Warta Talk

Bringing media people with different cultures together

* First published on ABC News BACK STORY (Tumblr).  April 2016


The first one raised the issue of the live cattle trade, relations between the new leaders of Jokowi and Turnball, and a new left-leaning political movement in Jakarta, while the second focussed on terrorism, the extremist movement in Indonesia and comparisons with Australia’s situation.

Next up was a fascinating view of corruption in Indonesia and the current power plays which have made civil society concerned.

These are the conversations that have come up over the past 4 months in a new, informal gathering of media types in Melbourne.

Indonesia is never dull. It is one of Australia’s closest neighbours and a gateway into Asian culture. It sits in a strategic position in the region and is going through all the difficult gear changes that are seen in a new democracy. It has the energy of a young demographic which is chafing against entrenched interests.

The events mentioned bring together people who work in the media, including producers, academics and bloggers, to discuss the issues that they care about, sometimes between the two countries, and sometimes just areas of similar interest. They are designed so those participating can gain an insight into important issues both domestically and in the region. And develop a better cultural understanding between all participants that will inform stories, ideas and perspectives. And aside from the important stuff, there are moments of fun, and realisation that there are many things between cultures that are the same.

This kind of get-together all started in Jakarta, while I was stationed there for four years working as a correspondent. It was an amazing experience, a privilege. It also exposed my lack of knowledge about the country. I hope I am right in saying that … I learnt …!  about nuance, about being mindful of my actions and words in a different culture, and of the immense value in simply taking the time to get to know people and build valuable relationships

During that time I became friends with a reporter and presenter on one of Indonesia’s national television news channels, Metro TV. We met on one of the numerous crazy court reporting days when armoured tanks and rows of police officers had been deployed to be at the ready – this time for the trial of an radical islamic leader considered to be the ideological head of the Bali bombers. I, like others, had asked this influential leader questions through cell bars and pushed through hordes of supporters to get into the courtroom.

Rory is now one of my best friends, and am so glad that he simply came up to me at that courthouse and said hello.  

After many discussions over wine, over coffee, over brunch, we realised that we were learning a lot from each other. For instance, how story imperatives were shaped, reporting ethics, the differences between a public broadcaster and a privately-owned station, and most wonderfully for me, the glorious gossip, anecdotes and background information we shared that provided a richer understanding of “what the heck” was going on, and helped us prioritise the mountain of information to be kept across.

It seemed like a very useful collaboration that could be more widely disseminated.
So with another friend, from the Wall Street Journal, we decided to bring it all together more formally. We also wanted to bridge the divide which saw news teams from foreign outlets and the local crews going to the same media press conferences and events but not mingling with each other, even during some of the very long waits we all endured together. An email was out out, calling for media types from all outlets and backgrounds to join us for a “gathering” … in my apartment, bringing drinks and food to share. It was loud, and interesting, and illuminating.

Eventually we gave it a name – Warta Talk – wartawan is Indonesian for journalist, and of course, we talk. It’s a mix-it-up name that is meant to mirror the tone of the conversations. Mixing cultures, mixing ideas, getting to know your neighbour better.

It is still going, small, but passionate!  

Fast forward to my return to Australia, and to my surprise I discovered that quite a reasonable number of  Indonesians were living in Melbourne, including those who worked in the media industries or have a connection to them. Enough in fact, that I thought it might be good to start a group here (and personally assist with my language practice!).

I contacted the Indonesian Consul General who put me in touch with the Australian Indonesian Journalists Association. So now we have had a few meetings. No surprise – I think they have been great. I hope others feel the same. The aim is to encourage Australian media types to more about another country in the immediate region, and by default, Asia, and provide some different insights. Also that Indonesian attendees will be able to ask questions to their Australian counterparts, and give their own perspectives on the issues that rise between the two nations and also learn. It is meant to be a frank and worthwhile experience.

The Jakarta initiative also sparked the first media dialogue by the Lowy Institute held in March 2015, which brought out three senior Indonesian journalists for a private discussion and a public panel discussion.

Asia, and Indonesia, can be difficult places for a Westerner to get his or her head around. It has been changing markedly like many countries in Asia. As the region grows in wealth and global importance it can’t be ignored. And it does not hurt to lay more groundwork for robust and respectful relationships. I hope, as I think do the other organisers, that this will happen through a forum such as this.

Free the Data!

This article first appeared in Indonesia in Melbourne, a blog site for the University of Melbourne, 7 December 2015


+++   It was one of the quieter visits in what has been a steady stream of senior Indonesian officials to Australia this year to talk business, but Andang Bachtiar’s mission and message were revealing.

In May, he was put in charge of a committee, under reformist Energy Minister Sudirman Said, which has the task of boosting Indonesian oil and gas exploration. And while he is grappling with a raft of complex issues that have dragged the industry down for a decade, he has also found it is being impeded by some of the simplest. This includes the way that crucial seismological data is made available so exploration companies can make smarter commercial decisions.

“It is not open to the public, it is held tight and there is surprise on that,” Andang said in a private interview in Melbourne.

Normally such data is readily released after a patent period, but Indonesia has a different approach. The 2008 Freedom of Information Law requires government bodies and institutions to routinely publish data on their activities and provide citizens with information on request. But the Law also contains a long list of exemptions from disclosure, including information that could “reveal the natural wealth of Indonesia”. There are also conflicting articles in the 2011 State Intelligence Law, which classify such information as “intelligence secrets”.

In picking apart the myriad of sticky regulations and practices surrounding the industry, Andang has made it one of his goals to free the data. “You know the data is very scarce in Indonesia, there is no openness in the data, although there are regulations about it,” he said. “But why don’t we have the data complete and open in Indonesia? Because there is a problem there. And it has been from years ago.”

Making the data more open and far less costly is just one of many changes the Indonesian Petroleum Association has been lobbying for. And according to the organisation, Andang is the kind of person the industry needs.

“He’s on the right track,” IPA President Craig Stewart said. “If you look at best practice around the world, if you own the resource, you want to encourage companies to come in and explore.”

Andang brings a background in geophysics and 23 years experience in the industry, and is also the secretary general for the Association of Oil and Gas Producing Regions (ADPM). He wants to encourage both domestic and international players back in but the task is immense.

Oil and gas exploration has been described as “in crisis”. In oil, the situation has been going backwards since the early 2000s. As fields have matured, governments have given investors little reason to risk tapping new sources, and production has dropped from more than a million barrels a day to about 800,000. The natural gas industry has also faltered despite expectations of it becoming a vibrant and alternative source of energy for a growing nation.

Andang’s examination has confirmed what many others know: that excessive and contradictory regulations mixed with an inefficient bureaucracy have been choking production and stifling a longer-term view. “There has been a long list of why we have failed exploring in Indonesia, creating more new reserves, and the long list has already been told several times to the government by the industry,” Andang said. And it’s a very, very slow response from the government.”

Even releasing the key data in a more timely manner is going to require reforms that include prising a government agency from a source of income. Andang is putting his ideas for reform forward.

“One of them is the possibility of abolishing the government regulation stating that the data is a source of government income,” he said. “We don’t want that. Because it’s stated as a source of government income, the data of oil and gas is very, very restricted.”

According to business representatives, there are many Indonesian professionals in the field who could create start-up companies but are stymied by costs. IPA President Stewart said: “A major oil company may find it’s not very expensive but as the industry matures it’s not necessarily the big companies that are the innovators.”

The industry is still waiting for a new oil and gas law to replace the one that was struck down in 2012 by the Constitutional Court, creating even further uncertainty for investors.

Despite all these concerns, Andang was keen to strike a positive tone in Australian about the new government in Indonesia and its commitment to change.

“I will tell them that we are changing, we are changing,” he said. “The new administration under Jokowi, of course it is already several months now but the changes in oil and gas with the new Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, and also my position in the National Energy Council, we are trying to balance all of this into the movement changing in the oil and gas industry.”

Andang believes that even seemingly small gains to improve data access and process will eventually force politicians to come support the mood for change.

Indonesia’s Education Challenge

This first appeared on Australian Outlook, Australian Institute of International Affairs, October 2015 .


Of all the many hurdles Indonesia faces in its efforts to develop, education is one core challenge which is vital to address.

The new President, Joko Widodo, has pledged to “lift-up the people” and has a vision to equip them with the skills and services to improve their lives. One of the most fundamental requirements to achieve this goal will be to improve education levels; a task that is both enormous and urgent.

