By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Somewhere recently I read an piece by a U.S.-based analyst that I can’t, however ingeniously I go googling, find now. It said something condescending like this: with the U.S. and China competing for influence in Indonesia, Indonesian leaders are going to have to pick up some extraordinary diplomatic skills in order to play the one off against the other successfully.
That Indonesia will have to string its Chinese and American suitors along in coming years I don’t doubt. But, having been fluent in Indonesian and having worked for three years in Jakarta and Medan, pursuing what is now called public diplomacy, I really did have to laugh at the suggestion that Indonesians need instruction in the subtleties of diplomatic interaction. Clearly the (happily unnamed) writer knows little of what you will (I hope) pardon me for referring to as the “Indonesian mind” in any of its many ethnic variants.
As an immediate corrective to his (it was a he) misperception, I would suggest a visit to a museum with a collection of daggers from the archipelago. A kris can be an artwork of sublime beauty. Its ways of killing have also been highly developed. Just a glance at those exquisite wavy or serrated blades, which may or may not have been anointed with poison, sends shivers down my spine. Sitting in on conversations between Indonesians, I often felt I was in the presence of some very sophisticated verbal kris-work.
Coincidentally, shortly after encountering the above cited bit of pseudo-analysis, I stumbled upon a lovely demonstration of Indonesia’s undoubted ability to understand and cope with the world as it is. The quote comes from a Jakarta Post column by veteran lawyer/politician/educator Jusuf Wanandi. He's musing over Beijing’s inept handing of economic issues sure to be discussed at the upcoming G20 meeting.
The Chinese might have a point to resist US pressures, such as to revaluate the yuan to reduce imbalances. They could do it with finesse and nuance.
This is at least expected from a big power that is self-confident and knows what it wants. One can always cooperate to find solutions, especially if one is in a better and more powerful position.
In the end, while China has elevated its stature globally, it is still limited in the economic realm. I assume Deng Xiaoping’s advice from some decades ago is still valid: Don’t have hubris, don’t be over-confident — and play your strengths with care.
Similar commentary on the Obama visit exemplifies the sort of editorial writing that also flourished in the Suharto era when I was reading newspapers in Indonesian as well as English. The style is still in style, it seems. To see what I mean, I recommend reading from start to finish a "welcome Barry" editorial. While appearing to be gratified by Obama’s bahasa-studded flattery (Obama also laid it on too icky thick in India, with Hindi, to my mind), the Post gets in some very heavy criticism, alternating ever so delicately between the pros and sorta cons, making points but refraining from anything so crude as a death blow.
When I was working in Indonesia, often preparing media reaction cables (no email then), I came to enjoy this style that frustrated many of my colleagues. "Indonesian journalists should learn to get to the point," they complained. To that there were three responses. For one thing, it was dangerous to be too overt when it came to criticizing the Suharto regime. Writing nakedly, you could end up dead; sinuous indirection would allow you to speak your mind and survive. Equally important, was the matter of language itself. Bahasa Indonesia has two passive voices and only one active voice. Finally, there’s etiquette. Even among the supposedly unrefined Bataks of North Sumatra, you couldn't just blurt things out. So Indonesian editorializing wasn’t bad writing. It’s just wasn’t American writing. And it still isn’t.
That being the case, let me translate the Post’s conveniently Englished, Obama-centered editorials and columns into Americanese. This is what I get:
1. It was deeply insulting for Obama to cancel his previous visits. We Indonesians haven’t quite forgiven him, but we did appreciate his all-out homecoming performance this time. A caution, however. If he’s serious about how important we are to the U.S. (we’ve heard this before), he won’t cancel the trip he’s promised for next year. Still, maximal expectations have to be tempered by realism (another under-appreciated Indonesian trait). As Abdillah Toha put it in another Post column, “Despite many problems that point to the declining power of the US, America is still a superpower to be reckoned with. Thus America is more important to Indonesia than vice versa.”
2. America and Indonesia do indeed share certain constitutionally-enshrined political values (unity in diversity, religious tolerance, etc.), which should make it relatively easy to cooperate, and we love it when you Americans mention this. However, this apparent affinity can degenerate into words, words, words.
3. Yes, we Indonesians are pretty tolerant, but most of us are Muslims, and we think the U..S. condones intolerable behavior by Israel. To make this brotherhood business work, we need to see serious changes in America’s policy in the Middle East Israeli settlements need to be stopped. Israel’s disproportionate response to Palestinian provocation is also unacceptable. We didn’t hear anything encouraging during Obama’s visit.
4. Nevertheless, since we Indonesians are indeed realistic and pragmatic and because China is getting too damned peremptory, Indonesia is willing to cut the U.S. a little slack.
As Wanandi put it: “For Indonesia, a US presence in East Asia is important so Indonesia has the option to implementing [sic] a free and independent foreign policy. It is also important for other small and middle-sized countries to pursue their national interests in East Asia.”
Jakarta Post items worth reading:
For less on style and more on policy check this out: