In Conversation with Desi Anwar: Perspectives, perceptions and pathways for engagement across Indonesia and Australia

Welcome to the second-part of our series In Conversation with Desi Anwar. In this article, Desi Anwar reflects on how we as Indonesians and Australians perceive one another and opportunities for future engagement between our two countries. You can catch the first part in the series article exploring Indonesia’s journalistic freedom and the transition to democracy here.

Desi Anwar and Cass Grant at the Sydney Writers Festival

So much of the time, our perceptions are influenced by what we see in the media. If we look at current affairs, good news is bad news – and this is the news that sells. So how does that affect the perceptions that we as Indonesians and Australians have of one another?

We are all very much constrained with our own perceptions that the media feeds us.

The thing about Indonesia is – it’s an incredibly diverse and complex nation. I think, we fail to, and it’s difficult for a neighbouring country to understand just how complex Indonesia is. Indonesia is too big a country to be categorised and stereotyped by one small thing such as terrorism, natural disasters or poverty.

Focussing on one element of a country is an easy way to dismiss its complexity.

And there is no reason that people wouldn’t think things like this about Indonesia unless we come up with a much more complete picture.

This perception is a fault of the media in many ways. Indonesia is a huge, diverse and plural country and yet so often the media doesn’t include this context. Indonesia has many different ethnic groups, and yes the country is facing all sorts of issues from natural and man-made disasters, equitable development, forest and land burning and corruption. But the context is important – and unless we understand this context, we cannot begin to understand Indonesia.

Indonesians have a much better perception of Australia. One of the reasons for this is that many Indonesian parents can afford to send their children to Australia to study. This positive perception needs to be advanced on a much more intensive level.

By advancing these positive views we can help to overcome some of the other perceptions that Indonesians have of Australians from media. For example, one picture of Australians that Indonesians are presented with is of Australians in Bali. Often, this is of rowdy and disrespectful tourists and backpackers.

So, if we want to advance the stability, prosperity and development of our two countries and the relationships between them, what can we do to move past these perceptions?

There should be more of an effort to portray what we are at the end of the day – we’re neighbours.

There needs to be more effort to understand one another, we need to stop judging one another and we need to see where we can work together.

Australians need to go past Bali – there are 17 thousand islands of amazing beauty.

Indonesians are highly mobile, but when we go abroad, we’re not keen to settle in other countries, and we are forever homesick. We miss our mie instan, abon and rendang. Indonesians love their country with a genuine passion.

At the same time, as Indonesians we are our own harshest critic – especially when it comes to democracy. We are always criticising everything, the little things that don’t work, corruption, government effectiveness, lying politicians and so on. At the end of the day, Indonesians really feel that they want to be part of Indonesia’s future. We’re not apathetic and at election time – everybody turns up to vote, and it is peaceful at the polling booths.

All of these complexities within Indonesia should be understood by our neighbours – but at the same time – it’s nice that we are sort of a big secret. People have to physically visit Indonesia to realise that it is an incredible place to be. I am sure that in time, people will stop saying, “Indonesia, it’s a dangerous place we visited”, and they will start saying “it’s a dangerously beautiful place”. 

My advice to young Indonesians and Australians is that by opening up dialogue, borders, and experiences we can create a shared future.

Young people are open minded, curious and interested – they are the future of our relationship. By facilitating cultural and student exchanges we can give these young people the opportunity to experience and learn from one another.

I think that what will really shape the way that we view one another is through human contact. The best way to learn about the country is to learn about its people. Have real experiences, beyond what you see on television or read in social media or newspapers.

Indonesia is undergoing immense growth, and it is attracting large amounts of investment. Every Indonesian city has its own charm, rich tradition, culture and culinary experiences to offer. The opportunities and memories you can create in Indonesia are endless.

By crossing the border and meeting our neighbours – we can shift our perspectives and expand our perceptions by coming face-to-face with the beauty and complexity of our two nations.

We would like to thank Desi Anwar for taking the time to speak with us, our remarkable interview team of Cass Grant and Anastasia Pavlovic, and the team at the Sydney Writers Festival for making this interview possible.