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Sound education vital for a strong democracy

by Adrian David

JAKARTA, 28 JUNE – There is no denying that a sound education could play a vital role towards a nation’s strong democratic rule.

In his analysis, United Nations System Staff College instructional designer Nurhadi Hafman wrote that the fallout from Indonesia’s 2024 presidential election underscored the central role that education played in the republic’s democracy. “The decline in the quality of Indonesian democracy is partly due to issues within the education sector.

“Low educational attainment and a lack of critical engagement with democratic processes have left the populace susceptible to manipulation and ill-equipped to make informed political choices.

“Unless education is liberated from political interests and prioritises learning outcomes and democratic engagement, Indonesia’s democracy will remain vulnerable,” Nurhadi said.

Last April 22, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court concluded the presidential election by dismissing all lawsuits led by eventual winner Prabowo Subianto’s rivals alleging fraud – paving the way for Prabowo and legitimising his landslide victory earlier this year.

Nurhadi said that with five judges in majority and three in dissent, this decision held significant implications for the future of Indonesian democracy.

He felt that the February 14 elections were the most contentious in decades, fuelled by a controversial vice-president nomination handpicked by outgoing President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and allegations of pork barrel politics and intimidation tactics.

“That three judges ruled against clearing the Prabowo campaign of election fraud reveals deep-seated flaws within Indonesia’s electoral system.

“Research shows evidence of democratic backsliding in Indonesia even before the election, particularly under Jokowi’s 14-year tenure.

“This decline is mirrored in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), showcasing the complex relationship between democracy and corruption,” Nurhadi wrote.

He recalled how in 2022, Indonesia’s CPI experienced its most significant decline since 1995, dropping to 34, ranking Indonesia 110 out of 180 countries.

“This score may drop even further this year because of the election.

“The erosion of Indonesian democracy can be partly attributed to the country’s education sector.

“Education can be a potent vehicle for disseminating information and civic virtues among the population, enhancing democratic institutions by fostering social capital and reducing knowledge gaps.

“It has the potential to promote social interaction, strengthen trust and encourage cooperative behaviour, thus improving political participation.

“Education is also a powerful tool in increasing voter awareness by stimulating critical thinking, thereby facilitating better political choices,” Nurhadi said.

He analysed how out of Indonesia’s 208 million voters, over 13 per cent had no formal education, 26 per cent had only completed elementary school and just 9.5 per cent had graduated from any sort of higher education.

“Indonesia’s poorly educated voters may be more susceptible to manipulation and less equipped to engage critically with democratic processes.

“Without significant efforts from the authorities to educate voters, money politics, disinformation and populist campaigns are likely to dominate.

“Another aspect of concern is that the majority of young voters – those born after 1981 and make up 56 per cent of the electorate – lack information about the lessons learned from democratisation in Indonesia.

“The repressive experiences under Suharto, which only ended in 1998 and included government interference in elections are not salient.

“While young voters are aware that such events occurred in Indonesia’s past, they struggle to connect those experiences to current circumstances and are thus unable to see that authoritarianism could re-emerge in Indonesia,” opined Nurhadi.

Indonesia’s 2009 commitment to increasing educational spending to 20 per cent of its GDP is a commendable effort to improve access to education.

Still, Nurhadi felt that the current levels of educational attainment among voters prompted questions about the efficacy of this spending.

“The goal of ensuring an educated voting class is particularly significant in Indonesia because it aligns with the foundational state philosophy of Pancasila.

“The national curriculum is supposed to strengthen civic literacy as a way to encourage democratic education by emphasising values such as critical reasoning and collaboration to ensure students are not only knowledgeable but also active participants in a democratic society.

“Yet, at present, there is no clear evidence that this has been the case,” Nurhadi explained.

One of the curriculum’s challenges, he stressed, arose from the struggle to bridge historical concepts in the context of democracy with contemporary realities within the constraints of limited lesson hours at public schools.

“The overload of learning objectives often reduces the rich tapestry of Indonesian non-democratic history to a mere chronology, devoid of critical analysis.

“Compounding this issue is the reluctance of teachers, hindered by both capability gaps and sociocultural factors, to transition from traditional teacher-centred or content-focused approaches to a more critical pedagogy that empowers student autonomy.

“While Indonesia’s national curriculum holds promise for improving the national democratic landscape, its effectiveness in fostering civic literacy remains uncertain,” he said.

He warned that schools themselves could not create or save democracy.

“Education can only support democracy when students are allowed to experience learning in action by engaging with what is presented in society.

“Such experiential learning should foster a critical approach, including the ability to criticise practices deemed undemocratic.

“But the politics of education cannot be separated from the wider political context.

“The role of the state apparatus in quashing dissent significantly impacts this dynamic.

“In a context where the interests of predatory political and bureaucratic elites dominate, such a critical approach is naturally discouraged,” he said.

Nurhadi reminisced how this was made evident when the government dismissed mass criticism from the academic community regarding Jokowi’s overt political manoeuvres before the 2024 election as mere noise and partisanship. He highlighted how suppression of dissent within the educational system and society at large perpetuated a cycle that undermined the role of education in supporting democracy.

Nurhadi observed that Jokowi had obviously benefitted from the current situation, given his reliance on prevailing conditions to consolidate his political power.

“His successor, Prabowo, is unlikely to change the status quo. “Political patronage is still likely to influence even the highest levels of education.

“Without a concerted effort to liberate education from entrenched political interests and genuinely prioritise learning outcomes and democratic engagement, Indonesia’s democracy will remain vulnerable, with each election potentially reinforcing rather than resolving these critical issues,” Nurhadi summarised.

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