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The ANU Indonesia Project: Fifty Years Young

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to the ANU Indonesia Project 50th Anniversary Celebration, University House Great Hall, Canberra, 30 July 2015


One of the few advantages of being around as long as I now have been is that what is ancient history to most people still feels more like current affairs to me.

It really doesn’t seem all that long ago that I first visited Indonesia in 1968 –  still then coming to terms with the transition from Sukarno to Suharto’s New Order, with all the horrific violence which accompanied it, albeit also with a new sense of possible futures– and saw for myself, travelling around the country, what huge development challenges it faced.

I wasn’t aware of the Indonesia Project at the time, but this was just three years after Heinz Arndt made his wonderfully visionary decision to initiate it – albeit an utterly unanticipated and rather implausible venture given his previous complete lack of personal or professional involvement in the country! 

But I do have a sense of the atmosphere of the time and the scale of the difficulties the ANU group then faced if it was going to produce any kind of sophisticated economic analysis, or to have any policy impact on the Indonesian government. As Heinz Arndt said in his initial pitch to the then Research School Director, Sir John Crawford, quoted by Colin Brown in the excellent history of the Project we are launching today:

“There is an almost complete lack of the macro-economic data one normally takes for granted, and the basic statistics of production, trade, etc.. either don’t exist or are so unreliable as to be almost worthless…[And] if political relations between Australia and Indonesia should further deteriorate, fieldwork…may become impracticable even in Java.”
Over time the technical obstacles ceased to be a problem, with the well-known role played initially by the “Berkeley Mafia” and then by the new generations of Indonesian economists who rose to ascendancy, many of whom became associated, as we’ll hear later, with the Indonesia Project, not least the three ministerial stars who have joined us this evening: former Vice-President Boediono, former Trade Minister Mari Pangestu and former Finance Minister Chatub Basri.

It wasn’t only the management systems and data that got better, of course, but the economy itself. Although there have certainly been some major bumps along the way,  most notably the 1997 finance crisis, things evolved from those early development challenges to the point where  Indonesia, on present trajectories,  is now widely expected to be one of the world’s five biggest economies by 2050.

On the other hand, political challenges – not the least of them the state of play in the bilateral relationship with Australia, which Heinz Arndt identified from the outset as a potential problem for the Project – have not gone away, as I can testify better than most, having followed for the last thirty years or more – particularly as Foreign Minister and head of the International Crisis Group – just about every twist and turn in Indonesia’s political evolution.

We’ve had the high of Paul Keating’s relationship with President Suharto, culminating in the Security Agreement of 1995. There was the high of my own relationship with Ali Alatas, manifested in the Cambodian peace plan, the establishment of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum and a number of other issues on which we worked very closely together.  And more recently we’ve had the mutual regard of SBY and John Howard, and of Marty Natalegawa and Julie Bishop; and good cooperation on issues like disaster relief and counter-terrorism.

But we’ve also had recurring lows: over East Timor, media criticism of Indonesian leaders (most famously the David Jenkins articles on President Suharto and his family just before I became Foreign Minister), Papua, illegal fishing, cattle exports, spying and of course asylum-seeker boat tow-backs and the Bali Two executions.

But through all of this Sturm und Drang the Indonesia Project has just ploughed on, periodically renewing itself or adjusting direction, but steadily acquiring an ever more stellar reputation – to point where the Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies has long been regarded as the world’s premier journal focusing on the Indonesian economy, and the annual Indonesian Updates have long been the best-attended  and most highly-valued international conference on general Indonesian affairs held anywhere outside Indonesia (and as Colin Brown notes, “probably inside the country too”).

Part of the reason for its success is the Project’s orientation : although it has developed over time a wider disciplinary outlook with members and associates including political scientists, demographers, historians and geographers, its focus has always been pre-eminently economic, and this has helped insulate it from some of the stormier political winds that have blown over the last fifty years.

But the reasons really go deeper than that.  Three factors in particular emerge from Colin Brown’s book, and indeed my own observation of the Project over many years.

The first is the quality of the Project leadership.  Heinz Arndt’s political conservatism – and steadfast defence of some of the unhappier behaviour of the New Order, including its record in East Timor – meant that he was not entirely without critics during his tenure. But he deserved, and won, nothing but praise for his initial vision in establishing the Project, his entrepreneurship, his mentoring of successive generations of students and researchers, and the rigorous standards that he set.

And when he retired in 1980, the leadership passed seamlessly to a succession of first rate scholars – Peter McCawley, Hal Hill, Chris Manning, and now Budy Resosudarmo, the first Indonesian Head of the Project, and the first who was not a former student of Heinz Arndt’s.

The second factor underlying the Project’s success, I think it’s fair to say, is the quality of the institutional support it has received. It has been fairly consistent from the Australian Government, though not without a few swerves following changes of government and minister: I am glad to see that Bill Hayden’s and my periods as Foreign Minister are recorded by Colin Brown as positive swerves (and I for one still have the scars to prove it from my fights over aid and research funding with the Huns and Visigoths of the Finance Department). 

What has been totally consistent, and as rock-solid as anything can be in a university environment, is – I’m glad to say – the support the Project has received from the ANU and its successive Vice-Chancellors, and on occasion from Chancellors (we have our uses), over the last five decades.  And rightly so, because the Project has been a jewel in the ANU crown throughout its history, with both the rigor and the policy relevance of its research exemplifying so much of the national and international role and reputation to which we aspire.

The third crucial factor in the Indonesia Project’s success is I think well-described by Colin Brown as its being at its heart not so much as an institution, but a network of people. I’ve always had my reservations about self-conscious networking events – as George Soros once said to me, ‘networking’, so far as he was concerned,  meant ‘not working’ – but I’m prepared to concede that, as Colin says about the Project,  “The key to its longevity is the web of connections its members have created in Australia, in Indonesia and increasingly globally”.

Most importantly of all in this respect, the Project has consciously drawn in Indonesians to be at the core of its work, not just by operating, as one Indonesian postgraduate student wonderfully described it, “a production centre for Indonesian public intellectuals”, but as a continuing vehicle for ongoing research and policy exchange. And not only in Australia but ever-increasingly in Indonesia itself, with multiple activities there ranging from the Jakarta Seminar
Series, or FKP, involving primarily academics and researchers, to the High Level Policy Dialogues, attended by senior economic and financial policy makers in Jakarta and Canberra, all undertaken in collaboration with Indonesian counterparts.

It has become something of a cliché to describe the Australia-Indonesia relationship as requiring, if it is to survive the ups and downs of its political dimension, above all else more ballast - I should know because I think it was me, with Ali Alatas, who first used that term in this context.  But the reason clichés get to be clichés is usually because they embody some obvious and fundamental truth – and there is no more obvious truth than that people to people relationships are the bedrock on which fundamentally stable and productive bilateral relationships are based.

The Indonesia Project, with its incredibly strong professional-to-professional, people-to-people, dimension, sustained now over so many decades, is a quintessential example of the kind of ballast our bilateral relationship needs. May it long survive, and thrive.

Great achievements, if they are to be recognised and remembered, need great record-keepers. We can all be immensely grateful that Colin Brown, though not himself an ANU man, has taken on the role as guardian of the flame for what we at ANU regard as one of the proudest of all our achievements. And he has done the job admirably: Australia’s Indonesia Project : 50 Years of Engagement is meticulously researched, using archival sources and interviews as well as an abundance of secondary material, and as comprehensive and enlightening as one could possibly wish.
I am delighted to have this memorable occasion to thank everyone associated with its publication and declare it duly launched.