Posted by: mel | March 8, 2009

Indonesian Studies at a Tipping Point

David T. Hill ,  Perth   |  Wed, 03/04/2009 3:56 PM  |  Opinion

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd captured the upbeat mood, and the critical challenge, when he opened the recent landmark conference “Australia and Indonesia: Partners in a New Era” held in Sydney over Feb. 19-21. Putting aside his prepared speech, he spoke passionately about the depth and closeness of the bilateral relationship.

But he also acknowledged that “Australia needs to do better, a lot better in our level of Indonesian language studies, in the development of Indonesian studies within our universities and in our schools and in our understanding of the enormous complexities of Indonesian Islam.”

Overall, the relationship is in good shape. Both foreign ministers agreed that education provided the underpinning to a healthy bilateral relationship, which was more robust and comprehensive than during any previous period. Yet Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith warned of the dangers from complacency.

At several points during the high-level conference, there were declarations that the government-to-government relationship was in better shape than the lagging people-to-people links.

There was consensus too that Australia needed to reinvigorate Indonesian Studies in our education system, to reverse what Minister Smith referred to as the loss of our “cadres of Indonesianists”.

Minister Wirajuda noted candidly that “Australian specialists on Indonesia are not getting any younger” and pointedly observed the “need to boost the number of Australian Indonesianists”.

Academics have long recognized that senior Indonesianist scholars were not being replaced on retirement from our universities. Indonesian language programs have closed in several universities recently as years of disinvestment in tertiary education takes its toll.

What is less well known is that, as the number of Indonesian-speaking graduates and specialists declines, employment demand for them has grown strongly. Government departments, agencies, and private sector firms are often unable to fill vacancies.

Survey data by the Australia-Indonesia Business Council indicates that, despite the global financial crisis, in December 2008, 45 percent of respondents regarded Indonesia as a more valuable commercial target compared to two years ago, while a further 50 percent felt its attraction undiminished.

Twelve years after the 1997 financial crisis and 11 years after the fall of Soeharto, Indonesia is now described by analysts as a “normal country”, a robust democracy, and a strengthening economy.

For years Australian academics have been concerned at the lack of government awareness of the plight of Indonesian Studies. Now clear statements from senior government ministers indicate the message from the trenches is getting through; that government has recognized the problem and wants to “do better in Indonesian Studies”.

The Rudd government has made a start. In a speech on May 20, 2008 in Melbourne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Julia Gillard observed, “less than 14 percent of Australian Year 12 students are studying a foreign language. Only 5.8 percent are studying Asian languages in Year 12.

And at university the proportion studying Asian languages is even lower – at 3 percent.” She went on to announce $62.4 million (over 2008-2011) for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP).

NALSSP is essentially a revived version of the innovative National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) program. NALSAS was initiated in 1996 by the Council of Australian Governments on the basis of a 1994 report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, compiled by Kevin Rudd when he was a bureaucrat in the office of the Queensland Premier. When NALSAS was terminated by the Howard government in 2002, Rudd was a vocal critic.

NALSSP seeks to have at least 12 percent of students exit Year 12 by 2020 with a sufficient competence in one of the target Asian languages (Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian and Korean) to enable them to participate in trade and commerce in Asia and/or in university study.

But Language scholars attending a recent colloquium in Melbourne, “Beyond the Crisis: Revitalising Languages in Australian Universities”, sponsored by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, dismissed any suggestion that NALSSP’s limited funding could achieve these laudable targets.

NALSSP funding should begin flowing into the schools this year, stimulating greater demand for Indonesian. Enrolments will undoubtedly grow in universities as these students move down the pipeline. But a lack of trained Indonesian teachers may slow NALSSP’s implementation, and more immediate measures are needed to inject new staff and support into existing university Indonesian programs to prepare for the influx.

While the recent conference demonstrated the awareness of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister that more must be done to rebuild Indonesian Studies expertise in our universities, the challenge for government is to move swiftly to stem to decline and to commit increased targeted funding.

A strong Indonesian Studies capacity in Australia is an astute investment in our education system and in our long-term relationship with Indonesia.

The writer is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies and Fellow of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Perth.

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