East Timor’s Instituto Nacional de Linguística, the
national language authority, deplores the numerous errors and distortions of
fact presented in Alfred Deakin’s article East
Timor’s Administrative Teething Troubles.
Whatever the accuracy of Mr Deakin’s observations in
the sectors of commerce and government, practically every statement that Mr
Deakin makes about the language situation in East Timor is incorrect, and
betrays a sad ignorance of the cultural realities of this country.
Completely untrue is Mr Deakin’s claim that the East Timorese political
elite do not speak fluent "Tetun" [sic - the
long-established English name of the language is Tetum]. Indeed, Mr
Deakin would be hard put to find a single East Timorese leader who does not
speak Tetum like a native, no matter how long he or she has lived in exile.
And where did Mr Deakin get the extravagant idea that Portuguese is
the native language of the East Timorese elite? Since they are all either
full-blood Timorese or Mestiços (half-Timorese), the language they learned
at their mother’s knee was in almost every case Tetum or another
Contrary to what Mr Deakin imagines, most of the present
leaders remained in the country during the Indonesian occupation and, as one
might guess, are fluent in the Indonesian language. Anyone with the
slightest familiarity with East Timor’s history knows that the Portuguese
language (unlike Dutch in Indonesia) has long been central to the national
identity, and that the programme of the 1975 Fretilin government and of the
Resistance included instating Tetum and Portuguese as the co-official
Mr Deakin seems to have got his language-names confused
when he proffered the remarkable observation that "almost
all ordinary dealings in the larger towns are conducted" in
Indonesian. The language of ordinary business in town and country,
throughout most of East Timor is Tetum, not Indonesian.
Mr Deakin must be very proficient in at least Portuguese
to be able to conclude that almost no-one in East Timor can speak the second
official language. Since a census assessing language use has never been made
in East Timor, our statisticians would be interested to learn where Mr
Deakin found his figure of 80% absolute non-speakers of Portuguese and 20%
incompetent speakers. Given that over two thirds of the vocabulary of Tetum
is pure Portuguese, the author unwittingly attributes gross stupidity to the
average East Timorese by suggesting that he is unable to understand anything
of the language on which his national language is largely based. The reality
is that most East Timorese have at least a passive knowledge of Portuguese,
quite a feat when one considers the fact that the language was totally
banned for twenty-four years. How many languages does the average
"well-educated" Australian speak fluently?
As for the
"younger Timorese" who "mounted a passionate campaign against
enshrining Portuguese as the official language", to whom exactly is Mr
Deakin referring? To the whole youth of East Timor, including the
majority diligently recovering their Portuguese today? Or perhaps to the
politically-motivated sons and daughters of the former Indonesian civil
servants who are known to have figured prominently among the 18% of the
population who voted for integration with Indonesia in 1999, the prime
targets of the virulent anti-Portuguese propaganda of the Occupation?
Being the director of a major Tetum literature project
and the author of a large Tetum dictionary containing over 24,000 entries,
most of which are abstract or technical terms describing the activities and
ideas of modern life, I was particularly sorry to find Mr Deakin informing
your readers that Tetum "is an almost
completely oral language with a limited, basic vocabulary" and that
"all written communications must take place in Portuguese." If Mr
Deakin read anything while in East Timor, it was evidently not a Tetum
newspaper, website, book, magazine, roadsign or, for that matter, the Tetum
text of the national constitution.
Mr Deakin assures us that the East Timorese government "has
employed at great expense dozens of Portuguese school teachers (mostly
direct from Portugal), who are accommodated in great comfort so they can
teach Timorese people to speak, read and write their new national [sic]
language." As well as getting the status of Portuguese wrong, Mr
Deakin is misleading us again. The truth is that the salaries and expenses
of all the foreign teachers of Portuguese in East Timor are paid by the
government of Portugal. Would the author also claim that the White
Australians recruited to teach English to the Aboriginal children of Arnhem
Land are salaried by ATSIC and accommodated in spartan conditions?
One wonders what all the misinformation about East Timor
and the now embarrassingly dated Anglo-Australian sport of Portugal-baiting
typical of Mr Deakin’s piece are doing for harmonious relations between
Australia, East Timor and the European Union. For Australians such as myself
who know and love East Timor it is in any case depressing to find so many
Australian journalists and writers taking huge liberties with the truth
whenever they approach this subject. It would appear that the unpardonable
sin of East Timor has been to choose its own identity over the chance to
become a cultural satellite of post-genocidal White Australia, a fate about
which indigenous Australians could speak volumes, and eloquently. Is it any
wonder that the Timorese judge quoted by Mr Deakin quipped that "the
only people we dislike more than Australians are Indonesians"? I’d
say we’re fast becoming the favourites for first place.
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