Telling Australians their ideas about Indonesia are out-of-date can be a head-banging exercise.
Ambassador Gary Quinlan knows this well. The boss of Australia’s Jakarta Embassy has been back to his homeland five times this year promoting the positives of his posting and telling listeners to update the software between their ears.
On one trip to coastal New South Wales where he was raised and educated, Quinlan spoke to Newcastle University staff and students. His message was clear: their big neighbor was young, dynamic, keen for investors, and democratic.
His speech wasn’t covered by the print media though Quinlan is a local lad made good, having won high academic and national recognition for his long and distinguished public service.
Before starting work in Jakarta last year, he was Australia’s chief negotiator with Timor-Leste over the East Timor maritime boundary dispute. The parties reached agreement.
On future trips to Australia, Quinlan hopes to say the same thing, though louder, to editorial boards of Australia’s major media organisations. It will be a tough sell in a scorched-earth market of shriveling sales. In this ill-explored digital landscape bemused managers flounder while trying to determine directions.
Some overseas newsrooms in Jakarta, like Australian Associated Press, have closed. Others have slashed staff or followed The Australian broadsheet and re-titled their journalists ‘Southeast Asia correspondents.’ These busy reporters are expected to cover a region of ten nations and 640 million people.
To the annoyance of serious writers Indonesian stories most likely to get a run Down Under are quirky tales of Aussie teens getting smashed on drugs or motorbikes and finding Indonesian police react differently to cops in suburban Sydney.
The stories get pushed higher if the alleged offender or victim is a sporting hero. Laws targeting blasphemers and gays are also good for a few paragraphs.
Readers might forget economically important Closer Economic Partnership Agreements for Bilateral Trade, but they’ll surely remember the ‘bonk bans’, proposed laws to jail unmarried couples found in the same bed.
The politics of Indonesia are so complex, comment is usually restricted to academic journals. The doings of Washington and Whitehall are equally knotty, but cut-and-paste copy from the Anglosphere doesn’t need translating.
“Improving people-to-people relationships is a big challenge because it depends ultimately on the attitudes of Australians and Indonesians to each other, not just on government policy,” said Quinlan.
In the past year the Embassy has run more than ‘25 major public diplomacy programs’ plus film, fashion and food festivals. Seminars have been held on millennials and democracy, artificial intelligence and women in business.
Australia’s multiculturalism has been promoted, but Quinlan knows this can be misunderstood as the two countries have different understandings of the term.
In Indonesia, it means a mix of citizens from the Republic’s 34 provinces and 300 ethnic groups. In Australia, it refers to settled migrants. About 30 percent of Australia’s 26 million people were born overseas.
Demographic trends suggest that by 2030 Indonesia’s population will be around 296 million and heavily skewed to youth; the median age is currently 28 compared to Australia’s 38.
In this year’s Lowy Institute survey of Australian public attitudes, 59 percent disagreed with the statement that ‘Indonesia is a democracy’ – which it has been for all this century.
The poll revealed Australians thought their country’s ‘best friend in the world’ is New Zealand, then the US and UK. Four percent reckoned ‘China’, just one per cent ‘Indonesia.’
Against these facts Quinlan’s work is all uphill though he praised government-to-government dealings. In a recent speech he said: “Politically, our relations are not fragile; in fact, they’re very resilient.”
“Like any countries, especially close neighbours, we can always be hostage to events, but both countries have a fundamental interest in strong good relations and both are seriously committed to that.”
Maybe though, not enough which will always be the case when Indonesians outnumber Australians more than ten to one.
Here are some more headaches:
In 2014 the Australian Government started the New Colombo Plan for young Australians to study in the region. Indonesia tops the list with 7,554 short-term ‘mobility grants’ of up to AUD 7,000; however, only 65 have chosen Indonesia in the past six years for the prestigious scholarships worth AUD 69,000.
More popular locations are Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Meanwhile, Australia has been slashing aid to Indonesia. In 2015, it cut funding by 40 percent from AUD 542 million to AUD 323 million. Next year, the knife will slice deeper to AUD 298 million.
While over a million Australians fill Bali’s bars and beaches every year, yet the institute says its long-term polling “has demonstrated the wariness with which Australians and Indonesians regard each other.”
Many visitors think Hindu Bali is a separate state and not a province in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, just a short ferry ride across the 2.4 kilometer strait, but a formidable barrier for unadventurous Aussies.
Money changers in Australian airports sometimes advertise ‘Bali Money.’
“We have to move on – there’s too much ignorance among many Australians about Indonesia, often based on out-of-date images,” said Quinlan. “Indonesia is growing so quickly and developing so fast, there’s widespread creative energy among young Indonesians. We need to tap more of this potential, especially for young Australians.”