Schoolchildren are lagging behind in a system that doesn’t serve them well, and reports have warned that even on the current trajectory those with an education are likely to be under-qualified to meet the needs of a growing economy. Meanwhile the tens of millions of factory workers reliant on low-skilled jobs are not being sufficiently trained for the next wave of manufacturing predicted for Indonesia.

The Minister in charge of early education, Anies Baswedan, has said that he realises there is much work ahead to capture the opportunity. There are some small signs of improvement. For example, as part of his promise to deliver growth and equality President Widodo has introduced a smart card that ensures financial support for the first 12 years of education for the nation’s poorest.

Mr Baswedan has spoken openly of his long-term vision and the challenge in implementing it. The country has more than 50 million schoolchildren who easily lose interest in the classroom and consequently lag behind their peers in other countries. “Looking at the quality of our education, you don’t have to be Superman to realise that something is wrong,” said Mr Baswedan told the audience at a conference held by The Economist group in Jakarta earlier this year.

Indonesia has a teacher ratio of around one for 16 students, but many areas don’t have enough teachers while others have too many. The Minister says that in some rural areas up to 60 percent of schools are under-staffed. He is concerned that children living more than two kilometres from a school face an uphill battle to continue their education. Teacher quality is another issue, with teachers scoring an average of 45/100 on a competency test, when it should be around 75.

In a private interview he set out a framework for the next five years, with the focus on several key areas which include, at the top of the list, empowering parents to be a part of their children’s education, supporting school principals and improving teacher standards.

He was asked at the Jakarta conference why the low-scoring teachers are still in their jobs. “That’s a good question”, he says. That’s a question we are asking.”

More of the Indonesian budget is now committed to education and while there have been gains it has not been evenly matched by an improvement in student capabilities. According to the survey known as PISA which measures OECD countries and others, 15 year-old students are well behind their peers in science, reading and maths.

Such a situation does not place them in an advantageous position to become the qualified professionals or skilled workers the country will need if it is to progress. A 2013 report by the Boston Consulting Group found that “by 2020 top companies will be unable to fill about one-half of their entry level position with fully-qualified candidates.”

At that same economics conference in Jakarta, the IMF Country Representative Ben Bingham said “education forms now are critical, so that in ten years time Indonesia has a labour force that can compete up the value-chain.” He also made the point that if the government does want to see a rapid increase in growth and social capital, it would require a significant rise in the amount of skilled labour.

The need to improve education levels, and also reduce inequality, is obvious in a country where more than half of the population rely on income from the informal sector.

There are also the tens of millions working in factories. Prominent unionists have been warning that these workers will be at a disadvantage when the trade barriers come down within the ASEAN economic community, as they cannot match the knowledge and training of their peers. And it is baseline training that is needed.

The Victorian Government’s office in Jakarta has identified vocational training needs for the private sector in certificates 1-4, improving low-level skills that would then help workers, and the country, to move into higher technology manufacturing. Training is done by local entities when possible, but more work is being done by VET entities offering courses and new players are entering the market.

There are other small programmes trying to close the gap and make a positive difference, such as one between Australia and Indonesia to train meat industry workers. Another initiative is looking at how to adopt and transfer some of the techniques used in Australian primary school classrooms into an Indonesian setting, which comes from Indonesian adults seeing their own children thrive in Australian classrooms.

The challenges are not unknown. How Indonesia deals with them is the larger question, and also whether it is willing to look outside for ideas and strategies on how to make the change.

Helen Brown, a senior journalist at the ABC, was based in Indonesia for 4 years as a correspondent from 2010-2014.

Published October 2, 2015



Seorang Seniman bernama Nani

Ketika itu Melbourne yang bersuhu 9 derajat dilanda hujan dingin yang turun terus menerus dari langit sore kelabu. Dan tulang belulang saya yang sudah terbiasa dengan iklim tropis tidak dapat menahan diri dari terpaannya. Sebaliknya sembari membukakan pintu depan sebuah rumah besar, perempuan itu sepertinya tidak menyadari betapa dinginnya sore itu. Rumahnya bergaya townhouse 1970-an dan tersembunyi di area suburbia dalam kota yang terkenal. Ironis memang bahwa perempuan yang besar di Indonesia yang beriklim tropis itu menyambut saya dengan baju terusan kotak-kotak berlengan pendek.

