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New Colombo Plan

The Australian Embassy. It really did feel like coming back to Australia. I think it was the unusually long waiting time for us students and our academics to enter. Like a scene from Centrelink. Or maybe it was the guy in a simple shirt and bright shorts that everyone ignored. I've never seen a local wearing shorts for the past 2 and a half weeks in Indonesia. But as I sat in on the conversation between us and the officials talking about trade and infrastructure, it became apparent to me that there was one thing that was definitely not like Australia. Public health services were no where close to this dialogue. Sure this was a visit with a focus on transport and traffic but I am sure that there was room to discuss ambulance response times and cooperation between our nations not just in trade but in pre-hospital care. Especially after the Bali bombings and the recent rise in terror threat levels for Indonesia.

The Australian people are obviously strong supporters of an efficient public health sector. This is evident with the highly publicized national debate on the seven dollar "GP Tax" and the cuts to public hospitals these last few months back home. Should there not be a mention of public safety and health, something that that matters most, from our embassy to the students here on the New Columbo Plan? An initiative that is meant to serve the interests of both nations?

It has been nearly three weeks now since I have arrived in Indonesia. I have yet to observe an ambulance and have only heard sirens once from an unknown emergency vehicle. Maybe Indonesia has been very fortunate ever since I arrived or I have just been imagining the almost nightly calls of Sydney's suburban emergency sirens and this comparison is totally ill-founded.

Yesterday, following on from the experiences in the kampongs, we were introduced to quite a different side to Jakarta. A day spent was spent with also another very welcoming family. They were a long time married couple who lived comfortably in retirement. Their adult children had each begun their own lives away from home by now and so during leisure time, the husband enjoys playing badminton with friends or learning the keyboard. The wife heads to the traditional markets and together, they often volunteer their time to religion. It was yet again another stark contrast.

In our interdisciplinary team made up of Tom (Business), Alex (Occupational Health) and myself (Engineering/Architecture), we were treated to such good hospitality in their homes and given a private audience with each of them, Walter and Linda, for a few hours in order to talk to them about Jakarta's traffic problem. Very early upon meeting them that day, it was clear that being elderly citizens in this rapidly growing and transforming city had its challenges. Even though they were socially and economically better off than the families visited in the kampongs, there was still an overarching theme; Jakarta's rapid urbanisation and congested infrastructure is failing to support its people. Transportation is such an inherent part of daily life here, and the perpetual gridlock chocking the road network will cripple any family's daily life regardless of income or social class.

The interviews with Walter and Linda went smoothly despite our initial lack of direction. Drivers' negligence and lack of knowledge of road safety quickly became a prominent topic of discussion with Walter. Having been a driver on Jakarta's system for over 30 years, he was very keen to point out that there was an increase in unlicensed drivers on the road. With this increase, his own perceived level of safety whilst driving decreases, but he travels the nonetheless because the 'motorbike is my legs'.

After that comment, the conversation dived into road and traffic safety. It was revealed that drivers in Jakarta, though officially required to pass a driving skills test (one too difficult for most to pass), had other 'methods' of getting their licenses. So as a result, a large portion of drivers on the streets have very little to no knowledge of local road regulations, compounding onto the congestion issue by making the roads hazardous for other drivers.

I see it as a vicious cycle. Like Walter's dependence on his motorbike for mobility, most people in Jakarta need to use the transport network in their daily lives. But as most lack safe driving skills and knowledge of road regulations, officially obtaining a license is a hard task to achieve. The easiest solutions? Pay someone on forego the paperwork and tests or simply become an unlicensed driver. The sense of lawlessness or lack of law enforcement may have been a factor in kick starting this culture of reckless driving.


Together, these two vastly differently experiences confirmed this; Jakarta is a multifaceted city with a very unique but complex dynamic between its rapid urbanisation and its capacity to provide for all. It is so clear that transportation is a large part of almost ever body's livelihoods, whether families were from the poorest of slums, or just average people. But the built environment is not made for Jakarta's population. So many external factors are stacked up against everyday road users in feeling safe everyday.

Is there something our University can do on a humanitarian or even academic stand point to break this social norm? It obviously affects millions of road users in Jakarta. United Nations forecasted that if no actions were taken to reduce road fatality rates in this coming decade, it would quickly become one of the top five leading causes of death in Indonesia.

We woke to the monsoonal rains and the rumbles of thunder, a new day in Jakarta.

After a buffet of international cuisine, we assembled in the lobby to await our drivers. Thirty minutes later the drivers arrived promptly on Indonesia time. We travelled along busy roads, watching motorbikes weaving in and out of lanes between cars. An hour and a half later we reached our destination; Margo City Shopping Mall in Depok. Our host families greeted us with warm smiles and assisted our selection of an array of delicious traditional Indonesian lunch meals.

We divided into our groups and followed our host families back to their homes. The occupational therapy students were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to practice interviewing in an international context and gain personal insights of how traffic and transport in Jakarta impact on participation in the activities of daily living.

Using their unique expertise, the occupational therapy, engineering and business students asked a range of questions of their hosts. It was challenging to combine such diverse perspectives into one cohesive discussion about transport. However, we overcame this to uncover the insider perspective of life in Jakarta. As Sydney-siders, the idea of a two kilometre trip taking 45 minutes seemed unfathomable. Stories such as this illuminated the huge impact traffic can have on an individual's routines.

There was no better place to debrief than in a traffic jam on the way back to the hotel. Knackered from our full-day outing, we power napped before checking out the local delicacies, with street performers surrounding us bule, we dined on sate ayam.

Alexandra Nugent and Zoe Sutherland
Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy)

On the first official day of our Jakarta Field trip, what was installed for the group of USyd students was going to quickly readjust people's perspectives on this bustling commercial hub in Indonesia. Much like the old saying that "it is just the tip of the iceberg", what the surrounding streets of our hotel showed was hardly a true representation of how most of the population in Jakarta live.

Ronny Poluan, a strong voice for the poorest in Jakarta, led the tour and revealed the slums or 'kampong' that over 30% of the city's population (United Nations, 2011) call home. It was a stark contrast to the story that Central Jakarta told about its people and way of life. It was a very stark contrast.

The main part of the tour began in Jakarta's 'Old City' called Kota, a mismatched urban collection of Dutch colonial buildings and architectural ruins that the people say 'reminds them that the local government turns a blind eye to them'. In Plaza Batavia where we initially disembarked to begin the walking tour, it was already apparent that we were no longer in the bustling business district. Crossing only a few streets and going down a winding narrow road in an 'angkot' led to a very quick change in scenery. Dirt roads, plastic litter lining the streets and river and just a general look of perseverance on everyone's faces (young or old). These were the terms I could use the quickly sum up what I encountered on the tour. Despite living in the poorest conditions of eating, sleeping and on occasion defecating in the same place they call home, the people left behind by Jakarta's rapid urbanisation persevered. They had no other choice.

As an engineering and architecture student who has a passion for humanitarian engineering, the visited families' perseverance but happiness and warmth was inspiring. These were the people who needed help the most, but would probably be too humble to ask for it. Being co-President of the University's student chapter for Engineers Without Borders too, it was unavoidable that an endless stream of humanitarian ideas ran through my mind the whole time. I wanted to speak to Ronny personally about so many things that Emily and I had the power to help achieve, being the sole connection between him and the national office for EWB. But the extent of the situation for so many million people was overwhelming.

It was comforting though to know that Ronny was some kind of guardian for them. With the tour fees, half of the amount raised goes into funds for the '3 E's' - Emergency, Empowerment and Education for the people people in the kampong. As an individual, I believe he is doing as much as he can for the families. The local government has begun taking well intended actions too, though with poor execution. For example, high density apartment blocks have been built to provide alternative homes for the families in kampongs, to encourage them to move out of their illegal areas and into safer forms of housing. The initiative failed though because no family could afford the rent.

The day was just filled with these sorts of anachronisms. When the city skyline was visible was within the jungle of rickety houses built over the stinking shoreline, these families just did not seem to fit in anywhere in Jakarta's urban fabric. They probably moved to the big city from their rural villages in search of better means. But what happened was that the vicious cycle of poverty caused by rapid urbanisation caught them first. We often drive past grand hotels and shopping malls in Jakarta. What would this part of the city's population give to have just a fraction of that kind of comfort?

Started off the day with an international buffet breakfast. With full bellies, we all bundled into a van to discover a different side to Jakarta. First stop, Independence Mosque, which is the third largest mosque in the world. Shoes off, socks off, and gown on before we were taken on a tour around the largest mosque in Indonesia and South-East Asia. Five levels to signify the five calls of prayers, and a 45m dome to represent the 1945 proclamation of Indonesian independence.

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Next stop, old Indonesia, taking a bus, bajaj and boat we were introduced to the unseen poverty in Indonesia.

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With over 300 families living in one handmade apartment, and only enough space to sleep in, it was an incredible sight to see the laughter and joy in their faces. Their motto 'why be sad when we are still alive?' was a steep contrast to their living conditions. With no address or house number, only electricity being provided by the government, water for showering and laundry were only available whenever it rained. Despite this, the children ran, laughed and sang songs for us, whilst holding our hands as they took control of our tour!

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Traffic in Jakarta halted our plans of having lunch, as we moved at less than 20km/hour for the next 40 minutes. Highlighting the need for the interdisciplinary transport field school to look at the vulnerabilities of all road users.

Quick lunch break to McDonald's and we were whisked back into a training session on interviewing skills in preparation for our home visits tomorrow. With our newly befriended Indonesian students, we walked to Grand Indonesia, the largest department store in Jakarta. Satay ayam sticks and nasi goreng filled our stomachs as we wandered aimlessly through the massive mall.

With excitement building up as we prepare to meet Indonesian families to learn about their transport use, we all clambered back to the hotel for a hopefully restful night of sleep!

Kirstin Lee and Larissa Chandra
Bachelor of Applied Sciences - Occupational Therapy

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Parliament House was the first stop today. We joined students undertaking a summer program at the National University of Singapore to learn about the Parliament that runs this amazing city-state. Surprisingly, Singapore’s Parliament shares quite some similarities with the Australian system, as they are both manifestations of the British system. Unfortunately today was not a Parliamentary sitting day, but nevertheless we could sense the solemnity of the House.

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The hotel corridor is the perfect place to rehearse last-minute presentations.

As the final preparation day before our presentations about housing policy tomorrow afternoon, I have been fascinated by the different dynamics of teamwork that I saw each inter-disciplinary group employ.

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Twas the night before presentations, when all thro’ the Y
Not a student was stirring, not even a sigh
The glow of the Macbooks were stared at with care
In hopes that the presentation soon would be fair
The students were refining all that they’d read
While visions of HDB housing danc’d in their heads

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For participants in the Singapore field school, today was the penultimate day of research before presenting our findings to each other in groups on Friday. Responses to this sobering fact varied from dogged concentration to all-out panic, yet the five architecture students were lucky to be granted temporary release in the form of a meeting with Richard Hassell, co-director of WOHA, a renowned architecture firm based in Singapore.

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As presentation day looms all the groups are heavily focused on their chosen topics, gathering final pieces of research and solidifying the huge amount of information we have received over the past two weeks. For Team East Side, this has meant a significant amount of time spent in the community of Bedok observing how the elderly are catered for in Singaporean housing plans and community layouts. This has meant a day of walking through housing estates and communities, checking for features such as wheelchair accessibility, exercise and social areas, community activities for the elderly and ease of access to key medical services such as dementia care.

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Tonight we attended ‘Hari Raya Puasa’ a Ramadan Bazaar in Geylang Serai. Approximately 15% of Singaporeans are Muslim and are currently celebrating Ramadan which involves fasting from dawn until dusk. The bazaar had food markets that allow the community to collectively break their fast as well as stalls selling new cloths, decorations and homewares thus supporting the custom of buying new items for the home. An array of exotic Malay-inspired dishes and snacks were displayed at each stall including spicy fish balls, biryani (a dish of rice, meat and spices), chick-pea biscuits, fried sweet potato, kebabs and pide. These were complemented with colourful and tasty drinks including lychee, mango, sour sok and rose flavoured water. A group of us excitedly selected a few different dishes and drinks and sat in the park nearby to delight in the fascinating new flavours.

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Woodlands school surrounded by newly built HDB flats

It’s Tuesday and we are well into our second and final week of our fieldtrip in Singapore! The New Colombo Plan scholars have all split up into their groups to conduct further field research in their respective regions. My group has been tasked with analysing the North Region, so we spent the bulk of our time today visiting some of the areas in the North that we had missed on our earlier trip – most notably the Woodlands region.

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Strangely enough I have been asking this question a lot lately.

I like coffee. As a delicious beverage and as a daily ritual. Luckily, I have found a killer flat white, not far from our hotel. They don't open till about 11am and its a whopping 5 SGD, but definitely worth it. Incidentally, their milk is from Japan.

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The final stretch of the field school for the New Colombo scholars has begun. We’ve had a jam-packed week full of meetings, tours, policy discussions, a bit of sight seeing and far too much of chicken and rice. Our time so far has been largely structured, looking to give us a complete view of the housing policy from as many perspectives as possible. Today has been our first real opportunity to break off into our respective interdisciplinary groups and tackle our research questions independently.

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“Once a year go to someplace you’ve never been before” – Dalai Lama

This quote hits home today as we got to further explore the jewels of Singapore on a bustling Sunday after a long productive week soaking up all the country had to offer. After a solid Sunday sleep in, the gang split up into little groups to do whatever they wished – some shopped, some ate, some even visited a nature reserve.

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As Singapore awoke on a Saturday morning (though well before any New Colombo Plan scholar dared rise), one of the nation's year-round downpours mingled with the ever-present heat to push humidity levels to their very limits, while a suggested dress code of 'not shorts' implied that the scheduled early afternoon tour of the migrant worker-filled Little India district might not be the most comfortable ways to spend an afternoon.

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Humidity at 9am with an inclined trek found us at the National University of Singapore (NUS.) Here, Sharon Quah unveiled her perspective on the housing policy in relation to divorcees.

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On Day 5 of our field school, we visited the National University of Singapore where we participated in a presentation on social issues surrounding Singaporean housing. The presentation was given by a doctor of the Asia Research Institute and revealed sharp insights into the realities of the heavily government mandated housing market of Singapore. The discussion surrounded lack of support for divorcees and non-nuclear families and formed a more pragmatic version to the strongly promoted view of the HDB scheme from government agencies we had visited earlier. Issues covered included difficulties of relocation, social stigmas surrounding divorces and a lack of acknowledgment of progressive trends like LGBT rights and alternate families.

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After a bustling first two days of extensive research and field investigation in Singapore, our third day was devoted to summarizing our findings and reflecting on the interactions we had shared with various government agencies, academics and locals. As we started to work more specifically in our interdisciplinary groups for the first time, it was interesting to see how our different academic backgrounds and skills came into confluence to enable difficult issues to be solved through multiple angles and frames of thinking. Far from creating technical barriers, working with group members of different knowledge bases helped me greatly in beginning to understand the intricate social and economic factors that dictate Singapore’s strong public housing policies.

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Talking through the night with Singaporean students about study, life and where to find the cheapest drinks in Singapore.

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After 24 hours of first visiting our designated regions, we delivered our first group presentations today. The presentations were mostly factual, concerning the architectural, demographic, commercial and social aspects of each region. It was interesting to observe that each group had approached the task differently, some focusing on a single estate whereas others chose to adopt a broader overview. The presentations helped to distinguish the characteristics of each region which would be valuable in moulding our final research question. Through this exercise it was evident that our presentation skills could be improved, in particular our time management and coherence as a team, but I’m confident that our next presentation will be better!

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In everything that we do at university, our lecturers always emphasise the importance of stating our assumptions if we want to maximise our marks and ensure the understanding of the audience. If this is the case, then from what I saw today, the Singapore Government’s Housing Development Board (HDB) deserves a B for their effort in policy creation and explanation. The outline of policies in their City Gallery while efficient and effective at targeting a general audience were biased towards the government’s perspective in its definition of ‘right’. Despite being presented as hallmarks of Singaporean housing policy, I disagreed with the government’s Ethnic Integration Policy, Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme and somewhat to its Build-To-Order scheme due to its disregard for the ‘alternative’ and lack of contingency. This was complemented by the propagandistic material that was shown to us in a state-of-the-art room furnished with curved displays, inspiring music and images of the simplistic ‘ideal’ family nucleus ranging from elderly, family, couples and active singles.

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Our second full day in Singapore, comprised of a gallery tour, bustling train rides, a visit to our different regions and some cheap Hawker Centre meals, gave us all a clear vision what the Housing Development Board (HDB) does, as well as a chance to explore the country in a way ordinary tourists rarely would.

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Today was the first official day of the fieldtrip and involved an extensive introduction into not only Singaporean housing policy, but also aspects of culture and politics. This contrasted immensely with our first afternoon which was spent swimming in the pool overlooking Marina Bay Sands, however such a rigorous introduction afforded unique insight into the ‘real’ Singapore and the history and dynamics of this unique city-state beyond the façade of tourist attractions.

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Welcome to Singapore; every curly-haired girl’s nightmare. Even braids couldn’t tame the tropical mane! But despite the trauma of a halo of frizz, the humidity wasn’t quite oppressive enough to keep the New Colombo Scholars down. We embarked on a day of adventuring and learning, seeing Singapore as a group for the first time.

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On the 6th of May the foreign Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop launched the second tranche of the National Colombo Plan at MacLaurin Hall, funding a further 1000 students to participate in internships and studies in the Indo-Pacific.

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