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, June 02, 2021




               Geckos versus crocodile 

If you needed a blood transfusion, would you accept a donor from a different religion?  Do you believe in polygamy? Would you take part in a threesome?

These and other intimate questions are alleged to have been included in test papers used by the Indonesian civil service so employees with the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission), could be confirmed in posts they’ve held for years.

In an administrative shake-up of the nation’s most trusted anti-graft agency, 75 investigators, auditors and prosecutors had to take the ‘civics test’  to be listed as formal State employees.

Only 24 staffers passed but will have to get formal training, leaving 51 out of work.  This group includes the KPK’s best-known agent, Novel Baswedan. He was partially blinded in an acid attack in 2017 when probing reports of corruption involving the introduction of electronic ID cards and some powerful politicians. 

After a prolonged investigation and the intervention of President Joko Widodo, two low-rank policemen were charged and jailed. Baswedan said they were scapegoats, not masterminds.  He’s also been saying the ‘civics test’ debacle is to ‘frighten the younger generation who are passionate about eradicating corruption.’

Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid claimed the test questions ‘had nothing to do with the participants’ civics knowledge, let alone their competence as KPK employees.’

In a video, Widodo said the test results should be used as ‘a step toward the betterment of the KPK, both at institutional and individual levels. They should not be used as a pretext to dismiss.’

The failed candidates aren’t going quietly. Apart from appealing to the Ombudsman and Komnas HAM (the National Commission on Human Rights), they’ve also held weird rituals outside the KPK office to purge the building of malevolent spirits.

Theirs hasn’t been the only protest.  A previously unknown group calling itself the Indonesian Student and Youth Alliance unfurled professionally-produced banners urging the KPK to sack staff who failed the test, particularly  Baswedan. He’s a cousin of Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan who is expected to be a candidate in the 2024 Presidential election.

The latest twist is to dub the 51 ‘Taliban Muslims’ as extremists rejecting Pancasila, the nation’s five-point ideology of religious devotion, humanitarianism, nationalism, consultative democracy, and social justice. The slander is a bit suspect as some of the sacked are Christians.

The KPK was established in 2002 as an independent authority in the reformation era when enthusiasm to wipe out the plague of KKN (Korupsi, Kolusi dan Nepotisme) was running high.

 It followed the 1998 overthrow of the dictator Soeharto who came to power in a coup in 1965.  For the next 32 years, the president’s family allegedly embezzled US $35 million, according to Transparency International (TI), which labelled Indonesia’s second president the world’s ‘greatest-ever kleptocrat’.

Also in 1965, Singapore became independent under the late Lee Kuan Yew.  The once deeply corrupt island state now shares third place for administrative honesty alongside Switzerland, Finland and Sweden in TI’s Corruption Perception Index.  Indonesia ranks 102 among the 179 nations measured.

Soeharto died in 2008 aged 86 and was never prosecuted.  His family kept the cash. Despite his mega-thieving, Soeharto is still revered among Indonesians hankering for the abandonment of messy democracy and a return to authoritarian rule when real or imagined wrongdoers could suddenly disappear.

At first, the KPK scored big hits against individuals previously considered untouchable.  Their well-publicised open trials, convictions, fines and imprisonment were supposed to send a message to other’s tempted to plunder the public purse. However there must have been a communication breakdown.

Late last year Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara was named a suspect in a scam involving the distribution of Rp 12 billion (AUD 755,000) allocated to buy food parcels for the poor impacted by Covid-19. A fortnight earlier Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo was charged with graft involving licences to export lobster larvae.

Like President Widodo, Batubara is a member of the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) run by the nation’s powerful matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of founding president Soekarno.  The sacked KPK staff includes those examining the alleged Batubara thefts.

Widodo is constitutionally barred from standing again for office.  Megawati, president between 2001 and 2004, is promoting her daughter Puan Maharani, 47, for the Republic’s top job.  She is currently the Speaker in the House of Representatives.

In an earlier case, chief detective Susno Duadji who was under investigation by the KPK dismissed the agency as just a cicak (gecko) fighting a buaya (crocodile).  The imagery has been embraced by KPK supporters who see David and Goliath parallels, but this is no slingshot contest.  Heavier weapons and more subtle tactics are being used.

These have gained force since Widodo won a second five-year term in 2019. In that year former police general Firli Bahuri was appointed head of KPK.  He’s said to favour education and prevention rather than prosecution.

Legislators added extra levels of bureaucracy to the agency, particularly a ‘supervisory council’ with the power to reject plans to arrest, tap phones and search suspects.  Anti-graft groups claim this is to hamper the swift execution of warrants so suspects are alerted.

A 2020 TI report recommended: ‘To make real progress against corruption, the Indonesian government must strengthen the integrity of its institutions, ensure efficient use of public services and improve internal supervision and law enforcement, including police, prosecutors and inspectors.

‘The government must also support and protect civil society and media in their efforts to disclose corruption.’ 

 First published in Pearls & Irritations, 2 June 2021:

Friday, May 28, 2021



                                    Never mind the width, feel the quality

 They’re standouts in any language, often tall, blond, and looking as though they’ve just been hit by a runaway road train top-heavy with cultural and communication overburden.


They’re nothing like our standard exports, braggarts trashing Bali bars in loud shirts and louder voices.  These youth are soberly dressed and polite, though floundering to make themselves understood.  They’re also the lucky ones who found the courses they wanted.


Even those who shone in their Indonesian studies back home struggle with the chaos and contradictions.  Like discovering the national language is not most citizens’ first tongue and that slang and acronyms confuse even the locals.


Yet these young Aussies are the best ambassadors we’ll ever produce.  Most will battle through, engage and charm.  The dedicated will convert months of intense experience into years of understanding.  In the decades ahead as parents, teachers, bureaucrats, business people or whatever, they’ll help leaven our insularity and racism.


On the other side becak (pedicab) pedal-pushers, street sellers and buskers who know nothing about Australia other than it’s a kangaroo-plagued British colony (the Union Jack on the flag is proof enough), might remember Miss Jane from Sydney and Mr Jack from Melbourne for their friendliness, and smile on us all.


Many Oz students have made it to our neighbour nations through a praiseworthy Federal Government scheme paying our brightest to try an Asian adventure – the New Colombo Plan.  Then came this year’s budget and a little-noticed $7 million cut to the expected $50 million allocation.


The slashers claim the 14 per cent loss is due to Covid-19, and – of course – only temporary.  Students can’t go overseas so monies allocated for the NCP will be spent on desk drivers in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, mainly in Canberra.

Before coronavirus crippled travel, the NCP was wholly or partly funding about 10,000 students a year heading to 40 countries.  The majority got short-term ‘mobility grants’ worth between $3,000 and $7,000.  There were also around 100 meaty scholarships – up to $69,000 – for heavy-duty applicants.  Curiously there’s nothing between the two extremes.

DFAT says the NCP ‘aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region ... (ensuring the students) have the skills and work-based experiences to contribute to our domestic and the regional economy.

‘The NCP is intended to be transformational, deepening Australia's relationships in the region, both at the individual level and through expanding university, business and other links.’

To get a NCP cheque students must first show they’re serious about knowing their neighbours – and that’s not easy.  Hamish Curry, Executive Director of Melbourne University’s Asia Education Foundation, has written that  the student cohort (for Indonesian) is now half what it was just over a decade ago, with classes potentially in danger of disappearing completely in many schools.’  The Asian Studies Association estimates only 12 unis still offer the language.

Despite the teaching slump, interest in Indonesia has been edging upwards though numbers are minuscule.  In 2012 just 442 students crossed the Arafura Sea.  In 2019 it was above 2,000.

Lest this growth lure readers into thinking we’re getting as close to Indonesia as we are to the USA, consider this: Around 75 per cent stayed only a month or less in the Republic. Before the plague, more than a million Australians flew to Kuta every year spending similar time to surf, tan and booze.

The NCP isn’t the first project urging school-leavers to try Asia rather than Europe or North America for the rite of passage Kiwis call OE (Overseas Experience). Last century a small group of academics started the non-profit Australian Consortium for 'In-Country' Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), most for a semester or more.

The consortium also organises six-week professional practicum programs during the summer vacation.  These cover business, the creative arts, law, agriculture and sustainable tourism.

We now have stats coming from outside government. The Australian Universities International Directors' Forum collects info on students chasing an ‘international study experience’. The 37 reporting universities claim more than 50,000 went on ‘learning abroad’ programmes.  Indonesia ranks behind China, the USA, UK, Italy and Japan as the favoured destination.

Is this a reason for cheering?  Every pre-Covid year more than one million domestic students were enrolled on our campuses.  (Indonesia’s population is around 11 times greater than Australia’s with more than six million in tertiary education.)

Writes Curry: ‘Asia-literacy matters. It’s not simply a nice-to-have skill or a matter of knowing our geography, it’s about having the intercultural understanding and the intercultural capability to connect, share, and cooperate for a shared future with our sphere of the world.’

Liam Prince, the Perth-based director of ACICIS, told Pearls & Irritations: ‘It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about the quality of the engagement. There are roughly 3,500 ACICIS alumni now, working at various stages of their professional careers all across government, media, the public service, business and not-for-profit sectors.

‘Arguably, this alumni body with direct experience of living and studying in Indonesia stands to have a greater impact on the re-alignment of Indonesia within the Australian public imagination than the one million Australians who regularly holiday in Bali.


‘Much of what Australian governments, universities, and the public know about what happens in Indonesia in any given year, they now know courtesy of the work of talented and committed ACICIS alumni.’  


First published in Pearls & Irritations, 28 May 2021:








Sunday, May 23, 2021



               Will India’s wave hit next door?  Stand by and stand back

The next fortnight should show whether the nation with the world’s fourth-largest population will tumble into the plague pit where the second place holder currently writhes.

As India struggles with the pandemic, reportedly caused by a failure to stop crowds clustering around the Ganges to perform religious rites, Indonesians fear the same fate lurks as millions return to their jobs in the big cities.

The end of the Ramadan fasting month in mid May triggered Mudik (exodus) the traditional visit to relatives in distant parts.  President Joko Widodo banned the Islamic pilgrimage but his orders were widely ignored and poorly policed. 

Officially Covid-19 has a hard grip on the archipelago though that’s not obvious. In the centre of East Java, supposedly the most severely stricken of the nation’s 34 provinces, hospitals and cemeteries are not reporting overloads.  There are no standout signs of distress, seemingly just the usual number of black-cross flags hung on street corners to announce a death.  So far no queues at graveyards or ramping of ambulances outside emergency units.

If Indonesia becomes the next India, how will it cope? Patchy at best.  Adjacent and better-disciplined Malaysia is already getting anxious. Lockdowns have been tried and failed.  The borders are porous. 

For the well-off unwell there’s a private health system.  Their ads show eager Western-trained staff with clipboards using the latest diagnostic gear. 

There’s a government-run universal social health insurance scheme suffering from admin ills as providers lift fees to plunder the purse.  As it’s not a tax-embedded levy, families are vulnerable if fees are forgotten.  (I pay AUD 15 / month.  This isn’t available to tourists who should buy overseas travel cover.)

The cash-deprived have access to puskesmas, community health centres rarely staffed with full-time docs. Hospitals are unfairly tagged as places where the sick are destined to die, so the fearful don’t seek help until the bucket’s about to be kicked.  In this highly superstitious and religious country, prayer to invisible deities trumps meeting medics.

As in Australia, the pandemic has exposed flaws in public health systems. Indonesia is way behind its neighbours in total health spending at US $375 per capita, according to the WHO.  The figures for Australia are $5,005, Singapore $4,439 and Malaysia $1,194.  A WHO review found low government spending and few specialists, particularly in distant islands, meant citizens are getting a raw deal compared to city dwellers.

Accessing adequate treatment can be problem in all disciplines, but mental health  has been measured.

According to Sydney Uni medical historian Professor Hans Pols, there are just under 1,000 psychiatrists, 2,000 registered clinical psychologists, and close to 7,000 community mental health nurses across the Republic.

In the journal Inside Indonesia he wrote: ‘If Indonesia had the same number of psychiatrists per capita as Australia, there would be almost 38,000. Indonesia’s Ministry of Health estimates that about 90 per cent of individuals with mental disorders or psychosocial disabilities do not receive adequate mental health care.’

After second President Soeharto’s 32-years of government-controlled media followed by a growth of blatantly partisan commercial TV stations, consumers prefer info from friends and neighbours, original source unknown.  If they haven’t encountered a Covid case or stumbled across corpses in the kampongs, maybe it’s all a beat-up.

Using Indonesian government data, the US Johns Hopkins University has recorded close to 1.8 million cases and 50,000 deaths since the pandemic gripped lungs. The fatalities include more than 650 health workers with around half reported to be doctors.

Indonesian stats can be a dog’s breakfast.  As fifth president (2001-04) Megawati Soekarnoputri raged against getting dodgy info from her departments.  This year, as chair of Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), she beat the same drum reportedly telling supporters:

‘After 75 years of independence, government data is still not accurate.  Mr President, we have to talk about this matter.’ No doubt they will.  Whether any change results is doubtful.

It’s not just the political leaders showing scepticism.  Indonesian epidemiologist Dr Dicky Budiman from the Centre for Environmental and Population Health at Queensland’s Griffith University has been a leading disbeliever, claiming coronavirus casualties could be three times higher.

He’s been advocating ‘the fundamental pandemic strategy: test, trace and treat and enforcing social distancing.’

Here’s the rub: Figures are flawed because testing isn’t free.  Tracing is almost non-existent.  Some cinemas are trialling QR code registration for audiences, but there’s no follow-up if an infection is detected.

Social distancing is rare in overcrowded Java with more than 1,000 people per square km. Masking is arbitrarily enforced in shopping malls though not in the street markets which draw thousands daily rubbing shoulders and hips while jostling to buy and sell.

So far about three per cent of the Republic’s 273 million citizens have been jabbed, mainly with the Chinese Sinovac, now being made in Indonesia and free.  Big companies are importing stock for employees to bypass the sluggish bureaucracy.  President Widodo wants the whole country immunised before Christmas, but at the present rate that ambition looks as distant as the best of PM Scott Morrison’s moveable targets.

This last bit is anecdotal but apposite:  Oz tabloids trade in tales of tourists copping crook service and crippling costs, usually after crashing rented motorbikes or getting Bali belly.  I’ve recently spent several months dealing with two non-Covid infections. Treatments (two GPs, three specialists, two hospitals) were in public facilities alongside locals.

The red tape was a bit painful and one colonial-era hospital fit for purpose when opened in 1918.  Appearances deceive; care was professional, cover included medicines, consultations unrushed, waits minimal and outcomes successful. 

It might have been different in a poor province or hilltop hamlet, and could go pear-shaped if a plague-wave hits.  But right now no whingeing, only gratitude. 

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 23 May 2021:






Friday, May 21, 2021



Notes from next door: China woos – but what to do?      

It’s the long tail of the Idul Fitri holiday, the celebratory end of the 1442 fasting month for Indonesia’s 240 million Muslims, a time for forgiveness of wrongs, and for giving and receiving.

Although the Chinese government is officially atheist, it’s making the most of the season with some generous gestures.

The latest is an offer to try and retrieve remnants of the 1,400-tonne Indonesian submarine Nanggala 2 and the bodies of 53 crew who perished when the 44-year old German-built craft sank close to Bali last month.

Indonesia doesn’t have the gear to lift chunks of an imploded steel cylinder lying 840 metres deep. The Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the US do, and they are prepared to give it a go. Washington wants to be paid. Beijing doesn’t. Unsurprisingly Jakarta, is saying ya silahkan, terima kasih.

Is this good deed snag-free? Sceptics say the gift horse’s dentures should get orthodontic scrutiny, as the PLAN is more interested in drilling sensors into the seabed and scraping topographical data than shaking down a nation deep in debt.

This suspicion has foundations. Beijing’s English-language mouthpiece Global Times said the rescue attempt could help China “study the maritime military geography of the area where the submarine was wrecked, as well as expanding the international cooperation and influence of our navy in submarine rescue and salvage.”

Such niggles are being set aside as Indonesia concentrates on getting the sailors’ remains back for land burial and searching for clues about the cause of the accident.

The salvage offer isn’t a one-off but part of a catalogue of diplomatic specials. The main COVID-19 vaccines on Indonesian clinic shelves are Sinovac and Sinopharm. The latter has just been approved by the WHO for emergency use, though it is already in the upper arms of millions in China.

Late last year, China gifted three million doses of finished vaccine followed by raw material for the state-owned Bio Farma to make 20 million doses. This is a way to hearts and minds. Though they loathe his nation’s politics, Indonesians who roll up their sleeves know they’re getting protected courtesy of President Xi Jinping.

The plague is thumping the world's fourth-most populous nation. Johns Hopkins University has recorded more than 1.75 million cases and 48,000 deaths across the archipelago since the pandemic took hold. The toll is assuredly higher as testing isn’t free and post mortems are rare.

In addition to deep-ocean salvage and preventive medicine, China has already lent more than AUD 23 billion, mainly for the president’s pet infrastructure projects.

When Joko Widodo first won office in 2014 pledging new ports, rail lines, and toll roads, the national debt was $160 billion. Apart from China, the other big lenders are Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Malaysia.

When Widodo has to retire in 2024, he’ll hand his successor a seriously slim wallet, lighter by more than $900 billion.

Although this worries the cautious, Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, 73, isn’t among them.

At a China Business Forum earlier this year, the former general and Widodo’s eminence grise told delegates: “If you look at the amount of investment from China, it is a lot. But some people still say debt trap, debt trap. We are not that stupid, you know.” Maybe, though they may not be so clever at collecting taxes to repay the renminbi.

To lay even more bitumen and steel and spread the debt load, Widodo has opened a sovereign wealth fund. The Indonesia Investment Authority (IIA) started this year with $6.6 billion from the state budget – a sum since doubled by the United Arab Emirates.

When the IIA was still a thought bubble, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg reportedly told Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati that Australia was considering joining using superannuation funds. This idea seems to be another victim of COVID-19, though the treasurer may have flipped after checking Transparency International’s latest corruption report.

Among the briefing notes for the new Australian ambassador in Jakarta Penny Williams, will be a survey this year by Singapore’s SEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Though it suffers from using a small sample of well-educated opinionators, The State of Southeast Asia’s publisher is credible and the work reveals some embarrassing attitudes.

To the question: “If the US is perceived as unreliable, who’d you want as a strategic partner?” Indonesians favour the EU, followed by Japan and China – all well ahead of Australia.

Participants were also asked: “Who do you have the strongest confidence in to provide leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law?”

Australia’s Westminster system and principles were trampled in favour of the EU and the US - even China, which sounds like a data-entry error as its record on human rights is atrocious.

Though not to all Indonesians. Selected journalists and politicians have toured “re-education” camps, meeting happy Uyghurs and later explaining the Xinjiang campaign is to crush East Turkestan separatism, not an ancient Islamic culture.

If the PLAN succeeds in lifting Nanggala 2 from its subsea grave, Beijing will score another PR triumph, putting the Middle Kingdom even further ahead of the Great South Land in the minds of the people next door.

Fortunately, Williams knows Indonesia better than many of her predecessors and speaks the language. In the 1980s she was an exchange student at a Protestant high school in central Jakarta. Three decades later, she was high commissioner to adjacent Malaysia.

Australia can’t raise subs or give vaccines, and it is too risk-averse to invest big. But Australia does help out in crises, share security tips, sell lots of grains and meats, and is cautiously exporting services like health and education. Advising on tax collection is another possibility.

Australia is also mildly keen on improving people-to-people relationships, though it doesn’t know how. Explaining better and restoring trust should top her excellency’s must-do list before China rules more than waves.

First published in the Australian Institute of International Affairs newsletter 21 May 2021: