Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bali blinkers must come off for Australians

The inauguration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was a notable event, not just for the fact that a former furniture salesman from well outside the country’s elite was being sworn in as its leader, but that it briefly put the city of Jakarta at the top of news bulletins in Australia and around the world.

You may be scratching your head at this notion, given Indonesia is regularly in the news abroad, especially in its antipodean neighbor to the south. Any mention there of the vexed issues of immigration, border security and terrorism usually carries a response from “Jakarta”.

However, this shorthand for the views of the Indonesian government doesn’t account for the city itself.

The Jokowi inauguration — an event of almost American-style pomp and ceremony, where the incoming leader was feted by thousands in the streets — did what most other stories about Indonesia don’t.

It actually featured pictures of the people and places of this vast city, which despite its size, status and strategic importance, remains largely out of sight and out of mind for most Australians.

The Australian blindness to the Indonesian capital was on perfect display a few weeks ago when I was preparing to leave Australia and take up a position in Indonesia teaching English as a second language.

Given it is the seat of power for Australia’s closest and most important neighbor and with a population of nearly 20 million it is the largest city in the region, I was naively expecting to book a direct flight from Melbourne to Jakarta.

Instead I was to find that there are no direct flights to the Indonesian capital. My trip to Jakarta was going via Denpasar.

While obviously a testament to commercial reality, the fact that even Garuda Indonesia — Indonesia’s national carrier — sends its flights from Australia via a holiday island, says it all about the low esteem with which Australians view Indonesia’s capital and the rest of this country outside of Bali.

If the political rhetoric of Indonesia being Australia’s most important relationship and the two countries being co-dependent is in any way true, then this is something that surely has to change.

This shouldn’t be misconstrued as an attempt to spruce up Jakarta as some sort of tourist destination.

Nearly three weeks into my stint here, this fascinating city is nonetheless chaotic, difficult to get around and at times alarmingly polluted. But it is also strikingly wealthy, developed, interesting and its people unfailingly friendly.

And contrary to the rants of some Australian politicians who were busy scaremongering about women in Islamic headdress when I left, the multitudes of women wearing the hijab do not appear repressed or brimming with anti-Western hatred, but are among the most friendly and inquisitive people I’ve encountered.

The country that boasts more Muslims than any other and where mosques are as frequent as 7/11 stores, seems to worship the sort of moderate Islam that conservative commentators in Australia are adamant does not exist.

  Jakarta provides an insight into the sort of country 21st century Indonesia really is, in a way that many Australians will never know while it remains out of the news and ignored in favor of Bali. This isn’t to sneer at the other passengers on my flight to Denpasar who were already slapping on the sunscreen while I was still making my way from the international to domestic terminal.

Flying in, I could see why they find the island endlessly attractive. The pristine blue water gave way to dramatic cliffs, lush greenery and as we got closer, a beach that appeared almost perfect except for the knowledge that an Airbus A330 was about to land on top of it.

The runway finally appeared just as it seemed the plane was about to surf in on the waves. I immediately felt like blowing off Jakarta and putting on some board shorts.

But Bali is a tourist attraction that both geographically and culturally, is an island from the rest of this country. A quintessential Indonesian experience it is not. One suspects that if cheaper prices and the exotic thrill of a passport stamp were on offer, many of my fellow passengers would’ve sooner gone to the Gold Coast.

Rhetoric and handshakes are fine and one hopes that Jokowi, despite facing a difficult domestic agenda, will prove to be just as positive toward Australia as former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was.

But these two countries will only truly engage if the handshakes and small talk start happening well away from the political arena.

For Australia, that means the — Bali blinkers must come off.

The author
Cade Lucas,is a teacher, writer and broadcaster from Australia who has recently moved to Jakarta to teach English.


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