Sunday, December 23, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 24, 2007


Mitra Netra Foundation director Bambang Basuki demonstrated the computer skills of his visually impaired colleagues at an event at the Presidential Palace on Dec. 6, marking the International Day for Persons with Disabilities. The foundation is an NGO that aims to provide services to people with visual impairment through educational programs. It also is a resource center for regular schools with inclusive education. Bambang, who is also visually impaired, met with The Jakarta Post contributor Alpha Amirrachman to talk about the current state's policies for people with disabilities, and inclusive education which he said could enable them to enjoy equal participation in society.

Question: How would you describe the present government's handling of people with disabilities?

Answer: In the past I faced difficulties when I applied for work as a teacher, due to explicit discriminatory regulations that stipulated that teachers must not have disabilities.

In the education sector students with disabilities have been segregated into exclusive schools, which were only available in selected locations, but I think the situation has been gradually improving.

This can be seen, for example, in the 1997 law for people with disabilities and the 2003 national education law.

The regulation for disabled people stipulates that every companies' workforce must comprise at least 1 percent persons with disabilities.

The education law states that people with mental and physical disabilities are entitled to special education, but "special education" can still be interpreted as a segregated education (only for students with disabilities), which effectively separates them from the rest of society.

Under the 2005 regulation on national education standards, however, the government stated the need for specialized teachers in inclusive education, to further integrate disabled persons into the education system. It states that every school with an inclusive education program should have specialized teachers with required competence to handle students with disabilities.

Also the decree made by the director general of elementary and secondary education at the National Education Ministry urged schools to provide inclusive education programs where disabled students require them.

How is all this translated into practice?

The 1 percent quota of staff dedicated for people with disabilities has yet to be completely put into practice.

There are also inadequate resources for schools to effectively adopt the inclusive education policies. Schools still think it would burden them to provide special facilities for students with disabilities.

I believe local administrations should allocate a special budget for schools with an inclusive education policy.

When I was invited to give advice on the formulation of Jakarta's gubernatorial regulation on inclusive education, I managed to insert a clause that schools with inclusive education programs should receive "guidance" from local authorities -- this should also be interpreted as financial assistance, and I hope that all local administrations throughout the country would follow suit.

But there have also been positive signs, with the Education Ministry now providing a grant to the Mitra Netra Foundation, which has provides resources for people with disabilities.

Regular schools can ask for the provision of special teachers and learning resources from us, or from special schools for students with disabilities.

Why do you think inclusive education is better for people with disabilities? Don't these people need special and different treatment?

I'm not saying special schools are unnecessary. Segregated education is still important for certain people who require special treatment, but many students with disabilities are also capable and can learn alongside students at conventional schools and should be socializing with other members of society.

Students can learn to interact with each other and respect their differences from an early age.

I think this could be a key to make our society adopt a more democratic outlook. It is unfortunate that there are still those who believe people with disabilities cannot be productive, which is basically discrimination -- This is a serious threat to inclusive education.

Because of this, we need clear, consistent policies and regulations.

What needs to be improved in inclusive education is: to increase the number and equal distribution of quality resource centers across the country; the provision of a clear status for special education teachers and their chosen career path; designing an effective evaluation system; the provision of an operational budget for resource centers and campaigns; and dissemination of information on policies for regular schools in remote areas, with involvement from local authorities which can accomodate the specific needs of each region.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in dealing with the issue?

I think the biggest challenge is to shift the paradigm within our society that discriminates against people with disabilities, seeing them only as a burden.

We also need to change our perception such that people like us aren't just seen as persons who need special treatment and charity, but as people who can contribute to the betterment of society.

In the past, because of discrimination and prejudice we were never asked to get involved in policy making.

Since this paradigm is difficult to dislodge, we are often forced to make compromises. We have struggled to influence policy makers but what we may perceive as ideal is often hard for others to accept, for a number of reasons, including that we are a poor country and there are many other areas which need immediate attention.

