Singapore domestic helpers’ day off in the park rankles with some residents, who complain of noise and littering

First published on 15 July 2018 on South China Morning Post.

With no facilities designed for their use, domestic helpers head to public places to relax on their day off – and they’re not always welcome.

It’s an overcast Sunday afternoon in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens and foreign domestic helpers relax on picnic rugs and in the pagodas. Loud Filipino dance music is punctured by raucous laughter. In another group, a guitar is strummed and hymns are sung in Bahasa Indonesia.

On the surface, a happy day off – but behind the scenes it’s a different story for many of them, and for some residents unhappy with their presence.

Wurgiyanti Siswanto, also known as Gati, has been working in Singapore for the same family for the past 15 years. Originally from Banjarnegara, in Central Java province, Gati says she used to work every day, but Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower made it mandatory in 2013 for employers to give helpers one rest day a week.

Statistics from the ministry show there were 246,800 foreign domestic workers employed in the country at the end of 2017, with the majority from Indonesia and the Philippines. They can spend their rest day away from home, but, as in Hong Kong, without facilities such as social centres they have to congregate in public places – a sore point for them, and others.

The Botanic Gardens is one of the popular hangouts, as is East Coast Park and, if it’s raining, the Lucky Plaza shopping centre.

“We don’t hang out all day,” says Gati, who leaves her employer’s home at dawn and doesn’t return until about 9pm. “I go to church in the morning, where I have activities until the service starts at 11am.

“After that we spend the afternoon relaxing, singing and sharing in the park together.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Gati. “Not all helpers get days off,” she says.

Gati’s friend Rose, for example, is having difficulties adjusting to her new employer. She is only allowed two rest days a month, and is not compensated for the two Sundays her employer makes her work. Under the law, helpers should get at least one day’s salary or a replacement rest day to be taken within the same month.

Employers in breach of the law can be fined up to S$10,000 (US$7,340), jailed for up to one year, or both. Invariably, most domestic helpers don’t rock the boat for fear of losing their job.

Agustina, from Manado in North Sulawesi, has also been a helper in Singapore for 15 years. She says her Sundays off begin with cleaning her employer’s house, before she leaves around lunchtime for afternoon church service. She heads home at about 8pm.

One of her friends interjects: “Depends on the boss. If the boss is bule [Western], your off day is your day. If the boss is Chinese, then you usually have to work.”

Her friends laugh out loud at her remark.

“I like to leave the house tidy,” Agustina responds with a smile.

Gati says before joining her church fellowship she would join other helpers in the parks and malls. “But it gets boring,” she says. “This way we have a purpose and we use our time well.”

“Through our fellowship, we help and guide Rose with prayer and discussions so that she can get used to her employer while seeing the bigger picture and not just the short term,” Gati says.

By the turtle pond at the Botanic Gardens, a larger group of domestic helpers dressed in uniform green T-shirts are practising dance moves to loud music. Also from Indonesia, this group of about 30 workers is quite raucous and talk excitedly.

While helpers have nowhere else to go, their large gatherings are not always welcomed.

William Smith is an Australian expat in Singapore who employs an Indonesian domestic worker to help his wife look after their one-year-old child. He often goes to a public park with his family at the weekend, and says he would like to see helpers be more considerate of other park-goers.

“I don’t have a problem with the helpers spending time together, relaxing in the park. It’s good for them to have down time like everyone else,” he tells the Post. “What I have a problem with is when people litter and aren’t considerate of other park-goers.”

Smith says his local park, Mount Emily Park on Sophia Hill, becomes crowded with foreign domestic helpers and foreign construction workers on Sundays.

“It gets so overrun and noisy that we often feel deterred from spending time there,” he says.

Smith adds once most of the groups have left, there is a lot of litter on the ground, despite the threat of harsh fines.

The Environmental Public Health Act imposes a maximum S$2,000 fine for first-time litterers and up to S$10,000 for third and subsequent convictions.

“The loud music from ghetto blasters is also a nuisance,” Smith adds. “We’re all outside trying to enjoy our time off. If they’d like to listen to music, perhaps they can use headphones instead, or at least play it at a respectable volume.”

Local media have reported on several complaints filed by members of the public about noise pollution and littering caused by domestic helpers.

In March, a complaint was also filed concerning public displays of affection between female domestic workers and male migrant workers at the Ang Mo Kio Mass Rapid Transit underpass in northern Singapore.

According to disgruntled residents, the underpass has become a “hotspot” for gatherings of foreign workers, who spend all day there picnicking. Some residents complained they could hear the noise from their homes.

Several NGOs in Singapore have begun offering self-improvement courses for migrant workers as one way to make their days off more productive. Courses range from cooking and dressmaking to saving money and starting a small business. There is also a fitness club run by the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training.

Hani is a 32-year-old Indonesian helper who has been living in Singapore for seven years – and has worked for Chinese, Malay and expatriate families. Her current employer is from Australia.

On her weekly rest day, Hani takes a course run by Aidha, an NGO that provides training programmes in financial literacy and self-development skills.

Classes at Aidha are held on alternate Sundays and cost S$200 for a six-month course. Self-supporting helpers receive a discounted rate of S$150 for the course. Hani’s employer supports her study by paying the fees for her.

She enjoys feeling more productive on her off days. “I got bored just hanging out with friends and not doing anything on Sundays,” she says. “This way, I have a chance to better myself and maybe start my own small business when I go back to Indonesia.”

In the Shadow of Borobudur

First published in Garuda Indonesia Colours Magazine, August 2017.

Uncover the hidden treasures that lay in the mystical foothills of the Borobudur Valley

“Have you travelled around Borobudur temple much?” my guide, Agus, asks as I hop into the car on a beautiful, misty morning in Central Java’s Magelang.

“I’ve been to the temple more times than I can count,” I admit, “but this is the first time to be touring the foothills around it.”

But why is that, I ask myself. And I’d suspect the same goes for most tourists who have visited the temple. Borobudur, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, dating back to the 10th century, is such a marvel and a Mecca to Buddhists from all over the world that it has the ability to overshadow the lesser grandiose attractions in the valley that it calls home.

The location for where this architectural marvel was built couldn’t be more spiritual. Borobudur sits in the middle of a valley with foothills and mountains protecting her from all sides; Mounts Merapi and Merbabu watch over from the Northeast, Mounts Sumbing and Sundoro from the Northwest, and the Menoreh hills from the South. The Borobudur valley is rich in Javanese culture and tradition, where the Majapahit era’s Hindu-Buddhism religion still lives and breathes. These foothills are steeped in mysticism, and when you know where to look, you’ll find treasures abound.

Agus drives us through village roads strewn with paper cuttings from the Idul Fitri celebrations just gone. I watch the smiley Javanese people going about their daily lives, most of whom live off the land, while others have jumped on the tourism bandwagon and built enchanting homestays to accommodate the budget savvy traveller. The small road twists and winds, and we’re met by enthusiastic calls made by local children. “Hello, mister!” they yell and wave, which we respond to with smiles and a honk from the car horn. We take a right turn at a small intersection, which takes us past padi (rice) fields, ripe and ready for harvest, and Agus breaks to let a row of adorable brown ducks cross the road.

“Look to the left,” Agus says.

I do, and in the distance, surrounded by rice fields and greenery as far as the eye can see, is Borobudur in all its glory, her stone stupas basking in the morning sunlight. I’d seen the temple so many times from up close, but the vision of her resting from a distance was awe-inspiring. I could imagine this landscape hadn’t changed much since the Majapahit kingdom she was born in. A horse-drawn cart (andong) jingles past us as I stand on the edge of the road taking photos of the temple, and it truly feels as though we have travelled back in time.

Down by the river

As we jump back in the car, Agus tells me I’m in for a real treat at the next spot. He takes us down some even smaller village roads, and I start to hear the sound of rushing water. Next on my Borobudur valley treasure hunt is a quirky yet charming art house on the edge of where two rivers, Elo and Progo, meet. Legend has it that Elo river is female and Progo river is male, and their union symbolizes the everlasting bond between a man and a woman in matrimony.

The Elprogo arthouse is owned by an eccentric, dreadlocked painter, who goes by the name of Sony. Although his sanctuary is rustic, there’s a kind of magic that lives here. Stepping out of the car, I’m greeted by a cool breeze in the shade of one of Pak Sony’s Bodhi trees – the same type of tree that Siddhartha Gautama meditated under and attained enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. Even if you’re not keen on learning how to paint, this place is great for a visit and a cup of local coffee perched atop one of the benches on the ravine’s edge, overlooking the white water in the river below.

After a coffee and a chat with the Pak Sony, he leads me down past his fairytale-like cottages towards his art gallery. This rustic space is like no other I’ve been to, and I spend some time admiring his life-like Borobudur relief paintings that adorn the exposed brick walls. The paintings appear to be three-dimensional and coming off of the canvases. It’s no wonder people travel from far and wide to learn how to paint from this talented artist.

Light streams in at the other end of the gallery, and as I exit, the view of a beautiful green-grassed garden appears before me. A peaceful retreat on the edge of the river, it’s here that I rest my weary legs and enjoy a picnic underneath the trees, looking on to where the two lovers, Elo and Progo, meet and are bound together forever.

Meditate

I wake to the sound of a gentle breeze and leaves rustling in the wind. Agus walks over and reminds me that we have one more spot to visit. “Mendut temple?” I say. I’d already been there several times before.

“Ah, but have you been into the Buddhist Monastery behind it?” he asks me with a knowing smile.

I’m not sure how I overlooked it in the past, but sitting right behind the 9th century Mendut Temple is a beautiful monastery open to the public, home to monks from all over the world, who come to study in what is considered one of the most prestigious monasteries of this faith. As we step through its gates, a feeling of calm sets in. This monastery is pristinely maintained, and houses two meditation rooms, a large hall where – during our visit – monks were gathering for a seminar, and statues and relics of the Buddha in his many depicted forms.

One particular statue, sitting underneath the shade of a Bodhi tree, catches my eye. It’s the Buddha, but not like other Buddhas I’d seen in the past. He is sitting in meditation, his stomach sunken in, his ribs and cheekbones protruding. We ask a passing monk what it means, and he tells us this is a depiction of Siddhartha Gautama at the end of his 49-day meditation without food or water, as he reaches enlightenment.

Feeling motivated by this beautiful vihara, I spend an hour honouring it in silent meditation. The late afternoon sun shines on my face as I exit the prayer room, and I decide to end my day with a visit to Mendut temple next door. I pay the small fee of Rp.3,500 ($0.40) to enter, and settle myself under the giant banyan tree that towers over this understated temple. As I sit here I remember the slight smile on the statue of the skinny Buddha resting in the monastery, and this image is the perfect way to end our day in this spiritual valley. I’m left knowing that no matter how many times I will visit this place again in the future, it will never cease to surprise me.

5 Senses: Sight

One of the most fun, and not to mention healthiest ways to tour the Borobudur valley is by bicycle. Most hotels and homestays offer bike rentals at very fair prices. Take a peaceful ride through the local villages and rice fields and soak in the sights that the shady, winding roads have to offer.

5 Senses: Sound

Observe Buddhist monks in daily evening (7pm) meditation at the beautifully kept Mendut Buddhist Monastery just behind the 9th century Mendut Temple. Sit in silence or join in prayer as the monks, who travel from far and wide to study in the shadow of their most sacred site, recite mantras in the hopes of freedom for all living beings.

5 Senses: Taste

One of this region’s local delicacies is ketupat tahu, also called kupat tahu. There are several tofu (tahu) factories in the valley, which are open to tourists. Try this zesty vegetarian dish made of sticky rice, tofu, peanut sauce, bean sprouts and soy sauce. I enjoyed a plate at a local warung, where a dish cost only Rp.8,000.

5 Senses: Smell

In the petite Mendut temple, incense always burns. Inside this pyramid cavern is where three large Buddha statues have rested since the 9th century. Light an incense stick, say a prayer whatever your faith, and watch the smoke unfurl and fill this ancient, dark stone room with the delightful scent of sandalwood, just as it’s been done for centuries.

Under the Knife: Female Genitalia Mutilation Causes Long Term Psychological Effects on Indonesian Women

First published in Indonesia Expat, 1 August 2017

Female genitalia mutilation is common practice in Indonesia. Although it is largely associated with Islamic teachings, many claim there is no connection to the religion. I speak to women who have experience first-hand and discover that there are more than negative physical effects caused by this incredible act of violation of human rights.

Nini works as a house helper in Jakarta. Recently a grandmother to baby twin girls, she had planned to accompany her son and daughter-in-law to the twins’ first official doctor’s appointment a few days after their births in South Jakarta. The routine visit was to include a check-up, vaccinations and the female circumcision.

Female genitalia mutilation, known in Bahasa Indonesia as ‘sunat perempuan’ is a common practice in Indonesia – and not just in rural areas. Parents and guardians like Nini have been told that the practice of either partially cutting or removing the clitoris entirely at a young age, without the child’s consent, is part of religious tradition that must be honoured. According to a 2016 report by UNICEF, 49 percent of Indonesian girls aged below 14 had undergone female genital mutilation by 2015.

In the country with the highest population of Muslims in the world, many people in Indonesia believe the practice is part of their religious passage. Historical records show that the practice began in the country with the arrival of Islam in the 13th century. It is carried out in different regions of the archipelago where Islam is predominant.

“I only know about sunat perempuan from the Betawi people I know, who say that it’s a religious passage in Islam,” says Nini, a Muslim who is originally from Cirebon and has not been circumcised. “Maybe it’s according to different regions’ traditions and beliefs.”

