Australia will spend $500 million building 2000 schools in Indonesia in an effort to improve the prospects of Indonesia’s youth and moderate the influence of the country’s religious schools.
The five-year initiative was announced yesterday at a joint press conference by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. A commitment to forge a broader economic relationship was endorsed, and people-smuggling and the fate of Schapelle Corby and the Bali nine were also discussed.
After Dr Yudhoyono urged Australia not to “pressure” it after a video showing Indonesian soldiers torturing Papuans became public, Ms Gillard did raise the issue but only to praise the Indonesians for bringing the soldiers to trial.
Ms Gillard has frequently expressed her passion for education, saying it trumped her interests in foreign affairs. In Jakarta yesterday, she combined the two as she announced the $500 million package for Indonesia’s schools.
“My firm belief is that the future of our two countries will be determined largely by what is happening in the schools of each of our nations today,” she said.
The program to build 2000 new schools–providing places for more than 300,000 junior secondary school students–and upgrade the curriculum of another 1500 Islamic schools builds on a successful program already being run by AusAID. Australia has already funded the construction of 2000 primary level schools.
Indonesia’s Islamic schools are largely moderate in outlook but there have been pockets of radicalism that have produced terrorists in Indonesia, most notably the cleric Abu Bakar Bashir’s school in Ngruki, central Java, where some of the Bali bombers studied.
The Islamic schools have been poorly regulated and the standard of education has been low.
By paying for 1500 madrasah, as the schools are also known, to adopt Indonesia’s national curriculum, students will receive a more traditional education in the sciences, history and humanities and not focus so heavily on studying the Koran.
The two countries also announced the commencement of negotiations for a “comprehensive economic partnership”, which aims to go beyond a traditional free trade agreement and build a “higher level and mutually beneficial economic partnership”.
The economic ties between the countries–while growing–have lagged behind other aspects of the relationship.
Diplomats said that while the agreement went beyond a traditional free trade agreement, negotiations could be tricky as Indonesia still has strong protectionist instincts.
As for the fate of the Australian drug smugglers imprisoned in Indonesia, Dr Yudhoyono gave little indication of whether he would grant Corby’s appeal to him for clemency.
However, he did say he was “optimistic” a prisoner transfer deal that would potentially see Corby and others serve their terms in Australia could be negotiated.
Such a deal has been negotiated on and off for five years and gone nowhere.
While Dr Yudhoyono gave it presidential endorsement, there is little prospect that the required enabling legislation could get through Indonesia’s notoriously work-shy and fractious Parliament.
Dr Yudhoyono backed away from endorsing Ms Gillard’s proposed refugee processing centre. He was “open” to the idea “but we need to discuss in depth to ensure, once again, this is a solution to our regional problem”.