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Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing world

David Webster

Indonesia first flickered into existence in Canadian imaginings of the world
between 1945 and 1949, but until very recently it remained, in the words
of a former Canadian ambassador, “a complete blank on almost every Western
and Eastern cultural radar screen,” including Canada’s.1 Despite its size
and importance, policy-makers in Ottawa long treated Indonesia as a faraway
trouble spot, giving it only sporadic attention. The bulk of sustained Canadian
attention was non-governmental. In the background, the mental maps
of Canadian policy-makers situated Southeast Asia as a peripheral region
within the spheres of interest of other powers. The North Atlantic world lay
at the centre of Canadian foreign-policy thinking, and Ottawa viewed Indonesia
through this glass, darkly. That changed after 1968, but even then, the
Canada-Indonesia relationship focused overwhelmingly on trade expansion.
Canadian policy toward Indonesia was driven not by events within Indonesia
but rather by Canadian priorities at home and in regions perceived as more
central to the national interest.

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Canada and Indonesia in a Decolonizing world

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 UBC Press 2009 


In writing this book, I have benefited enormously from the help of many people.
Special thanks are due to the staff at smaller archives, an excellent but
underused source of information that often escaped government notice.
Their help allowed me to develop a broader picture of the full scope of relations
between peoples as well as governments. I’m indebted to the very
helpful staff at the archives of McGill University, the United Church of Canada,
the United Nations, the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Cornell University, Trinity College,
the University of British Columbia, York University, the Canadian
Institute of International Affairs, the Saskatchewan Archives Board, and the
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, as well as national archives and libraries
in Ottawa, Washington, and Canberra. Elaine Brière and Maggie Helwig
provided private papers on East Timor as well as personal guidance; Glenn
Raynor and Kerry Pither also shared valuable unpublished material. For
permission to use unpublished materials, I am grateful to Michael Edmonds,
Audrey Kahin, and Nathan Keyfitz. The International Journal of Canadian
Studies kindly granted permission to reprint revised sections from my article
“Islam and Cold War Modernization in the Formative Years of the McGill
Institute of Islamic Studies,” which originally appeared in their volume 32 (2005).

This book began while I was a graduate student at the University of British
Columbia. I’m especially grateful to Steven Hugh Lee for his unstinting
generosity as supervisor and for his kind but critical eye. Work was completed
during a Harris Steel fellowship at the University of Western Ontario, a Social
Sciences and Humanities Council fellowship at the University of Toronto,
and a Kiriyama visiting fellowship at the University of San Francisco. During
this period, Robert Bothwell and Francine McKenzie were enormously helpful.
Four peer reviewers pointed me in better directions and saved me from
errors. Friends told me that Emily Andrew would be a joy to work with as
editor; they were right. So too have been Megan Brand, Randy Schmidt, and
the rest of the people at UBC Press. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity
to learn about Indonesian and Timorese histories, formally or informally,
from George Aditjondro, Abé Barreto Soares, Carmel Budiardjo,
Bella Galhos, Tineke Hellwig, Liem Soei Liong, Diane Mauzy, Octovianus
Mote, John Roosa, and Alexander Woodside. Thanks are also due for advice
or information to Jacques Bertrand, Adam Chapnick, Candace Chui, Chris
Dagg, Tom Delworth, Greg Donaghy, George Egerton, Howard Federspiel,
Geoff Hainsworth, Robert McMahon, John Meehan, Allan Smith, and Roald
Vogels. My parents Norman and Pat Webster, and my brother and fellow
historian Andrew Webster, went well beyond the call of family duty in reading drafts.

My largest debt is of course to my partner Sean, who never flagged in
supporting me on this and all other journeys, and who picked me up whenever

I fell down. There is no one else this book could be dedicated to.


With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just
like Kansas City.”1 With that notorious declaration of 1940, Senator Kenneth
Wherry of Nebraska summed up both the missionary impulse and the drive
to remake the developing world in the American image. Perceptions of the
American past would continue to shape American policies in the years that
followed. Foreign leaders would routinely be described as their country’s
George Washington or Thomas Jefferson; neutrality would be tolerated from
them, but only as a transitional stage as they consolidated themselves; the
United States would show the way for new countries to develop into economic
prosperity. “Our own desire to help in making Asian prospects brighter
has its origin in some of the deepest roots of the American heritage,” a top
State Department official told an Asian aid conference in 1954. “We see
mirrored in the aspirations of many Asian peoples our own hopes and our
own history. We see in their problems many of the same problems we ourselves
faced and overcame in the days of our Founding Fathers and of a
struggling new Republic.”2

Canadians have tended to notice the hubris in the sporadic American
bouts of nation building. We may take part in multilateral efforts to rebuild
war-torn societies, but (the argument goes) we do not try to reinvent the
world in our image. This belief that Canada does not seek to impose nationbuilding
solutions in the same way as the United States has become part of
the Canadian diplomatic self-image, the way policy-makers and internationally
minded citizens think of our country’s place in the world. Compared
to the United States, this self-image asserts, Canadians are more sensitive to
local conditions, better able to listen, less military minded. Americans deliver
military aid and offer economic aid in order to build up their allies; Canadians
are more sensitive to the aspirations of the “Third World.” Images of Canada
as an aid giver and of America as a military player have entered the rhetoric
and diplomatic self-perceptions of Canadians.

In 1955, for example, one syndicated columnist could write in 1955 that
“unlike the US – involved as she must be ideologically, in this vital area –
Canada’s [Asian] interests have no undertones of political or military linkups.”
3 After the Second World War, while Canada remained an ally of the
United States, its perceived humanitarian vocation became an important
strand in the diplomatic tales Canadians told themselves about themselves.
At a time of increasing American influence over Canada, the perceived differences
in foreign policy helped constitute a distinct Canadian identity.
Yet Canada was involved in nation building. Canadians offered a model
of political and economic development that they thought newly independent
countries would do well to follow. They tended to be less brash than
Senator Wherry: even those who crossed the Pacific as missionaries were not
likely to proclaim grand crusades to transform Chengdu into a Chinese
replica of Regina. But Canadians did see their country as a model for others.
Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent’s biographer described the basis of his
subject’s foreign policy as a quest to spread “the peace of Compton” throughout
the world.4 The image recalled the harmony and industry of St. Laurent’s
own bilingual, industrious, churchgoing hometown in Quebec’s Eastern
Townships. It was, to many policy-makers of the time, not a bad picture of
an ideal world. Addressing India’s Parliament in 1954, St. Laurent endorsed
independence for the remaining colonies. “At the same time,” he added,
“partly because our own evolution towards complete independence was no
less successful for being gradual, we see a certain merit in proceeding in these
matters at a pace which allows a firm foundation for self-government to be
established.”5 Here was the model of Canada’s path to decolonization, offered to others.

Canadian policy toward Indonesia, as with Canadian policy toward the
decolonizing world in general, was an afterthought in postwar Canadian
foreign policy. Here, alliances mattered most of all. The national interest
seemed to require a focus on the North Atlantic arena. Canadian government
policies on decolonization flowed from alliance-driven thinking.6 Underlying
that, policy-makers saw Canada’s orderly and gradual path to independence
within the Commonwealth as a model for others. They strove for continued
links between the new states and their old colonial masters, while hoping
for capitalist economic development along Western lines – ideally, Canadian
lines. It was a natural impulse and in many ways a generous one. After all,
Canada appeared to its people and its government – especially in the years
after the Second World War – as a peaceful kingdom developing toward ever
greater prosperity, with much to teach the world about political and economic development.

The implicit existence of a Canadian model for decolonization and economic
development can be seen clearly in the case of Canadian relations
with Indonesia and the rest of maritime Southeast Asia. Here, the years

following the Second World War were lived under the sign of decolonization.
The United States granted a form of independence to the Philippines in 1946,
setting a standard for political decolonization combined with continued
economic and military dependence. Indonesia was born amidst a revolution
that sought and won independence from the Netherlands between 1945 and
1949. Malaya followed a more peaceful path, walking in Canada’s footsteps
to win self-government within the Commonwealth in 1957. Conflicts over
the decolonization of Netherlands New Guinea and British Borneo led to
Indonesian “confrontation” with the Dutch and then with the new state of
Malaysia in the first half of the 1960s. A bloodier conflict followed as Indonesian
forces aborted the decolonization of East Timor in 1975. In each case,
Canadian policy-makers found themselves faced with conflicts in an area
that was important to the world economy and thus to Canadian prosperity.

They reacted with policies designed to ease the transition to self-government
while keeping the new states integrated into global trading systems.
At the same time, the new states faced enormous challenges of poverty
and cohesion. The answer offered by Canadians and other Western policymakers,
and embraced by local governments, was economic development.
Historian Steven Lee has offered a useful categorization of the historiography
of Canadian-Asian relations into four realms that combine government and
non-governmental connections – diplomacy, trade, missionary work, and
immigration.7 Like most of the work done on Canadian-Asian relations, this
scheme is driven by a focus on East Asia, especially China and Japan. Shifting
the direction of approach to Asia to South and Southeast Asia suggests
that it is worth including “development” as a fifth area. Development economics,
unknown in 1945, quickly became a major component of Western
policy toward the areas rechristened in the language of development – “the
underdeveloped world,” then “the developing world,” and eventually “the
less developed countries.” Canadian aid was part of a larger Western enterprise.
As in an earlier Western collective effort, the great missionary movement
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canadians played
a significant role. As with the missionary enterprise, this was not always as
representatives of their own government. Asia was peripheral to Canadian
policy. Overstating the case for effect, Lester Pearson wrote that Canadian
governments had had no real Asian policy before the Second World War.8
In 1950, 46 percent of Canada’s diplomats were stationed in Europe and just
12 percent in Asia.9 The low profile of Asia in government policy left room
for individual Canadians to become influential non-state diplomats in their
own right.10 Non-governmental institutions and corporations were seldom
confined to Canada alone; instead, they were enmeshed in North Americanwide
networks and broader Western state strategies. They also began the
training programs that created a modernizing elite for Indonesia – an elite
that would take power after 1965.

Very little work has been done on the history of Canadian relations with
Southeast Asia. Most of it has addressed the Canadian role in Indochina,
primarily as a member of the truce commission overseeing the 1954 peace
settlement in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. There has been some research
comparing Canadian policies with those of Britain and the United States,
but on the whole the literature on Canadian-Asian relations concentrates
on China, Japan, and Canada’s role in wars and peacemaking in Korea and
Vietnam. This book is the first history of Canadian relations with Indonesia,
the world’s fourth-largest state by population and the world’s most populous
Muslim country, and thus adds to the understanding of Canadian relations
with Asia and the Pacific. It takes an international-history approach, one
that considers Canadian policy in relation to that of other major Western
actors in the region. While remaining an examination of Canadian policy,
it also pays attention to Indonesian views and Indonesian sources. A study
of Canadian relations with Indonesia shows the important role of development
aid as an aspect of Canadian policy toward Asia. It also contributes to
our understanding of Canadian attitudes toward decolonization, which did
as much as the Cold War to shape the second half of the twentieth century
in international history.11 Decolonization began early in Southeast Asia,
with declarations of independence in Indonesia and Vietnam in 1945. It
also ran late: Indonesian rule in East Timor ended only in 1999. This book
concentrates on the periods and issues in decolonization and thus spends
more time on the first two decades of Indonesian independence. It is primarily
a study in Canada-Indonesia relations during the governments of Louis
St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker, and Lester Pearson. Policy under Prime Ministers
Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chrétien toward the issue
of East Timor’s decolonization is discussed more briefly.12

This study opens with a detailed examination of the 1945-49 Indonesian
revolution. The revolution was the foundational chapter in the history of
independent Indonesia, setting the stage for the next half-century of the
country’s history. These years were also foundational for Canadian diplomacy,
glossed in the literature as a shift from isolationism to internationalism.
In the remembrance of Escott Reid, one of the diplomats who dominated
the first generation of writing about Canadian foreign policy in this period,
Canada was undergoing a “revolution” in its foreign policy.13 When Indonesian
and Canadian authorities searched for an event to commemorate the
fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2003, they chose Canada’s
role in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) debates on Indonesian
independence, hailing it as a brilliant example of mediation and peacemaking.
14 Archival materials show Canadian policy-makers far more concerned
with the effect that a war in Indonesia might have on North Atlantic
strategy than with the merits of the dispute itself. In the decades following
1945, Canadian policy-makers approached Indonesia indirectly, through

multilateral lenses: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the
Commonwealth, and the UN. Canadian policy-makers plotted their approach
to Asia geographically, on “mental maps,” ways of picturing and
trying to make sense of a complex world spatially. These mental maps can
be powerful, as images of the “new world” were in Canada between the
wars. A classic example is George Kennan’s picture of an outwards-thrusting
Soviet empire that had to be “contained,” an image that contributed to US
military commitments in ways that Kennan himself never intended.15 Canadian
mental maps privileged Eurocentric concerns, especially the “North
Atlantic triangle” of Canada, the United States, and Britain. At the same
time, the war thrust upon Canadian policy-makers a new sense of vulnerability.
Senator Raoul Dandurand had famously told the League of Nations
that Canada lived in “a fire-proof house, far from inflammable materials.”16
In 1948, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent updated the metaphor by comparing
NATO to a fire-insurance policy: “When I ask you to support a North
Atlantic Treaty, I am simply asking you to pay an insurance premium which
will be far, far less costly than the losses we would face if a new conflagration
devastated the world.”17 Influenced by their mental maps, policy-makers
often based decisions on matters affecting Indonesia on imagined geographies
rather than on actual events in the country. Perceptions helped shape policy.

Canadian policy-makers were embedded in the North Atlantic triangle,
feeling they had little choice but to align themselves with the United States
and Britain, while balancing between them to avoid too much dependence
on one or the other.18 The Atlantic was “a natural frame of reference for
Canada,” said Paul Martin Sr. during his time as foreign minister, “a bridge,
not a line of division.”19 Within the triangle lay the comfortable and familiar.
Outside was the virtually unknown, seen mostly in wartime service or tourism.
T.C. Davis, Canadian Ambassador to China, wrote in 1948 that “Burma,
Siam, Malaya, Dutch East Indies, Hong Kong, China etc. to the ordinary
Canadian are intriguing places with intriguing names located out in a part
of the world in which they have little interest.”20 Canadians generally pictured
Southeast Asia in mental snapshots of wicker deck chairs, gin and
tonic, teeming jungles, and vaguely menacing natives: images sketched
through South Sea traveller’s tales, missionary accounts, the novels of Joseph
Conrad and Somerset Maugham, the travel tales of Gordon Sinclair, and the
songs of The King and I. The presence of a Canadian legation in Tokyo and
of significant trade links did not impinge too much on this popular imagery.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and a role in Vietnam after 1954,
began to increase Canadian awareness of Asia. The Canadian government
sought to do what it could to help in the effort to keep as much of Asia as
possible non-communist, at a time when communism seemed to be on the march.

A wide gap separates diplomatic memories from contemporary policy
decisions. Rather than implementing any predestined calling to mediate,
policy-makers carried out diplomacy from decision to decision, with Canada’s
alliances and national interests in mind. Canada was not, in the title of a
1948 poem by diplomat Douglas LePan, “a country without a mythology.”21
Its diplomatic self-image, the way Canadians pictured and remembered their
country’s role in the world, was beginning to emerge from the day-to-day
practices of its diplomats. By helping fix individual disputes, those diplomats
fostered the idea that mediation was what Canada did best. Forged in practice,
mediation was inscribed in the diplomatic memory as a defining characteristic
of Canadian policy, feeding what later became a “cargo cult of
peacekeeping.”22 What was going on was a process of mythmaking: not a
direct attempt to deceive, but the gradual creation of a guiding narrative of
Canadian engagement with Southeast Asia during the early Cold War. The
word myth is not used here to suggest falsehood, but rather, as Ronald Wright
puts it, to describe “an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined,
in patterns that resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations.
Myths create and reinforce archetypes so taken for granted, so seemingly
axiomatic, that they go unchallenged.”23

When the Indonesian dispute came to the UNSC, Canada was neither a
partisan of self-determination nor a disinterested mediator. Instead, it aimed
to find a middle path between the United States and the Netherlands, and
ultimately to assist the Dutch in withdrawing from a colonial liability with
honour and the prospect of continued influence over their former colony.
This was mediation, but of a different sort than diplomatic memory would
later suggest. Canadian policy on Indonesian decolonization flowed from a
desire to avoid conflicts among Canada’s allies. In reacting to any foreignpolicy
issue, Ottawa always had one eye cocked on the North Atlantic alliance.
The best way to help the Dutch in their colonial war in Indonesia, or
the British and French in Suez, or even the Americans in Korea, was not
blind loyalty but a helpful course designed to extricate Canada’s allies from
messes of their own making.24 Ottawa searched always for a middle ground,
but not a middle ground between the two parties to a conflict; rather, the
gaps it tried to bridge were between the divergent opinions of Canada’s
allies, when they diverged. Canada was less a “pragmatic idealist” than an
independent-minded ally.25 It was always loyal in the end. At the 1954
Geneva Conference on Korea, for instance, Pearson attempted to reconcile
the American and Chinese positions while at the same time warning that
the Western powers would not allow themselves to be “split” by any peace
offer.26 The Canadian search for a middle path between allies in the Indonesian
revolution was an early example of the interplay of alliance politics and
mediation in Canadian foreign policy.

Just as North Atlantic priorities dictated the broad outlines of Canadian
attitudes toward the Indonesian revolution, so would the priorities of alliance
politics shape the subsequent bilateral relationship. The two countries
established diplomatic relations in 1953, leading to the opening of Canada’s
first embassy in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the two countries’ main interactions
were not diplomatic. They came instead through the Colombo Plan
for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific
(hereafter the Colombo Plan), through international organizational networks
such as the UN Technical Assistance Administration’s support to the
Indonesian National Planning Bureau, and through such influential nongovernmental
links as the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.

Canada’s self-perception that it was a linchpin or interpreter between the
United States and Britain made it easy for later diplomats to portray Canada
as a bridge between the West and Asia. Even relative “isolationists” could
make this comparison. The Montreal newspaper Le Canada, for instance,
recalled Canada’s role as an Anglo-American link when editorializing on
relations with Asia: “C’est dans le cadre de cette tradition que le Canada
s’interpose de plus en plus entre les grands états occidentaux et les pays du
bloc afro-asiatique.”27 As diplomat-writer John Holmes explained, Canadian
cultivation of bridges to Asia and Africa was “a thoroughly hard-boiled effort
to prevent the Russians from turning our flanks and exposing NATO as a
Maginot line.”28

Foreign aid, the major way in which Canada addressed Indonesia, passed
over the Colombo Plan “bridge.” Commonwealth planners designed the
Colombo Plan to combat communism and restore multilateral trade. Ottawa
took the then radical step of sending aid to Asia out of a very specific calculation
of its own self-interest. In public opinion, however, aid programming
fed the diplomatic self-image of Canada as a humanitarian internationalist
power. Four of five people surveyed in 1987 agreed that one of the best
things about Canada was its global generosity. In 1995, 74 percent of those
polled were against any cuts to foreign aid.29 Leaders who used humanitarian
language were not cynics deceiving the public: even as they created the
myth, they also believed it themselves. They believed that foreign aid would
help everyone concerned, and they viewed northern and southern governments
alike as, in the title of the 1969 Pearson report on aid, “partners in

