If knowledge is power, then Indonesia has a long way to go. This is not to cast aspersions on the country, but to highlight an opportunity for investors. When all the facts are considered, it makes a lot more sense to invest in a school than in another shopping mall.
Of all Indonesians over the age of 14, only 5 percent have any education beyond high school. Of the remaining 95 percent, only a third have finished high school. Surprisingly, 80 percent of people are of the view that school graduates are adequately equipped to contribute to Indonesian society.
Only 22 percent think that the education provided at "senior high school" and "university" levels is of poor quality. Half the population believes that graduates are well-rounded as well, with satisfactory levels of morality and ethics.
These views, taken from a special survey recently conducted across the country, do not vary significantly by age, gender or geography.
In total, 2,051 respondents aged 14 years and older were interviewed for the survey, conducted in tandem with Roy Morgan Single Source, the country's largest syndicated survey. The opinions expressed here are my own.
If popular perception were indeed reality, then all would appear to be well on the education front. But to anyone fortunate enough to have received a quality education, that perception should pose a problem.
Without exposure to anything better, without the ability to make any comparisons, anyone of modest means is instinctively grateful for whatever he or she receives. In most developing countries, this is the paradigm that the ruling elite uses to exploit the less fortunate.
Without empowerment, inequality continues to persist without much protest, year after year. Yet it should be obvious that economic power can only be built with a well-equipped workforce, in turn creating consumers with real spending power.
In other words, this is a problem that represents a major opportunity. Not everybody needs a university degree, but everybody does need a particular skill to make a livelihood, to contribute to society, to help build the nation.
But there are few schools in Indonesia that teach the essential trades that would empower youth from even the most humble of homes to build a future.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a small business owner to start a school of any significant size. At the grassroots level, the vacuum is being filled with funds from overseas facilitating schools providing free education, many with a religious rather than a secular curriculum.
With little ado, the government recently accepted the view that laws influenced by sharia already implemented in some 50 municipalities are not unconstitutional. Instead of shockwaves rippling across the country, in lieu of howls of protest, there seems to be only a sense of quiet despair among the secular sections of Indonesian society.
The media has failed to draw enough attention to a fundamental change that will slowly change the very character of Indonesia.
Emboldened by these first 50, mayors across the archipelago will institute their own versions of sharia law, born from little more than ignorance and bigotry.
Yet anybody with even a cursory knowledge of Islamic tradition knows that the faith was born with the recognition of other religions, cultures and practices.
Education is the primary defense against intolerance. In its absence, it took a dictator to enshrine and protect Indonesia's secular constitution, years ago. Today, a government with a popular mandate and high approval rating is allowing that secular character to be whittled away.
The world is watching, not just the nervous minorities.
The business community also has remained silent. If institutions such as the National Development Planning Board (Bappenas), the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), the Indonesian Stock Exchange (IDX) and the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) cannot see what is coming, they are hiding their heads in the sand. If they don't raise their voices, they aren't doing their jobs.
It may not be fashionable, and perhaps there are no insider deals to be made, but unless the business community gets involved in education, it will have itself to blame. On the other hand, the opportunity is large enough for the government to encourage a coalition of forces, supported by appropriate incentives.
Entrepreneurs, state-owned banks and provincial governments working together can build trade schools across the country, empowering underprivileged youth coming out of schools. There are businesses hiring untrained staff today that would benefit from alumni placements tomorrow. Privately owned universities have sprung up, but there is visibly room for more.
More importantly perhaps, it is the millions of school graduates who need a helping hand.
Again, no charity is required: just good business sense on the part of all concerned. That could include successful trade schools and polytechnics from around the world, looking at investment opportunities.
After all, the future of a stable Asia could well be at stake, starting right here in Indonesia.
The writer can be contacted at