupied by hundreds of felines.

Goa Kuching (cat cave) is now a quaint shrine with some old wells cut into the coral and donation boxes prominent.  The slightly deaf custodian Mang, 87, (right) shouts a lot which might be why only one shy black cat was spotted near the building which is also used as a snooze spot for pilgrims.
For those with faith and an empty bottle Mang will go down into the hole and bring back some blessed water.
It’s said that on certain auspicious nights much caterwauling can be heard which should make Gili Ketapang an ideal location for a spooky sinetron (soap opera). 
The story seems more fable than fact:  Even if the cats were crying the calls to prayer and the pounding power plant would smother any pussy pleading for release.

First published in The Jakarta post 7 June 2017

Tuesday, June 06, 2017


Coming to naught – someday   

Roadside seller of new banknotes for Idul Fitri celebrations.
The price is ten per cent above face value.
It was clearly a bargain – and the alert shopper was shouldering her bag into the ready-to-buy position; an elegant batik blouse for Rp 499 in Indonesia’s popular Matahari shop. The well-established outlet is known for discounting but this was too good to miss.
The target moment was brief. One step closer and another symbol became clear – the letter ‘k’, short for ‘kilo’.
The middle-class department store and other big retailers can use this pricing because the clientele is financially literate.  Buyers understand that the basic monetary unit in Southeast Asia’s largest economy is not one rupiah – but a thousand rupiah and has been for many years.
So why not stop playing around and officially scissor the last three zeroes?  It’s called redenomination and the term is as awkward to say as the currency is to handle.  So Bank Indonesia and the Government are yet again pushing the idea into the nation’s conversation as a way into its wallets.
With the exchange rate stubbornly stuck above Rp 13,000 to the US dollar, a thousand rupiah equals between seven and eight US cents.  That’s enough to buy one cigarette.
Rp 1,000, 500, 200 and 100 coins are getting rare. The smaller ones are more likely to be pocketed in taped bundles to make Rp 1,000.  
The largest note is Rp 100,000 (US $7.50).  Carrying rupiah is burdensome compared to the Malaysian ringgit (4.3 to one greenback) and the Singapore dollar (72 cents). Western holidaymakers in Bali filling their bags at ATMs dub the rupiah ‘funny money’ and assume it means the economy is in strife.
It’s less amusing in Vietnam where carrying away 2.3 million dong after exchanging one Benjamin (US $100 note) needs a backpack.

“We’re not there yet but the arguments for redenomination of the rupiah are compelling,” Professor Candra Fajri Ananda (right)  told Strategic Review.
“I think it would be good for the country and the economy. It will stimulate growth and lift our international status. But I also know it will take time and a massive public awareness campaign.
“Redenomination is hard to say and often confused with devaluation (imposing an exchange rate) which is entirely different.  Indonesia is still a largely cash economy and most people don’t use banks.”  Surveys show there are only 60 million accounts in Indonesia.

Ananda, 43, Dean of Economics and Business at Malang’s Brawijaya University has been appointed to work with the National Parliament’s Committee 11.  This handles Finance, the National Development Planning Board, banks and other financial institutions. He takes up his three-year posting this month [June].


The need for redenomination is widely accepted by professionals in business.   Though the logic for change is clear, the execution could be catastrophic if mishandled.
India has given skittish politicians a sobering example of how good ideas crumble when governments meddle with money: Last year PM Narendra Modi ordered banks to exchange 500 (US $7.50) and 1,000-rupee notes (US $15) for new bills in a bid to stop hoarding and tax evasion.
 The New York Times reported the decision threw ‘the economy into turmoil, with many millions of people forced to line up at banks to deposit or exchange their old bills’.
In two years Indonesia will elect a new leader through popular vote. If he nominates the last thing incumbent President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo wants is a loss of confidence from electors who might think juggling the rupiah a trick to clip their salaries and savings.
Jokowi has publicly endorsed the latest plan to delete zeroes and says he wants it to be a priority in this year’s Prolegnas (National Legislation Program).
However should he win in 2019 he’s built in a personal escape hatch by suggesting a seven year education campaign.
This will take the nation up to 2024 – an election year when the impact of redenomination will be someone else’s hurdle.  Indonesian presidents are restricted to two five-year terms.
US political scientist Professor Layna Mosley has studied redenomination and found ‘government concerns about credibility and the effect of currencies on national identity’ strong factors in deciding whether to cut the zeros. In brief it’s politics and emotion rather than economics.
About 40 million (15 per cent) of the Indonesian population is considered poor by the World Bank. Numeracy levels are low. According to UNICEF ‘a significant number of children stop their education after completing primary school. One in ten children who should be in classes at junior secondary level are not enrolled.’
Distrust of authority is widespread along with conspiracy theories.  Persuading all citizens to understand and accept currency changes would require a massive investment in building community acceptance.
The present enthusiasm for change is an echo from past calls. In 2010 and again three years later Bank Indonesia was assertive. So was Finance Minister Agus Marto Martowardojo.  He was reported as saying:
"We have now achieved a good level of national economic development but it is not yet supported by an efficient currency. The rupiah must now be redenominated as it has become inefficient.”

The inefficiency remains. Nothing happened because the economy was suddenly said to be unstable.  Ananda claims that’s not an issue now as inflation (currently 4.17 per cent) has been steady for several years.
“Financial illiteracy is a problem though the situation is improving,” said Ananda. “As part of the change we’d need an authority where people could complain and get action if traders tried to exploit confusion.”
As no budget has been announced to run an awareness program Indonesian shoppers will continue putting up with spending half a million rupiah for a batik blouse – though still a good buy at US $37.50.


First published in Strategic Review 6 June 2017: