Building bridges to Indonesia

5 May 2010

The disputes that occasionally break out between Indonesia and Australia sometimes obscure a greater truth: that the two Pacific neighbours are bound together by a wealth of common interests and needs.

From climate change and infectious disease to trade and business, there is much we can do together - and along the way, perhaps, we can improve the lives of people in both countries.

Yet from an Australian perspective, Indonesia has for many years been a stranger in the house next door. We recognise each other, we say hello in the street, but we don't really know each other very well.

And that is a great pity, because both countries have much to gain from a closer relationship. By learning and working together to deal with common issues, we can overcome differences and forge a prosperous future together.

In recent years there has been plenty of high-level contact, but the engagement has been largely dictated by events, with a focus on negative issues such as security, counter-terrorism, illegal fishing and people-smuggling.

Many Australians remain oblivious to the huge transformation that Indonesia has achieved in the past decade through the policies of Reformasi, which have brought remarkable economic and social stability in a short period.

More than that, Indonesia is now approaching the same take-off point from which China, India and South Korea have launched themselves in recent years, and it is no surprise that the US National Intelligence Council is predicting that Indonesia's economy will match that of individual European countries by 2020.

Against this background, why does it matter that a University of Sydney delegation headed by Chancellor Marie Bashir is visiting Indonesia this week for talks with university and government officials? What role does education have in helping Indonesia become a major player on the world stage?

It is my firm belief that the mutual understanding that comes through education and research links can be the basis for a deeper, lasting relationship. Education is a universal need, the starting point for advancement in any society, and it is central to the Indonesian government's development agenda.

At the University of Sydney we have set up joint research projects with Indonesian universities to study areas of universal concern such as public health, agriculture and the environment. There is much we can learn from each other through cooperation.

For example, the control of infectious disease is an issue that is confronting both countries. We know that Indonesia has had more cases of human-to-human transmission of avian influenza - bird flu - than anywhere else. Meanwhile in Australia we are facing up to the reappearance of diseases we thought had gone from our shores such as dengue fever.

At Sydney we have recently announced plans to build a multidisciplinary centre for research into emerging infections, the Sydney Institute for Emerging Infections and Biosecurity.

But we recognise that there is much we can learn from Indonesia, which has world-class expertise in avian flu and dengue fever, as well as in other areas of the management of emerging infectious disease.

In areas like this, cooperation makes sense. It establishes connections that are mutually beneficial. But most importantly, it builds up trust and respect between the two countries. That is a priceless commodity.

In visiting Jakarta, we also hope that we can give assistance to Indonesia in some of the current areas of concern facing its education system.

Big strides have already been made, such as the doubling in real terms of education spending between 2000 and 2006. Education now accounts for almost 20 per cent of total government spending, but the Indonesian government is keen to improve its knowledge infrastructure, and increase both the quality of higher education and the number of students entering universities and colleges.

The Australian government has stepped in with valuable development assistance, funding around half of Indonesia's school building program between 2006 and 2009. At the higher education level, we hope that our partnership will prove equally useful. The Australian university sector, including the University of Sydney, is familiar with many of the issues now facing Indonesia - the financial constraints, the need for wider access to university, and the need for quality accreditation, for example.

It should also be hoped that our visit can pave the way for a greater interchange of staff and students between the two countries. The number of Indonesian students coming to Australia fell between 2006 and 2008, and the number of Australian students going the other way remains disappointingly low at fewer than 100 per year. The numbers need to be increased. There is no better way to get to know a country than to study there. Students who have done it recall their experiences in education overseas as some of their fondest memories.

For the University of Sydney, and for Australia as a whole, developing a good relationship with Indonesia is a top priority. And happily, that sentiment is shared in Jakarta. Visiting the Australian Parliament recently, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said: "We are not just neighbours. We are not just friends. We are strategic partners. We are equal stakeholders in a common future, with much to gain if we get this relationship right and much to lose if we get it wrong."

Let's focus on what we share and work together to build that common future.

Professor John Hearn is Deputy Vice-Chancellor International of the University of Sydney and Chief Executive of the Worldwide Universities Network. He recently led a delegation of academics and senior officials from the University to Indonesia, where they had meetings with university and government representatives.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3191