Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:01 | SYDNEY
Friday 03 Apr 2020 | 00:01 | SYDNEY

The stories we're missing in Southeast Asia

This post is part of the Australian journalism in Southeast Asia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

17 March 2010 10:27

This post is part of the Australian journalism in Southeast Asia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Geraldine Doogue is host of ABC Radio National's Saturday Extra program.

In the debate over how to boost comprehensive coverage of modern Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, I favour a new journalistic emphasis: seeking out shared dilemmas.

Instead of the tried-and-true policy of highlighting key differences, why not encourage more curiosity around common middle-class vexations? There's plenty to work with and fresh angles are going begging.

Of course we would need to lose our sentimental attachment to the 'exotic East' stereotype, hardly something to grieve over. Anyway, it could linger in the background to be legitimately mined, given the significant differences in the scale of challenge facing the two different communities. 

But concentrating on similar problems, especially among urban dwellers, would surely lead to a much truer representation of contemporary lives. This could assist a better national conversation that would ultimately buttress sensible inter-country dialogue.

In a wide range of areas — the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes, decreasing physical exercise, dramatically rising rates of obesity, poor work-life balance, quality of parliamentarians — citizens in Australia and the region can easily swap notes. The modern middle-class predicament of encouraging optimal development of children amid an ICT revolution and of a broad search for meaning amid brittle traditions is very much a shared dilemma, as any cursory conversation will reveal.

At the moment, very few foreign editors will seek angles like this from their correspondents. So the hard-pressed correspondents barely spend any time developing them. But they know they are there, just waiting to be drawn out.

During a recent visit to Malaysia, my colleagues and I on the board of the Australia-Malaysia Institute were introduced to the considerable problems facing sporting authorities there, starved of competent on-air sporting commentators and coaches. In the area of volunteering, they're struggling, with super-busy parents simply not seeing this as part of a parental repertoire and precious few underlying institutions like Little Athletics or Oz Kick. They're very keen to know how we've developed these services.

The common complaint of 'no time for anything but basic family and work' is deafening in the region, once you get beyond surface chit-chat. In fact, it's more keenly felt than in Australia, much to our surprise. This is surely food for good stories.

A key issue I always raise with people in the region is: 'tell us about social change in your community'. The stories come tumbling out, with passion and usually some fear. We may think we have issues with Australian identity confusion amid fast change. They're nothing by comparison with what's confronting our neighbours. But we don't report it like this, whereas it could be so much more inviting if we did.

So while I sympathise with the frustrations of some of The Interpreter's respondents about Australia's outdated notions of modern Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand, merely calling for broader coverage won't do the trick. No amount of fine, nuanced reporting by Greg Earl from the AFR or Rowan Callick in The Australian will seriously shift the consciousness of the mainstream in either country until we start seeking what's common as well as what's different.

Then, and I suspect only then, will we reach what I judge to be a bold goal: a series from Andrew Denton on Asian characters (a la The Elders series) or Q&A from Jakarta. Then we would be cooking with gas.

Photo by Flickr user permanently scatterbrained, used under a Creative Commons license.