English can wait as nation-building takes hold

27 October 2012 | last updated at 10:23PM

MANY find the decision by Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture to drop English from its primary school curriculum as perplexing. Not just English, but Social Studies and the Sciences, too, will be dropped.

What is happening in Indonesia is worth serious attention. While the rationale behind the move is interesting, Indonesians are eons ahead compared with other countries in the art and craft of nation-building. The path to nationhood was a difficult one for them and independence didn’t come the easy way.

They take pride in the making of a negara bangsa (nation state) and despite the changing political and social dynamics of the post-Suharto era, the principle that binds them as satu negara, satu bangsa, satu bahasa (one nation, one race, one language) has not changed.

The five pillars of the republic, the Pancasila, are taken seriously. Pancasila, the guiding principle did not change with regime change. It is sacrosanct for them and they practise it religiously. Nationhood is serious business. Little wonder they need no campaign to wave their flag during their Independence Day, nor is it necessary to debate what constitutes loyalty.

But more importantly, they believe education is the key to unity. The people can speak various languages and hundreds of dialects but Bahasa Indonesia is the only language for the schools. They were condemned for being fervently nationalistic and marginalising vernacular education back then. The decision was perhaps the right one for them.

Today, the richest, the most cosmopolitan and the most successful Indonesians speak one language, anywhere they are, in San Francisco or Timbuktu. There is no necessity for identity contestation among the races or ethnic groups; their identity is the language they communicate with each other. That is a classic and true manifestation of the credo Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or unity in diversity.

For the detractors, the decision to drop English at sekolah dasar (primary schools) is baffling considering the importance of the language in today’s world.

Depriving young children of another language is regarded as a wrong policy. Children, after all, pick up any language fast. There are others who argue that doing so will further widen the gap between the rich and the others and encourage class division.

Apparently the latest policy has nothing to do with the importance of English. The ministry’s position is that students need to learn and master the national language first. As for the other subjects dropped, again the rationale is still nation-building. It is the best opportunity to nurture rasa kecintaan pada negara (the love for the nation) at that level. Other subjects can wait. One must remember, the idea to uphold Bahasa Indonesia as the language of unity was part of the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) declared on Oct 28, 1928, exactly 84 years tomorrow.

Many advocates of the new curriculum believe that nilai leluhur (good values inherited from the forefathers) are fast losing lustre. With the fall of strongmen like Sukarno and Suharto, the centre is barely able to hold together the demands of ethnic groups and regions, not to mention new openness and press freedom.

The only hope is symbolism, which the Indonesians are very good at preserving. Language is the ultimate totem of unity. The national ideology, culture and values are critical for the survival of Indonesia.

Even its Education Ministry is known as Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan. Culture as you can see, is a critical part of “education”.

They have seen how dangerous things became when those values were ignored. When communist elements infiltrated Sukarno’s inner circle, they launched Manifesto Kebudayaan or Manikebu (Cultural Declaration) to ensure only the appropriate literary values were incorporated. Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat or Lekra (People’s Cultural Assembly) was to monitor all literary activity.

Perhaps the leaders today are concerned that what constitutes good character, tolerance and openness are slowly being eroded. Religiosity is rearing its ugly head, so, too, intolerance towards others. Various ethnic and religious skirmishes since the fall of Suharto are a wake-up call for Indonesians.

Perhaps we can understand the logic behind the latest policy if we care to understand the complexity of Indonesia and its people.