Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 06:13 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 06:13 | SYDNEY

Indonesia literacy and national security

7 July 2009 12:40

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD on the Australia-Indonesia bilateral relationship at the Griffith Asia Institute. She has worked for the Department of Defence both in Australia and Indonesia.

The periodic debate on Australia’s lack of foreign language proficiency has once more emerged with the release of the Lowy Institute report on Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit and the Griffith Asia Institute's strategy for building Australia’s Asian language proficiency.

There has been some redress. In education policy, the Federal Government has implemented its $62.4 National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program and on the national security front, a $20 million commitment in the Defence White Paper to broaden ADF foreign language training. But this remains insufficient, particularly in the vital area of national security.

Many of Australia’s greatest security and foreign policy challenges over the last decade have involved Indonesia, and this will likely continue. A diminution of Australia’s Indonesian expertise matters because combating terrorism, securing our border, ensuring the safety of Australians in Indonesia and advancing our strategic interests in the region are all largely dependent on Indonesia’s cooperation and support.

Following the 2002 Bali bombings and the subsequent raids of members of the Indonesian community in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, the Government found itself dependent on a pool of Indonesian linguists in the broader Australian intelligence community to process seized data for intelligence value. No single agency had the linguist capacity to do the job.

With linguists from various agencies working overtime and on weekends to sift and translate data, Australia was able to develop a clearer understanding of terrorist networks in Australia and their links to Indonesian and global Islamist groups. But given falling numbers of Indonesian linguists, simultaneous major security incidents with Indonesian dimensions would severely stretch Australia’s analytical capacity to respond.

The matter of ‘reputation’ associated with declining Indonesian expertise in our intelligence agencies also deserves attention. In the international intelligence community, Australia’s regional expertise is regarded highly and has grown in importance as the links between Southeast Asian terrorists and broader international jihadist networks have become clearer.

Decreasing Indonesian expertise also has implications for Australia’s ability to conduct effective operations in Indonesia, particularly humanitarian assistance or disaster relief. Operation Sumatra Assist, the ADF disaster relief operation in Aceh following the 2004 tsunami, was but one component of an Australian disaster response ooperation of unprecedented scale in our region.

The skills of ADF and civilian Indonesia linguists in Defence were vital for the success of the operation, for example in translation work in ADF field hospitals, for coordinating with Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commanders to enable flight clearances and logistical support for RAAF Hercules aircraft flying in and out of Indonesian air bases, and for working alongside the TNI officer commanding Indonesia’s relief operation in Banda Aceh.

Australia’s ability to manage its sensitive bilateral relationship with Indonesia has been largely due to the rapport between individual Australian and Indonesian officials. It is no exaggeration to attribute the success of the joint Indonesian-Australian investigation into the Bali bombings, the successful conduct of Operation Sumatra Assist and preventing armed conflict in East Timor in late 1999 and early 2000 to the Indonesia expertise of individual officers and the collective Indonesian skills of the Australian foreign policy apparatus.

The issue is broader than training more Indonesian linguists, but is one of developing and sustaining a critical mass of Indonesia expertise. Developing a sufficient Indonesian skills base to meet future security needs requires long lead times and investment in education and training. It is not a capability that can easily be switched on and off in response to the latest contingency.