Book Review: We're neighbors — Why not mates?

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post


Jakarta   /  Mon, September 10, 2018  /  09:43 am

The cover of Australia and Indonesia: Can we be friends?(Shutterstock/Schwartz Publishing)

The chorus has become repetitive. Tedious clichés spruiked by Australian politicians before thinning crowds:

Next door slumbers Traderland/opportunities just to hand

Middle-classes fattening fast/new roads, big ports, progress at last!

They need our protein, milk and cows/so get in there and sell, sell now.

And if you’ve minutes left to spare/shake some hands and say we care.

Few hearken. Many are skeptical, indifferent; is their reluctance founded on research or prejudice?

If Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s big business backers were true believers they’d be dipping their fiscal toes into the archipelagic waters and shouting: “Look, all safe! No sharks”.

Morrison has a good model for incoherence: second President Soeharto pushed dua anak cukup (two kids are enough) to brake population growth, though his wife Suhartini had produced six. You must use condoms, not us.

So is Australia and Indonesia: Can we be friends? yet another list of solution-free nags?

No, these authors are dinkum. If they ran the show there’d be shake ups aplenty. Endorsement: Their edgy ideas won’t be welcome in the embassies. Expect invitation list erasures.

Editor Jonathan Pearlman intros that “Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is not that it has gone backwards from a very low base, but that these two nations, despite their proximity, have successfully made themselves so invisible to each other”.

A good clear-the-decks start; Australian leaders have sewn their lips on Indonesia’s faults, fearful prickly Javanese might spank foreign critics by turning back Bali-bound Boeings or recalling ambassadors. They have form.

Unfortunately, there’s only one Indonesian among the four contributors to the latest triannual Australian Foreign Affairs. The Jakarta Post senior editor Endy Bayuni is a sharp analyst and is becoming the go-to guy for an Indonesian voice. But there are others that Australians need to hear too.

Responses to the 2002 Bali bombing and the 2004 Aceh tsunami brought both sides together; then they were splintered by the spy scandal and drug runner executions.

The veteran newsman has seen the baseness before, the excavating of primitive prejudices rather than elevating voters to higher ideals, the chest thumping, finger wagging.

Endy reckons his country still sees mine as “racist, arrogant, manipulative, exploitative and intrusive”. Ouch!

Yet he’s the most optimistic contributor, promoting a time-heals position, a “convergence in values and principles” as Indonesia’s economy surges and last century’s enmities sink.

Can we wait for evolution? Academic Tim Lindsey is less sanguine, reminding of fermenting religious intolerance and open attacks on the once untouchables, like the Proclamator’s youngest daughter Sukmawati Soekarnoputri.

When accused of blasphemy by Islamic hardliners for reciting an old poem about women’s wear, Sukma went to water, crying apologies and whetting extremists’ ambitions to cut down civilized debate.

Lindsey directs the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at Melbourne University. He urges Australia to “once again recalibrate its expectations” as Indonesia “contemplates a very uncertain post-Reformasi [reform] future”.

“[This] may well prove to be more religious, less liberal and a good deal less enthusiastic about engagement with foreign nations [which] may prove to be more difficult in the decade ahead than at any time since the last century.”

The thumpings continue: Former youth ambassador to Indonesia, Jennifer Rayner, asserts that Indonesia “does not really need Australia today, and will need us even less in the decades ahead as its wealth and power continue to grow.

“In engaging with this country, we [Australians] currently have little of the leverage to call upon that strengthens our other major economic relationships: neither the bonds of history nor the demand for our goods.”

Rayner wants Australia’s leaders to cease their arrogance and learn respect; it’s a tough call, though the Lucky Country is now more likely to seek mates nearby as United States President Donald Trump drags Uncle Sam out of Southeast Asia.

She says Indonesians resent first learning of Australia’s policy flips and flops through the media; this failing of diplomatic protocols suggests Canberra thinks Jakarta insufficiently important to be kept in the loop. That wouldn’t happen with London or Washington.

Rayner is familiar with the media and politics, but apparently not business boardrooms. Hoeing into corporate Australian for not seeing the chances won’t impress directors when statistics show Indonesia remains rottenly corrupt and a bureaucratic bog despite recent attempts to change.

This is where Can we be friends? trips. No first-hand tales from companies that have tried to crack the code for investing. Maybe the winners want to keep it to themselves, so we end up with the views of those whose skin in the game is intellectual.

Hugh White is different as he’s worked in defense with those who put firepower ahead of word power. For the professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University it’s time to talk new pacts and alignments as the US retires hurt, and China steps into the ring.

Indonesia’s foreign policy focus has long been regional, largely confined to ASEAN while the old boys play north. Now the action is shifting south. Realignments are underway with the Republic nuzzling-up to India, a major meat supplier, source of ancient Javanese culture and home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population (180 million).

A strong Indonesia linking arms with Australia would be an asset, he writes. Policy somersaults ahead. How these are executed will depend on who’s on stage as both nations perform to voters next year.


Australia and Indonesia: Can we be friends?

Australian Foreign Affairs, Schwartz Publishing, Melbourne
Published July 2018