Australian Labor governments have tended to want friendlier relations with their Asian neighbors. With a little luck and a lot of enthusiasm, now may be the time for the Indonesian language to make a comeback in Australian schools.
Indonesia represents one of the most important relationships for Australia, being one of the country’s largest and closest neighbors. The embassy in Jakarta is arguably Australia’s largest and most expensive, and Indonesia was the second most-visited destination for Australian tourists before the Covid pandemic, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The two countries also share a strong bilateral partnership – the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) solidified these formal ties in 2020.
Ask an average Australian what they think of Indonesia, however, and they might not have much to say, such as the cultural illiteracy. A 2022 survey by the Lowy Institute, for example, found that less than half of Australians believed Indonesia was a democracy, despite having been considered one since the end of the Soeharto regime in 1998.
Australians’ knowledge of Indonesia has often been said to boil down to “boats, beef, and Bali”, referring to the asylum seekers, beef exports, and a popular holiday destination that make up the bulk of Australia’s news coverage of the country.
Insufficient linguistic literacy is a large contributor to this lacking cultural knowledge, according to Liam Prince, keen language advocate and director of the Australian Consortium for ‘In Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS).
Language is indispensable in creating and maintaining any bilateral relation, by allowing for a deeper communicative rapport, as well as promoting the cultural awareness that comes with it.
The Indonesia-Australia relationship isn’t, however, just any bilateral relationship.
“I do believe that for Australia, Indonesia is a special case,” Prince said in a recent interview.
Indonesia is of great strategic importance to Australia, both geographically and economically, and is projected to become the fourth largest economy by 2050, according to a report by PwC – it would be foolish for Australia not to pursue a constructive relationship with such an important neighbor.
“Part of that, of building that constructive relationship, is having a significant number of Australians attempting to learn Indonesian, and at the moment we have fewer and fewer students attempting that,” he said.
Two main policy frameworks have marked Indonesian language education in Australian schools – the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy (NALSAS) and the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) – the last of which ended in 2012. Since then, funding has all but stopped, and student numbers have dropped dramatically.
According to Australian government data, just 827 students across Australia studied Indonesian at a year-12 level in 2020, compared to 1,161 in 2010 – despite overall student numbers increasing.
Victorian Certificate of Education data shows that at the peak of funding in 2002, over 1,000 students were enrolled in year-12 Indonesian in the state of Victoria alone.
The same fate has befallen Indonesian in Australian universities, too. A study by the Asia Education Foundation showed that only 12 universities now offer Indonesian, compared to 22 in 1992.
Politics has a large part to play in this – both NALSAS and NALSSP were introduced under Labor governments, and Labor has typically put greater care into regional relations. Yet it doesn’t need to, according to Prince.
“Somehow, the case for Asian language capability became ideological … I think it is probably the victim of being seen to be the purview of one side of politics, which is, to me, regrettable, but also wrong-headed,” he said.
“In many ways, Asian language capability for Australia is a strategic asset, and a security asset.”
Nonetheless, Australia’s new Labor government has already shown far greater enthusiasm for strong relations with Indonesia than did the previous government. Anthony Albanese visited the country just three weeks after becoming prime minister, eager to stress the importance of the relationship.
He also stated his support for ACICIS, saying that “more Australians speaking Bahasa Indonesia will be vital to deepening our relationship”. Penny Wong, the new foreign minister, who is of Malaysian heritage, notably employed fluent Indonesian in a recent speech while visiting Jakarta.
This change in government presents language capability advocates with a unique opportunity to finally secure funding for Asian languages in Australian schools.
Prince stresses, however, the importance of not remaining complacent.
“Labor obviously has a track record on this, but I don’t think it’s a top order priority right now, obviously it bubbles to the top when they go on these foreign visits, and then it goes off the boil a little bit,” he said.
For Prince, the tremendous task of securing more funding for Asian language education continues.
“I think for the enthusiast like myself, and colleagues around the country, the homework is to keep finessing the policy proposal,” Prince said.
For language capability advocates like Prince, that current task is twofold. First, he wants clear-cut funding put into Asian language education in schools.
“[What] we’re all asking for, is a restoration of funding for Asian languages in schools at the same per capita level that prevailed between 1995 and 2002, to go back to NALSAS level funding for Asian languages in Australian schools, and that would be about $18 per student, per year, or about $70 million per year from the federal government.”
The second task is to raise awareness of the new incentives put in place to study a language at university – a fact that has gone unnoticed by most students.
“Under the Job Ready Graduates program, since 2021, students can cut about $10,000 off their undergraduate degree by majoring in a language,” Prince said.
Either way now is the time for the Indonesian language to make a comeback in Australian schools – a strong future relationship between Australia and Indonesia depends on it. The new Labor government might be just that chance.