New Indonesian studies centre to improve ties with our northern neighbour

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has vowed to improve relations with Indonesia through a new studies centre based in Australia. EPA/ADI WEDA

As part of his first trip to Indonesia as prime minister, Tony Abbott yesterday announced the establishment of an Australian Centre for Indonesian Studies to bolster ties between the two countries.

Abbott said the centre will “strengthen and deepen Australia-Indonesia business, cultural, educational, research and community links” and “match the United States and China centres elsewhere in Australia”.

The centre will be based at Monash University, but have research “nodes” at the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne and the CSIRO. The government will provide A$15 million to the centre but will have matched funding from partner institutions and the private sector.

The new centre would encourage research in a number of areas, including health and primary care, resources and energy, food and agriculture, infrastructure, education, and regional security.

Monash’s Executive Director of Global Initiatives Paul Ramadge said the centre will help build “mutual respect and understanding to address the challenges and opportunities in the region”.

“It will bring together leading public and private sector organisations from both nations to collaborate,” Ramadge said.

“Visions of [better engagement] have been hampered by Australians’ lack of understanding of Indonesia – its cultures, values, religions and, of late, its increasing sophistication and economic power.”

Reviving Indonesian studies in Australia has long been of concern to educators who have seen a significant drop in students taking up the Indonesian language at all levels of schooling. Between 2001 and 2010, enrolments in Indonesian at the undergraduate level dropped by 40%.

ANU Lecturer in Asian Studies Ross Tapsell said the new centre will have to encourage Indonesian language learning at the school and university level.

“To truly improve Indonesia-Australian relations we need to emphasise Australians learning the Indonesian language, as well business ties and improving government to government relations,” he said.

Tapsell also said he hoped the centre would be “independent of government direction”.

“There is more to the relationship than just the current asylum seeker debate. And what is really needed is to establish centres, like this one, that can get a new generation of Australians to be more interested in Indonesia and hopefully learning Indonesian language.”

“Of course, a lot of Australians do go to Indonesia but they tend to go to Bali just for a holiday… we need to go beyond that for a greater understanding of the issues which affect our neighbours,” Tapsell said. He hoped the new centre would help change and shape the way Australians thought about Indonesia and Indonesian stereotypes.

The studies centre announcement comes as the new government begins work on its new Colombo Plan – a scheme to send Australian university students to Asia from next year.

While on his Indonesia trip, Abbott also announced a new “Yudhoyono fellow” as part of the Colombo Plan. The fellowship, named after the country’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, would be for “the best and brightest young Australian who elects…to study in Indonesia”.