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Is Indonesia waking up?

Doing a guest spot

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta Indonesia

 We have now applied for a visa for JJ to go to Canada where we intend to have his certificate of Canadian citizenship issued. To do so requires getting him a tourist visa to enter Canada as he can’t get a Canadian passport until he has that certificate; that entailed spending hours at a visa application centre, outsourced to a local entrepreneur, answering pointless questions. Without exaggeration, what follows is some verbatim conversation I had with a visa application officer:

Q: “What is your three-year-old’s current occupation?”

A: “Child.”

Q: “Previous occupation?”

A: “Foetus.”

Q: “Why is there no letter of permission from the child’s birth parents?”

A: “Because they’re dead. That’s why you have their death certificates and a Court Order of Adoption in your hand. WE are his parents.”

Q: “I still need their written and notarised permission.”

A: “Please let me speak to someone with an IQ.”

Ah well. Some things never change.

Or maybe they do.

 A good friend asked me if I’d fill in for him at Bina Nusantara University for an afternoon, and, being bored senseless, I was happy to do it. It was a four hour class of Academic English, a course and school with which I am very familiar; preparation was minimal, and my friend Charles is very good, so I knew it would be a piece of cake. I put on my professorial face and attitude, showed up early, sober, and unhungover. Now here’s the weird part: I was awestruck at the general improvement in the quality of the students at an Indonesian university.

 I shit you not. It was a relatively small class, but they were almost all there – not just on time, but early. The one missing girl showed up about a minute late, apologised profusely, took a seat and was ready to learn. The class went well; we all had a lot of fun, the kids followed my reasoning during some of the more abstruse sections on informal logic and its application to essay writing, had no apparent problems taking notes and asking reasonable questions, and with one minor exception, abstaining from laptop, tablet, and cellphone use during the lecture part of the class.

After they had been told to go ahead and use their laptops

A new generation solving real problems

I took proposals for the topics of their next assignment, which was to be an essay which describes a problem, offers a solution, anticipates objections, addresses the objections, and concludes by advocating the proposed solution. That’s an assignment that is deployed in that elementary academic writing for first year students every semester, and I’ve gone through the drill more times than I care to remember.

My past experience in that same school with students of similar ages, backgrounds, and levels of intelligence had routinely included young women proposing to address such issues as dry skin or hair that was too curly, being the subject of malicious gossip, or parents who were reluctant to spring for their own car and driver. Meanwhile the young men traditionally offered to address problems including parents who were reluctant to spring for their own car and driver, the poor performance of one or another soccer football team, or the size of the portions served in the university’s cafeteria.

 I was gobsmacked when the small groups they were working within came up with the problems they wished to address. They included the deforestation of Papua, the endemic poverty in Jakarta, the routine mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers, and the human rights abuses against local populations practiced by the Indonesian military when deployed as mercenary security forces for US mining companies. We spent the rest of the four-hour class engaged in lively discussions of these problems, brainstorming solutions, anticipating objections; when the somewhat gruelling day was over, some even lingered to continue the discussions or to ask genuine questions – not one of which was whether it would be okay to hand something in late because they had a wedding to attend.

 I’m not sure whether this admittedly anecdotal experience represents anything larger; I couldn’t say whether the apparent sea change in the maturity of a small group of young Indonesians is even significant. But it is sure as hell refreshing.

I attribute a great deal of this encouraging development of social consciousness, and general social maturity to their regular teacher, Charles Schuster, for whom I was substituting. Charlie is a good friend and drinking buddy; he is a long-time US expat and Indonesian resident and he is first and foremost an artist of considerable, perhaps great talent; certainly he has a very solid reputation. But like most artists, he actually has to work to support his art. Indonesia can be thankful that his chosen employment is that of university lecturer.

 Deep in my heart, I am sincerely optimistic that I may have seen the beginnings of the sea-change that will move Indonesia into the ranks of civilised countries; maybe it won’t be such a no-brainer for my son to choose whether to maintain his Canadian or his Indonesian citizenship when he reaches the age of eighteen. Or better yet, maybe by then Indonesia will have developed sufficient self-respect and self-confidence that she will recognise dual citizenships like the rest of the civilised world and not force her own people to cut themselves off from their homeland in their quest for a better – or different – standard of living.

But one way or another, here I sit at 6.30 am in a 24 hour cafe, drinking warm beer and eating Dim Sum for breakfast, trying to work before the morning heat becomes intolerable, with more hope for this country than I have had for years.





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  1. Great news about the class. I’m a teacher of more years than I care to mention or count; I find your findings believable but I suspect they would be the exception rather than the rule in other similar situations. I would say the reasons you gave are pretty accurate as well as the fact that it happened that the chemistry was right on that day – teaching can be like that.
    Sometimes if you go in too hard you get nowhere; sometimes too soft you get further. Things are changing, but there is an insane lack of faith in the system eg why should I pay tax when the government does nothing for me

  2. I don’t disagree with a syllable of your comment. You’re right on all counts.

    But just to be clear, I made my points because I was in a unique position to compare, in snapshots, the students I dealt with this week vs. the students I routinely dealt with a few short years ago. As with all anecdotal evidence, it is entirely possible, probably even likely, that the samples pointed out are aberrational rather than representative.

    That said, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the sample I was given — wealthy teenagers from Jakarta — had apparently shifted their primary focus from that which detracted from the decadence and perfection of their over-indulged, pampered existences to human concerns and issues that their social class can address without any short-term obvious benefit to themselves. That shift, even in a single situation was heartwarming and profoundly encouraging.

    And the mistrust of government you mention is apparent: virtually every solution the kids offered involved self-directed projects or the creation of an NGO. The idea of relying on government services is not one that occurs naturally to thinking Indonesians. Another sign of social maturity on their part perhaps.

    The manners and courtesy that seemed to have developed over recent years, however, is less apt to be a one-off bit of serendipity; that has to represent a trend, since it was noticeable in each student and it was maintained with no apparent difficulty for a rather long period of time. I would put those students up against university students anywhere in the world in terms of their behaviour; Previously any group of reasonably behaved nine year-olds would have made Indonesian students appear profoundly immature.

    I’m absolutely not stating it as a fact or a prognostication, but it would be wonderful if we are seeing the first glimmers of adulthood in this country that is regularly described as childish by those familiar with it.

    Thanks and don’t give up hope…I came close.


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