DUNCAN GRAHAM Welcome Down Under, Mr President Widodo : An open letter

Later this week Indonesian leader Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is expected in Sydney with other heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a ‘special summit’. The President recently told his ambassadors that while working overseas they should lift their nation’s status as a ‘great country’. Now Jokowi can do his bit.

Assalamualaikum Pak Presiden: It’s presumptuous for foreigners to offer unsought advice; however because I’m anxious that relationships improve with your nation where I spend much time I’ll risk offering some reflections.

First it wounds me to tell that more than 2,000 media jobs have been lost in Australia so far this decade.  This means few will write in depth about your country so fall back on trite tales of druggies in Bali, smoking orangutans and asinine comments by strife-stirrer politicians.

But this vacuum presents opportunities. Instead of urging your envoys to be involved in trade expos it would be more effective if they speak up often and well in the mainstream media so outsiders get a better balanced view of your alluring archipelago.

Let’s clarify the language:  Great is not the same as good.  Quantity isn’t quality.  If it was then Australia is tops as the world’s largest island continent.  Unfortunately much is sand, while tiny Java is the world’s most fertile isle so should peg higher.

We think we’re an Indo-Pacific power – you put us in Oceania as a US outpost; though too polite to say so outright, you reckon we’re peripheral.

That smarts but it’s right. We’re giving $357 million in aid programs this year while you’re getting mega billions in aid and concessional loans from China. For every Australian there are 11 Indonesians. There are more people in the Jakarta region Jabodetabek than the Great South Land.

So how to measure ‘great’? If by achievements Indonesia is plodding.  It has no Nobel Prize winners. Australia has 12.

Your Republic has only three universities in the world’s top 1,000 and at the tail end.  Australia has 35, mostly in the front ranks.  Maybe things will change if and when Oz unis open shop in Indonesia as proposed in the drag-out free-trade talks first started in 2010.

Both sides trumpeted these would be finished last year – then in time for this week’s ASEAN summit.  That won’t happen. Don’t Indonesians want our wheat and beef rather than cheaper Black Sea grains and Indian buffalo steaks?  It seems we’ll accept your pesticides though not your nurses.

Highlighting these facts is not to humiliate because on many measures Indonesia could eclipse Australia and others if given the chance.  So what’s gone wrong?

Indonesian workers we’ve employed have been flexible, adaptable and innovative – but they lack knowledge of modern tools and techniques. Their want to upskill but can’t access training.  What do you reckon, Sir? Blow in Mr Turnbull’s ear.

Indonesians are soccer-crazed. A couple of littlies in our street could one day dazzle the Socceroos given a few free kicks.  These would include turf not tarmac, boots instead of bare feet and knowledgeable coaches rather than old duffers shouting tips over the fence.

At the same time how about encouraging some Jakarta quadrillionaires to fund facilities?  No political interference, mind, or there’ll be further disqualifications. (In 2015 the Asian Football Confederation banned Indonesia after the government got involved in the domestic league.)

Soccer is small in Australia yet we’ll be in this year’s World Cup Asian Group.  Another chance for an aid project?

Sometimes I’m ambushed by teachers and taken to meet incandescently bright and ambitious kids – usually girls – speaking splendid English self-taught from on-line films.

They ask about scholarships abroad because your universities can’t match their needs. Why not lean on your hosts for a few more bursaries, Mr President?  Several thousand should be a handy starter.

But wait a mo … your Constitution requires at least 20 per cent of the budget to be spent on education. Yet from 72 countries tested through the OECD Program for International Student Assessment you rank at 62. Nine years ago it was 57. Regress is rank.

Where’s the money going? How about an audit?  Australia might be able to give a hand here – we’re getting to know a lot about banking and finance funny business.

As you rightly note Sir, Indonesia has made huge economic gains this century. Your nation is not poor, but the wealth is coarsely spread. The World Bank reports half the country’s assets are owned by the richest one per cent.

You say you want investors.  They want to know about regulations. Are these clear and properly adjudicated and not abused by amoral officials? Lenders prefer to park their money in politically stable countries where the rule of law rules.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index places Indonesia at 96 out of 180. Little wonder Australian dollars like to migrate to New Zealand, the world’s least corrupt country with the best record for ease of doing business.

As you reminded your ambassadors, Indonesia is neither small nor inferior and has all the ingredients for greatness. But the diplomats know that absent is the widespread political will for the positive changes it seems you want to foster.

It would be warming to think Australia could help develop trust between voters and politicians as democracy only got a restart in your country this century.

Although we’ve played the game since 1901, recent events in Canberra show we’re currently not in a position to assist.  So sorry.

Hormat saya:  Duncan Graham

The writer is the author of The People Next Door (UWA Press). He blogs at http://www.indonesianow.blogspot.com


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