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Know Indonesia, know thyself

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This post is part of the Australia-Indonesia relations debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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22 May 2012 11:39


This post is part of the Australia-Indonesia relations debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Ariel Heryanto is an Associate Professor of Indonesian Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

One fundamental issue has concerned me over and above the specific details about how to improve Australia-Indonesia relations being debated on the Interpreter. The number of Australians studying Indonesia has consistently declined. So, reportedly, has the overall number of bilinguals. Many have argued for extra efforts to alter the trend, but most of their rationales are short-sighted, focusing on short-term material gains.

More Australians should make a serious investment in learning about its giant neighbour, and seek the best possible outcome from it, namely self-understanding. It is not about collecting more or new knowledge about other people, or greater control over relations with them.

Most of us tend to think of knowledge or language as merely an instrument for use. The value is measured only by what it can do for us, instead of to us. Most think erroneously that mastering a second language ultimately leads to an ability to say the same

and familiar stuff, but in a different set of words and sounds. But in practice, language is participating in social relations in an extremely complex world of unequals. You cannot say you have mastered a new language if you have not discovered a brand new world, and your new self in it, through the experience of learning it.

The possibility that knowledge might transform the knower is either a foreign idea to many or too scary for some to contemplate, despite the abundant evidence throughout history. This is why conservatives in many parts of Asia feel apprehensive about the spread of language and knowledge from the West in their homeland. They want Western aid, science and technology, but neither any serious understanding of the West nor the Western lifestyles that Asian youths madly devour.

If learning 'others' is universally good and essential to self-understanding, these 'others' need not be Indonesians. For most Australians, however, what could be better than Indonesia (not just Bali, or Jakarta)? It is one most confronting and richly diverse 'others' in the region. It is located on Australia's doorstep, rendering it the most affordable path to self-discovery.

In Australia and Indonesia alike, people know more and still desire to know more about the world's two empires on the other side of the globe than about their immediate neighbours. Despite all the complaints about the status of Indonesian studies in Australia, actually the situation here is better than in Indonesia.The question 'Why should more Australians learn Indonesia?' annoys me at times, because I assume everyone should know better. But the reverse question, 'Should Indonesians learn more about Australia?' is unthinkable in Indonesia. This is despite the fact that more Indonesians stay for lengthy periods in Australia than the reverse.

Indonesia has been narrowly defined in discussions about Australia-Indonesia relations. Most frequently, knowing Indonesia means knowing only two small circles of people who are equally isolated from the vast majority. One is the nation's elite (in government and business), the other is the underground terrorist leaders.

Why these two? The former is expected to be instrumental to Australians' efforts to maximise their interests. The other hardens the long-standing presumptions about 'others', reaffirming that the self has been morally superior all along. Both help Australians resist the challenge of learning more seriously about the world, and ultimately knowing themselves better.

Photo by Flickr user PixelPlacebo.

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