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In 2021, Penny Williams became Australia's first female ambassador to Indonesia. The ANU alumna, who studied a Bachelor of Asian Studies (Honours), is also the first Australian ambassador to Indonesia to be fluent in Indonesian. She previously served overseas as High Commissioner to Malaysia and was Australia’s first Ambassador for Women and Girls.
We spoke to Ambassador Williams about her time at ANU, her latest posting and her vision for the future of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.
Why did you choose to study at ANU?
Well, I’d been an exchange student to Indonesia during high school—and I knew that I wanted to learn more about Indonesia, and further my study of the Indonesian language. So, it was more a case of choosing Bahasa Indonesia, and then finding the university with the best Indonesian program.
It was a big decision too, growing up in Launceston in Tasmania I was the first in my family to study on the mainland, so quite a big move away from family and friends to Canberra.
What was the best thing about your ANU experience?
I loved my time at ANU. In many ways I felt I lived at ANU, not in Canberra. This was both because I was living in Toad Hall, and because of the amount of time I spent on campus. I think the best thing about my time there would have to be the broad range of people I met, many of whom remain close friends.
I was very active in student life, I was on the then Board of Faculties and I was Treasurer of the Student Association. I was involved in a really broad range of clubs and societies, which gave me a great deal of exposure to people I might not have otherwise met. ANU remains a big part of my life to this day, our house in Canberra is close to the campus, and I still spend a lot of time walking through the ANU grounds of the campus and attending events. In fact, I returned to ANU in 2016, when I was living in Geneva, completing a Masters of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development!
How was your experience with the Indonesian language program at ANU?
I had a great experience with the language program. Ibu Yohani Johns, in particular, was a great language teacher, but I had a really engaging group of teachers throughout my degree. Our student group was small back then, and I’m still very close indeed with many of the people I studied with in the Indonesian language program and Indonesian studies program.
Because I already had some language skills from my exchange year, in the first year I was enrolled in second year Indonesian. Later in my course, I took a reading Dutch course for a year, which meant that I could attempt to read some of the extensive Dutch-language journals on Indonesian that are held in the university libraries. Some of my friends also took a year of Jawi, which is a writing system for Malay-derived languages based on the Arabic script. I decided against that, a decision I very much regretted when I was learning Arabic a few years later in preparation for my first DFAT posting to Syria.
Has anyone in your life been a mentor to you? How did their advice help you?
I’ve been really fortunate to be surrounded by really strong female role models throughout my career, including when I was at ANU. I’ve mentioned Ibu Jones, but Dr Virginia Hooker was and remains a great source of inspiration as someone who devoted her career to Indonesian studies.
Starting in DFAT, in fact my first two Ambassadors—the late Victoria Owen and Sue Tanner—were women, which meant there were role models, that you could see women could do easily those roles and that they could do it in their own way. People with kids, women with children, people who have done things differently—working with these role models showed me that there was room for diversity, and you didn’t need to fit the stereotype.
What advice would you give a recent graduate?
I think my best advice would be to follow the opportunities that interest you, even if there isn’t a perfectly clear path where they might lead.
I am not sure I could have imagined being Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia one day when I started as an exchange student in Jakarta, but I found it fascinating—I enjoyed it—and it led to more and more opportunities that I am continuing to explore today.
You are Australia’s first female Ambassador to Indonesia. What is your take on the glass ceiling for women professionals today, and what is your advice to aspiring career women treading a similar pathway to yours?
I think everyone’s experience of this is very different, and every woman walks a different path, so I’m not sure I have one take on this issue, or one piece of advice for all women. I do think the critical thing is “you can’t be it if you can’t see it”, which is to say it is important to seek out employers and environments where the contribution women make to leadership is recognised.
I’ve been really proud of the work the organisation I’ve spent my career with, DFAT, has been doing in this space, and I’ve been proud to be involved in that work – including as Australia’s first Ambassador for Women and Girls. DFAT has come a long way since putting its first Women in Leadership strategy in place in 2015—we have the highest representation of women in our senior executive ranks, including serving as heads of mission in our overseas posts, in our history.
What are your priorities for the Australia-Indonesia relationship during your time as Ambassador?
The Australia-Indonesia relationship is in a great place, and our countries are working together across a broader and deeper agenda than ever before.
As borders start to reopen, our primary focus is rebuilding the lost people-to-people engagement between our countries, starting with tourism and education. Programs like ACICIS and the New Colombo Plan will be critical to that. Prior to COVID, Indonesia was the country of choice for New Colombo Plan students from Australia. And in the first five years of the New Colombo Plan, 10,000 Australian students spent time in Indonesia.
I’m also focused on the economic relationship, both as a source of jobs and prosperity for people from both countries – but also as a means of recovery from the COVID pandemic. Our trade agreement IA-CEPA turned one earlier this year, and we have been encouraged by the progress we’ve made on modernising our trading relationship.