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Australia's Indonesia literacy in decline

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COMMENTS

8 March 2012 15:37

Arjuna Dibley and Rachelle Cole are from the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association. Both have lived and worked in Jakarta.

Last week, just hours after the remarkable Rudd-Gillard face-off in the Labor Party caucus room, another event at Parliament House went largely unnoticed. A group of the country's leading intellectuals, business people, political leaders (mainly from the Coalition), and non-government advocacy groups met to discuss the appalling state of Indonesian language learning in Australia, and what this means for our relations with our closest Asian neighbour.

The discussion was built around the presentation of a two-year study on language learning in Australian universities carried out by Professor David Hill of Murdoch University and was designed to feed into the Ken Henry White Paper into Australia in the Asian Century.

Hill's Federal Government-funded review paints a bleak picture: there were fewer Year 12 students studying Indonesian in 2009 than there were in 1972, and university enrolments in Indonesian language fell nationally by 40% between 2001 and 2010.

These appalling figures have been reported in the press for some time, and so should come as no surprise. What is less often discussed is the tangible impact it has for Australia's interests in Indonesia. The Australia-Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA) has recently conducted research for its submission to the Henry Asian Century paper on the impact of Indonesia-literacy on our engagement with Indonesia.

Australians are at a disadvantage in certain business sectors if they don't have sufficient language skills. AIYA's submission quotes an Indonesian-speaking respondent who worked at a commercial law firm in Jakarta with a non-Indonesian speaking supervisor. The respondent noticed that clients and staff would often switch to Indonesian in the middle of meetings to discuss negotiating strategies and even complain about the supervisor.

Where individuals are equipped with in-depth knowledge about Indonesia, they are able to work in the Indonesian economy in new and creative ways. AIYA's submission includes the story of Jess Dunn, a young Australian who studied Indonesian throughout her degree, including periods of study and voluntary work in-country.

Through discussions with her Indonesian friends and colleagues, Jess noticed that enormous number of motorcycle riders in Indonesia were not able to secure their helmets properly. Using her skills as an industrial designer, Jess designed and developed a prototype of a safe foldable motorcycle helmet able to be carried around in a small personal bag. After winning design awards for the prototype, Jess is considering commercialising the design in Indonesia's enormous market.

Yet Australian employers often do not value or do not make use of employees with Indonesian-literacy skills. For instance, 40% of AIYA's respondents found that their Indonesian literacy was not valued by employers when they applied for jobs, with several employers considering this a strange area of study.

The Australian Government was often reported as an exception to this rule. However, while several respondents reported that Government employed people with Indonesia literacy, they often mismanaged these skills, leading to individuals with Indonesian expertise working on issues not related to Indonesia.

In January this year, then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd gave a speech about the value of Indonesian language learning for the future of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Rudd was clearly passionate and encouraged the Indonesian language learners in the room to continue to develop their skills.

It's a pity that the actions of his party just a few weeks after he gave this speech have detracted from the publicity that should have surrounded the Hill report. Hopefully, Henry was not distracted by the political in-fighting and will consider this issue of great importance for Australia's engagement with its nearest neighbour.

Photo by Flickr user Kenski1970.

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