Is The Bahasa Indonesia Test Just Payback?

Minister of Manpower and Transmigration Fahmi Idris said recently that starting next year foreigners wanting to work or study in Indonesia would be required to pass an Indonesian language proficiency test and to learn Indonesian culture to help them develop better communications with their local environment. 

The Minister of Manpower announcing that expats in Indonesia are going to have to develop proficiency in Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) to be able to work in the country. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In January 2015 the new Minister for Manpower did just that, prompting a furious bout of hand-wringing on Indonesian expat forum boards. Yet look at the quote above and you will see that the Minister of Manpower named there was Fahmi Idris and the current one is named Hanif Dhakiri.

This is because the excerpt comes from a Jakarta Post article from 2005. You see, Indonesia has been down this road before. The idea was roundly condemned then, and yet this zombie has now returned. The idea of Bahasa Indonesia testing is now back from the grave. You can read the original article here:

We Do This Out of Love for Expats. Really!

Then as now the Ministry of Manpower has told a lot of porky pies about their true intentions. In the quote above, for example, expats are assured that this test is to “help them develop better communications with their local environment.” Awww. Isn’t that sweet? The lovely, caring officials at Manpower love expats so much that they want to help us communicate better in Indonesia. This policy is done out of pure loving kindness! What nice guys they are!

I am not sure who they expect to believe this wafer-thin justification, but someone should tell them to keep their story straight if they expect people to believe them. Because just a few paragraphs later another Manpower spokesperson gives an entirely different reason for the Bahasa Indonesia test, which strangely has nothing to do with loving bules (White people).

Mudjiman, who is also director general of labor productivity at the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry, acknowledged that the new policy was restrictive. He said the flow of foreign immigrants into Indonesia had to be restricted or reduced in order to protect local workers.

What the government is doing is actually equal treatment, as other countries do in housing and employing foreigners,”” he said, citing Middle East countries that require that Indonesian immigrant workers speak Arabic. He said that such rulings also prevailed for Indonesians employed in Korea and Japan.

Huh? I thought this was about wanting to help us expats communicate better and have more meaningful interactions in Indonesia! So you’re now saying, Mudjiman, that this is really above protecting local workers. Hmm. You are starting to seem a bit duplicitous here. Don’t tell me that loving expats stuff was really a lie and this was really about protecting Indonesians!

But then even that excuse looks thin. And we should indeed be suspicious. Indonesian officials caring about local workers? I mean, that’s a good one. How many Indonesians do you know how are feelin’ the love from their government? Typically, they report being fed up with their corrupt and inefficient army of bureaucrats.

However, look at the end of the quote and we see a third reason. Indonesians who go to Arabia have to learn to speak Arabic. Therefore, this policy was really making things ‘equal’. In other words, they aren’t interested in protecting Indonesian workers either. They are interested in payback against countries who have humiliated them in the past.

Dhakiri Wants Revenge for Mummy

Skip forward to 2015 and the Bahasa Indonesia Proficiency Test is the zombie that walks. It’s back from the dead and coming to a Manpower Office near you. (As soon as someone at the University of Indonesia gets around to writing it, that is.) Now there have been some fine kinds about intercultural communication once more, but oddly enough the new Minister for Manpower is just as obsessed about the humiliation of Indonesians in the sands of Arabia as the last one. Here is what Hanif Dhakiri had to a reporter from Bloomberg News:

The government is pressing ahead with a plan to require foreigners to pass an Indonesian-language test before getting a job. Such a law was needed because other countries require mostly low-skilled Indonesian migrant workers to learn local languages before they depart, Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri told reporters in Jakarta on Feb 15.

“But foreigners can come here and all they can manage in Indonesian is ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’ and then they work for years and take up strategic positions,” said Mr Dhakiri, whose mother was a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia for six years when he was a child. “Well, that’s not acceptable. It’s not fair.”

So it all comes back to defending Mummy’s honour! Ibu Dhakiri had to learn Arabic to become a maid in Saudi Arabia all those decades ago, so it isn’t fair (humphh!) that expats can come to Indonesia and work without being able to speak Indonesian. I imagine the Minister as a sulky little boy here when he says, “It’s not fair!” Perhaps he even blows a raspberry.

Because clearly Indonesia’s workplace laws should be decided on the basis of Dhakiri’s mother. Obviously, the best way to make policy for Indonesia’s future is based on one man’s hurt feelings about what happened to Mumsy! Perhaps the Minister should have thrown all his toys out of the sandbox when he said this for greater dramatic effect.

So where does all this payback for Mummy leave expats? Well, clearly we are not dealing with rational actors in the Ministry of Manpower, so it is hard to say what will happen. Perhaps Pak Dhakiri will have a good sulk and then settle down and drop the idea. But it’s worrying that national policy is being set based on raw emotions and petty, racially-based grievances dating back to the 1970s.



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