Indonesia: Australia’s Gateway into the Asia-century
March 13, 2012 in Australia in the Asian Century
By Olivia Cable
Australia should place more value on an education in the Indonesian language. In 1994, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating confidently declared “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right, and nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete”.
It is no wonder that Jakarta is Australia’s largest diplomatic post.
Indonesia was in Australia’s orbit long before Keating’s famous statement and today remains a strategic, economic and political priority. Yet remarkably, current trends show that there will not be a single Australian student in Year 12 learning Indonesian by 2020. This necessitates a need to understand the long-term consequences of this decline.
A dead-end in education
Australia’s educational bilateral engagement with Indonesia appears to be rather unbalanced. As Australia’s largest aid recipient, Indonesia received $452.5 million in 2009-10 and $2 billion between 2005 and 2010. Education is a priority. Among a number of programs, the Australian government aims to deliver better access to schools, improve education quality and train teachers. Under the ‘Australia Awards’ scholarship program, $200 million is invested each year for international scholarships, supporting over 300 Indonesian postgraduates to study in Australia. For Australians, there are opportunities to study, research and undertake professional development in Indonesia. The aim is ‘to promote knowledge, education links and enduring ties between Australia and our neighbours’.
Easier said than done: no vision from Canberra
However, the Australian government’s commitment to such programs is questionable. Seemingly unnecessary travel warnings issued by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) have prevented Australian teachers from in-country engagement with Indonesia. The Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowship – established by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and now run by the Indonesia Australia Language Foundation (IALF) – was designed to be an intensive summer course for teachers in Australia to improve their proficiency in Indonesian. When DFAT issued a travel warning after the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005, the program was conducted in Australia. Although appropriate immediately after the Bali bombings, the travel warnings still remain. The Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowship was restricted until 2010, when the federal government decided for the program to be conducted in Indonesia.
The education system is failing to prepare Australian students to enter the Asia Century. In December 2008, the Australian Government announced the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP). With a budget of $62.4 million, to be implemented over four years from 2008 to 2012, NALSSP aims to “significantly increase the number of Australian students becoming proficient at learning the languages and understanding the cultures of our Asian neighbours – China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. It also aims to increase the number of qualified Asian language teachers and develop a specialist curriculum for advanced languages students”.
NALSSP has set a target that “by 2020, at least 12 per cent of school students will exit Year 12 with a fluency in one of the target Asian languages sufficient for engaging in trade and commerce in Asia and/or university study”. To achieve this, it would require 24,000 students to study one of the four languages in Year 12 in 2020, a 100 per cent increase in student numbers from 2008.
An increase in the number of qualified Indonesian language teachers is critical for this goal to be achieved. Indonesian teachers in Australia range from those who have committed their lives to the language and visit Indonesia regularly, to those who have never learned a second language before. Importing Indonesian teachers would be a good start to filling the gap, and Indonesia has plenty of qualified teachers. However, visa restrictions on Indonesians working in Australia are stalling expansion. Australian students see little benefit learning Indonesian when taught by teachers with limited exposure to the country.
China and Indonesia through Australian eyes
In the great geopolitical shift toward Asia, Australia has been intensively focused on China. We have become mesmerised by China as either our economic saviour, or our strategic nightmare.
Public perception plays a large role in the decline of Indonesian in Australian schools. Indonesians are seen through a ‘distorted lens’, inflated by the media. Reformasi has a long way to go, but Indonesia’s transition to democracy has been a remarkable success – Egypt has sought Indonesia’s help to implement democracy. Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste resulted in three horrific decades for the Timorese, but Indonesia was not alone. Indeed, there was covert support from Australia and the US. Terrorism remains a problem, but Indonesia is not a country of Islamic extremism. The vast majority of Indonesians do not accept radical views – they have a commitment to democracy.
The fear of millions of Indonesians invading Australian shores simply has no merit. Prominent Indonesian scholar Tim Lindsay might be able put some minds at ease: “An Indonesian officer with whom I once discussed these perceptions expressed amazement. ‘What about the threat from the south?’ he asked. ‘You’ve got planes that fly and equipment that works. We haven’t’.”
The mistreatment of Australia’s live cattle export in Indonesian abattoirs has dealt another blow to the Australian public’s perception of Indonesia. Given the media’s craving to demoralise Indonesia, Canberra’s politicisation of the event effectively diverted attention from the carbon tax and asylum seeker swap with Malaysia.
Looking to the future
Australian students need aspirations to learn Indonesian. In a reply to Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s address to the Australian Parliament in early 2010, former Prime Minister Rudd said: “we are neighbours by circumstance, but we are friends because we have chosen to be friends”. The more Australians eliminate stereotypical perceptions and embrace Indonesia’s diversity, the better equipped we will be for the Asia-century.
Olivia is studying a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. She is currently in Indonesia studying Indonesian at Universitas Kristen Satya Wacana, and climbing mountains in Salatiga, Indonesia.
This article was first published in Monthly Access July 2011 (Issue 19). It can be accessed here.