Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 12:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 12:40 | SYDNEY

What the Indonesian word for tupid'?

29 June 2010 12:14

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Michael Wesley's post (Asian Literacy: Rudd's False Promise) struck a personal note with me.

My first job after graduating from Duntroon was as a platoon commander in the Pacific Island Regiment in PNG. With no cultural or language preparation, I found myself living in the bush for eight months of each of the next three year with 30 Melanesian soldiers who spoke a totally incomprehensible language.

My only aid was a phrase book I bought at a tourist store before my first patrol. I blundered through and was only caught out seriously early on when I charged a soldier with an offence and the CO demanded that I give my evidence at the hearing in Pidgin, which I was incapable of doing. The CO then realised that none of his new lieutenants could speak Pidgin and instituted a policy that on every Wednesday only 'tok pisin' would be spoken in the Pacific Island Regiment. We totally defeated this well intentioned policy by doing no business at all on Wednesdays!

But at the end of three years I was not only a good Pidgin speaker, with a smattering of Motu, but I think I even understood the PNG sense of humour, which to me was the real breakthrough.

Several years later, based on a desire to avoid a particular posting and a conniving wish to get a UN job, I applied to do French at what was then the RAAF School of Languages. I was accepted but allocated to Indonesian. At the time, the policy was that infantry officers could only study Indonesian – possibly a stereotypical assessment of the infantry intellect! It was an extraordinary opportunity and a great school which taught languages to motivated adults based on a highly intensive, disciplined and exhausting approach.

It was then many years before I was posted to Indonesia, but in the meantime, I balanced the technical training in language by the widest reading about Indonesia and by establishing contacts within the Indonesian military.

My family and I then had a total of five years living in Indonesia. I was the first Army Attaché during a time when, from almost nothing, we built the best relationship with the Indonesian Army (a relationship based entirely on Australia's interests) that any country had. My second posting as the Defence Attaché came during the Asian economic crisis, the fall of Suharto and the East Timor intervention.

The best tool that I had as an attaché was language, a tool that gave me greater access to our Indonesian friends than I could ever have imagined. I was always a better communicator than I was a technical linguist, but in my position, this is what was needed.

My family benefited greatly from this experience, despite being evacuated a number of times due to violence, as Indonesia moved towards democracy. My wife and three daughters speak passable to very good Indonesian, and my eldest daughter became an Indonesian teacher in a rural high school.

It is because of her that I make these notes. She committed to the study and teaching of the Indonesian language because of the love we all have for Indonesia, and the policies of various governments at the time. Those policies disappeared with the monies that they bring; the commitment of local headmasters disappeared just as fast. She is not teaching Indonesian now.

This is an issue similar to the underfunding of DFAT. It is so obviously stupid that it defies description. I would be very happy to join with Michael in anything that he assesses we can do to get government once again motivated to supporting the study of Asian languages.

Photo by Flickr user zachandrinka, used under a Creative Commons license.