How to become 'Asia literate'?

5 November 2012

'Associate Professor Michele Ford and Mr Sudaryomo Hartosudarmo
Associate Professor Michele Ford Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre and the former Indonesian Consul General Mr Sudaryomo Hartosudarmo.

Associate Professor Michele Ford, Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, is pushing for a fundamental rethink in how Australia approaches learning about some of our closest neighbours.

Last week, the federal government published its Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, which included a push for more learning of Asian languages in Australian schools and universities.

Ford, an expert in Indonesian industrial relations, welcomes this emphasis but says a more realistic goal in the short term - given the time it takes to learn a language - may be to increase knowledge of the region, which she says would itself bring profound benefits.

"We shouldn't just focus on learning a language," says Ford. "It's critical that we understand the region - and learning a language is one of the best ways to do that - but it's certainly not the only thing we should be doing."

"Our relationship with Southeast Asia has to become more multifaceted and robust," she adds. "Traditionally, the focus has been on economic relationships and security. These are still important but in order to deal with the big issues of our time, we have to have greater engagement and understanding."

Ford says a key way to encourage greater levels of 'Asia literacy' in Australian universities is integrating the study of Asia and Asian languages across the academic spectrum, including into vocational degrees like medicine, law and engineering.

The Sydney Southeast Asia Centre is helping to do just that by bringing together more than 200 academics, honoraries and research students from across the University.

"We have a real opportunity to show the Australian community the benefits of greater engagement with Southeast Asia," she says. "Our researchers are addressing real-world problems, such as management of the Mekong River, improving the productivity of livestock and analysing the impact of climate change," says Ford. "The centre helps us generate opportunities for collaboration and to showcase their work."

Even though the centre has only been in operation since July, it has already had real success, including the establishment of a $1.5 million research project examining how livelihoods adapt in the face of natural resource pressures. It has also generated significant interest in the region, including invitations for a delegation to present University of Sydney research to the National Assembly in Laos and to participate in an international conference in Bangkok celebrating the 60th anniversary of Australia-Thailand relations.

The directorship of the centre marks the latest stage in Ford's career as one of Australia's leading experts on Indonesia. Her first real exposure to the region came as a university student when a planned trip to Europe fell through.

"I ended up taking a summer school elective in Indonesian," she recalls. "It was a really innovative course, and I got hooked. I eventually dropped the engineering part of my double degree and focused on industrial relations and Indonesian." After finishing her degree, she was awarded an Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee scholarship to undertake further study in Indonesia.

Ford herself is an example of the benefits of combining a vocationally oriented discipline with language and cultural studies. More than two decades after first being introduced to Indonesian, she found herself addressing 170 university decision-makers on how to improve international research collaboration at a conference organised by Indonesia's Ministry of Education. She presented entirely in Indonesian.

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