22 October 2008

Learning the Lingo -- Indonesian

Language is an important feature of Indonesia and what it means to be Indonesian. So, it is hardly surprising that there is a movement to codify this with a law on language.

The Bill on Language has been in and out of favour for some time as other pieces of legislation deemed either more important or more urgent being considered and enacted in preference to it. Nevertheless, the bill has never totally gone off the radar and a recent workshop on the bill sort to develop a more detailed discourse on the needs for a law on language. The bill specifically regulates the use of Indonesian and other languages.

However, the most interesting issues relate to how the bill mandates the use of Indonesian in all official representations of state and the requirements for all foreigners seeking to work and live in Indonesia to have a standardized level of Indonesian language skills.

The bill in most respects is not all that controversial and even the points of interest noted above are really not controversial in the sense that they are likely to result in deadlock or sink the bill in the consultation and discussion phases. The idea that the Head of State must use Bahasa Indonesia in all formal engagements is likely to resonate with ordinary Indonesians. Furthermore, Indonesian, and in particular proper and correct Indonesian, is a source of pride for Indonesians. Although in a practical sense it is probably important that the Head of State be able to speak English in order to have the option of presenting in English where practical and necessary.

The idea that foreigners must pass an Indonesian competency exam is reasonable and in most cases reciprocal. Indonesians are generally required to speak, read, and write at an acceptable level of English in order to work or study overseas. Therefore, it would seem to make good sense for Indonesia to require the same level of competency in Indonesian for those foreigners wanting to live and work in Indonesia.

It is conceivable that some people will see this bill as a threat to the ease of completing the functions of State and in doing business in Indonesia. However, the bill still has plenty of hard yards to hoe before it reaches the House of Representatives (DPR) and is put into the Committee process leading to a plenary vote.

The bill seems to be making progress however it is currently not a priority. The draft is current as of August 2008.

The Bill requires the use of Indonesian in all public and private work environments. Article 11 even requires that all brand names, buildings, advertisements, and company names be in Indonesian.

This is not the first time that measures such as these have been proposed or used. Over the last decade there have been various attempts to compel the use of Indonesian. The most oft cited example of this is the case involving Bakery Holland. Bakery Holland was forced to Indonesianize its corporate name, the solution was simple - Bakeri Hollan, neither of which would seem to be proper and correct Indonesian or for that matter proper and correct words in any language.

Cultural and Ethnic Diversity
The Bill simply acknowledges the cultural and ethnic diversity that is Indonesia but would seem to restrict the use of regional languages to very limited situations. The bill permits the use of foreign languages only in forums that are international in nature and substance. There is a need for a national language. However, there remains a question as to whether this must come at the expense of regional languages and dialects. It must be noted that breaches of the provisions will result in administrative sanctions.

Arguments that the restrictions placed on the use of regional languages do not reflect the spirit of ‘unity in diversity’ seem to ignore the fact that there are no express provisions outlawing the use of regional languages and dialects. To the contrary, regional languages are permitted including how these languages are to be maintained is clear based on Article 27. However, considering the emphasis on ensuring the development of Indonesian for all spheres of use the issue will be one of how the regions will fund and develop the maintenance of their regional languages where there may just well be an overwhelming emphasis on ensuring meeting mandated standards of Indonesian.

Nevertheless, proponents of the bill note that the idea of Indonesia having a national language is something that is mandated not only in the Constitution but from a much earlier time, specifically the 1928 Youth Pledge.

The Bill requires all foreigners working in Indonesia to be proficient in the Indonesian language. In principle this is not an ill-conceived demand, the question is the workability of the proposal and the uniform standards that it will require to be put into place. From a business and investment perspective, all future labor and human resources hiring decisions as they relate to foreign staff will require that the prospective expatriate staff meet the required levels of proficiency.

For example, before a language school could hire an expatriate native speaker language teacher that teacher must first be proficient in Indonesian before they could be offered the position. It is accepted that communication between the expatriate and the local staff would be greatly enhanced if the expatriate knew Indonesian however the knowledge of Indonesian is not critical to the ability of the expatriate to perform their employment functions.

That said, it is important that there is a legal requirement for the transfer of knowledge from the expatriate to the Indonesian counterpart. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this transfer of knowledge would be greatly enhanced if the expatriate could impart that knowledge in both Indonesian and the foreign language. The Labor Law and the implementing regulations envisage expatriate staff provided expertise, imparting that knowledge to local staff, and then having that local staff take over the role of the expatriate.

Indonesian Proficiency Tests
The Bill mandates that all expatriate employees and foreign students will have to have the requisite knowledge of Indonesian before being permitted to work or study in Indonesia. This will require them to sit and pass the Indonesian Proficiency Test (Ujian Kemampuan Bahasa Indonesia / UKBI) however what score they might have to achieve to 'pass' has not yet been set.

It remains unclear whether the test will be required for expatriate residents of Indonesian who are not working and studying, particularly for the ever-expanding group of expatriates retiring to the warmer climes and quieter surrounds of Bali among other Indonesian locales.

Just so that expatriates do not think they are being unfairly singled out for language proficiency tests, all Indonesian public officials and State employees will have to possess the requisite knowledge levels of proper and correct Indonesian - this may seem easy enough - but anyone watching local news bulletins with interviews with public officials will note that perhaps this is going to be a challenge for some Indonesians as well.

Official Representations
The Bill stipulates that for Indonesians that all speeches in written or oral form presented in Indonesia or abroad in an official capacity must be done in proper and correct Indonesian. The effect, the President in any speech that he makes whether it be, opening an international conference in Indonesia or making a speech addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, these speeches must be in Indonesian.

As noted earlier international conferences in Indonesia may use a foreign language as the lingua franca yet it remains unclear whether an Indonesian official opening the conference would be permitted to use the foreign language to open the conference, particularly in light of Article 13.

On face value this seems an excessive requirement. This requirement might be directly linked to the controversy over a former Miss Indonesia's participation in an international pageant where she referred to Indonesia as being “a beautiful city”, an honest mistake or otherwise; even native speakers can make mistakes in their own language. Or it might simply be that Indonesian is a source of national pride and as such must be used at every possible opportunity.

The sanctions for breach of the provisions include written and verbal warnings, administrative fines, withholding and cancellation of permits, and the suspension of services until compliance is achieved. The impacts are obvious in regard to investment and foreigners. Nevertheless, one of the other aims of the Bill is to redress many Indonesian problems, such as a weakening of national pride and patriotism, which are considered to result in the deterioration in the use of proper Indonesian.

Yet, it would seem that the practicalities of regulating language use in the private and public spheres is only going to increase the red tape and bureaucracy in an already overburdened, over-bureaucratic State apparatus, which lead to claims at the recent seminar on the Bill that it was nothing more than a paper tiger or an unloaded gun.

Nevertheless, it must also be considered, although not explicitly stated, that Article 19 of the Bill would imply that the Government has an obligation to enforce the provisions and consequently to ensure compliance.

Finally, the use of Indonesian is compulsory in the writing and publication of scientific papers and articles in the mass media, and films. Taking this to the logical extreme the inference is that all non-Indonesian language material must be translated or dubbed into Indonesian for local publication and dissemination.

The issue here is not the intent but rather the enforceability of such provisions. Presumably the Indonesian language requirement does not apply to Indonesian scientists and academics intending to publish material about Indonesia in foreign publications, once again this is an enforceability issue. Another example would be subscription based television programming; do the provisions entail that all programming content, free-to-air and subscription based, have to be in Indonesian.

Services Provided in Languages Other Than Indonesian
Another interesting question that the Bill or subsequent Government Regulations will need to address, perhaps in the Elucidation to the law, is the status of Indonesian produced English language news services – will they be required to include subtitles?


In conclusion, the intent of the Bill is a valid one, the promotion and development of the National Language. However, the codification of this intent is problematic and this piece has highlighted but a few of these, of particular concern is the enforcement of the provisions.

This increased bureaucracy and the ever-expanding intrusion of Government into the private corporate and private spheres is perhaps an issue of concern. This is particularly the case where the respective post-Soeharto Governments of B.J. Habibe, Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati, and currently Susilo Bambang Yudhyono have sort to distance themselves from the authoritarian nature of the past through the promotion and emphasis on good corporate governance and the human rights and dignity of individuals to be free from excessive intrusion by the Government - the emphasis here is on smaller, more efficient government rather than an unending expansion of the big government of the past.


jaka said...

Thank you (again!) Rob for highlighting this bill. It is really my concern since I lived in Yogya where people there must struggle hard to revive even the most spoken language in Indonesia. I once angered at one editorial in Media Indonesia that saying teaching of local languages in universities should be reduced because "nobody" did not want to study it. Pathetic.

Do you have the copy of this RUU or address that I can download it? I would be very thankful.

Rob Baiton said...


Drop me an email at rob[dot]baiton[at]gmail[dot]com and I will gladly email you the softcopy of the bill.

The sad thing with languages is that once the last speaker dies then the language as it was spoken dies. You might have managed to cobble together a dictionary, some tapes, and perhaps a video or two, but it is not the same as having a vibrant language community that maintains the language.

The bill might not be as harsh as I make it out to be, but then again I am an opinionated bugger on all things Indonesian (and Australian, and just about anywhere else for that matter).

Drop me an email if you want the softcopy.

Anggara said...

susah yaa, kadang2 mengatur sesuatu lebih karena proyek bukan karena kebutuhan. Saya pikir terlampau banyak UU yang akan dihasilkan dan juga akan terlampau beragam tindak pidana yang akan dihasilkan pula sementara tujuan yang hendak dicapai dengan hasil yang terwujud tidak seimbang

Anggara (aka reader)

Brett said...

Great post. Incidentally, a lot of this is similar to the position in NZ, where Maori is the official language. Obviously, there are some big differences (I would love to see some of our Ministers facing the challenge of speaking Maori at public events) and the motivation behind the law is completely different.

schmerly said...

The trouble with the Indonesian language is all the different ones, my wife’s from Java and speaks Jawa, which I don’t understand as I speak (as my wife puts it) Jakartaneez!! (originally learned from ladies of the night) so it’s a bit rough with lots of slang! then there’s Sunda which again has a lot of different words from both Jawa and Jakartaneez, also Papua when I worked there and opened my gob they didn’t have a clue what I was rattling on about! This is only my own experience of the language, but there probably hundreds of dialects and ways of spelling in Indonesia, so I don’t see how you can make all these diversified people speak and write so called Bahasa Indonesia. Make ‘em all speak English that’s what I say!!

Rob Baiton said...


I would love to see some of the Australian Ministers having a crack at speaking some of the remaining Aboriginal dialects in Australia.

I have no problems per se with the idea of a national language. I was really commenting on what this might mean in a practical sense.


Jakartaneez? Nice! Is this anything like Betawi?

English? Nah, never happen :D

schmerly said...

No Rob it's Jakartaneez as taught by the ladies of the night!! you probably went to language school to learn Indonesian, you being posh 'an all!

Rob Baiton said...


Sorry mate, missed your comment. Not so susah and in light of the fact that Indonesia places considerable emphasis on unity in diversity (or as someone tried to explain it to me, different but the same - another post to explain that one perhaps) then it is not so strange to see an attempt to codify the use of Indonesian in a law.

IS there a need to regulate Indonesian language use? I guess the answer is a matter of opinion. Yes, for some. No, for others. I don't know that this bill is a priority at the moment.


"an' all!" :D

Anonymous said...

As a linguist, it is not up to me to tell people what to do about their local languages, but Indonesians should consider what effects this bill might have on their numerous local languages.
@jaka: when I went to Yogya, I was quite surprised to see a poster on Jln. Malioboro: "Jadikanlah Bahasa Indonesia sebagai alat komunikasi utama di tanah kita". I have never seen a poster like this in Bali...
@Rob: it's not entirely true you cannot revive a language after it's extinct. Hebrew is the most spectacular examples, but I know of many Australian linguists working with Aboriginal communities on language revival (and there are some cases in the US too). Of course it's way harder once a language has become extinct, and if language revival happens while there are still some speakers around, it is much easier, like in the case of Hawaiian or Maori...

As far as the foreigner part goes, usually other countries have exemptions for people with certain sought-after qualifications, family members and investors. If the Indonesian bill does not contain any exemptions of the kind, I'd hope DPR members will consider them.

As for the UKBI: do you have any further details, maybe a website or something on this? I was recently talking to somebody involved with a BIPA program, and they said it would take at least until next year to get some more standardisation into all this, but I'm not entirely sure about the state of things.

I'd like to have a soft copy of the bill too, please. I've been following your blog for some time now, and have occasionally linked you from my (German language) blog; keep up the good work.

Rob Baiton said...


Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

You are right, of course, on the language front and reviving a language once extinct.

I guess I was being a little bit overly simplistic.

Sure on the soft copy.

Rob Baiton said...


Where do you want me to send the softcopy to?


I have sent you a softcopy of the bill as requested.

Jakartass said...

Firstly, I'm the first to admit that my competence in Indonesian is very low - I've never had a lesson, so what I know and say is essentially for street use. I'm therefore all in favour of bi-lingualism, bearing in mind that the majority of Indonesians have at least a working knowledge of a dialect.

However, I recently read that some 20% of the Indonesian population can't speak bahasa Indonesia, preferring their dialects, so shouldn't the government be prioritising them, through the provision of education opportunities, rather than expatriates?

The notion of increasing the usage of bahasa Indonesia is not really a new idea, but a renewal of an effort last made about 18 years ago, maybe less. The efforts were minimal, lasting only as long as any fad. Bus reverted to bis and Chase Plaza became Plaza Chase, and not much else.

What I found a bit strange were the efforts to cover up English translations. On holiday in Parangtritis, a well-known tourist destination on Java's south coast, I noticed that the sign pointing to the PASAR IKAN had it's translation, FISH MARKET, covered up.

Having the translation was, in itself, an effort to encourage a greater fluency in Indonesian. The cover up was then, as I expect now, an attempt by legislators to attempt to demonstrate that they are doing something for the country rather than wasting their time in creaming off commissions whilst serving on Commissions.

2 or 3 years back, there were discussions about a ToEFL- type (multi-choice) test being set up (ToIFL?). This would, of course, be of absolutely no value in determining one's competence to 'survive' in Indonesia and, of course, wide open to the brown envelope syndrome.

Now, can I pay someone to translate my comment into Indonesian?
Please send me a soft copy, if it's not too many kbs.

Rob Baiton said...


I will send the softcopy (about 60 in pdf) later tonight. It is on my laptop and I am currently working from the wife's desktop.

The ToIFL / UKBI is a while off. The bill might be even further away than the UKBI.

Ahhh, the brown envelope syndrome. I think I would pass the test without having to pay anything but the administrative fee. Getting the results might be a different kettle of fish.

Rob Baiton said...


What is the most I can send?