Defence boss watching Indonesian extremism

Dan McCulloch
AAP

One of Australia's most respected foreign policy minds will be watching Indonesia intently over the next 18 months to see if extremism creeps into mainstream politics.

Outgoing Defence secretary Dennis Richardson, who also served in Australia's embassy in Indonesia, has been keeping an eye on the recent Jakarta election and imprisonment of the city's Christian governor Ahok.

"It is a question of whether they seek to ride the tiger and bring it into mainstream politics or whether they seek to keep it on the margins," Mr Richardson told the National Press Club in Canberra on Friday.

"I don't know the answer to that - I think it is too early to give an answer - but I think that is the sharp end of what we should be watching."

Mr Richardson said extremism had been historically restricted to the margins of Indonesian society and the overwhelming majority of its people were enormously tolerant, generous and pluralistic.

"I used to delight in telling Americans, when I was there, that I once lived in the largest Muslim country in the world and I could wish people merry Christmas," he said.

"I didn't have to use this inane term 'happy holidays'."