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, September 30, 2019


The national wound weeps still                                

Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he opened Macbeth with three witches on a blasted heath chanting enigmatic predictions.

So did the devil script-writer for the Lubang Buaya (Crocodile hole) fantasy when he set the ghoulish scene for the 1965 Indonesian coup, casting an orgy of dancing nudes castrating six murdered generals.

It’s the primeval male terror – sibylline women de-sexing potent men and destroying masculine power. The only fightback is demonization.  Fed to a prudish public the images are repulsive and compelling.  Even more so in Java where the supernatural lurks in every dark cranny.

Published post mortems revealed no violation of the generals’ genitals.  Lubang Buaya was a disused well used to dump the bodies, not the lair of leviathans.  But the lurid tale is too deeply buried in the nation’s psyche to be exhumed by facts.
If maliciously spreading fake news can be dubbed a success, the myth of the Communist Gerwani women mutilating the nation’s guardians has to be judged ‘one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in modern history’.
That’s according to Dutch sociologist (and ‘militant anthropologist’) Saskia Wieringa, and Indonesian feminist lawyer Nursyahbani Katjasungkana.
They estimate one million killed and another million imprisoned following the coup; the impact on a country then with around 100 million citizens meant hardly a family or neighborhood would have escaped untouched.
Propaganda and the Genocide in Indonesia: Imagined Evil is the latest in overseas publications in English focusing on the events of 30 September.  Both authors played major roles with the prosecution at the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) on 1965 Crimes against Humanity Indonesia, held in The Hague almost four years ago.
Their research led to a scrutiny of the state’s brainwashing of millions through a ‘campaign in which Communists were painted as atheist, hypersexual, amoral and intent to destroy the nation’.
In fact many so called Reds were deeply religious and most were dedicated nationalists.  However they wanted land reform and redistribution of wealth.  These mild ambitions were often enough to warrant death sentences.
The victims didn’t face trial. Their ‘crimes’ were by association. Moms who’d sent their children to a kindergarten run by someone with community concerns became suspect.
The IPT report concluded that ‘the State of Indonesia must be held responsible for mass killings, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearances and sexual violence.’  It also found the US, the UK and Australia were complicit.  However neither Indonesia nor the allegedly conniving countries were represented.

The Indonesian government loudly rejected the report’s conclusions, and all official moves towards openly confronting the past have slipped into silence. Even though the truth has been tipped into mass graves along with the victims, the bones keep clawing to the surface to haunt the present.

There are ironic parallels with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Chinese authorities have also tried to smother knowledge of the Beijing slaughter of maybe thousands of pro-democracy citizens by the People’s Liberation Army.

Although dedicated to ‘the younger generations who grew up in a climate in which history was distorted and critical analysis made suspect,’ the chances of inquisitive teens finding this book aren’t good.  

It’s been published in Europe in academic English; the hard-copy costs more than Rp 2.2 million, the e-book version ‘from’ Rp 340,000.

This is a problem, because Imagined Evil collects and sifts the events leading up to the ‘coup’ and packages them well.  Having so much compact information is valuable for fact-hungry but time-starved readers.

It analyses the ‘why’ theories and the aftermath.  The 1965 violence was the worst of many berserk events in this nation’s short history, but it wasn’t a stand-alone, raising the embarrassing question:  Are Indonesians basically brutal?

In the absence of alternative texts on school library shelves, generations have grown up with just one version - the 1984 film The Betrayal of G30S/PKI, No chance of avoiding manufactured history – the kids had to watch this gruesome falsehood every year.

After the 1998 fall of President Soeharto there seemed hope for exposure and reconciliation. Fourth President Abdurrahman Wahid apologized for the mass killings and unsuccessfully tried to get the ban on Communism lifted.

Almost 20 years ago the Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat (People’s Consultative Assembly - MPR) proposed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That led to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in 2000 as a restorative justice NGO dedicated to building ‘fair, democratic and inclusive societies’ but has yet to stir.

