Indonesia Calling

Reimagining the relationship between Australia and its largest neighbour

Next Voices

Days after returning to Melbourne from Jakarta, my flashcard app’s collection of Indonesian words seem to have curdled: the ks in place of cs are suddenly jarring; previously neutral-sounding syllables – kan, meng, ter – look inexplicably alien. A modest daily goal, 500 flashcards, once a pleasant exercise before breakfast, becomes a chore. Learning a language requires motivation, but something about my surroundings drains my commitment to Bahasa Indonesia: in Australia, I cannot convince myself of the exercise’s worth.

From Australia, Indonesia looks ugly. Images of it in the media show grubbiness, seediness, smog, chaos; it is not a rapidly transforming and endlessly diverse country, but small, stolid, uniformly nasty. Australian writer and translator Max Lane implored in 1983 for Indonesia to be “[made] alive to Australians”. Thirty-six years later, this hasn’t happened. More than any individual policy failure, the basic inability to see the archipelago in all its complexity remains the most significant obstacle to Australia’s relationship with Asia.

In a morning newspaper, the word “Indonesia” appears above a photograph of a wispy-bearded terrorist. Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, is the best-known Indonesian in Australia. On the evening television news an Australian minister chats, in unselfconscious English, with Joko Widodo. “Jokowi”, as he is known, whose English is imperfect, grins uneasily and gives brief, bland replies. Indonesia’s seventh president, and his troubled implementation of a sprawling reform agenda, fade from view; the voice-over reduces him to a man who wants an Australian university campus in his country.

I open a map of Indonesia, to remind myself of cities, regions and islands that in the Australian consciousness barely exist. In Australia, cosmopolitan port city Surabaya – the cocky, slangy speech of its youth, its reformist female mayor, its hundreds of public parks – shrinks to an image of a bombed church. Sulawesi, parts of which are seeing 15 per cent economic growth, becomes muddy rubble. Sumatra and Borneo appear as conflict zones over palm oil and orangutans – leaving aside the struggles of Indonesian environmentalists and local communities whose older, typically more sustainable ways of using the land are also threatened by corporate agrobusiness. Jakarta, dubbed “The Big Durian” to identify it, with reason, as the New York of South-East Asia, shrivels into a dystopia of slums, bad air and anti-Israel rallies.

A partial fix: I log into Twitter. Here, Indonesian activists and agitators gleefully mock conservative militants and mediocre politicians, demonstrating how many in the nation are thinking bigger things, dreaming bigger dreams, than Indonesian party politics suggests. To a politician’s hypocritical condemnation of corruption, someone writes, “Wow, super-late.” Commenting on a male preacher’s misogyny, a woman says: “Why doesn’t he discuss men?” One Twitter user aspires to “make Indonesia suck less” – demonstrating that Indonesia doesn’t suck at all, only its political class.

Another partial fix: I go to YouTube. Two preachers appear on a popular Indonesian television show, employing Islamic thought to counsel tolerance, humility, wisdom – and the joys of music. Jokowi makes deadpan jokes before a jostling press pack, then addresses a rowdy ballroom of supporters, mocking the conspiracy theories spread by some of the groups opposing him. “Balita PKI … Lucu banget kan,” he says. Toddler communist … what a joke, right? The crowd roars approval. A sense of the passions that drive Indonesian politics, and the stakes, filters through. Bahasa Indonesia comes alive again.

When I’m back in Jakarta, Indonesia’s complexity, and attractiveness, hit as powerfully as the heat. Young men sit at the counters in diner-style eateries with tea, spicy meat and rice. Female professionals call taxis by app beneath giant tropical trees. A congregation streams from a mosque at night like a white-uniformed football crowd. Newcomers arrive continuously from across the archipelago, seeking their fortune, new networks and communities, freedom from rural hierarchies and roles. Jakarta is a melting pot, a hybrid society. “I’m half-Sumatran and half-Javanese,” someone says in a twenty-four-hour café. “My father’s Muslim, my mother Chinese,” I hear in a rendang restaurant.

Posters of xenophobic Islamic militia leader Rizieq Shihab are plastered to highway overpass supports: rising intolerance is coming less from traditionalism than from rapid change. But that intolerance is being resisted. At the annual conference held by Islamic organisation Muhammadiyah, the ulama discuss ways to foster civility. Graffiti artists paint, in public places in the city, murals of different cultures coming together. Foreigners are here, as they have been for centuries, though as visible as Westerners are arrivals from the Global South: African textile merchants, Bollywood producers recruited to Jakarta’s film industry. Here, Bahasa Indonesia is the epitome of cool. “Rapi, dong,” says a late-night television host, calling attention to the awesomeness of his new suit, and winks. 

While I am in Jakarta, a presidential debate is televised. Curious about my nation’s coverage of it, I check Australian news websites. The focus is on an explosion heard outside the venue. It was fireworks: nobody was injured, the debate was uninterrupted. But it has become the story. This, in Australian eyes, is Indonesia.


Economic growth is shifting from North-East to South-East and South Asia – from ageing China to still-young ASEAN and India. But the pattern of growth is different. In Indonesia and India, largest of the new “rising” nations, there is no mass industrialisation, fewer good-quality jobs, more unemployment and underemployment. Lacking China’s iron political control, these countries’ reform efforts are more ponderous, habits of protectionism and other state intervention in economies more entrenched – while projected to keep growing steadily, their economic growth is unlikely to reach the 10 per cent China achieved at the height of its rise. They also have surfeits of nationalistic pride, histories of thumbing their noses at Western powers.

China’s forty-year industrialisation has overwhelmingly shaped Australian attitudes and approaches to Asia. It’s been an economic bonanza. But China between Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, “open” to globalisation, prudently “hiding its claws” in foreign relations, and craving iron ore, could constitute Asia’s low-hanging fruit. While Indonesia and India both contain economic opportunities, vastly increased trade with Australia in the near term is unlikely.

Australia might usefully respond to the prospective Indonesian- and Indian-led phase of Asia’s rise by moving beyond the narrow transactionalism that has dominated its Asian responses – so pervasive that Australian schoolchildren want to learn Mandarin but not Indonesian because they associate Mandarin with financial gain. Australia might prioritise fostering a wide curiosity about, knowledge of and engagement with South-East and South Asia: to think of these nations as more than “markets”. Deeper economic relations will depend on cultural knowledge. More importantly, South-East and South Asia have things to offer beyond export flows. If Australia shifts from seeing in Indonesia only jihadism to seeing only a land of middle-class supermarkets selling milk and meat, that too will be a reductive vision.

Governments set the tone for society, and the Australian government’s narratives about Asia have for twenty years been colourless. Speaking about Indonesia, Australian politicians awkwardly mix utilitarianism and sentimentalism, mentioning a limited set of issues – sea lanes, transnational crime, border security – listing trade volumes with near-Trumpian mercantilism and sprinkling in “good neighbour” sops. There’s little reference to how the energies of South-East Asia’s youth are remaking the region, and the broader ways engagement could enrich – little resembling Barack Obama’s description of South-East Asia as “filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people” and plea that “if we [aren’t] here, interacting and learning … [w]e’ll miss an opportunity”.

To secure public support for continued ties with Indonesia, Australian politicians have taken a damaging shortcut. They praise Indonesia as “a democracy” and a purveyor of “tolerant”, “moderate” Islam. Julie Bishop was representative of this trend in 2018 when she said that Indonesian democracy had since 1998 “gone from strength to strength”, and that “Indonesia sets an example for the region, indeed globally [for] its inclusive, multicultural and multi-faith society”. This type of characterisation, given without elaboration, is disingenuous, and breeds cynicism – for Australians know, if only in broad strokes, what this narrative omits: that Indonesia’s democracy is highly flawed, and that it has a severe religious tolerance crisis. Because politicians’ fantastical, simplified version of Indonesia strikes Australians as implausible, pleas for “friendship”, too, land leaden.

Australia has not always imagined Indonesia so reductively. The 1946 documentary Indonesia Calling – shot by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens on the streets of Sydney, featuring Indonesian exiles and Australian unionists cooperating to support the Indonesian National Revolution against Dutch colonialism – is to modern eyes startling. White, working-class, middle-aged Sydney men cheer the revolutionary speeches of young Indonesians. They work with these men to halt Dutch ships bound for Indonesia. 

If there’s no talk of narrow utility, neither is there laboured sentimentalism. It is complementary visions for the future that bring the Indonesians and Australians together. The Indonesians, the voice-over explains, speak “a language workers in every country understand”: frustration with an inequitable status quo, aspirations for something better. In the 1940s, amid disorder, economic depression, subjugation and war, the idea of cooperating across borders to challenge injustices – on the belief that specific inequities were components of a universal struggle, which would be pursued more powerfully together – was widespread. Indonesia Calling was popular when it screened in Sydney initially, and then in other Australian cities, and ultimately in the new Indonesian Republican capital of Yogyakarta, to which it was smuggled.

Ben Chifley’s cabinet watched Indonesia Calling, and resisted conservative demands to ban the film. The Chifley government subsequently moved to support Indonesia’s revolutionary aspirations. The late 1940s, and the postwar reordering of international affairs that took place, was a singular period in history. Yet Gough Whitlam offered a similar vision of Australia’s engagement with Asia thirty years later when he told South-East Asia that “your hopes, your problems, your future are necessarily and forever part of our own future”. 


Australia must see Indonesia more clearly, above all as an endlessly complex country, neither exemplary nor malign, but possessed of demons and better angels, and wrestling both during a time of transformation. Indonesia contains many people within and beyond government who are working to create a better, more just society. That includes not only the socially and politically “progressive”, by Western standards, but also many among conservative, pious sections of Indonesian society – among traditional Islamic schools, within memberships of Muslim organisations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama. Others are being seduced by nastier, reactionary visions. There’s nothing extraordinary in Indonesia’s complex moral landscape, as demonstrated by Australia’s own struggles with intolerance and human-rights violations.

But Australia also needs a new narrative of Australian–Indonesian relations, a new story about the purpose of engagement between our two nations. Reimagining what Australia and Indonesia – as well as the other ASEAN nations and South Asia – can potentially do together is a vital prerequisite to shifting Australian foreign relations from China-centrism and transactionalism. 

Australia and Indonesia both face rapidly expanding cities and depopulated rural areas; rising inequality; uneven access to opportunity depending on region, class, age and race; and environmental catastrophes. Nations often respond to such challenges not with international engagement but with its opposite: stereotyping other countries and peoples, or simply walling them off. Brexit, Trump’s wall, US–China trade wars and tension between parts of the Western and Muslim worlds all confirm the temptations of such conceptions of world affairs.

But those Indonesians and Australians of the 1940s show the wiser course. Individuals, organisations and governments who seek to make the world better can reach across national boundaries in ways that are mutually strengthening – ways that provide inspiration or knowledge, new approaches and actions, or new sources of assistance.

Within Indonesia is a universal desire for development and prosperity. Its citizens, particularly its youth, seek education and jobs. Such aspirations clearly mesh with Australia’s economic needs – together with trade and increased investment, Australians might enter more business co-ventures in the archipelago, especially in food production.

Significant numbers of Indonesians, meanwhile, seek things beyond gross domestic product: human rights, environmental protection, an end to xenophobia. Australia might simultaneously develop links with as many of those citizens as possible through boosted engagement with Indonesian civil society.

Australian government attention and resources might focus more on Indonesian NGOs working to bring about a better democracy, a healthier environment and increased rights for minorities. There has, especially in the last decade, been an emphasis on government-to-government ties at the expense of partnership with these actors. Beyond government, Australian and Indonesian civil society activists might come together more often, through workshops, fellowships and other exchanges, and in coordinated campaigns. The natural environment – destruction of our countries’ rainforests, pollution and bleaching of our oceans and reefs, and climate change – particularly suggests itself as an issue on which Australian and Indonesian civil society might work together. Cooperation can strengthen those in both countries who seek progressive change, the better angels of both our national natures. 

Religious engagement could stimulate Australians and Indonesians trying to build more tolerant, genuinely multicultural societies. Last decade, the Australian government decided to channel, via AusAID, large-scale assistance to Indonesian pesantrens, a means to improve the quality of religious-based education – $A167 million flowed between 2002 and the mid-2010s, according to Australian National University associate professor Greg Fealy. That might restart. But it is not simply a question of money; intellectual exchange is also crucial. While Indonesian and Australian Muslims could meet in greater numbers, connections might be encouraged across as well as within religious lines. Pesantren students and the ulama could teach Australians much about the Islamic faith in all its diversity, reducing Australian Islamophobia.

Vital to a reimagined relationship will be for Australian cities to be more open to young Indonesians – and Indonesian cities to Australians. This would mean streamlining cumbersome entry requirements for Indonesians visiting Australia. It would also mean policy change to facilitate more Indonesians migrating to Australia as workers, as Sam Roggeveen argued in a recent issue of Australian Foreign Affairs. There is no political will, it will be said. Yet the cultural melting pots of big cities are where people meet and collaborations occur. If Australians and Indonesians – and Indians – are to come together more, large cities will be the setting.

In Indonesia Calling, Indonesians – “fellow townsmen” – ride trams, buy newspapers, hold concerts in Martin Place, walk with Australian and Indian seamen across the Harbour Bridge. In 1940s Sydney, proximity enabled people to perceive common ideas and aspirations – that “their struggle is our struggle”, as an Indian sailor says on the docks. Proximity also facilitated that vital precondition of engagement: substantive knowledge of the other. “Here in Australia,” the film’s voice-over declares with confidence, “we know the Indonesians well.” Seventy years on, a different generation of Australians would be wise to attempt the same.


David Fettling is a writer whose work focuses on South-East Asia, and deals with the ways people of different cultures and countries meet. Read our interview with David here.