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The Place of an Intellectual Edge in Train, Advise and Assist Missions

Australian Army soldiers deployed Exercise Olgeta Warrior on Mentoring and Training Team - Alpha participate in a Rehearsal of Concept drill with Force Support Battalion of the PNGDF in Papua New Guinea.

Australia’s model of Good Soldiering involves the development of trusting teams, where ideas can be contested, and each soldier is expected to contribute to a force with an intellectual edge over potential adversaries. A similar approach is emphasised by some of our key allies, particularly the US and the UK.[i] One feature that these three nations share in common is a national approach to education that has, for decades, emphasised active learning and critical deliberation. This educational foundation is key to making achievable an intellectual edge characterised by creativity, critical thinking, and contesting of ideas.

However, with the focus of train, advise and assist missions being the Indo-Pacific region, it is useful to consider how an Australian approach to Good Soldiering might encounter challenges arising from the educational heritage of nations in this region.

Good Soldiering and an Intellectual Edge

According to the foundational statement on Good Soldiering, this phrase represents the Australian Army’s very identity and culture. It depicts Army’s members as trustworthy members of teams, able to collaborate and adapt. As members of an ‘Army in motion’, they are expected to participate in the contest of ideas, stepping outside of comfortable ways of thinking and challenging their team by debating, questioning, and sharing ‘unconstrained ideas’. Initiatives such as The Cove aim to support this endeavour, fostering an ‘intellectual edge’ among Army’s members by hosting crowd-sourced opinion and evaluative discussion.

This practice of innovation and critique might proceed organically from the style of education that Australian members have experienced in primary, secondary, and tertiary settings, but it will still require dedication and support. For many of our partner militaries in East Asia, however, these ideas are substantially further removed from their members’ educational and military experience, bringing the strong possibility of conflicting expectations when working together.

Education and Development in East Asia

In the second half of the twentieth century, many East Asian countries not only dealt with the fallout from World War 2, but also had to negotiate revolutions or new independence from a colonial past. These massive changes brought the need for rebuilding and unification around common languages and values. It is not without reason, then, that a top-down educational model, driven by teacher-experts and assessment by examinations, became pervasive in this region.[ii] In a newly independent country with the size and diversity of Indonesia, for example, it was important to quickly unify around the national language of Bahasa Indonesia and the national ideology of Pancasila. An educational model that featured rote learning accomplished this more speedily and measurably than would have been achieved by emphasising learner-driven exploration and mutual critique.

By the end of the twentieth century, many of these nations became aware that, although they had made massive progress, they were still lagging behind in terms of innovation. In response, they turned their attention to educational models in Europe and the US for inspiration, and various initiatives emerged. It was identified that American-style ‘liberal arts’ education appeared to produce creative, critical thinkers, and so liberal arts colleges and departments sprang up in Singapore, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and in other locations. Chinese universities began advertising for professors of ‘creativity’, ‘imagination’, and ‘innovation’. However, the US model of degree-length liberal education was not a perfect fit, and so more localised varieties of liberal arts evolved.[iii] One difference that emerged was that Asian educational institutions gave a heavier weighting to pragmatic application than their US and European counterparts. They also wrestled to find ways in which critical thinking could fit with appreciation for culture and tradition.[iv] But even with localising adjustments, these forms of education continue to be the exception in much of Asia, as the heritage of rote- and exam-based learning exerts ongoing influence.

Recent Developments in Indonesia

In 2018, the Indonesian government mandated that all tertiary level educational institutions should include ‘General Education’ in their degrees, in order to boost innovation and creativity in Indonesian workplaces. An English-language analysis of the government document summarises: ‘it is no longer good enough for graduates to be proficient at rote memorisation and practical skills; they need to develop creative thinking, deep understanding, and transferable skills, with a common vision for the betterment of the country’.[v] It should be noted that this remains a pragmatic initiative, with the aim of transforming workplaces and aiding the country’s economy. This is not quite the same as an emphasis on creativity and critique for the sake of sharpening minds and enabling the open contesting of ideas.

With an educational heritage marked by submission to teacher expertise and memorisation for exams, and a gradually evolving educational environment, there remains some distance between the educational experience and expectations of many Indo-Pacific military members and their Australian counterparts.

Working Together with Regional Partners in Train, Advise and Assist Missions

What implications might this bring for Australians working with regional partners in train, advise and assist missions?

At a high level, there is a need to decide whether Australia’s involvement with regional partners comes with the desire to see them prioritise the development of an intellectual edge akin to the efforts of Australia, the UK, and the US. Such an intention would benefit from a clear, evidence-based rationale for partner decision-makers, who may baulk at phrases such as ‘contest of ideas’ and ‘critique’. This evidence might include reference to the evolution of the Ukraine’s military from the shape given by its Soviet heritage to its current adoption of mission command on the field, and NATO-style professional military education in the classroom.[vi] Advice and assistance could then be offered to develop culturally appropriate models of critique and contestation, which could be incorporated into career courses and the training of military instructors.

At lower levels, there is a need for participants in train, advise and assist missions to be made aware that, among the cultural differences between Australia and our regional partners, there is most likely a difference in educational approach, which needs to be taken into account when conducting training. Partner members may be more accustomed to a model in which the instructor directs them to the correct answers or practices, which they can then memorise and repeat. For some types of training, this is perfectly fitting, but such methods are unlikely to result in the sort of critical reflection that is crucial for more abstract or theoretical topics. Trainers might need to find culturally appropriate ways to help partner members to participate in such learning without losing face or withdrawing into silence.


Australia has determined that in the context of accelerated warfare, one key to battlefield success is the development of an intellectual edge, in which all members are empowered to contribute unconstrained ideas and critical contestation. As such members participate in train, advise and assist missions with regional partners, they need to be aware that many partner nations in our region are influenced by an educational heritage that is resistant to such modes of thought. Looking to the future, Australia should decide whether and how it might advise and assist regional partners to develop a similar edge. In the meantime, it should ensure that Australian members involved in train, advise and assist missions find culturally appropriate ways to encourage critical reflection when facing abstract or theoretical topics with partner militaries.

This article is a submission to the Winter Series 2023 Short Writing Competition, 'Army’s Role in Train, Advise and Assist Missions'.

[i] DAMOD (Defence Academy of the United Kingdom), ‘The Defence Academy sharpens the intellectual edge with new multi-domain module’, 2022.

[ii] Jung, Insung, Mikiko Nishimura, and Toshiaki Sasao, eds. Liberal arts education and colleges in East Asia: possibilities and challenges in the global age. Singapore, Singapore: Springer, 2016.

[iii] I myself was Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at an Indonesian university for several years.

[iv] O'Donoghue, Thomas, and Simon Clarke, eds. New Directions in Research on Education Reconstruction in Challenging Circumstances: The theory and history of Education Monograph Series Volume 1. Queen's University Library, 2019, and Kirby, William C., and Marijk C. Van der Wende, eds. Experiences in liberal arts and science education from America, Europe, and Asia: A dialogue across continents. Springer, 2016.

[v] Malcolm, Matthew, Juliana Tirza Mangilaleng, and Daniel L. Kim, ‘A milestone for liberal arts education in Indonesia’, World Journal of Educational Research, 2021.

[vi] Karlsson, Malin, ‘A future EU mission to the Ukrainian professional military education sector’, FOI Memo 78998. FOI, 2022.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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