Foreign Correspondents in Indonesia

Jul 1st, 2013, in News, by

DC Guy piece today was going to be a trashing of foreign journalists. Instead, upon thinking, DC Guy thought to ask a relevant question about hiring trends of expats across Asia.

Should foreign correspondents - and ex pats in general - speak the local language?

I'm asking because my original piece was going to be called, "Why Foreign Correspondents Suck and What they're Not Telling You about Indonesia".

In my wide-eyed thirties sometime last decade I rocked up to a cocktail-gathering of foreign correspondents in Indonesia, somewhere behind the Mandarin Hotel at the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout. I was all excited, imagining a smoky room full of spies and Year of Living Dangerously reporters. I mingled. I exchanged business cards. I chit-chatted about politics.

At first it seemed cool. One Bule reporter guy in his 60s ranted about Bangkok in the '80s and how pathetic and lazy young journalists were. Cool. Another 40-something guy had just been laid off and was drinking away his severance package in bars in Asia. Cool. Some angry BBC chick was broadcasting her opinions (not so cool, but interesting). But then it struck me.

Most of them are tourists. Almost none of them spoke Indonesian.

"I've got a translator to do that"

said an Australian newspaperman.

"We've got fixers [slaves who set up appointments, get coffee, interns] for that"

said another Australian TV reporter. (A lot of Australians for some reason.) One English wire service reporter was even more blunt: they hire us [ex pats] for our skills - the locals do the language work. (In fairness, he was of Indian origin, not a bule.)

Guy Hamilton, The Year of Living DangerouslyAs the evening went on, I realized how little any of these supposed Guy Hamilton (Year of Living Dangerously) types actually cared about their stories. I paid attention and over the next few cocktail nights I realized that the Big Name correspondents rely on the Jakarta Post, Jakarta Globe and wire services to get their views. Maybe a few phone calls here and there to a diplomat, but in general they know much less than you, if you live in Indonesia, or me.

Let's get this straight. They can't understand the TV. They can't understand the radio. They can't read local blogs, websites, or newspapers. All they have is the English language sources. Granted, there's a lot in English. Some email listserve called 'Joyo' apparently collates all the English language reporting and sends it out. One drunk American freelancer told me all he reads is Joyo and that's enough.

Would you trust a White House reporter who didn't speak English?

And why should I listen to a tourist? Why should the rest of the world? I don't think they should. I think the foreign correspondents are generally a week or two behind the local press. I think they miss most of the most important stories. And I think the snootiness and arrogance hides an uncomfortable truth: they don't know what they're talking about.

That's why the Aussie press writes about cheap drug dealers like Schapelle Corby getting busted. It's why the Western wires were obsessed with Bird Flu whilst ignoring current epidemics such as Malaria or Dengue Fever. (Who cares, they're just local brown people?) It's why they sucked up to Indonesia's lame duck President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when everyone in Jakarta knew he was an armchair general. It's also why they're obsessed with terrorism when traffic jams and bad hospitals are more of a threat to most of the population.

The fixers' version was even more telling. Some of them were kinda hot and came to the cocktail nights. They didn't have much respect at all for their bosses. Sure, they kissed their asses, as we all do. But when it came down to it, it turns out the fixers do the work. They read the local newspapers, watch TV, make the phone calls, set up the appointments. And then bossman or woman walks off with all the credit. Why not just give the job to the local?

In fact companies across Asia are waking up to it. In an NYT piece For Westerners in Asia, the Job Market Grows Tougher, the writer talks about a tightening job market for ex pats; strangely, employers in Hong Kong wanted people who could speak Chinese.

I want more than anything to get back out there - preferably Jakarta so I can get up to my old tricks. But I know I've gotta pick up my game. I can't just turn up like I did a decade ago, hang out a shingle and say

"unemployed white guy - hire me"

DC Guy's message: the Western media is failing you. Ignore them. Read the Jakarta Post, the Jakarta Globe, get an RSS feed to blogs you're interested in.

159 Comments on “Foreign Correspondents in Indonesia”

  1. avatar DCGuy says:

    Healthy foreigner who’s publicizing separatism suddenly dies of natural causes in a province teeming with intel officers and a security apparatus who have a track record of offing opponents (Munir, Balibo B). Yeah that’s likely. Not.