The government has definitely started to include us in its policies, and have increasingly shown to understand that we know exactly what we need.

The recent visit made by Bank Indonesia personnel to Mitra Netra for advice on the production of bills especially designed for people with visual impairment is a good example. Although its results were not entirely satisfactory, because we were not consulted from the outset, it is still an indication of a positive change.

How do you think information and communications technology (ICT) can help to empower people with disabilities?

The development of ICT has been amazing and has enabled people, particularly those with disabilities, to learn new skills.

ICT has proven to be a very useful tool to enhance skills and knowledge, but we need to catch up with developments in this field, otherwise we will be left behind.

Mitra Netra Foundation has produced special software called the Mitra Netra Braille Converter (MBC), the Mitra Netra Electronic Dictionary (MELDICT) and Tactile Graphic Software.

We also produce digital talking books which are cheap and efficient -- users can easily navigate to pages or chapters.

Each year we publish 125 different Braille-based titles and the same number of digital talking books.

Managed by the Indonesian E-Braille Community (KEBI), the database can also be accessed online by the blind, who use special screen reader software.

The screen readers and Braille display software must be imported and are therefore expensive. As yet we have been unable to produce an Indonesian version ... so we would like to see experts help us invent them.

There are also other obstacles; the high cost of Internet connections, the lack of Internet access in many schools and limited supporting government regulations.


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 23, 2007


The National Education Ministry's ICT Center of Education (Pustekkom) conducted the 6th International Symposium on Open, Distance and E-Learning (ISODEL 2007) from Nov. 13-15 in Kuta, Bali. The Jakarta Post's contributing writer Alpha Amirrachman spoke with the director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Open Learning Center (SEAMOLEC) and Indonesia Open University professor, Paulina Pannen, about how information and communication technology (ICT) has increasingly become a facilitator for open and distance learning.

Question: What is the difference between open and distance learning and conventional learning?

Answer: Both have the same principles. The difference is that the educational process in open and distance learning is mediated...

However, one has to ensure that the students really learn what is provided in the module or website... One needs to be careful also not to create students' dependency on the tutors so as not to lose the essence of open and distance learning. We also need to be consistent in quality control.

How is open and distance learning developing in Southeast Asia and Indonesia?

The development of open and distance learning both regionally and nationally has progressed significantly. However, what is definite is the increased role of ICT, which has become an inevitable "enabler" and accelerator of open and distance learning.

How is the cooperation between SEAMOLEC and open universities in Southeast Asian countries?

It has increased tremendously, not only with open universities but now also with the education ministries of respective countries. Governments have started to realize that open and distance learning could contribute to resolving some problems in their education system, such as by widening access to education for everyone...

Why is SEAMOLEC headquartered in Jakarta?

Because it was originally initiated in 1997 by then Indonesian education minister Wardiman Djojonegoro. Wardiman said that the Indonesia Open University was already classified as a "mega university" (over 100,000 students). At that time, the number of students enrolled at the Indonesia Open University had reached 400,000.

Vast, archipelagic Indonesia also has a very unique geographical condition, which should invite specific studies into a variety of models of open and distance learning. For example, Java is the most populated island with ample resources but with a flat surface, while the Riau islands consist of small, separate islands. Nusa Tenggara and the Maluku islands also have distinct characteristics.

...The treatment should be different, as there should not be a one-size-fits-all model for these areas.

How many models has SEAMOLEC developed so far?

We now have three models of open and distance learning. The first is radio-based education, which has been developed by Pustekkom. The second is print-based learning material for open junior high schools and universities. The third is multimedia-based (website, video conferencing, audio-visual and print) that has been used for elementary school teacher training programs (PGSD) by the Directorate General of Higher Education.

Since there is still low Internet penetration, will only people in urban areas benefit from ICT-based education?

