DON’T BE WARY – THERE’S NOTHING SCARY © Duncan Graham 2006
It would be an error to assume all the Caucasians seen at any meeting of the East Java branch of the Indonesia-Australia Business Council (IABC) are Australian.
Some are British nationals. Others are American, Indian and Dutch.
Likewise with the members whose ethnicity appears Indonesian. Some have permanent residence status in Australia or are Australian citizens.
“Although we were established to help improve business relationships between Indonesia and Australia in fact we’re open to everyone,” said IABC secretary general and public accountant Frans Iskandar.
“We’re the only international business group left in East Java. There were once similar organisations and chambers of commerce involving the Americans, Germans, Taiwanese and the Dutch – but they’ve all closed despite having a big presence here.” (The Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese hold the bulk of the KITAS visas for foreign workers in East Java.)
There are many reasons for the exodus of Westerners but most relate to the economic crisis of 1997 and the 1998 political upheaval that saw many foreign investors quit the archipelago. Australian companies that remained have tended to install local management.
The other factor is the energy and time required to nurture membership and keep the interest alive. Clearly the IABC’s survival is due in large part to the energies of Frans and his tennis partner Alim Sutrisno who chairs the IABC and has a home in Perth, Western Australia.
Frans got the honorary position in 1993 and spends at least 20 hours a month on organising IABC activities, including factory visits, golf days and addresses by visiting experts on tax and management. When the Western Australian (WA) Government maintained a trade office in Surabaya that load was shared – but Frans and his committee are now on their own.
The IABC in East Java is a branch of the Jakarta council which has a much larger membership. It’s affiliated with the Australian-Indonesian Business Council (AIBC) that’s active throughout Australia. (See www.aibc.net.au)
“There’ve been some real ups and downs in the relationships between Indonesia and Australia,” Frans said. “The time after the referendum in East Timor was the worst.
“The present crisis over the Papua asylum seekers seems to have passed with the return of the ambassador to Canberra. We have to survive these difficulties – we’re neighbours. I don’t think the travel warnings against visiting Indonesia are having much effect on business – our people tend to ignore them.
“We need to get things into proportion. Radicals form less than one per cent and haven’t been active here. We should not be afraid.”
IABC members cover most categories and include education, property development, light engineering, fishing, packaging, steel manufacturing, sea transport and aid projects.
Some members run factories with hundreds of workers – others are one-person shows. Foreign business interests are thin on the ground in East Java so there’s no separation of heavyweight and lightweight.
In keeping with its background the IABC is a mixing of mates where someone who makes the tubes for your toothpaste will happily exchange ideas and contacts with a teacher of Australian Studies.
Membership is free, and although expats are in the minority the language is English. Monthly meetings are usually held over breakfast and sponsored by corporate bodies keen to promote international ties. About a quarter of the people who attend are women and the tone is informal.
The local Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) and the East Java government’s Bureau of International Cooperation are also represented. IABC meetings are probably the best way for any busy businessperson on a brief visit to swap name cards with the East Java’s movers and shakers.
Frans turns 65 this year but has no plans to retire, fearing his active mind will rot if his body becomes idle. He formerly had business interests in Brisbane but like many people in East Java now prefers Perth which is only a 3 hour 20 minute flight from Denpasar. Perth is home to about 10,000 Indonesians.
The WA capital has an Indonesian consulate and particularly vigorous AIBC led by Ross Taylor, a former Surabaya-based government trade officer.
Frans’ interpersonal skills include fluency in several languages, extensive international travel and overseas work experience with the United Nations. These qualifications make him an ideal person to bridge cultural barriers – and he wishes Australians would also strive to be bi-lingual, if not multi-lingual.
“Australians tend not to understand Indonesia and Indonesians well enough,” he said. “They need to shift their mindset, to be positive about this country. It helps if they learn some language and are friendly – not arrogant or too wary. It’s good if you can stay longer and get to meet people on a personal level.
“There are still plenty of opportunities here, particularly in service delivery, bulk foods, medical and veterinary equipment and medicines – and in the mining industry with expertise and supplies. And in exports from Indonesia, furniture is still good business.
“The national government is friendly to investors but there are still many barriers, particularly the manpower laws which require heavy compensation to be paid to dismissed employees.
“However things are looking up and overall I’m positive about the future.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 July 06)