This year's Lowy Institute poll reveals Australians' lack knowledge of Indonesia and a pronounced mistrust of our northern neighbour. Only 33% of Australians agree that Indonesia is a democracy, fifteen years and three rounds of democratic elections after the fall of Suharto's authoritarian regime. 54% think Australia is right to worry about Indonesia as a military threat. Meanwhile, only North Korea and Iran rank significantly below Indonesia on the annual thermometer scale of warmth of feelings towards selected countriesWhy? Two reasons that readily come to mind is that this is part of an overall aversion to engagement with Asia, or that hostility to Indonesia is part of a broader hostility to non-democracies. But at first glance, the poll results do not emphatically bear out either explanation.
Australians appear to see value in engaging with Asia. This year's poll was fielded roughly six months after the release of the Asian Century White Paper, and shows 75% of Australians feel either that the Government has its emphasis on Asia about right or that it should be doing more.
On democracy, no clear pattern is evident. Several non-democratic states — Singapore, Fiji and Vietnam — in fact rank well above Indonesia in terms of favourable feelings.
One thing that does appear to be an important contributor to Australian attitudes is the underdeveloped state of people-to-people relations. With many Australians having never meaningfully engaged with Indonesia, knowledge deficits persist, as do prejudices. When bilateral controversies arise, as they regularly do, the lack of interaction creates space to generate further negative public opinion.
Many, myself included, have highlighted the need for the Australian Government to exercise leadership to improve people-to-people ties. But increasing Australians' knowledge of Indonesia should also be the responsibility of the Indonesian Government. For each country, if they value the relationship, it is time to invest in it.Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Beawiharta.