Twenty-year old John Steele is just one of almost one million Australians who traveled to Indonesia last year.
But like the majority of his fellow travelers, he never got beyond the allure of beaches and booze in Bali.
“It’s a cheap and easy option. A lot of people my age have gone [to Bali], or talk about going,” he said.
“Most Australians my age didn’t seem interested in finding anything out about Indonesian culture. The main attraction was partying, warm weather and the beach.”
In Australia’s government-commissioned white paper on Australia in the Asian Century, cultural understanding was identified as a key element to engagement in the region. But analysts claim that despite Indonesia being a favorite holiday destination for Australians, many have a critical lack of understanding of their closest Asian neighbor.
Ross Tapsell, a lecturer in Asian Studies from the Australian National University, said that Australians would benefit greatly from expanding their knowledge of Indonesia.
“We have so many Australians that travel to Bali each year and basically end up in Western enclaves,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had more Australians who wanted to venture out, make Indonesian friends, travel outside of Kuta and absorb more of what is a great country which is right on our doorstep.”
Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, agreed.
“I think Indonesia is an incredibly rich and culturally diverse country and I think that many Australians would find it very useful and enriching to be able to go beyond [Bali] to have a broader Indonesian experience,” he said in an interview.
While Moriarty said it was primarily up to the Indonesian government to promote destinations other than Bali, Australia as a neighbor could still play its part.
“Australian tour operators could also be a bit more creative in terms of the packages that they present to tourists,” he said.
In an interview with the Jakarta Globe, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari Elka Pangestu said that Indonesia was focusing on increasing awareness as well as the accessibility of destinations around the whole country.
“We’ve been saying ‘Beyond Bali’ for a long time, so this time it has to really happen,” she said. “We need to make sure that there is awareness, that there is the information and there is the connectivity.”
A common language
In a 2012 Australian government-commissioned report, David Hill from Murdoch University in Perth warned that Australia needed to improve its understanding of Indonesian culture and language, or face the danger of being left behind.
“Without reinvesting in Indonesian studies, Australia risks losing our comparative advantage and the consequent economic, political and strategic advantage that our previous expertise gave us in our relationship with Indonesia,’’ he wrote in the report.
Hill’s report found that Indonesian language study in Australia was in “crisis.”
He found that more final-year high-school students studied Indonesian in 1972 than in 2009. Between 2001 and 2010, Australian university enrollments in Indonesian nationally dropped by 37 percent, despite a 40 percent jump in the overall undergraduate population.
The report also showed that since 2001, school enrollments in Indonesian classes declined on average by 10,000 per year.
There are currently about 190,000 Australian students studying Indonesian at school, but according to Hill, the vast majority of them are still in the lower levels of school.
He said the drop came at a time when Australia should have been focusing more than ever on Indonesia.
“That enrollments grew during the Suharto dictatorship only to fall as Indonesia began democratizing after his fall in 1998 is ironic, and indicates a lost opportunity for engagement with a society opening up to the world,” he wrote in the report.
The latest white paper recognizes the need to reinvest in “Asian literacy,” but some analysts have criticized the lack of clear policy direction.
“The difficulty is, how do you implement this plan? And at the moment there hasn’t been specifics as to how the government is going to continue or adopt programs to make this plan work,” Tapsell said.
“They already cut the national Asian studies program and have said they want to do something bigger, so let’s see what the bigger program is and how it’s going to work.”
In a statement to the Jakarta Globe, ambassador Moriarty stressed the importance of Australians gaining a greater knowledge of their closest Asian neighbors.
“Popular Australian attitudes toward Indonesia more broadly suggest perceptions are still stuck in the past and could be refreshed,” he said.
“Education has a role. An objective of the white paper is to ensure that by 2025 every Australian student will have significant exposure to studies of Asia across the curriculum to increase their cultural knowledge and skills to enable them to be active in the region.”
Talk of increasing Australia’s “Asian literacy” is far from new. In 1994, then Prime Minister Paul Keating declared, “No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. If we fail to get this relationship right and to nurture and develop it, the whole web of our foreign relations is incomplete.”
As a result, Keating implemented the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools program in 1995. It focused on increasing students’ abilities to become familiar with the language and culture of four key neighbors: Japan, Korea, China and Indonesia.
The strategy outlined in the 2012 white paper replaces Korea with India.
Tapsell sees the dramatic drop in Asian language studies since the mid-90s as a result of the policies of the conservative coalition led by Prime Minister John Howard that governed Australia from 1996 to 2007.
“It’s been steadily declining since 1996 and I think you can put that down largely to the federal government at the time, the Howard government, placing less of an emphasis on Asian languages and in particular Indonesian language. There hasn’t been as much support for it as there should have been,” Tapsell said.
He stressed the need to find a way for students to become engaged in Indonesian studies.
“It’s no use saying we need more Australians speaking Indonesian, we need to give them reasons as to why they should be interested in Indonesia and develop content which flourishes that interest,” he said.
“For example, make sure that if we’re doing a subject on volcanoes in primary school, let’s use the example of Indonesian volcanoes.”
Australia has long been a destination for Indonesians studying overseas. Currently, there are an estimated 15,000 Indonesians studying in Australia who provide $500 million to the economy, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Indonesia is the largest recipient of Australian foreign aid with A$574 million ($594 million) being provided from 2012 to 2013, with the largest component of the program supporting education.
As part of the Australian government’s aid program, each year around 400 full scholarships are issued to Indonesian postgraduate students to complete their master’s or PhD in Australia.
Past alumni of these awards include Vice President Boediono and Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa.
Hill pointed out in his report that while this meant the Indonesian government had an ability to understand Australia, no member of the Australian government could lay the same claim to understanding Indonesia.
Greg Moriarty acknowledged via e-mail that the number of Indonesians studying in Australia is, “disparate to the number of Australians enrolled in Indonesian institutions.”
In his report, Hill found that between 2007 and 2011, an average of only 53 Australian students per year enrolled in a study program of one semester or more at an Indonesian university.
“Consequently, the Australian community largely misses out on the tremendous assets in language competence and political and cultural awareness brought back by students returning from ‘in-country’ study in Indonesia,” he said in the report.
Following the 2002 Bali bombings, the Australian government issued travel warnings for Indonesia. Australian citizens were advised to “reconsider your need to travel” to Indonesia. This warning was lowered to “exercise a high degree of caution” in May 2012.
Hill’s report found that 10 years of travel warnings had significant impact on people-to-people links.
“Schools find they cannot get travel insurance for student language study trips, and have little choice but to cease school exchange visits,” he wrote.
The 2012 white paper set out an objective to increase the numbers of Australian students studying abroad in Indonesia.
Currently, Europe and North America are the most popular destinations for Australian students choosing to study overseas.
In a bid to address this disparity and improve “Asian literacy,” the Australian government announced that it would offer $37 million through the AsiaBound scheme. The scheme aims to send 10,000 Australian students abroad and increase the number of students studying in Asia.
However, it was recently revealed that specialist university consortiums and private firms will be excluded from receiving the grants.
This despite the fact that the white paper singled out the university-led Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies, as “a successful model for in-country learning.”
In a bid to strengthen people-to-people links between the two countries, the Australian government recently staged the inaugural Australia-Indonesia Youth Dialogue in Jakarta.
At the dialogue, young Australians and Indonesians gathered together to discuss how cultural links and understanding could be strengthened.
One suggestion was to ease the process for young Australians to obtain permits to work in Indonesia.
Bede Moore, director of Indonesian operations for the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association, said he hoped an accessible working holiday visa would be made available.
“The biggest difficulty for us is having some sort of flexible visa that you can easily apply [for] so that you can come and work up here,” he said.
“From my understanding, there is a working visa that you can have for both Australia and Indonesia that’s already been agreed on, but people are struggling to get access to that.”
Outside of his work for AIYA, Moore is also an entrepreneur. He said that reducing the bureaucracy involved in building a business could be an effective way to strengthen ties.
“People who do what I am doing, you really build a knowledge of what the host country is like and that inspires an empathy which I think is really important for foreign relations,” he said.
As part of Indonesia’s latest bid to increase tourist numbers, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari said that as part of Indonesia’s bid to increase tourist numbers, changes to the visa system are being considered, including the introduction of working holiday visas.
She said that working holiday visas have “been suggested, especially for Australian tourism. Backpacker holidays are normally two months, three months or sometimes maybe six months. So maybe longer visas for backpack travel or a holiday visa.”
“Because Australia already offers for Indonesia a work visa for one year, I think that’s maybe something we can explore also,” she added.
The Australian Embassy in Jakarta has also revealed future plans to strengthen cultural ties with Indonesia.
According to Moriarty, Australia in 2014 is planing to launch the largest cultural presentation ever made in Indonesia. It is set to cover arts and culture, sports, innovation, science and education.
“The value of the arts, culture and the creative industries in building and strengthening people-to-people links between Australia and countries in Asia is enormous,” Moriarty said via e-mail.
“Arts and cultural ties complement political and trade relationships, and can provide a platform for stronger social and economic ties.”
For Tapsell, the lack of Indonesian literacy in Australia has far-reaching consequences, including for diplomatic ties.
“There is an argument to suggest that a lot of the times we’ve got Indonesia wrong, occasionally we’ve had diplomatic incidents, and a lot of that could come down to greater understanding,” he said.
“There were some very poor comments made in the public realm when there was the ban on live cattle trade with suggestions that Indonesian Muslims didn’t know about proper ways to kill cattle and so I think having more Indonesian speakers and having more students who have specialized in Indonesian degrees should really be taken up by various government departments,” he added.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has visited Australia on official duties four times, more than any of his predecessors. In March 2010, he became the first Indonesian head of state to ever address the Australian parliament.
In his speech, Yudhoyono said a major challenge to the consolidation of the Australian-Indonesian relationship was to “bring a change in each other’s mind-set.”
“Even in the age of cable television and Internet, there are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country, or as a military dictatorship, or as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, or even as an expansionist power,” he said in the speech.
“The bottom line is that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to people-to-people contact, when it comes to appreciating the facts of each other’s national life.”
Still, for Bali visitor John Steele, he’s open to visit other parts of Indonesia and learn more about the nation’s culture.
He said that although he wondered about other destinations in Indonesia, most other travelers did not.
“I did think of other places but there wasn’t a lot of information regarding it and I was the only one who inquired about it,” he said.
“I feel like there is still so much more to the country than I have been exposed to.”
Daniella White is taking part in a program run by the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies. This article is part of a series focusing on relations between Indonesia and Australia.