Going there: reviving Indonesia/n in education

By Michelle Kohler

Michelle Kohler Disruptive Asia

Australia must create a new narrative about its relationship with Indonesia based on understanding of our own identity, genuine reciprocal engagement and learning of the languages of our region.

“[Success at home] depends on establishing beyond doubt that Asia is where our future substantially lies; that we can and must go there; and that this course we are on is irreversible.”

There has been a marked shift since former Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered those words in 1992. Australia is more Asia literate, more Asia engaged and more Asia capable, and education has played a major role in bringing this about. However, the challenge laid out by Keating for Australia to reimagine itself, to participate in Asia confidently and capably remains. Despite the inclusion of ‘Asia’ in the recent Australian Curriculum, young Australians do not ‘go there’ when it comes to studying the languages of Asia, particularly South- East Asia. The experience of Indonesian language education in Australian schools and universities runs counter to the early 1990s sense of ‘irreversibility’ indicating that this shift is not inevitable.

Policy matters

The 1990s saw a rapid expansion in the study of the languages and cultures of Asia in Australian  education. The key initiative of the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy established programs, projects and processes that enabled educational authorities and schools to take the first steps towards integrating ‘Asia’ into education. The strategy was multi-pronged, well-funded and relatively long-term (1994-2002). It was effective in establishing the study of Asia and Asian languages in schools, specifically those of China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. Its value was not only its substantial funding but its symbolic power to signal a new vision of Australia to the community.

The agenda lost momentum following its cessation under the Howard government, when it was considered that the program should be self-sustaining. The Rudd government renewed the focus on Asia through the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) however this was short lived (2008-2012). Despite interruption, these strategies were impactful first steps and more young people were learning about Asia than ever before. For Indonesian, however, this is no longer the case and the NALSAS years now represent a peak in the study of Indonesian in schools and universities.

The total number of school students studying languages has been in decline for some time, and while decline in Indonesian has been particularly marked (approximately 10, 000 per annum), Japanese, German and other European languages are also contracting. This situation exists despite targeted resourcing and efforts to build professional capacity and expertise, particularly in Asian languages. So, what is going wrong?

The problem/s

The case of Indonesian offers an indicative window on the problems. There is a view that it suffers from a poor image due to sustained negative media reporting, particularly since the Bali bombing in 2002. But there is more at play and more to addressing the problems than a makeover or ‘Rhonda and Ketut’ style ad campaign can achieve. It is a multifaceted problem that requires unpacking and then a multifaceted approach is needed to tackle it. The interconnection of our ideologies about multiculturalism, language learning, and specific languages, along with structural impediments in education, and community perceptions, create a toxic environment within which our Indonesia/n capability is struggling to survive, let alone flourish.

Multicultural but not multilingual

Australia claims success in multiculturalism but it has failed to imagine itself in terms of multilingualism. The notion of ‘tolerance’ pervades our sense of multiculturalism and while we recognize the power of English as the way into Australian-ness, we are yet to embrace learning ‘other’ languages as a means of entering into ‘otherness’ and genuine inter-cultural engagement.

The tension with multilingualism in the national psyche manifests in education primarily in the form of two hierarchies: the place of languages in the curriculum, and the value of Indonesian among languages. In relation to the first hierarchy, ‘Languages’ is marginalized both in terms of its value and its presence, even being labeled LO TE (Languages other than English). As an area of the curriculum, Languages is a relative new comer, especially in primary schools, having been ‘added’ to the National Goals for Schooling in 1999. In primary schools, language education has become locked into the marginal structure of NIT (noninstruction time), making it the ‘replacement’ subject when the mainstream class teacher does planning. In secondary schools, the features are somewhat different but the hierarchy issue remains, with some subjects regarded as ‘core’ and others ‘elective’. ‘Languages’ falls within the latter, and is typically framed as an esoteric subject for an academically oriented few. These hierarchies privilege certain types of knowledge and one particular language, English, and leave ‘other’ languages on the margins.

The second hierarchy is internal to the Languages learning area, and within the sub-group of Asian languages. The notion of cultural capital and prestige influence which languages students choose to study (where choice is available). In the broad groupings of European and Asian languages, for example, French has cultural prestige and Chinese has economic value. Each language has a perceived status and Indonesian, despite (or perhaps because of) being depicted as ‘the easy Asian language’, neither has cultural prestige nor economic value. On the contrary, it is often associated with economic disadvantage, making it attractive to an altruistic few. This limits its appeal to Australian youth who are looking to ‘gain’ from their language learning investment. The economic story of Indonesia today is far from this perception, and while Australians are showing some increased awareness of this, it is not widely known. Presenting contemporary Indonesia, including its economic power, to young Australians is a key role for education, however, an economic justification on its own for learning Indonesian is not sufficient, and can be a double-edged sword.

From knowing less to knowing more

The ‘economic benefit’ orientation of language policy has dominated education in recent decades but it has been a mixed blessing. It has provided a clear rationale for learning languages, and promoted certain languages as a result, yet at the same time undermined the intrinsic educational value of language learning by focusing on utility. The economic argument also comes into question for young people when bilingual/multilingual and intercultural capabilities are not included let alone required in graduate programs and employment opportunities (in Australia at least). Business may claim to value these capabilities but this is not being realised in recruitment practices.

The absence of a national policy also means there has been a flurry of state and territory activity, but a lack of coordination and coherence. A striking example of the policy vacuum is the lack of systemic data available on languages education. Since the dismantling of NALSSP, there are no reporting requirements and no data collection at the national level. As a result, there is even less data on (Indonesian) language programs, teachers and students in Australian schooling now than was available ten years ago.

There have been some recent positive developments that support education for developing our Asia capability. The Australian Curriculum provides curricula in a range of languages including Indonesian, and a cross-curricula priority of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia. The curriculum also has a set of General Capabilities that all students are to develop that includes intercultural understanding. These features have a role in reshaping school programs, however they reside within curriculum policy not broader education policy.

The other positive development is the federal government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP) initiative. The NCP provides practical and symbolic support for university students to engage with Asia through short-term programs including scholarships to study languages, and business internship and mentorship opportunities. In 2019, a further 11,817 students will take part, making approximately 40, 000 alumni overall. While this is indeed an achievement, the program risks being episodic and ‘additive’ rather than integral to students’ university experience. Furthermore, the program has no interface with schooling and the current DFAT Advisory on travel to Indonesia continues to prevent most schools from taking students in-country. Somewhat ironically also, while young Australians are being encouraged to ‘experience’ Asia and its languages, domestic university programs and expertise in Indonesia/n are being eroded by changes in the university sector. The NCP has not translated into substantive or sustained numbers of students studying Indonesian. Indeed, if the current diminution of programs and expertise is not reversed, it may be that in-country study of Indonesian at the tertiary level will be the only option. At a time when we need to know more, and know more deeply, we are risking doing the opposite.

Fear and fearlessness

There is one further challenge specifically related to Indonesia/n and that is Islam. This elephant in the room is both prominent and invisible in the way we understand and engage with Indonesia. In the past decade, the Australian public has been more exposed to representations of Indonesia than ever, yet surveys continue to show fear and ignorance of our nearest Asian neighbour. A complicating factor is a view of culture in the media and to some extent in education that homogenises and exoticises ‘others’, including their faiths. There is a need to present more nuanced and varied depictions in accessible and age-relevant forms useful for education. Furthermore, there is a strong (and understandable) reluctance amongst many teachers to address any topic related to religion and yet it is precisely sensitive and capable teaching of this that is required to improve understanding. In writing the Australian Curriculum: Indonesian we adopted this view using language learning to exploring meanings, values and beliefs, not religious teaching but rather teaching about intercultural and interlinguistic meaning. This approach can mean that Islam need not be met with fear but with fearlessness.

Imagination and courage is needed

In our 2010 report on the state of Indonesian language education, we made a number of recommendations that remain valid today. The first was to establish an expert working party to develop a clear rationale for studying Indonesian along with a multi-faceted, coordinated, long-term plan. The strategy of bringing together expertise around Indonesian language education and policy remains key to identifying obstacles and ways forward to improve our Indonesia/n capability. This group should be expanded to include business, public sector and community organisations in order to strengthen synergies and partnerships.

The second recommendation that we made was to intervene at the critical point of junior secondary where participation rates go over a cliff.

The last recommendation was to investigate several thorny issues: the impact of socio-economic status and geographical distribution of programs on participation rates; workforce profiling and planning; and the impact of primary school programs on junior secondary retention. This action would provide an empirical base to improve our understanding and inform planning.

Given our learning since 2010, a further recommendation is warranted. There is a need for business and community organisations to develop their own Indonesia engagement strategies that includes an interface with education to explore opportunities such as work placements, internships, and recruitment. Cultural organisations, such as those focused on faith, recreation, and the arts need to be more informed and supported to collaborate with Indonesian partners.

Finally, these actions may well be achievable, however will be more powerful if they are underpinned by a reimagined sense of ourselves and our relationship with Indonesia. We cannot hold a paternalistic stance but need to meet Indonesia as a partner, an equal, with whom we have shared interests and reciprocal understanding. There is much work to be done from the Indonesian side also, however Australia must create a new narrative about its relationship with Indonesia, its region and its identity.

An economic narrative is not enough: it does little to inspire twelve or even twenty-year-olds, and young people must be shown the value of engaging with others, and in the process learn about themselves and their own communities. A national policy, at least of the scale and significance of NALSAS, would reignite the education sector’s contribution to engagement in Asia.

Knowing and embracing who we are

For much of Australia’s past, Indonesia has been regarded as exotic, alien, and suspect. The 1990s signaled the beginning of a more open and optimistic orientation that was cut short by the Bali bombings and the associated cultural shift against ‘otherness’ generally and Islam specifically. The period of optimism has been replaced by short-term economic pragmatism but to really know who we are in Asia and to belong here, we must be capable of genuine reciprocal engagement and this requires embracing the learning of the languages of our region. The cultural transformation that is necessary started in the 1990s through education and needs to be revived now and advanced over the long-term.

We can reimagine ourselves and embrace a more expansive identity where we navigate Asia deftly and confidently, from within but this is an on-going project has challenges and costs, but our success depends on meeting them.


Michelle Kohler is Senior Lecturer in Languages, Education, and Indonesian at Flinders University & Coordinating Writer of the Australian Curriculum: Indonesian.

For references Download Disruptive Asia (Volume Two) - ASEAN Special Edition

Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).

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