Six months ago I uprooted my life and moved to live in Jakarta. The move was to accompany my spouse, who is a passionate Indonesianist. I, on the other hand, like many Australians knew very little about the nation.
The learning process began sooner than I expected. After stepping off the plane at the Jakarta airport, I proceeded to the bathroom. Alas, being unfamiliar with the ways of the Indonesian toilet, I pulled the wrong lever. This triggered a jet-like spray that saturated the upper right leg of my pants.
In the fraction of a second that the spray moved into position, I had just enough time to realise, but not prevent, the impending drenching. It was like that moment Coyote realises that he has run over a cliff and thinks uh oh.
Undeterred by my soaking pants, I stood up tall and proceeded forth for more profound cultural learnings.
Alas, Indonesia rarely enters public discussion in Australia outside conflict or disaster. Go into a mid-sized Australian book store and you’ll typically find a dozen books on Asia. They’ll be China, India, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and… nol on Indonesia.
The lack of knowledge about Indonesia in Australia is strange. It’s our closest neighbour, and the fourth largest country on earth. It is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Its economy is showing impressive growth. Australia’s economic and strategic future is profoundly connected to Indonesia.
While inexcusable, Australia’s ignorance of Indonesia may be partly understandable. For its size and economic potential, Indonesia has a strangely low profile all over the world:
One reason for the low profile could be that Indonesian migrant groups are not prominent in Western nations. In addition, Indonesia does less trade with the West than do other major Asian countries.
Another reason for the low profile could be that Indonesia, unlike other highly populous nations, is not associated with an easily recognisable branding. When I think about China, India, the USA, or Brazil, national images readily spring to mind. But for Indonesia, until recently, I drew a blank.
I think this absence of branding might be related to the nation’s immense diversity and complexity. Indonesia comprises more than 18,000 islands and is home to an incredible array of indigenous ethnic groups. More than 700 languages are spoken. Depending on definitions, there are up to five levels of government, with immense cultural divergences between regions. It’s hard to compress this diversity into a set of national stereotypes and images (which is a tenuous endeavour for any nation).
It is in our interest for Australians to learn more about Indonesia. As Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen pointed out, Indonesia’s emerging middle class presents a great trading opportunity.
On top of this, developing an understanding of our remarkable neighbours is just a good thing to do. It can enrich our lives and make us more connected to our fellow human beings.
So, in the pursuit of global peace and prosperity, Western Sydney Wonk bravely stands up. Over the coming days, I’ll be blogging on six things Australians can learn about, and from, Indonesia.