Editions : October-December 2016

JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360 By: Duncan Graham

The US Central Intelligence Agency’s human resources section doubtlessly had a busy summer clicking through undergraduate language enrollments. Much the same was under way within Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee. When the students eventually get to toss their mortarboards in the air, the CIA and JIC will have already been calculating: will there be enough speakers of Arabic, Chinese and Russian to fill upcoming vacancies for spooks and diplomats?

The rule of tongue is that one in five new students will graduate with high-level fluency. As around 35,000 students in the United States have chosen Arabic this year, the catchment area by decade’s end should be about 7,000. Not a lot when few will fancy a career spooling through days and nights of grainy closed-circuit television tapes just to spot the second when the missile codes change hands.

But that Arabic talent pool is an inland sea compared to the Indonesian puddle. Currently, only 300 American students have an interest in the language used in the world’s fourth-most populous nation, plus the sister tongue of nearby Malaysia and its 30 million people. US foreign affairs strategists recognize that the biggest economy and largest nation in Southeast Asia is of critical global importance. Indonesia straddles the Equator and more than 60 percent of the world’s shipping passes through its waters. The republic’s geopolitical position and influence is particularly important in helping monitor Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. 

All that seems reason enough to know terabytes more about the sprawling archipelago, understand its history, culture and identity, its nationalistic strengths and military weaknesses. However, the responsibility of amassing the expertise to competently read regional moods, analyze trends and provide sound advice to policy makers has been outsourced to the United States’ regional security partners – Australia and New Zealand.

This might not be such a smart idea. Today, New Zealand universities neither teach Indonesian cultural studies nor Bahasa Indonesia. That leaves Australia, which is much closer, to be the sentinel. Curiously, the watchman has lost interest and even started to slumber. A sharp prod is needed to wake Australia up.

Not too long ago things were different. Back in the 1970s, Australians were encouraged to learn more about their northern neighbor, and not primarily for reasons of defense and trade. They responded enthusiastically, for the images were all benign – cheap holidays amid stunning landscapes, friendly folk, tolerant faiths and a heroic past glimpsed through mysterious temples and unique arts. 

Exotic Asia at the end of the aerobridge: breakfast in Perth and lunch in Denpasar with no wristwatch adjustments required. Jokers claimed Bali had become a suburb of the Western Australian capital. Specialists in Indonesian politics, history and culture joined the Australian National University in Canberra, Monash University in Melbourne, Murdoch University in Perth and other top campuses. The traditional centers of excellence at Leiden in the Netherlands and Cornell in the United States were being eclipsed by scholars in the Antipodes, often working with Indonesian postgraduates. This rosy arrangement bloomed anew in 1998 after Soeharto, the authoritarian Indonesian president, was forced from office amid pro-democracy demonstrations, violent riots and economic catastrophe. When calm returned the nation set about reassembling itself into a democracy.

Then everything exploded. Literally.

The 2002 Bali bombings killed 202 people, most of them Australian tourists, shattering the notion of a peaceful Islam in Indonesia. Later, religious fanatics targeted Westerners in Jakarta with deadly attacks on international hotels and the Australian Embassy. In 2005, suicide bombers in Bali killed 20 more people. Australians turned away from their neighbor and friend, many in sadness, others in anger. How could this happen on the Island of the Gods? For Hindu Bali it was an aberration, but in reality the political pulse throbbed in Muslim-majority Java.

Australia knee-jerked by building a new fortress embassy in South Jakarta and issuing travel warnings to its citizens. The law of unforeseen outcomes then kicked in. Educational tours by Australian schools and universities were canceled because insurance cover was either unavailable or too costly. Young Australians had been drawn to a foreign language that uses the Latin alphabet and is considered by linguists to be comparatively easy. Suddenly, these kids were pushed to look elsewhere by anxious parents and confused career counselors. Today, only 1,000 Australian high school seniors are pursuing Indonesian language studies. The old standards of French, German and Italian have returned as favorites, along with Japanese and Chinese, to the distress of foreign policy planners, academics and writers who know what Australians are missing.

Elizabeth Pisani, the American-born and British-educated epidemiologist, journalist and author, discloses the real thinking that is driving decision-making about Indonesia. Pisani is one of the most lucid and informed writers on Indonesia. Her acclaimed book “Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation” was published by Granta Books in Britain. However, it had been originally offered to the Australian branch Macmillan Publishers.

In a clumsily worded and logically inconsistent rejection letter, the company’s editor said: “Despite our proximity to Indonesia, or perhaps because of it, there’s not a great deal of curiosity among Australians about it … it tends to fall under the zone of familiar rather than exotic.”

It seems self-evident that Australians should be Asia literate. When old mates live far away in Europe and North America but the people next door outnumber you 11 to one, it’s wise to wave, have a chat, share a joke and help keep the street clean. Simple gestures lubricate harmony – and can lead to trade.

Politicians say they deplore the decline but do little to stop it. Colin Barnett is the premier of Western Australia, a major supplier of wheat and meat to Indonesia. Visiting Jakarta earlier this year to talk trade, Barnett said the Indonesian language was not so important because most meetings were held in English. Academics and diplomats groaned in despair. 

On the other side of the political spectrum, Chris Bowen, the Labor Party federal shadow spokesman on economics, startled journalists this year by announcing that he’s learning Indonesian, as though this was like nude tightrope walking – weirdly newsworthy. It is. Only three out of 226 Australian federal politicians are known to be fluent in the Indonesian language.

Academics such as Professor David Hill of Murdoch University are also anxious at the decline. Hill started the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) in 1994 to overcome “the substantial academic, bureaucratic and immigration impediments that had prevented Australian students from undertaking credited semester study at Indonesian universities.”

Since then, almost 2,000 students have utilized ACICIS to study in Indonesia, usually staying in rented rooms or boarding houses with the locals. They returned home with deep insights unavailable to deskbound learners in Australia. Impressive? That averages less than 100 students a year from a country with more than one million of them undertaking tertiary education courses nationwide.

The Australian government has classified Bahasa Indonesia as a “nationally strategic language.” The title sounds grand, but it only means that special federal funds can be given to universities teaching the subject. Indonesian is not alone in this category; it also includes Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese and Korean.

Despite this support, Tim Lindsey, director of the Center for Indonesian Law at Melbourne University, told Australia’s ABC Radio that if the current rate of decline continued, Indonesian language sources would not be an option at Australian universities within a decade. “We’re reaching a position where Germany may have more universities teaching Indonesian than Australia,” he said. “Australia is the only Western tradition country in Asia, yet it rates the lowest among all OECD countries by a long shot for second-language skills. If current trends continue, it may end up teaching very little Asian languages except to kids of an Asian background or context.”

Indonesian academic Ariel Heryanto works at Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Language. It’s a prestigious, internationally recognized unit. Yet staff budget cuts have further eroded Australia’s stockpile of language skills. Heryanto said travel warnings for Indonesia were only a small part of the story. “It is hard to make young Australians interested in learning Indonesian … unless that subject has some relevance to their daily life outside the school,” he said.

The Indonesian and Australian governments, plus some Indonesian communities, are trying to effect change. The Australia-Indonesia Youth Association has branches around the archipelago. It’s funded by the Australian government, which also runs the annual National Australia-Indonesia Language Awards. In Sydney, the Australia-Indonesia Association sponsors meetings, events and language competitions. So does the Balai Bahasa Indonesia Perth organization. There are similar groups in other major cities.

But Heryanto said he was “not aware of a sustained, large-scale and strategic plan with long-term vision. The challenge is just too big and complex for ad hoc events and activities. The fruits of those recent attempts, if any, will not manifest anytime soon, or last long. Government and nongovernment efforts are always welcome, but they will not determine or guarantee success,” he said. “It is unwise and unrealistic to take the unusual situation in the 1970s as a measure of success. All we can do is try to improve the situation gradually, with resilience, passion and patience.”

The passion seems to have evaporated, while resilience and patience get tested every time there’s a crisis involving the two countries. This is a regular occurrence. In 2013, for example, Australia was caught eavesdropping on telephone calls of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, Ani, a disclosure that opened serious diplomatic fractures that widened when Australia refused to apologize.

While Australia is doing little to promote studying the Indonesian language and culture, Indonesia is equally slack in coming to grips with English. When a potential friendship stalls at the standard street greeting of “Hello Mister,” communication collapses regardless of the foreigner’s gender. 

Aside from Jakarta’s high-rise office buildings and major university campuses, quality English is rarely spoken except among students from private high schools or language academies, where parents pay heavily for native speakers as teachers.

One of the most prominent language academies is English First, a commercial franchise founded in the 1960s in Sweden. Today, it has more than 60 branches in big cities across Indonesia. Every year, English First rates non-English-speaking nations on their English proficiency based on online tests. These tests state that Indonesia has “moderate proficiency,” with a rank of 32, below Vietnam but above Thailand. The government-supported Indonesia-Australia Language Foundation, which started in 1989, has only three centers. It trains around 800 full-timers a year, mostly Indonesians seeking overseas scholarships where a high level of English proficiency is required.

English used to be compulsory in Indonesian state elementary schools. Three years ago the government proposed eliminating English instruction before high school. Musliar Kasim, the deputy education and culture minister, reasoned that students should concentrate on mastering the Indonesian language. This sparked a parent revolt. The ensuring compromise is that English is now an elective subject in elementary schools. However, most of Indonesia’s 50 million students first encounter English only in junior high school; they have four hours of instruction each week, almost always from teachers who have never studied overseas. There’s heavy reliance on grammar and rote learning. Few children graduate with confident communication skills, and even fewer are excited by the prospect of further studies.

