The Geografi Australia project began during Suharto’s New Order regime and the Keating era. Working on this project was both challenging and inspirational.
The story of the beginnings of the project is called A Day of departures. It is published as part of Seen and unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific, available from Glass House Books.
Listen to A Day of Departures for just $0.99 from Amazon.
A Day of Departures might seem like a strange title for a story about the development of a geography resource book, and it would be if a departure was all that happened on the day my first meeting with officials from the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture or DEPDIKBUD. Indonesians have a proclivity for inventing acronyms.
It was 2 October 1994 and back in Australia my mother was gravely ill. She died while I was waiting for a flight from Denpasar to Jakarta. This was the first departure on the day.
My flight departed on time but was forced to return to Denpasar as the Indonesian airforce had temporarily closed Jakarta airport while they practiced for Indonesian Armed Forces Day scheduled for 5 October.
The third departure saw us arrive in Jakarta still with plenty of time to meet the Australian Cultural Counsellor and then attend a series of meeting with senior officials from DEPDIKBUD.
Geografi Australia: The background story
Foreign Policy during the Hawke-Keating years was a serious attempt to reflect and respond to the interdependence on nations within the Asia Pacific region. That Australia’s location, on the southern margin of one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world, afforded an opportunity to operate as an effective middle power, independent, non- hegemonic, and avoiding the taint of guardian of Western interests was clearly affirmed. In the Pacific this became a constructive commitment, promoting stability through economic development and encouraging mutually similar understandings of security and strategic interests. In southeast Asia, it was comprehensive engagement. This meant building links, supporting existing agreements, shared approaches to regional security, seeking to involve the states of Indo-China, and pursuing our national interests as a confident partner and a good neighbour. In North Asia is meant recognition of the economic ascendancy of the region, its importance as a source of manufactures in post-industrial Australia, and as an ongoing market for Australian commodities particularly minerals and energy resources.
Gareth Evans, the Labor Foreign Minister during the early 1990s observed of relations with our nearest Asian neighbour:
No two neighbours anywhere in the world are as comprehensively unalike as Australia and Indonesia. We differ in language, culture, religion, history, ethnicity, population size, and in political, legal, and social systems.
Far from intending to cultivate despair, his comments were made in the context of a policy of comprehensive engagement. Not suggesting we were an isolated European country, removed from our cultural heritage, and highly vulnerable to external pressure trapped within a cultural prison, he was just noting that the cultural difference presented a challenge.
Growing up in Australia in the immediate post World War II period underscored the diversity and complexity of our region. The French and Dutch were unsuccessful in reasserting colonial dominance in Vietnam and Indonesia. India ultimately forced the British to grant independence and the newly independent Indonesia attempted a balancing act between the forces of Nationalism, Communism and Islam that, within a generation of war’s end, saw the destruction of the largest Communist Party outside the socialist bloc and the consolidation of a Javo-centric nationalist state that remains the world’s largest ‘Islamic country’. Such is the nature of our region.
In 1994 the Australia Indonesia Institute (AII) invited expressions of interest, for the production of a geography and history of Australia, to be written in Bahasa Indonesia, for Indonesia secondary students. It was to emphasize bilateral links and the advantages of cooperation.
After submitting an outline my company was invited to tender for the project. The competition was tough, Oxford University Press and two Australian universities. We won the tender and on 2 October 1994 held our first meeting in Jakarta with the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture (DEPDIKBUD).
By this stage, my co-director, Matina Pentes, and I had established a company office with residence in Ubud, Bali, and were ten years into operating a cross-cultural field study project. The office and residence had been an obvious next step allowing us to begin growing the business in a far more efficient way with independent phone and fax communications. Gone was the time of waiting days for faxes from Australia or queuing for hours at public telephone offices attempting to place calls back to Australia or to other parts of Indonesia. When Bali jumped into the era of telephones it jumped into the latest technology and, although our telephone line was forever being cut by coconut palm fronds, for the most part, we enjoyed reliable communications.
Just as we were preparing to leave for Jakarta, my sister Meg rang from Woy Woy to say that mum was gravely ill, that she was now in a coma and not expected to survive much longer. It was impossible to return at such short notice. The meeting in Jakarta had taken months to arrange but my mother was dying. It’s hard to describe my sense of powerlessness. Matina prevailed on me to ring the hospital and ask to speak with mum. I’m glad I did because she was able to rouse herself from the coma and we exchanged our final farewell. She was comfortable with the notion that I could only be there in spirit holding her hand, she understood me entirely. Tears flowed; I knew this was the last time I’d ever speak with my mother.
The drive to the Domestic Terminal at Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai Airport was largely silent, traffic, temples and rice fields slipped by on the edge of vision and consciousness. Sitting in the terminal I drifted through the layers of sound that inhabit such places, largely shapeless and random apart from flight announcements. Suddenly mum’s voice emerged from the soundscape, she called my name. I knew what this meant. While I cried for my loss I was grateful that she’d given me this last gift, a reassurance that beyond physical existence there was consciousness, still a capacity to communicate with the embodied, tangible world.
Flying to Jakarta was both sad and bizarre. Approaching Soekarno Hatta airport we were turned back to Denpasar. Without regard for domestic air services the Indonesian Air Force had closed the airport, so they could rehearse for the upcoming Armed Forces Day. Such actions were very much a part of Suharto’s New Order regime, once during the early 90s even extending to the sudden closure of the international shipping lane between Bali and Lombok. In Denpasar, we waited in that purposeless state that was all too common when Indonesian domestic flights were cancelled or rescheduled. After an uncertain time, we left for Jakarta again. This time we made it.
Clearing the arrivals hall I was surprised to see Margaret Hulbert, my brother in-law’s cousin. She was living in Jakarta at the time with her partner Bruce Hansel who was fronting GIO in a re-insurance initiative. Margaret broke the official news about Mum; it was a relief to know for sure. The only problem was getting through the rest of the day.
The first meeting with Lee Cheung, Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy was difficult. Fortunately, Matina’s diplomatic skills smoothed over the dissonance that my brittle state contributed to our meeting. Then it was off for a meeting with Endang Sunarya, Director of Infrastructure for the DEPDIKBUD. Although we had no way of knowing at that moment, this proved to be the most strategic meeting that we were to conduct during the entire project. Endang proved a strong supporter of the project and contributed his energy until its conclusion. The afternoon was reserved for a meeting with the Curriculum Research Centre. With Matina unwell and Lee Cheung pulling out, I was left to conduct the meeting alone.
The meeting started smoothly enough, but like many of their Australian equivalents, the curriculum experts proved an argumentative group. Quite apart from a legitimate professional tendency to forensically examine the epistemological and pedagogical positioning of the book, they were also intent on knowing when production of a similar book about Indonesia was to begin. Such a book had initially been part of a grander vision but budget restraints and. I suspect, a more rigorous application of the AII’s mission statement to the project, had nudged this aspect of the project off the present agenda. Whether by design or accident, I was the one left with the task of conveying the message. By the end of the meeting, they were intent on shooting the messenger, my protestations that I was merely a consultant engaged to produce ‘Geografi Australia’ merely contributed to their sense of frustration. Needless to say, the book went ahead, but at the end of such a difficult day, I was exhausted.
 Asian Field Study Centres Pty Ltd was established in 1984. Initially, its mission was to provide inter-disciplinary field study programs for Australian students visiting Indonesia. Its role gradually broadened to include consultancy services. The Directors at the time were Russell Darnley and Matina Pentes,