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, April 07, 2020


Not a model land

Curious about life as a sheep? Visit Incredible Indonesia, as the tourist promos once hollered.

At domestic airports passengers are herded through a full-body drenching like the spray races used by Australian cockies to kill sheep lice.  The bleaters then get scanned with a device like an ear-tag code reader.

Fortunately the authorities aren’t using arsenic plunge dips, once the standard treatment for the woolies’ parasites, or snipping lumps out of ears to mark brands.

Cars leaving cities also get a washdown.  There’s little evidence these procedures frighten Covid-19 germs but presumably comfort some into believing the government has the pandemic under control.

It doesn’t.  The latest modeling suggests the Indonesian death toll could match the US, now the most stricken nation.   Yet the Australian media has so far focused more on the Big Apple than the Big Durian.

Indonesia currently has one of the highest Case Fatality Rates in the world – nudging ten per cent.  A report in The Lancet medical journal estimates the CFR in China where the outbreak began at 1.38 per cent across all age groups.

Few Indonesians are being tested in a country where kits are limited along with facilities to accurately check results.  Only 240 of the gold standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are being performed every day according to the Health Ministry.

West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil told the local media: ‘I’m convinced that the number of cases is many times over the current figure. But because we haven't tested that many people the data shows only a fraction.’

The government has not been open with its citizens. A public health emergency was declared at the end of March.  This was four weeks after the first cases were confirmed.  People were then urged to pray to keep the plague at bay.

President Joko Widodo has rebuffed calls for a lockdown, instead urging all to stay home, an instruction widely ignored. Crowds fill markets and shops and the roads remain busy, though less jammed than a month ago.  Social distancing is rarely seen outside formal institutions like banks and government offices.

The latest figures from Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Centre show Indonesia has 2,273 confirmed cases and 198 deaths.  Most have been in Jakarta where policy conflict between Governor Anies Baswedan and Widodo has been open and acerbic. 

City prohibitions have been overturned by the national government leaving locals not knowing whether they’re Artha or Mawar.  Intercity buses were stopped – then let loose.  Toll roads were closed, and then opened.

A World Bank report claims only one in five Indonesians have enough cash to survive the crisis. Around 25 million – that’s the population of Australia – live on AUD 1.70 a day.  A just introduced ‘staple food’ programme should keep the most needy alive.

The government has allocated Rp 405.1 trillion (AUD 41 billion) to what Widodo has reportedly labeled as ‘extraordinary measures to ensure the people’s health, safeguard the national economy and (ensure) financial system stability’.  

By comparison Australia, with a population one eleventh of the Republic’s, is spending five times more - AUD 226.6 billion (including State inputs) plus AUD 105 billion from Reserve Bank loans.

The Jakarta cashflow favours ‘economic recovery’ (Rp 150 trillion) ahead of health which gets only half the handout though the need is acute.  Australia’s ambassador Gary Quinlan warned stayputs that ‘critical medical care in Indonesia is significantly below Australian standards.’

That was diplomatic.  While the fluro-saturated private clinics look much like their Western counterparts, public hospitals’ waiting rooms are ill-lit, overcrowded, chaotic and clogged by petty procedures.   Doctors ‘forgetting’ appointments are commonplace as they often work two jobs.

Massaging data can cause blindness, but these stark stats from the World Bank reveal much:  In Indonesia 25 per thousand live births never survive to pre-school.  The Singapore figure is 2.8.  It’s a 45-minute ferry ride between the two countries.

Apart from public health decision makers, when this is all over foremost among the pandemic’s casualties should be unconstrained business boosters.  Last year Indonesia was unreservedly touted as the place to sow investments and reap massive profits as the rising middle class hungered for Western foods and goods.

Now the dollars are fleeing fast says Roland Rajah. The Lowy Institute’s International Economy Program director wrote in the AFR that more than AUD 16.5 billion has departed the archipelago since late January while the rupiah has tumbled 15 per cent:

‘Indonesia’s vulnerability is its reliance on capital inflows and evaporating commodity demand, combined with $US410 billion in external debt, mostly in US dollars. 

‘Adding a failure to control the virus would create an even more dangerous cocktail – prompting capital outflows to accelerate and deepening a vicious cycle of falling growth, a plunging exchange rate, and ballooning debt.’

The figures above show the virus is not being controlled.

