Indonesian knowledge is dying – just when we need it most

Julia Gillard and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono both acknowledge the importance of a strong relationship between Australia and Indonesia. AAP

A detailed report launched in Parliament House within hours of the ALP leadership ballot last Monday revealed that, whoever is Prime Minister, the Australian government needs to act decisively and urgently to rebuild our Indonesian skills. Such language skills are essential if we are to maximise our engagement with the burgeoning economies and nations of Asia.

The report, Indonesian language in Australian Universities: Strategies for a stronger future), found university Indonesian enrolments plunging 40% nationally between 2001 and 2010. The most dramatic decline of 71% was in New South Wales. Six universities closed their Indonesian programs between 2004 and 2009.

Although there are about 190,000 students studying Indonesian in schools, they are clustered at the lower levels. At Year 12 level, there were fewer students studying Indonesian in Australia in 2009 than there were in 1972.

The factors behind the decline are complex and cumulative.

Indonesia’s image has suffered badly since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, when many Australian companies withdrew from southeast Asia. The Indonesian economy recovered relatively quickly, but the rebuilding of Indonesia’s reputation has taken longer.

There was instability during the 1998 ousting of President Suharto, and Australian anger over Indonesia’s military presence in East Timor. Graphic television footage of the bombings in Bali and Jakarta and widespread coverage of the imprisonment of various Australian drug smugglers dealt a powerful blow to Indonesia’s welcoming image. Such negatives images obscured the real warmth and depth of the actual relationship with Indonesia.

The media focus on Islamist bombings usually ignored the fact that the militants were an isolated tiny minority, ostracised within Indonesia. Similar to Australians, the vast majority of Indonesian Muslims were horrified by the attacks.

Melbourne University Professor of Asian Law Tim Lindsey has dubbed these adverse circumstances a “perfect storm”. Indonesia’s popularity could have weathered any single factor, but the cumulative impact upon the image of the country and its language in the eyes of many Australians has been disastrous. Language enrolments dropped in schools and universities.

The decline was exacerbated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s travel advisory on Indonesia, which tells Australians to “reconsider the need to travel” there. Education departments (and even some universities) have incorrectly interpreted this as a ‘ban’ on travel. The travel advisories have virtually eliminated school travel and exchanges with Indonesia.

The decision of the Gillard government not to continue funding the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program in last year’s budget was another severe blow.

Without reinvesting now, we risk losing an asset that took generations to build.

The academic expertise built up in our universities in Indonesian studies is world-class. In a 2009 study, for example, analysing research output in Indonesian studies, German scholar Arndt Graf identified Australia playing a disproportionate role internationally, second only to the USA (and preceding even Indonesia!).

The Bali bombing memorial site in Kuta. AAP

Yet, scholars such as the University of Tasmania’s Emeritus Professor Barbara Hatley are alarmed at “the current declining numbers of Indonesian language and studies students” and “the potential reduction of scholarship about Indonesia, as the ranks of Indonesia specialists thin”, with retiring academics not being replaced.

It would be foolish to ignore Indonesia. A population of about 240 million, it is the world’s third largest democracy and fourth most populous nation. It has the world’s largest Muslim community and a rapidly expanding middle-class that dwarfs our own.

With an economy now growing by more than 6% a year, the International Monetary Fund projects Indonesia will achieve a nominal GDP growth rate of more than 15 percent between 2009-15, outstripping even the powerhouse economies of India and China.

Trade Minister Craig Emerson has acknowledged Indonesia will be one of the world’s top 10 economies by 2030. Since 2007 our trade in services with Indonesia has increased by an average of 22% per year, reaching $3.1 billion in 2010.

Recognising the significant trade and investment opportunities with Indonesia, the Australian Government has been moving quickly to remove the impediments to closer economic cooperation.

The recently ratified ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement and the yet-to-be-finalised Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement are paving the way for a stronger economic relationship between the two countries, a relationship regarded as “underweight” for years.

Opportunities exist for Australian companies and graduates in all corners of the Indonesian economy from mining to construction, financial and insurance services to transport and telecommunications. Australians work in Indonesia as everything from bankers and lawyers, to community development workers and professional soccer players. But these possibilities require Indonesian-speaking graduates, as English is not widely spoken beyond a small metropolitan elite.

In fact, the government has long recognised the strategic importance of Indonesian. In 2004 the Commonwealth Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade recommended “that Indonesian Studies be designated a strategic national priority” and be given prioritised funding “for both research and teaching”.

In response, since 2006, the Department of Education (DEEWR) has designated Indonesian a ‘nationally strategic language’ in its annual funding agreements with universities. But crucially it provides no linked funding to support this ‘nationally strategic language’. We need to support this ‘nationally strategic language’ with a National Indonesian Language in Universities program. Twenty recommendations are proposed for this, with 13 directed at government and seven at universities.

The cost of securing Australia’s Indonesian language capability for the future in our universities is very modest. The Report’s recommendations relating specifically to universities would require, less than $10 million on average annually over the next ten years, or about 45 cents per Australian per year.

But this investment in Indonesian language in our universities needs to commence now.