Democracy and Higher Education in Indonesia and the United States

I was a visiting research and teaching scholar at the Graduate School of the Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia during the fall semester of 2014. I co-taught 50 students in four graduate-level courses, including a Ph.D. seminar that explored whether an undergraduate Liberal Arts curriculum would empower Indonesian higher education and enhance Indonesian democracy.

We started our seminar with a discussion about cultural differences between Americans and Indonesians. I suggested, “Americans smile a lot.” My students objected, “Indonesians smile a lot” and “joke often.” As an example, my students joked that Indonesian higher education offered more “freedoms” than American higher education did: “Americans have copyrights; Indonesians have the right to copy.” I asked, “What are major differences between Indonesian and American cultures?” Without hesitation, my students responded, “Americans have rights. We have values.” I protested, “Americans have values, too.”

I asked how Indonesians resolved controversies. I described how my next-door neighbor had narrowed our two-way lane to one-way while excavating dirt to renovate his basement. My students recommended patience and said the inconvenience was temporary (one year). I described the choking smoke from burning plastics wafting through my open-air apartment. My students said the smell of burning garbage was a small inconvenience compared to the risk of bad feelings by asking neighbors not to burn garbage.

Agreement and non-confrontation clearly emerged as Indonesian cultural norms, which reflect a fear of causing offense or hurting someone’s feelings. Getting along was a dominant theme in our discussion of Indonesian cultural values.

One Ph.D. student had asked his research advisor for permission to develop a research proposal on English language acquisition using structured academic controversies within cooperative learning groups. His research advisor refused to approve the proposal because “controversy is not part of Indonesian culture.” The student was disappointed but did not dissent. I asked whether the student mentioned that constructive controversies were based on Cooperative Learning Theory. Yes, he had. The theoretical basis of the research design was not the problem. The research advisor considered controversy as an inappropriate experience for Indonesian undergraduates and recommended teaching undergraduates through discussions without disagreement.

Yet, within all four graduate courses, students were eager to learn “teaching for learning” skills of conflict resolution, debate, cooperation, and structured academic controversies. They created lesson plans for use in their own classes based on these instructional strategies. I was proud of their strong work ethic, progressive attitudes, and willingness to try new ideas, which indicated strong prospects of highly successful, productive professional growth throughout their academic careers.

President-elect Joko Widodo took office as Indonesia’s new president on October 20, 2014. One month earlier on September 25, 2014, during our semester, the outgoing political party canceled regional elections and appointed governors to Indonesia’s 34 provinces [1]. No protesters appeared on the streets and no letters to the editor were published regarding the legislative decision. The incident prompted me to wonder whether the Indonesian undergraduate requirement for civic engagement extended to expressing one’s opinions.

I assigned homework to all of my graduate students to write a letter about an educational issue of their choice to the Indonesian Minister of Education and Culture and to suggest an improvement based on educational research. I was surprised their homework was late – weeks late. I inquired why the homework was so late. Students shared how they grappled with fear that initially paralyzed them, preventing them from writing their opinions. Typically, three pages of praise preceded a gently disguised idea for the minister to consider. I had assigned homework that unintentionally crossed cultural boundaries. The core values of agreement and getting along seemed to have permeated students’ behaviors to the extent that offering an opinion different from an authority’s current process was petrifying.

Students had valid, evidence-based reasons for their reluctance. Indonesian academic freedom has limits. In January 2015, in the only Indonesian province authorized by the central government to institute Sharia Law, an Indonesian lecturer of a world religions course was suspended from her job because she offered students an optional undergraduate fieldtrip to learn about another religion from a minister at a Protestant church [2]. Media support for reinstatement of the lecturer’s job was scarce. The campus president mentioned that two distinct perspectives existed – academic and social – and that he thought the lecturer had not done anything wrong in an academic sense. He was the only academic official to speak publicly on her behalf. He turned the case over to the academic senate, who removed the lecturer from her teaching position, recommended religious guidance and counseling, and required her to apologize to the public.

In US democracy, debates regarding politics and religious issues occur openly on mainstream television and social media. Differing perspectives are presented. Controversy is anticipated, public debate is modeled, and issues are expected to be determined nonviolently. US citizens are expected to understand issues and participate in decision-making (e.g., run for office, write letters to the editor, and vote). US citizens assume that they have a right to express alternative perspectives and freedom to influence change.

The Jakarta Post is a leading Indonesian newspaper and an example of the current extent of freedom of the press in Southeast Asia. The editorial section of The Jakarta Post provides an occasional alternative perspective to mainstream authorities and religious conservatives, but writers must be careful. Within Indonesian culture, current laws do not protect freedom of expression. Blasphemy, even intended as satire, is a punishable offense. For example, the editor of The Jakarta Post was charged with blasphemy for publishing a cartoon satirizing ISIS as deviant. The cartoon was published in Saudi Arabia, but Indonesian Islamic conservative groups protested that the cartoon strengthened a stigma against Islam [3]. A Malaysian blogger received a six-month jail sentence and an increased bail (doubled) for posting a Ramadan bak kut teh (pork stew) on Facebook [4]. The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission halted a comedy show “in the public interest” because scenes described a comedian under hypnosis as being able to understand “dog languages” and becoming as funny as a deceased Indonesian comedian [5]. Dogs in many Muslim communities are regarded as unclean animals. Referring to someone as a dog in Indonesia is considered offensive.

A lack of protection for freedom of expression in cartoons, jokes, and comedy places limits on my graduate students’ declaration about joking as a norm in Southeast Asian cultures. Conditions of fear, threats, and conservativism create a silent acquiescence through which stagnation of expression becomes an established norm. However, within the safety of our courses, graduate students were willing to express their opinions and were eager to research and implement innovative instructional strategies.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression in the US are indispensable elements of higher education and democracy. American graduate students and faculty members currently have greater latitude than Indonesians have to explore innovative research ideas and meet dissertation and publication requirements to create new knowledge. Similarly, American citizens enjoy greater freedom than Indonesian citizens have in public debate, criticism, satire, and engaging in controversies.

The messiness of democracy with its disagreements and debates might well be a critical challenge to Indonesian citizens. The degree to which the current Indonesian citizenry is willing to explore academic and social controversies in the public sphere and protect persons who share unconventional perspectives is limited. Balancing the values of agreement and getting along with the right to express one’s opinions in public might be a litmus test of Indonesia’s democratic future.

Author’s note: The motivation for this paper came from a joint conference presentation with Professor Don Faust at the 92nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Values in Higher Education, Oberlin, Ohio.



[1] Cochrane, J. (September 25, 2014). Parliament in Indonesia rolls back election rights. The New York Times

[2] Simanjuntak, H. (January 10, 2015). Pluralist lecturer told to apologize. The Jakarta Post.

[3] Fuller, T. (December 12, 2014). Indonesian who published anti-ISIS cartoon is summoned under blasphemy law. The New York Times

[4] Jakarta Post (2016, May 27). Malaysian sex blogger jailed over pork stew post. The Jakarta Post.

[5] Jakarta Post (2014, June 26). KPI bans TV show over insult. The Jakarta Post.

By Judith Puncochar, Ph.D
Judy Puncochar is a professor in the School of Education, Leadership, and Public Service at Northern Michigan University. She currently teaches undergraduate and graduate students in educational psychology, educational research methods, grant writing, and measurement and evaluation.
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3 Responses to Democracy and Higher Education in Indonesia and the United States

  1. Fiona Tolhurst says:

    This article reminds us as Americans to understand that democracy is always shaped by culture. We cannot assume that American-style democracy would be functional–or even relevant–in another culture.

  2. Michael Letts says:

    Thanks for sharing these observations and reflections. This is an interesting and informative view of how values and culture support critical thought. This issue certainly is relevant in today’s academic climate and beyond. It begins by affecting the level of discourse, whether manifest in a chilling effect in a classroom or intolerance in society at large.

  3. Wendy says:

    This article is so very timely, and I appreciate the exploration of the issue because I continually struggle with integrating social justice into my higher ed courses. However, the article illustrates the necessity of integrating a social justice component and teaching students how to critically read the world and become part of the political discourse as participating citizens.

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