[lg policy] Timor-Leste's Language Policy: The Boulder On The Shoe

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 13 15:35:59 UTC 2012

Timor-Leste's Language Policy: The Boulder On The Shoe

By Victor R Savage


Timor-Leste has chosen Portuguese as its official language of
government, though Tetum remains the other official language. This
language policy, a return to its colonial heritage, has future
implications for the state’s development and geopolitical relations in
the region.


THE CURRENT presidential election in Timor-Leste has brought
international visibility to this rather marginalised state within
Southeast Asia. The freedom-fighter generation of Timor-Leste has
everything to be proud of in these elections. This is one country
which testifies that an irredentist movement that fought for
independence could eventually create statehood in the 21st century. It
also underscores a moment in Indonesian history when the domestic
fervour for reformasi was best symbolised not just in political change
in Indonesia but in the granting of independence for East Timor as it
was then known.

Challenges making Portuguese the official language

The simmering issue on the ground in Timor-Leste however has less to
do with the presidential election. The likely source of future
political debate lies in its language policy. The Timor-Leste
government has chosen to use Portuguese as its official language of
government since 2002 despite the fact that less than five percent of
the population spoke the language. According to official sources the
government chose Portuguese to safeguard their unique culture and
identity, maintain their connections with the former colonial master,
Portugal, as well as their privileged ties and friendships with other
Portuguese-speaking nations. While the country’s leaders had privately
defended keeping the Portuguese language as a matter of heritage, they
have also recognised the importance of learning English in schools to
survive in a competitive world and to popularise Bahasa Indonesia.

Yet on the ground one gets the feeling that Portuguese has been given
priority because it is the language of communication of the political
and social elites – in short it is an elitist language in Timor Leste.
This language policy has its own challenges.

Firstly, Portuguese is not an international language that will connect
the people of Timor-Leste with a globalising world. Besides Portugal,
the only Portuguese-speaking heavyweight is Brazil which is thousands
of kilometers away. The ability to connect with the rest of the world
for trade, tourism and business is likely to be hampered. In Asia,
Portuguese is no longer a language of political power that it once was
from Goa to Malacca and Macau in the 16th century.

Secondly, Portugal is certainly not a country of economic and
political prowess either globally or in the European Union (EU) to
warrant the use of its language. Indeed Portugal forms one of the five
PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) countries of the
EU where the governments are saddled with huge debt. Portugal cannot
be expected to lend financial support and advice to the Timor-Leste
government. As one Timorese researcher said to me: “Portugal is a poor
country, Timor-Leste is poor, and the relationship will make
Timor-Leste poorer.” When there are so many more economically
developed states in Asia, why does the Timor-Leste government need to
reconnect with its former colonial master?

Thirdly, the current language situation in Timor Leste is highly
diversified – the people are exposed to essentially four main
languages and many more dialects: Tetum, the native language, Bahasa
Indonesia which is widely spoken, English and finally Portuguese – a
language retained by the older generation Portuguese Eurasians in
Timor Leste. One can understand the logic that after having won a
bloody war of independence with Indonesia, the government wanted to
distance itself from Indonesia. Yet, the reality on the ground begs
for a more pragmatic political consideration:

Bahasa Indonesia is already the unofficial lingua franca in the
country; Timor-Leste cannot separate itself from its geographical
links and geopolitical realities of Indonesia. Indonesia is the
largest country in Southeast Asia – accounting for 40 percent of the
region’s land area, population and GNP. Many Timor-Leste government
officials and educational personnel have graduated from Indonesian
universities and technical institutes and estimates show about 5000
students are currently enrolled in Indonesian institutions. Indonesia
is also currently a rising economy which Timor-Leste cannot afford to
ignore and yet could tap into.

Why not English as the top official language?

If the Timor-Leste government did not want to use Indonesian as its
official language, it certainly could have considered English as the
official language of priority. This neutral language would be amenable
to all citizens and offer far more advantages than Portuguese: i)
English is a language of international politics, trade, tourism, and
higher education; ii) it is quite widely spoken in the country amongst
the informed public and even youths; iii) many students expressed keen
interest in learning English rather than Portuguese which they find of
no cultural or economic relevance; and iv) if Timor-Leste is
interested in joining ASEAN, does it not make more sense to give
priority to English which is the operating language of the region?
Given that Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore and the
Philippines are all English-speaking neighbouring countries, the use
of English will certainly give the government economic and political

It is noteworthy that a private university in Dili, as a protest
against the government’s language policy, decided to conduct its
classes in Tetum, Bahasa Indonesia and English - leaving out

One might say the Timor-Leste government is caught between the devil
and the deep blue sea in pursuing the Portuguese language: its biggest
English-speaking neighbour Australia has been unfriendly and certainly
opportunistic with regard to off-shore oil and gas reserves and its
Indonesian neighbour is viewed with apprehension and veiled distrust.
Yet language forms the foundation and bedrock of a country – language
cannot be changed overnight once set in place.

For a fledgling country with limited resources and a low level of
development, Timor Leste needs to consider pragmatic, long term and
viable educational programmes. The government’s belief that the people
of Timor Leste can pursue a multiple-language educational programme
(Tetum, Portuguese, English, Bahasa Indonesia) seems flawed since
there are few examples of successful bi-lingual much less
multi-lingual national programmes regionally or globally. While
pre-independence East Timor might have been for Indonesia’s former
Foreign Minister Ali Alatas the “pebble in the shoe”, the Portuguese
language might be a veritable boulder on the shoe for independent
Timor-Leste’s future progress and development.

Victor R Savage is an Associate Professor in Geography at the National
University of Singapore and Honorary Vice-President of the
Commonwealth Geographical Bureau. This article, specially written for
RSIS Commentaries, reflects his personal views.


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