Bali was our playground. Now Fortress Australia has turned its back on Indonesia | Brigid Delaney

Covid has hastened Australia’s inward drift, but now is not the time to disengage from our struggling neighbour

The effects of living in Fortress Australia are profound on the psyche. Yes, many of us may feel safer, but the longer we stay locked away from the world, the more our horizons shrink.

Every bar or beach around the world used to ring with the sound of an Australian accent. Now it’s so strange to encounter an Australian abroad that an expat friend recently told me, almost excitedly, he had met another Australian in Athens. The man had approached his table on hearing his accent – it was as if Stanley had come across Livingstone himself in Tanzania (“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”), such was the wonder at encountering a fellow countryman.

Meanwhile, back at home, safe in our fortress, we build another moat – this one in our minds. It’s state versus state, or in the case of Sydney, east versus south-west. In this fearful myopia, we forget about the rest of the world. We become consumed with our own problems, submerged in our own unique suffering. Under government decree, spending most of our hours at home, confined to our local government areas or our 10km or 5km radius, it’s easy to forget we are part of a region. And that we are in a region that is having a vastly different experience with Covid to Australia.

Indonesia, one of our nearest and most important neighbours, would love to have the luxury of being picky about what vaccine they put in their arms.

Unfortunately they are busy with more than 30,000 Covid cases a day. They are also busy trying to procure oxygen and vaccines – any sort of vaccine. The Indonesian government has relied primarily on Chinese-made Sinovac – with a 51% efficacy. Rich Indonesians are flying to America for vaccinations as part of a movement dubbed “vaccine tourism”.

It’s no wonder – according to some reports, one in six Covid deaths worldwide is in Indonesia.

Currently only 8.8% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Unsurprisingly, the economy is also ravaged. Australia’s favourite island playground, Bali, relied on tourism for 60% of its GDP. Now villas are empty and resorts are shuttered, with workers returning to their farms and villages or relying on ad hoc support from richer expatriates.

You may ask what does this have to do with us? We have our own woes. But now is not the time to go inward and disengage from Indonesia.

After all, considerable time and resources have gone into building and maintaining the relationship, despite many tests over the years (most recently the executions of two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, and the detaining of Indonesian people smugglers).

Australia’s closer engagement with Indonesia began in the 1940s when Australia supported Indonesia’s push for independence. Since then, engagement with Indonesia has been a priority for governments, who saw security and trade benefits but also something more practical. It just made good sense to have a strong relationship with our neighbours.

In this there was an acknowledgment that Australia’s fate was more closely linked with Indonesia than the old ties in more distant places, such as the UK and US. In the words of Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, “What is good for the hive is good for the bees.” What’s good for the region is also good for Australia.

Closer ties didn’t just mean more trade deals and not rocking the boat on politically sensitive matters – it was a person-to-person thing. It meant Australians visiting, knowing, understanding and perhaps even loving another country.

For many Australians, when we could travel, Bali was like a second home.

In 2019, before borders shut, a record number of Australians visited Indonesia, with ​​reports of 1.23 million Australians heading to Bali that year.

Like many Australians, whenever I went back to Indonesia (usually twice a year), I used the same driver, stayed in the same accommodation and visited the same restaurants. Between visits I got a Bahasa teacher so I could travel more widely and speak the language, and followed news of the country with interest.

This is the type of familial relationship the Australian government encouraged.

There has been a lot of soft diplomacy over the years to encourage this person-to-person relationship. Programs such as the New Colombo Plan sent thousands of Australian students to Indonesia. The pandemic has now paused this valuable exchange.

Dr Jemma Purdey of the Australia-Indonesia Centre told me: “Since it began in 2014 the program has funded thousands of Australian university students to undertake mostly short-term study opportunities in Indo-Pacific countries, including Indonesia. The government’s aim for the scholarships program was to increase Australians’ knowledge of the Indo-Pacific and establish a ‘rite of passage’ for young Australians to study and work in our region.”

Since the 1990s, Indonesian Bahasa has been one of the most popular second languages taught to a generation of Australian kids, but now it is in steep decline.

La Trobe University announced recently that their Bahasa program would be dropped and University of Western Australia is planning to cut research positions in Asian studies.

All of this signals Australia’s strong inward drift. This introversion will only deepen as long as borders are closed.

After all, Australia has shown it doesn’t seem to care much about its own citizens trapped overseas, let alone those suffering in a neighbouring country.


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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