Neighbours or Strangers? Live-in experiences aim to improve Indonesian-Australian ties

Image Source: ACICIS

By Annabel Bowles | @annabel_bowles

Budding journalist Alex Dalziel said he learned more Indonesian after five weeks of study in Jakarta than after two years of taking the language in high school back in Australia.

“Along with most of my classmates, I dropped Indonesian, because I wasn’t interested,” said the 21-year-old student from RMIT University.

“A lot of people that kept studying weren’t really interested in the language either – it was just an easy subject.”

His opinion is one many young Australians have shared over the past few decades, not least since the early 1970s, when interest in the Indonesian language peaked and since continued to decline.

Experts have pointed to Australians’ indifference to Indonesia and its rich cultural diversity, which has prevailed mainly due to a lack of understanding.

Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was aware of the disconnect when he told the Australian parliament in 2010 that the archipelagic country was “infinitely more than a beach playground with coconut trees”.

His comment was a nod to the running joke that Bali is Australia’s “seventh state”, as most Aussie tourists are only interested in the beaches and Bintang beer.

Almost a third of Australians surveyed in a 2013 poll even thought Bali was a country of its own.

Pundits generally believe they do not care about Balinese culture, much less Indonesian culture – if they even know the difference.

David Hill, a linguist and Asia scholar from Murdoch University, pinned it down to a lack of Indonesian language classes at Australian schools and universities, which reflected “Australians’ interest in, knowledge of, and engagement with Indonesia”.

He found that although Indonesian is the third-most studied language at Australian schools, less than 1 per cent of graduates have some proficiency.

At the tertiary level, Hill’s research showed that only 15 Australian universities offered stand-alone Indonesian studies, and seven had cancelled their programs in the 14 years prior to his 2012 report.

Flinders University is the only South Australian university that offers Indonesian language studies.

Elena Williams, a board member at the government-backed Australia-Indonesia Institute, said although there were many reasons for Australia’s dwindling Indonesian language education, much of the issue lay with misrepresentation in Australian media.

She said negative stories of boats, beef and bombings often dominated media coverage, portraying Indonesia as a “hard sell”.

“I get it’s the bad news that sells, but if they’re the only perceptions Australians and Indonesians have of each other, what are we learning?” asked Williams.

She said these misconceptions created a fear of Indonesia and led parents to discourage their children from studying the language.

“One of the biggest obstacles universities and schools face in keeping Indonesian and other Asian languages on the curriculum is resistance from parents,” she said.

“This has a pivotal impact when parents are helping their children choose future directions and career paths.”

Williams also believes there are very few teachers with the knowledge to teach Indonesian effectively, which further reduces students’ interest.

However, there have been some positive developments in Australia’s higher education system.

In 2014, the Australian government launched the New Colombo Plan (NCP), an initiative that financially supports Australian university students to undertake study and internships in Asia, offering young students like Dalziel the opportunity to learn about Australia’s northern neighbours.

To date, the NCP Mobility Program has seen Australian students undertake short-term studies and internships in Indonesia more than in any other country.

In the past five years alone, the Australian government has sent nearly 7000 students to live and study in Indonesia, roughly a five-fold increase from 2014 figures, according to data from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

The Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) is one of many organizations that offer study programs to NCP recipients.

In January and February this year, ACICIS students undertook Indonesian language studies in Jakarta as well as internships in their various disciplines.

Connor Foley, Alexandra Fitzpatrick, and Annabel Bowles represented the University of South Australia in the national cohort of 144 students.

ACICIS Jakarta program coordinator Wilia Paramitasari, familiarly known as Sari, said “these programs shape and change perspectives and opinions”.

However, she said she wanted to see a similar initiative in Australia for Indonesian students to balance the exchange.

“The mutual advantages [of exchange programs] to each country will be more and more tangible in the coming years,” Sari told The Jakarta Post.

For many, language could go a long way in deconstructing stereotypes and facilitating a more nuanced understanding between Australians and Indonesians.

Something could be learned from the popular Indonesian saying: “tak kenal maka tak sayang,” (you can’t love someone you don’t know).

— Annabel Bowles was an intern at The Jakarta Post under the ACICIS program. Applications for the ACICIS 2020 Journalism Professional Practicum are currently open.

— This story is an adaptation of a previous version published at The Jakarta Post: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/02/08/neighbors-or-strangers-live-in-experiences-aim-to-improve-ri-aussie-ties.html

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