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, October 27, 2017


Power to the pensioners
The rapid rise and youth of New Zealand’s new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 37, has drawn international attention.  Less noticed has been the role of older Kiwis in the election.  

The people of Aotearoa (the Maori name for the South Pacific nation) voted on 23 September but didn’t discover who’d rule till mid October when coalition negotiations were sealed and portfolios allocated.
National, which had been in power for nine years won 56 seats, Labour and the Greens a combined 54, leaving NZ First with nine seats to determine who’d run the nation for the next three years.  It chose to side with center-left Labour.
Although dubbed by opponents as a ’coalition of losers’ the visceral hate which infects Australian and US politics is largely absent in NZ.
NZ First leader Winston Peters said Ardern had ‘exhibited extraordinary talent’ while campaigning and that voters wanted a human face to moderate capitalism. Peters, 72, has been a politician longer than Ardern, a parliamentarian for nine years,  has been alive.
Although compared with young leaders like Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, 45, and French President Emmanuel Macron, 40, Ardern doesn’t fit the standards.  She lives with her boyfriend and quit her church when it rejected marriage equality.  She’s childless and the third woman to be PM in NZ.  
In the new Parliament 36 per cent are women.  Although Caucasians dominate, 30 per cent of are Maori and Pacific Islanders, and six per cent Asian.
Peters understands the importance of age in  politics.  Described by The Guardian as ‘cantankerous’ but by locals as ‘wily’, the former lawyer of Maori descent is the new Deputy PM and Foreign Minister.  
He’s already known in Embassies around the world from his time as FM between 2005 and 2008. He said he’d be seeking more understanding of the Asia-Pacific region.
Australia and NZ give citizens cradle-to-grave welfare, including taxpayer-funded schooling, hospital care, unemployment benefits (the ‘dole’), and pensions.  But the schemes are run differently.
Australia’s pensions are means tested so those with private incomes miss out.  In NZ paupers and millionaires all qualify at 65; Peters gets the pension on top of his annual parliamentary salary of almost NZD 200,000 (Rp 1.9 billion / USD 140,000).
Economists say this road ends at a fiscal cliff. When state pensions started in the 1900s governments planned brief payouts knowing the grim reaper would soon relieve them of the burden. Now life expectancy has risen from the mid 60s to the early 80s. Analysts say pensions are draining the national budget at the expense of infrastructure, education and health care.
Australia has partly plugged the leak by lifting the entrance age to 67 by 2023, adding compulsory superannuation paid by employers, and tightening eligibility rules. European nations, including Britain, have made similar moves.  Though not NZ.
Former National PM John Key famously promised to quit if anyone fiddled with pension eligibility, puzzling many: How could a country of just 4.7 million (smaller than Metro Surabaya) afford such a drain on its finances?  
The answer is politics of pensioner power.  
A retired Kiwi couple currently gets NZD 576 (Rp 5.5 million / USD 405) each a fortnight after tax - 65 per cent of the net average wage. Around 16 per cent of the nation’s revenue goes on pensions, and the figure ratchets up every year.
Although the two countries are often lumped together the former British colonies have separate political systems.  
Australian States and Territories send a fixed number of Senators to Canberra.  All are elected by the people.  NZ has no upper house.  Since 1996 it has had the Mixed-Member Proportional representation voting system, also used in Germany for the Bundestag election last month, and a few other states.
Kiwis get two votes, one for their local electorate candidate, and the other for a party, so can split their choice. One more crucial difference: Voting in Australia is compulsory, in NZ it’s voluntary.  
In Australia voting no-shows are around six per cent. In the NZ election more than 20 per cent didn’t exercise their democratic right.  The stay-aways tend to be youngsters more concerned with their pay tomorrow not half a century ahead.
Those diligent about their civic duty are retirees; this substantial cohort rejects any party threatening their rights.
Peters used this year’s campaign soothing seniors who see the dapper dresser as their champion against indifferent bureaucrats; last decade he forced a reluctant government to allow free off-peak public transport to pensioners through a ‘Supergold’ card.  A wee matter, as Kiwis say, but positively impacting their lives.
Also appealing to the aged were NZ First’s tough policies on law and order and what it calls ‘common sense and straight talk’. The party is usually labeled ‘nationalist’ and ‘populist’.  It wants immigration slashed to 10,000 a year from the current 70,000.
In the past Peters has spoken about the ‘Asian invasion’, resonating with those - mainly the aged - fearing their traditional lifestyles are under threat.  For ‘Asians’ read Chinese – now the third largest ethnic group behind Europeans and Maori.
Now the ever-adroit Peters says he’s not anti-Asian but wants new arrivals ‘to meet critical skills gaps’.  He knows the Chinese are also conservative and determined voters.  He even claimed during the campaign that he had Chinese ancestry citing research that Maori are descended from Taiwanese aborigines.
Victoria University of Wellington molecular bio scientist Dr Geoff Chambers reportedly commented that this seemed to be a rare instances where politics informed science’.  
In public affairs there are few certainties but here’s one: NZ pensioners have political muscle.

First published in Strategic Review 27 October 2017.  See:

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


Learning to read film

Many Indonesians have tough lives and survive on little.  Their prospects are grim.  Yet they remain cheerful and friendly - values worth celebrating
That’s the philosophy of prize-winning film-maker Mahesa Desaga (right) .  He'd like all to know the giant republic is more than political crises and natural disasters strung into a narrative of dysfunction.

“I want to reflect the lives of the marginalised,” he said. “The best way is through films showing how relationships work, how families cope.”
He does this using gentle whimsy not searing confrontation. His work is contemplative; viewers don’t leave his presentations with blood-drained faces but with a wry smile and thoughtful expression. Seeking escapism? Don’t bother this young man; head to a 21 Cineplex for Tom Cruise and American Made.
Similar emotions must have been felt by judges at the 2017 Australia-Indonesia Short-Film Festival Competition who awarded the 27-year old Malang university lecturer first prize earlier this year.
He took his film Nunggu Teka (Waiting to Arrive) to last month’s [Aug] Melbourne International Film Festival. MIFF bills itself as ‘one of the oldest film festivals in the world and the most significant screen event in Australia’.
Nunggu Teka is a poignant cameo of a lone mother (played by the late Supatemi, a neighbor of Desaga) preparing for a visit by her son during the Idul Fitri family reunions. These climax the end of the Ramadhan fasting month.
Shot in subdued tones the 15-minuter captures mood and emotion through domestic detail and limited movement. It’s more in the minimalist style of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.  
The rituals that bond ordinary life are the source of Desaga’s current work, what the British label ‘kitchen-sink drama’ and made mainstream by director Mike Leigh.  La La Land is not Desaga’s environment. Nor is the theater of envy where the tired poor watch the dopy doings of the idle rich.  
Also absent from his viewfinder are sinetron (TV soapie) stereotype characters. Audience tastes are unlikely to refine until directors get equal treatment alongside respected authors in the Indonesian school curriculum.
Desaga has a script about a family living in a house so cramped all share one bedroom.  This frustrates the parents seeking intimacy – a situation common in city kampongs and rural villages.
“Our closeness, our ability to survive, to be positive are all qualities that I want to see recognized,” he said. “This means teaching Indonesians how to read films. Cinema has been tightly controlled with only officially- approved imports allowed. Most have been from Hollywood so the choice is narrow.”
Film was hijacked for propaganda in the Soeharto era when creatives were dubbed disruptors. The government-sponsored docudrama Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Treachery of the Communists) was compulsory viewing for school children till 1998.
The idea of film as art has been led by directors like Garin Nugroho, 55, whose offerings can be more esoteric than entertaining.  Desaga is not in that generation or genre: Jumprit Singit (Hide and Seek) is a comment on kids besotted by gadgets.  It involves the chase of a thief and his contact with a lone boy excluded from Playstation so he retreats into imagination.
There’s a touch of autobiography here though the adult Desaga is funny and engaging.  The only child of working public servants he was often alone.  His destiny seems to have been set while still nurtured by the umbilical cord for his pregnant Mom took breaks in cinemas – a habit she continued after birth.
“The first film I remember was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was about three,” he said.  “Others were frightened by the scary figures - I was just interested.”  
At university he studied international relations “because I could not stand mathematics”. Instead of a career in Foreign Affairs he’s turned to being “a diplomat through my films”. After years of watching overseas dramas he’s developed a better understanding of the globe than through academic studies.
This has meant covertly sampling movies banned by authorities determined to keep progressive ideas away from the public.  This isn’t a situation unique to Indonesia – Iranian directors film abroad where there are fewer constraints on the topics they want to explore.
“Working outside Indonesia is a temptation,” Desaga said. “However I have a responsibility to society and I can’t exercise this in exile.” He suggests that “limited access screenings in an alternative exhibition space” might liberate directors – but would probably draw the killjoys suspecting subversion.
His parents saw little future for their son in celluloid though he now lectures on the subject at two universities in Malang. He started a filmophile group in 2008.
Although there are several similar clusters in Malang few have double-digit membership.  A curious situation in a city of 28 tertiary institutions drawing students from across the archipelago – and where every second lit-grad seems to have a book of published verse.
Desaga reckons too few understand how to make films using ordinary digital cameras and laptop editing programs even though all information can be Googled.  “Too lazy,” he says.
Maybe, but they’ve also been brainwashed by the ballyhoo of mega dollar productions where chopper shots, special effects and star names seem essential.
The other factor is a limited knowledge of the great offerings of cinema where the story drives the projector sprockets and the focus is on exposing character rather than the revealing dress spotted by the prurient.
Desaga draws inspiration from the past.  He names the 1977 Indonesian romance Badai Pasti Berlalu (The Storm Will Surely Pass) directed by the late Teguh Karya as essential viewing, and the Japanese drama Rashomon (director Akira Kurosawa) as the must-see film of all time.
Before his life reaches the final credits Desaga wants to tackle a feature film, a long leap from shorts.  Expect something about mudik, the mass pilgrimage to villages during Idul Fitri.  “It’s unique to Indonesia,” he said. “We should tell the world.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2017)

