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

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Ordinary Man in the Bus

THE ORDINARY MAN IN THE BUS © Duncan Graham 2005

The day after white powder was sent to the Indonesian Embassy in Jakarta I was on my way from Surabaya, the capital of East Java, to Malang, a major city to the south. (East Java shares a sister-state relationship with WA.)

At 6 am I climbed on board an inter-city bus. The chaotic terminal was crowded with hundreds of commuters. They were being pestered by scores of newsboys hawking the province’s major paper, the Jawa Pos.

The lead story headline on page one said the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra had been hit by ‘Anthrax Terror.’

I was alone, the only foreigner at the terminal. I stood out like a woman wearing a headscarf in an Australian nightclub.

Indonesians are passionate nationalists. They are also naturally curious and have few inhibitions about asking a stranger’s name, age, marital status and religion. And nationality.

Should I lie or be honest and risk the consequences? Post tsunami my Australian credentials had been a passport to a handshake. After the bombs at the Kuta bar and outside the Australian Embassy many had commiserated. And apologised.

Now the situation had suddenly turned bad. A few Australians were behaving as terrorists. Many were reacting badly to a drug conviction and getting their unbalanced views promoted.

In East Java the government is running a massive banner campaign against drug use. This is so intense that major advertisers of ordinary services and products feel they should also publicly endorse the NO DRUGS message alongside their sales pitch.

Gruesome pictures of ghosts carrying cadavers to the cemetery are used to show the end results of using narcotics. The big banners span highways, dominate intersections.

Like any society there are double standards and hypocrisy, but at the moment the Indonesian anti-drug movement is in full cry and will tolerate no dispassionate discussion. The simplistic view is that drug use is a Western disease, so a woman caught trying to import marihuana is undoubtedly guilty.

Why should Australians get so angry unless they condone drug use? The calming, apologetic and rational statements by Australian politicians get pushed down the news bulletins, while ugly Okkers get their faces on the screen mouthing crude anti-Indonesian sentiments. These serve only to feed our enemies in Indonesia.

And we have a few. Inflammatory statements by provincial politicians on the make and retired generals with a grievance can get a good billing in some sections of the tabloid press. Indonesia is not yet a media-savvy society. Not all readers and viewers can differentiate between government policy and rumor mongering.

Beating the Australian drum resonates well among Indonesians open to distractions from the perils and poverty of ordinary life. They are particularly susceptible to claims that we remain unreconstructed and arrogant colonialists, spies and Christian proselytisers. Facts? Not necessary. They were never used to back former President Suharto’s misinformation machine in the past, so why now?

So it’s easy to say we’ve humbled the Indonesian Army in East Timor and are helping separatists fracture the Indonesian state. Despite our great support for the tsunami victims we still haven’t shaken off the tag of South East Asia’s Deputy Sheriff prepared to launch pre-emptive strikes into the heartlands of adjacent nations.

The hate mongers are in a minority but they know how to pitch their message well. And official Australian public relations campaigns are doing little to counter these slurs. Loonies posting powders just turn scuttlebutt into substance.

My bus packed with passengers, peanut sellers, cool drink vendors, street musicians – and newsboys. Every face was brown. There was absolutely no escape. The journey ahead would last almost two hours.

Ignoring questions is considered rude. The danger of claiming to be some sort of European (to be an American is not a wise nationality choice in Indonesia) is that my cover might be blown.

As a regular user of local pubic transport I’m a standout in an environment few foreigners frequent. Many drivers, stallholders and security guards at the terminal know I’m Australian. A lie could arouse anger. Better to be up front.

It worked. Some discussions, many questions, lots of puzzlement. But absolutely no hostility then or on the return journey. However much sympathy at my personal predicament.

I’d like to think my imagined woman in a headscarf at an Australian nightclub might get equally fair treatment. But in the wake of the Corby case I wonder about my nation. Our claim to hold the World Cup for civilised and tolerant multiculturalism is looking more like tub-thumping than fact.

(Duncan Graham is the author of The People Next Door (UWA Press). He is living in Surabaya.)


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