When I start to miss the lifestyle I once enjoyed in Australia, I jump on a flight to Indonesia. And no, it’s not to be among my compatriots who make up the country’s third-largest tourist group. It’s because I can find many of the things I love about the land down under for a well-priced weekend a hop over the Malacca Strait from Changi Airport.
When I want to be inspired by a vibrant, creative city punching well above its weight I head to Bandung, Indonesian’s third-largest city, which shares many similarities with my former home, Brisbane. For the lively, free-spirited art-scene of Melbourne, there’s the Yogyakarta and for those rolling surf beaches I miss the most, I need look no further than Bali.
But it’s a familiarity deeper than destinations. The welcoming hospitality, the honest humour of Indonesia’s people, their tough work ethic that keeps their cities humming through the humid days and nights – all these ring true with my inner Aussie battler.
Yet when a new Indonesian acquaintance asks me where I’m from, I immediately turn to my original home in the UK, seemingly memory-blocking my past 15 years. It may just be a self-induced paranoia but when I drop the “A-bomb” (Australia) I swear I see nothing but scepticism igniting their eyes.
This fear isn’t too far-fetched: switching on the news in Jakarta for an Aussie is a confronting experience. Tony Abbott received a drubbing in the wake of the accused bribing of Indonesian people smugglers by his government’s officials. Last month’s highly heated and arguably deserved Australian response to Indonesia’s execution of its drug smugglers is a geopolitical potato too hot to touch in such a small essay. But you really don’t have to dig too deep into the newsreel archives to spot the blemishes on Australia’s track record with Indonesia: the phone-tapping scandal of 2013 immediately springs to mind.
Controversial incidents will always play out very differently in these two nation’s very different media – and in the public sentiment that follows. But what’s clear as day within the Asean nations I tend to frequent is that Australia hasn’t kicked off its journey into the Asian century in the coolest diplomatic fashion, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Nolan Giles is Monocle’s bureau chief in Singapore.