Former Indonesian ambassador to Australia
Highs, lows, bumps and bruises, I have experienced a lot in my four years as the Indonesian ambassador to Australia. I have heard statements from many people that Indonesia is important to Australia and that Australia is vital to Indonesia.
Last Feb. 26, on a cloudy Sunday morning in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, I saw our leaders walking the talk.
I watched, from a distance, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo sharing stories and stopping to talk with a father and his baby. For the two leaders at that moment, there was nothing more important than getting to know each other.
On their first meeting in November 2015, President Jokowi took PM Turnbull on a blusukan (impromptu visit) to Tanah Abang market in Jakarta. Instead of taking his guest for a walk around the airy and tranquil presidential compound, he opted to take Turnbull to the largest textile market in Southeast Asia.
Likewise, Turnbull personally gave Jokowi a tour of the gardens and the Sydney Harbour. The night before, the PM and his wife, Lucy Turnbull, hosted President Jokowi and First Lady Iriana for dinner at their private residence.
They say that to gain trust and confidence, you should be familiar with the person on a personal level. My good friend Senator Eric Abetz agreed that once you have the trust and know the person well, other things will fall into place.
Both Jokowi and Turnbull came from business backgrounds. So they know the value of spending time together.
I have enjoyed diplomatic life in Canberra. My team and I were fortunate to have a solid foundation on which to contribute to the Australia-Indonesia partnership.
Despite crises in Australia-Indonesia relations over the years, two things remain constant.
One is trade, investment, education and cultural relations. These have served as the anchor preventing the relationship from drifting into unchartered waters. The second is our shared democratic values and regional interest, which has served as a beacon navigating the relationship toward security and prosperity.
On the same Sunday as the morning walk, at the garden of the Admiralty House overlooking the Sydney Opera House, the two leaders discussed concluding an ambitious trade agreement. The move is remarkable considering several countries moving toward closed economies. Australia and Indonesia are instead moving toward more open and integrated economies.
Decades of economic data showed us that with an open economy and low trade barriers, trade and investment flow freely, economic activities expand, jobs are created and prosperity increases.
The leaders have taken a number of measures to allow their respective citizens to spend more time learning about each other’s languages, culture and way of life. President Jokowi inaugurated three more Indonesian language centers in Darwin, Brisbane and Sydney in addition to the existing centers across Australia.
Since 2014, the New Colombo Plan has attracted over 2,000 Australians to study in Indonesia. In 2016, with over 1.2 million visits, Indonesia became the second most popular tourist destination for Australians. Conversely, as Ambassador Paul Grigson observed, Australia remains the destination of choice for Indonesian students. There are 19,300 Indonesian students learning in Australia’s worldclass institutions.
Australia and Indonesia are also allocating a lot of time to build on the foundations of regional architecture that both countries helped to shape over the decades.
Indonesia is a founding member of ASEAN and Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974. Regardless of the critique of its shortcomings, it is clear that the time invested by ASEAN member nations and its dialogue partners has contributed to setting principles that have inspired the region’s peace and prosperity.
That supportive environment enabled the formation of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand trade agreement, opening ASEAN’s 620 million population and US$3.24 trillion economy to Australian businesses and investment. With over $100 billion in two-way trade in goods and services, Australia’s trade with ASEAN became its second largest.
Shared regional interests made it natural for Australia and Indonesia to embark on deeper and broader maritime cooperation. The recently signed Joint Maritime Declaration sets tangible cooperation to underscore the commitment to unimpeded commerce and navigation, sustainable use of marine resources, addressing transnational crimes and peaceful resolutions of maritime disputes.
As I bid farewell to Australia, I am comforted by the thought that more and more Australians and Indonesians are spending time together.
For Australia and Indonesia, there is no other choice than to devote time to live together peacefully in the region and to trade together for prosperity.