The Importance of Bahasa Indonesia

In 2014 I moved to Singapore; a decision made jointly with my wife who had taken up a position with a large corporation with regional headquarters in Singapore.

We had reasoned that although I was going to be one of those so-called stay at home husbands because I spoke Indonesian, and was familiar with the surrounding region, meant I was not likely to be stuck at home.  

My understanding of Indonesian, and the allied language Malay, gave me currency and agency in Singapore. Combined, the population of Indonesian and Malay speakers is about 307 million people. This opened up the potential for a lot of conversations.

Shopping in markets was a breeze as Malay is a commonly understood language. At a basic level it meant that I slipped easily into the practice of bargaining for food and other necessities in markets. It also opened a rich channel of communication with the people who are working in these places.  

Later when I joined the Singapore NGO, Peoples Movement to Stop Haze (PMHaze), my Indonesian language fluency was vital. I first used it when a group of us visited Riau Province in Sumatra. This followed a period of toxic smoke haze caused by the extensive peatland fires of 2015, an El Niño year. 

The smoke haze over Singapore in 2015

Riau is only 16 kilometres from Singapore at its closest point. Though the fires were further off, closer to the regional capital Pekan Baru, they wafted over Singapore and West Malaysia. At their worst they forced us to run an air filter 25/7 and only venture outside wearing a P95 mask. So having a subsequent opportunity to visit an epicenter of the problem was something I welcomed.  

visiting Riau Province

My first visit was to the holdings of Asian pulp and paper bracket AP] a company that had faced legal sanctions in Singapore because of its association with the peatland smoke. We travelled to Pekan Baru by air and were greeted by representatives of AAP. On the following day we took a helicopter flight over the extensive AAP holdings.

This was a shocking thing to witness because although the AAP holdings were well managed others were not.

An Asian Pulp and Paper concession. Note the peatland drainage canals.

APP maintained tracts of Eucalypt and Acacia, destined for wood pulp production.

Elsewhere poor land management revealed massive destruction of rainforest. In some places the early stages of forest harvesting employing the extraction of valuable trees was evident.

In other places the final stages of deforestation and buring of the remnants were obvious. through, as shown in this multiple image segment.  

Given my understanding of Indonesian I was both able to closely question the helicopter pilot about the terrain we traversed. Later on that day, when we visited another company’s wood pulp production centre, I was able to question the company hydrologist about the average water table leverls in the company’s holdings. When I pressed him, an easy task given my background in fluvial morphology, he quickly made an excuse that it was time for him to go and pray. 

Sungai Tohor

On another occasion we visited the coastal settlement of Sungai Tohor. Here our task was to assist the community in damming canals that had been cut through the peatland to lower the water table in preparation for forest clearing and plantation development. 

Not only was this important for environmental protection, plus the health and security of the community, but it was a wonderful opportunity to meet people from a relatively isolated coastal Malay community. Their language was far from the more formal Bahasa Indonesia that I spoke, but I could understand it syntactically, and if there were terms, I didn’t understand I asked. 


In Indonesian and Malay speaking communities I was never completely lost for words. There were countless opportunities for conversation. Understanding my context and the subtle regional variations in culture was easy. My discussions were with people at many levels. I had useful discussion, and sometimes even debates, about the region, geopolitics, religion economics environmental management, matters that are interesting to me and many others. 

Even in Timor Leste Indonesian language can be helpful. Teaching English there, in Ainaro, during 2017 I discovered that Indonesian occupation had left a linguistic legacy.

When I returned to Australia in November 2021, I thought I’d probably miss these opportunities for communication in Bahasa Indonesia. This concern was soon dispelled as I soon discovered the extent of Indonesian language in my community.  A visit to the Sydney Fish Market fifty years ago would have been aided by fluency in Greek or Italian.  Now Indonesian is often encountered, along with Thai and Vietnamese. 

After a swim at the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Center recently I met a man who proved to be my neighbour. He was from West Java. We struck up a conversation, next he introduced me to his wife. It turns out that they live next to me. Walking home from the aquatic centre I heard a man speaking to his child in Indonesian, not far from where I live. I introduced myself. It turns out my postman is also Indonesian. So not a day goes by when I don’t use the Indonesian language. 

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