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

Tuesday, November 24, 2020



                                          An early test of strength


Just a year into its second five-year term, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government is under threat. Opposition is being powered by a hate group led by a xenophobic preacher demanding the nation abandons democracy for a sharia state. How serious is the menace?  We’ll know next week.


On Wednesday 2 December the 212 Alumni Brotherhood plans a mass rally at Medan Merdeka (freedom square) the one hundred hectare park in central Jakarta to commemorate a shameful event four years earlier.


That’s when about half-a-million Muslims from the capital and bussed in from the regions protested against the city’s governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama.  They alleged he’d committed blasphemy by commenting on the right of non-Muslims to lead Muslims – their evidence a doctored video.


The ethnic Chinese and a Christian is a double minority in the Republic of 270 million where almost 90 per cent claim to follow Islam. Purnama was jailed for two years.  Denouncers included a senior Islamic scholar Ma’ruf Amin, 77. 


He used to chair the world’s largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (revival of the guardians of Islamic doctrine) with a claimed membership of 57 million.  Now he’s the nation’s vice president and has since apologised for testifying against Purnama.


The leader of what’s now known as 212 (after the date) is Rizieq Shihab, 55, – self-styled Great Imam for life of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI Islam Defenders’ Front).  As reported earlier he came back to his homeland on 10 November after three years exile in Saudi Arabia. 

(For those with long memories the jubilant welcome reminded of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini.  He was the Shia Muslim leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution which overthrew the Shah.  Shia Islam is banned in Indonesia where people follow the Sunni denomination.)

 Police claim they expected only a few supporters would greet the portly cleric at the airport.  Instead they were overwhelmed by maybe 50,000 or more, densely packed and with few wearing masks.  Flights were disrupted and roads blocked for up to seven hours.  More worrying is that some police were caught posting messages of support for Shihab.

 President Joko Widodo immediately sacked the city’s two top police chiefs for being unprepared, suggesting that intelligence is as sloppy as the response to the pandemic – rapidly approaching half a million cases and 16,000 deaths. Shihab’s plans were known well in advance.

His estimated 15 million backers across Java, swelled by rent-a-crowd mobsters, is a formidable force.    The police, who can probably muster no more than 600,000, claim they’ll not let the 212 rally go ahead next month, setting the stage for confrontation.

It’s not just the government worried about the FPI destroying law and order, particularly after Shihab allegedly called for the killing of blasphemers and celebrating the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty in Paris last month.  NU chair Said Aqil Siradj issued this appeal:

 ‘Fellow Muslims in this country, please don‘t get easily provoked by some groups who want to divide us and break up this Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia ... Let’s fight against this common enemy.’

For many Shihab is not the enemy but their saviour, come to fulfil destiny.  In 1945 the committee writing the Jakarta Charter – which became the Constitution - included a seven-word sentence obligating Muslims to follow sharia religious law. 

To keep the multi-faith nascent nation intact Mohammad Hatta, later to become vice president, persuaded delegates to drop the clause.  Since then radicals like Shihab have demanded the words be returned, the secular government be purged of liberal policies and kafir (unbeliever) ministers sent packing.

The close economic dependence on the Reds of godless China, now Indonesia’s major trading partner and lender, is also another target.

The fact that Indonesia is in a recession with ten million unemployed, poverty increasing and the Covid-19 toll the highest in Southeast Asia has created fertile ground for dissent.  The government has managed the pandemic badly leaving much running to the regions.

Particularly concerning for Widodo are the actions of Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, 51, the man who replaced Purnama.  Before winning his present job with his campaign endorsed by Shihab, Baswedan was Education Minister in the first Widodo administration.  In 2016 he was abruptly sacked by the president after less than two years in the job.

Before being shown the door the US-educated academic and former university rector looked set to shake up Indonesia’s dysfunctional school system.  For a while he was internationally famous for his Indonesia Mengajar (teaches) project putting uni grads into remote schools for a year.

At the time Baswedan told this writer he didn’t know why he’d been booted, but the dogs were barking he’d been critical of Widodo who saw the intellectual as a threat.  This now looks the case as he’s widely tipped to be a candidate in the 2024 presidential election.

As soon as Shihab had a shower and a change of his pure white gear he was off not to the Palace but the Governor’s home for chats.  These were billed as a meeting of ‘scholars’. 

That’s not a word associated with Widodo, who’s best described as a modest doer with no regal, revolutionary, military - or Arab ancestry as claimed by Baswedan and Shihab.  The Javanese commoner’s more rabid opponents label him communist, ignoring the fact the party has been banned since he was a toddler drawing stick figures in the mud outside a riverbank squat.

Although he follows religious rituals the president isn’t strikingly pious.  Till recently his wife Iriana often went bareheaded in public, though the move to wearing jilbab seems to be growing more fashionable by the day. 

Sympathy for a more religious society quietly spread by scarfed women wouldn’t suit the turbaned roughies.  They want change by cracking heads.


(First published in Pearls & Irritations, 24 November 2020:  )














Thursday, November 19, 2020



                                    Ban booze, not smokes

Hard hit by the pandemic, Indonesia is in recession.  The government is desperate to revive the economy and draw overseas investors, particularly into the tourist industry which earned almost AUD 20 billion a year before Covid-19.  So not the ideal time to tell potential travellers that prohibition is proposed.

Undeterred by the economics, two Islamic political parties and the nationalist Gerindra (run by failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto) are pushing new laws to turn the archipelago dry.

Proponents in the House of Representatives argue that grog is banned for Muslims and causes harm to all, so everyone needs protection. The usual caveat that ill-effects come through over-consumption are ignored.  

Politician Illiza Sa'aduddin Djamal has been quoted as saying prohibition will protect society from the ‘negative impacts of alcohol’ and ‘create awareness among the public of the dangers of alcoholic beverages’. 

The bill covers producing, importing, storing, distributing, selling and consuming alcohol. Offenders could face fines of up to AUD 6,000 and two years behind bars.  If they’re caught drunk in public the sentences double. 

The radical Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders’ Front) is demanding penalties include public floggings. These are currently only allowed in the province of Aceh at the top of Sumatra for offences like bedding before wedding and being gay, a favourite whipping boy. They draw crowds of camera-clickers keen to witness medieval torture. 

The FPI has supporters but no seats in Parliament.  Although its extreme ideas are drawing headlines they’re unlikely to be implemented.  However the bill may give the fanatics, now re-energised with the return of their firebrand leader Rizieq Shihab from self-exile in Saudi Arabia, the chance to stir. 

Ironically there are no proposed restrictions on the greatest threat to public health apart from Covid-19.  As reported in this column earlier, tobacco use is killing an estimated half a million men (women rarely smoke) a year in a country where more than 60 per cent are regular users. Indonesia has one of the highest consumption rates in the world according to the World Lung Foundation.

The Majelis Ulama Indonesia (the peak law-making body of Islamic scholars) is backing the draft prohibition.   A few years ago is passed a fatwa (edict) that nicotine was haram (forbidden) according to interpretations of verses in the Al-Quran and Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.  MUI’s readings were rapidly reviewed and withdrawn when the tobacco industry whipped up mass protests of tobacco farmers and factory workers.

There are four breweries in Indonesia.  The largest is owned by the Dutch company Heineken which makes the top brand Bintang (star). However the industry is small and doesn’t have the political clout of the cigarette manufacturers so complaints won’t resonate. As the populace believes only foreigners and ethnic Chinese citizens drink, there’ll be little public sympathy for those against prohibition.

Another argument for making Indonesia dry is to attract halal (religiously permitted) tourism.  Most cities now have sharia hotels where couples must prove they’re legally married, no pork on the menu, cool drinks only in the bar fridge, and sex-segregated pools and prayer rooms.  It was supposed to be a growing market before the virus hit.

