By Rowan Callick
Indonesia's business world is worried its Australian counterpart has been missing in action.
Suryo Sulisto, the vigorous chairman of Kadin, the country’s peak business body, is today ending an eight-day tour of Canberra and state capitals telling Australian businesspeople how much this vexes him.
No shadow plays for him, no subtexts or insinuations. He has been forthright through his visit about opportunities and about what’s needed to grasp them.
He told The Australian he was eager to push for the conclusion of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the title of the free trade agreement on which the countries have been negotiating for a couple of years.
When the Indonesian election is over — either at the first round next month, or more likely after a second round in September, if voting is close enough to require it — Kadin will press the new government to fast-track the deal.
Sulisto says the two countries’ politicians and journalists tend “to make mountains out of molehills” in highlighting problems between them. “We need to exert serious effort to manage our relationship better. If we listen to our media in each country, we would believe that we don’t like each other, we don’t trust each other, we don’t really have a future together.”
He began his tour as Tony Abbott was holding relationship-repairing talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Batam Island in Indonesia.
The Prime Minister now needs to make plans to return after October 20, when the new president is sworn in — either Joko Widodo, the tipsters’ favourite but a dark horse on economic policy, or Prabowo Subianto, with lengthy form but a protectionist bent.
Sulisto would like to see this visit take the form of a summit “to set the course for a new future together”. He says it is “very apparent our governments consider each other as very important partners. Australia’s largest embassy is in Jakarta. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first state visit was to Indonesia. When he spoke at the breakfast with Indonesia’s business community then, his repeated use of two words, ‘trust’ and ‘respect’, was very reassuring.”
But the unfortunate truth, he says, is “we need to grow up, to be more mature, more wise”.
“I sometimes think high-school kids would be more rational” about the state of the relationship, he adds.
Sulisto apologised to Australians during his visit for not “sounding like a diplomat. I am first and foremost a businessman.” This naturally went down well with the audiences, which were encouragingly large compared with previous events with Indonesian speakers.
He regrets that Australian businesspeople fly over Indonesia to trade and invest elsewhere.
Despite the size of the country’s markets — with a population of almost 250 million, more than double that of Malaysia and Thailand combined, including a middle class larger than the Australian population — it is not among our top 10 economic partners.
Of course, some of the blame must attach to Indonesia’s own policy U-turns and its fondness for protectionism — which Kadin to a degree backs, supporting the new requirement to value-add minerals for export. But Sulisto would rather use a different term to describe it: “Nationalism does not mean protectionism,” he insists. “We don’t just want holes in the ground any more.”
Indonesians don’t really know what Australians mean, he says, when they say they want to be part of Asia. We have until recently remained, for all the “Asian Century” talk and even the white paper, remarkably incurious about our neighbours. Perhaps the crowds that came to hear Sulisto indicate fresh interest.
But how many board members and chief executives of our top 200 companies have even visited, say, Jakarta? How many of those analysts who continue to mark down businesses for investing in Asian markets such as Indonesia, have lived or worked in the region, or have contacts there?
Sulisto nevertheless praised Australia: “You have come a long way from your difficult beginnings and turned yourselves into one of the strongest economies,” which Indonesians know about through the dollars spent in Bali. “Thank you for that,” he adds.
He confesses that “social norms and hierarchy often distance us from one another, while you have an openness in the way that you communicate with each other that is inspiring”.
And in that spirit of openness he issues an invitation: “We are the third-largest democracy in the world, and I am a Muslim. I invite you to come and talk democracy, Islam, business, or anything else you may wish … over a glass of wine. I love Australian wine, and have a good collection.”
Rowan Callick is the Asia Pacific editor at The Australian. This article originally appeared in The Australian 12 June.