*This interview first appeared on the Australia Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA) website on 10 May 2019
Welcome to the Career Champion Series! This series is dedicated to the contributions of those who provide inspiration and enhance understanding between Australians and Indonesians. Celebrating the work and dedication they have put in, we featured their profile at AIYA Blog.
This week we are joined by Melissa Crouch. Associate Professor Melissa Crouch is based at the Law Faculty of the University of New South Wales, Australia. Working closely to the socio-legal field research in Southeast Asia, Melissa pays particular attention to constitutional and legal developments in Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly. Her research has been published in leading academic journals including the International Journal of Constitutional Law, the Sydney Law Review, and Asian Studies Review.
How did you become interested in Indonesia?
I studied Indonesian in high school and then continued to advance my language skills at university through an Arts/Law degree. I first went to Indonesia on a school trip and then went most summers during my undergraduate degree. One of my part-time jobs while at university was to teach Bahasa Indonesia at a primary and secondary school.
In 2006-2007, I was also part of the Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP), which is an incredible program supported by both governments that takes young Australians to Indonesia for two months with both a city and village experience, work placements and homestay.
Tell me how you became an expert on Indonesian Law.
During my undergraduate degree, I found my real interest in subjects on Asian Law. One summer, I was also able to do a student internship with the first provincial Ombudsman in Yogyakarta. The best part was when the Sultan of Yogyakarta came to the Office of the Ombudsman to be questioned on his role in a major telecommunications corruption scandal. The fact that he responded to the authority of the Ombudsman gave real credibility to this new independent accountability institution.
I also had the opportunity to work as a Research Fellow at the Asian Law Centre and Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at Melbourne Law School. It was a privilege to have a job where I could advance my interests and knowledge in Indonesian law and Islamic law, and Southeast Asian legal traditions more broadly.
How did you end up as an academic focusing on Indonesian Law?
My career path was certainly not planned, but after working in a law firm, I discovered that academia would really allow me to do the mix of things that I enjoy – research, writing and teaching on Southeast Asia. My PhD examined the judicialization of religion in Indonesia since 1998, which resulted in my book “Law and Religion in Indonesia”. The key findings from my study have ongoing significance for contemporary politics in Indonesia. I collated the first ever data on blasphemy trials in Indonesia (this was before the Ahok case). I was also able to show how the combination of democracy, decentralization and a history of tensions between Muslims and Christians had contributed to the rise of litigation on religious matters.
After the PhD I held academic jobs at the International Institute of Asian Studies (Leiden) and the Centre for Asian Legal Studies at the National University of Singapore. Being in the region for three years was an invaluable experience. As an academic, I get to teach subjects on Southeast Asian law and supervise PhD students, including from Indonesia.
What does your average week look like now?
Academia can vary greatly, but combines a mix of teaching, research and service. I travel regularly to Southeast Asia for field research. I am on the Board of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, which is the peak academic body to promote the study of Asia at Australian universities. I was also part of the consultation board that established the Law Practicum for the Australia Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies in 2018. I am currently facilitating the Women in Asia Conference at UNSW in June 2019, which is an opportunity to support and promote the study of women in Asia (students can volunteer for the event).
Academia also allows you room to pursue your own research interests. One of my recent research projects is a reflection on the past twenty years of court reform in Indonesia and a chance to re-examine the work of the Indonesianist Prof Dan S Lev (The Politics of Courts: Judicial Change and Legal Culture in Indonesia CUP 2019).
What is your favourite part of Indonesia?
I enjoy the diversity of Indonesia, from the Malukus to Sulawesi to Bali to South Kalimantan and West Java. The time I have spent in Ternate and Manado has been particularly memorable.
Melissa (sitting third from right) at an Academic Conference in Indonesia
What advice would you give students who have an interest in Indonesia?
Learn Indonesian because language skills are an incredible asset on so many levels and it will be well-worth your efforts. Pursue work, exchange and volunteer opportunities that enable you to enhance your interests in Indonesia and apply your knowledge of its complex social, political, economic and historical environment. In the past, I undertook internships with the Ombudsman, with a law firm, and at the Religious Courts in Banjarmasin, among other things. There are so many opportunities now – from the New Colombo Plan and ACICIS program to AIYEP.
Stick with your commitments to people and place, even when its not fashionable. My PhD topic on the blasphemy law in Indonesia was not in trend when I did the PhD. But when the former Governor of Jakarta, Ahok, was convicted in 2017 for blasphemy, then suddenly everyone was interested in the topic. Continue to be open to learning and show respect and appreciation for new ideas and perspectives on life.
Why do you think the number of Australian students undertaking Indonesian studies (language or general interests) keeps declining?
Many Australians have misperceptions and negative views of Indonesia. This is shown in studies like the Lowy Institute 2017 poll, when only 27% of Australian’s surveyed said that Indonesia was a democracy (despite the transition to democracy taking place since 1998). When asked whether they admired President Joko Widodo, almost half of the Australian respondents said they didn’t know. There is also the issue of incentives and this requires effort across sectors. Schools and universities need to make it easier for students to study Indonesian early on and to keep studying it at advanced levels. This also requires strong government backing and funding.
What advice would you offer to both Australia and Indonesia youth?
Australia and Indonesia need young people to use their ideas and creativity and energy to enhance the relationship between the two countries. It’s the youth who can really lead the way in forging stronger relationships, deeper social connections and understanding, and more meaningful forms of engagement across the two countries.
What is your opinion on the future of Australia-Indonesia relations?
This is the Asian Century, and the region is only going to increase in importance to Australia over time. Indonesia is a critical neighbor and regional partner. It is imperative for the Australian government to reinvigorate Indonesian language learning in Australia and invest in institutions and incentives that enhance knowledge about the people, cultures and history of Indonesia.
I am encouraged to see the many ways that people-to-people initiatives are flourishing, like the UNSW ASEAN Society, a student led association that works to promote and foster understanding and links with people and countries in ASEAN. AIYA is of course another wonderful example!