Helen Brown: An ABC Journalist in Jakarta

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

“I came back to Australia because it was time to take stock and consolidate what I had gained both professionally and personally.”

Helen Brown has been a journalist for 20 years across television, radio and online, covering breaking news, conducting high-level research, and giving context to current events. She is driven by a desire and determination to keep connecting herself and others with Asia, to develop an insight into the speed of change in the region. Travelling through Asia and working in Jakarta for four years, she acquired a multitude of skills that she brought home with her to Australia, including looking at life from a different perspective.

You were working in Jakarta with the ABC for almost four years. Did work take you there, or was it somewhere you always wanted to live?

My work did take me to Jakarta; but it wasn’t meant to be that way. I was focussed on living and working in China, reporting on economics and business. I had travelled there twice and started building my network. An opportunity came up for a short-term position to work in Indonesia as a correspondent; I saw it as a testing ground, but when the possibility was put forward of staying for a longer period - I jumped at it. The chance came after three months - I was totally exhausted and totally enthralled and I was keen for more (although not sure if I could handle the pace!).

I was there during a time when the economy was booming, and then started dipping, including the moment when the nation was hit by a “hot money exodus”, and observing events and explaining the complexity of issues was immensely interesting and satisfying. I had discovered (compared to my experience in China) a more open society, with a keen and questioning media, and a country in a fascinating transition as a new democracy.

What is the most fascinating thing about Asian culture? What do you love most about immersing yourself there?

I had travelled around Asia a reasonable amount, loving the diversity and the dynamic feel as different countries dealt with their issues and stages. There was also a rawness that was not found in Australia, where life is generally organised and predictable. Putting myself in an Asian context forced me take a different perspective. I found myself in uncomfortable situations because there were norms and cultural understandings that I didn't know about. Living in Asia sharpened my senses. It also reminded me, in the case of developing countries, how fortunate I was. And of developed nations of how fast they were moving ahead. Most importantly, my perceptions of Asia, while sometimes confirmed, were mostly challenged, and I had to think about many events, issues and attitudes within a different frame of mind. It was an exceptional learning experience.

What has been a career highlight?

There are so many career highlights - I covered some very difficult stories, met political leaders and travelled around a beautiful country. One main highlight was being allowed into the lives and concerns of everyday people, to see how economic or government policy affected them. And then, covering the pivotal 2014 Indonesian presidential campaign is probably the event I will recall as the most memorable. Months of ongoing change, huge complexity within the internal politics, a nation holding its breath and a dramatic finish between the two candidates, including a tear gas stand-off near the Constitutional Court. To see the battles that people of a nation go through as they determine what kind of country they want is truly an eye-opening experience.   

Did you acquire any skills or qualities during your time abroad that have been advantageous?

In Asia I learnt some critical skills - around creating respectful relationships and developing a strong network, which are often keys to success. As is making the effort to develop contacts in government, institutions, and business, and having a clear presence while also allowing room to manoeuvre.  These skills meant that I felt more certain about the information that I was sharing and explaining.

Most of all I made friends, some very dear friends, who keep quietly guiding me on the “Indonesian way”. I am still learning.

Did you always plan on moving back to Australia, or was it very dependent on where work took you?

I came back to Australia because it was time to take stock and consolidate what I had gained both professionally and personally. And as a dear Singaporean friend advised: these things are best pondered in the safety of home!  

What did you miss most about Australia, while you were abroad?

I had missed the fresh air, the organisation and certainty, and clean water from a tap. The little things that are taken for granted. And my family. Moving back has been a time to reconnect, develop different kinds of stories, and think about the next adventure. And that adventure will be about the connections between Australia and Asia, and particularly in South East Asia. My dream is to work and live between the two. My sense is that Australia is still trying to understand what its role in the region could be, so I plan to do work that strengthens the links between Australia and Asia, creates deeper understanding, and taps into a diversity that is under-utilised.

Was there anything that really surprised you about Australia that you hadn’t noticed while you were abroad? Did you face any challenges of being a repatriate?

Having been immersed in Asia for so long, I was surprised when I returned to find that awareness levels were low about the region and of how the changing economies within it were driving world capital, and the challenging but increasing opportunities that were emerging. There were of course many who could see that Asia was changing but didn't know why, and could not ascertain where a mutual benefit may lie.

I also observed that, generally, having Asia skills or knowledge was not highly valued, which I thought was a shame when this talent could be tapped into, to improve long-term relationships, help to overcome some of the mis-understandings, and create a more solid base for Australia's future. 

What I did find on my return was that there was an active Indonesian community in Melbourne and other cities, and the connections I had made in Indonesia were carrying through in a fabulous way - through introductions, events, and knowledge about newsworthy issues.