NAILA 2020: A Labour of Love and Dedication

Each year, volunteers in the Australia-Indonesia space organise the National Australia-Indonesia Language Awards (NAILA) and this year’s event took place via Zoom on a Friday night in early December.

Founded in 2015 by Sally Hill, NAILA accepts submissions from Australians of all ages showcasing their Indonesian language skills. The spoken-word submissions are judged and ranked by established and expert Indonesianists, and the winners are announced during the ceremony. 

Submissions are judged according to a set of criteria, and this year’s entries were ranked by content and structure, vocabularly and grammar, delivery, audience awareness and enthusiasm, and clarity of expression. 

Entrants were divided into Primary, Middle, Senior, Tertiary and Wild Card categories, meaning all age groups and expertise levels were representated and celebrated on the night. The Primary category, for example, featured speakers from Prepatory until Year 6, speaking for 2-3 minutes, while the Tertiary level featured speakers in young adulthood speaking for up to 5-6 minutes. 

The general theme underpinning all submissions was ‘health’, though there was considerable flexibility in how speakers could approach this subject. 

Though NAILA receives a small degree of funding from the government, and can claim a host of partners and sponsors including universities and NGOs in the Australia-Indonesia space, it is entirely a volunteer enterprise, a labour of love for the Indonesian language. What little money NAILA does receive goes towards the prize money and the general costs of running the initiative. 


NAILA has been developing and growing impressively each year, and Sheila Hie, the director of NAILA, noted proudly that this year’s event saw over 150 entries

“This is actually the highest number that we have had. And it’s quite interesting because last year, we received just over 100 submissions, and we had a lot more categories. I think last year we had eight categories. And this year, we have only five categories yet more submissions. So I think in terms of the increase of submissions is just phenomenal this year,” she said. 

Originally from Jakarta, Sheila said helping to organise the competition was her way of expressing her love for Bahasa Indonesia. 

“I don’t think I ever appreciated Bahasa until I came here,” she said. 

“Previously, before I became the director of NAILA, I attended one of these awards ceremonies. And I remembered that I watched the NAILA competition highlights, and I watched the awardees presenting their speeches, and I just got really teary. I felt like, you know, I should have appreciated Bahasa Indonesia a lot more, because look at the effort these people are putting in. Just amazing. And I thought that’s something I really want to share.” 

A sense of dedication and service underpinned by a love for Indonesian was also present in the judges, all of whom graciously offered up their time and expertise pro-bono. This year’s submissions were marked by Elena Williams, Dr Alistair Welsh, Billy Mambrasar and Dr Ines I Atmosukarto. 

Asia Options was lucky enough to speak at length with Elena and Alistair about their long experience with Indonesia and the value of Indonesian language-learning for young Australians. 


Formerly the Indonesia-based Resident Director for The Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), Elena is currently the Director of Australia-Indonesia Consulting and a PhD candidate at ANU, where her research focuses on student mobility and Australia-Indonesia relationship-building. Her journey to the archipelago began in childhood. 

“I grew up all over Australia, including four years in Darwin. There’s a very big Indonesian communitythere, and we also had Indonesian language classes at my primary school, which was a taste of learning the language. And I just loved it. It was very fun, and it was all around us. They were very formative years,” she said.

After moving to Sydney, Elena continued her Indonesian studies through high school and into university.

“I kept going with it until Year 12 and then added it to my university degree. I did a double degree at University of Technology Sydney, a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies, and Indonesian was my country and language major. And through that degree, I was able to actually spend a year in-country with ACICIS.”

This year in Indonesia would prove to be a life-changing experience for Elena. 

“All of the textbooks, all of the vocabulary, all of the language learning exercises we’d done in the classroom, just all of sudden came to life, on the streets. And in friendship groups and through meeting new people. It absolutely changed my life,” she said.

Elena’s year abroad was preceded by a six-week jaunt across Indonesia in January 2003, her first true glimpse of Indonesia. 

“I remember very clearly staying in Bandung, exploring Bandung through the day, and then in the evening I would catch up with the owners of the kost, and we would just sit there and have tea or coffee, and chat every night. And I just remember that wonderful feeling of, ‘I can hold my own in a conversation in another country, in another language’. And you’re having a conversation with somebody on a train, at an airport, on the street, or in the kost you’re staying in. And all of a sudden, it’s this wonderful feeling like a door opening, and you’re allowed in because you speak the language.” 

The possibility for this kind of transformational experience is what makes language-learning so thrilling. It is an enabling factor, and when mixed in with youth and the sense of possibility that comes with youth it works to make life abroad as a young Australian seem brighter and more thrilling than the comparatively contented and staid security of our beautiful but familiar homeland. Elena’s journey to Indonesia began in childhood, and it is a path she hopes others will take. 

“This is why I’m so passionate about language learning at a young age for Australian students, because it is these really formative experiences that we can have as kids. You might not think anything of them at the time, but we just don’t know the kind of seed that can plant in someone’s mind at that age. It’s really important that we don’t get rid of those opportunities for students because they can have life-changing impacts.”

Asked about her experience judging this year’s NAILA competition, Elena responded with gratitude and sincere admiration. 

“It’s been an absolute delight, particularly in light of the news of potential closures to Indonesian language programs across Australian universities in recent weeks. We know the statistics, and we know the  declining rates of Indonesian language learning. And we lament it at the Australia-Indonesia Institute, we lament it in media opinion pieces, in academic circles. So to actually be involved in a process where you’re seeing students use their Indonesian language skills, and particularly those from junior primary, it’s incredibly heart warming to actually see students interested in learning Indonesian, and what’s more –  here are teachers encouraging their students to not only get involved, but also to really value this,” she said. 


Alistair, an expert Indonesianist at Deakin University, shares Elena’s understanding of how language learning can act as a conduit to transformational experience. Over his many years of teaching, he has witnessed countless students subsume themselves through language into a new culture, and though the experience is often a joyous one, there is also something disturbing about this process, as though it is an act of self-emptying as much as it is one of discovery and growth. 

“Students feel this connectedness, and they find it really hard to articulate,” Alistair said.

“They say, I actually feel different when I speak the other language. I think differently. I’m in a different mindset. Actually, I understand there’s an alternative worldview that’s linked to the speakers of that language, and that’s really kind of, in one sense, liberating. But it can also be disturbing. Because for some people, it challenges their whole worldview, their assumptions. The way people have been acculturated in the society they grew up in. To challenge those fundamental beliefs, it can be quite disturbing.” 

Like Elena, Alistair had the good fortune of learning Indonesian as a child. He studied under the guidance of a well-respected high-school teacher named Dirk Stobbe, a Dutchman who grew up in Holland and migrated to Australia after World War Two. 

“I had that same teacher for the whole six years and he was quite inspirational. He was very passionate and he became a sort of role model,” Alistair said. 

Alistair first travelled to Indonesia in 1978, on a trip organised by Mr Stobbe. 

“We went through Java and Bali, through Jakarta and everything.”

Alistair pursued a career in teaching Indonesian, and it’s a career that has given him some remarkable insights into human growth and development. 

“I see all of these sort of emotional experiences that learners go through, and the beauty for me, or the excitement for me in teaching, is that I’ve been there before, I’ve experienced the same sense of seeing things for the first time. Though teaching, I can see others experiencing things for the first time,” he said. 


Those of us who have pursued a particular thing are naturally inclined to congregate around those who share our passion, and the NAILA 2020 awards night gave Indonesia-philes across Australia the wonderful opportunity to gather together and celebrate a shared passion and commitment. 

Along with the awardees, what was perhaps most impressive about the night was the roster of high-level Australian and Indonesian officials and experts who graciously attended the event. The simple act of attendance signalled their sincere respect for the awardees and all those who took the time to participate, and it was a heartening thing to see. 

Phillip Turtle, the National President of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council, Kevin Evans, the Indonesia Director of the Australia-Indonesia Centre, Australian Ambassador to Indonesia Gary Quinlan AO, Mr Ghofar Ismail, Counsellor at the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra, and Helen Brown, formerly the ABC’s Indonesia correspondent, all attended in their finest batik. 

Most unexpectedly, attendants were treated to a beautiful Balinese dance by traditional dancer and teacher Jane Ahlstrand. The movements were precise and entrancing, and no doubt made many of us long to return to Bali. 

The night also featured special testimonials from His Excellency Mr Yohanes Kristiarto Soeryo Legowo, Indonesia’s Ambassador to Australia and Vanuatu, and Senator the Honourable Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment.


Ambassador Legowo, a graduate of Gadjah Mada University, spoke beautifully about the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Geography is destiny and Ambassador Legowo noted that Australia and Indonesia are forever linked by geographical proximity. Importantly, the Ambassador noted that Indonesians and Australians have chosen to be close friends and partners in the world, rather than simply close neighbours. A particularly moving quote that comes to mind:

Ada suatu peribahasa, atau ungkapan idiomatik yang menyatakan: tertangkup sama termakan tanah, terlentang sama terminum air, yang artinya Indonesia dan Australia sama-sama merasakan suka dan duka masing-masing.

“There is a proverb or idiomatic expression in Bahasa, which states: tertangkup sama termakan tanah, terlentang sama terminum air, which means: Indonesia and Australia feel each other’s joys and sorrows.”


Senator Birmingham’s testimony was likewise impressive and well-crafted and demonstrated how seriously the Australian government takes the Australia-Indonesia relationship. 

As Australia navigates a period of uncertain trading relationships, Senator Birmingham highlighted the fact that Indonesia is an escalating economic behemoth, and Australians who take the time to learn the language are well-positioned to benefit from the future growth and might of the Indonesian economy in the 21st century. With the recent signing of the IA-CEPA, there’s never been a better time to learn Indonesian. 

“It’s incredibly exciting to see fearless young entrepreneurs of our two countries imagining and creating the future together. The ability to communicate in Indonesian is becoming more and more important for Australians as our business community and government links become even stronger and more intertwined,” the Senator said. 

“Language is that crucial first step to founding a lasting, stable international business relationship,” he continued. 

“When you can speak Bahasa Indonesia fluently, I believe you have a major advantage in building competitive business relationships in Indonesia.”

The Senator signed off by wishing all those in attendence a wonderful evening of cultural exchange.

And now to the awardees.


The winner in the Primary category was Jake Wherrett, aged 11, who has lived in both Australia and Indonesia. Jake’s submission was smart and creative, characterised by the brilliant conceit of Jake playing the role of an Indonesian teacher instructing his class about his favourite fruit, the Buah Delima (Pomegranate). His curious students included Nibbles, Sunny and Sky, with Sky being the more attentive and scholarly of the three. Jake received $300 dollars for his winning submission. 

Cameron Leggat, a Year 9 student from Perth, took out the Middle category with a sharp and detailed analysis of the health effects of online culture on society. Interestingly, Cameron focused on both the positive and negative aspects of our new online world rather than simply emphasising one view or the other. There are manifold manfaat (benefits) that are nonetheless shadowed by the ever-present spectre of kecanduan (addiction). Cameron’s nuanced grappling of the pros and cons of these new technological realities won him $500 for his submission. 

The Senior category was won by Oliver Gunthorpe with a remarkably fluent and intricate submission. Speaking from Bandung, Oliver spoke at length about the corrosive health effects of smoking on the Indonesian nation and how this raksasa (giant) might be subdued and defeated. A particularly poetic and jarring phrase embedded in his speech:

Merokok membahayakan jutaan orang setiap hari, dan sedikit demi sedikit, membunuh jiwa negara ini.

“Smoking endangers millions of people every day, and little by little, kills the soul of this nation.” 

Oliver spoke for five minutes in beautiful Bahasa, and his $800 prize money was well deserved. 

Charlie Barnes, an Economics and Asian Studies student at ANU, claimed first position in the Tertiary category. Speaking for over six minutes, Charlie discussed the dangers of smoking and how Indonesia might learn from the successful strategies and policies pursued by the Australian government to reduce the prevalence of smoking across Australia. A composition dedicated to how the Australian and Indonesian governments might learn from one another’s successes was a wise and welcome addition to the night’s speeches, and Charlie earned his prize of $1,000. 

Finally, the Wild Card category was taken out by a group production featuring Eve, Tabitha, She-Ro and Xian. Ostensibly recorded in Depok, the background of the video seemed more surburban Australian than surburban Jakarta, but the excellence of the Bahasa made it feel like a regular day in Indonesia’s mammoth metroplis. It was wonderful to see friends come together and create something with Indonesian at the center, and the reward of $1,000 dollars was well-deserved. 

Altogether, some $3,600 was awared throughout the night. We here at Asia Options hope the winners will sensibly re-invest their prize money in batik shirts and Indonesian dictionaries, but it’s not for us to determine. And though it is natural and right that the winners of each category should receive special recognition, we salute all those entered, and hope most of all to see entry numbers push up towards 200 for NAILA 2021.


A feeling perhaps shared by many of us who fall in love with Indonesia is the sense that we have discovered something truly grand and majestic that is also strangely hidden, as though we have passed suddenly through Eveyln Waugh’s low door in the wall and a new world has unfurled itself before us and within us.

At a time when Indonesian language-learning programs are being culled throughout Australia, most recently at La Trobe University and Swinburne University, it is thrilling to see young Australians learning Indonesian. With it, a new world is open to them, and in their hands, the possibility of a more prosperous age of Australian-Indonesian relations. 

Until we meet again for NAILA 2021, selamat belajar!

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Duncan Evans

Duncan holds a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in United States Studies, both from the University of Sydney. In addition to Asia Options, Duncan is presently employed as a journalist with CQ Today, a regional paper based in Rockhampton which distributes across Central Queensland. Following university, Duncan spent over three years living and working in Indonesia, including some two years working as an editor, translator and writer for the Jakarta Post. His fascination with Indonesia developed almost immediately. With Asia Options, Duncan hopes to introduce other young Australians to the country in the hope that they too will experience the same awe and exhilaration he felt living and working in this beautiful, complex and majestic nation.

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