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Why Bother? Everyone Speaks English

03 Nov 2021
By Duncan Graham
Rows of desks and chairs in classroom. Source: Pxhere

The number of Australian students studying Indonesian has decreased dramatically. The Australian government must review its relationship with Indonesia, and listening to educators could be a welcome start.

There are no votes in getting to know the neighbours. How else can we explain why successive Australian governments continue to ignore the crash in numbers of Australians learning Indonesian and disregard the continuous and earnest appeals of teachers and academics to halt the slide?

It wasn’t always so. Late last century, learning the words now used by the more than 270 million people in Indonesia — plus a further 32 million in Malaysia where the language is similar — was widely accepted. In large part, the bonding was encouraged by former Prime Minister Paul Keating and his 1994 statement that “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.” Successive leaders have said much the same but have failed to follow through.

Indonesian was once the most popular Asian language in Australian classrooms. Now it’s Japanese and Mandarin, with more students exploring vernaculars from distant Europe. Other nations teach the language next door: Spanish in the US, French in the UK. Philistines might ask — so what?  Indonesian ranks tenth in the world’s top tongues and is little used outside Southeast Asia. Bengali and Arabic are more widespread. But the republic is tipped to become an economic world power when COVID-19 is controlled. Australia wants to benefit from that and already has a trade agreement in place.

The reluctance to promote Indonesian language learning can be blamed on xenophobia. In 1999, Australia supported the referendum on the future of the Indonesian province of East Timor, where the locals voted 80 percent in favour of independence. Indonesians who expected the reverse result blamed Australia. A security agreement developed by Keating was shredded by Jakarta.

The scorched-earth campaign by retreating troops and militia was universally condemned as Australia led the international peacekeepers. Then followed the 2002 Bali bombs, the 2004 Jakarta Embassy car blast, and other attacks sourced to fundamentalists. The Indonesian government was as outraged by the terrorism as its Australian counterpart, but the long-term damage to the relationship continues. The Lowy Institute’s annual opinion polls measure attitudes to Australia’s neighbours.  Southeast Asia Programme director Ben Bland commented: “Whether asked about their warmth toward Indonesia, confidence in its leaders, or even their level of basic knowledge about their biggest neighbour, Australians tend to show a combination of disinterest and distrust.”

Cuts in Australian newsrooms and the withdrawal of correspondents from Jakarta have left the media focussing on natural disasters and controversial issues, like the Supreme Court striking down school enforcement of girls wearing  jilbab (headscarves), charging people with blasphemy, and banning alcohol. In 2005 the Indonesian Majelis Ulama (Islamic Scholars’ Council) issued a fatwa (Islamic law ruling) banning liberalism, pluralism, and secularism. The edicts aren’t binding in civil law but are influential. Australians who only know about the relaxed version of Hinduism in Bali, and not about the political, social, and religious debates in Java and other islands, found these news reports disquieting. Likewise, Indonesians are bemused by stories of Aboriginal deaths in custody, a homeless population of more than 100,000 in a rich nation with universal welfare, and the importing of fruit pickers when 626,000 are unemployed.

This public tone influences parents and teachers when advising students on courses to pursue. For all their soothing clichés, politicians know electors run cold on Indonesia. Why bother helping schools and universities to train future generations in understanding Australia’s region, when there are no ballot box advantages in relating to foreigners, except as customers?

It seems the motivation in Canberra for maintaining interest in Indonesia is based on security, trade, and defence. It’s certainly not to develop mateship. Former prime minister and Liberal Party elder statesman John Howard didn’t help with his recent display of Anglo arrogance. Last year, he was reported saying we shouldn’t be too worried about the slump in Asian language learning as English was “the lingua franca of Asia.” This is true in the five-star hotels where politicians and business executives discuss policies, though false elsewhere across the archipelago. Some ministers and executives are cosmopolitan, though not Joko Widodo. The president has a poor command of English and shows little enthusiasm for foreign affairs. Although learning English is compulsory in Indonesian schools, it’s given little time and badly taught. Native-speaker teachers are rare outside expensive private schools. Anecdotally, interest is also waning fast. School leavers can parse verbs, but few can communicate.

Data from Melbourne University’s Asia Education Foundation (AEF) shows how badly the situation has deteriorated. Five years ago, 14,418 Australian primary students were studying Indonesian.  By year 12, the number had “fallen off a cliff” (say educators) to 353. These are the kids most likely to seek further education, but their choices are shrinking. Of Australia’s 42 universities, only a dozen provide Indonesian language instruction. In 1992, Indonesian was taught on 22 campuses to around 2,000 students.

In a bid to persuade parents, students, and teachers to abandon hostility towards intercultural learning, the AEF has released its “rationale,Why Indonesia Matters in our Schools. The colourful six-page brochure argues that “young Australians must learn to engage in the global community, particularly with our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region.” Although the AEF “partners” with the Australian government, there’s little to show that its advocacy has been effective. Foundation executive director Hamish Curry has written that “Without nation-wide policies, consistent data, funding and collective support, Indonesian could be relegated to a forgotten corner of our education experiences.” Simon Merrifield, a senior diplomat and first ambassador to ASEAN, has reportedly been appointed to review Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. He could start by first listening to educators.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from East Java.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.