DUNCAN GRAHAM. More Jakarta, Less Geneva!

Jun 1, 2020

It’s become a ritual for every Australian leader for the past half-century.

Before the Governor-General  new PMs swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, then another of office. The third is delivered outside Yarralumla. The wording varies but the message is the same: I pledge to improve relations with the folk next door.

Tony Abbott said it best and was the fastest to forget: ‘More Jakarta, less Geneva’.

There’s concrete behind the promise and that’s not a metaphor: Having the biggest Embassy in the world is supposed to show Australia is serious about cementing ties.

Though not friendships. The universal symbols of mutual affection and respect are open doors and heartfelt greetings. Visitors get neither at the iron gates of Australia’s citadel in the heart of its giant neighbour.

The $415 million Embassy built in 2016 is a five-hectare fortress. Missing is a moat. In reality that’s the Arafura Sea separating the two countries by less than 350 kilometres.

The Embassy is encircled by blast-resistant walls to deter terrorists like those who bombed an older building in 2004 killing nine and injuring 150. All were Indonesians.

The safety of occupants and visitors is essential. That principle also guides the design of prisons. The diplomats locked behind the ring of steel (some live in the 32 townhouses inside) advise Canberra on policies towards the world’s third-largest democracy.

To do this they tune into political commentary filtered through newspapers and TV newscasts from stations so partisan they make Fox News look balanced. From their ergonomic offices staffers assess the moods and movements of citizens across an archipelago of 6,000 plus inhabited islands.

More than 100 of the 180 Australians from 14 departments who work at the Embassy and three consulates have fled along with Ambassador Gary Quinlan. He’ll miss a fine residence which offsets the Fort Oz sterility. Safe in the arboreal suburb of Menteng, with former president Megawati Soekarnoputri as a neighbour, it’s splendidly furnished with an impressive display of Australian art and culture.

The spooks and bureaucrats now safe in Barton fill time with encrypted calls to the Big Durian. No whiffs of the reputedly aphrodisiac fruit or preachers’ calls to prayers wafting over the walls to distract.

Also missing are the odours of coffee and smoking sate, the cries of hawkers, the heat and floods, the crazy cacophony of Southeast Asia’s biggest city. Instead the days pass calling contacts to ask what’s happening, arrange Zooms and upload smartphone vision.

Contacts are not connections. Images on screens are not human interactions. Indonesians are social people in three dimensions – four if including spirituality. They want to know us face-to-face and shake our hands. Their culture isn’t bookish, it’s oral.

We ask: What’s your job? We go slowly, gleaning intimacies grain by grain.

They’re direct. The political is personal. Are you married? How many kids? How old are you? Where do you live? Where are your parents from? What’s your religion? Favourite food – and how do you cook it?

If the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement comes into force on 5 July, business will claim a triumph of closeness.

Nonsense. More of our cereals and meats might appear on the slabs of traditional markets, though few consumers will know the origins of their goodies. But backstories featuring wheatbelt header drivers and station hands mustering on horseback would excite.

Don’t go, don’t know. Though more than nine million Indonesians travelled overseas last year, only 160,000 made it Down Under. That included around 20,000 students. The tourist industry alleges harsh visa rules, which don’t apply to Malaysians and Singaporeans, deter Indonesians.

In the same period, 1.3 million Australians flew to the Hindu enclave of Bali, population 4.2 million. Few ventured into the islands beyond where the other 266 million live, most of them Muslim, to learn more about this complex nation.

Few in government know how to build mateship when differences are often extreme so here are some pointers.

Sir John Gorton, PM between 1968 and 71, is largely forgotten in Australia and totally so in Indonesia. Though not his American wife Bettina who spoke Indonesian and Javanese, collected batik and lectured journos on Indonesian culture.

A 1983 obituary read: ‘She won great success as a result of her deep interest in the cultural life of the region, her warm, open approach to the people she met, and the effectiveness of the speeches she made in the Indonesian language.’

The 1980s TV soapie Return to Eden brought another bonding moment. Rebecca Gilling, the star of the Australian mini-series shown in Indonesia, was mobbed when she visited Jakarta. One reporter wrote she was more popular in Indonesia than her homeland.

Since second president Soeharto was dethroned in 1998 things have been kicked downhill by riots in Jakarta, killings in East Timor, spyings and executions in Java and brutalities in West Papua.

There was a brief pause in 2015 when a tie-less Malcolm Turnbull was taken by President Joko Widodo on one of his signature blusukan (walkabouts). They went to the vast Tanah Abang market and were given a Gilling-style welcome.

An Australian VIP snapping selfies among the masses like a happy tourist? He should have brought a didgeridoo and wowed the crowd. Playing was one of Bettina Gorton’s many talents. Fears of terrorists and Covid-19 curb such interactions; these need to be measured and not permanent as the paranoid urge.

The 1914 public assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria helped start World War I but didn’t stop other leaders and the led getting together as the years rolled on.

The pandemic offers a chance to reset relationships between Indonesians and Australians. That’s going to take an almighty bipartisan effort across all activities and not just the STDs – security, trade and defence.

Which means holding PMs to their inauguration promises.

Covid-19 Update: The government has deployed 340,000 military to help police enforce social distancing, raising fears the Army is getting back into civilian affairs. The nation has 25,216 confirmed cases and 1,520 deaths.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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