Muhammad Yamin whispered to Soegondo on the day of Youth Congress, on October 28, 1928. Yamin, secretary of the congress, told Soegondo, the congress chairman, that he had come up with an elegant resolution.
Yamin then handed out a piece of paper to Soegondo. On it was written three points, since then known as the Youth Pledge.
The Pledge, called Sumpah Pemuda in Bahasa Indonesia, proclaims one motherland, one nation and one language. It fueled the determination of young Indonesians in reaching the nation's independence seventeen years later.
In a recent four-day Conference of Australian and Indonesian Youth (Causindy) in Canberra, I was fascinated to find fellow delegates from Australia speaking Bahasa Indonesia — some of them eloquently.
Since the delegates were selected based on their keen interest in the Indonesia-Australia relationships and their understanding towards the cultures of both nations, it should not have been a huge surprise to witness the fact that the Australian delegates have acquired Bahasa Indonesia.
To me, who lives half of my life learning other languages, listening to a group of foreigners talking in good command of Bahasa Indonesia was somehow astonishing.
The first day of the conference started with discussions surrounding the cross-cultural engagement and the importance of the bilateral relationship. One of the speakers on the expert panel, chair of department of Indonesian Studies from the University of Sydney Dwi Noverini Djenar, said that the trend of studying Bahasa Indonesia among Australians is declining.
Dwi, however, refuted the notion that terrorism and travel warnings to Indonesia could be used as the basis of reason on the long-term downtrend.
Tim Lindsey, professor of Asian Law from the University of Melbourne, said that there were more Australians studying Bahasa Indonesia in 1974 than they are right now.
The question now is, why is the interest to study Bahasa Indonesia declining?
While I felt honored to hear the Australian delegates spoke in Bahasa Indonesia, I was at the same time felt embarrassed. The discussions prompted me to question on how far Indonesians have respectfully treated our own language. I thought that using proper Bahasa Indonesia in daily conversations has become a lonely practice.
I was raised in the era where learning and speaking foreign languages is encouraged. Many Indonesian parents talk to their children in English on a daily basis and send their kids to international schools as it is one of the most effective ways to gain employment and reach a brighter future.
In Indonesia’s big cities, advertisements, daily conversations, job interviews, public signage, are often made in English or in other foreign languages.
If all those practices of using foreign languages are designed as part of the learning process — a disclaimer I use in writing this blog post of course — and made in the effort of giving Indonesians, greater international exposure, then those practices should continue to take place. Otherwise, the intensive use of foreign languages could distance ourselves from our language, or worse, build a wall of separation between those who can speak in foreign languages and those who do not.
If the second assertion is proven to be true, then the question of why Australians lose interest in learning Indonesian becomes self-explanatory.
How could we expect other people to be interested in our language if we could not show enough interest towards our own language? How could we expect other people to respect our language if we do not feel proud of using our own language which is meant to be the language of unity?
These questions are for Indonesians to answer. I hope this is an unjustified anxiety; otherwise, the Youth Pledge conceived eighty-five years ago might only serve as history and nothing more.