At school I had no interest in Indonesian whatsoever until I got sent on a homestay in Java for several months. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life – despite doing almost every stupid thing that an Australian kid can do in Indonesia! That immersion experience is really the key to understanding another culture.
I began as a full-time barrister who did a bit of academic research on the side and gradually became a full-time academic who did some legal practice on the side.In 1990,Professor Malcolm Smith, who was the head of the Asian Law Centre here, asked me to do some work on Indonesian law as a research assistant. And that was it – I got sucked into his project and have been here ever since.
The key is language. I studied Indonesian from secondary school onwards and then at University. And you really can’t expect to deeply engage with another culture unless you have the language. That’s not a very popular thing to say in Australia, which has the smallest number of second language speakers of any OECD country. One of our big problems is the dramatic and probably terminal decline of Asian language teaching in our schools. Unfortunately, all the data says Indonesian will be gone within a decade from our schools. Allowing this to happen would be a major failure of public policy.
For the last 15 years, the key issue in Indonesia has been about the struggle between those who want to reform the country and those who resist reform. Over the same period that it has liberalised and democratised, Australian attitudes towards Indonesia have become worse, not better. Australians consider Indonesia threatening and hostile, which is very ironic given one in five Australians have been to Bali. Most Australians have missed Indonesia’s democratisation, they just go there for a cheap party.
Australians and Indonesians actually get on easily. Both are relaxed people and both like humour. But we’re not engaged with Indonesia. Seeing a stream of horror stories in the media and fearing a country is not a positive relationship. Every Prime Minister from Paul Keating onwards has said there is no country more important to Australia. Mr Abbott said, “less Geneva, more Jakarta”, but that hasn’t happened. By 2050 Indonesia will be one of the top five economies in the world
There are around 9 million people entering the middle class every year in Indonesia. This will completely transform the whole of our region. We really need to re-think how we engage with Indonesia – now!
Australia is regarded by many Indonesians as a white fortress, but our Centre is working directly to deal with that. One of the considerations we emphasise is that our people should have language skills, and have independent skills outside law relevant to Indonesia. We want to contribute to what’s going on in Indonesia, where Indonesians think we can be helpful. We can offer some very focussed technical expertise – that’s our niche. We also have a very long, proud history of supporting many very impressive Indonesian PhD students here in the law school. They are one of the true joys of this job!
The boats are a running sore in the relationship and no government really has the capacity to sort it out quickly and easily without deeply compromising their own domestic positions. Indonesia insists on a bilateral solution and finds Australia’s unilateral steps infuriating. It would take a major political masterstroke to cut through. This issue makes other difficulties harder to resolve because it damages good will.
The big problem about the whole tragic Chan and Sukumaran case was that the two countries were talking past each other. For Australia, it was about the death penalty, but for Indonesians it was about drugs and the political positioning of the president. There were two unconnected dialogues, much of which was driven by misunderstanding of the other.
The Prime Minister’s comment, which Indonesians saw as linking the fate of Chan and Sukumaran to the aid program for which Australia pays, was a terrible mistake. Because conditionality in aid is a hot button issue in Indonesia the discussion stopped being about the individual circumstances of those two foolish young men and became a neo-colonial, political issue. That played into the hands of politically-weak president anxious to shore up his support. The tragedy of it all was that two lives got lost in the mix.
– As told to Catriona May
Banner image: Sunday at Yeh Gangga Beach by I Nengah Januartha, published under Creative Commons