Aubrey Belford grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney, and studied a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. It wasn’t until his third year that he began studying Indonesia, taking up a course on Indonesian politics by Ed Aspinall. ‘I quickly became obsessed, and managed to squeeze myself in as a student in a beginner-level Bahasa Indonesia course’. Aubrey went on to take a month’s intensive Indonesian study in Salatiga, West Java, before completing an honours year in history.
Describe your experience working in Indonesia so far.
I moved to Indonesia shortly after graduating in 2006. I wanted to work in journalism, and was doing grunt work at the ABC at the time. I took a look at the career options available, which pretty much all involved moving to country towns, and decided I’d try my luck in Indonesia instead. I sent an email to the chief editor at the Jakarta Post, Endy Bayuni, and got a job as a copy editor at the Jakarta Post.
I had traveled around Java and Nusa Tenggara before, but I had little idea of what living in Jakarta would be like. I ended up being surprised by how much I loved it. My job at the Jakarta Post was pretty basic – correcting English mistakes and trying to bash stories into more readable structures – but it gave me an excellent primer on what was going on here. Studying in Sydney and Salatiga had given me enough Indonesian to find my way around but, more importantly, it have given me the full rundown on how Indonesian grammar works. I found that I was able to become fluent much quicker than I would otherwise because I was able to understand the logic of the language. I can’t stress how important that was.
After about 8 months at the Jakarta Post, I got myself a job with Agence France-Presse as a correspondent. I was 23 at the time, and my only real claim to the job was that I spoke Indonesian. I wasn’t quite fluent yet, but I was getting there. After two years at AFP, I went freelance, and then onto a series of gigs that included the International Herald Tribune / The New York Times, The Global Mail, and, now, Reuters. My work has brought me to most countries in Asia, and I have dipped my toe in the Middle East. Through it all, I have been based in Indonesia, and every time my Indonesian-language skills and familiarity with the country have been what has won me the jobs. There is a limited pool of people with these skills, so as I result jobs have usually come looking for me, rather than the other way around.
Right now I’m brand new in my position at Reuters. The job is as a “special correspondent” for Southeast Asia, which means focusing on big stories and investigations. I don’t know how long I’ll be at it, but it looks like fun.
What are your general thoughts on Indonesia?
I’ve always loved Indonesia because it combines the best of what I’m looking for in a country. Yes, it’s chaotic and dysfunctional, but it’s also cosmopolitan. You can get decent cocktails here, as well as riots (journalists love both). Indonesia has strong local cutlures but is also one of the most open places to outside influences. Asia, the West and the Middle East are all exerting their gravitational pulls on this place.
My dream itinerary at this stage would probably be Maluku. It’s the part of Indonesia that I still haven’t had the chance to check out and I know it needs a lot of time to fully appreciate.
I think it’s inevitable that Indonesia is going to become more important, both economically and politically. But I’m definitely not a pure optimist on the country. Indonesia’s rise is in many ways a result of geography, resource and demographics, not governance. There is the distinct possibility that Indonesia will be a less democratic country in five years. There’s also the risk that it will go through spasms of instability. Right now the country’s elite has worked out a way of doing things that works out very well for people at the top, but not so much for people at the bottom. This state of affairs is going to have to change at some stage.
Do you have any practical advice for young Australians?
My practical advice is focus on getting your Indonesian basics right and doing it sooner rather than later. I have friends who have been here as long as I have but still struggle with the language because they didn’t do formal study at the start.
My other bit of advice is to get over here and jump in it. Find an opportunity, even if it isn’t ideal, and use it as a launching pad for other things. Jakarta is a small town and the rest of Indonesia is even smaller, so people are constantly sharing opportunities.