IN Jakarta, Indonesia, one of my favourite places is Loewy, a French restaurant located in the Oakwood premises. Seated outside, you can catch sight of the nearby JW Marriott Hotel. I have to walk past it to get to Loewy.
That is how I know that over there, security guards and sniffer dogs scan every vehicle that swings into the hotel’s driveway for bombs. It is a reminder that things can and have turned nasty before.
The Loewy is also a meeting place for the large expatriate community of men that work and live in Jakarta.
Here, a Sri Lankan top executive told me in a matter-of-fact tone, that it costs US$19,000 (RM60,000) a year to put his eight-year-old daughter through an international school in Jakarta.
There are two Malaysian students in her class and a good number of Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Europeans. The teacher who teaches his daughter English is a British citizen.
Listening to him extol the virtues of the school she attends, I find myself thinking of the plight of the Indonesian students I had met that morning at the Jakarta Museum of National History.
What a far cry their fate was from that of this Sri Lankan girl whose father’s company paid for her education in Jakarta.
The local students I had talked to were junior high school students from a rural school in Tangerang, Jawa. Clad in their Boy Scout uniforms, they were respectful but could not speak a word of English.
Although they were 14-years-old and had been exposed to English (taught for three hours a week) throughout their primary school years, they collapsed into silence when I asked them some basic questions in English.
The Indonesian education system follows the 6 + 3 + 3 formula. There are nine years of compulsory education – six primary and three years junior high; and three years of senior high school.
I learned this from the Indonesian teachers who had accompanied the primary school pupils to the museum. Dressed neatly in uniforms topped with prim hats, and sitting on the ground, these children patiently took dictation from a tour guide hired to explain the history of the gedung (the museum building) they were visiting that day.
The teachers were themselves all dressed in Indonesian batik. They were all university graduates but confessed that their spoken English was too poor for communication. We conversed in Bahasa Indonesia instead.
Salary-wise, I was a little startled to discover that a teacher with 25 years of teaching experience there earns only half of what her Malaysian counterpart makes.
I wondered whether they were dissatisfied but they said “no”. For them, teaching was a respected profession. One told me she found it stimulating to teach the new generation of pintar (bright) kids.
“Besides,” said another, “wherever you go, or however much you earn, isn’t it important to cut your cloth according to your means?”
I had to agree. I am also aware that there are wide discrepancies between teacher pay and allowances between provinces in Indonesia. Centralisation has often been suggested.
On this particular trip to Jakarta, I was also fortunate enough to visit a local state school, called Sekolah Menengah Pertama Negeri (SMPN) 11. It is located in Kebayoran Baru, Jakarta Selatan.
By the way, “SMP” is Indonesian for junior high school.
Of interest to me was the fact that the teaching of Science and Mathematics in this school is bilingual.
I met Ghinva Kamalaputri, a 14-year-old Indonesian student who attends this school, and her classmate Fikri Abi. These students confirmed that while they were taught Science and Maths solely in Bahasa Indonesia in primary school, they switched to English once they began attending junior high.
They sit for two papers in these subjects – one in English and the other in Bahasa Indonesia. A compromise seems to have been struck somewhere. “It’s not a problem,” says Dhea, another student. Her English is slightly accented and judging from the Blackberry phone she carries, her parents are obviously well-to-do.
All of them work hard to obtain good grades in Science.
One of them wants to be an architect and the other two, doctors. They know how important it is to be proficient in English.
In many other ways, they are typical urban kids. Confessing to being Lady Gaga fans (or Little Monsters, as Gaga fans are called), they also shared how much they preferred teachers who are “warm, friendly, kind” and honestly, “not too serious”.
Abi’s confession that he had had some “killer” teachers in his schooling years made me laugh and Dhea quickly added that for her, it is teachers “with a sense of humour” who make her day.
Earlier, I had a good sharing session with their kepala sekolah(principal), Heryadi, who hails from Yogyakarta.
A man with 12 years of experience in leading schools, he has been heading SMPN 11 for a year and a half.
“To beat the macet (traffic jam), I have to leave my house in Jakarta by 5am,” he told me.
Having personally witnessed Jakarta’s traffic jams, I understood his practice of being safe rather than sorry.
Manning a staff of 62 teachers, 14 administrative personnel and eight cleaning staff, he is justifiably proud when he reveals that his school was recently placed eighth, academically speaking, in the district it comes under.
Of his teachers, all are university graduates, with two PhD holders.
Asked about the challenges he faces as a school principal, he told me that he finds the small minority of teachers who “lack commitment and professional etos (ethics)” hard to take. “A lot of effort goes into enlarging their vision,” he said sadly.
I thought the Indonesian expression — membuka wawasan guru(enlarging/opening up the teachers’ vision) — very apt.
As for the students, his main challenge lay in promoting academic and co-curricular progress despite the fact that they came from diverse backgrounds. Some are very well off economically and some rather poor. Some had parents who showed a high degree of kepedulian (concern) while some had absent parents or those who did not stress the importance of good study habits.
Listening to him, I could have transplanted him to a Malaysian school and not noted the difference.
While he was taking a phone call, I noticed how smart he looked in his long-sleeved Indonesian batik shirt. (Friday is Batik Day for them). Hung on a wall nearby was a framed copy of the memorandum of understanding and school partnership programme his school had recently signed with one in Bangkok, Thailand.
Standing up to read it at close quarters, I found that a whole year of programmes, beginning January last year, had been drawn up for the exchange of academic and co-operation efforts between the two schools. These included a common blog, student and teacher exchange visits, the sharing of test papers (English, Science and Maths), the outline of mutually-beneficial learning activities, as well as research and capacity building programmes.
Heryadi told me that, challenging though it may be, the country’s education system strongly encouraged English as the medium of instruction for Science and Maths, particularly for junior and high schools in Indonesia.
I met a Maths teacher later and he told me how he freely used a bilingual approach to facilitate understanding and smooth transition. “The students who can manage it do the subjects fully in English. As their teacher, my English is all right but I can do better,” he said seriously.
In Asia, the problem of proficiency in the English language is obviously prevalent. Unless you have enough exposure to the intricacies of its use, a teacher who is expected to teach in English will definitely face problems.
Even in Indonesia, the students who fare better in English at school are those who have been exposed to it at home or use it regularly outside school. The students I met in Jakarta, for instance, did not surprise me when they spoke better English than the ones I met from rural Tangareng.
Of note is this fact: In Indonesia, the bilingual approach in Science and Maths (in terms of resources, books, test-papers and teaching) has given both teacher and student a huge degree of freedom and personal choice. I respect that.