Wiryono Sastrohandoyo. Getting the Australia-Indonesia relationship back on track.

May 5, 2015

John Menadue asked me to discuss how best to get Australian-Indonesian relations back on track, although I agree  that this is a politically sensitive issue and weighing it up may not be the prudent thing to do while there is still a lot of anger in the heart of many Australians and Indonesians.

The anger on the part of the Australians is easy to understand. Two of your citizens have been executed by firing squad, after having been found guilty of a capital crime by a duly constituted court and after all the legal processes to save their lives had been exhausted. But during the ten years between their sentencing and their execution they had reformed, become good persons who were always in the service of their fellow human beings, notably through the drug abuse rehabilitation program that they designed and carried out while in prison.

The anger on the part of many Indonesians is different: it is born of a deep-seated grievance against Western nations with which Indonesia interacted in the past. This grievance just happened to be focused on Australia because of the awkward way the Australian government tried to save the lives of the two death convicts. They felt that they were being dictated upon and were not getting the respect they deserved. The anger seethed when the Australian PM very imprudently brought up the matter of Australian aid to Indonesia. This was regarded as an attempt to humiliate Indonesia into sparing the lives of the two death convicts. This was all they could think of whenever Australia is mentioned. Nobody remembered how Australia figured in the country’s struggle to keep its independence in the late 1940s.

It might seem to be the dictate of common sense to let the storm blow over before saying anything about Australian-Indonesian relations, to be silent about it for a sufficient period of time to allow the negative emotions to dissipate. And yet there might be a deeper wisdom in addressing the problem right away.

In this regard it is always a good thing to be able to see things from the other person’s point of view. When I was undergoing training to become a diplomat, we were told to cultivate the habit of two-handedness. To be able to say: on the one hand, this is how I see the issue, and on the other hand, you may have a point that I must consider.

On one hand, Australia needs Indonesia as an economic partner; on the other hand, Indonesia equally needs Australia as an economic partner and as a collaborator in its regional architecture building. That is why I am optimistic that on both sides the wounds of recent controversy will heal. And my optimism is strengthened when I think of what PM Abbott recently said: “This is a dark moment in the relationship, but I am sure the relationship will be restored.”

Likewise, a few days ago, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi said she hoped the relationship would normalize because, she said, “Indonesia needs Australia and Australia, I think, also needs Indonesia.”

It would help, of course, if the dialogue between the two countries became more constructive. During the years that I served in the foreign ministry and dealing with Australia, I learned that indeed, in this age of information, countries scrutinized each other. This is a fact of international life.

But the developed countries of the West are the ones that are doing most of the scrutinizing, as the developing countries are more often distracted by their own domestic problems. Observation breeds criticism, and when officials express their views on issues through the mass media, they tend to address the gallery and to play to the grandstand. This generates a lot of heat without shedding light on the issues to be addressed.

And sometimes the media are part of the problem. By providing information and commentary on issues, the media help shape public perception. Politicians and public officials have to deal with these perceptions that are eventually stripped of their nuances and reduced to their most simplistic forms. The traditional media have always tended to be sensational, but the most sensational of them all are the social media. These days, so much misperception, so much prejudice and so much hatred are being perpetrated by the social media.

The negative impact of irresponsible media reportage and commentary is further complicated by the cultural traits of peoples. It is my impression that we Indonesians are a more emotional people compared to Australians and other Westerners who are more cerebral in their approach to issues. We tend to deal with others on a heart-to-heart basis, while Australians do it head-to-head. So in the case of a controversy such as the one on the death convicts, many statements coming from Australia, which were meant to be simply sensible and practical, were received in Indonesia as hard-hearted and cold-blooded.

It would greatly help the relationship if we spent more time learning about each other instead of debating who is right and who is wrong. And there should also be a more robust manifestation of mutual respect. While we are so unlike each other in terms of culture and traditions, the fact remains that we are geographically next-door neighbors. We are stuck with each other.

One of the most prudent things we can do is to invest in cross-cultural communication—in a way that shows respect for one another’s views. We can disagree while still showing respect for the person we disagree with. We must avoid the blame-game and refrain from speculation. Above all, we must avoid inflammatory language. We must shun megaphone diplomacy.

We must do more to promote our social-cultural relations. Our cooperation in the field of education must continue .

At the same time we must make our economic partnership work for our peoples. They must feel and enjoy the benefits of that partnership.

We must work together to form a robust regional architecture through the Asean-led processes, especially the East Asia Summit.

These are the ballasts of our bilateral relations. If we keep on enlarging and strengthening them, if we keep on learning about each other and showing respect for each other, our bilateral relations will grow from strength to strength in all the years ahead. It is the two countries’ shared responsibility.

Wiryono Sastrohandoyo was Indonesian Ambassador to Australia from 1996 to 1999. 

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