Editorial: Can’t speak English?

How can Indonesian officials, assigned to an overseas post by the state, be effective in promoting or protecting the interests of our country when they fail to meet the very basic requirement of proficiency in English? Such an official not only wastes state money, but also humiliates Indonesia, as they become a source of jokes among their foreign counterparts.

Amid allegations that several Foreign Ministry officials marked up the prices of airline tickets, Foreign Ministry secretary-general Imron Cotan revealed that several Indonesian attaches stationed at Indonesian embassies had such a poor grasp of English that they often avoided meetings with foreign counterparts.

“Every time their counterparts from the home government want to meet them, they freak out and seek ways to avoid the meetings,” said Imron, who will soon take his new post as Indonesian ambassador to China.

Imron indicated clearly which government departments (not the Foreign Ministry) the officials he was referring to were from, namely the ministries of trade, labor and transmigration, the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Immigration Office.

During a visit to The Jakarta Post on Friday, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa played down Imron’s comments, arguing that we should avoid generalization. But the fact that the information came from a very senior diplomat could also mean that these problems are more complicated than just English speaking skills.

The appointment of attaches is often not based on professional considerations, as much as good political connections. Thus it is also highly likely that their incompetence is not limited to language skills, but other substantial areas also.

Unless the government undertakes comprehensive measures to ensure that only capable and professional officials are posted at our foreign offices, complaints similar to Imron’s will emerge again and again.

Many of Indonesia’s ambassadors also have trouble with English, but it is not just the monopoly of our own envoys. Not all foreign ambassadors here can speak English either, and they have the right to be flanked by interpreters.

In a meeting with about 200 diplomats from 119 Indonesian embassies and consulate generals around the globe, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered diplomats to attract investors.

This was apart from their other main duties, including to protect Indonesians abroad.
However, there is little hope that the unqualified officials will meet this target.

What about our career diplomats? There is no doubt at all about their English proficiency, because the ministry has set high standards for diplomats. Many of them studied at top universities and have brilliant academic achievements behind them. Diplomats assigned to major United Nations offices are also supposed to have mastered other major languages, such as French.

By comparison, let us look for a moment at the skills of foreign diplomats here. It is not difficult to find diplomats in Jakarta who are fluent in Indonesian. Many of the diplomats from Japan, South Korea, Russia and China have mastered Indonesian as well as English. These extra capabilities are very helpful for them in communicating with Indonesian people.

The Foreign Ministry fully realizes the need for such an advantage, and has also recruited top young graduates from arts faculties including Chinese studies. However, such efforts are still in very preliminary stages.

What is worse, the problems faced by Indonesian officials abroad do not just revolve around their language abilities, but also in their capacities and willingness to act as representatives of our country.