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East Timor's future prosperity depends on educating her young today

By Sharon Tickle - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

East Timor today is one of the most frustrating, puzzling, exciting and rewarding countries anyone could hope to work in. Having spent three weeks based in Dili for the final stages of a Build-Operate-Transfer website project two years in the making, I am still puzzling over the complexities I encountered.

My life's journey has taken me to six countries to live and work for extended periods, but nothing compares with East Timor. In Dili I worked mainly with journalists, editors and civil servants but also trained members of the public. What I experienced makes me both extremely hopeful and extremely concerned about the newest nation's future.

I'll list my concerns first, namely the UN, the Portuguese, the Government and its civil servants.


The UN is too easy to bag so I won't spend much time dwelling on their shortcomings. Suffice to say that for every UN staffer leaving East Timor another expensive advisor/consultant/expert arrives. Uniforms are replaced by white shirts, but the faces don't change much and the cost of living keeps rising.

The Portuguese? The former colonial masters are back in strength. They control the port, the airport and shortly telecommunications when they takeover from Australia's Telstra. They have also invested heavily in tourism and in many cases are reclaiming pre-Indonesian occupation real estate.

With Portuguese pronounced the 'official' language (one of four national languages) school students are now required to study Portuguese. For East Timorese over 30 years of age who may have some experience of the Portuguese colonizers and their language, the reaction has been mixed. But for high school students forced to add Portuguese to their studies the response is almost universally negative. When asked why, they say the Portuguese are 'arrogant'.

Another concern is that the government commission tasked with looking at citizenship issues has recommended that Portuguese language proficiency be one of the criteria for East Timorese citizenship. The other language requirement will be Tetum (the local language). The prejudice against using Bahasa Indonesia is understandable but counterproductive and the critical shortage of English teachers is not being addressed.

The civil service mentality is one phenomenon I had hoped East Timor could avoid. It hasn't. The Indonesian period taught the East Timorese how to work the system and they continue to do so even though it's their own elected leaders who now head up government ministries. In a country facing dire problems in health, education and agriculture too many civil servants work about five hours a day and rip off their departments.

The government is trying to tackle the challenges but has made some false steps. An import tax rise from 10 to 20 per cent doesn't just hurt the consumers of luxury goods. Practically all consumables, except coffee, rice and some vegetables, are imported so the tax hurts the little people too. And allowing 30 per cent of the first intake of undergraduates at the University of East Timor to study politics is lunacy when there's a critical shortage of engineers, doctors, agricultural scientists and teachers.


My hopes for East Timor lie with her young people - intelligent, eager to learn and street smart, they are miraculously unjaded by their violent brush with world history. The real task for government and aid donors alike is to develop this next generation of leaders. These kids can't afford to wait until the oil revenue flows after 2005. East Timor's youth urgently deserve better educational opportunities today.

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About the Author

Sharon Tickle is Project Leader for the East Timor Press project and Coordinator International Students and Lecturer Journalism, Creative Industries, QUT.

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East Timor Press Project
QUT Creative Industries Faculty
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