The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Spot a crater, tap an app                                     
You’re hurtling, though more likely faltering if in Java, along a major road.  Suddenly you hit a hole that’s probably been there from before the Revolution.  How you respond depends on your location and whether you’re an Indonesian or a Westerner.
Should you be a local in Australasia you’d  direct a few expletives towards those responsible for highway maintenance. Taxes are heavy enough – fix the wretched thing.  You have problems?  That’s your concern, not mine.
 If damage has occurred to self or vehicle you might call a lawyer and demand the road authority pays compensation. 
However an Indonesian in her or his homeland is likely to be more forgiving, knowing that hazards abound; the responsible bureaucrats could be thigh-deep in paperwork, unable to get out and check every byway.

So why not give them a hand by reporting the peril?   Easy to say, difficult to do.  Who to call and where?  Suppose it’s after hours, and the public service office still as a graveyard at midnight?
These were the dilemmas facing four smart information technology [IT] students from Malang’s Kanjurahan University -  Taruna Yoga Pratama, 22, Mohammad Nurul Hakiki, 20, Rico Tetuku Santoso, 20, and Fathur Rohim, 21.
They all ride motorcycles. They’ve  all had accidents, one man three times.  “I just wasn’t paying attention,” confessed Rico, nursing a bandaged elbow and blaming only himself.  “I should have been more careful.”  He laughs.  Your reporter winces.
They  call themselves Team THOR, picking letters from their names to make the amalgam;   like young men everywhere they want to sound macho, modern, and invincible.
Thor was originally a god in Norse mythology but he’s been thumped by an American superhero of the same name who appears in comics and  cult movies now showing in Indonesia and apparently reaping billions.
In the interests of honest journalism we note the THOR fellows though tech-savvy and  pleasant enough,  seem poor candidates to defeat the Frost Giants of Jotunheim in single handed combat should they invade Java.  However if the ammunition is apps the Good Guys will win.
Unlike its parents, Generation Click travels light, uncluttered by pens and paper.  Members interface  with the world through keyboards.  Their IT knowledge may be measured in terabytes, but their face-to-face skills come in kilobytes.  Who needs to talk when you can tweet?
What they lack in muscle and sentences beyond 140 characters  they’ve compensated with marketable abilities by designing an app that’s won them Rp 10 million [US$ 740] in a provincial competition. 
This was organized by an international tech giant and the local government in Sidoarjo alongside the capital of Surabaya. It’s the smallest regency in East Java with some of the biggest factories, so tonnes of traffic.
Sidoarjo’s CityApp two-day Appathon [another verbal concoction derived from ‘marathon’] was part of the Microsoft CityNext program. Team THOR beat out 47 other contestants.
According to the company the Appathon is ‘a global initiative that seeks to transform and modernize the implementation of operational and infrastructure in various cities …
‘It aims to use the imagination and innovation of young people and students in the area of ​​Sidoarjo to develop a technically viable solution to the challenges of urban development.”
There have been similar competitions in Makassar and overseas: Changchun in China, and Kathmandu in Nepal.
Team THOR’s  app is called ROAR for Road Report.  When polished and connected it will be available free. It works like this:
Travellers carry Smartphones loaded with ROAR.  When they encounter craters and other dangers they can just snap a picture in passing.  
ROAR then automatically sends the photo and its coordinates straight to the person in charge of repairs who then presumably despatches a crew of fixers.  No need to fidget with texts or spend a fortune in calls waiting to find someone responsible - just a quick click and  begone.
“At the moment most people grumble about the roads by calling radio talk-back,” said Ari Suryono, head of Sidoarjo’s local and international cooperation bureau. 
“However the complaints aren’t always clear, they aren’t directed to the right people and the location is often vague.
“We believe the app will make a difference by informing us of the problem in real time and providing a precise location. 
“It will probably go live next April.  In the long term it will save us money by getting black spots fixed speedily and of course by making the roads safer.
“We will respond to alerts.  We want to cooperate with the community and ROAR will help us get closer.
“We have a road gang of about 100, but for a lot of work we rely on contractors.  Sidoarjo has almost 2,000 kilometers of roads and maybe 20 per cent need attention.  We spend almost 30 per cent of our budget on highway maintenance.

