Lost in mistranslation: Australian soft power goes missing in Indonesia

Feb 14, 2022
Indonesian President Joko Widodo

We should spruce up the relationship now rather than wait until it collapses into misunderstandings and ill will. The second of a two-part essay.

While Australia yawns at mentions of matters relating to Indonesia, it’s much the same t’other side of the Arafura Sea.   Last century youngsters were hungry to learn English and overseas cultures.  Their appetite was met by enthusiastic teachers following a policy of raising a generation equipped to handle the world.  

Instead, the energy has bogged down in ideologies and bureaucracy notwithstanding the intentions of forward-thinkers such as Harvard-educated Education Minister Nadiem Anwar Makarim. He’s a 37-year old entrepreneur drafted by President Joko Widodo to shake up the education sector, only to collide with the power of reactionaries seeing secularism behind reform.

Distrust of Western values and Australian intentions is pervasive so all the more reason to try harder. That doesn’t seem to be on new ambassador Penny Williams’ agenda.  Despite knowing the language and past involvement in progressive causes (she’s a former Ambassador for Women and Girls) the lady’s yet to make a splash. In the past three months, she’s put out only ten press statements, mostly on trivial matters.  

Apart from a tweet from Makassar, it appears she didn’t recognise Australia Day through any speeches or mainstream media.  (Her office hasn’t responded to a request for details.) Here was an opportunity to explain how Australian unions helped the revolutionaries liberate Indonesia from the colonial Dutch.  It’s a forgotten story for this century’s generation so needs continuous retelling.

If that’s currently considered too political for Canberra, Williams could clarify that her nation’s not a British franchise as many think because the Union Jack’s on our flag and the Queen’s image on our currency. 

Nor are we the US ‘deputy sheriff’ in the region as former PM John Howard reportedly said in 1999. The offensive tag remains fresh because Australia supported the East Timor referendum, also in 1999.  We can be proud of our initiatives and peacekeeping, our billion-dollar aid when the 2004 tsunami ripped Aceh, but that doesn’t mean we’re loved.

For Indonesians, the unitary state is sacrosanct so the loss of the Portuguese territory it invaded in 1975 has left a deep and weeping wound.  That’s not the only irritant.

Some argue the AUKUS alliance and build-up of foreign troops and weaponry in Northern Australia are ‘too close for comfort’ and could trigger an arms race. These alarms have been addressed, though only lightly.

Instead of explanation and education, we use trade to find ‘not just a respected partner but a valued one as well’. That’s according to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.

His message is monetary: ‘Indonesia is Australia’s fourth-largest market for bulk primary produce … valued at $2.9 billion (last financial) year.’  We want to feed you, not know you.  Curiously WA, which pioneered business and cultural ties with East Java across 30 years, has now downgraded the deal.

Despite the ravages of Covid killing 144,000 and infecting 4.3 million (Reuters’ figures from official sources and widely considered too low) the Indonesian economy is going gangbusters. 

The World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects forecasts growth this year will hit 5.2 per cent, but there’ll be minimal trickle-down. Oxfam research shows the four richest men in Indonesia own as much wealth as the country’s poorest 100 million citizens.

 Australian 2021 budget papers projected 3.75 per cent this fiscal year, so some catch-ups are needed.  We’re no longer masters of economic management haughtily telling ‘developing nations’ how to add and subtract.

Just as Australians can be racists, Indonesians aren’t always the pliant friendly folk of tourist brochures. In 1965 a bloody coup in Jakarta was followed by the slaughter of an estimated 500,000 real or imagined fellow travellers by civilian militias weaponised by the army. 

We know of the Holocaust in Europe though not the genocide close by.

There have been other outbursts of violence, often focusing on minorities.  Ethnic Chinese are usually the targets along with so-called deviant Islamic sects. 

Another eruption of hate could send a wave of asylum seekers heading our way as they did after the 1998 riots when President Soeharto quit, though they’d most likely come by plane, have full wallets and follow faiths other than Islam. 

To ensure a benign view of the people next door, this distressing history is blacked out in Australia by the ‘moderate Muslim’ label, though scholars question the term’s meaning.  Likewise, the termites of corruption gnaw away in almost every departmental nook and immune to pest controllers.  

A decade ago Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked Indonesia 96 among 179 nations.  Its position now is 102.  This frightens the Western investors Widodo says he wants to attract, but won’t get serious.

Ongoing anti-graft government campaigns use billboards, pledges and stern statements – all ineffective because the political will is absent, as with the Australian government’s plan to establish an anti-corruption commission.

The first stage in fixing problems is to accept their presence and examine the reasons.  Neither Indonesia nor Australia is currently inclined to confront ignorance, misunderstanding and distrust which threaten the connections.   

They’ll be a wake-up when there’s an explosion of fury for some seemingly mild political stumble, like Scott Morrison’s 2019 proposal to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Mobs protested in Indonesia, forcing the closure of two consulates.

Friction points include a low-level insurgency between West Papuan separatists and the Indonesian military, hidden from world view by Jakarta censorship equal to the Chinese cover-up of its alleged anti-Uyghur campaign. 

Lawyer Veronica Koman, a prominent advocate for the dissidents, has taken refuge in Australia.  She’s wanted by the Indonesian police for ‘provocation’ and ‘spreading hoaxes’.  If Jakarta demands extradition there’ll be anger aplenty.

The late Australian Professor Jamie Mackie wrote: ‘The first and most dangerous of the problems ahead — and possibly the most likely — are issues relating to separatist movements in Papua and the support they garner within Australia. 

‘This tends to arouse suspicions in Indonesia that Australians have a hidden agenda to bring about the dismemberment of Indonesia as a unitary state. Because of the complex, emotionally charged political dynamics within each country associated with this, it could easily get out of hand and prove difficult for both governments to resolve through calm negotiations.

Better to spruce up the relationship now rather than wait until what remains collapses into misunderstandings and ill will. The next direct presidential direct election will be on  February 14, 2024, and there’s a chance Prabowo Subianto, who’ll then be 72, will have his third crack at the top job.

In 1998 the former general was discharged after his troops kidnapped and tortured student protesters. He then fled to Jordan and was banned from entering the US.

Prabowo is Indonesia’s Trump lite who’d ignite the wrath of human rights activists worldwide if elected. After his 2019 loss supporters rioted in Jakarta. Eight died and more than 700 were injured. Few think the violence was spontaneous.

Prabowo is now Minister of Defence, drawn into the inner circle by Widodo who followed US President Lyndon Johnson’s advice on handling FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: ‘It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’.

Offering a cabinet post to a defeated opponent after a vicious campaign is a fine ‘forgive thine enemies’ gesture, but it wouldn’t rock in the West, even in countries that claim to follow Christian principles.

All the more reason to get to know the neighbours.  Mackie offered scores of suggestions in his 155-page Lowy essay, but don’t ask any wannabe politicians to show the way in this year’s campaign.  


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