Keterangan Foto: Seorang seniman kelahiran Indonesia bernama Nani Puspasari di studio sekaligus rumahnya di Windsor, Melbourne, Australia.

Keterangan Foto: Seorang seniman kelahiran Indonesia bernama Nani Puspasari di studio sekaligus rumahnya di Windsor, Melbourne, Australia.

Dengan sapaan ramah, Nani Pusparani menyapa dan segera mengarahkan saya menaiki sebuah tangga beton. Terdapat papan kecil bertuliskan tangan yang cantik di dinding, “Selamat Datang di Surga”, dan di atasnya terpampang, “Selamat Datang di Neraka”.  “Itu untuk pesta ulang tahun saya,” kata wanita tersebut seraya tersenyum.  Begitulah, selamat datang di dunia Nani Puspasari.

Nani adalah seorang ilustrator, desainer, fotografer, dan seniman kelahiran Kalimantan, sebuah pulau di Indonesia yang kaya akan sumber daya alam.  Dengan menggunakan cap “designani”, ia telah menetap di Melbourne selama 8 tahun dan bekerja sebagai seniman grafis. Sementara itu, untuk proyek sampingan, ia banyak bereksperimen dengan menggado-gadokan berbagai jenis media, seperti ilustrasi pensil dan lukisan, sulaman, kolase, mural, dan seni instalasi.

Bakat artistiknya sebenarnya dapat membawanya pergi ke tempat-tempat lain selain Australia.  “Dulu saya ingin ke London namun tempatnya kejauhan, dan saya bilang kepada orang tua bahwa saya tidak akan kembali ke Indonesia setelah saya pergi.”  Tentu saja keluarga Indonesia mana yang menginginkan anaknya pergi terlalu jauh. Sehingga mereka pun mengusulkan Nani untuk tinggal di Singapura atau Melbourne, dan akhirnya pilihan pun jatuh ke Melbourne.

Ternyata Nani dengan gayanya yang eklektik cocok dengan kota ini. Dengan pekerjaan penuh-waktunya sebagai seniman grafis, kami memasuki area kerja yang sebenarnya merupakan bagian dari kamar tidurnya yang besar. Ruangan tersebut dipenuhi dengan berbagai karya seni dan alat-alat lukis. Terdapat pula sebuah meja bundar pendek yang sangat lucu. Meja tersebut dilengkapi dengan kursi-kursi dari peti yang biasa digunakan untuk mengangkut susu. Untungnya peti-petinya masih ditutupi bantalan duduk!

Ia bercerita bahwa saat masih kuliah di Surabaya ia adalah “anak kampung” yang tidak terlalu cocok dengan anak-anak “kelas atas”. Karena ia mendapat didikan untuk selalu rendah hati selama bekerja untuk usaha orang tuanya, ia tidak merasa nyaman dengan budaya sekitarnya yang mengagung-agungkan merek. Mungkin itulah mengapa ia merasa kerasan di Melbourne. Baginya Melbourne adalah kota yang tidak menghakimi orang karena penampilan atau pekerjaan semata.

Di Surabaya (kota besar di bagian timur Pulau Jawa yang merupakan salah satu kota dengan perkembangan terpesat), Nani Puspasari mulai berkawan dengan seorang seniman lalu bergabung dalam sebuah pameran beregu. Ia pun memulai karirnya.  Itulah yang akhirnya membawa Nani terbang ke Melbourne dan menerima dua gelar S2-nya. Dan akhirnya ia menjadi bagian dari komunitas seni di sini.

Ia baru saja menyelesaikan pesanan desain untuk Ubud Writers Festival tahun ini yang merupakan acara tahunan populer di pulau Bali. Ia juga dianugerahi medali perak untuk ilustrasi sampul buku penulis Indonesia bernama Lily Yulianti Farid. Nani juga bekerja di beberapa kafe di Melbourne, dan ia menjalankan proyek-proyek pribadi seperti “The Feminine World.” Dalam proyek ini ia menggunakan tinta dan kain wol kuning tipis untuk membuat catatan harian tentang pengalaman hidup sebagai seorang perempuan.

