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Indonesians are not that culturally 'sensitive', so let's move on

Indonesians are not that culturally 'sensitive', so let's move on
Published 28 Jul 2015 

I couldn't agree more with Hugh White's commentary on Ken Ward's new book Condemned to Crisis? published by the Lowy Institute and Penguin Australia. White argues that Australia must build its relationship with Indonesia based more on how it perceives its northern neighbor is developing, rather than on historical experiences.

White agrees with Ward that Australia's approach to Indonesia is outmoded and needs rethinking. Ward argues that Canberra must discard the long-held policy mantra, embraced by all prime ministers since Paul Keating, that 'no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.' 

Both Indonesia and Australia have changed since then, and this hasn't been fully reflected in the way they conduct relations, perhaps more so on the Australian than the Indonesian side (which deserves a separate article). While both White and Ward recognise the changes that have taken place in post-Suharto Indonesia, they fail to grasp the implications for bilateral relations and for the geopolitical environment in Asia.

White rightly postulates that Canberra's approach to Indonesia should take into account two facts. First, that Indonesia's economy is growing so rapidly that it will become bigger than Australia's and hence more powerful, and second, that Indonesia's rise has implications for the geopolitical order in Asia.

But White and Ward have underestimated the internal changes that have occurred within Indonesia which are equally dramatic, and which have inevitably changed the way Indonesia looks at itself and at its place in the region and the world. These changes have implications for Indonesia's foreign policy and for all of its foreign relations, including with neighbours like Australia.

If Ward and White represent the typical Canberra foreign policy community view, then Australia is misreading Indonesia. [fold]

Both assume that cultural sensitivity still matters, with Ward suggesting that Australian politicians had better be careful in what they say, or they risk offending Indonesians. Prime Minister Abbott tried the cultural sensitivity approach in trying to persuade President Jokowi for a stay of execution against two Australian drug traffickers this year. When that failed, he changed tack and became more abrasive. That the executions went ahead suggests that cultural sensitivity made no difference.

Indonesia today is vastly different from Suharto's Indonesia. It's a far more open and democratic society. Everything is discussed and debated in the open, and social media has made the public debate fiercer, if not sometimes unethical. This means that Indonesia has become thoroughly desensitised, and its people and leaders can take all kinds of insults without being in the least offended. Whatever Australian politicians, and the notorious media including talk back radio hosts, say about Indonesia, far worse things have been said by Indonesians about themselves. They'll be sure to respond with equally if not more harsh words. But then that's free speech. 

A more open Indonesia has stopped taking Australian insults seriously. They would surely not affect bilateral relations. Over the years, Indonesia and Australia have moved on from the days when a single issue (East Timor) undermined their entire relationship. Or from being too personalised, as in the way Suharto retaliated to personal insults or Keating 'coddling' with the dictator. Even President Yudhoyono measured his retaliations in 2013 when he learned he and his wife had been targets of Australia's wiretapping operations.

Indonesians have also come to accept that their country becomes a punching bag in every Australian election for Jakarta's 'lack of cooperation' in tackling human smuggling. But as soon as a new prime minister was elected (or re-elected in the case of John Howard), the first thing they'd do was visit Jakarta and pacify its leaders to cooperate on human smuggling. They would blame their own press for exaggerating their criticisms of Indonesia during the election campaign. 

A democratic Indonesia is doing exactly the same. In the 2014 elections, foreign countries became convenient targets for politicians, aware that they could not respond or defend themselves. But as soon as the new government took power, they had to be responsible and tone down their xenophobic rhetoric. You can only hurt your foreign relations so far. Admittedly, Abbott went the furthest of all prime ministers in dealing with Indonesia, but look at where relations are today.

Yes, Indonesia's economy has been growing and that is altering its position in the region and its relations with its neighbours. But a more important change is that Indonesia is a far more open and democratic nation, albeit not a perfect one (but then what country is?) Yes, a re-reading of the report Seeing Indonesia as a normal country by Douglas E Ramage and Andrew MacIntyre, as suggested by another commentator in this debate, Greta Nabbs-Keller, may be warranted.

Need more evidence that Indonesians are not that culturally sensitive? Indonesia has never bothered even to try to reciprocate Australia's repeated statements that it is the most important foreign relationship, something that in Eastern culture would be considered as downright rude. Remember the 1970s' notorious French song Je T'aime Moi Non Plus, where the woman in the duet passionately says she loves the man, but he remains indifferent and is only interested in a more casual affair? That's how awkward some Indonesians feel each time we hear Australian leaders utter their foreign policy mantra.

Let's all move on and be more realistic about each other.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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