Makassar? Where is Makassar?
I am sitting on my balcony listening to the call to prayer, and there are at least six different mosques within earshot (or loud-speaker-shot) from where I can hear the call. One muezzin calls in a fast, tinny voice, barely resting for breath; but another is obviously putting his all into it, wavering in a beautiful tremolo, between lines pausing long enough to make you urge him not to give up, drawing on his decades of training to get every syllable and tone and element of the sound just perfect for praising the perfection that is Allah.
The sounds of maghrib are hypnotising and quite relaxing.
Out on the main street the motor cycles roar as ever, sellers of sweet meats and smart-phones are doing a ripping trade, and commerce turns over as it has in this city for centuries.
You might think I am romanticising an exotic trading hub in the middle east. But no, this is Makassar, a city of 1.6 million people, located smack in the middle of Indonesia, just 1,500 kilometres northwest from Darwin and a one hour flight northeast from Bali. Makassar is the gateway to eastern Indonesia and is closer to north Australia than Sydney (Sydney is 3,000 kilometres from Darwin).
Makassar is also the capital of the province of South Sulawesi (population over eight million), home to several universities including the largest in Eastern Indonesia, Sultan Hasanuddin University; and a growing centre for agribusiness, small scale manufacturing and processing. Makassar has been a key trading centre since at least the 15th century. Then, cloves, nutmeg and mace from the Molluccas Islands were worth more than their weight in gold in the markets of Europe and these spices were shipped through Makassar. From the 18th century, Makassan traders sought sea-cucumber (trepang) from northern Australia for on-sale to merchants who supplied an inexhaustible market in the inns and kitchens of imperial China.
Today, traditional Bugis phinisi sailing ships from Makassar still supply isolated island communities all over the archipelago with daily necessities such as cement and instant noodles. But Makassar is changing with the times. Its current port has reached maximum capacity and will soon be supplemented by a new port designed for a fivefold increase in container throughput; a railway line from Makassar to the port of Pare-pare is under construction which will eventually traverse the whole length of the K-shaped island of Sulawesi; several districts in the province are developing their own industrial development areas; and Makassar will soon boast around 30 major brand-name hotels. The pattern of building new roads, ports and airports is being repeated across the eastern islands of Indonesia: recently President Jokowi inaugurated a new bridge across Ambon Bay and five new ports in three of the eastern provinces.
Most Australians have probably never heard of Makassar, and are unaware of the rapid changes that are impacting this part of the world, so close to our northern borders. But these changes will be important to Australia’s prosperity and security.
This is why on the 22nd March this year Foreign Minister Julie Bishop came to Makassar to open our Consulate-General, Australia’s newest overseas diplomatic mission. Through the Consulate-General Australia will promote and strengthen trade, investment, education and people-to-people links between Australia and the eastern part of Indonesia.
As Australia’s first Consul-General in Makassar I am aware of the great challenge of trying to stimulate greater trade and investment flows between our two nations: but it is a challenge I have been aware of for decades. In the late 1990s I published a study, A Business Survival Guide to Eastern Indonesia, which laid out the strengths and weaknesses of each of the eastern provinces and argued for Australian business to be more adventurous and get more involved in the commerce of eastern Indonesia.
Now Australia is putting significant resources into this relationship with the aim of ensuring that Australians no longer remain ignorant of where Makassar is, and so they become aware of the potential for growth in the islands just to our north and of the opportunities that await those who are willing to seize them.
So I call on Australians to venture forth and discover this amazing part of the world.
Just northwest of Darwin.