Jacqui Baker teaches and researches Indonesian politics and society at the Australian National University in Canberra. She was a speaker at the first CAUSINDY conference in 2013. Jacqui also is an editor of the ANU New Mandala blog’s Indonesia coverage.

We caught up with Jacqui to chat about her own Indonesia career journey.

Jacqui Baker at the ANU in Canberra

Tell us a bit about your background. What did you study, and where did you begin your career after you graduated?

I’m from Darwin. Asia is in my blood and my geography. I did a double degree in Arts (Political Science)/Asian Studies, focusing on Indonesian, here at the ANU. For my first years at university, I was a terrible student. I got good grades, but I sat up the back, coasted through on a superficial understanding and set about trying to do the least work possible. I studied Bahasa with Amrih Widodo and have tried to apologise to him ever since.

Then I did the ACICIS program and came back with my eyes wide open. It was only after I developed a very strong emotional response to Indonesia that I was really motivated and started applying myself. I knew my life would revolve completely around Indonesia when I graduated.

Those were the days of Austudy and still I waitressed 30 hours a week in Garema place so I could save money to spend my summers volunteering in Indonesia. Suffice to say, between shift work and Asian studies, I was pretty much the least fun person on campus.

That said, all the contacts and the networking meant that I walked straight into a job even before I left university. My first position was as a researcher at the Commission for Truth, Reception and Reconciliation in Dili, Timor Leste. Later, I started working as a program officer for the Asia Foundation on their innovative Islam and Civil Society program. Both were transformational experiences.

I received a Sir John Monash award in 2004 and with it a scholarship to any international university I liked. The board that chose me precisely because of my skill set in Indonesia. I went to the London School of Economics and did a Masters in Social Anthropology and then a PhD in Govenrment. Now that I think about it, this was a pretty dull use of total freedom. London was great, but I wish I could have thought my choices through with a bit more gumption and innovation. I could have studied Arabic in Cairo! The board didn’t mind one bit. Let that be a lesson to you, never do something the ordinary way, when you can do it the extraordinary way.

Tell us about your current job. Where are you working, and what do you do? Do you use your Indonesian experience in this position?

I’ve been blessed to get the opportunity to teach Indonesian politics at the ANU, a course I took as an undergraduate under Anne Kumar. I still remember Greg Fealy’s first guest lecture! I think its amazing the way even doing something that I’d say I’m relatively well qualified to do opens up such opportunities to deepen my knowledge about Indonesia. Preparing lectures and teaching has taught me so much about Indonesia and indulged my interests in filling the gaps and different angles. I just want students to feel the same boundless curiosity for the country as I do.

How did you find your current job? Why do you think you were successful in getting the position?

The Indonesia network is a big but cosy one and they always welcome new members. It’s made of bureaucrats, academics, journalists, NGO workers, teachers, artists, all brought together by a mutual passion for Indonesia. For over fifteen years, that network has inspired me, kept me sane, bought me beers, got me jobs, and dragged me to Stadium nightclub. I wouldn’t advise you to “network”, which has a kind of glossy pamphlet feel about it. I’d advise you look around you, reach out and see who shares your passion. Treasure those connections. They will get you jobs, but more importantly, they’ll be there for you on your journey.

Jacqui in Jakarta, conducting a interview for her radio documentary.

What do you think your next move will be?

My scholarship was for young Australian leaders. I never really understood what that meant. Had I made it? Was I going to make it? Did they think I had potential? It was an amazing opportunity, but there’s a huge burden in anointing someone so young with “success”. Somewhere in between getting the scholarship and finishing my PhD, I started to fear that I didn’t seem to have done anything that young leaders do. I don’t have medals or and don’t appear on prime ministerial roll calls. My life seemed incredibly undistinguished. I could barely articulate what is it that I contributed to the world. I just liked hanging out in Indonesia.

Thinking about my career in terms of what I “should” be doing to earn my scholarship or how other “leaders” viewed me left me in a cold sweat.  In this period, I made loads of decisions about my career which I regret. They were either motivated by fear of the challenge ahead or by my imagining how other perceived me. Being anointed a “leader” left me scared to fail, in case people started realising that I wasn’t that good after all. I started running away from challenges. I stopped doing stuff just because I liked it or because I wanted to grow and develop myself.  Whatever my next move is, if it doesn’t excite passion and the thrill of challenge, well, what’s the point?

So, what do you enjoy most—and least—about living and working in Indonesia?

I miss walking. But that’s a small price to pay for the sheer joy of Indonesia’s chaos and unpredictability.

My partner is Italian. He speaks no Indonesian and only worked out that Indonesia wasn’t Malaysia about three years after we started dating (and even then he gets confused). He can’t speak Bahasa and he doesn’t know how to get himself around outside of navigating to Starbucks. And yet, when we go to Indonesia on fieldwork he says that I am a different person, a person he likes a lot more than her English-speaking variant. He says I always seem to be smiling when I talk, I laugh a lot more and don’t get too worried about things.

Having an Indonesian self is like an alter ego that’s way cooler, funnier and sassier than your ordinary self.

If you had four weeks to travel in Indonesia, where would you go?

