Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Embrace of Mutual Ignorance: Australia and Indonesia

Sunrise at the Borobudur temple in the student city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia

BEMOANING our ignorance of Indonesia is a (minor) national sport but our big neighbour to the north is hardly steeped in Australiana.

In a provocative talk this week, the Australian National University’s Greg Fealy touched on the Lowy Institute poll as a regular reminder of how little many Australians know about Indonesia.

But, he told the Asia Education Foundation’s conference in Sydney, he suspected that awareness of Australia among Indonesians was “far lower”.

A colleague searching for books about Australia by Indonesians so far had found just one: Ratih Harjono’s 1993 work White Tribe of Asia.

And Dr Fealy knew of only two theses, written by Indonesians who came here to study, which dealt with Australian themes: one on the machinations of Sydney’s Leichhardt council, the other on Victoria’s car industry.

He suspected the great majority of Indonesian postgraduates in Australia were studying Indonesian topics; he said Indonesia was “a remarkably inward-looking country”.

And although the usual complaint is that too few Australians choose to experience Indonesia as students, nonetheless hundreds did go there each year to study Indonesian language, history and culture.

It was true that journalists mangled the pronunciation of Indonesian names, and even ministers with a lot of government business in Indonesia “would struggle to write more than one A4 page about the country,” Dr Fealy said.

But knowledge of Australia among Indonesia’s political class was also weak.

“If we look at this level of mutual ignorance, it’s amazing that relations work as well as they do,” he said.

When things did not go well, a common refrain was that no two neighbouring countries were so different.

Yet for years Malaysia had been Indonesia’s most disliked neighbour, despite their points of similarity, and behind the facade of South-East Asian unity Indonesia’s neighbours were wont to complain about Indonesia.

“It might be that the troubles that Australia has with Indonesia are not particularly unique (although) it’s sometimes the case that Australia is an easier target,” he said.

“Indonesia is very parochial. (I’m told that) in its foreign affairs ministry there is one diplomat who has fluent Mandarin (and almost no-one) who has much knowledge of India.

“(Despite Indonesia’s) ambition to be a global player (its) diplomacy overall is chronically underperforming.”

Dr Fealy questioned the belief that relations would blossom if only deep knowledge of Indonesia could push aside popular prejudice and media stereotype.

“If you (as educators) were wonderfully successful and we had thousands of Australians students learning Indonesian — knowing who Sukarno was, knowing about (the old empire of) Majapahit — it might actually make no difference at all to how the two countries get on,” he said. The Australian

1 comment:

  1. Pieties About Indonesia ‘Are Bad Psychology’
    IT’S not often you hear an Indonesia expert tick off a politician for talking up the importance of the relationship with our northern neighbour.

    Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s habit of talking up relations with Indonesia was bad psychology. Former Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were also guilty of this rhetorical excess but Fealy suggested the “homespun” language of Abbott made it more obvious.

    The Prime Minister has anointed the Canberra-Jakarta axis as “in many respects Australia’s most important overall relationship”. Last week, opening an exhibition of Balinese art, Abbott painted Indonesia as our “most important neighbour”.

    “You never hear an Indonesian say that about Australia (and its importance to Indonesia),”. “And the more we say it, the more it inflates Indonesians’ sense of self-importance. It reinforces this notion that they are now a nation that is ascendant and in a superior position to Australia.

    “Indonesia sees itself as on the cusp of becoming a global power — an economic and a strategic power — and by some reckonings it is already a top 10 nation in the world economically. This means increasingly Indonesia is looking north, it’s not looking south — it’s much more preoccupied with what’s happening in Europe, North America, north Asia and the Middle East. It’s less and less concerned about what’s happening with Australia.”

    There’s been plenty of commentary about Abbott’s off-again, on-again relations with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Those highs and lows have been exaggerated, but there may be serious difficulty just ahead.

    On July 9, Indonesia’s next president will be chosen. There are two candidates: a former special services commander, Prabowo Subianto, and Jakarta’s reformist governor Joko Widodo.

    Prabowo is talented but volatile and his campaign has taken, at times, a xenophobic turn.

    This “spells trouble for Australia”, whether it’s Prabowo or Jokowi who is installed as SBY’s successor in October. “They are likely to take a far less accommodatory role towards Australia,” . The “combustible” temperament of Prabowo — he has not taken kindly to questions about his human rights record — would make things especially unpredictable.

    Take the turning back of boats, a practice that appears offensive to Indonesia’s sense of sovereignty.

    “At the very least he could quickly whip up anti-Australian sentiment to a level not seen since the East Timor crisis of 1999 — he may have even decided he’s going to deploy naval resources,”. “What price are we willing to pay to not have any boats coming to Australia? At the moment, we’re not paying much of a price.”