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 16, 2017


Still in the groove                    

In pre-digital days journalists reporting inaction on critical issues favored the metaphor of a needle stuck on a record turntable.

The revival of vinyl has kept the cliche circulating - particularly with new urgings to stop Australian-Indonesian relations from forever going round and round.

The latest wind-up comes from a well-intentioned group of 21 academics, economists, business people, NGOs and public servants; they gathered in Perth in July for a  closed-door session seeking better ways for the two nations to cooperate. This Track 2 (outside official channels) initiative was engineered by the USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia.

The result of the one-day 'extensive in-depth discussions' is the just-released report The Power of Proximity: Enhancing Australian-Indonesian Economic Relations.   Grand title - but that's about all.

The test of any think tank's effectiveness is whether it articulates practical action or is struggling for traction. The latter is the case here - only half the 12-pages have much to say and even less that's original. The words sound energising but none have driving power.

To be fair this was not the ambitious matchmakers' fault.  Their brief was worthy but flawed.  The difficulties in getting Indonesia and Australia to develop a trustful relationship after years of hot-cold wariness are formidable. Repairs require firm political will on both sides of the Arafura Sea.

Professor Tim Lindsey of Melbourne University once called the two countries the 'odd couple' of Southeast Asia. The pair live in the same location but long-term  marital tensions are too strained to share one bed.

The one politician present at the workshop and only as an observer was Bill Johnston, the West Australian Minister for Asian Engagement.  This is the smallest of his four portfolios. The two biggest names Marty Natalegawa (Foreign Affairs) and Mari Pangestu (Trade) are former ministers long out of office.

All the report's ten recommendations carry auxiliary verbs rather than imperatives. Although many participants were more mid and regional than peak and central - Indonesia’s official reps were from consulates - most had long records in the game and their voices deserve the ears of government.   

In the current climate those who get heard are inner circle ambassadors, Cabinet ministers from Jakarta and Canberra, gold star corporate tycoons and party  chessmasters with the president or prime minister's numbers on speed dial. When these giants murmur things happen.  

The report's author Kyle Springer from the USAsia Centre later commented that  'Australia simply has yet to see Indonesia as an opportunity ...There is yet a narrative of Indonesia’s rise and what it could mean for Australian businesses ... Instead of perceiving each other as a threat, they should choose to see each other as an opportunity.' The repetition suggests exasperation.
But why?  The answers get nudged out for this room is full of elephants.  The pachyderms which won't leave include the growth of fundamentalist Islam, surging nationalism, whether the Indonesian military is playing political games, and human rights concerns in West Papua.
For the Indonesians it's fear that Australia is plotting to fracture the Unitary State by supporting secessionists, and promote 'liberal lifestyles' - code for acceptance of homosexuality. Any of these beehives could be tipped over by agents provocateurs in the lead-up to the 2019 General Elections.
The closest the report's language gets to reality is this comment: 'Bilateral crises derail progress on economic issues and Australia and Indonesia lack a mechanism to manage and communicate during diplomatic crises'. That should be an all-stations alert.
To an outsider the equations look simple: One highly-efficient exporter just over the horizon from 260 million people in an economy growing at three per cent annually. Why does Australia do more trade with tiny New Zealand (population 4.5 million) than the colossus that's closer?
How come more than a million Australians every year holiday with the Balinese but Indonesians don't dart Down Under for a break?  Just 156,000 made the short trip after negotiating a 15-page visa questionnaire and paying more than AUD 150.  Australians have visa-free entry into Indonesia.
Outside the forum participant Ross Taylor, president of the Australian-based Indonesia Institute echoed exasperation: “We talk about building closer links,” he told Strategic Review. “But both governments still make it hard for young people to move between our two countries due to unnecessary red-tape”.

