In his own words: Indonesia and SBY’s speeches
14 Jun 2013|

I’ve recently started looking at the back catalogue of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s public addresses to see what the Indonesian President has chosen to talk about to an international audience. Since January of this year, he’s made 12 major speeches and public remarks in English. As I see it, these speeches are an important part of the national discussion on areas like Indonesia’s role in regional security and relations with neighbouring countries, and it’s worth examining how the President shapes his key messages. They’re also a useful snapshot of current thinking at the highest level of Indonesia’s leadership. Whether they’re written by close advisors or under close direction of the President himself, they set and project Indonesia’s image abroad.

First, and not surprisingly given the choice of language, many of SBY’s speeches talk about Indonesia and the country’s endeavours in terms of regional and international settings (here and here). It’s also in line with the perception of SBY as an internationally-focussed president. Notably, except for the special case of ASEAN, there’s no mention in these speeches of ‘middle power’ solidarity, BRICS, MIST and other kinds of exclusive groupings. Rather, SBY highlights Indonesia’s place as part of a larger international communities including the G20, in particular, and the UN (noting, of course, there were four UN-related speeches in the sample).

In the speeches, phrases like ‘strategic trust’ (in his Jakarta International Defense Dialogue speech which I wrote about a few months ago) are part of the projection of Indonesia’s desire to play a leadership role in the region. Another notion dotting his public addresses is one of peace and harmony (evident in his acceptance speech for the World Statesman Award), both in Indonesia and as part of the international system. Everyone wants peace and harmony, but here it probably reflects Indonesian disquiet about the constant regional rumblings of unrest and strategic competition. That’s probably why SBY talks about harmony as a goal even in contexts as diverse as promoting military sports. In that address he talked largely about soldier wellbeing and professionalism but squeezed in mentions of international conflict. They can be seen as attempts to tie low-level cooperation to loftier aims. There’s always diplomatic mileage in promoting the most righteous outcomes possible: if they happen, you take the credit, and if they don’t, at least you can say you tried.

And SBY certainly seems to see Indonesia as an increasingly influential country. Unlike Australia, SBY isn’t interested in generating ‘Asian Century’ street cred or positioning the country as a key element of an ‘Indo Pacific’ system. Instead, his pitch is about Indonesia’s transformation—about doing rather than theorising. Rather than trying to define its place in the region, he’s saying that Indonesia is naturally heading towards being an important player. This is a narrative about a democratic, religiously and culturally diverse state with stellar economic growth rates. As part of this story, there are several mentions (herehere and here) of Indonesia being second only to China as the fastest growing economy in the region.

Another selling point used by SBY is the ability of Indonesia to solve problems, with home-grown examples like successful peace agreements in Aceh and Timor Leste (see herehere and here). These sorts of silver linings to Indonesia’s history of conflicts can push issues like Papua into the background. But there’s a contrast between the narrative of democracy and diversity being peddled (as there often is in speeches) and the reality of religious intolerance and violence in parts of the country like Poso.

Interesting to note, however, is the low prominence of issues like counter terrorism. I’d have expected this to have earned a mention in his JIDD speech, but it’s reflective of where the issue stands in order of priority. In this, Indonesia is following the same path as other countries as 9/11 and Bali recede into the past. Rather, when talking security, bigger questions of regional dynamics, US–China relations, Myanmar’s transition and the plight of Islamic communities are at the forefront. Palestine headlined his speech at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation but Syria and Mali, alongside the Korean Peninsula and South China Sea, cropped up in his military sports address. There are elements of Indonesian foreign policy that relate to ‘Islamic issues’ and certainly, as time goes by, the issue of violence towards Rohingyas in Myanmar might become even more for salient for Indonesia. Nevertheless, in the speeches this year, SBY balances between flashing Indonesia’s international Islamic community membership card and reminding audiences that there’s more to his country than an Islamic state. In his address to the International Tourismus Börse in Berlin, he goes as far as to explicitly say ‘Indonesia is not an Islamic state’ (and it’s not, it’s a ‘Muslim majority state’ and the official state ideology of Pancasila recognises five religions).

This is part of a larger research project that’ll examine SBY’s speeches throughout his second presidential term (2009–14) and which will hopefully shed some light on what’s been shaping Indonesia’s national discourse over the past five years. Indonesian language speeches will almost certainly give insight into the internal polity and the issues it cares about.

Some of what I’ve identified reflects Indonesian foreign policy and national ideology, but some ideas reflect SBY’s personal leadership style. And, of course, some speeches will be permeated with the thinking of speechwriters and policymakers who are responsible for steering Indonesia towards its goals. There’s also a larger project in waiting to work out how the particular values discussed have come about and how they’re prioritised during SBY’s Presidency, and which ones might survive a transition in the top job.

Understanding how Indonesia frames and manoeuvres itself publically will be of help in deciding how Australia, in our domestic and international discourses, positions itself for future engagement. Ultimately, the more we can understand about Indonesia under a decade of SBY’s rule, the better Australia will be in discerning the direction in which future Presidents steer the country in the Asian Century.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of President of the Republic of Indonesia official website.