The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, January 27, 2020


                               This bus isn’t moving fast
It’s not too difficult for outsiders to get the gist of Indonesian economics.  That’s because terms, like ‘administrasi, deficit, bangkrut, fiskal’ and others have been pinched from English and tweaked.
The latest is ‘omnibus law’, a favourite with President Joko Widodo in a bid to slash and compost the vines of red tape that strangle the business landscape.  The problem is few understand the meaning so use their default setting – suspicion.  
Labour unions are opposing government reforms designed to make investors feel easier about leaving their deposits in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.  Consolidating legislation would certainly help, though only if the public servants agree to implement.
As changes could lead to a reduction of stamping and photocopying tasks among the Republic’s almost five million bureaucrats, Widodo’s enthusiasm isn’t widely shared.
He reportedly said it would take half a century to revise each law individually, so why not make a bundle, call it an omnibus and drive it through the Parliament? 

There are more than 1,200 articles in 80 laws the President thinks need to be bashed aside by the bullbar. “Start now,’ he said. ‘It could all be done in 100 working days.’

He’s about the only person who thinks that timetable practical.   Workers fearing lower wages and loss of entitlements have been protesting, disbelieving government claims of more jobs through foreign investments. 

 Around 70 per cent of the nation’s workforce is informal; insecurity is widespread along with its twin, distrust.

The big end of town is being offered cut price tickets to jump on the omnibus.  In exchange for a comfy seat business tax will drop from 25 per cent to 20 per cent within three years.

That sounds fair enough – though only till it’s remembered that many entrepreneurs have refined the art of keeping their duties, fiscal and moral, to a minimum by sending profits overseas.  A lower rate on next to nothing is not a big inducement. 

According to the OECD ‘tax revenues are low relative to other emerging economies … (and) compliance remains a major challenge.’  Indonesia’s tax-to-GDP ratio is 12 per cent, less than half that of Australia’s.

VAT is applied where a business keeps records.  For a meal in McDonald’s, or any chrome and plastic eatery with a till, expect a tax and service charge of 21 per cent.  Use a streetfood stall or local cafĂ© and there are no additions.  Cash still reigns - many shops won’t accept credit cards.

The omnibus bill is the latest bid to boost the tax take while reducing costs.  An earlier attempt thumped the nationalism drum, appealing to the megarich to repatriate the earnings they’d parked abroad in return for dropping tax avoidance prosecutions.

As patriotism is not a relative of capitalism the results were unimpressive. At the time (2017) it was reported that only 32 million were registered taxpayers and less than nine million submitted returns.  The Republic’s population is 270 million.

The government reckoned it could collect about one thousand trillion rupiah (US$ 74 billion) from two million rich listers, but got run down by reality.  Less than 150 trillion rupiah was recovered from just one million citizens.

These measures, though fine in intent, don’t tackle the key issue that’s wounding the nation’s economy and international reputation.

Last year Phil Turtle, National President of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council, had the courage to be blunt.  He told the Australian Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties:  

“When I'm talking to Australian businesses about contemplating Indonesia, it's a bit like the real estate saying —location, location, location — it's corruption, corruption, corruption.”

Indonesia ranks 89 in Transparency International’s corruption perception index.  Australia is in 13th place.

Despite these flaws there’s no outward evidence of a looming financial crisis.   Widodo’s first five-year term (2014-2019) was marked by huge infrastructure projects largely funded by loans from China and Japan.

Toll roads, railways, ports and airports have been built at astonishing speed. A new US $31 billion capital in Kalimantan, the Indonesian province on Borneo Island, is being planned to replace polluted, overcrowded and sinking Jakarta.  Almost 70 people have died in city floods this wet season. 

Last year the nation owed US $383 billion in foreign debt, a rise of 7.2 percent on the previous year. Bank Indonesia appeared unworried, claiming the increase came from government borrowings.
This year the United Arab Emirates offered US $23 billion for more infrastructure and energy projects.  The money will go into a new sovereign wealth fund, also part of the proposed omnibus laws.

Inflation seems to be under control.  The government forecast three per cent last year but the figure was 2.72.  Sudden food and fuel price jumps have triggered mass protests in the past so keeping the economy stable is a political necessity.

While the Anglosphere has been obsessed with the trivial doings of the regal Brits, Indonesians have been gripped by tales of oligarchs steering luxury cars around taxation roadblocks.

They’ve allegedly been hiding their Mercedes and BMWs ownerships by registering them in the names of lowly employees.  Most couldn’t raise the down payment on a motor scooter yet on paper they’re proud owners of Ferraris.

Bemused foreigners might ask how these vehicles could get into the country without owners paying duty, and then escape detection when driven around Jakarta.  One who didn’t was Ari Askhara, president director of the government-owned airline Garuda Indonesia.

He was sacked after allegedly smuggling a disassembled Harley Davidson motorcycle and Brompton folding bicycles on a new Airbus A330-900 being delivered to the airline.  The manifest apparently listed the parts in the names of employees, but someone dobbed in the boss.  

Revenge or conscience?  If the latter then things are looking up.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 27 January 2020:


Saturday, January 18, 2020


When words fail, music speaks          


The 19th century fairytale-teller Hans Christian Andersen’s pithy observation in the headline is close to two centuries old. 

By now it should have been swamped by modern theories of inter-sensory communication, though for Dr Sophie Galaise the Dane’s words strike the right chord.

“Musical styles and cultural differences don’t need to be barriers,” she said at Yogyakarta’s Sanata Dharma University as Australian and Indonesian musicians fiddled with their fiddles.  “By collaborating we can build bridges to understanding.  Never underestimate the power of music.”

That’s not the tune played by conservatives driving foreign policy.  They argue that power means arms; after security, trade and defence have been settled, people’s hearts and minds will follow.
But this lady is no dilettante whose views can be waved away; she carries clout in the hard places where the notes aren’t heard but counted.  

The managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (left) is as comfortable with a score as a spreadsheet. She’s on the Advisory Council of the Harvard Business Review and a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Three years ago she was a winner in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac Bank’s 100 Women of Influence Awards.  Not bad for a foreign flautist, or flutist as they say in North America, her onetime home.

Her day job is running Australia’s oldest professional orchestra (founded 1906) which she reckons ranks among the world’s top 20 and ‘engages’ with more than five million consumers a year through events, broadcasts and recordings.

Label that ‘consumers’ and you have a figure worth singing in corporate aisles.  But it wouldn’t resonate if the MSO had just stayed in its Arts Centre studios in the State of Victoria’s capital. 

Not all international trade can be measured in tonnes tipped into the holds of bulk carriers.  The MSO has built its reputation by exporting, touring overseas since 1965. 

Its players have performed in Europe, the UK, the US, Singapore, New Zealand, China and Indonesia, focusing on Java’s artistic heartland.

The first visit to the Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta (Special Region of Yogyakarta) was in 2015.  In that year Australia’s smallest mainland state (population 6.5 million) coupled with Indonesia’s second-smallest province (4 million) after Jakarta.  Both see themselves as their nation’s cultural custodians.

Two years ago Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X asked the MSO to perform at the 9th century Hindu Prambanan Temple.  It was the first foreign orchestra to play at the World Heritage site.

Galaise said the Sultan wants a permanent orchestra in the city. During the Dutch colonial era, court retainers known as Musikan (harmony) were employed to play European music, but disappeared as a permanent fixture after the formation of the Republic in 1945,

This August the MSO ran its fourth annual Youth Music Camp in Yogyakarta for 30 young and promising players, wrapping up with a concert before more than a thousand music lovers.

“The students are talented and determined,” said Galaise.  “We ask them to practise and they do so overnight for hours, returning next day with improvements.  Australian students might take a week.”
Most performers at the Yogyakarta concert were string players, but the stage was also shared by the bonang barong two-rack ten bronze gamelan drums played by Eunike Theresia Siahaan, 19, lifting the concert from its somber mood.

Cellist  Longginus Alyandu  24, and the splendidly named violinist Elgar Putrandhra, 25, spent a month in Melbourne refining their repertoires, presented their own composition. 

Galaise first heard the gamelan as a gifted three-year old from a musical family when taken to an exhibition in Canada.  Later at university she encountered a gamelan orchestra.  

