Timor Leste, Tetum, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia or English?


By: J. Ramos-Horta

Once in a while, a journalist or scholar opinionates on Timor Leste’s choice of its official languages. Victor Richard Savage, associate professor in geography at the National University of Singapore, wrote recently “The current presidential election in Timor Leste has brought international visibility to this rather marginalized state within Southeast Asia”.

Mr. Savage then proceeded to provide us with his scholarly opinion on what is actually a very simple issue in Timor Leste, the issue of languages.

Articles 13 and 159 of our Constitution determine that Tetum and Portuguese are our official languages and Indonesian and English are our working languages. Can one be more open-minded and pragmatic than that?

Timorese leaders and people, though islanders, are very outward-looking, open to cultural influences, eagerly learning and absorbing the good (and bad) we see, read and hear around us. We are among the most polyglot people in the world. A very large percentage of us manage as many as three to five languages — a native language, Tetum, Indonesian, English and Portuguese.

I always advise our youth to be open-minded toward information, knowledge and other cultures and learn as many languages as they can. I tell them not to be provincial as the average Australian, American or Briton, who speaks only English.

An increasing number of young Timorese are becoming conversant with English. It is estimated that English is understood by 31.4 percent of the population.

According to Timor Leste’s 2010 census, close to 90 percent of all Timorese use Tetum in their daily life. An estimated 35 percent are fluent Indonesian language users and 23.5 percent speak, read and write Portuguese. This is a very impressive number bearing in mind that in 2002 less than 5 percent of all Timorese understood Portuguese.

In his essay, Mr. Savage questioned the wisdom of Timor Leste’s language policy and suggested that we should opt for English rather than Tetum and Portuguese, ignoring the fact that our Constitution provides space for Indonesian and English as working languages.

However, Mr. Savage erroneously claims that while Tetum is an official language, “on the ground one gets the feeling that Portuguese has been given priority because it is the language of communication of the political and social elites — in short, it is an elitist language in Timor Leste. This language policy has its own challenges”.

It is obvious that either Mr. Savage has not been to Timor Leste or has been there only in the usual fly-in, fly-out fashion. Most proceedings in our National Parliament, Cabinet, seminars, etc are conducted in Tetum.

The Timorese resistance, government and our Church have done more for the spread and modernization of Tetum than anyone. That Tetum is today spoken by almost 90 percent of our people is a great measure of our success in nation-building. But Tetum is still in the process of becoming a truly modern, functional language. Hundreds of words are borrowed from Portuguese, some from Indonesian, and I believe that in another 10-20 years Tetum will be a very colorful, rich and dynamic language.

In another 10 years, at least half of our people will manage Portuguese; our own version of Portuguese, as lively and musical as the Portuguese spoken in Rio or Luanda. And Tetum will be as colorful and lively but better endowed to face the challenges that come with the nation’s opening to the world.

Mr. Savage, like many anglophiles, seems to hold a very simplistic view that English alone would literally opens heaven’s gate for poor Timor Leste and would solve our economic and social problems. And if English is the key to Timor Leste’s future then I presume it must also be every poor country’s road from rags to riches.

Conversely, following such a line of arguments, does the said scholar and others want us to believe that it was the English language that actually catapulted nations like Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy and France into major industrial powers? And how does one explain Portuguese-speaking Brazil’s rise to global economic status overtaking aging England to become the world’s sixth-largest economy?

And how does one explain the ongoing “fragile state” of some Pacific islands and sub-Saharan African countries, which were under British rule and adopted English as their official language since independence?

Furthermore, how about our Aborigine brothers and sisters in Australia whose life expectancy is 10 years less than ours? Aren’t they supposed to be much better off since they have been colonized by English speakers for some 200 years?

Contrary to the Singaporean scholar’s assertion that our decision not to use Indonesian has to do with political sensitivities, I say we have no hang-ups as far as the Indonesian language and culture are concerned.

I have even argued that we should elevate Indonesian to official language status at some point. We just have to carefully look at all the implications in terms of costs, availability of qualified teachers, etc. An estimated 36 percent of our people speak Indonesian but in the age bracket of 5-10, particularly in rural areas, this percentage drops significantly.

While we have great respect for the scholar’s seemingly great knowledge about Indonesia and are grateful for his very wise advice, Timor Leste and the Republic of Indonesia enjoy exemplary relations in every dimension thanks to the foresight of the leaders of the two countries in opting for a forward-looking, pragmatic approach in managing the relationship.

Timor Leste, since 2005, has been an active member of the ASEAN Regional Forum and participated in every ASEAN Ministerial meeting for almost 10 years now. We have full-fledged embassies in five ASEAN capitals and by the end of 2013 we will have embassies in the remaining five. We also have embassies in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. There are 20 foreign embassies in Timor Leste and international organizations based in Dili.

While I am grateful for Mr. Savage’s useful contribution to the debate on the language issue and for so generously showing us the possible ways out of “regional marginalization”, I dare to challenge the Anglo-Saxon-centric view that somehow the whole world would be a better place if we all surrendered to the dominance of the English language.

We all know that English is an important language, almost incontournable (inevitable) if one wants access information on science and technology, international trade and money markets. But, the fact that a particular language has regional or global usage does not necessarily mean we must all automatically dump our historical languages and roots and adopt that language as an official language.

Even if we were to be persuaded by Mr. Savage and other like-minded scholars about the “superiority” of the English language and adopt it as our official language, there would be extraordinary challenges in terms of the human and financial resources required to implement such a policy.

I concede we are not all as practically-minded as our Singaporean brothers and sisters. I confess we are mostly somewhat romantic, and possess a historical perspective, because we have a long history, and do not possess the Singaporean practical and trade-oriented mindset.

So, will we be condemned to slow progress merely because we have a vibrant multi-cultural, multi-lingua, colorful, dynamic society, spending time to enjoy the beauty of life?

I am sure we won’t. I am sure Timor Leste will be able to deepen the quality of education, integrate seamlessly within ASEAN and spur modern economic development without forsaking the common sense feeling of belonging to our roots.


Notice: This opinion article was available in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, on Friday, 20 April 2012. It is able also to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 20 April 2012).

The writer is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and President of Timor Leste.



  1. High Excellency, Mr President J. Ramos-Horta.

    I think the Indonesian history is able to become the model. Although the Javanese language is used by most Indonesian people, more than 60%, but when our the founding fathers want to decide what kind of national language should be considered, they decided the Malay language, then become the Bahasa Indonesia, as “bahasa persatuan” (unity language). So, I think, although more than 90% the Timorese, as Mr President said, have used the Tetum Language, it is more and less similar the position with the Javanese language.

    Let’s we think culturally, not politically, that the idea of “Melayu Raya” and “Indonesia Raya” is relevance for the Timor Leste people, especially in the language and cultural matters. And if the Timor Leste people use the Malay or Indonesian language, it will be welcomed by the people of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, southern Thailand, and southern Philippine that our language is able to be understood by each others.

  2. Saya setuju dengan pendapat Presiden Ramos Horta bahwa rakyat Timor Leste memang bersikap terbuka dan ingin mempelajari berbagai bahasa, termasuk Bahasa Indonesia. Dan dalam berbahasa, orang Timor Leste memang sangat tertib dan formal, sesuai dengan kaidah bahasa yang baik dan benar.

    Saya jadi ingat kelakarnya almarhum Prof Umar Kayam dari UGM Yogyakarta, bahwa kalau orang Timor Timur berbelanja di pasar, maka mereka akan bertanya seperti ini, “Berapakah harga sayur ini?”

    Saya kira orang Indonesia harus belajar banyak pada cara berbahasa yang tertib, formal, baik, dan benar seperti orang Timor Leste kebanyakan. Wassalam.

  3. Bukankah pakar-pakar Bahasa juga banyak yang berasal dari Nusa Tenggara Timur? Mari kita banyak belajar Bahasa Indonesia dan Bahasa Melayu kepada orang-orang ini.

  4. So sorry High Excellency Mr President, we are as Sundanese people not able to understand the Portuguese language. In Sundanese language, in West Java Province, if someone wants to go home, he/she will say, “Adios, Permios”. And it will be replied by “Mangga, sing atos-atos, diantos, kade meledos”. He3. This is just jokes, sir. Cheers.

  5. Pada tahun 1990-an ketika beredar kabar bahwa salah seorang tokoh politik dari Asia Tenggara akan menerima Hadiah Nobel Perdamaian Dunia, kami merasa gembira. Lebih gembira lagi karena beredar rumor bahwa tokoh yang dinominasikan tersebut bernama “Harto”. Kami pikir pada waktu itu Pak HARTO akan mendapat Hadiah Nobel, eh … nyatanya Pak HORTA, yang sekarang jadi Presiden di Timor Leste. Gak ape-ape, selamat aje deh!


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