Sun, 03 Sep 2000

East Timor debacle a study in cultural differences

Ballot and Bullets: Seven Days in East Timor By Tim Fischer Allen and Unwin, Sydney 149 pp A$19.95

JAKARTA (JP): Australian reviewer Ray Duplain wrote last May that former Australian deputy prime minister Tim Fischer's account of the United Nations-sponsored East Timorese ballot was "fearless". He further commented that Fischer wrote "clearly and forcefully ... in an honest and direct style" about the ballot held in August last year.

Fischer, a widely respected elder statesman of Australian politics, undertook the role of leader of the Australian Observer Delegation as his last official duty before resigning as deputy head of the government and trade minister. His account, Ballot and Bullets: Seven Days in East Timor, is clearly intended for a domestic Australian readership.

The book is passionately written, which is part of the problem. Are Indonesians interested in an Australian perspective of the East Timorese self-determination vote and its violent aftermath? As usual, the differences between the way Australians and Indonesians perceive delicate issues and then write about them is not so much in substance, but in the form it takes.

In Indonesia it is said that "the more subtle the meaning, the more culturally sophisticated the message, the greater the impact". Indonesians often express a negative by emphasizing a positive. For this reason, many conceal strong feelings, including justified criticism. For most Indonesians, the suppression of emotion is a virtue instilled from childhood. It does not mean that Indonesians are culturally incapable of confrontation, but rather that the manner of preserving dignity in interpersonal, professional and diplomatic relationships is paramount. Indeed, most Indonesians earnestly maintain that confrontation can be a positive experience, if handled correctly.

Indonesians are trained to express themselves in an entirely different way to many westerners, who, in the most part, are encouraged to externalize their thoughts, opinions or frustrations, as demonstrated by Fischer. Indonesians on the other hand are typically less blunt, more subtle. They are seen by people in the West to internalize their feelings. This is not strictly true. Instead many Indonesians have a greater sense of the implications of a negative confrontation. Therefore they are more careful with delicate issues, and they are especially careful with the "truth".

Americans, Europeans and Australians like Fischer, on the other hand, believe that being forthright, bold and uncompromising are among the highest social and political virtues. It is almost the antithesis of the compromise and consensus that characterizes the way controversy is negotiated in the world's forth most populous nation.

Fischer is, however, consistent. His strong words are not just reserved for those complicit in the militia violence. His well- justified criticism of 60 Minutes journalist Richard Cartlon's provocative actions in Liquica on Sept. 8, 1999, is a case in point. The debate that follows casts new light on how Australians do things, how they relate to each other's shortcomings and why it is important for both Australians and Indonesians to creatively manage, rather than gloss over, these cultural differences.

The fallout from the East Timor ballot, the militia violence and the intervention of the International Force for East Timor have without question damaged relations between the two neighbors. Australians were outraged by the violence and put a great deal of pressure on their government for swift and decisive action. Indonesians were angry and confused about what appeared to them to be an unwelcome incursion by a foreign power on sovereign Indonesian territory during the darkest days of the Asian economic crisis.

Fischer's book is not all criticism, although one has to look carefully for conciliatory comments. These are centered on the role of the Habibie government in approving the ballot, in the assistance of sections of the Indonesian Military in the smooth deployment of peacekeepers and in the role of Indonesian legislatures, particularly on Oct. 19, 1999, in affirming the result of the ballot and then revoking Indonesian sovereignty over her 27th province.

During an interview with this author last week, Fischer encouraged Indonesians to read his book with an open mind, and to look beyond the particular cultural form it takes. He asked that they consider his experiences in the balance.

Fischer was also keen to add a postscript that most of the Indonesian officials he met during the United Nations Mission in East Timor ballot were courteous and constructive, and that he understood the pressures they were under to carry out their jobs in difficult circumstances. In particular, Fischer singled out one Lt. Arly, now promoted and serving in Bogor, who he said "was particularly helpful and courageous to him in his duties at Nicasar".

Fischer's pragmatism and natural optimism are appealing features of the book. In one section, he wrote about the strain of the ballot, the upheaval and the occupation by Australian troops.

"These difficulties are small compared to all of those that have to be overcome in rebuilding the relationship between Australia and Indonesia," he wrote. "With the help of balanced media, this is an achievable task that will be helped by resumed growth in trade, investment and tourism links."

-- Rob Goodfellow is a writer and Indonesian cultural consultant to international business. He is based at the University of Wollongong and can be contacted on