The pain of disrespect

Featured in

  • Published 20050607
  • ISBN: 9780733316081
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

ON MARCH 31 this year, a cultural performance was organised to raise funds for the tsunami victims in Sumatra. It was specifically staged for Australian school students who were studying Indonesian language and culture. Two young Indonesian university students were appointed MCs. Before the performance they asked me what they should say at the opening. I suggested they emphasise the link of youth, that this was an event from Indonesian young people to Australian young people.

I have now lived in Australia longer than half my lifetime. I am an Australian citizen, yet I keep a very close relationship with my native Indonesia. Emotionally, I feel both Indonesian and Australian. Each step Australia or Indonesia takes to move closer toward each other fills me with warmth and pride, the two sides of me coming together. Each time something happens that pulls the two countries further apart, I feel the pain. And I feel embarrassed when Australia or Indonesia takes a step in the wrong direction.

The phenomenal global response, especially from Australia, to the Boxing Day tsunami that devastated some parts of Sumatra, as well as parts of Thailand and Sri Lanka, deeply touched the survivors in the affected areas who had lost loved ones and had been left with nothing. And in a self-centred way, it added to my pride in being Australian.

Australia pledged $1 billion, deployed six C-130 transport planes and HMAS Kanimbla to Aceh – the worst-affected area – and additional funds came from independent community fund-raising. There is no doubt of the spontaneity of this enormous generosity.

When some international relations analysts in Indonesia expressed concern that Indonesia should be more cautious in accepting this assistance, I felt somewhat annoyed. It appeared that they were indulging in an unnecessary national pride when hundreds of thousands of people in Sumatra could only think of one day at a time, if they were well enough to think at all. This was even harder to take considering that the local authorities had neither been well co-ordinated nor organised in their efforts, causing long delays in help reaching those who needed it.

Putting my journalist hat on, I glanced back at the relationship between Australia and Indonesia in the past year and I began to see what the negative-thinking analysts saw.


DURING THE 2004 election campaign, Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, said that he would not hesitate to order a pre-emptive strike against terrorist bases overseas. This comment may have been part of his campaign strategy, taking advantage of a fear of terrorists who reportedly had Australia as their target. The word “pre-emptive”, however, inflamed the region’s Muslims because of the pre-emptive strike by the Coalition of the Willing on Iraq, which increasingly turned out to have been based on false premises. Was Howard too focused on domestic politics and winning an election, or was he too cavalier when it came to offending countries in the region? Maybe both.

I knew the statement was not lost on Indonesians because I was in Indonesia at the time and witnessed the reactions even among liberal Muslims. Most Indonesians when moderately offended, resort to their favourite means of assimilating the irritation: humour.

“Pre-emptive” sneaked into various levels of jokes and bantering. When someone was going to jump a queue, which happens all the time in Indonesia, the person behind him would immediately close the gap, saying, “Pre-emptive step, mate!” and everyone would laugh. At a seminar I moderated, I stood up and was going to remind a speaker his time was up, when he turned around and said, “Yes, I know. I was going to wind up anyway.” Without thinking, I said, “Wow, that was a timing pre-emptive move!”

I don’t know what kind of response the statement had on the ground in other countries in the region, but I know that Indonesians are comparatively much more laid-back than their regional neighbours. The PM’s statement reinforced the “deputy sheriff” stance that had placed Australia even closer to the United States, while distancing it from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, just when Australia was trying very hard to be part of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

I often ask my friends why it has always been Australia, which only follows the US, which gets the flak? Why not confront the US itself? Their answer, in various versions, is, “The US is over 10,000 miles away and Australia is here.” The unstated truth is that the US is so big and powerful that countries around the world, openly and privately, are resigned to its making its own international law and getting away with it. The same acquiescence to power does not extend to Australia; if it wants to be accepted as a friend rather than a bully, it has at least to be seen to abide by international law.

I have often thought that some of Australia’s regional neighbours indulge in paranoia from time to time, and this was such an occasion. The statement should have been regarded as an election campaign gimmick, and as such, not credited with such importance. In the neighbours’ view, however, this was not an isolated incident showing Australia’s contempt for other countries in the region. A month earlier, in August 2004, Australia revealed plans to equip its fighter jets and aircraft with its newly acquired long-range cruise missiles. These missiles have the capacity to directly attack Australia’s neighbouring countries. And there was some tension in the confusion about whether Australia had consulted its neighbours beforehand. Howard was quoted as saying, “We have no hostile designs on any of our neighbours.” If that were the case, it would be courteous to make sure the neighbours had been consulted, rather than the dismissive, “We thought we had consulted you. You may recall we …” Knowing that their neighbour, an ally of the powerful US, had the capacity to cause considerable damage, it was not surprising that they took the Prime Minister’s suggestion of a pre-emptive strike a little more seriously than they would have otherwise. It may have been an inadvertent omission, but to those who suffered the omission, it was inadvertent disrespect. It is in some ways worse than deliberate disrespect, where at least you know you are hated, not just dismissed or discounted.

In conversations with Indonesian friends, I invariably pointed out that the PM did not necessarily voice the opinions of the majority of Australians, but was left speechless when a friend retorted, “That’s a ridiculous proposition. He was re-elected for the third time. If what you said is true, then there’s something wrong with the democratic process in Australia.”

The question was, and still is, “Who is Australia thinking of using the missiles against, and what for?” If it were to combat terrorism, would terrorists be that easily identifiable in order for the country’s fighter jets and aircrafts to come out in force to fight them? If they were so easily identifiable, would September 11 have happened in the US, a country with the most the powerful and sophisticated intelligence and weaponry?

Then, in December 2004, Australia proposed a new maritime security zone that required all ships travelling to Australia to provide details on their journeys and cargoes if they entered the 1000-nautical-mile zone. Any vessel coming within 200 nautical miles of the Australian coast would also be required to give extra details on cargo, ports visited, location, course, speed and intended port of arrival. This move seemed to be a response to Washington’s call on its allies to follow its own measures in raising maritime security standards amid fears of extremist attacks on ships. On the face of it, it is a reasonable move, knowing the unpredictability of terrorists’ movements. However, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Hasan Wirayuda, was nonplussed. “We can’t accept this concept because it breaches our maritime jurisdiction. We view this as having the potential for violating international maritime laws,” he told a media conference, after meeting Australian Defence Minister Robert Hill, adding that he saw a US-inspired unilateralism on Canberra’s part.

Wirayuda elaborated that the 1000-nautical-mile zone touched Indonesian waters off Maluku and Sulawesi islands as well as most of the Java Sea. However, all Hill said was, “We would like to try to identify ships that are travelling to Australian coasts earlier than what we currently do, to ask ships that are coming to Australia to identify themselves, give us early advice of what cargo they are bringing.”

I see another instance of inadvertent disrespect.


IN REALITY, DISRESPECT is fairly common in both Indonesia and Australia. In Indonesia, even during the New Order rule, where the Suharto Government showed ever-readiness to pounce on any signs of disrespect toward him, his family and his entourage of political elite, there was disrespect everywhere: in folk theatre, in literature, in the media, always shrouded in a way that the audience could spot it, but it was elusive to the unwieldy heavy boots or guns, though from time to time, some did go down. Disrespect in Indonesia has mostly been deliberate, like the deliberate disrespect in Donald Rumsfeld’s calling France and Germany “old Europe”. In Indonesia, it is aimed at the political elite.

There is a parallel situation in Australia, where deliberate disrespect is aimed at the power wielders. The difference here is, Australia has lately been showing inadvertent disrespect toward Indonesia, not the other way around. It was as if Australia forgot Indonesia was around. And Indonesia retaliates with irritations and defensivenes, coming across as thin-skinned and precious.

Australians are known to be casual and laid-back. Maybe this is because we have ample space to get away from people we don’t want to be with. We are so used to having vast expanses of space around us that our reaction to a sense of threat is to put even more space between us and the next person.

