Multicultural Education in Indonesia: Opportunities & Challenges_from

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  Thu, 01/22/2009 4:35 PM  |  Supplement

As a nation-state with a pluralistic society, Indonesia is prone to social unrest and intra-group tension in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. Recent media headlines reported that discrimination and intolerance toward other religions were on the rise, the latest case being the closure of a Jewish synagogue in Surabaya, East Java. This was done in a show of solidarity with Palestinians being attacked in the Gaza Strip.

This, however, is just one indication of the fragility of our democracy, which upholds freedom of choosing different faiths. Another case of religious intolerance was the barring of Ahmadiyah followers from disseminating their religious dogma, which is considered heretical and blasphemous by hard-line Muslims.

Still another case was the Islamic Defenders Front’s (FPI) ambush of a peaceful rally for religious tolerance at the National Monument, Central Jakarta.

Instances of opposition against religious pluralism prevailed long ago and are likely to continue to prevail in the future.

As part of its concerns about the real threat against pluralism, education practitioners once proposed that multicultural education be part of the school curriculum and be made a compulsory school subject.

The discourse on multicultural education was voiced in an effort to counteract growing radicalism in the country and to instill a sense of inclusiveness in the young generation.

When effectively implemented in a multiethnic society like ours, multicultural education provides the opportunity for young and adult learners to learn fundamental principles that help them critically evaluate and respond to what they see and experience as they live in a culturally heterogeneous society.

These principles include learning for the acquisition of social skills important for interacting with students from other racial, ethnic, religious and cultural groups; learning to understand universal values shared by all cultural groups such as compassion, justice, equality, tolerance, peace, freedom and care; learning about possible stereotypes and other related bias that could produce deleterious effects on racial, ethnic and religious relations.

In practice, teachers can, for example, assign students with meaningful tasks such as a case study, problem-solving approach and discovery learning, which will help students demonstrate universal values shared by other religious and ethnic groups, and critically analyze, weigh and evaluate prejudices.

As schools here are now experimenting with multicultural education, it is perhaps too premature to arrive at a definitive conclusion that they are doomed to failure in implementing multicultural education.

However, the increasing rate of violence against minority religious groups and the rise of radicalism among both youth and adults is a test case that poses a challenge to schools in effectively implementing multicultural education.

What is more, regional autonomy granted by the central government has made it possible for all regions to impose local ordinances that tend to favor the dogmas of the dominant religion. This is just antithetical to multilingual education, which respects and values freedom and differences in all walks of life.

In fact, the country has been embroiled in a seemingly never-ending spat regarding the imposition of sharia bylaws, with opponents arguing that it can destroy the spirit of pluralism in the country.

Another potential challenge is that teachers might not be ready, if not unsure, how to teach multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a highly intricate and elusive concept, demanding teachers to learn about the multiple perspectives from multidisciplinary studies such as education, sociology, psychology, politics and history.

Mary Stone Hanley, a proponent of multicultural education, warns that knowledge construction drawn from this multidiscipline is imperative because before teachers can effectively teach multiculturally they must reconstruct their world views.

Diminishing cultural pride is also important for teachers to be able to teach effectively. In a primordially-rooted culture, doing so is difficult, if not impossible.

It is also important to note that as multiculturalism embraces an assimilationist ideology, it contradicts both teachers’ and students’ community cultures where homogeneity and commonality are highly valued, and where ethnocentricity is deeply rooted.

Not all teachers and students are willing to take the risk of losing their ethnic identity and being socially and politically alienated within their cultural community simply because they are invited to adhere to assimilationist ideology.

As a final remark, multicultural education has the potential to equip students with skills needed to interact with others from different faiths, ethnicities, races, cultures. But without a deeper and sound understanding of it, and political commitment to support its implementation, we are just trivializing its goal — the transformation of society via education.

The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at


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