ICOC Keynote: ‘Telling stories and sharing lives: Fostering connections between Australians and Indonesians’

The following is an edited extract of Dr Jemma Purdey’s Keynote Lecture at the Indonesia Council Open Conference, Flinders University, 3 July 2017

The spirit of this conference is not like any other you will possibly experience. Simply because outside of Indonesia itself, it is very rare to find so many scholars of Indonesia in the one place – sharing exciting research stories, comparing and learning from each other. The Indonesia Council was conceived in the early 2000s by colleagues in Melbourne who recognised the sheer numbers and depth of research on Indonesia in Australia, which warranted a stand-alone gathering outside of the biennial Asian Studies Association of Australia conference. Indeed, ICOC itself is the perfect example for the topic I’ve chosen today to open a conference with the closely related theme ‘Youth, New Media and Everyday Politics’. I think these themes are closely entwined and point toward some of the most exciting pathways to better connections between Australians and Indonesians now and into the future.

There are two types of stories that I think we can and need to tell. The first type are stories where Australians and Indonesians intersect, cross over. These are stories of exchange and within them we can see a conversation emerge around mutuality, values, what is shared and what is different.

The second type, are stories we tell to each other about ourselves. It seems like a simple proposition that we might read, view, receive stories from other cultures and thereby learn about the lives of others. But I think you’ll agree, that to encourage Australians (I cannot speak for Indonesians) to see beyond our Australianness, which itself is overshadowed by the American cultural behemoth, is an extremely difficult thing. Nonetheless, I believe there is a thirst for such stories in Australia and particularly about Indonesia – and I think also in Indonesia about Australia. It remains – for those who dare to take up the challenge – to find the platforms to bring more and more of these stories to each other in ways that attract and excite a broader audience in each country.

For more than a decade now, my research, writing and other project work has been dominated by thinking about and investigating, documenting and in some cases facilitating, interactions between and among Australians and Indonesians. This was not a pathway I planned as such, but I suspect like just about every other Australia-based ‘Indonesia person’, it is an orbit into which we inevitably find ourselves being drawn as commentators or ambassadors, critics or exemplars. As an Indonesianist in Australia, from whatever field, is it impossible to avoid being asked to commentate on the bilateral relationship. As I’ll argue this is very much linked to the reality of a still very shallow reservoir of ‘popular knowledge’ about Indonesia in Australia.

As scholars gathered here at ICOC, be you from the social sciences, physical sciences, humanities and beyond, we are united by a concern to better understand Indonesia’s societies, economies, cultures, politics, physical and social environments and communicating to the world what we learn – telling those stories.

When I was conducting research in Indonesia for my biography of Herb Feith I was so often told that he was ‘more Indonesian than Indonesians’ on the basis of his deep knowledge and insightful analysis of its political culture. It struck me as especially odd that an Austrian-born Jewish Australian could be considered thus. In seeking to understand how this might be so, what I discovered was that it was not so much Herb’s great intellect (though it was considerable), or even his wonderful command of Indonesian (though that was excellent too) but rather his capacity to listen, to let others tell their stories to him and for him to share his stories in return, that saw him develop extraordinary connections, leading to foundations of trust and access that not only facilitated his work in the 1950s and 1960s, but enabled deep and lifelong friendships. What we might also glean from Indonesians’ embrace of Herb is what we can describe as something of a national trait – that of being open to peoples, knowledge, products, religions from outside the archipelago, from around the world.

The story of Herb Feith’s life and particularly his 50 plus years spent immersed in, perhaps even obsessed with, Indonesia, reveals an exemplary case of overcoming cultural, religious, class and national differences between Australians and Indonesians. His is a life celebrated by both nations’ alike as an example for others to follow and as such, his story has now been told in both languages and forms one narrative of this intersection of lives I mentioned, within the story of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

In another study I was involved with a few years ago, we collected over 100 interviews with alumni of Australian government scholarships for tertiary study here dating back to the mid-1950s with the Colombo Plan. This is another exemplary and exceptional group within the Australia-Indonesia relationship, who have experienced an extended period living and studying in Australia, who, when they eventually returned to Indonesia took with them a rare knowledge and understanding of Australian society, our peoples, our politics and our strengths and our weaknesses.

Anyone who has gone on an exchange program of some kind or studied overseas, be it for a year or a few weeks, can attest to the power of sharing daily experiences, interests and conversation to overcome trepidations about the other, born from ignorance, mostly.

And this is the nub of what I am here to talk about today – overcoming ignorance about other cultures, religions, whatever, through telling our stories to each other. Ignorance exists within our own societies as much as it does between different countries, like Australia and Indonesia.

Inside Australia: tackling ignorance

Whilst ignorance in Australia about Indonesia has a long history – long too is the history of Australians and Indonesians working to do something about it. Since the 1950s in Australia, academics, NGO people, volunteers, journalists, and teachers and the Indonesian diaspora through groups like IKAWIRIA and AIA, have organised to educate and improve Australians’ knowledge of Indonesia. We can point to the work of journalists at Radio Australia, the small but passionate contingent of Australian volunteers since the 1950s, teachers of Indonesian language, all telling stories to Australians in various essential ways. On reflection, however, the reality is these stories rarely reach beyond a niche listener or reader and when commentary on Indonesia is heard in a wider forum it is likely to be in response to some or other drama in the bilateral relationship.

We could ask, where are popular representations of Indonesia in Australia as told through film, novels, children’s’ books and so on? We have some examples of this representation in popular forms, as you can see here, but they were few and far from comprehensive or un-coloured by our own nationalistic overtones. The most famous of these is the novel turned film set in the midst of the events of September 1965 and starring Mel Gibson – The Year of Living Dangerously. A very recent addition is the novel Troppo by Australian Madeleine Dickie.  What these fictional accounts have in common is a main protagonist, an Australian caught up in an exotic and somewhat dangerous Asia. We could and should continue this conversation further, and I would love to hear from you in the discussion time, about other examples of Australians depicting Indonesia through popular forms of storytelling. I would also like to hear about any stories in Indonesian popular culture about Australia. What stories do Indonesians have to draw on when they imagine Australia?

For those of us in the business of political and social analysis of Indonesia, over the past decade the digital media age has seen a proliferation of publications offering opportunities for people with a story to tell. This includes a number of online magazines and blogs like Inside Indonesia (originally a print magazine established in 1983), New Mandala, The Conversation, Indonesia at Melbourne blog and the Talking Indonesia podcast among others. But we could also ask, what impact is this growth in these sorts of news and opinion-based publications having on broader social perceptions of Indonesia in Australia?

This conversation is especially immediate in the context of what we are told year after year in the polling of Australian attitudes to Indonesia by the Lowy Institute and others, which consistently reveal that Australia’s ignorance and negativity about Indonesia has not significantly shifted in over thirty years.

Polls tell us that up to a third of Australians don’t know that Bali is a part of Indonesia. In the latest Lowy poll released last week, only 27 percent of respondents agreed that Indonesia is a democracy. This was lower than when the same question was asked a couple of years earlier. At the same time, one million Australians are visiting Indonesia each year (mostly to Bali). A figure that has risen 546% over the past 10 years. We clearly enjoy being in Indonesia, even if we don’t know we’re there! The surveys show that overall general ignorance is the single greatest obstacle to more positive attitudes about Indonesia.

Moreover, historical analysis of decades of attitudinal polling tells us that diplomatic ups and downs in the bilateral relationship, in the end have little impact on how the Australian public feels overall about Indonesia. Perceptions, (lukewarm at best) remain constant. So what can be done to shift them? A good starting point is that we also know that the majority of Australians, particularly young adults, believe they need to and want to know more about Asia and Indonesia in particular.

Australian government initiatives including the mobility assistance program the New Colombo Plan is a great move in the right direction as is continued support from both governments for scholarships programs. Moreover, significant funding from the Australian government through the Australia Indonesia Institute and from Asialink and other non-government bodies have supported arts exchanges, journalist exchanges and monies for exhibitions and arts groups and so on to go visit in each country. Cultural exchange. These are extraordinarily important initiatives building networks and bringing new experiences of the cultures and stories of Indonesia to Australia and vice versa.

But again if we look at the surveys of Australians we see that familiarity with Indonesia, and Indonesians with Australia, be it through popular culture, literature or simply recognition of ‘a national figure’ remains far below our familiarity with Japanese, Korean, Chinese cultures for example. The work remains to be done to fill this void with stories and connections that encourage relatability, familiarity, respect and mutual struggle and challenges.

2017 John Darling Fellows Dery Prananda (left) and Kartika Pratiwi.

Stories on film

We all have our own ideas about what might initiatives work better and where limited funds should go, and we should make sure these are heard and seek out opportunities whenever possible. I want to mention a couple of exciting projects that I’ve been involved that are aiming to foster connections through storytelling through film, with a youth audience particularly in mind.

In 2013 the Herb Feith Foundation initiated a Fellowship named for John Darling – an Australian documentary filmmaker who made Indonesia his home – to bring two Indonesians every two years, to Australia to study filmmaking. The idea was to begin to build a network of visual storytellers between Australia and Indonesia. This month the latest (third) pair of Fellows arrived in Melbourne to study at Monash.  The HFF is also collaborating with ACICIS to provide a Fellowship for an Australian filmmaker to gain experience in Indonesia each year for the next three years. Again, the intention is to build this network of storytellers across our countries.

The result of brainstorming that started at the Australia-Indonesia Centre and expanded to include many friends in both countries, was the ReelOzInd! Australia Indonesia Short Film Competition and Festival, which began last year and is now in its second year. We invite short films from fiction, documentary, animation genres and we encourage films where there is collaboration between Indonesians and Australians. Our final film reel was screened to audiences in 14 locations in Australia and Indonesia and online. This year, we are seeking to engage with even more groups, schools, universities, film societies as Pop-Up Festival hosts! The competition encourages filmmakers to share my second sort of stories, stories about the place you live, the issues that are important to you, the good and the bad, the big and the small. At the end of the day, we will have achieved our goal when stories by Australians and Indonesians are being told alongside each other, when inevitably the themes, the humanity, the humour, the sadness, the beauty can be seen for what they are – universal and shared.

Finally, I turn to the question you knew was coming – how can we, as academic storytellers, contribute to bridging the ‘gap of ignorance’ that exists between both our countries?

Collaborative research between Australian and Indonesian scientists and social scientists on shared problems and key social questions – is one way to foster these connections. No doubt many of you are involved in research collaborations with Australian or Indonesian colleagues. We know so much of this activity is going on between our academies, sometimes facilitated by government funding and our institutions, and sometimes because of individual connections and relationships. These intellectual partnerships are producing important research, but also compelling is the process of relationship building itself.

A key and often missing step is that of communicating our findings to a wider audience (in addition to the academic assessor and reader).

There is also great value in sharing stories about the cooperative endeavour itself as examples of these ‘stories of intersection’ that are so compelling. These are stories about shared efforts in problem-solving and the excellent working partnerships that grow from them. Digital media technology means we can share like this with relative ease, but the innovation is in finding ways to access an audience that goes beyond our own interest groups and to reach a broader audience.

So, I end by setting you all a task for the duration of this conference (at least) and hopefully after you leave here, to first imagine yourselves in even just a small way as storytellers, which is indeed the role you will perform in this conference. And to possibly take the next step to imagine telling this story or part of it to a non-academic audience – be it through a local newspaper or an online magazine. For those of you also have access to the seeds first ‘type’ of story, of intersection between Australians and Indonesians, I would encourage you to tell it too. For this you might innovate with self-publishing via video, social media, blogs, and do so possibly under an umbrella connected to an organisation like ACICIS, AIYA, AIC. The list is long. The potential is vast. We just need the stories to continue to roll in. I am convinced that a combination of volume, enthusiasm, creativity in these stories of humanity will eventually bring reward in the struggle against ignorance.

Dr Jemma Purdey is a Research Fellow at The Australia-Indonesia Centre