When Garuda and elephant dance
Shoeb K Zainuddin
Indonesia and India have much in common. Both are large nations with diverse cultures and fast-expanding economies. Both share similar challenges to upgrade infrastructure and deal with rising urbanization. The two countries are also members of the G-20. But as Gurjit Singh, India’s new ambassador to Indonesia, noted in an interview with GlobeAsia, both sides can do more to forge a partnership that will elevate both nations on the world stage. Excerpts:
How would you describe the state of relations today?
It’s a good time for an Indian ambassador to be appointed to Indonesia. The country is really blooming. It’s got political stability. It’s got economic growth and it is displaying its role in the region and the world.
At the same time, India finds that when we shake Indonesian hands, we share a firm handshake. That is coming from a very long heritage of good relations which are now becoming very successful partnerships. Now we have a very strong matrix of cooperation in place. The challenge now is how to add dynamism into that inter-governmental cooperative support.
When you see the potential and the opportunities, it is mind-boggling because there is so much we can do together. The sky is the limit but the challenge now is how to organize ourselves, how to prioritize and how to take things thereafter.
We are very impressed with Indonesia’s resurgence and the responsibility with which they take up their policy, both regionally and globally. And we follow closely how they are organizing their domestic setup, particularly in foreign trade, foreign investment and exports.
What has surprised you about Indonesia?
To be honest, when I first came here, I was a bit surprised at how modern Jakarta was. I knew it was modern but perhaps it was beyond my initial expectation. Obviously there has been a big boom here. It leads you to re-orient your thinking – that you are not dealing with just a country, but a country that is in bloom.
I am also very impressed with the vibrancy of the press. We follow the press quite closely: television, radio and newspapers are all blooming. You see fairly open debate on many issues through cogent editorials and open-minded op-ed pages. The fourth estate is very vibrant here and this level of open-minded debate and discussion helps my understanding of this country.
The other surprise is how young this country is, very much like India. More than 30% of its people are under the age of 35, and that changes the dynamics of engagement and the future a lot. This population dividend is certainly going to be a big asset for Indonesia’s place in the region and the world.
How can you maximize the democratic dividend?
I think the democratic dividend is extremely important because more than in international relations, the self-confidence that emerges in a country that has gone democratic is very immense. I see that self-confidence in Indonesia today and when you have a self-confident country that is not looking over its shoulder, then you have a very firm handshake. I think that is extremely important.
We know that Indonesia has established the Bali Democracy Forum in which we have been participating consistently. They are willing to take upon themselves the idea that we have gone democratic, and this is the way we intend to remain. A very important message, adding to that the free press, the youth, the education system, the modernity and maintaining your culture and making your own choices towards your development.
Having said that, I do believe that all democracies are alike, but no two democracies are the same because to be a successful democracy, you have to be rooted in your own culture and your own ethos. So while pluralistic, multi-cultural, multi-party democracies do resemble each other, issues are largely domestic.
I think democracy is a great rubber-band. It provides immense elasticity. It binds you and yet gives you elasticity. I think you can bundle much more under democracy than any other system. It keeps many elements together and I see that happening here.
How does India view its relationship with Indonesia in the larger geo-political context? What is the long-term direction of this relationship?
Recently we put out a YouTube video from the embassy. The title was “Old Heritage, New Partnership.” The idea is very clear. We have an age-old partnership, good political engagement and an established framework of cooperation. How do we maximize this for mutual benefit? The fact that Indonesia is a democracy, a market economy and doing well in the world gives it a bigger opportunity for developing a partnership.
India today wants to develop this partnership and make it more dynamic and diverse. In that, there is no limitation in any area. Certainly we hold people-to-people relations, capacity building, human resource development, and enhancing economic engagement as a priority because more can be done in these areas.
In all these areas, we have agreements in place so we are waiting for opportunities to take them forward. We are working towards a situation where India would like to become Indonesia’s partner of choice. So it’s not just what India wants. It’s also what Indonesia wants that will contribute to a successful partnership.
In our mind, an expanded economic engagement is high on the priority list. This does not only include trade but investment, participation in infrastructure development, developing Indonesia’s natural resources with value additions for the development of the whole country itself.
On the capacity building and human resources development side, I think the fact that you are a young country means that there are enormous opportunities to develop resources of the human kind, to see how they can participate in the growing economic momentum. We are willing to work with Indonesia on that.
The third area is, of course, expanded people-to-people cooperation. We have to look at our cultural linkages and contemporize that. We have very good engagement but the issue is that the availability of knowledge at the click of a button means that you tend to get overwhelmed by dominant images.
Now, how we become an important image and factor in that is a challenge.
How do you bring a paratha into a burger culture? It’s a big challenge. We intend to improve our outreach to universities and other social organizations and I think the task is not that difficult because Indonesians have a certain amount of respect for India. The people have an empathy for India and things Indian. That is where we continue to look and see how we can take that forward.
Do you feel that India’s soft power can play a role in this outreach?
To be honest, I personally don’t think that Indonesia is a country where I need to leverage on soft power because the legacy of India’s soft power is embedded in Indonesian minds.
I have been to see new Bollywood movies in Indonesia and people are walking into the theater on their own. It’s not something we need to promote. The same goes with Indian food, yoga, dance. All these kind of things I see happening here very easily. I don’t need elbow room. I am very comfortable in Indonesia but perhaps I need to provide more intensity and frequency.
Indian culture is well understood in Indonesia, but is Indonesian culture well understood in India?
I think it is. If you ask an educated Indian what he thinks of Indonesia, he will reply that he thinks it’s a large country in Asia with an immense harmony amongst its diverse ethnic groups. It’s an important image because today not many countries enjoy that image.
Of course then there is growing tourism. Bali is a huge tourist attraction and 50,000 Indians visit Bali every year. We need to build on these lingering images.
One of the things that is missing is direct airline linkages and we need to work on that. There is a willingness on both sides to have it but again the practical method has to be found. That is one of the subjects I am discussing with the Indonesian authorities. On our part, India is ready to have an open skies agreement with Indonesia. The idea is to put in place the proper mechanism to make this succeed.
Are Indonesian investments in India rising?
It’s very little at the moment because right now the main focus is on trade. Our target is $25 billion in trade by 2015 and I think we are getting close to $20 billion a year. I would be much happier if I had $25 billion of investment but I think trade will grow by itself.
We already have large Indian investments in Indonesia, which are in excess of $10 billion. I think this will grow rapidly and this is an area where I personally want to focus on. I believe bringing in investments leads to far more substantive economic cooperation and benefits than merely trade.
Indonesia has huge natural resources and we understand the desire to develop these and add value. So whether it’s coal power and steel plants or aluminum smelters, we are ready to do all that. Similarly, there is a growing market in Indonesia for consumer products and that is where we feel the next wave of investments should come.
So we see immense potential in infrastructure development, processing of raw materials and in providing manufactured goods. We also see great potential in bringing in Indian services, whether it’s IT, accounting, consulting and so on.
I think more direct linkages between Indian and Indonesian companies are the next step. But we are very encouraged by the type of Indian companies that are coming here and the efforts they are making.
We are confident that Indian foreign direct investments will become an important player in Indonesia. We are also looking at the various economic corridors to see if we can aggregate something by putting in greater diversity, which will also help in taking more Indonesian exports away from commodities. So trade remains important but I think trade will be a corollary benefit from a rapid growth in FDI.
Is India increasingly looking east?
With Africa, our relationship has been a long one. It was largely people-to-people and trade-oriented. Today, with a governmental push, we have taken that into an investment relationship in which FDI plays a big role. Today our FDI in Africa is double our trade with Africa, which very few countries can claim.
Indian investment is respected because it shows that Indian investors transfer the most ecology, generate the most employment and contribute the most to domestic and regional trade. I think that model is relevant here too.
We are not people who have the big-bang approach. We have an evolving steadfast approach and for a country like Indonesia, where we have a longer relationship, things look slower where perhaps in Africa, where activity has been punched in a few years, perhaps things look faster. But I can assure you that attention on Indonesia and other countries in the East is perhaps more than on Africa.