by Nathan Schmidt

Photo Credit: Nathan Schmidt

AFTER DECADES of decline, the study of Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca of the Australia’s closest and largest neighbor, is on the precipice of disappearing completely, threatening to further disrupt its relationship with the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

At the end of 2019, less than 200 students were enrolled in Indonesian-language studies nationwide. More than half of them were in one state alone—Victoria. And, that was before the pandemic.

In 2021, only three major national universities are offering courses in the Indonesian national language, known as Bahasa., One of them, at La Trobe University will close its program by the end of the year despite more than 2,000 people signing a petition to reverse the decision. Enrollments year-on-year are 63 percent lower than they were in 1992, when there was a brief boon in the study of the field.

“The closure of Indonesian language programs shows a lack of vision and leadership on the part of Australian university management,” writes Melissa Crouch, a Professor and Associate Dean Research at the Asian Studies Association of Australia, University of New South Wales.

In the intervening years since the last study boon, Indonesia’s population has only grown. There are more than 270 million people now residing in the world’s largest archipelago. More than 170 million of them were on social media as of January 2021, up by 10 million from the same time the year before.

Yet, according to Clarice Campbell from the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association (AIAY), Bahasa still lacks the “sex appeal” of other languages, including other Asian languages such as Japanese and Korean.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of students in Japanese and Korean [studies] over the last say 20 or 30 years because of really popular things like manga and anime,” she says.

“K-pop and J-pop stars [are] so popular that now people are going: ‘I don’t want to study French, I want to study Korean because I love all of them.’”

Kuta Beach in Bali. Photo credit: William Cho – Bali – Kuta/WikiCommons/CC

In Melbourne, the largest city in the state of Victoria, where Clarice was born and bred, different colors, creeds, and languages are nothing unique. Today, Australia’s second-largest city is a bastion for Indonesian language study.

Ultimately, access to studies has a big impact on the ability for a student to pursue Bahasa, she believes. Which is something deprived to most students outside her home state.

But for many, Clarice admits, the association they have with Indonesia isn’t fantastical Javanese culture or rich landscapes, and that is holding them back from pursuing Bahasa study.

“Indonesia is famous for Bali,” Clarice says bluntly.

“And a lot of other people don’t even realize that Bali is part of Indonesia, they think it’s a different country.”

The island enclave is the last redoubt of the Hindu kingdoms that once ruled over the archipelago, and is today a popular and cheap destination for Australians. It lacks the Islamic sensibilities found elsewhere in the country.

Otherwise, the list of associations Australians have with Indonesia, Caprice says, is mostly negative, as informed by a number of high-profile controversies.

In 2005, Indonesian authorities arrested the Bali Nine, a group of Australian nationals who were convicted of attempting to smuggle 8.3 kg of heroin out of Indonesia. With a value of around AU$4 million, it was bound for Australia. A year later, another Australian, Schapelle Corby, was also arrested for drug smuggling after trying to move 4.2kg of cannabis into Bali in her boogie-board.

The ring leaders of Bali Nine were sentenced to death. Their execution was carried out in 2015 and caused popular and political uproar in Australia where the death penalty is outlawed. Corby, meanwhile, spent nearly a decade in prison and upon her release and return to Australia, became a “B-list” celebrity, appearing on reality TV programs.

“That is definitely going to have an impact if you have a year seven student who lives in rural Victoria, who comes home from school and goes: ‘Mom, I just did an Indonesian class, and then she’s gonna go, What the hell are you doing that for?’” says Clarice, referring to the first year of secondary school when many students choose a language to study.

That being said, Clarice does see the early murmurs of change.

“The conversation is starting around Asian literacy and why are we not engaging with our neighbors in the same way that we’re engaging with Europe,” she says.

“But then the funding for Indonesian language classes is not reflected in that conversation.

“A lot of the time schools are really understaffed. I know of schools that have teachers who are learning a lesson ahead of the students.”

Despite a long and storied history, any nuanced understanding of the Indonesian-Australian relationship in Australia is something, Clarice says, is largely lacking, even in older generations.

“In the relationship between so called friendly nations, it’s not really cricket, is it?”

THE RELATIONSHIP between Australia and its neighbor has been fraught to say the least, having ebbed in a bipolar fashion between support and cooperation and manic violence and mutual distrust.

For centuries the territory today known as Indonesia was ruled over by the Dutch as her colony in the East Indies. But, after a period of self-rule under the Japanese during World War Two, young, independently-minded men fought to shake off colonial control.

In 1945, after the Japanese forces surrendered, Dutch ships returned on the horizon, their sights set on the fledgling Indonesian government. Four of them decamped in Sydney on September 23. When their Indonesian crew disembarked, they began a sit-down strike, refusing to work on Dutch-marked ships.

The Australian shipyard unions at the time were quick to throw their support behind the strike. Dutch ships were declared to be “black” by the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia. Its secretary, Jim Healy, said that they would not aid in the suppression of an elected independent Indonesian government. The ban was extended to other unions, including everyone from boilermakers, engineers, ironworkers, and ship painters to carpenters, storemen and packers, tally clerks, and tug crews.

In later decades, the Australian government would also support the controversial annexation by Indonesia of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor and the region of West Papua. Prime ministers from both major parties would recognize Indonesia’s rule over the territories and ramped up military cooperation throughout the reign of former Indonesian autocrat Suharto.

Suharto. Photo credit: Public Domain

Then, the dictator fell.

After 1998, radical Islam made a comeback in newly democratic Indonesia. Among those now free to preach openly was Abu Bakr Bashir, a mixed Yemeni-Javanese cleric who had returned from self-imposed exile under Suharto’s secular “New Order” government.

Bashir was the spiritual leader at the time of a group called Jemaah Islamiyah, or Islamic Congregation, a jihadist outfit with cells across Southeast Asia. In 2002, the group was widely believed to have been responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in Kuta, Bali which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

In audio recordings aired by Al Jazeera, famed jihadist Osama Bin Laden alleged the bombing was in response to US War on Terror and Australia’s support for East Timorese independence. Suharto’s successor was less interested in keeping a hold of East Timor and oversaw a bloody series of events to see it be relinquished. Bashir was also arrested for operating jihadist camps in Aceh, but was released from prison in 2021 by nominally progressive-President, Joko Widodo.

The relationship at other times was much warmer. In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean sent a tsunami hurtling through Banda Aceh, capital of the restive and secessionist Aceh province. More than 900 Australian Defence Force personnel aided in the relief effort while telethons at home raised more than $10 million in aid.

Then again in 2005, a one-tonne car bomb tore through the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Nine died including the suicide bomber, but no Australians, with another 150 wounded. Again, the suspect was Jemaah Islamiyah.

More recently, the relationship has ebbed again. Spying had taken place before between the two nations. In 2004, amid the Timor crisis, Indonesian intelligence officers bugged the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Then, in 2013, it was revealed that in 2009 the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) attempted to monitor the mobile phone calls of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife Kristiani Herawati, as well as senior officials.

Naturally, the revelation caused a major breakdown between the two nations.

The Prime Minister of the time, conservative leader Tony Abbott, argued in parliament “[we] should not be expected to apologize for…reasonable intelligence-gathering activities”.

Liam Prince, director of the Australian Centre for In-Country Studies (ACICIS), thinks the response by Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa is telling.

“Buttonholed on the steps of the conference center by the press pack and asked: “Is it his opinion on whether it was right that Australia should be spying on the wife of the Indonesian foreign Indonesian President, [Marty] sort of looked down the camera cool as you like, and he said: “Well, in the relationship between so-called friendly nations, it’s not really cricket is it?”

“In that moment, he was able to speak directly to the Australian public in idiomatically perfect English, [with] a cultural fluency and adeptness.

“Now, I doubt whether there’s anybody in Canberra (the Australian capital)–-certainly not in the public service, or in, let alone, the ranks of politicians and ministers – who could do the same thing to the Indonesian public, speaking in that direct way.”

“Australia knew Asia existed before 1972, but didn’t want to have to translate geography into policy”

FOR MORE than 25 years, ACICIS has given Australian students the ability to travel across to their island neighbor to partake in educational and professional programs, as well as to study Bahasa.

When Liam, who is now director, first started studying Bahasa in 1998, there were 60 students in the class. Nowadays, he believes rightly that it would be difficult to find a first-year cohort anywhere in the country that large studying Indonesian.

But the issue, Liam believes, isn’t a lack of government investment in the study of the Indonesian language, or Asian languages more generally, but the political will to continue it.

“[There] hasn’t been a national languages strategy, that’s incorporated into the schools and the universities, since the national languages strategy, which was kicked off in 1994,” and continued under the then-conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard.

Between 2009 and 2012, the program was briefly resuscitated by the left-wing then-Labor government. But it didn’t last. After a leadership spill, that same government ditched the program.

“Since 2012-13, there hasn’t been a national plan, which aims to build a continuous pipeline of study for Asian languages,” says Liam.

“We haven’t had that concerted coordinated national strategy between the Commonwealth Government and the state governments of the kind that you would need to see large numbers of students taking up Asian languages in general, but Indonesian, particularly.”

The issue reflects a wider discussion about Australia’s place in the region.

A paper published by an Australian expert on the Asia-Pacific, Graeme Dobell, illustrates the debate around what he terms the “Great Asia Project”.

“Australia knew Asia existed before 1972, but didn’t want to have to translate geography into policy. The importance of the [Great Asia Project] is the acceptance that Australia must function as part of Asia, not apart from Asia,” he writes.

Starting with left-wing leader Gough Whitlam in 1972, Australian leaders began to recognize their nation’s geographic disposition to Asia.

Graeme Dobell writes: “Asia is ‘fundamental to Australia’s future,’ a Canberra consensus that former prime minister John Howard expresses in his 2010 memoir, starting his Asia chapter with this sentence:

“‘For more than 40 years, every serious political leader in Australia has been committed to the belief that close engagement and collaboration with our Asian neighbors was critical to Australia’s future.’”

Liam believes Dobell’s work posits Australia’s need for a step-function change in its relationship with its Asian neighbors. It was the ambition behind such programs as the former national language initiative that was needed to engender a meaningful shift.

The idea was, Liam says, “that we needed a change in the intensity of our relationship with our Asian neighbors.”

But, “that was always the dream that hasn’t been realized.”

“What we’ve struggled to do is even maintain the status quo.

“The ambition behind the [language initiative] – the ambition behind ACICIS as well – was that we would create a new generation of Australian graduates who had a much more intimate familiarity with Indonesia, in whatever sector they went on to work in.”

This would lay the groundwork for more meaningful co-development between the nations. Not just in politics or cultural understanding, but in business.

“If we’re to be any kind of global player at all, we really need to be looking at Indonesia, in a serious way”

ON BOTH sides of the Timor and Arafura seas, Clarice believes there is significant untapped potential.

Currently, she says, there are only around 250 Australian businesses operating in Indonesia. And even those are being outmaneuvered by companies from Taiwan, Switzerland, Germany, and Singapore.

“If we’re to be any kind of global player at all, we really need to be looking at Indonesia, in a serious way, as a partner to do business with,” she says.

“We have seen the impacts of what a rocky relationship with China is doing. And if companies are not willing to come to literally the closest place outside of Australia, what hope do they have for doing business in India or like any of the other large markets?”

Indonesia has a booming middle class and about half of its 260 million citizens are under the age of 30. It is a potential avenue for many foodstuffs and other products made in Australia, including those caught in the middle of the China-Australia trade war: namely, wine.

Despite being a Muslim-majority nation with only a small percentage of alcohol consumers, given its sheer size, that market, Clarice says, is still bigger than Australia’s when it comes to Australian wines.

“These companies really need to be taking Indonesia seriously, because they are a booming population, booming middle class, with emerging markets like telehealth and tourism in different and alternative ways which is going to start becoming a big thing that Australia can provide to Indonesia.”

But the problem isn’t wholly one of reticence in Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne. It’s also in Jakarta.

“This is very much linked to how Indonesia sells itself,” says Clarice.

“I don’t even think Indonesians realize what they have sometimes. They don’t really do a lot in terms of promoting these other parts of Indonesia.”

Aerial view of north Jakarta. Photo credit: Amelia Guo/WikiCommons/CC

For many Australians, their first overseas experience is in Bali. Often during “Schoolies”, the Australian equivalent of Spring Break. And while the island of Bali is undeniably spoilt in natural beauty, there is so much more to find in Indonesia.

“You can take a two-hour flight and you can go to Komodo Island or somewhere,” she says.

“If you’re the sort of person who wants to do something unusual in a place that actually genuinely will value your presence because not many people go to these locations, that will really change your life. So if we can promote that part of Indonesia as something that people should consider, I think that would be really good.”

The Indonesian government isn’t doing enough to put forward these locations as travel destinations, Clarice believes.

“I see [the Ministry of Tourism] ads about all of the places in Indonesia [other than Bali]. But when they’re doing that marketing, their marketing that to Indonesians.

“They’re not doing a very good job at marketing it to the international market, which is the more high-value market for them.”

The relationships between nations requires good faith and nuanced understanding on both sides, also. And while the appetite for English language study in Indonesia remains strong, the decline in Bahasa study may have long-lasting geopolitical ramifications.

“How good would it be to see an Australian politician or a set of Australian politicians being able to converse with their counterparts in Indonesia, in Indonesian”

THE CLOSURES don’t just affect Bahasa study, either.

There are now only two universities offering courses in Hindi, Australia’s seventh most spoken second language and the lingua franca of the world’s second-largest nation. Likewise, this year, Professor Crouch says, “we have already seen Swinburne University of Technology close its Chinese and Japanese language programs.

“When universities cancel their language programs, they are abandoning their crucial institutional role in promoting deep engagement with Indonesia.

“In the long run, Australia-Indonesia relations will suffer for it.”

While even with the shrinking number of graduates, Liam remains confident that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has enough students to furnish its graduate programs, the talent pool is drying up.

It’s gotten to a level that not only DFAT, but other government departments as well, are struggling to maintain even the status quo. Public servants with first hand experience of living and studying in Indonesia have shrunk to a level which is beginning to raise concern.

“That pool shrinks further and further until you’ve got a kind of vicious cycle going,” says Liam.

The fewer students that study Indonesian, the harder it is for universities to keep programs open. Especially at a time when the pandemic is already making it difficult for educators to continue to operate unpopular courses and degrees.

It is important, though, Liam says, to compare projections to what the situation is currently.

“We don’t have a large number of senior public servants or politicians with a high-level Indonesian language skills now,” he says.

And, “We’ve gotten by as a country without that.”

Speaking in his capacity as director of ACICIS, Liam says he has always thought that one of the metrics of the organization’s success will be when they have alumni in a high position within the public service or within the ranks of politics with a strong grasp of Indonesian language skills.

“How good would it be to see an Australian politician or a set of Australian politicians being able to converse with their counterparts in Indonesia, in Indonesian,” he says.

“And so the next time the bilateral relationship runs inevitably into a period of trouble or scandal, we’ve got people with that degree of communication, that kind of nuance and agility.

“We just haven’t seen it enough in action to see what that would actually look like.

“What we’ve seen is the contrary.”

But, hope is not entirely lost.

Under the current government’s new “Job-Ready Graduates Package”, language subjects are included as an area of national priority. Likewise, universities are also being made to consult with the federal government before any decision to close language programs.

According to Liam, a recent DFAT grant has also been assigned to developing a rationale for the study of Indonesian language in Australian schools, not just universities.

“Because it’s not just the university’s Indonesian language studies that are on the decline, but also schools’,” he says.

Against the odds, ACICIS has also survived the pandemic by migrating its programs online. Right now, their position is stable, according to Liam. But if Australia’s borders don’t open to international travel again by 2023, the final death knell for Indonesian-Australian cultural relations might yet be wielded.

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