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, April 25, 2019


Tumbledown tragedies; some can be prevented

Richter Scale Day (26 April) honors the 1900 birth of Charles Richter. He’s the American seismologist who invented the scale which measures earthquakes.  
The biggest in Indonesia last year was the magnitude 7.5 Palu quake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi.  Engineers blamed poor construction and houses built on land prone to soil liquefaction for some of the 4,400 deaths.

It doesn’t always need a quake to smash and kill. Among the many urgent tasks facing the new national and provincial governments is to enforce building regulations.  Duncan Graham reports from Cirebon:


Monday 16 April last year dawned like any other in the village of Gegesik outside the port city of Cirebon, 220 kilometers east of Jakarta.

Samini, 40, had sent her daughter Tri Hana Sita, 10, off to primary school.  Her eldest son Aridh Newton Rachman, 22, was working far away.

At the rear of the family’s house was a small studio built of pre-cast concrete blocks and constructed the year before.  Here Samini’s husband Suherman bin Basan, 48, a dahlang (puppet master) was leading a gamelan orchestra rehearsal with the couple’s second son, Aziz Isaac Fathur Rachman, 20, and eight local children.

Members of the Hidayat Jati group were getting ready for shows later in the month.

“It was about 10.30. I just went out to buy a gas bottle and a few other things,” said Samini. “I wasn’t more than 100 meters away, but I didn’t hear anything.  Then I saw people running to our house.”

An old nine-meter high barn alongside the studio had collapsed.  The windowless building had small openings to encourage walet (native swifts) to breed.  Their nests are harvested to make Chinese soup.

But the birds had deserted the empty building before it suddenly tumbled onto the studio. Seven died instantly, including Suherman and Aziz, their bodies brutally disfigured by the tumbling bricks. Two girls and a boy were injured but have since recovered.

In the West there’d be a coronial inquiry and charges laid against the barn owner for failing to keep the building sound.  The local government would also be held responsible for not ensuring regulations were followed.

The builders of the studio would also be summonsed.  The remaining walls, only eight centimeters thick, show a jerry-built construction using low-quality mortar easily crumbled by hand.  There’s no obvious reinforcement and the blocks are not in-line.

“There was no wind, no rain and no earthquake,” said Samini.  “Some said the foundations had not been properly dug, but the barn had been in place for more than ten years.”

In villages other explanations have to be found.  Inevitably they involve the supernatural – and it’s hard to remain skeptical.

A pink-flowering bush is a splash of color amid the grey rubble of smashed bricks and shattered asbestos sheets that was once the music studio.  It’s the only living thing in the debris and Samini says it wasn’t planted by her or anyone else.  It thrives on the spot where her husband died.

Then there’s the question of the swifts abandoning their home.  Did they sense earlier movements in the walls and roof?

Suherman and Umer’s lives were not insured.  Nor was the building.  Apart from big companies and the rich, few buy insurance in Indonesia.

As a dahlang Suherman was said to be gifted with paranormal powers.  Before his sudden death he told his wife he had a dream of her becoming wealthy.

Since the accident she’s received compensation from the government and the barn owner, though doesn’t want the sums published for fear of arousing envy among neighbors.  She’s also received support from a city almost 8,000 kilometers away.

Cirebon has a longtime link to Wellington, the quake-prone capital of NZ. In the 1970s the late ethnomusicologist Dr Allan Thomas, who had been studying in Cirebon, bought a ten-piece gamelan set and 140 wayang kulit shadow puppets that were threatened by fundamentalists seeking to stamp out local culture.

Some of the instruments were 400 years old and hadn’t been played for half a century.  In Wellington they were restored with the help of the Indonesian Embassy; they were called The First Smile and used for concerts

Dance teacher and musician Jennifer Shennan said her late husband often spoke of music going beyond business and politics, helping people from different cultures get to know and understand each other better through feeling.

So when the Kiwis heard of the Gegesik tragedy they held a concert and raised enough cash to help Samini develop a business.  The money has been used to build a warung (shop) on the front of her house where she plans to sell necessities.

She remains doubtful about the logical explanations for the building’s collapse and keeps asking why it happened, and why then. 

“Some people were jealous of my husband and his success and for reviving the wayang kulit,” she said.  “Maybe he was cursed by someone using black magic.”
Or maybe the curse should be put on the builders who cut costs and corners, and the bureaucrats who failed to police the regulations.

Late last year a major road in Surabaya suddenly collapsed.  Fortunately no deaths were reported.  Some blamed an earthquake or sinkhole, but Sutopo Purwo Nugroho of the National Board for Disaster Management said it was caused by construction errors, again highlighting the lack of controls in the building business.
First published in The Jakarta Post 25 April 2019)

Saturday, April 20, 2019


BTW:  It was fun while it lasted

All good things come to an end.  And so do all bad things.  Which one was the election campaign?

In the spirit of balance we could say both.  But as this column allows a little leaning I reckon overall it was a fun show.

Though not in the way intended.  The splendid Komisi Pemilihan Umum (KPU), which has shown the world that not all Indonesian state bureaucracies are inept, was so determined to keep the TV ‘debates’ clean that the results were sterile.

