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 27, 2015


Riding the rollercoaster                            

‘Soft power diplomacy’ sounds contradictory, like ‘tough love parenting’.

Till recently it was a diplomatic favorite, sold to the world as Indonesia’s smiley-face foreign policy by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono [SBY].  This was his explanation:

“We become a nation that is respected, not feared, a nation that is respected, not avoided, a nation whose voice is heard because we are voicing something of value.’

Warming indeed – but what do the honeyed words really mean and how can the laudable goals be achieved?  ‘Soft power’ wasn’t exclusive to the Republic: It’s been served up to Australians by their government, though with a different definition involving people-to-people exchanges.

However when a phalanx of PhDs at a major conference finds the term confusing and a mite worrying, the electorate needs to be suspicious.  The scholars, ever wary of government propaganda, feared soft power was ‘being adopted without a rigorous appraisal of its efficacy as a tool in the bilateral relationship with Indonesia.’

‘Why can’t the experience of an Indonesian student in an Australian university, or vice versa, be simply seen as an individual journey of discovery, rather than in terms of that person’s development as an agent for persuasion for his or her host country once he or she gets home?’ asked academics Jemma Purdey (left) and Antje Missbach (below, right)

These and other concerns were raised at last year’s Asian Studies Association of Australia biennial conference in Perth, billed as ‘the largest gathering of expertise on Asia in the Southern Hemisphere’.

At the time of the talkfest relationships were heading downhill with revelations that Australian spies were tapping the phones of SBY and his wife Ani. Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to apologize and Ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema was recalled to Jakarta.

Pushing Indonesian fishing boats full of asylum seekers back to the shores of the Republic also antagonized  – a policy that’s still in place despite protests.  Nothing soft about this power.

The faults weren’t all Australian. New President Joko Widodo refused to exercise clemency to two reformed Australian drug traffickers facing the death penalty distressing millions from PM Abbott down to Bali holidaymakers canceling their flights.  Raw power exercised ruthlessly.

Two nations so close and yet so far.  Will the differences, suspicions, myths and misunderstandings stand between us forever?

To help resuscitate the relationship Purdey and Missbach have gathered and edited 13 papers from the conference, published as Linking People.

On the ASAA conference agenda was the question Australia-Indonesia relations: How to stop the roller coaster? The discussion was held before the Presidential election when no one knew the metaphorical fairground ride was about to plunge further with the executions at Nusa Kambangan.

However the book, in a rare example of speedy academic publishing, includes an epilogue updating the story to April this year.

Foreign affairs can be an esoteric and ponderous discipline.  Fortunately the authors have recognized that there’s more to international relations than playing word games with treaty documents. 

There are chapters on law and order, economic relations and education and cultural exchanges – including some intimate insights into the lives of intercultural couples.

The arts and the media are covered, though tourism hasn’t been tackled in depth.  Along with the annoying lack of an index this is a curious omission; every year almost a million Australians visit the archipelago and form ideas and attitudes about Indonesia.  Not all do so through the bottom of a glass in a Bali bar.

What do they think of their neighbors? And what do hospitality workers say about the blonde loud-mouthed giants who invade their lush island? There’s a niche here for some sober research.

Also absent are Indonesian commentators. Only Professor Bob Sugeng Hadiwinata from Bandung’s Parahyangan Catholic University gets into the book with a study of the non-government Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies that’s been running for 20 years.

The editors say others were invited but didn’t respond, suggesting interest in relations with the southern neighbor isn’t high in Indonesia.

Another reason could be the dearth of academic papers in Indonesia where the Western tradition of publish or perish has yet to take hold and where university staff can maintain tenure without conducting original research.

[According to the academic journal database Scopus, in the past decade Australian academics have published 430,000 research papers in the life sciences.  During the same period Indonesian scholars have produced 17,000.  The Malaysia figure is 92,000.]

A common criticism is that Australians are forever stuck in a monocultural view of the world.

For lecturer Alistair Welsh (left)  the cure is clear: Engaging in ‘intercultural spaces’  can have ‘transformative effects’.  Translated out of academic jargon this means the way to better relationships is through long-term face-to-face encounters.

He should know. Last decade Dr Welsh and his wife Julienne taught English at a  pesantren [Islamic boarding school] on an Australian Volunteers International project.

They spent two years at Probolinggo on the north coast of East Java. They refined their Indonesian language skills, learned a lot about Islam and are now passing on their wisdoms  to school and university students in Geelong, Victoria.

Dr Welsh is no fan of short-term study tours, which he says are becoming popular through the Australian Government’s flagship New Colombo Plan to help Australian undergraduates better understand the Indo-Pacific region.

His message?  Stay long term.  Live and eat with the locals, not your white-skinned mates. See the world through Indonesian eyes. Appreciate differences. Learn that not all values are exclusively Australian; many are universal. 

Equally appropriate advice for Indonesians in Australia.

Linking People
Edited by Antje Missbach and Jemma Purdey
Published by Regiospectra, 2015
298 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 July 2015)

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