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

Wednesday, June 14, 2006



“Dr Yudhoyono …has now become more aware of the ‘internal dynamics’ of Australian politics. The president has said to me: ‘Presidents and prime ministers go, but at the end of the day these two cultures must work together.’” Report in the Australian media attributed to Indonesian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono.

“The relationship … is a complex one because we are very different societies, very, very different – you could hardly find two societies more different.” Australian prime minister John Howard on Australian radio.

Howard and Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are due to meet on Batam Island this month. Their job: To weld a patch over the buckled relationship, keep it afloat and set course for a new treaty that can withstand the inevitable storms ahead.

Success will depend much on both men’s real understanding of each other’s homeland politics and cultures.

Although they’re supposed to have a warm personal relationship – ‘mates’ in the Aussie vernacular - the two come from radically different backgrounds.

The sixth Indonesian president is a former general who’s been in politics only seven years. He leads a minor political party and has to rely on coalitions to implement policy as Indonesia toys with democracy. He’s a Javanese Muslim whose father was in the military, as are relatives on his wife’s side. His eldest son is the army.

John Winston (as in Churchill) Howard (67 next month and ten years the senior) is steeped in the Western democratic tradition. His antecedents are British and he’s a Methodist (Protestant). His Dad ran a garage.

Howard’s a former solicitor who’s been in parliament for 32 years – the last ten as the nation’s 25th PM. He’s considered one of the nation’s most successful and canny politicians with a reputation for taking tough decisions. His Liberal Party holds power in the House of Representatives and the Senate and is widely considered responsible for the nation’s non-stop economic boom.

Despite the geographic closeness few Australians know little about their neighbour. What they do know is mostly negative, particularly since the Bali bombs. Even Australians who’ve never left their country can be experts.

Ordinary Australians reacted with great compassion to the Aceh tsunami and the Yogya quake, giving generously. But they’ve been angered by stories of aid going astray, extortion and hostility to foreigners trying to help.

Poaching by Indonesian fishermen in Australia’s northern waters – a minor story in this country – is a major running sore in Australia.

Judged by the raw comments on commercial talkback radio and letters to the editor, many seem to consider Indonesia a land of losers, an ungrateful, corrupt and maladministered nation driven by primitive superstitions, doomed to be a mendicant forever.

In brief, Indonesia is currently on the nose with Australian voters. Any policy decisions taken by Howard at the Batam meeting which are seen to appease Indonesia will get a savage battering when he gets back home.

We Aussies, crow the smug voters, are winners. We’ve got our economy and lifestyle right. Not too rich, not too poor. Taxed heavily and inescapably but with all the services and security: Free education and health care from womb to tomb. Care for the downtrodden and distressed.

The ancient tyrannies of religious bigotry largely banished. A safe land where your faith is your business. A worker’s paradise where anyone who wants to knuckle down will succeed - and the rule of law applies. If we and others can achieve all this, why can’t Indonesia?

Such is Howard’s electorate and he has to be sensitive to its moods and hang-ups. His predecessor Labor PM Paul Keating didn’t – which is why the voters rejected his secret treaty with former president Suharto.

Locating itself in the world has long been an Aussie problem. Keating tried to position Australia as an Asian nation; the rhetoric now is that the country’s interests lie in the Pacific. Many Indonesians think their neighbour is a US state, not to be trusted, its people spoilt and rude.

Yudhoyono who has studied in America certainly knows the West better than Howard knows the East. But does SBY understand and appreciate that Australian foreign policy is powered by fear of the ‘yellow peril’ and the ‘threat from the north’ – crude racist emotions equal to Indonesians’ horror of separatism?

In the 19th century it was Chinese coolies coming to undermine Australian workers. In the 20th it was the Japanese army, then communism. Now it’s refugees.

And every imagined invasion of the great rich and empty continent comes through – or from – the poor and overpopulated archipelago to the north.

Equally import is the question: Does Howard really know that the residues of Suharto’s New Order regime still have muscle? Is he conscious that two generations have had their minds, prejudices and understanding of history and the world warped by an authoritarian government? These facts are probably in his briefing papers, but they’re not immediately obvious.

However well advised, the Australian PM is unlikely to fully comprehend the grip on the Indonesian psyche of the principal of the Unitary State - or the power and importance of religion in everything. Few Australians can adequately wrap their minds around these facts.

Australia made a seamless negotiated transition from colony to independent state 105 years ago. Indonesia had to fight a long and brutal war to win nationhood – a fact that’s shaped the nation’s politics.

In Australia the army is a defence force – in Indonesia its prime role is keeping the hard-won country together. Yudhoyono’s background is embedded in this policy that has the authority of sacred writ.

Although some claim Howard’s term has seen the rise of the religious right, in common with most voters his tradition is the clear separation of faith and state and total belief in the rightness of that philosophy.

When the two men sit down it’s easy to see the similarities. They wear Western suits and speak English. Yudhoyono has travelled widely, sent his youngest son to Australia to study and comes across as an urbane man.

On the surface they have lots in common. Culturally and historically they – and we - have nothing in common except that we live next door.

Wearing away the prejudices and misinformation is going to be a long journey with the meeting of the two leaders a necessary step. Their job would be made easier if the electorates on both sides of the divide had a sympathetic knowledge of each other’s cultures.

That’s best obtained through the personal visits of ordinary people. If the two leaders agree to relax visa restrictions then maybe we can get together on first name terms, share a nasi goreng or a meat pie washed down by an es susu soda or a cold beer. It might make the task of Howard and Yudhoyono that much easier the next time they sip tea.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 June 06)

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