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, September 13, 2021



   Just passing by – got a mo?


marise payne peter dutton

Last week’s visit to Jakarta by Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton (above, image Facebook) was flagged as an ‘exclusive’ in an AFR curtain-raiser implying a renaissance in relations between Australia and Indonesia. That expectation came to naught.

Ahead of the ministers’ arrival two Centre for Policy Development authors on this website and The Jakarta Post offered the passengers some well-meaning though politically unrealistic ideas: ‘The time is right to invest more into the relationship.’ Correct, but as in any successful marriage, the process has to be continuous.

 ‘The stakes are high’. Correct if referring to decaying understandings on either side of the Arafura Sea. But apart from the universal plague and ceaseless South China Sea disputes, P and D saw no pressing issues other than the usual STDs – security, trade and defence.  Proof came with their reports.

A few legally unenforceable MOUs were updated during the one full-day visit, but nothing substantial apart from Dutton flying a test balloon about RI troops training in Australia.  The idea could well pop when human rights supporters take aim. Many are alarmed at the military’s heavy suppression of separatists in West Papua, a province closed to Western journalists.

Whoever dropped the story to the AFR forgot to provide an agenda or add this was a rest-and-refuel while heading to New Delhi, Seoul, Washington and New York for the important stuff.  Instead, it gushed claims of a ‘warm personal relationship’ between Payne and her counterpart Retno Marsudi.

If the alleged link between the ladies is commonplace there’d be no need for any rah-rah about their meeting, or for Dutton to claim the bond is ‘first-rate’.   It’s not, as successive Lowy surveys disclose.

Almost 21 months have passed since the last Australian ministers were in Indonesia.  Then it was Payne with Dutton’s predecessor Linda Reynolds, and the location was Bali, not Smog City. Indonesians haven’t taken to Zoom – they need to eyeball and judge close-up.

The promotion masked the embarrassing reality behind the hi-and-goodbye: The Australian Government takes the people next door, the country with more Muslims than anywhere else and the world’s third-largest democracy for granted.

That’s not only insulting – particularly to the protocol-obsessed Javanese - it’s also foolish.  Whatever goodwill may be in the joint account, history shows it could all be withdrawn with one misjudged action or crass comment. 

Melbourne academics Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae have written: ‘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 (Indonesia, 270 million, Australia less than 10 per cent of that).

‘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.’

If anyone in Canberra had noted this gritty assessment there’d be so many regular get-togethers we’d know Indonesians almost as well as Americans.

For all the misgivings it would be wrong not to recognise the importance of the P and D visit.  The AFR ran comments from experts welcoming the ministers’ ‘overdue’ trip and noting a lack of confabs means ‘Australia risks declining strategic access, influence and relevance.’

The pandemic has been a useful excuse to keep ministers away from the Big Durian, but that hasn’t stopped VIPs visiting the US, Japan, the UK and other countries where Covid threatens as much as it does in the archipelago.

The CPD suggestion that Afghan refugees in RI should be accepted by Australia is morally right – though doomed for base domestic reasons. Australia has banned asylum seekers registered in Indonesia after July 2014 from ever resettling Down Under.

Reversing this ignoble policy would be politically risky; there’ll be an election next year and the 20th anniversary of the Bali Bomb to remind voters of extremism in Indonesia.

 Indonesia isn’t party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees so leaves its 14,000 unwelcome guests to the UNHCR.  Integration of the Afghans would take a leader of courage, but President Joko Widodo is no Angela Merkel.  Nor is Scott Morrison.

In 2015 the German president defied doomsayers and pushed her country to keep its borders open.  The Republic now leads the European Union in taking applications for asylum seekers.

The idea of Canberra and Jakarta working to tackle the Myanmar coup is also meritorious but looking to next year’s Bali Process meeting for solutions is a mite optimistic. The informal, non-binding forum has a poor record, as the CPD’s CEO Travers McLeod knows well. After hundreds of asylum seekers drowned in 2015, he co-authored a paper on the tragedy focusing on the agency’s ineffectiveness.

 What might make the improvements the CPD seeks is to dilute the domestic anxieties which drive foreign policies.  Surveys in both countries reveal public ignorance, indifference and distrust as neither bothers to seriously tackle the negative perceptions and superficial media.

ABC Australia TV, which is supposed to be our showcase in Indonesia and elsewhere is an under-funded, uncoordinated and embarrassing mishmash of parochialism.  Al Jazeera is not threatened.

As widely reported our unis have just about abandoned teaching Indonesian language and studies.  This could be reversed if FM Payne pushed hard enough.

Sadly these serious concerns were not among her talking points.  If her 40-minute online speech reflected the closed-door meetings, it wasn’t worth the hype. The opportunities and urgency seen by others were invisible to the minister.

 The Senator reminded all of Australia’s help in combating Covid – we gave one million doses to a nation of 273 million - but found no time to address the CPD’s submission, substituting an obfuscation of clich├ęs.  Playing fields – always level - got guernseys, but refugees were sidelined.

Indonesians wanting a road map to a real relationship will have to seek other ways. Useless waiting 21 months only to get another circular tour.

First published in Pearls and Irritations 13 September 2021:









Saturday, September 11, 2021





ASEAN - Wikipedia


Why does Australia continue to waste diplomatic time with the ageing and impotent Association of Southeast Asian Nations? The question’s a regular, even asked in a book by former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa, Does ASEAN Matter?

He unconvincingly answered ‘Yes’, citing visa-free access and better trade opportunities for investors keen to tap a market of 662 million.  But that was before the pandemic accelerated a retreat into insularity and Myanmar became a military dictatorship killing citizens, untroubled by the entreaties of its horrified ASEAN colleagues.

What principled business would trade with this regime through an association which won’t expel its most evil member?

The realities of the collective’s inutility are now on show with the latest analysis by the Australia-ASEAN Chamber of Commerce (AustCham).  The advocacy group says its report arrives at a critical moment with a ‘general malaise’ apparent:

‘While this malaise was fermenting before the arrival of Covid-19, the pandemic has heightened the growing commercial concerns of Australian business … The bullishness that Australian businesses have long held about ASEAN’s commercial prospects now appears to be fading.’

ASEAN is supposed to be concerned with security and the ‘socio-cultural community’ though primarily an economic grouping.  This suggests an Asian version of the European Common Market, but that’s like comparing push carts with trucks.

Remembering how and why ASEAN was conceived also shows why it’s time to retire.

That won’t please Indonesians proud of helping create the cluster in 1967 with four near neighbours - Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore as an anti-communist block. The HQ is in Jakarta.

ASEAN is now ten strong and better known for what it doesn’t do than its successes. Two members are Red – Vietnam and Laos, with Cambodia sticking close to China.

There are four in some form of democracy (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines) two military dictatorships (Thailand and Myanmar) and one authoritarian sultanate (Brunei). Apart from the former Siam, all were once ruled by colonial powers. Now the only glue is recent history, geography and being Asian.  The language used in deliberations is English – the tongue of a former colonial power.


ASEAN: Sejarah, Negara Pendiri, Negara Anggota, hingga Tujuan Dibentuk

Occasionally it’s suggested Australia bids to up its status from ‘dialogue partner’ to a seat at the table. That idea is doomed as participants show no appetite for welcoming their southern neighbour, while proposers never muster enough energy to propel their agenda.

In 2018 President Joko Widodo responded to a journalist’s question saying Australian membership was a ‘good idea’.  Some thought this meant active encouragement.

Aaron Connelly, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Project tweeted: ‘Reality check: Australia has not been invited to join ASEAN, and will not be invited to join ASEAN in our lifetimes. Jokowi (Widodo) was offering a ‘Javanese response’, trying to be polite.’

ASEAN’s rules insist on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs so  statements after each forum are gems of polished verbosity disguising ineptitude.


Critics get squashed by charges of cultural racism, lectured that clumsy Westerners don’t appreciate the ‘ASEAN Way’ of quiet consultation and resolution by consensus, but some Asians are getting brave.


Indonesian diplomat Bahana Menggala Bara – who works in the Bulgarian Embassy - wrote in The Jakarta Post: ‘The ASEAN approach tends to focus on the process instead of the result... As a regional grouping, ASEAN has four major weaknesses: The tendency to prioritize national over regional interests, weak leadership, ineffective bureaucratic structure and purely emulating the Western approach.’

Worries about ASEAN’s values and virtues pre-date the plague and focus on protectionism. Tariffs and other barriers run counter to the free trade agreement signed between Australia and NZ with ASEAN in 2010.

Concerns also depend on which country is being discussed.  At one end of the scale is Myanmar writhing in the crisis following the February coup engineered by the military (Tatmadaw) alleging irregularities in the 2020 general election won by the National League for Democracy.

At the other extreme is stable Singapore, ranked second by the World Bank for ease of doing business (NZ is just ahead), and third globally in Transparency International’s anti-corruption index. A key issue in the Lion City is pedestrian, not ideological - the cost of office space.

ASEAN’s biggest economy is Indonesia.  Here the hazard list includes bureaucracy, weak law enforcement, complex tax systems, unfair business practices – and corruption, a sickness in other countries including Malaysia. 

The Republic’s TI Index position is 73, not a figure exciting confidence.  Other problems are costs of labour and access to skilled workers.

These are issues only the national government can fix.  President Widodo says he wants foreign money and has pushed through some economic reforms.  However, the determination to destroy graft has waned.

This month The Jakarta Post editorialised on the performance of the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi   (Corruption Eradication Commission KPK) ‘once known as the most respected institution in the country’ but now suffering from a ‘tainted image’ and deepening ‘public distrust’.  The damnations follow exposure of alleged breaches of ethics codes by senior staff.

Indonesia’s so-called Omnibus Law cleans up some regulations hampering investments while the Job Creation Law is supposed to make hiring and firing easier.  However without an independent and vigorous authority overseeing the rules, in many cases it will be business as usual. Unions’ opposition to the legislation continues.

The AustCham report carried this caution: ‘Australia’s investment in and trade with Indonesia remains well below that of neighbouring, yet smaller, economies in Southeast Asia. While opportunities exist, Australian businesses need to assess their own capabilities and adapt them to effectively benefit from Indonesia’s market.’

The courageous focus on professional services, like education, health, the environment and marketing.  Most Australian businesses in the region have less than ten employees and an annual turnover below $1 million.  They also avoid trade and investment agreements.  In other words, they’re small shows and lone rangers.

AustCham: ‘The ASEAN Australian business environment has deteriorated over the last year, building on a trend first seen in the 2020 survey … the health of the ASEAN Australian business community is in decline.’

The 25-page report has much useful information and tries to see opportunities in the downturn, but overall it’s a depressing document.

The message to by-pass ASEAN isn’t new. Back in 2018 former FM Julie Bishop sent investors a nod-and-a-wink in a London speech damning ASEAN with faint praise according to Lowy Institute’s Euan Graham.

She described the association as ‘an example of regional multilateral institutions that do not impose obligations or commitments on … members who are free to negotiate their own arrangements.’

Australia doesn’t need to deal with ASEAN to access markets– an FTA was signed with Indonesia last year after a decade of haggling.  There are also bi-lateral agreements with Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

ASEAN is an old horse that’s been eating well in the pension paddock. He was sick long before 2019 and is getting worse.  Time for AustCham to call the vet.

First published in Australian Outlook, 10 September 2021:

. Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist and author living in Indonesia.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021



Well, Hi there.  We’re here to help and know what you want

This op-ed from The Washington Post is not about Indonesia – but the issues it canvasses are relevant.  Sure, we’re not an occupying army but so many foreigners live in gated communities, meet in hotels and only deal with other bule – or well-educated locals who speak English - yet say they want to build deep and long-lasting relationships


I was a combat interpreter in Afghanistan, where cultural illiteracy led to U.S. failure


Opinion by Baktash Ahadi

Baktash Ahadi served U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces as a combat interpreter from 2010 to 2012 and is a former chair of the State Department’s Afghan Familiarization course. He is working on a memoir of his service in Afghanistan.

Like many Afghan Americans, I have spent much of the past few weeks trying to secure safe passage from Afghanistan for family, friends and colleagues, with tragically limited success. I also know that many Americans have been asking: Why is this crazy scramble necessary? How could Afghanistan have collapsed so quickly?

As a former combat interpreter who served alongside U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces, I can tell you part of the answer — one that’s been missing from the conversation: culture.

When comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. To many Americans, that may seem an outlandish claim. The coalition, after all, poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It built highways. It emancipated Afghan women. It gave millions of people the right to vote for the first time ever.

All true. But the Americans also went straight to building roads, schools and governing institutions — in an effort to “win hearts and minds” — without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds. We thus wound up acting in ways that would ultimately alienate everyday Afghans.

First, almost all representatives of Western governments — military and civilian — were required to stay “inside the wire,” meaning they were confined at all times to Kabul’s fortified Green Zone and well-guarded military bases across the country.

Each of my own trips to visit family in Kabul was a breach for which I could have been disciplined. But I’m glad I broke the rules. If my colleagues had been allowed to enjoy the same experiences — the scent of kebab in Shahr-e Naw, the hustle and bustle of Qala-e Fathullah — they might have developed a much better feel for the country, its people and its culture.

As it was, however, virtually the only contact most Afghans had with the West came via heavily armed and armoured combat troops. Americans thus mistook the Afghan countryside for a mere theatre of war, rather than as a place where people actually lived. U.S. forces turned villages into battlegrounds, pulverizing mud homes and destroying livelihoods. One could almost hear the Taliban laughing as any sympathy for the West evaporated in bursts of gunfire.

Sometimes, yes, we built good things — clinics, schools, wells. But when the building was done, we would simply leave. The Taliban would not only destroy those facilities, but also look upon the local community with greater suspicion for having received “gifts” from America.

Second, the front-line troops were given zero training in cultural literacy. The Marines I worked with were shocked, for example, to hear me exchanging favourite Koran verses with my fellow Afghans, mistaking this for extremism rather than shared piety. When talking to Afghan villagers, the Marines would not remove their sunglasses — a clear indication of untrustworthiness in a country that values eye contact. In some cases, they would approach and directly address village women, violating one of rural Afghanistan’s strictest cultural norms.

Faux pas such as these sound almost comically basic, and they are. But multiplied over millions of interactions throughout the United States’ two decades of wheel-spinning in Afghanistan, they cost us dearly in terms of local support.

From the point of view of many Afghans, Americans might as well have been extraterrestrials, descending out of the black sky every few weeks, looking and acting alien, and always bringing disruption, if not outright ruin. We failed to understand what made sense for Afghans time and time again. No wonder the Taliban maintained such sway over the past 20 years.

Before long, U.S. troops will be back in Afghanistan, and for the same reason we invaded in 2001: Already, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorists are regrouping, as recent attacks make clear. And next time, it will be even harder for the West to garner support, given our betrayal of our Afghan allies.

This isn’t just about Afghanistan. When it comes to cultural illiteracy, America is a recidivist. We failed to understand Iraqi culture, too, so that now, many Iraqis see Iran as the lesser of two evils. Before that, we failed to understand Vietnam. And so on. Wherever our relentless military adventurism takes us next, we must do better.

Source:  The Washington Post 1 Sept 2021:


Tuesday, August 31, 2021


Indonesia jails former minister for Covid-19 aid graft

by Ryan Dagur in Jakarta

Ex-social affairs minister Juliari Batubara gets 12 years for bribery in connection with procuring aid packages for the poor.


Former social affairs minister Juliari Peter Batubara, a Protestant, has been jailed for 12 years for taking bribes in connection with the procurement of Covid-19 relief packages. (Photo courtesy of Social Affairs Ministry)

An Indonesian court has sentenced a Christian former cabinet minister to 12 years in prison for embezzling more than US$2 million in Covid-19 relief program funds.

The Jakarta Corruption Court also fined Juliari Batubara, a Protestant and former social affairs minister, 500 million rupiah ($34,732) in lieu of six months' imprisonment.

Sentencing on Aug. 23 was conducted by video link due to Covid-19 social restrictions.

Batubara, who belongs to the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, was convicted of taking $2.25 million in bribes in connection with the procurement of Covid-19 aid packages containing basic necessities distributed in Jakarta and surrounding areas in May-December last year.

As a result, people were given aid packages of poor quality.

He reportedly spent around $1.05 million of the money, which the court ordered him to pay back. The court, which said Batubara was "convincingly guilty of corruption," also banned him from public office for four years after serving his prison term.

They should provide a deterrent effect as well as recover assets resulting from corruption

Batubara denied any wrongdoing and his lawyer Maqdir Ismail said they were considering filing an appeal. "The sentence was very harsh," he said.

A Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) spokesman praised the prison sentence and the additional penalties.

“They should provide a deterrent effect as well as recover assets resulting from corruption,” Ali Fikri said.

Trisno Raharjo, a legal and human rights official at Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization, called the sentence too lenient, especially as Batubara did not apologize for his actions.

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"This shows he has no concern or compassion for people affected by the pandemic," he said.

Batubara was the fourth minister under President Joko Widodo to be convicted for graft.

They included former sports minister Imam Nahrawi, who was convicted and jailed for seven years on June 29 last year for accepting $1.4 million in bribes and gratuities.


 Source: Union of Catholic Asian News 24 August 2021.  Link: