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

Sunday, December 29, 2019


January, 35AD

Our motto: God allows, so we report

As the latte-sipping peaceniks disconnected from the real world celebrate the birthday of an alleged international terrorist, we say in the New Year 35 AD, LET’S BANG HIM UP:

Enough is enough.

This Province is known across the Flat Earth for its tolerance, compassion and respect for human rights, but it’s time to draw a line.

OK, he gave us a few laughs with what appeared to be a heavenly gift.  Water into wine was great while it lasted.  He hasn’t tried that again since this paper exclusively revealed he’d paid the servants to lie about the pitchers.

Decent Galilee folk are mature enough to dismiss chicanery with a chuckle, but what they and we can’t tolerate is interference in the financial system, the backbone of the economy.

Barging his way into the Temple, ignoring security checks and then upturning the money-changers’ desks show he’s nothing more than a common criminal and must be treated as such. 

Banking shares dipped on early trading for fear of an uprising, but recovered once the offender was revealed as a lone operator. 

Lenders need to be in a house of worship to make it easier for the borrowers.  This is a place for profits, not prophets.  The usurers are all properly licensed by the Chief Rabbi, a man of integrity whose sermons always raise interest.

Love and kindness are all very well, but try offering goodwill in the market when your purse is as empty as your stomach. 

Let’s not forget this unelected demagogue claims he’s from Nazareth where most of us wouldn’t stop to refuel our camels for fear of getting mugged.  Half the men there don’t work since the timber mill shut down after clearing the bush to feed the carpentry shops.

They’ve made the place a desert. No wonder they’ll shout Hosannas for anyone handing out loaves and fishes.

Clearly he’s sniffing a political career as he can’t handle an honest day’s work.  It’s said his old man Joe kicked him from his workshop because he couldn’t get his spirits level, and was always carving thrones when told to saw benches.  The two had an ungodly row when son told Dad he’d been cuckolded.

Senior government sources say they’ve no record of the upstart ever going to school, which means he’s illiterate.  Despite this he gets stuck into the scribes telling them they’ll never get to heaven.  What gall.  Who does he think he is, some SOG?

 He can’t even speak Latin or Greek but yabbers away in a coarse Aramaic dialect no-one worthwhile can understand.  Apparently he has Asperger Syndrome, using this as an excuse for frightening kiddies about an apocalypse.  That’s something they shouldn’t have to weather.

Recent reports say he runs a gang of twelve guys.  That sounds queer.   However others reckon he’s been spotted holidaying with Mary Magdalene. 

What does she see in him?  He’s so unkempt – torn togas, ragged beard, weird sayings – just another bohemian seeking a rhapsody.

She used to anoint feet, then worked her way up.  With this relationship she’s heading down again. 

The dubious dozen have a gay time stirring the populace, threatening law and order and telling the scum they should have a say in government.  That’s a godless Greek idea with no place in Jerusalem.  Imagine if women got involved in men’s affairs – that would trigger Armageddon.

There’ve been plenty of complaints from upset residents that this rabble-rouser reckons it’s OK to help Samaritans out of a ditch when we all know they’re the deplorables who belong there. 

Once free from the gutter they’ll breed like cane toads, rocket the cost of housing, overcrowd hospitals and schools, and take jobs from battlers trying to put food on the table.  Lock up your wives and daughters when you see dark Sammys on the street. Someone should build a wall. 

Remember the old saying:  Let one rodent into the granary and those black bits in your muesli will be rat poo.

Governor Pilate is forever at the washbasin.  He needs to get the whips cracking.  If flagellation fails The Judean Journal recommends a trudge to Golgotha.  It’d be a miracle if this wannabe survived that trip.

For how much longer do we have to bear this cross? 


Saturday, December 28, 2019


Giving Indonesia another perspective              


Kartika Affandi claims she’s ugly.  She was also raised to be truthful.  

Let’s settle the conundrum.

To push her point she adds make-up and fractures another taboo. Instead of masking womanly mysteries by preening in private, she steers her wheelchair into the open, opens her box of tricks and faces her fans.

The voyeurs seek more than rouge, red chili ear danglers and an upturned clown mouth.  Deceptions or pointers?

They strive to catch character on canvas and the best succeed with wild swirls of color and shades of darkness.  Their model has got to that certain age where she no longer cares a damn what anyone thinks.  Or maybe it’s always been that way.

There’s no brashness, nothing unkind.  Her eccentricity is benign.  It’s not a gimmick, though it might be a shield against past pains:  “I’m doing this not to look beautiful, although I enjoy people looking at me,” she said. “I want to get rid of bad spirits, to help us all enjoy life.”

The Yogyakarta painter and sculptor turned 85 in November; it’s clear she’s been boisterously independent for all eight decades.

When her famous father Affandi told the only child from his first marriage with artist Maryati:   ‘What a pity you’re my daughter’ she could have sulked at best or become a psychotic mess.  Instead she replied:  “I’m glad I’m a woman, though I know it’s easier to be a man in Indonesia.  And that’s wrong.  I want equality.”

Does she get angry?  “Sometimes.  Then I walk away. Or paint.  Move on.  There’s no place for hate.”   

Yet some of her self portraits look so tortured they could be used in campaigns against domestic violence.  In life she’s frothy female, laughing to offset the feminist messages that make insecure men fold their legs.

Affandi erased his disappointment and set about teaching his tough little girl to be original and “never tell lies; don’t just see, but feel.”  Kartika squeezed her first paint tube when she was seven and has since exhibited in Europe, South America, the US and Australia where she painted with Aboriginal women in the central desert town of Alice Springs.

“I want to be outdoors, among people where they live,” she said.  “I’ve worked in Amsterdam’s red light district and a mental hospital.  I went to Aceh to be with the survivors.  Art is therapy.”  All good – but in Indonesia tall poppies need the scythe.

With portrait by Zam (psychologist Dr Azam Bachtiar)

Professor Astri Wright, a Canadian Art Historian has written that Kartika ‘paid with social ostracisation and sexist reviews for presuming to become a modern artist … (and) for painting too much like her father’.

In The Jakarta Post author Julia Suryakusuma described Kartika as ‘an antidote to state ibu-ism (state motherhood), the New Order militaristic, feudal Javanese social construction of womanhood whereby women were defined as appendages to their husbands’.

Despite her colorful past – or maybe because of it - Kartika reluctantly acknowledged she’s better celebrated outside her homeland.  A biography in English by Dutch poet Barney Agerbeek is scheduled for November 2020.  The documentary Kartika: 9 Ways of Seeing by Christopher Basile, an American in Australia, was released in 2018.  She said it has yet to be shown in Indonesia.

The girl from Jakarta soon kicked the dust of orthodox Java off her sandals.  By 18 she was a pregnant student in London with her older artist lover Saptohoedojo.  She’d already studied in India on a government scholarship for exceptional children, but knew little about making babies.

The couple couldn’t find a mosque so used a registry office.  Eight children and 20 years later they divorced after battling Islamic authorities claiming they weren’t married. 

“I was fed up with his polygamy,” she said. “A partnership can only hold together if there’s trust and honesty.  The rest is bullshit.”

A second union with Austrian Gerhard Koberl came and went.  She ponders proposing to her older Australian academic “boyfriend” who lives in Melbourne.  Although they’ve known each other for 55 years “that’s not the same as living together.  I don’t want another divorce. Maybe I’m difficult.”

If so there was no annoyance on show as she held court for four hours in the garden of Malang artist and author Bambang Adrian Wenzel. A dozen painters and sketchers gripped brushes to capture more than a “mish mash” of her complex personality.

Two of the more successful in “getting to see what I think” were Azam Bachtiar and Sadikin Pard.  Their tangled lines forming a whole, abstract other world image let the viewer peer behind the paint.

Pard (left) is one of the nation’s leading mouth and foot painters, and has just opened a gallery in the East Java city. 

Kartika also has one in Yogyakarta honoring her father who died in 1990. The New York Times called him ‘Indonesia's foremost Expressionist painter … whose works were exhibited worldwide’.  Apart from being an artist he also supported first president Soekarno – and for this he and his family’s movements were restricted for six weeks in 1948 by the Dutch.

“The Soekarno years were the golden era of Indonesian art,” she said.  “He appreciated my father’s work.  He was a good man but his main fault was polygamy.    Under Soeharto the military was worshipped more than humanity. 

“So many Indonesians don’t go to galleries because they feel shame.  That’s so sad.  We need art education is schools so children can appreciate the importance of culture and expressing the imagination.”

Kartika said she spent 40 years as a Buddhist “but now I really don’t know about religion ... I just want to be a good person and be honest to myself. I accept gays and lesbians – everyone.  I try to encourage women to show their creativity.  Art helps us live better, to have spirit.”

How should her obituary read?  “I gave Indonesia another perspective of the quality of life.”


Pix by Erlinawati Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post 28 December 2019

Saturday, December 21, 2019


BTW:  More than a grain of truth

Let’s open with a personal disclosure:  Rice ain’t nice.

This column understands that statement is akin to flag burning, praising Karl Marx or tweeting that a politician isn’t motivated by altruism – but it pays to be honest.

Which is why so many in Parliaments have multiple villas and send their kids to overseas schools.

But we digress. This confession also puts me offside with the 265 million people who believe in the old proverb:  Belum Makan Nasi Berarti Belum Makan, Whatever’s on the plate, if rice isn’t there it’s not a meal.

