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, March 14, 2007



The tragic crash of the Garuda jet in Yogya has rightly fired up all the usual critical concerns in Australia (and here) about safety, training and maintenance in Indonesia's airline industry.

But it has also highlighted the close cooperation between the two neighbors.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent his personal sympathies (five Australians were among the 21 fatalities), and Prime Minister John Howard has offered medical and other help.

Australian air transport investigators have been working alongside their Indonesian colleagues. Data from the Boeing's flight recorder (the so-called black box which in fact is oval and orange) has been analyzed in Australia and the US.

These gestures seem genuine - no conditions attached. When it was suggested in a TV interview that the Australian specialists would only be treating their fellow nationals, Howard was adamant that the aid was for every burned body, whatever the color of their passport.

This is all as it should be – neighbors helping neighbors in a time of strife – no questions asked.

In Indonesia it's called gotong-royong, in Australia it's mateship. Sure, there's the Lombok Treaty signed last year to formalize such cooperation – but as an Aussie in Indonesia I like to think this instant generosity is heartfelt and needs no signatures and stamps.

How sad that these get-togethers only seem to happen when there's a tragedy.

This reinforces the image of Indonesia in the minds of ordinary Australians as a mire of chaos, crises and corruption.

The Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand, Amris Hassan, recently complained to The Jakarta Post that coverage of his country in the local press was rare and miniscule.

He shouldn't worry. No news is good news.

Next door to the Shaky Isles, in the bulky continent that stands as the Great Antipodean Wall between Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Indonesia is seldom off the TV bulletins and broadsheet pages.

The stories usually feature terror and trauma. Unlike NZ, the Australian media treats Indonesia seriously by maintaining news bureaux in Jakarta. One of the Yogya crash fatalities was award-winning journalist Morgan Mellish from the Australian Financial Review, one of those seriously injured is Cynthia Banham of the Sydney Morning Herald. Both were based in Jakarta.

Foreign reporters don't have to go far to find copy in the Republic. Indonesia isn't just one of the most fertile agricultural countries in the world, it's also rich in resources and stories.

Many are tragic. In a nation of 240 million that's been cruelly plundered and neglected by past administrations, where democracy is a toddler and where the rule of law is a farce, there are bound to be tales of evil deeds, neglect and maladministration.

Inevitably these events eclipse the stories so many of us try to write focusing on the good and great things that are happening across the archipelago. For every loony packing nails into a crude pipe bomb in Poso there are thousands of decent folk agitating for understanding and tolerance.

While one crazed cleric condemns the unity of humanity, thousands more preach peace, love and a common heritage.

These stories also need to be told, but they're getting shoved aside by the hard stuff, the bangs and the blood.

Although politicians and the media set the public agenda, it's the ordinary people who form opinions. Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising of all.

The leaders of the splendidly professional Batak dance group Suarasama that has performed overseas regretted that they'd never played in Australia "because it's too hard to get visas."

When such concerns are published the official response is that most applications are granted. Maybe – the government controls the figures – but the perception is that Indonesians aren't welcome Down Under.

This street-talk has to be undermined so the goodwill created when we come together in grief can flow through to other issues. Just meeting the people next door on a personal basis can help wash away the stains and prejudices to inspire the comment:

"Why, they're just like us, worried about their kids and jobs, wondering how to make ends meet and what the future holds."

Vice President Jusuf Kalla wants more tourists to visit Indonesia. A good call – but it needs to extend beyond Bali so outsiders can get a better idea of the marvels of this complex land and the robust resilience of its people.

Any Indonesian campaign to boost visitor numbers also requires a broader knowledge base and a radical re-education about modern tourism. Not all potential visitors are surf-crazed hedonists wanting to doss-down with a keg of Bintang.

A theme in the worthy Indonesian film Long Road to Heaven is that the blinkered bombers were inflamed by the sight of young people dancing, drinking and enjoying themselves. That was their cardboard-cutout view of foreigners – evil unbelievers to be damned for their misdeeds.

If only those deranged haters had a broader and more mature knowledge of the multicolored universe they might not have seen things in monochrome.

Indonesia is more than landslips and runway skids. It's not just tsunamis and the shuffling of tectonic plates. This country holds no copyright on corruption – just google the devious doings of the Australian Wheat Board in Iraq for proof.

A few Australian nutters may see themselves as part of the deputy sheriff's posse in Southeast Asia, but most of us are just humble folk trying to learn more of the world beyond the tragedies and wanting to do more than help and grieve in troubled times.

Nations that share together stay together.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 March 07)


1 comment:

aroengbinang said...

get more students for the exchange programs; spread them in many more cities; talk, interact, communicate, personal experience will certainly matter to change people's paradigm.