Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Employee empowerment Padang style

I went and had dinner at a Padang restaurant down the road from my hotel in Jayapura tonight and got to talking to one of the staff members. For those who are unfamiliar, Padang food (i.e. food from an area of West Sumatra inhabited by the Padang people) is by far and away Indonesia's most popular cuisine. Wherever you go in Indonesia, from Sabang to Merake, if a town has only one restaurant it's definitely selling Padang food. It's not just that Padang food is tasty (although it is), it's also due to the fact that Padang people are born salespeople. If there's a need, a Padang person will pop up in the most random places ready to fill it. Indonesians are very fond of backronyms and one of the most common is that Padang actually stands for "Pandai Dagang" or "Good at Selling Things" (it's funnier in Indonesian...). But I digress...

I was talking to this guy who had come all the way to Jayapura in West Papua (about the distance from Perth to Brisbane or LA to Washington DC) to work as a waiter in a Padang restaurant. I thought it seemed like a heck of a journey for a job that, I thought, probably didn't pay that well so I asked him whether he had a stake in the restaurant. Given his age (26) and his general lack of a managerial demeanour around the other staff I figured the answer would be no, but I was surprised...

He hadn't put up any equity, but apparently in Padang restaurants across the country the standard system is that the owners get 40% of the profit and the staff split the remaining 60% among themselves. He then launched into a quick economics lesson explaining the relationship between risk and return and the importance of incentivising good staff behaviours.

Empowering your staff like this is a pretty progressive notion; especially in Indonesia where labour practices are uniformly pretty terrible...


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I for one welcome our new Papuan overlords

Until recently a Chinese private company was in negotiations with the Indonesian government to clearfell 1,000,000 hectares of old-growth Papuan rainforest to plant palm oil. Fortunately, the two governors of the provinces of Papua and West Papua put a freeze on all logging contracts earlier this year and the project has been in limbo ever since. With the leadership of the two Papuan governors, the Indonesian government is starting to understand that the value of this forest is substantially higher than the pittance they are getting from the loggers, but deforestation continues at a terrifying rate in Papua New Guinea.

Right now the clean development mechanism only permits carbon credits to be issued based on avoided deforestation projects. Basically, that means that you only get money for keeping a tree alive if you threaten to chop it down first. This is ridiculous... Until we can put a dollar value on the amount of carbon that a hectare of old growth Papuan forest absorbs in a year and start paying it to them, who can blame them for selling it of cheap?

If someone built a big bubble over, say, Europe, how long do you think it would last before they ran out of oxygen? Days, weeks? How long do you think the world would last if someone built an enormous bubble over Papua? I don't know, but I'd bet it wouldn't be long...

Until now the Papuans have been providing free oxygen production and carbon sink services to the industrialised world. Considering the state of our own old-growth forests, that's quite a public service. It's going to be a long time until someone puts a dollar value on it but, as far as I can see, the Papuans have in their possession a resource of far greater value to the world than the oil tucked away under Saudi Arabia's deserts. The pure value of the carbon sink and the oxygen its forests produce is probably enough, not to mention the water storage, the biodiversity and the simple stunning natural beauty of the landscape.

When the oil boom first hit the Middle East mid-late last century there wasn't just huge upheaval in Arab society, conservative British society threw a fit over the lavish spending of the Saudis with their gold-trimmed dishidashas and abaya-clad women trailing 5 steps behind. We're seeing a similar situation these days with petrodollar fueled holidaying Russian oligarchs holidaying in Europe and Asia these days staying in hotels that cost tens of thousands of dollars a night and drinking vodka with gold flakes in it.

Think about it... How long is it until we see Papuan oxygen barons wearing diamond studded kotekas flashing their money around in Crown Casino while Melbourne high-society clucks its collective tongue disapprovingly at the Papuan's largesse?

Monday, August 18, 2008


Yesterday was Indonesia's Independence Day and as we had Monday off, Chad, Trish and I decided we would wander down to Wapres and see if we could find some live music.

Wapres, or Warung Apresiasi, is a great little cafe down in Bulungan, next to Blok M that has a jam session and an open mic every night. This article has a good overview of the founder and the community that he and others created.

As luck would have it, this was no run-of-the-mill Sunday night at Wapres, but they had set up a big stage out the back and had dozens of bands playing from mid-afternoon until well into the wee hours of the morning. We wandered in and took a seat on the bricks in front of some jilbabed ibus while a band from East Java who were like a cross-between Iwan Fals and Evanescence had the crowd rocking.

The standard of the bands was pretty variable, but as the night wore on, people started to get a little more into dancing and a mosh-pit (or reggae-dancing-pit depending on the band) started up. It was tough to see what was going on, but much to the chagrin of the organisers, a couple of fights broke out. The first one seemed to flow towards the gate of its own accord, but the next few were assisted by some pretty enormous preman/security guards who seemed to think it was part of their job to lay an extra couple of punches into the already subdued troublemakers. Not cool, especially as the kids they were ejecting were about the scrawniest 17 or 18 year-olds you can imagine.

After a metal band made up of Wapres staff finished playing, and the slam dancing had caused a couple of ejections, a couple of the organisers got up to encourage people to take better care of each other. "Especially", they said, "as tonight we have an honoured guest in our midst".

I was out the back at the time talking to a friend who was preparing for his set when I heard this announcement come over the PA. All of a sudden things got really quiet, so I wandered back to the crowd to see what was happening. Mas Anto Baret, the founder of the Komunitas Penyanyi Jalanan and Iwan Fals had taken the stage for an impromptu concert...

For those who don't know much about Indonesian music, this would be akin to going to an independent rock show with a bunch of no-name bands and having Bob Dylan wander out on stage to sing a couple of tunes. I pulled out my camera phone and recorded the last song they played: Lonteku a song about finding comfort in the arms of a prostitute.

Looking back over that video, it's hard to say if it's due to the bad sound/image quality, but it seems a little underwhelming. You can barely hear Iwan Fals's voice, the footage is grainy as hell and, honestly, if I wasn't there and I didn't know the song, I might just think it was a bunch of nobodies around a campfire singing some boring strummy song.

In fact, a lot of the songs that Iwan Fals is famous for are just simple 4 chord songs with very plainspoken lyrics. Done badly (or recorded badly), they're about as dull a campfire song as you can get. Done well, just like those simple three chord Johnny Cash songs, they'll send shivers down your spine. What made this performance special, and it was special, was the feeling of community there. To see the next generation of street musicians, kids in their early teens, sitting in absolute rapture, singing along with every word with two old guys who wrote these songs before most of the kids were even born.

Jakarta is a cesspit of filth and misery, I don't think that can be denied, but despite (or perhaps because of) these challenges, these incredibly passionate and tight-knit communities form around everything from sport and music to religion and race.

It's tough to get a glimpse of these communities, but now and then, if you go looking, they're there. In the almost 7 years of my life that I have spent in Jakarta I can probably count the real glimpses I've had into these communities on one hand, but they are experiences that will stay with me forever.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Literacy in Timor

I've been thinking a bit about literacy in Timor recently and there was a discussion on language policy on the ETAN list recently so I weighed in. Below is my slightly edited email to the list:

I have been wondering to what extent the development of Tetum and Portuguese are hindered by the lack of reading materials in either of those languages.

Has there been any effort to develop home grown fiction? Teen novels are hugely popular in Indonesia. Their plots are formulaic and most of them are more than a little brainless, but they're written by teenagers (or at least those who were teenagers relatively recently) and deal with the issues that they face day-to-day.
They also get people reading.

How much Tetum or Portugeuse does your average teenager read on an average day? On a school day, maybe a couple of hundred words. On a weekend, your average teenager probably doesn't exceed a hundred. By contrast your average, say, Australian teenager is emailing their friends, reading blogs, flicking through magazines, reading good quality textbooks (not crappy translations), and maybe even reading a novel for fun. Australian are constantly wandering around in a sea of English language information, I would guess that, even on a weekend, your average Australian teenager reads over a thousand words a day. (Note: I have no basis for these "facts", all figures are off the top of my head).

How hard could it be to publish a novel in Tetum? Run a writing competition calling for 10,000-15,000 word stories in Tetum (!) about teenage life in Timor. The winning entry gets $500 and 5000 copies of their book printed up for distribution around the country. Get it properly edited to make sure all of the spelling and grammar are consistent and correct, print up 5000 copies with brightly coloured cartoons of Timorese teenagers doing teenage things on the cover and send them out to schools all over the country. My personal preference is that people have to pay for them (even if it's only 25c), one, because it gives the project manager an accurate measure of consumption of the book and, two, because it decreases the odds that someone will just take a pile of them because they're free and then have them sit on their shelf or use them as kindling, etc.

How much would it cost? Say, $2000 for advertising of the competition (all over Timor, not just in Dili), $1,000 in prize money (for runners up as well), $10,000 to print the books, $2000 for advertising of the launch and building buzz and maybe another $5,000 in other costs (salaries, etc). $20,000 not including what you make back in book sales? Sounds pretty cheap to me...

To my mind, the most important part about this process is that the books are originally written in Tetum and are not directly translated. In Indonesia there are tens of thousands of translated books to choose from in your average book store and almost all of them are practically incomprehensible. This is because the translators often maintain the sentence structure and flow of the original English and just translate the words leading to a mish-mash that is just confusing.

CARE in conjunction with the Ministry of Education publishes a bi-monthly Tetum and Portuguese magazine called Lafaek (Crocodile) for use in schools that has activities for kids, crosswords, math puzzles, articles with lots of photos, stories, cartoons and even vox pop style interviews with kids from around the country. Spectacular as this project is, and while I've heard anecdotally that teenagers and adults read it all the time, surely it's not as interesting for them as something really targeted at their demographic rather than at 4-10 year olds...

Anyway, that's just something I've been thinking about recently. If anyone out there wants to do it, please feel free. Hell, I'll even chuck in a hundred bucks for the writing competition prize money.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


I went to get a haircut the other day. There are actually quite a few expat run joints in town but, as I have previously noted, I prefer to buy local so I decided to drive around until I found a place that was run by Timorese. My local in Jakarta was a place down the road from my house which had these beat up old barber chairs and charged Rp. 7000 (less than a dollar) so my goal for the day was to find an equivalent in Dili.

A likely contender was the place across the road from the Australian embassy. From the outside the building looks pretty run down, I figured there was no way it was run by an expat. I'd forgotten how to say hair, and I don't think I ever knew how to say cut in Tetum so I mumbled something in Indonesian and sat down. Turns out I was suckered by the old bait-and-switch and had my hair cut by a Filipino trannie instead of the Timorese barber I was after. It's surprising how long Tagalog can sound like Tetum when you're still a beginner... The Filipino English accent is unmistakable though...

Not only that, but it turns out koke hudi aren't called koke hudi at all but something else that I can't remember the name of... Kaka something? Anyway, I'd told a few people about my new discovery and they smiled politely and changed the subject. After two or three days they started to go soft and mouldy and I complained of this to my cleaner.

"Yeah, I know. I wondered why you bought them... We never eat those things..."

Oh well...

Hey America, take the hint!

I was down at the market today and tried to get rid of my stash of loose change that has been piling up since we arrived in Dili in December. I count out a dollar using a selection of Timorese coins (Timor Leste uses the US dollar as its currency, but they mint their own coins to avoid having to ship heavy coins in from overseas) and head off to buy my rice, secure in the knowledge that someone else will be lugging around all of that deadweight.

I pick the kind of rice I want and hand over my pile of coins. "Oh these are no good, we don't use these anymore" says the old lady pointing a finger at my pile of 1 centavo pieces.

So, America, if a country with a GNI per capita of under a thousand dollars can get rid of the penny, then you guys are way behind...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Koke hudi

One of the pleasures of moving to a new country is trying all the wacky new fruits they have on offer. Here's my latest discovery: koke hudi.

Hudi means banana but, unless you live in Timor where the bananas are actually red, they bear little resemblance to your everyday banana. I have no idea what koke means... From the outside they look like large kidney beans, or perhaps small red fejoias, but on the inside they've got these big, black, hard seeds covered in modest amounts of slightly tart, sweet flesh. The fruits they most resemble to me are custard apples, or perhaps small passion fruit with inedible seeds. More tart than a custard apple or an Asian passion fruit (with the yellow skin and grey flesh), sweeter than an Australian passion fruit (with the purple skin and yellow flesh).

I've been reading a lot of Jared Diamond recently and I can't really say I wonder why these things haven't spread beyond the borders of Timor... They're tasty, sure, but getting the flesh from the seeds takes some real labial gymnastics and there's really not that much of it. Over the last hour I've eaten about five of them and all I have to show for my efforts are some tired lips and probably about 4 cubic centimetres of koke hudi flesh. If I were a hunter gatherer in Timor thousands of years ago, I probably wouldn't waste my time on these.

I've been trying to think of better ways to use up my stash. Custard apples suffer from a similar problem (though the amount of flesh coating your average custard apple seed is substantially larger than you get off a koke hudi), and they manage to make juice out of those. Does anyone know how they separate the flesh from the seeds to make custard apple juice? Wikipedia tells me that custard apple seeds are poisonous (as are many fruit seeds) so I'm not quite ready to throw a bunch of them seeds and all into the blender...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Just what Timor needs

One thing I find really puzzling about Timor is the amount of foreign labour around. I'm not talking about NGO workers, UN types and whatnot, I'm talking about semi- and un-skilled labour.

The HUGE new foreign ministry building is not only being funded and designed by the Government of the People's Republic of China, it's being built by imported Chinese labourers as well. I don't know where they work, but there are a bunch of Filipino labourers around as well that sometimes turn up to basketball. Even stranger, there seems to be a huge Thai population here as well with lots of Thai restaurants and massage salons all populated by Thai waitresses, masseuses and even cleaners...

Most estimates of Timor's unemployment rate come in around the 50% mark (and most of them add the disclaimer that that doesn't include the under-employed) with around 100,000 high school graduates entering the workforce every year. The only way I figured it would be possible that importing foreign labour is cheaper than training up locals, would be if they get their value-added through an increased ability to control their employees. i.e. bonded servitude type-of-thing.

I did something to my hip running on the treadmill the other day (stupid poorly engineered tall-person skeleton/musculature) so I decided to go and get a massage. I had a recommendation on a place called Dili Club House Resort from a friend so I thought I'd check it out. At US$17 an hour it's relatively cheap by Dili standards (i.e. only a bit over 5 times what I pay for a massage at my regular place in Jakarta), but it's genuine Thai massage provided by genuine Thai ladies. I speak a little Thai from a trip there a few years ago so I tried to get them to explain the intricacies of this puzzling pocket of increased developing country cross-border labour market mobility.

Now, I should preface this by a disclaimer that I once had a discussion in Thai about what I thought was a bombing in Colombia that turned out to be about the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, but I'll share my understanding of our conversation...

It turns out that my theory on bonded servitude was pretty close to the mark. I was stuck for a word and, considering she'd been in Timor for 5 months, I figured she must have picked up a word or two of either Tetum or Indonesian to get around so I asked her if she spoke either of those, but she couldn't speak a word. I asked her how she got around, going to the market and whatnot and she said, and I quote, "mai dai bai". Literally, as far as I understand that means "can not go". I may be misunderstanding some intricacies of the usage of "can not" in Thai, perhaps it's used in a different way to the way we use it and she meant she just doesn't go, but I'm pretty sure she means she's not allowed to go.

I was gob-smacked. Here I was supporting the international slave-trade were women are forced into servitude in strange countries and not allowed to leave the premises. I wasn't really sure how to continue so I asked the only question that I could muster given my linguistic limitations:
"So, uh, do you like it here?"
And the response came:
"Yeah, I like it. The money is much better here than in Thailand."

"You don't want to go to the market or the beach"



"Can not"

There it goes again... The ambiguous "can not" that I don't understand the potential intricacies of. Now the question comes: what do I do?

From a macro perspective, I can't understand why the Timorese government is issuing so many working visas for this sort of semi-skilled and unskilled work (assuming these businesses are above board, which is far from a safe assumption). In Indonesia a foreigner can't get a work visa unless he can prove that the job couldn't be done by an Indonesian and that over the period of his contract he will train an Indonesian to replace him. Of course, in most cases that doesn't happen, but the sentiment is admirable.

From a personal perspective, as much as I like Thailand and want their economy to be doing well, Timor's is in a little more trouble and it certainly doesn't need to be importing labour. I'd much rather support a local business, or at least one that employs local people and improves their capacity to work (even if it is just massaging rich foreigners, it's better than nothing), but, as far as I can tell, massage just isn't a part of Timorese culture. I've never seen a panti pijat targeted at locals so the only place to get a massage is at the fancy foreign owned places targeted at foreigners. And I like massages!

Also, as far as massage places go this one seems relatively above board. The three women I talked to seemed to genuinely like it there (despite my suspicions of bonded servitude), the set up is such that it looks unlikely that it gets transformed into a brothel as the need arises (certainly not something I want to be supporting), the massage was good, and I get to practice my Thai. So, I suppose I'll keep going there for a while, until I hear about a local place, or at least a place that employs local people.

I think I know some people who work for the International Labor Organization here, I'll have to ask them what they think about the situation. It's certainly very strange, but with such a bizarre melting pot of people and so many economies running in parallel it's really par for the course in Dili.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Corporate Environmental Responsibility in Indonesia?

Wonders will never cease...

In my experience, telling people in Asia that you don't want a plastic bag for your shopping is a bit of an ordeal. After much puzzlement and despite all protestations, your stuff usually ends up in a plastic bag anyway. Then, when you take it out of the plastic bag and leave it sitting on the counter the whole situation is so novel that it normally sits there for a while, half-deflated, still holding the shape of your bunch of bananas and bottle of orange juice before they either throw it out or realise they can still use it for the next person.

I don't pretend to be an expert on the environmental economics of plastic bags, and I suspect that plastic bag reduction efforts get a disproportionate amount of attention (at least in Melbourne where people can be rabidly self-righteous about rejecting plastic bags) compared to their contribution to the average person's environmental footprint, but considering how easy it is to make gains, I think they're a good idea. They're especially vital in Jakarta where plastic bags make up a huge portion of the solid waste clogging up the waterways, which makes a major contribution to the annual floods.

So, you'll understand my surprise when I was in Carrefour (a huge multinational hypermarket chain) the other day and saw this:

Not so sure what's up with the "come hither" expression...

Translation: Buy once, forever. Broken Carrefour Green Bags can be
swapped for a new one... Free!

The best part is that they're only Rp. 2,000 (around about US$ 0.22, A $ 0.25), which - even in Indonesia - is a pretty small amount; especially for the types of people who shop at Carrefour. Interestingly they were all sold out which means that either Carrefour is poor at managing stock or that the promotion was much more successful than they hoped - I'm hoping the latter and that we see more promotions like this in future.

Cokelat Monggo

While I was back in Jakarta over the past three weeks I had another chance to eat my fill of good Indonesian chocolate. "Good Indonesian chocolate?" I hear you cry... A Beng-Beng or a Silver Queen can hit the spot now and then, and I'm no chocolate connoisseur, but there's no way I'd class most Indonesian chocolate as anything very far above edible, when there's nothing else around. It's kind of waxy and thin-tasting; kind of like those cheap easter eggs I used to get as a kid.

A few months ago I was in Circle K in Bendungan Hilir and I noticed something new there: Cokelat Monggo. It looked like imported chocolate, but it had a Javanese name, and Shelley likes dark chocolate so I figured I'd give it a go. It's produced in Jogja by a Swiss chocolatier using Indonesian cocoa beans and it's really, really good. Price wise, it's not so different to imported chocolates (which is a bit of a shame) but it tends to stand the heat a little better and I like to support local industry...

The only place I know to buy it is in Circle K in BenHil, but if you see it around, pick up a block.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I'm in Jakarta at the moment for work and my trip happened to coincide with the Chinese New Year holiday. I took the day off to head out to Kampung Melayu to say hi to Ardy and whoever else was around. While I was chatting to Ardy about stuff a bunch of kids turned up with a plastic bag filled with bits of copper - wiring, hinges and whatnot.