Ia adalah pribadi yang unik dan menyenangkan, banyak omong namun juga pemalu. Meskipun pemalu, ia tetap terbuka.  Setelah itu Nani mengenakan mantel besarnya dan bercerita mengenai mimpi buruk yang dialaminya selama 7 tahun ketika ia masih lebih muda. Salah satunya adalah mimpi menemukan toples di atas gunungan sampah berisi jantung yang masih berdetak. Kisah segelap ini cukup sulit dicerna mengingat kami sedang berada dalam ruangan ceria yang dipenuhi berbagai karya seni berwarna cerah dan gelap, dan didominasi kasur tinggi berbusa-busa berwarna putih. Setelah itu ia bercerita bahwa tidur merupakan sumber inspirasi baginya. Serta sumber mimpi-mimpi yang mengerikan pula tampaknya.

Motonya adalah “Work Smarter, Be Nice and Have Fun,” atau “Bekerjalah dengan lebih cerdas, bersikaplah yang baik, dan bersenang-senanglah.”

Seiring dengan usianya yang semakin mendekati angka 30, Nani Puspasari menuturkan bahwa orang tuanya, sama seperti orang tua kebanyakan, semakin memaksanya untuk menikah seperti anak-anak muda di daerah asalnya. Saat ia pulang kampung baru-baru ini, orang-orang yang sebenarnya hanya mengenalnya melalui media sosial pun merasa turut perlu mengingatkan Nani tentang pentingnya menikah. Biasanya ia hanya akan menjawab dengan komentar macam, “Ya, saya akan menikah tahun depan, tunggu saja undangannya.”

Beberapa waktu lalu ia memulai sebuah inisiatif bernama Melbourne Art Diary yang merupakan catatan blog pengalamannya mengikuti berbagai acara seni.  Akan tetapi anak rantau di Australia ini tidak berbeda jauh dengan orang kebanyakan. Pasalnya, alasan awal mengapa ia mulai mendalami dunia seni adalah karena kepentingan yang cukup jomplang, “Saya suka datang ke acara-acara pembukaan karena ada bir gratis.”

Ia tertawa. Lalu ia mengakui bahwa seringkali pikirannya mengawang jauh. “Goldfish memory”, ia menyebutnya. Dan tiba-tiba Nani buru-buru pergi keluar karena baru sadar bahwa panggangan untuk teman serumahnya hangus dalam oven. “Terkadang di tempat kerja saya hanya memandangi bos saya. Kadang bos itu harus menyebutkan siapa namanya agar saya bisa ingat siapa dia!”

Nani Puspasari terus membuka jalan dan menetapkan derap hidupnya sendiri sebagai orang Indonesia yang tinggal di Australia.

An Artist Called Nani

It’s nine degrees outside in the cold rain which is now settling in on a grey Melbourne afternoon. And my tropical-acclimatised bones are not coping. The woman who opens the large heavy door of a 70’s townhouse, tucked away in a popular inner-city suburb, does not seem to be noticing the cold at all. The irony is that she is the one who grew up in tropical Indonesia .. but greets me wearing a short-sleeve, pattern-checked, pinafore dress.

Indonesian born artist Nani Puspasari at her home studio in Windsor, Melbourne, Australia.

Indonesian born artist Nani Puspasari at her home studio in Windsor, Melbourne, Australia.

Nani Puspasari gives a happy hello and directs me up the concrete flight of stairs. Small pretty handwritten signs are on the wall “Welcome to Heaven” and then further up “Welcome to Hell”.  “That was for my birthday party” she says with a smile.  And welcome to the world of Nani Puspasari.

This illustrator, designer, photographer and artist was born on Indonesia’s resource rich island of Kalimantan.  With the moniker of “designani”, she’s lived in Melbourne for 8 years established herself as a graphic artist, while on the sidelines mixing-up and experimenting with a range of mediums – pencil & painting, embroidery, collage, murals, installation.

Her artistic desires could have taken her somewhere else instead of Australia.  “I wanted to go to London but it’s too far, and I told my parents that I would not be returning to Indonesia once I had gone.”  Of course no Indonesian family wants their children to be far away, so Singapore and Melbourne were suggested.. and Melbourne was it.

Her eclectic style works well in this city. Working full time as a graphic artist, we enter the work-space she’s created in her home – part of her large bedroom –  and it’s filled with artwork and artists’ tools and a very cute low round table and milk crates to sit on. And thankfully there are cushions!

At University in Surabaya, where she says she was the “small-town kid” that didn’t quite fit in with the “upper class”; her on-the-ground sensibility from working in her parent’s business didn’t sit comfortably with the “brand-name” culture that she found herself in. Which is perhaps why she feels at home in Melbourne where, she says, society is less judgemental about the way people look and what they are doing.

In Surabaya (a city on the east of Java island, becoming one of it’s largest and fastest growing) Nani Puspasari became friends with an artist, joined in a group exhibition, and her path began. Which saw her eventually travelling to Melbourne and completing two Masters, and becoming part of the arts community.

She has just finished a commission for the design of this year’s Ubud Writers Festival, a popular annual event on the island of Bali. And has won silver for an illustrator award for a book cover (by Indonesian writer Lily Yulianti Farid) as well as work for Melbourne cafes, and dipping into her own personal projects .. such as “The Feminine World” using ink and thin yellow wool to create a story of the day, every day, about being a woman.

She is quirky, and fun, and chatty and shy, but also open.  And by this time has put on a large coat. She talks of the dark dream that she endured for seven years when young, which included finding her beating heart in a jar on a mountain of rubbish. Which is rather something to take in, In her room dotted with bright and dark artwork, and dominated by a frothy white bed propped up high. Sleeping, she says, gives her inspiration. As well as terrifying insights, it would seem.

Her motto is “Work Smarter, Be Nice and Have Fun.”

As she moves closer to 30 Nani Puspasari says her parents, like many others, are becoming more anxious about her getting married. As do the young people in her home-town; On a recent visit back she found that many knew her from following her on social media but still felt it was important to remind her of the importance of marriage. Which she would return with a comment such as “I will get married next year, just wait for the invitation.”

A while ago she began a Melbourne Art Diary to chronicle, by blog, her experiences at art events. But this Indonesian living in Australia is no different to many … her observations on the art scene initially stemming from an altogether different imperative, “I like to go to opening nights to get free beer.”

She laughs and admits she is somewhat absent minded .. “A goldfish memory” and soon after races out the door, realising that the treat she was cooking for a housemate is now burning in the oven. “Sometimes I just stare at my boss, he has to remind me of his name.”

Nani Puspasari is following her path and finding her tempo; an Indonesian living in Australia.

Cardboard boxes in white, red, yellow … piled high, tied up with string or in plastic bags .. carted around sweaty city streets on the back of motorbikes or in small vans …there is not much refrigeration yet in Indonesia. Transferred into buildings and offices where they sit in readiness for a gaggle of reporters, camera-crew and photographers who have gathered and are waiting for whichever event of the moment to happen.

Initially my western sensibility held me back from consuming these boxes that were brought in and stacked high. More stomach bugs! Eating food that has been sitting around and cooked and assembled who-knows-where?! No thank you. But in fact these boxes are for the most part well-prepared, with food which is made in a manner that suits a tropical climate. A fried outer layer, or chili in the vegetables, or curry sauces, all to keep the food edible for longer and kill bacteria.  And quite good to eat. Fish, chicken, vegetables, some tofu, water … and rice of course!  All you need! Enak!  As it turns out, I started to look forward to those moments. While playing the waiting game, the food meant that at least the stomach was not rumbling as well. There was conversation with other local reporters. And it was a free meal.

It was also smart .. far better if you are a Bank Indonesia Director to face journalists not doubly hungry!

The lunch box was also an indicator of wealth to some extent. Former general and Presidential candidate 2014 Prabowo Subianto topped the game with a box at one function of beef rendang, curry chicken and fish .. all in one rather large box!

The little lunch box is such a feature of Indonesia that it will be sad to see it go if, for instance, stringent food safety laws are implemented (will that happen?) or the cost starts adding up.  It will be interesting to see how this part of Indonesia’s food culture develops. I can’t imagine it is something that those numbers of reporters – some phony and just in it for the “extras” – will want to see go anytime soon.

Through My Eyes

Jakarta is a city that knocks you around in the first year. If you survive that, use what you have learnt in year two, then invariably, Indonesia becomes the country that you can’t let go of.

