The heroes of Australia’s international story, from Eritrea to Indonesia

May 18, 2024
Hand helping a person by pulling the hand in front of the australian and indonesian flags. Image: iStock/CreativaImages

When the taxi driver in Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara, realised I was Australian, he would not accept payment, and instead, spent the duration of the trip telling me of Eritrea’s national debt to Fred Hollows.

Fred had performed eye surgery on Eritrean and Ethiopian freedom fighters as they battled and eventually overthrew the military dictatorship led by President Mengistu. He later established intraocular lens laboratory and introduced ophthalmic surgical services.

The encounter with the taxi driver confirmed to me the importance of people to people links in the bilateral relations of countries. Fred Hollows had a greater, more beneficial impact on Australia’s standing in Eritrea and Ethiopia than any Ambassador or Australian government action. He was, and is, revered in those countries, and Australia is viewed as a friend because of what he did.

Fred Hollows was unique, but the good deeds overseas of talented and committed Australians continues to strengthen Australia’s standing in the world. Too often, those people fly under the radar of media attention. That is a pity, because their stories are interesting and meaningful. In particular, their stories are important to people of many countries, and should be to Australians as well.

Take, for example, Associate Professor Minako Sakai from the University of New South Wales, Canberra, and Professor Andrew McIntyre of Monash university. Separately, they are forging bonds between Australia and Indonesia at a time when strategic thinkers such as Sam Roggeveen, Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, view Indonesia as the single most important country to Australia’s security, and an important partner in promoting Australia’s prosperity.

Recently, A/Prof Sakai received the prestigious 2023 Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture’s Anugerah Kebudayaan Indonesia (AKI), Indonesian Culture Award for her outstanding contributions to the study of Indonesia’s culture and society, a remarkable achievement for an Australian scholar.

“A large part of my academic career has been focussed on Indonesia, and I have collaborated extensively with Indonesian scholars and have a deep affiliation with Indonesian communities. I’ve also supervised PhD theses on Indonesian society, so to receive this Award from the Indonesian Government means an incredible amount to me,” Associate Professor Sakai said.

At the heart of A/Prof Sakai’s efforts is the bringing together of Australians and Indonesians, with a focus on appreciating Indonesian culture.

“People-to-people engagement is the foundation of genuine bilateral relations. Our students gain so much in a short period of time in Indonesia and they always want to learn more about Indonesia and are eager to return. They become very passionate about studying about Indonesia after the trip,” Associate Professor Sakai said.

And seemingly against great odds, with challenges that included a change of employer during the process, Prof. McIntyre established an Indonesian campus for Melbourne’s Monash University, the first foreign university established in Indonesia, a country of 278 million people, where more than half of the population is under 30 years old. That is a remarkable achievement.

But Prof. McIntyre was striving for more. Through establishing Monash University’s campus in Indonesia, he wanted to make a “strong contribution to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia”. There is no doubt that he as achieved that, and Australia will continue to benefit for generations to come.

We often hear of education as an important export in Australia’s economy. But it is much more than that. Universities are ambassadors, promoting Australia as a skilled and capable country, as well as of Australian values. Universities project a positive image of Australia and build enduring people to people links.

A/Prof Sakai and Prof McIntyre can take a great deal of satisfaction from the fruits of their remarkable efforts. And as a result, Australia has more friends in a country and region where positives in bilateral relations are often all too scarce.

It is likely Fred Hollows never fully realised the love for Australia that he fostered in countries so far from home. He remains a modest hero in Australia’s international story. A/Prof Sakai and Prof McIntyre, perhaps less dramatically, but still with great effect, have also made a valuable contribution to Australia’s good neighbour, Indonesia. Australia owes them, and the many other contributors we hear too little of, a deep vote of thanks.

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