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, April 16, 2018



An Australian in ASEAN.  It sounds like the title of an innocent-abroad movie: The hero has adventures, blunders and embarrasses.  But in the end Aussie charm and grit prevail; romance blossoms and the outsider becomes an insider.

It’s a familiar genre. But this time the characters won’t play their assigned roles.  The idea of big landmass, small population Australia (26 million), being welcomed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (600 million plus) is still being pushed, though up a gradient that needs crampons.

The notion has been wandering around awhile but got new direction in the weeks heading towards the March ASEAN ‘summit’ in Sydney, the first of its kind in the Great South Land.

Former ABC foreign correspondent Graeme Dobell writing in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist website has been a principal matchmaker. 
‘Australia’s dealings with the ten nations of ASEAN are set by geography, flavoured by history, worked by diplomacy and driven by trade,’ he enthused.
‘Throbbing always are the central concerns of power and strategy and defence. The geography and the diplomacy and the power mean that Southeast Asia must be a constant interest of Australia’s …
‘Joining ASEAN is the logical culmination of decades of Australian regional engagement. ASEAN membership would be an embrace of the region in the service of our deepest interests.’
This was in February, when Australian politicians and other newsmakers were reluctantly returning from their summer break, so the commentary drew little notice. 
Only when Australian journalist James Massola reporting for Fairfax Press scored a pre-summit interview with Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo that the idea was given CPR.
When the leader of the world’s third largest democracy was asked about Australia joining ASEAN he said  ‘I think it’s a good idea.’  The follow-up whether it would be backed by other countries drew a laugh and the comment:  ‘I don’t know.’
The pole vault from these throw-aways to headlines like ‘Indonesia wants Australia as full ASEAN member’ should be a Diplomacy IO1 example of cultural clumsiness.  Jokowi might well have given the same response to the question:  ‘Should colonies be built on Mars?’
Massola is a newbie in Jakarta; the job used to be ‘Indonesian correspondent’. Now it covers Southeast Asia – population more than 600 million.
Academics brought the hyperbole down with a thud. Foremost was Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the Lowy Institute who tweeted: ‘Reality check: Australia has not been invited to join ASEAN, and will not be invited to join ASEAN in our lifetimes. Jokowi was offering a "Javanese response," trying to be polite.’
(Another Javanese reply that perplexes outsiders is: ‘Why not?’ This doesn’t mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or even ‘maybe’.)
Writing on The Conversation Dedi Dinarto from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University reminded that Australia was already in a couple of big boys’ clubs where they talk guns and bombs - ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
‘The aggressive nature of these pacts goes against ASEAN’s non-interference principle. ASEAN emphasises the absence of external military hostility as its core principle,’ he said.
Then there’s the rule of law and human rights abuses – issues which greatly trouble Australians. They would not keep Mum in situations like Myanmar’s purging of Rohingya; nor would they shut up about the sanctioned arbitrary killing of real or imagined drug dealers in the Philippines (President Rodrigo Duterte didn’t front the summit), or the widespread crushing of peaceful dissent in states tracking their way into totalitarianism.
The only imaginable benefit is that Australian officials could help prop up the hotel bars following some of the hundreds of chatathons held every year.  They could swap name cards, share golf tips and keep personal numbers on speed-dial should trouble flare.
ASEAN was created in 1967 as an anti-communist block. Today three members are Red states  - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the last two sticking close to China. Now the only common glue is geography.
There are four ‘emerging’ democracies (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines) two military dictatorships (Thailand and Myanmar) and one authoritarian sultanate (Brunei). Apart from Thailand all were once ruled by colonial powers.
Each state is supposedly equal. All must approve applicants. This ensures Australia can never join under the present arrangement as any one nation can veto.
The rules insist on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs so the statements issued after each meeting are gems in polishing thousands of words to say nothing.
  Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who hosted the summit, avoided his culture’s directness and offered a more Javanese reply to reporters’ questions about joining ASEAN: ‘I will look forward to discussing that with President Jokowi if he raises it with me’.
Apparently he didn’t.
So far, other members have not responded to Jokowi’s rubbery response, though former Malaysian PM Mahatir Mohamad, in another Fairfax interview, thought Australia in ASEAN might happen one day when Australia becomes ‘more Asian than European.’
About 12 per cent of Australians have Asian ancestry; however ethnicity is no guarantee of enthusiasm to recouple with the nation they fled. 
Cambodian PM Hun Sen was apparently unaware that in Australia violence leads to prosecution, however important the perpetrator. He respected his hosts by threatening to ‘beat’ those protesting against his presence at the summit. They still waved their banners and shouted slogans, grateful they’re not in Phnom Penh.
There’s also no public enthusiasm.  A Twitter straw poll has shown Indonesians and Australians averse to the idea of Australia in ASEAN. This isn’t surprising; despite all the goodwill statements at government level, Mohammad and Sri in their Jakarta kampong are just as wary of their neighbour as Myrtle and Sam are in a Sydney suburb.
So what’s behind the Oz in ASEAN push?  Dobell reasons that ‘as the geostrategic and geo-economic pressures build in Asia, ASEAN, as a middle-power grouping, needs the extra middle-power heft offered by Australia and NZ.
This would make sense if foreign affairs were conducted by white-coated social scientists in an isolated lab sealed off from outside germs.
But in a world where strategic groupings are subject to political realities infected by different histories, cultures, perceptions and ideologies, Australia in ASEAN is a dead duck. It just needs a quiet burial with no marker.
First published in On Line Opinion, 16 April 2018:

Monday, April 09, 2018


English to re-enter Indonesian classrooms   


The 2012 decision to scrap English as a compulsory subject in Indonesian elementary  schools is to be reversed. Materials and advice are likely to be sourced from the Philippines.

The move comes after widespread criticism of teaching programs and practices following the release two years ago of results through the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Indonesia ranked 62 out of the 72 nations surveyed. Nine years ago it was 57.
Education and Culture Minister Dr Muhadjir Effendy (above) told Strategic Review that pilot projects in teaching English would start in several provinces next year.
“English is the global language and it’s essential that Indonesian students are properly equipped to enter the workplaces of the future,” he said.
“However this is not going to be easy to implement.  We need more specialist teachers and teaching materials.  We are still working on the details, but I hope it can be introduced in the students’ early years when minds are still flexible.  This is the optimal time.”

Six years ago the then deputy Education Minister Musliar Kasim announced a curriculum revamp which dumped English in favor of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia.

After public protests English was allowed back in - though only as an elective.  It was also argued at the time that forcing youngsters to learn English made their workload excessive.

The original decision was also seen as a reaction to rising nationalism.  Flag-wavers asked why students should spend time on English in the fourth largest country with its own tongue.

The world’s most commonly spoken languages are various forms of Chinese, followed by Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic.

Bahasa Indonesia is seldom heard outside lower Southeast Asia. Originally Trade Malay, it was imposed to unify the nation after independence from Dutch colonial rule was declared in 1945.  The 2010 census recorded 43 million ‘native speakers’ of Bahasa Indonesia; 156 million considered it their second tongue.

The Minister said 760 local and other languages were still used and these had to be recognized. He said he had persuaded his colleagues that re-starting English would not dilute the national identity.

Effendy was appointed minister in July last year to replace Dr Anies Baswedan who shortly after taking office in 2014 described the nation’s education system as facing an ‘emergency’.  Under his watch enrolments improved through payments to the poor for their children to attend school.

According to Professor Andrew Rosser of Melbourne University who has been researching Indonesian education, ‘children are starting school earlier and staying in education longer than they ever have before. But Indonesia has made much less progress in improving the quality and learning outcomes.’

Despite Baswedan’s achievements President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo sacked the ambitious minister when he was seen as a political threat.  He is now Governor of Jakarta.

Effendy, 61, is considered a technocrat with no known political allegiances.  The former Rector of Muhammadiyah University in Malang did post-graduate studies in military sociology in the US and Canada.  His wife Suryan Widati is also an academic.

“There needs to be a recognition of the value of English in subjects like science and mathematics,” said Effendy.  “These are taught everywhere often using symbols and terms that are different from those used in Indonesia.

“It’s important that students don’t just learn English but also know how to use it and have the necessary confidence.

“Many (Muslim) students study Arabic and can chant sentences from Al Koran - but they don’t know what the words mean. Methodologies have to change.  We need teachers and techniques to help students analyze.” 

He said his Ministry was looking to the Philippines for books and teachers.  Although Filipino is the national language in the adjacent nation, English is widely taught and used.  Between 1901 and 1935 the Philippines was administered by the United States. 

UNESCO claims the PISA tests conducted every three years “provide evidence to policymakers about the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with those in other countries … it can help countries to learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere.”
The PISA tests’ top five are Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taipei and Finland.
Rosser argues that Indonesia’s poor education performance has ‘at its root, been a matter of politics and power. Change in the quality of Indonesia’s education system thus depends on a shift in the balance of power between competing coalitions that have a stake in the nature of education policy and its implementation’. 

Effendy acknowledged the difficulty in persuading politicians and bureaucrats to accept reforms.  All once attended schools so as adults see themselves as experts; it’s a hazard faced by professional educational change-makers throughout the world. 
He also wants to scrap the annual national exam but has hit barriers manned by diehards. Last year the exams, which were widely slandered for failing to measure quality and reports of cheating, were suspended by Effendy, and then reinstalled by the President.
Indonesia has more than 55 million children in 250,000 schools.  They are taught by around three million teachers. According to Hamid Muhammad, Director of Teachers in the Ministry, the public school teacher shortfall is more than 700,000.
A study commissioned by the Indonesian Network for Education Watch (JPPI) claims three strategic issues need addressing - teacher quality, child-unfriendly schools and discrimination against marginalized groups.
Effendy agreed that quality in public schools remained a concern. “I have often seen that teaching in Catholic schools is better,” he said. “Perhaps this is because students are encouraged to be critical, to ask questions and not see teachers as having all the knowledge.

“We spend a lot of time just teaching to pass tests without students understanding why.

“The other difficulty we have is in servicing schools in the distant provinces where few teachers want to work.  Classroom building costs in remote areas can be more than three times higher than in Java.”


First published in Strategic Review on 6 April 2018.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018


 Catatan Satu                      Notes from a Sister State

We woke this week to find the Merah Putih (red and white) dangling from every household’s flagpole. The 80 sheets should have been billowing with pride like all symbols of nationalism do when reported by cliché-driven journalists.   However these, were hanging limp, sodden with overnight rain.

Clearly the satpam (security guard) had been busy overnight – but why? There’s another five months before the big Proklamasi show on 17 August when we race to be the first to show our colours.

Neighbours were also scratching their jilbab till someone remembered it was Malang’s 104th birthday.  A curious way to celebrate:  The city was declared a municipality in 1914 during the Dutch colonial era, 31 years ahead of the flag.

Old inscriptions show folks were settled by the Brantas River at least 13 centuries ago. Malang now translates as ‘unfortunate’ but the name comes from Malangkuçeçwara. This is supposed to mean that ‘God has destroyed evil so justice triumphs’.

Maybe an appropriate slogan for events over Easter in East Java’s second largest city. We also discovered these at dawn as the local rag was tossed over the gate.

A picture tells a thousand lies

This big beamer on the front page of the Jawa Pos is the mayor of Malang, H Mochamad Anton. If you don’t understand the headlines you might assume his abundant joy shows he’s won either another five-year term in office or a lottery, which in Indonesia can be much the same.
In fact Anton along with 18 others in the Town Hall had just been charged with bribery by the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Anti-Corruption Commission).  His orange vest is the fashion statement for those under arrest.

Polls rate the KPK as the most trusted authority in the nation with a 100 per cent conviction rate; its bag has included ministers, regional governors and scores of lesser officials.

Further proof of its effectiveness have been castration attempts by politicians, and an acid assault outside a Jakarta mosque.  The target was investigator Novel Baswedan who is now partly blind.  The police, who have no love for the KPK, say they are still seeking the attackers who struck a year ago.

The garb he preferred
If the charges hold, Mayor Anton (right) – whose honorific H means he’s a pious fellow who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca – faces years in jail.  Perhaps he’s beaming because he reckons he can dodge the bullets by claiming it’s a political stitch-up.  Or maybe he thinks his candidature in this year’s Pilkada (election of regional heads) will still go ahead. Other aspiring politicians have been elected while in prison.  Anton's VOTE ME banners remain on the streets.

Students of culture should consider contrasting the Jawa Pos pic with those in the Australian press of wet-eyed Dave Warner.  These show a portrait of shame though there’s no risk the cricket cheat will end up behind bars.

Turning fantasy into fact

Prabowo Subianto, the failed candidate in the 2014 presidential election but a likely contender against popular incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo in next year’s bout, is not like many Indonesians:  He loves fiction.  His chosen genre is sci-fi and a favourite is Ghost Fleet by US writers August Cole and Peter Singer.

The 2015 techno-thriller, sub-titled ‘a novel of the next World War’, has had modest reviews and sales to match.   Nonetheless the former general, despised by human rights activists for alleged atrocities in East Timor and the 1998 Jakarta riots, is particularly enamored with a throwaway line in the book. This claims Indonesia will be eliminated by 2030 in a US v China conflagration.

Indonesians love prophecies.  The Surabaya bemo (minibus) terminal is named after the most famous fortune-teller, the 12th century King Joyoboyo. 

He supposedly predicted that the Javanese ‘would be ruled by whites (the Dutch) for three centuries and by yellow dwarfs (the Japanese) for the life span of a maize plant before the return of the Ratu Adil (the just king).’

So Prabowo has turned seer.  Using the fertile imaginations of two American yarn spinners he’s campaigning to save the nation from its plunge into the pit of eternal darkness.  He’ll be the saviour; he’ll return the motherland to the glory days of his late father-in-law, President Soeharto.

Appearing on TV One, a station owned by the Bakrie Group led by Aburizal Bakrie, another one-time presidential hopeful, Prabowo has been given unchallenged air time to develop his Armageddon theme.

This is the station which proclaimed Prabowo winner in 2014 when he was millions of votes behind Jokowi. A Bakrie company was involved in the still gushing Lapindo mud volcano outside Surabaya.  It started in 2006 during a gas drilling operation.

If all this sounds weird – it is.  Ghost Fleet’s bemused authors have stressed ‘it’s a work of fiction, not prediction’. 

The superstitious may see the plump Prabowo, 66, as he does himself – the next Ratu Adil; those who don’t know their mythology say he could be Indonesia’s Donald Trump, but to the less gullible he resembles an ageing version of a North Korean dictator forever surrounded by acolytes.

Forget these lesser omens for the Chinese curse is already swirling across the archipelago:  ‘May you live in interesting times.’


Monday, April 02, 2018


Australia Plus – unfit for export

Though this starts like a fairy story it’s really a frightener: Once upon a time Australian governments believed that broadcasting beyond our shores – and particularly into Southeast Asia - was an important responsibility, sowing ideas, informing and influencing. 
Radio Australia shortwave started in 1939 to counter Japanese propaganda.  After the war it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of Foreign Affairs. It made us ‘globally connected’, able to ‘promote Australian values’.
Now all has turned to froth.  Seldom seen by taxpayers is our $20 million presentation to the world.  Although called Australia Plus it adds little of value.

When radio faded Australian Television International became our grandstand, later titled ABC Asia Pacific.
In 2006 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer spruiked another rebirth: Australia Network, funded by Foreign Affairs and Trade plus advertising, would reach 10 million homes and 200,000 hotel rooms in 41 countries; at the time maybe one million viewers a month.
Downer said the ABC would run the network offering ‘high quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region.’ Also promised were ‘extensive news and current affairs programs, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programs.’ 
A homely metaphor spiced his Reithian rhetoric:  ‘A key requirement of the service is to provide a credible and independent voice through programs that present a window on Australia and Australian perspectives of the world.’
By then more windows were being opened. BBC World, France24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other international telecasters were starting to offer vistas grand using serious money.
The French Government is reported to spend  $117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is said to get through US$300 million a year.  Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television(CCTV). 
Voice of America’s budget is US$ 218 million, all from government funds. It broadcasts and telecasts in more than 40 languages, including Indonesian.
In 2011 the Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV, which had long lusted after the job.  When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company would win the tender process was scrapped and the prize given to the ABC.
Triumph was brief. When the Liberal-National Coalition won government it clicked OFF. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Australia Network “had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’. No details.
The ABC was given 90-days notice to break its $223 million deal Eighty staff – some in Asian newsrooms – lost their jobs.
Killing the network may have satisfied a political ideology but a legal reality had to be faced: The ABC Charter requires it to be an international broadcaster so the gap had to be filled. Click onto Australia Plus.
The new service started with three ‘foundation partners’ – what straight-talkers call ‘advertisers’:  Monash University, the Government of Victoria and food supplement manufacturer Swisse Wellness owned by a Hong Kong based company. 
It was promoted as ’an opportunity for Australian businesses and a case study in corporate entrepreneurship … an endeavor that should be applauded. It is a positive step for the broadcaster, for public institutions in general and for Australian business.’
The triplets have now disappeared from the screens; no Australian corporate entrepreneurs have grabbed this opportunity to engage with the Southeast Asian markets which Government boosters say are slavering for our products.
This suggests Australian traders either don’t know Australia Plus exists – which would be a failure of marketing - or they’ve researched its reach and decided it’s a dud.
So it seems taxpayers are footing the total bill for this pseudo-service.  ‘Seems’ because despite requests, Nick Leys, the ABC’s Head of Communications doesn’t communicate with this writer to explain what’s happening.
Along with the loss of sponsors has been a shift in programming.  As Australian leaders recite the mantra that Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship, it might be logical to assume we’d be offering the neighbors our handpicked and most relevant best.
However Australia Plus is delivered as a single stream, meaning one size fits all in the 44 countries that now get the service. Most Indonesians use free-to-air TV; to watch Australia Plus they have to pay for access through one of three cable services which accept Australia Plus at no cost. 
These commercial operators offer hundreds of channels. They have about 8.5 million subscribers.  There are 260 million people in Indonesia.
Unless cable patrons are Kuta bar owners sucking in expat drinkers with three hours of AFL on Fridays and again on Saturdays, soccer-crazed Indonesians have few reasons to channel surf Australia Plus from their sofas.
Indonesians are early bedders and risers, with the fajar (dawn prayer) wake-up call starting around 4.15 am in Java.  Markets open at 5 and the power meter reader is on his rounds an hour later.
Few households are awake after 9 pm.  The evening schedule on the day this story was keyboarded  started with Stan Grant’s Matter of Fact, followed by The World (news) then ABC News Tonight, then ABC Late News, then ABC News Overnight then a replay of MOF.
MOF is one of the few goodies along with Q and A, Four Corners, The Drum, Australian Story and One on One. But these have been made for audiences which understand the cultural references and political nuances. Outsiders are left nonplussed.
There’s also Home and Away plus some fare for the kids, but the rest is largely uncurated, repetitious fill-a-space.  Last year some SBS programs were aired.  They seem to have disappeared.
This is Australia showcased to the region to which it allegedly seeks closer ties – trumpeted most recently at the ASEAN Summit in Sydney.   The original high-minded plans to  ‘present Australian perspectives and values to the world’ are – like our once proud Test Cricket image - no more.
Apart from the noted exceptions Australia Plus offers little to the locals. It’s a viewer turn-off.  The ABC should either follow suit or do its job properly.
First published in Pearls & Irritations 2 April 2018:

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


The Kendi man can    

This will come as a shock to post-millennials:  In the world BP (Before Plastic) water was served in earthenware and it was free.

The traveler didn’t need to spend to quench her thirst - just pause outside a householder’s gate and gargle from a kendi.

These were the plump pitchers kind folks set at the roadside to refresh passers-by, a courtesy now seldom seen.  They were also common in the kitchen.  

“As children in Jombang where my family farmed we always used a kendi which had been filled from a gentong (large pot) of water drawn from the village well,” said Malang potter and academic Ponimin before heading overseas to run workshops.

“Although the water was never boiled I can’t recall us getting sick. It was always cool because the clay was porous letting the kendi sweat.  

“Sadly I no longer use kendi in my house. Instead, like most Indonesians, we buy water in plastic bottles from a factory. I regret the loss of tradition, but who’d now trust water from an open well?”

Jombang, about 80 kilometers south-west of Surabaya was the ideal place for the future craftsman to discover his talents; Ponimin believes these came from a great grandfather he never met.

Jombang’s versatile earths are used to make bricks and tiles along with functional pots. Ponimin likes the plasticity and the way the Brantas riverbank clays hold their shape. They also contain little grit, which can cause complications during firing - often done in the open air rather than closed furnaces.

He doesn't have a wheel, preferring the coil system where cords of rolled clay are built into shape using the fingers to smooth and pinch.  He claims this allows for more creativity while a wheel makes for uniformity.
The drinker’s lips don’t touch the kendi which is filled from the top and sealed with a clay bung.  Instead it’s held above the head and tilted to pour the water down into the open mouth through a spout.  

This can be a messy process so some prefer to decant into a throwaway cup which defeats the idea of reducing plastic pollution of the environment.  

The kendi is much more than kitchenware. According to Ponimin, who teaches at Malang State University where he pushes his students to look at the local culture and landscape for inspiration, the name comes from India and the Sanskrit term kundita.

The skill of sculpting clay, hardening through fire and creating a water container goes back almost 30,000 years in Europe and 20,000 in China.  Archaeologists regard it as one of the signs of our ancestors moving from a nomadic life to settlements and the development of technology.

In Indonesia images of kendi can be found on temple sites from before the 13th century Majapahit era, including Borobudur in Central Java.

Kendi are still sold in traditional markets outside the urban centers.  Many have been coarsely finished but occasionally an unusual clay or firing technique can produce blemishes of beauty; russet blisters and ocher splashes can make the earthenware look more like a photo of deep space.

A few artists are also manipulating the form and adding decorations for the tourist trade, but Ponimin retains the original style and incorporates it into his other works. These include large female figures made from terracotta beads threaded through wire through to smaller semi-glazed objects.  These usually feature cherub-like figures scrambling up the sides.

These were first introduced a decade ago in an exhibition called Reach of No Hope, a large social commentary installation.

At the time he explained his work this way: “The poor also want to succeed, to have materialist goods, but they get trampled. The few who do reach the summit discover it's an illusion and what they hoped to find isn't there.

The urchins can still be found in his art, but now play a lesser role than the water containers.

“The kendi has long been a symbol of life in Javanese culture and for many it’s sacred,” he said. “For some it represents the womb and the water as semen.

“When a baby is born it’s bathed in water from a kendi. When a person dies a kendi is left on the grave or buried so the deceased can travel safely to whatever lies beyond.  Graves are watered from a kendi.”

They are also used in theater.  Malang choreographer Robby Hidajat has developed a dramatic contemporary dance featuring kendi and other pots.

Ponimin flew to New Delhi late last year to run workshops, the second time in India.  He’s also exhibited in Pakistan, Bangladesh and China.  Extra income comes from works commissioned by theme park investors and housing developers.

Curiously their ideas aren’t drawn out of the Archipelago’s rich cultures but from European history and American films.  Statues of dinosaurs, Roman gladiators, Egyptian pharaohs, Greek gods and teams of galloping stallions are in demand.  

These are supposed to add quality and attract buyers who want to distance their flash new homes from the crowded kampongs where their parents drank from kendi.  Instead they display their nouveau riche credentials.

For Ponimin that work is income, not art: “What I want to do isn’t for sale.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 March 2018)


Thursday, March 15, 2018


No skills, no surging economy

President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is getting frustrated.  With just over a year before seeking a second five-year term, his plans to make Indonesia a fresh young international industrial giant grunting alongside the old hands are losing traction: The workforce doesn’t have the skills to drive this economic engine because it’s blocked by illiteracy.  Duncan Graham reports:

There’s no need to spend hours flicking through data-dense surveys analysing Indonesia’s education system to know it’s still fumbling for first gear.

Just one fact says it all:  The world’s fourth largest nation has no Nobel prizes to its credit.  The first three by population are China with eight awards, India with ten while the US has 371.

The closest Indonesia came was last century when human rights activists proposed novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer for the honor.  But there was no applause from Indonesia where his books were banned. In the 1960s and 70s he’d been banished to a distant prison island for his alleged pro-communist writings.

Adjacent Australia, with one-tenth of Indonesia’s population has 12 Nobels, mainly in physics and medicine, with two for literature. The message is clear - striving for intellectual excellence has not been Indonesia’s top priority.