Rice is known as a ‘staple food’.  Buyers of takeaway nasi goreng (fried rice) from roadside stalls know this well.  The greaseproof wrapper is often secured using a device for clipping documents.  Swallow this and life’s journey could become stationary – death by stationery.

Diners from cultures afar prefer the brown seed of Oryza sativa, the whole grain which includes bran and germ. Fussy folk reckon that guarantees the meal will be nutritious because the fibers and antioxidants haven’t been stripped out - the process that produces white rice.

Refining is supposed to make the grain more palatable, last longer and ensure it’s easier to cook. 
Unnecessary - the task is so simple a fellow can’t fail.  Toss a handful into a pot of boiling water, 
simmer for 20 minutes, then drain and serve.  Unfortunately few Indonesians find this acceptable.

Naturally they’re polite and complimentary, but when the host’s back is turned they sneak to the toilet and return with a clean plate.  Another serve?  ‘No thanks, that went down a treat.’

A near and dear taster reckons this recipe produces porridge.  This is also British slang for serving time in jail because that was the standard meal behind bars.

Does rice slim or fatten?  Choose the research which suits your bias.  The proportion of overweight Indonesians seems far below those in more affluent economies.  Across the archipelago farmers look lean – which may be hard labor offsetting the carbs.

The reaper philosophers observe crops and crowds.  Padi makin berisi makin merunduk notes that the heaviest yielding plants bow down with the weight of grain.

There’s a more subtle meaning:  Those with an abundance of power should be humble when dealing with those below.  Tall stems carry little substance.  Take note Donald Trump and others like him.  This is the wisdom of the paddy.

How did Indonesians cope before the invention of the electric rice cooker, a gadget as essential as a toaster in a foreigner’s kitchen?  The task should be done in a trice but the preparation ritual takes longer than the cooking.  

The grain must be washed thrice and the water level no higher than the second knucklebone on the pinky finger of the right hand.  A pinch of salt helps lift blood pressure.

There are so many rice dishes even the most pernickety curmudgeon (not your correspondent) can find a plate to please.  Recommended is nasi lemper (sticky rice) and one of this nation’s most enjoyable snacks when fresh.  That’s because the taste is dominated by the filling of shredded meat or fish.  

Australia’s good at growing rice and much is exported to Japan.  Though not Indonesia, apparently because the type produced in the Murrumbidgee valley west of Sydney is the wrong variety.

For Indonesians long rice is not the real thing.  It’s as dissimilar from short rice as a 
wholemeal loaf is from the sugary white sponge that’s laughingly labeled ‘bread’
 in the Republic, even though the raw ingredients come from the wheatbelt of Western Australia.
This is a State keen to entice Indonesian tourists; 
Perth is just a 200 minute trip from Denpasar with so many competing flights 
that prices are reasonable.
There’s plenty to see and do Down Under where visitors are made welcome. 
Though not those who need rice every day so they don’t turn stroppy. 
There are a few Chinese and Indian restaurants in the big towns which may serve rice, 
but otherwise nix.  WA is not a rice zone, and neither are most states. 
 So if heading to the Great South Land pack a cooker and follow the culture: 
Do It Yourself.  Duncan Graham
First published in The Jakarta Post 21 December 2019 



Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Getting Indonesia to work     


Nigel Carpenter is a serious guy involved in important work.  He’s also getting a tad frustrated.

For the past three years the Australian has been trying to repair Indonesia’s much troubled technical and vocational education training (TVET) system as it heads into an age of new needs. 

In one lane is Australian expertise, in the other are labor upskilling orders delivered by President Joko Widodo who seems to be forever pushing the pedal.  Both heading in the same direction, though at different speeds.

Should be a clean run. 

Instead Carpenter has been bumping down a freeway strewn with potholes.  Not all have been created by political indifference and public-service incompetence.

“One of the problems facing Australians trying to get along with Indonesians is a failure to understand the culture and respond with flexibility,” he said.

“I turned up at one of the negotiations for the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) to find all the Indonesians outside talking in clusters.  The Australians were gazing at empty chairs waiting for the discussions to start.  They already had.” 

