David Hill, in his report Indonesian Language in Australian Universities: Strategies for a Stronger Future, states that enrollments in Indonesian language courses fell nationally by 40 percent from 2001 to 2010 and by 70 percent in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state; with this downward trend still continuing today.
In fact, there was more interest in learning Indonesian in Australia in the 1960s than there is now.
In 2002, the Howard government axed an Asia-literacy program for Australian schools, with an estimated worth in today’s terms at just over AS$100 million (US$96.58 million) a year. The Rudd government, which succeeded Howard in late 2007, replaced the program, but on a much smaller financial scale of A$62 million over four years. Unfortunately the well-meant gesture was not enough to save the dire situation. The enthusiasm of the past had run out of steam.
However, does this really herald a worsening Australia-Indonesia relationship? Not necessarily worsening, but, rather, estranged.
Australia had a presence in Indonesian history during its role in the days of Indonesia’s struggle for independence. The Australian Waterside Workers’ Federation prevented Dutch ships, carrying troops and war supplies, from leaving Australian ports for Indonesian shores, where the Dutch were then trying to regain power. At the government level, Australia, through the UN’s Good Offices Committee, helped bring about Indonesia’s independence.
Parallel to that, genuine people-to-people contact developed on a small scale. Inter-country marriages took place. However at government level, Australia was motivated by more than just sympathy for Indonesia’s nationalism.
The policymakers were concerned about the growth of communism, and believed that if they did not play a significant role in the birth of the Indonesian nation, the communists would, as they seemed to be involved in the fight for independence.
It is important to remember that at the time, most Australians, especially those outside the power elite and academic circle, were not in the least interested in countries outside Great Britain, so Indonesia was only a blur in their consciousness, hardly distinguishable from other Southeast Asian and Pacific nations.
While among the historically aware minority — including those interested in regional security — the perception was that Indonesia was a fledgling nation needing assistance in every way, with some believing that unless Australia took concrete steps in understanding its neighbor, with their inevitable potential dangers and threats, it might not be in a position to defend itself if things did turn nasty.
Learning the language of neighbors became desirable. Within several years, linguists were trained to be proficient in these languages. An even smaller minority, academics among them, were following their personal fascination with Indonesia, its culture and its language. Their various works have been extremely important in Indonesian studies until today. In fact, their enthusiasm succeeded in infecting many students to follow suit.
Indonesian studies flourished in the 1960s. Increasing numbers of secondary schools throughout Australia were incorporating Indonesian language into their modern languages program.
Businesses, intentionally and unintentionally, benefitted from this development as Australian companies were gaining confidence investing in Indonesia.
In the late 1970s however, the situation took an unfortunate turn following the development in Timor Leste. As Timor Leste loomed into Australia’s political consciousness, Indonesia’s image continually worsened. And Indonesian studies fell out of favor.
The truth is that there was not enough time for a real friendship between the two countries to develop, let alone settle, or for a strong basis of mutual understanding to take roots.
The repressive New Order rule became the image of Indonesia, on the one hand desirable to the anti-communist conservative Australians — the government openly persecuting and prosecuting anyone remotely associated with left-wing ideology — and on the other hand, sinisterly expansionist to the activists of East Timor Leste’s independence.
Most of the former were not interested in learning or having their children learn Indonesian, so they were hardly advocating maintaining Indonesian in schools, and many of the latter held sway in the community.
It was easier, it appears, for people who had very little knowledge about a country and its people to readily believe that these people, evidently very different from themselves were bad and dangerous, all 200 million of them, than to seek information about what was happening in the country before making judgements.
Over decades, Australian businesses became aware of the emerging power of Asian countries: the Republic of Korea, China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Confident at first that they would be able to cut a swathe in these countries with the English language, they are now increasingly awake to the fact that it is necessary to arm themselves with local language proficiency if they want to go far in China, Indonesia and Vietnam. And since China provides the biggest potential, the revived interest in Asian language leans very heavily on Mandarin, while Indonesian is still lingering.
Something has emerged however, which puts Indonesia in the realm of limited public consciousness. With the news continuously bringing home the threat of terrorism from militant Muslim extremists around the world, the stories told by many experts that Indonesia is the home of moderate Muslims made an increasing number of Australians take notice.
Yes indeed, it is worth studying Indonesian. But is it really necessary to learn the language? They say.
One of the things many Australians agree on is how learning a foreign language is a waste of time, when everyone is doing their utmost to learn English. They know they are good at teaching English as a second language, so why not help Indonesians gain proficiency in English?
Good argument, except for the fact that it will never change the image that Indonesia is a relatively unknown entity which needs Australia’s help.
It is hardly a healthy base for a real friendship. And while it is crucial for developing strong and sustained economic ties, real friendships are a joy in themselves, because they broaden your horizon.
If you doubt this, I suggest you ask the primary and secondary school students in Indonesia and Australia who have been fortunate enough to participate in the BRIDGE project of the University of Melbourne’s Asia Education Foundation Asia-literate program.
I was nearly moved to tears last week when some of the students from Beveridge primary school in the outskirts of Melbourne told me, that in their regular online communication with their counterparts across the ocean, they learn a great deal from each other.
Learning each other’s language is obviously crucial. I am still trying to remember when I had heard that last. If this realization spreads at the primary school level, maybe there is hope yet for a real friendship to develop between Australia and Indonesia.
The writer is an author and journalist.