Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Context Is Key to Australia-Indonesia Ties


Hardly had the dust of the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran settled than there was a new spat between Indonesia and Australia. Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry is now hard on Canberra’s heels for an official “explanation” of the alleged bribery of human traffickers turned back by Australian border officials. Relations between the two neighbors have long been prone to crisis and the current standoff represents another nadir.

Indonesia’s very bullish, public demand for an explanation is unusual in its directness. It is almost as if Jakarta is trying to give Canberra a taste of its own medicine, given the latter’s “megaphone” diplomacy in the lead up of the executions of the “Bali Nine” duo sometime ago.

The perennially fragile relationship between the two countries can also be understood through the concept of “high-context culture” and its opposite “low-context culture,” first introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book “Beyond Culture.”

In general, a low-context culture is more individualistic, allowing differences and diversity in opinions among its members which in turn force them to develop better communications skills to avoid conflict. It follows that a low-context culture tends to see vigorous dialog as a means of problem solving.

By contrast, members of a high-context culture tend to avoid explicit discussions, preferring symbols and subtle gestures to convey meaning. A high-context culture likes to preserve harmony and peace among its members through complex social etiquette. This is an understandable ploy when arguments are often personalized.

However, no culture is wholly high-context or its opposite; any culture can produce both high-context and low-context behavior. Indonesia is predominantly high-context but, as its recent badgering of Australia  shows, it can also act in a low-context mode. On the other hand, Australia is largely a low-context culture, as most English-speaking countries are.

As a rule, a high-context culture can turn out low-context behavior when extraordinary intimacy between two parties develops or, more ominously, when sufficient offense is perceived to have been committed by one party. Unfortunately, in the context of Indonesia-Australia relations, the latter seems to be the case this time. Jakarta acts as if all the necessary niceties have been deployed, but to no avail, and hence it no longer troubles to observe the usual elaborate etiquette with its southern neighbor.

Indonesia is currently bent on showing its displeasure with Australia more openly. No longer  burdened by having to rationalize its behavior, Jakarta for example deliberately excluded Australia from the recently approved list of 45 countries whose passport-bearers can now enter the country without a visa.

Throughout the furor over the alleged bribery of human traffickers, Indonesian officials have been anything but diplomatic. Arrmanatha Nasir, the spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, couldn’t refrain from a jibe aimed at Australia, saying “My point is this: countries that are parties to the convention on refugees have a responsibility to ensure they believe in what they sign.” Though Arrmanatha correctly denied he had specifically referred to Australia, it was difficult to avoid such a conclusion since Australia is a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, while Indonesia isn’t.

The divide between high-context Indonesia and low-context Australia couldn’t be more evident than throughout the row over the death penalty earlier this year. Both the Australian government and media  conducted a public campaign to have the death sentences for Chan and Sukumaran commuted, which didn’t sit well at all with Indonesia.

The options Australia proposed of paying for their upkeep or alternatively carrying out an exchange of prisoners were also openly discussed, much to Jakarta’s apparent consternation. Indeed, Canberra’s offers  might have been more palatable to Jakarta if they had been made using less explicit language or not announced publicly at all.

It is definitely time that Canberra restructured  its strategy towards Jakarta. Yet this needn’t mean that everything has to be on Jakarta’s terms. While the delivery should certainly be more suited to a high-context culture, total acquiescence to Indonesia at the expense of Australian values hasn’t always yielded satisfactory results.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s meeting with president Suharto in 1974, during which he reportedly lent support for the latter’s belief that Timor Leste should join Indonesia, was a high-context act of appeasement, in the sense Whitlam placed the relations between the two countries above other considerations. However, it put Australia on the wrong side of history; and when Timor Leste seceded from Indonesia in 1999, Indonesian nationalists conveniently forgot the 1974 tacit support and even went as far as suggesting that Australia had vested interests in seeing an independent Timor Leste.

An example of engagement between two low-context cultures was perhaps Whitlam’s 1972 cable to US president Richard Nixon, protesting against the “Christmas bombings” by US forces of Hanoi and Haiphong, in Vietnam. The letter did strain relations between Australia and the United States but it also produced some of the most intense two-way discussions between the two allies.

One thing is clear: a high-context culture such as Indonesia’s shouldn’t be treated as if it were low-context, even with a seemingly down-to-earth informal president like Joko Widodo.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.


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