I don't think so, because I believe electronic gadgets are becoming less and less expensive. For example, mobile phones are now very cheap that you can get one only for Rp 200,000; 3G is still expensive, but I think the price will go down soon. Also Internet access via PDAs is still a luxury, but I believe it is going to be affordable, too.

...Even people at the top of a mountain now have mobile phones, which was unthinkable in the past. ICT cannot be regarded only as a set of computers, but communication technology that can be used to enable the learning process.

But isn't Internet connection still very expensive in Indonesia, higher than any other country?

...I do hope that there will be change. It needs tremendous commitment from the highest level if you really want e-learning to proceed. However, (commitment) is needed not only from the government, but also from the private sector. For example, CSR in every company can be very advantageous for the development of ICT-based education, particularly in (providing) Internet connection.

Education has expenses, but the users don't necessarily need to be burdened with them; other parties can help.

How can we encourage companies to support ICT-based education through their CSR?

We have actually started cooperating with the CSR of some companies. For example, we have forged cooperation with Deutsche Bank; we have started to cover Aceh by providing teachers there with training on interactive teaching. All of these are then uploaded in the website database. Teachers have access to this resource material, which has also attracted other people in Southeast Asia to take advantage of this.

We have also started cooperation with the Sampoerna Foundation in the form of ICT-based teacher support services in remote areas. We hope other companies will follow suit.

How does SEAMOLEC provide service to regional countries when it has no branches there?

We have no branches in other countries but we have connections and cooperation... All education ministers in Southeast Asia are members of SEAMOLEC.

Of course, there are still problems. For example, we have not been able to seal cooperation with Myanmar because of the political situation there. ...Also with Timor Leste, we have a good contact with its education minister, but we are still unable to initiate any program.

However, this year the Asia-Pacific Center of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU) is collaborating with SEAMOLEC on situation analysis for e-learning system for multicultural education in ASEAN, which is part of a three-year project supported by the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development of the Republic of Korea. The situation analysis will be used as the basis for developing multimedia and/or ICT-based education materials for teachers and schoolchildren in 2008.

Does SEAMOLEC also urge companies in those countries to optimize their CSR in supporting ICT-based open and distance learning?

Yes. For example, in Vietnam we persuaded Microsoft to contribute to the development of e-learning in the country. The cooperation has been running for three years; also with Intel in Cambodia.

What is the biggest challenge in running open and distance learning?

The biggest challenge is building people's confidence. Some still express doubt that open and distance learning is a form of education. We have to explain to the people that there is no difference in terms of quality between open and distance learning and conventional learning.

Nevertheless, thanks to ICT -- it is like a new dress -- people have started to again pay attention to open and distance learning.

For more information on SEAMOLEC, visit

Saturday, December 15, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 15, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

"Discrimination is cruel," recalled Mitra Netra Foundation chairman Bambang Basuki.

Bambang experienced a gradual decline in his vision from his last year of senior high school onward due to glaucoma and the degeneration of the cataract.

He said society treated blind people very differently. He went from being viewed as a promising student to a burden on society.

Bambang had been very good at science and art. He wanted to be an architect.

But his gradual, hurtful blindness appeared to have crushed his hope. He underwent eight operations on his eyes until the nightmare became a reality: complete blindness.

"After completing high school, I confined myself to my house for five years, nervously preparing myself for the worst," Bambang said during a recent interview at his home.

He later met with a blind teacher of special education who had gone through SPG (teacher education high school). Bambang went to see the principal of SPG, hoping to follow the same path.

"But the principal told me that, on the advice of the school's teachers, they were not taking any more blind students. I was shocked," said Bambang, who was born in Medan on April 20, 1950.

Bambang later applied to go to IKIP Jakarta (Jakarta's Teacher College) but was again rejected because he was blind.

It was the prominent educationalist Arief Rachman who stepped in on Bambang's behalf, persuading the IKIP rector to accept him as a student.

Bambang graduated from the IKIP with a high distinction in 1980.

