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, 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 clichés 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

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