According to a new survey of Australian and Indonesian perceptions, Indonesians feel they understand Australia quite well, while few Australians feel they have good knowledge about Indonesia.
The recent survey by research firm EY Sweeney on behalf of the Australia-Indonesia Centre (AIC) shows 74% of Indonesian respondents feel they have good or moderate understanding of Australia. Additionally, 87% feel favourable towards Australia.
In contrast, only 53% of Australian respondents feel they have good or moderate knowledge about Indonesia. Only 43% of Australians feel favourable towards Indonesia.
The AIC noted the survey results point to an attitude divide between Australians and Indonesians. This gap needs to be bridged if the two countries are to achieve the improvement in the relationship they need to progress together.
However, it’s equally important for us to think about the gap between what Australians and Indonesians reportedly perceive and the realities on the ground.
How Indonesians view Australia
The survey results paint Indonesians as open-minded and warm towards Australia. Nearly 90% of Indonesian respondents feel favourable towards Australia, 74% claim to have good or moderate knowledge about Australia. And 65% still feel they need to be more knowledgeable about Australia.
But examined further, the last response still ranked second-lowest among 17 statements surveyed to measure how Indonesians perceive the relationship with Australia. At the top of Indonesians' minds are the questions of how the Australian government can facilitate Indonesians studying (88%) and working (87%) in Australia.
Australia is very attractive for Indonesians pursuing higher education and jobs abroad. Indonesians recognise Australia as a Western developed economy that’s closest to them on the map.
Indonesians' interest in taking holidays, conducting business and getting an education in Australia shows a growing desire for increased mobility to Australia. But this does not necessarily mean that most Indonesians are eager to learn about Australia comprehensively. In fact, the report shows that Australian history, culture and politics ranked as the least-interesting aspects for Indonesians to learn about Australia.
Perhaps, the media are partly to blame. Despite its close proximity, Indonesian media do not treat Australia as a priority for news coverage. The latest Australian election was reported only once a week, whereas the US election received daily coverage in Indonesian media.
Indonesians' perception of their knowledge about Australia and their interest in knowing more about Australia also do not match the realities of Indonesia’s higher education sector. Dedicated research centres for Australian studies are few and far between. Professors with expertise and background in this area of interest are also quite hard to find.
Indonesian universities often have resource centres for foreign studies. Universitas Gadjah Mada, for example, has research centres for German, Japanese and European studies, but doesn’t have a centre for Australian studies.
Australian studies can only be found in Indonesian universities through a specific course on Australian politics or foreign policy. It is taught at only 63 out of 4,300 higher education institutions in the country. Lecturers also face problems in delivering these courses, as most of the materials are at times irrelevant or out of date.
As the relationship between the countries often faces rough patches, knowledge on these aspects is very useful to help Indonesians understand the political, social and cultural context of Australian government policymaking.
How Australians view Indonesia
On the Australian side, the survey shows Australians have negative attitudes towards Indonesia. This not a real surprise as in the past few years many Australian universities have dropped Asian language programs, particularly Indonesian. The recent teaching staff cuts in Indonesian studies at the Australian National University may also exacerbate the decrease in interest in Indonesia.
Classical stereotyping remains strong as most Australians think Indonesia is religious. This does not mean the finding is untrue, but it does not provide a complete picture of Indonesia.
Australians' strong interest in increasing trade with Indonesia reflects an awareness of Indonesia’s economic prospects. But only 28% of them agree that improved media coverage is important to help Australians understand Indonesia better.
This means existing stereotypes will prevail and Australians associations with Indonesia may continue to be limited to boat people, executions, the live cattle trade and terrorism.
Yet the survey finding on Australians' level of interest in Indonesia should not be overgeneralised. There are pockets of Australia that are showing deep interest in understanding Indonesia better. The Australian government’s New Colombo Plan, for example, has contributed to growing interest among young Australians in visiting and studying in Indonesia.
The AIC report aims to spur a debate about ways to improve awareness and understanding. The finding that Indonesians are eager to learn more about Australia should be seen as an opportunity for Indonesia to improve Australian studies in the country.
To shape better relations, interest in Australia should go beyond “holiday destinations”, “jobs” and “university degrees”.
Australia should also find ways to learn more about Indonesia. The existing interests of Australians in Indonesian culture, history and economy are good starting points to improve the relationship.
Australians should also move away from rigid stereotypes of Indonesia. This will not be easy if Australian media continue to focus on negative and sensationalist issues as headline news about Indonesia.
Authors: Hangga Fathana, Lecturer in International Relations, Universitas Islam Indonesia