Genocide defenders argue that the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) was a gang of traitors victimizing ‘innocent’ Muslims, who could only be saved by the heroic army.  And if the Reds hadn’t been purged they would have rooted-out anti-Communists.  It was kill – or be killed.

The authors have  detected similarities between events now and half-a-century earlier, concluding that resistance to reconciliation is driven by the military and radical Muslims arguing apologies will welcome back Communism. They write:

 ‘The lid should remain on the box – the truth must not be revealed. Shady political manoeuvres, corruption and the very real threat of Islamist terrorism have created an atmosphere in which the ghost of Communism has been revived and anti-communist conspiracy theories flourish.

‘A mixture of sexual slander, now directed at LGBT groups, and the bogeyman of the revival of Communism, has been concocted as a toxic potion to sway Islamic masses.’

The final chapter is the most worrying as it reveals hoax and hate campaigns are being foisted on army recruits and youth attending mosques:  ‘It is surprising how easy it is to conflate Communism with human rights, and it is a struggle to defend the pluralism and diversity that used to characterize Indonesia.’

Routledge, London, 2019
210 pages

First published in The Jakarta Post 30 September 2019


Bali alert! Busybodies at large                             

It was excruciatingly embarrassing.

The hotel receptionist was adamant:  We either proved our marriage or we left.  Voices were raised which drew more staff and onlookers to the foyer. Security guards appeared.

Our two-night stay earlier this year in the East Java regency of Jombang (motto – City of Tolerance) had been paid in advance through an on-line booking site with no-refund conditions. 

Passports don’t specify marital status and we hadn’t packed our marriage certificate.  It’s in Kiwinglish from a NZ registry office so more likely to bemuse than convince.

Reluctantly we used our Indonesian ID cards as licenses to lie abed together – though not a pleasant stay as anger at the humiliation simmered throughout. 

The cards were passed around and photocopied.  They also include, age, job, address and affiliation with one of the six approved religions.  Atheism is not an option in Indonesia.  Nor is privacy.

We’ve used sharia hotels which follow Islamic law before and had no hassles.  No booze, a Koran by the bedside, a prayer mat in the wardrobe and an arrow on the ceiling pointing to Mecca. No bacon for breakfast – but that’s all.
These minor irritants could enlarge into serious impediments with new legislation passed by the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR - House of Representatives) criminalizing consensual extramarital sex and gay relationships. Penalties start with six months in jail.

The outrage hasn’t been confined to human rights groups; businesses are also sweating. Hoteliers foresee jets diverting to more liberal lands like Thailand and Cambodia.

Neatly tagged a ‘bonk ban’ by the Australian media it’s delivering headlines the Republic doesn’t want. But it’s an own goal and foreseeable as the changes have been debated for years.

President Joko Widodo, 58, is a Muslim moderate, though his clerical sidekick Ma’ruf Amin, 76, is not.  Widodo fears the negative publicity will impact his target of 20 million overseas tourists next year and damage appeals for investors to park their dollars in his once welcoming archipelago.

He wants the legislation held back and reconsidered by DPR members elected in April and due to be sworn in next month.  He hopes the new politicians will be less Tory and prune the contentious bits; the danger is that they could be more zealous and fertilise the shoots.

(Some foreign media have reported that Widodo has ‘ordered’ a delay by the DPR.  Not possible; he’s politely ‘requested consideration’.)

Around 1.2 million Australians visit Indonesia every year, almost all landing at Kuta’s splendid Ngurah Rai airport.  Balinese follow Hinduism which is more relaxed about sex than Islam, the nation’s dominant faith. Island life may be laid back but hardline Jakarta-made laws still apply.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at first dampened panic by saying the rules will not be enforced for two years.  Then, most curiously, it let loose the frighteners by re-issuing a travel warning (‘exercise a high degree of caution’), and details of the conducts unbecoming:

‘Adultery or sex outside of marriage, encompassing all same-sex sexual relations’, and ‘cohabitation outside of marriage with charges only proceeding following a complaint by a spouse, child or parent’. 

