Indonesia, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics, is the second most popular holiday destination for Australians. In the 2011-2012 financial year alone, 911,000 Australians visited Indonesia (a significant increase from 232,000 visitors in 2006-2007).
Yet in the collective consciousness of Indonesians — limited to the educated middle-class at that — Australia is only beginning to assume an identity clearly separated from the vague mass of “Western cultures” or “Western countries”. However, some Australian individuals are fondly remembered, not only by those they have come to know in big cities, but also by people in a number of villages.
While tourists are most welcome in Indonesia, and no doubt many are fondly remembered by those they meet along the way, they are in the country primarily to have a good time, and it is all good and legitimate. Some may decide to return, others may choose other destinations for their next holiday.
Who then, are those Australians that are so well remembered by the local people?
The answer is noted Indonesianists, such as (the late) Herb Feith, his wife Betty, and their children, as well as many others, who lived or have lived among Indonesians in their neighborhoods or kampongs, and shared most of their daily activities. When these people returned to Australia, they passed on their passion, knowledge and continuous curiosity about Indonesians to those around them.
Feith, even before leaving for Indonesia, had worked for the founding of Australian Volunteers Abroad, the precursor of the current Australian Volunteers International program, an organization responsible for making it possible for a number of Australians to work in the country and experience life in Indonesia as it is lived by the locals.
Wherever they are now, they are to a degree, emotionally and intellectually involved in the social and political development of Indonesia. Just as important, Indonesians to them are rounded human beings with good qualities and shortcomings.
Indonesia to them is a great deal more than “a buffer zone” to the north in terms of border security, and a large market for Australia’s beef and other commodities. Even when they do think of Indonesia in those contexts, their awareness and knowledge of the situations project three dimensional pictures, hopefully offsetting the stereotypical images so easily absorbed in the Australian community’s collective consciousness.
Most of the time stereotypes are, let’s face it, harmless. However, when you are next-door neighbors, you need to have a much deeper mutual understanding than that based on stereotypes. Whether you plan it or not, things happen and you cannot afford to address contentious issues or sensitive situations on the run, because unless you are well-informed of the background, the solutions you come to might indeed come back to slap you in the face and cause greater problems. This might still happen even when you are well-informed, but at least you are prepared for it.
David Hill, in his key-note address at this year’s Herb Feith Memorial Lectures last week, hosted by Monash University and the University of Melbourne, expressed concerns at the consistent drop in the numbers of Australian universities offering Indonesian studies, just when it is increasingly necessary for Australia’s policy-makers, political and business leaders to be Indonesia-literate.
Australia and Indonesia are partners in trade and regional security, even if cultural links and people-to-people friendships do not score too highly on the political map. On a more optimistic note, there have been modest achievements in the endeavors of building a better understanding of Indonesia in Australia, largely initiated and driven by those in schools and academia.
We hear about Indonesian students studying in Australian universities, but very little is known about the opposite situation, probably because it did not happen, that is, until Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), of which David Hill is Consortium director, was founded in 1994.
Thanks to ACICIS, it has placed Australian students in Indonesian universities for a semester or more of credited studies. Since 1995, over 1,300 students from 33 universities have studied in various Indonesian universities, attending lectures mostly in the Indonesian language, boarding with Indonesian families, and making friends with students and locals alike.
Australian students have taken advantage of a broad range of disciplines, among them archaeology, environmental sciences, social sciences, linguistics and law. An average of 76 students per year is still a modest figure, but it has been a very remarkable first step, so to speak.
Though it is not easy to readily quantify what Indonesians who have studied in Australia have done for the Indonesia-Australia relationship, although we can assume that the Foreign Minister, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister, and a former rector or vice chancellor of Gadjah Mada University would certainly have brought a fair degree of goodwill and mutual trust.
Those who found employment in the private sector no doubt contribute the insights they acquired during their studies in Australia to their current professions.
Let us look closely at Australian students who take up study in Indonesian universities for a semester or two. Almost all of the programs they are enrolling in can be taken in Australia, and probably with better course and research facilities. So we can assume that they come to Indonesian universities for something over and above academic ambitions.
They may not all be idealists who believe in the concept that friendships between two countries should start from the grassroots, hence the need to come and live among their neighbor’s people for a sustainable period of time. Others may just want to satisfy their inherent curiosity about the other. And no doubt there are those whose heightened sense of adventure drives them there. Nevertheless, their interest in what they are studying is necessarily intense.
They appear to have a particular quality and drive beyond the usual “career climbing” ambitions. Graduates who have been studied abroad with ACICIS have gone on to work work for AusAID as part of volunteer teams, in the Department of Education’s curriculum design desks, university teaching and research positions, and government departments’ advisory teams, where hopefully the first-hand understanding they have acquired while living in Indonesia, including in pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), helps make a difference. They are not likely to be dismissive about problems arising from systemic and cultural differences between the two countries.
So far, no former ACICIS students have filled the positions of policy makers at state or federal level in Australia. Hopefully this is something that will change in the future.
The writer is a journalist and adjunct research associate at the school of political and social inquiry, Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Melbourne.