Author: Muhammad Beni Saputra, UIN Sulthan Thaha Saifuddin Jambi
Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s address to the Australian Parliament in February 2020 reiterated that Indonesia and Australia cannot choose their neighbours and that their proximity is destiny. For these reasons both nations have worked to underscore the utility of mutually beneficial bilateral relations for 70 years, despite ups and downs. Yet despite stronger people-to-people connections and academic ties, Indonesia’s commitment to the relationship is less robust than Australia’s.
The Australian government sponsors many cultural immersion activities dedicated to Australians and Indonesians, including exchanges to scholarships. Through these programs Indonesian youth, teachers, journalists, researchers and activists are invited to Australia every year to build a personal connection with Australia and its people. Many Australians are regularly sent to Indonesia to study Indonesian culture and languages.
While Indonesia also contributes to some of these schemes, the level of importance put on them and the number of programs offered are unmatched with those from Australia. Indonesia only gives financial support to the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP) — of which I am an alumnus — and it is merely for the Indonesian part of the program. Besides AIYEP there are almost no Indonesian government-funded initiatives available for Australians to visit Indonesia.
Australia’s intention to understand Indonesia goes beyond people-to-people exchanges. In the academic sphere, Australia’s leading universities offer Indonesian studies and are active in initiating scholarly debates on Indonesia. This is not to mention the social, economic and political analyses on Indonesia frequently provided by other Australian academic institutions, organisations and think tanks.
In Indonesia, there are few universities that operate Australia-focussed research centres or offer Australian studies programs. Some Indonesian universities have other country studies programs on distant nations such as Japanese literature or American studies but overlook Australian studies. This low level of academic engagement with Australia is sub-optimal given the importance of the Indonesia–Australia bilateral relationship to both countries.
Unlike Australia, which has provided Indonesian language and cultural learning to school students since the 1950s, Indonesian students are never given similar opportunities to engage with Australian culture. It should not be surprising when Indonesian pupils still do not know that Australia is their close neighbour.
Australia also has an abundance of notable and authoritative experts on Indonesia whose scholarship has contributed immensely to the development of Indonesia-related academic topics. In Indonesia, there are few people with deep expertise on Australia. Many students of these Australian scholars have and are filling crucial positions across Indonesian universities, government institutions, research centres and even the presidential palace like the Australian-educated former Indonesian vice president Boediono. The works of these scholars are oftentimes must-read materials on Indonesian campuses and among academics who wish to comprehend Indonesia.
Indonesian experts writing about Australia are mostly inward looking. Their research is dominated by topics focussed on Australia’s positioning on Indonesia. Many Indonesian professors in Australian universities do not specialise in Australian politics or economic studies. It is not unusual that there are few research works written by Indonesians on Australia that reach the same high academic standards as Australian academics. It is not astonishing that Indonesia lacks scholars like Australia’s Lance Castles, M C Ricklefs or Herbert Feith whose academic dedication to and works on Indonesia are highly respected.
It is high time for the Jokowi administration to demonstrate a strong commitment to furthering ties between Indonesians and Australians and to encourage Indonesian academics to study Australia. Sponsoring more Australians to come to Indonesia will build cultural awareness and strong personal connections. In the long run, this will be beneficial for Indonesia.
Australian studies, which used to be offered at the University of Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s, needs to be revived and opened in other universities. Indonesia has sufficient human capital for this mission: thousands of Indonesian students have and are currently studying in Australian universities. With more scholars, study centres and organisations devoted to the study of Australia, Indonesia will not only contribute to international discussion on Australia, but will understand its neighbour much better.
Studying Australia will intensify scholarly visits to and from Indonesia. It will give more chances for academics from both countries to increase research collaboration. These activities will raise critical academic insights on Australia among Indonesia’s top leaders. Indonesia’s deportations of or visa bans on researchers, affecting some Australian scholars, should not happen again. It is disappointing for the academic community that political sentiments unnecessarily hinder progress on mutual understanding.
Jokowi is right that Indonesia and Australia are geographically inseparable. But relations between the countries must be rebalanced and should move beyond business as usual. Indonesia will never fully understand Australia if it is only Australia that plays an active role in tying the knot between Australians and Indonesians. Indonesia needs to apply its famous expression tak kenal maka tak sayang (you don’t know what you don’t love) to relations with Australia.
Muhammad Beni Saputra is a lecturer at the Sultan Thaha Saifuddin State Islamic University Jambi (UIN STS Jambi).
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