Sunday, May 6, 2018

'Strangers next Door": Can these two neighbours ever 'hit-it-off'?

Book Review by Duncan Graham

The missed chances of history.
Long before the First Fleet arrived from Great Britain to colonize Australia in 1788, Makassans already knew of the Great South Land.
They regularly sailed to its northern shores, staying for about six months collecting and drying the edible trepan sea slug for export. Then they left for their homeland — sometimes taking Aboriginal wives.
Had they explored further and settled, Terra Australis might now be part of Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia).
Instead we have two widely differing cultures and value systems squashed so closely they are interdependent yet wishing otherwise — not the basis for a good marriage.
Melbourne University professor Tim Lindsey is co-editor with Dave McRae from the same campus of Strangers Next Door?
Lindsey is a rarity — a scholar who keyboards with journalistic directness. His favorite tag is “The Odd Couple” of Southeast Asia. Though a bit dated for Netflixers (the Neil Simon play and film go back half a century) it’s handy shorthand.
Former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post Endy Bayuni, one of six Indonesian contributors, is a mite more expansive: The two nations’ “relationship has been defined more by what separates them than by what unites them, especially in recent years”.
Realities underpin his gloom; Australia’s support for the 1999 East Timor referendum, which saw the tiny province get independence aroused widespread wrath that lingers still.
Australians see their involvement as a human-rights triumph, Indonesians as a sinister plot to fracture the “Unitary State”.
If only that was the sole irritant. The fatuous phone-taps on Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the one president who genuinely liked Australia, haven’t been forgotten. Nor has the gross misstep by former prime minister Tony Abbott linking the 2004 Aceh tsunami aid to failed pleas to save two reformed Australian drug runners from execution.
Central to so many clashes is the clumsiness of Australian leaders and their inability — or wilful refusal — to see things from another perspective. And when they try they become sycophants.
On the other side Indonesian politicians can be over eager to play the racism and colonialism cards, telling electors they are victims, their problems made by outsiders.
Michael Bachelard spent three challenging years in the archipelago reporting for Fairfax Press. He was told by a President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo adviser that Australian journalists were “too aggressive, too blunt in our language, too critical and prone to sensationalism”.
This image, unfair to the now foreign editor for The Age “who had grown to love Indonesia and its people” kept him out of the Palace while colleagues from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Middle East got access to the President.
Why should the third-largest democracy (after the US and India) have such hang-ups about a neighbor that supported Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonialism and until recently was a major aid donor?
There are plenty of historical explanations: Founding president Sukarno’s dabbling with Russia when the advance of communism was terrifying the West, led to failed regime-change attempts by the United States, and Indonesia’s ill-fated Konfrontasi challenge to independent Malaysia defended by Commonwealth troops.
More up-to-date is Lindsey’s “Bad News” list of Australians getting in trouble on Bali and how this affects bilateral relations.
It could all be grim but the question mark in the title suggests hope. Professor David Hill’s Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies shows what can be done by a determined individual and a handful of true believers.
University cooperation between Flinders (in South Australia) and Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta is another example of doers elbowing naysayers aside.
The final chapter highlights the benefits of youth programs. All worthy, but only eight considered and so small they’re dust flecks on the mountain of need.
Although the Indonesian population is skewed to the young (40 percent is under 25) the power brokers are still last century’s oligarchs. They also control the media.
Threatening the relationship is the future of Papua. Melbourne academic Richard Chauvel writes that while Australia has “the most interest in a peaceful resolution” policy has been “immobilized” by Indonesian “paranoia” about Australia’s intentions.
The independence activists working out of Australia are not supported by the government; Indonesians with limited understanding of democracy can’t fathom why the peaceful stirrers aren’t arrested.
The issue of transiting asylum seekers stranded in Indonesia remains unresolved. Monash academic Antje Missbach’s contribution sounds alerts.
This book has been published in the UK by a legal-book publishing company. The cover price of £90 (US$126, Rp 1.7 million) guarantees it won’t reach those who would benefit most.
The fact that top academics like Lindsey and McRae couldn’t excite a local publisher proves the point made by many contributors — Australians are indifferent to the people next door and only see them as a market for wheat and beef.
Nasty — but a reality bounce when the ASEAN conference in Sydney generated so much banquet-talk about warming ties. Though desperately needed these won’t come without robust but respectful exchanges.
Relationships just bob around, almost directionless. The ocean is currently calm. That’s temporary. More understanding, port and starboard, is needed to weather the inevitable storms. This book provides some ballast.
____Duncan Graham is a well-know and respected journalist based in East Java.____________________________________________
Strangers Next Door?
Edited by Tim Lindsey and Dave McRae
Hart Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2018



    I was somewhat taken aback while reading a book review of Strangers Next Door? by Duncan Graham (The Jakarta Post, April 23).
    I was in Yogyakarta with the Australian and Indonesian environment ministers who co-hosted the Asia Pacific Rainforest Summit — a joint initiative to help our region progress critical action on the environment.

    It’s just not the case that Australia and Indonesia share geography and little else. Of course, there is still much work to be done on the relationship.

    That’s why our two countries have agreed to negotiate a free trade agreement — the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. That’s why we are expanding cooperation in the maritime sector with a range of activities planned that will benefit both countries in the years ahead. That’s why earlier this year we held the Indonesia-Australia Digital Forum — to increase cooperation in this growing sector, which will be vital to the future of both countries.

    However, Indonesia and Australia work together closely in many ways. Our government-to-government relationship is strong and continues to expand in every sector, from defense and cybersecurity to taxation and the bureau of meteorology.
    More than 20,000 Indonesians study in Australia each year, making Australia the most popular overseas destination for Indonesian university students.

    On Saturday night, the Embassy held its Australian Alumni Gala in Jakarta. If you had asked any of the more than 1,000 students about their time in Australia, you would have heard about the many benefits of getting a world-class education in a friendly country. Many Indonesian graduates have formed life-long friendships with Australians that will stand our countries in good stead for the future.

    And the New Colombo Plan sends thousands of Australians to Indonesia every year to live, study and learn more about our closest neighbor. Indonesia is the most popular destination for Australian NCP participants.

    Yes, there is more work to do but the truth is that Australians are not indifferent to our nearest neighbor. That does a disservice to the many ways in which our countries and people work together at all levels and doesn’t do justice to the very healthy Australia-Indonesia relationship.

  2. Ross B. Taylor, President Indonesia Institute (Inc)-Perth, Western Australia

    The article by journalist Duncan Graham (23rd April 2018) presented a good and interesting summary of the book ‘Strangers next Door’. The response from the Australian Embassy’s Charge D’Affaires Allaster Cox is also important to read (See ‘Letters' to this newspaper, 25th April 2018).

    Mr Cox makes a very valid point in that on so many levels including education, business, culture and political - where our two leaders do enjoy a genuinely close friendship – the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is in good shape.

    In needs to be said however, that for the majority of the populations in both Indonesia and Australia, our neighbours are indeed ‘strangers’, mixed with ignorance and sometimes ambivalence towards each other.

    We have so many clich├ęs thrown around about the relationship between our two countries - such as ‘needing more ballast’ or ‘business & trade is underdone’ - one cannot help but agree that there are some significant challenges to be addressed in order to deepen the relationship.

    If we are really serious about this desire for a closer and deeper relationship between us, both countries need to make it far easier for our respective young people to meet each other through in-country experience (such as ACICIS), travel, technology, and holiday-work experience.Yet Australia makes it very difficult for young Indonesians to visit us, whilst Indonesia ‘drowns’ young Australians wanting to study, travel or undertake internships in Indonesia, in red tape.

    If both countries want to seriously deepen and progress the bi-lateral relationship, then we need to focus on bringing our youth together, and with some 90 million young people in Indonesia who want to embrace travel, education and importantly technology, the opportunities are immense; but only if our national leaders facilitate this.

    Failure to do so will continue to indeed, leave many of us as those ‘strangers next door’.

  3. One becomes tired of negativity and out of touch observations and commentary by academia. The simple fact of the matter is the Indonesian elite will and do play the game to suit their agenda, and many Indonesians know that to be the case. It becomes embarrassing when any Australia seeks to express a negative view not based on facts or reality, not having lived and worked in Indonesia for good decade or more. Over the decades there has been a few Australian academics that have commented on Indonesia but from a position of ignorance.

  4. There is mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides. Easier flow of people between borders will facilitate the flow of beer and tea that are the lubricants needed to bring the two nations together. It won't happen until Australia has a leader with a focus on Australia as a small part of SE Asia rather than a delusion that Australia is a significant part of the empire, and Indonesia has a leader who sees value in being mates with Australia.
    Neither of these will happen so we need to open thos borders to help the people and beverages flow.

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