Fri, 02 Apr 2004

What learning is emerging from the election?

Simon Marcus Gower Executive Principal High/Scope Indonesia School Jakarta

The elections in Indonesia would probably reasonably be heralded around the world as another step in the right direction for democracy. Such an analysis is, though, not really very deep in considering what has been going on here during the election campaigning and what the prospective candidates have been laying out as their agenda for the voting public.

The election campaign has quite consistently been taking on the nature of a carnival or a popularity contest which has only incidentally explored real and substantive issues in a way that would more closely represent and generate democratic development.

With the consistent parading of celebrities, it is very apparent that Indonesia's political parties have been looking to generate support and gather influence through using quite base and populist tactics.

Not only are a variety of television celebrities enrolled to occasionally speak but more often just be seen, but concerts have been presented on the back of political rallies. It is probably more accurate to state that the rallies have become rather more of a sideshow attached to the concerts.

Typically, with dangdut singers doing their hip-gyrating thing on a stage with blasting electronically pumped music, crowds of mostly young men have been seen literally becoming hysterically involved in the moment. It is very difficult to see how these kinds of activities represent progress towards democracy and it is literally impossible to see how any discourse over the future of the nation is taking place. Issues are left far behind in a hedonistic love of the moment.

Often, too, we have seen appeals to people's senses of nationalism used to engender support for parties here. Likewise, candidates have been quick and willing to both metaphorically and literally wrap themselves in the red and white flag of Indonesia to promote themselves as patriots and capitalize on some patriotic fervor that might accumulate more votes for them.

So where does this leave the democratic hopes for the election and the legitimate hopes for good policy development and political growth for the nation in the future? Sadly, the indicators from this election campaign do not suggest that much political debate and development has accrued and inevitably this means that divergent and beneficial policy-making looks unlikely to emerge.

In fact, the whole election campaign could be viewed negatively as a facile exercise of duping the people and doing very little to develop the nation. In monetary terms alone the campaigning may be seen as costly and this is pitiful given the monetary needs of the nation.

The manner in which candidates have appealed to voters' senses of nationalism and patriotism is almost rendered cynical. True patriotism surely lies in bringing forward plans and proposals for the future benefit of the nation but in the election campaigning these seem to have been in short supply.

The needs for investment in the nation's future are abundant and painful and there can be no greater constituent element of a nation's future than its education system. But this too seems not to have been sufficiently thought of throughout this campaign. The issue of education should be in the minds of voters as they go to cast their votes rather that the gyrating of a singer or shallow appeals to their patriotism.

Education is what is needed more than anything else in this country, or any country, to offer up any hope of a brighter future. This, then, is where the hearts and minds of candidates and voters should be. Indonesia's needs in terms of education are considerable and consequently this election should have significantly been about education for this nation.

The facts are all too powerful and compelling to be ignored. Tens of thousands of schools throughout Indonesia are literally in desperate need of physical repair. School children attending school in dilapidated buildings should surely pain and grieve us all. Likewise the fact, as reported by UNESCO, that more than twenty-five million children are left with no choice but to withdraw from schooling before they have even completed the Elementary level of schooling is simultaneously shocking, disturbing and, ought to be, shaming legislators into action.

But is there evidence that the grave needs and concerns for education here are "shaming" people into action? Regrettably there are consistent reports that any sense of shame stimulating positive action is in short supply. In fact, to quite the contrary, reports consistently suggest that officials charged with responsibility for schools and schooling will often have no sense of shame.

It has often been reported that monies set aside for schools and education projects are prone to getting lost in that sickness which still plagues too many people of collusion and corruption. Even the most basic of needs, it has been reported, for school buildings has been the subject of abuse. Contracts for repair works being awarded in a collusive manner is always going to run the risk of substandard procedures and workmanship being applied.

As a consequence of these kinds of practices costs are increased and monies wasted. The recent severe rainy season that seemed to cloud Jakarta's skies for weeks on end saw numerous schools suffer leaking and collapsing ceilings and sometimes this was happening at schools that had only recently been "renovated". Inevitably, the quality of repair works at such schools is drawn into doubt.

Also, there are reports of less than wholesome practices being applied to the supply of materials for schools; such as textbooks that are forced upon schools with monopolistic control. Forcing schools to buy books that, in all probability, are not hugely beneficial to the development of the schools and education generally is a practice that is painfully counter-productive.

These are issues that should be at the forefront of political debate and election discourse. Of course, they are not necessarily issues that are comfortable for political leaders to address but the connections between education and future growth are incontrovertible and so demand the attention of "would-be" political leaders.

In this election it is easy to be reminded of the adage "politicians are people that think about the next election -- statesmen are people that think about the next generation." Education, and the nation, needs statesmen. Learning for the benefit of the nation will not accrue from a popularity contest but must necessarily arise from facing hard issues and the application of true statesmanship.

The opinions expressed above are personal.