The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, working in six continents and over 100 countries. In Indonesia, the British Council has been active since 1948 and is currently led by Paul Smith.
Prior to his appointment as Country Director in Indonesia, Paul has held positions in twelve countries over the past 35 years, including United States, Afghanistan, Egypt, India and New Zealand.
NOW! Jakarta recently met Paul at the British Council, located in Senopati, South Jakarta to talk about his work and the importance of building a lasting relationship between the people of Indonesia and Britain.
Could you tell us more about the history of the British Council?
We were founded in 1934 at a time when the big fascist and communist ideologies were spreading across Europe and the world. The British government then decided to show that culture, education and people-to-people relationships do not have to be part of a political or ideological agenda.
The British Council is official, but not governmental. We do work closely with the British Embassy, but we are not part of it. This enables us to engage in the work we call cultural relations. Embassies focus diplomacy, the World Bank on developments, but the British Council engages in cultural relations, which means that the people of one country try to engage with the people of another country.
The British Council acts as the encourager of partnership and relationship between the people of the UK and the people of Indonesia. To us, the co-production concept matters - it is all about collaboration. Our work focuses on building relationships based on trust, and we’re in it for the long term. We believe that this concept of cultural relations has become politically the most important thing in the world because all the big issues around the world are about culture. Culture isn’t just the arts, culture is people’s identity, ethnicity, religion - all the ways that make people subtly or in a large way different from each other. Most political issues have cultural undertones which need understanding and bridge-building - and we see it in every country at the moment.
What are you doing in the field of arts at the moment?
We are currently running a 3-year-programme called UK/ID, which was kicked off last year. By the end of each calendar year, we will hold a festival of arts, focusing on the collaborations we have developed.
One of the ways to achieve these partnerships is through residencies. We will bring creative people from the UK to Indonesia where they will live one to six months in Bandung, Yogyakarta or other creative hubs and do it the other way around as well. At the moment, there are four Indonesians in Birmingham. Next month, under UK/ID at a very important visual arts venue in Liverpool, there is a curating of four Indonesians on the subject of water and maritime installations. Later this year, we have contemporary, independent music acts from UK - particularly from the city of Liverpool, which is a great music centre - performing in Jakarta, Bandung and other cities.
But the real heart of the UK/ID is the fact that the UK and Indonesia are two incredible countries when it comes to creativity and young talent, and we would like to connect their creative industries and establish new UK-Indonesian relationships between creative individuals and groups who are working together, making money together, fusing Indonesian and British art concepts, particularly in music, design and fashion, as well as in digital technologies and arts.
That is arts, but we also engage in the fields of education, civil society and sports.
You are supporting Indonesian students who would like to study in the UK. Do you see a growing interest among young Indonesians in this field?
Besides promoting the arts, teaching English is obviously one of the classic things that the British Council does, and we act as a catalyst for people who want to study in the UK, including in Indonesia. Currently, there are around 3200 Indonesians studying in the UK, most of them in business and engineering as well as education, creative arts and design. There has been a 18% increase over the past 12 months.
The British higher education system is excellent, and the UK is home to some of the best universities in the world. Out of the top ten universities in the world, four are in the UK. That is why I am very happy to encourage - for more than British commercial interests - Indonesians to go to the UK. I do believe that more Indonesians need international exposure because the economic trajectory of this country is dependent on skilled professionals.
I think the single most valuable thing you can give to a young person in today’s world is the opportunity to live in a totally different culture for a period of time. It helps you learn so much about yourself, makes you examine your own assumptions and beliefs and it creates that bonding that the world needs. I had that fantastic experience at the age of 21. In 1978, I went to India and taught for two years at a college at the University of Delhi - it transformed my life like nothing else.
The British Council also strongly encourages partnerships and links on research and operational level between Indonesian and UK universities. We also work together with teachers and encourage them to teach 21st century skills, meaning teaching kids to find their own strength within themselves, teaching leadership, analysis, communication and problem-solving.
Do you think your work will become more difficult in light of the Brexit?
Brexit means that we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe. And as I mentioned earlier, the work of the British Council is cultural. The continuing cultural relationship between countries to me are much more important than the shorter-term economic and political relationships. There are challenges for Britain in leaving the European Union. The nation is split and there is very little middle ground - people have either voted for inclusion or exclusivity. That’s unfortunate, but the job of the British Council is to engage British culture around the world, and what Brexit actually does is give us a more purposeful sense of our mission than ever before. Of course, Brexit was a shock for those who are internationalist by nature but it’s given us a new spur to say that the cultural engagement with all countries of the world remains as important as ever, even if some of the economic ties will change.
You have lived in 12 different countries over the years. How does Indonesia fit into the picture?
This is probably my last post before I retire, and I see it as the absolute peak. Indonesia is still the undiscovered diamond in the world. People hardly know that it is the fourth largest country in the world, with the biggest Muslim population - and despite current news, the greatness that Indonesia offers to the world is pluralism and tolerance. Diversity is the name of the game, and people will soon realize that Indonesia is one of the most important countries in the world because it has that nexus of modernity, tradition, legacy, religions and democracy.