Happy Anniversary, Indonesia.  Must catch up sometime . We don’t seem to care!    

Aug 11, 2021

G’day Cobbers, hear it’s your Big Bash next Tuesday.  Have a good one, yeah?  Sorry, can’t make it, lockdowns and all that, know you’ll understand.  Anyway, here’s a few cards.

The first from former PM Paul Keating: ‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.’ It’s a 1994 golden oldie recently repeated by former Ambassador Gary Quinlan with a location tweak: ‘No country in Southeast Asia…”

Here’s one from Scott Morrison ‘Not just close neighbours – but great friends.’  Or maybe that’s a lift from President Joko Widodo’s 25 April message.  They’re easily swapped.

Next are greetings from business reminding of the possibilities. As befits a consultancy, law firm MinterEllison’s is verbose so here’s a short back and sides: ‘Pre-Covid Indonesia was projected to be a top-five global economy within the decade.  It’s one of Australia’s most important bilateral relationships, especially in driving regional prosperity and security.’

Seeing such warmth and bonhomie, almost a ‘special relationship’, an outsider might assume much closeness, besties even.  Not so, adds MinterEllison in a dour note:

‘Proximity hasn’t translated into any deep trade and investment ties. Causes include high perceptions of risk and uncertainty… and language and cultural barriers.’

That alert alone, not from do-gooders in a leaking squat but suits in Governor Macquarie Tower, should make cabinets snap their drawers.  Yet here’s the rub: If the political and business goodwill has substance why are Australia’s educators abandoning Asian Studies leaving the next generation without guides to discover and appreciate the wonders of other peoples and cultures?

The list of schools and unis departing the discipline will fill too much space, so a one-liner from ANU Vice-Chancellor and Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt to the AFR will do the trick: ‘The hard reality is Asian studies programs are being wiped out across the sector.’

The answer to the obvious question is offensive, which doesn’t mean it’s untrue.  For all their balmy words politicians understand electors run cold on Indonesia; why bother helping unis train future generations in tolerance when there are no votes in relating to foreigners except as customers,

Australia’s agenda-setters read the Lowy Institute’s annual opinion polls which measure attitudes to the folk next door.   LI’s Southeast Asia Programme director Ben Bland called this ‘a dispiriting exercise’.

‘Whether asked about their warmth toward Indonesia, confidence in its leaders, or even their level of basic knowledge about their biggest neighbour, Australians tend to show a combination of disinterest and distrust.’

How else to explain government detachment?  Hang about – just noticed a parcel among the cards. It’s from Canberra – medical gear and supplies, test kits and vaccines Australians don’t like.  A careless packer forgot to remove the receipt – around $12 million.

It could have been more, but Indonesia isn’t in a marginal electorate.

Dr Jemma Purdey from Monash and Deakin University told the ABC that while the commitment to help is welcome it’s also ‘never really enough … The scale of the problem in Indonesia is extraordinary.’

She and others are mustering an online petition to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to boost help, arguing it’s also in the interest of Australia’s national security: ‘We need to ensure that Indonesia recovers from this crisis and emerges as a healthy country on the other side.  And if you want to think about it like that, it will be to our benefit.’

NGOs are also asking Australians for donations to help their neighbours cope with the pandemic. We should despatch dollars because on some indexes we’re the world’s ninth richest nation while our friends in rank 110 are doing it tough.

The moral reason to assist is unassailable, yet we fear ticket clipping if the money goes via Jakarta bureaucrats, as it must to follow protocols.

DFAT told a Parliamentary inquiry of surveys showing ‘mixed levels of public support’ for Australian aid.   Last financial year we gave Indonesia AUD 255 million.   Five years earlier it was more than double.  The cuts were packaged with the usual tinsel about being ‘strategic partners and friends … . committed to working together to build a prosperous and stable region.’

More bull’s wool. Foreign aid, often seen as charity, is unpopular with Coalition voters according to Jonathan Pryke Director of Lowy’s Pacific Islands Programme.

‘It has been a losing battle to convince both the Australian political class and the Australian people just how important aid is in protecting national interests –  despite Australia being surrounded by aid recipients.

‘Whatever the reason, the 2021–22 budget is yet another sad reflection on Australia as a nation and its willingness to look the other way while the developing world experiences a crisis unlike any ever seen. Australia can, and should, do better.’

On the 17th the world’s fourth-largest country will celebrate 76 years of independence. Much of the first half-century was marked by political chaos and economic development corroded by corruption.

There have been more than two decades of reform since Soeharto was ousted after 32 years of despotic rule.  During his time the former general allegedly filched up to $35 billion according to Transparency International, though he was never charged before leaving this world in 2008.  The money has never been recovered.

There were problems aplenty before Covid and they continue to fester.  US financial website Investopedia claims on top of natural disasters ‘the nation also faces challenges more common to developing countries, with 24 million Indonesians lacking safe water, 38 million lacking access to improved sanitation facilities, and 19.4 million being unable to meet their dietary requirements.’

Twenty years hasn’t been enough to muster the euphoria of change and draft it to tackle the polarities.  The moment vanished as fundamentalists stirred civil strife, control of East Timor was lost and the country was led by ineffective presidents served by an incompetent bureaucracy.  There’s been a turnaround under Widodo, though only partial.

Indonesia’s oligarchs have the dough to dwarf anything Australian taxpayers can gift. The net worth of the Hartono brothers (Robert and Michael) who run the cigarette company Djarum and Bank Central Asia is estimated at almost US $39 billion.

Better collect the cards on the sideboard before colours fade and corners curl.    Pop them in a drawer for next year.  The messages won’t need re-writing.

Happy birthday, mates.  Thinking of you always.

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