The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


GETTING TO KNOW YOU © Duncan Graham 2005

You’re lucky to be reading this scoop because you’re among the first to hear of the Indonesian government’s new plans for visitors. It recently fell off the back of a becak. It’s a long document, but the principal points are:

· Australians will no longer be able to rock into Bali, get an on-the-spot visa and wander the archipelago.
· The new system requires applying for a visa weeks in advance and paying a fee of about $65. It will be a complex form and must be completed entirely in Indonesian. Any mistakes, however minor, will mean the application will be rejected and the fee lost.
· Nationals of other countries will be allowed to lodge their applications via the Internet, but not Australians.
· A full medical conducted by a doctor selected by the Indonesian government may also be required. The cost of this must be borne by the applicant.
· All young female applicants for visas who claim to be married to Indonesians will be treated with suspicion.
· All immigration and customs documents must be completed in Indonesian.
· Indonesians are warned against travelling to Australia following violence against mosques and women wearing headscarves. The Indonesian government apparently doesn’t think the Australian government is doing enough to prosecute these terrorists and is just hiding behind statements about ‘free speech’.

Fortunately my exclusive leak has now been revealed as a false document and the Indonesian government has yet to impose such onerous restrictions. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t, because that’s how Indonesians who want to visit Australia are treated.

The Indonesian media has been carrying stories critical of Western help given to the victims of the Aceh tsunami. Westerners have been accused of having other agendas. These include acting as spies, seeking to help the separatist movement and wanting to ‘Christianise’ the Acehnese who are almost entirely staunch Muslims.

Most Australians, knowing their nation’s indifference to religion, may find this last claim a bit of a giggle – and the idea that Australian troops want to get involved in a prolonged and nasty civil war where Muslims are killing Muslims is far fetched.

But not for ordinary Indonesians. Outside Bali and Yogya many are unable to differentiate between Australians, Americans and Europeans. The term Belanda, meaning a Hollander is also generic for any white skinned foreigner.

It’s also useful to remember that Indonesians have so long been fed misinformation by previous governments that they often prefer myth to fact.

Americans are distrusted because of their perceived arrogance and their foreign policies which are seen as anti-Islam. Others remember that the CIA was allegedly involved in supporting separatist movements in Sulawesi and may have had a hand in the coup which toppled first president Sukarno in 1965.

The Dutch are widely disliked because they were the colonialists who lorded it over the country for more than three centuries, took as much as they could and gave little back. Others who have seen the Australian flag and the portraits on our currency laugh at denials that we are no longer a colony of distant Britain.

We can certainly plead that we, the people next door, are different and separate, but at the moment it’s all uphill. We are still seen as the lackeys of the US, anti Islam, pro-separatists with territorial ambitions. A recent survey of 6,800 Indonesians showed that our foreign policy was linked with the US as the most disliked.

Indonesian media coverage of the foreign relief efforts in Aceh gave the Americans the biggest share of positive publicity, largely because they went out of their way to lionise local journalists.

Someone with a bit of sensitivity should have told our military in Aceh to wear uniforms identifying them as Australian. Instead many wore ubiquitous camouflage and some used dark glasses – a mistake in Indonesia.

Prime Minister Howard and Indonesian ambassador Iman Cotan both claimed relations between our countries are now better than ever because of Australia’s speedy response to the tsunami tragedy. That’s probably right at the highest official levels, and probably correct among some intellectuals. I’m also sure it’s wrong almost everywhere else, except among the ordinary people of Aceh who received our aid.

Our government and NGOs are doing excellent work in Indonesia, helping the Aceh victims, rebuilding the infrastructure, giving advice. But we are not doing enough in other areas and we are not doing our PR well.

In 2003 the Australian Embassy in Jakarta issued only six press releases and last year only 28 non-tsunami releases. Aid is not free of politics; I want my country and its programs to be well known and widely used. We have a good story to tell and a culture worth promoting. A goodwill tour by Nicole Kidman, the best known Australian in Indonesia, would do more good for our image than 1000 pictures of men in grey suits shaking hands.

Richard Gozney, the previous British Ambassador to Indonesia and a fluent speaker of Indonesian, was something of a celebrity appearing on TV talk shows and explaining his country in down to earth terms. Our official representatives may register among Jakarta’s elite, but not in the mass media.

We have been outstandingly generous to Aceh, but before the tragedy quite stingy. We offer less than 400 postgraduate scholarships to a nation of 240 million. We fund Australian Studies course at a handful of universities when there are thousands who could benefit.

In Indonesia our cultural programs are miniscule. The French, who have no historical reasons to be involved in the country, do a much finer job pushing their literature, art, design and film.

The library in the Australian embassy in Jakarta has been closed. The WA Trade office in Surabaya has been shut down. The best known English teaching franchise in Indonesia is run by a European company. Travel warnings continue to deter Australians from visiting Indonesia.

The Youth Exchange Program for young Australians to visit Indonesia was cancelled last year. The budget for the Australia Indonesia Institute has been cut and cut again. The new chair of the Institute is Allan Taylor, the former director general of our spy agency ASIS, so Indonesian paranoia about our real motives in Aceh now has some facts to feed on.

Indonesians get their ideas of the US – and by extension us - from films and TV programs. Sadly these are seldom quality offerings; most are B-grade trash which show handsome white men and luscious blondes solving problems with guns and technology. Their opponents are usually sinister dark skinned buffoons who can’t shoot straight and mangle English grammar.

My country is not a godless cesspit of pornography and violence harbouring colonial ambitions and I want Indonesians to know that. My rants may be ineffective, but making it easier for Indonesians to visit Australia and see for themselves is one way to counter the myths.

Maybe making it as easy for Indonesians - as it is for Australians - to visit the people next door.

(This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Perth International Festival Writers' Week in February 2005. Published in The Jakarta Post 29 March 2005)


No comments: