Getting more students into Indonesia
At last Australia has got a guernsey, as we say, meaning we’ve scored a place in the Indonesian presidential debate, albeit late and brief.
Both candidates made inoffensive statements about the relationship between an over-populated archipelago and a near-empty continent during their third debate. Joko Widodo (Jokowi) said the issue was trust, which is true. This is a fragile quality that has to be earned, not bought, or even wished into existence by a politician.
Prabowo Subianto said Australians suffer from Indophobia, which is also correct - though the more appropriate word migh be ‘Islamophobia’. News about Indonesia frequently opens with the line ‘the world’s most populous Islamic nation’ so ‘Indonesia’ and ‘Islam’ are regularly conflated in the electorate’s mind.
Either way the zephyr from the Great South Land that’s been rustling the leaves in Menteng was a sigh of relief, not a climatic event. Neither candidate had used the moment to start a fresh round of Australia bashing.
Unless an Aussie druggie gets executed before 9 July, West Papuans land in Darwin seeking asylum or spies are caught bugging cellphones, it seems relationships between Jakarta and Canberra will be too far down the candidates’ lists to warrant spending further breath.
The debate could not have given a clearer example of the differences between the two nations. In last year’s Australian election campaign Liberal leader Tony Abbott declared his foreign policy would be “less Geneva, more Jakarta.”
Before he’d had time to sink back into the leather of the Prime Minister’s limo he was deplaning at Soekarno-Hatta. At the time stopping Indonesian-flagged asylum-seeker boats was the boiling issue in Australia, though tepid for most Indonesians.
Now the presidential candidates, having already canvassed issues as diverse as the weight of military tanks through to encouraging animation, have got around to discussing their wary neighbor and the need for mateship. Sadly neither man has offered any firm ideas on meeting these laudable hopes.
Last year former Australian PM Julia Gillard announced her Asian Century policy. This included encouraging young Australians to study in Southeast Asia so the next generation won’t suffer from the phobias articulated in the TV debate.
Now Ms Gillard is political history only remnants of her policy remain. Welcome the New Colombo Plan which offers scholarships and grants of up to AUD $5,000 (Rp 57 million) for undergraduates to study in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
It’s a fine idea though so far a total of only 300 grants have been offered. Just five of the 40 full scholarships announced so far will be used in Indonesia. More will follow and the number of countries will expand in what Australia likes to call the Indo-Pacific Region.
Australian academics report their students are keen on Indonesia, but frustrated by cumbersome visa procedures. Applicants are treated as workers needing a Kartu Izin Tinggal Terbatas (KITAS Limited Stay Visa). Their cases are handled by the Department of Manpower.
This means a humble undergraduate seeking to bolster her language skills in a cramped Yogya classroom is handled like a foreign CEO wanting to run a multinational atop a Jakarta high rise and needing to persuade authorities that a local can’t do the job.
Last year more than 17,000 Indonesians were enrolled in Australian teaching institutions. The imbalance is appalling: Though the numbers are inching up, fewer than 500 Australians are studying in Indonesia, against 2,000 in China.
Professor David Hill, director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), said it takes up to four months “and a very substantial bureaucratic effort” to get a visa.
"This makes it difficult for students wanting to negotiate their own way into Indonesian schools and universities, he said.
During the detail-free TV debate Jokowi talked about prioritizing diplomacy “through education and culture.”
Have the candidates’ back-room policy wonks got no creative proposals? How about reversing and going beyond Australia’s commendable, though tiny, New Colombo Plan by offering unlimited student visas to young Australians willing to enrol in Indonesian schools and universities – and fast track the procedures?
In the archipelago they could learn their neighbor’s culture and language, tuition that’s getting harder to find in their homeland as enrolments tumble and courses close.
Two years ago Professor Hill told the Australian government that if the decline in teaching Indonesian continues, expertise in Indonesia will be extinct within ten years. Where better to study the language than in the Republic?
Jokowi talked about “P to P” relationships. Presumably P = People and not poultry or potatoes, though in politics any interpretation is possible.
Here’s P for Plan - a chance for Indonesia to seize the initiative, kick aside the bureaucratic barriers and invite Australians to study here. Imagine - Indonesia as an income-earning education destination, not a departure lounge. Wouldn’t that build trust and help eliminate the phobias?