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Inside 'Inside'

Published: Sep 30, 2007

PAT WALSH edited Inside Indonesia from 1985 until he stepped back earlier this year. Why did he produce it in his living room? And why did some think the magazine was backed by the Australian Labor Party?

Pat, Inside Indonesia has been going for nearly 13 years, and you have been involved with it much of that time. Your beard was longer then we know. Can we ask you to stroke that beard now and reminisce? What was it like those first years? What did you have in mind? How did you do it?

Pat Walsh: We started planning an information service on Indonesia in 1982. The idea was simple and obvious. Australia was home to world-class experts on Indonesia and Canberra was pushing the relationship. But in people-to-people terms Indonesia was a non-issue here. An activist black-hole! An information vacuum! No union links, nothing to speak of on the environmental, student, human rights etc front. There were isolated exceptions - a couple of churches, Amnesty International, some development NGOs and the efforts of people like Ian Bell, Chris Carolan and others. But nothing at the community level to match the work being done, for example, on East Timor and the Philippines. Incredible really given our proximity and proud support for Indonesian independence in the 1940s.

The main reason for this gap, of course, was the decimation of the left and associated links after 1965. There were also language barriers and general perceptions that 'nothing was happening' in Indonesia and that it was an incredibly inaccessible, esoteric place. Maybe, too, concerned Indonesians didn't think we had much to offer and were not looking to Australians.

So our dream was to contribute to a reconstruction of the relationship and to provide a corrective to the pragmatic Canberra line which promoted a sans warts view of Indonesia (although Inside Indonesia probably over- emphasised the warts early on). We also wanted to show that Indonesia is more than Suharto and the military and is in fact a modern, interesting, dynamic, accessible society with people working for all kinds of change.

As some of us were also deeply involved with East Timor, another part of our thinking was to educate East Timor activists about Indonesia because it seemed to us the futures of the two societies are intimately linked. We have not been particularly successful here. Many concerned about East Timor have little interest in or knowledge of Indonesia. In fact what they know of East Timor turns them off Indonesia. The reverse is also true! With only a few notable exceptions, many who are professionally concerned with Indonesia take no interest in East Timor either.

To get things rolling we held consultations over several months with people like Herb Feith, Bill Armstrong, Harry Martin, Chris Dureau, Harry Bocquet (from the Waterside Workers), Neva Finch, Gin Siauw, Unggi Sumardjo, Ian Bell, Jim and Barbara Schiller, Di McDonald and others from development agencies, unions and academia. We wanted to build a base of support and to hone our ideas. We decided to establish the Indonesia Resources and Indonesia Program (IRIP), then polled our groups for a title for the magazine, our new baby. Inside Indonesia was chosen. I also liked Indofile, as a neat play on words. A tongue in cheek one I recall was In-digest! These were exciting moments. Our first effort, in fact, was to produce a series of 2-page punchy Information Releases but these were then subsumed by the magazine.

Who worked with you on the magazine initially? What was their background?

Three of us took responsibility: John Waddingham, Max Lane and myself. Each of us had experience in publishing and were determined not just to produce another amateur, short-run newsletter. John was publishing Timor Information Service, Max had cut his ties with the Australian Government after being removed from the embassy in Jakarta for translating Pramoedya's works, and I was working as a consultant on East Timor to the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA). 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 the plunge and hired a professional, Rus Littleson, to design our masthead and internal layout, and had the copy professionally typeset.

The first issue came out in November 1983 and we had a celebratory launch at the Arjuna Restaurant in Prahran on 10 November. Max Lane was its editor (we even paid Max but this soon had to stop due to funding problems); John and I did the rest. Benny Murdani was on the front cover. It was a bold break with normal practice and a small miracle that we got it off the ground.

Some magazine founders mortgage their homes. We depended on subscriptions, sweat, small grants from a couple of agencies, and the generosity of writers who were prepared then, and still are, to contribute copy gratis. We owe these writers a tremendous debt as we do many who freely helped with administration, mailouts etc. Wonderful people like Neva Finch, Ann Ng, Helen Vaughan, and my wife Annie Keogh. By 1985, the editing shifted to Melbourne and me, because Max was working in Canberra and John took up a parliamentary research job in Perth. The grants came mainly from Community Aid Abroad, Freedom from Hunger and Asia Partnership for Human Development in Hong Kong.

You were always modest about your involvement. Was it just modesty and the collegial style that others appreciate so much in you, or was there another reason?

This interview is something of a coming out, isn't it! I think I'm low-key by disposition and I don't have the Indonesian credentials of a Max Lane. My contribution was more as a manager and as someone respected for a commitment to human rights. Not that I am untutored in the ways of Indonesia. I'm proud I was a pioneer of Bahasa Indonesia teaching in Victoria, starting in 1967. And I have been closely involved with others in initiating some good Indonesia- related projects through the development agencies since then.

The other reason for leading from behind was that since 1985 I have been director of ACFOA's human rights office. It was not always appropriate for me to be publicly identified with Inside Indonesia while representing ACFOA in the sensitive area of human rights. Not that ACFOA opposed my involvement. In fact, the IRIP project was in part a response to a 1982 ACFOA decision to explore ways of developing better NGO relations with Indonesia and the then ACFOA chairman, Richard Alston, now Minister for Communications, took part in our early consultations.

As a shoestring operation there must have been some funny moments. What was your most memorable experience?

The wackiest thing I can recall was being told once that, because the magazine looked so up-market, some Indonesians thought we were funded by the Australian Labor Party. The ALP would die at the thought of being associated with Inside Indonesia. Can you imagine Gareth Evans telling Ali Alatas that he should be reading Inside (as our Indonesian friends like to call the magazine)! The reality was that we were poorer than many of the Indonesian NGOs we were reporting on.

Deliveries in Indonesia are sometimes intercepted for funny reasons. 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!

I also recall getting ticked off by a rather snooty librarian somewhere in the UK for mistakenly using a line drawing of a scene in Nigeria to illustrate an Indonesian street scene. She cancelled her sub in protest at our lack of professionalism!

As your human rights work demands more and more time, you are gradually withdrawing from the magazine. If you had a crystal ball and clicked on Inside Indonesia for the year 2000, what would you want it to look like?

You are right, my human rights agenda is increasingly demanding. But I am stepping back from Inside so that new people can have a go, rather than dropping out.

Talking about the future, I would say a principal concern for us is to make sure, while being careful not to weaken our human rights perspective, that we report Indonesia objectively rather than ideologically. A vital part of that is to go on building strong links there.

Another issue we still have to resolve is the tension between good research and good journalism, without sacrificing either.

The rise of the computer is another issue. Electronic communication is a window of opportunity for our work. But it also presents significant challenges to a print journal which cannot match the rapidity, cost, volume or interactive capacity of the computer.

Annie and I would also like to see the Inside office moved from our front living room by 2000!

Looking after the really terrific people who are the life of Inside - the writers, admin people, the Board, people who help with mailouts, and so on - is also vital. Without them we are dead!

Last, but not least, I have an ambition to show a picture of President Suharto reading Inside Indonesia on our much appreciated back cover. This would be the ultimate PR coup. It would also mean he's changed his ways and we can do something else!

Inside Indonesia 47: Jul-Sep 1996

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