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

Saturday, February 29, 2020


BTW: Seeking customer service?  Don’t bank on it

Business management is one of the most popular courses offered by universities here and overseas.  In the US three times more students enroll than for education.

Undergrads presumably think a biz degree is a passport to profit, though the smarter ones must be asking:  ‘If my teacher knows so much about running a company, why isn’t she doing that and making 50 times more money?’

Most courses have a unit on Keeping Customers Happy.  Topics taught include the importance of repeat trade from satisfied clients.  That means encouraging buyer feedback.

The best way is for staff to talk to patrons.  But that would mean human communication, which takes time, which is money.  If there’s someone in your home over 70, ask if they can recall the days when bank tellers knew names and gave service.

Now the cheapest way to relate is by using computers to ask cellphones through on-line questionnaires.  On the screen there’s often a wee icon of a steaming cup of coffee suggesting the process will be relaxing.  Or maybe the machine runs on caffeine.   It tells you:  ‘It will take only two minutes.’

That’s lie Number One.  Add a zero to the ‘two’.  Most forms start by asking for more personal information than a request for a ten billion rupiah loan to build a casino in Aceh. 

Then follows a series of boxes to tick.  If these are irrelevant and left blank, or you don’t want to give your phone number for fear of harassment, the system won’t accept your complaint.

If that obstacle is overcome expect an anodyne response starting with the line: ‘Thanks for completing – your views are important to us’.

That’s lie Number Two.  Provided targets are being met and the income line forever heading north then the business taking your cash couldn’t care a damp fag end for your thoughts.  Proof of this cynicism comes a few lines further:

‘Due to the vast correspondence received, we may not be able to answer your message personally.  But be assured your opinions will be analyzed by our team.’

That’s lie Number Three.  ‘Team’ is the new buzzword suggesting a group of elite athletes, like Manchester United or the New York Yankees, are huddling over your concerns and building a game plan response.

The reality is that your ‘feedback’ goes into the digital version of a paper shredder.  That’s not salient to the company.  More important is that the corporate goal of establishing Customer Relations has been achieved.  Management can now tick another box. 

In some countries there are tough Consumer Protection laws and agencies.  There’s one in Indonesia though it’s as ferocious as a drowned moggy in the Ciliwung.  An effective deterrent is publishing names of miscreants.

If you’ve built a corporate brand featuring TV starlets dancing with delight after using your product, a headline revealing your business treats customers like billygoats during Idul Kurban (the Feast of Sacrifice) may not assist sales.

Remember Hillary Clinton in 2016 getting caught saying Donald Trump supporters were ‘a basket of deplorables’?  That didn’t help draw too many wavering voters to the Democrats.

Smart managers realize it’s best to treat complainants seriously and give the refund rather than spending greater sums in battling bureaucrats.  The dopes dig in for a war of attrition hoping the customer will have a stroke after calling and texting 50 times and getting no reply.

Banks and telecommunication services cop the most anguish, and here it becomes a test of strength.  Who’s most powerful – the people or business?

In Australia the answer became clear when a Royal Commission was called to investigate the behavior of financial institutions.  In this open forum and against detailed submissions from angry customers the banks were forced to admit misconduct.

Commissioner Kenneth Hayne pondered why and last year concluded the answer was greed – ‘the pursuit of short term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty..... From the executive suite to the front line, staff were measured and rewarded by reference to profit and sales.’

Is that happening here?

There’s no space in this paper to detail the wrongs Mr Hayne listed – but one example tells much:  Banks were charging fees for financial advice to customers.  Many were dead, some for a decade, so no feedback.  

The computers never noticed because the questionnaires failed to ask: ‘Are you still alive?  Tick Yes or No.’ Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 February 2020)

Thursday, February 27, 2020


Bequeathing a mystery          


The standout is a strangler fig.   It’s one of the nation’s five symbols representing unity:  One state with many cultural roots.

This particular specimen just outside Blitar in East Java is magnificent, colonizing almost 100 square meters. It may have started growing when the Dutch strutted Java.  If so the invaders noted nature’s expansion and did the same across the archipelago. 

One of the banyan’s relatives in India is reported to be more than 550 years old. 
The Blitar tree has thrived not just by living in fecund fields but because the water table is only a couple of meters down, easily visible in a large hole.

This has been excavated behind a small cluster of graves, so close that only a brick wall protects the remains of Yohanes Sunyoto from the elements.  His headstone has no date but we know his religion because the tiles form a symbol. 

This was a Christian cemetery used since Raffles’ visit.  Five of the eight graves, including two children’s, have been vandalized for there are no crucifixes, just jagged stumps of concrete.

Muslim burial grounds favor frangipani and there are none nearby.  Hinduism used to be the dominant religion in this area until the mid 16th century.

There’s also a square wellhead.  Though this appears to be recent it suggests communal use, though sunk alongside graves is weird and unhealthy.

If this banyan had been in a city park it would be a regular hang out, though only during daylight.  When the sun sinks spirits appear.  Even the most rational can see spooks among the entangled roots.

In the Sanskrit epic Bhagavat Gita, Krishna, the god of compassion and love says: ‘One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas (Hindu scriptures)’.

Police officer Yomano patrols the site, the holster of his sidearm bristling with bullets, ready to gun down graverobbers. Too late – one tomb has already been pillaged, though many years ago.  

Fortunately he’s not overstressed guarding what could be another gem in the national treasure house.  Though only if archaeologists can prove this is the site of a temple recorded by Sir Stamford Raffles the British Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch East Indies  between 1811 and 1816, and later the founder of Singapore.

Raffles was a true Renaissance Man, curious and adventurous, a great admirer of the Javanese.  In his magisterial History of Java he savages Dutch claims of idleness: ‘They are as industrious and laborious as any people could be expected to be.’

His wife Olivia died in late 1814 aged 43 and was buried in Bogor under the Inscription:  Tho Fate Severe Hath Bid Us Part, Yet Still Forget Me Not.

To ease his grief Raffles turned to travel.  In 1815 he visited Blitar ‘formerly a capital but now reduced to a simple village.’  He was led to monuments smothered by jungle and ignored by the Dutch. 

One was the ‘chandi (temple) of Gedog … a structure in the usual style of brick but executed with superior excellence while much of the ornamental work is supplied of (sic) stone.  Several of the sides are still entire, but the base of the entrance or steps has gradually separated.’  There’s no mention of a banyan tree.

Move on a century.  On 19 May 1919 nearby Mount Kelud erupted causing great damage around Blitar so may have shaken down the temple. 

Kelud is small (1,731 meters) but brutal, infamous for its short eruptions and destructive flows of molten rock.  Along with Merapi (north of Yogyakarta) Kelud is the most dangerous of the nation’s 127 volcanoes.

It’s estimated to have taken more than 15,000 lives in the past 500 years, but also boosted the Blitar riceplains with mineral-rich ash.

After Raffles left and Java returned to Dutch control, the colonialists started showing an interest in antiquities.  This led to the plunder of many sites and the export of statues.  Even now there are reports of ancient bricks on the market, though sales are illegal.

Locals have been finding so many scattered carved stones in Gedog that last year the Cultural Heritage Preservation Center got interested.  This is based in Trowulan, 90 kilometers north of Blitar and the capital of the Majapahit Kingdom (1293 – 1527).

Archaeologists were sent to Gedog to dig around and collect artifacts which may well be from that golden era.  These are now stored in glass cases facing the banyan, but unlabeled, meaning amateurs have no idea of their provenance.

Two saber-toothed goggle-eyed kala, now cemented onto blocks to deter looters, reinforce the temple theory.  These fearsome faces are often found on East Java temple gateway lintels.

Atop one small kala is a garish plastic cup holding a couple of joss sticks, suggesting that ancient beliefs still thrive despite the government’s compulsory monotheism.

The presence of police from the Bhabinkamtibmas (trustees of public order and security) unit, high fencing, lighting, a red and white tent and some DO NOT CROSS yellow tape, suggests authorities are now taking preservation of the nation’s past seriously.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has nine World Heritage Sites in Indonesia with 20 more on a ‘tentative’ list.

Hilmar Farid, the Education and Culture Ministry’s culture director general, has been reported saying heritage sites should be preserved to offset the image that Indonesia is all about development and modernization.

Fine words, sadly not well rooted like the banyan.  The police got bored and left saying locals will keep an eye on the site.  There were no other visitors.

There’s a big gap in the fence so thieves wouldn’t need to sneak – they’d just stride in, smash and grab a few carved stones then sell their nation’s precious legacy. 


(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 February 2020)

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


Normal service will not be resumed                       

If you’re a French, Russian, Japanese, Singaporean, American, British, German or a Middle East citizen in Indonesia, then lucky you.  Most nights you can turn on your TV and be proud that your homeland is broadcasting professionally and showcasing its culture.
Missing from the list is the big nation next door.
Once Australia looked out to the world.  Now it looks in. 
Last year its overseas TV channel formerly known as Australia Plus, and before that Australia Network, switched its name to ABC Australia. This was the fifth change in 25 years, bemusing viewers and corroding the brand.
The ABC is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, an independent government-funded public service modeled on the British BBC.

In a just-released report titled A Missed Opportunity for Projecting Australia’s Soft Power the Lowy Institute claims ‘international broadcasting is one of the most effective forms of public diplomacy, if managed properly.’

