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

Sunday, March 01, 2015


Better starve than borrow                            

In 2007 knockabout guitar-strummer, tour guide and sometime barista Zulfikar (Fikar) could usually be found serving guests at Bukittinggi’s Bedudal Café, a backpackers’ favorite in the West Sumatra city.
Enter former public servant Peter Johnston (left) seemingly just another footloose Australian trying to understand Indonesia. But this encounter would change not just the two men’s lives but those of hundreds of Indonesians.
Peter was no wide-eyed newbie. His archipelagic wanderings began in 2004.  He’d formally studied the language in Yogyakarta.  So when he harangued against inequalities it was clear his concerns were not freshly found.
He figured the poor were forever shackled to poverty without capital. In his homeland the state welfare system where he’d worked as an administrator and social worker, helped with schemes to kick-start people’s lives. But this was Indonesia where indifference to the plight of the lowly was endemic in banks and government.
So how could the folks in the Lucky Country next door help their less privileged neighbors without being patronizing?  Click light bulb moment: Microcredit.
Great idea – but bars everywhere sweep up grand schemes along with the fag ends and plastic trash come closing time.
Despite his scepticism Fikar kept his mind open.  Over three days and a few more coffees the two men devised a small no-interest loan scheme to help poor entrepreneurs start a business.
It would be called Bamboo because, Fikar reasoned, the plant is strong, resistant, sustainable and multipurpose.  His mother had even used it to make clothes during the Japanese occupation of the 1940s.
But then, as usual, the Westerner left.
“I thought it would all be forgotten once Peter moved on,” he said at a Bamboo board meeting in Bandung.  The Australian members used their own money to pay for travel and accommodation.

“In any case, I had no experience of banking and the credit system – only its faults.”  He’s involved in a long legal case fighting a company that allegedly upped its interest rates without consultation.
What he did have was local knowledge and understanding of the hand-to-mouth way the poor in Indonesia live and the pressures on family budgets.  A smart kid, the youngest of ten children born in Bukittinggi, his ambition was to become a lawyer.
Reality hit: No money, no study.  Plan B – use wits.  He picked up English from the tourists, rapidly became fluent and opened a guide business, Lite n’ Easy. When the haze from burning forests drove overseas visitors away he learned how to fix computers. It was a fickle life.
“I had zero capital and rented a motorbike,” he said. “I was just stuck.”
is mother His mother had warned hiom never to go into debH
His mother had raised him to beware of debt.  “Better you don’t eat than borrow,” she’d said, “avoid loan sharks.”
These are the high-interest unofficial credit suppliers that cruise the meat and vegetable markets, They typically charge Rp 200,000 (US $ 17) to lend Rp 1 million (US $ 83) over 40 days) keeping small businesspeople afloat, or savaging them in a sea of debt - depending on your economic philosophy.
For Fikar there was no ambiguity – but much doubt about the chances of undermining a harsh lending system embedded in the culture.
“I wanted to do something to help the poor get out of their debt cycle,” he said. “There’s no leadership from the government – it’s just about impossible for small people to get ahead.
“I’m a bit of a rebel and despise a bureaucracy that seems to believe that if you can make it more difficult, then why not?  How can you fight an elephant?”
The answer came when Peter made good on his promise with a draft for AUD $500 (Rp 5 million). Fikar, 40, was astonished:  “I told my friends to pinch me
“I lived near the market and regularly passed a café that never had food on display after midday.  I knew the owner and wondered how he could live like that.  So I asked what he’d do with a no-interest loan.
“Of course he wanted to know who was behind it. Why would Australians want to help when Indonesians refused?
“Eventually we lent him Rp 1.5 million (US $125) which he spent on building stock.  Now he has a bigger shop and his wife has a sewing machine which she uses to make money.”
So Bamboo Micro Credit was born.  It’s now an independent secular foundation taking donations from Australians and channelling these to borrowers through Fikar in Bukittinggi and agents in Malang (East Java) and Bandung (West Java).  Hundreds have been helped as the loans are repaid and the money recirculated through new clients.

“We are all smart in Indonesia, we are not buffaloes,” Fikar said. “We have so much potential but are being held back because the banks don’t want to know anyone whose collar is not smooth.
“Not everyone is right for a BMC loan.  They must have plans for a sustainable business, so inevitably some people hate me, but I’m not going to be bothered by their negative energy. We now charge an administration fee of ten per cent but the loans remain interest free.
“We’ve lost a little – but more than 90 per cent of borrowers repay.  If they default their friends and family won’t get loans in future, so there’s social pressure. Yet we have to be tolerant and understand there are other demands on families’ budgets, like paying for weddings, funerals and Idul Fitri celebrations.  Sometimes we have to accept a slow payer so knowing the culture is important. Most applicants are women.
 “I urge people just to be honest and tell me if there are problems with repayments.  Misfortune can happen to us all – but don’t hide from me.  I’m not Dracula.
“The Australian board doesn’t interfere and I only consult Peter if there’s a tricky decision to make.
“Now I think I might get to university.  Then I can really understand the law and use that knowledge to protect the poor.”

The Birdman of Bunulrejo

Even as a small boy Farit Hermansya was an accomplished gunman.
Together with his mates and an air rifle he’d travel to forests near Blitar in East Java and shoot every perching bird within range.
“I killed hundreds,” he said.  “The numbers are countless.”
Then one day he had an epiphany. He’d winged a bird.  It looked in the little one’s eyes knowing it was about to die. There was a brief contact between two living creatures.  Instead of wringing the bird’s neck he tried to save its life.
Farit failed, but at that moment he turned from killer to conservationist and began breeding exotic birds, mainly little finches and parakeets.
It’s a hobby gaining popularity as Indonesians get more disposable income, with many coming to Farit’s home in the Malang kampong of Bunulrejo.  Not all buyers had cages, so he reckoned business might prosper if he supplied both bird and lodging.
His business plan called for Rp 5 million (US$400) to buy wood and tools.  But where to find such a sum?
“I knew it was pointless going to the banks,” he said.  “They want security like the certificate for my home or motorbike.  I have a friend who works as a debt collector – he warned me against even trying.”
But a neighbor told him about a non-government community development organization called Daya Pertiwi that also acted as a Bamboo Microcredit agent.
Farit, 29, scaled back his plans by buying tools second hand and scavenging timber.  He was given a ten month Rp 1 million (US$83) no interest loan which he’s repaying at Rp 100,000 a month.
A big cage can cost Rp 170,000 (US$14) but most average half that sum.  The birds are more expensive with orange colored plumage fetching Rp 650,000 (US$52).
“I don’t expect there’ll be a need to borrow again once this loan is repaid,” said Farit.  “I can expand with the extra money I’m now earning. I tell every buyer not to kill.  I still feel guilty about the birds I’ve shot.”
(Disclosure:  The author is an occasional advisor to Bamboo Microcredit.)
(First published in J Plus The Jakarta Post 1 March 2015)


Monday, February 23, 2015


Indonesia’s Bob Hope hoofs for heritage               
A man and woman are neighbors.  The woman insists on sitting outside to breastfeed her baby.  The man next door calls out:  ‘Ibu, please don’t keep opening your window or you’ll wake my child.’
Slightly risqué double-entendre jokes were a speciality of Kwartet S, a comedy group that often performed for Soeharto in the late president’s palace.

“But Soeharto never laughed out loud,” said Djathi Koesoemo, 70, the last surviving member of the quartet that kept Indonesia chuckling from 1970 to 1992.  “He’d look down into his lap and put his hand over his mouth.
“Ministers and officials didn’t know how to react – to laugh or look stern.  They were too frightened.
“Although I supported [first president] Soekarno I got on well with Soeharto until he started to dilute Pancasila.  So I then wrote Manusia Pancasila [Pancasila for People] to help hasten his departure.”
Pancasila was designed by Soekarno to contain competing religious and national interests when the Constitution was being written.  He claimed it was a fusion of Javanese thinking with Eastern and Western values.
The principles are belief in one God, a just and civilised humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice.
As with all grand attempts to boil noble truths down to one-liners, it has been reinterpreted, dissected and sidelined – but remains the national philosophy.
Unlike many retired entertainers Djathi doesn’t bore with long accounts of the funny things that happened on the way to his present life as an art collector and wisdom seeker.
He’ll briefly reminisce, but doesn’t embroider. “I’m interested in the future of our nation,” he said in Malang, East Java, where he lives in a house that’s a gallery, museum and shrine to Soekarno.
On a desk, a Bible, a crucifix, some flower offerings and the Koran.  He’s been to Mecca twice but won’t use the honorific ‘Haji’, much loved by politicians to prove their alleged piety.
Atop a table an award for Djathi’s ‘dedication to encouraging young people to understand their culture’.  On the wall a statue of the Hindu deity Vishnu, nearby a bust of Buddha. And yet another portrait of Soekarno with a caption from a 1960 speech urging Indonesians to ‘follow my teachings’.
Above the carved doorway is an illustration of a Prince Panji story, a picture of Nyai Roro Kidul, the legendary Queen of the South Sea, and another stirring portrait of the 1945 Proclamator.
This eclectic collection suggests a magpie mind or a man with more money than discipline. Neither is true. Djathi remains mentally and physically nimble and knows what he’s doing even if some might find his thinking discursive and lacking academic rigor.
His end goal is clear: “I want to keep Indonesian culture alive and preserve the spirit of Pancasila.”
During the 1970s and 80s Djathi worked in films.  Known as Indonesia’s Bob Hope [after the late US comedian] he was gifted with what entertainers call ‘the triple threat’ – acting, singing and dancing.
To this he added the skills of the dalang, or puppet master in the wayang kulit [shadow puppet] plays, talents discovered when still at school in Blitar, East Java.
“I was always active and enjoyed making people laugh,” said the eldest of 11 children.  “I followed current affairs and was kept out of high school for six months for opposing the Communist Party’s influence on Soekarno.”
That setback didn’t damage his future.  He graduated in economics at Brawijaya University and politics at Waskita Darma University.  He wanted an academic career, but it was his silver tongue that got him into the government’s Information Department.
Until dissolved in 1999 by fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, this Orwellian bureaucracy ensured citizens only read, saw and heard what the government considered appropriate – while alert for wayward journalists inclined to report the truth.

Before he quit to start his own film business Djathi’s role was to act as Mbah [Grandfather] Gondho on Radio Republic Indonesia where for a decade he imitated a sage villager extolling the virtues of Pancasila.
“Although my parents were poor we had good relations, including cousins in Soekarno’s family,” he said. “An aunt adopted me and one of my brothers so we got an education. 
“Apart from these connections I admired Soekarno.  I met him three times, the last occasion in 1964.  He had a premonition that something serious was to happen. [Soekarno was deposed in 1965 and died five years later.]
“He told me to never hate anyone, and to help care for his children.”
Which is why Djathi ended up in 1993 working on Megawati Soekarnoputri’s presidential ‘success team’, though it would be another eight years before the first president’s daughter was able to achieve her ambition. He also held a seat in the East Java regional parliament.
Politics have now yielded to his quest to frame Javanese cosmology as the centrepiece of international harmony while drawing in knowledge from other cultures. His esoteric thinking is outlined in his book Jagad Merenovasi Diri [the universe reforming itself].

To give substance to his ideas he’s developing a bigger museum for his rich collection.  This is just north of Malang at Singosari, center of the 13th century kingdom of the same name.
Little remains of that era other than the crumbling temple mortuary for Kertanegara, the kingdom’s final ruler, a bathing pool and two grotesque dwarapala guarding what was probably the entrance to the most holy places.
It’s past these carved giants and into the foothills of Mount Arjuna, 3,339 meters, where Djathi is building his studio on a three hectare site opposite an ancient cave above the Snake River.  Some rooms are already cluttered with carvings, ancient Javanese scripts and murals, but this is still a work in progress.
“We must rediscover the wisdoms of the past to make this country whole,” he said. No smutty jokes – this is serious: “There’s no better philosophy than Pancasila, and this is the right place because it’s our heritage.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 February 2015)

Sunday, February 22, 2015


The Incremental Revolution
EXCLUSIVE.  The government will rush through new laws introducing pre-pre-trials preceding pre-trials before the trials of potential graft suspects backed by past presidents, their former in-laws and media magnates.
Sources said authorities were determined not to be outwitted by ornamental revolutionaries frustrating the appointments of senior people by assuming overflowing bank accounts indicate corruption.
“In a free society even police officers are allowed to amass fortunes,” a source said.  “It shows they’re also astute businessmen.  The nation needs robust entrepreneurs.   There will be unlimited pre-trials until we get the results we want.”
Earlier heavily armed members of the crack Densus 88 counter-terrorism squad raided the home of AB, the last remaining employee of the Corruption Eradication Commission [KPK].
AB’s neighbors in his Ciliwung River kampong said the illiterate one-legged 60-year old janitor had started work this year in the KPK basement. “I fear for my mate,” said one. “When the cops have finished with him he won’t have a leg to stand on.”
Witnesses said AB was dragged from his shower, handcuffed, tear-gassed and thrown into a windowless wagon before being rushed straight to Police Headquarters via unsealed tracks on Mount Bromo.
 A police officer, speaking on condition that he or she should remain gender free and anonymous lest he or she be arrested by someone, said AB had been charged with subversion.  He confirmed AB was being held on a top floor where toxic cleaning fluids are stored and windows easily opened.
The spokesthing said police acted after a complaint lodged against AB by his former elementary school headmaster.
“On the basis of information received from a principled principal, AB forged his school admission form and asked other pupils to commit perjury by witnessing his counterfeit thumbprint,” she / he said.
“Informants swear the five-year old was heard to shout: ‘I hate Soeharto’.
“This is a serious insult to a past Head of State.  It threatens the stability of the Republic.  When convicted AB will spend 20 years at Nusakambangan without parole.”
Attempts to confirm the allegation were unsuccessful.  Neighbors claimed the teacher, also named Soeharto, died in 1990,
When questioned by incredulous reporters the spokesthing said: “Don’t go poking in the past stirring hornets.  Your job is to report the present facts as we say them.
“AB had also conspired to be Jokowi’s running mate.  A surprise raid by Densus 88 was necessary to retrieve the proof and because he’d been observed buying a DVD of The Raid – Redemption. Don’t be fooled by the wheelchair - he’s a violent practitioner of pencak silat [Indonesian martial arts]. 
“His bathroom had weapons like razors, hairsprays and soap.  AB is a slippery customer alright.  The safety of our officers is always our first concern.
“We also had to ensure the suspect had no time to destroy incriminating photographs of KPK commissioners with nude teenage models injecting shabu-shabu in a five-star hotel room with sacks of US dollars on an unmade bed.
“A laptop was seized and the pictures will be found.”
Following the arrest a senior law lecturer, who called himself Anon as he has yet to flee overseas, said there was no statute of limitations.
“It doesn’t matter how long ago the offence was committed; a crime is still a crime and no-one is above the law enforcers.
”Could a minor be found guilty?  That’s a question for the courts, but every child should know they must respect Pak Soeharto who showed us all what’s right and wrong. If not, they haven’t been raised properly so could be prosecuted for selecting irresponsible parents.”
The President, who asked that his name not be published because he had not been authorized to think by his party leader, said he was considering saying something at some point in the future should an advisory committee advise that  this was advisable.
“Please be patient and let things take their natural course,” he told nonplussed journalists before cycling into the streets for Decision-Free Day.
“Get things in perspective. My government will be instrumental in introducing the Mental Revolution, but progress has to be incremental.  That’s fundamental. We’ve embraced democracy,  so the next stage is a good Greek tragedy.”  Duncan Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post Sunday 22 February 2015)


Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Impossible adventures in the rag trade  

If Yanis Emilia had sought a business loan with the following proposal her purse would have left the bank no heavier than when she entered:
 ‘Hey, I’ve got this great idea.  I’m an ethnic Chinese Indonesian Protestant living in a regional city far from Jakarta. Although I’m a trained designer I’ve never been to the fashion centers of Paris, London or New York.  Despite these factors - what some might consider handicaps - I want to make wedding gowns and export them to rich Muslim women in the Arab States.’
Only a plan to sell crucifixes in Mecca might have been dismissed faster.
Fortunately the young dressmaker built her business slowly so the scenario above wasn’t necessary.
After studying in Surabaya Yanis started making dresses at home in Malang for friends and relatives.
The youngest of five children she was the only one who’d inherited her mother’s dexterity with the needle.  By third year in elementary school she had already sewn a uniform that could be worn without ridicule from her classmates.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Yanis said.  “I feel happiest when making clothes and seeing people look beautiful.”
Dressmaking is more competitive than the World Cup; there’s no shortage of tailors in the suburbs able to let out a waist or shorten a hem – and at a pinch zip up a ball gown.
Then there’s the off-the-peg trade.  Find a shopping center without dress retailers and it’s time to check your whereabouts because you’re certainly not in Indonesia.  At the time of writing a nearby mall was staging a huge expo of wedding services, including a wide range of bridal wear.
Why go to a cramped home business that’s never featured in the glossy mags and risk a major embarrassment on your Most Important Day?
Yanis ignored the opposition and just kept stitching. After a few years she was employing three women and had a business title – Honest Design.
“I hope the name reflects my philosophy,” she said in her tiny lounge with a full rack of gowns along one wall.
Shoppers expecting a splendid showroom with glass walls and plastic everywhere – including the smiles – would rapidly realise Jalan Taman Sulfat is not Fifth Avenue.
“I try to have a personal relationship with my clients and I always treat them with respect.  I never ignore a complaint, though these are rare.”
It’s an attitude that seems to have paid off. The rag trade is internationally notorious for attracting bitchy people forever tottering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, but Yanis, 41, doesn’t fit the stereotype.
During The Jakarta Post’s visit no personal assistants rushed to her with approvals to sign. The only sound came from sewing machines, not jangling phones or screaming staff.  Said the boss: “No-one is allowed to get angry round here.”
Honest Design now employs 20 women full time producing around 20 garments a week. Her order book is full till June. Shortly she’ll be moving to bigger premises and employing up to five more staff recruited from technical high schools.
Most of her work is for women in Java, but now she’s exporting to the Middle East and has already sent 50 wedding dresses to Jeddah, the Red Sea port and second biggest city in Saudi Arabia.
Opening this market broke all the textbook rules; no advertising, no website and no visit to her customers’ homeland. But wedding gear is personal, and women tend to rely on the recommendations of friends.
“I get my work only through word of mouth,” she said. “”People know I will follow their instructions; many just say ‘we’ll leave it up to you’. I’m confident our exports will grow.”
Doing business from afar has its challenges.  How do you ensure gowns fit when the customer has visited only once before flying home?  And how do you communicate with women who don’t speak Indonesian?
“My wife has a great talent for sizing up measurements and understanding clients’ needs,” said her insurance agent husband Gideon.  The couple have one son aged 10; together they can muster enough English to talk to their Arab customers, educated in Europe and  mistresses of the international language.
Women buy their own materials or ask Honest Design to select.  Some provide sketches; others leave the details to Yanis. Although Arab customers often choose black or dark blue there’s a surprising call for bright colors, modern styles and off-the shoulder dresses.
Sequins, embroidery, beads, buttons and other fripperies [or essentials if you’re a woman] are also much in demand, while the Western trend is for elegant, but simple. Yanis, who works in T-shirt and jeans - also prefers this fashion.
In one of her workrooms eight women sat on the floor decorating dresses.  Through the open doorway more were sewing, ironing and draping mannequins.  The third room, which doubles as a kitchen, is also used to finish garments.
Elsewhere queues of bags stuffed full of material from patrons waiting for Yanis’ attention so they can get round to marrying Mr Right – and at the same time show the world that they’re not only rich – but beautiful, at least for one day.
Her overseas clients have enough money to shop in the world’s capitals for top brand names, but they also want something that’s original.
Yanis said the price of her gowns was about half that charged for international labels.  However that was not the selling point.
“Many shops don’t listen to their customers,” she said. “Trust is so important. We are always on time.  I see every garment and check the quality. These factors overcome any national, ethnic and religious differences.  The problem now is to maintain control as we get bigger.
“Indonesia could be a world fashion leader – we have the materials, the skills and creativity. But we must also be disciplined and provide total customer care with honesty.  I can’t stress that enough.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 February 2015)   


Bonding for Peace in the Palace of Dreams      


Most of the under 40s couldn’t feel the enchantment.  Bemused, they wandered around and questioned why so many of their older friends were getting nostalgic and wistful. 
What could possibly be romantic about an industrial site?  All that the young could see was a vast yard of fractured pavers. This was flanked by a concrete two-storey of awesome ugliness, its overhang shedding soggy sheets of plywood.
Round the sides collapsing steel fences and an invasion of vengeful vegetation determined to recover its domain. At the other end a tall screen. In a time far away it may have been white and pure, like youth.  Perhaps not. Everywhere decay and filth. Yuk!  Not even worth an Instagram.
Who’d linger for more than a moment?
Yet on a hot Sunday in January hundreds stayed for almost four hours to reminisce, for this mess was once the Kelud open-air cinema, Malang’s palace of dreams and open to all.
Here for a few hours every week teenagers with a few rupiah, or more if they wanted to sit undercover upstairs with the upper classes, escaped from reality and into a world of weird fantasy, daring adventure and love that knew no end.

Here magic happened.  The Warkop [warung kopi – coffee shop] comedy trio of Dono, Kasino and Indro was widely recalled.
In 1980 the comedian Freddy Aris, better known as Gepeng starred in Untung, Ada Saya [Fortunately I was there], but few Indonesian films were available. 
Former actor Djathi Kusumo, who spoke at the event on the need for community cohesion and celebration of indigenous culture, said the local film industry suffered from heavy censorship during Soeharto’s New Order government and was swamped by imports.
 Consequently a generation of filmgoers was raised not on archipelagic fare that might have nurtured pride, but an international cinematic diet of Indian romance, Hong Kong kung-fu and American Westerns, though not everyone came to cheer the cowboys.

For Kelud was also hormone heaven.
“Some found their life partner here; boys and girls watched films together and you could meet people from different districts and schools,” recalled architecture lecturer Budi Fathony.
“In those days going to the cinema was a shared communal experience.  Not like now where people see TV alone or with a few friends and family, or watch videos on tablets and smart phones by themselves.   
“In the 70s we shared our entertainment.  It was a boisterous, democratic experience, mainly enjoyed by the lower classes, and it bonded us together in the dark.”
This theme was picked up by organizers of the Sunday morning event and splashed across a big banner reading: ‘It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from.  Here we are all one.’
“I wanted to bring people together so they could understand how we lived and behaved in the days before television and smartphones,” said Imam Muslikh who sees film going of the 70s and 80s as a metaphor for a harmonious society that must be revived to save the nation.
He heads the Neolath Community, named after a nearby street but spelt backwards and corrupted with additional letters, all for reasons obscure. He’s also a travel agent who arranges pilgrims’ journeys to Mecca.

“I’m worried about the way our country is breaking up through politics and religious differences,” he said.  “It’s so important that we stay together and live in peace.  I want to preserve and promote the spirit of Gus Dur [Indonesia’s fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid who died in 2009] because he preached tolerance and pluralism.
“That’s the message I hope people will take away from Kelud. We used to live in agreement, enjoy things together and we must do so again. I want Malang to be a Peace City and to show Jakarta how to behave.”
The projection equipment has long gone to its cinematic grave so films could not be shown.  Even if the gear had remained coupled to the clunky switchboard the rusting stairs would have been too unsafe for operators to tread.
Instead there were speeches, mask dancers and an energetic routine by a student group in multi-hued feather headdresses. They could have come straight from Bollywood or the Folies Bergere in Paris, except that the ogglers saw black tights rather than pink skin under their flamboyant costumes.
Writ large on the screen behind the swirling performers were words that translated as: ‘Don’t stand behind me because you’re not my follower.  Don’t stand in front of me because you’re not my leader. Stand alongside as a friend.’
The theme linked to the experience of those who packed Kelud twice a night three decades ago. Hundreds [some claimed thousands] sat on the cold concrete, though later bamboo seats were provided.  The cinema was named after a nearby volcano and the old rooftop sign, now minus its neon, has been rescued.
Veterans said viewings often turned into audience participation as the crowds cheered the good guys, booed the baddies and wolf-whistled the lovelies.

“You always had to remember that there were people behind and they might get mad if you blocked their view,” said historian Dukut Imam Widodo (right).  “When it rained the foodstalls were happy. If it was only drizzling and the pictures could push through the raindrops, then the show would go on.”
Stuck on one wall upstairs is an ancient poster advertising beer.  As with all explorations of the past, those who lived there have different recall. However it seems alcohol was available, at least to the elite. Now it’s hard to find a drink in the East Java city outside the upmarket eateries.
Radio announcer Hari Wijayanto lived next door as a child and was able to watch films over the wall.  “We got used to the noise,” he said.  “It didn’t matter, it was always fun.”
According to Widodo, Kelud was owned by Brimob, the army’s mobile brigade which barracked nearby. 
Soldiers were allowed free entry and helped keep order should fans get unruly.  This was most likely when the sole projector changed reels, ruining continuity in the same way that advertisements upset viewing on commercial TV today.  They also had to watch out for kids seeking free entry by scaling the fences during distracting moments on screen.
The cinema opened around 1970 and closed about 13 years later after color TV was introduced in 1979.  Till the late 1980s only the government controlled TVRI was allowed to telecast bland programs and formula news that did little to excite audiences.
After Kelud closed the place fell into disrepair.  Now one corner is used as a vehicle workshop and another as a parking space for dead ATMs from a nearby bank.  Employees park their cars in the space between.
“It was a golden era that obviously won’t return in this form,” said Budi Fathony.”However the spirit of those times can be recovered.”
(First published in J Plus (JP) Sunday 15 February 2015)

Monday, February 16, 2015


A coach driven to frustration                                   
Last Saturday (31 Jan) Australia, with one tenth of Indonesia’s population, won the Asian Cup.  The Republic failed to qualify.  Duncan Graham got a coach’s view on the sad state of football in the Archipelago.

Timo Scheunemann has a missionary’s zeal to spread the word.
He’s already written a bible and now just needs disciples.  Though many harken his words, true believers are rare.
So far only a few have discarded their divisive ways to follow him into a new vision of the game where rewards are measured on values beyond money, and where  national pride will be founded on results, not rhetoric.
“What else can I do?” he asked. “I’ve even made a video for those who can’t be bothered to read.  I’m banging my head against a wall.”
Which is an inappropriate exercise for a man who’s been intimate with agony, and knows well how the body can react to misuse.   
Better to head the ball, for Scheunemann, nationally known as Coach Timo through his books, lectures, film appearances and television commentaries believes that football is more than just booting leather at a seven yard gap between two posts.
“It’s also about integrity, morality and building character, knowing what’s right and wrong,” he said.
“It’s working with others for a common goal, finding self, gaining maturity, exercising discipline and self control. It should be about love of the game, not money.
“The question everyone asks is this:  How come a nation of 240 million can’t find eleven players to take Indonesia into the World Cup?
“The answer is that there’s never been a totally realistic approach to ensuring the betterment of football.  The game faces a forest of problems, with every tree a different issue from politics, to administration, to funding and more.
“It’s not for want of talent.  We have amazing kids everywhere.  Of course we need government money, but that should be for pitches, not clubs.
“The first line in football’s mental revolution is to recognize the need for coaches – about 400 as a start.  That’s understood in Germany, Japan and South Korea, though not here. 
“My ideas have been dismissed by senior politicians saying ‘games are won by players, not coaches’ – but it’s the coaches that make the players.” 
At this point it’s worth saying a little about Coach Timo’s credentials before the outraged Twitterati starts a campaign to kick this wise guy right back to where he came from.
Which is the hilltown Batu [“thick with soccer atmosphere”],  20 kilometers from his present home in Malang, although he was born in Kediri, about 60 kilometers distant.  That East Java pedigree should red card the critics.
He didn’t go to Germany, the homeland of his missionary parents, until he was 15 and where he was ridiculed for his funny accent and lack of vocabulary.
Only his ability at football assisted with his assimilation, for his older brothers were soccer crazy and their little sibling, who’s now 1.9 meters tall, was determined to reach their standards,
After two years and faced with conscription if he stayed, he was back in Indonesia where his language skills were admired – for Coach Timo is fluent in Indonesian and Javanese – “a Mercedes on the outside, but a Kijang inside.”
His self-taught English was good enough for integration into American society when he won a sports scholarship to play and study at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California.
After graduating in world history and philosophy he looked set for a future in football, playing in the Indonesian and Singapore leagues as a striker and offensive midfielder.  A stellar career loomed when he was tested by The Gills, an English League One team.
Suddenly the rocket man crashed on the launch pad when team doctors discovered a dodgy knee.
“I was heartbroken,” he recalled.  “It was devastating.  My future as a player was finished. I’d got the injury from running on asphalt when younger.  I didn’t have a good coach to warn me and ensure I stretched after games. [He later suffered crippling back pain and underwent  surgery.]
“Had I passed the medical I might have stayed in Europe.  I wouldn’t have returned to Indonesia, started teaching at an international school, married Devi and fathered two children. 
“Nor would I have this new career as a coach.  Everything happens for a reason - it’s just hard at times to know what it is.”
Apart from appearing in the 2013 film Soekarno as the Dutch Colonel Hoogeband, he’s also played himself in the 2011 movie Tendangan dari langit [Kick from the Sky].  The drama, conceived by Timo, tells of 16-year old Wahyu who gets talent spotted but faces great odds to succeed.
When he’s not coaching kids, both boys and girls, Timo, now 41, spends his time on schemes to get Indonesian football respected and applauded.
His fifth book Ayo Indonesia! [Come on, Indonesia!] published last year by Gramedia along with a video, offers  a curriculum and primer for Indonesian football.  Its 300 plus pages are chocker with charts and strategies making it more like a chess manual or battle plan.
On the office wall of the family’s splendid Java-themed house alongside a mini soccer pitch, is a large map of Indonesia.  This has been divided into regions where Timo thinks football academies are essential.  A businessman in Kalimantan is already backing his idea; others are said to be jogging on the touchline.
The other need is for a coach college.  Timo, who got his licence in Germany, said bad coaches do more harm than good.
“A national licensing system has to be developed through the Asian Football Confederation,” he said.
“There are projects here and there but no coordination, no system. Why keep going?  My Dad always told me that we’re here to give, not take.
“My insane dream is to get our team into the World Cup.  That’s only impossible until it’s done. This would be practical nationalism.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post Sunday 8 February 2015)

