Three years ago English language colleges in East Java were booming, particularly in the franchised high-cost sector. Why not, I thought, help some young and talented Indonesians open their own low-cost school – and use the profits to subsidise learning for kampung kids? I’d met two young and dedicated private school teachers, and they soon became friends and then business colleagues.
Business plans were written and the market surveyed. I made a commitment of A$10,000, enough to rent a house for two years and buy desks, signage and a computer. Once capital had been repaid interest-free, ownership would pass to my friends. After positive media publicity, and an offer of free conversation classes every Saturday morning, we were swamped with inquiries. But few turned into enrolments. The free classes died when a fleet of plump matrons arrived in chauffeured Panthers, even though advertising stressed free lessons were for the poor only.
I’d misread the situation. Students were not desperate to learn English; they were desperate for certificates that said they’d learned English. Such documents are required in the portfolios of most applicants for office jobs, though their authenticity is seldom tested.
I thought our location near Surabaya’s giant Joyoboyo kampung and the hub of all city transport was ideal. Wrong again. As others pointed out, we’d never make money unless the school was sited in an up-market Chinese suburb. The sad truth dawned. As my colleagues explained, most students at the commercial colleges were ‘Chinese, not Indonesians’. Naively I’d never consciously noticed their ethnicity.
When staff followed up inquiries in government offices they were overawed by authority. This seriously hampered marketing. ‘How can anyone take us seriously when we arrive on a motorbike?’ my friends lamented, hoping I’d buy a BMW to boost their self-confidence. The staff also lacked confidence when dealing with some students – usually those who could most afford to pay – who pushed hard for discounts. They buckled under the unending pressure far too easily.
In status-conscious Java an English college without a big parking area, whistling satpam and leggy receptionists in short-skirt uniforms was clearly untrustworthy. We had a genuine native speaker with years of experience and a masters degree. Our rates were lower. But inquiries centred on my gender, age and, in one case, complexion. My qualifications were never questioned. Some colleges promoted European backpackers as native speakers, often blue-eyed, big-bosomed blondes. Who cares about clotted Friesland accents and degree deficiency when you can learn and leer?
The name we chose – Biak di Siak – was another error. I thought it smart; the street name was Siak and Biak means fruitful. But few Javanese know the word and assumed it referred to the island off Irian Jaya. We should have had ‘London’ or ‘International’ in the title.
Indonesian friends urged me to ride the staff ruthlessly, always assume corruption and check accounts daily. I refused. This was to be a local initiative with the bule (‘whitey’) in the back room promoting Western values of trust and transferring modern management skills. Wrong again. I was alerted to the capital drought only when staff complained there was nothing left to pay them. Eight million rupiah (at the time around A$1600) was missing. Some had vanished through appalling bookkeeping and cash management. Other money had been spat out of ATMs and into personal pockets despite accounting workshops stressing the separation of school and private funds. The temptation to take proved too much; if the bule wasn’t watching every rupiah it clearly meant he didn’t care.
A long journey ahead
This is not an entirely sad tale; much of the money has been repaid after pressure on families. The threat of shaming was more effective than the police. The manager quit in anger, blaming me for giving him too much authority and the much smarter secretary took over as owner. Under the former manager’s rule she had stayed subservient and never questioned flawed judgements. Nor did she speak out; ties of friendship and nationality trumped business duty. Now she is blossoming as the new boss who can front anyone. Business is slowly improving. Most students are Javanese.
And the poor? Well they’re still waiting for the free English classes. Promotion continues but suspicion rules. The bule must have other motives – maybe spying, probably ‘Christianisation’. Denials are entirely ineffectual. More worrying is that few believe education can lift them out of the poverty that’s been assigned as their lot in life – so why bother learning English? This is going to be a long, long journey.
Duncan Graham (email@example.com) is a journalist who lives in Surabaya, when he’s not in Western Australia.