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

Saturday, April 03, 2021






Among the terms aligned with good urban design, like heritage preservation, planning and taste, there’s one that sits awkwardly: Money.

When a developer’s sole intent is to build big, brash and cheap, and authorities don’t care, we’re left with kitsch – and that’s not a good look to start anyone’s day.  For the streetscape belongs to all – not just those with rolls of rupiah.

Fortunately some regional governments recognise that reality.  Malang is one, though like the curate’s egg it’s only good in parts.

Past administrations have swung between extremes on street furniture. Quality design is either a waste of funds (lamps made of bent water pipe), or a necessary expense (elegant roadsigns including old names) to set the tone for tourists.  Scrap metal statuary representing mythological figures is replacing the crumbling concrete clowns promoting family welfare values.


It’s easy to slander the Dutch for the way they managed ‘their’ East Indies colony, but let’s recognise their creativity in architecture.  Sadly it started late. Hilltown Malang was once a retreat for Europeans keen to escape the humid coast.  The quality of their surviving homes, schools, churches, hospitals and public buildings suggests an age of affluence.

Engineer Herman Thomas Karsten was town planning consultant between 1930 and 35 and responsible for the layout of Jalan Ijen, Malang’s version of LA’s Sunset Boulevard, plus scores of public and private buildings.

The accommodating avenue is flanked by thick-walled, high ceiling houses to cope with the heat. The peak rooves are a nod to traditional joglo design.   Karsten married an Indonesian and identified with Java. He saw himself as a social engineer conscious of the environment, trying to incorporate local values rather than transplanting Amsterdam’s gabled canal houses to the tropics.


His work doesn’t offend – it blends. 

Karsten was lucky to be working when the Art Deco movement was underway.  He was also emboldened to embrace the indigenous after Queen Wilhelmina belatedly declared her colonial subjects should be treated with the decency enjoyed by Netherlanders.  This was a substantial shift from the drive to exploit and plunder.  Known as the ‘ethical policy’ it was reflected in the second of Malang’s two alun-alun (town squares).

The grand plan almost came to ruins. In late July 1947 the KNIL - Royal Netherlands East Indies Army - launched Operation Product assault on the city during the four-year War of Liberation.

Partisans responded with their ‘Ocean of Fire’ campaign torching scores of buildings to stop the invaders occupying key sites.  Some, like the austere Cor Jesu Catholic High School on the road from Surabaya were eventually repaired.  Others were demolished.

One of the arsonists’ targets was the Malang City Hall (Balaikota) which lost part of its roof to the flames. It was built in 1929 with the motto Voor de burgers van Malang (for the residents of Malang), a democratic statement for a monarchy. The building dominates the Tugu alun-alun though it’s not in any way confrontational.

As the first square in the heart of the city turned into a cluttered commercial hub, the need to give the government some dignity led to a new alun-alun though this time developed as a circle around a pool and gardens. 

The effect is marred by the use of artificial flowers, a mockery of the spectacular variety of blooms which thrive naturally. They weren’t planted (if that’s what the tasteless do with plastics), on the generous centrespread dual carriageway.  This leads from the railway station and makes a grand entry statement.


It’s wide and squat with the repaired layered central roof resembling ancient mosques before Saudi-style domes became popular.  It doesn’t press itself on pedestrians in the way more recent and taller offices with plate glass and flat concrete, seemingly to intimidate:  Beware – we’re the bosses dispensing permits; you’re just the grovelling supplicants.

Alongside is the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (People’s Representative Council], maintaining the elegance and profile of its neighbour.  It looks historic, yet it was completed seven years ago in the style of the adjacent Balaikota, proof that not all administrators are Neanderthals.

The up-market Tugu Hotel dominates a corner together with the Splendid Inn, which would deserve the title if given a makeover. That’s happened with the next building heading down to the twisting Brantas River which has cut its way through the volcanic topsoils deep down to bedrock.

Wisma Tumapel was built as a hotel in 1928, named Splendit, then used by the Japanese military between 1942 and 45.  It was firebombed by the revolutionaries in 1947, repaired, named Graha as a guest house for visiting academics and then abandoned to the ghosts who are always seeking free accommodation.

Another example of owners with taste putting aesthetics ahead of avarice is the Shalimar Hotel, formerly a social centre where the colonialists feasted, dance and celebrated a life that was soon to crash with the Japanese invasion.


After the war it became the State radio station, then a hotel.  In the last few years it has been refurbished.  Set in the suburbs it’s unbothered by the clamour of the city.

Away from the civic centre and the ancient kampongs Malang has sprawled like a toddler in a toy shop, bashing and building with no apparent plan.  The new suburbs have mock English monikers -  Royal, Gardens, Heights, Majestic ... though few warrant the titles.

To see design deserving such names check the legacy of Karsten and his colleagues who tried – and largely succeeded – to trump cupidity with sensitivity.

First published in Indonesia Expat, 3 April 2021:

Wednesday, March 31, 2021



            Good lord – what on earth can a girl choose to wear?

An Indonesian woman appears before her maker who’ll pass judgement – heaven or hell?   The almighty checks the freshly-deceased’s CV, noting she prayed regularly at the mosque, recited the Koran and lived an upright life.

 However she didn’t always wear a jilbab.  For the sin of letting strangers see her glossy black locks she’ll be condemned to the everlasting furnace, though not alone.  Also cooking will be her male rellies who didn’t curb her wilfulness, and Mum for her inability to raise a pious daughter.

As if the journey from child to adult isn’t traumatic enough, Ifa Hanifah Misbach had to endure the beliefs above, the condemnation of her deeply religious family, the slurs of her friends and the curses of Islamic leaders for using her intellect and exercising choice.

As a late teen she sat under a pine tree on a hill in Bandung – the capital of West Java - ‘when my tears flowed constantly’.  She also wrote a poem-  A Little Girl Is Asking God.

At the on-line launch of the Human Rights Watch report: I Wanted to Run Away: Abusive Dress Codes for Women and Girls in Indonesia, Misbach read from the book of verse she conceived beneath the bough:

‘God, is it true that I’ll drag my late father and all my brothers to hell because I don't veil? If so, that means all girls will bid not to be born into an Islamic family, if they’re like me, going to ask questions.
‘In the realm of eternity before entering the womb, they’ll ask to be born as sons only, because we daughters have no power over our own bodies.’


Misbach survived her intellectual wrestle and ’more than 30 years of bullying’ to be her own woman, undefined by men claiming the ability to faultlessly interpret religious texts. 

She’s now 45, a Connecticut University graduate, an academic and psychologist back in Bandung.  Her architect brother Ridwan Kamil is the provincial Governor – and a likely contender for the presidency in 2024.

Misbach said two of her patients had tried to kill themselves because of the pressure to conform, and ‘body dysmorphic disorders’ were often seen.

The HRW report asserts that pushing the jilbab is part of a movement ‘to reshape human rights protections in Indonesia.

‘It undermines women’s right to be free from discriminatory treatment based upon any grounds whatsoever under Indonesia’s Constitution. Women are entitled to the same rights as men, including the right to wear what they choose.’

The issue of equality in Australia is secular, the debate focusing on consent.  In Indonesia it’s about coercion to the point of resisters being denied schooling, work or promotion.

Research in 2019 found about 80 million Indonesians wear jilbab, mostly in Java. ‘It is unclear how many do so voluntarily and how many do so under legal, social, or familial pressure or compulsion.’  Until this century, films of everyday events showed most women scarfless.

It’s now the topic which elbows aside other concerns. The publisher of the online women’s magazine Magdalene was quoted saying: ‘No other women’s rights stories, from rapes to #MeToo rallies, from celebrities’ profiles to our long features, can compete with jilbab stories.’

As psychologist Alissa Wahid pointed out, this seems to be a ‘small issue in a grand landscape’ of problems besetting the Republic and its 270 million citizens, but it goes to deeper issues.

The eldest daughter of the late fourth president Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, wears the kerudung, a loose headscarf revealing some hair as often seen in Pakistan.  ‘This is not about the jilbab,’ she said.  ‘It’s about human rights, justice, democracy and social harmony.’

The 96-page HRW document reports Komnas Perempuan [National Commission on Violence Against Women] had identified ‘421 ordinances passed between 2009-2016 that discriminate against women and religious minorities’

Indonesia recognises six religions and has a Ministry of Religious Affairs.  A citizen’s faith gets stamped on their ID card. Despite regular attempts by zealots to impose sharia law the country remains constitutionally secular. 

Said Alissa Wahid: ’The regulation is very important, crucial, to maintain the idea of Indonesia as a cohesive nation-state. Everyone has the right to religious freedom.’  

Indonesia has 34 provinces, with 24 predominantly Islam. After some parents protested local governments and schools were making the jilbab compulsory for non-Muslims, President Joko Widodo stirred himself.  The President ordered all administrations and the nation’s 300,000 state schools to revoke mandatory jilbab regulations.  Intransigents risk sanctions, including withholding education funds.

The cheering lessened once the exclusions were discovered.  The decree doesn’t apply in the province of Aceh which makes its own religious laws, or the 30,000 pesantren [Muslim schools].  Fundamentalists used the Trump truth-twisting trick by claiming the Jakarta order is a sign of Islamophobia, and means girls will be forced to abandon their headscarves.

HRW Australia Director Elaine Pearson called on the Indonesian government to end all discriminatory laws.

She described Indonesia’s clothing regulations as ‘part of a broader attack by conservative religious forces on gender equality and the ability of women and girls to exercise their rights to an education, a livelihood, and social benefits.’

First they must convince themselves that heading outside sans scarf won’t lead to the pit of perdition.  That journey’s maybe a mite easier with stories of tough trekkers like Ifa Hanifah Misbach helping guide the fearful.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 31 March 2012:


Friday, March 26, 2021




How not to win friends and influence people


‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.’ 



Few have disagreed with then PM Paul Keating’s March 1994 speech, endorsed mildly by his successors and embellished by exporters.  Though there’s been a wealth of words and a dearth of action, who’d dare doubt this article of faith?


Mark McGowan for one.  The newly re-elected WA Premier has shredded the Asian Engagement ministry he created in 2017.  He’s also dumped the State’s dedicated trade commissioner in Indonesia, a tough market to penetrate for even hardened operators at ease with the language and culture.


Connoisseurs of pointless memorabilia should grab a copy of the government’s WA’s Asian Engagement Strategy 2019-2030, Our Future with Asia - before the printout is quietly pulped.

Despite Indonesia mishandling the pandemic [1.5 million cases, 40 thousand deaths] market watchers still reckon the planet’s fourth most populous nation is set to become the fourth biggest economy by 2050. As Perth is just a coffee-and-kip flight to the archipelago, let’s go. The Balinese love us thirsty laid-back Ozzies - Jakarta can’t be that much different.

There’s been some screeching about betrayal because WA was once seriously keen on building lasting ties with East Java, particularly when Labor’s Dr Geoff Gallop was premier [1996-2001]. The problem’s been Perth-based decision makers’ expecting rapid returns for little outlay.  Relating to Asia is a long game; like wine it needs to age.

There’s also disillusionment and envy. What are these trade wallahs up to when out of town?  In their exotic postings they’re supposed to sell the State and nurture neophytes carrying embossed ballpoints, diarrhoea pills and delicious pie-charts.

They care for VIPs on overseas ‘fact-finding missions’ which in one case involved checking Japanese bath-houses.

Craig Peacock was WA’s man in Tokyo garnering praise for his competence and ability to hustle.  He was certainly a great wool-puller, blurring his bosses’ eyesight.  For 17 years he had a grand time till the state’s Crime and Corruption Commission picked apart his reports and receipts, allegedly finding a $540,000 fleecing plus some funny business involving politician mates desiring $700 massages.

In 2019 he lost his job and an opportunity to explain himself in court as the alleged offences occurred overseas.  He’s reportedly agreed to repay the cash.

Naturally there was an inquiry which spread beyond malfeasance into structure causing a furious McGowan to upend the barrel because one apple had codling moth. The Premier’s ‘hub and spokes’ response involves four new investment and trade commissioners in seemingly incompatible and certainly unmanageable geographical groupings: ‘India-Gulf, North-East Asia, China and ASEAN.’


Their department is JTSI, which sounds like an office where you’d ask for Winston Smith.  The acronym is as weird as the combine – Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation.  Rearranged as JIST it becomes Kiwi for a joke.


Unfortunately there’s nothing witty about forcing such disparate disciplines together in an isolated city to see which cracks first.  This isn’t another absurd TV series but an apparently serious attempt to win new business.


Overseas officials and businessfolk used to centralised systems find it passing strange that states in a federation would compete to sell their goodies.  Why duplicate when there are old Austrade hands in our largest Embassy in the world? These diplomats know the ropes and traps, and they’re backed by a Canberra department with 6,000 employees.


The WA appointee handling the ten heterogeneous nations which make up ASEAN [pop 600-plus million] will be based in Perth, then Singapore and eventually Jakarta if and when the plague subsides.  Apart from confusing cities, currencies and timezones, pressures will include edgy minders demanding hourly feedback.

McGowan reckons ‘hubs’ will provide a ‘more flexible model to help diversify WA’s mining-dependent economy’.  Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor, a former Jakarta-based WA trade commissioner, has a different translation, ensuring he’ll miss out on breakfast invites at the next launch of an exciting strategy:

 ‘The real issue is not the demise of the portfolio as it was completely ineffective, but rather the incompetent leadership of JTSI, which has left the critically important trade and investment function a mere shadow of its once visionary and professional self.

‘For 20 years state governments have rebranded, restructured, culled, expanded and now diminished our engagement with Asia. International trade and investment is the life-blood of our economy.  It deserves better than this.’

Australian traders seeking guides to the 4D labyrinth of Indonesian business negotiations will be better advised to ignore the JTSI jesters and recruit polyglot scions of Indonesian corporate families.  There are plenty around.  They’ve studied abroad so know how to engage with Australia.

















First published in Pearls & Irritations, 26 March 2021: