*This article expresses the author’s personal opinion
Being an Indonesian and actively involved in various Australia-based programs, not only GoLive Indonesia, Indonesia Diaspora Network South Australia but also several agricultural research projects, focussing on Indonesia and Indonesian communities, seeing any damage in the Indonesia-Australia relationship has always been a personal and disappointing experience for me.
The two countries have so many things to offer, if they can work cooperatively. They are neighbours and in many sectors they are complementary. Yet, predicting the future of bilateral relationships between Indonesia and Australia is as difficult as predicting the stock market. We can learn the long-run trends but uncertainty remains high.
In the midst of this uneasy situation, being an outsider to the policy maker group many people including Indonesian students living in Australia ask themselves “what can and what should we do; what do we expect from both governments?”. I asked myself the same questions on Tuesday 19 November 2013 when the spying controversy became a headline news.
It was also that day when I and my two Indonesian colleagues, including the President of Indonesian Student Association in South Australia, visited Canberra and co-organised the 2013 PhD conference in Indonesia and development studies collaborating with Indonesia Synergy and Indonesian Student Association (PPIA) ACT.
The PhD conference was indeed a celebration of research showcasing research in various fields conducted by some of the best Indonesian research students in Australia. It was easy to feel how the research and education sector has connected Australian and Indonesian researchers. Some Indonesian researchers work in Australia; many Australian researchers supervise Indonesian students; and many other forms of relationships.
I think Indonesia-Australia people to people relationships are strong although there is always room for improvement.
Remembering Australia in the Asian century white paper and my discussions with several Indonesian government officials earlier this year, it took me sometime to understand the assumption that both governments seemed to adopt at that time: Indonesia and Australia’s Government to Government (G-to-G) relationships are strong, whilst our people-to-people relationships require massive improvement.
I thought it’s the other way around. I still do.
Regardless, as argued by Kusumohamidjojo (1986) in an article published by ‘Australian outlook’ over thirty years ago but still relevant, many problems between Indonesia and Australia are considered to be either the results of unfortunate misunderstandings and misperceptions, or objective differences between their governments and their people.
The spying controversy is not a result of misunderstandings and misperceptions. It is a misconduct. It is a mistake. When we make a mistake, we ask for an apology. It is therefore hard to see and even harder to believe that the Australian government, particularly the prime minister Tony Abbott, refused to say sorry.
I question myself whether the G to G relationship is not built based on a strong people to people relationship. Would the problem be different if people at top positions had personal connection with Indonesia?
We all understand that saying sorry does not necessarily mean solving all problems. But at least it is the first step required to demonstrate how we realise our mistake before moving forward.
Being part of the Indonesian community in Australia, I can only hope that governments in both countries especially the Australian government appreciate more Australians and Indonesians’ effort to build relationships between two countries by thinking more sensibly and taking more into account the disastrous impacts that this scandal could create.
As much as we want to believe that this political tension would not affect business, economics and other sector partnerships, we know it does and will get even worse if the Australian government maintains its attitude.
This is not about asking an apology. It is about admitting a mistake before moving forward. It is what my six year old son does: he makes a mistake; he is being punished by sitting in the ‘naughty’ chair; then he realises why I ask him to sit there and promises not to do again before he can play again.
For Indonesians and Australians, in the period when Indonesia-Australia’s G to G relationship is weak, the two countries’ relationships will be reliant on us. We should continue to build and improve our connection based on mutual benefits and most importantly, respect, and still be optimistic.
*Risti Permani is a research fellow at Global Food Studies, University of Adelaide. She calls Bogor and Adelaide home.