Let them all speak English

Did university administrators know of federal government policies to boost learning about Indonesia before they rushed to slash and burn? Or maybe they knew but are too blinkered to care.

Earlier this year Melbourne’s La Trobe trumpeted its wares: “Step into the world of Indonesian culture and language. With Indonesian studies you’ll master listening, speaking, writing and reading a new language while exploring Indonesia’s rich history, politics, art and economics.”

Sounds inviting. Yet a few months later the same campus said it will shut down Indonesian because of consistently low enrolments.

Now it’s the turn of a pioneer in cross-cultural education to dump Indonesian.

Murdoch academics led by (now retired) Professor David Hill started the non-profit Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies 25 years ago. The scheme has since sent more than 3,500 students to universities in the Republic.

If the two campuses swing the scythe the ambitions of smart school-leavers to become diplomats, adventurers, international traders, educators and linguaphiles will be slashed. Just a dozen of our 42 universities will be recruiting. In 1992 the language was taught on 22 campuses to around 2,000 students.

Philistines might ask – so what? Indonesian ranks tenth in the world’s top tongues and is little used outside Southeast Asia. Bengali and Arabic are more widespread. But the nation of 270 million is tipped to become an economic world power if and when Covid-19 is controlled.

Trading across the Arafura Sea will need departments, NGOs and companies staffed by graduates able to understand our potential partners, build lasting networks, develop trust and cement friendships.

The more farsighted, including the Australia-Indonesia Business Council which is protesting the planned closures, know we need to be Asia literate.

Here’s where it gets weird: The two uni managements’ proposals clash with the government’s higher education funding scheme. According to ACICIS director Liam Prince, this is designed to draw students into disciplines like Indonesian deemed to be of national priority, but that historically have struggled to attract large numbers.

‘From next year, completing a language major will cost an Australian undergraduate approximately one quarter of the expense of most other arts, humanities, and social sciences majors.’ But the keen kids won’t be enrolling if there are no courses nearby.

Last century Indonesian was the most popular Asian language in schools. Now it’s Mandarin and Japanese. The Bali bombs of 2002 and the Jakarta Embassy blast two years later hastened the switch along with travel warnings

.So did the public comments of opinion makers like former WA Liberal Premier Colin Barnett. He told AAP during a visit to Jakarta: “There are very few parts of the world where meetings aren’t conducted in English and they are generally not with interpreters.”

Last month former PM John Howard, who holds ambiguous views on the importance of Indonesia, was reported by the AFR as saying we shouldn’t be anxious about the decline as English was “the lingua franca of Asia”.

True in the five-star hotels where polis camp and business and government heavyweights wrestle policies. Many ministers and executives are cosmopolitan, though not Joko Widodo. The president has a poor command of English, like most outside Jakarta’s inner circle, and has little interest in foreign affairs.

Although learning the world language is compulsory in Indonesian schools, it’s given little time and badly taught. Teens can name correlative conjunctions but few can communicate.

The Federal Government’s attempts to promote multilingualism parallel its New Colombo Plan ‘rite of passage’ for Gen Z.

DFAT says the NCP ‘aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates “to study and undertake internships in the region ensuring the students have the skills and work-based experiences to contribute to our domestic and the regional economy.”

Before coronavirus crippled travel the scheme was wholly or partly funding about 10,000 students a year heading to 40 countries.

All fine and dandy – but Canberra blew the opportunity to integrate its policies. The Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement came into force in July after ten years haggling.

Widely touted as the dawn of a new bonding, it allows tariff-free entry for our primary produce and Indonesian goods onto our shelves. As an afterthought a handful of working holiday visas – from 1,000 now to 5,000 in five years. Last year France, Taiwan and South Korea each sent about 15,000 under-30s.

The IA-CEPA deal could have opened the way for Indonesians to pick fruit for a pittance, pull beers, watch AFL and discover our quirks. The Jakarta negotiators were keen, ours less so for fear of opening the tabloids’ fearsome floodgates. Backpacking is officially supposed to “promote international understanding by enabling young people to experience the culture of another country.”

The government could have boosted the working holiday visas and scrapped the costly and onerous tourist visa restrictions. These don’t apply to citizens of nearby nations like Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.

Sadly no change, so only one cashed-up and determined Indonesian makes it south for every ten Aussies heading to free-visa Bali.

This isn’t just about university accounting, economics and tourism. If we don’t encourage more Indonesians into Australia and help Aussies appreciate their neighbour’s mysterious past, complex politics and different values, there won’t be enough ballast to keep the relationship stable and afloat.

So next time there’s an inter-nation stoush, misunderstandings will multiply and myths oust facts, for there’ll be too few knowledgeable voices to gainsay.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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