Front-page headlines called him the “Laughing Bomber” and the “Smiling Assassin”, and news reports almost without exception referred to the November 13 public interrogation of the chief suspect in the Bali bombings as “bizarre”.
Amrozi, the 40-year-old Javanese mechanic who has confessed to building the bomb that killed more than 190 people in Kuta on October 12 (as well as to involvement in a string of bombings elsewhere in Indonesia) apparently smiled and joked with his interrogator, Indonesian national police chief Da’i Bachtiar throughout the 50-minute interview, conducted in full view of the international press.
When Amrozi allegedly said he wanted to kill people like the journalists looking on from behind glass, to whom he inexplicably waved and grinned, the room full of Indonesian police erupted with laughter. The entire ensemble obligingly posed for a happy snap, which, following its blanket reproduction in Australian newspapers the next morning, produced a not unpredictable outpouring of incredulity.
Pressed for comment by journalists following up the story, Australian political leaders didn’t shy away from expressing their own outrage. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called the images ugly. “I think these people are so bloodthirsty,” he said. “Their sort of ugly, sneering, amused attitude at the slaughter of innocent people is just horrific.” Presumably he was referring to terrorists, not Indonesians as a whole.
Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd said he thought it would make “all Australians feel physically sick that any person could laugh at the suffering, the pain, the torment and the death of hundreds of innocent Australians.” Opposition Leader Simon Crean described the scenes as “bizarre and insensitive”, and Prime Minister John Howard, while initially circumspect about criticising the Indonesian authorities, at least conceded the day after Crean’s comments that he had been absolutely “repulsed” by the “sickening display”.
Such comments were echoed in newspaper letters pages and on talkback radio. There was no pulling of punches. The photo of the grinning Amrozi with his happy-clappy captors seemed to confirm all those dark, nagging suspicions about the lax attitude in the archipelago to human life.
As one correspondent on the letters page of The Age (which generally likes to think its readers are enlightened, culturally sensitive types) put it:
“The Indonesian police, and in particular General Da’i Bachtiar, should be ashamed of their antics in the parading of Amrozi … The handshaking, the smiling makes you question the entire situation – like some reunion of old mates. It was disgusting and unacceptable and insensitive.”
Or was it?
Amid the fury and revulsion about Indonesian insensitivity, a little more questioning of the entire situation certainly wouldn’t have gone astray. Why on earth would the police be smiling and laughing with Amrozi with foreign journalists looking on? How could they possibly be so insensitive, not to mention stupid?
Taken at face value, as seen through Australian eyes, it was indeed “bizarre”. But Indonesia, it might be noted, is a foreign country, and a foreign country, to paraphrase that old saying, is like the past: they do things differently there.
Have the Indonesians no shame? Actually, like the rest of South-East Asia, they might be said, from our decadent Western point of view, to have decidedly too much of it – certainly in terms of social shame. Which is why the importance of “saving face” carries significantly more weight than it does in Australia, where a national leader might shed tears in public and not suffer one bit of social opprobrium.
Things work a little differently in Indonesian culture, where the concept of malu (losing face) and the related notion of Batin dan Lahir (the requirement to present an outward sense of calm) means Indonesians aren’t given to wearing their heart on their sleeve.
Just as Indonesians have tendency to say yes when they actually mean no (so as not to cause offence), their facial expressions can’t necessarily be taken on face value. They use smiling and laughing as defensive mechanisms to mask anger, embarrassment, shyness, nervousness, disapproval and other feelings of distress. Thus they might smile or laugh at times that seem highly inappropriate to Westerners.
Such fine details are important to understanding what was going on at the interrogation of Amrozi. Of course, the failure of the Indonesian police to appreciate that most Australians would interpret their actions so negatively shows a lack of sensitivity to our culture. But the failure of most Australian media outlets to appreciate the nuances of Indonesian culture, and to fan the flames of misunderstanding between our two countries by emphasising the laughing and smiling without pointing out that it didn’t necessarily carry the same connotations as in our own society, was equally insensitive.
Our engagement with Asia most definitely remains a work in progress.
- Tim Wallace