Last week, in two separate incidents, two Australian men were arrested in Indonesia. In Aceh province, a young man was arrested after allegedly running naked through a village, chasing and striking members of the community. The second man was arrested after an incident in West Java where he allegedly spat in the face of a local imam. Both alleged incidents would be highly confronting and intolerable to conservative and religious communities – although to be frank, the alleged behavior would be confronting anywhere.
People behaving badly in neighboring countries is not uncommon – the Dutch are currently trying to discourage young British men from coming to Amsterdam due to continually poor behavior. Yet the cultural gap between Australia and Indonesia has the potential to lead to perceptions that unruly behavior is more than just the acts of reckless individuals. These individual actions instead could be considered cultural traits, and how the broader public within countries perceive their neighbors is just as important to their relations as how their political elites interact.
Tourism has an ambassadorial element. When outside of your own country, you may not be officially representing your state, but you are in many ways representing your nation. Poor conduct by tourists can have a major influence on how locals perceive Australians. While Australians have long made Bali their tropical destination of choice, and the Balinese are now well-accustomed to their antics, provinces such as Aceh – where alcohol is banned entirely and Shariah exists alongside provincial law – are likely to be less understanding, and potentially less forgiving.
While these two alleged incidents are extreme cases, they speak to the wider perpetual problem of Australia’s foreign policy – no two neighbors are as culturally distinct as Australia and Indonesia, yet, arguably, no relationship is more important to Canberra. An intimate, cooperative, and trusting relationship with Indonesia reaps a massive security dividend for Australia. While Indonesia hasn’t yet emerged as a major security player in the region, its trajectory as a major Indo-Pacific power in the coming decades is assured.
This growth and power enhancement also presents Australia with considerable economic opportunities. Australia is quite unique in not having a considerable trading relationship with its near neighbors. With Indonesia being the world’s fourth largest country by population, this is especially odd. Part of this is a lack of economic compatibility, but another part is the lack of knowledge and will within Australia to engage Indonesia.
However, in recent decades the Australian government has made a considerable effort to enhance its diplomatic relationship with Indonesia. At the governmental level the relationship is as durable as it has ever been. Security cooperation is strengthening; Australia is assisting in Indonesia’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as investing significantly in infrastructure improvements within Indonesia. It is now customary for incoming Australian prime ministers to visit Jakarta as their first bilateral international visit.
Yet this elite cooperation is not built on a solid platform of knowledge and understanding of Indonesia within Australia. A recent report from the Asian Studies Association of Australia titled “Australia’s Asia Education Imperative” argues that there is no coordinated national strategy within Australia to enhance the country’s understanding of its region. That there is a disconnect between what the Australian government states are its strategic interests and the inconsistency and inaction of its policy toward great Asian literacy.
Although Australia has become a far more Asian country demographically, this hasn’t translated into an education system that embeds language-learning and cultural literacy through its primary, secondary, and higher tiers. Voluntary demand for language-learning has become focused on the Northeast Asian languages of Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean, rather than Indonesian.
This makes Australia heavily reliant on its diaspora communities for engagement in its immediate neighborhood. Diaspora communities are undoubtedly a major asset in this regard, but there is a pressing need for the rest of the country to step up in order to enhance regional capabilities. As the Indonesian diaspora in Australia is relatively small, it is more difficult for Australia to be reliant on this community for cultural and economic facilitation.
Australia’s strategic interests are greater in Indonesia than Indonesia’s strategic interests are in Australia. This means that the effort of cultural bridge-building is more important for Australia. There is enormous goodwill to be gained for Australia to be seen as making the effort to become more engaged culturally with Indonesia. This is especially important as Indonesia’s power rises.
But critically this would mean that Australians would have a greater understanding and respect for Indonesia’s cultural norms – especially the differences throughout its regions – while traveling within the country. Unfortunately, poor behavior is unlikely to be eradicated, but an Australian public that is more culturally literate, aware, and capable within Indonesia may lead to it being minimized. An Australia that can engage culturally with Indonesia can also counter the perception that poorly behaved individuals are reflective of the wider Australian culture.