The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, February 19, 2012


So near, so far

The figures on Australians learning Indonesian offer a sad commentary on neighborly respect.
Eight years ago 28 universities were teaching Indonesian. Now there’s only 15. About 99 per cent of children who start learning the language of the people next door quit before they finish school.
One woman is determined to reverse the trend.
Duncan Graham reports from Perth:

It started simply, just a social tennis club outing. Australian Karen Bailey wasn’t keen when her team mates suggested an end-of-season trip to Bali. The primary school teacher thought there were better ways to spend a vacation. She was 28, married with two children, settled in the job she’d wanted since she was five.

The year was 1987 and Bali was already overcrowded with hedonistic young Westerners.
“Everyone went there, so I didn’t want to,” she recalled. “I knew Bali was part of Indonesia but that was all.” However her friends jollied her along.

“After three days of culture shock I noticed one team member carried a little phrase book,” Ms Bailey recalled. “I saw how well he was interacting, and how people warmed to him.
“I thought about this back in Perth and later made a decision: I resolved I would learn Indonesian and I would teach the language. It was a gradual process but I got there.”

In fact much further. Twenty-five years on she’s the Asian Languages Consultant in the West Australian Department of Education and Training, and can even decode sinetron
(TV soap operas using Jakarta slang) though she finds the plots tiresome.

Mrs Bailey has just returned from Denpasar where she supervised a group of Australian teachers building their skills and knowledge. But it’s her voluntary work as founder and project
manager for Balai Bahasa Indonesia Perth that’s helping turn around the declining
interest in Indonesian.

It wasn’t always so.
The golden years were the 1990s. Japanese had been the Asian tongue of choice as Australians sought to interact with their important trading partner. But as Japan’s economic power waned,
so did interest in the language.

Indonesia, about to shake off the shackles of an authoritarian regime, was on the move.
It was time to reposition. Mrs Bailey became the president of the Westralian
Indonesian Language Teachers’ Association in 1994 when the organization had 30
members. Ten years later it had 184. The surge seemed unstoppable.

Sadly, no. The 1999 East Timor Referendum changed
the situation dramatically. Indonesians saw their southern neighbor interfering in the Republic’s internal affairs and assaulting the near-sacred Unitary State.
On the south shore of the Arafura Sea Australians reacted with horror at the brutality of military-backed militias refusing to accept the will of the majority and taking revenge on separatists.
Next was the 2002 Bali bomb, killing 202 people, including 88 Australians. The Indonesian
love affair was over. Who’d want to learn the language of bad losers and abusers of human rights? Never mind only a tiny minority offended and the issues were complex; the poisons of prejudice were swallowed by both sides.

Then came the political and industrial rise of China. Mandarin is now the must-have
language for enterprising students hoping to market their services internationally.
Funds? No worries. The Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute had the cash, following the model of European countries pushing their culture and languages abroad through organizations like Germany’s Goethe Institut and France’s Alliance Francaise.
An Australian government paper described Indonesian as ‘a language without a clearly articulated educational rationale that resonates with students, families and school communities’. It asked:
‘How does a ‘big’ language without a significant advocacy group arrest a steep decline?’
Cometh the moment, cometh the woman. Speaking at the Kongres Bahasa IX (the quinquennial conference on Indonesian language and literature) Mrs Bailey argued that Indonesia’s Balai
Bahasa (language centers) should spread overseas.

At Soekarno-Hatta she bumped into Perth vice-consul Suhendar. Over a coffee he became
infected by the Australian’s enthusiasm and promised consular support.
Balai Bahasa Indonesia Perth (BBIP) was formed in 2008 as a non-profit body to ‘assist Australians and Indonesians to interact more effectively … and strive to foster a positive attitude amongst the people of our two countries.”

BBIP was the first in the Commonwealth. Another has been formed in Canberra – other capitals are interested. Three years later the efforts of Mrs Bailey and her
colleagues have won a two-year Federal Government grant of AUD $ 380,000 (Rp
3.6 billion) to turn the tide.
Getting Australians to reappraise Indonesia won’t be easy. “I’ve been marking essays by students studying Indonesian,” Mrs Bailey said. “Several wrote that asylum seekers are Indonesians. (Refugees board Indonesian craft but are from Afghanistan, Iran, Burma and Sri Lanka.)
“The biggest obstacle is that many of my teaching colleagues don’t acknowledge that Indonesian is important. School leaders develop their perspectives from the media.
“As educators we shouldn’t be focusing on economics, but these factors are really
important; we tend to look over Indonesia to more distant countries. Yet we are so close and our lives so connected.”

BBIP is now running evening language classes at the Consul General’s office. Most students are adults planning business or adventurers seeking a richer travel experience.

Some teachers of Indonesian in WA are Malaysians, so the organization is bringing in Indonesian graduates to work as teaching assistants. Last year BBIP staged Perth’s first Indonesian film
festival featured with visits by actors like Derby Romero, star of Cinta di Perth (Love in Perth).
There’ll be more. Mid-year BBIP will take Australian principals on a tour of Java to spur their interest, and will sponsor Indonesian artists to work with local schools.

At the same time the unstoppable Mrs Bailey wants sister-city relationships established as bases for cultural exchanges.

“The Australian funding isn’t recurrent so I hope we’ll get Indonesian support in the future,” she said. “We can’t work Indonesia out if we can’t communicate.”
The tennis club trip has become a love-all match with the neighbors.
(First published in The Sunday Post, 19 February 2012)


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