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When Australians went to the polls in 2013, they were offered a stronger relationship with Indonesia. It was said the coalition’s foreign policy would be ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’; focused on the concerns of our region rather than diplomacy in distant capitals. It was a catchy slogan, to be sure, but as a pledge, it did not fit easily with another plank of the campaign. If elected, opposition leader Tony Abbott also committed that his government would ‘turn back the boats’ stating that asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia were not welcome here.

These sound bites were short and well-suited for an election campaign but contradictory. Australians, he judged, were fed up with the tens of thousands of asylum seekers ‘jumping the queue’ and supported a muscular military-style response. But behind the second catchphrase were some big assumptions. It was an Australian solution to a regional problem; we could go it alone. It would turn our problem into Indonesia’s; it presumed they would accept this. And, if it worked, it was worth betting that the relationship with Jakarta would not go down with the ship. It is too early to assess whether Operation Sovereign Borders has arrested the flow of people sailing illegally to Australia. But the effect of this approach on Australia’s relationship with its large neighbour to the north is already becoming evident.

After announcing this war on illegal immigrants, the relationship began to suffer collateral damage during the election campaign. Nobody foresaw the stealth attack that had already been launched from across the Pacific, when an everyman contractor fled from another set of islands seeking asylum. In May 2013, Edward Snowden, a computer specialist at the US National Security Council (NSC) walked out of his office in Hawaii with the agency’s secrets and fled to Hong Kong. He was eventually given sanctuary in Russia. The shock wave took time to bounce back into our region but by October, after the new government took power, it was out that Australia had for years been spying on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his inner circle, and even SBY’s wife. The Australian Signals Directorate was rather good at it and had all their mobile numbers. Under a long-standing cooperative arrangement called ‘Five Eyes’, the intelligence gathered was shared with allies, including the NSC. The unexpected turn was that Snowden’s data dump passed this secret on to the whole world. Of course, Washington was doing the same, even tapping the mobile of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but once caught, President Barack Obama quickly apologised to the German leader.

Abbott, now prime minister, took a different tack. He was slow to personally reach out to SBY and reluctant to publicly express any contrition for doing what he believed was in the national interest. In Indonesian eyes, his arrogance compounded the offence. Reluctant to call his counterpart on his bugged Nokia, Abbott instead used the megaphone of question time to express what was seen in Jakarta as defiance rather than regret. An angry response from @SBYudhoyono came via Twitter. Already destabilised by the boats policy, this is the moment Australia’s relationship with Indonesia started to look unseaworthy. The Indonesian president had been one of Australia’s best friends. The goal posts were now moving and politicians in Canberra couldn’t immediately see it.

For the Americans, on whose behalf Australia had been snooping, it has been more or less business as usual. The apologies, contrition, and bland commitments to review their surveillance procedures seem to have worked. In February 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry signed new agreements for cooperation in the Indonesian capital. He was later lauded by his opposite number, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who used their joint press opportunity to lash an unrepentant Australia. Once again, the Prime Minister had sent a message to Jakarta through the media, professing Australia collected intelligence only to benefit friends, save lives and uphold its values. It was ‘mind boggling’, the ANU-educated Natalegawa said, that Canberra’s spooks listened in to talks about a trade dispute with Washington over shrimp. In Jakarta, official ties with Australia are on ice at least until the new Indonesian president takes office in October.

Australia then made complicated international diplomacy even more contorted, adding irony and hypocrisy. Operation Sovereign Borders, designed to protect Australia’s territory, had violated Indonesia’s. The navy and customs vessels sent to push back those boats had gone too far, repeatedly crossing Indonesia’s maritime boundaries. Professing to be an innocent but unequivocal mistake under international law, this time Australia was ready to perform diplomatic gymnastics. Serial apologies were made in public and private by ministers, diplomats, and military chiefs.

The episodic nature of this relationship is a familiar tale. It has been this way ever since Australia supported Indonesia’s independence in the 1940s, destabilised at times by konfrontasi, corruption, media reporting, East Timor, and Papuan asylum seekers. Fortunately, our soldiers are not pointing guns at each other like in Malaysia in the 1960s or Timor in the 1990s. This is not Crimea and nobody is armed and on battle alert. For the next few months, Indonesia will be too distracted by going to the polls in one of the world’s largest elections. Meanwhile, all kinds of exchanges with Australia can wait for the new president to take office in October.


In December 1991, the Australian government sent me to shit in an Indonesian river. It was called a cultural exchange. From the perspective of the rice farming families of the isolated Sumatran village, we stayed briefly, and then floated downstream to work in the provincial capital. For a month we were entertaining and a distraction; we sung a few songs and dug some holes. When we left, they never expected to see us again.

That year, there were thirty-two of us sent to Pungut Hilir village by the Australian–Indonesian Youth Exchange Programme (AIYEP), equal parts Australian and Indonesian; men and women. Our stay in this village was not necessarily meant to benefit the community. Through the shared endeavour of its youth, our governments were playing a long game. They were trying to lay the foundation for greater understanding and better bilateral relations between our two countries.

Typical for the group, I was middle class, university educated, and a city dweller. Most were still students, but I was a 25-year-old reporter for the Australian, living in Adelaide, and one of its oldest members. Thrown together with minimal prep, we had to quickly learn to get along with our compatriots, Indonesian counterparts, and the villagers.

In 1991, as now, bilateral relations were going through an episodic rough patch. On 12 November, less than a month before we arrived, the Santa Cruz massacre took place in Dili, East Timor, the forcibly integrated 27th province 4,000 km to the east. Television brought it much closer.

‘Why are Australians burning the sacred Red and White?’ The clerk in Jambi’s main post office was angry about the desecration of his flag. Censorship meant he saw only what the state-run television station ran about the ‘Santa Cruz incident’. The station reported there were nineteen confirmed deaths and fifty-six missing. (In 1993 a Portuguese NGO report would publish the names of 271 dead, 382 wounded and 250 missing.) Australians considered flag burning a legitimate form of protest; Indonesians saw it very differently.

A simple saying that I had learned days earlier from an Australian colleague with an Indonesian mother defused the situation: Lain lubuk, lain ikannya. Different pond, different fish. In the Indonesian archipelago it was used to explain that each region had its own customs or rules. This was the first of many times that I deployed it. We were different countries and different people; always destined to be so.

Face to face the agitated postal clerk saw I was not a flag-burning ogre. Yes, I was very different; a young white man from a rich country that had deeply offended him. But I spoke his language well enough to appreciate this expression. This calmed him down and brought him back to the moment. I was there to send a letter to my mother. He sold me the stamps and postmarked the letter with a thump.

That evening we left the capital Jambi and were transported to another world. In one bus ride we went from a bustling regional city to a village with no electricity, television, or newspapers. Annotated Catholic Weekly editorials diligently sent by my mother were the only newsprint I handled that month. Uncensored foreign news arrived via Radio Australia on my shortwave set.

After a fourteen-hour overnight bus journey, we had stepped into Pungut Hilir’s mud wearing our green striped Country Road shirts and dress moccasins. It was mid-morning and still hot, even though we were now in the highlands at more than a thousand metres. Nestled in between the mountains, the rice paddies were luminous, the hillside jungle the same British racing green of our pants and skirts. It could have been on a postcard. We carried our bags the last few hundred metres up the dirt road because the ageing bridge could not bear the weight of our bus.


The river was the lifeblood of this village and wound down the wide green valley from the foothills around Mount Kerinci into the lake of the same name. This waterway provided our drinking water and became our bath, laundry, swimming pool, and toilet.

For us this was a problem waiting to be solved. We thought we would try to do some good by providing the village with new sources of clean drinking water. We tapped a small stream on the western side of the village and piped it to a distribution point near the school. This was to serve all the village children as well as those whose houses were farthest from the river. We dug a well next to the village mosque in the centre of the village. Our logic dictated that we were aiding the common good and helping those parts of the village least served by the Pungut River.

The location of these projects was decided collectively by the Australian and Indonesian teams and in consultation with the village chief, who lived across the road from the school. In making a choice that we thought made sense, we caused a muted uproar. Soon the word came from the chief that we needed to add another project to our list, even though time and money were running out. We had offended those living on the other side of the river, including my host family, who felt they were being neglected. We reasoned that they had the river, which we knew they were using every day, but in their eyes we were promoting greater inequality by favouring one hamlet over another. After consultation, we quickly found a site for another well on the eastern bank of the river – about a metre from its rapids.

In the meantime we had to adapt to using the river as our communal bathroom. It brought us together several times a day; women upstream, men downstream to wash, urinate, and defecate. It was fast flowing after it rained and whatever floated by came and went quickly. One day an Australian woman who was not paying enough attention had a pair of jeans washed away.

Copying the locals, I had my technique. In the village men typically wore or carried a cotton sarong sown into a tube. Mine was purple and white tartan and could be slung around my neck until needed. At night, it was a blanket; on a cool morning a shawl wrapped around my shoulders; on a rainy day, a poncho. If I had to pergi belakang, literally go behind, I wore it to the river as a Scotsman wears his kilt. Crouching on a boulder midstream, I would inch the cloth up over my body like a shell. As I squatted, facing upstream, only my bare bottom would be exposed. It felt like I was creating my own personal outhouse, except everyone could watch. The river was an open and public space, residents could discreetly watch you defecate or wash from halfway across the village. I could hear them laugh when one of us fell in.

While we met at the river as equals, it was not always a place of cultural harmony. I have pictures of the Australian men, including myself, playing in the water wearing nothing but Speedos. Budgie smugglers are, according to one Australian government website, an example of our ‘national dress’. Years later, I asked an Indonesian participant if we had caused offensive by wearing them? ‘Yeah,’ he replied. We were blissfully ignorant of our cultural faux pas. But our biggest mistake had more to do with Santa Claus than our swimmers.

Christmas Day is a public holiday and we had the day off. A bus was hired to take us to a nearby waterfall. The day started well enough and of the few pictures I have from that day one shows us smiling together during a walk in the tea plantations, but dark clouds of our making would soon roll in. Away from home at a time that Australians come together with their families, we purchased soft drinks and lollies and planned a party to which the Indonesian participants were not invited. ‘We had helped carry the drinks but weren’t allowed to enjoy them,’ one participant told me years later. No one remembers why we cut them out but we all recall it caused great offence. Our counterparts are conspicuously absent from the only picture I have of the lunch itself. Many Indonesians take the ideology of religious tolerance very seriously and turned this back on us. ‘Just because someone is not Christian, they still could have attended a Christmas lunch,’ one participant told me years later. ‘It would have been a good opportunity to understand Indonesia’s tolerance towards religion, but it was lost.’

There was much finger pointing as the Australian contingent’s leader was blamed for the miscommunication. As the waterfall thundered, we spent much of the time in the park in silence; the Indonesians aggrieved and trying not to talk to their Australian counterparts. It ruined the day for Christians and Muslims alike. Of course, we’re all smiling in the pictures taken on that day but nobody remembers it as a highlight.

We had to go back on the bus together again at the end of the day. The Australians apologised. ‘The leaders agreed to move on,’ my friend recalled. The show had to go on. We had a number of joint cultural performances to conduct in coming weeks. This would include singing Ayo Berjalan, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in Indonesian, to more farmers, school children, and even the governor. It was a turning point for the participants, communications improved, and we continued to work together (and sing in harmony). We left the village a few days later to spend another month working in the provincial capital. After a short stopover in Bali on my way home, I returned to Australia, already pining to go back.


In 1994, I took leave without pay from the Australian, finished my masters in Asian Studies, posted my thesis from the airport, and moved to Indonesia. I went back to Pungut Hilir just once, in August 1998. I had just finished reporting for Reuters the Asian Financial Crisis, the slow downfall of Soeharto, and the violence that preceded his resignation. It had left me embittered and disillusioned. I was on a journey across Sumatra trying to remember why I liked Indonesia in the first place. I had met my American fiancée in Jakarta and was about to migrate to the US to get married. I thought with this trip I was saying goodbye, but Indonesia and I would never part. I have been working in or on the country ever since, including being an advisor to the UN Secretary-General on it during the 1999 East Timor referendum.

As a wire reporter, tallying the nation’s violent deaths from 1994–98 took its toll. I had spent more time in morgues than I wanted; counting hundreds of sometimes charred and contorted victims. I was haunted and burnt out. I was probably suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I did not sleep well, was irritable, overweight, drank too much, and thought constantly about those grotesque images. Sometimes, in the grip of insomnia I would quietly sob to myself in the middle of the night. I should have sought professional help but did not. Returning to the village was an attempt at self-medication.

Ramli, the village chief remembered me by name, but our limited physical impact had been erased. The wells we dug had been built over by the Department of Public Works, which constructed concrete water tanks and a toilet block complete with porcelain toilet seats. Of its four water tanks I counted, only one was still functioning. No one was using the toilets. ‘Why bother, when the river’s right there?’ Ramli’s son asked. Each cubicle had a door that would have put us out of range of the villagers’ eyes. Maybe after all this time, the lesson was still lain lubuk, lain ikannya.


I have been thinking again about Pungut Hilir as I ponder the state of Indonesian–Australian relations today, as tension-filled as that microcosm of the bust up on the Christmas Day bus, but with consequences much more far-reaching. Misunderstandings and misperceptions are everywhere, and they have been exacerbated in both countries by election-year politics. Indonesians will vote on 9 April in parliamentary elections, then in July for their new president, and some candidates will play the nationalist, anti-foreigner card to win votes. In the leadup to the Australian election in September 2013, the Coalition was doing the same thing: its public policies toward Indonesia were designed for domestic consumption, not good foreign relations. From where I sat in my office in downtown Jakarta, a mega-city with a population equal to that of Australia, they looked ludicrous.

The slogan of ‘pushing back the boats’ may have helped Tony Abbott win office but it was always going to be a recipe for a sour relationship. The tone was patronising and the policy proposals were delivered in an unapologetic take-it-or-leave-it way that the election demanded, even when the ideas were unworkable. Scott Morrison’s notion of buying up old Indonesian fishing boats was an improbable idea that would only have led to a new industry in coastal towns of manufacturing fake antique vessels.

Illegal migration will be difficult to solve, especially when Indonesian politicians care much less about it than ours do. Asymmetry is everywhere in the relationship, including on this issue. A pig-headed Australian approach is ill-matched with a foreign policy that promised to ‘build stronger relations with our neighbours’. Knowing what we do now, the opposition’s foreign policy manifesto makes for ironic reading. ‘The Coalition’s plan to resume control of our borders will help restore the good relationship with Indonesia that Australia previously enjoyed’, it said. In practice, it has bypassed the many long-term interests we have with our nearest neighbour, which the document also lists, in the rush to get a quick fix for a domestic audience.

It will be even harder to find common ground now that Indonesia is distracted by its ‘festival of democracy’ as they call their elections, where appeals to local concerns will also carry the day. Presidents are directly elected and the votes of the hundreds of thousands of rural poor who live in villages just like the one I stayed in twenty-odd years ago.

What Indonesian voters want is not leaders who will stop illegal immigration or promote rule of law, but cheap fuel and food, free health care, and teachers who turn up for work and don’t ask for money to hand out report cards. They long for a government they can trust to get these results without politicians lining their own pockets too much.

Indonesians are not scared of illegal migrants because the numbers of Afghanis, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans transiting to Australia is insignificant to a country of more than 240 million people. They are not much of an economic or social burden, especially as Canberra provides generous funding to international agencies to try to ensure that they stay in Indonesia and don’t continue their journey. While many are arrested for illegal entry, others are easily ignored, fading easily into this already multi-ethnic population.

Among Indonesians, there may even be support for keeping its vast watery borders porous. The same corrupt officials who pop up on the 7:30 Report’s hidden cameras also turn a blind eye to illegal arrivals for a fee, or who, in some cases, work out deals with the smugglers, also facilitate the transit of undocumented Indonesian migrants to Malaysia to share in that country’s greater prosperity. This ebb and flow is a valve relieving pressure on Indonesia’s vast under-employment problem. The Malaysian economy is dependent on a constant supply of cheap and undocumented workers from around the region to do the nation’s menial jobs and wash its dirty laundry. Neither country shares the Australian understanding of ‘the problem’.

Setting aside Australia’s legal obligations and whether pushing the boats back will actually solve this complex problem, the current policy has long-term implications for Australian–Indonesian relations. The Abbott government seems to have abandoned the idea that illegal migration is a shared challenge that can be managed together. We have given up on Indonesia. When combined with the diplomatic freeze after Australia was caught spying, we have stopped working effectively together to resolve even those many challenges that we do have in common in the fields of education, health, investment, law enforcement, terrorism, and trade. This is hard work and extends beyond the life of any one government.

The bilateral relationship is not just in the hands of our prime minister and diplomats; it belongs to all of us. However, the PM does speak with the loudest voice and his tone matters. The brusque rules of Australian politics do not apply in Indonesia where legislators don’t get the chance to toss questions at the president across the floor of the house. What looks like firmness in Canberra is seen as arrogance in Jakarta. Being resolute in one country is inflexibility in the other. Speaking openly in parliament about relations with another leader is regarded as crude megaphone diplomacy in South-East Asia.


AIYEP is still going after thirty-two years and was back in Sumatra over the summer. My village education taught me early on how Indonesians manage conflict and how our logic looks through their eyes. It is not a lesson learnt from a holiday in Bali and it is a subtlety lost on politicians seemingly determined not to be seen kowtowing to Indonesia. I watch with embarrassment and regret the unhelpful lack of humility that is often found in public debate around what the PM describes, amazingly, as ‘Australia’s single most important relationship’. We expect Indonesians to think like us but they do not.

Indonesia will always be bigger than Australia. The momentum of economics in the Asian Century means that as the region grows, its elite increasingly believe they need Australia less in the future than we need them, their strategic place and weight will forever be greater than ours. They may be right. Does the Prime Minister understand the asymmetry in the relationship? I am not convinced.

Tony Abbott and I once worked for the same newspaper, but mostly in different cities and we never spoke during this brief overlap. I once sat in an adjacent cubicle and listened to his side of telephone calls in his booming voice. These days he is my local member as well as Prime Minister; I see him only on television. But as I watch his fiery words and diplomatic stumbles, I recall my days in Pungut Hilir. It feels as if the PM is shitting in the river now. And those of us with long-term relationships and who work, live, and play in Indonesia are the ones stuck downstream.

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