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Cultural intelligence key to future of Australia-Indonesia relationship

The official result in Indonesia’s presidential election contest between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto is still some days away, with both claiming victory. But no matter who the next president is, there…

Tony Abbott’s responses to Indonesian concerns about spying suggested a weak understanding of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s different cultural milieu. EPA/Tanaya Pramudita

The official result in Indonesia’s presidential election contest between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto is still some days away, with both claiming victory. But no matter who the next president is, there is little reason to suggest that Australian prime minister Tony Abbott will find navigating the Australia-Indonesia relationship any easier than before.

Since coming to office in 2013, Abbott’s public utterances on Operation Sovereign Borders and his lack of apology to incumbent Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono following the spying scandal have caused consternation in Indonesia. Diagnosing what may have been the problem with Abbott’s statements from a strategic communication perspective brings the issue of cultural intelligence to the fore.

Cultural intelligence is just one of the “multiple intelligences”. The idea of multiple intelligences, popularised by developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, has been around for two decades and is described as including the various abilities necessary for being an engaged citizen and a complete person. Cultural intelligence is seen as a specific form of intelligence:

… focused on an individual’s ability to grasp and reason correctly in situations characterised by cultural diversity.

A person’s level of cultural intelligence is seen as playing an important role in organisational and leadership performance. Leaders with high cultural intelligence are more likely to be able to communicate in a culturally sensitive manner. They are also more likely to show appropriate behavioural responses with different stakeholders from diverse cultural backgrounds, thus reducing conflict.

Abbott and Yudhoyono

It is thought that one’s cultural intelligence is acquired from educational background, personal experiences and exposure to other cultures. In Yudhoyono, the makings of someone with a high level of cultural intelligence are evident. He graduated from the Indonesian Armed Forces Academy and has a masters degree in management from Webster University in the US.

As a young man, Yudhoyono spent time studying and working overseas. National Library of Indonesia

Yudhoyono also studied in Panama and Germany as part of his military education. And in 1995, he was deployed as chief military observer with the United Nation peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This contrasts with Abbott, who was born in London, completed his undergraduate degree in Sydney and his masters degree at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. After finishing his study, he briefly trained to be a Catholic priest before working as a journalist for The Australian newspaper.

However, during his political career, Abbott has no record working outside Australia. He represents the federal electorate of Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches. As of the 2011 Census, Warringah has Australia’s tenth and NSW’s highest proportion of residents born in the United Kingdom or Ireland (10.9%). It has Australia’s third-highest proportion of high-income households (55.9%).

This indicates Abbott could be categorised as someone who should exhibit a high level of cultural intelligence within his own culture. This is in contrast to Yudhoyono, who may be seen as having a high level of cultural intelligence both within his own and other cultures.

Cultural intelligence and the spy standoff

Abbott’s cultural intelligence includes communicating with people from western or Anglo-Saxon backgrounds in both his local area and in the international arena. While his level of cultural intelligence has never been specifically measured (as far as we know), several factors indicate that it may be quite low when communicating within southeast Asian cultures such as Indonesia.

Abbott’s responses to Indonesian concerns about asylum seekers and spying suggested a weak understanding of Yudhoyono’s different cultural milieu. For Yudhoyono and Indonesians, maintaining both personal and national dignity would be paramount.

Following the spying scandal, Abbott’s refusal to apologise or promptly give a detailed explanation could be regarded as an indicator of low cultural intelligence. This is particularly in relation to reading verbal and non-verbal signals sent by Yudhoyono in press conferences and on Twitter.

Yudhoyono released a series of strong personal statements on his Twitter account, @SBYudhoyono, translated from Bahasa Indonesian into English:

I also regret that statement Australian Prime Minister that belittled this tapping matter in Indonesia without any remorse. –SBY

However, another explanation might stem from Abbott’s apparently high level of cultural intelligence in relation to mainstream Australia. He may have been willing to sacrifice key aspects of the Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship to win further favour with his voters. Many Australian voters reportedly supported tougher stances on issues such as asylum seekers before and after the federal election last September.

Such issues were having a negative impact on the bilateral relationship back then, and continue to do so. Approval of the government’s handling of asylum seekers remains high.

Abbott may have chosen to appear tough in relation to Indonesia up to this point. There is research that supports such a positioning strategy. It says that the more extreme the language used against another is, the more likely it is that the internal support for the speaker is strengthened.

The Indonesian government has previously suspected an Abbott-led government of jeopardising the bilateral relationship to shore up domestic political support.

What next?

Presidential candidate Joko Widodo has limited experience outside Indonesia. EPA/Mast Irham

It could be argued that the high level of cultural intelligence shown in Abbott’s dealings with his domestic base underpins his public communication responses to the Indonesian government thus far. The question remains how the next Indonesian president will respond to Abbott continuing down such a path.

It is worth noting that many considered Yudhoyono to be a good friend of Australia. However, even under his watch there were negative repercussions as a result of Abbott’s response to the spying scandal. These included a halt to co-operation between Indonesia-Australia military and police departments on people smuggling and counter-terrorism.

The stance that the new Indonesian president will take towards Australia and the bilateral relationship, no matter who wins, is still largely unknown. Jokowi has had little international experience. Prabowo has some international experience, including a period of “self-exile” in Jordan.

There is also another unknown in this equation. The degree to which Abbott can exercise appropriate levels of cultural intelligence towards Indonesia is unclear. If Indonesia’s new president is less tolerant of what Indonesians could construe as cultural insensitivity in Australia’s leader, it might be a rocky path ahead.