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Jakarta Post

I spy with my little eye...

  • Thor Kerr

    The Jakarta Post

Perth, Australia   /   Wed, November 20, 2013   /  10:55 am

'€œI spy'€ is a common game in Australia. Parents play it with their children, initiating this game with the phrase '€œI spy with my little eye, something beginning with...'€ The initiator then names the first letter of an object she spies and the other players are obliged to guess what that object is.

While this can be a fun and frustrating game, what matters most is not the object being spied upon but the diversion of other players from whatever else they could be doing. Hence, the game is often initiated by parents seeking to stop their children causing trouble on a long journey. The game functions as an internal diversion and its popularity peaked well before the invention of WiFi and tablet computers.

As news breaks around the activity of Australian spies in Indonesia, it seems important to consider whether something like '€œI spy'€ is being played at the national level to divert the attention of potentially troublesome internal citizens. This may be the case because the objects being spied upon, according to recent documents from Edward Snowden, seem rather friendly towards Australia or at least benign.

Aside from the threat of eating from food boxes (which really should be looked into) at the Indonesian Consulate in Perth last week, nobody seemed particularly threatened by Indonesian Vice President Boediono'€™s visit down under. The good doctor provided helpful information about Indonesia during a talk at his alma mater, the University of Western Australia, and was very polite and accommodating in his interactions with Australian officials.

Boediono was also patient, very patient, with Australia'€™s new Prime Minister. Therefore, it seems odd that Boediono and his Blackberry Bold (9000) were on a top-secret list of Indonesian '€œLeadership Targets + Handsets'€ at the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD, now Australian Signals Directorate). The directorate, Australia'€™s international intelligence agency, is apparently guided by the motto '€œReveal their secrets '€” Protect our own'€. In this game of '€œI spy'€ Boediono is apparently one of them, a benign object that '€œour own'€ initiator has decided to spy upon.

The argument for spying on Indonesia, as shouted at me frequently by old white men, goes something like this: '€œWe are a nation of only 20 million and we have all these resources while they are 250 million; of course they want to come here and take all the resources.'€ This argument was mounted again at a recent dinner in Perth in the wake of Boediono'€™s visit, and it was fairly easily put aside by the counter argument that such intelligence gathering was a waste of tax payers'€™ money.

Indeed, Australian Member of Parliament and former intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie made this point on Monday in response to the scandal of Australia spying on Indonesia'€™s president, the president'€™s wife and senior officials, such as Boediono. Wilkie said it was in the public interest to know '€œhow they spend billions of dollars of our money'€. This response played well in the Australian media sphere as taxpayers would perhaps find it more satisfying and helpful if the intelligence agency motto was inverted to become '€œReveal our secrets '€” Protect their own'€.

This inversion would be less embarrassing certainly and a lot more neighbourly. The Greens parliamentary leader Christine Milne said as much on Monday. Also, it would have saved Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa the trouble of recalling Indonesia'€™s ambassador from Canberra.

In the long run though, the reproduction of obsolete nationalism needs to be challenged. At the dinner above, the old white man vigorously defending Australian acts of spying had no Aboriginal ancestry, held multiple passports and was about to move out of the country in retirement. He was not even born within the geography of Australia. Like the old white man sitting agreeably next to him, this old white man was born in the post-World War II ruins of Europe, smashed by militarism supported by paranoid nostalgia for ideal racial communities.

Quite wisely the parents of these men directed them to places less spoiled by war. They left the large resource-poor population of Europe for Australia, which had a small population and abundance resources. Sound familiar? It seems that the greatest fear of these old white men is that people in Indonesia will act just like them. The threat, to be spied on, seems to be more about sameness than about difference. Perhaps this is why the DSD targeted Indonesia'€™s cosmopolitan political elite. They really are quite familiar.

The way out of this spying game may be through difference, by recognizing and respecting the value of different ways of thinking, different languages and different cultures. Australia could learn a lot from Indonesia in this regard, starting with its contribution to the Non-Aligned Movement and its institutional struggle to get beyond colonization. In the meantime, people in Australia are slowly, oh so slowly, starting to recognize their colonial present.

Indeed, the Federal Court of Australia is facilitating official recognition of native title to land of the many Aboriginal nations within Australia'€™s geography. But even this is two steps forward, one step back. For example, an important gathering of Aboriginal people at the Nyoongar Tent Embassy last year was criminalized in Australia'€™s state media, spied on by a surveillance van and raided repeatedly by police even though the gathering was quite legal. In fact, the gathering was held at a state-listed Aboriginal Heritage Site on the Nyoongar nation'€™s native title ground in the city of Perth.

These Aboriginal people, subject to surveillance, are working to get beyond the singular nation notion of Australia introduced just over a century ago. They are a minority, but they are making great progress in helping the broader population of Australia to get past their colonial present in which some people still think it is intelligent to spy on friends.

Historian Henry Reynolds astutely observed that '€œBorder protection was the single most important manifestation of Australian nationalism even while perpetuating colonial dependence. Race unity was more compelling than full sovereignty'€.

This is the legacy that people in Australia live with. It is why the old white men at the Indonesian diasporic dinner '€” at a Mexican restaurant without any Mexicans in unrecognized Nyoongar country '€” presumed I would join them at the white end of the table. However, I disrupted this presumed racial unity by sitting at the other end of the table with my friends from Indonesia. All it took was two steps forward to enjoy another way of being.

Of course there will be steps back, and the current Australian government seems more proficient than most at going backwards. The trick for citizens everywhere is to resist perpetuating a backward nostalgic leap towards idealized racial community. Avoid the ruin from which so many white nationalists fled to Australia in the first place.

The writer is a lecturer in communications and cultural studies at Curtin University and an associate member of the Australia-Asia-Pacific Institute.

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