When it comes to assessing Australia’s strategic posture, there is no greater cliché than the assertion that any major aggressive action must traverse the island-chain to our north.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo
Or, to put it simply, any aggressor must penetrate Indonesia before he can threaten Australia. Or that aggressor may be Indonesia itself.
When I was learning Indonesian in the mid-70s, at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Bahasa Indonesia (i.e., “the language of Indonesia”) was a popular option. The number of students studying it, however, has been on a downward slide ever since. This is strange, because a student with a good pass at high-school level probably has all the Bahasa Indonesia that, for practical purposes, he or she is ever going to need.
It is often said, quite correctly, that Bahasa Indonesia is an easy language; but I have yet to meet anyone who says this who possesses anything more than bahasa pasar (“market language”). As with any other language, getting a superior command of Bahasa Indonesia demands sustained effort.
When I say that I am puzzled by the decline in enrolments for Bahasa Indonesia, I am considering several factors.
First, Indonesia has a population of 250 million people — ten times that of Australia. This makes it the fourth most populous nation on earth.
Secondly, Indonesia is making steady economic progress, and its importance as a customer for Australia’s goods and services can only increase.
Thirdly, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Not all Indonesians are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Wahhabi-inspired zealots.
Fourthly, with the collapse of the “New Order” established by Indonesia’s second president, General Suharto, during his 31-year rule from 1967 to 1998, it was widely feared that the country would descend into chaos. The reverse has happened. Newly-installed President Joko Widodo is the first Indonesian president with no connection to the New Order regime.
The leftovers from the Suharto regime still wield considerable power, but Widodo is the people’s choice. The discipline and order evident in Indonesian governance, despite the survival of endemic corruption, is proof that Indonesia can guide itself.
Why then, if Australia and Indonesia are not enemies, are we not friends? This is not as simple as it appears.
I asked one young Indonesian graduate of the University of Melbourne, who was about to return home after completing her studies, if anyone had acted aggressively towards her because she wore the hijab, or head scarf, and she told me: “Not once.” This must surely demonstrate a high degree of tolerance by Australians.
But in the case of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who are due to die by firing squad, along with British “drugs granny” Lindsay Sandiford, one can only interpret the Indonesian action as a calculated snub to two Western powers. It is hard to see how this will elevate Indonesia’s standing as a civilised nation among the people of Australia and Britain. Some say, “You were stupid to get caught”; but elite opinion regards capital punishment as futile and barbaric.
To understand the Indonesian attitude, one must delve into Indonesia’s history. For 300 years, Indonesia was a Dutch possession — in fact, its major colony.
Indonesia was home to the fabled Spice Islands. The Dutch had a near-monopoly on the exotic spices that fascinated the European bourgeoisie. The wealthy elite competed to secure the best and most novel spices for use in their cooking. Preserving meat from rotting had nothing to do with it.
To tell the truth, apart from the Spice Islands, the Dutch did not control much more of Indonesia than the island of Java until the early 20th century.
Until the adoption by the Dutch of the Ethische Politiek (“Ethical Policy”) towards its colonial subjects during the last decades of its rule, Indonesians were discouraged from learning the Dutch language and the economic policy was brutally exploitative.
Dutch rule collapsed in 1942, when the Japanese invaded. The Japanese line that Asians should control their own destiny struck a chord with the Indonesians, and stimulated a tide of nationalism.
When the war ended, the Dutch launched a “police action” to recover their colony. However, Indonesian independence was declared on August 17, 1945. The Dutch lost.
Sukarno put Indonesia on the path towards leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, a sort of shoddy anti-colonial coalition among developing nations.
Australia and Indonesia have been in conflict with each other at least twice. On both occasions, the conflicts were deliberately contained at a low level. Casualties were sustained on both sides, but full-scale warfare was avoided.
In 1965, Australia’s Special Air Services (SAS) Regiment saw action in North Borneo, in the conflict known by its Malay name as Konfrontasi. Three SAS troopers were killed and 20-plus Indonesians died. The conflict petered out when Suharto took power.
In 1999-2000, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, under UN auspices, helped East Timor secure independence from Indonesia. Outright war was avoided by both sides.
Are Indonesia’s attitudes immature? They take history seriously. So should we.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based journalist, who has travelled and worked extensively in Asia.