Australia: an alternative West in Asia?
Rendra in Australia
Indonesian master poet, dramatist, and cultural statesman Rendra toured Australia during September and October 2005. It was his first visit to Australia since 1992. Much has changed since then in the two countries: in Indonesia the New Order has fallen under the pressure of reformasi; in Australia the Labor Party has lost office to the Liberals under John Howard. Bilateral relations have suffered from the impact of Australia’s perceived role in East Timor, terrorism and continued travel warnings, Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine, and the Bali bombings. The second attack occurred one week into Rendra’s poetry tour.
Rendra was accompanied by his wife Ken Zuraida, who read poems with Rendra, and Sawung Jabo, who played gamelan percussion to some of the poems. They performed in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. The poems dated from 1957 to 2003, and included old favourites such as Tokek dan Adipati Rangkas Bitung (The Gecko and the Rangkas Bitung District Head) and new ones highlighting the impact of state indifference and violence against women, such as Jangan Takut Ibu(Don’t Be Scared Mother). Rendra also spoke to packed Indonesia study groups on the evolution of Indonesia’s future and of Indonesia’s perceptions of Australia, and drama students were drawn to his drama workshop in Sydney. Suzan Piper interviewed Rendra towards the end of his tour.
Your last visit here was 13 years ago. What brought you back?
I was reluctant to come to Australia due to the Australian government’s attitude and statements that seem to reflect a dislike of Asia, of Indonesia. Why come to Australia if the government doesn’t like us? I’ve come here now because I want to fulfil the invitation of Wot, Suzan Piper and Sawung Jabo; as Bengkel Teater Rendra family members I wanted to see how they were going in Australia. I also realised that my reluctance to visit was prejudiced by the situation in Indonesia. There the government is stronger than the people; its influence extends to the farthest reaches of people’s lives.
But it seems to me that in Australia, constitutionally the people are stronger than the government. The Howard government is very strong politically but the people do not automatically follow the government if they don’t like it. The government here is not the state; in Australia it’s the people who own the state. But in Indonesia the government identifies itself with the state so when people oppose a cruel and unjust district head, a corrupt governor or regional army commander, they’re considered to be rebelling against the state, whereas in fact they’re merely opposing the government.
What I’ve noticed in this visit is the power of the media, dragging out news items for their own commercial interests, as for example, with the Bali bombing. It was very sad but the coverage was very repetitious with little elaboration, nuances, or fresh information. Of course the Australian media rightly deserves to enjoy its freedom but it seems too commercially oriented and not skilful at covering the issues facing workers, women, university students facing VSU bans, etc.
The Bali bombings are of course very unsettling but the perpetrators were not the people, but terrorists. These terrorists do not represent the people’s aspirations. They represent informal political aspirations, like a virus suddenly disrupting public health. Neither the Indonesian nor the Australian people suspected that these bombings would occur; the bombings scared not just Australians but Indonesians too. Of course the politicians on both sides will interpret these events disproportionately but I’m sure this will not damage people to people contacts. There are rednecks everywhere. The bombers in Indonesia are rednecks too but neither country is dominated by them.
So what are your views on Australia-Indonesia relations?
It is difficult for us to accept the Australian government’s stance on such matters as the Exclusive Economic Zone and its impact on the livelihood and safety of traditional Indonesian fishermen, its statements on pre-emptive strikes and so on, and its overly close relationship with America. The Indonesian people preferred Keating. Under Keating, Australia stood proud, convinced of its own worth.
But after my long absence from Australia I’m amazed and admire how Australia has developed. I notice quite a large presence of Asians in Australia, both as visitors and as permanent residents, and also people from India, from the Middle East, and so on. Multiculturalism has really developed here and the future lies with them, people like the Vietnamese bringing in capital, adding to the economic strength of Australia. Their children become new Australians, developing harmony between East and West; scientific and philosophic disciplines alongside Asian traditions. So why do you need America?
In Brisbane you said that Australia has the potential to offer itself as an alternative West in Asia. Could you please elaborate?
I formed this impression in 1972 but the senior academics and Foreign Affairs people I spoke to at the time were not convinced. However, many young people were already showing the way with their underground, non-commercial films, painters, contemporary artists and dancers. They were Western but not American. The difference cannot be formulated but it is there. There’s a sense of being freer than Europe or the USA but not just that. There’s a sense of being free of American and European grammar.
Imagine, at one time I visited the Barossa Valley near Adelaide and was shown black champagne. This was something new, something that Europe didn’t have. And there was a sense of not needing to follow others’ paths, the ways of the old world, but to create your own in Australia. Australia can become the new hope of Asia. There’s no need to be America’s slave.
Rendra, you are a poet, a dramatist, a cultural statesman and deep thinker on many issues. As a creative artist, but also one who likes to challenge the mind-set of Indonesians, which task do you favour most?
They’re all linked. I was brought up as a child steeped in Javanese traditions, dating back to the Demak era. I believe in living according to the philosophy of ‘manjing ing kahanan’, meaning that one enters the contextuality of life. This touches on various disciplines but above all the humanities, the human sciences. (I must admit, however, that I have no aptitude for mathematics or technology.)
You have said that for you poetry is a space for worship.
That is because the process of making poetry means that you have to be sensitive to the call of the persona and environment of nature, humans and animals — all of God’s creations and the problems they face. You must want to be involved with them so you get to the stage of ‘manjing ajer-ajer’ (I exist because you exist). And the last is to be aware of ‘karsaning Hyang Widhi’, God’s will, or what you might call in secular terms universal values. Without these three the space for worship will not exist. One must be contextually involved, essentially present and aligned with the universal values. That’s when that space opens.
I have also heard you speak of ‘pockets of culture’ — or alternative arts centres? Can you explain?
This was a concept I developed in Bengkel Teater Rendra in response to invitations to revolutionary action. I believe that only gradual change brings lasting results. A grassroots-based process is required. I see these kantong kebudayaan as circles for interaction and friendship amongst the intelligentsia where alternative thinking can be explored, developed and matured.
And do you have any impressions or messages you would like to leave us with?
Australia has a real chance of becoming the new hope in Asia but it is up to Australia and its government. Australia is always slow to realise its position, but that’s normal. I was amazed by many things I saw, the focus on healthy food and a healthy lifestyle, the Sidetrack play I saw in Sydney on the Palestine problems (The Pessoptimist). Australians still have solidarity with the underdogs, indeed that’s a strength of Australia. The only problem is Australia’s head of government.
Sometimes Australians seem embarrassed about being seen as nothing deeper than a sports-loving nation but the Greeks are equally lovers of sport and wine. And Australians have not been left behind in other fields; they were the world’s first in contributing funds towards and researching into chronic fatigue syndrome. Provided you can free yourselves of America, you can be great. Actually America became great because of its multicultural society. Now in the twenty first century it’s Australia’s turn.
Suzan Piper(firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Indonesianist working in the arts, cultural and language studies and various other fields. The Rendra tour was produced by Wot Cross-Cultural Synergy and supported by the Australia Indonesia Institute.