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, January 08, 2014


Recovering from a rebuff                                               

What does the Indonesian government have in common with bikie gangs?  Both reckon revenge is a dish best served cold.

How else to explain the restrained responses to revelations that Australia spied on a friend, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his wife Kristiani Herawati? 
Dr Marty Natalegawa, the Australian-educated Foreign Minister and a man not known for intemperate outbursts said: “This was not a smart thing to do. It violates every single decent and legal instrument I can think of.
“It is nothing less than an unfriendly act, which is already having a very serious impact on bilateral relations.”
We braced for furious retaliation.  Would our embassy be besieged by militant mobs while the police took a smoko? Would outraged nationalists sweep hotels for Aussies ordering them out of the archipelago?  Trade bans, for sure. Maybe Boeing loads of Bali-bound tourists would be turned back. 

These things have happened before, though not this time.

Despite reports that defence and security cooperation have been diluted, and that the live cattle trade is being reviewed, the most serious response so far has been the recall of ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema.

There could be another explanation for the limited action: We’re not going to be punished – just ignored. As every wannabe celebrity knows, that’s a fate too awful to contemplate.

What an insult! A rich, mature, modern nation-continent that always punches above its weight (according to Barack Obama), snubbed by a corruption-riddled infant democracy where half the citizens live in poverty.

Now hear this: We’re the US deputy sheriff in Southeast Asia, a generous neighbour giving half a billion aid dollars every year.  Why so rude, so ungrateful?  Don’t you know who we are, how important and influential?

Even though Tony Abbott has declared that Jakarta is our new Geneva, the Indonesians have left Canberra where it is, a southern branch office of the northern Anglosphere where the serious power is headquartered.

There are other distractions and all internal: Elections, inflation, poverty, corruption, inequality, intolerance ...  Foreign affairs hardly register.

The spying revelations are our collision with the rocks of reality.  We have four times more space but one tenth of the population. The Republic ranks fourth in world population statistics – we’re number 52.  Indonesians see us as we view New Zealand; a nice place to visit, but not to be taken too seriously. 

We claim to be big on human rights and equality, but treat asylum seekers as criminals.  Our responses to the health and education needs of indigenous Australians are an international disgrace.

When feeling nasty the more knowledgeable add that our nation was settled by British criminals, our culture has been imported, our lifestyle is godless and we’re closet colonialists.
The ruling Javanese are masters of refined behaviour and subtle response. Reading their emotions takes time and insights. They prefer consensus to confrontation but have long memories. Anger over our often-misrepresented role in the 1999 East Timor independence referendum still bubbles away, not far below the surface.

Eventually the toxin of spying will be diluted by time and crises new.  His Excellency will quietly book a Garuda seat south and fresh bottled water will be set out in meeting rooms. Pragmatism will rule, though wounded pride will not be rapidly healed.

This interregnum gives time to evaluate and renovate the relationship. 

First step is to appreciate that recovery is too important to be left to the lumbering politicians. They haven’t just smashed things up; they’ve compounded their clumsiness by unapologetically trashing decades of finely crafted goodwill. 

When two such different societies live so close, navigation errors can lead to a capsize if there’s no ballast in the relationship.

Instead of waiting for diplomats to start shuffling forward let’s seize the opportunity to repair.  Organisations like the Indonesia Institute could take the lead and bring together academics, journalists, businesspeople, NGOs and others on both shores of the Arafura Sea.

Our task?  To reclaim mutual respect and understanding.

What to put on the agenda? The 2012 Asian Century paper, a document that seems to have been trampled in the current disarray. Despite originating in government, reception has been generally positive and bipartisan.  A place to start.

Hang on, these things can wait, it’s the Christmas break.

Not in the world’s most populous Islamic nation. The next president might not be so friendly, and the hole we’ve dug to date even deeper.

(First published in Our Indonesia Today, January 2014)

No comments: