Foster your passion for Indonesia with language skills, says career champion Jeffrey Neilson

Posted on 31 May, 2017

“When a local Dayak leader started negotiations by laying his sword on the table between us, I decided it was time to leave.”

The Australia Indonesia Awards celebrate the contributions of those who provide inspiration and enhance understanding between Australians and Indonesians. AIYA is chronicling the achievements of these Career Champions in a series of interviews with this year’s finalists. Today we hear from Dr Jeffrey Neilson, researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.

Tell us a little about your early career. What brought you to connect with Indonesia?

Jeffrey at the Ubud Food Festival in 2016.

I started studying Indonesian at high school in Australia, and first got excited about Indonesia during a field school that my school organised to Bali in 1989. After a few backpacking trips across Sumatra, I then picked up Indonesian language again at university, where I was studying Environmental Science as my main degree.

I participated in semester-long program at Universitas Indonesia in 1994, where we sat in on Indonesian literature classes and did an internship with a World Bank Land Administration project. My first exposure to research was a study on how land administration and titling might affect Dayak communities in the Meratus Mountains of South Kalimantan, who were practicing swidden agriculture.

I decided to stay on in Indonesia after the semester program once I found a job with an environmental consulting firm in Jakarta. It was my language skills that got me this job. I would translate reports and Indonesian laws for the company while developing skills in environmental and social impact assessment. For the next few years, while I completed my degrees in Australia, the company would fly me up to Jakarta to work during university breaks.

Like so many other people I know, I got my first professional job because of my Indonesian language skills.

Tell us about your current occupation.

After graduating, I worked from 1999-2001 on a gold mine in Central Kalimantan. This was a very tense work environment as both the Australian company, who held a Contract of Work with the government, and a community of some 5000 small-scale miners were equally intent to access the ore. It was my role to mediate. When a local Dayak leader started a negotiation meeting by laying his Mandau sword on the table between us, I decided it was time to leave the mine.

I enrolled in a PhD program in geography at the University of Sydney, where I studied livelihoods and the coffee trade in the Toraja region of Sulawesi. This led to an Australian Research Council postdoc and then a lecturing position at the University of Sydney. Again, I believe that my Indonesian experience was a key factor in my employment. I continue to do research on rural development, natural resources and global markets in Indonesia.

In addition to research activities, I also design and develop opportunities for undergraduate students to experience Indonesia through short-term field schools and semester-long learning programs that combine language learning with geography. I am a big believer that language learning should ideally be combined with other disciplinary specific or technical knowledge and skills.

What do you enjoy the most about working in Indonesia?

I love the natural beauty and cultural diversity of Indonesia – in short, the geography of the country. The mountainous regions of Sumatra, Sulawesi and Papua are particularly favourite places. Australia has great beaches (like Indonesia), but we don’t have the same mountainous beauty that Indonesia has, and the mountain peaks are themselves so different from the sweltering coastal plains where most Indonesians live. Fortunately, my work on the Indonesian coffee sector takes me to these same mountainous regions.

What are your thoughts on the future of the Australian-Indonesian relationship in the field of resources?

There are some interesting complementarities between Australia and Indonesia in the food and agricultural sectors. We generally produce food items that the other country doesn’t produce, allowing a robust trade. Indonesia is developing a sophisticated food processing sector, and Australia is benefiting from the supply of raw materials – just think of the Australia wheat used to make Indomie, which is then exported all around the world.

And Australia has one of the most dynamic and innovative specialty coffee sectors in the world. Australian coffee styles are now being adopted in the US, Europe and across Asia (including in Indonesia). Some interesting relationships are now developing between Australian roasters and the many regions of Indonesia that produce high quality Arabica. I’d love to see these complementarities further developed, and to see more Indonesian culinary influence in Australia.

What advice would you offer to youth interested in working in resources?

The only bit of advice I would give is to follow whatever it is you are passionate about. Indonesia offers so many opportunities for young Australians who have language skills, who are willing to learn about the society and culture, and who have a particular passion they would like to follow.

AIYA would like to thank both Jeffrey and the President of the Australia Indonesia Association of NSW, Eric de Haas. You can find Jeffrey on LinkedIn.