Frank Palmos

Historian and Translator Frank Palmos founded the first foreign newspaper bureau in Jakarta in the new Republic of Indonesia, in 1964, following two years immersion studies in the language, culture and literature as a UN supervised Fellow of the Yayasan Siswa Lokantara in 1961-62. Under supervision from the Indonesian Foreign Office he studied at the Pajajaran University (Bandung) and University of Indonesia (Jakarta). Frank returned to work as a journalist for the Herald-Sun in Melbourne and graduate in Journalism at the University of Melbourne (1964) before returning to Indonesia to establish Australia’s first full time newspaper post. He was the co-founder of the Djakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (now JFCC) in May 1965 and the longest serving Dean of Foreign Correspondents between 1964 and 1973, service that included his Vietnam War work reporting on 33 land, sea and air missions, 1968.

In post-war Vietnam Frank turned to publishing and academic pursuits, writing Ridding the Devils, a study of Vietnam under Communism and the lingering influences of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PRSD) on himself and both sides of the Vietnam military equation. His work with Hanoi colleague Phan Thanh Hao writing the English version of Bao Ninh’s celebrated novel The Sorrow of War in fifteen languages, won international acclaim.

Frank returned to Indonesia frequently as Australian director of the Baglivo Foundation Christian Charity in Indonesia dispensing hospital equipment and surgical equipment to public hospitals throughout the Republic until 2000.

Frank resumed his Indonesian work as researcher and historian as author of the Founding of the Republic of Indonesia (Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory), completing his substantial PhD at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in 2012. Indonesia’s leading history pubisher Yayasan Obor Indonesia published Surabaya in Bahasa Indonesia in 2016. Indonesia’s leading historian Taufik Abdullah rated Surabaya 1945: Sakral Tanahku as “the most complete and comprehensive coverage” of the founding of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945 and Obor regards this work as the enhanced modern sequel to US pathfinder historian William Frederick’s Vision and Heat: The Making of the Indonesian Revolution (Ohio U Press 1989) in studies of Indonesia’s surge to independence in 1945.

Between 2002 and 2017 Frank also translated shorter Indonesian language histories by notable founders of the Republic, for which the City of Surabaya honoured him with the “Key to the City” award.

Frank’s experience with Southeast Asia, including his student days (1961-1962), foreign correspondent service (1964-1972), service on the Foreign Desk of the Washington Post under Ben Bradlee and Special Writer (Asia) for the British media has covered 58 years service when his documentary filmscripting, Indonesian charity administration, academic research and lecturing in Indonesian Univesities (1998-2018) are included.

The start, 1957: University of Melbourne Foundation Indonesian Studies Class

Frank began Indonesian Studies I at the University of Melbourne in 1957 under Indonesianist, the late J. A. C. Mackie. He paid his own way over the summer vacation to travel to Indonesia where he won a UN-sponsored Fellowship, administered by the Lokantara Foundation (above).
In his second year (1962) Frank first served as honorary interpreter to Indonesia’s charismatic founding president Sukarno, brought in to translate the President’s annual 17 August speech for the Jakarta foreign diplomatic corps. The national holiday event attracted more than a million people from all parts of Indonesia each year Sukarno was President, until his fall in 1966.

On 25 May 1965, when foreign correspondents were under increasing domestic pressures and aggressive hostility sourced from China and the local Communist Party (PKI), Frank and a colleague founded the Djakarta Foreign Correspondent Club for collective security.

The DFCC (now JFCC) is today the oldest continuous Correspondents Club in Asia, and linked with Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore.

Media Highlights


Press Club

24 May, 2017

Press Club

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Canberra Times: War words allow foes to make peace


Canberra Times: War words allow foes to make peace

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Jakarta Post Conversations


Bicycle was still in place, with a cardboard tag tied to the handlebars, with ‘Mahasiswa Australi Jg berjenggut’ (Australian student with a beard). I had come out at the west entrance in Block M. This was the bike that was sold as a Raleigh, stamped “Made in English.” Just down the road was a permanent evening show of Wayang Orang which began after sunset and ran for a couple of hours. The household servants were the happiest of audience members (there was no charge to watch, the show being funded by bigger shops) and while half of the plays were spoken in traditional Javanese the rest was in very slick Bahasa. The jokes about the long list of government shortcomings, the fat waists of certain ministers, the length of their cars and their ‘extra’ wives, acted as a safety valve in an era where printing such comments in the daily press would led to confiscation of the newspaper, and its press, and whole staffs suddenly finding themselves unemployed.

I was interviewing editors in Bandung at the time and the editor of Fikiran Rakyat  saying Manipol-Usdek may have been fine but it didn’t fix bus systems, didn’t keep prices stable, couldn’t fix the telephone system, and so on. Once one is ‘inside’ the system, particularly wayang in its many forms, native Indonesian humor is truly side-splittingly funny, not to mention courageous in its delivery. I soon understood why certain Dalangs (puppet masters, of shadow play (behind the screen) or golek (puppets on the stage) had immense followings. They got away with the most daring of fact-based criticisms of the incompetent, corruption ridden, sloganeering government at the time – a situation that did not improve, as far as the general public was concerned, until mid-1966.


Marwon Shah was his name. I expect he is still alive, a wise handsome Sumatran. He is such a likely candidate for a central role in a fictional mystery story based in Indonesia, but for now I will stay with the facts of the story, which were at the time sufficiently impressive without resorting to embellishment.

Marwon Shah was a handsome Sumatran boy of 15 years when he first introduced himself to Douglas Miles and me in our asrama in Jalan Darmawangsa VIII, Kebayoran Baru, around April 1961. He had heard from neighbors that I had hoped to find a Sumatran student to help me find my way to the bigger population centers in Sumatra, Medan, Padang, Palembang, where newspapers had been long established. My Indonesian reading was almost to the “editorial” level but my spoken language a bit awkward, and going into Sumatra I knew I would encounter the added difficulty of not being able to differentiate the regional from the national in general conversation. My assignment from the Yayasan Siswa Lokantara Foundation, sponsors of my Fellowship, was to interview newspaper editors, which I misunderstood as being genuine research. A year later I was told the interviews were intended to teach me more about the national ideology of the era, as expressed in tightly censored newspapers, a thankless task (had I done it) because this was the start of the era of intense sloganeering and quite unworkable political theories promoted by the president in his attempt to solidify a position in the world of New Emerging Forces.

But this was a time of almost absolute innocence, a state in which young inquiring minds feel there is a beginning of a great journey among new peoples, in new landscapes, hearing new languages and street sounds, that somehow merge with the scents of nearby jungles or the aromas from native kitchens.
In this state I was open to suggestions of help for whatever journey I had chosen when young Marwon Shah came by. A little into the conversation he told me he would like to practice his English when he returned from his native village in southern Sumatra. Although the Republic had abolished titles, he said, his late father and his father, Marwon’s grandfather, had been among the elite during the Dutch times, and he has inherited the title. But he was staying with his grandmother who had a house near the Pasar in Kebayoran Lama. Marwon heard voices and “spoke” to his relatives by a form of mental telepathy that worked incredibly well, if imprecisely, predicting when he was being called home, or getting him to bring back some purchase. I met him again three years late when he was training for a job as a pilot and he was devastated because he had lost all his telepathic powers just like that! and they never returned after he turned 16.


The executions of drug smugglers last week created a mild climate of fear and loathing and discernible unease in both Indonesia and Australia, and perhaps a second thought on holiday plans for Bali. Yet young Australian travelers have a reputation for being headstrong and daring which strikes fear into parents who take headlines too seriously as their offspring venture into places politicians and noisy radio commentators tell us are dangerous and customs, appearances and language are quite uncivilized. Thus it was natural for me as a twenty-one-year old on a Lokantara Fellowship in the relatively new Republic of Indonesia to take a train through the southern Sumatra provinces that in 1961 were supposedly simmering with discontent. According to the news headlines outside Indonesia, and foreign correspondents based in Jakarta, the soldiers of the Permesta breakaway rebellion were still hiding in the Sumatran jungles ready to pounce on anyone from the main island of Java and especially nosey foreigners.
Wishing to learn a Sumatran dialect, and to see my first pepper tree in the Lampung area, I accepted a poorly paid assignment from Molly Bondan, the famous Australian working in the Indonesian Foreign Office, to write a chapter on Transmigration for their upcoming 1962 Year Book. Moving people from overcrowded Java to sparsely populated areas was then thought to be the answer to the growth of poverty on Java, but later it was recognized as just moving poverty from one location to another.
Molly was the fearless Australian lady who had married Bondan, an Indonesian intellectual the Dutch in Australia had called “a dangerous brigand” and had exiled to Boven Digul prison camp in West New Guinea, along with Dr Mohammad Hatta, Indonesia’s future first Vice-President. They had transferred Bondan to Brisbane ahead of the Japanese occupation. Far from being a brigand, Bondan was a pipe-smoking, placid idealist who aspired to establishing an apprentice training scheme for Indonesian youths to learn trades in the new Republic, copying training systems he learned in Brisbane.
Molly was then a senior translator for President Sukarno and the Foreign Office, where my first tutor young Alex Alatas worked. In later life he was Foreign Minister in the Suharto cabinet after nationalizing his name to Ali. Molly and Alex saw no harm in sending me into the Sumatran jungle, but did ask me to avoid discussing politics. The Year Book in my library today reminds me of my trip and how important it is to travel inland, so to speak, even when headlines suggest otherwise. We were not dealing with the China-inspired, anti-Western Communist Party thugs who came onto the scene a few years later, but rebels who had demanded Sumatra and the Celebes at least form their own breakaway state.
My advance for this assignment was around US$5 for the train ride from Teluk Betung in the south, to historic Palembang, with a stopover in a (then) small town of Batu Raja to write the story. Indonesian teachers at university were fearful for my safety, telling me rebels were hiding out in the jungle. They attacked Javanese and were hateful of foreigners, although no proof was ever given for these claims, and none of them had ever set foot in Sumatra.
For about US$2 I travelled peacefully by overnight bus to a ferry that took me over the Sunda Strait, passing the old Krakatoa volcano and landing me at Teluk Betung where I was to board the 0700 train at Teluk, to go north into WHAT MY FRIENDS CLAIMED WAS THE LAST OF JUNGLE WARFARE TERRITORY. danger.

Yet, a strange peace pervaded the little town and the platform area. No one else seemed anxious that we were on the frontline in a supposed civil war. The steam train puffed gently awaiting a start, but the passengers for this three-carriage train were in the canteen, playing cards, drinking coffee, and generally lazing about. They soon got over the surprise of seeing a foreign student in their midst, asked my origins, my family’s size, what Australians had for breakfast and were puzzled that I wished to know about Transmigration, which none of them had heard about. Time ticked by, and my fears of missing the train (not in view from the canteen) were evident to them. “It won’t go without us. This is Hamid, the driver, with us now.” Hamid’s uncle, a key player in this railway schedule it seemed, finally arrived with a “titipan”, a new word for me meaning a present for someone faraway. Hamid’s wife was sending it to her family in Palembang, the alleged nest of anti-Jakarta rebels. Not a gun or a secret message, but a twine-bound package of Lampung coffee and pepper, both said to be “more expensive up in Palembang.”
Good manners suggested Hamid remain for a coffee before we departed. The timetable said the train was an ‘Express Teluk-Palembang’ stopping only at Batu Raja, but it stopped a dozen times between stations, arriving at Batu Raja an hour or more late. THE Chief Administrator of the town MET ME AT THE STATION A, but he was in no hurry to take me to see the Javanese TRANSMIGRATION CAMPS.
newcomers living in the jungle. He had arranged for a group of colorfully dressed prominent locals, with no apparent livelihoods to attend to, to welcome me. For two days I was taken around town in a horse drawn, decorated buggy and introduced as a “person from the Foreign Office” and given sumptuous food and exquisite fruit. There were numerous references to how little revenue Jakarta gave to the Lampung area and there were broad hints things were definitely heading for a true showdown. On day three the Chief Administrator called in a military driver to take me into the jungle. We started late in the afternoon. The road was in bad condition, heavy rains had slowed us down, so we stopped in a run down plantation where there were half a dozen huts surrounding a main residence. There were bullet holes in the walls from previous fighting. The plantation manager instructed the driver to put his jeep INSIDE the main house for safety, and the driver and I were each given a bed in a vacant hut. The air was musty in my hut, so I opened a small window which faced away from the residence. This was my fight night in a jungle camp, so I looked in at the driver, but found him fast asleep already, after his difficult driving conditions. I took no notice that his room was musty, but he had not opened his window. Halfway through the night I heard shouting and saw an arm holding a parang being dragged back from my window. The administrator ordered me out, while the shouting continued on the jungle side. “He got away” the assistants said. “You’re lucky! He saw your window open so wanted to cut you and take your bag.” The driver, now also awake, suggested to the administrator that I sleep in his room, and it was agreed. Over a light breakfast the Administrator and his workers said casually: “Still a lot of rebel sympathisers around here. They usally don’t kill, but they would have thought you are Dutch, and from Jakarta, so you were a double enemy to them.
When we arrived at the Immigration settlement the driver said nothing about the attack of the night before. “These Javanese scare easily! He said. “We do not wish them to worry every time they go near the jungle.”

The Immigration village was built in a huge clearing in the jungle where an entire Javanese town of one thousand inhabitants, small shops, school and teachers had been shipped from an overcrowded area in Central Java, leaving me to my work.
The Javanese immediately claimed me as one of their own because I spoke with a Javanese accent I had shamelessly copied from President Sukarno. They were homesick and a little tired of the rather grating Malay of the Lampung locals, darkly suggesting that the jungle surrounding them was the home of anti-Java rebels. I felt duty bound to stay the night with these friendly people who fed me delicious Yam snacks and coffee, entertained me with a brief shadow play (no wayang, they said, in ‘uncivilized Lampung!’) while pressing me for extended descriptions of green paddy fields and idyllic life in rural Java. My hosts’ unpaved street had been replicated from the original, arranged so everyone had the same neighbors they had grown up with in their original village on Java. Such was the spirit of nostalgia abroad that when they learned I had lived briefly in Kuningan not far from their original home, they pressed me for my laudatory descriptions of the peaceful life, the green rice fields and backdrop scenes of volcanoes. The women asked me to visit again, and please bring some jamu village all-cure medicine packets the local Sumatran bumpkins were yet to learn about.
Next morning, back in the village chief’s house in Batu Raja, I was up early and back in a Western frame of mind, to ensure I would be on time for the 0830 train. Worry, worry! I was uneasy, yet my host seemed relaxed about the train’s arrival time. It would be a bit late, he said. But being a gracious host, he delivered me to the station and seemed truly bewildered when we arrived to find the train ready to depart right on 0830. Travelling north through magnificent green jungle, the other dozen or so passengers soon knew my name and how many children my mother had, my father’s home village, whether he smoked, and any news about tall buildings in the capital city of Djakarta. I told them of my assignment (none of them knew about the transmigration towns) while praising their railway system, because we had departed precisely at 0830, as the timetable had said. This comment sent them into howls of friendly laughter, some of them paralytic, the joke running up and down the carriage before it was politely explained to me that I was on yesterday’s train! This one was already a day late.
A very slow day later the entire train was halted, in danger of being swept off the rails by floodwaters. The rails ahead and behind us were inundated. We had to catch fresh rainwater by holding cups out the window. We slept or talked our way through the utterly boring three-day delay. Baboons and colorful birds came by to look at us, but turned away when discovering we had no food to give them. Secrets were unfolding. Many of the men admitted to being sympathetic to the rebels and would introduce me to certain leaders when we got to Palembang. I was suffering hunger pains whereas they were not, so they showed me how to smoke a kretek clove cigarette. That cured the hunger pains.
We got to Palembang almost a week late. By now I was considered one of their rebel gang, so we shared a taxi ride in a roofless, beaten up Morris Minor, to a small hotel where several Makassar businessmen, also rebels to the anti-Jakarta cause, were apparently plotting the government’s downfall, between cards and coffee.
A newspaper reporter from the Batanghari Sembilan joined us for lunch, with an invitation for me to meet “the most famous smuggler in Indonesia”, a certain Dr Gani. Actually, Adnan Kalapu Gani, an exhuberant man of 56 years, who had briefly been in an early government cabinet, but better known as a “smuggler” who got valuable raw materials to market in Singapore by breaking through the Dutch curfew (better word) lines to get money from the sales for the Republican cause. He was now back in South Sumatra, nursing a grievance about Jakarta and the president, whom he considered was “too far Left”. Although he made no secret of his sympathy for the rebels, he was left alone and indeed, it was at his place I finally met an intelligence officer posted from Jakarta who suggested it would be wise if I returned. “But not before you see some of the men in the jungle” Dr Gani (a real doctor) said, so he instructed one of his friends to take me several miles west from Palembang where there was a thriving pepper market, the green corns laid out in thousands on canvas sheets to dry. The pepper came from “rebel” families, the buyers were shopkeepers from the “other side” (Jakarta). I was so naïve I expected the rebels to wear bandoleros and sidearms but in the hours I was there I saw no one weapon.
Messages were sent to families inland, rebel brothers separated from brothers loyal to Jakarta had coffee together and talked about family. This was a very civil, civil war.

Finally, the a uniformed Javanese military intelligence officer called again for me with a Garuda ticket, firmly suggesting it was time to go home to Jakarta. He had never shot at the rebels, nor would they shoot at him, because he knew their relatives who were always pressing for news from their jungle hideouts.
When delivering my Transmigration article and photos to the Pejambon Avenue headquarters of the Foreign Office, Molly and Ali Alatas thanked me profusely and asked if I had I seen any signs of anti-Jakarta rebels.

