DUNCAN GRAHAM. Finding ties that bind with Indonesia

May 2, 2018

In early April, NSW Governor David Hurley spoke about Indonesian-Australian relationships. Although largely ignored by the mainstream media his speech was not the usual white bread served by those elevated to positions supra-politics.

Hurley launched some awkward statistics:

* Thirteen percent of Australians see Indonesians as trustworthy. Switch that around and the figure is 53 percent .

* Nineteen per cent of Australians say they have a good knowledge of Indonesia. The reverse is 43 percent.

* Unfavourable perceptions of the people next door? Australians 47 percent, Indonesians just ten percent.

The former chief of the Australian Defence Force is clearly beyond the range of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Like the Russians in Syria, diplomats chose not to retaliate against the retired general’s missiles. Hurley is too big and important; returning fire might escalate the issue.

Compare this to the reaction to my review in The Jakarta Post of Strangers Next Door? edited by Melbourne University senior academics Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae.

Charge d’affaires Allaster Cox responded that he was ‘somewhat taken aback’ while giving no sign that he’d read the book. It’s a fine collection of essays by concerned academics and journalists, with many unhappy at the state of affairs between Indonesia and Australia and wanting major changes.

This is Cox’s second term in Jakarta – he served in the pre-democracy 1990s so is qualified to judge the betterment or otherwise of the relationship. This could have been a valuable contribution. 

Instead, he applied the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s stock defence against incoming dissent – to ignore the anxieties, but if seriously provoked, fire a barrage of garbled statistics to fog the debate. Here’s a sample:

‘More than 20,000 Indonesians study in Australia each year, making Australia the most popular overseas destination for Indonesian university students.’

According to the Department of Education and Training, more students head to Australia from China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, and even Brazil than the world’s fourth largest country (260 million), and conveniently next door. Brasilia is 14,400 kilometres from Canberra.

Cox also claimed that the ‘New Colombo Plan sends thousands of Australians to Indonesia every year to live, study and learn more about our closest neighbor.’

The NCP is a fine initiative but the statistics are coarse- fourteen scholarships to Indonesia awarded this year. The most popular destinations for these bright hopes are Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and China.

‘Mobility grants’ of up to AUD 6,000 have gone to 13,000 tertiary students in 2018. Just over 2,100 head to Indonesia. That’s around ten percent of their counterparts venturing south.

Here’s another disturbing figure: While around 1.25 million Australians fly to Indonesia every year – mainly to Hindu Bali rather than Muslim Java – only 200,000 Indonesians visit Australia. 

That’s six to one. We get visa-free entry – they pay AUD 140 per person and have to complete a 15-page form. Malaysians (around 340,000 visitors) and Singaporeans (400,000) pay AUD 20. 

Whatever verbal pyrotechnics DFAT ignites, that policy displays discrimination or dis trust or both.

Cox wrote that ‘the truth is that Australians are not indifferent to our nearest neighbour. That does a disservice to the many ways in which our countries and people work together at all levels and doesn’t do justice to the very healthy Australia-Indonesia relationship’.

This misdiagnosis is BS unqualified when measured against Hurley’s figures and his unsettling observations at the top of this page. He delivered some in Indonesian at the Fourth Indonesia-Australia Dialogue organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Ironically it was supported by DFAT.

Hurley said Australia needs ‘ to go beyond the successful management of incidents to one of action flowing from shared interests, cooperative leadership within the region, support for shared imperatives and initiatives, and binding economic interests. 

‘It is therefore important to ensure that our leaders and people gain a better insight into what motivates and drives each country.’

Which is the general message of Strangers Next Door? except that it’s being sent by academics and journalists who call the shots as they see them. 

Blunt assessments from NGOs and campuses are not enemy ordnance. Independent research and commentary may not polish the government’s self-made image, but demeaning other views is the real disservice. 

Outsiders are also trying, like Hurley, ‘… to overcome trust deficits, taking steps that will bind rather than simply link the two countries.’

Here’s an early task for new Ambassador Gary Quinlan, 67, when he settles into the five-hectare Jakarta fortress and presumably his final posting. It’s the biggest and most costly of our overseas missions with 500 workers well protected from the hurly-burly of the world’s third-largest democracy they are paid to understand.

Defuse the smug we-know-best siege mentality nurtured during the past few years behind the Embassy’s blast-proof and critic-resistant walls. If you still judge the Strangers Next Door? authors’ words unworthy, at least tune in to the concerns of His Excellency.

Hurley’s speech: http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-importance-of-dialogue-in-the-indonesia-australia-bilateral/

Cox’s comments: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2018/04/28/your-letters-on-strangers-next-door.html

Duncan Graham (www.indonesianow.blogspot.com) is an Australian journalist in Indonesia.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist. 

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