Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 16, 2004


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

As a highly diverse Indonesia embraces democracy, it is intriguing to reflect on how the country now deals with pluralism. One may have wondered why prejudice, self-righteousness, discrimination, as well as religious and ethnic conflicts erupted under the newly democratic Indonesia, compared to the relative calm during the New Order regime.

The "success" of the New Order regime in "minimizing" religious and ethnic conflicts was mainly due to the government's absolute control in almost all of society. At all levels, the government had effective arms that would act preemptively before any conflicts broke out. Furthermore, the media was tightly controlled and it became taboo to discus inter-communal differences (known by an Indonesian acronym of "SARA", or ethnicity, religion, race and class). This contributed to a seemingly harmonious society. Nonetheless, discrimination (both overt and covert) was pervasive, such as the alienation of a particular belief and prevention of certain ethnic groups to fully participate as decent citizens.

To have in-depth results, education was used as a tool to minimize perceived differences and force people to conform to a "uniform" thought process, although the rhetoric was full of commitment to pluralism. In fact, as Bjork implied (2003), Indonesia's school system provides a huge number of teachers and students for the government to indoctrinate a large, incarcerated audience, with almost no choice but to "swallow" the regime's ideology.

The above enforcement to make people live "peacefully" with each other will only work under an authoritarian government. In a democratic society, people accept others' differences because of their voluntary willingness and conscience. The "big bang" change from long-time authoritarianism to democracy, however, provides insufficient spheres for people to adapt themselves to the new atmosphere. Decades of superficial harmony left people with "cultural shock". Many long sidelined groups, such as extremist religious groups, emerged and, ironically, received a prominent spotlight in public, most of whom appeared to be frustrated with the slow pace of reformasi.

Nevertheless, one strategic factor that transcends any system of government to "control" society is education. Under an authoritarian regime, education was strongly manipulated to spread the regime's propaganda. Under a democratic regime, education too can be effectively used to promote genuine pluralism, albeit in a different atmosphere. The strategic utilization of education is due to the fact that education functions as an agent of change within society. Moreover, schools are places where students learn to socially construct realities of the surrounding society where they live in. In this case, there are several points to be considered.

First, teachers play significant roles in promoting pluralism in class that all citizens should adhere to democratic principles: Liberty, justice, equality, and tolerance. In this case, teachers, instead of "teaching" bhinneka tunggal ika (unity in diversity) by rote memorization, should internalize and implement the motto into their own behavior in classes. Teachers should set examples, by showing that they do not favor a certain ethnic or religious group at the expense of others. Without undermining local identity, teachers should give students a proper understanding of the diverse society that in which they live.

This means that teachers can tactfully discuss what has long been regarded as taboo (SARA issues) in a critical but responsible manner, for example, by giving discussion topics to students about the social benefits of living harmoniously and the disastrous impacts of religious conflicts and discrimination. Technical discussions of how to settle the problems may not emerge, but teachers can substantially impart many positive values, such as that of respecting others' beliefs. This can be a starting point of further substantive efforts such as inter-faith dialogs. Teachers should also address the perception that the majority groups have of their "right" to superiority over minority groups, and stress that it has no place in a democratic society. The relatively small groups of people who noisily claim to be the majority's representative does not help encourage sincere dialogs among societal groups.

Second, over the past three decades, teachers behaved as a source of knowledge "who know everything" and whose instructions cannot be "challenged" by students. Now, however, teachers' roles should change to become more like facilitators and should treat students more as "friends". Without jeopardizing the authority of teachers, egalitarianism should be nurtured as part of learning process.

Third, the values of pluralism should be contained in every lesson, besides being emphasized in one particular lesson, highlighting the significance of multi-cultural curricula. For example, the similarities, rather than differences in religions, should be contextually addressed. In a broader context, as Giroux (2001) points out, "schools have a responsibility to equip students with the knowledge and skills they will need to develop critical understanding of themselves as well as what it means to live in a democratic society."

Fourth, teachers and parents should collaborate to lay out a common perception of how to teach their students and children how to live in a pluralistic society. School Committees are appropriate bodies where teachers and parents can discuss the issue, provided that School Committees are democratic school institutions where differences of opinion is highly appreciated and parent representatives are truly diverse.

Lastly, as social construction also occurs at home and in the neighborhood, the role of parents is imperative. Parents can set examples by living harmoniously with, for example, neighbors whose religion or ethnicity is different. Nevertheless, as many teachers or parents might still adhere to the perception and practice of the old paradigm, the campaign to promote pluralism through education should be an unremitting effort for all responsible citizens. The state, in this regard, should strongly promote such a campaign by abolishing any regulations that are deemed to be anti-pluralism.

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