Trinity College grounds on a beautiful sunny day

Let the Future Decide: Tim Lindsey (AO)

Professor Tim Lindsey (TC 1981) was, by his own admission, not much of a linguist at high school.

‘My French was terrible, my German … didn’t exist’, he laughs, the sun flooding into his office on the lofty levels of the Melbourne Law School building. ‘I ended up doing Indonesian – which I had zero interest in – by default. It was just what I was stuck with’.

Fast forward to 2018: Professor Lindsey is one of Australia’s foremost experts on Indonesian law, an adviser to governments, business, international organisations and courts. In the recent Queen’s Birthday honours, he was admitted to the Order of Australia as an Officer, for ‘distinguished service to international relations, particularly in promoting understanding between Indonesia and Australia, as an academic, and to legal education in Islamic law’.

Professor Lindsey has a PhD in Indonesian Studies, is the Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the Melbourne Law School, and was the long-serving chair of the Australia Indonesia Institute. The Queen’s Birthday honour, he says, recognises the important work of elevating the place of Indonesian Studies in universities and public policy, and in strengthening the important, often problematic relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

How did an unenthusiastic high school student become hooked on Indonesia? A couple of months in a homestay, immersed in Javanese life worked powerful magic and proved a turning point.  

‘I was put with a family who spoke very limited English and I went through all the classic culture shock experiences, doing all the stupid things that bules (Europeans) do in Indonesia’, reflects Professor Lindsey. 

‘I bathed in the family water tank with soap and contaminated their domestic water. I made all the cultural mistakes and did dumb things. It was my first time overseas on my own, a huge culture shock and it made a huge impression on me.

‘It was just fabulous. I loved every totally confusing, embarrassing messy mad, mistaken moment of it all, and the people I were staying with were just the most delightful people and must have drawn on extraordinarily deep reserves of tolerance and patience and a real desire to teach their culture to me’.

He returned home fluent in Indonesian, passionately engaged in the language and culture. But his career path was far from obvious. On the way to his Bachelor of Laws, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Letters from the University of Melbourne, he lived his Trinity experience to the full, involved in activities and arts, making friends and colleagues who are still an important part of his life today.

‘College is a place where you can experiment with what life will be like in the future,’ he says. ‘It’s like any sort of incubator experience – college committees and student bodies are a great way to learn about how life operates. A small-scale experiment where you can fail, if necessary, and learn … I think my own experience in student committees was a great learning experience that stood me in good stead later.’

He knows, too, that Trinity attracts many students keen to explore international relations and forge a career with a world view. A language other than English is extremely valuable, but no guarantee of success.

‘You need to have a core expertise that’s relevant to that area. You need to have something that will, if not differentiate you, at least help you stand out. You need a skill. Languages are so important for that reason. Second languages are so rare among non-immigrant Australians. Real language proficiency is even rarer.

‘Another thing that would help if people want to get involved in international-related matters is to become active in organisations that have that sort of focus early on. There are connected youth organisations such as the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association that are highly professional. A role in leadership in that sort of organisation makes you stand out.’

But his most emphatic advice isn’t about subject choices or networks: it’s about state of mind. Never close doors, he urges, because you don’t know what opportunities might be ahead. Professor Lindsey was a lawyer, barrister and Indonesia academic when his mentor Malcolm Smith, a leading international figure in Asian legal studies and the founding director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne, suggested they have lunch to discuss an Indonesian Law research project.  Professor Lindsey was not keen.

‘He took me out to lunch and by the end I’d agreed to undertake his project. I knew nothing at all about this area, so I started doing basic research and found there was nothing there! I started by translating documents, and as I started translating documents, I tried to find out more about these documents … and I was off! Hooked!

‘Just keep all the doors open, develop all of your abilities, and the future will decide. Grab the opportunities: they won’t all survive, but you’ll learn what’s important and what isn’t.

‘I say to my students, “For the future, you’ve only got a very rough-drawn map drawn by people who haven’t actually been there, and you won’t know what’s there until you’re actually in the territory. And it’s very important not to make decision about which fork you’re going to take until you get to the fork”.’