Finding a Balance Between English and Bahasa Indonesia
Salim Osman – Straits Times
One significant innovation made by many primary schools in Indonesia in recent years has been the introduction of English as a subject for pupils in the lower elementary curriculum.
English is offered at the lower primary level to get younger pupils to be interested in a foreign language besides their national language, Bahasa Indonesia, earlier. Previously pupils would have had to wait until they reached junior high school to study English.
But the Ministry of Education and Culture now wants all primary schools to remove not only English, but also science and social studies subjects, in favor of lessons on religion, nationalism and Bahasa Indonesia from the next school year beginning in July.
The new curriculum that is being revamped will offer English as a subject only from junior high school level.
Many parents are finding the removal of science and English from the primary school curriculum baffling while critics see it as just another hurdle being placed on the citizens’ path to better prosperity in the future.
“It is too early to teach such hard subjects to the pupils,” said Deputy Education Minister Musliar Kasim in announcing an overhaul of the elementary school curriculum recently.
“Elementary schools won’t have English lessons because [pupils] haven’t even learnt to understand the Indonesian language yet,” he said.
“Now, even some kindergarten pupils take English courses. I pity the kids,” he said, alluding to the interest in English language even at pre-school level.
The new curriculum has elicited debate over what should be taught at primary schools.
Many parents are obviously disappointed that their children would not be exposed to English at a younger age when their ability to absorb and learn a new language is at its best.
They will have to send their children to tuition centers to continue with their English lessons.
The ministry has not said very much about the rationale behind the decision beyond saying that English is difficult to cope with and that pupils need to improve their Bahasa Indonesia first before learning a foreign language.
Interestingly, the move comes in the wake of the high failure rate in Bahasa Indonesia among high school students in recent years.
When the exam results were announced in May, some educationists attributed the high failure rate in Bahasa Indonesia in many high schools to the swing towards English because students tended to give more attention to it rather than the national language.
In the words of academic Abdul Chaer of the Jakarta State University, who spoke to Kompas newspaper, “I don’t know if it’s because of the prestige associated with learning English, or if it’s something else, but this is what is happening right now.”
Other scholars disagree that the high failure rate is due to the swing towards English. They say that it could be the way Bahasa Indonesia is taught and the influence of regional dialects. Hence the suggestion that those drafting the curriculum must look into how the teaching of Bahasa Indonesia can be further improved.
Looking at the backdrop in the curriculum changes at primary level, it is obvious that the revision is a political decision in reaction to social changes in society.
The teaching of science, social studies and English must take a back seat in favor of lessons on religion, nationalism and Bahasa Indonesia to inculcate the right values at an early age.
Advocates of the new curriculum support the scrapping of science because they fear that teaching the subject would mean a loss of opportunity to nurture a good “motherland-loving attitude”, as pointed out by Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) legislator Dedi Gumelar.
“In elementary school, we need to teach them more about good character, the values of state ideology Pancasila, culture and ethics,” he said.
“Teach them about sciences, such as geography and social sciences, at a later stage, like when they are at the junior high level.”
The lack of good values among young Indonesians that Dedi referred to has been cited as partly the cause of the violent brawls among high school students and the lack of tolerance as reflected in the attacks on minorities.
These run counter to the ideals of the state ideology of Pancasila and the credo “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” or “unity in diversity,” that marks Indonesia’s identity.
The decision to scrap English is clearly made out of concern over the state of Bahasa Indonesia among the younger generation with the onslaught of English.
The preference for English has begun to attract criticism. In 2009, a young woman whose father is Indonesian and mother American, was crowned Miss Indonesia despite her poor command of Bahasa Indonesia.
The beauty contest judges were later denounced in the media for being impressed by her English fluency and for disregarding the fact that, despite growing up in Indonesia, she needed interpreters to translate the judges’ questions.
This aside, the swing towards English has been driven by the recognition of its importance as an international language.
Growing numbers of wealthy and upper middle class families are sending their children to private schools that focus on English and devote little time, if any, to Bahasa Indonesia.
The trend has led to changing attitudes with some Indonesians viewing the mastery of English as tied to social standing, while Bahasa Indonesia is relegated to a lower status.
Obviously, this would have far-reaching implications for Indonesia, where generations of political leaders promoted Bahasa Indonesia to unite the nation and forge a national identity out of countless ethnic groups, ancient cultures and disparate dialects.
While the decision to scrap English at primary schools can be understood as stemming from a desire to protect Indonesia’s linguistic legacy, the door should not be closed to those seeking access to English lessons. Schools should be allowed to continue holding English classes as an optional subject outside curriculum time.
The new curriculum should not be imposed on private schools with English as the main language as that would deny citizens the choice to have an English education. Instead, the exposure time for Bahasa Indonesia should be increased to raise the level of proficiency.
In spite of the perceived threat, proficiency in English has economic value for Indonesia and this has to be recognized. It would not make Indonesians less nationalistic or patriotic if they are fluent in English.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times