Then there’s the blame game. In ‘normal’ times Indonesians are friendly towards outsiders.  At times of stress we’re easy targets.  Just like Asians in Australia.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is reportedly receiving large numbers of complaints from Asians alleging racial discrimination related to Covid-19.  Scapegoating is a bastardly response to a borderless plague but at least Canberra is concerned.

There’s no HRC statutory equivalent in Indonesia so no place to protest.  Cop abuse? Cop it sweet.

North Sulawesi province is overwhelmingly Protestant and preparing for Easter, a time of hope.  That didn’t stop slurs from villagers and a furious rant from a senior minister denouncing this journalist from Java a harbinger of the plague.

The synod head had preached that Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness showed self-isolation has Biblical authority. He wasn’t prepared to discuss the story of Christ touching lepers. 

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 7 April 2020:


Friday, April 03, 2020


 It’s looking real bad next door

Doomsayers are society’s detestables yet needed as truth-tellers.  So here goes: The omens are awful. Thousands of Indonesians are threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic through denial and indecision.  Responses have been too few, too late and too uncoordinated. 

At last count New South Wales had 2,298 coronavirus cases and ten deaths.   Australia’s most populous State has eight million citizens.  Indonesia’s population is 34 times larger yet has so far detected less than 1,677 carriers and recorded 157 deaths.  (All figures from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker.)

The archipelago’s mortality rate is currently almost nine per cent of confirmed cases, just behind the shocking stats from Italy.  Internationally the figure is less than three per cent.

In adjacent Malaysia, another Muslim-majority country with a population nine times smaller than Indonesia, 2,908 cases have been detected and 45 have died.

Most Covid-19 positives in Indonesia have come from people who sought swabs after feeling unwell or reckoned they’d been near someone looking crook.  There’s still no mass testing, though this is promised.

(Weird aside: NSW Health uses Vimeo to spread useful info.  Indonesia has banned the free video platform because it won’t censor occasional nudity.)

Foreign alarmists are as unwelcome in Indonesia as professional journos at a Trump presser, so here’s the opinion of three top local scientists, Iqbal Elyazar, Sudirman Nasir and Suharyo Sumowidagdo.  They’re involved in public health and epidemiology.

Writing in The Conversation they claimed the infection rate ‘may increase exponentially’ if there’s no swift effort to curb the spread. 

‘We estimate – with data gathered since March 2 and assuming the doubling times are similar as Iran’s and Italy’s – that at the end of April 2020 there may be 11,000-71,000 Covid-19 cases in Indonesia.’

Far bleaker is separate modeling by the University of Indonesia.  This warns that if distancing and testing aren’t mandated – almost impossible in a densely populated country where discipline is lax - there could be 2.5 million positive cases by the end of the month.

So far only the standard cautions about staying indoors and apart are being promoted and disregarded. 

Indonesia’s health system is sick. The government reports 1.17 beds per thousand citizens, the lowest rate in ASEAN.  (Australia has 3.84 per thousand). WHO says Australia has 3.6 ‘physicians’ per thousand people – Indonesia 0.38.

Low testing levels and unreliable detection systems are skewing the Indonesian figures, but there are many reasons why the world’s fourth most populous nation appears to be facing a heavy tragedy.  After weeks of prescribing prayer the government is only now accepting it has a mortal problem.

It won’t be the Apocalypse as predicted in the Koran, or Armageddon as prophesised in the Bible, but it will fracture the major faiths’ foundations as believers become questioners, perhaps heralding a new Enlightenment.

Religion is to Indonesians as sport is to Australians, deeply embedded in the culture.  Covid-19 is widely seen as the just wrath of a vengeful deity offended by sinners.  These are identified by extremist preachers claiming exclusive WhatsApp lines to an almighty.

When asked why he was attending a big religious gathering one man told a reporter:  ‘I fear Allah more than a virus.’  There have been disturbing videos of relatives unwrapping plastic-covered corpses and hearses being chased away from cemeteries.

Distrust is widespread in a country where corruption thrives and the rule of law does not.  Although General Soeharto’s 32-year despotic rule ended in 1998 with the launch of democracy, the five presidents since have been unable or unwilling to castrate Jakarta’s venal oligarchs who are still screwing the nation.

The slow-speaking President Joko Widodo, now in his second and final five year term, has successfully tackled the sprawling Republic’s infrastructure but not its handling of the pandemic.  Unfortunately he’s no orator like the nation’s founder Soekarno so has been unable to inspire the masses.
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has stressed that ‘people must have access to accurate information to protect themselves and others. (Misinformation) causes confusion and spreads fear to the general public.’

