Australia discovers Asia – cautiously
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Asian Century policy is full of warm words. Here are some cold facts:
Australians are mainly big, white, brash, irreligious, pragmatic and well paid. We live in a nation where powers are separated and the rule of law rules.
Indonesians are generally small, brown, restrained, religious, superstitious, exploited and poorly paid. You live in a nascent democracy dominated by moneymen and the military.
We’re eighth on Transparency International’s corruption perception index where being number one is pure. You rank at 100
Our background is as recent transplants, Judaeo Christian, British democratic and colonial. Our independence was granted amicably.
Your history is ancient with Hindu and Buddhist traditions, feudal, patriarchal and colonised. Liberal Islam dominates. Independence was bravely won only after four years of brutal fighting.
Our education and health services are free. Yours are supposed to be free.
You have to carry ID cards and follow an approved religion. We don’t, and won’t.
You celebrate community – we praise individualism.
One hundred Australian cents buys almost 10,000 rupiah. For every one of us there are 11 of you.
Our friends speak English and live far away in Europe and the US.
Your friends are – well, we don’t really know, but fear they’re in the Middle East.
We eat foods based on wheat and milk, and drink alcohol. Often to excess.
Your diet is based on rice and water. Moderation is a virtue.
We speak the international language. You use a language unrelated to any European tongue and unknown elsewhere
We play rugby, Australian Rules and cricket on excellent facilities and we do all sport well. You play soccer badly and practise in the street.
You live in a sprawling archipelago with porous land borders where scores of ethnic groups still hold their ancient lands. We occupy an island continent stolen from the original inhabitants.
Your home is the tropics, rich, fertile and well watered. Ours is an arid land.
These and other factors have shaped our identity and made us different.
How can such two such radically different cultures intersect peacefully?
Governments seem to think the way is through trade and aid. So Australian taxpayers give around half a billion dollars a year to Indonesia.
There’s no sign kampong folk know of this generosity, or if they did it would enhance their understanding.
We’ve been neighbors since Gondwanaland split. For much of that time we’ve viewed each other with suspicion laced with ignorance and travel warnings.
There was a moment when this wasn’t so. In July 1946 Australians accompanying PM Sutan Sjahrir in Yogya were showered with petals and shouts of ‘Australia, Australia!’
It was a hosanna moment when we backed Indonesian independence. It could have led to a permanent bonding where Asian Century statements would have been as unnecessary as reproclaiming the Commonwealth of Australia.
Sadly, tragically, the baton was dropped and our arena shifted to Europe, our spiritual homeland. The decades of distrust began.
Now we’ve heard that you’ve got money. That means you must need foods and goods. It’s time to say hello, see what you want and how much you can pay.
Are these the foundations for a good and lasting relationship?
We want to join Asia but does Asia want us? I haven’t heard anyone in Indonesia talking about the Australian Century.
All the ideas in the White Paper are good. They are also too few and too limited. Maybe too late.
One of the best is expanding a scheme to allow 1,000 young Indonesians to wander and work in Australia for a year. Previously the number was 100.
Generous? Do the maths: Indonesia has 240 million people. The median age is under 28.
Working Holiday Visas have been available for years for other, mainly European nationals, keen to go Down Under. What better way to learn of another culture by getting dirt under the fingernails, make friends alongside workmates?
For Indonesians it’s the Work and Holiday Program. The same? Not quite. For this deal applicants have to pass an English test, be tertiary graduates and approved by their own government.
The scheme is reciprocal but Indonesian bureaucrats have built barriers. Australians are only allowed to teach English, work in hospitals and tourism. There are reports of students giving up on the paperwork and going elsewhere.
Though jobs are not restricted in Australia, Immigration demands applicants have at least AUD $5,000 – 50 million rupiah. Fees, insurance and air fares put visas even beyond the reach of the new Indonesian middle classes, defined as those who earn more than US $3,000 (29 million rupiah) a year.
Are Australian leaders really serious about an Asian Century where curious and open-minded youngsters can poke around their neighbor’s culture to erase prejudices and load facts?
If so Australia needs to cease discriminating against Indonesia.
And Indonesia needs to stop being fearful of its neighbor. We’re not all Kuta bar slobs determined to fracture the Unitary State and steal jobs off becak drivers.
Just as you’re not all fundamentalists bombing your way to a Southern Hemisphere caliphate.
Australia’s Asian Century policy is a gentle shuffle forward. The hype makes it sound like a Southeast Asian version of the open border European Community that’s helped dissolve ancient hatreds and foster unity through people-to-people contacts.
It’s not. It should be.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 November 2012)