Wed, 07 May 2003

A compromise is sought on national education bill

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

There was a strong sense of resentment among the 100 participants of a panel discussion on the national education bill, organized by the St. Anna Catholic Church in East Jakarta on Sunday, as speakers such as Mochtar Buchori, a former rector of Muhammadiyah University, failed to convince them that there was still a chance to stop the bill.

The resentment was targeted particularly at Article 13, which states, "Each student has the right to receive religious instruction in line with his/her religion, and will be taught by en educator of the same religion as the student." Participants felt adoption of the bill would lead to the loss of identity for Catholic and Protestant schools.

These schools are the main protesters of the bill, though Muslims have also staged rallies -- but to express support for the bill, given their fear of "Christianization".

President Megawati Soekarnoputri's customary silence has not helped reassure supporters or opponents of the bill, which has not helped in the search for a compromise that can bridge the divide between the two sides. The government apparently does not realize -- hopefully not because it does not care -- the danger of the bill at the grassroots level if such prejudices are not addressed.

Article 13 of the bill has attracted the most attention, while experts have pointed out more substantial issues -- including the lofty, unrealistic purpose of education as stated in the bill. Thus under the circumstances it is hard to expect that the bill will enable the nation to achieve ideal educational goals. The law -- if it eventually is endorsed -- may only deepen the distrust between the two sides.

The bill is still being deliberated by the House of Representatives (DPR). Muslim-oriented parties like the United Development Party (PPP) strongly endorse the bill, while major factions like Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) seem hesitant.

The participants of the panel discussion could not hide their disappointment when they heard that Vice President Hamzah Haz of PPP is among the bill's supporters. Their mood reflected the resentment among the managements of Catholic and Protestant schools who would be forced by the law, if passed, to provide Muslim teachers to provide Islamic religious instruction to Muslim students. Though because their church was bombed by a group of extremists in 2001, the participants might be more sensitive to any indication of hostility directed against them.

Currently, all students at Catholic schools are obliged to attend classes offering Catholic religious instruction, a practice that has also been long adopted by Islamic schools. Until the 1980s Catholic and Protestant schools were favored by middle and upper-class families, including Muslims. However, the emergence of Islamic private schools and improved public schools have led to fewer Muslims at Catholic and Protestant schools.

On the Muslim side there is still strong suspicion that Catholic and Protestant schools use their educational advantages for their mission of "Christianization", although their argument is not backed by any data or facts.

Protestants and Catholics oppose the bill because they feel their advantage in education is their last area of "sovereignty" from the Islam side. Based on past experience there is a growing feeling that they are facing more discriminations from the state, directly or indirectly, because of their religion.

For example, it has become more difficult to obtain a permit to build a church, and even if a government permit has been obtained Muslim neighbors often do not allow the construction. And attacks on churches are increasing.

The fear of Christianization still haunts Muslims, even though they make up at least 87 percent of the population. Due to his own fears of the threat posed by Islam, Soeharto hired many non- Muslims for key government and military posts, a practice he continued in until the early 1990s, when he began to portray himself as a Muslim leader. Many Muslims believe they are only a majority in number but remain a minority in terms of the economy, which is perceived to be controlled by non-Muslims.

The government should take all necessary measures to ensure the education bill can accommodate the aspirations of the two different camps. It will not be an easy task, especially with the government and the House focused on next year's legislative and presidential elections.

Politically, it is safer and easier for President Megawati to support the bill, because if she takes the opposite tack her opponents could use it to block her in the next year's election. However, as the head of state the President is obliged by the Constitution to protect all citizens regardless of their background.

Furthermore, more attention needs to be paid to the rest of the education bill. One overlooked example is the article on academic degrees -- of which Hamzah Haz could be a victim.

Hamzah's oft-doubted honorary doctorate, which he received from distance-learning American World University in 1998, reportedly cost a few thousand dollars. The university cannot be found on the national education ministry's list of accredited universities, and Hamzah often uses the honorary degree in official documents. According to Article 60 of the bill, anyone who uses a degree from an unaccredited university can be sentenced to up to five years in prison or fined up to Rp 500 million.

Maybe if the Vice President were aware of this legal threat, he might decide to join Catholic and Protestant schools in opposing the bill.