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?

4 thoughts on “What’s the score with Indonesian education?”

  1. Ah, the old “it would have been better if we’d been colonised by the British”, and “maju semua, yg dijajah Inggris” lines, the conversational burden of every wandering Englishman (or woman, of course) in Indonesia!
    Having spent the last couple of years researching the unhappy experiences of the 1811-1816 British Interregnum in Java, these days I’m inclined to ask, “Do you really know what you’re wishing for?”

    I’m also inclined to point out that while Indonesia has youth literacy of virtually 100%, ex-British India – the great rising superpower – has illiteracy of over 25%, a percentage which rockets well past 50 once you go to many rural areas (in Indonesia there is no significant urban-rural disparity in literacy rates, and even more significantly, in a very favourable comparison to India, no significant male-female disparity).

    This last point highlights what for me is a key point about not just education, but many basic development indicators in Indonesia: a sort of “base-coat” is in place, across virtually the whole country, including pretty remote areas, and this is a crucial advantage it has over India and many other comparable countries, former British colonies amongst them.
    The standard of education might be poor, from elementary schools right up to universities, but at least its basic infrastructure is in place; at least everyone can read.
    In India the best universities might turn out globe-conquering graduates, but a quarter of the population can’t read.

    The challenge, of course, is how to go about painting the next layer onto that admirable basecoat…

  2. A couple of years ago I had the chance to study with a former World Banker who had toiled in Indonesia for several years. His area of expertise and research was public expenditure and education. One of the studies that he conducted in Indonesia for the World Bank asked parents a range of questions about public schools and public schooling. One question asked the parents how satisfied they were with the quality of schooling their children were receiving. The results surprised him. Turns out that the bulk of respondents are generally sufficiently satisfied of the quality of education received in public schools. So, one can hypothesize that one reason education does not improve is because there is generally little dissatisfaction and popular desire and pressure for it to do so. Ignorance is blissful ignorance.

    But one reason that education is often poor is that there is generally a lack of appreciation for the intellect and for learning. In a typical Indonesian kampung, who has more status and admiration? The high school graduate or the haji? The syek/udstad or the scholar? How common is it to see people, even in Jakarta, reading or carryin a book in public?

    Finally, on the issue of Brit/Dutch colonial masters, this penchant for blaming the Dutch is a rather transparent attempt to shift the blame to others, rather than to the failings of Indonesians and their leaders. Whereas Malaysia had the Tengku who made it clear that Malaysia wanted independence, but it was to come through a negotiated, constitutional path, Sukarno/Hatta launched into a war of independence, and then Sukarno into protracted megalomania and demagoguery.

  3. From the former colonial country that allegedly didn’t leave an educational legacy worth mentioning ( well, it was rudimentary indeed), my take on the present situation is slightly milder- if only because my Indonesian daughters in law beat me by their knowledge and intelligence :). Moreover I bet on one of Indonesia’s wonderful characteristics; between what is being announced and what happens often is hardly a connection. And Dedi was a comedian after all :).

  4. Actually the Dutch founded the embryon of what was to become universitas Indonesia in the late 19th century while the Brits didn’t found the embryon of the University of Malaya till the turn of the century.

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