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

Friday, October 07, 2016


Love me, love my language                                                      
The Central Intelligence Agency’s human resources section doubtless had a busy summer clicking through undergraduate language enrolments.  Much the same was underway in Britain at the Joint Intelligence Committee.
When the students eventually get to toss their mortar boards in the air, the CIA and JIC will be calculating: Will there be enough speakers of Arabic, Chinese and Russian to fill upcoming vacancies for spooks and diplomats?
The rule of tongue is that one in five foreign language starters will graduate with high level fluency.  As around 35,000 have chosen Arabic in the US this year, the catchment area by decade’s end should be about 7,000.
Not a lot when few will fancy a career spooling through days and nights  of blurred closed-circuit TV tapes  just to spot the second when the missile codes change hands.
But that Arabic talent pool is an inland sea when compared to the Indonesian puddle. For currently only 300 American students have an interest in the language used in the world’s fourth most populous country, (250 million), plus Malaysia’s 30 million next door.
US foreign affairs strategists recognize that the biggest economy and largest nation in Southeast Asia is of critical global importance.  Indonesia straddles the Equator and sees a third of the world’s shipping slip between its 17,000 islands.  The Republic’s geopolitical position and influence is particularly important in helping monitor Sino aggression in the South China Sea. 
All that seems reason enough to know terabytes more about the sprawling Archipelago, understand its history, culture and identity, its nationalistic strengths and military weaknesses.
However the responsibility of amassing the expertise to competently read regional moods, analyse trends and provide sound advice to policy makers has been outsourced to America’s ANZUS partners – Australia and New Zealand.
Maybe not such a smart idea. Kiwi universities no longer teach Indonesian cultural studies or the language.  That leaves NZ’s big sister, much closer to the former Dutch East Indies, as the one best suited to be sentinel.
Curiously the watchman has lost interest and started to slumber. A sharp prod is needed if the Great South Land is to keep its US Deputy Sheriff badge, awkwardly self-awarded by former Prime Minister John Howard.  That was when George W Bush was in the White House and the two men in lockstep over containing Middle East conflicts.
Once it was different.
Back in the 1970s Australians were encouraged to learn more about their northern neighbor, and not primarily for reasons of defence and trade.  They responded enthusiastically for the images were all benign – cheap holidays in knock-out landscapes, friendly folk, tolerant faiths and a heroic past glimpsed through mysterious temples and unique arts. 
Exotic Asia at the end of the aerobridge, breakfast in Perth and lunch in Denpasar with no wristwatch adjustments required. Wags claimed Bali had become a suburb of the Western Australian capital.
Specialists in Indonesian politics, history and culture joined Canberra’s Australian National University, Monash in Melbourne, Murdoch in Perth and other top campuses.
The traditional centres of excellence at Leiden in the Netherlands and Cornell in the US were being eclipsed by scholars in the Antipodes, often working with Indonesian post-graduates.
This rosy arrangement bloomed anew in 1998 when dictator Soeharto quit the presidency in the face of student fury at corruption, mismanagement and crushing of freedoms.  When calm returned the new nation set about reassembling itself as the world’s third largest democracy.
Then everything exploded.  Literally.
The 2002 Bali bomb planted by Islamic extremists shattered ideas of a peaceful Islam and killed 202 Kuta nightclubbers.  The majority were Australian.  Religious fanatics targeted Westerners in Jakarta where the Australian Embassy was hit by a one-tonne car bomb in 2004 with nine fatalities.  A year later more bombs in Bali killed 20.
Australians turned away from their neighbor and former friend, many in sadness, others in anger. How could this happen in the Island of the Gods?  Too late to remember that Hindu Bali is an aberration; the political pulse throbs in Islamic Java.
Australia knee-jerked by building a new fortress Embassy (see Strategic Review 4 April 2016) and issuing travel warnings.
The law of unforeseen outcomes then kicked in; educational tours by schools and universities were cancelled because insurance cover was either unavailable or too costly.
Youngsters had been drawn to a language which uses the Latin alphabet and considered by linguists to be relatively easy. Suddenly the kids were pushed to look elsewhere by anxious parents and confused career advisors.
Now only 1,000 high school seniors are pursuing Indonesian; the old standards of French, German and Italian have returned as favorites along with Japanese and Chinese to the distress of foreign policy planners, academics and writers who know what Australians are missing.
American born British educated epidemiologist and former Jakarta foreign correspondent Dr Elizabeth Pisani tells a story disclosing the real thinking about Indonesia driving decision-makings. 
Pisani is one of the most lucid and informed writers on Indonesia.  Her latest reviewer-acclaimed book Indonesia Etc: Exploring the improbable nation was published by Granta Books in Britain though originally offered to the Australian branch of the international conglomerate Macmillan.
In a clumsily worded and logically inconsistent rejection note, editor Alex Craig replied: “Despite our proximity to Indonesia, or perhaps because of it, there’s not a great deal of curiosity among Australians about it … it tends to fall under the zone of familiar rather than exotic.”
It seems self-evident, or as Australians say, a ‘no brainer’ not to be Asia-literate.  When old mates live far away in Europe and North America and the people next door outnumber you eleven to one it’s wise to wave, have a chat, share a joke and help keep the street clean. Simple gestures lubricate harmony – and can lead to trade.
Politicians say they deplore the decline but do little to arrest. Colin Barnett is the conservative (Liberal Party) Premier of Western Australia, a major supplier of wheat and meat to its giant neighbor. In Jakarta this year to talk trade Barnett said language is not so important because most meetings are held in English.
Educationalists and diplomats groaned in despair. 
On the other side of politics Chris Bowen, the Labor Party Federal shadow spokesman on economics, startled journalists this year by announcing he’s learning Indonesian, as though this was like nude tightrope walking – weirdly newsworthy.  It is: Only three federal politicians out of 226 are known to be fluent.
Also anxious at the decline are academics like Professor David Hill of Perth’s Murdoch University. He started the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) in 1994 to overcome ‘the substantial academic, bureaucratic, and immigration impediments that had prevented Australian students from undertaking credited semester study at Indonesian universities’.
Since then almost 2,000 have used ACICIS to learn while living in Indonesia – usually in rented rooms or boarding houses with the locals; they’ve returned with deep insights unavailable to deskbound learners in Australia.  Impressive?  That averages less than 100 a year from a country with more than a million undertaking tertiary education.
Indonesian has been classified by the Australian government as a Nationally Strategic Language.
The title sounds grand but only means that special federal funds can be given to universities teaching the topic.  Indonesian is not alone in this category; it includes Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese and Korean.
Despite this support Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Center of Indonesian Law at Melbourne University, told ABC Radio that if the current rate of decline continues Indonesian would not be an option at Australian universities within a decade.
“We're reaching a position where Germany may have more universities teaching Indonesian than Australia,” he said.  “Australia is the only western tradition country in Asia, yet it rates the lowest among all OECD countries by a long shot for second language skills.
“If current trends continue it may end up teaching very little Asian languages except to kids of an Asian background or context.”
Indonesian academic Ariel Heryanto works at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Languages.  It’s a prestige unit, internationally recognized. Yet staff cuts this year to meet lower budgets have further eroded Australia’s stockpile of language skills. 
Professor Heryanto told Strategic Review that travel warnings have been “only a small part of the story”.

“It is hard to make young Australians interested in learning Indonesian … unless that subject has some relevance to their daily life outside the school,” he said.
The Indonesian and Australian governments, plus some Indonesian communities, are trying to effect change.  The Australia-Indonesia Youth Association has branches around the country.  It’s funded by the Australian government through Foreign Affairs and Trade, and also runs the annual National Australia-Indonesia Language Awards.
In Sydney the Australia-Indonesia Association sponsors meetings, events and language competitions.  So does the Balai Bahasa Indonesia in Perth. There are similar groups in other major cities.
But Heryanto said he was “not aware of a sustained, large-scale, and strategic plan with long-term vision.
“The challenge is just too big and complex for ad hoc events and activities. The fruits of those recent attempts, if any, will not manifest anytime soon, or last long.
“Government and non-government efforts are always welcome, but they will not determine or guarantee success…it is unwise and unrealistic to take the unusual situation in the 1970s as a measure of success. All we can do is try to improve the situation gradually, with resilience, passion and patience.”
 The passion seems to have evaporated, while resilience and patience get tested every time there’s a crisis involving the two countries.
These are regular events.  In 2013 Australia was caught eavesdropping the phones of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and his wife Ani, a disclosure which opened serious diplomatic fractures, widened when Australia refused to apologize.
We don’t know what the couple said, but they were probably chatting in Javanese, which must have baffled the buggers. It’s an ancient, complex and hierarchical language with separate registers depending on the speaker and the person being addressed. It’s still widely used in homes, streets and markets.
Although Indonesian is the national formal language taught in all schools, for most it’s their second tongue. Founding president Soekarno argued with his revolutionary colleagues that if Javanese was imposed on the new Republic there’d be little chance of unity.
So trade Malay was chosen. The world would have been different had he selected English, a language he’d mastered. But that was never likely to happen; his distrust of the West was a major driver in his policy planning.
Good for goose, good for gander
While Australia is doing little to promote Indonesian language and culture, Indonesia is equally slack in getting to grips with English.
When mateship stalls at the standard street greeting of ‘Allo Mister’, whatever the foreigner’s gender, then communication collapses. 
Outside Jakarta’s elite offices and major universities quality English is rarely heard except among students from private high schools or language academies where parents pay heavily for native speakers as teachers.
The most prominent is English First a commercial franchise started in Sweden last century. It now has more than 60 branches in big cities.
Every year EF rates non English-speaking nations on their English proficiency based on on-line tests.  These claim Indonesia has ‘moderate proficiency’ with a rank of 32, below Vietnam but above Thailand.
The government-supported Indonesia-Australia Language Foundation which started in 1989 has only three centres.  It trains around 800 full timers a year, mostly serious students seeking overseas scholarships.
In the Indonesian State system English used to be compulsory in elementary schools.  Three years ago the government proposed a ban on English before high school. Deputy education and culture minister Musliar Kasim reasoned that classes should concentrate on the national tongue.
This caused a parent revolt. The compromise is that English is now an elective at elementary level.
Now most of the nation’s 50 million students first encounter the international language in junior high school; they have four hours of instruction every week, almost always from teachers who have never studied overseas.
There’s heavy reliance on grammar and rote learning.  Few kids graduate with confident communication skills and even fewer excited by the prospect of exploring further.
More than 50 percent of Indonesia’s 280,000 tertiary lecturers are unprofessional, according to Ali Ghufron Mukti, director general at the Research and Technology and Higher Education Ministry.
Public universities are restricted from employing native speakers while few private institutions offer money which would attract top teachers from overseas or even retain their own graduates. Salaries above Rp 10 million (US $750) a month are reported to be rare, even for PhDs.
For Professor Adrian Vickers in Sydney University’s Department of Southeast Asian Studies “the low standard of English remains one of the biggest barriers against Indonesia being internationally competitive.
“In academia, few lecturers, let alone students, can communicate effectively in English, meaning that writing of books and journal articles for international audiences is almost impossible.”
The facts support him: In the latest list of countries producing scholarly papers recognized by international academic institutions, Indonesia ranks 57, below Malaysia (35) and Thailand (43).
Lack of English is also threatening peace in the region where minor miscommunications can flare into major misunderstandings.  When Indonesian warships confront foreign vessels allegedly intruding into their seaspace they shout at each other in English
Five of the seven Indonesian presidents have been fluent in English. SBY (2004-14) isn’t a star turn in his homeland where he’s remembered as an indecisive figure, but in Australia he’s become an eminence grise delivering lectures – in English.
Presidents Soekarno, Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid were multilingual. The present President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has a halting grasp. He sent his sons to Singapore and Australia for their higher education.
Soft power diplomacy
In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set up in 1967, the language of communication among the 10 states is English, much to the anger of Indonesian nationalists who rightly point out that their tongue dominates the region.
If Indonesians want others to respect their language they need to do more than just rail against Western hegemony.
One of the best models of exporting culture is Alliance Francaise, the French government’s promoter of the language and everything from cuisine to culture.  Founded 133 years ago it now has branches across the world sometimes linked with consulates, as in Surabaya.
Helping the curious learn more about the French and the civilization they so strongly defend against foreign assaults is France 24 the TV station which curiously also offers an English language service in Indonesia.
The Germans have followed suit with Deutsche Welle another world-wide broadcasting service also funded by taxpayers.  As a non-profit network, programs flow smoothly, unrestricted by advertising breaks.  Schools teaching German can get showered with well-produced education materials
The most recent developer of soft diplomacy is the Chinese government through its Education Ministry.  Though only 12 years old the Confucius Institute has already had a major impact by working with education providers in other countries.
So far about 500 institutes have been established world-wide with the goal of a thousand by 2020.  The organization doesn’t just provide teaching materials; it also pays for native-speaker aides to work with classroom teachers.
Inevitably fears have been raised, particularly in the US that the CI is surreptitiously spreading communism, but so far there’s been no proof that the Institute is a political Trojan Horse.
Indonesia’s poor efforts in the game of turning overseas attitudes without using hard weaponry is Darmasiswa. This is a non-degree scholarship program run through the Department of Education and Culture.  It pays for courses at selected institutions in Indonesia.
Malang’s Malangkucecwara College of Economics [MCE] is one of 104 providers of a six-month Bahasa Indonesia bagi Penutur Asing (BIPA – Indonesian for Foreign Speakers) course.  This year students have come from Eastern Europe and Japan, though only one from the US.
By Western standards the monthly Rp 2 million (US$150) allowances are tiny though sufficient for basic living. The courses tend to attract determined polyglots unconcerned about personal comforts.
Although BIPA programs are available in some overseas countries, usually through diplomatic outposts, these offerings are just brief banner-wavings when compared to the cultural assaults of other nations.
The Indonesian news that gets onto screens and newspapers in the Anglosphere is rarely fun stuff.  Grim clips of floods and landslips, smog and traffic snarls, bizarre happenings involving politics, corruption, faith and justice combine to create an image of chaos and danger.
Indonesian artists, fashion designers (except those working with batik) and sports stars rarely get a Western following. Indonesia has no entertainment export like Korea’s K-Pop to excite the upcoming generation.
As Hollywood knows well films are an effective cultural thrust.  While heavily oppressed Iran has emerged as an active and creative film industry outside the mainstream, Indonesia cinema is largely blank.   The reasons include censorship, a dearth of skilled film makers as creative artists were distrusted during Soeharto’s 32-year reign, and low investment in the industry. 
Exceptions have been the ultra-violent box-office hits Serban Maut (The Raid) and its sequel The Raid 2.  Both featured the Indonesian martial arts of silat. They were directed by Welshman Gareth Evans
The works of the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a prolific writer who came close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, were banned in Indonesia till this century.
Indonesia has few TV documentaries and dramas to offer the world.  Its major outputs are sinetron (soap operas) produced by Indian-controlled companies.  These are based on formulaic acting and predictable scripts, pap even when measured against even the most crass sitcoms from the UK and the US. So no Indonesian versions of Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Mrs Brown’s Boys to help the world giggle and gasp.
Indonesian free-to-air TV is available to those within the footprints of satellites like Palapa D.  This includes Australia.  But there is no dedicated Indonesian international service designed to promote the nation’s culture and language.
As a handy distraction from more vital issues, nationalists regularly call for foreigners working in the Republic to be fluent in Indonesian.  Last year a regulation was drafted to compel testing.  The idea was widely denounced as impractical and rapidly evaporated – to the great relief of Australians.

(First published in quarterly Strategic Review October-December 2016)

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