Should foreign workers in Indonesia be worried about a requirement to learn Bahasa Indonesia?

In 2013, the Indonesian government, via what was then called the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, issued an order containing a set of requirements for foreign workers in Indonesia. Under Article 26 of the Order, foreign workers were required to “be able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia.”

Of course, both foreign workers and the locals who work with them can attest to the fact that English is, more often than not, is still generally the language of communication used between expats and Indonesians. On the legal front, that’s because in 2015, President Joko Widodo himself ordered a simplification of foreign worker permits, which included the scrapping of the Bahasa Indonesia requirement. A revision to the order was issued that year by the (now named) Ministry of Manpower, and the language requirement was indeed scrapped.

Then, amid xenophobic accusations of foreign workers and companies taking over Indonesia by Jokowi’s opponents (mostly derived from baseless conspiracy theories), the president issued a new regulation on foreign workers on March 29. The presidential regulation (Perpres) was ostensibly designed to simplify the application process for foreign workers coming into Indonesia. But, seemingly to appease critics, Jokowi’s Perpres also put back in place a formal language training requirement for all foreign workers, as written in Article 26.

What does the Perpres mandate, exactly? Well, it orders employers to provide said formal language training to their foreign workers. The length of the training, and the proficiency level the foreign worker is required to reach are not mentioned, meaning the requirement is still as vague and practically unenforceable.

The Perpres is scheduled to come into effect three months after it was passed. Or, in other words, three days from today. By that time, must all foreign workers be able to say selamat pagi, sampai besok, and everything in between in Bahasa Indonesia during a work day?

Many with experience will tell you that Bahasa Indonesia, with its relative lack of grammatical rules, is quite easy to learn once you get used to rolling your “r”s.

If the Perpres was simply a political tool to alleviate accusations that the government is opening the floodgates to foreign workers, then there should be no cause for concern that Bahasa Indonesia classes will be piled on to expats’ already busy schedules. That hot button issue has gone relatively cold (for now), meaning that the regulation’s enforcement will likely be nonexistent.

There’s historical precedence to support this. When the 2013 order (which was equally as vague in terms of any proficiency requirements) was passed, there was never any follow-up regarding enforcement and we are unaware of any foreign workers who were affected by it at all (and we work in media). The requirement was simply there, until it was scrapped in 2015.

And now that it’s back in the form of a Perpres, what if it was properly enforced? Foreign workers might have to attend some type of class, but there would be no one in a position of authority to tell them how seriously they needed to treat those classes.

Should foreign workers have to learn Bahasa Indonesia to work here? Well that’s a different debate, but certainly there’s no harm into putting some effort into learning the language for the sake of your own self-actualization and immersion in local life. Besides, many with experience will tell you that Bahasa Indonesia, with its relative lack of grammatical rules, is quite easy to learn once you get used to rolling your “r”s.

As to the matter of whether foreign workers should actually be worried about the language requirement? The Perpres is effectively law starting June 29, but unless your employer tells you to take Bahasa Indonesia classes, at their cost, you won’t be compelled to do so.

Depending on the political climate, especially leading up to the 2019 election, there may be a future revision to the Ministry of Manpower Order which features a return of the 2013 language requirement. Even then, if President Jokowi gets reelected (and most signs point to that eventuality), his general preference towards simplifying the process for bringing in foreign workers and investment means he’ll probably scrap any impractical language requirements after his probably election win.

So, in essence: Jangan khawatir, lah.

Correction: Due to an error in the reading of the law, an earlier version of this article wrongly stated that the formal language training requirement in the Perpres did not apply to foreign workers in directive/executive positions. The requirement actually applies to all foreign workers.

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