Johannes Nugroho: Education Minister Should Come From Secular Background


JUNE 21, 2017

Early on after being appointed as education minister in July 2016, Muhadjir Effendy floated the idea of an eight-hour or full-day schooling. Succinctly put, the proposal was the cornerstone of his ministry. However, last week the idea was dealt a death blow when President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo intervened to scrap the plan. The intervention was extraordinary in itself but more startling was the fact that the announcement was conducted not by the minister but by Ma'ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). When we consider that Muhadjir hails from Muhammadiyah while Ma'ruf from the Nadhatul Ulema (NU) ─ the two largest Islamic mass organizations in the country ─ it is hard to avoid the impression that the decision to abolish full-day schooling had been politically motivated.

In what must have been a low point for Muhadjir as he sheepishly stood alongside Ma'ruf who proceeded to tell the press of the shelving of his pet project, the minister, despite his public show of acquiescence, must have realized the damage to his authority the ruling had done. In a Western democracy, he would have resigned. But ministerial resignations are rare in Indonesia. Resignation is also unlikely because he is there holding up the proud banner of Muhammadiyah which immediately declared its dogged support for full-day schooling after the president's intervention and asked that the idea be considered further.

Like NU, Muhammadiyah operates a large network of Islamic schools across the country. However, unlike NU's traditional madrasah-type schools, Muhammadiyah schools pride themselves on running as modern institutions, and in recent years, in imitation of Islamic schools in both Malaysia and Singapore, many of these have been functioning as full-day schools. Since full-day schooling has become synonymous with Muhammadiyah, its failure to become policy must have been acutely felt within the organization’s ranks.

The blow also came weeks after former Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin was written off the list of members appointed to the newly formed Pancasila Ideology Coaching Unit, in favor of Said Aqil Siroj, tanfidziyah or day-to-day chairman of NU, allegedly at the express order by the president. Another former Muhammadiyah chairman Amien Rais was recently named during the corruption trial involving former health minister under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Siti Fadilah Supari, as a recipient of graft money, an allegation that prompted Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, chairman of the Muhammadiyah youth to label it "a rotten attempt to smear Amien Rais' name and more outrageously the attempt to link it to Muhammadiyah." Both Din and Amien were critical of the government  when a series of Islamist rallies against the former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama or "Ahok," accused of blasphemy against Islam, broke out in the capital.

By contrast, NU was cautiously for the government throughout. NU chairman Said even publicly sought to discourage, if unsuccessfully, members and sympathizers from taking part in the mass rallies. Not that there was no ambivalence to NU's stance. Ma'ruf, the Rais Aam or spiritual leader of NU who also happened to be chairman of MUI, was initially one of the forces behind the Islamist rallies, which were held ostensibly to uphold the MUI fatwa that Ahok had indeed blasphemed. He even testified against Ahok at his trial. When Ahok personally insinuated that Ma'ruf had lied during his testimony, NU as an organization took umbrage, though the matter was soon straightened out following an apology from Ahok.

It was around this time that Ma'ruf started distancing himself from the anti-government rallies, especially after instrumental figures behind the movement like Rizieq Shihab had criminal charges leveled at them by the police. He started to call for the cessation of the rallies. Ma'ruf transformation from a firebrand high cleric to a mouthpiece of the government was almost complete when Jokowi also appointed him to the Pancasila Ideology Coaching Unit.  Afterwards, he declared that Pancasila, Indonesia's state ideology, was compatible with Islam.

It seems that when both Ma'ruf and Muhadjir were summoned to the Presidential Palace to discuss the Muhammadiyah-backed full-day schooling, which ended with the former announcing its termination, Ma'ruf’s political standing with the government could not be higher. By the process of reflected glory, Ma'ruf's elevation enhanced NU's status as well; perhaps made sweeter especially when it was at the expense of Muhammadiyah.

Jokowi may well be lauded for having successfully enticed NU to stand on his side, particularly when at least on paper NU boasts more members than Muhammadiyah. In positioning himself as the arbiter of favors between the two organizations, the president echoes a strategy of the late President Suharto during his 32 year rule. In appointing Muhadjir to the education portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle, he also emulated Suharto, alternating the post between NU and Muhammadiyah. The appointment was a clear break from his initial decision to appoint the non-partisan Anies Baswedan.

Although Anies's tenure as education minister proved to be an unhappy one for Jokowi, it does not necessarily mean that a return to the old regime of either NU or Muhammadiyah is desirable. As recent events demonstrate, cultivating the support of both or either NU and Muhammadiyah is bound to be political, and questions must be asked whether a crucial portfolio like education should be subjugated to practical politics. Further, no religion-based education curriculum in the history of mankind has successfully produced students with aptitude for innovation and science. A recent study by Princeton economist Roland Bénabou and two colleagues, finds that the more religious a country, the fewer scientific or technological patents there are per capita.

A New York Times article last year highlighted the dearth of engineers to fire Indonesia's future development needs and yet 20 percent of Indonesian university and postgraduate students are majoring in Islamic studies. With the current level of religiosity gripping the country's education system, it is more sensible to give a greater push for more secular sciences. This, however, inevitably entails the exclusion of religious organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah from the education portfolio; something so out of the box that no government in the near future dare attempt.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos