By Paul Ramadge
This year a senior group of Indonesian academics visited Monash University‘s Clayton campus and toured some of the national facilities co-located at the university – the synchrotron, the centre for nano-fabrication, the bio-sciences precinct and the New Horizons zone developing next-generation engineering and manufacturing technologies.
Monash had a clear objective. It wanted the visitors to understand the transformation that has occurred at the university, which has propelled it into the rankings of the top-100 higher-education institutions in the world.
On leaving the nano-technology centre, one of the visitors said: ”I want to lift up all of this and take it back to Indonesia with me.”
Well, imagine if we could really do this – take to Indonesia the most dynamic parts of Australia’s university and research sector. Imagine if we could develop R&D in consultation with our most important neighbour.
Progressive thinkers in Indonesia – in government, business and academia – are starting to tackle, often behind closed doors, some of their nation’s most difficult challenges. For example, should Jakarta – a flood-prone, poorly designed city – continue to be the capital or should a new site be selected? How can Indonesia prevent an explosion in non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes as its middle class grows?
Imagine if Australia and Indonesia – two resource-rich nations – developed new energy sources. Is it possible to set up joint ventures in the beef industry in both countries supported by academic research units? Could we work together to develop new highly productive food bowls? How about smarter cities with smarter infrastructure?
In part, such visions have been hampered by Australians’ lack of understanding of Indonesia. Surveys have shown Australians are really not sure about Indonesians. Some fear it. Some worry about a different religion. Many haven’t tried to understand.
Yet closer economic and cultural ties have never been more important.
A lot has been said and written about Indonesia’s dramatic economic rise. If it can withstand hiccups such as shifts in global cash, continue to stamp out corruption, lift skills, open the door to more foreign investment, and manage the predictable tensions created by its massive consuming class, Indonesia seems destined to be a top 10 nation by GDP by 2030.
The big question is: will Australia be a close and trusted friend during this period or a distant and relegated observer?
The Indonesia of 2013 is rising in a world of instant communication, hair-trigger global markets, go-anywhere travel and a race for innovations and competitive advantages. The context for Australia is no different.
Amid this super-connectedness, China is busy building an innovation-driven economy, with its expenditure on R&D growing by roughly 20 per cent annually over the past five years. In the US, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently noted three trends that would radically change life: 3D printing and manufacture, global crowdsourcing for innovation, and what he called the ”Industrial Internet”, with computer chips in all manner of things producing data that can be constantly monitored.
In this context, working with global partners is much better than trying to do everything yourself. It has been said many times, but Indonesia is Australia’s big opportunity. We have so much to gain by collaborating to solve shared challenges. Both nations can support each other’s growth, jointly tackle regional problems and build new global opportunities. This can be achieved through increased knowledge flows and deeper partnerships.
This is why the announcement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott – after talks with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – that he will provide $15 million to fund the setting up of an Australian Centre for Indonesia Studies is so important. Finally, there’s a national university-based Indonesia centre alongside the China, US, India and Asian centres.
The centre – funded by government and business – will strengthen the Australia-Indonesia relationship. It will champion the study of languages and culture. This is a wonderful goal. The study of Bahasa Indonesia in Australia has been falling alarmingly.
The centre will bring together leading public and private sector organisations from both nations to collaborate. The areas of concern include health and primary care, resources and energy, development (including food security, infrastructure and education) and regional security.
The centre begins its life with political backing, business support and a cluster of some of Australia’s most impressive institutions – Monash University, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University and CSIRO.
In the first phase, the centre will be headquartered at Monash University, with nodes at the other three institutions. This hub-and-spoke structure or distributed network will allow much higher levels of collaboration between some of Australia’s sharpest minds. It is envisaged that an advisory board will include representatives of government and business from Australia and Indonesia.
At the same time, leading universities and research bodies in Indonesia will be invited to form a similar, ”twinned” network so that research can be jointly developed, discipline by discipline, sector by sector. It follows that greater understanding of Australia by Indonesians will be achieved. Indonesia’s leading universities such as Universitas Indonesia, Universitas Gadjah Mada and Institut Teknologi Bandung are potential members of the Indonesia-based network.
The next phase is likely to involve a broadening of the centre’s reach to engage other institutions in both nations.
Paul Ramadge is executive director of global initiatives at Monash University and a vice-chancellor’s professorial fellow. He is leading Monash’s engagement in Indonesia. He is also a former editor-in-chief of The Age.
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