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

Monday, January 21, 2019


 When sinking looms, jump.

Imagine if almost six per cent of the Coalition reckoned they’d lose their seats at the next election so switch to Labor. 

Chances are they wouldn’t be piped aboard, as ship jumpers are not favoured in Australian politics, distrusted by the party they betrayed and the one where they seek to stowaway.

Not so in Indonesia where more than 30 in the 560-member House of Representatives (DPR) have sniffed the wind and reckon they’d rather jettison principles than lose prestige.  That’s according to Jakarta think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Parties need at least four percent of the national vote to stay afloat in the DPR so members of small shows, often faith-based, have been checking lockers for lifejackets.

Why so keen to hang-in? Politicians everywhere say they’re motivated by wanting to ‘serve the community’. The truer phrase in Indonesia would be ‘take from the community.’  Transparency International claims the law makers work in the Republic’s most corrupt public institution.

In the last 15 years the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has secured convictions against almost 550 public servants and politicians. It remains the most trusted public authority so subject to attacks by its victims for being ’too powerful’.

Seventeen is a mystic number in Indonesian culture; 17 August 1945 was the date the nation declared its independence from the colonial Dutch, so it was appropriate that the first of five national TV debates ahead of the 17 April national vote was held on 17 January.

This pitted President Joko Widodo, 57, and his running mate hardline Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 75, against Prabowo Subianto, 67, and US-educated businessman Sandiaga Uno, 49.

Widodo, who has held power for the past five years, heads a coalition of seven parties, led by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Together they hold 386 seats.  Election of the President is by direct popular vote and doesn’t depend on numbers in the DPR.

With three months before the ballot, the incumbent is leading most opinion polls.   But in this vast and complex nation straddling the Equator, one spark from an inflammatory issue (price of basic commodities, overseas ‘interference’ or religious slur) could start a bushfire turning predictions to ash.

Opposition is the Red and White Coalition (named after the bicolour national flag), with 113 seats.  It’s just two parties led by Gerindra started by Subianto as a vehicle for his bid to remain relevant.

He’s a yesteryear’s warrior hoping to remove Widodo in a contest that deserves close attention, particularly by Australians concerned our foreign policy should be more Jakarta and less Washington

Billed as big, a splendid example of doing politics properly in the world’s third largest democracy, the debate disappointed largely because it wasn’t.  That’s because the General Election Commission (KPU) determined the issues – law, human rights, terrorism and conflict – and gave questions in advance.

Predictably answers were memorised ensuring speakers drove past each other staring ahead; they seldom crossed the median strip threatening a collision of policies which might spark chatter.

Post-event interviews of viewers found many rated the show boring, failing to offer new initiatives to handle old problems.  Some said they dozed off.
Subianto revealed his sclerotic thinking by continually urging ‘strong’ boundaries, laws and responses to crises, wrapping himself in knots (and nots) when Widodo asked about the endorsement of six candidates who’d already been convicted of corruption.
Suggesting it’s up to the electorate to reject them, wasn’t the best response from a man with the power to sift applicants.
For Western viewers Uno appeared the most professional, attacking Widodo on his record and asking why voters should continue trusting his government.  This should have given the President the chance to launch a job-done list.  He blew it.

The challenger’s backers remind voters their hero is properly titled Lieutenant General (retired).  They think electors still hanker for a return to the tough-guy politics which kept Subianto’s former father-in-law Soeharto in power for 32 years last century.

Indonesia’s median age is 30 (Australia’s is 37); the world’s most populous Muslim nation (88 per cent of 260 million), is largely young.  Around 30 per cent were born since Soeharto quit in 1998 after student riots against his economic and conservative social policies, so talk of the Good-ol’-Days means nothing unless it’s a game or smartphone app.

Although a grandfather, calm low-key Widodo looks young, cool and modern, unlike the arrogant Subianto, often astride a horse and wearing dark glasses. His style is fascist aloof. 

Subianto told viewers that raising public officials’ salaries would hasten the defeat of corruption.  However most convicted of bribery were holding top jobs with good pay when arrested. 

Former Golkar Party leader Setya Novanto, once a super-rich wheeler, is now serving a 15-year term involving a AUD $240 million electronic ID card fraud. The lower rungs tend to have higher morals.

Widodo’s offsider Amin is a former head of the world’s largest Sunni Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama claiming 40 million members.  He’s more used to addressing compliant congregations so put in a poor performance, even failing to find anything to say when offered time to summarise.

Why bother to persuade when you can order?  Indonesia’s Human Rights watch has reminded voters that Amin has ‘helped draft and been a vocal supporter of fatwas (religious edicts),

‘Those fatwas, although not legally binding, have been used to legitimise increasingly hateful rhetoric against LGBT people and in some cases, fuelled deadly violence by militant Islamists against religious minorities.’

Sadly these issues stir few voters; the candidates know this well so just give tick-a-box replies on HR and move on to other concerns – food security, energy and natural resources.  All on the agenda for debate two next month. On the 17th, of course.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in East Java.


 First published in Pearls and Irritaations, 21 January 2019.  See:

Thursday, January 17, 2019


The Year of Living Better                                           

Expat get-togethers at year’s end can turn edgy when well-lubricated newbies sound off about this nation’s defects.

Those of us who’ve lived here longer and have a stake in the country find ourselves bristling, then mustering counter claims.  Fortunately our task became easier in 2018.

Sure, the whingers (‘complainers’ to non-Okkers) have some strong points. 

You don’t need to watch horror movies to pump adrenaline – just looking through the windscreen lifts the pulse rate.  Pollution smokes the lungs, harms the ears and stings the eyes.  Will it ever lessen?

The bureaucracy continues to bloat; the education system has more cracks than the sidewalks and the Republic’s diplomats are still waiting for directions. Yet despite these negatives last year saw a burst of betterment.

Which is not to diminish the natural disasters and their terrible death tolls, which could have been lessened through public awareness programs. 

These are underway; 2018 should be remembered as the time when politicians were jolted out of complacency.  Clearly shaken they’ve started hearing the experts who’ve long shouted for more money and modern early-warning systems. 

‘These aren’t wants, they’re needs,’ said Weather Bureau head Dr Dwikorita Karnawati who now expects last year’s budget to be doubled.

At first glance the December photos of President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo with Freeport McMoRan’s CEO Richard Adkerson looked like yet another posed East-West business-page line up of forced smiles.

These events often mark the signing of a perforated paper that’s then filed in the bottom drawer under FORGET.

Not this time: The handshakes celebrated a real done deal that seemed impossible twelve months earlier, and all the years before as negotiations moved slower than Jakarta’s commuter traffic.

Ownership of the stunningly rich Grasberg copper and gold mine in West Papua, which US engineers and local laborers gouged open in 1973, has been a running row for decades.  Resource nationalists have been battling foreign capitalists waving Soeharto-era contracts.  Now Indonesia holds the majority stake.

That it’s all over in a US $3.85 billion shuffle of shares and cash shows just how far Indonesia has moved in the past year by asserting its position as the world’s third largest democracy – and getting recognition.

But let’s stay sober.  In October the rupiah plunged to 15,248 against the dollar, its lowest point since the crisis of 1998, terrifying investors.  It’s bounced back a little to around 14,500 but remains a worry.

This column is not a cheerleader for any candidate in the upcoming April poll, just an observer acknowledging noteworthy changes in 2018.  The reasons are for voters to determine.

The new toll roads and rail lines criss-crossing Java seem to be expanding faster than similar infrastructure projects in our homelands. 

Upsides, downsides. Good for travelers, not for farmers. Concrete smothering the globe’s most fertile soils will further deny the dream of the archipelago feeding itself – a food security issue which research and consultations might have identified if the rush to build had been paced.

Supporters of procedures say that considering every option ensures safety.  There must be rules, rigidly enforced.

Western engineers have no reason to be smug. Just before Christmas a new 36-storey apartment block in Sydney was evacuated over fears it might tumble, even though stringent building codes were allegedly followed.

Dashing ahead or biding time?  Construction of the Transmission Gully motorway in New Zealand was first mooted during World War 11, a necessary alternative escape route should an earthquake disable the shaky isles’ capital Wellington

Clearly urgent, absolutely vital.  The route was debated by working parties with members dying and retiring before making decisions. Every threatened insect and plant had to be identified and moved, all objections considered.  Cars are expected to start moving along the 27-kilometer road sometime in 2020.

That’s when the 1,200-kilometer Trans Java Tollway should be completed. Both projects started in 2004.

I queue, therefore I am. Government offices were ideal places to build new relationships as long waits forged friendships with strangers.  Last year a few more agencies went on line meaning we can fill in forms at home and meet less.  The challenge for department managers in 2019 is to find tasks for unsackable staff with no 21st century skills.

The May suicide-bomber attacks on East Java churches and police posts shocked all. The response was impressive when compared to similar incidents a few years ago.  There’s now awareness that terrorism is a whole-of-community issue, not something just affecting minorities. 

Overall the police in 2018 acted professionally and impartially when handling mass protests like those around Monas. Whisper, so xenophobes aren’t alerted: The cops have been accepting training from their Australian counterparts.

Indonesian politics have always been volcanoes threatening to erupt.  Yet by comparison with Britain and its Brexit crisis, Canberra with three leaders in three years and Washington’s endless chaos, this country is hard lava, stable enough to build firm foundations if laid well.

That wasn’t the expectation early last year as parties jostled to build power blocks for the June elections of governors and mayors; the gloomy were forecasting widespread villainy. There was some, but unexceptional and limited.

Voters got heated but kept their passions for the TV debates, which are now more watchable than the sinetron (soap opera) domestic disputes. 

Prices are edging up, unemployment has risen from 5.13 per cent in January to 5.34 per cent now. We all moan.  However no one seems keen to don yellow vests and burn tyres in the streets. Jakarta is not Paris.

Vive la difference.

First published in Indonesia Expat 17 January 2018

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Flower power 

The idea was great, the timing awful. Had it been otherwise the Indonesian economy could be smelling sweeter. Now there’s a chance for success because a local businessman exercised his curiosity. Duncan Graham reports on a new ecotourism venture with a complex past:
It looks incongruous. In the pretty village of Plumbon high in the hills above Solo in Central Java, an old flat-roof factory sprawling among the marigolds and lavenders.
Industries often seek to soften their harsh presence with a tree or two to mask the smokestacks, maybe a lawn out front to lay the dust. But this is different; the plants are here to feed the plant.
The story starts in the early 1960s, a tense time in Indonesia with growing concern about President Soekarno’s closeness to Communism. Although most deals were with Russia, relations with a small Soviet satellite had already begun to bloom. Literally.
Bulgaria is now a democratic republic of seven million with a market economy and a big US airbase, but half a century ago it was part of the Eastern Bloc.
Politics aside, the Slavs had skills that Soekarno thought could benefit his nation, for Bulgaria is the world’s largest producer of oils called essential.
It’s a confusing word. It doesn’t mean crucial or necessary, but an oil which carries the ‘essence’ of a plant, the volatile liquid distilled from flowers and leaves.
If your bathroom soap smells sweet or family members use perfume, chances are the scents have come from the Balkans.
Why not Indonesia? The President did a deal and Bulgarian engineers and scientists soon built a factory, installed equipment and set about getting locals to plant the required blooms, mainly roses and lemon grass. The produce would be exported to repay the loan, the hills would blossom and so would jobs.
The dream withered with the 1965 anti-Communist coup d’etat in Jakarta. The Bulgarians fled, the factory abandoned. During the following decades it was sold and bought several times.
One owner tried making chopsticks, another getting swifts to take up residence so nests could be harvested for Chinese medicine and soups. Attempts were made at producing perfumes. All failed. Without the skills of the East European technicians the venture was doomed.
Eventually one frustrated buyer cut out all the specialized copper equipment and sold it as scrap. The chimneys were felled, imported furnace firebricks plundered. Weeds marched in and took over.
Then came local engineer and entrepreneur Paulus Mintarga.
“I was checking a nearby villa development when I noticed the factory buildings,” he said. “I found the design interesting and the history curious. I understood Soekarno’s vision and I wondered if it could be revived.
“Why not turn it into a museum to encourage young people to see the opportunities? We could develop the industry and build the local economy, but this time through small-scale distillation in the villages.
“We should seek balance in everything. Business people concentrate on financial capital, but social capital is equally important. That’s why I’m pursuing this project.”
Mintarga’s family moved from Kalimantan to Solo where his father taught at a Chinese high school. He was the ninth of ten children. At university he trained as a structural engineer then worked as a contractor in Jakarta.
“ I’ve always liked to question though never pushed to be a high achiever - and that’s helped my development,” he said.
“This is a spiritual island. If you live and eat and grow and draw breath in Java, that influences the way you behave and think. It’s like the umbilical cord linking mother and child. It’s important to be open, to listen and contemplate.”
Mintarga is best known as the self-taught architect behind Rumah Turi (house of the sesbania flowering pea). This was Solo’s first eco-boutique guesthouse using wastewater to feed thousands of plants and fish to create a calm environment. He got ideas for the building from a trip to Japan where he marveled at the way locals used space.
In Yogyakarta he designed the three-storey Greenhost Hotel applying scrap metal and recycled wood (he prefers ‘upcycling’), mainly from shipping pallets. Vegetables are grown in a massive hydroponic system which runs past the rooms.
Apart from the present project he’s also involved with a home and holiday development in the Selayar Islands of South Sulawesi, a famous dive zone close to a national park.
There will eventually be a hotel on the 2.5 hectare site alongside the Plumbon museum now known as Rumah Atsiri (home of essential oils). When finished the development will have cost more than US $5 million (Rp 68 trillion). The first stage is already open to tourists.
“What’s a legacy?” Mintarga asked. “Should it be something monumental or sustainable? I’ve been blessed. My vision is to develop the potential of Indonesia and its people.
“If Rumah Atsiri becomes a training ground for the industry that Soekarno wanted then I’ll be 


First published in The Jakaera Posr 16 January 2019

Monday, January 14, 2019


How to uncover bloody secrets: Just ask                                        

Victor's version.  Monument in South Blitar to the purge of Communists

Much commentary on the 1965 coup is heavy with adverbs, qualifying observations and doubts sown into fields of research.

Was the killing of the six generals and a lieutenant on the night of 30 September a well-planned Communist Party (PKI) take-over which went wrong?  Did the Army have prior knowledge so it was able to constrain any uprising?  How else could it have seized power so rapidly in the confusion that followed?

A few months earlier President Soekarno had announced a ‘Fifth Force’, a ‘People’s Army’.  This concerned the existing armed forces, which then planned to undermine the new group; but what really happened has long been contested.

Not now. Australian academic Dr Jess Melvin doesn’t shilly-shally. The statements in her book The Army and the Indonesian Genocide are definitive.

Not for her the excuse that the anti-Communist killings, which swept much of the nation in the months following the coup, were spontaneous uprisings of villagers, pious Muslims outraged by godless Marxists.

This is the story that the Army and successive governments have maintained with absolute authority, ensuring every generation accepted the ‘fact’ by pushing propaganda into schools, the media and daily life.

Even now, 53 years later, some streets fly flags at half-mast on 1 October to keep the myth alive.

Myth?  Absolutely, according to Melvin, who has built her history on the most rock-hard foundations.  She has used the Army’s own records. 

How she got this academic gold is a lesson for all researchers:  In 2010 she walked into a military archive in Banda Aceh, asked for their records and got them along with access to a photocopier – something no other fossicker had bothered to do. 

Maybe the custodian of the 3,000 papers didn’t know what they contained, or didn’t wonder why a young foreigner would be interested in piles of dusty documents. Melvin has now dubbed these The Indonesian Genocide Files.

Iconoclast Melvin comments that ‘academia … has also shown a reluctance to characterize the killings as the result of a centralized military campaign’ and names the gullible.  These include Professors Robert Cribb and Harold Crouch, both of the Australian National University, though the latter has now retired

In the megawatt glare of Melvin’s findings some scholars must now be pushing their once authoritative texts into the backs of bookcases and deleting references from student reading lists.

We don’t know how many real or imagined Communists were killed in the six months following the coup.  Melvin goes for ‘approximately one million unarmed civilians’ making this one of the more dreadful mass slaughters in recent history.

In separate research, using recently declassified US Government files from the period, she’s shown that the Jakarta embassy was well aware the Army was coordinating the killings, even giving weapons and prisoners to mobs for murder.

It’s easy to be horrified in 2019 now Communism is a spent force in much of the world. Even China, where the ideology is welded into the ironclad administration, it’s capitalism that’s making the nation rich and powerful.

Back in the Cold War 1960s, the West was terrified of the Red Threat sweeping through Southeast Asia; fighting in the Vietnam War was at its most intense.  In this high-stress atmosphere impartial trials and the rule of law were impediments to be kicked aside.

That may answer some puzzles about the ferocity of the genocide, but no excuse. However well plastered, history’s horrors tend to leak through the damp mortar showing the structural rot behind, staining the favored story. 

Indonesian human rights organizations regularly try to have the killings ventilated by an independent tribunal.

These have suffocated.  It seems important people with questionable pasts can still ensure the graves and files stay undisturbed. They overlooked Melvin.

Her research shows that within days of the coup Major-General Soeharto, later to become the nation’s second president, had started Operasi Penumpasan (Operation Annihilation).  This included an elaborate public relations exercise to mask the military’s role.

This included fermenting toxic titles like G30S and Gestapu and barbarizing suspects.

It worked, even overseas.  Writes Melvin: ‘If it seems remarkable that the Indonesian State continues to justify the killings, it should be remembered that Soeharto’s rise to power … was openly celebrated in the West.

‘… Time magazine explained just after the worst of the killings had ended (that this) was ‘the West’s best news for years in Asia’.’

Most academic literature has focused on the butchery in Java but the killings started in Aceh.  Melvin already knew her way around the province having worked as an undergraduate volunteer with aid agencies following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. 

Apart from analysing Army records she interviewed more than 70 survivors and relatives of the victims.  Many had never spoken publicly before and still feared retribution. 

Writes Melvin of her ‘humbling experience’: ‘It struck me as unbelievably tragic that even to this day they have not been able to mourn publicly.’ 

She also met men from the death squads: ‘They considered themselves national heroes.  Their greatest regret was that they had not received more recognition for their actions.’

Melvin controlled her repulsion:  ‘They were not monsters.   They spoke to me politely and in some cases even kindly.’  In extreme circumstance people externalize evil. 

Indonesia is not alone in failing to see history through clear eyes. Australians still wrestle with the reality that their nation was built on the bones of massacred Aborigines.  The 2008 ‘sorry statement’ by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came two centuries after the British took possession of the ‘empty land’.

Indonesian activists hoping for national reconciliation are unlikely to see this occur with the present crop of politicians; in the meantime this book will give them the hard facts they need when that moment of healing comes.

Should the military and the State be held accountable for the genocide? Melvin’s unsettling research has finally settled the question.

First published in The Jakarta Post, 14 January 2019

Monday, January 07, 2019


 Ignoring the Doings Next Door

On a recent edition of ABC TV’s free-for-all Summer Drum, participants sounded off about possible Democrat nominees for the 2020 US Presidential election.

Social commentator Jane Caro sprayed the screen with alternatives.  The Australian columnist Greg Sheridan, who comes across as reasonable on the telly, and community advocate Aisha Novakovich tossed in their suggestions.

Host Adam Spencer assumed viewers knew all names and understood the American selection process, so didn’t intervene with descriptors. Nor did the talent interject: ‘Hey, this is asinine. We’ve got swags of homegrown issues to air.’

Weird political jostlings 16,000 kilometers away may make for jolly banter but that’s all.

Critical, and closer in time and space, is the 17 April Indonesian Presidential election.  How many of us know the contenders, their policies and how these will affect the neighborhood?

The ABC and other media are doing little to erase the ignorance.  News from the US comes pre-packaged it’s just download and upload, ideal for near-empty newsrooms.  No translations required, no cultural and religious practices to explain. 

Washington’s drab suits and gender imbalance looks much like Canberra. Particulars differ, but many issues are familiar and we’ve even adjusted to mispronunciations.

Not so next door in the world’s third largest democracy and most populous Islamic nation – though technically secular.

If there’s a further lurch to the right in Indonesian politics we may knock Bali off our holiday list for fear the morality police might start ‘sweeping’ hotels for the unwed in the same bed.  We’ll also worry that tsunami warning systems still won’t work.

Till recently most observers were predicting current President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo will win a second five-year term, the maximum constitutionally allowed. 

Apart from Widodo sitting easily with the electorate, his rival, Prabowo Subianto made tactical blunders.  Foremost was supporting an actress who big-noted she’d been beaten up by Widodo thugs.

Police later revealed her bruises came from cosmetic surgery, which brightened the nation’s cheeks with much mockery. 

Subianto stood in 2004 but lost by 6.3 per cent (133 million voted) largely because young social activists backed Widodo.  They feared the former general would unravel reforms made since dictator Soeharto was ousted in 1998, throttle the Anti-Corruption Commission and curb the press, currently the freest in Asia.

Subianto, 67, is a mega-rich businessman with a string of resource companies, and well-entrenched in the oligarchy. He was once married to Soeharto’s daughter Titiek; his economist dad Sumitro was in Soeharto’s ministry.

Subianto served in East Timor and West Papua, attracting allegations of human rights abuses, still unsettled. He misjudged the mood for political change, was discharged for ‘misinterpreting orders’ and took refuge in Jordan.

On his return he tried to recover lost glories, courting other parties before starting Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement Party.)  He has a stable of Portuguese Lusitano horses once bred for war. Subianto shouts his speeches and is reputed to have an explosive temper.

Jokowi, ten years younger, is a polar opposite, a mild-mannered village-bred Javanese and soft public speaker hooked on high-powered motorbikes.  He started showing  gravitas only recently.

A furniture-maker from a regional town he became the local mayor with a Mr Clean reputation, then got elected Governor of Jakarta

From this platform he sprang into the Presidency becoming famous for his blusukan (informal walkabouts).  These are now rare following domestic terrorism attacks against police and churches.

His term has concentrated on reviving and expanding the nation’s moribund infrastructure that’s long crippled the economy, using huge loans from China. New ports, airports, toll-roads and rail lines are being built with astonishing speed.

Socially the nation has turned conservative.  The jilbab (headscarf) once banned in the public service is now widely worn, worrying the ten per cent (26 million) of the non-Muslim population.  Jokowi has done little to calm their fears.

Nor has he paid much attention to foreign policy, leaving that to the bureaucrats.  Ultra nationalist Subianto could start promoting Indonesia as a military power.  He’s already talking up overseas threats gleaned from American sci-fi.

Last year Widodo’s party boss, founding President Soekarno’s daughter Megawati, ordered him to accept senior Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 75, as running mate. 

Like Subianto, Widodo isn’t known for excess piety.  First Lady Iriana and daughter Kahiyang Ayu seldom wear jilbab.

Amin’s presence is supposed to neutralise slurs that Widodo isn’t a ‘proper’ Muslim, but the coupling looks awkward.

Amin has railed against homosexuality, pluralism and non-mainstream Islamic sects. He backed huge 2016 protests against former Jakarta governor and ethnic Chinese Christian Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, now in jail for blasphemy. 

During the trial Widodo abandoned his former colleague, dismaying human-rights activists who thought he was on their side.

Subianto has recruited Jakarta vice-Governor Sandiaga Uno, 49, as his sidekick. The slim US-educated personable businessman would make a better fit partnered with Widodo.

In a country where images matter more than policies, Uno comes across as cool Metro Man, suave in casual gear. Amin’s look is Retirement Village, comfy in traditional Islamic garb.

If Subianto wins, Uno may try to stop him castrating democracy, the knife used for 32 years by Soeharto; that could be like John Kelly managing Donald Trump. 

It will be the reverse with Widodo, keeping Amin out of sight so the nation looks progressive, modern and upholding the rule of law, not a de-facto theocracy scaring investors.

Either way the contest will ebb and flow, moved by cultural and religious forces foreign to most Australians.

If we bone up our politicians might learn to avoid foot-in-mouth infections, like PM Scott Morrison jeopardising a free trade agreement by suggesting our embassy move to Jerusalem.

Whether this deal, hugely important to primary producers, will be salvaged this side of the election is doubtful.  Neither candidate wants to be seen as pro-Australia and therefore anti Palestine.

Now that’s a topic worthy of Summer Drum.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 7 January 2019.  See:

Sunday, January 06, 2019


Wanted: Smart can-do grads with dirty hands    



Indonesia is facing a perfect storm on the education front now roaring in from all compass points. 

According to a lengthy report this year from Australia’s well-respected Lowy Institute:

Indonesia’s education system has been a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for andinternationally competitive’ system.

This outcome has reflected inadequate funding, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures, and poor management, but has most fundamentally been a matter of politics and power.

Not just in schools but also universities where just 16 make Asia’s top 400 campuses on the international Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) ranking.  Adjacent Malaysia, population around 32 million, or 12 per cent of Indonesia’s, has 27 on the list.

There are around 3,000 tertiary institutes in Indonesia; just 122 are state-run.  Most are teaching, not research.  Wealthy students head for labs and lecture rooms overseas – UNESCO cites around 42,000. The world’s fourth largest country has yet to win a Nobel Prize in any discipline.

But the real crisis is in vocational education. From numerous speeches and statements it’s clear President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo - along with the nation’s more thoughtful politicians and academics - fear the economy will slump if it can’t rapidly train enough youngsters to match demands for high-level skills.

In this dystopia the Republic won’t come within a country kilometer to meet the upbeat forecasts being delivered by silver-tongue international financiers urging investments in Indonesia.

The figures they spray are impressive - World Bank statistics show a growth rate last year of 5.07 per cent, way above Singapore’s 3.62 and Australia’s 1.96.

The Pollyannas chorus that with an expanding middle class hungry for new goods and services, and with almost half the population under 30, Indonesia is on track to be the world’s seventh largest economy by 2030.

Realistic? Only if these youngsters can fill the positions being posted by worker-famished factories; however few bosses are seeking barrow-pushers and component sorters who need time off to eat and rest.

This century’s uncomplaining round-the-clock laborers are the restless robots; they’re already marching into modern manufacturers to keep their products jumping off the shelves ahead of competitors.

The work will be for those with the know-how to design, develop, assemble, adapt and repair the high-tech equipment displacing routine tasks. This challenge is international.  As Australian economists Andrew Charlton and Jim Chalmers have written:

Future governments will have to deal with a world in which artificial intelligence and automation will creep into every occupation, from bricklayer to teacher. We, in turn, will need to prepare for a working life that even a few years ago was unthinkable.

Widodo says 58 million skilled workers will be needed within 12 years; he should know a bit about this having run a furniture factory in Solo (Central Java) before carving out a career in politics.

He’s been badgering his increasingly fretful officials to conjure up solutions. They’re colliding with barriers so stoutly built the bureaucrats are risking reputations by looking abroad for ideas at a time when national pride tinged with xenophobia is a powerful driver of policy.

So far the searchers have scoured Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, the US, Taiwan, China, NZ and Australia for ideas.  Educators in the Great South Land are hoping to help (for a fee) by using the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

After almost six years of stop-start discussions this Free Trade Deal is reportedly close to settlement.  It’s believed to include clauses allowing Australian universities to open branch campuses in the Archipelago – but Indonesia wants vocational colleges.

Sounds simple:  First clean up the schools so they deliver keen, well-taught kids. Sort out the budget. Copy an overseas curriculum with proven results.  Download the steps to success.  Implement. Get all on the bus. Accelerate.

Then comes the jolt.  Culture, politics and distrust gather to roll out the concrete barrel roadblocks and barbed wire.  Border controls drop booms.  Progress shudders to a halt.

Which is where Indonesia is currently stranded.

Will the post-millennials prosper?

Ambitious parents often pray their children will get a university education.

