When the House of Representatives approved the new education bill on 12 June 2003, a flag was hoisted at half-mast at the Kanisius Barata secondary school in Central Java.
Nobody in the school had died but during the ceremony, all the teachers wore black as a sign of mourning and the students lined up solemnly.
“We are mourning the enactment of the National Education System Bill. We are sad that our voices were not heard. We are conducting a funeral as a form of cultural resistance,” said Sriyono, principal of Kanisius Barata, quoted in the local news magazine, Tempo.
But many others around the country were celebrating.
“Anyone can have suspicions. Let us disprove them together with the common aim of maintaining unity”
Abdul Malik Fajar Education Minister Professor
The controversy centres on article 13 (1) of the National Education System bill, which stipulates that students are entitled to religious instruction according to their religion, taught by teachers of the same faith.
Barring exceptions, Muslim groups have supported the bill while Christians are opposed to it.
Supporters of the bill argue that the bill accommodates the interest of all religious groups. But in a country where Muslims constitute 90% of the population, there are many more Muslim students seeking a good education in private Christian schools than otherwise.
Since, all students are required to attend Christian religious instruction in Christian schools, the bill is seen by many Christians as going against their interests.
Din Syamsuddin, the secretary general of the Indonesian Ulemas Council disagreed with the notion saying that the bill should not be seen as ‘against’ or ‘pro’ any religious group.
President Sukarnoputri was not
keen about the bill
“I think the bill should be seen as a way to promote religious harmony rather than something that divides us,” he said.
“Isn’t it nice to be able to send our kids to any school and rest assured that our kids will receive not only good education but also religious guidance from teachers of the same faith,” Syamsuddin asked.
On the other hand, Musdah Mulia, secretary general of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), said in a statement, “The bill defies the pluralism of religion, faith and culture of the Indonesian people.”
Djuariah Latuconsina from the Islamic Women’s Centre said religion played a vital role in the development of children. Therefore it should be taught to students by teachers of the same religion. “Otherwise there will be deviations in religious teachings,” she added.
Fear of deviation in religious teachings has also been the reason for the controversial provision in the bill which was proposed by members of the conservative Muslim faction in parliament.
Highlights of the education bill:
Article 7: All citizens aged between seven and 15 years must obtain basic education.
Article 12: Central and regional administrations must provide funds for the education of citizens aged between seven and 15 years.
Article 13 (1): Each student has the right to get religious instruction by teachers of the same faith.
Article 37: Educational subjects must consider: Improvement of faith, good conduct, potency, intellectuality, talent, development needs, demands of the industrial sector, religion and national unity.
Article 68: Individuals or institutions that issue illegal education certificates face a maximum 10 years in jail or Rp. 1 billion (US$ 120,000) fine.
Article 71: Thesis fraud punishable by two years imprisonment or Rp. 200 million fine.
Source: The Jakarta Post newspaper.
“It is religious conversions that can cause religious conflict, not this education bill,” said Din Syamsuddin.
Private Muslim schools, like Al-Azhar Islamic secondary school in Jakarta is ready to implement the new law.
However, with a mostly Muslim student population, the school has no plans yet to bring in teachers for non-Muslims.
Non-Muslims are not prohibited in Al-Azhar, “but because we are an Islamic school, in our selection process, we filter students based on whether they can read the Quran and say the prayers or not,” said Principal H. Alimarwan Said of Al Azhar 3, Jakarta.
List of teachers
The new bill has forced the Department of Religious Affairs to prepare 70,000 teachers in anticipation of the increased demand from schools once the bill is ratified.
“This is the only answer to the dispute over the new law,” said Vice President Hamzah Haz in a statement.
While the Vice President backed the bill, President Megawati Sukarnoputri had refused to ratify it.
However, according to Indonesian law, 30 days after a bill is passed it gets automatically ratified, with or without the president’s signature. The implementation of the bill will require at least 10 new government regulations.
In the meantime, Christian-dominated provinces are continuing to resist the bill. “We are going to file for a judicial review against the bill in the Supreme Court,” the Jakarta Post newspaper quoted the governor of North Sulawesi province, AJ Sondakh as saying.
Christian leaders from Papua, North Sulawesi, Maluku and East Nusa Tenggara have even agreed to voice their demands to separate from Indonesia if the bill disrupted the Christian education system.
Muchtar Buchori, a legislator and an educational expert, in an essay expressed his disappointment towards the new bill.
“This bill gives clear spiritual and moral guidance regarding how our schools should be run in the future but says almost nothing about the academic programme that will be implemented,” he wrote.
The bill is now in the hands of the Department of Education, which is trying to allay any fears. “Anyone can have suspicions. Let us disprove them together with the common aim of maintaining unity,” Education Minister Professor Abdul Malik Fajar told Tempo news magazine.