Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Indonesia Must Learn to Play Well With Others in Global Community


The Indonesian public’s perception of both Brazil and Australia has reached a nadir. In an unprecedented move, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff decided to postpone accepting the credentials of the Indonesian ambassador-designate while having invited him to the palace for his first audience.

To add fuel to Indonesia’s patriotic fire, the Australian prime minister tactlessly reminded Jakarta of Canberra’s generous tsunami aid to Aceh, which didn’t strike the right note, either. Yet, amid our righteous anger, something doesn’t smell right.

A regular contributor in Kompasiana, Indonesia’s forum for citizen journalism, wrote “the maneuvers by both Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Australian PM Tony Abbott were meant to bully President Joko Widodo as a newcomer to international politics.”

“They know that Joko has humble beginnings; they know Joko was not born into Indonesia’s political elite.”

Written by a by no means uneducated Indonesian, the views, regrettably, reflect the level of ignorance generated by our largely self-imposed isolation in relation with the outside world.

This in turn has led us to become insular, in the sense we largely fail to view events in the proper perspective.

Firstly, it is hardly normal practice for international statesmen and women to bully new leaders into submission, in what sounds like a feudal court intrigue to establish a pecking order.

The theory admittedly may be true for Indonesia’s own domestic politics.

The initial difficulties Joko faced in building a legislative coalition to support his government definitely suggest as much. The practice of “perploncoan,” in which newcomers are humiliated into submission, is common in the military, police and civil service academies.

Further, the idea that the leader of a nation can be insulted because of his or her humble beginnings better reflects Indonesia’s own social conditions than those of the international diplomatic community.

Tony Abbott, for one, can hardly be accused of looking down on Joko’s being the son of a carpenter. In fact, the Australian prime minister was descended from a carpenter himself: Abbott’s
maternal grandfather Anthony Bredschneijder Peters was one by trade.

The obsessive curiosity about a leader’s lineage is also more Indonesian than Australian.

It is highly doubtful many Australians even know what Tony Abbott’s father did for a living. By contrast, most Indonesians are familiar with such details concerning Joko.

The mere fact that many Indonesians project our own values and standards onto foreigners and then judge them negatively suggests our own lack of international awareness.

Instead of making the effort to study the cultures and traditions of our neighbors, we expect them to study ours and respect our sensibilities, while we continue to wallow in our own self-centeredness.

In the current death penalty spat, Australia, being a Western country, is an easy target for our pseudo- and ultra-nationalists.

Today’s nationalists, surprisingly, still adhere to what state propagandists under President Sukarno preached: that we are the victims of global Western neocolonialism.

Much of our isolation in awareness from the rest of the world stems from this almost fundamentalist belief that the West seeks to recolonize us. The supposedly arrogant attitude of the Australian prime minister in demanding exemptions from our laws for drug smugglers who happen to be Australians is inevitably seen in this light.

However, as chance would have it, Brazil, the next challenger to our judicial sovereignty, is not exactly a First-World nation. A developing country like Indonesia, Brazil was also once a Western colony.

Despite what Joko said during his presidential campaign, it’s not true that Indonesians lack confidence when dealing with foreigners.

Most of the time, we are so insular that we are ignorant of our own identity. The recent protests outside the Malaysian Embassy, denouncing Malaysia’s alleged attempt to claim “Lumpia Semarang” or the Semarang spring rolls as its own, are as misguided as they are embarrassing.

Though synonymous with the city of Semarang for us Indonesians, spring rolls are Chinese in origin, first introduced by Chinese immigrants.

It is perhaps fortunate that the Chinese government hasn’t decided to contest our naming it as Indonesian heritage food.

Our insularity is also evident when our citizens live abroad. Generally speaking, Indonesian expatriates tend to associate with fellow Indonesians. As a result, Indonesian expatriate communities across the globe are largely invisible as far as their hosts are concerned.

What we forget is that a vigorous Indonesian diaspora community can only raise Indonesia’s own profile abroad.

By comparison, last year’s vibrant receptions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the Indian diaspora in both the United States and Australia were an unmistakable tour de force for Indian soft power in the West.

Our insular mentality can only be harmful to our own interests as a nation. Our rigid stance on the death penalty for drug traffickers has already embroiled us in unnecessary bickering with partners such as Brazil and Australia.

Letting a narrow view of nationalism guide our foreign policy is like opening Pandora’s box; we can never predict what sort of quagmire we may end up in.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at


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