I confessed to meeting people “from various levels of society” and told them I would be willing to do another story for them next year. It was many years before I told Molly and Ali of my adventures, by that time it was humorous.

© Francis Palmos, Scarborough May 2015

¹Anthropologist Dr Douglas Miles, then from Sydney University, who travelled by cargo ships between Jakarta and Sampit in Kalimantan, researching what would later be the significant Masters study of The Islamisation of the Dayaks

September, 1965

Jakarta Post Conversations

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Jakarta Post Series: Customs and the $10,000 Sop Madura

POST (8) Kemayoran: The Softhearted Customs Wannabe Grafter

Djakarta in 1961 was an exciting city despite seeming to be fighting for breath in the stifling air. Since sovereignty in 1950, a deep ring of shanties had encircled the beautiful Old Town (Kota) and Menteng. More than one million new inhabitants had fled hardship in rural areas and now lived in kampungs in slum conditions or on building sites where manual laboring jobs were plentiful.

There were times when some government agency officials pocketed extras, and others would ask for small Rupiah payments from customers to survive, usually because they had not been paid for some weeks or because inflation had reduced purchase power. Hence I was not totally surprised when a young trainee official in Customs sought to provide my first experience with graft, asking a little extra from foreigners because we were all considered rich.

Students were at the poor end of the wealth spectrum. Beggars took one look at us students and rarely to put their hands out. Public officials didn’t ask for much extra for formal paperwork, and the police preferred to hit on wealthy car owners, fining them for imagined infringements. So it was a big surprise for me to be asked to pay what sounded like a huge bribe from a junior clerk just to collect a parcel from Australia at the Kemayoran Airport freight terminal.

Inflation had savaged my monthly student stipend of 3,000 Rupiah so I had very little in my pocket as I prepared to attend the great event of President Sukarno’s annual 17 August speech in Medan Merdeka.

The day before the speech the Qantas manager had called me to say my mother had sent me four large tins of Sunshine Powered Milk from Australia. Fresh milk was not sold in Jakarta at the time – the only dairy was in distant Lembang, north of Bandung. Mum, worried I was getting thin, wished me to “bulk up” with Australian drink.

Not that I was fading away. Indonesian families accepted me as a family member and I financed my bus and train travels to visit them in Bandung, Surabaya or Lampung by selling one Arrow business shirt – my hedge against inflation – for each long journey. I was saving the last shirt for my trip to Tasikmalaya for Ramadan in February 1962. Meanwhile, I was slowly translating Indonesia’s first novel, Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya, and to cap off my good fortune, Ilen Surianegara and Alex Alatas at the foreign Office persuaded the news editor of the Indonesian Herald (later Jakarta Times) to hire me as a check sub and translator.

At the airport my Bank Negara friend Nurwenda had some advice for me:  “The Freight Officer, Pak Usman, will ask you for a tip because he thinks all foreigners are rich. Offer him ten Rupiah. He is old, has several children and I know he has not been paid for some months.”

Pak Usman was not at the freight office, a large room stacked high with crates and parcels. Instead, a boy of my own age was in charge.  I showed my passport and pointed to the Sunshine milk box.

The boy made no move to get the package.

“You must pay. There is a fee to collect,” he mumbled quietly.

I asked how much.

“Ten thousand dollars,” he said.

He saw the surprise on my face.  Without waiting for me to reply he said, “But today, you pay just $5,000!”

He looked like a student, so I showed him my student card and was about to protest, but he interrupted:  “$2,000 dollars is enough,” he said, perhaps hoping I would be pleased with the $8,000 discount.

I dug into my pockets and counted out all my Rupiah, worth in total about one US Dollar in mixed notes, on the counter.

“This is all the money I have,” I told him, “and a packet of 333 cigarettes from the Qantas manager. You can have the cigarettes.

I don’t smoke.”

“It is too much!” he said. “You will need some money for the becak,” he said pushing back most of the notes. He put the parcel on the counter.  “You will need money for lunch, also. Have you had lunch?”

He pointed to a small warung across the road, which had a sad looking canvas sign: SOP DAGING MADURA, BUMBU BENING!

I told him I had recently been in Madura and eaten Sop Madura.

He broke into a big smile.  “I am Madurese!” he said proudly, now speaking to me as a brother.

“When I get a job I will go to Madura. My parents came here when I was small, so I want to see my home again.”

I realised then that Hasanuddin, for that was his name, was an unemployed and equally poor student.

“You get paid for this job,” I said.

“Actually, Pak Usman is paid. He has the uniform, meaning only Pak Usman got paid. But Usman was doing a cash job for one of the foreign airlines promising to give Hasan a small payment.

“Pak Usman gets a lot of money. He is teaching me,” Hasan said.

Pak Usman’s training clearly did not include lessons on getting tips from foreign customers. So, this being Indonesia, the land of the kind-hearted, where laughter trumps poverty, the two poverty stricken young men sat down side by side for Sop Madura lunch. 

We talked for almost an hour, enjoying the magnificent soup, while I told him about Madura Island and my Colombo Plan assignment.

Behind my back, Hasan paid for my soup! “Don’t worry-lah, you are my guest!” he said.

No more was said about the US$10,000.  I gave him the 333 cigarettes, the best on the black market at the time. “I don’t smoke, I’ll give them to Pak Usman. He will be pleased!”


Jakarta Post Series: Customs and the $10,000 Sop Madura

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Jakarta Post Series: Jawa Pos 21 Card


Frank Palmos was 21 years old when he began his foreign correspondent career in the relatively new Republic of Indonesia in March 1961, just 11 years after sovereignty. To reach the skill and experience level to succeed in his plan to open the first foreign newspaper bureau in Jakarta Frank immersed himself in Indonesian society for two years, at universities, towns and villages, and accepting assignments as a translator. Here is the story of his first days and his first assignment, as translator for a Colombo Plan team in 1961, the first of his 53 years in the region as correspondent and now historian.

TITLE: Lost in Translation: Jawa Pos
(The accidental Colombo Plan assignment, and the quaint Jawa Pos job)

Jakarta was a busy, confusing, run down but exciting city in 1961, where United Nations and Colombo Plan teams were helping the new Republic develop its infrastructure. Russian and the USA invested heavily in projects in a Cold War competition for favors. Except for the ravages of a broken economy and 200% inflation, life was a long string of thrilling assignments for a young journalist.

Although I had a room in a Kabayoran asrama, I still stayed frequently with my friend from my first night in Indonesia, Nurwenda the Bank Negara clerk and his Bogor student friends, learning Bahasa Indonesia from the Imam in the Kampung Bali mosque in the crowded kampung of Tanah Abang. I had expected some religious propaganda in the mosque, but this Imam was rather special in that he concentrated on care for the local families, urging the mothers to give their children orange juice from Garut orchards, for everyone to scrub their hands and finger nails to maintain hygiene (I learned the word gosok-brush) and to be kind to neighbors by checking on the elderly to see if they needed help.

The Imam’s diction was clear, simple and grammatically correct. When I thanked him, saying he had inspired me to learn, he gave me just one piece of advice: “Avoid bad words or swearing. Then, you can never accidentally insult anyone.”

Listening to him helped me pronounce long names, which is why I was offered my first travel assignment as translator to the Colombo Plan team. The head UN engineer had heard me speaking what he thought was rapid Indonesian and offered me the position of fourth member of a team installing new, powerful Radio Republic Indonesia transmitters that tripled the reach of RRI broadcasts from stations in Ceribon, Semarang, Surabaya, Malang-Jember, and Madura and Lombok.

What he had overheard was my repetition of the names of President Sukarno’s Second Working Cabinet in Guided Democracy! I loved repeating several names because of the rhythm and level of difficulty (for a foreigner), which gave him the mistaken impression I was already fluent. I was in luck, because I needed some extra paid work. Inflation had reduced my Fellowship stipend so much that I had been forced to earn extra by selling sweet pineapples on the Bogor road with my equally impoverished student friends.

What the engineer heard was my repetition of my favorite names: Ipik Gandamana (Minister for Home Affairs), General Jatikusumo (Post and Telecommunications) and Martadinata (Navy). The toughest was Finance Minister, Notohamiprodjo. I dropped these names into conversations to anyone who would listen, even my becak driver Amin, who had no idea who they were, perhaps thinking they were old friends, not important government ministers.


A UN-Colombo Plan Holden sedan picked me up from my Kebayoran Baru asrama in Jalan Darmawangsa VIII, just as the mailman arrived with a large letter for me, so I took it along to read on the road. It was a large gilt-edged 21st birthday invitation from Les Rudd, a friend from my teenage years in Melbourne. The card was a bright purple, twice the size of an open passport, had crenellated gold edges, with a “white cloud” in the centre, where “Master Frank Palmos” was written in Italics. It was quite impressive, especially as the gold lettering glowed brightly in the sunshine. The word “flashy” sprang to mind.

The UN engineer leading the Colombo Plan convoy rode in the rear seat of a new Holden sedan, with driver and an engineer from Yogya in the front. I was supposed to ride with the driver, but the Yogya appointee felt more comfortable so I rode in the back with the engineer and his brief cases. Behind us was a long semi-trailer with driver and two radio mechanics in charge of six new transmitters in 2 x 2 meter steel cabinets.

The engineer was new here, having just arrived from working on the Aswan Dam in Egypt where he had suffered schedule delays lasting weeks, so he had set a very tight schedule of installing one new RRI transmitter every three days.

But he was the only one who thought we could do that. This was Indonesia, the roads were bad, so experienced travellers never set timetables, but let travel take care of itself. This was a town whose Gambir Railway Station frequently chalked signs that read: The 12.00 train to Yogya leaves at 15.00, with the 15.00 crossed out, replaced by 1630, then a chalked 18.00. I know the driver and the Yogya engineer both expected to be away for weeks and secretly planned to visit relatives along the way.

The first hold-up came as we approached Cirebon, a port east of Jakarta. General Nasution, the Minister of National Defence, had ordered War Games be practiced on Java, so we lost almost a day waiting around Ceribon, where armed soldiers held us up at a roadblocks for hours, claiming our UN papers were insufficient, before letting us through. We arrived at our hotel late at night after all meals had finished.

I was up early and walked around the town while the others slept. Cirebon even in those days had a deserved reputation as a Tidy City, so the walk was enjoyable, and I had a noodle soup for breakfast at the Pasar, which opened at 06.00. The UN engineer arose late, blaming mosquitoes for not sleeping well, ordered scrambled eggs on toast, which the hotel cook somehow messed up. He then complained the toast was not right, which held the rest of the team up for another half hour.

I wanted to tell the Yogya engineer what a wonderful town this was and say: “What a great breakfast and coffee I had at the Pasar!” But they were all a bit grumpy because of their messed-up breakfasts, so I kept quiet.

Around Tegal, further east, there was another roadblock. I got out of the back seat to show my passport and, by accident, was also holding the purple, gold-edged birthday card. The soldier saluted me, mistaking me for the team leader, and examined the 21st card as well as my passport. He was impressed and nodded his troops to let us through. The third roadblock was just before Semarang, where I showed both passport and birthday card, and we were waved through, again.

This was a magical card! From Tegal on the team gave me the job of showing the paperwork, and we got through without further delays. True, it was slow going during the military exercises, but we made it through several other roadblocks across East Java until we reached the outskirts of Surabaya.

At the Wonokromo Bridge, the south gate to the port city, a young officer asked in perfect English: “Is this your team?” I said it was. He handed me back the passport and card. “You may go through. By the way, you’ve accidentally given me a birthday card. Are you from Melbourne?”
He had seen the address. He had enjoyed studying there and felt “adopted” by an Australian family, and wished he could go back some day.

By the time we got to RRI Surabaya we were already three days behind schedule and the crew in the semi-trailer were a week behind. They had no birthday card, and no luck at roadblocks so called to say they would be two or three days late.

Our team had overnighted in the beautiful mountain resort of Tretes, where I met a “famous newspaper owner” in his weekend bungalow. Mr The Chung Shen, -pronounced Tee- who owned the Djawa Pos, was pleased to hear I was a journalist, so he offered me a week’s work to help him improve the English section on his newspaper. The two Australian ladies on his staff were both ill.
So, while waiting for the transmitters to arrive, I worked on the paper’s English section..

Mr The and his wife owned an old classical colonial building in the heart of town. They arrived early on my first day and sat at desks in a room upstairs, his desk at the north end, her desk at the south. Mr The made advertisements for cinema clients while Mrs The used a wooden ruler to measure the length of reporters stories, for they were paid by the centimeter. All done in strict silence!

I was downstairs with the two reporters and an advertising man, cramped into a small room, sharing one telephone and one typewriter. My desk was tiny and its drawers full of make-up and hairpins and half-used lipsticks owned by Betty and Shirley, whom I never did meet. Their job was to translate the Antara Bulletins, which arrived morning and afternoon, and to do the weather.

There was no typing paper allowed, so the staff used the blank side of the Antara bulletins, which were printed on brownish, cheap paper that fell apart when wet.
Mr The told me to pay attention to the Weather Reports Shirley had written recently because there had been complaints. Weather forecasts were important to a big fishing fleet and to farmers bringing produce to market.

Shirley’s Weather published reports were as follows: “Surabaya weather. I hope it is a nice day today. It rained yesterday and I couldn’t do my shopping.
Another report said: ”Lets hope the rain stays away. It was so bad on Sunday we got sopping wet and had to cancel Ladies Day at Maspati House.”
Her forecast was: We hope the weather improves! We’ve had enough rain!!!!
“What’s sopping?” a reader asked next day.

Betty, on the other hand, wrote in a sort of code, which few understood. The problem was that although married to an Indonesian soldier, she was incompetent in both English and Indonesian. When ‘translating’ Antara reports Betty simply skipped any words she did not understand. She had written about a car accident in which four people had been seriously injured in Jalan Veteran, but her headline said: FOUR DEAD VETERANS. She had looked up the word menabrak (to collide) but not finding it in the office dictionary, just ignored it. Had she known tabrak was the root word, her story may have made more sense. So it read roughly as follows: “Police commented concerning Four Veterans” then went into freestyle, saying “Veteran is a big shopping centre, well known to Surabaya people. Visitors would not realize it but there are many small stalls behind the larger shops, which sell bargains. We will bring more news about this sensational event when we receive more information from the road police.”

When I got back to the rundown, formerly grand Sarkies Majapahit Hotel the UN engineer was holding a copy of the paper, frowning. “There’s an article in your bloody paper about the ‘RICH SPIES ISLANDS.’ Don’t they mean Spice? “Depends on the weather,” I replied.

Jakarta Post Series: Jawa Pos 21 Card

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Jakarta Post Series: Teki Teki

JAKARTA POST (2) Teka Teki Murat


Frank Palmos was 21 years old when he began his foreign correspondent career in the relatively new Republic of Indonesia in March 1961, just 11 years after sovereignty. To reach the skill and experience level to succeed in his plan to open the first foreign newspaper bureau in Jakarta Frank immersed himself in Indonesian society for two years, at universities, towns and villages, and accepting assignments as a translator. Here is the story of his first days and his first assignment, as translator for a Colombo Plan team in 1961, the first of his 53 years in the region as correspondent and now historian.


In 1961 one of my favorite expressions was teka-teki, meaning a puzzle, the perfect description of my first impressions in this wonderful country. I first heard the expression from the young Bank Negara clerk at Kemayoran Airport at midnight, when my Qantas flight arrived. Nurwenda, a native of Kuningan village near Ceribon and the Bank Negara sole clerk on duty, said it was a puzzle that Education officials had agreed to meet the flight, given that it was the wet season and “government officials do not like to get their heads wet”.

He invited me to go home with him as his guest to Kampung Bali in Tanah Abang, by becak. We squeezed into the local version of a pedicab as rain began. The driver pulled a transparent plastic cover over us, and he started the hour-long slow ride through the dark night, in heavy rain. Each time I looked back at him peddling hard, he broke into a big smile. The fare was 10 cents in foreign currency, but I was so moved by his effort and his happy disposition I overpaid.

What sort of country was this that a man my father’s age smiles as the rain pours over him, pushing two healthy young men and a suitcase for six kilometers, and promises to return next morning? Where would he sleep (curled up in his becak), why was he happy (he was never unhappy) and why was he so proud of his president and his country, when life was obviously a series of hardships? This was a real teka-teki for a new arrival from Australia where hardships were rare. Yet still many Lucky Australians thought they deserved more.

My two years as a student in J A C Mackie’s inaugural Indonesian Studies (1959-1960) in Melbourne, while also working full time as a journalist, had given me a base of Bahasa. We used a language book written by an Englishwoman in Malaya, and history books translated from Dutch. After just six weeks living in Kampung Bali, then in a Kebayoran asrama with students my own age, attending the Tanah Abang Mosque, riding public transport, eating satay nightly at Jalan Blora, I spoke enough Indonesian to travel independently, and as I soon discovered, more than any foreign diplomat in Jakarta.

I had the most extraordinary, early luck. The Foreign Office was holding exams for Jakarta’s few foreign students chasing the prestigious UN-supervised Yayasan Siswa Fellowship awards, funded by the UN and the local lottery. The exams were overseen by Molly Bondan, an Australian born translator married to Bondan, a senior civil servant, with future foreign minister Alex Alatas from the Foreign Office, and Anwar Cokroaminoto, the famous son of President Sukarno’s first tutor in Surabaya. In Dutch times the leafy suburb of Menteng’s main street in the capital Batavia (renamed Djakarta in 1942 when the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies) was Jalan Jawa. The street signs now read “Jalan H. O. S. Cokroaminoto”, along with other politically inspired changes, and Dutch monuments were being dragged down all around town in my first year, 1961. But locals still called it Jalan Jawa. As for renaming a main boulevard “Jalan Patrice Lumumba,” that was another teka teki for the locals, who didn’t like the sound of it and used the old name. Several Lumumba street signs were used for firewood, or as duckboards in nearby flooded areas.

In topping the exam I was given a room in an asrama, a Fellowship allowance and access to Indonesian universities. The windfall stipend for me was $30 a month, which lost 50% in value each month through inflation. By August, it was worth US$1 a month in Rupiah, but I somehow managed to adjust as the Rupiah lost value.

I shared the asrama with Murat, a WW2 Yugoslav veteran and a young Australian anthropologist, the late Sydney University Professor Douglas Miles, who was based in Sampit, Kalimantan. Murat, now 35, had been a young Tito partisan.
We got along well, but he had no English, and a severe learning difficulty his with Bahasa, so I bought a primary school reader for six year olds, Mari Membaca Year (Let’s Read) for him which he put to strange use. Yugoslavia was in favor at the time, so Murat was not required to pass the language exam and he traded on this special status, which gave him misplaced confidence in his Indonesian.

From Mari Membaca Book 2 he memorized phases like “Mother chased the mouse (tikus) from the kitchen,” and, “Grandmother uses a sapu lidi (broom)” and “Ducks say bebek-bebek” and these phases found their jumbled way into his daily speech. He also thought karena (because) was a greeting so he would shout to our neighbors every morning, karena! karena!

Murat also told them his mother chased a mouse from the kitchen, and that ducks said bebek-benek. The neighbors politely agreed ducks did say that so assumed Murat was somehow referring to the ducks in the now-drained lake at the northern end of our Dharmawangsa VIII Street. They were also unsure why Murat was telling them about brooms and mice, and shouting “because, because” so they gave our maid Siti some poison to kill mice, which really confused the poor lady, for she kept a spotless kitchen.

Although a truly friendly man, shouting “karena! karena!” to the neighbors worried them some. I tried correcting him, but he became angry and said in English: “You get no more karenas from me!” The neighbors, with typical Indonesian virtues of patience and kindness, smiled back at his karenas and assumed him to be yet a harmless, impaired foreign friend of the Republic.

At the Foreign Office in Pejambon Street, where I had to report, a young Alex Alatas was assigned to be my first tutor and he became as a stern older brother to me, whereas Ruslan Abdulgani, a minister in most Sukarno cabinets, was more of a father figure, inviting me to all his Indoktrinasi speeches. I rode a bicycle to the Foreign Office and at outside the office until one of them called me. No such relaxed manner of paying official visits exists today!

Outside government circles, the famous journalist Rosihan Anwar, then under house arrest in his Pavilion in Teuku Umar, gave me sage insider advice and we continued a professional friendship that lasted 50 years until his death in 2013. Sukarno, stating on his “Guided Democracy” Autocratic years had confiscated his Pedoman newspaper for continued exposes of government corruption and nepotism. But Rosihan continued to secretly record events in a diary, and his “Little Histories” written under detention, are today among the finest books documenting Republican history.

But it was the President, whose speeches mesmerized me, who had the most powerful influence on my Bahasa. He was magical. I copied his style and speech rhythms, a skill that perhaps saved my life four years later when confronted by armed soldiers in Teuku Umar on the morning of 30 September 1965.

Sukarno was regionally famous when I arrived in 1961, and world famous by 1964, making international headlines, when I was given short spells as his honorary simultaneous interpreter to the diplomatic and foreign press corps, often at the Russian-built Senayan Stadium.

These four key figures had varied but deep influences upon me that lasted decades. In later years when Alex Alatas became well known as Foreign Minister, I asked him why he had changed his name to Ali. His name was derived from Alexander the Great, which in Arabic and Malay is rendered as Iskandar.
“Ali is lot simpler” he replied. Another teka-teki.



Jakarta Post Series: Teki Teki

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Jakarta Post Series: Madurese Cinema


My work as a translator for the Colombo Plan in 1961-62 took me across Java to the historic port of Surabaya, once the biggest city in the Dutch East Indies. When Conrad wrote Lucky Jim in the early 19th Century, readers didn’t have to look at the map to find Surabaya, the Asian trading hub was known worldwide.

The Japanese Occupation forces used Surabaya as a major base. Arms seizures by independence forces started the uprisings that led to Surabaya becoming the true birthplace of the Indonesian Revolution. It was the first free city under Republican rule in October 1945, and the focus, later, of my two histories on the foundation of the Republic.

When the semi-trailer carrying new Radio Republik Indonesia transmitters from Jakarta caught up with us in Surabaya, I left my temporary job on the Djawa Pos to go with the Colombo Plan team by ferry across to Bangkalan on the large, but little visited Madura island. We drove east to the large town of Sumenep where we put up in a friendly, but rustic guesthouse. We were near the salt port of Kalianget, which had a very popular open-air cinema, the first I had seen in Indonesia. My three nights at the outdoor cinema watching films outdoors were by far the most entertaining week on this RRI assignment.

The Madurese people welcomed me, almost embracing me as one of their own as the only European in the audience, coming to share their movies. The “cinema” was in a big park where an old projector was hooked up to a generator, partly buried to reduce the engine noise. Large bamboo poles supported the big, white canvas screen, about 20 feet wide and 10 feet high, which bulged here and there and gave the impression, during large battle scenes, of soldiers in colorful Indian uniforms complete with turbans and headdresses, running into battle against enemy soldiers in similar dress, over small hills then into shallow valleys on their way to valiant deaths.

The foreground was a smooth grassed area where about three hundred people sat in family groups, with small stoves to heat meals, mattresses for infants to sleep on (the movies went for three hours) and cushions, thermos flasks, packet snacks and cigarettes, sold from trays by busy young vendors who watched the movies as they sold. Tickets were about 2 cents, with the best places up front taken early.

A small Chinese gentleman from Surabaya owned the projector. He set the films rolling around seven thirty each evening. All the films were from India, the worst of the worst, so to speak, which featured for no particular reason, very long dance segments that had no obvious connection to the stories.

The films had been shot using actors speaking Hindi and English, with puzzling English sub-titles. Sometimes Bahasa Indonesia was added, written by someone battling with the words spoken on screen, so there was a lot of guesswork.
The Indian actors spoke in old-style, 1930s Kiplingesque English, using archaic expressions, which flummoxed the translator as well as the audience.

In my first film, a richly adorned elderly Prince is sitting on a throne as irrelevant elephants nearby sway back and forth near an obviously fake canvas “castle”

The Prince’s Prime Minister approaches, saying: “Your Excellency, there is a challenge to your kingdom from the son of the rival you killed on the battlefield.’”

Prince: “What manner of person is this challenger?”

Minister says in English: “A ‘cocky’ young fellow!” which no one in the audience understands.
The sub-title reads: “A young upstart warrior with very large private parts.”

The Minister describes the son of the Prince’s rival as “bumptious,” an archaic expression from the 1930s, a word the translator does not know, so he writes: “The challenger is badly deformed.”

The second night’s movie had long dance scenes in which lovely girls in bright costumes emerged spontaneously from flimsy looking movie-sets, singing in high pitched voices and twirling for ten or so minutes. Ever practical, the Madurese audience used these long, boring sequences to cook snacks, feed children and stretch their legs and chat, until the main story resumed.

The themes were all similar, opening with the story of handsome, impoverished and unfairly wronged young men in love with Princesses trapped in metaphoric golden cages, where they languished, forlorn and miserable. Somehow the young heroes had to rescue their beloveds from wicked, rich overlords. These young heroes in the first half are clean-shaven and poor, but when saving Princesses, they suddenly grow black, manly moustaches, and posture like the Ramayana hero Gatot Kaca.

Another scene: An old Lord in richly bejeweled jacket, a leer in his eye, says in baritone English to a beautiful young lady, her eyes downcast:
“You are a lovely songbird, like a princess, a tonic for my poor eyes.”
The English sub-title was: “You are a lovely plump hen. I have sore eyes.”

The films came in two large silver canisters. On the last night – I was a regular VIP by then – the Chinese operator played the second half of a film first, so we got the happily-ever-after scene first. When the second canister was run, several warriors, who had been killed half an hour earlier, sprang back to life, rousing the audience from their torpor. Much displeased, especially the women, complained loudly and demanded a refund as they packed up and left.

Too late! The operator had fled the scene, leaving the projector running.

I stayed to see the reverse story play out, hoping to see at least one more confrontation between Overlord and Princesses. I was well rewarded:

Scene: Beautiful, bejeweled maiden with heavy make-up is complaining in English about losing her love and freedom: “I am betrothed to marry a rich, old Prince – my parents insist – but I love a young childhood friend.”

The English sub-title read: “My parents force me to take a bath with a rich man and his young friend.”

By the way, the RRI transmitter installation was an immediate success, extending the national listener audience across all Madura and many nearby smaller islands. As for the Madurese people, they are fiercely patriotic, make wonderful soldiers and friends, but are formidable enemies if crossed.

From that day on I made many Madurese friends, on the island, in Surabaya and wherever I came across them in other parts of Indonesia or overseas. They were always proud that I had paid attention to Madura’s history and their fighting prowess, not to mention their great sense of humor!

One hero, whose courage I have recorded in Student Soldiers (Obor, 2016) was the Madurese schoolteacher Hasanuddin Pasopati, who commanded a 500-strong militia force during the Battle for Surabaya, described in detail by Suhario, his second in command during the Battle in November 1945.

In 1994, Suhario Padmodiwiryo (by then a General) had published, Autobiografi seorang mahasiswa prajurit (Hario Kecik: Autobiography of a Student Soldier), which I translated into English. Pasopati features in several pivotal scenes and the current generation of Indonesians learn for the first time that the Proclamation of Independence, banned for broadcast by the Japanese, was read in Surabaya in Bahasa Madura. The newsreader used Madurese, which has similar rhythms to the Malay that became the Bahasa Indonesia (National language), fooling the Japanese censor sitting in the adjoining studio.


Jakarta Post Series: Madurese Cinema

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Jakarta Post Series: Asli Campfire

Jakarta Post Series: Asli Campfire

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Jakarta Post Series: First DI Mission

POS (6) The first Darul Islam mission (1962)

In the 1960s Indonesia faced two Islamic State breakaway movements, one in West Java, the second in South Sulawesi and by coincidence I was a witness to the TNI /Siliwangi actions against both rebel leaders and their dramatic endings.

Religion was always going to be a problem for a young Republic covering such diverse belief histories, scattered territories, ethnic and linguistic groups. Outside Jakarta we used to refer to the capital as “Pusat,” (Centre) because some regions felt they were not getting their fair share of revenue, or they wanted a Taliban-type of society, not a leftist administration that Sukarno preferred.

Compared to modern international terrorism targeting civilians and officials alike the risks appear greater today, but Indonesia has 150 million more people now and we have help from Densus 88 (the special Police Anti-terrorist Squads) to track and eradicate those who wish harm the Republic.

The Darul Islam movement based in West Java’s mountains had historic, nationalist roots. Leader Kartosuwiryo had shared his formative teenage years with Sukarno, both as boarders with early nationalist leader, H. O. S. Cokroaminoto, in Surabaya.

Kartosuwiryo signed the historic Djakarta Charter document, drawn up in June 1945 by the Committee Investigating Independence, which included an obligation for Muslims to obey Shariah law, a clause omitted from the final Constitution to Kartosuwiryo’s chagrin.

Kartosuwiryo took to the hinterland and from Tasikmalaya declared he would fight for an Islamic State (Darul Islam). By 1960 had a small but active armed following, particularly around Garut. Like all such movements, including the Taliban and ISIS, his popularity soon dwindled because local villagers found his banditry and cruel excesses disagreeable.

Kartosuwiryo by 1962 was a bold outlaw, posing as a religious leader. He took on the famous Siliwangi Division, headed by Alex Kawilarang and his successor Colonel Ibrahim Ajie, whose press conference on Darul Islam I attended in late 1961. Colonel Ajie warned Kartosuwiryo and his men to surrender. If not, he said, “Your lives will be very short.”

By the New Year of 1962 Darul Islam’s increased banditry and random sniper attacks were a serious irritant to President Sukarno, In early February he ordered his minister Ruslan Abdulgani on a confidential mission, with high hopes for a DI resolution.

Ruslan, also deputy chairman of the National Planning Council, had just completed the marathon Indoktrinasi lectures in the Ikada stadium on 25, 26 and 29 January, which I had attended. In a kindly gesture to the only foreigner in the big audience, Ruslan invited me along to see the beautiful Puncak Pass area. I would go as a sightseer while the minister attended to a confidential mission in the government’s lodge.

Ruslan ordered me to be at his residence by 6 am, so I started out before dawn on my bike from Kebayoran Baru to Diponegoro, riding over pot-holed un-lit streets to make it on time. I was placed with the minister’s driver up front and we chatted while the minister, who hardly looked up, worked on papers and files he had spread across the rear seat.

On the way I told the driver that Darul Islam snipers had narrowly missed killing me some weeks earlier when I was visiting a tea plantation near Garut. Suddenly, the minister surprised us by asking loudly from the back seat: “When did this happen? Tell me about it!”

I described how the bullet passed so close to my ear there was a painful “smack” on my eardrums, before it hit a leaf-drying drum behind me. The plantation staff shouted Gerombolan! (Terrorists), the first time I had heard the word, and we all took cover.

My near miss was not news. Around Garut Darul Islam snipers often shot at the TNI soldiers or European civilians in cars on the main roads and the DI made even bigger news for assassination attempts on the president. The other Islamist rebels in Sulawesi, headed by Kahar Muzakar, had on 7 February almost succeeded when Muzakar’s “Islamic State” followers threw a hand grenade, which missed the president’s car but exploded 30 seconds later, killing three and wounding 28 onlookers, including a young child.

These incidents brought a feeling of general insecurity in Jakarta, reviving talk of the “Cikini Incident” of November 1957, when assassins threw five grenades that missed the president, but killed nine children and wounded 50 other onlookers.

After reaching the government rest house in the mountains Ruslan told the driver and I to “take a stroll” and admire the scenery while he worked. After our long day we fell into a deep sleep, but just before midnight the roar of a jeep’s engine awakened us. A Siliwangi officer alighted and spoke at length in urgent whispers to Ruslan, then drove off. Ruslan called upstairs to the driver and me: “Sorry. Please pack up. We must return to Jakarta tonight.”

Weeks later, on May 15, Jakarta was in a state of unease because another Darul Islam assassination attempt was made. A Darul Islam follower shot at but missed the President at prayer in Merdeka Palace. Six people were wounded including the kindly Idham Chalid, NU Chairman.

That afternoon I was with the United Press International’s bureau chief Russell Dybvik when he read a news flash from Singapore UPI saying Sukarno, president of Indonesia, had been shot dead. The Singaporeans had misinterpreted the word “tertinggal” (in this case, unharmed) as “meninggal” (died) and all hell was breaking loose in Jakarta.

Russell expected to be expelled, so we rushed to the Foreign Office to explain this to Deparlu Spokesmen Ganis Harsono and Alex Alatas. They had anticipated us, telling a relieved Dybvik they would not expel him for UPI Singapore’s mistake.

Soon after, on June 5, the Siliwangi captured Kartosuwiryo and twenty of his followers near Cipaku in West Java. The public breathed a sigh of relief and the Bandung road was declared safe. I now suspected Ruslan’s mission was all about Darul Islam, but not until February 1965 did Ruslan confirm it. On a plane going to Makassar he told me he had gone to confirm the capture of Kartosuwiryo, but the rebel had slipped the net.

Kartosuwiryo was executed in September 1962, aged 62 years.
We heard whispers in Merdeka Palace that Sukarno cried (and he did not deny it) when a firing squad executed his former friend.


Jakarta Post Series: First DI Mission

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Jakarta Post Series: Second DI Mission

POS (7) The second Darul Islam Mission

President Sukarno grew increasingly irritated during 1964 that Darul Islam rebel Kahar Muzakhar had escaped capture so often that the Sulawesi people now believed he was indestructible. Kahar had eluded capture during firefights so often that people believed his claim that bullets passed over or around him. Kahar also survived, they said in Makassar, because he became invisible at will, and that only through him was the pathway to heaven guaranteed.

Although Muzakhar and his followers had declared an Islamic State in Sulawesi, they controlled only a small part of territory and to feed their followers had turned to brutal banditry, threats and armed piracy in the Makassar Strait. In these raids Muzakhar had escaped untouched, reaffirming the myth of his indestructability, a myth the President felt was generating dangerous tolerance in villagers.

On hearing, but doubting a new report that Muzakar had been killed, the President ordered Information Minister Ruslan Abdulgani to go to Makassar and personally see the body!

By early 1965 my news bureau for the Australian press was firmly established and I filed twice daily in the PTT on Sudirman Road, a few paces from Minister Abdulgani’s official office in the Press House, so I was a frequent visitor. “Would you like to come to Makassar with me tomorrow?” he asked in late January 1965. Without waiting for an answer he fished out a ticket made out by the Department to “Nyonya Abdulgani” (his wife) and told me to be at Kemayoran Airport by 05.30. Ruslan had appointed the Antara news agency reporter in Makassar, so he was covering both domestic and foreign media if his mission were successful.

Aside from the Minister, who was given two seats up front, one for his paperwork, it was a regular all-economy flight. The Garuda girls giggled when I handed them my Mrs Abdulgani ticket, and tried some English conversation. It was a smooth, pleasant flight highlighted for me when the Minister called me to join him for a few moments.

