A Lifetime of Love for Classical Music


US-Indonesian conductor Wilson Hermanto believes more needs to be done to nurture appreciation for Western classical music in Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Aula Simfonia Jakarta)

The Aula Simfonia Jakarta music hall echoed with the sounds of some of Beethoven’s most enthralling compositions, starting with the German maestro’s “Prometheus Overture.”

While not as iconic as pieces like the “Pathetique” or “Moonlight” sonatas, its vibrant, lively tunes are infused with the same depth, emotion and drama that defines the other works.

“The ‘Prometheus Overture’ is a virtuoso piece, as it contrasts fast notes for its string section and intricate sounds for its woodwind section,” says Indonesian-American conductor Wilson Hermanto, who deftly guided the orchestra through the piece, which was originally composed for a ballet but became famous as a composition in its own right.

The “Prometheus Overture” led off to more surprises for the evening, starting with the “Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61,” featuring German violinist Linus Roth on solo violin.

“‘Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61’ is one of the greatest compositions of its kind,” Hermanto says. “It’s also innovative in its use of melodies and harmony, as it’s akin to a dialogue between the solo violin and the orchestra. The piece is also beautifully orchestrated, as it can go in and out of its sections in such a seamless way that the solo violin and orchestra can interchange between leading the melody or accompanying it. The piece is worth highlighting, as it reflects the versatility of classical music.”

The “Violin Concerto” might have diverted and enchanted the audience due to its intricate composition. However, it “Symphony No. 2,” which was composed between 1801 and 1802 by Beethoven when he studied under Joseph Haydn at Vienna in his early thirties, that capped off the performance on a high note.

“The ‘Second Symphony’ is one of the first compositions that [marked Beethoven] as a budding musician, as it took on a bigger structure than the ‘First Symphony,’” Hermanto says. “Its style and scale hint at his later masterpieces like the Fifth and Ninth symphonies.”

Hermanto adds that the all-Beethoven repertoire is a departure from his usual repertoire, which commonly features other composers such as Mozart, Gustav Mahler and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

“I guess its a good way to keep the audience focused, and speaks volumes about Beethoven’s universal appeal,” he says.

Climbing up the ranks

Hermanto’s recital at the Aula Simfonia Jakarta was a triumphant homecoming and marked his debut as a music conductor in Jakarta. The performance also allowed him to reunite with a number of musical acquaintances, including his former mentor Adi Darma, the music director of the now defunct Jakarta Symphony Orchestra. The performance was also a milestone in Hermanto’s lifelong journey through classical music.

“I started out taking piano lessons in Jakarta as an adolescent, but my classical music training really started when I left Jakarta in 1991 to take undergraduate studies in violin at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore,” says the 42-year-old Hermanto.

“But the real turning point came when I took graduate studies in conducting at the Manhattan School of Music with late Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling. Since then I studied the field under various masters like Carlo Maria Giulini at the Scuola Musica in Fiesole, Italy, and Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy.

“I stepped up my game as assistant conductor to Franz Welser Moest at the Cleveland Orchestra between 2002 to 2004,” he adds. “I also acquired my skills from other giants in the classical music field. These include renowned conductor Sir Colin Davis, who was one of my mentors before his death in 2013.”

Hermanto didn’t just limit himself to learning from others. He also founded the New York-based Prometheus Chamber Orchestra and led it from 1996 to 2002. He was also the music director for the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles from 1999 to 2002.

Hermanto explains that there is much more to conducting than people realize.

“Conducting might seem an incoherent, even comic activity for those watching it, as we make no sound, just wave our batons and make frenetically emphatic gestures,” he says.

“But in reality we have to be all-round musicians who have to provide the tempo for the composition, have a musical give-and-take with the musicians, and make sure the string, percussion and woodwind sections play their respective parts.

“My training on the piano was useful in training to become a conductor, as we have to read many lines of notes, instead of a line at a time like one would when studying the violin,” he adds.

“We also have to make sure the respective sections come in and out seamlessly in the composition, and have overall control of the ensemble, as the din from the music might keep them from listening to one another or getting their cues from the conductor. The conductor also has to follow the notes set out by the composer and capture something of their dynamism.”

Hermanto explains that doing so entails overcoming unique challenges.

“Pop music over the past 60 years like the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Madonna are recorded, so when they die we can still listen to them. On the other hand, classical music is judged by how the musicians and conductor interpret it, since composers like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart have been dead for hundreds of years. The challenge is how to interpret the music as authentically and as near to its spirit as possible, so as to become the definitive version that shapes people’s tastes of that music,” he says.

Classical music in the modern world

“One reason why Western classical music lasts is because of its diatonic or 12-note structure, which contrasts with the pentatonic or five notes of its Asian counterpart, like gamelan,” Hermanto says.

“The structure makes it well organized and akin to architecture, as most tangibly seen in Baroque pieces like Bach compositions. But what gave Western classical music its universal appeal is its influence from literature, theater and languages, an element that took its definitive form through opera.

“And what it makes it complete, aside from its systematic organization and structure, is its emotional value. This gives classical music its universal appeal, which has spread far from its roots in Europe to the Americas, Australia, Asia and Africa.”

Hermanto notes that Indonesia is just as receptive to classical music and the universal appeal of composers like Beethoven, a point he gauged through his recent performance at the Aula Simfonia.

“Indonesia has tremendous potential for classical music, but that is not enough,” he says. “A vital element in classical music is learning from foreign maestros, which is something that we need to do to get inspired and the proper level of music to aspire to. Eminent conductors like Ricardo Muti and Christoph Eschenbach have toured in China.”

Indonesia’s inability to do the same has kept the country’s classical music scene at least 15 years behind other Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea, Hermanto says, “which is sad considering that it’s the fourth most populous country in the world.”

He attributes the poor understanding of classical music here to Jakarta’s lack of a symphony orchestra or opera house, complete with an orchestra pit and stage hands for the latter.

“But here also, the problem is the same as that of bringing in foreign acts, namely limited funds. Sure, we can find corporate sponsors, but they in turn face hurdles not faced in other foreign countries, namely the lack of tax breaks needed to bring the musicians in or develop classical music in Indonesia,” Hermanto says.

“Another hindrance is the preconception that classical music is an elitist form of art. Nothing can be further from the truth. As a high form of art, it might take a bit more concentration, feeling and contemplation to listen to than rock or pop music. But the humanity inherent in it make its appeal universal among young and old.”

He adds that this latter element is the reason the genre will have a bright future in Indonesia, in spite of the challenges ahead.

“Classical music has a way of transcending our differences and uniting us, which makes it suited to a diverse nation like Indonesia,” Hermanto says.

“So regardless of whether we’re Javanese, Sumatran, Muslim or Christian and so on, the humanity inherent in classical music reminds us of how much we have in common as human beings and how we can aspire to a higher plane of thought and spirituality together.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 21, 2014

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In “Repress”, Hope Rises Anew


Linocuts and woodcuts by Yogyakarta-based artist M. Fadhlil Abdi tackle the dark aspects of social and political repression, but also the perseverance of hope. (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The figure in the graphic print seemed to be free-falling into despair. The whites of the gold-tinted figure’s eyes and disheveled, turned-up hair reflect how overwhelmed he was with his life.

His upraised hands and mouth open in a silent scream on the linocut on paper work reflect a man at the end of his tether, while the arrows around him perhaps reflect the intangible pressures continuing to bear down on him.

Titled “Last Chance,” the work by Yogyakarta-based artist M. Fadhlil Abdi reflect the universality of the subjects’ feelings, and not least his own.

“[Last Chance] reminds me of the hardships that I felt when I first took up graphic printing, such as cutting or gouging the design into the surface of linoleum and other materials, inking it with the brayer, and then printing them into the paper,” Fadhlil says. “My first work in the field burdened my creative process, since I was new in the field and unsatisfied with my work.”

Not content to make his point once, Fadhlil let the impact of the work and its premise strike three times over, as he made a similarly titled triptych of the same figure to add new depths or perspective into his feelings.

Graphic print to plumb emotional lows

“Last Chance” is one of the works being shown by Fadhlil in his exhibition “Repress,” which is currently being held at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Jakarta. Like “Last Chance,” the rest of the prints convey a sense of despair, gloom and other dark emotions that live up to the exhibition’s theme.

This vibe is best seen in his woodcuts like “Art, Girl and Murder” and “2nd Interesting.” “Art, Girl and Murder” lived up to its sense of menace due to the black pupil of the girl and her inscrutable look. However, the girl’s youth and the halo over her head seem to reflect her determination to hold on to her innocence.

The halo also touched on the “Art” element, as it seemed to evoke medieval and Renaissance images of the Virgin Mary. The wood chips highlighted in the woodcut gave it an organic touch, as it gave the impression of the skin’s pores as well as the bark from the tree.

The girl looking out in “2nd Interesting” sought to trap the viewer’s attention with her gaze. Her eyes seemed to defy the dark shadows nearly enveloping her, as if to keep her problems at bay.

On the other hand, the monotype “Falling in Black” perhaps shows how one can internalize their problems. The figure’s closed eyes perhaps reflect how she kept her problems to herself, while the second picture give a glimpse of the internal turmoil that she goes through before coming to terms with them, as seen in the third picture.

The sense of desperation is just as tangible in the woodcut “Animal Instinct,” and intensified through the fragmented structure of the piece. The subjects’ fragmentation could work two ways, namely how the subject can get themselves back together or succumb to their base instincts described in the title.

“Regardless of how we interpret the pictures, what is beyond doubt is the multitude of problems in Indonesian society, such as crime, corruption, poverty and ethnic tensions. Compared to those elements, my difficulties in mastering graphic print is nothing,” Fadhlil says.

“Repress” curator A.C. Andre Tanama points out that Fadhlil’s work shows his knack of keenly questioning the world around him. “The repression highlighted in Fadhlil’s work allude to the repressive elements of [late President Suharto’s] New Order Regime, starting with the purge of suspected communists that marked the regime’s inception. His exploration of the theme started during his studies at the Indonesian Fine Arts Institute in Yogyakarta, when he questioned the need to have a religious class as part of the curriculum.

“The culture of violence from that era still remains until today, as seen in various measures to protect a woman’s honor that are just as likely to repress their bodies. The pervasive sense of repression can also be seen in various facets of life, such as oppressive educational institutions or bureaucratic regulations, acts of violence by one group against another, the hype surrounding elections, and censorship.”

Finding the flip side of repression

Fadhlil insists that the theme of repression is more than just wallowing in self-pity or other negative emotions.

“The notion of repression is meant to remind us not to give in to our fear, anger or anxiety. It also reminds us not repress those feelings and instead wear them on our sleeves,” says the 26-year-old. “Many of those featured in the pieces have no fear of falling. Instead they learn their lessons and move on. In a way, the work addresses our relations with others and ourselves, and how we deal with both.

“For me, the word repress is remarkably close to the term refresh. After all, once we weather hard times things will get better,” Fadhlil adds. A number of his linocuts reflect this stance, among them “Waiting for the Rain” and “After the Rain.” The relief is palpable in the upturned face of the models, as they seem to wait for the rains to cleanse and refresh them. The raindrops falling on their closed eyes is well portrayed by the deeply etched long lines, while the gradation of the cuts into dots on the figures’ chests tellingly indicate the pores of the models’ bodies. Fadhlil’s use of linocuts for the work is exceptionally deft, as its surface lends itself well to the use of shadows and depth, as does the use of thick and thin lines to add perspective. However, the softer, brighter surface of the linocut enhances the sense of cleansing highlighted in the works.

Andre says Fadhlil’s work is effective because of his ability to reach out to his subjects. “When Fadhlil faces his models as he makes gouges or cuts for woodcutting or linocuts, it seems like he is facing himself. His technique is highlighted by intuition, which then guides his hands, mind and senses to shape the model of his craft,” says the Indonesian Fine Arts Institute Yogyakarta lecturer. “Like Van Gogh, [Fadhlil] notes that his doubts dissipate when he’s faced with a model of his work, and that he feels more like himself than at any other time.”

Fadhlil agrees with the observation.

“Graphic print is a still a wide field in Indonesia, and therefore is filled with potential.However, I’d like to keep my integrity in the field by printing the linocuts or woodcut onto paper, instead of just painting or brushing it over paper, like others who practice the craft,” he says. “I would also like to try my hand in other mediums, like mezzotint as well as the reduction form of woodcut prints. Other touches that I’d like to carry out include the use of hand coloring which combines graphic and painting skills, which I was reluctant to try out until now.”

But most of all, Fadhlil hopes that “Repress” will put him on the fast track to his long-term goal of holding more solo exhibitions throughout Indonesia and around the world. But regardless of where Fadhlil’s craft takes him, there’s little doubt that it’ll be something to look forward to.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 16, 2014

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Tracing the Roots of An Iconic Indonesian Beverage


“The Road to Java Coffee” Exhibition (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The sight and smell of well-roasted coffee beans hold the promise of a new day, both in the literal and figurative sense of the word.

Whether brewed in a coffee machine or doused with hot water in the residual form or kopi tubruk in Indonesian, the savory goodness in every cup has a way of making one’s day, whether its drunk to start off the morning or as a leisurely drink in the evening.

But coffee expert Prawoto Indarto is all too aware that there’s much more to a cup of coffee than the public realized, a fact he highlighted during the recent launch of his book “The Road to Java Coffee” at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Jakarta, and an exhibition of photos from tome.

The bilingual English and Indonesian coffee table book traces Java’s major role in the global coffee trade, a phenomenon which started when the Dutch East India Company or VOC exported Arabica coffee grown on the island to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Coffee from Java was so lucrative [for the VOC], that its name became synonymous with high-quality coffee throughout the world. One of the reasons the VOC made tremendous profits from the drink was because of the coffeehouse boom throughout Europe” explains Indarto, who also highlighted coffee’s stimulant properties in shaping history.

“Coffeehouses were renowned as intellectual centers during the Enlightenment, as their regulars included figures such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Napoleon Bonaparte. Java coffee’s popularity soon spread to the United States, to the extent that it became one of three coffee strains, along with Mocha and Bourbon, that was allowed to be imported to the country in the beginning of the 20th century.”

He also pointed out that the Arabica coffee grown in Java played an equally important role in developing the beverage from Sumatra to Papua.

“Coffee strains such as Mandheling and Gajo of North Sumatra, as well as the Wamena coffee grown in the Papuan district of the same name, can trace their development to Java coffee, This originates from the development of coffee as a cash crop during the 18th and 19th centuries” Indarto says. “Java coffee is also noted for its resilience. The crop was hit by a blight in the second half of the 19th century, yet managed to bounce back to reclaim its preeminent position in the global coffee market.”

“The Road to Java Coffee” took an unflinching look at the human cost of the blight, which caused a famine in Java that killed thousands of people.

Indarto points out that the book is as much about getting Indonesian people back to their roots as it is a history lesson.

“Indonesians are still largely ignorant about the history of coffee in this country, though ironically, Java has become a byword for high-quality coffee elsewhere in the world. I guess it has much to do with depriving them of the nation’s best coffee, which are bound for export in Europe, the United States and other developed countries” he laments.

“As a global brand, Java coffee predates Starbucks by nearly 300 years. But many Indonesians are still unaware of this fact, in contrast to the coffee’s fame overseas,” he says.

“The Road to Java Coffee” was published to raise the public’s awareness and pride in Java coffee. Its time they are made aware of the beverage, as brisk domestic sales will provide the sector with a solid, stable market that is just as viable as any export markets.”

Lehman “Agam” Pahlevi Suleiman, chief of the Specialty Coffee Association of Indonesia, agrees. “One way to spread public awareness about Indonesian coffee is to hold coffee tours in areas where the crop is grown in Java, Sumatra and East Nusa Tenggara. The outings are also a viable form of ecotourism and good firsthand knowledge about harvesting coffees” he says.

“Efforts to this end are already held in West Java by Taiwanese coffee buffs, as well as coffee exporters in North Sumatra along with their Singaporean and Malaysian partners. There is much that Indonesian coffee has to offer for the country’s coffee buffs, among them a greater range and variety of flavors, whether they be bitter, sweet, sour and chocolatey, for its coffees.”

He encouraged the use of baristas to raise public awareness about the finer points of coffee.

The Indonesian Association for Coffee Export and Industries estimates that the country’s coffee exports stand at $1.24 billion dollars to Australia, Japan and Taiwan and as well as other markets.

Going through the pages of “The Road to Java Coffee” is a path worth taken.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 13, 2014

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In Local Pearls, A Hidden Gem


A handful of golden hued South Sea pearls (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The round shape of the cultured pearl makes it the epitome of those produced by the Pinctada maxima, or South Sea oyster. Boasting a width of nine to 10 millimeters, the pearl is striking due to its exquisite contours and the tangible heft that comes with the size. While the pearl might seem to be ubiquitous as those made in Australia, its color is strikingly different. It boasts a deep gold shade whose effect sets it apart from most pearls, yet retains the spotlessness and flawless luster of its better-known counterparts.

“The pearl and others like it are typical of Indonesian cultured pearls in that they come in a variety of hues and lusters,” says pearling entrepreneur Rajendra Nasution, whose company Artha Samudera harvested the pearl.

“Aside from the yellow gold color, which is derived from the oyster’s ‘lip’ of the same name, the pearls also come in shades like blue, pinkish and gray, as well as the better known shade of white.

“On the other hand, Australian South Sea pearls might be bigger because their larger pearl sacs can accommodate larger pearl nuclei, but they are predominantly made of the white-lipped variety. But regardless of which strain of pearl is used, their value is determined by natural factors like their roundness, spotlessness, hue and luster. This is unlike diamonds, emeralds and other gemstones whose value is determined by color, carat and cut.”

Getting started in the pearling business

“I’ve always drawn by the sea and marine life since I majored in marine biology at the University of Indonesia’s School of Math and Natural Sciences. That interest got me started in the pearling business in Maluku in 1974, five years after the industry started in the area,” says the 67-year-old Rajendra.

“But I didn’t get to start in earnest until I went to the Kakuda pearl company’s oyster farm in Mikimoto Island, off Japan’s Nagoya area, for job training, before I helped set up their operations through Artha Samudera in Indonesia four years later. The company has since divested into a mostly Indonesian business in recent years.

“The techniques that I learned in Japan greatly improved the pearling methods that we started with. Before, our yield depended on how many South Sea oysters we could find on a dive so that we could implant the pearl nuclei. But the installing of oyster nets helped make the pearl oyster hatching more systematic.

“We also became more aware about a number of factors like water temperatures, salinity and humidity in harvesting the pearls. That’s why our business is done in three places: Raja Ampat in West Papua as the source of the pearls; Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara as the source of the plasma needed for the pearl nuclei; and Bitung in North Sulawesi to harvest the pearls. The locales are chosen because their water temperatures, salinity and humidity affect the time and quality of the harvested pearls.The oysters need to be cleaned at least once a month to maintain a high quality of pearls.”

The finer points of pearling

Rajendra points out that pearling is a trade best defined by whittling down, a point he makes by showing samples of pearls, ranging from big beads of over eight millimeters or more, smaller beads, as well as reject samples that lack the pearl’s characteristic luster.

“Annually we harvest hundreds of thousands of oysters for their pearls. But since pearls are weighed by grams, we can harvest 20 to 80 kilograms of them, usually each June,” he says.

“Of that amount, only one or two kilos will be sold at auctions around the world, among them major auctions in Hong Kong or Kobe, Japan, while the rest might find their way to the domestic market.”

Rajendra says the industry has its pitfalls. “The pearl business is hit-or-miss in more ways than one, as the value fluctuates. For instance, the most lucrative harvest I experienced was in 2002, when I harvested over 54 kilograms of pearls at a time when they were worth an average of $150 per gram. The gains were substantial enough that I made millions of dollars, enough to pay off my debts worth about the same. But nowadays their worth in the global market is worth about $15 or $20 a gram, so even if I made bigger yields of more than 70 kilograms it won’t exactly replicate that success. The downturn came after 9/11 and the global recession that hit the US and European markets.”

He adds that pearl aficionados in Indonesia are a consistent clientele, though their numbers remain small.

Rajendra also laments the lack of skilled pearling workers in the country.

“The need to improve the manpower quality of pearling laborers is imperative, especially in areas like Raja Ampat. The government should also do more to promote Indonesian pearls. Despite these odds, Indonesia is still a major performer in the global pearling sector, so there’s no telling how much better we can do if we remedy these problems” Rajendra says.

Indonesia was the world’s number nine pearl producer in 2013, with the industry generating nearly $30 million in revenue, according to the Trade Ministry.

Rajendra’s passion for the industry stems from his fervent belief that the future of the Indonesian economy lies in the development of its maritime sector.

“The underdevelopment of Indonesia’s pearling sector reflects the lack of development of the country’s maritime industries. As a country with one of the world’s longest coastlines and biggest area of water, there is a lot of untapped potential for the taking,” he says.

“So far, the government is mostly focused on tapping oil and gas in our oceans. But they’re still finite resources, compared to more infinite ones like fish, seaweed and other foodstuffs. We should develop fisheries to make seafood more readily available. It’s a productive way to meet the growing demand in Indonesia, and it’s a surefire way to keep them from getting poached by other countries.”

Rajendra has handed the reins to Artha Samudera over to his daughter, Farah, but remains a diehard champion of the pearl industry.

“The pearling industry has a way of growing on you. Once you’re in, you find it hard to get out. I guess the unpredictability of the industry, much of which stems from the fact that you’re dealing with a living organism instead of a mineral like diamonds, adds to its appeal. But most of all, nothing beats the aesthetic appeal or luster of a perfectly round, spotless pearl,” he says.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 12, 2014

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For Madurese Entrepreneurs, Web of Riches Now Beckons


A 24-hour library in a remote part of East Java is giving local businesses like batik makers to breeders of fighting cocks the tools needed to gain access to a wider market. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

The air of anticipation was heavy among the small business owners packing the public library in Pamekasan district on the East Java island of Madura, as they awaited some distinguished visitors from Jakarta. Their wait wasn’t in vain as their visitors, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [BMGF] representative Jeremy Paley and Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia executive director Titie Sadarini, were just as keen to see how the small-time businesses were faring.

Their visit to Pamekasan was more than just a random stop in a corner of Indonesia away from Jakarta; it was a firsthand look at a place leading the way for Perpuseru, a joint project between BMGF and the Coca-Cola Foundation that kicked off in November 2011. A portmanteau of “ Perpustakaan Seru ,” or “Exciting Library,” the program is designed to improve the libraries’ research capacity and empower women, young people as well as small and business owners, particularly in rural or more isolated areas.

Enlightening the public

“Perpuseru entails grants [from the Coca-Cola Foundation and BMGF] to libraries for IT and Internet communication technology facilities, and training for the library staff in their use,” Tite says of the project, which involves 34 libraries in 16 provinces.

“We aim to make the libraries places of learning for local communities that are made viable by fully qualified staff and state-of-the-art facilities due to our cooperation with state telecommunications company Telkom.”

Paley says BMGF and the Coca-Cola Foundation Indonesia decided to highlight the Pamekasan library “because it made the most of its computers and training facilities.

“These elements bolstered entrepreneurship in the area and helped develop community leaders,” he says.

“The library’s success has exceeded expectations, making it lay the groundwork for the project in Indonesia. The skills and know-how that local entrepreneurs have gained are helping Pamekasan’s economy thrive, as we see them create jobs for local people.”

Paley credits the library’s success to its head, Akhmad Zaini, whose services attracted the attention of the local government.

“The Pamekasan library has managed to become a cornerstone of the community as it is open 24 hours,” Akhmad says.

“It also draws people because of the speed of its Internet, which at nine megabytes per second is one of the highest in East Java, as it’s only exceeded by the cities of Malang and Surabaya. The staff’s proficiency in improving the locals’ Internet skills helped draw more than 62,000 people in 2013, up from more than 30,000 the previous year, before the Perpuseru program started in earnest.

“The library also has a special section on the history of Pamekasan and the rest of Madura. This collection, which includes many rare books and documents, has empowered locals by re-affirming their identity and educating them about their heritage.”

Akhmad adds that the library’s success prompted the local government to increase its budget from Rp 484 million ($42,100) to Ro 900 million.

Akhmad’s focus on education has paid off. The Pamekasan library beat all other Perpuseru libraries in winning writing competitions, while Akhmad’s stint as a guest lecturer at Ciputra University in Jakarta has increased awareness about the library.

Developing businesses

Aside from its educational value, the Pamekasan library has helped small and medium business owners enhance their business opportunities. Among them are manufacturers of the area’s batik tulis , or hand-written batik, one of the oldest forms of the craft.

“Batik tulis is distinct because both sides of the cloth are identical, as the cloth is drawn on both sides using only the canting [tool to apply hot wax] and is dipped in a dye bath three or four times,” says batik tulis artisan Ida Rizal.

“However, no two motifs on the same cloth, whether they be leaves, flowers, lines or circles, are alike. The cloth is also more natural due to the use of tamanu oil, which helps it retain the cloth’s motif. It’s also marked by mirah , or the red shade that makes batik tulis distinctive.”

It doesn’t take long to see what she’s getting at. The lively colors and vivid motifs of the batik, which can take up to a year to make, are balanced by the cloth’s stark, intricate lines. Taken together, it has an organic, natural look and feel, distinguishing it from the more ubiquitous batik cap , or stamped batik.

“Batik tulis is a product that is a specialty of Pamekasan,” says 28-year-old Abdul Hamit, who runs his family’s batik business. “But since it’s not exactly a tourist stop, it didn’t get that much exposure, resulting in slow business and low revenues for us and other batik makers.

“But our fortunes took a turn after the library staff showed us the finer points of digital marketing, enabling us to sell the batik online. Online marketing has allowed us to sell our wares to a larger market beyond Pamekasan, and has seen our profit increase from Rp 2 million a month to Rp 5 million a month.”

As one of the batik experts who helped Abdul, Ida is well aware of how the Pamekasan library’s IT facilities can help turn businesses like his around.

“One of the benefits of digital marketing is that it can connect the batik artisans directly to their market. This is a welcome improvement for their economic fortunes,” says Ida, whose batik business directly promotes its wares to markets as far afield as Malaysia, Brunei and Germany. “For too long they have been languishing on a daily wage of Rp 5,000, while their works sell for millions of rupiah in Surabaya, Jakarta and other big cities. The library’s IT facilities and its special section on Pamekasan’s culture have helped us rediscover various age-old batik tulis styles and techniques. We also learned about its similarities to other cloths, enabling us to combine various styles, such as batik tulis and Dayak motifs from Kalimantan.”

Batik makers are not the only business owners gleaning the benefits from the library’s state-of-the-art IT facilities.

“The Internet particularly helped me in my business of breeding roosters for cockfighting,” says Wahid, a former parking attendant who can sell up to six fighting cocks for about Rp 1 million to customers throughout Java and Kalimantan.

“It helps me in many ways, from sounding out the market to finding out proper techniques to breed them. I have managed to improve the health of the chickens as well as increase their egg output. This is particularly important for the hens, as they hold the DNA key to making the fittest fighting cocks.”

For Paley, the success of Pamekasan’s small and medium enterprises in harnessing the Internet for their businesses reflects the World Wide Web’s ubiquitous role in Indonesia and other developing countries.

“Information poverty, or lack of proper IT facilities, is a form of poverty that is as important as its better-known economic and sociopolitical sides. The Internet is a form of 21st-century ‘fishing’ for opportunities. I hope other libraries in the Perpuseru project can emulate the Pamekasan library’s success,” he says.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 7, 2014

Click here to read the original article


Saluting 50 Years of Local Rock


Kepak performing during the launch of Theodore KS Hutagalung’s book “Rock N’ Roll Industri Music Indonesia: Dari Analog Ke Digital ” (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The audience at the Gramedia outlet in South Jakarta’s Pondok Indah Mall went on a trip down memory lane, as local music act Kepak performed cover versions of legendary Indonesian rock band Koes Plus’s classic hits, “Dara Manisku” (“My Beautiful Maiden”) and “Jangan Bersedih” (“Don’t Be Sad”). Combining the sentimental lyrics of Indonesian ballads and a beat evoking early Beatles hits like “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “She Loves You,” Kepak managed to capture the essence of Koes Plus during the band’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

But the performance wasn’t part of a retro ’60s and ’70s night. Instead it set the tone for a book launch for “ Rock N’ Roll Industri Music Indonesia: Dari Analog Ke Digital ” (“Rock N’ Roll And The Indonesian Music Industry”), by veteran Indonesian music journalist Theodore K.S. Hutagalung.

The book chronicles the development of the local music scene over the past 50 years since the dawn of the rock and roll era and encompasses the oppressive years of Sukarno through the financial crisis at the end of the 20th century to the short-lived era of ring back tones.

Starting out

Theodore said he first had the idea to write the book in 1985, 11 years after he started off as a music journalist.

“I started off writing at Top Magazine, a publication owned by leading Betawi cultural figure S.M. Ardan, from 1974 until 1979,” he said. “As a big music fan, I always wanted to meet Koes Plus and God Bless, as they were the pre-eminent musical figures of the time. But I didn’t want to do so as a mere fan, they had loads of them, so being a music journalist helped get me access to them.”

Theodore’s work with Top raised his profile in the music industry and he also used the opportunity to raise greater awareness about local music.

“I noticed Kompas newspaper back then didn’t touch music, probably because it was so chaotic at the time,” he said. “There were no reliable figures on album sales, there was no way of knowing where the music producers are, and most of all, there were no reporters in the music beat. So I started contributing articles to Kompas.”

During those years, the information on albums, such as the artist, their album, the song list, as well as record company and year it was released, had to be jotted down manually. The same applied for data like album sales and the audio quality of the recording, Theo explained.

“We didn’t computerize our music files then so I wrote down the information that was needed for copyright purposes. Besides, the precise annotation of the files enabled me to write this book.”

However, Theodore did more than just chronicle music.

“I wrote the lyrics for the songs ‘ Selamat Pagi Indonesia ’ [‘Good Morning Indonesia’] and ‘ Balada Sejuta Wajah ’ [‘Ballad of a Million Faces’] for God Bless’s 1980 album ‘ Cermin’ [‘Mirror’], at the request of their lead guitarist Ian Antono. Seven years later I wrote the lyrics for their song ‘ Rumah Kita ’ [‘Our House’], which turned out to be one of their biggest hits,” he said.

Aside from God Bless, Theodore also wrote lyrics for other singers like Chrisye and Keenan Nasution.

Recalling the history of modern Indonesian music

Theodore pointed out the Koes Plus covers sung by Kepak signify the beginnings of modern Indonesian music.

“Koes Plus was influenced by the western rock music of its time. Aside from the Beatles, songs like ‘Dara Manisku’ were influenced by Everly Brothers tunes like ‘Lucille,’ while their decision to keep the band in the family is influenced by the Bee Gees,” said Theodore. “This got them in trouble with President Sukarno’s regime after it banned Western music as part of his anti-Western politics. The band was jailed by the authorities in 1965 for performing Beatles songs and were eventually released just before the Indonesian Communist Party attempted a coup d’etat [sic] that year.”

Koes Plus eventually recounted the experience in their 1967 song “ Di Dalam Bui ” (“In Prison”).

The influence of Western music even extended to Indonesia’s most iconic traditional musicians.

“The late Benyamin Sueb might be known today for his pioneering work in the age-old Betawi musical genre gambang kromong , through such hits as ‘Kompor Meleduk’ [‘Imploding Stove’] and ‘ Si Jampang .’ But he started off his musical career by performing covers of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck,” Theodore said. “Even Rhoma Irama, the so called king of dangdut , was heavily influenced by Deep Purple.”

Theodore pointed out that President Suharto’s regime initially loosened the strictures imposed by his predecessor on Indonesian music.

“Many Indonesian rock and pop songs in the 1970s and ’80s were oriented toward ‘sound impressions,’ namely the noise or sounds that the instruments make, instead of lyrics like Western rock. God Bless was one of the proponents of this trend, as they’re heavily influenced by hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. They played as an opening act for the latter when they played a concert in Jakarta in 1975,” Theodore said.

“God Bless’s hits like ‘Rumah Kita,’ ‘Cermin,’ and ‘ Neraka Jahanam ’ [‘Hell for the Damned’] feature aggressive guitar riffs and hard-hitting, thunderously rolling drums, with which they sought to make a musical impression.”

According to Theodore, the focus on musical impressions was also a by product of the restriction of musical themes following the Suharto regime’s crackdown on free speech.

“Western music is free to address themes like sex, social issues and other controversial subject matter, whereas in Indonesia they are limited to subjects like love and loss of innocence,” he said.

“Some acts did voice their criticism of conditions, such as Koes Plus with their hit ‘ Penipu Tua ’ [‘The Old Cheat’] and Mogi Djajusman’s single ‘Rayap Rayap’ [‘Termites’], but they did so symbolically. But others, like Iwan Fals, still pointedly criticized the Suharto regime with his hit 1989 ‘ Bento ’ [short for ‘Fortress Suharto’], as did Benyamin in a more humorous way with his tune ‘ Digusur ’ [‘Driven Out’] two decades before.”

The future of Indonesian music

One aspect that never ceases to amaze Theodore about the Indonesian music industry is its dynamism.

“Whether it be pioneers like Koes Plus, stalwarts such as Chrisye, or newer acts like Dewa 19 or Nidji, the country’s musicians never seem to run out of ideas. They also seem to come up with new styles over the years,” Theodore said.

“Indonesia’s music industry thrived to the extent that its one of Indonesia’s biggest taxpayers. It’s a far cry from the country’s film industry, which is perennially asking for government subsidies.”

He also pointed out that the music business managed to weather the 1997-1998 economic crisis.

“Some bands at that time managed to sell over four million CDs, which is an unthinkable number nowadays.”

But Theodore warned that the industry still faced some challenges.

“Indonesian musicians are often let down by the music industry. For instance, one source of royalties came from ring-back tones, but that dried up after the government banned them in 2011, after RBT providers like Colibri were suspected of using them to scam cellphone credit from the public. The company chief, known only as NHB, got away with a fine, on grounds that the online evidence wasn’t tangible enough,” he said.

“Weak law enforcement as well as piracy, among other things, has been a constant challenge for musicians and cost them billions of rupiah annually. However, the sale of original CDs from companies like KFC and Gramedia, which weren’t known as movers in the music industry, helped recoup royalties for the musicians after the ban on ring-back tones.”

But all concern aside, Theodore is still upbeat about the future of Indonesian music. He pointed out that festivals like Java Jazz and Java Rockin’ Land has helped the sector thrive, as they reflect Indonesia’s bustling music scene and drew more fans. In that regard, the music industry is alive and well; and Theodore will be there for a fair assessment.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on February 10, 2014

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Images of Borneo’s Lost Idyll

Jakarta. The woman stands on the sun washed terrace, her infant boy within reach. Toy animals neatly lined up in a row sit on top of the wall, ready to be played by the baby.

In another picture, the same young mother cradles her child in front of their house in Tanjung Selor, Borneo, in the present day Indonesian province of North Kalimantan.


“Memories From Borneo” exhibit at Erasmus Huis (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

The wide, fast flowing waters of the Kayan River flowed nearby, while a valley meanders its way on the opposite shore.

The scene is framed by the delicate leaves of a couple of trees overhanging the due. It’s not hard to imagine the vibrant, sunwashed trees with their lush green foliage, while the call of animals in the far distance occasionally break the still air.

The mother and child are Erika and Urs Leupold, the wife and child of Wolfgang Leupold, a Swiss geologist sent by the Dutch colonial government to explore for oil deposits in Borneo.

The pictures, which are among the dozens Leupold took to recount his time in the area between the years of 1921 and 1927, are part of the 50 photos that make up the “Memories from Borneo” exhibition at the Dutch cultural center Erasmus Huis in South Jakarta.

Jointly held by the Dutch and Swiss embassies in Jakarta, Leupold’s work typified the allure that Indonesia held for many in those distant days — but it is also a spell that the country continues to hold until today.

“Indonesia was a draw for many Europeans with a sense of adventure like Leupold, as they were driven to ‘fill in’ parts of the globe that were unknown and isolated during the early 20th century.

“He might have gone to Borneo as part of his job, but as we can see from his photos, he was drawn to its pristine natural wildlife and people, of which the Dayak tribes were the most ubiquitous,” says Dutch ambassador to Indonesia, Tjeerd De Zwaan. “However, some of the photos show the vulnerability of the Dayak and other tribes to the encroachment of the outside world on their environment that would later take the form of illegal logging and widespread destruction of peatland.”

De Zwaan’s Swiss counterpart Heinz Walker-Nederkoorn agreed.

“Leupold’s photos are among the most authentic portrayals of life in Borneo in the early 20th century, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. His pictures managed to capture Borneo’s tribes and their characteristics, whether it be Dayak or nomadic, lesser known peoples like the Punan and Basap tribes,” says Walker-Nederkoorn of Leupold’s work, which was previously shown at the University of Zurich’s Museum of Ethnography in 2012 to mark 60 years of Swiss-Indonesian relations.

“Leupold’s pictorial observations, whether they are of Borneo or Java, are noted for their comprehensiveness, as they extensively used artifacts and notes to give a total experience. However, he balanced this with a contemplative eye and sensitive, tactful approach to Borneo’s indigenous people. But most of all, Leupold shows that Swiss-Indonesian ties go back longer than anyone realizes,” Walker-Nederkoorn says.

This eye for character is most evident in Leupold’s take of Dayak tribesmen who visited his house. One shot of a Dayak man with a pipe seems to show how accommodating he is to Leupold’s family, despite their obvious status as outsiders in his ancestral lands. Other photos convey a more nonchalant, yet unobtrusive image of local people around Leupold.

One of his more dramatic shots entails a youthful player of the sape, a traditional Dayak instrument against the backdrop of the broad, fastflowing Kayan river. The youth’s gaze onto the unseen horizon was balanced by the instrument and the river, both of which seem to form his sense of belonging to the land and how it forged his identity.

Other shots show the rough and tumble world of oil drilling in Borneo and the challenges it posed. No sense of drudgery is seen in these pictures. Instead, the western geologists and oil experts, as well as their train of indigenous porters and guides seem keen to strike into the interior.

“Much of the Borneo that Leupold managed to capture on camera doesn’t exist anymore. Over 70 percent of the land that he caught on camera is now palm oil and banana plantations, while other parts are barren wastelands,” says Mike Nichols of the Indonesian Heritage Society.

“The 30 percent that remains isn’t quite as authentic as those lands that have gone. But there’s still reason to hope, as much of Indonesian Borneo, or Kalimantan, is as remote and inaccessible as it was in Leupold’s time.”

The exhibition also includes a screening of the German language ethnographic documentary “Kopfjaeger von Borneo” (The Headhunters of Borneo). Directed by Baron Victor von Plessen, the 1936 movie features Dayak tribesmen reenacting the age old tale of forbidden love between Anyi, a chieftain’s son, and the slave girl Iring.

But regardless whether the film or the pictures will leave a deeper impression, what’s for certain is that the exhibition can make one see Borneo in a new light.


Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on April 28, 2014

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Finding An Inner ‘Light’ Through Tarot Cards


Members of the Light Givers tarot card community ponder on their future (photo courtesy of Light Givers)

The participants in the tarot workshop choose from a row of overturned cards at random. Grouped in pairs, they take turns interpreting three or four of their partners’ cards to gain insights on their past, present and future.

The point of the activity is as practical as it is mystical; participants seek to find solutions to their problems and shortcomings. The results of their enquiries, whether it be about love, wealth or other aspects of life, are as unexpected as they are uncanny. One hand unveiled by the reader turns out to be the nine of wands, showing the subject’s determination to hold on to her loved one. Another card is the nine of pentacles, indicating the promise of prosperity for the subject.

These mystical seekers were among eight people who joined a workshop held by the Light Givers, a community specializing in reading tarot cards. Founded by digital marketing consultant Nanies Effendy and tarot reader Audifax in June 2013, the group seeks to help young people realize their potential.

“[Light Givers] believe that we are born with our share of luck, much of which we are often unaware. That luck is the ‘light’ that shines inside each and every one of us,” explains the community in its mission statement, though it added that one’s free will also determine their life’s direction, as do experiences and traumas. “We convey our program in a fun format of psychological consultation through fortune telling, whether it be tarot, zodiac, palmistry and so on. This format is accessible and has won us a thriving fan base. Most of all, we aim to help the young realize their potential, and be a place they can turn to when they face problems and feel alone.”

Since its founding, Light Givers has been offering monthly workshops costing Rp 350,000 ($30). The sessions, which can accommodate five to 12 participants, include an introduction to the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, and the 56 cards that make up the Minor Arcana. The former, which comprises well known symbols like The Lovers, The Devil and Death, symbolizes the functions of thinking, feeling, sense and intuition. On the other hand, the Minor Arcana of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles are elemental, representing Fire, Water, Air and Earth.

“For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think tarot cards are images of superstition, fortune telling and other irrational elements. But the cards aren’t as random as they look, since they reflect both the collective and individual subconscious and how they work,” says Audiofax. “The subconscious works quicker than the conscious mind. What tarot does is train people to hone and control it.”

Fellow tarot reader Rendy Fudoh agrees with Light Givers co-founder.

“What drew me to tarot is its philosophy. When I learn about tarot cards, I can learn about everything else, such as religion, culture and other aspects of life. It gives me a better perspective about their backgrounds, much of which are shaped by the subconscious,” says the mentalist and magician, who was inspired to try his hand at tarot after reading a book on magic and mentalism by Dedy Corbuzier, an Indonesian mover in both fields.

“One can also do many things with tarot, like put together a story, perform some magic tricks, and use it for counseling. We can even use it for self hypnosis.”

Depicting symbols of the elements and emotions, tarot cards carry a psychological weight beyond their fortune telling capacities.

“Tarot cards have many practical benefits, as they predate the archetypes highlighted in Jungian psychology by thousands of years. Aside from learning about symbols and archetypes, one can also learn about ‘hierarchy,’” says tarot reader Aryo Nugroho, a practicing lawyer. “Hierarchies define people’s places in the world, whether they’re made to lead, find their style or know their place in life. The reader can also define their character through the card’s symbolism. For instance, some of my women friends identify themselves with the High Priestess and the Hierophant, since the former symbolizes the ancient Earth goddesses while the latter symbolizes faith and undisputed truths.”

One participant, Nurul, a psychology major at Tarumanegara University, was quick to perceive how the cards can change her perspective.

“The insights I gained from tarot adds a new dimension to the inner workings of the human psyche that I previously got from the study of graphology, or studying people’s handwriting. Tarot goes deeper into the subconscious, whereas graphology is wider in scope and is less detailed or in depth,” she says. “Its approach of pairing our persons with strangers help us understand ourselves and our future, as they have no preconceptions about us. I’m certain that the use of tarots will be very useful should I take graduate studies in counseling.”

The confidence Nurul gave to Light Givers is shared by thousands of others. The community’s participation in a number of events, like the 2013 Social Media Festival, University of Indonesia’s Festival Budaya or Cultural Festival, as well as Hai Day, which they often stage in cooperation with the Klub Tarot Jakarta and Tarot Institut, ensures an increasing number of enthusiasts. To date, its Twitter page @LightGivers has a following of nearly 5,600 people.

“Our tarot readers are college and high school students, who also make up most of our followers on Twitter and Facebook. Many are drawn to the tarots after they try out readings at social festivals. Other clients are executives who use the cards to uncover issues they can’t discuss with their loved ones” says Nanies. “Social media outlets help spread the word about us. However, our promotional vehicle is still through word of mouth.”

While Light Givers Corps lived up to its name and enlightened thousands of young people about tarot, the group still has its fair share of challenges.

“The practice of reading tarot cards continues to be dogged by public perceptions of it as a superstition. For instance, one person at the Social Media festival questioned our participation there, on the grounds that we’re carrying out a superstitious activity like fortune telling,” Rendy lamented. “People like these find superstition easier to believe in. Tarot works by intuition, which is far less tangible for them. They are also too lazy to learn the difference, or that tarot can be used to tackle life’s major challenges. We might as well disregard them and continue what we’re doing.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on April 27, 2014

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Documentary Chronicles the Idiosyncrasies of Indonesian Politics


Former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, left, and then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a scene from the documentary ‘Children of a Nation’. (Photo courtesy of Sakti Parantean)

The presidential candidates stepped up their rhetoric and smiling images across Indonesia, intensifying their efforts as the elections shifted from the legislative to the presidential primaries.

Reaching out to their party faithfuls at Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno stadium, contenders like Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) Party presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto and Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, stalwart Megawati Soekarnoputri trawled for votes by appealing to the electorates’ nationalist and religious sentiments, as well as enticing promises of welfare and financial incentives. Lowbrow tactics are also the name of the game.

Indonesian political satirist Butet Kertaradjasa, a known impersonator of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in comedy shows like “Republik Mimpi” (“Dream Republic”), performed his act before him at Megawati and Prabowo’s behest during a function pledging a clean presidential campaign. Butet’s act tickled the funnybones of those present except for the president, who was not amused.

These scenes are part of “Children of a Nation,” a documentary on the 2009 presidential elections by acclaimed Indonesian filmmaker Sakti Parantean. An independent production recounting Yudhoyono’s landslide victory in his reelection bid, the film balances newsreels, vox pop interviews and the perspective of student activists like former Forum Kota (City Forum) student movement head Savic Ali.

“[Children of a Nation] can be described as a ‘guerrilla project,’ as it was funded out of my own pocket. I had no firsthand access to the movers, as most of the news I got was from the detik.com and other outlets,” Sakti said during a recent screening of the film at Jakarta’s National University. “As a title, ‘Children of a Nation’ is also a double entendre , as it can mean that we are the nation’s children. On the other hand, it can also mean we are immature. Either way, we’re liable to play, experiment and make mistakes like children usually would.”

National University School of Communications department chairman Eddi Prakosa agrees.

“The release of ‘Children of a Nation’ might strike the public, because this year marks Indonesia’s legislative and presidential elections. Whether one interprets the movie to be Sakti’s observation of Indonesia’s political process or his critique of it, [the film] doesn’t detract from its relevance.”



Sakti Parantean’s ‘Children of a Nation’ is a behind-the-scenes look at Indonesia’s 2009 presidential elections and the common tricks of the political trade candidates employed for voters’ support. (Photo courtesy of Sakti Parantean)

During the discussion, Sakti added that the documentary also set out to reveal a side of Indonesian democracy that is overlooked by CNN, BBC and other outlets of the international community. This includes using entertainers and free cash by all parties to draw voters, Golkar party presidential hopeful Jusuf Kalla and his running mate Wiranto’s enlisting psychic mediums to endorse their cause, as well as Yudhoyono’s plagiarism of an Indomie jingle for his campaign.

While the movie acknowledged Yudhoyono’s savvy use of social media in his reelection bid, a move pioneered by president Barack Obama in the US, it was also quick to cast doubts on the incumbent’s seemingly solid victory. The film indicates that Yudhoyono and the General Election Commission weren’t above resorting to Suharto era tactics, such as paying TV stations not to air the ads of opponents, rigging the number of voters, and manipulating the findings of survey bodies in his favor.

Most of all, Sakti pointed out that Yudhoyono’s overwhelming victory, which he achieved with over 60 percent of the votes, was made possible by voter apathy.

“Over 40 percent of eligible voters, or more than 60 million people, didn’t go to the ballots during the 2009 elections. That number was up from the 23 percent in 2004,” said Sakti, who founded the Fictionary production house.

“Children of a Nation” also holds the premise that Indonesia is hampered by its collective amnesia about the role Yudhoyono and his fellow generals, Prabowo and Wiranto, played in human rights violations in 1998.

“The three generals, and Indonesia’s political elite, encouraged the nation’s short term memory to whitewash their complicity in human rights abuses. Its also due to the poor regeneration of political parties and other organizations, and their inability in sounding out natural leaders,” says Savic Ali in the film. “The media is also not living up to their part of the bargain as a free press, as they can be bought to influence public opinion.”

Sakti is just as scathing. In the film he narrates that the presidential elections are little more than a talent show comparable to “Indonesian Idol” or “Indonesia’s Got Talent,” a point he sharply made by featuring one of President Yudhoyono’s music videos in the end credits. The film also touches on the Marriott and Ritz Carlton bombings, which along with the Bank Century scandal, seems to foretell Yudhoyono’s stormy second term.

During the discussion, Sakti said that making “Children of a Nation” profoundly changed his political outlook.

“Before [the 2009 elections], I never bothered to vote. But ‘Children of a Nation’ made me realize that we, as the electorate, can be formidable agents of change in our own right,” he said. “That’s why we should use our right to vote. Otherwise it will be misused by certain political parties for their own ends.”

He also used the film to remind his audiences about the challenges that they will face when they graduate and enter the work force.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on April 24, 2014

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A Fresh Perspective On Islam in Indonesia

Japanese scholar Hisanori Kato has always been spellbound by the idiosyncrasies of life in Indonesia that he experienced living on and off in the country during an 18-year period between 1991 to 2009, an experience he recounted in his 2013 book “ Kangen Indonesia,” or “Missing Indonesia.”


First edition cover of “Islam di Mata Orang Jepang” by Hisanori Kato (Photo courtesy of Tunggul Wirajuda)

Among the observations the Osaka-based Butsuryo University professor of sociology makes is the central role of religion in Indonesia, particularly Islam, which he contrasts with its almost peripheral status in his native Japan. Kato recalls his observations in his follow-up tome to “Kangen Indonesia,” “ Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang ,” or “Islam Through the Eyes of a Japanese Individual.”

Written in the same simple style as its predecessor, the casual tone in “Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang” belies the intensity of Kato’s efforts to understand Islam in the Indonesian psyche. This is reflected in the personalized approach of the book’s chapters, each of which are allocated for his sources, whether it be giving fundamentalist Muslims their full say as much as their more moderate counterparts.

Kato seeks to get beyond the rhetoric of fundamentalist Islam, which he tries to distinguish from terrorism. The 49-year-old manages to find the humanity behind this forbidding facade, as he befriend the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) militant Eka Jaya and firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. Kato’s friendliness to Eka, who did time behind bars for attacking a Jakarta nightclub in 2005, gives him no illusions about the latter’s illegal actions. Nonetheless, he gleans the roles that poverty, a sense of marginalization in the wake of Jakarta’s development, and Islam have had in shaping Eka’s identity as a Betawi, or native Jakartan.

Kato doesn’t let controversy get in his way, as he reaches out to Bashir, a convicted terrorist. The cleric, the alleged spiritual leader of the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, is shown to be an accommodating host to the scholar. Kato’s take on both men is sensitive and impartial. However, he has no qualms about referring to Bashir as hard-bitten, with a stiff take on Islamic principles.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kato reveals that Muslim moderates like Ulil Abshar Abdalla and Fadli Zon are varied in their outlook. He notes that the former is opposed to Islam’s role in politics, while the latter actively espouses it.

But the highlight of the book are his reminiscences of the late former Indonesian president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. Kato shows that Islam was central to Wahid’s moderate outlook, as he viewed religion to be a matter of individual conscience. The passage on Wahid also poignantly describes what turns out to be his last meeting with Kato.

More than anything, “Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang” shows Kato’s growing awareness of the religion, which is still largely misunderstood and viewed negatively in Japan. The book also reflects Kato’s unflinching yet sensitive approach to religious issues, characteristics which won him the Toynbee Talbutt Award for comparative cultural studies. “Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang” is also the culmination of Kato’s other works, namely “Agama dan Perabadan” (“Religion and Civilization”), “The Clash of Ijtihad,” and “Civilization Substantiality in the 21st Century.”

Kato’s dispassionate, outsider’s view of Islam in Indonesia is sharp and clear, and he balances this with his deft, tactful and guileless prose.

Islam Di Mata Orang Jepang

By Hisanori Kato

Kompas Publishing, 2014

176 pages


Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on April 22, 2014

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