The Bulletin / Newsweek: The Damage Done

The Bali expats and intelligentsia are disgusted by Australia’s racist reaction. The other 230 million Indonesians ask, “Schapelle who?”

BALI’s ubiquitous fleet of pedagang koran – Indonesia’s death-defying urchins who tempt motorists with mobile news stands at traffic lights - have a keen sense of their market. As motorists streamed into Denpasar last Friday morning, a foreign few racing to secure front row seats at Australia’s most eagerly-anticipated verdict since Azaria, the Lombok barefoots were peddling their usual line-up of papers at the busy Sanur Crossroads, the Jakarta Post – headline of the week; “Aussie Media Makes Martyr of Corby” – local papers Nusa and Bali Pos and the International Herald Tribune for the passing tourist.

But last Friday was different. This time, the touts balanced a pile of six-times-the-cover-price Adelaide Advertisers, West Australians, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, a Hobart Mercury for goodness’ sake – titles seldom seen beyond their home cities let alone abroad. Awash with cash, the Schappellites were in town – a white-skinned juggernaut of media, diplomats, lawyers, advisors, family, camp followers and rubberneckers - and primed for plundering, as Bali does particularly skilfully of foreign visitors.

With amber turning red, one bule (foreigner) stole a glimpse of the Melbourne Herald-Sun. The paperboy, no more than 12, sensed a kill, whispering a single word into his ear to clinch the sale. “Corrrrrbyy!!!,” the imp hissed, rolling his R’s into D’s as Indonesians do when speaking Bahasa, indeed just as the Sumatran Judge Linton Sirait would later when condemning ‘Our Schappelle”, and becoming Middle Australia’s most reviled man as he did.

But Bali’s news sellers also have a keen news sense. No sooner had Corby’s fate been SMSed to Aussies around Bali, to the angry majority at home and to many of the million expatriates abroad, many discomfitted at how readily their compatriots lost their collective rag and resorted to base racism in articulating it, the scamps were flogging the IHT and Paris’ Le Figaro. As Kerobokan Prison’s doors shut behind the teary, fainting girl with green eyes, as sweating hacks and hangers-on dashed home to plan the next media frenzy, pace the Bali Nine, and as an unhinged chorus of Australians pledged to boycott Bali - guilty only of being the venue for all this madness - Corby was old news on the island, if it ever commanded much meaningful attention at all.

“YOU know how much Balinese care about this case?” asks Made Wijaya, the Australian born Michael White and 34 years on the island, where he’s a world-ranked resort designer, and cross-cultural provocateur. “Kosong,” he answers, employing the Bahasa word for zero as he fashions an O with thumb and forefinger. A Bali champion, and an expert on local culture and architecture, Wijaya is for once more concerned for his birthland than his adopted home. “What’s happening down there? Have we gone completely and utterly mad? Its like the country’s been hijacked by madmen. I thought we were more grown up than that now in Asia. Clearly not.”

The harsh truth is that four million Balinese are not, as Corby’s hysterical mother Ros claims, ‘in shock’ at Judge Sirait’s decision to jail her daughter for 20 years. Nor are 230 million Indonesians. Ask Wayan Sugiartha, a literate, mid-level ticketing executive with Indonesia’s national airline Garuda in his early 30’s and married father of two. Entrenched in Bali’s middle-class, he’s used to dealing with emotional, demanding Australians. “I suppose for Australians this is sad and we feel sorry for her as a person,” he says. “But we are more worry (sic) about our president fixing KKN (the Bahasa acronym for Indonesia’s society-sapping culture of corruption, collusion and nepotism), the cost of fuel, making a job and to fix the tsunami in Aceh…we more concern about this than this bule lady.”

Neither is an Asia that John Howard increasingly wants Australia to be part of much moved. Says the state-owned New Paper in Singapore, supposedly Australia’s best friend in Asia – “Unfair Dinkum? Not!” Asians are baffled that an Australia they normally see as a no-nonsense and logical country struggling to shake off a not-too-distant racist past can so unquestioningly embrace a convicted criminal and be so incapable of accepting a procedure which, for once, was applied by an Indonesian court that maintained its constitutionally-enshrined but rarely-practised independence. Cold comfort this to 92% of Australians who believe her innocent– Indonesians praise the way their legal system performed during the Corby trial, how generous it was in handing her a lenient sentence, hopeful signs they think that laws are changing. By comparison, a young Balinese woman, tried in an adjacent court but lacking the werewithal to whip her compatriots into a media frenzy, got 15 years for holding 1.5 grams of marijuana; about enough for a joint, and 4098.5 grams less than the infamous boogieboard bag concealed.

Sabam Siagian knows Australians as well as any Indonesian can. One of Asia’s leading intellectuals, the Jakarta Post’s former chief editor was Indonesia’s ambassador in Canberra from 1991-1995, during the darkest days of Indonesia’s East Timor occupation, notably the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. “This needless reaction over her, its incomprehensible to me,” says a genuinely bewildered Siagian, who returned from Australia just two weeks ago as the Corby case gathered fury. “Australia has always boasted to us that it is an advanced society but this inexplicable display of emotion has Indonesians wondering if this is still the case.”

“Australians must understand that that this particular court operated very well, very fairly, that it took its task very seriously and correctly,” Siagian says. “I think we Indonesians have to make more of an effort to understand the Australian psychology.”

Says Dr Greg Barton, associate professor of politics at Deakin University. “This case says more about Australian attitudes to Asia than it does about Indonesia’s legal system,” “This case simply exposes the ignorance of most Australians about Indonesia.”

“The West, including Australia, has been at Indonesia for years to fix the corruption in their legal system and yet when it works in largely the manner its supposed to, we don’t like it,” says Barton. “You can’t have it both ways.”

“Indonesia is not playing some wicked trick here on we poor unsuspecting Australians. Given the extraordinary pressures it was under, the court was remarkably transparent, the judges admirable in their resistance to external politics and the politicians admirable in their restraint in letting it play itself out.”

IF 92% of Australians believe Corby innocent, what seems a larger proportion of those living outside it believe the opposite, their take shaped not by ratings-hungry broadcast media but by direct experience negotiating official Indonesia, living it via business, family and normal life. Long practised in the comparative idiosyncracies of Indonesia’s legal system, and also having a reasonable handle on where to find good dope on Bali, these expat Australians are suspicious of Corby’s histrionics, and stunned by the naivete and incompetence of her team to hire skilled, dispassionate lawyers and advisors (Corby’s teary head lawyer Lily Lubis normally handles Bali property transactions, and the Sri Lankan-born advisor Vasudevan Rasiah is controversially helping develop a casino here) and mount a credible case that challenged the prima facie evidence confronting her. And of the Corby family to so willingly allow the blow-in Australian media to transform what was essentially a summary drugs matter into a Balinese Big Brother (one Sydney TV anchor from Channel 7 called it a ‘show trial’), with the stricken Schapelle sent off to the Big House for 20 years. They are appalled and embarrassed by the relentless barrage of insults splayed at Indonesia from the ‘colourful’ Ron Bakir and friends, their ill-founded accusations of corruption, the court outbursts, poster protests and basic cultural cluelessness. “Every time someone started mouthing off, or sent death threats to Indonesian diplomats, or caused a fuss in the court, it just made matters worse,” says Andrew Grant, a Sydneysider who runs a global crisis management consultancy, Tirian, from Bali.

Perhaps more significantly for Australia’s longer term future in Asia, indeed its sustained prosperity in the region, this tragically mishandled case exposed as far-fetched myth the hopes of myriad Australian politicians, John Howard being just the latest, that Australia might be developing a meaningful relationship with Asia, that its as far away as ever, per the hatemail received by anyone daring to offer an objective view of the case, and the mostly unchallenged racism of people 2GB announcer Malcolm T Elliott, who likened Indonesia’s brown-skinned President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the case judges to banana-eating apes. Remarks like this, said in Indonesia, and indeed most Western countries, would have Elliott humiliated before a racial vilification tribunal, copping a heavy fine and possibly a jail sentence, certainly the sack. In a more volatile Indonesia it would threaten lives, much as American revelations of Quran desecration recently did in the Middle East. But in a Schapellised Australia, it barely raises an eyebrow; Elliott still spouts his objectionable bile over the airwaves.

But it was mostly the sheer ignorance of how modern Indonesia is evolving as a modern democracy, and the refusal of Corby’s supporters to work alongside it instead of challenging it so vituperatively and self-righteously that so astounded Australia’s Indonesianists. Perhaps it was the Aussie accents of fireman hacks and hangers-on, who’ve never seen much of Indonesia beyond a sanitised Nusa Dua resort, egging them on, but at times the Corby camp tackled the case as if it was the Southport Magistrates Court they’d stepped into, only shabbier-dressed for the occasion. Their angry refusal to accept that Indonesia’s legal system is different from Australia, that Judge Sirait’s panel should speak English for their benefit - Sirait has a vocabulary of about 10 words, 10 more than most of Corby’s champions have in Bahasa – and that somehow because Corby was a young woman and – take your pick which one was more important – white and Australian, she was entitled (and was granted) to legal privileges not extended to others, Australians and Indonesians, in even worse predicaments. They regard this expectation that Australians’ generous tsunami donations, the deaths of nine soldiers in a helicopter on Nias helping Indonesians and Corby’s plight were somehow morally connected, and that Australians should unstintingly step into their line and boycott Bali because of what was happening to ‘Our Schapelle,’ as astonishing in its blinkered muddle-headedness.

IT MAY shock those Australians who think their northern neighbours barbarian monkeys but Bali has a civil society too, a very advanced one and its modern version in some ways not dissimilar to Australia, except that most Balinese devote an hour a day on cultural activities. “And its Australians who think they are the civilised ones?” posits Made Wijaya. Released in 1998 from 50 years of dictatorship, Bali now has shock jocks, newspapers debating a spectrum of views, even its own version of Pauline Hanson spouting exclusionist vitriol. Luh Ketut Suryani is a psychiatrist-anthropologist who doesn’t see a great deal of difference between drug runners, the Bali bombers and the ex-Australian diplomat William Brown, who suicided in 2004 when unmasked as a pedophile. As she sees it, all are outsiders polluting Bali’s delicate culture, and she wants them off her island yesterday. She even wants internal passports to stem other Indonesians coming to Hindu Bali. Suryani is on the extreme fringes of a gathering movement on Bali called Ajeg. It translates as ‘straight’ or ‘correct’ and essentially is about a back-to-basics reinforcement of philosophical, religious and cultural values, a purpose not unknown at the Hillsong Church, or in John Howard’s white picket fenced vision of Australia. Social activist Putu Suasta is on Ajeg’s progressive flanks. When The Bulletin broke the news of Corby’s 20 year sentence to him, he thought the sentence “a bit harsh.” Suasta helped President SBY secure 13 seats in Bali to bolster his tenuous coalition. “We are changing our laws, and our society. Soon our laws will be more specific so maybe it will only be five years for marijuana but still death for heroin.”

Cathy Sudharsana and Jero Asri Kertayasa occupy unique places from which to view the matter. Each have lived in Bali for many years, Asri since 1978 and Sudharsana since the mid-1980’s after they both married into Ubud’s royal family. Asri was transformed from Jane Gillespie of Sydney into a Balinese princess of one of the world’s most exotic courts, the western wing of Ubud’s royal puri. Renmark-born Cathy came a decade later, to the eastern wing. If Australians embraced Asia and specifically Balinese royalty with the enthusiasm it has for Tasmanian-born Danes, Asri and Cathy would pre-date Princess Mary in the national regard for royalty by 25 years. Asri – the Jero is a Balinese honorific - and her husband Tjokorda Raka Kertayasa own the smart Ibah Villas overlooking Ubud’s Campuhan River, while Cathy and husband Tjokorda Krishna Putra Sudharsana run the mid-market Klub Kokos resort outside Ubud. With their collective five kids schooled in Australia and Bali – Asri now fears for her three’s safety in Sydney - they are both genuinely cross-cultural Balinese-Australian families, functioning models for the Eurasian society that geography, trade and tourism suggests is perhaps inevitable in Australia’s destiny.

“I’m sickened to death by this absolutely stupid reaction,” Asri says. “For the first time in my life, I’m ashamed to be an Australian. I am so proud of the respectful way Balinese and Indonesia have handled this matter, the restraint they have shown despite the disgusting racism.”

“Its only this uncouth majority who are jumping up and down…. who are blaming Indonesia, but Bali is just the innocent vessel. Just two and a half years ago, we had all these Aussies saying ‘oh Bali, we love you, we will always stand by you, we will always come to Bali, blah blah blah’ Well, where are they now? They seem to have forgotten all of that…just because some Westie who got herself into a bit of trouble? I mean, come on.”

“She should consider herself lucky, she would’ve died if it had’ve been Malaysia or Singapore. I’d rather spend 20 years in Bali than in some Australian gaol...”

Having seen Bali’s economy battle Indonesia’s tortuous transition to democracy, the 2002 bombings, SARS and travel warnings, Asri and Cathy are sanguine about threats of Australian boycotts on Balinese tourism. Says Asri “I’ve no doubt we’ve lost a certain type of Australian over this who might come here but good riddance to them, I say. Anyone normal, with a mind, an education, some brains who can see through the crap, to see it objectively, well it won’t bother them at all and they will continue to come. I don’t want to see Australian-Indonesian relations go down the gurgler over this.”

“EVENTS, DEAR BOY, EVENTS.” With the racist genie uncorked as he somehow manages the gathering social storm of the Corby case in Middle Australia, John Howard might rue the celebrated remarks of the former British leader Harold Macmillan when asked what it was that so bedevilled his carefully-laid prime ministerial plans. Howard has spent much of his premiership bucketing the Asia-oriented foreign policy of his Labor predecessors. But comfortably esconsed in a fourth term, and confident of securing a fifth, Howard has begun to invest his prestige in Indonesia. Since Suharto’s fall in 1998, Indonesia has been too self-consumed by its own dramas – its transition to democracy, the preservation of the unitary state, the rise of Islamist fundamentalism – to give much thought to Australia. Jakarta had five presidents in six years – a world record – and none of them save the current one, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has been much interested in developing a relationship with Australia, certainly not since Australia’s 1999 invasion of Indonesian sovereignty in support of East Timorese independence. But the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings and SBY’s accession as Indonesia’s first democratically-elected leader, has changed the dynamic. In SBY, Howard sees an Indonesian leader he can work with, that a wary Australia can invest in. And the English-speaking, Western-educated SBY, with a son at college in Perth, returns the favour in spades. Howard was the only white, Western leader at SBY’s inauguration last October and this April just gone, SBY made the first meaningful visit by an Indonesian president in more than 30 years. After 30 years of corrupt dictatorship, SBY desperately wants Indonesia to be clean and prosperous. In an interview with The Bulletin a week after his inauguration, SBY said he wanted Indonesia to be ‘normal’ – shades of Howard’s wanting an Australia ‘comfortable with itself.’ That means cleaning its state institutions. Since coming to power, Indonesia has snared the head of its biggest bank, its electoral commission and a provincial governor. The campaign is working, Indonesia is changing and so must foreign attitudes to it. Indonesians who believed his electoral pledge to clean up their country are pleased with his efforts so far.

Perhaps for the first time since Australia was quick to recognise an independent Indonesia in 1947 are the two countries - and no two sovereign neighbours are as different as Indonesia and Australia - beginning to reconcile the accident of history and geography that has thrust them together. Recognising what both Canberra and Jakarta regard as an historic opportunity, Howard and SBY have grasped each other with gusto and the “John and Bambang Show” promises to perform for a long time. Australia’s holy grail is an Indonesia-blessed seat at the upcoming East Asian Summit that presages a possible EU-style economic and political structure for Asia. Politically, Indonesia is the 900kg elephant in the ASEAN house, Australia’s immediate backyard, and as Deakin’s Dr Barton puts it “if Australia doesn’t have Indonesia’s backing for the summit then Australia has no hope.”

But those best-laid plans have been upset by Corby, and the Bali Nine to come, four of whom will almost certainly be executed. Trying times are ahead for Australians. Says Sabam Siagian “if Australians want a mature relationship with its neighbours, it has to accept that this type of public anger is not conducive to that. As part of East Asia, we are offering a pass to Australia to join the December talks, access to this treaty, for the first time inviting Australians to be part of our community. This is largely symbolic, its important and Australians must understand that its part of something larger, for its future benefit.”

“Leaders must lead, they must be enlightened, Australia cannot be a smug isolated island, whatever the level of its economic development relative to Asia.” Siagian says. “Australia may be more advanced economically than Asia today but it will not be in 25 years, it will be a different East Asia and we may not be so willing to share its assets and its progress with such an Australia.”  

Used with permission Eric Ellis © June 2005