Widodo wasn’t listening, preferring the advice of Washington’s Dr Donald.  Last week Widodo said his government was preparing medicines, including three million doses of chloroquine ‘having been proven to cure Covid-19 in other countries’.

It hasn’t – but panic buying followed.  The anti-malarial treatment, which has serious side effects, hasn’t been approved by the WHO to treat Covid-19 while clinical trials are ongoing.
Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute has called Widodo’s initial response ‘worryingly blasé’:

 ‘The Covid-19 crisis is revealing the weaknesses in his tactical approach to politics, his ad hoc leadership style, and the lack of strategic thinking in his government.’

It’s clear that Widodo’s dithering is based on fears of the masses taking control, chaos erupting and mobs overwhelming the police.  This happened in 1998 when Soeharto fell and to a lesser extent last year when the former general Prabowo Subianto lost the election to Widodo.

Compounding the situation is Mudik (exodus), the mass movement of city folk back to their regional hometowns to celebrate Idul Fitri, the end of the fasting month on 23 May.  It’s the most important event on the Islamic calendar.

Widodo has been toying with the idea of banning Mudik, so tens of thousands have already started boarding public transport and straddling motorbikes.  If their religious duties are thwarted some will seek scapegoats.

Uprisings are rarely spontaneous.  Instead they’re engineered by what Widodo has called ‘shadow figures’ working on political agendas.  They pay street thugs called preman to throw rocks and burn tyres. The giveaways are the printed placards, the demands in perfect English.

The obvious targets are non-pribumi (not native-born) a euphemism for ethnic Chinese, even those whose families have been in the archipelago for centuries.  Most are Christian, Buddhist or Confucian. Almost 90 per cent of the population follows Islam.

If the rapes, killings and burnings that followed Soeharto’s fall last century restart, the persecuted will again rush for refuge in Singapore and Australia.  Thousands have permanent residence status, homes and businesses, particularly around Perth.

Will Canberraturn them back?  

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 3 February 2020

Wednesday, April 01, 2020


For sale: Bat viruses in ‘extreme market’        

Indonesia's 8.9 per cent death rate for Covid-19 infections is the second highest in the world, just behind Italy nudging ten per cent.       

 Yet authorities are shunning demands to shut Tomohon’s bushmeat market in North Sulawesi, an alleged source of the disease.  It’s similar to the mixed-animals outlet in Wuhan, China, reputed source of the Covid-19 killer virus now sweeping the world after jumping species. 

The Indonesian inaction ignores clear scientific evidence showing a one-in-four chance local bats sold for human consumption carry coronavirus.  

A freely available scholarly report Bat Coronavirus of Pteropus alecto from GorontaloProvince described Indonesia as a ‘reservoir for viruses’.  (The Latin term refers to black flying foxes, also found in Australia). 

The Indonesian paper forecast dangers and urged action more than a year before the pandemic hit: 
“Increasing contact between wildlife and humans leads to greater risk of human exposure to pathogens, both well-known and new. 

‘Development of early warning systems … (are) urgently needed by government agencies, research, and academic institutions in order to better serve and protect the public.’  

Internationally Covid-19 has so far taken 30,000 lives, including 114 in Indonesia.  The deaths are the highest in Southeast Asia and testing numbers low.  The nation next door has around 270 million people. It’s the world’s fourth most populous country. 

The Tomohon traditional market was last week (w/end 28 Mar) still selling butchered domestic animals plus pythons, rats, bats, wild pig and other meats openly displayed on unrefrigerated counters close to vegetable and fruit stalls.   

A death row of metal cages stands opposite.  The dogs and cats are snared with a noose, dragged to a hatch and bludgeoned.  Hairs are burned off with a flame thrower before the animals are gutted. 

Although many cats look as though they’d be at home purring on windowsills, the dogs appear forlorn, mangy and battle scarred.  They’re not tail wagers drooling for pats. 

Just outside the market and about 200 metres from the battering and bloodletting a large government poster urges consumers to stop eating dogs and cats.  It reads in English: ‘Love for Animals’. A few years ago the slaughter was billed as a tourist attraction.

At a 6 March meeting in Tomohon convened by the local government to discuss the Covid-19 outbreak, participants circulated the Bat Coronavirus report published in The International Journal of Tropical Veterinary and Biomedical Research in late 2018.  The publisher is the Syiah Kuala University’s veterinary medicine faculty in Aceh, north Sumatra.

The 13 Indonesian scientists  found 24 of 95 rectal swab samples from the flying mammals ‘suggested as presumptive positive to Bat CoV (coronavirus) … (these) are potentially zoonotic (an animal disease that can infect humans).  Bats are one of the locals’ ‘favourite meats.’ 

The authors said their findings could serve as an early warning to support global monitoring systems and report the emergence of bats’ coronavirus.  These have the potential to ‘become dangerous pathogens to human health’. 

 It’s not known if the Indonesian bat virus is identical to the one from Wuhan. 
Tomohon (population 110,000) is 25 kilometres south of the provincial capital Manado and a degree north of the equator. 

Meats and live beasts sold in the hilltown market are sourced locally or trucked from adjacent Gorontalo where most residents are Muslims.  Few eat pigs and dogs which are considered scavengers and prohibited.   

About two-thirds of the North Sulawesi population is Christian.  They consume exotic meats. 
Animal welfare activists based in Europe have long tried getting wild and domestic creature trade banned on grounds of cruelty and conservation.  They’ve been flicked away by claims the meats are customary delicacies according to Frank Delano Manus. (below, left)

He runs the Animal Friends Manado Indonesia (AFMI) shelter in Tomohon. It’s funded by an Indonesian philanthropist Anna Parengkuan-Supit now living in Germany. 

“Some dogs carry the potentially fatal disease rabies which can be passed to humans through bites,” Manus said.  “Now we know bats are infected with coronavirus.  This goes beyond animal cruelty to a serious matter of public health. 

“Last year I hand delivered a letter signed by nine NGOs to President Joko Widodo’s office urging the extreme market trade be stopped.  It was passed on to the Ministry of Agriculture.  Nothing was done.” 

Manus, 39, said he’d been threatened for campaigning, but was tolerated because he was a local. He’d worked on a West Australian dairy farm so knew of Western attitudes to animal welfare. 

”We’ve been lobbying to close the extreme part of Tomohon market and other live animal markets in the province since February 2018,” said Lola Webber, director of the Change for Animals Foundation, a UK registered charity and one of the letter signatories. 

“I believe the local government is struggling to control the traders and buyers as many meats are considered part of Minahasa (North Sulawesi) culture.” 

After the 6 March meeting attended by about 25 government officials and local NGOs, rumours surfaced that the extreme food market would be shuttered.  In a statement Mayor Jimmy Feidie Eman said: 

"We have never issued an instruction to close it (the market) related to the outbreak of coronavirus. It is requested that the people of Tomohon City not be misled by hoaxes."  


First published in Pearls and Irritations, 1 April 2020:

Friday, March 27, 2020


                      The land of no social distance                         

While the Western world thinks staying apart is wise to avoid Covid-19 infections, Indonesians still remain together.

Only magnates can practise social distancing by fleeing to apartments in Singapore, or hunkering down in their Jakarta mansions.  The threats would come from outside the high iron gates, brought in by the maids, gardeners and drivers who help maintain the oligarch’s opulent lifestyles.

The wee folk have no opportunity to keep their distance on Java.  It’s reputed to be the world’s most densely populated island with about 1,120 people per square kilometer.  In Jakarta the compaction is a dozen times greater.

Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in the US is tallying Covid-19 around the world.  On Wednesday (25/3) Indonesia had 686 cases confirmed and 55 deaths.  That ratio of almost nine to one puts Indonesia far above other countries, but may also be skewed because so few have been tested.

The environment is another danger. Few Westerners get the chance to explore the gang (alleys) of urban kampongs where people live so close its often impossible to pass and not brush clothes.  Reaching out to the neighbours doesn’t demand a conscious decision – just lifting an arm is sufficient.

The Directorate General of Human Settlements reported that kawasan kumuh (slums) covered 38,000 hectares of Indonesia.  This had risen to 87,000 hectares last year despite many clearing projects.  In Jakarta 445 communities are classified as ‘slums’.

It’s in these twisted, congested communes that the roots of Indonesian tolerance – and parochialism – have thrived.

Elsewhere millions of workers and students live in kos, basic bedrooms with access to a toilet and little else rented from private homeowners.  These people eat outside at roadside stalls, making the idea of a lockdown impractical.

The language is full of references to the virtues of close-proximity living.  Rindu kampung halaman (I long for my village), to mangan ora manga asal kumpul (even when hungry we have each other).  Hanging out (nongkrong) was invented in Indonesia.

