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

Thursday, November 22, 2018


Through a glass – brightly     
Artist Dono - maintaining the skill

Pity the casual tourist seeking the offbeat attraction, the singular artifact, the exceptional craftwork.

In Bali – no problem. Signs to ‘studios’, ‘workshops’ and ‘artists’ centers’ clutter the streetscape, though seldom deliver.  Time-pressed visitors rarely get to meet the originator; only staff whose sole contact with the artisan is through unpacking deliveries from her or his hills hideaway.

It’s different in Java – particularly in the villages and towns where the locals consider outsiders as curious pale-hued humans and not walking wallets. Don’t expect to find without much asking.  In this zone Google isn’t helpful, as little has been recorded.

Cirebon, on the north coast of Java and about 220 kilometers east of Jakarta, is billed as a tourist town.  This is a stretch of hyperbole, though it has some locations for selfies and a few magnets for historians.

These include the little Red Mosque of Panjunan (1480) (leeft) which appears well maintained though built of timber; the people must have been smaller in that era as it’s stoop or suffer a cracked head.

It’s linked to Sunan Gunung Jati, one of the nine ‘Muslim saints’ known as the Walisongo who are reputed to have brought Islam to the archipelago.

They were Arabs, or descendants of Arabs; some may have arrived from India as traders and started proselytizing.

There are two kraton (Sultan’s palace) - Kasepuhan (1447), and Kacirebonan (1807) - and the Dutch wharf signal tower (1918), incongruous among the modern shipping.  Although made of teak, its ladders wouldn’t pass a safety audit, so best viewed from outside.

These are the dead relics.  The live crafters are elsewhere. Like in Gegesik, a 40-minute drive northwest of the city where Kusdono ‘Dono’ Rastika, 36, maintains the ancient verre eglomise technique . This is named after the 18th century French artist Jean-Baptiste Glomy who pioneered the style.

More prosaically labeled ‘reverse glass painting’ it probably came to the East Indies during the so-called ‘ethical’ Dutch colonial period early last century; the skill almost disappeared after the Netherlanders went home. 

In Europe it’s normally linked to religious motifs. Though some have been painted in Indonesia, including Arabic calligraphy, the subjects tend to be more whimsical.

The paintings have a slight 3D effect and are well protected. The image is not on the front of the glass which can be wiped clean of stains, even using chemicals.

Working from a wheelchair – Dono suffered a spinal injury when a 12-year old playing in the schoolyard – he produces exquisite work taught by his late father, Rastika.

He learned the craft from other artists in the village. During his lifetime he’s believed to have produced 2,000 paintings and held 17 exhibitions. The polymath carved puppets and played in gamelan orchestras.

His son is also talented. “First I sketch my ideas on transparent paper,” he said.  “I favor wayang (characters from ancient stories usually told in puppet shows) which I used to watch with my fathers, and then start work on the glass.

“I paint upside-down and back-to front. I know how it will appear from the front through long experience. As I work I add features that weren’t in the original sketch. It takes about two weeks to finish and frame.”

Dono, a Muslim, has also painted Christ’s Last Supper, though this is more a copy of the much imitated Leonardo da Vinci mural in Milan, rather than a Javanese take on the Biblical story.

Dono’s prices range from Rp 1 million (US $15) to ten times more for the larger pieces. He has exhibited in Surabaya and sold overseas; packers should work with care - the glass is only three millimeters thick.

He lives in a small kampung with no signage.  His presence is known only to connoisseurs and members of the local art community, like Asep Syaefuddin, 35, just a few streets distant.

Again, no signage, but his big wagons parked on the narrow road are splendid adverts.

Asep’s artistry also has a French name, though now Anglicised – papier mache.  The art of using paper and starch  goes back to the ancient Egyptians creating death masks, though they worked with papyrus.

Asep’s specialty also includes masks – though these are huge and atop extraordinary colorful floats used in parades and special events.  They also feature a few wayang characters.

However most are bizarre fearsome figures which would never hit the cutting-room floor in a low budget sci-fi movie set.

Like Dono he pulls images hot from the furnace of his imagination stoked by
an eclectic mix of Western fantasy and Javanese culture.  A favorite figure is the burok, a bird with grotesque head; the word is also a generic term for the art.

 Flying horses are another theme, along with the Singa Barong, an open-jaw well dentured dragon head.  Scholars reckon its provenance lies in the ancient Chinese lion dance.

Like the reverse glass painting the art may have arrived in Cirebon early last century where it settled in Kalimaro village.

Prices for a custom-made carriage start at Rp 8 million (US $520) and come with four wheels salvaged from discarded rubbish carts.  The over-the-top designs are brightly colored and well varnished to protect against rain.

For those seeking a one-off use, Asep (left) will rent a wagon for Rp 700,000 (US $46) a day.  Burok are hired for ceremonies like circumcision processions and fast-breaking.

They’d also be fine for a fun wedding, provided ceremony and reception venues are not too distant.  Asep’s burok can carry people, but plump Westerners might want to check the suspension – and any mythology surrounding the beast, just to ensure its use is propitious.

Riding a creature famous for devouring maidens might not lead to future marital harmony.

(First published in Indonesia Expat 22 November 2018)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018



Now here’s the weirdest thing about the way we handle policy with the neighbours:  
Canberra politicians are proven fumblers and bumblers when dealing with big Muslim-majority Indonesia. Yet at the Australian National University just a ten-minute bike ride across the lake are some of the world’s foremost experts, able to inform, advise and caution. 

Instead we have policy on the run  when Scott Morrison edged the idea that our embassy in Israel might shift 70 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean

Unsurpisingly he was caught in the slips.

The PM’s office has instant access not only to government think-tanks, but also leading academics. They speak slang garnered in kampongs while doing doctorates. They’ve savoured durians, recited  dawn prayers, sweated through nights of wayang magic.  

In brief they can feel the nation’s pulse.

Last century Cornell in the US, and Leiden in the Netherlands, were the specialists on the archipelago to our north.  Now Melbourne University, Monash, the ANU and to a lesser extent Murdoch in Perth and Flinders in Adelaide have taken over.

Does no-one in Parliament House have scholars on speed dial?  A quickie, mate ... whaddya reckon? The boss might give Ambassador Chris Cannan a new pad in Jerusalem.  Good idea – or what?’

Had the calls been made the profs would have been of one voice: ‘Are you joking? Indonesians will go spare ... they back Palestine all the way. You’ll blow the whole Free Trade Agreement.’

And so it has come to pass.  A few weeks ago the PM was so upbeat in Jakarta about endorsing the FTA, known as the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, that he predicted it would be wrapped before Christmas.

Not the best analogy for a nation where giving presents to celebrate the birth of Christ concerns less than ten per cent of the population.

This deal has had more completion dates than reports of the Second Coming.  Negotiations started in 2010 but collapsed when Australian spies were unmasked tapping the phones of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Name cards were restored on conference tables in 2015 when the enthusiastic Harvard-educated business banker Thomas Lembong became Trade Minister.  He lasted less than a year. 

 His replacement Enggartiasto Lukita, a politician for almost four decades, has been more wary.
Now on the eve of the over-inflated almost final, final signing this week in either Singapore during the East Asia Summit, or Port Moresby for the APEC talks, the hot-air balloon has been pricked.  There’s much hissing, particularly from Australian business..

The PM has reportedly told the Australian Financial Review and other media: ‘The negotiations have gone well but I'm not in a hurry. This process will take quite a period to bring to realisation, including ratification.

‘We're not on a burning timetable here, we're patient but we've never conflated these issues.’
As Malcolm Turnbull anticipated, Indonesia has conflated the possible Israel Embassy move with the FTA.  That was predictable and avoidable.  And the timetable was certainly afire.

Some media reported that an August signing in Jakarta meant all was cooked and served, an impression the PM didn’t dampen. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s more measured language announced ‘the substantive conclusion of negotiations.’

The less animated Indonesian media correctly called the one-page document a MOU.

The FTA has always been driven by Australia which has most to gain. According to DFAT last year’s total two-way trade was worth $16.4 billion and opportunites to expand are vast.

Wheat and beef have been the biggies, but negotiators were moving beyond grain freighters and cattle-carriers to selling services, particularly education where the needs are great.

This year Australia’s Lowy Institute published a lengthy report claiming: ‘Indonesia’s education system has been a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for an  internationally competitive system.’

Not only schools but also universities where 16 make Asia’s top 400 campuses on the international Quacquarelli Symonds list.  Adjacent Malaysia, population twelve per cent of Indonesia’s 260 million, has 27.

There are around 3,000 tertiary institutes in Indonesia; 122 are state-run.  Most are teaching, not research.  Smart and wealthy students head for labs and lecture rooms overseas – UNESCO cites around 42,000, with  half going to Australia.. 

But the real crisis is in vocational education. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo - along with the nation’s more thoughtful politicians and academics – fears the economy will slump without enough trained youngsters to match modern demands.

So he’s been signalling south for help.  The chances here are more worthy than  amassing wealth. Handled properly Australian educators could make a positive and lasting impact by lifting teaching techniques and broadening minds.

However this will be no stroll through the paddy.  The hazards are huge and include rising nationalism, resentment of foreigners and their ‘liberal’ ideas, and hostility from local academics who’ll be exposed as sub-par. Private institutions owned by politicians will fear competition and oppose.

Progress will require clear-eyed deal-makers and flexible public servants conscious of the complexities.  To perform professionally they’ll need to consult those who understand Indonesia.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 14 November 2018:

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Ignoring Indonesia’s famous find 


Remarkable events happen at mundane moments.
It was getting late on Tuesday 2 September 2003, time for team co-director archaeologist Thomas Sutikna, 37, to call it a day at the Liang Bua (cool cave) dig in central Flores.

The Australian-Indonesia expedition had found bits of stegodon, a now extinct small elephant, and some stone tools. Interesting, but unexceptional, for the site had been dug over in the past though not deeply.

A thousand meters up in the Manggarai Highlands the weather is generally benign. Although shoveling sediments and shoring up diggings was tough, the environment was not. Problems were heavy rain scouring tracks, and as the island east of Bali is part of the Pacific Rim of Fire, the shakes.

Then came the quake which shook our understanding of human history. Benyamin Tarus was almost six meters down in a four square-meter pit. His tools swept the dirt as they’d done numerous times.

But this was different.

The local veteran of many digs shaved off the left eyebrow ridge of a skull; it was the kindest cut because the Trowel of Tarus sliced through conventional thinking on the origins of humanity.

He slowly exposed a cranium, then bones. “Fragile and soft,” recalls Sutikna..

Liang Bua was shelter - and gravesite. No headstone, so let’s call her Flo after her homeland.

She’d been buried where she lay. Resurrected more than 60,000 years after her death into a vastly different universe grappling to understand its origins; perhaps she could help show the way.

The scientists were astonished - they’d been seeking an early relative of Aboriginal Australians. Not Flo, though it took months of research to learn more.

Conventional wisdom has humans evolving in Africa and then spreading around the world. Suppose we’d originated in Asia? Was Flo, and others discovered later, human?

No. Although popularly known as hobbits, after the little folk in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, their scientific name is Homo floresiensis, not Homo sapiens (wise man). Their group is australopithecines, extinct relatives of humans, walking upright but with different anatomies.

“Now the questions are different,” said Sutikna, just returned from another dig at Liang Bua working with scientists from Indonesia, the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia,

“Where did she come from, and how did she get there? Flores has never been connected to other islands. Does she have relatives elsewhere? We just don’t know. Finding Flo was the most exciting moment in my career.”

Not just a moment for Sutikna, but the world. Yet Indonesia has still to recognize the importance of Liang Bua.

Sutikna, now an academic at Australia’s Woolongong Uni, has many questions and few answers. Not because he evades, but because archaeology is like working in a room with many doors and one key; this eventually opens into another room with even more locked doors.

Flo’s small size, just 1.1 meters, thick forearms and light weight - maybe 30 kilos - suggests a tree climber, handy when dodging snapping jaws of Komodo Dragons.

By the standards of modern humans she would have been athletic but no marathon runner as her feet were big and flat.

Her broad pelvis meant she had a pot belly. Her arms would have been more to the front than sides, so she wouldn’t have thrown stones. That useful survival skill was yet to evolve.

Her informal burial implies a sudden natural disaster, like a volcanic explosion and eruption of toxic gasses, killing her and her group and smothering them with sediment.


There are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in Indonesia. The most famous is Borobudur, the ninth century Buddhist temple in Central Java. It handles an average 7,000 sightseers a day.

Another is the Solo ‘fossil man’ site with an excellent museum about 15 kilometres outside the city. Weekends are especially busy.

Liang Bua, four hours drive east of Labuan Bajo, is not on the list; it gets three or four visitors a day, mainly from Europe. Occasionally an Australian or Indonesian drops by.

The cave is hauntingly spectacular, big enough for a lecture theater, about 50 meters wide at the mouth and 20 meters high but may have been larger - or smaller - during other geological upheavals. It slopes to a high back, ideal for avoiding predators.

Drooping from the roof is a forest of warped stalactites, strangely shaped by water seeping through mineral soils. Exposed tree roots pattern the walls. Bats roost among the crannies.

There’s a small museum set up with funds from the Indonesian National Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS), Woolongong and New England Universities, and the US Smithsonian Human Origins Program.

But little for maintenance and improved access.

The museum needs upgrading, the surrounds purged of plastic. The site’s global significance warrants high-tech displays and knowledgeable multi-lingual staff.

Jatmiko, now a senior researcher at ARKENAS, was on the discovery team with Sutikna. “Promoting Liang Bua is a good idea which I support,” he said.

“But you must understand that managing and making it a tourist destination isn’t easy.

“Every year we excavate in the cave. We always ensure the local government knows it’s of world importance for studying human evolution, and for tourism.

“For a long time we’ve tried to collaborate with the local government, but no response.

“There are other important sites nearby. We’re scheduled to dig in the Soa Basin (Central Flores) in September, a site where 400,000 year old fossils have been found.”

But there’s only one Liang Bua, hobbit home, little known, rarely visited.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 November 2018 )

Saturday, November 03, 2018


Does the present government really understand Indonesia? Or want to? Ministers get detailed briefings from diplomats in Jakarta squirreling away in our biggest embassy, plus wisdoms from academics close to home.

So why so many big boo-boos, of which former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s trip as envoy to Bali is a standout.  Not so much the visit, more the wash-up.

The media next door are fully focused on yet another national tragedy.   After two earthquakes killing thousands, a new Boeing 737 Max 8 inexplicably crashed last month, killing all 189 on board.  So there’s been little space to ponder the latest weird policy meanderings in Canberra.

Had Lion Air flight JT610 not plunged into the Java Sea the issue of Australia possibly following the US and shifting its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could be threatening trade and friendship with the world’s most populous Islamic nation.

Foreign affairs is the highest of political arts, no place for dilettantes, the unlettered and intemperate. Consistency is a virtue, change must be managed.  It’s an area where Governments and Oppositions, even when disagreeing, tend to be less shrill.

Tongues which flex freely on domestic issues usually manage control on international matters; speaking with one voice dissuades foreign states seeking to denigrate and divide.

Though not Australia in its dealings with the world’s third largest democracy, a major market for our primary produce and future ally as China expands south and the US heads north.

The Palestine issue is to Indonesians what British royalty is to Australasians – a complex of deeply felt religious, cultural and historical emotions where the hard hats of reason offer little protection.

At first glance the idea of sending Citizen Turnbull to Bali for the Oceans Conference seemed reasonable.  Mr Harborside Mansion is said to hit it off with President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, raised on the mudbanks of Central Java’s Solo River.  The guys had met several times before, so a saving on name tags.

At second glance – not so smart. This was a head-of-state show with Widodo as host. If PM Scott Morrison was unavailable either Deputy Michael McCormack or Foreign Minister Marise Payne should have been first to shake hands when disembarking in Denpasar.

Whatever the barrister’s past eminence, having a delegation leader whose titles are all qualified with ‘former’ was at best a snub to Australian ministers, and certainly an insult to the protocol-obsessed Javanese who run the Republic and must have asked: Does he carry any clout?

This is a nation where spotters work 24/7 seeking slights to sovereignty, like birdwatchers vie for first sightings, then shriek outrage and demand retaliation.

But don’t worry – this stuff-up won’t happen again.  There’ll be no more papers in Mr T’s briefcase with a roo and emu on the letterhead. If he wants to wear batik on Paradise Island he’ll have to pay his own hotel bill.

His naughtiness?  He told the truth to reporters at the conference: ‘There is no question, were that move (the embassy to Jerusalem) to occur, it would be met with a very negative reaction in Indonesia.’ 

Didn’t anyone have the courage to tell the PM that the man he toppled was probably doing a nice diplomatic dance to move the issue close to an exit?  If they did, he wasn’t listening.

 ‘The issue of trade and other things was not really part of his (Turnbull's) brief. My view, our government's view about these issues are clear. That's what we're pursuing,’ he told commercial radio in Australia.

‘Not really’? ‘Issues are clear’? What was being pursued?  The past Member for Wentworth responded with  ‘a few facts’: ‘Scott Morrison asked me to discuss trade and the embassy issue in Bali and we had a call before I left to confirm his messages which I duly relayed to Mr Widodo.’

More truth telling required and all in public. This washing isn’t just dirty, it’s diseased.

A correction on Fairfax Media: ‘I invited Mr Turnbull to represent me … as head of delegation, he was briefed on appropriate responses on other issues that could be raised in any direct discussions with the President’.

Widodo must have wondered what platform the Okkers were standing on. Like trains switching tracks, policy change should be signaled ahead.  Who’s the real stationmaster here? Or is there one?

If Jakarta hadn’t been focused on the air crash this chaos could have led the TV bulletins, as crippling to relationships as the 2011 Labor Government’s abrupt ban on cattle exports when allegations of cruelty were made against Indonesian abattoirs.

The potential for damage still lurks.  Widodo’s opponents are led by Presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto. If they campaign on the Canberra confusion claiming Australia treats its friends with contempt and isn’t genuine about seeking a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the game will get worryingly weighty.

In this bleak scenario Widodo might chose to show electors he’s no push-around by teaching the Antipodean brats a lesson.

Least painful to him but hurtful to us would be delaying endorsement of the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement; this free trade deal is supposed to be wrapped before Christmas.

In such a troubling climate, seeds of hostility could find a damp paddock ahead of Indonesians voting next April. 

To conclude – a respectful request:  Please, elected reps, think before speaking on issues concerning the neighbours.  Is that so hard?

The question’s rhetorical.

First published in Pearls & Irritations 3 November 2018.



If the 18th Century English essayist Samuel Johnson was writing today he might have honed his wit on antipodean monolinguals rather than women preachers.

Then his Scottish biographer James Boswell could have recorded him saying: ‘Sir, an Australian speaking Indonesian is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

At an Independence Day function in Western Australia hosted by the genial Consul General Dewi Gustina Tobing at the Perth Town Hall, about 350 guests heard a speech by the Minister for Asian Engagement, Bill Johnston.

Invitees were wound up by being told he’s an endangered species, a politician who  speaks Indonesian.  In a life long before parliament he lived in Bandung as a US Field Service exchange student.

He coughed up enough polysyllables to give a short formal address, but was then upstaged by his political opponent Ian Blayney, who recited Soekarno’s 1945 declaration of Independence, delighting the Nusantarans present.

But none of the glass-clinkers displayed amazement when Ibu Tobing spoke in flawless English as did her staff.

A double standard?  Discrimination?.  Are Australians so arrogant they think all foreigners should be able to understand ‘G’day, ‘ow ya goin’, give us a beer will’ya?’ 

If you’ve ever overheard Okker tourists shouting at Balinese because volume aids comprehension, then you’ll have the answer.

There are now fewer Australian high schoolers studying Indonesian than 40 years ago.  Universities are dropping the subject because, like the rupiah, the language is in free fall

Fortunately Indonesians are generous and forgiving.  You don’t expect us to know your tongue; when you find some who can, you judge our pronunciation beyond weird. 

I’ve given speeches and got polite laughs, but later discovered these were giggles from smartphone memes, not the jokes which pancaked along with my self-esteem and misplaced vowels.

Anglos have the same problems with dialogue in films from America - two close cultures separated by a common language.  It’s often easier to follow the Indonesian subtitles than decode the US slang.

There are signs that the government is getting fed up with outsiders who only know bagus and use it as the universal synonym. 
Earlier this year President Joko Widodo ordered foreigners seeking work permits to get Indonesian language training.  This was a policy U-turn; three years earlier he threw out a similar regulation saying it was bad for business.
Most of the 126,000 expats working in Indonesia are reported to be Asians.  Cynics claim the new law is to show something’s being done about Chinese allegedly laboring on construction projects.
Few details of the tests have emerged.  Will we need competency certificates - and if so, where can these be bought? And for how much?  If investors fail will they and their dollars get deported?
Expat business organizations have reacted by exclaiming quelle horreur! if they’re Europeans, or WTF? if they’re not - which won’t get translated to avoid giving further offence.
But why shouldn’t professionals like engineers and financiers have to learn Indonesian? Then they can tune in to boardroom whispers during big deal negotiations - though the sotto voce could be Javanese, Sundanese, Mandarin or even prokem.
This is the slang mainly used by teens in Jakarta to show how cool they are, which is never easy in the sweltering city. It also gets a run in some sinetron (TV soapies) where I find the words as complex as Latin.  That’s my alibi, which means ‘elsewhere’ in the dead, though not extinct language.
Fortunately sinetron can be enjoyed with the sound off; viewers only half awake will know that the sweet young thing in a headscarf will triumph over the unshaven thug.
If staged on a sidewalk be sure the lass will be run over by a runaway car when she runs away. No director’s running sheet required to know the next scene will be in a run-down clinic where doctors are running tests. Let’s just run through that again.
Indonesians heading south to work or study must pass an English language exam to get long-stay visas.  In Aotearoa (NZ) they’ll fail for answering that a sex peck is a romantic prelude to congress; it’s six cans of beer.
In the Great South Land your mates could be ‘old bastards’, though born in wedlock -- or ‘sport’, though they don’t play games; ‘having a blue’ is not about color though colorful terms may be employed.
Surprisingly many Irish reportedly fail the language test though English dominates the Emerald Isle. Like deterring Chinese workers, rejections may have more to do with keeping them out because the Irish play better rugby.  Which is a sport.  Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 November 2018)