SBY can take only so much rubbish

President SBY's ultimatum to the Bandung Governor to virtually clean up his act by 23rd of May or have his job of cleaning up the mounting piles of rubbish in the city taken away from him is a breath of fresh air.

For too long, the Governors and other petty officials have acted like powers onto themselves, ruling over their fiefdoms with impunity. The results are dysfunctional cities. Most Indonesian cities are unnecesarily unkempt. There is no proper spatial planning, enforcement of building and land use bylaws are non existent, maintenance is abhorrently absent, even in the better districts of town.

All of this makes the majority of us live in a context where the environment, already unattractive, gets progressively degraded. What is needed is for the government, antional or local, to get tough and change the context whereby people relate to their environment.

If the context changes (refer to the Power of Context in Malcom Gladwell's Tipping Point) then there is hope for change.

But it is a sad day when, as admitted by SBY himself, the President of a country has to handle the rubbish. He needs to get rid of the trash sitting behind officious desks, then the President would not have to lower himself to the tqask of a garbologist.

Indonesian Catholics smarter than Vatican

The Bishops Conference of Indonesia (KWI) has wisely decided not to ban Catholics from watching the movie Da Vinci Code. This decision is at odds with the Vatican which banned the faithful from watching the movie for fear that they would be led astray by Hollywood.

The KWI’s decision is based on its assumption that Catholics in Indonesia are mature enough and that forbidding them to watch the movie would only increase their desire. One wonders what goes on in the minds of those of the Vatican.

You’d have thought that they had learned something about the Principle of Scarcity from the days when Adam and Eve were romping around Eden.

Supreme Nonsense

There is something terribly wrong in a justice system where a Chief Justice under suspicion can barge his way through to a second term.

Bagir Manan, as we know, was  sworn in for his second term at the State Palace yesterday. We also know that he is under suspicion of being bribed by the lawyer of Suharto's half brother Probosutedjo to acquit her client.

Suspicion is not guilt by any means, but for a person in such a crucial position of trust the only decent thing Bagir could have done was to step aside, at least monentarily, until the case is resolved before resuming his duties.

No Chief Justice can function with credibility when under a cloud of suspicion. Except in Indonesia, it seems. This is because the post of Chief Justice is decided by election among the Supreme Court Justices. Ergo the most popular man among the judges — or who is seen as best able to protect their vested interests — wins.

In such a ballot recently, Bagir was returned with overwhelming odds. of the 47 Chief Justices with valid votes he received the support of 44 of them.

In Indonesia where the extent of the corruption in the courts is widely known and often experienced first hand it is an interesting twist to the old democratic maxim of being able to "throw the rascals out". Here it is a case of allowing the rascals a means to elect one of their own, and probably throw good people out.
And to compound matters, as if unable to assert a strong will of its own the Executive ratified the sham vote and duly sworn him in yesterday. Might the Executive not have been able to withold approval and apply the thumb screws to bagir to step aside honorably? Apparently not.
One also wonders by what assinine twist of the law and Constitution did Indonesia arrive at this system of selecting the Chief Justice. 

The system here has clearly failed. If the legislators and Executive are truly concerned about Indonesia they should set about to rectify the system immediately.

Ideally, the Chief Justics should be, like in America, nominated by the Executive and subjected to scrutiny by lawmakers. This is only fair as the Executive can then demonstrate how serious it is in legal reform by the caliber and integrity of the person it nominates. Parliament can and should then vet this person as a check and balance against the Executive's decision.

Until such steps are taken Indonesia's judiciary will remain rotten to the core. No good people will be joined because they would be opppressed by the rascals within.

Waisak in Borobodur

I have always fantasized about spending Vesak, or as the Indonesians call it, Waisak, in Borobodur. I imagined hundreds of monks serenely performing a ceremony with Borobodur as the backdrop, candle light processions…boy was I wrong.

Invited by photographer Jerry Aurum to go hunt some photos in Borobodur over Waisak, I jumped at the chance and risked life and limb by hopping on a Lion Air flight to Jogjakarta.

On Waisak day, while watching TV before going over to the Puja ceremony in Borobodur I got the bad news: there was a talk show featuring the head Walubi, one the Indonesian Buddhist associations, and the head monk of what looked like the Mahayana sect. Mr Walubi looked like a Chinese godfather with a desperate need for media training. But that aside what emerged was that the main celebrations for Waisak this year was shifted to Kemayoran in Jakarta. Kemayoran! Drab, senile and home of more than one scandal Kemoyoran over Borobodur? What gives?
No matter, we rode our arses sore on small motorbikes to Borobodur to watch watever procession there was anyway. There was a cast of thousands of spectators but only a few score monks at the foot of Borobodur where the ceremony was held. It was drab, it was colourless and the hundred or more photographers who converged on Borobodur — some enticed by a photo competition with a handsome prize offered by the Waisak Day organizers — we left wondering why they even bothered making the journey.

The monks were also less than impressive. One monk sitting on the dias was so bored by the goings on that he started sms-ing his pals.

He wasn't the only one. When I was at the Joga Airport lounge waiting for my plane back to Jakarta. A group of monks sat nearby. One of them whipped up a handphone and proceeded to sms. Another whelled a Mont Blanc traveling bag.

Makes you wonder wny these guys become monks in the first place. I always thought you became a monk so that you'd not be hampered down by unnecessary material possessions – such as handphones and addictive sms-ing.

Back in Jakarta and several days later I completed Karen Armstrong's book Buddha. The last chaper was particularly poignant: it details the Buddha's last days when at 80, he increasingly isolated himself and, frail and poisoned by bad food, he died quite alone, instead of in the presence of the thousands who were his followers.

It was a life that inspired and still inspires. The courage of the man in pursuing non-self and the serenity that must ensue as the fruits of the struggle. But where was the serenity during the Waisak weekend in Borobodur? It did not seem to reside with most of the monks, save one, in Prambanan, during the afternoon ceremony. While other monks were preoccupied by their conmfort or lack of it, he seemed consumed in a blissful state, oblivious of all the bustle around him. He looked like he had transcended the world for the time being.
That was the only sight that made Waisak in Borobodur worthwhile.

Bringing Peace to the Classrooms

I wrote this when I was correspondent for the Asia Times on 17 January 1997. It looks like things haven’t changed much since then, although the violencein schools seems to have abated, or is going unreported.

JAKARTA – In a country where government officials are viewed dimly for their lack of initiative, fear of upsetting others and being wrong, headmaster Asrul Chatib stands out as an exception.”He’s good,” said the parent of a student at SMU 3 (Sekolah Menegah Utama or Lower Secondary School) where Asrul is now posted.

“He managed to reduce the fighting at SMA 70, which was notorious for its student brawls. He also managed to improve the school’s performance ranking, [rising] from 40 something to one of the best 10 in Jakarta in the four years he was there,” said the parent.

“To understand student violence, you have to look at the background of the students,” said Asrul in an interview at his well-worn but neat office at the Kuningan suburb of Jakarta. “You have to look at the background of the students.

“For a start, there is only a minority of students who are really into violence. Many of them come from broken homes and poor families. They see no future.”

To compound matters, they then attend schools which are often rundown, congested and low in morale, like SMA 70. “When I first got there, there were fights almost every day,” Asrul said.

That was when he set out with his three-step plan to reduce the incidence of violence in the school and improve its academic performance.

“The first step was to improve the environment of the school. Students cannot have any pride in their school or study well when the school environment is not conducive,” he said.

The first thing he did was raise funds to put the school into shape. “I wrote to the Parent-Teacher Association and asked them for money.” The association agreed and with the infusion of 220 million rupiah (about US$93,000) Asrul gave the school a new coat of paint, made repairs, improved the ventilation in the classrooms and even paved the bathroom with tiles.

The next step was to improve the morale and welfare of the teachers, many of whom were underpaid. This took the form of providing them with subsidized meals. He also spent a lot of time improving communication between himself and the teachers.

