Australians have long been ambivalent towards Indonesia.President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo and the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after their meeting in Vientiane, Laos, on Thursday (08/09). (Antara Photo/Akbar Nugroho)They want a good relationship with Indonesia and disapprove when the government fails to maintain this. But they are also wary and often anxious about Indonesia. Only a small minority of Australians feel close to or knowledgeable about the country.
Tackling this ambivalence is seemingly becoming harder due to changes in both nations. Within Australia, Indonesian literacy is falling. Fewer Australians learn Indonesian than probably at any time in the past half-century. And there is little Indonesian content in the general school curriculum.
Meanwhile, Indonesia is growing faster than Australia and is likely to surpass Australian on many economic indicators in the next decade or so. Prior Australian notions of their country being more important in the bilateral relationship and the world will be less credible.
So how is Australia to face these issues of anxiety, hoped-for amity, and the shifting balance between the two countries?
Indonesia overshadowing Australia?
Most Australians have deemed their country more significant than Indonesia. Australia is wealthier and has a larger economy, with much higher GDP per capita. It has superior military forces and has, at least until recently, enjoyed a higher international profile.
That Australia gave large sums of development aid to Indonesia probably fixed in the minds of many ordinary Australians that their neighbor was a poor and needy country. Whether these indicators really did mean Australia was more important to Indonesia than Indonesia was to Australia has been a matter of historical debate among scholars and commentators.
But Indonesia’s rapid economic growth over the past decade, at around 5 percent per year, and its prospects for rising prosperity in the coming decades, mean Indonesia is likely to draw near to or overtake Australia on many of the measures on which Australia previously enjoyed a commanding lead.
Many Indonesians are increasingly confident of their country’s future significance, not only regionally but globally. They view Australia as a neighbor that their country will soon overshadow.
How Australians respond to this reversal of fortune will be one of the issues discussed at the Causindy conference.
The annual Caunsindy (Conference of Australian and Indonesian Youth) was held in Bali, where I was a speaker. It is an initiative aimed at tackling the complexities of the bilateral relationship outside of a formal government context.
The conference brought together 30 young leaders from Australia and Indonesia who have a good knowledge of each other’s countries. Most of the Australians have good Indonesian and the Indonesians good English. A wide range of issues, from politics, to the environment, to culture, will be discussed during the conference. Differences of opinion are welcomed and respected.
What ties the Australian and Indonesian conference delegates together is a shared desire for warm relations and the deepest possible mutual understanding.
Anxiety towards Indonesia
Evidence of high levels of popular mistrust of Indonesia has long been evident in Australian media reporting and commentary.
But two recent surveys on bilateral perceptions released by the Australia-Indonesia Center (AIC) provide a more detailed picture of Australian (and Indonesian) attitudes. One of the surveys examines current attitudes; the other looks at historical opinion polling going back to the late 1940s.
For the contemporary survey, respondents confessed to feeling “confronted” by Indonesia’s size and rising economic prospects. They are wary of Australia becoming “reliant” on its neighbor, though keen to extract “benefit” from the relationship. Many expressed their “emotional distance” from Indonesia. More expressed an unfavorable attitude to Indonesia (47 percent) than a favorable one (43 percent).
Islam and terrorism were particular sources of negativity for those surveyed. At the top of the list of word associations with Indonesia was “religion,” and respondents linked Indonesian Islam to extremism and the Middle East. Some 42 percent said they were not interested in learning more about the country.
While there are a number of methodological concerns about this AIC survey, it nonetheless indicates the broad parameters of Australian thinking towards Indonesia.
The historical survey shows a consistent perception of threat towards Indonesia for most of the 71 years of the bilateral relationship. Australians have worried about Indonesia’s perceived expansionist tendencies, its political instability and large Muslim population. It also found a recurring desire among respondents to “build a closer relationship” with Indonesia.
Australia's bleak mood
Australia is a disconcerted nation at present. Over the past few years growth rates have been low, social tensions have risen and political uncertainty is arguably at its highest since the mid-1970s.
Not surprisingly opinion surveys are finding pessimism and apprehension commonplace in Australian society.
This somewhat bleak mood has consequences for how Australians see Indonesia.
Do they view Indonesia, with its growing economy and international role, as an even greater threat to Australia? Or do they view it as presenting opportunities? Do Australians continue to be anxious about and somewhat disengaged from Indonesia, or do they seek to understand and embrace their neighbor?
On present indications, Australians, in general, will continue being ambivalent and wary.
Past programs for mass education in Indonesian language and studies have proved largely unsuccessful. Targeted activities that focus on Australians and Indonesians with a high commitment to improving bilateral understanding and engagement might have better prospects.
The virtue of Causindy is that it provides a forum for discussing and addressing these long-standing mixed feelings in the bilateral relationship. It may not have a large impact on general public attitudes, but it will hopefully undergird relationships among people who may well become opinion leaders and decision makers of the future.
Greg Fealy is an associate professor and senior fellow of Indonesia politics at the department of political and social change at Bell School of Asia-Pacific affairs at Australian National University