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What Indonesians in Australia would like their neighbours to understand better about their home country

By Erwin Renaldi, Farid M IbrahimHellena Souisa and Sastra Wijaya

Is Indonesia an Islamic country or just a country with lots of Muslims? Is it all just like Bali? Is the whole place “poor, uneducated and underdeveloped”?

Indonesians and Australians have been on good terms for hundreds of years — at least — but still some Australians have serious misconceptions about our big neighbour to our immediate north.

Indonesia is predicted to be world’s fourth-biggest economy in 30 years from now and experts warn that Australia could miss out on big opportunities if this country fails to understand Indonesians better.

So, to mark Indonesia’s 77th Independence Day on Wednesday, August 17, the ABC has asked Indonesians in Australia what they wished Australians would learn about their home country.

Students from an Islamic boarding school in Medan, Indonesia
Indonesia is a majority Muslim country but has a secular government. (Reuters: Roni Bintang)

Indonesia is not an Islamic country

Rangga Daranindra, who came to Darwin 11 years ago as a student, said the misconceptions Australians had about Indonesia were usually just due to a lack of understanding.

“They simply don’t know us very well,” he told the ABC.

One of the mistakes he often encounters is that Indonesia is an Islamic country.

A man smiling to camera in his office
Rangga Daranindra hopes Australia won’t miss out on the opportunities available as Indonesia’s economy develops.(Supplied)

“It’s common that people normally compare Indonesia with countries [such as] Iran or Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding that many also thought Indonesia was ruled by a dictator.

“Yes, it’s true that the majority of Indonesians are, like myself, Muslim. [But] we’re not constitutionally a Muslim country.

“Indonesia is a secular state by law. We acknowledge six different religions.”

Aceh is the only province that follows Sharia law — a law based on Islamic rules.

Even there, some argue, the state does not apply the real teachings of Islam, which can be contradictory with practices in the Sumatran province.

Mr Daranindra — who is originally from Yogyakarta in Central Java — suggested that people who wanted to know his country better make friends with Indonesians.

“Most of the time, [Australians] don’t have enough Indonesian friends to be able to exchange ideas or opinions. They just get their stories from the news or from the media outlets,” he said.

Mr Daranindra is worried Australia could miss the boat when Indonesia becomes an economic powerhouse in the region.

“There is a lot of opportunity that Australia can take from Indonesia, like the human resources,” he said.

More people should learn Indonesian

Diza Alia
Diza Alia says both the Australian and Indonesian governments need to make more of an effort to boost interest in learning Bahasa Indonesia.

Diza Alia — who has lived in Australia for more than 20 years — said she feels proud every time an Australian speaks to her in Indonesian.

One day, someone greeted her in Bahasa Indonesia after hearing her on the phone speaking to a friend in Indonesia.

“After I hung up the phone, he said ‘Apa kabar?’ [how are you?] and I was a bit surprised because he didn’t seem to be an Indonesian,” Ms Alia said.

“I feel happy and proud because he can speak a little in Bahasa Indonesia.”

Ms Alia — the director of public relations with the Indonesian Students’ Association of Australia — said Bahasa Indonesia teaching at schools in Australia had been declining due to a lack of interest and funding.

She said the Indonesian and Australian governments needed to make more of an effort.

“Indonesians living in Australia are generally less likely to promote Bahasa Indonesia to Australians,” she said.

“Instead, they would do their best to speak English.”

Kathy Kimpton
Kathy Kimpton believes Indonesians in Australia can help to promote a better understanding of her home country.

‘It’s not a poor country’

Kathy Kimpton — who migrated to Australia in 1998 — said some people believed Indonesia was a poor, uneducated and underdeveloped country and that made her uncomfortable.

“I really hope to change this negative perception,” Ms Kimpton said.

“I hope all Indonesians residing and living in Australia can change this by becoming an ambassador for their home country.

“Indonesia is not a poor country nor are its people uneducated.”

Ms Kimpton — who works in a private school — said many Indonesians may act shy, but it showed they were generally humble and polite, not necessarily because they don’t understand.

Lingga Lana Gunawan — a primary school school teacher — said students had asked whether she used to live in a tree in the forest.

She said these sort of misunderstandings showed there wasn’t enough news about Indonesia in the Australian media.

“I know this may be an innocent question from a child, but I also wonder, where do these children get information about Indonesia?” Ms Gunawan said.

Four colourfully dressed bissu stand in a row with cultural worker Dasriana in the centre.
Ancestors of the Bugis people, an ethnic group in South Sulawesi, had trade relationships with Indigenous Australians before European settlement.(Supplied: Dasriana)

‘Not only Bali’

Ever since Ms Gunawan came to Australia in 2008, as a student, there has been one misperception that had persisted, no matter how many times she and others tried to correct it.

“Maybe we are tired of hearing it but, really, I have to say it again: ‘Indonesia is not just Bali’,” she said.

She hoped more Australians would understand that Indonesia is a big, rich country, in terms of size, culture, tourist attractions and natural resources.

A family of four looking at the camera and smiling. The mother is wearing hijab.
Lingga Lana Gunawan says some Australians are surprised to find out she speaks English.(Supplied)

Indonesia’s area is 1.9 million square kilometres and it consists of 17,499 islands, with 718 dialects.

As a Balinese in Australia, Putu Suta understands why people think that Bali is separate from Indonesia.

“I think because Bali is dominant with Hindus, while Indonesia is a country where the majority are Muslim,” he said.

a headshot a man with balinese dancer costum
Putu Suta, who owned an Indonesian restaurant in regional South Australia for 16 years, is also a Balinese dancer.(Supplied)

Mr Suta owned an Indonesian restaurant in Burra, a town in regional South Australia, for 16 years until deciding to close it last month.

A map of Indonesia was hanging on the wall of his restaurant and he said regular customers asked about other parts of the country, such as Sumatra, Kalimantan or even Papua.

“Then they realised how big Indonesia is,” he said.

Ms Gunawan hoped there would be more effort to introduce other parts of Indonesia as destinations for holidays and business trips.

“I think if more international flight routes were opened between cities in Australia and cities in Indonesia, not just Bali, the perception of Australians would eventually change.”

A woman looking at the camera, wearing orange traditional blouse.
Avi Mahaningtyas says even some Australian politicians need to increase their understanding of Indonesian society.(Supplied)

Indonesia misunderstood, even at the highest levels

Avi Mahaningtyas — who has been living in Canberra for the past 10 years — said misunderstandings of Indonesia were “quite severe”, even at the highest levels.

Recently, Pauline Hanson made headlines in Indonesia after proclaiming Bali was “totally different to other countries” in response to foot-and-mouth disease.

Ms Hanson also said travellers to Bali could bring the disease to Australia because cattle roamed the streets and holiday makers might step on cow manure.

Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, Sandiaga Uno, posted on his Instagram  saying her statement “wasn’t based on facts” and asked her “to never insult Bali”.

“I’m not comparing and, hopefully, everyone in Australia isn’t represented by Pauline Hanson, who recently made a lot of Indonesians angry,” Ms Mahaningtyas said.

She said more Indonesian-related topics, not just language, should be taught in schools so that more people would better understand the country’s political and cultural sensitivities.

“The ‘good neighbour’ policy should be applied for cultural and professional exchange and not just the sectors that benefit Australia,” she said.

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