Australia's cultural insensitivity alienates neighbours

Australia's cultural insensitivity alienates neighbours

Canberra really needs to contemplate whether it has the sufficient intellectual and cultural competence to understand, communicate and respectfully engage with Indonesian sensibilities and preferences on a wide range of international issues.

The issue is important because it carries significant implications for Australia’s future dealings with Indonesia in particular and Asia in general.

The Australian barrage of cringe-worthy diplomatic blunders concerning the latest round of executions might not have happened had Australian intellectuals provided their politicians with sufficient context-rich and timely advice. I have argued before that public intellectuals in the West consider themselves "lion tamers armed with sturdy chairs and strong whips", but intellectuals in Asia are more convinced that "gently blowing the harmless flute seems to be the preferred method in persuading a deadly poisonous snake to dance to the rhythm" (The Jakarta Post, July 15, 2010).

Western culture values debate as an impassioned and whole-hearted form of discussion, while Indonesian culture views it as a failure to discuss matters in a civilised manner, a breach of politeness and a breakdown in communication. Australian experts debating the effectiveness of capital punishment or pointing out that Joko Widodo and his inner circle of advisers have "gotten the numbers all wrong" is writing from a "debating" Australian standpoint. Proving that someone is wrong does not necessarily mean that they have been persuaded to your point of view – it often results in the exact opposite.

Australia’s problem is not about the lack of intellectuals per se, but the lack of certain types of intellectuals. Half-bred Indonesian generalists — those who have studied democratic politics, human rights, Western political thought, European diplomacy, "American" security, and other forms of the liberal craft prior to commenting on Indonesian politics — are a dime a dozen. These half-bred Indonesian generalists tend to offer "ready-made" explanations of Indonesian misbehaviour in generous quantity, but tend to judge Indonesia in a negative light as it is always falling short of their (unrealistic) expectations and ideals.

At the same time, they lack cultural creativity and often suffer from a Tourette-like syndrome of offering instant "microwaveable" liberal policy advice, such as imposing economic sanctions, redirecting aid policies and dealing out human rights condemnations — often times without even looking into and seriously considering the complexity of the problem being faced.

In contrast, full-bred Indonesianists — those who have studied, appreciated, lived and immersed themselves in Indonesian history, culture, linguistics and society prior to commenting on Indonesian politics — are nearly extinct in the majority of Australian campuses and policy research centres.

In the very rare cases that they do exist, they are either too old to actively court a rapidly changing public opinion or entirely unable to produce any intellectual offspring to take on their mantle. These full-bred Indonesianists tend to have a stronger apologetic bias towards Indonesian behaviour, but are also more capable of understanding motivations, considerations, contexts, and social meanings surrounding Indonesian actions — making them well-equipped in predicting potential diplomatic and public responses from their Indonesian counterparts.

If Australia cannot even understand and interact with Indonesia in a respectful manner, it should not be daydreaming that it can engage meaningfully with Northeast Asia, a region armed to the teeth and riddled with "courteous hostilities", where a rising China, a nervous Taiwan, a "prepared" Japan, a nuclear North Korea and a "unification-aspiring" South Korea are all still imposing capital punishment.

In Southeast Asia, eight of 10 Asean member states have the death penalty and will second Indonesia’s view that Australia’s breach of "non-intervention" — the most cherished of all regional norms — had been distasteful, disrespectful and entirely uncalled for.

The fact that Filipina Mary Jane Veloso embodied the symbolic cultural representation of your everyday Indonesian maid trying to find work abroad — victimised, abused and criminalised — had contributed greatly in gaining her widespread sympathy throughout Indonesia. However, in my opinion, it was Filipino President Benigno Aquino’s tactful diplomacy and the Filipino public’s considerate pleas that managed to gently guide Mr Widodo’s hand to provide a temporary reprieve — and hopefully clemency soon.

President Aquino skillfully chose the Asean Summit as his venue for a request concerning "a certain Asean citizen" and did so in a discreet manner — in stark contrast to Australia’s "shirtfronting" politics and megaphone criticisms in the media. The request of President Aquino and the Filipino public remained largely void of moral condemnations against Indonesia and was not positioned as a "demand from above", made from a superior moral high ground — as opposed to Australian tirades of "barbaric Indonesia", "corrupt Indonesian justice", "ungrateful Indonesians" and "weak Jokowi leadership".

Most importantly, the manner in which Mr Aquino lobbied Indonesia was culturally sensitive and provided Mr Widodo the option of being the hero — an opportunity denied when Australian efforts targeted Mr Widodo’s international image and forced him into a political cul-de-sac.

In the Middle East, Indonesia is indeed actively trying to rescue its migrant workers from the death penalty. However, in stark contrast to Australian diplomacy, Indonesian advocacy is done in a respectful manner, neither condemning nor retaliating when executions have to be carried out and, most importantly, Jakarta would never allow Saudi Arabia to lose face domestically as well as internationally over the issue. In 2014, the fact that Indonesia paid the customary "blood money" (diyat) to save Satinah binti Jumadi Ahmad, an Indonesian on death row, supports the argument that Indonesian diplomatic efforts are tailored towards — and not against — local cultural practices, preferences and values.

So-called Australian experts accusing Iendonesia of being "hypocritical" failed to see — let alone understand — the subtle cultural dimension of Asian diplomacy and values, because they lack the most basic cultural senses, faculties and aptitude required to do so. Again, Canberra needs to raise the question of whether it has the sufficient intellectual and cultural competence to understand, communicate and engage with the sensibilities and preferences of Indonesia as well as other regional powers in Asia on a wide range of international issues.


Pierre Marthinus is executive director for the Marthinus Academy in Jakarta.

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