Monday, October 16, 2017


Still in the groove                    

In pre-digital days journalists reporting inaction on critical issues favored the metaphor of a needle stuck on a record turntable.

The revival of vinyl has kept the cliche circulating - particularly with new urgings to stop Australian-Indonesian relations from forever going round and round.

The latest wind-up comes from a well-intentioned group of 21 academics, economists, business people, NGOs and public servants; they gathered in Perth in July for a  closed-door session seeking better ways for the two nations to cooperate. This Track 2 (outside official channels) initiative was engineered by the USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia.

The result of the one-day 'extensive in-depth discussions' is the just-released report The Power of Proximity: Enhancing Australian-Indonesian Economic Relations.   Grand title - but that's about all.

The test of any think tank's effectiveness is whether it articulates practical action or is struggling for traction. The latter is the case here - only half the 12-pages have much to say and even less that's original. The words sound energising but none have driving power.

To be fair this was not the ambitious matchmakers' fault.  Their brief was worthy but flawed.  The difficulties in getting Indonesia and Australia to develop a trustful relationship after years of hot-cold wariness are formidable. Repairs require firm political will on both sides of the Arafura Sea.

Professor Tim Lindsey of Melbourne University once called the two countries the 'odd couple' of Southeast Asia. The pair live in the same location but long-term  marital tensions are too strained to share one bed.

The one politician present at the workshop and only as an observer was Bill Johnston, the West Australian Minister for Asian Engagement.  This is the smallest of his four portfolios. The two biggest names Marty Natalegawa (Foreign Affairs) and Mari Pangestu (Trade) are former ministers long out of office.

All the report's ten recommendations carry auxiliary verbs rather than imperatives. Although many participants were more mid and regional than peak and central - Indonesia’s official reps were from consulates - most had long records in the game and their voices deserve the ears of government.   

In the current climate those who get heard are inner circle ambassadors, Cabinet ministers from Jakarta and Canberra, gold star corporate tycoons and party  chessmasters with the president or prime minister's numbers on speed dial. When these giants murmur things happen.  

The report's author Kyle Springer from the USAsia Centre later commented that  'Australia simply has yet to see Indonesia as an opportunity ...There is yet a narrative of Indonesia’s rise and what it could mean for Australian businesses ... Instead of perceiving each other as a threat, they should choose to see each other as an opportunity.' The repetition suggests exasperation.
But why?  The answers get nudged out for this room is full of elephants.  The pachyderms which won't leave include the growth of fundamentalist Islam, surging nationalism, whether the Indonesian military is playing political games, and human rights concerns in West Papua.
For the Indonesians it's fear that Australia is plotting to fracture the Unitary State by supporting secessionists, and promote 'liberal lifestyles' - code for acceptance of homosexuality. Any of these beehives could be tipped over by agents provocateurs in the lead-up to the 2019 General Elections.
The closest the report's language gets to reality is this comment: 'Bilateral crises derail progress on economic issues and Australia and Indonesia lack a mechanism to manage and communicate during diplomatic crises'. That should be an all-stations alert.
To an outsider the equations look simple: One highly-efficient exporter just over the horizon from 260 million people in an economy growing at three per cent annually. Why does Australia do more trade with tiny New Zealand (population 4.5 million) than the colossus that's closer?
How come more than a million Australians every year holiday with the Balinese but Indonesians don't dart Down Under for a break?  Just 156,000 made the short trip after negotiating a 15-page visa questionnaire and paying more than AUD 150.  Australians have visa-free entry into Indonesia.
Outside the forum participant Ross Taylor, president of the Australian-based Indonesia Institute echoed exasperation: “We talk about building closer links,” he told Strategic Review. “But both governments still make it hard for young people to move between our two countries due to unnecessary red-tape”.

Why is the fourth largest country in the world desperate for infrastructure investment but Australian developers aren't building?  They see Indonesia as high-risk with a questionable legal system. Australia invested AUD 2.2 trillion overseas last year but only AUD1.9 billion in Indonesia.  
But as Springer points out, China: 'with its lack of government transparency, shaky property rights, and bureaucratic corruption, it actually falls rather close to Indonesia on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.'
For the record China ranks 78, thirteen points better than Indonesia.
The Power of Proximity leans on the trade trends report The World in 2050 by the international financial analyst Pricewaterhouse Coopers. 
This forecasts Indonesia overtaking Russia, Mexico and Brazil to become the fourth largest economy behind China, India and the US.
Fogging the USAsia group's vision has been the awkward progress of the Indonesia – Australia Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).  Negotiations are supposed to be finalised this year.
The laptops were opened in 2013, closed over domestic disputes, and rebooted in 2016.  Once called 'free trade talks' the term is now seldom heard suggesting the results will not meet expectations.
(In a separate forum Mari Pangestu revealed that while Trade Minister she talked of 'fair trade' to avoid antagonising economic nationalists.)
The Power of Proximity continues the trend of trade-or-fade auguries and muted responses.  The conservatives in Canberra seem more concerned with defence and security believing trade is best left to free-market entrepreneurs.
The experts who gathered in Perth are not so convinced, concluding: 'In short, despite robust diplomatic, political and military ties Australia and Indonesia have yet to fully take advantage of the power of proximity.'  
The needle stays stuck.
First published in Strategic Review 16 October 2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


The art of crushing talent 

When Eka Mulya Astuti was in high school her class had an exercise in drawing.
The teenager loved art so anticipated praise. Instead she was accused of plagiarism because her work was far superior to her peers’ efforts.
“I was so angry,” Astuti recalled, “I was also ashamed; I threw it away.
“In those days students didn’t argue. When I had the chance to select courses I chose natural science which didn’t include art, just to avoid that woman.
“I was 15. I’m now 48 yet I remember the moment clearly. Eventually I became a teacher so took great care when criticising students’ work; I understand the need for positive reinforcement.”
Astuti has quit schools and shaken off the damning response of a miserly mistress to triumph in her first calling. She’s also discovered another hurdle – being taken seriously. Art in Indonesia is largely men’s business. (See breakout).
Her portraits are now being commissioned by collectors like Jim Willey, an American executive at the Paiton power station complex in East Java.

His Las Vegas home is “adorned with art from Cambodia, Nepal, China, Thailand, India, and … Indonesia.”
He describes her work as “unique, and totally cool ... each painting includes a narrative (in Javanese) that specifically describes the subject in the painting. This is rare.

“Visitors do not often understand who is on the wall. Appreciation is enhanced because the viewer can put the subject in historical perspective. Eka provides a connection to her art.”

Astuti is obsessed (her word) with ancient Javanese history and mythology, particularly stories of strong women; this is no surprise as her mother Mariana raised her alone from age two when her father died. She has also been a single Mom for the past decade.
Her luminaries include Ken Dedes, the consort of Ken Arok, the first ruler of the Shiva-Buddha kingdom of Singhasari. She is also intrigued by Calonarang – a completely different figure.
Calonarang was a widow supposedly living in Girah, a village near Kediri in East Java a millennia ago. She allegedly caused pestilence because no man would marry her daughter Ratna Manggali. The plague was lifted only when Calonarang’s spellbook was stolen.
The wicked-witch genre also features in medieval European mythology as an eccentric crone or a threat to marriages – certainly a handy scapegoat. She’s cursed when crops fail or babies die. However feminist Indonesian poet Toeti Heraty Noerhadi-Roosseno has another interpretation: She sees Calonarang as a woman victimized by a patriarchal repressive society.
Astuti has completed one large portrait of Calonarang, which she won’t sell, and is planning others. She is working on a triptych of Pramodhawardhani, the ninth century queen credited with initiating Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
Because no portraits exist of her subjects Astuti reincarnates in a semi abstract style using acrylics. Among her heroines is the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo who also specialised in striking portraits of women.
“To get inspiration I meditate, burn incense and play gamelan music. It’s difficult to concentrate because friends drop in for long chats; they don’t think an artist at home is a worker.
“Once I was asked to paint Nyai Loro Kidul, but felt uneasy about the assignment. (The Queen of the Southern Sea is a famous shape-shifting figure in Javanese mythology, said to drown seafarers who wear green).
“When the canvas arrived it was mouldy, though the supplier said it was clean and fresh when sent. I saw this as an omen so haven’t done the picture.”
Astuti’s father was an artist but died when she was young. Mariana raised their child alone by making and selling food. Astuti’s talents went beyond art; she won a university scholarship to study English, has written 18 English texts and worked as an interpreter for international companies.
Astuti belongs to Bol Brutu, which started in 2009 when a group of artists visited the Kyai Sadrach historical site in Purworejo, Central Java. The name is an acronym from Gerombolan Pemburu Batu, which translates awkwardly as the Horde Hunters Group. It stages exhibitions and publishes art texts.

Closer to her Malang home is her source of insights and spiritual connections, the Hindu Candi Kidal. The temple was completed in 1260 as a shrine to King Anushapati, son of Ken Dedes (right).
A Shiva statue believed to be from Kidal is in Leiden’s National Museum of Ethnology. Surprisingly Astuti is not advocating its return.
“I want Indonesians to appreciate our history and I hope my art helps,” she said, “But Kidal is no longer the ideal environment. The statue is probably safer, getting better care and being seen by more people where it is.”
Just after this interview an allegedly deranged doctor smashed his car through the gates and crashed into the temple causing minor damage. He was unhurt.
Tougher for women
Bandung mixed-media artist and gallery owner Moel Soenarko, 77, reckons creative Indonesian women have a greater struggle than men to get their work appreciated. “Fortunately that’s not too hard because we are smarter,” she said.
“In our culture a wife’s first duty is to her husband and family. With so many responsibilities she can’t get out of the house so has to study from books. That’s limiting.”
On a recent visit to Malang the veteran campaigner for equality held a soiree where she advised Astuti and others to go beyond selling their works privately and mount formal exhibitions.
“We have to get out in the public,” she said. “Why do so many people who don’t do anything get in the media while we women are ignored? We need to express ourselves and get noticed. We have to help ourselves.”
First published in The Jakarta Post 10 October 2017