In the last session the candidates didn’t start talking till 25 minutes of formalities were completed.  These included a list of no-nos which made buttoned-down Singapore look as loose as Las Vegas.

Observing presenters unlock boxes and fumble with sealed envelopes made watching trees grow a thrill.  But it gave viewers the chance to interpret body language. 

The restless Prabowo Subianto kept awake by fidgeting and wondering why all the palaver was necessary and how quickly it could be neutered.  Back in his former father-in-law’s days there was no annoying uncertainty; Golkar always won even before the votes were cast.

Last year when Prabowo reluctantly nominated many wondered: Are there no altruists out there, no-one younger and unconnected with the military and oligarchs of last century?

Ironically Prabowo’s decision to join the elective government process stopped Indonesia reversing back into the autocracy which once drove him forward. Journalist Endy Bayuni recognized this with a surprising thank-you in this paper:

’Hats off to the former general for deciding to run when the odds are heavily stacked against him … Lose or win, Prabowo is keeping Indonesia’s democracy running into 2019 and beyond.’

Now holding the title of Born Loser when his spear-carriers assured him he was Born Ruler is a terrible tumble for a strutting authoritarian with an ego bigger than his stable of Portuguese Lusitano horses.  Particularly when defeated by a commoner who probably thinks an AK-47 is a new model of motorbike.

That he’s rejected the quick count results shows Prabowo has learned nothing from 2014 when he wasted three months challenging the KPU’s figures.  In the sport-crazy Anglosphere losers are expected to take defeat on the chin, and with a grin.  That’s a quality worth importing.

Sadly former academic Dr Amien Rais should have studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his ‘vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, and falls on th'other.’

In 1998 Amien was a national hero, leading outraged students in a successful rebellion against dictator Soeharto. Then he tried to play the game of thrones.  After failing it was time to settle down as an eminence grise. 

Instead he betrayed the rule of law by calling for lawlessness, rejecting the Constitutional Court’s role as adjudicator in disputed voting returns for what he called ‘people power’ – a synonym for street violence. 

Waiting for the ‘debate’ to start, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, exhausted after grinning through a million selfies in 34 provinces, kept incanting:  ‘Stay open eyelids; this is a Presidential order’. Lab stress tests on rats are more humane than campaigning in the world’s largest archipelago.

The KPU sought the middle of the road for its polite parleys, but that’s the crash zone.  So it cleared the street of threatening verbal traffic which might have livened up the shows.

No interjections, personal slanders, and other bumper benders and sideswipes, allowing voters to glimpse candidates losing control and turning on road rage.  No wonder teens facing their first opportunity to participate preferred playing PUBG on their smartphones.

Indonesia wisely gives its governments five year terms.  In Australia it’s three which means the electoral cycle never stops pedaling and politicians are more focused on staying in the saddle than steering the nation.

It’s a pity Jokowi is a poor orator with limited English – though he’s got time to repair these flaws.  Then in 2024 he could join Barack Obama on the world speaker circuit and explain how Indonesia has made representative government work.

The ordinary folk in ASEAN countries and beyond would welcome his wisdoms, even if the juntas, royals, generals and dictators would find his message threatening.  They’d prefer a Prabowo advising how to keep dangerous democracy at bay. 

First published in The Jakarta Post, 20 April 2019


Friday, April 19, 2019


 Kingsford Smith forecast: Expect churls

In his 9 April post on this website ANU Professor Ramesh Thakur put the question: Who Will Bell the Sydney Airport Security Madness?  The expert on disarmament then asked:

 ‘Is it possible that pranksters with a perverse sense of humour are in charge of security procedures at Sydney International Airport? Perhaps they are trying to test the limits of traveller tolerance’.

Sorry Prof, you’re wrong.  They’re not pranksters, but schadenfreudes; they love the kicks from exercising powers prohibited elsewhere without years of training and subject to checks.

Travellers accept that security is essential at airports everywhere.  How it’s handled differs remarkably.  Being tough and rude doesn’t enhance the objective - safety for all.

That’s what happens at Los Angeles international terminal according to many bruised by the experience.  Now the LA virus has flown to Sydney.  It may well be coursing through other Australian concourses, though that hasn’t been my experience.

Australia’s biggest city prides itself on being direct and its residents brash.  Like all one-liners it’s flawed.  Most Sydneysiders are friendly. Though not at the entrance and exit gates where the slogan should be – and maybe is – Spoil Their Day.  

You’d expect that in stern-faced Singapore, a city where security is serious.  Yet Changi immigration desks have lolly bowls so visitors can suck before they see the sights.  It’s probably the only freebie in the world’s most expensive state, but it softens the bad taste of Orchard Road over-pricing.

Professor Thakur claims the ‘typical personnel on screening duty are not the most sophisticated judges of character. Rather, they tend to be of low education with minimal training.’ 

As an academic he should know, but the recruits are doubtless well taught and scrutinized, with snowflakes rapidly shown the exit.  In Power Tactics 101 they’re reminded it’s a sackable offence to make eye contact with passengers lest they see tired and stressed fellow humans. 

