Australian studies and its growth in Indonesia

As a student of Indonesian studies in Australia I often participated in discussions over lunch about the latest developments in Indonesia.

It was always good to be joined by Indonesian friends who were doing their postgraduate studies. It was quite funny for me at the time but they did not say much and seemed to squirm about some of the views being put forth by the Australian academics and Australian postgraduate students. I never quite understood why they seemed to disagree with these views being put forth as they usually seemed quite sensible to me.

I finally got my answer at a grand meeting of Indonesian experts on Australia at the University of Indonesia at Depok in the early 1990s. In the middle of some very interesting presentations by these Indonesians, who were experts on Australia, about the factors driving republicanism in Australia, strangely I found myself squirming uncomfortably. I suddenly started laughing to, or actually at, myself. This, I suspect, is exactly how my Indonesian friends in Australia used to feel – and for the same reason. What these Australianists from Indonesia were saying did make sense but they explained and understood things in a way that I, as an Australian, was not used to hearing or understanding as discourse on Australia.

At that moment I realised the great value not just to Indonesia but also to Australia in having a group of people who had expertise in understanding Australia but from a very fresh perspective to those of us raised in Australia itself. It also helped me see the genuine potential of my studies on Indonesia to help Australians better understand Indonesia.

In late June the National University in Jakarta launched a new Center for Australian Studies (CFAS).  The founding head of the CFAS is Harry Darmawan, S.Hum, M.Si.

I had the pleasure to visit Universitas Nasional (UNAS) recently to meet with Mr Darmawan and the head of the International Relations Study Program at UNAS, Dr Irma Indrayani, SIP, M.Si, together with CFAS secretary Gulia Ichikaya Mitzy M.A and head of Research and Publications Mr Hamsah M.Pd.

My first question was why they decided to establish an Australian Studies Centre. Mr Darmawan suggested that “a better framing of the issue was to note that there was no reason why there should not be an Australian Studies Centre in Indonesia. Taking into account the diplomatic, social, cultural and historical as well as political and economic factors, it is clear there is a need for Indonesia to be home to places where knowledge about Australia is strong. As a graduate of Australian Studies at UI, where there used to be an Australian Studies Centre, I thought why not house a new centre here at the Universitas Nasional”.

We discussed further the origins and hopes for the centre. Dr Indrayani noted the CFAS was created within the faculty but actually reports directly to the rector of the university. The hope is the centre will be able to pull thinkers from across study programs to look at Australia. We all noted the range of people who had been engaged in the actual launch event including the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, H.E. Kristiarto Legowo the new Deputy Ambassador of Australia to Indonesia, Steve Scott, as well as long term stalwarts of promoting Australian Studies in Indonesia, namely Prof David Reeve from USW and Dr Richard Chauvel from Melbourne University.

Members of CFAS
Image credit: CFAS

In response to a question, Mr Darmawan noted the range of activities in which the CFAS sought to be active included joint research, joint or double degrees, lecturer and student exchanges and professorial visits, research publication and conferences, internships, curriculum development, post-graduate collaboration and graduate placements.

Mr Darmawan explained he had conducted some research on the number of campuses across Indonesia that taught about Australia, noting that thus far he had found about 80. This range of campuses stretched from Aceh through to Papua. These included state universities and institutes, private universities and colleges as well as state Islamic tertiary centres.

The range of faculties and departments in which courses were taught included history, international relations, political science, literature and teacher education together with a little interest on law and the economy often included as a lecture within a larger course subject. Dr Indrayani noted they had also come across a campus that included material in biology related to Australia. I noted this was very interesting and of course relevant considering the similarity in biology and wider ecology between eastern regions of Indonesia and Australia.

I noted from my own review of coursework on Australian across Indonesia there seemed to be a popular subject in several history departments in many campuses of a subject called “the History of Australia and Oceania”, and assumed at some time a group of academics came together to produce this subject. Mr Darmawan added there are many campuses in Sumatra that have been using this course for several years. He noted there was a need for more contemporary reference materials to keep the course work fresh. This was difficult to find. I noted I was a little surprised to see no work on Australia by Indonesian anthropologists suggesting this was one science where there might be scope for academic engagement about Australia.

Harry Darmawan, S.Hum., M.Si
Image credit: CFAS

Mr Darmawan noted the CFAS was also looking to play the role of a hub connecting these various tertiary education centres across Indonesia that deliver subjects or lectures on Australia. Ideally this would include having a key partner campus in each of the country’s 34 provinces. Creating a wider network of campuses would allow each academic, who may be a sole researcher on Australia in their campus, to better network with colleagues from other regions. It would also allow for better engagement of academics from across disciplines.

We also discussed the idea of how the CFAS could link with centres of Australian studies in Australia as a means of strengthening the connectivity on Australian studies in both countries.

Mr Darmawan noted another activity being undertaken was a video competition among students at senior high school level in which the students provide information on what they know of Australia. He suggested the current generation were clearly better informed than was the earlier generation. He was hoping that this kind of engagement might become one of the activities of community outreach that the CFAS could promote into the future.

Separately I contacted Dr Chusnul Mar’iyah, a former Commissioner with the Indonesian Elections Commission and convener of the course on Australian Politics at the University of Indonesia. In response to a question, Dr Chusnul explained she was initially one among six post-graduates sent to Australia to study about matters related to Australia. She chose to focus on urban politics in Australia seeing this as a useful point of entry to compare with other nations. She noted there were many orientalists from the West but there were few from Indonesia who actually studied the West.

For Dr Chusnul this was a good challenge. As to her students she noted that many go on to work in civil society,  the private sector and others into government including some who enter the Indonesian diplomatic service. Their studies on Australia would be a valuable asset to them in many fields. She also noted that her studies on Australian politics were often deployed when she was with the Elections Commission such as creating the Tally Room facility where media, politicians and civil society could come together to discuss emerging results. In addition Indonesian media outlets often contact her to help explain political developments such as elections and other major political developments in Australia.

I have long been a strong proponent of more Australian studies in Indonesia based on many of the same reasons why I support Indonesian studies in Australia. A generation ago the idea of an Australian Studies Centre would take the form of a bricks and mortar facility in a university or a network of such buildings across the nation. Advances in technology suggest that much less expensive options are available that connect researchers and lecturers with interest in Australian studies. By connecting people across institutions and provinces it is much more feasible to create a critical mass of experts in any discipline or ideally across disciplines that bring their own different perspectives to bear when trying to research and better understand Australia.

Picture of Kevin Evans

Indonesia Director
The Australia-Indonesia Centre

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