‘Raise your game’ on Indonesian education, Australia told

Election result in world’s fourth biggest nation underlines the need for better understanding of its neighbour

February 22, 2024
 Indonesia's Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto as described in the article
Source: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images
Indonesia’s defence minister Prabowo Subianto

Australia must “step up its game” on Indonesian education now that a former general is poised to be the archipelago’s next leader, experts said.

Defence minister Prabowo Subianto appears certain to be installed as Indonesia’s next president, with unofficial results suggesting he and running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka – outgoing president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s son – attracted close to 60 per cent of the vote in the 14 February election.

It is an extraordinary change of fortunes for Prabowo, a former son-in-law of long-time Indonesian dictator Suharto. A lieutenant-general under Suharto, Mr Prabowo stands accused of widespread human rights abuses. He was discharged from the military in 1998 over the torture of political activists and was temporarily banned from entering both Australia and the US.

Later tilts at the presidency saw Mr Prabowo soundly beaten by Jokowi, whom he accused of rigging the vote. Unsuccessful legal challenges against the results spawned deadly rioting in 2019.

This year, Jokowi tacitly backed his former foe and had the age requirement for candidates changed, enabling 36-year-old Mr Gibran to contest the vice-presidency. Jokowi’s intervention is expected to cement his legacy, with the new leader considered unlikely to depart radically from his predecessor’s policies.

But Sharyn Davies, director of the Herb Feith Indonesia Engagement Centre at Monash University, said Mr Prabowo’s “nationalist” leanings could affect higher education policy – including appetite for overseas university campuses.

“No Indonesian university apart from Monash Indonesia has foreign academics employed in anything other than guest adjunct positions,” Dr Davies said. “It’s a very insular, ultra-nationalist kind of education system and…my sense [is] Prabowo will move that even more towards the nationalist insular side.”

His 88-page election manifesto outlined 20 lofty aspirations for education, science and technology. They included raising research and innovation funding to at least 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product within five years, increasing university capacity and quality, improving university curricula, boosting teachers’ wages and providing scholarships for farmers’, fishers’, teachers’ and labourers’ offspring to study at bachelor’s, master’s and PhD levels.

He went further during a Jakarta conference in November, promising to make all state schools and universities free if he won the election, according to CNN Indonesia.

Nathan Franklin, a lecturer in Indonesian studies at Charles Darwin University in Australia, said these pledges were uncosted and extraordinarily ambitious in a huge country where parents paid for post-primary education: “You’re increasing the wages for teachers and then you’re going to make school free?”

Dr Franklin said the promises were partly a response to pressure from Mr Prabowo’s closest presidential rival, Anies Baswedan, a former Fulbright scholar, university rector and education minister under Jokowi.

Dr Davies said the leadership change highlighted the dangers of Australia’s apathy towards its northern neighbour, with perhaps 70 students down under commencing Indonesian language courses this year. “We as a country don’t have any links or expertise with Indonesia,” she said.

She said Australia wondered why China had monopolised access to Indonesia’s US$34 billion (£27 billion) nickel exports, crucial for green technologies. “More first-year university students by far are learning Indonesian in China than…in Australia, despite our close proximity,” Dr Davies went on. “Rather than seeing Indonesia as something to be feared, we really need to engage better.”


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