Indonesia invisible across the election landscape

Feb 10, 2022
Grand Mosque of Medan
The Grand Mosque of Medan, Indonesia. Cathedral-size mosques better suited to cities are being built in villages. (Image: Flickr/zol m)

Why do we ignore the nation nearby with a population 11 times larger than ours?  The answers are manifold. This is the first of a two-part essay.

This commentary was primed to read:  Australians couldn’t care a rat’s about Indonesia, and that’s bad. The conclusion morphed to ‘sad’, then ‘worrying’. Verily it’s an unholy trilogy, and the attitudes are little better in reverse. This should be an issue in the upcoming election.  It’s not.

Any politician bothering to respond will shout ‘hogwash’ and turn on a flow of deals and dollars sent or spent, MOUs signed, flags waved, then add: ‘Some of my best friends are Indonesians,’ confident reporters won’t ask for names because they don’t have any either.

This is the unsettling reality:  We know about US politicians, even Supreme Court judges, but next to nowt about their Indonesian counterparts as the ABC and other agencies have pulled journos out of Jakarta. Though not Washington and London.  So our info comes through foreign wires.

We hear the Fox News faux outrages, but not the reasoned analyses of Indonesia’s intellectuals who often communicate in English.

US school shootings are listed as isolated actions of deranged individuals, while the low-level threats of RI’s few active fundamentalists supposedly define the nation. (Thanks to Australian intelligence and training, Indonesia’s Densus 88 counter-terrorism squad seems to have the villains on the run.)

Broad vistas need specific markers, so here goes: Both major political parties read polls commissioned for the upcoming election.  They’re helped by the annual measure of our attitudes towards Indonesia run by the Lowy Institute.  South-East Asia Program director Ben Bland decoded the data:

‘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.’

To be blunt, we’re telling psephologists the neighbours are on the nose, so candidates see no votes in arguing for improvement.  Nor are there any ideological urges to change a situation that distresses some dons, diplomats and global citizens, but bothers few others.

Imagine Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese launching their campaigns with Paul Keating’s 1996 line: ‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.’  The turn-off would be audible from Cairns to Carnarvon.

Why do we ignore the nation nearby with a population 11 times larger than ours?  Maybe because it’s too darn difficult to understand and right now the state is stable. Bi-level treaties are tougher to digest than the price of bread.

Yet Indonesia demands attention.  It’s a democracy and a member of the G20, a cluster of the world’s most powerful economies.  This year it holds the chair and plans a grand gathering in Bali this October.  We’re invited.

In 2008 historian Hugh White wrote that Indonesia’s move to democracy early this century was ‘one of the most remarkable and admirable political transformations in history.  And yet Australian approaches to Indonesia are still dominated by images and attitudes framed by the Soeharto era (1965-98) underpinned by xenophobia.’

Although Keating’s rhetoric and White’s assessment remain valid they have no impact on today’s politics where party leaders have just enough vision to see where the mob’s going and tag along.

Melbourne University’s Tim Lindsey has called the two countries the ‘Odd Couple’:

‘… for those Indonesians and Australians who have no personal or professional connection with the other country,  perceptions are … at best, deeply ambivalent, even confused, about each other. Above all, they are deeply suspicious.

‘Their perceptions are dominated by anger, hostility, contempt and fear, are vituperative in expression and are often wildly inaccurate in content. And they are easily inflamed lazy and ignorant journalists and by politicians looking for a populist can to kick.’

In 2018 Lindsey and colleague Dave McRae claimed: ‘There are no two neighbouring countries anywhere in the world that are more different than Indonesia and Australia. They differ hugely in religion, language, culture, history, geography, race, economics, worldview and population.

‘In fact, Indonesia and Australia have almost nothing in common other than the accident of geographic proximity. This makes their relationship turbulent, volatile and often unpredictable.’

Thousands would disagree with this assessment — particularly those who used to holiday in Bali and report low prices, awesome landscapes, benign traditions and warm welcomes from those paid a pittance to smile.

Bali, with 4.3 million residents, is an anomaly.  Of Indonesia’s 34 provinces it’s the only one where the majority are Hindu, descendants of the Majapahit Kingdom (1293-1527) who fled east from Java for reasons unclear.   Bali is beaut, but the political power is held by the Javanese.

An estimated 88 per cent of Indonesians follow Islam – that’s roughly 235 million. Then come 17 million Protestants and 7 million Catholics, with the rest a smattering of Buddhists and Confucianists dotted across the archipelago of 6,000 occupied islands.

We know these figures because a government-approved belief has to be stamped on citizens’ Kartu Tanda Penduduk (ID card). The Indonesian constitution says it upholds freedom of faith.  That doesn’t mean freedom from religion which governs every aspect of life.

These slices of facts show that getting to grips with a country that’s home to more Muslims than any other state is a tough task, compounded by the range of interpretations of Islam, as there are with Christianity.

Change is underway. Nahdlatul Ulama (revival of the scholars), which claims more than 40 million members is shifting from the rigid Saudi Wahhabism doctrines responsible for much bad press.  The Gusdurians, named after the late fourth President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) are youngsters pushing humanism and promoting inter-faith events. Australians could get involved to show we’re not godless.

Among this liberalism are some confusing (to outsiders) contradictions. In the last few years wearing the jilbab (headscarf) has become as widespread as tight jeans.  Cathedral-size mosques better suited to cities are being built in villages well-supplied with places of worship.  Protests against the alleged mistreatment of Muslims overseas are primarily directed at Israel, not China and Myanmar.

Easier to understand algorithms or National Cabinet rules on containing Covid, but we’d have a better feel with a grasp of the language and culture.

That used to be the case when these topics were on school curricula and offered at unis.  The decline has been dramatic:  Since 2006, year 12 enrolments in Indonesian have halved, according to Melbourne University’s Hamish Curry: ‘Without nation-wide policies, consistent data, funding and collective support, Indonesian could be relegated to a forgotten corner of our educational experiences.’

So far neither Labor nor the Coalition has promised a U-turn.



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