However these are Australian government interpretations from translations of the new laws; they may not tally with either local understanding or enforcement. Other reports say accusations can also be lodged with the police by ‘community leaders’, which includes any self-styled guardian of public decency, aka Peeping Toms.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country and prides itself as morally superior to the decadent West.  However a study cited by the Indonesia Institute for Criminal Justice Reform claims – surprise, surprise – that local teens are just as curious about sex and keen to explore as their overseas cousins, with 40 per cent exercising their desires ahead of marriage.

Then there are the practical problems.  Indonesian jails are so overcrowded remote isles are being considered as crim dumps.  We know about penal colonies so could assist by organizing fact-finding tours of Christmas Island.

Indonesians are skilled at bending laws. This is not authoritarian China with cameras on every lamppost.  Uniformed police are seldom seen after the morning and evening rush hours, so it’s unwise for motorists to assume a red light means STOP to all road users.

Cigarettes glow under NO SMOKING notices while plastic bags filled with garbage bob down grimy streams past banners prohibiting rubbish dumping.

The new laws may get overlooked in some areas, but they’ll lie in wait like unsleeping gin-traps with jaws agape ready for the unwary paw. Tenderfoot tourists are the target species as they’re known to be well-heeled.

There’s also a long tradition of mob enforcement known as ‘sweeping.’  This involves self-righteous thugs wearing religious garb hitting hotels and demanding to see the register.

There have been fewer reports of these shakedowns recently.  Maybe the police are getting more professional and less likely to be intimidated by hoons swearing they’re driven by piety.  That could change if the volatile mix of religion and politics is given a fundamentalist shake.

The government’s slogan selling tourism abroad is ‘Wonderful Indonesia’.  ‘Worrisome’ might be a better fit.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 30 September 2019.  See:

Wednesday, September 25, 2019


A can-do Kiwi evolves and earns        


Frank Sinatra crooned that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, but work and pleasure don’t rhyme to most people.  An exception is Kiwi inventor Paul Dixon and his company Environeer.

“If business is fun we get more done and enjoy coming to work,” he said.  “In that way everyone benefits.  It’s what makes you happy at the end of the day.”

It sounds like the stuff that comes from gurus wearing kaftans and beads, but Dixon is a serious dirt-under-fingernails entrepreneur even if his methods are a mite unusual.

Clients entering the New Zealander’s Surabaya showroom don’t get the traditional greeting - ‘please take a seat’.  That’s because there aren’t any.

Instead visitors are invited to stand and discuss their needs around a waist-high table.  Another difficulty:  It’s too small to share papers and a bag.  No worries, there are hooks underneath.

The room has an array of Environeer’s assembly systems like belt and roller conveyors built to industrial needs; the walls are covered with posters featuring the company’s designs, so the absence of chairs doesn’t suggest a cash-flow problem.

For guidance guests need to check a small notice listing ‘seven benefits of a standing desk’ also known as an ‘active workstation’.  Most relate to mental and physical wellbeing, such as lowering blood sugar and trimming waistlines.

The idea doesn’t stop at the door.  Inside the workshop are lathes, metal guillotines, pipe benders and a furnace to melt aluminum waste and cast the molten metal into new shapes.  There are also small workbenches on wheels.

In Australia and NZ tradesmen (‘tradies’) look like gunslingers from an old Western movie, electric drills in holsters and belts of screwdrivers in place of ammunition.

“This way of working doesn’t suit Indonesians,” said Dixon.  “So we’ve built moveable benches which can be pulled around the factory. There’s no time wasted moving to and from a static workbench and wondering where you’d left the hammer.  The key thing is simplicity.”

He’s a fan of US businessman Paul Akers who promotes waste minimization processes known as ‘lean thinking’ and used in Toyota car production lines.

Dixon is in his early 40s so too young to be labeled eccentric.  Unconventional is a better fit.  He grew up in the center of NZ’s North Island where his father was an academic, though also keen on woodwork. Instead of playing with bought toys the wee lad mucked around with the off-cuts in his Dad’s garage.

When he was four his parents gave him an old cash register which he pulled apart “just to see how it works.  If you don’t know how something is put together how can you fix it?”

The downside of being blessed with curiosity is being cursed by boredom.  This has turned many Kiwis into DIY (Do It Yourself) experts able to fix things without waiting for spares from overseas.

It’s called the Number Eight Wire attitude. The real thing is a standard four millimeter wire used in farm fencing, but also serves as a metaphor for Godzone resourcefulness.
Part joke and rural myth about fixing broken machinery, the term’s supposed to represent the ingenuity that keeps a country of only 4.5 million people in the vanguard of international innovation.
NZ has produced three Nobel laureates, including Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), labeled ‘the father of nuclear physics’ and the greatest experimentalist of his age.
Dixon thinks the quality isn’t exclusive to his geographically-isolated homeland.  “South Africans have it too,” he said.  “They were separated last century by the anti-apartheid sanctions so couldn’t get new parts.”

After graduating from university with a degree in material science Dixon took on any task he could find.  A spell cutting drill cores for miners led to a move across the Tasman and work in the West Australian northwest town of Port Hedland, then at the height of the iron-ore boom.

He stayed for about ten years mainly specializing in equipment to suppress the ochre dust which smothers buildings and trucks across the ore-rich Pilbara region.

At the time big company employees worked up to three weeks straight and then took a week off.  Most flew to the State capital Perth, 1,600 kilometers to the southwest, to catch up with families.

Dixon, a single man, headed to Denpasar, 300 kilometers closer.  Instead of lounging poolside in Kuta he deserted the tourist strips to see how people were living and working, trying to understand how Indonesians think.

He soon discovered that while Bali is rich in culture most of the gear used in workshops and building sites came from Surabaya.  So next stop was the East Java capital to do the same things again – wandering, observing, asking, and noticing opportunities where others only saw difficulties.

“I understood little about Indonesia and couldn’t speak the language,” he said.  “I didn’t have a fistful of name cards and knew no-one.  I didn’t ask the Embassy or trade commissioners for advice. I had no local partners or management consultants.

“That’s not my style.  I learn as I go along and just let things evolve.” 

Which they did. Stuck in an airport by a flight delay he struck up a conversation with Hanna Agustine who was dissatisfied with her job in an Indonesian company so agreed to help him rent some space and get started.

Now she’s the business development manager of a company that stresses safety so designs and builds guards around machinery, particularly assembly-line gear.

Environeer is certified by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization).  It has a workforce of about 50 and no debts.

“I’m like the Chinese,” Dixon said.  “I keep away from banks and put all our earnings back into the factory.” 

Could other expats follow the same path?  “It’s all about attitude. We do things in a slightly different way.  Not everything is about making money.  We can learn so much from different cultures.”

First published in Indonesian Expat, 25 September 2019



Wednesday, September 18, 2019


PM in gaffe-strewn Indonesian TV interview                       

Scott Morrison has given a rambling error-littered  interview to Indonesian TV where he fudged the figures of casualties in the 2002 Bali bomb blast.

The Prime Minister told English-speaking journalist Andini Effendi that “more Indonesians were killed than Australians” when the reverse is true. 

The final death toll of 202 men and women in the 12 October terrorist attack was 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 23 Britons and 53 from other nations.

In the six-minute clip telecast Monday night on the nation’s top news station Metro TV, the Prime Minister explained that he’d been to memorial services in Coogee, though apparently not in Kuta on Bali.  The terrorist attack took place where the main monument is located on the Jalan Legian tourist strip.

Coogee means nothing to most Indonesians and was translated as ‘Quci’ on the screen. 

