Sound of Silence - the decline of Indonesian language literacy in Australia

The Australian Government "understands the immensity of the commercial opportunity in Indonesia" but the number of Australian high school students studying Indonesian has fallen by a massive 80% since 2002. Jack Allen suggests the Indonesian government and its diplomats and trade and investment agencies in Australia should now "emphasise that continued collaboration must entail language learning". 

Photo by Lynn D. Rosentrater from Flickr.

REMEMBER Simon & Garfunkel’s ballad “The Sound of Silence”? It bemoans those who enter a conversation to advance their own views without genuinely attempting to understand the ideas expressed by another.

As student of Bahasa Indonesia for over ten years, it’s something I’ve frequently observed within the Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship. Australian captains of industry and government ministers expect they can speak to Indonesians in English – rarely do Australians show any commitment to speaking with Indonesians.

In in my view, a commitment to speaking with someone – entering a genuinely reciprocal conversation – requires a basic preparedness to hear them in their own authentic voice. That is, in their own language. On this, Australia has failed.

Australia’s declining Indonesian proficiency

Indonesia is one of Australia’s nearest neighbours. And yet, despite this proximity and the attendant opportunity for intercultural and commercial exchange, the rate of Indonesian language fluency in Australia has stagnated. In fact, it’s in freefall.

According to a paper published by the University of Western Australia, the number of Australian high school students studying Indonesian has fallen by a massive 80% since 2002. Even those who do finish high school with Indonesian have only 12 universities to choose from should they wish to continue their studies, down from as many as 22 at the turn of the century.

While the opportunity cost of low Indonesian literacy rates is uniquely significant, Australia’s linguistic malaise is not confined to Indonesian. The number of Australian students studying any language other than English now sits well below 10%. Contrasted with the average European or Southeast Asian – who typically speaks 2-3 languages – Australians seem a parochial bunch.

Why is this the case in a nation of immigrants otherwise proud of its multicultural heritage? It’s a simple by-product of history. For Australia, the post-war liberal democratic world was underpinned by the strength and sway of the American hegemon and, before that, the British Empire. Having the good fortune of being raised with the language spoken by the guarantors of the global world order – English – Australia could speak at the tables of global decision makers without consulting a bilingual dictionary.

Indonesia is finding its voice

But that paradigm is rapidly changing. Many see the US as retreating from Asia, despite President Obama’s once-feted “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. That retreat would probably only be accelerated should Trump be elected again later this year.

While America retreats, other Asian powers – China most obviously – are rapidly moving to assert their dominance through a mix of soft and hard-edged diplomacy.

Economically, established economies like Australia, South Korea and Japan are saddled with crippling amounts of debt and a rapidly shrinking tax base as their populations age and birth replacement rates plummet. In contrast, ASEAN nations are surging. 

More than 50% of Indonesia’s population are millennials and Gen Z, compared with just under 40% of Australia’s population. A steady fertility of 2.19% (compared with Australia’s sub-replacement rate of 1.63%) ensures a burgeoning economy will enjoy a steady pipeline of increasingly educated and productive citizens. 

"As Indonesia’s stature grows, Australian ears will need to attune themselves to Indonesian voices on the global stage – and be able to talk with them"

With clear whole-of-economy pathways for further growth outlined in the “Golden Indonesia” strategy, it’s no wonder Indonesia is expected to become the 4th largest global economy by 2045.

On the geopolitical front, Indonesia is also emerging as a global leader capable of filling a void left by increasingly isolationist established powers. Through his attempted mediation in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Defence Minister and President-elect Prabowo Subianto has shown that an unaligned Indonesia may emerge as an active proponent of realpolitik solutions to global conflicts.

In combination, these realities demonstrate that Indonesia is becoming a nation that will want to speak – not be spoken to – on the global stage. And like major economic and geopolitical powers before it, Indonesia has a right to demand that it be heard in its own authentic voice. Australians and others in the community of English-speaking nations must wake up to this reality.

Where to from here?

What is the solution? I see two pathways forward.

At a nation-to-nation level, the Indonesian government and its representatives in Australia – including the Embassy, Consuls-General, Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) and the Indonesian Investment Authority (INA) – should nominate Indonesian language literacy as a strategic priority for the bilateral relationship.

The Australian government’s eagerness to conclude the comprehensive economic partnership (IA-CEPA) is proof that Australia understands the immensity of the commercial opportunity in Indonesia.  But the Indonesian government should emphasise that continued collaboration must entail language learning. This would show that Australia really does take the relationship seriously and is committed to maintaining and even building it. Such an expectation, if communicated tactfully, might be the prod that Australia’s governments and policy makers need to revitalise our woeful rates of language learning.

Nations in the European Union have enjoyed the closest form of economic cooperation, namely a shared currency and economic customs union, for close to 30 years. But that doesn’t mean a French person expects to build meaningful ties in Germany by speaking French. On the contrary, the polylingual mentality of Europeans preceded and then strengthened the development of economic collaboration.

But it is people and not parliaments that build lasting relationships. The second pathway is for Indonesian thinkers, creators, innovators, and start-up entrepreneurs. Be it apps, business or professional exchanges, education centres, or any other idea – Australia needs you. There are people here who want to grow Bahasa Indonesia, who better to guide and help us than native-speakers? In return, Australia can add value to the Indonesian economy, especially in education and services.

It doesn’t matter how, but change needs to happen. As Indonesia’s stature grows, Australian ears will need to attune themselves to Indonesian voices on the global stage – and be able to talk with them. The time to act is now, because if Australia does not, a once-promising friendship and conversation may be nothing more than – in the words of that song – the sound of silence.


Jack Allen is a policy and communications expert with years of experience across politics, financial services, trade and the law. Majoring in Indonesian within his law and arts degree from Monash University (during which he completed an NCP placement in Indonesia), He has an ongoing interest in trade issues across the ASEAN region.

First published at Indonesia at Melbourne.