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

Friday, March 08, 2013


Trade and treaty partners – or friends and neighbours?             

Student Zulino Rizky Hafiz is a bright lad hoping to become an engineer.  His parents in Surabaya are among the new Indonesian middle class, able to find $1300 to send their high school son to Perth’s Tranby College for a fortnight.

He’s been taking part in the Australian government and private BRIDGE programme linking schools on both sides of the Timor Sea.

“I appreciated the informality of teachers and students feeling free to ask for help, though I didn’t like the way teenage boys and girls get so close,” the 17-year old said on his return.

“I never knew we had a neighbour so different.”

Last October Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Australia’s entry into the Asian Century.  Proposals included developing a new ‘Asia literate’ generation.

Her White Paper also sought the removal of ‘unnecessary regulatory impediments and disincentives to doing business in Australia and moving goods, services, people and capital across our borders.

Despite Keith De Lacy from the Australian Institute of Company Directors reportedly saying the policy was ’a bit patronising’, there was widespread applause – even from Canada. Toronto University’s Professor Irvin Studin called it a ‘strategy of vaulting ambition, with 25 national objectives ranging across social, economic and foreign policy.’

So far, so good.  However as others have written, Ms Gillard’s speech read well, but was more ritual delivery than new direction. Former PMs Paul Keating and Bob Hawke made similar statements about friendship and future.  These were warmly applauded and then quietly forgotten – and not just because the urgings weren’t married to cash.

The observations of young Muslim Zulino, offended by displays of teenage libido, were spot on.  The two countries need more than Canberra-imposed policy to span the gap, geographically close yet culturally distant, requiring huge prolonged efforts and political will to build even the foundations.

Look at the differences:

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.  They live in a nascent democracy dominated by moneymen and the military. 

We’re eighth on Transparency International’s corruption perception index, with New Zealand number one.  A year ago Indonesia ranked 100.  Now it’s 118.

Our background is as recent transplants, Judaeo Christian, British democratic, colonial now multicultural. Our independence was granted amicably.

Indonesia’s 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.

The most significant political event in Australia is asylum seekers.  It hardly registers in Indonesia facing an election next year where the concern surrounds quality of candidates.

They tolerate government interference and celebrate community – we praise individualism and personal freedom. In Indonesia inter-faith unions are illegal, de-facto relationships rare. Citizens have to carry ID cards and follow an approved religion. We don’t, and won’t.

For every one of us there are eleven of them. Population growth rate of just one per cent - sounds manageable?  Another baby was born while you read this sentence.

Our friends speak English and live far away in Europe and the US, but we remain in the Anglosphere. Their friends are – well, we don’t really know, but fear they’re in the Middle East.

We speak the international language.  They use a language unrelated to any European tongue and unknown elsewhere

We eat foods based on wheat and milk, and drink alcohol.  Often to excess. Their diet is based on rice and water.

Indonesians are on their own from cradle to grave.  No Centrelink. The welfare system is the family. Our education and health services are free. Theirs are not.

There are more Muslims in Indonesia than the Middle East – and more Christians in Indonesia than Australians in the world.

Democracy only returned in 1999 with minimal bloodshed. But the purge of the old guard was incomplete. Money politics is rampant, widespread and resistant to change.

We do all sports well on excellent facilities. They play soccer badly and practise in the street. So 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 of the people next door.

Despite the fact that the construction industry is rotten with kick-backs much of that money has gone on building 2,000 schools in remote areas in the belief that better educated kids, particularly girls, will benefit all.

It’s hard to argue – unless asking why the Indonesian government isn’t doing the job. 

Indonesia has budgeted US$8 billion on defence this year, including $1.5 million for new military hardware. The nation hasn’t revealed any external threat.  The armed forces are used to put down internal separatist movements, like those in West Papua.  More money goes to the military than any other government agency.

This year Indonesia is spending US$22 billion on subsidies, most of it on fuel, sucking up 20 per cent of the national budget.  Drivers enjoy the cheapest pump prices in Southeast Asia with a litre of standard petrol at 45 cents.

The refusal to scrap the handouts has been widely criticised by the World Bank and Indonesian economists.  They claim the money could be used to build the country’s crumbling infrastructure that’s crippling development.

According to the taxation directorate general, there are 60 million potential taxpayers - but only 20 million are listed and paying taxes. Just half a million businesses are registered out of an estimated 22 million. The government has long promised a massive shake up of the graft-ridden tax system but has yet to deliver.

The Jakarta-based think tank Perkumpulan Prakarsa (welfare initiatives for a better society) reckons the government may have lost half of its tax revenues (nearly USD 60 billion) through corruption and incompetence in tax collecting.

Education and development consultant Robert Cannon has aired some of these criticisms before, but there’s been little reaction.

How the Indonesian government gathers and spends its money is entirely its business. A nation that can’t even dig taxes out of the big miners and stuffs up its defence budget is in no position to point fingers.  But we can select our aid priorities.

Indonesia’s education system is in crisis.  As an Al Jazeera 101-East programme revealed this year, more than half the teachers are underqualified and many don’t always front for work.

The country is at the bottom of the Pearson Study of 40 nations’ schools.  Using aid money to bring top chalkies and administrators to Australia to learn how to teach, write syllabi and run schools would be far more beneficial than paying Indonesian contractors to plaster walls.

And why build schools when an estimated 150,000 classrooms are in urgent need of repair?

The BRIDGE project that helped open teenager Zulino’s eyes to Aussie culture is a splendid initiative that pre-dates Ms Gillard’s statement by four years.  So far it has attracted less than 100 school partnerships.  There are 9,500 schools in Australia.
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, inter-cut with moments of great generosity like our magnificent response to the Aceh tsunami and other natural disasters.

Suddenly we’ve heard that they’ve got money.  That means they must need foods and goods. It’s time to say hello, see what they want and how much they 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.  Hillary Clinton launched the Pacific Century a year ahead of Ms Gillard’s statement.

The ideas in the 320-page White Paper are good.  They are also too few and too limited.  Maybe too late or poorly considered.  Like expanding a scheme to allow 1,000 young Indonesians to wander and work in Australia for a year. Previously the number was 100. In addition there are 500 scholarships for the talented and smart to study in Australia.

Generous? Do the maths: Indonesia has 240 million people. About 44 per cent are under 24.

Uncapped 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, and build lasting contacts?

For Indonesians it’s the Work and Holiday Programme.  Note the syntax slip.  For this deal applicants have to pass an English test, be tertiary graduates and approved by their own government. 

The scheme is reciprocal but officials on both sides have nailed up the door. 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.  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.  Indonesians rightly claim this restricts opportunities to the rich.

The Opposition is proposing a ‘reverse Colombo Plan’ flooding Indonesia with Aussie undergraduates.  Professor David Hill who pioneered the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies forecast bureaucratic barriers.

He told The Australian: ‘Obtaining a temporary resident permit for study in Indonesia is something that individual students find very, very difficult’.

Australian leaders may be serious about an Asian Century where curious and open-minded youngsters can poke around their neighbor’s culture to erase prejudices.

But it’s clear they haven’t got the Indonesians on the same road, relying on change through symbiosis, not strategy.

 Ms Gillard described the policy as a ‘roadmap showing how Australia can be a winner in the Asian century.’ If so the track is tortuous and potholed, and the GPS is malfunctioning.

Discrimination, incompetence or both?  If implementation of such an easy policy can’t get into first gear, what hope for the rest?

Indonesia needs to stop being fearful of its neighbour.  We’re not all Kuta bar slobs determined to fracture the Unitary State and steal jobs off becak drivers.

Just as they’re not all fundamentalists bombing towards a Southern Hemisphere caliphate.

The Asia Century policy is a gentle shuffle forward and a welcome shift from the drivers of defence and security.  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 On Line Opinion, 7 March 2013)


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