Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, April 1, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

As a person lucky enough to win an Australian Development Scholarship, I had the privilege of not only developing my research skills and enhancing my academic standing at the oldest Australian university, but also to delve into the heart of the Australian way of life and gain an insight into Australian perspectives.

In the light of the historical visit by Indonesian president this month to Australia, I would like to reflect on my personal experience of how my three-year stay in the country deepened my understanding of our southern neighbor which is culturally, economically and politically so different from us.

The first event that shaped my perceptions was when I saw a group of Palestinian-Australian students demonstrating to protest Israeli attack on the late Yasser Arafat’s headquarter just about 100 meters away from a group of Jewish-Australian students commemorating the Holocaust. No violence, not even verbal.

There was a great deal of tolerance! Many people showed respect and interest by talking to both sides. I could not imagine this happening in our county where anti-Semitism has become almost the flesh on our bones.

And when the Bali blast killed many Australians, I immediately extended my condolences to an officemate in the faculty, who immediately replied, “I feel so sorry for the Balinese who also lost their lives. It must be hard for their families.” I could see obvious sadness on her face, but I did not see any anger, although she later told me that one of her friends was killed.

But that was in the academic world! How about outside the university? During one party, one of the girls I recently met could not hide her anger and cynicism, “Bali is totally different from the rest of Indonesia. It doesn’t actually belong to your country.” I politely responded, “Even without Bali, our country is still so diverse, so what do you mean by the rest of Indonesia?” “The rest means the Muslim majority.” I saw no point in arguing any more.

On one evening when we were in a bar in Newtown, some of my international friends verbally attacked me, “Your country must be a very dangerous place as there are so many Muslims there!” While I was only having a glass of an orange juice and the others were drinking beer, the comment was more than enough to make my blood boil. I said angrily that violence is “so normal” in Indonesia that a simple communal fight could result in headless bodies lying on the street. It was my Australian friend who calmed me down as he pulled me out of the bar before driving me home.

The Bali blast, in fact, profoundly shocked Australia, and people spontaneously responded by giving donation. They were greatly united in sorrow. Indeed, in a country where violence is so rare, the Bali blast was seen as an immense catastrophe. By contrast, in our country, where violence is almost the norm, the blast was perhaps regarded as “business as usual”.

In general, I found that the Australians are more forgiving and humanistic in nature. The donations flowed not only to the Australian victims, but even more so to the Indonesians in Bali who suffered in the incident. The Australian government even built a hospital there as sign of appreciation to the Balinese.

Another example of this humanistic character was the public reaction after the Australian security forces broke down the door of an Indonesian Muslim family’s house in Lakemba—an area of Sydney with a big Muslim population. The next morning the newspapers were filled with letters protesting the alleged harsh treatment that the suspected “terrorist” Muslim family had to endure.

They expressed great sympathy for the devout Muslim family. There were also news reports in which the reporters interviewed the family’s neighbors, who defended them as a caring family that could not possibly be involved in terrorism. Later, the authorities returned their confiscated possessions.

In Indonesia, however, the incident sparked huge protests. Browsing the internet, I found that there were almost everyday demonstrations protesting the alleged harsh treatment that the Indonesian family received.

However, no Indonesian news outlet reported anything about how the sections of the Australian public who responded sympathetically to the incident. In most of the Indonesian media, the overall picture portrayed was that the Australians were bent on a crusade for vengeance.

What made me feel ashamed, therefore, was our imprudent attitude and the fact that we seemed to forget that many Australians had lost their lives in a vicious way in the hand of terrorists who happened to be Indonesians. Yet, they were still able to display genuine sympathy for us. These humanistic and forgiving acts of many sections of Australian society should open our eyes when assessing the character of our southern neighbor. This was further evidenced when the tsunami devastated large swathes of Aceh. The reaction of the Australian public was unprecedented and their donations were the biggest in the world. What more evidence do we need?

However, we still need greater efforts to help our fellow countrymen truly comprehend and appreciate the character of our southern neighbor. While one cannot make generalizations, it is nevertheless a fact that exposing ourselves to their lives is an invaluable experience and helps us gain a clearer picture of the way in which Australians perceive us as their northern neighbor. I found that education is the best bridge that can facilitate this. Further educational collaboration, such as student exchange programs, will enhance genuine understanding between the people of our two countries. As John Howard once said, “We can change our friends, but not our neighbor.”

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