We can learn from our sophisticated Indonesian neighbours

For many families it’s back to school time.

“Do you remember the day,” says Charlie, “when your Mum bought you a jumper at the beginning of the year that was too big, saying you were going to grow into it?”

Louise remembers something different; she used to get hand-me-down jumpers and shoes from her brother. So embarrassing.

And speaking of shoes, my brothers and I used to hammer stops into our school shoes on Friday night so we could play footy on Saturday morning.

Prudence and planning ahead are two cornerstones of family life. They are also pretty important qualities for nations.

Asia leads the way

Asian countries in particular have shown the world the way in recent decades and these principles were brought home to me strongly while in Indonesia this week.

In fact Indonesia has two major plans – the National Development Plan 2005-2025, which includes a number of medium-term plans – and the Masterplan for the Acceleration and Development of Indonesian Economic Development.

The objective is very clear: “Indonesia aims to earn its place as one of the world’s developed countries by 2025 with an expected per capita income of $US14,250-$US15,500 and total gross domestic product of $US4-$4.5 trillion.”

And they are quickly laying the foundations to achieve their aim. Their education planning in West Java alone, where I have been, sees a region of 26 million people having access to 400 universities. That’s a population the same as Australia with 10 times as many universities.

The Indonesians are a very prudent and family-oriented people who know where they are going as a nation. However, it seems that Australians’ knowledge of this neighbour is often limited to the bars and surf of Bali.

Unknown neighbour

Our meeting this week of the Australia-Indonesia Centre was in Bandung, West Java – a city most Australians might not have heard of. It happens to be Indonesia’s third biggest city with a population of 7 million.

We just don’t know enough about Indonesia. I’ve written before about how Indonesia is a key to our future success. Currently, Australia – having done well in the mining boom – is the 12th biggest economy in the world and Indonesia 16th. We might worry at the moment about slowing growth in Indonesia and Asia but even if it drops back a bit to 6 per cent it will still be three times that of Australia.

Within a decade Indonesia’s current development plans will deliver an economy twice the size of ours.

Make no mistake; Indonesia is already a sophisticated country. A quick walk around Bandung reveals wonderful Dutch colonial architecture, luxurious hotels, restaurants and European-style boutiques which earned Bandung the title “Parijs van Java” – the Paris of Java.

Preparation is a must

At the Australia-Indonesia Centre we are making sure that our members get outside the bureaucratic capitals of both countries to build a greater understanding of the world’s largest archipelago with 17,000 islands and 250 million people.

Planning ahead like that wise parent buying this year’s jumper for their child is what we all must do. Seven years ago, my business partner and I moved into food development with the purchase of a cattle property in Western Australia.

I was convinced that this Asian century would see exploding demand for high quality food, especially protein. During those seven years there was a downturn in the market and cattle prices dropped below cost with a kilogram of beef going down to $1.50.

Given that it costs about a $1.80 to grow, the producers were losing money. We took advantage of the downturn by expanding the property to 3.5 million acres.

And just like the school jumper we steadily grew into it. This week cattle prices hit an all-time high of $3.70 a kilogram on the back of a world shortage that will persist for years to come.

So as the kids head off to school, just remember to plan ahead. That’s not a bad way to go about life, generally. Sometimes our local politicians seem to think that long-term planning is about the next election. We need to be a lot cleverer than that and learn from our very industrious and sophisticated neighbours.

This story was written by Harold Mitchell and was originally published in The Age.