Sister Act: Siblings in trade and aid
Western Australian public servant David Edwards was keyboarding in his ground floor Surabaya office when friends phoned from the nearby US Consulate General. Their message was grim: Hundreds of demonstrators were heading his way determined to cause trouble.
The Americans were the West’s watchmen in the East Java capital so their intelligence was likely to be sound. Edwards and his three Indonesian colleagues grabbed the most important files and rushed to safety at a nearby hotel.
The protestors roared in and trashed the premises. Phone lines were ripped out, windows smashed and computers thrown on the floor.
But the thugs’ bid to divorce Australians and Indonesians has boomeranged; this month (Aug) a pioneering regional relationship celebrates its silver anniversary.
It was September 1999 when the Regional Director of the WA Trade Office was urged to flee; yet again Indonesia and its southern neighbor were not enjoying marital harmony.
Some claimed rent-a-mob agents with other agendas had recruited the vandals. However many were genuinely angry that Australia was supporting the East Timor referendum approved by President B J Habibie.
Destruction of the Surabaya office came at a bad time. The Asian financial crisis had hit Indonesia and President Soeharto quit. So did hundreds of Australian businesspeople.
Outraged by Indonesia’s failure to protect its guest WA considered closure, though that would have shown mob rule dictates policy. Instead the staff shifted into the Australian Embassy.
It was not a happy move. The Jl Rasuna Said fortress, often a destination for demonstrators, was no longer the open and friendly center once located in Jl Thamrin.
The trade office eventually found a discreet Jakarta high-rise address.
The original accessible shop-front displaying goods and cheerful posters was Australia’s only visible presence in Surabaya, so an easy target. It had been opened to put substance into the WA-EJ Sister State Agreement first signed in 1990.
Till then relations had been handled by national governments, but local politicians and businesspeople saw the benefits of regional administrations dealing direct, by-passing the filters of Jakarta and Canberra.
The reasoning made sense. State and Province are physically close. WA ships megatonnes of wheat and other agricultural produce to Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak. More trade loomed as Indonesia prospered. EJ’s huge industries saw export opportunities, particularly furniture and household goods.
Not all hopes have delivered. Upbeat forecasts have been dragged down by the gravity of global economic forces beyond local control. Some ideas, like sharing TV programs never went to air because players failed to appreciate cultural differences.
Yet the agreement has survived for 25 years and recently resuscitated after a spell in a political emergency ward, justifying celebrations last week (21 Aug). These will continue with gatherings and conferences for the rest of the year.
The office has a new boss, Chris Barnes, formerly managing director of PT Icon International Communications in Jakarta. .
Despite reports that the operating budget will be cut, there’s guarded hope for a return to the glory days when events were well attended by equal numbers of Australians and Indonesians chinking glasses and building trust.
What’s been achieved? Little in dollar terms because late last year a WA government razor gang spotlighted the stand-alone office, then costing more than AUD $600,000 [Rp 6 billion] a year.
Its effectiveness in trade was being eclipsed by success in supporting non-business organizations like the Karya Mulia School for deaf children and specialist visits by the Autism Association.
Solar and wind power projects in remote villages have also been welcome. Sport has been a big winner, with tours by basketball youth groups and soccer teams.
There have been two-way visits by scientists, academics and public servants. Cultural groups have performed in both countries – all organized under the loosely worded Sister State umbrella.
Apart from the aid projects tangible outcomes have been “a bit scarce” according to Phil Turtle, the WA chair of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council.
Attempts to sell lupins to replace soy beans imported from the US to make the highly nutritious bean cake tempe have so far been unsuccessful. This will be a tough market to penetrate requiring long-term perseverance, something that Australians don’t always do well.
More successful has been the export of seed potatoes, which have boosted yields in EJ’s fertile vegetable-growing uplands and the transfer of dairy technology.
The office has survived largely because WA Premier Colin Barnett’s bid to close was met with howls of protest from a chorus of powerful people, including his own Liberal Party colleagues.
It seems many believe there are more important things to neighborly relationships than buying and selling grains and groceries, and that the future still looks promising as boundaries blur between trade and aid.
“Trade and investment was always the priority for both sisters,” said former regional director Martin Newbery. “However I must say more was achieved in terms of people to people and cultural exchange than in trade. “
It was a reality accepted by EJ Governor Soekarwo and WA Governor Ken Michael when the agreement was last resigned. Although briefly recognizing the trade benefits they stressed issues of friendship and mutual understanding, adding:
“This is a relationship that has changed peoples’ lives in a positive way.” So trade and aid can be siblings, not rivals. Now to bring the office back to Surabaya.
[Disclosure: The author received two travel grants under the agreement to explore media partnerships.]
(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 August 2015)