Avoiding the ugly Okkers
All nations get labelled. However complex their culture, sophisticated their citizens or rich their history all get boiled down to a one-liner.
Most are negative - the sexy, arrogant French, the aloof class-conscious English, and the quaint, simple Irish – even though they’ve produced some of the world’s greatest writers.
Leaders accept the tags if positive – the Germans are proud of their reputation for being hard-working and disciplined; likewise with the Japanese, famous for their politeness and efficiency. Indonesians get a bit of both, smiling but superstitious.
But the negative images? Outrageous falsehoods!
The latest to plead unfair and say the world has got it wrong is the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia.
Paul Grigson reckons his country’s reputation for sending uncouth boors and bogans [alayan or anak lebay is probably the nearest local equivalent] to Bali is undeserved. The career diplomat, apparently a fan of Indonesian coffee which proves he has taste, underlined his claim this way:
From a million plus visitors “the number of cases dealt with by the consulate in Bali last year was in the low hundreds.”
As the interview with the Philippines-based social news network Rappler was about crass conduct rather than trade and investments or lost passports, there’s a perceived problem – and as politicians say at election time - perception is reality.
Stereotypes are simplistic and clichés grow trite but most started life as facts.
Presumably the vague “low hundreds” Grigson highlights were the extreme cases where the police became involved, and through them the Australian authorities.
Only people in serious strife would go to the consulate which doesn’t have a reputation for accommodating idiot drunks (as opposed to those who’ve suffered misfortune or accidents) so these figures are a poor indicator.
Undercover research isn’t necessary to show the extent of the concern. Jalan Legian and surrounds is much like any Australian city’s night club district, though with a higher level of tolerance for push and shove, swearing, shouting and vomiting.
In Australia disorderly conduct, generally known as offensive behavior, is subject to on-the-spot fines.
However in Kuta uniformed police are rarely seen and bouncers seem loathe to intervene. The visitors’ loud mouth conduct may be ugly, but their wallets need emptying before management gets heavy. Locals watch the circus with contempt.
A subjective survey by travel app Triposo ranked Australians fifth in a list of notoriously bad tourists. Americans, Brits, Russians and Chinese were ahead, with the government back in the People’s Republic now threatening travel bans on those who bring shame on their nation.
Grigson said the reputation of Australians in Indonesia “shouldn’t be tarnished because of a few misbehavers.”
Absolutely, just as all Indonesians should not be judged by the evil actions of a fundamentalist few with crazy agendas. But as the bombers and corruptors make the news rather than the gracious majority, so the Bali brats are giving tourists from next door a nasty name in the archipelago.
So what to do?
Indonesia could prosper from the sort of tourists who go to New Zealand for the scenery, culture and adventure, earning that tiny country more than US$54 million every day. Twelve per cent of the workforce is involved. That’s a serious slice of the economy.
Grigson praised the Indonesian government’s policy change allowing Australians visa-free entry and urged visitors to wander wider; if they harken his words there’s a chance the image might get slowly repaired and the Republic succeed in reaching its goal of attracting more than ten million foreigners.
“I think for far too long we’ve understated the importance of Australian tourism to Indonesia,” he reportedly said, claiming his countryfolk spend more time and money here than other visitors.
“There’s a myth Australians come to Bali, they stay five nights and six days, stay cheap and then go home.
“But actually, they stay longer than any other tourists … they come for a long time, spend more than anyone else, and most importantly they come back. Australians are interested tourists.”
Those who follow His Excellency’s excellent advice and venture across the Bali Strait won’t be seeking pool parties and wet T-shirt competitions; they don’t exist. The big hotels cater for sober-suited businesspeople, not slobs in skivvies.
The mountainside resorts market tranquillity amid plantations, not happy hours. Beer is only available in the bigger cities. The spirits to be found will be in mysterious temple compounds predating the arrival of Islam, not in supermarkets.
Australians working their way through Java’s magic mountains will be more mature, modestly dressed, quieter spoken, better educated and in search of beauty, culture and rural Indonesia. They’ll admire, show respect and put questions about history, art, lifestyle and cuisine. They’ll try the language and probably bring their kids.
Inevitably the locals will ask these weird wayfarers dari mana? Trekkers should carry compasses, as geography is not always a strong point with rural folk who sometimes locate Australia in Europe or North America. A huge map on a Malang school wall has Indonesia bigger than China.
Indonesians discovering that their nearest Western neighbors can be decent people with a genuine interests should help offset the negative views generated by the slobs.
At this stage it’s too ambitious to expect a massive reappraisal of the Ugly Okker, but one step at a time – away from Bali.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 March 2016)