Take an interest in Indonesia - the rest will come

Take an interest in Indonesia - the rest will come
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By ABC's Catherine McGrath

Australia is realising it needs to do more to engage with Indonesia, but is let down by a lack of cultural understanding. To change this, we must first take an interest, writes Catherine McGrath.

It's been a light bulb moment... or perhaps a series of light bulbs.

Australia is realising it can and wants to do more with Indonesia. During his trip to Jakarta and Bogor, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd emphasised that Australian business isn't doing enough to engage Indonesia.

"In two-way investment, Indonesia remains outside of Australia's top 10 partners," he said. "We do not need to look far to find opportunities to do better."

Rudd says if he wins the election, he will lead a business delegation to Indonesia by the end of the year.

"I want Australia's best and brightest business minds engaging directly with their counterparts and making sure we fully unlock the potential of what is on offer."

It raises the question of why Australia hasn't made this sort of effort before.

Indonesia's economy is the 16th largest in the world and by 2030, it will be the seventh largest, surpassing Germany and the UK.

Rudd suggests that if Australian business doesn't hurry, we are the ones who will miss out, noting that today Indonesia has "more billionaires than Japan, and more per capita than India or China".

Sometimes Australians forget that Indonesia isn't just our neighbour; it is the 4th most populous nation in the world.

The Q&A program from Jakarta last week has probably done more in one hour than a series of diplomats and politicians would have been able to do in illustrating to an Australian audience that this is a fascinating country with a diverse and well educated population.

The panel members were eloquent, entertaining and enlightened. Indonesians can be warm and engaging and have strong opinions too.

Yenny Wahid, an Islamic activist and daughter of late former president Abdurrahman Wahid, said her country isn't uninterested in Australia, just busy with other priorities.

"We have a lot of things on our table. We have the poverty issue, we've got the corruption issues, we've got so many things, even separatist issues, all sorts of issues that really preoccupy our mind," she said.

"When it comes to neighbours we have got a more sensitive spot that we give to Malaysia and Singapore for example.

"For us, Australia, it is a neighbour you know but except for the East Timor issue people don't really pay attention to Australia."

Jakarta Times editor in chief Meidyatama "Dimas" Suryodiningrat said the gaze of Indonesia isn't towards Australia but towards the north.

"We are always taught to look front up and centre. So it is only natural for Indonesians to look up and that means we don't look at what is behind us, do we."

Australia talks a lot about "Asian engagement". After all, this has been dubbed the Asian century, but it seems that we as a country haven't been prepared to take the first steps.

Business says Australian companies have been too slow to engage in Indonesia, for example; two-way trade stands at only $15 billion.

Mark Laurie from PricewaterhouseCoopers has worked in the region for most of his professional life and says Australia is being left behind.

"A lot of people are not seizing the opportunity of Indonesia. If you compare the number of companies from Australia dealing with Indonesia compared to the level of activity that Germany has with Indonesia, we are well behind in that regard."

This week there are some significant new Australian initiatives, with the launch of the National Asia Capability Centre run by Asialink and based at the universities of Melbourne and New South Wales.

At the launch in Canberra, Trade Minister Richard Marles and experts in the field discussed the lack of focus on Indonesia.

Mark Laurie from PwC says there is a big knowledge gap on Asia: "I think cultural understanding is essential. I believe that comes before language skills. Equally, understanding the history of a country is very important."

Marles said the trade relationship is "underdone", a situation he says he will work to change: "My focus will be on building a stronger trade and investment partnership with Indonesia."

For me, as someone who has worked in south-east Asia and Australia, being "Asia capable" really starts with being "Asia interested", and I believe that is starting to happen in Australia. We need to know more about the societies, the culture, the fashions and even the fads. We need to try and understand our neighbours rather than judge them.

It is no surprise that the Australian news media is more interested in our local news than in regional events. It is the same in Indonesia and elsewhere.

But Australia has to catch up, or otherwise we will be stuck in a time warp.

In the past we have been let down by an education system that hasn't put enough resources into language training. As a result, Bahasa Indonesian is hardly taught in Australia and still too few people speak Mandarin and languages like Thai and Vietnamese.

Our cultural understanding of the neighbourhood is also poor. One of the announcements Kevin Rudd made in Indonesia was to fund the Lowy Institute by $10 million to engage in specialised regional research and dialogue.

It was the Lowy Institute that recently reported that not only did Australians have lukewarm feelings towards Indonesia; the majority of those surveyed didn't know that Indonesia was a democracy.

So with much work to be done, the Lowy Institute plans to launch an "Engaging Asia Project", which will look at a number of Asian countries starting with Indonesia.

At Asialink, courses will be available for company executives, business people, students and others that will start to teach some of the history, customs and social norms of these countries.

So ... you don't have to know much really to get started. The first step is to be interested; the rest will come.

Catherine McGrath is the ABC's Asia Editor. View her full profile here.


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