After graduating she played her flute to several European orchestras before returning to Canada. English is her third language after French and German.

In 2013 she moved to Australia as the CEO of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra where she boosted audiences and got an operational surplus before being recruited by the MSO three years ago.

 “In Indonesia we’re also teaching arts administration in cultural management workshops,” said Galaise.  “Getting an orchestra on stage requires a large number of organizational abilities that we want to pass on to Indonesians.”

The audience only sees the musos stroll on stage, do their bit, bow to applause and leave.  But it takes months of planning, promoting, designing and assembling for just a two-hour show.  Running an aircraft carrier might be easier – at least the sailors have to obey orders.

“Another project we hope to introduce to Indonesia is the Pizzicato Effect, a community music program we run in a Melbourne school, providing free string instrumental and musicianship tuition. “

It’s aligned with the principles of El Sistema; the internationally-celebrated music project which originated in Venezuela claims communal music-making enhances children’s development.

Similar programs are run in the US, the UK, Canada and several European nations, though so far not Indonesia.  Some educators have been critical, claiming music should be studied for music’s sake and not to create social change.

Galaise said research at the University of Melbourne has shown the program enhanced academic performance and social-emotional well-being for participating children.

It sounds post modern, but Plato said it 2,400 years ago:  ‘Education in music is most sovereign because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the innermost soul and take strongest hold upon it.’  

First published in The Jakarta Post 17 January 2020


Tuesday, January 14, 2020



Indonesian Free Trade – not there yet
For much of 2019’s last quarter Australian rural journals and politicians were forecasting a bonanza.

2020 is supposed to be the year when the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) finally comes good.  Then tariff gates will be ripped off their hinges as a torrent of produce from Down Under pours into the hungry and overcrowded archipelago next door.

Fresh markets will cry for attention.  A new era of agricultural prosperity will rise.  While Pollyannas chorus, worrywarts quietly mutter. However some grounding in reality is overdue.

First is that nothing will happen till the Indonesian parliament – or President Joko Widodo if the debate gets stuck - ratifies the agreement.  It’s already been approved by Canberra. 
Signing was supposed to happen last month, but it’s not a high priority in Jakarta.  In November the Australian Financial Review reported some politicians concerned about a ‘flood of imports’, reminding colleagues that trade since 2013 had always benefited Australia.

The IA-CEPA does favour Australia, though boosters say Indonesia will be able to increase exports, citing goods like furniture, textiles and fruits.

One problem is market size.  Australia’s population is eleven times smaller than Indonesia’s. Some exporters won’t bother with complex quarantine rules and quality controls unless profits are sizeable.

Australian farmer hopes for an IA-CEPA boon need to be qualified by the realities of international commerce. If Black Sea growers can deliver grains cheaper than the neighbours, then Indonesian bakers will buy from Russia and Ukraine.

Poor rainfall in Australia’s western wheatbelts has kept silos less than full, so even if consumers are keen supplies may not meet demands.

The free trade agreement opens service industries like education and health care to Australian providers. Getting approvals may be the easiest part; the overweight Indonesian bureaucracy is almost impenetrable to those who won’t give ‘envelopes’ so public servants can scissor red tape.

President Widodo knows this is deterring investors and has proposed ‘omnibus’ legislation to consolidate regulations and cut-out overlaps.

Even if successful, it will take years to reform. Indonesia is ranked 73rd among 190 economies according to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index.  It had the same placement in 2018.  (NZ is number one, Australia 14th.)

The IA-CEPA ratification delays are a concern, particularly as it’s taken a decade of on-off negotiations to get this far.  However the deal will probably go through unless something is said or done to rouse the wrath of ultra-sensitive Indonesians and stall settlement.  

Upsetting the people next door has long concerned Canberra, as the release of year 2000 Cabinet papers shows. The Howard government wouldn’t offer refuge to 1,500 East Timorese the UN believed were at risk for fear of stirring Jakarta.

Another reason to put pens in the hands of Indonesian lawmakers asap.

The last irritant was in 2018 when Prime Minister Scott Morrison canvassed an embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  The present most likely flashpoint is West Papua where Indonesian troops are fighting pro-independence guerillas.

