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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Slipping into disaster

Every wet season Indonesia confronts killer landslips. Some could be avoided if NZ research is applied and backed by law.  Duncan Graham reports from East Java.
Anyone planning a hurried journey should avoid including a graduate from Dr Laurence Wesley’s (above) class in the car.
They’d drag out the trip and annoy fellow passengers by demanding stops to inspect roadside cuttings. They’re excavation addicts, forever keen to peer beneath the topsoil.
“You can’t understand the science unless you go into the field and get a feel for the situation,” the New Zealand geotechnical engineer tells students in Indonesia.
“Technical results aren’t enough. We all like to play with nice programs and show clients models; but please leave computers in the office and head for the site.  Look around at the topography.  What’s the soil made of – what’s its geological history? Use your common sense.”
Having dirt under the fingernails is considered proof of professionalism in the West.  If he or she is serious (about 20 per cent are women) they’ll have heavy workboots in the trunk along with sample bags and hand tools – even if the car is the family saloon.
But there are constraints in countries which rank status above competence, according to Wesley – and that includes Indonesia. Engineers are respected. First President Soekarno studied civil engineering at the Bandung Institute of Technology, where he obtained an Ingenieur degree.
However for many the title means earning the right to make others do the dirty work.
Getting a feel for the soil

Wesley isn’t a foreign academic dumping alien habits onto another culture without understanding the subtleties.  The retired University of Auckland lecturer is the author of Mekanika Tanah (Soil Mechanics) first published in 1972 by the Indonesian Public Works Ministry and regularly reprinted.
It’s been the profession’s bible in Indonesia and Malaysia for almost 25 years. Now the octogenarian has written a new Indonesian version which is also being published world-wide in English.
As a young man Wesley wanted to use his degree to do good. He joined the now defunct NZ Volunteer Graduate Scheme arriving in Indonesia in 1960 by boat.  The first sight of the country that was to be “an important part of my life from that time through to the present” was the Sunda Strait island Anak Krakatoa.  This is the ‘child’ of the volcano which blew apart in 1883.
Here was smoking proof of the power of nature in Java; reports of the explosion were heard 5,000 kilometers away in Central Australia.  Thousands died in huge tsunamis.
Geotechnical engineers study the interface of nature and the endeavour of humans to impose their will on the world.  How can steel and concrete bond with the soil so the dam doesn’t leak, the high-rise wobble and the highway crumble?
Ghastly accidents reinforce their responsibility. Mistakes can kill. Wesley has been an expert witness when trenches collapse and smother workers. The blame often lies with contractors cutting corners to cut costs.
It’s long known that firm footings make for a safe structure. The Bible has a parable of the wise building on rock and the foolish on sand.  It seems obvious.  “Not so,” said Wesley. “Sand can be compressed and make a good base; not all rock is stable.”

Great architecture is obvious, but engineers’ triumphs are buried.  The public only hears of their work when it goes wrong.  Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa is a monument to a foundation failure.

Science started replacing guesswork in the 1920s. When Wesley was sent to Bandung thinking he was in the third world, he found Dutch-designed penetrometers (to measure underground soil compaction) in wide use. He had never encountered the machines in NZ.


What he did understand was equality; in the Kiwi workplace there’s little distinction between those with letters after their names and those without. He sought the technicians’ advice – behaviour alien to the Dutch-trained engineers. “It didn’t always make me popular,” he said.


The other problem was his bosses demanding precision when Wesley had already learned his profession was an inexact science.  It still is.


“You can’t relate formula to the practical world,” he said. “Extreme rainfall, major floods and earthquakes make it impossible to avoid natural landslips, but we can measure soil composition and assign risk factors.”


With just stencilled notes to guide staff the need for a text book was pressing.  Wesley learned Indonesian on the job and wrote the book examining sedimentary and residual soils – something other writers had ignored.  


It became a hit when published by the Ministry which in those days didn’t get fussed by having a foreigner’s name on the cover. Unfortunately the author didn’t sign a contract so missed out on royalties.


Conscious of nationalism Wesley suggested revising the new edition with a local writer; the idea was stamped down. The Indonesian would be from a specific university so other campuses would refuse to buy. A New Zealander was considered neutral.


Wesley went back to NZ in 1962 to marry, and then returned with his teacher wife Betty. Two of their children were born in Indonesia. Between 1963 and 1968 he worked for the NZ Ministry of Works before a further four-year stint in Indonesia under the Colombo Plan.


NZ and Indonesia share many characteristics which make engineers from the Shaky Isles welcome in the archipelago. Both countries feature in the Pacific Ocean Ring of Fire marking volcanic zones.


At a seminar in Malang (East Java) State University in August to promote his new book, participants asked Wesley:  If the science is so smart why are new roads potholing and house walls cracking? He blamed corrupt contractors using dodgy materials and failing to follow specifications.


“Quality control is essential – and that’s another reason to get out of the office and look at the site,” he said. “There’s a need in Indonesia for regulations requiring engineers’ reports on foundations as we do in NZ.


“Just having laws is not enough.  They need to be enforced.”


First published by the Asia NZ Foundation's Media Centre on 22 November 2017:


Wanted: The real refugee story   

There should be no asylum seekers in offshore camps funded by Australia.  They’re getting food, healthcare and accommodation - even money. But the prolonged wait is inhumane and damaging.  Impractical solutions and unbalanced reporting are compounding the problem.

The easiest answer would be to let proven refugees into the country. That won’t happen as most voters and the two major parties are convinced the metaphoric floodgates would be cranked open. It’s a compelling argument, particularly with the fear that many would perish in the Arafura Sea. But is it true?

There are more than 14,000 asylum seekers in Indonesia.  Last year 347 were resettled through the UNHCR in Australia, others went to the US and a few to Europe. Do the rest have access to escape routes?

No, according to Australia Government figures; 32 boats have been turned back since 2013 shows the Pacific Solution is working.  Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has another view.

His prelude to the tsunami features scenes of Middle-Eastern mafioso in dingy Jakarta cafes backed by guys in bulging singlets - what Indonesians call preman.

These Trump-style deal-makers among the coffee slops and full ashtrays are monitoring newsbursts 24/7 scanning for a crack in Fortress Australia’s resolve. Yellow fingers dial mystery contacts for stand-by shuttles to fishing villages on Java’s south coast.

Do Mr Dutton’s demons really exist? The only evidence are his forcefully delivered  assertions vilifying victims and belittling their supporters rather than dealing in facts.  

Are there enough cashed-up desperates in the street outside, faces pressed against the cafe windows, ready to hand-over gold bars and uncreased late-issue Benjamins to keep the travel agents afloat?

The fearful asylum seekers huddled outside the UNHCR gate in Jakarta are a pitiful sight. Some sleep on the streets. Independent reports suggest most are on the bones of their backsides in conditions far different from Manus.  

Indonesia is not a signatory to international agreements on refugees; locals want them gone and if there is strife the foreigners will find little sympathy and no recourse to courts or compensation.
If Mr Dutton’s fearmongering is founded on fact why haven’t the crims been crushed? The Indonesian Police backed by ASIO’s intelligence have been smashing terrorist cells with great success, so smugglers should be a pushover.

That’s if the law enforcers really want to - and aren’t in the rackets themselves. If so Mr Dutton might like to harangue the Indonesian Government.

That around three in every four asylum seekers have been found to be genuine refugees shows they were fleeing persecution, but a couple of niggling questions seldom get addressed:

Why didn’t they register in the first safe country they encountered (Malaysia has a UNHCR office) - and why are most young blokes? What’s happening to the persecuted women and kids? Aren’t they at greater risk without their menfolk?

Photos of the Manus men once had faces blurred so vengeful authorities in their homelands wouldn’t launch dawn raids on their families.  

Now images are identifiable suggesting original fears have evaporated and they can head home. According to the Orwellian-named Operation Sovereign Borders 624 have done so in the past four years.

The Manus camp’s mining camp facilities would be a soul-numbing environment.  But ‘Hell Hole’? That term is best reserved for the Rohinga camps in the mud and squalor of Cox’s Bazar.

It would help the refugee supporters’ case to be up-front about these concerns; the gentle guys v brutal bureaucrats picture they frame is as distorted as Mr Dutton’s imaginings. Parading extremes just hardens positions.  

So to offset scenes of despairing well-sinkers Mr Dutton and Mr Murdoch’s media tell of happy lads frolicking at the beach and arranging trysts with local ladies. This is curious: The parched-dowser images add to the deterrence, while the other tales could lure. Cynics might wonder what games are being played.

If refugee advocates in their worthy work took a more measured stand their messages would be better heard by those who find the present situation psychologically cruel and shameful. These people want the misery to end with a safe place where the refugees can retrieve their lives.  

But our responsibility to care has to be tempered by a political reality that’s not going to be changed by sloganeering and stand-offs.  

There’s been a forum in place since 2002 to explore alternatives with almost 50 states and agencies as members including Australia and Indonesia. The Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime is better known as the Bali Process.  It last met in Perth in August.  If it said anything of worth it’s being kept secret.

Australia will take almost 19,000 refugees through the UNHCR next year, ranking us third in the world. Even more have entered via the humanitarian visa programme.

Our pride in that decency is being shouted down by Mr Dutton’s slanders and his opponents’ hyperbole.  Until another way is found the detention-based deterrent will continue to harm the refugees, drain the budget ($5 billion so far) and demean our nation. If we yelled less and pondered more maybe we could find a fix.

First published in Pearls and Irritations 22 November 2017.  See:

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


The art of seeing faith through art

Burial of the artist Henkus' father

Edwin Koamesah had a great idea.  That’s his assessment and maybe it will all turn out OK.
But maybe not and the news pages of The Jakarta Post and other dailies will have tales of real or confected outrage as protestors misinterpret motives and try to trash his dream.
For the record the Surabaya engineer, art collector and businessman says:  “Of course I’m confident it will work.  Why not?”  Others have their private doubts and mutter “it’s risky.” Which is probably correct.
So here’s the plan: To hold a travelling art exhibition called After Three Days.  It will open later this year in Surabaya and feature 20 large canvasses painted by artist Slamet Hendro Kusumo (Henkus).  These are being created in his studio called Omah Budaya Slamet (Slamet’s Cultural Home) in the East Java hilltown of Batu.
So far so good.  Now to the tricky part: Koamesah (right) is a Protestant, Henkus a Muslim; the pictures focus on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and what the Bible says happens next.  However there’s little in common with the art that features in churches across the archipelago.
A canvas of the Last Supper has the disciples ready to slice the top off a tumpeng, the yellow rice mountain served for special events.  In another Jesus seems to be a T-shirted preman (street thug) while his followers are more hoodlums than holies.
Thomas the kissing betrayer wears glasses. Features are Arabic, Indian, European, Chinese, Javanese and a mix. As there are no known portraits of Jesus made during his life, artists have developed their own images.  These usually show a slender, handsome bearded man who looks more Caucasian than Jewish.
Henkus rejects that standard, making the man republican, not regal.  He’s a bit plump but certainly human and ordinary, though the events are extraordinary.  The pictures may be cursed as sacrilegious by the orthodox who want trumpeting angel choirs and sunbeams shafting through clouds.
In the West this would be a yawn. The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar broke the blasphemy barriers 47 years ago. But Indonesia is different.
Some Muslims will be upset that a man of their faith is interpreting Christianity (Islam forbids portraits of Mohammad) – but that strengthens the impact, according to Koamesah who commissioned the works.  
 “We want these pictures to appeal to the young,” he said “We’ve developed the themes together, but these are Henkus’ paintings – and they go far beyond my expectations.
“It’s the strength of his interpretations that’s important. His art is powerful, it makes you think, and it stimulates discussions.”
It certainly did during three open-studio days.  Among those coming to peer and ponder was Anik Lailatul Muniroh, 21, (left) studying English at a local Islamic university.

“I’m a pluralist and like the idea,” she said before stating her position firmly:  “But don’t call me a liberal.”  When told the ruling group in Australian politics is called the Liberal Party and its supporters button-down conservatives she was even more confused.
“’Liberal’ in Indonesian means things like free sex and a bad lifestyle. But no-one is perfect in any religion.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  We should be searching for goodness.”
Many find the idea of valuing other religions difficult if it means diluting her own commitment. Henkus had no such concerns:
“Before starting work I had to research the life of Christ.  That included reading the Bible, Stamford Raffles’ History of Java and scholarly texts on Christianity.  I’ve questioned much, learned a lot and respected what I’ve read.  But Islam remains my path to God.
“It hurts me to hear people saying their belief is the only one. Every religion teaches the same thing – love.  Humans invented religion and we should keep open minds about other people’s beliefs and opinions.”

The artist (right) was born and raised in Batu which is the weekend refresher for weary Malangites as Bandung is for jaded Jakartans. But Henkus looks beyond the hotels and hedonism:
“You see the traffic and the crowds seeking fun but away from the roads is a community of artists sustained by the collective values of Indonesian village life.
“It’s the ideal location for anyone concerned with spirituality; it’s surrounded by the ancient kingdoms of Kediri, Singasari and Majapahit.”
When reminded that most of the known temples are in Malang’s flatlands he responded: “Those are only the ones known so far. There are more to be discovered, and they are here.”
This suggests Henkus, 58, has his head in the saturated clouds that drop onto the peaks in the afternoons but the man is well educated with a higher degree in sociology.  His mother was Chinese and his father from Java; they had no known artistic talent. Likewise his three children.
His parents let their son extend his inquiries into philosophy.  He’s assembled a complex set of ideas exploiting the paradoxes of religions where no-one knows the certainty of any statement said or written centuries ago, but instead mold texts to fit their outlook.
He populates his canvases with faces that look startled, dismayed, confused, never triumphant but not defeated. Sadly most are men, which fits the time-toughened narrative that women belong in the background as supporters not activists.
 Sometimes he adds words like Democracy Zero; these tend to diminish the effect by disallowing viewers the chance to make their own interpretations of the ambiguities. But these are minor gripes.
Henkus is a humanist not confined to religious art. His secular pictures are social commentaries - a group of mourning men burying his father knowing they will follow - a cluster of bemused middle-aged workers realising that the old ways of farming can no longer sustain their families.
“We can find our own faith through art,” he said. “Mixing the modern with tradition in subtle ways makes the point that some messages are valid whatever the place and time.  I hope that my work can lead to better understanding of the mysteries.”

 First published in The Jakarta Post 14 November 2017

Monday, November 13, 2017


Getting to know you – through a pendopo   
Dr Anton Lucas has spent much of his rich life trying to improve Indonesian-Australian relationships.  He’s studied and taught in Yogyakarta and Makassar, run an Asian Studies Centre in Australia, written well and widely, and inspired seekers of truths about Indonesia.
He’s earnest enough to look like an austere academic but sufficiently inquiring to prove a student’s life goes beyond 70.  Though powered by faith he doesn’t proselytize.  Schooled as a Protestant, Lucas now calls himself a Christian-Buddhist.    
His rare collection of documents from the post-proclamation period has been given to Flinders University library and will eventually go on line.  The papers were gathered during interviews with 324 survivors of the 1945 ‘Revolution within the Revolution’ around Pekalongan in north Central Java.
 Peristiwa Tiga Daerah (The Three Regions Affair) tells of the violent clash between ruling elites and farmers during the chaos following collapse of the Japanese occupation.
 Lucas regards his book, published in Australia as One Soul, One Struggle and likely to be re-released, as a significant accomplishment.  But his master stroke has been donating a hut.
Though not any old humpy.  This is a pendopo – a splendid four-post Javanese pavilion on the Flinders University campus in Adelaide.
The cube of Indonesian culture was built to create a sense of calm and unity despite gulfs of difference in lifestyles, world views and local customs. It’s a communal place for visitors and locals to find common cause and set signposts for others.
The pendopo has a Sekar Laris gamelan from Central Java used by students, teachers and the Indonesian diaspora.  The glass walls fold back in summer so the metallic music from a lush land drifts among the eucalyptus roots clawing arid soils.
 “It was the best thing I ever did,” Lucas said firmly before heading to Yogyakarta where he and his Indonesian wife Kadar have an extended family. The couple’s $150,000 philanthropy was revealed only after Lucas retired in 2010.
“Indonesians can feel at home here while Australians can encounter their neighbours,” Lucas added.  “It’s not just a tangible symbol for coming together; it also has an emotional dimension and a unique ambience.”
Lucas had a privileged education.  Though never gentry his Greek heritage family had property and sent their gifted son to the Anglican Geelong Grammar, famed for nurturing achievers and leaders.  
“Yet I always thought of myself as a square peg in a round hole,” he said. Set for a career as an agricultural economist or broadacre farmer he won a scholarship to the East West Centre in Hawaii.
The education and research organization opened in 1960 to ‘strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the US’.
Astonishingly his Asia Pacific origin meant he was exempted from studying a regional tongue after passing an English test.  Like most Australians he’d seen his country as a European outpost.
Another revelation came on meeting members of the Peace Corps, a US government volunteer aid program. They seemed at ease with difference, spoke Asian languages and were driven to better the world. Said Lucas: “They were not ugly Americans.”
Instead of becoming an apoplectic conservative ranting against reason the Australian turned left towards history, social justice and human rights.
He dropped ag-ec and picked up Indonesian. Through a series of curious happenings – including an encounter over a lost camera – he was steered by Australian Herb Feith.
Through this world-renowned scholar Lucas researched the Pekalongan revolusi sosial also labelled ‘struggle’ and ‘movement’, which “had never been clearly and coherently depicted”.  Some saw it as a communist revival.
The survivors’ stories opened Lucas to Indonesia’s complex past and expanded his empathies.  The square peg found the right hole, or as he said:  “Indonesia fitted me like a glove.”  
Yet much was discomforting. In a Yogyakarta jail he saw political activists broken by a brutal system during Soeharto’s Red Paranoia era.  “With a Catholic priest I tried to help a boy reconcile with his long jailed father,” Lucas said.  “We failed. This had a huge effect on me.”
At Flinders as an associate professor Lucas was also in demand as a consultant.  He worked on the documentary series Riding the Tiger about authoritarian rule in Indonesia, and with Australian funded projects on land use, social capital and local government.
He taught Indonesian culture and society, religion and social change and identities.  He also privately funded this magazine when it was staggering as a print journal. He remains treasurer.
Adding a Catholic nunnery in Java to Inside Indonesia’s subscriptions seemed a good idea.  It wasn’t. The nuns were then accused of spreading Marxism.
Despite fumbles and stumbles, relationships improved. In 1992 Prime Minister Paul Keating, who was close to Soeharto, declared Australia part of Asia. Enrolments at Flinders rose enough to support four full-time academic positions. (Now the jobs are shared and limited.)
Five years after the pendopo’s gamelan gongs first stirred the bush, Lucas and his colleagues organized a seminar on Australian-Indonesian relations. The show was packed. A book followed – Half a Century of Indonesian-Australian Interaction. 
Australians were developing a positive interest in the people next door. The feeling was mutual. The folks were getting matey and wiser.
Recalled Lucas:  “It was the pinnacle of the golden era.”  
Then the glitter dimmed.  Factors in the fade included the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, turmoil following the 1998 fall of Soeharto, and high tension during the 1999 East Timor independence referendum.
The 2002 Bali bombs killed 202, including 88 Australians.  The government shouted travel warnings. Educational visits stopped.  University administrators found computing and communications more profitable than Asian Studies.
“To turn this around we all need to do more – and that includes Indonesians studying Australia and hosting seminars,” Lucas said. “If we lose a generation of scholars we won’t get them back. The goodwill is not so strong.
“There was no background given on why Australians reject the death penalty. (Ambassadors were withdrawn in 2015 when Indonesia snubbed pleas to save drug couriers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan from execution.)
“The failure to explain the media response to the release this year of ganja queen Schapelle Corby was an opportunity missed. “We need to tell our story about our history, multiculturalism and values, such as diversity and equality.  As in the pendopo we should listen to each other and reflect on the relationship we want.
“Otherwise I despair for the future.”
(First published in Inside Indonesia 13 Nov 2017.  See:
An Indonesian language version has been published by Surya.  See here:  Our thanks to editor Trihatma Ningsih.