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.

In Conversation with Desi Anwar: The Transition to Democracy and Journalistic Freedom

With a career spanning over two decades, Desi Anwar is a household name in Indonesia. She is a distinguished columnist, senior anchor, journalist and the host of Insight with Desi Anwar on CNN Indonesia. The AIYA team caught up with Desi to talk about her remarkable homeland.

Source: Whiteboard Journal

In this article, the first in a two-part series, Desi Anwar gives us a unique perspective on journalistic freedom in Indonesia during the Soeharto era compared to now.

Beginning her television career in 1990, during the time of The New Order regime, Desi didn’t just witness the transition to democracy – she was centre stage reporting on it to the nation.

When I began my career, Indonesia only had one television station and the press was very heavily censored. This station was state sponsored TVRI, a public relations tool for the government reporting on development progress and telling good news stories about Indonesia. If you wanted to see the bad news about the rest of the world, you watched Dunia Dalam Berita but on TVRI – only good things happened in Indonesia.

Desi began her career with Indonesia’s first commercial television channel RCTI, owned by the son of ex-President Soekarno, and pioneered the country’s leading primetime news program, Seputar Indonesia.

At the time, Seputar Indonesia was called a “magazine” because we couldn’t talk about the “news”. We couldn’t report on politics or anything to do with religious ethnic and tribal tensions. We focused on the lives of ordinary Indonesian’s, life in Jakarta, macet, the floods and so on. And this is what made the show so popular – Seputar Indonesia was about what was important to the people. It wasn’t about what the government thinks it’s important to you. What people think is important can include economic, social and cultural issues.

Within six months of its launch the show it was a hit – they put towers up all across Indonesia so that the entire country could watch. The show gained such popularity that the government decided that if they didn’t appear on Seputar Indonesia, nobody would be watching them and they would be left behind.

We created a new way of imparting information that had never happened before.

Following the show’s immense popularity, airing four times a day, Seputar Indonesia was invited to do more formal coverage reporting on what the government was doing, they joined Presidential trips and state visits.

After seeing the success of RCTI within the next few years, Indonesia saw explosive growth in the media industry. The nation went from having only one state-sponsored television channel to having five national channels all competing for attention. At the same time, the spread of information grew as more and more Indonesian people were gaining access to new information through free-to-air television.

Over the course of the next eight years, the Indonesian people got used to seeing themselves on television and knowing what was going on around them. In 1998, when the economic crisis hit, Seputar Indonesia reported on the drop in the Rupiah from 2000 IDR to 1 USD to 10,000 IDR to 1 USD. And when the student demonstrations and riots began Seputar was airing it.

I remember one day when the students were standing on top of the Parliament building and the house speaker Harmoko, from the Ministry of Information – then seen as very much a loyalist to Soeharto and the guy who would be calling me to say “you’re not allowed to do that, and you can only do this” – actually convened with the other ministers saying that Soeharto had to step down. We were the only one that taped this.

I remember, the top management team coming down and saying “I got a phone call from the owner of the television station asking – why is Harmoko on my television telling the President Soeharto to step down by Thursday?” And I responded with, “well you know, all this time we had to air everything that came out of his mouth. Well look, I can’t control what came out of his mouth this time, but I still think it’s my duty to air it.” So they couldn’t really say anything.

I came in at a time when Indonesia was very much under an authoritarian leadership, and there was no freedom press until the reformasi in 1998. And this would not have happened without the growth in the television industry.

The point is that for television – Indonesian people felt that they owned the television and felt that they had a right to be getting the up the most up-to-date information.

And that was the process I went through in my work, the process of Indonesia’s democratisation.

I saw the birth of thousands of TV channels, hundreds of local channels, internet websites and Indonesian’s are now most active social media users in the world. Indonesia has one of the freest media across the ASEAN countries. This is something I am very proud to be part of – because it is very much the history of Indonesia.

Because, I think, I was not only in the wings but I was on the stage, sharing in that history and seeing how the nation developed and had grown into what it is now – a vibrant democracy.

I think that a lot of young people take it for granted now that we have many television stations and free press. But it’s not something that was given to us – it was not a right. It was something that we had to fight for, and it was an opportunity. And if we didn’t do something with that opportunity, it would have been a shame – because then Indonesia’s history would have taken a different direction.

In Conversation with Desi Anwar will continue next week as we explore how Indonesians and Australians perceive one another and opportunities for future people-to-people engagement between our two countries.

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.