Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book review: Where Australia collides with Asia

Ian Burnet: Where Australia Collides with Asia: The Epic Voyages of Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the origin of “On the Origin of Species”, Rosenberg, 2017, 206 pp. $34.95.

Reviewed by Ron Witton (

Those of us who have learned Indonesian/Malay can well recall being told how its vocabulary provides evidence of the archipelago’s place in world history. This is reflected, like archaeological layers, in the language. The initial, lowest, stratum of the language is drawn from the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages that stretches westwards to Madagascar and eastwards to Tahiti and Hawaii. Over time, the language gained additional layers of vocabulary as the Indonesian/Malay archipelago with its very valuable spice islands became integrated into the world’s trade routes: first a layer of Sanskrit from India; then Arabic words from the Middle East; and then topped off with a final “layer” of words drawn from European languages.

Ian Burnet, in his latest book on the Indonesian archipelago, reminds us that for eons preceding the arrival of humans, the Indonesian archipelago was already a meeting place, not of peoples but of the great geological forces that would shape the world that humans were later to inhabit. His book focuses on the lives and ideas of Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, three of Britain’s most adventurous early naturalists to come to our part of the globe, who played a central role in our understanding of the effect of these geological forces on the diversity of life forms in the natural world.

When Gondwana broke up, the Australian tectonic plate came adrift and has travelled north colliding with Asia. Eastern Indonesia rests on that plate. The plate carries on it flora and fauna (eg marsupials and birds) common to Australia and to those parts of the southern hemisphere such as Africa and South America, to which it was once joined as part of Gondwana. As the Australian plate continues to drift northwards, it pushes against the tectonic plates on which Asia rests causing the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes of this volatile part of the globe. The western half of Indonesia rests on the Asian tectonic plate and has flora and fauna, such as tigers and elephants, which are strikingly different to the natural world of eastern Indonesia and Australia. Many of us know of this division of Indonesia’s flora and fauna through learning about the “Wallace Line”, that passes to the east of Bali and Kalimantan, which is named after Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the three figures about whom this book is written

What Ian Burnet achieves in his wonderfully illustrated and narrated book is to relate the important role the Indonesian archipelago has played in the intellectual history of the West. In their separate voyages Banks, Darwin and Wallace discovered the astounding diversity of the southern hemisphere’s natural world, and it was through their observations that the enlightenment truly came of age. Western thought found it could not reconcile the static divine word of the Bible with the diverse and ever-evolving scientific reality of the natural world.

Not only do we come to appreciate the fundamental intellectual and scientific importance of the voyages taken by these seminal scientific figures, but Ian Burnet’s very perceptive use of quotes from their public writings and private diaries allow us to see through their eyes the world they found and understand the intellectual problems it raised for them. Moreover, in the case of Darwin and Wallace, we enter into their very troubled worlds as they tried to explain the diversity of life they found. We come to understand the way that they separately arrived at the principle of “the survival of the fittest” and that this led them, inexorably, to deny the validity of creationism and hence the God-given “truth” of the Bible. The way that Darwin’s fear of confronting the church weighed on his mind, and led to him resisting publicising his ideas for some 14 years, is a salutary reminder of the somewhat precarious position of science in the nineteenth century. While it is true that people were no longer burnt at the stake for questioning religious tenets, Ian Burnet documents the way that scientists, politicians and even former friends vituperously denounced both Darwin and Wallace. Indeed, Pope Pius IX placed Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on the Index Expurgatorius in order to prohibit Catholics from reading it.

Of particular interest is the way that Wallace and Darwin separately conceived of what is now referred to as “Darwinism”. It is also fascinating to learn of the civil manner in which the fraught problem of scientific precedence was resolved between them, and lead to their close friendship in later life.

There is another perceptive dimension to Ian Burnet’s book. Just as the Indonesian/Malay language has layers to its vocabulary reflecting its historical development, and the archipelago rides on tectonic plates atop the earth’s geological layers, Ian Burnet’s study perceptively illustrates the tiers of Britain’s class structure through the social backgrounds of the book’s three protagonists.

The top layer is represented by Sir Joseph Banks, a leisured member of the British ruling class, who was born into a family of extremely wealthy landowners. Following his voyage with Cook, he was a national celebrity and revelled in the attention. He was elected as President of the Royal Society in 1778, a position he held for the next forty-one years. Among his other positions was being an adviser to the Kew Gardens, a member of the Board of Agriculture, overseeing the Royal Greenwich Observatory and being a trustee of the British Museum. No wonder his astounding and vast collection of previously unknown plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, insects and marine creatures carefully bought home from his travels failed to obtain from him the degree of often tedious attention required to describe, draw and classify them as a prelude to producing scholarly works. Indeed, his superb Florilegium did not see the light of day until it was published by the British Museum in the 1980's.

Darwin, being the son of a prosperous country doctor, was somewhat lower down the English social scale than Banks. Although neither Banks nor Darwin ever had to work for their living, the manner of their travels reflected their differential social status. When Banks learned of Cook’s proposed 1768 expedition to the Pacific to view the transit of Venus, he wrote to the Admiralty expressing his wish to accompany Cook on the voyage. Being a fellow of the Royal Society and a friend of Lord Sandwich, Banks’ request was granted. Banks contributed £10,000 of his own money so that he could travel in style in the somewhat limited space of the Endeavour. His private party consisted of the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, the Finnish botanist Herman Spรถring, two personal assistants, two servants and his two hunting dogs.

In contrast, Darwin’s opportunity to travel was far less planned and almost serendipitous. He had been a somewhat unenthusiastic university student but was an avid naturalist. When he heard that Captain Robert FitzRoy was interested in having a “gentleman scientist” to accompany him on the Beagle, the young Darwin was most desirous of joining the forthcoming trip. However, despite having no need to work and being free to do whatever he liked, he had first to convince his father to let him go. Darwin’s father considered Darwin’s interest in being a naturalist as a waste of time and saw as foolhardy the proposed voyage that would last for many years. When his father at last relented, Darwin was able to depart on the Beagle in 1831. In contrast to Banks, Darwin travelled alone and had to deal with Captain FitzRoy’s often dark and unstable temperament. However, en route, he had the means to engage the services of one of the Beagle’s crew, Syms Covington, as his “shooter”. Covington remained in his employ until Covington migrated to Australia in 1839. Many of us know of this relationship through Roger McDonald’s wonderful novel, Mr Darwin’s Shooter.

Alfred Russel Wallace, in contrast to Banks and Darwin, was born into an impoverished middle-class family with seven children and had to leave school at the age of fourteen. Wallace lived virtually his whole working life on the edge of economic disaster. Despite often being reduced to poverty, he was able, through his devotion to naturalism and exploration, to make money selling specimens to British collectors. Despite his life being often one of privation and hardship, the years he spent in eastern Indonesia from 1854 to 1862 during which he collected more than 126,000 specimens, made him one of the world’s foremost naturalists.

While Banks travelled in style with his large party and Darwin had funds to employ Syms Covington, Wallace travelled and worked alone until he recruited a fifteen-year-old Malay boy named Ali as his apprentice. Ali, whom Wallace taught to shoot and skin birds, accompanied him on his travels around Indonesia. During their travels, Ali cooked for Wallace, nursed him back to health during his various illnesses, and helped save both their lives through his boating skills. It is through Wallace’s own words that we come to understand the affection that Wallace held for Ali and serves as an example of the way that the inclusion of copious quotes from the diaries of Banks, Darwin and Wallace makes the book such a delight to read.

While Banks lived out his years as a celebrity member of British society and Darwin had a country home where he could devote himself to his studies, Wallace returned to a precarious life in England only slightly ameliorated by the sales of his highly popular book The Malay Archipelago. It was only when Darwin secured for him a government pension in 1881 that he finally gained a measure of financial security.

Like the geology of the earth we live on, and like British society that founded modern Australia, this wonderfully enlightening and delightful book is many-layered.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Australia in ASEAN: Indonesian centrality

The roller-coaster nature of Australia’s history with Indonesia—high moments of great optimism, low periods of clash and argument—means that Indonesia’s foreign policy elite is cautious when contemplating the idea of Australia joining ASEAN. But it’s something that Australia’s policy elite might well contemplate.

As one example of Australia’s thinking about Indonesia, note Tony Abbott’s view that it’s ‘in many respects our most important overall relationship’. Heading off to Jakarta on his first overseas trip as PM in 2013, Abbott saw the approach to Indonesia as vital: ‘It’s probably not realistic to think of Australia having the same relationship as it has with New Zealand but that’s the direction you would like it to move in.’

The Oz–Kiwi relationship has a depth of history and culture that we’ll never have with Indonesia. But Abbott is surely right that Indonesia is a central factor in Australia’s regional future. I could offer quotes of a similar tenor from every Australian PM going back to Menzies (although the Menzies embrace of the idea of living with Indonesia forever was deeply coloured by dread).

As another example, see Paul Keating’s 2012 Murdoch lecture, in which he argued that Indonesia will become Australia’s most important strategic partner:
How things go in the Indonesian archipelago, in many respects, so go we. Indonesia remains the place where Australia’s strategic bread is buttered. No country is more important to us—and it is a country which has shown enormous tolerance and goodwill towards us. Focus on this country should be a major imperative driving our foreign policy.
An Australian move to join ASEAN would be about the centrality of Southeast Asia to our strategic and economic future. And at the heart of that equation is Indonesia.

A discussion of Australia joining ASEAN is also a way to conceptualise a deeper association with Indonesia. The importance of Indonesia should feed into the understanding of what Australia could do with ASEAN. The bilateral builds towards the regional, just as the regional fosters the bilateral.

The previous Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa (2009–2014), rejects Keating’s call for Australia to join ASEAN, arguing that it’d be a distraction for ASEAN and could even inflame tensions inside Australia about our alignment with Asia. Natalegawa’s two big worries are China tearing apart ASEAN and the Jokowi administration musing about a ‘post-ASEAN’ diplomacy.

In both areas, Canberra should argue that a bigger Australian role in ASEAN would be more of an asset than a hindrance. Australia joining ASEAN would help, not hurt, the middle-power game with China.
Natalegawa’s predecessor as foreign minister, Hasan Wirajuda (2001–2009), took a more technocratic approach when I spoke to him about Australia joining ASEAN. Wirajuda pointed to the formal veto—not being part of Southeast Asia —plus an informal rule that a member of ASEAN can’t be part of another regional grouping, as Australia is in the Pacific Islands Forum.

The response to those points is that Australia, as a nation on its own continent, has a series of regions. And formal rules can be changed as circumstances change.
In discussing the Australia-into-ASEAN idea, Wirajuda says he sees it as a replay of the debate within ASEAN about admitting Australia (and New Zealand) to the East Asia Summit: ‘I communicated with my counterparts, early on, especially when Australia was invited to joined the EAS, and said, accelerate the process of integration of Australia into this region, first into ASEAN but then into a larger community-building process.’

Wirajuda says the integration argument succeeded in the EAS, but failed when he was pushing for Australia to be admitted to the Chiang Mai Initiative, the currency swap arrangement between ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea. He’d strongly supported Australia joining Chiang Mai, but China was even more emphatic in rejecting Australian membership.

Wirajuda’s advice on Australia’s way ahead with ASEAN: ‘I think Australia should make itself more accepted by the region. Speed up your integration—less in a formal process—more in substance.’ He thinks that integration could lead to the moment when ASEAN admits Australia, initially as a half-member with observer status—shifting Australia from the status it has had since 1974 as an ASEAN dialogue partner.
‘I think in the future we should be open, ASEAN should be open to create this special status of observer’, Wirajuda says. ‘So far we work under the ASEAN-plus-one dialogue process, we have a regular dialogue process with Australia. In effect, it would not be much different with observer status, as the ASEAN-plus-one dialogue is done back-to-back with the summit. To me, the margin of difference between dialogue partner and observer is not so much.’

I asked Wirajuda whether reaching for Australian ASEAN membership would be seen as too ambitious, raising too many questions for ASEAN. Ever the diplomat, Wirajuda replied with a meditation on whether Australia would be able to play by the club rules: ‘In the dialogue process, ASEAN-plus-one, our partners can raise anything. But, of course, our partners know how the consensus decision-making process works in ASEAN, which also is perhaps a handicap for our partners.’

Australia’s shift towards ASEAN could happen in step with the broadening and deepening of what Australia seeks to do with Indonesia. That is the perspective of a former head of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kishore Mahbubani. Here he is making the yes case for Australia’s ASEAN membership. And here are Mahbubani’s further thoughts on how Australia’s embrace of its strategic and economic future in Southeast Asia would move in step with its central relationship, with Indonesia:
Your relations with Indonesia have got to change. You have to show much greater sensitivity to them, closeness to them. Right now you have a good formal relationship, but it’s all about government-to-government, not a heart-to-heart relationship with Indonesia. Mind you, I don’t expect a big-bang change. I think it will be gradual for Australia.
Australia’s gradual movement towards Indonesia must be closer and deeper, just as it must be with ASEAN.

Australia Plus is a minus

image description
Australia is failing to broadcast its best television into Southeast Asia, a serious missed opportunity, argues Duncan Graham
Most nations strive to show their best sides to the world through international TV channels, seen as effective means of building rapport and dispelling distrust.

On these platforms they serve documentaries, dramas and newscasts made to enhance their country’s real or imagined virtues.  BBC World, France 24, Al Jazeera, NHK (Japan), Deutsche Welle and other telecasters offer vistas grand using serious money.

The French Government is reported to spend A$117 million a year on France 24 while Russia’s RT channel is believed to have an annual budget of US$300 million. The Voice of America has US$218 million, all from government funds. Now China is expanding its overseas reach with China Central Television.
We have Australia Plus, run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with the help of Monash University, the Government of Victoria, and Swisse – a food supplement manufacturer owned by a Hong Kong-based company.

Through this service we give the world Bananas in Pyjamas, Giggle and Hoot and Australian Rules played seriously by no other country apart from a hybrid in Ireland. Yet we live in a region where projecting a positive image among the near neighbours is particularly important as the biggest in the block have reservations about us.
image description
Bananas in Pyjamas, B1 and B2 Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to a recent survey published by the USAsia Centre, Indonesians responded to the question: which country has the closest relationship with President Joko Widodo’s government? Saudi Arabia was first at 47 per cent, followed by China, and the US. Only two per cent said Australia.  Clearly, we have problems.

A strange message to the region

Our presentations to the Asia–Pacific used to be different. For decades, Australian governments believed that broadcasting and telecasting into the region was an important commitment, sowing ideas, informing and influencing.
Using shortwave, Radio Australia started in 1939, mainly to counter Japanese propaganda.  After the war, it became a ‘soft power diplomacy tool’ in the jargon of Foreign Affairs. Other terms commonly found in the literature include ‘globally connected’ and ‘promotion of Australian values’.
Thousands developed their English skills huddled over crackling sets, particularly during the 1950s–60s.  Technology forced changes. Satellites eclipsed land-based transmitters.  Re-brands became necessary but the vision remained and the mission expanded.

In 2006, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced that ABC Asia Pacific (formerly Australia Television International) would become Australia Network, with funding from his department plus advertising.

Downer said the ABC would run the network offering ‘high quality programs about Australia and its engagement with the region’. Also promised were ‘extensive news and current affairs programs, Australian-produced education, drama, entertainment and lifestyle programs’.

In 2011, the Labor Government called tenders to run Australia Network. The two main hopefuls were the ABC and Sky TV which had long campaigned to get the job.  When it seemed Rupert Murdoch’s company—no friend of Labor—would get the contract, the tender process was scrapped and the job given to the ABC.
The failure to use the opportunity well is irresponsible
The victory was short-lived. After the Liberal-National Coalition won government in 2013, Australia Network was turned off. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the network ‘had failed to deliver a cost-effective vehicle’, but provided no facts to back the claim.
The then ABC managing director Mark Scott said the decision ‘sends a strange message to the region that the Government does not want to use the most powerful communication tools available to it to talk to our regional neighbours about Australia’.

The failure to use the opportunity well is irresponsible.

Killing off the network may have satisfied a political ideology but a legal reality had to be faced. The ABC Charter requires it to be an international broadcaster, so the gap had to be filled.
At the site for Australia Plus,  the image polishers have called it ‘…an opportunity for Australian businesses and a case study in corporate entrepreneurship … an endeavour that should be applauded. It is a positive step for the broadcaster, for public institutions in general and for Australian business.’
So far, few corporates have clapped because their logos are yet to appear on Indonesian screens. The 360 Australian businesses that launched a mighty assault on the Indonesian market in 2015, and again this year with 120 delegates, are absent from the list of sponsors.
It might be logical to assume we would be offering our best and brightest programs
The new service is believed to cost A$20 million a year, with three ‘foundation partners’—in the coy language of one report—‘signing on to advertising deals worth in the low single-digit million dollar range’.  Presumably, this means somewhere between one and three million a year, so still a minority contribution.
As Australian leaders recite the mantra that our relationship with Indonesia is our most important foreign relationship, it might be logical to assume we would be offering our best and brightest programs, selected specifically for the archipelago and other markets.

image description

On set for Home and Away Photo: John Campbell Source: Wikimedia Commons
According to the ABC ‘the service is delivered as a single stream across all territories.  Programs do not have separate versions for individual territories.’  So it is one-size-fits-all in the 43 countries that get Australia Plus. This negates the broadcaster’s claim that ‘the ABC places the audience at the centre of everything it does’.

In Indonesia, three pay-to-use cable services carry Australia Plus.  They get it free.  The ABC says it is ‘available to three million people in Indonesia.’ This means the number who pay for access to networks each offering 50 or more channels.

We are the closest Western nation to Indonesia with the ability to present a different perspective in the media jungle of Southeast Asia. Australia Plus says its mission is ‘to provide a television and digital service that informs, entertains and inspires our audience with an uniquely Australian perspective.’  Note the order of priorities.

Indonesian viewers comparing Australia Plus with presentations from other nations might conclude that we are a poor country offering inconsistent fare, and indifferent to audience needs.

No lack of skills and talent, just lack of political will

This situation may not concern the Government but it appears to worry the ABC. In March this year it made an untitled submission to the Foreign Policy White Paper.
The DFAT document noted the expansion of the BBC World Service and other TV networks into overseas telecasting while reminding DFAT of some original principles: ‘Australia requires a strategy for engagement which enhances mutual understanding and respect and which encourages an exchange of ideas. Establishing strong cultural and social links with international populations will facilitate stronger economic ties and more productive collaboration.’

Perhaps this late prod to conscience might someday get a reaction.  However, so far nothing seems to stir the major parties. They enjoy ABC and SBS excellence at home and offer heart-warming statements about Australia being respected in the region.

If Australia’s overseas TV is supposed to project a robust Western democracy, a creative explorer of art and technology and a leader in education, then Australia Plus is a turn-off. It could be a splendid showcase in Indonesia and the other nations where it is available, spreading Australian news, culture, values and opinions, equal to its international competitors.

We have the skills and talent.  What we lack is political will.

(This article is based on a paper presented at the Indonesia Council Open Conference at Flinders University.)