Why Indonesia really matters

The story of Indonesia and Australia often focuses on differences – the cultural and religious divide, security issues, disparities in the structure and development of the economies, contrasts in business practices, small and large populations, issues of national sovereignty. You can judge each country positively or negatively from many angles and the countries do, of course, have some fundamental cultural, social, economic and historic differences.

However, to focus on the differences in the Australia-Indonesia relationship is the easy default and it is something that has gone on for too long.

This argument is reinforced by the findings – made public today – of comprehensive research conducted by market-research group EY Sweeney on behalf of The Australia-Indonesia Centre. The research involved more than 4000 interviews and 24 focus groups across the two countries, making it one of the largest projects of its kind.

The research suggests it is time for Australians to re-examine Indonesia and to think more deeply about the opportunities for shared cultural awareness, education programs and student exchanges like the New Colombo Plan, business partnerships, and two-way travel that goes beyond Bali and traditional Australian destinations. It suggests that there is a real appetite in both nations to learn more about the other nation and to engage in new ways.

When the research team spent time talking to Indonesians and Australians – from Melbourne to Townsville and Jakarta to Makassar – about their aspirations and outlook for the future, some rich seams of consistency emerged, suggesting that there is strong alignment in terms of core values and aspirations. According to the findings, Australians and Indonesians both have a desire to protect family values and cultural identity, as well as improve outcomes in education, health, employment, security, infrastructure and the environment.

This is despite differences in how favourably each nation views their neighbour. More of the Indonesians surveyed thought positively of Australia (87% overall favourable, including 22% very favourable) compared with Australians on Indonesia (43% overall favourable, including 6% very favourable). In Australia, beyond the challenge of managing attitudes to the range of high-profile issues over the past decade, is an important added dimension – a lack of deep knowledge and understanding about Indonesia beyond Bali.

This knowledge gap was recognised in the research, with 39% of Australians surveyed wanting to learn more about Indonesia, and 43% agreeing that basic education about Indonesia could be improved in Australian schools. Of those who would like to learn more about Indonesia, 72% selected Indonesian culture as an area of interest.

Knowledge and education is also an important connection point in Indonesia, where 57% of Indonesians surveyed would like to learn more about Australia and a similar number (59%) agreed basic education about Australia should be improved in Indonesian schools. In the course of the research there was also positive playback of Australia’s tertiary education efforts in Indonesia and the influence it has on perceptions.

As would be expected, the role of the government in drawing the nations closer was seen as important – a 77% of Indonesians and 51% of Australians said they wanted their government to do more to actively strengthen the relationship with the other country. This expectation spans a host of areas, including economic engagement.

On issues of trade and business, China is front of mind for people in both nations, but there is strong interest in a deepening ties across the Timor Sea, with 65% of Indonesians and 51% of Australians saying the trading relationship with each other was important, and there was support for expanding trade between the countries. Business partnerships and joint ventures were rated highly and there was also interest in learning more about business opportunities.

Such findings are expected to be a fillip as the two nations continue negotiations towards an Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

Building a stronger relationship between the two countries and affinity between people is ultimately about creating better understanding and empathy – strengthening rapport through the common ground identified in the research. The lifestyle connection is important. Of those surveyed, 49% of Indonesians and 38% of Australians said travel and tourism would make a difference in improving the relationship. This result was consistent across Indonesian cities, not just in the tourist hotspot of Bali.

The EY Sweeney research for the AIC contains many insights that can be analysed in greater detail across many different dimensions. The key to building the connection is to frame it with an understanding of the domestic mindsets and outlooks in each country.

One stark difference between the two nations – no, not the historic ones – relates to Australian and Indonesian levels of confidence about the future. This was one of the biggest differences. Both natural resources-focussed countries are at critical junctures, with future prosperity underpinned by how each nation responds to global challenges and how well they interact with other countries.

The research found that Australians are more anxious about what the future holds, with only around one in three (34%) seeing economic prosperity improving in the next ten years. Only 25% believe the standard of living will improve. Australians see employment (52%), housing affordability (45%) and education (31%) as key influencers on national prosperity.

In comparison, Indonesians, despite their developing nation’s growing pains, seem relatively upbeat how their lives are likely to improve over the next decade. Eight in ten (82%) see economic prosperity improving and a similar number (81%) foresee improvement in the standard of living. Jobs (63%), corruption (43%) and education (40%) were the most frequently mentioned influencers on national prosperity.

The Australia-Indonesia Centre, based at Monash University, commissioned the research in both nations to provide an evidence-based approach to better understand the drivers and key influencers of Australia-Indonesia attitudes and perceptions. It is the intention, given the extensive research, that this body of work kick-starts a new bi-national public discussion about ways to strengthen this vitally important relationship.

We know about the historic differences and the issues that impact on Australian perceptions. What this research creates is potential pathways – both economic and empathetic – to think much more about the beliefs and themes that unite the nations. Australians and Indonesians have acknowledged that future prosperity won’t be achieved in isolation.

Paul Ramadge was the Founding Director of The Australia-Indonesia Centre. Marc L’Huillier is a Partner at EY and was the lead researcher on the Australia-Indonesia Perceptions Report 2016. The key findings and more information about the structure of the study can be accessed at www.aicperceptionsreport.com.