Published: May 17, 2019

Anita Dewi

Bridges of Friendship provides an excellent reminder of the strength and importance of relationships between people of different cultures. The book offers stories of the connections between the peoples and cultures of Australia and Indonesia, bridging various modes of writing in doing so, namely academic, historical and reflective.

One story describes the early years of Indonesian independence as witnessed by Jo Kurnianingrat, an Indonesian woman and hero of the Independence movement, who played an early role in the Australian Volunteer Graduate Scheme. The scheme was an Australian initiative, created in collaboration with some key figures in Indonesia in the 1950s, of whom Jo was one. The friendships formed between Australians and Indonesians at this time have endured, forming the bedrock for generations of people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part includes Betty Feith’s masters thesis on the origins of the scheme, titled An Episode in Education for International Understanding: The Volunteer Graduate Scheme in Indonesia 1950-63 – ‘Putting in a Stitch or Two. There was no parent organisation overseeing the scheme in the beginning of its implementation, and so the focus is on the creation of the program, initiated by just a handful of volunteers and their supporters, and its institutional and day-to-day operations. Aspects highlighted include salaries for the Australian volunteers, their living conditions, the terms of employment, rules about leave and resignation, and also responsibilities of the host institutions. From the beginning a somewhat unusual decision was made that the foreigner-volunteers were employed as ‘locals’. This meant that unlike other expatriates in Indonesia, they received an equal salary to that of local colleagues.

Part two is a reminiscence and memoir written by Jo Kurnianingrat between 1991 and 1993, with the encouragement of her good friend Ailsa Zainuddin (nee Thomson). Jo was an extraordinary figure in that although she was a Javanese regent’s daughter (hence the expectation to abide by strict Javanese tradition) she was open-minded and worldly. Jo lived through difficult periods in Indonesia’s history (1919 to the early 1950s) to emerge as a successful student and rise to become the deputy head of the English Language Inspectorate of the Ministry of Education, Instruction and Culture (IPBI). In 1949, the minister of education, Ali Sastroamijoyo (who coincidentally later became Jo’s husband), chose her as the recipient for one of the very first Australian government scholarships to study in Indonesia.

The third and final part of the book provides background to the period when Kurnianingrat wrote her reminiscences. Made up of Jo’s correspondence with Ailsa Zainuddin in the early 1990s, the letters reveal stories from their time working together at the English Language Inspectorate, and a lifetime of friendship since then. This part of the book, told through letters exchanged by these two friends – one Australian and one Indonesian – offers a sociohistorical account of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia, and Australia and Asia.

Bridges of Friendship provides many insights into Indonesia and Australia, and into how these two nations were situated in Asia, in a way that is both academic and personal. The shifts in writing style, between academic, historical and reflective, give the book a down-to-earth feeling. It is highly recommended for those wanting to understand the ups and downs of interactions and relations between the two countries.

Ann McCarthy and Ailsa Thomson, Bridges of Friendship: Reflections on Indonesia’s Early Independence and Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Scheme (Includes Writings from Betty Feith and Kurnianingrat Ali Sastroamijoyo) , Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Victoria, Australia, 2017.

Anita Dewi (anita.dewi@monash.edu) is a research and learning coordinator at the Sir Louis Matheson Library at Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 136: Apr-Jun 2019