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 Indonesia...as 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'.
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
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?'