John Gorton, second Australian Prime Minister to visit Indonesia: cooperation with the New Order, assistance, investment (& benefits of language skills)

On 13 June 1968, the second Australian Prime Minister to visit Indonesia, Mr John Gorton, accompanied by Mrs Bettina Gorton, was welcomed on arrival in  Jakarta by President Suharto and Ibu Siti Hartinah. Mrs Gorton replied on behalf of her husband ... in Bahasa Indonesia. She was fluent in both Indonesian and Javanese languages, had lived in Indonesia during 1966 and had spoken to Indonesian audiences on Radio Australia.

Arrival ceremony in Jakarta on 13 June 1968. Left: Prime Minister John Gorton
with President Suharto. Right: Mrs Bettina Gorton speaking in Bahasa Indonesia
President Suharto noted at dinner that night: "It is indeed an honour, it is even very moving for the Indonesian people that this time outside the Malay race we have a State guest who is well versed in our language and who has a thorough knowledge of the Indonesian culture. I feel that Mrs Gorton's fluency and her knowledge of the Indonesian language are a manifestation of the friendly feelings and the understanding of the Australian people about the Indonesian people ..."

Mrs Gorton, an American, had been a language student at the Sorbonne in Paris while her brother. Arthur Brown, was at Oxford. In the summer of 1934, Arthur brought his class mate John Gorton to share a holiday cottage in Spain ... where he met Bettina. They married the next year in England, after which they moved to his family’s farm in near Kerang, Victoria, Australia. Bettina supported her husband in his political career after he entered parliament in 1950 as a Senator for Victoria.
Bettina Gorton with her Indonesian
language teacher Mrs Johns, 1968 (NAA)

In 1960, on an official visit to Sarawak, she became interested in Asian languages and culture. She took lessons in the Indonesian language, visited Indonesia for six weeks in 1966 and, after graduating with honours in Oriental Studies at the Australian National University, worked on the English-Malay dictionary from 1967-1977. In January 1968, two days after her husband was elected by his Liberal Party to replace the deceased Harold Holt as Prime Minister, she made her first radio broadcast to Indonesia, in Indonesian.

In 1997, speaking on John Gorton’s political legacy, former Labor PM Gough Whitlam acknowledged that Mrs Gorton had used her Indonesian language skills to make a lasting and valuable contribution to "Australia's relations with our great neighbour."

Priorities of the 1968 mission

The purpose of John Gorton’s 1968 prime ministerial mission was to consult with Indonesia’s New Order government on its economic stabilisation and development priorities - Gorton had doubled non-military aid - and to support the recently formed Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The delegation had already visited South Vietnam and Australian troops there and would continue to Singapore and Malaysia, particularly to discuss the security vacuum caused by the British military pull-out scheduled for 1971.

Previous visit to Batavia

Mr Gorton first visited Jakarta, then known as Batavia, for nearly three weeks in 1942 while a fighter pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Operating from RAF bases in Malaya, he saw action against the Japanese in the South China Sea and, after one engagement, crash landed his Hawker Hurricane on Bintan island.

Injured, he was rescued by members of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army who assisted him to Singapore, three days after the island had been invaded.

He was then put on the MV Derrymore, an ammunition ship bound for Batavia, but it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and abandoned.

Gorton (arrowed) taken on board
HMAS Ballarat (Spitfire Assn)
He and 214 other survivors then spent almost a day on crowded life rafts until spotted and picked up by HMAS Ballarat and taken to Batavia on 13 February 1942.

Two friends, who had also been evacuated from Singapore, heard that Gorton was in hospital and arranged for him to be put on a ship for Fremantle. It left on 23 February, just five days before the Japanese invaded Java Island.

Mr Gorton did not mention this prior visit in his official speeches in Jakarta.

The Australia Indonesia relationship

In his arrival statement on 13 June 1968, Mr Gorton noted that “although the association between our two countries is short when measured in terms of history, dating only from your independence it has been an association which has laid a foundation of friendship and co-operation” and highlighted, as examples of recent practical cooperation:
“Your students have attended our universities and technical institutions and Australians have worked alongside Indonesians on projects ranging from road building in East Nusa Tenggara to the installation of an aerial communications network spanning the vast area of the Archipelago of the Republic.”
At the official banquet that evening hosted by President Suharto, Mr Gordon recalled the diplomatic assistance that Australia had provided to Indonesia’s independence struggle as evidence that its interest was not new found:
“Australians are proud to have extended the hand of friendship to Indonesians in the earlier days of the struggle for independence. We are even prouder, Sir, that you accepted that friendship and paid us the honour of nominating us as your representative at the United Nations negotiations at that time. It was in those days that a firm basis was laid for an enduring and neighbourly relationship.”
He then mentioned, generally, the 1963–66 ‘Konfrontasi’ period during which Australia supported newly independent Malaysia against aggression from Indonesia:
“Those early days of close co-operation were followed in due course by events that were less happy. But through all these times of differences and confrontation Australia’s interest in Indonesia did not slacken.
"For example, during all that time our aid programme continued and your students remained at their studies at our universities. It was also possible at that time to reach agreement on the marking of our common border in Irian. In all our dealings during those, difficult times we sought to indicate that we were fully conscious of the need to preserve as wide an area of co-operation as possible and continue to work towards a confident and productive relationship.”
He also spoke of the interaction between the Australian and Indonesian governments since the Indonesian army had consolidated its power in 1967. President Soekarno had been forced to resign on 22 February 1967 and Suharto had been appointed acting president. On 27 March 1968, Suharto was elected by the MPRS for his first five-year term as President:
“It is a matter of the highest satisfaction to me and to all Australians that relations have now been fully restored and indeed, as I think, lifted to new levels. The Australian Minister for External Affairs, Mr Hasluck, has visited Indonesia three times in the last sixteen months. Your Foreign Minister has just concluded a visit to Australia. There have been numerous visits by other Ministers between our two countries in the last two years. At the Parliamentary level we had a Parliamentary Delegation here last year and your Parliamentary Delegation has just returned from Australia. Large numbers of individual members of the Australian Parliament from both sides of the House have come here on visits both official and private. Our Air Force Commanders have exchanged visits. We have Army officers training in each other's country. Units of the Australian Navy have been most courteously received in recent visits in Indonesia.”
Prime Minister Gorton with Indonesian officials at an Army parade ground, 1968 (NAA)

The following evening Mr Gorton hosted a dinner for President Suharto and leading Indonesian dignitaries. In his speech, he spoke of future investment and mentioned “the first main conference in Indonesia of private firms and private individuals” which took place in Jakarta in August 1967 and “had, as its origin in Australia, a large number of Australia's leading businessmen and industrialists.”

He also encouraged the signing of a cultural agreement to "give added impetus to an interest already evident but not as evident as it should be in Australia to the studying of Indonesian language ... "

The full text of his 14 June 1968 speech follows (at read more):

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It would, for any Australian Prime Minister, at any time, be a special privilege to be a host to the President of the Republic of Indonesia. But on this occasion there is perhaps a doubly special pleasure because quite soon, I think perhaps tomorrow, you begin a series of fairs and carnivals in Djakarta to celebrate the 441st anniversary of the foundation of this city. It is therefore doubly pleasant that I should have quite inadvertently so timed this visit that it coincides with this celebration.

It is perhaps salutary to someone from Australia to consider that this city, in which we are tonight, was founded 250 years before the nation which I represent was founded in my country.

This long stretch of history behind you was reinforced to me last night by the cultural exhibition which you so kindly presented and which was from the various parts of this great archipelago. You showed dances stretching back three, four, five hundred years and which we for our part cannot match. Our own national existence has been shorter than has been the existence of this city though we do draw from centuries past, a culture from Great Britain that we must turn and will turn to our own ends as people from other nations come and make a new nation in Australia'.

But it is a double privilege to have you as the guest of honour, for we in Australia have a keen awareness of the leadership which you are giving to this nation in difficult times; a keen awareness of the problems which you with courage and imagination are seeking in these times to overcome.

We wish you all success in these endeavours, not only for your own sake but for our own sake too and for those of other neighbouring countries. For if you achieve success in the task which you have set yourself, then our future will be the easier, so will the future of other neighbouring countries: so will the future of the region as a whole.

In this great and difficult task which you have before you we will, as far as our nation is concerned, be helpful as far as we are able, considering the commitments at home and abroad which we have. Sir, what we can do will depend on many factors, but I do assure you that we will try as a nation to play that part in helping to fulfil the dreams you have for -the future of your nation and the dreams we have for the future of the whole of the region to which we are contiguous, of which perhaps ultimately we will be an important part.

Sir, you will know that just recently we have taken a decision in Australia to double next year the amount of aid which last year we provided to Indonesia and it is a matter of special pride that this was one of the first decisions made by the Australian Government since I became Prime Minister of my country. But that is, in the context of the problems facing you, a small contribution.

We will, besides that, stand behind you in the councils of the world to seek to see that other greater countries, not contributing more per head perhaps, but contributing more in total, enjoin with you and ourselves in the goal you have set.

We are glad to have large numbers of your students studying in our country, and we hope that when they return, as they do return, to their homeland, the result of their studies will be shown in technological progress, in administrative progress, in the general assistance to you in your governmental activities which through such training we hope to give.

And you will know that, regarding investment in this country, the first main conference in Indonesia of private firms and private individuals took place in August of last year and had, as its origin in Australia, a large number of Australia's leading businessmen and industrialists who came to Djakarta at that time to participate and who, as regards many of them, have pursued their interests since then.

In some cases, in turn, investment will follow. In other cases, investment might not follow but technical assistance, technological assistance, will be there for the asking and we feel that it is possible that in the context of the Indonesian economy, the technical assistance which we can provide may be, and I say only may be, more significant and more appropriate than the technical assistance of some greater complexes of some greater countries, because it may be that at our stage of development, and at your stage of development, this technical assistance will be better than it might be from some mighty complex of a power country.

But this important as it is, must go side by side with agricultural improvements which I know is close to your hearts. Is it impossible to increase food production in Indonesia? If it is possible to double the production per hectare of land, for example, of rice, then that must be a basic requirement for future progress in any direction because the production of food in sufficient quantities, to ensure that food is sold without an increase in price must be the basis on which all other building takes place and we would be interested, Sir, in seeking to try and play a part in that should you regard that as a large priority in the many other activities in which you are engaged.

I do not wish to traverse the whole field of co-operation between our two nations. I think we have made some advance in the cultural agreement signed between our two countries: one which provides for exchange of scientific knowledge for bringing closer together the academics in our country and in yours: for bringing to our own nation those cultural heritages which you have: for bringing for the Indonesian people that which we can do to entertain them. These must, in the long run, build up to a better understanding between our two peoples and indeed, Sir, it is my belief that the signing of such an agreement will give added impetus to an interest already evident but not as evident as it should be in Australia to the studying of Indonesian language, of Indonesian history, of Indonesian culture, and this I believe will take place in our country in the future.

That step has been a part of the past between Indonesia and Australia that I think is a part of the vision of the future between Indonesia and Australia but there are tensions in the whole of the area in which you find yourselves geographically and we find ourselves geographically, and I would hope that it would be possible in the course of the future, the near future, to see that these intentions were as far as possible damped down and that you and we and all the other nations in this area could at least say to each other that we respect and honour the territorial boundaries of each nation and will not, under any circumstances, seek to upset them.

This is, Sir, just a matter of damping down the tensions: if it happened it would be good, and if after it happened or while it was happening we could, together, seek to improve, however slowly, but constantly the living standards of the individuals in each country, then we would be laying a real foundation for what is possible if the men and the women of each nation in this area, under the leadership provided to them, are prepared to make it possible, and because I think that you, Sir, are prepared to make it possible and because I think you are aiming at making it possible.

That is the third reason why tonight I have such a sense of privilege in having you beside me in the Indonesian capital, and in asking all those gathered here to rise and drink with me to the President of the Republic of Indonesia.


See also:   The 1994 integrated Australian business-cultural promotion in Indonesia and Paul Keating's call for a closer relationship