Monday, February 09, 2015


Jokowi’s Mega Problem      

Indonesia’s political scene is so weird  that even Canberra’s most convoluted  machinations are but Playschool.
Decried by The Jakarta Post editor Meidyatama Surodiningrat for its ‘hugger-mugger nature, filled with distortions, strange associations, devious schemes and inflexible standpoints’ our northern neighbour is now performing a Greek tragedy.
The lead role stars the wilful Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesia’s fifth president (2001- 2004) and self-appointed head of the nation’s marginally most popular political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, known as PDI-P.
Like an African ‘people’s democratic republic’, the title is a misnomer.  Mega, 68, recently agreed to continue running the PDI-P for the next five years.  She’s a lady who doesn’t tolerate opposition, so gets none.
Mega means Cloud Goddess in Javanese.  The wati suffix indicates a woman. Her other name is a patronymic. She is one of first president Soekarno’s nine children from nine wives, but the one most determined to maintain dynastic politics.
Soekarno was ousted in a coup d’état 50 years ago by General Soeharto who went on to run the nation with the army’s help till 1998.
Mega started the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) but was given little breathing space by Soeharto’s authoritarian administration. In 1996 the government, fearing the Soekarno name could rally emerging opposition, tried to engineer a violent takeover of the party.  
In the riot five people died. 150 were injured and 23 disappeared. Perjuangan (Struggle) was then added to the PDI’s name.
When democracy was restored  to the nation in 1999 the PDI-P won most votes in the election contested by 48 parties. At that time the president was appointed by Parliament, which chose Islamic cleric Abdurrahman Wahid with Mega as his deputy.
After Wahid was impeached in 2001 she held the top job till defeated in the first direct election of 2004 by a Cabinet minister she’d sacked – former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).
Had she then retired gracefully to become a roving ambassador for a worthy cause, Mega might have retained respect as the first woman to lead the world’s most populous Islamic nation. But power is a narcotic, and Mega an addict.
Instead Indonesians recall an aloof policy-free president largely controlled by the military who didn’t use her power to pursue justice for her supporters who were killed in 1996. 
Five years later she stood for the presidency but was again defeated by SBY.  She wanted a third crack at last year’s election but was dissuaded by advisers who read the runes and knew the Soekarno brand had passed its use-by date.  More than 40 per cent of the population is under 24 so lacks the personal knowledge of the first two presidents’ eras that drives the decisions of older folks.
Last year Mega belatedly endorsed Jakarta Governor Joko (Jokowi) Widodo ahead of her millionaire daughter Puan Maharani, now Mum’s pick as Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs.
Jokowi, who won with a margin of eight million votes, was supposed to be the bright new hope, a former furniture trader and can-do small town mayor with the common touch. He had no connections with the Jakarta oligarchs convinced they own the Republic and the right to run it as a regal trust dispensing grace and favour.
Mega certainly thinks she controls Jokowi and can dictate who sits in his Cabinet.  (See OLO 29 October 2014) -  but also decide who runs the notoriously graft-ridden police.
Her selection was three-star general Budi Gunawan an old friend from her presidential days.  The problem is that Gunawan, who is either a biz-whiz or a crooked cop, earns under $AUD 2,000 a month yet has properties, goods and cash worth $AUD 2.3 million.
Unsurprisingly the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), nicknamed the gecko, thought these figures a tad odd and started investigating.  The police, known as the crocodile, retaliated by arresting senior KPK figures on allegations of perjury from their pre-KPK time as lawyers.
Here was the chance for Jokowi to assert his authority and back the popular KPK that’s already put many high-level crims in clink.  Instead he flip-flopped, then postponed a decision, pleasing no-one. 
While observers assumed the new president’s enemy would be his defeated rival, former Soeharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, most attacks so far have been green-on-blue.
Jokowi is the engineer of his own problems, letting the reservoir of electoral support run to waste. On the shelves of Gramedia, the nation’s foremost publisher and bookseller, are at least 20 titles featuring the new president.

Many are cut-and-paste exercises in hagiography. Some are comics. All are gushingly optimistic, reflecting the 2014 ‘It’s time’ mood.  There’s also a feature film. The Second Coming would be hard pushed to eclipse the joyous hope of yesteryear. 
Like the leader of his great southern neighbour, Jokowi soon shattered promises. Most notable was his pledge to install only the most competent selfless visionaries in Cabinet – not Mega’s selfish old mates seeking rewards for questionable past services.
Had he been a brilliant orator like his matron’s Dad, the President might just have been able to keep the ranks in step.
Sadly he’s an appallingly bad public speaker, hesitant, repetitive and uncomfortable with crowds.  Watching him perform on TV encourages toilet trips. Only in one-on-one chats with soft journos does he come across as affable, though not charismatic.
Apart from his determination to make the Republic a maritime power, Jokowi’s foreign policy is indifference, unnecessarily creating international ill-will through his obsession for putting traffickers before firing squads, simplistically arguing this will solve the drug problem.
The President’s best hope is to cut ties with Mega while he still has some credit in the bank of public goodwill. Unseating her would be impossible – there’ll be no spill motion from the ranks.
A smart politician would offer Mega a splendid title and a sinecure in New York or Paris, some city with elite shops and far away, but Jokowi isn’t that clever. 
The only chance is to follow his predecessor’s example; SBY created the Democratic Party (himself as chair, wife Ani as vice-chair and son Edhie as secretary general) to get the presidency.
Maybe Jokowi has left it too late. Supporters might fill the streets, but he won’t get airborne without the financial thrust of several media millionaires.
The biographies will eventually be remaindered – then pulped.  That could be the fate of their subject unless he rapidly learns how to seize the moment, disarm the disrupters and lead the world’s third largest democracy into a future of fairness it so badly needs.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 9 February 2014.  For comments see:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


The man behind a thousand masks                           

Djoko Rendy claims he’s not an artist. Frequently. Like the Player Queen in Hamlet, does he protest too much?
His rejections seem sincere, not a sly attempt to suggest the reverse rules. Self-taught Djoko, 55, has long worked in modelling, painting and mask making.  He favors the pirate-style bangles and beads fashion statements beloved by Indonesian creative males, but it’s clear he’s more a dabbler and dreamer than grand master of the palette.
Perhaps his denials have more to do with respecting champions of their craft whose work hangs on Djoko’s Malang studio waiting for the right buyer to appear.
That’s likely to take time for the dirt-floored exhibition space, originally landfill for a former trash  tip, is precariously perched down steep mossy steps above the litter-strewn Brantas River.  Recent flooding has already eroded the sidewalk outside and a chasm looms. 
Djoko, who is also a bush handyman with a neat style in bamboo pole lashing, knocked together the studio using money from a car sale.  He lives here with his librarian wife Maria Carmela and son Ndaru Lazarus, 8.  The couple are also collectors; their tastes are eclectic, ranging from sublime Mary, the mother of Jesus, to topless Ratna Dewi, one of founding president Soekarno’s nine wives.
Although located in the center of the East Java city, just a chirp and a splash from the bird and fish markets, the open-sided gallery with no humidity controls would drive professional curators to hang themselves rather than their art.
But it does show what can be done with little money coupled with a determination to inspire.
“It makes me so sad to see young people with such little knowledge of their heritage,” Djoko said. “I put several proposals to the mayor’s office for projects that might halt that trend and attract tourists.
“However all were rejected – until I had the idea of celebrating one of our great traditions that’s in decline – mask making.  Not just a few, but a thousand.”
Malang is Majapahit heartland.  The Hindu-Buddhist fiefdom ruled much of present-day Indonesia and nearby countries before collapsing in the 16th century, probably through family feuding. 
Most survivors moved to Bali though remnants remain in villages around Mount Bromo, along with some of the ancient myths and crafts that Djoko wants to celebrate.

The Nagarakretagama poem in the National Museum in Jakarta tells of King Hayam Wuruk [1334 - 1389] dancing with a gold mask.  It’s one of the earliest records of wayang gedog, the East Java mask dances that focus on the loves and adventures of the mythical hero Prince Panji.
Djoko said there were 84 different masks representing characters in the stories – other alleged authorities reckon there are only 60.  One of the delights in encountering East Java history is that facts are few and interpretations many.
This became clear on a Sunday morning this month (18 Jan) when hundreds of women, men and kids gathered to show off their culture, interests, talents and pride.  Djoko may lack the finest artistic abilities, but the upside is that he seems to inspire self-expression.
What organizing committee member Siti Hardiyanti described as “a genuine gotong royong [community self-help] event with minimal official support” soon became obvious.
There were no politicians making pompous speeches, which was a relief. But when the participants paraded past the town hall, down to the railway station and back again the roads – all major thoroughfares - stayed open.  Which created the unimaginable - chaos greater than usual.
Further proof of the event’s authenticity was its lack of political correctness.  Jovial salesman Rudi Yused 36, turned up as a Nazi SS officer, unconcerned that if he did the same in Germany riots would erupt.
What did this have to do with Indonesian culture?  “I just want to be different,” he said.  “I’ve got uniforms from many countries, including Japan.”
Others chose to represent the colonialists they overthrew almost 70 years ago, wearing sackcloth khaki, draping their onthel [vintage bicycles] with bandoliers of ammunition, scabbards and saddlebags.  In Europe they would have been arrested at gunpoint by anti-terror squads – in Malang they were cheered by unthreatened crowds.
Heading the parade were statues of King Brawijaya’s son Prince Bathara Katong and Princess Dewi Songgolangit, figures from legend and a real or imagined history.  They were shouldered by brawny men led by Ki Genter Pamungkas carrying a carved stick.
The 87-year old happily attributed his sprightliness and longevity to art, exercise, patience and smoking hand-rolled kretek [clove flavored] cigarettes in a holder carved from a cow horn.

Like stormtrooper Rudi, the yellow-toothed nicotine addict would have been rapidly evicted from a similar parade in Australasia by health and safety officials for setting a bad example. Particularly to the youngsters in the Drumb [sic] Band behind, led by baton twirling Nia Purwati. Though a year short of her teens she displayed all the confidence and flair of a veteran performer.
“I came because I want my children to know about East Java culture,” said food seller Panji, 28, with his six year old son Ananda riding pillion.  “I really enjoy learning about history and the old days.”
The lion-head, peacock-feathered seni reyog dance from nearby Ponorogo has been well documented in academic journals, but how the band and bull fights fitted in was another conundrum. 
The boys sweating under their black costumes were more interested in charging their bovine rivals than discussing anthropology.  Goring a few Hondas helped clear the road for performers. Which all goes to prove that culture which evolves is culture that thrives.
Sadly no Europeans were seen in the crowds lining the streets.  If there was any coordination with tourism officials the results weren’t obvious.
Concluded Djoko: “It was a great, positive, spectacular experience for everyone, participants and onlookers. About 240 children were involved. We didn’t quite reach our goal but we got hundreds of masks made.  I hope we’ll do it every year. I feel proud.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 January 2014) 


Getting lost without getting lost     
You’ve just arrived in a strange city and feel like exploring.  You get the hotel name and address in the local language and cautiously venture beyond the safety of the security guards.
What next?  The visitors’ brochures are out of date and only feature the attractions tourism department officials think will amuse.  Few bureaucrats have been outside their own province, certainly not overseas alone and bent under a backpack. 
Consequently they have little understanding of what drives foreigners to stray beyond the neon for a tiny taste of local life.
Now imagine you have a smart phone app prepared not by the chamber of commerce but members of a heritage organization.  They want to steer your steps away from shopping malls and into narrow lanes where history has hidden in locations so secret even locals are unaware of their significance to the outside world.
Maybe you’ll find a shop where the goods haven’t been made in China and where the seller just wants a fair price, not your total wallet. Perhaps you’ll encounter quirky architecture and enter houses built centuries ago.
Wouldn’t that be worth US$2 [Rp 25,000] if the money was used to help conserve some of the buildings?
That’s the thinking of Dutch urban economist Ester van Steekelenburg who develops what she calls “innovative learning tools”.  One of these is an app she and her colleagues at their Hong Kong based consultancy Urban Discovery have put on the market.
The company’s slogan is ‘keeping heritage alive for a vibrant and viable urban future’.
In the 1990s she spent a year in Xiamen, formerly Amoy, the ancient Chinese port opposite Taiwan.  As usual, developers were following their herd instincts – wrecking history and building bland. It made her wonder if there wasn’t a middle way.
“There’s often conflict between conservation and development, yet preserving heritage can make economic sense,” said Dr Van Steekelenburg [she got her doctorate in urban economics] in an e-mail exchange from Hong Kong.
 “It’s strange that Indonesians and other Asians go to Europe to see heritage buildings but ignore those in their own cities.
“The response from people who’ve done the app walks is great. They typically say that they’ve visited places they would otherwise not have found or would not have dared to go inside.
“Another comment is that users feel they have a better understanding of the neighborhood. Customers are mainly individual travellers who find us through our website and by simply browsing the app store for their travel destination. 
“The apps, which include maps photos and videos, have been designed to help visitors get lost without getting lost.”
So far walks have been completed for Denpasar, Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta in association with NUFFIC [the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education], an independent non-profit with an office in Jakarta. 
Dr Van Steekelenburg said NUFFIC covered costs for training, curating and technical maintenance. All proceeds from downloads [the first is free] go to local heritage societies.

New tours are planned for 2015, including one for Malang.  The central East Java city is rich in remnants from the 13th to 16th century Majapahit Empire – and garnished with fine examples of 19th century Dutch colonial architecture.
Other cities on the list and scheduled to be ready this year are Magelang and Semarang [Central Java], Bandung [West Java], Medan [North Sumatra] and Padang [West Sumatra].
In 2008 Dr Van Steekelenburg edited Elmina; Building on the past to create a better future. Elmina, a port on the south coast of Ghana also known as the Dutch Gold Coast, was used to ship slaves to America.  The slave fortress Coenraadsburg was restored in 2007.
In the book she wrote that the restoration encouraged sustainable developments: ‘This meant an increase in tourism, a revival of traditional culture and skills, an increasing demand for local products and thus improved living conditions’.
In other words conservation and development don’t necessarily make an unhappy marriage.  
Yogya-based historian Emile Leushuis, author of Panduan Jelajah Kota-kota Pusaka di Indonesia [A guide to exploring heritage in Indonesia’s Cities] published last year and reviewed in The Jakarta Post on 8 December, said android apps were essential. 
 Dr Van Steekelenburg agreed: “We’re only one year old and especially in terms of local marketing and keeping walks up-to-date I think we can still improve.
“The bottleneck here is that we mainly rely on the local heritage organisations who are the co-curators of the walks,
“Very few Indonesians have i-Phones, so for them it’s a bit difficult to see the value added at this point. We hope that with the release of the android version next month (Feb) and increased revenues from downloads coming their way it will be a nice promotional tool, an exciting addition to their current activities to bring more awareness to local heritage.”
Leushuis said that creating an app is one thing, “but making it accessible and out there is another.
“Somehow people have to know that there is an app available when they are staying for example in Malang and might be tempted to explore the city.
“I think there should be clear barcode-scanning points at certain locations favored by expats and maybe also on the sign boards that Dwi Cahyono has put up around town.”

Cahyono (right) is a Malang entrepreneur who runs a private museum and has been urging local government to preserve the city’s heritage. He used his own money to erect signs around the city describing historical sites, hoping local government would fund English translations.  That has yet to happen.
“I’m one hundred per cent behind this idea if it’s using android apps,” he said. “At the beginning this will attract foreigners – maybe it will take two years for Indonesians to catch up.
“Care has to be taken – what works in Hong Kong may need to be adapted to function here. There’s still a need for education; too few government tourism departments understand that heritage means money.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 January 2015)