It’s the same advice given to workers in abattoirs; do not peer into the liquid optics of the bovines; they know what’s to come having smelt the blood of those ahead in the queue.  Pity has no place in a slaughterhouse – or Kingsford Smith.

Staff at other airports are inexpert, way behind.  Some say: ‘Good morning – please remove your laptop.  Thanks.’ Or ‘let’s have a quick look in your bag dear, the X-ray is showing a little something.’  Such approaches guarantee cooperation.  Sydney orders:  ‘Is this your bag?  I’ll open. Stand back.  Don’t touch.’

Imagine if nurses and doctors took the same approach. ‘Strip. Now.  Get on the table. Keep your mouth shut and legs open.’  Hospitals are also big and busy but employees are usually courteous.

In New Zealand’s capital Wellington flights regularly arrive after midnight but staff tend to be friendly even when fatigued.  There’s a skill in making a demeaning process acceptable to ensure cooperation, but that’s a foreign notion in Sydney.

The whole airport has been contaminated and needs fumigating.  Even the duty free shops.  My wife was brusquely told the whisky limit was one bottle per person and had the other snatched away until she explained she wasn’t traveling alone.

I asked an idle airport official about the train to town.  ‘Wouldn’t know, mate.’  ‘So who does?’ He walked away.
Advice:  Seek a blue-jacketed volunteer Airport Ambassador.  They are usually public- spirited retirees who ‘bring a sincere and caring attitude to Australia’s busiest airport which helps provide a positive experience for all visitors’.  The fact that they’re necessary proves how bad the employees have become.
How did it get to this?  First let’s blame the Prime Minister.  Five years ago as Immigration and Border Protection Minister, Scott Morrison announced the establishment of the Border Protection Force.

 He could have labelled it an ‘agency’ or ‘unit’ or even ‘service’, but instead chose the authoritarian ‘force’ with its connotations of muscle, coercion and intimidation. Not the desk you’d approach if your child gets lost in the arrivals hall – you’d probably get arrested for neglect.

The uniforms could have been light grey or blue and still looked official – yet the government selected black, the fashion choice of dictators.  It also makes the wearers excessively hot, which may explain their surliness.

The other fault is technology.  Cameras scan faces so there’s no need for BFs to physically confirm whether the passport number matches the object standing below.  Is it pulsing real or a bloodless line of code masquerading as a mortal?  That might accidentally prompt a ‘G’day – just checking,’ – a reportable misdemeanour.

Professor Thakur wonders ‘how many potential threats have (security procedures) detected that would not otherwise have been caught?’  That would be a statistic worth sampling, but the answer would probably be ten million nail clippers and tubes of sun cream.

More than 42 million people pass through Sydney Airport every year.  Handling such numbers is a task tough to digest. It would be made more palatable – and effective - with a pinch of courtesy and a sprinkle of smile.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 19 April 2019.

Thursday, April 18, 2019


Last post for the old guard?

Have Indonesia’s oligarchs performed their final farewell tour?  More than two decades after the fall of second president Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order government a commoner has retained the presidency.

The forecasts were close to spot-on; Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, 57, once a furniture factory owner from Central Java, has again defeated challenger former general Prabowo Subianto to win a second five years in office.

Bureaucrats are still thumbing through maybe 130 million or more voting slips from 800,000 booths, but all quick-counts show Jokowi with around a ten-point lead.  The official result won’t be known till May.

So far Prabowo’s team hasn’t made good on threats to call out the mobs. But it refuses to concede defeat.  Dangers lurk. 

Hot-tempered Prabowo is a bad loser.  He told reporters he expected 63 per cent of the vote.  He’s getting around 44 per cent. So the present figures, if confirmed, will eviscerate the hard-liner’s Trump-size ego.  Even if the streets stay calm the Constitution Court will be flat tack for months handling challenges.

Overall it seems the issues that kept mild-mannered Jokowi safe were economic, and not religious as anticipated. He also listened. Prabowo shouted.

Yesterday’s show has been a re-make of the 2009 election when sixth President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono scored a further spell in the palace. 

As in the US, the Constitution allows only two terms in the top job. So the former general had the opportunity to implement reform instead of handing out sweeteners and incinerating principles to enhance re-election.

He blew it.  For half a decade little happened because SBY didn’t want to queer the pitch for his soldier son.  Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono was pushed by family to grab the old fellow’s baton, but the pass was fumbled.

Not that it made much difference because SBY’s Democratic Party is waning fast.  So far no other mob can see the 45-year old’s leadership potential as paraded by his parents.

Maintaining personal political dynasties has long trumped public service as a driver for power in the world’s third largest democracy.  The Republic’s founder was Soekarno.  His daughter Megawati as vice president became the fifth president in 2001 when Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) stepped down after being threatened with impeachment. 

She lost to SBY at the 2004 and 2009 elections and since then has been grooming her daughter Puan Maharani to stand when Jokowi retires in 2024.

At this stage her ambition seems doomed.  Puan, 45, Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs in Jokowi’s first Cabinet (allegedly appointed at the insistence of Mum), is one dull polly.  She’s done little of note and is not a public favourite.

It seems unlikely that Prabowo, once Soeharto’s son-in-law, will try again for the top job in 2024 when he’ll be 72, more unfit and less rich. 

This means his quest to honor the fame of his late father Sumitro Djojohadikusumo also withers.  Dad was minister for the economy, and minister for research and technology under Soeharto.  The family claims Javanese aristocracy.

Prabowo’s only child is son Ragowo Hediprasetyo, 34, an unmarried fashion designer and socialite based in Paris and with no interest in politics or the army. Jokowi’s three kids are also staying clear of the dark arts and bang-bangs, so no power hand-downs here.

Will Jokowi now introduce the reforms he promised five years ago but didn’t deliver?  These are mainly human rights issues which haven’t ignited the general electorate, so change is unlikely.

The massive road, rail and port infrastructure programme will continue but sometime soon the Chinese and Japanese lenders will start to call in the debts.  To boost revenue the tax take needs to improve exponentially.

There are many anomalies.  Buy a meal in a McDonald’s or KFC and find a ten per cent levy on the meal, while local restaurants nearby don’t include the impost. Only 38 million people (the population is above 260 million) reportedly pay tax, so most have little idea of the philosophy, and even less enthusiasm.

In the West death and taxes are inescapable.  In Indonesia it’s only the grave.

Food costs are rising because much is imported.  Java is extraordinarily fertile but farming remains stubbornly manual.  Jokowi has socialist leanings and will give more business to state-owned enterprises, though that last word is a misnomer.  Few are slim get-up-and-go outfits.

Corruption continues despite arrests of high level officials and long prison terms.  Here’s a chance for the President to make a difference, but so far few signs of the determination needed. Jokowi and his backers don’t have the political will for change shown by the late Lee Kuan Yew in his successful purge of graft in Singapore.

Jokowi has been little concerned with foreign affairs.  Whoever wins next month’s Australian election will face a tough slog to get the President seriously interested in working with his neighbour.

Education remains a total mess.  This is well understood; the system needs a top-to-toe shake-up.  If second-term Jokowi can exercise the muscle his legacy will be the generations ahead equipped to handle the future.

Practically it’s payback time, so the next task will be distributing goodies (mainly Cabinet posts) to the nine parties that backed the largely secular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) (around 25 per cent of the vote), and its candidate Jokowi.  Prabowo’s Gerindra Party (12 per cent) had a coalition of four, mainly Islamic.

The worry is that ultra-conservative cleric and new vice president Ma’ruf Amin, 76, will try to enforce even stricter Islamic codes on the nation.  Then Bali’s partyland lights could start to dim, forcing Western hedonists to seek other lands to empty their pockets.

It could also put the frighteners under Australian unis keen to help get the nation’s clapped out tertiary sector back on the road.  Who’d push if the driver hates gays, liberals and pluralism?

If the left-overs from last century’s non-democratic Indonesia really retreat to their villa verandahs, the names to watch are all middle aged, smart, articulate, cosmopolitan, religious moderates and civilian: 

Anies Baswedan, currently Governor of Jakarta, Ridwan Kamil, Governor of West Java, and Sandiago Uno, the megarich businessman who was Prabowo’s sidekick. 

If they get the tick in five years, then Indonesia will have really made a break with the past.


First published in Pearls & Irritations, 18 April 2019:

Tuesday, April 16, 2019


                                                           After the count, chaos?

The alphabet of election campaign hyperbole runs from Absurd through Fatuous and Stupid to Zero (as in logic).  Most statements are ephemeral for the nonsense spruikers know little is taken seriously once the losers are trampled by the triumphant.

But in Indonesia pledges by the former champion of the 1998 ‘People’s Power Revolution’ are causing deep disquiet.  

Dr Amien Rais has announced that if the 17 April poll results in a win for incumbent Joko Widodo – as expected - and there’s any hint of funny business, he’ll unleash mass protests on behalf of challenger Prabowo Subianto rather than follow the legal appeal process. 

‘If fraud happens we will not go to the Constitutional Court,’ he said.  ‘There is no point. We are people power. People power is legitimate.’

The presidential contest is a re-run of the 2014 event between the same contenders. When Widodo won by six percentage points Subianto refused to admit defeat for almost three months, filing challenges through the Constitutional Court.  All failed.

Fraud has already been detected.  The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) this month claimed it caught one candidate with thousands of cash-stuffed envelopes ready to bribe voters.

Had anyone else made the ‘people power’ threat it could be dismissed as a tactic to frighten electors into supporting Subianto, a former general who’s been promoting a Trump-style tough guy nativist image.

But Rais is no campaign minion.  He’s a seasoned political engineer who was the public face and voice of the 1998 mass movement which crushed dictator Soeharto’s 32-year dictatorship.

Although then in his mid 50s, the US-educated leader of the nation’s second largest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah excited the rebellious tertiary students.  Their huge demonstrations – along with the international monetary crisis – brought the nation’s second president undone.

Rais started the National Mandate Party (PAN) and pitched for the top job.  He failed and has spent this century in politics and academia trying to retrieve his glory days.  Now 75 his statement has chilled observers fearing he’s scene-setting for a re-run of the arson, killings and rapes following Soeharto’s downfall. 

The rioters mainly targeted ethnic Chinese businesses.  More than 1,000 died in Jakarta. Most were looters caught in torched high-rises.

The army says it has almost half a million troops on stand-by to thwart trouble.  The police are mustering a similar number.  Both are now more professional and better led than in 1998 when rioters outnumbered and intimidated security forces.

General Joni Supriyanto, chief of the army’s general staff reportedly said ‘the people of Indonesia are much smarter nowadays, more modern, but they are also more patriotic …mature enough in democracy.’

He’s probably right; despite the slanders on social media there’s been little obvious hostility in the cities I’ve visited across Java and Bali during the campaign.  Most rallies have been policy-free fun shows with audiences allegedly paid to flag-wave. However hearing Subianto scream antiasing at an event was disturbing.

The phrase was pure Pauline Hanson; it suggests foreigners are responsible for whatever evils he alleges the country is facing – in this case the Republic’s natural resources being plundered by outsiders.

White faces outside Bali are still rare enough to arouse attention, but so far there’s no indication Subianto’s slurs have taken root.  It might be different for those who look Chinese.

Absent from the speeches has been any meaningful statements about equality, the environment, human rights, women’s emancipation, respect for others, and inclusiveness.  

Not surprising as Subianto has been accused of human rights abuses during his term in the army last century. The Western media cliché is that Indonesian Muslims are tolerant.  Not the Indonesian Ulema (Islamic scholars) Council (MUI), formerly led by Widodo’s running mate Ma’ruf Amin.

Under his watch it issued fatwa (an Islamic legal instruction) against pluralism, homosexuality, and those who practise Shi’ite Islam, the majority religion in Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan.  Indonesians are mainly Sunni.  

There’s an estimated one million Shi’ite followers in the archipelago; they’re labelled heretics and brutally persecuted, their homes torched and families forced into‘re-education’ camps.

The prime target for the main parties in the election has been Muslims, and principally men. Both candidates and their backers have been stirring faith and prayer into the secular business of democracy.  There are some women candidates, but psephologists predict few will win seats.

Christians, Hindus, Confucians and Buddhists form only ten per cent of the population of 270 million; away from the eastern islands where these religions dominate, they’ve been largely ignored.

There’s now a campaign blackout ahead of the Wednesday ballot.  In the 2014 election  70 per cent of the 193 million eligible voters participated. For the best analysis of the whole shebang see Ben Bland’s comprehensive and readable essay here:

(First published in Pearls and Irritations, 16 April 2019.  See:  )

Monday, April 15, 2019


Glory and riches – or death and dishonor        

 Image result for image of mataram book cover           

Here’s a chance for foreigners bedazzled by this archipelago of astonishments to better their knowledge of its history and cultures.

Not through texts hammered by pedestrian academics clumsy at tale-telling, but through fiction.

Mataram was once a powerful Sultanate based on the lands dominated by Central Java’s Mount Merapi, and the cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta before the Dutch took control.

Mataram is also a novel from a near octogenarian scholar who’s let his creativity roam free after a lifetime of formal study trampled by footnotes.  That leaves the way clear to introduce Tony Reid’s creation, a ginger-bearded seaman from Hampshire with a sinking marriage.  His adventures help us better understand Java four centuries ago.

Thomas Hodges had little to warrant his inclusion as master’s mate in an imagined 1608 English trading venture to the East Indies – but for one skill.  He was a natural linguist fluent in Portuguese, then the outsider’s lingua franca of commerce; he learned the language while shipping wine to Britain.

The Red Dragon makes landfall at Bantam (now Banten) in West Java after a long voyage, becalmed for a month and stricken by disease causing five deaths. Hodges is sent ashore into a ‘town with no friends and little law’ to negotiate the bulk purchase of pepper, much wanted in Europe. 

While the crew quench thirst and lust, ‘Hod’ as he was soon labeled, set about learning Malay and the culture to better deal with sellers.  He also needed to rapidly understand the complex cartels which controlled trade with the competing Dutch, Portuguese, Arabs, Indians, and British. His venture was ‘glory and riches – or death and dishonor’. 

Chinese intermediaries helped him build contacts – a role they still play today. The impatient Englishman was also given lessons in Java-style dealings with a trader called Bintara:

‘You feringgi (foreigners) will get nowhere unless you learn patience in doing business. For us, trading is part of the art of civilized living. If Tuan Hod wants Bintara’s favour, he will sit down, talk about agreeable matters that interest Bintara, and wait until he is ready to learn what you want. Then he will decide whether he wishes to help you.’

Good advice for non-Asians investors hoping to get into the Indonesian economy in the 21st century.

Bintara has a daughter and it’s not long before Hodges has forgotten his wife Margaret back in Britain.  Along the way Sri teaches him the ‘wisdom of the Javanese’; he gets to work out how to sit cross-legged on a hard floor and not collapse from cramp, give gifts, eat with his right hand and chew betel nut.  Apart from this last habit, which has largely been blown away by nicotine, the courtesies and traditions remain. 

There are also diversions into debates about theology and philosophy which give the author the chance to exercise some favorite personal theories. 

These annoy as they seem artificial in the context of a young couple wrestling with each other emotionally and practically over problems of background and culture. Philosophical meanderings can be fun, but like sex there’s a time and place.

What the reader wants to know is this: Will the gauche Brit adapt fast enough to survive and get the cargo before keris are unsheathed and the keel holed? 

After a mysterious spiritual session with an old soothsayer our hero and Sri are set upon by street thugs resentful that an Inggris is stepping out with the local prize. 

She’s rescued by other women and vanishes.  He beats off the bandits with his sword, cops a flesh wound, then wonders if he’ll ever see the Javanese beauty again.  By now we know the answer so there goes the suspense, though we doubt they’ll live happily ever after.

The Red Dragon fills its hold with spices and sails away leaving Hodges as a sort of honorary consul.  The royalist stays to tell locals the Brits aren’t as bad as the ‘grasping Dutch and swaggering Portuguese.’

This is fiction from the word-processor of a writer better known in lecture halls under the more authoritative name Professor Dr Anthony Reid; he’s a renowned New Zealand historian who has spent his life on campuses in Australia, Southeast Asia and the US.

He’s also translated many works in and out of Indonesian, a language he started learning as a child in Jakarta. That was during the early 1950s when Dad John was the UN’s Resident Rep. 

Apparently Reid’s best known book (down a narrow corridor of specialists) is the soporifically-titled Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680.  Mataram is his first novel using his research of the era, though few accurate written records remain.

Reid admits to literary license:  ‘As far as we know, neither Jesuits nor English East India Company servants found their way to Mataram in the early 1600s, though both came close and did visit other great Asian kingdoms.’

The characters have lots to say, but rarely breathe. It seems they people the pages to promote Reid’s eclectic interests.  These include mixed marriages, the shift of cultures, power struggles and faith.  He introduces a learned European Jesuit (and there’s still a few around today) who after much preaching gets sick and dies, setting the scene for a chat about funeral practices.

Hodges is incomplete.  Sometimes he’s an ignorant abroad, at others Captain Cool, then a seeker of meaning.  Only at the end do we learn more about him from wife Sri.

Last month, Reid told The Jakarta Post that he struggled with the dialogue of fiction; unfortunately he didn’t win. 

Nonetheless Mataram is well worth buying or borrowing because it explains so many practices and beliefs still relevant today, and does so in an easy read.  Free of the gluten of academic jargon, so no worries for those allergic to theses.

Mataram, by Tony Reid                                                                                                                                                  
Monsoon Press, Leicester, 2018                                                                                         336 pages.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 April 2019)

Saturday, April 06, 2019


A picture of politics 2019

See here, glance there:  Just look at my face on these huge posters and linger; you’ll instinctively understand I’m the right candidate for your vote at the upcoming election.

My generous smile says I’ll make a fine politician able to accomplish much during my first term.  Yes, it’s true, I did have sunspots, worry lines, birthmarks and blemishes, but all erased by the clever Photoshop people. 

They said imperfections repel voters; as I’m going to represent you and other interests in the highest debating forums in the Republic, I must look perfect.  Which I am.

Obviously you’ll want to know about my faith.  I can’t be specific because that might repel some electors who think politics should be secular, so I’ll send hidden messages.  That means covering or uncovering my hair, or including some symbol on a necklace.

As BTW is gender-neutral let’s be frank.  Or rather, Frank.  Should I wear a peci, the rimless black Javanese headgear to signal I’m a true red and white nationalist?  Or would a kopiah skullcap be enough to hint I know where Mecca is located?

The experts tell me that you dupes, sorry, canny folk in voterland, want to know whether I go to a mosque, church or temple, though I don’t think it should matter, to be honest. Hey, isn’t that a funny word? Don’t hear it much nowadays.

Actually I don’t worship much outside my mirror as I’m a bit of a freethinker, as they say in Singapore where I have several bank accounts and two apartments. 

Of course that information isn’t on my poster; do you think I’m stupid?  Forget that question.  When you’ve been number one all your life it’s sometimes difficult to be meek and humble.  Thank goodness it’ll soon be 17 April so I can return to my normal self. Well, for five years anyway.

You’ll never know all this stuff unless some muckraking journalist does a bit of digging and reveals all.  I’m not worried; I’ll say it’s fake news.  It works for the US President so that’s OK. 

That’s what my appointed advisor suggests. I call him my dalang  – it’s a joke because he says he’s not a puppet master but a professional psephologist.  He’s studied techniques used in those overseas centers of democracy and stability.   Places like Australia, which I read somewhere, has had seven leaders in the past decade while we’ve just had two. 

I’ve been there a few times to catch up with my kids at university so I’ve learned a bit about the folks Down Under.  Do you know they have compulsory voting?  If not, maybe no one would bother. Can you imagine – most prefer the beach to malls.

Here we’re free to shop or stay home, like 25 per cent did in the last election, or head to the polling booth.  Here’s my advice: Only make the journey if you’re going to put a nail through my name.  Otherwise take it easy. Check the supermarket specials – it’s a holiday.

So what else should I have on my poster?  There’s no space for the policies of the party I’ve recently joined.  I must keep repeating its name – suppose I had a tongue slip and mentioned the one I favored until they found a candidate with more money?

I know – a list of the academic qualifications I’ve bought, I mean earned, through years of diligent study.  Do you know what the title BS means? Neither do I, but it sounds impressive.

They gave me that award when I spoke in Australia – apparently something to do with bovine digestive systems, so possibly an agricultural degree.  Someone said it meant poppycock, but that’s horticulture. 

What do I fear?  Well, losing obviously, though we’ve spent huge sums to make sure that doesn’t happen.  My real concern is the other candidates. I’m told some pitching for the 20,000 seats are serious and want to be elected so they can make the country better and improve the lives of the poor.

That made me laugh. We never thought politics was for altruists when Pak Soeharto ran the show.  Ah, those were the days. Maybe General Prabowo will bring them back.   Duncan Graham

 First published in The Jakarta Post 6 April 2019


Tuesday, April 02, 2019


Needs are now, fixes maybe later                          

Is Indonesia expecting Australia to help rescue the nation’s education system? 

That’s not as implausible as it sounds. Outsiders are involved elsewhere in the economy.  Transport infrastructure development relies heavily on massive loans from banks in Japan and China, and technical expertise from the same sources.  Think MRT and the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project.

The Republic already depends on farmers in Vietnam and Thailand growing enough rice to feed their hungry neighbor; so why not foreigners in technical colleges and universities?

The doors are now slightly ajar into what was once a no-go zone. The recently inked Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) allows Australian campuses to set up shop in the Republic.

At the signing Vice President Jusuf Kalla reportedly said:  ‘Indonesia’s next big agenda is to improve its human resources to boost our competitiveness and readiness to face the future, so I’m waiting for investment in universities as well as vocational and training education in Indonesia.’

It’s likely to be a long wait even though the demands are here and huge. Millions of parents want their youngsters well prepared to meet the challenges ahead, and for their nation to reach its potential.

It’s an archipelago of opportunity for Australia’s high-quality education sector, but the IA-CEPA alone will not be enough to help VP Kalla’s agenda. 

Here’s why: The issues around education are complex-compound. They include inadequate funding, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures and poor management, but most fundamentally a matter of politics and power.  Foreign experts can assist with curricula and administration, but the rest is for Indonesians only. 

Consider the size of the problem: The World Bank reports that more than half the population that’s undergone compulsory schooling is ‘functionally illiterate’. 
The UNESCO definition is prolix, but basically means one in two can’t manage daily living and employment tasks that need reading skills beyond the basics.  

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures 15-year-olds’ skills in reading, science and maths across 72 nations.  Indonesia is number 62. Around 90 per cent of Indonesia’s 130 million workforce don’t have tertiary qualifications.

This creates real difficulties for employers forced to educate school-leavers who should be work-ready before knocking on factory and office doors. Although a massive 20 percent of the national budget is supposed to be spent on education, the results don’t match the expenditure.

Last year the Lowy Institute in Australia published a comprehensive report which concluded: ‘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.’

The need for change, particularly in trade-training, is recognized by business leaders, educators, bureaucrats - and from his public statements - President Joko Widodo; what they don’t know is how to fix.

And maybe Australia doesn’t either.

VP Kalla’s hopes for Australian investment won’t be met in a hurry.  Dr Eugene Sebastian, director of the Australia-Indonesia Centre, wrote in the University World News that the agreement:

‘… opens up new opportunities for Australian education and training. These opportunities should be seen as a long game. It will take more than five years before any benefits will flow. But the time to look in-depth at education and training opportunities for Australian providers is now.’

He lists just three tertiary institutions that have built relationships with Indonesia, indicating investors are wary and looking for real changes in national governance before risking big dollars.

First they’ll want to know the next President’s Cabinet pick.  Then Parliaments in the two countries have to ratify the agreement.

As both will be structured differently following elections there’s no guarantee the IA-CEPA will survive intact.  The Australian Labor Party, which pollsters tip likely to win this year’s election (probably in May), is already signaling concern about some clauses.

Then there’s risk.  Indonesia ranks 73rd on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business register.  That’s way behind other economies in the region.  On Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Indonesia ranks 89 / 180.  Australia is 13th.

The President, backed by many academics, appears to realize that Indonesia will have to form partnerships with overseas educators, but the nationalistic political atmosphere is unwelcoming.  Paranoia is taking root; distrust surrounds foreigners’ real motives in showing interest in the Republic.

There are about 3,000 tertiary institutions in Indonesia.  Just 122 are State-run and mostly concerned with teaching, not research. The rest are private and often aligned with religious organisations. Despite an abundance of world-class talent, the fact that Indonesia has never won a Nobel Prize should be causing a national outcry.

Not all unis follow the system of open inquiry and liberal discussion pursued by Western campuses.  Most pay their staff poorly by Australian standards and seldom provide quality facilities. 

Obviously a deep understanding of Indonesian culture and its political and administrative systems is necessary for Australian educators seeking entry; the irony is that these same unis have been shedding Indonesian studies and language for decades.

Consequently recruiting staff with deep knowledge of the market and the skills to help guide providers will not be easy.  Apart from geography, the Land Down Under is not ‘exceptionally well placed to partner’ as Dr Sebastian claims.

Australia has a moral duty to offer its expertise, but learning is now driven by commerce. How many are prepared to play ‘the long game’, to invest millions with no return for years just for the chance to test this mystifying market?

Curiously education hasn’t appeared front and center in the Indonesian election debates.  Poverty, health, the economy, transport, trade, security, infrastructure, taxation, foreign affairs … all are important.  But without a well-educated citizenry all are undermined.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 2 April 2019 )



                       Vote patriotism – who wouldn’t?
Impossible to imagine:  Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten start a pre-election national TV debate with handshakes and hugs.  Two and a half hours later after gently tapping a few verbal shuttlecocks to-and-fro they pledge to remain friends forever.

That was the scene in Indonesia last weekend when President Joko Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto faced off 18 days ahead of the election. A Kompas national daily headline called the show ‘dynamic’; the writer must have been dozing between commercial breaks. 

It was managed by the General Electoral Commission (KPU) which will be supervising booths for the 194 million registered voters on 17 April. 

The ‘debate’ was supposed to help the country get a clear idea of the candidates’ policies. Instead they competed to be the most passionate flag-embracers.  Though the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson’s dictum that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ is little known in Indonesia, voters understand jingoism masks a dearth of policies and an absence of solutions. 

Subianto alleged that Widodo’s office was spreading false rumours that the disgraced former soldier would introduce sharia law if elected. 

This is the Islamic legal system which includes public floggings for homosexuality and unmarried couples being together.  It already applies in the North Sumatra province of Aceh.

Wagging a finger and in a parade-ground bellow Subianto pledged support for Pancasila, the nation’s foundation policy.   

Pancasila (five principles) was devised by first President Soekarno to keep the nation nominally secular and thwart attempts by hard-liners to make the nation Islamic.
All Indonesians are supposed to believe in ‘the one and only God’, a just and civilized humanity, a unified nation, democratic and led by the ‘wisdom of the representatives of the people’, and social justice for all.

Like most motherhood statements it’s flexible.  Hinduism – mainly practised in Bali - is polytheistic, while democracy has been absent till recently.  If ‘social justice’ means the poor and minorities can exercise equal rights, then it’s a misnomer. 

According to an Oxfam report Indonesia is now: ‘the sixth country of greatest wealth inequality in the world … the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the combined total of the poorest 100 million people.’

There’s no formal equivalent of Pancasila in Australia where we usually shrink from displays of loyalty to the state; the best example would be the Pledge of Allegiance in the US.

Pancasila is taught in high schools but Prabowo wants it extended to primary schools and universities up to doctoral level.  No dissent from Widodo.  Opposing would have been like banning dawn services on 25 April.

Under second President Soeharto, who was deposed in 1998 following years of corruption, Pancasila took a rest.

It was rapidly revived by Widodo to offset the growth of militant Islam, particularly after Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama was jailed for two years for blasphemy.  This followed huge protests organized in late 2016 by Islamists against the ‘double-minority’ politician – he’s Protestant and ethnic Chinese.

Blame for the blandness of the TV debate lies partly with the nervous KPU which set rigid rules, disallowing personal attacks.  Prabowo skirted this prohibition by blaming Widodo’s staff for bad briefings of their boss.

Questions and answers were confined to short timed grabs which were more personality show-offs than policy statements with rupiah price tags.  

More revealing was the body language. Prabowo has bounced back from his 1998 military discharge for ‘misinterpreting orders’ regarding the alleged kidnapping and torture of activists, to claim he’s now more army than the army. He’s become a plump, brasher Southeast Asian version of Trump.  He swaggered and hectored.

Widodo, who could get a job as a menswear model if he loses, has been fronting huge rallies around the nation.  He looked exhausted and on two occasions sat down without filling his allotted time.  

Short of the President being caught in flagrante delicto with a gay Chinese Communist, and despite looking like he’d rather be home than on the hustings, he’s still predicted to win a second five-year term by a substantial margin.

This is because prices in markets and bowsers have largely stayed stable, while new toll-roads, ports, trains (including Jakarta’s first Mass Rapid Transport system) are obvious signs of Widodo’s can-do commitment to infrastructure.

He’s a poor public speaker, no match for his blowhard rival, but still maintains his man-of-the-people image.  Prabowo, who was educated in the US, threw in a few English phrases which made no contextual sense.

He wants more spent on defence though there are no threats on any horizon; big boys need big toys.  Later, said Widodo, let’s first find jobs for the kids and promote free trade, like the deal with Australia.

Voters who want a return to father-knows-best government rather than the messy business of democracy, will have been impressed by Prabowo.  But they’re on his side already.

The danger facing mild-mannered Widodo is not that his yawning supporters will switch sides, but will stay in bed on polling day, a national holiday. Booths close at 1 pm. This is such a worry there’s a major campaign against golput (no shows).

Based on the President’s TV performance the only reason for bothering to vote is to make sure the world’s third largest democracy (after India and the US) doesn’t revert to being the world’s second largest autocracy behind China. 

First published in Pearls and Irritations 2 April 2019