Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 July 1994, p. 16.
One thing off the agenda in the Prime Minister’s meetings with Indonesian President Suharto was immigration. Yet this is one of the most important issues in the developing relationship between Australia and Indonesia.
At first blush this claim may sound absurd. Not many Indonesians migrate to Australia or qualify to so do. Indeed in 1992-93 fewer than 700 Indonesian citizens migrated to Australia. But in the future, it may be a different story.
Understandably the Prime Minister’s visit to Indonesia attracted media attention on three fronts: Indonesia’s recent suppression of Tempo and other publications (and what Mr Keating might say about this), the diferences and complementarities in the two countries’ approaches to diplomacy (such as the role of APEC) and trade.
Australian business leaders are excited by tales of the size of the Indonesian market: 180 million people, 10 per cent of whom are a relatively privileged middle class. The PM’s delegation included a number of captains of industry including Frank Blount of Telecom, Ian Burgess of AMP, and John David of Davids’ Holdings.
Indonesia is a significant market for Australia with $3 billion worth of trade in the last financial year. Developing trade links was a big part of the Australian delegation’s focus and so it should be.
Ignored in this exploration of opportunities for Australia is thts prospect: Indonesia as a source of migrants.
Forget about the fantasy of millions of Javanese seeking living space in northern Australia. (The experience in trying to resettle “migrants” in Irian Jaya has taught the Indonesians a thing or two about the folly of settling inhospitable territory).
Forget also the relatively minor if irritating problem of Indonesian fishermen jumping ship in northern harbours (or the problem of “illegal fishing”). No, the real opportunity and prospect for Australia is that educated and/or wealthy Indonesians will want to move to this country.
Many of these immigrants will be ethnic Chinese. Incidentally, many of the leaders of Indonesia’s growing number of entrepreneurs and business people are Chinese – most of whose families have been in the country for five or six generations.
The unmentionable Questions in Indonesian-Australian summits include the issue of succession planning after Suharto, race tensions and this very question – Australia as a potential refuge for migrants from Indonesia.
Actually, the ban on Tempo, the possibility that this has something to do with succession tensions between civilians in the Suharto government and the military, the recent race riots in Sumatra and the issue of trade links are all opportunities for Australia in this context.
Suharto has a good reputation for fostering stability, economic growth and order in his country. Obviously that is not the only criteria on which to judge the Suharto presidency, but it is a creditable achievement given the disparate challenges across the Indonesian archipelago.
Indonesia is a land of hundreds of different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The key questions for the future are: After Soeharto who? Will there be a crack-up? What will be the position of the Islamic extremists, now under check? Will the growing prosperity and growing wealth of the Chinese business leaders cause populist leaders to demand checks on so-called Chinese power? Does the recent Sumatra experience point to problems to come?
In the minds of ethnic Indonesian Chinese the uncertain answers about these questions cloud their future.
The race upheavals in Medan, Sumatra, in April are a reminder of two uncomfortable facts: First, ethnic Chinese are uncertain about their future in Indonesia and second, the past: The Year of Living Dangerously (1965 and all that).
There were many negative consequences for the Indonesian Chinese population (now estimated at 10 million) following the attempted Communist coup in 1965, which saw Suharto emerge as Indonesia’s strongman.
Many thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of Chinese were killed in the mayhem after the suppression of the out. The Indonesian Communist Party had some significant ethnic Chinese leaders and was aligned to the Chinese Communist Party in the worldwide communist schism.
All this is a painful memory. But recent events bring this back into mind. It would be a mistake to exaggerate the degree of racial tension in Indonesia. The official government ideology of Pancasila encourages tolerance based on the five principles of belief in one Supreme God, a just and civilised humanity, Indonesian national unity, democracy and social justice.
The traces of authoritarian bullying by the Indonesian authorities, however, are a reminder that the high ideals of those principles are not always borne out in practice. Assimilation has worked to some extent. The situation in 1994 is nothing like the mid-1960s. The linguistic and cultural differences are not as sharp as in Malaysia, though there is not as much intermarriage between Chinese and other races as is the case in Thailand
The Chinese in Indonesia are very valuable to the country’s economy; letting them go or allowing a climate that encourages many of them to move elsewhere is not in Indonesia’s national interest.
At the risk of ethnic stereotyping, it is true that the Indonesian Chinese are the nation’s most important entrepreneurial source. Their prominence in the Indonesian economy is of considerable help in attracting investment from Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region.
Such successful business people would make excellent citizens in Australia. The economic dynamism and opportunities in Indonesia are sound reasons why most of them will want to stay where they are. But in the future?
The possibility of supranationalist, Islamic-based extremists taking over in Indonesia, admittedly, is remote. However Indonesia awaits its first peaceful transition of power whenever Suharto retires. That event, in itself, encourages uncertainty.
That is why many Chinese Indonesians will think about educating their children in Australia, investing here and, in effect, hedging their bets. Australia is certain to be “home” for many of these people in the future. Developments in Indonesia will be critical in determining how many.
In conceiving my piece (in writing for the AFR, I wanted to come up with a few original ideas), I tried to reach out to ANU Indonesian expert Professor Jamie Mackie (1924-2011), who I had met a few times. He finally rang back, after my article was published, and he said he read the piece with great interest, hoped Indonesia would not turn unfriendly (again) to its Chinese population, but he thought the scenario sketched plausible.