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The ties that bind

People-to-people links will strengthen the Indonesia-Australia relationship.
23 October 2013
People-to-people links will strengthen the Indonesia-Australia relationship.

There is no one-size fits all solution to strengthening the Indonesia-Australia relationship. Instead we need to get up front and personal, writes ROSS TAPSELL.

Last week 30 select young delegates from Indonesia and Australia met at The Australian National University in Canberra to discuss the two countries’ relationship as part of the inaugural Conference of Australia and Indonesia Youth (CAUSINDY).  

The aim of the conference was to provide an avenue for dialogue which has not been readily available previously and an opportunity for youth to work together in building a stronger relationship.

That no one overarching issue dominated CAUSINDY might seem like an obvious statement; but it’s well worth reflecting upon.

In the history of Australia-Indonesia relations, one issue or event has usually been salient – be it Confrontation, The White Australia policy, East Timor, or terrorism (to name a few).  Previous bilateral conferences would have discussed these issues with the underlying fear of rapidly deteriorating bilateral relations, perhaps even future conflict.

Furthermore, while speakers and delegates spoke openly about the problems confronting Indonesia’s political and judicial system, whether democracy was ‘working’ in Indonesia was not in question, as it might have been 10 years ago. What was more in question was why recent surveys find that many Australians still don’t recognise Indonesia as a democracy.

Even the recently controversial topic of asylum seekers did not dominate the four days, suggesting that now that the Australian election is over, the issue will hopefully be less politicised, and the two governments can work sensibly together in addressing the complexities of the issue in the region.

Of course, it is likely that ‘hot’ issues will again dominate news headlines regarding the two nations in the near future. Many speakers and delegates commented on mainstream media coverage of each other, which can often be inaccurate, under-representative of certain views, or doesn't provide adequate context.

This argument, of course, is not new. Indonesia specialists have been saying this since the 1950s, and respective governments have been arguing this more directly since the 1970s. But the lack of a distinct political or security problem suggests now is a great opportunity for the two countries to suggest bold ideas and new initiatives.

For many delegates a key question was how does Indonesia benefit from having close relations with Australia? When I raised the issue that very few Australians or Indonesians learn anything about each other in schools, Australians pointed to support for increased content about Indonesia in Australian schools, like the ‘Asian Century’ white paper; the BRIDGE program linking Indonesian and Australian schools; and the new national, cross-curriculum priority, ‘Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia’. For the Indonesians, the idea of even minimal Australian content into their school curriculum was seen as highly unlikely, and largely impossible. Does this tell us something?

One clear benefit for the Indonesian delegates was the opportunity to undertake tertiary education in Australia, and this has gone a long way in presenting positive views of Australia in Indonesia. The Indonesians are incredibly gracious and thankful of the knowledge and skills they have acquired from their degree, and from living in Australia for a number of years.

While these delegates were the cream of the crop, it is worth noting that over 17,000 Indonesian students currently study in Australia. This is a huge part of Australia’s ‘second track diplomacy’ with Indonesia. As one Indonesian delegate pointed out, Australia is an attractive destination for Indonesians to study because we are close, but Singapore and Malaysia are closer.

As Indonesia becomes more important as a ‘rising power’ in the region, and as universities elsewhere in Asia also see the financial benefit in the growing Indonesian middle class able to afford overseas tertiary education, let’s hope Australia remains a high priority destination for Indonesian students. A good relationship depends on it. It also gives weight to the new ‘Reverse Colombo Plan’ to encourage more Australians to spend time studying in Indonesia, and ensure that these interactions occur on both sides. 

If there was one overarching theme of the conference, it was of the importance of ‘people-to-people relations’ (a term used by both governments since the mid-1990s); not only personally for the delegates and speakers from both countries, but for the benefit of the two nations as a whole. We need to keep them going, and build more opportunities for personal interactions between the two nations at numerous levels of society.

There was no grand or urgent initiative to be implemented from the conference. In my opinion, this suggests that rather than searching for a ‘one-size fits all’ solution to improve the relationship, what is needed is the blossoming and developing of hundreds more (or thousands more!) programs, initiatives and exchanges in business, trade, education, employment, government, language, media and the arts.

While a serious issue in Australia is addressing the demand side for Indonesian studies and languages, there is little doubt that people-to-people links help further demand, if only on a relatively small scale. Expand and give long-term funding to these programs, internships and opportunities (and I would argue, increase content in each other’s education systems) and the demand will eventually increase. 

Dr Ross Tapsell, an Indonesia specialist and lecturer at the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, was a delegate at CAUSINDY 2013.

The wide-ranging conference covering trade, education, business, security, culture, media and politics ran from 17-20 October, with support from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. You can read summary tweets from the conference at #causindy.



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