Indonesians, on the other hand, have always had to negotiate sharing limited space, living in close quarters with each other and with neighbouring countries. In fact, most South-East Asians expect to have others around at all times, regardless of anyone’s moods. Only a tiny minority of Indonesians would look for isolation for their holidays, while in Australia it is easy to find people who seek out isolated spots. And if they go to crowded places, they want to be able to retire somewhere with privacy at the end of the day.

If consulted earlier, Indonesia might have understood Australia’s urge to extend the expanse of space around it, even co-operate with it. However, seeing Australia’s planned maritime zone touching its own crowded territory presented as a fait accompli was a different story.

Being an ally and emotionally attached to the US has more than once landed Australia in serious problems with its regional neighbours, the latest example being its reluctance to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC). Understandably, this reluctance is viewed suspiciously by South-East Asian nations, considering Australia’s keenness to be accepted as part of ASEAN. Neither Australia’s prime minister, nor its media, felt compelled to give detailed explanation. In fact, Howard was quoted saying something rather enigmatic: “The treaty was delivered to the region by a mind-set that we’ve all really moved on from. I don’t think it appropriate that Australia should sign.”

While the region was bursting with articulated and unarticulated misgivings, Malaysia, in the persona of its mellow prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, declared that if Australia did not sign the TAC, it would not be invited to the next summit. The Japan Times suggested that Australia did not want to upset its relationship with the US, seeing that this powerful ally did not like the South-East Asian Nuclear Free Zone, and by signing the TAC, Australia would accede to it. If that theory were proven, it would reveal Australia as a hypocrite, having formed a South Pacific [you are right] Nuclear Free Zone with New Zealand. Why then should South-East Asia not be nuclear-free?


WE SHOULD BE able, however, to differentiate the government’s stance from the more informed attitudes of Australian people. After all, many Australians have travelled to Indonesia and have made friends, or at least acquaintances, with Indonesians. There is no doubt that links at the grassroots level exist. It is a pity that studies of Indonesia and other countries in Asia have not received sustained support from this government.

Funding cuts to Asian studies departments in universities throughout the country over the past decade have seen an alarming decline in the number of students studying and those teaching Indonesian language and culture. Jamie Mackie, founding professor of Indonesian Studies in the [I mean Indonesian Studies across the disciplines, because when Mackie founded the studies RSPAS had not been founded] Australian National University, recently warned that the decline in Indonesian language teaching threatened the sustainability of Australian analytical capacities on matters Indonesian.

It is a fact that most Australians know very little about Indonesia. They know it is the most populous country in the region and that it invaded East Timor. And post-Bali, they know that Indonesians are mostly Muslim. That it is a sovereign nation that has embarked on the slow process of democratisation after three decades of oppressive government seems immaterial.

Fortunately, Indonesia is a market for Australian export and offers potential cheap labour for Australia’s offshore manufacturers if the ingrained corruption does not make it too unpredictable for safe investment. This makes Indonesia an economic issue, putting it in Australia’s business agenda, and draws the attention of social-political experts. As a result, there are people in Australia genuinely interested in Indonesia, although they are in the minority.

The majority is invariably drawn to events where Australians are involved, such as the arrest and trial Schapelle Corby. Callers to talkback radio programs and bloggers online called for, among other things: Australian Government intervention in demanding Corby’s release; for Australian holiday-makers to look elsewhere unless Corby was released; to cut diplomatic ties with Indonesia; to stop any aid going to Indonesia to show our displeasure. Malcolm T. Elliott behind the microphone at 2GB was most explicit:

Elliott: The judges don’t even speak English, mate, they’re straight out of the trees, if you excuse my expression.

Caller: Don’t you think that disrespects the whole of our neighbouring nation?

Elliott: I have total disrespect for our neighbouring nation, my friend. Total disrespect … And then we get this joke of a trial, and it’s nothing more than a joke. An absolute joke the way they sit there. And they do look like the three wise monkeys, I’ll say it. They don’t speak English, they read books, they don’t listen to her. They show us absolutely no respect, those judges.

Letters to editors of broadsheet newspapers were not much more civil or informed, littered with words like “kangaroo court”, “barbaric” and “human rights abuse”. One reminded the editor and readers, “after all we have given to that country after the tsunami tragedy”, adding that the law was outdated and inhumane, “considering that convicted terrorist Abu Bakar Bashir has only been sentenced to two years and six months’ jail (with the prospect of appeal) for his proven (sic) ‘conspiracy’ participation in the Bali bombings that killed 202 people in the same country …”

The Indonesian consulate general in Perth received an anonymous letter containing two bullets, with a message, “If Schapelle Corby is not released immediately, you will get these in your brains. Indonesians go home!”

The fuzzy feeling I felt after witnessing the generosity of Australians toward the tsunami victims dissipated under the cascade of events and reaction. Apart from straight grants, the bulk of Australian aid to Indonesia is in the form of soft loans to fund projects that are contracted to Australian businesses. To arrest the flow of aid would effectively deprive Australian entrepreneurs of business. To bring up Australians’ donations to the tsunami tragedy cheapened the worthy gesture, causing it to quickly discolour and turn into something somewhat mercenary. I was, therefore, hugely relieved to read subsequent letters whose writers expressed the same embarrassment I felt.

The reference to “proven ‘conspiracy’ participation in the Bali bombings” suggested a complete disregard for another legal system. Proven by whom? By the letter writer?

The Indonesian Government was at pains to prove Abu Bakar Bashir guilty of the bombing conspiracy. Paradoxically, the new-found demoracy and media transparency prevented it from interfering in the legal proceedings the way the defeated New Order government had done in the past. Indonesian courts, from local to high courts, are going through a reform, old judges who had learnt to rubber-stamp the Government’s directives are progressively being pensioned off and replaced by younger, more idealistic and democratic-thinking judges.

In October 2002, shortly after the Bali bombing, then-president Megawati, after intense diplomatic pressure from the US and Australia, issued a special presidential decree enacting draconian new anti-terrorism measures, including the provision for lengthy police detention without trial. Bashir, and the other bombers, were arraigned and detained using this new law. The following month, the Indonesian National Police achieved a record-breaking breakthrough in the Bali bombing case and the main perpetrators fell one by one into the net. They were then sentenced to death, except Ali Imron, who had shown remorse and helped with police investigations, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. The record-breaking trials and sentencing used the new anti-terror law retrospectively and this was later contested by the defence team as unconstitutional, giving the judges of the newly established Constitutional Court a massive headache. No judge, politician or any socially and political aware person in Indonesia wants to see the main perpetrators of the Bali bombing go free because of a technicality overlooked in the excitement of administering justice.

While this problem was still being hotly debated, the court was having problems finding sufficient evidence to prove Ba’ashir, as the spiritual leader of Jama’ah Islamiyah, was involved in the planning of the bombings in Bali and the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. Witnesses were produced, although none was able or prepared to testify first-hand, that Bashir was the leader of the now banned Jama’ah Islamiyah, or that he had masterminded or “given his blessings” to the bombings.

The first person who had allegedly declared that Bashir was the leader of Jama’ah Islamiyah was Omar Al-Farouq, a mysterious individual with multiple identities living in Indonesia for some unknown time. He was arrested on June 5, 2002, in mysterious circumstances, and passed on to the CIA. Despite repeated requests by the Indonesian court, the US refused to allow Al-Farouq to be interviewed, let alone travel to Indonesia and give evidence. The other significant person believed to be able to help with the prosecution, was Hambali, a high-ranking Jama’ah Islamiyah operative caught in Thailand in August 2003 and taken immediately to the US. Hambali, also, was not produced to testify at Bashir’s trial. The court was thus unable to prove that Bashir was involved in planning the bombings, as he and his defence team consistently said.

On March 3, 2005, Bashir was sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment, but acquitted of more serious charges of ordering the bombings in Bali in October 2002 and at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003. Tim Lindsey, director of Melbourne University’s Asian Law Centre, wrote at the time, “Given the weak case against him, that Bashir was convicted at all indicates how desperate the Indonesian authorities were to nail him.”

However, the US and Australian governments immediately criticised the sentence. US Embassy official Max Kwak said, “Given the gravity of the charges on which he was convicted, we’re disappointed at the length of the sentence”; Australia’s Alexander Downer told reporters he had instructed the Australian ambassador to explain to Indonesian officials why the sentence was too light. Even Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said Bashir should spend the rest of his miserable life in jail. Angry callers to talkback radio programs, letters to the editors, and the occasional blogger also echoed the dissatisfaction.

Indonesians who did not like the outcome, but were aware of the circumstances, despaired at the patronising attitudes of Australians. If the case presented by the prosecutors would not be sustained in other countries’ courts, why should it in Indonesia? And more importantly, why should the US expect a harsher sentence when it refused to produce the key witnesses?

Just when people in Indonesia were beginning to put that hurt behind them, the Schapelle Corby case pushed it to the fore. Right from the beginning of the trial, comments from Australians believe that they could sway the court. If the response to the Corby case happened in isolation, it might have been interpreted as Australians feeling protective toward a compatriot in trouble in a foreign country. However, being so close in time to the outrage to Bashir’s “light sentence”, it was impossible to miss the irony of the demand that Corby be set free even while the case was under way.

Many Australians, even fairly educated ones, tend to assume that because Indonesia does not have a jury system, its legal system is flawed. Indonesia inherited the Civil Law tradition sans juries from the French, via the Dutch, which colonised Indonesia for more than 300 years. The absence of juries is a feature of the European legal system, which has served many countries well.

The system is not the issue, but the fact that during the New Order government, bribery and government intervention were common in Indonesian courts. Unfortunately, they are still not yet uncommon. However, bribery and government intervention in the court proceedings can no longer happen with impunity. Indonesian newspapers and news magazines now routinely expose corrupt officials regardless of rank. Undoing institutionalised corruption in a country where court officials are poorly paid, however, is not easy. Even the most patriotic Indonesians are only too aware of this and, understandably, quick to become defensive.

Fortunately, in Corby’s case, instead of making patronising remarks, Australia’s government officials have been sensible, publicly saying that Australia cannot interfere in another country’s legal system. And furthermore, both Australia and Indonesia have behaved a great deal more effectively by negotiating a prisoner-exchange agreement.


OVER THE YEARS I have lived in Australia, I have learned that most Caucasian Australians do not consciously behave with superiority in relation to Indonesia and other Asian neighbours, they just know that European and British cultures are superior, and those who don’t regard themselves as “racists”, feel “burdened” to help Asians and other non-whites. Those who are not “burdened” speak openly about the inferior quality of anything not derived from Europe and USA. A minority, thank God for their existence, are aware of the need for better mutual understanding.

I know that Indonesians cannot help being defensive about their country, especially when facing a pontificating Caucasian finger. What makes them different from their forefathers is that today’s Indonesians feel defensive as well as resentful. They are increasingly aware that they are not inferior to their Caucasian counterparts, but are inevitably identified with the corruption in their country and little else. This resentment often drives them to seek the most negative aspects about the offending Caucasians and point them out, causing mutual aggression. Australians who try to draw the attention of their Indonesian counterparts to human rights violations in some parts of the country for instance, often hear about what has been, and is being, done to the Aborigines.

An awareness of this complexity was in my mind when I was asked by the young MC at the fund-raising cultural performance about what they should say. I wanted them to emphasise the link of youth, because I believe that if we start to know each other naturally when we are young, there is more chance of our learning about each other with the least prejudice. 

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About the author

Dewi Anggraeni

Dewi Anggraeni gained a Master of Arts degree in Letters from the University of Indonesia and a Diploma of Education from La Trobe University...

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