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.

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.)