Later in the interview Morrison referred to Indonesian President Joko Widodo as the former ‘mayor’ of Jakarta.

Widodo, who this year won a second five-year term as president, was the governor of Jakarta between 2012 and 2014. 

When asked about his personal relationship with Widodo, who he described as a “cheeky character”,  the PM said he talked about his family and a new dog.  Widodo is a Muslim.  Dogs are considered unclean in Islam and rarely kept as pets. 

In North Sulawesi, Bali and other parts of the country canines are cooked and considered a treat.  Hopefully Widodo’s advisers are more culturally aware than those in the PM’s office, so wouldn’t recommend raising these culinary habits in any future jolly chat.

It’s unlikely Morrison would try to build mateship by telling Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu that he’d just enjoyed a bacon burger, or that his ALP opponents carry on like pork chops.

Although the questions in the interview shot in Sydney were unchallenging,  Morrison seemed poorly briefed so padded out time with bland statements.

He said the relationship between the two countries “isn’t just about economics, it’s about security, it’s about regional strategic objectives, it’s about the environment” – which is curious; Indonesia is a case-study mess largely a domestic issue where foreign governments fear to tread,

Or perhaps Morrison was referring to the containers of Australian waste being repatriated after dumping was exposed.

Jungle-clearing fires in Kalimantan are smoking Singapore.  Java’s  rivers are streams of plastic trash.  Reliance on coal-fired power stations and failure to control vehicle emissions have put Jakarta atop the world’s most unlivable cities. 

The relationship is also about education and trade training and people-to-people contacts.  Unfortunately these issues didn’t get highlighted though Australian universities and vocational trainers are bidding against European providers for work in Indonesia.

Widodo has been pushing hard for outside expertise to boost skills and Morrison could  have alerted Indonesian viewers that his country is keen to help.

Nor did the PM use his time to talk about Widodo’s ‘Ten New Balis’ plan to boost visitor numbers and which is being supported by Australian advisors. 

The PM’s experience as a former managing director of  Tourism Australia means that in this industry he should  know what he’s talking about.

The Lowy Institute has been polling Australians on their views about Indonesia for the past 15 years.  This year it reported that respondents’ answers ‘continue to demonstrate a lack of knowledge about our largest neighbour.’ 

In their door-knocking  the researchers must have included Kirribilli House.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 18 Sepember 2019:

Monday, September 16, 2019


 Indonesia’s Dr Strangelove takes final flight                    

Indonesia’s fourth president, the late Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, was never short of a quip.

“First president (Soekarno, who had nine wives) was crazy about women. The second (Soeharto, who allegedly stole US$35 billion) was crazy about money.  The third (Habibie) is just crazy.”  Assessing himself, Wahid added:  “I just drive people crazy.”

That was also an attribute of Bacharuddin Jusuf ‘Rudy’ Habibie who died last week. 

The former aeronautical engineer ran the world’s most populous Islamic country from 1998 to 1999; as vice-president he took over when Soeharto was forced by student riots and the economic crisis to end his 32-year dictatorship.

The Indonesia media has been treating Habibie’s passing as though he was a soldier hero of the 1945 revolution against the Dutch, when for much of his 83 years he was more a distant figure of bemusement and failed grandiose dreams.

He was born in Sulawesi and spent many years in the Netherlands and Germany, studying and working for Messerschmitt; he eventually designed a commuter turboprop for his homeland called the IPTN N-250.  This never took off.

He was much smarter than the thick generals who ruled Indonesia last century and still flick backroom switches.  To them he was Dr Strangelove, an Indonesian version of the mad scientist in Stanley Kubrick's cult classic film, but had to be tolerated because he was protected by Soeharto.
A Sydney Morning Herald backgrounder once reported: “Habibie is short, speaks shrilly and gesticulates wildly, has a decidedly Teutonic manner from his German education, has the ear of his president, and wants to build aircraft, rockets, ships and nuclear power plants.”

Between 1978 and 1998, when Habibie was Minister for Research and Technology, his weird theories were tagged ‘Habibienomics’.  He argued for up-down interest rates plus heavy government involvement in technology rather than encouraging private business to invest.

When Soeharto made him vice president - knowing he’d be no personal threat as he wasn’t a Javanese general - the rupiah crashed to 17,000 against the US dollar after being pegged at 2,500.  It’s now around 14,000.

Jealous of the business clout of the mainly Christian Chinese community he created the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ Association,

Among his errors was buying the East German Navy in 1994.  One of the 39 warships sank on its way to Surabaya where the rest rust for want of parts.  Tempo newsmagazine exposed the scandal and was banned.

But when Habibie became president he used his 17 months as a reformer, giving the media back its freedom, releasing political prisoners and clearing the way for democracy.  Most curiously he ordered a referendum on the future of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, invaded and occupied by Indonesia in 1974.

One version has Habibie getting a letter from the then Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggesting a decade of autonomy for the province; the idea was to remove ‘the pebble in the shoe’ that had long irritated relationships.

Habibie, furious at what he saw as foreign interference in a domestic issue, went one-better and called a vote.

Some wonder why the all-powerful Army didn’t stage a coup and oust Habibie for threatening the Unitary State.  The generals hesitated because they were confident the Timorese loved Indonesia and would vote to stay in the Republic.

This belief was based on ‘intelligence reports’ from the field claiming no support for independence.  Which is what wise folk say when questioned by men with guns, holding clipboards and noting names.

The four-to-one result threw the military into a fury, taking revenge by scorching the earth, killing and plundering.  Their hate for Habibie was boundless, but he was soon  replaced by Wahid.
Apart from his late social reforms Habibie was till recently thought more a harmless boffin, remote from the serious gamers who carry swagger sticks.  

Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor met him in 2013 and heard him say that his duty was to ‘build a just, open and democratic society’ after Soeharto’s 32-year dictatorship.

“In some respects Habibie’s greatest weakness was his intelligence,” said Taylor.  “An incredibly clever and articulate thinker, Habibie was perhaps too advanced for most people, including me.
“He found it difficult to work at a level that was connected to the common person. Yet he was in every respect a visionary with a brilliant mind.”

In the last few years Habibie’s egghead image has been cracked through two biopics about his courtship of high school sweetheart Dr Hasri Ainun Besari.  The 48-year union was apparently marked by genuine mutual respect and depicted as a grand romance.

After his physician wife died in 2010 Habibie reportedly visited her grave daily.  He is now buried by her side.

Habibie’s engineering and political career won little acclaim, but the Rudy and Ainun love story has gripped the public’s attention and admiration.  Indonesia’s third president is being remembered less as a Dr Strangelove, more as an advanced feminist in a culture that’s still largely patriarchal..

First published in Pearls & Irritations 16 Sept 2019:

Saturday, September 14, 2019


BTW: Mariage sans frontieres

Once upon a time, kiddies, we knew who we were.  I was Sir, your Mom was Madam, you were Miss and your brother Master. Now language is gender-free.

Miss is short for Mistress, an upright position in the 18th century but now with a laid-back meaning in the 21st, so no wonder you want to be labeled Ms.

Here’s another term that needs revising – ‘cross-cultural marriage’ with its hint of annoyance. These are the complex-compound relationships that sparkle with the challenge of delightful differences, so every new day is a discovery of the other. 

Capitalizing on this fantasy an Australian insurance company ran a popular series of cheeky rom-com commercials showing the less than ravishing Rhonda on holiday in Bali getting seduced by dishy Ketut, a resort waiter.

The big screen head-in-the-clouds version has a blond escapee from cold climes swooning in the exotic tropics where love is endless.   The realities are more down to earth, or to be precise, the kitchen.

If one thinks bubur (porridge) should be made with oats and the other insists on rice the relationship will suffer indigestion.

The road to true love never runs smooth but in Indonesia the potholes are more like craters.  Time management is a particular hazard, like leaving for a function on the far side of town at 6pm when the invitation says that’s when the show starts.

For those bule (aka londo) who think punctuality is next to cleanliness and Godliness, slackness is a sin.

It also provides a true test; if the matrimonial deal is real, one party will adapt and tolerate their beloved’s weird ways.  Tiny tiffs can be overcome by chanting just four words five times a day:  ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’.  Or maybe: ‘You’re right, I’m wrong.’

But who says the words? To be he or she, that is the question asked by a Danish prince who also had in-laws behaving like outlaws. In Indonesia the newcomer doesn’t just couple with her or his betrothed – they also join the extended family. 

Approval is essential.  Civil ceremonies abroad lack pictures of batik-clad free loaders parading across a plywood platform to shake hands, bow and kiss. If there are no wedding photos for mother-in-law’s lounge walls positioned at visitors’ eyelines, doubt sneaks in like an unwanted guest.

In a country where PhDs can be bought, even marriage certificates endorsed with government crests are considered forgeries.

The hidden message is that the daughter or son is kumpul kebo, living like a buffalo out of wedlock.  In Indonesia that’s bovine behavior.

‘Inter-marriage’ sounds like a train and bus terminal.  Such places are defined by connection.  They’re also zones of chaos and confusion, with individuals rushing in different directions, so maybe that image doesn’t travel too well.  Likewise: ‘Terminal’. We need a term which implies continuation.

‘Inter-gender union’ has a clumsy post-modern Me Too feel, while capitalists would fret about the connotations with organized labor.  Yet this happens in the best marriages:  One does the cooking, washing and cleaning, while the other consumes, complains and befouls. 

That person is usually the head of the household, the other half, the one who wears the pants – though in our place they’re covered by a skirt.  We can smooth out our pressing problems provided one wields the iron.

Harmony can be elusive.  Glamor gets tarnished, fascination fades, the mystique molds.  The fail percentage is rocketing.  In some provinces almost half new marriages end in divorce, according to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

One of the highest rates is in East Java. Pause to ponder:  Oldies say that until the mid 1970s people of different religions were getting hitched with little or no condemnation by relatives and neighbors. 

That changed with the 1974 Marriage Law.  Interpretations abound, but the website of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta advises that ‘both parties must hold the same religion, if not, one party must convert to the other religion.’

Forcing one member of the couple to renounce the faith they were raised to love must hurt deeply and cause great resentment – hardly the emotions on which to build a stable relationship.  It also seems like an offence against human rights.

Yet joining faiths provides an opportunity for both to learn and develop the tolerance that every responsible leader promotes.  She goes to the mosque on Friday and he sits in church on Sunday.  At home they eat, pray and love together – and the kids take note.

There may be 300 different ethnic groups and six religions in the archipelago but these don’t have to be divisive.  In 1991 the Berlin Wall tumbled and East and West started to live together.  A germane inspiration for the French title at the top of this column – Marriage Without Borders.  Duncan Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post 14 September 2019


Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Unreal estate: House hunting hazards                   

Planning to stay awhile so looking to buy or rent?  Don’t rush to cancel the temporary hotel stay.

Sadly the real estate business in Indonesia is all over the place, literally and metaphorically.  Doubt me?  Read on, then wander around a district where you’d like to live.

There’s an apocryphal tale about newbies not wondering why their perfect find has been empty for so long.  They’ve checked for leaks and security screens, distance to schools and shops and much else before confirming the contract.

Later they discover a nearby center of worship’s amplifiers are soldered on maximum.  The maxim here is ‘listen before signing.’

Here’s another hazard for those prioritizing quietude:  Even in the supposedly residential gated communities families set up salons, childcare centers and shops in their houses, drawing traffic.

In many Western nations there are government-licensed commercial real estate agents – what North Americans call Realtors.  One call will usually deliver the response you’d expect after dialing emergency services.

The salesfolk are hungry.  They’re paid by commission; the more properties they can offload the richer they’ll become.  That’s the theory, though much depends on the state of the national economy. 

In Indonesia the domestic market tends to be s-l-o-w.  Proof is the sight of tattered and torn DI JUAL (For Sale­) and DI SEWAKAN  (For Rent) signs which have suffered more than a couple of wet seasons.

If the phone number is still legible a call usually gets a discontinued tone.  Delete the agent’s name from your notes.  A business which can’t maintain a banner is unlikely to be keeping its books updated.

Even the big names react at their own pace.  This column is still waiting for comment from a major agency that spends a fortune on advertising but not on callbacks.

Buying is difficult: Last year Indonesian Expat published information on foreigners’ rights to purchase property

As the regulations seem to be churned monthly don’t just hire any lawyer, but a law office where conveyancing is their daily nasi goreng and know the Ministry of Land’s latest laws.  Some handy info here:

Unless you’re with a big corporation or campus which has promised housing to lure you to the Archipelago, the reality about realty in Indonesia is DIY (Do It Yourself).

While cruising around suburbs note the TANPA PERANTARA posters.  These mean the owner will not be employing an agent and probably doesn’t want you to do so either.  Decode the message yourself.

In most cities and suburbs properties are found and deals done by word of mouth.  Checking expat groups is a good way to start.

For example in Malang a community-minded couple circulates news of upcoming vacancies and runs ads for newcomers. See East Java Friends on Facebook.

But here’s the rub.  Landlords who know the potential renters are stouter and heavier than the locals assume the extra weight is located in the wallet and so needs slimming.

Best have an Indonesian friend make initial enquiries and establish a price.  Curiously this most important info is regularly omitted from adverts in regional dailies like the Jawa Pos and its scores of spinoffs.  Newspapers may well have disappeared along with supermarket check-out staff in your hometown, but here both survive with house listings.

Aggregator sites worth browsing include
and  Don’t assume they have all available properties or that those advertised are still on the market.

Because the real estate industry is still a mewling babe there’s little mature data available.  Where sales are recorded by government agencies that clip the ticket with stamp duties, capital gains tax and other imposts, it’s possible to work out the price range of pads that appeal.

Here sellers tend to think of a figure and double it because the cousin’s aunt in the next street said that’s what the property opposite went for.  Or so their driver reckoned.

Internationally the real estate industry is getting scientific in collating values and applying useful demographics, such as age and income.

The number of bedrooms and bathrooms advertised are crude measures; the rooms may be small and windowless, the yard tiny and the street a jalan tikus (short cut) used by thousands of motorbikes when the main road is clogged.

Is the electricity adequate?  The sole provider is the government-owned Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) which chokes power to some homes to keep the tariff low.  If you have a microwave and toasters the setting may need to be lifted.

Indonesian landlords want their money up front – all of it – and they usually seek contracts of two to three years.  Change your mind once the ink has dried and it could well be bye-bye all savings.
Disputes with landlords need to be settled face-to-face.   Consumer protection law is not strong, which is being polite.  Tenancy dispute tribunals are a foreign idea. Although legal action is available, anecdotally it’s rare to hear of foreigners winning, however strong their case.

It’s not all grim and gloomy.  There are decent landlords out there – just take time to search thoroughly.  Also don’t forget to say hello to the Rukun Tetangga (RT) the neighborhood leader.
Chances are she or he will already know you’re renting so get in first with the handshakes and learn about your civic duties.  These are seldom onerous and generally include occasional street clean-ups and coffee for the satpam (security guard).  

Be discreet but friendly and helpful.  In one of the world’s most densely populated islands harmony and cooperation are essentials. Back home you probably won’t know your neighbors but here they’ll all know you.

(Your correspondent has experience renting in Surabaya but no legal qualifications – so get your own professional advice.)

(First published in Indonesian Expat 11 September 2019)