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

Sunday, November 29, 2015


According to most Google entries Australian businessman and philanthropist Harold Mitchell is a good bloke.  He has been given many awards and is chair of The Australia-Indonesian Centre. 
In November he spoke at an event in Yogya and wrote about this in The Sydney Morning Herald.  You can read his column here -

Here's my reply - sent, but not published, in the SMH,


Good that Harold Mitchell enjoyed his nasi goreng in an upscale hotel in Yogyakarta, a ‘special region’ not a state, with five universities, not 21.
Also splendid that he sees great possibilities for trading with Indonesia and his enthusiasm for cooperation.  To build these worthy ambitions he must first lay down a hardstand of realities.
None of Indonesia’s 400 plus universities that he mentions are ranked among the world’s top 500.  There are some fine institutions with professional overseas links, but an abundance of degree mills; quantity is not a synonym for quality.
Indonesia’s ‘commitment to creating clever generations’ is about equal to our government’s determination to arrest the decline in Indonesian studies.  The local term is NATO – No Action, Talk Only.
 ‘Middle class’ is the wrong label for Indonesians’ growing affluence because it suggests they share Australian standards.  A family in this category might have a motorbike on hire purchase, can meet school fees for the ‘free’ education and both parents have jobs that pay more than AUD 500 a month.
At times Canberra’s politics provoke despair, but our operators are kindy kids against the heavyweight oligarchs whose ideologies are power and protectionism.
Indonesia is rottenly corrupt (107 on the Corruption Perception Index); graft impacts almost every contact with the public service.  The big scams are large enough to buy an Australian cattle station.
The endless scandals plus widespread disappointment with a lacklustre president could crash the government should the opposition parties discover unity. That doesn’t inspire investor confidence. 
Mr Mitchell has written about the wrongs of cheating in business, but in Indonesia it’s almost impossible to succeed without wading in the cesspit.  To enforce a contract requires trust in the law.  That’s absent. Check the Churchill Mining saga, or Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine disputes to get a feel for the hazards.
Foreign companies can prosper in the archipelago but might wonder why so few have taken advantage of the glistening opportunities currently being spruiked by politicians and bureaucrats.  But they’re on the public payroll, not risking their capital.
Of course ‘we should all get a taste of the real thing that is Indonesia’; not to be found in a hotel ballroom but at the cheap roadside stalls where the connoisseurs dine.

That’s where people-to-people links get formed, and where you’ll also find some of those low profile overseas traders who have succeeded, stayed and remain sane.  Their frank words might give a better feel for the facts.

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