As an Australian living in Asia, I have grown used to cringing every time I see a newspaper headline about my own country. Far too often, such articles tell stories of multicultural ineptitude. Last week was no different. This time it was a story in the South China Morning Post entitled “Malays in the Cocos complain of prejudice”.

The article described a much anticipated, but rather uneventful visit by the Australian Home Affairs Minister to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean last week. Having recently returned from a visit to the atoll myself, I was hoping to read of a breakthrough in the uncomfortable and unhealthy inter-community atmosphere that I observed when I was there.

Unfortunately, it would seem that Brendan O’Connor flew all the way to Australia’s westernmost outpost only to announce the blindingly obvious observation that Australia is a multicultural, multilingual country and that good manners are important in the workplace. He was sent to the islands to help diffuse a volatile situation, but it sounds like he couldn’t see the plantation for the palm trees.

This whole sorry saga of monolingual, monocultural blindness to the serious local issues of linguistic and cultural disrespect makes a mockery of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call earlier this year for Australia to become “the most Asia-literate country in the collective West”.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are literally where Australia meets Asia, and yet for all our talk about cultural diversity and engagement with the region, here we are still operating a full-on colonial outpost of the most belligerent kind — right on Asia’s doorstep.

Australia’s leadership should be utterly embarrassed to learn that the islands’ school is punishing children for speaking Cocos Malay — a local variant of Indonesian — one of the most widely spoken Asian languages and one that is being encouraged in mainland Australian schools.

The islands’ school is staffed by the WA Education Department and funded by the Commonwealth, but it operates in blissful ignorance of the 1989 agreement between these two levels of government and the islands’ Malay leadership. This agreement takes into account the solemn promises of cultural respect that Australia made in the United Nations General Assembly on November 7, 1984.

How can this school claim to be running a “bilingual program” when its language curriculum states in its first sentence that “English is to be the mode of communication for teachers” in its kindergarten and pre-primary classes in which every child is a Cocos Malay speaker? How can the Commonwealth possibly allow this school to openly designate one of its buildings as a “quarantine block” in which no Malay is to be spoken? Is it true that the sole teacher of Indonesian has to also teach art and is discouraged from speaking Indonesian outside her lessons?

By indirectly telling small children that their home language is, somehow, the source of all their problems in the learning environment is to denigrate their cultural identity and to set them up for failure.

Of course “English is important”, Minister O’Connor, but do you have any idea how hard it is to teach abstract concepts to young children via a new language? You try learning multiplication and magnetism in Russian! It is far easier to transfer concepts that have been learned in one’s first language into a second language than it is to directly teach the concepts in the new language. This is why so many European countries delay the introduction of English until the mid-primary years.

“First language first” is a fundamental premise of bilingual education, and the 1989 Cocos education agreement made it clear that such a program would be followed in the islands’ school. Not a blind bit of notice has been taken of this document in the 20 years that have elapsed since it was signed.

It is high time that the Commonwealth “put its mouth where its money is”, and exercised its genuine authority over its Indian Ocean territory. The errant state-level “service providers” should have to shape up or ship out.

The Commonwealth has the power to declare Cocos Malay an official language within the territory. That alone would boost the islanders’ diminishing faith in the federal government.

Recent events have pushed the tolerance of the Cocos Malay people beyond a point of no return. There is an immediate need to replace a number of no-longer-welcome mainlanders and to take significant remedial steps that will rebuild the community’s damaged trust in the Australian system of government.

Pauline Bunce holds a doctorate in second-language education and speaks Cocos Malay. She is the author of The Cocos (Keeling) Islands: Australian Atolls in the Indian Ocean. She taught on the islands in the 1980s and recently re-visited her ex-students in the Malay village in June-July this year.