PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 January, 2003, 12:00am

I found the article by Peter Kammerer headlined 'Dream turns sour for East Timorese' (South China Morning Post, December 17) about the world's youngest nation, to be misleading.

When you start a new company it usually takes two years to achieve a balance between income and expenses. It takes another three years before you can generate a profit. Therefore, it is certainly going to take more than six months to successfully set up a new nation.

It is correct that the presence of the United Nations and the many international organisations in East Timor since September 1999, has led to the East Timorese people having great hopes for a bright future, where they have jobs and can enjoy the good life. When they see 9,000 well-dressed and well-paid foreigners walking around, they realise what life can be like for some people.

This has meant they have had distorted expectations and the situation has been made worse by the introduction of the US dollar as the legal currency and the setting of a minimum wage of US$85 (HK$663) per month. Such a wage is totally unsustainable and raises hopes among the people that cannot be fulfilled. The average minimum wage in neighbouring Indonesia is about half that amount, making East Timor uncompetitive.

It is wrong to say that investors 'leaped in'. The fact is that the UN and the non-governmental organisations came into the country creating a small amount of employment for the Timorese. I made a detailed survey of businesses in East Timor in November. There were exactly five very small and modest shops in Dili selling garments, some supermarkets catering to the foreigners and exactly one nice restaurant-cum-bakery.

Dili has certainly not become cosmopolitan, far from it. Some of the money from donors has been spent on projects that are not essential to an economy (or to a country) that has been totally destroyed. For example, a museum costing US$1.2 million is being built. How can such a project be given priority over programmes which can meet the many basic needs of this young nation?

I do not know of any foreign business people who have shown an interest in setting up companies in East Timor. This is because of the lack of qualified staff. Nearly half of the population cannot read or write as a consequence of 25 years of occupation by Indonesia. The country needs to be built from scratch. Nobody made quick money, for there is none to be made. President Xanana Gusmao and most government ministers hold the people very close to their hearts and want the best for the Timorese and for the country as a whole. However, it is only natural that not every minister can be popular.

Yes, expectations need to be lowered. The minimum wage must come down so East Timor can become competitive on international markets. Using the US dollar as the legal currency in what is, so far, a non-productive country, is not helping matters.

We should be building a vocational training centre before starting work in a museum coupled with the country's very first factory. Data must be compiled showing Timorese workers' productivity and production costs. Such data is, so far, not available. Such initiatives would create the preconditions for foreign investors to come in and set up factories that would offer employment opportunities.

The Rotary Club of Bogor, Indonesia, is going to set up the Vocational Training Centre Dili in East Timor. This will provide skilled workers and staff for the garment industry, and the hospitality and other trades. It will enable companies to be established which will create employment opportunities.

The East Timor government fully supports this project and has provided the Rotary Club with a large piece of free land on which the centre will be built.



Rotary Club

Bogor, Indonesia