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, October 20, 2014



“Most countries have oligarchs, but in Indonesia the oligarchs have a country. They have been lording it over us for so long, arresting the nation from its march toward the common good.

That neat piece of prose by Driyarkara School of Philosophy academic B Herry-Priyono in  The Jakarta Post brought a thoughtful touch to the 20 October inauguration of Indonesia’s seventh president, Joko (Jokowi) Widodo.

The pomp was low key and the organisation professional.  Some of the old guard looked sour, but at least they came.  There weren’t too many uniforms.

The event went smoothly despite predictions of a boycott by Jokowi’s rival, former general Prabowo Subianto whose presence was formally recognised and applauded during the 90 minute event. This was despite the bully, who took more than three months to concede defeat, having no position equal to the assembled politicians, diplomats and world leaders – plus partners. 

Jokowi even called Prabowo, who has spent the past few months slandering, insulting and undermining him at every turn, his ‘friend’. What more evil has to be done to become an enemy?
But this is Java, so perhaps it went some way to placating a man with anger and dollars enough to create havoc and destroy the people’s choice.

Before the anthems,  protocols and a conga-line of handshakers,  a jocular Jokowi chatted with reporters and showed off his family, with his eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, giving a splendid performance of surliness.  Maybe that’s his Australian education rubbing off.

The body language and brief comments by his other two kids and wife Iriana also showed they’d rather be elsewhere.  Fair enough – she married a timber trader, not a leader of the nation. Did anyone ask her if she ever wanted to be First Lady? No, but they did comment on her hairdo and ask what shoes she’d wear, a question I didn’t hear being put to her husband.

When Pak Jokowi started his speech it seemed it would be another faltering performance.  Then, suddenly, President Jokowi emerged, speaking strongly and moving with dignity.  Some people are born to rule – others grow into the job.
But beware the oligarchs. They never forget and seldom forgive.  And whatever the President might say, they are no friends of reform and democracy.

Statement seen on Facebook:

We, the People, have spoken. Hear our voice.
You were not chosen to gather riches for yourself, or for your family and friends.
You were not chosen to ride in big cars swaggering through our crowded streets, sweeping us aside like rubbish.
You were not chosen to make secret deals with VIPs in fancy hotels while we wait for the crumbs from your table.
You were not chosen to sell our motherland, our heritage, our future.
You were chosen to lead us to a land where equality, fairness and justice flourish. You are us and we are you.
Forget us and you will betray yourself and our beloved nation.
We, the People, have spoken. 
Hear our voice.

Feel a little pity for Greg Sheridan.
The foreign editor for a once worthy newspaper, he now sees himself as the Expert on Indonesia.  In some quarters, namely those owned by his boss Rupert Murdoch, he is described as being ‘most influential.’
Sheridan isn’t just another hack in the scrum with a battered tape recorder and ripped notebook.  This is a man who walks on the other side of the security fence.
Last year he told The Jakarta Post that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had been his friend for almost 40 years, asking his readers to “keep an open mind about our new prime minister … who comes to Indonesia … full of goodwill.”
In case some might think Sheridan had left The Australian and joined his friend’s PR office he added that he also loves Indonesia.  These honeyed words got him interviews with former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but not Jokowi.
It was bad enough that Jokowi’s advisers bestowed a one-on-one interview to The New York Times, but they also included Australia’s Fairfax Media, publishers of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
In brief, Sheridan was scooped.
Like Probowo he then threw a hissy fit, condemning the Fairfax story and trying to cap it with one of his own – an interview with “one of the most senior officials in Indonesia.”
As this person wasn’t named we can only assume he’s as ‘most influential’ with the new government as Sheridan.


The Cabinet.  Who's in, who's out.  Selected by merit or through the old mates' club?  Details expected 21 October.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New dawn - or democracy’s sunset?                                               

On 20 October Joko Widodo (Jokowi), 53, a commoner from the wrong side of the river, will be installed as Indonesia’s seventh president.