The irony is that the Indonesian Constitution demands 20 per cent of the national budget be spent on education. Yet the nation allocates less than US $1,200 per primary student - around 14 per cent of spending by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Nine years of schooling are mandatory and supposed to be free.  However schools thrust their hands into parents’ pockets with a wide range of charges from buying equipment to building new classrooms to funding teachers’ retirements.

Indonesia has 170,000 primary schools, 40,000 middle level but only 26,000 highs. 

In villages and poor areas kids are frequently pulled from class because the family can’t afford the fees and the child’s labor is needed.  A ‘Smart Card’ providing free tuition to the poor was introduced by Jokowi, but filling desks does little if the room is overcrowded and the teacher incompetent.

None of this is new to the nation’s politicians and planners who have long tinkered at the edges.  Before he was elected Governor of Jakarta last year Dr Anies Baswedan was Education Minister, and before that an academic who pioneered the Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia teaches) program sending young graduates to work in remote schools.  

There are many other worthy schemes usually engineered by philanthropists rather than politicians, but they are buckets and spades to flatten the Mount Bromo of past apathy.

Two years ago an OECD survey found ‘the typical Indonesian adult living in Jakarta, who has completed tertiary education, has lower literacy proficiency than the typical Greek or Dane who’d completed only lower secondary school.

Additionally, the Jakartan with tertiary education had lower literacy proficiency than adults in every other OECD country who only completed upper secondary schooling.

There are 35 members of the OECD, mainly from Europe but also including the US, Turkey, Japan, Australia and New Zealand

Dr Lant Pritchett of the US non-profit Center for Global Development commented that the statistics don’t mean the disadvantaged are getting a bad education and the advantaged in Jakarta a good education;

‘It means the disadvantaged are getting a terrible education (essentially none at all) and the advantaged a bad (or mediocre at best) education.

This is impacting on development as the nation strives to play economic catch-up with the rest of the world.  Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati estimated the economy grew 5.05 percent last year; the goal was 5.2 percent. Though these figures would delight many Western nations, most growth is through local demand, not exports; the population increases by more than 9,300 every day.

Without dramatic changes education experts reckon it will take Indonesia decades to close the skills gap with advanced economies.  Although literacy levels have risen (the average is now 95.38 per cent) the nation ranks 60 in the world according to a list assembled by the Central Connecticut State University.  

Its president and list author John Miller said that ‘as knowledge increasingly becomes a product as well as a tool, the economic welfare of any nation will be ultimately and inextricably tied to the literacy of its citizens.'€

Literacy leaders are the Nordic countries where teacher quality and spending are high, truancy policed, reading encouraged and citizens value education.

These statistics reveal the problems confronting the Indonesian government trying to become the world’s seventh largest economy within 12 years. President Jokowi says that requires 58 million skilled workers by 2030.

He wants the law changed so foreign universities can open in Indonesia as they are in Malaysia; this move has been pushed by Australian academics but resisted by their Indonesian colleagues who fear their deficiencies will be exposed.

At a Palace meeting last November the President complained that the topics being taught hadn’t altered much for the past three decades while the rest of the world is into automation, information technology and artificial intelligence.

There are more than 3,000 private and 130 public universities in Indonesia, but few internationally recognised for quality.  Some are linked to companies, like tobacco giant Sampoerna and property developer Ciputra.  Others are faith-based and not controlled by the Education Department.

Jokowi’s ambition is grand.  It is also unachievable without massive reforms powered by great political will.  His statements follow the tradition set by the Soeharto ‘New Order’ government last century which was forever announcing splendid schemes later remembered only by rotting billboards set in empty fields.

Maybe this time it will be different as reality bites and voters demand change.  But  this engine is going to take time to crank.

First published in Strategic Review, 12 March 2018:  See

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


 Welcome Down Under, Mr President: 
Later this week Indonesian leader Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is expected in Sydney with other heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a ‘special summit’. The President recently told his ambassadors that while working overseas they should lift their nation’s status as a ‘great country’. Now Jokowi can do his bit.

Assalamualaikum Pak Presiden: It’s presumptuous for foreigners to offer unsought advice; however because I’m anxious that relationships improve with your nation where I spend much time I’ll risk offering some reflections.

