Whenever she is called, Celina says frequently, 'Pardon', to clarify our utterances. With her authentic smile and shy character, she then said; 'I am sorry, my English is not good'. Celina arrived in Manchester with obsequious English skills and a simple dream; to work as a cleaner in a restaurant.
As Indonesians, our recent conversation with Celina left us with mixed feeling. On the one hand, we are excited because the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was enacted few months ago and is expected to bring a new wind of change to the region. On the other hand, however, we have deep anxiety regarding the AEC. Yes, whether we like it or not, whether we are ready or not, we have entered a new era in our region with the establishment of the AEC. As the community is a cross-country community, the English language is expected to play a central role in the progression of the ASEAN Economic Community. Moreover, in order to reap the full benefits of the initiative, Indonesia is undeniably in need of re-evaluating the English proficiency of its population.
In relation to English fluency, based on the English Proficiency Index of an international English language institution, English First, Indonesia remains positioned below its neighbouring countries; namely, Singapore, Malaysia, and even Vietnam. Even though, in this data, the English proficiency of Indonesians falls within the category of 'moderate' or intermediate, the Economist argues that the data by English First is obtained through the Internet. This means that only those who have an internet connection are sampled. It is probable that the results would be significantly lower if the test also involved those without an internet connection, such as those living in rural areas.
The lack and the uneven distribution of English proficiency in Indonesia, especially between major cities and rural or remote areas, have several vital implications for the country.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that English is the lingua franca in the international trade. Given the increasingly open state of the world, especially in the context of AEC, the role of English is certainly crucial for Indonesia to strengthen trade relations with its regional neighbours. Moreover, it is now quite possible that, for instance, businessmen from Thailand are interested in pursuing business with the average people in the depths of Papua. In this regard, it is clear that the English language is instrumental in bridging the needs of regional countries to pursue trade that is beneficial to all parties.
Simultaneously, the situation will undoubtedly hinder the development of rural areas. Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review reveals a direct correlation between the good English language skills of a population with the ability of the economy and the index of a country's human development. In other words, the lower the English ability, the lower the rate of development of a region.
Furthermore, the people will face difficulties in internationalising themselves or participating in global opportunities. In reality, there are a handful of programmes with which the Indonesians, especially the youth, could participate in the international arena. In addition to youth exchange initiatives introduced by the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Indonesia, where the selection process is handled by Purna Caraka Muda Indonesia (PCMI), perhaps the most prominent example is the LPDP (Lembaga Pengelola Dana Pendidikan) provided by the Ministry of Finance. This scholarship presents a wide opportunity for Indonesians to pursue higher studies, mainly masters and PhDs, both at home and overseas. Anyone can apply and seize opportunities to pursue education at the world's leading universities, including Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard.
Nevertheless, very few recipients come from remote areas of Indonesia, such as Jambi, Papua, or Kalimantan. Indeed, the majority are from major cities, such as Jakarta, Bandung, or Yogyakarta, where information and English language training are easily accessible. Moreover, almost none are graduates of small colleges or universities in districts or regencies. It cannot be denied that the fundamental reason behind this phenomenon is the limited English language proficiency. There are many young talented individuals or experts in major subjects, such as Mathematics, Physics and Medicine, from these small or far-away regions of Indonesia who have missed the opportunity to pursue further education at top-notch institutions in the United States or Europe. This is simply because they lack access to English learning centres and, thus, have limited English proficiency.
While it is true that LPDP already has an initiative, known as Affirmation Scholarship, for those who live in underdeveloped parts of the country, the initiative has not been able to cover all the less developed regions. The data on underdeveloped regions provided by Bappenas, used by LPDP as a reference, is defined merely by geographical location. Consequently, there are many underdeveloped regions that should be included.
Looking at this situation, it is hence important for both the local and central government to take seriously the issue of English language. Throughout this time, the local government has primarily been 'hands-off' and has allowed the people struggle alone. These individuals, for instance, establish small study circles to learn English without any formal support. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of availability of qualified English teachers for public schools in rural or district areas. It can no longer be ignored that the government should take concrete steps to solve this long-held dilemma; for example, developing nationwide English language institutions for free, including in districts or even sub-districts.
Similarly, scholarship providers such as LPDP should have an additional indicator to categorise which regions should be considered as underdeveloped by using the Human Development Index (HDI). This is important because there are areas that have lower HDI than those listed by Bappenas, but are not listed as eligible to receive Affirmation Scholarship by LPDP. For example, the HDI of Tanjung Jabung Timur regency in Jambi for 2014 was 59.88, while the HDI of Solok Selatan for the same year was 66.29. From this data, it is clear that the first regency should be prioritised as an eligible recipient of the Affirmation Scholarship, even though both are equally in need of extra attention from the government.
It should be realised by now that providing scholarships to those who live in less developed areas of Indonesia is important. These individuals could become agents of change to correct not only the imbalances in the development of their regions, but also to contribute to the country's overall development.
One of the points of cooperation outlined in the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint is the free flow of skilled labour. This is a strong warning for the Indonesian government to provide access for people to learn the language used to communicate and compete in regional or even international stages. If not, it can be expected that foreign workers, such as Celina, will increasingly flock into the country and slowly uproot the local workforce.
This piece is co-authored with Muhammad Beni Saputra, a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester. He taught English for several years in rural areas of Jambi, West Sumatra.