One month ago most commentators were hailing the people’s choice as a bright dawning in the nation’s democratic development, and sunset for the sclerotic graft-ridden oligarchs that have long ruled our closest Asian neighbour.

No longer.

Despite backing by battalions of Generation Net volunteers demanding political and economic reform, and winning by a margin of eight million votes, Jokowi faces a ruthless political guerrilla campaign engineered by his bitter rival Prabowo Subianto.  He’s a former special forces general blacklisted by the US government for alleged human rights abuses.

Prabowo’s contempt for democracy became clear during the dirty campaign which included claims Jokowi was Chinese, communist – even a secret Christian with a conversion agenda, a serious slander in the world’s most populous Islamic nation.

For more than three months Prabowo refused to concede defeat in the 9 July election.  His Gerindra party dashed to the Constitutional Court alleging “massive fraud.”  The court’s nine judges unanimously threw out the claims.

He then mustered a coalition of six opposing parties that hold sway in the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR (People's Representative Council).

The Red and White Coalition, named after the colours of Indonesia’s flag, includes right-wing Muslim parties.  It’s also backed by the Islamic Defenders’ Front, a gang of street thugs specialising in mob violence.

In a 2 am vote taken on September 26 the MPs scrapped direct elections for regional politicians, arguing this would save money. At the time President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), constitutionally bound to stand down after two five-year terms, was in the US.

The New York Times reported the move as a ‘setback for the country’s democratic transition and a naked power grab by its wounded political elite’.  Prabowo returned fire, saying this showed foreigners interfering to make Indonesia a servile state.

Now it’s being alleged that Prabowo plans to use his 353-seat muscle in the 560 member DPR to knock out direct elections for the presidency.  It’s also claimed there are plans to eliminate the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK) the Anti-Corruption Commission that has been investigating high-profile politicians and businesspeople, scoring several hits. 

If this happens expect Hong Kong style street protests as the young idealists who put Jokowi into the Presidential palace rise against the establishment’s move to drive him out.

Direct elections, the Constitutional Court and the KPK were introduced following the 1998 ousting of General Soeharto, Indonesia’s iron-fisted second president and Prabowo’s former father-in-law, by pro-democracy activists.

Popular voting propelled Jokowi into local government in his Central Java hometown of Solo, then into the position of governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling and polluted capital of ten million souls.

Jokowi’s success seemed to show that anyone in Indonesia could reach the top without connections in the military and Jakarta’s sleazy Soeharto-era mafia.

Raised in a rented riverside shack he helped his father gather timber to pay for his education at the prestigious Gadjah Mada University where he graduated with a science degree in forestry.

After working for a government agency in Aceh he returned to Solo and started his own furniture business. Later he became mayor.  In 2012 he was elected Governor of Jakarta where he became popular for his blusukan (walkabout) administration, meeting ordinary folk and listening to their concerns.

This dirt-under-fingernails style, so different from his haughty predecessors, made him a media sweetheart and presidential candidate.

This slum to head of state background, appealing as it seems, has given little protection against a determined cabal of TV tycoons and cashed-up politicians better known, as one Jakarta newspaper reported, for their ‘fractiousness, proclivity for colossal corruption, political dysfunction and unfettered absenteeism than actually getting anything done’.

Indonesia ranks 114 on Transparency International corruption perception index.  NZ tops the list as the world’s least corrupt.

If external hostility wasn’t enough, Jokowi also faces domestic difficulties.  Megawati Soekarnoputri, the petulant daughter of first president Soekarno who was overthrown by Soeharto in a 1965 coup, heads the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP – the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) that endorsed Jokowi’s candidature.

Her behaviour since the election has reinforced a widely held view that Jokowi is her puppet relying on her matronage.  She has already snubbed outgoing President SBY’s attempts to discuss Prabowo’s democracy destabilisation, reportedly because she detests the man who defeated her 2004 bid for the presidency.

With unstable backing, a hostile parliament, a vengeful old guard that controls several media outlets, and huge economic problems across an archipelago of 240 million people, Jokowi is going to need extraordinary political skills just to survive, let alone introduce the fairer society he promised.


Sunday, October 12, 2014


By the Way: All’s well that ends well

NEWS FLASH:  Fragments of a new Shakespearean play have just been discovered in the Jakarta archives of the British Council. 

Bearded archaeologists quivering with excitement believe the Bard mislaid the priceless palimpsest around 1601 during his tour of the Spice Islands while researching material for another work.  This was probably A Midsummer Night’s Scream, which featured several kuntilanak (malicious ghosts) and inspired their inclusion in later plays.

Literary experts agree that the ‘enchanted isle’ of the play is Java.  So it’s logical that the most celebrated writer in the English language should have taken a stopover in the Indonesian capital waiting for the next VOC three-master.

Under equatorial skies we imagine he chilled out with other worthy wordsmiths sharing a few mugs of soda gembira (happy soda) in a riverside tavern. Doubtless he found the Ciliwung reminded him of his beloved Avon.

While scholars scramble to determine the play’s provenance The Jakarta Post has been given exclusive world rights to the lontar-leaf manuscript with jottings from other writings, creating some confusion. 

The play is a tragedy, or comedy, or tragicomedy – it’s unclear. As the full folio has yet to be found there are disputes regarding the title, but it was probably called Macbowo

Others claim it’s really the forgotten folio known as The Merchant of Menace though left-wing academics assert it’s really As You Will Like It.

The plot centers on a zealous soldier believing he has rights to the crown and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. His climb to the top of the food chain starts, appropriately enough, with three old ladies stirring a boiling cauldron of road kill.  Their predictions set the tone for what’s to follow:

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,
Fair is foul and foul is fair.

The next scene provides a character insight, with the villain astride a charger soliloquising:

I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent,                                                              But only vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself                                                      And falls on th’ other.

Macbowo knows he’s not the only one with plans above his station, so seeks advice from the weird Ibu-Ibu.  They tell him:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man.

Great news for a grandee. Yet despite taking these warming words to heart, Macbowo’s paranoia persists, as seen in these staffing orders:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yon (name indecipherable) has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Later we find a few lines from the unnamed famished thinker pondering on a response to his rival’s campaign tactics:

To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.

A major gap in the script follows, but it seems safe to conclude that Macbowo insists a great wrong has been done despite all evidence otherwise.  So he appeals to a court where he’s confronted by a smart lawyer:

Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

He loses, and from now on its downhill. Macbowo’s mates depart. Wifeless he suffers nightmares:

Then comes my fit again; I had else been perfect                                                          
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,                                                                    
As broad and general as the casing air                                                                       
But now I’m cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in                                                     
To saucy doubts and fears

The last page we have includes a reflection:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Clearly this isn’t the final Act; work continues to unearth the rest of the manuscript. We hope to bring you this by 20 October. Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 October 2014)

Friday, October 10, 2014


Undermining an upstart, destroying Democracy 

The great hope - now the reality


Back in June, just as a televised debate between contenders for the Indonesian presidency was about to start, the cameras caught a telling moment.

The ultimately successful team of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and his offsider Jusuf Kalla was sitting in the wings when Hatta Rajasa, Kalla’s rival for the vice presidency, walked past.

Kalla followed.  The two men, both former members of a Cabinet led by outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) could be seen conferring in the shadows. Jokowi, a man alone, peered around anxiously, clearly wondering what was happening.

Even though he’ll be installed as the nation’s seventh president on 20 October he’s still in the dark as the old guard closes ranks.  These pre-democracy leftovers seem determined to ensure that commoner upstarts like Jokowi, a former small-town mayor and furniture manufacturer, will never again be able to break into their exclusive club.

Prabowo Subianto, the losing contender for the top job by eight million votes and a former general with a dubious human rights record, has opened a guerrilla campaign backed by right-wing Muslims to unseat the people’s choice.

If this intensifies expect Hong Kong style street protests as the young voters who put Jokowi into the Presidential palace rise against the dinosaurs’ move to drive him out.

In the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR (People's Representative Council) Prabowo has mustered a ‘Red and White Coalition’ (the colours of the Indonesian flag) that controls 353 seats in the 560 member House. 

Arguing the change saves money this power block has already eliminated direct voting for regional politicians and returned to the appointment procedure used by Indonesia’s second president Soeharto to reward his mates.

Now it’s being reported that Prabowo plans to use his muscle in the DPR to knock out direct elections for the presidency.  This possibility was first forecast by ANU academics Ed Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner under the memorable heading: Vote for me, but just the once.

Their pre-poll prediction was criticised for its negativity by Prabowo supporters claiming their man was a real democrat who’d changed his ways; but that was clearly just a cloak for the campaign, thrown off once the results showed he’d lost.

Soeharto was another ruthless iron-fisted general who held power for 32 years until unseated in 1998 by democracy activists.  Prabowo married his daughter and was part of the despot’s inner circle.

If the grace and favour system for public office had been in place a few years ago Jokowi would not have been elected mayor of Solo or governor of Jakarta, the positions he won through open election before standing for the presidency.

The New York Times reported the move as a ‘setback for the country’s democratic transition and a naked power grab by its wounded political elite’.

Before this latest turn of events it was believed the era of the commoner was about to dawn and the reign of the high-born, the top ranks in the military and the well-connected corrupt had been guillotined.

Jokowi’s success seemed to show that anyone in Indonesia could reach the top without sacrificing the nation’s fine values of altruism, community self-help, respect for others and maintaining harmony, and that ambition is not shameful.

The eldest of four children and the only boy, the President elect was born in 1961 and raised in a poor family that gathered timber. He laboured to get through school and enter the prestigious Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta where he graduated with a science degree in forestry. 

After working for a government agency in Aceh he returned to Central Java and started his own furniture business. Later he became mayor of Surakarta (also known as Solo).  In 2012 he was elected Governor of Jakarta where he became popular for his blusukan (walkabout) administration, meeting ordinary folk and listening to their concerns.

This down-to-earth style, so different from his arrogant and protocol-driven predecessors, made him a media darling and propelled him to stand as a presidential candidate.

However this background, appealing as it seems, has given little protection against a determined cabal of well-funded elite politicians better known, as one Jakarta newspaper reported, for their ‘fractiousness, proclivity for colossal corruption, political dysfunction and unfettered absenteeism than actually getting anything done’.

If external hostility wasn’t enough, Jokowi also faces domestic difficulties.  Megawati Sukarnoputri, the petulant daughter of first president Sukarno who was overthrown by Soeharto in 1965, heads the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDIP – the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle).

Her comments and behaviour since the election have done nothing to erase a widely held view that Jokowi is her puppet.  She has refused to meet the outgoing President to discuss tactics to head off Prabowo’s democracy destabilisation, reportedly because she bears grudges that date back to 2004 when  defeated for the presidency by SBY.

With a dysfunctional party, a hostile parliament, a vengeful establishment that controls several media outlets, and huge economic problems across an archipelago of 240 million people, Jokowi is going to need extraordinary political skills just to survive, let alone introduce the reforms he promised during the campaign.

In this environment the new president’s Jakarta walkabouts will be of little value when he confronts the oligarchs that have always run Indonesia.  They never use the footpaths.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 5 Oct 2014.  For comments see:


Monday, September 29, 2014


Getting the Big C in focus  


Cancer is a word, not a sentence, say survivors who know that the vile disease can be thrashed.  All that’s needed is the right treatment, limitless support layered with luck – and a powerful positive attitude.

Being confronted by a major task with a deadline also helps - like producing a book ahead of the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

“Publishing requires huge energy,” said New Zealand geomorphologist Dr Noel Trustrum as he red-inked text corrections and sorted page proofs in his hometown of Wellington.  He’d just returned from another ten-day high-tech radiation treatment in Auckland, 650 kilometers distant.

“But this has kept me going.  I’ve had no time to think about my cancer.”

There’s another factor in play: every page carries a story or picture of resilience and recovery from appalling tragedy, courage in crises and the determination to look ahead; the bigger picture shrinks individual problems.

Aceh Revives – Celebrating 10 years of Recovery in Aceh is a then-and-now account of what’s happened since the world’s third largest recorded earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, heaving the ocean floor and triggering a huge tsunami.

At least 230,000 people perished as a tidal wave up to 30 meters high smashed its way through coastal communities in several Indian Ocean countries. Aceh took the brunt; around 170,000 were killed and 500,000 of the province’s 4.5 million population were left homeless, jobless and landless.

The city of Banda Aceh was heavily hit.  In the book Imam Munandar recalls “a large black blanket creeping over the land” and his desperate, but unsuccessful search, for members of his family. 

Five weeks after the wave Dr Trustrum arrived on an assignment from NZ Aid to report on long-term needs. The small South Pacific nation had already provided emergency support and now wanted to help prevent further tragedies.

He’d been an irregular visitor to Indonesia on watershed management aid projects since 1988 but was unprepared for the “sensory overload” he encountered in early 2005.

“I soon became overwhelmed by the full force of sights, sounds and smells,” he wrote “It felt surreal to the point that I found myself being desensitised to the reality of the situation.”

Geomorphologists (“skin of the earth scientists”) are multi-discipline people who study landforms and the forces that shape them. Dr Trustrum, who’d originally trained as a geologist, had been selected because he was one of NZ’s leading specialists with more than 30 year’s experience in Europe, Japan, Vietnam and Pacific Islands.

In Aceh he met conservationist Mike Griffiths another Kiwi and long-term Indonesian resident.  He’d established the Leuser International Foundation in 1994 to protect the ecosystem around the 3,404-meter high Mount Leuser.

Griffiths knew his way around and had the right contacts.  By the time Dr Trustrum returned to his Wellington office in the government-owned company GNS Science where he worked as a senior development specialist, he already had the makings of a reforestation project to stabilize the land and provide security for farmers.

He also had gigabytes of photos, for he was a keen landscape photographer, a fascination developed during his teen years when his father had a darkroom.  The photos showed the devastation and led to a small book called Scars: Life after the Tsunami.

He’d kept the lens of his special panoramic camera mainly focused on the torn townscapes and ripped lands rather than the numbed and battered people struggling to understand what had happened. 

Three years later he organized a workshop on disaster risk management in Jakarta to celebrate 50 years of NZ-Indonesia diplomatic relations.  Also there was Indonesia’s famous Dr Fixit - Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, then director of the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Aceh and Nias (BRR), now head of the President’s Delivery Unit. He suggested Dr Trustrum’s photos be published to commemorate the disaster.

Then fate intervened with a rare liver cancer.  He underwent a major operation that went wrong.  Doctors reckoned he’d last six months.. “But they didn’t know Noel,” said his wife Helen. “He’s determined.”

He recovered, but this year the disease reappeared – hence the radiation.

Despite these traumatic events he was determined to revisit Aceh in case the cancer made it impossible to travel.  With the help of translator Kadek Krishna Adidharma and photographer Udo von Mulert he set out to record the “inspirational stories” and reshoot the scenes recorded in 2005.

Supported by NZ Ambassador David Taylor, Dr Trustrum mustered eight corporate sponsors to back the 218-page book, which includes poetry from people like award-winning Bali midwife Robin Lim who also rushed to help in Aceh.

Aceh Revives, published by Saritaksu Editions in Bali (run by another Kiwi, Sarita Newson) will be launched at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in early October and then in Jakarta at the NZ Embassy.

“Rehabilitation is still a work in progress, but overall it’s pretty amazing,” Dr Trustrum said. “There’s now very little evidence of broken buildings though the fear remains. 

“Eight four-storey escape buildings have been built on pillars allowing waves to rush through the lower levels, but many houses would still be vulnerable if another tsunami hit.

“There’s also a huge need for a better evacuation strategy. In April 2012 there was another big quake; gridlock followed as people trying to get to higher ground were moving against those seeking to reach the escape buildings (pictured right) closer to the sea.

“It’s been a fulfilling exercise to discover the powerful untold stories of the recovery that demonstrate the ability of the human spirit to endure, recover and rebuild.

“This isn’t just about Indonesia.  It’s about what happened, how people coped, what’s going on now and the lessons learnt– this is of international importance.

“The resilience of the Acehnese people has inspired me to move beyond my own personal struggle for good health.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2014)


Friday, September 12, 2014


Singapore Sleaze                                                          

As a scene of unzippered sordidness this should be a contender for the AVN (Adult Video News) awards, also known as the Porn Oscars - except it was real life.
At dusk in an open lane alongside a busy restaurant and well-lit road, the meat market was being stocked – a regular event.
Four women, who might once have been young, shuffled into line and stared through the crowd.  They wore the standard uniform  -  stilettos, tiny skirt and tinier blouse.  Before them their pimp vigorously spruiked their physical virtues to the ogling men.  In case they couldn’t understand his language he raised three fingers, then circled the thumb and forefinger. S$30 (Rp 275,000) for a session.
Some red-light spot in San Francisco or Sydney’s King’s Cross?  Maybe Amsterdam’s notorious De Wallen district where girls pose in shop windows? Or could it be Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy?
No, all those sex centers are too dignified.  This one’s base and coarse, yet it’s in prim, clean, image-conscious Singapore, the heartland of Asia’s conservative moral values where failing to flush a public WC will get you a S$500 (Rp 4.6 million) fine.
The little red dot where the media is controlled, where graffiti vandals get whipped and chewing gum is banned, is also the center of sleaze.
You won’t find the wares and whores of Geylang listed in the splendid brochures handed out by the Singapore Visitors’ Center, though by chance we found the area through a tourist promotion officer at Changi Airport.
We’d arrived late, missed flights and had no prior booking. “I could get you into Geylang,” he said hesitantly, trying to gauge the likely reaction, “but it’s the red light area.”
“But is it safe?” asked my wife.
“Of course,” he bristled.  “This is Singapore.”
That was more than a decade ago and we’ve used the suburb’s hotels on every trip since, finding them clean, convenient, well-located between two MRT (subway) stops just a few minutes ride to the upscale attractions, like museums and galleries.

It’s also surrounded by restaurants. No posh waiters to call you ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ as they shake out your serviette, only sweating girls in  shorts and bum belts pointing at pictures on greasy menus; but the food is plentiful, good value and absolutely authentic.
However Geylang is no longer quite so secure, according to Police Commissioner Ng Joo He, since last December’s riots in Little India, a suburb just five kilometers distant. The first major public disturbance in the city state since 1969, the riot followed a fatal traffic accident, and involved 300 migrant laborers trashing emergency vehicles.

A Straits Times report of the Committee of Inquiry into the mayhem revealed the situation in Geylang is now a bigger concern.
 “If Singaporeans are irked by the littering, the noise and the jaywalking in Little India they’ll certainly and quickly sense that there exists a hint of lawlessness in Geylang,” Commissioner Ng said.
Police statistics appear to uphold his claim. Last year 135 serious crimes were reported in Geylang (including ‘outrage of modesty’) compared with 85 in Little India, while the number of public order offences was double.
Yet none of this deters the tourists seeking relatively cheap rooms rather than  participating in the street services.  Some, elderly folk and those with children, have clearly not googled Geylang in depth.
Reality hits while filling in forms and having passport details copied by the smartly uniformed hotel receptionists.  As the procedures drag on couples with no luggage hand over S$20 (Rp 185,000) bills, grab a key and bolt for the lift, no questions asked.
There’s so much to see in Geylang, and it’s non-stop.  You won’t encounter Dior or Chanel here, but the stores sell most things found in Orchard Road, though the brands won’t be familiar.
Though a new regulation now prohibit alcohol sales between 2 am and 6 am the streets stay busy, and open-front coffee shops keep trading. Passersby flop into plastic chairs, dribble their way through soft-boiled eggs and rice porridge, then doze off hangovers till  the fridge is unlocked.
Along with the prostitutes, mainly Chinese who rarely speak English, there’s a resident population of pensioners who spend their time exchanging banter with the girls between jobs. 
These old men sleep in nearby rooms but spend their days in the cafes reminiscing of virilities lost while nursing S$6 (Rp 55,000) Tigers.  The local bottled beer is twice the price of its Indonesian equivalent.

The old fellows’ days are numbered, not through police harassment but because Geylang is being gentrified.  The colonial era buildings, including the curious blocks with curved concrete outside staircases, are being smashed down to build more hotels and apartments.
The men who do this work, mainly Tamils and Bangladeshis, wander Geylang in large numbers, picking their way through the sidewalk trade in bootleg cigarettes, video porn and drugs that are supposed to enhance men’s performance.
The law says such medicines can only be dispensed by registered chemists handling doctors’ prescriptions.
The law prohibits pornography and tobacco sales outside registered shops.  It’s illegal to solicit for sex, but any man alone in Geylang (or even with his wife) can expect to be sleeve-plucked and invited to negotiate for the services of his choice.
The police say they now deploy five squad cars in Geylang every weekend though blue uniforms are rarely seen. Presumably they are busy elsewhere sniffing out unflushed toilets.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower says the total foreign workforce is now more than 1.3 million, with around a quarter working in the construction industry.  These are mainly single young men who find freedoms in Singapore they’d never encounter back on the sub-continent.
Without outlets for their passions it’s reasoned that they’d tend to violence, so minor infractions are overlooked lest heavy handedness causes friction.
Those who step out of line  lose their jobs, are blacklisted and on the next Boeing leaving Changi.  After the Little India riot 55 men were deported. That tends to ensure some respect for the law.
Despite Commissioner Ng’s anxieties we’ll continue to use Geylang till the new hotels push prices into the stratosphere.  By then the district will be dead, its sunset folk dispersed, the girls back in Shanghai and Geylang just another boring suburb in an emasculated Lion City.
Accommodation prices vary depending on whether there’s a convention in town.  Rack rates start around S$150 (Rp 1.4 million) not including tax or breakfast, but Internet prices can be below S$100.
The rooms are small and poor value when compared to prices in Javanese cities, but usually clean, secure and well maintained.
Most of the foods familiar to Indonesians can be found in Geylang; Westerners who fumble chopsticks will have to adapt or go hungry. S$15 will get you a spectacular feed served on a chipped laminate-top.
Metered taxis from the airport cost under S$20 and take about 30 minutes.  It’s more fun and cheaper at S$2.40 (Rp 22,000)  to take the MRT direct to Aljunied or Kallang.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 September 2014)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Releasing the imprisoned talent   

