Former Trade Commissioner Joel Backwell on living and working in Indonesia

Julie - sharing a laugh

Indonesia sits right on Australia’s doorstep, but sometimes it feels like we’re on opposite sides of the world. Apart from sensational headlines about floods and terrorist attacks, or the odd family beach holiday to Bali, our closest Asian neighbour remains a mystery to most. At 15 years old, I was no exception. Having grown up in the small Victorian coastal town of Breamlea, I’d never even travelled overseas and Indonesia was just a few coloured islands on the map hanging on my wall. I had learned a word or two in my first year of high school: nama saya Joel (my name is Joel), selamat pagi (good morning), saya lapar (I’m hungry – a feeling that rarely lasts long in Indonesia, with a street vendor on every corner), but that was about it.

Then one fortuitous experience changed everything. At the end of Year 10, in 1996, I won a scholarship from the Department of Education to spend my summer holidays in Bandung, a few hours east of the capital city of Jakarta. I lived with a host family in the suburb of Buah Batu, caught the local angkut (angkutan kota – small public bus) to school, and participated in all the festivities of the month of Ramadhan, culminating in the Lebaran feast, where I ate more in a day than I ever have before, and ever have since. This was full immersion. And it was better than I’d ever anticipated. The richness of the history; the exotic food; the strange smells and most of all, the friendliness of the people. It was like being transported into another world, where each day was more fascinating than the last.

But despite all the differences, it was ultimately the familiarity that left such an indelible impression on this adolescent from Geelong. It was amazing all the things I had in common with the students my age; they played sport; chased girls; and followed football fanatically just like I did back home. After just three months, this country, its people and culture had taken hold of me and burrowed their way deep inside. I was hooked and I’ve never looked back.

Living and working in Indonesia

I went on to study Indonesian at university and have returned to the country, at least 30 times, to work, study and travel. Every job I’ve secured since has stemmed directly from my time in Bandung. From working as a lawyer with Herbert Smith Freehills in Jakarta, to a secondment with Santos in Surabaya, to defending members of the Bali 9 on death row in Kerobokan, to serving as Australia’s Trade Commissioner, my knowledge of Indonesia and the broader region has been invaluable. While my engagement with Indonesia began with a simple school exchange program, it ended up becoming the highlight of my CV in every job application. By the time I entered the workforce, Indonesia and the rest of South-East Asia were on the up and up. Suddenly, in the eyes of potential employers, an understanding of Indonesia and fluency in its language had gone from a curiosity to a very valuable asset.

But I’m jumping ahead. Back in 1997, just months after I returned home from Bandung, the Asian financial meltdown brought the country to its knees; the value of the Rupiah dropped by 80% and investors were running for the hills. However, like Indonesia so often does, it bounced back better than ever before. In 1998, as I finished year 12, the end of President Suharto’s 32-year reign brought new hope and democratic elections, unleashing the nascent entrepreneurialism of the Indonesian people. When I returned to the country in 2002 to study law for a year on exchange at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s GDP was back to pre-crisis levels, and Australian companies were cautiously beginning to dip their toes in the water again.

Indonesia changes so quickly sometimes that it’s hard to keep track. Bandung’s streets, once full of motorbikes, are now choked with cars. The rice paddy behind my host family’s house has since been cleared and in its place stands BSM – Bandung Super Mall. My little host brother, seven years old when we first met, got married recently and is now a practising dentist. But it’s this rapid change, generally for the better, that propels Indonesia’s economy forward, creating endless opportunities for its people, and for those Australians lucky enough to really get to know the country.

Wedding in Jakarta
A wedding I attended in Jakarta

Fortunately, my personal involvement with Indonesia has coincided with a golden period in its history. In the twenty years since I first stepped off that Garuda Airlines plane, and was hit by the overwhelming humidity that any of you who have been to South East Asia know so well, Indonesia’s GDP has grown from $227 billion to around 900 billion. This rapid growth has seen it become one of the ten biggest economies in the world, on a PPP basis. What really astounds me though is not Indonesia’s rise, which was inevitable, given the size and youth of its population, it is the fact that so few Australians have taken advantage of everything that Indonesia has to offer.

From Breamlea to Bandung, I’ve never looked back

The New Colombo Plan is a great start, and I’d encourage any young Australian to apply. But with so many big-name companies moving into Indonesia each year, I’d expect to see our universities filled with thousands of Australians keen to learn more about this country of 250 million people who are buying our fresh fruit and vegetables, staying in our hotels, and partnering with our hospital providers. Yet the number of students completing Year 12 Indonesian has actually dropped since I did my final high school exams back in 1998. This seems crazy to me. But then I remember back to when I was 15, and knew nothing about Indonesia either. I just wish I could sit down with every single student across our country and convince them to give it a go, to open a door to a world that will change their lives forever.

I forget sometimes how lucky I’ve been. I’ve swum in the waters at the foot of Anak Krakatoa, sat in court before Indonesian judges presiding over life and death, snorkelled with turtles, and drunk cocktails at sunset overlooking crystal clear waters. I’ve savoured the most tender roast duck and the freshest of freshly caught fish, ridden motor bikes around hairpin turns to remote villages, and risen at 4:30am to fast for the full 30 days of Ramadhan. I’ve fallen in love, made lifelong friends, and lived the kind of life that never would have been possible had I not left Australia’s shores all those years ago, as a wide-eyed, impressionable, naïve 15-year-old looking for a new adventure. From Breamlea to Bandung, I’ve never looked back.

For anyone who is tossing up whether or not to keep studying Indonesian; for anyone deciding between London or Sumatera for their next overseas trip; for anyone sending off job applications but hesitating when the location says Jakarta, my advice would be to do what I did twenty years ago. Jangan berpikir dua kali! (don’t think twice). Immerse yourself in Indonesia: in its people, its language, its cuisine, its 10,000 islands, each with a story of its own. Indonesia is a land of opportunity. So grab it with both hands. I guarantee that after living and working in Indonesia, you will never look back!

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Joel Backwell

Joel is currently the Executive Director of International Education for the Department of Education and Training, Victoria. Prior to this, Joel worked as an investment adviser for Advanced Manufacturing, Services and Technology and as the Trade Commissioner to Malaysia and Brunei, based in the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.

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