Monday, May 7, 2012

Australia does not have to shout to be heard in Asia

If our dealings with Jakarta are any guide, the Asian century might pass us by.

THE federal government thinks Australia is uniquely placed to benefit from what's being called the Asian century - the rapid transformation and growing strength of the countries in what we like to refer to as ''our'' region. Our regard for Asian nations as a potential mercantile cornucopia is not new. Fulfilling our ambitions is another matter. These days it's particularly tricky, given that we are scarcely on speaking terms with the neighbours.

Our nearest neighbours, 240 million of them, are in Indonesia, on our doorstep. Yet the number of Australians who can speak their language is dwindling. University Indonesian language courses are in terminal decline. As language skills erode, so does Australia's expertise in Indonesian history, society, culture and politics.

Experts warn that our collective ignorance means Australian businesses risk losing out on Indonesia's predicted economic growth, which will make it one of the five largest economies in the world by the middle of the century. Yet Australian business executives sit in meetings in Jakarta, ignorant of what Indonesians at the table are saying.

We are oblivious to risks, as well. Most of the police we send to Indonesia to fight terrorism, people smuggling and organised crime can't speak Indonesian. After the 2002 Bali bombings, our intelligence agencies struggled to translate material relating to terrorist networks.

Education policies seem designed to obstruct those of us motivated to get to know the neighbours - not because we think we can make a dollar off them, or because we see them as a potential threat. Wanting to get to know the neighbours is, well, the neighbourly thing to do. Every year, tens of thousands of schoolchildren start learning Indonesian; every year, 10,000 drop out. 

Students who stick with the language haven't been able to make study trips to Indonesia because of a 10-year government travel warning, which was eased only on Friday.

Our politicians used to be accused of excessive deference to Jakarta, when it was ruled by Suharto and his generals. These days, our politicians on both sides risk going to the other extreme, engaging in megaphone diplomacy that would offend a distant Western partner, let alone a neighbour with whom we have a sensitive and at times strained relationship.

Consider Tony Abbott's maladroit declaration that, if elected, he would fly to Jakarta in his first week - not to get to know our most important neighbours, but to tell them what to do: stop the boats carrying refugees bound for Australia. Mr Abbott doesn't need to be a scholar attuned to Asian sensitivities to know that publicly pushing Indonesia into a corner is not the way to get things done. It needs empathy and imagination. After all, how would he feel if an Indonesian leader stepped off a plane in Canberra and told him what to do?

The Labor government's performance has been no better: witness its melodramatic response to the arrest of a teenage boy in Bali on drug charges; its bungled plans for a regional refugee processing centre; its abrupt decision to end live cattle exports to Indonesia.

The government insists relations have never been stronger, yet opinion polls show enduring popular suspicion, despite the transformation that has swept Indonesia since Suharto's demise in 1998. For all its complex flaws, Indonesia is a democracy, with rumbustious political debate and thriving media and arts scenes. Yet we tried harder to understand it and cared more about it 40 years ago, when we had a White Australia policy and it was in the grip of a brutal dictator.

Overcoming our national blindness doesn't mean we all have to become linguists or fans of Javanese culture. It requires national leadership to ensure our schools and universities get the funding they deserve, so our children grow up learning about ''our'' region and who lives in it. While we wait for leadership, our politicians can set an example. They can start by not shouting across the fence. The Age, Melbourne

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