ASILE conference presentation:
Indonesian – A Strategic Choice
Warnings about the disappearance of Bahasa Indonesia from Australia’s schools turn out to be premature. The Internet and Skype calls have given a new dimension to classroom teaching, bringing students face to face (on screen) with Indonesian counterparts. The increasing sophistication of Indonesia’s public discourse, its academic life, the deepening of its modern literary output, and its ever-morphing popular culture provide plenty of bahan for higher level studies. Yet it’s undeniable that student numbers are low, a fraction of the peak levels two decades ago. School principals and university deans eye shrinking enrolments as opening for cost savings. The cohort of teachers who graduated in the 1970s is hitting retirement. Despite the embrace of the “Asian Century” by Labor, or the Coalition’s “Jakarta not Geneva” slogan, neither side have put sufficient money where their mouth is, with Asian language study. One recent high-level panel came up with Chinese and Italian as priorities. Others yielded broader wish-lists. The problem is: none of our politicians want to make a strategic choice, for fear of upsetting ethnic lobbies, because they don’t wish to irk parents with “hard” subjects, and because they know it will be costly. Politicians who insist making maths, English, computer coding or their favourite strand of history mandatory in schools shrink from doing the same with foreign language. But as well as adding to the national skill base, a widespread familiarity with a foreign language says something about a nation’s place in the world and its relations with its neighbours. Given the lack of alternative among the multiplicity of Indigenous and Melanesian languages, the choice of Bahasa Indonesia as the foundation foreign language for Australian schools is obvious. That it is readily accessible in pronunciation, grammar and script is a bargain. Our governments should make Bahasa Indonesia a universal school subject, at least at primary school level where quick fluency is more easily attainable. More resources, including teacher exchanges with Indonesia, in-country study, and clever use of the Internet will speed up the classic blackboard/textbook plod.
Indonesia (via then Portuguese Timor) was Hamish’s first solo trip overseas after finishing his BA at Sydney University and a journalist cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald. After five more years as a reporter with the SMH he went back to Jakarta as a freelancer at the beginning of 1975 and stayed until mid-1978, covering events including the Pertamina crisis, the invasion of Timor, and the 1977 elections. He came back to Sydney and wrote Suharto’s Indonesia before heading out to assignments in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and New Delhi for the SMH and the Far Eastern Economic Review. He rejoined the SMH as foreign editor in 1997, just in time for the Asian financial crisis, the fall of the New Order, and the emergence of Timor-Leste when he travelled frequently back to Indonesia. With three years in Beijing as its correspondent, he stayed with the SMH as Asia-Pacific Editor until October 2012. He now writes a weekly column on international affairs for The Saturday Paper. Among his more recent books is Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century.
The Saturday Paper