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, April 25, 2018


Add respect to the repertoire

The concert was already underway when Muhammad Anton, Mayor of the East Java city of Malang, arrived an hour late with a large entourage.  

A contemporary masked dance was performing and dazzling the 400-strong crowd. The VIPs paid no attention, instead posing for photos and making themselves comfortable.

Musician Mustafa Daood watched from afar in discomfort. He’d seen similar rudeness before and decided it was time to speak out.  

But an hour later on stage with his Debu (dust) band and twirling dancers he found the front row armchairs empty and fruit dishes untouched. But he still let rip and the Dawai Nusantara (archipelago strings) Music Festival audience shouted approval.

Later Daood told me: “Officials say they honor creativity yet treat artists with contempt. It happens often. It’s wrong. It has to change. 

“I seldom perform in formal concerts because official protocols take over. These people are all about rules.”  (Mayor Anton’s office was contacted for comment; a spokesman blamed administration issues for the late arrival and early departure, and said no disrespect was intended.)

Daood said other artists kept quiet fearing they’d lose work. “But I have advantages I can and will exploit.” 

These include a base far away in Jakarta, being famous locally and internationally on stage and TV - and being promoted by manic MCs hollering: ‘He’s from the USA’.

“That was 18 years ago,” the long-haired musician told the crowd in fluent Indonesian while his 13-member band tuned their instruments.  “We’re you.” 

Indeed so. He has a 2011 citizenship certificate which took five years to obtain, Islam on his ID card and an Umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca) on his CV. 

Debu is often billed as a Muslim high-voltage band thumping out Arabic-Indian-Western synthesis. Daood says the group’s genre is “spiritual music played so people go away feeling good.”  Pressed to deepen a shallow statement he added:  “So they can find tranquility of the heart, experience the essence of life.”

Daood, 36, has certainly quaffed well from that flagon.  Born in Oregon to nomadic parents following Sufi (Islamic mysticism) teachings, he was home schooled and never attended university.

The 70-strong commune (Daood prefers ‘community’) was led by his poet father Shaykh Fattah, 73, who converted to Islam in his 30s, following the 12th century Rufa’i teachings developed in Kosovo. 

The group moved around the US, then to the Dominican Republic where Daood learned Spanish.  Next stop Jakarta in 1999 because they thought the Republic had the most tolerant form of Islam. Not the best time - the country was in turmoil after President Soeharto quit and inter-faith strife was brewing.

From the capital to Makassar in South Sulawesi to open a pesantren (Islamic boarding school), then back to Jakarta where the remnants now live.  The others have returned to the US or moved elsewhere.

Debu gained traction for its unusual make-up, vigorous performances and original compositions. Frontman Daood is a multi-talented instrumentalist and singer. They’ve toured the archipelago and overseas, produced numerous albums and been TV stars.  

The band’s success leans on its apparent Islamic credentials but Daood confessed: “I’m not much of a Muslim.”  Would he convert to Christianity if he found it personally more appealing?  

“Yes. Sufis work on inspiration. We know when it’s time to move.  We are learning how to escape the world without leaving the world. We don’t try to convert.”  

Another interpretation: The lifestyle is shiftless and its practitioners bums. He laughs: “You’re not too wrong. Sufis are crazy.”

Daood is, to be polite, unconventional. In the Beatles era he’d have been a hippy, John Lennon lookalike.  In Indonesia he’s less easy to pigeonhole. 

His personal life is knotty: He said he’s been wed 12 times and once had three wives under the same roof. From these unions he has eight children; some are with Debu.

Daood’s couplings, particularly his four-month marriage to local singer Penelope Love, aroused tabloid fever. How does his constant message of mutual respect and inoffensive behavior fit in?

“I love women and always tell them that this is how I am. They know what I’m like. Musicians are complex. Nothing is everlasting.”

Conservatives might consider this a libertine lifestyle but Daood says he has no regrets and seems undamaged by publicity about his pairings. In 2006 family-values celebrity preacher Abdullah Gymnastiar (AA Gym) tumbled off his TV throne when exposed for polygamy, legal in Indonesia though contentious. 

“He was a hypocrite,” Daood said. “I’m not a religious leader - I’m open about what I do.” Recently he put down his gambus (Arabian lute) to develop a 250-hectare theme park in Bogor where models of the world’s most famous mosques will be built.

The project is so big he says it’s deterred billionaire businessman Hary Tanoesoedibjo but has found other backers.  He claims he rejected an invitation to meet Gerindra Party boss Prabowo Subianto when told what he had to wear. (Daood’s everyday garb is sarong, sloppy shirt and bare feet). 

Other quirks include not watching TV news and having no interest in politics: “Fundamentalists haven’t traveled or learned about other interpretations of the faith. Don’t make a big deal out of difference.  Love what you have. Hidup suka-suka (life is fun).” 

He reckons the Sufi philosophy that God takes care to be true, rattling off tales of sudden financial support by well-wishers.

“I’m totally grateful for what we have in this beautiful country,” he said. “Indonesia was built on passion, not money.  That’s what we need to recover.”

First published in Indonesian Expat Edition 207 February 2018

Monday, April 23, 2018


Can these neighbors ever hit it off?     


The missed chances of history.

Long before the First Fleet arrived from Britain to colonise Australia in 1788, Makassans already knew the Great South Land.

They regularly sailed to its northern shores, staying for about six months collecting and drying the edible sea slug trepang for export.  Then they left for their homeland - sometimes taking Aboriginal wives.

Had they explored further and settled, Terra Australis might now be part of Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia).

Instead we have two widely differing cultures and value systems squashed so closely they are interdependent yet wishing otherwise - not the basis for a good marriage.

Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey is co-editor with Dave McRae from the same campus of Strangers Next Door? This attempt to make sense of the weird link based on geography and little else is explored through a column of 29 writers - mostly Australian academics.

Lindsey is a rarity - a scholar who keyboards with journalistic directness.  His favorite tag is ‘The Odd Couple’ of Southeast Asia.  Though a bit dated for Netflixers (the Neil Simon play and film go back half a century) it’s handy shorthand.

Editor Endy Bayuni, one of six Indonesian contributors, is a mite more expansive:  The two nation’s ‘relationship has been defined more by what separates them than by what unites them, especially in recent years’.

Realities underpin his gloom; Australia’s support for the 1999 East Timor Referendum which saw the tiny province get independence aroused widespread wrath which lingers still.  

Australians see their involvement as a human rights triumph, Indonesians as a sinister plot to fracture the ‘Unitary State’.

If only that was the sole irritant. The fatuous phone-taps on Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - the one president who genuinely liked Australia - haven’t been forgotten. Nor has the gross misstep by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott linking the 2004 Aceh tsunami aid to failed pleas to save two reformed Australian drug runners from execution .

Central to so many clashes is the clumsiness of Australian leaders and their inability - or wilful refusal - to see things from another perspective. And when they try they become sycophants.

On the other side Indonesian politicians can be over eager to play the racism and colonialism cards, telling electors they are victims, their problems made by outsiders.  

Michael Bachelard spent three challenging years in the Archipelago reporting for Fairfax Press.  He was told by a President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo adviser that Australian journalists are ‘too aggressive, too blunt in our language, too critical and prone to sensationalism.’  

This image, unfair to the now Foreign Editor for The Age ‘who had grown to love Indonesia and its people’ kept him out of the Palace while colleagues from the US, the UK and the Middle East got access to the President.

Why should the third largest democracy (after the US and India) have such hangups about a neighbor which supported Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonialism and till recently was a major aid donor?

There are plenty of historical explanations: Founding President Soekarno’s dabbling with Russia when the advance of Communism was terrifying the West, led to failed regime-change attempts by the US and Indonesia’s ill-fated Konfrontasi challenge to independent Malaya defended by Commonwealth troops.

More up-to-date is Lindsey’s ‘Bad News’ list of Australians getting in trouble on Bali and how this affects bilateral relations.

It could all be grim but the question mark in the title suggests hope. Professor David Hill’s Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies shows what can be done by a determined individual and a handful of true believers.

University cooperation between Flinders (in South Australia) and Gadjah Mada in Yogya is another example of doers elbowing naysayers aside.

The final chapter highlights the benefits of youth programs. All worthy, but only eight considered and so small they’re dust flecks on the mountain of need.

Although the Indonesian population is skewed to the young (40 per cent are under 25) the power brokers are still last century’s oligarchs.  They also control the media.

Threatening the relationship is the future of West Papua. Melbourne academic Richard Chauvel writes that while Australia has ‘the most interest in a peaceful resolution’ policy has been ‘immobilised’ by Indonesian ‘paranoia’ about Australia’s intentions.

The independence activists working out of Australia are not supported by the government; Indonesians with limited understanding of democracy can’t fathom why the peaceful stirrers aren’t arrested.

The issue of transiting asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia remains unresolved.  Monash academic Antje Missbach’s contribution sounds alerts.

This book has been published in Britain by a law book company.  The cover price of 90 pounds (Rp 1.7 million) guarantees it won’t reach those who’d benefit most.  
The fact that top academics like Lindsey and McRae couldn’t excite a local publisher proves the point made by many contributors - Australians are indifferent to the people next door and only see them as a market for wheat and beef.

Nasty - but a reality bounce when the ASEAN conference in Sydney generated so much banquet-talk about warming ties.  Though desperately needed these won’t come without robust but respectful exchanges.  

Relationships just bob around, almost directionless. The ocean is currently calm. That’s temporary.  More understanding, port and starboard, is needed to weather the inevitable storms.  This book provides some ballast.

Strangers Next Door?
Edited by Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae
Hart Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2018
548 pages

 First published in The Jakarta Post 23 April 2018.  The review drew this response from Australian charge d'affaires Allaster Cox in The Jakarta Post on 25 April:

Australian Embassy responds

I was somewhat taken aback while reading a book review of Strangers Next Door? by Duncan Graham (The Jakarta Post, April 23).

I was in Yogyakarta with the Australian and Indonesian environment ministers who co-hosted the Asia Pacific Rainforest Summit — a joint initiative to help our region progress critical action on the environment.

It’s just not the case that Australia and Indonesia share geography and little else. Of course, there is still much work to be done on the relationship.

That’s why our two countries have agreed to negotiate a free trade agreement — the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. That’s why we are expanding cooperation in the maritime sector with a range of activities planned that will benefit both countries in the years ahead. 

That’s why earlier this year we held the Indonesia-Australia Digital Forum — to increase cooperation in this growing sector, which will be vital to the future of both countries.

However, Indonesia and Australia work together closely in many ways. Our government-to-government relationship is strong and continues to expand in every sector, from defense and cybersecurity to taxation and the bureau of meteorology.

More than 20,000 Indonesians study in Australia each year, making Australia the most popular overseas destination for Indonesian university students.

On Saturday night, the Embassy held its Australian Alumni Gala in Jakarta. If you had asked any of the more than 1,000 students about their time in Australia, you would have heard about the many benefits of getting a world-class education in a friendly country. Many Indonesian graduates have formed life-long friendships with Australians that will stand our countries in good stead for the future.

And the New Colombo Plan sends thousands of Australians to Indonesia every year to live, study and learn more about our closest neighbor. Indonesia is the most popular destination for Australian NCP participants.

Yes, there is more work to do but the truth is that Australians are not indifferent to our nearest neighbor. That does a disservice to the many ways in which our countries and people work together at all levels and doesn’t do justice to the very healthy Australia-Indonesia relationship.



Indonesia Institute President Ross Taylor also responded though his contribution wasn't published.  So here it is: 

Dear Editor

The article by journalist Duncan Graham (23rd April 2018) presented a good and interesting summary of the book ‘Strangers next Door’. The response from the Australian Embassy’s Charge D’Affaires Allaster Cox is also important to read (See Letters' to this newspaper, 25th April 2018).

Mr Cox makes a very valid point in that on so many levels including education, business, culture and political - where our two leaders do enjoy a genuinely close friendship – the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is in good shape.

In needs to be said however, that for the majority of the populations in both Indonesia and Australia, our neighbours are indeed ‘strangers’, mixed with ignorance and sometimes ambivalence towards each other.

We have so many clichés thrown around about the relationship between our two countries - such as ‘needing more ballast’ or ‘business & trade is underdone’ -  one cannot help but agree that there are some significant challenges to be addressed in order to deepen the relationship.

If we are really serious about this desire for a closer and deeper relationship between us, both countries need to make it far easier for our respective young people to meet each other through in-country experience (such as ACICIS), travel, technology, and holiday-work experience.Yet Australia makes it very difficult for young Indonesians to visit us, whilst Indonesia ‘drowns’ young Australians wanting to study, travel or undertake internships in Indonesia, in red tape.

If both countries want to seriously deepen and progress the bi-lateral relationship, then we need to focus on bringing our youth together, and with some 90 million young people in Indonesia who want to embrace travel, education and importantly technology, the opportunities are immense; but only if our national leaders facilitate this.

Failure to do so will continue leave many of us as those ‘strangers next door’.

Ross Taylor

Monday, April 16, 2018



An Australian in ASEAN.  It sounds like the title of an innocent-abroad movie: The hero has adventures, blunders and embarrasses.  But in the end Aussie charm and grit prevail; romance blossoms and the outsider becomes an insider.

It’s a familiar genre. But this time the characters won’t play their assigned roles.  The idea of big landmass, small population Australia (26 million), being welcomed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (600 million plus) is still being pushed, though up a gradient that needs crampons.

The notion has been wandering around awhile but got new direction in the weeks heading towards the March ASEAN ‘summit’ in Sydney, the first of its kind in the Great South Land.

Former ABC foreign correspondent Graeme Dobell writing in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist website has been a principal matchmaker. 
‘Australia’s dealings with the ten nations of ASEAN are set by geography, flavoured by history, worked by diplomacy and driven by trade,’ he enthused.
‘Throbbing always are the central concerns of power and strategy and defence. The geography and the diplomacy and the power mean that Southeast Asia must be a constant interest of Australia’s …
‘Joining ASEAN is the logical culmination of decades of Australian regional engagement. ASEAN membership would be an embrace of the region in the service of our deepest interests.’
This was in February, when Australian politicians and other newsmakers were reluctantly returning from their summer break, so the commentary drew little notice. 
Only when Australian journalist James Massola reporting for Fairfax Press scored a pre-summit interview with Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo that the idea was given CPR.
When the leader of the world’s third largest democracy was asked about Australia joining ASEAN he said  ‘I think it’s a good idea.’  The follow-up whether it would be backed by other countries drew a laugh and the comment:  ‘I don’t know.’
The pole vault from these throw-aways to headlines like ‘Indonesia wants Australia as full ASEAN member’ should be a Diplomacy IO1 example of cultural clumsiness.  Jokowi might well have given the same response to the question:  ‘Should colonies be built on Mars?’
Massola is a newbie in Jakarta; the job used to be ‘Indonesian correspondent’. Now it covers Southeast Asia – population more than 600 million.
Academics brought the hyperbole down with a thud. Foremost was Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the Lowy Institute who tweeted: ‘Reality check: Australia has not been invited to join ASEAN, and will not be invited to join ASEAN in our lifetimes. Jokowi was offering a "Javanese response," trying to be polite.’
(Another Javanese reply that perplexes outsiders is: ‘Why not?’ This doesn’t mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or even ‘maybe’.)
Writing on The Conversation Dedi Dinarto from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University reminded that Australia was already in a couple of big boys’ clubs where they talk guns and bombs - ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
‘The aggressive nature of these pacts goes against ASEAN’s non-interference principle. ASEAN emphasises the absence of external military hostility as its core principle,’ he said.
Then there’s the rule of law and human rights abuses – issues which greatly trouble Australians. They would not keep Mum in situations like Myanmar’s purging of Rohingya; nor would they shut up about the sanctioned arbitrary killing of real or imagined drug dealers in the Philippines (President Rodrigo Duterte didn’t front the summit), or the widespread crushing of peaceful dissent in states tracking their way into totalitarianism.
The only imaginable benefit is that Australian officials could help prop up the hotel bars following some of the hundreds of chatathons held every year.  They could swap name cards, share golf tips and keep personal numbers on speed-dial should trouble flare.
ASEAN was created in 1967 as an anti-communist block. Today three members are Red states  - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the last two sticking close to China. Now the only common glue is geography.
There are four ‘emerging’ democracies (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines) two military dictatorships (Thailand and Myanmar) and one authoritarian sultanate (Brunei). Apart from Thailand all were once ruled by colonial powers.
Each state is supposedly equal. All must approve applicants. This ensures Australia can never join under the present arrangement as any one nation can veto.
The rules insist on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs so the statements issued after each meeting are gems in polishing thousands of words to say nothing.
  Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who hosted the summit, avoided his culture’s directness and offered a more Javanese reply to reporters’ questions about joining ASEAN: ‘I will look forward to discussing that with President Jokowi if he raises it with me’.
Apparently he didn’t.
So far, other members have not responded to Jokowi’s rubbery response, though former Malaysian PM Mahatir Mohamad, in another Fairfax interview, thought Australia in ASEAN might happen one day when Australia becomes ‘more Asian than European.’
About 12 per cent of Australians have Asian ancestry; however ethnicity is no guarantee of enthusiasm to recouple with the nation they fled. 
Cambodian PM Hun Sen was apparently unaware that in Australia violence leads to prosecution, however important the perpetrator. He respected his hosts by threatening to ‘beat’ those protesting against his presence at the summit. They still waved their banners and shouted slogans, grateful they’re not in Phnom Penh.
There’s also no public enthusiasm.  A Twitter straw poll has shown Indonesians and Australians averse to the idea of Australia in ASEAN. This isn’t surprising; despite all the goodwill statements at government level, Mohammad and Sri in their Jakarta kampong are just as wary of their neighbour as Myrtle and Sam are in a Sydney suburb.
So what’s behind the Oz in ASEAN push?  Dobell reasons that ‘as the geostrategic and geo-economic pressures build in Asia, ASEAN, as a middle-power grouping, needs the extra middle-power heft offered by Australia and NZ.
This would make sense if foreign affairs were conducted by white-coated social scientists in an isolated lab sealed off from outside germs.
But in a world where strategic groupings are subject to political realities infected by different histories, cultures, perceptions and ideologies, Australia in ASEAN is a dead duck. It just needs a quiet burial with no marker.
First published in On Line Opinion, 16 April 2018:

Monday, April 09, 2018


English to re-enter Indonesian classrooms   


The 2012 decision to scrap English as a compulsory subject in Indonesian elementary  schools is to be reversed. Materials and advice are likely to be sourced from the Philippines.

The move comes after widespread criticism of teaching programs and practices following the release two years ago of results through the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Indonesia ranked 62 out of the 72 nations surveyed. Nine years ago it was 57.
Education and Culture Minister Dr Muhadjir Effendy (above) told Strategic Review that pilot projects in teaching English would start in several provinces next year.
“English is the global language and it’s essential that Indonesian students are properly equipped to enter the workplaces of the future,” he said.
“However this is not going to be easy to implement.  We need more specialist teachers and teaching materials.  We are still working on the details, but I hope it can be introduced in the students’ early years when minds are still flexible.  This is the optimal time.”

Six years ago the then deputy Education Minister Musliar Kasim announced a curriculum revamp which dumped English in favor of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia.

After public protests English was allowed back in - though only as an elective.  It was also argued at the time that forcing youngsters to learn English made their workload excessive.

The original decision was also seen as a reaction to rising nationalism.  Flag-wavers asked why students should spend time on English in the fourth largest country with its own tongue.

The world’s most commonly spoken languages are various forms of Chinese, followed by Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic.

Bahasa Indonesia is seldom heard outside lower Southeast Asia. Originally Trade Malay, it was imposed to unify the nation after independence from Dutch colonial rule was declared in 1945.  The 2010 census recorded 43 million ‘native speakers’ of Bahasa Indonesia; 156 million considered it their second tongue.

The Minister said 760 local and other languages were still used and these had to be recognized. He said he had persuaded his colleagues that re-starting English would not dilute the national identity.

Effendy was appointed minister in July last year to replace Dr Anies Baswedan who shortly after taking office in 2014 described the nation’s education system as facing an ‘emergency’.  Under his watch enrolments improved through payments to the poor for their children to attend school.

According to Professor Andrew Rosser of Melbourne University who has been researching Indonesian education, ‘children are starting school earlier and staying in education longer than they ever have before. But Indonesia has made much less progress in improving the quality and learning outcomes.’

Despite Baswedan’s achievements President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo sacked the ambitious minister when he was seen as a political threat.  He is now Governor of Jakarta.

Effendy, 61, is considered a technocrat with no known political allegiances.  The former Rector of Muhammadiyah University in Malang did post-graduate studies in military sociology in the US and Canada.  His wife Suryan Widati is also an academic.

“There needs to be a recognition of the value of English in subjects like science and mathematics,” said Effendy.  “These are taught everywhere often using symbols and terms that are different from those used in Indonesia.

“It’s important that students don’t just learn English but also know how to use it and have the necessary confidence.

“Many (Muslim) students study Arabic and can chant sentences from Al Koran - but they don’t know what the words mean. Methodologies have to change.  We need teachers and techniques to help students analyze.” 

He said his Ministry was looking to the Philippines for books and teachers.  Although Filipino is the national language in the adjacent nation, English is widely taught and used.  Between 1901 and 1935 the Philippines was administered by the United States. 

UNESCO claims the PISA tests conducted every three years “provide evidence to policymakers about the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with those in other countries … it can help countries to learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere.”
The PISA tests’ top five are Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taipei and Finland.
Rosser argues that Indonesia’s poor education performance has ‘at its root, been a matter of politics and power. Change in the quality of Indonesia’s education system thus depends on a shift in the balance of power between competing coalitions that have a stake in the nature of education policy and its implementation’. 

Effendy acknowledged the difficulty in persuading politicians and bureaucrats to accept reforms.  All once attended schools so as adults see themselves as experts; it’s a hazard faced by professional educational change-makers throughout the world. 
He also wants to scrap the annual national exam but has hit barriers manned by diehards. Last year the exams, which were widely slandered for failing to measure quality and reports of cheating, were suspended by Effendy, and then reinstalled by the President.
Indonesia has more than 55 million children in 250,000 schools.  They are taught by around three million teachers. According to Hamid Muhammad, Director of Teachers in the Ministry, the public school teacher shortfall is more than 700,000.
A study commissioned by the Indonesian Network for Education Watch (JPPI) claims three strategic issues need addressing - teacher quality, child-unfriendly schools and discrimination against marginalized groups.
Effendy agreed that quality in public schools remained a concern. “I have often seen that teaching in Catholic schools is better,” he said. “Perhaps this is because students are encouraged to be critical, to ask questions and not see teachers as having all the knowledge.

“We spend a lot of time just teaching to pass tests without students understanding why.

“The other difficulty we have is in servicing schools in the distant provinces where few teachers want to work.  Classroom building costs in remote areas can be more than three times higher than in Java.”


First published in Strategic Review on 6 April 2018.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018


 Catatan Satu                      Notes from a Sister State

We woke this week to find the Merah Putih (red and white) dangling from every household’s flagpole. The 80 sheets should have been billowing with pride like all symbols of nationalism do when reported by cliché-driven journalists.   However these, were hanging limp, sodden with overnight rain.

Clearly the satpam (security guard) had been busy overnight – but why? There’s another five months before the big Proklamasi show on 17 August when we race to be the first to show our colours.

Neighbours were also scratching their jilbab till someone remembered it was Malang’s 104th birthday.  A curious way to celebrate:  The city was declared a municipality in 1914 during the Dutch colonial era, 31 years ahead of the flag.

Old inscriptions show folks were settled by the Brantas River at least 13 centuries ago. Malang now translates as ‘unfortunate’ but the name comes from Malangkuçeçwara. This is supposed to mean that ‘God has destroyed evil so justice triumphs’.

Maybe an appropriate slogan for events over Easter in East Java’s second largest city. We also discovered these at dawn as the local rag was tossed over the gate.

A picture tells a thousand lies

This big beamer on the front page of the Jawa Pos is the mayor of Malang, H Mochamad Anton. If you don’t understand the headlines you might assume his abundant joy shows he’s won either another five-year term in office or a lottery, which in Indonesia can be much the same.
In fact Anton along with 18 others in the Town Hall had just been charged with bribery by the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Anti-Corruption Commission).  His orange vest is the fashion statement for those under arrest.

Polls rate the KPK as the most trusted authority in the nation with a 100 per cent conviction rate; its bag has included ministers, regional governors and scores of lesser officials.

Further proof of its effectiveness have been castration attempts by politicians, and an acid assault outside a Jakarta mosque.  The target was investigator Novel Baswedan who is now partly blind.  The police, who have no love for the KPK, say they are still seeking the attackers who struck a year ago.

The garb he preferred
If the charges hold, Mayor Anton (right) – whose honorific H means he’s a pious fellow who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca – faces years in jail.  Perhaps he’s beaming because he reckons he can dodge the bullets by claiming it’s a political stitch-up.  Or maybe he thinks his candidature in this year’s Pilkada (election of regional heads) will still go ahead. Other aspiring politicians have been elected while in prison.  Anton's VOTE ME banners remain on the streets.

Students of culture should consider contrasting the Jawa Pos pic with those in the Australian press of wet-eyed Dave Warner.  These show a portrait of shame though there’s no risk the cricket cheat will end up behind bars.

Turning fantasy into fact

Prabowo Subianto, the failed candidate in the 2014 presidential election but a likely contender against popular incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in next year’s bout, is not like many Indonesians:  He loves fiction.  His chosen genre is sci-fi and a favourite is Ghost Fleet by US writers August Cole and Peter Singer.

The 2015 techno-thriller, sub-titled ‘a novel of the next World War’, has had modest reviews and sales to match.   Nonetheless the former general, despised by human rights activists for alleged atrocities in East Timor and the 1998 Jakarta riots, is particularly enamored with a throwaway line in the book. This claims Indonesia will be eliminated by 2030 in a US v China conflagration.

Indonesians love prophecies.  The Surabaya bemo (minibus) terminal is named after the most famous fortune-teller, the 12th century King Joyoboyo. 

He supposedly predicted that the Javanese ‘would be ruled by whites (the Dutch) for three centuries and by yellow dwarfs (the Japanese) for the life span of a maize plant before the return of the Ratu Adil (the just king).’

So Prabowo has turned seer.  Using the fertile imaginations of two American yarn spinners he’s campaigning to save the nation from its plunge into the pit of eternal darkness.  He’ll be the saviour; he’ll return the motherland to the glory days of his late father-in-law, President Soeharto.

Appearing on TV One, a station owned by the Bakrie Group led by Aburizal Bakrie, another one-time presidential hopeful, Prabowo has been given unchallenged air time to develop his Armageddon theme.

This is the station which proclaimed Prabowo winner in 2014 when he was millions of votes behind Jokowi. A Bakrie company was involved in the still gushing Lapindo mud volcano outside Surabaya.  It started in 2006 during a gas drilling operation.

If all this sounds weird – it is.  Ghost Fleet’s bemused authors have stressed ‘it’s a work of fiction, not prediction’. 

The superstitious may see the plump Prabowo, 66, as he does himself – the next Ratu Adil; those who don’t know their mythology say he could be Indonesia’s Donald Trump, but to the less gullible he resembles an ageing version of a North Korean dictator forever surrounded by acolytes.

Forget these lesser omens for the Chinese curse is already swirling across the archipelago:  ‘May you live in interesting times.’


Monday, April 02, 2018


Australia Plus – unfit for export

Though this starts like a fairy story it’s really a frightener: Once upon a time Australian governments believed that broadcasting beyond our shores – and particularly into Southeast Asia - was an important responsibility, sowing ideas, informing and influencing. 
Radio Australia shortwave started in 1939 to counter Japanese propaganda.  After the war it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of Foreign Affairs. It made us ‘globally connected’, able to ‘promote Australian values’.
Now all has turned to froth.  Seldom seen by taxpayers is our $20 million presentation to the world.  Although called Australia Plus it adds little of value.

When radio faded Australian Television International became our grandstand, later titled ABC Asia Pacific.
In 2006 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer spruiked another rebirth: Australia Network, funded by Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising, would reach 10 million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; at the time maybe one million viewers a month.
Downer said the ABC would run the network offering ‘high quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region.’ Also promised were ‘extensive news and current affairs programs, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programs.’ 
A homely metaphor spiced his Reithian rhetoric:  ‘A key requirement of the service is to provide a credible and independent voice through programs that present a window on Australia and Australian perspectives of the world.’
By then more windows were being opened. BBC World, France24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other international telecasters were starting to offer vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend  $117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is said to get through US$300 million a year.  Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television(CCTV). 
Voice of America’s budget is US$ 218 million, all from government funds. It broadcasts and telecasts in more than 40 languages, including Indonesian.
In 2011 the Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV, which had long lusted after the job.  When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company would win the tender process was scrapped and the prize given to the ABC.
Triumph was brief. When the Liberal-National Coalition won government it clicked OFF. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia Network “had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’. No details.
The ABC was given 90-days notice to break its $223 million deal Eighty staff – some in Asian newsrooms – lost their jobs.
Killing the network may have satisfied a political ideology but a legal reality had to be faced: The ABC Charter requires it to be an international broadcaster so the gap had to be filled. Click onto Australia Plus.
The new service started with three ‘foundation partners’ – what straight-talkers call ‘advertisers’:  Monash University, the Government of Victoria and food supplement manufacturer Swisse Wellness owned by a Hong Kong based company. 
It was promoted as ’an opportunity for Australian businesses and a case study in corporate entrepreneurship … an endeavor that should be applauded. It is a positive step for the broadcaster, for public institutions in general and for Australian business.’
The triplets have now disappeared from the screens; no Australian corporate entrepreneurs have grabbed this opportunity to engage with the Southeast Asian markets which Government boosters say are slavering for our products.
This suggests Australian traders either don’t know Australia Plus exists – which would be a failure of marketing - or they’ve researched its reach and decided it’s a dud.
So it seems taxpayers are footing the total bill for this pseudo-service.  ‘Seems’ because despite requests, Nick Leys, the ABC’s Head of Communications doesn’t communicate with this writer to explain what’s happening.
Along with the loss of sponsors has been a shift in programming.  As Australian leaders recite the mantra that Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship, it might be logical to assume we’d be offering the neighbors our handpicked and most relevant best.
However Australia Plus is delivered as a single stream, meaning one size fits all in the 44 countries that now get the service. Most Indonesians use free-to-air TV; to watch Australia Plus they have to pay for access through one of three cable services which accept Australia Plus at no cost. 
These commercial operators offer hundreds of channels. They have about 8.5 million subscribers.  There are 260 million people in Indonesia.
Unless cable patrons are Kuta bar owners sucking in expat drinkers with three hours of AFL on Fridays and again on Saturdays, soccer-crazed Indonesians have few reasons to channel surf Australia Plus from their sofas.
Indonesians are early bedders and risers, with the fajar (dawn prayer) wake-up call starting around 4.15 am in Java.  Markets open at 5 and the power meter reader is on his rounds an hour later.
Few households are awake after 9 pm.  The evening schedule on the day this story was keyboarded  started with Stan Grant’s Matter of Fact, followed by The World (news) then ABC News Tonight, then ABC Late News, then ABC News Overnight then a replay of MOF.
MOF is one of the few goodies along with Q and A, Four Corners, The Drum, Australian Story and One on One. But these have been made for audiences which understand the cultural references and political nuances. Outsiders are left nonplussed.
There’s also Home and Away plus some fare for the kids, but the rest is largely uncurated, repetitious fill-a-space.  Last year some SBS programs were aired.  They seem to have disappeared.
This is Australia showcased to the region to which it allegedly seeks closer ties – trumpeted most recently at the ASEAN Summit in Sydney.   The original high-minded plans to  ‘present Australian perspectives and values to the world’ are – like our once proud Test Cricket image - no more.
Apart from the noted exceptions Australia Plus offers little to the locals. It’s a viewer turn-off.  The ABC should either follow suit or do its job properly.
First published in Pearls & Irritations 2 April 2018: