To regain greatness, fix education

Yan Mulyana, Tokyo | Opinion | Wed, March 26 2014, 10:42 AM

When I first arrived in Sydney an Australian colleague asked me: “Will Indonesia invade Australia?”
I was unsure how much that friend knew about Indonesia or whether he liked nasi goreng, which was popularized on a TV advertisement.

Perhaps Australians are familiar with the word goreng as they often see it on the noodle shelf when shopping. Many young Aussies are now able to pronounce many Indonesian phrases, and even former prime minister Julia Gillard said Indonesian was one of the main languages that Australians were encouraged to learn, equally important to the more widely spoken Mandarin.

At least in Queensland’s suburb of Tanah Merah where some streets are named in Indonesian or Malay, the familiarity of the language could develop curiosity, interactions and even cultural penetration.

Among the early signs of the penetration of Indonesian culture to the outside world is the growing popularity of its television dramas in Malaysia. More Malaysians seem to be familiar with Indonesian bahasa gaul (slang) than there are Indonesians who can imitate Malaysian slang.

We might be more astonished by how the composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie were amazed by the magical sound of gamelan, or how director Gareth Evans and actor Iko Uwais recently gained worldwide fame with The Raid, promoting traditional silat martial art to the world.

Nasi goreng, sinetron, gamelan and silat are well-known words, but what about Indonesians themselves? Or are we too skeptical?

First, we have to criticize the way we perceive history. Each sequence of events in history is always connected not only by time and space but also by the subject of history itself. Thus, history should be valued as who we were, who we are and who we will be.

It is a huge mistake to claim that Indonesia started in 1945. The ”who-we-were” of the Indonesians began thousands of years ago. When Stephen Oppenheimer, famed writer of Eden in the East, came up with the idea of “out of Sundaland”, supposed to replace the old “out of Taiwan” model, he was not joking.

The geological, genetic and socio-cultural evidence strongly suggests that this archipelago was once a huge land mass called Sundaland, inhabited by a highly cultured and civilized people who established the cradle of human civilization, before spreading to all parts of the world due to the inundation of the land and starting new civilizations including the Indus Valley, the Mesopotamian and ancient Egypt.

While this theory is still embryonic, what we know now is that Indonesia represents the major area of Sundaland and we are supposed to inherit much of its wealth. We have inherited the greatness of Borobudur and Prambanan Temple and traditional cultures but the rise and decline of civilizations produces one central value passed from one generation to another, namely “the expansive character”.

We find this value embedded in the people of all the four big islands of Indonesia. It was the people of South Kalimantan who made their thousand-mile voyage and settled in Madagascar; the Makassar people from South Sulawesi travelled to the top end of Australia and interacted with the Aborigines; the Javanese Majapahit and the Sumatran Sriwijaya once conquered Southeast Asia.

All humans acquire knowledge but only people capable of influencing others, such as a society with an expansive character, will eventually construct a civilization. This is really the “who-we-are” of this nation, passed to us from our ancestors. It may have been dormant but we cannot afford to say we have lost it.

If we have to judge the process of becoming modern since independence or perhaps since 1928, when youth activists from various areas declared the “Youth Pledge”, surely we should have found a good model for our government system. But reality speaks otherwise.

Where the expansive character in a society is not dormant, people will have strong character with courage and confidence; and the key to it is good education. Sadly, Indonesia’s quality of education has a very low international competitiveness. The most fundamental issue in reforming the education policy is the education of character.

When Indonesian students are tested in the English language, the first and main hassle is always the writing, then the speaking, although most perform better in the reading.

How much have we been educated to systematically write even in Indonesian? While writing and public speaking skills are the most fundamental requirement for successful communication, in a society where the capability is in deficit, people tend to have a weak character and consequently have little impact on others.

Whoever leads Indonesia after the coming election must work hard on the policy and implementation of character education at the primary and secondary level. The new education system will have to emphasize encouraging these students to express ideas through a critical and systematic way of thinking and writing, group discussion, public speaking and constructive debating, leading to high quality students entering university, which will eventually improve the quality of tertiary education.

There has to be a massive and communal effort to bring back the expansive character and to anticipate the country’s “who-we-will-be” question in the new generation.

It has to start from scratch but if confidence meets courage, it’s a bang. The famed Russell Crowe was once a little suburban boy of Sydney who dreamed big, as he conveyed when winning the Oscar for his role in Gladiator: “And for anybody who’s on the down side of advantage and relying purely on courage, it’s possible.”

The writer is an Indonesianist living in Melbourne, Australia and a fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science at the Institute of Industrial Science, the University of Tokyo, Japan.