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Unity in Diversity- The Indonesian Curriculum

Thursday January 19th, 2023

IMPACT-se releases first-of-its-kind report on Indonesian curriculum

  • Curriculum promotes peace, tolerance, and coexistence: state philosophy of Pancasila (the ‘Five Principles’) is a central motif from first grade onwards.
  • Respect for believers of other religions is emphasized, however indigenous religions and agnosticism are excluded; Islamic education lessons teach armed jihad.
  • Jihadi terrorists are condemned, and textbooks teach about domestic terrorism without blaming or associating it with certain groups.
  • Lessons on international relations teach positive perspective on countries with which Indonesia has sensitive relationship; textbooks avoid war in East Timor, plight of Muslims in China and Myanmar, and teaching of Holocaust save for Christian education.
  • Examples of injustices under Japanese and Dutch colonial rule include beneficial outcomes to Indonesia; US shown as major trading partner, textbooks highlight Chinese roots of Indonesians.
  • Textbooks praise local languages and cultures, combat bias against minorities, and encourage self-criticism.
  • Gender equality is promoted; however, textbooks feature traditional family units, and conservative values for women. Islamic and Hindu/Catholic studies oppose sexual diversity and intermarriage, respectively.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) has released a first-of-its-kind report on the Indonesian curriculum from its London office, in collaboration with the Ruderman Family Foundation.

IMPACT-se is a 25 year old research and policy institute that analyses schoolbooks and curricula to promote UNESCO standards of peace and tolerance in education.

The latest IMPACT-se report evaluated 169 textbooks taught in the Standard Public Track, schools run by the Indonesian Ministry of Education, which make up 85 percent of all students. These include textbooks on religion, civics, history, social studies, environmental studies, globalization, and geography.

The report can be found here.

The Indonesian curriculum demonstrates a strong commitment to peace, tolerance, and coexistence, both at home and abroad, in a bid to unite the 1,340 ethnicities across the Indonesian archipelago. Textbooks reflect national values of unity within diversity, religious and social harmony, humility, the importance of local wisdom, and respect toward other nations. Materials taught to students mirror Indonesia’s role as regional peacekeeper, unaligned “non-block” foreign policy, and a lack of open debate on sensitive issues borne of the legacy of Indonesia’s New Order political period (1966-1999), where interpersonal differences were perceived as a threat to national unity.

A central motif is the Pancasila, a five-principle state philosophy taught and integrated into all subjects, especially in primary education. The teaching of Pancasila is based on a shared belief in the one and only God, within the framework of six major world faiths recognized by Indonesia, and promotes the acceptance of unity within diversity. From as early as first grade, students are taught that “Helping each other is […] aligned with Pancasila,” and students in higher grades learn that ideologies which oppose Pancasila “threaten[s] the existence of the Republic of Indonesia.”

Respect for believers of other religions is emphasized: the curriculum is free of religious hatred, and there is no anti-Christian polemic or Islamophobia in Christian books. Jihadi terrorists are condemned, and textbooks teach about domestic terrorism without blaming or associating it with certain groups. Tolerance is specifically taught in Buddhist textbooks as means to prevent terrorism, war, and violence. However, the concept of unity within diversity does not include indigenous religions, enforces conservative values, and excludes agnosticism. Islamic education textbooks teach peace, and that killing and fighting are strictly prohibited. Nonetheless, armed jihad against infidels remains part of the faith. There is limited teaching about the Jewish people and religion, and Holocaust education exists only in Christian education. Christians and Jews are mentioned positively in the context of the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms and the New Testament, and for their activities during the golden eras of Islamic civilization; however, limited stereotypical biases exist. Clear messages are incorporated that violence toward other religions should be avoided, in response to wronging or offending Muslims.

When teaching about Indonesia’s relations with foreign powers, including countries with which Indonesia has a sensitive relationship, textbooks show reluctance to raise controversial issues. Students learn about Japanese cruelty during colonial rule, and Dutch exploitation of resources on the island of Java. At the same time, historical discussions reveal positive aspects of Japanese colonial rule, such as respect for Islam, and influencing the rise of Indonesian nationalism. Likewise, criticism of the Dutch occupation also highlights admiration for the introduction of modern infrastructure, and of new plants that nowadays have become export commodities. The greed of British officials during colonization is condemned, but students learn that UK-Indonesia relations have since been restored.

China is presented with a conciliatory perspective, and the Chinese roots of Indonesians are emphasized. Textbooks describe the US as one of Indonesia’s largest trading partners, and explain that bilateral relations have improved since the 1999-2005 military embargo. Israel is described as a “colonizing country” benefitting from strong relations with the US, allowing its evasion of sanctions for human rights violations. Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia are presented as important partners for Indonesia. Relations with Malaysia are shown to be mixed: while there are bilateral tensions over the killing of Indonesian orangutans and disputed territories, lessons indicate that the two nations have developed educational and economic cooperation. Teaching is, at times, overly narrow: textbooks avoid the war in East Timor in the 1990s, and the plight of Muslims in China and Myanmar is not discussed.

Textbooks praise local cultures and languages. The curriculum exalts local and ethnic wisdom, such as gotong royong (mutual cooperation) and kerja bakti (voluntary work) undertaken in a variety of contexts, from community action to prevent flooding to children sweeping the schoolyard. Textbooks combat bias against religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, notably Indonesians of Chinese descent, by exploring their contribution to Indonesian society. The economic value of cultural diversity is emphasized. The curriculum promotes self-criticism that leads to improvement.

Both general and religious education textbooks largely promote gender equality, by emphasizing that men and women have equal capabilities and rights. However, abstinence until marriage (and responsibility thereof) is expected in relation to women. Textbooks feature traditional family units, with conservative family values. Islamic education opposes sexual diversity, and Hinduism and Catholicism oppose intermarriage. However, in Hindu studies, effeminate males are accepted.

“Indonesia’s approach to democracy and harmony, as well as its ideals of peace and stability, has made it a natural leader of the world’s emerging powers and has given it this opportunity for global leadership,” said Jay Ruderman, a board member of IMPACT-se and President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, who provided funding for the report. “At the same time, Indonesia’s growing ‘soft power’ comes with great responsibility. It is incumbent upon the country to apply its core values beyond its own borders by continuing to play a role in important international events, and to ensure that the Indonesian education system imparts those values to the next generation.”

Says IMPACT-se CEO, Marcus Sheff:

“Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, the third-biggest democracy, and by 2030 is expected to be the world’s fifth-largest economy, and so it is heartening that the curriculum of this important country promotes peace, tolerance, coexistence, and respect for other religions. The preservation of unity in a country of 1,340 ethnicities will not always open the way to debate on difficult subjects in the textbooks; but that is clearly estimated to be a price worth paying.”

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