Why is the fourth largest country in the world desperate for infrastructure investment but Australian developers aren't building?  They see Indonesia as high-risk with a questionable legal system. Australia invested AUD 2.2 trillion overseas last year but only AUD1.9 billion in Indonesia.  
But as Springer points out, China: 'with its lack of government transparency, shaky property rights, and bureaucratic corruption, it actually falls rather close to Indonesia on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.'
For the record China ranks 78, thirteen points better than Indonesia.
The Power of Proximity leans on the trade trends report The World in 2050 by the international financial analyst Pricewaterhouse Coopers. 
This forecasts Indonesia overtaking Russia, Mexico and Brazil to become the fourth largest economy behind China, India and the US.
Fogging the USAsia group's vision has been the awkward progress of the Indonesia – Australia Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).  Negotiations are supposed to be finalised this year.
The laptops were opened in 2013, closed over domestic disputes, and rebooted in 2016.  Once called 'free trade talks' the term is now seldom heard suggesting the results will not meet expectations.
(In a separate forum Mari Pangestu revealed that while Trade Minister she talked of 'fair trade' to avoid antagonising economic nationalists.)
The Power of Proximity continues the trend of trade-or-fade auguries and muted responses.  The conservatives in Canberra seem more concerned with defence and security believing trade is best left to free-market entrepreneurs.
The experts who gathered in Perth are not so convinced, concluding: 'In short, despite robust diplomatic, political and military ties Australia and Indonesia have yet to fully take advantage of the power of proximity.'  
The needle stays stuck.
First published in Strategic Review 16 October 2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


The art of crushing talent 

When Eka Mulya Astuti was in high school her class had an exercise in drawing.
The teenager loved art so anticipated praise. Instead she was accused of plagiarism because her work was far superior to her peers’ efforts.
“I was so angry,” Astuti recalled, “I was also ashamed; I threw it away.
“In those days students didn’t argue. When I had the chance to select courses I chose natural science which didn’t include art, just to avoid that woman.
“I was 15. I’m now 48 yet I remember the moment clearly. Eventually I became a teacher so took great care when criticising students’ work; I understand the need for positive reinforcement.”
Astuti has quit schools and shaken off the damning response of a miserly mistress to triumph in her first calling. She’s also discovered another hurdle – being taken seriously. Art in Indonesia is largely men’s business. (See breakout).
Her portraits are now being commissioned by collectors like Jim Willey, an American executive at the Paiton power station complex in East Java.

His Las Vegas home is “adorned with art from Cambodia, Nepal, China, Thailand, India, and … Indonesia.”
He describes her work as “unique, and totally cool ... each painting includes a narrative (in Javanese) that specifically describes the subject in the painting. This is rare.

“Visitors do not often understand who is on the wall. Appreciation is enhanced because the viewer can put the subject in historical perspective. Eka provides a connection to her art.”

Astuti is obsessed (her word) with ancient Javanese history and mythology, particularly stories of strong women; this is no surprise as her mother Mariana raised her alone from age two when her father died. She has also been a single Mom for the past decade.
Her luminaries include Ken Dedes, the consort of Ken Arok, the first ruler of the Shiva-Buddha kingdom of Singhasari. She is also intrigued by Calonarang – a completely different figure.
Calonarang was a widow supposedly living in Girah, a village near Kediri in East Java a millennia ago. She allegedly caused pestilence because no man would marry her daughter Ratna Manggali. The plague was lifted only when Calonarang’s spellbook was stolen.
The wicked-witch genre also features in medieval European mythology as an eccentric crone or a threat to marriages – certainly a handy scapegoat. She’s cursed when crops fail or babies die. However feminist Indonesian poet Toeti Heraty Noerhadi-Roosseno has another interpretation: She sees Calonarang as a woman victimized by a patriarchal repressive society.
Astuti has completed one large portrait of Calonarang, which she won’t sell, and is planning others. She is working on a triptych of Pramodhawardhani, the ninth century queen credited with initiating Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple.
Because no portraits exist of her subjects Astuti reincarnates in a semi abstract style using acrylics. Among her heroines is the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo who also specialised in striking portraits of women.
“To get inspiration I meditate, burn incense and play gamelan music. It’s difficult to concentrate because friends drop in for long chats; they don’t think an artist at home is a worker.
“Once I was asked to paint Nyai Loro Kidul, but felt uneasy about the assignment. (The Queen of the Southern Sea is a famous shape-shifting figure in Javanese mythology, said to drown seafarers who wear green).
“When the canvas arrived it was mouldy, though the supplier said it was clean and fresh when sent. I saw this as an omen so haven’t done the picture.”
Astuti’s father was an artist but died when she was young. Mariana raised their child alone by making and selling food. Astuti’s talents went beyond art; she won a university scholarship to study English, has written 18 English texts and worked as an interpreter for international companies.
Astuti belongs to Bol Brutu, which started in 2009 when a group of artists visited the Kyai Sadrach historical site in Purworejo, Central Java. The name is an acronym from Gerombolan Pemburu Batu, which translates awkwardly as the Horde Hunters Group. It stages exhibitions and publishes art texts.

Closer to her Malang home is her source of insights and spiritual connections, the Hindu Candi Kidal. The temple was completed in 1260 as a shrine to King Anushapati, son of Ken Dedes (right).
A Shiva statue believed to be from Kidal is in Leiden’s National Museum of Ethnology. Surprisingly Astuti is not advocating its return.
“I want Indonesians to appreciate our history and I hope my art helps,” she said, “But Kidal is no longer the ideal environment. The statue is probably safer, getting better care and being seen by more people where it is.”
Just after this interview an allegedly deranged doctor smashed his car through the gates and crashed into the temple causing minor damage. He was unhurt.
Tougher for women
Bandung mixed-media artist and gallery owner Moel Soenarko, 77, reckons creative Indonesian women have a greater struggle than men to get their work appreciated. “Fortunately that’s not too hard because we are smarter,” she said.
“In our culture a wife’s first duty is to her husband and family. With so many responsibilities she can’t get out of the house so has to study from books. That’s limiting.”
On a recent visit to Malang the veteran campaigner for equality held a soiree where she advised Astuti and others to go beyond selling their works privately and mount formal exhibitions.
“We have to get out in the public,” she said. “Why do so many people who don’t do anything get in the media while we women are ignored? We need to express ourselves and get noticed. We have to help ourselves.”
First published in The Jakarta Post 10 October 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Fleeing from tolerance                                                                       
Every nation heralds its self-selected qualities like free speech, faith and honesty – though not all are grounded on facts.  Australia’s honor roll once included ‘Fair Go’.
This supposedly meant that newcomers who toiled tenaciously and hugged Aussie values would not be held back, for the Lucky Country has long been welcoming migrants – currently 190,000 annually.
Last year’s census shows almost half its 24 million population was either born overseas or Mom or Dad came from abroad.  Traditionally that was Europe; now it’s Asia.
They’ve arrived by air with wanted skills and valid visas.  A handful chose a different route.  In the past they were accommodated.  In 1975 when North Vietnam defeated the United States and its allies – including Australia - thousands fled the South by boat. 
Some made it to the promised land.  One mixed group handed Customs officers a letter: ‘Help us live in Australia …we shall keep Australian law, will be goodman. (sic)’
Others went to camps like Indonesia’s Pulau Galang.  During the next two decades 150,000 Vietnamese resettled in Australia.
That compassion was further enhanced following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing. Policy was made on the spot when then Prime Minister Bob Hawke tearfully offered asylum to 42,000 Chinese students who feared return.
Australia was clearly a haven for the persecuted.  This encouraged others fleeing conflict in Iraq, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere to head for the Great South Land.
Now the harbors are barred.  Hopefuls paying people smugglers to ferry them from the archipelago to Australia’s north are turned back or sent to detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. 
This shift from acceptance to rejection has been examined by historian Dr Claire Higgins in Asylum by Boat, just published by the University of New South Wales Press.
It comes with the former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs commenting that the policy has moved from ‘humanity to inhumanity’.  Maybe, but it’s widely popular with an electorate fearing Asia’s mega millions will flood the island continent and destroy the occupants’ First World lifestyles.
The hard liners are more diplomatic, reminding voters concerned at the damage to Australia’s image that being tough saves lives; more than a thousand have drowned after rickety fishing boats sank.
The other argument runs that ‘queue jumpers’ should not take places reserved for proven refugees patiently waiting in camps elsewhere. Last year Australia took 17,500 under its ‘humanitarian program’.
Governments claim policy making is deliberative.  Not with Australian responses to asylum seekers. By 2001 so many were sailing south that a crisis was looming in an election year.
Suddenly political salvation: The Norwegian freighter Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers from a sinking hulk and tried to land them in Australia. Instead they were sent to Nauru.
The then Prime Minister John Howard accelerated new laws to ‘determine who will enter and reside in Australia’. Although tagged the ‘Pacific Solution’ it clearly wasn’t as the boats kept coming. The number peaked in 2013 with 300.
So the chauvinistically titled ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ was launched with ‘zero tolerance’ to the dismay of human rights activists.  Since then 30 boats have been turned back, the last in March this year. In August six Chinese men who landed on an Australian island near PNG were flown home.
Through her research into the background of these shifts and shunts Higgins has found nine options proposed by ministerial advisers which clearly show that policy making was adrift. 
These included a bizarre revenge-motivated plan  to tell the ‘governments of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia that we will put the entry of their nationals, including students, on to a quota and for every refugee that comes, one is dropped off the quota’,
A second madcap idea was to tie up the boats under quarantine till the passengers got fed up and sailed away to who knows where.  Did anyone consider that the desperate might scuttle the boats?
Another notion  suggested treating the new arrivals ‘almost as lepers, segregating them in special camps and giving them minimal standards of support’. Centres like those in Thailand and Malaysia (where conditions are said to be primitive) were mooted
Eventually deals were done with Nauru and PNG to warehouse the asylum seekers till they either go home or get resettled elsewhere. There are currently about 1,300; most are men and some have been held for more than three years. A similar number, including children are in camps on Australian soil, mainly Christmas Island. The US has just agreed to take 50 under a deal pre-dating Donald Trump’s election.
Malaysia has more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees, Indonesia a tenth of that number.
Refugee advocates remind that Germany has taken more than a million and Chancellor Angela Merkel has survived the political backlash. They believe Australian detainees are so few that just being compassionate could solve the problem, The Government says going soft would revive people smuggling.
Higgins interviewed former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Fraser for her book.  In a response revealing the paucity of policy the late PM asked the academic: ‘What else could you do?’
‘It is as relevant as ever,’ she writes. ‘The other answers to that question have been implemented, but not in a way that addresses the needs of vulnerable people and Australia’s international responsibilities.’
For Australian politicians the ‘Pacific Solution’ is messy, possibly illegal but a crowd pleaser.  It’s also costly: AUD 5 billion so far plus AUD 70 million compensation to Manus detainees for allegedly holding them in dangerous and damaging conditions.
Absent is any coordinated international approach despite an available forum - the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. (See Strategic Review 24 March 2017).
So each country handles the issue their way according to the whims of local politics. The ‘Fair Go’ tag has passed its use-by date.

 First published in Strategic Review 26 September 2017.  See:

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Making new laws work   

Nengah Latra (left) 
is not ashamed of his wounds so is happy in T-shirts. Yet when he met Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo after the 2014 election to seek a better deal for the handicapped, the Balinese wore a full-sleeve batik shirt.
Questioned why - because the sight of his scars might have shown the new president that he was dealing with an advocate with raw knowledge – Latra responded: “Because I felt that I am not disabled.”
But that was the label attached when a kerosene lamp exploded during a religious festival in 1986 showering the teenager with flaming fuel.
The burns to his arms fused them to his torso.  For the next two years he lived in isolation, convinced the accident was punishment for real or imagined sins. His family and friends urged him to follow nrimo, the Javanese philosophy of acceptance.  Gone was his dream of a military career.
Rescue from his misery came when he was discovered by field workers and persuaded by the late New Zealand health-care activist Colin McLennan to travel to Yogyakarta for plastic surgery.  Latra met others who’d abandoned self pity to lead productive lives.  Their attitudes helped launch a career as a carer.

Now he’s director of Puspadi Bali, probably the best equipped rehabilitation center in the nation, dispensing free prosthetics made in-house and supplying new donated wheelchairs.  
In the past five years Puspadi has helped more than 4,500 people in Bali and islands to the east; in 2016 it distributed almost 600 mobility devices.
Puspadi costs Rp 5 billion (US $ 380,000) a year to run. It’s largely funded by the Inspirasia Foundation founded by Englishman Mark Weingard. The investor and broker made giga greenbacks around the turn of the century catering for what he now calls ‘wanker bankers.’
When his fiancĂ©e Annika Linden was killed in the 2002 Bali nightclub terrorist bomb blast Weingard turned from dealer to donor seeking ‘the biggest compliment – that we have been an inspiration’
The purpose-built Bali center named after his late bride-to-be includes three other NGOs running clinics for stroke victims and kids with cerebral palsy.
Latra’s call on the President paid off because last year Indonesian legislators passed a law based on the UN Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities; this recognizes ‘the equal rights of all members of the human family, including access to employment.’
Indisputable. Now comes the tricky part:  How can the handicapped exercise these equalities? Or more bluntly – who pays for thousands of ramps to replace steps, keep sidewalks clear, install elevators and hire inspectors to stop businesses discriminating?

“I know of only three universities in Indonesia where the disabled can access classes without confronting tower block stairs and doorways too narrow to admit a wheelchair,” Latra said.
“It’s the same with government offices, banks, schools and other public buildings.  And what about getting on and off busses and trains?  There has to be total change in society if the new law is to be effective.”
Putu Warsita Putra who coordinates Puspadi’s wheelchair program knows the equipment extends individual mobility and freedom - though only if society allows.
“People use electric scooters overseas but it’s impossible here,” he said. “Even when a road is well maintained, which is rare, the traffic doesn’t respect wheelchairs.”
The reception area of the Annika Linden Centre looks more like the lobby of a five-star boutique hotel with original art and fine pictures. 

Photographer and center volunteer Luciana Ferrero (left) said the surrounds intimidated some village people who come for treatment but they soon adapt. “Children are the agents of change,” she said.  “They like the place and adults follow.”
Latra stressed the handicapped have rights to enjoy a serene ambience and professional care.  Low windows allow relatives to see the treatments being offered and watch prosthetics being made.
“We don’t provide accommodation,” he said.  “It’s best if the handicapped live in the community and come here for assistance - our staff spread the word. Last year we had 652 new clients.” (See breakout)
The costs, all covered by Puspadi, range from Rp 500,000 (US$ 40) a limb up to several million for more sophisticated models embedded with computer chips; these can adjust  balance and lock the knee. 
“Most donations come from abroad, mainly the US, Australia and NZ,” said Latra. “We would appreciate a visit by the President to raise local awareness and address the needs of ten per cent of the population.
“I got to see him in Jakarta, but getting him here would be difficult and costly.  Overseas I’ve seen the handicapped working in hotels and government offices serving the public.  People accept that as normal.
“I think it will take about 40 years to get this country to fully accept that whatever their condition every Indonesian has rights equal to all other citizens.   The change has to start at the top – and at the bottom.”
Having a leg to stand on

Gede Agus Aman, 25,  is a presentable and cheerful fellow who goes into remote areas to tell villagers that they can get free care for disabled family members at Puspadi. 
Not all are convinced.  Verbal sprays about the benefits of treatment in Denpasar have little effect in the mountains.  What would Aman know of  pain?  He’s fit and bouncy, one of the lucky uncursed.
So he invites doubters to whack his shin with any lump of wood.  Eventually someone gives it a go.  “Harder,” says Aman.  He doesn’t wince.
Then he rolls up his trouser to show a prosthetic and a livid stump, the result of a road space contest between motorbike and truck.  The bigger vehicle won and smashed his limb.
“You can argue all you like about the need for treatment, hand out brochures, supply statistics and show videos,” said Latra.  “But there’s nothing so effective as people telling their stories and explaining how they’ve got back into life.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 September 2017)

Friday, September 15, 2017


Change ahead for Godzone?                                                       
A new dawn for Wellington?

