Tossing Science Out of Indonesian Schools?

My daughter, who just turned 4, currently has three favorite subjects in the various books we put in her hands. First there are dinosaurs, which she is able to name and roughly classify. Then there is the human body. She knows about cells, muscles, bones and organs. She seems to understand the brain, digestion and the fact that DNA — “It’s ladder-shaped daddy” — carries the code that determines how we look and grow. The latest is space and constellations, planets, the Milky Way and stars. She knows that outer space is weightless and draws her own version of the planets orbiting the sun.

This is not to say that my little girl is anything other than reasonably bright, but I am struck that she finds these scientific subjects fun and interesting — and she is two years away from entering first grade. She knows things I doubt I knew at her age and she is constantly eager for more — when she isn’t throwing a fit or drawing on the walls with crayons, of course.

This is just one reason I found the recent announcement from the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture so hard to understand. The ministry is intent on stripping the lower elementary curriculum of social science, natural science and English in favor of nationalism, religion and character-building. PDI-P lawmaker Dedi Gumelar said the change would nurture a “motherland-loving attitude” while critics see it as another example of the many obstacles Indonesia faces on the road to sustainable prosperity.

“In elementary school we need to teach them more about good character, the values of state ideology Pancasila, culture, and ethics,” Dedi said recently. I might recommend that Dedi visit science-mad South Korea, one of the most nationalistic places on earth, where kids are awash in science and English from the day they enter the classroom because the society equates knowledge with nation building.

There is nothing more important to developing a robust economy than education, including an early appreciation for science, languages and technology. It is well understood that Indonesia lacks investment in research and development and that most technology is imported. Companies here are steeped in a culture of quick return that leaves little room for investment in long-term research.

The government has said it will spend an impressive $34.9 billion on education in the 2013 state budget, an increase of 6.7 percent over 2012.But is it being spent wisely to give Indonesia the punch it needs to compete with the rest of Asia? There is so much to be done. The Trade Ministry has said there are only a paltry 20,000 PhDs in the country. In the latest ranking of the world’s best universities by the London Times not a single Indonesian institution placed in the top 400. In the prestigious US News and World Report rankings of universities in Asia, the best Indonesia managed was No. 50 for the University of Indonesia.

I had a conversation recently with a senior executive of a major multinational company. He praised Indonesia’s prospects in the context of Asia’s overall rise. Then I asked if his company had plans for operations here beyond sales and marketing. He said no. Those investments were all in India and China and included research and development centers employing many thousands of workers. The problem in Indonesia, he explained, was that there was not a large enough pool of trained engineers and scientists to draw from.

Building pride in the nation and reinvigorating the values of tolerance in the Pancasila ideology are certainly good things but they are hardly incompatible with exposing young minds to the scientific method. Indeed, the children of the wealthy will likely learn more sophisticated subjects because they will go to international schools and be groomed for study abroad. It would be a tragedy if the great majority of children, who rely on government schools, are short-changed by their curriculum. A child is never too young to explore the boundaries of science and to dream of what might be. You can ask my daughter.

(A. Lin Neumann is the founding editor of the Jakarta Globe and is also a founder of Asia Sentinel. The article also appeared in the Globe.)