Overcoming the Australia–Indonesia cultural divide

Author: John McCarthy, AIIA

The probable executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, and Australia’s responses thereto, risk pushing the Australia–Indonesia relationship into another downturn.

Fifteen years ago, Australians assumed that the end of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and the advent of post-Suharto democracy, would presage an era of tranquillity in bilateral relations. Despite some positive years under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), this has not happened.

But Australia’s interests in Indonesia dictate that it must continue working to that end, even if Indonesia does not always appear to share that objective.

Australia’s neighbourhood is predominantly made up of countries whose political and cultural backgrounds differ from its own. Thus, cultural issues impinge disproportionately on its foreign relationships, perhaps none more so than with Indonesia.

During the Sukarno period, Australia’s main concerns with Indonesia were seen through the prism of the Cold War. Security issues dominated the relationship. Since then, Australia’s diplomacy has been consumed by managing the cultural divide.

East Timor was not a security issue. From a security perspective, Australia saw merit in incorporation into Indonesia. The friction was cultural not strategic. Australia’s reaction to the killing of five Australian journalists in Balibo in 1975, the subsequent Indonesian military occupation and the massacre of mourners at Santa Cruz Cemetery in 1991 amplified the cultural division.

In 1999, some Indonesians saw the loss of East Timor in security terms because of its potential to stimulate separatism in Indonesia. But the main reaction was that it was a humiliation inflicted on Indonesia by the West, of which Australia was the most prominent member.

Other problems have arisen because Australians have been perceived as impugning the dignity of Indonesian leaders. This includes the ban on Australian journalists in 1988 after the Australian media reported on the Suharto family’s corruption and, more recently, the alleged bugging of the telephones of SBY and his wife.

In Indonesian eyes, Australians have also been guilty of condescension or disrespect. National dignity, as much as economic cost, was at stake in 2011 when Australia imposed a ban on the export of live cattle.

The cultural divide again comes to the fore on the executions issue. Indonesia’s actions have revived Australian impressions that Indonesia is a brutal and militaristic country. For their part, many Indonesians see Australia’s response as out of line given the prevalence of capital punishment elsewhere. They perceive foreigners as seeking to impose their values on Indonesia to the derogation of its sovereignty, despite their own efforts on behalf of Indonesians on death row in other jurisdictions.

If the executions happen, Australia will not be able to continue simply as if nothing had occurred. But it should react with sorrow not anger. Australia’s response should address the underlying problems of drugs and capital punishment. It would be a mistake to react with retributive actions and, then, after an interval, suggest things are back to normal — until the next time.

In recent years Australia has shown how foolishly partisan it can be. The former government’s Asian century white paper had merit. But when the Liberal-National Coalition came to power it wiped the document from the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The government and opposition did better in formulating a common approach on behalf of Chan and Sukumaran. If Australia is to build a durable and stable set of relationships with Indonesia and Asia more widely, that objective has to be a priority.

So what should be done?

First, lower expectations. This is a crucial and difficult relationship, which has to be managed not glorified. No more ‘Jakarta not Geneva’, rather lots of low key grunt work.

Australia should work on the basis that most bilateral problems are cultural. It matters little that on most issues that divide Australia and Indonesia, the Indonesians are — in Australian judgments — the party at fault. Australia’s interests still lie in working to overcome the cultural divide.

Australia has to do more in promoting cross-community contacts and visits. As suggested in the white paper, Australia must revive the study not only of Indonesia but of Asia more generally.

All this will cost money. But Australia’s dealings with Indonesia are a more important national interest than its preoccupations with the Middle East.

The manner in which Australian leaders speak publicly to countries where national sensitivities have been shaped by colonisation and a lack of economic development must take account of those sensitivities. The appearance of condescension and superiority must be avoided.

The Australian leadership will have to do more than simply work with Indonesia in its national interest. If the executions eventuate, a serious bipartisan effort will be required to persuade Australians that it is indeed in Australia’s interest to engage Indonesia.

Australia has to recognise the high risk that Indonesia is entering a complex and distracted period in its domestic politics and might prove difficult to engage productively. This will require patience.

Over the past decade Australia has dealt with an Indonesian president who took foreign policy and Australia seriously, even when it offended him through its mishandling of the bugging affair.

Thus far President Joko Widodo has demonstrated little interest in foreign affairs. Where he has, he has been driven by domestic, even populist, political considerations. This element is not of course absent in Australian politics. The first problem may therefore lie in attempting to enter into serious high-level engagement.

The second problem lies in the fact that history shows that when Indonesian domestic politics become turbulent, the nationalist card is more likely to come to the top of the political deck. It is a card that is always hard to trump.

John McCarthy is President of the Australia Institute for International Affairs and former Australian ambassador to Indonesia.

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Ken Ward
16 March 2015 6:08 am

Whether or not one believes that Indonesian politics are currently “turbulent”, the nationalist card is clearly already on the top of the deck.

Last week, for example, Jokowi warned that Indonesia faced the risk of being “occupied” (diduduki) by foreign business people. Meanwhile, the Manpower Minister is making a knowledge of the Indonesian language mandatory for foreign workers. He has defended this policy by pointing out that Indonesians are trained in Japanese or Korean before proceeding to work in Japan or Korea. This argument merely shows that the minister has no idea how long it takes to learn those languages. Forcing foreigners to learn Indonesian doesn’t seem to be the most effective way of attracting foreign investment.

Jokowi sees the presence of Indonesian migrant workers overseas as undermining Indonesia’s “pride and dignity”, and wants them all to be repatriated within a few years. He seems to be masterly in thinking up and believing in easy solutions to complex problems.

On another front, the principal loose cannon of the Jokowi government, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, has just taken umbrage at a comment by the mayor of General Santos City that Indonesian crew were not ready to captain Philippine fishing vessels. An irate Susi has denounced this remark as an insult to the Indonesian nation.

In just a few months, Jokowi has tapped into some of xenophobic impulses that lie close to the surface in Indonesian society. Unsurprisingly, the news outlet Viva has published a report that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are both agents of the Australian government. What else could explain the vigour with which the Abbott government has sought to save their lives? It is a wonder that Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who once famously declared there were 60,000 foreign spies in Indonesia, hasn’t yet endorsed this claim.

While this author’s call for Australia to lower expectations makes eminent sense, his emphasis on the “cultural divide” is overdone. Indonesian culture doesn’t require the execution of drug traffickers. Yudhoyono had as much Indonesian blood in his veins as Jokowi and yet was by and large not a practitioner of capital punishment. Jokowi
The author writes: It would be a mistake to react with retributive actions and, then, after an interval, suggest things are back to normal — until the next time.

But this is exactly what Yudhoyono did in response to the Snowden allegations. He was ready for reconciliation in May when he invited Abbott to Bali, and things got back to normal when Ambassador Nadjib returned to his post in June. Where’s the cultural divide here?

john Mccarthy
17 March 2015 9:08 am
Reply to  Ken Ward

I guess if there had not been a divide both Abbott and SBY would have acted more as did Obama and Merkel .

Ken Ward
19 March 2015 6:32 am
Reply to  john Mccarthy

Of course there is a divide. The questions are how to define it and how much weight to give it.

Now that Germany is going to join the China-sponsored infrastructure bank despite the Obama administration’s lobbying against it, does that mean a new cultural divide has emerged between Obama and Merkel? Talk of cultural divides sometimes, but not always, disguises simple clashes of national interest.

Andrew Peacock
16 March 2015 8:43 am

Outstanding and in keeping with John McCarthy’s always inciteful work.

16 March 2015 12:19 pm

Australia has never really properly engaged with Indonesia, at least, in the last ten years. It was all haphazardly and mostly emotionally reacting on policies or issues that have come up in Indonesia that have somehow touched the Australian heart. Indonesia is the largest neighbor of Australia, yet most Australians still stubbornly learn a European language in school as second language (if at all). For a proper dialogue Australia needs to accept Indonesia as a real and equal partner. Maybe one step towards that goal is to find better solutions for the many refugees who stop over in Indonesia, wanting or not, to try and reach Australia.

Peter McCawley
16 March 2015 1:00 pm

John McCarthy’s welcome comment points to a range of continuing problems in the relationship between Indonesia and Australia. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to see problems of this sort continuing.

There are at least two structural problems in the relationship. One is that the two countries are so different in so many ways that it seems inevitable that there will be continuing ups and downs. Oil and water don’t mix. No sooner do relations seem to get onto an even keel when something or other blows up — East Timor, Papua, refugees, cows, intelligence issues, executions. If it isn’t one thing, then it’s another. On and on. The two countries see so many issues in quite different ways. And this situation isn’t going to change.

A second structural problem is that the Australian media and the Indonesian Government don’t really relate to each other very well at all. This isn’t going to change either. The Australian media by nature tends to be probing, even confrontational, in dealing with authority. This approach serves us very well at the Australian end where political leaders are generally adept at the media game and can usually deal with the fast bowling. But the approach is fairly ineffective at the Indonesian end (and much of the rest of Asia) where most authorities don’t want to play the game and, in any case, often just cannot handle it.

Ken Ward is certainly correct, too, in pointing to the ‘xenophobic impulses that lie close to the surface in Indonesian society.’ And, of course, xenophobic impulses are not far below the Australian surface either. So there are xenophobic impulses on both sides, and political leaders who are tempted to stir them up on both sides as well.

The chances surely are that regular outbursts of controlled indignation will continue to occur on a more or less regular basis in both Australia and Indonesia. And in between these regular bursts of indignation, we will all regularly agree that we must “work harder on the relationship” — as indeed we must.

Ken Ward
16 March 2015 6:04 pm
Reply to  Peter McCawley

I agree that there are xenophobic impulses in Australia. Mr Abbott’s regrettable ‘channelling’ of Alan Jones in linking the question of clemency for Messrs Chan and Sukumaran with recollections of tsunami aid was bad for many reasons, one of them being that it risked bringing these impulses forcefully to the surface.

Peter McCawley is entirely at liberty to believe that xenophobic impulses in Australia are as strong as they are in Indonesia. If they are, well, there’s even less of a cultural divide.

Duncan Graham
16 March 2015 11:33 pm

I wonder at the quality of advice coming from the Jakarta Embassy and Foreign Affairs in Canberra. The experts should have been totally familiar with the history and scenario Mr McCarthy has just painted; knowing this, where was the plan to better handle the present situation?
Did they, like many, assume that because Joko Widodo was not Prabowo Subianto then he was the good guy and therefore strong on human rights because his opponent was not? Or did they forecast this mess, offer strategies, but no-one listened? We can all be smart after the event, but much of this was predictable. And it will happen again, unless we learn better ways to relate to Indonesia without abandoning our values and being seen as an appeaser. I agree with Mr McCarthy’s analysis; now I’d like to read his practical suggestions on ways to bridge the ‘cultural divide’ beyond what we’re doing now.

john Mccarthy
18 March 2015 11:15 am

Peter McCawley’s two structural problems are right on .. Our interests dictate we have to keep going –not cosy stuff , but in having Australians seriously schooled about Asia.If others don’t reciprocate, a pity but not a reason for us not to get on with it.
On our dealings with Indonesia — of course there will be ups and downs –the task is to even out the line on the graph. We should never appease. We get kicked. The point is to be measured and careful even if others are not.
DFAT was good on looking ahead. In fact they usually are .But the EXTENT of recent problems in Indonesia has surprised most people including in Jakarta.

Duncan Graham
19 March 2015 3:35 pm

This is getting too cosy and going nowhere. A former ambassador writes a mainly historical piece, a former minister says it’s ‘outstanding’ and the author defends his former colleagues for not understanding Jokowi’s character and thinking by saying they were ‘good at looking ahead’. Not this time – and they’re the professionals.
As the author hasn’t provided any practical ways to bridge the ‘cultural divide’ he might wish to read Peter Jennings’ ideas in The Strategist.

Amelia Ferguson
19 March 2015 8:18 pm
Reply to  Duncan Graham

Mr Graham’s unnecessary insult to a real attempt at serious conversation about the Australia-Indonesia relationship is capped by his reference to a piece by a Peter Jennings on the subject as a source of inspiration. If you take the trouble, there you’ll find a cynical recitation of what Jennings describes as the thinness of the relationship and its broken promises. The title says it all; ‘no way out’. If you think that’s a start, Mr Graham, we know where you’re coming from.

Duncan Graham
20 March 2015 7:41 pm

What Mr Jenniings has done is couple a robust commentary with ideas on how we might start getting out of this awful mess.That’s where he’s coming from – and so am I.