The Radio New Zealand website headline seemed a must-read:  Myrtle Rust Found In Waikato.
Yet another overseas tourist lost in a snowstorm?  Anticipate tales of heroic search-and-rescue. Or maybe she’s a notorious bank robber on the run in the North Island region named after the longest river (425 kilometers).
Neither.  Myrtle Rust is a plant disease discovered on two trees now legally cordoned and rapidly felled.  That this yawn was deemed national news reveals much about the small South Pacific nation now considered a safe retreat should nuclear warheads explode in North Korea.
Another factor was dollars.  Apart from tourism NZ leans heavily on agricultural exports. So an alien bug should be feared by all, even one with a benign forename.
Myrtle aside there’s an even bigger event underway and getting international coverage– an election which looks increasingly likely to be lost by the incumbent National Party headed by Bill English, 55, a competent economist but a bland politician.
His Labour Party challenger is Jacinda Ardern, 37, fun, young but untested. Straw-grabbers have compared her to French President Emmanuel Macron, 40, another fresh contender from behind.  
Ardern has been in Parliament for less than a decade and before that in backroom politics – including the UK where she was on the staff of Labour PM Tony Blair.
That a woman might become PM without the sky falling shows the cultural gap with the US. NZ was the first nation to give women the vote in 1893; two decades ago voters put National’s Jenny Shipley into the top job. 
She was succeeded by Labour’s Helen Clark.  She held on for three terms (each of three years) till unseated by banker John Key in 2008.
Clark then joined the United Nations in New York as head of its development program.  Last year she stood unsuccessfully for the secretary general’s job.
Kiwis believe a woman’s place is everywhere so few journalists dare ask gender-based questions. Voters may want to know Ardern’s marriage plans and dress tips; she accepts the reality but prefers policy talk. 
For the record her father Ross is NZ High Commissioner to the Pacific Island of Niue. She lives with her radio presenter boyfriend. No kids.  Though raised a Mormon she’s now an agnostic. In NZ these traits are no handicap, though her opponent is a married Catholic with six children.
Two months ago middle-road National looked certain to win based on its record of economic stability and few major political crises. Yet housing problems caused by rising migration, high prices and few new builds have forced families to rent, not buy, putting pressure on social services. 
There’s been some resentment towards cashed-up arrivals from China (12 per cent) followed by the UK (many said to be Brexit refugees) and Australia at ten per cent each.  The rest are Indians, Pacific Islanders and returning Kiwis according to Statistics NZ.
About 74,000 immigrants a year is an entree in Europe but a main course in a nation with only 4.7 million people - and 30 million sheep.
National’s fortunes collapsed followed Ardern’s sudden leap to Opposition leader last month when her boss, charisma-free Andrew Little, accepted he’d been ineffectual.
Overseas Aotearoa (the Maori name for NZ) is known as a milk-and-honey progressive state. However not all is clean and green. Although crime is falling the jail rate of 212 for every 100,000 citizens puts NZ alongside Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
More than 40 per cent of those behind bars are Maori, yet the original occupiers represent just a seventh of the population; this suggests many ethnic, education and employment issues still resist resolution.
NZ was a global pioneer in welfare for all; hospital care is free, medicines subsidised and pensions not means tested as they are in Australia where wages are higher and taxes lower.
Yet by comparison with its big northern neighbor NZ is doing well; economic growth is three per cent and the budget balanced. The Great South Land is being ravaged by a mining slump, factional fights over global warming, and moral storms about same sex marriage.
 NZ passed that law four years ago.  Visitors expecting Sodom and Gomorrah will be disappointed; last year just 465 local same-sex couples got hitched while almost 20,000 opposite sex pairs followed suit.
The change was easier because NZ is a unicameral state so no upper house to reject laws.  It uses the Mixed-Member Proportional representation voting system.
Electors get two votes, party and candidate. The Electoral Commission says MMP’s ‘defining characteristics are a mix of MPs from single-member electorates and those elected from a party list.’  A party's portion of the 120 seats ‘roughly mirrors its share of the overall nationwide party vote.’ This gives the five minors more clout.  The Greens dominate but this year imploded over welfare policies.
Unlike Australia there’s no compulsory voting.  The Saturday 23 September election is in spring but NZ’s fickle weather could keep voters indoors.
Traditionally the elderly exercise their democratic duty. In the last election 22 per cent of electors couldn’t bother. Labour strategists hope Ardern’s feisty independence and bright countenance will stir youngsters to vote.
The issues have been largely domestic and so far the debates generally civilised. National is free market, but not US extreme. Labour is socialist, but not UK radical.
The country has a small defence force and relies on the ANZUS Treaty with Australia and the US. Having a massive arid continent between Godzone (God’s own country) and the world’s trouble spots helps calm nerves.
NZ has been pushing into Southeast Asia to boost trade and opening new consulates in Indonesia. However NZ harbors a small but vocal group supported by seven Pacific Island states alleging human-rights abuses in West Papua.

Their campaign has been annoying Indonesia.  Should Labour win on 23 September their calls for greater transparency could find a more supportive government.  * Disclosure: The author is a registered NZ elector.

(First published in Strategic Review, 14 September 2017:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


The legacy of a visionary

In Australian vernacular a ‘do-gooder’ is a coarse and ambiguous synonym for a philanthropist. For some it’s a jocular endearment; for others a stain of contempt for uninvited interference in another’s business.
The sincerity of John Fawcett, 85, who died last Saturday, smothered every negative connotation.  In the idiom he was true blue – a bloke who did real good.  Two million Indonesians know this to be true.
They elevated him to ‘Dr John’. He didn’t claim the honorific but was an expert on medical procedures having endured many operations for spinal problems and the skin cancer which took his life.  He well knew what happens when scalpels slip.
Which is how he came to spend his last 34 years in Bali, and why 50,000 Indonesians once condemned to the dark now have light. More than one million have been screened and treated for eye defects.  Half a million now see through spectacles - all because one man turned his agonies into achievements to give the gift of sight.
The story starts in 1981 when Fawcett, then an art lecturer and potter in Perth, had an epidural to relieve back pain. The routine procedure went badly wrong.  He spent more than two years prone, lost his job and family.  Recuperating in Bali he was treated with compassion by Wayan Mudiana and his wife Kisid – kindness he never forgot.
Cynics claim there’s no space left for Australian retirees, the refuse of First World efficiency. They’re supposed to quietly putt their way into the sunset, maybe mark time with some committee addressing envelopes rather than issues.

It’s the government’s job to handle health and social problems, not oldies with time on their hands. Australia’s loss – neighbor’s gain.

In Bali Fawcett chanced upon extensive cataract blindness seldom seen in Australia, and shocked that an easy fix was unavailable.  He became friends with banker and Rotarian Soeroso Patmodihardjo which gave him local links.

The John Fawcett Foundation was set up using money from Rotary Clubs, the Australian government, companies, associations and individuals he inspired. It established mobile eye clinics and a hospital.

Although Fawcett’s work won plaudits (the Order of Australia in 2004 and the Indonesian President’s Satyalencana award in 2008) he wasn’t a hero with some local medics who saw his activities reducing their incomes.

Fawcett said the issue faded as the foundation only treats those who can’t pay and a new generation of altruistic medicos is emerging.

“They are keen to learn from Western doctors who give their time to advise on latest procedures – but Indonesian laws prohibit them from treating patients,” he said.

Fawcett was a restless, driven urger so our lunches were irregular.  The last was in March when he sought help to get Indonesian TV stations to raise awareness of cataracts through World Sight Day on 12 October.  So far none have agreed.  Perhaps his passing will help them see the need.

Fawcett didn’t brag of the triumphs but instead told of the torment he endured after persuading a family to let their daughter have a cleft palate operation; the girl died. “Had I not interfered she might have lived,” he mused. Risk is ever-present in surgery; less than five per cent of cataract ops fail.

“I’m not religious, but my culture seems to promote compassion,” he said.  “Some believe a person’s handicap or accident has been pre-ordained by an omniscient and vengeful deity so intervention is useless.

“Errors in a previous life or recent sins rather than malnutrition, genetic defects and disease are accepted as valid reasons.”

To counter such fatalism Fawcett argued that the sufferer’s encounter with the foundation was also in the Deity’s master plan. And if the cause was diagnosed as black magic, the cure must be the white magic of medical science.

“Most Indonesians cannot understand what motivates foreigners to come here and volunteer,’ he said. ‘When we explain that our services are free, they respond with surprise and disbelief.

“If you can’t pay in this country you just have to tolerate the disabilities and die prematurely.”

Outsider critics of the Indonesian health system are as unwelcome in government offices as foreign loudmouths are in Australian agencies. ‘If you don’t like it, go home,’ is the response on both sides of the Arafura Sea.

For Fawcett that stretch of water is highly symbolic.  Growing up in northwest Australia his family fled Broome shortly ahead of Japanese bombers in 1942.

“What Australians don’t realise is that the enemy advance was stopped by the resistance of the people of the islands – our closest neighbors,” he said.

“They supported us at our time of need.  Now, where is our money being spent?  The screws are on to close down our aid to Indonesia. (In 2015 Australian aid to the Republic was slashed by 40 per cent.)

“It’s daunting to know our government is not interested in Indonesia. I don’t want to think about it.  Fortunately others have an interest.”

Sight problems are not confined to Bali. Last year Fawcett’s foundation ran programs in eight provinces. Such was the genuineness of his need that the Indonesian Air Force agreed to use its C130 Hercules to airlift the mobile clinic to outer islands.

Some reason that if Westerners are offering assistance there’s a catch. Either they are thieves filching donations, or subversives planning to carve up the Unitary State.

If such motives are proved hollow then the foreigner must be out to ‘Christianise’.  Fawcett added a new clause in the foundation’s mission statement to deflect such suspicions: ‘… to operate without alignment to any governmental, institutional, political or religious organisation.’

“In a country as religious as Indonesia many can’t understand how care can be divorced from faith,” he said. “The idea of humanists having values with no strings attached is hard to grasp.”

Thus spake the decent ‘dinky-die’ Aussie do-gooder who helped others see. John Fawcett  was a visionary.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 September 2017)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Unwavering determination to tell

Journalist Oei Him Hwie, 79, (left) continues to maintain his extraordinary collection of books and memorabilia of Soeharto' brutal banishment of 12,000 political prisoners (tapol) to Buru Island.  Pictures, papers and paintings are kept in  a  suburban Surabaya house known as Yayasan Medayu Agung.
 I last visited ten years ago for a story published in Inside Indonesia but which didn't get included in this blog - an omission now rectified:

Hidden Treasures
On the outskirts of the sprawling industrial port of Surabaya is a little library of national significance.
The rented suburban house is far from grand, but it is solidly stocked with books old and new, ancient magazines and musty newspapers.
Perhaps too well stocked. The walls are packed from corner to corner, floor to ceiling, their vast presence bested only by the overwhelming smell of decaying acid-based paper. The house has no air conditioning, so the plastic covers carefully applied by volunteer cataloguers glue the books into bundles in the perpetual heat of East Java’s capital. If more than a van full of students arrives to browse or borrow the place is as packed as a bemo in rush hour. Study? The challenge is to breathe.
Yayasan Medayu Agung Surabaya houses some precious documents that have been lovingly preserved. Among them is a set of five beautifully presented volumes cataloguing and illustrating President Sukarno’s huge art collection, now dispersed. The limited edition was published almost 40 years ago in Indonesian and Chinese. It features work by both Indonesian and European artists, with the emphasis on beautiful women.
There are at least 5,000 titles in the library, mainly written in Indonesian. Some go back to early last century. Many have come from personal collections donated by well-wishers.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Among the gems in the library are some original manuscripts by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Pramoedya is Indonesia’s most internationally famous living writer. Nationally, he is the country’s most controversial.
When Suharto came to power, Pramoedya’s extensive library and writings were seized and his books banned. He spent four years in a Jakarta jail and ten years in exile on Buru, a small island in the Moluccas, along with 13,000 other prisoners. Throughout those terrible years he wrote whenever possible.
The result included the Buru Quartet, which was translated into English and published in the 1980s. The four volumes received international acclaim and calls for the author to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for literature.
Pramoedya’s books are no longer banned in Indonesia. They have been reprinted with fresh modern covers and can now be found in bookshops across the archipelago. Pramoedya now lives in a large new house bought with his overseas royalties at Bojonggede outside Jakarta. His last book, The Mute’s Soliloquy has been followed by lectures and tours overseas, where he has been heralded as a literary hero.
University students who are only now learning about their history are openly encouraged by their lecturers to visit the Surabaya library. Here they study the legend’s works and hear his story.

Oei Hiem Hwie

Pak Oei with a May 1965 copy of his old daily
  Trompet  Masjarakat  (the People's Trumpet -
or the Voice of Society) - closed a few months later

The custodian of the collection is Oei Hiem Hwie, who once worked with Adam Malik, a former vice president of Indonesia. Pak Oei is very clear about the purpose of the Medayu Agung Foundation: ‘Yayasan Medayu Agung is run by a board of academics and entrepreneurs. It was set up to help educate the nation, especially young people’.
Pak Oei explained that medayu is derived from two old Javanese words. Meda means intellect, while yu is derived from mayu, which means to do good.
Pak Oei was also a political prisoner on Buru. During his imprisonment, he helped to smuggle Pramoedya’s manuscripts to publishers.
Some of the pages of the manuscripts were handwritten on both sides of thin and almost transparent paper, which were compressed under a concrete block. Others were typewritten on paper cut from old cement bags. The ribbon ink was made from dyes distilled from plants growing on Buru, and the pages were bound with glue made from cassava. The pages were sewn into the lid of woven bamboo food baskets taken off Buru when Pak Oei was released.
Pak Oei’s collection includes the original manuscript of Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) and Ensiklopedi Citrawi Indonesia, an unpublished two-volume encyclopedia which contains charts and sketches by Pramoedya.
For Pak Oei, Pramoedya’s manuscripts, and the extraordinary story of their creation, are a precious part of Indonesia’s heritage which should be preserved for the next generation. Max Lane, Pramoedya’s original translator, is seeking a better home for the Pramoedya manuscripts.
Even after release the activists were stigmatised with the initials ET (Ex-Tapol)
on their KTP (ID) cards  (top line) ensuring they could not get work in government agencies

 Pak Oei believes the manuscripts should remain in the country to help Indonesians fill the gaps in their past. The limited funding and resources of Yayasan Medayu Agung, however, mean that such a repository is more likely to be in the US, the Netherlands or Australia where scholars earn PhDs studying the Indonesian writer. 
Wherever the manuscripts are eventually housed, future generations of Indonesians owe a debt of gratitude to Pak Oei for his efforts to conserve a significant part of Indonesia’s literary past.
(First published in Inside Indonesia, June 2007)