DUNCAN GRAHAM. From blusukan to bland in five years

Feb 14, 2020

There are some cheering on-line videos worth checking from 2015 when Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull visited Jakarta.

President Joko Widodo took his guest to the vast Tanah Abang textile market for an unscripted blusukan, the Indonesian leader’s common-touch trade mark. Ties and jackets vanished along with protocols as friendly crowds pressed close. Apart from the over-taxed security detail, all seemed to be having genuine fun.

Less informal but still jolly are slides from two years later when Widodo and Iriana, both splendid in batik, were welcomed by the Turnbulls. They camped at Kirribilli House and shared the Sydney sights like middle-aged couples, old pals on hols together.

Match these images against the hand-out pix from Widodo’s two-day wifeless visit to Canberra this month. The thin smiles are there along with balmy words about friendship, cooperation and common goals – plus more fresh-start pledges than the Sydney-Melbourne high speed rail.

All fine and worthy, yet it’s clear the natural warmth has evaporated. Morrison is good on glee and bonhomie while Widodo is reserved. Like most cultures which favour reading faces rather than books, the Javanese are canny assessors of character. Morrison is the President’s third PM.

Widodo stayed in the Hyatt. He was given a fixed bayonet welcome to Government House where Governor General David Hurley spoke competently in Indonesian.

Despite this the President’s look said: ‘I want nasi goreng on the table, not another ten-point plan.’ It’s well known he’s more at home with domestic infrastructure, largely leaving foreign affairs to Minister Retno Marsudi.

Widodo’s briefing notes would have reminded that in an earlier army career the GG commanded the 1st Brigade from 1999-2000 in Darwin. The job was supporting Australian-led operations in East Timor against crazed Indonesian-backed militia, furious that a referendum had backed independence.

The impression of reluctantly doing duty rather than energetically building rapport was reinforced when Widodo refused to talk to the media and through us the Australian people. According to Lowy Institute surveys most Aussies know little about their big neighbour and have even less trust. The reverse is probably true.

Avoiding journos was not a smart move when Indonesia is being touted as a starburst of democracy in a darkening Southeast Asia. Here was a chance to answer critics and show some convictions.

He’d have known local hacks would ask why he’s backed laws fettering the Corruption Eradication Commission, and why they can’t visit West Papua despite earlier promises of allowing press entry.

By now the elected head of the world’s fourth largest nation should have the confidence to handle tough questions and show his other side. He’s into big bikes and heavy metal music. He’s from a poor family, outside the oligarchy and military which wield most power.

Widodo addressed the Parliament with a bland speech. (Australian media said he used ‘Bahasa’, explaining this meant ‘Indonesian’. It doesn’t – it’s the word for ‘language’.)

It was less than half the length of his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s rousing delivery in English at the same forum ten years earlier. This sent commentators thumbing thesauri for ‘new era’ synonyms.

While the mateship was surging Australian spies were doing their damnedest to undermine optimism by tapping the home phone of SBY, a most pro-Australian president.

The buggers were caught out in 2013 through documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. For a while that kicked the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations off field.

This month Widodo brought a big gift – the signed agreement The free trade deal has taken ten years to write, edit, print and bind. Implementation is due by mid-May and should be a plus for both nations – though mainly benefiting Australian wheat and beef farmers.

The other good news is that Monash Uni will open a post-grad campus in Jakarta. The first intake is planned for late next year. Other tertiary institutions are also keen but waiting to see whether this education experiment will work.

Widodo hopes the IA-CEPA will encourage Australians to invest. Right now only the bold and brash will risk money in a country where stuffed envelopes fast-track government permits, and the rule of law can be bent with the weight of enough rupiah.

He’s also seeking a relaxation of harsh rules which aren’t applied to Singaporeans and Malaysians; they pay $20 for an on-line visa against $140 for Indonesians plus 15-page questionnaires. Australians get a free visa-on-arrival in Bali.

The two Commonwealth nations together send almost 500,000 visitors a year while only 100,000 Indonesians bother to buy tickets south. As Indonesia Institute president Ross Taylor said in Perth: ‘If they won’t come here, how do we get to know each other?’

Morrison said he’d look into it. Outback Aborigines in WA used to neatly skewer any city politician using that cliché with the tag ‘Mr Mirrorman.’ As reported on this blog (https://johnmenadue.com/abul-rizvi-morrison-impotent-on-visa-arrangements-for-indonesians/ ) the President shouldn’t bother sitting by the phone.

Widodo in his second and final five-year term no longer has blusukan on his schedules. Fear of terrorists now determines the agenda. Last October two fanatics stabbed Security Minister Wiranto during a low-key visit to Banten, Java’s western province. He has since recovered.

The attack has further screwed down security and put even more space between electors and elected. Back in his White House Widodo announced an estimated 600 Indonesian ISIS supporters who went to Syria won’t be allowed home with their hates.

In 2013 PM Tony Abbott declared his foreign policy as ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’. Based on Widodo’s performance Down Under this month, the President is probably muttering: ‘More Jakarta and less Canberra’.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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