In 2008 I was talking with some Acehnese rice farmers. One old man asked me "Why does John Howard hate Muslims? Who is the new Prime Minister, Rudd, Kevin Rudd, that’s his name, we want to know, does he hate Muslims too?"
"We’ll see, he is still new, I hope he’ll be better," I replied.
"And what of Howard, did he step down?" the farmer continued.
"He fell [from office]," I replied. We all chuckled.
"The governments of the world are like that, all of the governments of the world," he continued. "They don’t look after the small people, but the important thing is that we look after each other".
What was initially a question of suspicion about the Australian government quickly turned into a conversation about the everyday lives of Australian people. They went on to ask me about my family, about health care and farmers, before I eventually interviewed them about their own lives.
Even though these farmers were very poor and had limited schooling, they knew the name of the Australian Prime Minister and had a good understanding of the saga going on within Australian politics at the time. Later that day I thought to myself that even many educated Australians don’t know the name of the Indonesian President, let alone understand the diversity of Indonesian cultures or the warmth and vibrancy of everyday life in Indonesia.
If these farmers can be politically savvy and interested in the lives of Australians, surely we should be making more of an effort to understand our region. The time I have spent living in Indonesia has shown me how just easy it would be for us to build this understanding, should we choose to do so.
In a recent interview with The Age, Professor David Hill called on the federal government to express a renewed commitment to Indonesian studies in Australia. The article explains that the subject is in rapid decline, so much so that Indonesian language courses may cease to exist in Australian universities within ten years.
It goes on to explain the strategic importance of Indonesia to Australia, and the political and economic benefits that will come to Australia from building expertise in Indonesian language and society. Hill suggests that cutbacks to Indonesian Studies within Australia may have been compounded by the negative image of Indonesia within Australian society at large. They offer the media coverage of the imprisonment of Schapelle Corby for drug trafficking as an example of one source of such negative publicity.
My conversation with these Acehnese farmers about Australian politics was not unusual. Like many Indonesians, they regularly read the newspaper and discuss topical issues amongst themselves. In the three years I’ve lived in Indonesia, I have had conversations in which ordinary Indonesians have expressed genuine interest in understanding Australia and other parts of the world.
They want to know our values, the hardships we face, the opinions of politicians and the workings of government. Not because of anything to do with trade or international relations, but because Indonesian people value knowledge, understanding and believe that it is important to invest time in building relationships with others.
I didn’t study Indonesian at school, or even in my undergraduate degree. I first went to Indonesia in 2005 on a placement with Australian Volunteers International. I did a short course at a language school in Yogyakarta before living and working in Jakarta for 18 months. Although it took almost six months to learn the language properly and to find my way around the hazy maze of streets in Jakarta, I quickly grew to love Indonesia, warts and all. Later I lived in Aceh and met many survivors of war and disaster whose tenacity and strength I will never forget. I came to know extraordinary activists and artists, but have always been even more impressed by the tough pragmatism and warm sense of humour of ordinary Indonesians.
There is of course, a dark side to Indonesia. Those wise farmers are poor in an absolute sense — despite the growing middle class of Jakarta. The Indonesian military still commits acts of violence against ordinary people, most recently in Papua. Terrorism is a fact of life in many parts of Indonesia. But it is not supported by the majority and it should not be the sole reason that Australians ought to understand Indonesia.
Most of the Australians I know in Indonesia live there not because it is strategically important to Australia, but because they fell in love with the country long ago. Even a basic understanding of Indonesian language and culture is enough to allow anybody to see beyond the sleaze of the bar scene in Bali or the stifling pollution of Jakarta.
Certainly the Australian government would be foolish not to pursue the political and economic gains that will come from building closer relationships with Indonesia. Continuing to invest in Indonesian studies is paramount in this sense. But Australians should get to know Indonesia because it’s a beautiful and fascinating country.
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