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, May 21, 2018


Let’s take n imaginary peep into the suburban homes of two Indonesian families for insights into their lifestyles, values and plans.  And their most intimate and final moments.
Just like couples around the world Dita Oepriarto and his wife Puji must surely have wanted the best future for their teenage sons Yusuf and Firman, and their pre-adolescent daughters Fadhila and Pamela Rizkita.  Tragically that ambition included killing others and their own violent deaths.
It was probably much the same for Anton Febrianto, his spouse Puspitasari and their four kids.  Like their relatives there were two teens Hilta Aulia Rahman and Ainur Rahman, and two primary schoolers, Faisa Putri and Garida Huda Akhar.
The first family lived in Surabaya, the capital of East Java.  The second had their home in the nearby city of Sidoarjo.
To their neighbours the families were OK, a bit reserved though that’s not unusual when people rent so seldom get to know the community well - or get exposed to other opinions and interpretations.
The kids were home schooled so had few friends.
They were religious and caused no trouble, so that was fine.
Until one bright Sunday morning in May, when the long-planned secret early trip  was executed. 
They were Muslims going to churches, though not to pray.  Their purpose was to kill as many other fellow citizens they’d never met but who didn’t share their perverted beliefs.
Imagine the two mothers preparing their daughters for the last day of their lives.  What dresses did they chose, what colours?  Maybe the pretty pink for nine-year old Pamela – so feminine.  It made her look cute, often drawing complements when they went shopping. 
In truth it was a hand-down from Fadhila, three years older and just approaching womanhood.  So the dress was a bit on the big size.  Which was ideal for hiding the suicide belt.
How did Mum get the fitting right?  She couldn’t ask the local tailor to do the stitching for fear of questions and gossip, so sewed the strong fabric herself after measuring her daughter’s wee waist; the tricky bit was making sure the pockets could take the short steel pipes.
The other problem was weight as Daddy kept stuffing nails and bolts into the belt till there was no more room.
“Do we have to?” Fadhila surely asked in the whining tone pre-teen girls have perfected in all continents.  “It’s what Allah wants,” said Yusuf, 18, ignoring his mother as he’d done for the past few years, determined to exercise his male authority.
 “Stop complaining – this is your blessing and today you will meet all the martyrs who have gone before.”  Puji knew her son and picked up the tremor in his voice.  She desperately wanted to hug him but was sure she’d be pushed away. .
Then the wires to the handphone battery had to be tucked away in the hems; that job needed time and concentration.
The girls must have watched their mother’s needlework and barraged her with the questions all children ask while preparing for a holiday jaunt.
The oldies could have told the truth:  Parents should be honest and set the right example – that’s a rock in all faiths.  Had they followed that moral precept it might have gone like this:
“We’re taking a ride on Daddy’s motorbike all the way to the place where the infidels gather, for this is the day they worship Satan.
“When we get there remember to press any button on the handphone when I shout Allahu Akbar! Then your body will be sliced in two and your breakfast and blood will be splashed across the church walls and tiles.
“Everything in your body will be shredded, heart, lungs, liver and the tiny womb which will never be filled.
“Your bones will be splintered and flung with great force along with the nails and bolts into anyone nearby, ripping their flesh, smashing their limbs, gouging their eyes.
“Your head will probably be blown off your neck and eventually found far away.
“This what the preachers say is the will of Allah, Now, do you want to come?”
Had she told this truth the girls might have started screaming, bang doors to be let free.  For like their friends Faisa, 11, and Garida, 10, Fadhila and Pamela did not welcome death.
We now know from others that they hated the jihad videos they’d been forced to watch, the dirty black flags, guns firing and stuff where they closed their eyes. Like humans everywhere the young know instinctively, deep in their souls, beyond the reach of the mad and bad, that given the choice they’ll leap for life.
Choice was denied.
Had it been otherwise the girls’ tantrums would have been terrible. The neighbours would have banged on the door and the plans would have failed.
So Mummy lied: “Why today, my precious ones, we are all going to Paradise.”
Puji’s hands were trembling as she dressed her darlings. Years earlier she’d given birth in pain and joy – now there was only fear. 
The men must have noticed the hesitation and ordered prayer.  The women obeyed for that was another will of Allah, as explained by the ustadz.  He was the unquestioned authority who could read Arabic, or said he could, and had been to Mecca, so must be wise.
Yet the mothers harboured secret doubts.  The mosque leader was a known lecher and rumoured to have pornography on his smartphone.
He had four wives, which is allowed in Indonesia for the Prophet, peace be unto him, had 13; but the mothers feared their husbands might follow the greybeard’s example.
Now that would never happen, though in paradise they’d have access to 72 virgins each so would have no energy left for their spouses.
Puji wondered why the teachings make no mention of satisfying women’s desires in the afterlife, and why her husband and sons insisted she and the girls be involved.  She kept these questions to herself lest she be condemned for heresy.
In her reading of the Holy Book men were supposed to be just and compassionate warriors while the women stayed at home to care for the children. The practicalities of the present pushed her concerns aside.
Mass murder needs detailed preparation. Had the motorbike’s tyres been pumped and the tank filled and the license up-to-date?  It would be awful if the engine spluttered out or the police ordered the machine off the road far from the target.  And what about the house? 
Fadhila had adopted a kitten – or more likely it had adopted her - that she’d rescued from a drain.  It slept on her bed and followed her everywhere.  It had been named Maria after one of Muhammad’s wives.  This caused a minor upset for Dita said that was also the name of the mother of Jesus. 
Smart Fadhila knew her texts.  She reminded him that Muhammad loved cats and had once cut off his sleeve rather than disturb the animal when he went to pray.
Could Maria come with them on the motorbike?  “No, angel, there’s no room. We’ll just leave her a fish and some milk on the doorstep”.
Then there was Pamela’s doll, a Disney Snow White.  It had been given by Grandma so could not be discarded by Dad who hated anything associated with the West and the US in particular.  Would that be allowed?  “Just as long as you keep her away from the handphone.  We wouldn’t want an accident.”
As Puji buttoned her daughter’s dress she would have marveled at the unblemished skin, hair soft as duckdown, her open, smiling, trusting face.  For Pamela and Fadhila there’d be no romance and marriage with the right boys – and Puji already had a couple in mind.
There’d be no grandchildren to fill the house with laughter and care for her as the years passed. The agony was coming to the boil.  She had to shout No. But that would be a sin.
Dita was on edge and demanding they move because the Christians kept to a timetable. If Puji didn’t obey the brutality would start again and she’d be bashed into submission.
The Honda fired on the first kickstart.  It took time to get everything arranged on the short saddle.  Dita was trying to talk to Anton on his phone and go over the plans again.  No answer. Pressed close to her daughters Puji could feel their heartbeats and frail bodies.
She desperately wanted to call Puspitasari and hear her cousin’s voice, to know if she too was terrified, wondering if what they were doing was right. 
It was not. Moments earlier the other couple had been pulped in their home when nervous Anton accidentally crossed the detonator wires.  By chance – or God’s grace – the youngest were outside and survived.
Puji must have looked back. The washing was almost dry and for a moment she thought to stop the bike and collect the clothes before realizing there was no point.  What would they all wear in Paradise?  They couldn’t go naked, that would be immoral.  And what would they eat?  There would have to be rice.
So many questions.  No doubt Gabriel would have it all organised as following the men they entered the abode of peace reserved for the righteous.
Dita swung the bike onto the road.  They were on their way to more than murder, mutilation and suicide. They were going to blast Indonesia’s reputation for tolerance.


For the facts check here:

and here:



Thursday, May 17, 2018



The man on the far left represents Kebatinan.  Then Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinuism, Protestants, Catholics and Islam.

Five guards and an inmate died in a Jakarta prison riot last week, allegedly launched by Islamic State.  More than 150 terrorists are held at the overcrowded jail where turmoil erupted six months ago.
Then early on Sunday church bombings in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, killed nine at the start of the Muslim fasting month.
In March police said they’d smashed an Internet jihad group known as the Muslim Cyber Army.  It was accused of spreading fake news to stir the gullible and destabilize upcoming elections.
Where do the radicals recruit? At universities, according to Indonesia's Intelligence Chief Budi Gunawan.
He claimed almost 40 per cent of students have been exposed to zealots ‘trying to mobilise new terrorists.’
There are close to 3,000 tertiary education institutions in the Republic.  Most are private and run by religions.  Some are resisting the fundamentalists.
It was a most worthy event.  Whether it can add value is another matter.

Days before the Jakarta riot and Surabaya bombings around 600 citizens of Malang gathered on a sweaty Saturday to support the Deklarasi Malang Berdoa (the Declaration of a prayer for Malang) hoping the initiative will spread from the East Java city throughout Indonesia.

The timing was important.  Campaigning for regional elections is well underway; fears that some candidates will invoke hate against non-Muslims have already come to pass so the occasion was intended to head off further agents provocateurs.

Sponsors of the Malang bash organised by a local inter-faith committee included churches, the Jawa Pos newspaper and the Islamic University of Malang (Unisma) where the gathering was held. 

The need for harmonis was hammered with force by rector Masykuri Bakri delivering the most stimulating speech of the two-hour show, evoking shared national values and a vision of togetherness that brought frequent outbursts of applause.

Curiously few of the happy clappers were from his private university associated with the mass Islamic movement Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).  On this campus, with more than 7,000 students, women must wear jilbab (headscarves).

However most in the auditorium covering their hair were white-clad Catholic nuns; they overwhelmingly outnumbered the Muslims. When one religion is the majority by nine to one, reconciliation usually gets initiated by the anxious minority, quietly fearful that racist violence will erupt again as it has so many times.

The last big bloody outrage was two decades ago when Soeharto’s Orde Baru (New Order) 32-year dictatorship crashed.  The fury was worst in Jakarta where ethnic Chinese were raped and killed, and their businesses burned.  (For more on the 1998 riots see:

Well-prepared families bolted to Australia – mainly Perth - where they’d secured permanent residence, sent their kids to local schools and bought homes.

Since then the huge December 2016 rallies against former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) led to the ethnic-Chinese Christian’s two-year jailing for blasphemy.  Estimates of more than half a million fist-thrusting protestors have reminded all that tolerance in Indonesia is fragile and easily shattered by demagogues.

To assure the nervous that this won’t happen during the regional election campaigns now underway, and next year’s national vote for the President, was an army lieutenant colonel, and the head of the local police.

Splendid with swagger sticks and shirts sagging with medals and ribbons, the duo attempted to cool concerns with tedious addresses about their impartiality.  This century the late president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) separated the army and the police forces, which are slowly becoming more professional.

They need to be.  A recent paper by Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey claims ‘the growing influence of Islamist hardliners, repressed by the Soeharto regime is ‘fracturing the national consensus on pluralism’.   

‘Australia needs to ‘rethink dated Soeharto-era attitudes to Indonesia.’ he added.  ‘Commitment to electoral democracy remains strong but support for liberal democracy is less certain and concern for international opinion much diminished.

‘In fact, expectations of Indonesia’s rise are already fueling experiments with populism, xenophobia and regional assertiveness (triggered to a great extent by virulent Sinophobia).’

Adult members of the audience didn’t need a foreign academic to tell them what’s embedded in their DNA.  Indonesians find it difficult to be frank with outsiders, but when they do Muslims reveal deep resentment towards the ethnic Chinese (below two percent of the population of 260 million) for their wealth and business success, often alleging corruption.

The scapegoats respond by saying their achievements are due to discipline, hard work and pursuit of quality education.

While some in the minority try to prove they are committed to the nation by converting to Islam and funding mosques, others aggravate by showing off in public and fuelling resentment.

Helping offset negative perceptions was a contingent at the Declaration from Ma Chung University, including athletic martial arts performers as a curtain-raiser.  The campus opened in 2017 and has less than 2,000 students; yet it’s already ahead of Unisma – born 1981 - on the Unirank website.

Before this century discrimination was legal.  Ethnic Chinese born in the country and eligible for Indonesian passports, and whose families have called the archipelago home for generations, were barred from using Chinese names, calligraphy and language.

They were also shut out of the armed forces and government.  Many turned to banking and now dominate the profession.

During his brief tenure (1999-2001) President Gus Dur scrapped the bans. He also recognized Confucianism as an approved religion along with Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

All were represented on the Malang stage plus a surprising addition - an adherent of kebatinan, the traditional Javanese faith. The government calls this a cultural practice, refusing requests for a higher status for fear of diluting Islam.

The intent was good but unbalanced. All speakers were men, middle-aged to elderly. The only women to get before the public were dancers and musicians in the warm-up. 

Few opinions would have been changed by the Declaration as attendance indicated acceptance of a multi-faith society.

The next task is to broadcast the message to the kampong, villages and pesantren  (Islamic boarding schools) where the millions don’t always hear the moderates.  Here the primacy of the pribumi (indigenous) is often strongest, intolerance greatest and ‘virulent Sinophobia’ most likely.

The Jakarta prison riot was not well covered in Australia - more details here:

First published in Pearls and Imitations, 17 May 2018

Wednesday, May 02, 2018


FINDING TIES THAT BIND                                             

The Australian Embassy in Jakarta (Source: Dezeen Magazine)

In early April, NSW Governor David Hurley spoke about Indonesian-Australian relationships. Although largely ignored by the mainstream media his speech was not the usual whitebread served by those elevated to positions supra-politics.

Hurley launched some awkward statistics:

*            Thirteen per cent of Australians see Indonesians as trustworthy.  Switch that around and the figure is 53 per cent.

*            Nineteen per cent of Australians say they have a good knowledge of Indonesia. The reverse is 43 per cent.

*            Unfavourable perceptions of the people next door?  Australians 47 per cent, Indonesians ten per cent.

The former chief of the Australian Defence Force is beyond the range of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.  Like the Russians in Syria, diplomats chose not to retaliate against the retired general’s missiles.  Hurley is too big and important; returning fire might escalate the issue.

Compare this to the reaction to my review in The Jakarta Post of Strangers Next Door? edited by Melbourne University senior academics Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae.

Charge d’affaires Allaster Cox responded that he was ‘somewhat taken aback’ while giving no signs that he’d read the book.  It’s a thoughtful collection of essays by concerned academics and journalists, with many unhappy at the state of affairs between Indonesia and Australia and wanting major changes.

This is Cox’s second term in Jakarta – he served in the pre-democracy 1990s so is qualified to judge the betterment or otherwise of the relationship.  This could have been a valuable contribution. 

Instead he applied the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s stock defence against incoming dissent – to ignore the anxieties, but if seriously provoked, fire a barrage of garbled statistics to fog the debate.  Here’s a sample:

‘More than 20,000 Indonesians study in Australia each year, making Australia the most popular overseas destination for Indonesian university students.’

According to the Department of Education and Training, more students head to Australia from China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, and even Brazil than the world’s fourth largest country (260 million), and conveniently next door. Brasilia is 14,400 kilometres from Canberra.

Cox also claimed that the ‘New Colombo Plan sends thousands of Australians to Indonesia every year to live, study and learn more about our closest neighbor.’

The NCP is a fine initiative but the statistics are coarse - fourteen scholarships to Indonesia awarded this year.  The most popular destinations for these bright hopes are Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and China.

‘Mobility grants’ of up to AUD 6,000 have gone to 13,000 tertiary students in 2018.  Around 2,100 go to Indonesia - ten per cent of their counterparts venturing south.

Here’s another disturbing figure: 1.25 million Australians fly to Indonesia every year – mainly to Hindu Bali rather than Muslim Java, yet only 200,000 Indonesians visit Australia.

That’s six to one.  We get visa-free entry – they pay AUD 140 per person and have to complete a 15-page form.  Malaysians (340,000 visitors) and Singaporeans (400,000) pay AUD 20.

Whatever verbal pyrotechnics DFAT ignites, that policy displays discrimination or distrust or both.

Cox wrote that ‘the truth is that Australians are not indifferent to our nearest neighbour. That does a disservice to the many ways in which our countries and people work together at all levels and doesn’t do justice to the very healthy Australia-Indonesia relationship’.

This misdiagnosis is BS unqualified when measured against Hurley’s figures and his unsettling observations at the top of this page.  He delivered  some in Indonesian at the Fourth Indonesia-Australia Dialogue organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Ironically it was supported by DFAT.

Hurley said Australia needs ‘ to go beyond the successful management of incidents to one of action flowing from shared interests, cooperative leadership within the region, support for shared imperatives and initiatives, and binding economic interests.

‘It is therefore important to ensure that our leaders and people gain a better insight into what motivates and drives each country.’

Which is the general message of Strangers Next Door? except that it’s being sent by academics and journalists who call the shots as they see them. 

Blunt assessments from NGOs and campuses are not enemy ordnance.  Independent research and commentary may not polish the government’s self-made image, but demeaning other views is the real disservice. 

Outsiders are trying, like Hurley, ‘… to overcome trust deficits, taking steps that will bind rather than simply link the two countries.’

Australian embassy in Jakarta
Source:  ABC

Here’s an early task for new Ambassador Gary Quinlan, 67, when he settles into the five-hectare Jakarta fortress and presumably his final posting.  It’s the biggest and most costly of our overseas missions with 500 workers well protected from the hurly-burly of the world’s third largest democracy they are paid to understand.

Defuse the smug we-know-best siege mentality nurtured during the past few years behind the Embassy’s blast-proof and critic-resistant walls.  If you still judge the Strangers Next Door? authors’ words unworthy, at least tune in to the concerns of His Excellency.

First published in Pearls & Irritations Wed 2 May 2018

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


Add respect to the repertoire

The concert was already underway when Muhammad Anton, Mayor of the East Java city of Malang, arrived an hour late with a large entourage.  

A contemporary masked dance was performing and dazzling the 400-strong crowd. The VIPs paid no attention, instead posing for photos and making themselves comfortable.

Musician Mustafa Daood watched from afar in discomfort. He’d seen similar rudeness before and decided it was time to speak out.  

But an hour later on stage with his Debu (dust) band and twirling dancers he found the front row armchairs empty and fruit dishes untouched. But he still let rip and the Dawai Nusantara (archipelago strings) Music Festival audience shouted approval.

Later Daood told me: “Officials say they honor creativity yet treat artists with contempt. It happens often. It’s wrong. It has to change. 

“I seldom perform in formal concerts because official protocols take over. These people are all about rules.”  (Mayor Anton’s office was contacted for comment; a spokesman blamed administration issues for the late arrival and early departure, and said no disrespect was intended.)

Daood said other artists kept quiet fearing they’d lose work. “But I have advantages I can and will exploit.” 

These include a base far away in Jakarta, being famous locally and internationally on stage and TV - and being promoted by manic MCs hollering: ‘He’s from the USA’.

“That was 18 years ago,” the long-haired musician told the crowd in fluent Indonesian while his 13-member band tuned their instruments.  “We’re you.” 

Indeed so. He has a 2011 citizenship certificate which took five years to obtain, Islam on his ID card and an Umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca) on his CV. 

Debu is often billed as a Muslim high-voltage band thumping out Arabic-Indian-Western synthesis. Daood says the group’s genre is “spiritual music played so people go away feeling good.”  Pressed to deepen a shallow statement he added:  “So they can find tranquility of the heart, experience the essence of life.”

Daood, 36, has certainly quaffed well from that flagon.  Born in Oregon to nomadic parents following Sufi (Islamic mysticism) teachings, he was home schooled and never attended university.

The 70-strong commune (Daood prefers ‘community’) was led by his poet father Shaykh Fattah, 73, who converted to Islam in his 30s, following the 12th century Rufa’i teachings developed in Kosovo. 

The group moved around the US, then to the Dominican Republic where Daood learned Spanish.  Next stop Jakarta in 1999 because they thought the Republic had the most tolerant form of Islam. Not the best time - the country was in turmoil after President Soeharto quit and inter-faith strife was brewing.

From the capital to Makassar in South Sulawesi to open a pesantren (Islamic boarding school), then back to Jakarta where the remnants now live.  The others have returned to the US or moved elsewhere.

Debu gained traction for its unusual make-up, vigorous performances and original compositions. Frontman Daood is a multi-talented instrumentalist and singer. They’ve toured the archipelago and overseas, produced numerous albums and been TV stars.  

The band’s success leans on its apparent Islamic credentials but Daood confessed: “I’m not much of a Muslim.”  Would he convert to Christianity if he found it personally more appealing?  

“Yes. Sufis work on inspiration. We know when it’s time to move.  We are learning how to escape the world without leaving the world. We don’t try to convert.”  

Another interpretation: The lifestyle is shiftless and its practitioners bums. He laughs: “You’re not too wrong. Sufis are crazy.”

Daood is, to be polite, unconventional. In the Beatles era he’d have been a hippy, John Lennon lookalike.  In Indonesia he’s less easy to pigeonhole. 

His personal life is knotty: He said he’s been wed 12 times and once had three wives under the same roof. From these unions he has eight children; some are with Debu.

Daood’s couplings, particularly his four-month marriage to local singer Penelope Love, aroused tabloid fever. How does his constant message of mutual respect and inoffensive behavior fit in?

“I love women and always tell them that this is how I am. They know what I’m like. Musicians are complex. Nothing is everlasting.”

Conservatives might consider this a libertine lifestyle but Daood says he has no regrets and seems undamaged by publicity about his pairings. In 2006 family-values celebrity preacher Abdullah Gymnastiar (AA Gym) tumbled off his TV throne when exposed for polygamy, legal in Indonesia though contentious. 

“He was a hypocrite,” Daood said. “I’m not a religious leader - I’m open about what I do.” Recently he put down his gambus (Arabian lute) to develop a 250-hectare theme park in Bogor where models of the world’s most famous mosques will be built.

The project is so big he says it’s deterred billionaire businessman Hary Tanoesoedibjo but has found other backers.  He claims he rejected an invitation to meet Gerindra Party boss Prabowo Subianto when told what he had to wear. (Daood’s everyday garb is sarong, sloppy shirt and bare feet). 

Other quirks include not watching TV news and having no interest in politics: “Fundamentalists haven’t traveled or learned about other interpretations of the faith. Don’t make a big deal out of difference.  Love what you have. Hidup suka-suka (life is fun).” 

He reckons the Sufi philosophy that God takes care to be true, rattling off tales of sudden financial support by well-wishers.

“I’m totally grateful for what we have in this beautiful country,” he said. “Indonesia was built on passion, not money.  That’s what we need to recover.”

First published in Indonesian Expat Edition 207 February 2018

Monday, April 23, 2018


Can these neighbors ever hit it off?     


The missed chances of history.

Long before the First Fleet arrived from Britain to colonise Australia in 1788, Makassans already knew the Great South Land.

They regularly sailed to its northern shores, staying for about six months collecting and drying the edible sea slug trepang for export.  Then they left for their homeland - sometimes taking Aboriginal wives.

Had they explored further and settled, Terra Australis might now be part of Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia).

Instead we have two widely differing cultures and value systems squashed so closely they are interdependent yet wishing otherwise - not the basis for a good marriage.

Melbourne University Professor Tim Lindsey is co-editor with Dave McRae from the same campus of Strangers Next Door? This attempt to make sense of the weird link based on geography and little else is explored through a column of 29 writers - mostly Australian academics.

Lindsey is a rarity - a scholar who keyboards with journalistic directness.  His favorite tag is ‘The Odd Couple’ of Southeast Asia.  Though a bit dated for Netflixers (the Neil Simon play and film go back half a century) it’s handy shorthand.

Editor Endy Bayuni, one of six Indonesian contributors, is a mite more expansive:  The two nation’s ‘relationship has been defined more by what separates them than by what unites them, especially in recent years’.

Realities underpin his gloom; Australia’s support for the 1999 East Timor Referendum which saw the tiny province get independence aroused widespread wrath which lingers still.  

Australians see their involvement as a human rights triumph, Indonesians as a sinister plot to fracture the ‘Unitary State’.

If only that was the sole irritant. The fatuous phone-taps on Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - the one president who genuinely liked Australia - haven’t been forgotten. Nor has the gross misstep by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott linking the 2004 Aceh tsunami aid to failed pleas to save two reformed Australian drug runners from execution .

Central to so many clashes is the clumsiness of Australian leaders and their inability - or wilful refusal - to see things from another perspective. And when they try they become sycophants.

On the other side Indonesian politicians can be over eager to play the racism and colonialism cards, telling electors they are victims, their problems made by outsiders.  

Michael Bachelard spent three challenging years in the Archipelago reporting for Fairfax Press.  He was told by a President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo adviser that Australian journalists are ‘too aggressive, too blunt in our language, too critical and prone to sensationalism.’  

This image, unfair to the now Foreign Editor for The Age ‘who had grown to love Indonesia and its people’ kept him out of the Palace while colleagues from the US, the UK and the Middle East got access to the President.

Why should the third largest democracy (after the US and India) have such hangups about a neighbor which supported Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonialism and till recently was a major aid donor?

There are plenty of historical explanations: Founding President Soekarno’s dabbling with Russia when the advance of Communism was terrifying the West, led to failed regime-change attempts by the US and Indonesia’s ill-fated Konfrontasi challenge to independent Malaya defended by Commonwealth troops.

More up-to-date is Lindsey’s ‘Bad News’ list of Australians getting in trouble on Bali and how this affects bilateral relations.

It could all be grim but the question mark in the title suggests hope. Professor David Hill’s Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies shows what can be done by a determined individual and a handful of true believers.

University cooperation between Flinders (in South Australia) and Gadjah Mada in Yogya is another example of doers elbowing naysayers aside.

The final chapter highlights the benefits of youth programs. All worthy, but only eight considered and so small they’re dust flecks on the mountain of need.

Although the Indonesian population is skewed to the young (40 per cent are under 25) the power brokers are still last century’s oligarchs.  They also control the media.

Threatening the relationship is the future of West Papua. Melbourne academic Richard Chauvel writes that while Australia has ‘the most interest in a peaceful resolution’ policy has been ‘immobilised’ by Indonesian ‘paranoia’ about Australia’s intentions.

The independence activists working out of Australia are not supported by the government; Indonesians with limited understanding of democracy can’t fathom why the peaceful stirrers aren’t arrested.

The issue of transiting asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia remains unresolved.  Monash academic Antje Missbach’s contribution sounds alerts.

This book has been published in Britain by a law book company.  The cover price of 90 pounds (Rp 1.7 million) guarantees it won’t reach those who’d benefit most.  
The fact that top academics like Lindsey and McRae couldn’t excite a local publisher proves the point made by many contributors - Australians are indifferent to the people next door and only see them as a market for wheat and beef.

Nasty - but a reality bounce when the ASEAN conference in Sydney generated so much banquet-talk about warming ties.  Though desperately needed these won’t come without robust but respectful exchanges.  

Relationships just bob around, almost directionless. The ocean is currently calm. That’s temporary.  More understanding, port and starboard, is needed to weather the inevitable storms.  This book provides some ballast.

Strangers Next Door?
Edited by Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae
Hart Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2018
548 pages

 First published in The Jakarta Post 23 April 2018.  The review drew this response from Australian charge d'affaires Allaster Cox in The Jakarta Post on 25 April:

Australian Embassy responds

I was somewhat taken aback while reading a book review of Strangers Next Door? by Duncan Graham (The Jakarta Post, April 23).

I was in Yogyakarta with the Australian and Indonesian environment ministers who co-hosted the Asia Pacific Rainforest Summit — a joint initiative to help our region progress critical action on the environment.

It’s just not the case that Australia and Indonesia share geography and little else. Of course, there is still much work to be done on the relationship.

That’s why our two countries have agreed to negotiate a free trade agreement — the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. That’s why we are expanding cooperation in the maritime sector with a range of activities planned that will benefit both countries in the years ahead. 

That’s why earlier this year we held the Indonesia-Australia Digital Forum — to increase cooperation in this growing sector, which will be vital to the future of both countries.

However, Indonesia and Australia work together closely in many ways. Our government-to-government relationship is strong and continues to expand in every sector, from defense and cybersecurity to taxation and the bureau of meteorology.

More than 20,000 Indonesians study in Australia each year, making Australia the most popular overseas destination for Indonesian university students.

On Saturday night, the Embassy held its Australian Alumni Gala in Jakarta. If you had asked any of the more than 1,000 students about their time in Australia, you would have heard about the many benefits of getting a world-class education in a friendly country. Many Indonesian graduates have formed life-long friendships with Australians that will stand our countries in good stead for the future.

And the New Colombo Plan sends thousands of Australians to Indonesia every year to live, study and learn more about our closest neighbor. Indonesia is the most popular destination for Australian NCP participants.

Yes, there is more work to do but the truth is that Australians are not indifferent to our nearest neighbor. That does a disservice to the many ways in which our countries and people work together at all levels and doesn’t do justice to the very healthy Australia-Indonesia relationship.



Indonesia Institute President Ross Taylor also responded though his contribution wasn't published.  So here it is: 

Dear Editor

The article by journalist Duncan Graham (23rd April 2018) presented a good and interesting summary of the book ‘Strangers next Door’. The response from the Australian Embassy’s Charge D’Affaires Allaster Cox is also important to read (See Letters' to this newspaper, 25th April 2018).

Mr Cox makes a very valid point in that on so many levels including education, business, culture and political - where our two leaders do enjoy a genuinely close friendship – the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is in good shape.

In needs to be said however, that for the majority of the populations in both Indonesia and Australia, our neighbours are indeed ‘strangers’, mixed with ignorance and sometimes ambivalence towards each other.

We have so many clich├ęs thrown around about the relationship between our two countries - such as ‘needing more ballast’ or ‘business & trade is underdone’ -  one cannot help but agree that there are some significant challenges to be addressed in order to deepen the relationship.

If we are really serious about this desire for a closer and deeper relationship between us, both countries need to make it far easier for our respective young people to meet each other through in-country experience (such as ACICIS), travel, technology, and holiday-work experience.Yet Australia makes it very difficult for young Indonesians to visit us, whilst Indonesia ‘drowns’ young Australians wanting to study, travel or undertake internships in Indonesia, in red tape.

If both countries want to seriously deepen and progress the bi-lateral relationship, then we need to focus on bringing our youth together, and with some 90 million young people in Indonesia who want to embrace travel, education and importantly technology, the opportunities are immense; but only if our national leaders facilitate this.

Failure to do so will continue leave many of us as those ‘strangers next door’.

Ross Taylor