Muhadjir Effendy is ambivalent about his time at a tiny wooden desk. It happened half a century ago in a Madiun (East Java) madrasa Islamic school. “The war against illiteracy was being waged,” he recalled. “The concentration was on reading and writing - so not such a happy place.”
Whatever the faults of the system in that era it set one boy on a compass heading to the peak of the education mountain. He took that journey through Java and beyond, garnering prestigious qualifications along the way.
Today, the Minister for Education and Culture’s task is to help the present generation find an easier and more fulfilling way to the summit.
“I want schools to be more human,” he said during a one-on-one interview in Malang where he used to be Rector of Muhammadiyah University, now the biggest tertiary institution in East Java. “The school should be every child’s second home, a place where they enjoy learning and want to be there.
“Let’s build a new paradigm. Some class ways have to change; teacher talking and students copying is not right. We need to develop a nation of critical thinkers. My objective is to revitalize basic education in Indonesia.”
Indonesia ranks below Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam on most international education scorecards.
Effendy, 60, said he had never met Joko Widodo before he got the President’s shoulder tap last July following the sudden sacking of Dr Anies Baswedan.
The professor wasn’t given a portfolio pick. Had choices been offered he would have selected defense as he studied military sociology for his doctorate in Indonesia, and regional security and defense policy in the US.
“Another preference would have been the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education,” he said. Why not the Ministry of Communication as he was once a student journalist? “Not so interesting.”
“The President wanted me in the education ministry because, he said, ‘you believe in our values and you know our vision – we share the same background’. In particular he wanted an improvement in the take-up of the Kartu Indonesia Pintar (KIP - Indonesia Smart Card).
“When I took on this job, about 22 per cent of the cards had been distributed. Now it’s 70 per cent because I’ve been working with provincial governors. I hope to reach 90 per cent this year, but there are many obstacles and with some my hands are tied.”
(The KIP is a cash-transfer card to ensure poor students continue their schooling. Introduced in 2015 it’s also intended to help bright kids enter university. Almost 20 million are eligible but millions are reportedly missing out. The rate is Rp 225,000 (US $17) to Rp 500,000 (US $37) per semester.
Effendy said the bureaucratic snafus involved a mismatch in data gathering and ways of interpreting poverty and need by different departments. The education future of 900,000 orphans, many without birth certificates, also has to be addressed.
The Minister said the problem was extra bad in Ambon where a prolonged sectarian civil conflict earlier this century shattered thousands of families.
Effendy flicked aside the suggestion that he was a new broom in the ministry, although he initiated one change in particular. Last December he held a Christmas function in the office and asked a pastor to address all staff, whatever their faith.
He said his predecessor, now a candidate for the Jakarta governorship had “done the job well” and his policy directions had not been overturned. Effendy declined to speculate on why Baswedan was dismissed, other than saying the President “needed a new style”.
The minister said he wants to scrap the national exam system, which uses multiple-choice questionnaires: “The President is keen but the Vice President (Jusuf Kalla) is not so enthusiastic.”
Some universities are starting to organize international conferences where all have to use English. This hasn’t bothered confident participants, but the shy are often reluctant to display their abilities for fear of ridicule.
“I agree this is an issue,” Effendy said. “Some students can’t express themselves. We need to improve but we have only one official language and all others are labeled foreign. This has created a barrier.”
Another contentious point has been Effendy’s enthusiasm for a longer school day, although he claims critics have misunderstood the proposal.
“I understand some people’s concerns, but eight hours a day five days a week doesn’t have to be spent at a desk,” he said. “Nor does it mean more mathematics and grammar. It’s already being piloted in 1,500 schools.
“I encourage teachers to take their students out of school to community sports fields and museums. As I’m also Minister of Culture I can ensure that happens. The idea is to increase involvement with, and understanding of, ethics, aesthetics and kinetics.
“Overseas education systems I admire are those in Australia and Japan, where there is a balance between learning and doing.
“Lack of tolerance is a big problem in Indonesia. We have to live together whatever our ethnicity or religion. This has to be appreciated so it must be taught. This is the President’s idea and it is also mine.
“Being minister is a big job. Everyone talks about education and they claim to know what’s wrong - so that means I should understand everything. I do know that we have to do much more to lift the quality of teaching and facilities.
“For example, in Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan (SMK – vocational high schools) we have to upgrade facilities so our graduates get familiar with the latest equipment and can find work. We have already sent 12,000 teachers to visit factories so they know what’s happening in modern industries.
“Teaching needs to be much wider - about universal values of morality and integrity that are supported by all the world’s major religions.
“Let’s get away from teacher-centered education to a position where everyone is working as partners, not bosses. We have to build equality. I am going to get rid of our weaknesses in education.”