19 April 2018

Learning from our past to craft educational policy

Education is often presented as the fundamental hope of the nation. It is the pathway to success, the way to change our lives for the better. La’o Hamutuk believes that education is indeed critical to ensuring a strong future for our nation, finding solutions to the problems we face, and building unity and security. La’o Hamutuk has long advocated for increased funding to the national education sector; spending on education has long been low compared to other countries, and has steadily declined since 2014.

We also realize that it takes more than money to make education strong and effective. Its success also depends on what is taught, how it is taught, good management and accountability, and agreement about the ultimate purposes of education.

Public discussions often compare past systems to the present, offering potential models to follow, at least in part. In general, these comparisons focus on the Portuguese or Indonesian systems, which we’ll explore below. First, let’s examine more closely the literacy and education campaigns of Fretilin in 1974 and 1975.

1974-1975 Literacy campaigns

These literacy campaigns, led by Vicente ‘Sahe’ Reis and Mau Lear, were non-formal, but the first Timorese-led model for national education. Even though Indonesia’s invasion prevented the development of a formal national education system, it is still helpful to examine the purpose and methods of these early campaigns, and to imagine together what they might have led to.

Fretilin’s literacy and education campaigns were for students of all ages and drew inspiration from African anti-colonial writer Amilcar Cabral and Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Amilcar Cabral encouraged those lucky few who had been educated under colonialism to use their privileges to serve the people, rather than using them to continue a system of domination.[1] Paulo Freire, in his famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, describes schools where teachers are viewed as the holders of all knowledge and students are meant to listen, copy, memorize and repeat what the teacher says. Freire names this as the oppressive "banking model" where students are like empty vessels which the teacher fills. This model serves to maintain a present order, imposing the values and culture of the dominant class in order to pacify, control, and dominate.

In contrast to the "banking model", Freire described another model where students are active participants in the learning process , as agents of their learning and as full human beings who bring with them their own experiences, knowledge and emotions. Whereas the banking model keeps students in their socio-economic place, the new model liberates by helping people to become critical, creative, active and responsible members of society.

The Fretilin literacy manual of 1974-1975
Fretilin’s literacy campaign was an “integral part of Fretilin’s political program during the campaign for independence”.[2] It had multiple goals including:
  • empowering all Timorese by teaching them to read and write
  • decolonizing people’s thinking so that everyone could be actively involved in democratic self-governance
  • building national unity. The vision was of a literate, politically aware and engaged population, ready to work together with respect and discipline for a better future.
In practice, Fretilin allowed any local language to be used to teach literacy, but gave Tetum a special status because more than half of Timorese at the time spoke Tetum, making it the closest thing to a lingua franca. Portuguese, in contrast, was spoken by a very small percent of the population. A basic literacy manual was developed in Tetum, and used in a highly coordinated grassroots literacy campaign, which was tragically cut short by the Indonesian invasion and occupation, though due to extraordinary efforts it continued for several years in the mountains.

The methodology for teaching literacy in 1974-75 focused on
  1. identifying the relation between letters and sounds (decoding)
  2. making meaning from the combination of letters
  3. linking that meaning to oneself and the surrounding environment and its political reality.
The simple method empowered people not only to read words, but to express their personal reality, analyze the colonial system, and aspire to and take action toward a more just future. Though Fretilin’s constitution of the time designated Portuguese as the official language, they chose Tetum and allowed for local languages to be used for the literacy and education campaigns because the goal focused on meaningful discourse and problem-solving.

Education under Salazar's Portugal

During most of colonial Portuguese presence here, only children of Europeans (mestiços and assimilados) were given access to formal education; later, sons of liurai were added to this elite group. Only in the 1940s, under an agreement between the Salazar regime and the Catholic Church, were more Timorese given the chance to study at “rudimentary schools” whose main tasks were “civilizing” and “acculturating Timorese elites to Portuguese culture.”[3] The purpose of schools being to control and keep people in their place, methods of instruction were therefore highly authoritarian and followed the "banking model". Only about 10% of the Timorese population ever went to school under the Portuguese colonial system, and Portuguese was the only language permitted. Tetum and other local languages were strictly banned from schools and teachers focused on Portuguese or European culture, philosophy, science, geography and literacy. School discipline was militaristic and corporal punishment was routine. Teachers’ presentations mirrored the Portuguese colonial perspective, with little respect for Timorese traditions, geography or culture.

These characteristics of the colonial Portuguese education system were the logical result of the fascist Salazar government which also suppressed self-expression and critical thinking in continental Portugal. Sahe and Mau Lear rejected the discrimination and elitism of the colonial school system and sought an egalitarian, liberation-based model for the people of Timor-Leste.

Some people today romanticize the old colonial schools, saying they were models of discipline, knowledge and learning, where students successfully learned many important facts and skills, including how to read, write, speak and even struggle for national liberation using the Portuguese language. Although there is no doubt that key independence leaders learned many things at these schools, what they learned about liberation, democracy and self-determination came primarily from their own experience, wisdom and searching, inspired by student group discussions in Portugal, where many of them studied, and the popular education movements occurring within Portugal’s colonies in Africa.

Education during the Indonesian occupation

While schooling under Indonesia used many of the same authoritarian, violent discipline methods, it followed a radically different model with a different purpose. The purpose of education under Indonesia was primarily to convince Timorese that they were Indonesians. Whereas Portugal’s colonial policy had been to teach only a small elite, Indonesia built new schools across the country to be able to implement a policy of mass indoctrination.

Like Portugal, Indonesia also denied the inclusion of Timorese culture, history, geography and language in schools; their goal was to impose an Indonesian identity. The slogan “Bahasa menunjukan bangsa” or “Language as the identity of the nation” shows how important language was viewed in the process of nation-building. Top academic students here were identified and sent off to study in Jakarta or elsewhere in order to serve the political structure in place.

Some people also like to romanticize Indonesian schools, viewing them as a model for quickly and effectively teaching a language which most people in the society didn’t know. Some admire the successful transmission of Indonesian nationalist propaganda via schools, while others argue that even though the colonial messages of these older systems were not good, we can learn from the methods which instilled nationalist ideology and good discipline in students. The argument seems to accept non-democratic, authoritarian and even violent methods as acceptable means to produce disciplined, patriotic members of society.

Sahe and Mau Lear knew that the method of instruction is as important as the content. Respect and discipline were key values taught in these literacy and education campaigns: respect for each person’s experience and perspective, respect for the needs of the group. Discipline was presented as taking personal responsibility, working hard, and following the principles of democracy not because someone is holding a stick over you, but because you understand this is what is best for the common good.

Current goals for education

Today, we must carefully debate and consider the purpose of education in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. At different levels of schooling, the purpose will be different. We’ll focus here on the preschool and primary school curriculum, as there is current debate around this, and it represents the foundation for all higher levels of schooling.

The Constitution mandates the state to provide free, compulsory primary schooling for all Timorese, however, it does not specify the purpose of this schooling. Schools must give all children the power that comes from literacy, and be allowed to express themselves. We must build communities of learners within schools, set up democratic processes of inquiry and investigation, and teach critical thinking, self-reliance, practical application of skills learned to build on what we know and deepen and broaden our thinking and analysis.

Language policy in education

In terms of language policy, the goal has been decided in the Constitution: Article 13 reads: “1. Tetum and Portuguese are the official languages of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.  2. Tetum and other national languages will be valued and developed by the State.”  The goal in primary school should be to build a strong base for students to understand both languages. The message of the colonizers was always that Tetum and other local languages were backward and uncivilized. Still today, many parrot this message that Tetum is not advanced like Portuguese and will only hold students back.

In fact, Tetum is currently being used to teach and work in technical subjects including physics and geology up to university level. The National Institute of Linguistics has designated clear methods to adapt any word from Portuguese into Tetum, making it natural and easy to borrow modern technical terms while continuing to make use of a grammar and usage familiar to students. Every language can be used to describe the observations and ideas of its speakers. There is no way to scientifically or linguistically measure the “modern-ness” or “backwardness” of a language.

Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his book Decolonizing the Mind, describes the language of the colonizer as a “cultural bomb” – a tool for imperialism – but also as a powerful weapon of resistance for colonized peoples. “The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environments, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.” [4]

Thiong’o writes that the purpose of modern education should be to decolonize the minds of people, and a starting place for this is the restoration of the relationship between mental development and the environment of the home and local community.  The goal of modern schooling in democratic nations should be to serve everyone, to ensure every child achieves a basic level of success in school, not only a small elite, and to build skills for democratic participation, not cowering obedience. Language then, including a former colonial language, can be used to empower.

First grade reader, National Curriculum 2015

Crafting good policy now and for the future

The primary curriculum rolled out in 2015 uses Tetum as the first language of literacy, allowing for other local languages to be used orally for students who do not understand either Tetum or Portuguese. Just as in the 1974-75 literacy campaigns under Fretilin, students are taught the relationship between letters and sounds, the process of decoding, and from there, they consider meaning and the connection to their lives and needs. According to the 2015 Census:
  • 30% of children aged 5-9 have Tetum Prasa as their first language
  • 0.08% of them have Portuguese as their first language.
  • 80% of all people in Timor-Leste have Tetum Prasa as a first, second or third language
  • 5.4% have Portuguese as a first, second or third language.
Using Tetum means that more students are successful, that their parents can be involved, that they can express themselves well. Starting with Tetum also ensures that more children will have the language base they need to successfully learn Portuguese well.[5]

Democratic, non-violent models of discipline in schools exist and are in action now in many schools, thanks to initiatives like the Child Friendly Schools Initiative and the 2015 curriculum. When students are involved in making classroom rules, they tend to take responsibility to uphold them. When classroom activities are interesting and varied, discipline problems tend to be fewer. When the punishment or consequences of "bad" behavior are restorative and meaningful, they are more likely to teach valuable lessons, as opposed to building resentment and increasing drop-out rates.

Our schools can be both democratic and disciplined; they can empower individuals to meet their potential, while also teaching each child to work effectively in a group and to value collective goals and work. The current purpose of schools remains similar to that of Sahe and Mau Lear: liberation from ideas and practices that oppress and discriminate, safeguarding against further exploitation, and empowerment through building skills in communication, critical thinking, and collective action. Today, our goals must also include building strong language skills for a multilingual society, laying a foundation for effective research, analysis, innovation, development and the ability to put theory into practice; to apply one’s knowledge to solve real-life problems.


  1. Amilcar Cabral used the term “class suicide” to describe the action of choosing to align oneself with the common people despite being raised with privileges of a higher socio-economic class.
  2. Cabral, Estêvão and Marilyn Martin-Jones, Writing the Resistance: Literacy in East Timor 1975-1999; 2006.
  3. Leach, Michael. Nation-Building and National Identity in Timor-Leste. Routledge, 2017.
  4. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the mind: the politics of language in African Literature, 1986, p.3.
  5. The national curriculum is a base or minimum standard for the nation, but does not exclude the fact that some schools can petition the government to allow for adaptation of this standard with regard to language, content or timeframe. And generally schools may add content and hours.


  1. How can Timorese people get an education if they have to pay for it, when their income is roughly a dollar a day.And one university charges $1000 US for a graduation certificate,plus fees. Please reply.

    1. There are two priorities for the family who live in hard life; firstly, they would be worked very hard to find money for traditional ceremony as it is a cultural size of living. Secondly, Although culture is the first priority but they still do not give up for the future of their children. For them, looking for money in all kinds of ways is more important in order to be able to finance their children's school.
      The problem is whether or not it depends on how to reach it. The difference lies in the race in the opportunity to be able to take advantage of the parents' land so that later they can satisfy all the families with the success that exists.

  2. Timor-Leste offers free schooling for all children from grade 1 to grade 9. This is written into the National Constitution and a core mandate of the Ministry of Education. There are, however, private schools (Catholic, religious, international, and for special needs) in this age range which can cost anywhere from $40. to $20,000. a year per student. These schools often have better resources and support, draw better teachers, and draw students from Timorese families with higher incomes, including political leaders and decision makers.

    I don't yet have information about systems for school fees in the public system past grade 9.

  3. the economic in Timor Leste has not balance yet not manageable - it is only worth for those who have money can afford to get over it. for people in rural or live under poverty they have to work very hard to earn the money so they can overcome this racing.

  4. Although many children in Timor-Leste still do not attend school, the number has fortunately been declining in recent years (GDS, UNICEF & UNFPA 2017, p. 23). Parents at times do not support their children’s education because they do not have enough money or they do not allocate enough money for this purpose because of competing priorities.

  5. Who do you think will pay for Timorese people to get an education? What does our government measure for this matter if the NESP 2011-2030 reaches a lack of delaying strategies. Most of the high level people only reach for their own self-interest.