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

Monday, June 15, 2020


                                    Chinese ties put RI in a bind

Beijing has warned citizens against travel to Australia claiming ‘a significant increase’ in racial discrimination and violence against Chinese and Asians blamed for the Covid-19 pandemic.

No similar warnings have been made about Chinese visiting Indonesia where the threats are far more serious than midnight cowards spraying graffiti and drunks slurring abuse.  In the nation next door discrimination is well embedded with little legal protection.

There are around three million ethnic Chinese in the country according to Indonesian government statistics, though some academics claim the real number is three to four times greater.  Whatever, tiny figures in a population of 270 million. Yet the Orang Tionghoa wield huge business influence, drawing resentment which sometimes turns violent.

Among the earliest recorded massacres was in 1740 when Dutch soldiers and pribumi (native Javanese) killed an estimated 10,000 Chinese following an industrial dispute.  Since then eruptions of hate have scarred the archipelago.

During its 1965-1990 anti-Red offensive Jakarta suspended diplomatic ties with Beijing, though backdoor deals continued throughout.  Second president Soeharto relied on economic advice from local Chinese tycoons.  He partnered with the convicted fraudster The Kiang Seng, better known as Bob Hasan, who died this year. 

The 1998 economic crisis riots after Soeharto was forced out, took the lives of more than a thousand. There were stories of mobsters shouting ganyang Cina babi (‘kill the Chinese pigs’)

The US State Department reported allegations of mass gang-rapes of ethnic Chinese:  ‘A (government) fact-finding team (ordered) to investigate the riots and rapes found that elements of the Indonesian Military Special Forces (Kopassus) had been involved in the riots, some of which were deliberately provoked’. 

The Soeharto government banned ethnic Chinese from the public service and military.  So the smart ones turned to banking, often succeeding brilliantly.  Chinese languages and characters were also prohibited, a law only overthrown this century. 

Once liberated many moved out of the shadows to celebrate their culture and assert their rights as citizens. In 2014 Jakarta vice-governor Basuki (‘Ahok’) Tjahaja Purnama slipped into the big chair when its occupant Joko Widodo became president.  Foreign correspondents reckoned this demonstrated the decline of discrimination.   They were wrong.

Although known as an efficient anti-corruption administrator, Ahok was also a Protestant. Islamic stirrers claimed only a Muslim can lead other Muslims when they’re the majority. 

Charges of blasphemy were engineered using an edited video. Mass demonstrations were organised with the present vice president Ma’ruf Amin playing a key role. Prosecutors demanded a one-year sentence. Ahok got two and was only freed this January. 

His imprisonment spurred Singapore-based anthropologist Dr Charlotte Setijadi to research Sinophobia, writing: ‘One of the most persistent stereotypes about Chinese Indonesians is that they are wealthy and economically dominant’. 

Almost half her survey respondents agreed with negative sentiments that ethnic Chinese ‘only care about their own kind’ are ‘too greedy and ambitious’ and ‘do not fit with Indonesian values’.

This year the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict revealed an unsuccessful plot to attack Chinese workers in West Java.  It reported:  

‘Intensified anti-Chinese rhetoric on some extremist social media sites does not appear to have been matched by any uptick in plots against Chinese targets but remains something to watch.

‘Much of the rhetoric has been purely racist hate speech. The question now is whether ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) supporters in Indonesia will use the coronavirus as an excuse to expand targeting beyond the police to domestic or international Chinese targets.’

Some ethnic Chinese families (Peranakan) have lived in the archipelago for centuries, are Indonesian citizens, sometimes Muslim converts, deeply involved in business and public affairs, and with no ties to the mainland.  

Before the lockdowns tourism was surging despite the known racism, with the number of Chinese challenging Australians as top visitors to Bali.  

Also coming through airport arrivals were specialist engineers temporarily working on Chinese-financed turnkey projects and stoking bitterness when locals discover the outsiders
Ten Chinese heading to a nickel smelter construction site in South Sulawesi were reportedly turned away by local authorities this year.  In the Riau Islands (a small archipelago southeast of Singapore) 39 workers at an aluminium plant were told to quit by authorities claiming they didn’t have the right permits.  There have been other incidents.

Professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences reportedly described the general perception of China as ‘very mixed’.

‘There’s always distrust based on history, politics and the social makeup of the two countries, as well as ethnicity. It’s complex, and the issue of Chinese workers has been here for a few years following increased investment.’

Indonesia needs to dampen discrimination and disquiet as government statistics show investments from the Middle Kingdom of AUD 6.75 billion, making it the second-largest investor after Japan.  Most of the money is for 2,000-plus public works, like toll roads, new railways and port upgrades which have benefitted corporates and citizens.

Widodo has told the media ‘no one should be allergic to investment’ and has been pushing legislation to scythe the nation’s thickets of bureaucracy which deter bankers.  But the proposed changes include slashing labour laws on severance pay, drawing hostility from unions.  The bill is in lockdown, another victim of Covid-19.

While beckoning carriers of Yuan the President has been repelling trawlers harvesting the Natuna Sea which borders the South China Sea.  These are choppy waters to navigate as the Communist state is pushing its so-called nine-dash line into territory claimed by Indonesia.

After an incursion of 60 boats protected by Chinese coastguards late last year a stern-faced Widodo posed aboard a warship while declaring his nation’s territorial integrity ‘non-negotiable’.

His posturing may have cooled local nationalists though not the foreign fishers who are allegedly still casting nets.  Even if he felt like taking the media for another bracing day on the briny, Widodo can’t afford to repeat macho-moments offshore when he has thousands of plague victims sick and dying onshore.

This isn’t the time to declare your big benefactor is also a poacher.  Nor, apparently, to tell citizens to avoid a nation where so much is invested.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 15 June 2020:

Thursday, June 11, 2020


                        Back to the good ol’ ways

Cities can snap-back from the Corona-19 crisis – though not necessarily to a New Normal.  Jakarta shows how.

The Old Normal of over-filled markets and traffic-choked streets is back in the Indonesian capital and other centres across the archipelago.  Before-and-after urban plague pix show few differences.  

The most striking are garish banners featuring comic figures warning citizens to wash hands, stay apart and wear masks.  In the foreground, eyes downcast, shuffle the unimpressed and unprotected.
The billboards have been more facade than substance.  Few Indonesians are seeing the pandemic primarily as a medical issue – and that includes the government.

Trapped between the hidden coral threatening a public health wreck and the exposed rocks of an economic disaster, the government is navigating a high-risk passage.  

It’s decided to sail over the hazards it can’t see, gambling the crew will stay fit and the ship of state won't founder, ripped apart by job losses and social riots.

Many think Captain Joko Widodo is using the wrong compass, and that includes Lapor (report) a new NGO which calls itself the Citizens’ Coalition for Covid-19.

It says it’s crowdsourced by ‘a group of individuals who have concerns about citizens' rights and public health issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic’. Eleven NGOs including Transparency International and the Alliance of Independent Journalists are listed as supporting the initiative. 

Offering itself as a muster point for information ‘that has so far escaped the government’s reach’ its pronouncements have to date been sober and backed by legitimate sources. 

To avoid being seen as subversives (the user-ready slur turns docile dissidents into red-fanged Communists) the Lapor operatives are claiming the status of supporters.

They say their data will help the government ‘determine policies and steps for handling Covid-19 in the field’.  This implies the national administration, with its 4.5 million employees, isn’t using its resources efficiently.

At the moment Lapor seems to be what it claims, though in Indonesia it’s always worth pondering other motives and undisclosed backers. Its definition of ‘help’ won’t cheer Widodo.  It means using info from the regions which allegedly show the real death toll is about 3.5 times greater than official stats. At the time of keyboarding these were 32,033 confirmed cases and 1,883 deaths.

Lapor started in March when the Palace was misleading people about the oncoming pandemic.  Giveaways included the president urging the sick to drink jamu (traditional herbal potions), keep calm and carry on.   He also backed Donald Trump’s cure-all chloroquine offering no evidence other than the POTUS endorsement.

When the plague became too gross to ignore Widodo said he’d sung a lullaby to avoid scaring the littlies, forgetting they were monitoring world news on their smartphones.

Among the early cynics were journalists and academics, predictably labelled scaremongers and urged to pray by Health Minister Dr Terawan Agus Putranto.  A cluster of NGOs has demanded his sacking for ‘an absence of sensitive, responsive and effective leadership’.  Widodo has stuck by the lieutenant-general from an army hospital, though the calls for change persist.

Amid the many problems facing the world’s third-largest democracy (though only just leaving adolescence) is that the people don’t trust government information.

With good cause.  The 32-year dictatorship of General Soeharto which only ended in 1998 was characterised by grand-scale corruption and the crushing of opposition.  

Newspapers were thin and bland. The government channel TVRI news could only telecast uniformed ministers announcing grand policies which seldom eventuated.  Think Kim Jong-un studying maps in a horseshoe of quivering generals.

No use reporters raging against the machine for they’d get crushed. So hacks relied on overseas broadcasts (shortwave Radio Australia was particularly popular) and photocopies of smuggled foreign papers to spread the news. 

Indonesians are pragmatic.  Editors used double entendre and spliced real news into government handouts knowing most ministers were too dense to decode the wordplay.  

The legacy of those decades of distrust doesn’t just linger – it pervades, making an outfit like Lapor all the more necessary.  It recruited Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University to measure the level of readiness of Jakartans for a return to normality.  Unsurprisingly it found many confused and fearful and not just for their health.

Although the government offers handouts to the poor, the welfare safety net is considered too patchy to provide confidence.  The latest cash splash  of Rp 677.2 trillion (AUD 69 billion) follows two others totalling more than Rp 1,000 trillion (AUD 103 billion) to stimulate the economy, give tax breaks and quake-proof state-owned enterprises.

Last week Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati argued the sandbags would keep growth above zero, but Japan-trained economist Dr Piter Abdullah disagreed. The research director at Indonesia’s Centre of Reform on Economics was quoted as saying:

‘The country needs a bigger health care budget to manage the outbreak. If we’re not ready, then there’s a possibility of a second wave ... the proposed budget for social protection is too small amid the threat of rising poverty.’

Lifting the ‘partial lockdown’ this week gave the official green light for a return to work or job-seeking.  It was an academic gesture. Jumping the red to get ahead of the crush is common at traffic lights when cops doze, so ignoring orders to stay home came naturally.  

All this is history as the busses and trains are now moving masses of commuters and shoppers around Jakarta’s 6,400 square kilometres, the world’s second-most populous metro area after Tokyo’s 37 million.

Japan seems to be on top of the plague.  Although more than 900 have perished the per capita death rate is 40 times less than the US. This has been attributed to a disciplined public, trustworthy stats and the government’s rapid response, factors absent in Indonesia’s Old Normal handling of the crisis.  

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 11 June 2020:

Monday, June 01, 2020


                                    Sorry, no connections available

It’s become a ritual for every Australian leader for the past half-century.

Before the Governor-General the new PMs swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, then another of office.  The third is delivered outside Yarralumla.  The wording varies but the message is the same:  I pledge to improve relations with the folk next door.

Tony Abbott said it best and was the fastest to forget:  ‘More Jakarta, less Geneva’.

There’s concrete behind the promise and that’s not a metaphor:  Having the biggest Embassy in the world is supposed to show Australia is serious about cementing ties. 

Though not friendships. The universal symbols of mutual affection and respect are open doors and heartfelt greetings.  Visitors get neither at the iron gates of Australia’s citadel in the heart of its giant neighbour.

The $415 million Embassy built in 2016 is a five-hectare fortress.  Missing is a moat.  In reality that’s the Arafura Sea separating the two countries by less than 350 kilometres. 

The Embassy is encircled by blast-resistant walls to deter terrorists like those who bombed an older building in 2004 killing nine and injuring 150.  All were Indonesians.

The safety of occupants and visitors is essential.  That principle also guides the design of prisons. The diplomats locked behind the ring of steel (some live in the 32 townhouses inside) advise Canberra on policies towards the world’s third-largest democracy. 

 To do this they tune into political commentary filtered through newspapers and TV newscasts from stations so partisan they make Fox News look balanced.  From their ergonomic offices staffers assess the moods and movements of citizens across an archipelago of 6,000 plus inhabited islands.

More than 100 of the 180 Australians from 14 departments who work at the Embassy and three consulates have fled along with Ambassador Gary Quinlan.  He’ll miss a fine residence which offsets the Fort Oz sterility.  In the arboreal suburb of Menteng, with former president Megawati Soekarnoputri as a neighbour, it’s splendidly furnished with an impressive display of Australian art and culture.

The spooks and bureaucrats now safe in Barton fill time with encrypted calls to the Big Durian.  No whiffs of the reputedly aphrodisiac fruit or preachers’ calls to prayers wafting over the walls to distract.  

Also missing are the odours of coffee and smoking sate, the cries of hawkers, the heat and floods, the crazy cacophony of Southeast Asia’s biggest city. Instead the days pass calling contacts to ask what’s happening, arrange Zooms and upload smartphone vision.

Contacts are not connections. Images on screens are not human interactions. Indonesians are social people in three dimensions – four if including spirituality.  They want to know us face-to-face and shake our hands. Their culture isn’t bookish, it’s oral.  

We ask: What’s your job? We go slowly, gleaning intimacies grain by grain.

They’re direct.  The political is personal.  Are you married?  How many kids?  How old are you?  Where do you live?  Where are your parents from? What’s your religion?  Favourite food – and how do you cook it? 

If the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement comes into force on 5 July, business will claim a triumph of closeness.  

Nonsense. More of our cereals and meats might appear on the slabs of traditional markets, though few consumers will know the origins of their goodies.  But backstories featuring wheatbelt header drivers and station hands mustering on horseback would excite.

Don’t go, don’t know.  Though more than nine million Indonesians travelled overseas last year, only 160,000 made it Down Under.  That included around 20,000 students. The tourist industry alleges harsh visa rules, which don’t apply to Malaysians and Singaporeans, deter Indonesians.  

In the same period, 1.3 million Australians flew to the Hindu enclave of Bali, population 4.2 million.  Few ventured into the islands beyond where the other 266 million live, most of them Muslim, to learn more about this complex nation.  

Few in government know how to build mateship when differences are often extreme so here are some pointers.

Sir John Gorton, PM between 1968 and 71, is largely forgotten in Australia and totally so in Indonesia.  Though not his American wife Bettina who spoke Indonesian and Javanese, collected batik and lectured journos on Indonesian culture.

A 1983 obituary read: ‘She won great success as a result of her deep interest in the cultural life of the region, her warm, open approach to the people she met, and the effectiveness of the speeches she made in the Indonesian language.’

The 1980s TV soapie Return to Eden brought another bonding moment.  Rebecca Gilling, the star of the Australian mini-series shown in Indonesia, was mobbed when she visited Jakarta. One reporter wrote she was more popular in Indonesia than her homeland.

Since second president Soeharto was dethroned in 1998 things have been kicked downhill by riots in Jakarta, killings in East Timor, spyings and executions in Java and brutalities in West Papua.

There was a brief pause in 2015 when a tie-less Malcolm Turnbull was taken by President Joko Widodo on one of his famous blusukan (walkabouts).  They went to the vast Tanah Abang market and were given a Gilling-style welcome.

An Australian VIP snapping selfies among the masses like a happy tourist? He should have brought a didgeridoo and wowed the crowd.  Playing was one of Bettina Gorton’s many talents. Fears of terrorists and Covid-19 curb such interactions; these need to be measured and not permanent as the paranoid urge.

The 1914 public assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria helped start World War I but didn’t stop other leaders and the led getting together as the years rolled on. 

The pandemic offers a chance to reset relationships between Indonesians and Australians.  That’s going to take an almighty bipartisan effort across all activities and not just the STDs – security, trade and defence.  

Which means holding PMs to their inauguration promises.

Covid-19 Update: The government has deployed 340,000 military to help police enforce social distancing, raising fears the Army is getting back into civilian affairs.  The nation has 25,216 confirmed cases and 1,520 deaths.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 1 June 2020: