Thursday, March 11, 2010

Indonesia, Australia and the importance of personal links

Indonesian President's Australian triumph recorded my immediate personal reaction after listening to President Yudhoyono's speech to the Australian Parliament yesterday.

As you might expect, the visit and speech get a fair bit of coverage in this morning's Australian media. Paul Kelly's piece in the Australian Let's be friends and equal says SBY, is one example, Phillip Coorey and Hamish McDonald's Sydney Morning Herald piece, Time for new spirit of trust, a second.

In his piece, Paul Kelly says in part:

Rudd, like John Howard, feels he can do business with Yudhoyono. He's right. But Australia must appreciate the limits on the President's options that flow from Indonesian public opinion and its democracy.

It is impossible to imagine a more pro-Australian Indonesian president. Sadly, he will be appreciated more after his departure from office. Yudhoyono brings the torch of friendship to an Australia still deeply equivocal about the equation of democracy, Islam and nationalism that constitutes our great neighbour.

The first point is, I think, very important and one that I am not sure is fully appreciated by Australians. Indonesia is a large and complex country. Indonesian public opinion on issues is not the same as Australian, nor are Indonesian needs the same as Australian needs. This, of itself, will lead to differences between the two countries. Australians want to see Indonesian democracy develop, but they have to accept that one outcome may be differences in views and responses.

Paul Kelly's  second point is a little more problematic from my viewpoint. It's not that its wrong - The Indonesian President himself quoting survey results from the Lowy Institute said:  "There are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country or a military dictatorship or as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, or even as an expansionist power". You can find the Lowy Institute Indonesia-Australia position paper on their web site. However, while Paul Kelly's point is not wrong, I think that it can mislead.

Over the last sixty years, the Australian people have shown a quite remarkable capacity to adjust their views.

In 1950, Australia was in the early stages of a mass migration program that, while European focused, still represented a dramatic shift in the ethnic composition of this country. In that same year, Australia played a major role in the launch of the Colombo Plan that was to bring many tens of thousands of non-European students to study in a country still officially committed to a White Australia policy. In turn, this laid the base for the progressive abolition from 1957 of the White Australia Policy and its replacement by an open policy independent of race or ethnicity.

Very few Australians, less outside the country, know that the White Australia Policy effectively ended in March 1966 when, after a review of the non-European policy, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced that applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia. So it took just sixteen years to move from a point where the White Australia Policy was an article of faith to its effective end.

Of course there was still prejudice. When I ran for Country Party pre-selection in 1972, I had to very carefully explain at some branch meetings that the Policy had to end, that the country had no choice. The sensitivities were still there.

It is one thing to formally end a policy, a second to move towards a migration policy that effectively replaced European mass migration with a large scale migration policy increasingly dominated by non-European groups, leading to a second and continuing ethnic transformation in the composition of the Australian people. Again there were and are sensitivities, yet there has been remarkably little social trouble.

One of the reasons for this, I think, is that the Australian people have the capacity to distinguish between individuals and groups. I don't like the Chinese because <insert words>. Chen's Chinese, but he is different, he's a good bloke. However, once you know and accept Chen, then inevitably you become more accepting of Chinese in general. This is actually what the Colombo Plan, did by exposing so many Australians to overseas students.

Now here I want to move to two general points based on my analysis to this point.

The first is that Australians will accept change if the reasons are explained. To my knowledge, I lost no votes during the Eden-Monaro campaign for my support of the ending of the White Australia policy. I was respectful of the alternative view, focusing on the practical reasons why we had to change. That was accepted, even though the people I was talking to still retained their personal views. The lesson here to my mind is that we constantly need to emphasise the importance of the Indonesia-Australia relationship and the implications that flow from this. 

The second is that effective change over time on an issue connected with prejudice and belief depends upon personal contact.

In preparing this post, I looked back at all the posts I have written connected in some way with Indonesia. I have listed them below. In the first post in November 2006 I pointed to the future importance of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. Yet, despite this, it was almost two years before my next post on the subject. From that point, you get bursts of posts.

One of the key reasons why I started writing more on Indonesia lay in my initial contact with two younger Indonesian bloggers, Tikno and Niar. They turned Indonesia from a country into human faces that I then kept in mind when writing. I hope that we all gained as a consequence; certainly, I did.

Now here, I think, that we have a problem. The personal links between Australia and Indonesia have not grown in the way that I expected. The Lowy Institute paper points to some dimensions of this, such as the actual decline in the study of Bahasa in Australia. This, to my mind, is the area that we need to focus on. What is the best way to build personal contacts on depth?

There are some complicated issues here that we need to resolve. For example, I have argued for some time now that we need to build the links between Indonesian and Australian universities and their students. But how do we do this when travel advisories warn against travel to Indonesia?

This is not a trivial issue. Under Australian law, an Australian university encouraging Australian student participation in Indonesia in the face of those warnings risks potentially severe legal consequences should something go wrong. Students and their parents also become very sensitive about consequences. Yet, looking at statistics, the actual risk seems lower than those faced by backpackers at Australia's Bondi Beach!

It seems to me that if President Yudhoyono's vision of a closer relationship is to be achieved, then we in Australia need to look closely now at ways of building personal links, recognising that the pay back will come years into the future.                      

The Indonesian Posts


While I was finishing this post, Neil brought up a post about the President's speech. He mentioned West Papua. I will write on this one, but not just now.  


Tikno said...

I agree with the importance of personal links.

At government level, leader of state had to be speaking based on the frame of policies and national interests.

This is different at individual level because the love can easily entering these field. I can believe that there are still many relationship on individual level that just fine while their countries has some conflict. So let multiply these kind of link with the hope these power will work like an air conditioner to cooling down a room. One of them is through blogging. Isn't it beautiful?

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, Tikino. When I write about Indonesia I always have you and Niar in mind!