Indonesian minister comes from another planet

Pangestu - copyright World Economic Forum

Copyright World Economic Forum

Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu is widely considered one of the bright sparks in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet.

Which makes it all the more depressing to know that she seems to have no idea about what’s happening in the country. Anyone who heard her comments to foreigners at a business lunch this week could be forgiven for thinking she comes from another planet.

One businessman asked her why Indonesia had such a bad image abroad. Well that’s easy, she said. Foreigners are ignorant and the foreign media only report the bad news:

Take a country like the US. There is a lot of misperceptions or lack of understanding about how much progress that Indonesia has made. Even in our neighbouring country like Australia, on our recent visit we found that there are still some misperceptions that were there… they were still asking about human rights. They don’t know how much we have progressed on the human rights issue, for instance.

OK, some Americans don’t know a lot about Indonesia, and probably should make an effort to know a little more about the fourth most populous country in the world, with the largest Muslim majority. Pangestu cited a recent TV show where people in Washington were asked where Indonesia is, and many said the Middle East. Shame on them.

On the other hand, I seem to recall reading a survey which found a significant number of Indonesians also thought Indonesia was in the Middle East. I’ll keep digging to find that survey, but if anyone knows it please drop me a line.

Anyway, the minister was asked to describe the main misperceptions foreigners had about Indonesia. Her answer is probably the best evidence of alien life we have found so far:

 It’s not surprising that (it’s) the association with terrorism and not being a safe place; number two is corruption; number three is that it’s not a democratic country – there’s still an image of dictatorship. As you can see all these three are inaccurate if you take Indonesia today. Even on terrorism we have been progressed … and succeeding in apprehending terrorists.

On each count I would say the outside world is quite right to be suspicious of Indonesia’s “progress”, which is only impressive if measured against the Suharto years (in the case of human rights, corruption and democracy), or against Pakistan and Afghanistan in the case of terrorism.

On human rights, let’s cite, as just one example, the situation in Papua. Some observers describe what is happening to the indigenous Melanesian population there as genocide. That might be going too far, but what’s happening sure ain’t pretty. Is the minister unaware of this?

On terrorism, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton hotels in central Jakarta less than a year ago. One of the bombers seemed to be targeting American businessmen. In February, police discovered a hitherto unknown group conducting military-style training in Aceh province. All experts say that without sophisticated reform to things like the religious school and prison systems, homegrown terrorists are not going away.

On corruption, well the minister’s spacecraft must have landed yesterday because Indonesia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. If she thinks foreigners have the wrong idea about that she must be blind as well as alien, because even an alien who landed yesterday could have read the newspapers today.

Democracy is probably the only measure by which Indonesia has really made serious progress, but that’s only when you compare it to the Suharto dictatorship. In fact, many would say that without the rule of law and accountability, Indonesian democracy is on very shaky ground.

Pangestu has some fascinating ideas for improving all our misperceptions:

It doesn’t have to be about how we go about saying ‘oh reforms’ and this and that. I think a more positive way to tell the world about Indonesia is just to start telling about Indonesia, you know, whether it’s the culture or the tourism or the food… that’s the way to get people’s attention.

Hmmm, maybe that would work … on another planet. She also explained that Indonesia would host a bunch of international events next year which would clear up all those silly ideas that foreigners have about the place. These include the Southeast Asian Games and a summit of Southeast Asian leaders, she said.

She obviously doesn’t know what interests human beings on planet earth if she thinks events like those are going to make any difference whatsoever to the outside world’s perceptions of Indonesia.

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