“It’s the big overloaded trucks that do the damage. They are breaking regulations which aren’t being policed. Yet Sidoarjo’s roads are better than many others in the province.”
Added THOR spokesman Taruna:  “We want to help our governments keep the roads safe and understand the workers can’t find every problem. This way we work with them, not against.”
Suppose the authorities get overwhelmed with reports on ruts and fractures?  Indonesian roads are often like the rupiah and constantly tumbling into an abyss.
“That’s up to them,” said Taruna.  “We are not trying to shame public servants, that’s not our aim.  There should be a good relationship between the people and government.”
Some of the most awful roads in the Republic are on Madura, the home of the THOR lads’ lecturer Mohammad Ahsan.  He agreed that he’ll need his students’ skills to make the island navigable to transports using wheels, not tank tracks. 
“The app will work anywhere,” he said.  “All it needs is to be linked with the right local authority.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 November 2015)

Sunday, November 15, 2015


BTW: Rot in Appletown                                                                           
Batu is the small East Java hilltown famous for fruit, flowers and naughty weekends.  It’s about 20 kilometers outside the city of Malang,
Half way up Mount Welirang it’s a place where parents and teenagers might for once agree on the correct descriptor: Cool.
We hadn’t been to Batu for a while.  Expectations were 840 meters high; even if we caught a chill we’d be warmed with a boot full of cheap apples. No longer.
The local variety is called Manalagi [want more], and allegedly developed from the Rome Beauty introduced by the Dutch.  There are more than 7,000 varieties in the world and the colonialists picked this one? They should offer compensation.
Harder than hockey balls these small apples are a dentist’s delight.  The only redeeming feature is Manalagi’s long shelf life, so the best chance of ensuring freshness is to pick your own.
Once it was easy to chat to a farmer, potter round his plantation with a basket and share a few laughs.  No longer.  A cartel now controls visits at Rp 20,000 a head.
This is little more than a US dollar, though likely to be way below once you digest this column – but still a bite out of the wallet if the car doubles as the extended family’s bus.
Smart marketing – but it’s given a sour taste to the once casual experience of townies meeting toilers, and turned the smallholders into the sort of hucksters that have corrupted Kuta.
Batu also had a reputation for weekend getaways when the gracious hotels tended to be occupied by refined couples.  On weekdays these cultured folk might be enjoying a respectable family life on the plains below, though with different partners.
There’s an old English joke about such places – the receptionist announces a call in the dining room for ‘Mr Smith’ and is besieged by all the guests.
Maybe this market is growing – certainly there’s a rush to build as many rooms as possible in the limited spaces.
Our day trip was strictly pleasures of the palate.  With the political killjoys focussing on booze instead of poverty alleviation, fewer grog outlets and higher prices, cider-making now seemed a pressing need before a law bans home brewing.
Foolish idea.  Nowhere could we negotiate below the Rp 20,000 a kilo tag all traders had connived to uphold.  This was even for fruit that might have been fresh when I was a whining school-boy with satchel and shining morning face, as my literary hero once remarked.
Only back in Malang and in the supermarkets could we buy cheaper imported fruit that was sweet to eat, softer to touch and as unblemished as the salesgirls at the make-up counter.
But at least we got to enjoy the summits and cascading greenery while sitting in a cafĂ© run by relaxed owners, topping up our lungs with fresh mountain air. 
Wrong again. The restaurants are franchises staffed by bored teens. Batu is not Sumatra or even Riau so the local government hasn’t passed laws prohibiting open fires on windless days.  Or maybe it has and they’re treated with the same contempt motorists give to traffic rules.
This segues to the road between Malang and Batu.  Once a winding lane with a few motorbikes and fewer cars, it now carries a thousand times the traffic.  And it’s still a winding lane.
If British poet Robert Bridges’ famous line is true – and that ‘verily by beauty it is that we come at wisdom’, then the opposite must hold.
Batu’s theme parks play more to Western than Asian images; then there’s the inevitable municipal monstrosities.
The town’s core has been uglified with the addition of giant cartoon characters that originated in the design studios of Disney, not the rich heritage of Java.  Of course there’s a concrete Big Apple, which is appropriate given the armor-plated nature of the original.
Batu means ‘stone’ or ‘rock’. I don’t deny the town’s right to grow or its citizens to exploit its many attractions; nothing stays quaint forever.  But with a little foresight and a touch of imaginative planning Batu could have blossomed and charmed as before.  Unfortunately it has become a hard place.

First published in The Jakarta Post 15 November 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Stopover charm is not enough                                       

Instead of a long state visit Malcolm Turnbull used a ten-hour Jakarta stopover for his first official trip as PM to meet the northern neighbors. 
The much-reported reason before he dashed to Berlin was to ‘reset’ the relationship.
A ‘reset’ follows a circuit-breaker trip.  Flick a switch and if there’s no system fault the lights come on. Easy.
Not this time.
After a year in office we understand little about President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo other than he’s indecisive, believes shooting traffickers fixes drug problems and is powerless to stop regular illegal firestick-farming threatening world health.
We also know the leader of the world’s third largest democracy blows thought bubbles (which his ministers pop) on issues like joining the TPP, and appears awkward at international events.  The Jakarta Post explained this was his ‘contemplative nature’.
Much is scuttlebutt – that he doesn’t read documents, is beholden to oligarchs and bored by foreign affairs.  Newsclips of his meeting last month in the US with Barack Obama and business heads did nothing to erase these calumnies.
On the upside the nation has not been ripped by vengeful losers following the 2014 election. There have been health care reforms and fuel subsidies partially removed. The seventh president is not a military fascist. WYSIWYG, a plain man free of guile. 
His party patron Megawati Soekarnoputri once claimed he was too thin to be a real politician.  If girth equals graft then slender Jokowi should be whistle-clean.
This doesn’t help him wade through Jakarta’s political slimepit, but it endears him to the electorate, though love is on the wane.  Polls showing approval down from 70 to 50 per cent in a year reflect dismay that performance hasn’t matched promise.
He’s failed the smoke alarm test with the fires in Kalimantan; now another challenge looms – a rice shortage following droughts.  If prices rocket with imports the masses will not confine their rage to tweets.
Real warmth between the two leaders will probably remain elusive but Turnbull did well – he smiled a lot and it looked sincere.  Abbott-style pugnacity wins no friends in the Republic where personality trumps policy and visitors must be halus – refined, gracious and sensitive – and have a sense of fun. 
The PM and his wife Lucy obliged. Charm disarms.  Jokowi took Turnbull to the overcrowded Tanah Abang textile market for one of his trademark blusukan (walkabout among ordinary folk).
 Indonesian media described the informal scene as ‘hot, stuffy and boisterous’ but Jokowi was in his element, looking happier than usual.  Jacketless Turnbull, snapping selfies, seemed amused.
Certainly a few hours facetime is better than a diplomatic note, but change won’t come through speed dating.  This courtship needs to be Java-style - slow and seemly.
Turnbull seeking contact points spoke of both being in business. The link is slight.
The silvertail lawyer and banker grew up with vistas of Sydney Harbour; the provincial furniture trader was raised in a shack illegally pitched by the Solo River – not for the view but its ablution values.
One was a Rhodes Scholar – the other an unexceptional forestry graduate. Now the two men have to see each other’s perspective.
The other much thumped drum is that Indonesia is ‘our most important relationship. Absolutely – though the feeling is one-way.  More worrying is that Australian governments have long been hypocritical, disbelieving their own rhetoric.
If otherwise the Turnbulls would have spent relaxed days, not hours in Indonesia, reviving friendships built over long careers in public life.
There’d be no need for a ‘biggest ever’ 300-strong business delegation coming in Turnbull’s wake because substantial trade would have been built long ago.  Communications with Jakarta would be as stable as they are with Manila and Singapore.
No costly ephemeral PR exercise called Window on Australia because the image would already be benign. If that money had been put into scholarships the number of Indonesians currently studying in Australia (below 14,000) might overtake the Nepalese,
Jokowi’s pre-election statements included Nawacita (nine principles, mainly motherhoods) and Mental Revolution. This called for a strong military, food and energy independence and reduced reliance on foreign investment.  The delegation led by Trade Minister Andrew Robb might ask if these short documents are still valid.
Business opportunities are being crimped by Jokowi’s capricious approach to policy, a tumbling rupiah and the growth of strident nationalism and protectionism.
Earlier this year Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey told a Griffith Asia Institute forum that the Australian public was generally hostile and ill-informed about Indonesia.   The polls prove his point, and the situation is getting worse.
The government hasn’t seriously backed Indonesian studies which Lindsey predicted will be extinct within eight years. This isn’t a new universe in the galaxy – other educators have been observing the same for much of this century.
Presumably Robb’s mob is Asia-aware, but if the pessimists are right the next generation of Australian exporters and investors will know little about their market.
The Turnbull trip listed the standard trinity of topics favoured by visiting Australian politicians – trade, security and investment. All important but having no immediate impact on the daily lives of the toilers; they tend to see their neighbour seeking to control Christian Eastern Indonesia according to polls cited by Lindsey.
Window on Australia should help diminish ignorance about Australia, but doesn’t confront the absurdity of a secular sport-obsessed nation having neo-colonial ambitions.   Indonesians fought for four years to expel the Dutch; they can be seismometer-sensitive to real or imagined threats to sovereignty in ways Australians find hard to understand.
Edgy issues like the death penalty and visas were off the agenda. The problem of 11,000 asylum seekers stuck in the Archipelago while heading to Australia was apparently not addressed.  This was despite Indonesian kite-flying ahead of the leaders’ meeting which Turnbull kept stressing was about ‘jobs and growth’.  So the failed boat people’s fate remains a pebble in the shoe.
After the meeting came statements no-one could fault – the need for more cooperation, cattle breeding and tourism. No detail, no contracts, no aid packages.
Contrary to some media reports this was not Turnbull’s first overseas trip as PM.  His priority was tiny, placid New Zealand for two days last month. He’ll spend more time in Malaysia coming back from Europe than the nation where the relationship is allegedly so important.
Academics, businesspeople and others with long-term knowledge of Indonesia say building good connections needs time and personal engagement.  This trip says the government knows it knows better.
Indonesians are too polite to say so, but they recognize the realities:  The Australian PM comes across far better than Abbott. He appeared to have had a fun break. But his real mission was in Europe and elsewhere where he’ll meet 19 other world leaders.
No reset yet.  The system faults remain but the two men seem to have found a switch. Maybe the switch.

(First published in New Mandala on 13 November 2015
and The Canberra Times on 14 November 2015)


Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Kids who can’t say Mommy                                          

Two years ago Joan McKenna Kerr (right) and her colleagues from the Autism Association of Western Australia [AWA] scoured East Java for interns.
Their offer was nectar:  A training program for health and education professionals learning early intervention techniques for autistic children. 
The location – dazzling Perth on the placid Swan River.  Cost – zero.  Air fares and accommodation  included plus allowances.
The sting? Study for six weeks, eight hours a day, six days a week plus homework. Political junketeers  checking golf courses unwelcome.
Hundreds applied.  Small teams were picked from five cities – a total of 20 people.  Psychologists, teachers, therapists and nurses.
“We wanted those with passion and a real commitment to helping kids, not those motivated to advance their curriculum vitae or open private practises on returning to Indonesia,” said McKenna Kerr.
“They had to display competency and leadership.  They had to work with local people.
“We insisted on high level English but saw good candidates with limited language skills who in a typically Indonesian way would get support from their friends.  We had to adjust.
“This was the first time we’d run such a project.”
With the students long back in their homeland McKenna Kerr, the chief executive officer of AWA, and Tasha Alach, the organization’s executive manager for early childhood services returned this month (Oct) to see if the exercise was worthwhile.
In short the answer is: Yes, plus.  So more training will follow.
In Blitar at the Sekolah Dasar Luar Biasa [State special elementary school] they reunited with  principal Suud Wahyudi who’d still have a stamp-free passport had AWA stuck to its rigid  requirements.
“We learned much about autism and information that can be used to help parents and children live a better life,” he said.  “It’s made a difference to the way we teach.”

Said parent Lilik (above) :  “My daughter Revita Selvadita, 17, has moved ahead.  She has more confidence and plays with others.”  
Commented McKenna Kerr: “Our decision was vindicated.  The school, like others we’ve checked, is outstanding.  It’s implementing many of the techniques we taught. 
“Apart from small size classes [18 teachers care for 133 kids, including 20 who are autistic], and grouping children by skills, not age, they’ve introduced visual cues. Autistic kids stress easily; they don’t respond well to words.”
Classroom walls have Velcro strips with small pictures of activities, such as catching the bus home, play time, music therapy and rest periods. The pupil peels the picture and heads to that activity.  The system also works for deaf children.
Less than one per cent of the population has a developmental nervous disorder grouped under the term autism, coined last century from the Greek  autos meaning self.  It’s usually noticed before age three [See breakaway] when the child isn’t communicating.  Four of every five autistic kids are boys.
There’s probably a genetic cause, though factors like medical problems may have a role.  There’s no cure; research continues worldwide but the situation isn’t hopeless.  The AWA says children given the right training can progress, attend a normal school and eventually get a job.
At a new Autism Center in Blitar parents are also schooled on handling their offspring.  Shouting and scolding is a waste of time and emotion – the child isn’t being naughty but has a neurological defect.  Positive behavior support works best.
Having a hyperactive child unresponsive to standard conventions often overloads families; marital breakdowns can be collateral damage.  Parents’ emotions swing between deep distress and fierce determination to help.
Born and educated in Ireland where she took a degree in sociology, McKenna Kerr has no family members with autism.  She was in Aceh for two years last century with her husband who was involved in a health project.
“I didn’t see children with disabilities,” she said.  “Handicaps were considered a curse for wrongdoing.  The best way to help is through early diagnosis and therapy, not hiding the child.”
In Perth she started working for AWA, a not-for-profit agency funded by State and Federal Governments and donors.  The association with Indonesian schools is though the Western Australia-East Java Sister State agreement, but the idea first came from Indonesian students concerned that the Perth facilities weren’t available in their homeland.
Links have also been made with Surabaya’s Airlangga University where 48 teachers and therapists are being taught to use AWA’s techniques.
“Not all ideas travel well between cultures, but these are ripples in a pond,” said McKenna Kerr.  “We’ll be back next year to run workshops on communication; we’ll include our former interns as local instructors.
“Indonesia has made huge advances in caring for autistic children.  Even candidates for local government are recognizing the need.
“Australia and Indonesia are neighbors.  We have a responsibility to share knowledge.”

Tantrums and techniques

How do I handle a disruptive child who continues to throw sand?
The teacher’s plea at a Q & A session at Bhakti Luhur Catholic institution in Malang led by former AWA intern Sister Elizabeth Witin (right) drew this response from McKenna Kerr:
“Imagine this: You’re in a foreign airport; no-one speaks your language and you can’t understand the signs.  That’s the world of an autistic child.
“You’re in a room with 20 TV sets each on a different channel.  That’s why they retreat to routine. We know this from empirical research.
“Autistic children can’t read situations or people well.  They want to escape from environments they find overwhelming.
“They’d rather not be challenging.  Saying ‘no’ does nothing – teach to their strengths.
“All children are different.  Structure the day, stick to routines.  Teach the child to calm himself. Use color codes and pictures that can be understood, though it takes time to realize an image is a symbol for the real thing.
“We publish practical tips for teachers and parents.  Work on the building blocks of learning. It’s not easy, it takes time, but it can be done. We need to commit ourselves to the child’s needs.”

Love is all you need – but in truckloads

Like most parents who discover their child has autism, the message was delivered slowly and corrosively.  For Eny Susilowati, 33 and her videographer husband Farid Mukh Pakhrudin, 30, it wasn’t till their daughter Elvina Salsabila Alfany was in her third year that they started seeking advice.
Other mothers were hearing the most rewarding word in every parent’s lexicon – Mommy.  But no magic for Eny.
“Elvina wouldn’t make eye contact,” said her mother.  “Her language was gibberish.  She kept spinning around and couldn’t concentrate.”
The eventual diagnosis was an asteroid hit.  “I was so depressed; we knew nothing about autism. There are no genetic flaws in my family or my husband’s.
“I wept and wept and thought about killing myself.  Farid persuaded me that I could not leave Elvina alone; we had a joint responsibility.  He is such a good man and shares our daughter’s care.
“Like all parents I wondered what I’d done wrong. I thought God had punished me.
“I bled during pregnancy and had contractions long before birth.  I was eating a lot of seafood.  Now I fear it may have been polluted.
“I got emotional and angry for no reason; it was not a good pregnancy.
“After the diagnosis we sought help from the mosque. I was told to bathe at 3 am with my daughter.  We all got sick afterwards.  Many doctors don’t know much either – we’ve had to go to Surabaya [a six hour drive] to find the best medical help.
“Since then we’ve been determined to do our own research and work out the best upbringing.”
That includes putting Elvina on a  non-dairy diet and trying dolphin assisted therapy where the child interacts with the intelligent sea mammals.  This is a highly disputed technique condemned by some medical authorities as quackery.
However after a costly session in Jakarta Eny said her daughter started to eyeball her parents and can now repeat counting up to ten in English.
Elvina’s parents are regular visitors to the Autism Center where treatment is free.  While the children get therapy the adults chat.  Inevitably a busy market of ideas and experiences pops up in the lobby; support reinforces resolve.
“I realise that we have so many shared problems,” Eny said.  “We wanted another baby but that plan has been cancelled.  All our energies must go to helping our daughter.
“The special school is good, but Elvina won’t go there. We want her to be in a normal school. This is my dream.  That is my commitment.
“I tell her:  Elvina: In my eyes you are normal.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 November 2015)

Sunday, November 01, 2015


Natural disasters: Are we prepared?   

The warm up included boisterous singing of Indonesia Raya led by an unstoppable  cheerleader, a loop of videos showing rescue workers in Hi-Viz vests scrambling through rubble – and one unusual addition.
The MC told the 1,000 delegates that should an earthquake or other awful event strike the Solo hotel ballroom, we should get outside to the evacuation area.
Such warnings are standard at public gatherings in New Zealand, though rare in Indonesia.  The instructions in the equally quake-prone South Pacific nation, learned like the national anthem by all school kids, are ‘drop, cover and hold’.  This means getting under something solid when the masonry hails down.
However in the Solo venue there were no sturdy tables – just plush chairs packed as tight as a cattle-class flight.  For this was to be a grand event graced by President Joko Widodo and tickets were hot.
To the great disappointment of the crowd he didn’t front, leaving the big speech to Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo.  He spent time praising NZ’s determination to share knowledge with its giant near neighbor.
Locally known as the Shaky Isles, miniscule NZ has one resident to every 60 Indonesians.  Its economy is based on exporting milk and meat, and importing tourists.
So not much in common with a massive Asian republic except this: Both countries have front-row seats at the intermittent thunder and flame show called The Pacific Ring of Fire.  Three-quarters of the world’s volcanoes roar and rumble here; the grinding tectonic plates show how eggshell fragile we humans are when Atlas shrugs.
In 2006 the nearby city of Yogyakarta was hit by a magnitude 6.4 quake that killed 5,700.  In 2011 a magnitude 6.3 quake killed 185 in the NZ South Island city of Christchurch.
In both cases the damage was caused by previously unknown faults, underpinning the need for more research to map danger areas and alert citizens to the risks.
"This isn't Russia"
“The difficulty is keeping people aware and prepared for natural disasters,” Dody Ruswandi (right) told The Jakarta Post at the sidelines of the three-day Disaster Risk Reduction – Resilience for Life Conference in mid October.  “We’re all alert after an eruption, landslip or earthquake, but concerns tend to relax when nothing more happens.
“Overall we are getting better at understanding that natural disasters can happen anywhere and anytime, that climate change is creating new problems, and that we are living in a high-risk country.
“We may not have much equipment, but we do have an agreement to call on the Army for help.  In some overseas countries the military doesn’t want to accept a civilian role. I’m not interested in building an empire – this is not Russia.
“I congratulate the media for helping raise awareness – almost every newspaper and TV bulletin features a crisis somewhere in the world.  Although we still have far to go we are improving.  We’re no longer managing disasters – we’re now managing risks.”
Ruswandi is secretary general of Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana [BNPB – the National Disaster Management Authority] set up in 2008 in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Yogya quake. It’s directly responsible to the President.
The quakes have shaken up Indonesian administration, literally and metaphorically.  Apart from BNPB there’s also a Consortium for Disaster Education which trains front line responders and publishes safety messages.
Dr Dwikorita Karnawati, the Rector of Yogya’s Gadjah Mada University [UGM] and a British-trained engineering geologist with expertise in landslips, agreed with Ruswandi’s upbeat assessment. 
“We are now treating these things seriously,” she said.  “However the budgets for coping after the event also need to be used for training when there’s no disaster.
“Awareness is one thing; willingness to allocate funds is another.”
UGM has a deal with NZ’s Geological and Nuclear Science agency now known as GNS Science, to share technology, research and training.  The NZ invention of base isolators, where the pillars of major buildings sit on rubber blocks allowing the construction to shake but not collapse, is available in Indonesia, though apparently not yet used.
Further proof of attitude change was in an exhibition where more than 100 government and non-government agencies and commercial companies showcased their products. 
Hard hats and big boots, hazard-protection gear in colors so shrill they could even be seen through the haze of Riau peat fires, crackling walkie-talkies, loud hailers and tools to dig out survivors.  There’ll still be a need for citizens to claw away shattered bricks seeking trapped neighbors when walls tumble; but after the professionals move in they need the world’s best equipment.
Four-wheel drive vehicles with satellite dishes and gen sets, drones to map the disaster zone and pin-point problems, first-aid kits and when these are too late, body bags.

Disasters are now big business.
Pick of the bunch was a low-cost early warning device developed by a UGM team headed by Japan-trained civil engineer Dr Faisal Fathani (below, left with Rector Dwikorita).  They’ve patented a solar-powered system which collects rainfall and measure tremors.
If the downpours are heavy and likely to cause flooding, or the ground shakes at an alarming rate, the device triggers a siren to alert residents and flashes data to emergency headquarters.  The system is now being manufactured in bulk and distributed across the provinces.  It has also been exported to China.

 “Emergencies can happen very quickly, so early warnings are critical,” said Fathani. “There were problems with people stealing tsunami alerts dropped in the ocean by the government, so we’ve given local communities the responsibility of caring for the terrestrial systems.
“Vandalism is unlikely because villagers own the system – they realize their lives depend on knowing of dangers in advance.”
Also back to basics was the Yakkum Emergency Unit, a NGO based on the slopes of Yogya’s temperamental Mount Merapi.  Their contribution was a simple kit collecting rain to grow hydroponic vegetables and using the waste to raise fish.
Survivors of the initial shock can die later for want of food and drink.  But with a few shards of rescued plastic, wood, aluminium and ingenuity life can go on.

The thin blue line
New Zealanders can’t stand visual pollution.  That means most outdoor advertising is banned and essential signs, such as traffic controls have to be approved. 
The forests of banners and billboards that shield motorists from the stunning scenery of Indonesia are absent in NZ; tourists can feast on the environment rather than be urged to buy smokes.
NZ Ambassador Dr Trevor Matheson
So when it was proposed that big notices should be erected around the Wellington seaside suburb of Island Bay warning that this was a tsunami danger area many of the 7,000 residents objected.
“Yet signage was essential,” said GNS Science’s Michele Daly.  “We had meetings where someone came up with the idea of painting blue lines on the roads.  These mark the likely high-water mark in case of a tsunami when you’d need to get on the right side.
“Some feared this might reduce home values, but that hasn’t happened. People seem to appreciate that this is a community that cares.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 November 2015)

Sunday, October 25, 2015


BTW:  In praise of Ubud censors
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
Silly old Harry S Truman, 33rd president of the United States.  What right had a Democratic wimp who never scored a college degree to write lines like those above?  If alive today he’d be sued for being anti-authority and disturbing the peace.
Now back to the future.  It’s set in New Zealand, normally flagged as a nation of tolerance and liberty, pioneering social change.
This is the advanced liberal democracy where same sex couples get married; don’t try that in uptight Australia.
Yet last month NZ banned a book.
It was the first ban for 22 years so you’d assume it was a knitting pattern for suicide vests or maybe a kitchen recipe for baking black-plague bacteria.
Wrong.  This was a kid’s novel called Into the River and written by a teacher trying to reach troubled teens.  It tells of a Maori boy growing up in an Auckland boarding school where he encounters [shock, horror] sex, drugs and racism. It won several awards.
Even in laid-back Middle Earth nasty things happen, but some folk think silence is golden.  A self-imposed Christian lobby group called Family First demanded age restrictions, effectively removing the book from the market it was written to reach.
Ten days ago the ban was lifted and you can now buy the novel – if you can find one. Author Ted Dawe, who had his typescript rejected by mainstream publishers, funded the book himself.  He now has literary fame, a decent income and is writing a sequel.
Into the River has been swept into page one prominence by the people who tried to dam it. Sociologists call this the Streisand Effect.
In 2003 American singer Barbra Streisand unsuccessfully sued a photographer for US$50 million for publishing a photo of her California mansion. Before she rushed to the lawyers only six people had seen the picture.  After her case was made public close to half a million Googled the photo.
And so it will be with the government’s ban on certain books and discussions at the upcoming Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.  This event is big time among the international literati, but till now little known among the millions whose concerns are rising prices, not the decline of the metaphor.
Now the UWRF is tabloid stuff.  Maybe its existence has even penetrated the Presidential Palace, though the incumbent is better known for his taste in bakso not books. 
The organizers say the ban follows ‘increased scrutiny from local authorities who have the power to revoke the Festival’s operating permit, issued by the national police …  Should certain sessions proceed, it would run the risk of the entire Festival being cancelled.’
The three sessions off the menu were going to chew over the 1965 coup that felled Soekarno and brought General Soeharto to power at the cost of an estimated 500,000 lives.
Maybe the cappuccino sippers in the placid paddy on Bali’s uplands would have got so frothy-lipped by the speeches they’d have lashed out with their laptops and started a new revolution.
Such is the power of ideas.  Such is the paranoia of the guilty.
In the NZ book ban Don Mathieson, president of the Film and Literature Board of Review, said Dawe’s novel ‘had an unhealthy preoccupation with private parts of the body and their potential use in social activity’.
Substitute ‘historical public events’ for ‘private parts of the body’ and you get to understand the minds of the censors.
The UWRF, billed as ‘Southeast Asia’s biggest cultural and literary event’ will be poorer in the short term.  But in the long term we’ll all be richer.  The Streisand Effect will kick in and ensure this fringe festival and the events of 50 years ago will be big news everywhere.
So thank you censors. And by the way - NZ and RI now share something else in common:  International ridicule. Duncan Graham
First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2015


Monday, October 19, 2015


Boy from Balibo makes good                                  

Television news clips of Syrian asylum seekers desperate for a safe haven are distressing enough, even for those who’ve never looked conflict and its awful aftermath in the eye.

But for Jose Antonio Morato Tavares the tragic scenes recall his time as a refugee.

Born in Balibo on the Portuguese side of the border with Indonesian West Timor, Tavares was a junior high school student in the capital Dili when a military coup in distant Lisbon turned his life upside down.

His prescient parents thought the strife would not be confined to the Iberian Peninsula.  The left-leaning Fretilin Party and its rival UDT were edging towards a civil war.  The family fled south and crossed the border to Atambua.

“About 45,000 people were displaced,” Tavares said.  “Some went overseas to Australia and Europe, others moved into West Timor.  I was the eldest of nine; we lived in a four-room house with relatives.

“For a year I didn’t go to school. I could only speak Portuguese and Tetum. I just played around.”

Like many who’ve lived through searing times, the agreeable Indonesian Ambassador to New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga is reluctant to expand on his experiences. 

His father lost his government job and the family its home. While they survived on the generosity of others a great tragedy was underway.  If there was a future of peace and hope it wasn’t visible through the gunsmoke and sweat of fear.

In late 1975 the Indonesian Army crossed the border at Tavares’ birthplace killing five Australian journalists covering the invasion, creating a wound in international relationships that weeps still.

An Australian coroner ruled special forces deliberately killed the TV crews; Indonesia claims they were caught in crossfire.

Eventually Tavares’ mother despatched her son to a high school in Bandung. Although he doesn’t dwell on the situation, Tavares was clearly different; a Catholic teen bobbing in a sea of Islam, clumsy with Indonesian and ignorant of Sundanese.  Then there was the funny accent and a foreign name.

A lesser lad would have turned delinquent or run away, but Tavares was tough, determined to excel and make his family proud.

That he did splendidly.  From school to Padjadjaran University where he wrestled with English and memorized economic texts.

“I thought of working with a non-government agency,” he said.  “Instead I tried for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  About 7,000 applicants vied for 52 jobs.  Wow! I was selected.”

Tavares’ career trumps cynics who claim the only way to advance in the Indonesian bureaucracy is through nepotism.

“I had no relatives in the military and I don’t belong to any political party,” he said.  “I wanted to be a better person and make a difference to society.” 

After a year of in-house training and more English he won an Australian government scholarship to Perth’s Murdoch University for a masters degree.

“I learned to ask questions, something we didn’t do in Indonesia,” he said.  “I was amazed that students who put their feet up in tutorials could still pass.  The system was advanced and tough.  I studied 16 hours a day – even in the toilet.  I loved it.”

Eventually he penetrated the highest levels of the Ministry, the elite of all government agencies.  Along the way he even married the daughter of his boss, deputy foreign minister Triyono Wibowo.

Diplomats are different. Those at the summit breathe rarefied air. They enjoy exotic lands and foods, use archaic French terms, make speeches where all applaud, however bland. 

Shaking His or Her Excellency’s hand is greeting a nation by proxy, so first impressions are vital: Dignified, though not aloof. Relaxed, yet respected. Gregarious but not effusive.

 An easiness with euphemisms is handy; a volcanic row is presented as a ‘frank exchange of views’. ‘Further consultation’ indicates a policy heading towards the trashcan.

A group photo of sober suits smiling has probably been photoshopped. 

Tavares, 55, and his diplomat wife Fitria Wibowo, 38, shatter the image.  In egalitarian NZ they used a marae [Maori meeting house] for the 70th anniversary, overseeing a spectacular display of volunteers voted best ever.  Tavares welcomed VIPs and ordinary folk in fluent Maori, dazzling locals. 

There’s another difference – a yawn in NZ but a wake-up in Indonesia

He’s Catholic - she’s Muslim.  Inter-faith marriages are banned in the Republic.

The couple had been colleagues in Jakarta, then posted apart.  Tavares was ordered to Geneva but objected.  He’d done the meeting marathons before; was the next agenda disarmament or beef quotas?  Or was that yesterday?

His moans were ignored, but illuminating the Swiss sameness was rediscovering “this beautiful woman” across a crowded boardroom.  Tavares’ monochrome world burst into incandescence.

In 2012 the refugee battler from Balibo, and the cosmopolitan lawyer raised in a diplomatic household and educated in Vienna and New York were joined as man and wife at a civil ceremony in Bangkok. 

The reception was in Surabaya, but the bride didn’t get the finery and egg-crushing rituals of a traditional Indonesian wedding,

“Speaking personally, I don’t think the prohibition against mixed-faith marriages is fair or constitutional,” said Wibowo, who has just completed a master’s degree in law at Wellington’s Victoria University.

“I come from a liberal family that didn’t raise objections.  About a third of my relatives are Catholic.”

Said her husband: “Religion is personal.  Fitria has her faith, I have mine.  We respect each other’s beliefs and don’t interfere.  Sometimes she accompanies me to church.

“Mixed marriages aren’t uncommon among diplomats. The former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has a Thai wife. [She reportedly converted to Islam].

“I’ve never thought of changing my name or faith to get ahead.  The basis of my Catholicism is love.  Turning the other cheek and loving the enemy is nearly impossible to do, but we must try.

“Religion is a way to God. Everyone has their own path.  But the path is not God.  It is so tragic when people fight over faith, but I believe Indonesia is changing.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 October 2015)