Monday, March 23, 2015

Treading the tightrope between Indonesia and Australia


Some say that business, politics, governments and the media are always in collision with each other and sometimes intertwined, but as far as trade relations between Indonesia and Australia are concerned, the real issue is knowing when and where to draw the line and at what point the two should agree, disagree, or agree to disagree.


In terms of cultural background, Australia and Indonesia have never been the same and most likely will never be the same, but that does not mean nations cannot have a common goal as trading partners. It is precisely because the two countries are so different that each side needs to accommodate the culture and values of the other.In the Australian media, discussions concerning Indonesia that have resulted in strained relations between the two countries include issues centering on Bali holiday safety, the Australian government’s policy on asylum seekers, Indonesia’s cattle import bans and the tapping and spying scandal against former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.


More recently, media coverage on the pending executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has become the newest reason Australians feel the need to treat their closest neighbor with a deep sense of caution, perhaps even an unknown fear. Meanwhile, to the average Indonesian, these are issues that are hardly worth thinking about.What is worth thinking about, according to the Indonesian media, are issues such as claims about how Australian frozen beef exporters have falsified the weight of their products by adding water to their packaging, or how the types of livestock exported to Indonesia are unable to breed. The Indonesian public has often weighed in, but their comments are often ill-informed; for example, they are unaware that beef is prepared and weighed before it is frozen. Also, as a country with five times more cattle than people, Australia does not need to cheat when supplying cattle and will only send what has been ordered; therefore, if cattle can’t breed in Indonesia it is because of other reasons.Australians are many things due to the country’s multicultural society, but they are not dishonest. Print media can be scathing, but social media makes it much harder to manage crises and much easier to ignore the truth.


Australians too are ignorant of Indonesia being a multiracial and multi-religious society, where citizens respect each other while developing at a much faster rate than Australia into what is now a solid democracy. Of course, every country has a small minority that seems to always want to do harm, but because Australians seldom venture past Bali and because most unquestioningly believe what they hear from other sources, the majority of Australians miss out on experiencing an Indonesia which would have left them feeling pleasantly surprised.


So what happens now as tensions rise due to the pending executions of the Australians? Will the considerable efforts of the Indonesian Diaspora in Australia, and their supporters within business-to-business and people-to-people relationships, again be destroyed by the politics and antics of both governments? As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian business delegation led by Trade Minister Andrew Robb planned for this month has been shelved, while some activities scheduled for INDOfest — the largest Indonesian festival in Australia held annually in Adelaide — have been postponed with sponsors pulling out and concerns being raised about Indonesians’ at the event. This may put a dent in two-way trade between the countries which, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade amounted to AUD$14.9 billion in 2013.It also will not help increase Australia’s investment in Indonesia, totaling AUD$10.9 billion in 2013, nor of Indonesia’s investment in Australia, worth AUD$959 million that year.


As both an Australia-based businesswoman and non-politician — but politically-aware — member of the Indonesian Diaspora, I realize that tensions over the fate of the Australians on death row make for an uneasy relationship between the people of the two countries. In the past, my Indonesian background has allowed me to assist potential trade and investment partners from Australia in their search for opportunities in Indonesia; as a business practitioner, political turbulences have never been an obstacle since business opportunities normally arise when there is a challenge to be faced; therefore requiring both sides to turn a challenge into an opportunity. However, from the Australian side people are currently unsure of how the situation will play out post-execution. The brittle relations caused by the latest incident are unhealthy for business, despite the issue being a government-to-government one.


In October 2013, Women in Global Business (WIGB) — a joint initiative of the Australian state and territory governments — held a speaker series on “Engaging with Asia” for women business owners and senior decision makers needing advice and assistance on growing businesses internationally. I shared the highlights of engaging with Indonesia, on how to get a foothold in Indonesia and the benefits of internationalizing. The response was overwhelmingly positive, leading to plans for the launch of an Indonesian chapter of WIGB and a visit to Jakarta by a delegation of Western Australia WIGB members. Under the plan, 25 Australian businesswomen from diverse fields — including mining, agriculture, education and tourism — would be flown in to Jakarta at the end of this month to meet 75 of their Indonesian counterparts. I am committed to helping Indonesians adapt the most advanced technologies developed overseas to make Indonesia a better place, but sadly, politics may get in the way of this. However, I have no fear, nor do I feel the need to stop any Australian wishing to travel to Indonesia regardless of the political climate.


Hopefully, the issue of the pending executions of the two Australians will be treated as an isolated case and not turned into a political football field, while law is being applied without interference. To my Australian colleagues and members of Australian trade delegations, I emphasize the huge opportunities that Indonesia has to offer, while assuring them that it is not disrespectful to the families of the Australians on death row if the executions happen to take place during business and trade events. A lot of effort has gone into promoting Indonesia in Australia and it is in the interests of both nations to work hard to ensure that the relationship continues and trust in each other is reestablished. This a challenging situation but if we can continue to cooperate across a whole range of areas, things will surely run smoothly again, and the two nations will continue to build trust and belief in each other’s endeavors and that will become their strength. By Astrid Vasile, a cofounder and chairperson of the Australia-Indonesia Businesswomen’s Network (AIBN), current president of the Indonesian Diaspora Network Western Australia .

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