Releasing the imprisoned talent                          
Art as a career has a bad name in Indonesia. Across the archipelago the same story repeatedly emerges in profiles of creative people: Their childhood talents were acknowledged but the family forbade formal study lest it interfere in the real purpose of life.
That meant being educated for a conventional profession. This being a culture of obedience the smart kids dried their eyes and brushes, let the paints harden and clay crumble. They became bankers and teachers, doctors and public servants, earning money, raising families, being seen as respectable and responsible.
In the case of Tatik Simanjuntak this meant training to be a lawyer, though she has never donned the black cloak of jurisprudence.
Instead she wears workshop plain and practical, and does what she wants – which is paint exquisite designs mainly drawn on glass. She takes these from the Hindu / Javanese epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, using wayang kulit figures but providing her own subtle interpretations. 
Although the term is usually translated as ‘leather puppets’ wayang is closely related to the Javanese word for spirits – bayang. For some the puppets are grotesque two-dimensional figures who jerk and gyrate their way across a simple screen -  poor guys’ TV.  For others they are a glimpse into another ancient world of magic and mystery. Only a few can enter that universe.
Tatik’s transition to professional artist is recent. She felt she couldn’t move until her father passed away, lest he die distressed because his daughter had disobeyed.   It wasn’t until 2007 that she was ready to uncage her spirit. By then she was 40 and a late starter indeed.
Has this caused problems?
“No, I don’t think so,” she said in her Malang studio.  “That’s given me time to mature and know what I want. I’ve never had formal lessons in art.  I’m still developing and experimenting - I’ve destroyed work that I don’t like.
“My friends from law school days are always facing problems – I’m not.  I don’t have a BMW but I’m happy, and I want others to be the same. I hope that can be done through my painting.
“I wasn’t a good student, just doing enough to pass.  I preferred to write poems than take lecture notes. I didn’t rebel – in Indonesian culture that could lead to a curse.”
Instead she’s been blessed. Her 20 square meter studio at the back of the town hall, perched above the Brantas River slashed in the volcanic rock far below. She’s in a cluster of similar buildings provided rent free by the local government to encourage artists to develop their businesses.
It’s a good idea, though there’s little passing traffic.  Fine for a quiet work environment, but not as showroom.  Fortunately the few who have found her have been the right people, including officials from the Governor of East Java’s office who bought 20 original pieces as gifts for diplomatic visitors.
“As a child in an army family we were constantly on the move,” she said.  “I was often sick and raised by different relatives in different towns. I learned to adjust and adapt.
“I like working and being alone. At first I painted portraits, but then started to draw from our culture.  I realised the wayang figures were the first true art in Java, caricatures of characters.
“I didn’t feel that I could change their features but I could add different backgrounds and ornaments.”    
After graduating she worked in a shop making handicrafts before turning to her first love. Since then her art has been shown at exhibitions in Bandung, Surabaya and Jakarta as well as her home city.  Last year she sent more than 50 pieces to Jakarta anticipating the sale of a couple.  All sold bar four.  It seemed that the once unwell child left to her imagination had found her place.
“As a child I loved to visit galleries and look at art books by myself. I was attracted to the work of Rembrandt which is probably why my work is in sombre tones.” The 17th century Dutch portraitist was famous for his iconography, the careful inclusion of other images to strengthen the principal feature, a style also followed by Tatik.
“When I lived with my grandmother she used to listen to wayang stories on the radio,” Tatik said.  “I used to lie there awake, absorbing the tales and characters. I so wish that children today were interested in our culture.  Bimo is my favourite.”
Also known as Bima or Werkudara, Bimo is a frightening, but soft-hearted figure – which might explain Tatik’s other passion – teaching art to poor children.  She started doing this in Malang’s alun-alun, the town square used by hundreds every day for chatting and recreation.
This led to an invitation to teach at Sunan Kalijojo, an elementary Islamic kampong school where she works one day a week. Here she encourages students to use their imagination to turn objects they find, including rubbish like drinking straws and plastic cups, into art.
“I also tell them about the wayang and batik designs so these are not lost” she said. “I have talent and I think it is the responsibility of artists to try and pass their skills on to others, particularly if they wouldn’t normally get that education.
“It’s hard to classify my work, or the sort of artist I am. I find the medium of glass to be most satisfying, and it doesn’t matter if the surface is flat or curved (as in big jars). Special inks imported from Europe are used to make sure the pictures can’t be rubbed off. I’m still experimenting and developing.
“There are many challenges.  Unlike canvas, glass can’t absorb.”
Glass painting was popular last century prior to the Japanese invasion and is often classified as ‘folk art’ by gallery curators. A reverse form was introduced from the Netherlands during the colonial era.
“Painting is expressing the wisdom of the heart,” Tatik said. “There must be chemistry between the artist and the viewer. If I had children I’d let them decide for themselves what they want to do with their lives.”

First published in The Jakarta Post 10 September 2014)