The Alors. No need to hotfoot it around. Four weeks to sit in one place and observe the life from another community’s eyes is a rare joy.

Share your thoughts on Indonesia’s future—in terms of politics, the economy, culture, etc.

What is this, New Mandala?

What kind of opportunities do you see in your field of work for young Australians with an interest in Indonesia—and vice versa?

When I was a wee thing, growing up in Darwin, Keating was PM. He said Australia is part of Asia. I looked outside at the hibiscus and the laksa markets, I looked at my sarong-wearing, mango-farming white dad and my parang-weilding Dayak mother and thought he was stating the obvious.

Ten years later, when I came to ANU, the country was on the cusp of a Howard government and people were still talking about the rise of Asia and Australia’s strategic ties with Indonesia. I remember Virginia Hooker explaining Indonesian verbs to us with the opening sentence: “now, when you’re all translators for Defence…”

I went away for ten years living in Indonesia and Europe and returned in 2011. I was gobsmacked to find that the discussion about our relationship with Asia had not moved an inch but merely been recycled into different rhetoric, this time the “Asian Century”. I’d never heard that term in Europe, or in Asia, but here was Australia banging on about it.

Meanwhile, I was horrified to find most Indonesian studies had folded and enrolments were down. People seemed to know even less and care even less about Indonesia than when I left as a young adult in the early 2000s and certainly less than when I was chubby little 9 year old in the 80s. If anything the curiosity of the 1970s and 80s had bedded down into some very Orientalist ideas of how to approach the relationship.

Every decade, a new political generation seems to discover Asia anew, brush it off and present it as if it were some great innovation. We’ve been educating young Australians for years about Asia and yet this has also not had the critical mass effect it should have.

Why is this the case? I think this is because as young people committed to the region get older, the options to work in Indonesia are actually very narrow.  And as you rise the ranks in the workforce, Indonesia skills aren’t as valued as other skills or they aren’t valued at all.

The fact is that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is pretty stunted. If anything, it’s shrunk to a few sectors. If you’re interested in Indonesia, it often seems that academia, NGOs, big business, political risk consultancies or the public sector are the only ways to get paid to do what you love.

But why is it left to these often archaic, quite hierarchical sectors to innovate, complicate and deepen the relationship? This is a relationship based principally on charity, diplomacy and a particular kind of business. That’s really not much of a relationship. Why should the bilateral relationship dictate the contours of our engagement? How do we find work that rides on the passion we feel for Indonesia? This is the challenge.

So to come back to your question: I think there are myriad opportunities to carve a career out of an Australia-Indonesia relationship – in whatever sector takes your fancy; media, animation, literature, art, food, travel, new technologies, new business models, education. But doing that is going to require that we step away from the path well trodden and start making our own opportunities.

Monash, Paul Wright Photography, Knox Grammar 22nd May

Jacqui giving her address at the 2014 John Monash Commemorative service. Photo: Paul Wright Photography

I have an American girlfriend who quit her Anthropology PhD midway through and returned to the mid-West. It seemed crazy.

We all wondered, how on earth would she get on as a half trained academic in a pretty narrow and unpractical discipline. But she started a business as anthropologist, selling her skills to business. She wrote her own job description and impressed upon her employers why they needed her. She now runs a pretty successful consultancy business now and has the flexibility to move the direction of her skill set to wherever she likes.

We have to be the innovators. Asian Century or not, Australia isn’t suddenly going to value your skill-set. Like my crazy anthropologist friend, you need to tell your employers why they need you and why they need Indonesia.

This means you need to seriously do your homework about your employers, observe the gaps and sell your passion and skill set. Don’t sit around politely waiting for them to launch their big Indonesia project and then jump on board. You’re going to have to spoon feed them the Kool-aid.

Better yet, make your own job. Build good relationships in-country. That will take years and years, but always be on the look out for collaborators, and think about what yo can make together, and what kinds of ventures you can embark upon. This sounds awfully cliched, but be the change you want to see.

How useful have your Indonesian skills been for finding work in your industry?

Because I’ve been the development and academic sectors, I sell my knowledge of Indonesia.

That said, I have done a lot of different things with my skill set – development and program management, education, academic research, human rights research, but all strictly focused on Indonesia. Last year, I had the unique experience of collaborating with Radio National and a radio academic, Siobhan McHugh, to make a radio documentary, Eat, Pray, Mourn, on human rights and the poor.

This was probably the first time I worked with people who weren’t intrinsically interested in Indonesia. They had a worldly focus, but Siobhan used to laugh that she hadn’t even been Bali and yet here she was, knee-deep in tape having to edit sound in Sundanese. It was painstaking work but I found collaboration to be interesting, because I constantly had to explain my knowledge and justify why some choices are better than others in crafting the documentary.  I think all the non-Indonesia focused people on that project left the project feeling curious about this magical, mysterious and thrilling neighbour.

So other sectors aren’t wired to an Asian sensibility. You have to infect them with your own passion for Indonesia and why they need that regional breadth. At every point in the way, think about how you can invite Indonesia and your networks there into your work.

Given the opportunity again, what would you do differently?

Ach, this kind of question can only be written by someone who is yet to have regrets.

Many thanks to Jacqui Baker for giving up her time to answer our questions.