Joel Backwell, who grew up Breamlea in southern Victoria, studied Arts/Law at Monash University, majoring in Indonesian language, history and politics. After graduation, Joel worked for Freehills (now Herbert Smith Freehills) as a lawyer, which included stints in Jakarta with Indonesian law firm Soemadipradja & Taher and Santos, a major Australian oil and gas company. From 2010-12, Joel worked as a senior policy adviser in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet, and contributed to a number of Victoria’s international engagement policies.

Joel has long been a passionate advocate for the Australia-Indonesia relationship, presenting at language and cultural forums across Melbourne, and has spent a significant period of time in Indonesia providing pro bono legal advice to members of the ‘Bali 9’. Adding another string to his already impressive bow, Joel was recently appointed as the Assistant Trade Commissioner to Malaysia and Brunei and will move to Kuala Lumpur in May 2013 to take up the role. Joel sat down with the AIYA team to talk about his Indonesia experiences.

Tell us a little about your experiences in Indonesia to date?

I first went to Indonesia when I was 16 on a scholarship with the Victorian Department of Education where I went to school and did a homestay in Bandung. This was the point at which I first became really interested in Indonesia and I subsequently went back on two other exchange programs – first with AIYEP (the Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program) in 2001-02 and then with ACICIS (the Indonesian in-country program at Gadjah Mada University) in 2002-03.

After finishing university, I began work as a solicitor for Freehills which opened up a number of doors to working in the legal profession in Indonesia. For example, in 2007 I was seconded to Santos by Freehills for three months to work on the Sidoarjo mudflow disaster, which saw me assisting with negotiations and liaising with the Indonesian government on a liability settlement and compensation package for affected villagers.

Similarly, since 2006 I have worked with a group of Melbourne barristers in representing a number of Australians currently on death row in Indonesia for narcotics crimes. Needless to say, my Indonesian fluency and understanding of Indonesian law, cultural and politics has been critical in my ability to pursue these opportunities.

While I didn’t use my Indonesian language skills directly in my previous job in the public service, my understanding of Indonesia and the region generally was still extremely useful, particularly in the development of Victoria’s country strategies and policies for improving our engagement with Asia. It was also an important factor in me being selected for the Asialink Leaders Program in 2011.

I have recently accepted a job as Assistant Trade Commissioner to Malaysia, commencing in 2013. My language skills were a key component in me getting this job, given that Malay is very similar to Indonesian, and I anticipate that knowing the language will give me an important edge in my new role.

What do you enjoy most about Indonesia?

The two things I enjoy most about working and living in Indonesia are (a) the people: always so friendly, welcoming and willing to share their homes, lives and ideas with those who show an interest in their country and their culture; and (b) the fact that no two days are ever the same – some people see the jumbled, haphazard craziness of a city like Jakarta as challenging, but for me it is so exciting to walk out of your house or hotel each morning knowing that anything could happen and that the monotony of Western life is very far away.

Practical advice?

I could think of nothing more valuable right now than learning Indonesian. Some would argue that Chinese is more important – and in some ways it is – but the reality is that every country in the world is focussed on China right now, so we are competing against a large group of people, whereas people are only just beginning to take notice of the opportunities that Indonesia offers and Australia’s close proximity to Indonesia gives us a huge advantage in this regard. Anyone who wants to work in the law, in export and trade, and in government, will have ample opportunities to work in and with Indonesia in the years to come. This will be driven by pull factors (such as Indonesia’s growing economy and middle class) and push factors (such as the policies coming out of the Asian Century White Paper).

The best advice I would give to those wanting to pursue careers in Indonesia is get yourselves over there! The best thing you can do is jump on a plane, familiarise yourself with different parts of Indonesia (not just Bali and Java), improve your language skills and immerse yourself in the culture and customs of the country. Back home, get involved in things like AIYA, Indonesian film nights, cultural events at your nearest Indonesian Consulate, etc. Look around for funding or scholarship opportunities to go and live, travel or study in Indonesia. There are plenty around and their number will only grow. Remember too that you can get a job teaching English for example and live quite well in a place like Indonesia where the cost of living is quite low and airfares are ridiculously cheap, so you don’t need to have a huge bank account to be able to spend some quality time there.

Finally, what would be your ideal itinerary for a one-month trip in Indonesia?

A dream 4-week itinerary would involve flying into Lombok to ease my way into the weather and pace of life, hopping across to Surabaya and catching a boat to Makassar, doing 2 weeks overland through Sulawesi up to Manado, flying to Jakarta to catch up with friends and former colleagues, hopping across to the seaside village of Banding in Southern Lampung by fast ferry and angkot, and then finishing up for a weekend with my host family in Bandung.