Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang (Muhammadiyah University of Malang), Malang, East Java, Indonesia

Semester 2, 2012

As Australia’s most populous neighbour and one of our most vital bilateral partners, the world's third-largest democracy and its largest Muslim-majority country, the preeminent power in the booming Southeast Asian region, and one of the fastest growing economies on Earth, it is bizarre that Indonesia is so readily overlooked as an exchange destination for Australian students. All too often, peripheral issues in the Australia-Indonesia relationship, such as drug trafficking, unauthorised boat arrivals and the spectre of violent extremism are given undue prominence in the national media. As a result, prevailing perceptions of the vast archipelago to our immediate north are frequently clouded with suspicion and misunderstanding.

In truth, Indonesia is a vibrant and fascinating country, home to a rich tapestry of cultures, creeds, cosmologies and histories. The Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) has coordinated semester-long exchange programs to a variety of Indonesian universities since 1994, and boasts more than 1300 alumni from almost every major tertiary institution in Australia. It was through ACICIS that I undertook my own exchange semester at the Muhammadiyah University of Malang (Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang; UMM) in East Java. Although I had travelled to Indonesia on five previous occasions, including a year spent teaching English in Central Java, and had built up a burgeoning network of friends and contacts during these previous trips, I nevertheless found the ACICIS exchange experience immensely rewarding.

The ACICIS program is somewhat unique in that it allows participants to select from a wide range of academic options, from pure language courses, to university lectures and tutorials, to the individual field research project hosted at UMM. Applying to ACICIS through UQ Abroad, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the field research program without first undertaking the standard prerequisite semester of language study hosted at Universitas Gajah Mada in Yogyakarta.

The Malang Field Research program provides students with an incredible opportunity: to personally design and carry out primary research, and write a thesis in Indonesian detailing their findings. This project translated into a full semester’s credit towards my Indonesian language major at UQ. My own project examined the electoral strategy and performance of Indonesia’s largest Islam-oriented political party, the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera; PKS), in the Malang locality. I was able to interview the party’s top officials and elected representatives in Malang, as well as its factional chief in East Java’s provincial parliament. It is a rare privilege for an undergraduate exchange student to be able to conduct research of this nature through their host university, and I would suggest that ACICIS may be one of the few programs to offer students such an opportunity.

Indonesia is also a cost-efficient destination for exchange students. Its proximity to Australia makes it a comparatively easy destination to reach. More importantly, the cost of living is low: transport and accommodation are relatively inexpensive and accessible, while good food is cheap and abundant. University students arriving in Indonesia will find it is a nation of highly social and outgoing young people; indeed, Australians are frequently surprised by the enthusiasm and generosity with they are welcomed to their host institutions. Java, which remains the country’s demographic, commercial and administrative hub, is a land where ancient splendour and natural beauty meet bustling modernity; besides the island’s famous mountains and beaches, there are countless historical monuments, natural parks, cultural festivals, markets, galleries and artistic performances to enjoy. When it comes to weekend trips out of town, I would recommend visiting the temple sites at Borobudur, Prambanan, Dieng and Gedong Songo in Central Java; the cultural hubs of Yogyakarta and Solo, as well as Bandung in West Java; the spectacular Bromo and Merapi mountains; the tropical paradise of Karimun Jawa off the north coast; and the heaving metropoleis of Jakarta and Surabaya, where the wealth of Indonesia’s elites is most ostentatiously displayed.

Appreciating Indonesia’s extremes is an integral part of the exchange experience. I was at one point invited to an incredibly lavish wedding reception in the port city of Semarang, attended by five thousand guests including the province’s leading political figures, yet my kost (dormitory) was located beside a bustling urban marketplace, where I could while away the afternoons chatting to my neighbours over black coffee and street snacks, or watching a couple of elderly becak (rickshaw) drivers playing their daily chess matches.

An exchange semester in Indonesia is not without its challenges. Although efforts are being made to improve organisation and limit corruption, it requires patience and perseverance to navigate one’s way around the country’s bureaucracy. The public service can appear particularly shambolic at its lower levels, and even locals tend to despair at the inefficiency and unhelpfulness of officialdom. Thankfully, it is down to ACICIS and the host universities to organise documentation and paperwork. Java’s traffic is also notorious, particularly in the larger cities. Public transport is cheap and readily available, but often overcrowded. Many students eventually choose to rent mopeds, though their travel insurance policies may not provide cover in the event of an accident.

I wholeheartedly recommend UQ students undertake a semester’s exchange to Indonesia. Not only is the experience rewarding on a personal level, it is increasingly important that young Australians take the opportunity to enhance their understanding of one of our most important international partners. I’d offer three final tips to Australian students departing for Indonesia:

  • Remember that while alcohol is produced and consumed in Indonesia, a sizeable proportion of the population are practicing Muslims, and it is not a good ‘look’ for young Westerners to be drinking too openly. I try to limit alcohol consumption, only drinking when locals do so, or at bars and hotels. As foreigners our behaviour will be silently scrutinised, and as exchange students we must be mindful that we are representing our university and our country. Stereotypes are perhaps more prevalent in Indonesia than they are in Australia, and it is better that we don’t live down to the worst of them.
  • Take the opportunity to travel. There is much, much more to Indonesian tourism than the bars and beaches of Bali. Few countries on Earth are home to such cultural and ecological diversity, and the majority of Indonesians are kind and hospitable people, who are usually eager to help. I would particularly advise befriending fellow university students, who are often more than happy to act as local guides and informal tutors.
  • Acclimatise to local cuisine. Don’t stick to Western fast food outlets or the food courts at the local malls. Often the cleanest, tastiest meals are those served at a warung (street stall) and cooked to order in a blisteringly hot wok, or grilled over glowing coals.  

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