The real meaning, value of literacy for RI

Eddy Henry ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 06/06/2009 12:28 PM  |  Opinion

A recent report has shown that Indonesians spend far much more time watching television than reading. The International Reading Literacy Study (IRLS), which measures the developmental progress of children’s reading, ranked Indonesia 36th among 40 countries.

The only countries below us were Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco and South Africa. But rather than dismissing this as Indonesians not being interested in reading, issues of the affordability and accessibility of reading material must first be explored.

Books are not inexpensive in Indonesia. In fact, in contrast to neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia, books in Indonesia are considered to be expensive and non-attainable by most of the population. This includes locally published books. For example, the cheapest children’s book for sale in book store chains such as Gramedia and Toko Gunung Agung are around Rp 12,000 (US$ 1.3) and these are mostly comics.

In contrast, a similar amount could have purchased books with a higher educational content, or more books, in our neighbouring countries. When comparing higher quality imported books, the disparity grows. A children’s book can easily cost up to Rp 100,000 in book stores such as Kinokuniya and Times. In general, imported books cost between 20 and 30 percent more here than in neighbouring countries.

This is probably the bookstores’ way of compensating for a lack of scale in sales. In India, where illiteracy stands at 32 percent, a similar country with a similar socio-economic profile to Indonesia, books printed locally are far cheaper and far more accessible than they are here. As a result, the illiteracy rate in India is expected to drop drastically in future years.

The lacklustre reading habits in Indonesia is equally attributable to the apparent lack of places to read. The total number of libraries across the archipelago is just under 6,200, of which less than 3,000 are open to the public. This translates to one library for every 35,000 persons. In Singapore, there are more than 550 libraries, translating to a ratio of one library per 7,000 persons. Furthermore, there are up to half a million books in each of its national libraries.

Heeding to this call, efforts have been seen from non-profit and international organizations to increase accessibility to books in Indonesia. First lady Ani Yudhoyono, for example, has initiated a program to provide 100 mobile libraries to serve remote villages across Indonesia – each with internet access and containing some 5,000 books.

Issues of affordability and accessibility of reading materials must be taken seriously by various stakeholders in Indonesia. Book publishers for example, should care less about profit margins and more about spreading the love for reading across the country. The government could in turn provide larger subsidies for educational books sold. National campaigns to encourage reading must also be conducted seriously, with a reach that spreads into the pockets of rural living.

Parents, above all, play the most immediate role in planting a love for reading in children. They can for example, make it a priority to spend at least 15 minutes a day reading to their children. This will not only promote early literacy, but also strengthen the bond between parents and children, as well as encouraging healthy brain development.

In its truest sense, literacy creates an educated man who is able to fulfil his own dreams, and to expand his society’s capacity as a whole. As a learned country, literacy is the basic element in building human capital, fostering cultural identity and tolerance, and promoting civic participation.

Indonesia, alongside its efforts to achieve a 95 percent literacy rate by 2009, should also focus on imparting literacy as a prolonged quest for knowledge, and a lifelong passion for learning and growth. To do so, a combined effort from the government, schools and parents, as well as the private and public sectors, is needed.

The writer is the chairperson of the United World Colleges (UWC) National Committee for Indonesia.

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