They'd spent the day picking over trash heaps to tear out dynamos from radios, electric motors from washing machines, and wiring from pretty much anything else they could find. Apparently they get Rp. 50,000 (about A$6, or US$5) a kilo from some guy down the road for it. It struck me because when I was back in Australia over new year I heard a couple of stories on the news about some enterprising young go-getters who were stealing power lines and high voltage cable from railway lines to sell for scrap. The kids assured me that they weren't doing anything like that, but then, only two of them consented to having their photo taken...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Costume for Bangkok?

Well, I've booked my tickets and registered for the 8th Annual
Bangkok Hat Tournament (a frisbee tournament for those of you not
tapped in to the Asian Ultimate scene), but now I need a costume for
the after-party. The theme is superheroes and supervillains, I
suppose I could try and squeeze into Manoah's costume from Manila,
and while it does have the skin-tight lycra factor, it's been done...

With 2 weeks in Jakarta (Feb 4-15 for those of you looking for some
John-time) for some poor tailor to get to work, I need to come up
with an idea soon to make sure it's done in time. I need something
that exploits my imposing height and freakish silhouette to maximum


Thursday, January 17, 2008

My new toy

I was doing a bit of wall-climbing (with just a touch of real rock-climbing) while I was in Jakarta and one thing that has become popular among climbers in recent years is known as slack-lining.

Slack-lining is basically walking and doing other tricks on a slack line. Now, I'm not entirely sure why it's called a slack line, because it's pretty bloody tight, but who am I to argue? Anyway, in addition to improving the opportunities for the guards at the embassy compound to laugh at me, it's also apparently good for strengthening one's feet, ankles, knees and those sorts of things. Being as poorly engineered as I am, they're probably good things for me to strengthen. Also, it's quite fun.

So I wandered around a few hardware stores, bought some equipment and gave it a go. Here was my progress a few weeks ago after a few hours on the line:

Obviously a natural... I'll be doing backflips in no time.

Something to do?

After Howie and Haviva raved about it, I dropped by Arte Moris, a wonderful "Free and Non Profit Art School" on the way to the airport in Dili. With minimal support from the government and periodic grants from various donors from around the world they've had great success in supporting the development of a number of East Timorese artists with a few of them even gaining scholarships to study art overseas. They were even running afternoon art classes for as many as 200 students a day before the riots last year. Since then the IDP camp next door has been scaring the kids and their parents away and their classes are down to 20 or so junior students.

What they've done with the minimal materials the have available is nothing short of amazing. They get all sorts of random donations from all sorts of places. Some, like paints, brushes, tools for modelling clay, etc. get put to use immediately, others... well, not so much... As I was getting a tour of the place, I had a wander through their music studio (Arte Moris also provides rehearsal space for a few bands and a theatre troupe) and my tour guide pointed out one such donation. Edith Cowan University had apparently donated a bunch of musical instruments, but no one had any idea how to use them. I recognised them from some videos of bluegrass music I'd seen (and Reese Witherspoon playing one in Walk the Line) and figured they couldn't be too hard so I asked if I could borrow one and see if I could work it out.

Turn's out it's called an autoharp, and it's super easy to play. It's kind of like a piano without the hammers. When you press down the keys of a piano, two things happen. A piece of felt that is keeping the string silent is lifted up and a hammer hits it. Some smarty pants piano players like to show off and hold down the keys really gently so that the hammers don't hit the strings, and reach into the soundbox and strum the strings manually (e.g. Smoke by Ben Folds Five), that's basically what you do with an autoharp except that it's much easier. Some thoughtful person has set up a series of pieces of felt such that when you press, say, the G Maj- button, it mutes all of the strings other than the ones in the G major chord.

It's really made for bluegrass music so the number of chords available are really quite limited, but I've worked out how to play a few songs on it including some Slank, some Bob Marley and that sort of stuff so, hopefully these things will be able to get some use. I'm going to head back there this afternoon when it stops raining and see if there's any interest...

I've got some free time in between my trips to Jakarta for work and autoharp lessons to disadvantaged children in Dili probably aren't any less useless than frisbee lessons to disadvantaged children in Jakarta... Hell, maybe I can do both.