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Warming up to Indonesia

Warming up to Indonesia

Most of us Indonesia groupies have long been nonplussed at how Australians are so luke-warm (and so ill-informed) about Indonesia, as confirmed by the latest Lowy poll.

I agree with Dave McRae that we need more person-to-person links. But there are already quite a few. What about all those Indonesians who have studied in Australia? There are, for example, four Australian alumnae in the current Indonesian cabinet. Even if we acknowledge that some of the 600,000 Australians who go to Bali annually aren't really aware that Bali is part of Indonesia, they can't go there without brushing up against the real Indonesia, with its pluses and minuses.

When the poll first started, I suggested an additional question, more closely linked to this person-to-person idea: ask about the people, not the country. My guess is that most Australians have met enough Indonesians to have a view on this basis, and I'm pretty confident that an overwhelming majority would have a positive view. Person-to-person, we usually like each other.

Part of the problem is the overwhelmingly negative media reporting. This is not really a case of media bias; rather, most of the stories which rate as news show Indonesia in a poor light, the latest being the fires and smoke from Sumatra blanketing Malaysia and Singapore. Judged against Australian standards of normality, Indonesia is often found wanting.

If the reportage focused more on ordinary people and their lives, Indonesia would prove an endless source of fascinating and weird stories, each illustrating how people try to make sense of their lives within a different culture and with vastly different economic resources. Many of the perceived deficiencies might then be seen as reflecting economic constraints or a still-evolving democracy. [fold]

Maybe the print media isn't interested (although the SMH ran a great story on the Holden club that drag-races up the main highway of Jakarta in the small hours of Saturday nights). But Waleed Aly made a good go of it on ABC Radio National, and perhaps the social media will be a better medium. Geraldine Doogue has explored this territory too, both on The Interpreter and her ABC programs. Whenever the celebrity chefs have gone to Indonesia, they have had a lip-smacking good time. It's just so different!

Of course we could do better on routine reporting, too. Fairfax's John Garnaut showed us all what can be done with his reporting from China. Sure, China is big and important, but it's also closed (who can really know what's happening in Chinese politics?) and linguistically inaccessible. Yet, through the sheer excellence of his reporting, John persuaded the Sydney Morning Herald to run three China articles a week.

Indonesia presents an easier challenge, but whether it is the correspondents or the editors, none has yet found the equivalent formula for Indonesian reporting. We need to hear the stories of refugee boats and NGO-identified human rights abuses. But we should leaven them with some of the rest of what's happening in Indonesia.

Photo by Flickr user otabi.

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