Apart from Western tourists in Hindu Bali, the only drunks I’ve occasionally encountered have been in North Sulawesi and West Papua.  Both provinces are predominantly Christian.  They may escape the dragnet if local religious leaders argue successfully that alcohol is part of their tradition and faith.  Otherwise they’ll go dry.

When Protestant zealots forced the US to tread that arid track between 1920 and 1933, clandestine distillers flourished.  That’s also likely in Indonesia if the law is passed.  Every year there are reports of mass deaths and blindness when backyard chemists get their formulae wrong and produce the poison methanol instead of ethanol.

The local vodka, a clear rice spirit called arak, can be found in Bali and some eastern islands, but is often home-made so doesn’t meet health and hygiene standards despite impressive labelling.  Buyers beware – it could be battery acid.

Outside Bali there have never been bottle shops, though beer was sold in some local supermarkets.  This is in East Java where Islam dominates. Drinks were kept behind the checkouts so buyers had to be served and over 21.  No hard stuff and no slabs.  Sales were slow and usually only one or two low-strength cans. 

The shelves were cleared during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, but five years ago weren’t restocked following a local government order.  This forced buyers to search out small shops run by ethnic Chinese who keep supplies well hidden.  The cost of a bottle is about a third higher than in our booze barns.

Wine and spirits can only be found in the five-star hotels where the prices are up to ten times those charged in Australia.  A local red called Orang Tua (Old Man) and promoted as a herbal drink is so sickly sweet one sip induces abstention.

This draft law is a distraction Jakarta doesn’t need as its policies swing wildly from health protection to job maintenance in a major economic crisis and more than 4,000 plague deaths.  While trying to get citizens to wear masks and stay apart, telling them lawmakers are concentrating on a non issue looks plain silly.

The bill has been around the legislature since 2015 but hibernating till now.  No reliable evidence has been revealed showing Indonesia has a booze problem, suggesting the issue is being driven by religious ideology, and the aim is to destabilise Widodo.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 19 November 2020:

Wednesday, November 18, 2020




On 10 November The Jakarta Post published an opinion by Dr Dino Patti-Djalal with the title What the West needs to understand about the cartoon protests.  Apart from condemning ‘the West’ for its culture of tolerance and free speech I thought this read as an acceptance of extreme reactions to the cartoons.  My rebuttal has been ignored by the newspaper.

So here it is: 

Dr Dino needs to prescribe choice              

It was disappointing to read Dr Dino Patti Djalal’s attempts to rationalise angry protests following the publication of cartoons in Europe that slandered the Prophet Muhammad. (JP 10 Nov.)

The former ambassador to the US and onetime presidential hopeful says that mocking and caricaturing the Prophet is regarded as a direct assault on Islam and an enormous offence to Muslims.

Those like Dr Dino who’ve had a liberal Western education understand that though this emotion can be heartfelt, it doesn’t mean all respond the same way or that a violent response is acceptable.

Muslims don’t have to be offended by cartoons that are neither clever nor funny – they can treat them with contempt and move on.  Some Christians are regularly distressed by the way their beliefs are ridiculed (check Australian musician Tim Minchin’s videos for examples), but have to remember their leader’s exhortation to ‘turn the other cheek’. 

Similarly, I’ve been moved by the stress on forgiveness and rejection of anger through my limited reading (in English) of Al-Quran.

One of the many tragedies encountered by Australian police is the meaningless deaths of young men in pub brawls, usually triggered by macho guys responding to the insults of drunks.   Senior cops urge those caught in such situations  to walk away, but that needs maturity.

Like flag burning, boycotting French products is another immature response.  The trampling of real or faux Louis Vuitton bags won’t lower sales among the show-off rich who buy such products.  Even if sales slumped, the sacked would most likely be ordinary workers in the supply chain – and many could be Muslims.

When Muslims denounce the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty and other outrages with the same huge crowds of men who condemn the cartoons, then the image of moderate Islam will be restored.

The original offensive pictures wouldn’t have spread beyond a limited group of European consumers of satire if some idle political agitators hadn’t spotted them and seen a chance to foment strife.

From his comments it appears Dr Dino doesn’t follow Islam from conviction after studying the world’s religions with an open mind, but because he was born into a Muslim family.  Presumably, he didn’t choose to be sent to a madrasah. As a child, he had to obey his parents.

Going to the London School of Economics, established in the 19th century ‘for the betterment of society’ by the democratic socialists of the Fabian Society with links to the Quakers, was the decision of an adult.

Although his overseas education would have taught him ideas evolve and old beliefs need regular scrutiny, his LSE supervisors would have had problems with his current curious reasoning.  He writes that although French President Emmanuel Macron argues for freedom of speech while respecting Islam, Muslims hear something different:

“What the Islamic world hears is, ‘we will continue to abuse your religion, no matter what you feel about it’. It’s probably not what he meant, but that’s how Muslims interpret it.”

So if this contrived outrage is to be dampened down before more harm is done, perhaps Dr Dino can urge people to hear what Macron said, abandon malicious interpretations and accept his words as genuine.  He leads a nation where nine per cent of the population is Muslim, the largest in the Western world, and has to govern for all.

In his long career in foreign affairs Dr Dino has encountered limitless numbers of Westerners who understand why some Muslims are outraged by the cartoons issue.  His hyperbole claiming otherwise is unfitting. We don’t all have biased viewpoints.


I’ve met, interviewed and enjoyed the hospitality of Dr Dino and don’t believe mockery of the Prophet is trivial.   I would never rubbish what feeds another’s soul, though I might try to suggest they sample other fare if their diet’s harmful.

I was raised a Protestant (no choice), went to church schools and at one stage had ambitions of a career in the church.  So I have some knowledge of the contradictions and vile verses of the Bible, and as a journalist seen the hypocrisy and evil doings of many who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus.

I hope Dr Dino has similar concerns at the way his faith is being misinterpreted and speaks out against intolerance without adding qualifications.  That might help ease the ‘longstanding squabble’.  Peace be upon us all.



Tuesday, November 17, 2020




Australian charity in Indonesia can be a problem.

Until recently Indonesia presented itself to the West not as a Muslim country but through Bali, a land of smiling faces, exotic dancers, paradisiacal landscapes.

No longer. With the pandemic raging across our big northern neighbour it seems Aussies’ favourite tropical playground could stay shut in 2021 and maybe beyond. If so our major people-to-people bridge with Indonesians will collapse and the Chinese will steal another long march to influence the region.

The longer we can’t visit the folk next door and get to know them better, the lesser the chances of building lasting friendships. The Indonesian proverb tak kenal maka tak sayang (you don’t know what you don’t miss) is apposite.

As many academics have noted, we define our relationships with the Anglosphere through commonalities. With Indonesia, we do so through differences.

There are around four million Balinese. Most are Hindu, descendants of the 15th century Majapahit Empire who fled Java as Islam arrived. They’re just 1.5 per cent of the Republic’s population so unrepresentative of the whole. Few Australians venture into the nation’s powerhouse Java, where almost 90 per cent are Muslim and the culture and values are altogether different.

Should a successful Chinese vaccine be accepted by Indonesia – which is locked into a manufacturing and distribution deal with Beijing – then the tourism gap is likely to be filled by millions of vacationers from the Middle Kingdom.

In 2017 about 1.35 million Chinese bought tickets to Bali, overtaking visitors from Down Under for the first time. If Australia’s international departure lounges stay closed, signs in Kuta will be in Mandarin, meat pies off the menus and Tsingtao Beer in the bars if and when others are allowed back.

We may be staying away, though not ignoring. Australia has pledged a stand-by loan of AUD 1.35 billion to help Indonesia recover from the Covid-19 recession, the first since the Asian financial crash 23 years ago. However, this apparent benevolence needs explanatory notes.

When Tony Abbott was PM and Julie Bishop FM, Australian aid overall was slashed by 20 per cent. Indonesia was hit heavily: In 2014 it collected AUD 515 million. The envelope now carries only AUD 255 million.

This September, safely away from her former leader’s wrath and onto the board of the international advisory and management company Palladium, Bishop re-tuned her attitudes. In an essay for her new boss she wrote: ‘Many development partnerships are based on long-term goals of supporting communities to lift themselves out of poverty and certainty of funding over many years is crucial to success.

‘The Australian government took what I regard as regrettable decisions to cut the international development budget at a time of rapidly increasing competition for influence ….’

It would be warming to think we were the first lending cab off the rank, backing the standard blah-blah about closeness and warmth with practical help. However, Aussie generosity only flowed after China announced an AUD 1.35 billion loan from the Asian Infrastructure Invest­ment Bank. That was in June.

Four months later Japanese PM Suga Yoshihide topped up an earlier AUD 422 million low-interest loan with an extra AUD 655 million.

Australian academic Dr Jean Gelman Taylor, author of this column’s intro sentence from her book: Indonesia:Peoples & Histories, also reflected on the way we see Indonesia, attitudes which must have been behind stalling the goodwill:

‘Western scholars once wrote about the stillness of Javanese interior life, the sophisticated tolerance of its philosophy. Now authors focus on violence in its many forms of state terror directed against dissenters and the public at large.’

It’s having an impact. An Australia-Indonesia Centre survey found almost 70 per cent of Australians associated the word ‘religious’ with Indonesia, linking it with terrorism.

In the meantime, Beijing has been busy establishing language centres and Confucius Institutes. Three years ago it signed a third educational partnership with Jakarta. There are scholarships and deals between unis.

We also have these, but they’re regarded with suspicion by conservatives alleging the 13 institutes in Australia are soft-power overseas influencers.

Australian loans to benefit the poor and needy will be effective only if handled properly. Canberra can spend AUD 30 million on land for an airport reportedly worth one-tenth, but when it comes to playing pea-and-thimble with grand-scale moolah, Indonesia’s a global champion.

Second President Soeharto, (1967-98) a general turned kleptocrat, allegedly stole up to AUD 49 billion of public money and never faced a court.

He refined a system so entrenched the game is openly called KKN (Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme) and played by all. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks Indonesia 85th (Australia is number 12). TI claims the most corrupt institutions are the judiciary and public service. It affects everyone and has become an inseparable part of the culture.

Jakarta is running several schemes to help businesses and households survive the Covid-19 crisis. President Joko Widodo has been urging his ministers to hustle their departments and accelerate distribution of the AUD 67 billion allocated for the national economic recovery. But the complex-compound multilevel administrations ensure funds get trimmed at every stop as they creep down the line.

If and when cash and kind arrives few will know Aussie taxpayers are among the good guys. Our Jakarta embassy promotes worthy elite projects like film festivals, and small-scale development programmes, but can’t match China’s propaganda.

So knowledge of our strategically driven altruism seldom penetrates beyond Menteng, the capital’s Toorak where the Republic’s elite enjoy the good life. Beyond range are the villages and kampong where the 26.4 million poor live (Indonesian Government estimate).

Aid is sensitive in Indonesia where nationalists argue it erodes sovereignty, comes with caveats and makes the country look inferior. Readers may remember the 2015 backfire when PM Abbott awkwardly tried to persuade Widodo not to execute Bali Nine drug ring leaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran by reminding we’d been generous with aid after the 2004 Aceh tsunami.

Furious at this interference crowds started collecting rupiah to return the cash, a gesture which vanished with the two Australians’ lives. It’s unlikely Xi Jinping would have been so clumsy.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 17 November 2020: