Thursday, March 17, 2011

Invisible Indonesia

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