Sun, 24 Aug 2003

Giving Bahasa Indonesia a say -- and some respect

Local TV stations have long been known for their appetite for pretty indo (Eurasian) faces. If they can speak Indonesian relatively well, some Westerners also get parts in local soap operas or comedies, doing cameos with deliberately broad Indonesian accents.

But, beware local actors: In the near future, it's likely that more foreigners will replace you and become TV stars.

They only have to blame the government's stated plan to require a Bahasa Indonesia proficiency test for expatriates working or studying here. If that plan goes forward, more foreigners will be fluent in the language, and thus move in on the jobs that previously only Indonesians could do.

And why not do a local soap? Other than the fact that you might be embarrassed about acting in such garbage, you can always soothe your concerns by thinking of the big payout for doing nothing more than spouting crappy lines, looking pretty and occasionally showing your amateur theatrics.

OK, I may be exaggerating, but the recent announcement from the Ministry of National Education's Language Center had me baffled, before I laughed out loud.

Once again, the government is creating a policy that is superficial and half-baked.

Even the reasons behind the policy are headscratchers: First, that the foreigners' fluency in Bahasa Indonesia will improve the communication between them and local people.

That the test will protect Indonesian workers from competition in the area that is dominated by foreigners.

And, eventually, Bahasa Indonesia will be equal to other languages like English, French, Mandarin or German.

We oversimplify things if we think a simple test can solve the problem that is rooted deeper than just an issue of language. What about the lack of good human resources, for example, or the remaining subservient attitude, an ugly legacy of our colonial days, that is still among us.

Those things, among others, are what make Indonesians unequal with foreigners in our own home. And it is what leads local employees to be paid less than foreigners, for instance, even if the latter are equally or even less qualified for the job.

And what makes the government think the foreigners wouldn't take the tried and true local route to get things done and bribe officials to pass the test? (or perhaps this is precisely what they want, just another way for corrupt officials to cash in by milking the expats for lots of extra dollars).

The real issue is not about foreigners speaking Indonesian, but that we ourselves need to speak and write it correctly.

After undergoing a real verbal mangling during the New Order regime with then president Soeharto and his officials, who spoke terrible Bahasa Indonesia and didn't seem to care, it is time to revive the language.

The mandatory test should be required for students and employees, so that we no longer see embarrassing mistakes in the media, or government officials babbling on in incoherent and unstructured sentences.

So that there would be no more Indonesians who say "Jakarta" as "Jakarrdaa" in a bad American accent.

And that there would be no more people like myself, who prefer to write in English, thinking that Bahasa Indonesia lacks richness and flexibility, whereas the real problem is our laziness to explore our own language.

I always blame it on the education system, as I recall my Indonesian lessons were so boring. The other problem is the great divide between formal and informal Indonesian.

The former is either too rigid or sounds so cheesy; it's formal because it's only being used in school or on business occasions, or in those ubiquitous soap operas.

The language center should forget about the plan for foreigners learning Indonesian.

What we need to do instead is redefine and rejuvenate our language, and our attitude toward it. Only when it gets some respect at home will Bahasa Indonesia be on the road to being an "equal" among other foreign languages. -- Ira Padmadisastra