With the first two steps in place, Asrul set about implementing discipline among teachers and students. “This could be implemented only after a sense of pride has been instilled in their school.”

Penalties were introduced for wrongdoing and Asrul made sure they were implemented. A series of punishments which ranged from warnings, informing parents, one and two-week suspensions and expulsions and caning, the last two as a last resort, were instituted.

“The students had to learn that there were rules and if these were broken then they would have to face the consequences,” Asrul said.

The strategy worked and within four years the incidence of violence in the school had dropped to perhaps once a month. Even then it was small-scale violence.

Asrul said that the important factor in his strategy was in instilling a sense of pride and belonging to the school among the teachers and students. With this came self-respect and a sense of purpose for the students, especially those who could not see a way out before.

He also said that it was important to be honest when trying to solicit donations from parents. “If they can see that the money is well spent they would not hesitate to contribute to the well-being of the school.”

To assure parents that all the donations were accounted for, Asrul issued a financial report to the Parent-Teacher Association every semester. Asrul said many of his peers were afraid of imposing discipline in their schools for fear of reprisals from parents and making a mistake. “But if we do exactly as we say we would do, then there is nothing to be afraid of,” he said.

Susilo all mixed up when it comes to PR

I wrote this for The Jakarta Post on 28 September 2005
The nation is facing a possible bird flu epidemic. The government decides to act and just before the Cabinet meets last Tuesday, the President discusses a campaign on the safe consumption of chicken meat.

In a photo opportunity, the President holds up a poster for the campaign. The headline on the poster reads: "Chicken meat and eggs are nutritious foods."

DOUBLE TAKE: Is this a campaign to promote the consumption of poultry and eggs or to educate the public on how to make sure the chicken and eggs they eat are safe amid the possibility of a bird flu epidemic? What sort of a cockamamie public relations advice has the President been subjected to again?

Almost one year into his presidency, the photo of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono holding up that poster, as Vice President Jusuf Kalla looks on passively, is somehow emblematic of all that is wrong with the President's public relations.

Here you have a man who is obviously full of integrity and with concern about what is happening to his people etched on his face. He probably instructed his communications aides to come up with a campaign to educate people so that they would be safe from the effects of bird flu. His people go away and come up with a disconnected message. The local phrase for disconnect, ngak nyambung, is extremely appropriate.

If there is a phrase to sum up the President's public relations efforts over the past year, ngak nyambung would be it. It would describe perfectly the tedious efforts his PR gurus have put into building up his image, only to deliver messages that come close to, but somehow never, address the real issues. The result is lots of form without substance; window dressing without the accompanying view.

The ongoing fuel crisis is a good example of ngak nyambung communications. In moments of crises people expect their leaders to give them an assessment of the situation, articulate how they intend to lead the nation out of the situation, give them hope for optimism and then spring into action.

What we get instead is window dressing. There were the appeals to turn down air conditioners, the eschewing of warm western suits for cool batik and the expediency of subsidizing the poor with the money gained from slashing subsidies.

But when it came to action, it was a case of dithering and murmurs of inevitable fuel price hikes. There has so far been no eloquent articulation of a plan to lead Indonesia out of the problem, the necessary steps that need to be taken and the sacrifices required of each and everyone of us to free Indonesia once and for all from the yoke of fuel subsidies. Why couldn't the President's PR gurus have devoted as much energy to this endeavor as they spent setting up photo opportunities of the President in batik?

Then there was the video-conferencing brouhaha. Susilo goes to Washington and uses video-conferencing to keep in touch with the Cabinet. Good on him. In doing so he joins the countless legions of top business and government executives who use technology to keep in touch and help him make decisions. No big deal.

The window dressers, however, could not let this opportunity pass. They had to create a media opportunity of it by inviting the media to witness the first few minutes of this remarkably savvy use of technology. The result is endless criticism and speculation of a rift with his Vice President. Ngak nyambung communication strikes again.

Indeed the President's image gurus' infatuation with technology is now notorious. How many of us can forget the incident where the President must have been advised to give out his personal cell phone number to anyone who wanted to complain about the government? Or when millions of Indonesians got a personal SMS from the President telling them to stop using drugs?

The image gurus are also obsessed with creating photo opportunities, thinking that they can boost Susilo's popularity with images depicting him as a caring man of the people. Those interested in getting the full catalog of cheesy promotional photographs that have made it into the newspapers can pick up a recent copy of a the curiously titled magazine Men's Obsession, which demonstrates hagiography at its best.

As the President completes his first year in office there is a loud call for him to replace his economic ministers. Perhaps the President should also review the performance of his image advisers who have failed to capitalize on the new administration's greatest asset: Susilo himself.

In spite of all the PR muddles Susilo still has the goodwill of the people at large. People generally like him. They think he is honest, full of integrity and genuinely wants to move Indonesia forward, but is hampered from doing so because of the low caliber and integrity of those around him.

Entering his second year Susilo has to act fast and decisively to show that he can rise above these limitations. If he fails to do so, fickle public sentiment could begin to turn against him. He needs to act and part of this action is to communicate effectively in a way that is credible and that connects with the people, rather than resorting to window dressing, platitudes and lots of sound bites signifying nothing.

Almost a year after taking office what is the state of President Susilo's image? How is he perceived by the public and the media?

There will no doubt be a plethora of surveys on all sorts of perceptions on all aspects of Susilo's presidency by next week to commemorate his first year in office. Here, however, is an unscientific and opinionated PR practitioner's view of Susilo's public image:

Surprisingly, President Susilo has survived the first year with his image quite intact, in spite of obviously appalling PR advice, being surrounded by non-performing ministers with their own agendas and having to face thorny issues such as the tsunami, the falling rupiah and the fuel subsidy.

Go dive in Derawan

Just returned from a week's diving in Derawan and surrounding islands and can heartily recommend it. The diving is great. You get a lot of macro stuff – shrimps, crabs, nudis etc – and the big stuff – sharks, barracudas, dogteeth tuna…

Diving in Derawan itself, about 2 hours boat ride from Berau in East Kalimantan, is fascinating stuff. The night dives are the best. In on dive we saw a pair of crocodile fish, a pair of octous and lits of critters. Turtles are so abundant there they become passe. One large turtle contantly swims around the pier.

Form Derawan you can go diving in nearby islands. We went to Sangalaki where we saw manta rays, to Mantua where we clung to rocks amid a four-knot current as hundreds of schooling barracuda and the occassional shark swam past.

Then there was Kakaban where the diving was OK but the highlight was an inland lagoon full of stingless jellytfish. It's apparently one of two spots in the world where the lagoon has been so isolated from the sea for so long it has developed its own ecological system. The only downside to Kakaban is the path to the lake which is a dafety hazard because the wooden walkway constructed by the resort had begun to rot and was unsafe. A group from jakarta who went there before us came back with three divers injured when a section of th walkway collapsed. The resport apparently wanted to repair it but they were stopped by a local NGO. The reason was that they might upset the ecology. One more instance of the righteous stupididity of NGOs.

The clouds. In the week that we were there we were treated to a symphony of clouds – clouds that brooded over the seas and islands, clouds that bloom into the sky, wistful ones that glided by and romantic clouds by moonlight.

We stayed at Derawan Diving Resort. In spite of the island's remoteness, the rooms were well kept and neat, the airconditioning worked, there was hot water and even cable TV that we never watched. The food there is superb and they probably have the most creative chef around East Kalimantan. The taste was great and its heartening to see a chef putting so much care in presentation.

Getting to Derawan is expensive as it entails flying to Balik Papan and from there catching a connecting flight to Berau before getting on a boat to the island. But it is worth it.

As we left we reminisced about the diversity of life on the island and the seas surrounding it, the great hospitality of the people and the host of turtles that would pop up near the pier and some of them would unperturbedly swim with you without taking fright. How long was this going to last in the face of the relentless march of progress and modernization?