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, March 20, 2018


The Kendi man can    

This will come as a shock to post-millennials:  In the world BP (Before Plastic) water was served in earthenware and it was free.

The traveler didn’t need to spend to quench her thirst - just pause outside a householder’s gate and gargle from a kendi.

These were the plump pitchers kind folks set at the roadside to refresh passers-by, a courtesy now seldom seen.  They were also common in the kitchen.  

“As children in Jombang where my family farmed we always used a kendi which had been filled from a gentong (large pot) of water drawn from the village well,” said Malang potter and academic Ponimin before heading overseas to run workshops.

“Although the water was never boiled I can’t recall us getting sick. It was always cool because the clay was porous letting the kendi sweat.  

“Sadly I no longer use kendi in my house. Instead, like most Indonesians, we buy water in plastic bottles from a factory. I regret the loss of tradition, but who’d now trust water from an open well?”

Jombang, about 80 kilometers south-west of Surabaya was the ideal place for the future craftsman to discover his talents; Ponimin believes these came from a great grandfather he never met.

Jombang’s versatile earths are used to make bricks and tiles along with functional pots. Ponimin likes the plasticity and the way the Brantas riverbank clays hold their shape. They also contain little grit, which can cause complications during firing - often done in the open air rather than closed furnaces.

He doesn't have a wheel, preferring the coil system where cords of rolled clay are built into shape using the fingers to smooth and pinch.  He claims this allows for more creativity while a wheel makes for uniformity.
The drinker’s lips don’t touch the kendi which is filled from the top and sealed with a clay bung.  Instead it’s held above the head and tilted to pour the water down into the open mouth through a spout.  

This can be a messy process so some prefer to decant into a throwaway cup which defeats the idea of reducing plastic pollution of the environment.  

The kendi is much more than kitchenware. According to Ponimin, who teaches at Malang State University where he pushes his students to look at the local culture and landscape for inspiration, the name comes from India and the Sanskrit term kundita.

The skill of sculpting clay, hardening through fire and creating a water container goes back almost 30,000 years in Europe and 20,000 in China.  Archaeologists regard it as one of the signs of our ancestors moving from a nomadic life to settlements and the development of technology.

In Indonesia images of kendi can be found on temple sites from before the 13th century Majapahit era, including Borobudur in Central Java.

Kendi are still sold in traditional markets outside the urban centers.  Many have been coarsely finished but occasionally an unusual clay or firing technique can produce blemishes of beauty; russet blisters and ocher splashes can make the earthenware look more like a photo of deep space.

A few artists are also manipulating the form and adding decorations for the tourist trade, but Ponimin retains the original style and incorporates it into his other works. These include large female figures made from terracotta beads threaded through wire through to smaller semi-glazed objects.  These usually feature cherub-like figures scrambling up the sides.

These were first introduced a decade ago in an exhibition called Reach of No Hope, a large social commentary installation.

At the time he explained his work this way: “The poor also want to succeed, to have materialist goods, but they get trampled. The few who do reach the summit discover it's an illusion and what they hoped to find isn't there.

The urchins can still be found in his art, but now play a lesser role than the water containers.

“The kendi has long been a symbol of life in Javanese culture and for many it’s sacred,” he said. “For some it represents the womb and the water as semen.

“When a baby is born it’s bathed in water from a kendi. When a person dies a kendi is left on the grave or buried so the deceased can travel safely to whatever lies beyond.  Graves are watered from a kendi.”

They are also used in theater.  Malang choreographer Robby Hidajat has developed a dramatic contemporary dance featuring kendi and other pots.

Ponimin flew to New Delhi late last year to run workshops, the second time in India.  He’s also exhibited in Pakistan, Bangladesh and China.  Extra income comes from works commissioned by theme park investors and housing developers.

Curiously their ideas aren’t drawn out of the Archipelago’s rich cultures but from European history and American films.  Statues of dinosaurs, Roman gladiators, Egyptian pharaohs, Greek gods and teams of galloping stallions are in demand.  

These are supposed to add quality and attract buyers who want to distance their flash new homes from the crowded kampongs where their parents drank from kendi.  Instead they display their nouveau riche credentials.

For Ponimin that work is income, not art: “What I want to do isn’t for sale.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 March 2018)


Thursday, March 15, 2018


No skills, no surging economy

President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is getting frustrated.  With just over a year before seeking a second five-year term, his plans to make Indonesia a fresh young international industrial giant grunting alongside the old hands are losing traction: The workforce doesn’t have the skills to drive this economic engine because it’s blocked by illiteracy.  Duncan Graham reports:

There’s no need to spend hours flicking through data-dense surveys analysing Indonesia’s education system to know it’s still fumbling for first gear.

Just one fact says it all:  The world’s fourth largest nation has no Nobel prizes to its credit.  The first three by population are China with eight awards, India with ten while the US has 371.

The closest Indonesia came was last century when human rights activists proposed novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer for the honor.  But there was no applause from Indonesia where his books were banned. In the 1960s and 70s he’d been banished to a distant prison island for his alleged pro-communist writings.

Adjacent Australia, with one-tenth of Indonesia’s population has 12 Nobels, mainly in physics and medicine, with two for literature. The message is clear - striving for intellectual excellence has not been Indonesia’s top priority.

The irony is that the Indonesian Constitution demands 20 per cent of the national budget be spent on education. Yet the nation allocates less than US $1,200 per primary student - around 14 per cent of spending by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Nine years of schooling are mandatory and supposed to be free.  However schools thrust their hands into parents’ pockets with a wide range of charges from buying equipment to building new classrooms to funding teachers’ retirements.

Indonesia has 170,000 primary schools, 40,000 middle level but only 26,000 highs. 

In villages and poor areas kids are frequently pulled from class because the family can’t afford the fees and the child’s labor is needed.  A ‘Smart Card’ providing free tuition to the poor was introduced by Jokowi, but filling desks does little if the room is overcrowded and the teacher incompetent.

None of this is new to the nation’s politicians and planners who have long tinkered at the edges.  Before he was elected Governor of Jakarta last year Dr Anies Baswedan was Education Minister, and before that an academic who pioneered the Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia teaches) program sending young graduates to work in remote schools.  

There are many other worthy schemes usually engineered by philanthropists rather than politicians, but they are buckets and spades to flatten the Mount Bromo of past apathy.

Two years ago an OECD survey found ‘the typical Indonesian adult living in Jakarta, who has completed tertiary education, has lower literacy proficiency than the typical Greek or Dane who’d completed only lower secondary school.

Additionally, the Jakartan with tertiary education had lower literacy proficiency than adults in every other OECD country who only completed upper secondary schooling.

There are 35 members of the OECD, mainly from Europe but also including the US, Turkey, Japan, Australia and New Zealand

Dr Lant Pritchett of the US non-profit Center for Global Development commented that the statistics don’t mean the disadvantaged are getting a bad education and the advantaged in Jakarta a good education;

‘It means the disadvantaged are getting a terrible education (essentially none at all) and the advantaged a bad (or mediocre at best) education.

This is impacting on development as the nation strives to play economic catch-up with the rest of the world.  Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati estimated the economy grew 5.05 percent last year; the goal was 5.2 percent. Though these figures would delight many Western nations, most growth is through local demand, not exports; the population increases by more than 9,300 every day.

Without dramatic changes education experts reckon it will take Indonesia decades to close the skills gap with advanced economies.  Although literacy levels have risen (the average is now 95.38 per cent) the nation ranks 60 in the world according to a list assembled by the Central Connecticut State University.  

Its president and list author John Miller said that ‘as knowledge increasingly becomes a product as well as a tool, the economic welfare of any nation will be ultimately and inextricably tied to the literacy of its citizens.'€

Literacy leaders are the Nordic countries where teacher quality and spending are high, truancy policed, reading encouraged and citizens value education.

These statistics reveal the problems confronting the Indonesian government trying to become the world’s seventh largest economy within 12 years. President Jokowi says that requires 58 million skilled workers by 2030.

He wants the law changed so foreign universities can open in Indonesia as they are in Malaysia; this move has been pushed by Australian academics but resisted by their Indonesian colleagues who fear their deficiencies will be exposed.

At a Palace meeting last November the President complained that the topics being taught hadn’t altered much for the past three decades while the rest of the world is into automation, information technology and artificial intelligence.

There are more than 3,000 private and 130 public universities in Indonesia, but few internationally recognised for quality.  Some are linked to companies, like tobacco giant Sampoerna and property developer Ciputra.  Others are faith-based and not controlled by the Education Department.

Jokowi’s ambition is grand.  It is also unachievable without massive reforms powered by great political will.  His statements follow the tradition set by the Soeharto ‘New Order’ government last century which was forever announcing splendid schemes later remembered only by rotting billboards set in empty fields.

Maybe this time it will be different as reality bites and voters demand change.  But  this engine is going to take time to crank.

First published in Strategic Review, 12 March 2018:  See

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


 Welcome Down Under, Mr President: 
Later this week Indonesian leader Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is expected in Sydney with other heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a ‘special summit’. The President recently told his ambassadors that while working overseas they should lift their nation’s status as a ‘great country’. Now Jokowi can do his bit.

Assalamualaikum Pak Presiden: It’s presumptuous for foreigners to offer unsought advice; however because I’m anxious that relationships improve with your nation where I spend much time I’ll risk offering some reflections.

First it wounds me to tell that more than 2,000 media jobs have been lost in Australia so far this decade.  This means few will write in depth about your country so fall back on trite tales of druggies in Bali, smoking orangutans and asinine comments by strife-stirrer politicians.

But this vacuum presents opportunities. Instead of urging your envoys to be involved in trade expos it would be more effective if they speak up often and well in the mainstream media so outsiders get a better balanced view of your alluring archipelago.

Let’s clarify the language:  Great is not the same as good.  Quantity isn’t quality.  If it was then Australia is tops as the world’s largest island continent.  Unfortunately much is sand, while tiny Java is the world’s most fertile isle so should peg higher.

We think we’re an Indo-Pacific power - you put us in Oceania as a US outpost; though too polite to say so outright, you reckon we’re peripheral.

That smarts but it’s right. We’re giving $357 million in aid programs this year while you’re getting mega billions in aid and concessional loans from China. For every Australian there are 11 Indonesians. There are more people in the Jakarta region Jabodetabek than the Great South Land.

So how to measure ‘great’? If by achievements Indonesia is plodding.  It has no Nobel Prize winners.  Australia has 12.

Your Republic has only three universities in the world’s top 1,000 and at the tail end.  Australia has 35, mostly in the front ranks.  Maybe things will change if and when Oz unis open shop in Indonesia as proposed in the drag-out free-trade talks first started in 2010.  

Both sides trumpeted these would be finished last year - then in time for this week’s ASEAN summit.  That won’t happen. Don’t Indonesians want our wheat and beef rather than cheaper Black Sea grains and Indian buffalo steaks?  It seems we’ll accept your pesticides though not your nurses.

Highlighting these facts is not to humiliate because on many measures Indonesia could eclipse Australia and others if given the chance.  So what’s gone wrong?

Indonesian workers we’ve employed have been flexible, adaptable and innovative - but they lack knowledge of modern tools and techniques. Their want to upskill but can’t access training.  What do you reckon, Sir? Blow in Mr Turnbull’s ear.

Indonesians are soccer-crazed. A couple of littlies in our street could one day dazzle the Socceroos given a few free kicks.  These would include turf not tarmac, boots instead of bare feet and knowledgeable coaches rather than old duffers shouting tips over the fence.

At the same time how about encouraging some Jakarta quadrillionaires to fund facilities?  No political interference, mind, or there’ll be further disqualifications. (In 2015 the Asian Football Confederation banned Indonesia after the government got involved in the domestic league.)

Soccer is small in Australia yet we’ll be in this year’s World Cup Asian Group.  Another chance for an aid project?

Sometimes I’m ambushed by teachers and taken to meet incandescently bright and ambitious kids - usually girls - speaking splendid English self-taught from on-line films.

They ask about scholarships abroad because your universities can’t match their needs. Why not lean on your hosts for a few more bursaries, Mr President?  Several thousand should be a handy starter.

But wait a mo … your Constitution requires at least 20 per cent of the budget to be spent on education. Yet from 72 countries tested through the OECD Program for International Student Assessment you rank at 62. Nine years ago it was 57. Regress is rank.
Where’s the money going? How about an audit?  Australia might be able to give a hand here - we’re getting to know a lot about banking and finance funny business.

As you rightly note Sir, Indonesia has made huge economic gains this century. Your nation is not poor, but the wealth is coarsely spread. The World Bank reports half the country’s assets are owned by the richest one per cent. 

You say you want investors.  They want to know about regulations. Are these clear and properly adjudicated and not abused by amoral officials? Lenders prefer to park their money in politically stable countries where the rule of law rules.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index places Indonesia at 96 out of 180. Little wonder Australian dollars like to migrate to New Zealand, the world’s least corrupt country with the best record for ease of doing business.
As you reminded your ambassadors, Indonesia is neither small nor inferior and has all the ingredients for greatness. But the diplomats know that absent is the widespread political will for the positive changes it seems you want to foster.  
It would be warming to think Australia could help develop trust between voters and politicians as democracy only got a restart in your country this century.  
Although we’ve played the game since 1901, recent events in Canberra show we’re currently not in a position to assist.  So sorry.
Hormat saya:  Duncan Graham
First published in Pearls and Irritations 13 March 2018.  See