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, August 24, 2020



                                    Making the paranormal the new normal

Last Monday was going to be the most spectacular splash of all, a grand semi sesquicentennial commemoration of Indonesia’s independence.  Then came Covid19.  While the Jakarta government promised a vaccine, others were relying on ritual.

Tucked behind guardian stone lions at the foot of the three-tiered Kidal temple was a black plastic bag holding a pot of sand.  This sprouted a cluster of burnt incense sticks, that morning’s purification rite inherited from the pre-Islamic kingdom of Singhasari (1222 – 92).

Ruwatan promotes good weather, rich harvests, community cohesion and a society free from evil forces – in this case, a virus which has so far killed at least 7,000.

The offering couldn’t be seen from the road about 100 metres distant where it might infuriate religious fundamentalists keen to stamp out Kebatinan.  Here, and in other East Java villages, ancient beliefs co-exist with the imported monotheistic faiths citizens are supposed to follow. 

Fortunately, Kidal is well-watched by caretaker Romlah and her four related households at the rear of the 13th century Hindu tower temple, though all families are Muslim.  “We burnt the incense while praying for protection against disease,” she said. 

Then showing her culture’s skills at stirring the paranormal with the normal, past and present, beliefs and politics, she added: “We also did so to celebrate our independence.”

As part of its pandemic lockdown, the government has closed Kidal and many other sites around the city of Malang, though the official reasoning is weird. 

Indonesians prefer shopping malls to historic locales and few foreign anthropologists seek the poorly-signed monument in the village of Rejokidal.  It’s more easily tracked by following the stench of an adjacent chicken farm.

Until the coronavirus hit in February and began to run amok, 17 August was going to be the most splendid show of the year as Indonesians celebrated Soekarno’s 1945 declaration of independence from Dutch colonialism.  They’d ruled much of the archipelago for almost 350 years till ousted by the Japanese in 1942.

Two days after Japan surrendered the revolutionary leader proclaimed Merdeka (freedom).  The speech is bland.  There’s no US-style soaring rhetoric, no foundation principles, just a 25-word statement of separation drafted in a Japanese admiral’s house on a borrowed typewriter. 

A colony no more – now a republic.  ‘Matters which concern the transfer of power etc’ were to come later.

The divorce from Queen Wilhelmina was delivered outside Soekarno’s (now demolished) home under a flag sewn by Fatmawati, his third of nine wives.  The fasting month of Ramadan was underway so no feasting.  And no time to celebrate for the Dutch were heading back and the armed Japanese still in control despite Tokyo’s surrender.

A vicious guerrilla war against the stubborn Netherlanders ran for four years until the Europeans realised colonialism was dead.  So were 100,000 Indonesians – including citizens caught in massacres - and more than 6,000 Hollanders, many of them conscripts.

From simplicity to pomposity.  Since then celebrating the Proclamation has become a grand outpouring of ultra-nationalism that bemuses Australians with its strange mix of strutting militarism, huge crowds, giant flags and jolly japes.  Greasy-pole climbing and sack races are standards.

The national anthem Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia) was composed by muso and journo Wage Rudolf Soepratman in 1928, but it’s Western classical, not the traditional ensemble drum and metallophone gamelan that haunts the nation’s interior.  Gamelan is infectious, rarely melodious, unpredictable, difficult for outsiders to absorb and impossible for marchers.  It’s egalitarian.

The official music might have been imported but the rest had to be homegrown. Malay became the basis of the national tongue to keep all 300-plus language groups on side, though Javanese was the most widely spoken.

A set of five values (Pancasila) was devised and all citizens required to show allegiance.  Enthusiasm for the code cools and boils as religious fanatics repeatedly try to make Indonesia an Islamic state.

This year attempts in Parliament to trim the creed to three points labelled Pancasila Ideology Guidelines have been shelved following howls that changes would turn the nation ‘secular and atheistic’.

But back to Kidal where the hunt for emblems for the new nation turned to the temple. On its sides are three carved images of the mythical semi-human Garuda eagle who released his enslaved mother Dewi Winata.   Soekarno saw the chance for a metaphor and promoted the Hindu bird into the heraldry giving it 17 wing and eight tail feathers to match the date. 

In his claws the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, old Javanese for ‘Unity in Diversity’ – a smart blending of old and new.

Compounding the difficulties in understanding our big neighbour’s birthday bash this year was the parallel celebration of the local Arema soccer team’s 30th anniversary.  Banners (in English) ‘Our Souls Already Blue’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ were draped around intersections, sometimes masking oncoming traffic, and competing with the red and white bunting.

The sport was introduced by the Dutch and has become the national game, though seldom played well.  As with the Kidal temple architects, the footy fans have borrowed the beast to represent their ferocity.  Asiatic lions live in India so their image presumably accompanied Hinduism.

This year the pageantry had to be online.  It was bolstered by TV coverage of a few well-spaced dignitaries at the Presidential Palace watching the flag raising from a distance, like Kim Jong-un at a missile launch. 

Community leaders urged residents to stand outside their gates at 10 am and salute – but in our area, few bothered.  Maybe they were snapping to attention inside their kitchens; does that count, or is it like a tree falling soundlessly in a forest because no-one is listening?

Cellphone videos show market crowds singing Indonesia Raya and a few flag wavers.  There have been some stirring virtual choirs.

Detecting a universal mood from a nano-glance at a segment of 270 million is clearly flawed.  Like a Russian vaccine the sample size is too small. But I’ve never seen such a passionless response in more than two decades of participating.

The way the 75th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence was celebrated when tested by a modern pandemic prompts the question: Is patriotism instinctive, or an emotion constructed by governments to create an image of cohesion?  

It was prompted by contemplating curious images carved on volcanic rocks eight centuries ago, smudged with the smoke of burning incense.

 First published in Pearls & Irritations, 24 August 2020:

Tuesday, August 11, 2020





Is Indonesia’s ‘dreamy idealist’ losing the plot?

Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia by [Ben Bland]

Akhirnya!  At last!  Just in time for the 75th anniversary of the declaration of Indonesia’s independence next week (17 August) we’re starting to examine our big neighbour with some honesty.


With a free trade agreement in the bag maybe some feel more relaxed about speaking bluntly - and that's happening with businesspeople warning of hazards

Or perhaps we’re fed up with tip-toeing around chauvinists.  Whatever – it’s welcome and comes in a useful and easily digested package – Ben Bland’s Man of Contradictions, subtitled Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia. (To be released next month, pre-sales now.)


Bland is with the Lowy Institute which published his 146-page book / paper as a Penguin Special.  He was once the Financial Times man in Jakarta. The posting pleased:  Indonesia is the best country in the world in which to be a foreign correspondent... There is no other place you can see, learn, and do so much as a journalist while feeling so secure, at least most of the time.’


He arrived in 2012 when a small-town mayor was bidding for the big time as Governor of Jakarta.

Bland met or interviewed Widodo (better known as Jokowi) more than a dozen times – though it seems never intimately - watching ‘the Jokowi phenomenon grow exponentially before crumbling under the burden of expectations.’


Widodo attracted for what he was, and what he wasn’t. Greed and brazen ambition seemed absent.  His philosophy was ojo kagetan – don’t get excited. He didn’t strut or triumph, rather ‘winning without humiliating’. 


He’d never been in the military, like the kleptocrat and authoritarian second president Soeharto (1921-2008), but has now surrounded himself with uniforms. Of course they ‘seek ‘security-led responses to everything from religious tensions to Covid-19’, unnerving those wanting the army in barracks, not government. 


When Widodo won the Presidency in 2014 the world’s media went ga-ga claiming the slim, mild-mannered heavy-metal fan was the new face of the maturing democracy determined on change.  Blusukan (market walkabouts) became his trademark. 


(Credit VOA)


Farewell KKN (Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotism) and the ‘octopus of the oligarchy’, even though it’s made a post-revolution comeback like the Bourbons in 19th century France.


Human rights would prevail.  The poor would find work, foreign investors form queues, the economy boom.  Seven per cent GDP was promised.   Before the plague it was five – now crashed to one.


This is serious stuff.  If inflation results and a demagogue appears, riots could follow. 


Bland looked past the eulogies, noticing the desired qualities were not being displayed.  Widodo’s fans were projecting their expectations on a man free of ideology, a narrow thinker and poor defender of democracy.  He lacked the will to stamp out the endemic graft corroding the economy and voters’ trust.


Instead he’s wed to concrete issues - roads, ports and rail lines, a can-do guy, differing from his can-talk predecessors.  He’s been spectacularly successful, thanks to Chinese funds and technology.  Before Covid-19 the plan was to use his second five-year term on developing human resources.


His strong work ethic is rooted in his struggles as a small furniture manufacturer for 15 years.  Like his US counterpart, he isn’t into reading and taking advice, running the palace ‘more as an imperial court than a chief executive’s office’.


With local-lad-makes-good yarns, myths become reality.  Indonesians were told Widodo grew up on the riverbank, offering images of slums and mud.  Bland writes the family was ‘certainly not destitute’.  Uncle Miyono was in business and employed his nephew.


As a Westerner Bland puts much of his subject’s success to timing and luck; the President reasons this is fate, which makes sense to an electorate where spiritualism throbs.  Born Mulyono and a sickly child, his parents renamed him to get well.   When Covid-19 erupted he promoted jamu, a traditional herbal cure-all.


Locals will choke on Bland’s paper because much is about their hero’s failings.  It’s a page-turner written with clarity pitched to a knowledgeable readership.  


Details of Widodo’s personal life would draw a wider audience, necessary to boost our knowledge of the people next door.  What sort of believer is the leader of a nation where 88 per cent claim to follow Islam?  He’s more abangan blending traditional Javanese mysticism than the orthodox santri, so often accused of not being a ‘proper’ Muslim.


How did he get into the prestigious Gadjah Mada Uni and his family find the money?  How was he as a forestry student?  How did he meet his wife Iriana (named after the province), reportedly his one and only girlfriend?  She’s often with him in public and seldom wears a headscarf – suggesting she’s her own woman. Does she advise?


What are his relationships with his kids, particularly his Singapore-educated surly son Gibran, 32, who now has political ambitions despite earlier distancing himself from Dad? Hints here of work eclipsing parenting.  Such details would compose a more substantial figure.   


 Also absent is more information on Javanese culture and the sharing codes which bind society, and where Widodo is an exemplar.  None of this can be understood using the Western templates of Judaeo-Christian values and left-right politics.


Bland knows this: ‘Unhelpfully for outsiders looking for straight-forward analytical frameworks, there are no easy dividing lines over ideology or policy.’ He tries to explain but needs more space.


In his early days as President the peanut didn’t forget his shell, as the Javanese proverb tells.  Widodo continued relating to the wong cilik (wee folk) who helped him into the palace defeating the blustering, aggressive former general Prabowo Subianto.  In the hierarchical culture of Java, this was an extraordinary feat, but the word-shy Widodo is no charismatic spell-binder like the nation’s proclamator Soekarno who’ll be remembered next Monday.

As Jakarta Governor Widodo stared down radicals demanding he replace a Christian community leader with a Muslim, saying he prioritised merit.  But when his ethnic Chinese Christian friend Basuki Tjahaja (Ahok) Purnama efficient successor was jailed on a devious charge of blasphemy, Widodo as President backed away, choosing political expediency above moral leadership. 


Bland thinks Widodo isn’t corrupt and genuinely wants to lift living conditions, health and education. But he’s become neo-authoritarian, ‘Soeharto lite’ – a label he might like.  He rants about red tape clogging progress and scaring foreign investors – yet he’s also a socialist, pandering to nationalists by boosting the nation’s 100-plus state-owned enterprises.  Bland ranks these as ‘more pervasive in Indonesia than in any other major economy apart from China’.

The first biography of Widodo in English is a good primer.  The cyclopaedia is Australian Dr Greg Barton’s Gus Dur, a close examination of fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, the near-blind idiosyncratic Muslim scholar and human rights champion who died in 2009.


Barton had almost full-time access to the liberal democrat and his family.  It’s now difficult to get near Widodo.  He’s indifferent to foreign media and unwilling to intellectualise his ideas.  The best he gave Bland was ‘democracy is about improving the lives of the people.’


Bland’s conclusion isn’t sanguine: ‘Jokowi (now 59) still has four years to go, and it seems he will do little more than muddle through his final term as president. He may once more demonstrate that being underestimated is his greatest strength. I hope so. But I fear that while Jokowi’s story shows what is possible in Indonesia, it also shows the limits.’

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 11 August 2020:





Thursday, August 06, 2020


Beware – different strokes for different folks                                            

Two crimes:  One involving the death of a policeman, the other a failed attempt at drug smuggling.

One criminal gets life – the other four years.  Though not the ones you think.

It jars, or as they say Down Under, it doesn’t pass the pub test.

Australian Sara Connor, 49, is now back with her two sons in her New South Wales homeland town of Byron Bay.

She spent four years behind bars for her role in the killing of an Indonesian policeman Wayan Sudarsa.  He died on Kuta beach in 2016 with 42 wounds to his head and body.  Police said he’d been bashed with a beer bottle. 

There were no independent witnesses so all evidence in the tragic and ugly case comes from Connor (who denied involvement) and her British boyfriend David Taylor.  He got six years for the death and is still in prison.

The couple claimed they were drinking beer when Connor lost her handbag.  For some reason there was a fight with the Bali cop. They were originally charged with murder and faced the maximum penalty of 15 years in jail.

That’s the time already spent behind bars by Martin Stephens, 44, one of the Bali Nine drug runners now serving a life sentence for trying to smuggle drugs to Australia through Ngurah Rai airport.  He didn’t hurt anyone.

He fears he’ll die inside the Lowokwaru jail in Malang, East Java, unless President Joko Widodo orders clemency. Nine years ago he married Indonesian Christine Winarni Puspayanti.  They met when she was visiting as a part of a church group.

Stephens claims he can do more good in the community warning of the dangers of drugs than being held as an example of the Indonesian government’s war on narcotics.

Connor and Stephens stories are stark examples of different laws and cultures.  Depending on the state, killing a police officer in Australia could result in a mandatory life sentence.   A drug mule not involved in the planning would likely get under ten years with half spent on probation.

As the Australian Embassy tells visitors: ‘You're subject to all local laws and penalties, including those that may appear harsh by Australian standards.’

 “I did wrong,” Stephens  said.  “It was my big mistake.  I’m asking for a second chance. I’d never been convicted before of any crime.

“My wife and daughter are struggling. My parents in Australia are doing it hard because of me.  I want to care for them.  Why should they keep paying for my first fault? What’s served by keeping me behind bars?  I want to be a good citizen and contribute.

”I’m borderline autistic.  That caused problems when I was a kid.  Now I’m more mature.  I’ve learned the hard way.  I got out of my depth. I’ve always taken responsibility for my mistakes.  I’m proud of that.”

Stephens, now 44, was a bartender in Wollongong (NSW) when recruited by the infamous Bali Nine gang attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin worth about AUD 4 million to Sydney through Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai airport.  They were snared in a 2005 joint Indonesian Police and Australian Federal Police (AFP) operation.

A decade later ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad.  The only woman involved, Renae Lawrence was sentenced to 20 years.  In 2018 she was released and deported. Vietnamese-Australian Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen was given life imprisonment.  He died of stomach cancer in 2018.

Stephens was shifted from Bali’s Kerobokan Jail to Malang with Nguyen in 2014.  At the time it was widely reported the men were sent to East Java because they’d ‘violated prison rules’.

Stephens denies this vigorously: “I asked to be moved to be closer to my wife and apart from the others.  I don’t want to know them.  I wasn’t in their syndicate which made earlier drug runs. I’ve always been known as the Bali Nine black sheep.”

Stephens said he’d reject a prisoner exchange unless compelled:  “I’m much freer here than I would be in an Australian jail, though logically it would be better for my parents. 

“I’m the only white Western Christian among about 3,000 prisoners and I’m treated well.  Malang has different rules.  It’s one hundred per cent better than Kerobokan. 

 “I teach English and play the seruling (traditional bamboo flute) but I haven’t learnt Indonesian.  I want to keep my Australian identity and avoid getting involved in faction fighting.”

Apart from skin sores which are being medicated, Stephens looks physically healthy, striding through crowds of shuffling prisoners like a man with purpose.  He says his family and faith sustain him, though he criticizes church “hypocrites” who promise to help but don’t deliver. 

Although he gets distressed recounting his life he says he’s never contemplated suicide: “That’s not me. I couldn’t do that to my parents.  I love them too much. 

“So many lies have been told about me. No-one sees your struggles – only your errors. Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?”


First published in Indonesian Expat 6 August 2020:


                                                                      Killing slowly to show love                             

WARNING: This article contains images which some may find disturbing.


The twelve plump bulls look superb.  Their black skins gleam in the shafting daybreak sunshine, proof of good health and care.  In an Aussie country show they’d be winning trophies, their breeders backslapped.

Here in East Java, they’re also on display and much admired.  Tethered on grass, along with two dozen goats, they ruminate in the shade of a temporary tin-sheet shelter.  All are male and entire. However, they’re not aggressive for they’ve been hand-reared.  Necklace labels list the seven donors who spent AUD 270 each to buy a share.

The affection continues even after sale.  Much patting by the excited little kids gathered to watch the recreation of an ancient ritual, much like crowds mustered for public hangings.

(The last Australian spectacle was in 1854, in UK 1868 and the US in 1936.)

 Indonesia’s domestic Bos taurus are so trusting, so content they clearly enjoy the stroking warm hands, unaware these touches are final.


But the children do, and this is their fun day off.  What they don’t realise is a morning of learning awaits, a mixed-topic master class.  First is sex education as the randy billies try to mount anything stationary and lick their ejaculate.  Then biology as the wee ones get to watch autopsies, and finally philosophy as they start to ponder the meaning of life.

At 7 am when the congregations have finished formal prayers, the first animal is led unhurriedly and willingly to a short bridge alongside the Fattahillah mosque. Shafts of sunlight rising above smoking Mount Bromo to the east, bounce off the holy place’s green and yellow dome. 

Had there been flowers, Ferdinand could have paused to sniff. There are no worrying sights to disturb what he imagines most likely – a move to pastures fresh. 

So he cooperates.

Had he resisted little could have been done to contain his adrenalin-boosted power. One shake of his muscled neck and he’d have tossed off the handlers, kicked others away and pranced bucking and snorting through the crowded kampong, scattering residents like the running of the bulls in Spain.

Instead he trusted.

He wouldn’t have noticed the butcher’s tools sheaved in a leather satchel dangling on a guard-rail. The coiled cords and stacked wicker baskets are commonplace in the byre by the family home where he’d been petted for the past 18 months.  The crowd starts to sing prayers.  It’s the morning of the long knives.

That should have flashed an alert to the bovine brain.  Something unusual is afoot. They’re not using the sound screechers atop the minaret. The chant is cheerful and unusual for all are participating, girls and boys, men and women, most dressed casually.   For this mosque is Nahdlatul Ulama, a branch of Indonesian Islam that’s more tolerant and relaxed.

To a bull’s ears, one religious verse is probably much like any other.  Even when the blue ropes are threaded around his neck and legs in a diamond pattern there’s nothing to worry about. That is until the six men jerk and pull.


Suddenly half a tonne of living animal crashes to the concrete.  His body writhes like a landed fish. The ropes are dragged from under and rapidly tied around the thrashing hooves, yanking them together. 

The fellow tries to bellow, a bull’s roar to protest the pain and betrayal.  But the bonds are too tight and three men sitting on his belly stifle his breathing.  Instead he draws his testicles up into his abdomen and shits.

The onlookers laugh.  No-one does squeamish.  Or social distancing.  Few wear masks.

All hands are needed to roll the living carcace onto a blue plastic cover like a bedridden hospital inmate having a sheet change.  There’s much rocking and shoving to make him comfortable.

The choreographer of the show opens his bag and selects the long-bladed favourite, well-honed that morning.  His sidekicks pull back the head so the skin is taut. Forty centimetres of silver steel slices through the thick brown throat as though it’s a soft cheese.  


The killer’s fingers feel within the gaping wound for the white windpipe, then severs it apart.  Now the bull is voiceless. One man ruffles the victim’s brow as if to say: ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.’

Others hold palm fronds at the throat so the spurting blood doesn’t soak bystanders.  A hose is thrust in the floppy red gap like a surgeon intubating a patient, to wash the pumping heart and hasten bleeding.

A square steel manhole is opened in the road so the gore can drain into the creek below.  The kids push through the fence of legs for a closer look.  No one gets annoyed.

Bull’s mates resting 50 metres away now understand they’ve been given the extreme sentence and there’s no appeal.  They can only hear the prayers and they can’t see through the dense crowd.  But they smell death. To carnivores like dingoes, it means food.  To herbivores it signals flight.

Yet as each creature is led to the soft banana tree trunk that serves as pillow and execution block, they ignore their instincts and offer no resistance.

What’s the point?  Their symbolic role in the apocryphal Genesis story pre-dates Islam.  This is their destiny.  It is written. Eid-al Adha (also known as Idul Adha) is a holy holiday, also celebrated in Judaism and parts of Christendom.  It honours Abraham’s willingness to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac.


With heaven-sent timing the deity intervened and offered a ram lamb to replace the lad.  The late British-American author and public atheist Christopher Hitchens damned the tale: ‘Religions which say you should admire infanticide as proof of the love of God have no place at all to preach ethics, let alone love.’

This kampong in East Java is also no place to question the tradition in a country where an estimated 400,000 bulls and twice that number of billy goats were sacrificed last Friday.  They bled to death at around the same time across the archipelago and elsewhere, for Islam has 1.8 billion followers worldwide.

After slaughter a practised chain gang took over, skinning, gutting and packaging the meat for distribution to the villagers, whatever their faith.

Mosque officials said the bulls were local, though several appear to be Angus, a black-skinned breed common in Australia.  However, it’s unlikely these placid beasts have come from Down Under unless bought from feedlots months earlier. 


If so then they should be dying differently, stunned before slaughter.  That was the deal done with Indonesian authorities after the live beef trade was abruptly halted in 2011. The ban which outraged pastoralists, came after activists released gruesome videos of gratuitous brutality in Indonesian abattoirs.

That’s not happening here in Sawojajar.  No-one kicks, thumps or carries sticks. There’s no clamour.  The only offence animal welfare supporters might raise is that the ritual should start with a captive bolt fired into the brain. To get that coup-de-grace the victims need to have come from the Kimberley.

But who’d dare intervene?  To do so would sacrifice whatever goodwill remains between the neighbours, physically close, culturally distant.  This is a good place to consider religious rites, though not animal rights.

(Disclosure: That afternoon we were given a few kilos of beef, along with neighbours.  We donated to others.) 

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 6 August 2020: