Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Getting to know Indonesia


pasung, SMH videoGareth Evans once said that 'no two neighbours anywhere in the world are as comprehensively unlike' as Australia and Indonesia. It sometimes seems that the gulf between Australian perceptions of Indonesia and the reality of that country is just as wide.

To be sure, much of the old hostility is gone. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, coming as it did soon after the Bali bombings and the East Timor transition, was a circuit breaker for the relationship. The Howard Government responded quickly, effectively and with Opposition support. Australian people gave generously. Australian aid workers and experts were well represented in the massive, multinational recovery effort which followed.

But the old stereotypes still break through. Take a Liberal campaign ad that this year attempted to rekindle old fears of invasion from the north. In it, a red arrow labelled 'Indonesia' points menacingly at the heart of Australia, together with other arrows labeled 'Sri Lanka', 'Iran', 'Iraq' and 'Afghanistan'. The voiceover from Tony Abbott: 'We've got to take stronger measures now' to 'stop illegal immigration'.

Crass, puerile but also telling. How many other nations could Australia's alternative government so offensively depict? How many foreign heads of state could be depicted in a cartoon in an Australian newspaper, as Indonesian President Yudhoyono was, in an act of sodomy?

And for all the decent reporting that's regularly done, Indonesia tends to appear in the tabloid press and on commercial TV in the most unflattering of lights: as a source of a 'flood' of asylum seekers arriving by boat; as a hotbed of Islamic extremism and terrorism; and as a state which imposes heavy sentences, including the death penalty, on Australians convicted of drugs charges.

It creates an unbalanced impression. Australians will know about the bombing tragedies but probably not about the sustained success of Indonesia's counter-terrorism program. Nor the fact that violent extremists are a small, shunned minority.

One Indonesian, a professional in his 30s, told me how much he hates terrorism, because it wrecks lives in Indonesia and shames his country. Does anyone seriously believe this is not the view of the vast majority? The reality is that Indonesia is no better represented by a grinning zealot like Amrozi than America would be by Timothy McVeigh (tellingly, both killers at war with their own government).

In addition to being unbalanced, the standard fare on Indonesia is too narrow. In focusing on a set of problems of obvious Australian concern, serious effort to understand Australia's most important neighbour is foregone. Contrast this to reporting on China or the US, where usually there is no Australian angle.

This is a misjudgment, not only because of Indonesia's importance to Australia but because positive things are happening there quickly.

Take the campaign to end the widespread practice of pasung — confinement of people with mental illnesses — as a revealing example. Such people are often literally tied down and can be kept immobile for years on end. In June the Sydney Morning Herald reported on a social affairs institution in which pasung is practised and where conditions were particularly awful.

After reading the article, a psychiatrist from the Directorate of Mental Health, Dr Eka Viora, contacted the institution's director. What followed was a delicate negotiation to improve the patients' lot.

The director, Suhartono, stressed that his centre had a 'special treatment' for mental illness and that he did not want a hospital to 'interfere' with it. Suhartono was nevertheless persuaded to let a hospital team inspect the physical health of his charges, who were found to be suffering from malnourishment, skin problems and other complaints.

Eventually the centre agreed to let the hospital treat the patients' physical problems. Dr Viora's work with the centre continues.

And it's not an isolated case. The government of Aceh province is well advanced in locating people in pasung and providing treatment and support. The goal there is to eliminate the practice by 2011.

Doctors across the archipelago are working to free people from restraints. Nurses work with communities to identify cases of pasung. The national government has set a deadline of 2014 to eradicate pasung. The Human Rights Commission, newly invigorated, is working on the issue.

It is one case among many which shows how Indonesia is changing, developing and making the difficult progress toward better conditions for its people.

Achieving a deeper, wider understanding of Australia's complex neighbour would take genuine effort. It's an effort worth making. Indonesia's ambassador in Washington, Dino Djalal, recently set out the reasons why America should care about his country. They are also good reasons for Australians:

Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world ... Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. There are more Muslims in Indonesia than in the entire Middle East ... Much of the air that you breathe now comes from Indonesia because we have 30 per cent of the world's tropical rainforests, and we have been providing free environmental service to America and to humanity.

Perceptions in Australia lag behind the reality of today's Indonesia. There are many reasons to catch up.

Stephen MinasStephen Minas, a journalist, was recently on assignment in Indonesia. Minas has written on Asian affairs for The Diplomat, the Canberra Times, the Pacific Basin Law Journal and others. Twitter @StephenMinas 

Topic tags: Stephen Minas, Indonesia, Yudhoyono, Dino Djalal, pasung



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Stephen for a really informative article. I could not agree more that we have to get beyond our cliché images of our nearest neighbour. Another thing that strikes me as important is Indonesia's religious tolerance. In terms of the population debate it is also interesting that Indonesia has reduced its population growth without the use of coercive measures so that Indonesia's population growth rate (1.16) is now less than that of Australia (2.1 in December 2009). Most of ours, of course, is due to immigration. Thank you for an excellent article.

Paul Collins | 09 November 2010  

its so important to break the crippling caricatures. This article helps with tha. Hope it is widely disseminated. Send it to 2GB

peter roebuck | 09 November 2010  

Indonesia is in some ways way ahead of Australia. It is after all a Republic whilst Australia still remains a constitutional colony of Britain. The people in Indonesia can hold their heads high as they have achieved true independence, something that may happen one day in Australia.

Beat Odermatt | 09 November 2010  

I couldn't agree more with Stephen's analysis. I live in Indonesia and work daily with Indonesians. All of them condemned the bombings last year in Jakarta, none of them are at all like the stereotypes the shock jocks and tabloid papers would have you believe are typical Indonesians. The people I know are tolerant, friendly and open.

There are problems and issues typical of a Third World country - poverty, corruption, haphazard planning, but you can see that efforts are being made to address these. Stephen's story about pasung provides an example of that.

Erik H | 09 November 2010  

Thank you, Stephen. Like Eric, i agree with you completely. Having lived and worked in Indonesia for nine years, 1997-2006, I so often felt that many Australians had no comprehension of the diversity of people and life styles in Indonesia, yet speak so dismissively on Indonesians.

Your article was informative. i do think personal contact, though a very slow process, i know is the way to change perceptions and informed and a better informed media.Please write more,Stephen.

Maryrose Dennehy | 09 November 2010  

I don't disagree with the basic thrust of the position that Stephen is putting forward.

The challenge that I have whenever I think of Indonesia is the way that the government allowed East Timor to be brutally and viciously ravaged post the totally legitimate referendum - which they sanctionned - that was to to result in East Timorese gaining their independence.I saw this as a totally callous and pre-meditated act by a group of people who had absolutely no regard for the populace over which they had control for many years - even though they argued that their being in East Timor was beneficial for the East Timorese.

I would like to hear the Indonesian perspective on why they didn't protect the infrastructue of the country to whom they were granting independence - they had the resources to do this !!

Noel Will | 10 November 2010  


I don't think those actions are defensible in any way, maybe a result of anger at the East Timorese for wanting to be independent. A not dissimilar situation occurred in Aceh until a resolution was reached there.

But every country I can think of has incidents in its history which are horrifying. Countries are human creations and humans make mistakes.

Erik H | 10 November 2010  

I don't know if McVeigh was a "patsy" (a fall guy), but Oswald and Amrozi were.

telfer cronos | 10 November 2010  

It is interesting that Stephen Minas, like most Western Media and other recent high profile international visitors to Indonesia, has chosen to ignore completely the question of the Indonesian military's treatment of the people of West Papua. In West Papua the "reality of today's Indonesia" is not very different from the reality of 1980's and 90's Indonesia in East Timor. Wake up young man and look beyond the Indonesian government press releases.

Julie Brackenreg | 27 November 2010  

A good Article Stephen but one thing I notice is you do not talk about Indonesian attitudes to Australia. Attitudes it clearly shows in the cutting of Australian investment and imports . I think personally Australia is a bystander here "yelling from the sidelines" when and if Indonesian Attitudes change I think so will Australian public perception.

TIm G | 31 May 2012  

Similar Articles

My refugeeness

  • Kim Huynh
  • 16 November 2010

My father would harbour a modern sense of can-do-ism and irreverence for tradition throughout his life. It was his vision of a new and better world along with the conviction that his sons had no future in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, that drove us on to that horribly overcrowded boat in 1979.


Asylum seeker decision tests Government sportsmanship

  • Kerry Murphy
  • 11 November 2010

A litmus test for the health of a democracy is what a Government does when it loses cases in the highest court in the land. The first consequence of yesterday's High Court decision regarding the cases of two Tamil asylum seekers is that many cases will need to be reconsidered.