Jakarta. Photo: Didier Marti/Getty

Indonesia is the future. We’ve got to start paying attention

New Zealand is underprepared for Indonesia’s rapid economic growth, and our nearest Asian neighbour is a potential close friend, writes Jordan King

Ask a New Zealander to discuss Indonesia and you may get a response about Bali, Bintangs, or perhaps West Papua or The Act of Killing. Or you might get no response at all. This is not unusual nor a condition specific to Aotearoa. Describing the nation’s global visibility Elizabeth Pisani, author of Indonesia Etc, quotes one Indonesia businessman who calls his country “the biggest invisible thing on the planet” for its lack of global cut through.

The exact number of islands which constitute Indonesia differs depending on whether you draw your measure at high or low tide: somewhere near 17,000 is the consensus. The nation is the world’s fourth most populous and is the third largest democracy. It is the largest Muslim majority country. Many economists predict Indonesia will be the world’s fourth largest economy in 2050.Geopolitics in our region are getting more complex, we need more close friends in Asia. A rising regional power with a nascent democracy and a comparatively free press is an ideal candidate.

The starting point for building a deep friendship is for New Zealand society to become intrigued about Indonesian politics and society. Muldoon’s mercantilist epithet – “our foreign policy is Trade” – must be banished. If you possess even a modicum of interest about the wider world there is much to find fascinating about Indonesia. Consider the upcoming general election to be held on 17 April. Vying to hold together and lead a nation of 240 million spread across 6000 inhabited island are two candidates. The incumbent Joko Widodo or ‘Jokowi’ the former governor of Jakarta and the challenger, former commando and Suharto-era general Prabowo Subianto.

This is their second fight, having first competed in the 2014 election. In that campaign Jokowi was characterised as ‘Obama-like’, promising to challenge Jakarta’s comfortable elite in the interests of the people. A key ingredient in Jokowi’s political marketing is his outsider status – the son of furniture makers in central Java he is the first President without an elite military, bureaucratic, or moneyed background. By contrast, Prabowo’s former father-in-law was the late General Suharto who ruled the nation for 31 years. Prabowo is pinning his hopes on Jokowi’s patchy economic performance.

Jokowi promised an annual economic growth rate of seven percent, however the reality has been closer to five. Average incomes in Indonesia significantly trail those of neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia. Many Indonesians do not feel significantly better off than they did four years ago. A falling rupiah and increasing cost of basic staples means there is currency in Prabowo’s pocketbook campaign strategy. Unless something extraordinary comes to pass this is unlikely to sink Jokowi. Indonesians appear satisfied overall with progress on health and education, and are comfortable with the current security situation. Inflation remains under control, and a flurry of badly needed infrastructure projects (15 airports, 24 ports, thousands of miles of new rail and road projects) are at least under way though there is always a low hum of consternation regarding corruption and the eye-watering price tag (US$355 billion) of these works. How do you make Auckland appear a beacon of organised and efficient transport planning? Spend three hours in Jakarta traffic attempting to reach Soekarno–Hatta Airport before your flight closes.

Another aspect of the election speaks to Indonesia’s remarkable demographic picture. Around 55% of enrolled voters on election day will be millennials. Indonesia has a young population with half of its 240 million citizens under 30. The average age in New Zealand is around 38 and rising. Growth predictions have Indonesia tracking for 300 million by 2035. There is significant pressure on policymakers to generate sustainable job growth and public services to produce work and wellbeing; spreading that growth beyond Java presents another challenge.

This trajectory obviously means the Indonesian market for services, technology and consumer goods is on the make. Internet figures are indicative. Uptake has doubled since 2014 driven in large part by urban millennials with newly affordable smartphones. Indonesia is now one of the biggest users of Twitter and Facebook. While our diplomats are very skilled I suspect Indonesian social media exuberance is behind the 244,000 Facebook ‘likes’ for the New Zealand Embassy Jakarta page.

From a social perspective, Indonesia is less conservative than is often portrayed. You will find bespectacled hipsters in Jakarta or Yogyakarta serving single-origin coldbrew as good as anything in Wellington. My preconceptions of Indonesia were excised when I became trapped in a moshpit of hijab wearing punk rockers in Bandung. For it turns out Indonesia has a vast underground punk scene – even Jokowi is a fan. Despite political and religious movements seeking to reshape and monopolise public morality, AUT researcher Sharyn Davies relates a general openness on sex and sexuality. Indonesia has a significant cultural history of gender fluidity and diversity.

How then to strengthen our relationship with Indonesia?

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Three propositions come to mind. With more than 300 million speakers, Bahasa Indonesia is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world. Yet no New Zealand university offers an Indonesian language major at undergraduate level. All but one of Australia’s top ‘Group of Eight’ universities offer Indonesian language, society and culture programmes. If we value a closer relationship this must change. While much rides on New Zealanders becoming more ‘Asia engaged’ in general we need specialists immersed in the linguistic, political, historic as well as commercial nuances of Indonesia. We cannot produce specialists without building and sustaining spaces in our institutions to do so. AUT’s Indonesia Centre, a public outreach partnership with the Indonesian government, is a laudable step forward but a strong commitment to expanding linguistic and research capacities in our university system needs to come from our government.

The second proposition relates the media and the public sphere. We have existing programmes, through the Asia New Zealand Foundation, which provide established journalists and students with opportunities to visit Indonesia. The Foundation has also established the Asia Media Centre to journalists for access information and expertise on Asia and Asian peoples. Such programmes are vital. What we need, however, is for our large broadcasters – particularly our state-owned institutions – to produce greater amounts of content. Certainly on Indonesia, but to educate and inform on Asia in general. Again, such a project requires consistent institutional commitment and resourcing. Our SOE model, particularly with respect to television broadcasting constrains rather than enables such a commitment. Other nationally important imperatives – like building a cosmopolitan understanding of Asia need to be valued as much as commercial imperatives. Having lost Asia Downunder on TVNZ in 2011 and Asian Report on Radio New Zealand in 2013 we’ve gone backwards.

The last proposition is about increasing flows of people, particularly in pursuit of education but also of public servants, technical experts, sports groups, and artists. A stronger friendship requires greater flows in both directions. On the education front a tension exists between the logic of New Zealand’s education export market and a more cooperative, assistive way forward. We should tread carefully, tempering an interest in attracting fee-paying students by providing opportunities for Indonesians to study in New Zealand with support through greater provision of scholarships. Particularly Indonesians with established careers in public administration, civil society leadership, and business who are seeking postgraduate training and will go on to lead in their field. Like any friendship fond memories, new knowledge and shared experience produces enduring warmth and goodwill.  It is time for New Zealand to put in the effort. It will doubtless be worth it.

Jordan King is a PhD Candidate at the University of Auckland and a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network


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