Overall, only 46 percent of Indonesia’s 280,000 tertiary lecturers are unqualified, Ali Ghufron Mukti, a director general at the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, said in August. In terms of English, Indonesian public universities are restricted from native English speakers, while few private institutions offer enough money to attract top teachers from overseas, or even retain their own graduates. Monthly salaries above Rp 10 million ($760) are reported to be rare, even for teachers holding doctoral degrees.

Adrian Vickers, a professor with Sydney University’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies, said: “The low standard of English remains one of the biggest barriers against Indonesia being internationally competitive. In academia, few lecturers, let alone students, can communicate effectively in English, meaning that writing of books and journal articles for international audiences is almost impossible.” The facts support his position. In the latest list of countries producing scholarly papers recognized by international academic institutions, Indonesia ranks 57th, below Malaysia (35) and Thailand (43).

The working language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), established in 1967, is English, much to the anger of some Indonesian nationalists who have argued that more of the region’s residents speak Bahasa Indonesia and Malay than any other language.

If Indonesians want others to respect their language they need to do more than just rail against alleged Western hegemony, however. They might consider soft diplomacy. One of the best models of exporting culture is Alliance Francaise, the French government’s promoter of the language and everything from cuisine to culture. Founded 133 years ago, it now has branches around the world, some of which are linked with French consulates, such as in Surabaya. Helping the curious learn more about the French and the civilization they so strongly defend against foreign assaults is France 24, the television channel that, curiously, also offers an English-language service in Indonesia.

The Germans have followed suit with Deutsche Welle, another global broadcasting service, which is funded by taxpayers. As a nonprofit network, programs flow smoothly, unrestricted by advertising breaks.  Schools teaching German can get showered with well-produced education materials

The most recent developer of soft diplomacy is the Chinese government, through its Ministry of Education. Though only 12 years old, China’s Confucius Institute has already had a major impact by working with education providers in other countries. So far, about 500 institutes have been established around the world, with the goal of having 1,000 by 2020. The organization doesn’t just provide teaching materials; it also pays for native Mandarin-speaking aides to work with classroom teachers. Inevitably, concerns have been raised, particularly within the United States, that the Confucius Institute is surreptitiously spreading communism, but so far there’s been no proof that the institute is a political Trojan Horse.

Indonesia’s own efforts in the game of turning overseas attitudes without using hard weaponry is Darmasiswa, a non-degree scholarship program run through the Ministry of Education and Culture. It pays for courses at selected institutions in Indonesia. It has been carried out poorly. Malang’s Malangkucecwara College of Economics is one of 104 providers of a six-month Bahasa Indonesia course for foreigners. This year, numerous students from Eastern Europe and Japan have attended, but only one from the United States.

By Western standards the monthly Rp 2 million allowance is tiny, although sufficient for basic living expenses. The courses tend to attract determined polyglots unconcerned about personal comforts. Although the programs are available in some overseas countries, usually through diplomatic outposts, these offerings are just a mere flag-waving compared to the cultural assaults of other nations. This is a problem: News about Indonesia that hits television and computer screens and newspapers in the Anglosphere is rarely positive stuff.  Grim clips of terrorist attacks, floods and landslides, smog and traffic snarls, and bizarre happenings revolving around politics, corruption, religion and the justice system combine to create an image of chaos and danger.

Indonesian artists, fashion designers (except those working with batik) and sports stars rarely attract a Western following. Indonesia has no entertainment exports such as South Korea’s K-pop to excite young people.

As Hollywood knows very well, films are an effective cultural thrust. While Iran has an active and creative film industry outside the mainstream, despite domestic tyranny, Indonesian cinema is largely blank. The reasons include censorship and a dearth of skilled filmmakers, as creative artists were distrusted during Soeharto’s 32-year regime, and lack of investment in the industry.

The works of the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a prolific writer who came close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, were banned in Indonesia until this century. There have been exceptions, such as the ultra-violent box office hits “The Raid” and its sequel, “The Raid 2.”  Directed by Welshman Gareth Evans, both films featured the Indonesian martial art of silat.

However, Indonesia has few television documentaries and dramas to offer the world. Its major outputs are sinetron, the local soap operas, produced by Indian-controlled companies. They are based on formulaic acting and predictable scripts, pap even when measured against the crassest sitcoms from Britain and the United States. Sadly, there are no Indonesian versions of the sitcoms “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” or “Mrs Brown’s Boys” to help the world giggle and gasp.

As an aside, Indonesian free-to-air television is available to those within the footprints of Indonesian satellites such as Palapa D. This includes Australia, but as of yet there is no dedicated Indonesian international service to promote the nation’s culture and language. As a handy distraction from more vital issues, nationalists periodically call for foreigners working in Indonesia to be proficient in the Indonesian language. Last year, a regulation was drafted to require mandatory language testing of foreigners in order to get a visa and work permit. The plan was widely denounced as impractical and was eventually quashed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo – to the great relief of Australians.


Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 20 years.

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