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Radio Days: Komunisi & korupsi

PNG Post-Courier, 5 April 1973


JAVA 1973 – In my third year on Bougainville I received an offer to consult to a Unesco educational radio project in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta.

After 10 years in Papua New Guinea I was delighted to have an the opportunity to work for six months in a different broadcasting environment.

The task was to oversee the development and commissioning of an educational radio operation.

This entailed constructing studios, procuring equipment, training scriptwriters, producers and teachers (in how to integrate broadcasts with lessons) and producing programs across a range of subjects from English language to history to music.

The family and I settled into a fine house in Jalan Bausasran and Sue and I began to learn enough Bahasa Indonesia to get around town, buy stuff and order meals at the many small restaurants.

In Java, even in 1973, the memories of the attempted Communist coup seven years before were still vivid. So was the suspicion.

To be labelled Komunisi, or even an associate of Komunisi, proved a serious problem for anyone accused.

The most trivial infractions drew dire consequences.

Soon after we arrived in Yogakarta a student copped six months in gaol for wearing a tee-shirt bearing the words ‘Peking Drop-Out University’.

And I lost a good friend and fine writer, Sutrisno, who was fired because some low life alleged that he was a Communist sympathiser.

I had followed Chris Koch into the Yogyakarta consultant’s role.

Chris, an ABC education producer who had instructed me at the Kings Cross training centre in 1967, was to become an eminent Australian author, his opus including a multi-award-winning book.

Chris Koch
Chris Koch, around the time he worked as a Unesco consultant on a radio project in Yogyakarta

The Year of Living Dangerously’ drew heavily on his Indonesian experience and was for many years banned in Indonesia.

He later co-wrote the movie version for which actress Linda Hunt won an Academy Award.

My boss in Jakarta was Lester Goodman, who had recruited me into the ABC in PNG three years earlier.

He and Koch had struggled to get the Yogyakarta project going because of kept problems. Often the underpinning cause was corruption.

This was to prove a sizeable and unwelcome challenge  for me.

In fact, inexperienced in working in Asia, I found korupsi very problematic indeed.

I wasn’t willing to pay bribes – even to get a decent electrify supply in our house (doing the ironing was enough to trigger a blackout).

I discovered that this was a country where parents bribed teachers to get their children into school, the sick bribed doctors to jump hospital queues and a friend regularly bribed police officers who regularly pulled over his Unicef vehicle for invented offences.

Late in the broadcasting project, when PLN – the national electricity company – refused to connect power to our new studios without a bribe of 35,000 rupiah (K8,000), I asked my Indonesian counterpart, Paul Soerono, to set up a meeting with the local PLN boss.

PLN Yogya
The PLN headquarters in Yogya where I ran headlong into corruption - and was taught a life lesson in dealing with thorny ethical issues

Reluctantly Paul arranged the appointment. The chief manager sat at his desk on a dais facing a long room full of administrators, engineers and clerks.

Paul and I sat on two chairs facing him and with our backs to the multitude of staff.

I lost no time in giving the chief manager a piece of my mind. It was disgraceful that a project build with donated funds should be held to ransom like this, I said.

The project was working to assist the education of young Javanese and PLN’s demand for a “special payment” was bribery and corruption of the worst kind. It reflected very badly on his country.

My final pitch was to tell him that unless the electricity was connected by lunchtime the next day, I’d catch the first plane to Jakarta and report the entire matter to “the authorities”.

Behind me, the vast room was silent as if empty. In front of me, the chief manager was ashen faced and shaking with rage. Beside me my counterpart was weeping quietly into a big white handkerchief.

This will be interesting, I thought.

By the time I got to work at eight the next morning, the power circuit for the studio equipment had been connected.

But the bribe to connect the other circuit for the lighting, air conditioning and power points had doubled to 70,000 rupiah.

I left Yogyakarta soon after to visit an educational project in West Papua and then head back to PNG.

Goodman wrote to me later to say the bribe had eventually been paid and the studios were operational.

And some months after, back in Port Moresby to establish the new National Broadcasting Commission (as it was then), I received a letter from Unesco reprimanding me for so strenuously confronting a local official about a bribe.

It was followed a week or so later by another letter offering me a two-year appointment in Indonesia.

I was relieved to have returned to PNG and quickly declined the invitation.

Four years later Unesco was to make me another offer, which this time I did not refuse. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, happy to be back in Moresby, I reflected on my Indonesian adventure.

I was satisfied with how I’d pushed ahead the broadcasting project and was pleased that Unesco had wanted to retain my services.

And I thought long and hard of how I had mismanaged my first serious encounter with corruption.

I knew it could have been handled better. After all, corruption was endemic in Indonesia and trying to steamroll through in the way I had was never going to work.

Korupsi ScapegoatsOn the other hand, while I was in Yogya I'd had a number of articles on my experiences accepted by Nation Review in Australia (bylined from ‘an Indonesian correspondent’ to protect my identity). That I regarded as soothing balm.

Meanwhile, the just established National Broadcasting Commission was about to take over the entirety of radio broadcasting in PNG.

I'd been offered a contract by the new executive chairman Sam Piniau but I had no idea what it would entail.

Sam had asked me to let him know how I could best be used but made it clear I could not go back to managing stations. These roles were now reserved for Papua New Guineans. We expats would have to get used to a new regime.


In case you missed them.....

You can read earlier gripping episodes of Broadcasting in Tongues here:

1 – In the beginning

2 – Welcome to the ABC

3 – Into management

4 - Blood on the streets

5 – Brink of secession


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Chris Overland

Keith's experiences in Indonesia are instructive.

Corruption is a cancer that will severely degrade not only a country's capacity to run a truly efficient and productive economy, but also the quality of life for its citizens.

Unhappily, it goes hand in hand with neo-liberal capitalism, where mates' rates, special deals and back handers are the status quo ante in the business community. In Australia we are seeing this in government too, with "pork barrelling" now becoming shameless and blatant.

If people believe that the processes of government are crooked then they will not trust those processes to deliver the fair and equitable outcomes that they need and expect in areas like education, health and, of course, media in all its forms.

So, when a government desperately needs the trust and support of its citizens, it can find this mighty hard to achieve, to everyone's detriment.

A case in point at the moment is Lebanon, where the citizenry as a whole clearly believe that the entire governmental structure of the country is rotten.

Mass demonstrations against the entire ruling elite have occurred and the country's economy is in a death spiral.

Lebanon is, in fact, a failed state. I expect more to appear as the C19 crisis drags on. Hopefully, PNG will not be among these states although the risks seem real enough.

Unless and until both Australia and PNG set up truly independent and powerful bodies equivalent to the Crime and Corruption Commissions now at work in the Australian states, trust is going to be a very hard commodity to achieve and retain.

The cynicism and suspicion about business, politics and politicians is now so pronounced in the world's democracies that it threatens their ability to function properly.

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