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

Monday, July 15, 2013


Let’s just get over it                                                               
Australia and Japan have been mightily abusing each other.  The slander has been offensive, strident and public.
The issue involves trade and traditions, sovereign rights and national identity – volatile ingredients where one spark can ignite major international incidents.
Yet no credible observer has suggested the nasty accusations made by both sides in the International Court of Justice over Australia’s bid to stop Japanese whalers will lead to conflict.  Expect nothing more serious than harsh newspaper editorials.
There’ll be no greasing of M 16s. We’ll buy Toyotas; they’ll eat Queensland beef cooked with Pilbara gas. They’ll cuddle koalas and our love of sushi will be unstoppable.
This is what ‘mature relationships’ means.  Like a good cross-cultural marriage we can disagree and speak truths, but still share the same bed provided there’s mutual respect.
Will such a happy union ever exist between Australia and Indonesia? Not without some radical changes in both countries’ behaviour.
 Indonesia Country Strategy- Towards 2025 released by PM Kevin Rudd in Jakarta this month (July) glows with feel-good jargon and happy snaps of diplomats in batik.
The Strategy tells us that there are lots of Indonesians; they’re young, have cash and live nearby.  Also they use Facebook and Twitter. 
Important had Indonesia invented the technology, but mall rats rating boyfriends on smartphones is awesomely insignificant – though teens would disagree.
Commented The Jakarta Post editor Meidyatama Suryodiningrat: ‘the report often feels like a quick list of remedies that do little to address fundamental problems that will colour the relationship’. 
Of course we should get to know each other better.  What’s the problem? Here’s the Strategy’s mixed metaphor answer, highlighting why the issues are too important to be left to officials:
‘The challenge for governments will be to strengthen our bilateral architecture by deepening people-to-people engagement.’  
Mocking this thin document, pock-marked with platitudes, is easy, but detracts from a few fine advances.  Like the BRIDGE inter-school project (backed by private enterprise), and the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies programme, driven by independent academics.
Things the Strategy daringly says needs changing, like easier visa access and tempered travel warnings, could have been done years ago with a quick pen-flick.  The need has long been obvious.
‘Seeking to improve’ and ‘work to ensure’ are just wallpaper words covering a policy of hypocrisy and distrust.
We, the wong kecil, the ordinary folk not involved in trade and security, want closer friendships rooted in mutual understanding, not appeasement and bland talk – what Indonesians call basa-basi. 
We treasure being blunt. ‘Just get over it’ and ‘grow up’ are common responses when individuals clash, but know deep-down they have to co-exist.  It’s a trait with merits.
Here are some of the rocks the Strategy avoids, even while saying cultural differences need to be acknowledged.
Australians who don’t appreciate the iron grip on their neighbour’s psyche of the Unitary State, and the pride in a bloody revolution that overthrew a colonial power, will be forever doomed to misunderstand Indonesia.
Likewise Indonesians who don’t know there’s a primal fear in our DNA. It’s of descending Asian hordes, plus guilt over European boat people seizing a continent after violently dispossessing the locals. 
That’s why we let US marines use Darwin – something not mentioned in the Strategy.  Imagine a Chinese base in Kupang – a friendship gesture?
Indonesia is labelled secular, but reality is otherwise. Not all Indonesian Muslims, or Australian Christians, are moderate.  A few will say, and occasionally do, dangerous things, as in Northern Ireland. 
View in proportion and share the outrage.  Have we stopped going to Boston because it harboured mad bombers?
A functioning democracy has a robust media.  Indonesia’s press is the most free in Southeast Asia – check the anaemic Singaporean newspapers to prove the point.
Many comments will offend prickly nationalists overdosing on patriotism – Samuel Johnson’s ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’. Freedom of expression isn’t just for us – they have equal rights to sledge.
If Indonesians don’t like our simplistic views of the way they do things, then offer alternatives, like graft-free projects, altruistic politicians, and respect for the rule of law.
If we don’t want to be seen as godless, arrogant Kuta cowboys, then the solution is in our hands.
Wicked tests loom: Brain-dead Australians will get caught with drugs.  Indonesia does its laws, its way. We won’t like the penalties.   Too bad.
We’ll give sanctuary to West Papua separatists and promote their cause. Indonesians will be outraged.  Stiff cheese.
The Strategy quotes Indonesian students in Australia citing the proverb; ‘If we don’t know you, we don’t care about you.’ Check Indonesian driver behaviour for the truth of that adage.
But that’s not us. Our Judaeo-Christian heritage has given us opposite values of which we should not be ashamed.
 Which is why we agitate for the human rights of West Papuans.  If the students haven’t learned this, then they should ask for their money back.
Politicians everywhere claim probity and wisdom.  Then they speak and we learn otherwise.  Anticipate goading on either side of the Arafura Sea ahead of elections in both nations.  Treat trash as trash, delivered for venal purposes, and move on.
In 1998 Indonesians threw out a dictator and took on democracy.  It was one of history’s most impressive transitions of power, achieved without outside help and little bloodshed. 
Had it all gone wrong (consider Egypt and Syria) we might have been so flooded with refugees that Australia would now be South Java.
The Strategy says Indonesia is strong, confident and mature.  So why continue aid? We’ve just trashed $100 million on a failed replanting project in Kalimantan’s peat bogs, money better spent on scholarships. More than 10,000 have been given – fantastic.   Add a couple more zeros for real impact.
Don’t anticipate an Australia Country Strategy coming from Jakarta, one city with more than half our continent’s population. Former President BJ Habibie once allegedly described neighbour Singapore as ‘just a little red dot’ on the map. If so, then we’re just an ochre blob.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 15 July 2013)


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