Q&A With Dr Thushara Dibley, Deputy Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre

Posted on 17 March, 2015

Thushara Dibley is Deputy Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. Her research focuses on the system of international aid and development, its interface with grassroots and transnational activism and their influence on human rights based policy and practice in Southeast Asia. In addition to her academic work, Thushara has undertaken a number of consultancies in Southeast Asia. She has served on the Board of Inside Indonesia since 2007 and was the postgraduate representative for the Asian Studies Association of Australia in 2009-10. Thushara took some time out of her busy schedule to share her thoughts on Indonesia with the AIYA team.

Photo: Thushara Dibley

Tell us a little about your background — what did you study, and where did you begin your career after you graduated?

I studied a Bachelor of Liberal Studies – the degree for people who didn’t know what they wanted to be when they grew up. As part of the degree I had to do a science major, an arts major and a language. For the first three years of the degree most of my time was devoted to the science part of the degree (neuroscience). Once that major was out of the way, I was finally able to commit myself to Indonesian language and Asian Studies, and for the first time, I really LOVED being at university. I went on to do Honours in Indonesian Studies, focussing on the role of Indonesian language in Timor-Leste. It was a very empowering experience. I had grown up in Indonesia, but my time in Timor was the first time I had used my Indonesian language as an adult. Immediately after submitting I started a research assistant job at the University of Newcastle, but my real focus was on how to get over to Timor-Leste, which eventually I managed to do in September 2005 through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. After about 10 months in Timor-Leste working as an advisor to a local NGO, I returned to Australia to do more research assistant work, and eventually started a PhD in 2008 that looked at NGOs involved in peacebuilding in Timor-Leste and Aceh.

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

Currently I am the Deputy Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney. It is an extremely diverse role. I am responsible for overseeing the day-to-day running of the centre, liaising with academics around the university and representing the university when we have visitors from or interested in Southeast Asia. On some days I could be pouring over spreadsheets working on financial issues related to running the centre, and on others I could be hob knobbing with high level diplomats from the Laos Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

My Indonesia knowledge and experience plays an important part of my role. Just at the moment, I am working with colleagues from around the university to run a training session for 25 Indonesian women from the NGO sector. Knowing how to speak Indonesian and having an understanding of Indonesian civil society is very important for this particular project. But, having knowledge of Indonesia is important more generally because it helps with aspects of my job like understanding appropriate cultural practices when meeting and greeting guests from Southeast Asia, having networks in Southeast Asia and being able to advise students and academics travelling to Indonesia for the first time on what to expect.

What do you enjoy the most — and least — about living and working in Indonesia?

I lived in Indonesia as a child for about 10 years. Since then, I have visited, but not lived there for extended periods of time. Having spent such a long time there as a kid, Indonesia feels very familiar to me. There are some things that just haven’t changed since I lived there in the 1980s and 90s… like the smell of the Hero supermarket or the sound of a kaki-lima going by, or the call to prayer. For me, going back to Indonesia evokes lots of memories my childhood, which is one thing I really love about it.

What I like least is the pollution, and (like everyone else) the traffic and seeing the effects of poorly managed over development on the country.

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

My next research project is looking at the disability movement in Indonesia. I have planned to visit disability activists in six different cities across the country: Jakarta, Yogya, Makassar, Kupang, Banda Aceh and Padang. So… my next four week trip to Indonesia will hopefully involve visits to all of these places.

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

From where I sit within the university, there appear to be more and more opportunities for students to travel to Indonesia. Our centre has been successful in winning funding through the government’s New Colombo Plan. We have sent over 30 students in the last twelve months to Indonesia, including many who have never been to or thought about traveling to Indonesia before. We have programs planned that involve sending at least that many, and possibly more, to Indonesia over the next twelve months. There also seems to be a growing recognition from the government’s perspective that this sort of exposure to Indonesia, and other countries in the region, is valuable.

That said, knowledge of Indonesia is pretty niche, which means that opportunities for employment where that knowledge can be directly applied are few and far between. The people in my networks who have an interest in Indonesia and who have been able to gain employment that draw on this interest have had to be creative entrepreneurial. For some, they have pursued this interest by undertaking a PhD. But with the shrinking of Indonesian Studies around the country, they have had to choose topics with an Indonesia focus, but also with a disciplinary focus that allows them to be employed in more than just an Indonesian studies department. Others have taken their passion for Indonesia into the government and private sectors, but have really had to be strategic and campaign hard to make sure that their job within those sectors allows them to continue to engage with Indonesia. Others have taken a gamble with private consultancies, their own small businesses, or pursued their interest voluntarily. For those who are truly passionate about Indonesia, they manage to create ways in their life to keep up their passion.

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

I have been lucky in that every major career move I have made, my Indonesian skills have played a major role in being selected for the role. I was selected as a volunteer for the AYAD position in Timor-Leste, even though I had no experience at that stage in the development sector, because I could speak Indonesian. My roles as research assistant have often been because I have an Indonesian Studies background. And in my current role, knowledge and experience of a Southeast Asian country were one of the essential job criteria.

Follow Thushara on Twitter @thushdibley