The numbers of Australians studying Indonesia is at a forty year low. Why?

For many Australians, Indonesia is simply not regarded as being of any great significance. Indonesians don’t really like us anyway, and everyone knows the place is politically oppressive and its economy riddled with corruption.

A cursory examination of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s smarttraveller website only reinforces the conclusion that Indonesia is a dangerous place to be, full of demonstrations, pick-pockets, deadly diseases, and terrorists planning to bomb a variety of targets frequented by westerners.

As for studying the Indonesian language, doesn’t everyone there speak English anyway? Everyone, at least, who has anything to say that we would be interested in listening to. So why bother studying about it?

These views are widespread in our society. As an Australian, they worry me, because they reflect an ignorance about Indonesia which is both breathtaking in scope and decidedly damaging to our national well-being. More specifically, as someone concerned with studying and teaching about Indonesia, these views worry me because they are at the heart of the current decline in interest in studying Indonesia and the Indonesian language.

What should we do about this situation? The best antidote to ignorance is always knowledge. Though it may not seem directly connected to teaching Indonesian, I believe that we all have a vested interest in trying to raise the national levels of knowledge and understanding of Indonesia.
We ought all to be interested in this task as citizens, because our society as a whole suffers if our knowledge of our nearest Asian neighbour is as flawed as it currently is.

A public opinion poll conducted last year by the highly-regarded Lowy Institute in Sydney found a widespread belief that Indonesia posed a military threat to Australia, and that Indonesia was “essentially controlled by the military”.
This is despite the fact that since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has developed into what is probably the freest society in Southeast Asia, and ranks among the more democratic states globally.

Indonesia has also been remarkably successful in putting the military genie back into the bottle. Its military is small and has difficulty just moving around the archipelago itself, let alone thinking about invading Australia.

Another commonly-held belief about Indonesia is that the country is a dangerous place to be, that there is an ever-present danger from terrorist attacks mounted by radical Islamic elements. In fact over the past two years or so, there have been very few terrorist attacks. The most popular targets of terrorist attacks during this time have been police stations and mosques, the terrorists’ targets being the police — as instruments of the secular state — and other Muslims from groups considered to be deviant.

Indonesia has weathered the Global Financial Crisis better than most other economies of any size. Better, in fact, than Australia, if you look at rates of economic growth. Indonesia’s economic standing is being increasingly recognised internationally: it is the only Southeast Asian member of the G20 group of nations.

Of course Indonesia has its political, economic and social problems. Corruption is still a major problem. Human rights, though today vastly better observed than under the rule of President Suharto, still leave something to be desired, especially in the two Papuan provinces. Economic infrastructure, such as roads, ports and electricity supply, lags behind most of the rest of Southeast Asia. Environmental protection legislation is good on paper, but is rarely properly implemented. Smoking rates are almost on a par with China. The education system still has a lot of ground to make up to match that of Malaysia, let alone Singapore.
Of course Australians should be aware of these issues, and take them up actively, if they so choose. But we should not think these are the only matters we need to know about Indonesia.

Those of us with some knowledge of Indonesia need to play a role in helping to broaden the understanding of our fellow Australians about the country, in our local communities, in our schools, in our professional associations.

More specifically, we need to knock on the head this idea that we can communicate adequately with Indonesia through the medium of English. It is true that many Indonesians speak English well, but English is not the language of national discourse in Indonesia; Indonesian is.

If we don’t revitalise the teaching of Indonesian, we will put ourselves at a severe disadvantage in preparing for the Asian Century.

Teachers of Indonesian in Australia might well feel they are part of an endangered species; but as a community we ought to regard them as a vital national resource, central not only to our relationships with Indonesia, but also central to Australia’s participation in the Asian Century.

Professor Colin Brown is an adjunct professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and an expert in the modern history, politics and economics of Indonesia, and Australia-Indonesia relations. This article is an edited version of an address to the Modern Language Teachers Association Conference in 2012.