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, September 30, 2020



                                  Chinese workers in Indonesia stoke tensions                            

Indonesia’s foreign policy seems divorced from reality.  It’s called bebas-aktif (free and active) and supposed to mean no siding with world powers.  

Officially it reads: ‘As a matter of principle, so doing would be incompatible with the country’s national philosophy and identity as implied in Pancasila’, the nation’s five principles of religious devotion, humanitarianism, nationalism, consultative democracy, and social justice.

Well, yes,  all fine and dandy, but the time’s coming when the fourth most populous country may have to decide whether it wants to snuggle with the world’s largest (China) or the third (US) as both vie for support.

The US has already rolled up its sleeves and shown tattoos. Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, the failed candidate in last year’s presidential election, was on an armaments shopping spree when warned off buying Russian fighter jets and Chinese naval vessels.  That’s according to Bloomberg, and the reports haven’t been denied. 

Now it’s academic as Indonesia doesn’t have the cash. Figures from the government agency Statistics Indonesia show the economy withered 5.32 per cent in this year’s second quarter, and is expected to shrink further.

From facts to fear. The US Congress 2020 report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China included this par:

 ‘... the PRC is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces. The PRC has likely considered locations for PLA (People’s Liberation Army) military logistics facilities’ in 12 countries, including Indonesia.

This is the only reference in the 174-page document and the ‘very likely’ qualification suggests conjecture. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi responded that her country wouldn’t become a military base for anyone, but Congress is flying kites.

The notion of the Chinese seeking a base seems unlikely as they’d know an approach at this stage would rouse nationalist wrath and threaten major infrastructure projects they’re funding.  But it seems to be edging closer.

Veteran Asia hand John McBeth has contacts many Indonesian hacks would envy.  Writing in The Asia Times he reported a Chinese coast guard cutter working the fringes of Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile Economic Exclusion Zone ‘is now suspected of trying to stake out the limits of Beijing’s nine-dotted line of historically claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea.

 ‘The latest incident suggests that Jakarta may sooner or later have to confront the fact that China is now seeking to lay down markers in claiming traditional fishing rights inside Indonesian waters in a clear breach of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.’

Marsudi issued a formal protest to Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian over the alleged intrusion on 12 September. 

The resolve to repel Chinese ambitions may weaken as Indonesia faces the same dilemma confronting Australia.  Both are heavily dependent on doing business with Beijing while trying to steer their independent foreign policies through contested waters churned by two contesting superpowers.

Ambassador Quin has reminded that his nation’s bilateral business with the archipelago last year was nudging US $80 billion, making it Indonesia’s biggest trading partner – and twice the size of the US.


At a soft-power level, figures were rising fast before Covid-19 struck; two million Chinese tourists annually compared with one million Aussies. Around 10,000 Indonesians were studying in China. (About 8,500 chose Oz Unis.)  These figures make the renminbi as attractive as our dollars.


Dr Dino Patti Djalal – a former ambassador to the US and founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia – told the South China Morning Post the growing trade meant more Indonesian companies are paying debts in renminbi as ‘the Chinese are pushing for this’.

As reported earlier in this column, Orang Tionghoa  (ethnic Chinese Indonesians) have long had a strained relationship with the pribumi, the so-called native Indonesians, even though many families have been present for centuries and are full citizens. 

Official figures reveal only three million Orang Tionghoa in Indonesia, though the real statistic may be closer to three per cent of the population, or eight million.  Whatever, they wield huge business influence, drawing resentment which sometimes turns violent.  The most deadly incident was in 1998 when rioters killed and raped.

Indonesian boosters like to describe their nation as ‘multicultural’ but the definition is different from countries which foster immigration.  In Indonesia it means the many ethnic groups scattered across what used to be the Dutch East Indies are living together in the ‘unitary state’.  How many? Figures swing wildly from 600 to more than 1,000, though only nine can muster more than two per cent of the population of 270 million.

Chinese loans have financed great swathes of infrastructure in the past five years.  Sinologist Leo Suryadinata writes that around 1,000 Chinese state and private companies are involved in electronics, mining and construction.

In the week when 160 seasonal workers from Vanuatu arrived in Darwin to pick fruit for farmers who can’t get – or don’t want – unemployed Australians – a similar number of Chinese workers landed in Indonesia.

The men were brought to Bintan in the Riau Islands, 40 km south of Singapore, to work on an aluminium smelter and coal-fired power station.  The total number of Chinese at that location is now 450. 

The company involved claims it’s already employing 3,000 locals and the foreigners, known as xinyimin (‘new migrants’) will be gone by the end of the year.

Three months earlier Indonesians in Southeast Sulawesi protested the arrival of 500 Chinese to build a nickel smelter.  Overall there are reported to be around 30,000 Chinese temporary workers in the Republic, mainly employed on infrastructure projects.

Importing labour is part of the deal with site managers arguing the xinyimin are specialists and need to take instructions in Chinese languages, which few locals understand. The contracts apparently don’t include skills transfers. Officially Indonesia has more than seven million unemployed but because many are underemployed, and data collection suspect, the number is far higher.

In the Australian situation, the reasons for importing labour are more basic. Deputy Nationals Leader David Littleproud told the ABC: ‘There's a real aversion from the Australian workforce to go and pick fruit.’ Critics claim that’s too simplistic because it ignores closed borders and alleged worker exploitation.

Whether the xinyimin are being ripped off in Indonesia isn’t known.  Scuttlebutt alleges the men stay on and take other jobs though that seems unlikely. Apart from the language difficulties the workers keep to themselves and don’t mix with the locals. In a paper for Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute, Suryadinata wrote:

‘The relationship between xinyimin and Chinese Indonesians are generally not close, especially since the younger generation of Chinese Indonesians have lost an active command of Mandarin.

‘There is therefore a new Chinese migrant community emerging in Indonesia that may come into conflict with Chinese Indonesians who consider these new migrants as competitors. Xinyimin may also become an issue for the indigenous population who see them as exploiters and foreigners.’

So far Beijing’s policies concern threats to marine territory and jobs rather than fifth columnists and human rights abusers, as in Australia.  Little concern about spies and campus influencers.

That approach is unlikely to change while the Joko Widodo government remains in debt to the PRC.  The country with more Muslims than any other nation is even going soft on the issue of Muslim Uyghur allegedly persecuted in Xinjiang province.

A report from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict quotes Dr Munajat Stain, a senior aide to President Widodo: ‘We did not want to engage in their (Uyghur persecution) narrative because it would only empower the Islamists and radicals belonging to the opposition’ (inside Indonesia).

The Widodo administration is purchasing more than labour, smelters and services, it’s also buying the Chinese line that the Uyghur are separatists, a much feared ideology because it might fracture the ‘unitary state’ .  No calls to investigate ‘re-education camps’ and the Covid-19 source. It wouldn’t do to prod the Big Panda.

Coronavirus update:  Officially, 271,000 cases and 10,300 deaths, including 107 doctors and 74 nurses across Indonesia.  Jakarta and other cities in limited lockdown.  Testing rates are among the lowest in the region – unsurprising as rapid tests cost around AUD 15 or a day’s wage for a labourer – and fears that hospitals are places for dying, not healing.

The WHO recommends 270,000 tests every week.  The number is currently under 100,000.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 30 September 2020:

Wednesday, September 23, 2020



                              Six Ways Sacked Hacks Can Keep Keyboarding

If airline pilots grounded by Covid-19 can retrain as header drivers to reap this year’s harvest, sacked political journalists can keep supplying readers’ needs through a little retraining.

How can jobless journos keep their by-lines busy?  By filing copy on Gen Me stirrers who don’t sport ties and often wear next to nothing.  Although they think left and right are traffic signals, they’re just as self-centred as politicians so only minor adjustments needed. When a camera light turns red, they automatically preen and pontificate.  

Flashing LEDs also feature in the cabin controls of an Airbus A320 and a New Holland CR 9090.  The driving principles are much the same for both super-costly high-tech monsters: Lift the nose when the wheels start moving, stay level, watch the fuel gauge and ensure the passengers/wheat gets unloaded safely.

And so it is when shifting from writing about policies to scribbling about pap. The language and ethics are somewhat misaligned, but the readership is huge, as the late Peter Bowers (1930-2010) discovered pre-Internet when he produced this whimsy: Where, oh where, have 35 odd socks gone?

The SMH national correspondent normally specialised in cerebral political theatre and his copy regularly rattled Canberra’s movers and shakers.  But a slow news day throwaway on the domestic drama of misplaced hose garnered more response than anything he’d ever written on the shenanigans of our leaders across 57 years.

This reveals much about wordsmiths misjudging consumers’ tastes, our education system, the vapid nature of politics for Gen Z, or the mysterious appetites of washing machines.  Maybe all four.

Michelle Obama was wrong for saying:  ‘When they go low, we go high’. The truth is in reverse. Readership rises when the topic plunges.

Language is always critical.  In reporting politics, terms like ‘coup’, ‘crisis’, ‘threat’, ‘quit’ and ‘breakdown’ draw stories to Page One. When covering the trite, eye-catchers should include:  ‘Incredible’, ‘cute’, ‘wow’, ‘viral’ and ‘stunned’ (as in fans’ imagined reactions, not cattle in an abattoir).

Words are ammunition:  Some calibres serve both camps, like ‘cheat’, ‘disloyal’ and ‘exposed’, though meanings differ.

A ‘wardrobe malfunction’ is not a sticking door on bedroom furniture, but a slipping bra-strap in a photoshoot.  Apparently this is titillating. An event which ‘bombs’ doesn’t mean a terrorist attack but a fashion faux-pas, like wearing green at a capitalist’s wedding.

Here’s Six Tips For Shifting From The Weighty To The Weightless:

·        Every word in the heading must start with a capital so readers realise it’s a Must-Read.

·        Open with a low single-digit to lure clickers.  Turn-offs start around seven.

·        About 250 words max.  No polysyllables, references to classical texts or history pre-2019.

·        Topics should be limited to the doings of ‘celebrities’ and ‘influencers’.  Paunchy millennials with shaved domes in uniform suits may think they fit, but in this age of compost their views are for landfill, not recycling.

·        Assume your readers care nothing about the values you cherish.

·        Don’t bother checking sources and verifying quotes.  Just embellish PR handouts.

Now watch the dollars flow as principles flee, and fame rockets far beyond the Canberra Press Gallery.  This is the New Normal Media - Trash For Cash.  Which cynics might say is what political commentary does already.

First published in Pearls and Irritations 23 September 2020:



Monday, September 14, 2020



                                    Local lad’s strife pips looming crisis

It’s one of journalism’s nastier cynicisms: When judging news values 100 distant deaths equals ten closer to home and one in the suburb where the paper circulates.  If public contempt for the media is to be cured then The West Australian is in much need of reform.

On 11 September the Western third’s only daily ran a clich├ęd Page 8 lead:

Second WA man in Bali drug bust. Subiaco 46 yo in hot water after villa raid

He was named in the picture story which claimed he’d been arrested ‘by Indonesian police who allege they seized a small amount of drugs in his villa north of the trendy Canggu area ... If found guilty under Indonesia’s harsh drugs laws (he) could face a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.’

An unpleasant situation for the gentleman, and our overseas reputation.  Around 3.4 million Australians reported using an illicit drug in the last 12 months according to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey

Allegedly doing so in Indonesia suggests crassness beyond comprehension – apart from Renae Lawrence the Bali Nine survivors are still behind bars 15 years after being caught.  However, claims one arrestee has a ‘bipolar disorder’ warrant compassion if true.

There’s no indication the villa-dwellers nabbed by the cops are famous sportsmen, politicians’ sons or celebrities’ partners which might justify 414 words, but was this the most important story from our neighbour? 

Unfortunately no, as the ABC broadcast on 10 September and The Australian published next morning.  Both revealed something vastly more significant was underway.  The Oz headline read:

Push to widen Jakarta restrictions in new ‘emergency’.

 ‘Indonesian public health experts have called for nationwide restrictions to arrest surging Covid-19 infections, warning the decision to reimpose a partial lockdown in Jakarta from next Monday would have little impact if it did not also apply to surrounding cities.

‘Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan announced the new restrictions late on Wednesday, after revealing the city’s hospital system was on the verge of collapse and that the Indonesian capital was facing a COVID-19 “emergency”.’

There are around 12 million people in the Indonesia capital which has been clobbered by Covid-19, accounting for a quarter of the Republic’s cases. Nationally  there are more than 211,000 positive cases and 8,500 plus deaths – though some epidemiologists claim sloppy data collection and low testing rates suggest these figures are way too low.

By Saturday editors at the Australian on-line news source The New Daily (‘Not under control’: Coronavirus threatens to overrun Indonesia’s capital), and the Hong Kong Asia Times (Indonesia on verge of a deadly Covid disaster) had realised the significance. 

Though not The West Australian, which followed with a double-page spread reporting anecdotes of purse snatches and allegations of middle-aged foreigners who overstay visas, ignore come-home calls and run out of cash, so turn to drug dealing.  

The Australian’s competent 667-word story was sourced to a live-streamed media conference on Wednesday. Baswedan is a US-educated former university professor and as articulate in English as he is in Indonesian.  His office also issued a press statement, so no difficulty to cut and paste.

It wasn’t a slow news day in Perth with the plague and politics offering ample fillers between Harvey Norman ads. The city is only one-hour ahead of Jakarta (Sydney is three) so the issue was not deadlines, just news judgement.

The Australian went further with background and quotes from Indonesian epidemiologists and a Jakarta government statement.  This claimed hospital capacity had: ‘exceeded the safe limit and is expected to reach the maximum capacity on September 17, 2020. After that Jakarta health facilities will collapse.’

The Jakarta Post added an economy angle, reporting that recovery would take at least two to three years, according to Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga.  So there won’t be too much cash available to buy our goodies now the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is in place.

If all these dire warnings come to pass Indonesia is going to be in deep strife.  If big protests erupt the government could be overturned, as in 1998.

All this would probably strike most people as seriously newsworthy.  Though not on billionaire Kerry Stokes’ tabloid which reckons its readers want to know more about the doings of local drongos than a crisis gathering on the horizon and potentially threatening millions. 

First published in Pearls and Irritations. 14 September 2020:








Wednesday, September 09, 2020



                                 Cancer?  It’s a giggle



It isn’t accidental irony but a deliberate insult from Big Baccy – two fingers to the government, medicos and public health pros. Just above the small government warning on the ad banner’s bottom corner showing a tracheotomy is the latest buy-line: ‘I choose, I live’.

Indonesia’s tobacco lobby is so powerful it makes the combined forces of fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals and the arms industry in Australia look like the efforts of a Save Something collective run from an inner-city squat.

As transnationals (the top two are the US Philip Morris and British American), they treat Indonesia’s democratically elected government with undisguised contempt.

The few health rules are cleverly bypassed.   MILD was banned so the word became MLD with the downstroke on the L in bold.  The term ‘Quit’, widely used in the West to help addicts, has become warped to ‘Don’t Quit’ under pictures of sweaty athletes, so fit they’re clearly not users.

Slogans in English, much like French phrases in cooking and fashion, are supposed to add modernity and authenticity.  Common are ‘bold’ and ‘dare’.

Cigarettes can’t be shown, so one ad showed a stack of white cups with the top one frothing.

The super-slick TV commercials featuring daring studs challenging the wild can only be screened after 9.30 pm when impressionable kiddies are supposed to be abed. That regulation has been trashed.

The gallants’ exploits dashing up mountains and crashing down heavy waves are also shown on outdoor screens in central city locations, day and night.  Students heading to school must wonder how many packs they have to buy before their drab lives transform into adventure.

A few cities – usually with no fag factories in their bailiwicks - have banned outdoor advertising, but overall Queen Nicotine rules the Republic of 270 million.  The WHO says research indicates smokers have a higher risk of contracting Covid-19, which seems logical as the disease attacks the lungs.

Indonesia has close to 200,000 confirmed cases and 8,000 deaths, but medical experts and statisticians allege the real figure is probably four times greater as official data collection is error-prone.

Surveys show users claim they need the drug to reduce ‘stress’.  That could include worrying about health activists making their habit more frightening and costly.

Indonesia is one of only eight countries that’s neither a signatory nor a party to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. That puts RI way offside with the 180 states that ban or limit ads promoting smoking.

 Smokes are supposed to be sold only to those over 18.  Big supermarkets usually comply, but small traders don’t.  Then there are the illegal home-mades kept under kiosk counters. There are reports that 30 per cent of boys started the habit before they’d grown pubic hair.

The awful stats, all drawn from credible sources like the WHO, the Indonesian Health Ministry, National Commission on Tobacco Control and other authorities, underpin these claims:

  • The annual death toll from smoking is estimated at half a million. 
  • Macro-economic losses from cigarette consumption are four times higher than the tobacco excise.
  • Most smokers (63 per cent of adults) are men.  Women rarely indulge, and not just because they’re smarter and more health-conscious.  The culture labels them prostitutes.  Work it out – smoking men are heroes, women harlots.

These facts are ignored by the local industry (the fifth largest in the world) when it orders the government to butt out of business.  Instead, it highlights points like:

  • More than ten million are directly and indirectly employed in growing, harvesting, processing and packaging.  Most factory work is done by women.  In Surabaya, tourists are invited to admire their dexterity.

·        Taxes imposed on the industry aid the economy

·        The companies are benevolent corporate citizens, helping with pop concerts, education scholarships and sporting grants.

Although the ads show slim hotshots in corporate offices, the reality is that it’s the ordinary folk who are the big users and losers. Even day labourers earning less than ten bucks a day think they need to show their manliness. One brand has developed a ‘waterproof cigarette’ for use by fishermen and sailors

Indonesia has universal medicare but it’s suffocating.  Though major employers pay their workers’ premiums, others have to buy.   Many can’t, so rely on herbal cures and relatives’ savings should sickness hit.  Tax reformers favour a system similar to Australia’s where cover is included in the personal income tax, arguing that a boosted excise on smokes should go to health care.

A government ‘Development Plan’ to ban ads, enlarge the health warnings and curb sales to minors has been puffing its way slowly through the legislatures. The WHO wants taxes ramped to 70 per cent of the retail price.  They’re currently around 35 per cent.

The ‘Diplomat’ brand featured at the top of this story costs AUD 1.60 for 16 sticks, and it’s not the cheapest. In Australia a pack of 25 nudges AUD 40.  Our 2.5 million smokers put about AUD 17 billion into the Treasury every year.  In Indonesia, 60 million with yellow-stained fingers contribute a similar amount.

Those who aren’t Koranic scholars wonder why Muslims are allowed to use tobacco.  Intoxicants and substances that harm the body are said to be haram (prohibited) but the tobacco industry seems even more powerful than religious jurists.

The Majelis Ulama Indonesia (the law-making body of Islamic scholars) has set new standards of hypocrisy by declaring smoking in public or near pregnant women haram. If the savants know tobacco damages health it should be banned for all, but the likelihood of widespread and open non-compliance would undermine the old men’s other edicts.

Hooked users shrug off the government health warning Peringatan merokok membunuhmu (smoking kills you) like motorcyclists ignore traffic lights.  Anecdotes trump facts:  All inhalers know a Grandpop who smokes two packs a day and still pedals a pedicab.


As the world leader in combating tobacco use, we are loathed internationally.  Indonesia (in reality Philip Morris) plus four other states challenged Australia’s plain packaging laws at the World Trade Organisation and lost.


To be a smoker in Australia you have to be rich or stupid – or both.  The ugly sight of addicts huddled in rain-swept car parks is enough to encourage abstinence.  Shame is a powerful controller of behaviour in Indonesian society, but smoking has yet to make that grade.


First published in Pearls and Irritations 9 Sept 2020: