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

Friday, March 27, 2020


                      The land of no social distance                         

While the Western world thinks staying apart is wise to avoid Covid-19 infections, Indonesians still remain together.

Only magnates can practise social distancing by fleeing to apartments in Singapore, or hunkering down in their Jakarta mansions.  The threats would come from outside the high iron gates, brought in by the maids, gardeners and drivers who help maintain the oligarch’s opulent lifestyles.

The wee folk have no opportunity to keep their distance on Java.  It’s reputed to be the world’s most densely populated island with about 1,120 people per square kilometer.  In Jakarta the compaction is a dozen times greater.

Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in the US is tallying Covid-19 around the world.  On Wednesday (25/3) Indonesia had 686 cases confirmed and 55 deaths.  That ratio of almost nine to one puts Indonesia far above other countries, but may also be skewed because so few have been tested.

The environment is another danger. Few Westerners get the chance to explore the gang (alleys) of urban kampongs where people live so close its often impossible to pass and not brush clothes.  Reaching out to the neighbours doesn’t demand a conscious decision – just lifting an arm is sufficient.

The Directorate General of Human Settlements reported that kawasan kumuh (slums) covered 38,000 hectares of Indonesia.  This had risen to 87,000 hectares last year despite many clearing projects.  In Jakarta 445 communities are classified as ‘slums’.

It’s in these twisted, congested communes that the roots of Indonesian tolerance – and parochialism – have thrived.

Elsewhere millions of workers and students live in kos, basic bedrooms with access to a toilet and little else rented from private homeowners.  These people eat outside at roadside stalls, making the idea of a lockdown impractical.

The language is full of references to the virtues of close-proximity living.  Rindu kampung halaman (I long for my village), to mangan ora manga asal kumpul (even when hungry we have each other).  Hanging out (nongkrong) was invented in Indonesia.

Now being shared is a virus.  Although kampong residents generally keep homes and streets well washed, drains are usually open and livestock often kept under the same roof. Walls, doorways, handles, switches – all are touched and retouched every few minutes.

In Tomohon, a small town in North Sulawesi, a wildlife meat market similar to the one in Wuhan where Covid-19 is alleged to have started, operates openly.  Dogs, cats, bats, forest pig, pythons and other feral animals continue to be sold despite an international campaign to have the trade shuttered.  In response a huge government poster outside proclaims its ‘Love for Animals’.

Jamu (herbal drink) women wander the streets selling home made cures for all ills, including coronavirus.  Their potions are far cheaper than proprietary medicines and their effectiveness is confirmed by anecdote.

At least customers aren’t following Australia and panic buying toilet rolls, only found in hotels catering for foreigners.  The culture is to wash, which seems far cleaner.

Community health services stress hygiene and proper waste disposal, yet rivers remain the favoured place to chuck rubbish. The best disposal points are indicated by signs threatening penalties.  The people have information – what they don’t have is health literacy.

The US National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine defines this as ‘the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.’

Most research has been done in Europe, but any survey in Indonesia would likely find the nation largely health illiterate.  Which makes combating the spread of Covid-19 particularly difficult.

Although my Indonesian wife looks and feels fine it seems she suffers from hypothermia.  That’s according to a shop security guard’s forehead thermometer which recorded 33 degrees.

It was the same for her equally sprightly sister. The women distrusted the device and its untrained user so walked on.  But the procedure looked comforting; something was being done.

The dangers of smoking are advertised on the packs of fags plus a small panel on the huge DON’T QUIT posters urging men to prove their masculinity though nicotine. 

International health authorities believe almost 70 per cent of Indonesian men smoke. Packs cost about one US dollar.  The World Health Organisation reckons around 270,000 deaths a year in Indonesia are caused by smoking.  If Covid-19 takes hold smokers will be particularly susceptible.

The World Bank estimates that around 25 million Indonesians live on one US dollar a day.  More than half the workforce is in the informal sector and has no safety net.
It’s work, beg or bludge from relatives – which is another reason President Joko Widodo is resisting a lockdown.

There’s a tiered national health insurance scheme called BPJS (Badan Penyelenggara Jaminan Sosial) which relies on voluntary payments.  It’s grossly under-funded, opposed by many hospitals and doctors, and seriously sick.

Working from home is an option only for the well-educated employed by government, multinationals and universities.  But even they have to cope with poor Internet services.

According to the US pro-democracy NGO Freedom House only 56 per cent of Indonesians have access to the Internet, one of the lowest penetration levels in the region.  Even in big centres it’s frustratingly fickle.

So far religion has trumped reason in the response to Covid-19.  At first it was widely claimed the virus would by-pass the archipelago because all citizens must profess to a monotheistic belief and record their adherence to one of six approved religions on their ID cards.  Prayer would prevent.  

 Even Health Minister Terawan Agus recommended worship while medicos were urging washing.
Few questioned why any deity would recognize lines drawn on maps by humans, spare those on one side while afflicting the allegedly less pious innocents next door.

Deaths in Indonesia, where almost 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, are followed by same day or next morning burials.  The community gets involved, rarely undertakers and doctors. 

Unless the police are called because of violence, there’s seldom a post mortem or tissue swab to determine cause of death.  Instead relatives use their faith to explain a sudden departure:  Allah or God had called her or him home.  Their time was up.  That’s how the world works.

No longer.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 27 March 2029:

Thursday, March 26, 2020


                                 I don’t like you but want your money

Ma’ruf Amin is a name few Australians would recognize.  Before his election last year as Indonesia’s vice-president, the hard-right Islamic cleric showed minimal interest in his southern neighbour.  Suddenly he wants Australian aid.

Amin, 77, is the former head of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Islamic clerics) and no friend of moderates.  Before elevation to the Palace he was best known for issuing fatwas (religious prohibitions).  His targets included pornography, gays, and Muslims greeting Christians with ‘Happy Christmas’.

Amin now says he regrets testifying against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in a 2017 blasphemy hearing.  However the religious elite’s words, along with his presence at a rally of more than 500,000 demanding a trial (and some a lynching), helped put the ethnic-Chinese Christian behind bars for two years.

Ahok was convicted on the basis of a speech where he condemned politicians who deliberately misinterpreted the Koran. 

Last year Amin told Australia to butt out of Indonesian affairs and stop protesting the planned early release from jail of terrorism supporter Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the spiritual leader of the 2002 Bali bombers. The domestic objections were so strong the plan was dropped.

Amin, 77, wasn’t President Joko Widodo’s choice for VP, but was dropped in by Jakarta’s political puppet masters.  They saw the older man’s presence as the best way to prove the President’s piety. 

 During the bitter election campaign Widodo was accused of being a covert Christian with Chinese ancestry and his late father Noto Mihardjo a Communist.  No proof was offered to back the claims.

Amin’s job is widely considered to be Widodo’s shield, his stand-in at minor functions and little else.  Meanwhile liberals pray that Widodo, 58, stays healthy.  The VP was entirely educated in local Islamic institutions so little exposure to other faiths, cultures, ideas and values.

Suddenly Amin has found another voice, making a submission to a Federal Government aid review headed by International Development Minister Alex Hawke.  The VP reportedly said Australia had made a ‘vital contribution’ to ­poverty reduction.  He singled out programs to reduce stunting.

About a third of Indonesia’s toddlers suffer because they aren’t breast-fed and lack access to clean foods and decent toilets.  They don’t grow properly and neither do their brains.

Australia already funds a programme called MAMPU  ‘to improve the lives of poor women in Indonesia’ and says it’s ‘empowered’ 35,000. Sounds substantial?  About 90 million Indonesian women are in what statisticians call the ‘productive group’ aged between 15 and 64.

The problem doesn’t need more foreigners in floppy hats devising databases. Indonesian health and social workers are competent enough and communicate better.  They know stunting can be fixed by properly funded education services.  Money is not the issue – it’s the distribution that’s flawed.

Three years ago Oxfam, the confederation of 19 charities fighting global poverty, claimed the wealthiest one per cent (all men) own half Indonesia’s total wealth:

 ‘Indonesia has the sixth worst inequality of wealth in the world. In 2016 the collective wealth of the richest four billionaires was more than the total wealth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population – about 100 million people.

‘The amount of money earned annually from (one man’s) wealth would be sufficient to lift more than 2.8 million Indonesians out of extreme poverty.  

During the past five years Australia’s annual aid to Indonesia has been slashed from AUD 610 to 298 million.  The published rationale is to pay for the Pacific ‘step-up’ policy.  

This has been defined by PM Scott Morrison as putting the islands ‘front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook, our foreign policy, our personal connections, including at the highest levels of government’.

Decoded it means: ‘We’ll use aid to stop the Chinese from getting toeholds in Pacific states.’  Super cynics linked the cut to the 2015 executions of Bali Nine drug runners Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, a suggestion denied by all.  

Widodo said the chop was Australia’s business and no tears should be shed:  ‘That’s their right’.
Amin’s plea is badly timed and curious.  It’s been reported that no other nation bothered to submit, probably realising the review will go nowhere.  

Hawke’s review team might also think charity should begin at home.  Last October the Republic launched a US $212 million (AUD 343 million) international endowment and development fund called Indonesian AID.

The VP will get a polite ‘your submission has been noted’ maybe plus an attachment explaining the Australian budget is no longer in surplus and the Covid-19 ‘stimulus package’ will drain the Treasury of AUD 17.6 billion.  So sorry Sir, no extra aid.  

Preferably Amin should be told:  ‘Crack down on the oligarchs, tighten your tax take and assume responsibility for your problems.  That’s your right’.


First published in Pearls and Irritations, 26 March 2020:

Thursday, March 19, 2020


A place to admire, not pity                                      

Kasihan! It’s a common expression of consolation.  Some hardship befell, a loss perhaps, an accident, a mishap. Oh, what a pity!

It’s also a hamlet in Bantul Regency, just outside Yogyakarta, low lying, more forest than field, well watered, known as a lush den of imagination and inventiveness.  Six of the village’s nationally most noted 14 daughters and sons are involved in the arts.

No surprise because the nearby spring Sendang Pengasihan (Be Merciful) is reputed to have curative and mystical powers, once drawing local royalty to meditate.  Now it seduces creatives.

Most famous of the artists who live here is Djoko Pekik, 83 who’s built a striking studio in the bush as a workplace and gallery to preserve his huge crowdscapes.  More of his story later.

One of Pekik’s admirers is Giring Prihatyasono, 39.  He’s a graduate of Yogyakarta’s prestigious Arts Institute and also a social commentator, though in a formal, controlled style while his guru is free and forceful.

The younger man explores different materials, particularly aluminum.  It’s a costly metal though one which yields beguiling and ambiguous results when etched.

His work is subtle and pensive, often including a rent or scar as though it’s been accidentally snagged. This is deliberate, part of his philosophy:  “We strive for perfection, but it’s impossible to achieve.  So after trying to make my work as good as possible I add a flaw.

“In my early days I tried producing paintings the shops like to sell to tourists, smiley girls in rice paddy, but that didn’t satisfy.  I’m also fascinated by language and how various lettering systems have evolved around the world. 

“Now I work to express myself.  Artists should be honest and let their creations find the buyer.” 

His determination has found enough collectors to keep the family in better straits than if he’d followed his father into a sugar factory – a rejection that led to meal-time silence for a year.  They’re now back on speaking terms.

The multiple award winner hides his messages.  A large disc (right) which at first looks to be an official government emblem is circled with the faint words: Sebagai Abdi Negara saya malu dan tidak akan melakukan korupsi. (As a servant of the nation I am ashamed and will not participate in corruption).

A five-minute walk from his hideaway through the tangled undergrowth, then across a narrow bridge above Khonteng stream.  Damp tracks wend past the houses of other painters, and eventually to the studio of the artist emeritus.

Prihatyasono feels for his country but hasn’t suffered for his art like Pekik, once a member of Bumi Tarung (Fight for the Land), a gathering of creatives during the era of Soekarno.  It was savagely persecuted by his military successor Soeharto because most artists leaned left.

They were intellectuals, not bombers.  The weapons they wielded were ideas, pens and brushes.  They were treated like terrorists.

After seven years of brutality and deprivation Pekik (left)  was released from jail with TP stamped on his ID card, meaning he was a former Tahanan Politik, a political prisoner.  This labeled him almost unemployable and unacceptable to society.  For several years he cleaned sewers to support his eight children.

His revenge was splendid.  In 1999, a year after his persecutor Soeharto was dethroned, Pekik became nationally famous as Indonesia’s first one billion rupiah (then about US $120,000) painter when he sold Berburu Celeng (the Boar Hunt), now an icon of the nation’s contemporary art.

Most assumed the fat pig being carried upside-down on a yoke between hunters was the Republic’s second president.  He also seems to be the ringmaster in Sirkus September, a reference to the 1965 coup that felled Soekarno.  In the foreground two big black rhinos clash their horns, urged on by clowns.

Pekik, like a novelist advised by a lawyer, denied any resemblance to persons living or dead.  As a social realist he’s blunt on the canvas but equivocal in conversation.

“You see what you want to see,” he told The Jakarta Post while sitting before a motorized easel moving his work up and down.  “You’re the viewer.”

His nationalism is stark and xenophobic:  If he doesn’t like a foreigner he orders them off his property even if they’ve come to buy. “The colonialists were bad, but not as bad as the Japanese.”

So to smother, though not forget the cruelty and horrors, he leans on nicotine and paint.  He’s outlived his persecutors, retaining his dignity and independence.

Pekik may now be rich but he still rails against the oligarchy and big business, always siding with the wee folk. Sometimes they brandish spears.  The angry confronters are dramatic in their intensity, though often flanked by powerless onlookers.

He admits his 2014 canvas Go to hell, crocodile is a commentary on the Freeport mine in Papua; crowds face a giant scaly reptile lapping blood from a swirling void.  Some have linked the painting to Soekarno’s 1964 outburst against the US: Go to hell with your aid!

Pekik’s figures are seldom static; dancers swish, black smoke chokes the crowds. These are not images to soothe.  The colors are usually subdued, though his clown faces are gaudy.  “That’s to show happiness,” he said, though unconvincingly.

“Who cares how it all ends?  As long as I can keep painting my thoughts and visions then everything’s fine”.  Kasihan?  “No”.

First published in The Jakarta Post 19 March 2020

Saturday, March 14, 2020


Remembering New Zealand’s ‘darkest day’                                    Duncan Graham

A year ago on 15 March a heavily-armed Australian gunman went on a killing spree targeting New Zealand Muslims during their Friday prayers.

He opened fire at the Al Noor Mosque then continued shooting at the Linwood Islamic Centre.  Both are in Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island,

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who led the nation in mourning following its ‘darkest day’ has publicly sworn never to mention the far-right extremist’s name. This column will do the same.

In June he’ll face a NZ court.  He’s charged with 51 counts of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one of engaging in a terrorist act.

The legal and journalistic convention is to report his ‘alleged’ crimes.  Although he live-streamed the massacres we have to say he’s innocent until proved otherwise.  So far he’s pleaded ‘not guilty’.

There’s no death penalty in NZ, but if found guilty the 29-year old will probably die in jail of natural causes decades hence.

In 1996 a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania left 35 dead and 23 wounded.  The killer pleaded guilty and was given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole.  He’s now 52.

After that tragedy the Australian Parliament passed laws banning the sale of high powered weapons and restricting the ownership and use of firearms.  Similar reforms were introduced in NZ last year.  Neither country gives citizens the right to bear arms, as in the US.

The Christchurch killings shocked the world and moved millions to ask:  How could this have happened in such a small, peaceful and welcoming country?  The answer is that hate, like the coronavirus, knows no boundaries.

Among the distressed questioners are three Indonesians who studied in NZ:  Naila Rahma, Maria Qibtia and Sophie Amani.  They’re the daughters of Alida Assegaf and her academic husband Dr Zainal Abidin Bagir.

In 2014 the Director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University was a visiting lecturer at Wellington’s Victoria University while the couple’s children attended local schools.

Instead of just texting tears and sad emojis to commemorate the massacre, the young women have compiled a 72-page book of 15 of their friends’ thoughts called Kotahi Aroha – Maori for One Love, One New Zealand.  The languages are English and Indonesian.

Said Dr Bagir:  “The goal is an expression of sympathy to the victims--not only the dead, but also to NZ communities who experienced deep sorrow--and a wish that NZ remains a loving and beautiful place.” 

The book starts with 11 observations by Twindania Namiesyva “six years a Wellingtonian, forever a Kiwi at heart”.  She was in the national capital while her husband Muhammad Ghifary was studying for a doctorate in engineering and computing science.

When asked to comment on the cultural differences between Indonesia and NZ she focused on dress: ‘New Zealanders, unlike urban communities in Indonesia, don't judge someone based on appearance. They are more concerned with attitude than appearance. This kind of culture suits me.’

 Under the heading Let Me Tell You What NZ Is she wrote:. 

“NZ is local authorities allowing churches to be converted into a masjid.”

 “NZ is your midwife making sure all the staff in the hospital delivery room you’re dealing with are women, as per your request.”

“NZ is your daughter’s school principal announcing there will be halal sausages at the school barbecue day.”

Sophie Amani said she made the mistake of watching a video of the shootings:  “I wish with all my heart that I’d never stumbled across the video – I will never get it out of my head.

“I could cry all day but that’s not going to change what’s happened so instead I wrote this piece to spread awareness.”

Ali Riza spent five years in NZ studying creative writing and design, some of that time in Christchurch walking home at night.  He knew about Islamophobia and religious killings in the US.  For a while he was terrified:  “No one looked like me, no-one believed what I did.”

Later he reflected: “It (racial slurs and threats) never happened to me.  Not one.  Not a single unkind word about my faith.  Not a single untoward mention of my race.  Nothing.  My paranoia turned out to be just that, nothing but paranoia.”

Yet while Riza was losing his fear, in the same city a man with a warped mindset was allegedly stockpiling weapons and ammunition.  He was also writing a hate manifesto, making intricate plans to kill people he’d never met after digesting fake news about Muslims he’d read on the Internet.

While the killings drew widespread horror and sympathy, they also stirred the xenophobic fringe.  There have been reports of an upsurge of white supremacist messages.
This month a NZ teenager was arrested for allegedly threatening terror by posting a picture of a masked man outside the Al Noor mosque.
The authors of Kotahi Aroha are now back in Indonesia.  Naila Rahma, 22, graduated from the University of Indonesia and now works in Jakarta.

Maria Qibtia, 21 is studying graphic arts at a West Java university. She designed the book.

The last words to Sophia Amani, 17, now at a State high school. 

“To everyone reading this:  We too will stay strong and stop being afraid.  I was terrified but I know I shouldn’t be. Whoever you are, whatever you believe in, whatever your story is I love you.

“Let’s show everyone we can stand together, united, strong as ever and loved by one another.”

Kotahi Aroha is not a commercial venture so not for sale.  It can be read here:

First published in The Jakarta Post, 14 March 2020

Friday, March 13, 2020


Digging up the red brick past                                               Duncan Graham / Batu

One Friday last November Anton Adi Wibowo reckoned it was about time he tackled a task he’d long avoided.

His family’s 1,000 square meter block in Pendem village near the East Java hilltown resort of Batu was just going to waste.  It was producing weeds, not income.

On one side neighbors were growing rice.  On the other a small cemetery, the resting place for 60 souls. 

Wibowo, 40, owns a metal workshop.  He’s also the Ketua Rukun Tetangga (elected community head).  He didn’t want a high-maintenance crop so chose avocados. The loam was known to be deep but just 40 centimeters down his sharp spade shuddered and stopped.

He’d hit a big red brick. Alongside was another.  More digging exposed an orderly line.

Wibowo didn’t know what he’d found but realized it was important and should be reported.  He’d heard of another historical site that had been smashed by religious fanatics and didn’t want that to happen again.

 “There’d been occasional discoveries of brick pieces by gravediggers but this was quite different,” he said.

“The bricks were intact and clearly part of a construction.  I stopped planting avocados.  I was happy, excited and surprised.”

A few days after Wibowo struck brick a ten-person team from the Trowulan East Java Cultural Preservation Center arrived and rapidly realized they were onto something special.

Their trowel and brush work has so far exposed 56 square meters of paving with what at first appeared to be a square dry well in the center surrounded by low walls.  It was full of heavy boulders dumped higgledy-piggly.

A well?  At 2.1 meters square it seems too large.  Archaeologist and Malang University history lecturer Dwi Cahyono (right) says it’s the foundation pit for a three-stage temple tower which may have risen to 12 meters and was probably built a thousand years ago.

There are more questions than answers and few clues.  The best are the clay blocks which measure 25 X 35 X 9 centimeters.  They’re much larger and heavier than the handy sharp-sided bricks used during the Majapahit Era (1293 to 1527) reinforcing the view that it was built earlier. 

Cahyono said eight years ago he predicted a temple once served the area: “In my 2012 History of Batu I wrote about a Shiva Hindu temple not far from Pendem.

“I based my theory on early 20th century Dutch writings, and from the discovery of a fragment of an Agastya (Hindu sage) statue near the village.  Just 400 meters to the west is the original site of the Prasasti Sanggurah stone tablet which has inscriptions about King Wijayaloka who ruled what’s now Malang.

“It has information about land grants and the Mataram Kingdom.” Also known as the Medang Empire, the realm shifted from Central to East Java sometime during the 11th century.  The reasons are unknown.

Wibowo and Cahyono weren’t the only ones moved by the discovery. So were the leaders and administrators of Batu.  The town used to be part of Malang 20 kilometers to the southeast and 400 meters below, but became a separate city in 2001. 

It has a cool climate, vegetables and fruit, adventure playgrounds and hotels but lacks the bigger city’s serious stuff - the remnants of ancient temples.  These include the 8th Century Candi Badut (clown temple), the oldest in East Java.

If proved that earlier civilisations also occupied Batu then local pride could be polished afresh and new marketing devised to lure culture tourists.

“We want to preserve our heritage and make it accessible,” said Batu tourist officer Parama Sari.  “This may be a Hindu temple but that’s unimportant.  It’s our national history.”

Offerings of rice and lime leaves have been left at the site along with joss sticks and a tiny charcoal burner.  Wibowo said these had been placed by “the community” though all families in Pendem are said to be Muslim.

Two Dutch coins dated 1825 and bits of a broken bottle have been found among the rubble.  Maybe in the mid 19th century looters were burrowing for booty, artifacts wanted by European collectors.

Alongside is an example of state vandalism.  Many years ago a damaged stone pedestal Yoni (womb in Sanskrit) representing the Hindu goddess Shakti was found together with a small statue of a cow. Clumsy attempts to repair with cement and steel rods have failed and the artifacts have been daubed by bureaucrats with white ID numbers.

The locals have already decided the bricks are the remnants of a temple and dubbed it Candi Mananjung, a word found inscribed on the Prasasti Sanggurah and the original name for Pendem village.

A light metal roof has been built over the diggings to protect from the weather and a fence erected to deter thieves.  The only access is through a hole smashed through a small building storing a trolley used for moving corpses to the little cemetery alongside.

“I first became interested in history at school when I read about a temple in a magazine,” said Cahyono.

“This candi is an extremely important find which tells us a little more about our country’s rich history. We’ll keep digging.  The more we find the more we’ll know and understand.”


Come home, ancient stone
The 3.6 tonne Prasasti Sanggurah is dated 928.  It’s two meters tall and was discovered in 1812 by the lieutenant-governor of Java Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.  He gifted it to his boss Lord Minto, then British Governor-General of India.  It’s now possessed by his family in Scotland.

To Western historians it’s known as the Minto Stone, and Indonesia wants it back. Twelve years ago there were reports that businessman and Gerindra Party politician Hashim Djojohadikusumo (brother of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto) was dealing with the Minto family for the stone’s repatriation.

The 7th Earl of Minto, Timothy George Lariston Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound was reported in the Scottish media as saying: "We have received an approach from a representative of the Indonesian government and we are prepared to continue discussions."

Neither Djojohadikusumo nor the Earl responded to requests for an update so presumably the stone from the tropics still rests uncomfortably in the snow-swept highlands of Britain. Cahyono and other Indonesian historians want it back.


Tuesday, March 10, 2020


                            Reporting from afar with mining models

The Australian Associated Press closure in June will shut Australians out of much domestic journalism. Courts, councils and commissions whose workings underpin democracy will often go unreported.  Margaret Simons commented in The Guardian:  ‘We are lurching down a slippery slope. At its bottom will be a nation that doesn’t know itself’.

How about knowing the people next door?  AAP closed its Jakarta bureau in 2017.  The few remaining Australian newsrooms are shrinking and struggling, their bosses scratching to save.

One try is to rebadge Australian journos as ‘Southeast Asia Correspondent’ which is how The Australian’s Amanda Hodge is titled.   From a wee office in the region’s largest city she’s supposed to cover the doings of 655 million people spread across eleven disparate nations.  Don’t ask what she does in her spare time.

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Indonesia correspondent Jewel Topsfield was replaced in 2018 by James Massola. He now has SEAC on his lanyard tag.

The Australian Financial Review shuttered its Jakarta bureau in 2009 but reopened last year.  This wasn’t the result of Nine insiders discovering a need.  That came from an outsider anxious about the dearth of Asian news.
 Millionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson’s Institute for Journalism and Ideas has given AFR the cash to do its duty. Although stationed in Jakarta Emma Connors is another SEAC.

Anne Barker is labeled the ABC’s Indonesia Correspondent but gets by-lined as SEAC when it suits, this year covering the Malaysian political crisis from Jakarta.

Meanwhile in Melbourne the ABC has an Asia Pacific Newsroom filing stories about Indonesia (and other states in the region) reportedly using more than 40 reporters and producers.

Some, like Erwin Renaldi a Muslim Indonesian (his words) and Melbourne Uni masters graduate, are native speakers.  They read and watch from afar, pick up leads, make calls and file copy without having to leave Southbank Boulevard.  There are substantial savings on translators and office rent overseas.

This media model is a bit like Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mine ops where driverless trucks are steered by mice palmed by screen jockeys in Perth 1,200 km to the south.

The other dollar-saver is Fly In – Fly Out reporting, another pinch from the mining industry.  FIFO is the marriage-fracturing system that avoids remote housing expenses by keeping partners apart. 

FIFO, aka ‘parachute journalism’, means dropping a hack into a foreign spot to file and flee.  

The latest example is The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan giving us his insights after a short stay in the Big Durian ‘as part of a delegation of editors with the Australia Indonesia Institute’.
This sounds like a benign NGO but it’s an Australian Government agency run through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.   

 Travelling under that rubric helped score ‘several exchanges’ with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.  The former Ambassador to the Netherlands is the source for much of the Australian’s commentary.

Apparently Marsudi is ‘reliable, steady, personable, across everything.’ Unfortunately Indonesia’s first woman FM is also a dot-and-comma controller demanding questions in writing before any interview with local-based scribblers.

We’re not told if her visitor had to labour under similar restrictions. It’s immaterial because the bland comments he captured are thick in her local press columns:

‘We appreciate Australia’s support for ASEAN’s concept of the Indo-Pacific’ may comfort diplomats but leaves others unmoved. Likewise: ‘We see IA-CEPA (the Indonesia Australia Closer Economic Partnership Agreement ratified this year) as strategic co-operation. 

‘We want it to build strategic trust between the two nations. We understand that we need each other. Australia realises that you are part of Asia.’  

That fine sentiment is sadly shattered by Lowy Institute surveys showing stratospheric levels of ignorance and distrust.  This unnerving discovery seems to be moving Australian and Indonesian authorities not one meaningful whit.

Indonesians outnumber us ten to one, so staying friends is a practical necessity along with a moral responsibility. Fortunately advocates for a caliphate are currently hibernating.  

Most locals see us as a rich, white European outpost, referencing kangaroos and bushfires above free trade deals.  Strong nationalists – and there are plenty - remember our role in the 1999 East Timorese referendum which damaged the ‘Unitary State’.

Film festivals and cultural exchanges are fine and worthy, but we’ve built a Trump-style ‘beautiful wall’ of visa restrictions unlikely to be bashed down despite personal pleas from President Joko Widodo. 

Sheridan’s FIFO analysis has 12 mentions of ‘strategic’.  They include his claim that the two countries ‘co-operate on a host of issues, not least development in the South Pacific’.  

Independent analysts believe Indonesia’s wooing of nation states far outside the Republic is to neuter groups backing Melanesian demands for independence in West Papua.  

The province remains closed to Western journalists keen to probe allegations of human rights abuses by the army, despite Widodo claiming all is open.  (This writer’s application made a year ago still moulds in someone’s in-tray.)

Sheridan’s other confidante was a ‘senior Indonesian.’  About 20 million over-65s fit that category including my mother-in-law.  A fine lady, though I wouldn’t pad my stories with her opinions.

There are some useful observations on Indonesia’s reliance on Chinese imports and Indonesia’s labour costs, but the Australian’s findings lack the substance keyboarded by his colleague Amanda Hodge.

However nothing comes within a bull’s roar of veteran Kiwi journalist John McBeth.  Formerly with the prestigious Far Eastern Economic Review he now writes for the Asia Times, lives in Indonesia and doesn’t need government guides to open gates.  His commentaries are rich with insights denied others and deserve syndicating.  

If FIFO analyses and remote reporting are the new way of telling Australians about the world’s third largest democracy then we’ll stay clueless.  The compensation is that we’re getting better informed about the US electoral system delivered effortlessly in English-language packages, warm, fresh and ready to swallow.

Sorry FM Marsudi, you’re wrong.  We’re not part of Asia.  We live in the Anglosphere.


First published in Pearls & Irritations, 10 March 2020:

Thursday, March 05, 2020


Dial disaster – and hope                                                    
Something awful has happened.  A bad road smash, a fire, a building collapse.  A landslip. There are casualties. You’re first on the scene – who to call?

Take a pick – 110 or 112 for police, 113 for the fire brigade and 118 for an ambulance.  Or 119.
Apart from mnemonists (people with extraordinary memories) and emergency professionals, who could recall the right digits in moments of peak stress?  Having just one number that’s widely known would be a good start.

No disagreement - yet it seems that although the technology has long been available it hasn’t been matched by energy or will or both. 

According to Trisna Daryanti, Head of Infrastructure Evaluation in the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, an integrated emergency services number (IESN) is not in place across the nation. 

Back in 2016 the government announced a trial of an IESN, 112.  This would connect to hospitals, fire stations and police offices in 100 cities. 

“Currently, emergency services have been built by districts and cities to help the community to more easily remember certain numbers,” Ms Daryanti said.

“But with these many numbers making people a little confused, hopefully in the future it can be integrated in 112.”  She said that might take five years.

In Australia it’s 000, in the US and Canada 911 and in much of Europe 112.  Except the UK which uses 999 which all watchers of British TV cop shows know well.  The system started in London in 1937.

Surprisingly Japan, a nation like Indonesia on the Pacific Ring of Fire, continues to use different numbers for separate services.  However in most other areas of emergency management they’re way ahead.

For the past few months the independent educational agency Japan Foundation has been touring an exhibition called Disaster and Design for Saving Lives.  Its last stop was Yogyakarta.

This is the thinking behind the Foundation’s Earth Manual Project: ‘Natural disasters are unfortunately on the increase all around the world - so let us not leave being prepared to someone else.  

’The same is true across borders – we need to communicate more and more beyond our national boundaries … disaster preparedness on our planet begins by exchanging ideas.’

The exhibition shows displays of ingenuity, making do with materials at hand when emergency services are frantic elsewhere.  It draws on lessons learned in many countries, including the Philippines and Thailand.

One simple example is converting cardboard tubes and boxes to fit out first-aid centers with chairs and examination beds.  

Dr Dwikorita Karnawati, head of Badan (Agency) Meteorologi, Klimatologi, dan Geofisika (BMKG) agrees.  She told The Jakarta Post natural hazards are becoming more complex and uncertain, so preparation is getting more urgent. 

“We need to be transforming our culture to become a resilient society,” she said.  “The National Education Program must continuously include regular practical exercises in disaster risk reduction.”

The Tilly Smith story is the standout model for the value of education.  The ten-year old was on holiday with her parents in 2004 at Thailand’s Mai Khao Beach when the Indian Ocean earthquake struck.  

The girl remembered geography lessons from her school in England and recognized the frothy water as signs of an incoming tsunami though no alert had been sounded.

With just minutes to spare the family warned around 100 holidaymakers who fled to high ground.  There were no casualties at that beach though 10,000 died on other Thai coastlines.

In late July the Olympics will be held in Tokyo. The Meteorological Agency of Japan reports about 2,000 quakes a year.  The Tohoku earthquake in 2011 took almost 16,000 lives. 

Instructions on handling emergencies are being translated into English and other languages ahead of the sports.  Earthquake drills hammering the need to prepare are being run regularly.

New Zealand is rightly known as the Shaky Isles.  It gets about 15,000 quakes a year.  Most are minor, but around 200 are heavy enough to be felt.   The last biggie in 2011 destroyed much of the nation’s second largest city Christchurch and killed 185.

The NZ government funds a ‘Get Ready Get Thru’ campaign presenting community workshops and displays.  It hands out emergency checklists to be stuck on the kitchen fridge where it’s never missed by the famished and thirsty.

The list includes stockpiling torches, batteries, water and food for at least three days.  At schools children are taught to ‘drop, cover and hold’ when the earth moves.  Church services don’t open with prayers but instructions about exit points.  Safety requests to the Deity come later.

Public buildings, offices and apartments without approved earthquake resistance ratings are closed until changes are made.  In Australia new building codes are being enforced in fire-prone areas.  These include using fire-resistant materials and special glazing.  

The media often labels escapes from disasters as ‘miracles’.  Not all can be claimed as divine intervention.  Many are the result of education and planning to which all can subscribe.

The Washington-based Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery reports an average of 289 significant natural disasters and 8,000 deaths a year in Indonesia during the past three decades.

The United Nations University’s World Risk Index ranks Indonesia on the borderline of ‘very high chance of disasters’, though steadily improving as the public become more aware of measures to lessen harm.  

Rapid response is one way to help save lives.  Just one phone number all know.  That’s not uncommon science – it’s commonsense.

 First published in The Jakarta Post 5 March 2020.