He said he could not tell me about the mission, but it was important, as I would soon discover for myself, and assured me I would enjoy staying with the military governor Andy Yusuf. Then he asked pointedly: “Remember the mission to Puncak?”

Ruslan then revealed the details of that first Darul Islam mission.

President Sukarno had been assured Kartosuwiryo would be captured that weekend but he had doubts. Sukarno wanted Ruslan to bring him proof. The Siliwangi officer who came late at night told Ruslan that Kartosuwiryo had escaped from an ambush and was on the run again. So, Ruslan had to return to give the bad news.

In Makassar I was not invited to the discussions that day, so I went to the Night Market where a several fortune-tellers offered to predict the future. I asked them all about Kahar Muzakhar and wrote the story which appeared in the Melbourne Sun.

“Kahar is not going to die,” they all said. “Bullets go toward him, then swerve around him, or go over his head.” They also agreed the rebel leader could “fly through the air from Gorontalo to Makassar” if he wished to, after making himself invisible. Great stories, worth the small Rupiah fees charged.

The Governor had a new housekeeper who mistakenly billeted me in a former dungeon, where I slept soundly, despite the eerie looking stains and strange marks on the wall. Next morning the regular staff asked nervously if I had heard screams, chains clanking or ghosts! “The new housekeeper put you in the old Japanese Kempetai torture dungeon. The staff hear screams and groans all the time!” Between the Kahar and the dungeon stories, myths had taken a strong hold.

Mid-morning on 5 February Andy Yusuf (who would soon be a full general and a valuable contact for me when he was a minister in the Suharto cabinets) showed me a black and white photograph of Kahar’s bullet-ridden body, in a wooden coffin in a darkened room, below.  The body was later moved, so immediately there were more silly rumours the 44-year-old rebel leader had survived.

I knew those bullet holes were real after speaking to soldiers from the Siliwangi unit conducting Operasi Tumpas who had ambushed and killed Kahar on February 3. They had tracked him down in deep jungle late at night as Kahar listened to his favorite Western hit tunes, played nightly over Radio Malaysia. That habit cost him his life.

Ruslan’s mission was accomplished. He had called the president to say he had witnessed the DI rebel’s body. Next he went to the Antara office but found it closed, so we went to his home where we found the reporter in despair. The reporter was apologetic. “A tidal wave hit last week, killing boat crews and destroying small craft. I couldn’t cable Jakarta because I was busy saving my own family.”

Ruslan, who felt for him, was stunned at the news. Hundreds had perished, it seems. “Don’t report it now” Ruslan instructed him. “What we don’t know (in Jakarta) won’t hurt us.”

In my few free hours left I interviewed several “Makassar pirates” who admitted raiding foreign boats off east Kalimantan for a living, often bringing in drums of diesel fuel and food supplies for booty.

My readers sent scores of comments to our newspapers in several states, but none of them spoke of my piracy story! The letters had come mostly from mothers and daughters who wanted to say how handsome the Makassar pirates were.  “So good looking!”


Ruslan Abdulgani, Information Minister, departs Makassar 5 February 1965 after witnessed the body of Darul Islam rebel Kahar Muzakhar. (Photo Frank Palmos)

Below: My portrait of this handsome young Makassar pirate was very popular, especially the ladies. “So good looking!” they wrote.

Jakarta Post Series: Second DI Mission

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Career Timeline

Research Fellow and Lecturer, University of Western Australia, (Indonesian, Vietnamese History), Murdoch University (Southeast Asia), advanced Indonesian History translations. Masters (MA) upgraded to Doctoral Thesis. Indonesia 2008-2012: Videotaped and Personal Interviews, remaining founding fathers and militia Leaders.

2006 - 2016

Presenter: Eyewitness 1965 Year of the Inevitable Coup History of the Djakarta foreign Correspondents Club from 24 May 1965, Pat I (2017) Part II (Finale, 2018).

2017 - 2018

Literary Awards Judge, History and Non-Fiction, WA Premier’s Book Awards.

2012 - 2014

Indonesian History Project: Access to Abdulgani Surabaya History Papers, Jakarta on-site translation of 200 militia/civil revolutionary era reports. Presentations to Indonesian embassies and consulates on the history of the Battle of Surabaya 1945.

2002 - 2006

Charity Service period: Australian representative and Translator and Researcher for the Inverso Charity Foundation, (Headquartered in Kebayoran Baru, Jakarta) funding and distributing Australian hospital medical equipment to Indonesian public hospitals in Java, Bali, Lonbok, Kalimantan and Sumatra, and Ceribon, West Java Institute for the Blind.

1997 - 2002

Journalism Lecturer, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia.


Research: Hanoi, Saigon, Da Nang, Kointum, Researcher, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War.

Parallel assignment, Journalism Instructor, Vietnamese editorial staff of The Vietnam News.

1990 - 1994

Documentary film scripts on locations, Western Australian Education Department Film Unit.  History of the Island of Timor, Portugal’s Timor Colony, Village Life in Rural China.

1986 - 1990

Group Editor, Leader Newspapers, Greater Metropolitan Area, Melbourne.

1982 - 1985

Consulting Editor, Designer, new Western Mail newspaper, Perth, Australia.

1981 - 1982

Helpful Information


Publications: Authorship and Translator

1990: Ridding the Devils (Post-war Vietnam, PTSD examined), Bantam Books Australia, Transworld Publishers New Zealand, Transworld Publishers (UK) London.

1994: The Sorrow of War, Author, English Version of the novel by the North Vietnamese soldier Bao Ninh, Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, London, on which all 14 foreign language translations were based.

2015: Student Soldiers, an enhanced translation of Memoar Hario Kecik (Diary of a Student Soldier), Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, and JV with Singapore NU Press and Monash University Press, 2016.

2016: Surabaya 1945: Sakral Tanahku (Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory) Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, Indonesian language launch, Surabaya, 10 November 2016.

2017: Revolution in the City of Heroes, Singapore National University Press and Monash University Press


Publications: Authorship and Translator

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Service in Academic Institutions

2012-2018: University of Western Australia, Perth, Asian Studies, Appointed Research Fellow (April 2012) and Special Course Lecturer, Revolution in Post-colonial Indonesia and Revolution Post-war Vietnam.

2016:  East Java State University, Presenter, Indonesian History Conference, hosted by Obor History Publishing. Presenter: Foundations of the Indonesian Republic in Surabaya 1945.

2016: Universitas Islam Indonesia (UIN), Surabaya, Indonesian History lecture hosted by Dr Achmad  Zuhri Future Challenges for Nahdatul Ulama as the World’s Largest Ummat (Moslem Community).

2015: Australian National University (ANU), National Forum Speaker, Witness to Indonesia’s 1965 Coup.

2014:  University of Technology Sydney, Key Speaker hosted by Professor Heather Goodall: Nehru and India’s Supporting Role for the 1945 Indonesian Independence Movement.

2013: Australian War Memorial International Series Speaker, August 2013, The Media in the Vietnam War: International perspectives on a long war.

2008: University of Melbourne Speaker, Witnessing Indonesia’s G30S Communist coup attemp, University of Melbourne delegate to Sydney University event, Commemorating Fifty Years of Indonesian Studies 1958-2008.

1966-1968: Seminar Chair, Indonesian Politics and History, Melbourne and Monash Universities, hosted by Herbert Feith, John Legge and J.A.C. Mackie.

1966:  Guest lecturer, New College, Oxford, at Southeast Asia Study Group, hosted by Saul Rose, Bursar.

1966 &1967: Wertheim Lecture Series Speaker, Indonesia 1965 and Aftermath of the Coup, University of Amsterdam, hosted by former Dutch East Indies Professor W F Wertheim.

1967: Presenter, Cornell University, New York, Witness to the Coup of 1965, Cornell Modern Indonesia Project.


Service in Academic Institutions

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Histories & Translations

2007-2015: Translations of Indonesian Independence Movement Histories:
Seratus Hari Di Surabaya Yang Menggemparkan Indonesia (One Hundred Days in Surabaya that Shook Indonesia) by Dr Roeslan Abdulgani, 1995.

Rakyat Jawa Timur Mempertahankan Kemerdekaan (East Javanese People Defend their Independence) Volumes I, II and III by Dra. Irna H.N. Soewito, 1994.

Sukarno, Tentara, PKI: Segitiga Kekuasaan sebelum Prahara Politik, 1961-1965 (Sukarno, the Army and the Communists: The Three-way Power Struggle before the Upheaval, 1961-1965) by H Rosihan Anwar, 2006.

Memoar Hario Kecik – Autobiografi Seorang Mahasiswa Prajurit (Memoir Hario Kecik – the Autobiography of a Student Soldier) the Revolutionary Diary of General Suhario Padmodiwirio, 1995.

Kisah-Kisah Jakara Menjelang Clash Ke-I (Jakarta Anecdotes leading to the First Clash – Dutch Police Action) by H Rosihan Anwar, 1979.

Golongan Kerja Sejarah: Surabaya (Surabaya History Working Committee Report), Militia Unit Papers and Diaries on the Indonesian Youths’ Role in the National Struggle, Circa 1945.

Dari Ave Maria – Ke Djalan Lain Ke Roma: Idrus, 1959 (Short Stories of the Indonesian Revolution).

History of Garuda Airlines: From Rangoon to the World, Documentary, Jakarta 1995


Histories & Translations

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Papers / Articles

Article: Australian journalist Frank Palmos cited in declassified US files on communism purge in Indonesia – 23 October 2017, Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne Age

From Jewel Topsfield, Jakarta correspondent: Among a trove of chilling declassified documents that reveal the US government’s knowledge and support of a campaign of mass murder against Indonesia’s Communist Party in the mid 1960s, one “important cable” cites as its source a “reliable Australian journalist”.Australian journalist and historian Frank Palmos, who at the time was the Indonesia correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and other newspapers, has no doubt the secret telegram is referring to him.

Journalist Frank Palmos was one of the first journalists in the western world to write about the massacre of Communists in 1966

Title: JAKARTA POST, Published October 2017

Frank Palmos was 21 years old when he began his foreign correspondent career in the relatively new Republic of Indonesia in March 1961, just 11 years after full sovereignty.  To reach the skill and experience level to succeed in his plan to open the first foreign newspaper bureau in Jakarta Frank immersed himself in Indonesian society for two years, at universities, towns and villages, and took on translation assignments. Here is the story of his first assignment, as translator for a Colombo Plan team in 1961 travelling across Java, the first of his 53 years in the region as correspondent and later, noted historian.

JAKARTA POST, October 2017

Co-founder and Inaugural President, Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club presentation to the  membership and guests on the 52nd anniversary of the club, Plantaran, Jakarta, 25 May 2017

Opening address by JFCC 2017 President: Frank is part of Indonesia’s history. He was the longest serving foreign correspondent, founder of the first foreign newspaper bureau in Jakarta, first president and co-founder of our Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club on 24 May 1965 and one time honorary simultaneous interpreter to first president Sukarno.

In 2005 Frank switched his attention to full-time history. His translations and publications since 2008 have established him as the world’s leading authority on the foundation of the Republic in 1945 and his books, Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory, published in Bahasa Indonesia, and Student Soldiers, the revolutionary diary of former General Haio Kecik, are rated by Indonesia’s most senior historian Taufik Abdullah as “the most complete cover of the events of 1945” which led to independence in 1950.

JUSTIN DOEBELE (Forbes), President, Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club to the members and guests on the 52nd anniversary of the club on 25 May 1965.

Frank and his successors hosted Heads of States, Foreign Ministers and Indonesian Cabinet Ministers who used the Jakarta Correspondents Club as a platform for their policy statements over more than four decades from its founding on 24 May 1965.


Papers / Articles

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Higher Education

2008-2012:  University of Western Australia, Asian Studies, Doctorate: Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory – Revolutionary Surabaya as the birthplace of Indonesian Independence.”  Dissertation approved 2012.

1967:  Diploma Linguistics, Sorbonne designated course, Bescancon, France.

1964:  Diploma of Arts (Journalism and Indonesian Studies), University of Melbourne.

1962:  University of Indonesia studies, Jakarta, History of Indonesian Literature.

1961:  Pajajaran University studies, Bandung, Indonesia, Publisistiks (Media Studies).


Higher Education

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Career Timeline & Brief Highlights

b. Melbourne, 20 January 1940.

1954-57 Melbourne Argus newspaper, messenger and copy boy.

1957-58 Cadet Journalist, The Sportsman (Turf Guide) and Reporter, Australian United Press

1959-61 Melbourne editor, Sydney Daily Telegraph.

1961 Djakarta, Fellow Yayasan Siswa Lokantara, Pendengar, University of Pajajaran, Bandung. Translator to the United Nations team supervising Colombo Plan nationwide installations of new transmitters for the Radio Republic Indonesia network.

1962 Pendengar, University of Indonesia (Literature: Sastra). Translator Sitti Nurbaya, Indonesian novel (manuscript) and Study of the Indonesian Press, both Siswa Lokantara graduation requirements

1963- 64 Senior journalist, Melbourne Herald, covering courts, police, shipping, sport, Indonesian features. Columnist (Indonesian Affairs) The Bulletin.

1963-64 Completed University of Melbourne Diploma of Journalism and Indonesian Studies I & II. Member, Melbourne University Athletic Club (Track and Field).

December 1964 – April 1966: Founded Indonesia’s first foreign newspaper bureau in Djakarta, December 1964, for the Herald-Sun Australian newspaper conglomerate of 14 dailies, extending the national coverage of existing international news bureaux, Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters-AAP, Agence France Press, France and Australia’s Radio Australia (ABC)

May 1965, Co-founder, Djakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (DFCC), President 1965-1966

1965 -1966 Reported failed Untung coup, 30 September 1965, for the Herald-Sun Australian press group and by special arrangement, the New York Times, Washington Post and The Economist (UK).

November 1965 Interregnum: the Philippines Election (Marcos-Macapagal), Manila, Mindanao, Saigon, the first of four Vietnam War assignments.

December 1965 – April 1966, Covering the Fall of the Sukarno Government, installation of the New Order (General Suharto), mass killings of Communists, severed ties with China.

May 1966 – December 1967: Assigned break from Indonesia to Paris (Sorbonne directed linguistic immersion course, Besancon, eastern France) Graduated May 1967, Diploma of Linguistics.

June 1967, Translator, Editor Desk Anglais, Agence France Press (AFP) French to English, Arab-Israeli Six-Day War (June 5-11) for US and UK English language press.

July 1967-December 1967, Fleet Street Reporter, London Daily Mirror, special assignments in London, Manchester, Belfast and Dublin. Adviser, Southeast Asia media strategy to the UK Mirror Group.

Guest speaker, Amsterdam Dutch media, The Groene Amsterdammer, Vrij Nederland, Dutch TV.

December 1967-February 1968, Foreign Desk, The Washington Post, Washington DC

March 1968, War Correspondent, Vietnam, roving assignments based from Dan Nang, Cam Ranh Bay and Saigon, on 33 land, sea and air missions with US, Australian and Southern Vietnamese forces.

1969-72, Fourth term as Australia’s Herald-Sun group Jakarta correspondent reporting on the New Order Suharto Government. Resumed, Dean of Foreign Press Corps, President, Foreign Correspondents Club. Special Writer Readers Digest (First Person Award), World Book Encyclopedia.

1973-74 Australian based senior journalist, Melbourne Herald and Television Current Affair team, winners 1974 Logie Best Current Affairs award.

1975 Retired from mainstream journalism


Career Timeline & Brief Highlights

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Jakarta 1961 - Frank attends a wedding reception
as a Yayasan Siswa Lokantara student.


Media Award Inaugural Medal, Service to Australian-Indonesian Relations, from AIA (Australia-Indonesia Association) Sydney, October 2014.


Honorary Citizen of Surabaya, Keys to the City (Services to History) bestowed May 2012.


The Society of Authors (London) lists English Version of Bao Ninh’s Vietnam War novel, “The Sorrow of War” in the Top 50 Most Outstanding Translations of the last 50 Years. The judging panel wrote:  “…Bao Ninh’s exquisite novel provides a unique window onto an unfamiliar world, and onto a conflict that we in the West had seen only from the other side, and secondly, but no less importantly, Frank Palmos’s beautiful and nuanced translation granted us access to that world, allowing us to view it from within.”


Joint winner, The Independent Foreign Fiction Book Award, The Sorrow of War, with author Bao Ninh and Vietnamese colleague, Madame Phanh Thanh Hao.


Winner, Suburban Newspapers Association, two awards for Investigative Journalism,  on nationwide Art Fraud, for Leader Newspapers Group, Melbourne.


Reporter, TV Logie winning team, Best Current Affairs Program 1974, for Cyclone Tracy segments, The Destruction of Darwin (Camera: Kevin Wiggins, Sound: Geoff Wilson).


Winner, Australian Winston Churchill Fellowship for Pioneering Journalism in Asia. Assigned NASA Apollo Moon Missions XIV, XV, Washington, Cape Kennedy, Houston


First Person Writer Award, Ambush in Saigon (Second Tet, Cholon, Saion, May 1968) International Reader’s Digest, September 1968 Issue.



Stephen Dobbs

Associate Professor Asian Studies,
University of Western Australia
[email protected]

James Warren

Emeritus Professor Southeast Asian Modern History,
Murdoch University.
[email protected]h.edu.au

Robert Cribb

Professor Asian Studies, Department of Political and Social Change,
Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. [email protected]


Now living in Scarborough, Western Australia, Dr. Francis (Frank) Palmos (born 20 January 1940 in Melbourne, Victoria) is a celebrated journalist, author, and translator, best known for his work in South East Asia.

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