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Invisible Indonesia


Indonesia mapYou'd never know it, but just above Darwin and sort of to the left, around Bali, there are 17,000 islands floating in the Indian Ocean with roughly 240 million people living on them. Grouped together, this rising economic powerhouse and cultural kaleidoscope is called 'Indonesia', and it's the fourth largest country in the world. In fact, Bali is part of this 'Indonesia' place.

I mention this, and the archipelago's vague location, because Australia seems to have forgotten that Indonesia exists, and that there's more to it than Bali, Balibo, Bintangs, and bombings. We forget Indonesia at our own political and economic peril, not to mention at great loss to our culture.

Indonesian Vice President Boediono flew home to Jakarta on Monday after a five-day state tour of Australia that made a negligible blip in the Australian media. The neglect is not surprising. While Australia is a daily staple of Indonesian political and media discussion, back in our great barren land Indonesia rarely rates a mention.

It can be hard to understand why such a cultural and political silence surrounds all things Indonesian. After all, Indonesia is important to us in myriad ways. It's tipped to become one of the world's ten biggest economies by 2015 if growth continues apace.

Beyond the current Australian stock of investment of around A$4.8 billion, Indonesia has the potential to push forward drastically in the ranks of our most important trading partners in coming years. Not to mention the 13,990 Indonesian students who bring close to A$500 million into the economy annually.

Indonesia is also a transit country for asylum seekers heading for our shores. While Australia talks 'off-shore' solutions and pours funds into Indonesian detention centres through international organisations, the Indonesian government struggles daily with the flow of people fleeing Iraq and Afghanistan, where Australia is busy waging the wars that asylum seekers are desperate to escape.

It's no coincidence that Australia's diplomatic mission to Indonesia is the biggest we have in the world, and the archipelago is rightly the largest recipient of Australian aid: an estimated A$458.7 million went there for the 2010–2011 period alone.

Despite Tony Abbott's clumsy attempts to cut the aid flow, Australia has a deep and abiding interest in promoting Indonesian development and education, especially as it moves to consolidate its new democracy. Our nearest neighbour, the world's third largest democracy, and the biggest Muslim one, Indonesia is a vibrant example to developing countries everywhere.

But in Australian life, the cultural forgetting of Indonesia is all encompassing.

A 2010 study by the Asia Foundation at Melbourne University showed the dire state of Asian language teaching in Australian schools. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Australian children learning Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese or Korean slid from 24 per cent to just 18.6 per cent.

Despite the fact that Indonesia is our next-door neighbour, Bahasa Indonesia teaching is suffering the most: 99 per cent of students drop the language before year 12. If nationwide trends continue there could be only 100 students studying it by 2020. The government's National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program is too little, too late.

Teaching of Asian history also seems to be in serious decline, especially relative to the preoccupation with European history. It seems we have forgotten what we seemed to know fleetingly in the 1990s under Keating: that Australia is part of the Asia Pacific.

Beyond the schoolyard the situation is similarly dire. Walk into any bookshop in Melbourne and you'll be hard-pressed to find even one book on Indonesia on the history or politics shelves. If you're very lucky, you might be able to scrape up a book on Bali or Balibo.

In fact, the Australian preoccupation with the shootings of the Balibo Five, a great tragedy, is nevertheless emblematic of just how blinkered the Australian narrative surrounding Indonesia is.

The journalists were killed in 1975 in Indonesia's early incursions into what was then Portugese Timor. In the 25 year occupation that followed, however, between 102 000 and 183 000 East Timorese died while Australia sat mutely by.

Maybe this was where we began to forget, as we will surely persist in our continual attempts to forget the human rights abuses being committed in West Papua. Without the language, without the history, we're just bossy neo-colonials with all the answers and no idea what the question is.

Boediono made a couple of speeches, shook some hands, and was seamlessly aware of Australian manners and mores as he passed through. Like so many Indonesians, after all, Boediono went to university here. Before he even left, we had forgotten he had come.

When we forget Indonesia, we exclude ourselves from the community of our region, passing up the chance to share in and understand a vast tapestry of traditions and languages, a syncretic society as richly complex as batik, right on our doorstep, invisible in our midst. 

Ruby MurrayRuby J. Murray worked in media and communications in Jakarta from 2009–2010. She is a blogger and co-founder of The Democracy Project.

Topic tags: ruby murray, Indonesia, bali, balibo, Vice President Boediono



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Existing comments

1. Define "our culture" in 5 sentences.
2. The wars of the world are predominantly between those who believe that the 'state' (tribe/nation) has predominance over the individual and those that believe the individual has predominance over the state.

Obviously we are the latter and what has recently become Indonesia are the former; so, aside from the search for common ground, why should we highlight anything from the culture to which we are fundamentally and unilaterally opposed?

Greig WIlliams | 16 March 2011  

Events in Japan remind Australians that Indonesia has nuclear reactors and plans to build more, even though Indonesia is volcanically active and unstable. A nuclear accident in Indonesia has the potential to cause great damage to Australia. As the Europeans are saying today, radiation doesn't uderstand boundaries. One wonders what the Australian government is doing about border protection against nuclear fallout.

PHILIP HARVEY | 16 March 2011  

Good one. More please.

RFI Smith | 16 March 2011  

As you can see in Greig & Philip's comments here, Indonesia is "fundamentally" different so why bother... and the only thing newsworthy about Indonesia is the "great damage" that it can cause Australia. Ruby, you're calling out to deaf ears. It'll be about 10 more years until Australians realize what it's travel advisory (and general indifference) has cost Australian interests.

Penyiar | 16 March 2011  

Trying to understand our nearest neighbour and their cultures could help us understand ourselves. Timor and West Papua are a blot on Indonesian and Australian governments alike. Time to consider building bridges - an honourable occupation. Indonesia, like Australia, is a multicultural society. There are Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, et al. Slamat jalan, Nona, Nonja, Tuan.

Joyce | 16 March 2011  

While Indonesian has many advantages over other Asian languages - it's written in Roman script, has phonetic pronunciation, and a large number of English loanwords, it lacks the prestige of Chinese, Japanese and Korean, or indeed, Arabic, from which it has also derived vocabulary and Hindi with which it shares vocabulary (through Sanskrit). However, the problem that Australia faces in trying to encourage people to learn other languages is the same as other English-speaking countries generally.

Ken Westmoreland | 16 March 2011  

Greg is correct about the two world views, but the proper name for those are Colonialism versus Self-determination. And the answer Ruby's trouble understanding why western media ignores Indonesia as much as possible, is easy. The result of WW-II was global agreement that colonisation was bad and the UN should end it. But the business sector loves colonisation, that's why the Ford Foundation promoted the Axis leader Sukarno as a 'nationalist' and why his Axis militia were left in control of the colonies from Aech to Ambon. It's also why the Freeport corporation wanted part of the Australian continent (West Papua) sold to Indonesian control. Our government does not want the media to talk about this or to look at the Australian vote in UN General Assembly resolution 1752 (XVII) by which we said the UN could trade the Dutch colony to Indonesia for Freeport to mine.

Andrew Johnson | 16 March 2011  

What Ruby Murray writes can't be emphasized too much - not only for Australia's 'strategic' advantage, but also for what most Indonesians still have, and we have lost: a culture that embraces each individual in a spiritual, artistic, communal richness. What a contrast to our materialistic, self-centred ignorance.

Russell | 16 March 2011  

Penyiar may like to conclude from my words that Indonesia is "fundamentally" different, but that is not what I said. Nor would I ever argue that differences between nations are reason not to bother with dialogue, improved understanding, or friendship. If the only thing newsworthy about Indonesia is the "great damage" that it can cause Australia then we have a problem. Ruby talks about Australia forgetting that Indonesia exists. My experience is that we have never learnt that it’s there, and I mean not only the archipelago but also the area to the north of it called Asia. Ruby’s opening paragraph makes wry use of this unfortunate fact. Our history remains Western in perspective and we largely continue to understand the North not as they understand it but as we want to. My point about the events in Japan leads logically to the conclusion that while Australia keeps talking to Indonesia, it is in a better position to alert the Indonesians to the international hazards of their nuclear industry. This won’t happen if we adopt the attitude of not bothering.

PHILIP HARVEY | 16 March 2011  

Living in Perth, we are just that bit closer in distance - my daughter chooses Bali for her holidays now she has her passport and independence. When she was 4 years old we were living in a Kampung in Yogyakarta - what Ruby writes of now is as true when my daughter was 4 - nothing has changed. Indonesian and Asian studies are no longer fashionable in academia - and asia literacy in Australia seems on a downward slope - it will need more than a few words to shift things though - a major change is needed across many areas of our political and cultural landscape to remind us who our neighbour is, and not forget

Tom | 16 March 2011  

Where is our knowkledge of President Yudhoyono's work to transform the nation's attitudes to trees? ........ someone suggested a scandal.

geoff fox | 16 March 2011  

Thanks for this valuable article. We're a complacent lot.

Joe Castley | 16 March 2011  

You are right on your main point Ruby - that is Australia overlooks Indonesia at its own peril. Well done for that. However, in your idealistic appeals concerning human rights abuses, you overlook a key point. If Australia was to focus on such issues, as those concerning W Papua, how do you suppose that would bring our country closer to Indonesia? I suspect it would have the opposite effect. The issues would become another 'Balibo', hanuting the relationship for decades more.

Simon | 16 March 2011  

If for a moment Greig Williams' analysis was correct (and it isn't), that would be all the more reason for us to engage in Indonesia's future than not. Indonesia is there whether you like it or not; it's close; we fly over it to get to the rest of Asia and Europe and many Australians spend their holiday time visiting it.

I would say the vast majority of Indonesians would like to see nothing more than a positive and close relationship with Australia. Certainly the ones I work with here in Indonesia do. They are secular, forward looking and want their nation to continue its development. They abhor the extremists and consider that they smear the name not only of Indonesia but also of Islam. They want their individual rights just as much as Australians do. Yes, they have different cultural perspectives but then so do most Asians and in fact most of the rest of the world and it's no reason to ignore them.

My friends are warm and welcoming. They are the very antithesis of Greig's image.

Politically, the country is developing its own ways and means. But it is, as Ruby says, the largest Muslim democracy and everyone wants to see it stay like that. I read somewhere recently that it is at present South East Asia's best example of stable and open democracy. Yes, it has its problems, not least of which is almost endemic corruption but this is recognised and systems are gradually being put in place to deal with that issue.

SO thank you Ruby for this interesting and approachable article about the place where I live.

Erik H | 16 March 2011  

Dear Ruby, I do appreciate what you are saying and share your sentiments. You may be glad to know that one of the few places teaching Indonesian is Mountain District Christian School in Macclesfield. Thea Maguire, the teacher, recently went to Indonesia to share and learn more to be able to share with her students. Jean Sietzema-Dickson Director Poetica Christi Press 493 Elgar Rd Mont Albert North Vic 3129 Ph 9890 5885

Jean SIetzema-Dickson | 17 March 2011  

One thing that's important for people to understand is that a country not as politically important, that doesn't me it does not deserve a proper welcome. It's a courtesy to show people around the world, and people of us that Australia is a country that respect and embrace others. I guess the only argument for the visit not appearing on media is because the middle east unrest has been hijacking the media predominantly. Yet, wait. Think for a moment. Where did our prime minster go last week? Well...guess the blame Murray placed isn't all wrong after all.

Christopher Lau | 17 March 2011  

Australians have become less aware of what happens in Indonesia. People are becoming less likely to want to know about their culture and what is happening in their country. There is more to Indonesia than people think, every island has a different story behind it and people should be told about them. Australians have the stereotypical image of Indonesia that every place in Indonesia is like Bali. The Australian government needs to try to educate the community about what is happening in the present day in Indonesia. Balibo 5 has had a massive effect about what people perceive Indonesia to be, for those 15 years Australians had no clue of what was happening in Indonesia and the government has to make up for these lost years.

Will Logue | 17 March 2011  

I am a year 10 student that studies Indonesian i can't say that i have been to the country but i believe it is has a very rich culture and sounds a amazing place to be staying on holidays or to visit.

Jarrod Greenaway | 17 March 2011  

I found it very interesting that 99 percent of students drop Bahasa Indonesia before year 12. Also Australians are becoming a lot less aware of what is happening in Indonesia. Australians have forgotten about Indonesia but the main thing is that Australians were not taught it.Australia did not know anything about Indonesia also because journalists were not aloud in the country. She sounds very disgusted and upset.

Shivraj Nanra | 17 March 2011  

Bintang for life <3 Indonesia shouldn't be forgotten, for surfers this place is a dream. Every surfer wants to surf the beautiful waves that Indonesia has. The culture is something that everyone should experience once in their life. A trip around indonesia can be life changing for the best.

Sonny Bill Williams | 17 March 2011  

i think that indonesia shouldn't be forgotten about as it is a lovely place to visit <3 & the people are nice too :D if australains forget about indonesia, they in the futrue won't be able to communicate with indonesians when they need to do trade & other stuff. there wont be a lot of australians who can do that, because people are dropping the language at such an early age & not giving it a or even the country a chance.

Tori :) | 17 March 2011  

As an Australian living in Singapore, I believe that I could give a more subjective stance of what Murray has written about. I completely agree with what she is saying but I do not think that it is only Indonesia. She touched lightly on Australia forgetting that it is a part of Asia pacific but I think that this is a large problem. Australia likes to think that they are somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean between the US and Europe. Australia never has had a substantial connection to any part of the area they are actually in. The lack of language being taught to the Australia youth is a reflection of the way that the youth sees Europe of this glamorous place that is much easier to reach than it actually is. My cousins in Australia immediately chose French and their language of choice because the country is somewhere that they want to go. If Australia was actually connected to the countries that surround them, the youth might be much more interested in learning the language and the culture of places like Indonesia.

Beth | 17 March 2011  

(part 2) In the world section of the Sydney Morning Herald this morning there was nothing about Indonesia or any country in the area. It was all about the US, Europe and the Middle East. I find it shocking that the main stories about our world are not about countries which will have an immediate and massive effect of Australia. It is of immediate importance that Australians country wide become more aware of the realistic world they are in and of the country that affects us so much.

Beth | 17 March 2011  

Indonesia is such a nice place and the people are lovely and friendly. It should defiantly hope that Indonesia does not get forgotten about because it is such a unique and a great place to visit.

Rhianon | 17 March 2011  

It is sad that so few is learning to speak Indonesian anymore and that it is only know for Bali instead of the rest of the country and culture as well.

Mikayla | 17 March 2011  

I think this is a major issue, it is horrible to think that people can forget about a country that’s so close to them and not have enough desire to want to learn about the culture and the language. In the long run this is going to leave Australia feeling lost and far behind when Indonesia becomes a major powerhouse.

MB | 17 March 2011  

Indonesia is an awesome place and the people there are mega. Lets consider what would happen if Indonesia actually became physically invisible.We wouldn't be able to see all the nice people who are willing to go out of their way to make your day better. We would lose a very valuable trading partner and a democratic ally. Finally we wouldn't be able to appreciate the snow capped mountains of Irian Jaya to the beaches of Bali and that would be a bummer. So yeah, be thankful Indonesia is not invisible.

Alex Suhochev | 17 March 2011  

Indonesia is a great place but its true what she said, everyone talks about Bali and Bintang because they are great holiday place so the rest of Indonesia is kind of shadowed, thats why when anybody asks u about Indonesia you automatically think about Bali and Bintang

KYLE Jacobs | 17 March 2011  

I understand that Indonesia is a nuclear disaster waiting to happen and Australia is scared because the are practically next to each other, but that doesn't mean that we should hate the country because of this.

Nicholas | 17 March 2011  

The fault is not wholly ours. Indonesians have much work to do before their country becomes a safe destination. Most people are friendly and welcoming though rip offs are prevalent. The rule of law doesn't operate. Nationalism is growing and it's hostile to outsiders. Corruption rules everywhere, city pollution is a serious threat to health, poverty is gross - particularly outside the cities. Education standards are the lowest in Southeast Asia. As the travel warnings say - Indonesia is not always a safe destination. Far from struggling daily with asylum seekers the evidence shows Indonesian officials have been actively helping these people take the dangerous journey to Australia. Careful visitors who are well prepared can have rewarding experiences in the archipelago, but the hazards are real. Let's be frank about Indonesia - it's our resource-rich neighbour and critically important in defence and trade. It could become a major and stable player in world affairs, but it's also on the cusp of collapse if the government doesn't deliver the promises of democracy. That includes ensuring safety for visitors and locals - particularly those in minority religions.

Duncan Graham | 18 March 2011  

Ruby, you're on the mark with this well-written, thought provoking piece. More please!

Bec | 18 March 2011  

I can't let Duncan Graham's comments go unchallenged, as they are virtually the last ones in the stream:

"The rule of law doesn't operate." It may not work the way you want, Duncan, but there is a legal system and, as with any developing nation, it is working towards being consistently effective rather than sporadically.

"Nationalism is growing and it's hostile to outsiders." I live there, Duncan, and don't feel the hostility - suspicion occasionally, because the people have been ripped off by bules (Europeans) in the past, but smile and they open up.

"Corruption rules everywhere" - see my comment above.

"city pollution is a serious threat to health" - I live in the second largest city, Surabaya - pollution, according to my expat colleagues, is better there than most large Asian cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong etc. Yes, Jakarta is bad but don't besmirch the rest of the country on the basis of one place.

"poverty is gross - particularly outside the cities." - poverty is always gross but whose fault is it in Indonesia? The place has been exploited by the West since the 1700s.

"Education standards are the lowest in Southeast Asia." This is not true. Check out the latest PISA results.

"As the travel warnings say - Indonesia is not always a safe destination." No place is can guarantee perfect safety. Just ask Indian students in Melbourne and the people of Port Arthur.

As for the last part of Duncan's message, though exaggerated, the points he makes are the very reason for Australia to be engaged in Indonesia, which is precisely what Ruby is saying.

Erik H | 18 March 2011  

There’s a disquieting Pollyanna tone in many comments that do a disservice to Indonesia – and the original story. The debate needs to be lifted above ‘lovely people’ and ‘developing nation’ responses from people who’ve had only superficial contact with the archipelago, - some hiding their identity and further devaluing the credibility of their observations.

Indonesia was born in the ashes of World War 11 along with modern Japan and the European Community, and had the potential to equal them. Instead the great natural wealth and talent has been squandered by decades of corruption, oppression and mismanagement, a tragedy for the people whose health, education and lives have been blighted by evil administrators.

Now the lawmakers are allowing thugs to commit serious crimes in the name of religion and abuse the Constitution. This is creating widespread concern about future directions – and warping the nation’s image.

Australia can and should help by providing thousands more scholarships so young Indonesians can build their skills and see for themselves that Western democracy is not a nest of godless vipers. At the same time more Indonesians (particularly Javanese Muslims) in Australia should help lift local ignorance, provided they’re made welcome.

Duncan Graham | 19 March 2011  

"In fact, the Australian preoccupation with the shootings of the Balibo Five, a great tragedy, is nevertheless emblematic of just how blinkered the Australian narrative surrounding Indonesia is. The journalists were killed in 1975 in Indonesia's early incursions into what was then Portugese Timor. In the 25 year occupation that followed, however, between 102 000 and 183 000 East Timorese died while Australia sat mutely by." This is a very sad chapter in our history - this still needs resolution - why are we in Afghanistan now when we were so late in East Timor?

Timor Leste | 20 March 2011  

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