When I arrived in Jakarta in late 2010 for my posting in the ABC bureau as the Australia Network Correspondent I was unprepared. I have to confess to not really knowing much about the country, having avoided it in my travels around Asia. My only visit to the favoured destination of Bali had been at the behest of a friend, and that was a recent trip. Now I see that like a significant number of Australians my view of Indonesia, and my attitude towards it, was formed by events that had happened 15-20 years ago. And I was simply not up to speed on how much it was changing.

My first days in Jakarta were a jarring lesson in how difficult a place it is to simply move around in. There is minimal, reliable public transport,  a lack of safe sidewalks, and a confusing road system. I have found it the most difficult Asian city to get my bearings in. Add to that the constant noise, the fumes and garbage, and it can be quite a shock to the system.

On top of coping with a new city, in the first six weeks while I was still trying to get my computer to work, the stories rolled thick and fast. Bits fell off a Qantas plane onto one of Indonesia’s 17,500 islands. Mount Merapi spewed its hot ash and molten lava in a spectacular and deadly way, President Obama visited, former Prime Minister Julie Gillard called in, and I have a feeling there was a small tsunami in there somewhere … or an earthquake?! It was exciting for a journalist but also exhausting. And I wondered how on earth I would keep up the pace. Thankfully things did slow down … but not a lot..! Life in Indonesia is dynamic. It’s about reaction and disarray and eventually getting to the end point. Events and meetings are organised at the last minute, and then changed. For instance, “the President is speaking in 30 minutes, can you go to the Palace?”. Not a straightforward proposition in a city that is often in traffic gridlock. There are multiple things happening at once and people are jumping between them, although the irony is that due to the culture, outcomes can be slow to materialise.


Ben Bland Financial Times & Helen Brown ABC, Foreign Affairs Ministry Main Hall

Ben Bland Financial Times & Helen Brown ABC, Foreign Affairs Ministry Main Hall

In four years there have been many memorable moments and amazing stories. Meeting the resilient women of Aceh, filming deserted villages where the lava flow has frozen as it has snaked down through homes, visiting an impoverished fishing village that was home to the captain of an asylum-seeker boat, the environmental mess of the peat-land forest fires, and covering the trial of extremist Islamic leader Abu Bakar Bashir (while on crutches). And a never-ending trail of world leaders who were keen to impress themselves on and learn more about South East Asia’s largest, and growing, economy.

I have learnt (been forced) to deal with the unexpected, and make the most of a changing situation. This has been an exceptionally challenging but also confidence-building zone to find myself in. My young and smart Indonesian producer and I have also perfected the 20 minute slide … Sliding through airports with just 20 minutes before a flight, somehow getting large amounts of luggage & shooting gear through. All smiles and chit-chat.

Filming with my trusted producer/cameraman Chicco. Aceh 2011

Filming with my trusted producer/cameraman Chicco. Aceh 2011

Being in Indonesia has presented me with challenges and experiences that have enabled me to mature professionally (and personally!) in ways that would take years in Australia. And forced me to think about the region, and its stories, in a far different way.

I am often asked about the “dating life” of an independent single woman. There is good and bad. There are a lot of interesting people here and rarely a dull moment. I have been fortunate to meet some smart, interesting people and made many new friends. But Jakarta, I do believe, is the least likely place to find a soul-mate, or even someone to provide the company that helps you get through those tough times. Which must be why all my professional, sassy friends, Indonesian and expat alike, look out for each other. And have a damn good time together.

In the past year there has been a change too, more professional women coming in as the economy has grown. I think that will change the tone.

Indonesia can drive you insane. The contradictions and cultural differences can be a challenge. Some moments, such as acts of violent intolerance, can be particularly jarring.

But it is a country that also gives back. I have learnt a lot about patience, the value of a smile, the incredible diversity that I never knew existed and the unique mish-mash of religions. And the importance of building relationships and creating trust.

I am still delighted and amazed at the infectious enthusiasm and smarts of Indonesia’s young people. And so glad that they come up to chat with an (older) person like me!

work colleagues & dear friends.

work colleagues & dear friends.


My work colleagues joke with me that Indonesia is now my second home.  But there is some truth in that, it has kindly let me in, and I can’t see the connection fading.

(This article first appeared in the online newsletter for the Australia Indonesia Centre in July 2014. I have added a few more sentences.)