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Indonesia: engagement through communication and culture has barely begun

Indonesia: engagement through communication and culture has barely begun

In a new Lowy Institute Paper, former ONA analyst Ken Ward makes the case for 'more realistic' expectations for the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

He writes that despite years of Australian governments prioritising the relationship, it continues to be marked by tensions and crises. The recent execution of Australian citizens for drug crimes in Indonesia, despite our diplomatic protests, is presented as an example of why we should lower our expectations for a close relationship with our nearest Asian neighbour.

The Paper's title poses a question: is the Australia-Indonesia relationship condemned to crisis? In answering this question, Ward explores Australian and Indonesian history, domestic politics and communication and culture in search of triggers for the disputes that continue to erupt between the two nations, and analyses how these disputes are handled. Leaving aside the factors of history and domestic politics, which will surely be highlighted in other reviews of the Paper, I'd like to focus on the aspects of communication and culture, which arguably can have significant impact on the other causes of crisis and how they are handled.

Ward debunks the idea that Australia and Indonesia are too wildly different in terms of culture to ever understand each other.

He highlights Indonesia's capitalist economy, democratic government and social media-obsessed populace as being not so different from our own. Instead of cultural differences, he sees negative stereotypes and prejudices found among the Australian public, and expressed by our media and politicians, as one cause of frequent crises. In the first chapter, Ward points out the often 'clumsy and tactless' handling of clashes by Australia, and 'great sensitivity' on the part of Indonesia. [fold]

This indicates a great deal of unfinished work on Australia's part in establishing a strong relationship with Indonesia. It also gives life to the claims made by successive governments regarding the high priority given to developing the relationship. As Ward explains, Australian politicians can't expect Jakarta to selectively hear the pronouncements made about Indonesia's importance to Australia on the world stage, while ignoring the insensitive comments made back home.

From the Australian side, we can't help Indonesia being 'sensitive', but we can equip ourselves to better approach sensitivities and work to overcome our 'clumsiness and tactlessness'. In the Australian school curriculum, this is part of what's called 'Asia literacy'.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority describes Asia literacy on its website as providing students with the 'skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region'. This includes recognising that Australia is part of the Asian region, and that our histories and futures are closely linked. It also means learning the languages of the region.

A sincere commitment to developing Asia literacy in Australia would transform our modes of communication and culture. In relation to Indonesia specifically, it would help to address the stereotypes and prejudices that cause or inflame clashes in the relationship, and improve the ways in which tensions are handled by those in power. At the very least, it would help to bolster what Ward calls the 'thin cultural underlay' now supporting government-to-government relations.

In rhetoric, commitment to Asia literacy, including the study of Indonesian language and culture, has continued among successive governments in Australia. In reality, it has been inconsistent and even declining.

Despite decades of stated commitment to the goal, this year's Lowy Poll shows that many Australians know very little about Indonesia, including whether or not it's a democracy, or the name of the country's new president. As pointed out by David Hill, a strong supporter of Indonesian studies, Australian universities are now closing their Indonesian programs as enrolments continue to drop.

We don't need a nation of Indonesia specialists just to improve relations with our neighbour. But we do need to support a basic level of knowledge about Indonesia that will help rid us of the stereotypes and prejudices that colour discourse about the country among our public, media and politicians. It's astonishing that Ward should even have to advise Australia's political leaders to avoid using language that 'Indonesians may construe as seeking to reimpose "coolie" status on them', and to 'talk about them in public in a more appropriate manner'.

The execution of two Australians in Indonesia this year was a tragedy that a majority of Australians rightly objected to. But rather than seeing this as a reason to give up on strengthening the relationship, we should see it as a greater reason to be more deeply involved in dialogue about our different cultures, with a hope of finding some common ground. If we are to be truly realistic about the relationship, then surely we can admit that our efforts to engage on the level of communication and culture have barely begun.

It's only if we continue to lower our expectations that the relationship will in fact be 'condemned to crisis'.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gabriel Sai.

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