The Chief Executive Officer for the Australian Non-Government Organization Sustainable Skills has been urging Australian executives to rethink their attitudes towards their giant neighbor so they can work to modernize the Republic’s workforce.
“It’s been a frustrating experience meeting with Australian training providers,” Carpenter said.  “Although we haven’t had rejections and there’s continued interest, we haven’t been able to have a business planning meeting.”
Despite this underwhelming enthusiasm from his homeland colleagues, Carpenter has found interest in Java, though won’t name names.
“To establish a training center under Indonesian law we need a local partner who must have a 32 per cent share,” he said. “Although this partner is involved in education they are not a typical provider of education like a university or polytechnic.
“We don’t want an existing provider because we’ll inherit their culture and ways of doing things; we think that’s one of the issues which has caused problems for Australian training providers who’ve entered the Indonesian market.
“We want to establish a new business targeting a market which is not currently being met in Indonesia: High quality TVET with strong industry links. 
“We’ll need up to AUD 1 million (Rp 9.6 billion) to establish the first training center and  make it cash flow positive in about three to four years. Once we can demonstrate it’s working successfully we will start expanding.
“The idea is to bring Australian trainers to train the Indonesian trainers and develop the curricula. It’s not possible to transplant Australian TVET curricula into Indonesia, it won’t work. The needs are different.
“This is a uniquely Indonesian plan based on the challenges and opportunities Indonesia presents. Assuming all goes well we could start mid-2020.”
Sustainable Skills is a non-profit industry-backed agency.  It had been working in Africa with mining companies and governments to develop workforce training systems, then turned to Indonesia when the President sounded the alarm about industry labor deficiencies.
The World Bank forecasts Indonesia’s economy will grow by 5.2 percent in 2020: ‘This projection is supported by private consumption, which is expected to continue to accelerate as inflation remains low and labor markets strong.’ 

With almost half the population under 30, the bank believes Indonesia is on track to be the world’s seventh largest economy by 2030.

But there’s a catch – who’s going to keep the economic engine humming when Widodo says 58 million skilled workers will be needed within 12 years? Without a pool of nimble-minded young women and men trained in the latest technologies, the expected and wanted surge will slump. 

Work will be for those with the know-how to design, develop, assemble, adapt and repair the software and hardware which is rapidly 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 has been badgering his increasingly fretful officials to find solutions. They’re colliding with attitudes stoutly built in a pre-digital age.  Some staffers are risking reputations by looking abroad for ideas at a time when national pride tinged with xenophobia is a powerful driver of policy.

After almost ten years of stop-start discussions the Indonesia Australia –Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement free trade deal is just awaiting parliamentary ratification in Indonesia.

It includes clauses allowing Australian universities to open branch campuses in the Archipelago – but Indonesia wants the less prestigious but more necessary vocational colleges.

The Australians don’t have the field to themselves.  German education providers have also been active in the Republic and are believed to have already signed agreements for hospitality training.

Adding to the complexities and Carpenter’s hassles is a shake-up in the new Indonesia Maju (advance) Cabinet announced in October by the President.

The former Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education has been split, with higher education returning to the Ministry of Education and Culture.

This is headed by the Go-Jek transportation network entrepreneur Nadiem Makarim, 34, who has no known experience of running a government bureaucracy.  That’s likely to create difficulties and take time to settle roles and directions.

However for Carpenter the political changes may bring the breakthrough.  The Harvard-educated Minister should be better placed than his academic predecessors to understand the crisis facing the corporate world and think laterally to find solutions. 

He also speaks the business-needs language that so far seems to bemuse securely tenured government workers. Carpenter is equally fluent.

First published in Indonesian Expat, 18 December 2019

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


                    Can young voices get into elders’ ears?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet selection has been met with widespread dismay by liberal progressives.  There have been some weird choices noted here 

The most disturbing was making Widodo’s bitter and brutal rival Prabowo Subianto, 68, Defence Minister, even though the former general with a suspect human rights record had been decisively rejected by the electorate.

Suddenly and surprisingly there’s been a reaction: Concerns about the Cabinet have been heard behind Jakarta’s White House walls.

Widodo has now put seven young advisers on his payroll, including three women.  Some have been educated overseas and worked on Internet startups.  These social media wizards are supposed to offset the oldies’ stamp-and-envelope thinking with fresh solutions. 

Great idea, but it’s unlikely the postulants can prise the oligarchs’ arthritic hands off Indonesia’s steering wheel.  The Republic is driven by an elite and complex cluster of feudal, business, military and religious families presiding over a culture where youth is expected to respect age, however ignorant the elder.

The neophytes will not be noticed unless they can brawl like streetfighters in the political rubble of a society that’s only had some form of democracy this century.

Fadli Zon, chair of Widodo’s coalition party Gerindra, was reported tagging the appointments a ‘decoration … tantamount to waste.’

The oldest Gen Y sparkler is 36, the youngest 23.  Their boss used Instagram to call them ‘my partners in discussion every month, every week or every day … I can look for out-of-the-box ideas and leaping breakthroughs towards development’.

The newbies should have lots to say. They can feel the community’s pulse better than most in a country where the median age is 28 – though the leaders are around four decades older. 

The term KKN (Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme) was widely used last century to describe the 32-year administration of the dictator and kleptocrat Soeharto who was forced to quit in 1998.

KKN was condemned by the revolutionaries of that time and by the young supporters of Widodo in his first election win in 2014, but the evildoers have survived and are now launching counter offensives. 

Their most recent success has been in getting the President to tick laws rushed through Parliament this year to castrate the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission - KPK) the nation’s most admired agency.

It runs parallel to the police and had wide powers to investigate and prosecute.  Since 2002 the KPK has helped jail about 1,000 senior public servants and politicians caught backing their utes up to the Treasury’s loading bays.

The public cheered – the villains plotted revenge and are now emboldened with success. 
Stage two of the back-to-the past plan is stopping direct elections, the system responsible for elevating commoner Widodo to the Palace.

Better that onerous task is left to the professional politicians who know how to pick the right person.  Widodo says he wants the law retained; he constitutionally can’t stand again so his views get flicked aside.

His handpicked smarties will probably agree the people’s voice should rule and the KPK be strengthened.  They would know how the late Lee Kuan Yew stamped out corruption (though not nepotism) in Singapore by being ruthless and running a one-party state. 

However they won’t get their briefing papers past Megawati Soekarnoputri, 72, even though she’s currently best placed to lead the charge for reform.  

The uncrowned queen of Indonesia and a former president runs the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Democratic Party of Struggle – PDI-P) like Xi Jinping controls the Communist Party in China.  Widodo is a PDI-P member and gets treated as a functionary.

Mega is the daughter of first president Soekarno; she’s also mother of Puan Maharani, 46.  Mum wants her youngest child, currently Speaker of the People's Representative Council, to be the next president.

The genes of Granddad’s charisma weren’t passed on to his heirs.  Puan, who was born after the nation’s founder died in 1970, is not the brightest object in Jakarta’s firmament of decaying stars.  She’ll fail to fulfill her supposed destiny if the voters have their say – so best they don’t.

The ginger group might also suggest that religious instruction be toned down in public education leaving more time for the essentials which lead to jobs.  

Such recommendations would head straight to the bin of Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, 76.  He’s a hard right anti-pluralist Islamic scholar who helped organise the huge 2012 rallies against the Christian ethnic Chinese Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok).

The charge was blasphemy. It put Ahok behind bars for two years and the nation’s reputation for religious tolerance back two decades.  A noted can-do guy famous for trampling toes, he’s now been partially rehabilitated by Widodo as President Commissioner of Pertamina, the nation’s monopoly oil company.

Team 2020 is also expected to raise concerns that Widodo has yet to meet his promise to hold inquiries into the army-organised 1965 killings of 500,000 plus real or imagined Communists.  

This memo will never get past Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, 72, another former general and now Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs. He was previously the Presidential Chief of Staff and is known to be Widodo’s whisperer.  He’ll certainly shield the military from any investigation of the genocide.

Then there’s education – something the advisers know better than the advised as their experiences are fresh.  Like all concerned Indonesians they would have been distressed with the latest findings of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

These continue to show atrocious performances in science, reading and maths compared with same age kids in 79 countries, including Asian neighbours like Malaysia and Thailand.

At 35 Nadiem Makarim, former dotcom entrepreneur and now Education and Culture Minister, should keep his door ajar for Widodo’s consultants.  But the Harvard Business School graduate’s response to the PISA results has been disappointing - bland words and no plan:

‘(They’re a) valuable input for evaluating and improving the quality of education in Indonesia. We have to have the courage to change and improve. In accordance with the President's directive to create great human resources, we will continue to try and make breakthroughs.’

Education experts claim the answer is to recruit exceptional teachers and reward them well, but that would need a revolution.  Most are government employees, poorly paid but with a pension after retirement in their 50s.   There are more than three million.

The old simile of social change being as tricky as maneuvering an ocean liner in a cramped port isn’t up to the task.    The schooling system needs to be attacked like Pearl Harbour and then rebuilt.
Indonesians will soon be able to judge Widodo’s team.  The most incandescent will quit for something worthwhile rather than waste the next five years trying to demolish the KKN fortress with toothpicks.

First published in Pearls and Irritations 11 December 2019:

Thursday, December 05, 2019


Can a dotcom driver turn schools around? 

In October Indonesian President Joko Widodo startled teachers, parents and political seers by making Nadiem Makarim, 35, Minister for Education and Culture.

The Harvard-educated entrepreneur is not a politician.  He has no public sector experience.  The last two ministers were also outsiders – but senior academics. Makarim’s skills are in applying information technology to everyday matters.  He upended the taxi industry with his on-line transport system Go-Jek, now reportedly worth about US $10 billion.

Widodo hopes his captain’s pick will drive the nation’s bogged school system back on Highway 2Morrow. But steering the lumbering education road train around the bollards of rigid thinkers won’t  be like zipping past  potholes on  a motorbike.

Dr Totok Suprayitno (right) gets a tad defensive when talking to a foreign journalist.  

No problems handling local media, but the head of research and development at the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) has a fair idea of the issues that puzzle outsiders.

There’s one particularly awkward question:  Why is the state of Indonesian schooling so bad when the Constitution mandates 20 per cent of  spending must go on education?  
Suprayitno tried but got choked by jargon.  The World Bank explains the conundrum better than most:

‘By 2018, spending on education was greater than any other sector, approximately meeting the 20 percent target of total government expenditure. However, since the national budget is 15 percent of GDP, this education expenditure is only three per cent of GDP, one of the lowest in the region.’

 “The figure is now 3.3 per cent,” said Suprayitno.  “Yes, it’s below Malaysia with almost six per cent, but all countries face challenges and these are always changing.  One size does not fit all.  Even in your country (Australia) you have problems.”

This is where the stats get squishy.  Federations like Australia, the United States and Malaysia fund education nationally and through the States, so comparisons can be flawed.

“Education control used to be based in Jakarta but is now being decentralized,” Suprayitno said.  Then he added:  “But too much decentralization isn’t good.  We have to concentrate on the quality of learning outcomes.”

The last sentence means ‘check results’.  It’s  the sort of verbiage  beloved by educationalists world wide.  Their highly competitive profession chews up experts and theories, and then vomits messes of acronyms and geekspeak for others to mop up - and recycle.

A corny and mildly sexist joke in the business says it’s unwise to chase a bus, a pretty woman or an education policy, as another will pass by shortly.

At the heart of the squabbling is understanding how humans learn – a topic still furiously debated. How are we able to look at sets of markings and turn these into speech where ideas can be expressed?
 Cognitive science is the discipline and one of the most prominent experts is Virginia University psychologist Daniel Willingham, a critic of the traditional ‘learning styles’ theories once popular in Indonesia. 

 These hold that individuals absorb knowledge differently so need specialized teaching.
Willingham has focused on study habits which he claims have been shown to work through scientific research. 

Topping the policy pop charts for the last few years have been responses to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Every three years it tests 15-year-olds across the world in reading, maths and science. The results are supposed to show how well adolescents will handle problems when they grow up and want to enter the workforce.

The thinking behind PISA is this mantra: ‘Modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know’.

In 2018 more than half a million teens from 80 countries took PISA tests; the results have still to be released. In the 2015 study Indonesia ranked 62 out 72 participating nations.  Although there were marginal improvements from the 2012 results, the overall outcomes were dismal.

One glimmer of hope:  Indonesian girls are doing better than boys across all subjects and particularly reading.  Not many want to take up the hard disciplines like science but those who do are usually female.

The World Bank has analyzed these and other figures to conclude that 55 percent of Indonesians who complete school are ‘functionally illiterate’ compared with 14 percent in Vietnam and 20 per cent in other OECD countries.

Demographic trends suggest that by 2030 the population will be around 296 million (currently estimated at 271 million) and heavily skewed to youth; the country has a median age of 28 compared to the US and Australia's 38. 

This means the Republic will soon have a vast and overflowing labor lake. Whether these potential employees will be able to navigate their way into work – and jobs that are satisfying and well paid – will depend on the education they’re getting now.  In the recent past the need was for brawn.  Now it’s brains.

Almost all Indonesian children finish elementary school.  Then the dropouts start, with just above half completing secondary school according to the World Bank.

Indonesia is the 16th largest economy in the world.  Optimists are predicting it will be in the top ten by 2030, a forecast which depends on investments  and workforce qualities. As economists say, a strong economy begins with a strong, well-educated workforce. 

In this gloom Indrah Pratiwi (right) is a beacon.  The daughter of farmers in a remote West Java village, she was the first in her family to get a tertiary education.  After graduating in international relations from the nation’s top public campus Universitas Indonesia she got work with the MEC gathering data.

The 29-year old  could be a poster child for Indonesia’s post millennials: “I’m educated and independent.  I have a good job which is well paid.  I can set an example of what a woman from an isolated area can achieve if she stays at school.”

But her research led to some embarrassing discoveries.

At a Jakarta workshop for teachers from distant districts she projected charts illustrating her findings.  Every one showed Jakarta, Yogyakarta (Central Java) and Riau (Central Sumatra) tops on school retention, reading and most other subjects.  

The images also had West Kalimantan and Papua squatting at the bottom. Troubled by these stats she’s bypassed education authorities by using social media to show what’s possible.  This is not Pratiwi’s job;  it’s her passion.

“I write stories about children being successful through education,” she said. “Boys in particular can’t see the value and want to get working with the men in jobs like fishing.

“I put my stories on Facebook and send them back to children in my village.  They keep asking for more.”

Then comes the crunch:  When asked if she’d want any children she might have in the future to be teachers Pratiwi’s response was decisive: “No.  The salaries are so poor.”

She said that during the presidency of Soekarno (1949 – 1967) teaching had status and was a well rewarded profession; however it had since been diluted by training colleges lowering entry standards to boost enrolments.  She alleged this had attracted mediocre students wanting a secure job with a pension rather than drawing idealists motivated to help lift the next generation.

In October almost 90 teachers gathered in Jakarta for the half-day workshop run through an Australian aid program called Inovasi.  This claims to use ‘a distinctive locally focused approach to develop pilot activities’.  Through autopsies of these programs it hopes to discover what does and doesn’t work.

Its projects are in East Java, Kalimantan and the eastern islands of the archipelago.  The program will die mid 2020 unless renewed.  Further funding should depend on results but Australia has been felling aid to Indonesia.

In 2015 it cut funding by 40 per cent from AUD 542 million to AUD 323 million.  Next year the axe will chop deeper to AUD 298 million.  

When the budget was first slashed the Australian Foreign Minister was Julie Bishop.  Now out of Parliament she works for one of the biggest foreign aid contractors Palladium.  This manages the Inovasi program so there are hopes her influence may keep the show on the road.

Erix Hutasoit (left)  the provincial communications officer for an Inovasi project in Kalimantan, stressed the need to see every district separately, and not just because of ethnic, cultural and language differences.

“In the past it was them and us,” said Hutasoit.  “The teacher was the ultimate authority.  He or she sat on a platform at the front of rows of desks and told the students what to write and read.”

Modern classroom practice has teachers interacting with students, encouraging them to express themselves and question; this behavior bumps into some cultural traditions which expect little people to accept whatever a big person says is factual.

“We’re not hostile to Western ways of thinking and doing, or ideas from abroad,” Hutasoit said. “But the structure and economy of every village in Kalimantan depends on the environment.  Some schools are really small.  It’s not like Java where the policies are made.”

Kalimantan takes up almost three quarters of the island of Borneo.  The rest is owned by Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and Brunei. The province is four times larger than Java though with only 12 per cent of the population.  President Widodo has authorized the building of a new capital in Kalimantan to ease pressures on overcrowded Jakarta.

Ratih Niati (left) is a Dyak, the original inhabitants of Kalimantan.  She teaches because “I want to be useful to my people.”  She’s clearly a star, covering her class walls with pictures and being energetically engaged with students by reading stories.

Children’s books in the West are no longer an afterthought to adult fiction and now have the status of literature with high-level incomes for ace authors and illustrators.

British writer Joanne (J K) Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series pitched to teens is reported to be the world’s first billionaire author.  Her books have been translated into Indonesian though her fantasy world of wizards in Hogwarts School sits more comfortably in British society than Indonesian culture.

Hutasoit said commercial publishers were now becoming more adventurous and realizing that pictures helped children read and release their imaginations.  However there were no examples provided at the workshop.

Indonesian school books tend to be wordy and uninviting; only those approved by checkers in Jakarta get used after being scrutinized for subversive views and ensuring the right moral messages are enforced.

This is a hangover from the authoritarian Soeharto era of last century when heavy rules were imposed on publishers to purge manuscripts of opinions hostile to authority.  Bookshops were more like pharmacies, with volumes kept inside locked cabinets like addictive drugs. This led to a vast reduction in reading which modern educators are trying to address.

A World's Most Literate Nation study last year by Central Connecticut State University ranks Indonesia bottom but one of 61 countries in terms of reading interest.  The lowest is Botswana, the highest Finland.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had earlier reported that just one in every thousand Indonesians read books regularly.

Qoriatul Azizah is in the 0.1 per cent.  Although from another Inovasi project she wasn’t at the Jakarta workshop.  Had she attended and brought along her teaching gear the East Java chalkie would have been a star turn.

For she spends much of her personal time designing large colorful story books  dominated by art, a stark opposite to the pedestrian text-dense titles provided by the Ministry and its departments.
“Most of our students come from homes without books,” she said.  “That means the parents don’t even tell fairytales to their children so there’s no culture of learning by sharing.

“We have a rich oral tradition using wayang (shadow) puppets so there’s no shortage of stories.”
She has modeled her books on those developed by a non-sectarian non-governmental organization called Room to Read based on the US West Coast.  It’s funded by philanthropists and claims to have  ‘benefited 16.8 million children across more than 37,000 communities in 16 countries’ since it started in 2000.

It began operating in Indonesia in 2014.  In 2017 along with the charitable foundation it started ‘​a ​digital ​platform ​that ​combines literacy ​professional ​development ​videos ​and engaging ​children’s stories.’ It’s producing more than 200 ​​digital storybooks in Indonesian and 20 teacher-training videos.

Over three years Room to Read says it’s gathered a stable of a hundred writers and illustrators who have produced 60 ‘culturally relevant’ new titles to support the official National Literacy Movement. Around 420,000 books are being distributed to four thousand schools.

All good and worthy – till the mists lift and the size of the mountain is revealed:
No Western states are as complex and huge as Indonesia, with more than 50 million students and close to three million teachers.  It’s the fourth largest education system in the world after China, India and the US.

About 16 per cent of the nation’s 250,000 primary schools are supervised by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and seven per cent are private; the rest are run by the MEC.

Teacher Azizah says she wants to go overseas to study classroom techniques.  Her principal Asri Suprihatin has visited schools in Malaysia and Singapore – and it shows.

Suprihatin runs Sekolah Dasar Negeri (State elementary school  SDN) Punten 1, just outside Batu in the Central East Java hills, is the sort of campus which gives visitors hope that the archipelago’s education system can one day rank high on world lists.

Every Thursday is Java Day when the 500 students and 31 teachers dress in traditional Javanese clothes, eat Javanese food and speak Javanese. It’s the school’s initiative.  In this district Indonesian is the second language among those born locally.

Punten 1 staffers appear to be flexible and professional; absent is the grim weariness which infects some restrooms:  ‘This would be a great job if it wasn’t for the kids.’  

However English teacher Lena Letor said it was difficult to handle classes of 30 students in small rooms when presenting difficult subjects.  She still focuses on grammar when modern methods stress communication and building vocabularies.

The adults interact easily with their charges in a bright and airy environment which is more garden than yard.  It helps being among apple orchards and vegetable farms 1,000 meters above the baking plains below.

The teachers have changed their 40-year old sterile classrooms into art galleries with murals of fun facts to stimulate young minds.  

It’s the norm in the West, but still rare in Indonesia where decorations are often considered distractions. The Lowy Institute gave a damning report last year saying the ‘high-volume, low-quality enterprise’ of Indonesian education was ill equipped to meet expectations of creating an internationally 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.

The political causes of poor education performance include the continued dominance of political, bureaucratic, and corporate elites over the education system under the New Order and the role that progressive NGOs and parent, teacher, and student groups have had in education policymaking since the fall of the New Order government (in 1998), making reform difficult.

One of the Room to Read program’s main goals is to boost literacy, particularly among girls in poor nations.  Fortunately in this area Indonesia has lifted its game; according to UNESCO 99.7 per cent of young people can now read and write.  But as reported earlier that’s not necessarily ‘functional literacy’.

The problems come with comprehension, retention rates and school leavers equipped for a workforce rapidly moving from manual tasks to digital solutions.

A simple example:  Indonesian motorists now have to buy cash-loaded cards to tap-and-go on toll roads.  For decades the gates have been controlled by staff taking cash.  Good for drivers as the bottlenecks have gone.  Bad for the semi-skilled workers whose jobs have also driven away.

A Strategic Review essay last year put a lens over the post-school training sector struggling with poor facilities and yesteryear’s instructors using equipment no longer found in modern factories.  

When the story was published the education portfolio was in two places, with technical and further education (TAFE) slotted into the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education.  Under the new minister TAFE has returned to Education in the hope that the whole school experience can be integrated.

The World Bank says almost 26 million Indonesians live below the poverty line, and another 20 per cent ‘vulnerable of falling into poverty, as their income hovers marginally above the national poverty line.’

The consequences of millions of unwanted youth in overcrowded cities competing for a shrinking number of manual jobs are also worrying.  An Australian government report put it succinctly:

Unemployment is a major life event.  It can have a devastating impact on people’s lives.  It affects not just the unemployed person but also family members and the wider community. 
The impact of unemployment can be long-lasting.  As unemployment becomes more long-term, its impact becomes more far reaching, often affecting living standards in retirement.  The loss of income by the parents can damage the prospects of the next generation.

This is the stark reality facing Minister Makarim and his staff.  If he doesn’t tear his hair out and quit in frustration from dealing daily with bureaucratic procedures from the Mesozoic Age, he has just five years to deliver the goods.

The next election will be in 2024.  The law forbids Widodo standing for a third term.  The eighth president will have their own solutions to any lingering education crisis and probably their own Dr Fixit, for everyone has been to school and is consequently an expert.

It took Makarim a decade to develop Go-Jek when he was mainly dealing with can-do business hustlers and cogent problem-solvers, not can’t do bureaucrats and self-serving politicians.
To make the FINISH line and still be sane, Makarim will need to make many extraordinary educational policy and administration backups and U turns. 

These would warrant a book if successful. Go-Ed maybe?  If it’s a best seller that might prove Mr’s Gen X skills are just what’s needed to move Gen R2R (Raring to Read) into the fast lane.

First  published in Strategic  Review 5 Dec 2019.  See: