Monday, September 19, 2005

Timor Leste: just another neo-colonial nation-state?

Monday 19 September 2005
On Friday night, we had dinner with a woman in her late 50s who is an Australian born and raised New Zealand resident and citizen who is working on an AusAID funded project in the Ministry of Health. We met her at the very same restaurant where we have befriended the owner mentioned in a previous post. Our Aus/NZ friend brought with her to dinner a 62-year-old Canadian male colleague. They both live in a gated community in separate townhouses near the restaurant. They pay double the rent we do which reflects their income status as fully paid internationals and perhaps their age and need for a higher degree of comfort.

The Canadian man has been here nearly two years and is due to return to Vancouver in December. He is looking forward to leaving as he says the project he is working on in the Ministry of Education to develop the nation’s primary school curriculum is a debacle. As we strongly suspected, the elites in power (President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister etc) are determined to reintroduce the Portuguese education system of 1975 before the Indonesian invasion. This includes teaching children in Portuguese and not their mother tongue, despite internationally accepted best practice to the contrary. He believes this is because the current elite were part of the chosen few (a mere 5% of the population) that were educated under Portuguese rule, which resulted in a colonial mentality, and includes not thinking critically, and a continuation of the status quos (a society based on an elite versus the rest). The current elite want to rule Timor in the same manner as their former colonial masters (the fact that traditional Timorese society is incredibly patriarchal and hierarchical only exacerbates matters). They certainly will not be told that evidence demonstrates that it is best to teach children in their mother tongue and introduce a second language gradually.

The Canadian man had spent 15 years living in Papua New Guinea and was the architect of that country’s education curriculum where there are over 800 languages in use! When he left about 4 years ago, they had by then managed to successfully teach children in at least 400 of the languages and were on their way to completing the other half. Timor only has to contend with a mere 30 languages or dialects but the elite simply refuse to listen. Moreover, the elite are sending their own children (the President’s included) to the only Portuguese speaking private school in the country in order to train them up to take the mantle of power from their fathers (there are few if any elite women) so they too one day can rule this country as if it is still a colonial outpost circa 1975.

The Canadian man is understandably very upset that the Timorese elite cannot and will not understand that their course of action has set this country on a road of further turmoil and upheaval in the years to come. He believes that social unrest is imminent and it is best for him to leave after his two-year contract expires because he cannot see any hope for this country in the short to medium term. His most poignant comment was, “I am 30 years ahead of my time here.” Remember this man spent 15 years in PNG, a country racked with corruption and crime but at least their education system is delivering good outcomes (although the country does not offer its people anything once they complete their education).

This man’s first hand understanding of the very serious problem of language in Timor only confirms our more distant experiences. Most Timorese we meet, from colleagues to taxi drivers, do not speak and do not want to learn Portuguese. Only a handful of mostly older men speak the language. The majority want to learn English as their second language as time and time again we hear ‘it is the international language’ not to mention the language of ASEAN in which Timor is geographically situated. At any rate, the fact that children whose parents do not speak Portuguese are taught at school in this language is a recipe for failure. For those who have already completed school (or never attended as is often the case), who do not speak Portuguese and are being told they must learn (how and by whom and who pays?) and cannot find work, will continue to channel their anger towards the elite.

Here is a segment on the issue of language from the UNDP report:

“…East Timor needs to look again at the value of mother-tongue teaching—whether in Tetun or any of the other main languages. The experience in other countries that have faced similar problems suggests that children learn more quickly if they first become literate in their mother tongue and then acquire a ‘national’ language, in this case Portuguese or Tetun, as a second language. The confidence of being able to read and write in their mother tongue lays a strong cognitive and emotional foundation, equipping them with the capacities needed to learn a second language. And when children are learning about their legends and culture in their mother tongue they will also get greater support and reinforcement from their parents. This then encourages the children to attend school regularly. International research has shown that one of the main causes of school failure is poor adaptation of national education programmes to the cultural and linguistic characteristics of pupils.

Producing materials in all the main vernacular languages would be very costly— both for printing materials and for training teachers in their use—especially when there are only small numbers of children to be taught in certain languages. Nevertheless international experience shows that the benefits more than justify the expense. East Timor might gain from the experience of Papua New Guinea which has recently introduced over 800 vernacular languages into its schools. Instead of printing materials in all the languages, however, here the approach was to develop materials without text that could be used nationally, but also to provide teachers with detailed guidelines as to how they might use them in their own language.” *

In summary, for a country as poor as Timor, it makes me very angry that the elite insist on using Portuguese as the lingua franca when only 5% of the population speak it. This results in much precious resources (money, time, people) being directed towards teaching MPs, civil servants, health workers, judicial staff, teachers and children a new language, importing native speakers from Portugal and other Lusophone speaking nations as advisers and teachers, and translating documents. There are so many more other important issues that need addressing and I just feel they have their priorities wrong. The language issue highlights the lack of commitment to human development no matter the government’s rhetoric.

As I have said before, the next national elections due in 2007 should be very interesting but as Fretilin currently have 55 of the 88 seats in parliament, for them to lose government will require a change of heart by the Timorese who so valiantly supported Fretilin and their armed wing Falintil throughout Indonesia’s 24-year brutal occupation. Perhaps like most other decolonised countries of the post World War II era, Timor too will have to endure years and years of neo-colonial rule by their very own born and bred elites.

* United Nations Development Program, East Timor Human Development Report 2002, p.51-52
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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