Indonesia is ready for a rich, contemporary relationship...

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Indonesia is ready for a rich, contemporary relationship...

Posted 27/03/2012 by Zara Maxwell-Smith

Indonesia has taken the spotlight over the last few months as people smugglers, terrorism, drug traffickers, live cattle exports and our neighbour’s complicated ‘komodo economy’ have held the media’s attention. A need to look at Indonesia, not through it to China, was signalled by the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister, Marty Natalegawa, when he met the new Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr: 'It's to the disadvantage of countries to put all their eggs into one basket'. Simultaneously, the recent Hill report on the state of Indonesian language studies in Australia, and last year’s Lowy Institute survey of community attitudes, indicate there is a need to look inwards, at how we think about Indonesia.

Australia’s ability to communicate and negotiate in its interactions with its neighbour requires Indonesia-literate Australians. The Hill report reveals a steep decline in skills in this area:

'In schools, there were fewer Year 12 students studying Indonesian in 2009 than there were in 1972. In universities, during the decade from 2001 to 2010, enrolments in Indonesian nationally dropped by 40 per cent, at a time when the overall undergraduate population in universities expanded by nearly 40 per cent.'

The report has been described as 'a disturbing confirmation of national policy failure in Indonesian studies'.
In 2007 the Rudd government announced a $62.15 million commitment to Asian languages in schools through the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP). Australia had not had a national policy on foreign languages since 2002, when the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy (NALSAS) ceased. NALSSP is also set to be discontinued due to the program’s failure to curb dropping enrolments in Asian language studies. The Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, indicated that it will be replaced with other strategies after consultation with stakeholders.

Recently, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations announced the development of the languages section of the new Australian Curriculum. Indonesian is not one of the first two languages (Chinese and Italian) for which a curriculum will be developed. The Shape of the Australian Curriculum Paper: Languages notes that language learning 'broadens students’ horizons' and 'despite its status as a world language, a capability only in English is not sufficient, and a bilingual or plurilingual capability is the norm in most parts of the world.'
The Hill report provides a clear picture of the output of graduates with Indonesian language skills: 'only approximately 150 students would be graduating with three years of Indonesian language study at university level in any given year. Only about 10-15 annually would include a year’s study in part of their university degree'. It is predominantly from this pool that Australia hopes to draw its ‘Indonesianist’ academic, foreign affairs, education, security, trade, culture, immigration, interpreting and translating experts.
An example which highlights the consequences of this dearth of expertise emerged during a recent Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee hearing when the AFP cited limited access to interpreters and translators for long delays in charging Indonesian crew on boats of asylum seekers. The focus has been on cases where Indonesian children have been detained for long periods based on assessments using the controversial wrist x-ray technology. Senator Hanson-Young noted one case where it took '258 days to charge one person who was then found by a court to be a child.'
In November 2011, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Chris Craigie, indicated that his office was expecting the number of people-smuggling cases it prosecutes to double. AFP officers reportedly spoke of 'a difficult process that requires them to take statements from the accused via the use of translators'.
Translators and interpreters for court cases must be accredited through the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI). NAATI has been subject to a number of reviews which highlighted significant problems in their testing procedures, including a lack of independent double marking and confusion in translating style amongst accreditation candidates. In 2008 and 2009 two independent reviews (see question 332) identified areas for improvement and funding issues in NAATI.
Last year only 440 translating and interpreting test candidates were accredited across 111 languages (of which Indonesian is one). The average success rate, around 20% of all test applicants, was maintained from previous years, making up 30% of the total 1468 accreditations awarded through NAATI. NAATI is currently conducting an Improvement of NAATI Testing Project.
Highly qualified translators and interpreters are important to Australia’s trading opportunities in Indonesia, especially since the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) came into force for Indonesia in January. With just 2.3% of our total merchandise (both manufactured and raw materials) trade, Indonesia currently ranks only 13th as an Australian trade merchandise partner, beaten by New Zealand ranked in 8th position, Korea ranked in 4th position and China ranked in 1st position (23.1% of trade). Indonesia is currently not among Australia’s top ten trading partners.

However, the trade relationship is expanding with a growth rate of 16.9% in merchandise goods. This growth is supported by the two countries highly complementary economies as well as the Indonesia's rapid growth and the dramatic reduction in its debt to growth ratio. The Indonesian economy’s performance during the global economic crisis indicates its growing importance in the region and to Australia. In this climate the Hill report notes the irony that Australia is at risk of losing its comparative advantage over other countries in Indonesian expertise just as Indonesia takes off.

Maintaining any kind of advantage will require a change in Australian attitudes towards Indonesia, attitudes which a recent survey by the Lowy Institute found to be 'mired in distrust and suspicion'. Comparing a similar poll on Indonesians’ attitudes towards Australia, which reported a rise of over 10% in the ‘warmth’ of Indonesians’ attitudes towards Australia since 2006, the author of the report Fergus Hanson asked: 'These poll findings are a wake-up call, a reminder Indonesia is ready for a rich, contemporary relationship. The question is, are we?'


  • 21/01/2014 3:31 PM
    Martin Butterfield said:

    On looking at the Executive Summaries of the two reports into NAATI linked through this article) it appears that the main function of that organisation is to assess interpreters to assist in the settlement of migrants into Australia. Surely that is a very different requirement to that for interpreters involved in matters of trade? It would also be interesting to know to what extent there are people with Bahasa Indonesia as a first language who are able to speak Australian English to the level required. Are such people also assessed by NAATI and are they acceptable to Australian organisations involved in Trade issues.

  • 21/01/2014 3:32 PM
    Zara Maxwell-Smith said:

    Hi Martin, Although NAATI does recognise it has a community purpose relating to language needs (such as the needs of people who have newly arrived in Australia), it also fulfils a more general purpose: ‘NAATI credentialing provides quality assurance to the clients of translators and interpreters and gives credibility to agencies that employ practitioners who are credentialed appropriately’ (Annual Report 2010-2011). NAATI’s stated mission and objectives cover a broad range of functions including setting and maintaining national standards in translating and interpreting in Australia. NAATI accredited professional translators and interpreters are recommended ‘for work in most settings, including banking, law, health, and social and community services’, while advanced translators and conference interpreters can specialise in a particular area and are recommended for work in settings such as high level negotiations and court proceedings ( You raise an interesting point about the number, accreditation and use of translators and interpreters who are native speakers of Indonesian Unfortunately there is limited information available on this issue and NAATI does not report on the number of native born speakers who are accredited. NAATI accreditation can be obtained in a number of ways and levels, and applicants do not need to be Australian nationals. Austrade does not currently list NAATI qualifications in its description of the language skills capacity in Austrade, however according to the latest annual report (2010-2011), Austrade is currently revising its languages policy. SBS also provides a language service to a number of government bodies. The service, ‘SBS in Language’, notes that NAATI qualified staff are used where available ( This article provides an outline of some government (including AusAid) spending on language services through SBS ( Thanks for your comments, Zara

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