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