NSW town becomes ‘Kampung Indonesia’

A regional town in NSW has become a hub for Indonesian culture and language in the past decade, a utopia for Australians and Indonesians wishing to connect, or reconnect, with Indonesia.


Courtesy: Scotts Head High School

Students of Scotts Head Public School experience Indonesian culture in the classroom and during extracurricular events

Scotts Head is a small regional town in the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it is home to 899 residents, a demographic categorized by a majority of English and Irish heritage.

Former teacher Bibi Ahmed introduced Indonesian language to Scotts Head. Her own journey with Indonesian began in Year 7, when she was introduced to four language tasters including Indonesian. It became her favourite school subject which she continued to learn in university.

Ahmed’s first time visiting Indonesia was during her university holidays. She would spend these six-week breaks traversing Indonesia every year. After graduating, she worked as an interpreter with the United Nations in East Timor between 2000 and 2002. As Indonesia became even more dear to Ahmed, upon her return to Scotts Head, she felt a great urge to “bring Indonesia to her”.

“I needed some kind of a job and I needed some way to connect with Indonesia in a small isolated coastal area with no Indonesians at the time, and no way of using Indonesian,” she said.

On her daily surfing trips at home, Ahmed recalls greeting people on the beach with selamat pagi (good morning) and receiving puzzled reactions. “Now we have a whole town where everyone knows what selamat pagi means,” she explains.

Ahmed would spend time looking for work and took interest in one opportunity to introduce Indonesian language learning in her son’s school. She approached Angie Evans, who was the principal of Scotts Head Public School, and asked to teach immersive Indonesian classes. Evans welcomed the offer with excitement knowing full well the potential of language education.

“I thought of how I could use my skills here, and teaching was the only way I could think of,” said Ahmed.

Getting into schools

The NSW government provided a 2.25 million grant to establish a bilingual education program that would teach subjects in an Asian language, along with English, in selected primary schools. Ahmed applied on behalf of the school.

In 2010, Scotts Head Public School became the first and only Indonesian bilingual school in Australia. The response from the parents was overwhelmingly positive, although some had concerns that the change could interfere with their children’s education. The new school principal, Annette Balfour, notes that these concerns no longer exist as the success of the program reassured parents of the children’s capacity to learn in two languages simultaneously.

“The program has evidenced itself in its capacity to actually support students in a broader context, in all the areas,” said Balfour.

Indonesian learning is not restricted to the language. Traditional art, dance and music are incorporated in classrooms to ensure a holistic learning experience for the students, in addition to interacting with the Indonesian community and enjoying food during festivals and cultural days.

“If you ask the students what they like about Indonesia, it’ll be Bakso (meatball) Day, the food, some of them love the dancing, or the singing, or getting to dress up,” said Balfour.

When asked about students’ fluency in Indonesian, Ahmed explained “It was not so much how much of the language they remembered but how much they enjoyed speaking, singing, dancing, playing in Indonesian and meeting Indonesian people and learning about different ways of looking at the world.”

This was only possible through the work of Indonesian families. Indonesian language teacher Emily Brien explains that the local community are supportive of the bilingual program and many parents have been encouraging their children to participate in extracurricular cultural activities.

“It’s a very unique opportunity in a regional area, I think kids don’t get as much exposure to another language and to another culture,” said Brien.

The founder and director of Suara Indonesia Dance, Alfira O’Sullivan and her husband, Murtala, an Acehnese dance choreographer, are among the families who recently moved to Scotts Head. They have been leading the cultural education at Scotts Head through their dance and music programs. Initially, the couple used to run dance workshops at local schools, years before being convinced by Ahmed to make the town their new home.

“We have been lucky enough to relocate to rural NSW and my son goes to Scotts Head Public School,” said O’Sullivan.

Relocating to Scotts Head facilitated an opportunity for their children to learn both English and Indonesian as part of their mainstream education.

“Sometimes language at home is not enough so we wanted a curriculum that supports bilingual learning,” she notes.

O’Sullivan recalls growing up among a vibrant Indonesian community in Sydney, and hopes to recreate a similar atmosphere in Scotts Head. She is inviting more Indonesian families to relocate to the town, and help Indonesian culture to flourish there.

Brien adds that sometimes she feels she does not bring enough authenticity in the classroom as a non-Indonesian teaching the language. “It’s great that we’ve got some people in our community like Alfira, Murtala and Bibi who can bring it to life with the culture,” she said.

Changing perceptions

In the past five years, Scotts Head has seen an influx of families with an Indonesian background settling in the town. Scotts Head is now a destination for families wanting to teach their children Indonesian and to maintain a type of connection with their Indonesian heritage. The regional town has also been welcoming Indonesians from all over the state for Indonesian festivals and open days.

Murtala currently teaches at the school when he’s not on dance tours, or running workshops and festivals. O’Sullivan has taken it upon herself to showcase the diversity of Indonesian culture and facilitate cultural exchange. Through their art incursions, they hope to bring change to the declining, or non-existent, Indonesian language and culture in Australian schools.

The perception about Indonesia in Australia has not always been the best. According to the Lowy Institute, more than half of Australians surveyed have a negative perception of Indonesia and the majority are unaware of basic facts about the country.

“I think breaking the stigma about Indonesia is easier when you start with younger audiences, those kids will hopefully go to their parents and teach them, so the cycle starts,” said O’Sullivan.

Since the establishment of Suara Dance Indonesia in 2001, the couple visited over 265 schools in Australia teaching contemporary Indonesian dance, mainly inspired by Acehnese traditional dance.

“People are generally really receptive and open to learning more about Indonesia and sometimes a little embarrassed that they know so little about one of their nearest neighbours,” said O’Sullivan.

The scope of Indonesian influence has surpassed primary school. The residents are now able to purchase all ingredients needed to cook Indonesian dishes from the local Indonesian grocery store. They are also able to enjoy various Indonesian dishes from an Indonesian food truck run by an Indonesian family who moved there a few years ago.

The success of the bilingual program was recognised and celebrated by the Indonesian embassy and consulate as well members of the Australian Parliament. Despite this, regular funding has become an issue as the school is required to request funding for the program on a yearly basis.

“We have expert teaching staff but what we don’t have, which could let the program down, is guaranteed funding for the program to continue,” said Balfour.

The uncertainty of whether funding will be granted threatens the future of the program and the Indonesian cultural engagement so prized at Scotts Head.

The former Consulate-General of Indonesia in Sydney, Mr Heru Hartanto Subolo, visited the school on multiple occasions, with the ASYIK festival last May being the most recent. The festival, hosted by the primary school and organised by Suara Dance Indonesia, featured Indonesian music, dance, food and art activities. The students wore traditional Indonesian clothes and danced to the rhythms of Achenese music as the audience who came from all over NSW cheered in delight.

“[The community members will] come to the performances at school and to the Indonesian nights, so it’s sort of becoming what Pak Mur calls ‘Kampung Indonesia,” said Ahmed.


This article was previously published in The Jakarta Post