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

Tuesday, October 27, 2020



                              What works –threats or inducements?

The day after US State Secretary Mike Pompeo announced he’ll be visiting India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia this month to try and keep the Indian Ocean nations on side, his rival for the region’s attention was making its pitch courtesy of an Indonesian think tank. The approaches were remarkably unalike – one a clenched fist, the other an open hand.



In Jakarta the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia invited two Chinese ASEAN diplomats, Dr Hoang Anh Tuan and Deng Xijun, to a webinar launch of its ASEAN-China Survey Assessing the Present and Envisioning the Future of ASEAN- China Relations.  

A thousand respondents across Southeast Asia were split into two groups – the ’elite’ (academics, government officials, civil society and business), and students.  The form-fillers were ‘cautiously optimistic’ wanting ASEAN ‘centrality’ to be preserved – which appears to mean ‘sovereignty’.  ‘It is important to ensure that all players ... respect the game in town and not try to replace it with a power-based (dis)order.’

Also commemorating the 70th anniversary of Indonesia-China bilateral relations, the FPCI and the Embassy are running a video competition on the theme of Tell Your China Stories.

All warm and fuzzy, and far from Pompeo’s approach.  His five-day trip comes after meeting ministers from Japan, Australia and India in Tokyo where he spoke of building barriers against Chinese territorial ambition in the South China Sea.

The heads down will ‘include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party’.  (This phrase is a Pompeo favourite.)

Just ahead of Pompeo came Japan's Yoshihide Suga.  The Nippon’s new leaders usually pay their respects first to Washington, but the PM headed for Indonesia.  He wasn’t flexing muscle but offering a 50 billion yen (AUD 670 million) low-interest loan to help handle the Covid-19 crisis.

Reuters recently reported that Indonesia had rejected US requests for landing and re-fuelling rights for its surveillance planes which monitor Chinese military activity in the South China Sea.  Jakarta hasn’t commented presumably to keep the conversation cool and not antagonise its major investor and trading partner worth around AUD 911 billion dollars annually.

Before the launch of its report, FPCI founder and former US Ambassador to the US Dr Dino Patti Djalal wrote thatin Southeast Asia, the Trump administration’s anti-China advocacy is not likely to find a receptive audience.

‘ Southeast Asian government has responded to – let alone applauded – the Trump administration’s call to oppose or isolate China.’

Djalal suggested several reasons for the indifference – starting with the need to first win the Covid-19 war. Here China has been smart. If a vaccine becomes available it has promised Indonesia 40 million doses showing itself as a ‘solution provider’.

The deal involves state-owned companies and governments in both countries.  So far there’s been no similar pact with the US.

Towards the end of the 75-minute FPCI love-in webinar, participants started tickling the edges of the real issue - Beijing’s ‘nine-dash line’ claim to the South China Sea.  This overlaps the economic zones of five of ASEAN’s ten members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. 

They also raised ASEAN’s call for more negotiations for a Code of Conduct for the region – an idea that’s been off and on for years.  Talks may resume next month, though a cynic in another forum said the two sides would not be negotiating but discussing how to resume the negotiations.

In 2018, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the COC would be finalized within three years. That’s a target unlikely to be met, according to Viet Hoang, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law.  He’s also a visiting scholar at the University of Taiwan, so his remarks will most likely be flicked aside by the Chinese.  Writing in The Diplomat he said:

‘Fundamentally, the situation is simple: ASEAN countries want to curb China’s behaviour, but China does not want its actions to be constrained. ASEAN has little or nothing that it can do to force China to agree on an effective and substantial COC, so the negotiations have continued to deadlock on key issues.

‘China has always wanted to exclude the US and other countries from the COC negotiation process. For example, China wants all signatories to be able to veto naval exercises with any non-signatory, but this is unacceptable to ASEAN countries that rely on relations with external powers to counterbalance China’s growing power. With so many fundamental issues in play, the COC process is not likely to end any time in the near future.’

It’s worth remembering that for the ASEAN countries China is not some distant power far away, but a close neighbour with ancient historical ties that few in the current US administration would appreciate.  The total population of the ASEAN states is 647 million, about half China’s.

Said Djalal: ‘Southeast Asians understand that with economic engagement comes some measure of political influence, but they also experienced the same thing with the US, and they (or some of them) know how to handle it.

‘To expect Southeast Asian governments to commit to a blanket opposition to China under these circumstances is totally unrealistic.

The US ... should project itself as a benign, unselfish superpower supportive of the development needs of the countries in the region. It should be less patronizing, and less judgmental ... project confidence rather than insecurity.

‘It should ease up on this presently obsessive ideological crusade. It should focus more on soft power than hard power...Today, Southeast Asians want to get along with the US and China, but they also want the US and China to get along, at least in their region. Is that too much to ask?’

( First published in Pearls and Irritations, 27 October 2020: 

and on 29 October:

Friday, October 23, 2020


                                                                         The croc in the therapy pool

Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants to snare foreign investors. They’re a wary lot.  Though excited by big markets and the chance of bigger returns, they’re fearful of losing fortunes, and with good reason: Risk.

Indonesia's ranking in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index has stuck in the low 70s – far from Widodo’s aim at position 40. (Singapore =2, Malaysia and Australia = 14.)

So his government has rammed through more than 1,000 pages of reforms called the Job Creation Law, better known as the Omnibus law.  The goals (set before the pandemic hit) are for an annual per-capita income of AUD 32,000 (currently AUD 4,000) and GDP of AUD 10 trillion in the next quarter-century.

The idea is to clean up the thousands of often contradictory Jakarta and provincial regulations impeding development and ensure controls are centralised, as they were before the democratic reforms of this century.  Almost 80 laws will be amended and thousands of regulations erased.

That sounds meritorious but the Omnibus is finding it hard to get ignition with four different drafts, varying from 812 pages through to 1,035.

Among the clauses shredding red tape are some problematics.  Green tape protections of the environment are also being cut; proponents claim the laws remain strong, but are just being simplified and condensed.

Cynics say it doesn’t matter because any new rules will be snubbed by developers paying off corrupt officials just as past legislation was ignored. 

The illegal felling of protected forests for palm-oil plantations in Kalimantan has been underway for years, the smoke from burning trash sometimes blanketing Singapore. In Sumatra endangered species like the orang-utan are losing their habitat to the fellers and their freedom to wildlife traders.

But the sometimes violent protests against the new laws (600 arrests in the first three days), mainly featuring uni students and labour unions, aren’t focussing so much on saving species but protecting jobs. As in Australia, the shift is to the gig economy, welcomed by the big end of town because it gives more room to hire and fire.

It also fractures the unions’ abilities to represent workers who are spread across different jobs in separate locales.

A regular whinge by investors is that the old laws made downsizing costly as workers had to get 32 months salary if dismissed.  That’s now down to 19 months.

The minimum wage has vanished, though local governments can bring it back provided it’s based on economic growth

Wage rates will be set according to business productivity, not the employees’ education, skills and years of service. Holidays are being cut from two days a week to one.  Long-service paid leave is also being farewelled.

These changes are being cheered by employers’ groups such as the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  The government predicts three million jobs for school-leavers and graduates, plus six million for those who have lost work through the pandemic. No sources for these calculations have not been revealed, but a cuff seems likely.

Missing from the chorus line is the International Trade Union Confederation:

 ‘It’s staggering that while Indonesia is, like other countries, facing the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic the government would seek to further destabilise people’s lives and ruin their livelihoods so that foreign companies can extract wealth from the country.’

Once the protests subside there’s unlikely to be a rush of capital into Indonesia because the reforms ignore the croc in the therapy pool – the rule of law.

In an interview with the WA think tank Future Directions International, Jakarta-based lawyer and business consultant Bill Sullivan said:

“... many companies – including Australian companies – if they are properly advised, would be reluctant to make large capital investments in Indonesia

‘... the legal and court systems ... are almost as opaque and non-transparent today as they were during the presidency of Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno.

‘It is an extraordinary weakness in the development of Indonesia and it’s something that even many Indonesian businesspeople rail about and find very discomforting.’

Indonesia Investments managing director Richard van der Schaar likes the new law but cautions business to wait and see.  In a newsletter to members he wrote:

‘ ... over the past decade or so we have seen the Indonesian government coming up with various ambitious and 'game-changing' programs or plans. However, while they look good on paper, actual implementation in the field has always been the main problem.’

‘Indonesia also has to develop a good track record in terms of policy-making, policy-implementation, policy-monitoring, dispute resolving, and legal and regulatory certainty. Building this good track-record can certainly not be done overnight. On the contrary, it requires years of consistent and quality management.’

In the meantime, the protests continue, though now with pro-Omnibus law supporters collecting lunch boxes and water bottles for their time spent waving professionally printed placards. 