So why does Australia bother to telecast to the Asia-Pacific? Why not yield the space to the Chinese keen on using the media to expand their influence?
Unfortunately for ABC management focusing on domestic audiences, the Corporation’s charter requires it to broadcast overseas
Then there’s the moral reason: Australia once proclaimed a responsibility to assist other nations to learn more about the country, its people and values. 
Till recently Australia took these ideals seriously. The service seemed adequately funded and curated for the markets.  No longer.  Programs are just relayed with no concern about time differences.
If Jakartans and others want to watch Australian current affairs when current they need to dash home early.  The flagship 7.30 Report is telecast in Australia in that peak post-dinner timeslot.
 In Indonesia it should be re-titled the 3.30 Report. Unfortunately that’s traffic jam time when expats are picking up the kids from school or heading to meetings to catch public servants before they head for the exits.
Australia is retreating from the region when its academics, business leaders, journalists, NGOs and politicians on all sides consistently urge better education, improved communications and closer contact to build enduring relationships. 
These voices have become louder as the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement gets closer to ratification.  The IA-CEPA is a free trade agreement signed off in 2019 and now waiting for a tick by the Indonesian Parliament.
Australia’s media presentations to the Asia Pacific were once different.  
Thousands developed their English skills through Radio Australia shortwave, particularly during the 1960s and 70s.  Many elderly Indonesians recall relying on the service during the Soeharto New Order dictatorship to open their world. RA was a trusted source at a time when facts were scarce.
This gave Australia great kudos.
Australia Television International began transmission in 1993.  Nine years later it became ABC Asia Pacific. In 2006 the then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced another name - Australia Network, with funding from Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising.
The claims were extravagant: It would reach ten million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; maybe one million sets of eyeballs a month.
Downer said the ABC would offer ‘high quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region.’   He included a homely metaphor:  ‘A key requirement of the service is to provide a credible and independent voice through programs that present a 'window' on Australia and Australian perspectives of the world.’
By then Indonesians and other Southeast Asians had new windows to peer though. BBC World, France24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other international telecasters were offering vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend US$117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is believed to have an annual budget of US$300 million.   Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television (CCTV).
The Voice of America budget is US$218 million, all from government funds. It broadcasts and telecasts in more than 40 languages, including Indonesian.
When the Australia Network was turned off, the then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said it ‘had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’ but no facts to back the claim. The then ABC managing director Mark Scott said the decision:
…runs counter to the approach adopted by the vast majority of G20 countries. Countries around the world are expanding their international broadcasting services as key instruments of public diplomacy.
It sends a strange message to the region that the government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia.
Because the ABC Charter forces it to be an international broadcaster the gap had to be filled. The result was Australia Plus with a $20 million budget for three years partly bolstered by ads.  Few materialized.
In Indonesia three pay-to-use cable services carry the rebadged ABC Australia. They get it free, but the consumers don’t, meaning Australian taxpayers are subsidizing overseas commercial distributors.
The ABC says its programs are ‘available to three million people in Indonesia’ meaning that’s the number who pay for access to cable networks each offering 50 or more channels.
ABC Australia programs are almost all in English. Those from Nat Geo are subtitled in Indonesian.  Likewise the History Channel, Animal Planet, Discovery, BBC Earth and many others, including crime and food channels.
The Lowy Institute claims: ‘Australia is explicitly competing for global and regional influence, yet Australia’s international broadcasting has been weakened through a combination of government inconsistency and neglect, ideology-driven decisions, budget cuts and apparent ABC management indifference.’
The report suggests the Australian Government fund international public broadcasting and does the job properly.   Based on reforms to date Indonesian and ex-pats will have a long wait. 
Better use the remote and click onto an overseas service which treats the world’s fourth largest nation seriously.
(First published in Indonesian Expat, 26 February 2020)


Charming nest For Sale?  Beware bad eggs            


My wife saw an on-line advert for a joglo.  The traditional peak-top Javanese homes are rare in East Java so she called the agent’s listed number.

Five dead calls later a grumpy man answered.  He said he couldn’t remember the property as he had so many listed. 

The advert offered a safety selling point:  It was next to a police station. 

It wasn’t. The joglo was about a kilometer away.  The owner was surprised to get visitors but kindly gave a tour.

He said it had been on the market for six months.  We were the first to show interest but didn’t buy.  He was asking for Rp 200 million (US $15,000) less than the agent’s advertised price. 

In darker days real estate salespeople were ranked alongside second-hand car dealers.  The work paid commission, not wages.  It was the job taken only when there was nothing better.

No longer.  In many nations the business has been cleaned up by governments angered by dodgy practices and complaining consumers.

In New Zealand agents have to pass a lengthy and costly course to get licensed.  This has pushed practitioners to polish their skills.  In short, they’ve had to turn pro.

The first principle:  They must tell the truth and warn potential buyers of all known problems with the property.  They must help steer the purchaser through the legal labyrinth so every sub-clause is understood.

In the US it’s similar.  The National Association of Realtors, which claims to be America's largest trade association, says its 1.4 million members are obligated to treat all parties honestly under its ethics code.

Real estate agents’ offices in Indonesia have to be registered with the Ministry of Trade, with at least two directors certified as competent brokers by the Labor Ministry. 

That’s according to Rudy Sutanto, CEO of Asosiasi Real Estate Brokers Indonesia (AREBI) in East Java.  The organization has 1,200 members nationally.

However Mr Sutanto told Indonesia Expat that individual salespeople don’t have to be licensed.

“We are working to lift standards equal to those overseas, like Singapore and Australia, but this will take time, maybe five years or more,” he said.

“We’d like the government’s help with laws that ban unethical behavior.   The public needs to be better educated about buying and selling homes and do thorough research on ownership of advertised properties.”

Smart buyers will read developers’ plans and check repayment options, preferably using a lawyer.   

It’s common to see For Sale signs on houses include TANPA PERANTARA – No Agents.

Mr Sutanto explained: “Many sellers don’t want to pay commission of between two and five per cent. There’s little legal protection for buyers apart from going to the police, so best to use an AREBI member agent as we have a code of ethics.”

Another factor could be lack of trust so sellers reckon they can do it themselves.  Wariness is the watchword.

Here’s how the joglo offer could have been handled. 

As any call on an agent’s phone could be Ms Keen Buyer flush with cash, every ring should be answered.  If the agent hasn’t been fully briefed they should promise to call back asap – and do so.

A dozen on-line photos of the home and every one shot with care and reproduced with clarity can help boost interest.   ‘Two W/C, 3 BRm’ is little inducement. 

Aspiring agents don’t need to travel abroad to sharpen skills.  Just Google Homes for Sale in any Western city and see how it’s done.  Also, Bali and to a lesser extent Lombok, where some entrepreneurs are pitching to the ex-pat market.

It’s reportedly illegal for foreigners to own Indonesian land in their own names, but sometimes may have hak pakai (right of use) rather than ownership.  Best consult an independent lawyer.

Marketing is now serious business.  In Jakarta and other big cities where developers are selling apartments and villas the TV commercials are often masterpieces of charm.

Decently dressed salespeople with well-rehearsed scripts explain the advantages – from location to security, from value to comfort.  They don’t hand out smudged monochrome photocopies but colorful brochures published on glossy paper.

Most sellers’ key questions are:  ‘How much is my property worth?’ and ‘What’s the market like?’

In Indonesia few agents can answer with accuracy.  Elsewhere the gathering and processing of sales data has become so sophisticated agents need to understand statistics and economics to handle the information.

The best will be in regular touch with local government and know of town plans.  Is the seller offering a bargain because a toll road is heading their way?  Failure to disclose could lead to much distress.

In many Western countries sales are recorded along with handy extras:   How long was it on the market?  How many visitors turned up on Open Days – and what percentage were not serious, what Americans call ‘tire kickers’?

Were they young first-homers, investors, renovators, expanding families or oldies downsizing? Were prospects borrowers or offering cash? 

Crunching the numbers builds a profile of who’s looking and what they want – then the promotion can be pitched to that market.

In Indonesia it seems the greedy just think of a figure, double it and hope someone is daft enough to open their wallet.  The rest ask neighbors and WhatsApp contacts.

Someone will have a friend who knows a cousin who made a mint by selling their home for a billion (US $73,000), so that’s what should be asked.

This is shooting in the dark.  Well-established homes have often been renovated and expanded to suit the owner’s individuality, so unless the street is full of look-alikes built at the same time, one price won’t suit all.

Is the place on a through road or a corner next to a bus stop?  What are the noise levels?  Can commercial operators start a business next door?  When these factors are put into the equation there can be great gap between dream home and reality.

Said Mr Sutanto: “In Indonesia it’s still buyer and seller beware.”

(First published in Indonesian Expat, 26 February 2020)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


The pachyderm on the patio

Kupang is at the bottom of West Timor.  It’s the largest city in far eastern Indonesia.  Imagine how Canberra would react if Jakarta allowed the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to station their armed jets just 830 km northeast of Darwin.

That’s an unlikely scenario unless the Indonesian Constitution banning overseas bases in the Republic is amended.  But even the few Australophiles dotted around the archipelago of strident nationalism must be asking:  What’s afoot? Do our Oz neighbors see us as a threat?

The 2016 Defence White Paper reasoned there was only a remote chance of a foreign invasion.  So why the current wariness?  It’s the question few ask and fewer answer.

The announcement that Tindal airfield near Katherine will get a $1.6 billion upgrade to bond with the United States’ military came after Indonesian President Joko Widodo left Australia this month.  During his two-day visit he addressed Federal Parliament:

‘As democratic and diverse countries, we must work hard, side by side, standing together to defend the values of democracy, tolerance and diversity and to prevent the world having a clash of civilisations.’ 

No mention of the military or defence, apart from noting that 40 army engineers and disaster managers had hurried to help with the bushfire crisis.

So far there’s been no sign Widodo was briefed about the Tindal decision which was welcomed by the Labor Opposition.  The mainstream media gave drumroll support with boys’ toys jargon aplenty. Here’s Channel 7’s report:

‘The improvements will include major runway extensions to accelerate the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter rollout, fuel stockpiles and engineering to support large aircraft like US Air Force B-52 strategic bombers and RAAF KC-30 air-to-air refuellers.

‘(These) will boost the capacity of the RAAF and US Air Force to conduct joint operations and training exercises over larger areas in the Indo-Pacific.’

Areas?  The biggest is Indonesia (five million square kilometers of land and sea), but doesn’t get named.  It’s the pachyderm on the patio.

The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan thinks the spending is ‘much more than getting ready for the new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 fifth-generation multipurpose jets that will be the spine of our air combat capability. 

‘The Tyndal (sic) upgrade is a key step in the progressive rollout of the US’s commitment to Australia and our theatre.”

Our theatre?  The biggest player in the region with the largest stage and 270 million performers is Indonesia.

Former intelligence chief Paul Dibb wants more than bombers.  He’s reportedly keen on land-based missiles for their ‘credible long-range strike capability’.  

Programmed to hit what targets?  If the threat that dare not speak its name is China, invasions and repulsions would be through or over Indonesia.  The Japanese had to first seize the then Dutch East Indies in 1942 to send bombers southwards.  While a flank attack through the Pacific Islands is possible, the likelihood excites few strategists.

Tindal is part of Australia’s northern muscle.  In 2011 the Gillard government allowed up to 2,500 US marines to be trained in the NT staying for six months at a time.

The agreement fixes the rotation for the next two decades. Foreign troops on Indonesian soil are a no-no.  In Australia they’re a yes-yes.

It’s not just about guns on the ground and in the air. Two years ago US Vice President Mike Pence revealed his country and ours will develop the Lombrum naval base on PNG’s Manus Island to put more warships into the region.  

The region? The deal involves Japan, but apparently not Indonesia. Manus is 700 km east of Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Papua. Tokyo is 4,260 km north. 

At the time Dr Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, was one of the few wondering:  If the tactic was to head off China’s ambitions in Southeast Asia, why had Indonesia been ignored ‘almost entirely’?

In the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter he wrote that ‘… engaging Indonesia should be part of the process.

‘While the process of infrastructure building and force restructuring might take several years, the TNI (Indonesian military) is set to ‘rebalance’ its forces from the western to the eastern part of Indonesia. 

‘Indonesia-Australia defence cooperation has increased markedly in recent years. But Australian strategic planning should not assume passive neutrality on the part of Indonesia in thinking about a future regional conflict.’

There’s a lengthy history of fear about Indonesia. In 1963 during the Vietnam War when first president Soekarno was snuggling close to Communism, Australia ordered 24 F-111 fighter bombers.  It was reported they could carry enough fuel to hit Jakarta and return to Darwin – a round trip of 5,400 km.

By the time they were delivered a decade late, Soekarno was dead and the capitalist General Soeharto in charge and nuzzling up to the West.  The F-111s were never used in combat and retired in 2010.

The B52s that will be using Tindal have a range of 14,000 km.

In 2018 the ABC quoted the US Commanding Officer in Darwin Colonel Russ Boyce saying the marines had enough expertise and equipment to respond if a conflict arose near the Top End capital during the rotation:
‘Of course, units that are forward deployed across the Indo-Pacific are there for purposes of security and stability.’

Does that policy include Indonesia?  If we’re not ‘side by side, standing together’ as Widodo says, crazies on both sides of the Arafura Sea will get ample space to upgrade their xenophobia and launch long-range conspiracy theories. 

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 25 February 2020

Monday, February 24, 2020


Is Indonesia hostile to science?                              

Here’s the edgy question asked by The Jakarta Post’s managing editor in a column this month: ‘Is (the) Jokowi (nickname for President Joko Widodo)   administration waging war on science?’ 

Ary Hermawan’s headline was based on a survey of 102 researchers, research administrators and policymakers undertaken through the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG), a research-based advisory group.

Professors Inaya Rakhmani and Zulfa Sakhiyya, the authors of a CIPG paper Doing Research Assessment, said they found the Indonesian government’s policy-making is ‘predominantly informed by research with poor theoretical engagement, with no strong tradition of peer review and with legal threats to academic freedom.’

One of the most vexatious threats facing overseas academics hoping to work in the archipelago is a law passed last year imposing criminal charges against scholars violating visa regulations.  The Ministry of Research and Technology demands applicants file at least 15 documents through ten separate agencies for a ‘foreign research permit’.

Ironically this is happening when the government says it’s asking overseas academic institutions to set up shop in Indonesia.  The first is Australia’s Monash University which will start taking postgrads next year.

Luthfi Dzulfikar, associate editor of the Indonesian edition of The Conversation academic website, has warned the law can ‘potentially deter foreign researchers … due to the introduction of fines and prison sentences, particularly considering complicated red tape is still prevalent in Indonesia.’

The penalties are the stuff of nightmares.  Non-Indonesians without the right papers in their pocket could have their wallets emptied of Rp 4 billion (US $290,000) and be banned for five years.

Anecdotally some applicants get so maddened with the process they use visitor visas hoping they won’t get caught.  This is risky. As this writer knows personally, in areas outside big cities and tourist trails newcomers with notebooks quickly draw the attention of busybodies keen to alert authorities.

Hermawan reckons the government has clamped down ‘on the pretext of protecting Indonesia’s historical legacies and genetic resources.

‘… Critics have said the law is excessive and could hamper academic freedom. Moreover, it gives the impression that the country is xenophobic and anti-science.’

Why aren’t local academics conducting more research in Indonesia? 

A report by the New Delhi-based Global Development Network claims ‘the (Indonesian) research environment is marked by institutional barriers, such as a bureaucratized higher education with poor incentives for research production and publication, largely due to the legacy of the past authoritarian, centralized government. 

‘… As a result, almost 90 percent of articles published in international journals on Indonesia are written by academics not living in the country.’ One of the authors was Professor Inaya Rakhmani.
The concerns are more than academic. 

The laws have bite.  In January French landscape ecologist David Gaveau was kicked out of Indonesia for an alleged ‘visa violation’.  Gaveau, who has been based in the Republic for 15 years, is a research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research based in Bogor, West Java.

He claimed the government had underestimated the damage from fires in Kalimantan Province on Borneo island.  This is a sensitive political issue as massive land-clearing and burning has been underway to develop palm oil plantations, drawing international ire.  

The Center has produced a ‘Borneo Atlas’ ( ) for oil buyers to check the product’s provenance.  Gaveau appears in a video explaining the map.  

Indonesia is taking legal action through the World Trade Organization's Dispute Settlement Body against the European Union for banning palm oil imports.  The EU alleges deforestation on the world’s third largest island has been caused by more than 100 palm and pulpwood companies.

Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, commented that Gaveau’s expulsion was ‘another sign of the growing tension between the Indonesian government and the scientific community’.

Two weeks after Gaveau was ordered out, an audacious attempt by six Australian and Dutch adventurers to sail a primitive craft from Indonesia to Northern Australia was scuttled by deportation orders.

Immigration authorities in Kupang confirmed six foreigners working on the raft were flown to Denpasar on 12 February and deported to Australia the following day.

A group called The First Mariners had built an 18-meter bamboo raft with palm leaf sails on Rote Island near West Timor. This month they planned to take 14 days to sail about 650 kilometers to Darwin, testing the theory that migrations between Southeast Asia and Australia occurred more than 60,000 years ago. 

The group’s website seems to show the venture was well organised and had been working openly for many months.  The Northern Territory Government is among a large list of sponsors and supporters. (The NT Attorney General Natasha Fyles has not responded to a request for comment.)

Group leader Bob Hobman, 79, who describes himself as an ‘English maritime writer / historian’ and who lives in Indonesia, at first denied he and others had been deported.

In an e-mail exchange with this writer he said: “An Imigrasi (Immigration Department) ‘misunderstanding’ is the word we are using.”

A day later he wrote: “While keeping a low profile, working through the Indonesian Consul here in Darwin to have new visas issued, Imigrasi HQ in Jakarta have been pushed a little too far by the media - perhaps hinting that a mistake might have been made - and they decided deportation was in order.

“We cannot return. The expedition is over. My own life also cast adrift seeing that I have one address. On Bali. There could be a review, supposedly by appeal, next August.”

Dzulfikar says ‘scholars are urging the government to dampen the potential negative effects of the new science and technology law. They suggest renewing government regulations on foreign research permits and streamlining the process through an integrated online permit system.’

In a society where nationalism is still a forceful factor in lawmaking, the curbs on postgrads trying to discover more of the world’s third largest democracy is unlikely to be reviewed with any rapidity.

First published in Strategic Review, 24 February 2020:

Friday, February 14, 2020


     From blusukan to bland in five years

There are some cheering on-line videos worth checking from 2015 when Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull visited Jakarta.

President Joko Widodo took his guest to the vast Tanah Abang textile market for an unscripted blusukan, the Indonesian leader’s common-touch trade mark.  Ties and jackets vanished along with protocols as friendly crowds pressed close.  Apart from the over-taxed security detail, all seemed to be having genuine fun.

