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
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
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
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
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