Who’s organising?  The standard reply in Indonesia is the never-defined ‘dark forces’.  A synonym is ‘the oligarchy’ of which Widodo, once champion of the wee folk, is now a full member,




First published in Pearls and Irritations 23 October 2020:

Thursday, October 22, 2020



                        Forgotten: Island, principles, people

Did Gough Whitlam greenlight Indonesia’s violent seizure of East Timor in 1975? The invasion and 24-year occupation took the lives of up to 300,000 people in a population of 650,000 living on a wretchedly poor leftover from European colonisation.

After Indonesia gunned into East Timor on 7 December 1975, killing six Australian journalists along the way, Whitlam (d 2014), argued there’d have been no assault had he still been in office.  Thirty days earlier Australia’s 21st PM had been dismissed by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser was caretaker.

Whitlam’s theory isn’t helped by new research from Dr Bruce Watson, Australian lawyer, investment banker and now author of Forgotten Island drawn from a PhD thesis.  He found cables in NZ proving the Australian government had ‘precise knowledge of Indonesian troop dispositions, and where amphibious forces would land and by what route.’  That was in mid-October 1975.

Watson’s requests for Indonesian documents have been ignored. His dry response: ‘The circle will only be closed when Indonesia’s democracy matures and it feels confident to release its own files on the matter.’

East Timor had been a Portuguese colony since 1702.  During World War II it was occupied by the Japanese.  Australian troops and local militia fought the invaders in a guerrilla campaign which led to the Timorese being hailed for their courage.  When their land was colonised yet again Australian veterans said their mates had been betrayed.

After the war Lisbon reasserted its authority though with little interest in a ‘subsistence agrarian society’ 14,000 kilometres distant, a remnant of its once great maritime authority.

The plunder of sandalwood was causing desertification. One survey put literacy levels below ten per cent and life expectancy at 33 years. The colony had few roads and social institutions.

On 25 April 1974 the so-called Carnation Revolution in Portugal, a soft military coup against a dictatorship, led to the collapse of its colonial empire, mostly in Africa.  A month later in Timor and after a brief civil war the leftish revolutionary group Fretilin declared itself the government.

Australia’s mainstream parties agreed an unstable Marxist enclave next to Indonesia and Australia was a threat to regional security. The Vietnam War was still maintaining high fear levels.

 Indonesia already controlled West Timor, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, so it made sense to run the whole island; some reports claimed Portugal agreed.

The words used when Australia discussed Timor’s future with Indonesia included ‘incorporated’, ‘absorbed’, ‘associated with’ and ‘integrated into’.  A transition period and referendum were floated. Independence – which arrived in 1999 through an UN-sponsored referendum – was in 1975 beyond imagination.

 Whitlam was keen to get closer to Asia and knew the pass to the bridge was held by Indonesia.

That didn’t mean a welcome ticket for a ‘European power’, geographically near but culturally apart.  Watson quotes Asian studies academic Richard Robison saying Asian leaders considered their value system was based on ‘harmony, hierarchy and consensus’.  This they contrast to the ‘confrontation, individualism and decay that characterises the liberal West’.

There was also the worry of international embarrassment. Whitlam feared criticism of Indonesia ‘might induce an attack on Australian domestic policies on race, immigration and treatment of Aborigines.’

The Australian rhetoric about East Timor’s future was rich with warming lines about human rights and self-determination, but as Watson concludes: ‘Australia’s liberal ideals are mere abstractions to be abandoned in the face of realpolitik.’

Why would anyone trust the Indonesian military government which had a history of itchy trigger fingers? It had chased the Dutch out of its other islands and a decade earlier had helped kill an estimated half-million citizens it claimed were Communist.

Watson: ‘From Soeharto’s perspective, the concepts that grounded Whitlam were not merely irrelevant but so removed from his experience as to be incomprehensible. This was a collision of worlds in the making.’

Were the leaders’ discussions corrupted by misunderstandings based on cultural differences and misinterpretations?  On 6 September 1974 Soeharto took Whitlam to Semar’s cave in Central Java where the Indonesian General sometimes meditated.

Although fat-bottomed, coarse-faced Semar is portrayed as a clown in the ancient wayang kulit (shadow puppet) stories, he’s also the wise dhanyang (guardian) of Java.  Soeharto thought himself the modern manifestation.

Watson reckons Soeharto (d 2008) ‘had developed tepaselira (mutual respect) with Whitlam so honoured him by sharing his mystical beliefs.’

Another take is that the agnostic Westerner – who told others the cave experience was a ‘curiosity’ - concluded Soeharto was a mite nutty – and so underestimated his canniness.  In other words, the cosmopolitan scholar was outmanoeuvred by an untutored soldier.

In Forgotten Island Watson postulates that the cave visit meant Timor’s fate ‘had likely been sealed. The mutual understanding between the two men was complete.’

How could this be?  It would be difficult to find any shared interests or history.  Watson: ‘Whitlam was born into a life of comfort and privilege with a heavy emphasis upon education, liberal thought and culture...

‘While Whitlam was digesting Pericles and grappling with Latin declensions, Soeharto was tending buffalo in Java, with no settled home and without even the ownership of a shirt ... His was a peripatetic lifestyle and given the uncertainty surrounding his paternity he was rotated amongst distant relatives.’

Australia’s a liberal, humanist democracy which promotes individual freedoms and the rule of law.  Mainstream parties and leaders spruik these values.  Whitlam and the ALP seemed to be upholders – though not when dealing with Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. Watson asks:

‘(Why) the broader Labor Party, many members of which were far to the left of Whitlam and included at least one Communist, did not display greater resistance to Whitlam’s acquiescence to Soeharto’s actions?’

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation, since 2000 the third-largest democracy.  Ostensibly it’s a secular state though almost 90 per cent follow Islam.  Australia is a giant continent, four times bigger than Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago.  All important facts – but here’s the killer: For every Australian there are 11 Indonesians. 

Australia is better armed, more disciplined and has powerful friends which it believes would dash down from northern latitudes to help.  But if Indonesia invaded we’d still be in big strife.

According to Watson’s careful analysis, Soeharto’s New Order regime was ‘the antibook of the principles enunciated by the Whitlam Government: authoritarian, violent, illiberal, and undemocratic.

‘(Whitlam) did discard self-determination and he did ‘greenlight’ Soeharto.  But holding him personally responsible for the violence is a step too far although the opprobrium remains. 

‘Whitlam gambled that Soeharto would incorporate Timor quickly and quietly. He should have taken note of Soeharto’s long record of state violence before endorsing Timor’s incorporation.’ 

Soeharto was an enigmatic, superstitious rural Javanese once labelled by his superiors as only ‘a moderately capable man.’  Apart from running the country for 32 years he became a champion kleptocrat, allegedly pocketing more than US $ 38 billion while never facing court.

Sir Keith (Mick) Shann, Ambassador to Indonesia 1962-66 reportedly said: ‘I don’t understand the Indonesians. I doubt any Australian does.’

Maybe it’s time we tried harder.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 22 October 2020: 





Thursday, October 15, 2020



                                          The comeback kid heads to Washington


Calon Presiden Prabowo Subianto memberikan sambutan dalam Pembekalan Relawan Prabowo-Sandi di Istora Senayan, Jakarta, 22 November 2018. Pasangan Calon nomor urut 02, Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno menggelar pembekalan relawan dengan tema Bergerak Menjemput Kemenangan yang berisi tentang langkah-langkah dan strategi bagi relawan untuk menjaring suara masyarakat, dengan dihadiri sekitar 3000-an orang relawan. TEMPO/M Taufan Rengganis(Pic:  Tempo)

Champions of Donald Trump’s style of politics will warm to Prabowo Subianto. They’ll understand why Washington is forgetting Indonesia’s Defence Minister was once banned from the US and Australia for alleged human rights abuses, and get onside with another tough.

Now the blacklist has been burned.  This month Prabowo (as he’s publicly known without inferring intimacy) is scheduled to visit the US after earlier making trips to Russia and China.  As reported in this column earlier, these arms-shopping jaunts have made Washington fear the world’s third-largest democracy is warming to Beijing despite its South China Sea claims.

Presumably the invitee will get an earbashing similar to that of FM Marise Payne when she met State Secretary Mike Pompeo in July and again this month; he fumed against Communist ‘exploitation, corruption and coercion’ and ‘malign activity’ in the region.

If Pompeo asks Indonesia to join his ‘alliance of democracies’ Prabowo might want to plagiarise Payne’s response: ‘The relationship we have with China is very important, and we have no intention of injuring it ...We make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest, and about upholding our security, our prosperity, and our values.’

Although not his job (the FM is professional diplomat Retno Marsudi) Prabowo can also remind his host that Indonesia’s non-alignment policy forbids defence pacts and military alignments – although joint military exercises are allowed. Indonesia bans Communism but it’s deeply in debt to China through infrastructure loans and trade.

It’s also the recipient of Beijing’s so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’. FM Wang Yi has reportedly told Indonesian minister Luhut Binsar Panjaitan that ‘China is willing to work with Indonesia on vaccine research, production and distribution, and support exchanges of relevant departments and medical institutes to help ensure access to affordable vaccines across the region and around the world.’

Luhut, another former general, is Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment and close to President Joko Widodo.

Prabowo is Indonesia’s Il Duce who likes to parade on horseback in knee-high boots and cowboy hat.  He could again try for the top job of the world’s fourth most populous nation at the 2024 election.  By then he’ll be 73 in a country where the life expectancy for men is around 70 (83 in Australia), and the poli is almost as plump as Kim Jong-un.

Yet he remains raving ambitious, driven by a sense of destiny which darts past some truly awful notes on his CV.  These include being dishonourably discharged from the military in 1998 by the Dewan Kehormatan Perwira (Officers’ Honour Council) for ‘misinterpreting orders’ relating to the kidnapping of anti-Suharto pro-democracy student activists.

In 1997 and 1998, KONTRAS (Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence) reported 23 young men had been abducted by Tim Mawar (Rose Team) from the army’s special forces unit Kopassus.

One was found dead, nine were released and 13 are still missing.  The commander of the 27,000-strong Army Strategic Reserves denied all charges.  But at the inglorious end of his military career Prabowo fled to exile in Jordan.

Before Covid-19 clampdowns on protests, members of the Indonesian Association of the Families of Missing Persons regularly demonstrated outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta.

Their protests have been less than effective.  To the organisation’s anguish, last month Widodo appointed two former Tim Mawar members to the Ministry of Defence, now headed by Prabowo

Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo is an aging prince of the Jakarta oligarchy, a mega-rich Java blue-blood reputed to have an explosive temper, untested by this journalist as interview requests are ignored.

However, The Guardian’s Kate Lamb does know.  Last year she scored an audience in his private jet during the presidential campaign which he lost to the civilian Widodo 55.5 – 44.5 per cent.  He was also humiliated in the 2014 election by Widodo 53.15 - 46.85.

Lamb reported Prabowo ‘exudes a complex kind of swagger, he is clever, charismatic and also, a bit erratic.

‘After asking a series of questions about whether he is playing identity politics, cosying up to Islamist hardliners for political gain, an exasperated Prabowo unleashes a tirade.

‘I am not somebody who is afraid of white people,’ he thunders, slamming a saucer down onto the polished wooden table in front of him.

‘Don’t come and teach me democracy! Don’t teach me politics of identity, I know! I was a commander, I had Christian soldiers, Hindu soldiers, die under my command. You think I am going to betray them?’

After that outburst (he later apologised) Lamb presumably didn’t get a chance to ask about the fate of the 13 students.  In any case he’s long denied involvement.

Till their divorce in 1998 Prabowo was married to second president Soeharto’s second daughter Titiek. The union produced one son Didit Hediprasetyo, 36, who was educated in the US.  He now lives in Germany and works as a fashion and industrial designer where he’s known as a socialite.  He’s not married and his dad has not remarried or been linked romantically to any women.

Prabowo’s father was Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, a French-educated economist and academic who served in Soekarno and Soeharto cabinets.  He also worked in Europe where teenage Prabowo was schooled in London.

His mother Dora Marie Sigar was a Protestant from North Sulawesi, diluting her son’s claim to being a pure Muslim.  His younger brother Hashim has reportedly converted to Christianity.

Such issues are important in Indonesia where family history and religion dominate public talk .  There’s no space for atheists and agnostics, and for those who are it’s best to stay in the closet.

After returning from Jordan Prabowo joined Hashim’s paper and pulp business which owns or has concessions over 12,000 square kilometres in East Kalimantan, the province chosen (before the pandemic) as the site to build a new capital.

Prabowo’s Nusantara Group reportedly controls 27 companies involved in energy and primary production.  Last year the General Elections Commission gave his net worth as ‘Rp 1,952,013,493,659’ (AUD 185 million). Hashim is supposed to have almost six times more.

Despite his post-army career as a successful capitalist Prabowo also portrays himself as a protector of the wee folk as president of a farmers’ association and a market traders’ NGO.

After losing last year’s bitterly fought presidential election Prabowo initially refused to accept the result.  Supporters of his party Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) rioted in Jakarta.  Eight died and hundreds were injured. 

To universal surprise Widodo then offered his rival the Defence portfolio, sold as an ultra-smart move neutering opposition.  The crude Lyndon Johnson quote about FBI head J Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) is relevant: ‘It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’.

The other view is that Widodo should have let Prabowo, having strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage, to be heard no more, retire to his ranch and breed Lusitano horses. 

Instead he has a platform and credibility as a senior minister with a government credit card, welcomed in Moscow, Beijing and now Washington.  Next stop Australia?

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 15 October 2020: