Australian charity in Indonesia can be a problem.

Until recently Indonesia presented itself to the West not as a Muslim country but through Bali, a land of smiling faces, exotic dancers, paradisiacal landscapes.

No longer. With the pandemic raging across our big northern neighbour it seems Aussies’ favourite tropical playground could stay shut in 2021 and maybe beyond. If so our major people-to-people bridge with Indonesians will collapse and the Chinese will steal another long march to influence the region.

The longer we can’t visit the folk next door and get to know them better, the lesser the chances of building lasting friendships. The Indonesian proverb tak kenal maka tak sayang (you don’t know what you don’t miss) is apposite.

As many academics have noted, we define our relationships with the Anglosphere through commonalities. With Indonesia, we do so through differences.

There are around four million Balinese. Most are Hindu, descendants of the 15th century Majapahit Empire who fled Java as Islam arrived. They’re just 1.5 per cent of the Republic’s population so unrepresentative of the whole. Few Australians venture into the nation’s powerhouse Java, where almost 90 per cent are Muslim and the culture and values are altogether different.

Should a successful Chinese vaccine be accepted by Indonesia – which is locked into a manufacturing and distribution deal with Beijing – then the tourism gap is likely to be filled by millions of vacationers from the Middle Kingdom.

In 2017 about 1.35 million Chinese bought tickets to Bali, overtaking visitors from Down Under for the first time. If Australia’s international departure lounges stay closed, signs in Kuta will be in Mandarin, meat pies off the menus and Tsingtao Beer in the bars if and when others are allowed back.

We may be staying away, though not ignoring. Australia has pledged a stand-by loan of AUD 1.35 billion to help Indonesia recover from the Covid-19 recession, the first since the Asian financial crash 23 years ago. However, this apparent benevolence needs explanatory notes.

When Tony Abbott was PM and Julie Bishop FM, Australian aid overall was slashed by 20 per cent. Indonesia was hit heavily: In 2014 it collected AUD 515 million. The envelope now carries only AUD 255 million.

This September, safely away from her former leader’s wrath and onto the board of the international advisory and management company Palladium, Bishop re-tuned her attitudes. In an essay for her new boss she wrote: ‘Many development partnerships are based on long-term goals of supporting communities to lift themselves out of poverty and certainty of funding over many years is crucial to success.

‘The Australian government took what I regard as regrettable decisions to cut the international development budget at a time of rapidly increasing competition for influence ….’

It would be warming to think we were the first lending cab off the rank, backing the standard blah-blah about closeness and warmth with practical help. However, Aussie generosity only flowed after China announced an AUD 1.35 billion loan from the Asian Infrastructure Invest­ment Bank. That was in June.

Four months later Japanese PM Suga Yoshihide topped up an earlier AUD 422 million low-interest loan with an extra AUD 655 million.

Australian academic Dr Jean Gelman Taylor, author of this column’s intro sentence from her book: Indonesia:Peoples & Histories, also reflected on the way we see Indonesia, attitudes which must have been behind stalling the goodwill:

‘Western scholars once wrote about the stillness of Javanese interior life, the sophisticated tolerance of its philosophy. Now authors focus on violence in its many forms of state terror directed against dissenters and the public at large.’

It’s having an impact. An Australia-Indonesia Centre survey found almost 70 per cent of Australians associated the word ‘religious’ with Indonesia, linking it with terrorism.

In the meantime, Beijing has been busy establishing language centres and Confucius Institutes. Three years ago it signed a third educational partnership with Jakarta. There are scholarships and deals between unis.

We also have these, but they’re regarded with suspicion by conservatives alleging the 13 institutes in Australia are soft-power overseas influencers.

Australian loans to benefit the poor and needy will be effective only if handled properly. Canberra can spend AUD 30 million on land for an airport reportedly worth one-tenth, but when it comes to playing pea-and-thimble with grand-scale moolah, Indonesia’s a global champion.

Second President Soeharto, (1967-98) a general turned kleptocrat, allegedly stole up to AUD 49 billion of public money and never faced a court.

He refined a system so entrenched the game is openly called KKN (Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme) and played by all. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks Indonesia 85th (Australia is number 12). TI claims the most corrupt institutions are the judiciary and public service. It affects everyone and has become an inseparable part of the culture.

Jakarta is running several schemes to help businesses and households survive the Covid-19 crisis. President Joko Widodo has been urging his ministers to hustle their departments and accelerate distribution of the AUD 67 billion allocated for the national economic recovery. But the complex-compound multilevel administrations ensure funds get trimmed at every stop as they creep down the line.

If and when cash and kind arrives few will know Aussie taxpayers are among the good guys. Our Jakarta embassy promotes worthy elite projects like film festivals, and small-scale development programmes, but can’t match China’s propaganda.

So knowledge of our strategically driven altruism seldom penetrates beyond Menteng, the capital’s Toorak where the Republic’s elite enjoy the good life. Beyond range are the villages and kampong where the 26.4 million poor live (Indonesian Government estimate).

Aid is sensitive in Indonesia where nationalists argue it erodes sovereignty, comes with caveats and makes the country look inferior. Readers may remember the 2015 backfire when PM Abbott awkwardly tried to persuade Widodo not to execute Bali Nine drug ring leaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran by reminding we’d been generous with aid after the 2004 Aceh tsunami.

Furious at this interference crowds started collecting rupiah to return the cash, a gesture which vanished with the two Australians’ lives. It’s unlikely Xi Jinping would have been so clumsy.


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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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