In 2013 the Indonesian Ulema Council ruled in favour of this violation against human rights, claiming it is part of Islamic teachings. Many Muslims, however, would disagree that it is taught in their religion.

Wulan Danoekoesoemo is the Co-Founder of Lentera Indonesia, an NGO aimed at providing support and counsel for victims of sexual abuse. Wulan is also a practicing Muslim and believes there is no passage in the Koran that teaches female circumcision.

“Female genitalia mutilation is not part of Islamic teachings,” she tells Indonesia Expat. “It has no medical/health benefit and was passed on through the generations as part of culture and tradition.”

Wulan herself is a victim of this violation against human rights. When she was only a few days old, her mother – believing she was acting in her daughter’s best interests at the time – took her to a clinic to have the procedure done on her. Although Wulan does not have any significant physical effects, she experiences psychological side effects until this day on a daily basis.

“Every time I get water on that region, I feel an incredibly overwhelming feeling of sadness and depression that I can’t explain,” she confesses.

“I feel worthless. It’s as though that part of me still recalls the extraordinary violation that took place all those years ago, and conveys it through my emotions.”

Wulan also teaches psychology at Binus University, and believes the psychological ramifications of female genitalia mutilation are significant to a woman’s development.

“When you’ve been violated from such a young age, it stays with you and defines the person who you are,” she says honestly. “Contrary to male circumcision in Indonesia, where the child or young man ultimately gets to make the decision as to whether or not he wants to ‘have the snip,’ girls are not asked – it just happens to them.”

The World Health Organisation states that the procedure has no health benefits whatsoever, contrary to popular local belief, unlike male circumcision, where health benefits include a reduced risk of some sexually transmitted diseases, protection against penile cancer and a reduced risk of cervical cancer in female sex partners.

The same practice on females can lead to harm. According to the World Health Organisation the procedure “can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.”

As Wulan experienced, psychological problems, including low self-esteem, depression and anxiety are long-term consequences associated with the practice.

Female genital mutilation is classified into four major types. Type one is the partial or total removal of the clitoris, type two is the partial or full removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, and type three is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. Type four includes all other harmful procedures carried out on the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes; pricking, piercing, scraping and cauterizing.

In Indonesia, types one and four is prevalent. In 2006 the government tried to ban the practice, a move that proved unsuccessful and was lifted. In 2010, the Health Ministry issued a decree outlining the ‘proper’ procedure for the circumcision, and has since tried to accommodate cultural and religious considerations, focusing efforts on eradicating type one genital mutilation and promoting a ‘safer’ type four, which involves pricking the clitoris, not removing it. Activists claim this contradicts the 2006 ruling prohibiting clinics from performing any mutilation and causes confusion among the public.

Wulan’s circumcision falls into type four. She believes the public needs to be educated about the practice to help them understand.

“People need to know and understand consent and how the female genitalia mutilation does not give the opportunity to women to agree or disagree to the practice. People may mean no harm to their daughters when they exercised this, but they also need to be aware of the physical and psychological impact that may result from this experience.”

Wulan believes the government needs to start being more firm when it comes to protecting personal choices.

“Despite tradition, it is still a matter of taking away an individual’s right to allow or not allow actions to be done to their bodies.”

She urges the government to start socializing accurate information about female genitalia mutilation: “working with local influencers and primary health care providers to reconstruct people’s understanding on female genitalia mutilation issues taking various approaches as well. It will take a lot of time but it needs to start somewhere.”

After receiving the facts about the dangers of female genitalia mutilation, Nini decided not to take her twin granddaughters to have the procedure done. These two little girls were the lucky ones.

Hope from the Darkness

A Hazara fleeing persecution has dedicated her life in Indonesia to helping her fellow refugees in Bogor.

‘Here we are in transit. We can’t go back to our home country, we can’t go forward, we are totally stuck and we don’t know for how long. We are in limbo.’

These are the words of Kalsoom Jaffari, a Hazara from Pakistan, currently living as a refugee in West Java’s rainy city of Bogor. She landed on Indonesian soil in August 2013 and has been waiting to be resettled in a third country ever since.

‘I’m originally from Behsood, where there are a lot of problems with the Taliban,’ Kalsoom tells me when I visit her in her very simple rented apartment in Bogor where she lives with her brother, Sikander. ‘In Afghanistan we are severely persecuted.’

Before her estranged life in Indonesia, Kalsoom was working for the UNHCR in Pakistan as a Health and Education Coordinator and with Mercy Corps Pakistan’s Integrated Health Program as a Community Health Educator. Being a Hazara woman working for an NGO, and also a Shia Muslim, she found herself on an extremist target list, which meant her life was in grave danger.

Kalsoom opens up to me as we sip on tea in her living room. ‘In March 2013, while working in the field providing an education at schools in refugee camps, a group of terrorists tried to kidnap me with my driver. We escaped but we received a phone call saying that this time we got lucky. I was supervising 16 of these camps at the time. I never thought that one day I would become a refugee.’

She continues, ‘The terrorists have no mercy for the young, the old, for women, for nobody. They will stop a bus and open fire on the Hazara because of this face.’ She points to her fair skin, which is what differentiates her from others in her home country.

Kalsoom’s father passed away when she was very young, and her mother and three younger sisters are still in Pakistan. Both of her sisters have stopped their studies because of threatening letters from terrorist groups. Kalsoom and her brother were forced to flee and seek asylum in another country.

Before arriving in Indonesia, Kalsoom and Sikander paid US$7,000 each to an agent who organized their safe passage to Indonesia as asylum seekers. They travelled from Pakistan to Malaysia, continuing by boat with 13 other asylum seekers, eventually landing in Medan.

‘When we arrived on the shores of Sumatra, we had to walk through the jungle at night. It was so dark and the guide had to cut trees to make a path,’ Kalsoom remembers. ‘The next day we were in a car driving around Medan for the entire day to avoid the immigration police. The air-conditioning was on and we were shivering because our clothes were soaking wet.’

Before alighting at Medan Kualanamu International airport, the driver told them to stay in the car as he went to get their tickets. Three men came and knocked on the car window. They claimed to be from immigration and said they were going to arrest everyone unless they paid US$1000 each.

‘We were so scared. They showed us their IDs but since we didn’t know anything about Indonesia, we didn’t know if they were real or not. In the end they took US$500 per head.’

US$500 is exactly the amount Kalsoom’s agent told them each to carry on the journey.

‘We are separated from our family,’ she shares with concern in her voice. Her youngest brother is currently in Melbourne, Australia on a bridging visa. He is also not allowed to work but he does what he can to help Kalsoom and her brother. ‘Hopefully one day we will be resettled in a third country, but we don’t know whether that would be Australia, Canada, New Zealand or America. If Australia, then at least we would be reunited with our brother.’

Kalsoom received her refugee status from the UNHCR in March 2014 but has heard no news since. She sends the UNHCR emails, letters, and has visited many times, but to no avail. ‘To visit, I have to leave at 4am and sit in front of the UNHCR gate in the morning until they open at 7am. Most of the time we don’t get an appointment. When I call them, the lines are always busy and I end up spending all my phone credit.’

According to Kalsoom, the UNHCR has just 49 staff for the entire asylum seeker and refugee population in Indonesia, of which there are over 14,000. Kalsoom says 6,000 live around Jakarta and Bogor, with the remainder in refugee centres around the country that she refers to as ‘prisons’. The UNHCR prioritizes resettling families. As Kalsoom and her brother are both single, they have been waiting four years. ‘I’m even thinking to get married here!’ Kalsoom manages to joke.

According to Kalsoom, all of the refugees are struggling to survive. As they are not permitted to work during their stay in Indonesia, they rely on money sent from their families back home. Most of the asylum seekers and refugees eat once or twice a day to save money. They have developed unusual sleeping patterns in an attempt to conserve energy and funds, going to bed very late at night (around 2-3am), and waking up at around noon. When they awake, they eat breakfast, which will usually consist of a cup of tea and some bread.

‘Our rent here is expensive,’ Kalsoom shares. ‘We can’t boil the tap water to drink because it’s totally brown. This leads to a lot of health problems when the water is used for showering and even drinking, including stomach problems, scabies and also vaginitis.’ Kalsoom helps by conducting health workshops for refugees, providing them with a kit that includes basic health items and toiletries.

Kalsoom herself has recently been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Lupus, due to environmental and lifestyle factors, namely stress and a poor diet. She suffers from painful and swelling joints and has not been able to start a course of medication due to lack of funding.

Although she is unwell, Kalsoom has been extremely proactive and has used her time in Indonesia to help other refugees and asylum seekers better their lives.

When she first arrived in Bogor, she noticed some children playing outside. When asking the parents why they didn’t send their children to the only refugee school open at the time, they replied that they couldn’t afford the transportation costs.

This inspired Kalsoom to do something. ‘I went to a stationary shop and bought some notebooks and pencils.. I felt that if I didn’t do this, nobody would support them. It cost Rp.110,000, which is a lot of money for me, but the peace I felt inside me was unique. I can’t explain it.’

Children learning English at the volunteer-led Cipayung Refugee Educational Center, founded by Kalsoom

With the books in hand, Kalsoom informed the parents in her neighbourhood that she would be teaching the children in the evenings. Starting by teaching English to three students in her home, the size of the class continued to grow to 40 students today, with classes taking place at a small rental-home-turned-school called the Cipayung Refugee Educational Center. Classes were even extended to the children’s mums, who today come twice a week to learn sewing and crocheting in Kalsoom’s living room.

The women, who now go by the name Refugee Women Support Group, are equipped with the skills to make pouches, pants, purses, and even dresses. Handicrafts made are sold in different bazaars in Jakarta and via non-profit online organization Beyond the Fabric, run by a group of friends.

‘We do this to empower the women. In our culture back home, these women are not allowed to go outside alone or make an income; men have authority.’ The women, who are from Iraq, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, love coming to class and would never miss a session.

Most of the women who take Kalsoom’s classes had never touched a sewing machine prior to joining, and are now able to make beautiful creations. They are able to express themselves keeping busy at the same time, while earning a little bit of pocket money.

Kalsoom has empowered women refugees by teaching them how to sew at the Refugee Women Support Group

Through personal donations from expat friends she’s made in Jakarta, Kalsoom has somehow managed to keep her school alive, as well as continued to pay rent and electricity in her humble home where the women meet.

Together with her friend Mohammad Baqir Bayani, Kalsoom has started the Health, Education and Learning Program (HELP) for Refugees project, with ambitious plans to open a refugee school in South Jakarta. The school plans to provide an education for children, teach computer literacy to young adults, as well as provide health workshops to adults. Activities like sewing and handicraft classes will also be offered to mothers to advocate for the creation of further income-generating activities.

Kalsoom’s refugee friends who teach at the Cipayung Refugee Educational Centre in Bogor

Kalsoom has become a very respected figure in her community in Bogor. Although she comes across as extremely strong, it is clear her past and present hardships and future uncertainties are taking a toll on her. ‘I miss my home and my family, but I am not safe there. Here I’m safe but my loved ones are not with me,’ she tells me with sadness in her eyes. When asked what her fears are, she answers, ‘Even if I’m tired I cannot sleep. I fear too much about what’s going to happen and I worry about the safety of my family back home.’

First published in Inside Indonesia. 

 

 

Singapore’s Green Spaces

First published in ‘Colours‘ Garuda Indonesia’s inflight magazine, April 2017 edition. 

In Singapore, you’re never more than a stone’s throw away from a public garden. To celebrate Earth Day, Colours visits one of the world’s greenest cities to explore and soak up Mother Nature in Singapore’s many outdoor spaces.

Singapore is certainly unique: a bustling city-state of 5.78 million people with languages emitted from its streets ranging from Mandarin to Tamil, Malay to English. The country’s first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, introduced the ‘Garden City’ movement in the mid-1960s, an ideology that has been manifested today in the plethora of green spaces that can be found across this bustling metropolis.

Named the ‘Second Greenest in the World’ by the World Cities Culture Forum, incredibly nearly half of Singapore’s land area is dedicated to parks and gardens. Deciding which ones to visit can be quite a daunting task, so I decided to take some local residents’ advice.

“I guess it depends where in Singapore you live,” says Lina, an expat originally from the Netherlands who has been living in the city for two years. “I live on Robertson Quay and I attend boot camp in the park three mornings a week.” She tells me her favourite outdoor space is Fort Canning due to its close proximity to home, its hills and many steps – perfect for those hardcore workouts she loves so much.

For local resident Byron Lim, it’s the MacRitchie Reservoir, located further north. “You’d either have to drive or take the MRT to Marymount, but it’s worth it once you’re there because you really feel like you’re away from it all – and the kids love it,” he tells me over coffee on the lively Orchard Road. “Just don’t feed the monkeys!” he laughs.

Clearly, the expression ‘each to their own’ applies when attempting to narrow down the city’s must-see green spaces. So, with a general overview of where to go, I strapped on my walking shoes and headed out to explore the great outdoors.

 The Futuristic Garden

Gardens by the Bay is arguably Singapore’s most iconic outdoor space. Situated right by Marina Bay, what separates it from the rest is that it may be the only park that is even better enjoyed by moonlight. This revolutionary downtown garden is watched over by 18 towering 25–50m-tall ‘supertrees’ – architectural marvels creeping in plants that provide respite from the tropical sun during the day and light up like an electronic music video at night. Embedded with the environmentally sustainable function of photovoltaic cells that harvest the sun’s energy, these trees stand as a testament to what Singapore is capable of. Walking through its magnificent grounds on a Saturday night, I was awestruck by mankind’s ability to seamlessly blend the futuristic with Mother Earth.

There was laughter to my left: a group of tourists had claimed a piece of green under the supertrees, passing time with their favourite drink poured into plastic cups and snacks brought from outside the grounds. Some seemed deeply engrossed in conversation, barely taking notice of the light-and-sound show unfolding in the supertrees above. I walked through the crowd and made myself comfortable on a large rock, taking in the performance, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at the magnificent display of colours and music.

The Colonial Garden

The Singapore Botanic Gardens were established in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society and serve as the city’s more traditional park compared to Gardens by the Bay. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, the gardens reflect an English landscape style so expansive in size that you need several days to navigate its entirety.

My visit started at the Visitor Centre and Nparks HQ, from where I strolled down to the Symphony Lake, home of turtles and large monitor lizards, as well as the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage. Slightly further along, at a large stretch of open grass called the Palm Gardens, other visitors had set up camp for the afternoon, lying out on the green enjoying a picnic and a game of Frisbee or football. This appeared to be one of the gardens’ busiest spots, and those in search of quieter corners could easily continue walking to one of the many other lawns on site.

Those with a penchant for orchids may want to stop by the National Orchid Garden, home to the largest display of orchids in the world. With a S$5 (US$3.50) entrance fee for tourists and just S$1 (US$0.70) for senior citizens and students, there is plenty to discover inside, including the VIP Orchid Garden, where new orchid strains are crossbred and dedicated to important visitors from around the world. On my visit, the Barack and Michelle Obama orchid was the proud centrepiece in the main building: a curious pygmy orchid made up of soft purples and yellows.

If, like me, you forgot to pack your own picnic, there are several cafés in the gardens that can replenish you, and Halia Provisions will be able to stock you up with picnic necessities. With a strong local iced black coffee in hand, I sat on a bench and watched park-goers stroll by, the birds swoop overhead, and the leaves in the thousands of trees rustle in the cool afternoon breeze.

The Beach Garden

A local’s favourite weekend spot – and for good reason – the East Coast Park spans over 15km of scenic coastline, within an area of 185 hectares. I took a trip on a Sunday afternoon and opted for two wheels as my means of transportation, renting a bicycle from the park for S$5. Cruising along the shoreline, I felt so far removed from Singapore’s hustle and understood why people come here regularly for a quick escape. Runners, in-line skaters and other cyclists passed me by as I took my time gliding along the boardwalk, soaking up the gentle afternoon breeze and warm sunshine. Out on the sand and under the coconut trees, scores of families and friends gathered to enjoy an afternoon bite and soak up the relaxing ambience a day at the beach never fails to provide. In the water, people were causing a ruckus on jet-skis, while dozens of tankers busied the horizon – the sole reminder that I was still in Singapore.

The Historic Garden

Right in the heart of Singapore, Fort Canning is as steep in history as it is in steps. Sitting at 60m, this hill once served as the headquarters for the Far East Command Centre and the British Army Barracks. Today, the park, which spans 18 hectares, is a history buff’s playground, home to sites such as Raffles House, the Fort Gate and the underground bunker known as the Battlebox. A sally port, a small door leading in and out of the fort, which allowed defenders to enter and exit undetected when under siege, still stands within the gardens and is a haunting reminder of the war.

Fort Canning stands as a living, breathing outdoor museum in the city, although non-history nerds are just as sure to find something to enjoy such as yoga, exercise boot camps, music festivals and heritage walks. Although guided walks are available at most of the parks (typically on weekends), the Singaporean government has also prepared a useful feature called DIY Trail Guides, which intrepid park-goers can easily download from www.nparks.gov.sg. I myself wasn’t done exploring, and was off to see what those cheeky monkeys at MacRitchie Reservoir Park were up to.

Five Senses: Taste

Singaporeans are proud of their rich and diverse street-food culture, housed in the many hawker centres that dot the city. In the East Coast Park, make sure to stop by the popular East Coast Lagoon Food Village. Here, you can find local delicacies ranging from barbecue pork noodles to satay, of course not forgetting the variety of seafood dishes, which won’t cost you a pretty penny

Five Senses: Sound

Singapore never sleeps, and it can be hard to find somewhere to sit in silence.

Within Fort Canning Park lies a space for you to be still and calm your mind. The Meditation Site by Han Sai Por is a row of natural wood benches in a tranquil space, surrounded by greenery and protected from the sun by lofty trees. Here,

I sat with my thoughts and the sound of birdsong for half an hour – a great way to reboot and rejuvenate before returning to the city’s dynamic street life.

Five Senses: Sight

To experience the true spectrum the orchid species has to offer, within the Orchid Gardens at Singapore’s Botanic Gardens awaits the Mist House. Here, I was blown away by the most remarkable exhibition of orchids I have ever seen, ranging from the classic to the downright dramatic. Even if you’re not a fan of these distinctive flowers, you are likely to come away from this greenhouse with a newfound respect for them.

HELP to Open a School for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Jakarta!

Health, Education and Learning Program (HELP) for Refugees needs your help to raise funds to pay for rent and electricity for a new refugee school in Jakarta.

Indonesia is currently home to over 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers waiting to be resettled in a third country. Under Indonesian law, asylum seekers and refugees are not allowed to work; they do not have access to social support from the Indonesian Government and most schools and universities will not accept them.Many refugees are deprived of a sense of purpose and dignity, which can be provided by work and study. They continually face the feelings of being trapped, unable to return to their country, whilst having no prospect of settling lawfully in Indonesia, which for many may have been the country of choice after building a life here. Lack of education in refugee communities and detention centres is one of the biggest problems individuals and families face.

The Health, Education and Learning Program (HELP) for Refugees in Jakarta, run by the community, for the community, is a collective of passionate refugees, working to better the lives of fellow refugees and asylum seekers living in limbo.

The program will help by providing education for children, teaching computer literacy courses to young adults, while presenting a range of Information and technology skills alongside health workshops, focusing on common health issues and family planning education. In conjunction with these classes and activities, HELP will provide an extra curricular component to the program in the form of sewing, embroidery, knitting and handicraft workshops, which will be offered whilst advocating for the creation of further income-generating activities.

Providing refugees and asylum seekers with a space to use their time productively and positively will help prevent asylum seekers and refugee children, adults and families from being trapped in their homes, left to deal with traumas of the past, reflections of the present and fears of the future. With a focus on empowering individuals, HELP will work to provide individuals with the skills, positive energy and support that they need to engage with the knowledge, tools and focus they can access within themselves, creating the confidence and momentum to move forward into their unknown futures.

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Objectives

1. Providing classes for the children to ensure they continue to be engaged with reading and learning.

2. Providing adults with english lessons to encourage preparedness for resettlement, and the encouragement of intergenerational learning of English.

3. Providing opportunities for learning new practical skills or practicing their old skills, with a strong focus on these skills leading to potential income generating activities in the future. Women will be given the top priority.

4. Conducting health workshops most common health that are particular to the area of residents, including family planning workshops.

5. Encouraging and teaching computer literacy as a way to get individuals involved with career development activities.

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Budget

For conducting our voluntary activities, HELP For Refugees will need to rent a space. As asylum seekers and refugees are dispersed throughout Jakarta, with the majority of them residing in Tebet, it has been decided that this will be where the program will be based.

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The proposed budget is an estimated minimum cost of what will be required to establish and run the school and program for up to a year. We need your support to raise the funds to make this education centre a reality!

Program evaluation

Assessment tests will be conducted every three months to determine the progress in children’s studies. Interviews, questionnaire, case study, surveys or focus group discussion will be used to evaluate our outcomes in health and learning areas.

Who is behind The HELP For Refugees?

Mohammad Baqir Bayani and Kalsoom Jaffari are Co-founders of HELP For Refugees, both refugees who have been living in Indonesia for the last few years and have devoted their time to helping fellow asylum seekers and refugees. Baqir is co-founder of The Refugee Reflect Circle (RRC), a group of photographers who use their experience and skills of visual storytelling to tell the stories of asylum seekers and refugees, he is a creative writer, and the co-founder and co-director of Refugees Of Indonesia project.

Kalsoom Jaffari works tirelessly to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers in Cisarua have access to education, essential health information and any translation services. Her previous work experience includes working on health programs with UNHCR in Pakistan and as a Community Health Education (CHE) with Mercy Corps Pakistan’s Integrated Health Program. She conducts monthly health workshops ensuring that women have knowledge on Gender Based Violence, providing them with health and education packs.

Kalsoom is also the founder of the Refugee Women’s Support Group, giving women access to sewing and handicraft activities to encourage the initiation of income-generating activities, supported by Beyond the Fabric. She is also the founder of the Cipayung Education Centre, a small school providing education to refugee children in Cipayung, Bogor.

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What Has 2016 Meant For Indonesia And Climate Change?

2015 was a devastating year for global greenhouse gas emissions, with Indonesia ranking fourth on the list of top emitters after vast forest fires released 1.62 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Under immense pressure at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) last year, Indonesia announced its commitment to reduce its emissions from peat land fires. Now that a year has passed, do experts believe the government is doing enough to prevent future cataclysmic events from happening?

COP22 ran from 7- 18 November in Marrakesh, Morocco and was centred on the implementation of the Paris Agreement of 2015. Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya spoke at the conference about how Indonesia – throughout 2016 – has taken many operational steps and policies that have had a direct impact on the reduction of emissions.

Nurbaya listed Jokowi’s moratorium, the restoration of peat land, the control of forest fires, and the prevention of deforestation as part of the measures being taken to reduce carbon emissions. According to the Minister, these actions have clear indicators that “can be measured, monitored and verified”.

Recent data show no signs of deforestation slowing down, which is a direct contradiction to Minister Nurbaya’s speech at COP22. While independent scientific sources indicate a strong increase in deforestation over the last decade, the Ministry of Forestry reported stable deforestation levels and emissions.

Deforestation on the rise

Indonesia’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), released in September last year, includes an unconditional 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 29 percent below business-as-usual (BAU) and a conditional 41 percent reduction below BAU by 2030 (with sufficient international support).

In stark contrast, according to independent scientific analysis consortium Climate Action Tracker, “Indonesia is the only main deforesting country where a strong increase in deforestation emissions can be expected in the period to 2030.” The group claims that Indonesia has a contradictory climate policy, where renewables are being pushed to play a stronger role in the energy mix, while a growing demand for coal is leading to continually rising emissions. They predict a 70 percent increase in emissions above the 2010 level by 2030 from energy and industry sectors.

A weak commitment

Environmental activists on the ground believe Indonesia’s commitment is weak and not ambitions enough. Annisa Rahmawati is the Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia. She was shocked to hear the government is planning an increase in global greenhouse emissions of around one third by 2030. “Deforestation and peat land destruction accounts for approximately 60 percent of Indonesia’s emissions, but Indonesia’s measures to protect peat lands is insufficient,” she told Indonesia Expat. “The government is even planning 13 million hectares of further deforestation in the next three decades as revealed in the INDC.”

An ineffective moratorium

Jokowi’s moratorium on new palm oil concessions, according to Rahmawati, up until now still has no legal binding form, rendering it useless. “The President’s ban on new developments on peat land seems not to be obeyed by the industry, and the lack of law enforcement has added to its complication,” says Rahmawati. The problem is, “The moratorium is not permanent and doesn’t apply to land where permits have already been granted.” According to Greenpeace, there are approximately 10 million hectares of forest currently under threat in existing oil palm, pulp and mining concessions.

Environmental activist Chanee Kalaweit, who works saving animals in the fire hazard zones of Kalimantan and Sumatra, believes the peat land fire threat is still very much alive. In 2015 Kalaweit became a household name when his video addressed to the president taken from the thick of the forest fire haze in Kalimantan went viral. He believes the only reason we are seeing fewer fires this year is because of the La Niña weatherfront, not because of any measures being taken by the government.

“This year it’s La Niña, which always comes the year after El Niño,” he tells Indonesia Expat. “We are experiencing a lot of rain with no real dry season in Borneo. Next year the dry season will be normal, and every year it will be longer until the next El Niño in 2020/2021,” he warns. Kalaweit believes the next El Niño will be catastrophic in terms of forest fires and Indonesia’s contribution to climate change.

What actions should be taken?

Like Rahmawati, Kalaweit believes the government is not doing enough to prevent further peat land forest fires. He has observed that many landowners are converting their land status to Areal Penggunaan Lain (APL) or Area for Other Uses, which is exempt of the moratorium, allowing them to continue as palm oil plantations. What he believes should be done to prevent further fires is; 1) focus prevention funds on peat land forests only; 2) Prepare water pumps at every problem area; 3) forbid any form of fire creation in the dry season in peat land areas, as he says they do in Europe on pine forests. Kalaweit also believes the government must forbid the opening of large-scale land in any APL region.

Both activists believe in order to prevent future fires, the plantation industry must move away from peat lands and start to remedy the damage that has already been done. This can be done through blocking canals and rewetting as a first step to restoring peat lands to their natural condition – an effective measure based on Greenpeace Indonesia’s experience in Riau and Central Kalimantan.

In the space of seven days, Indonesia received 174 fire alerts, 42 percent occurring on indicative moratorium areas. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch.
In the space of seven days, Indonesia received 174 fire alerts, 42 percent occurring on indicative moratorium areas. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch.

Ambitious plans of bringing together land use, land tenure and other spatial data into a singular incorporated database for Indonesia, known as the One Map initiative, began under the previous government, but has yet to be completed. Rahmawati believes that without transparency of baseline data and methodology, enabling independent monitoring and accurate calculations about what is actually happening on the ground – while understanding who owns the land and who is responsible for fires and environmental destruction – both the moratorium and One Map policy “will be meaningless”.

In the length of time it took to write this article, the Global Forest Watch reported that Indonesia received 174 fire alerts (see map). Fourty-two percent of the fires occurred on indicative moratorium areas.

First published in Indonesia Expat on December 13, 2016

The Reporter-Turned-Refugee

A journalist’s job is to tell a story. It’s not a profession that pays the highest salary, nor is it one that earns the most respect. Those who choose this path, however, are usually incredibly passionate, willing to take risks to share the truth.

But what happens when you take a journalist who is a minority, place him in a war-torn country, reporting on extremist groups? You become a target. This is exactly what happened to 30-year-old Hasib (not his real name), a Hazara from Afghanistan, who is currently living as a refugee in one of the wettest cities in the world, Bogor.

Hasib meets me on his street outside of a small warung (small shop). He welcomes me and leads me down a small gang (alleyway) that ends at a dark-looking house. He takes me down the side of the house, through a narrow path that opens up to a small back area, with a dark bedroom, a corner with a sink and a stove, and an outside area where the bathroom sits. The back quarter is surrounded by chicken wire and overlooks a rice field.

“Where would you feel comfortable?” Hasib asks me sincerely.

I look around and see a rusty metal chair. In front of it sits a small coffee table. “This looks good,” I say as I point to the chair. “But where will you sit?” I ask him. He says that it’s absolutely no problem and rushes off to fetch another chair from his landlord’s front porch.

Once I settle down, I take a moment to look around. Hasib’s concrete-clad confines are small and dimly lit, and there’s no escape from the damp Bogor air. But his situation has done nothing to dampen his spirits. Hasib asks me if I have eaten and insists he prepare some food. I accept, understanding the Aghani custom – very similar to Indonesia’s – of always offering something to eat and drink to guests that grace your home.

Hasib brings out a pre-cooked meal of kidney beans in a tomato and spice sauce, and puts it in a pan on the stove to heat up. He sits down in front of me as I begin asking him questions about his life.

'Hasib' the former reporter, now a refugee awaiting an uncertain future in Bogor, Indonesia
‘Hasib’ the former reporter, now a refugee awaiting an uncertain future in Bogor, Indonesia

“How much rent do you pay here?”

“Rp.600,000 (USD 44) per month,” he answers. “It’s the cheapest I could find and my landlord is very kind to me.”

As the aromatic smell of the beans begins to fill the room, Hasib tells me about his former life as a journalist back in Afghanistan. During his time at the Daily Outlook Afghanistan, his office and colleagues were attacked by extremist groups over allegations of blasphemy. The bureau was shut down. He later worked at the The Daily Afghanistan Express.

“My colleagues in The Daily Afghanistan Express fled; some are still missing while others have been sent to prison. I am not sure whether they are alive or have been persecuted,” he tells me. Hasib, having written countless articles about extremist groups responsible for the attacks, became a target.

Hasib excuses himself to switch off the stove as the beans are cooked. He prepares a plate each, served with some Afghani bread. “Please, I hope you like it,” he says. The beans are delicious, with a kick from the chilli they’re cooked in. Hasib gives me some homemade yoghurt to control the spice. We continue our discussion.

“Why did you come to Indonesia?”

“I had no choice,” he answers honestly. “I fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where I stayed for 16 months, but the situation there was also terrible. Innocent women, some of whom were family members, and a small girl I knew by the name of Tabasom Shukria, were beheaded. I believe they were after me for the articles I had written against Lashkari Jhangvi, an extremist group in Pakistan.

“The only thing I knew about Indonesia before coming here was the stories of refugees drowning in boats out at sea. I covered these stories while I was a journalist. I never dreamt I would end up a refugee out at sea as well.”

In the chaos of war, Hasib hastily reached out to an agent to help him seek asylum in another country. He handed over a large sum of money and followed instructions, boarding a plane to Dubai. It was here that he learned he would be seeking refuge in Indonesia. He flew from Dubai to Malaysia, where he got on a boat and crossed the Straits of Malacca to Sumatra, eventually boarding the last plane he would fly in 2.5 years, from Medan to Jakarta.

Like all asylum seekers who first arrive in Indonesia, Hasib reported himself to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta. “I felt safe for the first time in a long time,” he tells me. It took the UNHCR two years to grant Hasib refugee status, which is now valid for 1.5 years. Refugees are not allowed to work or attend school in Indonesia while waiting to be resettled in a third country. If their case is rejected by the UNHCR, they must return from where they came.

“How do you survive without earning a salary?” I ask.

“Through donations from my friends and colleagues back home. I save money by eating once a day; sometimes I go hungry.”

I look down at my plate and am deeply moved that Hasib has shared some of his treasured food rations with me.

“I live a hermit’s life,” Hasib says while smiling. “I sit where you’re sitting and listen to music while reading or writing poetry. I also teach the women of the Indonesian Women Support Group Center voluntarily. Sometimes I get called to help with interpretations.”

When asked what his life feels like to him, he answers, “like a bad nightmare”. Hasib believes people don’t view refugees as human beings. “I’m broken. I often get splitting headaches, chest pain and fevers, but I can’t afford healthcare,” he shares.

Hasib only hears from his family back home sporadically. “I don’t even know if my family are alive.” He has two sisters and three bothers living as refugees in Pakistan, a country nearly as dangerous as Afghanistan.

Hasib, like approximately 14,000 other refugees in Indonesia, lives day to day, waiting patiently in limbo to be resettled in the United States, New Zealand, Australia or Canada. “If Indonesia would resettle me, I would be extremely happy,” he smiles. Sadly for Hasib and his fellow refugee friends, Indonesia has not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and will not resettle refuge-seekers.

President Trump’s 120-day refugee ban directly affects Hasib and has thrown a spanner in the works for all refugees in Indonesia who are waiting for resettlement. As Indonesia is still accepting asylum seekers and refugees, we can expect the UNHCR to experience an even greater backlog of refugees waiting for resettlement in a third country.

I ask Hasib, “How does President Trump’s ban make you feel about the potential of ending up in the United States?”

“I am worried I would be looked upon as a bad human in the United States,” he says. “Minds are being injected with pointless thoughts that Muslims are not good people and that we are not welcome. The ban is a very negative initiative. It doesn’t only paralyse Muslims, but the entire world.”

“What will you do if and when you are resettled?”

“I will continue to be a journalist,” he says. “I’ll dedicate my work to humanity. I will never forget the people of Indonesia; people are kind here.”

Hasib’s story is one of suffering, having been on the run for most of his life. But even through the sadness in his eyes, warmth exudes. Although his stories are heartbreaking, he is still smiles, laughs and shares kindness with others.

Hasib would like to convey the following messages to authorities around the world:

“I plead for humanitarian assistance. I plead for you to open your arms to refugees and asylum seekers. Please don’t ignore us; we are innocent people. I plead that you spend a moment to feel what it is like to live in our shoes. I beg for empathy.”

Original article published on Indonesia Expat on February 13, 2017.

Foreign Experts Can Help Nationals Develop Indonesia: Gene Sugandy

Gene is the Division Manager for Residential Tenant Representatives at Colliers International, helping newly repatriated expats navigate the property minefield in Jakarta. With the Internet boom in the late ‘90s, Gene and her partner Danielle Surkatty created the very popular expat website Living in Indonesia, a site that today averages 95,000 unique visits a month. Gene talks to us about her work, personal life and frustrations with the government’s negative attitudes towards expatriate workers.

How did you end up on the shores of this archipelago?

After I completed my University studies in the US I was in a serious relationship with an Indonesian gentleman. Our visas were expiring so he suggested that I come to see Indonesia. I took him up on the offer and later we were married and raised our family here in Jakarta. Thirty years later I am still experiencing Indonesia.

You’ve been working for Colliers International since 2010, helping incoming expats find suitable housing, as well as helping with orientation upon arrival. What do you love about your job?

When I first arrived in Indonesia I was not aware that there were companies such as Colliers that offered assistance and guidance to expats. Knowing how difficult it was for me and how many misunderstandings I had experienced, I am grateful that now I can share my ‘harder found’ experiences with others so that they can avoid some of the mistakes that I know that I made, but also give them a heads up in what to expect during their posting here in Indonesia.

What challenges do newcomers experience when trying to face the property market without expert help?

Indonesia is one of the few countries in the world that requires the entire rental amount for the full term of the lease to be paid in advance. Because of this, it is sometimes difficult to have the landlord be responsible for repairs or maintenance after they have received the lump sum in advance. Therefore, it is highly advised that the house be properly audited prior to the handover and move in to determine if there are any major problems that need to be repaired. It is our responsibility as a property expert to make them aware of these types of issues and share our local expertise of the communities so they can make an educated decision when choosing a residence for their family.

What’s the first thing you tell new expats who approach you looking to relocate here?

Many of our clients are very apprehensive when they first arrive because they have heard or seen a lot of negative media in their home countries regarding Indonesia, mostly regarding the level of safety for their family. I tell them unfortunately there is not a perfect place to live and sadly terrorism is happening in many other places in the world. I assure them that if they keep an open mind towards their posting that I am confident they will grow to love the people that they meet here and most likely – at the end of their posting – be sad to leave.

Have you noticed a decline in the number of inbound expats to Indonesia?

The number of work permits that have been issued to expats in Indonesia has actually been in decline since 2011. Over the last 12 months we have seen a noticeable decline, not only in the numbers of expats coming into Indonesia, but also the length of time that the work permit is issued for. Undoubtedly the world decline in the oil and gas industry has been a factor as there is a large foreign presence in this sector, however government policy towards foreign investment, as well as the ponderous protocol that is needed to set up a new company, is making initially interested parties turn to neighbouring countries that are more welcoming.

What are your thoughts on recent comments from Mirah Sumirat from Indonesia’s Association of Trade Unions regarding the influx of foreign workers, where she said, “This threat is no joke … [workers] from the United States, South Korea and India must be looked at too.”

The number of foreign workers issued work permits in Indonesia in 2015 was 69,025.This number is not even 1 percent of the total number of people working in Indonesia! How can this possibly be a threat to Indonesian workers?

I would like to point out to Ibu Sumirat and other government officials that in most cases foreign workers actually create jobs for Indonesians. In almost all cases an expat is hired in middle to high management positions where there is a severe shortage of local talent and these expats are tasked with improving the quality of work or product in their industry to try and bring these levels up to a global standard.

Although expats we work with are often impressed with the level of work that is being done in many multinational offices, almost always there is need for improvement so that Indonesian offices can be more competitive with the global market. Often the position will be turned over to a national after being mentored by the expat.

It saddens me to see that currently incoming expats are facing some of the most difficult immigration processes that we have seen over the past several years. Indonesia will continue to fall further and further behind in both talent and product development and deter foreign investment if government decision makers do not realize the many advantages that expats can share. Why not take advantage of learning and sharing knowledge from experts of other countries to expedite the development of Indonesia?

In 1997 you were part of starting the very popular expat site www.livinginindonesia.org. Can you tell us the story behind the site’s creation?

In 1997, my partner Danielle Surkatty and myself were involved with the American Women’s Associations publication – helpful books for expats who are living or planning to move to Indonesia. We often heard that once the expat found the book, which could be three to six months after arriving in Indonesia, they expressed it would have been so much more helpful if they had the information earlier on or even before their move to Indonesia.

We realized that through the Internet it was going to be possible to get the helpful information to many more people and in a timely fashion. We were both long-term expats, so our aim was to help provide a source of information on a wide range of topics that would help expats who are moving to or living in Indonesia.

We actually started the site with five pages of information. Now it is over 1,000! Changes are made to the site daily and I am very excited that we are currently working on a new design that we hope to be launching in 2017.

You are known for your involvement in the Jakarta Players Community Theatre group. What is it about this extra curricular activity that gets your blood pumping?

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Gene acting in a series of short plays titled Status It’s Complicated by the Jakarta Players

 

I have always been interested in the arts and theatre but never had the time to participate until my children were grown. When I was first cast in a production I was so fascinated with how a script came to life through the performance of the cast. Regardless of how small a part might be, every member of the cast is necessary to complete the production. Each member interacts with others to tell the story and it is so rewarding to see the response of the audience.

Can you share any insights into life as a mixed marriage couple?

Any marriage is going to be full of compromises. A mixed marriage is no different, however there are even more issues as you will be faced with not only two different personalities but two different cultures. Both partners will need to have respect for each other as well as their respective cultures and families and also have a very open mind and be willing to accept that you agree to be different.

What’s the biggest positive change you’ve noticed over the years in Jakarta?

The ease that you can communicate with people around the world; my first years in Indonesia took me one month to get a letter from Canada!

If you were president for a day, what would you do?

Schedule a meeting with Immigration, Department of Manpower, Association of Trade Unions, and any other government officials that are involved with foreign investment with the Chambers of Commerce such as AmCham, BritCham EuroCham, IKONID, and open a dialogue to point out the huge advantages that expats are currently bringing to Indonesia. I would like to emphasize that the pros far outweigh the cons; these foreign experts can help nationals develop Indonesia. I would hope this would be one of the first steps to changing some of the negative attitudes of government officials that continue to hinder the needed growth and development of this country.

Thank you, Gene! To get in touch, please email: genesugandy1@gmail.com

Saving the Orangutan: Ecotourism in Borneo

A short video I made to expose the great work being done by social enterprise Wow Borneo, who are helping to save the endangered orangutan and preserving local culture and tradition through ecotourism in Central Kalimantan. For more information, visit their website.

Southeast Asia-based journalist | producer | environmental activist