Bahasa Indonesia Test: The Expat Reaction

In recent weeks every single forum that deals with expatriate life in Indonesia has prominently featured the news that the Manpower Department (newly split off from the Transmigration Department by the Jokowi administration) intends to bring in a Bahasa Indonesia fluency test for expatriates applying for a work visa (KITAS) for Indonesia. According to the Manpower, starting as early as February of this year, foreigners who want to work in Indonesia might be required to learn and display fluency in Indonesian. Specifically, foreign workers would have to take an Indonesian proficiency test and score at a certain level to be allowed to work in the country. Hanif Dhakiri, the Minister for the Manpower Department, has said that his staff are teaming up with the Language Development Institute at the University of Indonesia to develop the proficiency test. How have expats responded to this news?

Bahasa Indonesia test...coming to expats in 2015

Bahasa Indonesia test…coming to expats in 2015

Overall, the response has been mixed, with opinions usually divided along the lamentable fault-lines of self-interest. Some expats have greeted the news warmly, sniping at the “lazy foreigners” who have spent years in the country without ever bothering to learn the language. One long-time expat living in Manado, North Sulawesi commented, “I believe that enrolling in a course to learn the language of the guest country is the minimum which should be requested for temporary residents. A test with a certain level for permanent resident coming with the purpose of working should be a prerequisite, in my humble opinion”. Predictably, this expat is able to speak Indoensian well- or so he believes. In other posts, the self-interest of commentators was more naked. One expat wrote, “I welcome this. It will mean more job opportunities for those of us who have got off their arses and bothered to learn the language.”

Expats are to sit a Bahasa Indonesia test from 2015

Expats are to sit a Bahasa Indonesia test from 2015

On the other side of the equation, expats who haven’t mastered Indonesian are feeling a little antsy. Obviously this too is related to self-interest, and their opinions are informed by the potential inconvenience to their lifestyle. One expat called ‘Tony’ offered the following words: “I heard about the language test being brought in this year and am a little worried by it. I have been here less than a year and haven’t learnt much yet as I work with native English speakers and socialise with Indonesians who can speak English, which has made me a little lazy. Does anyone know what level of competence is expected in the testing?”

Echoes of the English Degree Requirement

In other words, the debate is very reminiscent of the noisy discussion in expat forums in 2010-2011 when DIKNAS (The Ministry of Education) decided to bring in a requirement that all English teachers had to have a degree in English / Applied Linguistics or a Master of TESOL. Those people who were lucky enough to have one of those degrees often applauded the new regulations, saying it was about time that standards were lifted. Those who didn’t have the required degree, or possibly any degree at all, often vented that they knew many fine TEFL teachers who had never gone to university. They argued that a university education made no difference to how good a teacher of English you were, and swore that their students loved them despite their lack of formal schooling. In other words, self-interest was the real driver of the debate in 2010, and the same patterns can be seen now. Everyone is looking after Number One, which makes it very difficult to organize any coherent, unified response.

Unresolved Questions

The other thing worth mentioning at this stage is that there are several questions which keep coming up again and again in the discussion. I will outline these below:

1) Retroactivity

The annoucnements have said that the Bahasa Indonesian test will apply for new applicants. Many expats want to know whether this law will apply retroactively to people who already have been issued KITASes. No one knows for sure, but I doubt it will be retroactively applied. The English degree requirement, for example, did not have retroactive application. A related question is whether the test will have to be sat before KITASes are renewed. There is no clear answer on this yet.

2) The Rule of Law

Many expats are extremely doubtful about the rule of law in Indonesia. One wag phrased the issue as follows: “Do think the test might be similar to the one required to get a driver’s license?” For newbies, everyone in Indonesia knows that all you have to do to get a driver’s license is bribe an official. No one actually does a driving test in Indonesia. Many people suspect that this Bahasa Indonesia requirement  will just be another “law” which can magically disappear if employers give a nice little payment to the good folks at Manpower. Time will tell, but many people suspect the process will be open to corruption.

3) A Grace Period

In the past when the Indonesian government announced new policies, they were often delayed, sometimes for many years. The first version of this Bahasa Indonesia law was drafted in 2003, for example. Many expats have suggested that February is awfully soon and the test may not be ready in time. We might not hear about it again for several months or even years. Similarly, there might be a grace period of a year or two for existing expats to brush up on their Indonesian before being made to sit the tests.

A grace period might be given, but then again it may not. This issue, like everything else about the regulation, is very much a wait-and-see proposition at this time.

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