Thursday, August 27, 2015

While confusion may reign in the public sphere around how Australia and Indonesia see each other, deepening the understanding Australian students have of our northern neighbor is not just a step in the right direction, it is crucial

At first glance, Australia and Indonesia make curious neighbors.

 Cultural and linguistic differences set us apart, yet we find ourselves living right next door to each other and just like any neighborly relationship, ours certainly has its ups and downs.

As Indonesia has celebrated 70 years of independence this past week, there’s been a chance to recall the early days in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. To reflect on a time when Australia reached out a hand of friendship, blocked Dutch ships in the docks and welcomed the newly independent nation into the region not only as a neighbor but also a friend. In more recent times this friendship has been tested. Stories of “boats, beef and Bali” abound. Rare is the story these days of these two neighbors sitting down together to get to know each other a little better.

This weekend, the Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) will celebrate its 20th anniversary. What started back in Yogyakarta as a small group of academics sending students to study the Indonesian language in Indonesia has grown into a group of 22 Australian universities and two international institutions. ACICIS now runs 13 study programs across five Indonesian cities. With the decline in recent years in Indonesian studies in Australian universities, the consortium has since developed English-language options for students as well in journalism, business, development studies, law and education through Indonesian partner universities such as Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Parahyangan in Bandung and Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta, among others.

ACICIS has felt the highs and lows in the relationship over 20 years. Amidst the Bali bombing, the phone tapping scandal and Timor Leste’s independence, the consortium’s focus has remained on encouraging students to immerse themselves in order to truly understand Indonesia and to go beyond the political rhetoric and the headlines and really understand Indonesian language, culture and life. Students take regular classes at Indonesian universities. They live in kos (boarding houses) with local students. They eat at warung (food stalls) and they share the annual Lebaran (Eid) holidays with their classmates. Their research sees them interviewing angkot (public transportation) drivers and chatting to local Puskesmas (community health center) staff.

When students interact with their fellow students and residents as friends, as members of a neighborhood, barriers break down. We begin to see each other as real people, not just as “foreigners”. We begin to see each other as friends. In 2013, at the time of the phone tapping issue, I went to visit some of our students participating in UGM’s Community Service (KKN) program in a village near Gunung Kidul, in Yogyakarta’s south. I asked how they were going, whether there had been any tension in their village as a result of all the recent media coverage and Indonesia recalling its ambassador from Canberra. Before my students could answer, members of their host family stepped in. “That’s just out there, between governments,” they said. “Here we’re friends.”Similarly, at the time of the executions of the Bali Nine duo, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, earlier this year, tensions raged between Australia and Indonesia.

An Indonesian university colleague stopped me at the time and said, “This is exactly why more students need to be coming over — they need to see what’s really going on here on the ground and just how complex the situation is. They don’t get that in Australia.”And it’s complex indeed. Despite the recent tensions in the relationship, the past 18 months have seen one of the most significant increases in the number of Australian students studying in Indonesia, through the federal government’s New Colombo Plan. Taking inspiration from the original Colombo Plan of the late 1950s, in which thousands of Southeast Asian students undertook university study to return to the region with new skills and a deeper understanding of Australia, this new incarnation aims to increase students’ knowledge of the Indo-Pacific region and become a “rite of passage” for young Australian undergraduates. Under the initiative, ACICIS’ numbers have increased by 35 percent: This year alone we have supported almost 200 students to study in Yogyakarta, Bandung and Jakarta, around half of whom were funded through the New Colombo Plan. These are students who come to study international relations from an Indonesian perspective, to gain first-hand experience of the sharia banking system by studying at Indonesian Islamic University (UII) in Yogyakarta and interning with Bank Syariah Mandiri and to volunteer with NGOs and news outlets. They are lucky enough to have the opportunity to study abroad and know Indonesia beyond the negative headlines and the stereotypes back home. Importantly, many of them will go on to work in government, journalism, development and business, as a large number of almost 2,000 alumni have done, changing the narrative and fostering friendship between our two countries. While confusion may reign in the public sphere around how Australia and Indonesia see each other, deepening the understanding Australian students have of our northern neighbor is not just a step in the right direction, it is crucial. Here’s to the next 20 years!

The writer Elena Williams is the resident director for the Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies (, based at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.

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