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Bali fear beyond Rhonda and Ketut

Ali Winters |  16 March 2014

'Rhonda, Ketut and Schapelle' by Chris Johnston features a smiling Rhonda and Ketut sipping cocktails on a Bali beach while Schapelle watches on from behind barsInsurer AAMI's 'Rhonda and Ketut' Balinese love story was teased out over four commercials and three years. The marketing strategy, blurring advertising and entertainment, has come to its long-awaited, soapy end. Whether you have loved it or cringed at it, the campaign is a huge success, and its campy, cocktail soaked tentacles have penetrated the Australian mainstream.

But for the millions who tuned into the AAMI saga, how many have been puzzled by the brown-skinned man with the funny hankie on his head?

The knowledge Australians have for our closest Asian neighbour is poor. And awareness of Bali does not translate into awareness of Indonesia. According to a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade report released last year, 30 per cent of respondents didn't know Bali was part of Indonesia.

In the final ad, Rhonda chooses Ketut over an Australian man. Ketut says to Rhonda, 'Saya cinta kamu' — 'I love you'. This is the first time in history that Indonesian language has been used in an Australian TV commercial for a national brand.

Indonesia suffers from a lack of popularity in Australia. How is it that most of us are clueless to common words like 'I' or 'love' from the country that straddles our northern border? Indonesia is the world's third largest democracy, it's vital to our national security, and we share approximately $15 billion worth of annual trade. But we prefer to bathe in apathy until tragedy whets our appetite for the place.

The latest research into the state of Indonesian language found it was vanishing from our schools and universities. An Asia Education Foundation report found 99 per cent of all Australian students studying Indonesian quit before year 12. More recently, Murdoch University Professor David Hill found enrolment in Indonesian courses fell nationally by 40 per cent from 2001 to 2010 and by 70 per cent in NSW.

Aren't we supposed to be preparing for the 'Asian century'? There is a policy belief that this means learning an Asian language. Julia Gillard's 2012 'Australia in the Asian Century White Paper' recommended every Australian student be given the opportunity to learn a 'targeted' language from kindergarten to year 12.

And this is bipartisan. Last December, Tony Abbott stressed the need for more Australians to 'speak Asian languages, catch cultural meanings and navigate local networks'. Abbott has established a new $15 million dollar Australian centre for Indonesian studies to help Australians to 'get to know contemporary Indonesia better.'

Is Australia's 'mono-linguility' an economic disadvantage? Probably not, there are enough bilingual Australians who are native Asian speakers to get us over the line, and English still is the lingua franca of the global economy. You don't have to be fluent in the mother tongue to do business in Jakarta. But failing to embed and grow Asian language in our education systems hurts our cultural IQ more than anything, making us more introspective and susceptible to mistrust and ignorance.

It's often said that Australia has 'a love affair with Bali', which AAMI has embodied in the Rhonda and Ketut story. But why is half the Australian True Crime genre about Bali-gone-bad? Titles like It's Snowing in Bali (referring to cocaine), I Survived Kerobokan (the prison), Bali 9: The Untold Story (remember them?), Bali Raw: An Expose of the Underbelly of Bali and at least three books about Schapelle Corby reveal an unhealthy obsession with the ills of one small island.

Dangers in Bali are real. The deaths of Noelene and Yvana Bischoff in January — most likely from food poisoning — were disturbing. Deaths and critical illness from toxic home brewed alcohol have been heavily reported in the last two years. But traffic accidents, robberies, violence and stupidity can happen anywhere.

More than loving Bali, it seems we love to fear and misunderstand it. And our relationship with Indonesia as a nation is the same. A year prior to the Rhonda and Ketut campaign, a Lowy Institute poll found that 61 per cent of respondents thought Indonesia posed a military threat to Australia. The DFAT report on Australian attitudes towards Indonesia found that the majority think its law-making practice is based on Islamic code.

It also ranked word-associations from respondents: 'Holidays' came in first, but was followed by 'Islamic country', 'people smugglers', 'bombs and terrorism', 'religious extremism', 'poverty' and 'drug smuggling.'

The DFAT poll was conducted in 2012. Since then our Government has lit a rocket under Indonesia's backside. 'Turn back the boats', spying allegations, territorial breaches ... I can't imagine Australian attitudes have improved much in the last six months when all news from Indonesia has centred around their justifiably pissed off president and foreign minister.

We can only hope our diplomatic relationship is restored soon. Meanwhile, let's all follow AAMI, Rhonda and Ketut into a Bali sunset, make an offering to Shiva and sink our toes into the possibly of having a romance of understanding, respect and love with our close neighbour.

Ali Winters headshotAli Winters is a freelance writer with a background in tertiary Indonesian studies.


Ali Winters


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Submitted comments

I have to admit that I am one of those who liked the Rhonda-Ketut story, soapy as it was. Australia has long been the powerful partner in Australia/Indonesia relations but that will eventually change given Indonesia's rapid growth rate and huge population. Successive Australian governments have courted Indonesia with some ambivalence. Understanding, respect and love will depend on that most elusive of qualities - equality.

Pam 14 March 2014

As a resident of Bali for 25 years, I began to really feel comfortable only when I began communicating with the people in the Indonesian language. It opened up a whole new world of close friendship. Note; I said "communicating", as my knowledge of the language was acquired on the streets. Given the weather, the warmth of the people and the economic condition, I, as a retiree, couldn't find a more suitable and comfortable place in the world. Stop reading negative comments in the news and explore the beauty of Paradise.

Don Rutledge 14 March 2014

I also loved the ads, and the way it moved beyond us and them. My daughter is studying Indonesian at UNSW and loving it. But inexplicably they have closed down the program and hers will be the last cohort. No money in it, it seems.

tracy 17 March 2014

Learning more about Indonesia implies learning more about Indonesia's treatment of the West Papuans and formerly of the East Timorese. Would the Indonesians want us to take more interest in their human rights record? Would we want them to take more interest in ours?

Gavan Breen 17 March 2014

Sixty one years ago when I arrived in Australia as an Indonesian student, most ordinary Australians didn't know the geographic location of my country of origin. It seems that nothing has changed since.

Alex Njoo 17 March 2014

If we read the Australian article about UNSW closing its program, we see everyone dodging responsibility, refusing to do the long hard work of actively promoting Indonesian, ultimately letting down the citizens of this country. If knowledge is power, ignorance is downright dangerous. Who would dream that our tertiary education institutions would condone this trend. http://m.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/death-spiral-for-indonesian-studies/story-e6frgcjx-1226749154711

phil 17 March 2014

Well done Ali. These comments are well-overdue. Thanks also for reminding us that racial prejudice as well as ignorance has probably contributed to the drop in the number of students studying Indonesian. When I lived in Jakarta East Timor and the Bali bombings were news headlines. So much still hasn't changed -neither there nor in Australia.

Annabel 18 March 2014

PS - We need to say 'I love you' in all languages.

Annabel 18 March 2014

An extremely perceptive and insightful article Ali. I suppose we are used to Bali as a cheap holiday, retirement and living place for the increasing number of wealthy expats. A friend, who was there recently, told me he felt the island had been destroyed by tourists. He had travelled all over the Indonesian archipelago and was sick of being classified as an ignorant yob because of his nationality. He is anything but. There was a stage in the 1970s when the teaching of Indonesian language(s), history, politics and culture at institutions such as the ANU and Monash were world class. I hope there is enough remaining for those fields to be revived. Bahasa Indonesia is much easier to learn than Mandarin or Japanese, and, as the national language, opens doors to you everywhere. Indonesian culture - particularly but not solely on Java and Bali - is absolutely fascinating. Given the rise of militant Islam in the region it would be good for Australians to know that the traditional Javanese (that of the largest ethnic group) form of Islam is heavily influenced by Sufism (also a blank to most Australians) and tolerant. We need to know our nearest neighbours. They are basically looking for exactly the same things we are. We ignore them to our loss.

Edward Fido 18 March 2014

Hurrah to Pak Njoo who came here in 1953!

Ali 20 March 2014

I must say I knew nothing about the Rhonda-Ketut thing - I'm an ABC/SBS watcher. It's a great idea though that Australians, many whom are so stupidly ignorant and disinterested in our nearby neighbours, may become mordant knowledgeable about our region, and cultures. I'm not at all surprised that so few know Bali is Indonesia. Most Australians don't know that our regional neighbours, with the exception of New Zealand and Singore, are Developing or Third World countries. They don't really know or care what such terms mean! Talk about dumb and self obsessed! It's high time Australians stopped gazing in wonderment at the USA, and learned something about our own region!

Louw 22 March 2014

The point you made about the AAMI advertisement being the first national brand to have Indonesian spoken on it is not quite correct. There was a short lived advertising campaign in the 1990's that featured an Indonesian man discussing the virtues of a certain brand of satay sauce in his native tongue. Nevertheless, I found your article very interesting.

Steve 22 March 2014

Excellent food for thought, thank you.

AB 04 April 2014

Interesting, thank you for the great article. Ref: "This is the first time in history that Indonesian language has been used in an Australian TV commercial for a national brand." Not sure if this is true. Remember mid-late 90s ads for Nasi Calrose ? Simon

Simon Williams 18 September 2014

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