In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project


Another inflamatory headline: A nation of dunces?


Many people took offence at the title of my earlier post about Indonesia’s appalling performance in maths and science in the internationally standardised PISA test.

Those who also read the article rightly pointed out that the headline, which called Indonesian students “stupid”, did not match the contents of the post, which was about the failure of Indonesia’s educational system to prepare children for the needs of a modern economy. I apologise for any offence caused, but am glad that the headline piqued some people into reading about this indicator of Indonesia’s educational melt-down, widely ignored by mainstream media.

Now, over at Inside Indonesia, I’ve written a longer piece with an equally inflammatory title, which gives some of the reasons for that failure. A nation of dunces describes the use of teaching jobs as sources of patronage in decentralised Indonesia, and takes a look at the government’s (so far failing) efforts to increase quality in teaching.

Silahkan membaca.

Indonesian kids don't know how stupid they are

Spotted on a classroom wall in South Sulawesi

Spotted on a classroom wall in South Sulawesi

Four cars have different engine capacites:

Alpha: 1.79
Bolte: 1.796
Castel: 1.82
Dezal: 1.783

Which of the cars has the smallest engine capacity?

It’s not a trick question. But over 75 percent of 15 year-old school children in Indonesia do not have the mathematical skills to answer it correctly.

Every three years, Indonesia’s education system goes through the ritual humiliation of the PISA tests, comparing the performance of 15 year-olds in 65 countries in reading, maths and science. Indonesia has more teachers per student than most much richer countries, and an amendment to the constitution guarantees that 20 percent of the national budget is spent on education. And yet the 2012 PISA results, released this week, show that Indonesia ranked at the bottom of the heap in maths and science, and did only marginally better in reading.

A full 42% of 15 year-old Indonesians in school don’t reach the lowest defined level for maths, meaning they can’t “perform actions that are almost always obvious, and follow immediately from given stimuli”. Three out of four do not reach level 2 in maths, meaning that they are not capable of making literal interpretations of the results of simply presented data, such as reading values off a bar chart. Just 0.3% of Indonesian students managed to score at level 5, the second highest grade, compared with 55% in Shanghai. Here’s the full table of results (xls),in alphabetical order, though it’s easier to find Indonesia if you look at the ranked chart below, because you just have to go straight to the bottom.

In science, a quarter of Indonesian students did not reach the bottom level of proficiency, and a further 42% were mired at level 1 (for those who can’t do the maths, that means two out of three kids are unable to draw conclusions based on simple investigations — full excel table here). Though every other country that was at Indonesia’s dismal level in the 2009 round has pulled its socks up significantly, the performance of Indonesian students in science has actually fallen since three years ago. We can’t yet blame this on the new policy, instituted recently by all those well-educated people in the Ministry of Education, to remove science from the primary school curriculum. No Indonesian managed to score at level 5 in science.

In reading, they are doing better. A whole 45% of students have managed to demonstrate “a baseline level of proficiency… that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life” (though of course that leaves over half that have not attained this dizzy goal). Level 5 was reached by 0.1% (full excel table here).

Not one Indonesian student managed to reach the highest level, level 6, in any of the three test subjects.

There’s one table that turns everything upside down, putting Indonesian kids right on top: the proportion who report being happy in school. Over 95% of Indonesians say they are happy in school, compared with 85% in top-performing Shanghai and just 60% in South Korea, which also comes close to the top in maths and science (excel data here). I wondered if they might be happy because so little was demanded of them, and made a little graph comparing happiness in school with maths scores. Here it is:


It does seem that in general, less competent kids feel happier in school. And there’s nothing wrong with being happy. But it worries me that Indonesian children do not even realise how badly the school system is failing them. Though the overwhelming majority have not, by the age of 15, acquired even the basic skills needed to function in modern society, they think they’re all set for the future. Some 95% report that they have learned things that have prepared them for their future jobs, and almost three quarters think that school has prepared them adequately for adult life. Fewer than one in ten think that school has been a waste of time.

Which makes me wonder what kind of future Indonesia will have.

Edit: January 8th, 2014 – This post received many, many comments. Comments on this site are closed. This post is reproduced at http://www.indonesiaetc.com/indonesian-kids-dont-know-how-stupid-they-are. You can see all the old comments there. You can also leave a new comment about this post (in English or Indonesian) over there.

What's the score with Indonesian education?

An advertisment for Manchester United branded debit cards, for True Fans in Indonesia

True Fans in Indonesia flash Manchester United credit cards

The first thing any Indonesian asks a stray foreigner, before they even get to age, marital status or the product of one’s ovaries, is: “Dari mana?” Where are you from? And the first thing they say when I say “England” is: “Wah! Manchester United!” (Occasional variant: “Wah! David Beckham!”) The second thing they will say is: “I wish we’d been colonized by the Brits, not the Dutch.” This is especially true in areas which border Malaysia, such as West Kalimantan where I’ve spent the last couple of weeks. Malaysia is the go-to example for the assertion that former British colonies are more “maju”, more developed, than those colonised by the Dutch. Certainly it’s a major source of employment for poorer Indonesians from all over the archipelago.

When I ask what the difference was between the two colonial powers, I almost always get the same answer: the Brits educated the ‘natives’ in their colonies, whereas “the Dutch just wanted to keep us all stupid”. Obviously, this is a vast and complex topic with many truths, half truths and rewritings of truths alongside some blatant errors of fact. But it certainly seems that Malaysia had a stronger educational infrastructure at independence than Indonesia did, and the gap has widened radically since. So I was quite surprised to read in the Jakarta Globe that an Indonesian parliamentarian is calling for a return to the Dutch colonial educational system. When they got around to providing any education at all, the Dutch circumscribed knowledge quite tightly. Essentially, they taught just enough to turn ‘educated’ Indonesians into clerks and (very) minor civil servants. But former comedian Dedi Gumelar approves of this; he particularly endorses a proposal by the Ministry of Education to drop the teaching of science and social science at the primary level, the age at which children’s curiousity and excitement about the world around them is most pronounced, the age upon which the foundations of future learning are built.

“Let our education produce a civilized society, not just physicists and mathematical geniuses,” he said. “Let’s understand the values of humanity. That is the core of education.”

Dedi said Indonesia should go back to the education system adopted during Dutch colonial rule and shortly after independence, when elementary school students were only taught basic education. “… The ministry said that the new curriculum would emphasize basic mathematics, the Indonesian language, religious studies and patriotism.

In my (prosaic, English) mind, religion and the values of humanity are things you learn at home. Maths, science, geography, history are things you learn at school. Though as I’ve said before it’s pretty questionable how much Indonesian kids outside the larger towns ever learn at school. I have to wonder about the Ministry of Education’s assertion that kids should have less schooling. In theory, primary school kids are in the classroom from seven in the morning until noon. But when I went to help out for a day in a school up a tributary of the Kapuas Hulu river in the forests-cum-rubber-plantations of Indonesian Borneo last week, the teacher who had the key to the office didn’t show up until 7.30 (and teaching can’t start until the principal’s office in unlocked because…. well, Because). Two of the other three teachers who were between them responsible for six grades of primary school and two of secondary school drifted in somewhere closer to 9.00. Then all four teachers set the children tasks and retired to smoke and drink toxic orange drinks in the staff room. Dispiritingly, the kids were sometimes asked to copy out multiple choice questions, including all the wrong answers, from their text books into their note books. By 11.30, exhausted by what passes for teaching in rural Indonesia, the educators told most of the classes that they could go home.

It’s lucky that village kids in Indonesia are obsessed with football rather than cricket. Their maths is just about up to keeping score in single figures, but I sometimes wonder if they’d be able to go much further. As for understanding how a top sportsman’s body functions, well, who would be interested in that when they could be learning patriotism?

Truant teachers make for stupid vandals

Illiterate graffiti: Punk Rut not dead.

Graffiti classics: Between a rut and a hard place

In theory, every child in Indonesia gets at least three years of English teaching in primary school, and several years more in middle and secondary school. So it’s initially surprising that the majority of Indonesian kids can manage nothing more than “Hello Mister!”, and the occasional “wossyonem?” Perhaps more surprising still that so many seem to aspire to English language graffiti.

Last week, I had an insight into why they don’t absorb more English. I was having breakfast with a primary school teacher in the Banggai islands in central Sulawesi. What time does school start? I asked. “Seven”. It was ten past. I raised an eyebrow. “It’s OK, I’ve told the school head I’ve got a guest”.

This did not seem OK to me, so I volunteered to come along to school and help with the English class. We got to school at 7.30; the grounds were awash with kids in their tidy uniforms, running around screaming as primary school kids are wont to do. Not one of the other eight teachers had shown up. My friend took her class (year one). I took years 4 and 6, since they were scheduled for English that day. Classes 2, 3 and 5 were told to go and sit quietly and study by themselves. After a couple of hours, the head teacher showed up. “I’m not supposed to teach, but sometimes I have to fill in,” she grumbled. No sign of any other teachers.

With teachers playing hookey like this, is it any wonder that even Indonesia’s vandalism is illiterate?

P.S. On the subject of Punk Rut, I was interested in this headline from the Jakarta Globe:

I suspect these punks of lacking conviction…

Bouncing back

Having been very rude about the Indonesian educational system in an earlier post, I offer up this example of genius from a junior high school teacher in the small town of Singkil, in Aceh province. It was his labour-saving solution to the fact that his baby cried unless it was being rocked constantly.

I might note that this scene was filmed on a school day. The genius teacher was watching TV at home. “It’s raining,” he explained. “And anyway, they’ve given me a class with only 15 kids in it.”

A sick system produces dumb doctors in Indonesia

“Why don’t you go to Penang/Singapore?” is the first thing most Indonesians say when they hear I don’t have kids. Obviously childlessness must be fixed, and obviously it is far too important to be left to the Indonesian health system. I usually give people short shrift when they trash the health system here. I have several smart friends who were once great doctors. Ok, they’ve mostly shifted into management jobs now, but Indonesia’s med schools are full of bright young things to take their place.

Or are they? A recent report from the World Bank wrings its hands over the quality of medical education in Indonesia. It finds that accreditation standards for health schools are wonky in the first place, are not properly applied, and are in any case not published. Not too surprising really. Another recent report from the World Bank notes politely how absolutely crap Indonesia’s education system is. In internationally standardised tests of 15 year-olds, over half of Indonesians scored less than one out of six on maths tests, and not a single Indonesian student reached the score of five or six that, according to the OECD which runs the tests, indicates decent critical thinking skills. When basic education is so poor, it would be miraculous for medical education to be much better. But the World Bank health worker report doesn’t even mention the thing that worries me most: training for doctors and jobs as nurses are for sale.

Even the best state universities, the ones that in the past gave scholarships to my smart friends, are raking in money selling places in med school. The starting price to get in, for students with exceptional grades, is 10 million rupiah, over US$ 1,000. The lower your grades, the more you have to pay to get in. Medical school is so fashionable these days that I’ve heard of people paying up to 250 million rupiah just to get in. That’s not for tuition, of course, that’s purely for the privilege of being able to say “My eldest is studying to be a doctor”. If they are either stupid or lazy or both, they will have to pay another great whack each year to pass their exams. When they graduate they’ll have had a very expensive education. But would you want them taking care of your tumour?

The sale of jobs starts at a much lower level. Nurses and even midwives now have to put out to get hired even in small town health centres. The going price in Aceh, where I’ve spent the last few weeks, is 60 million rupiah for an entry level job (assuming that you have already earned, or indeed bought, the appropriate qualifications). Sixty million rupiah, US$ 6,600 dollars, to get a job that will earn less than US$ 300 a month. Is it any surprise that most health centre staff, doctors, nurses and midwives included, go to work in the morning and run a private practice in the afternoons or evenings?

I often ask people why they pay to see the doctor in the evening when they could see exactly the same doctor for free in the morning. The universal response is that doctors keep the “strong” medicine for their private patients. At the health centre you get obat warung – “kiosk drugs”, cheap, over-the-counter stuff. Given the deterioration of standards required of people studying medicine in the first place, I would have thought the drugs they give you would be the least of your concerns.