Now being shared is a virus.  Although kampong residents generally keep homes and streets well washed, drains are usually open and livestock often kept under the same roof. Walls, doorways, handles, switches – all are touched and retouched every few minutes.

In Tomohon, a small town in North Sulawesi, a wildlife meat market similar to the one in Wuhan where Covid-19 is alleged to have started, operates openly.  Dogs, cats, bats, forest pig, pythons and other feral animals continue to be sold despite an international campaign to have the trade shuttered.  In response a huge government poster outside proclaims its ‘Love for Animals’.

Jamu (herbal drink) women wander the streets selling home made cures for all ills, including coronavirus.  Their potions are far cheaper than proprietary medicines and their effectiveness is confirmed by anecdote.

At least customers aren’t following Australia and panic buying toilet rolls, only found in hotels catering for foreigners.  The culture is to wash, which seems far cleaner.

Community health services stress hygiene and proper waste disposal, yet rivers remain the favoured place to chuck rubbish. The best disposal points are indicated by signs threatening penalties.  The people have information – what they don’t have is health literacy.

The US National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine defines this as ‘the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.’

Most research has been done in Europe, but any survey in Indonesia would likely find the nation largely health illiterate.  Which makes combating the spread of Covid-19 particularly difficult.

Although my Indonesian wife looks and feels fine it seems she suffers from hypothermia.  That’s according to a shop security guard’s forehead thermometer which recorded 33 degrees.

It was the same for her equally sprightly sister. The women distrusted the device and its untrained user so walked on.  But the procedure looked comforting; something was being done.

The dangers of smoking are advertised on the packs of fags plus a small panel on the huge DON’T QUIT posters urging men to prove their masculinity though nicotine. 

International health authorities believe almost 70 per cent of Indonesian men smoke. Packs cost about one US dollar.  The World Health Organisation reckons around 270,000 deaths a year in Indonesia are caused by smoking.  If Covid-19 takes hold smokers will be particularly susceptible.

The World Bank estimates that around 25 million Indonesians live on one US dollar a day.  More than half the workforce is in the informal sector and has no safety net.
It’s work, beg or bludge from relatives – which is another reason President Joko Widodo is resisting a lockdown.

There’s a tiered national health insurance scheme called BPJS (Badan Penyelenggara Jaminan Sosial) which relies on voluntary payments.  It’s grossly under-funded, opposed by many hospitals and doctors, and seriously sick.

Working from home is an option only for the well-educated employed by government, multinationals and universities.  But even they have to cope with poor Internet services.

According to the US pro-democracy NGO Freedom House only 56 per cent of Indonesians have access to the Internet, one of the lowest penetration levels in the region.  Even in big centres it’s frustratingly fickle.

So far religion has trumped reason in the response to Covid-19.  At first it was widely claimed the virus would by-pass the archipelago because all citizens must profess to a monotheistic belief and record their adherence to one of six approved religions on their ID cards.  Prayer would prevent.  

 Even Health Minister Terawan Agus recommended worship while medicos were urging washing.
Few questioned why any deity would recognize lines drawn on maps by humans, spare those on one side while afflicting the allegedly less pious innocents next door.

Deaths in Indonesia, where almost 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, are followed by same day or next morning burials.  The community gets involved, rarely undertakers and doctors. 

Unless the police are called because of violence, there’s seldom a post mortem or tissue swab to determine cause of death.  Instead relatives use their faith to explain a sudden departure:  Allah or God had called her or him home.  Their time was up.  That’s how the world works.

No longer.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 27 March 2029:

Thursday, March 26, 2020


                                 I don’t like you but want your money

Ma’ruf Amin is a name few Australians would recognize.  Before his election last year as Indonesia’s vice-president, the hard-right Islamic cleric showed minimal interest in his southern neighbour.  Suddenly he wants Australian aid.

Amin, 77, is the former head of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Islamic clerics) and no friend of moderates.  Before elevation to the Palace he was best known for issuing fatwas (religious prohibitions).  His targets included pornography, gays, and Muslims greeting Christians with ‘Happy Christmas’.

Amin now says he regrets testifying against Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in a 2017 blasphemy hearing.  However the religious elite’s words, along with his presence at a rally of more than 500,000 demanding a trial (and some a lynching), helped put the ethnic-Chinese Christian behind bars for two years.

Ahok was convicted on the basis of a speech where he condemned politicians who deliberately misinterpreted the Koran. 

Last year Amin told Australia to butt out of Indonesian affairs and stop protesting the planned early release from jail of terrorism supporter Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the spiritual leader of the 2002 Bali bombers. The domestic objections were so strong the plan was dropped.

Amin, 77, wasn’t President Joko Widodo’s choice for VP, but was dropped in by Jakarta’s political puppet masters.  They saw the older man’s presence as the best way to prove the President’s piety. 

 During the bitter election campaign Widodo was accused of being a covert Christian with Chinese ancestry and his late father Noto Mihardjo a Communist.  No proof was offered to back the claims.

Amin’s job is widely considered to be Widodo’s shield, his stand-in at minor functions and little else.  Meanwhile liberals pray that Widodo, 58, stays healthy.  The VP was entirely educated in local Islamic institutions so little exposure to other faiths, cultures, ideas and values.

Suddenly Amin has found another voice, making a submission to a Federal Government aid review headed by International Development Minister Alex Hawke.  The VP reportedly said Australia had made a ‘vital contribution’ to ­poverty reduction.  He singled out programs to reduce stunting.

About a third of Indonesia’s toddlers suffer because they aren’t breast-fed and lack access to clean foods and decent toilets.  They don’t grow properly and neither do their brains.

Australia already funds a programme called MAMPU  ‘to improve the lives of poor women in Indonesia’ and says it’s ‘empowered’ 35,000. Sounds substantial?  About 90 million Indonesian women are in what statisticians call the ‘productive group’ aged between 15 and 64.

The problem doesn’t need more foreigners in floppy hats devising databases. Indonesian health and social workers are competent enough and communicate better.  They know stunting can be fixed by properly funded education services.  Money is not the issue – it’s the distribution that’s flawed.

Three years ago Oxfam, the confederation of 19 charities fighting global poverty, claimed the wealthiest one per cent (all men) own half Indonesia’s total wealth:

 ‘Indonesia has the sixth worst inequality of wealth in the world. In 2016 the collective wealth of the richest four billionaires was more than the total wealth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population – about 100 million people.

‘The amount of money earned annually from (one man’s) wealth would be sufficient to lift more than 2.8 million Indonesians out of extreme poverty.  

During the past five years Australia’s annual aid to Indonesia has been slashed from AUD 610 to 298 million.  The published rationale is to pay for the Pacific ‘step-up’ policy.  

This has been defined by PM Scott Morrison as putting the islands ‘front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook, our foreign policy, our personal connections, including at the highest levels of government’.

Decoded it means: ‘We’ll use aid to stop the Chinese from getting toeholds in Pacific states.’  Super cynics linked the cut to the 2015 executions of Bali Nine drug runners Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, a suggestion denied by all.  

Widodo said the chop was Australia’s business and no tears should be shed:  ‘That’s their right’.
Amin’s plea is badly timed and curious.  It’s been reported that no other nation bothered to submit, probably realising the review will go nowhere.  

Hawke’s review team might also think charity should begin at home.  Last October the Republic launched a US $212 million (AUD 343 million) international endowment and development fund called Indonesian AID.

The VP will get a polite ‘your submission has been noted’ maybe plus an attachment explaining the Australian budget is no longer in surplus and the Covid-19 ‘stimulus package’ will drain the Treasury of AUD 17.6 billion.  So sorry Sir, no extra aid.  

Preferably Amin should be told:  ‘Crack down on the oligarchs, tighten your tax take and assume responsibility for your problems.  That’s your right’.


First published in Pearls and Irritations, 26 March 2020:

Thursday, March 19, 2020


A place to admire, not pity                                      

Kasihan! It’s a common expression of consolation.  Some hardship befell, a loss perhaps, an accident, a mishap. Oh, what a pity!

It’s also a hamlet in Bantul Regency, just outside Yogyakarta, low lying, more forest than field, well watered, known as a lush den of imagination and inventiveness.  Six of the village’s nationally most noted 14 daughters and sons are involved in the arts.

No surprise because the nearby spring Sendang Pengasihan (Be Merciful) is reputed to have curative and mystical powers, once drawing local royalty to meditate.  Now it seduces creatives.

Most famous of the artists who live here is Djoko Pekik, 83 who’s built a striking studio in the bush as a workplace and gallery to preserve his huge crowdscapes.  More of his story later.

One of Pekik’s admirers is Giring Prihatyasono, 39.  He’s a graduate of Yogyakarta’s prestigious Arts Institute and also a social commentator, though in a formal, controlled style while his guru is free and forceful.

The younger man explores different materials, particularly aluminum.  It’s a costly metal though one which yields beguiling and ambiguous results when etched.

His work is subtle and pensive, often including a rent or scar as though it’s been accidentally snagged. This is deliberate, part of his philosophy:  “We strive for perfection, but it’s impossible to achieve.  So after trying to make my work as good as possible I add a flaw.

“In my early days I tried producing paintings the shops like to sell to tourists, smiley girls in rice paddy, but that didn’t satisfy.  I’m also fascinated by language and how various lettering systems have evolved around the world. 

“Now I work to express myself.  Artists should be honest and let their creations find the buyer.” 

His determination has found enough collectors to keep the family in better straits than if he’d followed his father into a sugar factory – a rejection that led to meal-time silence for a year.  They’re now back on speaking terms.

The multiple award winner hides his messages.  A large disc (right) which at first looks to be an official government emblem is circled with the faint words: Sebagai Abdi Negara saya malu dan tidak akan melakukan korupsi. (As a servant of the nation I am ashamed and will not participate in corruption).

A five-minute walk from his hideaway through the tangled undergrowth, then across a narrow bridge above Khonteng stream.  Damp tracks wend past the houses of other painters, and eventually to the studio of the artist emeritus.

Prihatyasono feels for his country but hasn’t suffered for his art like Pekik, once a member of Bumi Tarung (Fight for the Land), a gathering of creatives during the era of Soekarno.  It was savagely persecuted by his military successor Soeharto because most artists leaned left.

They were intellectuals, not bombers.  The weapons they wielded were ideas, pens and brushes.  They were treated like terrorists.

After seven years of brutality and deprivation Pekik (left)  was released from jail with TP stamped on his ID card, meaning he was a former Tahanan Politik, a political prisoner.  This labeled him almost unemployable and unacceptable to society.  For several years he cleaned sewers to support his eight children.

His revenge was splendid.  In 1999, a year after his persecutor Soeharto was dethroned, Pekik became nationally famous as Indonesia’s first one billion rupiah (then about US $120,000) painter when he sold Berburu Celeng (the Boar Hunt), now an icon of the nation’s contemporary art.

Most assumed the fat pig being carried upside-down on a yoke between hunters was the Republic’s second president.  He also seems to be the ringmaster in Sirkus September, a reference to the 1965 coup that felled Soekarno.  In the foreground two big black rhinos clash their horns, urged on by clowns.

Pekik, like a novelist advised by a lawyer, denied any resemblance to persons living or dead.  As a social realist he’s blunt on the canvas but equivocal in conversation.

“You see what you want to see,” he told The Jakarta Post while sitting before a motorized easel moving his work up and down.  “You’re the viewer.”

His nationalism is stark and xenophobic:  If he doesn’t like a foreigner he orders them off his property even if they’ve come to buy. “The colonialists were bad, but not as bad as the Japanese.”

So to smother, though not forget the cruelty and horrors, he leans on nicotine and paint.  He’s outlived his persecutors, retaining his dignity and independence.

Pekik may now be rich but he still rails against the oligarchy and big business, always siding with the wee folk. Sometimes they brandish spears.  The angry confronters are dramatic in their intensity, though often flanked by powerless onlookers.

He admits his 2014 canvas Go to hell, crocodile is a commentary on the Freeport mine in Papua; crowds face a giant scaly reptile lapping blood from a swirling void.  Some have linked the painting to Soekarno’s 1964 outburst against the US: Go to hell with your aid!

Pekik’s figures are seldom static; dancers swish, black smoke chokes the crowds. These are not images to soothe.  The colors are usually subdued, though his clown faces are gaudy.  “That’s to show happiness,” he said, though unconvincingly.

“Who cares how it all ends?  As long as I can keep painting my thoughts and visions then everything’s fine”.  Kasihan?  “No”.

First published in The Jakarta Post 19 March 2020

Saturday, March 14, 2020


Remembering New Zealand’s ‘darkest day’                                    Duncan Graham

A year ago on 15 March a heavily-armed Australian gunman went on a killing spree targeting New Zealand Muslims during their Friday prayers.

He opened fire at the Al Noor Mosque then continued shooting at the Linwood Islamic Centre.  Both are in Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island,

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who led the nation in mourning following its ‘darkest day’ has publicly sworn never to mention the far-right extremist’s name. This column will do the same.

In June he’ll face a NZ court.  He’s charged with 51 counts of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one of engaging in a terrorist act.

The legal and journalistic convention is to report his ‘alleged’ crimes.  Although he live-streamed the massacres we have to say he’s innocent until proved otherwise.  So far he’s pleaded ‘not guilty’.

There’s no death penalty in NZ, but if found guilty the 29-year old will probably die in jail of natural causes decades hence.

In 1996 a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania left 35 dead and 23 wounded.  The killer pleaded guilty and was given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole.  He’s now 52.

After that tragedy the Australian Parliament passed laws banning the sale of high powered weapons and restricting the ownership and use of firearms.  Similar reforms were introduced in NZ last year.  Neither country gives citizens the right to bear arms, as in the US.

The Christchurch killings shocked the world and moved millions to ask:  How could this have happened in such a small, peaceful and welcoming country?  The answer is that hate, like the coronavirus, knows no boundaries.

Among the distressed questioners are three Indonesians who studied in NZ:  Naila Rahma, Maria Qibtia and Sophie Amani.  They’re the daughters of Alida Assegaf and her academic husband Dr Zainal Abidin Bagir.

In 2014 the Director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University was a visiting lecturer at Wellington’s Victoria University while the couple’s children attended local schools.

Instead of just texting tears and sad emojis to commemorate the massacre, the young women have compiled a 72-page book of 15 of their friends’ thoughts called Kotahi Aroha – Maori for One Love, One New Zealand.  The languages are English and Indonesian.

Said Dr Bagir:  “The goal is an expression of sympathy to the victims--not only the dead, but also to NZ communities who experienced deep sorrow--and a wish that NZ remains a loving and beautiful place.” 

The book starts with 11 observations by Twindania Namiesyva “six years a Wellingtonian, forever a Kiwi at heart”.  She was in the national capital while her husband Muhammad Ghifary was studying for a doctorate in engineering and computing science.

When asked to comment on the cultural differences between Indonesia and NZ she focused on dress: ‘New Zealanders, unlike urban communities in Indonesia, don't judge someone based on appearance. They are more concerned with attitude than appearance. This kind of culture suits me.’

 Under the heading Let Me Tell You What NZ Is she wrote:. 

“NZ is local authorities allowing churches to be converted into a masjid.”

 “NZ is your midwife making sure all the staff in the hospital delivery room you’re dealing with are women, as per your request.”

“NZ is your daughter’s school principal announcing there will be halal sausages at the school barbecue day.”

Sophie Amani said she made the mistake of watching a video of the shootings:  “I wish with all my heart that I’d never stumbled across the video – I will never get it out of my head.

“I could cry all day but that’s not going to change what’s happened so instead I wrote this piece to spread awareness.”

Ali Riza spent five years in NZ studying creative writing and design, some of that time in Christchurch walking home at night.  He knew about Islamophobia and religious killings in the US.  For a while he was terrified:  “No one looked like me, no-one believed what I did.”

Later he reflected: “It (racial slurs and threats) never happened to me.  Not one.  Not a single unkind word about my faith.  Not a single untoward mention of my race.  Nothing.  My paranoia turned out to be just that, nothing but paranoia.”

Yet while Riza was losing his fear, in the same city a man with a warped mindset was allegedly stockpiling weapons and ammunition.  He was also writing a hate manifesto, making intricate plans to kill people he’d never met after digesting fake news about Muslims he’d read on the Internet.

While the killings drew widespread horror and sympathy, they also stirred the xenophobic fringe.  There have been reports of an upsurge of white supremacist messages.
This month a NZ teenager was arrested for allegedly threatening terror by posting a picture of a masked man outside the Al Noor mosque.
The authors of Kotahi Aroha are now back in Indonesia.  Naila Rahma, 22, graduated from the University of Indonesia and now works in Jakarta.

Maria Qibtia, 21 is studying graphic arts at a West Java university. She designed the book.

The last words to Sophia Amani, 17, now at a State high school. 

“To everyone reading this:  We too will stay strong and stop being afraid.  I was terrified but I know I shouldn’t be. Whoever you are, whatever you believe in, whatever your story is I love you.

“Let’s show everyone we can stand together, united, strong as ever and loved by one another.”

Kotahi Aroha is not a commercial venture so not for sale.  It can be read here:

First published in The Jakarta Post, 14 March 2020