Investing in the ASEAN-Australia relationship requires more than summits, trade deals and visiting delegations. It urgently requires a long-term, substantial funding reset in the study of Southeast Asian languages and cultures here in Australia.

In Melbourne last week, Australia and ASEAN celebrated 50 years of partnership through the second ASEAN-Australia Special Summit. Leaders from the 10 ASEAN nations, as well as Timor Leste, gathered in Melbourne to reflect on a history of collaboration, and to discuss pressing regional challenges and economic opportunities.   

Trade and investment were the centrepiece themes. By the end of the summit, the Australian Government had announced a $2 billion Southeast Asia Investment Financing Facility (SEAIFF); 10 ‘business champions’ charged with fostering greater commercial links between Australia and ASEAN; and regional technology ‘Landing Pads’ in Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City, among other initiatives to boost regional trade and investment.  

These initiatives are welcome; Australia invests less in the entire Southeast Asian region than it does in New Zealand. And by 2040, Southeast Asia as a bloc is projected to become the world’s fourth-largest economy (after the United States, China and India). As Prime Minister Albanese reminded delegates at the summit, there is significant opportunity for our shared economic prosperity. 

The economic argument for closer ties is both compelling and important. But building ties with our ASEAN neighbours requires broader investment than these packages alone can offer. It requires the sustained, long-term, whole-of-government investment in Southeast Asia literacy and competency among young Australians to equip them with the requisite skills to work in and with ASEAN nations as part of their future careers. 

In Australia today, only 11 tertiary institutions offer Indonesian language, and only five offer Vietnamese, despite the fact that Vietnamese is now the fourth most widely spoken language after English in Australian homes. Other Southeast Asian languages such as Cambodian, Javanese and Filipino have ‘entirely disappeared’ from Australian tertiary degrees altogether. How are Australian graduates to build better ties with our ASEAN neighbours if they hold no understanding of its languages or cultures?  

The Nicholas Moore authored report acknowledges this gap, noting that “increasing cultural literacy and capability is key to realising the breadth of opportunities in Southeast Asia”. Yet, aside from the announcement of further Aus4ASEAN scholarships and fellowships for Southeast Asians to study in Australia, education was otherwise barely discussed in last week’s summit, with little mention of the ways Australians might develop the language and cultural skillsets to help Australia prosper in the region moving forward. 

Deepening people-to-people ties with Southeast Asia requires investment in cultural literacy. Photo: Thapakorn Hemgo/shutterstock.com

This is alarming in many ways, not least because it sends a message that the work of building deeper people-to-people ties can, essentially, be done in English. It does not address the fact that enrolment numbers in Southeast Asian languages across all levels, in all Australian jurisdictions, have been dwindling for more than two decades. In 2022, only 560 Australian students studied a Southeast Asian language as part of their university degree. This is despite the fact that, at the same time, almost 33,000 Australian undergraduates travelled to Southeast Asia in the past decade as part of the New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarship program, signalling the highest-ever rates of outbound student mobility to our region. 

The NCP has undoubtedly been a game changer in terms of driving learning abroad into our region since 2014. Yet, in my research on the impact of the NCP on Australia-Indonesia relationship building, the gap between an NCP study abroad experience and the opportunities for continued language study or employment, are markedly clear. I have repeatedly heard stories from NCP alumni who have returned to Australia and simply been unable to continue their language studies due to Indonesian no longer being offered at their institution or been unable to find employment leveraging their newfound ‘Asia-literate’ skillsets.  

NCP returnees are eager to contribute to Australia’s relationship-building with ASEAN, yet lack opportunity to do this within their institutions and among industry.  

In its first ten years, the NCP has undoubtedly been a step in the right direction from the Australian Government. But there is more to do.  

The Government needs to wholeheartedly take up the recommendation made in the Moore report to develop a “whole-of-nation plan to strengthen Southeast Asia literacy in Australian business, government, the education and training system, and the community” to ensure we can truly foster greater Australia-ASEAN ties moving forward and secure our mutual prosperity. It needs to ensure our students can build on the substantial skills they gain while in-country on an NCP award, to ensure they can continue honing their skills and expertise for the future, and this is not simply wasted after their time away. And it needs to be addressing this issue much earlier, working with the Department of Education and individual state and territory jurisdictions to reintroduce the study of Southeast Asian languages and cultures into curriculum at all levels, to ensure there is a consistent pipeline of young Australians constantly growing their fluency — and curiosity — in our region.  

Investing in a new national language and culture strategy of Southeast Asia would not only signal to our ASEAN neighbours that we are serious about long-term, mutual prosperity, but also that we are committed to building mutually respectful partnerships which start from a foundation of deep cultural and linguistic understanding. Laying these foundations now will ensure Australia and ASEAN continue to proper for another 50 years together as partners.

Elena Williams is a PhD researcher in the Department of Anthropology, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific. She was a delegate in the ASEAN-Australia ‘Emerging Leaders’ Dialogue’ at the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.

Top image: PM Anthony Albanese speaks at the ASEAN-Australia special summit in Melbourne. Photo: George Chan/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire

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