Less informal but still jolly are slides from two years later when Widodo and Iriana, both splendid in batik, were welcomed by the Turnbulls.  They camped at Kirribilli House and shared the Sydney sights like middle-aged couples, old pals on hols together.

Match these images against the hand-out pix from Widodo’s two-day wifeless visit to Canberra this month.  The thin smiles are there along with balmy words about friendship, cooperation and common goals - plus more fresh-start pledges than the Sydney-Melbourne high speed rail. 

All fine and worthy, yet it’s clear the natural warmth has evaporated.  Morrison is good on glee and bonhomie while Widodo is reserved.  Like most cultures which favour reading faces rather than books, the Javanese are canny assessors of character.  Morrison is the President’s third PM.

Widodo stayed in the Hyatt.  He was given a fixed bayonet welcome to Government House where Governor General David Hurley spoke competently in Indonesian.

Despite this the President’s look said: ‘I want nasi goreng on the table, not another ten-point plan.’  It’s well known he’s more at home with domestic infrastructure, largely leaving foreign affairs to Minister Retno Marsudi.

Widodo’s briefing notes would have reminded that in an earlier army career the GG commanded the 1st Brigade from 1999-2000 in Darwin.  The job was supporting Australian-led operations in East Timor against crazed Indonesian-backed militia, furious that a referendum had backed independence.

The impression of reluctantly doing duty rather than energetically building rapport was reinforced when Widodo refused to talk to the media and through us the Australian people.   According to Lowy Institute surveys most Aussies know little about their big neighbour and have even less trust.  The reverse is probably true.

Avoiding journos was not a smart move when Indonesia is being touted as a starburst of democracy in a darkening Southeast Asia. Here was a chance to answer critics and show some convictions.

He’d have known local hacks would ask why he’s backed laws fettering the Corruption Eradication Commission, and why they can’t visit West Papua despite earlier promises of allowing press entry. 

By now the elected head of the world’s fourth largest nation should have the confidence to handle tough questions and show his other side.  He’s into big bikes and heavy metal music.  He’s from a poor family, outside the oligarchy and military which wield most power.

Widodo addressed the Parliament with a bland speech.  (Australian media said he used ‘Bahasa’, explaining this meant ‘Indonesian’.  It doesn’t – it’s the word for ‘language’.)

It was less than half the length of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s rousing delivery in English at the same forum ten years earlier.  This sent commentators thumbing thesauri for ‘new era’ synonyms.

While the mateship was surging Australian spies were doing their damnedest to undermine optimism by tapping the home phone of SBY, a most pro-Australian president. 

The buggers were caught out in 2013 through documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. For a while that kicked the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations off field.

This month Widodo brought a big gift – the signed agreement   The free trade deal has taken ten years to write, edit, print and bind. Implementation is due by mid-May and should be a plus for both nations – though mainly benefiting Australian wheat and beef farmers.

The other good news is that Monash Uni will open a post-grad campus in Jakarta. The first intake is planned for late next year.  Other tertiary institutions are also keen but waiting to see whether this education experiment will work.

Widodo hopes the IA-CEPA will encourage Australians to invest.  Right now only the bold and brash will risk money in a country where stuffed envelopes fast-track government permits, and the rule of law can be bent with the weight of enough rupiah.

He’s also seeking a relaxation of harsh rules which aren’t applied to Singaporeans and Malaysians; they pay $20 for an on-line visa against $140 for Indonesians plus 15-page questionnaires. Australians get a free visa-on-arrival in Bali. 

The two Commonwealth nations together send almost 500,000 visitors a year while only 100,000 Indonesians bother to buy tickets south. As Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor said in Perth:  ‘If they won’t come here, how do we get to know each other?’

Morrison said he’d look into it.  Outback Aborigines in WA used to neatly skewer any city politician using that cliché with the tag ‘Mr Mirrorman.’  As reported on this blog ( ) the President shouldn’t bother sitting by the phone.

Widodo in his second and final five-year term no longer has blusukan on his schedules.  Fear of terrorists now determines the agenda.  Last October two fanatics stabbed Security Minister Wiranto during a low-key visit to Banten, Java’s western province.  He has since recovered.

The attack has further screwed down security and put even more space between electors and elected.  Back in his White House Widodo announced an estimated 600 Indonesian ISIS supporters who went to Syria won’t be allowed home with their hates.

In 2013 PM Tony Abbott declared his foreign policy as ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’.  Based on Widodo’s performance Down Under this month, the President is probably muttering:  ‘More Jakarta and less Canberra’. 

 First published in Pearls and Irritations, 14 February 2020

Thursday, February 13, 2020


Sprint urged, but long haul likely                       

It’s the first major political challenge of 2020. Can overriding laws deemed essential for the economy be passed by the new Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR Indonesian Parliament) within one hundred days?

As you read this the deadline has already dashed closer; novice legislators should be buying eye drops and caffeine pills to cope with the reading needed to understand a job few expected when they stood for election last April.

Sadly there’s no indication yet that the politicians have grasped the enormity of the task given them by President Joko Widodo.  Maybe there’ll be a sudden awakening and we’ll all become familiar with the new Jakarta bizterm – Omnibus Bill.

It sounds like a matey name for a tour coach driver, but if this vehicle can steer around the obstacles left by lawmakers long gone, then foreign investors might start to look for space to park their money.

The President and his advisors have said there are 1,244 articles in 79 statutes (though other figures are being canvassed) ready for consolidation to make life less confusing.  Three bills have been drafted – one on taxation reform in the hope of garnering more cash for the national exchequer. 

The others are designed to help State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) focus on making profits, and let businesses concentrate on job creation to bump the budget up into second gear.

Currently it’s cruising.  The World Bank says the GDP annual growth bounces around five per cent in Southeast Asia’s largest economy.  That looks spectacular when measured against neighbors like Australia with less than two per cent. 

However the Indonesian figure is largely underpinned by domestic consumption among its 270 million citizens, so the government wants to lift exports.  This means creating a benign investment climate.

Indonesia ranks 73rd on the Ease of Doing Business list developed by World Bank economists.  New Zealand is number one, a position it also holds on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, suggesting the two factors are linked.

While the Indonesian government sees over-regulation and duplication as bars to progress, graft remains endemic and is not being tackled in the draft ordinances.  The TI rank is 85th and hardly moves.

‘Omnibus’ is probably not the smartest term to sell a novel notion as the word is foreign and has many meanings.

The Latin original meant ‘for all’.  Two centuries ago it described a horse-drawn carriage in Paris.  The term then migrated across the Channel and the Atlantic when buses became motorized.

Now it’s left public transport and nestled in publishing and politics to mean a collection of stories or laws.  However there’s little indication that the public is so familiar with the word that they feel comfortable.

Indonesian labor unions are certainly ill at ease, fearing the crushing of workplace hiring, firing and safety protections in any compression of legislation.  Some workers have been shouting in Jakarta protests, though not in numbers that would make the Presidential Palace quake.

Other concerns have been expressed by urban planners and environmentalists.  They’re alarmed that procedures to preserve open space and restrict commercial development in residential areas will be sacrificed if the Omnibus Bills take short cuts.

Their worries have been aggravated by statements attributed to Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga Hartarto who reportedly said permits will be scrapped for ‘simple structures’.  

He defined these to be like two-storey buildings.  Off-hand comments suggest policy-on-the-run rather that well considered analysis, propping up claims that many stakeholders weren’t consulted when the bills were being drafted.

Rushed debates don’t always lead to jurisprudence that’s just.
Businesses have so far welcomed the proposal as a move towards consistency. ‘Omnibus laws come to the rescue’ headlined one investment magazine, as though they’ll be like lifeboats in the flooded capital.

An exception has been the mining lobby which wants the government to first stabilize its guidelines on the export of raw minerals.  Nationalists claim ores should be processed in the archipelago, adding value before shipping by refining minerals like copper, nickel and bauxite.

The latter is the raw material for alumina which is decomposed to make aluminum.  The costs of building and running power-hungry smelters are exorbitant.

The planned Omnibus dicta are supposed to simplify a clutch of messy bits and bobs that bother entrepreneurs, like rules about hiring overseas workers, and buying, owning and developing land.

Then there’s knowing who to contact in government offices for correct advice and how to get licenses which won’t be challenged by officers from other departments when work is underway and equipment on site. 

As the livelihoods of numerous public servants depends on them maintaining old labor-intensive tasks, the problem of implementing unwelcome measures is ever present.

Decentralization followed the 1998 collapse of President Soeharto’s 32-year New Order government.  This led to regional administrations passing their own regulations which often challenged or duplicated Jakarta’s rules.

The English word ‘socialization’, which means getting on well with others, has been hijacked by Indonesia and given a twist.  Sosialisasi is now a public education program, usually run by governments and companies to justify and clarify changes in direction.

So far the proposed Omnibus drafts have not been well explained, leading to confusion and suspicion of the government’s real intent. 

In late January the House of Representatives approved 50 bills to be included in this year’s National Legislation Priority Program.  Among them are the Omnibus drafts. 

That doesn’t mean they’ll automatically get right up to the traffic lights; much will depend on how other legislation moves and who’ll give way.  The drivers will be the 575 DPR members, and who knows how they’ll behave?

If the President’s 100-day ambition is achieved the Indonesian Parliament will be setting new records in lawmaking. 


First published in Strategic Review, 13 February 2020: