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

Wednesday, May 27, 2020


                                    If Bali lets you in – will Oz let you back?

When is a pandemic suppression order not a lockdown? When it’s in Indonesia.

It’s the same with social distancing. Soekarno-Hatta is Jakarta’s main airport and the nation’s busiest.   In the final week of the Islamic fasting month leading to the climax of Idul Fitri last weekend, the crowds squashed around ticket booths were more concerned with catching a domestic flight than the contagious disease. 

If there are no Italian-style morbidity stats in Indonesia during the next month, Australia’s freedom riders will be claiming their lifestyles were crimped because Canberra listened to white coats rather than dark suits.

Using the Republic next door to make a point would be a gross error as the facts have fled.  
Westerners in the archipelago either adjust to jam karet (rubber time), go home or go batty.  Let’s phrase a new coin – statistik karet.   It certainly has currency in a bureaucracy where data bounces to suit the political players.

As this column has reported, only Allah knows how many have caught the disease, recovered or died, because Jakarta’s politicians and senior bureaucrats are like those in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague:
‘... men of proved ability in handling problems relating to insurance, the interpretation of ill-drawn contracts, and the like. . . . But as regards plague their competence was practically nil.’

The Indonesian government says it wants accurate figures but that’s untrue.  Dr Achmad Yurianto, director-general for disease control at Indonesia’s Ministry of Health let the pathogen out of the fridge when quoted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

The Army colonel allegedly told the AAAS magazine Science he doesn’t care what scientists say about the pandemic because ‘they are not important if their information only creates panic.’  He’s since claimed misquotation but the journal hasn’t retracted.

On Sunday the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre was reporting 21,745 cases in Indonesia with 1,351 fatalities. At 6.2 deaths per thousand that’s a big improvement on the nine per thousand a month ago, yet still the highest in the region. 

 It suggests improved testing, though at under 900 per million its checking regime ranks among the world’s least effective.

It’s also inaccurate, according to disheartened health workers who Twitter tag:  Indonesia? Terserah – suka-suka kalian saja (Indonesia? Whatever - just do what you fancy). 

Indonesian epidemiologist Dr Dicky Budiman who is currently at Griffith University said the stigma surrounding Covid-19 is almost  “worse than HIV”.  He told Pearls and Irritations that “blaming and shaming the victims can be hurtful and dangerous. 

“It makes people targets for misplaced anger. This response, coupled with inadequate testing, would likely affect how people sought help.  This would force them to only show up at hospitals when it was already too late for treatment.”

Plans for a major lab to close for six days to celebrate the religious festival were only reversed after public protests.  Mudik (exodus) from cities to home villages was banned for religious reasons though not if the excuses were economic.  Travellers soon learned what to say when challenged.

A makeshift 1,800-bed Covid-19 hospital opened on 23 March at the 2018 Asian Games athletes’ village in Jakarta is reported to be close to capacity.

One area where the government appears to be acting decisively is finance. The US-trained minister is economist Dr Sri Mulyani Indrawati, a former managing director of the World Bank Group. 

Indonesia’s National Economic Recovery Fund has so far been given Rp 641 trillion (AUD 66 billion) to help small businesses, provide security for the poor and subsidise fuel and power costs.  Social media has been choked with reports of the cash diminishing as it passes down the chain.

Despite cascading revenues the government still subscribes to the trickle-down theory where drips from the overflowing bowls of the rich nourish the thirsty poor below. Indrawati plans to cut the corporate tax rate by three points from the current 25 per cent while pushing to diversify receipts.  

Tourism has been brutally clobbered. Industry chair Ida Bagus Agung Partha Adnyana reckons Bali will lose AUD 14 billion this year. To get people moving domestic airlines are being towed off the aprons; President Joko Widodo says he wants Bali’s Ngurah Rai open to overseas tourists in July.

If he’s hoping for a snap-back to the million-plus Australians who head to Bali every year he’ll be a lone beckoner in the arrivals lounge: “Taxi Sir, meter, ya?”  Back in Aussi Border Force sentinels will demand returnees quarantine – most likely at their expense.

So relax in a Seminyak five star with infinity pool for two weeks – then back to Sydney for an enforced stay in a two-star with a pool table for five times the cost?  Doesn’t pass the villa test.   

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 27 May 2020:

Friday, May 22, 2020


Dealing with Indonesian bureaucracy? Tip: Don’t think like a Westerner

This is a true tale.  It’s minor and personal, more anecdote than saga.  It won’t rock Canberra or Jakarta.  It discloses nothing careworn veterans of trans-national trade negotiations don’t know, but it will daze newcomers.

Here’s the scene.  It’s the end of the fasting month and almost the start of the Idul Fitri holiday.  People are hungry and grumpy.

We should be in Australia.  We bought tickets home when Covid-19 was a foreign infection set to by-pass Indonesia because its citizens are holy.  So said the Health Minister who’s also a doctor.  He prescribed prayer. The President recommended drinking jamu – traditional herb medicine.

The plague ignored both men’s advice and swept into the archipelago.  Flights were cancelled and we were stranded.

Hardships are few but there’s one essential – prescribed blood pressure medication.  In Australia a 30-pill pack costs $15 – in Indonesia $60 and the brand different.  So is the formulation and the drug hard to find.

So I got a renewal prescription for six month’s supply dispensed in Australia and posted on 5 May.  
I won’t be specific about our city in case the guilty get fingered. The package arrived on 20 May and with it a demand for a 25 per cent tariff.  We mustered these entirely logical and sensible arguments for an appeal:

·        The  Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is a ratified free trade agreement so no tariff.
·        The meds are for personal use and not resale.
·        They’re an essential health item.  I don’t want them – I need them.
·        The meds were prescribed by a doctor and a copy of the script included along with receipts, customs declaration, ID cards and other docs.
·        When we fly into Indonesia carrying meds they’re declared and no tariff levied.

The dispute ran for more than an hour and involved four uniformed officials. They scrutinised the paperwork, heard the arguments but remained unmoved. These are the regulations – read them yourself.  This is the law.  Pay or leave empty-handed.   Things were getting heated.

Then the customs guy asked my wife’s religion.  She exploded -  what had this to do with the issue?  He’d noticed a document showed her birthplace as Makassar – an intensely Islamic city where the residents have a reputation for ferocity.

Suddenly the tension vanished.  He too was from the South Sulawesi capital – how about that?  They exchanged parochial jokes and a bit of local lingo.  Much laughter.

My wife collected the package and paid nothing.  

The moral of this story for Australians confronting Indonesian bureaucrats?  Forget Western rational argument and wads of paperwork.  Just ensure your rep comes from the same city as the government official and maybe the same religion.


Thursday, May 21, 2020


Vanity of vanities, all is vanity saith the preacher

UPDATE:  Since this blog was published the Catholic Church has made a response of sorts.  It's confidential, but John Menadue has published a link: 
03 FINAL Southern Cross Report 010520 Single Page – Copy

This is god’s busy time. Non-stop adulation. The weekend is Idul Fitri marking the end of Islam’s fasting month. Yesterday was Ascension Day when Jesus floated up to heaven 40 days after crucifixion.  

The idea troubled me muchly as a kid fidgeting on a pew who’d learnt a little about gravity, meteorology and space.  Religions are full of contradictions defying reason, but one needs to be settled:  If god can lift up a man why didn’t the deity put down Australian Cardinal George Pell, or at least squeeze his heart till he publicly screamed for forgiveness?

Let’s be blunt: What and where, in heaven’s name, is the link between Jesus of the gospels and Pell, 79, once the third most powerful man in the Vatican?

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been asking why Pell and his fellow priests didn’t call the cops last century on their devious criminal colleagues – but moved them to other parishes and virginal victims.

The commissioners found: ‘It is inconceivable that the consultors (including Pell) did not know by this time (of the perverts) given the usual practice and the general knowledge in the community.’
To the non-legal reader that 23-word opinion could be boiled down to one:  Liar.

A well-used photo of the prelate shows him gorgeously robed and holding a richly carved crosier.  He stands in a soaring cathedral surrounded by priests in costly cassocks.  All are men. All look severe, soulless, unreachable. This cabal of the grave acts out contrived rituals never laid down by the founder of their faith.  

If this is the welcoming Christian message of joy and salvation, then it’s time to find the exit. 

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are pseudonyms. The biographies they and others wrote between AD 66 and 110 long after Jesus died rely on tales passed down among the colonised Jews.  

They were yearning for liberation through divine intervention and prayed a messiah might dash down through the clouds on horseback and do the trick.  When none appeared stories about Jesus were embellished and became hagiographies. 

The gospels are wildly different. The virgin birth – and there were plenty as singletons tried to explain their pregnancies – isn’t common to all accounts.  Nor is the resurrection. So it’s impossible for an open-minded post-Enlightenment reader to work out what was real and imagined.

One fellow has tried. US scholar Dr Bart Ehrman checked more than 5,000 New Testament manuscripts and discovered no two were exactly alike.  So he asked the obvious: ‘If (god) went to the trouble of inspiring the text, why didn’t he go to the trouble of preserving the text? Why did he allow scribes to change it?’

The Bible has been translated into 438 languages. All with nary an insert, deletion, error, dropped line or correction?  Believe that and your earth is flat, which is should be so flying saucers can land.  As Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote:

‘And do you think that unto such as you / A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
‘God gave a secret, and denied it me? / Well, well—what matters it? Believe that, too!’

Indeed – what matters it?

Evidence that Jesus existed is slight.  Although the clues are few and some fabricated he probably did live, was a charismatic preacher and got a following. His fan club included women, which would have been arousing.

Heaven forbid the man was normal and lusty like the rest of us, but Catholics shrink from that story.  They’d prefer him to wander around with a bunch of blokes, which is pretty weird as they weren’t bouncing a ball.  Maybe they were having a gay time.

Whatever, it set the scene for the unnatural and devastating bifurcation which has traumatised millions: Celibacy is holy and sex sinful, yet the parents of us all indulged and hopefully enjoyed. I like to think of JC in a loving consensual relationship.  He might even have had a wife and kids.  

The Jewish establishment and Roman authorities labelled the upstart a revolutionary to be put down.  Had they been smarter he’d have been exiled and never heard of again.

Instead, he became a cult figure through a brutal execution which also provided a striking logo, but didn’t get traction until the fourth century.  That’s when Roman emperor Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians, became one himself and promoted the faith.  So Christianity became the state religion and with it a vast commercial business that thrives today.

Protestantism might never have flourished had the Catholic clergy not sought riches on earth.  Want to enter heaven?  Try an indulgence (a letter forgiving sins). Half-price specials - this week only.  

Not much has changed. Protestants started as rebels but right-wing charismatic cults have barged in, preaching prosperity as though this was the Jesus message.  Charlatans claiming to know God’s will exploit the gullible to explain that following Christ means getting rich.

Left behind was the guy who started it all by overthrowing the money-changers in the temple and promoting the Golden Rule found in most religions: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
For New Zealand theologian Sir Lloyd Geering ‘Jesus is not someone to be worshipped as the divine Son of God, for that sort of language belongs to the world of ancient mythology. 

‘Jesus was not even a prophet after the Old Testament model. Rather he was a wise man, a sage, walking in the footsteps of Ecclesiastes.’  

Written by many Anons over two to four centuries BC, and the inspiration for the last century music hit Turn, Turn, Turn, the gospels are more books of universal wisdoms.  Here’s a couple.  

‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’

So if Geering is right Jesus, like a good journo, modernised and interpreted these old sayings in plain speak and parables.

Unfortunately that explanation’s too simple.  A down-to-earth chippy’s son finds he’s got the gift of the gab.  That threatened the Jewish clergy who demanded unquestioning adherence to their complex teachings and confused explanations.

Then, now, and in-between, it’s all about alpha-males hungry for power and protecting their patch.  William Tyndale translated the Hebrew and Greek Bible into English to make it accessible to all, undermining control of the scriptures by the educated elite. 

Tyndale explained his motivation: ‘I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he (the Pope) doust.’ In 1536 the English scholar was strangled and burnt for heresy, but the printing press had been invented and the words had flown.

Theology is not science.  In the early 17th century Galileo Galilei proved the earth circled the sun though the Bible said otherwise.  Whoops – does this mean the creator didn’t know about heliocentrism?

The Italian astrologer was charged with heresy and forced to recant. In 1992 Pope John Paul II acknowledged the church was wrong.  He should have said the Bible was faulty.

No wisdom could come from a humble commoner without a PhD and uni tenure, so Jesus had to be re-written as a Jewish royal from ‘the house of David’.  That gave him the quals to be a proper prophet. 

We need scholars like Geering to toss in their interpretations and have these tested in free inquiry, not recycled as untouchable everlasting verities. The pandemic has shown us office towers are redundant.  Likewise churches.  We can mass online and when the plague has shrunk, meet in parks.

The formal places of worship are prime real estate ripe for sale, the proceeds used to lift the poor and compensate those so cruelly treated by the vile ‘men of god’.

What manner of cleric is Pell? An editorial in The Saturday Paper claimed the Royal Commission revealed an image of ‘a man who took little interest in the plight of parishioners who confided to him about the abuses they suffered. 

‘He feigned ignorance, cried deception and failed to agitate for action to be taken against clergy who preyed on children, even as his own power in the church grew.’

Journalist David Marr writing in The Guardian says no pity should be spent on a “deceitful” man.  He’s wrong. Have pity on the fallen prince of the church. That’s a Christian response.  

Pell has a doctorate from Oxford.  His supporters say he’s intelligent though that’s doubtful.  That quality is identified by inquiry, doubt, wonder, scepticism and forever seeking knowledge.  Pell either didn’t exercise those talents when he and his vile colleagues moved the crims, or chose to shield the church from scandal rather than pre-pubescents from the predators’ probing fingers.

In the deepest crevasses of his soul Pell knows his failure to ask ‘what’s going on?’ and protect the littlies was a cardinal sin.

Once Pell rejected a football career and in 1966 became ordained he took on more than the fancy clothes, veneration, grand titles, paid international travel and free membership of the oligarchs’ club where he became mates with leaders like former PM Tony Abbott.   

Pell was burdened with a duty not just to follow the teachings of the founder of his faith, but practise them and lead by example.  His failure to do so will gnaw him to the grave.  

Pell would understand this worryingly cruel and unchristian quote in Matthew: ‘Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.’

Had Pell been in Jerusalem two millennia ago that might have been his fate. He’s fortunate not to live in a theocracy but a secular society.

He should thank god the shrewd writers of the Constitution distrusted a religion that had strayed so far from its founder’s ideals.  Duncan Graham