Even well-warranted condemnation of human rights abuses in the poorly reported conflict could trigger the fury of radicals.  Claims that Australia wants to break up the Republic by repeating its ‘interference’ in the 1999 separation of the former East Timor are widely believed.

For a change religious issues may not be so volatile.  Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim country - has been remarkably quiet about the alleged Chinese persecution of Uyghurs and the Myanmar military’s oppression of the Rohingya.

It’s been reported that Indonesia’s Islamic organisations have turned off the rage after taking sponsored visits to Xinjiang where the Uyghur ‘reeducation camps’ are reported to be located. 

The slur was denied and a protest quickly organised outside the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta just after Christmas; only a thousand fronted.  The 2016 crowds baying for blasphemy charges against Jakarta Governor and ethnic Chinese Christian Basuki (Ahok) Tjahaja Purnama were 500 times larger.

The IA-CEPA also increases the quota on work and holiday visas eventually allowing entry for 5,000 Indonesians a year. Australian unions have objected yet these visas are unlimited for most European backpackers who labor on market gardens and farms.

President Widodo has been calling for foreign money and hopes the IA-CEPA will entice, though lenders are leery.  Australian government statistics show $5.6 billion invested next door, compared with $720 billion in the US and $480 billion in the UK.  

Widodo and his economic advisors want dollars, but nationalists fear relying on foreigners for loans and food security will impact sovereignty.

On the other side, investors know the rule of law is flexible and the state dispute settlement system is flawed.  All this, plus corruption, equals distrust.

Trade was flourishing long before European colonialists arrived in the region and started imposing rules. Makassan adventurers were regular visitors to the Kimberley coast, gathering shellfish and sea slugs for Chinese medicine.

They brought iron cookpots, metal tools, cloth, rice and exotic plants like tamarinds in their multi-hulled prau. Some returned to South Sulawesi with Aboriginal wives and artifacts. Where trade treads, friendships follow.

It’s another reason for pushing the IA-CEPA, though rarely mentioned by the spruikers.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 13 January 2020

Monday, January 13, 2020


The spy who came into the fold                                                

Apart from a few old survivors of last century’s left-wing purges and a short bookshelf of historians, Ba Ren’s name would puzzle Indonesians.

Yet his complex story is so extraordinary it warrants an arena of readers.  Thanks to historian Professor Taomo Zhou from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who accessed previously secret files in Beijing, now unfortunately closed, we have many details in her book Migration in the time of Revolution, though gaps remain.

Ba Ren’s experiences were complicated by the equivocal way pribumi (native-born) Indonesians viewed the ethnic Chinese – even third generation or beyond who only spoke local languages and had never been to the mainland.

These are peranakan as opposed to the China-born totok.

To liberals they were part of society’s rich mix.  But for narrow nationalists seeking to split communities, the ethnic Chinese have been an ideal tool for the malevolent to create discord.  
Second President Soeharto exploited this dichotomy by persecuting lower and middle class Chinese and passing discriminatory laws while using the rich elite to make money.

Ba Ren was born Wang Renshu in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang but called himself ‘Common Man’, a clear misnomer for he was a gifted revolutionary. 

A teacher, translator and Chinese Communist spy, he fled Singapore when the Japanese roared down the Malay Peninsula in February 1942. With 28 writers and journalists he scrambled aboard a sampan which landed on the Riau Islands.

When the Japanese arrived in the Dutch East Indies a month later the group split with some unsuccessfully trying to reach their homeland.  Ba Ren, then in his early 40s, took refuge with a peasant family.

“In this village, isolated from politics and the ongoing war, Ba Ren observed the status of the ethnic Chinese with the eyes of an anthropologist and recorded them in the language of a poet,” writes Zhou.  

His encounters spurred him to help the working class.  He moved to Medan and with others toyed with capitalism.  They started a brewery while supporting Communist organizations like the People’s Anti-fascist Alliance

 He also wrote a long poem The Song of Indonesia and so loved the people and the country which gave him asylum that he wanted to ‘embrace Indonesia in my arms together with China.’  That emotion was rarely reciprocated, for the Chinese were often considered threats - too smart commercially and too exclusive socially. 

The pribumi also had mixed feelings about the East Asians who ousted the colonialists.  The prophecies of Joyoboyo, the 12th century Javanese King of Kediri in East Java were popular.  Most quoted is that after long subjugation by a white race, yellow men from the north would drive out the oppressors and free the land.

When the Japanese arrived it seemed the seer was right.  But not all saw Nippon as saviors.
Among the wary was Ba Ren who knew of the Nanjing Massacre in late 1937 during the Second Sino Japanese War.  Through lectures and discussion groups he warned Sumatrans not to trust that the invaders were liberators.   

The locals soon had good reason to fear, for the Japanese rapidly plundered the archipelago of its laborers and resources to keep the maw of their hungry war machine well stuffed. 

The fugitive was able to escape detection because the region was heavily populated with lookalike coolie tin miners.  Then the Alliance was betrayed and many members executed.

Ba Ren and his partner Lei Derong escaped by working in soap factories across North Sumatra.  They eventually settled in Surabeia ‘where orangutans were a hundred times (more populous) than humans.’  They stayed for two years.

This book should be just about Ba Ren who eventually went back to his homeland, and then returned as its first Ambassador to Indonesia.  His life ended in China as a destitute victim of the Cultural Revolution in 1972.

Unfortunately Migration in the time of Revolution  - which has grown out of a doctoral thesis - tries to do too much;  it pulls together the twisted threads of Sino-Indonesian relations- including those with Taiwan - and tangles these with the 30 September 1965 ‘coup’.

Zhou concludes that China had little to do with the killing of the six generals; Beijing had no control over Indonesian Communist Party General Secretary Dipa Nusantara Aidit and arms imports had not arrived.

However she found records of an August 1965 discussion in Beijing between the Dutch-educated Aidit and Chairman Mao Zedong when President Soekarno was being treated by Chinese doctors:
Mao:  I think the Indonesian right wing is determined to seize power. Are you determined, too?
Aidit:  (Nods).  If Soekarno dies it would be a question of who gains the upper hand.

He then proposes a military committee including some moderates to placate the pro-Westerners.  ‘After it has been established we need to arm the workers and peasants in a timely fashion.’
A committee was formed after the ‘coup’ then rapidly destroyed by Soeharto. Aidit fled to Solo but was caught seven weeks later and shot.  He was 42.

Absent from this otherwise carefully researched and well-written book is any mention of the anti-Communist roles played by prominent peranakan Catholic intellectuals like Jusuf Wanandi and his brother Sofjan.  They skillfully avoided becoming victims of the bloodbath and for years were advisors to Soeharto.

Later they helped establish the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, now a major social and political think tank.

Zhou wrote to this reviewer: ‘I have interviewed Pak Lim Bian Kie (Jusuf) and read his memoir. I think he and the Catholic Party played an important role. But … their side of the story is a bit outside of my research focus.’

Which suggests that focus was too narrow.

Migration in the time of Revolution: China, Indonesia and the Cold War                                 by Taomo Zhou                                                                                                               ISEAS Publishing Singapore, 2019                                                                                   301 pages

First published in The Jakarta Post, 13 Jan 2020

Tuesday, January 07, 2020


We all want to be Clever Dicks – right?                  

It would be funny if it wasn’t such a floundering for relevance

Indonesian universities are staging ‘international conferences’ headlined by overseas academics told to use English even when fluent in Indonesian.  Often they’re addressing a largely bewildered audience.

It’s the response by some campus administrators to President Joko Widodo’s demands that tertiary educators lift their game and make Indonesia a clever country.

That scene has been witnessed by this writer and others, including Dr Nadirsyah Hosen, a senior lecturer in law at Australia’s Monash University. 

Also known as Gus Nadir, the expert on Indonesian and Sharia law told the biennial Indonesian Council Open Conference (ICOC) at the Australian National University (ANU) he’d been asked to present a particular paper on an Indonesian campus.  However when he delivered he found another document had been downloaded “because it was more interesting.”

“It was clear few could understand what I was saying in English,” he said.   “Later when I used Indonesian they came alive.”

Just nine Indonesian universities have made it into the 2020 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) list of the world’s top 1,000 tertiary institutions. There are about 4,500 varsities in the country.  The government reckons 77 per cent are sub standard; hence the call for help from abroad.

The ICOC organizers said they wanted the two-day biennial event to finish with a message of hope. Good shot, but a target hard to hit.

The bullseyes include growing confidence among Indonesians in conducting research into their country’s history, a move which started following the 1998 Revolution.  

In the past the most respected analyses were by foreigners and published in English.  This was largely the result of crackdowns by the Soeharto administration on the media and intimidation of scholars, particularly those working in the social sciences.  

Another hit:  Last year the President announced opportunities for non-Indonesian lecturers to apply for permanent positions in what used to be a no-go zone. 

Now the fails: This year separate laws were announced worrying academics considering work in Indonesia; these include criminal charges against researchers found guilty of violating visa regulations.

Any outsider who gathers and processes information without a permit could face a fine of Rp 4 billion (US $276,000) and be banned for five years.  The application system is reputed to be onerous; this could tempt some to use social-cultural or visitor visas to conduct short-term fieldwork.

The first to take the risk and get charged would chill the President’s ambitions to promote his nation as a society open for scholarship.

The Indonesian Sciences Academy’s secretary general Chairil Abdini was reported as saying the term ‘academic freedom’ included the right to express facts even though these could “be unpleasant” for political or social groups.

Not that too many Aussie lecturers will be masquerading as tourists when fronting  Bali’s Ngurah Rai immigration desks because the species needs protection, not prosecution.

The problem is a downslide in Indonesian studies.  Professor David Hill, who initiated the non-profit Australian Consortium for 'In-Country' Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) 25-years ago, produced figures showing “a very significant decline in the study of Indonesian culture and language.”

Reasons behind the tumble include the 2002 Bali bombing which killed 202 including 38 Indonesians and 88 Australians.  This triggered Australian government travel warnings which made it difficult to get affordable insurance.  

More recently the huge 2016 protests against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama appear to have damaged the nation’s ‘tolerant Islam’ image on the world stage.  

The Christian ethnic Chinese known as Ahok was charged with blasphemy and spent two years in jail.  The case was widely covered in the Australian media.  Proposed ‘bonk bans’ targeting unmarried couples and lese majesty laws have also filled many columns.

Hill and other speakers said the last decades of the 20th century were the “golden years of student interest in Indonesia.”  It was hoped graduates would create strong professional contacts with Indonesians which would help better relationships between the countries.

At the same time Indonesians studying at Australian universities would return t
o the Republic, joining government and business, and develop lasting ties with their counterparts outside the archipelago.

Some of these benefits are in place, but as conference convener Dr Ed Aspinall of the ANU told the 150 ICOC participants that undergraduate absorption in  the neighbors has become “broader, but shallower”. 

The Australian government’s New Colombo Plan offers a few long-term scholarship grants and thousands of short ‘mobility grants’.  The latter give young people a touch-and-go taste of cultures across Asia in the hope that serious studies might follow.

According to the Australian Association for Research in Education, Australia doesn’t have a national languages policy: ‘Its absence testifies silently to an English-speaking monolingual mindset that continues to undermine support for language education’. 

The assumption that the Great South Land has a mortgage on Indonesian Studies was given a sudden shake by Associate Professor Dr Pan Yue from the School of International Relations at Jinan University’s Academy of Overseas Chinese Studies.

She said about a thousand students across 24 unis in China were currently studying Indonesian with about 4,000 graduates from past years.  Before 2005 only five campuses offered Indonesian majors.
She later told The Jakarta Post: “Indonesian education in China is experiencing a blowout.
“Training methods and direction are increasingly rich, and the field of employment of students is also more and more extensive …  students of Indonesian are choosing to work in Indonesia after graduation.”
According to the Australian Association for Research in Education. Australia doesn’t have a national languages policy: ‘Its absence testifies silently to an English-speaking monolingual mindset that continues to undermine support for language education’.

The discovery that Beijing is moving into territory once considered Australian might be the tectonic jolt needed to get Canberra to hear the alarms.  If nothing changes the Chinese graduates will have the edge in trade negotiations; they’ll be building links with NGOs, business, public servants, universities and individuals.

These are the ambitions long articulated by Australian academics.

 Firsat published in The Jakarta Post 7 January 2020

Saturday, January 04, 2020


BTW: The Pursuit of Hospitality

If custom and religious law had been upheld I’d be without my wife.

That’s because she wouldn’t have been born.

Let’s examine that enigma: The man who became her father committed a great sin before he married.  He committed apostasy.

For leaving Islam and converting to Protestantism to wed the Minahasa woman who’d eventually become my Mother-in-Law, he risked the wrath of his Javanese parents.  They’d raised him to be Muslim pure.

Overseas the penalty for apostasy can vary from banishment to imprisonment, even execution.  Fortunately Indonesia is not so brutal.  Had my late Father-in-Law been in a Middle East country like Qatar, Somalia or Sudan he’d have been hung or beheaded.

Next door in Malaysia he could have been detained and ‘re-educated’ like the Chinese are allegedly doing to the Uighurs in Xinjiang.  In Brunei the penalty is 30 years in jail.

That would have taught him to be careful about the books on his shelf.  I have Al Koran alongside Al Kitab.  Presumably that’s halal (allowed) because page-turning by a kafir (unbeliever) might lead to some form of revelation.

In fact I enjoy the language more than the messages – but don’t tell anyone as we’d rather not have zealots seeking our street.  They’d be unwelcome because our Muslim neighbors accept our berkatan (blessed meals) following celebrations, and we theirs when distributed after khitan circumcisions. Never stir the food-givers for they are the blessed ones, beloved by weary cooks.

Although Indonesia currently doesn’t prohibit switching religions, the US Congress Law Library claims either the Indonesian Penal Code or a 1965 Presidential Decision on blasphemy could apply.

Indonesian law forbids ‘every individual . . . in public from intentionally conveying, endorsing or attempting to gain public support in the interpretation of a certain religion embraced by the people of Indonesia or undertaking religious based activities that resemble the religious activities of the religion in question.’

That legalese might encourage a furious community to make life so damn miserable that the apostate has to flee. 

There was more tolerance in the 1950s when my FIL agreed to attend church on Sundays and forgo Fridays in the mosque so he could woo his lady.  His government career wasn’t damaged as he was rapidly promoted and went on to lead two major departments.

Soekarno was running the show then and setting an example in freedom of (male) choice by having at least nine wives. Of course the Lothario-in-Chief was more interested in laying than praying, but the naysayers were a minority.

The proof that my FIL didn’t get showered with spittle and stones was clear this Christmas when a bus-load of his relatives turned up to break bread with my MIL’s mob as they celebrated the birth of their prophet.

Women in jilbab (headscarves) gossiped at speed and length with their bare-headed cousins under a cross on the wall.  They cracked jokes, ate the same foods and never asked if they were halal.  Just as well because we didn’t know.

Passers-by peering through the open gates would have seen religious harmony.  Why is that so difficult to achieve in the wider community?

One answer has to be ignorance.  Only one of the Indonesian Protestants at our get-together had ever entered a mosque and none of the Muslims a church.  Most were bemused by my question – as though I’d asked why they breathe.

The other answer is fear.  The action of visiting another’s place of worship might infect their soul with an incurable virus.

There are more fallacious fables of secret rituals and devices snaring the religiously weak than Donald Trump’s hoax news alerts.  Holy water carries infections. Ghosts lurk in Catholic statuary.  Like motion alarms they can detect unbelievers. 

Just by seeing the beautiful and elaborate Arabic calligraphy will taint a Christian’s mind and they’ll never understand the Bible again.

So my wife told of her experiences in New Zealand where the Wellington Kilbirnie Mosque has annual open days and runs guided tours.  Much enlightenment.  No conversion attempted.

Malang’s Islamic University Rector Masykuri Bakri once called 600 non-Muslims to his campus for an inter-faith event.  I wanted to know if he’d been inspired by visiting churches.  He replied: “I haven’t been in any.  I’ve never been asked.”

Insya Allah, my extended family will meet again in late May to jointly celebrate Idul Fitri.  We non-Muslims have been invited. We know what to expect.  No fear. Amen. Duncan Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post 4 January 2020