Last night I heard our Prime Minister speaking positively about Australian children being equipped to make the most of the Asian century. She was encouraging students to learn an Asian language. Who could argue with a broader education and improving language skills to participate in the economic growth in China, India, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia?

But this encouragement to a broader education and global competitiveness is in interesting contrast to a recent announcement in Indonesia. Just last week, Indonesia’s Deputy Education and Culture Minister for Education Musliar Kasim announced that next year primary school students would be offered a simplified national curriculum based on religion and nationalism. (One assumes that would be Islam rather than religion generally). Mr Musliar said that the scrapping of science would allow teachers to teach morality to children. He added that while English would be removed from the curriculum, social and natural sciences would be merged with other subjects, most likely the Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia.

So let’s get that straight. In our globalised modern world, Indonesia is seriously talking about scrapping English and Science in favor of Islam and the local language. It’s probably worth reflecting on the results of such moves in other nations. To quote Malaysian author Syed Akbar Ali: ‘Both Burma and Ceylon had established Courts of Justice based on the English and Indian legal system. They had good schools and universities which used English as the medium of instruction. They had a large pool of English educated Civil Servants. But Ceylon and Burma then committed suicide. Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka and dropped English in favor of the Sinhalese language. Burma changed its name to Myanmar and dropped English in favor of the Burmese language.’ Ali goes on to say that  ‘the English language … is a source of great wealth and prosperity’ and the shortsightedness of these nations resulted in their position now as ‘basket cases’. Ali contrasts this to Singapore and quotes former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who said, ‘the greatest contributor to Singapore’s phenomenal success in such quick time was their switch to the English language’. But I suppose we shouldn’t let facts get in the way of philosophy.

While Australia adopts the ever-increasing policy of inclusiveness and appreciation of other cultures, it may pay to watch our closest neighbors’ who seem more inclined in the other direction. After all, given that it was only a few months ago Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister stated that he believed miniskirts are pornographic and should be banned under the country’s tough new anti-porn legislation, what does teaching ‘morality’ to children really mean? Will deleting English and Science, and focusing on religion and nationalism in Indonesia’s school curriculum really enhance Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, or merely concrete prevailing xenophobic attitudes that project Westerners as generally immoral? Should Australia keep throwing multiple millions of dollars into Indonesian education if this is the case? Perhaps while dropping English, Indonesia may choose to embrace other Asian languages so they too may participate in the economic growth anticipated in this Asian century… but that may well leave Australian and Indonesia as silent partners at the trade table. And what of the scientific method?

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