Jakarta: I can't pinpoint the moment I fell in love with Indonesia.
A friend knows exactly. He tells this wonderful anecdote about a security guard at a Jakarta museum asking if he wanted to come inside and lie down to escape the heat.
The next day he quit his job in Singapore and moved here. "There is no way you could even sit on the museum steps in Singapore," he told me.
I know what he means. Indonesia is everything Singapore is not: dysfunctional, chaotic and polluted. Jakarta, with its gridlocked traffic, is the megalopolis that expats love to hate.
And yet I have never felt more alive. The clogged streets with their treacherous footpaths might be hard to navigate but they pulse with energy. I love the wit of Indonesians on social media. I love the steamy nights, waking to the call to prayer and the drama of torrential downpours.
Anything seems possible here even when so much is bloody difficult. I was recently trapped in floods in Jakarta. The eight-kilometre commute from my office took three hours. As the water lapped against the side of the taxi, the driver got the giggles. It struck me, not for the first time, that no driver in Australia would ever have the sanguinity to laugh about this level of madness.
I watched a fleet of green-helmeted Go-Jek motorcycle taxi drivers pick their way through the waves. Go-Jek was Indonesia's first unicorn (a start-up with a value of over $1 billion). It's the ultimate example of a company making lemonade out of lemons. Go-Jeks do not just ferry passengers around the congested streets, squeezing through spaces cars could only dream about, they also save you from ever having to leave the house. I have Go-Jeked (it's a verb here) someone to wax my legs, cut my hair, deliver cranberry juice and drop off a pram I bought online. It arrived exactly 56 minutes later.
Indonesia is a country of extraordinary stories. The warmth, openness and generosity so many people have shown me has been incredible. My favourite word in Indonesian is boleh (you may). I heard it so many times – you may interview me, you may come in, you may visit.
And yet Indonesia is dogged by problems that can seem insurmountable. Barely a day goes past without a corruption scandal hitting the headlines. Last November 18 officials were suspected of graft relating to the Monument of Integrity erected in Pekanbaru, a city in Sumatra, to mark International Anti-Corruption Day. It was not satire. "Peak Indonesia," someone tweeted.
Struggling to articulate Indonesia's contradictions, I find myself craving my favourite comfort food, martabak manis, a sweet pancake stuffed with chocolate and grated cheddar cheese. It's a much loved food combination here I once thought disgusting. Now I snap: "How is chocolate and cheese any different to caramel and sea salt?"
But unlike my friend's instant crush on Indonesia, my relationship with the country was a complicated slow-burner.
Jewel Topsfield interviewed Indonesian President Joko Widodo, centre, with Fairfax Media's Peter Hartcher, left. Photo: Jefri Tarigan
My first few months here in early 2015 were harrowing.
Within days of my arrival, Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, rejected the clemency pleas of Bali Nine heroin smugglers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, despite their remarkable rehabilitation.
From this moment their death by firing squad seemed inevitable.
Reporting on the lead-up to the executions was like watching a film, heart in mouth, that you already know ends tragically. I barely slept for weeks.
Relations between the two countries soured, exacerbated by Tony Abbott's disastrous reminder of the billion dollars in aid Australia had donated after the 2004 tsunami.
"Australia and Indonesia are like divorced parents who have to stay together for the sake of the children," one Indonesian official told me.
The anger some Australians felt towards Indonesia at the time was visceral. I deplore the death penalty – now more than ever – but felt a responsibility not to fan the flames of hate.
And there were also Indonesians who were deeply affected; among them the guards and fellow prisoners who became close to Chan and Sukumaran and their indefatigable lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, who has been fighting to end the death penalty in Indonesia since 1979.
Mulya would later describe the night the Australians were shot as the darkest moment of his life. "I failed. I lost," he tweeted, heartbroken, at 4am.
For a long time I didn't let myself acknowledge the executions had affected me. It seemed nothing in the face of the grief faced by Chan and Sukumaran's loved ones.
But I was haunted by photos of them as children, Sukumaran with a broad toothy grin and Chan an impish smirk.
For weeks afterwards I dreamed my son, 18 months old at the time, fell into a swimming pool. I would dive in and try to rescue him but each time his slippery, muscular body would squirm out of my hands until I realised I was powerless to save him. I would wake soaked in sweat, again and again.
I remember reading former Melbourne radio journalist Brian Morley's account of witnessing the hanging of Ronald Ryan in Melbourne and how it changed him. I marvelled he was still alive to tell the story. The last execution carried out in Australia seemed so long ago although it was only 1967.
Jokowi last year suggested Indonesians would eventually change their minds on execution laws, as citizens of other countries have done in the past.
I hope one day to write a retrospective piece when the death penalty seems as remote and archaic in Indonesia as it does in Australia.
Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed in 2015. Photo: Anta Kesuma
I still have to pinch myself I got this job. I was terrified when appointed that I would never live up to the previous Fairfax Indonesia correspondents. I poured out my heart to a mentor. "No two correspondents are the same," she said. "Follow the stories that interest you." It sounds so obvious but it is among the best pieces of career advice I have received.
Fairfax Media is blessed to have two superb Indonesian journalists – Karuni Rompies and Amilia Rosa – who are gutsy, charming, dogged, unflappable and insatiably curious.
Accompanied by either one of them, I criss-crossed the archipelago in search of stories that interested me and (I hope) gave readers some insight into the complexity and wonder of one of Australia's closest but least understood neighbours.
The Australian media is generally blamed for this lack of understanding. We are told we are only interested in the three Bs: boats, beef and Bali.
It can be difficult for foreign media to access Papua (the independence struggle here is one of the most sensitive topics in Indonesia) but we reported on the mysterious disappearance of Papuan Martinus Beanalas conflict simmered around the Freeport mine. The area surrounding the mine, which many indigenous Papuans see as the root of their oppression, has long been the site of a low-level insurgency.
We explored Indonesia's struggle to come to terms with one of its darkest chapters – the massacre of an estimated 500,000 people suspected of left leanings in 1965 and 1966 – and the surreal paranoia about a resurgent red peril.
In Toraja, South Sulawesi, where people are completely at home among the dead, I reflected on our sanitised buttoned-up attitude to death in the West, where the body is quickly dispensed with and grief is largely a lonely, private affair. We had witnessed manene, an intimate ritual to pay homage to ancestors, where corpses were removed from their coffins, groomed and dressed in new outfits. "Were you revolted?" a friend asked. In fact I had been moved. At its heart, the ceremony is an expression of love.
Living with the dead in South Sulawesi. Photo: Alan Putra
In June 2015, Amilia and I travelled to West Timor to investigate vague – but potentially explosive – claims an Australian official had paid people smugglers to return a boat of 65 asylum seekers to Indonesia.
I was highly sceptical. Then prime minister Tony Abbott had described people smuggling as an "evil trade". Surely Australia would not reward criminal activity?
We were ushered into a room at Kupang police station. I was astonished General Endang Sunjaya, the then police chief of East Nusa Tenggara, had agreed to even meet with us.
"The money is now being kept as evidence that this was not a made-up story," General Endang told us. "This is very unexpected. If it happened in Indonesia it would constitute a bribe."
I was pouring with sweat and my eyes were beginning to bulge. I frenziedly scribbled a note to Amilia: "Let's get out of here before he changes his mind and says this is all off the record!!!!!". Amilia calmly ignored me and sipped her tea. "Could you show us the money sir?" she asked sweetly. "Boleh," the general replied and showed us photographs of piles of crisp US dollar notes.
Later Amilia, bemused by my shock, asked if the Australian government was likely to respond. I said it would almost certainly not comment "on water matters".
Sure enough Abbott refused to comment on "operational matters", although he never denied Australia had paid the people smugglers. "What we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook," he said. "I just don't want to go into the details of how it's done."
Amusingly, Indonesian journalists were not familiar with the idiom "by hook or by crook" and translated it literally. "Abbott simply insisted that he would 'stop the boat by inducement or with criminals' and refused to elaborate on 'how it is done'," Antara news reported.
I'll always be grateful for the refreshing – and generous – level of access that Indonesian officials have provided to us over the past three years. It is a world away from the team of media flacks employed to massage the message back home.
From left, seated: Captain Yohanis Humiang with head of the people smuggling division of Nusa Tenggara Timur, Ibrahim, and Rote police chief Hidayat. Photo: Supplied
Analysts have claimed Indonesia has been at a crossroads for so long it has been parodied by The Simpsons. "Look at me, I'm reading The Economist. Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?" Homer asks, after ordering a steak on a plane. "Nooooo," deadpans Marge.
But once again things seem precarious.
Identity politics in Indonesia (and other southern Asian countries) has been named one of the top global risks for 2018 by US risk analysis organisation the Eurasia Group.
Islamists' increasing sway over Indonesian politics was demonstrated in the lead-up to last year's gubernatorial election, with massive street protests denouncing the reformist Chinese-Christian governor Ahok.
The allegations Ahok had insulted Islam and his subsequent blasphemy trial proved catastrophic for his re-election bid despite polls showing that Jakartans were overwhelmingly satisfied with his performance in office.
Former Jakarta governor Basuki ''Ahok'' Tjahaja Purnama. Photo: AP
The 2016 and 2017 Islamist mobilisation has been recognised as an important shift in Indonesian politics. A new paper by Australian National University academic Marcus Mietzner and others says opposition to non-Muslims holding political office has hardened.
All eyes will be on the 171 provincial elections in June which are likely to be a bellwether of the 2019 presidential elections. Already there are fears religion, ethnicity and race will be used to sway voters.
I will be watching with bated breath. After three years reporting on politics I feel personally invested.
I recently met a man who had a map of Indonesia tattooed across his face to reflect his love for his country. He was an environmental activist working in a remote village in Bogor regency to turn plastic rubbish into fuel. This powered a generator and provided electricity for the village.
I thought it would make a great story. The tattooed man who loved his country trying to tackle Indonesia's trash crisis. And then it struck me I had run out of time.
And in that moment I realised how much I will miss chronicling this complex and confounding country. Life will never be quite the same again.
Jewel Topsfield was the Indonesia correspondent for Fairfax Media from 2015 to 2018.
Does Indonesia pose a strategic risk for Australia? The answer might be ‘no’ if one looks at the recently released Australian foreign policy white paper. It argues that Indonesia—along with Japan, India and South Korea—is an ‘Indo-Pacific democracy’ that is bilaterally and regionally important to Australia. Australia, it says, will therefore ‘work closely with Indonesia in regional and international forums to support and protect a rules-based regional order’.
The premise that Indonesia and Australia can leverage their relationship into a strategic partnership with regional effects perhaps follows the vision in the 2016 defence white paper. That document shifted the bilateral tone away from the traditional security ambivalence into a partnership based on shared geo-economic and maritime interests.
Nonetheless, parts of the Australian strategic community still consider Indonesia a possible strategic risk. One example is a recent ASPI report, Australia’s management of strategic risk in the new era, by Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith. The report wasn’t about Indonesia as much as it was about China. It focused on key warning indicators and defence capabilities Canberra should consider, as ‘a major power threat’ can’t be ruled out.
The issue with Indonesia was ‘whether Islamic extremism is entering the mainstream of Indonesian politics, and so eventually posing a direct threat to Indonesia’s domestic stability and having implications for’ Australia. If Indonesia becomes ‘some sort of aggressive Islamist extremist state’, the authors argue, it could pose ‘a fundamental threat to Australia’s security’. After all, Indonesia’s growing economy would ‘give it the option of developing much more serious military capabilities’.
Concerns over Indonesia’s strategic trajectory are certainly not new; they go back to the 1960s and 1970s. But today, the argument that Indonesia could pose strategic risks for Australia (in the way Dibb and Brabin-Smith conceive it) is fundamentally flawed because it’s based on problematic assumptions, not sound or systematic analysis.
First, the ‘Islamist extremist state’ argument assumes that (1) the ‘mainstreaming’ of Islamic extremism will lead to a ‘takeover’, (2) the process of such a takeover will lead to ‘domestic instability’, and (3) such a state will be ‘hostile’ towards or perhaps intent on attacking Australia.
Putting aside the fact that none of the key terms (such as mainstreaming extremism or instability) are properly defined, these assumptions rely on a logic whereby the entry of Islamic extremism into mainstream politics automatically leads to ‘takeover’ and ‘hostility’. Given that logic’s complexities, the analysis should be empirically supported rather than conjectured through assumptions.
Further, the assumptions aren’t about contested strategic interests if an ‘Islamic extremist state’ arises or about whether Indonesia has the requisite offensive capabilities or hostile intentions. Instead, they’re about Indonesia being ‘different’, whether defined by religion (Islamic) or regime type (non-liberal democracy). Assuming that a different Indonesia will pose a strategic risk just because it’s different sidelines any effort to understand the country on its own terms—a hallmark of strategic analysis driven by ethnocentricity.
One could misinterpret such analysis as a variation of the erroneous myth that Islam as a religion or Islamic societies are inherently or irrationally hostile towards a ‘liberal Western’ state like Australia. While I don’t believe that’s what Dibb and Brabin-Smith are arguing, without a clear elaboration one could misread it as such.
Second, the argument that economic growth leads to improved and offensive military capabilities assumes that (1) defence planning is externally oriented and ‘rational’ (that is, a threat-based, value-maximising assessment of the strategic environment and goals within existing constraints), and (2) Indonesia could be threatening because its intentions could change overnight.
Indonesia’s economic growth has indeed been correlated with the rise of its defence spending (roughly US$6–8 billion in recent years). But most of that money (around 65% to 75%) goes to personnel in the form of salaries, education and other benefits. Indonesia spends only around US$1–2 billion annually on procurement (divided equally among the three services).
Indonesia also faces numerous challenges to modernising its defence forces. Planning has been erratic and subject to bureaucratic politics and civil–military contestations. The operational readiness of most of its ships and aircraft is currently in doubt too. Overall, Indonesia doesn’t have the offensive capabilities to attack Australia to begin with, nor does it plan to acquire them.
The question of intentions, on the other hand, is always elusive. But Indonesia’s military has always been strategically defensive—major military exercises, along with doctrinal developments since the 1990s, can attest to that.
Perhaps Dibb and Brabin-Smith’s arguments are based on worst-case forecasting, which makes sense given Australia and Indonesia’s turbulent bilateral history. But the assumptions that spring from such a premise could crowd out efforts to better see Indonesia in its own terms. If so, perhaps Ken Booth is right: worst-case forecasting is to strategic analysis what the ‘god of the gaps’ is to theology—it fills in for what we don’t understand.
Evan A. Laksmana is a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia, and a visiting fellow with the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle, Washington. Image courtesy of Pixabay user aditya_wicak.