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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Fleeing from tolerance                                                                       
Every nation heralds its self-selected qualities like free speech, faith and honesty – though not all are grounded on facts.  Australia’s honor roll once included ‘Fair Go’.
This supposedly meant that newcomers who toiled tenaciously and hugged Aussie values would not be held back, for the Lucky Country has long been welcoming migrants – currently 190,000 annually.
Last year’s census shows almost half its 24 million population was either born overseas or Mom or Dad came from abroad.  Traditionally that was Europe; now it’s Asia.
They’ve arrived by air with wanted skills and valid visas.  A handful chose a different route.  In the past they were accommodated.  In 1975 when North Vietnam defeated the United States and its allies – including Australia - thousands fled the South by boat. 
Some made it to the promised land.  One mixed group handed Customs officers a letter: ‘Help us live in Australia …we shall keep Australian law, will be goodman. (sic)’
Others went to camps like Indonesia’s Pulau Galang.  During the next two decades 150,000 Vietnamese resettled in Australia.
That compassion was further enhanced following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing. Policy was made on the spot when then Prime Minister Bob Hawke tearfully offered asylum to 42,000 Chinese students who feared return.
Australia was clearly a haven for the persecuted.  This encouraged others fleeing conflict in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere to head for the Great South Land.
Now the harbors are barred.  Hopefuls paying people smugglers to ferry them from the archipelago to Australia’s north are turned back or sent to detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. 
This shift from acceptance to rejection has been examined by historian Dr Claire Higgins in Asylum by Boat, just published by the University of New South Wales Press.
It comes with the former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs commenting that the policy has moved from ‘humanity to inhumanity’.  Maybe, but it’s widely popular with an electorate fearing Asia’s mega millions will flood the island continent and destroy the occupants’ First World lifestyles.
The hard liners are more diplomatic, reminding voters concerned at the damage to Australia’s image that being tough saves lives; more than a thousand have drowned after rickety fishing boats sank.
The other argument runs that ‘queue jumpers’ should not take places reserved for proven refugees patiently waiting in camps elsewhere. Last year Australia took 17,500 under its ‘humanitarian program’.
Governments claim policy making is deliberative.  Not with Australian responses to asylum seekers. By 2001 so many were sailing south that a crisis was looming in an election year.
Suddenly political salvation: The Norwegian freighter Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers from a sinking hulk and tried to land them in Australia. Instead they were sent to Nauru.
The then Prime Minister John Howard accelerated new laws to ‘determine who will enter and reside in Australia’. Although tagged the ‘Pacific Solution’ it clearly wasn’t as the boats kept coming. The number peaked in 2013 with 300.
So the chauvinistically titled ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ was launched with ‘zero tolerance’ to the dismay of human rights activists.  Since then 30 boats have been turned back, the last in March this year. In August six Chinese men who landed on an Australian island near PNG were flown home.
Through her research into the background of these shifts and shunts Higgins has found nine options proposed by ministerial advisers which clearly show that policy making was adrift. 
These included a bizarre revenge-motivated plan  to tell the ‘governments of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia that we will put the entry of their nationals, including students, on to a quota and for every refugee that comes, one is dropped off the quota’,
A second madcap idea was to tie up the boats under quarantine till the passengers got fed up and sailed away to who knows where.  Did anyone consider that the desperate might scuttle the boats?
Another notion  suggested treating the new arrivals ‘almost as lepers, segregating them in special camps and giving them minimal standards of support’. Centres like those in Thailand and Malaysia (where conditions are said to be primitive) were mooted
Eventually deals were done with Nauru and PNG to warehouse the asylum seekers till they either go home or get resettled elsewhere. There are currently about 1,300; most are men and some have been held for more than three years. A similar number, including children are in camps on Australian soil, mainly Christmas Island. The US has just agreed to take 50 under a deal pre-dating Donald Trump’s election.
Malaysia has more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees, Indonesia a tenth of that number.
Refugee advocates remind that Germany has taken more than a million and Chancellor Angela Merkel has survived the political backlash. They believe Australian detainees are so few that just being compassionate could solve the problem, The Government says going soft would revive people smuggling.
Higgins interviewed former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser for her book.  In a response revealing the paucity of policy the late PM asked the academic: ‘What else could you do?’
‘It is as relevant as ever,’ she writes. ‘The other answers to that question have been implemented, but not in a way that addresses the needs of vulnerable people and Australia’s international responsibilities.’
For Australian politicians the ‘Pacific Solution’ is messy, possibly illegal but a crowd pleaser.  It’s also costly: AUD 5 billion so far plus AUD 70 million compensation to Manus detainees for allegedly holding them in dangerous and damaging conditions.
Absent is any coordinated international approach despite an available forum - the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. (See Strategic Review 24 March 2017).
So each country handles the issue their way according to the whims of local politics. The ‘Fair Go’ tag has passed its use-by date.

 First published in Strategic Review 26 September 2017.  See:

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Making new laws work   

Nengah Latra (left) 
is not ashamed of his wounds so is happy in T-shirts. Yet when he met Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo after the 2014 election to seek a better deal for the handicapped, the Balinese wore a full-sleeve batik shirt.
Questioned why - because the sight of his scars might have shown the new president that he was dealing with an advocate with raw knowledge – Latra responded: “Because I felt that I am not disabled.”
But that was the label attached when a kerosene lamp exploded during a religious festival in 1986 showering the teenager with flaming fuel.
The burns to his arms fused them to his torso.  For the next two years he lived in isolation, convinced the accident was punishment for real or imagined sins. His family and friends urged him to follow nrimo, the Javanese philosophy of acceptance.  Gone was his dream of a military career.
Rescue from his misery came when he was discovered by field workers and persuaded by the late New Zealand health-care activist Colin McLennan to travel to Yogyakarta for plastic surgery.  Latra met others who’d abandoned self pity to lead productive lives.  Their attitudes helped launch a career as a carer.

Now he’s director of Puspadi Bali, probably the best equipped rehabilitation center in the nation, dispensing free prosthetics made in-house and supplying new donated wheelchairs.  
In the past five years Puspadi has helped more than 4,500 people in Bali and islands to the east; in 2016 it distributed almost 600 mobility devices.
Puspadi costs Rp 5 billion (US $ 380,000) a year to run. It’s largely funded by the Inspirasia Foundation founded by Englishman Mark Weingard. The investor and broker made giga greenbacks around the turn of the century catering for what he now calls ‘wanker bankers.’
When his fiancĂ©e Annika Linden was killed in the 2002 Bali nightclub terrorist bomb blast Weingard turned from dealer to donor seeking ‘the biggest compliment – that we have been an inspiration’
The purpose-built Bali center named after his late bride-to-be includes three other NGOs running clinics for stroke victims and kids with cerebral palsy.
Latra’s call on the President paid off because last year Indonesian legislators passed a law based on the UN Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities; this recognizes ‘the equal rights of all members of the human family, including access to employment.’
Indisputable. Now comes the tricky part:  How can the handicapped exercise these equalities? Or more bluntly – who pays for thousands of ramps to replace steps, keep sidewalks clear, install elevators and hire inspectors to stop businesses discriminating?

“I know of only three universities in Indonesia where the disabled can access classes without confronting tower block stairs and doorways too narrow to admit a wheelchair,” Latra said.
“It’s the same with government offices, banks, schools and other public buildings.  And what about getting on and off busses and trains?  There has to be total change in society if the new law is to be effective.”
Putu Warsita Putra who coordinates Puspadi’s wheelchair program knows the equipment extends individual mobility and freedom - though only if society allows.
“People use electric scooters overseas but it’s impossible here,” he said. “Even when a road is well maintained, which is rare, the traffic doesn’t respect wheelchairs.”
The reception area of the Annika Linden Centre looks more like the lobby of a five-star boutique hotel with original art and fine pictures. 

Photographer and center volunteer Luciana Ferrero (left) said the surrounds intimidated some village people who come for treatment but they soon adapt. “Children are the agents of change,” she said.  “They like the place and adults follow.”
Latra stressed the handicapped have rights to enjoy a serene ambience and professional care.  Low windows allow relatives to see the treatments being offered and watch prosthetics being made.
“We don’t provide accommodation,” he said.  “It’s best if the handicapped live in the community and come here for assistance - our staff spread the word. Last year we had 652 new clients.” (See breakout)
The costs, all covered by Puspadi, range from Rp 500,000 (US$ 40) a limb up to several million for more sophisticated models embedded with computer chips; these can adjust  balance and lock the knee. 
“Most donations come from abroad, mainly the US, Australia and NZ,” said Latra. “We would appreciate a visit by the President to raise local awareness and address the needs of ten per cent of the population.
“I got to see him in Jakarta, but getting him here would be difficult and costly.  Overseas I’ve seen the handicapped working in hotels and government offices serving the public.  People accept that as normal.
“I think it will take about 40 years to get this country to fully accept that whatever their condition every Indonesian has rights equal to all other citizens.   The change has to start at the top – and at the bottom.”
Having a leg to stand on

Gede Agus Aman, 25,  is a presentable and cheerful fellow who goes into remote areas to tell villagers that they can get free care for disabled family members at Puspadi. 
Not all are convinced.  Verbal sprays about the benefits of treatment in Denpasar have little effect in the mountains.  What would Aman know of  pain?  He’s fit and bouncy, one of the lucky uncursed.
So he invites doubters to whack his shin with any lump of wood.  Eventually someone gives it a go.  “Harder,” says Aman.  He doesn’t wince.
Then he rolls up his trouser to show a prosthetic and a livid stump, the result of a road space contest between motorbike and truck.  The bigger vehicle won and smashed his limb.
“You can argue all you like about the need for treatment, hand out brochures, supply statistics and show videos,” said Latra.  “But there’s nothing so effective as people telling their stories and explaining how they’ve got back into life.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 September 2017)

Friday, September 15, 2017


Change ahead for Godzone?                                                       
A new dawn for Wellington?

The Radio New Zealand website headline seemed a must-read:  Myrtle Rust Found In Waikato.
Yet another overseas tourist lost in a snowstorm?  Anticipate tales of heroic search-and-rescue. Or maybe she’s a notorious bank robber on the run in the North Island region named after the longest river (425 kilometers).
Neither.  Myrtle Rust is a plant disease discovered on two trees now legally cordoned and rapidly felled.  That this yawn was deemed national news reveals much about the small South Pacific nation now considered a safe retreat should nuclear warheads explode in North Korea.
Another factor was dollars.  Apart from tourism NZ leans heavily on agricultural exports. So an alien bug should be feared by all, even one with a benign forename.
Myrtle aside there’s an even bigger event underway and getting international coverage– an election which looks increasingly likely to be lost by the incumbent National Party headed by Bill English, 55, a competent economist but a bland politician.
His Labour Party challenger is Jacinda Ardern, 37, fun, young but untested. Straw-grabbers have compared her to French President Emmanuel Macron, 40, another fresh contender from behind.  
Ardern has been in Parliament for less than a decade and before that in backroom politics – including the UK where she was on the staff of Labour PM Tony Blair.
That a woman might become PM without the sky falling shows the cultural gap with the US. NZ was the first nation to give women the vote in 1893; two decades ago voters put National’s Jenny Shipley into the top job. 
She was succeeded by Labour’s Helen Clark.  She held on for three terms (each of three years) till unseated by banker John Key in 2008.
Clark then joined the United Nations in New York as head of its development program.  Last year she stood unsuccessfully for the secretary general’s job.
Kiwis believe a woman’s place is everywhere so few journalists dare ask gender-based questions. Voters may want to know Ardern’s marriage plans and dress tips; she accepts the reality but prefers policy talk. 
For the record her father Ross is NZ High Commissioner to the Pacific Island of Niue. She lives with her radio presenter boyfriend. No kids.  Though raised a Mormon she’s now an agnostic. In NZ these traits are no handicap, though her opponent is a married Catholic with six children.
Two months ago middle-road National looked certain to win based on its record of economic stability and few major political crises. Yet housing problems caused by rising migration, high prices and few new builds have forced families to rent, not buy, putting pressure on social services. 
There’s been some resentment towards cashed-up arrivals from China (12 per cent) followed by the UK (many said to be Brexit refugees) and Australia at ten per cent each.  The rest are Indians, Pacific Islanders and returning Kiwis according to Statistics NZ.
About 74,000 immigrants a year is an entree in Europe but a main course in a nation with only 4.7 million people - and 30 million sheep.
National’s fortunes collapsed followed Ardern’s sudden leap to Opposition leader last month when her boss, charisma-free Andrew Little, accepted he’d been ineffectual.
Overseas Aotearoa (the Maori name for NZ) is known as a milk-and-honey progressive state. However not all is clean and green. Although crime is falling the jail rate of 212 for every 100,000 citizens puts NZ alongside Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
More than 40 per cent of those behind bars are Maori, yet the original occupiers represent just a seventh of the population; this suggests many ethnic, education and employment issues still resist resolution.
NZ was a global pioneer in welfare for all; hospital care is free, medicines subsidised and pensions not means tested as they are in Australia where wages are higher and taxes lower.
Yet by comparison with its big northern neighbor NZ is doing well; economic growth is three per cent and the budget balanced. The Great South Land is being ravaged by a mining slump, factional fights over global warming, and moral storms about same sex marriage.
 NZ passed that law four years ago.  Visitors expecting Sodom and Gomorrah will be disappointed; last year just 465 local same-sex couples got hitched while almost 20,000 opposite sex pairs followed suit.
The change was easier because NZ is a unicameral state so no upper house to reject laws.  It uses the Mixed-Member Proportional representation voting system.
Electors get two votes, party and candidate. The Electoral Commission says MMP’s ‘defining characteristics are a mix of MPs from single-member electorates and those elected from a party list.’  A party's portion of the 120 seats ‘roughly mirrors its share of the overall nationwide party vote.’ This gives the five minors more clout.  The Greens dominate but this year imploded over welfare policies.
Unlike Australia there’s no compulsory voting.  The Saturday 23 September election is in spring but NZ’s fickle weather could keep voters indoors.
Traditionally the elderly exercise their democratic duty. In the last election 22 per cent of electors couldn’t bother. Labour strategists hope Ardern’s feisty independence and bright countenance will stir youngsters to vote.
The issues have been largely domestic and so far the debates generally civilised. National is free market, but not US extreme. Labour is socialist, but not UK radical.
The country has a small defence force and relies on the ANZUS Treaty with Australia and the US. Having a massive arid continent between Godzone (God’s own country) and the world’s trouble spots helps calm nerves.
NZ has been pushing into Southeast Asia to boost trade and opening new consulates in Indonesia. However NZ harbors a small but vocal group supported by seven Pacific Island states alleging human-rights abuses in West Papua.

Their campaign has been annoying Indonesia.  Should Labour win on 23 September their calls for greater transparency could find a more supportive government.  * Disclosure: The author is a registered NZ elector.

(First published in Strategic Review, 14 September 2017:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


The legacy of a visionary

In Australian vernacular a ‘do-gooder’ is a coarse and ambiguous synonym for a philanthropist. For some it’s a jocular endearment; for others a stain of contempt for uninvited interference in another’s business.
The sincerity of John Fawcett, 85, who died last Saturday, smothered every negative connotation.  In the idiom he was true blue – a bloke who did real good.  Two million Indonesians know this to be true.
They elevated him to ‘Dr John’. He didn’t claim the honorific but was an expert on medical procedures having endured many operations for spinal problems and the skin cancer which took his life.  He well knew what happens when scalpels slip.
Which is how he came to spend his last 34 years in Bali, and why 50,000 Indonesians once condemned to the dark now have light. More than one million have been screened and treated for eye defects.  Half a million now see through spectacles - all because one man turned his agonies into achievements to give the gift of sight.
The story starts in 1981 when Fawcett, then an art lecturer and potter in Perth, had an epidural to relieve back pain. The routine procedure went badly wrong.  He spent more than two years prone, lost his job and family.  Recuperating in Bali he was treated with compassion by Wayan Mudiana and his wife Kisid – kindness he never forgot.
Cynics claim there’s no space left for Australian retirees, the refuse of First World efficiency. They’re supposed to quietly putt their way into the sunset, maybe mark time with some committee addressing envelopes rather than issues.

It’s the government’s job to handle health and social problems, not oldies with time on their hands. Australia’s loss – neighbor’s gain.

In Bali Fawcett chanced upon extensive cataract blindness seldom seen in Australia, and shocked that an easy fix was unavailable.  He became friends with banker and Rotarian Soeroso Patmodihardjo which gave him local links.

The John Fawcett Foundation was set up using money from Rotary Clubs, the Australian government, companies, associations and individuals he inspired. It established mobile eye clinics and a hospital.

Although Fawcett’s work won plaudits (the Order of Australia in 2004 and the Indonesian President’s Satyalencana award in 2008) he wasn’t a hero with some local medics who saw his activities reducing their incomes.

Fawcett said the issue faded as the foundation only treats those who can’t pay and a new generation of altruistic medicos is emerging.

“They are keen to learn from Western doctors who give their time to advise on latest procedures – but Indonesian laws prohibit them from treating patients,” he said.

Fawcett was a restless, driven urger so our lunches were irregular.  The last was in March when he sought help to get Indonesian TV stations to raise awareness of cataracts through World Sight Day on 12 October.  So far none have agreed.  Perhaps his passing will help them see the need.

Fawcett didn’t brag of the triumphs but instead told of the torment he endured after persuading a family to let their daughter have a cleft palate operation; the girl died. “Had I not interfered she might have lived,” he mused. Risk is ever-present in surgery; less than five per cent of cataract ops fail.

“I’m not religious, but my culture seems to promote compassion,” he said.  “Some believe a person’s handicap or accident has been pre-ordained by an omniscient and vengeful deity so intervention is useless.

“Errors in a previous life or recent sins rather than malnutrition, genetic defects and disease are accepted as valid reasons.”

To counter such fatalism Fawcett argued that the sufferer’s encounter with the foundation was also in the Deity’s master plan. And if the cause was diagnosed as black magic, the cure must be the white magic of medical science.

“Most Indonesians cannot understand what motivates foreigners to come here and volunteer,’ he said. ‘When we explain that our services are free, they respond with surprise and disbelief.

“If you can’t pay in this country you just have to tolerate the disabilities and die prematurely.”

Outsider critics of the Indonesian health system are as unwelcome in government offices as foreign loudmouths are in Australian agencies. ‘If you don’t like it, go home,’ is the response on both sides of the Arafura Sea.

For Fawcett that stretch of water is highly symbolic.  Growing up in northwest Australia his family fled Broome shortly ahead of Japanese bombers in 1942.

“What Australians don’t realise is that the enemy advance was stopped by the resistance of the people of the islands – our closest neighbors,” he said.

“They supported us at our time of need.  Now, where is our money being spent?  The screws are on to close down our aid to Indonesia. (In 2015 Australian aid to the Republic was slashed by 40 per cent.)

“It’s daunting to know our government is not interested in Indonesia. I don’t want to think about it.  Fortunately others have an interest.”

Sight problems are not confined to Bali. Last year Fawcett’s foundation ran programs in eight provinces. Such was the genuineness of his need that the Indonesian Air Force agreed to use its C130 Hercules to airlift the mobile clinic to outer islands.

Some reason that if Westerners are offering assistance there’s a catch. Either they are thieves filching donations, or subversives planning to carve up the Unitary State.

If such motives are proved hollow then the foreigner must be out to ‘Christianise’.  Fawcett added a new clause in the foundation’s mission statement to deflect such suspicions: ‘… to operate without alignment to any governmental, institutional, political or religious organisation.’

“In a country as religious as Indonesia many can’t understand how care can be divorced from faith,” he said. “The idea of humanists having values with no strings attached is hard to grasp.”

Thus spake the decent ‘dinky-die’ Aussie do-gooder who helped others see. John Fawcett  was a visionary.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 September 2017)