There is little evidence that Indonesian policy-makers in the Sukarno years
saw Canada as a special friend. Ottawa provided less aid than other donors,
made no effort to team up with Indonesia in international forums, and
usually rejected specific Indonesian overtures for help. Canada and Indonesia
had very different ideas about the best ways to decolonize and about the
nature of development, and this led to mutual disappointment. Indonesians

would later hail Canadian mediation in their decolonization process, yet
they were unable to convince Ottawa to play a similar role in their dispute
with the Netherlands over the decolonization of West New Guinea. From
Jakarta, Canada appeared as a distant and subordinate piece of the American-
Commonwealth alliance then dominating Southeast Asia. Indonesian foreign
policy under the two decades of the Sukarno presidency strove for greater
independence from that sphere, and Indonesia thus played a large part in
forming the Asian non-aligned group – initially as a cause for other Asians
to rally around, and then as a participant. Through non-alignment, Indonesian
policy-makers were able to advance their cause by balancing the superpowers
against each other. They did not perceive Canada as Canadian
policy-makers did, but rather as one of a mass of Western powers. They could
see the continuing influence of the Netherlands, for instance, on Canadian
policy toward their country.

As Indonesian foreign policy became more confident, policy-makers began
to divide the world into those countries that had won independence on
their own and those that had been granted it. A neo-colonialist country, in
one 1962 pronouncement, was “one which had a flag and national anthem
of its own but whose policy was an imitation of other countries and whose
defence was apparently based upon the power of another nation.” As one
Canadian official scrawled on the despatch reporting this: “There, but for a
flag and anthem, goes Canada.”31 The two governments were as different
as their climates. In the memorable image of Sukarno, Indonesia’s president
from 1945 to 1966, they were like fire and the full moon. The Indonesian
diplomatic self-image in the Sukarno years was one of a nation forged “in
the fire’s heart of revolution,” morally superior to nations that had won
their independence as a gift, “under the rays of the full moon ... protected
by the perfume of roses and jasmine.”32 From this was born an idea of Indonesia
as a nation struggling always for justice and greatness. Canada’s
diplomatic culture shied away from such challenges, valuing instead incremental,
non-violent, co-operative change based on its own slow and peaceful
procession to independence within the Empire-Commonwealth. Thus Lester
Pearson, writing around the same time as Sukarno’s speech, lamented Indonesia’s
road as one of danger, one that might be “more secure, if it had been
achieved in a more peaceful, orderly and co-operative fashion.”33

For Sukarno, true political and economic independence came only through
revolution, nationalism, and anti-colonial confrontation. Postwar Canadian
governments had diametrically opposed views. They advocated instead cooperative
economic development, Western technical advice, export-driven
development strategies, and aid designed to “prime the pump” for better
investment climates. By the time of the Indonesian “confrontation” with
the British-sponsored Federation of Malaysia, Canada and Indonesia had
moved into an adversarial relationship. This was reversed only after the fall

of Sukarno ushered in a new regime more attuned to Western development
models. Canadian-Indonesian relations deepened as development visions
converged. Sukarno’s government had rejected much of the advice given by
Canadian and other Western advisers hired to write their first development
plan in the early 1950s. Twenty years later, Indonesians who had assisted
those Canadian advisers were the chief planners of the new Suharto government.
Canadian policy-makers, increasingly open to economic nationalism,
found themselves more sympathetic to Indonesia’s new development strategies.
The fire was cooler, the full moon a bit brighter. Indonesia became a
priority Canadian partner in Asia and a “country of concentration” for Canadian
development aid. By the time Indonesian forces invaded East Timor
in 1975, the two governments were closely linked enough that Canadian
officials raised no protest. Only as the sign of human rights rose in international
relations did their embrace falter. Canadian policy, driven by trading
desires, supported the Suharto regime until its collapse in 1998. Canada and
Indonesia’s new democracy now face a new relationship, but it too will be
informed by the past.


Acknowledgments / ix
Introduction / 3
1 Canada, the United Nations, and the Decolonization of Indonesia, 1945-49 / 12
2 The Golden Bridge: Canada and Indonesian Economic Development, 1950-63 / 44
3 Non-state Networks and Modernizing Elites in the Sukarno Years / 77
4 Canada, Alliance Politics, and the West New Guinea Dispute, 1957-63 / 101
5 Canada, Confrontation, and the End of Empire in Southeast Asia, 1963-66 / 130
6 Pebbles in Many Shoes: 
Development in Indonesia, Decolonization in East Timor, 1968-99 / 156
Conclusion / 185
Notes / 197
Bibliography / 235
Index / 251

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