By Sade Bimantara
Many analogies have been said about the Indonesian-Australian relationship. Some draw similarities with riding a roller coaster, while others say that it is like the interactions of two very different neighbors.
Many surveys have since provided some evidence for those claims. The Lowy Institute poll in June 2016 found that Indonesia comes third as “Australia’s best friend in Asia” after China and Japan, a sharp rebound from 2014.
The same poll shows an all-time high “warm feeling” of Australians toward Indonesia, after a “cool feeling” in 2015, with 91 percent believing that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia to be important.
Findings from an August 2016 survey conducted by the Australia-Indonesia Center (AIC) seems to confirm that the feeling is mutual. Indeed, 87 percent of the 2103 Indonesians interviewed had a positive perception of Australia (The Jakarta Post, Aug. 18).
But curiously, the AIC-sponsored poll shows that 47 percent of Australians view Indonesia unfavorably. On the “favorability” scale, Indonesia lags behind India, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan.
The AIC conducted its Australian part of the survey in October to November 2015 and the Indonesian data collection took place in May and June 2016. Lowy, meanwhile, conducted its phone survey to 1,202 Australian adults between February and March 2016.
The Lowy result suggests an improvement in the Australian public perception toward Indonesia. Did a significant event happen during the period between the two polls: between November 2015 and February 2016 that might explain the “unfavorable perception” result of the AIC poll?
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Jakarta and went blusukan (impromptu visit) with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to Tanah Abang market in November 2015. The foreign and defense ministers of Australia and Indonesia held their annual meeting in Sydney in December.
In January, terrorists killed four people in attacks near the Sarinah shopping center in Jakarta. In those months, Indonesia unveiled a number of economic reform packages to lower taxes, ease the process of doing business and simplify investment procedures.
Those events, while important, were not something that would drastically sway the Australian public perception toward Indonesia. So there must be another explanation for the “negative view of Indonesia” in the AIC’s findings.
Upon studying the methodology of the AIC survey, a number of issues emerge. First, the data collection processes were different. While the Indonesian respondents were interviewed face-to-face, the Australian ones answered the questions online.
This discrepancy is no small matter. With face-to-face, the data collector can more accurately screen the respondents, see verbal and non-verbal cues, ensure that the interviewee keeps their focus and completes the survey. For Indonesians accustomed to friendly faces and language, a pleasant and engaging interviewer would be better received than the anonymity of a cold emotionless computer screen. Perhaps collecting the Australian samples with face-to-face interview would yield a different result.
Second, the Indonesian survey was conducted in 10 major cities of Indonesia, while the Australian online survey in all states and territories. Indonesian cities are urban centers of information. The average person has at least a mobile or smart phone, a motor vehicle, access to television and the internet. The respondents would have likely heard about Australia from the news, social media or other sources. No respondents from rural or the eastern part of Indonesia were surveyed. The Australian respondents are likely a mix of urban and rural residents with varying exposure to news about Indonesia.
Third, the number of samples for the surveys in Australia was about 2,000 respondents to represent 25 million Australians. The number of Indonesian respondents was also about 2,000 but they represent 250 million people. Perhaps a more proportional number of interviewees relative to the total population might yield a different result.
And fourth, the data collection dates in Australia was in different period of time to the collection of data from Indonesia. The respondents would have been exposed to different set of news that may have distinctly influenced their responses.
According to the AIC, the intention of the research was to begin a discussion on improving the Australia-Indonesia relationship. This is a good objective that all stakeholders need to support. However, one must be cautious when drawing conclusions of that recent AIC survey, especially about Australia’s perception of Indonesia.
One result that consistently appears from many surveys is the unfamiliarity of Australians regarding Indonesia. Outside of Bali, not many are familiar with Indonesia. A Lowy poll in 2013 and 2015 showed that only one third believed Indonesia is a democracy.
Similarly, the AIC survey showed that although awareness of Indonesia as a neighbor is high, but the understanding about Indonesia by Australians is low.
One key factor would be to keep building a resilient relationship including by establishing more Australia centers in Indonesia. In Australia, it would be helpful to have wider news coverage of Indonesia beyond the usual headlines.
The writer is spokesperson for the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra, Australia. The opinions expressed are his own.
(This article first appeared in The Jakarta Post Newspaper in August 2016)