  2. avatar DCGuy says:

    Mr. Arie,

    Some Australian professor – see below – makes an interesting point. If Aussies don’t care about Spear Chuckers in their own country, (aboriginals) why would they are about them in someone else’s?

    Reality is that once Aussies wake up to the fact Indonesia is richer (as a state, not per capita), than it is, they’re gonna be competing with each other to suck Javanese cock.

    That raises a second point. I hear Aussie Spear Chuckers (bless ’em) get a raw deal Down Under. Why doesn’t this Robinson chick focus on fixing problems in her own backyard rather than being a free fluffer for Julian A-strange and who knows what else for penis-gourd wearing separatists?

    The great American journalist PJ O’Rourke hinted at a halfway answer: it’s always more fun to sleep with deluded undergraduates than get a real job. He was talking about Sandinistas and romatic South American revolutionaries. But I’m sure it applies to Papua.

    Get real Mr. Arie. Aussies are gonna dime out West Papua faster than you can say Crocodile Dundee.

    “As power shifts in Asia, some hard choices will have to be made. For example, Australia will have to weigh the value of human rights in West Papua against the value of peaceful and co-operative relations with Indonesia. We are apt to be shocked by the suggestion that we should make such choices, but that is only because Australia has become used to seeing itself as stronger than Indonesia. As our neighbour grows stronger than us, and more important to us, these choices will become more pressing. In the Asian century, Australia not only needs a new kind of relationship with Indonesia, but a new way of thinking about foreign policy.”

  3. avatar Arie Brand says:

    That raises a second point. I hear Aussie Spear Chuckers (bless ‘em) get a raw deal Down Under. Why doesn’t this Robinson chick focus on fixing problems in her own backyard rather than being a free fluffer for Julian A-strange and who knows what else for penis-gourd wearing separatists?

    DCGuy you are still at it. I said it above: the do-nothings are always very good at pointing out what those who do something should be doing instead. Jennifer Robinson did Asian studies (with a focus on Indonesia) and law – a combination that almost inevitably points to Papua. And what does that bit about “sleeping with deluded undergraduates” mean? That might constitute a high reward in your own imagination but believe me, some people have other concerns.

    If you knew more about Australia you would know that there is no lack of people here who worry professionally or “pro deo” about aborigines.They hardly need the assistance of Ms.Robinson.

    Neither does this country need your advice (and that of Hugh White) to seek good relations with Indonesia because of its possible future strength. Australia does not support Papuan separatism – period. The Lombok treaty even forbids this country to tolerate activities in that direction within its territory. This is of course impossible. The Dutch government was faced with the same predicament when it had to face a much stronger Germany on its Eastern border in the thirties. A military officer was put on trial for having written insulting things about Mr.Hitler (this ranked as “an insult to a foreign head of state”). However it could not prevent that a “committee of national vigilance” (against fascism) was established and that many German refugees of Jewish descent were helped to a new existence in Holland (where unfortunately they were caught again after the German invasion). I am not claiming that Indonesia is a fascist state (though its activities in Papua look that way). I just want to point out that, whatever your Mr.O’Rourke says, individual citizens cannot be bound by whatever their governments perceive as their national interest.

  4. avatar DCGuy says:

    Mr. Arie,

    Kinda changes when it comes to war — which is what’d have to happen for West Papua to become independent. Some of the Papuans – to their credit – have indeed been chucking spears for what they believe in. But when it comes to Schapelle Corby’s brother taking TNI shrapnel for Papuans, the Aussies are gonna think again and get back to watching Kylie Minogue reruns.

  5. avatar DCGuy says:

    Mr. Arie,


    If I want to help Papua, I’ll add some BP shares to my stock. They’ve got that big whale LNG project going up at the Bird’s Head. I’m all for USAID scholarships and funding flowing up there, get ’em educated, (preferably something that makes money), get ’em back and doing whatever they want.

    As for Australia, here’s the thing. There might be some bad stuff going down in Papua — frankly I dunno coz details are sketchy. But why aren’t Aussies like you concerned about their own citizens? Some Aussie aid worker one told me things in indigenous settlements were as bad as Africa, even worse ??they were dying in police custody?? What’s with that?

    Thing is that in Papua — you can blame someone else. It’s kinda nice that they’re also brown, ‘corrupt’, and Muslim — those annoying literary theorists would have a field day combing through Aussies’ motivations for ‘helping’.

    Kinda hard when the shoe’s on the other foot. Wanna know why stars from Indonesian law schools don’t set up concerned committees and do pro bono work in aboriginal communities?

    They’re sorting out their own shit.

    Maybe you guys should do the same.

  6. avatar Arie Brand says:

    DCGuy aren’t you becoming a wee bit repetitive?

    If the Australian aborigines didn’t exist they would have to be invented for the sake of those who need an easy cop out whenever this kind of thing is being discussed. Actually, the way they are being used in this type of apologetics they are largely invented. The apologists haven’t got a clue. So DCGuy, if you want to make comparisons do your homework instead of relying on a throwaway remark heard, no doubt, at a bar counter.

  7. avatar timdog says:

    It’s been months since I last swung by this way, and loh! Someone’s given the old buffalo a prod and it turns out it’s not dead!

    A fine, provoking (if somewhat provocative) piece, and on many points I’d entirely agree.

    It’s worth remembering that much of the copy in the local English-language media is in itself second-hand, repackaged from the Indonesian-language media.

    I used to have some involvement with a shoestring (and now defunct) English-language publication that gave me cause to pay particular attention to the vernacular press in a certain quarter of the country; that, after all, was where all the copy came from. There was often a great deal of inconsistency in the local reporting of a particular story. The numbers of dead in a road traffic accident varied from paper to paper; the amounts of money stolen in a convenience store break-in went up and down, the age – and even the sex – of a murder victim oscillated wildly, and the quotes from the local police spokesman went through a particularly contorted series of Chinese whispers.
    In the end you would just go for a sort of median average on all these points and whack it into English. On several occasions I saw quotes, generated in this fashion, from this hokey-est of little rags, turn up in Australian newspaper reports of Indonesian stories.

    Elsewhere, I once spent a little time looking at coverage of Indonesia in the British print media. The volume of stories was miniscule to begin with, and when you looked carefully, though the pieces were often attributed to a correspondent of the paper in question, they were virtually always re-writes of agency copy (identifiable by the presence of the same quotes from the same ‘Local man, Su-somethingorother, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said “Something that I can’t for the life of me reverse-translate into a feasible Indonesian sentence…”‘)

    So in many instances, the raw material for a story on Indonesia which appears in news media across the globe can ultimately be traced back, via an international wire service, by way of either a local agency or English-language paper, to a nameless, underpaid Indonesian-language hack on a local paper, who might possibly have made up much some of the information in the first place…

    That said, it’s not all doom and gloom. This guy seems to speak pretty good Indonesian, and has done some interesting, offbeat stuff:

  8. avatar Oigal says:

    It’s not a bad piece of deflection but Aborginal issues in Australia have sweet FA to do with Papua. Certainly problems still but as Ari points out no shortage of people and departments helping out. Most of all any journalist or even DC guy (with permission of the local elders) can enter any area of Australia and report on conditions there with zero government interference. I will bet you house and bank you won’t find Australian Military burning the genitals of an Aborginal elder and laughing about it on you tube.

    As for Indonesia becoming stronger and more important in the region, yes that should occur but thanks to religion and the incredibly myopic nay stupid new school curriculum that won’t happen for at least another two generations. Papua is just part of the problem, Javanese colonialism is massively underestimated in outside world but you can rest assured not for much longer.

  9. avatar DCGuy says:

    Mr. Arie,

    The Quality of Your Mercy is strained, it seems. Aboriginals would have to be invented?? Dude, all I’m asking is why can’t Australia, which has its shit as a Westphalian nation-state much more together than Indonesia, fix the aboriginal problem?

  10. avatar DCGuy says:

    @ Mr. Timdog,

    You saying this Dude ripped off his shit? After a quick Google search, turns out he’s done stuff for the NYT. Gotta say, man, I grew up with the Grey Lady, and think it’s a damn sight better than anything on your side of the Pond. Care to substantiate your allegations?

  11. avatar Arie Brand says:


    This piece by an aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, might make clear that the problems in aboriginal communities are somewhat different from those in Papua. Papuans are killed by bullets, not welfare payments:

  12. avatar timdog says:

    Nay, nay; you misconstrue me, sir. I was saying that I actually thought Aubrey Belford had been doing some original, interesting stuff that clearly demonstrated some real footwork and language skills. There was an excellent piece on asylum seekers and another quirky one on Gunung Kemukus that caught my eye.
    He’s probably more the exception to the rule you were talking about.

  13. avatar DCGuy says:

    Mr. Timdog,

    Oh sure, that’s what I thought, checked out Belford’s work, and I would’ve thought he’d put in the shoe leather and got out of the bar. NYT coverage isn’t what it once was. Thought the Javanese Boning piece was a bit lurid and ‘oddball Asia,’ but it does make a wider point about Indonesia when all we get over here are terrorists and now a booming stock market (fear and greed).

    Don’t think I met this guy, or if I did, he’s probably young and handsome enough to be hitting on some of those smoking hot fixers, when in those days I was such a mess I’d end up drunk at the Blok most of the time. To be honest, even the Indonesian 20-something girls were starting to see my descent into debauchery and middle-aged decline. I got a few rejections on those mixer nights. But that’s a tale for another time.

  14. avatar DCGuy says:

    Anyone know this Unspun guy? He seems to have weighed in. I’ve said what I think — I think the Aussie TV journalists and TV journalists in general suck the high hard one really hard.

    Be interested to hear what he has to say about it.

  15. avatar bulebasi says:

    So, on a related note, is anyone going to mention The Act of Killing?

  16. avatar Arie Brand says:

    I didn’t know about this amazing film and it is unlikely that any foreign correspondent will see it in Indonesia – at any case not in an ordinary cinema.

    The most amazing scene in the short clip I saw of it was part of an Indonesian television show in which an old fellow is introduced as a sort of hero because he had “invented” a more “humane” way of killing communists. The method concerned consisted of strangulation by wire. The “inventor” of this act of humanity declares, in the film, that his main motive was to get rid of the smell of blood – the stink became too much.

    Having seen, this same week, the film “Camp 14” in which a former North Korean camp guard describes his methods of torture in an aloof, almost “academic” fashion as if he is discussing the favourite tricks of Nero’s executioners, one is again forced to the conclusion that people anywhere kill and torture with gusto as long as they can do so with the approval of higher authority and without fear of retribution.

    One aspect of the drama is that in Indonesia this approval still doesn’t seem to have come to an end

  17. avatar DCGuy says:


    Bring it on. Let’s break it open and talk about Act of Killing. I haven’t seen it yet, but let’s get this party started! Oh yeah.

  18. avatar Arie Brand says:

    It was recently shown at the Sydney film festival and before that at a similar event in Melbourne.

    Unfortunately I missed it but it will probably be shown in ordinary cinemas later.

    Ik has gone around the world, I understand, and has been seen by countless people who had never heard of this massacre (and in some cases probably Indonesia as such) before.

  19. avatar madrotter says:

    I’m hoping this one will come out as a pirated dvd soon! It will be the only way (apart from downloading it) to watch it here. They tried to stop that Balibo movie from coming out here but as soon as that one came out as a pirated dvd there wasn’t much they could do about it….

    Of course, seeing some of the real perpetrators re-enacting those murders is a lot heavier and a lot more confronting than the Balibo movie and the president is of course the son-in-law from one of the architects of those mass killing…..

  20. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Originally Oppenheimer tried to make the movie with the victims or their descendants. But then he was hassled by “the authorities’ to such an extent that he had to give up. Then somebody suggested to him to make it with the perpetrators.These were under the mistaken impression that he was going to glorify them (he being an American that is one of those who once called the report of the massacre “the best news to come out of Asia” for a very long time). Suddenly “all doors opened”. Now they are closed again of course.

    Something similar happened with the film “Max Havelaar”. There too the director was given all possible assistance because the idea was that the movie would be about pernicious Dutch colonialism. But the real baddie in the movie is the Regent (Bupati) of Lebak – an Indonesian functionary. Multatuli’s reproach to the Dutch government was that it tolerated such people because it needed them (there are, however, quite a few cases of similar nineteenth century regents who were sanctioned – and so was, ultimately, the Regent of Lebak). When it became clear that the movie was not exclusively about those dastardly Dutch it was initially sabotaged in Indonesia.

  21. avatar DCGuy says:

    Mr. Arie, is “Max Havelar” worth watching? Self answering question I guess. Be interesting to compare Bupatis now with Bupatis back then. History repeating itself?

  22. avatar madrotter says:

    Another movie worth watching is Oeroeg, based on the book by Dutch writer Hella S. Haase, about a Dutch and an Indonesian boy, close friends and growing apart when the fight for independence begins…. But in Dutch/Indonesian language, maybe you can find it with sub-titles somewhere….

    Been wanting to see this one for a long time (and find the book by Madelon Szekely-lulofs), Tjoet Nja Dhien, and I now see that it’s on Youtube in it’s entirety

    GREAT 🙂

    With such an incredible history, so many themes and topics to choose from it’s just too bad that Indonesian cinema seems to be stuck in producing one terrible pocong movie after another….

  23. avatar Arie Brand says:

    In the thirties of last century Szekely-Lulofs was dismissed by the Forum-group (Ter Braak, Du Perron, Vestdijk etc.) as just another one of those terrible lady-writers – but actually, if you look at literature in the hope to get acquainted with worlds you will never have a chance to experience in person, she was not bad at all. I particularly found her book Koelie (also translated into English I believe) quite good.

    I wasn’t very impressed by Rademaker’s film Max Havelaar. Multatuli would have cringed about the text – particularly that given to Max Havelaar. Also, from what he made of the Saidjah and Adinda story, it was quite clear that the director didn’t have a clue about the social relations that prevailed in the colony then.

    It is also a bit hard on the old bupati. What was only a surmise in the book (viz. that he organised the poisoning of Havelaar’s predecessor Slotering) becomes a certainty in the film. The real life Multatuli (Dekker) was quite alarmed by the rumour though (his predecessor’s widow had come up with it). It partly explains his haste in his failed attempt to get the bupati charged (not of this poisoning but of abusing the population). The way he went about this still strikes me as high handed, even though Du Perron banished everybody who dared to say this to the nether regions of hell. After having been in his district for only a few weeks he wanted to have the highest Indonesian official there arrested while refusing to give his superior (the Resident Brest van Kempen) details of the charge. His alleged motive ( protecting the witnesses) was quite respectable of course but even though, the Resident had to take responsibility for this arrest and for having the bupati transported as a prisoner to the Residency capital, Serang. When Dekker and his boss both agreed to submit the matter to the judgment of the Governor General (Duymaer van Twist) the Council of the Indies advised the latter to have Dekker dismissed. Van Twist decided to give him another chance by transferring him to Ngawi. Dekker then resigned. He has pursued both Brest van Kempen and Duymaer van Twist with his eloquent hatred until the end of his life suggesting, inter alia, that Van Kempen was in cahoots with the bupati because this worthy provided him with girls (another rumour – the colony was full of them).

    An expert outsider as Furnivall had (in “Netherlands India”) not the slightest doubt that Dekker was wrong in the way he went about this and doesn’t understand the fuss that certain circles still make about it. The trouble seems to me that the formal and the material side of the case have often been confused. Dekker was of course right in his claim that the population was being abused – it still is.

    About the film again: visually it is often quite gorgeous of course.

  24. avatar madrotter says:

    I’ve only managed to get my hands on Koelie and Rubber so far, (her books are quiet hard to find now) and I loved those books. Back then, when they came out, in the 1930’s many, many Dutch people were very angry here in Indonesia as she was writing about the REAL working/living conditions of Indonesian contract workers (coolies), and more scandelous, about how all these bule’s were behaving here, the drunkenness, the gossip etc. I think they even tried to ban her books here….

    And her personal life was just as scandalous for those days, divorcing her first husband with whom she had two daughters and marrying an Hungarian man (hence her name Szekely), it caused quiet a scandal back then….

    She must’ve been quiet a spunky lady 🙂

    I would love, love, love to read her books Tjoet Nja Dinh and that book (can’t remember the title) about this group of soldiers getting lost in the jungles of Aceh, only one coming back, accusations of canibalism etc. …..

  25. avatar madrotter says:

    But I have to say, of all books I’ve read about the Dutch colonial time in Indonesia, I would rate E. Du Perron’s Country Of Origin as the best, what an incredible book…..

  26. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Hi Madrotter,

    She was a spunky lady indeed. During the war she worked for the Dutch resistance (her husband was Jewish and had fled to Hungary – also the wrong place to be then). Hence her sympathetic understanding of another resistance fighter – the Acehnese Tjoet Nha Dien.

    When I left Papua in early 1963 I took from the deserted Resident’s office in Fak Fak several “Memories van Overgave” (the reports that officers in the inland civil service – BB – had to write when they handed over their district). One of these was by the Resident or Assistant Resident Lulofs – her Dad. I don’t know whether she has spent any time in Papua herself but I like to think that, if she were alive today, she would write about resistance there. I have to send these documents to the KITLV library in Leiden and have been planning to do so for years – this post is a good reminder.

    One of the books you want to get hold of (“De Hongertocht”) is actually in the DBNL (the digital library of Dutch literature) and online. Here is the address:

    I only found this out recently and still have to read it myself. On the same page of this library you can find a link to a critical review of this book by Menno ter Braak. He doesn’t allow her a high rank in his pantheon and doesn’t even put her on the same level as P.A.Daum and his “indisch” novels – but he more or less grudgingly acknowledges that she knew how to tell a story.

    Ter Braak and Du Perron (who were intimate friends) are the literary heroes of my youth. Du Perron’s biography is still partly a riddle to me. How did he manage as a very young man, and coming from a totally different environment (pre-war Jakarta), to get so quickly introduced and in fact becomie a member of “avant garde” Parisian and Dutch literary circles (Andre Malraux’s novel La Condition Humaine is dedicated to him). He had a great talent for friendship. You got a nice photograph of him in your post that I have never seen before. As you know he and Ter Braak died almost on the same day – during the German invasion. He of a heart attack. Ter Braak committed suicide. In the same days the boat with which that great poet Henny Marsman (another member of the Forum-group) tried to flee to England was torpedoed. They were all only around 40. A great loss to Dutch literature and intellectual life in general.

    After the war the essayist Rudy Kousbroek (took issue (in “Oost Indisch kamp syndroom”) with Ter Braak’s critical judgment of Szekely-Lulofs. He was born in the same part of Northern Sumatra Szekely-Lulofs was writing about. His father worked in one of the plantations there.

  27. avatar DCGuy says:

    Mr. Arie, this is getting really cool. What were you doing in Papua in 1963? Care to tell us a bit of your story?

  28. avatar Oigal says:

    Guys, may I intrude and ask if these books you are referring to are available anywhere in English?

  29. avatar madrotter says:

    Thank you so much Arie!!! Downloaded it and will start reading it soon as I finish the book I’m reading now ( The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail which is more something that goes with the Oigal/Patrick discussion elsewhere on this site)….

    I imagine growing up the way E. du Perron did, as described in Country Of Origin, moving from place to place, having friends in the bule community as well as in the Indo and Indonesian community would have made him very…. adaptable? But you are certainly right, it wasn’t an easy scene to just drop in the way he did….

    (I’m somehow thinking about Jan Campert who was executed by the Germans in 1943 and his poem De achttien dooden” (“The Eighteen Dead”) )

    His book, by the way Oigal, came out here in Indonesia, in fact a whole series of books like that, Dutch colonial literature, came out here here, Periplus, if I recall that right, was the company that put them out, with an excellent book, reviewing many, many books and the writers that wrote them by Rob Nieuwenhuys….

    You might be able to find a few in second hand bookshops, maybe even in some normal bookshops if you’re lucky….

    I’ve got a copy of Coolie by Szekely-Lulofs that’s in English, rubber I’ve got in Dutch 🙂

    I’m at my hotel now, but tonight when I come home I’ll link you to a website where you can download many, many books,you might be able to find some of the stuff you’re looking for ok!

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