Wed, 11 Jun 2003

Lessons to be learned

The failure of the House of Representatives to reach a solid decision on the national education bill that has been lying before it for months, effectively accentuates the deep rifts that time and sectarian politics have over the years created among groups in Indonesian society. As reported, the House deferred taking a decision on whether or not to immediately pass the controversial bill -- as it had been long scheduled to do -- after hours of intensive lobbying and heated debate among factions failed to yield a compromise on contentious points in the bill.

Points in contention concern Articles 3 and 4 of the proposed new law, which deal with the foundations and function of the national education system, respectively. Article 3, in its rather wordy text, mentions in essence the steps that must be taken in order to educate the nation and instill in it the character and skills needed to ensure that it holds a respectable place among nations. Article 4, formulated in similarly lofty wording, expounds that the aim of the national education system shall be to educate the nation and encourage the growth of the "complete Indonesian being" -- "which is," the text says in loose translation, "a being possessed of iman (faith) and takwa (piety) toward One God, imbued with high morals, possesses good knowledge and skills, is healthy in body and soul, has a secure personality, is self-reliant and is responsible socially and nationally."

But while opponents of the bill have voiced objection to the use of terms such as iman and takwa, which they feel have Islamic overtones, the most heated point debated has been the obligation for schools, including private religion-based schools, to provide religious instruction to students of a religions background other than that on which the school is based. Thus, schools run by Catholic and Protestant organizations, which many Muslim students attend, therefore, will be required to provide Islamic religious instruction by teachers who are Muslims. In a move that further ignited emotions, the Ministry of Religious Affairs offered to provide 70,000 teachers of religion for private schools, all on the government's payroll. Rightly or wrongly, this apparent gesture of goodwill was taken by opponents of the bill as government interference, or even "nationalization" of private educational institutions by the state.

Party and group politics aside, one aspect that clearly surfaced in yesterday's prolonged debate was, unfortunately, the depth of the distrust that years of conflict and suppressed discontent has created among sectarian groups in Indonesia. It is, of course, perfectly correct to say that minority groups in a democratic country such as Indonesia must be guaranteed the same rights as enjoyed by the majority of Indonesians. Translated in the context of the current debate on education, that would mean that the right of, say, Catholic or Protestant schools to maintain their own identity must be respected.

Yet, when distrust is put aside, it would appear that obliging Catholic schools to provide Islamic teaching by Muslim teachers may not be so detrimental to such schools or institutions, after all. In Medan, North Sumatra, for example, a school of a certain religious background is said to have of its own free will hired Buddhist teachers to teach Buddhism to its Buddhist students, who are mostly of Chinese ancestry. That was before the clamor over the education bill, and that move has proved to be financially beneficial to the school concerned by attracting more Chinese- Indonesian students.

An inescapable offshoot of this climate of distrust is that the whole issue of national education is being heavily politicized. No longer is the interests of the child or student in the focus of the present controversy, but rather that of the political parties that are assumed to represent the people. As for the government, it would appear that the past decades of authoritarian rule have left such an indelible impression on the present political culture of Indonesia that it is hard for the authorities to keep their hands out of affairs that should be strictly the domain of the private sector.

All in all, we hope that the nation will for once show itself capable of drawing lessons from past mistakes. Legislation that has the potential to provoke serious controversy will do the nation no good. While it may be true that education and politics must always to a certain extent go hand-in-hand, in the field of education it is the experts that should be consulted and heard first of all. In any case, we do hope that the government decrees that are required to implement the education bill can eliminate any injustices this new legislation may bring.