First it wounds me to tell that more than 2,000 media jobs have been lost in Australia so far this decade.  This means few will write in depth about your country so fall back on trite tales of druggies in Bali, smoking orangutans and asinine comments by strife-stirrer politicians.

But this vacuum presents opportunities. Instead of urging your envoys to be involved in trade expos it would be more effective if they speak up often and well in the mainstream media so outsiders get a better balanced view of your alluring archipelago.

Let’s clarify the language:  Great is not the same as good.  Quantity isn’t quality.  If it was then Australia is tops as the world’s largest island continent.  Unfortunately much is sand, while tiny Java is the world’s most fertile isle so should peg higher.

We think we’re an Indo-Pacific power - you put us in Oceania as a US outpost; though too polite to say so outright, you reckon we’re peripheral.

That smarts but it’s right. We’re giving $357 million in aid programs this year while you’re getting mega billions in aid and concessional loans from China. For every Australian there are 11 Indonesians. There are more people in the Jakarta region Jabodetabek than the Great South Land.

So how to measure ‘great’? If by achievements Indonesia is plodding.  It has no Nobel Prize winners.  Australia has 12.

Your Republic has only three universities in the world’s top 1,000 and at the tail end.  Australia has 35, mostly in the front ranks.  Maybe things will change if and when Oz unis open shop in Indonesia as proposed in the drag-out free-trade talks first started in 2010.  

Both sides trumpeted these would be finished last year - then in time for this week’s ASEAN summit.  That won’t happen. Don’t Indonesians want our wheat and beef rather than cheaper Black Sea grains and Indian buffalo steaks?  It seems we’ll accept your pesticides though not your nurses.

Highlighting these facts is not to humiliate because on many measures Indonesia could eclipse Australia and others if given the chance.  So what’s gone wrong?

Indonesian workers we’ve employed have been flexible, adaptable and innovative - but they lack knowledge of modern tools and techniques. Their want to upskill but can’t access training.  What do you reckon, Sir? Blow in Mr Turnbull’s ear.

Indonesians are soccer-crazed. A couple of littlies in our street could one day dazzle the Socceroos given a few free kicks.  These would include turf not tarmac, boots instead of bare feet and knowledgeable coaches rather than old duffers shouting tips over the fence.

At the same time how about encouraging some Jakarta quadrillionaires to fund facilities?  No political interference, mind, or there’ll be further disqualifications. (In 2015 the Asian Football Confederation banned Indonesia after the government got involved in the domestic league.)

Soccer is small in Australia yet we’ll be in this year’s World Cup Asian Group.  Another chance for an aid project?

Sometimes I’m ambushed by teachers and taken to meet incandescently bright and ambitious kids - usually girls - speaking splendid English self-taught from on-line films.

They ask about scholarships abroad because your universities can’t match their needs. Why not lean on your hosts for a few more bursaries, Mr President?  Several thousand should be a handy starter.

But wait a mo … your Constitution requires at least 20 per cent of the budget to be spent on education. Yet from 72 countries tested through the OECD Program for International Student Assessment you rank at 62. Nine years ago it was 57. Regress is rank.
Where’s the money going? How about an audit?  Australia might be able to give a hand here - we’re getting to know a lot about banking and finance funny business.

As you rightly note Sir, Indonesia has made huge economic gains this century. Your nation is not poor, but the wealth is coarsely spread. The World Bank reports half the country’s assets are owned by the richest one per cent. 

You say you want investors.  They want to know about regulations. Are these clear and properly adjudicated and not abused by amoral officials? Lenders prefer to park their money in politically stable countries where the rule of law rules.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index places Indonesia at 96 out of 180. Little wonder Australian dollars like to migrate to New Zealand, the world’s least corrupt country with the best record for ease of doing business.
As you reminded your ambassadors, Indonesia is neither small nor inferior and has all the ingredients for greatness. But the diplomats know that absent is the widespread political will for the positive changes it seems you want to foster.  
It would be warming to think Australia could help develop trust between voters and politicians as democracy only got a restart in your country this century.  
Although we’ve played the game since 1901, recent events in Canberra show we’re currently not in a position to assist.  So sorry.
Hormat saya:  Duncan Graham
First published in Pearls and Irritations 13 March 2018.  See