Why Study Indonesian? A Rationale for Australian Education

Why Study Indonesian? A Rationale for Australian Education

Why should the study of Bahasa Indonesia and Indonesia be afforded a place within the Australian education system?

Learning a second language is an exercise in humility and empathy. It is a radical projection of oneself into the shoes of another person or group of people, rich with potential for self-discovery, self-formation, and self-realisation. It is an intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding, and, often, fun pursuit. I would recommend it to anyone. This is the general case for learning a language. But why Indonesian?

For Australians, Indonesian is a special case—fundamentally because of Indonesia’s size and geographic proximity and therefore geopolitical significance. Australia must have some kind of relationship with Indonesia. We might as well make it a constructive, mutually beneficial one. This requires investment from both sides, and part of the investment from Australia’s side is in trying to see the world from an Indonesian perspective. One element of this project involves having significant numbers of Australians engaging in the act of empathy and imagination that is learning Bahasa Indonesia. It is not necessary for every Australian to learn Indonesian but it is important that a portion of the Australian population is at any given time investing time and effort in this endeavour.

Having significant numbers of Australians learning Indonesian and engaging in the study of Indonesia is one of the necessary conditions for fulfilling the potential of the bilateral relationship. Learning Indonesian is one way for Australians to better understand who we are as a nation and as a people, and where we sit in the world. Learning Indonesian is one path to becoming more comfortable in our region and to maturing as a nation, from settler-colonial vestige of the British Empire, to a multi-ethnic, multicultural country integrated into our geographic setting in the Indo-Pacific. Some portion of the Australian population learning Indonesian and getting to know Indonesia better is necessary to Australia achieving what Paul Keating famously described as a sense of “security in Asia, not from Asia.” Learning Indonesian could be part of the cultural work required to loosen the grip of historical fears of abandonment by our traditional, large and powerful Anglosphere friends across the other side of the world.

To be less psychoanalytic and more pragmatic: having significant numbers of Australians learning Indonesian and studying Indonesia is necessary to give Australia better strategic choices in the future, and the talent and expertise to execute our chosen strategies more nimbly, adeptly, and with fewer unintended consequences.

What motivated you to learn about Indonesia/Bahasa Indonesia?

My initial “falling” into studying Bahasa Indonesia was an accident. When I was eight my family relocated from Perth to Nepal. I spent the formative years of late primary school and most of secondary school attending international schools in Kathmandu. I returned to Perth in the mid-1990s to finish secondary school and to prepare for university in Australia. On commencing undergraduate studies, I intended to study Hindi as part of an Asian Studies degree but the languages offered at The University of Western Australia then were Japanese, Mandarin, and Indonesian. Indonesian (though I really knew nothing about it) seemed like an approximate substitute for Hindi. At some early stage in the process I also became aware of the opportunity to study in-country through the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) in third year. This clinched the deal for me.

Once I’d been to Indonesia and studied there, my motivations for continuing to study Indonesian became much more specific and personal. I had friends and personal relationships, career ideas, academic interests, and hobbies that were all tied to Indonesia, and that encouraged me to deepen my language studies. Also, after a year of living in Indonesia, like many others, I was bitten hard by the fascinating puzzle that Indonesia presents for an Australian. Fundamentally, this is the paradox of geographic proximity paired with extreme cultural distance. I really couldn’t understand how I could I know so little about a place, a people, and a society that was so big and so close to Australia. I couldn’t fathom how our cultural worlds could be so separate and intersect so little. This puzzle was a particular kind of itch, which I haven’t yet gotten sick of scratching.

What do you wish you’d learnt about Indonesia in school?

I wish I had learnt about the commonalities and overlaps in Indonesia’s and Australia’s respective colonial histories—with both countries being shaped by the same geopolitical rivalries between imperial powers in the eighteenth  and nineteenth centuries. I wish I had learnt about the influence of the Napoleonic wars in motivating and accelerating both the British colonial settlement of Western Australia and the British invasion of Java by Stamford Raffles in 1811.

I wish I had learnt about the Indonesian nationalist movement of the early twentieth century, and the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949). I wish I had learnt more about Sukarno, a world-historical figure on the level of Gandhi, Nehru or Mao yet who didn’t feature at all in my British or Australian high school history curricula. I wish I had learnt of Sukarno’s grandiose nation-building project and his global stature in the 1950s as a leader (if not the leader) of the global Third-World and Non-Aligned movements.

I wish I had learnt of the significance of the 1955 Bandung Conference and how the process of decolonisation was deformed by the geopolitics of the Cold War. I wish I had learnt about the manoeuvring roles of the US, the UK, and Australia in the establishment of Malaysia, and the ceding of West Papua to Indonesia in 1963. I wish I had learnt about Konfrontasi. I wish I had learnt about US, British, and Australian government efforts to destabilise Sukarno’s government in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I wish I had learnt about the coup of October 1965 and the destruction of the Indonesian left, about US and Australian support for Suharto’s New Order regime, the formation of ASEAN, and the 1975 invasion of East Timor. These events and choices continue to shape the geopolitics of our region to this day.

We need to know this history to understand contemporary political developments in our region, the sensibilities of our neighbours, and the character of ourselves as a (Australian) people and a nation. I wish I had been challenged to think about Australian complicity in (or at least acquiescence to) decisions made during the Cold War that had enormous intended and unintended consequences for the polities, people and societies of our neighbours. We need to acknowledge that many of these decisions were in some ways the product of not knowing Indonesia or fully considering the humanity of Indonesians. We need to understand the things that were done to our Indonesian friends and neighbours in our name, for the sake of our perceived national interests, our security and our prosperity. We need to know this history so as avoid making these mistakes again and to ensure we have better strategic options in the future. 

How have you overcome challenges interacting with Indonesia or learning Bahasa Indonesia?

As uncertain as my career trajectory has felt at times, there has been something of an established pathway to follow as an Indonesian language major graduate looking to secure Indonesia-related work. Two years of undergraduate language study at UWA; third year in Indonesia with ACICIS; a return to Indonesia on DFAT’s (three-month) Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP); a second degree (in Economics) in Australia; a portfolio of paid and unpaid short-term Indonesia-related work; Honours in Indonesian; and, eventually, a full-time Indonesia-related job at the ACICIS’ national secretariat in Perth.

My career pathway has benefited from—and wouldn’t have been possible without—the legacy of investment and established infrastructure built by previous generations of Indonesian language education proponents in Australia. This infrastructure most notably includes a functioning Indonesian language department at my university (UWA) in Perth, ACICIS, and AIYEP. Additionally, without the launch of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP) in 2014—and the great expansion of ACICIS’ operations that this has entailed—it is unlikely that I would have been able to enjoy the ten-year run and steady career progression within ACICIS that I have enjoyed.

So for me, my primary means of overcoming the challenge of interacting with Indonesia and furthering my learning of Bahasa Indonesia has been through formal study and securing Indonesia-related employment. However, beyond study and work—or perhaps, inextricably intertwined with it—has been my own continual cultural exploration. Once equipped with suitable fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, there is a vast cultural universe that—in the internet age—I can explore whenever and wherever I happen to be. My interest in Indonesia has been cumulative and accretive; kind of like a grand novel or long-running TV series in which the emotional payoffs keep getting better and richer over time as my familiarity with characters and layers of backstory deepen with each passing year. I started learning Indonesian more than 20 years ago and I haven’t touched the bottom of my appetite for Indonesian history, politics, literature, and pop culture.  

What do you see as the key factors supporting the teaching and learning of Indonesian language in Australian schools at present?

I see very little supporting the study of Bahasa Indonesia in Australian schools at present—beyond the small (and shrinking) communities of dedicated educators and enthusiasts in each state and territory. These communities are themselves vestiges of public policy interventions and investments of public funding in the 1990s and early 2000s. After almost two decades of neglect, it is unsurprising that Bahasa Indonesia studies in Australian schools (and universities) is at a crisis point.

There has been no coordinated national plan involving Commonwealth and state governments, nor substantial or consistent Commonwealth funding available, for the teaching of Asian languages (including Indonesian) in schools since the end of the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) in 2012. There has been nothing to properly incentivise schools to teach Asian languages since the demise of the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy (NALSAS) in 2002. Any Australian government intent on seriously moving the needle on the number of Australian school students studying Indonesian at school would need, at minimum, to restore public funding to something like the level that prevailed under NALSAS between 1995-2002, that is ~$60 million per year (in 2022 dollars).

The obvious next question is “Why does Indonesian language education in Australia require government support?” The answer is that, sadly, history shows teaching and learning of Indonesian in Australia at scale has never been self-sustaining in the absence of government funding. This is due to a deep-seated and persistent cultural ambivalence among the Australian population towards language learning and second language acquisition in general—and towards Indonesia and Indonesian in particular. Demographic change within the Australian population may slowly shift the culture away from monolingualism. However, raising the status of Indonesian language within the Australian public imagination is going to take creative cultural engineering and some significant cultural breakthrough moments—i.e. a “Gangnam Style” moment for Indonesian in Australia.

This article is adapted from a submission made to the Asia Education Foundation (AEF) in July 2021 as part of the consultation process for the AEF’s Why Indonesia Matters in Our Schools: A Rationale for Indonesian Language and Studies in Australian Education project. The project was funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia Indonesia Institute (AII).

Liam Prince is the director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS).

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