Inside Indonesia’s founder looks back
Inside Indonesia will be 25 years old next year. Thinking back, my main feeling is how bloody audacious this project was! How on earth did we - particularly John Waddingham and me - think this would ever work let alone survive into the new millennium?
We started working on the idea in 1982. No. 1: we had no money. John and I were basically volunteers, living off our partners. Our office was a cramped, pre-computer attic with a sagging ceiling at 183 Gertrude St, Fitzroy. No 2: we were both deeply involved in East Timor work, and this allowed little time for other pursuits. In 1982, for example, we were hugely consumed getting a Senate Inquiry on Timor off the ground. Our respective desks at opposite ends of our bohemian attic were so piled with paper and documents on Timor we had to stand up to see each other. No 3: the political environment in the ‘80s was hostile. Suharto was entrenched and the incoming Hawke/ Hayden government in Canberra was fixated on the ‘special relationship’. Around this time, for example, Max Lane was sacked from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta for translating Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s books. Many Australian Indonesia specialists were also not interested in our publishing project, especially when its prime movers were also Timor activists.
No 4: I am not sure where John was up to domestically at that point but Annie and I had our first children in 1982, twins - both of whom I am proud to say have excellent Indonesia qualifications today - and we were trying to rehabilitate a run-down house in Northcote. And No 5: most audacious of all, neither John nor I were Indonesia experts, though we did have a strong interest in Indonesia per se. John, a scientist by training, had spent an extended period in the Aru Islands in 1974. In 1967 I had done a 6 week kursus kilat in Indonesian at Monash under Rabin Hardjadibrata and, funded by the Forelanders Trust, had spent six weeks in Java the following year. But we were winging it with a few feathers missing and could not compare to the expertise associated with the magazine these days.
So what was it all about and how did we get started? The idea was at once simple and complex. We were at the heart of the Timor issue in Australia but we did not want Timor to dominate the way Australians saw Indonesia. We knew the generals were not representative of Indonesians generally, that the violence in Timor was not the only issue of importance in Indonesia, and that Indonesians were also working for change in many different areas of life. To allow Timor (or Bali, at the other end of the spectrum) to be the sole window on Indonesia would distort and poison an important relationship. We also wanted to offer a corrective to the reductionist, pragmatic policies promoted by Canberra that focussed on maintaining the status quo. We wanted Australians to know about the emerging ‘other’ Indonesia that, although struggling following the decimation of the Left after 1965 and oriented to Europe rather than Australia, was modern, interesting, dynamic and accessible. The editorial in the first issue of the magazine was entitled ‘Bringing Indonesia alive’.
Frankly, it also amazed us that Australia was home to world-class experts on Indonesia but the majority of Australians were ignorant of Indonesia. We felt that an information service could bridge that gap. As well as filling that information vacuum, such a service might also help foster people-to-people relations and involvement with the ‘other’ Indonesia on the part of unions, politicians, students, human rights and environmental activists in Australia who, with some notable exceptions, were largely ignoring Indonesia. Though not Timor-motivated (a review of the magazine will show we published relatively few articles on Timor), we also sensed that the future of Timor would be closely linked to the future of Indonesia and that it would help Timor if Australian activists were more Indonesia-literate and plugged in. We were not particularly successful on that front.
Throughout 1982, we discussed our ideas with a number of like-minded people. I particularly remember a meeting at Community Aid Abroad (CAA) in Brunswick St. The early midwives were: Herb Feith, Bill Armstrong, Harry Martin, Chris Dureau, the delightfully named wharfie Harry Bocquet, Neva Finch, Gin Siauw, Unggi Sumardjo, Ian Bell, Di McDonald, Jim and Barbara Schiller, David Hill, Max Lane and others. Richard Alston, later Minister for Communications in the Howard Government, was also consulted. Max Lane, however, was the answer to our lack of Indonesia expertise. John had told him of our plan during a chance meeting at Canberra airport. Max was out of a job after being bumped out of Jakarta and, no doubt, a bit fired up. He edited the first five issues of the magazine and, though not actively involved for many years, continues to proudly sport the moniker ‘founding editor Inside Indonesia’.
'We knew the generals were not representative of Indonesians as a whole'
Our first initiative was to set up IRIP (Indonesia Resources and Information Program) which resulted in a series of two-page punchy releases. In 1983 we boldly plunged in the deep end and decided to produce a quarterly magazine that stood out from the more usual NGO offerings. We polled our network for a title and came up with Inside Indonesia. I also liked Indofile, a neat play on words, which could also have been rendered Indophile. In-digest was also cheekily suggested. Because we had virtually no money, we tried to do our own layout using Monash University student facilities. It didn’t work so we took another plunge and hired a professional designer, Russ Littleson, who worked up in North Fitzroy. He designed the original masthead, since replaced, and the internal layout, and had the copy professionally typeset. Russ liked the big spread look, which scared us a bit because of the cost, but we gave him his head.
The first issue appeared in November 1983 and we had a celebratory launch at the Arjuna Restaurant in Prahran on 10 November. It had Benny Murdani on the front cover under a banner headline ‘Climate of fear’. Benny was pictured in full military gear sporting lots of braid and looking very Germanic and scary. It was very exciting to see it come off the press and like anxious parents we checked the pages to see that our new baby had all its fingers and toes. But actually it wasn’t a great start. Putting Benny on the front cover first up did more to generate a climate of fear about the magazine than to make Benny nervous. The sceptics immediately concluded that, though the magazine looked good, underneath it was just another solidarity rag, a wolf in lamb’s clothing. It took years to dispel this damaging misconception and a number of recipients in Indonesia asked that their copy be posted in a plain brown paper bag. Nevertheless, it didn’t scare off the post-Herb Feith generation of academics. By the end of 1985, our board had expanded to include Keith Foulcher, David Hill, Helen Jarvis, Robin Osborne, Krishna Sen, Christine Wheeler, Brian Brunton, Lindsay Belbin and Dean Forbes.
Financially of course, producing a ‘glossy’ magazine was suicidal. I remember being told by an NGO in Jakarta that everyone in Indonesia thought the magazine was funded by the Australian Labor Party. The reality was we were poorer than the NGO who said this and, of course, Bob Hawke’s ALP would have had a stroke to think Indonesians thought they were responsible for the magazine. What did we do? As subscriptions did not generate enough income, we turned to some of the development agencies I was by then working for and they quietly chipped in. The honour board should include Action for World Development (AWD) and Bill Armstrong, who were always towers of strength, CAA (Harry Martin), Freedom from Hunger Campaign (Bob Debus) and Asia Partnership for Human Development (Hong Kong, Rienzie Rupasinghe). Later Herb Feith, through the Lily Schroeter Trust, and Anton Lucas, gave wonderful support. Annie and I also chipped in in-kind. Inside Indonesia was run from the front room of our house in Northcote for many years and Annie made a remarkable contribution by effectively acting as general manager responsible for overseeing subscriptions, mail outs and other bread and butter essentials, ably assisted in different ways over the years by wonderful people like Ann Ng, Melinda Venticich, John Patterson, Neva Finch, Kirsty Sword, Helen Vaughan, Laurie Price and others.
It was always a thrill to be told by one or other visitor to Indonesia that they’d seen Inside Indonesia on a coffee table in Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry or that the copies in the Satya Wacana University library in Central Java were dog-eared from being read by students. Sometimes, however, the mail did not get through. Once, the post office in Surabaya banned an issue as ‘immoral’ because it included a strongly worded poem about male harassment of women. On another occasion, a monastery in Java cancelled their subscription in case it compounded their problems with the authorities. They had been the subject of official enquiries after it became known that someone had donated them a set of the Great Books of the Western World that included Das Kapital!
Though the magazine looked good, the sceptics immediately concluded that it was just another solidarity rag. It took years to dispel this damaging misconception
Gerry van Klinken, still with the mag today, asked me in 1996 to click on Inside Indonesia for the year 2000 and say what I would want it to look like. Amongst other things, I said Annie and I would like to see it moved from the front room of our home and that I would like to have a picture of President Suharto reading Inside Indonesia on our back cover. Apart from being the ultimate PR coup, it would have meant he had changed his ways and, tongue in cheek, that we could do something else.
Indonesia is changing. But, though the context is different to 1982, there is still a place in 2007 for Inside Indonesia and for expanding its readership globally. The vision remains the same - bringing Indonesia alive in all its rich diversity to contemporary Australians and others - only the vehicle has changed. I am sure you all join me today in congratulating the new team - Ed Aspinall, Michele Ford and their colleagues - for their decision to continue the magazine. Semoga sukses dan selamat membaca Inside Indonesia on-line! ii
Pat Walsh (email@example.com) has lived in Dili with his wife Annie Keogh since 2000. He works with the secretariat to follow up the work of the Timor Leste Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (PST-CAVR). This was his speech at the launch of Inside Indonesia online in Melbourne on 24 September 2007.