If the Pops and Moms earned by heaving and sweating they don’t want their issue to tread the same track. Some men let a fingernail grow long. Explanations go from fashion fad to showing they’re above manual work.

Few want a technical certificate on the guestroom wall; neighbors wouldn’t be impressed.  What’s needed is a cap-and-gown photo, the image to snare a desk in an air-con office.

Once: Not now.

The 30 per cent of high school leavers who go to unis favor the so-called ‘soft options’ like social sciences and religious studies – areas where jobs are scarce. Instead the work and money is for people wearing hard hats and carrying hi-tech tool kits, according to Professor Ainun Na’im. (below)

He’s Secretary General in the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, squashed into the ugly acronym Ristekdikti.

His department is separate from Education, which handles schools, and Religious Affairs, which supervises Islamic teaching institutions.  Having three ministries with competing interests leads to overlapping responsibilities and much confusion, say public servants in these areas.

The US-educated former Professor of Accounting at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University (ranked 85 in the Asian top 400) is the man getting earfuls from an increasingly vexed President and his Minister, Dr Muhammad Nadir;

He was formerly rector (chancellor) of Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java, and also trained as an accountant.

“We don’t find students from wealthy families taking up vocational education,” Na’im told Strategic Review.  “The mindset of Indonesians is against learning practical skills.  This is something we have to change.”

How?  Shift thinking and expectations – old ways no longer suit.  This is the advice given by his department warning students and parents of the onrushing tsunami of workplace change. In the new economic climate this year’s tasks will be washed away as technology surges ahead of plodding bureaucrats and their cumbersome regulations.

Handling the quandary also needs big bucks: Do the public servants recommend their masters spend on technical college workshop gear to teach trades, only to find that the factories have retooled with faster and fancier machines?

Policy planning is further tangled because business and bureaucracy have different backgrounds and worldviews. Should schools form partnerships with industry so the youngsters can learn on the job? 

In Surabaya, the capital of East Java, the US heavy earth-moving corporation Caterpillar trains its own mechanics, but their skills may not fit a miner using Japanese Komatsu bulldozers.

Business tycoon Sandiaga Uno, a vice-presidential contestant in the 2019 election, told the A Dangerous Drift? foreign policy conference in Jakarta about his experience  commissioning a power station in Sumatra.

“We selected a Chinese contractor because the price was good,” he said.  “The plant was built within two years with imported staff.

 “Most impressive – but it’s a decision I regret; we should have used Indonesians.  When maintenance started we found all manuals written in Chinese – so had to go back to them for help.”

Overseas workers are a hot issue heading towards the April poll; opponents of the present government claim ten million illegal laborers are on the government’s massive nation-wide infrastructure projects.

President Widodo reportedly responded that there are only 23,000 Chinese on short-term contracts:  “Those workers install turbines. They build smelters. I’ve checked it myself. That’s because we are not ready yet    to do those jobs.”

At household level casual Indonesian contractors are often multi-skilled, one person seamlessly moving from carpentry to metal fabrication to power reticulation – all without certification.

Not elsewhere. In advance economies even floor cleaners must have passed a training course.  This is for health and safety reasons as moppers sometimes use toxic chemicals.

Over the top?  No, risks are real. In January more than 70 were injured when a mezzanine floor at the stock exchange building in Jakarta collapsed into the lobby.  Poor maintenance and wrong construction materials were alleged to have been responsible.

However there’s a downside. The US educated Na’im probably had a close shave when studying in Philadelphia, as he uses barbers to show how regulations lead to higher costs and a defiance of authority: 

“If I want a haircut overseas I pay twenty dollars (Rp 304,000) or more because the hairdresser has a diploma and the shop is licensed.

“In Indonesia I can find someone competent but unqualified. They’ll cut my hair for the equivalent of a dollar. So who’ll use the expensive shop?

“OK, we make it illegal.  But in this country we’ll never get a situation where such rules can be effectively policed.”

A Westerner who cables his new den with a couple of mates won’t get to play with his vices without a written guarantee, signed by an authorized expert, that the handymen didn’t get their wires crossed.

It’s the same with other trades leading to the old joke that parents wanting their offspring to get rich should steer them towards medicine and fixing perforated bowels, or plumbing and unblocking toilets.

The cost of taking a practical or academic course in an Indonesian state college depends on the quality of the institution; charges at the lower end are much the same.  About 90,000 talented kids from poor families get Rp 650,000 (US $43) a month government scholarships for tuition fees and Rp 400,000 (US $26) for living costs.

Indonesia has tried offering student loans similar to those available in the UK, the US and Australasia; now the banks won’t participate.  They used to hold graduates’ original certificates as collateral but found few repaid.


“That’s because the borrowers photocopied the documents and used these to get work,” said Patdono Suwignjo, Director General for Science, Technology, and Higher Education. (left)

The veteran educator will retire in 2019 so feels less constrained to be diplomatic.  His favorite words are ‘neglect’ when referring to past governments’ interest in vocational education, and ‘stupid’ for regulations. Later he added ‘distrust’.

Unlike many of his colleagues he knows about technology close-up from his days as a vocational lecturer – though not close enough. “I can tell you how to weld and what equipment settings to apply and filaments to use,” he confessed.  “But if I handle a torch the metal and flame tip will get stuck.”

He also has a droll sense of humor: “Do the maths: If we continue building vocational colleges at the present rate of three a year we might meet the demand in 1,350 years.”

His responsibilities include analyzing all factors crimping Indonesia’s ambitions to get internationally competitive.  First what economists call the human capital - the learners flowing into the system along with their attitudes, values and expectations.

The Indonesian Constitution requires a massive 20 per cent of the national budget be assigned to education. Yet the government allocates less than US $1,200 per primary student; that’s around 14 per cent of spending by nation-members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Suwignjo blamed the gap on the education component in the budget being bundled with other items and sent to the regions to disburse. He estimates the actual proportion delivered to education is around eight per cent.



Nine years of schooling are mandatory and supposed to be free.  However school administrations thrust their hands deep into parents’ pockets with a range of charges from building new classrooms to funding teachers’ retirements, making school retention tough for low-income parents.

Angers about the education system are the second largest issue (after land certificates) among the 10,000 complaints received annually by the office of Ombudsman Professor Amzulian Rifai. 

“We’re not like the KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi - Corruption Eradication Commission),” he said. “My powers are limited to mediation and recommending departments change their practices. Most do – some don’t.”

Indonesia has 170,000 state primary schools and 40,000 junior highs called SMP (Sekolah Menengah Pertama).  There are also thousands of private and religious colleges; many are boarding schools.

SMP leavers, aged around 15 and who stay in the system, have the choice of an academic high school Sekolah Menengah Atas SMA, or the vocational Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan SMK. 

The most talented SMK graduates wanting further qualifications head to university, a polytechnic or diploma-awarding college; these are confined to the big cities so students have to leave home adding to costs.  As they progress theory expands and practice shrinks.

Although apprenticeships haven’t taken root in Indonesia, they still operate in parts of Europe, the Anglosphere, Turkey, India and Pakistan so could be adapted to suit.

The current entrance ratio favors SMAs above SMKs seven to three.  Ristekdikti wants  these figures reversed, but there’s one tough question : What will graduates get in their wallets?.

 “Consider salary structures in Pertamina (the state-owned oil company),” Suwignjo said. “They recruit a top polytechnic student with a diploma and an ordinary university graduate with a degree.

“When both get permanency after two years, the academically trained employee will earn Rp 12 million (US $790) a month and the other Rp 8.5 million (US $560).  That’s even if they’re doing the same job.

“The company ranks a four year diploma below a basic degree.  They should be equal.  This would encourage bright kids to take on practical work, but I can’t get the Ministry for State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) to agree.”

Another difficulty is settling educators and employers on the same page headed JOB DESCRIPTIONS.  Is a health worker a nurse if they’re the only professional in a clinic?  Is a bank clerk an economic adviser if she or he suggests deposit accounts to customers?

“After two years discussion we couldn’t get agreement,” said Suwignjo. “Why? Kadin (Kamar Dagang dan Industri Indonesia (the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) doesn’t trust the government.”

The SOEs are part of the reason. There are 118 and 800 subsidiaries.  Although socialism is on the nose in Indonesia because it carries a whiff of banned Communism, the number of government-controlled businesses is growing to the annoyance of private industry. 
Entrepreneurs reckon this swimming pool is so tilted by constantly changing regulations their team has no water to compete in the race for contracts.
Unsurprisingly Indonesia ranks 72 in the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business list of 190 economies.  
Then there are subsidies for inefficient operators delivering price-sensitive essentials.  In mid 2018 Finance Minister Sri Mulyani said Pertamina had been handed Rp 26 trillion (US $1.5 billion) to keep gasoline prices stable when world oil costs surged. 
The State electricity company PLN (Perusahaan Listrik Negara)  is another recipient of government largesse. It has a monopoly on power distribution and most generators. Those privately owned struggle to stay solvent when dealing with a behemoth buyer.
An exasperated Suwignjo threw up his hands: “Where else in the world is there such a crazy system?”

To get around the bog of job descriptions Indonesia is toying with using the ANZSCO (Australia and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations) searchable list.  However the Australian Bureau of Statistics warns that it isn’t exhaustive and some titles still contested.

In a bid to boost teaching quality, Suwignjo’s section shut down 243 diploma mills in 2016, and then hit what he calls the “practical reality of Indonesian culture.”

Politicians or their friends owned many of the shonky institutions.  “Pressure was applied to reverse the rulings,” said Suwignjo.  “We resisted, but now try to make them more professional.

“That means lifting teaching abilities.  Good buildings are the easy part.  Getting quality staff is far more difficult.”

Here’s another zone where culture conspires to trip the unwary.  The idea of life-long learning is an alien notion.  Students are expected to make an unbroken journey from school to higher education – then rarely grace a campus after graduating.

Few take what Americans call a ‘gap year’ and Australasians ‘OE’ (overseas experience), to get their hands dirty and minds enlarged before settling to serious learning. 

The result is that Indonesian teaching halls are filled with a one-age cohort. Academics returning to classrooms to update qualifications fear their social standing will take a tumble.

Ristekdikti Secretary-General Ainun Na’im said he recognized the need to expand the education catchments and help students who don’t fit the standard mold.  “We’ll be introducing a multi-entry, multi-exit policy taken from Taiwan to build some flexibility into the system,” he said.  Then came a list of ‘musts’.

“We also stress health and safety practices must be totally accepted. We must improve the quality of vocational teachers. Fifty per cent must come from industry. If they’re reluctant to get retrained they’ll be fired.

“Our priorities are manufacturing, medicine, tourism, the digital economy energy and agribusiness.  We must get business on side. The need is pressing.”

The Cirebon Reality

Discussions about a vocational education crisis in an armchair circle of senior government officials atop a shiny Jakarta high-rise feel divorced from reality. The pie-chart figures are unpalatable, but abstract.  Down in the concrete classrooms the concerns are tangible.

Cirebon is a port city about 220 kilometers east of Jakarta.  A polytechnic is being built but won’t be ready till 2020.

SMK1 is the biggest vocational high school with 2,500 students.  Only one in four is female.  It was selected at random for this story and visited with no prior notice.

There are six departments – construction, electrics, electronics, automotive, computing and mechanical engineering.

Here the deficiencies were stark with students learning on lathes installed almost 40 years ago.  No CAD (computer-aided design) controls, standard in industry.  The carpentry workshop had no nail guns or a gang-nail press common in timber construction.

One small panel in a glass-top display represented solar energy.  The lecturer said battery costs deterred development.  He knew nothing about the technology commonplace elsewhere where solar-powered households sell excess electricity to the utility during the day then repurchase at night.

Students were not wearing eye or ear protection, steel-capped boots or other safety gear, mandatory on most worksites. Fire extinguishers and first-aid kits were well hidden.

Retired staff have been pulled back because replacements can’t be found.

“Frustrated?  Absolutely,” said Abdul Ghofir head of mechanical engineering.  “We were promised new equipment, but it never arrived.  Imagine how our graduates feel when their bosses tell them to handle equipment and tools they’ve never used.

“How can we train them properly?”


 Mila Merliyanti, 17, (left) a lone female in a workshop of boisterous boys, had an answer to her lecturer’s question:

“I’m starting to learn mechanics here because I want to study further in Japan. It’s my mother’s idea but I think it will lead to a better job.”

Cirebon’s SMK1 has a long-standing agreement with a Japanese corporate which might be worth copying.

The Japan Indonesia Association For Economic Cooperation runs what it calls a Human Resource Development through Apprenticeship Program.  Students are selected from SMKs, sent to Japan and placed with companies for work experience and further training for up to three years.
On their return they get jobs in Japanese companies based in Indonesia having learnt new skills and work practices which suit the employer.  The scheme has been operating since 2005 and taken about 10,000 trainees.
A program other countries might consider offering as they probe the Indonesian vocational education system for opportunities.  First they’ll need to understand the issues.  Ristekdikti staff, students, lecturers - all will oblige. 

(First published in Strategic Review, January 2019, Vol 9, No 1)









Saturday, January 05, 2019


BTW: Retraining the nation

When did you last see a newspaper photo of young men sitting on the roof of an Indonesian train?

It used to be a standard image, an editor’s pick to illustrate an ill-disciplined transport system.

Here was visual proof that the bureaucracy couldn’t cope, as iconic as today’s snaps of rivers polluted with plastic showing indifference to the environment.

A few years ago an official with the Government’s rail network Kereta Api Indonesia told bemused reporters that all attempts to dissuade kids from climbing on carriages, from shouting to hosing, didn’t work.

Yet something eventually did, because the only men now seen on train roofs are crews refilling water tanks.

Other changes have shunted in, mainly without an air-horn blast.  Farewellers now have to kiss and cry outside; platforms are for passengers only.  There’s space to move and seats to relax.

Barriers have been built and soft entry points policed. Indonesia isn’t China where all tracks are fenced and trespassers pursued, but it’s now more difficult to jump the rattler.

Asongan, the itinerant sellers of everything a prepared traveler doesn’t need and who used to prowl the aisles looking for lonely handbags, have also been railroaded.

The seat allocated is the one you get. Confusion is rare. So is trash. No smoking. Much rolling stock is old and basic but it’s kept clean in and out.

Most surprising of all – the trains leave on time.

Veteran Australian journalist Frank Palmos, who lived in Jakarta in the early 1960s, tells of waiting hours for trains.  When one arrived as scheduled, Frank congratulated the driver.

‘Don’t say that,’ the official replied. ‘This is yesterday’s train.’

KAI no longer tolerates jam karet (rubber time); it’s being run more like a good airline. Maybe that needs rephrasing: a few airlines should study the train system for ideas on efficiency.

How did these wonders come to pass?  Presumably management determination and sustained administrative will.

Your correspondent is no covert operative for KAI paid to promote, but an ordinary sore-back user.  Several thousand kilometers in economy and executive class criss-crossing Java are his qualification to clap – and boo.

Slow check-ins create queues of anxious passengers as too few staff squint at ID cards and tickets.  There are too many baton-carrying guards looking for trouble where none exists.  These might help create a sense of security, but seem to be overkill – probably not the best word to use.

Maybe they’re needed when soccer hooligans think following the beautiful game is an excuse for ugly behavior.  However incidents are rare and linked to finals, not everyday travel.

By contrast, the stationmasters with their chic French Gendarmerie caps do look reassuring.

Journeys still take too long compared with overseas, though to be fair many delays are caused by infrastructure program track work. 

Annoyance at an unexpected stop is softened when the cause is seen – a new bridge and extra rails so the future iron horses can gallop past each other without one having to shrink into a siding. Workers appear busy; stacks of white concrete sleepers have little time to doze before being laid to rest.

Stations are being renovated and fresh ones built, but engineers have yet to fix the detraining problem; staff who forget to push up steps force the lithe to jump down a meter while the aged sit and slide.  Awkward.  Embarrassing.  Dangerous.

Next hassle:  How to get off the platform.  Pedestrian overpasses are rare – some terminals like Malang, have underground tunnels.  Pulling luggage up a steep ramp needs a pre-travel gym course. 

The alternative is to cross the rails.  Forty-ton locomotives hauling ten times their weight shouldn’t share the same space as parents pushing prams and praying the plastic wheels don’t get jammed in steel points.

Eventually all journeys end; the security of the station yields to chaos beyond.  Hustlers evicted by KAI haven’t dispersed – they’ve just regrouped outside the exits.

Taxi touts, illegal porters, peddlers, beggars, all looking to score a few rupiah from tired travelers. It’s time to check money belts, get a vice-like grip on the valise.

Memo KAI: Please send your managers to Pamong Praja, the local government public order squads who are supposed to keep sidewalks clear.  Tell them how you shook the guys off the train tops.  Duncan Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post 5 January 2019