Beyond ABBA and IKEA: Indonesia-Sweden relations
The Jakarta Post
If Indonesians were asked to name a thing or two related to Sweden, most of us would likely talk about ABBA or IKEA.
The super group's hit song 'Dancing Queen' is probably one of the most popular in karaoke joints around the country, and IKEA products are ridiculously popular among many Indonesian urbanites. I say 'ridiculous' because IKEA's first store here will not open until 2014.
The point is that for most Indonesians, Sweden is more than just a snowy country in northern Europe. Of course, it helps that the names I mentioned are generally well-known the world over, but the truth is that Sweden is very much present in the minds of ever-more globalized Indonesians.
Can the same be said about the Swedes' knowledge of Indonesia? I've never been to Sweden, but I am almost sure that the answer would be 'no'. However, in recent times one cannot deny that this perspective may be changing.
King Carl XVI Gustaf's visit to Indonesia at the beginning of last year was the first ever by a Swedish monarch. Toward the end of the year, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt followed suit, the first ever visit by a Swedish head of government.
These separate visits should be interpreted as a growing keenness on the part of Swedes to strengthen bilateral cooperation.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's state visit to Sweden on May 27-29 should serve to demonstrate that such keenness is reciprocated by Indonesians.
The strengthening of Indonesia-Sweden cooperation should be seen in good light.
For one, ranked eighth in the Innovation Capacity Index, Sweden has always been home to inventions, such as the cardiac pacemaker, GPS and the three-point seatbelt.
The Swedish government knows that science and technology have lifted the country out of the poverty and backwardness it experienced just 100 years ago, and therefore has continued to dedicate vast resources to this field.
Innovation is a key ingredient for economic development and Indonesia's partnership with Sweden should therefore focus on this field.
Indeed, recent cooperation programs between the two countries have concentrated on the modernization of Indonesia's airports and cities, thus making them more ecofriendly.
Our hope is that such partnership in science and technology could also evolve in other fields such as health and renewable energy. Undeniably, the dimension of Indonesia-Sweden cooperation has expanded tremendously in the last few years.
How things have changed since a decade ago, when relations were mostly dominated by political issues such as democracy and human rights. At the time, there was much finger-pointing at the Indonesian government and people.
Then again, when considering that many leaders of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) resided in Sweden, it was almost understandable if Swedish views of Indonesia were not always favorable.
But the conflict in Aceh has now come to a conclusion and many GAM members have traded in their guns for seats in the local government.
Indonesia as a whole has undergone a dramatic transformation ' from a country ransacked by multi-dimensional crises to a stable, democratic and economically-progressive darling of the region.
And Sweden is not the only European country endeared by this transformation.
Last year, the leaders of the Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Portugal and the UK also came to Jakarta with offers of stronger partnerships.
High level officials were not the only Swedes visiting Indonesia in 2012. Swedish tourists continue to make up the largest contingent of Scandinavian visitors to Indonesia. Not only that, among Europeans, Swedish tourists have been known to spend on average the most amount of time in Indonesia, thus potentially contributing more to the local economy.
Indonesia-Sweden trade has generally increased over the years, reaching US$1.4 billion in 2012. In 2009, Yudhoyono and European Commission President Manuel Barroso agreed to strengthen Indonesia-European Union (EU) trade cooperation, including through exploring the possibility of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA).
A vision group consisting of the business sector, academia and government officials has submitted its suggestions on the way forward for CEPA negotiations. If completed, such an agreement could potentially boost trade relations between Indonesia and the EU, and most likely with Sweden.
More significant, however, is the growing interest among Swedish businesses to shift their investment to this part of the world. At the beginning of 2011, Swedish Trade Minister Ewa Bjorling came to Indonesia accompanied by representatives from 25 companies in the energy, clean technology, telecommunications and transport sectors.
That year, realized Swedish investment in Indonesia was calculated at $916,000. A year later, the statistics jumped to $5.2 million. Indeed, trade and investment cooperation featured strongly in Yudhoyono's activities during his state visit to Sweden.
In addition to meeting high-level Swedish officials, the President met with leaders of the business community. Among the issues raised was greater access for Indonesian goods, including as part of efforts to penetrate the EU market.
While the growth of Swedish investment in Indonesia should be applauded, Yudhoyono highlighted the vast opportunities in further expanding cooperation in this field.
For example, Swedish expertise in infrastructure development could open doors for bilateral partnership in realizing Indonesia's Masterplan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia's Economic Development (MP3EI).
Also, there is room for cultivating partnership in technological innovation as a means to strengthen sustainable development in Indonesia.
Regardless, Yudhoyono's visit should increase the Swedes' exposure to Indonesia, thus contributing to our country's image as an emerging economy. Hopefully, this would allow more Swedes to imagine Indonesia beyond the stereotype of a tropical Southeast Asian country, the same way Indonesians see Sweden beyond ABBA and IKEA.
The writer is an assistant expert staff member on international affairs for the President. The views expressed are his own.
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