Sleepwalking towards illiteracy

If Prabowo had won, the fear factor would have forced Australians to study about Indonesia.

Sleepwalking towards illiteracy AFP Photo/Bay Ismoyo

Had Prabowo Subianto won the Indonesian presidential election on 17 April, Indonesian studies in Australia might have been rapidly revived.  

They’re currently in snooze mode according to Australian academics and reports by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These show a marked decline in the number of Australians learning about their neighbor.

This year defense and security experts feared the mercurial former general Subianto planned to wind back democratic reforms. Although he denied wanting to re-establish the authoritarianism of his former father-in-law Soeharto’s Orde Baru (New Order) government, Subianto’s campaign statements suggested otherwise. 

When incumbent Joko Widodo was given a mandate for a further five years the sigh of relief in Canberra was almost audible in Jakarta. For Australia no big policy re-writes, just business as usual – trade, defense and security.  

This means Indonesian language and culture studies will limp on to extinction like the Javan tiger. Or “sleepwalking to the future” as language expert Dr Geoff Woollams says.

Academics are notoriously quarrelsome, but on this issue Woollams, formerly with Queensland University of Technology and now an accredited interpreter and translator, is not a soloist but a chorister. 

Another leading voice has long been Professor Tim Lindsey of Melbourne University; he continues to remind politicians that fewer sophomores are studying Indonesian than 40 years ago when the Australian population was under 14 million. It’s now more than 25 million, against Indonesia’s 260 million.

Follow the trajectory: If there’s no policy shift there’ll be hardly any Australians formally learning about the Archipelago, its peoples and cultures by 2030.  

The Indonesian government’s Darmasiswa awards help foreigners study in Indonesia.  This year five Australians were among the 673 winners. Chinese filled 20 spots and Americans 14. Washington is more than 16,000 kilometers from Jakarta.

In 2014 Australia started its New Colombo Plan. Scholarships are for top students heading to the Indo Pacific. Last year 14 of the 125 chose Indonesia. There’s also a mobility program run through universities. One-in-five involve students heading to Indonesia.

“We are exceptionally lucky to have Indonesians as our neighbors,” said Woollams. “It’s such a rich and fascinating country. The people have a wonderful reservoir of goodwill and an enormous capacity to forgive.  

“We need to understand them through their eyes; by doing so we learn much about ourselves. Through the study of Indonesian, outsiders get to learn about Islam, plus the cultures of the Middle East, India and the Pacific Islands, which have all left their influences.  

“All Australians should be learning about the people next door. But to change attitudes we need a champion.”

In last month’s Australian election the main foreign affairs issues concerned the US and China. A light exception was then Labor shadow treasurer Chris Bowen confessing he was learning Indonesian because: “We need a broader, less transactional relationship with Indonesia that needs to have mutual respect, and one way we show interest and respect is learning the language.”

There’s no guarantee that Bowen’s warm words would have translated into action had his party won. But it lost to the Liberal-National Party coalition, which has presided over the decline of language studies during the past six years.

Woollams had studied French and Latin and was set to be a teacher when he heard a visiting Indonesian speak and found a new direction. For 10 weeks he wandered the islands alone discovering that one-on-one learning is most effective.

“Almost everywhere I was invited to stay with families; they shared their lives and values – their concerns and what motivates them. I was forced to connect. I got insights into the authentic Indonesia. I never worked so hard and I never learned so much.”

Through friendships he built contacts with Indonesian universities. He used these to locate students in places where they’d seldom hear English.

This and other exchange schemes slumped after the 2002 Bali bomb. The Australian government took fright, issuing travel warnings. University administrators and insurance companies got twitchy, fearing students were at risk.  

The official advice for Indonesia is: “Exercise a high degree of caution.” It’s the same warning for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

For his doctorate Woollams studied the Karo language of North Sumatra. Back in Australia he spent two years on a government-funded project to develop an interactive language program. This has become another casualty in the outbreak of indifference. 

Indonesian studies were once an essential for educators and taken seriously; research and learning were heavily promoted and well financed. 

The reasons weren’t always humanitarian. During the Cold War President Soekarno worried the West with strident anti-colonial rhetoric, nationalizing foreign businesses and getting cozy with Communists.  

These factors spurred the Australian government to promote Indonesian in the “national interest”, meaning all could better understand a potential enemy.

When the fear evaporated after the 1965 anti-Communist coup and the start of economic development, interest in Indonesia continued to grow, reaching its zenith in the 1980s.

The nadir came when the relationship was hit from all compass points, according to Woollams. “First was the international financial crisis of 1998 which brought down President Soeharto.

“A year later the Indonesian military reaction to the East Timor independence vote really distressed Australia. The Bali bomb which killed 202 people including 88 Australians, turned us away from Indonesia.”

No longer. More than a million Australians holiday in and around Kuta every year. So why the resistance? Money is one issue, for language teachers, new curricula and resources. Lindsey estimated an extra AUD 100 million – and that was a few years ago

The other is arrogance: Woollams reckons the Internet has lured administrators and politicians to think the whole word uses English. In fact it’s behind Mandarin and Spanish.

President Joko is reputed to be disinterested in foreign affairs; apart from rejecting Australian pleas to save two drug dealers from the firing squad in 2015, he’s done little to upset the region, although by size, strategic importance and future economic clout Indonesia is the Southeast Asian heavyweight.

Just ahead of the Indonesian election in April Widodo surprised by approving the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA). This was opposed by protectionists, including Prabowo’s team. The Australian Labor Party is hostile.

Although yet to be ratified by both governments, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade calls the IA-CEPA “a new chapter in economic relations between Australia and Indonesia”.

If harmony prevails why bother to learn more? To this question Woollams gets agitated, scathing about diplomats who go by car from hotels to meeting rooms – all air conditioned – and where they talk about Indonesian issues – in English.

“If it’s a self-interest thing, how can negotiators be effective if they don’t know what  others at the table are thinking?” Woollams asked. “How can we ever have a better depth of engagement?

“At a personal level learning another language unlocks the key to culture. It’s not a one-way street. Everyone benefits.”



"Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years. "

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