He later wanted to be an English teacher at a state-sanctioned special education school, but was unsure whether he would be allowed to take the selection test for civil servants.

Receiving no response from the selection committee, Bambang finally took the case to a high-ranking official at the Education Ministry, who happily arranged for him to take the test on the very last day.

Bambang, who is now an English teacher at a special school in Cilandak, has since been fighting to advance the rights of the disabled. He became the secretary-general of the Indonesian Association for the Blind (Pertuni).

However, he was not comfortable with the fact that people with disabilities were excluded from policy-making.

"We were treated as people who needed assistance, not as people who could make contributions to society," he said.

So he and his associates established the Mitra Netra Foundation in 1991, which aims to assist the blind through education programs.

The foundation has been producing audio books for the blind since 1992. With the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), it distributes 100 cassettes per month to 15 special schools. And almost every year, the visually impaired individuals who visit the center listen to nearly 12,000 audio cassettes.

"But now we also produce digital talking books, which are cheap and efficient as users can navigate into sub-chapters and pages at ease," said Bambang, who is married to Husna and has three children.

The foundation offers a range of services, from orientation and mobility training for the blind to counseling. It also provides visually impaired students with companions to help with writing assignments and test taking.

Students are offered after-school tutoring and computer classes where they learn basic skills like typing. Every year the foundation trains approximately 60 people in computer skills.

Bambang said he had tried to increase society's awareness through regular campaigns in the form of special programs, exhibitions and seminars.

Last year, for example, 100 of 300 visually impaired individuals demonstrated their computer skills including the sophisticated operation of Microsoft Word and Excel for typing and accounting purposes. Bambang said the foundation had launched a program called Thousands of Books for the Blind.

The program brings together 300 volunteers to retype the books to convert them into digital Braille using another foundation's product called the Mitra Netra Braille Converter (MBC). And as many as 13 publishers have agreed to give the foundation the electronic version of the books they conventionally print and sell in the market.

"Each year, we produce 125 titles of Braille-based books and the same number for digital talking books," Bambang said.

Organized by the E-Braille Indonesian Community (KEBI), the data base can also be accessed on line by the blind, who must use special screen reader software called JAWS (Job Access with Speech).

"Unfortunately we are still unable to produce our own screen reader software," Bambang said, adding that he would invite ICT experts and donors to help develop the Indonesian version of screen reader software.

"Alternatively, we should buy the JAWS, which is expensive -- Rp 12 million per package, to be installed in any internet caf‚ with a blind population," said Bambang, who has presented papers here and abroad on issues related to people with disabilities.

He said disabled people could only realize their full potential if they lived in an inclusive, barrier-free society.

"But society will never be inclusive of disabled people if they are not accepted at regular schools," said Bambang, who arranged a demonstration of the computer skills of some of his colleagues during the celebration of the International Day for People with Disabilities at the Presidential Palace on Dec. 6.

He said he was appreciative of the fact the Education Ministry had made it mandatory for schools to accept children with disabilities. However, he said many regular schools lacked the resources to hire special education teachers.

He said the Cilandak public school for students with disabilities and his foundation, as a resource center, were ready to help regular schools through the provision of special education teachers and learning materials.

Bambang is glad attitudes toward people with disabilities have become more accepting, however he feels the word "disabled" is used as a label or a stereotype.

"I prefer to call people like us 'people with special challenges'," he said.

For more information about the Mitra Netra Foundation go to

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, December 6, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Former religious affairs minister and Islamic scholar Muhammad Quraish Shihab's decision to repeat a year of high school proved to be a defining moment in his life.

Quraish graduated from Tsanawiyah senior high school in Cairo without the necessary grades to get into the School of Ushuluddin (Religious Principles) at Al-Azhar University. But, after days and nights of soul-searching, he decided to return and improve his score. Eventually he was accepted by the prestigious university.

The soft-spoken Quraish earned his bachelor degree, majoring in tafsir (religious interpretation) and hadith (sayings or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), in 1967.

He took his master's degree at the same university, writing his thesis on Al-I'jaz Al-Tasyri'i li Al-Qur'an Al-Karim (the Distinctiveness of the Koran's Regulations) and graduating in 1969.

After serving as deputy rector at the Islamic State Academy (IAIN) Alaudin, South Sulawesi, Quraish undertook doctorate level Koranic studies at the same university in Cairo, graduating summa cum laude in 1982.

"If someone asks me what I would do if I had the chance to roll back time, I would not change a thing," he said during an interview at his home. "I have no regrets."

However, when asked about the tensions between religious minority groups such as Ahmadiyah, al-Qiyadah and Lia Eden, and mainstream Muslims, he bemoaned the fact that people were impelled to take the law into their own hands.

"Any violent action is regrettable and cannot be tolerated," he said when presented with the facts that some Ahmadiyah and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah followers were attacked and some of their houses were burned down or ransacked.

Recently an angry mob rummaged through the building where self-proclaimed prophet Ahmad Moshaddeq, leader of the al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah group -- who are considered apostates by purist Muslims -- baptized his followers in Bogor, West Java.

Some of the people in the mob were wearing white haj caps, attire linked with piety.

Lia Aminuddin was likewise harassed for preaching revelations which she said were delivered to her by the angel Gabriel.

Quraish said anybody who committed violence should be brought to justice.

He stressed it was vital to carefully study emerging religious groups before passing judgment, adding that even fatwa from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) could not be considered legally binding.

Quraish was formerly the head of the MUI.

He recommended Pakem, a regency-level religious freedom watchdog, be empowered. Pakem consists of representatives from the Religious Affairs Ministry, police and intelligence agencies, as well as academics and community and religious figures.

After a thorough study, Pakem would determine the most appropriate path to be pursued. And if a legal path were to be chosen, the court would have the final say, Quraish said.

"Because hastily criminalizing these groups won't always solve the problem," he said, citing the case of Lia, the leader of the Lia Eden group, who was recently released from prison after serving 16 months of her 24-month sentence, but stubbornly vowed to continue preaching.

"We have to be careful because there is always an element of truth within the teachings of such groups," said Quraish who was religious affairs minister in Soeharto's Development Cabinet VII (1998).

He said that even Ahamdiyah was divided into two groups. One recognized Muhammad as the last prophet, the other, Gulam Ahmad.

"And there is always a background and context, most probably the leaders of such groups are sick," he said, citing Ahmad Moshaddeq, the leader of the al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah sect, who finally confessed he had falsely proclaimed himself to be the next prophet after Muhammad.

Asked if al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah should declare itself a new religion aside from Islam and drop its Islamic identity, he said that might be a wise idea.

Quraish said the public generally had a very limited understanding of religion. "This is because the flow of (unchecked) information penetrates into houses through technology," said Quraish, who is married to Fatmawati and has five children.

"It is important for religious leaders and scholars to keep spreading their knowledge of religion to people.

"This includes spreading the word that congratulating Christians on Christmas is acceptable in Islam as long as it does not disturb Muslims' aqidah," he said, adding that Muslims were even allowed to perform their own prayers in church.

Quraish also holds moderate ideas on how Muslim women should dress.

His daughter, TV presenter Najwa Shihab, who is the wife of Hukumonline founder Ibrahim Assegaf, does not wear a headscarf.

"There is an ongoing debate about whether it is compulsory for a woman to cover her body. I am of the opinion that is good for a woman to cover her head, but those women who choose not to wear the headscarf have not violated anything," he said.

He also believes tensions in conflict-torn areas like Poso and Maluku have now seceded, "thanks to the government's Malino peace agreement."

"But I disagree with you, it is not really religious tension because economic, social and political factors have also played a very significant part in fueling the tension," Quraish said.