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, December 29, 2020


                        The nation that’s an afterthought

If a relationship just concentrates on STDs it’ll never mature.  That goes for countries as well as couples.

Indonesians are nuts about acronyms, so let’s indulge. We’re not referring to HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhoea, but Security, Trade and Defence.  These are the areas Australian politicians brag about when talking about the health of our relationship with the people next door.

It’s an essential trinity, but goes nowhere towards bringing the people of Australia and Indonesia closer.  When terrorists are snared few know ASIO intelligence may have helped.   Naturally the local cops take credit.

With the new free trade agreement in place producers just want to empty silos while consumers are unaware the grains used in their instant noodles come from WA’s wheatbelt.

The carcase hanging in the red meat market was raised on the Barkly Tablelands but finished in a feedlot where it lost its NT identity.  In brief we don’t push Made in Australia and show little interest in who buys what at the retail level.

Defence is problematic because the Big Durian’s conservatives don’t trust Canberra.  The 1999 US ‘deputy sheriff’ quote attributed to former PM John Howard has been long buried Down Under, though regularly exhumed by the Indonesian media.

At one time the Islamic national daily Republika screamed:  Australia ready to invade Asia.  The notion that 25 million could threaten half a billion across Southeast Asia is beyond ridiculous – but it made sense to sceptics knowing the Big Country has a Big Daddy in Washington.

We excel at aggravating suspicion.  In 2006 the Australia-Indonesia Agreement on the Framework for Security Cooperation, aka the Lombok Treaty, committed both nations to cooperation and consultation in defence and law enforcement, combating international crime and terrorism, and sharing intelligence.

The signatories also agreed they’d not ‘in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party’.

In late 2011 we learned up to 2,500 US Marines would be stationed in Darwin, the largest port in Australia closest to Indonesia. The English language Jakarta Post chose an unfortunate metaphor when it labelled the news a ‘bombshell’, claiming Indonesia hadn’t been told in advance.

How did this fit with ‘consultation’ and not threatening ‘stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity’?  The FM at the time, Dr Marty Natalegawa, reportedly said it could create ‘a vicious circle of tension and mistrust’.

In 2013 Australian spooks were exposed as phone tappers bugging then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Kristiani Herawati.

Last year another surprise – plans to develop the deep-water Lombrum naval facility on Manus Island in the Admiralty Archipelago, part of Papua New Guinea.  It’s best known as a pen for asylum seekers caught sailing south from Indonesia.

Now labelled the Lombrum Joint Initiative, the scheme – reported to cost AUD 175 million - is to make the port a joint US-Australian military forward-defence post, allegedly to counter Chinese expansion.   Manus is less than 700 km from Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia’s Papua province.


For Australians with knowledge of the Japanese bombings of Darwin and Broome in WWII from airstrips in Indonesia, it makes sense to have a joint facility in northern Australia.  But our defence can be another’s offence as China and the US play musical chairs around the archipelago hoping for a safe seat.

That’s unlikely to happen without a seismic policy shift in Jakarta. The Republic has long held its ‘free and active’ foreign policy stressing non-alignment with any outside power.

When studying at the ANU Natalegawa ran a paper round in Lyneham and O’Connor. His three kids went to local schools.  He’s been a regular visitor since so knows Australia well. 

Four years ago the urbane envoy spoke at ANU  ‘of  trust deficits within nations - democratic and authoritarian alike, – a condition only too readily seized and exploited by the demagogy of those bent on whipping up public fervour for the sake of popularism ...

‘Diplomacy is a process and not an event. It is one that requires the earnest of efforts, building and, indeed, rebuilding trust and confidence.’

That effort isn’t being made earnestly by either side leaving space for the malicious purveyors of BS.  In 2013 new PM Tony Abbott announced ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ but didn’t maintain the pledge.  His successors have behaved similarly.

It’s as though early recognition of the world’s fourth most populous nation (270 million) with 88 per cent Muslims is a boring obligation for fresh PMs to be followed by a rapid forgetting.

President Joko Widodo prefers to concentrate on domestic issues, making foreign affairs a fertile ground for Natalegawa’s feared demagogy.

Apart from the arms build-up in Northern Australia and PNG, another threat to mateship is coming from Australian NGOs and churches supporting Papua independence activists.  This riles the partisans who reckon the Australian government is aiding and abetting a master plan to fracture the Republic.

Canberra’s shrill denials and reminders that in Western democracies peace promoters have rights to agitate have little impact.

Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman is allegedly hiding in Australia.  Jakarta wants her back to face charges of inciting race riots through social media statements.  So far these demands have been low key but if inflated could ramp tensions.

In Strangers Next Door?  Melbourne academics Tim Lindsey and David McRae put the problem plainly: ‘There are no two neighbouring countries anywhere in the world that are more different than Indonesia and Australia. They differ hugely in religion, language, culture, history, geography, race, economics, worldview and population.

‘In fact, Indonesia and Australia have almost nothing in common other than the accident of geographic proximity. This makes their relationship turbulent, volatile and often unpredictable.’ 

The Bill Gates-George Soros plot to control the world through micro-chipped vaccines is mild paranoia compared with the chauvinists’ belief the West plans to dismember Indonesia’s ‘Unitary State’ and seize its mineral wealth.   Disabusing our neighbours of this lunacy is going to need more than chants about concord.

Indonesia will only get bigger.  Like it or not, politicians and public servants need to engage or bequeath a future of hostilities.  Ambassador Gary Quinlan, 69, is in Canberra for health reasons.  He’ll retire next year and tipped to be replaced by Penny Williams, 57.

Williams was an exchange student in Indonesia during the 1980s and High Commissioner to Malaysia last decade.  It’ll be a tough gig, but the first woman to head the Jakarta post is well qualified and likely to get noticed by the media.

An Indonesian and Arabic speaker, the mother of four has been Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.  In that role she was a strong though careful advocate focussing on the economic advantages of education to boost development rather than the human rights argument.  Diehard patriarchs don’t see women’s rights as universal but a Western threat.

In 2012 she was in Jakarta singing the required verse: ‘For Australia, there is no more important relationship than with Indonesia.’  As boss of our biggest embassy she’ll get the chance to change the STD lyrics.  How about Stratagems to Trash Disinformation?

 First published in Pearls & Irritations 16 December 2020



         Sinophobia as a political weapon

‘Morality racketeering’ is Australian academic Dr Ian Wilson’s shorthand for Indonesian white-clad mobsters who dress themselves in religious righteousness to terrorise their animus-du-jour.  Last century it was vice.  More recently it’s been blasphemers.  Now it’s the government of President Joko Widodo.

An Australian supporter of the ultra-nationalist group Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders’ Front) explained to TV news this month why he and a few friends were backing the FPI leader Rizieq Shihab, 55, a man who’s no Santa Claus.

They said Widodo had neutered opposition through political alliances.  This left the FPI and its incendiary preacher as the only voice offering alternative policies.

Unfortunately that voice is hate-filled.  If there are plans worthy of being called policies, they’re rooted in sinophobia.  The signs are subtle, more dog whistles than shouts according to another Australian scholar, Dr Quinton Temby based at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Key words in the FPI’s rhetoric include naga, the symbol of a dragon, cacing (worm) and zalim (aka zulm) Arabic for cruelty, exploitation and oppression.  All are linked to China and Communism.

Readers who remember Vietnam War propaganda would recognise the images – a loathsome red creepy-crawly, jaws agape, slithering towards the motherland.

Shihab likes to strike demagogue poses and call himself the Imam Besar (Grand Cleric) descended from the Prophet Muhammad through his ancestors who brought Islam to Indonesia.

Critics have publicly called him a thug, but his claims suggest the man’s also a charlatan.  The Prophet, who died in 632 is supposed to have had 13 wives but only two children.  Islam arrived in Java in the 14th century, popularly through the Walisongo, or nine saints of Islam.

As there are few written records Shihab’s ancestry can’t be proved, but as Donald Trump knows, the more outrageous the notion the more likely to be accepted by the gullible.

How many believers is hard to know.  Temby has taken a stab at 200,000 which is big by Australian standards but tiny in the Republic. The mainstream Islamic organisations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah together claim a membership of 120 million.

As we know, one determined zealot can still do enormous damage, though the FPI’s energies are currently directed to social media manipulation rather than bomb making.

The FPI made a major mistake when it switched targets from boozing foreigners and the unwed in bed to the government.  This enemy has a police force with lots of guns which were used to kill six of Shihab’s ten ‘bodyguards’ on a toll road in the early hours of 7 December.

The police said they had to defend themselves against armed men, but Shihab says his supporters had no weapons.  Guns are rare in Indonesia’s underworld.  So far no independent witnesses have come forward, but the cops’ version looks suspect.

The government has certainly sent a late no-tolerance message, reinforced by the arrest of Shihab for allegedly breaching coronavirus rules on wearing masks and social distancing.

When the preacher returned to Jakarta from three years self exile in Saudi Arabia on 10 November he was met by a huge mob which ignored lockdown laws. 

The crowds caught the Widodo government by surprise.  How could ministers not have known about the flight and planned welcome? Either the State’s ‘intelligence’ service was dozing, or they knew and wanted the FPI to incriminate itself.  Widodo sacked two senior cops and their replacements are cracking knuckles.

Another sinister theory going the rounds is that Shihab’s return was arranged by the FPI’s political paymasters playing a long game to discredit Widodo. Like Trump’s election fraud accusations, no one is producing evidence.

Naturally the FPI is playing victim and promoting the six dead men as martyrs who died for the cause of ‘moral revolution’.    This sounds fine unless a definition is sought.  For the FPI it means making the population live under sharia (Islamic law) and the suppression of ‘minorities’.

This is another code for ethnic Chinese. Most are Christian and probably total less than ten million.  That’s about one in every 30 citizens, though their economic clout is far greater.  

Some families have been in the archipelago for three centuries and helped fight Communism after the 1965 coup.  But that doesn’t disturb the radicals who only see foreigners taking local jobs on Widodo’s infrastructure projects powered by Chinese loans. Jakarta’s debt to Beijing exceeds AUD 23.5 billion.

Its vaccine diplomacy should ensure millions get protected with the Sinovac jab.  Doses are already in the country and will be delivered free if approved.  That should encourage citizens to think favourably towards the donor – but few forget they’re also atheists persecuting Uyghur Muslims.

The FPI has called for citizens to boycott Chinese shops and goods.   If that happened the populace would go hungry, have to quit fags and buying smartphones.

So far China hasn’t retaliated.  Instead coal exports have been increased to replace imports from Australia.  But if its citizens are physically attacked it could withdraw its engineers and throw the massive road and rail upgrades into chaos.

Widodo’s government is in a bind.  Sinophobia is always bubbling beneath the surface.  The last big outbreak of violence in 1998 took the lives of more than a 1,000 shopkeepers and looters.

Anyone offering a sane commentary runs the risk of being painted Red – a straight lift from George W Bush’s ‘for us or agin us’ reductionist lunacy as the ideology has been banned for the past 55 years and shows no sign of germinating.

It’s difficult to know if the FPI is affiliated with the extremist Jemaah Islamiah (Islamic congregation).  The government is trying to persuade citizens that Shihab’s mob is a terrorist group and should be black-listed for spruiking violence – including the beheading of blasphemers.

Human rights activists are also conflicted fearing a ban on one outfit threatening the government will lead to further action against peaceful and rational critics – which is already happening.

The police say they’ve recently arrested 23 JI members including two prize targets - Taufik Bulaga and Zulkarnaen - suspects in the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 202 died, including 88 Australians. The men were also allegedly involved in the 2004 one-tonne suicide bomb hit on the Australian embassy.  Nine died – all Indonesians.  About 150 were injured.

This Christmas and New Year the police are expected to be ramping patrols around churches, a standard precaution every twelvemonth.

Any outrage during the season of goodwill is likely to further frighten the Western investors Widodo so badly needs to balance the Renminbi.  


  First published in Pearls & Irritations 28 December 2020

Friday, December 11, 2020





Corruption is heavy stuff so let’s lighten with an old Indonesian joke:  A farmer’s goat is stolen so he reports to the police.  They’ll investigate if he pays.  The fee is a cow.  The theft is neither solved nor the bovines returned.

Transparency International’s just released Global Corruption Barometer checked 17 countries, including the world’s third largest democracy.  It came up with little that’s newsworthy.  As usual cops came tops.  Panting close behind were civil licensing and education services.

The mid-2020 survey canvassed 1,000 Indonesians.  A third reported they’d bribed bureaucrats to get the permits they needed.

Grand Theft Moolah is making headlines as the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK - Corruption Eradication Commission) pounces on suspects.  The crime busters don’t need forensic investigation skills. Their targets expose themselves with lavish lifestyles posted on social media. In one swoop the KPK collected Louis Vuitton bags and other luxury goods among bundles of notes.

This month the KPK alleged Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara had taken at least AUD $1.5 million ‘for personal needs’. The money had been earmarked as Covid-19 food aid for the poor.

A fortnight earlier Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo, his wife Rosita Dewi and 17 others were arrested for allegedly pocketing bribes of Rp 9.8 billion (AUD 933,000) to issue export licences for juvenile lobsters.

During the 1999 economic crisis Rp 904 billion (AUD 87 million) was owed by three banks to the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency.  The cash vanished. 

So did company director Djoko Tjandra aka Joe Chan on the eve of being sentenced.  Even though on an Interpol red list he came and went with the help of senior officers in the police and army, and was only snared this year.

Former vice president Jusuf Kalla told The Jakarta Post:Corruption is mostly the result of the power of a signature. When you have the authority to sign anything, it will be like ants going after sugar... now people are not afraid of engaging in corruption. They just think that it is just an accident when they get caught.’

It’s easy but unwise to sneer at our neighbour holding position 85 on TI’s Corruption Perception Index ranking of 198 countries.  NZ and Denmark vie for the top spot in cleanliness – we’re 12th.  The lack of a national anti-corruption commission may be a factor in the rating.  As school reports say:  Could do better.

Perth media have reported a case involving a senior public servant who allegedly embezzled a few million.  The charges could blow out to AUD 40 million.  In Adelaide a former magistrate is behind bars for lying over motoring fines. 

Here’s the difference: We’re still shocked while Indonesians yawn.  It’s the way business is always done. TI researcher Alvin Nicola reportedly said: ‘The culture of giving gifts, the culture of gratification, is considered normal and is made natural by many Indonesians’. President Joko Widodo huffs and puffs but the House of Graft doesn’t tumble.

Departments are unofficially classified ‘wet’ or ‘dry’.  Young bureaucrats vie to get into the first category.  This includes the police, immigration, customs and any agency which issues permits

It’s possible to do business honestly for those with excess time to kill.  Intimidating banners outside government offices warn against fraud, so the naive might assume it’s safe to enter with a wallet and exit unharmed. 

Apart from the lady’s name I vouch this yarn is true: Last month citizen ‘Sri’ was told to visit her distant birthplace to get a certificate authenticated. This disquieting news was delivered in an office where customers must present documents in foolscap folders.  The covers are stamped with an official message forbidding the payment of bribes.

Faced with a costly and near-impossible task as Covid-19 is restricting domestic travel, ‘Sri’ scribbled a note wondering if there might be another solution?  The official said nothing.  She read his body language, went to the toilet to avoid CCTV, and put two Rp 100,000 (AUD 20) bills in the folder.

He said nothing and retuned the folder with the authorised papers but not the money.  This saved her around Rp 10 million (AUD 1,000) for a round trip.

At the next office she presented staff with a cake to keep a counter open when the place was closing for an early lunch. 

It’s illegal for Australians overseas to bribe public officials, a law not in place for many foreigners doing business in Indonesia.  One way round this problem is to use agents.  I met mine in the police driving licence centre under a poster warning agents to keep out.

I was escorted straight to the boss (‘my friend’) who immediately authorised a five-year renewal.  The queue outside had hardly moved.  The cost was Rp 75,000 (AUD 8) plus the standard licence fee.

Investors impressed by Indonesian government urgings to try their luck should understand the law is also gamed.

Jakarta-based Australian lawyer and business consultant Bill Sullivan told Perth think-tank Future Directions International: ‘It is in the interests of too many people to keep the legal and court systems opaque and non-transparent, as well as overtly favourable to Indonesians and overtly disinclined to help foreigners, for the government to be too keen to take on that challenge.’

Indonesia’s place in the World Index of Ease of Doing Business (73) isn’t a statistical glitch about to be corrected.  Civil servants fear reform knowing reskilling will follow and maybe dismissals for those who don’t make the grade.  Better to keep demanding more photocopies, extra signatures, original documents, certificates, letters of recommendation and whatever else can be used to drive citizens to reach for their purses,

There are close to 4.5 million public servants in the country according to Badan Pusat Statistik (Central Statistics Agency).  About 80 per cent work in regional governments – the rest in Jakarta’s ministries and departments.

A job in the public service means a regular income, tenure, a pension and a uniform which wearers believe garners respect – though only to their faces.  Mordant humour is the way Indonesians cope, so here’s a closer:

The Republic is full of honest cops. They’re on the roads everywhere. 

‘Polisi tidur’ - sleeping policeman – is the term for road speed bumps.

Footnote: Australia is lending Indonesia $1.5 billion to help its economy bounce back from the plague.  Jakarta diplomats might care to check Facebook to see who’s flaunting high-end handbags and ensure it has the KPK on speed-dial.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 9 November 2020:



Tuesday, December 08, 2020



                                                        Building a nation of Asian illiterates

Did university administrators know of federal government policies to boost learning about Indonesia before they rushed to slash and burn? Or maybe they knew but are too blinkered to care.

Earlier this year Melbourne’s La Trobe trumpeted its wares: ‘Step into the world of Indonesian culture and language. With Indonesian studies you’ll master listening, speaking, writing and reading a new language while exploring Indonesia’s rich history, politics, art and economics.’

Sounds inviting. Yet a few months later the same campus said it will shutter Indonesian because of consistently low enrolments.

Now it’s the turn of a pioneer in cross-cultural education to dump Indonesian. 

Murdoch academics led by (now retired) Professor David Hill started the non-profit Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies 25 years ago.  The scheme has since sent more than 3,500 students to unis in the Republic.

If the two campuses swing the scythe the ambitions of smart school-leavers to become diplomats, adventurers, international traders, educators and linguaphiles will be slashed. Just a dozen of our 42 unis will be recruiting. In 1992 the language was taught on 22 campuses to around 2,000 students.

Philistines might ask - so what?  Indonesian ranks tenth in the world’s top tongues and is little used outside Southeast Asia. Bengali and Arabic are more widespread.  But the nation of 270 million is tipped to become an economic world power if and when Covid-19 is controlled.

Trading across the Arafura Sea will need departments, NGOs and companies staffed by graduates able to understand our potential partners, build lasting networks, develop trust and cement friendships.   

The more farsighted, including the Australia-Indonesia Business Council which is protesting the planned closures, know we need to be Asia literate.

Here’s where it gets weird: The two uni managements’ proposals clash with the government’s higher education funding scheme.  According to ACICIS director Liam Prince, this is designed to draw students into disciplines like Indonesian ‘deemed to be of national priority, but that historically have struggled to attract large numbers.

‘From next year, completing a language major will cost an Australian undergraduate approximately one quarter of the expense of most other arts, humanities, and social sciences majors.’ But the keen kids won’t be enrolling if there are no courses nearby.

 Last century Indonesian was the most popular Asian language in schools.  Now it’s Mandarin and Japanese. The Bali bombs of 2002 and the Jakarta Embassy blast two years later hastened the switch along with travel warnings

So did the public comments of opinion makers like former WA Liberal Premier Colin Barnett. He told AAP during a visit to Jakarta: 'There are very few parts of the world where meetings aren't conducted in English and they are generally not with interpreters.’

Last month former PM John Howard, who holds ambiguous views on the importance of Indonesia, was reported by the AFR as saying we shouldn’t be anxious about the decline as English was ‘the lingua franca of Asia’.

True in the five-star hotels where polis camp and business and government heavyweights wrestle policies. Many ministers and executives are cosmopolitan, though not Joko Widodo.  The president has a poor command of English, like most outside Jakarta’s inner circle, and has little interest in foreign affairs. 

Although learning the world language is compulsory in Indonesian schools, it’s given little time and badly taught.  Teens can name correlative conjunctions but few can communicate.

The Federal Government’s attempts to promote multilingualism parallel its New Colombo Plan ‘rite of passage’ for Gen Z. 

DFAT says the NCP ‘aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region ... (ensuring the students) have the skills and work-based experiences to contribute to our domestic and the regional economy.’

Before coronavirus crippled travel the scheme was wholly or partly funding about 10,000 students a year heading to 40 countries.

All fine and dandy – but Canberra blew the opportunity to integrate its policies. The Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement came into force in July after ten years haggling.

Widely touted as the dawn of a new bonding, it allows tariff-free entry for our primary produce and Indonesian goods onto our shelves.  As an afterthought a handful of working holiday visas - from 1,000 now to 5,000 in five years.  Last year France, Taiwan and South Korea each sent about 15,000 under-30s.

The IA-CEPA deal could have opened the way for Indonesians to pick fruit for a pittance, pull beers, watch AFL and discover our quirks.  The Jakarta negotiators were keen, ours less so for fear of opening the tabloids’ fearsome floodgates.  Backpacking is officially supposed to ‘promote international understanding by enabling young people to experience the culture of another country.’

The government could have boosted the working holiday visas and scrapped the costly and onerous tourist visa restrictions.  These don’t apply to citizens of nearby nations like Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. 

Sadly no change, so only one cashed-up and determined Indonesian makes it south for every ten Aussies heading to free-visa Bali.

This isn’t just about uni accounting, economics and tourism.  If we don’t encourage more Indonesians into Australia and help Aussies appreciate their neighbour’s mysterious past, complex politics and different values, there won’t be enough ballast to keep the relationship stable and afloat.

So next time there’s an inter-nation stoush, misunderstandings will multiply and myths oust facts, for there’ll be too few knowledgeable voices to gainsay.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 7 December 2020:







Scott Morrison and Yoshihide Suga.