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

Monday, December 15, 2014


Sharing a common past    

Decades ago parents entertained their children with a telling ditty about the days before Independence:
Menteng: Immigration Building (1914) now a restaurant
In matters of empire, the fault of the Dutch,                                                              
was yielding too little and taking too much.
After 1945 hostility continued towards Europeans determined to retain influence in the former East Indies.  This climaxed in 1957 when first president Soekarno expelled 40,000 Dutch citizens and nationalised their companies along with other foreign businesses.
New times, new attitudes. The once colonized and the colonialists aren’t just burying their enmity, they’re unearthing their shared past, with people like Dutch author Emile Leushuis helping drive the excavators.
The social geographer and urban historian has no family background in Indonesia’s past; he started backpacking Asia in the late 1980s while still a student at the University of Utrecht, finding the archipelago’s complex history rewarding.
His visits multiplied and became a job. He learned the language.  At first he worked for a Dutch tour company, then an American.  Later he turned freelance setting up tours for Netherlanders keen to know more about the tropical islands their country once ruled. 

Leushuis (right) also wrote articles and lectured, and in 2011 published Gids Historische Stadswandelingen Indonesie (a tour guide to Indonesia’s historic cities). Now in its second printing the book has just been released in a larger format in Indonesian as Panduan Jelajah Kota-kota Pusaka di Indonesia by publisher Ombak.
The company is based in Yogyakarta where Leushuis spends about half his time – the rest back in Holland. He credits his decision to concentrate on Indonesia with a visit to Ubud, the hilltown cultural center of Bali – “my point of no return.”
The book includes specially prepared maps of walks (or cycle rides) in eight Javanese cities - Jakarta, Cirebon, Bandung, Cirebon, Semarang, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and Malang – and Medan in Sumatra.
The translation has Jelajah (exploring) in the title, a useful addition as ‘guide’ implies lists of guest houses and bus routes.  Instead the buyer gets well-referenced histories and streetscapes encouraging further exploration.

“When you go to a place, what do you see?” asked Leushuis. “Why does it look like this? I want to explain what’s here and why, what sort of people lived here and took part in trade and administration.”
Unfortunately the Indonesian version has been printed on cheap paper to contain costs.  So the photos lack the eyeball-striking gloss found in the original which sells for 25 Euros (Rp 375,000) compared to Rp 150,000 for the local edition.
The book includes some splendid old pictures, many found in Dutch museums.  These show the beautiful open areas and wide roads that existed before the population growth got out of control and the Honda hordes invaded the highways.
“I certainly plan to publish in English as I think there’s a strong interest from people who can’t read Dutch or Indonesian,” Leushuis said during a promotion tour.  His book was launched at a seminar in the ancient Majapahit era city of Trowulan in East Java, and again before 120 students at Malang State University.
Public open space - well used; the square in front of Jakarta's Town Hall
 “I also want to work with Indonesians to promote cultural tourism and heritage trails. Several organizations do this but their efforts haven’t been well coordinated.”
After several years of running tour groups Leushuis and another Indonesia addict, former public broadcaster Nettert Smit opened IndoTracks Adventure Tours.  It’s based in Holland but accessible from anywhere through the Internet.
 “There are still concerns about safety and the perceived rise of radical Islam, but the Dutch remain curious about Indonesia and want to know more of their country’s roots in Southeast Asia,” Leushuis said.
“There are no cities in Holland that look like those built in Indonesia. The only one based on Dutch town planning and architecture was Batavia in the 16th century.

“The Europeans quickly discovered that chasing away the locals and digging canals didn’t work in tropical conditions.

“They decided to let the locals have their own city and be ruled by their own people, and just add relatively small Dutch quarters with some military presence.

“Semarang remains the best example of an 18th century Dutch quarter in what is now called Little Holland. Northern Bandung and North-eastern Malang show good later development.

 “The alun-alun (open town square, often a garden where families relax and flanked by important buildings) is a local idea. Indonesians should be very proud of the way they’ve adapted to the environment.”
Then there are the statues.  Indonesia does its old mosques, palaces and traditional joglo (four-sided, high ceiling carved timber houses) superbly, but the Soviet realism monuments of muscled men snapping chains are not just metaphorically coarse they are also artistically crude. They stand as reminders of another era’s politics.
When asked if he was optimistic of Indonesian cities being returned to the feet and lungs of their citizens, and where the past is treasured, not trashed, Leushuis uttered some equivocal noises before listing conservation projects now making a difference.
Most have been driven by forward-thinking companies rather than governments. For example, in Menteng the Kunstkring gallery and old immigration office has been preserved as a restaurant.  In Surabaya the De Javasche Bank building (used for several years by Bank Indonesia) has become a museum and function center.
Kota, the old city in Jakarta is certainly cluttered with stalls that encroach on the open area, but the place remains pedestrian friendly and a joy to stroll without fear of being run down.
“I’m hopeful if some of the traffic issues can be resolved,” Leushuis said. “It’s the main problem facing tourists and draws many complaints.  It’s now getting so difficult to move around. Journeys that used to last two hours now take double that time. That’s a worry.”
Panduan Jelajah Kota-kota Pusaka di Indonesia                                                                     
By Emile Leushuis                                                                                                            
Published by Ombak, 2014.       
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 December 2014)                                                                                            


Seeking the sounds of Yogya   

If the graffiti and eaves-to-gutter posters aren’t enough to convince that the Y in Yogyakarta stands for Youth, then the music will. The Central Javanese city, long known as the heart of Java’s high culture, has become the hub of the Archipelago’s contemporary music scene with an unique festival.  Duncan Graham reports.

Malioboro is Yogya’s must-stroll street for cheap.  Trashy souvenirs, knock-off artefacts, the lacquer barely dry on the cracking wood, and smudged batik dominate the pop-up stalls.
There’s excellence to be found, but the visitor has to hunt. Though not for the music. On weekend nights when it’s shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic and hardly enough space for the horse drawn buggies to sway, the relief is entertainment.
Bus terminals, town squares and other public spaces across the Republic are plagued by talent-free wannabes fingering two-string packing case guitars.  But Malioboro shoppers get to hear quality, from sitar players who could grace a concert hall to angklung bands finding new ways to thrash bamboo and produce crackling dance beats.
Musicians are fickle folk more interested in tempo than timetables so don’t expect a show a night – and remember they’re free, though donations don’t get rebuffed.
Malioboro is bookended with a small gamelan group near the railway station, while the angklung artists are usually found further down near the old Dutch fort of Vredeburg.
Last month (November) the Yogya Contemporary Music Festival was staged with performers and composers from 15 countries. The YCMF was established in 2003 by composer Michael Asmara who studied in Japan.

“Yogya is the place to be for any aspiring young musician,” said Budhi Ngurah, a music school lecturer and former concert cellist at the archipelago’s most prestigious cultural college, the Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI – Indonesian Arts Institute).
“We have more than 600 active students and they’ve come from everywhere.”
In a shady stairwell on the campus with just enough breeze to dry sweat, about a dozen young people tuned their strings and ventilated their flutes.  The mix was discordant, but the energy real.
 “We teach Western music but ethnomusicology and other forms are becoming popular,” said percussion teacher Ayub Prasetiyo who spent nine years studying at ISI.  He played in symphony orchestras before becoming an academic.
 “New classes are opening to meet the demand.”
ISI graduate Gatot Danar Sulistiyanto, 34, remembers the day the music came.  He was 15, but hadn’t been looking because it had been ever present in Magelang since his birth in the Central Java town.  Why search for water when you’re swimming?
“In the Javanese kampong there’s always sound,” said the director of Yogya’s Art Music Today (AMT), an organization encouraging musicians to work together, share resources and develop skills.  
“It’s the mothers’ lullabies as they nurse their babes; it’s the food sellers calling out in the street; it’s the prayers from the mosques; it’s the gamelan, the cocks crowing, the sheep bleating.  Music is everywhere.”

So the muse came to him. Someone handed him a guitar and showed how.  Hardly necessary.  The instincts were already quivering in his fingers and his soul, though there were no known musical abilities in his ancestors.
He became a fan of Iwan Fals, the balladeer famous for his protest songs during the Orde Baru (New Order) period when the authoritarian President Soeharto was forever suspicious of artists and youth - and even more wary when the two combined.
Gatot enrolled in a trade college to learn the electronic skills that his communications technician father used to feed his family.  However the school’s extra-curricular activities were more electric.  Particularly the rock band.

A brief period of bashing skins, thumping a keyboard or scraping strings seems to be a rite of passage for many acned adolescents, but this one didn’t lose interest as he morphed into a man.
He moved to Yogya because that’s where music mattered, and found a curious scene.  “There were plenty of musicians, bands and composers but everyone was doing their own thing,” he said. “There was no coordination, no information about contemporary music, no archiving.”
His eclectic talents got him into ISI where for eight years he learned to read music, play the classical guitar and move from fiddling chords to becoming a professional.
Gatot’s abilities were sharpened to the point where he was invited to New Zealand as a contemporary composer, and to Holland where he worked with chamber musicians.
Then came Yogya’s day of disaster.  On 27 May 2006 a massive shallow jolt caused immense destruction, killing close to 6,000 people and injuring six times as many.
Like the tsunami which struck Aceh in 2004 and inadvertently led to the end of a prolonged civil war, the Yogya quake impacted the music scene.
“That’s when I started pushing people to work together,” Gatot said.  “The earthquake gave us the impetus to connect.”
He started AMT at the Sangkring Art Space in Nitiprayan village on the outskirts of the city, where many artists have moved to create a semi-rural cultural scene.
According to Gatot about ten new art centers have been built in Yogya since 2006, bringing talented people together and establishing a fertile environment that nurtures creativity, where young people can experiment without being ridiculed.
“A few years ago a contemporary music concert would be lucky to attract 40 people,” Gatot said.  “Now hundreds come and the festival runs for three days.
“I’m really optimistic about the future of music in Yogya – it’s in good shape and will be growing for the next five to ten years.” 
Yogya may have become a magnet for young musicians but Gatot resisted suggestions it was unique. He then rattled off a list of major and minor towns across the nation with professional and experimental performers, tossing in names and contact numbers.
When still a student Gatot’s mother urged him to complete his technical qualifications before following his heart. Good advice; it’s his electronics tradecraft that’s financially most useful. 
As a field producer and sound engineer Gatot said he’s able to care for his opera singer wife Ika Sri Wahyumingsih and their young son by earning Rp 500,000 (US$40 a day), a sum he forecasts to rise as demand grows.
ISI academics Budhi and Ayub agree.  “We expect most of our students to get work when they graduate,” they said.  “Some are already employed.”
Music in Yogya includes the sound of money.

(First published in J Plus 7 December 2014)



Just Say No To (prescribed) Drugs    

Seven years ago The Jakarta Post published a letter from Dutch microbiologist Henri Verbrugh (left) critical of medical prescription practices.  By the normally restrained standards of professional intercourse it was blunt.
“It is perhaps not polite to be critical of my hosts,” he wrote.  “But in the large majority of the cases presented to me antibiotics were used irrationally… doctors in general have only marginal knowledge about antibiotics.
“A study of 4,000 patients and their relatives in Semarang and Surabaya found most of the antibiotics were prescribed without proper indication.”
Jump to the present. “My comments did attract some attention,” he said wryly during a return visit to attend conferences and deliver lectures at medical schools, including Malang’s Brawijaya University.
“There was some blushing, but overall the letter was accepted readily enough.”
Other critics might not have fared so well.  A citizen of a former colonial power jabbing the needle into local nerves? Send him back! Who does he think he is?
Fortunately this fault-finder was well armored against the barbs.  The descendant of an Indonesian grandmother and son of a mining company doctor, young Henri once lived in Belitung, also known as Billiton. 
The islands off Sumatra’s east coast were the lad’s playground from his birth in 1949 till 1958 when President Soekarno ordered the Dutch to begone or become Indonesian citizens.
The family chose option one and left for Holland where Professor Verbrugh is now a leading scientist, head of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Medical Center.
He is also an advisor to the Scientific Program Indonesia-Netherlands (SPIN), a long-term joint collaboration project to boost scholarly inquiry in the Republic. Indonesia has fallen behind nations like Iran and Egypt in publishing scientific research.
Professor Verbrugh’s words may have wrinkled brows, but there’s no doubt he had the qualifications to comment, a right he’s still exercising.
“Antibiotics are very useful drugs, but they have to be used cautiously,” he said.  “Microbes adjust and adapt quickly and soon produce drug-resistant strains of bacteria.  These are much harder to treat.
“The situation has improved since I wrote that letter, and there are protocols on antibiotic use in the government hospitals, though not all private hospitals follow these.
“There’s still a lack of collaboration among many doctors and administrators who continue doing things their way. Indonesia is an archipelago of medical kingdoms.
“I tell students this has to stop and they should work together.  They also need to be disobedient and not accept what they’re told without questioning.”
His comments are not a lone cry. Last month (November) the World Health Organization urged Southeast Asian nations to boost plans to combat the ‘rapidly increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance … that will be devastating in this age of emerging infectious diseases.’

So how can we stay well without resorting to antibiotics?
“The problem is not the drugs but the way they are being used; sometimes we need to get back to basics, like washing with disinfectant soap,” Professor Verbrugh said, advice which must send the drug companies feverish.  
“Just screening out patients from surgery if they are carrying heavy loads of bacteria drops hospital infections significantly.  So does nasal cream (the nose harbors bacteria) and antiseptic baths.
“Reducing the use of antibiotics also brings down costs to the health system.”
Apart from educating doctors about the danger of shooting up antibiotics first and asking questions later, the public also has to be alerted, Professor Verbrugh said.

Questioning a treatment is never easy when feeling unwell; in a culture where doctors are often seen as gods it takes a courageous patient to challenge a physician.

Overseas governments, particularly those with national health schemes, restrict the right to authorize certain medicines to specialists  In Indonesia the public can treat themselves by buying antibiotics over the counter.

Professor Verbrugh alleged that some Indonesian doctors routinely include antibiotics as treatment for dengue fever, and for new-borns who appear to be having breathing problems, when these responses were unnecessary. There were also links between doctors and drug companies seeking to promote their products, he said.

Indonesian doctors told him they use antibiotics as a preventative measure because they fear disease, even when patients are suffering from viruses that antibiotics can’t kill.

“Getting out of these habits may take a while, but I have positive feelings,” he said. “We must focus on the next generation of doctors – they have to clean up the mess we’ve made.”

Forgetting to do the dishes
It’s one of the most famous stories of serendipity in modern medical history, and the excuse smart kids use for not washing up after dinner.

On the morning of 28 September 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming turned up for work as usual at his London laboratory.
He’d been careless.  The night before he’d forgotten to cover a glass dish of the staphylococcus bacteria that he’d been studying.  Unsurprisingly he found the sample spoiled, contaminated by a green mould.
‘Staph’ infections are common as the bacteria are often present on the skin.  Staph usually causes few problems apart from pus in minor wounds, but it can kill if it gets in the blood.
Instead of tossing the dish in a sink and wondering if he was getting too old for the job (he was then 47), Fleming looked more closely at the mess and noticed the bacterial growth around the mould had stopped.
This, he reasoned, meant that the mould could kill bacteria. And so penicillin was born, a drug destined to father a great family of antibiotics.  There are now more than 150.
Professor Verbrugh said that Fleming, who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, realised penicillin’s limitations.  He cautioned that other diseases could become resistant as the super smart microbes adapted to this new threat. 
But the world, dazzled by the wonder kill-all-bugs medicine was little interested in the early warning. Which is why we have a crisis today.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 December 2014)

Saturday, December 06, 2014


Collaborators, manipulators and imagineers     

There’s something slightly unnerving about these contemporary art forms.  They wave no flags of jingoistic nationalism so labels don’t stick.  They’re burdened by neither the dogma of religion, nor the baggage of ideology. 
Though dumb they can speak to every one of the seven billion on this planet in a universal tongue of shared concerns and experiences.  Though blind they can see what we wilfully ignore.  Yet paradoxically they lack what we have:  Life.
In the hands of talented artists puppets can reduce us to tears, or raise us to nobility, and next month (December) Indonesian audiences will get the chance to see some of the world’s best.
“Puppets are a blank canvas,” said Dean Petersen from Melbourne’s Cake Industries (‘Media Artists, Future Makers’) while tinkering with switches in a Yogyakarta workshop. “We can project our feelings onto them.  We can bring the inanimate to life.”
Together with Jesse Stevens the two Australians, ‘heavily influenced by 1950s science fiction dystopia’, will be using robotics to animate figures and objects at Yogya’s International Biennial Pesta Boneka (puppet festival).  This will be held between 5 and 7 December in the Central Java city and the nearby village of Kedek.

This is the hometown of Beni Sanjaya, one of the creative workers at Yogya’s Papermoon Puppet Theater.  Recently he helped stage a carnival in Kedek using giants, showing that the traditional wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances aren’t the only way to entertain.
Papermoon is a group of out-of-the-box artists assembled after the 2006 Yogya earthquake.  Their original quest was to help citizens reassemble shattered lives through brief escapes into fantasy and shared compassion.
In the Pesta Boneka Papermoon will be supported by performers from Australia, Mexico, Thailand, Spain, the Philippines, Hungary, Japan and Iceland.  Like migrating birds, modern puppeteers ignore political boundaries and fly to where they are most loved.
What they have in common is passion, the desire to swap concepts, expand imagination, entertain and inspire. They graze the Internet as a garden of delights, a place to sow seeds and garner ideas.  If a TV series was created about these fertile folk it would be titled The Collaborators.
Thai puppeteer Jae Sirikarn Bunjongtad (see breakout) was inspired by the work of puppeteers from Scandinavia. Some of her wayang kulit creations look Indonesian enough to alert the culture cops, but Jae said similar styles are found in Thailand and Malaysia.   She’s stitched costumes and spun stories in Kazakhstan, Cambodia and South Korea.

The pockets of mannequin movers like Dean (left) and Jesse are never short of an AA battery or a LED light. They should be called The Adaptors, using old car window wipers to sway, rams to lift and toggles to twist, employing anything discarded that can serve a higher purpose. If the raw materials are from natural products then their contentment is sustainable. 
Contemporary puppeteers tend to share, not lock ideas into cages of copyright.  Some offer their work through Creative Commons, licensing that only requires attribution. While film makers like Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson offload millions on special equipment to quicken the dead and hire security guards to keep sets secret, puppeteers scavenge rather than spend, and welcome the curious behind the scenes.
 “People used to say puppets were just for kids, and we had the same thinking,” said artist Iwan Effendi waggling one of Papermoon’s early glove creations.  He started the company with his wife Maria Tri Sulistyani, a children’s book illustrator.
“Then we noticed how many adults were interested.  We’d seen the same thing in the US where we met the family that runs the company of the late Jim Henson.
(Henson created the Muppets that revolutionized early childhood education through the TV series Sesame Street. )
“So Papermoon began developing new stories and characters, and then staged a R18 show. That was a success.”

Later the company produced and toured the US with Mwathirika ‘about the loss of history and the history of loss’, proving that this art form can share the sharp end of political comment along with experimental theater. This non-verbal play explored the genocide that followed the 1965 coup d’├ętat, still a taboo topic in many families and communities.
Said one overseas reviewer:  ‘Papermoon … has transformed puppets the way graphic novels changed comics.(Its work) is intellectually challenging, emotionally chilling and visually bold.’
Papermoon has no studio, just a decrepit rented house that serves as a maternity room for the dolls born through a marriage of nimble minds and fingers to match. After the applause some just hang around in corners, or take it easy in cupboards, smiling wistfully at the world through glass doors, their fixed expressions waiting to be liberated by a human hand.
 In the dusty yard outside is a giant face built by Octo Cornelius who, like his colleague Beni, learned the hows and how nots through the University of Trial and Error.
“I started making puppets from vegetables,” he said.  “Now I’ve graduated to rattan and bamboo.”

Chaos in the Neighborhood

The uncle loves growing plants.  The green caterpillar likes eating them.  The little boy wants to protect the insect from his vengeful relative.
Who can’t relate to such a tale whatever their background?
For the youngster understands that the caterpillar is on its way to become a butterfly and needs only a few more bites of uncle’s leaves before it turns into a chrysalis.
So at some cost to family harmony he stops the caterpillar from being killed.  Eventually a beautiful butterfly emerges to the joy of all, and ready to help pollinate uncle’s plants.
Chaos in the Neighborhood is one of many stories in the repertoire of Thai puppeteer Jae Sirikarn Bunjongtad (above) (stage name Kankak Naga Tan), in Indonesia to perform at the Pesta Boneka. 
In Papermoon’s workshop she drew sketches, made models, plotted moves, sewed backdrops, edited scripts and adjusted halogen light filaments she’s using to illuminate her sets.
“I have to do everything myself,” she said.  “When I studied theater arts at university in Bangkok there was only one unit on puppetry, so I’ve had to develop my own skills. That includes management.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 December 2014)

Monday, December 01, 2014


Crushed by colonialism – or just hapless?                          
I once berated Australian newspaper colleagues for using the words ‘Indo’ and ‘Indons’.  They countered that the terms were legitimate because ‘Indonesian’ was too long for a snappy headline, and everyone understood the meaning.
Not everyone. In Indonesia it refers to mixed race people, usually the offspring of European fathers and Indonesian mothers.  These are the creamy-hued but black-haired beauties often seen promoting skin whiteners, vitamin supplements and Jakarta condos on television.
Do they feel insulted by the term ‘Indo’, like African - Americans bristle and call their lawyers when referred to as ‘negroes’?  Many Australian Aborigines dislike ‘blacks’, a prejudicial word Down Under, though not in the US.
Early last century when the Dutch still ruled the archipelago, it was certainly derogatory in the mind of  a fictional unmarried mother of two ‘Indos’; the slur was one of the many burdens born by the principal character in Jakarta journalist and historian Hanna Rambe’s novel Mirah of Banda.
This was first published in Indonesia in 1986 during Soeharto’s repressive Orde Baru (New Order) government that saw books as subversive, so don’t expect an allegory. It’s now available in English thanks to a translation by Toni Pollard, who has been teaching Indonesian in Australia for four decades, and Jakarta publisher Lontar as a volume in its Modern Library of Indonesia series.
This is not a literary work, which is obvious from the hackneyed opening: ‘As soon as the taxi had screeched to a halt at Ambon’s Pattimura Airport the driver jumped from the car to open the trunk.”  Fortunately the prose improves later, enough to justify turning the pages.
The book’s value is more as historical drama, the life story of a much put-upon Javanese woman kidnapped as a child to work on a Dutch nutmeg plantation in the Malukus (also known as the Moluccas), the islands sprinkled between Sulawesi and West Papua.
When Mirah matures she becomes the plantation owner’s concubine after his wife has an affair with a European and quits the estate. Mirah bears her lover two children (‘Indos’) that carry his name. 
He wants her to convert to Christianity and marry, but she refuses; Mirah fears being humiliated by the Dutch wives as a nyai, a kept native woman with no rights, but she also wants to die a Muslim.
Here was a chance to explain why holding her faith was so important because there are no other revelations about Mirah’s beliefs.  Instead we read that this was the religion of her parents – ‘I’m afraid of the angels at the graveside. I’m afraid of God’s Judgement Day.’
When the Japanese invade her de-facto husband is arrested and later dies in internment. Her children are also seized and her daughter Lili conscripted and sent to Papua as a ‘comfort woman’, the vile euphemism for forced prostitution. Here she becomes pregnant to a caring Japanese officer.
Back in Banda, her Dutchman gone, Mirah weds a childhood sweetheart but the marriage is barren and turns bad.  The couple split.
If the reader is supposed to have sympathy for the lady’s problems then the author fails, for Mirah is no national heroine like Kartini, challenging the system and arguing for women’s rights. 
Instead she takes the victim position, constantly telling herself and others that she is ‘just an ignorant servant’ … ‘a contract worker’ … ‘a coolie’, even when opportunities are available     to escape her plight. In the jargon of modern psychology Mirah would be a good candidate for a course in empowerment.
Yet earlier in the book she proves she has teeth, literally; while still young she preserves her virginity by savagely biting the genitals of a plantation overseer who tries to rape her. 
Mistress of the plantation homestead, loved by her kind Dutchman (she only bites his tongue), surrounded by local friends and given every freedom except to linger with men, she instead pines for the squalor of the plantation  laborers’ barracks, where she can be with the people she knew as a child.
Some readers may see Mirah’s meek acceptance of her fate and reluctance to buck the ugly system she encounters as proof that generations of colonization can numb an individual’s spirit.
Others may read this as a story of Javanese fatalism and proof that Indonesians rank the company of their friends and relatives above all else, including comfort and relative security.
More practically Mirah was unschooled, far from her hometown, and ignorant of the war and the struggle for Independence. She remains a bewildered onlooker.  Yet with a little tweaking by her creator Mirah could have been a keen observer, giving the 21st century reader insights into those dramatic times.
Instead we get little more than brief mentions of the momentous events that are known to every schoolchild who’s done basic history.  Sadly there’s no sign of deeper research that could have given the book more substance. 
There are also errors:  The Battle of Hollandia (now Jayapura) when Allied forces routed the Japanese occurred in March 1944. The book says that ‘lasting peace was still more than two more (sic) years away.’ The Japanese surrendered to the Allies on 15 August, 1945.
The device of Mirah telling her story to glamorous Wendy Morgan fails in the chapters on Lilli’s fate, when the author has to step in with a third-person account to fill in the gaps.
Despite these issues the book is an easy read, although the ending is unsatisfying because it stops short of revelation and reconciliation, surely the just dues of someone whose life seems to have been little more than a leaf in the winds of history.
Mirah of Banda  by Hanna Rambe (translated by Toni Pollard)   Lontar, Jakarta 2010,                                                                                                               

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 December 2014)


Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Teenagers in a twisted world     


“Dad, how come we didn’t know some people in Indonesia hated us so much?  We had heaps of friends and everyone was always nice to us.  Was it anything we did or said?”

A troubling question from 14-year old Ruth Scott to her father Robert after his Muslim friend Urip and 20 other academics and students had been torn apart by a female suicide bomber.

On that fateful day at a Christian university in Central Java, Robert was scheduled to deliver the lecture.  Instead he’d invited Urip to speak in a bid to build religious tolerance and understanding.

So Robert was watching from the back of the hall when a Jemaah Islamiyah fanatic struck the podium targeting Westerners but killing Indonesians. 

The Scott family flees to New Zealand in deep shock.  Ruth mourns the loss of her friends and those she’s had to leave, particularly her best mate Ari, (Urip’s daughter), and her happy life in Indonesia. 

Back in her safe and snug homeland Ruth rejects counselling and makes a telling point about Kiwi’s ignorance: “No, I hated it.  They had no idea about the bomb.  Or Indonesia.”

Robert blames himself for not realizing militant Islam had grown so fast and penetrated the campuses.  His daughter’s questions scratch the guilt scabs raw.

Fortunately it’s fiction and on the keyboard of a writer hostile to Indonesia The Red Suitcase could have been a polemic against Islam.  But prize-winning author Jill Harris turns the brutality of religious intolerance around, to nurture understanding of the complexities of faith and culture.

This is something she knows well, having spent a “tumultuous” three years in the early 1960s teaching English at the Christian Satya Wacana University in Salatiga, Central Java with her journalist husband Ian.

The couple had been inspired by a Protestant minister in NZ who told them their nation’s future lay in Asia, not Europe.  At the time most young adventure seekers spent their gap years in Britain.

“We did not have exalted ideas about ourselves and certainly no belief in the superiority of Western values,” she said forcefully.  “We wanted to learn about our neighbors, to get alongside people of another culture. Missionaries?  Heavens no, horror, horror.”

It took almost a year to get visas, time spent learning Indonesian from the only available text in NZ.

“It was an incredibly tough time but a life-changing experience,” she recalled.  “Martial law was in place; on the drive from Jakarta we were stopped by soldiers ten times.

“We lived on Indonesian wages, but in fact got less than local staff who took other jobs to survive. We called the local shop Tidak Ada (don’t have) because it was almost always empty of stock.  Relatives sent us food parcels. Yet we never felt unsafe.

“The economy was collapsing – people were eating rats.  Rice that sold for four rupiah a kilo when we arrived was priced at 95 rupiah when we left.

“Many, many times I wanted to give up.  It was very difficult, but it changed my life in a positive way, though I’ve never completely bridged the cultural gap.

“Back in Auckland I realised how racism was part of our society.  In those days Maori people were hardly recognized.  That’s no longer the situation.”

While in Indonesia Ruth gave birth to her two sons.  Medical problems gave her further insights into the Republic’s health services. 

On her return Jill taught Indonesian and gave public lectures on NZ’s closest Asian neighbour. The couple also helped establish the NZ-Indonesia Association, a non-government organization dedicated to improving relationships between the two nations and which still exists.

The Red Suitcase maintains the message that NZ’s future lies in understanding Asia, the same direction given by the minister who first inspired the couple to head to Indonesia. Fortunately it does this subtlety. Just because readers are young doesn’t mean they can’t spot and reject a barrow-pusher.

Later the story moves to another level as Ruth discovers letters from an airman relative killed in World War I1 and enters the “slippery nature of time.”  But it’s the Indonesian bombing which sets the scene for a girl rushing into womanhood and confronting the great questions: Why is life not always good?  Why do people cause grief?

Teenage novels have accelerated far beyond tales of enchanting princesses who find true love and live happily ever after.  Kids who get hate and horror served on breakfast TV can’t be protected from the great tragedies of the world they’re entering.

“Hush – you’ll understand when you grow up,” is no longer an acceptable response when Generation Net reaches the age of inquiry. A child’s book no longer has to be childish.

Jill Harris understands this market, reasoning that modern kids need frank answers in fiction that reflects reality, not tip-toeing around the topics that set adults trembling.

The Red Suitcase is her fourth book, but the first based on her time in Indonesia.  The title comes from the real life discovery of a box holding almost 100 letters from the writer’s journalist uncle Colwyn Jones, a bomber navigator who died in Europe.

These facts form the major plot as the fictional Ruth comes across similar correspondence, entering “a sliding time zone,” that puts her into the aircraft raining death over Germany.

Despite the Scott family’s ghastly experience in Indonesia they don’t hate the country,  peppering their conversations with Indonesian, illustrating the author’s “affection” for the archipelago.

“The media now offers a softer image of Indonesia,” she said. “But Indonesian is no longer taught in NZ schools or universities.”

Although Ian has been back, leukaemia has prevented Mrs Harris, 75, from returning to the land that shaped her thinking.  Her next project is to publish the couple’s Salatiga diaries so readers can understand more of life in the Soekarno era.

“Indonesia taught me about resilience, tolerance and friendship, and what it means to be really poor,” she said in her batik-draped home.  “It also helped me discover myself.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 November 2014)

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Horror tourism – heritage that hurts
Discussion of the massacres of late 1965 is still taboo in many areas of Indonesia, and the mass graves off-limits.  Not so in Cambodia where the horrors of the Pol Pot regime are now major tourist attractions.  Duncan Graham reports from Phnom Penh on a nation that’s being transparent about its vile past and turning it into an economic resource.

 Choeung Elk is serene. It was once an orchard.  At the center of the tree-filled park about 15 kilometers outside of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is a tall monument of concrete and glass.  The windows are stacked with what appear from a distance to be small boulders.  The building is topped by a Buddhist stupa.
The trunk of one stout tree is a mass of multicoloured cottons suggesting a joyous or prayerful place.
There are ponds, shady meandering walks and some small pits surrounded by low chain fences.  Visitors who peer among the stones and soil, the leaves and insects, can spot small spherical objects and what seem to be fractured fibrous sticks.
Close up the rocks under the stupa are revealed as piles of skulls, the blank eye sockets staring through the glass.  The beribboned tree is a shrine; it was used to smash out the brains of small children. Bullets were expensive and in short supply so the executioners beat their victims to death using farm tools, like hoes, and iron bars.
Loudspeakers hung in the trees played cheerful music to drown out the screams of those being killed so local residents wouldn’t know what was happening.  But they did.  They saw trucks full of prisoners roll through the gates and then return empty.
Choeung Elk was one of more than 300 killing fields in Cambodia; about 9,000 people died there after first being processed at S 21, also known asTuoi Sleng, a three-storey high school in the capital converted to a torture center.
The skulls, teeth and bone fragments are the remains of the victims of mass killings which swept Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.  This was more than ten years after Indonesia’s genocide where at least 500,000 people were murdered for being communists, or supporting communist ideals.
The number of humans slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge [Red Khmer] in what used to be Democratic Kampuchea, is also a guesstimate, but certainly exceeds one million.
They were killed for the opposite reason to those who died in Indonesia – for not being totally committed communists.   However, as in the Indonesian pogroms, many were slaughtered arbitrarily to settle personal gripes, to satisfy psychopathic urges or for no logical reason.
Anyone who wore glasses was automatically suspect as an ‘intellectual’ and therefore an enemy of the state.  The same fate befell many creative people in Indonesia. Because they were writers, artists or film-makers they were suspect.
The Khmer Rouge were eventually defeated by their former allies, the North Vietnamese.  The country, which has now returned to a monarchy, could have attempted to hide the great shame of its terrible past, and – like Indonesia – smothered all information.

Instead, and to lift the curse of history, the government promotes study and discussion of its gore-soaked history and encourages tourists to visit the grim remnants of evil that litter the land.
Ribbons to remember;  babies were bashed to deaath on this tree.
It sounds ghoulish and at first it feels awkward, almost voyeuristic.  Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, not morally challenging. But turning the hideous recent past into a modern attraction works in Cambodia largely because it’s handled openly and with dignity. There are no touts, signs are few and visitors are left to wander and contemplate mortality.
This, whisper the pits and ponds, is how humans can behave when driven by fanaticism and delusional ideology. It’s our shameful story, say the Cambodians, but it could be yours.  Be ever alert; cruelty knows no political or cultural borders, malice is universal.
The classrooms in what used to be the Tuol Svay Prey High School, now the Tuoi Sleng Genocidal Museum have no desks, only rusting metal beds where the political prisoners were manacled and tortured. 
But in their weirdly methodical way the Khmer Rouge first photographed every victim, and these pictures have been preserved. .  The walls of the school are covered in their portraits.
In other rooms are the devices used to inflict terrible agony, like metal baths where men and women were held underwater till they signed confessions that they were capitalist spies who harbored hopes of overthrowing the regime. Outside the exercise bars used by students became gallows.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Genocidal Museum, along with the Angkor Wat temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage site in the north of the country, are the reason why Cambodia – a nation of only 15 million – attracts more than four million tourists a year.  This number has been growing by more than 15 per cent annually during the past few years. 
By comparison, Indonesia with a population of 240 million draws less than 9 million visitors a year.

Why go into the dark?
Seeking horror on your holidays is even the subject of academic research into the psychological needs to visit sites of tragedy.
The Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain has been studying ‘where death education and tourism studies collide (to) … shine critical light on the social reality of death.
‘Dark tourism can also reveal tensions in cultural memory, interpretation and authenticity, and political and moral dilemmas in remembering our heritage that hurts.’
Apart from Cambodia, dark tourism sites in Europe, like the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Poland and the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars, are visited by millions every year.
Holocaust Memorial Museums are also popular and can be found around the world [though not in Indonesia] far from the places where the awful events occurred.
Dark tourism isn’t new; for more than 250 years people have been visiting Pompeii in Italy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site preserved by the ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. So it must be filling some basic need.

(First published in The Jakarta Post J Plus 23 November 2014)


Sunday, November 16, 2014


BTW                                                                                                                   Up, up and away

Hello and Thank You for choosing Leopard Air. Our motto:  We Never Change Our Spots.
Just US$20 to Jakarta from anywhere in Indonesia – Wow, what a deal! Beat that, Big Bird.
I’m Leo and I’ll help guide you through your on-line booking. Follow the prompts below to get the Special Promo Rate for Internet customers seduced by our suspect advertising.
We are the premium award-winning low-cost budget airline in Southeast Asia, reviewed by our in-flight magazine Leopard Leaps as the best value airline in the world. Our Airbus fleet was the most modern when purchased from Mexican Poppy Airways.  Please notify our team if you sniff anything strange that our highly trained ground staff may have missed.
Unlike other carriers we will never make you fly, but we will make you pay.
Our distinctive spotted livery is replicated in the uniforms worn by Team Panther.  For passengers subject to hallucinations when viewing repetitious patterns we recommend the use of mirror glasses, as worn by all our staff.  These are available with the cute Panther logo through our In Flight Shop at a very reasonable US$119.99.
Be assured you are in safe hands and that the welfare of your wallet is our prime concern.  Your basic airfare starts at US$20* as promoted, which we guarantee is the cheapest in the region.
[*If available.]
However because you are booking from Indonesia, government regulations insist on payment in rupiah.  We select the exchange rate most advantageous to the airline and add international cash management transfer fees and insurance as required by a law we devised to guarantee you a worry-free journey.
We know you are a busy person so have added the following services to save you time.  If you do not require please tick the tiny box saying NO THANKS that we have hidden on your Web screen in a white 1.5 size font on a white background.  It may take you several hours to locate this fun option, but helps pass the time.  We have linked the charges to the aircraft’s altimeter for our added fiscal safety.  All fees in US dollars.
Baggage allowance – 10 kilograms:  149.99
Meals and drinks                                 29.99 [Choice of menu:  Steamed rice or fried rice.]                                                              
Your selection of seat:                        9.99
Extra leg room:                                   17.99     
Be first in the queue:                           6.99
Insurance:                                            17.99
Flight alerts by SMS:                          6.99 / message
State taxes:                                          76
Fuel levy                                             99
Carbon emissions offset                      16
Service charge                                     43.99
Airport impost:                                    99
Passenger surcharge:                           49.99
Take off charge:                                  24.99
Landing fee:                                        18.99
Unfortunately Consumer Protection Laws require us to notify you that not all these charges are compulsory. For example, if you decide not to pay to land please check the box marked DECLINE.
Your total charge is now a low US$668. To make the process even easier we have selected several payment options – cash, credit card, debit card, gold bars or bank transfer.  Refunds are not allowed.
Please be advised that a 6.99 per cent fee will be charged however you pay.
If you wish to use a currency other than rupiah we will charge an 8.50 per cent transfer fee, as required by another law we have just invented.
For passengers seeking a loan we recommend Panther Bank where interest rates start at an affordable 29.9 per cent.  Feel free to wake the pilot for help as he gets a commission. Have your house certificate or other security available.
Ticking the ACCEPT NOW box means you have read and understood our 59 page Terms and Conditions Agreement.  Tickets are selling fast and unlikely to be available at this price tomorrow. Your flight leaves at 3.45 am subject to Leopard Air remaining solvent [see clause XXVI, Paragraph 9 of the contract].
You are required to be at the check-in six hours in advance to comply with security procedures.  Carry-on baggage is limited to 100 grams and will be strictly enforced.  Anything above this limit will be charged at US$50 a kilogram.
Thank You for choosing Leopard Air, and remember our fares are always advertised as cheap. Enjoy your flight.  We hope to see your credit card again soon. Have a Nice Day. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 November 2014)

Monday, November 10, 2014


The Year of Essential Reading                                

An election year doesn’t just bloom politicians – it also fertilizes a flowering of books.  So far this year two excellent additions: Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc [review published in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2014] and Australian journalist Hamish McDonald’s Demokrasi.
The books are different yet complementary.  One is an anecdotal tour of the archipelago using the micro to illuminate the macro, this one a crisp, more formal historical, social and political state-of-the nation account. Both are essential reads for anyone interested in this complex and curious country.
McDonald was a foreign correspondent in Jakarta between 1975 and 1978. In 1980 he earned his reporter’s Medal of Honor by being banned for writing Suharto’s Indonesia, a book reviewed at the time as ‘solid, well-written and balanced … a combination that is rare.’
The same qualities are present in Demokrasi, making it an ideal resource except for one crippling omission – no chapter notes.  This is strange because McDonald is now with the Australian National University; academics are ferocious about referencing, however notable the writer and lucid the writing.
McDonald, a mite bashfully, explains Demokrasi is “a quick overview …and in some aspects has been streamlined for ease of reading.” Possible translation: We’ve cut references to keep costs down. Suggestion:  Put the sources on a dedicated website.
This book was written before the inauguration of President Joko [Jokowi] Widodo but remains current with much background on him and his failed rival, Prabowo Subianto.  This includes the allegation that Prabowo once told ethnic Chinese businessman Sofyan Wanandi, that he was ready ‘to drive all the Chinese out of the country, even if that sets the economy back 20 or 30 years.’ 
Sofyan, also known as Sofjan, helped start the anti-communist think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS] in 1971, and offered advice to the Soeharto government till 1988. 
McDonald wrote this book helped by a fellowship and room at the CSIS in Jakarta, but also spent time in the provinces, including four days in West Papua, though restricted to the capital Jayapura.
A stupid decision by the military because it meant the author had to rely on the views of others who believe a slow genocide is underway through warfare and transmigration from Java, making the Papuans a minority in their own land. Had McDonald been allowed free access he might have come to different conclusions.
This is a book to help fit together the complex pieces of the sleazy and corrupt jigsaw of Jakarta politics.  For example, it reminds that Vice President Jusuf Kalla was mired in vote buying during the 2004 Golkar conference.
President Jokowi was helped to become Jakarta Governor by Prabowo, which partly explains the old general’s surly opposition. McDonald reports that despite Jokowi’s “perceived disregard for political guile … [he] paid careful homage to entrenched power groups”. 
These included the Special Forces unit Kopassus; when soldiers were accused of breaking into a jail in 2013 and killing four prisoners, Jokowi visited their headquarters as “a gesture of support.”
Nothing is quite what it seems in Indonesian politics where candidates jettison principles according to the wind direction, marry into each other’s families like medieval European royalty and go party shopping; if rebuffed they just start their own fiefdoms and tack on the word ‘democratic’.
Western palates are not always appropriate to savor this noodle bowl of power. In commenting on the Muhammadiyah organization McDonald writes: “Labels are difficult:  Orthodox does not necessarily mean conservative; ‘progressive’ or ‘modernist’ can also look orthodox and revivalist.”
So let’s add a new word to English: ‘Demokrasi’ - the Indonesian way of doing democracy. 
The chapter on religion opens with a marvellously contradictory image – pious young men reading the Koran before a suggestive portrait of the goddess Nyai Loro Kidul, the so-called Queen of the South Sea.
This synthesis of traditional beliefs with an imported faith has helped create a largely tolerant society, though pockets of hate remain.  Strangely Indonesia’s position as the largest Muslim nation by population “is not matched by its authority on religious or Middle East questions. It remains a receiver of wisdom from the Arab world, rather than a messenger of multi-religious tolerance.”
Why?  That’s a question for another book.
The challenge facing Western writers is to find the genuinely positive aspects of Indonesia.  It’s easy to focus on the negatives - appalling neglect of the infrastructure, corruption that corrodes everyone’s lives, a dysfunctional public service, persistent and debilitating poverty and an absence of basic services. Just one figure tells much - 14 per cent of urban dwellers don’t have access to toilets.
Though McDonald doesn’t shy from the faults and flaws he’s usually optimistic, even amidst illegal land clearing, the despair of conservationists everywhere: “The picture is a familiar one; good intentions and policies at the top undermined by a lack of enforcement capacity on the ground and by the corruption of the agencies supposed to monitor and guard the forests.  Still the approach [mapping to determine protection zones] cannot be written off.”
Indonesia hasn’t fallen apart. It’s not Egypt. It’s not Thailand. Terrorism has so far been contained. The media is so free some outlets publish manufactured stories.  Democracy seems to have survived. Despite the bitter election campaign and fears of blood in the streets, the election and inauguration went well.
McDonald wraps up his book with “an old Jakarta saying: ‘Anyone who thinks he understands the situation is sadly mistaken’.” He’s right. For outsiders the Indonesian journey is serpentine. It scales peaks and crevasses. It diverts. It is never ending.
Some of American poet T S Eliot’s verse could have been written for Indonesia: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.
Demokrasi – Indonesia in the 21st Century                                                                                  
by Hamish McDonald                                                                                                     
Published by Black Inc, Melbourne                                                                                         
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 November 2014)