People are our greatest asset: Better utilising the Indonesian diaspora in Australia

By Isabella Karelis, Research Intern

Six months into its term, the Albanese government has prioritised Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Albanese travelled to Jakarta for a two-day diplomatic encounter with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s first visit to the country followed in June – her  video address in Bahasa Indonesia made an impact, clearly demonstrating the importance of cultural and linguistic capabilities.
Indonesia is a vital partner for Australia, and will only become more so in the coming years – it is set to be the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2030. However, the people-to-people links vital for unlocking closer cooperation with Indonesia remain under-utilised. Despite our close geographical proximity, Australia is not a first choice for many Indonesian immigrants. Australian residents born in Indonesia (78,970) are still outnumbered by other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia (152,900), the Philippines (252,690) or Vietnam (243,220).
These figures indicate that there is still a way to go to build a more robust, sustainable relationship between Australians and Indonesians.  In a 2022 Lowy Institute survey, 64% of Australians said that they either did not trust or understand the Indonesian diaspora in Australia. That is a trust gap the Australian government needs to address if it wants public support for strengthening the bilateral relationship to promote greater economic engagement with Indonesia.

It is clear the Australian government wants – and needs – closer cooperation with Indonesia in the years ahead. In that effort, engaging the Indonesian diaspora community will be pivotal.

Less than optimal people-to-people links have practical consequences. For example, the United States is Australia’s second largest trading partner and largest inbound foreign investment partner. Unsurprisingly, those strong trade and investment figures are backed by very strong levels of people-to-people trust – 65% of Australians trust America.
In contrast, Australia places at number ten and thirteen respectively for two-way trade and foreign investment with Indonesia, whilst Indonesia does not place within the top ranks for Australia.  In Jakarta and beyond, Australia’s interests are seen as Anglo-centric. Consequently, we are a “low-ranked trade and investment partner” for a country that will eclipse us in economic heft by the end of this decade.

If business partnerships and trade are to expand, Australia needs to get serious about leveraging the expertise of the Indonesian diaspora.

There is a good framework from which to start: the 2020 Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA); the 2018 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Australia and Indonesia (that signaled a commitment to “forge deeper engagement between our communities and cultures and to build greater links between the young people of our countries”) and the 2020-2024 Action Plan’s “connecting people” pillar.
Connecting people is important, although it is easier said than done. What are the options to deepen Australia-Indonesia connections and diasporic links?
Countries build better diaspora links in several ways. The first is by providing work opportunities from which diaspora communities benefit, and contribute to the economy of both their host country and country of origin. Educational and employment training opportunities for diaspora communities also fosters a transfer of knowledge and expertise.
Other diaspora communities in Australia are well organised and established, such as the Italian community in Australia, with the Italian Chamber of Commerce, the Dante Alighieri Society, and ItalWA. This serves as an illustrative example of the potential diaspora communities have to become embedded in Australian social and cultural fabric. Both the Australian government and Indonesian diaspora community can look to this as an example of the potential of better diaspora engagement.

Easier VISA access

To build better diasporic links with Indonesia, Australia needs to firstly make it easier for Indonesians to visit. Indonesia has the biggest economy in Southeast-Asia, yet Australia deters valuable Indonesians from the get-go, in a way that overlooks the incredible economic transformation that has happened within Indonesia over the last 20 years.
A strenuous visa application for Indonesian tourists discourages an important demographic (particularly the younger generations) from wanting to visit Australia for work, travel, or family, especially since Indonesia has access to 70 other visa-free destinations. The IA-CEPA opened up some opportunities for reciprocal working visa access for young people, but we still need easier-access and more affordable visas for Indonesians, to support a broader and deeper relationship across all sectors.

Boosting Indonesian literacy

The Australian government should also focus on strengthening Indonesian involvement in education and academia. Australia must put more time and funding into Indonesian studies, focusing on the language and Indonesia’s role in the Indo-Pacific, with the Indonesian diaspora leading these discussions and dialogues. In addition, successful study schemes between Australia and Indonesia such as New Colombo Plan, as well as Australia Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), and the Australia Awards scholarships in Indonesia, should be expanded to encourage more Indonesian students to live and study in Australia, and vice versa.

Strengthened involvement in the workforce

Bringing more skilled Indonesians into the Australian workforce will also help strengthen our engagement with the diaspora community, particularly in sectors that are understaffed.
In the healthcare sector, Australia will have a shortage of 100,000 nurses by 2025, although this will be mitigated somewhat through the IA-CEPA, where Australia will allow up to 200 Indonesians per year to receive workplace skills training in Australia. Whilst this is a small number, it is a starting point. In addition, limitations on the Work and Holiday visas will expand over the years from 1,000 to 5,000 places, allowing for more Indonesians to contribute to the Australian workforce. The focus should be on nursing, childcare and aged-care.

A successful bilateral partnership depends on strong relations between the people of the countries involved.

Engaging with diaspora communities fosters opportunities to strengthen people-to-people links and to contribute to society. Australia and Indonesia have a lot more to do in this regard, especially considering their geographical proximity. Connecting to the Indonesian diaspora will mean a closer friend in the Indo-Pacific with which to tackle emerging regional challenges.

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